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WHEN HOPE CAME - A Time-Travel-Story

 

WHEN HOPE CAME

A Time-Travel Story

 

There are times, when reading takes more courage than writing

anonymous

*****

“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”

Venturino Giorgio Venturini and David Hoffman

summing up George Orwell’s 1984

***

“What is truth?

Pontius Pilate

(John 18:38)

***

What if I could change the path of time?

from the 2013 Russian EUROVISION Contribution

What If”

 

***

 

Life is a divine gift.

Human life is sacred

and therefore it must always be protected.

Every human being is of great importance for the whole of humanity,

and is of infinite and unchangeable value.

Human dignity must therefore never be violated.

No human person is of any more or any less value and importance

than any other person on earth.

THIS IS THE FIRST PRINCIPLE.”

***

PROLOGUE

I am Jonathan Galt and today I finally realize that I hate my name.

At the moment I’m walking down my tunnel. But I’m not alone and I can be certain that they who are walking with me hate that name as much as I do.

I also have to admit, that this isn’t actually my tunnel any more. When I dug it just a few weeks ago, I’d made it into a crawling space only. And it was much shorter then—barely a hundred yards long, angling from the sewers closest to the wall, then down to get underneath it, and finally sharply up to the outside-world.

It was difficult for me and Luscinia to drag the blanket with the sleeping child through it.

But now I and my three companions can walk upright, doing a pretty good pace. And the tunnel is much broader than before… and much longer also, being over ten miles in length as it leads all the way to the next village.

Hundreds of people have helped to enlarge the tunnel, which has of course been necessary since thousands of others are supposed to follow us later on.

But just like I did before, so have those digging during the last few days been forced to work without big machinery, for they had to be quiet—very, very quiet.

Any suspicious sound might have alerted someone, and that would have been a catastrophe. Our plan would have to be abandoned. And this would leave a single option.

I shiver and only partly from the cold down here.

I keep thinking about Luscinia. She wanted to come along. But I told her, no. She is supposed to be dead, someone over there might recognize her.

Of course, this has been the reasonable thing to do, and besides the others would probably not have allowed her to come anyway.

At this very moment however, I wish I’d not been reasonable. I really need her, the comfort she gives me, her trust, her love. If it wasn’t for her, I’d never have found the courage to leave in the first place… and to go back now.

We’ve reached the sewers now with their typical odor of waste and decay. In the glow of my flashlight I can see a rat cross right in front of us.

I take a glance back at the others. Mr. Wang’s face looks just as grumpy as ever. It seems inconceivable that of all the people in Spesaeterna, it would be Mr. Wang who has devised this plan.

Although it’s not really surprising that he would stick by it against most everyone else in the village. With his jacket unbuttoned Mr. Wang’s native clothes can still be seen, and down on his chest the stitched golden image of his Dharmachakra glitters in the dim light. I make a mental note to remind him to button up once we are outside.

I turn my eyes to Ms Alba in her unfamiliar male clothing style of dark brown overalls. Myself having been pushed by my father into a regular and extensive martial-arts training I’m as as athletic as any man can ever hope to be at age twenty. But Ms Alba can easily keep up with my pace.

She is as old as Mr Wang, over a decade older than my father, but she looks so strong, physically and otherwise. And her movements are those of a much younger person. Where I’m from, few people ever reach that age, and certainly none of them are women. Mamma was 47 when she died in the Venus project.

Venus—the goddess of love, or so I’ve been taught. What a joke, what an utterly perverted joke.

The already familiar wave of pain and anger is sweeping over me. This time I can barely control it.

Come on, take a deep breath, I tell myself. I have to be calm. I mustn’t give in to any kind of emotions, be they anger or fear. Even a quiver of nerves can be fatal. I need ice-cold rationality if I want to succeed. Everything now depends on me.

I look at Ms. Alba again. She has never trusted me. She once called me the son of the devil and I guess she’s right. She is clutching the small device tightly in one hand. It’s only a communication device, to be sure, but it might just as well be the trigger.

Once she presses that red button, it will be all over… for all of us.

A lever will be pulled elsewhere, missiles will be launched, and in the blink of an eye Nephilim City will be no more… evaporated and extinguished from the face of the earth, together with the surrounding country and anything (or anyone) below ground.

Ms Alba has insisted on this fail-safe measure, and the others have agreed to it.

Why they changed their minds at all, I still can’t understand.

I’ve been so very naive when I brought the recording to them, but the minute I started it, I knew what the reaction would be. It was only natural.

And then all of a sudden, they changed their minds because of… because of nothing, a tiny story about a most insignificant event from the past told by a child, an absolute nothing.

And when they reversed from what seemed so logical before, I realized that as much as I want to belong to Spesaeterna or to the rest of them, I don’t. I just can’t understand them and I doubt that I ever will.

Born and raised in Nephilim City, I cannot deny my origin and its clear sense of logic, a logic my companions and their whole society don’t seem to possess – all of them but Ms Alba maybe. But at the moment even she seems to be moved less by her logic and more by something else.

And right now I guess I’m acting on this “something else” as well, on their strange logic not my own.

I’m taking a look at the third of my Spesaeterna team, a man not much younger than the other two. He used to be the David Morgan,the man who a long time ago was the best friend of my father. To me he seems to be the most mysterious of them all.

They call him the Professor now. He’s a scientist, supposedly a man of reason, but he is also a monk. He does have some sense of reasoning but it’s one I cannot really fathom.

The Professor seems to have noticed that I’m looking at him. He gives me something like a smile of encouragement and the expression on his face tells me that he somehow knows what I’m thinking, almost as if he can read my mind.

It creeps me out a bit, but then the smile also lifts my spirit, makes me feel less tense and slowly I can release my breath.

I turn now to concentrate on the barely visible way in front of us, it won’t be much longer.

At last—the exit ladder, we have finally arrived at our first destination.

I’m climbing up and open the lid, I’m looking around carefully. It’s a pretty deserted area. And just like the countless times I’ve climbed up and down that same ladder before, while building my narrow escape-tunnel, there is nobody around at the moment, nobody who might possibly see us getting out of the sewer.

I motion the others to follow me. When they have all reached the surface, I’m closing the sewer entrance. And although it’s unlikely that cameras or microphones have been installed in this forsaken area, I still keep my voice low. With words dripping as much irony as can be purveyed in a whisper, I declare:

Welcome to Orange Country!”

 

***

CHAPTER 1

 

 

In the darkest of moments, in the deepest of voids where nothing was left but despair, hope came.

She was still small…tiny even…but one day she would be born.

 

David Ragnarsson stood alone, eyes closed while chasing off any last doubts from his mind, and when he opened them again, he had made his decision. He stood right at the end of the white line that marked the spot where the last carriage of the train would come to a halt; in front of him, the yellow safety line over which no passenger should cross while a train was still moving.

But David didn’t intend to be a passenger on this train. Not this time, not ever again. He looked up at the digital clock hanging right above his head. The last digit changed with a click. 11:56, four minutes to midnight at the Spesveniat subway-station in New York City.

At the roaring sound in the distance, he looked into the tunnel, to see the faint glow of the emerging headlights.

Not long now…a few more seconds and two steps to oblivion, to the peace he sought–the only one offered to him . There was no way the driver would be able to stop in time. The roar grew louder; the light from the tunnel already blinding his gaze.

David shifted his weight to the other foot. He was ready.

“No, don’t jump, DON’T YOU JUMP!”

It felt like a bolt of thunder to David’s tight nerves, shaking his whole body. The voice had been piercing, loud, and shrill, and yet very clearly a child’s voice.

David turned his head to the left, and had to look down. There, standing right next to him, a child, a girl, staring up into his face with the bluest eyes he had ever seen outside a movie screen.

Confused and still shaken, David stared back. He felt as if he had been ripped from a dream, a dark dream, though still feeling it’s call, the need to know how it ended.

The train with its ear-piercing screeching of brakes brought David out of his daze and back to reality. He had missed his chance….for now; there would be other trains tonight.

He looked around.

The girl seemed to be alone; a couple of people were waiting at the other end of the platform, none of them seeming to be connected to her. Where had she come from? Why hadn’t he noticed her before?

And how had she known what he was about to do? Was she a mind reader?

David had always been a complete and unwavering skeptic where those kinds of phenomena were concerned. -No, not a mind reader; just a very perceptive little person with a bit of feminine intuition-.

The train had finally come to a halt, the doors had opened. David gave the girl a fake smile that should convey an “I didn’t really hear what you just said, but I’m polite enough to recognize that you’d been talking to me” idea. And then with a couple of large strides, he made it to the train’s very last door. The girl followed; or rather she walked beside him only inches from his left elbow.

They entered together and when he sat down on the long bench, she sat next to him. This was becoming really uncomfortable, and David found it more and more impossible to just ignore her.

But still trying valiantly , he looked straight ahead while the doors closed. Slowly the train gained speed as it left the platform and entered the next tunnel, blackening the windows. At this time of night there were barely any other passengers inside the carriage. None of them took any notice of David or the child.

They probably assume she’s my daughter or something, he thought, looking around. Five people, three men and two women were sitting closely together on the other end of the carriage, talking to each other.

On his end and on their own bench there was only one other person, a thinly bearded black man sitting slumped against the carriage’s wall, head leaning backwards, eyes closed, rhythmically pushing a snore through his nostrils. He was no doubt drunk and, judging from his grease-spotted jacket and worn-out trousers which were ripped over one knee, probably homeless with no other place to sleep.

Facing David on the opposite bench, two teenage boys engaged in a contest of who could push whom off the seat, while a middle-aged woman tried to keep herself as far away from them as possible.

The woman was probably a nurse heading home after finishing
a late shift at the nearby emergency and maternity clinic; David thought he recognized the uniform skirt that slightly showed under her short coat.

He had once done an interview with clinic employees there when funding reductions had led to staff cutbacks, and the resultant increased waiting time had cost the life of at least one child who had died while waiting for an emergency operation.

It had been an important article and there had been a reaction. The public outcry had put pressure on the city’s administration, and a decision was made to increase funding to former levels, at least in that particular clinic.

But that was last year’s news, and for a journalist, even yesterday is often a lifetime ago.

For David Ragnarsson, former investigative journalist writing for the most prestigious paper in the country, last year seemed an eternity away. And today’s news would not be written by him…he would never write another article again…ever.

“You don’t know that. And even so, that’s still not a good reason for jumping in front of a subway train.”

As before, the child’s voice was too loud, too clear, and thoroughly unsettling. It was as if she had actually read his mind.

This time around, David had no choice; pretending not to have heard her remarks wouldn’t work unless he also pretended he was stone deaf. Once again David looked at the three people sitting opposite him. They still weren’t taking any notice of either him or the girl. He turned to the child.

“What the heck are you talking about?” he asked, keeping his voice low and hoping she’d take the hint.

She didn’t bother to lower her voice: “I’m talking about you wanting to commit suicide by jumping in front of a train and I’m telling you that you shouldn’t do such a thing.”

Denial was the only possible answer to that one: “What kind of nonsense has gotten into your head? Do you always walk around and make up stories about strangers you meet on the subway?”

Denial and attack, of course: “Speaking of subways, what were you doing alone in a subway station in the middle of the night? You can’t be much older than ten or eleven?”

“I turned thirteen last month!” There was quite a bit of indignation in the girl’s voice now.

Thirteen…David wouldn’t have guessed her to be a teenager. It wasn’t just that she was small for her age, it was rather the way she was dressed.

She was wearing what could be called a jogging suit, but one of a kind he’d
never seen on any teenager before. The slightly glittery material of a soft violet color was covered with about a dozen different-sized colorful patches which were either sewn or glued onto it. Although her face, hands, and small wrists suggested a slim figure, her suit didn’t show any of it. The trouser legs were very wide from top to bottom, just as the jacket hung straight down from shoulder-pads to mid-thigh, allowing neither breast nor waist to be seen.

Her head was covered by a bulging cap of the same color as the suit with Chinese letters stitched above the brim. Only a few dark curls escaped from under it onto her forehead.

Her light brown skin contrasted with her very blue eyes, the feature he had first noticed about her. There was surely both African and Caucasian ancestry there – maybe even some Native American as well, he thought, looking down at the moccasin-like sneakers on her feet.

The whole outfit definitely did not remind him of something a teenager would wear, but rather of clothes sold in the baby- and toddler department of stores. He'd seen suits like these when he went shopping with Tina for Mikey, back when his boy was two or three.

And it must be the clothes she wore that gave the girl such an aura of childish innocence, he thought, in spite of her having used such a dark word as “suicide.” He hadn’t even used this word in his own mind for the thing he had been planning to do….

“Thirteen is still too young to be out at this time of night! You should be home with your parents.”

“I can’t be home with them. My Papa is dead,” the girl replied, “and my Mamma is away on a fighting assignment.”

So she was one of those temporary war-orphans, David thought. A few years back, he had done a piece on single mothers in the military who, when assigned a tour of duty in Afghanistan or Iraq, had to leave their small children behind in foster homes or – if they were lucky – in the care of relatives.

“It’s not what you think with my Mamma,” the girl insisted urgently.

“What do I think?” David asked.

“You think she’s shooting or bombing people.”

“No, I don’t,” David said, “but that’s not my concern at the moment either. I just wanted to know who’s taking care of you and why you aren’t with them right now, home in bed.”

“My little brother and sister stay with Grandma and Grandpa while Mamma is away, and I stay with my Great-uncle Professor.”

Great-uncle Professor–what a strange name, David thought, but that really was none of his business. “Does your uncle know where you are right now?”

“Sure,” the girl replied easily, “he sent me here to you.”

Now that was truly creepy. “He sent you in the middle of the night to a subway station to talk to a strange man?”

“Yes, since this was the only time when you could be reached. And you’re not really a stranger. And you’ll understand once you get to know me better and I tell you where I come from and how.”

This was even worse than what had happened to the war-orphans David had written about in his article. Maybe Social Services was preferable to being placed with some kooky relative.

“I’ve heard enough,” he said to the girl. “But I think the police would like to hear about your Great-uncle Professor. The conductor is just coming into the carriage. You stay here, I’ll talk to him. He’ll call the Police, and tonight you’ll sleep in a nice, safe place.”

David got up and so did the girl, who continued to stay close by his elbow.

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” the girl insisted. “Really I wouldn’t.”

“Don’t be afraid, the police or the Social Services won’t do anything drastic to you,” David tried to reassure her. “They’re just going to talk to your uncle and then maybe they’ll decide that you should stay with your grandparents, just like your sister and brother.”

“I’m not afraid of the police or those Services. But I still think you shouldn’t talk to them or to the conductor because it wouldn’t be good for you,” the girl said mysteriously.

“For me?” David looked at her slightly surprised. Was she threatening him somehow? She really didn’t look the type.

The girl was now biting her lip: “You’ve got to understand that they won’t see me and therefore they won’t believe you.”

“They won’t see you?”

“No, because I’m not really here. I mean in your time and place.”

“You’re not what?!” David reached for the girl’s shoulder and she disappeared only to appear again a few inches from his hand. He tried to grab her shoulder once more and the same thing happened, only this time he lost his balance, nearly falling on top of the nurse on the opposite bench. The nurse didn’t seem to like that at all. She slid along the bench, edging away from David, then got up in a hurry and moved rather quickly to the other end of the carriage and the safety of the conductor and the other passengers.

“She can’t see me and neither can they!” the girl claimed, pointing to the teenagers. They had stopped their pushing game and were now whispering to each other, grinning in David’s direction. “They think your behavior is strange. You know, talking to yourself and trying to grab for something in the air,” she explained.

David let himself fall back onto his bench. He felt beaten, exhausted, empty. The conductor passed by him, but David barely noticed. While ignoring David the conductor gave the sleeping guy next to him a slight kick against one leg.

The snoring stopped abruptly. With one more disapproving glare at the man the conductor then left the carriage.

The train was slowing down for its next stop, and when the doors opened, some passengers got out, including the nurse. The teenagers stayed, having lost interest in David. The train started to gain speed again.

Nothing mattered.

David just sat there, one thought in his mind: I’m crazy, I’ve lost it, I’m insane…..insane.

“No, you’re not,” the voice said. “You are not insane, YOU ARE NOT!”

David didn’t want to listen. A voice in his head telling him he was not crazy…not exactly a trustworthy source, David thought.

In the last few months, David had been drinking and not just socially; actually, not socially at all–he had been drinking alone in his rented one-room basement apartment, barely speaking to anyone but the cashier at the liquor store.

And he had been drinking a lot. But still, he hadn’t thought that he had gone so far down that road already….

They call it delirium tremens, don’t they[_?_] He looked down at his hands in his lap. They weren’t shaking. But then again, maybe the hallucinations come before the shaking – the white mice and the pink elephants? “I’m not an elephant, and no mouse either!”

The hallucination was still talking, and so loudly it made David’s head hurt: “And I’m not a hallucination. I am Hope–Hope Morgan– and I come from the future!”

“Sure you do,” David told his hallucination, “and you are also a shape-shifting alien from the planet Zorax. And you have come to take over my body or maybe just transport it to your spacecraft for examination.”

The boys on the opposite bench seemed to have heard that one for they were laughing again, giving David sideways glances. But when he looked directly at them, they got up and moved somewhat hastily to stand by the door, waiting for the next stop.

Now he was a bogey-man; he could even scare big kids pretty well . Crazy people are scary…they might get violent any second….

And here came the voice again: “You are not crazy. Even though I’m only in your mind in this time and space, I’m still real. I do exist, just not in your time. My name is really Hope. You have to believe me!”

David didn’t answer and tried not to think, either. He just stared at the dark window, listening to the monotonous sound of the train, interrupted only by the screeching of the brakes and the light of still another subway station flooding the window.

The voice had stopped talking, but from the corner of his eye, David could see that the hallucinated child was still there.

One more stop and he would be getting off. From there it would only be a five minute walk to his cockroach-infested apartment.

I like cockroaches, David thought. They are normal, they aren’t crazy. They haven’t much of a brain, but they can survive an atomic blast.

Once again the train slowed and then stopped alongside a platform.

The doors opened and David got up from his seat, his wobbly legs barely supporting his weight….

Out the door, over to the stairs, then the slow upward climb….

He had to hold the handrail to stay upright. He didn’t look at the hallucination beside him, though he felt her presence every step of the way. And he didn’t look backwards at the train either.

He wasn’t going to do it tonight….not while she was there, watching him. She might be just a hallucination–of course she was–but she still looked like a kid. He simply couldn’t do it in front of a child.

Upstairs he was greeted by the dark chill of the night.

But of course it wasn’t really dark. This was New York — the South Bronx
— the corner of 349th and the Grand Sacrecors, a shopping street. The lights here are ablaze all night, even when the shops are closed and the shutters down.

I should head south on the Sacrecors toward the hospital at the next corner, David thought. Kennedy Medical and Mental Health Center it was called, and their mental health department would surely admit him in his condition.

But then again, David was pretty sure that his health insurance policy had run out, so instead , he turned into the direction of Homines Community College.

There were still lights burning there too–some late students or teachers maybe? More likely the cleaning staff; but given the neighborhood, David wouldn’t be surprised if those inside actually had no legitimate business being there at all.

David hadn’t been living in this neighborhood very long–only since Tina had moved out of their downtown Manhattan apartment, taking Mikey with her; and then when the next month’s rent was due, of course David had had to move too.

Manhattan rents were beyond the means of an unemployed reporter, and now, even the South Bronx was becoming more and more beyond David’s means.

He passed the community college, turning into Veriton Avenue. David stole a glance at the quiet figure of the girl still visible beside him (well, visible only to him….)

If he hadn’t known that something was wrong with her before, he surely would now! The girl was actually glowing in the dark, not illuminating anything around her, to be sure, but rather looking as if the light were totally contained within her.

David had had enough. He stopped and faced her straight on. “Why aren’t you talking anymore?”

The girl shrugged: “You weren’t listening; you were too busy telling yourself how crazy you are. And besides, I was sent here to prevent you from killing yourself. And you’re not about to do that right now, so I don’t have to talk.”

“What is it to you anyway if I kill myself, future girl?” David asked angrily. “It’s my life. Why shouldn’t I do with it as I please–get rid of it if I want to?”

“Because it’s a sin,” was the surprising answer, “a real bad sin.”

A sin? David opened his mouth and shut it again. A hallucination is normally an image coming from one’s own sub-consciousness.

But David wasn’t religious. He had been a true dyed-in-the-wool atheist since he was fourteen years old at least. And in all that time, he hadn’t met any religious person, certainly no Christian, whom he had taken seriously enough to have those views become part of his subconscious.

But here she was, standing right in front of him: a religious hallucination.

There had only been one person in his life that had talked to him about God, and even taught him some prayers–his Icelandic grandmother, who had died when he was only ten.

Had she also talked about sin? She must have .

And now, rising from his early childhood and from deep within his subconscious, there was the voice of his Amma.

“Actually,” said the voice, which didn’t sound at all like his Amma’s, “I’m not your grandmother’s voice. Instead, you could say I’m the voice of your great-great-great-,” she started to count on her fingers, “-great-great granddaughter.”

“You are my ….. you say I am your….what.?!” David couldn’t quite wrap his mind around it.

“Yes, you are my great-great-great-great-great grandfather. And that’s the reason I could come here. It wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”

“Why not?”

David decided to go with it. Maybe he could calm his subconscious enough to get it to leave him alone.

“Because if you want to time-travel with your mind, you have to find another mind that has the same Delta waves as your own, and only close relatives have that.”

“Ah, so,” David said.

“You still don’t believe me,” his subconscious great-great-something-granddaughter accused him.

“It sounds a bit far-fetched,” David admitted, “Delta-waves and so on…”

“I know it’s complicated. Let’s just go home to your place and I’ll explain.”

“Alright,” David nodded and started walking again. They walked up Veriton Avenue in silence until they stopped in front of the most run-down building on the street.

Like most of the surrounding houses, it used to be a red three-story brick building. It was partially covered with red plaster–partially, since more than half of it had crumbled away. The stairs leading up to the first floor were also painted red and here, too, parts of the color and the concrete had gone missing.

David didn’t go up those stairs; his entrance-way was below them. He unlocked the door and walked straight into what could fancifully be called the living-room and maybe bedroom as well, since the couch doubled as a bed.

In the right hand corner was the door into a kitchen so small that two people might have trouble standing inside it between the refrigerator, the sink, the stove and the small table and two chairs without stepping on each other’s feet. Next to the kitchen was the bathroom, containing a shower and a toilet within a space of less than 15 square feet.

The apartment was actually rather clean and orderly; no pizza-boxes or empty Coke or whiskey bottles on the living-room table, and no dirty clothes on the floor or the couch. David had cleaned up the place this morning (probably for the first time in three months!)

–after all, the police or at least his landlord might come inside later on, and one didn’t want to leave a last impression that one was a slob–or so David had figured then….

And now when he pressed the light-switch, David was kind of glad it was more or less clean in there, for after all, he did have a visitor, even though she was neither the police nor quite real.

But once he flopped down on the couch, he again felt exhaustion flooding his mind and body. It had been a long day, a very long day.

It had begun when David awoke and noticed that he had run out of both whiskey and aspirin. The thought of another walk to the liquor store had depressed him just as much as the thought of another useless day–a day without the job he had loved so much, a day without Tina, and most of all, a day without Mikey.

He had remembered how he’d often used to work 24/7, with barely any time for Mikey or Tina. Sure, Tina had been quite happy with that arrangement, being as busy in her own job and as ambitious as he himself. But Mikey, oh Mikey…

They had hired a good nanny for him, and she had done a great job. But David hadn’t been a good father to Mikey. And now all he longed for was another chance, just one more chance to be a good dad.

But he wasn’t given one. He had lost all custody rights and there was a restraining order banning him from even coming close to Tina and Mikey. And since last week, there was now the whole country between them.

If Tina hadn’t taken Mikey so totally away from him, life would still mean something. After everything else was gone, being Mikey’s father was the single last purpose David had had to hold on to. But now, after losing both his job and any chance of ever being hired by a respectable news outlet again, he had lost Mikey too.

And so David had concluded there was nothing worth living for any more. He had cleaned up his apartment and then spent most of the day walking aimlessly around before taking the Line 4 subway from north to south and back again.

This had given him the notion that the subway was the best place to do it. And so at four minutes to midnight on the Spesveniat Station, David stood on the platform, waiting for the southbound train.

The train had been six minutes late, while this girl who claimed to be his great-great-something-granddaughter had been on time. On time for what, David wasn’t quite sure yet.

He looked at her again, that strange vision staring silently back at him as she sat on the room’s only chair.

Feeling so utterly exhausted, David didn’t want to hear any more tonight. “You told me the thing about the Delta-waves would be complicated. Would you mind if we save that for tomorrow? Unless you have to go back to where you come from tonight….”

“No, I’ll stay for a while,” she promised. David wasn’t sure if that was some kind of a threat.

He shrugged, saying with a pinch of mockery in his voice: “I guess I can’t offer you anything to eat, since you aren’t really here so you don’t have a real mouth or stomach.”

“No, you can’t,” the girl answered earnestly as if it had been a real offer.

“Then good night,” said David as he lay down on the couch, swaddling himself with the blanket that normally covered the worn-out cushions, not even bothering to undress. He also didn’t bother to turn off the light (he didn’t want to risk waking up to a glowing ghost in the middle of the night!) He closed his eyes and almost immediately fell fast asleep.

Strange images dogged his dreams: a roaring train pursuing him, then a glowing child atop a flying cloud reaching out to bring him to her. Mikey was sitting there too, a bright smile on his little face.

But then Mikey turned around and hopped onto another cloud. David wanted to follow, but he couldn’t move his feet. Mikey’s cloud disappeared in the distance.

And then David wasn’t in the clouds any more but back on the ground. Fighter planes were dropping bombs, he could hear the sound of machine guns, and he saw dead or wounded children lying around him, and heard a scared child’s voice repeatedly calling:

“Not to the Dark Ages, not to the Dark Ages ….Dark Ages, Dark Ages…”

***

Professor Morgan and Mr Wang have scoured out the alley with the scanners embedded in their wrist-controls. There are indeed no surveillance cameras or audio-recording devices hidden in here, nor any living soul for that matter.

Only a handful of windows have a view down unto this part of the alley, none of them are on the ground floor. It’s still early in the morning, unlikely for the residents of this run-down neighborhood to be awake and clear-headed enough to watch our small group standing huddled together surrounding a manhole to the sewers.

Yes, I can congratulate myself, I have indeed chosen the most convenient place as an entrance to my escape exit. The Professor opens the cover again and taps on his wrist-control. A young dark-skinned man in his mid-twenties who has been waiting already on the ladder emerges now. He wears black jeans and an open denim jacket of the same color over a blazing red t-shirt. On his back he is carrying a large gray bag containing some heavy equipment.

I haven’t met him before but he seems to know the Professor and Mr Wang. He barely acknowledges their presence though with a nod before he then bends down to lift several more similar looking bags up to the surface handed to him from below. After that nine more men dressed in the same clothes, except for the color of their t-shirts are now climbing out of the sewers.

The volunteers, with barely a mumbled greeting directed to our group, start immediately to secure the area.

I know what they are doing, of course. They are installing electronic-shield projectors throughout the alley to protect both the volunteers as well as the later on expected refugees from a potential attack. The shield projectors will deflect light in such an ingenious fashion that it will make the whole place and everyone inside invisible for anyone not standing inside the shielded area.

For those who might look down from above as well as from both ends of the alley an image of an empty, dark back-street filled with trash-cans will be projected. Both entrances will also be secured by strong force-fields which in turn will prevent anyone uninvited to enter the area.

The work is well on its way, when the first man finally bothers to introduce himself. He turns around facing me:

Oh, I’m Darryl Kenneth, by the way. You are Jonathan Galt, aren’t you?”

I just nod.

Darryl Kenneth points to his team: “These are Tom Parshon, Jim Lavon, Jess Porter and Vance Drake. They are all from my village “Roads End” and over there are Cass Dakota and Brent Spanner from “Desert Spring” and Patrick Covat, Derrick Kelly and Antonio Fernandez are from “DeSoto Southwestcorner.”

He then adds proudly: “We are all from the nation of Texas. And the teams from our villages and fifteen others, which are still on their way through the sewers, were the first ones to volunteer after we heard about this problem.”

Problem” is probably the understatement of the century, I don’t quite know how to respond to that. So I simply state: “You and your team seem to be well prepared.”

What I have heard however is, that the Texans and several other teams from the western nations of North-America have been chosen particularly because their clothing styles need next to no adjustments for them to blend into the Nephilim City environment, where the non-elite male population routinely wears blue or black jeans and jeans-jackets on top of t-shirts of various colors and prints. This of course is a quite different style from the usual dress-code of the Spesaeterna group who now has to cover their own native clothing with its suspicious markings with newly made and rather badly fitting denim trousers and jackets.

Mr Wang now turns to Darryl in his typical abrupt fashion: “Our schedule is tight, are you and your men ready to proceed to the next step, Mr Kenneth?”

Of course,” Darryl nods and taps on his wrist-control. With that the other Texans turn around leaving the work on the shields to a new group of volunteers who have just emerged from the sewers.

Together they follow me and my companions out of the alley.

CHAPTER 2

 

 

David woke up and it was morning. The dim light coming through his basement window competed with that of the bulb dangling from his ceiling. Daylight was winning, but not by much.

David sat up, rubbing his eyes. The hallucination was still there on the chair, staring at him.

“My name is Hope,” she insisted.

“Do you read all my thoughts and know everything I’m thinking?” David asked in frustration.

“No, not everything,” Hope explained, “only what is at the top of your mind, the things you are concentrating on. All the other stuff is too faint; I can feel it, but not understand it.”

Then she asked unexpectedly: “Who is Mikey?” And when David hesitated, she said, “You know, the little boy on the cloud.”

“So you even invaded my dreams. “ There was an accusation in David’s voice.

“Maybe you invaded mine,” Hope replied, defending herself. “I was sleeping too.”

“Really?…. Well, if you must know, Mikey is my son. He is four.” Not wanting to discuss it any more, David got to his feet. “And now I have to go to the bathroom.”

Hope got up as well.

“You are not following me into the bathroom, are you?” Now David sounded slightly desperate—he really had to take a leak. “There is no way I can take a shower and other things, you know, while you are there staring at me.”

Hope was biting her lip again, obviously a habit of hers. “I’ve got to stay with you all the time or I’ll lose the connection.”

Then she had an idea: “I think I can concentrate on other things in my mind while you are in the bathroom.”

And with this, the image of the girl faded and was replaced by something like a blue sky with white clouds moving in one direction. It was a faint image though, only visible to David in the left corner of his vision field, more like the reflection of oneself when passing a store window which allows the display behind the window to be seen as well.

At the same time David heard the sound of a soft calming music and singing. And though they seemed repetitive he couldn’t quite make out the words.

Then the image changed and instead of the sky, he had a view down upon wooded areas interspersed with meadows and housing blocks arranged in a circle—as though seeing it from a bird’s perspective or from a very low flying plane. Each block was surrounded by what looked like a number of large circus tents

And then abruptly the image changed again and for an instant David could see the inside of what looked like a church with a cross in front. The words of the song became a bit clearer, and he thought he could make out something about God. Then the image changed back again to the bird’s eye view of the landscape and a different circle of houses and tents.

David stopped watching and went to his closet to pick out some fresh clothes and towels. He showered then wiped the vapor from the small mirror over the sink.

He scrutinized his face and had to admit that it was no wonder the nurse and the kids had been scared of him last night. He looked forbidding.

While he had been employed, he had always taken care of his appearance. Not that he had always worn suits; many times, suits just weren’t appropriate for a reporter, but even when in jeans and a sweat-shirt, he had made sure to look clean and fresh. He had fostered a charming and youthful image which had opened many doors for him.

Now he looked older than his 31 years. He hadn’t had a hair-cut for three months and so his dark-blond hair covered his ears and trailed well down his neck. And while the shower had tamed it somewhat, David knew that his hair must have been standing up wildly last night. He also hadn’t shaved for a week, and dark shadows circled his gray-blue eyes.

And since most of his nourishment in the last few weeks had been of the liquid sort, he had lost a lot of weight and his cheekbones were standing out like the ceilings of two moldy caves.

Well, he thought, shaving might bring some improvement, though probably not much.

When David emerged from the shower, neatly shaven and cleanly clothed, he called: “Hey you– hey Hope–you can come out now!”

The image of Hope appeared instantaneously while the landscape disappeared.

David gave her a nod and then went to the kitchen opening the refrigerator. He felt hungry. As he had suspected, there was nothing edible inside except a can of Coke lurking in the back. With a mock smile he offered it to Hope.

When she shook her head, he pulled the jack opening and gulped down the can’s content himself. Then he leaned against the fridge and declared: “If you are indeed a real person somewhere, you must be hungry or thirsty.”

“While my mind is here, my body is fed intravenously,” Hope explained. “You know, the food gets dripped directly into my bloodstream.”

“I do know what the word intravenously means,” David pulled a half-smile. He felt slightly amused at being lectured on vocabulary by a young girl.

“You feel better now,” Hope stated rather than asked. “You will look better too once you’ve eaten and gotten some fresh air. You really don’t look as old as you think, just very tired.”

“You were with me there in the bathroom–you said you’d put your mind elsewhere!” David accused her.

“I was there for just one moment, truly just one, when you were looking into the mirror.” Hope was apologetic and slightly guilt-stricken. “I had to know what your face looks like.”

“But you’ve been staring into my face since last night,” David said, shaking his head. “By now you must know every line of it.”

“I have looked into your mind, not into your face. I see what you see through your eyes. Until now I had to imagine what you look like. Before I saw you in that mirror, your face was kind of blurry for me,” Hope explained.

“I guess you’d better explain to me how this time travel thing works,” David demanded.

“Sure,” Hope complied.

“As I told you last night, it has to do with certain brain emissions called Delta-waves. My great-uncle and some of his scientist friends from other villages have discovered that these waves can somehow pierce through time and space from one brain to another. They have built a device–some kind of enhancing and targeting machine–and now they are able to control and direct this piercing process.

“With this machine a person can enable his whole consciousness to ride along those waves to the mind of somebody else, as long as the receiver’s Delta-waves are nearly identical to those of the sender, which is only the case in very close relatives, and even then, this is only occasionally successful.”

“So I guess where you come from, they do this brain-wave riding into the past all over the place? I mean all over the time?” David was somehow intrigued. “Did you visit your ancestors in the Roman Empire or the Stone Age already?”

“Oh no, of course not.” said Hope, dismissing the naive suggestion. “As I told you before, the process is very complicated and specific. First you need somebody who matches your own brain-waves.

“And then you also need to know the exact time and place to which to send the waves because sending them to the wrong space-time coordinates would be utterly useless, they would fade into space.

“ Until now, mind-time-traveling has only been done within a few hours or a couple of days at most, and then only between identical twins. You are the first receiver ever who lives in a time-period outside our own.”

“Hmm, let’s see now…” said David, scratching his head while trying to make sense of what he had just heard. “That would mean that you had somehow gotten my space-time-coordinates for that subway platform last night. And that you got them, let’s see… 7 generations, that must be over two hundred years in the future….

“How the heck did you do that? Are the security camera records of the subway system kept for eternity or something?”

“I don’t know about those records,” Hope replied.

“But great-uncle Professor told me that he had found your data on a small metal tube which he had gotten from his own grandmother when he was just a boy about my age.”

All of a sudden something appeared in midair that looked like an ordinary silver-colored USB key.

Hope went on to explain: “However, this tube was somehow damaged and the data corrupted, so that he could only decipher a few words and sentences. But your coordinates for last night were quite clear. And these were the only ones Great-uncle had for you–the only time and place when you could be reached. And this is what I tried to explain to you last night.”

“Alright,” David said looking skeptically at the USB key that was still floating in the air,

“you might have somehow known where I was at a particular time. But what about those Delta-waves you were talking about, those that only match close relatives. A great-grandfather five times removed isn’t exactly a very close relative, so why should my waves match yours?”

“Well….” The USB key disappeared and Hope was biting her lip once more. “Well, I think it must have been a miracle.”

A miracle…. David exhaled, slightly annoyed with himself. He had nearly begun to believe she was real, that there was somehow a scientific explanation for all of this, and that he wasn’t just crazy. And now she had come up with this religious thing again. How could he possibly fool himself into believing something as crazy as the possibility of a visit from a time-traveler?

Hope was silently staring at David and he realized she knew what he was thinking. Of course she knew, after all she was…..

“You told me you have a son,” Hope interrupted David’s thoughts. “You have a son and yet you planned to kill yourself and leave him an orphan?”

“He would not have been an orphan,” David said, going on the defensive. “He still has his mother–Tina, my girlfriend, well, former girlfriend….”

“You were going to leave him. You are a bad father!”

“He left me…well, that is, Tina took Mikey with her and left for Los Angeles,” said David in self-defense.

“You are a bad father,” Hope repeated.

“I’m not allowed to be a father at all……. never again. Tina got a restraining order against me which took away all my visitation rights and stipulated that I was not to come within a hundred yards of them, I think it said,” said David, feeling miserable.

“You are a bad father,” Hope stated for the third time.

Now David got angry: “Weren’t you sent here in order to make me feel better so that I won’t kill myself? You are just making me more miserable!”

And after looking at Hope’s stony face he added: “Aren’t you just projecting something onto me because your father left you?”

David regretted his words the instant they slipped out of his mouth. He could feel a wave of pain emanating from Hope while she swallowed.

Then she said slowly and clearly: “My father did not leave me. He was killed…killed by you!”

“By me?!…” David was shocked! “You blame me for….”

“Not you personally, but your people, the Dark Ages… They killed my father.”

“The Dark Ages?” David was still puzzled.

“Your times….. He was just going on an assignment for a little while…He promised he wouldn’t be gone for long….”

Hope disappeared and another image coalesced in front of David’s eyes: the faint scene of a younger Hope standing in a door-way holding the hands of a tall black man who was bending down to look her directly in the eye.

David blinked and then realized that the image became clearer when his eyes were closed, so he re-closed them. The man was wearing a cap like Hope’s only with a different Chinese symbol.

He also was dressed in nearly the same clothes, however without most of the colorful patches, except the one over the left breast. Instead around the collar and along the sleeves there were narrow trimmings of what looked like a form of 19. century needle point embroidery.

“Come on, my little honey bee, let my hands go now,” said the man, and David knew instantaneously that he was Hope’s father, just as he knew that they were standing in the doorway of the apartment of Hope’s family .

“I’m going to be late if I don’t go now,” Hope’s father continued.

“Don’t look at me as if I’m going away forever–it’s only three months and then I’ll be back again! It’ll be like no time at all.”

“Maybe for you, Papa, it will seem like a short time, but for me, it will feel so much longer. Sensei has told us that for children, time seems to pass much slower than for grown-ups. This is because children have lived a shorter time and therefore their relation to a time period is different than for grown-ups who have lived longer.”

This younger Hope had already acquired her lecturing voice.

“When I come back, I guess I will have to have a talk with your teacher. He has made you far too clever already,” said Hope’s father with mock seriousness in his voice.

Little Hope hadn’t quite caught on yet.

“You don’t like me to be too clever?” she asked, sounding worried.

“Oh my honey bee, that was only a joke. Of course I like you to be clever. In fact, I’m very, very proud of you,” Hope’s father stated firmly and then added: “Besides, I just love clever women–that’s why I married your mother! And now let us dance one last round before I really have to go.” With this, he scooped Hope off her feet and whirled her around a few times.

And then the image changed abruptly. Hope was now inside her apartment, sitting at the kitchen table. Two younger children, a boy and girl, were sitting opposite her.

And once again David knew them right away, as if Hope’s recognition was his as well. They were Sissy and Lillebro. Hope and Sissy were laughing while Lillebro tried to balance a fork on his nose.

A woman who in both dress and facial features looked like an adult version of Hope was just putting some sort of soufflé dish on the table. Her long hair, just as dark but less curly than Hope’s and her siblings’, was bound back behind her neck.

Like her husband’s suit the one Hope’s mother was wearing had been trimmed with embroidery but the pattern seemed different, more elaborate and the stripe below the collar was much broader covering roughly a third of the jacket. Embedded in the pattern was one large symbol that looked the same as the patch Hope, her siblings and their father were wearing on the left side of their jackets.

But also Hope’s mothers jacket was a bit longer than theirs reaching all the way down to her knees, covering most of the bulgy trousers.

Hope didn’t wear her cap at the moment, but David noticed four purple caps each with a different Chinese letter combination stitched on it on the shelf above the bench the children were sitting on.

Hope’s mother smiled at her son’s antics and then told him with a stern voice:

“Now let’s stop playing, the food is on the table. Who would like to….”

But then a melodic bell sounded and she stopped in mid-sentence and went to the door. All three children also got up to get a peek at whoever was arriving at dinner time.

There was a man standing in the doorway– Hope recognized him, and therefore David knew his name as well: Mr. Jones from the information-office.

Behind him stood Grandma and Grandpa, and all of them looked very grave. David could feel Hope’s rising fear. Mr. Jones was talking to her mother. She could see her mother sway. Grandpa quickly stepped forward and steadied her.

Something was wrong, very wrong. Hope knew it right away.

Grandma came inside the apartment, and walking over to the children who stood huddled together in the kitchen entrance, she said with tears in her eyes:

“My little angels, it’s…. it’s about your Papa.” Her voice was breaking.

“…..There was an accident….He died….” Grandma had knelt down and taken Sissy and Lillebro in her arms and was looking up at Hope.

“No, it’s not true.” Hope’s voice sounded shrill. “It can’t be true. Papa is not old, not like great-grandfather or like Aunt Muriel Miner. He is not. He can’t have died, he can’t…..”

Grandma stretched out one hand toward Hope without letting go of the other children. But Hope didn’t want to touch her. She didn’t even want to look at her. She backed off.

Hope looked toward her mother, but Mamma had her face covered with her hands. Grandpa was gently guiding her to the living-room couch, and then he sat down next to her, putting his arms around her.

More people were hovering in the doorway– neighbors. David noticed that all of them were dressed the same way as Hope and her family. All of them were silent. They were looking at Hope and her siblings, their eyes filled with compassion as well as helplessness.

And then somebody edged himself through the crowd. The bulky figure of Great-uncle Professor appeared.

He went straight over to Hope. She was pressing herself so hard against the wall that it looked as if she wanted to disappear inside it, and she was glaring at the people. She didn’t want any compassion from them—they were all liars, she thought, all liars.

Great-uncle Professor didn’t let Hope’s angry stare deter him—he just picked her up and held her in his arms, rocking her like a baby:

“My little one, oh my little one, I am so sorry, so sorry….I knew there was something with your father, but I didn’t know what or when…..I just didn’t know enough…..if only I had deciphered more….if I only….I could have……I’m so sorry, oh so sorry….my little one….”

The younger Hope didn’t know what her great-uncle was talking about, but she could feel a tear dropping onto her forehead, and this tear somehow made Grandma’s words finally real. Hope’s anger dissolved and was replaced by sadness, a sadness so deep she thought it would never end.

She started crying…..

The image dissipated and the older Hope was back. For a moment she appeared as desperately sad as the younger one had been. Then she pulled herself out of her memories, and looking at David, she asked: “Did you see that?”

When David nodded she seemed unhappy.

“I didn’t know I could do that– show you my memories like that. I didn’t want you to……” Her voice became a whisper, then faded out completely.

“I’m sorry….” David felt guilt-stricken.

“I’m truly sorry for what I said before, about your father and you…..”

Hope had pulled herself together, her voice now cold and matter of fact, putting a lie to the waves of pain David could still feel coming from her:

“My father was killed while he was on an ice-breaking assignment in Antarctica, together with a group of nine young volunteers he was supervising at the time. The area had been scanned before.

“But when the nuclear device launched from our leading ice-breaker-ship hit the ice it was supposed to break and melt, it triggered another nuclear device, which had been planted there by some Dark Ages military as a mine. That one had been buried too deep inside the ice; the scanners had been unable to pick it up. It triggered a chain-reaction that magnified the intended power a thousand-fold.

“The explosion was so immense that it destroyed a two-hundred-fifty square-kilometer area around it, including a far-away ice-breaker station from which my father and his volunteer group were operating their laser-ice-breaking equipment. “

David pressed his lips together; there was nothing he could say. He had always been convinced that future generations might have to suffer for the mistakes of today but he hadn’t thought about it in such concrete terms.

Then he remembered something:

“Last night in my dream I heard your voice saying, ‘Not to the Dark Ages!’ You said you were dreaming, too. You didn’t want to come here, did you?”

“No, I didn’t,” Hope admitted.

“Did your great-uncle force you to come?”

“Of course not,” said Hope indignantly. “It was my choice, but…”

Once again an image appeared in front of David. He closed his eyes so he could see it better.

Hope was standing in front of some strange machine.

She was facing her great-uncle saying urgently: “Yes, of course I want to use your device to go back in time. But I don’t want to go to the Dark Ages, to those terrible people. I don’t want to go back two hundred years–only four years, only four, please!”

Her great-uncle sounded sad: “I know you want to do that. And I would give everything if that were possible. But it is not. You are no match for him.”

And when Hope opened her mouth to protest, he stated: “Nor can you go back to someone else who could warn your father.

“My friends and I have tried to send people back for longer than a few days but that has never worked. It is as if the further away the past is, the less we can focus the waves with our device–as if our past blocks itself from us, preventing us from changing it.

There was a time, when I neither understood nor accepted this either. I naively believed that if only I had deciphered more of the information contained in here,”

Hope’s great-uncle opened his fist to reveal the silver-colored USB key David had seen earlier.

“I could have prevented your father’s accident. However changing events of the past just isn’t how time-travel information can be used. When I finally realized the actual principle of time, this was when time-travel became possible in reality. But there is this one single exception to the few days rule of which I have positive proof. Someone did go back further – 212 years back, to be exact. ”

“It is so unfair, Great-uncle. Why can I go back to this ancient ancestor of ours but not to my own father? He was such a good man, a really good man. And he would be the one, who would know what to do now with these terrible troubles, when even you can’t say or do anything that would help.”

Hope’s voice sounded accusing: “But I know he would, I just know…. Why did God let him die? Why won’t he give me a chance to save him now?”

“I don’t know, my little one. The will of God is often a mystery to us. As for now, all I can tell you is, that I know for a fact that you cannot save your father. But you will be able to save another human life, and bring this person out of a dark place.”

“He lives in the Dark Ages.” Hope was now pouting: “I can’t bring him out of there.”

As if having accepted Hope’s rejection to his appeal great-uncle Professor shrugged. He had now turned his back to Hope, while adjusting some dial on his machine. He hesitated for a moment, then spoke in a very soft, clear, and calm voice:

“Yes, this man does live in a dark age, but what surrounds his mind is even darker. The girl who went back in time to meet him was called Hope.

“ And I believe that this Hope was you and that you are the only one who has the ability to lead this ancestor of ours out of his own darkness. Though he lives in a time and a culture we do not understand, his life – like everyone's life- is still of value. And it is in your hands now."

The Professor turned around to face Hope again: “You do remember the First Principle, don’t you?”

And then the image faded and future Hope disappeared and was replaced by present Hope, who shrugged her shoulders and said: “And so I had to come; I couldn’t make any other choice.”

“Because of that first principle?” David wasn’t sure he understood.

Hope nodded.

A clever manipulator this great-uncle of Hope’s, David thought, an unsavory character for sure. The man had been dead bent on using a child in his care for his dubious experiments and when she had refused he had played on her deep sense of responsibility.

David saw that Hope was frowning. She clearly didn’t like his train of thoughts, but before she could say anything, he interrupted her: “What is that first principle your great-uncle was talking about?”

This was the right kind of question to distract Hope from whatever she was going to say.

“It is what our community, our village, our district, our nation, and our whole world is built upon,” She stated proudly, but then her face darkened again and she corrected herself: “I mean most of our world…every place except Orange Country.”

“What is Orange Country?” David asked.

“Hell,” was the short answer.

***

After Mr Wang and I have entered the car-dealership we realize right away that we are the first customers.

[_ Four of the Texans -Brent, Patrick, Kelly and Antonio- have already taken off to their first assigned location in a public transportation vehicle. To pay the fees they had to test their fake chips. Brent has subsequently messaged Darryl, that the chips have worked fine. _]

The others have chosen to wait outside the house, spreading themselves out along the street not to arise any suspicion as an unusually large crowd most certainly would. I’ve informed them that security enforcers are the only people here in Nephilim City who ever gather in groups of more than three or four people.

Tom, Jim, Jesse, Vance and Cass are waiting to take the next vehicle in the opposite direction. Darryl will accompany me and the Spesaeterna team later on in the private vehicle, I’m here to acquire. The small car I’ve owned before I left Orange Country, is at the moment parked outside the City, in one of the sea-villages. At the time I thought this arrangement would prevent any suspicion, in case my father had wanted to track me down early.

A loud and domineering voice can now be heard through an office door located behind a row of cheap used cars, painted and polished to look newer than they are. The first voice is answered by a lower, timid one.

You are the worst salesman ever employed at this firm, a total failure doesn’t even begin to describe your performance here so far.”

I’m sorry, sir, I will try harder from now on….”

Try? That’s by far not good enough. Look at your numbers from only the last week: No sale, no sale, no sale, then a single sale of the cheapest model we have in the shop and then… no sale again. And the week before wasn’t any better. You are fired!”

Sir, please you can’t do that, what about my contract?”

Your contract? Are you kidding me? Have you even read it? It states quite clear and in bold letters that it will become null and void, if you should ever under-perform for more than a week.”

But, sir, please sir. If I can’t fulfill a year’s contract with this firm, I will not be able to find another job. And then I won’t have the funds to buy insurance any more. You know, what will happen to me then, sir, please…”

This cannot be my concern. If I allow you to receive a salary from this firm any longer, my superiors won’t stand for it, my own job will then be on the line and my contract and my insurance fees.”

After a short silence the voice concedes:

Alright, I’ll give you one more day, one day, I tell you. And it has to be a major sales day or don’t bother to show up tomorrow morning!”

At this moment another sales assistant appears from behind a row of cars: “Gentlemen,” he calls out to us, “you have come to the right place! We have the finest exhibition of cars in all of Nephilim City.”

I’m shaking my head and Mr Wang waves the salesman away, who turns around rather disappointed.

We wait for a few seconds looking at the open door until a small man with a sparse tuft of hair on his head leaves the office steep-shouldered, not even noticing us.

We want to buy a car,” I state raising my voice slightly to get the man’s attention.

The small man looks up: “Yes, sir, of course sir. In what specific price range have you been thinking?” he asks.

He is most certainly not a good salesman.

I believe, I need to introduce myself,” I tell him and grab the little man’s right hand to shake it. As soon as our palms touch, a small bell sound chimes from both of our wrist-controls. The little man looks at the writing on his own display and his mouth falls open.

Mr Galt, sir,” he whispers and then adds with more strength: “Of course you would want the very best.”

Only the best,” I nod. And then Mr Wang and I follow the little man to the section with the largest and shiniest cars, until we stand in front of a red chrome-blinking vehicle, twice the size of any other in the shop.

CHAPTER 3

 

 

Hope pressed her lips together and David felt that she didn’t want to talk any more. He thoughtfully looked at the empty Coke can in his hand, then threw it into the recycle bin.

“Let’s go out. I need some food, I’m still hungry. And I also need some daylight and fresh air, and maybe you do, too.”

David pulled his brown faux-fur-lined suede jacket off the coat rack in the corner and slipped it on; after all, it had been rather cool outside all month now, although it was already the end of April. Then he opened his door to step outside only to stumble over a soft obstacle and hearing a muffled groan.

Surprised, he looked down to find a man lying with his head under the stairs and his feet blocking the door. The man slowly pulled in his legs and got to his feet, still groaning slightly.

“What the heck were you doing there?” David asked in a less than friendly manner.

“Sleeping,” said the man, stating the obvious while moving his head and shoulders in an attempt to shake off the stiffness in his limbs.

He had been using the shelter of the stairs as a make-shift accommodation. A black plastic bag had served as a mattress and a white paper-bag that seemed to contain a book had been the pillow; he had used a real blanket, although it seemed rather thin and too short for his tall figure.

“I can see that,” David said. “But why here?”

The man shrugged his shoulders: “It’s as good a place as any. The shelter at St. Mary’s was full last night, and the conductor was about to throw me off the train.”

Now David recognized the man. He hadn’t given him a second glance at the time, but this was definitely him: Black, unshaven, a stained jacket, crumpled and dirty trousers ripped above one knee… the homeless guy from the train last night.

The realization was a bit disconcerting for David. The man must have trailed him from the train, while David hadn’t even noticed that anybody else had gotten out at his stop.

David pulled a humorless smile…so Hope hadn’t been the only one who had followed him home.

But why him?

Remembering his own image in the mirror earlier and the fact that the money for next month’s rent was far from secured, David thought dryly – maybe the homeless guy recognized him as a kindred spirit.

“Perhaps he needs a shower so he will feel better, like you,” Hope interrupted David’s reflection.

She had startled him and so David answered aloud: “You mean I should invite him in?”

“Yes,” Hope stated simply then added: “And he needs a shave too.”

“People don’t do that here,” David murmured now. “We don’t ask strangers into our homes.”

The man had been watching David; he stated without any surprise in his voice: “Somebody is talking to you.”

“Only my conscience,” said David, feeling annoyed and embarrassed at the same time.

“Yeah, mine does that too, all the time…talking, I mean,” the man countered. “What color does it have?”

“Color? My conscience?” Looking at Hope, David felt a tiny twinge of humor lightening his mind so he said: “Purple, I guess.”

“Purple is a nice color,” the man complimented. “Mine is green. He is about that tall,” he said, indicating about 15 inches with his hands. “He never told me his name, but I call him Mr. Green because…”

“He is green,” David completed the sentence.

“Yea, that’s right!” the homeless man agreed. “Does yours have a name, too?”

“Oh yes, her name is Hope, Hope Morgan. She is a little girl, just a little bit taller than your Mr. Green, but not much.” Looking at Hope’s indignant face, David was now thoroughly enjoying himself.

“Nice to meet you, Miss Morgan.” The man gave a slight bow in Hope’s direction, which he got surprisingly quite right, as if he had actually seen her at David’s left elbow.

“My name is Jeremy Johnson. I come from Castleberry, Alabama, where we grow the country’s best strawberries.”

Hope’s face started to lighten up with a smile. She also bowed slightly and returned the greeting:

“Good morning, Mr. Johnson…and Mr. Green” she added. “My name is Hope Morgan. I am from the Nightingale community in the Spesaeterna village, in the 46. district of the nation of New York-New Jersey. And I like strawberries very much.”

David turned to Mr. Johnson and translated: “My Hope says she comes from around here and she likes strawberries a lot.”

“I thought so,” Jeremy Johnson stated. “All children like strawberries. That’s why Castleberry is a great place to grow up in,” he added longingly.

David had finally made up his mind. Jeremy Johnson might be a nutcase, but in all likelihood, he was a harmless one.

Looking at Hope, David extended her invitation: “My Hope asks if you would like to come inside and use my bathroom for a shower and maybe a shave?”

Mr. Johnson turned his head slightly as if listening to something, then he smiled broadly: “Mr. Green said I shouldn’t mind at all and I should accept your invitation, Miss Morgan,” and so he picked up his few belongings and walked through the open door.

As David went to his closet to get a towel, Hope spoke once again:

“I think Mr. Johnson needs some new clothes too–his trousers are ripped and his jacket isn’t warm like yours. I think he has no others and you have so very many in here.”

Wordlessly David picked out a pair of jeans, a checkered shirt, shorts, socks, and a t-shirt. Feeling Hope’s eyes on him, he chose only relatively new things–nothing old or worn out. He even took his second-best rather expensive winter jacket from its hanger.

He turned around and handed the bundle to Mr. Johnson along with the towel: “Miss Morgan also thinks that you might like some other clothes to change into, and she thinks that I have far too many clothes.”

After a short pause with his head bent, Jeremy Johnson answered: “Mr. Green says I shouldn’t mind new clothes either, and I should thank Miss Morgan and you, Mr.?”

“Call me David. I….eh, we were just on our way out to buy some food. Would you…and Mr. Green like to join us for breakfast?”

“We wouldn’t mind, although Mr. Green is never very hungry.”

David grinned: “Well, Miss Morgan isn’t either, but that shouldn’t hinder the two of us from eating something, should it? I’ll be back in a little while.”

With this, David headed out the door while Jeremy Johnson shuffled towards the bathroom.

David hadn’t walked 20 yards before he regretted his decision to leave the homeless man alone in his apartment.

“I bet when I get back, the TV and my computer will be missing, together with Mr. Johnson,” he murmured in Hope’s direction.

“Isn’t the TV the rectangular box that is screwed to your wall?” Hope asked.

“Alright, one point for you,” David conceded, “but my computer is a laptop and can be easily carried in his plastic bag. It’s just sitting there on the coffee table, waiting to be taken away.”

“I don’t think Mr. Johnson is a person who takes other people’s belongings,” was Hope’s opinion.

“And you’ve known him for how many minutes?” David asked dryly.

“Just as many minutes as you, and yet you already suspect him of being a really bad rule-breaker. That’s typical Dark Age paranoia.”

“Typical what?” David asked

“Dark Age paranoia – Sensei taught us about it. During the Dark Ages, everybody believed the worst about everybody else, because they themselves would do all the worst things they could get away with.

And therefore they would lock up all their belongings and all their houses and apartments all the time, always afraid that someone would take something from them.”

David didn’t reply, but felt himself getting quite angry.

Hope went on: “There was, for instance, this one man Sensei told us about. He was a writer who wrote many stories about a fictional man who would kill people, for these killings the fictional man was paid many coins. And many, many, many Dark Age people would read those stories and even liked them a lot.

“But in his real life, this writer would sit in a coffee-house and imagine what bad things other people might do to him.

“He would write to all the people who liked to read his stories, telling them how to prevent having their computers taken away in coffee-houses or when they went to another country how to prevent being themselves taken away as prisoners.

“The writer told his readers that they should always think like an enemy.

“And that they should assume everyone around them might be an enemy.

“And that they should take what were known in the Dark Ages as “preventive measures” so the bad thieves or the dangerous people-robbers would have difficulty stealing their belongings or taking them prisoner, and so would instead go on to steal other people’s belongings and take other people prisoner.

“And you know, this writer would even tell his readers that if you and your friend were running away from a bear, you wouldn’t have to run faster than the bear–only faster than your friend.”

Now Hope had an expression of utter disgust on her face. David guessed that in Hope’s time, nobody would ever consider outrunning his friend or even make a joke like this.

David’s annoyance was growing. They must be a rather humorless bunch there in the future, he thought. And he was getting really fed up with that “Dark-Age” name-calling and Hope constantly pointing out the superiority of her own time over his.

He felt like someone whose country was being repeatedly attacked and belittled by a foreigner. And although he could be quite critical of his own country’s faults and he was far from being a proud nationalist under normal circumstances, listening to such deriding remarks would drive him over to the side of those nationalists in no time.

But in these special circumstances, listening to those constant put-downs of his own time what could he call himself now? A time-ionalist maybe?

Hope had been quiet during David’s musings, and when he looked at her, he saw a quite different expression on her face.

“I have been arrogant,” she said, sounding guilt-stricken, “and with a superiority attitude. This is a bad thing I’ve been doing, a really bad thing. I am sorry.”

Her words took David rather by surprise. Hope’s remorse sounded genuine, and David’s own attitude towards her softened somewhat.

“It wasn’t really that bad,” he murmured, and thinking about the scene he had seen in her memories, he added: “I guess you had your reasons.”

They walked quietly the rest of the way. David felt Hope’s sadness mixing with his own dark thoughts.

When they arrived at the store, David found he had lost his appetite and couldn’t think of any kind of food he would like to buy right now.

“What do you think Mr. Johnson would like for breakfast?” he asked Hope listlessly in a low voice, trying not to be too conspicuous in front of the other customers.

“After all, it was you who invited him in.”

“I invited him to take a shower; it was you who invited him for breakfast,” said Hope, insisting on the full truth.

“He might like strawberries, I guess, and maybe cream or perhaps strawberry cheese-cake–that’s my favorite!”

She pointed to one of the patches on her clothes. It really did look somewhat like a strawberry cake and the patch next to it looked like a dish of …

“Fish-fingers! Those are fish-fingers!” David exclaimed, pointing at the patch.

“Yes, they are my second favorite food. And my third favorite is falafel.”

This sounded like a typical New Yorker’s menu: melting-pot food from every corner of the planet.

“Fish-fingers were my favorite, too, when I was about your age,” David said softly.

The thought of fish-fingers had reminded him of Iceland and his Amma and her “fisk í raspi,” and the times when his Mom and his Pabbi had still been together, back when he was little and everything was good.

“You still eat those things in your time?” David was amazed.

“Sure we do. Cooking has a long tradition. Some dishes are hundreds of years old; they were cooked even before the Dark-… I mean, before your times.”

“Are the other patches favorite foods as well?” David asked, steering his shopping-cart to the fruit section to pick up a carton of strawberries.

“Of course not, these here are my three favorite animals – a camel, a cow, and a nightingale, and these here are my three favorite flowers,” said Hope as she pointed to two other groups of patches. And yes, the animal and flower pictures were easily recognizable.

“And here are my three best friends,” she said, pointing at patches showing Chinese letters.

“And your most favorite number is three,” David guessed as he placed a can of whipped cream, a package of bacon, and a carton of eggs in the cart. Hope grinned.

“Are your best friends all Chinese?” David asked

“No. Why? Oh I see…. you mean because of the letters. These are their names written in Interlingua: Jenny, Marcella, and Ameenah.”

“What language is Interlingua?” David asked, intrigued.

“It is the global communication language, the language everybody in the world learns in school so we can talk to people from every country when we’re on the Peace-Web or when they come as tourists or when we go together on assignments.”

“And is this Interlingua written in Chinese letters?”

“Oh no, that would be too complicated. Only names are written in Chinese letters; everything else is spelled in Latin letters, and the words come from all the languages in the world. But most words come from Spanish, English, Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, Swahili, Hindi, and French.” Hope was counting on her fingers again, trying to correctly convey her memorized knowledge.

“Now that doesn’t make sense,” David interjected while picking up a loaf of bread. “How can you write English names in Chinese letters? They are not phonetic like our letters.”

“True,” Hope smiled, “but every name has a meaning or at least it once did. And for every meaningful word, we have a letter or a couple of letters. Like my name–it still has the same meaning.”

She pointed at the brim of her cap: “This is ‘hope’ in Chinese. And I know what the meaning of your name is.” Hope smiled affectionately.

“You see, Lillebro’s real name is David. It means “beloved,” and there are letters for that.”

A couple of white Chinese letters appeared in the air floating in front of Hope’s face.

David was now queuing in front of the cash register.

Beloved, he thought–not exactly a name that fit him well.

When he finished paying, David pointed to a picture that was not like the other patches but seemed to be embroidered directly onto the fabric of Hope’s clothes, covering a good part of her left side.

He had seen the same one in Hope’s memory on the jackets of her family members and, if his memory didn’t fail him, on the jackets of some of the neighbors as well. It looked like the letter X combined with the letter P above a simple drawing of a fish with a small cross on its belly.

“What does this symbol mean?” David asked.

“It’s my religion, of course. I am a Christian. The letters are the Greek Chi and Rho, the beginning of Christos, and the fish means that the first Christians were fishermen. My friend Ameenah is Muslim; she has this symbol on her clothing.”

A triangular combination of white swerving lines and dots appeared in midair. David recognized them as Arabic calligraphy which he had once seen when he had gone to a mosque to conduct an interview.

Hope explained: “This means ‘In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Gracious.’

“And our neighbors Chan-Luan and Enlai are Buddhist and they have a Dharmachakra.”

The calligraphy was replaced by an eight-spoked wheel.

David preempted Hope’s explanation: “The eternal cycle of life.”

“You know this symbol?” she asked.

David nodded: “Somebody explained it to me.”

Hope went on with her own explanations: “Every religion has its own symbol for its believers to wear. I live in a mixed community–Christians, Muslims and Buddhists live there.”

“Does everybody wear these religious symbols on their jackets?” David asked with growing interest.

“In our village everybody does it and in some other villages also. But in most villages they don’t,” Hope answered.

David’s next question was: “What about people who have no religion–do they also have symbols?”

“People with no religion?” Hope looked confused. “You mean people from smaller religions. They also have symbols and in some villages they wear them on their clothes, which often look quite different from ours.

“But mostly they live in their own communities and sometimes even their own villages because they are afraid that among all the people of the three big religions, their own customs and faith could get lost.”

“No, I didn’t meant that,” David insisted. “I meant people without any religion, people who think that there never was any supernatural being or force responsible for human existence or for the existence of anything else, for that matter. Do they also wear symbols on their clothes?”

The look on Hope’s face changed: “Oh I see, you mean people who have a religion without any God, my great-uncle told me about those, they are called philosophies and many people in your time believed in them.

“There are no people like this in our community or our village. There might be such people in other villages I guess, but I have never met any of them. They would probably live in villages where they dress differently from us anyway, where everybody has different clothings, and where nobody wears any kind of symbols.”

“A philosophy is not a religion,” was all David could say to that explanation, “a philosophy is a construct of reason.”

Hope shook her head in rejection: ”But to be without religion is not reasonable at all.”

“Not reasonable? What are you talking about? It is religion that is not reasonable. Reason is actually the opposite of religion!” David blurted out as they left the grocery store.

Hope looked at him as if he were crazy. She didn’t reply, but he could feel her thoughts: “Dark Age insanity….”

And David thought that it was a truly strange and unexpected future Hope was coming from, one he surely didn’t want to live in, one that might not even have a place for him to live in. It was a future that had gone back to the past, reverting from the Age of Reason to an Age of Superstition.

He felt once again a deep gulf opening between himself and the girl who said she was his great-granddaughter-five-times-removed, the same gulf he had felt whenever he had to interview religious people for his paper.

There was no reasoning with people like that.

At the moment, David didn’t feel up to a discussion of the irrationality of religion on an empty stomach, so he walked in silence while attempting to block Hope from his thoughts, if that was even possible.

When he turned onto his street, David started to wonder if he wouldn’t actually prefer Jeremy Johnson to have disappeared from his apartment along with his laptop–just to prove Hope wrong on her claim that he was paranoid.

David had always seen himself as down–to-earth, a realist, relying on rational thinking. He had held on to this self-image in every previous life-crisis, and even his suicide attempt was a result of rational reasoning: He had lost all reason to live; he had no prospects of getting back what he had lost; his life was of no value to him or anyone else.

So why live?

To assume that a homeless man without any money would steal a computer or a flat-screen TV or anything else he could find in David’s place to sell to get some money was not paranoia–it was rational reasoning.

But when David opened his front-door, he realized that Mr. Johnson hadn’t done him the favor.

He was still there, freshly showered and shaved, dressed in the clothes David had given him, with the TV still screwed to the wall, and the laptop lying untouched on the coffee table.

Mr. Johnson was sitting in the easy chair reading a book, his book actually, the one he had taken out of the white paper bag.

But before starting to read, Mr. Johnson had been setting the table in the kitchen; through the open door, David could see the water pitcher, four glasses, four knives and forks, and four plates–two big and two small.

Jeremy Johnson followed David’s glance and said apologetically: “I thought, just in case Mr. Green and Miss Morgan were hungry as well….”

David nodded and then opened his shopping bag: “I bought some strawberries. You can wash them while I fry some bacon and eggs for us.”

When they eventually sat down to eat, David realized that the clothes he had given the homeless man were actually a good fit; he and Jeremy were about the same size.

And looking at his clean-shaven face, David now estimated the two of them were about the same age as well.

Jeremy ate with a good appetite, and surprisingly (to David’s prejudiced mind), with very good table manners.

Then David noticed the book his “guest” had set down on the table—Nicholas Nickleby—another surprise.

“You read Dickens?!” David asked

“I wasn’t used to read much before cuz I was more into movies and watching TV. But nowadays I can’t watch TV too much, and I got no money for the movies, so Sister Veronica from St. Mary’s shelter loans me a book once in a while.

“Of course she’s got the Bible and those other church books, and she reads them to the people who come to the shelter. But besides those books, most of the ones she’s got are from this guy Dickens.

“And I kind of like them. Of course you’ve got to get used to those old-fashioned words. I think the man lived more than a hundred years ago and he was an Englishman on top of it, but after a while you barely notice.

“The people the man writes about in this book, you could just as well meet them here on the streets of New York or in the subway–all of them, the nice ones and the mean ones too.”

“So you think not much has changed since the times of Charles Dickens?” David asked, intrigued.

Jeremy Johnson shrugged his shoulders: “Nothing important–maybe some technical stuff, but nothing people-wise.”

“You think that “people-wise,” 21st-century New York is like Dickens’ 19th-century London?”

David found Jeremy’s views rather interesting. “But what about Castleberry? Would you say the same about Castleberry, Alabama?”

“No, I wouldn’t. Castleberry is different, very different.”

“You mean different “people-wise”?”

Jeremy nodded.

“But why should it be different? Is it because it is smaller than New York or ….” David watched as Jeremy, who had finished eating his bacon and eggs along with several pieces of bread, now piled strawberries on his plate and sprayed them with whipped cream.

“Or is it because the people down there eat more strawberries? You said they were the best, so I suppose Castleberry’s strawberries are better than the ones you can buy here?”

“Maybe,” Jeremy Johnson said, “but I think it’s because Castleberry is home.”

Then he added: “You don’t happen to have a small drop of whiskey lying around the house to help wash down the food?”

David shook his head: “I’ve given it up. You want some more water instead?”

Mr. Johnson declined and sighed: “Mr. Green tells me I should give it up, too. But I can’t right now–I need the drinks for the pain.”

“Are you sick?” David asked wondering if Jeremy was suffering from AIDS.

“I don’t know if I’m sick or not, but there is so much pain, here and here,” said Jeremy, pointing to his head and breast, “and sometimes all over my body.”

Hope, who so far had quietly listened and watched, now interrupted the conversation: “Ask Mr. Johnson why he doesn’t go back home to his own community and his family. Perhaps they could heal his pains and he would get well again.”

David relayed her suggestion to Jeremy Johnson: “My Hope thinks you should go home to Castleberry and to your folks. Maybe there’s something that could be done to alleviate the pains or maybe just being home would make you feel better.”

“One day I will go home, but not yet, not now. I just can’t….” Jeremy looked in Hope’s general direction with a sad expression on his face.

“I just can’t look in the eyes of those little kids back home, not in their eyes….

“There are kids here in New York too, but they are so far away you can barely see them. But back home, the kids are close. They look straight at you; they look you right in the face. I can’t deal with that.”

“Why not?” Hope and David asked in unison.

“Because in every kid’s eyes I see the same eyes, and in every face I see the same face. I see that little kid everywhere. You’ve got to understand–I killed her mother and her father and her brother and her sister and her grandmother.”

David stopped breathing and nearly fell off his chair, but then grabbed the table to steady himself. Shaken and horrified by this new revelation and not knowing what to do, he looked at the man who had just confessed to being a mass-murderer. David’s expression was mirrored by Hope’s; she was white in the face and shivering.

Jeremy Johnson didn’t notice any change in David; he was in his own world, borne along on painful memories: “There was three of us at the checkpoint and we didn’t know, we just didn’t know and so we were shooting and shooting….”

David latched on to the one word that did make sense: “Checkpoint…you mean you were in the war? You were in Iraq or in Afghanistan?” David exhaled with relief. It was alright then—this was just a war-incident he was talking about.

But Johnson hadn’t heard the question; he was now oblivious to everything around him: “I lifted my arm; the car slowed down at first but then it sped up again to drive through. They never told us over there in Iraq that to lift an arm means to go, not to stop. Why didn’t they tell us? Why? Why? We didn’t know, we really didn’t know….”

Johnson was now rambling. David looked at him with pity but Hope’s expression hadn’t changed. She still looked horrified and continued to tremble.

Jeremy went on: “The car did speed up and we thought… I thought…well, we had heard about all those suicide car-bombers in other places, and I was so scared and the others were scared too, and so we just started shooting and shooting and shooting…..until the car finally stopped. But then we discovered there were no bombers, they were just people…just normal people.

“In the front seat we found a man and a woman–they were the mother and father. And in the back seat were two young kids and an old lady…. All of them dead.

“And then we heard her. It was a muffled sound but we realized there was another kid in the backseat. I pulled her out from underneath the bodies. She was so small–no older than three or four–and she was covered with blood.

“But it wasn’t her blood–she didn’t have a scratch. Her grandmother had shielded her, protected her, covered her with her own body. She was so tiny, that little girl, and she cried and cried. She looked at me with these big tear-filled eyes and so I took her in my arms and rocked her so she would stop crying.”

Jeremy held his arms as if he were cradling an invisible child. He was looking at the wall with a far-away expression. Clearly his mind was somewhere thousands of miles from David’s kitchen.

He went on: “And then she held on to me. She held on to me so tight cuz there was nobody else to hold on to. Here I had killed her father and her mother and her little brother and her older sister and her grandmother… but she held on to me.

“Even when we came to the hospital, she didn’t want to let go. She held on so tight, it was nearly impossible for me to loosen her grip. And when the nurse took her, she screamed again. She screamed until she couldn’t even breathe, and then she cried silently….”

I see her every night in my dreams and I hear her crying.

I see the car coming at me, I start yelling to the other guys:

“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” but no sound comes out of my mouth.

“I try to throw my gun away but it is stuck to my hands. I don’t wanna shoot, but the gun, it shoots all by itself…

“and then I see all the blood, blood all around me….

“and then I see her eyes looking at me and I feel her tears on my neck and her little arms holding on so tight….

“And when I wake up, there’s so much pain, nothing but pain everywhere.

“When I came back from Iraq, the pain kept growing. And when I thought I couldn’t bear it any longer, Mr. Green appeared and he stayed with me, talked to me, told me I was still human….“

When Jeremy Johnson stopped talking, David felt as if the ensuing silence laid itself like a blanket over his kitchen, heavy and suffocating.

Then he realized that Hope was now crying. Jeremy exhaled and then took a deep and labored breath. He seemed to have come back to the present.

He looked at David as if trying to make him understand: “And I am, ain’t I?”

“Of course you are,” David answered, then paused and asked compassionately: “And so you drink to forget?”

“Oh no, never to forget!” Jeremy shook his head violently. “Never to forget! Mr. Green says I need to remember, for I am still human. He keeps telling me that.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” David said, trying to reassure him. But the phrase sounded weak and cliché, something everybody would say when confronted with someone suffering from guilt, but which never convinces the one to whom the platitude is offered.

But Jeremy wasn’t looking at David; he might not have heard him at all.

Instead, he was looking in Hope’s direction as he asked:

“Mr. Green is telling the truth, isn’t he?”

Hope answered in a very low voice, tears still coursing down her cheeks, her right hand reaching over the table to Jeremy Johnson, nearly touching his:

“Of course you are still human; you always will be, no matter what! That is the First Principle.”

Jeremy nodded as if had heard her, and then to David’s surprise, he said:

“Don’t cry for me, little Hope, don’t cry.”

He then covered Hope’s hand with his own.

“You can see her!” David was awed. “You can really see her!”

Johnson nodded: “I see her now; she’s crying.”

“But how….” David’s voice trailed off.

Then he asked: “Doesn’t she bother you, like all the other children you can’t bear to see up-close?”

“She isn’t like the others. She’s tomorrow’s Hope.”

One more surprise for David–Jeremy knew where Hope was from.

Once again Jeremy directed himself to Hope: “Don’t cry for me, little Hope, I’m alright, because in my mind I can see the face of the little girl who survived and remember those others who have died and so I can understand. But you understand that I can’t go home…. not yet?”

Hope nodded: “Yes, but one day you will.”

“One day….” There was so much longing in Jeremy Johnson’s voice, “One day….

“But I’m still worried for those other guys. I heard that nowadays they use unmanned drones for shooting missiles.

“The soldiers direct the drones from their base with joysticks like some kind of computer game. Those who shoot never see the faces of those they hit. So how can they understand? They have no Mr. Green to tell them that they are still human….”

Hope wiped the tears from her face, looked straight at Jeremy and said earnestly: “One day they will understand! I promise, one day they will.”

Jeremy nodded with relief and then turning back to David, he said:

“I should go now. Sister Veronica needs her book back. And I… I need….”

He walked into the living-room, slipped his book into its white paper bag, and then picked up his black plastic bag which now contained his old clothes in addition to his thin blanket.

David followed him to the door and opened it for him: “Maybe I see you again, Jeremy?”

Jeremy Johnson shrugged his shoulders and said:

“Good bye, David, and goodbye, little Hope.”

They answered in unison: “Good-bye, Jeremy / Mr Johnson.”

They then watched Jeremy Johnson slowly shuffle down the street and around the corner– stoop-shouldered, carrying his black bag, once again lost in his own personal purgatory.

All alone, comforted only by the invisible Mr. Green…

***

I’m now driving my new car through the early morning traffic. Though inwardly I’m beating myself up for my grandstanding at the car dealership. Ms Alba is sitting next to me while Darryl and the two older men have taken the back seats.

Sure, I do have unlimited funds. My father has seen to that, and he won’t mind me spending all I can. After all a good car is a status symbol. But still, this car is far too fancy. It draws attention to us, one we can’t afford. Some of the people we pass are turning their heads, including a group of security enforcers.

That’s not good, not good at all.

Watch out!” Ms Alba yells, but I’ve already seen it, and by pure instinct I’ve stepped on the breaks, pushing them practically down to the floor. The car has come to a screeching halt only inches in front of a woman, who just barely managed to yank her young child to safety. She is now holding the boy enclosed in her arms breathing heavily, while the shopping bag she has been carrying before is crashed below the front-wheels of my new car.

I’m in shock, but so is the woman:

Are you crazy,” she yells banging one hand on the hood of the car. “Don’t you have eyes in your head? You nearly killed us!”

The child has now started to cry. Squirming in his mothers arms he bangs his feet on the hood of the car. I’m guessing the boy to be about five years old. I’m getting out of the car to calm down the woman who is still yelling:

We are insured,” she screams, “insured you hear me, insured! Over there are the security enforcers. I will talk to them.”

I look behind, yes the enforcers I’ve passed only moments ago are making their way towards us. This is not good. I see that Mr Wang is about to open the door on his side. I give him a sign to stay inside and keep quiet. His way of riling everyone up he meets would most certainly not help. And what we now can afford the least would be a confrontation with the enforcers.

No, with me being there they certainly won’t detain any of us, but they have scanners and the false or the missing chips might raise an alarm.

And then there is Ms Alba, of course, the much too old woman in male clothes. Who knows, how fast information about such anomalies will reach my father, and what he will make out of them. He has always been a suspicious man.

I’ve realized now that the woman won’t be calmed by mere apologies. I look down on the hood of the car. It seems the little guy has scratched the paint, a pebble must have been caught in the sole of his shoe.

Forcefully I grab the angry mother’s hand, and when our palms touch, her wrist-alarm sounds. The woman looks on her display and pales. She starts trembling.

It was your son, who ran in front of my car and now he has scratched it,” I state coldly in a low voice looking back at the security enforcers.

No,” the woman now starts wailing, “don’t let them punish him. He didn’t know. It was me, I did it. Let them punish me if you must, not him, please.”

I look back at the enforcers who are now in calling distance: “It’s all a misunderstanding,” I wave at them.

A misunderstanding,” the woman repeats in a cracked voice, while picking the leftovers of her crashed shopping-bag off the ground.

I nod to the enforcers and climb back into the car. I start the engine again, driving off as fast as I dare, while the woman, carrying her child and her broken bag, hurries to the entrance of the block across the street.

I turn my head to Darryl who is sitting behind me. “You have to make sure that she will leave the country today. The enforcers have seen us together, she won’t be safe.”

We’ll see to it,” Darryl answers. “And the little boy,” I add.

Darryl is already tapping on his wrist-control, sending the message to his men.

I think,” I murmur more to myself than to the others, “the boy is about 5.”

It was about a week after my fifth birthday, when my father appeared in my bedroom one morning, something John Galt had never done before.

A gray-haired old man walked in behind him. But the one person who would always come in every morning, she didn’t, and already I knew, that something was wrong.

Son,” my father started, “your mother has died last night. This is Mr Tanner. He will take care of you from now on.”

I want Mamma,” I cried.

You can’t have her,” my father answered coldly, “she is dead, dead and cremated.”

I didn’t understand, giving my father a blank stare and so John Galt added: “Burnt in a fire! She won’t come back, ever!”

Tears were now flowing down my cheeks.

Stop it, it won’t change anything!” My father snarled, then he pointed again at the old man.

Mr Tanner will do everything your mother has done before. And he will do more! It’s something she couldn’t do, because she was a woman. He will teach you, educate you, so one day you will become a man of knowledge, someone worthwhile.”

When I kept on crying, my father turned to Mr Tanner: “Take care of him,” he snapped and left the room.

Mr Tanner lifted me up in his arms, though I struggled against him. He then sat down with me in the rocking-chair, Mamma’s chair, and started rocking it.

I want Mamma,” I screamed in desperation and banged my small fists against Mr Tanner’s chest.

I kept on screaming until I was all out of breath, while Mr Tanner continued rocking us both. After a while my screams turned into a low keening: “I want Mamma, I want Mamma.”

It was less of a demand now, more of a humming to sooth myself in an attempt to find peace in the sound of my own voice.

I laid my head on Mr Tanner’s shoulder and Mr Tanner whispered in my ear: “You will see her again, one day I’m sure of it, not here though. But there will be a time and place, where you will see her again.”

CHAPTER 4

 

 

David slowly closed the door.

He looked at Hope. She was standing there beside him with downcast eyes. He felt sadness emanating from her but also something else–a sort of confusion which he hadn’t noticed in her before. She had seemed always so certain of her own opinions but now that certainty was gone.

Hope looked up. “I didn’t know,” she said.

“You didn’t know what?” David asked softly.

“I didn’t know that it was like this, I mean the feelings…that people in your time…could feel like this……..” Hope’s voice was low and her sentences far less clear than before, “the ones who did the shooting, the wars….. I didn’t know, I just didn’t know.”

David nodded: “You didn’t think we “Dark Ages” folks were still human.”

“I had forgotten the First Principle,” she said, looking guilty.

“What exactly is the First Principle?” David inquired. “You said your whole world was built upon it, but you never told me what it is.”

Hope closed her eyes and disappeared, only to reappear amidst a semi-circle of a dozen children sitting cross-legged on a rug in the center of a nearly empty room. Most of them were wearing caps and suits of the same purple color as Hope, while five children were dressed in clothes of the same style but of a dark blue color. Half of the children seemed to be Hope’s age, while the other half were much younger, maybe six or seven years old. They were sitting alternately one older and one younger child.

They were facing a middle-aged slightly built man who was also sitting cross-legged on the carpet. David closed his eyes and concentrated on the scene. He knew instantly that the man was Sensei, the teacher.

The children were reciting in unison:

“Life is a divine gift.

“Human life is sacred and therefore it must always be protected.

“Every human being is of great importance for the whole of humanity, and is of infinite and unchangeable value.

“Human dignity must therefore never be violated.

“No human person is of any more or any less value and importance than any other person on earth.

THIS IS THE FIRST PRINCIPLE.”

The last sentence was shouted, at least by the smaller children.

The scene faded and present-day Hope reappeared.

“That was your classroom, wasn’t it?” guessed David.

Hope nodded: “Every morning at the beginning of school, we say these words so we will never forget the First Principle.”

And then she added wonderingly, “But still I forgot. Whenever I thought of the people of the Dark Ages, I forgot.”

David asked: “Was it because of the wars in our times that you felt like this, that you saw the people of my time as less human?”

When Hope nodded, David went on: “So I guess there are actually no wars in your time? But you told me last night your mother was on a fighting assignment. What is she fighting?”

A weak smile formed on Hope’s lips: “The ice-age, of course!” The smile suddenly disappeared, when Hope once again insisted with emphasis: “She is fighting the ice-age nothing else, only the ice-age…just as my father did before–” Hope stopped talking for a second, then changed direction:

“There is no war in our times, not anywhere…I mean there has not been any war in the whole world for a very long time, far more than a century….”

She stopped again.

David knew that Hope was telling the truth. He doubted that the girl was even capable of lying, but he also felt that she was holding something back.

The words “Orange Country” formed in his mind and then “Nephilim City”, although Hope had her lips pressed together.

“Orange Country?” asked David, “The place you called hell? Is something going on there? And where is Nephilim City?”

Hope pressed her lips even more tightly together and David felt that she was blocking him out. She was not going to talk about that ominous Orange Country.

Then David remembered dimly from some movie or other that Nephilim were mythical beings, something like fallen angels or maybe the children of fallen angels, he wasn’t quite sure. What a curious name to choose for a place? But David could feel that Hope was certainly not going to explain this one, and so he changed the subject:

“You know, I was wondering. You told me last night that you weren’t really here in this time —that in reality, your physical body is lying unconscious connected to some machine in your own time, being fed intravenously.

“And you said that what I see is just a projection of yourself on my mind. How come both Mr. Johnson and I could see you cry? Tears are physical.”

Hope had no problem with this subject: “I guess the projection shows my feelings. If my mind feels like crying…or laughing, you can see it on my image, just as if I were here physically.”

This seemed reasonable, but…

“There’s something even more puzzling to me. Speaking of Mr. Johnson, how in the heck could he see your projection in my mind?”

Anticipating a possible answer, David added: “And don’t tell me this was another miracle – a technical explanation would be nice….”

Hope was biting her lips, thinking hard for a while, then she said: “Great-uncle Professor told me that Delta-wave mind-travel happens all the time. It is natural. People connect with one another, sometimes over vast distances, but normally only for an instant. Mamma told me she often thinks about her sister who lives in a village in the North-Western US nation and a few seconds later, Aunt Susie rings the web-phone.

“This is Delta-wave travel, great-uncle said. It happens randomly, sometimes even between people who are not related to each other at all. The machine only directs the waves and stabilizes the connection, so it lasts longer.

“So I think that when Mr. Johnson could see me, his mind was somehow Delta-wave traveling and he was connected to your mind… I’m not sure… it’s just what I would guess….. Great-uncle professor would know.”

“Alright.” David wasn’t quite satisfied, but accepted that there was no better explanation to be had. “But when he could see you, why couldn’t I see his Mr. Green as well?”

Hope’s answer came right away: “I think Mr. Johnson is better in Delta-wave traveling than you are.”

Now this one asked for another change of subject and even better, a change of location.

“How about we go outside and I show you some more of my world? There might be other things you don’t know about the ‘Dark Ages.’”

Without waiting for an answer, David once again slipped on his jacket and opened the door. Nobody was lying in front of it this time around, so he closed the door behind himself, took the couple of steps up to the pavement and walked down the street. As before, Hope stayed right beside him.

After walking for a couple of minutes, David turned to her to say in a conversational tone: “You know, your recital of your “First Principle” reminds me of what I did as a kid in school, after I came to the US.

Every morning, all the students in school would recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but not sitting down—we would stand. We would put our hand on our chest and say: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and–”

Hope interrupted: “But isn’t a flag just a piece of cloth with some signs on it? How can you pledge allegiance to a piece of cloth?”

David shook his head: “You didn’t let me finish. A flag isn’t just a piece of cloth. It is a symbol. It stands for something important. The pledge goes on like this: ” …and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Hope interrupted again: “Liberty means freedom, doesn’t it? But Sensei told us that in your nation, in the United States of America, there were more people sent to prison than in any other nation of the world, and prison means having no freedom, doesn’t it?

Oh, and we also learned that your nation was the most unjust nation in the world. A few people were very, very rich–so rich that they owned many thousands of houses and production shops and more land than a hundred villages. And then there were many people who were very, very poor–so poor that they did not have enough food to eat, no land to grow food on, and no house or apartment to live in.”

David had to admit to himself that although Hope had a funny way of expressing it, she basically had her facts right. He knew about the prison statistics and about the wealth inequality; his newspaper had occasionally commented on those statistics, although he himself had never written any articles about it.

So what could he say?

“Liberty and justice are ideals. We strive for them but we have not yet reached them.”

Hope thought a little and then said: “So you do not really mean the words of this pledge; they are something like a dream. But the First Principle is very different. We mean every word.”

“Now wait a minute,” David protested, “your ‘First Principle’ sounds very high-minded, like that part about every person being of the same value and importance as every other person. This is an idea; it cannot be a practical reality. As a reality, it would be impossible.”

“Why impossible?” Hope asked slightly shaking her head.

“Don’t you see?” David asked, and then while turning the corner into Sacrecors Avenue he went on with conviction:

“There are always people who are of more importance than others–politicians for instance. You know, those who make the laws and those who lead administrations and make decisions for many other people, and by doing so, they become important for the course of events, important for the history of their country, and sometimes for the whole world.

And then there are other people who have no influence and very little to say or to decide, even about their own lives. These people are of no importance because if they live or die or whether they’ve even lived at all, it makes no difference to anyone but themselves.”

In recent weeks David had spend a lot of time reflecting on the question of purpose and the importance of life and existence–mainly his own.

True, he had come to his conclusions primarily under the influence of some high-proof (Hope would probably consider them very unholy) spirits, but still, he knew that those conclusions weren’t altogether unreasonable.

He had worked at one of the most read newspapers in the country and possibly in the world, and although he had not been in a senior position, some of his articles had been influential in the city’s public policies. He had been important because his life had made a difference to many other people. After losing this position of influence, his life had become unimportant and his very existence useless.

And so David stated with full conviction: “Your ‘First Principle’ is far more unrealistic and more of a dream than our ‘Pledge of Allegiance.’”

“No, it is not.” Hope’s voice was once more strong, full of self-confidence, gone was the insecurity David had sensed in her just a few moments ago.

“The ‘First Principle’ is real, not a dream, not just an ideal. We really mean it…. And besides, there are no politicians in my time.”

“No politicians? Now I doubt that,” David countered. “You might not call them politicians; you probably have some other name for them. But there have always been some kind of politicians, some law-makers or rulers. In earlier ages, they were kings and lords and court-officials. Now we have parliaments, and elected presidents, senators and congressmen.”

“We have no people like that. We have a village council and all the grown-ups of the village are in it, so all the grown-ups together make the rules of the village. You could say they are all law-makers. Nobody among the grown-ups is ruling over the other grown-ups. Maybe you could say that the grown-ups rule over the children and the adolescents, but this is only because children do not yet have enough knowledge for rule-making and adolescents still have confused emotions because of their hormones,” Hope stated.

“Alright,” David conceded, “you have no politicians –you have instead what we call a ‘direct democracy’ in your village. But what about outside your village–in the states, the nations, internationally? There must be some people who rule or make the laws for running governments.”

“There are no law-makers outside the village, no rulers, no governments,” Hope firmly insisted.

“How is that possible?” David was very doubtful about the truth of Hope’s statement. She was, after all, still a little girl who might not know very much about the political systems outside her own little world. “There must be some people who decide about the public works of a nation or coordinate international cooperation. There must be rules and laws which are valid beyond the borders of your village.”

“Sure,” Hope agreed, “there are laws for the whole world. But you do not need lawmakers for them, at least not any more. These laws were made over a hundred years ago and they are unchangeable and there are only three of them.

“Number one: Every person on earth, as well as every community, village, district, nation and religion, has to abide by the First Principle.

“Number two: No village may infringe on the living space of any other village, and no nation on the living space of any other nation. Therefore all pollution of air and water that will affect neighboring villages or nations must be prevented.

“Number three: Keeping peace among people, villages, and nations is of the highest priority. Therefore all children must be taught the value of peace and the dangers of war. Every child who is healthy must, at the age of twelve, go through the victim scenario.

“These are all the laws we have.”

“Three laws? You are absolutely sure there are only three?” David found it hard to believe any political system could operate like this. “Is there no cooperation between people outside your villages?”

“Sure there is. We have trade. We buy from other villages and they buy from us. We have to use Intercoins though, since Villagecoins can only be used in your own village.”

“And who organizes the trade, who sets the rules of how and what to trade?”

“What rules?” Hope was puzzled. “If you need something you cannot buy in your own village, you look on the Peace-Web–the World-Peace-Web, for who wants to sell something like this, and then you contact the seller and you transfer the coin amount you want to give and the seller puts his goods on the transport.”

“But what if the seller cheats you and he doesn’t send you the item you ordered or it is broken or spoiled? Surely there are laws to protect buyers.”

“Why would any seller do such a thing?” Hope was even more puzzled. “It would be so shameful for him and for his whole community. Nobody would buy from him anymore or from his community and maybe not even from his village. People from other villages would not trust a village which allowed their members to be dishonest in trade.”

Then Hope added: “I nearly forgot that things are different in your times. Dishonesty is not shameful in your times”

“That’s not quite true,” David protested. “For most people, it is still shameful to be discovered to have been dishonest.”

As an afterthought however he added: “But, yes in some ways you are right, there are indeed some people in my time who never feel guilt or shame about being dishonest. And some of them are so clever in their dishonesty that they are never caught or they are so well connected that others will cover for them, so that they can go on and on and on. Those men can easily destroy other people’s lives–honest people’s lives.”

David swallowed; this he knew only all too well. And…., he added in his unbidden thoughts, sometimes it was destruction in the truest sense of the word. There were even people who could kill with impunity and get away with it…

David’s mood darkened, then he shook his head and squared his shoulders. He was not going to fall back into his brooding right now. At the moment, he was far too interested in Hope’s world.

“Alright, maybe your trade is somehow self-organized with no supervising government agency necessary, but there surely are other places where you need cooperation beyond the local level. Who organizes that?”

“Our representatives,” was Hope’s short answer.

“Representatives!” David exclaimed with satisfaction: “Now we are getting somewhere. In my time, we call them politicians. We vote for certain people in elections. They in turn go to Washington as law-makers in Congress or they go as law-makers to the state legislatures. Others become presidents and vice-presidents who can appoint government officials. And all together these are the people who have power to control the fate of our nation and all those who live in it.”

Hope who had patiently listened to David’s description replied shaking her head:

“Our representatives are not like yours, they are not elected. I know what elections are–we learned about them in school. In most countries in the Dar…, I mean in your times, most people would have permission to write an X on a piece of paper behind the name of a person or sometimes a group of persons called a party. Then that person or that group was supposed to represent them.

“Before the election, that person or group would promise to improve the living conditions of those who would vote for them. The person or group with the most Xs was elected. But after the election, those who were elected could not keep their promises because they had to follow the orders of others who were far more powerful than they were.”

David didn’t answer, for he had to admit that while Hope’s description of the democratic system was surely oversimplified, she still wasn’t all wrong. His job had given him more than enough insights into the enormous influence wielded by the un-elected power-brokers who moved behind the public stage.

Hope went on: “Our representatives are different, they are God-chosen.”

“They are what?” David’s mouth dropped open. Now this surely was a fall-back straight into the Middle Ages. Hope had already told him before that everybody was religious in her times, but “God-chosen”?…..And she was calling David’s time the Dark Ages?!–talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

“God-chosen,” Hope repeated. “Every grown-up, someone who is at least 25 years old, can put his name on a list for those who want to serve a term as a representative from the village for the district, or the nation, or the International-Help-Board.

“From all the people in a village, two will always be representatives in the district. And from all the people in the district two people from different villages will be representatives for the nation, and one person from every nation on earth will go to the International-Help-Board.

“And when the people have put themselves on the list on the World Peace Web, the names go through a randomizing engine. That is a computer program, you know. And then the names and locations of those who are chosen as representatives will appear. This happens every three months, but the term is six months, so that only half of the representatives are replaced every time.

So you see, they are not chosen by people, they are God-chosen.”

A strange world Hope came from, thought David; governments made up of lottery-winners. How could this possibly work?

“But how do you know those random people are qualified?” he asked

“Qualified?”

“Yes, qualified–that they know what they are doing?”

“Everybody knows how to serve as a representative. We learn it in school,” Hope assured David, then she returned his serve as she asked: “But how do you know that the people you vote for in elections are qualified?”

“Because,….” David began, but then stopped abruptly. It actually was a good question. What does qualify a politician to do his job?

In Hope’s system, some of the lottery-winners-made-representatives might be retarded, but how was this so different from the politicians in his own world, thought David more than a bit cynically.

Just a few years back, hadn't there been someone who rose into the highest political position, a politician who with his drug- and booze-addled mind – it was rumored – had caused his own retardation? And hadn't said politician become an embarrassment for the nation on the international stage?

At the time David had been working on the student paper of his high-school. And he and his friends and co-editors had thoroughly enjoyed the ever new all too public faux-pas of the man and exploited them to the fullest.

And then had come the big bang of 9/11 and all the fun was over. When the towers collapsed in a blink of an eye, that was the day when everything changed.

Patriotic mania had taken hold of everybody together with the Patriot Act, and nobody had dared to question the “decider” and his government any more whatever they did, if it was the starting of a war based on lies or the sanctioning of torture.

And while the WMDs were mythical, the war-profits most certainly were not and neither were those who made them, those who good old Ike once had called “the military-industrial-complex”, insiders intimately connected to the very politicians who had started the war.

Yes, David decided cynically, a lack of mental capacity was probably the least important factor that should disqualify a public official.

Everyone whispered but few dared to talk about the revolving door between political positions and all those mega-corporations – congressmen who stepped directly out of office into big pharma or big oil, and even worse those mega-bank big-shots waltzing from their vaults straight into political office and from there into those major think-tanks or earning the big bucks in lobbying groups–and round and round it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows!

David’s own familiar mental roundabout had set in, and once again he could not stop the carrousel in his head, rehashing the game of political connections as he knew it from all political levels, as to those elite fraternities, like the club with the skeleton pieces as their logo or the much bigger and more powerful club into which his friend Ed had tried so hard to recruit him.

And only quite recently David had had to admit to himself the role his own profession was playing in this connection game:

Before every election all the major outlets decided seemingly with one voice who would get the bright spot-light. And every single time it was decided that only the connected ones were considered qualified enough to get public attention.

They were the ones turned into everyday familiar images. Grinning like some sort of tooth-paste commercial, they were allowed to drone on and on until millions of fast-food-eating football fans believed those country-club types were actually their best buddies from next door. If others were given any attention at all, the light cast upon them would be dark and distorted.

And out of those many connections and with the active help of David’s own paper fawning all over him a certain Abiffsen had risen to his current position, becoming the right hand to the president, overseeing all of the nations foreign policies, over-ruling the Secretaries of State and of Defense and seemingly even the President himself.

David’s paper had called him an idealist, a reformer, a champion of freedom and democracy for the whole world. And all the other media had compliantly parroted the line.

Abiffsen….David shuddered, Abiffsen the big bad wolf in sheep’s clothing, the man who considers most of humanity as his prey, Abiffsen the planner of political mass-murders. David felt nausea rising up in his gut.

No, no, no he was not going to think about Abiffsen again!

It was so useless, so utterly hopeless, there was no defense…

David swallowed once more and then he pulled himself together, trying to find the thread of his conversation with Hope again he belatedly ended his sentence: “Because they say so.”

“Who says so?” Hope looked slightly confused, but only for a second. “Oh I see, they say they are qualified, the politicians themselves.”

And then she burst into laughter and David joined her. Yes, that little girl was quick on the uptake, thought David. And it felt good to laugh with her, to laugh about all the craziness surrounding him in his time, not in Hope’s:

Liars and cheaters rewarded, honesty punished; war called peace-making and peace-activists called terrorists; perpetrators of large-scale financial fraud receiving millions in bonuses, the victims losing their homes, jobs or pensions….

And then David himself, he the guy who for most of his professional life had denied the existence of large-scale government conspiracies, had actually detected one. There it had been in front of his eyes and ears, a conspiracy with enormous international implications.

But when he had put his personal and professional integrity ahead of career considerations–contrary to the “advice” of his superiors–he had been framed as one of the biggest frauds in American newspaper history.

And so he was blacklisted–not only in America but all over the world, even in his father’s homeland, the small and cold island nation way up in the North Atlantic….

Although, if he was totally honest with himself, David had grudgingly to admit, that when he had applied up there over the phone last month, he had not exactly been sober. And this fact might possibly have had something to do with the icy reception he had gotten from the other end of the line.

The more he thought about all of it, the funnier it got and so David kept on laughing.

As he and Hope reached the subway station, a man and woman were coming up the stairs, but hearing David at the top laughing hysterically, they did a quick about-face and headed for a different exit.

David too changed his mind and decided not to take the subway after all. He wanted to ask Hope a lot more questions–her world seemed so fascinatingly different from his. He knew she could read his mind but he somehow felt better talking aloud, but in a cramped subway car, that would be awkward.

Striding past the subway station, David asked Hope: “If those representatives of yours are not making any laws, what exactly are they doing?”

“They organize help for situations.”

“What kind of situations?”

“Well, for instance, if the people who live along the shore realize that their sea-wall is not strong enough to prevent floods, or the people along a river say the same thing about the levees, then the representatives consider the problem, calculate and compare the cost of repairing or building new, and then they open a pot.”

“They open a pot? What does that mean?” David asked.

Hope explained: “You see, villages on the river or at the sea-shore often do not have enough resources or man-power for such a big project, and so the other villages in the district or in the nation will make contributions, transferring Intercoins to the pot. And villages which are low on Intercoins will send volunteers to help, and the volunteers will be paid with coins from the pot. And their Intercoins will be exchanged for Villagecoins back home.”

“Payments like these we call taxes.” David said. “But what do the representatives do if a village does not want to pay into the “pot” or send workers? How can the representatives enforce their tax-request?”

“Why would they want to use force?” Hope asked. “No village would ever refuse to participate in a project–that would be a big source of shame for them. And besides, nobody from the other villages would want to trade with such a village.”

“So it’s not just the thought of shame that makes people comply with tax requests but there are economic reasons as well,” stated David. “I guess so,” Hope conceded.

“That’s what I thought!” David felt the satisfaction of having had his views confirmed. In his professional and personal experience, nobody did anything just out of the goodness of their heart. And nothing, no organization, not even a charity could run on good-will alone. Every time he had taken a closer look, he had noticed a common thread: Whatever people did, the main motivation was self-interest, be it financial gains or a gain in power or fame.

Hope continued with her explanation: “The representatives also make sure the transport- and information system is in good repair.”

Hope’s classroom appeared once again in David’s field of vision. He stopped walking and closed his eyes:

This time the room was darkened and the children were standing in a wider circle. Three dimensional letters overhead read

“THE TRANSPORTATION AND INFORMATION SYSTEM,”

and beneath them stood Sensei, who was tapping a few times on what looked like a large square wrist-watch, being connected to Hope’s mind, David knew it was a personal computer called “wrist-control”. A holographic display now appeared above the teacher’s arm. He manipulated the display to access the four projectors in the corners of the room to produce the holographic images prepared beforehand.

Then the letters vanished and the image of a red single-carriage monorail train appeared. It was slowly approaching a platform suspended from about the fifth floor of a ten-story apartment-building. When it drew close enough, David realized that the train was not actually riding on the rail but was instead floating several inches above it.

“Who owns this maglev?” Sensei asked the class. Connected to Hope’s mind David immediately knew that the term “maglev” stood for “magnetic levitation.”

And then he remembered that he had actually seen news-snippets about trains like these in his own time. There were model projects of them running in the US and Europe. Several Asian countries already used them as an alternative means of public transport.

“Our village owns this maglev!” a piping voice answered.

“This is true, Jenny chan. And do you also know who repairs the maglev when it breaks?”

“Yes, I know, it is Mr. Keltron’s repair-shop,” Jenny answered

“And who pays Mr. Keltron and Mr. Denton and Ms. Chen and Mr. Abani and the other people who work in the shop? Who pays for their work and for the materials they need for the repairs?”

As Jenny hesitated, Sensei gestured to the girl next to her and said “Sempai, can you help, please?” A girl, whose name was Marcella, bent down and whispered something in Jenny’s ear. Jenny smiled and then answered the question: “All the people in the village pay for it! They put coins into the maglev-pot so that the repairs can be paid for.”

“But as I have told some of you before,” Sensei continued, “not all villages in the world have village maglevs. Some villages use more ancient forms of transport, where every family has its own small transport vehicle riding along on pathways on the ground, just like not all districts own an inter-village-maglev. Instead they have ground-pathways for the single vehicles as well as ground-railways for electro-rails.

“The villages in those districts most often look very different from ours. People there live in single houses instead of together in apartment-buildings.”

“But the building of our Nightingale community is so pretty,” a small girl by the name of Tania protested aloud. “How can they ever make single houses as pretty as that? I would not like to live in a single house.”

Sensei smiled: “I’m sure the people in those other villages see their houses as just as pretty as we see our buildings. People live differently in different places and they have different tastes.”

Tania didn’t look totally convinced but Sensei now went on with his main lesson.

He touched his wrist-control and the small train disappeared, only to be replaced by a larger one with several carriages driving above a landscape of housing-blocks, tents, trees, and meadows.

The rail seemed to be elevated higher than the village train had been, but it appeared to run by the same principle. This train was painted with horizontal red and silver stripes, and the large windows were slightly slanted to the outside so that the passengers no doubt had a very good view of the landscape below.

David realized that the images Hope had been focusing upon this morning while he was in the bathroom had been from a trip in this kind of a train.

“Have any of you ridden on the inter-village maglev before?” Sensei asked

All the hands of the older children went up, as well as those of all but two of the younger ones.

“Do you also know who owns it?”

This time the little girl standing next to Hope waved her hand: “We know, we know!”

“Alright Cindy chan, tell us!”

“It is the district, it belongs to all the people who live in the district.” Anticipating the next question, Hope was already whispering in the younger girl’s ear, and after a second or two, Cindy continued, “For the normal use of the train, the users pay with their tickets, but when something is broken, all the people of the village are asked to put coins into the district maglev-pot.”

“That’s right, Cindy chan,” Sensei approved. “And as some of you already know, both the inter-village maglev, as well as the repair-shop, belong to the district. Do you know why?”

This time Hope answered directly without even lifting her hand: “It’s because it wouldn’t be fair if the shop only belonged to a few people in one village. Those people would earn all the Intercoin while the people of other villages would have to pay them.”

“That is true, Hope,” Sensei agreed. “But there is more to it than just fairness. Transportation of people and goods is a very important aspect of today’s life.

“If individual people were to own the means for transportation, they could shut down all trade and all travel–or could threaten to do so or to create difficulties. When someone can do such a thing, what is this called?”

Hope’s answer came instantly: “It is called power.”

“Yes, this would be an enormously dangerous power. And we don’t believe that anyone should have this kind of power, do we? Therefore the inter-village maglev and the repair-shop belong to the district, while the continental maglevs and their repair-shops belong to the nations through which they run.”

The image of the red/silver-striped train was replaced by a blue/silver train that seemed to travel at a very high speed elevated even higher, though it wasn’t a single train any more. There were four other maglev trains riding on lower levels. Those on the lower rails were blue-silver striped as well, however, they were without windows. “Goods-transports” the letters on the lower part of the hologram read. After the trains had past the students could now see that parallel to the five rail-construct, there was another one where now a row of trains in the other direction appeared.

The teacher went on with his lesson, while carriage after carriage of those very long trains passed before the eyes of his students.

“Ordinary costs for maglev and rail-maintenance are covered by the tickets and good-fares sold to the maglev-users, while additional costs are paid for by special pots which are overseen by our representatives. There are 57 continental maglev rail-lines on the North-American continent.”

A map now appeared which showed gridlines crossing the continent from Alaska to the Panama Canal, running from east to west and north to south. The crossing points were highlighted.

“Every one of the 38 nations on this continent of North-America has at least one repair-shop for the rails and maglevs in its own territory. But we also need inter-continental transportation. What do we use for that?”

This time a little boy answered the question: “Ocean-liners and airplanes.”

After the older boy next to him whispered in his ear, the little boy added: “The ships and the planes belong to all the people in the world, and most of the costs are paid for by the users with their tickets, but new planes and ships are built with the help of pot-money given from all the villages in the world.”

“That is absolutely right, Tommy chan.” Sensei nodded and added: “The pots and the assignments to the international construction and repair shops are managed by our representatives on the International Help-Board, just as they manage the assignments for ice-breaking missions and for help in instances of large natural disasters.

“As you know, transportation of goods and people is very important, but we also need a transportation system for words and images.”

The little kids looked confused while the older ones grinned. One of the boys nudged the younger one next to him and whispered in his ear.

“Oh, you mean the Peace-Web, Sensei!” exclaimed the little boy in surprise.

“That’s right; the World-Peace-Web is the means by which we transport words, ideas, sounds, and images–the whole spectrum of long-distance communication. Sharing information all over the world is very important for the well-being of the people of all the villages and for keeping the peace.

“And just as the maglevs need rails, so the World-Peace-Web needs cables, transmitters and satellites. And somebody needs to take care of the Peace-Web’s hard-ware, so the cables on land belong to the districts within the different nations, while the sea-cables and satellites belong to the whole world and are managed by our representatives on the International-Help-Board.

“Would any of you like to get an assignment to work with the transport or information system one day?”

All the children’s hands went up at Sensei’s question.

“ Then you know what you have to do: you have to study hard and find a specialty upon which to concentrate. You have to practice so diligently in a virtual repair- or production-shop that you can eventually pass a test in your area of specialty.

“And then, and only then, you can put yourself on the list for a six-month assignment. Of course you will need some patience because there are many people on the list, but one day it will be your turn.”

“I want to build a new satellite that flies high up in space and goes around the world every day,” chirped little Tommy’s excited voice.

“You know that the cables are just as important for our information system as the satellites. But surely if you want to build a satellite, Tommy chan, one day you will, incha-Allah.”

The school-room scene faded and present-day Hope went on to say:

“These are the usual situations in which the representatives work, helping in times of natural disaster and taking care of the transportation and information system.

“Sometimes they also have to choose mediators among themselves if there are communication problems between different villages or different nations–then the representatives become peace preservers. These mediators help those having the problems to talk better with each other until the villages or nations have worked out a reasonable compromise.

“But the need to function as a mediator is a rare situation for the representatives, Sensei told us. Normally villages can solve their own problems with their neighboring villages and don’t need outside help.”

Suddenly David felt that Hope’s mood had become darker, as if once again something was troubling her deeply, but whatever the trouble was with a visible effort Hope repressed her feelings and went on to explain her political system further:

“And whatever our representatives do, even as mediators, they have no power to make laws or to rule over other people or force those people to do what they do not want to do.

“We believe that the power to rule is dangerous for the mind. It can drive you crazy.”

And again an image of Hope’s school room appeared. Her teacher was talking while the class listened attentively:

“Concentration of power in human institutions and peace for the people who are ruled by them are complete opposites. As soon as the power over many is concentrated in a group comprised of only few, there can no longer be justice for anyone, for when there is power in the mind, compassion will be lost and the First Principle will be forgotten.

“During the Dark Ages a wise man once said – Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Sensei once again pressed the image controller at his wrist.

The holographic image of an ordinary pleasant-looking cartoon-man in a suit appeared. He was walking laboriously up several very steep steps towards a high pedestal. Looming above him was some kind of a dark smoke monster with an enormous bulgy face and a fat torso. With every upward step the man took, the monster increased in size, its large protruding eyes becoming more piercing, and an ever broader and more wicked smile contorting its mouth.

When the man had reached the top of the pedestal, he turned to face a large crowd of cartoon-people like himself who were hovering below him.

The giant monster’s hands now enveloped the man’s head, and that formerly ordinary face was transformed into a copy of the monster’s face. Out of the man’s right sleeve grew a nine-tailed whip which he grabbed with both hands to swing rhythmically over the heads of the people below, slashing the faces of those who did not bend down fast enough.

David could hear an eerie and insane laughter coming simultaneously from the mouths of the monster and the man…

“Ouch!” David cried out as something hit him in the back.

***

I’m inside the first Venus Project now. Silently I’m following the manager through the rooms, the public ones on the first floor, the private ones on second and third floor. We are just coming down the stairs again. I’m crossing my arms in front of me turning my wrist-control with its inbuilt camera inconspicuously toward the enforcers’ booth.

One enforcer is sitting inside it, the second one is standing at the entrance. This way Darryl will get a good image of the layout and all the other necessary details. He will then transmit them to Cass Dakota and his team. They already have staked out the grounds, but they need the particulars of the inside in order for the operations later on to go as fast and as smooth as possible.

What is down there,” I ask, although I already know.

Only the training cells and some resting rooms for our women,” the manager answers, “nothing of interest to you.”

Everything is of interest to me,” I tell him. The manager shrugs and then he leads the way down to the basement.

It isn’t one of the J.G. Venus projects, but still the basement at least is exactly the same. There at the right side, the last door was her room, the memory is burnt into my mind.

No, of course this never was her room at all, it just looks like it. I swallow, I stop and when the managers opens the door to the momentarily empty room I stare inside.

It happened 4 months ago, that Mr Tanner had passed me on the street. A fake smile of surprise was plastered on his face when he called out:

Hello Jonathan, I haven’t seen you for years. How are you doing these days? Let’s have a drink together, after all you are grown up now”

With these words Mr Tanner pulled the corner of his scrambler out of a small shopping bag he was carrying, just enough for me to get a glimpse of it.

I followed Mr Tanner into the bar at the next street corner. It was a dark place filled with the odor of alcohol mixed with the sweat of its patrons. None of the other customers looked up when the two of us sat down in the bar’s darkest corner, where Mr Tanner had then immediately put his bag on the table. I heard the familiar low sizzling sound from within it. And after we’ve been served our beers Mr Tanner dropped the bomb-shell:

Your mother is still alive, Jonathan. She is at one of your father’s Venus projects.”

It was as if I had lost the ground below my feet. The room around me started to waver and blur.

No,” I pressed out, “that can’t be…” But deep inside I knew, that this most certainly could be true, yes, that it was true.

Anger welled up inside me, nearly choking me. I grabbed Mr Tanner’s sleeve. Only the many year training in the scrambler routine kept me from yelling out loud.

And so my angry question came in an instinctive whisper: “Why didn’t you tell me before?”

I had no idea myself,” Mr Tanner whispered back. “I only learned about it last week.”

Mr Tanner laid his hand on mine, to keep me from making a scene. He then explained in his usual calm manner:

Your father has given instructions that you should never hear about her and never be allowed to enter the premisses of this particular project. But friends of mine have found out and done the research.

The manager there needs coins like we need the air to breath, and he has put his sticky fingers deep into the project’s jar more often than once. We were easily able to put pressure on him. Tonight he will expect you at the back entrance.”

And like the manager today so did the one Mr Tanner had bribed or blackmailed lead me downstairs. And then he opened the door to a gloomy basement room. The small windows below the ceiling which had bars in front of them, gave a view on a sparsely furnished room with unpainted concrete walls.

And there I saw her again after 15 years.

I didn’t recognize the pale, emaciated old woman lying on a low, narrow bed, her head and back propped up by pillows so that the young woman sitting next to her bed on a footstool was able to spoon-feed her.

But she recognized me.

Thani,” she called out using the name I hadn’t heard for all those 15 years. “My little Thani!”

And this was it. The voice was weak now, but it was still hers, so gentle, so soft. Recognition flooded my soul. For an instant I was the small boy again:

Mamma,” I called out. “Mamma!”

The young woman on the footstool turned around and the plate she was holding slipped from her fingers and landed on the floor. It was made from plastic, so it didn’t break, but its contents spilled all over.

I didn’t care, I stepped right into the mess. Kneeling down next to the bed I embraced my mother, holding her tight while she stroked my hair the same way she had always done so many years ago.

I cried.

This is my son Jonathan, Luscinia.,” my mother said to the young woman, who had gotten up to her feet looking down on both of us with an expression of incredulity and awe.

I told you he would come some day,” my mother added.

But I totally ignored Luscinia, talking only to my mother: “I thought, you were dead. He told me you were…”

Yes I always knew it must have been something like that,” my mother’s voice was soothing without a hint of surprise or anger, “he couldn’t have done it any other way. But now you are here, Thani, and that is what counts…”

With a jerk I pull myself out of my memories. I mustn’t get caught up in them. I need to stay objective. The manager is already giving me a curious glance, no doubt wondering what I find so interesting in this empty room, I return his stare with a calm nod of approval and follow him upstairs again. After giving the man the assurance that I would return again as a customer I leave the project to join my companions who have been waiting for me out of sight.

CHAPTER 5

 

 

David jumped and discovered it was a shopping cart which had plowed into him and would have shoved him off the curb if he hadn't bounced to the side upon impact. The cart was filled with an assortment of plastic- and paper-bags from different stores, most of which seemed to contain shoes, clothes, or blankets. A small rolled up carpet protruded from one the bags, and David could hear some clattering noises, as from pots and silverware.

The woman pushing the cart didn’t try an apology; in fact, she didn’t even look at David but stared straight ahead, mindlessly pushing her cart forward, talking aloud in a monotone voice:

“Man standing in the middle of the way dreaming, man crying loudly, man turning around, man looking, man standing, man looking… man standing in the middle of the way dreaming…….”

The woman had a woolen cap perched atop her long gray hair, and she wore a crumpled brown trench-coat and black boots. She kept repeating her monologue as she meandered down the sidewalk, pushing the cart which obviously contained all her worldly goods.

David rubbed his sore back-side and felt quite annoyed.

“She is like Mr. Johnson, isn’t she?” Hope said.

“No, not like Mr. Johnson; she is dangerous, this one!” David declared.

“Really?” Hope grinned then mimicked: “Man standing in the middle of the way dreaming….”

“Alright,” David laughed, “I guess if you are going to show me some more of your world, I need to find a place to sit down so I can watch in peace! Just a couple more blocks and we’ll be at St. Francis Park.

“There are benches every 20 yards along the sidewalk there, and at the end of the park, there’s the bus-stop where we can catch the BxM4 that’ll take us all the way to downtown Manhattan. You can see the most famous sites on the way–I’m sure you’ll like it better than the subway!”

“I have seen images of how our district looked in your time,” Hope answered eagerly, “but seeing it for real, I mean being there with you, that will surely be different!”

“Seeing pictures and seeing the real thing–the Big Apple, the greatest city in the world–I don’t think there can be any comparison,” David stated proudly.

“But the things I have seen from your time, those images from your class-room, your home, and your uncle’s lab, they come from your memory, right?”

Hope nodded.

“Then you sure have an incredibly visual memory. All those details…how everything looks and every word people say…it’s like watching a movie,” David said with amazement.

Hope nodded again: “I have the special talent of a very good memory. When I concentrate on something that is happening around me, I later remember everything in full detail and I never forget any of it. Not many people I know of have this talent; in our village, it is only me and Great-uncle Professor.”

Then she added longingly: “But sometimes I wish I didn’t have it…sometimes I wish I could forget.”

“You have a photographic memory,” David stated. “I’ve heard it said that it can be both ‘a blessing and a curse.’”

David was remembering a certain TV show about a slightly disturbed detective.

But Hope was shaking her head violently: “No, no, not a curse! You are not given your talents as a curse – only as a blessing. You just don’t always know right away how to use them properly.”

David sighed, feeling once again the gap between them.

He shrugged off the feeling and asked instead: “But if these are your memories, why can I see you in them, instead of just looking through your eyes?”

“Yes, that’s strange, isn’t it?” Hope agreed. “I can see myself as well in my memories. Maybe it has something to do with the Delta-wave traveling. I can also see you clearly here in your time, as if I were standing or walking next to you, though I should be inside of your brain and seeing your time through your eyes.

“Maybe the Delta-waves make a barrier between us, so we won’t get our minds mixed. We are still separate–you are still you and I’m still me. And it looks like as if there is also a difference between me now and me in the memories of the past. Oh, I wish I could ask Great-uncle Professor about it because he would know.”

“You are doing fine. I’m sure I wouldn’t understand it any better if your uncle were to explain it,” David reassured her. “The concept of mind-traveling or time-traveling is still so very strange to me. It’s hard to wrap my mind around it.”

“It’s the first time for me, too. I’m still learning,” Hope said with a soft apologetic smile.

David smiled back at her. In spite of their differences, he felt a growing fondness for this little girl.

The thought of a five-times-removed great-granddaughter should not inspire emotional attachment or family feelings, but somehow the reality of this girl in front of him did. The contrast of her strong emotions and ready kindness was appealing, and the mixture of intelligence, innocence and honesty was heart-warming.

Yes, she was family!

David felt that the numbness of the last few weeks had left him. He was no longer disinterested in life; he had a reason to live now:

He wanted to know every single teeny-tiny detail about Hope’s time and world! No matter how strange her world was!

And even though he might not like the direction in which things there in the future had developed, David still wanted to know. Because Hope was family and David wanted to understand her.

So he asked: “Is your teacher a Muslim? I heard him say Incha’Alla, but if I remember correctly, he has the same symbol on his clothes as you have.”

“Thomsen sensei is Christian like me,” Hope answered, “but Incha’Allah means ‘God-willing’. It’s Interlingua–everybody says it.”

David went on: “So I guess the word sensei is from that Interlingua language as well, since your teacher doesn’t look Japanese either.”

Hope nodded: “We use many Interlingua words in school. Sensei means teacher, and sempai means older class-mate, and chan means little one. I am a sempai since last year and Cindy is my chan.”

“Your chan?” David asked

“Yes–my little one. For the first five years of school, you are a chan – but in your sixth year, you become a sempai and a little first-year school-child is assigned to you as a chan; Cindy was assigned to me.

“I take care of her learning. I teach her to read and to write and to calculate. I also showed her the work in the hen-house, how to feed the hens and carefully collect the eggs. Cindy is a very good learner,” Hope stated proudly.

“And because Cindy has no older brothers and sisters to take care of her and no younger ones to play with, she also follows me around a lot after school. She plays with Sissy and Lillebro, and I have to teach her many everyday things. Like last year, right after she started school….”

Another scene started to form itself in David’s vision field. “Wait,” he called, “I’ve got to get to the bench first.” The scene faded as David started running towards the first park-bench facing the street. He dropped into it and closed his eyes.

Then once again David witnessed a scene from Hope’s memory, a three-dimensional image as clear and detailed as if he were standing right there at the door through which Hope and the little girl Cindy were entering a small bakery.

The shop-keeper, a man in his late sixties, who wore a white apron over the usual purple glittering suit, was standing behind a glass counter below which were several transparent shelves displaying an assortment of expensively decorated pastries, cakes, and cookies.

However at a second glance David realized that those were just holographic images. The writing above each shelf gave the estimated time for when an order of the displayed item could be completed. The wooden shelves behind the baker though contained a variety of actual breads.

“Assalamu alaikum, Mr. Wang” Hope greeted the shop-keeper. David heard present-day Hope whispering in his ear, “That means ‘Peace be with you.’”

The shop-keeper answered: “Wa alaikum assalaam, Hope and Cindy. What can I offer you today?”

“He said ‘And upon you be peace,’” Hope once again translated, trying to anticipate what she assumed would be David’s unspoken question, but he had already known the meaning of the words, and was pondering them as he observed half of a wheel-symbol protruding from behind the apron on the shop-keeper’s clothing. According to Hope’s earlier explanation, that indicated the man was a Buddhist.

“I would like to buy a two pound mischbrot with sunflower seeds.” Hope answered the shopkeeper.

“Your usual choice and a good one it is,” the hoarse abruptness in Mr. Wang’s voice nearly put a lie to the friendly words.

He added: “I will cut it for you,” while Hope handed him a white cloth bag which she had brought with her.

The bread seemed to be a mixed wheat and rye sour-dough, the kind you could only buy in a German bakery. David smiled and felt pleased–he and Hope seemed to have the same taste in breads.

“What amount of coin would you like for it?” Hope asked.

After cutting the bread in a machine, sliding it into Hope’s bag, and handing it over to her, the shopkeeper replied: “I would like to have four coins for the bread, if you please.”

“But this is too little for such a good bread, Mr. Wang,” Hope replied. “I will give you five coins.”

“But this is too much,” the shopkeeper countered.

“But I insist,” Hope said firmly.

“Thank you, you are very generous.” The shopkeeper took the golden coin which Hope handed him, and put it into the old-fashioned early-20th century cash-register which opened with the sound of a bell.

David heard Hope whispering in his mind: “All the shops and restaurants in our village have this kind of old coin-registers. Mr. Hennessy bought one when he was on a visit to Europe. And when he began to use it in his shop, the tourists who came to the village were excited about it. So Mr. Allen copied the old coin-register in his production-shop for all the other shopkeepers. They are now our village specialty. They look like the ones they used in your time, don’t they?”

Not quite my time, thought David, still wondering about the strange verbal exchange between the shopkeeper and the child, while he watched Mr. Wang handing the same coin back to Hope that she had given to him.

The apparatus obviously was not actually a cash-register, and the coin seemed to function as some kind of credit- or debit-card.

Now it was little Cindy’s turn. She pulled a coin of her own out of her pocket saying: “I would like to buy a sweet panini.”

Mr. Wang took a small roll from a shelf under the counter and handed it to Cindy “Here you are.”

“What amount of coin would you like for it?” Cindy asked, just as Hope had done earlier.

“Two coins, if you please” Mr. Wang answered.

“But this is too little for such a good panini. I will give you five coins,” Cindy replied with a full mouth, having already taken a bite of the panini, and she held up her coin in her other hand.

“No, no, Cindy, this is far too much,” Mr. Wang answered in a stern voice. “You can pay me two and a half coins.”

“But I insist,” Cindy now said loud and clear, having swallowed her first bite. “I am generous.”

“I insist more,” Mr. Wang countered, taking Cindy’s coin to set it into the register. “You are generous, but you cannot count well enough. Hope, aren’t you Cindy’s sempai? Aren’t you supposed to be teaching her?”

He handed the coin back to Cindy who was now swallowing tears, and Hope’s face was flushed with embarrassment

“But Mr. Wang,” she said apologetically, “Cindy just started school last month; calculating percentages is still too difficult for her.”

“She also has started work in the hen-house, hasn’t she?” Mr. Wang’s voice was harsh and dominating. “If she can earn money, she must also learn how to trade. And it is your responsibility to teach her.”

Watching the scene David felt he was getting quite annoyed. Was this Mr. Wang some kind of math police? How could he treat little girls like this?

By now a couple of other customers, two elderly women, had entered the shop. They were watching the exchange and nodding at Mr. Wang’s words.

One of the women was dressed similar to Hope and most of the people David had seen so far, the clothing of the other one looked the same in its cut but the color of the main fabric was a shimmering light green.

“Yes sir, Mr. Wang, I will do that!” Hope was now pulling Cindy’s arm, trying to drag her out of the shop, only to be stopped by one of the ladies.

“Hope, when you see your grandmother later on, can you please tell her that the ladies’ meeting is tonight at Ms Alba’s place? If she could bring some of her special cookies, that would be very much appreciated.”

“I will tell my grandma right away. Bless Ms Higgins. Bless Ms Alba. Bless Mr. Wang.” Hope was now in a hurry to get out of there and put distance between herself and the bakery.

David realized that “bless” was a term for good-bye in Interlingua, but he wondered if it really came from Icelandic, as he had heard it used so many times as a child. No, it was impossible…he discarded the idea…why would they use words from such a little-spoken language in their international communication?

Hope and Cindy were now walking along a very broad balcony located pretty high up on an apartment-building–probably the ninth or tenth floor. The bakery was only one of a row of businesses located on that floor. Hope and Cindy passed several people who also seemed on their way to go shopping. Everyone they met both girls greeted politely with “Salaam” and their greeting was returned with a nod and a smile.

Next to the bakery seemed to be some kind of a drugstore. The sign above the entrance read “Apothecary” but it looked more like a Chinese herb-store.

As the bakery’s entrance had been surrounded by wall-paintings of cakes and pastry, the drugstore’s entrance was surrounded by murals of exotic flowers. Through its open door, David could see shelves with glass jars containing dried herbs.

And outside the door along the wall of the shop stood numerous large flower-pots containing a variety of growing plants. Most of them David had never seen before, but some, like the white Camilla flower, he recognized.

Is this actually the way they make their medicine in the future, like witch-doctors and 19th century quacks? David wondered.

But he had no time to think more about it, for Hope and Cindy had already passed the drug-store and were walking hastily past a small restaurant. An elderly man was just leaving, carrying a tray with several bowls and dishes on it.

His suit and cap was once again the same style and of the same glittery fabric as the other peoples’ but like with Ms Higgins’ from the bakery the color was different, this time it was a dark blue, the same color as some of the children in Hope’s classroom had worn.

“Mr. Jennings is from the Dolphin community. He likes to buy his dinner from Ms. Daniel’s restaurant in our community,” present-day Hope whispered in David’s ear. “But Ms. Higgins from the Deer community she only comes buying in our community when she visits her friend Ms Alba.”

Mr. Jennings placed the tray inside a strange box with a couple of fat legs which had been standing in front of the store. He pressed a button and then the box started walking and lifted itself onto a rail which was located close to the balcony railings and ran all the way along the balcony.

The legs had now transformed and were encircling the rail and when the box started floating above it, David realized that the rail worked on the same principle of magnetic levitation as did the trains he had seen earlier.

When Mr. Jennings and the floating box had passed them, Hope stepped over the rail to approach the railing, with Cindy tagging along. The railing itself was higher than Hope but was made of a transparent plastic which gave anyone, even small children, a perfect view of the surroundings below.

Where the children were standing there was a small alcove on the balcony which held a bench, so it was obviously meant for people to sit down and enjoy the view. Looking around, David could see about a dozen similar apartment-buildings encircling a large square. The buildings stood about 50 yards apart from each other but were connected on their narrow sides with transparent bridges extending from the next-to-last floor of each building to the next one.

What David fascinated the most was the passion these people seemed to have for colorful murals. Not only was every single door adorned and surrounded by wall-paintings -and this was true not only for the shops but also for what seemed to be entrances to ordinary apartments- but the narrow sides of the buildings were literally covered in giant murals.

The building to the left showed a valley within a mountain range with eagles circling above it, while the building to the right was covered with the image of two giant dolphins jumping out of the sea, spraying large drops of water all around them.

Apart from the bridges the buildings were also connected by the maglev rail which ran along-side them at the height of their fifth floors, with each building having a train stop protruding from the center of its long side.

After making a circle along the apartment-buildings, the maglev rails continued in a second circle down inside the square which contained maybe thirty smaller buildings, some of which were tent-like. There were also train-stops above some of those smaller buildings, with transparent elevators leading down from the platforms to the ground.

The end station was a large square one-story building surrounded by three religious buildings: a church, a mosque, and a third small round building with a gold-decorated roof, which David assumed was a Buddhist temple.

“ The building in the middle of the square is the village meeting-house,” David could hear Hope's lecturing voice in his mind. “It is used for village council meetings, for all kinds of social gatherings and celebrations and also for music- and image-story-shows.”

The children of Hope’s memory, however, weren’t very interested in the view at the moment. As they sat down on the bench, Cindy was sobbing: “But I was generous. I was doing just like you. Why did he scold me?”

“Mr. Wang didn’t really scold you,” Hope said as she wiped the tears from Cindy’s face. “He scolded me, because I hadn’t taught you enough of the numbers yet.”

“But I know many numbers, a hundred numbers, 1,2,3,4,5,…. and I can count them together: 2 plus 2 is 4 and 3 plus 4 is 7. You taught me, sempai.”

“Yes I did,” Hope smiled, “and you don’t have to call me sempai here–only when we are in school. Outside school, you just call me Hope.”

“Okay, Hope!” Cindy obeyed.

“Yes. And you see, when you go trading, you need still other numbers, complicated ones,” Hope explained. “When you buy something from a seller, you have to offer him more than he asks for but not too much more, only between 20 and 30 percent more.”

“20 or 30 coins? But I only had five,” Cindy said, looking sadly at the coin in her hand.

Hope sighed. She had known that this was too complicated for a six year old and decided to make it easier:

“No, not twenty coins but twenty percent, which means a little bit. Like when you buy a panini and Mr. Wang asks for two coins, then you offer him two and a half coins. And when you buy a loaf of bread and he says four coins, then you offer five; can you remember that?”

Cindy nodded.

“And when you want to buy anything else from Mr. Wang or in another shop, you stay close to me and I will whisper in your ear.” Hope said firmly. “And next year, maybe, I’ll teach you the difficult percent counting and then you can go trading all on your own.”

Cindy nodded again. She smiled broadly and took another bite from her panini. And then – with crumbs spewing forth–she asked the very same question David had been wondering about while watching the scene, only she used more polite words than David would have: “Why doesn’t Mr. Wang tell us right away how many coins he wants?”

“Oh silly,” Hope smiled at Cindy and explained: “Because he is a decent seller, of course. He only asks as much as he absolutely needs. And because you are a decent buyer, you pay him more. And then he says “This is too much,” and you say “But I insist,” and then he says “You are very generous.” This is the way you do trade all over the world, even when you trade with people of other villages over the Peace Web.”

Cindy, who had now nearly finished her panini, mumbled: “But it’s so hard.”

“Yes, it is a little bit complicated,” Hope agreed, “but my great-uncle told me that it has something to do with preserving the peace. He said: ‘Peace is more than the absence of war. There cannot be peace without justice.’”

As Cindy swallowed her last bite, she looked rather confused.

Hope sighed again and switched from philosophical to sempai mode as she explained: “That means you have to be fair with other people so they won’t get so angry with you that they start hitting you. Or worse–like in the Dark Ages when people from one place would shoot guns or things like that at the people of other places when they got very angry.”

Cindy nodded understandingly: “Fair means you give a little bit more.”

“Yes,” Hope agreed, “and it also means that if you are a seller, you do not ask too much, so that if the buyer is poor, he can still buy something.

“You see, Cindy, if you only have two coins, Mr. Wang will sell you the panini for two coins because you are poor.

“However, if Mr. Wang was a very poor man who had not many things to sell, you should even give him more than only two and a half coins. But Mr. Wang is not a poor man, so you don’t have to do that.

“Instead, you can buy something else with the rest of your coins or give them to your mamma.”

“But my mamma doesn’t want my coins. She said I can keep all the coins I earn in the hen-house all for myself,” Cindy said, “and I get five coins every time I go to the hen-house, three times a week.”

“This is true,” Hope agreed. “I get coins too, when I am on milking duty. But you know what? You could buy a gift for your mamma with the rest of your coins. What do you think she would like?”

Cindy brightened up: “My mamma likes panini, too.”

Cindy hopped up and turned in the direction of the bakery. Hope quickly grabbed her by the sleeve. “I think we have seen enough of Mr. Wang for today! Do you know anything else your mamma would like?”

Cindy put her right index-finger to the corner of her mouth and thought for a little while. Then she said: “Mamma likes muesli with peanuts and dried apples and cinnamon-sugar.”

“Alright,” Hope decided. “Then we shall call the muesli shop.” She touched the screen of her wrist-control several times, and the holographic face of a woman with a beige cap appeared above the device . “Salaam,” she said in greeting.

“Salaam, Ms. Denko” Hope answered. “I would like to place an order for Cindy Lennox. A bag of muesli with peanuts, dried apples and cinnamon for two coins, please. And since Cindy has no bag on her, can you provide it please?”

“Of course. Your order can be ready in twenty minutes; can you come at that time or will you pick it up later?” Ms. Denko asked.

“We can be there in twenty minutes. Thank you very much, Ms. Denko.”

“Then I will see Cindy and you soon. Bless.” Ms. Denko face disappeared.

“Let’s first go to my grandma’s before I forget the message. And then we’ll walk over to the Rabbit-community,” decided Hope as she rose from the bench.

“You never forget anything, Hope. That’s what Sensei said,” Cindy commented as she followed Hope obediently.

“That’s true,” Hope sighed. “But many times I remember things far too late because there are so many things to remember….”

Hope spread her arms wide and shook her head.

Cindy giggled then asked: “Can we take the maglev to go over there?”

“Alright,” Hope agreed, then she playfully grabbed Cindy by the shoulders and started to jostle her a bit: “You little lazy-bones, you don’t like walking!”

Cindy grinned and announced:

“I do like walking, but riding the maglev is far more fun!”

As the scene of 23rd-century Hope and Cindy faded out and David could see the other Hope now seated next to him on a bench in 21st-century New York.

***

This now is the fifth, the last project I would have to walk through with my camera. It is owned by the J.G. Corporation, my father’s conglomerate.

Every one of the five corporations owns its own architectural design for their Venus Projects and this design is repeated throughout all of the corporation’s projects to accentuate corporate identity, I’ve been taught. Images from inside of one Venus project of a certain corporation would give our rescue teams all the necessary information they need for the projected operations in all of them.

And though this is not actually my mother’s and Luscinia’s project, it looks exactly the same. Keeping my impassioned cool has been even harder here than in the other projects.

We are on the third floor now, the manager has just opened the door to a room with a giant bed in the middle surrounded by fluffy silk curtains. Soft music is floating through the room accentuated by a flowery fragrance. Dozens of Venus figurines in different positions are placed on wardrobes and shelves along the walls. The walls themselves are covered by mirrors and so is the ceiling. There aren’t any windows, instead the room is illuminated by a soft red light coming from several wall sconces.

Our luxury suite,” the manager proclaims.

At the same moment I hear a scream of pain coming from the room next door. The sound makes me wince, though luckily the manager seems to take my expression for something else.

Somebody is having fun,” a sleazy grin underlines his meaning.

Involuntarily I ball my fists.

But I make a conscious effort to relax again, turning my face into an inscrutable mask. I follow the manager downstairs. And in order to not arise suspicion, I decide to stay for a short time in the largest public room to watch the dancing. One of the women approaches me, plastered on her face is the fake smile typical for her line of work.

Next time,” I respond and turn to go. On the way out I notice a rather young and very frail woman coming down the stairs. Her silk clothes are ripped, and the make-up on her face has run from tears still flowing, while a large red bruise covers her left cheek. When she lifts her arms trying to adjust her hair, I see them: Luscinia’s marks, one of them fresh.

I feel nausea and suffocating anger rising up in me at the very same time. My greatest desire is now to go upstairs to beat somebody up, beat the hell out of him. But at the same time I know that if I give in to that desire all will be lost.

I manage to calmly walk out of the door, past the Venus fountain to the end of the drive-way where Darryl is waiting for me.

Did you get everything,” I ask him under my breath.

Darryl nods and adds: “I saw the woman’s arm.”

I look at Darryl’s compassionate face and realize for the first time that efficiency isn’t the Texan’s only good quality.

She will leave tonight,” Darryl reassures me.

I nod in agreement, but add in my thoughts: if everything goes as planned.

CHAPTER 6

 

 

Slowly David got to his feet and began walking, still thinking about the scene he had just witnessed. He had a dozen questions on his mind about the strange trade system, for instance, or about a six year old having a job, but then he decided to talk about what he knew had bothered Hope the most.

Yes, she had given the explanation to her young charge in the professional manner of a tutor, as if she were a grown-up, but David, being so closely connected to her mind, had sensed that, though she had kept it well inside herself, back at the bakery she had really been angry. He wasn’t quite sure why the obviously unjust remark had upset her so much, but he said what she most likely wanted to hear in the situation:

“Your Mr. Wang isn’t a very nice guy, is he, I mean the way he treats children?”

“Well,“ Hope bit her lip, “he is kind of different. And he treats everybody like that, not only children. I mean he disagrees a lot.”

“But he really was unfair, expecting something impossible from you. And you were upset, weren’t you?”

Hope sighed: “Yes, I was. And I became even more so the next day, when I met my grandma. She told me that all the ladies at the meeting had been on my side. They all said Mr. Wang was a mean old man.

“And Ms. Higgins said she hadn’t said anything in my defense because she didn’t want to get into a nasty fight with Mr. Wang–after all, the man was a grumpy, a permanent less than five-percenter. But she regretted it afterwards because it was me, little Hope, he had treated like that, after the terrible thing with my father…..” her voice fading.

“So if everybody was on your side, why didn’t this make you feel better?” David asked.

Hope grimaced and shrugged her shoulders, and David realized that the solidarity of the ladies club hadn’t really been a comfort to Hope.

“You don’t like those ladies?” he suggested.

“No, I do like them…..” Hope shook her head. “It was just….oh, I didn’t like them talking about me again because when they start talking, everybody in the community and often in the whole village starts talking and looking.”

Hope shuddered: “After my father died, it went on for weeks and weeks. Wherever we went, my mamma and my brother and sister and I, they were whispering and looking at us with pity, and some came patting me on the head, saying “You poor, poor child….”

“And I just wanted them to leave us alone, stop looking at us like that just leave us alone….And now I thought it would start all over again.”

Hope sighed.

David nodded; he understood only too well. He had himself felt it so many times: the looks of pity, and the sense of people whispering behind his back, although in his case, those had not been whispers of solidarity.

He quickly changed the subject: “What is a less than five-percenter?”

“I hadn’t known the meaning of that word either,” Hope answered. “So I asked Grandma. She said that these were the people for whom the 95 Percent Rule was made, but most people called them grumpies.”

Anticipating David’s question, Hope went on:

“ Now I knew about the 95% Rule–I learned it in school. In every council meeting, all the people have to discuss all the decisions until nearly everybody agrees–that is, at least 95 percent of everybody.

“If more people disagree, then something is wrong with the proposed decision and the council needs to find compromises and keep discussing until they reach 95 percent agreement.

“Now Grandma said that those less-than-five-percenters are the grumpies. They would never agree, no matter how long the discussion lasts. They are people who always disagree with everything–people like Mr. Wang.

“And then Grandma went on about what the ladies at the meeting were saying about me and… I didn’t want to listen to it any more. I was so angry about all of it and about everybody, especially Mr. Wang. So I told Grandma I had to run.

“I knew there was only one person who would understand and that was Great-uncle Professor and he said……No, actually he showed me something.”

Hope stopped for an instant, then she went on: “I think I wanna show you, too, so you’d better sit down again.”

Hope pointed to another bench along the sidewalk. David obeyed and sat down. He concentrated and closed his eyes, eagerly awaiting another scene from Hope’s world.

He saw her running along the balcony of her housing-block, obviously on a lower level than before – probably third or fourth floor – but David couldn’t see it clearly, for now Hope had reached an apartment door, turned the knob, and burst into the room.

Facing the wall opposite the door, Hope’s great-uncle was sitting at a desk in front of a rather complex-looking computer keyboard.

The wall itself seemed to be a giant screen, the middle of which was covered with a three-dimensional graph surrounded by complex equations.

Below the graph there was the image of a very long rotating tube with the inscription “Goedel Cylinder” below it.

To the left and the right of the graph David could see the holographic images of two men and one woman. These people were obviously not from Hope’s community.

One of the men had his head shaved and was wearing the dark red robe of a Buddhist monk, which left one arm and shoulder bare; the other man was draped all in white with a white skull-cap on his head.

The woman wore a tightly bound white headscarf, over a gray coat. She was talking in a strange language – Interlingua, David guessed–while typing at a keyboard in front of her. Several numbers and symbols on the screen changed and the tube became narrower at its ends and slightly thicker in the middle.

Then the door Hope had opened now closed itself behind her with a loud bang. Her great-uncle turned around and Hope ran toward him, her face tear-stained.

The holographic woman had stopped talking. She looked up and then smiled, greeting Hope in thickly accented English:

“Salaam little Hope, are you going to help us with our experiments again today?”

Hope didn’t answer. She shook her head and averted her face, trying to hide her tears.

Her great-uncle took one look at Hope’s face and then turned toward his colleagues saying: “I’m sorry my friends, I think we will have to postpone our conference until tomorrow. You understand, don’t you?”

The two men nodded, one of them asking: “Same time tomorrow?”

Great-uncle Professor answered: “Yes, same time”

Then the their images disappeared. Before she signed out, the woman once again smiled in Hope’s direction and said: “Sure Professor Morgan, of course we understand: first things first. Maybe you can help us tomorrow, little Hope.”

When they were alone, Great-uncle Professor looked questioningly into Hope’s face.

Hope was breathing heavily. She seemed unsure of what to say at first, then blurted out: “Why did God make grumpies?”

Great-uncle Professor nodded and his mouth formed the beginning of a smile. “I heard about your run-in with Mr. Wang.”

Hope’s voice was angry: “Sure! I knew you’d heard about it. Everybody has heard about it. And now they are talking and talking again, just like…..” Her tears started flowing again. She looked away.

Great-uncle Professor began to dry Hope’s tears with the back of his hand, then he softly held her face and turned it toward him. “No, it won’t be like before.” His voice was calm and comforting.

“When your father died, many people felt shocked. They felt so much compassion toward you and your family. They wanted to help you and yet they felt helpless to do so. So they talked….”

Great-uncle Professor paused for a few moments, then went on:

“But what happened yesterday in Mr. Wang’s shop is a one-day topic of gossip. It will be forgotten by everybody tomorrow. And even though you can’t forget, you won’t feel mad any more by then, since after all, they were just a few words you didn’t like.”

Hope loosened her face from her great-uncle’s grip and looked at the floor, slightly disappointed by his reaction.

She said in a grumbling voice: “I guess you are right, but….but….” David could see the inner struggle on Hope’s face, logic against anger, and logic wasn’t winning yet.

And so she insisted on her earlier question: “Why did God make grumpies?”

Great-uncle Professor smiled and answered softly: “This is a good question actually. And though I won’t pretend to fully know the mind of God, I still think there might be a good answer. I believe that God gave the people whom many call grumpies some very special talent.”

Now Hope looked intrigued: “What special talent?”

“Hmm,” the Professor answered, “let me show you. Get the chair from the kitchen and sit down next to me.”

When Hope had come back carrying her chair, her great-uncle had drawn the outlines of a heart and a leaf below the equations on his screen. He pointed to the drawings: “This is a heart and next to it is a spade. They are playing-card symbols.”

“Playing-card symbols?” Hope asked nonplussed.

“A couple of hundred years ago in most countries of the world, people knew these symbols very well. Even young children knew them and they often played with cards containing those symbols,” the Professor explained.

“These symbols were combined with numbers, letters and images. There were many different games played with cards containing these and two other symbols.

“For now I am going to show you images of cards containing only those two symbols combined with numbers and images. I want you to disregard the images, the numbers and how often the symbols are on every card. Every card that contains one or more hearts is a heart; every card that contains one or more spade-images is called a spade. Do you understand?”

Hope nodded.

Her great-uncle continued: “I am now going to show you the card-images very fast and you tell me what they are. Ready?”

Hope nodded, her hands gripping the edges of her chair and her eyes focused on the holographs.

Playing-cards appeared, each for only a fraction of a second.

Hope called out: “Heart, spade, spade, heart, heart, heart, spade, spade, heart, spade, heart, spade, heart, heart, spade, spade, spade, spade, heart……

The images changed so fast that even David, who knew them so well, had trouble following them, but Hope made it through what must have been half a deck of cards without mistakes.

Then the Professor stopped. He looked at Hope saying: “You did very well, you were very fast.

But now tell me something else. What colors were the hearts? And what color were the spades?”

Hope shrugged: “The hearts were black, of course, and the spades were red,” she said surprisingly.

Instantaneously David murmured: “No, it’s the other way around.”

And then he heard present-day Hope jiggling in his mind.

And her great-uncle told the future Hope: “Yes you are absolutely right.”

The playing-cards appeared again on the holographic screen, only this time they stayed put, all cards laid out next to each other, an open deck. David looked at them, and then looked again, utterly surprised.

Why hadn’t he seen it before?

Were these really the same cards?

Yes, Hope had been right, the hearts were black and the spades were red.

The Professor continued: “You have never seen cards like these before. We don’t play card-games.”

“They are win-loose games, aren’t they?” Hope asked her great-uncle.

“Yes they are. But you can also do other things with these cards. And that is what some scientists did a couple of hundred years ago. They asked people after they had been shown each card for only a second, what color the hearts were and what color the spades were. And nearly all the people in that experiment said the hearts were red and the spades black.”

“Were they all color-blind in the Dark Ages?” Hope asked quite reasonably.

“No, of course not,” the Professor shook his head. “It wasn’t their eyes that had a problem, it was their minds. The cards I have shown you weren’t ordinary playing-cards. Real cards looked like this:”

A whole deck of cards appeared below the earlier half deck. David looked twice to make sure. And yes, this time they were ordinary playing-cards, with red hearts and black spades.

Little Hope also gave herself time to compare and before she said:

“The hearts and spades have opposite colors from the ones you showed me before.”

“That’s right, they have,” the Professor agreed. “And people who are used to cards like these, they will expect them to always be the way they are used to. Their minds trust in what they have learned before, and so unless they have enough time, they can’t even see the differences because their minds won’t let them. In scientific terms, this is called “Cognitive Dissonance”. And it happens to most people, with only a few exceptions.”

He looked expectantly at Hope, whose face slowly changed from slight confusion to dawning comprehension.

“Oh, you mean the grumpies, Great-uncle! They can see the difference faster.”

“Yes, these are people who do not immediately trust that what has always been will always be the same – now and in the future. This is their talent. Do you understand?”

“Yes, I guess,” Hope looked doubtful. “But Great-uncle, this isn’t exactly a very useful talent, is it, to know the color of those cards correctly?”

The Professor sighed: “I guess you didn’t quite understand, Hope. You see, it is always very, very useful to be able to recognize the truth.”

Hope looked a bit chastened and so the Professor continued: “Don’t get me wrong, trusting in your experiences and in what you have learned is also very, very useful. There cannot be any community without trust.

I need to trust that Mr. Wang’s bread will not make me sick and neither will the meals from Ms. Dowling’s lunch-restaurant or Mr. Bennet’s dinner restaurant, or I would have to prepare all the food myself.

I must also trust that those who grow the food and service the irrigation and air-exchange machines will do their work diligently, or I would also have to grow all my food myself and all the feed for the animals.

And then I will always have to trust that you kids will take good care of our animals, feed them well, attach the milking-machines and collect the eggs, or I would have to do this all by myself.

And then there are the maglevs, ours and the ones that travel all over the continent. I trust they have been built well by the manufacturers and that they are being kept in good repair or I would have to do this also all by myself.”

Now Hope started to laugh: “Oh Great-uncle, you couldn’t do all this by yourself, it’s too much work for just one person.”

“True,” the Professor agreed, “it is even too much work for one community. Even for all the food you and I eat most days, we need our whole village and eight other villages to grow it. Our community has to trade food with all the other nine communities and with our partner villages or we would not have very many different foods to choose from. Wouldn’t that be boring?”

“I think if it only was my favorite food, I wouldn’t mind,” Hope replied.

The Professor now laughed: “I guess you wouldn’t, but I would and so would your Mamma.

And what about all the parts in those machines we need to produce our food and our clothes and our energy?

We can’t all make those parts in one community, not even in one village. We can assemble the machines in the repair-shops of Mr. Dalim and Mrs. Angros, yes, but most of the parts come from villages all over the nation and sometimes even from all over the world.

“We only have one manufacturer in our whole village. Do you know what they make there?”

“Sure,” Hope answered right away. “In the manufacturing plant of Mr. Rondell, Ms. Talim and Ms. Dariel, they make micro-chips. They are our village’s greatest trade objects, Sensei told us.”

“Yes, they are,” the Professor agreed again. “But those chips can only be used in certain machines. Other machines need other chips which are produced in other villages.”

“Yes, I know,” Hope said, “and this is why we need trade.”

Then she went on thoughtfully: “I know what you mean. In trade we also need trust. We need to trust that the things we buy are made well and we need to trust that if we sell something, the buyer will transfer the agreed amount of Intercoins into our accounts.”

“ And,” the Professor continued from there, “we need to trust that we can actually use the coins which have been transferred to the village- or our own accounts to buy something else, something we need or some luxury we want – after all, we can't eat coins.”

Hope laughed: “They’re digital– you can’t eat something digital!”

The Professor smiled back: “You couldn’t even eat them if they weren’t digital. In older times, they often used gold or silver coins for trade, and you can’t eat gold or silver either.

“Coins are just measuring units that will help you to trade real goods and also services, like the food items and the preparation of the food. Coins are an agreement between people, an agreement those people have to trust in or they could not do any trade with them.”

Hope nodded: “Yes, I understand,” while David thought: If only the matter of money were so simple in my time…. But for now, he was intrigued by the conversation, not yet sure what Hope’s great-uncle was getting at.

“So you see,” the Professor continued, “in order for your community and your village and the world’s entire human society to work, lots of trust is needed. Without trust, we could barely survive on our own and we surely could never have built a world of trade and high technology. And it’s not only in trade that we need trust. The same is true for gaining all kinds of knowledge.

“You trust that what your sensei is teaching you is correct. And your sensei trusted first his own sensei, and then he trusted the information he had to learn from the Peace-Web so he could become a sensei for you. The health supporters who come to your appartment when you are sick have also learned about all the illnesses from the Peace-Web, so that they can now help you to become better.”

“Oh, but Dr Welby, she mostly uses the body-scanner to tell what infection I have. She doesn’t need to know anything herself,” Hope interjected.

The Professor smiled again: “It isn’t quite as simple as you think. And then, even that scanner is programmed with information that is derived from the Peace-Web. And every so often new information needs to be added.

“And then you have the apothecary, Mr. Derrick. He is cultivating his herb-garden according to the information he gets from the Peace-Web. And when the plants are grown, he uses them to make the right medicine for you, one that will strengthen your immune system and help you to overcome whatever makes you ill. Mr. Derrick trusts that the information he has gotten from the web is correct, and you trust him and Dr. Welby.”

“And I trust the body-scanner,” Hope interjected again.

“And you trust the body-scanner,” the Professor added with a soft smile.

“The same is true for me as a scientist. Like everybody else, I trust that the information that has been built up for thousands of years and which is now collected on the Peace-Web is good and useful for me. My friends and I depend upon this information; otherwise we would have to invent the wheel all over again, as the saying goes.”

“Yes, I know,” Hope said, “Sensei always uses this expression when he tells us that we should check things out on the Peace-Web and not just rely on our own puny brains. He always says ’puny brains’”. Hope didn’t seem quite happy with that description of her gray matter.

“I agree with your sensei. If you compare all the knowledge collected by thousands of generations of human beings, billions and billions of brains working together over time and space, then all of my knowledge is puny and my brain smaller than that of an ant,” the Professor said, showing the ant-size with his fingers, while Hope again looked as if she did not quite agree.

“So yes,” her great-uncle went on with his explanations, “to be able to trust in other people, in what they do and in their knowledge, as well as to trust in the circumstances of your world, that things will be the way they are supposed to be and what you are accustomed to, that is a very important talent. It is needed to build and sustain our world. And most people have this talent. But some people have another one–that is, the talent to distrust.”

“But Great-uncle, you just explained why trust is so very important. How can you call distrust a talent? Isn’t it rather a lack of a talent or an illness or something?”

The Professor didn’t answer directly; instead he started to type something on his keyboard.

Hope seemed to recognize what he was doing. “What are you looking for in your files, Great-uncle?”

“A story, I’m looking for images of a story I made some time ago…..Oh, here I’ve got it.”

A group of holographic cartoon-figures appeared in the middle of the room and with another key-stroke, they became animated and started to move around an also appearing scenery.

“Oh Great-uncle, did you really make these yourself? Your other images of a mountain and flaties and such things, they weren’t bad either, but these here are so much better, so life-like” Hope complimented enthusiastically. “And you made a whole story out of them?”

“Now don’t you sound so surprised. Of course I know how to make a real image story, I was a child once, just like everybody else,” the Professor replied.

“I didn’t mean that you couldn’t do it, Great-uncle,” Hope defended herself. “I just thought you wouldn’t waste your time on image-stories.”

The Professor smiled as he answered: “Science and stories are not opposites. Science most often starts with stories, ideas of what might be….. Now let me just tell you a story not of what could be, but of what might have been…..once upon a long, long time ago.”

“A story from the Dark Ages?” Hope asked eagerly, watching the little figures that moved around what looked like a tent-village.

“No, not from the Dark Ages,“ the Professor replied. “My story is from far, far longer in the past, before all written history, in a time that we call the Stone-Ages–do you know why?”

As usual, Hope knew the answer: “Because the tools in that time were made from stones.”

“That was true for many of the tools,” said the Professor, needing to be precise.

“Some tools were also made from wood or from animal bones or….. Look over there.”

In front of one of the tents, a woman was sitting and sewing a piece of clothing or possibly a tent-covering, using what really seemed to be a fish-bone.

The Professor went on with his story: “In this time and place, as you can see, the people no longer lived in caves as their ancestors had done but in tents made from animal skins, the same material as their clothes. They did not yet plant seeds for crops, they still were gathering a lot of their food from the wild– berries and other fruits, and nuts and leaves from certain grasses and roots. But they had already begun to preserve some of their food by drying it. They did it with some of the fruits and with meat and fish in order to store it for winter. They also had learned to domesticate some animals.”

A small herd of scrawny looking cows were grazing not far away from the tent village, watched by a couple of young boys.

“The villagers of the story were a quite happy people. They always had enough food to eat, and being a tribe of over two hundred people by now, they were quite strong together and had little to fear from wolves and bears and other dangerous animals.

But at the time of our story, the villagers had become afraid of a new danger.”

With a keystroke, the size of the holographic images increased and the scene zoomed in unto a few of the cartoon-figures and their tents. New figures dressed slightly differently had entered the scene, talking tonelessly to the tribal people using wild gestures, while Hope’s great-uncle went on with his tale:

“Traders had come to the village with stories, horrifying stories of an animal nobody, not even the oldest men, had ever encountered before. The animal, it was said, looked like a giant white tiger. But it was not an ordinary tiger; it was actually an enormous monster that could not be killed by spears or arrows or even by big stones dropped on it. Anyone who had tried to hunt it down or defend himself against it had been killed.

Different from all other wild animals, this monster did not fear humans. It would enter villages with impunity and slay everyone in its path, ripping up the tents and killing everyone inside– women and children and even the strongest men.

The only weapon that could protect against this horrible monster was fire.

And now there were rumors that the monster was very close, making its way from village to village, and soon it would come to the tribe of this story.

What should they do, the people asked themselves, what should they do to protect the village? Would it be better to break up the tents and move to the winter quarters? But maybe the monster would follow them even there…

The scene now changed to the inside of a large tent where a group of men were sitting around a fire, with one standing and talking. The Professor went on:

“And then in the council of the elders, a young man was heard. He had an idea.

‘Fire can protect us from the monster,’ he said. ‘And so we shall protect all of our people with fire’

‘You mean we should make a ring of fire around the whole village?’ one of the elders asked

‘No,’ the young man said, ‘that would be impracticable. The fire might get out of control and burn us all. But we could set a ring of dry wood and brush around the cave, east of our village. It is a barren area–the fire would not spread from there. And when the monster comes, all of our people can hide in the cave and then we will light the brush and wood, and the ring of fire will keep away the monster.’

‘But what about our cows,’ another of the elders asked. ‘The cave is too small; we barely can fit all of our people inside it.’

The young man answered: ‘We will scatter the cows while we are running and so the monster might slay only one or two of them, but after it has stilled its hunger and not found any people, the monster will move on. This is what it has always done–it never stays in one place.’

´But do we have enough time when the monster is coming to escape into the cave, together with all the old people and the little children? It is quite a walk to the cave,’ the elder pointed out.

And once again the young man had an answer: ‘My two friends and I will keep watch on the hill-top. We know the monster comes from the wet lands in the north, we will see it from afar. We will warn the village and this will give all of us plenty of time to flee to the cave.’

After a short discussion the plan was agreed upon. Only one of the elders disagreed, but nobody listened to him.”

“He was a grumpy, wasn’t he?” Hope asked, captivated by the story. The Professor nodded and went on.

“And so the three young men went out to the hill above the village. They kept their watch for many days, sometimes alone and sometimes all three of them together. But somebody else also kept watch, can you guess who?”

“Was it the grumpy elder?” Hope asked

“Yes, the grumpy elder. He followed the three young men around and watched them whispering to one another. But whenever he came close, they stopped talking. Now it was not unusual that people were whispering around him, he knew most people didn’t like him very much. But somehow the whispers and glances of these men seemed different, and they had seemed strange to him even long before they had started their monster-watch.

And then one day the three young men came running down the hill, breathlessly screaming: ‘The monster-tiger. We’ve seen it! It is enormous, it is gigantic! It is coming!’

Fear spread through the village, but not panic, since everybody knew what they had to do: parents grabbed their small children, older siblings pushed the younger ones in the direction of the cave. Some boys and men scattered the cows, others kindled torches. And then everybody was on their way.

And then the grumpy elder arrived. He had been running down the hill as well. But he was older and far more out of breath than the young men.

He tried to scream as well, but amidst the cacophony, his voice was barely audible and was heard by only a very few: ‘There is no tiger, no monster, it’s only a deer! You don’t have to run!’

With this the Professor pressed a key and the scene of running people and the desperately gesticulating elder froze, he then turned to Hope challenging her.

“Now Hope, tell me, if you had been one of the people of the village and you had heard the grumpy elder, what would you have done?”

For the first time Hope didn’t answer right away. She gave herself time to think, biting her lip. Then she said doubtfully: “I think that if I had been one of those people in the village, I would not have listened to the old man because maybe he could not see so well any more. Old peoples´ eyes sometimes go bad and they need laser-surgery and they didn’t have that back in the Stone-Ages, I guess. So maybe he mistook the monster-tiger for a deer.

“And then there were three people who saw the tiger and only one who saw the deer. Three people have six eyes and one man only two. Just like you always say, Great-uncle, the more people put their brains together, the closer you come to the truth. You do say that, don’t you?”

“Yes I do,” the Professor agreed, but the scene remained frozen as he continued looking at Hope.

“But I think you’re telling me the story for a reason and there is something wrong with those young men. I guess they lied. And it would have been better, if the people had listened to the grumpy elder. Although I still don’t know why these young men would lie; what for? It would be such a mean prank to play on their own community.”

The Professor turned the projection on again and the people could be seen running in the direction of the cave. Nobody took notice of the elder, who was still trying to get his neighbors´ attention.

“You are right on all counts: all the people listened to the three young men because six eyes see more than two and because nobody could imagine that anybody would tell a big lie like this. People trusted the members of their community; occasionally some people would tell small fibs, but big lies like these–they were unthinkable.

And so the people of the village reached the cave, and when everybody was inside, the men with the torches kindled the fire around the cave. It was evening now and the sun had gone down. The people waited, watching the fire until it had burned down. It took all night.

At dawn the people started to walk back to their village, carefully and quietly, listening attentively for any sound of the monster. But they heard nothing.

The village, however, had been totally destroyed. All the tents had been ripped apart and the skins that had covered them were missing, some of the clay-pots were broken, but many women noticed that most of their pots had just disappeared without a trace. Especially the ones that contained their storage of dry foods. And also gone were the cattle–not a single cow could be found. But strangely enough, there were also no traces of slaughter, no blood stains anywhere.

Slowly it dawned on the people that there were no traces of an animal attack of any sort.

‘Marauders’, they yelled, ‘marauders were here!’

Marauders were tribes who were extremely violent. They found it more convenient to rob from other tribes, rather than to hunt or collect their own provisions or raise their own cattle. But they were normally very small groups who would attack only small tribes or people who wandered around alone. The village of our story would have been too big for a small gang of marauders to attack. They had succeeded only because the village was empty and unprotected.

But how had they known it would be empty?

And once again a realization hit the villagers: The three young men who had warned them about the monster had disappeared. Nobody had seen them since leaving the cave. Those men were gone and everybody knew now….. they had done the unthinkable. They had betrayed the village to the marauders.”

The scene froze again and the Professor stopped talking.

“But what happened afterwards, Great-uncle? What happened to the people of the village? Did they catch up with the marauders or with the three young men? And why did they do this in the first place, why did they betray their own community?” Hope asked excitedly

“Why did they do it?” The Professor shrugged his shoulders.

“Well, they had their reasons; for one of them, it was a girl he didn’t get, for the second, it was some old grudge he had against a few of the villagers, and the third one just followed the other two around.

And then one day they met a couple of the marauders and decided to join them. As a precondition, those three were asked to help the marauders capture the village’s possessions, their cattle, and the animal skins. Together they designed the plan. A couple of marauders would pose as traders to spread the rumor of the monster and the young men would seemingly come up with a survival plan.”

“And were they caught?” Hope asked again.

“No, the villagers never caught them or the other marauders.” The Professor turned off the projection.

“But what about the villagers?” Hope insisted. “What happened to them?”

“Many of them died during the next winter.”

“Because they lost all their cattle and all their tents and their dried foods?” Hope asked sadly.

“Partly, but the main reason was that they had lost something even more important” the Professor explained.

“What was that?” Hope asked.

“Trust,” her great-uncle answered. “They had lost trust in one another. The relatives of the three young men were blamed for raising such terrible people, and were under suspicion of having known their plan. Others came under suspicion as well.

“Instead of working together to start replenishing their food and skins supplies before the next winter by hunting and fishing and collecting plants, people fought with each other, and a few were even killed in those fights.

Then the tribe dissolved and small groups went into different directions. Some joined other tribes and survived, but others didn’t.”

The Professor went quiet.

“That was a terrible story, Great-uncle,” Hope protested. “I didn’t like it–not at all. And besides, I don’t understand it. You said that trust is important. But the villagers could only have prevented the marauders from stealing all their possessions if they had distrusted the three young men. And the grumpy elder did distrust them, but nobody believed him. So what use was his talent? What would have changed anything?” Hope pouted.

The Professor lifted her chin with his finger and looked into her eyes.

“The answer is time, my little one, time!”

***

Back in the car I’m still unable to quiet down my thoughts. Those painful memories rise up against my will.

I hadn’t seen those marks on Luscinia for the first two weeks. She had always tried to hide them under her long-sleeved silky blouse.

But one day I walked in while my mother spread a soothing salve on a fresh mark on Luscinia’s upper arm.

How,” I asked in shock, But somehow I immediately knew that those were burn marks. And I had seen the symbol before, though never on human skin. They looked like the emblems one of my father’s friends uses for his corporation.

A wave of hatred swept over me while for the first time the realization hit me that I had fallen in love with this quiet girl, who always seemed to be around when I visited my mother. All I wanted was to protect her at any cost.

I will kill that guy,” I growled and turned around to the door.

No, you won’t,” my mother raised her voice, using the same commanding tone as she did the first evening I had seen her again, after I had declared that I was going to confront my father.

But this time she spoke with even more authority and sounding stronger than I had ever heard her before.

What you will do instead, is to be quiet and say absolutely nothing about what you have seen or heard here!”

And when I started to shake my head, she added more softly:“…until you have left Orange Country, together with Luscinia.”

But that’s impossible,” I called out. Her request took me totally by surprise. “Nobody can leave from here.”

You will find a way, Thani,” my mother insisted. “You have always been an inventive boy.”

CHAPTER 7

 

 

Hope shook her head and looked questioning at her great-uncle: “I don’t understand, what time?”

“In time,” the Professor answered, “the world of the stone age people would change completely and then it would look more like this:

With a single key-stroke all the equations and graphs on the Professor’s wall had disappeared and were replaced by the over-sized image of a painting, headed by the title ‘The Pyramid of Power’.

“But that’s not really a pyramid,” Hope commented

“No, not really,” the Professor agreed

“Did you make that image?” Hope asked

The Professor shook his head: “An artist did it more than 200 years ago.”

Hope sighed with relief, since she could utter her opinion without reservations now: “It is really ugly.”

The Professor smiled and added: “But it’s still quite interesting, isn’t it?

Hope had to agree, the image was somehow fascinating in all its ugliness:

The lowest three levels of the structure portrayed seemed actually to form the foundation of a pyramid, getting progressively more narrow while gaining in height.

Built, however, was this structure not on solid ground but on a quaking mass of swirling and intertwined snakes, some of them hissing with open jaws showing sharp teeth dripping with poison. Dozens of snakes were also crawling inside on the floors of the building or winding themselves around the structural columns.

But looking more closely at the strange-colored floors, walls and columns, Hope realized that the whole structure itself was made of snakes biting in each others’ tails.

Caged inside the snake-structure were people. Some were sitting apathetically on the ground, images of desolation. Others were huddled together, their faces expressing fear and pain.

Still others, their faces distorted with anger, were wielding guns and knives or only sharp elbows to push and press others to the ground using those fallen bodies as stools and ladders to climb up onto higher levels.

From the second level upwards most people wore nooses around their necks. The ends of the ropes were held either by people on higher levels, or more often they were connected directly to the structure of the strange building.

But all those who held ropes, were also threatened to be strangulated by other ropes around their own necks. And like the whole structure of the building itself so were the ropes really nothing else but tail-biting snakes.

But strangely enough those very noose-ended snake-ropes were actually vital for the structure of the building.

For from the fourth level on, the building was no longer a solid whole but a mass of dozens and dozens of smaller pyramid-like structures floating and swirling above without gravity tying them to the ground or the rest of the structure.

What connected them with one another and with the lower levels on the ground were alone the snake-ropes twirled together.

While some of the smaller structures had an obvious pyramid-form, especially those where the people inside wore uniforms, others looked distorted and skewed to one side with no real top. Still others looked as if they were constricted around the middle by an old-fashioned corset.

Just like in the lower levels, so contained each of these smaller edifices also caged in people. And just like the others below so would most of the people in the floating structures try as well to reach the higher levels of their particular structure, and that by all means possible. Some had stabbed knives into the backs of their neighbors and were now using those very knives as ladders to higher levels.

Some of them however had succeeded somehow in getting outside their own structure and were now trying to use the twirled snake-ropes to climb from one structure to the next, not realizing in their weightlessness that they weren’t climbing up but side-ways or even down.

But just like on the lower levels each one of the people was wearing a snake-rope tied around his neck.

Surrounding the structures were floating tanks, flying missiles and planes dropping bombs. Each of these pieces of armament were connected with a snake-rope to certain men inside the floating parts of the fake pyramid.

In the middle of the mess of floating edifices and weapons was the image of something that looked a bit like a giant eye with the people inside surrounding the iris. But like most of the structures which started out as pyramids and weren’t any really, so was the giant eye skewed and distorted.

In some way this eye was mirroring the faces of those men inside which also were distorted, showing mostly fear and hatred. But they also had the look of people who were nearly strangulated by the nooses around their necks, snake-ropes connected directly to the snake-walls.

The whole painting seen on the giant screen of the Professor’s wall had an aura of total hopelessness. Everyone was trapped or caged and close to suffocating. There was no way out. And even the background was of a dreary gray.

Hope felt, that looking at the painting made her even more depressed than the story of the betrayed villagers had, but still found it hard to take her eyes of it.

“This doesn’t make sense,” she protested. “No world can look like this, with floating buildings made from snakes.”

“Well,” the Professor replied, “artists see the world often with different eyes than other people. And this particular artist who lived towards the end of the Dark Ages saw his world like this.

But now let’s first go back to our villagers and a time long, long before the Dark Ages.”

With this the Professor clicked on his keyboard and the ugly painting disappeared from the wall to make once again room for the equations and graphs that had been there before.

Then the Professor continued his story:

“The survivors of the village adjusted to their new communities and they learned to trust again. They had children and the children had children.

But the marauders also had children and they taught their children in the ways of invading and plundering … and of murdering anyone who resisted them.

“But in time the marauders descendants learned that it was far more efficient and profitable, instead of attacking and destroying villages to only threaten villagers with violence and demand payments of food, skins and tools from them ever so often. And the villagers would decide that it was less costly in lives and possessions to pay them off than being attacked.

“In time the leaders of the marauders would see this arrangement as the divine order of the world.

“And while the peoples of all times and ages had been in search of God, seeing his power in the forces of nature the religious leaders of the marauder tribes would distort religion to fit the marauders’ actions.

“In time the tribal leaders would become kings and their tribesmen would be nobles while those they conquered would be peasants or slaves, members of lower and lower levels. Some were declared by the marauders’ religions as barely human, people with less value than animals…”

“But Great-uncle,” Hope protested, “you told Ameenah and me that religion was good, even other religions than our own, remember?”

But then she stopped for a second until she added, “oh I remember, the slide into the sea of desolation, you were talking about the marauder religion then, weren’t you?”

Her great-uncle nodded: “But it wasn’t just one religion. Every marauder tribe had another one, adoring different gods. But in reality all of their gods were nothing more but exalted versions of the marauders themselves – brutal and vengeful. One common thread united all of those religions:

“The belief that human beings were of unequal value.

“While some meanness and even aggressiveness had always been part of human nature, the marauders succeeded to change the culture of those they had conquered and forced under their rule.

“Pure selfishness now became accepted and compassion for one’s neighbor would be scorned, when the neighbor belonged to a lower level.

And so in time survival in a climate of greed, heartlessness and oppression became more difficult.

Taking a short breathing pause the Professor then looked questioningly at Hope: “But do you know what happens when a large group of people live under oppression?”

Of course Hope knew: “Yes, Sensei told us,“ then she cited:

“People who survive great disasters or live under conditions of hunger and need or under heavy oppression will have many children. This, like the First Principle, is written in every human DNA, for under bad conditions the means for a better future lies in the children.”

“Sensei Thomsen taught you well,” the Professor complimented.

“And did he also tell you what happens, when there are more and more people living at the same time closer and closer together?”

Hope nodded: “Yes, he did: When this happens, then knowledge will grow, for more people means more brain-power.”

Once again the Professor agreed: “Knowledge grew, but just as the marauders had decided that all the people of their kingdoms belonged to them as their subjects so would their subjects’ knowledge become the possession of the rulers.

“Knowledge would be a possession that needed to be horded and kept from those they wanted to dominate.

“And so in time the tribal sorcerers would find ways to codify knowledge in secret and sacred symbols, and only the elect would be given the code.

“This by the way was actually the beginning of reading and writing.”

The Professor now smiled as he added: “So you see, sometimes even out of a bad thing, something good can come in the end.”

Hope nodded and the Professor sobered again.

“With this knowledge could be written down and so more of it could be collected and passed on through the generations. Much of this accumulated knowledge however was used primarily to create new weapons, and not only physical things like arrows, spears or swords, but knowledge itself would become a weapon, a tool of and for power.

“Those who had the knowledge of chemical reactions, which could change the color of fluids or could start a fire seemingly by itself for instance, could use this knowledge to scare people under domination and into obedience.

“Those who knew about star-constellations or sun and moon eclipses in advance were also seen as being endowed with special and fearful powers”

With a few keystrokes the Professor produced a holographic solar-eclipse in front of Hope’s eyes.

“Yes, it does look scary,” Hope commented while watching the room becoming dark, “if you don’t know that the sun will come back again.”

“Yes indeed,” the Professor nodded slowly in agreement while turning off the projection, “a lack of knowledge will far too often lead to fear of things which in reality need not to be feared at all. And in all times fear has been used as a weapon of control by those who have knowledge against those who don’t.

“And so in time some marauder kingdoms by their superior weaponry and knowledge conquered many others and became empires. The growing knowledge was also used to raise enormous buildings as symbols of the empire’s power and the might of its rulers.

“But also in time every empire crumbled and was destroyed.

“For what happens when power becomes too concentrated?”

Hope had her own answer to that: “The power-monster comes and drives you crazy.” She lifted her hands and formed them into claws surrounding the imagined head of some hapless victim of his own power.

The Professor smiled: “Do they still use the same image in school from when I was a boy?”

Then he sobered: “To be sure, it is a good one. Too much power concentrated in a small group of people does not only corrupt their thoughts and actions, turning them onto the path of dishonesty and ruthlessness, it also drives the powerful to a behavior close to insanity. They will take crazy risks and eventually recklessly destroy what they or their ancestors have created.

“But sadly, in next to no time at all one empire was replaced by the next one.

“Often there were different empires ruling in different parts of the world at the same time and just as often those empires were fighting each other to increase their territories and power.

“And then, at the time of the Roman Empire’s rule, someone came in his own time,” the Professor’s voice had now become soft, generating a deep warmth enveloping Hope as well when he added: “the One who had been promised for times and ages.

“He was the One able to reconcile humanity with God and so would reconnect the people with what had been written into the recesses of their hearts by the very finger of God.

“His message was different from the messages the marauder religions had spread. His was a message of humility instead of self-declared superiority, of love instead of power, of a God who doesn’t conquer and avenge but suffers and dies for his people.

“And his message resonated within the hearts of many people. And so it happened, that Christianity grew among the many subjects of the Roman Empire.

“In time the Christians, who had been persecuted and killed before, had now become so strong in numbers, that even the powerful former persecutors could no longer resist.

“However instead,” the Professor’s voice became once again that of a neutral narrator of facts, “they would try to reinterpret Christian teachings to serve their own purpose again. Occasionally they would succeed, but in time because of a sturdy foundation, reinterpretations failed and were undone. Christianity was and always will be an egalitarian and universal religion.

“You know what that is?”

Hope knew: “A religion where everyone is equal before God and everyone can join, if he wants to.”

The Professor nodded and went on with his walk through history:

“A different egalitarian and universal religion came into existence a few hundred years later and that was Islam.

“But for those who felt superior to others, those who sought after power, the idea of equality of all human beings, even in a spiritual sense, seemed somehow intolerable.

“And so at a time when powerful individuals had successfully goaded Christians into a war against Muslim lands, the invaders discovered there those long forgotten ancient writings, which contained the knowledge of different marauder empires and the remnants of their religions.

“And these war-faring power-seekers found those religions far more to their liking.

“And out of those pieces of older religions they concocted their own. This religion of power was not for everyone but one for the elect only.

“This new marauder religion would not replace the other religions at first, instead its adherents would publicly profess one faith, while in secret practicing another one.”

“They were lying about their religion?” Hope looked disgusted, “it’s like lying about God. Who would do a thing like that?”

“Well,” the Professor answered carefully, “those men thought they had no choice, because having a different religion than most everybody else was forbidden by threat of severe punishment.”

“But those new marauders, they were wrong with their religion of power, weren’t they. So why shouldn’t it be forbidden?” Hope asked.

The Professor weighed his head: “Let’s go on with the story and see -

“The need for secrecy did not detract men from joining the group. On the contrary, many young men found the meetings in secret assemblies fascinating. They felt the knowledge of secret symbols and their meanings, that was being taught there, gave them an air of distinction, a reason for feeling superior and acting against those they saw as inferior.

“In time those men became very, very rich. At first it was by the war-booty from Muslim lands. Eventually, however, the new marauders came back to Europe. Having been defeated in the big war against the Muslims, they now started their own little wars in Christian lands by goading neighboring towns and villages into petty fights against each other.

“Having first loaned out gold and silver to both war-faring parties to cover the costs, the new marauders would later on reap the benefits when the debts of the winner were re-payed with the war-booty extracted from the looser.

“The new marauders also became the largest organization of usurers in Europe at the time, although in the Christian just as in the Islamic religion usury was prohibited.

“You know what usury means, don’t you” the Professor interrupting himself to make sure he was understood.

For once Hope didn’t and shook her head.

“Usury is an ancient word you can find in the Bible,” the Professor started to explain while turning around and pointing to an ancient leather bound volume lying next to his keyboard – Hope knew it was one of only a handful non-electronic books still in existence in her village, even Father Maximilian used the Peace-Web Bible.

“Usury means,” the Professor continued his explanation, “that when you loan somebody a sum of coins you demand that he pays you back a certain percentage more than you loaned him. During the Dark Ages this was called “the taking of interest”.

Facing Hope again her great-uncle went on: “And although these new marauders were thought to be Christians they had by now become more powerful than even the Church and all the kings of Europe together so that they could openly defy any ban or prohibition. The practice of usury together with war-profiteering became the main foundation of an enormous and ever-growing wealth.

“However, it also became the grounds for a giant arrogance. Like most people who suffer the corruption of power the marauders became not only mean but also reckless.

Eventually they had made a few too many enemies. When rumors of their strange religious practices started to be spread, one king took the opportunity to ban the organization and arrest their leaders. And after having been tortured, they were killed in the most brutal manner.”

The Professor stopped talking. Hope who had listened attentively and with a disgusted expression on her face blurted out:

“They were evil people, these marauders, driving people to war, just so that they could become rich. They were really, really evil.”

“So you think, they deserved it?” The Professor asked waiting a few seconds for an answer.

But when Hope averted her eyes, he went on:

“The leaders and some of the lower members were tortured in ways that produce excruciating pain. After that they were ripped apart or were burned alive while being bound to a stake.”

Then the Professor turned around to his computer again and with a couple of keystrokes he produced the image of a medieval drawing picturing the burning of an heretic.

Hope glanced at it only for a second, then turned away protesting in a low and hesitating voice:

“No, I don’t believe they deserved this. It was wrong………it..it was also evil.”

The Professor nodded once again: “Two evils never produce good. The burning of those men, called heretics, was followed by the burning of many other men believed to be heretics as well and of women who were believed to be witches.

“Most of those unfortunate people were innocent of anything they had been accused of. They were just victims of bad rumors.

“The surviving members of the marauder religion, however, went only deeper underground becoming even more secretive. Seeing their executed leaders as martyrs, they felt justified in their beliefs while harboring a great hatred for the Church and a thirst for revenge.

“And the marauder religion flourished even better underground than it had before, constantly attracting new members of young men with a superiority complex. The practice of secrecy and deceit allowed them to gain admission into the highest positions at the courts of kings and emperors becoming their closest advisers, governors and administrators and, of course, their financiers of war.

“ In time the marauders had turned into the real powers of the states, the so-called -powers behind the throne-.

“And while before their organization was banned, the marauders’ influence had corrupted many officials within the Church, they now could use the people’s disgust for this very corruption to bring division into the Church.”

Hope’s face displayed now a frown of frustration, while her great-uncle continued his history lesson in a neutral and emotionless voice:

“In time or by the beginning of the Dark Ages the members of the new marauder religion also had split into several branches which sometimes were fighting each other. More often, however, they cooperated. Together the marauders had now become the most powerful people on earth.

“Their faith proscribed that eventually all of human society would be shaped into the form of a pyramid, like the giant tomb for an Egyptian ruler who had believed himself to be a God.”

The Professor once again turned around for a few keystrokes and before Hope’s eyes appeared the pyramid-symbol with the all-seeing eye as it is pictured on the American Dollar-note.

Then he continued:

“The eye at the top of the pyramid symbolizes a small group of wise men, the leaders of the future, who would by then have concentrated in themselves all valuable knowledge of the whole world. They would rule this world and the less valuable people in it via layers upon layers of loyal servants formed like the layers of stone-bricks in the pyramid.

“Going down from top to bottom, knowledge would be parceled out to those servants in smaller and smaller amounts. These servants would then be allowed to rise to a higher level according to their unquestioning obedience, their usefulness and the needs of those above them.

“Like the first marauders the members of the new marauder religion truly believed that it was their divine calling to become rulers of men and that it was their true purpose in life to overcome in a constant struggle all resistance to their rule.

“They believed that the universe itself had been created out of chaos and through the struggle of opposing forces.

“And out of the concepts of the marauders’ beliefs evolved the marauder philosophies and the marauder science.

“Do you know what a philosophy is, my little one?” the Professor asked.

This time Hope was at a loss and shook her head and so the Professor gave her the answer: “It is a belief-system without a deity, basically a religion without God.”

“How strange,” Hope looked at the Professor shaking her head.

“Strange for you and me,” the Professor agreed, “but not for those marauders. For them it seemed logically that when human knowledge had grown sufficiently, there was no need for God any more, because men would now become gods to themselves.

“And since the followers of the marauders’ religion saw themselves as the guardians of all knowledge, the marauder philosophers believed themselves to be the authors of all science. Subsequently Dark Age science would describe the whole world including all the natural laws governing energy and matter in terms of the marauders’ philosophy, as opposing forces.

“Their basic belief was that every life form, including human life, was the result of a struggle of all against all. Survival was preserved for the fittest or the strongest, while those less fit and strong deserved death.

“And because of the power the marauders could wield over the nations their believes were universally accepted and promoted as truth by the nations’ institutions of education.”

“But Great-uncle, this is all wrong, how could any scientist believe that life is the result of struggles?” Hope was agitated.

“Life is based on cooperation, we learned that in school. But you don’t need to learn it, everyone can see that:

“Atoms cooperate to form molecules, molecules cooperate to form sugar and proteins, and they in turn form DNA, and DNA forms cells and cells cooperate to form multi-cell organisms, the cells cooperate to specialize into brain-cells and into organs and into skin and bones.

“And even small organisms cooperate with larger ones, like the digestive bacteria which help to break down the food into energy-givers, this is called symbiosis…… and….. and Father Maximilian says that in all this cooperation we can see the power of God’s love who is the originator of all the wonderful laws of nature….. ”

Hope went out of steam and the Professor nodded: “Of course you are right, we know that all matter of the universe and especially the existence of living things are based on cooperation.

“We also know that in an ever-changing world both the strong and the weak must survive in cooperation. For what seems to be a weakness at one time, might become a strength when change sets in, for the world is always changing. And so cooperation of everything with everything else grants the survival of all.

“But when you see the world through the prism of the marauders’ philosophy, you can’t see it like this.”

Hope shook her head: “I don’t understand, why can’t you see it and what is a prism?”

The Professor formed a triangle with his hands and answered: “It is a glass cut into two angles like this. The light that goes through it will be fractured, so you now only see it in parts. The light is no longer clear but colored like a rainbow. This is exciting to look at, but still it’s an utterly distorted view.

“The minds of Dark Age scientists were cut by the marauders’ belief that war and strive for power was the purpose of life. With the same mind they looked at nature and their eyes could only see what their fractured minds allowed them to perceive: a world of struggle.

Do you understand now?”

Hope nodded, if a bit reluctantly, but the Professor was satisfied and went on:

“In a world of constant struggle everyone of your neighbors will become your enemy and all your efforts are centered on creating better weapons against him.

“The most fervent adherents of the marauders’ philosophy saw mankind itself as the very enemy of life on earth, a parasite on the planet, who was in need of reduction in numbers.

“Other marauder philosophers saw themselves as being of superior intelligence, the first of a new species of trans-humans who in order to grant the progress of intelligent life would have to cull and cage the inferior human race.”

Hope shuddered while imagining people in cages. The Professors’ story was like a gruesome fairy-tale, but she knew it would have a happy ending…… but not quite yet…

“And so,“ the Professor continued, “with people of this mindset in positions of power the Dark Ages became the times of the most life-destroying wars ever fought in the history of mankind. The accumulated knowledge of humanity was used to produce ever more destructive weapons. And once again knowledge itself became the most effective weapon, a weapon used against the minds of the people.

“The marauders’ empires were formed by wars of conquest, but ruled by deception.

“One of these weapons of deception was the Dark Age coin-system.

“You know, why coins exist?”

“Sure I know,” Hope answered at once and added in her school voice: “to facilitate trade.

‘The Rubel must roll and Coins must flow’,” Hope then cited, “always from where there are many coins to where there are few. If you look for something to buy that cannot be produced in your own village, you must look for a seller in a village with a low Intercoin-account. Only then the coins will flow and more trades will be facilitated.”

The Professor nodded again: “This is our system, it is based on reason. The marauders’ system was different, based on complexity, debt and usury.

“It’s real, however secret, purpose was not to facilitate trade but to transfer the wealth of resources and lands from most of the people to the few who controlled the coin-system.

“In older times coins were most often made of rare metals like gold and silver imprinted with images of kings and emperors. But when the empires grew and stretched over large parts of the earth, trade also grew and gold-coins became impractical. They were replaced first by paper coins – which were also imprinted with images of the powerful.

“Eventually in time of the Dark Ages, when machines were developed, ever more coins were needed to facilitate production of goods. But the people who wanted to produce something with machines needed to borrow those coins first, because the machines were very expensive. And the workers needed to be paid long before any products could be sold.

“To make borrowing easier paper-coins were replaced with accounts like we have, only the Dark Age accounts were controlled by banks.

“Whenever somebody needed coins he would go to a bank. At the time most people thought, the bank would then loan out the needed coins from their owners’ accounts or from the customers’ accounts who brought their coins to the banks to save them for a later use.

“But this is not how the banks really operated, instead the amount the borrower needed would be written into his account, so he could use those coins to buy whatever he needed.

“It is similar to how it is done nowadays, when the district or the nation or the International Help-Board cannot collect enough Intercoins in the project pots, then the extra amount needed is written into the pot.

“But our representatives try to do that as rarely as possible. Do you know why?”

“Sure,” Hope answered, “if you write more coins into the system, then eventually all the coins will have less buying power.”

“That’s right,” the Professor agreed, “and the people of the Dark Ages knew that, too.

“And this is why, when the borrower was paying back the amount of coins bit by bit, the amount of coins would also disappear from the system bit by bit. In this way the whole amount of coins in the coin-system would not grow too much.

“Coins would be created, when the banks loaned them out to the borrower and would then disappear again, when the borrower paid the loan back. However, since this was a system of usury, every borrower had to pay back some percentage more to the bank than he had borrowed. This was called “interest” and was the banks profit.”

“Oh, but Great-uncle, this doesn’t make sense. If somebody borrows coins, that are newly written into his account by a bank, and he uses those coins to buy some things from his neighbors, shouldn’t this mean that he owes to his neighbors a little bit more and not to the bank?

“After all coins have no real value they are nothing but tokens, only the things you can use and the food you can eat has real value. And the coins written into his account would be used to buy those things of real value. This means he was actually borrowing from his neighbors the ones who made the things he wanted to buy.”

Hope stopped for a second to think hard while biting her lip.

She then added: “And then the seller would use those borrowed coins to buy something else, wouldn’t he? And the next seller would also buy something else from somebody else and so on. And everybody would be using the same coins as were written into the burrowers account.

“Its like everybody using the same coin-system as the borrower has been loaning him the coins. Isn’t that right, Great-uncle?

“So why should the bank be allowed to ask a percentage more from him, why not all his neighbors, his whole community or his village or his nation?” Hope asked

“Because,” the Professor answered, “both the borrower and most everyone else would not know that. Very few people knew how the system worked. The truth would be hidden under layers and layers of complex equations like these.” The Professor pointed to his wall.

“But these are time-travel equations,” Hope commented perplexed.

“The equations used in the Dark-Age coin-system were equally complicated,” the Professor stated.

“There were never enough coins in the system to repay all the debts, since the coins to pay in usury fees were never written into any account. Instead, there was a constant need for more and more debts to pay back the old debts.

“In time nearly all the coins in the system of practically all nations of the world had been created as debt owed to the banks. And every debt was charged with the usury fees, which were called interest.

“And the debts of the nations and of the giant production shops, which were called corporations, could never be repaid, because those very debts had become the coins everybody had to use to trade and buy goods for their needs. It was as if all the coins in the system were negative numbers. They were not something people owned, but something people owed.

“Ever so often, however, the burden of debt became too high, for the governments of nations, for the production shops, for the food producers and also for many ordinary people. This happened especially, when those who controlled most of the coins would horde them for themselves or play with them outside the reach of those who needed the coins for re-paying their debts or for production and trade.

“And then the banks would no longer write out enough new loans, and in turn there would no longer be enough coins in the system for either trade or for paying debts.

“As a consequence many borrowers would loose whatever possessions they owned, since the borrowers before getting a loan of coins, always had to sign an agreement, that their possessions would become property of the bank, if they could not repay the loan or the usury fees.”

“But this isn’t fair,” Hope interrupted. “The banks did not actually own the coins they loaned out, they would only write them into the accounts of the borrower. You said that, Great-uncle. Why would the banks now get the property?”

“Because,” the Professor repeated his earlier statement, “the borrower would not know the facts. Neither would the policemen, who often had to help the banks to take over the possession of borrowers, know that the coins owed were only written by the banks. And the judges who made the decisions would not know that, and even most of the people who worked for the banks would not know that either.

“And actually even some of the people who profited from the coin-system would not really understand how it worked. For a long time the only ones who knew, were those who managed and controlled the coin-system.

“ They were the ones who profited most from the usury fees called interests. They were the main owners of the banks, called share-holders. And with their profits they could now buy up these properties of houses, lands, production- and repair-shops, that were once owned by the borrowers and had now fallen to the banks.

“And the same profiteers could even buy up water and energy resources once owned by whole nations, when those nations could no longer pay the usury fees to international world banks. They would then raise the prizes for the necessities of life, like water, electricity, food or housing to the point where many people could no longer afford to pay.

“Many would suffer, some would starve or die needlessly from poverty caused illnesses or from desperation. These ups and downs of availability of coins for ordinary people was called the economic cycle.

“The majority of people were trapped in a coin-system that made them suffer ever so often,” to emphasize his words the Professor formed a circle with his hands, his fingers becoming horizontal bars to the entrapping cage, “a coin-system that inevitably would transfer their wealth of real useful things and resources away from them and into the control of only a few people, who had done nothing useful for other people to earn this wealth. It was a system based on deception.

“Like the marauders who robbed the villagers in the stone-age story, so had the marauders of the Dark Ages come to understand that deception is a far better weapon to take away other people’s possessions than physical violence.”

“But why wouldn’t the majority of the people just change their coin-system into a better one like ours?” Hope asked shaking her head.

“Because,” the Professor repeated his earlier argument: “most people just did not understand their coin-system. Those who did understand, believed there was no alternative, no better one at least.

“And those who thought there actually might be a better one, still believed that changing the coin-system would be impossible without destroying their whole world.”

“But why?” Hope asked once again.

“ Because they were told so by those they trusted, their government leaders, their teachers, their scientists and their information offices, which they called mass-media. From the biggest of those media outlets -named news agencies- billions of people all over the world would receive the same pieces of information about their world and their trade- and coin-system.

“ And the first thing the marauders with their power and coins was to buy or otherwise control the mass-media and just as they would use their coin influence to control what was taught in the teacher- and scientist-schools which were called universities. The marauders then set pre-chosen men and women in control of their mass-media and schools.

“There was a time when in marauder-controlled nations all information given to the people would have to be approved by marauder-controlled government officials, even what was written in books or what words somebody could sing to a melody in public places.

“Really?” Hope grinned and then started singing, “la-le-loon, I sing a tune, marauders are bad and that will make them mad!”

Her great-uncle listened and then commented with a smile: “They didn’t actually call themselves marauders, you realize that?”

And then he added in a more serious tone: “But yes, even something as harmless as a small tune of protest would make some government officials angry enough to throw the singer into prison.

“The people who lived in those nations knew that, and they felt suffocated by those restrictions. And some would protest or even resist in spite of the danger of arrest. More and more would follow until eventually the government was overthrown.

“In time, however, most marauders had found that if they wanted the people to become really willing tools and subjects a far more clever method of control was needed.

“So instead they created a system where ordinary people believed they were ruling themselves, because they could vote for their government leaders, and that they were free to say and write whatever they wanted. And the marauders then called this system a democracy. But the marauders were still in control, for once again those who came into the highest positions to be voted for were pre-chosen by the marauders, just like those in the highest positions in all major news-outlets or teacher-schools.

“The trick was not to ban the truth but to hide it under a mountain of unimportant tidbits of information, or contradict it immediately, or ridicule the person who says the truth, or never allow important information to be repeated again, or never connect it to other information until eventually it is forgotten.

Hope shook her head in disdain: “How can you forget something really important? I wouldn’t !!”

The Professor smiled: “Maybe you wouldn’t, but on the other hand maybe you wouldn’t even read this information. Look!”

The Professor let the image of a thick newspaper appear. The pages turned slowly all by themselves.

“A new paper like this would be delivered to the people every day. Most thought, that the really important information would be on the front page in big letters. But what, if this information is on page 23 or page 39 and in small letters? Would you read all 48 pages every day with all the tidbits, to find that single one important piece of information, which is printed there in maybe half a year?”

Hope declared stubbornly: “If I had to, I would.”

“Maybe,“ the Professor conceded, “but most people didn’t know they had to. They trusted their news-outlets to inform them well. They trusted especially those which were send electronically over the air.

“These electronic outlets became eventually far more important than the written papers, for here the people could see the faces of those who brought them the information. And seeing the same faces every single day, these news people became somehow mentally part of their own community. People knew every line in their faces like in a family member or a friend.

“In the minds of those who watched them the news narrators became persons to be trusted. And so those newsmen told the people whom they could trust to vote for as their leaders. You do remember what was needed to sustain any community, do you?”

“I know, Great-uncle, you said, it was trust. But instead of voting for leaders,” Hope asked “why didn’t the Dark-Age people just vote for what rules they wanted, like we do?”

“Because,” the Professor explained, “in the Dark-Ages people weren’t allowed to do that. Scientists had convinced most everyone that there was only one form of democracy which had no alternative. The power of decision should be handed over to government leaders, who were people of higher intelligence and competence than others.

“And while most Dark Age people believed themselves to be quite intelligent, they saw most of their neighbors as being far too stupid to make good decisions”

Hope grinned: “That’s stupid.”

The Professor nodded smilingly: “Quite so.”

And then he became serious once again as he continued: “And so the decisions the marauder controlled governments made was to send their populations into one war of conquest after another. The marauder controlled mass-media demonized the governments of the targeted nations as monsters and their people as being better off, if their governments would be changed even by means of war.

“At the same time marauder controlled scientists would tell lies about nature. They would say, that resources were scarce when in reality they were abundant. They told people that carbon fuels like oil and gas were made from dead dinosaurs, even though they already knew better.”

Once again Hope shook her head: “But why would anybody believe something so dumb. Carbon fuels, which are created by pressure and heat, come out of the deep layers in the mantle of the earth. And they are constantly seeping up into higher reservoirs continuously refilling them. This is so clear.”

“Yes, we know that,” the Professor agreed, ”and the Dark Age scientists knew it for quite a long time while they still pretended otherwise. They also called most people and their children parasites on planet Earth. They insisted that there were too many of them living and breathing on earth, destroying the climate so that the earth would become hotter and turn into a desert.”

“Did the people really believe that? How could they?” Hope was agitated. “Didn’t they understand that we need to fear the cold, not the warmth, because we are living in the interglacial part of an ice-age. That’s why we need ice-breaking missions and…and Papa….” she swallowed.

Again the Professor nodded: “Many scientists knew that as well, but pretended otherwise because the marauders pressed them to do so.”

“But why lie about nature and science? It just doesn’t make sense.” Hope shook her head.

The Professor replied: “Remember that the marauders’ ultimate goal was that all nations on earth would in the end come under one set of rules, one trade and one coin-system, a world where all of human kind would become part of a giant pyramid of power.

“Creating artificial shortages of resources they controlled was to help them to reach this goal. Making people believe that they were too many for the planet and that having children was evil would allow them to introduce laws to control who would be allowed to have how many children and who would not.

“To have this kind of control over the children of men had been the dream of the first marauder philosophers nearly 2500 years earlier written in a script called “The Republic”. “

“They were evil those marauders, so, so, so very evil.” Hope spread her fingers in disgust. “Why didn’t God just let them all drop dead?”

The Professor shook his head: “God doesn’t work like this, you know that, don’t you?”

“Why not,” Hope wasn’t content, “ these people, they were not just bad, they were evil.

“They hated children…children! God should have struck them with a bolt of lightning or give them a deadly illness or something. I would have…”

“If you were God, you mean,” the Professor ended the sentence. He stopped for a second, but when Hope averted her eyes and looked to the floor, he continued slowly.

“The marauders also thought they knew better than God. They thought that when they would succeed in controlling everything and everybody they could create a more perfect world than God had, with better people in it.”

Hope protested but in a far lower voice than before: “I’m not really like the marauders, I would never do these terrible things they did. In our age nobody would, nobody.”

The Professor weighed his head: “I’m not so sure about that. Do you remember, I told you once about a friend of mine, who also thought that a more perfect kind of people was needed?”

Hope now looked rather disconcerted.

“John Galt,” she whispered, “yes, I just haven’t thought about him.”

The Professor nodded: “Yes, the marauders’ ideas are often far closer to us, than we want to remember……But let’s go back to our story of the past:

“God didn’t send bolts of lightning, instead he let the sun shine and the rain fall on everyone as he had always done.

“But in time the system that had evolved for several hundreds of years out of the marauders’ philosophy became ever more unstable because it was built on deception.”

The Professor pressed a key on his board, and when the ugly painting of the snake-structure called power-pyramid reappeared, he went on to say:

“And to uphold this system over time ever more preposterous lies needed to be added. But still, most people couldn’t see those lies for what they were, because they were clinging to their community, a giant community of which everyone had become a part of on some level.”

Still fascinated by the ugliness but instinctively knowing that she couldn’t allow herself to be drawn into the image, Hope turned away. She even turned her chair, so she wouldn’t have to glance at the image again, for the Professor made no move to turn it off.

Instead he started talking again: “The levels of the power-pyramid had become the people’s community and while many of them tried everything to rise from one level to the next one above being in constant fear to fall to the one below, they would be as blind to the whole structure as those subjects in the experiment, I have told you about. You remember those people who suffered from cognitive dissonance to reality? They could not see the real color of the false playing cards, the blackness of the hearts and the bloody red of the spades.”

Hope nodded but then added “I still don’t understand. Why didn’t they just take a longer and closer look?” She was mumbling now, still strenuously avoiding to look at the image of the ugly painting.

“Because,” the Professor explained patiently, “recognizing all of the truth at once, would have been too painful and too scary for most people. They would have lost trust in everything they had trusted in before. It would have been as if the ground had been taken from underneath their feet.”

“But why should the truth be more painful, than what the marauders had done to them with their lies.” Hope asked confused: “With their coin-system the marauders would take away people’s possessions, so they could no longer fulfill their needs. They would make the resources scarce and lead the people to war against each other. And they would even tell them that their children were parasites on the earth. What is more scary or painful than all that?”

The Professor took Hope’s both small hands into his big ones and looked her deep into the eyes.

“What would you feel, if I told you, that everything your parents have told you was not true. Everything your sensei taught you and everything you have read, seen and heard on the Peace-Web was a lie. Nothing is the way you thought it was and even I haven’t told you the truth, never, ever…”

The Professor’s gaze didn’t waver, it was near hypnotic. Hope tried to avert her eyes, only to be confronted by the scary image of the ugly painting. Fear rose up in her and doubt. Had he really lied, and the others, had they as well? Hope found it now hard to breath, she started to tremble.

Then the Professor broke the gaze, and Hope pulled her hands away, instead she flung her arms around her great-uncle holding him as tight as she could.

“You would never lie to me, Great-uncle, never. You just wouldn’t.”

The Professor loosened her arms and held her on the shoulders looking her once again straight into the eyes: “You are right, I would never lie to you, my little one.

But it is scary, isn’t it….. to doubt?”

Hope nodded emphatically and then sat down again to listen.

The Professor went on: “Most of the time the people even in the Dark Ages did not lie deliberately to their children, their students, their neighbors, their readers or their listeners. They just didn’t know any better. They were repeating what they had learned and trusted to be true. When they did lie they trusted it to be necessary to protect a greater good.

And so like every other community the pyramid of power was stabilized by the trust of the people.

But in the long run lies just aren’t a very stable foundation, more and more of them are needed to keep the old ones alive.

In time the deceptions became too obvious to go fully unnoticed. And still, most people couldn’t see them, because of their need to trust. But there were a few people with a very special talent…”

“I know, I know,” Hope interrupted, “the grumpies, they had the talent to distrust…….but…nobody believed them.”

“Well,” the Professor said, “nobody, but other grumpies…..at first. But these were the times when the precursor of our Peace-Web had been invented. Now people were able to communicate with one another over far distances and share information without the use of the news-outlets and outside the constriction of teacher-schools. And so, when the grumpies from all over the world could talk to each other, their body of knowledge grew and the truth started to shine its first rays of light unto the mass of lies.”

Now the Professor turned back to the ugly painting, pushed a series of keys and turned it into some kind of animation.

Hope also turned around and watched with fascination what was happening now.

The image zoomed out slightly and now you could see that the gray surrounding which had caused the dreary atmosphere were actually dark clouds. These clouds started to rip apart and small rays of a sun that was still mostly covered started to light up the image. The rays hit the lower parts at first.

The Professor explained: “Slowly but certainly the truth would rock the foundation of lies on which the pyramid was built upon”

The snake-pool at the foundation transformed and turned into mush and the structure started to tremble.

“Yeee,” Hope cheered, “the truth-light is poison for the snakes.”

The Professor smiled and nodded: “And the grumpies´ communication was noticed by others. “

Some of the people within the structure who before had looked apathetic were hit by rays of light and started to lift their heads.

And the Professor continued: “In time the seeds of truth planted in the hearts of those who didn’t believe them at first started to sprout. And the non-grumpies started to join in the pursuit of truth, being able to see what their own fear had hidden from them before. Finally they were able to leave what had caged them in before.”

By now a growing number of people had left the structure and begun to build houses outside it. Some were already tilling the soil and planting food.

The clouds were thinning out more and more and the sun-light had become stronger reaching now to the upper parts of what was supposed to be a pyramid.

The Professor went on: “With more and more truth coming to the light of day the trust of the people in the marauders´ structure, which once had fed into it and stabilized it, eroded. And slowly but certainly the pyramid would crumble.”

The animation showed the decay of the structure. The snake-walls and floors started to wither and then to dissolve into dust. The people in the higher levels let go of the ropes in their hands, instead they used their hands to loosen the nooses around their necks.

Every time anyone of the uniformed men let go of the ropes in his hands some tanks turned into tractors, and missiles turned into cranes. A machine gun that before had been in the hands of one of the uniformed men on the lower levels had now, after he had left the structure, transformed into a plowshare drawn by an oxen.

The snake-ropes, which had connected the different parts of the structure, turned into slithering slopes at first, allowing some of the people to slide safely to the ground. Eventually, however, the ropes turned into dust, like the rest of the withering structure. And those who had missed their opportunity and were still inside, when the floor finally dissolved under their feet, had a rather uncomfortable lending. Because, with the disappearance of the strange structure, it seemed that normal gravity had set in again.

And the Professor went on:

“But different from all the earlier fears, this was not the end of the world. The sky hadn’t fallen and the seas hadn’t risen to cover the lands. Only a pyramid had disappeared from the face of the earth. The people, however, all those who had been inside, they still existed. And the lands to grow the food and the houses to live in and the technology and resources to build, make and trade things were still there as well.

“And because the destruction of the corrupt structure had been a slow process, it had given most people enough time to adjust and rebuild their trust, focusing it now on something better than a pyramid of power or rather Someone better.”

The Professor looked up to the ceiling, while Hope following his gaze nodded in understanding, then he continued: “And the knowledge needed would now be shared. Information would now no longer be monopolized and partitioned, and therefor the knowledge of all people would be growing and growing.”

The image zoomed out slightly more to show a landscape of villages and small towns surrounded by fields, meadows and woods.

The Professor ended his tale: “The Dark Ages had faded into the pages of time and our age had begun to rise.”

The image zoomed in again to show the spot, where the pyramid had been before but now had disappeared without a trace, making room for the construction site of what was quite obviously Hope’s village.

“Does this answer your question?” The Professor asked then unexpectedly.

“What question?” Hope was at a loss for a second, but then lighted up. “Oh, of course, the question why God made grumpies. Sure it does.”

This was the happy ending Hope had been waiting for, but she wasn’t quite satisfied. In every good fairy tale the hero gets to slay the monster and the witch, who had intended to fry and eat Hansel and Gretel, was pushed into the oven herself.

And so she asked: “What about the marauders? What happened to them?”

The Professor shook his head: “You still don’t understand.

“Towards the end of the Dark Ages in just about every nation on earth, the marauders were everywhere, in every city, every village, every street, every house, and even in the minds of everyone. All those enclosed within the pyramid depended on it for all their physical needs, and for their thoughts and their knowledge.

“Yes, when the pyramid finally crumbled, there were a few isolated trials against some of those who seemed to have been the most responsible for wars, war-crimes, and other forms of mass-murder. But most of the former marauders, although they probably were just as guilty or even more so than those on trial, were persuaded to rather become witnesses who could unravel the lies of the past and bring to light the necessary facts needed for the big picture of truth to emerge.

“To some people it didn’t seem quite fair that those who had been the instigators of so much oppression and war weren’t properly punished. However, the more reasonable people realized that a thirst for revenge would have been an obstacle in the process of truth-finding.

“And when the full picture could finally be seen, it brought a few surprises for everyone, since the real image of truth somehow started to turn into a mirror of the past, and it was a discomforting image for most people.

“ Sure, the image told them, those on the highest levels in the coin- and production-system had profited most, and yes, those rich and connected people had seemingly possessed infinitely more power than the average person, but there was far more to it than that.

“When the people started to look closely enough, they could see their own reflections in the past. And it was then that they realized that while inside the pyramid, they themselves—each and every one of them—had participated in its atrocities in one way or another.

“Whether to protect their own livelihoods or, afflicted by cognitive dissonance, they rather sought to protect their fragile peace of mind, they had nonetheless deliberately turned a blind eye to the horrible crimes being committed. They had denied those crimes, even defended them at all cost. And far too often they had played an active role in those crimes. And thus the people realized that at some level, they all had at least a few pieces of marauder inside themselves and that there was only one way in which to diminish these inner marauder-pieces.”

The Professor looked up to the ceiling and cited: “…and forgive us our trespasses, as we…..”

“forgive those who trespass against us…” Hope finished and then considered this for a while before eventually commenting thoughtfully:

“You said diminished, Great-uncle. Does that mean that these pieces of a marauder in the minds of the people were still there, but just smaller?”

“Of course,” the Professor stated, “and they will always be there while people live on earth—the greed, the pride, the desire to control the world and other people….

“They are inside everyone, and sometimes you can see it in the way people talk and act. They are inside you and me as well, you know, a part of our fallible human nature. And when nourished by jealousy, anger, or fear, they will grow and could create another pyramid or a similar monster of power and destruction.”

Hope shuddered and then concluded, “And so, we still need grumpies.”

“Yes,” the Professor agreed, “in every age.”

Hope jumped from her chair. “Maybe, I should tell, Grandma, your story.”

For the first time the Professor looked unsure of himself.

“Hmm,” he said ruefully, “I don’t think my sister appreciates a long answer to a short question. Even when we were little she told me I talked too much.”

“Oh, Great-uncle, I think she likes your answers now, even if they are long. Because she always sends me to you, when I have a question, just like Mamma does. And she would not do that, if she wouldn’t like your answers, because she loves me a lot.”

The Professor smiled gratified.

And Hope reconsidered: “Maybe you should tell it to Grandma yourself. I will go and buy a panini now. And I will tell Mr. Wang “Assalaamu aleikum”.”

The Professor laid his hand on Hope’s shoulder while he followed her to the door: “You do that, my little one, you do that!”

***

We are on our way to Nanami and Pedro Allegri now. Nanami is the woman who gave away her child, because she loves her more than anything else.

The heavy traffic is slowing down our progress. Darryl and my Spesaeterna companions are silent. We are preparing ourselves mentally for the next steps, while Darryl is communicating with his own men as well as with the other teams through his wrist-control.

We are making progress,” he informs us. “Everyone will be at their assigned location soon.”

Mr Wang grumbles his approval, while everyone else says nothing. The silence drives me once again into the darker realms of my thoughts.

If all goes as planned, Nanami will be reunited with her child tonight and they will stay together for ever.

But I was barely given three weeks with my mother.

On the twentieth day, the moment I came down to the basement, I found Luscinia outside my mother’s door looking deeply worried. I sensed that she was holding back tears.

She stopped me from entering right away by whispering: “Inessa has done so well the last few weeks, ever since you have come back into her life. I thought she was recovering. I thought the three of us would leave together…”

But…” now tears started dropping down from her eyes, “since last night she has gotten weaker again, weaker than I have ever seen her before. She is coughing all the time, she can’t eat and she barely can breath. I’m afraid, Jonathan, that…”

She’ll be alright,” I denied her implication and took Luscinia in my arms trying to reassure myself as much as her.

But when I entered the room, I saw my mother in the same state I had seen her the first time three weeks earlier. No, it was even worse.

Weakly she lifted one hand in a motion to signal Luscinia and me to come closer. Then she was shaken by a seemingly endless coughing attack. Luscinia took her into her arms to steady her, trying to relieve her pain. I only watched helplessly, realizing what was going to happen, but still refused to acknowledge it.

I need to tell you one more thing,” my mother whispered after the attack was over, her voice barely audible now. I had to kneel down and get closer to hear what she was saying.

You know your father’s society?” she whispered.

Yes, I know it,” I answered, wondering at the seemingly arbitrary question. “He will initiate me in it next month on my birthday. But this is not important right now, Mamma. You need to spare your breath.”

Yes, Thani, it is important,” she whispered urgently. “It’s because of this society, that I am here. I went to a meeting.”

I looked at her in disbelief: “They don’t allow women.”

They don’t,” my mother agreed, “but I was there once and I was hiding and then I was caught, but only after I heard something…something…”

Another cough interrupted her and when it was finished, her voice, weak as it was, became even more urgent: “You need to make a recording from their meetings and you need to take it with you to the outside-world.”

Why?” I asked, but my mother started coughing again, a suffocating cough.

Luscinia,” I called out, “do something, please do something!” Together we lifted my mother in a sitting position. She stopped coughing and gave us both a weak but grateful smile. She tried to say something more, but then she only gave us another smile, a smile filled with love. And then the light in her eyes broke.

No,” I cried, “this can’t be!”

I held on to her “Mamma, please, no Mamma, come back. It’s not fair, not fair, we need more time, more time…”

But our time together was over, and she didn’t come back. There was only Luscinia kneeling next to me, and she was crying as hard as I did myself.

CHAPTER 8

 

 

It was dark now, all dark. Everything had faded away, the whole world. Nothing was left.

But the darkness was not quite black, more a kind of brownish gray. There was still a memory of color.

But that was all…just a memory…nothing more. There was an auditory memory as well, a hissing and flowing, an ebbing and swelling, some static, then a rhythm to it: bum..bu..bu..bumm, bum..bu..bu..bumm, a heart-beat…

“Open your eyes! Please open your eyes!”

A voice was talking in his memory, a clear voice.

It was Hope’s voice.

And then he remembered: He was somebody, a person, but he was not Hope.

“Please, great….great…., please… Mr. Ragnarsson, open your eyes. I can’t see anything.”

Hope’s voice sounded scared and now he remembered: Yes, he was Mr. Ragnarsson, but Hope should…

“Just call me David.” David’s voice sounded rough and was barely audible even to him. And there was a sour dryness in his throat, as if he hadn’t swallowed for a very long time.

And now he could also sense the rest of his body. It felt stiff and painful. He heard himself breathing laboriously, in and out through his mouth. Now he closed his mouth. Yes, he was able to breathe through his nose, which was less painful, and now he could feel his face, his eyes. He tried to open them even though his eyelids seemed so very heavy, nearly too heavy for the task. And when he finally managed it, there was nothing there in front of his eyes but a blurry mess of colors swirling into each other and then moving from side to side.

But then, suddenly, he saw Hope quite clearly. She was sitting next to him on the bench, looking very worried. He concentrated on her face, and with this, the twirling colors that had surrounded her slowly came into focus.

There was a street in front of him, a red Ford was passing, a new Focus, he thought. But it must have exhaust problems, since it was far too loud, hurting his ears, giving him a headache. And those two middle-aged women who were passing him were also too loud. One of them was talking about a boy from high-school being far too old to be constantly hanging around her Jenny, who was just thirteen.

David had to agree, thirteen was far too young for Jenny to start dating anyone, and that boy, he should be… Then David remembered that he knew neither Jenny nor her mother.

But he knew Hope, she was family, and so he asked her again: “Don’t call me Mr. Ragnarsson; I thought I was your great, great…”

“ Yes,” Hope agreed, “but that's such a long title. And you don't look so very old, like a great-great- and-so-on-grandfather should look. So what else should I call you?”

“Just call me….” David began and then stopped. By now he had realized that Hope’s society was far more formal than his. People, although they knew each other well, still rarely seemed to be on a first-name basis. And children always seemed to call their elders by title rather than by name.

“Alright, you can call me Uncle David,” he conceded. Then he went quiet.

Yes, he was David, uncle or five-times-great-grandfather or maybe just plain crazy, but he was himself. And he was sitting on a park-bench. He had come back to the world of the South Bronx in the beginning of the 21st century with painfully tingling legs and a queasy stomach.

“I’m sorry,” said Hope, “I’m really sorry. I think you have been inside my memories for too long a time. I think it’s not good for you. It made you sick and maybe confused…… and me too. I kind of forgot where I was…”

“I forgot, too,” David murmured.

He had not only forgotten where he was, but who he was. For a while there had no longer been a difference between him and Hope. He had not been just a faceless observer with no opinion of his own, but ever so much more than that: he had fully entered into Hope’s consciousness. Her thoughts, her feelings, and her fears had become his.

Her anger over the injustices of the past had also been his, as had her revulsion at “the ugly painting.”

Now David had to concentrate in order to sort himself out. He was not a thirteen-year-old teenager of the twenty-third century; he was an adult who appreciated art as most educated New Yorkers would in his time.

What revolted him was not the Salvador Dali style of the painting and the implied violence portrayed in it, but the message the Professor had read into it.

It seemed to him as if all the conspiracy theories of his time had been splashed onto the green-brown snake colors of the absurd structure and into the contorted figures populating it.

David absolutely hated conspiracy theories and always had. His world had been one of provable and touchable facts presented by experts, trustworthy authorities. Had this been a year ago, he would have laughed at the idea of a ruling pyramid with an all-seeing eye, contorted or otherwise. He would have recognized it as the favorite image of tin-foil-hat ideologues, an image right up there with flying saucers and alien abductors.

But this wasn’t a year ago, it was now… well, a now that was 212 years further along than now now, and everything had changed– at least according to Hope.

I need a drink, thought David, and he got to his feet. The tingling in his body had subsided, but his legs still felt wobbly and his stomach felt even queasier. His headache increased and David noticed that cold sweat was running down his back.

I really need a drink, David thought, looking around and trying to remember where the next liquor store was located in that neighborhood. And then a realization struck him, a truth he hadn’t seen before, although he had acted on it every day for the past how many months:

He had been drinking not because the world had treated him badly but because he had lost his fundamental trust in it. David felt unsteady.

The unbidden image of snakes turning into mush came into his mind. He shook it off and concentrated on his train of thoughts … painful, nearly unbearable thoughts.

In all those months David had justified his drinking as a natural reaction to losing his job and then losing Tina and Mikey.

But Tina hadn’t left him just in order to distance herself from him to save her own career, as he had told himself time and again. No, she actually had been quite supportive of him in the beginning, accepting without question that David the realist had indeed discovered a vast and dangerous conspiracy and then had become a victim of it. She had stood by him for months when nobody else did, until there was no one left to stand by anymore because the David she had trusted in was no longer there.

She had left because David had been drinking himself into near unconsciousness most days.

And then, even on the very day of the custody hearings, David hadn’t been fully sober. Instead, expecting the judge to know about the scandal surrounding him and to be “in on it” with the “rest of them”, David had been uttering drunken slurs directed at the judge, Tina, and the rest of the world. And so David had forfeited all chance of visitation rights with his son.

He had lost Mikey because he had been drinking; he had lost Tina because he had been drinking; and he had been unable to find a new job because he had been drinking. And David had started drinking because he had lost faith in what for him had been the most important thing in his life, even more important than the woman he had loved and more important than his own son: his profession.

No matter how screwed up the world of business and politics had been -and David couldn't be cynical enough about that- but there was still the media, his media, the white knights in shining armor, the protectors of the innocent, the avengers of evil.

Yes, David had indeed held onto these naive school-boy believes about the media as the fourth power in his nation, which was keeping the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government on the straight and narrow path of democracy by exposing all the misdemeanors and corruption within them, and that because of the free media American democracy was still the best system in the world.

And then David was betrayed by those he had trusted in the most. And his world had fallen apart.

David felt his stomach turn. There was a tree next to the bench he was sitting on. He staggered behind it and then threw up. The entire contents of his stomach came up and so did the pain that had pressed it together and had been choking him for so long. And so he puked and puked and puked until nothing was left inside but emptiness and sadness for the loss.

Now the queasiness was gone and even his headache had subsided, but David still felt weak in the knees and needed to steady himself against the tree. Then all of a sudden, he heard a rattling behind him and somebody murmuring. And before he could even turn his head, a fist was pushed directly under his nose, though without actually touching him. He jerked back, ready to defend himself, and nearly lost his balance.

But then the fist opened and in the open palm lay a tiny packet. Surprised, David turned his head and was even more astonished to discover that the owner of the hand was the same homeless woman he had met earlier that day. Just like before, she didn’t look at him but stared straight ahead while her mumbling grew louder.

David once again looked at the packet to make sure he hadn’t been mistaken, but yes, this was indeed one of those moist towelettes like you get after a meal in an airplane, although this woman surely hadn’t been on an airplane for quite a while.

David could now understand what she was mumbling: “Man sitting on a bench dreaming, man waking up talking, man standing up walking behind a tree, man throwing up behind the tree, man wiping his face, man sitting on a bench dreaming…..”

The woman was standing motionless, still holding her hand under David’s face without looking at him.

David took the packet from her hand and mumbled “Thank you.”

The woman pulled her hand back, grabbed her shopping-cart once again with both hands and moved on talking to herself without a pause: “…man waking up talking, man standing up walking behind a tree, man throwing up behind the tree, man wiping his face….”

David opened the packet and wiped his face. The towelette was lemon-perfumed. It was reviving for his senses. David looked thoughtfully at the figure who was now slowly disappearing around the next corner.

“I could have sworn she wouldn’t even notice anybody around her, let alone think about handing someone a wipe when he needs it,” David observed out loud.

“Well, she did notice you before,” Hope replied reasonably.

“That was after she bumped into my back…..oh well… let’s just go to the bus-stop now. The bus should be coming soon. Look, over there are already a bunch of people waiting.” David started to walk.

Hope followed, but her thoughts were still with the homeless woman: “Her mind is half-way to heaven, that’s why she knew what you needed.”

“Half-way to heaven? What do you mean? You think she is dying?” David asked in surprise.

“Oh no, probably not right now, but that’s not what that saying means,” Hope answered with a smile.

“We just use that expression when people do not think or talk in the way most people do. Then we say that their mind is half-way to heaven and that they can bring blessings from heaven because of it, to all the people who come close to them. And you know, Uncle David, that’s really true.

“There is this one girl who lives in our community on the eighth floor. Her name is Tabitha. She is 22 years old already. When she was a little girl, she had an accident outside in the woods and her brain was without oxygen for too long a time. Afterwards she could no longer walk or talk like us anymore. Now she only sits in her special massage chair all day in front of her parents’ apartment.

“Sometimes she sleeps and sometimes she opens her eyes and smiles at you. And everyone who walks by takes her hand. And all the children lay her hand upon their heads to receive the blessings. And people who have many worries, even some people from other communities, they come to sit next to Tabitha and talk to her, and she listens even with her eyes closed.

“And when Tabitha opens her eyes and smiles at you, it feels as if the stone that was sitting in your stomach and pressing on your lungs and even all the way up to your throat, well, it all of a sudden dissolves.”

David could feel Hope’s description in his own stomach and he knew she was talking from experience. There had been a time when Hope had needed this Tabitha girl quite often.

David smiled sympathetically at Hope. He had now reached the bus-stop and stepped into line behind a line of people.

The woman in front of him was pushing a baby carriage with one hand and holding on to a little girl of about three years of age with the other. The girl had obviously seen something on the ground that had captured her interest, something that looked like a fancy glittering candy-wrapper.

At just that moment, the wind blew the glittery thing a couple of feet away from her. But there was no more time to investigate if it was worthwhile to pick it up since the bus had now arrived. This at least was the opinion of her mother, who was now engaged in a heavy struggle to lift the baby-carriage into the bus with one hand while not letting go of her three-year-old, who begged to differ on the matter.

“May I help you?” David offered, already reaching for the handle of the baby-carriage. The young mother gripped it even more tightly while looking up suspiciously. “I can manage,” she claimed.

David turned on the famous smile that had once opened so many doors and hearts for him. “Please,” he added.

And like it had done so many times before, the smile broke the woman’s resistance: “Thank you, I am grateful.”

David lifted the carriage into the bus, and then, after paying his fare, he pushed it down the aisle, looking down at the still-sleeping baby. In the middle section David stopped, for there were belts for securing buggies, carriages and luggage.

The woman once again thanked David for his kindness, smiling back at him before sitting down next to her baby, placing her older daughter on her lap, and cuddling her. But the little girl was still pouting about having missed out on a presumed treasure.

David gazed at the scene once more, thinking about Mikey and Tina.

The little girl had now stopped squirming and had allowed her mother to comfort her. David gave the mother and child another smile, realizing that if the young mother had met him yesterday, she would never have let go of the carriage.

Then it struck David that until today he had not smiled for a very long time, not counting the sarcastic half-smiles that barely touched his lips. And he also realized that it was true what they said about smiling–it releases the happy hormones in your brain.

Of course David had had this experience before, starting during his last year of high-school when, after years of anger and rebellion, he had met Mr Aristes, this one special teacher who had taught him besides many other things also about the power of a smile. And so David had started to smile his way out of his troubles.

At first those smiles hadn’t been quite genuine, and so they sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. But then he had noticed that when he really put his heart into his smile, something happened, not only to the people he targeted with it but also to himself. The world looked better, as well as the people in it.

For the last year he had forgotten that …. until he met Hope.

David sighed before turning away and walking further down the aisle. “Oh Mikey,” he thought, feeling once again the lump in his throat.

David decided that he didn’t want the people to think he was crazy, so he concentrated in order to formulate his next words only within his mind:

“Maybe I could use a session with your therapist Ms. Tabitha as well.”

Hope had heard his words clearly, but she looked confused: “What is a therapist?” she asked.

“You don’t know?” David was surprised. “Well, I guess you could describe a therapist as somebody who listens to all your problems, like this Tabitha girl you were talking about. Only most therapists do not only listen, but also talk to you.”

“Oh… “ Hope smiled understandingly, “somebody like your priest or your best friend or your parents or your sister or somebody like my Great-uncle Professor.”

“I guess you are right.” David didn’t elaborate any further. Maybe Hope was right. Maybe the therapists of today, the psychologists or psychiatrists, were indeed just substitutes.

But at the moment, David had a few questions for Hope that seemed more important.

There were quite a few empty seats on the bus but instead of sitting down, David continued all the way to the platform at the back of the bus. Nobody else was there and David could be sure he wouldn’t be overheard if he slipped up and forgot himself by talking out loud. After sitting for hours on that park-bench, standing for a while would do him good. And besides, it would give Hope a better view of 21st century New York, which seemed so different from Hope’s 23rd century.

If Hope’s world was real, then the future had taken a very strange, unexpected, and unpredicted course. David suspected that this might have something to do with how people of that age saw the past, his own age, but also the times further back.

“The story your great-uncle told you… do all the people in your time see the past like that?” David asked.

Hope hesitated for a second and then said: “Of course the story about the stone-age people is only a story. Great-uncle Professor made it up so I could understand better, just like the painting isn’t about a real pyramid, you see. I mean, nobody lives in a building made from snakes.”

“Are you sure,” David asked innocently, “not even in my age? You haven’t seen enough of my world yet. Look over there! It’s enormous and look at those teeth, don’t you see them?”

He pointed at a movie-theater they had just past where a giant slithery reptile filled the wall, advertising an alien invasion movie.

Hope stared fascinated at the image, while the bus moved on.

“You are making fun of me,” she accused David.

“Sorry,” David conceded, “but the way your great-uncle describes the past doesn’t sound to me much different than an alien invasion movie. You would call it an “image-story”, I guess, like the one they were showing in that movie-theater back there. Does everybody really see history like this in your time?”

Hope nodded: “Yes, because this is how it was. It is written on the Peace-Web and Sensei talks about many of the things Great-uncle Professor was talking about, only Sensei doesn’t do it all at once, but little by little.

“Last month Sensei even showed us an image-story from a few centuries ago in his lesson about ‘The Coin System of the Dark Ages’. It was called ‘Money as Debt’. In that story there is a sharp-toothed monster called Interest which gets bigger and bigger until it devours the whole planet Earth.”

Now Hope conjured up the big-mouthed monster in front of David’s eyes. “Do you want to see the whole image-story?” she asked helpfully.

David shook his head: “I’ve watched it before.”

And he had. Surfing the net, not quite sober at the time, he had found the cartoon quite funny. But after waking up with a hang-over, he had felt more irritated than amused when thinking about it.

It was just too primitive an explanation for the world’s financial system. No monetary system could ever work like that.

But then, the system of Hope’s world seemed even more primitive. And it worked on what? Good will?

“Your great-uncle devoted a rather large part of his history lesson to our monetary system; does he really believe that our money is the root of all evil?” David inquired

“Well,” Hope answered slowly, “kind of. You see your coin– I mean “monetary” system is based on greed and on scarcity. It makes you feel as if there is never enough to fill everybody’s needs, and therefore you need to fight for the scarce money and horde it so you will be able to always buy whatever you need.”

“But I still don’t understand,” David interrupted, “how your system of floating coins, as you call them, could possibly work. If you constantly have to keep your account low in order to do business and then pay into all kind of project pots, how can you ever save any money for later use, like when you are old and cannot work anymore?”

“People do not need to horde coins for when they are old!” Hope exclaimed. “That would be ridiculous. Coins have no value, they are just for exchanging valuable goods. Houses have value and shops, but not coins.

“People can buy a second apartment with their extra coins and rent it to younger people or to tourists to make a living when they are too old to work.

“Most older people are part owners of our biggest production shop, and some have used their extra coins to help young people to open a small production or trading shop or a restaurant, and they then become part-owners.

“And if someone has never been able to buy anything of value and is too old or too sick to work for a living, he or she will be cared for by the community’s double tith.”

“Double tith, what is that?” David asked.

Hope explained: “One tith, a small part of the coins you earn, you should put into the pot for all the work of the community’s health-supporters, to pay for the work of the doctors and nurses and massage people and apothecaries. And people pay the other tith into their religion pot for the religious workers.

“For the Christians, those are the priest and the deacons who visit all the old and lonely and sick residents of the village, and they can then see who needs the support of coins from the religion pot.

“Nobody ever goes hungry or in need of the necessities of life in our village. Not like in the Dark Ages,” Hope insisted.

“Sensei taught us that the monetary systems of the past defined the cultures of their ages and the mindsets of their people. And likewise, the cultures and mindsets defined the “interpersonal and intercommunity” relationships.” Hope pronounced the words slowly, they obviously did not belong to her regular vocabulary.

“Artificial scarcity of buying power created artificial scarcity of resources and led to hunger and despair and also to violence and war,” Hope cited her teacher.

“Now wait a minute,” David protested, “let’s say money is made scarce, even systematically so; doesn’t this just reflect the scarcity of the resources? More money available would just increase the prices on limited resources.”

Hope shook her head emphatically: “Since at least the middle of the Dark Ages, there were no real scarcities of resources any more, only artificial ones.”

Now David shook his head: “So you don’t believe that we had droughts or storms or earthquakes or other natural disasters which destroyed harvests?”

“Of course there were those,” Hope agreed, “but not everywhere at the same time. And since trade-lines were established already, the abundance in one place could have been easily shipped to the other place where there was need.

“But those who were in need lacked the coins to buy the necessities and those who had abundance of food were afraid of not getting enough coins to pay their own debts to the banks. So instead of sharing their abundance, they destroyed it so as to create scarcity, because scarcity increased the coin-value of goods.”

“Alright, let’s say theoretically we have enough food to feed the planet,” David conceded. “There are other resources which are definitely not abundant: rare earth minerals, for instance.”

Hope shook her head: “In our system, coins to buy what you need are never scarce. And if any resources are scarce, they are replaced partially or completely by others that are abundant. This is what human ingenuity is for, to find solutions to problems, especially problems of scarcity.

“And,” she added proudly, “in our time, the knowledge of discovered solutions is being spread all over the world via the Peace-Web.”

It truly sounded great! David was impressed, but he still had questions: “The Professor said that we in our age believed that fossil fuels were created from dinosaur remains. Of course we don’t believe that, but we do think they come from the remains of ancient life-forms and that therefore there is a limited supply.

“Do you still use oil and gas as fuels? Are there still any left?”

Hope nodded: “Sure there are, our nation owns it’s own gas-well and there is a gas-line to our village. But we have not used it for our energy needs for many, many years. We could use it though to supply as much of our needs as we wanted to. But you see, if we were to only use those carbon fuels, then we would not be energy-sovereign in our village.

“For us to be sovereign means that we must at least have the potential to be self-sufficient in food and energy production. And then, even if some day we no longer want to trade with the villages in the district or any other villages in the world because they make conditions for trade which we do not like, then we can substitute things we can produce ourselves for those which we previously traded.

“And it would just take too much work and too many tools and machines for our village if we would want to drill and operate our own well. And so we have over time replaced the fuels from our nation’s gas-well with more solar-ray and solar-heat panels and more wind-wheels and deeper thermo-lines under-ground.”

“Thermo-lines?” David asked

“ We use the difference between above- and below-ground temperature to heat our apartments and the community space in the winter and to cool them in the summer,” Hope explained and then went on:

“And of course, most important is the waste-gas energy. You know–from all the biological left-over material in our communities, from the hen-houses and from the cows and also when people go to the bathroom…you understand, don’t you?” Hope blushed and grinned.

David smiled, nodded, and then asked skeptically: “But don’t you refrain from using carbon fuels because those fuels might harm the climate? That would certainly be my concern if carbon fuels were indeed available in unlimited supply. I think their unlimited use would be catastrophic for the world’s climate.

“The constant increase of CO2 in the air might lead to subsequent increases of other atmospheric gases which would eventually turn Earth into another Venus……

“I know, I know,” David interrupted himself before Hope could do so; “they teach you that you have to fear the cold not the warmth. But I think you are wrong, your people just don’t want to admit it. ”

Hope shook her head once again in disbelief: “What a strange notion of the climate you people have, putting everything on one single gas. Even in our time we don’t know all the factors which influence the climate yet, sensei told us. “

Then Hope went on to cite her school-learned knowledge: “CO2 is one factor and Methane gas another, though the percentage of CO2 in the long past pre-human ages was several times higher than it is now. In those ages far more plants and many more large plant-eating animals would exist here on earth.

“Last year Sensei taught us about the slight regular variations of the sun’s cycle and also about the irregular sun-explosions which cause an increase or decrease in cosmic winds. Our scientists say that those two together with continental shifts, volcanic eruptions, water-vapor and cloud-formations are the most likely triggers of warmer or cooler climate periods.

“Within all of earth’s history overall temperature was often a lot warmer and sometimes a lot colder than it is now. In our time it is getting colder. And our scientists from their research assume that we are already at the end of the Holocene, which is the current inter-glacial time. They project that a new glaciation will be starting in the next thousand years or so, a new ice-age.

“This is why the International-Help-Board organizes the ice-breaking assignments, to keep the world in the inter-glacial age. Sensei says that maybe one day many, many hundreds of years from now, we might come to the balance of the Holocene Maximum 8000 years ago, which was the warmest and most fertile time of our current inter-glacial age. But for now, preventing further cooling is all we can hope for.”

Now David was more than skeptical: “How does ice-breaking prevent cooling?”

“Because it might prevent the feedback of the ice,” Hope explained and went into detail:

“Cooler periods will build up more ice in the winter than is melted in the summer. That increased mass of ice has then a further refrigerating effect on the earth’s climate, it also is so white that it reflects solar heat back into space instead of retaining it. The result is even less ice-melting in the summer. The feedback of the increased ice-levels will make the cooling process go faster and faster until half of the northern hemisphere will be covered with ice.

“However, if we can melt as much ice every year as is being built up in the winter and not melted in the summer, then we can break that vicious feed-back cycle. We can save our lands from the life-destroying ice-masses. That will be good for us and for all the animals and plants that live with us on earth. This is one important way we are going to be a blessing to our planet, says Sensei.”

It sounded all hunky-dory, but David was far from being convinced. The thought of having to fear cooling instead of warming and of viewing mankind as a blessing for the planet instead of a curse was too alien to David’s understanding of the world. It contradicted too many of the theories he had been taught throughout his life.

He shook his head: “I don’t believe it….. I know, I know exactly what you are thinking: I’m a victim of cognitive dissonance–I only see what I expect to see and believe what I am taught to believe.

“But tell me one thing, Hope. How can you be so dam….” he swallowed the word and began again: “How can you be so very sure that you yourself are not a victim of cognitive dissonance–that you and the people of your time don’t believe things that are untrue, such as false scientific theories, for instance? Couldn’t it be that it is your people who turn falsities into supposedly proven facts, creating a fake science?”

Hope bit her lip again, thinking hard for a while: “I guess you might be right and we could be just as wrong as you are. But after all, we’ve had more than 200 additional years within which to develop our science and watch the climate. It stands to reason that we have learned something during that time, doesn’t it?”

Hope’s words sounded a bit smug to David, but on the other hand, they were reasonable. But then David remembered all the other stuff the Professor had claimed in his little story. For crying out loud– he had nearly made him, or at least Hope, cheer on the burning of heretics!

Well, he actually hadn’t, David had to admit, but still….. the way the Professor had portrayed history, it was so… so… different. The good guys that David had been taught about had become the Professor’s bad guys. It was practically an upside-down history…way too much for David to accept.

“Your great-uncle sure does talk a lot,” David commented.

“I like how he talks,” Hope insisted. She had of course listened in on David’s thoughts and she was more than eager to defend her beloved great-uncle: “He talks to me as if I were a grown-up. He doesn’t think that I’m too young to understand difficult topics like most of the other grown-ups do.”

David was quiet while watching the houses pass by. Concentrating on the so-familiar scenery had a calming effect on him. By now they had left the Bronx and the bus was slowly moving through the streets of Manhattan with its far taller buildings and more posh surroundings. David felt Hope appraising the view through the bus window with a mixture of fascination and incredulity. She had never seen anything like this before.

But David had still more questions: “You know, Hope, the strangest part of your great-uncle’s history story is the end, when the so-called power-pyramid suddenly dissolved and disappeared. All the time he was going on and on about those “evil” marauders who constantly increased in power and wealth, and then all of a sudden they would voluntarily, without any violent revolutions let go of their power because of some “truth-light”. And there weren’t even any mass-trials and cries for revenge…powerful elites dissolving themselves in the blink of an eye? It just doesn’t sound feasible.”

“But it happened,” Hope protested, “it really did! Just not in the blink of an eye. It took time, like all of history; in fact, it took lots of time, nearly a whole century, before the world was fully transformed. Only a few weeks back we were talking about this period of transition in school.”

David looked very skeptical, but Hope went on: “When the truth about the false causes of war came to light, more and more soldiers didn’t want to go to war and shoot any more, and judges did not want to put those who refused to fight into prison any more.

“When the truth about the coin-system was told everywhere, those same judges no longer wanted to decide in favor of the banks any more, and policemen no longer wanted to throw people out of their homes or from their lands any more.

“At the same time people all over the world also started to make their own village-coins to trade with each other.

“Villages as well as big and small towns started to open banks which no longer belonged to any marauders.

“More and more people, and eventually, all the people, turned away from the marauders’ banks and instead fulfilled their coin needs at the small banks or used village-coins.

“They also started to prefer trading with little production shops instead of with the giant ones owned by the marauders and their big banks.

“And when the marauder banks could no longer convince enough people to trade with them, they lost their power to exist, and so did the giant production shops they owned.

“When more truths came to light and more lies were uncovered, then even the politicians no longer wanted to be on the side of the marauders any more. As the marauder philosophies lost their power over the minds of the people, the thinking changed. At that point in time all banks were abolished and replaced with village-accounts to allow villages all over the world to trade with each other, and nobody was allowed to take any interest at all.

“And this was finally the time when the politicians decided to make themselves obsolete, so that instead of giving the decision-making power to politicians, the people in the villages could now decide for themselves what rules they wanted for their village.

David shook his head:

“Impossible, absolutely impossible,” he said out loud before he remembered again where he was and formulated his disbelief in his mind:

“A military that refuses to go to war, politicians who make themselves obsolete, a globalized world that decentralizes into villages, and powerful moneyed elites who do nothing when their wealth and power is destroyed……it would be against human nature, against historic precedence, against logic….. how?!”

Hope was frustrated by such a lack of understanding and asked urgently:

“Don’t you see? When the truth-light shines and the excuses for doing bad things are no longer there, then the thinking of almost everybody changes. And then, what people did and thought before becomes shameful.

“Greed becomes shameful, selfishness and not sharing become shameful, power-hunger also becomes shameful. And so the sons and daughters of the marauders no longer wanted to be like their parents because they could feel the shame. Instead they came forward and told what they knew, helping the truth to come to light…”

Hope’s voice faded. And although her words had described a positive process, David all of a sudden felt a large wave of pain emanating from her. He looked at her in surprise. Then he noticed that the words “Nephilim City” were once again floating through Hope’s mind and were then immediately blocked out.

David felt even more surprised when her pain turned into raging anger.

The bus had stopped, probably at a stoplight, for the traffic itself didn’t seem to be too heavy at the moment. There was quite a bit to see: a shopping-mall on the lower floors of a high-rise office building, crowds of shoppers entering and leaving, a couple of tourists arguing over a map and a man bending backwards so deeply he nearly fell on his behind, just so he could find the right camera angle for the picture he was taking, while his wife or girlfriend was laughing her head off.

But Hope seemed to be interested neither in the buildings nor in the people. She was staring at the most unimportant part of the scenery, a billboard ad for an investment-bank situated on one of the upper floors of the high-rise. It pictured a couple of well-dressed models, the woman balancing a seemingly weightless portfolio on her right index-finger.

The slogan above the picture read: “Successful People Entrust Their Futures to Us!”

David could feel Hope’s anger like an overwhelming wave on his consciousness, but for all the world, he couldn’t figure out what had triggered this overreaction.

“Hope, this is nothing,” he tried to soothe her. “It is just an ad, it has nothing to do with the real future.”

Hope kept on staring as if she hadn’t heard him. The bus started to move again and they left the billboard behind. Finally Hope began to talk, and what she said was even more surprising to David: “I hate her clothing! That ugly, ugly clothing!”

Now it was David’s turn to stare. The woman had been wearing a slinky designer evening gown with a plunging neckline and a side cut that reached nearly to her hip, leaving a generous view of an impossibly long leg and an overall perfect figure.

Now David remembered that the two models on the billboard were actually actors in a recent blockbuster. David had only seen the trailers and if he recalled correctly, the lady had used her long legs to do a lot of kicking a.. .

David started to laugh: “Her dress–that is what you are angry about? I do realize that tastes in clothes are different in your century. Hey–your clothing style wouldn’t exactly be considered cool in ours either, but that shouldn’t get anybody riled up. After all, fashions do change over time.”

Hope shook her head violently: “My clothing isn’t supposed to be cool all the time. Mostly it is supposed to keep me warm. The fibers are thermostatic, they always keep me at optimal temperature, warming me when it is cold around me and then cooling me down when it is hot or when I’m running or I’m feverish.

“The controls and batteries are in here and here,” she said, touching her shoulder-pads. “And from here and here,“ she continued, pointing at her cuffs and the brim of her cap, “comes warm or cool air blowing over my face and my hands. This is perfect clothing for people. But that,” she pointed back towards the billboard, “is not clothing to keep you warm…or cool. It is clothing for hurting the women who have to wear it.”

Now David shook his head in disbelief. ”That dress is considered beautiful and fashionable right now. And except for maybe the husband–when he gets the bill after she has bought the dress–it isn’t hurting anybody. As a matter of fact, many women would give anything to be able to afford such a dress or to be able to wear it in the way that actress on the billboard does.”

Hope was still unreasonably angry: “It is not beautiful, not for women. And that woman is only wearing such a dress because otherwise she cannot make a living. It is made for men, and only for men, so that they can look at a woman’s naked skin.

“This is why men force them to wear that kind of clothing. They make women walk around half-naked to humiliate them, while they themselves go around fully dressed, like that man next to the woman in the picture. These Dark Age men, these evil, evil men. They want to make every woman into something, something….

“I don’t know, something to use–not a person any more. First they look at her with greedy eyes, talk to her in ugly words and then they hurt her, they hurt her!!!”

Hope was shouting now, so loudly that David instinctively looked around, but of course nobody could hear Hope but him.

What on earth had provoked this vehement attack on his world and how should he respond? Then a suspicion came to him.

He tried to spell it out delicately: “Has somebody maybe hurt you in this way?”

Hope shook her head in protest: “No, of course not!”

“Then somebody else was hurt, somebody you know?” David questioned further.

Hope answered reluctantly: “I only know her a little; she is nearly eight years older than me. But yes she was hurt badly, so badly….”

David realized that although Hope claimed to not know her very well, she still seemed to identify with this girl and so he asked carefully: “And did a dress like this play a part in what happened to that girl?”

Hope nodded: “They forced her to wear clothing like that and then ……….” Hope closed her eyes and tears streamed down her face.

“Did it happen in your village?” David asked

Hope shook her head in stark protest: “No, of course not! Nobody would hurt a woman that way in my village…. not ever. And nobody would make a dress like that in my village or in any of the other villages around. It would be against the coupling rules.”

“Coupling rules?”

Hope started to explain: “Coupling means when a man and a woman….” She pressed both of her palms together, seemingly in a gesture of prayer but David understood what she meant: “I see. But what are coupling rules?”

Hope dried her tears and her voice slowly steadied; explaining her world’s rules seemed to calm her.

“Coupling is the beautiful union between between married spouses but only appropriate within a private place and behind closed doors. Everything that leads to inappropriate coupling desire is forbidden. This includes nakedness and coupling kisses in public as well as coupling images and image-stories.”

Then she added: “A dress like the one in the picture we saw before would be considered nakedness in public.”

David had suspected, judging from the dress-code of Hope’s village, that her world was a bit on the Puritan side, but those “coupling rules” were far stricter than he had expected, and he surely disliked this twist of the future back to the past.

Without thinking, he blurted out in his thoughts: “And whoever breaks those rules gets stoned, right?”

He regretted his remark immediately. It had been tasteless, and he really hadn’t wanted to get Hope more upset than she already was.

But she didn’t take it too badly: “Stoned? You mean like in the Bible? No, of course we don’t do that. We never kill anybody as a punishment for rule breaking–that’s what you Dark Age people do. No, people who break the coupling rules are simply exiled like all other serious rule-breakers.”

“Exiled?” David asked, wondering what that meant.

Hope explained calmly: “If a rule-breaker is an adolescent, meaning a person who is between fifteen and 25 years of age, the village-council will sentence him or her to temporary exile. In adolescence, hormones are so strong they can confuse the mind and make people act in ways they shouldn’t. And often people cannot control themselves properly.

“The exile will last for a few weeks or months or sometimes a year or longer, depending on how serious the rule-breaking was.

“The exile gets the loan of a sun-vehicle from his or her community and then becomes a traveler. One can sleep in the vehicle, and it is equipped with a data-bank about nature and with maps and a scanner for plants that can determine which fruits or leaves or roots of plants are edible.

“It also comes with a fire-maker tool and fire-protection stones which create a field to prevent any sparks from falling into the woods. There is also a fishing-rod in the vehicle and a stun-gun for hunting small animals.

“But if the traveler cannot collect enough food, he or she can also go to the outskirts of nearby villages. Most of the villages have charity-food-stations where the priest, the imam or the shifu will deposit some food in freezer boxes for by-passing travelers to collect.

“Every traveler gets a wristband that will monitor his or her health and the signals are sent to his community. When the traveler is sick, there is an alarm triggered in his or her community and they will then contact the village closest where the traveler is. At the same time they will also disable the solitude pulse so that the people of the other village can help, just like our village would help if one of their travelers needed it.”

“Solitude pulse?” David asked

Hope explained: “If the traveler is an exile, the wristband also controls an electromagnetic field around him or her called a solitude pulse that repels all large animals but also any people who try to come within five meters of the exile. Likewise, it gives the traveler an electric shock if he or she tries to get that close to other people.

“This is done, said Sensei, so that violent exiles cannot hurt the people they meet on their journeys. Only once a week the connection to the Peace-Web is opened via satellite for half an hour so that travelers can call their parents.”

Hope looked at David questioningly. David nodded, he understood. So the penal system of Hope’s time, for teenagers and young adults at least, was a form of solitary confinement, but not inside a cell, but outside in nature.

David wasn’t quite sure if he considered that an improvement on today’s system or not; after all, some people consider solitary confinement a form of torture. On the other hand, it wasn’t actually a real confinement if the convict could move around at will.

What filled David with more unease, however, was the thought that some of those kids were punished in this way for something as innocuous as kissing in public.

Carefully, trying not to sound offensive, David asked: “Your coupling rules are so strict because your world is so very religious, right?”

Hope shook her head: “No, that is not the reason. Sure, all major religions have strict coupling rules written in their scriptures. This is because God knows us and wants to protect us from our mistakes. After all, God made us the way we are. And we are physiologically in need of coupling rules.”

“ Really?” David asked skeptically. “I know that there are sexually transmitted–I mean coupling- transmitted–deceases. But most of them have already been rendered harmless with the right kind of medication. I would think that in your time, medical science would have progressed even more.”

“I don’t know about those transmitted deceases,” Hope replied, “I have never heard of any. But I do know that the danger lies most of all in the physiology of the mind.”

“The mind? How so?” David asked

“Have you ever heard of neurotransmitters?” Hope asked back.

When David nodded, she went on: “There are several neurotransmitters as well as coupling hormones involved in the process of coupling. They are all necessary, but they are not in unlimited supply in the brain. The real function of coupling is to have babies and to stabilize the relationship of the baby’s parents so that the baby will be raised in safety.”

David disagreed, but kept this to himself.

Hope went on: “Some of the neurotransmitters of the brain, especially dopamine, control the availability of coupling hormones. Dopamine is the agent of desire–all kinds of desire, like the desire for food, the desire for knowledge and learning, the desire for joy and happiness, as well as the desire for coupling.

“At certain times both dopamine and coupling hormones are plentiful. When the coupling desire has been fulfilled, the release of high levels of other neurotransmitters will create an emotional high. One of them is serotonin, which will also create a longer-term sense of satisfaction.

“When the couple has succeeded in having a baby and they are raising this baby together, their serotonin levels will stay high for quite a while, repressing the release of dopamine.

“After a while, when they are ready for another baby, this will reverse. But as the couple gets older, their dopamine levels will decrease, effectively telling them that they have had enough time to bear children–now the time has come to educate them and raise them to maturity. When this happens, the desire for coupling decreases, as does fertility–the ability to have babies.”

It seemed, thought David, that sex-education classes in the future were more or less lessons in brain-chemistry. Remembering the partly hysteric, partly embarrassed laughter attacks throughout the banana lessons in his own school days, David thought that his classes on the subject had been quite a bit more exciting.

“Banana lessons?” Hope asked and David made a strong effort to block Hope from his next involuntarily emerging thoughts. These were really not appropriate right now. “Never mind,” he said.

And Hope shrugged and went on: “However, in times when people live under very stressful situations, for instance in times of natural disasters, epidemics, or in times of war and oppression–whenever basic needs stay unfulfilled–then dopamine levels will not go down and the level of coupling hormones will be a lot higher. Other neurotransmitters will increase the fertility of people and so they can have more babies.”

David had to agree there might be something to this explanation, considering that the countries with the worst living conditions had always had the highest birthrates, as did the most marginalized minorities living within affluent countries.

Hope nodded to David’s thoughts: “The reason for this is that when important needs stay unfulfilled, then the surplus dopamine is converted into a stress-hormone. This stress-hormone will then increase coupling hormones and coupling desire in the person’s thoughts.

“However, since coupling can bring feelings of high pleasure, people over many ages have tried to increase their coupling desire and ability above their natural levels in order to experience more of these feelings. Sometimes they used certain foods and chemical means to do so; at other times they tried to increase the stress hormone, even in times of secure life conditions. They did so by certain forms of nakedness and by humiliation of themselves and others. This would bring enough stress for this hormone to be triggered.

“But since serotonin cannot be produced in unlimited supplies in the human body and brain, unnaturally high coupling activities will therefore no longer produce a high enough release of it to bring lasting satisfaction. What follows after that sort of coupling is a short high and then a deep let-down and emptiness of feeling that can only be conquered by a desire for more and more coupling.

“And what also follows is an ever-increasing level of a stress-hormone, which makes people feel aggressive. And, in the end, some will become violent–a danger to peace.”

Now David could no longer hear Hope’s voice but that of Sensei, her teacher: “Any community that does not restrict unnatural practices for the increase of coupling desire will not be able to live in peace within itself or with its neighbors.”

Yes, this was a scientific explanation for the puritan mind-set of Hope’s world. And if what she said about the neurotransmitters was true (although David was not yet completely convinced), it would make sense. But still, it didn’t feel right to him. He had learned that it was actually the restriction of sexuality which made society violent. “Make Love–not War” had once been a slogan. He had also been told that it was the brutal authoritarian regimes who restricted sexuality the most.

What if the religious authorities of Hope’s time had found a way to turn their religious prejudices into pseudo-scientific facts?

“No, no, no, these facts are not pseudo-scientific, they are real–they are true,” Hope insisted and sounded once again upset, so David regretted that he hadn’t been more careful with his thoughts.

“I know they are true,” Hope repeated.

“Alright,” David conceded.

Hope took a deep breath and went on with her explanation: “But Sensei also told us in his lesson last year that during the time of adolescence, the hormones and neurotransmitters are still adjusting themselves.

“And he said that when we as adolescents had the feeling that we could not live by the rules because of our hormones and because we felt angry most of the time, then we should not wait until we became rule-breakers but should instead become voluntary travelers. A voluntary traveler can choose how long he wants to stay in the wilderness reflecting upon himself and his place in God’s creation while listening to the birds and pondering the trees and looking up at the stars at night….”

An image appeared before David of a small figure lying in a kind of winged car within a forest clearing topped by a star-filled sky. The wings of the car obviously contained the blue-hued solar panels while the car itself had a transparent plastic roof.

And now David could hear Hope’s Sensei again: “Even grown-ups sometimes choose to become voluntary travelers, to spend time alone for a while in reflection. And for adolescents, it is so much better to do that than to have to later become an exile, because in many villages around the world, former exiles aren’t trusted, at least not for many years to come. Project-supervisors do not want them on their teams, and it can be a long time before most villages would allow them as tourists. So this is a serious matter.”

The image of the vehicle disappeared and now David could see Hope’s classroom once again.

This time only the older students were sitting around the teacher. David noticed from the corner of his eye that the younger ones were busy with a holographic image of floating cubes which were to be arranged in a certain order. He could hear them giggling. It seemed to be a funny task.

The voice of Sensei, however, was more than serious. Although he kept his voice low, it held a commanding note, allowing no dissent: “Never, never, never, however, let yourself be declared to be a grown-up! You do not need to get married earlier! If the person you want to marry doesn’t want to wait for you, then this person is not the right one for you! Do you understand me?!”

The older students nodded wordlessly and David could see their unease, just as he could feel Hope’s. They hadn’t seen their teacher like this before, and they felt that something had happened he wasn’t telling them about.

Instead he went on with his lesson: “If a serious rule-breaker is older than twenty-five, what happens then? Does anyone know?”

Hope knew, but she didn’t volunteer–she was too taken aback by her teacher’s strange new attitude. A boy named Jason answered: “Such a person will be sent to Orange Country because he is a person who cannot live by the rules of our village.

Though Jason had a question:“But I have heard, that rule-breakers of one village can seek asylum in another village, where they have different rules, even adolescent rule-breakers can do that.”

“You are quite right,” his sensei agreed. “However there are rules which are the same everywhere, except in Orange Country of course, where there are no rules. These are rules connected to the First Principle concerning the respect for human life and human dignity. If somebody deliberately does severe physical harm to another person or violates his or her dignity no other village will accept such a rule-breaker’s asylum request. For the rule-breaker has shown that he or she cannot live by any village’s rules”

Jason concluded: “And therefore it is better for this person to live in a village that has no rules.”

“This is right,” Sensei agreed. “But it is also sad. Because a person like this will never again have any contact with anyone in his or her family, or his or her community or village, or with anyone else in the world, outside of Orange Country.”

“Why can’t he talk to his family on the Peace-Web once in a while, like the travelers do?” Jason asked.

“Because,” Sensei answered, “Orange Country is totally cut off from the Peace-Web.”

“But why?” Hope’s friend Ameenah asked in disbelief. “Everybody needs to be on the Peace-Web so that we can preserve the peace.”

Sensei sighed: “Orange Country was cut off the Peace-Web nearly a hundred years ago. Being a nation without rules in its villages, they would not respect anybody else’s rules either. The sort of information they sent over the Peace-Web was peace-disturbing because it violated the dignity of human beings, especially women. And so a decision was made in agreement with all the villages in the rest of the world to cut off Orange Country.

“Any communication we now have with them is on pieces of paper delivered via a border guard to those who escort an exile to Orange Country.

“Basically the papers are a demand for those villages who send exiles, telling them how much is needed to provide for the life-long living-expenses of the new Orange Country citizen. The demands have very much increased over the years. By now they demand nearly a ton of different food-stuffs and a ton of iron and other mineral resources for taking in exiles, and their demands change from time to time.”

Sensei now grimaced with a slight sneer: “It seems that although their area is about half the size of our district, and with an estimated population of only three million, which is a tenth of ours, they are still unable to feed themselves.”

He then added: “Over the last century, practically all the villages in the world have sent exiles to Orange Country. Since it was cut off the Peace-Web, we no longer have any exact population statistics so we can only make rough estimates.”

Ameenah asked another question, one that was also on Hope’s mind: “Why do all the villages send exiles to Orange Country?”

“To understand this,” Sensei explained, “you have to know the history of Orange Country:

“When the Dark Ages ended and people started to build up their villages in a new way, there were many ideas about how a village and a community should be run and what rules or laws should govern them. As you know already, I hope, there are always slightly different rules in different villages, but there are also some rules that over time have become practically the same or at least very similar in most villages.

“However, there were at that time quite a few people who believed that the best way to live one’s life in peace was to have no rules at all in one’s village. They thought there should be no village councils and also no representatives for districts or nations. There should be no international laws either. No group agreements whatsoever.”

Marcella, another of Hope’s friends now interrupted: “But Sensei, no village can exist without rules. How can people cooperate without rules?”

Sensei answered: “The no-rule people believed that every form of cooperation must be like a trade, like an exchange of goods where I give you something and you give me something of equal value in return. And if a longer cooperation between people is needed, then the persons involved should make private contracts with each other for as long as the cooperation is needed. All contracts would be temporary and would only involve the persons concerned. Such a life without rules, they believed, was the highest form of freedom and would therefore lead to the most satisfying way of life.

“And so the no-rule people built their villages. But most of those villages did not survive the next few decades. Eventually nearly all of them evolved into ordinary villages like ours. But there were a few no-rule villages that became permanent, and they were the ones which were built close to each other in the area that is now Orange Country.

“After a while, all the no-rule people flocked to that area.

But since the no-rule people accepted no rules, not even the one rule to leave others alone to live in the way they wanted to live, the ordinary villages in the area could not live in peace with their unruly neighbors.

“And so the surrounding villages came together and decided to build a wall at the border of their areas. It was a big wall that connected all those villages and totally surrounded the area of what today is called Orange Country. It was not quite as big as the Great Wall of China which had been built to keep out the Mongol invaders and plunderers, but it served the same purpose to prevent harm from coming to their villages.

“A short time later the villages of the rest of the world also built a wall of a different sort. They were cutting Orange Country off the Peace-Web.

“As a result, the people of Orange Country were no longer able to supply the other villages with things which were against their local rules, like Dark Age image-stories. So that was when Orange Country started to trade in people.

“They had always invited other no-rule people into their communities, now they would offer a home to all those people who somehow could not abide by the rules of their own villages.”

“The exiles,” concluded Marcella.

“Yes, the exiles,” agreed Sensei. “But these exiles had to come with resources, mostly provided by their former village, in order to buy their homes in Orange Country. This trade in exiles is Orange Country’s only “commerce” with the outside world.”

“This doesn’t sound too good,” said Hope, and David could still feel her unease.

Sensei looked at Hope and she knew that something was bothering him as well:

“You are right, Hope, it doesn’t sound too good. But it is probably the best thing possible for those who cannot live with rules–to be allowed to live with those who have no rules. Do you see?”

The scene faded and Hope appeared again. She was quiet, but David could feel her inner turmoil.

So this was it then, the mysterious Orange Country: an open-air penitentiary, a concentration camp ruled by the inmates. Maybe it had started out as bunch of anarchist communities, but with the influx of the entire world’s undesirables, it surely must have evolved into something else.

And they were sending women to this place? There were good reasons why in his time and age male and female prisoners were kept separated, thought David.

And then it dawned on him: “The girl you told me about, the girl who was hurt, it happened in Orange Country, didn’t it?”

Hope nodded sadly.

“And,” David continued, having done the math, “since she is only eight years older than you are, she wasn’t 25 yet when she was sent there. So she must have previously declared herself a grown-up.”

Hope nodded again: “It happened last year, the evening before Sensei’s lesson on Orange Country. Sensei didn’t tell us what had happened; none of the grown-ups did–we only found out recently, just a few days ago.

“Her name is Luscinia and she was only nineteen then. She had declared herself a grown-up because she wanted to marry early. The doctor of her community and her former sensei and other people who knew her declared her to be mature enough to be considered a grown-up.

“But then her fiance broke off the engagement. And a short time later she became a rule-breaker, although I still don’t know exactly what she did. And because she was a declared grown-up, the village-council sentenced her to permanent exile.

“But they didn’t know, they really didn’t know what would happen, they really didn’t….” Hope sounded desperate, as if she needed to convince herself even more than David.

“But,” David queried, “if you do not have any contact with this place, how did you find out what happened to her?”

“She came back,” Hope whispered, “she was the first one to come back, together with another adolescent–a boy. And they had a small child with them.”

“Her child?” David asked.

Hope shook her head: “No, not her child.”

Then she was quiet. David wanted to ask more, but stopped himself before forming the next question. He realized that Hope wasn’t going to tell him anything more right now. She couldn’t; she was trying to get a grip on her feelings. And while it was unspoken and she had blocked him out, David still felt that there must be an even worse part to the story of Orange Country than Luscinia’s rape.

David looked around. Recognizing the stop the bus was approaching, he decided that while Hope was fighting her inner demons, it was time for him to tackle his own.

***

The Allegris’ apartment is on the third floor at the end of a long hallway, which is as empty and plain as the outside of the concrete building has been. But I know, that right now I’m passing Luscinia’s apartment. Of course it has been resold already. Somebody else is living there, as I can see from the number on the doorbell.

Though Ms Alba doesn’t know that. She is the only one accompanying me this time around. The others have chosen to stay in the car.

Nanami opens only seconds after I ring the bell. She wears her number’s tag on her jacket. So she must be getting herself ready to go to work. She pales and then looks at me in utter dismay. She opens her mouth to say something, but then she grabs my arm and drags me along straight into her bedroom. She tries to slam the door closed behind us, but Ms Alba presses herself inside as well and then closes it soundlessly.

Nanami is still in shock. For a second she says nothing, but then she wheels around to turn on the scrambler on her night-board.

Her question comes breathlessly, filled with fear and underlying anger: “What are you doing here?”

She now grabs my jacket with both hands and starts shaking me: “Where is Natsuki?”

Nanami is a small woman of Asian descent. She is in her mid-thirties, but she looks older, even older than when I have seen her last.

Dark shadows line her eyes, speaking of many sleepless nights. And of course there is still the long scar forming a deep line from one eye to the corner of her mouth. Like the scars I’d seen on other women before, this one looks as if it hasn’t been formed by accident.

But right now Nanami is stronger than I could have imagined. She shakes me again: “Where is Natsuki,” rising panic is expressed in her shrill voice.

She is in the outside-world, Nanami, just as you wanted” I try to calm her. “She is with Luscinia and she is waiting for you only a few miles from here. You will see her again tonight, Nanami, if you choose to leave with us.”

Nanami releases her breath, a little bit of color creeps back into her face. Then she shakes her head.

We told Luscinia and we told you, that we can’t leave. Pedro and I, we both can’t go back. We have no place to go, nobody in the outside-world will want us.”

I’m shaking my head: “No, you are wrong. Luscinia has talked to your parents on the Peace-Web and to representatives of your village council as well, they do want you back.”

Nanami looks at me in stark disbelief, but then a gleam of hope is slowly lighting up her face. For the first time she seems to notice the presence of Ms Alba.

You are from the outside-world,” there is an insecure question in her statement.

Yes,” Ms Alba replies, “and young Mr Galt is right. Your former village has agreed to grant you asylum, you, your daughter and your husband.”

Ms Alba’s statement is now sinking in and Nanami falls on her knees. She covers her face with her hands and sobs soundlessly.

After a couple of minutes Ms Alba bends down and lifts Nanami back unto her feet. She now hugs her, allowing Nanami to regain her composure.

This surprises me a bit. After all I’ve seen from Ms Alba so far, I wouldn’t have expected her to show that much compassion toward a rule-breaker.

After a while Nanami asks: “Are more people going to leave Orange Country?”

Yes,” Ms Alba confirms, “but first we need to talk to your husband.”

I know, but before anyone leaves it’s absolutely necessary that you talk to Dr Bukovik.”

Who?” I ask

The man who helped Luscinia with her chips, don’t you remember?”

Of course I do, but I didn’t know his name.”

Of course, you didn’t,” surprisingly there has now angry sarcasm crept into Nanami’s voice, “only you elites have names. The likes of us have just got numbers.”

How can she say something like that to me. After all I’m doing for her and her husband. That doctor had never told us his name, how should I know it.

Friends have names, too,” I reply to her insinuation. “Aren’t we friends, Nanami?”

Nanami doesn’t look at me as she answers: “Luscinia is my friend, Mr Galt.”

I feel quite a bit annoyed but Ms Alba interrupts my thoughts:

Can you contact your husband right now?” I realize that we have no time for hard feelings at the moment. We need to get back to business.

Nanami shakes her head: “Not now, not electronically, but I have my ways.

Pedro will take a break at 2.30. I’ll give you the address of the restaurant. And I will contact Dr Bukovik as well. Don’t take anyone out of the country, before you have talked to them.”

We won’t before late this afternoon any way,” I reassure her.

And we do need to talk to your husband before that.”

Nanami is satisfied and tells us: “I’m going to work now, so that my absence won’t arouse suspicion. On my way there I’ll contact the doctor.”

Very good,” Ms Alba endorses her plan.

While I’m still a bit riled up from her unjust remark, we follow Nanami downstairs and out of the house. But then the unbidden thought emerges, that she might actually be right. How many names do I really know of all those people I had seen day after day doing all kinds of jobs for my father and me. Before we part ways my glance is falling once again on the number on Nanami’s chest, the number reflecting outwardly the one inside her.

CHAPTER 9

 

 

When David had left the bus, he looked at the twenty-story building in front of him. He had not intended to get out here. He had thought it would be too painful to see it again, this news-building having been his second home for so many years.

But strangely enough, he didn’t feel anything. It was part of his past, a past that was now over. And David had accepted that.

When had he come to this point?

He wasn’t sure…it must have been some time today. Last night the past had seemed an insurmountable hindrance for any kind of future. Today the past was gone and dealt with, and the future was, well…… at least it seemed intriguing.

David looked at Hope. She wasn’t quite there with him yet, still struggling with her own feelings, still blocking him out. That at least gave David the opportunity to reflect on his own thoughts by himself, pondering what he had learned about Hope’s time. Some things there were obviously an improvement on his era, he had to admit. And then there were some others…..

All the world’s criminals exiled to one place, at least those over 25, including sex-offenders…?! What had those people from Hope’s village expected when they had sent a young girl into that kind of lion’s den?

David suspected that Hope was thinking along the same lines. Her people didn’t know what was going on in there, but with the slightest bit of imagination they should have surmised…..

And then there was that matter of what things they considered as crimes worthy of a life-sentence. Was kissing in public one of those?

From the time he’d reached puberty, David had accepted the notion that sexual freedom was one of the most important liberties the 20th century had brought to the people of the western world. What happened in that regard between consenting adults should be their business and theirs alone.

Not that David defended those sexual rights as a personal matter. So far, he had strictly been a one-woman-at-a-time man, and actually, David grinned to himself, his personal life-style would nearly fit into Hope’s world.

Although he had boasted otherwise to his high-school buddies, he hadn’t had his first girlfriend before his second year in college. The relationship had lasted about six months, while the heart-ache afterwards had lasted even longer than that.

His next girlfriend was Tina. He had met her at Columbia Journalism School. Theirs had been a love based on common interests and goals in life. They were together for over six years. When Tina got pregnant with Mikey, David would have married her, but for Tina, marriage was an out-dated convention, one that was invented for the oppression of women. David had accepted her views.

They hadn’t been too far removed from his own. His parents’ marriage hadn’t exactly given him a high regard for the institution. But nonetheless, David still had a high regard for the concept of fidelity. He had never once cheated on Tina, and as far as he knew, neither had she on him.

Defending sexual freedom wasn’t a personal matter–it was a matter of principle, David thought. It was about accepting the whole human being, of seeing the human body as beautiful, as opposed to Christian restrictions on sexuality which were born of a disdain bordering on hatred for the human body.

If the people of Hope’s world declared the sexual act to be a beautiful union of two people, why would they have to hide everything concerning their sexuality and their bodies to the point where even partial nudity became a serious crime? Wasn’t this a contradiction in itself?

Yes, regarding the public display of sexuality in the form of pornography David had to admit, there was some controversy even among ordinarily liberal people. Even he and Tina had been on slightly different wavelengths there.

Not that David was actually an avid consumer of pornography. He had watched some as a teenager of course, when the internet was young and porn its main product and he had needed to impress the guys. But later on he had decided it wasn’t really his thing.

And when Tina first interviewed and later befriended one of the most fervent feminist anti-porn campaigners, he wouldn’t have touched the stuff with a pitchfork. The descriptions alone of what was done to women in an ever more violence-demanding business were nauseating even to him.

“Today’s porn,” he was told by those two women “is no longer the stuff of the seventies, where long-haired girls danced nude on flowery meadows. Porn nowadays is rife with scenes of rape as well as verbal and incredibly brutal physical abuse.”

No, today’s pornography could not be considered to celebrate the beauty of the human body or the sexual act; quite the opposite, David had to admit.

But still David had disagreed with Tina on her campaign to ban hard-core pornography; after all, they were only staged acts of violence–not real ones.

It was a matter of principle for David. If you started censoring some forms of free speech, where would it end?

Weren’t the clothing restrictions and coupling rules of Hope’s world an obvious example of how far down the slippery slope society would slide, once censorship began?

Sure–they used that neurotransmitter explanation to justify their restrictions. And if he thought about the development of pornography from the 1970s until today as Tina had portrayed it, the explanation actually did make sense, but……

He was NOT going to be won over so easily! If Tina couldn’t alter his convictions, those biased theories Hope had learned at school weren’t going to do it either. As a professional journalist, free speech was a sacred thing to David.

He shook his head and remembered the old pop-song: “If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?” In Hope’s world they surely would….

But come to think of it, what then was beauty, David mused. It is in the eye of the beholder, so they say. A sunset viewed from a mountain-top, for instance–that was beautiful.

In pursuit of a story, David had once followed a group of mountain-climbers up a mountain, an easy practice crawl they had called it. It hadn’t seemed all that easy to David at the time! But the reward for his strenuous efforts had been well worth it.

To call the view majestic had seemed a platitude. And still David had been at a loss for other words. The scene with all its colors had given him a sense of awe, something he had never felt before.

To consider such a panorama as beautiful would be pretty much universal, wouldn’t it?

But what about human beings? What would be considered beautiful in people? Some said it was symmetry in the perfect shape of facial features or a slim and well-formed body…. The actress with the long legs would surely be considered beautiful…by most men, at least.

David looked around. From where he stood at the bus-stop, he could see a few dozen people. There was maybe one girl among them who might roughly compare to the actress, but that, of course, was normal, since very few women had legs or a figure like hers. Nor could most men flaunt washboard abs like the ones David knew her fellow actor had.

Hope had indeed been right about one thing–the man on the billboard had been fully covered and so his abs weren’t visible, while the woman’s physical characteristics were shown clearly. David shook his head slightly; he wasn’t going to get into that again…

But his thoughts drifted back to the more fundamental question of the meaning of beauty. Was there still beauty in human beings when they weren’t physically perfect?

When movies and TV shows displayed bodily imperfections, they were generally turned into occasions of ridicule. This was especially true for the most common imperfection: obesity. The way it was portrayed on the screen, complete with camera zoom-in and full-blast shock-sound, it evoked first revulsion and then unrestrained laughter….. not much beauty in those scenes.

About half the people David saw around him at the moment could be considered overweight, which was on par with the national average, and some of them were even obese.

Right now a very large man passed by David. His wife, who wasn’t exactly skinny herself, looked small beside him, and the three children they had in tow seemed tiny. The man wore a very inappropriate T-shirt on top of a sweat-shirt. The inscription on the back read: “Kansas is everywhere”.

His youngest child, a girl of about five or six, was yelling: “Daddy, I can’t see the top of this house!”

Her father instantly lifted her up onto his shoulders, not to sit but to stand there. The little girl was balancing precariously but at the same time shouting down excitedly:

“Now I can see it!” while her mother, not wanting to spoil her fun but still very nervous, was dancing around her husband with outstretched arms.

The man lifted the little girl from his shoulders again and placed her in the arms of her relieved mother. He then patted his wife on the back while she gave him an apologetic smile.

“Do you want to go up in one of those skyscrapers?” he asked his family. All three kids started cheering, and the whole family hurried along. As he watched them go, David thoughts turned to Mikey and Tina and their life together. And for the first time these thoughts didn’t make him sad.

Then he noticed something on the opposite side of the street:

A group of about fifteen teenagers were waiting for a bus there, including the beautiful girl David had noticed before.

One of the boys in the group was play-acting, giving a performance for the others while they cheered him on. He seemed to be imitating and making fun of handicapped people. David watched for a few more moments, and then to his surprise, he noticed that he had been wrong.

The boy wasn’t imitating a handicapped person at all–the awkward movements, the tics and the limp were his own. He was playing a non-handicapped person–somebody who wore a tie and had his nose stuck up in the air. David took a closer look at the boy’s audience. They all seemed to be about the same age, 16 or 17, but other than that, they were as diverse as could be, in all sizes and shapes and a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

A school-class maybe? But there seemed to be no teacher with them.

The boy had ended his performance with a surprisingly graceful bow. The other teens clapped enthusiastically. Then two of the boys who had the physiques of football players and even wore high-school team-jackets, clapped the actor on the shoulders hard enough to nearly make him lose his balance. They quickly steadied him and linked their arms through his, but a bespectacled girl pushed them off and took her place on his arm with a possessive gesture; he was her boyfriend.

The young actor shrugged to his friends while they grinned. Then one of the football players, a quarterback type, placed an arm around his own girlfriend, and to David’s surprise, this girl wasn’t at all the cheerleader-type he had expected, but quite the opposite.

Then another of the teens pulled out a map and the whole group started to discuss it, except for one boy who seemed to be bored and wandered off. David realized that this boy had Down-Syndrome and so he was about to call out to the group, but somebody else had also noticed–it was the girl who looked like a movie star.

She turned around and reached the wanderer in a few quick strides and caught him at his sleeve. David couldn’t hear what she was saying, but from her gestures she seemed quite angry and he inferred that she was most likely his sister. The boy first listened with down-cast eyes, and then he looked up, his head slightly bent to one side.

The girl’s anger dissipated instantly; she laughed, hugged her brother, and then led him back to the group. One of the boys, who obviously wasn’t related to them, then took him under his wing by laying an arm across his shoulders.

Then the bus the kids had been waiting for arrived and they all piled on. As the bus pulled away and proceeded down the street, David marveled at the unexpected scene he had just witnessed.

It was strange…they were all friends, seemingly good friends who supported each other, and yet they were so different from one another. This was nothing like the high-school scenes portrayed in the movies, where students congregated in cliques according to their abilities … or non-abilities.

It hadn’t been quite so crass in David’s high-school. But then again, his had been a private school with a student-teacher ratio of 5 to 1. And truth be told, the whole school had been more or less a clique of the privileged. But these teens had in no way looked like private-school types.

Where in the world could you find another group of teenagers so diverse and yet all friends, David wondered, while absent-mindedly watching a street-vendor whose booth was located next to the bus-stop.

The man obviously loved his job, praising his goods with grand gestures and a sing-song voice, occasionally ornamenting his speech with a funny drawl. His potential costumers seemed to appreciate his efforts, and business was booming. But even those who didn’t buy rewarded him with a smile, a smile he returned graciously. This in turn made the passerby’s smile last longer.

“Ouch,” David exclaimed as he was once again hit in the back by something. This time it was not a shopping-cart but a flying handbag. He turned around.

“I’m so sorry, so very, very sorry,” said a small, very shaky voice. “I was just showing my husband…. and then I turned too fast.” The voice belonged to a very old, very tiny lady, and David wondered how anybody her age could move “too fast” and especially fast enough to make handbags fly.

The old lady’s husband, a man as tiny as she, was a fast mover, however, and before David could do anything, the old man had stooped down and picked up his wife’s handbag. “I hope you weren’t hurt, were you?” he asked David.

“Of course not,” David answered.

“You could have been,” the old man quipped, “it is a pretty heavy bag!” He turned to his wife, saying “Honey, you should let me carry it.”

“No, love,” she refused, taking possession of her handbag again. “You have carried enough burdens for me over the last fifty years. I at least can carry my handbag on my own.”

“Honey,” the old man protested softly, “yours have always been the heavier burdens.”

Then he smiled at her, a smile she returned. And those smiles were so deep, they transformed their faces. Their eyes, their mouths, and every wrinkle became a work of art, a beautiful work of art.

While David watched the old couple slowly make their way along the sidewalk, he realized that he had seen beauty today. In the young family, in the youths, in the street-vendor and his customers, in the old couple…. here was beauty, real beauty.

True…beauty was indeed in the eye of the beholder, but David thought he recognized now that it wasn’t the outward eye that actually was able to behold it. Beauty wasn’t on the surface; it came from within and needed to be felt.

The beauty of a mountain view lay not so much in the single tree or the single flower but in the connection they made with their surroundings, with each other, and with the hills and the valleys, and with the light of the sun at its rising, in the heat of day, at its setting, and sometimes with the gentle and more mysterious light of the moon and the stars.

Human beauty, David now realized, lay in the connection people made with one another … and with the beholder.

Strange, he thought, that although he had not been at this exact spot yesterday, the streets he had walked hadn’t been so dissimilar to this one. Why hadn’t he seen any of these things yesterday, the beauty of the ordinary?

“Because you hadn’t been looking,” David heard Hope answering the question. He noticed with joy that she was fully back now and had removed the barrier between them.

The anger he had felt in her before had dissolved and some of the fear as well. But an underlying sadness remained, giving her personality a deeper note, deeper than her young years should hold.

“A heavy mind can be very hard on your eyes,” she added.

David nodded. They understood each other. He smiled at Hope reassuringly.

But then all of a sudden, the smile froze on his lips as he gazed past Hope. The feelings David thought he should have had but didn’t when he had looked at his old workplace a little while ago now came rushing at him with a vengeance, too copious and confused to be sorted through right away…

“Who is that man?” Hope asked, following David’s gaze which was fixated on a man who had just left a large building. She was sensing David’s inner turmoil.

“That’s Ed, Ed Bernays, a former colleague of mine on the newspaper. And over there is the newspaper building where we worked together,” David explained and then added with a sigh, “Me and my best friend Ed… at least that’s what he used to be.”

Ed had noticed David as well, but he immediately turned his head, pretending he had not seen him, changing direction so as to avoid passing David.

Now David’s feelings became clearer as he felt a surge of anger. Ed wasn’t going to get by that easily. Within seconds he caught up with Ed, clapping him on the shoulder: “Hi Ed, how are you, buddy? Long time no see….”

Ed turned around, a fake smile on his lips: “Oh hi, David, I didn’t see you. Just the other day Moira and I were talking about you.” Ed rambled on with no pause for breath: “She keeps up with Tina’s facebook status. I gather Tina’s doing well over there in Los Angeles, but I’m so sorry the two of you split up. What are you up to these days?”

“What am I up to these days?” David wasn’t into small talk at the moment: “Let’s see…. Last night I was contemplating suicide; would have done it actually, but then somebody stopped me. Though it wasn’t you, old friend.”

Ed’s mouth dropped open. He was taken aback. Then he caught himself: “David, I’m sorry. I had no idea how hard you had taken the break-up. If you had just called me, I would have been there. I always have an open ear for you.”

Ed had gone back to his pretense. David wasn’t having any of it: “It wasn’t the break-up and you know it!”

But Ed wasn’t giving up so easily either: “If it was because of your job, I never thought…. I mean, it happened months ago. I thought you’d have gotten over it and had a new job by now.”

“A new one?” David exploded, “That would be pretty hard to get, wouldn’t it, while everyone is convinced I’m the biggest fraud in newspaper history, which includes my very best friend Ed Bernays, the guy who worked with me on so many stories over the years. Incidentally, why didn’t you believe me, Ed?”

Ed gave up and uttered in a low voice: “You hated that guy Abiffsen, you have to admit you did! After all, you put him in the bull’s eye of your ‘pin the tail on the corrupt politician’ board.”

David grimaced: “If I remember correctly, it was you who hit his face more often than I did.”

“Because I’m the better dart-player.” Ed shrugged and then added accusingly: “But you… you would have loved to pin something real on him, wouldn’t you?”

“Maybe I would have, but that doesn’t mean I would make up a story! I’m a professional, for goodness sake! And what about the other five stories I’m supposed to have faked?”

Ed looked at the ground. He gave a barely perceptible shrug. David gave him another frustrated glare and then turned around. There was nothing more to say.

But before he could take another step, he heard a barely audible whisper:

“David! Don’t go! It’s different than you think…..I did believe you…I just couldn’t…..”

David turned around, looking at Ed with surprise.

“We need to talk,” Ed whispered. “Let’s have coffee together.”

He carefully looked around, and then seemingly satisfied, he headed forward, motioning with his head for David to follow.

They walked quickly around the next corner to enter a place that wasn’t exactly a coffee-shop–it was more of a fast-food joint. David knew why they were going there. The place was considered a tourist trap and no self-respecting journalist from his paper would want to be caught dead in there, so it seemed extremely unlikely they would meet anybody they knew inside.

“Would you like some hot pie with your coffee? I’ll pay,” Ed suggested. David was hungry; after all, he hadn’t had any lunch and he had deposited his breakfast behind a tree. Ed owed him more than just a coffee and so he demanded: “I want a double-hamburger, extra-large fries, a salad, and a Coke.”

“Sure,” Ed agreed, “you can go upstairs and find us a table.”

David realized this request was another device to make sure they weren’t seen together, in the rare event somebody they knew might actually look through the open door, but he shrugged and climbed the stairs.

He found an empty table in a corner. The next one was occupied by a group of Japanese tourists, so no danger of being overheard there.

Hope looked questioningly at David, but he wasn’t in the mood for explaining anything to her right now. This was his business, and he was curious how Ed was going to explain himself.

They didn’t have long to wait. Ed set the tray of food on the table, picked up the paper coffee-cup himself, and left everything else for David. He took a sip of coffee, grimaced, and put it down, not to touch it again.

David looked expectantly at Ed. He was curious but he wanted Ed to start.

“Of course I knew you hadn’t faked all those stories,” Ed began with a sigh. “True, we hadn’t worked on those stories together—you’d done them on your own. But I’d worked with you often enough to know that your faking a story to further your career just didn’t make any sense at all. For one, there was no need for you to do it. You’ve got a talent few of us have. I wish I had it, but I don’t….” Ed sighed again: “You can make people talk, even those who hadn’t planned to talk to you. All of a sudden they are just opening up. I sometimes suspected you were some kind of hypnotist….”

David hadn’t viewed his way of talking to people as an extra-special talent, but if Ed thought so, it was fine with him. But David wanted to know something of far more importance: “If you knew those allegations against me were false, why did you pretend to believe them?”

Once again Ed sighed: “I went to the chief, I told him there was something wrong, that you couldn’t possibly have faked all those stories. The chief basically told me I had no idea what I was talking about, there was enough evidence to hang you three times over, and I should mind my own business if I cared about my job.”

David nodded: “I knew our chief-editor was in on it. Who else could have falsified some of my facts? But I don’t think he was the one who bribed those witnesses.”

Ed said slowly: “No, it wasn’t him. You needed to be discredited, and they have people for that.”

“Who are they?” David wanted to ask, but checked himself in time. He just kept looking expectantly at Ed. And so Ed went on: “A couple of days later I was contacted, by…well…friends of friends.”

“You mean some people from the club you wanted me to join?” David interjected softly. Ed squirmed a little in his chair, but then nodded:

“You should have joined years ago! You would have understood better what is at stake. And then you would never have gone against the explicit order of the chief. For heaven’s sake–smuggling a story into the paper, by-passing the chief-editor….There’s not a single paper that wouldn’t have fired you, or any other news-outlet, for that matter.”

“You’re probably right,” David agreed, still speaking in a soft voice which hid any emotions but had a special quality that allowed the other person to feel fully accepted.

“Maybe you are right about the other thing as well; maybe I should have joined to get the whole picture. Did they tell you why the matter was so important they would go to those lengths?”

Ed answered apologetically: “They have nothing against you personally. It’s just that you got in the way of a very important operation. After I talked to them and explained your special abilities, they told me once you’ve seen reason, they’ll help you to get back up again. They’ll probably set you up some place abroad. Since you and Tina split up, you’ve nothing holding you here anyway.

“They will get you a new name, maybe even a new face. But not having worked for any TV station, plastic surgery might not even be necessary. With your background and talents, some sort of intelligence work would suit you best, they think, and I agree. But they had to wait before they could break it to you. You first needed some time for yourself.”

“Intelligence work you say?” David asked.

“I know of course, about a particular intelligence operation,” David said in a matter-of-fact manner, “the one Abiffsen was directing with his special op team operating from within the Pentagon.

“After all, he is now in the position to do that sort of thing. From banking executive to Congressman, and then on to the boards of the biggest military contractors, then back into politics and high government offices under two different administrations, and now he is second in command at the Pentagon… always a step up, always rumors of money changing hands. And still there was no stopping the man.

“He must have pretty important backers, I assume.”

“Of course he has,” Ed agreed,” and this operation was of extreme importance and was going well until you put a spanner in the works. What exactly do you know?”

David shrugged as if he didn’t care: “Some part of what I know you already read in the paper. My informant was very thorough–I mean the real one who was replaced by the guy who set me up, giving me the wrong dates so Abiffsen got the alibi he needed.

“I know that four bombs were to be exploded simultaneously underneath the first carriages of four German high-speed trains during rush hour. They expected those bombs to derail the trains. My informant told me the planners expected a death-toll of close to 3000 people. But I still don’t know why they planned it. After all, the Germans are our allies.”

“The Germans–quite some allies they are,” Ed gave a sound of disdain. “They haven’t been pulling their weight for quite a while. With all their reservations against a timely attack on Iran, they have become a lot more like obstacles than any kind of allies.”

“They haven’t exactly had the greatest experiences going to war in the past,” David replied softly. “Couldn’t that be the reason for their reluctance?”

“They weren’t reluctant when they went against us, weren’t they?” Ed sneered.

David didn’t bother to comment, but instead let him go on:

“Anyway, the plan would have been detected at the last minute by intelligence operatives and stopped by German police. The trail of the would-be bombers would have led to Iranian bomb-builders.

“Those men would then conveniently have committed suicide with another bomb during the German police’s attempt to apprehend them. Evidence would subsequently have surfaced to connect the dead suspects with the highest level of the Iranian government. And the whole matter would have been a big continuing story for the German media.”

“No,” David shook his head, “my informant told me he himself had thought at first it would be like this, just a big scare for the Germans. But then he learned they were going for the real false flag–a live scenario, he called it. And that’s why he came to me.”

Ed pondered this for a few seconds. He didn’t seem surprised: “Maybe it was necessary not to stop it.”

He didn’t even try to deny the informer’s allegation most likely having had his own suspicions, instead he went for the justifications:

“We have to go ahead with a strike against Iran pretty soon or it might be too late. And we need the active support of the Europeans, including the Germans. And a real live scare might be the only way to get it.”

David felt sick to his stomach. It was inconceivable to him why Ed could not recognize the horror of this ice-cold statement. But David held on to his professionalism, and his voice became even more soft and calm as he asked:

“Why are we on such a tight schedule? I mean, the allegation about the Iranian nuclear program was for public consumption only, wasn’t it? And now we are on the verge of getting a deal with them.”

“Sure, but with an attack like that, the deal would be off and everyone would understand why.” Ed answered, “The facts are that those Islamists in Tehran are more dangerous to us without the bomb than with it. ”

“Islamists?” David asked, “haven’t we for quite a while supported them in Syria to get rid of Assad, after we helped the Libyan ones to overthrow Gaddafi? And as far as I know the allied governments in Turkey and various places like Saudi Arabia are quite close to those Islamists as well. So why should we mind those Iranian ones so much.”

“You really are uninformed, David, ours are Salafists. Slightly crazy, to be sure, but they are fully under our control or rather, under Saudi control, which is more or less the same. We know who they are; we know where they are and what they do at any given time. They do a bit of dirty work for us, and when they are no longer needed…”

Ed made a cut-throat movement with his right hand and added: “Just as we do right now with the ISIS gangs. And as an additional bonus they give us the opportunity to go into Syria punishing Assad a bit more and go back into Iraq, where the rulers have become far too cozy with the Iranians.”

David found it difficult to keep up his calm matter-of-fact attitude while listening to Ed going on:

“The Iranians are a whole different breed. And they are out of our control. Every day their alliance with Russia and China becomes stronger to the point where they even suggest a military alliance.

“This means in turn that after being confident of getting the Iranian oil, the Chinese are getting cockier every day. And the Russians are beyond help altogether. Guess, why we need to bother with that failed state Ukraine so much.”

“But why can’t we just leave the Iranian oil to China and keep the Saudis and the Gulf monarchies ourselves? Wouldn’t that be a lot cheaper than going to war?” David’s voice still expressed only purely academic curiosity.

“I heard a war with Iran would have to go nuclear–it couldn’t be won otherwise. I also heard an estimate of about a third of the Iranian population as probable casualties. That would amount to roughly 25 million, wouldn’t it?”

Ed shook his head: “Those estimates are old and far over the top; newer ones more realistically talk of a likely death-toll of only about three million.”

It was now getting harder and harder to keep up the act, for now David not only had to battle his own shock and disgust but also Hope’s.

But still he answered calmly, using all of his professional skills:

“That’s certainly a lower number, but the financial costs for us will be high either way, and the state of government finances at the moment is not exactly at its best, as everybody knows. So why do those people you talked to think we have to go to war right now?”

“It’s the bigger picture, David, just as you said before.” Ed started to shape the air with his hands, saying “You have to see the bigger picture. We live in desperate times now: overpopulation, global warming, and resource depletion are bringing us to the edge. We don’t have much time to turn those things around.

“Once we’ve lost control to the Russians or the Chinese, the world will inevitably slide down the slippery slope of destruction. Do you think either China or Russia would stop humanity’s self-destruction?”

Ed answered his own question: “Of course not! – The Russians are at the moment worrying that there won’t even be enough Russians in the future. And they are encouraging their people by all means to breed some more.”

“The Chinese have a strict one-child policy,” David interjected

“A two-child-policy at the moment,” Ed contradicted “and there are signs they are about to abandon their population-control policies all together. What do you think will happen if an exploding number of Chinese all want to eat meat every day and ride cars instead of bicycles?”

David had heard this argument before and didn’t bother to answer, but Ed didn’t need an answer anyway, since his question was purely rhetorical.

“I’ll tell you what will happen, an absolute environmental catastrophe. Within a few years, Earth will turn into another Venus–right after mankind has run out of all its natural and mineral resources!”

This was nearly an echo of David’s own words to Hope, just half an hour ago. He shivered, while Ed went on:

“The people I talk to, as you call them, they are the real people, the deep thinkers, the wise men of our times. They are collectors of information and scientific ideas. They know the trends and what the world will become and what is needed to direct it into a reasonable path, for the good of humanity, so that humankind will have a future.

“They know why resources need to be controlled by the most reasonable forces, those who use the means and powers they eventually acquire for the common good of mankind. Sure, sometimes sacrifices have to be made, but they will be well worth it, since if they’re not made, all will be lost.”

Ed stopped and looked expectantly at David.

David knew he had gotten all Ed was willing to give him. He certainly wouldn’t volunteer any names. But still it was all the information David had wanted and possibly even more than that.

It was too much for his peace of mind for sure!

He had actually felt better when he had still believed his friend had just been unable to accept the existence of such a conspiracy as David had uncovered and had for that reason not believed him.

If David had seen the beauty of the ordinary earlier today, now he was hearing the utmost ugliness in the so familiar, so ordinary-sounding voice of Ed. Here he was, sitting at the table with Ed–his friend, the loving husband and father of two little children.

And there was Ed, calmly justifying the mass-murder of thousands as a prelude to the genocidal killing of millions.

A wise woman once used the phrase “banality of evil”. And here it was, manifest in David’s best friend Ed Bernays.

David was forced to admit to himself that his friend must be a sociopath.

How could he not have seen this before? As a journalist, David had met his share of sociopaths, occasionally even murderous psychopaths, and he had always recognized them as such.

They were charming, manipulative, and utterly devoid of ethics. But Ed had not been like this before.

David remembered how he had admired Ed for his writing skills as well as for being brave enough to do one tour in Iraq and one in Afghanistan as an embedded reporter. He had risked his life more than once to get his story. And David remembered that coming back, Ed had complained to him about being embedded and how many restrictions this gave a journalist who wanted to report the whole story.

There had been things going on he would have liked to write about but wasn’t allowed to. Ed had even hinted at having witnessed certain events considered to be war-crimes. But his reports had been censored, and that had bothered Ed a lot.

No, Ed had not been a sociopath at the time. Back then, he had been able to feel both guilt and compassion. They say being a sociopath is a genetic condition, but this was just not true for Ed Bernays. Something had changed him, divorcing him from the ethics he had once held.

“Your club, it is your club,” David said out loud, wondering if it had been some form of brain-washing causing his friend to change so much.

“What do you mean? My club is what?” Ed asked, confused.

David didn’t answer; instead he decided to try something:

“ What if,” he proposed, “there is no overpopulation problem, no humanly- caused global warming, and no resource shortages?”

“What do you mean?” Ed asked “Everybody knows that–”

“No, not everybody,” David interrupted him. “There are scientists who say that a high birth-rate is a natural consequence of poverty or war or other forms of social insecurity. If you allow the developing countries to rise economically to the point where the majority population reaches middle-class standard, the birth-rate will fall to European or Anglo-American levels.”

Ed shook his head: “Middle-class means larger CO2 footprints, means climate-catastrophe.”

David went on: “What if CO2 was no big problem, since CO2 levels have been higher in pre-human times without causing any catastrophic warming. What if the warming and cooling of the planet were caused by different levels of solar intensity and other natural, non-human factors?”

Ed became agitated: “This is crazy David. Have you become one of those climate-change deniers?”

David didn’t reply but went on: “What if oil and gas are not fossil fuels at all but a-biotic substances created constantly deep within the earth, and are therefore basically renewable energy resources?”

“And all the world’s scientists are keeping this information from us?” Ed shook his head and sneered: “How much have you been drinking today to fall for conspiracy theories like that?”

Now David laughed out loud; the man who had just admitted knowledge of a giant government conspiracy to commit false-flag terrorist acts in order to start a war, was accusing him of being a conspiracy theorist. And the funniest thing of all was that Ed couldn’t even see the irony. But he was certainly annoyed by David’s laughter: “Do you really believe such crap?” he asked.

“I believe,” David said, and now his voice was no longer soft but hard and ice-cold, “that as a journalist I have the duty to objectively consider all sides of an argument.

“And if your global warming, resource shortage, and over-population theories are the reason for instigating a nuclear war and maybe WWIII, then I will let no rock go unturned in checking out the opposite arguments.”

“Who do you think you are? An expert who has the professional knowledge to judge those things?” Ed sounded very angry now.

David shook his head: “I am just David Ragnarsson, a human being with the ability to think for myself.”

“You are dangerous, David,” Ed hissed.

“Dangerous to whom, the friends of friends from your club?” David asked.

“No,” Ed exploded, “dangerous to humanity! It is because of people like you that international climate negotiations have not brought any definite results and that the whole world is in lethal danger. It is because of people like you why we have to go to war!”

“No, I don’t think so,” David replied and his voice became even more pointed, “these war-plans have nothing to do with people like me. Your friends, the so-called “real” people, want war regardless of any negotiations.

“They need it for their geo-political chess-games, games in which whole nations are nothing but pawns to be manipulated or eliminated at will. And this brings me to the point of what I truly believe, regardless of which theories about climate or resources are right or wrong.

“I believe that three thousand Germans who would have been sacrificed for your games have a right to live and so have three million Iranians. And so did the one million Iraqis, hundred thousand Libyans, two-hundred thousand Syrians, and who knows how many others who have already fallen victim to their dirty games–they had a right to live too, a right which was taken away from them.”

Now David’s voice became soft again as he looked from Ed to Hope, who was an image of sadness and misery, “I believe that life is a divine gift. I believe that human life is sacred and therefore it must always be protected.”

Hope’s face lightened up while she helped David to recite her world’s First Principle: “I believe that every human being is of great importance for the whole of humanity, and is of infinite and unchangeable value, and that human dignity must therefore never be violated. And finally I believe that no human person is of any more or any less value and importance than any other person on earth.”

Ed looked at David with disgust: “What a load of crap. Have you become a religious nutcase too?”

David shook his head softly: “You know religion is not my thing. I am just paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson and some other great thinkers.” David’s voice became hard and sharp again. “These are people your think-tanker friends couldn’t even come as close to as a million miles. Wise men, you call them? I don’t think so. You call something wisdom that denies the right to life to most members of your own species? You don’t even know the meaning of the word!”

Ed had now turned all red in the face. He defended his views: “The right to life you are talking about means nothing when there is no planet left to live on. The planet must come first. The exponential growth of humankind must be stopped before it is too late.”

David shook his head: “Don’t you know, Ed, it is not China or Russia or Iran who cause the most environmental damage? Nor is it the people of the developing world–the children of the poor–who are the problem. It is your friends who are the real danger to the planet. Their wars and war-games are the worst pollutants! Can’t you see that?

“No, I guess you can’t,” David answered his own question and then added: “Somebody once said ‘I have met the enemy and they are ours’. How true!”

This was too much for Ed to take: “You are certifiably insane” he hissed at David, “a total nutcase.”

“Maybe I am,” David conceded, “but that’s far better than suffering from your kind of cognitive dissonance and far less dangerous than the infectious illness you caught in your club, an illness having turned your heart to stone.”

Ed stood up wordlessly and turned to leave.

“Ed,” David stopped him, “are you going to tell your friends about me?”

Ed froze in his steps for a few seconds, while pressing his lips together, thinking hard. “If they ask me about you” he said finally, “I’ll tell them I found you still too deep down in your alcoholic haze to get a single reasonable sentence out of you.”

“Thank you,” said David and he truly was grateful. This would give him some breathing space. He didn’t want to be on the “club’s” radar at the moment.

Ed didn’t answer, just pressed his lips together again. He turned around without another word and left.

David looked at Hope, who once again had retreated behind her mental wall. Her thoughts were blocked from him, but he could still sense her feelings: no more anger, but only sadness and fear, and strangely enough, they were mixed with guilt.

“Hope,” David asked, “what is wrong? Don’t think about Ed any more. He is an idiot and his friends are even more so. And your great-uncle said himself that eventually the plans of those power-crazed people failed and they will lose. This is not your time; whatever happens here at the moment has long been over in your time. And the people of your time have learned from the past, and humanity has changed. You certainly do not have to feel guilty for the crimes of our time.”

Hope didn’t answer, except with a wave of pain she couldn’t suppress. David was clueless as to what more he could say to comfort her.

Then he looked at the food still sitting fully wrapped on his tray. Somehow he had lost his appetite, but he knew he needed to eat something. Listlessly he unwrapped the hamburger and took his first bite. Then he got an idea. What had always calmed Hope down was when she could explain some of the technical or economic aspects of her world.

“You grow all the food you eat in your own village, don’t you?” David asked after gulping down half the burger.

“No, not all of it, only 60%, the rest we import,” Hope answered and David felt that she was becoming more herself again.

“But I thought,” he commented, “your teacher said you were…what did he call it? Food-sovereign…oh, I remember, sovereign means only the potential to be self-sufficient, doesn’t it?”

Hope nodded: “Yes, we could grow all our food if we wanted to. We just would have to build more aquaponic and aeroponic green-houses. And we would have to cut down the woods belonging to our village in order to make room for agricultural lands. But we don’t want to do such a thing because we also want to leave some space for the wild animals and plants, you see.”

“What are aquaponic and aeroponic greenhouses?” David asked non-plussed.

“You saw the plants growing on our balconies, didn’t you?” Hope asked. When David nodded she went on: “They grow in water and the water circulates to the end of the balcony where there is a fishpond and then back to plants around the whole floor.

“From feeding the fish and raising them, there is always some left-over in the pond. This is called effluent. It would rot and would eventually poison the fish, but the effluent rich water is good for the plants. It contains nutrients they need.

“There are a few extra containers connected to the system for removing waste and maintaining water oxygen levels, but basically the plants clean the water for the fish, and the fish make the nutrients for the plants. And we can eat the fish and the plants. And from the left-overs we make waste-piles where we grow worms to feed the fish. It is a cooperative system.”

“Wow, what a great way of producing food! And what are those other green-houses, airo…something to do with air?” David asked, even more intrigued.

“Yes that’s right, the aeroponic green-houses are not on the balconies but instead surround our block on the ground, and the plants grow in the air,” Hope answered, and David imagined for an instant some plants floating in weightlessness.

Hope actually saw the image in David’s mind and laughed: “No, no, not like that. The stems of the individual plants are surrounded by compressed cell foam and inserted through an opening in the aeroponic chamber, where they are illuminated with strong lights to enable photosynthesis.

“The containers are open at the bottom and so the roots extend below. In the chambers, automatic high-pressure pumps spray a fine mist of water and nutrients onto the roots and lower stems of the plants at regular intervals.

The nutrients put in the water we get from the left-overs of our waste-gas production shops. It is just like the cooperative cycle with the fish and the plants on the balcony.

“We eat the aeroponic plants and our waste makes nutrients for the next plants to grow in there again. And these plants grow really, really fast, faster than in water or in soil. This is also because we pump in a more CO2-rich type of air.”

“Sounds great, too!” David was honestly impressed.

“Yes, it is,” Hope agreed, “but we also need to be very careful to prevent any unwanted organisms from entering the chambers. And that’s why no children are allowed in there. And the grown-ups who work there adjusting the machines have to wear special sterile suits.” An image appeared in front of David of somebody in something resembling a space-suit.

David laughed–okay, so the plants weren’t floating weightlessly but the farmers sure looked like astronauts.

“Astronauts?” Hope asked.

“Those are people who fly into outer space or to the moon,” David answered.

“We don’t have those,” Hope declared simply. But David could feel this was once again a subject that somehow disturbed her, though she didn’t elaborate on it.

Instead she went back to her explanation on food-production: “We have contracts with eight villages from which we buy the rest of our food. Most are located in the middle parts of the continent. And during adolescence, everyone gets to do project work in those villages at least once.

“Sensei explained to us how much more we will learn about the cooperative system of nature when some day we work in our food-provider villages during planting or harvesting season. Those villages own far more land than we do, and there are only a few hundred people in a single village.

“Every family lives in a single house and owns its own farmland and its own herds of various farm-animals. And you know something, Uncle David? Those people look a lot like the people of your time, except that their clothes are not so ugly, tight, and short. But still, everybody has different clothes in various colors and forms, and also different caps and no embroidery, like my Mamma makes them for all the grown-ups of our community.”

“I wouldn’t want to dress like that, all different from everybody else,” said Hope, making a sound of distaste, “I want to show that I belong to my community and my village. It is so important to belong somewhere—why wouldn’t you want to show it?”

Hope stopped herself: “I mean, I don’t think they are bad people, just because of how they dress. Sensei taught us not to be prejudiced against those who are different from us. They’d probably think our clothes are strange, just like you do. Right, Uncle David?”

David smiled: “I would guess so.”

And now Hope found her main thread again: “Anyway, the people from our food-provider villages plant all of their crops outside. They need to know a lot more than we do about soil biology, about the micro-organisms working in the soil to give it fertility and how to feed and protect those organisms with different manures and a variety of crops…all this we will learn when we work there, says Sensei.”

“Oh, but I thought you always traded with different villages, those that had the lowest Intercoin amounts on their accounts, or did I misunderstand you?” David asked.

“This is done only for manufactured things,” Hope replied. “No village would do that for food-items. Nobody would want to eat anonymous food.”

David laughed: “So before you eat some pork-chop, you need to know the name of the pig?” he teased Hope.

“Ihh,” Hope shivered. “I would never eat meat if I knew the animal’s name. That’s why I don’t eat any beef, since the day I started to take care of our cows. – Yeah, I know you were making fun of me, but anonymous food means something totally different,” Hope continued, “it means you don’t know where it came from and who has grown the crops or raised the animals.”

“But what if those other villages have a bad harvest one year and can’t sell you enough for your needs?”

“This doesn’t happen very often,” Hope shrugged. “And we always have enough food in storage in the basements of our communities to last us a whole year.

“Five years ago our village needed to stock up the storage and then some people were sent from the village-council to go to some villages in Europe where they had enough surplus harvest to sell and there they checked out their food-production processes.”

“Why do you have to do that? Are you afraid those food suppliers are going to poison you?” David asked. “This sounds quite paranoid to me.”

“We don’t believe something like this! We are not paranoid,” Hope replied totally rejecting such a notion, “Of course we are not afraid other villages would try to poison us. It is just a matter of power; no village should give the power of food or energy to others they don’t know.

“In the Dark Ages, I think it was at a time before you were even born, there was a powerful man who said: Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.

“And after he said that, then he and some other very powerful men did everything to gain control over the food of the whole world.”

Here we go again, David thought with a bit of exasperation, everything done in Hope’s world, either economically or politically, seems somehow to be a direct reaction to what some people have said or done in his world.

It was like the people of the future had made it their highest goal in life to distance themselves as far as ever possible from his time, a past they called the “Dark Ages”.

Hope went on with her world’s interpretation of David’s time: “In the giant production shops of the powerful the scientists who worked for them changed the food with harmful chemicals so it would last longer or people would eat more of it. These chemicals made many people sick.

“They also changed the genetics of seeds. And with their control over coins, they made sure farmers all over the world had to buy those seeds over and over again. This was because the seeds they made would not produce crops with fertile seeds.

“And some of the changed crops where so harmful that over time, they altered some of the inner organs of those who ate the food, man and animal alike, and would sometimes even shrink the brain.”

“Is this true?” David asked in a low voice, “Are genetically engineered seeds really that dangerous?”

Hope nodded: “We still have all the documents in historic archives on the Peace-Web. We even have some of the seeds and also the plant-killing chemicals the farmers had to spray after they planted the seeds. And a few years back, some scientists started to do research on those seeds and chemicals to determine what caused the physiological changes to happen. They haven’t finished their work yet.

“But some historic scientists tell us those harmful changes might not have been accidental at all, since some of the powerful people in the Dark Ages had two theoretical goals for humanity:

“Their first aim was to genetically enhance a small minority of children, and their second was to reduce the brain-capacity of the rest of humanity’s children to that of big apes.

And the food controlled by the powerful may have been used as a poisonous tool to reach the second goal. When Sensei told us about those two Dark Age goals last year, he cited some author from your time who wrote:

“Gradually, by selective breeding, the congenital differences between rulers and ruled will increase until they become almost different species. A revolt of the plebs would become as unthinkable as an organized insurrection of sheep against the practice of eating mutton.”

Hope shuddered and so did David, then Hope explained: “Plebs means the ordinary people and insurrection means…”

“I know what it means,” David interrupted. ”But it must have been a crazy man who wrote that, some lunatic writing in a padded cell of his mental hospital.”

Hope looked skeptical: “I don’t know, if this was just a single crazy man, someone nobody was listening to, but maybe you are right,” she shrugged.

“The historic scientists say they have not yet found documents with definite proof that Dark Age scientists were actively working on both of those goals. But they did find documents, though, showing some of them expected an eventual and inevitable division of humanity into two different humanoid species.”

“Maybe they thought it would happen naturally,” David protested weakly.

Hope shook her head: “It couldn’t happen naturally, Sensei said, since homo sapiens as a species has existed for at least 300,000 years already.

“And while human beings during most of the time were separated from each other for thousands and in the case of the Neanderthals even hundred thousands of years, and though the people in different parts of the world came to look very different from each other outwardly, they still didn’t turn into separate species.

“And for the last few hundred years, people from different parts of the world could easily travel all over the world. And then people could meet each other and get married and have children together.

“And so the genes of all peoples are mixed with all other peoples all the time. It would be impossible for humanity to split naturally into two separate species through genetic variations only.”

“And you think those powerful people you were talking about, they would actually try to poison our food to reach their two-species ideal?” David asked, feeling nothing but sadness. He didn’t want to believe it, but he couldn’t rule it out any more.

“I don’t know,” Hope answered in a sad voice and then she added barely audible for David. “A few days ago we learned about documented experiments from right before the end of the Dark Ages, experiments which obviously were aimed at reaching the first of the two goals.

“Some scientists put an extra pair of chromosomes into mice embryos as a preparation for later doing the same to human embryos. Since they thought it would be too difficult to improve the whole human genetic code to reach the goal of creating a new superior species, they thought it would be easier to put the extra material into this extra pair of chromosomes.”

“They are insane, absolutely insane,” David commented. Hope nodded and David could feel her sadness paralleling his.

Hope didn’t talk any more, and David sat quite still as well. The stone in his gut made it impossible for him to eat the rest of his food, and so he pushed the tray away. But he was unable to push away the depressing thoughts in his mind.

Yes, the idea of creating “super-men” and “untermenschen” seemed extreme, fictional and totally out of the ordinary, something belonging to the Nazi-cult of the past. But was the development of those ideas in reality not just the logical consequence of other ideas treating human life as just as worthless and disposable? And these ideas seemed quite ordinary nowadays …. banal even.

His friend Ed had justified mass-killings and nuclear war for what had seemed to him a higher good. But David realized now the way his whole culture was mired in the increasing acceptance of murderous violence.

Action movies over the last decades had basically turned into mass-slaughter spectacles with an ever-increasing virtual death-toll, and even the once-so-shallow-but-harmless TV had become more violent and brutal with every passing year.

Unbidden the disturbing images of a TV show came into David’s mind, one he had watched recently. It had depicted a veteran who, after having received a head injury in a car-accident, went berserk, serially killing friends, family, and bystanders.

The part of the show, however, that had struck David and had made him feel sick, was when all of the main characters, who happened to be FBI agents, justified the past event which had supposedly triggered this ex-Navy Seal’s hallucinations and started his killing spree:

The soldier had once been a highly trained special-ops man who had been ordered – during peace-time – to assassinate a foreign businessman who had traded nuclear secrets with Iran. His orders had been to kill everybody on board the yacht where a trade-meeting was taking place, including the crew and – unexpectedly – two children.

While the crew on board, the innocent adult victims of the assassination, weren’t even mentioned, the lead-FBI agent called the death of the two children “unfortunate collateral damage” unavoidable at times.

David thought there wasn’t even a single person he knew who would have objected to this TV show on moral grounds. None of them would ever have questioned the idea that the an American military unit or one of its allies had a license to kill anybody anywhere in the world in order to protect the supposedly higher good.

And neither would David himself have questioned this universal belief, if he had watched this particular show a year ago.

David asked himself which had come first: Was it the brutal reality of endless war which had caused the adoration of violence in fiction or was it the other way around. Had maybe the brutality presented in fictitious images created this enormous acceptance of violence and warfare?

Whatever the sequence, David now admitted to himself that Ed’s transition into a sociopath was not the result of some obscure brain-washing practices, but the natural consequence of the psychopathic attitude permeating his whole society.

Contrasting it to the one of Hope’s world David now identified this attitude as the belief that the life of a human being has no innate value instead it’s value depended upon its usefulness.

Useful to whom or what? National interests they say, but who in his nation did actually profit from all this war and destruction…

In deep frustration thinking about the cheering reception of the latest war-movie, David asked himself for the umpteenth time how it was possible that although most ordinary people were losing out economically, they still identified with the powerful and their religion of violence, domination and conquest.

They basked in the glory of a nation whose greatest achievement was a weapons arsenal larger than those of all the other nations put together. And it wasn’t just in America–the veneration of violence was an attitude shared by most of the globe’s people; why else would all those Hollywood action blockbuster enjoy such global success?

How could his world’s people ever, ever come to adopt the “First Principle” of Hope’s world.

It seemed so utterly beyond the scope of reality, outside the logical progression of events, where the future is always the natural consequence of conditions created in the past.

“It’s impossible, absolutely impossible!” David said out loud.

“Sometimes there are miracles,” Hope answered softly.

***

We now have a little time to spare. Mr Wang went to the supermarket to buy bottles of carbonated drinks and some sandwiches. We are going to eat inside the car.

As Darryl drinks his first mouthful he grimaces.

Too sweet,” he comments.

Mr Wang has a lot more to say after he bites in his sandwich, something about the lack of baking and cooking skills in Nephilim City. None of his comments are particularly charitable.

I don’t understand these guys. I think the bread is just fine with the ham and cheese on it, and a few slurps of sugar and caffeine is just what I need at the moment. But then I should remember that Mr Wang is a baker in his normal life, and I guess that makes him the expert, at least where bread is concerned.

And then I see a whole platoon of uniformed security enforcers coming our way. Every one of us stiffens up and goes silent.

The enforcers aren’t interested in a parked car though, not even a fancy one. They have found another victim already.

An old woman has been limping toward the super-market for while. My guess would be, that she is in her fifties, although the deep scars on her face and arms might make her look older than she actually is. The enforcers are now right behind her and have started pushing her from one side of the side-walk to the other.

Get out of the way, you old bitch,” one of them yells. “Don’t you see that we are in a hurry.”

A large muscled enforcer guy pulls her off the wall where she is now trying to press herself against. He wheels her around and then with a final jerk pushes her off the side-walk and straight into the traffic, while everyone else is laughing. A car swerves, barely missing the woman, while the next one behind honks his horn at her. Ms Alba who is sitting next to me has been making restrained angry sounds for a while already echoed by Darryl. But there is nothing either they nor any of the rest of us can do at the moment.

The woman is now standing on the street, her head bend in helpless surrender, waiting for the enforcers to finally pass her by.

However their laughter hasn’t subsided yet.

The first one yells again: “Has anyone checked her insurance. I rather doubt an ugly bitch like that one has ever gotten any policy.”

The enforcer closest to the woman grabs her hand, touching her palm he looks at his own display. “Yea,” he yells back, “she’s insured” and then adds menacingly “at least so far.”

Finally the enforcers have passed by and the old woman slowly steps back onto the side-walk to haltingly continue her slow walk toward the super-market.

I look at Ms Alba and then turn around to my companions in the backseat to make a prediction: “In a few days most of the City will be empty. With all the women and most of the men repatriated, those enforcers will have no one to bully any more,”

However, the Professor shakes his head thoughtfully: “Most of the world’s scientists who study human behavior believe that only a minority of the women and an even smaller percentage of the men will want to leave Nephilim City and return to their former villages.”

Really?! Not even all the women?” I’m not convinced.

The Professor continues: “The life-style of Nephilim City is very addictive. Once a person gets hooked onto it, their brain-pattern and their whole way of thinking changes. After having been here for some years even most women, no matter how badly they have been abused and humiliated, will no longer want a different life.

Only those who are parents, like Nanami whose love for their children is greater than the addiction to a life-style will be ready to leave.”

[_ Getting addicted or rather “hooked” onto a life-style-- I've heard that one before, and I remember well how much disdain my father used to express for those who ] _*did* get hooked, in spite of the fact that he and his fellow elitists have created that very same life-style themselves. After all they own those clubs, theaters and all the other entertainment establishments just as they themselves employ the developers and sales-agents for the addictive recreational substances sold in there.

[_ In order to make his point- my father occasionally used to go to a movie theater with me, only to relentlessly drag me out of there when the movie was about half finished. _]

We, you and I, are not getting hooked on a movie nor on anything else,” John Galt stated then every time, while we were looking at the theater from the outside.

We are the elites.

And the rubble glued to the screen in there, the prols, who in their insipid dreams identify with the super-heroes of those movies will come out of this house ready to become willing tools for our plans.

We are the actual super-heroes of this world. We are the ones who create and shape the world and all of reality according to our will.”

CHAPTER 10

 

Miracles? … There it was again–the religion angle.

David felt deeply saddened. Hope had claimed that David’s world, the world of his time, would be changed by a miracle. And for David it could only mean one thing: Hope’s world wasn’t real…it couldn’t be.

And Hope herself, the young girl he could see so clearly in front of him and for whom he had started to care so much, she was nothing but an illusion.

There were no such things as miracles, David was sure about that.

There was only logic. Even in the craziness he had heard from Ed, there was still some logic…false ideas and immoral theories maybe, but still a certain kind of logic….

“It was a miracle,” Hope interrupted David’s train of thought, speaking softly and without the slightest hint of reproach for the fact that he was once again doubting her very existence, “when you were there on the very spot where your writing could save 3000 people from being killed.”

“I didn’t save those people!” David was confused, he had never thought about it in this way. “I didn’t…or maybe I did… I don’t know…but anyway, it wasn’t a miracle I was there. The informant came to me because I had written some article about certain military recruiting practices….”

Hope shook her head, asking softly: “Did everybody read this article of yours?”

“No, not really,” David shook his head thoughtfully. Actually he had written the article not for his own paper, but for a small magazine which, though connected to his paper, still had a far more limited distribution.

“Then it was a miracle this informant had read your article,” Hope claimed, “and that he trusted you and that he was even there in the first place. Although he had participated in such a nefarious plan, he was still able to find his conscience and change his mind. If your friend Ed had been there, he would not have done so…or do you disagree?”

David shook his head sadly: “You heard him. No, Ed wouldn’t have done it.”

“Only a short while ago, you thought nobody would do anything good unless he’d got some profit from it,” Hope reminded David. “What profit did this man receive for himself when he told you the truth?”

“None,” David admitted, “He suddenly disappeared. I hope he is alright, but I doubt it.”

“And he knew it would be dangerous to talk to you, didn’t he?” Hope asked and when David nodded, she went on:

“But he did it anyway. That was a miracle of the heart. And you didn’t get any profit either–you lost your job,” Hope argued further.

“And you also knew beforehand you would get into trouble, didn’t you?”

When David nodded she continued: “And still you did the right thing, just like your informant. Wasn’t that another miracle? There was a miracle inside each of you.”

“If you want to call it a miracle, fine,” David shrugged. “I just did my job as a journalist; it was a good story, after all…. But what does it matter? Those planners will just make another plan, kill some other people. Abiffsen is still there and so is his special unit; they won’t be stopped.”

“Perhaps,” suggested Hope, “there will be another miracle and somebody else will be there to save the next potential victims. And Uncle David, I didn’t say it was one miracle that changed your world. There were really more like a thousand million miracles needed, turning hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.”

“Like Ed’s heart?” David asked, full of doubt. “You heard Ed, there was no convincing him of anything you have told me. He didn’t give me any time to present my, or rather, your evidence, but even if he had, it would not have made a bit of difference. And don’t think Ed is so different from everybody else. I wish he were….

“No, I have seen the same expression in Ed’s eyes that I’ve seen in so many others, whenever I talked to them about something contradicting their world-view. It was like a shutter going down behind their eyes. There is no kind of “truth-light” which would be able to penetrate such a shutter. When it comes down, the mind is shut like a vault.”

“I know,” Hope agreed, “mere words cannot overcome cognitive dissonance. What you need is…”

“I know, I know,” David interrupted her, “a miracle…. But you see, Hope, what you have shown me and told me–the things you learned in school or from your great-uncle–they contradict everything I was taught, what all of us were taught for I don’t know how long… And still you tell me that all of a sudden, all the people will start to see the light?

“And even those in the higher positions, those who profit from the system, even the people from Ed’s club, they all will stop what they are doing to protect their interests and allow really significant changes. And all this you say will happen because of some kind of divine intervention?”

Hope nodded: “Yes, the shutters, as you called them, could not have been opened by either the persuasion of evidence or any acts of violence. It was something else, it was …”

“A miracle,” David finished her sentence and then he shrugged: “Maybe you are right. From what I have seen in the last few months, there is no reasonable likelihood we’ll see any changes for the better. The bad guys–your great-uncle called them the marauders, didn’t he–they have everything tightly in their grip. Resistance is futile, as the Borg used to say…”

“The Borg?” Hope asked

“Just some fictional characters, never mind.” David answered.

“Anyway, the different groups who supposedly resist the war-mongers, be they from the left or the right, religious or atheist, they all hate each others’ guts and are constantly at each others throats. There is no cooperation of any kind for the common good or even for common goals.

“Some say they’ve all been infiltrated by intelligence operatives and that’s why they keep fighting like alley cats even within their own ranks over the slightest differences of opinion.

“If ‘the powers that be’ can do something really perfectly, it is the game of “divide and conquer”. And they win every time.

“And then, regarding the truth-light, there is that so-called truth-movement. They know about the game, but have gotten so paranoid that last time I checked, they were circulating lists on the internet where they called everybody else in their movement a government agent.

“I don’t know how many different such lists you can find, but they are so extended that it seems to me the person who isn’t on a particular list is probably the one who wrote it.

‘The truth will set you free?’ It’s more like the truth will make you paranoid.

“And thus we come back to the only way for a better world,” David ended his frustrated rant, “the way of the miracle. The only trouble is, there is no such thing as a miracle.”

“Yes, there is,” Hope insisted, “all the time.”

“The miracle of a world war maybe, destroying the world so we can build a new one?”

David asked aloud in a cynical voice but then immediately regretted his outburst not only for Hope’s sake, but also because of the Japanese group seated at the next table. By now they had taken notice of the strange man talking to himself in an unfriendly voice, and had sensibly decided to withdraw and find a safer place in the city.

“There are no miracles because there is no God?” Hope asked and she pointed to herself: “Just like there is no Hope?”

“I’m sorry, Hope, I didn’t mean it like that,” David apologized. “It is just so hard for me to accept something I cannot explain. And I will always ask why a God who works miracles would ever have allowed all this to happen in the first place: people being slaughtered in one war after another, over and over again, sometimes millions of people….”

“I don’t know why the innocent have to suffer for the evil deeds of the guilty,” Hope answered sadly, “I just don’t know.”

David now realized she was thinking of her father and he regretted his earlier harsh words, while Hope went on: “I’ve been taught death is not the end and justice reaches beyond this life and even the worst suffering will make sense then.

“I know this is not enough of an explanation for you and it doesn’t really comfort you, Uncle David, or does it?”

David didn’t have to answer. Hope knew his thoughts, so she went on: “All I do know is that eventually, those war-makers were stopped. And it took miracles for this to happen and not a world-war. Because answering war with war and violence with violence would not have worked.

“The powerful people of the Dark Ages, owned giant armies and controlled weapons so destructive they had the potential to destroy all life on earth.

“They fought many wars in your time; you know that, Uncle David–even two world wars. And everybody in my time knows that at the end of the Dark Ages, mankind was very, very close to another world war, where the most destructive of those weapons would have been used. And everybody also knows that this could have meant the end of mankind. “

“You are right, Hope, we might indeed be on the edge of oblivion,” David agreed with a sad voice. “There are quite a few people nowadays who say, that the only way to stop the final catastrophe would be an armed mass-uprising, a new revolution.”

Hope shook her head:

“It wouldn’t have worked either, besides armies for war in other countries the powerful of your time commanded also enormous security forces they could use against their own population wielding all kind of weapons against anyone who might rebel against their rule. They inflicted terrible pains and acts of humiliation against those they captured.

“And those who marched in protest against them they would hurt by what was called crowd-control weapons. Gases could be sprayed making people incapable of breathing for a while or let them wither in painful cramps. They would use electromagnetic rays as weapons to inflict pain on thousands of people at the same time, directed against them from the air or from long distances away.

“And in spite of all this many, many brave people did protest. But in spite of many getting hurt the people still would not use any weapons or other forms of violence. For they knew that every act of violence on their side would give the rulers another reason to use brutal force against the people.

“And after more and more innocent and peaceful protesters got hurt, more and more policemen and soldiers didn’t want to take part in the hurting any more, instead they joined the people.”

Now David shook his head again:

“That’s impossible, the members of our armies and security forces are trained to follow orders, trained not to question them or think for themselves. They are trained to follow all orders, even if that means hurting and killing unarmed people. They would never change sides, never, at least not in significant numbers.”

David sighed: “Yes, I know, that was another miracle you tell me. And I agree with you, a miracle would be the only way something like this could ever happen.

And at this point, I really wish I could believe in divine miracles,” David said wistfully, ”but I can’t. .. I just can’t. There is just too much that doesn’t make sense to me. If there is one God for all people, a God of miracles, why would there be so many different religions?”

Without waiting for an answer, David went on trying to make Hope understand why this question was relevant:

“When I was talking about the divide and conquer game, I forgot to mention one of the most frequently used tactics of those manipulators namely to focus upon religious differences and use the believers of the different religions as pawns in their game.”

“It’s really the easiest way to make people hate one another. You heard how my friend Ed said that these people he calls ’friends of friends‘ recruit Salafists to do their dirty work. What this actually means is that those spooks from the CIA, and other intelligence agencies hire those fanatic Sunni Muslims to carry out terrorist attacks slaughtering Shiite Muslims or Christians.

“The purpose is to destabilize a targeted country so it will be easier to foment the right atmosphere for regime change or a civil war.

“And here in America, the same very powerful men Ed calls friends use the violent acts of those very same militants whose organizations were created and armed by our own intelligence agencies to justify an endless ’war on terror‘.

“And on top of it all, the supposed need for protecting us from those dangerous terrorists is used as a justification for the destruction of our constitutional rights.

“If there were no religions, at least this insane scenario would not be possible.

“If there really were a God of miracles, the least he could do would be to prevent people from slaughtering each other in his name.“

There was far more frustration in David’s voice than insistence on being right, as Hope realized.

So she answered softly: “You are right, it is insane to hate one another in the name of God. But all you were telling me just now was that it is not really the religion of the people which is behind the insanity, but something to do with the greed for more power of certain groups of powerful men. And religious differences have not been the only tools the marauders used to divide and conquer the rest of mankind….”

Hope stopped for a while, thinking and biting her lip. And David realized that she was on the verge of confiding something very personal to him, something she found hard to put into words. And so he waited.

“I had those questions, too” she began slowly, “I mean about why there were different religions. And I thought only I was right, which made everyone else wrong. It was a few years ago, when I was nine and I felt so, I don’t know…… and then my great-uncle said…..” Hope hesitated and then she asked: “Can I show it to you? It is hard to explain otherwise.”

David nodded: “Sure!” He was only too ready to enter Hope’s world again and forget his own for a while. Although he did look over at the next table, where the boy cleaning the table seemed to give him a curious glance– this was a fast-food restaurant after all, and David took a sure guess, this means of course that you are supposed to eat fast.

David took a strong hold on his nearly empty cup, indicating that he was not finished yet and would stay put at his table. Then he closed his eyes and once again, images from Hope’s past flooded his mind.

He saw a younger Hope standing on the balcony of her apartment block, but he barely recognized her, for this Hope was very different from the little girl he had seen in earlier flashbacks.

Her face reminded him of somebody else he had seen recently, and he puzzled over it for a second or two before he realized: Of course, it was his own face in the mirror this morning.

Like him, Hope had deep shadows under her eyes and her cheeks were sunken as if she had gotten neither enough nourishment nor sleep for quite a while.

Although her body and clothing were those of the little girl he remembered, her face was that of an embittered old woman. Her lips were pressed together and her fists were clenched in anger. It was not the kind of anger David had sensed in her before, the type that came on suddenly and then within a few moments dissolved into nothingness.

No, this was a lasting anger that not only formed her hands into fists but pressed her whole body and mind into an iron knot. She projected the image of a person who harbored a deep-seated rejection of everyone and everything.

Hope wasn’t alone. Not far from her was a young woman sitting in an armchair, with most of her body covered by a blanket. And David surmised that this must have been Tabitha, the handicapped girl Hope had mentioned earlier. Tabitha had her eyes closed. To the right of her armchair stood an empty stool.

Tabitha opened her eyes, looking straight at Hope. She then made a slight gesture with her right hand that lay on top of the blanket, inviting Hope to come closer and sit down next to her.

Hope averted her eyes. She was not yet ready to sit down.

At that moment, light steps could be heard running along the balcony and a voice called out: “Salaam, Hope.”

It was Ameenah, Hope’s friend, who right away started to bubble over: “I haven’t seen you for such a long time. You haven’t come to school and I’ve missed you so much. And my mamma said that you were sick and that you didn’t want any visitors and….”

Ameenah had to stop to catch her breath, and while doing so, she took the opportunity to look more closely at her friend.

“You do look sick,” she stated and then asked: “Are you feeling a little better now?”

Hope made a non-committal sound which could mean yes or no. Now Ameenah’s voice became more hesitant, as she tried her best to find the right words: “I have heard about your Papa……I feel so sorry that he died….”

The sound Hope made in response was even less comprehensible, but obviously not friendly. Ameenah felt the rejection. She now had tears in her eyes, but she didn’t give up: “Maybe we can go to the woods this afternoon in our secret cave. I have got another blanket and two more cushions.

“And I found a place with lots of cut-off branches we can use for building. And look here at what my brother programmed for me!”

Ameenah touched her wrist-control a few times, and above her arm appeared a small holographic figure with wings, a bit like Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell.

“She glows in the dark,” Ameenah said proudly, and then she offered: “My brother can program one for you, too. And then we can play fairies in the cave.”

Now Hope answered in real words for the first time: “I don’t want to play fairies in the cave.”

“We can play something else, then,” Ameenah offered, still not wanting to give up.

Hope was about to shake her head to reject the offer, but then she hesitated, thought for a few seconds, and demanded in a provocative voice: “Alright, let’s go to the woods, but not this afternoon; let’s do it right now.”

“But Hope, you know I can’t go right now,” Ameenah replied, astonished at Hope’s request. “I have to go to the mosque with my family at 12 noon for Friday prayer. It takes half an hour to go to the woods and half an hour to get back; we would be too late coming home even if we didn’t spend any time playing!”

“It is either now or not at all,” Hope demanded in a harsh voice and then added, hissing: “Why do you want to pray in your false religion anyway? With your false prophet and all those false things you people believe in?”

Ameenah gaped for a few seconds. She was at a loss for words, then she whispered: “Hope, you are a rule-breaker, a serious rule-breaker. Saying something bad about other people’s religion is very, very wrong….”

“It’s not wrong to say the truth.” Hope’s voice was now loud and angry: “I don’t care if I’m a rule-breaker. I know about all those differences between our Christian and your Muslim religion.

“And with so many differences, your religion must be wrong and false, that’s only logical. So you can either go and pray in your false religion or you can come with me.”

And David, who had followed this exchange with as much astonishment as little Ameenah, realized that there was something seriously wrong with Hope. This vicious little vixen was not the Hope he knew.

Neither was it the Hope Ameenah had known for most of her young life. But by now she had gotten angry as well.

“No,” she stated, “you are wrong and your religion is fal….” There was a sound coming from the armchair and Ameenah checked herself. Tabitha’s eyes were wide open. She was looking straight at the two little girls. Ameenah looked ashamed.

“Why are you talking like this, where Tabitha can hear you?” Ameenah whispered

“I don’t care who hears me when I tell the truth,” Hope hissed back, but she did avert her eyes.

Ameenah now realized that she could not handle the situation with Hope on her own. “You should come with me to see the Imam before prayer starts. He will tell you what is right,” she suggested.

“I’m not going to any imam,” Hope refused. And once again, David noticed how strangely she was talking.

“Your imam would only say everything the Muslim way and I would not believe him anyway,” Hope stated.

Then she hesitated for a few moments and came finally up with another demand: “You can go with me to my Great-uncle Professor instead; he will tell you what is right.”

Now Ameenah answered in kind: “But your great-uncle is a Christian monk from the…. the Jesus society, I think, and he would say everything the Christian way.”

“My great-uncle belongs to the order of the Society of Jesus and he knows everything,” Hope stated pompously.

Ameenah was not convinced, so she thought for a second and then suggested: “Maybe we should go to Sensei together.“

“No,” Hope still insisted in her strange hissing voice, “we go to my great-uncle or to nobody. And we go right now!”

Ameenah turned slightly, but David could read her face like an open book. She was still feeling somewhat angry about Hope’s unexpected attack, and shocked at her breaking of a strict taboo of their community. She also didn’t want to let herself to be pushed into doing Hope’s bidding–it just wasn’t fair.

But she had realized that something was seriously wrong with Hope, something which she, Ameenah, somehow couldn’t handle…. She then looked in the eyes of the silent Tabitha and made her decision. Hope needed a grown-up, any grown-up.

“Let’s go then!” Ameenah told Hope and started to walk to the elevator. Hope followed silently.

When they arrived at the Professor’s doorstep, Ameenah turned around, but Hope was waiting for her to take the initiative. So she rang the doorbell. It took a while for the Professor to come to the door; he seemed to have been busy. And when he opened it, he looked somewhat surprised at his two young visitors.

“Assalamu aleikum, Professor Morgan” Ameenah offered the traditional greeting, while Hope once again regressed to her earlier mumbles. “Wa aleikum assalam, little Ameenah and Hope,” the Professor replied in kind, “What can I do for you?”

Ameenah looked back at Hope, expecting her to explain their business; after all, the Professor was Hope’s great-uncle and not hers, and it was she who had demanded they go to him. But Hope had fallen silent again.

When no answer came forth, the Professor asked: “Would you like to come inside?”

“Yes, thank you,” Ameenah answered politely, and entered the Professor’s study in a shy, careful manner, looking around unobtrusively. She obviously had not been there before.

Hope followed her silently, her head bent. The Professor’s apartment looked just the same as the last time David had seen it, with its spartan furnishings and the wall by the desk covered with graphs and equations.

The Professor went to the kitchen to fetch a chair, and then brought another chair from the room David knew was the Professor’s laboratory, before closing the door to it. After inviting the children to sit down, he repeated his question: “Now, what I can I do for you two?”

Ameenah once again glanced at Hope. But her friend only averted her eyes and so Ameenah started : “I wanted to play with Hope outside, but she said we should do it right away and I said I have to go to Friday prayer and she said I should not pray because my religion is false and the Prophet….and..”

Ameenah stopped for a second, looking at the Professor and then adding in a whisper: “She should not say such things. It is……..” She hesitated again.

The Professor ended her sentence: “very wrong indeed, a serious incident of rule-breaking.” He walked over to Ameenah, while turning his back to Hope.

He bowed slightly and said: “I am very sorry for what Hope said to you and I want to apologize for that, in the name of her family and of all the Christians in our community, and I sincerely hope that you will accept my apology.” He offered Hope’s surprised little friend his hand to shake. When Ameenah hesitated, he added: “Hope will apologize herself, as well”…after a sideways glance towards her, he added further: “tomorrow”.

Hope said nothing, but David could feel that she was furious. But to David’s surprise he could also read in her that she was not the slightest bit surprised at the Professor’s reaction. She had known beforehand that he wouldn’t be on her side in this.

So why had she come?

Ameenah still didn’t take the Professor’s outstretched hand, but instead said in a guilt-stricken voice: “I half-way said the same thing back to Hope about her religion….yours…”

The Professor nodded without withdrawing his hand:

“This is the very reason why denigrating your neighbor’s religion is such a serious offense. It leads to further denigrating words and then words upon words, anger upon anger. It will become a vicious, ever-increasing cycle until the result is hatred and violence and the destruction of peace….. unless the cycle is broken.”

Still standing there with his outstretched hand, the Professor repeated:

“Will you, Ameenah, accept my apology on behalf of all the Christians who should have taught young Hope better and failed in that instance?”

Ameenah got up from her chair. She laid her small hand in the big one of the Professor and shook it, saying solemnly: “I accept Professor Morgan and….and I apologize also on behalf…..on my own behalf.”

“I accept your apology as well,” the Professor replied just as solemnly, then gave her hand a last shake before returning to his chair.

Ameenah sat down as well, and the Professor looked expectantly at her, asking:

“Would you like to say something more?”

Ameenah took a deep breath and then said: “I wanted to go with Hope to the Imam, so he could explain about the differences in religion, but she didn’t want to go there. She only wanted to go to you and….”

“And so,” the Professor ended her explanation, “it now falls to me to do the explaining. Hmm, let me think,” he began. “Of course your imam would explain it differently and probably much better than I can, just as our priest would explain differently, but I will try.

“You know that I’m a scientist, don’t you?”

When Ameenah nodded he went on: “My fields are mathematics and physics. And for my explanations I can only use the tools of my own trade.”

With this he turned around to his desk and started typing. Suddenly the windows of the study were shuttered, cutting out the daylight so that the room was now lit only by a slowly rotating mass of thousands of tiny holographic light-dots below a very black ceiling.

Ameenah gasped as the Professor explained:

“What you see here is an image of the Milky Way, our galaxy, one of many galaxies in our universe. Every small light you see is a sun, like ours. Many of those suns also have planets surrounding them, like Venus or Mars or like our Earth. “

“It is so beautiful,” said Ameenah, awestruck, “and it is moving.”

The Professor nodded: “The Milky Way is rotating around its center according to certain immutable laws. For thousands of years people have asked themselves what those laws controlling the universe might be, and scientists have come up with some answers. But with every answer they found, new questions arose.

“And sometimes scientists had to admit to themselves that some of the answers they had thought to be true were actually severely flawed or even totally false.”

“Only Allah has all the knowledge of the universe,” Ameenah remarked, “because he made it.”

“You are right, Ameenah, only the Almighty Creator has all the answers,” the Professor agreed.

“But scientists over the ages were never content with that. They wanted to find their own answers. And they were not only interested in the movements of the stars and the planets.” The Professor pushed a key and the image of the Milky Way disappeared to make room for a very earthly blue sky. Below it appeared a mountain landscape. Slowly the image zoomed in to show only a single mountain, then a rock which was part of it. Eventually it zoomed onto a pebble as part of the rock.

“They wanted to know what kept the world together in its innermost part.”

The image had now changed into that of a molecule, and was still continuing to zoom in.

“They wanted to know what the tiniest piece of matter was, and at first they settled on the atom as the smallest piece. But then they realized that even the tiny atom was in reality a whole system containing still smaller pieces.”

The image had now zoomed in to portray a nucleus, containing several protons and neutrons surrounded by electrons.

“Eventually, however, scientists realized that even those were not the smallest pieces–that the sub-atomic particles were made up of pieces which, strangely enough, were not pieces at all.”

Ameenah looked rather confused at the contradiction, but the Professor went on:

“These pieces had no mass and they had no energy; they radiated neither light nor heat. They were just tiny little pieces of nothing, but a nothing that somehow moved and vibrated, swinging to an eternal tune which we cannot hear and in accordance with laws our minds cannot comprehend.

“And out of these nothing-tunes, everything was composed, like some sort of giant symphony of the whole universe.

“For although they are nothing, they still have effects. Their vibrations influence each other and their surroundings; they work, and this is why some scientists called them wirks as others called them quarks. And via these workings, that which has no mass becomes mass, and that which has no energy becomes energy.

“And some of the tiny parts of the atom called electrons, which are made up of those wirks, move around, not following straight or curved lines around the core from one point to another, but instead, erratically blinking in and out of existence here and there.”

The image of an atomic structure sparkled with light-blobs randomly appearing and disappearing in different places, sometimes in two places at once.

The Professor went on: “The scientists could not see any logic or order in this. But still, what seemed to be incomprehensible disorder was actually at the core of all the wonderfully ordered systems upon which the whole of the universe is built, including all living and non-living things.”

Then the image rapidly zoomed out until it showed the landscape again, then all of earth, then the solar-system, and eventually, the stars of the Milky Way.

“And the scientists realized that when the focus of their vision was fixed too closely upon a single event, it would often not make any sense at all, no matter how hard they looked for answers to their questions. For most people– scientists and non-scientists alike–this inability can be very frustrating. We have such a deep desire to understand why things happen the way they do.”

While the Professor was seemingly directing his conversation to the slightly confused Ameenah, David realized he was now actually talking more to Hope than to her friend.

“Only when seeing the small events as part of a whole can reason be recognized. But still, all of our observations have to be filtered through the smallness of the human brain, and oftentimes there is nothing left for us to do but concede that some answers can never be found in here,” said the Professor as he pointed to his head.

“And then even the most knowledgeable scientist will have come to the same conclusion, the one our little Ameenah already had a long time ago.”

Now Ameenah smiled, no longer confused but gratified as she repeated herself: “that only Allah, who made the universe and all that is in it, has all the answers.”

The Professor nodded.

“I would like to show you another image on the differences between religions. It is not the full truth but just an image to maybe help you understand reality a little better. Do you want to see it?”

Ameenah nodded eagerly.

With a keystroke, the Professor projected an X- and Y-axis on the floor. With a couple more strokes, he marked several dots.

“Have you learned about graphs like these in school already?” the Professor asked.

Ameenah answered: “Sure, every dot has a coordinate number to show where it is located between X and Y.”

“And have you learned that there are no two dots that can have the same coordinates of X and Y?” the Professor asked

“Yes,” Ameenah nodded, “but only if it is a flat graph, like the one you put on the floor. But if there is a Z-axis, then…” Ameenah slowed down to pronounce the mathematical definition she had been taught “an infinite number of dots can have the same X/Y coordinates.”

“You learned very well in school,” the Professor praised her.

“It is the Z-axis that makes a graph 3-dimensional. And with only these 3 dimensions of space, you can describe our reality somewhat realistically. But there is another dimension we can feel every moment and that is time. In these four dimensions of space and time, we experience our world.

“So now imagine a place, a totally different world from ours, where all things are not 3-dimensional but flat and where the people look like this…” The Professor produced images of little cartoon characters with eyes and noses bulging from both sides of their empty round faces, and hair sprouting from the top. He made the figures move around the floor.

“They look very strange,” Ameenah commented

“They would think and act even more strangely,” the Professor replied. David noticed that Hope, although giving the appearance of total disinterest, was still watching intently from beneath her downcast eyes. She was intrigued.

“Now Ameenah,” the Professor told her, “go and stand in the middle of the flaties’ space.” Ameenah got up from her chair and the Professor made the small figures move around her feet on the floor.

“They can’t see you, you know. All they see are the lines around your feet. These lines are nothing but obstacles for them, ones they have to bypass. They cannot look up to see your face or even just climb over your shoes. For them, there is no up.”

Ameenah nodded and commented: “The flaties have no Z-axis.”

“No Z-axis,” the Professor agreed, “but did you realize, Ameenah, that for God Almighty, we are just like those flaties, although we do have a Z-axis.

“ Most scientists nowadays agree that there are at least one extra space and one more time -dimension. In our everyday experience, time flows from the past to the present and then to the future.

“With a second dimension of time, every moment of the past and every moment of the future exist side by side with the single moment of the present, which is the only one we humans can normally experience. But God Almighty, he can see the whole of existence at all times.

“Because of this other dimension of time, my scientist colleagues and I discovered that time-travel, at least for the human mind, is possible under certain circumstances. And that is what we are working on in our project.”

“Yes, Hope has told me about it,” Ameenah said, “that someone goes back in time into the mind of his brother yesterday. That is so awesome!”

“Yes,” the Professor agreed, “we think so, too. But the other space dimension is even more awesome.

“This is a dimension we cannot see or hear or touch, and cannot really grasp with our minds. It is as much beyond us as the third dimension, the Z-axis, is for the flaties. ”

“This other dimension, it is Allah’s up?” Ameenah suggested.

The Professor smiled: “You might call it that. From the Almighty’s perspective, things look very different than they look for us, since God can see through all dimensions.

“ When you only have an X- and Y-axis, then two different dots having the same X/Y coordinates are an impossible contradiction, but when you take the Z-axis into account, then the contradiction disappears. So from God's perspective, which is much more than just an X-, Y-, and Z-axis, the differences we perceive between our religions might not be contradictions for him at all.”

Ameenah nodded in understanding: “We are like the flaties, we cannot look up to Allah’s up.”

The Professor nodded thoughtfully: “True, we cannot see. But sometimes I try to imagine that our spiritual existence is like a very high mountain that lies exactly in this other dimension, in God’s up.”

Once again the Professor changed the image and now a holographic mountain surrounded by dark waters arose in the middle of his study.

He went on with his story: “We, all of us people on earth, live on this mountain. And we all have to climb it in order to reach our goal to get home to the place where we belong and to be with the One we all yearn for.

“We have to keep on climbing all our lives, for if we stand still, harsh winds might blow us down, making us slide directly into the vast sea of desolation which surrounds the mountain on all sides.

“But the climb is often difficult and leads through rough terrain. Therefore paths have been cut at various places around the mountain, paths that lead from those different parts to the common destination. Those paths have been prepared for us by very special persons whom the Almighty called to do so.”

“By the prophets,” Ameenah interjected

The Professor nodded: “And for us Christians, by Jesus.”

“Did you know that your Jesus is a prophet for us, too?” Ameenah asked.

The Professor smiled: “Yes, I did actually.”

Ameenah pointed to the Professor’s embroidered top. “But we don’t put him on a cross,” she commented.

Hope looked up and focused on her great-uncle.

And for the first time David noticed that the embroidered stripe the Professor wore over his chest did not show an elaborate pattern as did most of the others he had seen so far.

But rather it contained an image not only portraying a crucifix but the whole of the crucifixion scene, complete with the thieves at each side of the crucified Jesus, as well as the mourners below the cross and the dice- playing soldiers. And on the edges, there were crowds of people, many of them with raised fists.

“Yes, I know,” the Professor replied, “ours is the way of the cross. And on that way we learn much about God and also about ourselves.”

Ameenah looked doubtful but then turned back to the image of the mountain. Luminous paths were cutting through wooded and rocky parts leading all the way up to the clouds covering the mountain top. Tiny people were walking up each of those paths, but there were also some lonely figures climbing in other places.

The Professor went on: “On our paths we can walk more easily than we can in those uncharted areas outside the paths. And we never walk alone; there are always people who will keep us company on the path. They also can help us up when we have stumbled and fallen down. We can hold on to each other when the winds become too strong or when we have to walk through an especially dark passage on the mountain.”

Ameenah had noticed something disturbing on the image: “Do all paths lead up to where Allah is?” she asked. “That one over there leading to the back of the mountain looks so crooked, as if it is not going up at all.”

“You are right, Ameenah,” the Professor agreed, “some paths are no good, they do not lead up, they lead nowhere or sometimes even straight down to the sea of desolation.”

“But how do I know if I’m on a good path or on a bad one?” Ameenah asked.

“If on your path you learn to be more kind and loving towards your fellowmen, more helpful, forgiving, and compassionate, then you are on the right path,” the Professor answered, “since this is what God Almighty wants you to be, doesn’t he? On the other hand, if you become more mean and hateful, spiteful and seeking revenge, then you surely are not on the way up.”

Ameenah considered this for a while, looking thoughtfully at Hope who once again had her eyes averted, although David knew she was intently studying her friend and her great-uncle under her lowered eyelids.

Ameenah uttered to the Professor in a whisper: “Hope isn’t going down to the sea of desolation, is she?”

“She is surely looking down on it at the moment,” the Professor answered.

“But it is only because of her papa that she is so very, very sad,” said Ameenah, explaining her friend’s behavior.

“I know,” the Professor said.

“I wish she would come over to our path,” Ameenah said. “Me and my parents and my big brother and our imam and all the other people from the mosque, we could help her to walk up again.”

“I’m sure you would do that,” the Professor replied. “However Hope has been on her own path for all her life. She began learning her prayers when she was no more than a baby and listened to Christian hymns even from within her mother’s womb.

“And to get over to your path, she would have to go through the uncharted territories. She might slip there and fall and slide down, before you could even reach her. You would not want that, would you?”

“No I wouldn’t,” Ameenah conceded, though a bit reluctantly.

“But still, of all those paths, isn’t there one that is better, more straight, more right than the others?”

“Yes,” the Professor agreed softly, “I believe there is.”

“Then which one is it?” Ameenah asked.

“Which path would your imam say it was?” the Professor asked back.

“The path of Islam, of course,” Ameenah answered without hesitation.

“And what do you think I would say?” the Professor asked again.

Now Ameenah hesitated for quite some time before she finally answered in a low voice: “The Christian path, I guess.”

Then she added somewhat sadly: ”But Hope is my best friend, I still wish we could walk together and I could help her.”

“There are people who can help her on her path as well,” the Professor replied, “her mother, her brother and sister, her grandparents, our priest, and even me a little bit.”

“Yes I know,” Ameenah said, “but still…..” she added wistfully.

“But you are walking together,” the Professor insisted, “here in the three dimensions we can see and hear and touch, here in our community. And from the perspective of the Almighty, this is no contradiction at all.”

When Ameenah looked a bit confused, the Professor added: “You walked with Hope to bring her here, didn’t you?”

Then with a single keystroke, the Professor ended his projection and said: “But now you have to walk home in a hurry or you and your family will be late for Friday prayer. They are probably waiting for you already.”

“Oh yes!” Ameenah said and hurriedly got up.

“Please give my kindest regards to your parents and my apologies that I have kept you here so long.”

Ameenah nodded and then turned to Hope, asking: “Will you play with me this afternoon?”

Not giving Hope any time to answer, the Professor declined on her behalf: “Not today, Ameenah, but maybe tomorrow. This afternoon Hope will be busy helping me to clean the church.”

“Oh,” Ameenah said surprised, “we do not need to clean the mosque. We have a robotic cleaning machine. Maybe the Imam could loan it to you.”

“Thank you for the offer,” the Professor declined, “but there is no need. Cleaning the church is a spiritual exercise in my order. It must be done by hand.”

“Oh.” Ameenah was now at the door, and turning back, she said: “Bless, then, Professor Morgan; bless, Hope. Incha Allah I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Hope answered once again with a grumble which Ameenah didn’t hear for she was already moving as fast as her legs would carry her to the elevator that would lead her up to her own floor.

The Professor turned around for the first time and faced Hope directly. “Come now, Hope, we have to leave as well!”

“I didn’t say I was going to help you clean,” she said in a stubborn voice.

“No you didn’t,” the Professor replied, “but you are going to do it anyway.”

The Professor went out the door and Hope followed reluctantly.

When they reached the elevator and the Professor pushed the down button instead of up, Hope grumbled: “Why can’t we take the maglev?”

“The fresh air as we walk will do us good,” the Professor answered patiently.

Hope wasn’t finished with her objections: “Why do you have to do that cleaning anyway? Ameenah is right–it is stupid when you could use the robot machine instead. When I am a scientist, I will not do any stupid cleaning.”

“Then you will never become a scientist,” her great-uncle stated with less patience than before.

Now Hope’s voice became even grumpier: “What has cleaning the church got to do with any kind of science?”

“As I told Ameenah and as I thought you knew already, cleaning the church is a spiritual exercise demanded by my order,” the Professor answered. “Only those men and women who commit themselves to certain orders of spiritual exercises will be accepted by other scientists into their ranks and on their projects.”

He then asked Hope: “Do you know what I do for a living?”

Hope shrugged: “You work as a health-supporter.”

“I massage feet and I also cut the toe-nails of those who are too old or sick to do it themselves,” the Professor stated blandly and then added: “This way of making a living is a special spiritual exercise demanded particularly from me.

“In earlier times, to be a scientist was a full-time occupation, well paid in the coins of its time. But nowadays, every scientist has to make his or her main living in other ways. And there is a reason for that. Scientists in earlier times had become the destroyers of their worlds. Most of their scientific efforts were used to create more and more destructive weapons….”

“That was in the Dark Ages. It has nothing to do with our times!” protested Hope.

“No my little one, you are dead wrong,” the Professor disagreed, “because the Dark Ages are far closer than you think; they are part of us, no matter how much we might deny it. I know, because I have seen it.”

Hope shook her head in disbelief but the Professor went on: “To have the mind of a scientist is a special talent, but nearly always it is accompanied by special weaknesses. Some of us men of numbers have the weakness of seeing the whole world only in numbers, of being unable to feel a connection to anything but numbers.

“And while all people in the world have some knowledge of the difference between right and wrong which is written deep in human DNA, for some the connection to this knowledge is weak, for they have little capacity for ordinary feelings of empathy and compassion.

“While most people instinctively recognize the natural pattern that acting to the destructive disadvantage of others will eventually lead to the destruction of themselves, many of us scientists with the ability to create artificial patterns and the inability to feel compassion have then overwritten those natural patterns with unfeeling numbers.

“And then in times past we have spread those artificial numbers throughout the world until other people all over would override their own knowledge and feelings of right and wrong. The result of that became the culture of the Dark Ages.

“Then there are some among us with a scientific mind who do have strong feelings, and suffer from feelings of pain seemingly more severe and deep than those experienced by most other people. Our whole world then solely revolves around ourselves and our own pain, to the point where we become disconnected from everyone around us and their pain.

“We scientists need these spiritual exercises in order to compensate for our weaknesses. And we need to stay close to other people who do not have those weaknesses so as to remain well-grounded and be reminded of what we ourselves can rarely feel: what is right and what is wrong.”

The Professor stopped for a second to look back at Hope who was walking listlessly just behind him, but still she was following both his steps and his words.

The Professor’s voice became more intense and personal:

“This is not theory, my little one, nor something I’ve been taught, but it is something I know. I truly know what I am talking about.

“It was a long time ago. I was about your age, Hope, when I became friends with a boy my own age. His name is John Galt. He didn’t live in our village, but was still close enough so that we could regularly meet in person.

“But every single day we would meet on the Peace-Web, where we had first found each other. We would talk about the dreams we shared, and we talked about them constantly, painting them in each others mind in the most vivid colors.

“The subject of our dreams was always the same: the stars of the Milky Way. We dreamed about traveling through space to those stars, maybe using worm-holes or even overcoming the speed of light.”

“What are worm-holes?” Hope asked. She was now walking beside the Professor.

“Worm-holes,” he answered, “are hypothetical points where space-time is folded and a gap occurs at two points, allowing someone to instantaneously bridge to another place in the universe that might be millions of light-years away.”

Now Hope was seriously intrigued and David could feel that something was loosening up inside of her.

The Professor went on: “When my friend John and I grew up, we both became scientists. We were not even twenty years old when we started to pursue those dreams of our childhood in earnest.

“But we realized soon enough that traveling through space, even to somewhere as close as the moon, would need enormous resources, resources neither of our villages could provide. And even the resources of a hundred villages would not have been enough. So we went in front of the representatives of the International Help-Board and asked them to open a project pot for us to acquire those resources.

“The representatives refused. For several years we went back there, trying over and over again to convince new sets of representatives with new arguments, but every time, the answer was always NO.”

“But why?” Hope asked, “It would be such an awesome project!”

“The representatives discussed our arguments. But their conclusion was always the same: Reopening the space-program of the Dark Ages in order just to satisfy some useless curiosity would be an enormous waste of resources, since it had not the slightest benefit for mankind. It would take away resources from other projects which were actually beneficial, like earth-quake and volcano research.”

“Oh,” Hope sounded disappointed, “it would be so awesome to travel through space. Who cares if those stupid representatives thought it was not beneficial.”

The Professor’s face twitched a little, but David somehow knew it was not in amusement: “My friend John and I felt the same way. But it wasn’t just the representatives who opposed our project. Every time we met with new representatives, they went back to their own villages to discuss our ideas there.

“They also went on the Peace-Web, where thousands of people participated in the discussion, including John and myself. The more people talked, the more it became clear that almost everyone in our age believed a space-travel program to be a useless and maybe even dangerous fall-back to the Dark Ages, and our insistence on it was just the result of immature adolescent thinking.”

The Professor sighed: “And that was the end of our dream. And as you can imagine, it was very frustrating for us. John and I talked about how little those around us really grasped the meaning of science.

“Then John came to the conclusion, since the people of our world were intellectually too underdeveloped to be able to really understand, a new kind of human was needed, one which did not have the same limitations. He suggested we should work on the evolution of mankind.

“What he meant, of course, was the genetic engineering of unborn human beings so as to create children with larger brain-capacities.

“However I, like every scientist, knew that the genetic engineering of any living being– and especially of human beings– would be one of the worst kinds of rule-breaking because it would be a crime against the First Principle, the respect for the dignity of man. If we were caught, we would most certainly be sent to Orange Country.

“By now we were very close to our 25. birthday, there would not be any temporary exile for us. John knew that just like I did, but he told me he did not care about the rules when something as important as the progress of mankind was at stake. He asked me to work with him in secret, but I refused because the risk of being caught seemed too high to me.

“John called me a coward with no backbone at all, and from that day on, our ways parted and we never talked to each other again.

“I joined other scientific projects, and John started to train as a doctor. Years later I learned he had not given up on his idea and he had used his position as a community doctor to experiment with genetic engineering.

“There was a young woman in his community who was unable to conceive a baby. John Galt promised her a miracle cure for her condition, but she would have to keep quiet about the methods he would use.

“Over the course of five years, he impregnated the woman 10 times with embryos he had created in a test-tube. None of those pregnancies went the full term. After five to eight months of gestation, John would induce labor by mixing certain chemicals with the vitamin boosters he had been giving her.

“The woman would get drowsy during the process of giving birth, and would be unable to understand what was happening to her. After actually giving birth, the woman was always told by John the baby had died in her womb. He would never allow her to see the baby.

“But the last time, the anesthetic he used on her didn’t work properly and she got a glimpse of the child who had been born.

“When John refused to let her see the baby again, she went to the foreman of her village council, and when this foreman, together with others, came to John Galt’s apartment, they found ten glass containers containing formaldehyde and the remains of severely deformed human fetuses, babies with unusually large heads, and some with wings coming out of their shoulder-blades.”

“He was trying to make angels?” Hope interjected, somehow fascinated.

“No, surely not angels,” the Professor answered, “but he must have thought his high-flying ideas about space-travel would be better understood by people who could actually fly themselves.

“An investigation by other doctors from his village found evidence that a couple of the strange babies had still been alive when they were born, but John had killed them with lethal injections a short time later to prevent them from making noise because he could not afford to let the people of his village find out about his experiments.”

Now Hope was truly horrified. “And this man had been your friend?” she asked.

The Professor nodded sadly: “After these events were publicized, most village councils all over the world decided that scientists could not be trusted. Whatever research they did had to be carefully monitored by non-scientists appointed by the council, just as doctors would have to be monitored by nurses.

“And they were absolutely right to conclude they could not trust scientists anymore.”

The Professor now stopped in his tracks and turning to Hope, he looked straight down into her eyes.

“Did you know, my little Hope, what I felt when John Galt’s village published their findings and the images of the glass-containers?”

“You were shocked? “ Hope suggested.

“No, I wasn’t,” the Professor said. “Instead, I was fascinated by how far John had come with his research, and I felt sorry he had been caught. There was not the slightest feeling of compassion in me for the woman he had used as an incubator for his ruthless experiments. And neither did I feel compassion for the deformed babies that were the result of his experiments, nor was I horrified at his killing them without mercy.”

Now Hope was shocked; she couldn’t imagine her great-uncle had ever been like this.

The Professor nodded: “Yes, that was the way I reacted. And it was not until I compared my reaction to that of everyone else around me when I finally noticed how far away I was from them.

“By then I had become a member of my Order. And it was after I had confessed these feelings to my brethren that it was decided that I needed a special form of spiritual exercise tied to how I would make my living.”

The Professor started walking again: “And since then, I wash floors once a week, and on four days a week I also care for the feet of those who walk those floors.

“Before every door I visit as a health-supporter, I pray: Let my talents be a blessing for this person and all those who are affected by whatever work I do, for those talents have been given me to serve my fellow men and not to dominate them.

“And while I wash and polish the floor of the church, like everyone in my order I have to recite many prayers. One of them is the prayer I might be granted humility of mind and that I will be reminded every day of my life that while I have the ability to kindle a fire, I still do not have the right to burn down the house.”

“Burn down the house?” Hope asked: “I don’t understand.”

“Over the ages,” the Professor answered, “scientists have burned down many houses, the houses of people, often with them still inside, and houses of nature, and now the house of the human body.”

“What happened to your friend John Galt?” Hope asked in a low voice.

“He was made an exile, of course, and was sent to Orange Country. I never heard of him again.”

Hope and her great-uncle had now reached the church. Before he opened the door, the Professor hesitated.

He looked once again into Hope’s eyes saying: “I was no different from him, no different at all. Had it not been for my fear of being punished if I were caught, I would have done exactly what he did. I felt neither compassion nor guilt in my heart.”

“But you do now,” Hope said, tentatively touching her great-uncle’s hand.

“Yes, in a way I do” he agreed, “but still not in the same way as most people. Like a child learning her numbers slowly step by step so had I to learn to recognize the deeper patterns of the First Principle, patterns much more complex than any I knew before.

“And when my mind finally understood, then a heart of stone was turned into a heart of flesh. In my Order they call it a miracle of the heart.”

When they entered the church, Hope went without being asked to the broom-closet to get brushes and towels. The Professor filled a bucket with water and added a few drops of soap. Before she started to work, Hope had one more question:

“The explosive device that killed my father was made by a scientist, wasn’t it?”

The Professor answered slowly: “It was probably made in a large production shop, but yes, like all large weapons, it was invented and designed by scientists for maximum killing capacity.”

Wordlessly Hope went down on her knees, furiously brushing the floor with the soapy water, moving faster and faster until she was totally out of breath.

The Professor now knelt down as well, and taking hold of her hand, he moved it in slow deliberate circles. Then he took his own brush and they worked side by side, scrubbing the floor while the Professor recited his prayers in a low voice and Hope’s tears mixed themselves with the soapy water.

The scene dissolved in front of David’s inner eyes and so he opened his outer ones. The older Hope also had tears in her eyes.

David felt slightly nauseous. It wasn’t as bad as last time, but he knew he still needed some fresh air.

He got up and started to walk towards the stairs, only to be overcome by a dizzy spell. He would have fallen too, had not the boy David had noticed before who was again cleaning a table nearby run to his side to steady him.

“Do you want to sit down again, sir?” the boy asked. “Maybe you need an ambulance.”

“No, no, I only need a bit of fresh air,” David answered, and looking at his name-tag, David added: “Thank you, Fahmi.” But since he was still not quite stable on his feet, Fahmi assisted him down the stairs and out the door.

“Are you sure you do not need any medical help?” Fahmi asked

“Yes, I’m sure,” David insisted, while he fished in his pockets for a tip.

“No, there is no need for that,” Fahmi insisted. “Allah expects us to help when help is needed.”

David looked with surprise at the boy and then thanked him again. While watching him return to his work, Hope commented: “Fahmi looks a lot like Ameenah, doesn’t he? Do you think he is her great-great-great-great-grand…”

David had to agree there was a certain similarity, but he still shook his head: “That doesn’t mean anything. There are many people who look similar to each other without being related. Over eight million people live here in New York City; it would be too much of a coincidence…”

David’s voice trailed off. Hope’s village was built in this area. Some of the New Yorkers of his day must surely be the ancestors of those children of tomorrow, just like he himself was…..

Hope smiled at David and he nodded at her; maybe…. one couldn’t be sure, but maybe, just maybe….

“Why don’t I show you some more of my city, something beautiful?” David suggested.

“I’d like to see that,” Hope said with a surge of eagerness.

They walked down the road in silence; David couldn’t keep his mind from wandering back to the scene he had just witnessed, the image of little desolate Hope, her kind friend, and her great-uncle.

The Professor, a sociopath… when he had seen him in Hope’s memories manipulating her into the time-machine David had suspected that much.

Strange how his friend Ed who had not been born that way had turned into one living in a sociopathic world, while the Professor living in Hope’s so strangely different world had somehow grown a heart. A miracle he had called it. Maybe that’s indeed what it was.

David couldn’t help but be impressed by the Professor. His radical honesty about himself had given his stories and opinions more credibility than David had ever expected.

He once had read that the difference between a religion and a philosophy is that a religion is a construct of arbitrary claims based solely upon an imposed doctrine, while a philosophy, on the other hand, is a cohesive thought-construct based on observation and developed through disciplined logical reasoning.

But the Professor had explained his religious point of views using arguments coming from human observation and scientific theory. Not that the Professor had actually convinced David in any way. He was sure given a few minutes of serious thought, he could easily point out the flaws in the Professor’s thought-construct, but at the moment he didn’t want to, not with Hope listening in on his thoughts.

After all, she was just a little girl who had lost her father; she needed her faith to help her cope. Maybe, David thought a little wistfully, if after he had lost his mother, he had had a great-uncle like Hope’s instead of a grandfather who had hated him, things might look differently today.

He had been 14 years old when his mother had died of cancer. She had been sick for quite a while. In the last year of her life, it was a constant roller coaster ride between hope and despair.

It was not until a few weeks prior to her death that David’s mother had contacted her parents, those parents who had disowned her after she chose David and his father over them. She had called her parents for his– David’s–sake.

But David wished she hadn’t, for his grandparents had never forgiven their daughter for going against their advice, or at least his grandfather hadn’t. David’s grandmother had always been too weak to stand up to her overbearing husband.

And he had been right all along, David's grandfather had stated soon after her funeral. The guy, as his grandfather used to call David's father, had always been a loser, a would-be musician, and a booze- and drug-addict. All any scumbag like that was capable of in life was getting a girl pregnant and destroying her life.

And on another occasion, when complaints and a threat of expulsion had come from the expensive boarding-school to which David had been sent shortly after the funeral, his grandfather had told him succinctly that scum can breed but the result would still be scum. David would be a failure in life just as his father had been, and there was nothing any kind of schooling could do about bad genes.

With this sort of “encouragement”, David had not bothered too much about schoolwork and preferred to spend his time impressing his friends with the elaborate pranks he designed. That is, until the second semester of his junior year, when Mr. Aristes was hired by the school and became his Science and English teacher.

After having launched a successful remote take-over of the vice-principal’s computer, complete with the alteration of all student grades to A, but with a less successful attempt to cover his tracks, David had ended up in Mr. Aristes’ office.

If it hadn’t been for his grandfather’s generous contribution to the school’s science department, David probably would have been expelled a long time ago. But with the vice-principal now up in arms, even that wasn’t going to buy him a reprieve for much longer.

David remembered the scene as if it were yesterday. When he had entered Mr. Aristes’ office, he had been wordlessly invited to sit down. Then his teacher had quietly appraised David, who was slouching in his chair, trying to give the impression that he didn’t care one way or the other.

“Why are you wasting your grandparents’ money?” Mr Aristes had finally asked.

That was a question David hadn’t expected and his surprise led him to blurt out the answer: “Because they deserve to have their money wasted.”

And with that, it was as if a dam had broken. With Mr. Aristes silently regarding him, David had spilled his guts… everything.

He had talked about his mother, who, after his father had left them, had worked so hard to ensure a decent life for the two of them. She had been a good person and the best mother anybody could have wanted, and she hadn’t deserved to die.

He talked about his father who had drowned life’s disappointments in alcohol and the occasional joint. Eventually, when his alcoholism had overwhelmed all other feelings, he had left the country without even a return address. Although social services had made every effort to contact him in Iceland, he had neither bothered to come back for his estranged wife’s funeral nor to claim his son.

And finally David talked about his own grandfather who hated his guts and blamed David’s father for the illness and death of David’s mother. He had told David that he was the spitting image of his loser father and that he would end up just like him–a loser.

After listening to David’s ranting, Mr. Aristes had only one question: “And you are taking revenge on your grandfather by proving him right?”

After a small pause, Mr. Aristes had added: “If I were you and it were my grandfather, I would take him for every cent I could get out of him. I would get myself the best education his money could buy, and take complete enjoyment in proving him wrong over and over again.

“That would be my revenge. But then, I’m a man of logic. What about you?”

With this as food for thought, he had told David he could go.

That was the day when David had made the decision that he too was going to be a man of logic. And from then on, he had cleaned up his act. Mr. Aristes had gone on to teach him Science, English, and the art of using the tools of reason, as well as the art of listening and getting people to talk.

By the end of his senior year, David had turned his school performance around so completely that he had gotten a glowing recommendation from the school’s principal, even against opposition from the vice-principle.

That had landed him a place at Harvard University, and after graduation, he returned to New York and the Columbia School of Journalism to get his master’s degree.

With all of these successes, his relationship with his grandfather had improved moderately. And David suspected that it had actually been his grandfather’s influence that had gotten him his position at one of the most prestigious newspapers in the country.

The irony, however, was that one of David’s main reasons for going into journalism was to go after and expose those corrupt political and financial players such as he knew his grandfather to be.

But fate had preempted him, and the financial crash of 2008 had wiped out practically all of his grandfather’s assets and left him with a mountain of debt. For once the man had not been right and had bet on the wrong financial horse.

David’s grandfather had not taken the loss lightly; his health had deteriorated rapidly until a year later he eventually suffered a fatal stroke.

David’s grandmother had died three years later when the cancer that had been in remission for several years had recurred after her husband’s death. In the last months of her life, David had visited her regularly in the hospital, and a couple of times, he had even brought Mikey along. That had made her happy.

There were still things left unspoken, but David had realized that in somebody so full of fears and insecurities, the real apologies could only be read in the eyes and in the trembling hands clasping his.

David had reconciled with his grandmother in a way he never could have done with his domineering grandfather.

But now he had proven his grandfather right after all, thought David in a defeatist mood; he was a loser and a drunkard, although neither of his grandparents had lived to see it.

“You haven’t proven your grandfather right,” Hope interrupted. She had once again listened in on his thoughts. “You are not a–what did he say?–a loser. You are a very good person who has done something really, really good.”

“You mean I’m a hero because I saved 3000 people?” David asked somewhat cynically. “Trouble is, nobody knows or cares about that.”

“Does it really matter who knows it?” asked Hope softly.

David stopped in his tracks and looked at her. For the first time, he realized he had indeed done something extraordinary.

He had saved the lives of possibly 3000 people, and it didn’t matter if those false-flag planners might possibly try something else somewhere else. For now, all those people were able to go on with their lives because of his one single act of doing the right thing, no matter the cost to himself.

“You are right,” David answered Hope’s question, “it doesn’t matter who knows. It really doesn’t matter at all.”

David then turned and started walking again.

“I’m sorry you lost your mamma when you were still a child,” Hope said with deep compassion. “And I’m sorry that your grandparents weren’t like mine and you didn’t have anyone like my Great-uncle Professor to help you.”

David nodded; they understood each other: “And I am sorry that you lost your father, when you were still so little. And I am glad that you did have your great-uncle.”

Hope smiled and then she commented: “You know, Uncle David, your sensei, Mr. Aristes, he sounds a lot like mine.”

David smiled back: “Does he really?”

“Uh huh,” Hope stated, “he is also a man of logic.”

“Look over there, Hope,” said David, pointing down the street. “That is one of the highest buildings in the world. Once it actually was the highest, and now it is still the place from where you have the most spectacular view over the city. Shall we go up there?”

“Of course,” Hope agreed right away, “I love the view from high above.”

***

Once again we are stuck in traffic, the car slowly passes one of the many movie-theaters featuring another one of those two century old movies.

How We Saved the World” blares the title poster portraying five men armed to the teeth in front of a mountain landscape.

My father and his fellow elites are surely preparing Nephilim City for war. I haven’t seen a single movie in years, that didn’t feature some kind of armed fight against some enemy or other.

I don’t want to look at that poster, but my eyes are drawn to it nearly against my will. I concentrate to look above the fighters at the landscape behind them. And then I remember, I’ve seen those mountains before.

It was a very unusual day. My father had breakfast with me, we ate my birthday cake together, Mr Tanner, my father and myself. I was 8 years old now.

When my father left the room, Mr Tanner pulled out a special treat from his bag. It was a piece of cheese with holes inside. I laughed, it looked so funny.

Did the mice make the holes?” I asked Mr Tanner

No,” Mr Tanner didn’t laugh, “it’s a special cheese recipe from a very special place,” he said.

And then he put his index-finger in front of his mouth and pulled something else out of his bag. It was a strange device that made a sizzing sound.

This is a scrambler,” Mr Tanner said. “Once we turn it on, then no microphone can pick up what we are saying. And then we can tell each other secrets.”

What secrets,” I asked

Something about the far-away place where this cheese comes from for instance.”

Is it a place from the outside-world?” I asked

Mr Tanner nodded.

My father doesn’t like the outside-world,” I stated.

I know,” said Mr Tanner

The people there are really, really bad. They hate us and they hate all science.”

This is what your father says, I know,” acknowledged Mr Tanner.

This cheese comes from the most peaceful place in the world,” Mr Tanner added.

How do you know that,” I asked.

Because, I have been there many times, when I was a child your age,” Mr Tanner pulled an image out from his bag. It featured a mountain landscape and below them in the valley a small group of houses.

This is my mother’s home village,” he explained.

Before I came to Nephilim City I spend every summer there. For me it’s the most beautiful place, don’t you agree?”

I studied the picture for a while, I had never seen mountains and villages like those in the picture.

It’s in the outside-world, where the bad people are, how can it be beautiful?” I finally said.

Mr Tanner slipped the image back into his bag.

Do you want to go to this place again?” I asked, the picture had made me afraid.

I would give anything, if could see my mother’s village again, and the people there, my grandparents and my mother and father, but I can’t” Mr Tanner’s ordinary calm voice sounded sad.

But why, Mr Tanner, why can’t you?” I asked, but secretly I felt relief.

You know, why most people are here in Nephilim City, Jonathan, don’t you?”

Because the bad people from the outside-world have sent them away.”

Mr Tanner weighed his head slowly: “It is true, I was send here. But it was I who has done something bad.”

What did you do Mr Tanner?”

I killed somebody.”

I looked at Mr Tanner. He was such an old man. It seemed strange to think that he could ever have done anything violent.

Why?” I asked

Because I allowed anger to control my actions. You must never do that, Jonathan.”

Why were you so angry,” I asked.

Mr Tanners was once again as calm as his usual self: “There was a man who had hurt someone I loved very much. He had hurt her badly. And when I found out, I became very angry and killed him.”

He deserved it,” I stated.

No,” said Mr Tanner, “what I did was wrong.”

We were quiet for a while and then I asked: “You didn’t want to come to Nephilim City, did you, Mr Tanner?”

That is right,” said Mr Tanner. “But I am glad to be here right now. I am glad to be your teacher.”

I sighed with relief.

I won’t tell my father about your mother’s village, Mr Tanner. I think he wouldn’t like it.”

Thank you, Jonathan” said Mr Tanner.

And I never did tell my father, nor about anything else Mr Tanner and I discussed when the scrambler was running.

CHAPTER 11

 

 

The elevator up to the observation deck on the 86th floor of the Vempire State Building was somewhat crowded, as was to be expected. Inside, visitors were greeted in half a dozen different languages. When they left the elevator and entered the glass-in platform, David felt even more like being on the tower of Babel, as most of the visitors were tourists from all over the world, as was also to be expected. But when David finally managed to get a good spot at the railing, he noticed something rather unexpected.

Hope seemed somewhat disappointed. This in turn was quite a disappointment for David, who had after all spent $25 to get up there, an expenditure he could ill afford at the moment.

“You don’t like the view?” he asked Hope.

As always, Hope was too honest to tell a polite white lie, although she didn’t want to hurt David’s feelings:

“Well,” she said hesitantly, “everything looks so gray, like a sea of gray stones… or maybe rather like a gray desert.”

David had to admit that there was some truth in Hope’s observation. Part of the grayish character of the city today could be blamed on the weather. The clouds were hanging thick and heavy in the sky and a gray mist was obscuring the view. It was late afternoon by now, and if there had been even a slight opening in the cloud-cover, Hope could have watched a colorful sun-set. However, there was no opening today, but still…

“It isn’t all gray,” David defended his beloved city. ”There is also a lot of green here, like over there in Central Park,” David pointed straight ahead.

“It looks small from here, but in reality, it is a really big park with two lakes inside. And if you went there, you would see so many colorful flowers and blooming trees and a lot of colorful people as well, like artists and acrobats.”

“I believe you,” Hope conceded. “But from up here, everything looks so small. Even when you don’t look into the distance, but straight down, you still cannot see any people walking around and even the vehicles are as small as ants.”

“Of course things look small from here–we are pretty high up. I guess there are no skyscrapers around in your time?” David asked.

“Not here in my district,” Hope answered, “but there are still some standing in Asian countries. However, they say on the Peace Web that skyscrapers are rather impractical and not energy-efficient at all.

“The villages that live in them are really, really big and have problems being energy sovereign. They don’t have the potential for self-sufficiency; they always need a lot of extra energy from their districts. To make their living, those villages have to rely on tourists renting rooms.”

Hope’s voice held slight disapproval for such economic dependency, but being fair, she added: “Though there are always many visitors to those skyscraper villages.”

“I’ve heard that high-rise buildings like these are very expensive to operate in our time as well,” David conceded. “Sometimes the rents and visitor fees are far from sufficient to cover the costs, and they run up big deficits. But I still think it’s sad that all of New York’s skyline will have disappeared by your time.”

David looked down, imagining the sea of houses turned into something else, like green meadows maybe or large woods.

“Maybe they were dismantled because people needed the materials in them in order to build new houses,” Hope suggested. “But it could also be that people didn’t want to be reminded of these monuments of the past. After all, New York was considered one of the power-centers of the Dark Ages.”

David sighed. Then he went on to point out to Hope: “Over there behind Central Park is the Bronx. That’s where I live and where we came from this morning. And if we had binoculars, we could even see Yankee Stadium, and that’s quite a beautiful structure–not gray at all.

“Do they play baseball in your time?” he then asked.

“Is it a win-lose game?” Hope asked in return.

“You mean a game where the players can either win or lose?” David asked and then answered himself without waiting for a reply: “Of course it is. That’s what all games are about, the challenge, the struggle, and the possibility of winning… or losing.”

“No,” Hope answered, “we don’t have those kinds of games. We don’t want people to become losers. Isn’t that the word that’s used in your time to denigrate somebody?”

“Sometimes,” David conceded, “but it is different in a game like baseball or football. Those who lose one game can win the next. And even if you lose, you can learn to become a gracious loser, not spiteful and mean. It makes you a better person.”

“I don’t understand,” Hope shook her head. “Can’t you become a better person without being a loser first?”

David sighed: “I guess so. But you do miss out on something if you never take part in the game.”

When Hope looked doubtful, David asked: “Don’t you play any kind of sports in your time; I mean something to keep you physically fit?”

“Sure, we do running and dancing and swimming,” Hope enumerated.

“The Dolphin Community has one of the best swimming-pools in the district. It is very large, and every day they set up another virtual background around the pool, so people can swim in this virtual landscape as if they were visiting a lake or a river or a sea-shore anywhere in the world.

“Visitors come from all over the district to swim in the pool of the Dolphin Community, and of course everybody from our whole village goes swimming in that pool regularly. I go once a week with Mamma, Sissy, and Lillebro. I mean I used to, before Mamma went off on her fighting-assignment. The last few weeks we have gone with Grandma and Grandpa.”

The she added: “Mamma used to go running with Aunt Susie every day. The floor in her bedroom is a running-board. Look!”

A scene appeared showing Hope’s mother in a small room, pressing a button next to the bed. This made the bed pivot slowly upwards until it disappeared into the wall. At the same instant, the whole room turned into a holographic sea-shore. The cries of gulls could be heard above the sound of rushing waves. The holographic image of a woman standing on a cliff looking down at the ocean then turned and smiled at Hope’s mother:

“Salaam, Sissy!” she called. “How are you doing today? You’re a bit late. I’ve been waiting for 10 minutes already. Now, let’s do some running!”

Her mother turned to Hope, who was standing at the open doorway: “Will you play with your brother and sister outside for a while, please? I need to talk to Aunt Susie alone.”

The scene disappeared and Hope went on:

“My Aunt Susie has designed different landscapes to run through, one for every day of the week, together with all the sounds that belong to those particular landscapes. She even has sent Mamma the appropriate aroma to put into the programmed air-conditioner so that the smell of the room will fit the landscape as well. Designing virtual environments is what Aunt Susie does for a living.

“Sometimes my brother and sister and I run with them, but mostly they do their running on their own. We children do physical exercises in school. Sometimes running, but mostly dancing. Look!”

Another scene appeared: The children of Hope’s class were standing side by side in a line. The first in line, a boy called Peter, went to the front, facing the others. He pressed his wrist-control and suddenly loud music came from invisible speakers in the wall. Peter began some not very elegant dance moves, but everybody else imitated his moves as best as they could.

After a minute it was Cindy’s turn. With one tap on her own wrist-control, she changed the music to a softer tune. Her moves were graceful and surprisingly well coordinated for a child her age. The imitation of her moves by the other children was not always as well-coordinated.

After another minute it was Tommy’s turn and then Marcella’s, one child after another, each one with a different tune, each one with different moves repeated by everyone else. After a while, the chosen music became faster and faster and the moves wilder and wilder. In the end, the children were tripping over each other, falling to the floor with laughter.

“Dancing is a lot of fun for us children,” Hope stated the obvious after the scene had dissolved. “Grown-ups and adolescents have different dances, mostly with prescribed moves. Sometimes they dance two and two together and sometimes in lines, and sometimes they dance ancient stories, according to ancient music. That is called ballet. They say they enjoy these kinds of dances a lot. But I think making it up all by yourself– both the music and the moves– and having everyone else follow you is much more fun.”

“The way you dance, it does look like fun,” David agreed. ”I can see that you enjoy yourself.”

Then he added with regret in his voice: “But I still think having abandoned team-sports like baseball or football or even just soccer, your world is missing something. It is a totally different sort of fun. But I guess you would not understand if you have never taken part yourself.

Even just watching a game in a stadium together with fifty thousand other fans, all of them cheering on your team of players, that’s exhilarating. It’s then that you feel the excitement, the adrenalin rush, the connection with all those around you, everyone hoping and striving together with the players for one outcome, the final victory.”

“I do know what it feels like to play together in a team, as you call it,” Hope defended herself and her culture.

“We make image stories and then we play them. You need whole groups of children and adolescents, and sometimes even groups of grown-ups, to work together to create those stories. And then we also do sky-painting. And that is, as you call it, exhilarating. Our games are just different from yours.”

An idea came to her: “Did those games you were talking about–baseball, football, soccer–did they exist 200 years before your time?”

David thought for a second, trying to remember what he knew about sports history. And then he had to concede: “No they didn’t, at least not in their present form. There still exist some Olympic sports in which people competed more than 2000 years ago, but those aren’t team-sports. Today’s team-sports are roughly a hundred years old, I think.”

Somehow David had considered his favorite sports as something lasting. They were so important for his whole society. They facilitated male bonding, allowed you to talk to strangers, even if you had nothing else to say to them. David sighed while he looked down on the misty and somewhat dreary panorama of gray buildings.

Hope replied nearly apologetically: “Times change. You know that Uncle David, you said so yourself about clothing-styles.”

David nodded: “I guess you are right. It’s sometimes just a bit hard to imagine that our culture will change so much. But tell me about that sky-painting game you were talking about; that sounds interesting.”

“It is more than that,” Hope answered excitedly, “it probably can compare with what they do in this Yankee Stadium, although there are not 50,000 people watching and cheering, only the people of the village…mostly the parents and the other children. But when we published the video-show of the sky-image we did last month on the Peace-Web, we got nearly a million clicks from all over the world,” Hope stated proudly.

“So you count clicks? That’s a way of measuring success,” David commented.

“I guess you’re right,” Hope conceded. ”We also watch the sky-painting videos from other villages and they count their clicks, as well.”

Then she explained: “Sky-painting works like this: There is an electromagnetic grid activated between the highest floors of all communities in the village, and then there is a ramp from every roof. From the ramps we start floating into the air with our hover-boards which are filled with gasses and colors.

“We use music to coordinate our moves, and by releasing the colored gasses, we paint patterns and images in the air above our village. If we want the whole image to appear at a certain moment, we need to move very precisely and very quickly, for the color-trails will dissolve within a short time. Would you like to see the sky-painting we did last month?”

“Of course,” David answered.

Dusk had fallen on New York City, and it was now so dark and misty all around that even from a tower as high as this one, there was barely anything left to see. Surely there would be a better view in Hope’s world right now. David closed his eyes.

A group of about thirty children of Hope’s age were standing on the roof of a building in her village. David noticed that this wasn’t Hope’s community building. The children seemed to come from all the communities within the village, for David could count about ten different outfits which differed at least in color, though not in style.

Hope was one of the children in the group. David now was able to read her mind. She was somewhat concerned while listening to a boy called Danny.

He seemed to be giving a kind of pep-talk to the group: “You all know how long we have prepared for this. It took us nearly three months to put together the music and the choreography and to practice every move over and over again. This is the fourth time we’re doing the full program, and I am sure this time we will succeed!

“But I want to ask you all to fasten your caps tightly. Nancy, you nearly lost yours last time, and Terrence, your cap got blown off all together. I’m sure your parents weren’t happy about that. I understand that some of the micro-chips inside got damaged?”

“There wasn’t much damage,” Terrence defended himself and then added a bit rebelliously: “But I don’t understand why we can’t just take our caps off all together. It’s much more fun when you feel the wind blowing through your hair.”

“Now that’s a dumb suggestion ” Danny called out. “We are going to publish our show on the Peace Web. You know that! Do you want all the villages in the world to think that we are a bunch of indecents here in Spesaeterna, going around uncovered in front of the whole world?”

Terrence obviously wasn’t as concerned about what the rest of the world thought. He grumbled something under his breath, but then he did as he was told just like everybody else, securely tying his cap under his chin.

But there was another objection. Hope’s friend Marcella shyly started to talk: “Danny please, I cannot do it. I already told you last time that I can’t. I just can’t.”

“And I told you that you can do it.” Danny was relentless. “If you practice enough, you can do your moves at the right time just like everybody else. We announced on the Web that all the second year sempais of our village would take part in the project. And you are a second year sempai… or aren’t you?”

Marcella averted her eyes, tears welling up from under her eyelids. Then she said in a very low voice: “I just don’t want to spoil it for all of you again….”

“You won’t,” Danny replied in a voice that didn’t allow dissent, “and if I have to practice personally with you day and night, I will. Everyone can learn sky-painting moves, and you can too!”

For a while already, Hope had tried to get Marcella’s attention but without success. She now took hold of Marcella’s arm and led her a few steps away from the group, whispering in her ear:

“Don’t worry– this time you won’t fail. I worked on your hover-board last night and connected it to this….”

Hope opened her hand and showed Marcella a small device.

“This is a remote control. It took a couple of days to adjust it, but now it works and I can control your board with it. All you have to do is stand still and balance while I do the moves.”

“You can really do this?” Marcella asked in disbelief.

“Yes I can,” Hope whispered. “I practiced last night, when it was dark and nobody could see me. I did all the moves with both your board and mine along with the music.”

“But why didn’t you tell me before?” Marcella whispered back. Already she was more relaxed and her tears had dried.

“I wanted to make sure it would work before I got your hopes up,” Hope replied, and with confidence in her voice she added: “It worked last night so it will work today. Trust me!”

Marcella hadn’t put any store in Danny’s words that everything would work out, but she did in Hope’s. When they rejoined the group, she had her shoulders squared.

On Danny’s command, she surfed on her board over to the roof of another building where she took her position at the ramp with two other children. The other second-year sempais, including Hope, did the same, so that three or four children were in start-position on every roof.

Then the music started. Hope, Ameenah, and a boy named Jason jumped off the ramp, one after the other, and so did six other children from two more roofs. Hope took a large curve towards the middle of the square between the houses. David noticed that her board was spewing white exhaust behind it.

Now it was the turn of the second group of children, among them Marcella. They didn’t surf as far away from where they had jumped from the ramps as did Hope and the first group. David noticed that they were releasing a variety of colors into the air. Marcella’s color was a dark green, while the girl next to her had a lighter green exhaust.

Then came the last group of children who stayed very close to the houses, releasing some lighter and darker gold colors. David could see all this from the corner of his eye, but he noticed that Hope was only concentrating on herself and Marcella.

She knew her moves by heart, every turn, every rise and fall synchronized to the music that played both in her ears from headphones embedded in her cap, as well as from loudspeakers attached to the surrounding buildings.

Hope also knew Marcella’s moves, but still, it was far more difficult to coordinate them, since with every move of the remote control, she had to consider her own position in relation to Marcella’s.

David’s mind was now so close to Hope’s that he could feel every move and turn. He could sense the wind around Hope’s nose. And when she dove, his own stomach dropped as if he were riding a roller-coaster.

He could also feel the tightness of Hope’s nerves. Like her, he knew that if she failed this time, it would be so much harder to get Marcella’s confidence up again. And while Marcella didn’t have to time her moves, she still had to balance herself in order to make them work.

Now came the tricky part; the timing needed to be exact. Hope was listening intensely, counting the beats of the music. One move with her whole body and then only a fraction of a second later, one with just her hand and the remote, and then a repeat of the whole move once again.

Next came an upturn before the music slowed down. And once more they all went into a steep descent, first Hope and then Marcella. And finally the last big curve and the dive back to the ramp…..finished!

Hope started to breathe again. She looked up at their creation.

Yes, yes, yes….. they had done it! The image was exactly as they had planned. Everybody had executed his or her moves perfectly!

Loud cheers and clapping could be heard from all the balconies of the neighboring buildings. It seemed as if practically the whole village had been watching. David looked at the image in the sky and was honestly impressed. It displayed the face of a man in white, surrounded by a colored background of woods, meadows and houses, framed by a complex gold pattern.

While the image was already dissolving and the colors were broadening out, mixing with each other and becoming weaker, David thought for just a second that he even recognized the face….. It was…

The scene faded and David’s mind came back to the 86th floor of a 21st century skyscraper.

“Thomas Jefferson,” David said aloud, but the buzzing of the crowd of people around him was so noisy that only Hope could hear him.

“Who?” she asked.

“The face of the man you painted in the sky,” David clarified. “I think it was Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of our Bill of Rights.”

“Oh,” Hope said surprised, “I didn’t know the name of the man or that he was somehow famous in your time. Danny just found his image on the Peace-Web among faces of 18th century people.”

David realized once again that Hope was no longer living in his United States of America, but in a society where nation-states were basically considered of little importance, at least in comparison with the importance of the local village. And therefore the history taught in Hope’s time would emphasize very different themes.

America’s beloved Constitution had been replaced by a set of local rules. And Thomas Jefferson, the champion of liberty and American independence whose thoughts and ideas had gone into that Constitution, the man every American knew–even those who knew nothing else–had become no more than an 18th century face by Hope’s time. Once again, David felt a pang of regret over the loss.

But then a certain realization led him straight out of his nostalgia:

The American Constitution had been abolished long before Hope’s time. The most important rights–like the right to a speedy trial by one’s peers and being allowed to defend oneself in a court of law against accusations made by others–these rights no longer existed. Nowadays people could be detained indefinitely in undisclosed locations without even being told what they were accused of.

They could now be “disappeared” forever.

Or, if they were on foreign soil, they could be assassinated via drone strikes without any kind of detention and without trial, purely by presidential order.

Or they could be tried and convicted on secret evidence with the help of secret accusers and secret witnesses.

All that had now become legal, just as legal as certain forms of torture like water-boarding, sleep-deprivation, and extremely painful stress-positions. The Bill of Rights, which had protected the individual against arbitrary government abuse of power, had been over-written first by the Patriot Act and then by subsequent legislation.

“Oh Thomas,” David silently asked his long dead personal hero, “can you believe it?”

For once Hope was not reading David’s thoughts because her mind was concentrating on the view of David’s world from high above: “This really does look great now,” she said excitedly, much to David’s surprise. “You were right, Uncle David. It is beautiful up here.”

While David had had his eyes closed and his mind in Hope’s world, dusk in his own world had given way to night. And in the surrounding darkness, New York City had turned into a sea of lights: white lights, yellow lights, orange lights, with a few red spots in between.

The lights from the other sky-scrapers seemed closer and bigger than the lights from the ground. They formed interesting patterns of pyramids and circles, while the street-lights below seemed tiny, forming long lines to the end of the horizon.

“It is more beautiful here in the dark,” Hope commented, and David was glad he had found something she liked about his time. They walked around one more time for the panoramic view, with David pointing out to her some of the landmarks, even though most were not very visible.

Then they took the elevator down to street-level. David turned around to give Hope one last glance at the lit-up building before making his way down the sidewalk.

“Now I’m really hungry,” he stated, “so let’s go to a place where we can eat.”

“We?” Hope asked grinning, “I’d like that, but sorry…”

Now David laughed: “I’d nearly forgotten. But you know what, let’s go to a place where I can eat and you can savor the view.”

“To a restaurant in another skyscraper?” Hope asked.

“No,” David answered, “I’m pretty sure I couldn’t afford anything on the menu at the moment. But I’ll go with you to a place where you can see a lot farther than from even the highest building in New York.”

“Really?” Hope asked, “How is that possible?”

“You’ll see,” David answered mysteriously. “And no, don’t you start rummaging around in my mind, it would spoil the surprise!”

To distract her and because he was genuinely interested, he talked some more about the scene he had viewed through Hope’s memories: “You were right about the sky-painting–that really is quite an impressive sport. It also looks rather dangerous. What if you fall? You are pretty high up, flying there above the tenth floor. Couldn’t you crash and break your neck, not to mention all your bones?”

“No, of course not,” Hope shook her head. “There are two different EM-nets to catch you. They are even on different cycles, in the rare event that there should be a power-outage. I’ve never heard of any sky-painter crashing to the ground anywhere. It is difficult to do the right moves, but not dangerous.”

By now they had reached the bus stop. They were in luck, since the bus they wanted was arriving that very minute.

Just like on the way downtown, David went to the back of the bus for a better view of the Bronx and a bit more privacy.

He then continued the conversation: “But you did cheat a bit with your sky-painting, didn’t you?”

“Cheat?” Hope asked nonplussed.

“Cheating means when you break the rules of a sport or a game,” David explained.

“I don’t understand,” Hope shook her head for she still was puzzled. “I didn’t break any rules……

“Oh, you mean because I changed Marcella’s board?”

David nodded: “And because you controlled it instead of her. Isn’t that against the rules?”

Hope shook her head violently: “There are no rules in sky-painting, except those Danny made up himself. He wanted to write on the Peace-Web show that every second-year sempai in our village was taking part in the project.

“He could have written that most were taking part or something like that. But he didn’t want to….” Hope pouted slightly and then added:

“I mean Danny is really good in sky-painting. None of us has as much talent in it as Danny. And he is especially good in organizing. He did most of the work, adapting the music and the image and assigning the moves to each of us, and practicing with different groups. Without him we could never have succeeded. Danny is good, but he is also such a boy…a typical male. Sometimes he just can’t understand.”

David smiled: “And that is typical male?”

Hope nodded, being for once a typical female with typical complaints: “Boys, they just want to reach their goals no matter what, and they don’t understand how other people are feeling

“Like Danny–he thinks that if Marcella only practices enough, she will get better and better. But Marcella has no talent for coordinated movements, no matter how hard she practices. She just gets more scared. And because she is scared, she gets stiffer and even less coordinated.”

“Marcella should just stand up to this Danny bully and tell him no, she doesn’t want to take part anymore,” David suggested.

“You don’t understand either,” Hope accused David, “It is hard to say no when everybody else is there. If everybody else can do something and you alone cannot, even though you want so much to be like everybody else, well, that is kind of shameful in my time.”

“I do know what peer-pressure is like,” David defended himself. “We have it in our time as well.”

“Is it this you learn in your sports and win-lose games,” Hope asked, “to stand up and say no to those who want to control what you do?”

David thought for a second, then he shook his head: “In reality, no. In most sports there are actually people, we call them coaches, who tell the players exactly what to do. And no player dares to say no to them.”

“Hmm,” said Hope, and David knew that she was thinking that if they didn’t even teach a person to say no more effectively, what use were those win-lose games anyway?

“But,” David added “only those who really have talent for a sport are allowed to participate in the first place.”

“And what about the others?” Hope asked.

“They can watch,” David answered.

“What’s the fun in that?” asked Hope.

“Wasn’t most of your village watching you?” David asked back. “And didn’t you say you published your show on your web where a million people watched it?”

Hope grinned: “Alright, watching is fun, too. And maybe watching your games is just as much fun as watching ours.”

David grinned back. Nice to win an argument with Hope for once, he thought.

And on that note, both of them fell silent for a while, concentrating on the world outside the bus. Just like from high above, the view from ground-level was different at night than during the day. Hope drank it all in. For her it was a light-show, something she had never seen before.

When they finally arrived at the St. Francis Park bus-stop, David knew that Hope had enjoyed the ride.

The restaurant David wanted to go to was just around the corner.

“Bella Italia” was written in glowing white neon lights over the entrance. Soft old-fashioned instrumental music greeted them when they entered. The whole place had a nostalgic feel to it. Every table was covered with a red-checked table-cloth. The overhead lamps produced a soft glow, no more bright than the candles on each table. The strongest light-sources did not light up the room but were directed at the walls.

To show Hope these walls was actually the main reason why David had come here. All four walls were covered with murals displaying Italian themes like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, gondolas on the Grand Canal in Venice, the Coliseum in Rome, and Vatican Hill. In between those famous sights, one could see painted images of small villages between river valleys and wooded mountains.

Every image was surrounded by vines lusciously draped with purple grapes. An art-critic might have called those scenes ordinary and unoriginal, but David was quite certain that Hope would have a different opinion of them.

“These images are awesome,” she exclaimed. “They are just like the ones some of our people paint on the walls of our communities. Maybe they are even more beautiful. Are these real places?”

“These are images of places in Italy,” David explained. “I told you that from here you could look farther than from the highest skyscraper. And voila, here it is, a view that reaches all the way to Europe!”

The smiling waitress who welcomed David and led him to his table was extremely pregnant. They had barely sat down when a man whom David recognized as the proprietor of the restaurant rushed towards their table.

“I’ll take Mr. Ragnarsson’s orders myself, Gina,” he stated and then added: ”You really should go upstairs now, honey, and rest. You’ve been on your feet all day.”

“Dad,” Gina protested, “I’m not sick, just pregnant. And I rested all afternoon, but Cary called in sick this evening, as you know. And she just gave notice that as of next week, she is moving back home to South Carolina.” With that, Gina turned toward another customer who was asking for his check.

Her father -David remembered now that his name was Santini- shrugged.

Apologetically he looked at David, saying: “She’s all I have now, my Gina, after her mother died last year; she and this baby, that is. Her husband Carlos is our chef, by the way. And he is a good one, as you probably already know, although he is not Italian. Puerto Rico, that’s where he’s from, but he knows his Italian cooking.

“If there were a competition, he could give every five-star chef a run for his money; I can say that for him. But I don’t think he’s taking good enough care of my Gina. He should never allow her to work so late in the evening. She doesn’t listen to me, of course, I’m just her old dad. But she would listen to him.”

David was rather surprised to be presented with the Santini family saga. He had only been to the place maybe three or four times. And that had been several months ago. Never had he exchanged more than a couple of words with Mr. Santini, although the proprietor had introduced himself once, and David had noticed that he had looked at him with curious eyes. David had never given Mr. Santini his name, but now it seemed that he recognized him anyway.

He nearly regretted having come to the “Bella Italia” but then decided to make the best of the situation. David took the menu out of Mr. Santini’s hand and smiled at him, saying:

“Parents always worry about their children, speaking as a parent myself.”

Mr. Santini’s face drooped as he replied: “True, we always worry. We try so hard to protect our children from danger. But then we fail….fail so completely. If I had only known….”

Mr. Santini sighed sadly, lost in thoughts he didn’t share, but then he returned to the present and said to David:

“I’m so glad you came here tonight, Mr. Ragnarsson. You haven’t been here for quite a while. Just the other night, my friends and I were talking about you. I told them that you eat here occasionally, and they told me they would very much like to meet you and offer you a job. They think you would be perfect for it.”

David was taken aback, thinking of the “friends of friends” Ed had talked about. He was not pleased by this turn in the conversation.

Mr. Santini didn’t notice any change in David’s demeanor but just went on:

“ They eat at my place several times a week. Of course I've given them a special price. They are going pro- now with their web-site which has gone viral in the last few months, as they call it.

“When I told them about you, they said you would be perfect for them–that a real professional would add credibility, someone with courage and honesty. Of course they’ve read your articles and just like me they believe you 100 percent. Of course you were set up…”

Listening to this surprising speech, David had no idea what to say or even how to think about it.

Then he caught himself saying: “Your friends do realize that my credibility is not viewed very highly at the moment.”

Mr. Santini shook his head: “Only within the mainstream media, among the internet folks it is very high indeed.”

This was unexpected news for David. He wasn’t sure what to say, so he asked only:

“What is the name of the web-site?”

“Truth-Research,” was Mr. Santini’s short answer.

David had come across that site a couple of times while surfing the net. A year ago, he would not have touched a conspiracy themed site like that with a ten-foot pole, but the last article David remembered having recently read on their site had quite impressed him, being rather well-researched and credibly sourced.

“Of course they can’t pay you the wages you had before,” Mr. Santini said as a precaution when he noticed David’s hesitation.

“It’s not about wages,” David said. He was not actually sure himself what caused his hesitation. Maybe it was that to get an offer like this out of the blue, it somehow felt unreal.

“You just think about it,” Mr. Santini suggested. “But first you need to eat. That is what you came in for, after all. Have you studied the menu already?”

David had not, since Mr. Santini had taken all his attention, but he already knew what he wanted. Last time he had been there, he had had Tagliatelle Gorgonzola served with garlic bread and a small salad. And Mr. Santini was right, his son- in- law was every bit as good as any of the chefs in Manhattan's luxury restaurants. David ordered that pasta dish along with an alcohol-free cider.

When Mr. Santini had gone, Hope remarked softly: “You could write articles again. That is what you have wanted, isn’t it, to write again for many people to read?”

David nodded: “Yes, I would give nearly anything to find another job as a journalist, even an online journalist. But Hope, this is just too good to be true. I’ve only got Santini’s word for it. Does he really know what he is talking about? Those dinner guests of his were maybe just trying to be nice to him.”

“You are afraid to be disappointed,” Hope concluded.

“Yes I am,” David admitted, and then turned his head to concentrate on the Italian images on the walls. That was what Mr. Santini noticed when he returned with David’s drink, salad, and garlic bread.

“You like those wall-paintings?” he asked, and without waiting for an answer, he went on: “My son Marco did them.”

“Your son is very talented,” David replied, which was polite, but also true. The person who had painted the murals might not be a very original artist, but he certainly was talented in his own way.

“Yes, he surely was,” Mr. Santini said in a sad voice. “He was killed… in Afghanistan…two years ago.”

He pointed to a black-framed picture hanging on the wall next to the mural of a small village by a creek. On the other side of the mural was another black-framed picture, showing a smiling middle-aged woman, presumably the late Mrs. Santini.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” David said and meant it. He felt deep sympathy for someone who had lost both his son and the woman he loved within a few short years.

Mr. Santini had followed David’s gaze and commented now with deep grief: “My Martha, she was like an angel. Hearing about Marco’s death broke her heart. It had never been very strong and this was just too much for her. Children should not die before their parents. It is not natural.”

Mr. Santini had tears in his eyes. He sat down and pulled out a handkerchief. He dried his eyes then started talking again: “Marco should not have been there. And he wouldn’t have been there if I had protected him, if I had taken away those games from him and hadn’t allowed him to play them, those games from hell. You know, Mr. Ragnarsson, you know what they do with them; you wrote about it.”

Now it dawned on David that this was the reason why Mr. Santini was so interested in him and treated him as if he were a friend. He had read the article, the same article which his informer on the train-bombing plot had read.

Mr. Santini was still talking: “You described in detail how the Pentagon designed those games to lure young boys into military recruitment. About how they talk to them in chat-rooms, praise them for their proficiency, and get their addresses. That’s how it was, exactly how it was with my Marco. You have discovered the truth.”

“I didn’t really discover it myself, Mr Santini,” David said, wanting to set the record straight. “It was another journalist who wrote about that, years before I did. I only updated the facts and added a few more details. He was a great investigative journalist; prior to that, he had discovered the CIA’s cocaine smuggling connection.”

“Yes, I remember,” Mr. Santini said, “you credited that man as your source. And I looked him up on the internet. They say he committed suicide…with two bullets to his head.” Mr. Santini sounded skeptical.

David just commented: “That is what the coroner said.”

“The army said that my Marco was shot by an escaped Taliban prisoner,” Mr. Santini replied in a strange voice which made David ask: “You don’t believe that was true?”

“I know it isn’t true,” Mr. Santini stated simply. “Half a year after my son’s death, an army buddy of his, Jack Peters, came and told me what had really happened that last day of Marco’s life.

“And then he gave me a letter Marco had written the night before his death. Jack couldn’t send the letter because it would not have gotten past the censor. So he hid it and brought it back home when he was released. Jack, by the way, is one of the co-owners of the Truth Research site, together with one other veteran and two young women.”

Mr. Santini pulled out a letter from the inside pocket of the brown vest he wore over his red-checked shirt. He weighed it in his hands as if making up his mind.

“I have not shown this to anyone outside the family. But somehow I have a feeling that you should read it.”

David took the letter from Mr. Santini’s hand, although somewhat reluctantly. As a journalist he had read many letters that weren’t addressed to him. They were handed to him as evidence of facts connected to this or that story he had been writing about.

But this was different, this was not a story. David had the feeling he would not be able to easily detach himself from the letter once he had read it, nor from the people connected to the life of the letter-writer.

The envelope showed clear evidence that Mr. Santini had carried the letter around for a long time and that he had read and re-read it many times. It was written with the clear and regular–nearly calligraphic–style of an artist.

“Dear Dad, Mom and Gina,” it began, “when you read this I will either be dead or in military prison. Whatever the army will tell you about me will be false. They might not tell you anything, or they might tell you that I was killed in action or even call me a traitor, the scum of the earth.

Whatever they say or think about me, I don’t care. But I want you to know the truth.

The thing I am going to do tonight is the only thing I can do. There is no other way I could live with myself any more. Whatever happens to me after tonight, be assured it will be better for me than if I had acted differently.

Before I came here I thought that I knew what war was; I had played so many games of war. I know, Mom, that you disapproved of those games, but I was crazy about them. When they wrote to me telling me that I would make the perfect soldier, I believed them, for I was good at the games.

But digital blood isn’t real, even though it might look real. In a digital world, the enemy is clear-cut. He is evil. He is male and has no wife or children. He doesn’t feel pain, he doesn’t cry. And when he is dead, there is no loss. And when you yourself are killed in a digital world, you just re-boot.

But there are no re-boots in the real world, and those who get killed stay dead.

We saw four from our unit–our buddies–get killed last year and two others injured so badly that they will never recover. We hated the enemy who had done this to them and we saw him everywhere. But that enemy wasn’t clear-cut.

A week ago we were sent to search a remote village for weapons and Taliban insurgents. What we then did to the people of that village was unspeakably evil. I can see that now, although I couldn’t see it then. Everything that had been done to us, our dead, our wounded–that was what filled our minds when we went to that village and did what we had been ordered to do in ways that went even beyond those orders. When those villagers fought back, what we did was even worse.

In the end, we left no one alive – nobody except one. We found him, a boy of eleven or twelve, dementedly running between the dead bodies lying around him, making moaning sounds which turned into screams.

We took him with us and I expected that we would just dump him in some other village or in an orphanage somewhere.

But since we hadn’t found what we had been searching for in that village, the brass decided that the boy would be declared an enemy combatant and sent to Bagram air-base for interrogation.

I have been there; I have seen what they do to the prisoners at Bagram, and what eventually becomes of them–men, boys and even women. This boy wouldn’t survive there, no way.

You might ask yourself, what difference does it make, after so many deaths, so many victims–one more boy, why should I care?

But I do, I do care. I know that protecting this one boy will not bring back all those others who have been killed, that it will not make reparation for what we have done…. Yet for me, the life or death of this one boy is the difference between life and death in my soul.

Tomorrow the boy is to be sent with a prisoner transport. Tonight I am on guard detail, and I will do what I have to do.

Mom, Dad, please understand. Forgive me for the grief I will cause you.

All my love to both of you and to Gina,

Marco”

David handed the letter back to Mr. Santini, having been deeply touched by it.

“Do you know what happened?” David asked.

Mr. Santini nodded: “Jack told me when he brought the letter. Marco freed the boy while he was supposed to be guarding him. He fled with him in an army car. But their absence was soon discovered. When their car had broken down they were tracked to a deserted house. When they ordered Marco to come out, he refused to obey and threatened to open fire. After an hour or so, they stormed the house. Marco was shot in the fire-fight; none of his pursuers was hit because Marco had obviously not intended to hit anyone.”

“What about the boy?” David asked.

“He had disappeared. He had not been in the house at all. Marco had provoked the whole siege to give the boy time to run and hide. And the boy did just that; they never found him.”

At that moment Gina came with the pasta. She saw her father still holding the letter in his hand. She looked from her father to David and back, frowning. She obviously did not approve of showing the letter to a stranger. But Mr. Santini did not comment on it; instead he said: “Gina, you are still here. It is late already, you have to rest. Tomorrow I will get another waitress for the evening shift. It is enough for you to do all the paper work and the financial things.”

“ Alright, Dad,” Gina conceded, “but make it the lunch- and afternoon-shift because Lucia wants to switch to evenings. She can pick up more tips that way.”

“Will you please call the paper tomorrow to put in a help-wanted ad for us?” her father requested.

“Sure, Dad, I will. Oh, and Carlos asked me to tell you that he will close the kitchen in half an hour; they have already started to clean up. Is that alright?”

“Sure, it’s a slow night, no reservations. There’ll be more to do next weekend. But Gina, please!”

“Yes, yes, I’m going upstairs already…. Good night, Dad!”

“Good night, honey.” Mr. Santini had successfully distracted his daughter from asking about the letter.

After she left, he turned once again toward David: “You eat now, Mr. Ragnarsson. We cannot change the past, no matter how much we would like to. And whatever has happened, we still have to eat.”

David nodded and looked down at his pasta. Then he took a bite from the toasted bread before starting to roll up the noodles around his fork.

When Mr. Santini had gotten up to walk to the kitchen, David looked questioningly at Hope. For a while he had been noticing the familiar wave of deep pain emanating from her. The fate of Marco Santini had touched Hope even more than it had David. And once again she had blocked him out.

David did not know what to say to comfort her. It had been a horrible story; he was glad the letter hadn’t contained more details. Now he tried to concentrate on his food, surmising that with a full stomach he might get an inspiration about how to cheer up Hope.

He couldn’t help glancing at her occasionally, noticing her pale face and down-cast eyes. Something was bothering her, something beyond the events of David’s time, something that was happening in her own time. David wished she would stop blocking him out. If she would just talk to him, maybe he could help her somehow.

After finishing his meal, David asked the now-silent Mr Santini for the check. After the bill had been paid, Mr. Santini asked once more: “Will you consider talking to my friend Jack about the job?”

David nodded: “I will.”

Mr. Santini then handed David his business card, saying “If you call me tomorrow afternoon, I will have arranged a meeting.”

“Thank you, Mr. Santini,” David replied and added: “And please tell your son-in-law that I really enjoyed my meal.”

David and Hope left the Bella Italia and walked down the road that skirted St. Francis Park.

***

[_ The car is now passing a red neon- sign advertizing the “Dalek Club” in the back-alley around the corner. _]

I remember that particular club only too well.

I was sixteen when after one of his interrupted movie evenings my father walked me a couple of blocks further down the street and around a corner to a music-club belonging to his corporation.

When we approached the entrance I could smell an utterly overwhelming stench of urine and vomit. A man was repeatedly banging his head against the wall next to the entrance. He was already bleeding from an open wound. The enforcer guarding the entrance watched him with a bored expression.

To my unspoken question, my father explained: “We are selling our newest mind-altering substance at the club. It is supposed to make men more excited, alert, and aggressive, increasing their fighting ability and physical prowess while reducing their need for sleep.

Unfortunately the substance still has a few side-effects for some of its users…though our customers will pay quite a few coins for the honor of becoming the first guinea-pigs to try out the new substance,” he added with a vicious grin.

Once inside the club we watched the performance of a group I knew was quite popular throughout Nephilim City, though their music was most certainly not my cup of tea.

The lead singer dressed in a black leather suit was sporting a black cape. Blue flames surrounded him emerging out of this cape. His voice sounded rough, hoarse, and extremely low-pitched—more like an eerily magnified whisper. The music in its a metallic tremor was shrill and dissonant. The only verse I still remember went something like:

“[_ The world is a pit -- in a heap of shit – ruled in a freak -- way by the weak.” _]

The refrain was subsequently shouted by the high-pitched computer-like voices of the background singers. Those men were encased in silvery metallic cones which covered their whole bodies except for their mouths. In some kind of visual illusion the cones were slowly floating above the stage.

From the middle of each cone-man sprouted a single long thin pole with a big sphere at its end. This sphere opened in regular intervals to reveal an eye shooting rays of red or blue light over the heads of the audience, while the encased men, screaming more then singing, chanted:

Exterminate, exterminate! Defeat the weak! Defea…ea..ea…eat the wea…ea..ea…eak!”

And the audience echoed: “Exterminate, exterminate!”

With every repetition of the refrain the audience’s response became more ecstatic. They were raising and shaking their fists in the air while stamping their feet on the ground.

I didn’t know if the crowd’s ecstasy was a result of the music or of the substances my father had been talking about. This time I was more than glad when my father led me outside before the end of the show.

When the performance is over, the audience will stream into the next projects to observe the weak crawling, whining, and wincing,” John Galt explained to me.

And to drive home his point, he assumed the solemn voice, he usually reserved for quoting his favorite philosopher, a man named Friedrich Nietzsche, who had died more than 300 years ago.

He cited: “’Regarding women! One-half of mankind is weak, chronically sick, changeable, shifty – woman requires . . . a religion of the weak which glorifies weakness, love and modesty as divine: or better still, she makes the strong weak she succeeds in overcoming the strong.

Woman has always conspired with decadent types – the priests, for instance – against the mighty, against the strong, against men.

A woman’s nature is more natural—meaning more primitive—than man’s. She is filled with the genuine cunning of a beast of prey and a naive egotism, and she cannot be educated.’”

John Galt then added in his usual voice:

For the last two hundred years the whole world outside Orange Country has been controlled by these female predators. Men out there have been emasculated, stunted in their development and growth, so that women with their peace-peace wailing can feel safe.

And since women cannot be taught to use reason in the way men are taught, the creation of Venus Projects was both necessary and also most helpful. Finally women are once more being put to their proper use; that is, to arouse the desire of men. And with this, the male population has been turned into hungry and sharp tools for us. They now will become warriors for the progress of the whole world.”

Once again he returned to his citation voice:

The veneration of Phallus will eventually lead to the rule of Mars’

For once in my life I dared a weak protest. “But the women are the same species as us,”

Just barely,” my father claimed and then he explained further:

In the past, women were needed for the reproduction of men. But as you and I know, this is no longer the case. In a few years all men will be created and grown outside any female womb.

Even the Venus functions will one day be easily replaced by holographic programs or female-looking androids. Women will then no longer be needed for anything”

What will happen to the women then?” I asked.

My father shrugged: “They will just cease to exist…”

This was the first time I clearly realized that something was wrong with my father’s mind. I wanted to discuss this with Mr. Tanner. But since for a whole year already he was no longer my teacher and I didn’t know where I could find him, instead I repressed the thought for another four years.

CHAPTER 12

 

 

The park lay in darkness beside the road, but David could still hear a few birds twittering in the peaceful surroundings. There wasn’t much traffic to disturb that dark peace either, and the illumination by the street-lights standing at regular intervals and the few lit windows on the other side of the road didn’t do much to diminish the darkness of the night.

But David noticed that strangely enough, the air had changed somehow. The wet-cold April evening had given way to a rather warm night.

And then he remembered that tomorrow was the first of May. For the first time in many years, he had a positive thought about his father as he suddenly remembered sitting on his lap while his father taught him a song. This song, his father had told him, was written by a famous Icelandic writer and poet. David still remembered the melody and now he concentrated to recapture the lyrics.

They started with “Oh how light are your foot-steps, oh how long have I waited” and then they talked about the long-awaited end of winter with the coming of May tomorrow, and though the times were still hard, no work to be had, and the poet had nothing to offer but his hope and his life, he still knew a star that would be shining until the sun of May would rise.

David looked up into the sky. There were no stars to be seen since clouds were covering the sky, but David had a feeling that soon the southern winds would clear them away.

And David did have his Hope, whose footsteps were light, very light indeed.

But looking at her, he noticed her heavy mood and her down-cast eyes. And he also noticed that she was biting her lips. Once again she was thinking hard, trying to make a decision.

“Uncle David,” she said hesitantly, “maybe I could show you something, although I do not want to go through this memory again. But yet I still do, over and over again, for I dream about it every night. But it is something horrible, and if you see it, it might enter your dreams as well.”

“You are asking me if I am ready to look at this horrible memory of yours?” asked David.

Hope nodded doubtfully.

“Yes,” he answered her request, “I would like to see it. I have heard that sometimes it can be helpful to re-live a traumatic experience in your memory in order to overcome the trauma. And this time around you won’t be alone because I will be right there with you.”

Hope took a deep breath and then said:

“Alright, but I’m not showing it to you to overcome the memories. I could never forget, never ever. It is just because of Marco Santini, because you have seen his letter, that’s why I think you should see this, or maybe you shouldn’t, I’m not sure,” she added mysteriously and then asked:

“Can we sit down over there?”

David nodded and walked over to the next bench. On any other night he would never have even considered sitting on a park-bench in the dark, closing his eyes to dream of another world. But this was Hope’s night and David did not worry about anything but her.

He also was seriously intrigued, wondering what it could be that she had just tried to explain. It didn’t make sense…yet.

The bench was located in a small alcove of bushes clustered beneath a maple tree. David sat down and closed his eyes.

The scene that materialized showed an angry Ms. Morgan, Hope’s mother, arguing with Sensei Thomsen, Hope’s teacher. They were standing together with Hope in the middle of a large hall, a hall strangely empty, devoid of any furnishings or decorations.

Hope herself also looked strange for she wasn’t wearing her usual suit, but rather a suit made of a brownish cotton material and a cap of the same color. David remembered he had seen boys and young men wearing this kind of clothing in news reports from Afghanistan or the tribal areas of Pakistan.

“No, I still say no!” Hope’s mother’s voice was raised, “Hope is different, you have to see that. She cannot go through with this.”

The teacher spoke in a reasonable low voice, as if trying to calm her down: “Ms. Morgan, I do understand your concerns. This is not easy, not for any child, nor is it easy for the parents.

But you have to see reason. She has got to do it. It is the law–one of just three international laws which we have. The single exception accepted by the law would be if she were intellectually impaired. And you cannot seriously argue that to be the case.”

Hope’s mother was visibly upset: “No, I’m not saying that. But still, she is different. She will never be able to forget.”

“No, she won’t,” Sensei Thomsen agreed, “but that is exactly the point. Nobody should forget this.”

Then surprisingly he cited a quote David had heard many times before in his own age: “For those who do not remember the past are destined to repeat it….”

“Yes, I know,” Hope’s mother tried again, “but Hope, she….”

“Mamma, please,” interrupted her daughter who had been tugging at her mother’s sleeve for a while. “Please, I told you I do want to do this, I have to. I don’t wanna be different from the other children. How can I be normal with my friends, when I’m the only one who is excluded from this?”

Hope’s mother took a deep breath and then begged: “At least let me go in with her, so she isn’t alone there, please Mr. Thomsen. When Hope lost her father it was so hard on her. I couldn’t help her then; please let me help her now!”

Sensei Thomsen shook his head compassionately but firmly: “I am sorry, but no, I cannot allow that either. It would be against the rules. No one is allowed to go through the scenario twice, not even a parent or a teacher.

“It must be a one-time experience so that people will not become used to the violence and accept it as normal. And it must be done on the twelfth birthday before any form of adolescent cynicism might set in.”

“I will be alright, Mamma” Hope comforted her mother, “I’m no longer nine years old. I will not break down with this.”

Hope’s mother gave up. She sighed, lowered her eyes and became very quiet, letting Hope’s teacher now do the talking:

“Hope, as you know very well, you are here in the community center of our village, but in a few moments, this will become another village looking like one which once has existed over 200 years ago.

“You know that ordinarily holographic image stories have to be done mostly by drawings and computer animation. Do you know why this rule exists?”

Hope nodded: “So that the participants in the story will not get confused by no longer seeing the difference between a story and reality.”

Sensei agreed: “You are right. There must be a distinction between real life and fiction.

“However, in the case of the Victim Scenario, there is an exception being made. Everything in there is as close to reality as possible, the landscape, the houses, the vehicles, all of them were real when the scenario was published nearly a hundred years ago.

“These were no computer-created images; the people you will see were living human beings, acting in the roles of people who lived over 100 years before their own time.

“You now will also play the role of a person who lived at that time. You have been dressed already in the clothing people wore in that village.

“While in a regular interactive image story, you would only wear gloves so you could touch the holographic images, in this image story, the clothes you are wearing right now are actually a full body touch-suit.

“With this and the other simulation techniques applied in this scenario, all your senses will be engaged: you will hear, see, touch, taste, and smell.

“And because of that, you will, within only a few minutes, no longer feel any difference from reality. You might even forget that this isn’t your reality.”

Hope nodded. “I understand.”

“Now give me your hands” Sensei ordered Hope.

While wearing gloves himself, he now applied a dark fluid from a strange looking bottle to Hope’s hands and after that, rubbed it very carefully all over her face.

“Now open your mouth,” Sensei said, and when Hope did so, he opened a smaller bottle and dripped several drops of a similar fluid onto her tongue.

Then he once more ordered, “You can swallow now.”

He started his explanation again in an impersonal voice:

“The fluids I applied to your hands, face, and tongue contain nanobots, tiny programmed computer-chips, which are synchronized with the scenario programs. Better than any gloves you have used before, these bots will give you a realistic illusion of touch.

“Those bots that went down your digestive tract will allow you to eat and taste virtual food. The bots will be active throughout the next hours until the simulation is over. Then they will disintegrate without doing you any harm.”

Once again Hope nodded in understanding.

Sensei went on: “You will impersonate a boy, by the name of Farooq. He was sent by his parents in a bus, an ancient form of transport, to the village of Pazwaak to visit his mother’s relatives there because his parents thought it would be a safer place than his own hometown which was so close to a war-embattled area.

“The story begins after Farooq has arrived at his destination and has left the bus.

“When Farooq grew up, he wrote down the events that happened in Pazwaak at the time he was there. In reality, he had been in that village for several weeks, but for this scenario, some of the most important events are shown to you in only a few hours. And you will live through them as the boy Farooq and become a witness to them, just like him. The language that most of the people will speak will be English.

“As you know of course, all children from every village in the world will have to go through this scenario on their 12th birthday. But everywhere they will hear their own native language spoken by the villagers of Pazwaak, so that every child will have the same understanding of the events as Farooq had.”

Hope nodded again: “I understand.”

“Now stand on this spot,” Sensei Thompson pointed to a small x drawn on the floor in roughly the middle of the hall, “while your mother and I leave the room.”

Hope watched them leaving, her mother still reluctant. And as Sensei closed the door, she turned around and gave Hope one last worried glance.

Hope took a deep breath and prepared herself for what she knew would be an ordeal, while the room changed around her.

Suddenly it was an open square surrounded by walled in old stone houses. The ground of the square was dusty, just like the road that led to it, the road on which a bus was just now leaving in a dusty cloud.

Sensei had been right; Hope could feel the dust in her nostrils and even her eyes. She could also feel the mid-day sun burning her face.

Hope looked around herself. A bag made from cloth was sitting on the ground next to her. The village seemed to be very small. There were no other streets to be seen, but most of the houses surrounded the square.

Hope could barely see more than the roofs of those houses, since each house was enclosed by high walls. She counted about 15 compounds like these, but perhaps there were a few more behind them which she couldn’t see from the spot on which she was standing.

The square was devoid of people at the moment. Then suddenly she heard the sound of running feet and heavy breathing behind her. She turned around to see a boy of about her own age hurrying toward her.

“Assalaamu Aleikum,” he exclaimed, slightly out of breath. “You are Farooq, aren’t you?”

And when Hope nodded, answering the greeting in a low voice, he went on:

“I am Khalil, your cousin. I was supposed to welcome you today, but I just came from school in Pashtana, the next village. My teacher kept me to the last minute and that is why I am late to greet you.”

Hope didn’t answer right away. She was too fascinated by Khalil’s appearance. He was wearing clothes similar to the ones Hope was wearing, but it was his cap which had caught her attention and at which she kept staring.

Khalil noticed her stare.

“You like my tagiyah ?” he asked. ”My Mamma made it for me. She is very good in making patterns. Maybe she can make one for you as well.”

Khalil’s cap was knitted in a truly artistic and elaborate pattern, but this was not the reason for Hope’s surprise.

What astounded her was that she had seen this pattern so many times before. It was one of the most popular patterns Hope’s mother produced in her embroidery shop, always at the request of her customers. It was a pattern so complex that part of it had to be done by hand, stitch by stitch, since the programmed machines just couldn’t do it well enough. Now Hope realized where it had come from.

“My Mamma is very good in making patterns like these as well,” Hope replied, slightly confused about seeing this kind of familiarity in what had at first seemed such an alien environment.

“Of course she is,” Khalil stated, “after all, your mamma is my mamma’s sister.”

Then he asked: “Have you been waiting long?”

Hope shook her head: “I just arrived a few moments ago. You can still see the bus over there.” She pointed to the disappearing dust-cloud in the distance.

Then the two children once again inspected each other from head to toe. Khalil was carrying a couple of books under one arm, and protruding from a pocket, Hope could see the upper part of what was most likely a pencil – she recognized it from historic images, although she had never seen an instrument like this actually used for writing.

“I’m glad you didn’t have to wait long,” Khalil broke the silence, “I’ll show you now where we live. Is this your bag?”

Without waiting for an answer, Khalil picked up the bag from the ground and led the way to a house located behind those around the square, while Hope walked beside him.

Together they entered a courtyard through a small gate. A couple of girls who seemed to be about seven or eight years old and a little boy of about four were playing, blowing feathers in the air, while a woman was sitting on a step in front of the house pulling those feathers off a dead chicken.

Another woman was washing some clothes in a basin, while a toddler, clutching her dress with one hand, played in the water with her other hand. Everyone looked up and stared at Hope and Khalil, then greeted them loudly. Answering courteously, Khalil then started to make introductions.

“Here is Farooq, our cousin from the big city. He just arrived with the bus. And over there is my Aunt Mahtab. She will make chicken for dinner tonight. Over there are my cousins Badria and Baasima, her daughters, and my little cousin Mashaal.”

Mashaal ran over to Hope and pulled on her jacket, while the two girls scrutinized her from a distance. Both girls wore colorful head-scarves; Badria’s scarf was light blue and only covered the back part of her head, while Baasima had covered half her face with her turquoise scarf from under which she sent Hope a smile with the one visible eye, a smile that was far from being as shy as her gesture made it seem.

Khalil turned to the other woman: “This is my mother, your aunt Parween, and here is my little sister Fatima.”

The little girl had only now noticed them coming into the yard. With a shout of glee she ran over to Khalil. The boy thrust the books and the bag he had been holding into Hope’s arms and lifting his sister up in the air, he whirled her around and around, producing ever more excited shouts from her. After Khalil had stopped turning, Fatima looked suspiciously at the new-comer while holding securely onto her brother.

Her mother, however, gave Hope a beautiful warm smile and addressed her: “We are so glad that you could come to stay with us, Farooq. We were saddened to hear how difficult things are in your area. I really wish that your whole family could have come to stay with us as well, but I understand that your father cannot leave at the moment. How is your mother doing?”

Hope, of course, had no idea how Farooq’s mother was doing, but she answered in the standard polite terms, saying

“She is fine, Aunt Parween, and she sends you many greetings.”

Parween nodded: “Yes, she always says she is fine, in spite of everything. Khalil has read all her letters to me.

“But now, what am I thinking–you must be so hungry. We have prepared lunch for you and for Khalil. Please come into our home.”

The house was sparsely furnished, but there were beautifully patterned carpets on the floor as well as hanging on the walls. There were no tables or chairs, and it was obvious that people both ate and slept on the floors. Dishes of warm bread were set on a mat next to bowls filled with a variety of mashed foods.

The children sat down on smaller mats surrounding the bigger one. Hope followed Khalil’s example, ripping up the bread and dipping it into the various bowls. To her surprise, Hope found the food quite tasty and could actually feel it going down her throat.

After they had eaten, Khalil led Hope back into the courtyard to show her something he was very excited about.

“Look at my kite,” he called out and then asked: “Do you fly kites at home?”

Hope shook her head; she had never seen a strange square thing like that before. It seemed to be made out of colored paper and thin sticks of wood attached to a ball of string. Could that thing really fly?

“Oh,” Khalil sounded disappointed, “I thought all boys flew kites in the big cities. But I guess they only do it in Kabul.”

When Hope shrugged, he went on: “Papa and I went to Kabul last year. We could only stay for a week, but I met all these boys, the friends of my cousins, who had a kite-flying competition, which one goes highest, you know?

“And my cousins showed me how to make a kite and how to fly it. They told me that before the war, boys had those competitions all the time, but now there are some people who hate kites. This is why they have to be very careful nowadays to fly them only on days when it is safe.”

Khalil examined his kite carefully to make sure it was in top condition.

Then he went on: “Tonight we will have a Pazwaak competition. I showed all the guys how to make kites and we have practiced together many evenings. You can come, too, if you want, and fly your kite.”

“But I don’t have a kite,” Hope answered, astonished.

“Silly,” Khalil answered, “we’ll make one, of course.”

And for the rest of the afternoon, Hope and Khalil were building a kite with the help of more or less practical remarks by Badria and Baasima and even a bit of help cutting and coloring the paper pieces for the tail. They had to chase off little Mashaal once in a while, since his attempts to help weren’t exactly helpful.

When they finished, they went up to the flat roof. And there between clotheslines filled with freshly washed laundry, Khalil gave Hope her first lesson in kite-flying. And it quickly became quite clear that Hope was not going to win any competition that night. But still, she had a lot of fun with the whole process and was looking forward to the evening.

But first Khalil and “Farooq” were called inside.

The women and the girls had finished the preparations for the evening meal, and the girls seemed in high spirits.

“We are going to watch from the roof tonight,” Baasima explained excitedly. “Mamma and Aunt Parween will watch as well.”

Khalil’s mother nodded smilingly. “But first, while we are waiting for your fathers, you will read for us from your books again, won’t you, Khalil?”

“Of course Mamma,” Khalil agreed, “I have already decided what to read to you today.”

While everyone else made themselves comfortable on mattresses and cushions, Khalil picked up one of his schoolbooks.

“I am going to read two poems for you tonight,” Khalil proclaimed in a solemn voice, while he sat on his mat, facing his eager audience.

“The first is written by a poet from Kabul and it is about you, Mama, for it is called ‘The Beauty of your Voice’.”

Khalil stopped for a second and then added belatedly: “… and about you, as well, Aunt Mahtab.”

Aunt Mahtab laughed while Khalil’s mother smiled at her son, the way only a mother does, warming Hope’s heart.

Then Khalil started his recitation:

  “Your voice is like the rising sun

calling the world to a new day.

Your voice is like the gentle rain

falling down on parched flowers and grass

Your voice is like the colors of the rainbow

ornamenting the sky when the rain has gone

Your voice is like the sun’s red fire

taking leave of a long, long day

Your voice is like the diamond drops of light

on the black velvet of the night.

Your voice is a mirror

of the beauty inside your soul”

 

Khalil ended the poem with an expectant glance toward his audience and a sideways glance at his mother. The girls clapped their hands and Khalil’s aunt nodded appreciatively. His mother smiled and said: “Thank you, Khalil.”

Hope had to agree, the poem really did fit her. She had a beautiful voice and a smile that felt like an early morning ray of sunshine.

Khalil was gratified by the reaction of his audience and so he went on: “The next poem is written by a lady poet, who has the same first name as you, Mama, Parween. and the poem is called ‘The Arms of Peace’.”

Once again Khalil recited solemnly:

Like the thirsty man on a mountain

in search of a water spring,

like the hungry man on a journey

in search of a freshly cooked meal

like the freezing man in a cold night

in search of a warming fire

so need the children of our war-torn times

a place to rest

a place to sleep

in the arms of peace, the arms of peace

 

When Khalil finished, everybody was clapping again, and after the others had gotten up to go to another room, his mother whispered: “That last one was even more beautiful than the first. It is wonderful that you can read these beautiful words, Khalil.”

Hugging her little daughter she added: “And one day you will teach Fatima to read those words, won’t you, Khalil?”

“O Mama, I told you I will teach her, you know I will,” Khalil said in a voice that indicated he had made this promise many times before.

“I know you did,” his mother replied, “I know you will, incha’ Allah.”

Looking down at the little girl in her arms, she told her: “One day, Fatima, incha’ Allah you will read those beautiful words, just like Khalil does, words that make the heart fly like a bird. One day, you will be full of wisdom and knowledge, like the daughter of the prophet, peace be upon him, whose name you bear.”

Fatima didn’t aspire to solemn wisdom at the moment. She wiggled out of her mother’s lap to crawl over to Khalil and try to grab his book.

“No, Fatima, books are precious. You have to handle them with care,” Khalil scolded her, holding it out of her reach, but when she made a face as if she were about to break into tears, he took her in his lap and allowed her to touch the book again, showing her the drawings which accompanied some of the written pages.

Parween watched her children with deep satisfaction.

“I could teach you as well,” Khalil suggested, looking over at his mother.

“No, no, I am too old for that,” she refused.

Khalil shook his head in exasperation, as if they had had this argument many times before as well.

“But Mama, Farooq’s mother learned to read and write, and she is your sister.”

“She lives in the big city now; that is different.” Parween’s words sounded final, but then she added once again: “But you will teach Fatima?”

“Yes, Mama, I will,” Khalil repeated.

“No, he won’t,” a man’s voice sounded from behind. The man had just entered the room and Hope knew that he must be Khalil’s and Fatima’s father and Parween’s husband.

Hope could see deep shock fall over Parween’s face and tears welling up in her eyes. Hope gave the man an angry look.

But the man spoke again, un-phased: “Khalil won’t teach Fatima to read because he will not have to. Fatima will go to school.”

“To school?” The shock had disappeared from Parween’s face, leaving an insecure surprise behind.

“Yes, to school,” her husband repeated. “I just came from the village council. They have decided to build a school for girls right here in Pazwaak. And just like our boys attend school in Pashtana, so the girls from Pashtana and Samsor will go to our school, only that they will not have to walk as the boys have to, and the girls from the other villages will be picked up by a bus. It is safer that way. So it will be a big school, and two or even three lady teachers will be coming from the big city.”

While listening to her husband, Parween’s face had lit up with happiness. She now picked up her daughter again to cuddle her:

“Did you hear that, Fatima? You will go to school, just like Khalil. And a lady teacher will teach you. You will learn to read all those beautiful words in Khalil’s book. And one day….”

“One day,” Khalil’s father concluded his wife’s sentence, “Fatima will be full of wisdom and knowledge, just like the daughter of the Prophet, peace be upon him.”

When Parween and her husband looked at each other, it reminded Hope of the glances she had seen her own parents exchange. It both warmed her heart and made her sad with desperate longing.

Khalil had had enough of mushy feelings for the moment and decided to remind his parents that there was some other important news right there in the room.

“Papa, look who has come, my cousin Farooq from the big city!”

His father turned around, having only now noticed Hope in the corner of the room. He greeted her with polite formality, bid her welcome, and asked after the health of her family.

Hope felt a certain shyness toward Abdul-Lateef, but answered with appropriate politeness and in the same way when she was introduced to Abdul-Khaliq, Khalil’s uncle who entered the house a few minutes later.

When dinner was served, the men, including Khalil, little Mashaal and Farooq-Hope, ate in one room while the women and girls ate in another. There wasn’t much conversation during the meal.

And although Hope actually enjoyed the food, she imitated Khalil by eating as fast as possible in order to get out and get ready for the kite-flying competition which had to take place before it got dark, so as to use the evening wind that would be just right for kites.

Outside in the village square, they were met by a group of other boys their age. Khalil introduced them as Latif, as Dawud and Dilawar, who were brothers, and Badee and Bakhtawar who were also brothers, and Omaid, Jawad, and Baseer, who were their cousins.

Everyone was excited to meet a boy from the big city who surely would be an expert kite-man. And Hope felt slightly ashamed to have to admit that she had never flown a kite before this afternoon’s session on Khalil’s roof.

“It’s because of the war, isn’t it?” Baseer suggested. “Your parents won’t let you.”

“We have other games where I come from,” Hope replied in a low voice.

“You don’t have to worry about the war here,” Omaid, the oldest of the boys, reassured Hope.

Then the boys forgot about the newcomer, or rather treated him as one of them, as a gust of wind reminded them that it was time they concentrated on raising their kites.

It was clear that the experience of the other boys made a big difference, for Hope’s kite spent far more time on the ground than in the air. Khalil, who saw her frustration, called out helpful suggestions on how to use the wind.

And finally Hope’s kite was up in the air and flying. But now Khalil’s kite-string got entangled with that of Jawad, which brought a few not so kind words from the latter.

Khalil only shrugged while trying to disentangle the strings. He had gotten distracted when he saw both his father and uncle following a group of other men who were quickly entering one of the compounds surrounding the square.

Hope had noticed this as well, and of course, the second she took her eyes off her kite, it was down on the ground again. Khalil drew down his own kite and left it on the ground, leaving a slightly angry Jawad to disentangle the strings.

While gesturing to Hope to follow him, he made his way to the compound into which his father and the other men had disappeared.

“They never have village council meetings so late in the evening unless something really important has come up,” he explained to Hope.

Then he pointed, surprised, at a grey-green big-wheeled jeep standing in front of the mayor’s house: “I have never seen that car before. It’s not from our village and not from the neighboring villages either. I know that. A stranger must have arrived and is talking to the mayor and the whole village council.”

Hope had noticed similar vehicles parked in front of other houses, but this one seemed bigger and somehow gave her a feeling of dread.

When they entered through the small gate, Khalil carefully looked around. He obviously didn’t want to be seen.

“This is the house of the mayor and the place for village councils,” he explained. “And it is also the place for Friday prayers, for we have no mosque here and no imam. Our village is too small, you know.”

Khalil carefully approached the house. Stooping down, they slowly walked around the house, passing several windows until Khalil stopped at a small open window next to some shrubbery that gave them cover.

“In there is the meeting room,” Khalil whispered. “From here you can hear everything they say inside, and you can peek in without them noticing you.”

Hope nodded. She was as curious as Khalil about what was going on, so both of them peeked through the window.

She could hear murmuring in the room and the clink of china cups. There was a large group of men sitting along the walls of the room, each with a cup of tea in front of him from which slow sips were taken.

An elderly man directly opposite the window now started to talk: “I have asked you all to come to this meeting tonight to meet Mr. Qasem and his young companion Mr. Rashad.” The elderly man, whom Hope supposed was the mayor Khalil had talked about, pointed at the middle-aged man sitting next to him and a quiet, dour-looking young man sitting next to the other one. In clothing and manners, these two men looked quite different from the men of Pazwaak. The mayor went on: “Mr. Qasem has come all the way from the land of the Prophet, peace be upon him. He wanted to address the village council because he has an important message for us.”

The man thus introduced started to talk: “I am Qasem Abu Jalil. And as you have heard, I have come from the land of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and I bring you greetings from our brethren in the holy cities.”

Different from the soft calm voice of the mayor, the visitor’s voice sounded harsh and pretentious.

Mr. Qasem continued: “As you all know, we are living in times of great conflict and evil. Infidels have invaded our lands to destroy our faith, our people. Nothing is sacred to them and they spare neither men nor women nor children. And those of our people who survive the attacks physically are then infected by the evils of the mind which the infidels are spreading wherever they go. Unless we fight them, all of our people will be lost to hell.

“But for all these many years, our brethren have been fighting the holy war against those infidels who have the form of men but, hidden inside their rotten cores, they are nothing but demons from hell to destroy us.

“I know this will be hard for you to imagine, since your village is so remote and you have always been shielded from the evils of our time. However, these evils are a reality, to which we who have had to fight the good war have been exposed every day.

“To help you to understand the severity of this reality, I have brought you some images of the things those demons in human form have done to our people.” From inside his coat, Mr. Qasem took out a bundle of square thick papers which seemed to contain images. He passed them around.

From her place at the window, Hope could not see what was portrayed in the images, but from the murmurs and the shocked intake of breath by the men who had seen them, she gathered that they were seeing something really bad.

Mr. Qasem went on: “Here you can see how those demons treated our people after they took them prisoner. By all that is good, it would have been better for those prisoners to have been killed instead of being taken alive by those monsters.

“But even the dead these infidels do not leave in peace. I have seen with my own eyes how those demonic beings have opened up graves and desecrated the bodies of our dead.

“These demons are evil beyond any human behavior, they must be fought until the end, they do not deserve any kind of mercy.”

Most of the men in the room had expressions of disgust in their faces and the murmur that followed Mr. Qasem’s words was one of agreement.

Mr. Qasem was satisfied with their reaction and continued his speech: “As I said before, my brave brethren and I have fought for many years against this plague of infidels. But I have to tell you that they are not only evil at the core of their being, they are also cowards and stupid beyond measure.

“In many wars, they have fought infidel against infidel. And in order to win the wars they were too cowardly to fight themselves, they have given us, the fighters of Allah, the weapons to fight for them, believing that they had us under their rule. Some of their weapons are so powerful they can poison the air over a whole city of infidels; others from the ground can shoot airplanes right out of the sky.

“Of course, it is in our interest to fight the infidels using the weapons of other infidels.

“However, they are mistaken in their assumption that they have control over us, the faithful servants of Allah alone.

“And this is the reason why I have come to you tonight.

“The weapons we have received over time we have used well, and we have fought many infidels in many lands, winning many battles. But some of the weapons must be hidden and preserved for another time. Once the war against the weak enemy is over, we will have to start the real war against the strong enemy, the bigger demons.

“These weapons need to be stored at a place where it is safe, far away from all areas of trouble. And your village of Pazwaak has been chosen as the safest place for storage. You have been selected for the high honor of preserving the means to the final victory.”

Mr. Qasem ended his speech looking expectantly at his audience. The murmurs were beginning again, but only the elderly mayor responded directly by asking a question: “Why would Pazwaak be the place to be chosen?”

Mr. Qasem answered in a convoluted manner: “This is a wise question, of course, honorable Mr. Mayor, and I will answer to your satisfaction.

“We have heard that you intend to build a school for girls in this village. And this would be a most expedient opportunity to build a weapons depot right below the school. The enemy would never suspect it there.”

Now everybody started to talk and Hope could not make out the words, but it seemed the opinions were divided.

Eventually the mayor once again raised his calm voice. Immediately everybody went respectfully quiet.

“Mr. Qasem, we have listened to your speech and we have scrutinized the horrific images you have shown us and we agree that they show great signs of depravity and barbarism. But although we do understand your feelings regarding the acts of those infidels, we still have to decline your request to store those weapons you were talking about in our village.

“We cannot risk the safety of our women and children and especially the lives of those innocent young girls who will attend the school for the sake of the plans you have outlined for us. Even though you consider the choice of Pazwaak as a great honor for our village, we still must respectfully decline this honor.”

“You decline the honor, Mr. Mayor?” Mr. Qasem’s voice had now lost any trace of calm: “What kind of faithful are you really…… not faithful at all, it seems to me. You say that you have scrutinized the images. It seems rather that you have averted your eyes from them, in order not to see. If you had really opened them to the reality of this evil, you would not hesitate for even a single moment to grant our request, and you would send all your young men to join us in our good fight.”

Unlike Mr. Qasem, the mayor had not lost his calm: “Mr. Qasem, you are in error; the members of this council and I did not avert our eyes from reality. Indeed some of us, including myself, have not spent all of our lives in Pazwaak. I have seen the evils of this time more than once. I have seen the bloodshed of the innocent caused by the infidels, and their brutal and uncivilized behavior toward women and children.

“But I have also seen those who claimed to fight in the good struggle for Allah and our faith behaving in a similar fashion. I have seen the dead mutilated and their bodies desecrated by those who claim to be faithful servants of Allah.

“Some I have seen committing those acts were even brethren of yours, Mr. Qasem, from the land of the Prophet, peace be upon him.”

Mr. Qasem was now fuming, and although this could be heard in the quiver of his voice, he made an effort to restrain himself: “Whatever you claim to have seen, Mr. Mayor, it would have been amply justified with the evil done by those demons in human form. In some cases it was necessary not only to defeat this enemy but also to frighten him out of his wits to prevent him from ever attacking the faith and the faithful again. This will eventually save the lives of millions of our people.

“But for now, it is your duty, Mr. Mayor, and that of all the men of Pazwaak, before Allah and the community of the faithful, to support the defense of our faith in this exceedingly small manner we have requested of you. How much more glorious will be this task in the service of Allah than building a school for girls,” (the sneer was clearly audible in Mr Qasem’s words) “a school that quite possibly might lead these girls away from the path of righteousness.”

The mayor did not answer Mr. Qasem directly, but ignoring his assertions, he simply repeated firmly: “As I told you, Mr. Qasem, we must decline your request for the reasons I gave you before.”

The mayor paused for a second while looking at Mr. Qasem’s furious face, then continued, “But you and your companion are cordially invited to stay with me and my family tonight. My wife and daughters have provided a meal for all of us.”

This time Mr. Qasem did not even try to restrain himself, and flaunting all the rules of traditional courtesy, he yelled: “I will not eat with anyone here in this village or sleep in the house of cowards and sympathizers with barbaric infidels. You are traitors to our faith; you might even be considered worse than the infidels we fight!”

With these words Mr. Qasem abruptly got to his feet and left the room. Mr. Rashad, who had not said a single word the whole time, quietly followed in his footsteps as before. Within a couple of seconds they emerged through the outside door, passing so close to the house and the window that Mr. Qasem nearly bumped into Khalil.

With an angry sound, he pushed Khalil aside, and noticing Hope-Farooq, he gave her an even angrier glare before erupting from the gateway. A moment later the children could hear the roar of a car’s engine springing to life.

In the room, the murmur of discussion had started again, but Khalil seemed not to be interested any more. He gave Hope a sign and they left the courtyard the same way they had come.

On the square, Jawad had managed to disentangle the strings, and he and the other boys were still flying their kites. The sun had fully set and night had descended, but the stars and moon were bright enough so as to be able to perceive the kites as dark shadows in the sky.

But Khalil was no longer interested in kite-flying. He picked up his kite from the ground and headed in the direction of home. Hope picked up her kite and followed.

Khalil was in a subdued mood; what he had heard at the council meeting seemed to bother him a lot.

Finally, just before entering his house’s courtyard, he turned to Hope and asked: “Do you think we are cowards here in Pazwaak?”

“Of course not,” Hope answered.

“But those infidels, they have done terrible things to our people,” Khalil went on doubtfully.

“I heard about those things long before Mr. Qasem came. You must have heard about them as well. Won’t they go on doing those things if we don’t fight them, if we don’t defeat them?”

“I don’t think you can defeat them by fighting,” Hope answered slowly. “But I do know that they will stop one day.”

“I don’t know if you are right. But shouldn’t we at least try to defend ourselves and store those weapons Mr. Qasem was talking about?”

“Do you really want little Fatima sitting quietly in her new school, right on top of a weapons depot?” asked Hope, answering his question with one of her own.

Khalil shook his head violently: “No, no, of course not.” He fell silent but still made no attempt to enter the courtyard.

After a few seconds, he raised another question: “Do you believe that the fighters of the faithful could really be as cruel and barbaric as the fighters of the infidels?”

Once again Hope answered with a question: “Do you think your mayor is an honest man?”

“Of course he is an honest man,” Khalil said decisively, “the most honest, just like my father. You are right, what he said he has seen must certainly be true.”

He mused for a while, then sighed: “But it’s sad, you know…to think that our own people can be as evil as the enemy.”

Hope nodded: “It is sad,” she agreed.

Then both of them went inside. They were greeted by Khalil’s mother, who immediately noticed Khalil’s dark mood, but when he didn’t want to talk, she let it go and just asked both of them to get ready for bed. Khalil did not want to talk to Hope either, and he stayed in his quiet brooding mood until both of them fell asleep side by side on their mattresses.

It seemed only an instant later when they were awakened by loud noises.

Somebody was banging on the outside door, and then there was a crash as someone broke through the front door.

Loud yelling could be heard from the front-room. Little Mashaal woke up and started to cry. He crawled over to Khalil’s mattress; the noise had scared him as well as Hope and Khalil.

Now they could hear Khalil’s uncle asking the intruders why they were there. They heard another yell and then the sound of something hitting the floor and the screams of Aunt Mahtab.

At that moment the door to the small room where Hope, Khalil, and Mashaal were huddled was pushed open.

A soldier stood in the doorway. He pointed a gun at the children and then gestured wordlessly with it to indicate that they must leave the room. Mashaal had stopped crying aloud, but was now desperately clinging to his cousin, his head buried in Khalil’s side. Hope kept close to them as they scuttled into the front-room.

There the rest of the family was already assembled. Most were pressed against each other at the wall. Five soldiers were pointing their guns at them. Aunt Mahtab was hunched over and sobbing next to the unconscious body of her husband on the floor. Hope could see a large bleeding wound on Abu-Khaliq’s head but she could also see that he was breathing. He was still alive.

One of the soldiers pushed Mahtab away and toward the others. When Mashaal looked up and saw his mother, he started screaming again and stretched out his little arms toward her. Mahtab, still sobbing, pulled him into her embrace and buried her face in his hair.

Khalil’s mother was holding her own baby, arms trembling as she looked at Khalil and Hope. Her husband was standing in front of her, partially shielding her and the children with his body.

But now one of the soldiers yelled what seemed to be an order, for two other soldiers grabbed Abdul-Lateef and dragged him away from his family. They twisted his arms behind his back and bound them with white plastic twine. Hope could see that it was cutting into his flesh and his hands were turning a bluish shade, but he made no sound.

Then the commanding soldier yelled again. Another man had just entered the house. He was not wearing a soldier’s uniform but Hope could see that he belonged to them. The commanding officer said a few words in his strange language and the man without the uniform turned to Khalil’s father and started to speak: “The sergeant says that we are here because we are looking for a dangerous criminal and terrorist. He has stolen many weapons to be used for terrorist activities. His name is Qasem and we know that he has come to this village. All we want of you is that you tell us where he is now and where the weapons are that he has been transporting.”

Abdul-Lateef did not answer.

The sergeant barked a command and the soldier who had pushed Mahtab started yelling at Khalil’s father and then kicked him in the groin.

The translator said: “The sergeant says that you’d better answer his questions or we will be staying at your house for a very long time.”

The sergeant pointed at Parween, and the soldier who had pushed Mahtab now grabbed Parween’s arm, and when she resisted, he pulled the headscarf from her head and yanked her hair to pull her closer to the sergeant. She screamed out in pain and shock which was echoed by the screams of Fatima whom she was still holding in her arms.

Now Abu-Lateef cried out as well: “Let them go, please let them go.” But the soldier kept hold of Parween’s hair.

Fatima continued to cry and the sergeant yelled again and the civilian man translated: “This is your wife isnt she? You know what we can do to her if you won’t talk.”

Then the sergeant pointed at Khalil and gave another order. The soldier let go of Parween’s hair and grabbed Khalil by the arm and dragged him close to his mother and father.

“No,” cried Hope, Parween and Abdul-Lateef at the same time, then Khalil’s father answered the sergeant’s question in a desperate voice: “This man Qasem you are looking for, he was here, but he left. I do not know where he is now; nobody in the village knows. My wife and son, they don’t know anything. Please let them go.” The translator said a few words to the sergeant who then yelled again and the other man translated: “We don’t believe you. We think you are lying. You know exactly where Qasem is and where the weapons are! And you are going to tell us!”

The sergeant gave the soldier holding Khalil a sign with his head and the soldier now grabbed Khalil by the shirt collar while pushing his gun into Khalil’s backside.

A horrible scream came from Khalil’s mouth and Hope could see the back of his pants suddenly turning dark red.

“No!” a scream burst in unison from both his parents. Abdul-Lateef was hopelessly trying to free himself, while Parween, still holding on to her little daughter with one hand, tried grabbing at the soldier with her other hand to pull him off her son.

Hope could no longer stand still; she was trying to get to Khalil, trying to help him to do something…anything. But another soldier, the one who had entered their room earlier, held her back with his arms. He looked at her for just an instant and Hope saw that the expression on his face was somehow different from that on the faces of the other soldiers. There was no hatred or cruelty there but surprisingly, what she saw was shame. Then the soldier, still holding Hope and the others in place, turned his head and yelled at his comrades.

The sergeant yelled back, but then gave the soldier who had been torturing Khalil a sign with his head. The soldier let go of Khalil and pushed him and his mother back into the direction of Hope and the others.

Khalil had stopped screaming. He was now sobbing soundlessly. Parween handed the crying Fatima over to Hope, then sobbing herself, Parween hugged Khalil tightly: “Mamma,” he whispered, “Mamma, Mamma.”

The sergeant then addressed Abdul-Lateef again through the translator: “You will come with us now. Eventually you will talk! There is no doubt about that. Otherwise we will be back for this brat of yours.”

With that, they dragged Khalil’s father through the outside door into the courtyard.

Khalil, no longer sobbing, limped after the soldiers crying out: “Papa, Papa!” When one of them pushed him away, he screamed desperately: “Let him go, let him go!”

But now he was pushed to the ground, where his mother who had followed picked him up. Hope handed Fatima to Baasima and went to her friend’s side, and they followed the soldiers who were dragging Khalil’s father along.

But when the first soldier passed through the narrow gate, a sudden shot was heard and Hope saw the soldier fall to the ground. The other soldiers started yelling and picking up their weapons, and while taking cover behind the walls they started spraying bullets to the outside. Hope heard a few answering shots but then it fell quiet. The sergeant yelled again and the soldiers jumped into the two army-jeeps parked in front of the compound, dragging their wounded comrade inside while leaving Khalil’s father behind. Abdul-Lateef stood alone, hands still bound behind his back.

The soldiers started their engines and one of the jeeps pulled off. But at the last moment, the soldier who had tortured Khalil jumped off the other jeep, and rushing back into the court-yard, he shot Khalil’s father point blank, then jumped back into the jeep and they all sped off.

Khalil’s father collapsed as if in slow motion as Khalil, Parween, and Hope ran to his side.

But there was nothing they could do.

Abdul-Lateef was dead.

Parween sank to the ground and started wailing as she knelt beside her husband. There was no beauty in her voice any more, only dissonant hamstrung sorrow.

Khalil was quiet, his face empty and cold. Hope knew this expression only too well; she could feel it in her bones. It was an expression of sheer disbelief. This couldn’t have happened. His father couldn’t be dead; none of this could be real.

Now the other members of the family came slowly from the house. Mahtab was steadying her husband who had regained consciousness but was still bleeding from his head wound. Baasima was carrying Fatima who had still not stopped crying, but now it was a low hopeless sort of sound, as if she knew what had happened. Badria followed, leading Mashaal by the hand.

Other people had left their own houses, entering the court-yard of Khalil’s family. More and more people streamed in, a few of the men carrying guns. For a while no one said a word; all that could be heard were Parween’s desperate wails and Fatima’s low cries.

And then everyone started talking at once. Hope couldn’t make out the words; all she heard were angry, fearful, and desperate voices.

And then Khalil’s uncle said to his wife: “You have to go now. They will be back; those soldiers will be back, and there will be more of them next time.”

“Abdul-Khaliq is right,” said a man whose voice Hope recognized as that of the mayor. She looked up and saw him at the gate.

The mayor went on: “They will be back with airplanes and more weapons. Their revenge will be terrible. All the women and children of Pazwaak have to leave. They must leave right away.”

“Leave?” Mahtab sounded frightened: “Where should we go?”

“You must go to Pashtana,” the mayor said, “to the school-house there. The people of Pashtana will help you. But you have to go now! There is no time to be lost. Don’t take much with you, a few blankets and bottles of water and pieces of bread will be enough.”

The mayor turned to the other men: “Tell your families to leave as well.”

Mahtab turned to her husband: “Are you not coming with us?”

Abdul Khaliq shook his head, saying in a sad voice: “I have to bury my brother, and we must defend the village.” Then his voice became rough: “Leave now; take the children and Parween and go!”

Khalil’s mother had not listened to anything that had been said. She was in her own world of grief. She struggled at first when Mahtab attempted to help her up, but then allowed herself to be led into the house. She was staring blindly ahead, moving like a sleep-walker. Mahtab had to take all the initiative. Efficiently she packed two baskets with food which she handed to Hope and Khalil, and then she ordered them and the other children to each bring a blanket.

She then handed Fatima over to Parween while picking up Mashaal herself. And now that everyone was ready, Mahtab led them outside, abandoning their home. Abdul Khaliq had already left with the other men.

When their small group arrived at the village square, they saw dozens of women who had also left their houses with children in tow or in their arms. Some of the children were crying, and most looked confused. Their mothers looked frightened.

And so the dreary group started walking along the dirt road. Hope and Khalil walked side by side with Khalil’s mother, who was still walking wordlessly as if in a trance. Khalil was strangely quiet as well. Hope knew better than to try to talk to him.

Nobody else talked much either, not even the children.

Omaid and Baseer, the oldest of the boys, were leading the way, a way they knew well since they walked it every day to school. And though it was night, the moon was still shining brightly enough for everyone to see where they were going.

Normally it would have taken them about an hour for the journey, but with all of the little children and the bundles everyone had to carry, it surely would take longer, Omaid explained to Hope, the only stranger in the group. Hope just nodded.

They must have been walking for nearly half an hour when they heard the noise of an airplane above them. Hope knew that this was an ominous sound and so did everyone else. People started to walk faster, some started running. And then the darkness was gone, replaced by fire which rained down behind them. Everyone screamed as they looked back. The fire fell on Pazwaak and then the flames blossoming out of Pazwaak lit up the sky.

An unfamiliar smell was suddenly in the air. Hope felt a painful burning sensation in her nostrils and then all the way down to her lungs. Most of the women turned away and started running again, dragging their children behind, but Khalil and his mother stood transfixed, staring at their burning village.

And then in the distance they saw a small figure running towards them which resembled a burning torch. Almost instantly it fell, flames still blazing.

“My uncle,” Khalil whispered, “my uncle.”

“No,” Hope protested, “you can’t see that. It’s not him, it’s not him.”

She shook Khalil by the shoulder. “We have to go now,” she urged, “we have to go. Hurry!”

Reluctantly Khalil turned around. And when Hope touched Parween’s arm, she turned around as well. They started walking again, walking, walking in the direction of Pashtana, where they would be safe.

But it wasn’t over yet. Another noise could be heard in the air, louder, closer to ground, even more menacing.

Hope looked up like everybody else. She recognized those air-vehicles. She had seen images of them. They were called helicopters. There were at least three of them– maybe more, Hope wasn’t sure–but there were three giant lights scouring the ground. And then a new sound–the worst sound she had ever heard–filled the air, thousands and thousands of small explosions. Hope knew what they were. They were shots.

The people in front of them fell down. Some were screaming in pain, others in fear, some were just quiet.

Then Khalil’s mother dropped down, still holding Fatima in her arms. Despite the darkness of the night, Hope could see a dark fluid discoloring her clothes and those of little Fatima, spreading to the ground around them.

Parween began to breathe laboriously. Khalil stood stiff with shock. Then Parween started talking in a gurgling barely audible voice: “Fatima,” she said, “Remember Fatima.”

She tried to lift her little daughter up to Khalil with her last ounce of strength but her arms dropped to the ground and she lay quiet. Hope cried. Khalil bent down to take Fatima from his mother’s lifeless arms. He clutched her tightly to his chest. “We have to go now,” he told Hope in an eerie toneless voice.

But Hope had noticed that the helicopters had circled back, the lights once again closing in on their group. More shots could be heard. Hope let herself drop to the ground and tugging at Khalil’s clothes, she screamed: “Down Khalil, down. They’ll shoot at you if you are standing.”

But it was too late already. Khalil had been hit. Hope watched him sink to the ground, and like his mother before him, he still held his baby sister and even said the same words as his mother had: “Fatima, remember Fatima!”

In desperate expectation, he looked at Hope who took the baby from his arms. Khalil gave one last deep breath and then expired….

The lights from the helicopters were finally switched off and their sound was dying down. They were leaving. Hope was still on her knees holding the baby.

But then she gently laid Fatima back in Khalil’s arms. She had already seen what Khalil hadn’t seen or hadn’t wanted to…

The bullet that had killed his mother had killed Fatima first. It had gone right through her into her mother’s body, and where her little heart had been, there was now a hole.

Hope got to her feet. She looked around and then she listened. There was no sound to be heard.

Finally dawn was breaking and Hope could see the women and children of Pazwaak as small heaps on the ground…silent, motionless heaps.

Suddenly she saw a tiny movement not far away. She leaped toward it. But then she stopped, not wanting to go any further. A turquoise scarf splattered in red was fluttering in the wind above another small motionless heap. Hope knew who this had been.

And then she screamed. She screamed like she had never screamed before.

And at that instant, the dawn of Khalil’s world disappeared, giving way to the glaring artificial light of a big empty hall.

The door opened and Hope’s mother entered, running toward Hope who was still screaming.

The sound changed to a sob: “Mamma, Mamma,” she cried. “They are all dead, all of them! Khalil and his mother and Fatima and Baseema, all of them, all of them…”

Hope’s mother had wrapped her arms around her, talking softly, soothingly: “They died a long time ago, Hope, a very long time ago. It was only a simulation. It wasn’t real.”

“No Mamma,” Hope sobbed in her arms. “They died now, just now.”

Then she felt her legs weakening and she was suddenly falling, her mother’s arms holding her even more tightly, and then everything went black.

And it stayed black.

David could feel himself breathing. He slowly opened his eyes. He noticed that this time Hope felt as sick as he did. He could still see her image glowing in the dark, but the expression on her face was dark, too dark even for tears.

David shared Hope’s sadness, but it became more and more mixed with his own feelings of towering rage.

“How could they do that to you?” he burst out.

“They traumatized you. What kind of teacher is that, to force you into a simulation like that, even over the objections of your mother.”

“It is the law,” Hope answered. “All children have to go through this when they turn twelve.”

“What kind of brutal, ruthless law abuses children like that?” David could not accept it. “And your people call our time the Dark Ages?”

“In your time, children play simulations where they become perpetrators of war violence. You talked about that with Mr. Santini, remember?”

Hope couldn’t help herself. Even now she had to defend her culture: “In my time, we simulate becoming victims of war-violence.”

“Not all games are violent and not all children play violent games. And those games are far from being as realistic as what happened to you in there,” David insisted.

“In your time,” Hope said sadly and in a low voice, “that was not a simulation. Many children all over the world had to go through war.”

She hesitated for a few seconds, then added: “And the people of Pazwaak are really dead.”

That stopped David in his tracks. They both fell silent for a while, staring into the dark sky, listening to the sound of far-away traffic.

Eventually David asked: “What happened to Farooq, do you know?”

Hope nodded, answering: “Sensei told me after he had carried me home from the community hall. And then he also visited me every day for a week until I was well enough to go back to school. He is a good teacher,” she said defensively and then went on:

“But as for Farooq, he was captured by the soldiers who had invaded his village. But the night before he was to be transported to a military prison, one of the soldiers drove away with him to release him in the next town. But then the escape vehicle broke down close to a village.

“And when the soldier saw the other soldiers approaching, he told Farooq to run and hide, while he himself stayed in an abandoned house. The villagers hid Farooq in a shed, but they told the soldiers where the compassionate soldier was. And while he didn’t see it himself, Farooq was told by the villagers that the soldiers had surrounded the house and thrown bombs inside and then carried Farooq’s rescuer out of the house, dead.”

When Hope stopped talking, David concluded: “That soldier was Marco Santini, wasn’t it?”

Hope nodded: “Sensei never told me his name, but it must have been. The stories are far too similar for it not to have been.”

She took a deep breath and went on: “When Farooq grew up, he became a man of peace. Although he should have grown up to become a man seeking revenge for all that had happened to his relatives and what he had seen being done to the people of Pazwaak, he didn’t.

“He wrote down what he had seen and told it to many people, first in his own country, then to the people of many countries, until his story was known all over the world.

And when people asked him why he had not become bitter and full of hatred, he always said that he had seen humanity in the face of his enemy.”

Hope stopped again and David repeated wonderingly: “Marco Santini…….because of Marco Santini…..It’s strange to think that this one act of compassion could undo the effects of all the horrific things Farooq had gone through before.”

Hope nodded: “Yes it’s strange. But it is because Farooq became a man of peace that his story became the Victim-Scenario for all the world’s children in my time.

“Farooq was given many coins in his time. And he used most of them to teach people all over the world about peace. But some coins he used to build a monument at the place where the women and children of Pazwaak had been killed.

“Although in his time and place, people often objected to having statues of human images around, this one was allowed to stay there. And it is still standing there in my time.”

The image of a stone memorial appeared in the darkness of the night in front of David’s eyes.

At the top of the statue was the figure of a boy sitting with a toddler in his lap. He was holding a book in front of the toddler. Both children were looking and pointing at it. Letters David could not read were engraved on the stone below.

Hope knew what they meant and she translated for David:

 

“I will always remember Fatima.

I will never forget the people of Pazwaak,

the voices of the innocent crying out to the heavens.

On this spot hope (Omaid) was destroyed

and gentleness (Latif) and gerosity(Jawad)

and the smile (Baasima) of a child.

Light (Mashaal) was darkened in the shining of the moon (Badria and Mahtab)

and in the shining stars (Parween).

But only for a time,

for the voice (Pazwaak) of all of you has been heard

and has been answered.

For now my friend (Khalil), sleep.

Sleep in the arms of peace,

in the arms of peace.”

***

Antonio Fernandez looks at me with an expectant glance. I am now to claim something I most certainly do not possess: my father’s authority.

Darryl, the Texan organizer, has already prepped Antonio and his team, consistent of Brent, Patrick and Kelly, though Darryl himself would not participate in this operation. They all are ready to proceed, the bags with nanobots well hidden underneath their lab-coats.

But it is I who has to get them inside the drone manufacturing plant. This is most vital for our plans.

My mouth has dried up and I swallow. We have been waiting in the plant’s visitor launch for a while already.

When finally a stocky man in his mid-forties enters, I have my shoulders squared and set an impatient expression on my face that isn’t feigned.

I know the man, it’s still the same manager as last time I was here with my father. He is dressed in a tailored suit and striped tie, giving the impression of someone with a societal and living status well above average in Nephilim City.

I know the man’s name to be Remus Talbot, but I decide not to use it. Instead I barely acknowledge him with a nod and start with:

We have been kept waiting here for quite some time. You do know me, don’t you or do I have to introduce myself?”

No, of course not, Mr Galt,” Talbot assures me, flinching nervously.

Although it has been several years, since you inspected this plant together with your father. What can I do for you?”

For me?” I return the question in an ice-cold voice, “nothing!

But it is my father, who is extremely disappointed with the way you manage this facility. Your output has been lacking severely and my father suspects inefficiency.”

“[_ But Mr Galt,” Talbot protests, “we have increased production by 20% over the current year. We are doing our utmost to meet...” _]

I interrupt him coldly: “Has my father not told you how insufficient this is at the current time?”

Yes, sir, Mr Galt, he has, and we have increased our efforts since then. We…”

Obviously not enough,” I interrupt again, “or why would he have considered it necessary to send me here personally together with his efficiency team?”

I point fleetingly toward Antonio and his men.

[_ I have to keep on pushing, not leaving Talbot any room for thought or objections, and so I'm giving my orders: “Production must be increased by another 30% at least. These men here are our top efficiency experts. They will determine where the faults lie and which machines or personal will have to be replaced immediately. _]

For the next five hours these men will have access to every single work station, every production line and to the hangars. Is this understood?”

Yes, Mr Galt, of course Mr Galt. My staff will fully cooperate with your experts.”

Once again I nod curtly: “My father expects nothing less of you.”

CHAPTER 13

 

 

They sat in the dark, engulfed in their intermingling thoughts of deep sadness.

Then David felt the darkness deepen even more as his mind was flooded with feelings of ever-growing fear, eventually turning to utter despair.

David noticed that Hope had covered her face with her hands although she wasn’t crying.

Finally she started talking, slowly murmuring as if to herself and with long pauses in between her half-sentences: “I always believed that it was the right thing…the right thing for us to go through the scenario… that it is necessary, like everyone says…necessary to preserve the peace… But now I don’t know…I don’t know anything anymore.”

She took her hands down and faced David: “It didn’t work, Uncle David! It just didn’t work.”

Her voice had become loud and desperate: “You were right, you were right about my Mamma and….oh no…oh no…..”

David instinctively reached out to her, only to grasp thin air. He caught himself and pulled back his hand, wishing he could at least for this once have taken Hope in his arms and comforted her.

Instead he said softly: “Hope, please tell me now…please Hope, what happened in…” and the words formed in his mind “Orange Country and… and Nephilim City?”

Instantaneously it was as if a dam had broken. A giant flood of images, faces, voices, and sounds washed over David’s consciousness simultaneously, together with emotions alternating between suffocating fear and raging anger.

“Hope, I can’t…” David trembled under the mental overload, “Please go slowly, tell me, in the way you told me before.”

David could feel the mental strain it cost Hope to concentrate again. She closed her eyes and David closed his. The images and sounds subsided and everything went dark again, though the disturbed feelings could not be subdued.

Out of the darkness David heard Hope’s trembling voice: “It started six days ago…no, it is seven days now…a week…

“Only a week ago everything was normal…there was peace…

“Mamma had been on her assignment for more than ten weeks. And she was supposed to come home for a six-week break in only two weeks time, but then…then….”

Hope took a deep breath: “It was only morning, when I already knew that something must have happened. Great-uncle Professor said barely a word at breakfast and afterwards, he locked himself in his lab.

“On my way to the cow-shed, and later on my way to school, I could see the grown-ups whispering to each other. But whenever we children came close, they stopped. There were strange expressions on their faces. I couldn’t read their looks.

“The same expression was on Sensei’s face during class. And then all of a sudden, he finished his teaching and sent us home early…without any explanation.

When Sensei had left, JasonTyler, one of the boys, told the rest of us second-year sempais that he knew there would be a village council meeting in the evening. His older brother had managed to crack the absentee key, and he was going to meet with his adolescent friends to watch the meeting. Jason had pressured his brother to give him the key too so that the sempais from our class could watch it as well.”

To David’s unspoken question, Hope explained: “The absentee key is a password sequence that allows those grown-ups who are unable to attend the village council meeting to watch it from their own home.”

Then she continued: “We decided to meet at the home of Jenny’s family because she could not leave her little brothers while her parents were at the meeting.”

The darkness lifted to be replaced by the image of a group of seven teenagers in a warmly furnished living-room, sitting on a single couch and two easy chairs arranged facing the wall which acted as a big computer screen. One of the girls, Jenny, was sitting on the carpeted floor, playing with two toddlers while trying to observe the screen with one eye.

On the screen, a big hall could be seen where hundreds of people sat on long benches behind narrow desks. While the front rows were already filled, people were still filing in at the back, and the last five rows of seats were slowly emerging from below the ground.

Now the hesitant voice of Ameenah, Hope’s friend, could be heard in the living-room: “Maybe we should not watch this. It’s against the rules. We probably don’t need to anyway. If this meeting is about something that concerns us, the grown-ups will tell us tomorrow.”

“No, they won’t,” Jason sounded angry, “I happen to know that it does have something to do with what happened last year. My brother told me—he found out. It’s about that girl from the Deer community who was exiled to Orange Country last summer. He knew her, she is the same age as him, really still an adolescent. I think something like this does concern us. But they didn’t tell us last year, so I don’t think they’ll tell us now either.”

Ameenah still looked doubtful and guilt-stricken, but she didn’t reply, nor did she try to leave.

Then the meeting started and everyone concentrated on the screen.

The first row facing all the others was slightly elevated. Behind it, the wall acted as another giant screen, and at the moment, “Asylum Request Conference” was written at its top. Below the words there could be seen - larger than life- the images of three of the people sitting in the front row: a young man and a young woman holding a small child of about three years of age on her lap. The young man was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt while the young woman and the child wore badly fitting dresses covered with a variety of white dots and circles on a brownish foundation, and so they were looking very different from everyone else.

When the last villagers had finally found their seats in the back of the hall, the sound of a bell could be heard, and the murmur of voices quieted.

The woman sitting in the middle of the front row rose from her seat. The narrow desk in front of her also slowly rose to become a pulpit.

At the same time, her image replaced the images of the other three people behind her on the wall. Once again this image was larger than life. Above her, what was obviously her name appeared in large letters, “Erin Keilar”.

Ms. Keilar took hold of the pulpit with both hands and started talking to the audience: “Good evening, my fellow citizens of Spesaeterna.

“As all of you probably know, I have been the chosen organizer of the village council for these past two months and will be in this capacity for another 4 months to come.”

Ms. Keilar’s voice sounded formal but insecure. Her demeanor showed clearly that she wasn’t quite comfortable with the role assigned to her. And she also seemed rather unfamiliar with speaking in public.

Taking a deep breath she continued formally: “Tonight I have called for an extra-ordinary council- meeting because I have received applications from three individuals for asylum in our village. These applications are being sponsored by two of our citizens, Ms. Monica and Mr. Aaron Callahan from the Deer-community, who are the parents of one of the applicants.

The applicants are Ms. Luscinia Callahan and Mr. Jonathan—”

Ms. Keilar was interrupted by a woman from the audience who had gotten to her feet. Like the desk of Ms. Keilar, this woman’s desk also rose to become a pulpit, and now her image and name—Dora Paine—were being displayed next to that of Ms. Keilar on the screen-wall. Ms. Paine was at least two decades older than Ms. Keilar and she sounded far more self-confident: “I protest formally to the child being at this council-meeting. It is no place for a child, especially when an asylum request is being discussed. I propose that my youngest daughter Sheila be called. She is a very responsible young woman who can take care of the child for the duration of this meeting.”

Ms. Keilar answered in an apologetic voice: “Well, we did try to have someone take care of the little girl, but she cried so much and so…we didn’t know what to do…and…”

Now the young woman in the dotted dress-- Luscinia Callahan, according to the text above her picture--handed the little girl to the young man next to her and got to her feet. When the pulpit had risen in front of her, she started to speak: “You have to understand, Ms. Paine, that Natsuki is very upset and really scared. Everything here in the village is new to her and so very different from what she has known all her life. And she also misses her parents very much. Jonathan and I are the only familiar people here and that is why she holds on to us so desperately. Please allow her stay. She won't understand anything that is said here; her native language is Interlingua.”

Ms. Paine was not yet ready to concede: “But where are her parents then? Why aren’t they here?”

“That is a complicated matter,” Luscinia swallowed, “I will explain the whole story to all of you. Just as I will explain why and how Jonathan and I have come here.”

“Yes, this is truly something I do not understand at all,” said a man in his forties who had jumped to his feet and was now portrayed on the wall along with Ms. Keilar, Ms. Paine, and Luscinia. His name was indicated as Henry Darby. With determination in his voice, Mr. Darby complained: “According to the rules made by the village council of Spesaeterna, a person who has been permanently exiled can never apply for asylum in our village…”

Now the middle-aged man who had been sitting in the first row next to Luscinia Callahan rose to his feet, the letters over his image indicating that he was Aron Callahan, obviously her father. Mr. Callahan didn’t even wait for his pulpit to rise before he started shouting rather than talking, and so his first words were still inaudible: “…precious rules, that’s what counts for you, Henry Darby, nothing else! Not the people, just the rules! What you have done to my daughter—what all of you have done to her…” Mr. Callahan’s voice broke.

Now Ms. Keilar interrupted, saying: “This is very irregular. Please, only one person should speak at a time. I was about to explain the procedure of…”

Mr. Callahan didn’t listen and looked as if he hadn’t even heard. He had taken hold of his daughter’s arm, lifted it up and drawing back her sleeve to the elbow, yelling “This is what you did to her…”

Luscinia’s arm was covered with about half a dozen round scars which seemed to contain a strange pattern. Luscinia pulled her arm back, covering it again and talking soothingly to her father, but her voice was still audible to everybody else: “Papa, please…they didn’t know, nobody knew…”

Her father was not mollified: “They should have known, they should have tried to find out before they sent you there. You were only 19, only 19…it was wrong…I should have done something…I should have…” His voice was breaking again, but then he burst out: “Dr. Perez, tell them, tell them…”

At the other end of the first row, a middle-aged woman by the name of Maria Perez got slowly to her feet. Standing at her pulpit, she cleared her voice before speaking cautiously: “Last night at the request of Mr. and Mrs. Callahan, I, as the doctor of the Deer-community, examined their daughter Luscinia. I found the young Ms. Callahan to be severely undernourished, her blood showing a deficiency of several vitamins and minerals…”

Dr. Perez cleared her throat again then continued: “Her body also showed many bruises of different age and form as well as scarring around her feminine parts. What puzzled me the most were those pattern-like markings on her back, her arms, and her legs.

“After consultation with Nurse Jennesy from our community, as well as Doctors Arend and Newman from the Dolphin and Bear communities,” she said, pointing at one man and two women sitting next to her, “we concluded that these markings were burn marks and that they could not have been the result of an accident.

“We as professional health-supporters have never seen injuries of this kind before. And after researching the matter on the Peace-Web, Dr. Newman suggested that these injuries could only be compared to marks of torture used during the Dark Ages… ”

A murmur of shock went through the audience. The woman sitting next to Mr. Callahan, obviously Luscinia’s mother, buried her face in her hands. Although no sound could be heard, the trembling of her whole body indicated a desperate sobbing. Mr. Callahan’s face had lost all color. He sank back into his chair as if his legs could no longer support him.

Dr. Perez had sat down, as had Mr. Darby and Ms. Paine. Only Luscinia and Ms. Keilar were still standing and visible on the big wall, the latter holding tightly to her pulpit and the role she felt she had to perform.

Now another woman from the audience got to her feet. It was Ms. Alba, a friend of Hope’s grandmother.

She didn’t address Luscinia directly; instead she spoke to her father: “Mr. Callahan, I am sure that I speak for all the members of this council when I say that we all are very sorry for the injuries your daughter acquired in Orange Country.

“But as your daughter rightly pointed out, we did not know that something like this was ever going to happen over there. And do I really have to remind you of what occurred during the court proceedings against your daughter last year?

“Luscinia Callahan, after having committed one of the most extreme acts of rule-breaking, refused to show the slightest sign of remorse for her heinous act. Her rule-breaking was committed only two months after having declared herself an adult. And if I may, I’d like to mention that that declaration was legalized through the testimony of many official voices from your community, including those of you and your wife.

“Please remember that at the court-hearing, there was an intense discussion about the adult ruling, and if your daughter’s demeanor had been different in the slightest way, there surely would have been a reversal of this ruling.

“However, the absolute coldness she showed regarding her rule-breaking indicated such an intense callousness that we had no choice but to take it as clear evidence that she would be unable to ever live by the rules of our village in the future.”

Incensed by Ms. Alba’s justifications, Mr. Callahan tried to get to his feet again, but was prevented from doing so by his daughter who had laid her hand on his shoulder and was pleadingly shaking her head. Then Luscinia faced Ms. Alba and answered herself:

“You are right, Ms. Alba, I did not show outward remorse at my court-hearing in front of the village-council. I know that if I had laid myself on the mercy of the court, your ruling would have been different.

“But at the time I was unable to do so. Although I did feel remorse, more than you probably can imagine, I still could not ask for mercy for I believed that I did not deserve any mercy or forgiveness for what I had done, ever.”

With an expression of deep sorrow Luscinia looked down at the child Natsuki, who had buried her face in the chest of the young man next to her, the man she had called Jonathan.

A single tear ran down Luscinia’s face. She dried it with the back of her hand and started speaking again:

“ But something has changed over this last year, and we, the three of us, have come back here to my home village to tell you something important, something very important -namely, that no woman, no matter what she has done- deserves to be sent to Orange Country.

“Actually, I will even say that no one in the world should be sent there any more, no woman,” Luscinia looked once again at the young man who had accompanied her, “and no man either.

“With your permission, Ms. Keilar, I will now tell the village-council the reason why I believe this to be true.

“I will begin by telling you what happened to me in Orange Country.”

Ms. Keilar nodded her consent and with an expression of relief, sank back onto her chair. Ms. Alba had already sat down.

Luscinia Callahan took a deep breath and began her story:

“To reach Orange Country, we, my parents and Mr. Andres, whom the village-council had assigned to escort me, and I had to change maglevs several times. At every station we had to wait for the container with the trade goods you sent with me to be reloaded onto the next train.

“It took us a whole day and night to reach the borders of Orange Country. During all that time, I felt a kind of relief, as if by leaving my village and community behind, I would also be able to leave behind the things I had done and the person I had been. I thought that by entering this new place, my past would be erased and I could start a new life.

“ For the last half hour of the journey -after my parents were told to stay behind-, the maglev only carried people and goods destined for Orange Country, together with the assigned escorts. Although half of those people were like me, exiles and rule-breakers, I still kept quiet and very much to myself, and none of those other people tried to talk to me.

“Finally the maglev arrived at the border station and everybody left the train.

“Ancient vehicles were waiting for the containers with the trade-goods. Machines with scanning devices were there to register the containers. Over the intercom we heard a crackling voice speaking Interlingua which directed our escorts to stay behind. They were told to pick up some papers at the border station and carry them back to their respective villages.

“We exiles were then told to walk single-file along a narrow pathway until we came to a small gate.

“We obeyed and started walking. I estimated that there were about 200 exiles, mostly men, who were in my group of new arrivals.

“After entering Orange Country through the gate, the voice in the loud-speaker told us:

Welcome to Orange Country!

“We were then told to leave behind all bags, packages, our wrist-controls and all other belongings we had brought with us, and to go through a scanning machine. Those belongings, we were told by the impersonal loud-speaker voice, were inappropriate and would have to be confiscated.

“The only effects we were allowed to keep with us were the papers we had brought along which confirmed our names and the trading-goods our villages had provided for our up-keep.

“We were then told to enter a wide twelve-story building directly opposite the border wall. This building had two large entrances; men were told to enter on the right and women on the left.

“Inside the building, we women were greeted by a man who told us that in Orange Country, coin-counter chips were to be embedded in the palm of everyone’s right hand. If we wanted to be paid for our trading-goods, we needed to agree to receive this implant, which would then be connected to a new wrist-control, we were going to receive after that.

“Another chip would subsequently be implanted into the neck next to the spine at the base of the skull. Receiving these implants would be an absolute requirement for citizenship in Orange Country.

“We were told the second implant was a tracking device, and it was meant to assure our own security and that of our fellow citizens. It was explained that since Orange Country had always been a nation without rules or laws, certain measures had to be taken for the protection of the population from acts of violence or property destruction.

“Insurance agencies, via their associated security agencies, would guard the life and property of any insured person. This implant would also allow those agencies to track down anyone who did bodily or property harm to an insured person and to prevent those acts from happening again.

“Nobody among us protested or refused the procedure, since it was made clear to us that without it, we would be refused asylum in Orange Country. We stood in line for our turn with the doctor, quietly awaiting the cut on the hand and the neck injection.

“After the procedures, we were told that while the chip in the palm could be removed at will, the one in the neck could never be removed unless it had first been deactivated by authorized security personnel. Unauthorized removal would result in an explosion inside the neck which would sever the spine and most likely destroy the brain. However, we were reassured, if the chip was not tampered with, it would be quite safe to live with it.”

A shocked murmur went through the village-council, but Luscinia’s voice didn’t change. Calm and impersonal, she continued her story:

“After the chip in the hand had been implanted, it was given a 200,000 Marsian-coin load, which was the Orange Country coin-value of the trading-goods you sent with me.

“Then we were led by a different woman to another floor in the building where the loud-speaker voice demanded that we women undress and leave our clothing behind, since those clothes were inappropriate for female citizens of Orange Country. It was a very strange request, but once again, none of us protested.

“I felt disoriented and confused, as if life had become unreal, a disjointed mess of voices and images unconnected to anything I had known before, isolating me from the world and everyone else.

“And so I stripped like all the other women, only to be told to pass another body scanner which would estimate the measurements of our bodies to ensure that the new clothing we would be able to buy with the coins loaded onto our hand-chip would fit correctly.”

The murmur in the audience had increased, but Luscinia continued without pause and the audience fell silent again:

“After being scanned, we were divided according to those measurements and each group was led by another woman into a section of the clothing store which was located on a lower floor of the same building. The clothes in the section I was led into were of various colors and styles, though all of them were so tight when I tried them on that they were extremely uncomfortable. Those clothes were also so short that they left my arms and most of my legs bare and the upper part of my breasts as well.

“I asked the woman who had escorted me if maybe the scanning machine had miscalculated the measurements of my body.

“Speaking Interlingua like everybody else, she told me, of course not, the machine was infallible in this regard. As a citizen of Nephilim City, this was how I was expected to dress. I did not protest any more, for I was naked.

“After getting dressed, I asked the woman her name. She pointed to a tag on her own tight clothes. The tag was imprinted with a long number.

“’We do not use names here,’ the women told me, ‘unless we know somebody well and are good friends.’

She said that I would also be identified by a number now. It was my account number inscribed on the two chips in my body. And one day when I would find employment in the Marsian Coin economy, I would be required to wear a similar tag with my own number attached to my clothing.

“I asked her about the Nephilim City she had mentioned, for I had never heard of a place by that name. She told me that it was the village of all the exiles, the largest village in the world, and it was located in the center of Orange Country.

“Then I tried to pay her for my new clothing in the way I had always done, but the number-named saleswoman informed me that being generous was inappropriate in Orange Country.

“And so I realized that the people of Orange Country not only dressed differently from us, but also traded in a very different way. And though I didn’t get it at that point, in a very short time I came to understand that generosity was not only inappropriate but actually impossible when you had to trade with their scarce coins.

“And then the woman led me to the elevator and told me to go to the upper-most floor where the housing agencies would be located.

“Leaving the elevator at the designated floor, I stepped into a long hallway with many doors. All doors were alike except for the initials inscribed on each of them, always preceding the words Housing Agency. Next to every door was a row of seats, nearly all of which were occupied at the moment.

“I chose one of the few unoccupied seats located besides a door tagged J.G. Housing Agency. Once again I waited my turn.

“When I was called inside, a man—I don’t remember his number—told me he was the housing agent.

“Without any preliminaries, he asked me to choose between eight apartments which were for sale by his agency. He opened a computer screen flashing a number of images. They pictured the outsides of buildings and the insides of apartments I was to choose from.

“The outsides all looked the same: gray housing-blocks without balconies along streets without plants or green-houses. I asked the man where the people in those houses would be growing their food. The housing agent told me to my surprise that no food at all was grown in Nephilim City, and that all of the food-providing villages were located outside the City.

“The apartments themselves were nicely furnished and they were painted in different colors and patterns. The prices of the apartments were all the same, though—exactly 180.000 Marsian Coins, the agent told me. This seemed a high price to pay, taking most of the coins I had received for the trading-goods.

“But the agent indicated that if I wanted to sleep someplace tonight, I would have to choose right away. And so I chose one of the apartments at random. By now I had become so tired that I scarcely saw any difference between them.

“I paid with my hand-chip and then was given two keys, one for the outside-door of the building and the other for the door to my apartment, for in Orange Country, the agent told me, all doors had to be locked at all times for insurance reasons.

“The man then told me to take a taxi, which he explained was a form of transport, to get to my new apartment. He also told me that I urgently needed insurance for myself and for my apartment—that first thing the following morning, I should go to the insurance agency located on the same street as my apartment-building.

“When I arrived at my new apartment, I tumbled into bed, exhausted, and after my first night in Orange Country, I did as I had been told and went to arrange for insurance.

“There was a large sign in front of an office at the end of the street which read J.G. Insurance Agency.

“Inside several men were sitting there, each behind his own large desk. The insurance agent I talked to—I once again don’t remember his number—told me that it was absolutely necessary for me to buy an insurance policy to protect both my personal safety and my property. He also told me that the safety needs of a woman were far higher than those of a man and therefore the fees would be correspondingly higher.

“All in all, a woman’s insurance policy would cost me 250,000 Marsian Coins for the first five years. He also explained that the fees had to be paid in advance. Feeling utterly confused, I told the insurance agent that I had not been given that many coins on my chip, and after buying the apartment, I had only a small fraction of the original sum left.

“The man only nodded; he seemed to have known that all along.

“And then he told me that there was an alternative: I could contract myself to one of the Venus Projects.

“And one of the branches of the J.G. Venus Project was conveniently located just around the corner, a mere hop, skip, and a jump from the insurance agency and my own apartment-building. With the usual five-year-contract they would offer me, I would then receive a fully-paid five year insurance policy for all of my property and even a life-time paid personal safety insurance policy.

“The agent explained to me the great advantages I would receive when signing a contract with any of the Venus Projects. This contract would make me totally independent from the Marsian-coin economy during its whole duration. Besides the insurance policy, all my needs and wants would be provided for without the use of any coins at all.

“So I went around the corner to look at the J.G. Venus Project building for the very first time.

“The house was built quite differently from all the other houses in the neighborhood. First of all, it wasn’t gray but pink, with painted golden bows surrounding the entrance door and each of the arch-shaped windows.

“A fountain in the form of a lily was located in the middle of a small tree-enclosed porch in front of the building. Water from an arch-shaped faucet was falling on the statue of a barely-clad sleeping woman inside the fountain.

“While I was looking at the building, a man was entering and so I followed him inside. From the entrance hall he went immediately through a door on the left. When I tried to follow him through there, I was intercepted by another man.

“He greeted me warmly and told me that he was the manager of this branch of the J.G. Venus Project on 97th Street. His number I remember well; it was 1,487,359. He then led me through a door to the right and into his office.

“After asking me to take a seat, he welcomed me once again to the Project and told me how glad he was that I was considering joining this very branch. He told me that like any other Venus Project, utilizing the full potential of the female of the species for the service of mankind was the main priority of all the efforts made here.

“He also told me that unlike in the Marsian-coin economy, here in the Venus Project they were kind to women. All of a woman’s needs and desires would be fulfilled here. Every woman working here would be freed from any concerns regarding provisions for her health and her living.

“Free of any worries and concerns, she could concentrate on using and developing her natural talents to their greatest potential.

“After this introductory speech, Mr. 1,487,359 started to show me around the different rooms of the Project. In every single one of the larger rooms, one or more women were dancing in strange ways, and men were watching and cheering.

“I had never before seen such dances as they were performing, and they were done in such strange places. One woman I observed was dancing inside a cage suspended from the ceiling; in another two rooms, women were dancing around poles, alternatively holding them with their hands or legs.

“In still another room, two women were dancing together in an even stranger fashion.

The clothing they wore seemed even tighter and shorter than the kind which I had had to buy the previous day in the big building at the border.

“And then I noticed that their clothes were also made differently. They were fabricated in such a way that the women wearing them could rip them off with one hand, piece by piece, while still dancing, until they were finally stark naked.”

A scandalized murmur could now be heard from the audience, but Luscinia did not react and continued her story:

“Mr. 1,487,359 told me that in Nephilim City, only one in five citizens was a woman and because of this, the Venus Projects were needed to provide a vital service to the nation. These projects were fulfilling the needs of males while providing for the needs of females as well.

“ After leaving the larger - he called them public rooms- behind, he then led me upstairs to a smaller room which was empty at the moment. The room contained a bed surrounded by silk curtains; there were mirrors on the walls and ceiling. I asked the manager what that room was for and he told me that those customers who paid more coins would get coupling services from the women on contract with the Project.

“After hearing all this, I told the manager that I did not want to work in the Venus Project.

“ The manager replied that he was very sorry to hear this, but of course signing or not signing a contract in Orange Country was a free choice every individual would have to make for him- or herself.

“And though he wished me all the luck in the world, he still feared that it would be very hard for me to find employment in the Marsian-coin economy that would pay enough for both my living expenses and the insurance fees. But, he told me, if I should ever change my mind later on, the doors of this project would always be open to me.

“When I left the place, I had decided that I would not buy any insurance policies. After a visit to the food store a few houses further on, I calculated that with the rest of the coins on my chip, I would be able to survive for over a year if I bought nothing but the least expensive food items. Surely within a year, I would be able to find employment to make a living.

“I was not worried.

“For the next four days I went all over Nephilim City in search of employment, using the ancient transports which they call buses.

“There were many places like restaurants and stores where signs stated in big letters that they needed help, meaning employees. Nearly all of the signs, however, also stated: Uninsured women need not apply.

“There were also the J.G., S.K., L.W., V.R., and P.R. employment agencies. They arranged for people to get employment in large production shops of the same names. Those jobs would be much better paid, I was told, but once again, those agencies would not consider an uninsured woman for any job. I was frustrated, but still not too worried. A year would be enough time to find something.

“I saw many more branches of the J.G. Venus Project, as well as those of the S.K., L.W., V.R., and P.R Venus Projects. All the branch-buildings of the J.G. Venus Projects looked the same, but the buildings of other Venus Projects were slightly different. For instance, the houses of the P.R.Venus Projects were painted red, yellow and blue, and the fountain in front of each was shaped like a large seashell with a statue of a woman in a sitting position inside.

“I also noticed many other offices of the J.G, as well as the S.K., L.W., V.R., and P.R. insurance agencies located close to offices for security agencies of the same names.

“Then when I returned to my apartment on the evening of the fourth day, I noticed that the door had been broken. Inside, all the furniture that had come with the apartment had been broken to pieces as well—chairs, bed, tables, and the closet. Red paint had been splashed all over. The pillows and blankets had been slashed with knives and so had the pictures on the walls. On the living-room ceiling had been painted in giant letters: YOU NEED AN INSURANCE POLICY.

“Now I was worried.”

Luscinia paused for a moment to take a deep breath and then continued while keeping her voice neutral without portraying the emotions she must be feeling.

“I spent the next day again searching for employment, this time far more desperately but still without success. I dreaded coming home in the evening to my destroyed apartment, but I had nowhere else to go.

“At first glance, the apartment looked the same as the night before, but then all of a sudden, a man emerged from my bedroom. His face was covered with a black mask, leaving only his menacing eyes visible.

“I was shocked.

“Then another man came out of the bedroom and then another one, and then two more; five men all together, all wearing masks. I screamed and turned, trying to run, but it was far too late.

“They caught me at the door.”

Luscinia’s voice had started to waver slightly; the murmuring in the audience had stopped. In the absolute silence that would have made the drop of a pin audible, Luscinia went on, the tremor in her voice being that very pin.

“Then those men held me against the door, and one after the other took turns to…to couple with me.”

Luscinia took another deep breath and added: “They hurt me.”

After another second she continued:

“When the last one had finished, he whispered in my ear: You need an insurance policy.

“Then they dropped me to the floor and simply left. They slammed the door shut behind them, but because it was broken, it opened up again.

“I was lying on the floor; I couldn’t move, I couldn’t think, I wasn’t even afraid any more. I heard a few people pass by, heard them whispering, saw them staring at me; I didn’t care, I didn’t move.

“It must have been hours later when a woman came inside my apartment. She didn’t say a word, just went to the kitchen to get a glass of water. She raised me up into a sitting position and gave me to drink. And then she helped me up from the floor and steadied me as she walked me to her own apartment. The pain was so intense, I barely could walk, but I didn’t care.

“She took me into her own bedroom. Wordlessly she washed the blood from my legs then she gave me new clothes from her closet.

“Finally she told me her name is Nanami Allegri.

“This was the first time since I had come to Orange Country that somebody had given me their real name instead of a number. Then Nanami told me to rest in her bed while she picked up her little girl from the neighbors. They had been taking care of her while Nanami was working the evening shift in a production company, and her husband Pedro had already left for his night-shift.

“When Nanami came back, she was carrying a sleeping child. She laid the little girl into a crib next to her bed and then pushed a button on a strange square-looking device which made a constant sizzling sound. She explained to me that this was a scrambler which would disrupt any voice-recordings. It would allow us to talk without being overheard by a listening device.

“Nanami explained to me that there were no rooms in this apartment-building, nor in any other building in the whole of Nephilim City, which weren’t equipped with constantly running listening devices. All spoken words would be picked up by those devices and then data-mined for suspicious expressions. I was too tired to ask or even care why on earth all Nephilim City conversations were recorded and then “data-mined”, whatever that was, but she told me anyway.

“She said that the security agencies would use the mined data to prevent any planned attacks against the body or property of insured persons, as well as Nephilim City as a whole. However, she told me, only insured persons would be protected, and that was why everyone needed an insurance policy, especially women.

“Then, in spite of the scrambler, she lowered her voice still further and whispered that those men who had attacked me most likely belonged to a group who called themselves “jackals”.Their official title was Special Troops for Security Enforcement. They worked as one unit for all the security agencies. Their first task was to punish all those who transgressed against customers of the agencies. The jackals’ second more secret task consisted of making sure that everyone—especially women—knew that insurance policies were a necessity.

“And then Nanami said something that nearly made me jump up and run out, except that I was still too weak to even get out of the bed on my own. She told me her own husband Pedro worked for the security agencies in the Security Center. He was one of their data-miners. But then she added that Pedro didn’t really like the work he was doing.

“But since this kind of work paid far more coins than any other available job, Pedro and she were hoping to save up enough coins in the next eight years to buy the insurance policy for their daughter Natsuki which she would be required to own when she became twelve years of age. So Natsuki would never have to work for one of the Venus Projects.

“I told Nanami that I didn’t want to work for the Venus-Projects either.

“She replied that I probably would have no alternative. But she mentioned that some of the food-providing villages outside Nephilim City used to occasionally give asylum to female exiles, but then again, she had heard recently that those villages weren’t doing it any more.

“She explained some additional things, but by then I was too exhausted to listen and fell asleep as she talked.

“The next morning I woke up when I heard Nanami’s husband coming home. I got up in a hurry to leave, thanking her for her kindness and declining the breakfast she offered to make for me. I did not want to talk to or even be in the same apartment with a man who worked for the organization of those who had attacked me, but I did not dare to go back to my own apartment either.

“So I went to find a bus which would bring me out of Nephilim City to any of the food-provider villages.

“When I came to the main transport station, I chose the bus to Antonio Village, which was the first one scheduled to leave. It was also one of the villages closest by.

“When the bus arrived at the gate of its destination, I noticed that Antonio Village was completely surrounded by a very high wall.

“At the gate a man entered the bus with a small scanner in his hand. He checked the hand-chips of only those passengers he did not seem to know personally. When he had scanned my hand he ordered me to leave the bus since I had no passage permission.

“I asked the man where I could get a passage permission, and he told me that an uninsured person like me would not be able to get it. I tried to explain to him that I was seeking asylum in Antonio Village. He did not answer and just led me out of the bus, then held me back wordlessly until the bus had passed through the gate and it had closed again, telling me that I would have to wait until the bus returned and then I could get on it again to travel back to Nephilim City.

“With that, the man disappeared into a small room beside the gate and closed the door behind him. I started banging and banging on the door, calling out and begging him to allow me to see and talk to some of the villagers inside, repeating my asylum request over and over again.

“Finally a woman came through the gate. Her name was Sally, she told me. And then she explained why Antonio Village could never again grant asylum to an exile woman.

“They had done so several times before, having felt compassion for the women who knocked at their gate. But then one day about half a year earlier, a large squad of security enforcers had arrived at the village’s gate. They had used explosives to destroy the gate, severely injuring the gate-keeper who had been on duty that day.

“Then those enforcers had scanned the village for the tracking chips of the exile women and dragged them out of the houses, together with some of the local young girls, after having forced themselves upon them.

“The villagers were then told that all exiles belonged to Nephilim City and that if they were ever to harbor any exile again on their village grounds, their own young girls would be taken to Nephilim City as well.

“Now Sally was crying. She finally managed to choke out the fact that one of the girls who had been hurt had been her own daughter. Then she fled back inside while I waited in misery for the bus to leave the village and bring me back to Nephilim City.

“When I arrived at my street I did not go home. Instead I went around the corner to the house with the lily fountain in front and there I signed a five-year-contract.”

Luscinia exhaled and let go of the pulpit as if in defeat or maybe just sheer exhaustion. The murmuring in the audience became audible again. Luscinia’s story, though, was far from finished. She once again squared her shoulders, took hold of the pulpit, and went on in a voice she kept deliberately calm and composed:

“ The first day at work I was told that I had to leave my wrist-control at the security enforcer booth and then I was given a tag with a name- not a number- on it, but it wasn't my name.

“The names given to women working in the Venus Projects all ended with the letter Y, like Hussy, Tiffy, Slutty, and Bunny. I was called Candy. There were three other Candies working in the same house, just like four Hussies and six Bunnies, mostly working on different shifts though.

“I was taught how to paint my face and my nails and how to walk and how to talk. It was difficult for a while though. Hussy-3 and Bunny-2 called me a “prude,” which is the worst insult that can be used against a woman in the Venus Projects.

“During the first few weeks, I had to spend hours each day in the basement of the building, where both the sick rooms and the learning cells were located.

“In each learning cell I was taught by a female voice while soft music played in the background and softly lighted images of men and women were projected on a screen. The voice explained that a woman’s highest and most natural purpose is to arouse the desire of men; her demeanor, her voice, her style of clothing and her movements all needed to be shaped towards this single purpose.

“And after a while, I started to believe what I was being taught about the meaning of being a woman. More and more I got used to the things I had to do in my work. In time I even began to compete with the other women in trying to attract the attention of our costumers.

“It was now some other new exile woman who received the derogatory title “prude.”

“Materially I was well cared for. The manager hired some workmen to repair my apartment and to paint it in the colors I chose. Using my Venus contract-card in the J.G. food, clothing, and furniture-stores, I could take whatever I wanted, including decorative objects for myself or my apartment.

“Every week a doctor visited the Project to examine each of the women for any illnesses, giving us medication or inoculating us so we wouldn’t become pregnant. These medications and inoculations made me feel unwell for a while. But I was told they were necessary.

“The costumers we had to dance for or to service were usually loud and sometimes rude. Most often they smelled of alcoholic drinks. Some however acted rather crazy.

“Tiffy-1 told me that the more crazy-acting ones were consuming a substance called crack. She suggested to me that I should ask those customers to share their substance with me.

“I asked her why I would want to act as crazy as those customers, and she told me that this substance would make me feel better. Tiffy and some of the other women often made themselves feel better that way, but I thought it made them look worse every time.

“Then one day a very rich customer saw me dancing and requested my exclusive services from the manager. The manager told me that to be chosen by such an influential customer was truly an honor for me. Now I would no longer have to dance for or service other customers, and the other women even envied me for having garnered such a special customer’s attention.

“After the first day with this rich costumer, I was to call Mr. X, I begged the manager to bring me back into the general rooms. But the manager refused, telling me I had no choice in this matter since I had signed my contract with the Project. And that contract included all exclusive services any customer was paying for.

“When Mr. X heard that I had asked to be excused from the exclusive arrangement, he hurt me worse than I had ever been hurt before, leaving the first few of those marks on me which Dr. Perez spoke to you about. Mr. X said there would be worse to come if I ever talked about him with anyone again. And in case I was considering running away, I should know that there was nowhere for me to hide; within hours I would be found and killed.”

Now a collective loud and shocked intake of breath from the audience could be heard.

And for the first time, Hope took her eyes off the screen. Looking around she saw Marcella holding both hands in front of her mouth as if stifling a scream. With the exception of Jenny’s little brothers who had fallen asleep curled up on the carpet, everyone else was as pale as a ghost, boys and girls alike. Nobody said a word.

Down in the village community center, Luscinia went on with her story:

“When he told me that he would have me killed, I was not sure if I even wanted to live any more. For a while I stopped eating except on the days when he collected me to go to a restaurant with him.

Three times a week Mr. X came to the Venus Project to pick me up in the dark-windowed transport vehicle he owned. It was the same routine every single time. Inside the vehicle I had to change into the glittering outfits and golden tiptoe shoes he had brought along.

“Like all Orange Country clothing, the clothes were extremely tight and left my arms, most of my back, and the upper part of my breasts bare. However these clothes did cover my legs down to the ankles. But then the right side of the lower clothing piece was cut open all the way to my hip so that my right leg was always exposed when I started walking in the tiptoe shoes. I had gotten used to shoes like those, working in the Project. They are formed in this tip-toe way so that a woman’s legs look longer.

“Over both of my wrists, over my right ankle, and around my neck all the way down to my breasts, I had to wear ornamental chains containing glittering stones. The clothes were also covered with glitter stones, though those stones were only made from glass, Mr. X informed me, while the stones on the chains he said were of more value than ten women like me. All those glitter-stones looked the same to me though.

“The restaurants Mr. X took me to were as glittering as the clothing he had me wear. From the decorations on the walls and ceilings to the ones on the tables, everything sparkled.

“The men who were sitting at the other tables all seemed to know Mr. X. Like him, they also had women like me with them, women who were dressed in similar clothes and with similar ornaments around their necks. Often those men would talk to Mr. X. After looking me over in an appraising way and with greedy eyes, they would congratulate him for his choice. Like me, the women sitting with those men would never say a word.

“After we had finished eating, Mr. X would then lead me to one of the floors above the restaurant into a room with a big bed inside. There we would always watch two image stories from the times of the Dark Ages – one after the other, different ones every time. In the first stories, Dark Age people would shoot or blow up other Dark Age people in some way. During or after the killings, those Dark-Age people would laugh about the things they were doing and admire those who had killed the most. There were even a few stories about a man who would first kill and then eat his victims.”

At this moment Hope noticed Marcella leaping up from her easy chair and running out of the room. Hope knew exactly why, for she too felt nauseous. But still she couldn’t take her eyes from the screen; she had to keep on listening in horrified fascination.

Luscinia down there in the village-meeting hall continued in a neutral voice:

“The second type of image-stories Mr. X forced me to watch—he would hit me when I tried to close my eyes or cover my ears—these image-stories were even worse than the first ones. Although a different story every time, each one would start in a similar fashion. Men would call women hateful names and then those men would pull the woman’s hair and scream at them. And finally those men would do unspeakable things to the women…painful things to body and soul.

“After watching these stories, Mr. X would then do to me what he had seen done to the women in the story….”

Luscinia paused, taking a deep breath, and then with the slight tremor remaining in her voice that involuntarily betrayed her agitation, she continued:

“One time I asked Mr. X why he did those things to me. He answered that this was the way women should be treated. Men either dominated women or were dominated by them.

“When Mr. X had finally finished hurting me, he brought me back to the Project.

The second time this happened, I was ready to die and would have done so, if it hadn’t been for one woman I met at the Venus Project. Her name was Inessa…. And that was her real name.”

Luscinia’s voice, which she had kept deliberately impersonal with a note of artificial detachment, now became warmer and softer:

“By most of the women, Inessa was referred to as the “sick one in the basement” or “the one with the life-contract.” And yes, she really was the only woman with a limitless contract. So bound was she by that contract that she couldn’t even leave the Project—hadn’t left for nearly fifteen years.

“A security alarm, triggered by the tracking device in her neck, would go off, so I was told, if she ever tried to leave through the entrance or any of the windows. But she hadn’t tried for many years.

“There was now a profound sadness in Luscinia’s manner and voice:

“By the time I met Inessa, she already was very ill.

“The doctor’s medications for the illnesses women got regularly when they worked in the Project could no longer do her any good—she had been working there for far too many years.

“When I met her for the first time, Inessa could barely leave her bed to go to the bathroom any more, and she needed help even for that.

“The women in the Project had been taking turns caring for Inessa for a while. But now since most days I had nothing else to do but wait for the arrival of Mr. X’s transport, it had become altogether my task to take care of her.

“But ill as she was, Inessa was a good listener. When I told her I wanted to die, she told me I needed to survive until one day I could get out of the Project.”

Luscinia inhaled deeply and continued:

“When I said I could not bear it any more, she told me Mr. X would soon tire of me and then the worst would be over.”

Luscinia took another deep breath:

“And then she told me that I should pray. But I told her there was no God there to pray to, for Nephilim City was hell. And then Inessa said that there was no place where God was not….”

Luscinia now shook her head softly as if in wonderment: “I couldn’t understand how she could still believe this after all that had been done to her.”

After a brief pause, and still shaking her head, Luscinia continued: “She had a son, she told me, a son named Jonathan. And when her boy had been five years old, her husband had taken her by force to the Project and insisted on a life-long term and that she should never be allowed to leave the premises.

“After she had tried to escape several times, she was chained in her room. Certain kinds of men were attracted to her predicament of being chained. Men like Mr. X she knew only too well. Later on, instead of chains, they used the security alarms to keep her inside.

“In spite of all this, she steadfastly believed that she would see her son again and that this son of hers, though he had been living all those years with his father, would still be different from him.

“And then she added that if I would not give up hope, one day I would leave Orange Country and go back home to my village.

“We, all of us in the Project, knew that Inessa was dying.“

Once again sadness crept in Luscinia’s voice.

“She was such a pitiful being, but she was also so very kind. I did not want to upset her, though I was sure that there was no chance of those pipe-dreams of hers ever coming true. But to make her happy, I pretended to agree with her delusions.”

Now Luscinia paused for a long moment before continuing with sheer amazement in her voice:

“But she was right and I was wrong.

“One day Inessa’s son Jonathan came to the Project after not having seen her for fifteen years.

“And yes, he was not like his father.”

Luscinia shook her head as if still in disbelief and looked down at the young man seated beside her, the man with the sleeping child in his arms.

“From then on, Jonathan came every evening to sit with his mother for hours. He paid the manager a large amount of coins to keep his visits secret from the owner of the Project, John Galt…Jonathan’s father and Inessa’s husband.

“But they only had such a very short time together.

“Just three weeks later, Inessa died.

“But during the time Jonathan had been with her, Inessa kept telling him to find a way to leave Orange Country. And she told me to go with him.”

Luscinia paused for another long moment, this time to wipe the tears from her eyes. But the hoarseness in her throat she could not hide.

“And that is what we did. Using a map of the Nephilim City sewer system, Jonathan found the place where it came closest to the big wall. From there he was able to dig a tunnel that went below the wall. It took him nearly two months.

“Some time during the first month, another of Inessa’s predictions came true and Mr. X lost interest in me. Now Jonathan could pay the manager to keep me exclusively, away from the other costumers—but Jonathan did not want any services from me.

“Every day Jonathan would come to the Project to tell me about his digging progress. In the last few weeks I went out with him and helped him dig. But he could not spend all his time with digging, since he had to keep up pretenses with his father and work for him as his assistant.

“He thought he had covered his tracks all this time, but we had both forgotten the listening devices.”

Luscinia took another deep breath.

“One day when I came home to my apartment, my neighbor Nanami asked me to visit her. She invited me into her bedroom, where she turned on the scrambler.

“Then to my dismay and shock, she told me that she and her husband Pedro knew exactly what Jonathan and I had been planning. There were listening devices even in the Projects and some of our words had triggered an alarm. But luckily this Project had been in Nanami’s husband’s data-mining district, and he had decided not to report us to his superiors.

“Instead, he and Nanami wanted us to do something for them. To my astonishment, Nanami told me they wanted us to take their little girl Natsuki with us.

“I was totally shocked. I knew how much Nanami loved her daughter and so I asked her why, for goodness sake….

“And then Nanami told me through tears that the insurance agencies had all of a sudden decided to triple the fees for insuring girls aged 12 to 25, and that all of those fees would be required thirteen years in advance. And however hard they would try, Nanami and her husband would never be able to save enough coins to pay those fees and prevent Natsuki from having to work at a Venus Project.

“Like all women in the last thirty years, Nanami too had worked there… and she had met costumers like Mr. X.

“She did not want this kind of life experience for her daughter. And so she and Pedro had decided to send Natsuki to the outside world with Jonathan and me. I asked her why she and her husband would not also be joining us, but Nanami told me that she was quite sure that neither of their home-villages would allow them to come back home. But Natsuki was innocent; they surely would not refuse her asylum.

“Two days later, Jonathan finished the tunnel. Nanami and Pedro reported their daughter as dead and prepared to cremate an empty coffin. Pedro had acquired the code and then “borrowed” the device with which to deactivate the chip in my neck, and he had found a doctor who would remove it.

“This doctor didn’t talk much and I never learned his name, not even his number, but there in Nanami’s bedroom he removed both chips from my neck and hand.

“With these chips removed, the manager of the Project—induced by threats and bribes—could declare me also as dead, send in the chips to the border station, and then have a coffin containing animal remains cremated. But one of the officials at the crematory would also have to be bribed.

“The thought of more and more people knowing about our plans scared me, but Nanami told me that I needed to trust them.”

Luscinia was shaking her head again and explained: “In the time since I had come to live in Orange Country, my ability to trust had nearly been lost.

“However making sure that we would not be missed for quite a while was really vital. We all agreed. And so I forced myself to swallow my fears.

“The day before we left, Jonathan told his father that he would go on a three week vacation to a village at the seaside. His father accepted this explanation for his upcoming absence and told him he hoped that after his return, Jonathan would be rested enough to work harder than he had done the last few months.

“On the night of our flight, Jonathan picked up Natsuki and me at my apartment. Nanami had given her daughter a sleeping medication before she handed her over to me so that Natsuki would not make a sound. She then kissed her “bless” and left my apartment in silent tears.

“Jonathan was going to carry Natsuki while I carried a small bundle of clothing I had sewn out of blankets and curtains, for I knew that the Orange Country clothes would be too conspicuous in the outside-world.

“We walked all the way to where we entered the sewers. Although Jonathan owned a small transport vehicle which he had used when working on the tunnel, we knew that on the night of our escape we could not risk having this vehicle found anywhere inside Nephilim City when Jonathan was supposed to be far away in one of the sea-village.

“We climbed down into the sewer, and then we walked for miles and then eventually crawled through Jonathan’s narrow tunnel. When we emerged out on the other side, we changed clothes.

“We then asked those who lived in the next village for help to use the maglev transport, telling them the truth about having escaped from Orange Country. The villagers were not sure of what to do, but seeing little Natsuki and being told about the Venus Project, an elderly couple named Henry and Lea Bower took pity on us and bought us tickets for the maglev journey all the way to Spesaeterna. And that is how we came to be here.”

Luscinia paused for a second during which a growing murmur could be heard. Ms. Keilar was half-way out of her seat when Luscinia shook her head and started again apologetically:

“With your permission, Ms. Keilar, I would ask you to allow Jonathan to speak also. I believe that what he has to say about Nephilim City might be even more important than what I have told you so far.”

Ms. Keilar nodded again to indicate her permission, and Luscinia sat down. Jonathan transferred the sleeping Natsuki to Luscinia’s arms and got to his feet. When the pulpit had risen, he cleared his throat and started to speak:

“My name is Jonathan Galt. I am the son of Inessa Stakova and John Galt.

“One morning when I was five years old my father told me that my mother had died. And while I still did not quite comprehend what that meant, he presented Mr. Tanner to me and told me that from now on, this man would be my teacher.

“ When I was eight years old, Mr. Tanner started -unbeknownst to my father- to teach me quite different lessons from those my father wanted him to teach. The lessons Mr. Tanner would teach me in secret would be about what we in Orange Country call the outside-world and of how the people there lived and what they believed in. Though I loved and admired my father as a child, I came to trust Mr. Tanner far more.

“When I was fifteen years old, Mr. Tanner was released from his teaching position and my father took over the rest of my education himself.

“Although my work and my studies never fully satisfied him I am still his designated heir and he wants me to follow in his footsteps. He trained me in a variety of scientific fields and let me work on some of his scientific projects as his assistant.

“Three months ago, my former teacher Mr. Tanner approached me again with the stunning information that my mother was still alive and that she was being held prisoner in one of my father’s Venus Projects.

“As Luscinia already told you, my mother died only a short time later.

“A week later my father initiated me to his Transhumanist Society.

“And there I found out what evil and dangerous men he and his friends really are.

“Since you here in Spesaeterna don’t know me at all, I do not expect you to just take my word for this. But I know for certain that it is vital for all of you here in the outside-world to understand exactly what you are up against.

“This is the reason why, before I left Nephilim City, I made the audio-visual recordings which I’m going to show you now. They contain a record of the last meeting of the Transhumanist Society I attended about one month ago.

“I also brought with me a projection device, since I happen to know that Orange Country technology is not compatible with yours here in the outside-world.”

With this, Jonathan Galt pulled a small device out of the bag at his feet. He placed the device on the pulpit and turned it on, directing its beam against the wall behind him. While he adjusted the device for greater clarity, he started to talk again:

“The man you will see giving a speech is my father John Galt, main owner of the J.G. Corporation, which includes the shops and production plants, as well as the connected insurance and security agencies. Standing to his right you will see Larry Wurner, main owner of the L.W. Corporation and Stanley Kern of the S.K. Corporation, the man Luscinia knows as Mr. X. To his left are Vladimir Rukowski of the V.R. Corporation and Paolo Ramirez of the P.R. Corporation.”

With the device adjusted and ready, Jonathan Galt stopped and let it do the talking.

The projection started with several dozen men, all wearing suits, applauding the entrance of five other dark-suited men. They walked onto an elevated podium in what seemed to be a lecture hall. The clapping stopped and a respectful silence ensued.

Four of the men sat down to the right and left of the pulpit, while the fifth a man in his late fifties who bore a striking resemblance to Jonathan Galt went straight to it and started speaking:

“My fellow Trans-humanists, honored members of our Society:

“It fills me with great joy and pride to be able to celebrate this, our 35th anniversary.

“At a time like this, it is always customary to look back at our humble beginnings and to see where we have gone from there.

“As you know, it all started with the five of us here on the podium having a vision, not a small one, but a great and glorious vision – a vision of a future devoted to progress once more.

“As you also know only too well, for the past two hundred years, humanity as a whole has been living in a time where human development has been stunted; you might even say reversed.

“Science has been emasculated and has been used as nothing more than a kitchen tool to fill the bellies of an all too complacent humanity.

“The enlightened Progressive Ages have been defamed by the outside world as the so-called Dark Ages and the human race has fallen asleep in a female fairy dream.

“But thirty-five years ago, the kiss of awakening was prepared when this Society came into being.

“Progress is once again in sight and it will lead us on to the future, to the greatest achievements the world has ever seen. Eventually we will reach the stars and conquer the universe.

“But this will not go forward without a good fight. We need to overcome enormous obstacles and this is good so.

“ ’War is the health of nations,’ a wise man once said. Truer words have never been spoken.

“War has always united nations towards higher goals. In fighting the common enemy, men have united their strengths and formed unified and loyal brotherhoods for the common good. In the processes of war the most intelligent and worthy of our species have then risen to the top.

“Therefor the times of war have been the times of greatest progress in the past. Most inventions have been inspired by the needs of war or even only the threat of war. These have allowed human societies of the past to direct their main resources towards science.

“As our progressive forefathers knew: Life must inevitably be struggle; if there is no struggle, there will be decline and degeneration.

“The outside world of our times is a degenerate and effeminate place where life has stagnated. And whatever stagnates will inevitably rot.

“Orange Country, however, is a nation ready for battle. Masculine, fresh, and strong, Nephilim City will soon be the center of the world, the center of science and human evolution.

“Thank you all for your unceasing support and effort to make this vision we had thirty-five years ago a reality today.

“Thank you also for your loyalty and discretion without which the current stage could never have been reached. For as you all must know, even here in Orange Country, there are far too few who are intellectually capable of grasping what needs to be done to succeed in human evolution. Knowledge must necessarily always be a privilege given to those few worthy of it.

“You—my fellow trans-humanists—are the worthy of our age, worthy of truth and of knowledge.

I applaud you.”

While John Galt was clapping his hands, everyone else in his audience started to clap too until the applause rose to a standing ovation.

The unintended audience of the Spesaeterna village, however, had fallen into a deadly silence.

At a sign from his hand, the Trans-humanist Society stopped clapping and John Galt continued his speech:

“Now after these preliminaries, the time has come to report to you in practical terms how far we have come in acquiring the tools necessary to fulfill the vision.”

At another sign from his hand, a man entered the stage through a back door, carrying a large glass container filled with live flying insects.

Galt explained: “Our scientists have worked on this project for several years now and I’m proud to say they have succeeded even beyond our wildest dreams.

“ The mosquitoes contained in here are the deadliest weapon mankind has ever known. They carry a virus with a human killing capacity over and above 90%, all within four days of infection. After initially being infected by a mosquito bite, the subject will function as an incubator and will subsequently spread the disease directly to anyone with whom he comes in contact. Less than 10% of those infected have been shown to recover from the disease.

“We have already developed the anti-virus protection for our people, which will be administered as soon as the weapon will come into use.

“These mosquitoes themselves have been genetically modified so that they can no longer be detected by the regular electro-magnetic insect-detection and repellant screens of the outside-world. With this, they can enter any village or community spaces and attack any person they come across.

“What we still need for this weapons-system is long-range distribution capability.

“As we reported to you earlier, we have been tirelessly working on these long-range systems for years now. Using the stealth-fighter-plane technology of the Progressive Ages, we will have the capacity by early next year to launch thousands of such fighters which will nearly simultaneously enter the air-space of every nation on earth, releasing their virological payload.

“Strategic plans have been drawn up according to our best virological, sociological, and psychological knowledge. The attack will commence in areas most remote from Orange Country in order to diffuse any possible suspicions tying the outbreak events to this nation.

“It will take the outside-world probably four to five weeks before they will find the common denominator of those viral outbreaks and be able to put an effective quarantine regime in place. During that time, the world population will be reduced by at least one third. This sudden loss will cause certain chaos and the breakdown of most inner-village and inter-village social structures planet-wide.

“After the suitable period of a month, there will then be an outbreak of the viral infection in several of our own food-provider villages. Those villages will be quarantined immediately. And within a week, we will present our effective anti-viral vaccine. Having proven its effectiveness we will offer the vaccine to the outside-world.

“Holding the only remedy for this humanity-destroying threat, Nephilim City will indeed become the center of the world. A side-effect of the life-saving vaccine will be, however, the drastic reduction of female fertility. This will, within a single generation, reduce human population by another 50%.

“ Of course the 95% reduction as envisioned by our ancestors of the Progressive Ages will not be reached before another century has gone by.

“But even this provisional reduction will then lay the foundation for the greatest and most ambitious of all human visions, a post-human world. The faulty and decrepit human race will be replaced by something better, by truly rational beings not bound by any emotional or intellectual limitations, beings who will truly conquer the world and the universe.”

Spontaneous applause could be heard from the Trans-humanist audience. John Galt nodded gratified and then continued, raising his voice in a tone of triumph:

“And now you will be shown the results of more than forty years of research which I myself have been conducting. Overcoming numerous obstacles, I finally can report back to you our success in the first step of human self-evolution, something the wise of humanity have been dreaming about for centuries.”

He turned to the back and then gave a loud command: “Tanner, come in!”

Once again a man entered through the back-door. The man was holding a baby in his arms.

John Galt went on: “My fellow trans-humanists, may I present to you the pinnacle of our research, the future itself!

“This,” he pointed to the baby, “might look to you like an ordinary infant. But looks are deceiving, oh how very much they are deceiving today. This infant has not sprung from a female womb. He is the first in over a century who has been conceived in a test-tube. And he is the first ever who has been grown in a maturation chamber functioning as an artificial womb for six months and finally matured for another six months in a specially developed incubator.

“But there is more to him than that.

“Building on animal research done during the Progressive Ages, we have found a method of genetic enhancement that has given us a chance to improve the human genome far more than ever thought possible.

“What our ancestors did to mice in preparation for a human trial, we finally have succeeded in doing to this infant: We have added an extra pair of chromosomes containing all of the genetic traits with which we wanted to endow this boy. After virtually a thousand trials, all of which had to be terminated during gestation, we finally have gotten our prototype:

“This infant will grow up to be at least three times as strong and as fast as any human who has ever lived and he will be gifted with ten times the intelligence of an ordinary human being.

“Additionally, his brain biology and physique will in time allow the attachment of cybernetic parts to his brain and his body—whatever might be needed to fulfill his goals.

“The reason for all this is of course that this infant is no longer human. He is the fulfillment of ours and our ancestors’ dearest dreams, the first post-human being.”

Once again excited spontaneous applause could be heard. John Galt allowed it to interrupt him for a minute and then he continued his speech:

“As I said before, this infant has matured one year after gestation, until two weeks ago when he was taken out of a very special incubator. Inside this incubator his audio-nerves were trained and his brain development increased. For the last two weeks, he has lived outside this incubator undergoing special training whereby his oral muscles were developed so that now he can utter the very words he already learned during gestation. Mr. Aaron Tanner, who as you might know was the tutor of my own son Jonathan, has now taken on the assignment of teaching and exercising this boy and supporting him with the development of his natural abilities. As you will find, this new-born infant’s speech-maturity is already that of an ordinary 5-year old child.”

Turning to the baby John Galt ordered: “Tell me, post-human boy, who are you and what is your name?!”

The answer came in a clear baby voice: “I am Alpha, the first of a new breed, born to be king. I’m a prince of the universe.”

Another standing ovation commenced and with that, Jonathan Galt turned off his projector.

In Spesaeterna, the murmur of voices had turned into a storm, with dozens of people having gotten to their feet and demanding to be heard.

In the living-room of Jenny’s family, Jason was turning off the projection of the village-council-meeting.

All the children in the room, with the exception of the two toddlers who were still sleeping peacefully on the carpet, looked pale and sick.

For a moment nobody said a word.

And then Jason pressed out in a low and creaky voice: “We need to destroy them!”

Barely breathing, Ameenah asked: “You mean the virus-mosquitoes, don’t you?”

Jeffrey didn’t answer, but just stared at her and the others.

Ameenah whispered: “You don’t mean the people, you can’t mean the people; the First Principle, what about the First Principle…?”

Jason shook his head.

In an urgent whisper, he breathed: “It’s us or them Ameenah—us or them!”

***

As promised Nanami has made contact with with her husband Pedro and with Dr Bukovik.

Nanami has told us to meet them during Pedro’s break at the restaurant where most of the security’s centers’ staff normally eats their lunch. This makes me very nervous. When we arrive Pedro Allegri is already waiting outside. When he sees Darryl, me and the three from Spesaeterna he wordlessly enters the restaurant. We follow Pedro to take our seats in the farthest corner. Dr Bukovik is already sitting there, and in a second Mr Wang has made his scrambler ready.

As everybody has expected, Pedro Allegri agrees to get Darryl and his team inside the security headquarters. Actually, Pedro is more than ready to join me and the infiltrators from the outside world in our plans to kick-start a Nephilim City revolution. And he tells us in a low voice that he is not the only one of the security center’s staff.

At the moment the others are now calmly discussing a 3-dimensional floor-plan of the center Pedro and Darryl are creating with the help of the holographic program in Darryl’s wrist-control. Of course Pedro knows where each of the surveillance and communication centers are located. I know that this is important, but more and more I feel my nerves, what if someone sees the image.

Yes, I know, Darryl says it’s shielded from view beyond the table. But our group sitting here together surrounded by a whole bunch of security enforcers seems to be a crazy risk.

The nerves make me fidget in my seat. I just can’t concentrate on those plans any more and besides, I need to pee, I need urgently to pee.

And so I whisper to Mr Wang and leave for the rest room, only to stay there much longer than necessary. No, it isn’t exactly a breath of fresh air I’m catching, most certainly it isn’t, just a moment alone, something I need even more urgently.

There are too many people around me and too many expectations.

Soon I am expected to confront my father. But how can I do this, nervous as I am right now, without giving everything away. I keep telling myself, that I have done it before.

I have kept Mr Tanner’s secrets from my father since I was only a child. He has never found out that I have found my mother or about Luscinia and the tunnel we were building together.

But this, this is different, it is so much more than anything I’ve done before. If only Luscinia would be out there sitting at that table with the others, instead of… instead of Ms Alba for instance, with her constant look of distrust.

When I finally return to the conspirator’s table I hear the Professor saying:

So then it’s going to be our first priority to disable the tracking center, even though the place is behind hard to crack special security doors. You will need to find a way in there as soon as our men are inside the center, even if it means the use of explosives, the nano-bots might be too slow this time. That’s absolutely essential, since we just haven’t got the time and medical personal to disable and remove the tracking-chips from the necks of all those we want to rescue while they are still in Orange Country.”

Explosives,” I interrupt, “they will be a dead give-away. You won’t go unnoticed, Darryl! Why can’t we just do it as we had planned to? The doctors will take those chips out in the incubation tents anyway.” I’m more than slightly confused.

I don’t like changes in our plans, it makes them more complicated. So many things can go wrong.

Dr Bukovik never told you when he did the procedure on Luscinia, did he?” The Professor looks at the doctor, who shakes his head, and then back at me with something like pity in his eyes.

If Luscinia would still have had that chip in her neck when the two of you crossed the border, she would have been killed instantly. The border electronics trigger the self-destruct mechanism.”

My heart stops beating, I feel the blood draining from my body and for a moment the world rotates around me. I sway, am about to slip off my chair, but Ms Alba steadies me.

You are an idiot, David Morgan” she hisses. “Couldn’t you have told the boy at some other time?”.

I barely hear her. The thoughts are turning in my head: I would have killed her. I thought I could save her, but I would have gotten her killed! If it hadn’t been for Nanami and Pedro and that doctor…

The Professor is unfazed by Ms Alba’s remark, calmly and matter of fact he goes on: “Have you never asked yourself why you were the first and only people who ever came back from Orange Country? Now you know why.

Your father never had you chipped, intending you to be one of the elite. Luscinia’s chip had been removed and the little girl wasn’t chipped yet.

They don’t chip children until what age, Mr Allegri?” The Professor looks questioningly at Pedro.

At the age of ten,” he replies and I can see in his face that he is thinking that Natsuki at least will never be chipped.

The Professor turns back to me: “When we talked to Mr. Allegri about our plans for getting people out, he told us something I had already suspected. There have indeed been hundreds before you who have tried to escape. Some tried to climb the wall, some went underneath, some tried to escape by boat. None of them succeeded, all have been killed”

But why did we never hear about that,” I ask, shaking my head violently. I still can’t belief it. “Why did we never see any images of those peoples bodies from our news-centers?”

This time Pedro Allegri answer sounds sad: “The bodies of those who were killed above-ground were disintegrated by small laser-armed drones operated from the security center.”

And then he shrugs: “Those who died underground are probably still there in their tunnels.”

I shudder and keep thinking about Luscinia and what could have happened…

I feel the now so familiar surge of anger at my father. He along with his fellow elites has kept this information out of public knowledge, one more of their secrets; otherwise nobody would have tried. Or at least not without finding a way to disable the chip.

But, yes, of course this is exactly the point. My father and his fellows have wanted to make sure that nobody, not a single soul would be able to escape.

I think, we are finished here,” Mr Wang’s rough voice interrupts my thoughts.

The rest is up to you, Mr Kenneth.”

Sure,” Darryl agrees. “My men are in position. We will wait with the operation until we get the “go ahead” from you and Jonathan.”

There is nothing more to say.

We are leaving now while Darryl, Pedro and Dr Bukovik stay behind.

The drive to the underground facility takes only 10 minutes, none of us is talking any more.

Once we have reached the facility’s parking-lot we find Vance Drake to be already there. With him are Tom, Jim and Jesse, who I have seen last early this morning. They have taken cover behind a row of trucks. We park the car behind them and get out.

With his hands Vance signals Mr Wang, Ms Alba and the Professor, where to hide.

I know that Vance’s team includes at least thirty more men, but they are all out of sight. Under no condition should they be noticed prematurely by the guards..

At any given time of day or night, fifteen heavily armed guards are patrolling the vicinity of the underground facility. Most of the citizens of Nephilim City have no idea what those guards were guarding, since what can be seen above ground is nothing more than a rather small and inconspicuous building surrounded by a parking lot and a green park, one of the few green spots in the city.

Vance looks at me: “It’s up to you now,” he states.

I don’t answer. I know it well.

You’ve got your gun ready?” Vance asks

I reach into my pocket and answer with a nod.

I take a deep breath and square my shoulders. Leaving everyone else behind I start walking in a steady, deliberate pace toward the facility’s only entrance.

I’m alone now.

Chapter 14

 

 

The scene had faded and David opened his eyes.

He looked at Hope but did not know what to say to her. He had just discovered that her whole world was in danger of destruction. How can you comfort somebody about something like that? …

So he blurted out a totally irrelevant fact: “I could understand all of the Interlingua.”

Hope only nodded: “You are very connected to my mind now.”

After a while David added something even more irrelevant: “I understand now why you didn’t like that dress on the billboard.”

Hope nodded again.

Finally David asked: “What happened after that meeting?”

Hope took a deep breath and then erupted:

“Everything happened, everything! Nothing was the same anymore!

“Ms. Keilar send a note straight to the International-Help-Board because everyone in the village agreed that the information Jonathan Galt had given us was of an importance far beyond the district and even beyond the nation.

“She also made the village-council-meeting public on the Peace-Web. Within a day, all of it had been translated into Interlingua, and one day later, the meeting had received over two billion clicks on the Peace-Web.

“The whole world had seen it. Can you imagine that, the whole world?”

Hope’s voice sounded sad, not proud: “Counting those clicks was no fun at all, just…” Hope sighed.

David nodded: “I understand.”

Hope went on: “On the same day the International-Help-Board decided that the village of Spesaeterna would be put under at least two weeks of quarantine, since nobody could be absolutely sure if Luscinia, Jonathan, and Natsuki were not already infected by that 90% Virus, as we came to call it.

“And then there were those words Jason had said: “It’s us or them now.”

“It was as if those words were somehow in the air. You could hear them everywhere, first in our village and then from the other villages on the Peace-Web. And then you could feel the fear behind those words—the fear, it was like a permeating odor all around you, you could smell it with every breath, you just couldn’t escape from it.

“Even the younger children who didn’t know what had happened, like Sissy and Lillebro and my chan Cindy, were afraid. And I couldn’t comfort them because I was too afraid myself. And when I went to talk to my grandparents, I heard them fighting with each other, something I had never seen or heard before.

A scene appeared where Hope, Sissy and Lillebro were standing behind a half-open door. The voice of their grandfather could be heard shouting:

“We have to defend ourselves, Faith, we have to.”

Hope’s grandmother sounded desperate: “But not like this, Ben, not like this. The First Principle…”

She was interrupted by her husband: “There is no other way. Do you want your daughters to be killed? Think about Charity and Suzie, think about your grandchildren, about little David and about Suzie’s boys Matty and Jimmy. Or do you want your granddaughters be forced into one of those Venus Projects—our Hope and little Faith forced to…to…, think about them.”

Hope’s grandmother could now be heard crying, while a white-faced Hope was trying to drag her younger siblings away from the door. All their faces were tear-stained.

The scene faded and Hope went on, her voice now sounding more and more desperate:

“And Great-Uncle Professor—he who had always had all the answers for everything, he wouldn’t talk to me, just wouldn’t talk to me at all.

“When I asked him, he said he couldn’t say anything about the matter and that he had to work. When I yelled at him, asking him how he could work on his stupid time-machine at a time like this, he said nothing, and then locked himself inside his lab.

“On the second, day I banged on his door, and banged and banged and didn’t stop until he opened.

“And then I told him that another village-council-meeting had been scheduled for the next day and that he had to say something to the people of the village because everybody was so afraid. But he just shook his head, saying that nobody would want to hear from him now…nobody.

“And then he closed the door in my face and locked it. For the next several days, I didn’t even see him for meals.

“When I tried to talk to my Mamma, I couldn’t reach her. She was very busy, she wrote to us.

“Before all this had happened, we talked to her every day on the Peace-Web. And now she wouldn’t talk to me or Sissy or Lillebro. They couldn’t understand it and neither could I.”

Hope was now deep in her own world, where the children had been emotionally abandoned all of a sudden by the people who were supposed to care for them, protect them, and comfort them. Her familiar world was spinning out of control.

And the sad story wasn’t over yet: “Three days after the first meeting, the second village-council-meeting was held. As usual it was in the evening, but on the morning of that day, two representatives from the International-Help-Board arrived.

“They had decided to take the risk and stay with us even during the quarantine because they urgently needed to talk to Jonathan Galt and Luscinia Callahan in person. And that’s what they did all that day; they called it an interrogation. And then they got in contact with the rest of the International-Help-Board. We would find out at the meeting what had been discussed.

“We sempais met once again at Jenny’s place. This time not even Ameenah had any doubt that the meeting would concern us. And besides, all the parents already knew that we were watching. My guess is that there were no adolescents or older children in the whole village who were not watching…and the grown-ups didn’t care anymore.”

Once again the living-room of Jenny’s family appeared in David’s sight, together with the meeting-hall projected on its wall. Like all those times before, David closed his eyes to follow the scene, already feeling Hope’s fear and despair.

The first rows of benches and desks looked different from when he had seen them before, for now they were occupied by only three people—two men and Ms. Keilar. The men, as was obvious from their clothing style, were not from Hope’s village.

Ms. Keilar was already standing and in the process of introducing the two men:

“As you have probably heard, we here in Spesaeterna are being visited by two representatives from the International-Help-Board.”

Ms. Keilar pointed to her left:

“This is Mr. Nawakwi from the village of Kawaza in the district of South Lwanga in the nation of Zambia.”

Mr. Nawakwi got to his feet to give a small bow to the audience. He was wearing a black and gold patterned shirt, black trousers, and a round red cap on his head.

Now Ms. Keilar pointed to her right to a man in a black kaftan who wore a red, yellow, and blue patterned kufi on his head.

“This is Mr. Avineshwaran from the village of Any Kampung in the district of Tioman in the nation of Malaysia.”

Mr. Avineshwaran also got to his feet to give the audience a polite bow.

Ms Keilar continued: “At the request of Mr. Avineshwaran and Mr. Nawakwi, I have invited Ms. Luscinia Callahan and Mr. Jonathan Galt to this meeting, although neither is yet a citizen of our village, and besides that, both are under the age of being able to join the village-council under normal circumstances. They will therefore not be able to participate in any decision making. However, they will be allowed to answer questions directed at them.”

Mr. Henry Darby, who at the last meeting had also spoken out opposing Ms Keilar, got to his feet again: “I formally protest. The participation of outsiders and non-citizens is highly irregular. It might be considered a violation of our sovereignty.” He was obviously a stickler for rules and procedures.

Ms. Keilar was hesitant for a moment, then she directed herself to the whole audience: “Does somebody else support Mr. Darby’s protest?”

Only four hands went up.

“Then we will have to make a decision. Does the village-council allow the representatives of the International-Help-Board to be present?”

The people in the audience could be seen pressing their right hands to their desks. Numbers appeared on the projection wall, and with a click, they turned into percentages: “97% YES, 3% NO,” a computer voice stated.

Ms. Keilar looked up at the wall and declared: “The decision has been made.”

Then she asked a second question: “Should Luscinia Callahan and Jonathan Galt be allowed to stay during this meeting?”

This time the result was: 99% YES and 1% NO.

After declaring the decision to have been made once again, Ms. Keilar then explained one more exception to the usual routine of village-council-meetings:

“The representatives for the International-Help-Board have also asked that this meeting be recorded as usual, but that this recording should simultaneously be published on the Peace-Web, and that therefore all the discussions should be held in Interlingua.”

And so Ms. Keilar set the third and final question before the village-council: “Should we hold our meeting publicly on the Peace-Web in front of the whole world and in Interlingua?”

This time it took several minutes for all the votes of the villagers to come in. Hope could guess why it took so long; people had to think about it.

Wouldn’t it mean a loss of sovereignty for Spesaeterna to let the whole world in on this, their village-council-meeting? And Hope knew how extremely important sovereignty was for the people of Spesaeterna. But on the other hand, wasn’t this issue a matter concerning all the villages of the world?

When the result came in this time, Hope saw that it was narrow: 95% YES and 5% NO. If there had been any more NO-votes, there would have had to be a discussion. But it seemed that most people were far too eager to go on with the meeting, so the sovereignty issue, so highly valued before, had now become secondary.

And so for the third time, Ms. Keilar declared: “The decision has been made.”

Then she continued, now speaking in Interlingua: “First I will give the floor to Mr. Nawakwi.”

Mr. Nawakwi got to his feet, the desk-pulpit rising in front of him, and started to speak in an accent very different from that of Ms. Keilar but nonetheless easily understandable: “Honored members of the village-council of Spesaeterna.

“We from the International-Help-Board are very grateful to all of you for the prompt report you sent after your last village-council-meeting. The vital information you gave us then allowed us to react straight away with no loss of time.

“Of course, the first thing we did was to stop all further transports of exiles and trading-goods to Orange Country.

“Knowing full well that this would make the de-facto rulers of Nephilim City, which seem to be those members of the Transhumanist Society, suspicious, we had the maglev personnel tell the border-guards that there were some problems with the power-grid. Of course we also knew that this excuse would only work for a day or two.

“One of the Board-members then had an ingenious idea.

“We would next tell the border guards that the villages of the world had complained to us about the exorbitantly high demands of resources which Orange Country was making on them for taking in their citizens as exiles; therefore it had been decided that from now on, only one third of these demands would be fulfilled.

“Of course we could be sure that this lowering of the price would not be accepted by the Orange Country immigration officials. The negotiations could then certainly be drawn out for several weeks.

“However, we also knew that once the absence of Jonathan Galt becomes clear to his father and the Trans-humanists, their suspicions can no longer be averted. Their reaction might be an immediate attack with the biological weapons.

“We have therefore begun to request the evacuation of most of the people of the villages surrounding Orange Country, except for some volunteers who would be dressed in air-tight suits.

“We also have asked all the current stationary volunteers and project-supervisors from the ice-breaking missions to transfer to the region of Orange Country and place themselves in a wide circle around its borders—far enough away so as not to be seen by the border-guards. And as you know, we have also asked all the villages of the world to provide those volunteers with air-tight suits.

“All the ice-breaker ships, both from the Arctic as well as from the Antarctic regions, are currently on their way to surround Orange Country’s seacoast.

“We have also discussed with experts what kind of measures we can take to prevent any attack from those biological weapons built in Nephilim City.

“We are in the process of surrounding the physical wall with a new electro-magnetic anti-insect wall. But without knowing the specific genetic make-up of those insects, this protection might be ineffective.

“We also have experts studying the stealth-fighter and missile programs of the Dark Ages in order to find counter-measures which will give us a timely alert in case those air-vehicles are being launched. But once again, it will take us some time to provide these effective defenses and ways to respond to any air-launches.

“Another problem we face, as we learned from Jonathan Galt, is that while the production shop for the parts needed by those fighter air-vehicles are located in an ordinary industrial building in Nephilim city, the finished vehicles are hidden in a deep underground facility. That facility also contains the laboratories where the viral weapons are produced, as well as the genetic laboratories.

“There is a large security apparatus surrounding this facility. Nobody can enter unless he is authorized by the leaders of the Transhumanist society.

“As you probably know, there has not been a war in the world for nearly two hundred years. The weapons of the past have been dismantled. No new ones have been built.

“Yes, we use efficient tools for many purposes and projects, but neither laser ice-breaking tools nor stun-guns would be able to penetrate this underground facility, nor fight off those heavily armed guards surrounding its entrance. Practically none of our tools would be of any use against the threats we are now facing.

“However, as has been pointed out to us by thousands of messages from all over the world, there is one single tool which would be effective enough.”

Now Mr. Nawakwi took a deep breath, knowing full well that his next words would drop like a bomb-shell: “It is the thermonuclear ice-breaking device.

“As you might know, the International-Help-Board has a production facility for these devices at the edge of the Antarctic continent. Ten of these devices are being produced and used every year. They function according to the nuclear fusion principle, similar to the principle of the sun, where hydrogen is fused into helium. The process releases an enormous amount of heat and energy.

“No other device allows us to melt enough ice, to counter the enormous new freezing that occurs during every winter along the Antarctic glaciers. These devices are always being transported by the flag-ship of our ice-breaker fleet and then launched in unmanned air-vehicles called drones, and operated by remote control from a ship which is stationed 300km away from the projected impact area.

“This device penetrates nearly hundreds of meters into the ice and creates temporary rivers of water flowing into the sea. A device that penetrates the ice to that depth will certainly penetrate rock and the concrete of an underground facility. And with its enormous heat, it would destroy any biological weapons together with any transport system for those weapons.

“However, we have no way to limit the effectiveness of this device to exclusively target the facility we want to destroy. Any use will also lead to the destruction of all of Nephilim City and even some of its surrounding villages.”

A loud murmur could now be heard throughout the hall, while the children in the living-room looked at each other, speechless and horrified.

Mr. Nawakwi continued raising his voice above the noise: “The possibility of using the thermonuclear device has in the last couple of days been widely discussed throughout the Peace-Web. And from the messages we received it has been discussed in Spesaeterna by some of you, as well as in thousands of other villages.

“But an alternative has also been suggested. It was Mr. Wang from your village here, who came up with this alternative plan, having first enlisted young Jonathan Galt for it. Mr. Wang has been in contact with many scientists from villages in all parts of the world, so I will now ask Mr. Wang to present this proposition to you.”

Mr. Nawakwi sat down. But before Mr. Wang was able to get to his feet, Ms. Alba, whom Hope knew well as her grandmother’s friend, had gotten up and started to speak in an authoritative voice:

“Most of us here in Spesaeterna have already heard Mr. Wang’s suggestion. And most of us agree that it is not a good one. It will not solve our problems and eliminate the threat we are under. There are many variables in it that cannot be accurately calculated. If anything goes wrong, the world will be in even worse danger than it is now, while we don’t have nearly enough time to prepare our defenses, as Mr. Nawakwi has pointed out.”

Now Ms. Keilar got up, and directing herself to Ms. Alba, her voice sounding stronger than before, she said: “Ms. Alba, you are right; many of us have already heard and discussed the gist of Mr. Wang’s suggestion, but others have not, and neither have most of those watching our meeting on the Peace-Web.

Therefore we will first allow Mr. Wang to present his ideas and then we will discuss their feasibility. Mr. Wang, you have the floor now!”

Mr. Wang cleared his throat and began: “In cooperation with a group of scientists from thirty-seven villages in several different nations, young Mr. Jonathan Galt and I have put together a plan of how to protect the world from the 90% Virus, as it is now called, and to disrupt the production of transmitter drones which would spread the insects slated to transmit the virus.”

The clearing of his throat hadn’t helped; Mr. Wang’s voice still sounded hoarse, harsh, and grumpy as he put forward: “Since we have this alternative, there is no way whatsoever by which we can justify the use of the thermonuclear device. It would fundamentally violate the First Principle.”

Ms. Alba was on her feet again, contradicting vehemently: “It would not violate it! The First Principle demands the respect for and protection of all human life, and it states that all human beings are of equal value. This means, of course, that ten billion individuals, one third of whom the older Mr. Galt is attempting to eradicate from the face of the earth, count more than the two million individuals living in Nephilim City plus the less than one million living in the surrounding villages of Orange Country who might somehow be affected.”

Ms. Keilar interrupted: “Ms. Alba please, Mr. Wang has not yet finished his presentation. Mr. Wang, would you please go into the details of your suggestion; then after that, we can start discussing the moral questions.”

Ms. Alba sat down and Mr. Wang nodded and then started his explanation: “As Mr. Nawkawki has pointed out, the biological weapons and the air-vehicles used for transmission of these weapons are produced or stored in a deep underground facility. The entrances are guarded both by men and by computer programs. Only those who work in those facilities, persons who have lived in Nephilim City for many years and have been screened by the Transhumanist Society can get inside this facility.

But there is one person we know and we can trust who will be able to enter said facility and who has access to every single one of its laboratories, storage halls, and file-registries. That person is Jonathan Galt, the son of John Galt, who is the leader of the Transhumanist Society.

Jonathan’s absence from Orange Country has not yet been noticed and will not be for another two weeks. After that, he can return the same way he came.

“Once inside the facility, young Mr. Galt can obtain the files describing the genetic make-up of the virus as well as of the genetically-engineered insects. With this information our medical scientists will most likely be able, within a matter of days, to produce the particular anti-viral medication needed to counter any possible infection, and our electronic specialists will be able to configure the electromagnetic anti-insect nets and give this information to all the world’s villages so that all housing-facilities can upgrade their anti-insect protection.

“We have also already begun to design a plan for how Jonathan Galt can disrupt the further production of those biological weapons and even sabotage the air-vehicles without being detected. The details are still being worked on by our associates, who are biological and computer scientists.

But they all predict very good chances of success. The disruption of the work of those production facilities for many months will give us ample time to update our anti-insect defenses, as well as our satellite observation defenses, and to modify our laser-equipment to the point where they can destroy any air-vehicles being launched from Orange Country. Technical engineers, laser scientists, and scientists versed in satellite observation techniques all agree that with unlimited resources provided by all the villages of all nations, these defenses can be fully operational less than five months from now, and they can be partially put into place within a month.”

Now Mr. Wang paused for a second, which gave Ms. Alba the opportunity for her response: “This all sounds a bit too good to be true.

First we have to rely on the unproven words of those nameless scientists regarding their untested methods of protecting us, and second, for most of the plan we have to rely on one person. Someone we have only known for a very short time.

“Remember that at one point in the last meeting only three days ago, Luscinia Callahan called Nephilim City ‘hell’. If that place is anything like ‘hell’ then Jonathan Galt can be considered the son of the devil.”

A murmur could be heard that seemed partly shocked and partly in agreement.

Ms. Alba continued: “At this moment it seems as if this young man is betraying his own community and his own father. How do we know that in the next instant he won’t just turn around and betray us?”

After hearing this comment, Jonathan Galt got to his feet, and barely waiting for the desk to rise, he protested: “I do not consider the Transhumanist Society to be my community, although my father forced me into it. I also no longer consider Nephilim City as my village, even though I grew up there.

And most certainly I do not consider that I owe my father any loyalty, although he might see my coming here as a betrayal. But by taking my mother from me and imprisoning her in his Venus Project, he betrayed us both a long time ago.

“My loyalty lies with the memory of my mother and with my friend Luscinia and with all of humanity. And I hope that one day Luscinia’s Deer-Community will become my community as well and, if all of you will accept me, that Spesaeterna will become my village.”

Jonathan Galt looked around pleadingly at the people attending the meeting. And with that, it became quite clear that his words and attitude had won him many points. The sympathy had shifted. He sat down again.

Ms. Alba sensed that attacking the young man directly would now harm rather than further her case, so she took a different road: “Even though young Jonathan Galt will try his very best to get inside the underground facility and bring us back the information we need, there is no way for us to know if he isn’t already suspected. His absence might quite possibly have been detected or someone may have found out that he was with his mother before she died. And even if he gets inside, he might be detected while he tries to get hold of the information or tries to sabotage the production. Or he might be apprehended on his way back. There are so many ways in which the proposed plans for this single young man can fail. And if they fail, we can expect an immediate attack for which we are not yet in any way prepared.”

Mr. Wang now interrupted: “Jonathan Galt will not be alone. I will go with him and there will be several other volunteers. We are planning to free as many women as possible from the Venus projects. We have been in contact with many of the villages who in the last few years have sent women into exile in Orange Country; all of them will allow their former citizens to be repatriated.

We will also help Jonathan to evacuate both of little Natsuki’s parents, together with the other people who have helped Jonathan and Luscinia, because all of those people will be in mortal danger when the second part of the plan will be put into action, namely to connect Orange Country once again with the Peace Web.”

At this revelation, Ms. Alba lost all of her composure: “What are you saying? Have you lost your thinking faculties altogether? Has your mind gone half way to heaven, or should I rather say, half way to hell?”

Ms. Alba was not the only one who was shocked. An elderly man, a Mr. Bayne, got up and asked Mr. Wang: “Don’t you remember why Orange Country was cut off from the Peace Web in the first place?”

“I do remember,” Mr. Wang answered.

Mr. Bayne went on in an agitated voice while lifting his hands into the air: “Those image-stories, those horrible Dark-Age image-stories, they still have them; Luscinia Callahan was telling us about them.

“Historical scientists like me have done research on the phenomenon when, within a single generation of the Dark Ages, the culture of most nations was changed to the point that nothing seemed important any more but the protection of coupling rights. Even the right to life became secondary. Those image-stories, combined with adolescent hormone confusion, were the cause.

“If we open the Peace-Web to Orange Country again, this might happen to us, and in thirty years, all of our villages will look like Nephilim City.”

“Yes, Mr. Bayne,” Mr. Wang replied in his usual grumpy manner, “you have discussed this theory many times with me in the past. But since we last talked together, I have done some research on the Peace-Web and have found that there is another theory being discussed there.

“In this theory, some other historical scientists explain that the cultural changes were not caused by image-stories combined with adolescent hormones, but rather, by the actual power-structures of the Dark Ages. It was those power-structures which, via the multi-national information offices which were called mass-media, changed the fundamental ideas of many Dark-Age societies.

“Those image-stories were no more than a handy tool to keep most everyone within those societies in a state of permanent adolescent turmoil. It was a deliberate strategy to create conditions where coupling rights were the only rights considered to be of any value. Those conditions were then to become the way leading to the ultimate goal of their strategy, namely that of depriving the emotionally stunted populations of all other rights, including the right to life and the right to procreate. All those earlier rights would then become mere privileges doled out to individuals by powerful rulers hidden behind a centrally-controlled bureaucracy.

“Although these plans never came to full fruition, coupling-rights nevertheless became the smoke-screen behind which a lot of oppression could be hidden while giving individual citizens a subjective and quite illusionary feeling of being free. They also gave whole nations a feeling of superiority over other nations with lesser coupling-rights. The lack of those particular rights in other nations sometimes even became a convenient excuse for hostile actions taken against those very nations.

Mr. Wang now stated with emphasis: “We do not live under the same power-structures as were present in the Dark Ages or as are present in Orange Country. Even if some Dark-Age image-stories would soon be floating around the Peace-Web, they would be unable to fundamentally change our thinking, even that of our adolescents.

“We have taught our young people responsible thinking from a very young age. While hormone fluctuations might cause occasional slip-ups, still, most of our adolescents are, in general, far more mature than most grown-ups were during the Dark Ages. Actually I can tell you that I am so confident about our young people that I would suggest they be given even greater responsibility by being allowed to participate in village-council-meetings.”

Mr. Bayne protested: “I have to tell you, Lee—I mean Mr. Wang—that I disagree profoundly with those theories you mentioned….”

A middle-aged woman in soft green clothing interrupted. Her name was indicated as Ms. Talim and Hope knew that she was one of the principle owners of the largest production shop:

“At this moment we cannot discern exactly which of the theories is right—yours, Mr. Wang or yours, Mr. Bayne, but it seems to me to make no sense at all to take the risk of opening the Peace-Web for Orange Country. What could ever be gained by that?”

Mr. Wang defended his ideas: “The gain would be that once again, reason would enter Nephilim City. I am convinced that it was we here in what Orange Country people call ‘the outside world’ who actually created the very problem which is now threatening us.

“By cutting off the people of Orange Country from us, we have also isolated them from our way of reasoning and thought. By sending all of our grown-up rule-breakers there, we have created the very pressure cooker that inevitably now threatens to explode around our ears. If we open the Peace-Web to the people of Nephilim City, we will in effect be giving them a valve to reduce the pressure. Or in plain words, they can talk to us and we can talk to them.”

“And you really believe that talking to someone like John Galt would change his mind?” Ms. Talim’s voice clearly showed how much she doubted that possibility.

Mr. Wang shook his head: “Probably not, but he is not alone over there. Once the people of the Orange Country villages hear that the Transhumanist Society had planned to deliberately use some of the biological weapons on their own citizens, there will be resistance to their rule. And when the people of Nephilim City find out that as a reaction to those plans, they themselves are under threat of total destruction by the outside world, there will be resistance, possibly even from within the security agencies themselves.

“Knowledge of the truth might quite well lead to changes in the power-structures.”

“It might lead to changes,” Ms. Talim repeated but added, “or it might not. You can’t guarantee that, can you?”

Now a Mr. Jennings had risen to his feet: “And while we wait for the changes, which might or might not happen in Nephilim City, we will have this Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, possibly forever.”

Mr. Wang denied that possibility, saying: “Not forever!

“In fifty or sixty years, Nephilim City will have practically died out. Nearly all the women were over 25 years of age when they arrived. After having worked in the Venus Project and being injected with infertility chemicals for five years, there should barely be anyone able to have children at all, either because of their age or because of partial or total infertility.

“Both Luscinia and Jonathan told me that they saw very few children in Nephilim City. And since there would be no more exiles being sent there, the place would inevitably die out within a few decades.”

“And in the meantime,” Mr. Jennings snapped, “those transhumanists are breeding thousands or even millions of their little Alpha monsters!”

“That is very unlikely, Mr. Jennings,” said Mr. Wang, contradicting this horrific vision.

“According to scientists who have studied the data of Dark Age genetic manipulations in plants and animals, these processes are very unstable and unpredictable. We know that John Galt did his first genetic experiments on human beings over thirty years ago while still living in his own village. It has taken him such a long time to create a single viable baby. It might take him just as long for the next one.”

Mr. Jennings was not convinced: “Maybe…or maybe it will take a much shorter time. But you heard him--that little monster will have the intelligence of ten humans. What if he uses that intelligence to out-think all of our defenses against the 90% Virus? What if he makes a new one that's even worse? What if this intelligence-monster thinks up even more lethal weapons against us?”

“It’s just a baby, a single little baby,” grumbled Mr. Wang, trying to put things into perspective.

“And even if the transhumanists would be able to make a thousand babies like him, all of them ten times as intelligent as ordinary human beings, the collective intelligence of a billion people would be able to out-think them a million times over.”

“It isn’t a human baby, Mr. Wang!” Mr. Jennings bellowed, still agitated. “It’s something totally different. You heard that John Galt. This thing has an extra pair of chromosomes. He called it post-human; I call it a monster.”

“No, I disagree,” Mr. Wang stated firmly.

“This baby is a human being; whatever John Galt has called him is irrelevant. There are babies born all over the world with chromosome abnormalities, most often suffering from Trisomy21, which is an extra 21st gene. It doesn’t make them less human!”

“That’s different,” Mr. Jennings rejected the argument.

“This one was created particularly so he won’t have the capacity to feel compassion…a heartless monster.”

Mr. Wang now said with an unusually soft tone in his voice: “It is sad that this little boy was deliberately given such a limitation. But you know, Mr. Jennings, compassionate behavior can be a result of a feeling, but it can also be the result of logical thought.

“A society whose members lack compassionate behavior towards one another is an unstable society on the verge of self-destruction. If this little boy is indeed as intelligent as Mr John Galt claims him to be, he eventually will figure that one out.”

“However, John Galt and his trans-humanists are certainly not intelligent enough for that,” inserted Ms. Alba, once again taking charge of the discussion, “though they are intelligent enough to develop weapons which can kill us all.

“Mr. Bayne is right; opening the Peace-Web to Orange Country is dangerous on many levels. Besides endangering our way of life, it might at this very moment even endanger our very survival.

“For Ms. Talim is right as well-there is nothing to be gained in that, but a lot which is put at risk. Once the Peace-Web is open for them, they can find out everything about the defenses we are planning to build right now, and find even better ways to destroy them.

“And Mr. Jennings is also right: Nephilim City is a Damocles Sword hanging over the whole world—one which needs to be removed before it falls on us all!”

“But Ms. Alba,” Mr. Wang insisted, “we made this sword ourselves. In all the long years of my life, only two people were exiled to Orange Country from Spesaeterna, one of them being Luscinia Callahan, who shouldn’t even have been sent there at all, since she was far too young.

“The situation is very similar in all the other villages to which I’ve been talking—one, two people, maybe even three, permanently exiled in the last seventy years—no more.

“Couldn’t we have found another way to deal with those single individuals? Couldn’t we have perhaps tried temporary exile, like we do for adolescent rule-breakers?

“If we had given them a chance to come back home instead of sending them all permanently to one place, they would never have been so deeply influenced by Dark Age culture. Something like the Venus Projects would never have been invented; men would not have developed so much hatred against women that they could hurt them in the way they hurt our Luscinia Callahan.

“Power-structures like the ones we see there would never have been formed if those people had lived among us, nor would a Transhumanist Society ever have been founded.

“Come to think of it, if we had allowed John Galt to go on dreaming about his stars, he might not ever have gone down the dark path he did.

“Remember Patricia, I mean Ms. Alba, when this young man came to Spesaeterna full of enthusiasm, trying to convince us of his plans, trying to get us to support him? And how we put him down, telling him that the plans were impossible and wasteful?”

“Yes, I do remember,” Ms. Alba stated, “and I also remember that even then, John Galt was an arrogant young man without regard for opinions other than his own. And his plans were wasteful of resources, and without a useful purpose.”

“But they were dreams, Patricia, dreams,” Mr. Wang stated softly.

“Some people have a need for dreams and should be allowed to have them, no matter how useless they seem to others. And in all ages, men have looked up at the stars and dreamed about them. Maybe it’s time to dream again.”

Ms. Alba had no time for dreams at the moment: “And then John Galt started dreaming about creating a new humanoid species and destroying the old one. Would you have supported him in that dream as well?”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Mr. Wang now sounded annoyed.

“What I meant was that we all have helped create the conditions that led to the problem we now have, and that we need to find an ethical way to deal with it.”

“We cannot change the past,” Ms. Alba declared.

“We have to deal with what is now. And right now we are all in terrible danger and there is only one sure way to remove this danger and protect ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.”

Hope’s grandmother leaped to her feet: “But there are also children over there, Patricia—I mean Ms. Alba—innocent children!”

Now Ms. Higgins, another friend of Hope’s grandmother, interrupted: “But Faith, Mr. Wang himself said that there are not very many children being born in Nephilim City.”

Hope’s grandmother continued without a pause: “And there are women there, women who are innocent victims of all the oppression going on in that place, like our Luscinia!”

“Not innocent, Ms. Morgan, as you well know.” Ms. Higgins no longer sounded like she was talking to a friend.

“They are all exiles, all rule-breakers, even Luscinia Callahan…or have you forgotten what she did?”

Now Mr. Callahan was on his feet, red in the face with anger. But before he could say anything, Mr. Wang had once again begun to speak:

“We do not believe in killing rule-breakers as they did in the Dark Ages. And Ms. Higgins, doesn’t your Christian religion command you to forgive those who have done wrong?”

Ms. Higgins shook her head: “The Christian religion does not prevent us from acting in self-defense. I believe that God himself has now given us the information we need and therefore the opportunity to protect ourselves from destruction. And the Bible has a passage which tells us about the Ammonites—a people beyond redemption, evil to the point that even God commanded that they should be violently destroyed.”

Hope’s grandmother was now shaking her head saying: “Most theologians interpret this passage quite differently today. My brother says…”

Ms. Higgins interrupted: “Your brother, Ms. Morgan? Isn’t he the one who was best friends with that John Galt, a scientist himself, working on the same things with him? Of course he would support and save his old friend, even at the expense of the life and security of everyone else.”

Now Hope was utterly shocked; she had nearly forgotten what her great-uncle had told her years ago. But there could be no doubt, this was the same John Galt who had been her great-uncle’s friend.

Hope shuddered.

But how could they blame him for this, for a friendship that had ended so many years ago? Now Hope realized what her great-uncle had meant when he said that they wouldn’t want to listen to him.

Hope looked around the room at her own friends. They were all avoiding her eyes, or so at least it seemed to Hope, all except Ameenah, that is. Sitting next to her, Ameenah whispered in Hope’s ear: “Professor Morgan is a good man. I know that.”

Hope turned her attention back to the screen, to now see her grandmother crying and hear her grandfather shouting: “How dare you, Ms. Higgins?! You who have been in our home so many times, you whom my wife considers to be a friend, how dare you to insinuate that my brother in law…”

Ms. Higgins, red in the face with anger of her own, did not answer this, but instead turned now to Mr. Wang with her voice at the breaking point:

“As you have reminded me of my religion, Mr. Wang, maybe I should now recall what I know about yours. Could it be that you do not care about the safety and life of all of us because in your religion, a human life doesn’t really count for much?

“After one failed attempt at a life, you just turn around, get reincarnated, and try again. It might be news to you, but for us, there is only one chance to get it right and we don’t intend to have that chance shortened.”

With this, about thirty people had jumped up from their seats, all shouting at the same time, and a second later, another fifty or so had gotten to their feet as well. The screen-wall was now so crowded that the letters of the names of those projected could no longer be distinguished from one another.

The sound coming from all the loud-speakers was deafening.

Then there was the ear-piercing sound of a bell which drowned out even the shouting. The rest of the noise slowly decreased, eventually stopping altogether and so did the sound of the bell.

The silence was thickly filled with anger. Only one voice could be heard breaking through, that of Ms. Keilar saying

“Everyone sit down, please! Now!!”

Reluctantly, all those who were standing obeyed. Only Ms. Keilar remained standing behind her pulpit.

Her voice sounded decidedly authoritative: “All this has been highly irregular. We do not use ad hominem attacks in a village-council-meeting. Neither do we make insinuations about other citizens’ thoughts or intentions. And we most certainly do not make any negative remarks about other people’s religions. The latter is a very serious case of rule-breaking, unless you, Ms. Higgins, as well as you, Mr. Wang, are ready, right here and now, to make your apologies.”

Mr. Wang was the first to stand: “I am very sorry, Ms. Keilar, and my deepest apologies to you, Ms. Higgins, for making the issue into a religious one. I hope you will forgive me.”

Ms. Higgins was now standing as well, still red in the face, although it seemed now to be rather from shame than anger. Bowing to the authority of the much younger Ms. Keilar, Ms. Higgins said formally: “I accept your apology, Mr. Wang, and I also ask you for forgiveness, as well as you, Ms. Keilar. I don’t know what got into me; I’m just so worried.”

Ms. Keilar declared: “Your apologies are accepted. And we are all worried at the moment, Ms. Higgins. However, this must not be allowed to break down the unity of our village.”

A murmur of assent could be heard, although it seemed slightly reluctant.

“Now Mr. Wang,” Ms. Keilar continued, “have you finished presenting your plans and your arguments in support of them?”

Mr. Wang shook his head: “I’m nearly finished, but with your permission, Ms. Keilar, I would like to make two more points.

In the last couple of days, I have heard many times in the village and also from citizens of other villages via the Peace-Web, that ‘it is either us or them’.

“This notion is what was guiding all the wars throughout the Dark Ages, as well as all their economic dealings. It was only when the dualistic ideology of ‘either us or them’ was replaced by the notion of ‘we’—that we all belong to one human family—that the Dark Ages faded away and our age of peace could arise, based on the First Principle.

“This leads me to the second point: That destroying Nephilim City and the people inside via a thermonuclear device is, no matter what we try to tell ourselves in justification, the ultimate violation of the First Principle, which states in no uncertain terms that human life is sacred and must always be protected. By eradicating those people, we will eradicate our own foundation.

“It is the adherence to the First Principle which gives us trust in one another, even in people who live in places farthest away from us. It allows us to be generous without fear of losing something. It allows us to overcome all differences of opinion with patience and dialogue. But by trying to save our world and our way of life in such a murderous way, I fear that we will lose both. This is what I see in our future.”

Ms. Alba had once again gotten to her feet, talking in a soft and reasonable manner now: “I can understand your fears, Mr. Wang, but what you think you perceive is nothing more than a vague feeling, with no reasonable argument to back it up.

“As you have pointed out yourself, the First Principle demands the protection of all human life, but it also states definitely that all human beings are of equal value. Protecting the lives of the ten billion people who live on earth right now from the lethal danger posed by barely two million rule-breakers who live in Nephilim City is simply an act of self-defense which could never be called murder.

“It is therefore not a violation of the First Principle.

“It will not lead to any loss of trust or generosity or patience.

“It will have no impact on our ability to dialogue. Nothing will change!

“However, having to live in constant fear—that might easily result in a loss of trust.”

Ms. Keilar could be seen listening to Mr. Avineshwaran, the second representative from the International-Help-Board. She nodded and then started to speak:

“It looks as if the arguments cannot be concluded tonight, and I have now been informed that the International-Help-Board has decided that another village-council-meeting should be held here in Spesaeterna in three days’ time.

“This one will also be transmitted directly on the Peace-Web. At that time, Mr. Wang, as well as Ms. Alba, should once again present their arguments and any new arguments resulting from discussing this matter in the villages and on the Peace-Web.

“Following that, there will be a 24-hour time-period for discussion in all the villages of the world, and at its conclusion, all people from all villages outside Orange Country can vote on these two options.”

Mr. Avineshwaran once again whispered in Ms Keilar’s ear. This time she looked surprised, but then nodded and continued to speak:

“ It has also been decided that since we have so little time before the rulers of Nephilim City will become suspicious and possibly start the attack against us, there will not be the customary re-voting and further discussions needed to reach 95% agreement.

“There will only be the one vote. And whichever plan gets over fifty percent of the votes will be executed.”

While a murmur went through the hall, the scene faded in front of David’s eyes to be replaced by Hope sitting on the bench next to David, looking sad and afraid.

So that was it. That was the burden that had weighed on Hope’s mind since David had first met her. He thought it now rather astonishing that enmeshed within all that turmoil, Hope had still shown him and his world so much interest.

“How do you think your people will decide?” David asked her softly.

“They’ll follow Ms Alba,” Hope answered sadly.

“In our village and all over the Peace-Web, people are asking each other which way they’ll vote. And it’s nearly the same everywhere. From every ten people, seven or eight will vote for Ms. Alba and only two or three for Mr. Wang.”

“And what do you think?” David asked in an even more careful tone.

Hope sighed: “I can understand why so many would follow Ms. Alba and decide to use the thermonuclear device. They are so afraid, so terribly afraid of war, and of becoming a victim. I’m scared, too.

“But still,” she hesitated for a second, “I believe Mr. Wang is right. If we kill them, we might destroy ourselves in a different way because we would be violating the First Principle.”

Hope sighed more deeply than before:

“And then there is Mamma, my own mother. When I came here last night and told you about my Mamma being on a fighting assignment you thought she was bombing and killing people and now this is exactly what she is going to do. She will be responsible for the death of two million people or more.”

David shook his head: “I had thought she was a soldier until you explained to me about her fighting the ice-age. And now I assume she really has become something like a soldier. But she is one of many, so whatever happens will not be her responsibility.”

“You don’t understand, Uncle David,” Hope disagreed, “it will indeed be her responsibility.

“You see, after I did the victim scenario last year, my Mamma started to train for ice-breaking missions—because of me, she told me. Because I was so brave, she needed to be brave as well and honor Papa’s memory.

“And so she trained and trained and trained in all specialties. And she passed all the needed qualification tests. And so when she put herself on the project supervisor list, one of the representatives from the International-Help-Board must have spotted her name.

“And because there were many fewer volunteers for ice-breaking missions since my father’s accident, it was decided that having the widow of the deceased supervisor as the organizing supervisor on the flagship of the ice-breaker fleet would set a good example.

“And that is why my Mamma is the leading organizer of the whole ice-breaker fleet. The thermonuclear devices are stored on her ship, and she would have to give the command for launching.”

David looked at Hope in utter amazement: “Your mother, the seamstress, is now the commander of the whole world’s Navy?”

Hope shrugged listlessly: “I guess in your time you would call it that.”

David realized that this was nothing Hope was proud of.

She continued to tell her story: “I tried to call Mamma so many times during the last few days. But she only sent messages back that she couldn’t talk to me right now; she didn’t talk to Sissy or Lillebro either. And then when I finally reached her, I only begged her to come back home. But she said…”

Another scene started to form, with Hope standing in front of a projection wall in what seemed to be her bedroom.

Her mother looked pale and drawn, but she was talking soothingly: “I can’t, my little Hope, I can’t yet.”

“But Mamma, what do you think about all the terrible things and about the plans? I’m so afraid, Mamma.”

“I know, Hope. Everybody is afraid. Yes, I do believe Mr. Wang might be right.”

“Then you can’t do this Mamma,” Hope sounded desperate.

“You can’t be on this ship, you shouldn’t be. What are you going to do if the world decides to…?” She couldn’t even say the words.

Hope’s mother nodded slowly: “Then I will have to follow those decisions.”

No Mamma—let somebody else do it! I know you, you wouldn’t be able to live with that guilt.”

Hope’s mother shook her head: “Should somebody else have to live with it? I was chosen to be in this position. It is my place now.”

“No Mamma,” Hope protested. “You were not God-chosen! Those representatives chose you. It is not your place!”

Again her mother shook her head: “The representatives of the International-Help-Board did not decide that I would be here exactly at this very moment in time. They like everyone else didn’t know what would happen. This is the place where I have to be at this time, Hope.”

Someone calling “Ms. Morgan” could be heard in the background, so Hope’s mother said apologetically: “I’m sorry, Hope, I have to go now. I love you. Please tell my little David and Faith that I love them too.”

And with that, she turned off the communicator.

“Mamma, Mamma,” Hope called out to the empty wall, and she pressed her face and hands against it, sobbing silently.

The scene faded. The present-day Hope also had a tear-streaked face.

But pulling herself together, she went back to her story: “And then, after all that, Great-Uncle Professor finally talked to me again.

“He found me in our apartment just after I’d been talking to my mother. He asked me to follow him to his lab. And there he told me that he had just finished his time-machine, and that now somebody could go further back in time than only one or two days.

“Normally I would have been very interested and even excited. But at that moment I just didn’t care. The past was the past and was long over, but the present was in danger of being the end of the world or at least of the world we all know.

“But then my great-uncle said that the person who would go back in time would be me. And that is when I did feel excited, thinking I would be going back to my Papa. I could warn him, the accident would never happen…

“But then Great-Uncle Professor said I would be going back more than 200 years to some ancestor of ours, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, and I was to prevent him from jumping in front of an underground transport train to commit suicide.

“Before I could recover from my surprise, my great-uncle explained to me about the data-container which held the information needed to figure out the space-time-coordinates where this ancestor could be reached. He said that this small container had been in the family for generations, and his grandmother had given it to him when he was a boy my age. But most of the data had been destroyed and he had only been able to decipher a very small part of it.”

Once again a scene from Hope’s world started to form before David’s eyes. But immediately David realized that this one he had seen before. It had been only this very morning, although it now kind of seemed like an eternity ago….

Hope was standing in front of some strange machine. She was facing her great-uncle, David remembered she had argued with the Professor, pleading with him to help her safe her father instead of being sent back to the Dark Ages.

The Professor was now talking: “.. all I can tell you is that I know for a fact that you cannot save your father. But you will be able to save another human life, and bring this person out of a dark place.”

“He lives in the Dark Ages.” Hope was now pouting: “I can’t bring him out of there.”

As if having accepted Hope’s rejection of his appeal, Great-Uncle Professor had now turned his back to Hope while adjusting some dials at his machine. He hesitated for a moment, and then spoke in a very soft, clear, and calm voice: “Yes, this man does live in a dark age, but what surrounds his mind is even darker. The girl who went back in time to meet him was called Hope. And I believe that this Hope was you and that you are the only one who has the ability to lead this ancestor of ours out of his own darkness. Though he lives in a time and a culture we do not understand, his life – like everyone’s life—is still of value. And it is in your hands now.”

The Professor turned around to face Hope again: “You do remember the First Principle, don’t you?”

That stopped Hope in her tracks. The First Principle…once again, the First Principle—people were arguing about it, accusing each other of having forgotten it. How was it to be interpreted in a time like this?

And now her great-uncle was going on about it too, interpreting it in his own way, as a principle that even concerned the past.

It didn’t make sense to Hope, but still, she couldn’t say no.

“All right I’ll go,” she conceded. “But why now?”

Her great-uncle looked at Hope and said softly: “Because it’s time.”

This sounded bizarre, Hope shook her head in disbelief. Time for what? What was her great-uncle thinking? He sure had a strange sense of timing.

As if reading her mind, the Professor gave the strange explanation: “You might learn something.”

Now Hope felt a surge of anger bursting out: “From the Dark Ages? Yeah, right! Mr. Galt learned from the Dark Ages how to destroy the world and most of the people in it.”

The Professor shrugged as if this didn’t matter at all: “So you will have to learn something else, won’t you?”

Hope was unconvinced but while still grumbling in her mind, she had given up open protest, asking for some practical information instead: “How long do I have to stay?”

The Professor had already turned around to adjust something on his machine, and answered in an absent-minded manner: “It might take a while, a couple of days probably. Just until you are quite sure this man won’t try this suicide thing again. You’ll know when you can come back. His name was David, by the way, like your brother and me.”

“But how will you know when to bring me back, Great-Uncle?” Hope asked, surprised at the vagueness of his answer.

The Professor gestured to Hope to sit down on something that looked like a dentist’s chair which was somehow connected to a tube which rapidly thinned out and then circled the room in spirals several times, finally exiting through a hole in the outside wall.

While he fastened some connections to Hope’s forehead, the Professor explained: “I don’t have to know. You control the process yourself. You decide when you are ready to come back.”

The Professor was now preparing a needle. Hope felt a sting in her left arm as she was connected to an intravenous feeding device. It must have contained something more than liquid food, for Hope started to feel drowsy. Though she had one more question: “But Great-Uncle, if I had said no, would there have been another girl called Hope who would have gone back in time?”

The chair had now turned into a gurney, Hope’s head enclosed in a helmet connected to the spiraling tube. The drowsiness had increased so she could barely hear her great-uncle’s answer, which sounded like a far-away soft echo: “No, my little one, it would have always been you, because you care…”

The scene faded and dissolved and David opened his eyes to see and hear his time’s Hope talking to him: “And that is how I came to your time, Uncle David.”

He smiled at her, feeling a deep surge of emotion for this brave little girl: “And I am so glad that you did! In spite of everything that is going on in your time, you still came to save me. Thank you, Hope, so much.”

Hope smiled back: “I’m also glad I came, Uncle David, I really am.”

Then she frowned, saying: “But I do wonder what my great-uncle meant when he said that I care, because though I feel sorry about it now, at the time I really didn’t care.”

David shook his head: “You’re wrong, Hope, you always cared. You are a very caring person. You care about your friends and family and about the people of your village and your world. And you care about your First Principle, enough to even save a stranger from the Dark Ages.”

“You’re not a stranger, Uncle David!” Hope contradicted him.

“Not anymore,” David replied.

“No, what I mean is, you are my great-”

“So what?” David interrupted her.

Now she started laughing and David joined in, mirth arising at how they were related but generations apart, coming from different worlds, once complete strangers but now friends.

The darkness had been lifted from Hope’s mind and from David’s. And David noticed that darkness had also lifted from his world. Night was slowly giving way to an early dawn.

And they weren’t alone any more either. David could hear a loud rolling sound coming closer. Two teenage boys on skate-boards were approaching on the side-walk. When they had nearly reached the alcove in which David’s bench was hidden, he heard a screeching sound just before one of the boards came to an abrupt halt, indicating that something was wrong with it. David also heard a stream of cussing containing exotic obscenities he had rarely heard outside movie theaters, indicating that something must also be wrong with one of the skate-boarders.

“I told you it was still too dark,” the boy continued with more typical language, “I hit a hole back there, one I couldn’t even see. It was a dumb idea anyway to go out so early.”

The other boy had come to a halt and rolled back to his friend. “At this time of day, the ramp in the park will be free,” he defended his idea. “In a couple of hours it will be crowded already. And this early in the morning, nobody is around on the streets either. We’ve got a good practice ride, building up lots of speed. And after all, I’m the ‘King of the Streets’.”

“‘King of the Streets’?” his friend sneered. “Who gave you that name?”

“The old Battram did … well kind of,” the ‘King of the Streets’ replied. And then he added with obvious self-mockery in his voice: “She told me last month that I was so dumb that the streets were all that would be mine. And if the streets are all mine, then I am their king—it’s only logical!”

With this, the boy jumped with his board onto the street. And there he took a large curve, and while stretching out his arms imitating Leonardo Di Caprio from Titanic, or more likely, one of its many spoofs, he yelled: “I am the ‘King of the Streets’!”

Through the silence of the receding night, this made quite an impressive echo.

With a small jump, the ‘King of the Streets’ landed back on the side-walk in front of his friend.

On a more prosaic note, he then said: “Let me look at that wheel of yours; maybe I can fix it.”

And while the ‘King of the Streets’ attempted to fix his friend’s skate-board, the latter kept the conversation going: “The Batty woman, you say? I had her last year in English class. And if she is right, then I guess that I’m the ‘King of the Chair’.”

“What chair?” asked the ‘King of the Streets’.

““You know, the one you get strapped to with all those cables, and then you get fried… ” his friend explained.

“Cables? … Oh, I see,” he chuckled belatedly, “you must have really made her mad.”

“I nearly burned down the school!” The grin in the boy’s voice was clearly audible.

“Oh I remember, that was last year in March,” the ‘King of the Streets’ said with the same grin in his voice. “Three fire-trucks came and everybody got evacuated. So that was you!” Then he added slightly disappointed: “It wasn’t a big fire though.”

“More or less just one waste-paper basket, but lots of smoke,” his friend reminisced.

“What happened?” the ‘King of the Streets’ asked while violently yanking at one of the skate-board wheels.

The other boy explained: “The math teacher didn’t show and after a while, we thought nobody else would either. And then one of the guys was handing a joint around, and when it was my turn, suddenly in walked the Batty, big as life, as the substitute. So what was I supposed to do?

“I took a perfect shot, straight into the basket. She didn’t notice anything at first. But there must have been some plastic stuff in there. After maybe half a minute, a cloud of smoke was coming out of it and everybody started coughing, and Terry, who was sitting next to the basket, nearly keeled over and then everybody started screaming. And that’s when the fire-alarm went off and you know the rest.”

“But how did the Batty know it was you?” the ‘King of the Streets’ asked while spinning the wheel with his fingers. He had successfully loosened it.

“I don’t know,” his friend shrugged. “Maybe she’s a mind-reader or something. Or maybe she always thought it was me when anything happened, even when it wasn’t, well, not always anyway.” Then he added once again with that grin in his voice: “though usually the Batty was right….”

“Try it now, it should run again,” the ‘King of the Streets’ said, as he handed over the skate-board to his friend. Then both of them started rolling again. Passing David on his bench, they gained speed, but the next second he heard a big crash and the sound of a whole lot of metal hitting the ground.

A woman seemed to have come out of nowhere.

“Bad boys, nowadays, bad boys nowadays, bad boys…” she was shouting.

And David recognized her voice, although it sounded far more agitated than when he had last heard it. It was the shopping-cart woman whom he had already met twice in the last twenty-four hours. David assumed that most likely she had come from a path in the park where she might have been sleeping on one of the benches.

Her shopping-cart had overturned, its contents cascading into the street.

“Come on, let’s split,” yelled the ‘King of the Streets’.

At that moment the old woman’s shouts turned into an ear-splitting inarticulate scream.

A car was approaching fast, threatening to crash into her belongings. Desperate and still screaming, the old woman hurled herself into the middle of the street and down on her knees to pick up one of the bags that had landed there.

David tried to jump up, but he fell back onto the bench, his feet being totally numb and his head spinning with dizziness.

But David’s help wasn’t needed. Like a speeding arrow, the ‘King of the Chair’ had flown into the street, grabbed the old woman, and with all his teenage might, dragged her back to safety while the car swerved and careened by.

“Lady, you can’t do that,” the boy muttered, nearly out of breath. “You have to be careful.”

The old woman struggled in the boy’s arms, intent on getting back to the street to save her belongings, but her screams slowly subsided and were replaced by a lower whimpering sound.

“Dude, come back and help me,” the boy called out to his friend.

The ‘King of the Streets’ turned and reluctantly joined him, muttering: “She’s crazy, this one, totally crazy. How can she do that, running in front of that car, just for that junk?”

“That junk is all she has,” his friend said softly, while still somehow restraining the old woman.

Turning to her he said just as softly: “Lady, you don’t have to go into the street again. We are going to pick up your stuff for you and put it back.”

With that, the boy gently set her down on the sidewalk and then heaved the shopping-cart back onto its wheels.

The ‘King of the Streets’ shrugged and started to pick up the first offending bag in the middle of the street, which seemed to contain a couple of cheap religious statues made of plastic.

And then he picked up a few knives and spoons nearby which had spilled out of another bag, as well as a small pot which had rolled farther away.

The other boy stuffed those things back into the bags and arranged them in the cart.

Within a couple of minutes, everything was back where it belonged. The old homeless woman had stopped whimpering. But when she turned to the street, the sound began again, and pointing with one hand, she indicated a small brown paper-bag which had landed a bit further down the street.

The ‘King of the Streets’ ran to pick up the bag and return it to her. The old woman opened it to scrutinize its contents. Out of that bag she then pulled a large cookie which seemed not to have even crumbled. Then she pushed the cookie under the nose of the ‘King of the Streets’. The boy looked surprised and not too pleased.

“Take it,” his friend told him. “Just take it.”

The ‘King of the Streets’ received the cookie with a slight frown, while the old woman pulled out another cookie from the same bag, which she handed to his friend.

“Eat!” she told them in a scratchy voice and then pulled a third undamaged cookie out of the bag. She took a big bite from her cookie and so the boys, a bit reluctantly though, started to nibble on theirs.

“It’s not bad,” the ‘King of the Streets’ commented, surprised, and added belatedly: “Thank you.”

The other boy thanked the homeless woman as well. But she didn’t say anything, already looking past them in her usual way. She only gave them a small nod with her head, while finishing her own cookie with a few more big bites. She then took hold of her cart again and started pushing it along the sidewalk, monotonously talking to herself just the way David had heard her the other two times he had seen her. But somehow it was to a slightly different tune than before: “Good boys nowadays, good boys nowadays, good boys…” She slowly walked down the sidewalk. The rattling of the pots, pans, and silver-wear and the screeching of the cart-wheels accompanied the soft sing-song of her voice.

The boys were still finishing their cookies. “My Granny used to bake cookies which tasted just like these,” the older boy commented thoughtfully. “

You know she raised us, my sister and me, when we were little, because my mom…, oh you’ve seen my mom, you know why. But then a couple of years ago, Granny got very sick and she’s now in a wheelchair and they put her in an old folks’ home.” The boy sounded sad.

He took another bite of his cookie: “You know she taught me to read, even before I got into kindergarten, Granny did. She always used to say that when you read enough books, then in your head you will own the whole world.”

“The whole world, that’s more than the streets,” the other boy commented.

“And more than the chair, that’s for sure,” his friend grinned. “I think I’m gonna visit Granny today. I haven’t gone to that place for a while.” He nodded to himself with determination.

In an uncharacteristically shy voice, his friend uttered a question: “Do you think your grandma could teach me to read too?”

And more as his usual self, he added: “’Cuz the Batty sure can’t.”

After swallowing his last cookie-bite, he added as an afterthought: “I guess she’s got too many kids to teach.”

“Sure, Granny can teach anybody anything,” his friend proclaimed proudly, “even you, dumbo!”

This earned him a shove into the ribs, which was promptly returned.

“If we take a couple of spins on the ramp and then roll down to the old folks’ place, we’ll make it just in time for breakfast. Granny always shares. And then I’ll ask her about the reading stuff for you.”

The boys had gotten back on their boards, turning down a path into the park. David thoughtfully watched them disappear behind the trees. Neither of the boys had even noticed his presence nor eavesdropping.

Even before David looked at her, he could feel that Hope was now crying. But this time it wasn’t out of fear, despair, or sadness.

These tears came from a heart touched by a deep all-encompassing feeling of love. They were tears of recognition, even of joy.

Once again David was taken by surprise. He could sense Hope’s feelings, but he could not for the world take a guess at what had caused them, except that it had something to do with the small scene they had just witnessed.

Sure, one of the boys had rescued the old woman from being run over by a car, but after all, it was he and his friend who were responsible for the crash and the overturned shopping-cart in the first place.

Hope shook her head: “You don’t understand! Why don’t you understand? We’ve seen the First Principle! Right now we’ve seen it, the beginning of it, the new beginning!”

David was at a total loss; he truly didn’t understand.

Hope took a deep breath, steadying herself before she began to explain:

“Just about everywhere in the whole world, every mother will tell this very story when she explains to her little child about the First Principle, about how every human being is of great importance for the whole of humanity, and every human being is of infinite and unchangeable value.”

“What story?” David asked, still nonplussed.

“The story of the old woman, the two boys, and the three cookies, of course,” Hope replied. Then she began to narrate:

“Once there was an old woman who had no place to live and all her few belongings she kept in a wheeled cart. And because of this, everyone thought that she was of no importance at all.

“And then there were two boys on wheeled boards and everyone thought that they had no value because they were poor and they were rule-breakers. But when the wheeled boards smashed into the wheeled cart, the whole world changed.

“The boys saved the life of the old woman, because her life became important to them. And the old woman gave the boys two of her last three cookies because their lives became of value to her.

“And from that moment in time, those who had lost the First Principle would find it again in their hearts, and because of that, the future was saved.

“The whole world changed and the future was saved because of an old woman, two boys, and three cookies….”

Hope whispered the end of the story more to herself than to David.

After another deep breath she turned to him, explaining:

“Thousands of image-stories about this can be found on the Peace-Web, and thousands of songs. All children act out this story or sing a song about it in their first year of school.

“When we go through the victim-scenario, we learn to fear war. We learn it here,” Hope pointed to her head “and here,” she pointed to her heart.

“But long before we learn to fear, we learn to love, to love the First Principle… through this story.”

Then she shook her head in wonder:

“This is why I am here now. This is why Great-Uncle Professor said it was time. He somehow knew. He wanted me to see this…to see it now. And to bring it back home. To tell the people of Spesaeterna about what I’ve seen, at the next meeting when the whole world is listening.”

Hope paused, breathing heavily, doubt and fear setting in:

“But how? I’m just a child, not even an adolescent,” she said, still talking to herself:

“They’d never listen to a child, never. They would not even allow me to attend the meeting. I won’t be able to tell them. It’s impossible, absolutely impossible!”

“Listen to me, Hope,” David, trying to get her out of her self-absorbed doubt and despondency, looked into her eyes, and talking with great urgency, he listed:

“It was your great-uncle, Hope, who was once John Galt’s friend, but your great-uncle chose a different path than his friend did. And so it was your great-uncle who built the device that allowed you to travel in time and to observe and learn from the past and see what you have seen right now.

“It was Luscinia, a girl from your village, who befriended the imprisoned wife of John Galt and the mother of his son Jonathan. And because of this, Jonathan Galt and Luscinia Callahan, these first people who came back from Orange Country, chose to come to your village with their terribly important information.

“And it is your father who was killed by a Dark Age explosive.

“And therefore it was your mother, his widow, who was chosen to command the ice-breaker fleet, which has now become the whole world’s sea defense force.

“And it is you, Hope, who have been the only person ever to be able to travel back over two hundred years in time.

“And there you have met the father and sister of Marco Santini, the very soldier who saved Farouk and allowed him to see humanity in his enemy and so made it possible for Farouk to become a man of peace and his experience the victim scenario of your world.

“And it is you who have seen what your world considers to be the original scene of the First Principle.

They will listen to you, Hope!”

David thoughtfully looked down the road, where the old woman with her shopping-cart was about to turn a corner. In that moment the first ray of the rising sun lifted above the horizon and seemed to shine exclusively on the old woman, transforming her appearance.

The colors of her knitted cap started to glow in red and blue, and the hair coming out from underneath her cap reflected the gold of the sun, while her cart gleamed silver. And to make the illusion complete, her boots and the wheels of her cart seemed somehow to float above the now glittering street.

David blinked and the illusion was gone. The old homeless woman had turned the corner and was out of David’s sight, and the whole street was now bathed in the red-golden morning sunlight.

David looked at Hope. Had she seen that? Of course she had, she could see what he saw. And so he added something to his words, something he knew would convince Hope, but at this single moment in time he believed it himself with all his heart:

“Sometimes there are miracles….”

Hope looked into David’s eyes. Then she squared her shoulders. She was somebody who had been given a difficult responsibility, one she had not chosen for herself. She was to carry the heavy burden of truth to her people, not an easy burden to carry, but a necessary one. And now she was ready to carry it… because she cared.

“I have to go now,” Hope said.

David nodded.

“Bless, Uncle David!”

“Bless, Hope!”

The image faded, and then Hope was gone and David was alone.

***

You took your time!” John Galt sneers at me with his usual mix of impatience and disappointment. In his view, his son’s time should be reserved for work and physical training—nothing else is of any importance.

I keep my eyes on the ground, mustn’t let him see too much in them, answering only with a slight nod.

But my father isn’t finished yet: “It was a woman, wasn’t it, a young girl?”

Now I stiffen up. The image of Luscinia has been in my mind since I entered the underground facility. The thought of her gives me strength. Has my father guessed something?

The girls from the projects are too old for you, aren’t they. But that’s still no reason to waste a whole three weeks in the sea-villages.” John Galt is on the wrong track; I can relax.

You gave me permission for a three week vacation,” I murmur defensively.

My father replies, waving my words aside:

I said at most three weeks of absence, hoping however you would get over your itches much earlier than that. And I agreed only because you promised to get rid of that distracted attitude of yours which had made your work an exercise of utter mediocrity the last few months. And I really hope you now have done so.

With the new insurance fees being implemented at the moment, in a couple of months we will be able to open a whole new group of projects with much younger women, starting at the age of twelve. There should be plenty of choices for you then and no more need for a long vacation.”

John Galt spits out the last word as if it is something which leaves a bad taste in his mouth.

A surge of anger starts flooding my mind now, together with images of little Natsuki and her desperate parents. I finger the gun in my pocket, tempted to use it right on the spot. But I know I can’t afford to strike out in anger at this moment – there are far too many people around.

As usual, my father has chosen to put me down in public, here in the gene-research lab, with all his ten lab-assistants secretly watching while pretending to work.

He has always enjoyed an audience for his tirades. He believes it to be character-building for his son, that it would spur me on to a higher standard of excellence.

But the anger I now feel does have a good effect. It’s clearing my mind of nervousness.

My voice is now strong and totally calm as I contradict:

You are wrong, Father. I did not waste my time during the last three weeks. I only needed a bit of fresh air to allow me to think more clearly about our work here. And having done so, I have come up with a few suggestions of my own, some of which you might find quite interesting. But I would like to present them to you in private, in your office.”

For once I’ve caught my father’s attention. However, the slight sneer I see on his face before he wordlessly turns around tells me, that he does not have much confidence that his son’s suggestions would be to his liking.

And yes, John Galt is most certainly right, this time. I can barely suppress a grin while I follow my father.

Once inside his office which is dominated by a giant computer with its dozens of monitors – the control-center of the whole facility – he turns around, giving me an expectant glance.

My first suggestion,” I begin as I pull the gun from my pocket in one determined move, “is to terminate your work altogether.”

The look of sheer incredulity on John Galt’s face is followed by a look of horror the moment I pull the trigger. My father crashes to the floor in convulsions.

The scientists of what I had once thought of as the outside-world have modified the stun-guns normally given to “travelers”.

Mine is made of a sturdy organic-fiber material so as to be undetectable by the metal-detector gates at the front entrance. And like those carried by my companions, the voltage this gun produces is much higher than usual, putting any target out of commission for several minutes.

And these guns have another even more useful function: Held directly to a person’s neck and with a quick push of the blue button, they become syringes through which one can administer an anesthetic. The duration of the effect is somewhat dependent upon a person’s body weight, but is usually around two hours.

Before I use the gun’s anesthetic function, though, I have one more thing to say:

It’s over, Father! The world knows and they are prepared now. They are also ready to destroy you—all of you—if you try something like this again. Believe me, you can’t win!”

Then I push the button.

What are you doing?! What is…”

I wheel around in shock to face the person who has just entered the office. As if by reflex without a moment’s hesitation I press the first, the yellow button on the multifunctional gun and the shot hits the target.

The man is Mr. Wurner, my father’s partner and second-in-command at the facility, the only one who can come unannounced into John Galt’s office.

This is a stroke of good luck. I use the syringe function on Larry Wurner now. To have that guy taken out of commission, will make the whole operation a lot easier to get through. I look around at my father. He is already sleeping peacefully.

I’m satisfied. I can now approach my father’s computer, the main one for the entire facility. I know that John Galt changes the access codes for his staff on a daily basis, but from here in the office, I can get at them all. I know my father’s own code, unchanged from probably the first day the facility has been operational. I enter this code into the system… nothing…

I try again; still nothing; and a third time with no effect. The computer stays silent, not even displaying an error message.

I feel desperation rising up in me. All the preparation, all the contingency plans…and now I can’t even get simple machine access.

The information contained in this computer is vital for the defense of the outside world against the biological weapons’ system my father has built. And also for this current operation to succeed, I need access so I can turn off the security system and get into the bio-sweep programs.

What should I do?

Try again a few more times or just proceed to the next step and instead of distracting the guards, just force them to open the gate?

Maybe once I get the Professor inside, that man can find another way into the system—he’s supposed to be a genius, isn’t he, just like my father?

But then an epiphany hits me.

Of course… how could I have been so stupid?

My father has no need to change his password since he has a much better way to secure his data. His computer is bio-data activated. Why haven’t I ever noticed that before?

I turn around and pick up my father’s unconscious body, drag it across the floor, and then having to use all my strength, I heave him up into the chair. I press my father’s left hand to the touch-scanner and open his eyelids with two fingers to allow the computer’s inbuilt camera to scan the eyes.

That starts the machine working.

Now I’m able to connect the small cables from my modified wrist control directly to each of the eight ports of the computer. This modification has been necessary because Nephilim City technology is based on Dark Age models and therefore is incompatible with the evolved technology of the outside-world. But with these modifications, the information contained in the computer will be converted into readable patterns. Magnified to penetrate the facility’s thick walls the information is then being received by the Professor’s wrist-control and from there will be transmitted via satellite to the eagerly waiting scientists all over the world.

Simultaneous data transmission in progress; estimated transmission time 10 minutes,” is now written on my wrist-control.

This was it then. I take a deep breath. Very soon they’ll have all the data, including the bio-data of the engineered insects and the virus, together with all the variations on which my father has been working.

Whatever happens from now on, even if none of our teams makes it back alive, with this data the people of Spesaeterna and all the other villages will still know how to defend themselves.

But getting the data is only the first step; slowing down my father’s work is crucial as well. And for that operation, I need to get into the security system. I type feverishly and in a minute I have the codes to disable the system. But first I need to program the delays. In fifteen minutes all doors will open and all security cameras will go off-line.

In twenty minutes a security alarm for bio-hazards will sound in one after another of the nine bio-weapons laboratories and their adjacent storage rooms. The bio-sweeps inside them will then proceed in another two minutes each.

And finally, in exactly 55 minutes, a computer-virus transferred from my wrist-control – the most malicious virus the computer scientists of the outside-world have ever programmed – will start to infiltrate the system, wiping out all data and destroying the complete soft-ware of the facility’s entire network.

Everything is now prepared and I can finally allow my father’s limp body to slide down from the chair to the ground; he isn’t needed any more. Satisfied, I look at the unconscious heap lying at my feet while waiting for the transmission to finish. It feels good to see my father like this, so good….

I’m in awe at the speed of the transmission of the enormous amount of data stored in my father’s computer. The progress-hating outside-worlders for whom my father feels nothing but disdain have, within only a few days, created a device for extracting data ever so much faster than anything Nephilim City has ever come up with.

The transmission is now complete and I disconnect my wrist-control from the computer. I need to hurry now and get to the front-entrance before the system shuts down and alerts the guards.

I leave the office after first pushing Mr. Wurner’s body away from the door. Closing it securely behind me. I hurry on, forcing myself not to run.

Hello Jonathan! Did you have a good vacation?” It is Orrin Miller, a junior assistant with whom I’m on friendly terms.

I force a fake smile on my lips: “Sure Orrin, it was great. I’ll tell you all about it. But now I’ve got to do something for my father, got to hurry. You know how he is.”

Orrin grins understandingly and allows me to pass into the elevator.

Once up at ground-level I slow down, walking in an easy pace. Nothing must alert the guards.

Terrence and Dragi are still on duty at the front desk today. They know me well, as do all the others, that’s why they didn’t do any thorough weapons checks when they let me inside, something that’s normally done on everyone else.

I greet them again with a nod and then explain: “My father thinks there might be something wrong with the metal detector gates. He wants you to check them right now.”

As always the guards do what they are told to do.

Once their backs are turned, I pull out my gun and stun them. But before tranquilizing them, I tell the withering men on the ground:

Once you recover, you must get out of here. My father will be very angry and out for revenge, and you will be the first in his way. Go and hide and maybe you can even leave the country. We will take over the surveillance system so the chips in your necks can’t be tracked for a long time. He won’t find you easily.”

I then proceed to use my syringe device on the guards. I hope they have heard me; of all the employees in the facility, they are the most innocent. They have no clearance into the labs; they really don’t know what is going on here.

Then with a single touch on the controls I open the gate.

About two dozen people are waiting outside, Mr. Wang, the Professor, and Ms Alba at the front. Behind them are Jim Lavon and Tom Parshon, most of the others I don’t know. A few motionless bodies are lying at their feet. The team has obviously succeeded in overwhelming the outside guards.

There is no time for introductions or other preliminaries, so I just ask: “Did you get all of them?”

Vance Drake emerging behind the Professor nods and answers: “We’ve got fifteen, that’s the number isn’t it?”

Yes,” I say curtly.

The whole group now enters the facility and gather around the security booth. I point to the monitors on the board: “We need to take out the other guards before the system goes down and the alarms turn on. They will be on high alert then and will have orders to shoot any suspicious strangers.”

Tom Parshon reassures me: “Don’t worry, we are shielded. That ancient weaponry cannot penetrate our electronic shields.”

This surprises me. I hadn’t been informed about this kind of individual protective weaponry before.

Noticing my surprise, Tom grins:

Modified solitary pulses,” he explains, pointing to his right wrist.

We’ve tested them already—two of those outside guards shot at us before we had gotten a good aim at them. “

Now Vance interrupts impatiently: “First tell us on what floors the guards are located!And then we’ll meet Mr. Wang and Professor Morgan in front of the hangar for the stealth-fighters. That’s on the first level below, isn’t it? We’ve got the nano-bots with us.”

I know that some of the nanobots have been programmed to attack any kind of metal, others silicone, and still others glass; once again, a modified technology but re-developed enormously quickly.

Within a minute Vance has finished studying the monitors and the floor-plan, and after giving his team members instructions, they all set off in different directions.

Mr. Wang, Ms Alba, and the Professor stay behind for a couple of minutes to inform me about the progress of things outside the underground facility:

When the satellite gave the signal of the end of transmission the operation at the security center had begun. With Pedro Allegri’s help Darryl’s team of nearly 200 men is now safely installed inside, most of the operators in there have already been taken out of commission, the doors to the tracking center have been blown open and the disabling of the tracking center’s computers has started.

Now we hear the first alarm sounding, filling the entrance hall with echoes as a computer voice blares:

Bio-hazard leak, Laboratory One! All personal into decontamination! Bio-sweeps will commence in two minutes.”

Mr. Wang and the Professor hurry along to the elevator for the hangars, their next destination while I walk with Ms Alba to the other elevator and press the button to go down to level minus 3.

I notice that Ms Alba is no longer holding the communication device with the fateful red button in her hand. This means that she considers the fail-safe measure to no longer be necessary. She is convinced that the mission has succeeded sufficiently. Nephilim City will not be nuked.

I heave a deep sigh of relief – we all have a chance to get out alive now. And like me Ms Alba is now clutching her gun instead.

Together we walk along the corridor, zapping and then anesthetizing everyone we meet. The first couple of times I feel the same twinge of guilt as when I stunned the guards, for it is obviously a painful procedure. But I know it is necessary.

[_ While none of the facility’s staff is armed -except for the guards- still, if all of my father's employees were to work together, they might easily overwhelm the small group of infiltrators. And the other even more urgent danger is that somebody might leave the facility and warn the thousands of security enforcers outside before all the clandestine operations are completed. _]

But with every person I zap, it becomes easier. I keep telling myself that they deserve it, all of them; they get what is coming to them. Then I meet Orrin, who having shed his bio-hazard suit, is just now leaving the decontamination chamber of Laboratory Five. For a second I hesitate, but one of Vance’s men who has been stationed there to take out everyone leaving the chamber, takes the shot instead.

Seeing Orrin’s friendly face turning from surprise to horror and watching him convulsing in pain on the ground makes me realize that causing that kind of pain is not something that I should get used to.

The first bio-sweeps have already started. The computer-voice is sounding: “Bio-hazard leak, Laboratory Nine! All personal into decontamination! Bio-sweeps will commence in two minutes,”

It’s followed by: “Bio-sweep is now proceeding in Laboratory Three!”

Yes, everything is going as planned. I know exactly how the bio-sweeps work. First ozone gas, similar to that used to decontaminate the workers in their bio-hazard suits, will be sprayed everywhere via a sprinkler system. Subsequently a high-heat laser-sweep will make sure that no biological material survives in either the labs or the storage containers.

Now it is time to go to the genetic labs. And just as I have programmed it from my father’s office, the doors are open and no more access protocols are necessary.

Of the ten men I had previously encountered in the lab, only two are still inside. Ms Alba stuns them instantly while I use my gun’s syringe function on them.

Ms Alba then reaches into the bag she is carrying and wordlessly hands me one of the can-shaped nano-bot containers made from organic fiber-material. We both know what to do with them. By slightly pressing the dispersers on top of the containers and systematically spraying every work-station, we destroy the equipment needed to create new post-human embryos.

We then proceed to the adjacent room. Only one man is inside here. But before Ms Alba can zap him, I stop her.

That’s Mr. Tanner, my teacher,” I say.

Mr. Tanner doesn’t show any surprise. He even looks pleased.

You made it to the outside-world,” he states matter-of-fact. “I’m so glad. It’s what I have hoped for.”

He then turns to Ms Alba: “You are shutting down the facility, aren’t you?”

Ms Alba answers: “For as long as possible.”

Good.” There was deep satisfaction in Mr. Tanner’s voice.

You should come with us,” I suggest. “My father will be angry when he wakes up. He will try to find a culprit, and he might even blame you for the things I have done.”

I won’t leave without the baby.” Mr. Tanner points at the large glass-wall behind him. Through the glass one can see into a small room fitted out as a kind of nursery. Baby Alpha is sitting on a carpet, studiously arranging some small building-blocks around him, seemingly sorting them according to color. He has already built a tower with the red blocks.

He is not human,” I hiss. “He will be incapable of any feeling for you – why should you care about him?”

I think you are wrong, Jonathan,” Mr. Tanner replies calmly. “And even if you were right, it makes no difference to me. It seems I may have left something important out of your education, Jonathan.”

I won’t leave this little boy not because of what he can or cannot feel but because he needs me. For your father, little Alpha is nothing but a tool for his grand plans. But in spite of what your father has done to him, for me he is still only a little boy. And he needs someone to tell him that, just like you once did, Jonathan.”

Alright,” I agree after a moment’s hesitation and a look at Ms Alba who has neither said nor indicated in any other way what she thinks about the matter. “Take him with you.”

Without hesitation Mr. Tanner opens the door to the nursery, goes inside, and picks up the baby. Alpha starts to grimace, obviously not wanting to be disturbed in his task.

And when they come out of the nursery I can hear him wailing petulantly: “I want my blocks, I want my blocks!”

I turn to the other door leading from the lab.

But Mr. Tanner blocks the way: “Jonathan please, don’t destroy the maturation chambers—there are babies inside.”

They’re not human,” I protest once again. “And besides, you should know that my father destroyed literally thousands of those embryos, calling them failed experiments and non-viable.”

Some of them are viable now,” Mr. Tanner replies while he leads us a short way into the room, pointing at the first machine on the left. “Look, over there is Alpha’s twin; he’s got the very same DNA as Alpha. With near certainty your father will let him live.”

“[_ That's Alpha's clone, you mean” I spit out looking at the wired glass container where an about six month old fetus -floating in a murky fluid- seems to be sleeping, while the monitor above registers a steady and regular heart-beat. _]

The name “Betha” is inscribed on an electronic tag at the lower edge of the container. Baby Alpha, perched on Mr. Tanner’s arm, has stopped wailing for the moment and has bent his head to the side. He seems to be observing his supposed twin with quite some interest.

I hesitate and once again and give Ms Alba a questioning look. Ms Alba looks from Alpha to the fetus and back again, then she tells us: “Let’s go.”

While we are leaving the laboratory, Mr. Tanner unexpectedly shoves Alpha into my arms, telling me, “He looks like you Jonathan.”

Maybe,” I agree, “the way he thinks about himself, my father probably used his own DNA as a foundation for that one.”

No,” Mr Tanner says patting Alpha’s head, “he needed fresher stem-cells, so he used them from an umbilical cord he had stored… your cord.”

I feel sick now, I haven’t known that one. My father had tried to create a more perfect edition of me… yes, that fits.

Mr Tanner turns away: “I’ve got to get his medication from the dispensary before we leave. I’ll be back with you in a minute.”

But I thought he’s the perfect humanoid specimen, what does he need medication for?” I ask in surprise, while disgustedly eying the small engineered alternate version of myself from up close.

Alpha’s return gaze is just as suspicious.

I’ll explain it to you later,” Mr. Tanner replies. “Go on, I’ll catch up with you,” he added while already hurrying around the next corner.

Strangely enough, Ms Alba has barely said a word during this whole time with Mr. Tanner. I have expected her to protest loudly when I suggested taking that non-human baby with us, but she hasn’t. Instead she has even agreed to spare the maturation chambers with the embryos inside. Quietly and without any explanation, she slowly walks side by side with me toward the next elevator.

Suddenly we hear a loud yelling coming from behind us: “You bastard, I should have known it was you all along.”

My heart stops. I know the voice only too well. And of course I’ve also known all along that my father’s office is directly opposite the dispensary. Why has he woken up already?

I shove the baby into Ms Alba’s arms and run to the source of the voice as fast as my legs will carry me.

You put it all into my son’s head, didn’t you? You viciously deceptive senile traitor! And you were going to poison the mind of my post-human boy as well! You dirty bastard should never have been born. I won’t stand for it, never again…”

I hear a scream of pain which was abruptly cut short. With dark foreboding, I turn the corner, gun ready.

The scene I encounter now is more horrifying than my worst fears.

Mr. Tanner, still clutching a large brown bag presumably containing Alpha’s medicine, is collapsing slowly to the floor while John Galt is pulling the knife from my teacher’s abdomen, causing a fountain of blood to spray both of them.

I pull the trigger and my father also convulses to the floor. I drop the gun and instinctively kneel down next to Mr. Tanner to press on the gaping wound in a futile effort to stop the bleeding. But the knife must have hit an artery, and the blood keeps spilling out through my fingers.

Don’t die, Mr. Tanner, oh no don’t die!” I plead desperately. But life is steadily flowing out of my teacher.

It was all my fault, all