As always, comments can be sent to the author at bloodyvisigoths@charter.net
 
 

"Outlaws and Allies"

By Ernie Whiting

Copyright (C) Ernest Whiting, 1990, 1997, 2004

Part 1

Prologue

       The elderly woman in the rocking chair paused in her knitting for a moment. She laid her needles and yarn in her lap and reached for her white china cup with the gold trim, and sipped daintily at her herbal tea with one pinky extended. She closed her eyes as she savored its apple-cinnamon flavor with a sigh of satisfaction, and then gently set the cup back down on its matching saucer with a soft clink! She picked up her needles and continued knitting. She liked to sit here on Sunday mornings to knit; the sun came in through the open curtains, and it warmed her old bones comfortably. She could sit here for hours and hours, and knit and listen to the radio; and sometimes she would just doze here and dream of better times as her small FM radio, which rested on the table next to her, played softly and lulled her with the soothing sounds of classical music while birds sang merrily outside and the occasional insect bumped against the porch screen. She loved these fine Sunday summer mornings, and she always looked forward to spending them quietly.
       An ominous voice suddenly said, "We interrupt this program for this special bulletin."
       She sat up straighter as her heart raced apprehensively. These special announcements from the Foundation-which, in spite of the announcer's foreboding tones, usually wound up not being very important after all-always made her nervous, because there was always a chance that it might truly be something of major importance. She was sure that one of these days one of those interruptions was going to cause her heart to seize up and drop her to the floor, stone-dead, like a sack of laundry.
       A car door slammed inside the small radio's speaker, and footsteps could be heard coming up a cement path, growing louder and louder as they approached the house. Then a nervous, nasal and cracking adolescent male voice asked, "So...did you have a good time at the church fair, Heather?"
       "Oh, yes, Norbert, I had a wonderful time!" said a rich and innocent female voice.
       "I'm glad you did," said the male as the elderly lady wondered what this was all about; it certainly didn't sound like one of the FLM's usual interruptions.
       "Maybe next time we could go to a movie or something?" asked the male voice. "I found one that's already been Foundation-approved."
       "That sounds very nice, Norbert, but-"
       "Ooohhh, goody! Then I can call you tomorrow?"
       Sadly, the female voice said, "I'm afraid not, Norbert. I'm not going to be here tomorrow; I'm leaving for Sri Lanka in the morning. I'm going on a missionary trip to help save the endangered Sri Lankan aborigines from a life of sin and drunken debauchery. It's something that I've always wanted to do."
       The elderly lady reached for the radio and turned up the volume a little bit. What is this? she wondered.
       "Oh..." The male was also disappointed. Then he brightened and said, "Well, as long as you're doing the Lord's work, I guess that's all right."
       "I knew you'd understand, Norbert. I have to go in and pack now."
       "Well...okay. You have a good trip." Footsteps were now retreating down the concrete path. "And remember," the male voice said, diminishing a little bit as it began to fade into the distance, "Jesus loves you!"
       "Jesus loves you, too!"
       A little fainter in the distance now: "Praise Jesus!"
       "Yes, praise Jesus!"
       A little fainter, a little more distant now: "Praise the Lord!"
       "Yes," she said with a sigh of slightly strained patience, "praise the Lord!"
       Even more distant, straining to be heard now: "Praise His Foundation, too!"
       "Yes, praise..."
       Fainter still: "The Foundation looooves yoooou!"
       "Yeah...right..."
       Yet even more distant: "God bless the-"
       BAM! went the door, cutting him off. "Shmuck," she grumbled. "I thought he'd never leave..." High-heeled footsteps walked through the radio, and then there was the sound of a zipper opening and the gentle rustling of some kind of fabric falling to the floor. "God , it's good to get out of these clothes..." Then there were the sounds of walking bare feet, with heels thudding against the wooden floor. The drawer of a dresser could be heard being opened, and then there were more bare footsteps crossing the floor again. A moment later there came the sound of squeaking bedsprings and a female sigh of relief, and then there was a soft click and the gentle buzz-hum of something electric. She began to moan.
       Her eyes widened in shock as she turned to stare at the radio. What the hell?? she thought as, without realizing it, she dropped her knitting into her lap.
       Then the announcer's voice spoke again, this time in rowdy good cheer. "We have commandeered the airwaves at 94.7 on your FM dial, and you are now listening to Outlaw Radio , coming at you in stereo from our new home-and your new rock-'n'-roll headquarters-in Allied Territory!"
     Rock and roll? she thought. A slow, tiny smile began to creep across the elderly lady's lips. She hadn't heard rock-'n'-roll since the Foundation for Law and Morality had taken over the government, along with just about every aspect of citizens' private lives.
       Jefferson Airplane's "We Can Be Together," from their 1969 Volunteers album, suddenly came blasting through the speaker. The announcer spoke loudly over the music: "In the eighties and nineties, when the FLM was seizing power, they shot down one independent station after another. They are not going to shoot us down, man, 'cause thanks to that big ol' satellite orbiting way up there in the sky we're a moving target. And "-and then his voice took on a chilling tone-"because we can shoot back! "
       A bunch of people-engineers and other disc jockeys-cheered and applauded in the background, and there was the unmistakable sound of a bolt being drawn back and snapping into place on an assault rifle.
       The elderly lady in the rocking chair picked up her knitting again, and with a grin she began tapping one foot in time to the music.
       "Some of you out there aren't gonna like us," the announcer said, and one could hear the wry grin in his voice. "We're going to offend you, and no doubt we're going to piss you off. But we promise you this: we will not lie to you! For too long, the Foundation for Law and Morality has used the corporate media to spew their bullshit-yeah, you heard me right, boys and girls, I said bullshit , right here on the air!-they spew their bullshit and try to manipulate your opinions by the way they control information. But you won't get any of that on this station. We will do our best not only to entertain you, but also to inform you and make you think for yourselves. And thanks to our spies in places both high and low, we will present concrete evidence to back up everything we say in future updates. So if you don't like us-and I can't imagine why you won't! -then go ahead and change the station right now. But if you're interested in hearing something different; if you want to hear programming that isn't censored by the Foundation; if you want to know the truth about what they're doing to you and how much they're charging you for it, then stick around and listen up."
       "We Can Be Together" grew in volume and power, and the announcer raised his voice once more: "This is the A-Net-the mighty Allied Network, at 94.7 on your FM dial-and 'Outlaw Radio' is on the air!! "
 
 

Chapter One

       The forest cabin was a unique blend of utter simplicity and NASA technology. Decorated on all sides with a variety of pagan protective talismans that hung along with a variety of glittering crystals and musical wind chimes, it rested comfortably near the southern edge of a wide clearing and was surrounded by a massive old-growth forest of the most magnificent redwoods you ever saw. It was a passive and active solar house, which consisted of a wide skylight and tall, wide, dual-pane sliding windows, and a bank of solar panels whose photovoltaic cells absorbed sunlight throughout the day and converted it directly into electricity, and supplemented the power provided by the waterwheel that hung over the river. The power that was not expended by the refrigerator/freezer, the entertainment center, and an assortment of fluorescent lamps, was stored in twin rows of high-powered batteries. There was also a wide covered porch in front of the house, with a wide hammock and two lounge chairs and a surrounding rail, and a large bay window that faced west. Inside, beneath the bay window, there rested a raised wide platform bed, and opposite this there was a wide stone fireplace. From the southeast corner there stood another, smaller chimney with a fireplace that warmed a smaller, added-on room. To finish it all off, there was a gray stone fence with a wide and slightly rusted wrought iron gate, some ten meters from the house, that surrounded the home and vegetable garden. Reminiscent of the styles of Ireland and Scotland, it stood about four feet high and was mostly covered by a tangle of ivy and bright yellow and orange flowers. Bees and butterflies buzzed and danced merrily around it, attracted by the sweet scents and generous supplies of nectar.
       Valerie Ryan loved the country life far more than she had ever enjoyed city living. For the last seven years, she chopped her own wood, went rock-climbing and back-packing for days at a time, took frequent white-water rafting trips, and worked with the two horses in the small barn. She had also built the cabin-with some help-in which she, her partner Jasmine Tanaka, and her daughter Sierra now lived. As a result of this highly physical lifestyle, she had gained a considerable amount of muscle. Not to the extremes of the professional body-builders from years before, but rather now she had the physique of a warrior goddess of ancient Greece or Rome; deliciously feminine, yet unquestionably strong. Both she and Jasmine were warm and friendly, and easy-going; Jasmine was an expert martial artist whose quick smile, easy and musical laugh, and sparkling, emerald eyes were like a sudden burst of sunshine on a storm swept day, while in Valerie's case there was a cool, dark aura of wry humor and smoldering sexuality that was reflected in her pale, clear amber eyes, and a lethal confidence that was evidenced in the way she carried herself. ("Nothing ever seems to bother you," she had once said to Jasmine. "What is it that lights your fuse? What sets you off? C'mon, tell me about the dark side of Jasmine Tanaka." "Well, you know how it is," she had replied with a smile. "We all have our own personal demons; I just try to keep mine chained securely in the dungeon of my psyche.")
       After having just completed her grisly hunter's labors-skinning the deer carcass that she had recently brought home, butchering the venison and then sealing and freezing it-Valerie stripped her top off over her head and tossed it near the wicker laundry basket, then pulled off her moccasins and came outside. Dressed only in a brief pair of denim cut-offs, her wolf's-tooth earring which hung from her right lobe, and her ever-present silver pentacle, which hung on a thin, rope-styled silver chain to lay against the rich, sun-bronzed skin over her heart-and a glittering and dangling amethyst belly ring that now pierced the upper cup of her navel-she took the opportunity to sit on the top step of the wide porch and lean her back against one of its roof supports, and finally relax while seven-year-old Sierra was finally allowed to take off for the river along with her contingent of bodyguards.
       She suddenly froze, and listened carefully. The soft breeze had died, and with it died the forest sounds. No birds, no insects...nothing.
       Damn, she thought apprehensively, here it comes again.
       The ground began to tremble, and shook gently for a long moment; it lasted about ten seconds, and then it became still again. Slowly, things settled down once more, and then the soft warm breeze breathed across her face once more, and the buzzing and chirping sounds of the forest came back to life.
       Not too bad, she decided as her heart rate returned to normal; probably not much more than a two pointer on the Richter scale. It was just Gaia reminding her that She was alive and well, but... Still, Valerie was not terribly fond of earthquakes.
       Welcome to California, she thought dryly.
       She sighed softly with relief. Drawing her knees up, she untied her braid and shook her naturally feathered and layered midnight hair loose; cut just above her eyebrows and parted slightly off-center, it swept across her brow and cascaded about her shoulders and down her back like a rich, dark waterfall. She rested her forearms on her knees as she gently tilted her head back against the roof support, and as she turned her face toward the sun she closed her amber eyes and smiled contentedly as she basked in its warmth.
       A few minutes later she heard the sounds of an approaching horse. Now who might this be? she wondered with quiet curiosity as she opened her eyes and squinted against the sunlight to gaze toward the woods. It wasn't often that she was caught off-guard in various states of dress by visitors and wandering strangers; after all, this was her home and she would dress or even undress any damn way she liked. Still, she could understand the surprised looks she occasionally received from infrequent visitors who suddenly discovered her lying nude in her front yard and deepening her already dark and unlined bronze tan, or emerging naked from the woods after a swim in the river. But what had really annoyed her one day was the unabashed leers of a pair of "poodle-dicks," as she had quickly classified them, who "just happened to be passing by," as they had claimed, with sweat-laden and fogged binoculars hanging from straps around their necks. "Go ahead and stare, you pathetic little jerk-offs," she had told them with a smoky yet threatening voice. "Try anything funny, and I'll kick your nuts up into your half-empty little braincases." They had left quickly.
       Still shading her eyes with one hand, she closed them and cleared her mind, and let the psychic impressions come. Images flashed across the theater screen of her mind, and suddenly she smiled with pleasant surprise. The smile quickly broadened into a dazzling grin, and as she opened her eyes again she made no move to rise just yet; she'd had a hard day, and she was tired.
       Dressed in a short, olive-green knit tank-top and shorts, and with the sun sparkling from her emerald-green dangling belly button ring, the rider came through the redwoods, firs and pines, and cleared her way through the ferns. As she approached the open gate, she grinned that dazzling grin that always made Valerie's heart flutter and her thighs quiver. "Hey there, wolf girl!" she called out in greeting, with her almond-shaped emerald eyes sparkling like the emerald-and-silver pentacle that hung below the base of her own throat.
       "Pele! Welcome home!" She finally rose to her feet with a slight groan, and with her shoulders back, her round breasts high and proud, her spine straight and her head held high, she quickly approached the horse. As she drew nearer, she saw that along with her pentacle the Asian woman was now sporting an eagle's feather that hung from a single thin braid at her left temple. "You're early! We weren't expecting you for another four days!"
       "The action in San Francisco was getting a little too hot for my tastes," she replied as she swung a leg over her horse's head and slipped to the ground. "Between the food riots and the street fighting, I thought I'd better not push my luck."
       Squealing and laughing in delight, the two women eagerly shared a tight embrace and then a deep kiss. A warm tongue slipped between Jasmine's lips, and she gladly accepted it and enthusiastically returned the favor. When they finally broke off the kiss with a soft and moist smacking sound, she said, "You've been eating raw liver again."
       Valerie shrugged, still smiling. "It's a hunters' thing."
       "'Hunter's thing' my ass," she admonished with a grin of her own. "You keep doing that, you're gonna get a parasite."
       Valerie cringed inwardly with a silent Ick! She hadn't thought about that. She released her from her embrace, and they each slipped an arm around the other's waist to hold each other close as they began to walk the horse toward the corral and barn, with Jasmine leading it by the reins. "So other than the shooting and the bombing, how was your trip?"
       She looked at her. "What, like the old joke, 'Aside from that , Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?'"
       Valerie chuckled. "Yeah, something like that."
       "Not bad, really," she replied with a grin. "I think you're going to like the books I found for the library. And I tried to look Keller up, too, but he wasn't around."
       Inside the barn, she began to untie her worn beige Alpine backpack from the saddle. Valerie took the even more worn leather saddlebags. "Let's get 'em inside and check 'em out." She slung the bags over one bare shoulder as Jasmine hefted the backpack, and they headed back out of the barn and into the house.
       The main room of the house had very little actual furniture. There was a cabinet for the entertainment system-a DVD player, an ancient VHS player, an AM/FM stereo receiver and a 34" television monitor-but rather than having traditional sofas and chairs, the room exhibited more of an Asian or perhaps Middle Eastern ambiance; spread out across the thickly padded and grass-colored wall-to-wall carpet, there were low tables on which there stood candles and lamps (both oil and fluorescent), a variety of thick, wide futons, and piles of large, fat pillows of velvet, satin, cotton and synthetic fabrics, and of a variety of earth tones, that could be easily molded to one's comfort or even used as extra beds. Not only were they more comfortable for these three forest animals, but they were also deemed more practical.
       Jasmine laid the backpack on the floor next to the counter that separated the kitchen from the living room as Valerie dropped the saddlebags next to one of those gigantic pillows near the fireplace, then went to draw the soft gray canvas shade acrossthe skylight. It was operated by a long pull-cord, and could be drawn and rolled away to allow the sunlight to come in and warm the house when the weather turned cold. As the material zipped softly across the insulated glass, the light quickly dimmed to the soft and muted look of a dark, cloudy day. The wide, sliding glass door that faced north, along with one of the south-facing windows, was left open with the screen drawn shut, and in only a few minutes the temperature began to drop.
       Jasmine removed her dai-katana from the leather hitch at her left hip and hung it in its customary place above the mantle over the gray, stone fireplace, crossed over Valerie's. (Unlike Valerie's, which was straight bladed and sheathed in a black scabbard, Jasmine's was a little longer and had a very slight curve to it, and rested inside a scabbard covered in light blue velvet. Valerie's was more like a ninja's weapon, while Jasmine's was that of a true Samurai.) Next, she slipped the strap of a black nylon pouch from across her shoulders and back. Inside the bag were more of her defense weapons that always accompanied her on long trips; a dozen shurikens; matte-black steel throwing stars that one saw so frequently in many martial arts movies. And tucked in her waistband at the small of her back were two sets of black hardwood nunchuks, each ten inches long and connected by a short length of stainless steel chain. She had purchased these latter weapons through underground sources long ago, but the sword had been inherited from her late father when she escaped from Hawaii.
       "So where's my girl?" she asked as she lay the pouch down next to the fireplace.
       "Down by the river with some of the guys watching her," Valerie replied.
       Such news to anyone else would have raised shrieking alarms and set off flashing red lights and hysterical screams, but Jasmine found it comforting. "I really think you're going to like those books," she said as she pulled her tank-top off over her head, revealing her own dark and unlined tan and a snarling black panther tattoo, permanently inked high on the back of her right shoulder. They had started tattooing each other after looking through an old tattoo magazine one warm, spring night some six years ago. Valerie had noticed the labrys and immediately wanted it indelibly drawn on her right upper arm because she thought it just simply looked cool, even though it bore absolutely no relevance to the crouching and snarling red dragon that was tattooed high inside her left thigh; and Jasmine wanted the panther to sort of "balance," as she had explained, with the green Chinese dragon that lay high inside her own left thigh.
       She balled up the tank top and tossed it across the room to land on top of the low dresser that stood not far from the foot of the bed. The wicker laundry basket was on the floor next to it, in which there were two pairs of muddy, child-sized shorts and one matching t-shirt, and Valerie's black sport top. It wasn't that Jasmine was a sloppyperson, and neither was Valerie for that matter; they were both highly intelligent, deeply caring, and incisively analytical women. Yet in spite of these characteristics-or perhaps it was because of them-they also tended to be rather unconventional and a bit...well, overly casual.
       Valerie noticed where Jasmine's tank top landed, and thought nothing of it. "Yeah?" she asked. "Like what?"
       "Check 'em out and see." She was moving toward the low dresser as she untied a short leather lace from her satiny black hair, and ran her fingers through it to fluff it slightly. She wore it in a style similar to Valerie's; parted slightly off-center, dark and glossy bangs fell to just above her eyebrows in front. But where Valerie's hair had little flips here and there, Jasmine's fell about her shoulders and down to the dimpled top of the cleft between her tanned buttocks like a soft, lustrous cloak of rich, black satin.
       Valerie watched Jasmine disrobe, and smiled appreciatively at her dark and even tropical tan and her dynamite hard-body. As she fondled her high, proud breasts, her sleek, flat belly and her delectable derriere with her gaze, she suggestively said, "I'm already checking something out."
       Jasmine glanced back at her for a moment and grinned that Grin again. "The books ," she said. She unbuttoned her khaki shorts and let them drop down her legs as Valerie continued to visually stroke and caress her for another moment or two, and kicked them off into the laundry basket with one foot. Facing the low dresser, she opened a drawer and withdrew her own pair of cut-off denim shorts that were as brief as Valerie's. She held them up for inspection for a moment, and then thought, Why bother?and put them back. As she moved to push the drawer shut again, she spied something in the bottom. She pulled out a black garment, and held it outstretched by its shoulders. It was her old ninja outfit; old, yet still in good shape. She wondered for a second or two if she ought to toss it out. And then with a slight shrug she re-folded it and put it away. She liked to keep some old clothes around for sentimental reasons.
       Valerie returned to the massive, red velvet pillow that sat in front of the fireplace, and to the saddlebags that rested there. Sitting cross legged, she opened one of them. She had become the chief librarian of the Territory's Thomas Paine Memorial Library, a voluntary duty that she greatly enjoyed, and she was always excited to see what kinds of new books had been acquired. She removed the bags' contents and placed them on thecushion next to her, and gasped in near ecstasy as she picked up...
       "Chocolate! " It was a plastic, economy-sized bottle of chocolate syrup.
       "I couldn't find any chocolate bars," Jasmine said. Nude, she crossed the room and headed for the bathroom to freshen up, and left the door open a crack so they could talk. "They never would've survived the heat and the ride home anyway, so I got you that instead," she called out.
       "Oh, baby, I love you!" With a rapacious grin, Valerie tore off the protective plastic wrapping and the clear plastic cap in one swift movement, pulled up the nozzle, and then squeezed the plastic bottle as though it was her lover's breast as she lovingly wrapped her lips around the stiff plastic nipple, and guzzled chocolate syrup. She closed her eyes as she slowly, sensuously rolled it around on her tongue and bathed the inside ofher mouth with it, savoring the flavor as though it were a fine wine. She slowly swallowed with a deep gulp. "Oh, sweet Goddess, that's good!" she said at last, her voice breathy.
       "Chocolate freak." Her voice, coming from the bathroom over the sound of running water, suddenly changed to that of a stereotypical fire-and-brimstone Southern minister. "You're a un -Christianized, sin ful, God less commie chocolate addict! " Her voice returned to normal. "You're gonna burn in Hell forever, y'know."
       "Then it's a good thing I've got my fuckin' chocolate," she replied as Jasmine came back into the room and approached the kitchen counter. "I hear you can get mighty thirsty down there." Leaning back against the pillow, she stretched out her arm and tilted her head as far back as she could to regard her partner. "Want some?"
       "Nooooo thanks. Enjoy." She extracted two 750 ml bottles of red wine from her backpack, and two more of white. "I found vino, too. You want some to wash down all that chocolate?"
       "You can get me drunk later," she said, straightening once more with a wry grin. "Oh, man; between the chocolate and the wine, you're gettin' laid tonight, girlfriend." Placing the chocolate bottle on a short table next to her, she turned back to the books and picked up the first, and gasped with delight. "'The Age of Reason,' by Thomas Paine! Jasmine, where'd you find it? I've been looking all over trying to find a replacement copy!"
       "There's this bookstore in the southern quarter of San Francisco," Jasmine said, in reference to that part of the city that was still not in Allied hands, as she uncorked a bottle of Chardonnay and began to pour a glass. "It's run by one of those self-appointed moralist slugs, like that George guy you told me about from Denver, y'know?" With glass in hand, she made her way over to the wide, foam futon near Valerie, set the glass down on a low table, and then settled comfortably next to her on one side. With her head now supported in one hand, her other hand held the wine glass. "I asked him about it, and he said it was just something he was going to burn, since it was illegal anyway." She sipped at the white wine and scrunched her eyebrows together in exaggerated puzzlement. "It's really amazing how all these bookstores have so many books that are 'just something to be burned,' yet never seem to get burned, y'know? Unless it's a public burning. It makes me wonder how many Georges are out there..." She sipped at her wine again, then set the glass on the low table by her head. "Anyway, there was no way I wasgoing to buy it from him and maybe have my picture taken and go through the hell you went through, so when he turned away for a second I...I sssortaaa..." Her voice trailed off with a half-grin as she let the sentence hang. Tanned and nude and totally relaxed, and with the sunlight glittering from her silver pentacle and her belly ring, she lazily rolled onto her back and stretched sensuously, and then shifted onto her side once more with a soft moan and a deep sigh. Reaching again for her glass, she swirled the wine around before taking another sip. Yes indeed, it most certainly was good to be home at last.
       Valerie fixed her with a scowling look of mock disapproval. "Jasmine Tanaka, did you steal this book?"
       Her dazzling grin broadened. "I liberated it!" she stated proudly, her voice hollow inside of the glass. "Check out the rest of them." She sipped again.
       My little thief, she thought affectionately, fighting the good fight and saving books from the pyre. Shaking her head with a grin of her own, she set the plastic bottle down on the table next to Jasmine, turned back to the books, and read some more titles.
       "Hey, guess what?" Jasmine suddenly asked. "The Resistance has their own radio station now."
       She didn't turn away from the books. "Oh, yeah?"
       "Yeah. It's really a trip; it's like a sixties flashback, and the Foundation is madder than hell because they can't seem to do anything about it. They call themselves 'Outlaw Radio.'"
       "The sixties are over," Valerie said softly, "I wish people would deal with that." Then she turned her attention to Jasmine. "Does that mean we're going to have to get one of those ugly-assed FM antennas to stick on the roof, and make the house look like downtown suburbia?"
       "I'd do it; it's a great station, and they're blowing all the Foundation's dirty little secrets." Wine glass in hand, she indicated the saddlebags. "There's a tape of one of their broadcasts in there somewhere."
       "I'll listen to it later." Valerie went back to scanning the books. "'The Collected Letters of Thomas Jefferson.' Hmmm... You really think we should be reading somebody else's mail?"
_______Jasmine groaned with a crooked grin. "Read on," she said as she reached for the table to set her wine glass down.
       "'The Monkey Wrench Gang' and 'Hayduke Lives!'... 'One Life At A Time, Please'... Jesus, what a haul! What'd you do, heist an entire Edward Abbey collection?"
       "Hardly. I met this guy named Murray Spielman, and I traded a quarter kilo of weed for the rest of those books. Unfortunately, all I had left was the quarter key; the rest I traded off for the wine, the chocolate, the other books, and the rest of the assorted goodies. Otherwise I would've walked off with about seventeen more of his titles." She raised her wine glass to her lips once more with a slightly arched eyebrow, and she quietly told herself, "We're going to have to plant a bigger pot garden next time." She sipped her wine again. "And speaking of Ed Abbey, you should have heard about whathappened to a bunch of San Francisco 'Earth First!'ers."
       "What about 'em?"
       "According to the guys from 'Outlaw Radio,'" she replied as she reached across to set her glass down once more, "they got arrested in midnight raids at their homes on federal charges of environmental 'terrorism.' God, how the Foundation loves that term! As though a monkey wrencher trying to save a patch of wilderness by destroying inanimate machinery is the real terrorist, rather than the bastards with the chainsaws and the bulldozers who destroy entire ecosystems in the name of makin' a fast buck." She ran the fingers of one hand through her hair to scratch gently at her scalp. "They were thrown into a prison camp along with a bunch of other political 'terrorists'-by which they mean uncontrolled writers, civil rights activists, free speech activists, and-believe it or not-former members of the National Rifle Association. How's that for a diverse group of rabble-rousers?" She reached for her glass and sipped at her wine again. "Can you imagine what sheer hell those camps must sound like, with all those flatulent 'conservatives' and masturbating 'liberals' pissing and bitching at each other, and screaming about which amendment-the First or the Second-was more important? Man, I'd hate to be a guard and have to listen to that shit all fuckin' day long." Then she sighed deeply and shook her head sadly. "Dear Goddess, you'd think they would've learned by now who the real enemy is." She snorted mildly in disgust. "The Foundation finally found another use for Manzanar, Topaz, and all those military bases that got closed down in the early nineties. They turned them into prison camps, and used them to lock up all those 'suspected terrorists.' And after that, they covered up all the incarcerations." She reached for her glass and drained it, and set it down again.
       "Y'know," Valerie said, "if the free-speech activists and the gun-rights advocates had quit fighting each other and had gotten together , the Foundation wouldn't have lasted five minutes."
       Jasmine raised an eyebrow at her. "Kinda makes you wonder who originally drove the wedge of contention between them, doesn't it?"
       It was an old topic, one that they had discussed maybe a hundred times over the years.
       She turned back to the books and rapidly thumbed through the volume again, and then grinned with delight as her amber eyes roamed over the booty. "Gods, Jasmine, this is wonderful!" She suddenly threw herself against her, pinning her down and deliciously squirming against her with her full weight. With her arms gently around the Asian woman's neck, she gave her a deep, loud and smacking kiss on the lips. "Thank you!"
       "Well, you're welcome!" she replied, a little surprised by the enthusiasm of her response. Then she slid her own arms around her. "Hey, as long as we're all alone here..."
       Slipping out of her arms, Valerie returned to a sitting position and excitedly turned back to the books. She picked up "Cosmos" and "The Demon-Haunted World," both by Dr. Carl Sagan, and beamed like a kid on Christmas morning.
       Jasmine sat up and slung an arm around her shoulders. "I've really missed you, and our bed..."
       "Dave Foreman's 'Ecodefense-A Field Guide to Monkey Wrenching'! Shit, this is great! " She grinned with delight, barely able to contain herself. "Jasmine, this is fantastic! I can't thank you enough."
       The other hand began stroking her high inside her bare thigh with the back of one finger, caressing the snarling, red dragon tattoo. "Well, I can certainly think of one way," she said with a grin of her own.
       Valerie finally noticed what she was up to, and quickly evaluated her. Wearing nothing but the eagle's feather at her left temple, and with her sparkling, almond-shaped emerald eyes that matched the green-and-silver pentacle and the dangling emerald belly ring that glittered against her rich, dark, sun-bronzed skin, Valerie thought this Asian witch looked supernaturally sexy. She grinned, and then kissed her wine-flavored lips once more. "Not right now, babe..."
       Jasmine moved in closer, wanting more of that fine, warm body and smooth, bare, silken skin, and those high, round and full breasts against her own. "Why not?" she asked with a lascivious grin of her own as she began stroking her inner thigh with two fingers, slowly moving higher and higher, sending a delicious tingle not only through Valerie but also through herself. "How 'bout a little quickie, right here?"
       "I'm a sweaty mess," she began weakly, "and..."
       "You're sexy when you're all sweaty..." She moved in to lick her just under her ear with her moist, flat tongue, and then kissed the wet spot under her ear again with a soft, wet sound. She smiled at the rise she had gotten out of Valerie's nipples, and then with her fingertips she gently stroked the side of one tanned breast with a feathery caress. Little waves of pleasure rippled through it, causing the sensitive nipple to grow even harder. "And you taste so good..." she breathed as she gave it a warm and gentle squeeze, and then went to capture the nipple between her soft, moist lips.
       Her thighs quivered and weakened, and then parted like a blossoming flower as she started to succumb. And then she caught herself. Sort of. "Please, Jasmine, no," she moaned as the Asian woman's deft fingers began to unfasten the buttons of Valerie's ragged, denim shorts. "I'm...I'm all covered with d...dirt from...from the..." The shorts fell open, and a soft, warm hand gently slid inside...and Valerie slowly sank back against the pillow with a shuddering, "Ooohhhh , yeahhhh..."

***

       "Come on, you guys," Sierra Tanaka Ryan called out to the trio of "guys" that sat on the wide, flat slab of stone that hung over the pool. Bronzed and glistening in the brilliant sunshine, she was skinny-dipping in a shallow part of the pool near the shore, across from the stone slab on which three massive and powerful timber wolves were sitting. "It's only water; it's not going to hurt you."
       The waterfall fell in a wide curtain of clear blue, translucent jade and opaque white, and its fine spray was carried away on a soft, warm breeze. It hadn't rained lately, so the river at the far end wasn't as fast as it had been on some occasions. At times it ran fast enough to raise white caps of foam on the rich brown shore, and it could drag even the heartiest of swimmers out to sea after bashing them to death on the huge boulders that poked through the water's surface like the glistening dark backs of whales. But today it was calm and gentle, and perfect for swimming.
       Sierra's bodyguards sat and watched her curiously. One of them looked up and down river while another yawned. The third healthy and massive timber wolf, Marlowe-the one whom Valerie had befriended seven years ago, and whose broken canine now hung from her ear-sneezed as the mist from the waterfall floated gently on the air and tickled his nose. None of them seemed all that inclined to go for a swim; to them, the water looked uncomfortably cold.
       "Aw, you guys are no fun," she grumbled as she went back to playing with a couple of small action figures that were based on an old cartoon series. She began to supply dialogue for them. "'Get away from me, Robert!'" she made the female character say with a high, whining and nasal voice. "'Sex, sex, sex, that's all you ever think about. Get away from me, you old corn dog.'" (Being the product of progressive parents, Sierra was very precocious for a seven-year-old-even if some of her pronunciations were a little bit off.) "'Oh, come on, Becky,'" she made the male say, straining to deepen her voice. "'You know how men are; we got neeeeeds ...' Kissey-kissey..." She erupted into giggles. At last she sighed and said, "This is boring... When's Mom gonna get here?"
       A few minutes later, Valerie and Jasmine appeared from between the trees, dressed only in their glittering jewelry and each with an arm around the other's waist. "Sierra!"
       She turned, and when she spotted Jasmine she waved excitedly with an exhilarated grin. "Jasmine! How're ya doin'?"
       "I'm fine! How's my li'l girlfriend?"
       "Fine! Come on in, the water's great!"
       Chuckling softly, Valerie knelt on the stone slab with the wolves and ruffled their fur, while Jasmine stepped into the pool and pushed away from the shore. "Thanks for watching her for me," she told them. She embraced them in a group hug and gave them each a kiss on the side of the muzzle, then rose to her feet again and slipped into the pool after Jasmine.
       The wolves had not been at all keen on the idea of going into the water; but if anything had happened to Sierra, Marlowe would have gone in without an instant's hesitation-to grab her by the hair, if necessary-to drag her safely to shore while the others would have run for help at the cottage. Due partly to age and partly to his old injury, caused by a steel trap, Marlowe wasn't as swift on foot as he used to be; but he could still swim like a champ. And as far as the rest of the wolves were concerned, Sierra and Jasmine-like Valerie-were of their pack. However, while they were always friendly with the former, playing like pets rather than behaving like the wild predators they were, they didn't share with them the same kind of nonverbal communication that they did with Valerie.
       With powerful strokes, the two women swam across the pool, and Sierra quickly came into Jasmine's arms to greet her with a tight hug and a playful exchange of "wolf kisses," which never failed to elicit a tingly and squealing giggle from all parties involved. Valerie slid up alongside them and caught them in a spirited, three-way embrace, happy and relieved that they were finally together again.
       "Hi, baby doll! How've you been?"
       "Fine!" Sierra replied. "How about you?" She hung on with her arms around Jasmine's neck as Jasmine slipped her arms around her waist to hold her gently yet securely against her.
       "I'm doing a whole lot better now that I'm back here with you guys," Jasmine replied as she happily bounced lightly on her toes, half-standing and half-floating in the water.
       "Tell her what you've been doing for the last two weeks," Valerie suggested as she brushed her own wet hair behind her ears.
       "Valerie Mom's been helping me with my reading."
       "Terrific! How's it coming?"
       "Pretty good. We're reading 'Fahrenheit 451.'"
       With Sierra hanging on behind her, Jasmine executed an easy and shallow dive, and began to breaststroke and kick powerfully as they skimmed just above the bottom of the pool. Once they reached the base of the waterfall, she angled upward with Valerie following them close behind, and broke the surface. They climbed out of the water and stepped carefully across the wet stones and through the rushing tapestry of water until they were behind it, out of the bright sun. Inside the tall, shallow cave, the two adults settled waist deep in refreshing coolness while Sierra sat in Jasmine's lap, reclining comfortably against her in her embrace. Jasmine leaned back against Valerie, who slid an arm around her shoulders and held her close, and brushed her wet hair back again.
       She gazed at the child in mild surprise. "'Fahrenheit 451?'" she asked, her voice echoing slightly against the stones and the rushing sheet of falling water. Then she looked at Valerie. "That's pretty heavy reading material, isn't it?"
       Valerie gave the girl a nod of encouragement, and Jasmine turned to look at her again as Sierra said, "It's not too tough. Besides, we don't have any kids' books around, and it was the best we could come up with. But Mom's pretty good about explaining the hard parts, though, and I like it a lot."
       Jasmine smiled delightedly as she ruffled the child's hair. "You're a pretty bright kid, y'know?"
       "Yeah, I know."
       Jasmine laughed with delight as she enthusiastically squeezed her against her breasts, and kissed their daughter again.
       There was a lot of Valerie in Sierra. She was slim and lithe, and darkly tanned, and unusually athletic for a seven-year-old. It came from living an active outdoor life-style. While she didn't jog through the woods every day with the adults, she did help around the house with the chores and repair work; and she could swim like an otter. Her hair was styled like Jasmine's, and was just as long and as black-she really did seem to possess genes from both of her mothers-but its color was a feature that she had inherited from her father, Tony Nichols, who had been killed by FLM soldiers in a small suburb outside of Denver, Colorado, before she was born.
       But Sierra's eyes... They were most definitely Valerie's eyes. They were the same bright shade of pale, clear amber. She had also inherited the same intelligent and inquisitive mind, the same straight nose and lovingly sculpted cheekbones, and-for one so young-the same wry sense of humor and unfaltering predisposition toward open-minded skepticism. Rather than accepting or dismissing anything out of hand, she would answer any allegation with a non-committal, "Oh, yeah? Prove it."
       Sierra looked up at Jasmine, and noticed the way the Asian woman's eyes were beginning to slowly close. "You look tired, girlfriend," she said, with all the sway that a seven-year-old girl could muster. "Maybe we should head back for home."
       "Maybe we should," Jasmine agreed. "It's been a long day. Come on, upsey daisy!" As she carried her piggyback, she and Valerie walked carefully on the wet stones around the edge of the small cave behind the waterfall, then stepped through the curtain of water as Sierra squealed and giggled, and tried to shelter her face from the water in the hollow of Jasmine's neck. They stepped carefully along the wet rocks until they reached the edge of the pool and dry ground, and then with Jasmine neighing like a horse they took off at a trot with Sierra hanging on, and the three of them laughed together as they ran back for the house.

***

       The heat and humidity of the day had been replaced with the coldness of night-an unusual coldness for this time of year. Sharp stars sparkled against the black sky, clear and cold above the treetops. The single voice of a spotted owl called out in the night, and the soft whispers of a chilly wind in the trees and a chorus of howls of the wolf pack answered in a multitude of replies.
       With a gentle crackling of dry burning wood and the flickering orange light of dancing flames, a comforting warmth radiated from the stone fireplace and throughout the cottage. A single oil lamp burned near the raised platform bed next to the bay window, and cast its flickering orange light on the two women who lay upon it; the only other light came from the glow of the TV monitor.
       Snuggled comfortably in a dark blue nylon sleeping bag, with its gray fleece lining so soft and warm against her bare skin, and leaning on top of a big fluffy pillow of black velvet, Sierra was lying on the floor in front of the entertainment center with her fists bunched against her cheeks and her eyes glued to the screen. "XENA: Warrior Princess" was playing on the DVD player, with it's crystal-clear picture displayed on the monitor's high-resolution 34-inch screen and its perfectly reproduced digital sound coming out through a pair of high-quality bookshelf speakers that delivered optimum sound imaging. She giggled with glee at the clearly absurd yet thoroughly enjoyable acrobatic antics of the fight scenes, her eyes widened in fascination at the computerized special effects that depicted centaurs, gods, hydras and other characters and creatures of classical Greek mythology, and she sighed with longing whenever Argo, Xena's golden palomino, displayed her own acrobatic abilities and nearly human intelligence. Sierra wanted a pony just like her.
       A slight gasp and a soft groan came from across the room.
       She was totally oblivious to the activities nearby. Or anything else, for that matter, as her eyes remained transfixed on the monitor screen. An eight-pointer on the Richter scale probably wouldn't have disturbed her. (A moment later, a distant one-point-niner rattled the cabin; no one cared.)
       Another gentle groan, and a shuddering whispered, "Yeahhh, babe...yeah, right there..." followed a moment later.
       Sierra's eyes rolled skyward as she sighed in exasperation, and then she returned them to the TV.
       A sharper gasp. "Oh yeah! More..." More urgent now.
       At last, and with an audible Tsk! of aggravation, Sierra cast a sharp scowl over her shoulder toward the bed and could see, in the dim flickering light, the two darkened figures squirming together. Her scowl deepened.
       There was another sharp gasp, and a short, squealing cry of ecstasy.
       Muttering childish imprecations about grownups under her breath, Sierra finally slid out of her nylon-and-fleece cocoon, rose up onto her knees, and walked-or waddled-to the stereo receiver. She punched a button that killed the speakers, then picked up a pair of old-fashioned headphones that looked more like a pair of shooters' ear guards and cranked up the volume, and then made her way back and slid into her warm and comfy sleeping bag. Propped up on the pillow once more, she clamped the phones over her ears, and settled down once more with a satisfied sigh and a contented smile to resume her movie watching in blissful, uninterrupted peace.
       Sword-wielding bad guys surrounded the Warrior Princess and the Battling Bard. They drew closer and closer, with their swords flashing menacingly in the firelight and their breath condensing into white clouds of vapor in the cold night air. They drew closer and closer, moving stealthily forward for the kill. Sierra stared with wide, worried eyes. "Come on, you guys!" she said softly to the two heroines. "Don't just stand there; use your chakram! " Sierra loved to see that razor-edged steel ring fly; and as Xena suddenly snatched it from her hip to raise it high while baring her even, white teeth in a defiant snarl, a hand fell on Sierra's shoulder. Even though she was still lying on her stomach, the young girl suddenly jumped about a foot and a half into the air with a very startled, very loud, and very shrill scream.
       Flushed and a little out of breath, and shimmering with perspiration from activities with Jasmine, Valerie had come up unnoticed next to their daughter. She flinched so violently, and with such a surprised and startled scream of her own, that she actually fell backward; and across the room, still lying on the bed and startled by the shrieks, Jasmine also jumped and screamed, thereby completing the rapid chain reaction.
       "Oh, man!" Sierra said as she pulled off the headphones. "You nearly scared the pee out of me!"
       Valerie said, "Scared you? You nearly scared the pee out of me! "
       "And both of you nearly scared it out of me! " Jasmine said. "What the hell's goin' on over there, anyway?" She rose from the bed and approached them.
       "A little hyper involvement in a movie," Valerie replied, regaining her composure with a grin. Then she noticed the headphones. "What's the matter, hon? Were we getting too loud over there? I'm sorry."
       "That's okay," Sierra said as her own heart slowed to normal. "You guys haven't been together for awhile, it's understandable."
       Being the product of progressive parents, Sierra had been taught about sex a long time ago. It happened one stormy night when, having been awakened in her private bedroom by an almost blinding flash of lightning and a crashing explosion of thunder, she had gone seeking them for comfort and reassurance; instead, she had found them sitting up and scissored between each other's legs, and passionately thrusting and grinding together in a tight and sweating embrace. Having been inauspiciously busted by their daughter, they felt they really had no other choice but to tell her openly about their activities; as the three of them reclined together on the bed, the two adults covered as much as they thought Sierra would understand. And she accepted it all in a manner that was surprisingly adult.
       "But if that's how men and women make babies," Sierra had gone on to ask curiously, "what were you doing?"
       And then they explained their lifestyle and the magnetism that drew them together. Sierra may have been precocious, but she was still just a kid, and terms got a little altered in the translation. She said to herself, "Libyans, Libyans, my folks are Libyans..." And when the two women had recovered from their laughter (Sierra had smiled uncertainly with them, wondering what was so funny), they had gone on in some considerable detail to explain how they had met, and how they had discovered this passion that worked between them, with each playfully accusing the other of being the seducer while Sierra grinned and giggled. And then they explained to her how both of them had their families destroyed by the Foundation's soldiers, and how it had been in that moment of sharing their pain when they had formed this unbreakable emotional bond that neither of them had ever before felt with anyone else. Sierra had maturely accepted this, too; and then she asked them if she could sleep with them for the rest of the night, because that thunder was still pretty loud and scary, and because she was sad that she didn't have any grandmas or grandpas, or aunts or any uncles (except for one). Of course she could sleep with them, they had replied, giving her all the reassurance they could. So from that night on, and with everything now out in the open, Sierra had shrugged off their activities as nothing of any importance, and had moved on to far more significant matters, like chocolate and movies. By demonstration of their own total openness in all matters, Valerie and Jasmine were convinced that Sierra would turn out to be emotionally and mentally healthy. And she surprised them both by greatly exceeding their most hopeful dreams. She certainly was, as Jasmine had mentioned earlier, a bright kid.
       "Sorry about all the racket," she said with an apologetic little grin. "C'mon, li'l girlfriend; upsey daisy!" Still perspiring slightly and a little out of breath, Valerie scooped her up into her arms and lightly tossed her toward the ceiling, eliciting a squealing and playful shriek from her in the process. Safely catching the youngster on the descent, she tossed her once more, this time giving her a spin to catch her belly-down as Jasmine approached. They both took an arm in one hand and a leg in the other, and with Superman flying sound effects they swung her forward and backward as they carried her over to the stereo.
       "Let there be sound!" Jasmine said, in a god- (or goddess?) like voice.
       Sierra reached forward and punched the speaker button with one rigid index finger, bringing the sound system back to life, and quickly grabbed the volume-control knob and twisted it to turn the volume down as Xena's high-pitched trademark war-cry threatened to blow out the speakers. "You were listening to that volume with the headphones?" Jasmine asked. "Sweetheart, you're going to wreck your hearing!"
       "What?"
       "I said you're-" And then she stopped when she noticed the playful glint in her eyes. She had gotten her again.
       They carried her to the open foam sofa with a torrent of giggles, and plopped down on it; the two women lay close together, with Sierra nuzzled comfortably between them. "Okay, li'l girlfriend," Jasmine said playfully, and then she kissed the top of her head. "No more racket tonight." She caught a corner of the thick fleece blanket that covered the futon, and drew it across the three of them. Comfortably soft and warm, they snuggled together under the blanket to watch the rest of the show, and by the time the end credits came on all three were soundly asleep.
 
 

Chapter Two

       Corporate board rooms were the same all over-populated by shadowy figures that wore expensive suits and flashy jewelry, and which sat in comfortable, padded chairs in dimly lit air-conditioned rooms with as much cigar and cigarette haze floating in them as tail-pipe emissions in any third-stage smog alert in downtown L.A. on a broiling summer day. Trays of expensive food and even more expensive drink-required accouterments of the rich and powerful-and the power-hungry-rested within easy reach of the power-brokers, respectfully brought in by silent and docile servants who had left quickly once their domestic chores were completed. It was people like these who made decisions that affected other people's lives, and these executives thanked their great green god of Capitalism for it.
       There was one difference between this particular boardroom and all the others throughout the nation: the chairman of this one was not only secretly the head of the Alpha & Omega Nuclear Research Facilities, but he was also the president of the Foundation for Law and Morality, Ronald M. Slogan. Self-described as a God-fearing Christian and the Lord's own choice for the US Senate come next election, he was connected to all three branches of the FLM government: the conservative religious movement, the combined White House and Congress, and the Department of Energy. He was always using money made from one to influence the other two, and as far as he was concerned he could never have enough money. Never. So now he sat in this air-conditioned office, working on his latest divinely inspired scheme...
       "There's got to be a way of re-opening the Betatron nuclear reactor," he said from the shadows, with a gravelly voice that was worn out by too much tobacco and too much vocal abuse of his servants. "America needs the energy-"
       "And we need the money," said one of the other board members, a tall, thin man except for the paunch that spilled over his waistline, and who had graying hair and a drooping moustache. His face resembled that of a basset hound-a sure-fire sign that his wife gave him no more peace than did his boss. He was not a happy man; and the laughter that was elicited from the others had come more from the fact that he had made the remark, and not from the remark itself.
       Slogan leaned forward slightly, and fluorescent light illuminated the lower half of his gaunt and pallid face to reveal a rare gold-and-enamel smile that looked more like it belonged to a moray eel. "Well, that's just an added dividend from this project. There's got to be a way... And once we get Betatron open, we can build a whole new city around it. Imagine the factories, the shopping malls, the fast-food restaurants and the freeways, the movie theaters, the golf courses and the car lots, and all those condominiums. Maybe even a gambling casino or two, if we can get full Foundation approval for them... My God, men, do you have any idea of just how much money can be generated?" He paused for a moment, thoughtfully. "The question is, how are we going to do it?"
       "I don't know, sir," said another board member, a man named Jordan. "We must've sent a hundred people in there a dozen times over the years, and they all came back with the same story-the damn place is haunted."
       "Haunted?"
       "Or possessed and full of demons."
       "Or maybe it has a curse on it," added Kreuger, the new head of public relations and advertising at A&O. "There used to be a witch who lived nearby until she disappeared; it made some minor news a few years ago until it was suppressed. It's possible that she put a curse on it. Either way, we haven't been able to get people to work there for about the last seven years or so; we've offered three times the going rate for nuclear power workers, and no one will take us up on it."
       "What are you telling me?" Slogan asked. He leaned forward even more, and for the first time the light revealed cold and sharp eyes. He squinted against the light, as though he felt more comfortable remaining in the shadows, and re-lit his fat brown cigar (a long, thick phallic symbol, some of his detractors had muttered behind his back). He puffed large clouds of white smoke that surrounded his head and then drifted languidly toward the ceiling vents of the over-worked air conditioner. The damn filters were clogged again.
       "Quite bluntly, sir, we can't pay people enough to work in the damn thing."
       "Impossible," Slogan replied. Once more, like a moray eel withdrawing into its cave, he leaned back into the comfort of the shadows. "Everyone has their price. You just haven't found the right people, that's all."
       "It's not quite that simple anymore, sir," the hound-faced Mitchell said, from the other end of the table and with great sorrow in his voice. "Lately there's been a growing interest in safety and ethics over monetary gain. It's quite baffling to me, sir, and quite frightening, too. What is this world coming to?"
       The tip of Slogan's cigar glowed red in the darkness with each puff, and more clouds drifted around him like fog on a night in nineteenth century Whitechapel. "Disgusting," he grumbled. "It's bad enough to have to deal with ethics and similar garbage in the Oval Office; now we have to put up with it in the business community, too?"
       "We could try to draft people into it," Kreuger said.
       "What?" Slogan leaned forward, keeping his eyes in the dark, and removed the glistening, moist tip of the cigar from his mouth. "Draft them? We're talking about qualified personnel here, not Law enforcement soldiers! You don't draft people into working in a fission reactor!"
       "I understand that, sir," Kreuger said politely, with the low and mellifluous voice of a high-priced lawyer. With a smile that never reached his eyes, he went on: "What I mean is, we still have complete files-with family names and addresses! -on the people who used to work there. We can call them up and force them back to work; we just have to make it sound convincing. We can tell them that the lack of nuclear facilities for the domestic production of energy is a threat to national security or something. And if that doesn't work, then..." He smiled a cold little smile. "...we can always persuade their families to help them make the proper decision."
       Slogan's malevolent grin at the euphemism matched Kreuger's.
       "Good idea!" Jordan said, eager to agree with his boss. "And we can tell the people that the Lord made those Muslim bastards in Iraq invade its neighbors and cut off the flow of oil because He wants us back on the track for nuclear power and energy independence. After all, if it weren't true, why did He let Iraq get away with it?"
       "Praise the Lord," Mitchell said reverently.
       Kreuger watched them for a long moment before he went on, and no one noticed the contempt in his eyes. Them and their religion, he thought. They would never dare to be honest with themselves, if with no one else, and admit that they were just plain greedy the way Kreuger did. Kreuger didn't feel any need to hide behind religion to justify any of his actions; he was in it strictly for the money. He was a true capitalist. "Most people seem to think these days that nuclear energy is a threat to national security; many of them want solar power now."
       Slogan gave him a sharp look at the mention of solar energy; solar was not a word to be used in polite conversation in the nuclear industry. "It depends on your definition of 'national security.' We run the nation, so any threat to us is a threat to the nation as a whole. As long as we're kept happy, we can continue giving the people the illusion that they're happy."
       "Be that as it may, sir, look at what happened at Three Mile Island in 1979, and at Chernobyl almost a decade later," Kreuger said, "and at the SL-1 test reactor at Idaho Falls in 1961. After that place blew up, the bodies of three workers killed there were so highly radioactive they couldn't even be given a traditional burial; they had to be dismembered, sealed in lead, and buried along with the rest of the garbage.
       "And look at what happened back in the late 1970s, when people found out that radioactive waste-over forty thousand barrels of it, from 1947 to 1962-had been dumped near the Farallon Islands off of San Francisco. Remember all those protests about dumping waste into the oceans? The main problem is that people know about these facts, and we can't do anything about it! Except, perhaps, to continue encouraging them to forget about it..." He bit his tongue to keep himself from suggesting that maybe there was a better and safer way of generating power. After all, he thought, how much money was there to be made if all those consumers out there were killed by the very industry they were being forced to support? Maybe that was where the anti-birth-control and anti-abortion laws had come from; all those sick and dying consumers needed to be replaced with new consumers in order to feed the ravenous appetite of Big Business.
       "Unfortunately, that's true," Jordan said. "We cannot change what's already a matter of public record; believe me, we've tried."
       "Yes, but those were just a bunch of those damned Godless radical hippie terrorists. We know for a fact that nuclear energy isn't a threat to national security; the real threat is those people who keep finding out about all these dangers and rubbing our noses in them. An uncontrolled press and their gun-toting terrorist sponsors-"
       "Excuse me, sir," Mitchell said, "but hasn't the press always advocated gun banishment ?"
       "-are the ultimate threats to the security of governments," Slogan went on, not missing a beat. "But we have an advantage nowadays that we didn't have before."
       "What's that?" Mitchell asked.
       The illuminated lower half of Slogan's face sucked on his thick brown cigar some more before he answered, and then he spoke around it. "We have total control over the press now," he said, and grinned like an eel again. "And the people have been disarmed. Stories like the ones you've told us just now, Kreuger, will never again see the light of day."
       "We don't have total control, sir," Kreuger reminded him.
       Slogan scowled at him.
       "There are still a few of those underground publications going around. And there's that damned 'Outlaw Radio' station that we still can't get a fix on."
       "Bah! Nobody pays any attention to those," said Jordan. "They're just the ramblings of a bunch of goddamned radicals." Being secure in the knowledge that he was a good Christian and that the Lord was his personal savior, he saw no real need to watch his language. Good Christians like himself may not have been perfect, but they were always forgiven-so why did he need to change?
       "Radicals, maybe. Ramblings, no. They're very well informed."
       In the shadows, Slogan's habitual scowl deepened as a darker tinge of red crept into his face.
       "I don't know how they're doing it, sir, but they're getting hold of some very sensitive information."
       "Spies?"
       "I don't know if I'd use that particular word, sir. They're American subjects-I mean, citizens."
       "So make them sound like spies, Kreuger! You're PR! They're working against the best interests of the corporate government; I think espionage is the perfect word to describe what they're doing."
       "Thirty years ago, the press wouldn't have agreed with you."
       "Who gives a fuck?" Slogan asked, removing the cigar from his thin and cruel wet lips, and exhibiting the same attitude as Jordan. "We own the press now."
       "Not quite true, sir."
       "Own, control, there's no difference. Either way, the mainstream press reports what their sponsors want them to report; you're in advertising, Kreuger, you should know that better than anyone else. And I needn't remind you that we are the media's corporate sponsors."
       "For the most part that's true, sir. It's these damn small papers-and especially that goddamned 'Outlaw Radio' crap-that worry me. More and more people are turning to them, and something's got to be done about that before we can go on with the rest of our plans."
       "Just shut the damn things down. The rest of us can go on from there. We need lots of PR on this; something really snazzy and slick. You're the best man for it, so get on with it." He turned to the other two men. "Mitchell, you and Jordan get on with the plans for the actual re-opening of Betatron. Maybe we can even clear-cut some of those damned trees to open up an on-site dumping ground; it'll save us the cost of having to truck the damn stuff all the way to the coast."
       "We're on it, sir," said Mitchell. He and Jordan rose from their chairs and left.
       He swivelled his chair to face Kreuger and leaned back into the darkness. In a more subdued voice, he asked from the shadows, "What's this about a witch you mentioned?"
       "I did a little checking around and came up with something." He opened the file folder that lay on the table before him. "There was a woman by the name of Valerie St. James who fled from a neighborhood near Denver, Colorado, after she had been charged with witchcraft. A Holy Guardian colonel by the name of Elias Warren pursued her to a remote part of the Mendocino area of northern California. The details of what happened are not known; all we have is the testimony of Colonel Warren himself, and that testimony is not at all reliable. Some say he was driven mad and others say he's possessed. What we do know is that he's the only known survivor out of the entire platoon that went after her. His platoon, according to the colonel, was wiped out by a pack of demon-wolves that she called up from the woods. There was that and the previous fact that strange things began happening at Betatron shortly after this St. James woman got there. It's very possible she put a curse on it."
       "Is there any chance we can find her and...convince her to remove this curse?"
       "No one knows where she is; she's evidently changed her name and gone underground. It's doubtful that she'd cooperate anyway, not after what she did in the first place."
       "Hmm..." Slogan thought for a long moment. "What about another witch?"
       "Sir?"
       "What if we found another witch? Would it be possible for her to remove this curse?"
       Now Kreuger looked thoughtful. "That's something I never considered. Maybe she could, if we provide the proper incentive."
       "Sparing her life should be incentive enough, I should think," Slogan said as he examined his cigar. It had gone out again, and he re-lit it with a solid-gold lighter. "I would suggest running a computer check to see if anyone has been arrested recently for witchcraft. Send all of the records to my office and we can check them over. If we find a hopeful prospect, we can have her brought here for interrogation and possibly work out some kind of a deal."
       "Very well, sir. I'll get on it." He rose and left the boardroom.
       Slogan rested his feet on the conference table and puffed his cigar, sending more clouds of smoke toward the ceiling. He was still angered over the way these small independent papers obtained their information and published all of the nation's security secrets. Synchronized press, he thought to himself, that's what was needed. Get rid of all those damned "independent" papers; force them out of business at gunpoint, and find that damned radio station and plant a bomb in it. They needed to keep the press synchronized, and the best way to do that was to get rid of all those Godless bastard hippie communists and terrorists. Silence the fuckers, once and for all, like we almost did to a pair of them with a car bomb back in the old days of Redwood Summer, Slogan remembered fondly.
       And once you've got control of people's opinions through an equally controlled press, the rest is a piece of cake.

TBC


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