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Kandy: Everyone Wants Some
by John Devlin


The staccato bleat, bleat, bleat of the duck's slug rifle breaks the silence we had been suspended in only a moment before. I'm watching the duck move forward, spraying gunfire at anything that moves. The mouse is behind me and to my right, frantically trying to lay down suppressor fire for the duck, who is managing to shoot up the entire front of the house -- and doing quite a good job. The duck's voice box is biting off words, which, if they were real, and I was any closer (not a good idea right now, anyway) would be sprayin' me with spit. The few automatics they got on the yard are antiquated and, I can see, can't keep up with the duck's rate of fire. The mouse continues to bang away from behind; the ineffectualness of her small arms somewhat offset by her superior aim.

There's a huge blast of electricity and the main automatic collapses in a hail of sparks; the duck continues to shoot at it anyway. I'm about to tell him these autos are too old to play possum or regen, but I realize he's havin' fun, so I shut up.

I'm movin' forward now, always more cautious than the duck, who revels in the punishment he takes in and gives out. With that, the bird comes whippin' by, making this obnoxious machine noise in passin'. I'm thinkin' that's a stupid noise for a real bird to make, but I know it's factual. The bird can't fly either, just runs around real fast. Got some extra leg gear for that, but again I can't complain, 'cause it's factual, too. And besides, all this shit was my idea, anyway.

I'm runnin' up the driveway. The Durabilt slope is pockmarked by our fire, and it always makes me think of the phrenology shit that comes up right next to the horoscopes in the daily plaques. I remind myself driveways don't have futures, or personal insights, only people do, or on a night like this: a mouse, a bird, a duck, and a rabbit. I'm the rabbit by the way.

The duck is almost at what's left of the porch, gettin' a hard-on for destroyin' any of the smaller automatics in the house's inner defenses. Of course the bird slips right past him and locates the house's one last defender. The small automatic swivels to shoot, and I swear the birds just waitin'. I can't be sure 'cause my imps off, of course, and I'm only seein' this real-time, and it's dark 'cept for the bigger auto still burnin' by the front steps. Right as the thing locks, the bird shoots it through its vision sensor. Factual, I'm thinkin', but pretty stupid -- for me form always follows function. That's why my ears hang down, not up like they really should. Rather that little misalignment than gettin' split in two, ready for the medics, or worse -- dead. That's why the mouse's ears worry me.

So we're up to the front. All of us 'cept the mouse, who's watchin' our backs, and who I think somewhat funnily is too well dressed for the occasion anyway.

We three look at each other for a second, and all of us respond with the thumbs up. The orange beak of the duck is still hard to get used to, and the way the bird keeps tryin' to hide his arms makes me feel he won't be ready if we need to shoot quickly. And I think, like I already mentioned, the mouse's ears are askin' for trouble. I motion to my head and they nod. I start the pseudo imp runnin', almost immediately it starts glitchin'. Makes me nostalgic for the days when every poor frag homeowner couldn't buy this hi-tech interference shit.

I feel old.

Now if this is my real imp, I'd be reelin' about, probably getting quick-shot to my pain centers so I'll stand up. In other words, I'm an asshole with "shoot me" tattooed on my software. I realize that'd make me a sittin' duck and I smile: been lookin' over animal phrases for tonight. Gotta tell that one to the duck. Of course we've shot everything worth shootin', and this ain't my real imp -- so no real problem.

I'm kinda sittin' back watchin' it tie up like it's on Vid or somethin'. My pseudo's been programmed to give off some distress calls, as is the duck's and the bird's. We're lettin' just enough out so the people in the house can figure that we're hurtin', and what we're gonna do next -- that is, if they're monitorin' this, which they have to be if they went to the trouble to try to brainhump us in the first place. We all jump off the porch and take up some relatively defensible positions on the sides of the main entrance. But if my plan goes well this'll be a...turkey shoot or maybe like shootin' fish in a barrel -- animal phrases -- and who says studyin' don't pay off.

Sure enough, the door gives a little crack, and a shrill little peep as it's opened, 'posed to be near frictionless, but who am I to complain. I'm just gettin' ready to signal the duck, but he's already up and firin'. The clatter gun gives off this big whoomp, whoomp, and I hit the deck. I've seen what our lone piece of military hardware can do.

There's a big fraggin' explosion. Actually there's two, but they come so right on the heels of one another they meld together. I'm up and runnin' before the dust is settled, and I'm happy 'cause I'm gonna beat the bird through the door. I slow down as I get close to what was a door, but is now just a large, irregular orifice even the Durabilt couldn't stand against. I remind myself the door bein' open allowed that eventuality; otherwise, the clatter gun woulda just been one big noise-maker. I scan the inside of the house: nothin' really outta the ordinary, looks regular second-class poor. One's dead, can't tell man or woman 'cause it's got no head, whole torso all blackened and red. Lower body's still serviceable, and I'm about to check its personal equipment, just to satisfy my curiosity, when I catch some movement out of the corner of my eye.

Woman's over by the seats struggling to get up, but she can't 'cause somethin's wrong with her legs. I'd use my imp to check, but I figure the interference software is on automatic, and in no short order I'll be on the blistered floor in similar straits as this woman. She's not badly equipped for second-class poor: got Kevlar, which'd protect you pretty good. That is, if you don't come up against a rabbit and a duck who know where to get a clatter gun.

This is fun and all, but it's not what we came for. I sidle over to her, checking her for something more threatening than her sneer that follows me as I cross the room. The bird and the duck stay behind me. I'm best at these situations, and the last time I didn't lead, the duck ended up blowin' up what we came for.

I watch the woman carefully. Never know which way people'll jump -- not like machines -- they're damned predictable. I walk through the shards of what must have been a table and is now small bits of floor-hugging plastic. The woman's still watchin' me intently as I cross the distance between us. She makes several halfhearted attempts to rise and exit into the rooms beyond, but her efforts never get past a slight push of hand and a wheeze of pain as her legs again inform her they're not working correctly, and they would appreciate not being moved.

"Where's the kandy?" I say.

She's a little slow in respondin', so I kick her in the head. Not hard to do when ya realize I'm standin' above her, and she can barely move. She speaks up right quick. I'm kinda sad she's so unaffected by my kick -- but hey, whatta ya gonna do, I'm not that big.

"Go to hell brat!"

I give her my "I'm bored and have heard that one before" look, but I realize I'm wearin' my rabbit face, and she's not catchin' my drift. So, I kick her in the head again. All of the sudden the bird chirps up, says he's found the stuff. The duck's all fit to slobber on everybody with the noises he's makin'. I'm tellin' him not to touch anything. The bird's in the next room, so we gotta get the woman over there.

I motion for the duck to pick her up (he's a big duck). She makes some pitiful moans and screams once as a finale of sorts and then calms down. In the next room there's a small plastic table and a bowl in its center. I could probably tell you the color of the curtains and all, but, like you know, my imp's not on, and I'm totally focused on the bowl. Inside the bowl's a pretty good haul: reds, there's always reds, blimeys, and what I hope are, because of the blue color, a few halogens.

The bird's makin' to reach for them, when I stop him right quick.

"You do it," I say to the woman.

"I can't move my legs," she intones pitifully. Like, I think, that's got anything to do with her stickin' her hands in the bowl.

"Do it!" I say in a tone I hope sounds commanding and bored at the same time.

She hesitates for a moment, but just a moment, and with the duck's support reaches for the bowl. Right when she's about to pick it up I see her lips move. She did have it rigged, probably would've blown the bird's hand off. For the first time tonight I'm feelin' good -- 'cause of all the kandy I just saved us. She turns with the bowl in her hand, and I'm thinkin' she might be stupid enough to try to hit one of us with it, but my fear goes unrealized.

Quick as could be, the bird has got the bag out, and the woman's lookin at it like its gonna bite her. She can't even look as she's pourin' the kandy in; she's got her head turned toward me and our eyes lock, though she don't know it (as I got my rabbit head on), mutters, "Little bastards," again under her breath.

I'm thinkin' a hittin' her 'cause she so unoriginal, but I realize the kandy would spill all over the floor -- so I show a little restraint.

When the bowl's all emptied into our sack, the bird makes that mechanical noise and speeds off towards the entrance to the house. The duck's still holdin' her and lookin' to me like I should say somethin' to the woman -- 'cause I guess I usually do. I got nothin' to say, though, and I turn away and head toward the entrance; so I don't see the duck drop her like yesterday's hot Vid. I do, however, hear the smack and crash as she hits the floor. Tried to grab the table to break her fall when the duck let her go. Either she didn't have enough strength or the table was too weak, but I'll never know 'cause I don't look back.

As we scatter back out of what used to be a nearly impenetrable door, I get a little shot a pride at the way the evening is progressin'. As we shake it down the street, quickly keyin' our imps back up to passive, I remember how I was able to get my shit together, when up until a few days ago I had the idea I was too old and wasn't gonna participate this year.

* * *

Around dusk that day I check myself one last time before going out: Lexan chest protector, with pliable joint riders through both my arms and legs, allowing me freedom of movement and a pretty substantial augmentation of the muscles of my small frame. My hands and feet were coated in the inferior Kevlar: the hands in case I got some scatter off a shotgun, that way I probably wouldn't lose the fingers, but the tips would probably go, regardless. The feet, now that had been a big fuss with my mom, she tellin' me about how people were always misfiring their guns and shooting their toes off on a night like this -- all nervous and keyed up and full a kandy.

So anyway, long story shorter -- she won.

So under my rabbit's feet -- heh, my imp just pops up and tells me that meant luck back when; well, I hope so -- under my big gray and black rabbit's feet (I know your imp's poppin' up tellin' you they should be white with gray, not black, but I ask you who's gonna wear white on a night like this?) I put a couple of layers of Kevlar. I gotta fuzzy-ass gray and black body suit -- again, I know it's supposed to be white. That, I gotta admit, my mom did a fair job of heatin' together. A pair of black gloves, don't even mention it, and a nice set a ears that fall straight down my back and detach if 1/2 lb. of pressure per square inch is applied -- thanks, imp. For any of you who aren't 'planted, which means you're old, or you're one of them kids who rides trikes at school with those special helmets to protect your softheads from spilling out all over the concrete (though, I can't figure why you're interested, or why your little softhead is readin' this), it means if any asshole decides my ears would be good for grabbin' and maybe usin' to wang my head against a pole, or Durabilt door, they'll come off. Probably give me enough time to come around on them and rifle their ass back to the med facility. And I'll get their kandy, but that goes without sayin'.

Which brings me to what I'm carryin' tonight: old time 30-Ott Six with a flechette carrier over and under. Not a lotta stopping power on the flechette, but I use it at instruction. Besides, sometimes it's good if they can talk after they've been shot up. In my other hand I like to carry a small gun, use Dagger(TM) cartridges with semi-explosive charges. Only semi because the quick ones get awful tough to handle, and though the VidAd says they blow up when they're supposed to, I heard a lot explode in the air or even when they're expelled from the chamber.

I don't plan standin' there with some old prick cross-haired, and the next minute be reeling because my damn cartridges blew up in my face. But I know some that go with it -- but hey, I'm the cautious type. Got an extension for it that gives you good long sight, though there hasn't been much call for the single headshot since everybody started buying that Lexan unbreakable glass to go over their 2' by 2' front-room windows. Damn irritatin' to see'm in there sometimes with the kandy, doin' it, and you prayin' for some fine military hardware to punch through with.

Makes me feel kinda old rememberin' just a few years back.

Got some other trinkets, too, and Carl's bringin' the drone and Sien'll have the backup. I told'm they could bring it but I was pilotin'. This pissed'm off of course, 'cause if I screw up, their drone goes down. But my drone's been mashing with the gear in my head and I, and them, can't take that chance. Besides, I'm the best drone flyer in the whole school, though Werd'd argue with me over it, but truth told, I take'm more than he takes me.

But enough about the essentials. I don't got a prop for my outfit, which makes me feel a little jealous of those that do, which is just about everybody.

When we we're paradin' around the exercise yard at instruction today, I was lookin' for those that did and didn't have props, and I was definitely in the minority. I tell myself it'll just slow'm down, cut down on their kandy-grabbin, but inside I'm hurtin' a little. I wanta blame the damn instructor who gave me the idea , but I gotta admit I like the look. It's different than all the Dillos, and Carapacers, and Vampires you're always seein.

About a week ago this instructor, not a bad guy really, is asking the class what they're gonna be, and kids is sayin' this or that or I don't know. Comes to me and I say I'm gonna go as me. Well, he goes into some long speech about how that shows my psychological maturation, and after that my imps working overtime just to translate what he's sayin'. Anyway it comes out to a lotta nothin'. I could play it back for you. I got the file here somewhere, but take my word for it, it'd bore you, big time. Well anyway, our imps go off, movin' us to the next class, and this instructor does one of those overrides they can do, which I guess is supposed to impress me or somethin'. But I'm a little pissed he spent so much time talkin' to me in class, forcing me to actually make eye contact with him instead of watching the lesson through my imp; so I let him say a few words about my potential this and that, and I'm thinking that me and the teach are just two big pieces of meat talking to one another.

Just the week before I was zippin' through some cultural-history shit. Yeah, one of the few instructions where in class I'll actually cross-reference my imp with the best of'm. I know Joey Ripple's the goddamned king of this shit, able to cross-shit and carry on a verbal fit over some point the instructor's makin'. I think he's got some high-end feature that gives the appearance of a lot access goin' down, while he's actually stuck with just his soft part. Tried to blow through his system a couple a times, but after a few weak warning shots to tell me whose turf I was runnin' on he gave me some wicked feedback that left me droolin' -- stuck out of my imp with the little ole cursor flashin', meaning it couldn't locate the receiver, and me too fragged in the head to do anything other than to take up my whole schema wonderin' at that little ole blinkin' light. Of course others in the class net see this as their opportunity to access my unprotected imp and scrawl impffiti and trash my outer files. Took me two weekends to clean the shit up, but I learned not to mess with Mr. Ripple.

Ho, was what I was comin' to. Found that word in some old slang dictionary. It's an easy woman, if you didn't know. So armed with this new bitta knowledge I walk into the VidRoom where my parents usually are; and sure enough, they're plugged in and havin' a chortle over some hopelessly out-of-date Vid they're just now discoverin'. One which I'll have to hear all about, even though, I knew all there was to know about it last week.

"Ho." I say, hopin' to get a reaction out of'm.

Possible because my parents were real old when they had me -- like seventy or somethin' -- and I'm thinkin' it might strike a nerve. Anyway, my mom's chortling continues, but now she's chortling at me. My dad gives me that half smile and that phantom knock on the arm of his that tries to say boys will be boys.

After mom's laughter dies down she makes it much worse by goin' into some long story -- verbally even. I try to tell her to send it to me over the imp. Thinking in the time it takes her to get it ready for messaging, I'll be back in my room with my imp plugged, but she's old-fashioned, tells me what must have been a ten-minute-long story. I could show you, but I dumped that file in my last cleanin'.

The story goes, my father used to call her that as her secret little pet name. Dad gets this quizzical look on his face when his wife is saying something he's supposed to know, and I can see has no memory of it.

What can you do? Their imps are old. I'd point out his failure to him, just to irritate'm a little, but that would only presage another long back-and-forth discussion about some surroundin' memory or another; mom tryin' to poke dad into rememberin' the first boring thing I didn't care about. I, of course, would probably be slaved to the whole discussion, thereby wastin' another five minutes. So I'm stuck listenin' to most of it till my dad, in a favor to me, gets my mom's attention by bringing up one of the plays she always watches during the day. That does it. Her eyes glaze over, and I'm outta there with my first understandin' of how dangerous a little knowledge can be.

So lookin' back, I realized I've digressed all the way back from meat to ho to my parents.

Sorta sums them up though, don't you think.

Well back to the back, the instructor gives me some old cultural Vids of these cartoons in 2-D; check your imp. Anyway, as you can see these guys look nothing like the real creatures. In fact, they don't look real at all, not like the Indian Dillos everybody's been makin' such a brouhaha over. So I'm thinking this is pretty chill, and I'm scanning real interested.

Well this rabbit character is a standout. Always comin' through with the wisecrack against this bulbous little drawing of a man. I know. How can a drawing do anything, but unless you happen to have these peripherals you'll have to take my send. He's always shootin' at this bunny rabbit who's making him miss and ducking and stickin' his finger in the barrels of the guns; and they're exploding in this guy's face. Yeah, I know that can't happen, but we're talkin' about drawings here. So I like the idea of bein' something that never gets shot. The instructor not only gives me ten minutes to report to my next instructional, when you know the mini-trak'll get you there in about two, but even better, he gives me the access feed for this shit. Just tells me to return it sometime next week. I like the fact that he trusts me, and for the first time I'm lookin' forward to the big night.

So I take the trak right home. Access mom before I'm even in the door, sayin' Hi, and I'll be up in my room. Next thirty minutes -- right, thirty minutes -- I'm watchin' all these cartoons and I get a little enamored of this coyote: kinda like a tall, skinny dog that walks on two legs. He's always tryin' to build shit with explosives, and he never says a single word, which right there should tell you he's my type of guy, or coyote. He's real funny; spends all his time chasin' this bird that doesn't fly but runs real fast.

Like I said, these cartoons are a trip, and that's without any kandy.

Problem is, I feel some kinda half-baked loyalty to Mr. Bunny. Besides, I tell myself, the coyote is a tough son of a bitch: giant rocks, big metal blocks that must have some purpose other than crushin' coyotes -- but I haven't accessed everything yet -- are always falling on his head. And the coyote himself fallin' hundreds of feet to the earth and lotsa times the aforementioned rocks or, got it, anvil crashing down on him after. Anyway I figure such egregious bodily harm is not a good emblem for this night of nights. So I'm Mr. Bunny. First name has got to do with insects, and I don't like that. So I don't want anyone to call me it. Only problem now is I got no prop. This rabbit is always chewin' on a carrot, big long orange thing with green fuzz on the top -- it's a vegetable. I know like that helps for shit; the skinny on it is it was something people ate that grew in the ground before they started sea farmin' -- so there's no way I'm gonna get one.

I think of paintin' one of my guns orange, but I'm afraid it'll be too easy to see, and as far as I'm concerned form is a weak sister to function. So I can't get the fraggin' carrot.

But I do some nifty downloads and I can talk in the guy's voice real guttural and squeaky. Fave thing for the rabbit to say is, "What's up Doc?" I'm not positive what a Doc is, but I figure it's some slang for a guy with a gun or at least someone with harsh intent. Like I said, too busy downloading the voice to check everything.

Also spent time getting the characters all up and running, voice mode and all, for the other three in the group. Four's a good mid-range number; smaller groups are easier to pin down with crossfire or take out with any strong armament.

And believe me, that shit's out there.

Groups bigger than six or so are great when you're pourin' fire at a house, but that still don't guarantee success, as some of these houses are pretty near Durabilt through and through; besides, the big nogo is the split of the kandy if you are successful -- pretty damn light. You're lucky to get one halogen, a misty or mickey. Of course you'll pull reds, but they're everywhere, and a good slide of halogens'll get ya three times their share in reds the next day, especially from those that ain't holdin' shit.

Where was I? My brain's goin'. Oh, I make touch with Carl Bruin, Johnny Mach, and Sien Siennsa. See they're my hangovers and we're sure to team, so I run this idea of mine real retro and all. I tell'm I got their characters all picked out for'em 'cause they fit their personalities.

They quick-scan the Vids and I get a glimmer of interest; especially Mach, he loves anything pretend. I hit Bruin first, 'cause if I get him the others'll be much more likely to track on.

I take a deep breath and net him all the pertinent shit on this duck, make sure to show him how easy the outfit is; the Bruin likes things simple, which is in keeping with his low intelligence. I'm quick to show him the advantages of the duck's coloring: all black except for his gloves, his beak, and a little choker. The beak I say can easily be some helmet add-on, probably stick some extra soft-scan equipment in there just to make it utilitarian; the Bruin loves things that are utilitarian.

So I'm scorin' good, no big knockout but I'm pointin' him. I then show what I feel is the clincher. See, the Bruin prides himself on takin' pain: fire, bullet wounds, even uncompromised lazing. I run him a quick look-see at this Duck takin' all kinds a shit. I've blanked all access to the Coyote 'cause he's in the same timbre in the shit-takin' department, but he's probably too intellectual for the Bruin, anyway. I'm ready with that argument, but I don't need it. He's leanin' his bulk forward towards me in interest, even though the info is flashin' though his software, and I'm simply sittin' there.

At the end I show almost a five-minute short. I know, a long time for anybody to stare at one thing, especially the Bruin, but he's doin' it. Like I mentioned before, the Bruin's really big on lazin', so I got this one of the Duck, and the Bunny, and this little helmet head -- big feet, skinny small body, no face, but these big eyes peerin' out this shithole-dark helmet. Well this dude's a Martian -- an extraterrestrial -- and he's tryin' to off the duck and the rabbit. The rabbit is too smart, but the duck's gettin' hit left and right, and the little Martian's got this ray gun that's a close cousin to some a the high-end military shit they're always showin' on those reality-based Vids like Soldiers. Bruin starts laughin' when the Duck's disintegrated, 'cept for his bill, and I know he's sold.

Next is Johnny; he's a little tougher. Kid's a squirt, but he's smart, and quick, and he's got this knack for runnin' and hidin' in places you'd never think of. Says it's somethin' to do with perceiving people's preconceptions. I think he's got one a those highly developed throwback flight mechanisms. I can already see he's been growin' eager for the Martian; makes sense really, but I didn't set this shit up so Johnny could pick and repick, and that's what he'll do if I don't nail him down.

"Animals." I say out loud, "We gotta be real animals. None a this Indian Dillos with bows and shit -- real animals."

They're noddin', so I hurry along hoping none of them start thinkin' rabbits, ducks, and mice don't stand upright and talk. Like I said, Johnny's quick, uses only a few hardcore weapons. The bird's perfect. First off, 'cause he's psyche. It doesn't fly, but it runs real fast, heedlessly sassing the Coyote with this shrill little beep-beep noise. Johnny's easier than I thought. He likes the fact that the bird gives shit to the bigger Coyote. Probably 'cause he's always takin' shit from the bigger kids. I'm playin' up to him, tellin' him how he's probably got the coolest one, and he's lickin' it up. For Johnny it's more important if everyone wants to be HIS guy, as opposed to what he really wants. Again, like the Bruin's, an easy outfit, little blue tail, orange beak, some kinda little growth on the top of the head that can probably just be a hat or somethin. No arms, but Johnny says he'll go blue like the rest of the body and they'll blend right in. I appreciate his optimism, though I don't think he's right.

Finally, Siennsa: I'm showin' all the mouse shit to her. There's not as much on the female mouse, but I'm loopin' stuff hopin' it's enough. There just wasn't many cool female cartoon characters. Instructors would shoot some drivel about this as proof of the inequity of the sexes in the Twentieth Century. I'm ready to purge that thought, when I decide it'd make an easy program for my cultural-history class. So in a blink I've got it initialized in opticals to remind my head tomorrow.

It's not goin' well. I can tell she's thinkin' our cartoon animals are much more realized, and I know she's right. Almost didn't have enough hard stuff to do the voice for her imp. She's shakin' her head as I'm finishin', and as if it matters I can tell Bruin and Mach are agreein' with her. Before I can say anything brilliant in riposte she demands, "I wanta be the boy mouse!"

Is it gonna be that easy?

Wide-eyed I sit there, while she nets us all and shows some highpoints from the boy Mouse's career. I've seen more, but then I've had more time to research it. She must a been splicin' my net pitch and scannin' the other bands. Sien's quick in the head, that's for sure. I do not care which mouse she is. Just bein' polite as all.

Sien's netting us all. Talkin' about how cute the little mouse is, and we're all humorin' her -- first 'cause she's okay, and second 'cause she's got the backup drone we might need. I'm quick-scannin' the whole bunch. Some I remember 'cause the girl mouse almost never appears without the boy mouse. He's, I don't know, kinda goofy; never gets on anybody. Never fights, or if he does it's against buckets a water, magic chairs, and other things I don't know the name, or the use, for. Got some dog named after the planet that's not a planet, where the astronauts are settin' up that big Outfar station. Well the dog's about as dumb as the planet, and her query on anybody changin' to the mouse's buddy is stonewalled.

Named Steamboat somethin, at first, mouse is so old I think my imp's fritzing and given me only a chromatic version. My command to diag the piece is met with the info that it was initially black and white. I'm obstinate and tell it to color it anyway. I have to wait an entire half a minute to finish this process and I watch for a bit and decide I like the whole thing back in monochrome.

My imp switches it back without a chirp or a sulk.

Sien's been ravin' about what she's gonna do with her outfit, and I've been splicin' her; so I catch up with a lotta nonsense about the Mouse's different looks, but after a lotta nothin', she decides for the mouse's standard outfit: black tuxedo, out of date but still kinda chill, white gloves -- what the hell is it with these gloves. You can show these characters naked, but they gotta wear gloves.

I initialize a command to check on that later.

Oh, and mouse ears. The ears set my imp to buzzin'. I don't like that these ears are stickin' up outta her head. She pooh-poohs my concern and tells me they're black, so what's to see. I don't like it, but I can't rebut her; besides, I can tell by the set of her mouth and the hardness of her send that she's set on the Mouse. No Mouse, No Siennsa, so I shut my port. With that the gang's all here.

* * *

So we're quick-timin' it down the streets. The bird's at point and I motion him to pull back towards me. He's got the kandy, and I don't trust him to not start peckin' at it. First rule, never do kandy on the night. 'Cept maybe a red to keep you hoppin' and in sync. Well, the bird comes back kinda zigzag 'cause he knows I want the bag, and since he can't do anything slow, he's forced to run hither and thither until he reaches me in a vain attempt to be slow. I hold out my hand and he's slow again in givin' me the bag.

"Can't I have a little somethin' on account of the score?"

I snatch the bag he's so weakly proffering, and after an initial neg, I reach in the bag for somethin' -- can't look like too soft a touch, or he'll be whinin' for more after each successful op. I pull out a red, which is of course what we got the most of. He snatches it up, rips off the wrapper and zooms away, makin' that irritatin' "beep beep beep" again and again. Now, in the interests of honesty, I shoulda said "looks like a red", 'cause what he just swallowed ain't nothin' more than some colored gelatin.

You gotta be ready for any eventuality.

One very certain thing on this night is that our group will score, and the bird is gonna want some speed. But like I been mentionin', the kid's already strung too tight. So I'm not givin' him anything that's gonna send him off to Pluto, the planet not the dog.

So I got some ready-made gelatin capsules in a pocket. I seen him comin' up. I hide one in my hand and that's the hand I stick in the bag and presto-chango the beep-beep machine's got his fix, and I don't have to worry about him tryin' to run past any quickshot automatics.

We're still movin' down the street, don't know if this is a drive or a lane. I'd check my imp for the stored data on this part of the neighborhood. But I can't take the chance of a direct access with all this interference shit runnin' around.

So I just pull up some memory.

It takes me a bit, but I figure out where we are. I coulda just checked the street signs, but it's kinda dark with just the near full moon and all the street lights turned off. Course it's much safer in the dark. Wouldn't dream of doin' this in the daylight, and they know if they turned on the lights we'd just shoot'm out.

Well the bird has reconned some of the nearby houses and several got offerin's put out. I send (with a point of my hand) the mouse over to spotcheck'm. I don't trust the bird to be thorough; and besides, the offerin's usually low-grade stuff, and yeah there're lotsa reds. How much you wanta bet the bird'd be palmin' a few before he turned'm in to the bag. Can't have the duck do it 'cause he's not sharp enough. Besides, I'm afraid he'd set somethin' off just to enjoy the firefight. The mouse's careful and smart. Just what's needed for checkin' the offering plates.

She picks four houses clean, and it really is like stealin' kandy from a baby. The mouse is real good, and we don't get a shot fired at us. A couple of autos come on, but they're real passive. I'm careful to be near the duck, 'cause I know him. Sure enough, I gotta stop him from shootin' the autos. Even when it'll just waste ammo and get the fuzz out of anybody who's tryin' to pinpoint our small band of animals. However, I'm probably bein' paranoid 'cause all this interference the neighborhood is sendin' is also gonna make trackin, 'cept when you're blastin' open their door, next to impossible.

The bird's cruisin' up the street, and I'm glad 'cause he's far enough ahead so I don't have to hear his noisemakin'. Quick-like, there's the cough of small arms fire and I see the bird dive down behind some cans for protection. The duck's up 'n' runnin' in that direction shootin' at the sounds, since he's too far away to see anything. Me and the mouse bring up the rear.

This interlude, before the show starts, gives the mouse time to start chatterin' to me in this kinda high-pitched whine. It sounds stupid, but I know she's havin' fun, and I'm too busy tryin' to figure where the shots are comin' from. So I don't say anything.

Comin' in from the right I can see this house is well fortified. The fact the bird was shot at in the street tells me it's gotta be some person doing the shootin', 'cause no automatics are programmed for such a long range of fire with so many other houses nearby. By the look of the person's house, almost glossy with the Everlast and Durabilt constructions, I know this is a nogo.

Guy's tryin' to pick a fight. Every now and again you can take these overconfident types and shove it up their poop shoot, but the discipline in how he's keepin' the bird pinned down tells me he's no kook. Just some well-prepared bastard.

The duck's not smart, but he's already figured we gotta lay down some fire to get the bird outta his hole; either that, or the duck's shootin' just 'cause he likes to.

All three of us are standin' together. Not a good idea, but I give them the tap, tap, and we split apart and on a count we start shootin' at the house, as a whole, 'cause we can't see where the fire's comin' from. Nothin' much to aim at so I'm watchin' the bird. He looks real nervous as the tink, tink, tink of the small arms is comin' down from the house and onto the small metal roof he's got for protection.

But he's stayin' put.

Somethin' he probably wouldn't of been doin' if I had given him a real red.

After about a minute of ammo wastin -- somethin' I'm not too happy about unlike the duck, who's hoppin' up and down in a way I'm sure is gonna get him shot at any moment, but doesn't -- I catch the other three's attention and tell the duck to pull out the clatter gun. I feel bad about wastin' ammo just to get the bird free when I know there's no kandy on the far end of all this.

But I can't help it.

Our fire hasn't stopped the small arms rainin' down on the bird, and I'm afraid red or no red the bird's gonna try to run for it, and I don't think, even with the extra mags for his legs, he can make it. Not that this shit is very heavy and his gettin' shot probably wouldn't amount to much, but that'd screw up the rest of the night with his cryin' and waitin' for a medic. Like I said, the bird's gotta real vivid imagination, and the last time he got an extremity shot he went all curled up whinin' how he was gonna die.

A real pain in the neck.

I'm standin' there tryin' to get the bird's attention, but he's only showin' interest in the noises the bullets are makin' on his hideout, and therefore he's not noticin' my gestures in the half-darkness. So I shoot at him, or near him. He gets this real scared look, thinkin' they're sneakin' up behind him, too. But then he sees it's me and his face goes through about four different expressions at once, as his head tries to figure out my angle. I motion to the duck, who's comin' up with the evil-lookin' gun, and the bird catches on.

The clatter gun gives off its characteristic whoomp, whoomp and the bird's taken off even before the explosion begins. I told you he's an antsy one, and he's lucky not to get popped, but then the explosion starts and he's lucky not to get caught in the backdraft. As it is, I spend the next minute knockin' off all the burnin' embers that'd touched down and began to burn through his outfit.

I tell myself they should make these things fire retardant, but I shouldn't complain -- they do a good job a stoppin' bullets.

The bird's still fidgetin' and excited and it's all I can do to keep him held down while I clean him off. He gets real sad, when he sees his tail's almost totally burned off, but I take his mind offa it by tellin'm how damn quick he was, and I toss him another pseudo-red for a job well done. He snatches the kandy outta the air and gulps it down, and like that he's speedin' away, the whole incident forgotten, or at least conveniently buried. Right away he's back to makin' that more and more irritatin' noise and I'm wishin' his voice box woulda burned out, too. I also get a little insight into why the coyote spent all that time tryin' to off that bird.

Well the night keeps goin' well. We're pickin' up a good show of offerin's, and the little ones we come across are givin' up the tribute... especially when I got the duck behind me holdin' the evil-lookin' clatter gun.

We're just comin' around the corner to the entranceway of this court, where the big house of the neighborhood sits. It's set back from the street some fifty feet and is surrounded by this six-foot-high metal fence. The fence isn't just for protection, it's actually decoration too. It's got these metal filigreed leaves and branches all throughout. Keepin' with this house's environmentalism is the real tree, sitting at the halfway point between the house and its metal partition. The tree stands over forty feet high with branches sproutin' as far out as over the fence and all the way back to the roof of the house. I'm thinkin' two kids could take gunfire easy, just standin' behind the trunk, 'cause it's so thick.

Well, we're all standin' a respectful distance off. Each imaginin' the gobs a kandy in that place, when a noise from the small gully that runs behind and parallel to this lone house brings us up. I start thinkin' this is some zodiac adult who likes to go out on nights like this and off kids. I've never seen one, and it's probably bullshit, but when you're all alone on a dark night in front of a spooky old house, shit starts poppin' in your mind.

Before I'm through with this thought I can hear a couple a footfalls and I know it must be kids; Zodiacs are supposed to only travel alone. Sure enough, comin' up the rise are some kids I recognize. They don't got any masks and I recognize Billy Zowalt right away, 'cause a the big nose he's got. Immediately, I look for Ripple, 'cause I know they do time together and they're both real heads. He's comin' up right behind Zowalt. They're both dressed up in these real tight-fitting clothes, except for these real poofy sleeves that are alternately drooping and billowing in the breeze that kicks up every now and again. They give us the hi sign and I can see they got on these tight velvet breeches, dark hued in black and purple.

The funny thing is the wigs they're wearin'. They're white (big mistake there) powdery jobs. Their third is pullin' up the rear, and though he's got a wig like the rest, he's dressed in these black, kinda formal-lookin', loose-fittin' ninja robes.

They're over to us now, and I don't recognize the third guy or his outfit. If Ripple is worried what I might be thinkin' to do after he scrammed me in instruction, he's not showin' it.

"You guys lookin' to get in?" Somethin' sarcastic about how we're just sittin' here enjoyin' the view pops into my head, but I don't say it.

I shrug and say, "Yeah, it'd be a bitch, though."

All seven of us share a conspiratorial nod on that. The mouse chimes in with somethin' I've been wonderin', but didn't want to ask, 'cause I didn't want to look stupid in fronta Ripple.

"Who are you guys?"

Ripple's the leader, so he speaks. "I'm George Washington and this..."

Okay I heard of him, but I thought only women wore wigs back in history, and I'm really wishin' I could access my imp to check, love to nettle Ripple on some point of historical accuracy. But I'm not stupid enough to open up with all the interference I'm sure is still flyin'. Besides, he might bring up the fact I got no carrot, and I'm still smartin' over that inadequacy.

Been busy thinkin' and missed who the other two are.

Miss my imp even more.

But hey, it's obvious they gotta be some other soldiers. Ripple's got what looks to be a musket. I know a lot about ancient guns, and I'm thinkin' it's chill to have it but a mistake in a firezone. Another thing is they only got three, and that's a mighty small number, especially when you got one guy like Ripple with a such a slow fire rate. The other two got your standard low-bore high-projectile weapons. As if he's readin' my mind, Ripple tells us Smith got hacked a few hours ago; don't know him but I listen anyway. Never know when you might learn somethin'.

"So he's sucking up the bliss and I'm telling him to keep the kandy in his bag till he gets back to his house, but he's a nut for this kind of kandy and he's deep in character shouting at me, "Give me liberty or give me death!" Well sure enough an automatic pops up with the noise and Smith can't get to his weapon 'cause he's got one hand holding the blisspouch and the other's holding the stick you use to attract the bliss out of the pouch. Well there's this fraction of a second where I see him hesitate. Like he knows if he goes for his weapon he's going to drop his bliss. Well, by the time he decides to drop the pouch the automatics dropping him."

Ripple, or should I say Mr. Washington, gets this real disgusted expression on his face, and I can't tell if it's 'cause he liked Smith or 'cause Smith was stupid -- probably the latter.

"What happened to the auto?" The bird inquires nervously, looking around like it's gonna pop up any second.

I know, real bird brain.

"Oh, John Marshall did a sensor shot and then we disabled it."

Now, I know Marshall's the guy's character, but I still got no idea what those long, plain, loose black robes signify, and it's startin' to bug me.

"Think we can take the house?" Washington inquires archly of me.

I think he's testin' me 'cause I can't see a way in.

So I say, "Maybe."

He lifts one eyebrow and a brief narrowing of the eyes tells me his thinkin'. Afraid I know somethin' he doesn't or hasn't thought of yet. I haven't of course, but I wanta pay George back a little for the scram. Marshall walks towards the house and starts intoning over the failures of this house's this and that and society's lack of somethin' or other. It's the first time I notice he's got this little wooden hammer, with both ends flattened, in his hands. I notice it 'cause he's wavin' it all about and keeps slammin' it down on his free hand, yellin', "Order!" at the top of his lungs.

I feel bad again 'cause I got no prop. I look at Washington like he's gonna tell me this guys a total wack, but he's just smilin' at Marshall's rant like he's gettin' somethin' I'm not. I'm a little pissed off, so I start yellin' for Marshall to get his ass back here 'cause he's gonna get it shot off.

He makes like he can't hear me and keeps on with his shoutin' of, "Order! Order!"

I pick up a little movement on the sturf behind the fence and all hell breaks loose. About five, maybe six autos start openin' up on where Marshall's standin'. I'm pissed at myself, 'cause I figured we were out of range, but I forgot this house stands alone in the court, so the autos' range must be all hyped up. As I jump behind the lone streetlight, I see the same pissed-off look comin' from George. Well, I guess neither of us are too smart.

Marshall's hit maybe three different ways in the space of a moment. Knocked flat, but he must have good armor 'cause I can hear him when the gunfire breaks still shoutin', Order, order. Though not at the same amplitude as before, while still poundin' the slim part of all that's left of his hammer on the street.

The autos' fire stops only for a few seconds as they run a tighter scan of us, their targets. I'm wishin' this streetlight was as wide as the tree behind the fence. The scene in front of the tree brings me up. I musta been too worried about one-upping George to notice where the bird is, which is out in the open, much closer to the fence and the tree than I would've ever allowed had I been payin' attention and not tryin' to one-up one of the first presidents of the U.S. of A. The thought occurs to me the bird might've set off the autos. I was just too busy watchin' Marshall.

The mouse, and the duck, and one of George's soldiers, are relatively safe in the burm, but their brief peeks over it are met with some steel-jacketed inducements to stay down. George, himself, is hidin' behind the Durabilt recyclers, which are just the right size to dive behind. There's no room for me, though, and George is lookin' at me like I better not even think of comin' over there.

I'm tryin' to do my best to hide behind the pole. But it's a tight fit and with the auto's angles I'm catching a couple a weapon brushes on my torso's Lexan. I'm not too worried about that. Unless the autos get a meatier shot and knock me away from my refuge, I'm safe. That is unless some of'm are mobile. And with a house like this there's definitely a good chance of that.

Now, if my situation is sorta mixed, the bird's is downright desperate. He's out in the open, only safe 'cause of the differing fields of fire of the autos and the fact he's in the direct line of the tree, whose trunk is acting like quite a shield. Everybody's lookin' at him like they can't believe how totally fragged he is, and the fact he's got time to think about how fragged he is only makes it that much worse. I'm watchin' him and I can tell he's gonna start runnin', and I can see in his eyes he's imaginin' the hurt that's gonna come down.

I start firin'. Maybe he'll get hit only a few times if I can draw some fire. I thought the shootin' was bad before. I'm nicked three or four times. I've got to hold on to the pole so as not to get knocked away from its protection. The bird sees his chance and starts runnin... forward, towards the house. The only reason he doesn't get cut down immediately is these autos are the real high-end models and they do a little thinkin' that mimics the human brain, not much but enough. Enough to be totally surprised by this bird runnin' towards their pulses of gunfire. See what happens when you let machines think a little, I tell myself in between my hot and heavy pole-hugging episodes.

In a second he's sure to get cut down, and I musta looked away in apprehension, 'cause when I look back he's gone. Disintegration rays and hard-tech space gear runs through my head and that's the closest I ever come to losin' it all. As it is I piss myself -- but only a little. I'm lookin' over and back towards the others as if to confirm this crazy shit, when I notice their eyes are all starin' at the house. I look in their direction and I see the tree movin'. The bird's in the damn tree if you can believe that shit.

Who ever heard of a kid climbin' a tree?

And the autos aren't shootin' at'm and of course it makes sense -- they all must be programmed to ignore the tree. Trees are too expensive to kill tryin' to chase some kids away.

The bird must've figured this out and he's climbin' higher and higher. His normal beep-beeps replaced by the cough of his weapons as they begin' to decimate the hapless autos, who either can't return fire 'cause of his position, or because their programming don't even show that section of the yard as existing.

I stay cool and in another five minutes the bird has knocked all the autos out. Me and George are ready to jump for joy, but we both know to be careful, which in this case means runnin' back to the burm where the rest are. We both hug the ground and our eyes light up 'cause we're safe.

George is the first to speak. "Think we can take it?" he says, this time with more feelin' and a mischievous gleam in his eye. I nod yes, and we're outta the burm firin' on the house.

The duck's shootin' at everything, and truth be told I'm behind him usin' him for a shield if this turns out to be a trap. We make it all the way up to the gate, and for the first time I notice how high up the first tree branches are, but then I remember the birds extra mag-legs and it all makes sense.

We use an in-place explosive to blow the gate, and we're in the yard, spreadin' out, approachin' the house. The bird's gotten on the roof from the tree and he's askin' for the clatter gun 'cause of his angle. I tell the duck to give it to him. The duck looks like I just asked for his share a candy, and George's lookin' enviously at our hardware. We toss it up to the bird and he rips off a shot at something I can't see, and then another blast, and bits of the roof are rainin' on my bunny ears.

A huge mechanical screech goes off from the house, and voice over-magnification comes on, tellin' us they'll give us what we want, but not to enter the house. From some hidden opening in the house out flops this bag that hits the ground and spills out a rainbow of transparently wrapped kandies. The mouse and duck are on'm before I can warn them it's a trap -- but it's not.

With the bag in hand, and some careless scooping of those kandies that fell out on landing, we're runnin' outta the yard. I hear the bird yell out from his perch above us, "Watch out!"

I dive for the earth and an autopopup that has just come outta the sturf starts pluggin' away.

We're all layin' on the ground as flat as can be, hopin' the bird can hit it with his smaller stuff or it'll run outta ammo. It stops for a second, and we all don't move. We know it's tryin' to tight-scan us and without any cover if we move we're done.

I'll never know why it got her. Did she move? I don't think so, 'cause I was lookin' her way when it happened. Only way I can figure it is the damned mouse ears. Told her not to wear'm, but she had to. Auto probably noticed the all-too-regular half moons and the bigger arc connected'm. Its little machine brain went klick, klick, klick, and it fired at this uniformity absent in nature. The reason I'm pretty sure it was the ears is 'cause they got hit first. Knocked'm flyin'. She rose up a little, just a little, in surprise and maybe sadness over their loss. The next cartridge tore away the top of her skull. I wish I could say I saw this red cloud, a mist when it hit her, but it happened too fast. When I think back on it barebrained and all, it was like there was this all-too-fast compression of light around her head and she was flyin' back, her body landin' in a way that told me her humanity had already fled. I was up and runnin' towards her even before the duck aced the popup, damned stupid I know, but luck is stupid sometimes. I used my mags to run her outta the yard and behind the entrenchment. She was bad, but at the time I wasn't sure if she was entirely gone, or more likely I just didn't want to believe it.

Everybody's hangin' around me starin' at her, and then to me like there's some connection. George gets to the circle late. The reason a finally unconscious John Marshall over his shoulder.

"Maybe a medic'll save her," the bird inquires helpfully and piteously.

I'm thinkin' along the same lines as Johnny, but a call to the medic is outta the question with all this interference that's runnin' through our headgear. But she'll never make it back to the drop-off point. Maybe she's not gonna make it here either, my head chimes in encouragingly.

I pull my mask off and grab Johnny, tell him where my outside access port is for my imp. I say if I do anything or nothing he pulls it. I do not wanta be in the ether with my brain board hangin' out. Johnny nods at me, so I know he understands. Even George is lookin' at me real intense. I go in, and for the first moment I think everything's gonna be all right. I'm in there and then my path goes wack it's like the normal curved lines of transfer are spiraling down and out at some crazy angles, with my last conscious thought I try to retreat back up my silver cord, but the view and the course is the same crazy twistin' path down through all the colors of light. I'm gone.

The next thing I know hands are pulling me to a sitting position; that's funny 'cause I didn't remember falling. I'm tryin' to talk, to move, and all I manage to do is retch all over my bunny suit. Somebody's moving my head forward, so I don't choke, and I'm thankful 'cause I can't control my body. After an eternal period of immobility, my body breaks out into these uncontrolled spastic movements. Carl's carryin' me, but with all my shakin' and hittin' I'm too much of a nuisance and he's gotta put me down. They're all lookin' concerned and Ripple says somethin' and runs off carryin' Marshall.

I'm tellin' this like I knew what was happenin'. But the truth of the matter was even after I retched up the bile in my guts my brain was still stuck in its own bile, or maybe actually wallowin' in it.

Well, by and by, we're at the track point and I can walk with a little help, and by the time I'm walkin' in the door I gotta 'nuff sense of decorum to realize I've not only barfed on myself, but shit myself as well. Parents are already sleepin', so no access is needed. I go directly to the shower and sit on the floor. Give verbal commands for the shower head to move back and forth. The thought of usin' my imp makes what phantom gorge I have rise in my throat. After an hour I pull myself outta the shower, feelin' a little human.

By now I've got enough cognitive capacity to find some parallels to my condition. Like the time I decided to try my dad's stash of liquor. I know, who drinks alcohol anymore? Well I can tell you why they don't, 'cause the after-effect is like your brains been turned to shards and hollowed out at the same time and all you can hear or feel is them shards crashing back and forth. All that was about one-tenth as bad as runnin' on the ether highway with interference.

I realize Sien is dead, even though I can't remember anybody tellin' me, and I get all tensed up wonderin' where her body is. I'm not sure why it's important and that's how I fall asleep.

* * *

I wake up feelin' much better, but still not quite myself. I go down for breakfast and my mom makes some crack at how wild last night musta been on account a the condition of my bunny suit. I simply nod.

I notice my bag of kandy is on the table, and I can't remember bringin' it home. Then my mom weighs in with some helpful info on how she found my bag tucked in my suit, right next to the poopoo. She gives off a nervous little laugh at how cute she thinks this is, and how, even though, I'm growin' up I'm still mommy's little boy.

All my kandy is outta the bag and she's goin' through it, passin' a scanner over it to check purity levels. I'm sure she's gonna find some that don't measure up; parents love to mooch their kid's kandy. So, besides those she deems unusable, I'll have to pawn some over to her and Dad or risk lookin' like a little baby that can't share.

The thing is I'm really not too interested in what I can tell by the colors and size, is an exceptionally good haul. That was my last night, I tell myself I'm gettin' too old for all that runnin' around.

But I swoop them all up into the bag, shove a few in my pocket, and lock the bag in my room in case I change my mind. My mother makes a little "O" with her mouth at the prospect of my kandy bein' off limits. I chug a drink, which guardedly, I feel my stomach accept.

I'm walking down the block to the trak stop. Couple of other kids are there, but they're not sayin' much on account of the freeze that's on. We wait impatiently for the trak, though we know to the minute when it'll arrive.

The traks are always on time.

The trak slides up with the hiss that can't be heard once you step inside, but I try to hear it sometimes anyway. An almost solid wall of commotion hits me, as well as the heat from the compartment as I step in the Durabilt innards of the rail car.

Flip the driver a red and a mickey, he snatches it eagerly outta the air and gives me the ole, "How was your holiday?"

I shrug, "Ehh." Keepin' my hands at my sides, ready in case he wants a closer look. I smile at him and move to the back of the trak, kinda disappointed he thinks I'm stupid enough to show'm my stash.

Almost made that mistake when I was a little kid, but the kid I was with beat me to it. Kid gets on the bus talkin' and talkin' about how he scored the night before and how much he's holdin'. Throwin' out some ridiculous numbers, but hey I'm young. My parents still got me waitin' up for some big red dude to come down the chimney. Supposed to give him cookies, I'm thinkin' at close range two single, round, hollow points'll punch through that suit, even if it's next-generation Lexan. But I know what you're thinkin: right attitude wrong holiday.

Anyway, I'm listenin' to the kid all intent -- name's Face of the Green or some kinda enviropolitical nonsense. Don't even notice the driver eyein' us in the mirror, totally naive, I know. The kid's about to show us his stash, when the driver goes off auto and slams the brakes on. All the kids are goin' ass over teakettle -- I don't know, somethin' my mom always says; check your imp -- but you get the idea.

I'm still pickin' myself off the trak floor, when the driver is over both of us with one of those extra arcing Tasers in his hand. You know the one they use on the American Gladiator's Vid. Well he goes zip zip to Face of the Green, and bang bang he's layin' on the ground slurpin' up air and convulsin' like a fish out of water. With one hand the driver's riflin' through Face's pockets and comin' away with maybe halfa dozen reds, some mickeys, and a few choice halogens. Looks disgusted though. Like he's disappointed the kid was lyin' -- talkin' it up. Like everybody doesn't lie. While he's doing that operation with one hand, the other hand is holdin' the Taser at yours truly. I'm doing my best to look like Mr. Inoffensive, a fave Vid of mine at the time; I always liked the trak and how it'd take you to this magic world. Well this trak don't feel so magical and definitely not inoffensive. He Tasers me anyway, but the arc's too long and he just manages to raise my hair, shake my body, and make me piss myself -- but only a little.

I make like I'm hurt real bad, figurin' he'll leave me alone, which he does. Arcs a keen one at Carl Bruin though, whose walkin' up talkin' some nonsense. Carl ends up on the far wall, maybe a shade healthier than Face, who's finally stoppin' his flopping and is down to these mere lung-churning gasps.

After all this I guess the moral of the story is you should never talk about what you got 'cause somebody'll always try to take it away. My dad's an expert on the Ole Soviet empire. He does some big-time consultancy work downtown, and he told me this story once that in this Soviet place when things were goin' bad and people were feelin' the pinch they'd never say anything good when asked how they were doin. Just say "Normalne", like I'm still here, it's okay. And that's where we got the word normal from, or maybe they got it from us. I get confused.

Get brought outta my memories by the noise. Still got some time on the trak, mosta the time I wish I could be closer to instruction. Get to stay home longer. Notice some little ones talkin' about last night. There's two or three all around this one, who's got'm spellbound with his story of his take from last night. I wanta tell the kid to shut up, but I gotta admit he's a good storyteller.

I'm ready to go back to my doldrums when I notice the driver eyein' the kid tellin' the big-fish story; one hand slippin' down to where I know the manual override is. I'm sittin' back, gettin' ready to watch the fun, when for no good reason I lean forward kinda on the edge of their conversation and start starin' real intently at the little chatterbox.

Well in a second or two he notices me, and after a small stumble, 'cause of this big kid's stare, he goes back to his tellin'. However, it only takes a few more seconds for his gaze to drift back and check if I'm still watchin.

Of course I am. Lookin' more wacked than before. Not sayin' anything a course 'cause I'm sure the driver's imped into the audio of the trak. Now the kid's stopped, and I can see the thoughts movin' through his software. Is this guy a total psyche? Is he gonna kick my ass, or what?

Faced with too many possibilities, the kid shuts up and lids his eyes. After a bit the driver's hands come up and a vague expression of dissatisfaction creeps over her face. Don't know why I cared to do that, but then again I got a list, and it's never too early to get in the mood for the big red dude.

Story copyright 2001 by John Devlin john.devlin@mindspring.com

Illustration copyright 2001 by Matt Morrow mz9000@tconl.com



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