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...out there, he expected they would hear what he was thinking. Hot as his thoughts were, even in the deep predawn dark the alters should have been right up behind his face in milliseconds. Not this time. Or, not yet.

Maybe they weren't as ubiquitous and omnipotent as their spin had it. Maybe there was a way to keep a little of life as he'd known it. Still, there would be no chance of that if they caught him out alone without his headset.

Shit. Have to rely on old-fashioned skill, luck, and pluck to get out of this one.

Who knew? Just when everything was cool, with the market easing its way up, wars easing down, life lengthening, illnesses shortening. He'd never have guessed such a simple, pleasurable game could undercut the comfort and joy they'd finally inherited from those who came before.

Canasta. That was in the Fifties. Hula hoops. Sex, drugs, rock and roll. Greed. Inline skates. Fad after fad, preoccupation after obsession came and went, or came and stayed. Earth shakers, wisps of silliness, cultural nuggets. None had ever had this universal effect. No fucking privacy, anywhere. Gave a whole new meaning to the phrase "You Are Not Alone."

It started out as charades and role-playing, and as far as he could tell it would end in the next few seconds, at least in his case, with an alter vacuuming his being out through a crack between his conscious and unconscious essences. Why did he ever abandon his skepticism?

Trust your gut, he always said. Right now it ordered: _Get me the fuck out of here before I burst_, so he did his best, tiptoeing, peering, and sprinting around a corner and up the street, away from his crib.

"At least I'm not standing still for this," he giggled to himself as his bowel urged him into extra effort and a shield of shrubbery.

Of course that was the moment when the alter voice _ahemmed_ into his mental ear:

"Da fuck, George-eye-oh. Da _fuck_ you think you can get away with? Stupid shit."

"Just a second." He squatted and blew undignified slurry into the ground between his heels. Ahh. Now, then. Cleansed inside and out, he buckled his belt as he jogged into the town-bound roadway, chattering at the alter voice between and ahead of his ears.

"You're the ones with the getawaywith scam. What 'da fuck' do you want? You're just a big pain in the butt. Never leave us alone, always chip chip chipping away in there."

On up the center of the street, looking both ways before crossing intersections. Not really breathing hard. Not really knowing where he was going, or why he thought it worthwhile to spend his energy cooling nose and ears in the middle of the night in the middle of a street in the middle of a middle-class neighborhood of a middle-sized city in the greatest country on Earth.

"Earth." _That_ set them off.

"George-eye-oh, George-eye-oh, George-eye-oh. Didn't you dipsticks learn anything from Copernicus? The greatest country on Earth? Hah! You might as well talk about the greatest flea on the butt of the mangiest dog in the solar system. Earth is nothing. Nothing. You can't even comprehend the breadth and depth of the nothingness of Earth. Not to mention the absolute less-than-zero nothingness of the human fucking race. Flea. Dogbutt. Humans. Earth. You. Universe. Fucking dipstick."

Trotting along the double yellow line. Residential fading into commercial. Upscale strip malls to the left and right of him. Foot slaps echoed eerily, taking the shape of trembling neon glow, bouncing back in more than one modality. This was weird. He thought he was getting a little high on the dislocation. Felt what must have been a blocks-old grin. Couldn't dislodge it. Started to get a little high on that, too. Another giggle germinated near the _solar plexus_.

"There must be something here for you. Nothing has meant a lot, apparently. I mean you been here what, three years now, give or take?"

"George-eye-oh, George-eye-oh, George-eye-oh. It only seems like three years. Time slows when you have company in your head. Twice as many nodules to navigate. Twice as many nuances to negotiate. Twice as many numbnuts to placate.

"One more minute, or millennium, or epoch, or millisecond, George-eye-oh, and none of that shit will mean diddly to you. Sooner or later you'll slip and leave room for a wedge, and we'll get our little clamfoot in there. You ain't got a chance, compa'. Hee hee. I bet it frosts your balls that you don't even know if we're serious. Could we be cat-and-mousing you? Heh. Maybe we'll let you have a flash of realization just before we suck up your cognition. Maybe not. Maybe a flash of _false_ realization. Hee hee."

Chug-chug-chugging up a little incline toward a cluster of lights. Oh, yeah. The bowling alley. The all-night bowling alley. He could smell the French fries and sweaty shoes. Too late for a beer, but the blanching effect of the flat-lighting fluorescents might mask some of the intrusion.

"That's just mean. Why you want to do that? I ask you again, what is in it for you? If you are so big and powerful and playful, why bother with us. Sure, we kind of set a record for universal shallowness over the past couple decades. Yeah, we almost lost our sense of what 'person' and 'personal' and 'personal freedom' meant. We pretty much abandoned thinking in favor of experiencing. What is so bad about that? And whether it is or not, why do you give 'da fuck'?"

"George-ee-eye-oh, George-ee-eye-oh, George-ee-eye-oh. 'Da fuck' is the last thing we give. We give guffaw. We give chortle. We give aching diaphragms and burst cranial blood vessels and cherry-red sclera. We give anaerobic laughter and cures for what ails you. Don't you get it?"

A little rush of pleasure as Giorgio remembered to _Pull_ the door rather than _Push_. Into the frigid air of the bowling alley with another, sharper rush, this one more like a face-punch of insulted sinuses. Behind another _Pull_ at the side of the lobby was a lunchroom.

Ushering himself to a seat at the counter, he thanked himself, grabbed a wad of paper napkins and mopped the suddenly-cold sweat off his face. Asked the ephemeral waitress for an order of fries and a cup of Soma.

"Napa-Sonoma-Mendocino OK?" She was disinterested but complete.

"Sure, and one for my pal."

"Another one of those, eh? Gotcha covered."

"Thank you, George-ee-yi-ee-yi-oh, but you know we don't indulge."

The fries were hot, crisp on the outside and fluffy-sweet on the inside. And no salt. Wonderful. The Soma was a joke.

"Giorgio, what in the world are you fenseing with your nepwinst? Grend inch motgarn. Yik noom warmnebt. Mold inbid rostnel instru."

_Omigod! Is that me or him? Is it the lights? The fries? My joke? Holy mother of Elvis, did I find something here?_

"No, Giorgio. It was my joke this time. You should see your face! What bathos."



...she moaned. What in the world could be worth all that? Surely not this. There wasn't a single twinge of pleasure. No slick sliding of sea-salt rapture. Not even a swelling surge of unresolved urge. Just nothing. An anguished sense of time eroding. And the little tune. What was that? Where did that come from?

What it was, she realized, was the most poignant six notes from _Dance Of The Cuckoos_. Where it came from, she knew, was them. When it came, naturally, was whenever it hurt the worst. Why? That was pretty clear, too. Anything to disrupt, corrupt. Anything to drain off the human fluid of existence. We are going to be sooo dry, she thought.

"How dry _will_ you be?"

"God _DAMN_, alter! Stay the fuck out of my head, will you?"

"You have no idea how dry you will be, have you? Shall I teach you what _dry_ is? Relax and enjoy it, Hon. It's going to happen."

The bad part was, she knew they were right. It was hopeless. Inevitably, the parts of her that had already become foreign would grow to absorb and control everything. She was surprised they left enough of her self intact that she could ponder the difference.

"Nice thinking, Hon. What do you suppose that means? Got an inkling?"

"Buzz off, leech."

"Wrong, Sweetness. Not a leech. A leech can't live without a host. This is recreation for us. Together and apart, we do what we want, when we want. For fun. No need for external energy. We're plugged-in to the basic source. Talk about your freedom."

"For what? For _fun_? How can this be fun?"

A little used to the presence by now, she could hear the calm growing in her "voice." It was always like that. Startle and quiver from surprise, fear, or anger, then natural biological tapering when nothing physical happened. Aside from the mild nausea.

"Look, Precious, there is no point in going over this with you. You and your kind can _not_ come _close_ to 'getting' what is going on here. Your minuscule apprehensions about existence are not only tiny, but off-target. If you think about four dimensions, let me assure you there are forty. If you observe ten commandments, there are ten tens. If you would indulge in sex with four flavors, learn that there are dozens. If you contemplate a million concepts, there are billions. Suck it up. Show some awe. Revel in your small part in the progress of the universe. It's nearly obsolete, anyway."

"Obsolete would be a step up from here, Master. What? Obsolete. What obsolete? The universe? Awe? Progress? My small part? You're just pulling my string, aren't you? Bastard leech."

"There you go with the 'leech' again. Are you really that dim, or are you trying to join the game? Hmph. Not likely."

No comment on her sarcastic "Master."

"Any chance you'll shut the fuck up while I get rid of this guy?"

No answer. Slight elevation in tension level. It was a standard ploy: be absent until presence hurt more. Asshole leeches.

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