The Bay was gray in the morning, it always was. It rolled languidly, black and grayish bits of scum lapping up on the beach - stained with grease and muck. A pale figure, short black bangs flitting in the sucking of the wind, stood on a cliff, clutching a faded yellow windbreaker that flapped as the breeze caught it. Arie squinted, her dark eyes scanning the Bay in the same direction they did every morning. She spotted it. The topmost tips of the Golden Gate Bridge poked up from the rolling, nauseatingly ovoid, sickly waves. The thick smell of iodine and salt caught her nose, and she breathed deeply. Despite the toxic waste and blackish-grey lumps of sludge riding on the waves, the Bay nevertheless managed to carry the pure, faraway smell of the Pacific.

Every morning she came up from her apartment not far from what used to be Fisherman's Wharf. It was a rather long way to go, but usually the railbuses, for all their clanking dilapidation, were reliable. Arie's mother didn't disapprove of Arie's morning ventures - in fact, she approved of them. They kept a loud and depressed teenager out of the house in the morning when her mother was trying to get over a splitting hangover from the previous night's drinking.

Arie liked it here, here on her cliff. She often sat on the big boulder at the zenith of the cliff until it was time to leave for school. She liked being out over the grey and diseased Bay, out to the grey ocean - out here on her rock, surrounded by dry, scraggly, choked weeds and the filth of several hundred years of humanity washing up on the rocks far below. The thunderous crashing of the waves was a soothing sound, and here, safe in her secluded, secret spot, she could release some of her angst and torment out over the sea.

Another breeze blew a gentle breath of fresh air over the cliff, filling Arie's nostrils with the calm, mellifluous smell of the sea. Presently Arie felt a tingling on her wrist. She checked her watch and uttered a breathless, "Shit" that was drowned out by the roar of the Pacific smashing its hydraulic bulk against the steadfast rock. As she scrambled to her feet, high boots scraping against the ground, Arie felt another great wave thunder in and crash, filling the air with its mighty voice, and inside some instinct told her that the ocean might blow the tall cliff face into smithereens. It was nonsense of course. Most of the weakest rock had fallen in the Great Earthquake of 2033, four hundred years ago, and the rest was shaven off by a seismic torpedo some hundred years later. Yet the voice in her mind persisted, like a tiny swallow on top of a mountain trying to outmatch the roar of a raging avalanche with its song. Arie hurried.

A normal day in San Francisco always seemed like the city had been drenched by a hard rain the previous night. Stagnant pools of water, made rainbow with oil, lay in potholes in the street, and the concrete was grey with moisture. Discarded bits of rubbish lay about everywhere, plastic on the sidewalk and newspapers, like dead butterflies, were lying limp in the street as if blown by a torrential storm. All around it seemed as if the filth of humanity had been laid bare and strewn all about for all to see. Cars like buzzing insects, belched clouds of carbon dioxide and water as they roared on the asphalt, burning methanol as their drivers rode unceasingly to places of unknown destination. Arie looked over her shoulder as she walked, slouching, pulled by the loathsome weight of her backpack.

Arie had gotten off at the station just a few blocks from the high school. Again, Arie checked. One could never be too careful, especially in this area of San Francisco. Pock marks and bullet holes marked the places where the Lefties and Righties had fought a battle, or where a pair of gangs had gotten into a fight over territory. Fate, it seemed to her, had a stark sense of irony in placing the school in midst of these debatable inner-city lands. Arie put her hand in her pocket and felt the reassuring weight of her sidearm. Everyone carried a weapon of some sort, for self protection. Especially at school, it was important to bear concealed weapons. That was illegal, of course, but no one observed that certain law. Like jaywalking, if you killed someone and nobody knew that you did it, it'd be perfectly fine.

Arie momentarily glanced at a puddle of grey water to make sure that no one was following her. Paranoia, once considered a mental illness, was now something of a survival tool. In this day and age no-one could really know who might be a crazy or a sexual predator. Such a world tended to spawn such degenerates. Arie had countless legions of enemies, though she didn't know who they were or why, but she was absolutely convinced that they were out there, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

The bell rang, and first period let out. Arie carefully cast her darkly shadowed eyes around the moving human mass, like an endless parade of twisted nightmare harlequins, and made sure to notice suspicious faces. She had learned long ago the mean ways of school life. Likewise, other eyes were being cast about, some cold and predatory, others hunted and frightened. There was a moving undercurrent of clicks and snaps as weapons were deployed, anticipating the next strike and readying for retaliation. Someone screamed and Arie turned her head quietly, her fingers wrapped around her four-shot sidearm. Someone fell dead as a thin, attractive blonde hurriedly retracted her crimson-stained switchblade and disappeared into the crowd, another perpetrator of the pre-emptive strike. Arie sniffed. Another day, another death. The Janitors would have to clean it up, if the robots didn't get at it first. Arie waded through a multicoloured throng of humanity. In a city of fifty million, what was she but another speck of dust in the wind.

The teacher droned on about history, and at the back of the room, Arie straightened her black t-shirt and leaned back. Someone tapped her shoulder. She turned to a thin, horsy-faced boy with ashen-blond hair. Wake. He grinned that wry, naughty boy smile, bearing stark off-white teeth that were badly crooked from a secondhand electromagnetic dental repair job.

"I've joined the Lefties," he said matter-of-factly.

"What?" she whispered. The teacher called her name and she sat rigid, mimicking attention, "Are you crazy, Wake?"

"I had no choice. They forced me to. Besides, now that they showed me what they fight for..."

"I know what they 'fight for' " said Arie, "I've seen enough of their fucking commercials to know. But still, you fight for 'em, you're gonna die sooner or later."

"At least it's better than the Righties. God-damned Internazis. And they could've forced me to join them just as easily. Lefties won my neighborhood from 'em."

There was a silence and the teacher droned bee-like on, talking of the remote twenty-first century history.

"Hey Arie," whispered Wake, "Why don't you join the Lefties?"

"Shit, man, now they've got you caught up in that Leftist 'recruitment' bullshit?"

"Well think about it. The Righties wanna turn SanFran into their own little rich-man's paradise and stuff. Things'll be in the crapper. They'll probably militarise the city. Us Lefties, we're fighting that. We gotta stand up for our rights, y'know?"

"I'm not gonna burn my ass for your revolution, Wake. I don't wanna die."

"Huh. I figured all you depressed gothic types-" this struck a nerve and Arie unconsciously started fingering the little steel ankh around her neck "-wanted to die sooner or later."

"I'm not depressed. I just hate this system. And before you start again, just because I hate it doesn't mean I can do anything about it, or that I'm gonna risk my skin for some damned power-hungry liberal."

"Hmm. Well just come to this rally," Wake produced a small slip of plastic, "tomorrow and see if you don't change your mind, kay?"

Arie took the slip and crumpled it, putting it in her pocket.

Something made her go to the rally anyway. This strange something propelled her, wraithlike, through the shouting crowd. Around her they swarmed, and a man with a loudspeaker shouted Leftist slogans. Freedom, they said. Equality, they said. Arie had heard such things before - could she have heard herself over the clanging din of human voices - she would've heard herself say "Hmph." Then, suddenly, something in the distance. Like a loud banging of drums and a vivacious clashing of tambourines. A great blue Rightie flag, along with a boisterous procession of Rightists came marching down the boulevard and turned towards the equally loud and no less anarchic Leftist crowd. A great heave of "boos" could be heard ringing forth from the throats of thousands of people on both sides. The counter-rally marched up straight beside the Leftie one and made a firing line of angry faces and loud, bloodthirsty jeers. A group of black-suited Rightie conservatives marched up to the podium, pushing off the Leftie leaders. The din of subhuman howls, infused with the blind red rage of revolutionary fervour, attempted to drown out the other sides' equally matched roar. Arie stood in the middle of the Leftie crowd, crouched, covering both hears, her faced contorted. It was deafening.

"People of San Francisco!" boomed a loudspeaker, "People! Take back your futile Leftist remarks! Abandon your propagandist theories!"

The Rightie crowd, across a ten-foot no-man's-land, roared its assent. The Lefties answered with an inhuman collective scream. Arie's breathing was laboured, intense, and she shut her eyes and clenched her teeth, futily trying to shut out the collective will that threatened to sweep her away and dash her against a rock wall of human faces.

"People! People of San Francisco! We Rightists know the way! Liberty and Equality are dead - the world is far too gone for that!"

He was answered with a scream of the mob. Men and women around Arie, their faces crossed and lined with incomprehensible hatred, and their eyes glowing with collective thought, roared their Leftie hatred at the Righties. Spittle flecked her clothes and the Lefties foamed at the mouth like rabid dogs, their normally pale faces a deep crimson. A group of Leftie leaders wrestled control of the loudspeaker and spoke of truth, justice, a utopian future that awaited them if they overthrew Rightist thought. A bloodthirsty scream, at first a roar, but then rising in pitch, came from the Rightie side.

"We! We Righties are on the side of logic! We cannot change this world we live in! We must take up this yoke and deal with it! And make the best of out opportunities! We shall revamp the economy! We shall-"

The Rightie screamed on and on, a sea of faces glowering, screaming, and roaring in fury, another screaming in collective bliss, their minds reveling in the bliss of stripped individuality. Arie clutched at one saying, something burning bright like a beacon of hope, or at least, a solid idea or thought that was entirely her own: "At certain times, the human being behaves as a collective entity."

It was just a bit of fluff that she had read in a book, long ago, but she clutched to that thought as a drowning man might clutch at a piece of driftwood..

"My thoughts are my own," she thought frantically, repeating it over and over in her mind, trying to keep out the forces of the world, to remain sane. Around her the masses surged, whirled, eddied and frothed, a threatening collective wrapped up and fueled by their own ecstatic frenzy.

On the platform the leaders wrestled for control of the loudspeaker, each shouting his own side on, eager, barbaric lust glinting on their eyes as their increasing garbled messages boomed outwards.

Arie felt as if she were being pulled apart, her mind being disemboweled by scalpels of human thought, and she desperately clutched at her head, fingers clenched in masses of black hair. She crouched on the ground, her mind and senses reeling, vainly grasping at the last shreds of her sanity, of her humanity, of her individuality. All her life was like this, like she was a tiny puppet being controlled and fought over by forces far too vast for her to imagine or comprehend. Arie screamed, her cry desperate, a tiny voice in the blood haze of thousands of savage roars. Tears streaked down her porcelain-pale face and she kneeled on the asphalt. She screamed and the world screamed back, reflecting, twisting her own voice against her. Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! No! No! No!

Suddenly, it all cleared. Arie knew what she had to do. As the crowds rushed at each other, bodies flying and fists and claws and teeth whipping through the air, a tide of red faces and a deafening clamour of voices, Arie moved silently through the chaos. Rightie and Leftie clashed in a bloodthirsty melee as their leaders egged them on, no less caught up in the heady strife and power lust of chaos.

Arie, quietly, coldly, pushing through the rushing masses, felt the reassuring weight of her sidearm in her pocket, wrapping her fingers around its solid, molded grip. She stepped up to the podium, unnoticed by the leaders who were screaming and wildly gesticulating in their madness, and shot them. One by one a leader fell, his brains or intestines flying outwards, bodies exploding in hazes of red as Arie calmly murdered them. Soon their mangled and bloodied corpses lay scattered on the platform, oozing red pools of thick, viscous blood, and the loudspeaker was silent. Yet the battle raged on beneath, an ocean of humanity engaged in a storm at once frightening and awe-inspiring.

There was a silence. From each person the haste of madness slowly lifted, and they turned up to the podium, suddenly aware of the disappearance of the voices on the loudspeakers. A woman screamed, pointing a blood-stained claw tip at Arie, bits of flesh and blood spitting from her mouth, staining her expensive suit, "There! She! She killed! Killed our leaders!"

Then it dawned on Arie. She had murdered four men. By herself. But if she did, why didn't she remember doing it? A gasp that would not let breath into her lungs, came upon her, and she reached to cover her mouth in shock. Her hand came away sticky with the blood of someone whose body parts had been flung at her by the explosions of her bullets.

"Oh God," she thought.

The crowd turned against her, new leaders emerging at once from their ranks, urging them on. Arie fled, her feet splashing in cold pools of stagnant water, as she rang through the streets of San Francisco.

It was like a slow-motion nightmare. Her chest heaved with breaths as she ran with the sounds of a crowd far behind her. Where could she go? Where? No-place to go, no-place to hide. Everywhere the Lefties or Righties lurked. All of San Francisco, from the Peninsula to the rest of the Bay Area, all of it was divided into sectors controlled by the Lefties and Righties. Except...

Arie pushed a man off his motorcycle and drove it, her long black bangs crossing her face with the wind of speed. The poor parts. Yes. The Ghettos were safe. Only poor people lived there, and they were too stupid to understand politics, or didn't have enough money to care anyway. Yes, she could hide in the Ghettos. They were apolitical. Despite the gangs and prostitution and drugs, she'd be safe there. No more politics. And maybe, someday, she might even escape, perhaps to SoCal or eastward, to the other states, or even West to Asia or Oceania.

The nearest Ghetto was only twenty minutes' drive from where she was. It was a place wholly unlike any she'd ever been to. Dilapidated housing projects and ancient apartments, relics of a far bygone era, stood blocky and rigid, like kings around which flocked dozens of tiny, cheap houses made from foamboard and sheets of metal. There were toys and rusting cars lying construed in every front yard and driveway. Children played in the streets and teenagers chased one another naked, in a sexual game of catch-me-if-you-can. Adults and shifty-looking individuals conducted secret transactions on the corners of streets, and many an improvised car drove by, combing the streets for an available prostitute.

Arie drove up to a small house in front of which an ancient old man sprayed water on a lawn of dry and yellowed weeds. She hopped off, leaving the motorcycle lying impotent in the street, and ran up to the old man, breathlessly begging, "Please help me. Help me! Hide me, please. Please..."

The old man's eyes were kindly and wrinkles from many a smile lined his milk chocolate skin. Yet his bright ivory teeth were hidden as he regarded Arie solemnly.

"What are you doing here, whitegirl?" he asked softly, struggling to hold up the thin, strangely dressed girl.

"Please, mister you gotta hide me. Please, help me, keep me safe," came a rush of words from Arie's mouth, whispering into his ear.

"Okay, okay, just calm down, please. Now I can't just take in anyone who-"

Arie whined deep in her throat and produced the last of her money, fifty two dollars, shoving the money into the old man's calloused hand. The old man counted the money.

"Hmm... well then. You make a good point. Come in."

Arie followed the man into his small white house. It was comfortably furnished, warm and dry - only slightly stuffy - with a large red rug in the middle of the living room. No television. No radio. No ads. Bars on the windows were covered with white shutters that had turned yellow with age and were covered in a thick coat of dust. Arie plopped herself down on the sofa, and though it was only mid-day, she soon fell asleep to the sound of her own voice mumbling, "Thank you."

A gentle hand was shaking her shoulder, and Arie woke up with a start, confused as to where she was. As gummy eyelids opened, they revealed a kindly old brown face, whose chin was ringed with a white stubble, and a pair of spectacles at the end of his wide nose. Arie smelled something. It was aromatic and invigorating, unlike the food that she often prepared, and her stomach growled. Until now Arie had no idea that she was this hungry. She soon sat before a large plate heaped with good, solid food: mashed potatoes, artificial gravy, soysteak, all of the rare treats that she never ate, as Arie had no real cooking skills beyond prepackaged ramen, onion soup, and microwaved dinners. Arie was soon demolishing her meal while the old man regarded her, calmly poking in to his modest plate.

"Easy there," he said, "You'll hurt yourself."

Arie slowed down for a moment, but soon resumed her old pace.

"So why're you here - err...?"

"Arie," she said between mouthfuls of mashed potato. Arie swallowed with a gulp. "I'm running away."

"Ah. From what?"

Arie tensed, not liking the way this line of questioning was leading, Yet she read his expression, and sensed genuine curiosity. He seemed innocent, unknowing.

"From life. From everything, I guess."

The old man nodded knowingly.

"You have the look of one who is running, trying to flee from something huge and vast and alien."

Arie recoiled inwardly, and stopped her chewing. How had he divined that so quickly?

"Am I correct?"

Slowly, cautiously, Arie nodded. She felt safe here, in this warm little house, with her belly full of good food and a kindly old man. He poured some water for them. Here was a man to be trusted, she thought. Yet still, she felt that she should watch what she said, and she talked guardedly.

"Looks like all my life I've been running away, from someone or something. I guess I've always felt that there's someone or something out there, pulling me one way, or pushing me another. I just couldn't take it anymore."

"But what about your family? At home? Don't you miss them?"

"Hell no. My dad left us a long time ago, and my mom's drunk half the time, and the other half she's got a fucking hangover, so I've got nothing to lose. I should've left a long time ago. Of course, my life'd be a lot easier without all those goddamn Lefties and Righties constantly -"

Arie caught her breath, and the words expired in her throat. A curious glint came into the old man's eyes, and there was a little smirk at the corner of his mouth.

"Tell me, Arie," he said, "What do you know about the Leftists and Rightists?"

"Err..." Arie backed up her chair and began to rise, a voice in her head crying, "You fucking idiot!" With surprising speed, a wrinkled old brown coil of steel and carbon fiber leapt out and pulled her down into her chair again, with the steadfast grip of a vice made from solid stone.

"Let me tell you about Lefties and Righties." The old man chuckled, yet his laugh seemed slightly less comforting now, a shade higher perhaps? Or perhaps a bit more uneasy and strange, as if on the brink of madness?

"Such like a child, trying to run away. Don't you know that there is no escape?"

"B-but, I thought you poor people weren't into politics," stammered Arie.

"Hah!" he spat, "There is no hiding. Lefties and Righties like us are everywhere, anyone. You thought that maybe the poor people in the Ghettos were too stupid, eh? Hah! Sooner or later, we'll control the world, if we don't already."

"But what about liberty and all that stuff?"

"Nonsense. It's all fluff - everyone knows that they're just pretty words - they don't mean anything. And besides, there isn't any real difference between Left and Right. We may say different things, but really we just want the same thing. Know what that is?"

Arie shook her head yes, afraid of what a negative answer would do.

"No you don't! You're just a kid, a little kid. You need teaching. There's a reason why adults in crowds like to annihilate each other with their bare hands on the streets. What we want, and love, what we lust after, is power. Wealth. Control over minds and bodies, and - yes - even souls. Power, Arie, is the opiate of the masses."

"Then why do you fight? Shouldn't you guys be friends, if you want the same thing?"

He slapped her, a stinging crack of the back side of his doughty, weathered hand across her face.

"Fool! Don't you know that the less people you have, the more power each individual on each side has? It becomes concentrated with less to distribute. We must kill all the Righties, Lefties, all the RadFemms and Greenies and Pinkos and 'Narchies, because if we want power, we can't share it with them.

"Ahh... you are probably thinking, 'But what do you want me for?' Aren't you? Of course you are. Truth is, that nobody wants you, not even us. You're pathetic, a whining little snot-nosed pussy of a kid, and you don't deserve to live. But you're also dangerous. People like you hate all of us, and try to stay apolitical. Foolish. Politics is everywhere, it is in everything you touch, smell, taste and feel. Arie, wake up. If we can't get you to join us, you'll die eventually, so why don't you just give up?"

Arie shook her head, "No... no... no!"

She tore violently from his grip, backed away and ran, turning from the old man and his chair, bursting through the door and into the night.

Her boots made tap-tap sounds in the eternal darkness. At night the once-familiar skyscrapers seemed to loom from the fog as titanic legs and arms of giants, massive, terrifying. Night lights - vapid haloes of orangey yellow - lit the streets with a shadowy glow, providing not illumination, but confusion, and darker, stranger shadows.

"Everyone is one of them," she thought. "Everyone..."

Her breath came in easy gasps, in and out, in and out, her mouth making puffs of steam that blew away in the wind as it condensed in the night air. The dark eyeliner around her eyes was smeared with wiped tears, and though it was about fifty degrees Fahrenheit outside, she didn't feel the cold. She welcomed it. It was invigorating, energizing.

"Where do I go? Where can I go?" she asked herself.

Arie looked back, and the shadows seemed to cast silhouettes of following people on the walls. In the distance, echoing on the deaf ears of the cavernous skyscrapers, there was gunfire. She whirled her head around, looking for the Lefties or the Righties. They were everywhere. They might be in the shadows, lurking, waiting for her. Yes, that's where they were. She could see them now, a nightmare throng made of darkness that screamed and wailed a dirge of silence. On the wall, coming. Coming, coming for her. They would find her.

"Where are you?" asked the angry shadows on the wall.

"I'll never join you! I hate you all! You can't get me! You'll never find me," she screamed to the darkness and ran.

"There she is!" whispered the skyscrapers, glowing a dull yellow from within, tinted glass turning, turning on her like a mysterious army of unblinking eyes. As if to illuminate her for all to see.

"We see you," said the lights of the city, bobbing, moving, will-o-wisp eyes of sodium orange and yellow, of glaring crimson and piercing white.

"No! Go away! Leave me alone!" Arie yelled, her voice frantic, covering her eyes from the world.

"You cannot hide!" the city of San Francisco seemed to say with every electric buzz, every roar of passing car and trickle of water and breeze.

"No. No. No. No," Arie whimpered. She kneeled in the middle of the street, tear streaking her cheeks, a line of drool from her mouth. She was a bent, crouched, tiny little grey figure, trapped, terrified.

Something came up on the road. It was a great truck. Yes, it'd take her. She'd end it all here, now. Here it came, to take her away to another land, one where she could be happy. Yes, end it all. She threw herself in front of it and waited for oblivion to come, to drown her in a wave of yellow light and sound. Oblivion stopped two inches in front of her, to the sound of screeching brakes, halogen eyes dyeing all caught in the beams a bright yellow. A driver leaned out and screamed, "Get off the road, you stupid kid!" But Arie wasn't listening to him. A familiar screech and howl alerted her ears, and she turned to see a railbus arriving at its station on the other side of the street on a raised platform. She smiled at the driver, and walked, ghostlike, as if in a trance, to the inviting bus. Inside her pocket was a railbus ticket with some money left. She had put it there, just in case.

Now the railbus, illuminated from inside with a hazy greenish glow, seemed to be waiting there, for her, right now. Arie hopped inside, and it rolled away on its single, clanking monowheel, buried within the track. Arie flung herself on the nearest row of chairs and told the AI pilot to wake her when they had arrived at her stop. She fell asleep, amongst the age worn and musty-smelling old seats.

Dawn was behind her as Arie stood on the edge of the cliff, clutching her arms against the cold breeze. The sun's light cast obliquely over the world, causing the normally grey sky to glow with scintillating oranges, pinks, and yellows. It illuminated the water with a velvety, dulcet purple. Down below, Arie could hear and see the waves crashing against the rocks. Foam came up from the mighty impacts, and tickled the tip of her nose. Arie smiled, seeming for the first time in centuries.

Arie turned back, gazing at the nightmare world behind her.

"You can't make me join you now!" she shouted back at it, "I'm my own person!"

She laughed, a gay and merry peal over the sound of the thunderous roar of waves. To Arie it seemed like a great voice, like the basso rumble of some old god of the sea, begging her to join him. She responded to the sea god, and leapt out with open arms to greet her final destination, her last and safest hideaway.

"I'm coming," was her last thought as the purple dawn sea rushed up to greet her, the wind whipping through her black hair, caressing it gently with its mighty rush. "I'm home."


All text on this page are copyright of Anh-vu Doan, c. 2003. May not be reproduced without consent of author.