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The Baron Bayard Sala had been born on Barbelo in a time of swords and sandals, but being transplanted in an entirely new star system two thousand years into his future did nothing to change who he really was deep inside, which was a womanizing letch.

His basic appetite was for common women, something that earned no end of disapproval from his mother Queen Aurra back home, but when he moved to Taurus City he was surrounded by nothing but common women, all the time. Victoria knew he was getting some on the side from the very beginning, but now that Hope had been packed off to Canterwood Academy, and she had lost her power to fly, there didn’t seem much reason to stick around on the moon and endure living with a shamelessly adulterous husband. So Vic scooped up her little five-year old girl Aliwe and went Earthside.

There she met up with her grandmother Robyn, who had made herself scarce the entire time Vic and Bayard had raised Hope. “It wasn’t about you,” Robyn assured her. “Sure I was avoiding you, but it was a deliberate thing focused around Hope. I needed to create a longing in Hope for her real mother. For me.”

“But why?”

“I’m setting her up for the moment when she comes to herself, when she becomes truly aware. There will come a time when she will offer her life for me, and that crisis will push her into full consciousness. Right now everything is like a fuzzy dream to her.”

“I want to do something down here on Earth, Gramma. I want to be the sheriff of King County.”

“Well, you’re a dragon slayer, Vic, so I’d say you’re qualified to be county sheriff. But it’s an elected position here.”

“And elections cost money. You’re thinking of the money.”

“Heavens no. It’s not so much about money, it’s about organization. We can throw our people behind a campaign led by yourself to raise new money and public awareness for your election, but that’s precisely what you have to do. You have to lead the campaign.”

Vic agreed to this challenge, and in the fall she won the off-year county-wide election to become the sheriff of King County, a position that came up to a vote every three years. She defeated a man who ran on a “Law and Order” platform and when Vic pulled ahead of the incumbent in the polls over the summer things got fairly ugly, with vague insinuations of Church of End Dome influence hanging over her. But such charges would only really get traction in that part of the United States known as “flyover country”. The West Coast was much more progressive than that, so Vic came through fine. She was handily elected Sheriff, and the name Victoria Shybear became known throughout the region.

But Vic had come out of literally nowhere, so now it was up to her to prove to the voters she was the right person for this job. Vic threw herself into her work. Somewhere along the way she stopped thinking of herself as attached to the B’nei Elohim in any meaningful way. It was the politically expedient thing to do, and the loss of her ability to fly like Supergirl made it seem easier. She even stopped getting direct mind-calls from Dory.

When the third day of the symposium wrapped up early Victoria “Vic” Shybear elected to bypass hobnobbing with the National mucky-mucks and headed directly home in a generic silver squad car. Driving west from Moses Lake over arid flats she cursed the nameless cubefarm idiot who scheduled training in the short week before a holiday. Most of the attendees were distracted the whole time.

By the middle of the second day even Victoria had set her mind on cruise control and recorded the rest of the proceedings clandestinely with her phone. All those precious Lessons Learned and Tricks of the Trade went right down a bottomless drain of forgetfulness as officers and deputies from seven states nodded, muttered yeah, sure, and let their butts in the seat check off this requirement mandated from on high.

She drove directly into the mid-afternoon sun of autumn with her window cracked just a bit to let in the crisp air. In an hour the flats gave way to long golden hills carved by water into cleavage decorated by gigantic spinning white sentinels of clean wind power. In two hours the conifers turned on again like a light as the grassy hills became the eastern flanks of the jagged Cascade Range itself.

A huge cluster of cars at least a mile long had been piling up behind Victoria for almost an hour, drivers who would normally be speeding along through here at twenty miles per over, but were afraid to pass her. It was a familiar occurrence. Vic decided to pull over and let the crowd of vehicles break up and spread out.

There was a gravel turnout between the eastbound and westbound lanes of the freeway marked with signs forbidding civilians from banging a U-turn. Victoria noted the State Patrol was not using it for a speed trap at the moment, so she slid quietly and neatly into that spot and came to a crunching stop. Sitting here for a little bit might slow down some of these idiots without bunching them up, she thought, as she dug her micro out of a black leather case on her belt next to her 9mm.

Victoria idly imagined telling Alexander Graham Bell, sitting in the seat right next to her a hundred years after inventing the telephone, that she needed to make a phone call with what appeared to be nothing but stylish reading glasses. Vic imagined that Mr. Bell’s reaction would be to panic and beg to be sent back to where he came from. She slipped the glasses onto her face.

As required by statute, the act of turning on her micro simultaneously powered down her vehicle. Glowing three-dimensional data was superimposed on the lenses which she could drag and drop with lingering glances and smooth eye movements, a blink substituting for a mouse click. More than once during the seminar she had slipped these glasses on to unobtrusively read whole sections of a bodice ripper from the Swarm.

Vic checked her vidmail inbox. There were a few minor details from the office which she would attend to later, and one missed call from Mark Felton, who lived with his wife on the northern rim of the Green River Gorge. Mark worked out of his home, and his wife didn’t work, so they were available to watch little Aliwe when Vic was out doing her sheriff stuff. So Vic and Aliwe shared the house with the Feltons.

Vic called him back, hoping it wasn’t about Aliwe getting in trouble again. She turned the rear view mirror vertically so Mark could see her whole face when he answered. She knew the thirtyish woman staring back at her with to-die-for cheekbones had quite a luxurious mane of red- brown hair back in the Day. She was still a girly-girl deep down, but the exigencies of her current job forced her to keep it, and her neatly painted nails, far shorter than she liked.

A flurry of movement swept across her vision. “Hello Vic,” Mark said, rushing into one of his bathrooms to face a mirror for the call. Mark’s bespectacled face was superimposed on her own but Victoria, like five billion other people on the planet, was thoroughly practiced at focusing on one image and ignoring the other. It was becoming second nature.

“I know this is unusual, Vic, but this is bad. Hope was booted from the Academy at Canterwood so she’s back here at my house.”

“What do you mean: ‘Booted from the Academy’?'”

“From what they’re telling me, she was talked into that classic game kids play. You probably remember. Playing ‘Doctor’, right? So basically Hope knows she’s not a real girl.”

“So know what do we do with her?”

“Dory’s telling me she wants to put her in basic training.”

“Dory’s telling you? Why doesn’t Dory tell me?”

“She says she doesn’t want to distract you.”

“Fine, Mark. I’ll be there in about two hours.”

For many years the Green River valley west of Stampede Pass was an inviolate watershed, source of the drinking water for all of south King County. Only those who went about on four feet were allowed in there.

Growth and population pressures finally caused the Water Authority to relent and allow a spur freeway through, but only after an important concession was made. The highway was constructed using special “green” methods that doubled the (already outrageous) cost per mile. And not a single exit was allowed to be built. There would be no gas stations, motels, or development of any kind. Interstate 86 was just a sweet shortcut that bypassed the heart of Puget Sound City and routed traffic to and from the south end. Vic thought it was the prettiest forty miles in Washington, or possibly the whole United States.

The six-lane freeway rode high on the northern wall of the valley as an elevated viaduct more often than flat roadbed. Far below the highway was the reservoir behind Howard Hanson Dam. There were very few ups and downs or sharp curves on I-86, it was simply a gentle descent from Stampede Pass through ancient cedar forest and mountains of such rugged beauty they would be the heart of a full-up National Park if they existed east of the Big Muddy.

The tangled human carpet of greater Puget Sound City washed right up against the steep front of the Cascade Range, which on the “wet” side met the lowlands the way a wall met a floor, with very little in the way of foothills. The richly forested valley of the Green River narrowed around I-86 where the freeway, a railroad, a giant water pipeline, and the river all squeezed between twin behemoth mountains and delivered Sheriff Vic to the sprawl of so-called modern civilization.

Victoria left the freeway in a Gordian knot of overpasses, underpasses, and spiraling viaducts that finally smoothed out onto a landscaped eight-lane byway at Four Corners and a five-minute red light.

Here, Edgewood Mall with its attendant mini-malls spread around the mighty crossroads with a sprinkling of big black glass office suites clustered together in business “parks” randomly sprinkled from here all the way to the hypothetical Seattle core far away to the northwest. Behold: King County. And yes, Victoria was the chief law enforcement officer of all of this sprawl, in theory.

In practice, King County was a patchwork of small incorporated cities with their own local police, while the State Patrol watched the network of highways tying it all together. Victoria and her some thirty deputies patrolled the unincorporated areas and that was dwindling by the month. Still, it was an elected position she had secured twice in the last six years, and a traditional launching pad to higher office.

American McMonoculture was self-regulating and self-propagating. Every McFastfood place, every McSupermarket, every McOil-change place, every McGasmart, were franchises exactly identical to ones found anywhere in North America, or for that matter, anywhere in the whole McWorld. Only the gray skies and scattered clusters of tall pines set this place apart from any suburb in California or Virginia. The United States had achieved this appalling uniformity by 1975, and the rest of the world was rapidly following suit.

Jobs were shifted from one country to another until the workforce which accepted the lowest compensation for their labor was found. Corner “Mom & Pop” grocery stores and restaurants disappeared as they were replaced by cookie-cutter franchises.

Family farms disappeared to be replaced by endless tracts of clone McMansions painted in just two different colors and spaced just six feet apart. Every morning and afternoon four-lanes of commuters tried to squeeze down two-lane country roads to and from work thirty miles away, driving alone in identical trucks carrying ten dollar gasoline pumped from one of two different gas brands (Exxon-Mobil-Shell or Texachevron-76) into twenty-five gallon tanks.

On the radio, market researchers conducted surveys to determine which songs did the least to “harsh the workplace mellow” and these songs were put into endless rotation on stations across the FM dial.

In twenty-theater megaplexes, mindless Hollywood crap was shown with the ethic of “get the kids in, show them the Falling Galaxy, and get them out”, and everything that made each corner of the world unique and wonderful was choked off, bought out, and co-opted by the gray forces of standardization as the culture, the religion, the politics, and every facet of everyone’s life became conformed to the principles of the fast food restaurant.

An Easy Cheezy pizza place was nearby and beige, clone apartment complexes with such names as Fountain Pointe, Evergreen Terrace, Mirrorwood, and Heather Ridge thickened as Victoria drove past Viewmont High School, empty now on the cusp of a four day Thanksgiving weekend.

Vic chuckled at the difficult of coming up with a variation on teriyaki every ten blocks. Teriyaki Time. Teriyaki Now. I Love Teriyaki. Some were probably just known locally as “That teriyaki place next to Tattoo Alley”.

Vic went west past a few typical arterial corners festooned with more strip malls and turned south on the Ravensdale-Black-Diamond Road, a fat six-lane arterial. Across the street from a Burger Goddess was a Taco Fiesta and an expanse of identical faux-Colonial homes, each house sporting four tacky hollow white aluminum bogus columns.

The monotonous sprawl ended briefly for the only agriculture that existed around here, a farm with 300 acres of rolled sod, the source of perfect pre-grown grass for all those perfectly-groomed front yards.

Frozen pink fire filled the November sky to the west, marred by billowing swaths of deep purple. It was one of those beautiful weather moments that stood out in your mind for a lifetime. Victoria would remember this years later: the beautiful sunset marking the final evening that she would see her daughter as just her daughter and not the latest two-legged avatar of El Shaddai.

Under the sky’s neon glow the roads were unusually dark, which caused the headlights of rush-hour to really stand out. Behind her windshield Vic pointed at the sky with almost a grin, as if to tell the eastbound drivers to turn around and look, quick, but two traffic lights later the fire had shrunk to just a small patch of red.

The road narrowed to four lanes. Vic went left at a country corners type mini-market place. Lake Number 12 was on the right, down in it’s own hole. Vic passed a Dari-Hut and a little shopping plaza built around a wholesale grocery outlet. A smooth right turn put her into the bedroom community of Shangri-La.

Mark’s place was a cute little pale blue house, maybe thirty years old, with clean white trim. The yard was more stone than grass, ringed by beauty bark and low-maintenance shrubs.

When Mark met her at front door he saw that her uniform was still immaculate at the end of the day. The unadorned star of her badge was pinned to her chest, a little piece of tradition harking back to the wild west days. Vic was a short wiry woman in pressed black slacks, a dark gray shirt with many pockets and a light gray tie. Hope had been playing with her sister Aliwe in her bedroom but heard her mother pull up and rushed out to hug her.

“I love you momma!”

Vic was very glad to see Hope once again, it had been almost a year since the Bite the Wax Tadpole concert. “I love you too, baby. Let’s go back inside and you can tell me what’s going on.”

It was possible for Hope to cry, that was a very expensive feature. And so the tears flowed as Hope told momma Vic about the thing in the treehouse and all the consequences that flowed out from it. The one thing Victoria couldn’t answer for Hope was why her body was different from the other girls, even from her sister Aliwe. Vic said, “I’m your mother, Hope, but I’m not your real mother. That’s Robyn. I already told you that. Yes we know you’re different but Robyn says she wants to explain all that to you herself.”

“When, momma?”

“Very soon. But first, tell me the first rule of this house.”

“Never go into the woods behind the house!” Hope and Aliwe said, in perfect unison.

“Okay! Well, tomorrow morning, Hope, I’m going to take you into the woods behind the house. But that rule still holds firm for you, Aliwe! Don’t even think of following us down there!”

After the fur trapping days and the gold and coal mining days the economy of the Green River was based on logging the pines of the productive timberlands all around. The US government became an insatiable customer for timber during the First World War, and most of the nearby hills were stripped bare. The tree-fellers spent their considerable pay in the town, just as the gold and coal miners had made Black Diamond a lively place in its day, so there was a trickle-down effect. The good times continued until the Depression of the 1930s.

As part of FDR’s New Deal Howard Hanson Dam was constructed just upriver, and this provided the enormous electric power needed by smelters to turn local bauxite into finished aluminum. This aluminum was used in four-engined bombers for the Pacific theater of the Second World War, built in nearby Renton. Snuggled in the gorge was an old US Army installation that used to be called Fort Shiprock, long since abandoned. For many years, the army performed live-fire artillery exercises there and the whole area was littered with hidden unexploded shells.

When the Cold War came to an end the army sold the land to King County and said, “See ya!” thus wiggling out of paying for cleanup. And the county tried to convert the land into a regional park with hiking trails for all who went on two or four feet, but that worked for about five minutes, maybe, before some children found a grenade and pulled the pin.

That was the Green River Gorge for you, filled with unexploded ordnance, mine shafts, cave holes, coal seams that still burned, and the stumps of giant trees long since gone, replaced by crap alder. So Fort Shiprock and the whole Green River Gorge remained a huge undeveloped green hole on the rolling hills before Cascade front even as million dollar trophy view homes began to appear on the slopes all around it. Eventually the B’nei Elohil offered to take the land off the county’s hands to build something they called Shangri-La, and the county was glad to be rid of it. At least the B’nei Elohim would be paying property taxes on it.

Shangri-La was hemmed all around by a tall concertina wire fence. The private Ring Road, miles of gravel along the perimeter, was patrolled night and day by a pair of Fallen Angels in a truck. Other angels ranged through the interior woods on trails known well to them, ever alert for trespassers.

The Ring Road provided access to hundreds of large homes on one acre sub-plots, all of them estates owned by senior members of Femina Caelestis. Robyn and Lilith owned one, Hunky and Dory owned another one. Most of the rest were owned by this or that Jill. One was Mark Felton’s house, where he lived with his wife Phyllis and Vic and Aliwe They were all nice homes but their location wasn’t ideal for the construction of home sites by any stretch of the imagination.

Access to the boot camp facilities was to be through Mark Felton’s house, out his back patio door, and into the woods. And only a full B’nei Eloah could safely navigate the hazards therein.

In the morning two other girls arrived at Mark’s home, together with uniforms and other paraphernalia for Hope. They were Geraldine Sanchelli and a girl named Stephanie, no last name, who was a daughter of one of the Jills and even wore her hair in a classic Jill bun like her mother. Stephanie was pretty and blond, looking very much like a porcelain doll. She had already spent some time down there in boot camp and had advanced from recruit to ish.

Conscious of Sheriff Victoria staring at her, Geraldine pushed black hair away from the dark eyes on her oval face. She was a mixture of Mexican and Irish. Later, Geraldine would reveal to Vicky how much she despised her parents, and smile when she thought of how their lives would be complicated beyond belief by her sudden disappearance.

Both Stephanie and Geraldine were already wearing Girl Guard uniforms. Vic knew Stephanie would eventually just become another Jill, and then her hair bun would have something to hide.

Ersatz Girl Guard threads were becoming all the rage out in the Real World. The prim uniform of a gray and white smock dress, red tights, and black knee boots became hot fashion for good girls who wanted to look bad, and bad girls who wanted to turn heads.

So for a sweet season that would certainly be brief, genuine Girl Guards could walk undetected anywhere among a million B’nei Elohim wannabes trying to cash in on BE chic.

Victoria told Hope and Geraldine, “Remember, when you join the B’nei Elohim there’s no going back, there’s no getting out, and there’s no end to the ride.”

“Not even suicide, Ma’am?” Stephanie asked.

“Jill takes suicidal personalities and gives them bodies of girls who are happier. Bad attitudes are bred out. Eventually there is nothing but warm fuzzies all the way around.’

Victoria gave her daughter a long sleeve half gray and half white thick cotton dress with an elaborate decorative pattern embroidered in black thread on the left, or gray side. Pink wook socks went over the feet of her tights, then she was zipped up in a pair of shiny patent leather boots that ended just below her knees.

Then Victoria stood back up and faced the three of them. “We’re not interested in keeping you busy just for the sake of keeping you busy, like they do in fellas’ boot camps. That’s why, for example, your boots are already as shiny as they can be. Now one or two of you will eventually be in the full-up Girl Guard, or maybe one or two of you will just become civilians. So Hope, Geraldine, I don’t want word to get back to me that you deliberately screwed up to be civilians. That will adversely affect Stephanie’s chances of being picked up for malak. You are a team!”

“Yes, Ma’am!” Geraldine said. Hope made it sound more like Yes Mom.

“We don’t treat our recruits as the scum of the earth, like other armies do. Still, the Girl Guard is the most formidable fighting force in the world. If you don’t believe me just check out the daily news from Barbuda. That means you will be toughened up, big time. You’re the elite! They’ll throw a lot of mind games at you when you get in there. Just remember, that’s all they are: mind games. I promise you will understand what is being done to you before you graduate. Stephanie already knows.”

Vic issued Hope and Geraldine a supply of red nail polish, pre-moistened towelettes, a lighted makeup mirror, ruby earrings, and a host of other girly accessories that seemed strange to be called army issue.

“Okay, let me take a good look at you. This is for the guards here at Shangri-La. They will call up on the Swarm this very memory of mine being taken now and just know who you are. The Girl Guard doesn’t issue ID cards.”

Then Victoria kissed all of them in turn, opened up Mark’s patio door, and led Hope, Geraldine, and Stephanie by secret ways over the lip of Mark’s backyard lawn and down into the gorge.

The rule for the architecture in B’nei Elohim boot camp was no straight lines. Most of the buildings looked like fat commas in their top view, irregular with trees and ferns planted on their roofs. The walkways were gravel and dirt. No airborne photography would capture the existence of a training facility there. Stephanie knew the rest of the way, so Victoria handed Hope and Geraldine off to her and climbed back up to the house, bawling the whole way.

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Strangers In Paradise