The Palladium.

A sense of deja vu framed in hot neon.

Sometimes you can see the future through the magnifying lens of the past. Every sense and intuition I had was trying to peer back down the corridor of time and tell me something about the dark shadows that lurked in my future. I could sense this nightclub with its slick chemistry of heat, light and emotion was again linked with my fate, my future, but I couldn't be certain how.

Liddy had agreed to take me, Eric and Andy up to the Green World benefit concert. This was to be my first venture into public wearing the neurophotonic lightsuit and we weren't sure how I'd be greeted by the masses. After all, we weren't trying to put on a freak-show publicity-stunt for the benefit of cheesy talk show hosts and journalists. We thought what we were doing was technically and morally worthwhile, so we'd tried to keep the media sharks out of this. Pretty stupid, huh.

"If you start having flashbacks about the shooting, let us know so we can get you out of here," Liddy worried as she and Andy helped me into the wheelchair at the back of the van. We'd borrowed the wheels for the trip to bring me into the Palladium.

"I wanted to walk in on my own power," I commented as my friends lowered me and my wheelchair with the van lift. "But with the mosh pit of humanity waiting to get in, there's no way I'd survive the entrance intact."

Fortunately, Aaron, one of the roadies for Laura's West Coast Blues band was waiting for us, dressed in some sort of cyber-punk outfit from the galactic fringe.

"Laura told me to bring you in the back way." He told Liddy as we approached. He had a mechanical, drugged voice but he seemed alert enough - a little too alert.

The stage entrance was hardly to be preferred from the front entry. The tang of old liquor from the alley dumpster was enough to dissuade anyone from the thought that the entrance for the stars was posh.

"That's some wild outfit you've got," Aaron commented as we entered the Palladium backstage, surviving a scowling but good-natured inspection from Buck, a college football lineman turned nightclub bouncer.

I'd forgotten I was quite a curiosity to normal people. Though I wore clothes that covered most of the lightsuit, the sensory visor and the light filaments that controlled my arms were painfully obvious. Until now, I'd been surrounded by friends or medical technicians whenever I'd been wearing the lightsuit and they were accustomed to this novel technical crutch that I wore as a skin. At least they hid their shock quite well.

"It's not exactly an outfit," I tried to respond coherently to Aaron's need for information. "It's technically. . ."

"It's a lightsuit," Liddy butted in. "Steve, we don't want to hear your life story."

Laura greeted us in a cramped dressing room hallway cluttered with performers and magicians' props.

"Steve, I am so glad you could come," Laura welcomed me with an aristocratic air. Then she gave me another one of those patented red lipstick kisses that marked my forehead bright as day and labeled me a sucker. "The crowd tonight is mostly GreenWorld members and they're for the most part pretty laid back. But some of them are a little political."

"In other words, they're rabidly anti-technical and I shouldn't start fights by telling them energy sucking supercomputers will save the world," I immediately caught Laura's drift.

"That means Eric and Andy too!" Liddy teased the two engineers who were tagging along like trained puppies.

"I hope you like the show," Laura laughed, realizing we'd understood her hint. "I got you a spot out front."

Actually, I wasn't listening to Laura, but just watching how she moved, sleek and smooth. She was wearing a nearly translucent green dress that hugged her body like a wetsuit and shimmered like the silver scales of a fish caught out of water.

"Do you like my dress?" Laura asked, and I could only babble in agreement along with Eric and Andy who were in shock.

"It'll knock them dead!" I finally sputtered. "But I guess we better let you get ready."

"Come on, Steve, it's time to show these people your tricks," Liddy teased. "Lets leave the wheelchair here."

I got up from the wheelchair on my own accord, slowly, haltingly like an old man, but clearly more agilely than most of my friends had seen.

"I've been working hard on the software," I explained in an embarrassed way, and then began walking slowly towards the stage door that led towards the crowded and noisy floor.

Aaron guided us out into the nightclub, through the same stage entrance Sapphire James had used so long ago when she'd stalked me. I noticed there was a little niche next to the door where there was a view of the stage and crowd. I imagined how Sapphire must have watched me, for whatever demented reason, choosing me as her target.

There was quite a crowd of eco-freaks gathered together, not that I have anything against the ecology and whatever they were trying to do to preserve it. But, I always like to distinguish between movements and cults and I'm afraid a lot of the people that joined the GreenWorld Federation were more on a eco-power trip than concerned about saving the environment. There were what I thought a disturbing number of huge President Williams'posters hanging everywhere, as though the line between environmentalism and uber political power had evaporated and brown shirts had been replaced by green shirts.

I admit I stared at the crowd, for a moment too long perhaps.

"Look at him," I heard one of the eco-freaks comment. "What's a tech-bot doing here?"

Although the large hall was rather loud and boisterous, you could see and hear a wave of attention spread across the sea of humanity as they realized there was some sort of alien creature moving among them, a clanking cyborg monster. I began to panic, frozen like a stupid deer caught in a poachers headlights.

"Tech Bot! Tech Bot!" Came a low chant.

"Is he part of the show," someone asked.

"Is he freaky, or what!"

"It must take a nuclear plant to make him glow like that," said another.

I'd forgotten my lightsuit made me stick out like a sore thumb in the darkened hall. I had the perverse feeling I was about to be tarred and feathered.

"Come on," Liddy pushed me from behind, forgetting I couldn't sense being touched, and I almost fell over before the program stabilized my stance and I began to walk. "Don't worry, Steve, you can do it."

I stared down the crowd, walked to our table and after making Eric move so I could keep my back to the audience, I sat down.

"You kind of glow like a blacklight," Andy stated the obvious. "Actually, it looks pretty cool."

"Oh come on," I responded heatedly. "I look like a technofreak, like a cyborg, half flesh and half computer. I can't blame these people for being upset!"

"Surprised, not upset," Liddy offered.

But you could feel eyes all around focusing on me, as though I were a firefly trapped in a glass jar. The handicapped rarely fear overcoming their environment as much as the stares and titters of behind-the-back comments that reduce them to inconsequential objects instead of human beings.

After fifteen uncomfortable minutes of being under the microscope, some of the pressure was relieved when the master of ceremonies came on stage. He was a tall, lanky fellow with a close dark beard, wearing a tux that seemed out of place in this most politically correct environment.

"Good evening gentlepeople, I'm Hank Campbell, better known as Dr. Enviro, your number one disk jockey from public radio. I'm going to be your master of ceremonies tonight at this very important fundraiser. The proceeds from this concert benefit not only the GreenWorld Federation, but also the reelection campaign of the most environmental President of our generation, Clint Williams!"

There were cheers from the crowd, they were all confirmed environmental do-gooders. And they really did have green shirts.

"For those of you who don't know much about the GreenWorld Federation," Dr. Enviro continued. "Let me just say that we're all aware how large corporations have been destroying our environment by serving the false god of technology. Our air is polluted, our wild lands strip mined and our forests clear cut. The goal of the GreenWorld Federation is to stop the rape of Mother Earth by whatever means possible!"

Exuberant, virulent cheers from the crowd.

"Our one ally in the political arena has been President Williams. The President is now being challenged by a Robber-Baron representative of the mining and nuclear industries, Sam Houston McKenny. GreenWorld is committed to defeating the forces who would rape our environment!"

More raucous cheers.

"Its the same old environmental holy grail Dr. Enviro's spouting." I complained. "This guy couldn't tell a wildflower from a plastic flower," I again muttered under my breath and Liddy gave me a wild stare. "Typical yuppie hypocrite," I couldn't help adding.

"But GreenWorld needs money to operate," Dr. Enviro continued the inevitable holy-roller pitch. "And the profits from this concert, along with matching funds donated by our friends at Banco Internationale, will not only help us with our lobbying efforts in Washington but also will go towards our purchases of nature refuges, Amazon rain forest and nature sanctuaries worldwide."

"Maybe we could get a grant from Banco Internationale," Andy wondered out loud to our table.

"Sorry, we're not plants," Eric laughed back, but the neighboring tables all hushed him.

"Before I end, I just want to personally thank Senator Briandt for attending tonight, his Environmental Safeguards Act is now before congress and it needs all the lobbying help we can give him. But that's enough lecture for tonight," the master of ceremonies from hell concluded. "You all deserve some fun and our first act is just that. Please welcome Martine Carden on acoustic guitar!"

I'd thought most of the snoozer acts leftover from the hippy generation were dead and buried, but I was sadly mistaken. Martine turned out to be a lesbian Joan Baez imitation singing about the rape of whales or some other abomination of nature and I nearly dozed off. Eric and Andy were more environmentally aware than I and enjoyed it while Liddy seemed more interested in tweaking my ear than in having fun.

"Wake up and stop being such a jerk," she kept prodding me.

"He is a real jerk, isn't he" the guy at the next table offered uninvited, pointing to me. "A real techno-freak."

I expected Liddy to defend my honor, but instead she agreed with the stranger, though I couldn't have cared less since most of this radical environmental movement sort of bored me.

"Yes, someone should pull his plug," Liddy teased and gave me a wicked grin.

It wasn't until much later in the program that the main attraction, West Coast Blue and Laura Silvan appeared. We'd had to suffer through a long string of environmental dog-and-pony shows before that. The worst was a radical feminist portrayal of the rape of the mother Amazon rain forest complete with buckets of green "blood". The skit finished with the obligatory hanging of white corporate males, who were evidently the chief anti-heroes of the entire evening. Somehow, middle aged men in three piece suits never struck much fear in me, rather they seemed like victims of their own rigid thinking and nine-to-five mentality.

Finally, the band was set up and had the Palladium electric with the warmup riffs they shrieked. I had had a couple drinks, more than I should have since we didn't know what the effects of an alcohol stupor would be when translated by the computer software. I swayed woozily to the music with a stupid smile on my face.

"Maybe these environmentalists aren't so bad after all," I grinned.

And then, as before, as I remembered her, there was Laura Silvan on stage.

There's a world a'burning,

And we don't seem to be learning,

That we can't keep raping

the mother that feeds us

the mother that we call earth.

And my heart is hurting,

I can't keep deserting,

All the living beings

That shelter and feed us

On this planet that we call earth

I don't know what it was about that woman, her eyes found me in the crowd and she stared at me and I thought she must be singing a laser point directly into my brain. I stood up where I was, a clumsy robot hopelessly in love, and the entire crowd slowly rose to their feet as well in utter amazement at the raw power this woman generated.

Quite subtly, I think I was beginning to care not just for the glittering object that was Laura Silvan, which was what the crowds here adored, but also for the person. That kinda scared me.

My earlier quips about the environment, something Laura cared about intensely, seemed mean and petty when confronted with the convictions of someone who believed in a higher calling, someone who was willing to put their heart behind a cause.

In contrast, I was a bright boy, a whiz kid all my life. I could spin the most intricate equations, but the reality was that as a human being, I was a fraud. I had been living my life in a shell. Laura Silvan called out to me to break that shell, to connect myself to the living world instead of to the mathematical abstraction I called reality. She sang and she sang and the hard stone that was inside my heart began to crumble in a cool jazz that filled the empty corners of my soul.

"Tell the freak to shut off the neon," came an obnoxious intrusion into my dream world as the goon at the next table again took it upon himself to cause trouble.

"The nerd suit he's wearing is shining like a searchlight," the jerk continued.

I turned towards the source of the taunting and found a little skirt of a fellow, a Mel Gibson imitation who appeared at least twice as drunk as I was. In better times I could have whipped his butt, but these weren't better times.

"Just ignore him," Liddy cautioned in a motherly way. Unfortunately, Eric and Andy had meandered off towards the other side of the hall pursuing a cute cocktail waitress, whose too-cute walk obviously put her out of their league.

"I can handle myself," I told Liddy crossly, obviously drunk out of my senses, and likely showing my hurt pride.

"Didn't you understand me," came the taunting again. "I said to shut that thing off." Mel Gibson was acting so belligerently now that even his friends were trying to quiet him down.

"I'm afraid I can't turn the light off," I responded just as belligerently. "And even if I could I wouldn't do it because some asshole told me to." End of argument, I turned back to the concert.

"You're a nerd, aren't you," Mel Gibson began to taunt, walking over to stand in front of where I sat, bending down to breathe boozily in my face. "A computer freak! Turn that light off before I knock your head off!"

"Come on, Jerry," his girlfriend called out. A stupid brunette if there ever was one, she was the worst excuse for a girlfriend but obviously the best thing Jerry / Mel Gibson would ever get.

Unfortunately, Liddy had deserted me and my pride was beginning to well up. In reality there was nothing I could do to defend my manhood, that most barbaric concept that is politically incorrect but as real as the light of day. I was as helpless as a worm on the sidewalk after a summer rain waiting to be squashed under foot. All this Jerry had to do was blink to hurt me irreparably.

I stood up slowly, to full height and stared down into Mel Gibson's beady little eyes.

"Fuck you," I told Jerry and spit in his face.

I'll admit, that wasn't the smartest thing I'd ever done in my life. It ranks right up with getting a carrot stuck in my nose as a kid and drunk driving my dad's pickup into a snow bank at age nineteen. But telling Jerry to get screwed was the most satisfying thing I'd ever done in my life.

Jerry hauled back and delivered a right that if it had connected would have at least broken my jaw if it hadn't also snapped my already broken neck. But as fortune would have it, Buck the bouncer appeared from nowhere to catch Jerry's arm with his massive paw, wrenching the miscreants arm almost out of its socket.

"We got here just in time," I heard Liddy say just behind me as Buck began to drag the flailing meathead away. Liddy was the one who'd sensed trouble and had gone for help. "You sit down right where you are, Steven," she commanded. "I'm going to find Eric and Andy and get you out of here before you cause a riot."

"I'm sorry," was all I could say, a misplaced apology if there ever was one.

"Calm down! Calm down!" I could hear Laura Silvan talking to the crowd in the background, she'd obviously seen the movement of people and the commotion and stopped singing.

"This isn't the way peaceloving people act," Laura pleaded to the crowd before she asked the band to start another song. I think she saw me sitting there dejected and she sang to me much as to the crowd.

When you're alone,

Only the stars are your friends,

Only the light lets you see,

What the darkness hides,

Touch the light, Touch me,

Laura was singing for me, but I wasn't even listening. I was a freak and I'd caused a scene. It was my fault for having thought I could fit into society without being a magnet for the spite of all the blockheads in the world. I had created a farce, a fantasy world in which I could somehow use technology to overcome the reality of my utter and complete handicap.

I was about to feel really sorry for myself when something caught the corner of my eye, a movement, an image, I'm not quite sure what it was.

There in the furthest fringes of the crowd was a face, a woman whose vision was imprinted on my mind with acid. It was Sapphire James, the woman who'd destroyed my life. The commotion from the fight was dying down now, the music was in high motion, Liddy hadn't come back with Eric or Andy yet. I stood and slowly walked after Sapphire who'd just exited through the stage door.

I don't know whether she expected me to follow, or even knew I'd seen her. I wandered through the backstage props, Aaron and the other roadies were too busy or too cool (or too doped) to care about what I was doing there and I found myself at the alley exit unchallenged. Buck hadn't returned to his guardpost yet from thrashing my attacker, leaving the door unattended and cracked open.

I entered the sordid back alley, catching again the stinking smell of booze. Down the alley, caught against the light reflected from the night glow of a wet San Francisco sky, I could see the figure of Sapphire sauntering like a night cat. She was taunting me to follow, a panther who'd mesmerized her kill.

I swear to God the last thing I remember clearly after that was the amber glow of Sapphire's eyes, the same burning that had etched themselves into my mind so many months, so many aeons ago. . . .

---Chapter 15---