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Mark Felton and Victoria Gervasi were on the President's wanted list, so by all rights DECON should have swooped down on Puget Sound City and scooped them up. But the digital copy of Hope's mind they now possessed was pretty muImagech useless without the hardware to go with it. Chuck told them the expected breakthrough in artificial intelligence was very close if events were allowed to play out. So DECON bided their time and they watched.

Mark Felton's place was a cute little pale blue house that belied his great wealth, thirty years old, with clean white trim. His yard was more stone than grass, ringed by bark dust and low-maintenance shrubs. When Hope was ready for school Victoria buckled her into her sedan and departed the bedroom community of Crestview Estates on the northern edge of the Green River Gorge. The first two miles were on a two lane country road dotted with a couple of mini gasmarts and a Dari-Hut. The only agriculture that existed was a farm with 300 acres of rolled sod, the source of perfect pre-grown grass for all those perfectly-groomed front yards. Then the country road widened to four lanes and Victoria was in the suburban sprawl proper.

American McMonoculture was self-propagating and very fecund. Every McFastfood place, every McSupermarket, and every McOil-change place were franchises exactly identical to ones found anywhere on the McContinent, or for that matter, anywhere in the whole McWorld. Only the gray skies and scattered clusters of tall Douglas Fir pines set this place apart from any suburb in California or Virginia. The United States had achieved appalling uniformity 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. Hope marveled at all this and asked how she got there.

You slept through it honey, Vic said. You were sick for a while.

Vic turned on the radio. Market researchers had 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, which itself was a wholly-owned subsidiary of a single megacorporation which also owned every billboard that Vic saw everywhere she turned her head.

Vic and Hope went past twenty-theater megaplexes where mindless Micro generated Hollywood crap was shown with the goal of getting the kids in, showing them the Falling Galaxy, and getting them out. Everything that made each corner of the world unique and wonderful was choked off, bought out, and co-opted by the relentless 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 endless strip malls, each one anchored by their own teriyaki place. 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. And they were come at last to the earthside campus of the Nyduly Academy, where many of the children of the members of the Church of End Dome attended school, each one sporting their own little ponytail. Hope had to make do with a couple of pigtails.

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Strangers In Paradise