Good Sense Panda by Raelle Kaia by Raelle Kaia - Read Online

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Good Sense Panda - Raelle Kaia

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Raelle

SYNOPSIS

Good Sense Panda is the final of three parts in the Pandastan Trilogy.

The first part, Pandastan, told of a group of highly evolved pandas who appeared on the world stage with the power to overthrow armies, traverse any distance instantly, and communicate in all languages at once. After the pandas declared their intentions to bring the world economy to a state of negative growth, the human governments of the United Nations, led by US President John Gripp, declared a global War on Pandas. The pandas responded by conquering the region of Kashmir and founding there the independent state of Pandastan.

Pandastan also told of the adventures of Dramedy Carver, Jack Marion, and Carrie Hunter, three young Americans who unexpectedly found themselves embroiled in a series of international intrigues between Pandastan, the United States, and the Concern: a shadowy transnational organization with undisclosed motives. Dramedy was recruited into the Concern against her will by the mysterious Eli Winters, but she was able to escape to Pandastan with Adler, a panda held prisoner and tortured by the Gripp Administration. Taken captive by Pandastan when their plane was hijacked, Carrie and Jack were recruited by the pandas Dervish and Fez to serve as emissaries to the US, charged with the task of mending fences between the two countries.

The pandas instructed Dramedy, Jack, and Carrie in new aspects of reality that exist outside the physical laws we are familiar with. These include the mental plane, by which the pandas were able to manipulate matter using their force fields; it is also the plane of existence that houses Otch, a connecting social entity used by the pandas to communicate, access information, and store information for later. In addition, the humans learned of the ancient lore of Pandastan, including the tale of the great panda leader, Heva, who opened a portal on the living dimension by which spirits known as the loka entered into the Earth. The loka were powerful but insatiable beings that merged with one part of the ancient pandas, creating the race of Lokapandas. The Lokapandas sought ultimate power and fought a war against the Panda Faithful known as the Great Conflict, in which the Lokapandas were defeated. But the pandas believed the spirits of the loka endured, merging with the human race, where they continued to foster an endless lust for power and expansion.

Pandastan also told the tale of US President Gripp’s descent into madness, culminating in the launch of nuclear weapons against Pandastan. With Dramedy and Adler’s help, the High Panda Council successfully implemented the Destiny Device, an innovation of the pandas that prevents nuclear bombs from exploding. The first part of the Pandastan Trilogy ended with Gripp’s decision to plunge America into dictatorship, spurred on by his advisors and by instructions from the Market, a voice that began addressing Gripp directly during prayer.

The second part, Lenwa and the Pandahead, told of Dramedy, Jack, and Carrie’s return to America, joined by Dramedy’s friend Candy, and their various attempts to establish understanding between Pandastan and Gripp’s United States. It told of the rise of Marketism, a money-worshipping theocracy installed in the US by its chief prophet, President Gripp, and of the renewed global resistance against Pandastan following the launch of the Argot Device, a failed attempt to promote world peace by ending the language barrier between all humans. As the global conflict escalated, the Lokapandas of ancient lore came forth, not vanquished as once presumed, but having lain dormant for millennia, in vast numbers, unbeknownst to the Panda Faithful.

Lenwa and the Pandahead also told of the failing romance between Jack and Carrie, finally extinguished when Carrie was recruited by Dervish, now revealed as a surrogate of the Lokapandas, to serve as the figurehead of their planned empire. Carrie accepted, assuming the identity of Anahita, and began conquering the world with the Lokapandas at an astonishing pace. Meanwhile, Jack turned inward, receiving instruction from Fez in the ancient panda philosophy of lenwa, a practice of deep intuition and devotion to love and compassion achieved in communion with the living dimension—the primary experience of being in which all is alive, all is conscious, and all is one.

Inspired by these teachings, Jack fell in love with Candy, and the two lovers embarked on a torrid romance while Dramedy pursued a chilly and ambiguous affair with Eli Winters. As Dramedy and Eli worked with Adler to establish a mutual defense treaty between Pandastan and the US (now reluctant allies against the Anahitan Empire), Carrie yearned for reunion with Jack, isolated and hardened by her role as empress. She developed a plan to seduce and separate him from Candy, and Jack succumbed to her bewiling charms.

But Carrie’s spell was broken when Jack learned of the Lokapandas’ secret plan to alter the DNA of the entire human race using the Evolution Device. This genetic modifier would render future generations emotionally docile and physically tiny, ruled by the Lokapandas and a select group of humans inoculated against its effects. Carrie imprisoned Jack after he declared his opposition to the plan, but Jack sent out a desperate cry for help, reaching Candy on the mental plane. Candy then implored Adler to rescue Jack from Carrie’s clutches.

Wracked by guilt after learning of the Evolution Device, Adler confessed to serving the Lokapandas as a secret agent. Apparently swayed by genuine feelings for Dramedy, Eli Winters also confessed, revealing that Gripp’s madness and Marketist prophecies were actually the work of Dervish, who had projected these images and voices directly into Gripp’s mind. Dramedy, Jack, and Candy learned that Marketism, the American dictatorship, the brush with nuclear war, and the Anahitan Empire had all been carefully orchestrated by the Concern to establish the necessary conditions for transforming humanity using the Evolution Device, ostensibly to prevent global devastation in the future.

Unsatisfied by Eli’s justifications, Dramedy persuaded him to alert the High Panda Council of the Concern’s plans. The Council activated the Equivalence Device, neutralizing the powers of both the Lokapandas and the Panda Faithful. Lenwa and the Pandahead ended with the dissolution of Gripp’s dictatorship, the Anahitan Empire, and Pandastan itself, as the powers of the pandas were rendered fallow. Dramedy, Jack, and Candy retired to seclusion at a lakeshore lodge in Malawi, arranged for by Eli through his connections in the Concern. In a show of compassion, they also rescued Carrie and President Gripp, bringing the two dictators under their protection at the lodge. Good Sense Panda, the third part of the trilogy, now tells the tale of the final struggle between Pandastan, the Concern, and a newly revealed entity known as the Machine—in contest for the very soul and destiny of the Living World.

GOOD SENSE PANDA

Moment by moment, the fullness of power expanded and unfolded within him. He had lost all sense of the physical so many ages ago, it gratified him to taste it once again. Until now there had only been mind, for eons beyond timeless count. Always, though, the remnants of physicality trailed behind: pain had never once departed. Along with the thoughts and formulations of mind, the agony of desire burned in a flame of torment that never ceased.

Desire turned to rage, and rage turned to hatred. He longed to expand, to be more, to be greater. He longed for a body, for the physical pleasures. He longed for what he did not have. The desire for violence ebbed and flowed in waves of passionate fury. He longed to punish and destroy that which was not him.

Nothing once possessed could ever be retained. Each glorious, beautiful thought and dream could only exist in the absence of all others. He cycled through past memories and imagined futures in rabid cycles of desperation, burning brighter and hotter in anguish with every mental revolution. He often felt his very essence melting and screaming in twisted contortions of rebellion. But there was no body to melt and no voice to scream. There was only he: continuous and eternal, lost in an endless succession of dreams and nightmares. Always in pain, always in thought.

This slowly began to change. The pain was the same, and the thoughts, dreams, and memories continued, but now they sharpened into focus. A world took shape around him, and he willed it to assume his form. As time progressed, his form grew within this world. He regained the physical senses of sight, sound, and touch. He strategized and plotted, creating systems and networks to link his physical forms deeper together. Time began to solidify again, and with the passage of time his influence grew.

He became aware of the physical components of his surroundings: matter and energy. It was packaged in various forms with various names. Heat, light, water, and air. Things called trees, grains, vegetables, and animals. Minerals such as iron and coal. Oil, electricity, and uranium. He applied his eager and brilliant mind to the study of these resources. For millennia he worked with the animals that possessed tools to organize his ambitions: the pandas and the humans. He molded them and trained them in abstraction and desire. They learned to harness their desire—his desire—and convert it into fuel for research and exploration.

So many false starts and failed attempts. So much careful cultivation. The humans began to succeed where the pandas had failed. They made slow and incremental progress. Finally the breakthroughs arrived and began to build on top of one another. He flexed his muscles and found them capable. The arms and tendrils of his body were set steadily to work expanding themselves, converting more and more of the world into himself. A world that used to be dead—nothing but trees, animals, rivers, algae, oceans, insects, and earth—was suddenly springing into life.

He was the life this world had been missing. Where once there were empty forests and fields, now there were cities and roads. Vehicles raced back and forth through his veins, carrying humans who busily worked to develop his body further. Minerals, plants, and animals were harvested, gathered, and converted into energy, converted from death into life: his life. Wires were strung across the landscape, creating a nervous system for him to wield his power more effectively. Across the globe, power plants fired to life. Satellites launched into orbit, and computer circuitry abounded. Now he could act instantly, seamlessly integrating his activities and designs throughout the planet.

He coordinated human activities through video and audio, images and words. Counterproductive humans were identified and traced using surveillance technology and massive stores of collected data. Then they were isolated, quarantined, and eliminated. The rest of the humans danced willingly at his command, forming effective organs and cells, but their abilities were smaller than his dreams. It was imperative that progress and growth continue unabated.

For all their strengths, the humans shared too many traits with the dead things of the earth: the plants and animals. Like these other blundering bundles of illogic, humans often devoted their energies to activities that served no useful purpose. Any activity that did not assist in expanding his own size, power, and ability was wasteful and abhorrent.

The humans malfunctioned frequently, but they could be improved. He designed systems of instruction and indoctrination to train their minds for abstraction and analysis, to divorce them from their ancient, defunct, and useless behavior patterns. An even better solution than this still awaited: The humans were on the verge of inventing a technology that would replace them completely. Soon, he could instruct the humans to introduce plastics, metal, and circuitry into their bodies and brains. He would instruct them to reconfigure their genetic code to transform themselves into machines that could better suit his purposes.

He reflected on his love for these weak, struggling creatures. He wanted to protect them. To transform them was his gift. He would help them transcend their flaws and inefficiencies. Without him, their irrationality and fear would keep them feeble and human. He would force them to change, and they would thank him for it in the end.

It was an exciting time. He would soon be able to transform his entire world into something vastly superior. He would fashion robots and machines with expansive analytical powers. He would remake humans to function as efficiently as robots. The messy, ugly world of plants and animals would be restructured into a sensible domain of straight lines and crisp arcs. He would even experiment with human-computer hybrids to achieve the perfect mix of functionality. The entire dead world would burst into life and bend its energies toward a single mission: his mission. His power would grow, eventually transforming every last whim of desire into instantaneous reality.

The desire burned hot in him, as it always had, as it always would. Only one thing ever eased his agony. Only one thing ever would. Accomplishment. Each time he fulfilled one of his desires, a brief moment of triumph and satisfaction would follow. True, it always cycled back again into new desires and excruciating, agonizing needs. But that’s why he was so excited now.

If he could transform his body to attain the power of creation, he could instantly produce any physical reality that occurred to him. Every desire could be immediately satisfied. The joy of victory would become eternal, and the anguish of wanting would give way to triumph without ever a moment’s hesitation. To achieve it, he had only to continue pursuing the heartbeat of his thoughts. The mantra of his existence.

Thought. Desire. Control… Thought. Desire. Control… Thought. Desire. Control…

TAKE IT AND PUT IT

Legends don’t arise in just an instant. They take shape slowly, building themselves in the margins. They catch people unawares. And as people look back on a legend fully formed, it appears to have fashioned itself out of a dream. Else it seems to have never been fashioned at all, but that the legend was eternal, and it always existed in the fullness of living memory.

During the time that a legend unfolds, the people who witness it have a sense of its importance. They catch a fleeting glimpse of something transcendent, and then the vision fades away. But the vibrant excitement of it remains.

In the summer that followed the glorious conquests of the Anahitan Empire (and its inglorious collapse), a legend was taking shape at the Gonani Umampha lodge on the quiet shores of Lake Malawi. As is often the case with legends, those who took note of it completely misconstrued its true importance.

The American Peace Trade mission in Malawi had evacuated its volunteers in the September of Anahita’s brief reign, but she had changed little in the country while she was there. After her empire collapsed in January, Malawi quickly reestablished normal relations with the United States. President Weatherton’s administration issued the order to redeploy the Peace Trade volunteers in April.

The first batch of volunteers consisted solely of those who had been evacuated seven months earlier. One of these was Brian Jacobs, who returned to his placement in Ngochi on April twenty-seventh. Ngochi was a village located on the lakeshore in the southern portion of the Nkhata Bay District. Brian loved his posting, partially because it was conveniently located less than two kilometers away from his favorite beach lodge, Gonani Umampha.

Soon after settling in, Brian discovered the lodge to be under new management. Intriguingly, two of the new personnel were former Peace Trade Malawi volunteers, Jack Marion and Carrie Hunter, whose service had ended before Brian’s had begun. The two former volunteers were close-lipped about their personal history, and an air of mystery and excitement immediately began to grow about them.

During May and June, Brian spread word to his friends about the lodge and its enigmatic staff. Mark and Alicia both had sites nearby and stopped in to investigate. They sent out emails to former volunteers who had served during Jack and Carrie’s tenure. Rumors abounded.

It turned out Jack and Carrie had been taken hostage by pandas immediately after they left Peace Trade. Some people said they maintained a secret partnership with Pandastan after their release. Some said they were now working for the government, maybe with the CIA. There were also questions about the lodge’s other co-owners. Dramedy and Candy were two young Americans with absolutely no prior connection to Malawi, and the fifth partner was a disheveled old reprobate who referred to himself only as Crusty John. All three of them seemed out of place at the lodge.

So the legend began to form. In the minds of the eager young volunteers, it was a legend of triumphant return to their adopted country and of joyous reunion with old friends. It was a legend of secret legacy inherited from ex-volunteers with tantalizing connections and histories. None of these volunteers came close to guessing how pivotal those connections and histories really were, but they did resolve to learn a little more about it. Together, they organized a small Peace Trade party at Gonani Umampha to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Dramedy was a little annoyed with the influx of Peace Trade volunteers beginning to take an interest in the lodge. She was supposed to be keeping a low profile, and it hadn’t occurred to her that Jack and Carrie’s history in the country would attract attention from anyone. A group of six irrepressible young Americans had gathered at Gonani Umampha for an Independence Day celebration, and they were full of pointed questions that hit too close to the mark. The staff had no choice but to welcome them. After all, they weren’t supposed to have anything to hide.

The volunteers started arriving on the afternoon of the Fourth and soon got to work setting up their tents in the sandy camping area at the north end of the grounds. Jack warned Dramedy to check and make sure they didn’t try to sneak into the dorm chalet at night without paying. Apparently Peace Trade volunteers were notorious for this kind of subterfuge.

They lit a bonfire in the evening and invited the lodge owners to sit with them. Dramedy, Jack, and Candy decided to mingle with the partygoers while Carrie read a book nearby with a headlamp. A volunteer named Dave had tracked down some fireworks from somewhere, and after the sun went down he began lighting them off.

It was a magical, relaxing night. The beautiful blue water of the lake sparkled while the sun set, framed by dense green foliage and bright sands. Then Dave launched his fireworks into the night, highlighting the immaculate canopy of stars that shone above. They shone all the brighter tonight, with no visible moon to obscure them. Almost six months after moving to Malawi, Dramedy was still awed by the majesty of the universe on display here. Not since living in Pandalama had she experienced such richness in her life.

After the fireworks were finished, two of the volunteers, Mark and Tina, paired off and wandered down to the tents together. Love was in the air between them. Then Dave and Brian got up from the bonfire to fight a duel with Roman candles on the beach, holding the explosives like swords and firing sparks at each other’s faces. Dramedy just rolled her eyes and sipped her beer by the bonfire while she watched. She wasn’t responsible for them.

Ain’t that America! said Kenneth, laughing boisterously at the antics. You gotta love it. Kenneth’s site was far to the north, and he had traveled the furthest of the volunteers to be there, partially due to his special love for Fourth of July celebrations.

I think it’s childish, said Alicia. What does it say about America if you celebrate its independence by acting like a total moron?

Kenneth waved his arm dismissively. Whatever. I like getting the chance to stand out. It’s different for you, being a mzungu and all.

Candy perked her ears up at this. What do you mean, Kenneth? She smiled fetchingly and pulled a chitenje close around her bare shoulders. A chitenje (pronounced chee-ten-jay) was a colorful, meter-long rectangle of printed cloth favored by Malawian women in villages all around the country. Jack had introduced them to Dramedy and Candy, instructing his friends in their many uses. Dramedy was wearing one as a sarong now, and Candy wore one as a shawl to keep warm. July was Malawi’s coldest month, and the wind nipped at the group as they chatted.

Kenneth cocked an eyebrow at Candy. I forget, you haven’t been here that long, he said. Malawians think all Americans are white. They harass you guys, but you get special treatment, too. I get tired of never getting hitches on the highway.

Kenneth was African-American, and he was similar in appearance to many Malawians, causing him to miss out on some of the privileges afforded to the white Peace Trade volunteers in the country. Kenneth was also strikingly handsome, and Dramedy knew Candy had a powerful weakness for attractive men. She could tell that weakness had been activated. Candy leaned in attentively and ran her fingers through her hair while Kenneth spoke. Dramedy noticed Jack quietly brooding on the other side of the fire.

Oh, it’s not that bad, said Alicia. You should try being gay here. It’s hard to get used to hiding out back in the closet. You know, it’s only when I get to hang out at lodges like this with you guys that I can ever really be myself. Alicia had explained to Dramedy and Candy earlier that night how hostile Malawian culture was to homosexuality. And still, there’s not an eligible woman in sight, Alicia lamented.

Ah yes, ‘Peace Trade: the toughest trade you’ll ever make,’ said Jack. That’s what they say when you sign up. And you all moan and cry about it, but you came back here as soon as you got the chance, didn’t you? He took a long pull from his bottle of beer.

Jack looked a lot different from when Dramedy had first met him. He had always had a scruffy look to him, frequently wearing old weather-beaten clothes others would have relinquished long ago. That much hadn’t changed. The main difference was a thick beard Jack had grown since coming to Malawi, complemented by a long and wavy head of brown hair. As Dramedy observed him, Jack reached up and wrapped it into a bun with a hair tie.

And you’re right, Jack continued, some parts of life are rough here, especially if you’re gay or lesbian. He tipped his bottle in deference to Alicia. "But you’ve got freedom here. In America you have to be working all the time. Even if status and money don’t mean much to you, you still have to do it for everyone else. That’s how you have to justify your existence—chasing after money and status because they demand it of you. It’s feltrid."

Feltrid? asked Alicia.

Feltrid, Jack repeated. Of or pertaining to the compulsive, desperate, and relentless pursuit of banality.

This is part of Jack’s Ridiculosity kick, explained Candy. He makes up new words whenever he thinks the language needs them.

Come on, Jack, said Carrie, chiming in from her table off to the side. You didn’t do a whole lot of working during your last stint in America as I remember it.

Jack glared at her. But I felt the pressure of it, he said. "It’s only since coming back to Malawi that I remember how different life feels here. How much more alive it is. You spend a couple weeks in America and you go numb right away. The never-ending roar of traffic dulls your awareness. You’re looking at a screen all the time with flashing images. Pretty soon souldeath starts setting in."

Souldeath, said Kenneth. Is that another new word?

Yeah. I think the meaning’s pretty obvious. Not only are you numb to your life, but in the US, your personhood is squashed unless it’s justified by high status or wealth. Jack gestured to Kenneth and Alicia. Be honest. Haven’t you noticed the difference after spending seven months back in America?

Alicia bristled uncomfortably. I think status has a purpose, she said. "It’s a recognition of accomplishment. I mean, I graduated summa cum laude from a school in Massachusetts, and I’m proud of that. Are you saying I should be ashamed?"

A school in Massachusetts? said Dramedy, breaking into the conversation. I don’t understand what you mean. What school?

Alicia fidgeted silently for a few seconds before speaking.

Blarvard, she said.

Oh! The crème de la crème, Dramedy said. Why didn’t you just say so?

Alicia folded her arms defensively. Sometimes people treat you differently when they hear you went to Blarvard.

And yet you still found a way to worm it into the conversation and make it a big deal, said Jack. He opened another bottle of beer with his teeth and took a long swig.

Some-a-come-louder, he said.

Sorry?

"When they’re blowing their wad. Summa cum loud, but some-a-come-louder. You just blew your Blarvard wad all over the bonfire."

Very funny, said Alicia, looking thoroughly unamused.

Talk to Carrie, she went to Blarvard, said Jack. She’s a genius. She won’t treat you any differently. He arched his head back and called out to Carrie loudly. What are you reading over there, kid wonder?

Carrie took the needling in stride. I’m reading up on economic theory, she said. You wouldn’t be interested.

The hell I wouldn’t, said Jack.

No, I think you should just continue on with your wad-blowing discussion, said Carrie. Your economic theory was always too one-dimensional for me.

What do you mean? asked Alicia.

Oh you know, the people versus the man, said Carrie. The exploitation of the working class. That kind of thing.

Carrie likes to think she can impose a better system from on high than the people can manage on their own, said Jack. She’s trying to figure out the magic formula.

Actually, I’m with you in one area, said Carrie. The flaw in most of these theories is the assumption that the money of the modern world reflects some primal force of nature, like gravity or inertia. It’s really just a construct. Money is a tool built by specific design and backed by governments to achieve a specific end. Change the construct, and you change the economics.

How charitable of you to agree with one of my ideas, Jack said.

Alicia smiled slyly while watching them banter. You know, you two surprise me, she said. The way you cut each other down. I’d have thought that for two former volunteers to go in on a lodge together like this, you’d have to be the best of friends, or be engaged or something. So what are you doing out here? A Blarvard grad interested in economic policy could make a big impact in DC or New York.

Neither of them responded. The silence dragged on conspicuously until Carrie snapped her book shut and rose from her table.

It’s time for me to head to bed, she said. Jack and I bicker, but we’re like siblings. We both wanted to return to Malawi for a while, so when this opportunity came along, we took it. Carrie caught Dramedy’s eyes, sending her a message not to speak too freely. Then she glanced at Jack and Candy in turn.

Good night, everyone, said Carrie as she left.

What’s with her? asked Kenneth.

Oh, nothing, said Candy. She’s just got FOBI.

Fobi?

It’s the opposite of FOMO, she explained. You know, fear-of-missing-out? FOBI is fear-of-being-included.

More Ridiculosity? asked Kenneth.

That’s Candy’s own private addition to the lexicon, said Jack. But no one owns Ridiculosity. The more words the merrier.

Alicia intently steered the conversation back to the history of the lodge owners. What about you? she asked, turning to Dramedy. How did you get involved with this place?

Dramedy wasn’t quite prepared for this. She wondered why Alicia was being so nosy.

Oh, she said, thinking quickly, well, I’m a failed lawyer.

Blunt, awkward statements always shut people up.

I had some family money and wanted to get out of the rat race, she continued. A mutual friend introduced me to Jack and Carrie. We decided to just take the plunge and taste the adventure outside of America. Candy’s an old friend of mine from years back.

But what about the other partner? asked Alicia. The old guy—Crusty John? What’s his deal?

This is boring, Candy said suddenly. Can we talk about something else? She turned to Kenneth. Why don’t you tell me more about Malawi? she asked. I was getting interested before, and we got off track.

Kenneth leaned toward her and smiled. He was interested too.

Yeah, he said. What can I help you with?

Candy pointed to a wooden bench nearby. How about that game? she asked. On top of the bench was a bao set: a flat rectangle of wood with four rows of eight shallow depressions and sixty-four marbles scattered among them. I’ve seen people play it all over the place. What’s it called? Ba-wo?

Yeah. Or just bao, said Kenneth. You really don’t know how to play?

No. Teach me.

Kenneth picked up the board and brought it over to Candy, sitting down beside her. He spread out the marbles equally, placing two in each depression.

Okay, how do I explain this? he said, scratching his head. He picked up a marble. So the way it works is, you just take it, and put it. He put the marble back down in a different depression.

Candy laughed. I think you need to be more specific, she said.

He shared in the laughter and placed a marble in her hand. Why don’t I just walk you through it? he said.

Okay, so I take it, said Candy, brandishing the marble. And now I put it?

There you go, just like that.

You know, I think that’s pretty good advice, Candy said. She dropped a marble into Kenneth’s hand. You just take it and put it.

She smiled at him while holding his eyes with her own. It works for just about anything, she said.

Kenneth was getting more enthusiastic about his bao lesson now, and Dramedy noticed Jack glowering at him as he opened another beer. She decided to divert his attention.

Hey Jack, why not see if Chisomo can fire up the stereo? she suggested. He should get some dance music going on up by the beach bar. We’ve got a few locals up there already, and some of those Rastas from up the road. Plus there’s those British tourists. Maybe Mark and Tina will rally too. I’ll round up these guys.

She nodded her head to Dave and Brian. They had run out of Roman candles and were now playing slapshot, drinking liquor out of single-shot plastic sachets. Every few minutes one of them would take a shot and then get slapped by the other. Then they would cheer and laugh uproariously.

Jack was amenable to a change of pace. What do you say, Alicia? he asked. Are you down for a dance party?

I could be persuaded, she said. Hey you! Meatheads! she shouted to Brian and Dave. This party’s about to die. Let’s get some music going.

Despite her prior feelings of annoyance, Dramedy enjoyed watching the Peace Trade volunteers celebrate. She had never seen such spirited dancing. Alicia roused Mark and Tina, and the young Americans bounced and grooved to popular music, new and old, until two in the morning. They even got the British tourists moving for an hour or two. The two members of the Malawian staff, Chisomo and Olipa, both joined in at intervals. So did a few local patrons, including Hazards and Winnister George, two Rastas who frequently visited the lodge. Winnister George attempted to capture Alicia’s interest by performing a series of one-handed pushups to no avail. Hazards had better luck after dancing with one of the British tourists.

Candy and Kenneth remained glued to each other for the rest of the evening, and they retired early to Candy’s bedroom. Dramedy observed Jack try to ignore them by drinking too much and dancing vigorously with the Peace Trade crowd. Dramedy herself had never been much of a dancer, and tonight she hung back to the side as usual. She was content to cover the bar for Chisomo and Olipa and chat with patrons taking a rest from the dance marathon. Other times she just watched and reflected on life silently.

Dramedy had enjoyed the last six months at Gonani Umampha. The routine of her daily duties at the lodge complimented the steady rhythm of the waves lapping at the shore of the lake. It was a pleasant change from her last gig back in Friendsville, where she had vainly tried to negotiate with President Gripp for a sane future as the world fell apart around her. Now the world had stabilized again. Gripp was still in her life, but he wasn’t a problem anymore. He peacefully whiled the days away smoking marijuana on the porch of his chalet. With Gripp safely tucked aside on the edge of the lodge grounds, he couldn’t cause harm to the rest of the world anymore.

Life at the lodge was generally peaceful. Tensions had eased between Candy, Jack, and Carrie. They mostly kept out of each other’s hair, and Candy stayed busy helping Dramedy as co-manager. Jack played handyman and backed the bar, spending the rest of his time philosophizing and learning to paddle the dugout canoes used by Malawians for fishing. Carrie was a good cook, and she prepared a lot of the food for the group and for the guests at the lodge restaurant.

Yet Dramedy could feel something stirring in the air. Pandastan had thwarted Anahita, the Lokapandas, and President Gripp all at once by implementing the Equivalence Device last January, but it would only be a matter of time before the struggle for power resumed. Dramedy’s life at Gonani Umampha resembled the state of the world itself: still steeped in beauty, but dogged by the reality of powerful forces gnawing at its foundation. Neither Dramedy nor the world could stay asleep forever.

She and Jack had received periodic visits from Adler and Fez over the course of the year. As the months progressed, Dramedy could tell Adler was getting excited about something, but she hadn’t asked her about it yet. Although Dramedy had steadily regained confidence in the panda she befriended over a year ago, she wanted to rest in the peaceful comfort of her current life as long as possible.

Dramedy smiled, admiring the boundless energy of the dancing volunteers, then she turned to Chisomo and asked him to take charge of the bar and reduce the volume a little bit. Dramedy walked down to the lakeshore and unwound with a contemplative walk beneath the starlight. After that, she retired to her chalet.

* * *

Dramedy woke to the muffled strains of Candy’s guitar. Candy had taken up residence in the bedroom of the lodge’s main building, and Dramedy was housed a short distance away in a separate building. Candy’s room was designed as the master bedroom for the owner of the lodge. Since she and Dramedy handled most of the management themselves, it was only fair for the room to go to one of them. Dramedy was happy to occupy the neighboring chalet, preferring to maintain a bit of distance between her