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         Chess stepped back and stared at the girl.  Her beautiful dark eyes were narrowed in anger now, and he began to stammer an apology.  Around them, the floor was strewn with items that the girl had dropped when they had crashed into each other.  He heard her mutter something in a foreign language, and then she knelt and began to retrieve her things.
         Intending to help her, Chess bent, uneasily holding his stomach… and then he stopped and blinked at the stuff on the floor.  “Are you stealing food?” he asked.
         The girl snatched the last package from the floor and rose, backing away from him in one fluid movement.  Her expression turned wary as she clutched her re-filled canvas bag and glanced around the hallway.  Her perfume, though, was the same as he remembered it: spicy, with an undertone of something smoky, like incense.  The aches throughout Chess’s body seemed to fade as he inhaled.  And he found that he longed for the girl to smile at him the way she had a few days before.
         He looked down at his hands, then, and realized he was still holding the one thing that he had picked up: a can of tuna.  He held it out to her.  “Is this for the… the girls?” he asked hesitantly.  At some point over the past couple of days, he had noticed that she also stayed in the area where Razor’s group of girls lived.  When she just stared at him without responding, he tried smiling.  “Good.  Uh, I hope you can get them to eat, ‘cause they all look kind of skinny.”
         He felt his heartbeat pick up as she stepped toward him, ignoring the can.  Lifting her bag to one shoulder, she reached out with her other hand, and, with unhurried motion, touched the side of his face where Woolf had hit him.  At her touch, his body seemed to remember that it was injured, and his skin burned as if her fingers were aflame.  He let out his breath in a soft sigh.
         “Did you get into a fight with one of the girls?” she asked with a smirk.  She examined the area, which he figured was probably turning colors and swelling, by now.  Then she stared into his eyes.  “I can heal this,” she told him.  “For a price.”
         Surprised and hopeful for a moment, he quickly gave into another sigh.  “I don’t have any money,” he told her quietly, backing away.  With a self-conscious grin, he added, “Uh, I don’t suppose I could move some heavy stuff for you, in trade?”
         Amazingly, she nodded, looking quite serious.  “Come with me.”  She grabbed the tuna and dropped it into her bag.  Then, hugging the bag close, she turned and walked down the hallway, her skirt clinging to her long legs as she moved.  At the door, she stopped and waited for him.
         They emerged out on the grassy courtyard between the buildings.  A cooling breeze stirred the air, and Chess, looking around, realized that he had not been outside much at all since he had come here.  The weird maze of hallways had sort of reminded him of his travels through the city, his home, and he had felt no desire to return to the woods, from which he had just escaped.
         In silence, they hurried around the corner of one building and then stopped before a metal apparatus that was sticking up a few feet out of the ground.  To Chess, it looked like an ancient pump for well water.  Setting her bag down, the girl removed a square of clear plastic which she unfolded until Chess recognized it as a jug for carrying water.  Giving him a sideways glance, she said, “Heavy.”  And then she set the jug down and began to pump water into it.  “Our building has running water, yes,” she said, in answer to his confused look.  “For Razor’s people.  Other buildings do not.”
         A while later, Chess was following her again.  Struggling with the heavy water jug, he did not pay much attention to where they were headed, until they were walking through an overgrown garden that wound under an elevated walkway.  Looking up, Chess was shocked to realize that they were directly under Woolf’s area, and his heart began to pound.  What if he was caught again?  But, mercifully, they were soon hidden from view as they squeezed through gaps in some massive leafy bushes, which were higher than Chess’s head, and came out safely on the other side.
         They finally halted in front of a couple of old, rotting shed-like buildings that were set against the edge of the encroaching woods.  Gratefully setting the jug down, Chess sighed, “What is this place?”

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I believe in the gods of America; I believe in the land of the free
But no one told me  --  that the gods believe in nothing
So with empty hands I pray; and from day to hopeless day
They still don't see me
-Hand to Mouth by George Michael

         So here’s my question: if major network service providers and major content providers negotiate to connect directly with each other so that their content can travel faster, and if content providers store frequently-accessed content in many different sites so that it can reach us wherever we are as quickly as possible, then how can net neutrality ever again be a reality?  It seems to me that it already is not, no matter what Congress might decide to do.  No one is actively blocking my website, but it will never download as fast as Facebook because I haven’t paid for all those connections.  (Kickstarter to help my website be as fast as Facebook?  Anyone??)
         This recent Washington Post article complete with helpful diagrams, describes how the internet connections were supposed to be handled, and how they used to be handled, and how things are changing.  Funny enough, though, the anecdote about the passive-aggressive dispute between Verizon and Cogent (both service providers, but Verizon is larger and also has the advantage of owning that apparently crucial last mile between the fiber-optic cables and my actual computer) reminds me of descriptions of the early-internet debates of 1996 or so:

Networks had to be able to connect with as little friction as possible.  “We’d post, ‘It should be a free internet!  It’s unfair for these exchange points to be owned by telecom companies!’”  Adelson recalled about the angry debate, played out on the email lists and message boards of the networking community.  Because how open was the Internet really if a single company effectively had a velvet rope strung across the door?  (Tubes by Andrew Blum)

         That scenario is remarkably similar to the pro-net neutrality arguments of today.  Rather than approaching the undiscovered country of a newly nonneutral internet, it seems more like we might be back where we started – it just keeps going around and around.  When big companies like Google throw their weight behind net neutrality, it looks hopeful -- but then companies like Netflix (a former supporter of net neutrality) cut big-business deals and it all seems hopeless again.  And remember: this is all for us, the consumers, because we want our content fast and cheap.
         See how much faster Netflix downloads now that it has caved in to Comcast.  (Although it might not be as cheap in the future…)



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