At first it was impossible for the six-year-old boy to tell what the hell was going on with his computer. Bright tones of pink radiated out from the screen. Where once there were pictures of houses nestled snugly among the bushy leaves of old trees; sea-saws and swing-sets next to lush green playing fields; red brick schools and churches of all denominations; exurban office and industrial parks; biotech and point-of-sale start-ups lined up along parallel lane freeways; and shopping malls, all manner of shopping malls large and small -- every single one of them a target teeming with dissidents caught by the prying electronic eyes of satellite cameras and drone surveillance video -- there was now absolutely nothing on the boy's monitor that he could clearly make out.
Drone War Idol gamers the world over saw the same thing he did: namely, a writhing mound of doughy flesh. Just like that it happened. One minute he was watching a live-feed from a drone, swooping over bustling small-town America, closing in on what was labeled as a "high value" rebel base, a towering hospital that was sure to put his score through the roof, and the next thing he knew there was a seething hill of indistinct body parts like some one had switched channels to a stack of moving arms, legs, hands, feet, and buttocks, lots of buttocks. He couldn't believe his eyes, but there it was -- how many people?, or whose parts were which?, he had no way of knowing -- but it was pretty clear what they were up to, even to a confused six-year-old.
Male parts eventually differentiated themselves from female parts, but what really cracked the boy up were the loud moans and gasps that filled his Pray Station III game-box headphones. Even if he could have made out any choice bits, which he anyhow definitely could not, he was still too young to get any kind of sexual charge from the lewd images. To him the people looked strangely contorted, like they were in pain and suffering from some exotic fever that burned inside their brains until they were out of their skulls with some sort of strange madness known only to adults. If there was any enjoyment in such a sickness it utterly eluded him. But the sounds they made. The sounds they made were of an altogether different order. The sounds they made -- now they were funny! He shook so hard with laughter he thought he was going to split in two, and had to press his free hand into his stomach, his side hurt so much.
Surveillance footage of a liquor store hold-up gone terribly awry followed the swinger-orgy sex tape. The store clerk ended up with his brains spattered over the rear wall behind the counter, but not before the two crazed white guys with the lame Aryan tattoos managed to completely trash the place. As long as the little boy could remember, the video game had gone off without a hitch. He didn't understand what was happening. The robbery-in-progress footage spooked him even more than the pornographic snippet did. But then, as suddenly as it had disappeared, what he took for the live-feed from the drone robot snapped back on-line. Presto, like magic, he was back over his target like nothing had happened. At least, that was what he thought.
Twelve whole minutes had elapsed. Mission time was important to your score. You were supposed to get in, drop your payload, and get back out fast. Twelve minutes could ruin a perfectly good run. The only thing to do was to get back to the game. Half an hour later he fired his last two rockets into a crowded ballpark and checked to see if there were any Little Leaguers still alive down there. The stands were wiped out too, which was good because the Rebels, his dad told him, loved to parade distraught parents in front of the camera in their anti-war propaganda. No parents, no Rebel propaganda, right? Satisfied with a job well done, he turned the winged robot around, set it on autopilot, hopped off his desk chair, and headed for the kitchen to see what his mom was up to for dinner.
Only later did he and the other kids learn they had been "spoofed". Coordinates and flight plans that they took for the real deal had been, it turned out, swapped in by rebel hackers who apparently didn't have much trouble compromising Pentagon security. The actual live footage they received on their Pray-Stations was replaced with dummy footage. Instead of hitting their prescribed targets the kids unwittingly flew their drones in the wrong direction, and took out a number of key Federal Government installations.
Instead of blowing up the Ontario Mills Cineplex, and ridding the world of some key high-ranking terrorists, like he was supposed to do, the little boy had in reality fired on a drone aircraft factory on the other side of the country. The baseball field was really a military munitions warehouse. The hospital he thought he had destroyed wasn't really what he had fired on either. That, as it turned out, was a fuel processing plant.
Drone War Idol carried the whole fiasco live. It was Sunday late afternoon. None of the crack technical staff was at the network studios. No one was around, in fact, except for the weekend skeleton crew, and, of course, no one among them could figure out how to undo what the Rebels had set into motion. How, for starters, to shut the darn monitor off, or go to a commercial break in time to avoid broadcasting the entire catastrophe to the whole damn world.
For almost an hour, the show broadcast the actual live-feed from the unmanned remote-control flying robots before the decision came in from on-high to run some stock footage of a successful campaign from a prior episode. Before they were able to do so, before they figured out what was going on and put up the pictures of dissident Rebel picnickers vaporized on summer holiday in Yellowstone National Park the year before -- always a crowd pleaser -- millions of people around the world watched with queasy trepidation as the Federal Government, in effect, waged war on itself.
On screen was a beautiful shot of the Washington Monument tipping over in a maelstrom of flame. Some young secessionist Rebel had obviously figured out how to usurp the show's soundtrack. A pop music chart-buster, basically a rerecording of an old 20th-century patriotic Country-and-Western tune by Toby Keith, played over the burning rubble of the Egyptian-style Masonic obelisk, cut in half moments earlier by a Hellfire rocket. Some Arab Sheik's kid in a Dubai penthouse had shot at it under the mistaken impression he was firing at a Rebel gun-nest a few miles over in Arlington, VA. The music was basically the same as it was in the old hit with a couple of minor rearrangements that incorporated some fresh licks. Only the lyrics were significantly changed to conform to the present mood of the country.
--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010
"Bourbon or Scotch?"
"Sometimes I forget I'm talking to a rabbit."
"No really. I never met a talking rabbit who liked bourbon before."
"Hello," Roman Forester yelled from the front porch. Snow was coming down hard in the Upper Peninsula. He stamped his feet to get the slush off his boots.
Dr. Tulsa Phoenix put the rabbit back in its cage, grabbed the open bottle of Maker's Mark, and ran upstairs to answer the door.
Between nips from the bottle they undressed each other. Her skin was so beautiful Roman Forester was overwhelmed by an idea. There was something he always wanted to, but never had done before. With a swift motion he grabbed the waistband of her underwear and tore them off her. Dr. Tulsa Phoenix's first thought was confused, a little angry even. They were her nicest lace underwear and she had saved them especially for such an occasion. Her dismay didn't last long, however. She quickly realized it was a romantic first for her. No man had ever ripped her underwear off before. Both of them practically busted their sides, they thought it was so funny. Roman Forester wanted to say "We interrupt Drone Wars to bring you this special moment," but he couldn't quite catch his breath.
Emergency alert sirens went off. Drones were coming in again. The young man wanted to get back to his equipment at the refugee camp, but she pointed out that they were both still a little drunk from the night before. "Besides it's too dangerous. There isn't enough time. My neighbor has a bomb shelter." She ran downstairs to grab her rabbit. "It's right over the hill," she yelled up from the basement. "If we're lucky we might just about make it to the farm before they seal the hatch."
Half-hidden faces winced in the dark bunker with every new thump and quake overhead. About thirty people had made their way to the bomb-shelter. A nearby impact, quite a bit louder than the rest, made them all flinch. Roman Forester had his arm around Dr. Tulsa Phoenix who nervously cradled her fluffy white rabbit. He knew the drones were targeting the outer-lying camps because that was where all the Drone War Version XIV points were, but he also knew adolescent and teenage remote-control operators halfway around the world could care less what they blew up. As long as it was in the designated mission grid they got some points.
"Who was it you were talking to in the basement when I came over last night?" he figured she would tell him about a roommate he didn't know she had.
"I thought I heard another voice."
She tickled the rabbit under the chin.
"She sure does, don't you," Dr. Tulsa Phoenix corrected him and set the fur-ball on her lap so it could nibble on the snacks she had cupped in her palm.
Air in the bunker was getting thin. Everyone was breathing heavily and wiped the perspiration from their wet brows. "Damn this old death-trap all to hell," the old farmer stood up and pounded the air vent with his hand to try and get the rusted out fan to start working again, but it was frozen. A whiff of smoke from singed electrical wiring was a sure sign the motor had burned out.
"Last year at this time we were down here for two days before the carpet bombing let up," a middle-aged woman across from them pulled out a songbook to try and raise everyone's spirits. "To pass the time we all sang Christmas carols."
"Last year at this time we all thought if we only embraced Jesus Christ as our savior and lord everything would turn out fine and all the wrongs in the world would miraculously get righted," her husband sardonically cut her off. "And the year before that, and the year before that going all the way back as far as I can remember. Well, where's it got us, mother? Huddled down here while the whole town up above us gets blown to kingdom come!"
"Hard hearted stick-in-the-mud," she gently reprimanded and flipped through her book for the right song. "Don't pay him any mind," she said to everyone else in the shelter. "Hard in the heart and soft in the brain like all those right-winger nuts he's always crooning over."
"You're a fine one to talk," another bearded man accused the farmer's wife.
Sooner or later someone was going to notice Roman Forester was not a local. Tulsa Phoenix would defend him, but he was already self-conscious enough about the fact that were it not for him and all the other folks like him camped out on the outskirts of their town these people -- otherwise forgotten on the northern boarder -- would enjoy a peaceful and placid existence far away from the chaos of the civil war that raged in the rest of the country.
Roman Forester felt so sure the second bearded man was about to turn on him he tried to change the subject back to the talking rabbit. The tension in the fall-out-shelter was unbearable. To the young man it seemed like all hell could break loose with the next impact.
"So," the rabbit asked: "Did you ever hear the one about the comedian Vagina von Lesbian? I'll tell you right up front the guy was a wet rag, down on his luck. He was desperate -- at the end of his rope," the rabbit held one paw over her head, cocked paw and head to the side, and stuck her tongue out to indicate an invisible noose. "Living in a one-room cold-water flat in New York with a view out his only window of an air-duct.'
"One day Ruth Buzzi walks in on his lounge act. After the gig is over Vagina von Lesbian comes over to her table. 'Ms. Buzzi,' he says, 'I'm one of your biggest fans. Do you have any advice for a young aspiring comedian? I'm putting my best material out there but it all flames out like the Hindenburg. No one ever laughs at any of my material. You're the greatest of the great. What do you think I should do?' She narrows her bleary eyes, clearly unhappy with the intrusion. 'Whah? Who the hell are you?' she whines and knocks her drink over reaching for her cigarettes. 'Vagina von Lesbian,' he says with as much pride and self-confidence as he can muster. 'Vagina von who?' Ruth Buzzi practically spits up her olive. 'Are you kidding me with a name like that?' she gags. 'I mean that's awful. Maybe you should start by changing your crummy name.'
"A year later she stumbled into a Vegas lounge. The room is in stitches, the comedian is killing, but the minute he sees her walk in he runs down to greet her. 'Thank you, thank you, thank you,' he says. 'For what?' Ruth Buzzi asks somewhat annoyed. She doesn't recognize him from Adam. 'Last year I was down-and-out and it's all thanks to you my career was resuscitated,' he tells her. 'You saved it when you told me to change my name. And you were right!' She squints up at this lanky character: 'What did you say your new name is?' He stands back for dramatic effect. 'Dick van Dyke,' he says proudly."
No one was conscious enough to get the joke. Far from it, a number of folks clutched their throats and coughed uncontrollably like they were about to throw up.
Not much oxygen was left in the shelter when the firemen finally cracked the metal hatch open with their jaws-of-life contraption. "Bless you baby Jesus," the middle-aged farmer's wife wept at the sight of daylight. The drone raid was over. The bombing had stopped. Everyone, young and old alike, poured out of the bunker and gasped for fresh air. A shaky Roman Forester helped the physician and her talking rabbit up the stairs. Most everyone recovered after a gust of icy cold wind.
Dr. Tulsa Phoenix had her work cut out for her at the hospital tent. Victims of the drone attack numbered in the hundreds.
Back at the VW Van Roman Forester's friend ribbed him about the doctor: "No way that's her real skin," he said. "She bought that skin."
"Not even the Pentagon can make skin that perfect," Roman Forester wistfully brushed the comment aside and got back to work wiring a stack of hardware that he believed could cut down their response time to the Drone War Idol gamers by half -- maybe even give them the edge. He didn't mention anything about a talking rabbit.
--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2009
Cast iron sculptures of gagged figures strapped and bound on monolithic horizontal slabs lay face-up. In a moment of excessive exuberance the expatriate Greek artist had them electrically wired so they gave off a mild shock when you touched one. "Ants!" his son Tardif Disconesia yelled. He yelled it over and over again. The boy couldn't stop himself he got such a charge out of it. Every time he ran into one of the sculptures the jolt tickled like a million ants were crawling all over his body.
Rebel TV was filming the second episode of HitList from the Canary Islands.
"A plate of awful with a side of trouble," was the fat man's assessment of the waitress.
"Give her a coat of paint and maybe a little touch-up like a Hollywood movie star," his partner contradicted the fat man and smiled at her as she came over with their coffee.
Makeup and wardrobe decided on a trench coat for the skinny man and a velour sweat-suite and visor combo for his overweight partner. They both had on dark sunglasses the crew picked up at the local tourist trap.
Next the ex-Navy Seal entered the seaside cafe'. He inquired on queue from the assistant director about the two men. The Spanish waitress pinched her little nose to indicate that the men smelled bad and pointed to the rear booth.
"We didn't know who to call when our car broke down," the skinny man apologized.
"Goddamn Ford Clitoris," the fat one gurgled.
The retired soldier sat down: "Dangerous neighborhood to get stranded in. Roving gangs of boys everywhere. Up to no good as far as I can tell. I'm sure I saw one of them out there brandishing a bottle of suntan lotion."
He was given a manila envelope that he promptly emptied on the table. Some grainy photographs of Tardif Disconesia fell out along with a sheath of typed up notes. It was all for effect, of course. The cameras were rolling.
"Don't be too concerned with the letter of the law," the skinny man winked. "It's the spirit of the law that counts."
Quiet settled over the otherwise boisterous Montana Rogue Army mess hall. Yet another week running, Tardif Disconesia was the Drone War Idol board leader and that kept him at the top of the HitList "Most Wanted" list. The ex-Green Beret and Navy Seal had spotted him at a street-side kiosk flipping through a pornographic magazine he had secretly sandwiched in a comic book. Porter Hightower sat at the edge of his seat along with all the other militiamen in the hall. Everyone took a collective breath, but it was different for him. Tardif Disconesia was the gamer who supposedly pulled the trigger of his joystick to launch the Hellfire rocket that killed his mother and sister. Porter Hightower wanted nothing better than to see the little runt squirm.
At the exact moment the ex-Green Beret yelled "Move In!" on his walky-talky Tardif Disconesia's mother's Mercedes Benz showed up and the kid hopped onto the passenger side seat and closed the door behind him.
Everyone in the Rebel commissary stared slack-jawed at the big-screen.
HitList followed the mother's car to a house at the edge of town. Balloons and brightly colored streamers covered the front door. "Somebody's birthday," the retired Green Beret whispered. The decision was made to surround the house and go in after the boy. "We're going to try and take him out right here," the former soldier intoned furtively into the camera and cocked his twelve-gage with the well-practiced motion of a professional killer. But it wasn't exactly like Keith Richards parachuting into a Sweet Sixteen party. There were screams and cries, food flew through the air, adolescents, parents and chaperons scattered. The scene was one of general chaos. When the confetti finally settled the ex-Navy Seal and Green Beret stood amid flipped over picnic tables in the backyard of the house alone with the camera crew and covered in birthday cake. None of them had the foggiest notion which direction the kid and his mother had run.
"Draw down," the ex-Green Beret barked with resignation.
Conversations in the Rebel Army mess hall slowly picked up where they had left off. "You wouldn't know it by lookin' at him," the man sitting on Porter Hightower's right had trouble getting his head around such a young criminal. "But that kid is a stone-cold killer." The codger looked like he was sent straight from central casting to play an old pirate or gold prospector down on his luck. Yukon Jack. That was the nickname the other Rebel soldiers gave him. "Just look at the scallywag. Already a mass murderer at his tender age."
Strange emotions Porter Hightower didn't understand swelled up inside him, so much so he felt like his eyes would well up. He closed them tight and stabbed his plastic fork into the shit-on-a-shingle scooped on his paper plate with so much force the flimsy utensil snapped in two.
After a commercial break that basically consisted of Rogue Army recruitment footage of Predator Drones firing at unarmed townsfolk in the heartland and the President shaking hands with various notorious war criminals there was telephoto surveillance-footage of Tardif Disconesia and an unknown girl from his grade school. The two stood in a quiet secluded corner of the playground with their unzipped pants and underwear pulled down to their knees. HitList's high-powered microphone picked up the exchange: "Yours looks funny," the boy seemed uncertain about his attraction. "So does yours," the girl nervously stared back and tried to cover her open mouth with the back of her hand.
At the head of the briefing-room regular Army Sergeant Killroy Townsend cursed: "Disgusting, vile shit." New boot-camp recruits were watching The Rebel Army Network as a training exercise. Slurs flew from the Sergeant's grim mouth. Some of them Private Kenmore Westell had never heard before. "This is the Drone Wars Version XII cow pile of dung your enemy is propagating," the old soldier growled with obvious disdain. Kenmore Westell felt the cold gray eyes of the Sergeant pause suspiciously on him as if the man instinctively new that he was thinking of Porter Hightower's family and how they got blown to smithereens by a drone missile fired by the kid on the screen. "No momma's boy crybabies allowed in my army, son!" the old soldier flicked his thumb in the direction of the door. The Private locked his jaw to show his resolve, but inside he tried to picture his friend. No doubt Porter Hightower was in a Rebel Camp by now, out there somewhere watching the same show. Kenmore Westell tried to imagine what his friend was feeling, but knew he couldn't come close to understanding that level of emotional trauma.
Somehow HitList had acquired some home video Christmas footage of a slightly younger and positively beaming Tardif Disconesia opening his presents on the rug in the living room of a sunny bungalow in some blue-water Aegean paradise. The boy tore into the candy-cane wrapper of his first Pentagon issued Pray Station III, the game-box he would later use to remotely guide the drones. It was an eerie segment of the show played up in slow motion. Behind the kid there was a plastic tree decorated with crystal balls, store bought gingerbread cookies, and plenty of tinsel. You could see Cypress Trees through a side window. Tardif Disconesia ripped the paper from the box and threw it at whoever it was behind the camera awkwardly the way you would expect a child of his age to. HitList ran the footage of the boy's laugh as he danced and waved his arms even slower to make him look maniacal.
Part of Kenmore Westell was too serious. He knew he had to learn to shake it off, or he wasn't going to last long in this world. But it didn't stop the newly conscripted Private from feeling like the Christmas footage dragged on much longer than was necessary. To him it seemed hokey, a lame gimmick. But he also knew wherever his friend was at that moment Porter Hightower was hurting something bad inside. And he felt sure deep down to the marrow of his bones these images of Tardif Disconesia so happy and unaware of what it was all going to lead to in only a few months time, these images stretched out so interminably by HitList probably did his friend much more harm than good.
--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2009