As per usual his wife woke up before he did. He could smell the percolating coffee when he stepped out of the shower. Handsomely attired in one of his nicest pinstriped suites he sat down at the kitchen table to the glass of orange juice and bowl of cereal she had waiting for him.
Together they watched the morning show, Good Day United States of Money, like they always did during breakfast, silently noting the stories of suicide bombings, drone attacks, and the government response -- always firm but fair. Despite the dire news accounts of skyrocketing crime, a country in near-total disarray after economic collapse, and ever more brazen attacks by Rebel dissidents, they lived a nearly picture perfect middle-class suburban life.
On the way out the door his wife told him how handsome she thought he looked in his new double-breasted suit and tastefully conservative necktie. In a ritual they had repeated a million times before she kissed him at the door and, as he strapped himself into his sporty Blue Oval electric Regina, she waved one last time and wished him a good day at the office.
Traffic was worse than usual. He tried not to think of it as a bad omen for the day ahead, but he couldn't help himself. By nature he was a fatalist. He was constantly on the alert for little signs -- "tells" they called them in poker. A string of green lights, for instance, meant his luck was good. By the same token, any hold-up, or other annoyance, was seen as a sure harbinger of bad things to come. A flipped over vehicle that blocked the right lane of the freeway, and caused traffic to slow to a trickle just before his exit sinched it. "Today," he decided dryly, "is going to be a rough day."
And, sure enough, as he pulled into work, there was another man standing on his corner.
"What's the big idea?" he demanded of the other fellow and put down his briefcase in a huff. "I've been working this side of the street for years." He was practically livid, but his tone softened somewhat when he realized the interloper was just a kid. After closer inspection he saw the young man's suit was poorly fitted and lacked any distinction. He had survived hostile takeover attempts before, attempts by competing pharmaceutical companies to force an unwanted merger or leveraged buy-out, but this wasn't anything like that. The boy stood stock-still, clearly frightened. After further assessment he asked the young man if he was lost. "You got to move along, son," he explained it to the kid, "this here corner is mine. Go on," he waved, "scoot."
After drugs were legalized legitimate businessmen took the place of dealers. It was inevitable it would happen. Faced with the certitude of bankruptcy states were desperate for any taxable income they could lay claim to. He was among the first legitimate drug salesmen, and from the start there was a lot of pressure to bring a certain amount of respectability to the trade.
His peers all had their specialty. His was methamphetamines. Directly across the street the man in the snappy bow-tie sold weed. On the two other adjacent corners stood an opiate salesman and a rather twitchy character he found somewhat objectionable.
There was something about the fellow's attire he disliked. Sure enough the man wore a well-tailored suit like the rest of them. By any reasonable assessment the other salesman's appearance was utterly professional and beyond reproach. Nevertheless, he found the man's color choices garish and untoward. "What the hell," he resignedly thought to himself, "do I know about how to run a psychedelics business," and steadied himself for his own growing line of customers.
There was no way to make one's way down any of the major streets in downtown Kansas City without fighting off the drug merchants. They were on every corner of every street. Whichever way one turned any number of these otherwise respectable well-heeled citizens closed in fast with a pitch for their "cure-whatever-ails-you" product. The same was true for every metropolitan area in the country. Gray-suited salespersons in thin-brimmed fedoras and briefcases accosted every sidewalk passerby in every major city touting the virtues of their various pharmaceutical wares.
And he was definitely no exception. "Now there's a sad case," he could spot a perspective customer a mile away. With a forced smile he filled the last crystal-meth prescription before his lunch-break.
Among the pharmaceutical sales-people there was a distinct pecking order. For whatever reason the opiate and methamphetamine merchant were shunned by the rest of the sales-force. The others made it abundantly clear they didn't want to have anything to do with them. No surprise then that they spent much of their lunch-hours badmouthing their fellow businesspersons. After a while, however, their conversation inevitably turned to more serious topics like politics.
"There must be something more important in life," he sighed, "than selling drugs to a bunch of addicts. Mustn't there?"
"A forty-four in brainpan," the heroin salesman flatly said over drinks at the bar. They were talking about the doctor at the local abortion clinic. "That's my prescription for the bastard, anyway."
Both looked up at the 3DTV above the bar. It was a pornographic re-enactment of the news. A renowned professor of archeology was getting head in his trailer at an unspecified dig-site. "Work the shaft, squeeze the balls," he kept yelling. Animal groans followed as the leading academic built to his climax. His favorite student closed her eyes and tilted her face up to receive the load. In the heat of passion he had boasted a facial she would never forget, but at the moment of truth all she felt was a single hot spatter on her skin. Unimpressed she opened one eye to see if he was really done.
As she flicked the single pearly droplet off her chin with her pinky the intercom crackled to life. "We broke through to the other side of the barrier rock," the foreman of the drill-crew yelled. "Come quick. It's unbelievable. You've got to see this."
Three miles down, at the base of the pit, the foreman held out a ratty Teddy Bear for the archeology professor to inspect. "We found it just under the black rock-line Doc, what do you make of it?"
"What else did you find?" the professor asked.
"A mess of plastic garbage and junk just like you might find in your average landfill on the planet's surface."
"Impossible," the professor exclaimed in total disbelief. "We are talking about hundreds of millions of years ago: Before Lucy-kind man, before even dinosaurs." He was clearly puzzled. No one had ever penetrated the black shale layer before him. For years he had argued for the great discovery that lay below the layer of impenetrable rock, and now all he had to show for it was a tattered Teddy Bear and a bunch of modern-day trash. Unless... The more he thought about it the more it made sense.
News anchor Michael Michaels ripped off his fake professorial beard and unceremoniously cut off the archeology student and drill-crew orgy that followed their breakthrough discovery with a news bulletin. "New evidence has surfaced," the anchorman bellowed into the microphone, "that a civilization much like our own existed millions of years ago. In fact, it was almost exactly like our own. Scientists believe it achieved a parallel level of development to our civilization then inexplicably and mysteriously caused its own extinction. Are we doomed to relive its fate? Is, as a prominent physicist has theorized based on this new and astounding evidence, our civilization caught in some kind of time warp where we are destined to relive our own demise over and over again? Answers to these and many other questions at six..."
The methamphetamine salesman knew full well the heroin salesman was right. There was more to life than pushing drugs. And he knew exactly what he had to do...
Michael Michaels sat up straight in his anchor's chair as if to give the next story more credence. "In version XX of Drone Wars," he reported, "The Supreme Court, in a five-to-four decision, ruled that the jury-pool should in some cases be expanded to include all interested parties." He shuffled some papers on the narrow shelf of the news set countertop. " -- And," he picked right up again, "in the first test case, the Kansas City methamphetamine salesman accused of the cold-blooded murder of a local abortion clinic doctor was, after only thirty minutes of deliberation, easily acquitted of the crime by a jury of unborn children." Michael Michaels looked up, slyly winked for the camera, and smiled his million dollar smile.
--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010
Upon their introduction she warmly complemented the birthday girl. "What a beautiful place you have," she said and marveled at the spacious apartment. Goodblood's set-up was in a really ritzy part of town, and the spreads she put out were legendary: Champaign by the bucketful, every kind of delicacy imaginable, and always plenty of drugs.
They had never met before. She had heard stories, but the woman wasn't a personal acquaintance of hers. Goodblood was a friend of a friend.
Not that it mattered. The birthday girl had a natural flare for making everyone feel comfortable, and effortlessly managed to put all of them at ease. It was a social gift. Folks like Goodblood were simply born to entertain.
Cheers and loud conversation emanated from the dining room at the opposite end of the hall. Everyone at the dinner table was in a really good mood, and pretty much right away, she found herself engrossed in conversation with a handsome young banker Goodblood introduced her to.
"The real world never looked this stereoscopic," she told the TSA proctor as she adjusted her goggles. Brightly colored artificial looking figures surrounded her. The people she saw projected in front of her eyes were at a fancy dinner party in a beautiful apartment on Telegraph Hill. She smiled at the banker. Her test had begun.
"Oh, I should probably mention," anchorman Michael Michaels said, "the young woman in question is schizophrenic. In reality she lives on Skid Row. It's all part of a new experiment that follows on the heels of the highly touted success of last year's Federal Government handout of Blue Tooth earpiece devices to the homeless and disenfranchised. The growing population of chemically imbalanced street people that walk around talking to themselves -- so the thinking of our civic-minded government leadership goes -- might become more socially integrated and generally palatable if it appeared to the public at large here in the Federal sectors that they were actually talking on the phone like everyone else. Today we have with us the criminal psychology professor who spearheaded the drive..."
"Broadly seen as a paradigm shift in the way we think about our insane population," the criminal psychologist was irrepressible in his zeal for the new program, "many people out there want to expand the mandate even further. They believe the mentally challenged lunatics in our country are an underused resource, and in these troubled times everyone available needs to get recruited for the sake of the cause. We have a huge schizophrenic population, but it's idle," he said. "What we need more than anything else are more security forces on the front lines, more intelligence men and women. Our military is almost entirely reliant on toddlers and adolescents to fly its drones. No one I admire has ever questioned the efficacy of the policy. It's a major moneymaker, a huge source of revenue for the government and the entertainment industry. The science is there. The economics are sound. It works. A short mental skip-and-jump to integrate the mentally retarded, depressed people, and psychotics into the nation's campaign against terror is all that's required."
"Everything is nature," the young banker at the party grandly proclaimed.
"Numbers and letters, too?" she asked.
"We are nature, so whatever we do is nature," he elaborated.
"My mobile electronic device is nature," she finally got into the spirit of it.
"I am nature," he was having fun.
"Hmm," she considered for a moment and looked him straight in his green crystal eyes. "Now that's where I have to draw the line." She said it good-humouredly, and raised her glass to his to celebrate her rhetoric victory.
"Donating a bunch of Blue Tooth earphones to schizophrenics to make them look less conspicuous is one thing," Michael Michaels tried to understand the criminal psychologist. "Putting them to work on the front line of national security is quite another, isn't it?"
"Oh shit!" the young woman yelled out-of-the-blue. She was sitting on a bench in a park under a leafless black Oak. Presumably she was talking to someone or something she saw in her stereoscopic goggles. "Do something!" she yelled again and stood up with her arms out as if to try to offer some help to some invisible someone else.
"Our nation's enemies are crazy." The criminal psychology professor tried to make it sound simple so Michael Michaels could understand better. "They must be, mustn't they?" he asked. "Because we simply don't understand their motivation. I mean why do the Rebels do the things they do? Who knows? Not me. Why is that? Because I'm sane, that's how come. Ipso facto, so it follows, who better than crazies to pick one of their own out of a line-up, or predict the nefarious actions of the lurking enemy?"
She was the first among the dinner party guests to notice Goodblood's dramatic change in color. The birthday girl's face was beet red, and swollen to the point of obscuring her features. She watched stunned with disbelief and horror as Goodblood grabbed her own throat, spit up a mouthful of food and drink, and slid from the chair to the floor.
The full gravity of the situation took a moment to sink in. Some guests panicked. Some leapt into action. Emergency calls were made. The people who sat closest to the birthday girl did their best to comfort her and help her breath. They took the girl's party dress off, performed some basic CPR, but it was clear to anyone brave enough to look at her that Goodblood's lips were already blue and she wasn't moving anymore.
"In the past the mirrored glasses worn by police were meant to convey the all-seeing eye and concurrent omnipotence of law enforcement," the criminal psychologist tried to explain for Michael Michaels and the television audience the new eyewear handed out to schizophrenics. "The high-way patrolman's psychological interiority was hidden behind the lenses. It was as if he didn't have any interiority at all. Like he was a pure exteriority, a pure reflection of the landscape that surrounded him. In those silver lenses his psychology was an uncontaminated reflection of the outside world. But what today's law enforcement officer sees behind his mirrored lenses is not just the outside world as we see it. He sees a make-believe universe, a virtual world that includes the real world enhanced by a fully realized digital world."
"Goodnight, Goodblood," she cried from her perch upon the park bench. Tears streamed from her eyes. "Goodnight !" she yelled and, clearly distraught, covered her mouth with her hand. She had to alert her TSA proctor of the emergency.
The first snowflakes fell on her head. "Goodnight, Goodblood," she sobbed, this time a little less emphatically than she had done the time before and turned her stereoscopic goggles off. The test was over. The emergency medics had tried there best to save Goodblood. Snow started to come down more quickly in the park. "Snowmageddon," her voice trailed off to a quiet mumble. "It's a snowmageddon."
"We're losing her," the TSA proctor yelled to his assistant. "Quick. Turn the training module off! She's having some kind of fantasy delusion response to the stereoscopic lenses. She's talking nonsense -- says she's a bag lady -- keeps repeating the phrase 'Goodnight, Goodblood' -- thinks it's snowing something awful in there."
The test grader stood in the frame of the door and scratched his head. "You won't believe this, Pete," he said and held out a computer printout to the proctor.
"I'll be darned," the man said. "A perfect score."
"Early results with schizophrenic-test participants are very good," the criminal psychology professor told Michael Michaels. "Much better than expected. If they hold up the way they look like they will there is already talk of a Federal Government Drone War Idol tie-in for Version XVII. Administration officials and game show and video game executives are calling it "Connect The Dots". The thinking is to test it on mental patients and psychotics first, who, like I said before, might very well turn out are the ideal users given their unique state-of-mind. But once the kinks are out it could very well get released to the general consumer audience. Think of the potential profits!" he panted. "It would be the live-action interactive version of 'Find Elmo', only the object of the game would be to discover dissident plotters ahead of time and destroy them..."
--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010
"Nothing is as scary as living through a bad idea," Michael Michaels got the editorial meeting underway. "When it's happening anyone who is halfway sane thinks the whole world is on a free-fall slide to hell. Afterwards you can joke about it. Afterwards the immediate danger of the old bad idea is gone. So many worse ideas have filled the gap in the meantime the whole thing is funny like a bad joke. Everyone can look back on the old bad joke with twenty-twenty hindsight and shrug it off."
"What's on tap today?" the news editor cut the dim-witted anchor off.
"I'm not sure if it's actually such a bad idea," the political desk started the ball rolling. "It's a little complicated, but here goes. How about the Puppy Dog Channel? New Mexico Senator Loudan Rich is way out in front of it. His latest anti-Rebel strategy. Can't figure out if it's a bad idea or genius. What he wants is to have a channel that plays nothing but images of cute puppy dogs frolicking twenty-four seven at every major government checkpoint. Here's the quote: 'No need for metal detectors, pat downs, interviews,' so the senator's argument goes. We could make it a question: Superfluous police theater?"
"Everyone likes puppy dogs," Michael Michaels said in his best anchorman voice.
"In fact, the Senator believes anyone who doesn't like puppy dogs is against the American way of life, a villainous enemy of the State. So, the best way to weed out insurgents hell-bent on bringing down the US government, according to the senator, is to make them watch puppy dogs at play," the political desk continued.
The news editor turned it over in his head. "I like it," he finally said. "The story's got legs. But what's the gimmick?"
"Most everyone would think the Puppy Dog Channel was the cutest thing they ever saw, right?" the political desk fleshed it out a bit more. "Anyone caught reacting in a negative way or looking away as they pass the monitors is immediately separated from the rest of the crowd and directed into a special line. There are some tactical problems, but Senator Rich is already at work on a fix. Curmudgeons, it was pointed out to him, would likely get swept up in the dragnet. Among patriotic citizens there are undoubtedly a few bitter old coots that hate small children, kittens, and puppy dogs, a small number of ill-tempered geriatrics so forth and so on."
"I saw the senator speak on Meet The Press," Michael Michaels said. "He was really putting the meat into the microphone. He suggested the line get divided. 'Two lines,' he said. 'One for the firing squad, the other for the restroom.' The civilization-hating anarchist saboteurs will go down the main path to their certain death and the old fogies will go to the restroom which is where they probably were headed anyhow."
"Bladder control," the news editor scoffed.
"The Puppy Dog Channel?" Michael Michaels mused.
"Let's go with it," his editor smiled. "What else?"
"The Smart Mattress?" the business desk perked up. "It's the latest black market craze to hit the nation."
"I don't know," Michael Michaels answered. He hated the idea of a mattress that was smarter than him.
"Maybe we should put our weight behind it?" the news editor nudged.
"Maybe," Michael Michaels conceded. He knew full well there was more to the story. Some of the mattresses had gone haywire in the past and the Federal Trade Commission considered them so dangerous they were outlawed for public consumption.
"You know those dreams you have about how you didn't graduate from high school?" the business desk offered a possible lead in.
"I never did graduate from high school," Michael Michaels joked.
"Maybe you could have used a Smart Mattress? Ever since Private Joe Shmuck got his nothing's been the same," the business desk offered. "Something along those lines. Private Joe Shmuck could say something like: 'In my old reoccurring dream I never graduated from high school. Now that I have my Smart Mattress I've graduated from college. I still have the old anxiety, but I'm not anxious anymore. Before I got the Smart Mattress I never even went to class in my dream. Now I do even though it's bizarre because I am so much older than the other kids. In my old dream I used to skip all my classes because the premise was so ridiculous. Now I actually attend my classes. And even though I am still sometimes really late I don't sweat it as much with the Smart Mattress.' What do you think?" the business desk turned to the news editor.
"Needs more drama," he shot back. "A hook."
"What if someone in Private Joe Shmuck's dream breaks into his locker and steels his class schedule?" Michael Michaels gave it some thought. "At first Private Joe Shmuck is upset, but then he realizes he doesn't give a shit. I mean he's already graduated from college in his dream. What does he care about high school? Zip. Nada. Nothing. It is like an anxiety nightmare, but because he has a Smart Mattress he doesn't care one iota one way or the other!"
"Okay," the news editor said. He clearly had some reservations, but he let them go. "What's going on over at the science desk?" he asked.
"Professor Ivar Zimbolist over at Fort College has an interesting theory about human migration patterns and how they could pertain to the Civil War here in the States," the science desk answered. "According to the professor, people who lived in the warmer climates were loud. They loved the sand, the sun, and the surf. The loud people were philistines. They liked eating, fucking, and fighting, not necessarily in that order. They liked all the things loud people like. Most of their time was spent on the beach. 'Loud and lazy' is how the professor describes them in his book. They ruled the world. They still do. There were lots of seashells all around them, the professor has discovered, so they made seashells their currency. It was the simplest and laziest thing to do so that's what they did."
"What's the pitch?" the news editor wanted to know.
"Well," the science desk continued, "The loud people were so obnoxious anyone who liked peace and quiet was forced to move to the outskirts of town. But before they knew it the loud people began to overpopulate the warm tropical shore they inhabited and they started to impinge on the outer-lying hamlet the quiet people had settled. So the quiet people moved even further away. 'That's how they got to the polar ice caps,' the professor writes on page 123. They figured it was so inhospitable and uninhabitable up there the tropical loud mouths would never follow them. They were wrong. For a while they were free from all the mindless chitchat of the loud people. It was a kind of golden era for them up there on the North Pole. They read and did all the creative things people can do when they are not crowded out of their own minds."
"A golden era of silence, however short lived," Michael Michaels ended the meeting. The show was about to go on air. He took his seat on the news set and smiled his million-dollar smile. Under the harsh klieg lights in the broadcast booth the anchorman looked positively alien, like a Venusian talking head.
"It's not what you sell, it's how you tell them the price," Michael Michaels briskly launched into the first story of the newscast. "Drone War Idol has just announced they will donate Pray Station laptop game-boxes to every underprivileged schoolchild in Uruguay. A top executive was quoted as saying: 'This isn't just a media stunt designed to boost our ratings. Think of the children. Every kid in the world deserves a chance at fifteen minutes of fame. And not only that, these kids are heroes. Think of them out there protecting us from the evil-doers here in our own front yard.'
"Later in Drone Wars news, we will take an insider look into the version XVI recall. We will also look at New Mexico Senator Loudan Rich's latest security proposal -- The Puppy Dog Channel; Smart Mattresses in the military; and a new study out of Fort College that could shed some light on the Rebel psychology.
"But first: the Federal Government closure of its embassy in Atlanta, Georgia. After six military trucks with weapons and explosives went missing the compound was temporarily shuttered as a precaution. Officials believe local insurgents hijacked the trucks. A State Department spokesperson would not deny or confirm concerns about instability in the region. 'It's premature to call Georgia a failed state,' the spokesperson said. 'But we definitely don't want it to turn into another North Dakota or Idaho,' the spokesperson added. The government of Georgia faces a secessionist uprising in the south and a rebellion in the north..."
--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010