February 22, 2010

Broken Knee

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            Normally he didn't like to stop and talk to strangers, but there was something about the lines of the young girl's face that stood outside the mini-mart with a cast on her leg that made him wonder what it was she was doing out there in the cold. 

            She explained how she had to get out of an abusive situation.  "My man beat me something awful," she said.

            Still, there was a long way to go between a bad relationship and panhandling in a mini-mart parking lot.  How did she get so low he wanted to know? 

            It was a matter of life or death she told him.  She had to get out of the relationship to save herself.  If she stayed with him, her man would have killed her "for sure" she said.

            But how had it gotten to that?  He didn't quite understand.  Didn't she know the man was a snake-in-the-grass from the start? 

            "Quite the contrary," she sighed.  Maybe she should have seen it coming, she conceded, but when her man came into her life he was like the most beautiful figure skater she had ever seen.  His sharp body lines and the expressive gestures he made were perfectly synchronized.  His movements were so gracefully fluid she got caught up in the fantasy of his performance right away.  She had never seen anyone's blades cut the ice so effortlessly, like he was otherworldly, like an angel or a demon.  The silver serpent that curled around his neck and his elastic black bodysuit might have told her which one he was; she admitted to that, but from the first moment he skated into her life, she was captured by his spell. 

            Mayberry was their enchanted small mid-western town, a perfect retro-mid-twentieth-century Norman Rockwell dream world in which dogs barked at mailmen and narcotics salesmen helped little old ladies cross the street.  There was one gas station, one diner, and one post-office in front of which stood the town flagpole.  Come rain or snow the stars-and-stripes proudly waved.  Whatever the weather, the mayor, the newspaperman, and the police and fire chiefs were regularly seen skating down the main drag of this winter paradise. 

            Life was like one big ice-dance.  The two lovers spun around and pirouetted down Main Street together to the applause of all their friends and neighbors.  For a while their world was like a fantastic ice-pageant.  Every day was a Waltz or a Tango.  The lovers skated in perfect symmetry with the most exquisite harmony and movement, as if nothing but first-place ribbons marked their future. 

            Then the government intelligence man skated into town in his shabby gray suit.  "It was as if God had a seizure," she tried to convey the gravity of the change that overcame the little town she had grown up in to the man who had approached her with the grocery bag under his arm.  "Everyone didn't unexpectedly become completely spastic," she continued.  Nothing so obvious -- "it wasn't exactly as dramatic as if someone or something shined a strobe light on the little town and everyone's movements got all choppy" -- she made herself all angular and started to twitch in an attempt to illustrate what she was talking about. 

"What happened was far subtler than that.  More of a feeling like something was the 'teensiest' bit askew," she said.  "Small insignificant stuff was off.  Something had changed, something hard to place but no less serious.  Like the intelligence man's sense of timing was off by a fraction of a second and somehow the minute he showed up simply through his own incompetence he managed to throw everyone else in town off their mark.  No doubt everyone in Mayberry went about their business the way they always had.  Only everything they did became somehow miscued like they were just a single beat off the mark.  Everyone was either too early or too late, like their timing was somehow thrown by just the tiniest fraction, and skaters narrowly missed each other, or far worse, actually collided." 

"Let's put it this way," she told the man in front of the mini-mart, "The fellow's arrival definitely coincided with a number of very ugly Main Street pile-ups."

            It turned out the government intelligence man was not entirely without talent.  As soon as they got themselves disentangled, townsfolk skated up to meet the newcomer.  He made his money at the local bar.  What he would do was put some change in the jukebox and sing and dance to the song.  The fact he couldn't land a single note or hit a beat made him the toast of Mayberry.  No one in town had ever known a world without rhythm and to them the new found revelation was exiting and novel. 

            "I definitely wasn't the only one," she wanted to make sure the man with the grocery bag understood.  "All the other girls thought so too."

            "She told him this last distasteful business," she explained, "because a lot of the male prima donna skaters in town soured on the Federal Government intelligence man as soon as they perceived him as a sexual threat." 

"Trouble is, it always cuts all around," she went on.  "If their girlfriends showed the slightest bit of interest in the intelligence man cum minstrel, lots of their guys also turned on them."  Mayberry turned into a kind of daytime soap on ice. 

"Don't get me wrong," she allowed.  "Girls will be girls."  All of them flirted with the newcomer.  Maybe one or two of them actually wanted to make a play for the guy, but it didn't stop many of their boyfriends from getting pissed off, including hers, even though like most of the other girls in town all she really wanted to do was flare her feathers. 

            The young woman outside the mini-mart described how the next morning after the arrival of the intelligence man had begun like every other morning before that.  She left her mother at the kitchen table staring dumbly at the TV, went into the master bedroom and took twenty dollars from her mother's purse for the third period mandatory gambling hour.  But like a chump she lost practically all of it at the craps table after only about ten minutes.  The idea was to milk the rest of the hour at the nickel-slots with the change she had left over, but her bad luck became even worse. 

Out of cash she turned around.  As usual her teacher was at the school cafeteria bar, on his third drink by the look of him.  Her chances at a clean getaway were good.

With all the stealth she could muster she ducked out of class.  Once outside in the cool air of the pond she felt alive.  Her triple axels were giving her trouble.  She definitely wasn't landing them as smoothly as she needed to and this bonus time seemed as good as any other to practice. 

"My best friend used to say on the ice I was like a weightless, magical fairy tale creature," she told the man.  "In retrospect it all sounds pretty funny I guess."

Rhythmic dissonance wasn't the only thing the government intelligence man had introduced into her quiet community.  He had brought with him a nasty case of psychic discord.  It was her best friend who hit her on the kneecap with a lead pipe, who ended her skating career with that single blow, and all in a calculated attempt to steal her boyfriend from her.  And the saddest thing of all was that it actually worked.  Afterwards, when bent over with pain, her leg destroyed, the man she had fallen so hard for, the man in the black spandex leotard with the serpent necklace she had given herself so fervently to -- shunned her, and worse still, actually physically abused her crippled body until she was forced to flee her little town of Mayberry.  Without regard for the indignity that would certainly face her in a world foreign to the only one she knew, she packed her bags, slung her skates over her shoulder, and set out on her own. 

The Kennedy Center audience gave a rousing ovation.  Hoots and hollers followed applause.  What a show!  They loved it!

For Version XXV, scores of government intelligence men were dispatched to small-town America to provide boots on the ground intel for Drone Wars gamers the world over.  Securing men like the figure skater with the serpent around his neck to pinpoint local targets for Hellfire attacks was key to the success of the mission.  What did it matter if it was a phantom undertaking against a made-up citizen resistance, or that government forces fought against a ghost revolt which was entirely concocted by paranoid minds inside the Beltway?  Not only had the Feds and the intelligence agencies that reported to them invented a totally fallacious enemy to launch a surge against, since it was pure fiction to begin with, the entire story could be controlled from start to finish. 

"Say what you will," one high-ranking Federal Government official in the Kennedy Center audience bloviated after the ice-pageant finale, "Our art is hands-down way better than the enemy's."

 

--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010



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February 15, 2010

Blood, Sweat, and Sex

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            Among the nameless faces, he was just another face without a name as he walked past pornographic DVD rental stores and gun shops. 

On the news, they were trying to put a glass observation dome on the Chinese space station, but the giant robot arm couldn't get the air seal to fit correctly; high surf advisories for the big-wave competition in Half Moon Bay didn't account for the monster breakers that crushed camera towers and sucked several dozen spectators and participants out to sea; major ski events at the Winter Olympics were canceled outright do to the poor slushy condition of the snow -- tons of the white stuff were being trucked in at major expense to the host-country only to melt in the hot sun; and, much closer to home, New Mexico Senator Loudan Rich made headlines once again, this time for dating a gorgeous seventeen-year-old alleged Rebel spy -- "The only secrets I'm sharing with her," the cocky representative reportedly told a concerned colleague, "are Victoria Secrets." 

With a great big grin reminiscent of the Cheshire cat he turned off his handheld electronic device, entered the dimly lit establishment recommended to him by the motel clerk, and pulled up a seat at the bar.  "They're naked and they dance," the DJ said as he segued into the song "On with the Show". 

Except for him and a few other men the place was depressingly empty.  It was the "off-season" as one girl put it.  "We mostly only get geriatrics on discount vacation packages this time of year," she said. 

After their sets were over a number of the prettiest girls in the line-up approached him with their personal stories.  "He was a simple country peach farmer," he told them when they asked.  In part it was true.  In part it was because most of the top-billed girls seriously intimidated him.  They were so spectacularly good looking he just couldn't realistically picture a hook-up working out with any one of them. 

They came, he learned, from just about anywhere and everywhere you could think of all around the country.  Many of them had fought their way out of dead-end urban or rural backgrounds.  He was surprised to find a lot of them were dancing to fund their educations.  Most of the rest were supporting their children after dead-beat dads had split on them.  Only one of them said she was just in it for the kicks.  "No strings attached," she winked.  She was a remarkably beautiful Philippine girl and the two of them hit it off right away. 

For reasons he wasn't quite sure of, he changed his story with her and told her he was a VP of a major multi-billion dollar corporation.  In the heat of the moment it seemed like the right thing to say, and the glint in her eyes when he said it was reward enough.  After some small talk and a couple of drinks he finally mustered enough courage to ask her if she wanted to come back to his place.  He had a small cabana with a little balcony and he told her it came with a super view of the stars.  It was a calculated risk he had to take.  Chances were good she would turn him down, but that's not at all what happened.  Much to his surprise, she actually welcomed the idea. 

Back in his motel room they did a couple of lines of cocaine, enjoyed a few more drinks compliments of the well-stocked bar, and she rolled a fat joint from which he took several eager drags. 

For a while afterwards things got a little blurred.  They made love.  That was for sure!  To put it less delicately they really went at it.  He remembered how her hands were pressed up against the mirrored backboard of the king-sized bed as he took her doggy-style.  In his own mind he was like some kind of out-of-control sex machine.  They must have done it just about every single way he could think of.  At about 3 AM they both collapsed into a sweaty pile.  Much to his satisfaction, ego-wise anyway, she lay next to him out of breath, her body convulsing with pleasure, her skin glistening with moisture.

When he rolled out of bed she was still totally out of it.  So, when he came back to the bedroom with two fresh drinks only moments later he was marginally disappointed to find she had put her underwear back on and was clutching her skimpy dress tightly to her stomach. 

"I can't stay the night," she sounded apologetic. 

"Okay," he answered all of a sudden self-conscious about his own nakedness.

"My car stalled out on the freeway halfway to work," she looked quite helpless to him.  "Can you do me a small favor and drive me out there?  The electrics are messed up or something.  At least that's what the mechanic told me.  I gotta trade it in for something more reliable, I know, everyone tells me so, but I think, if you can get me out to Route 360, after sitting all day the car should start up just fine."

From sex god to knight in shining armor, he thought triumphantly, still a bit high on the drugs and sex.  His Southern gallantry kicked right in. 

The rural road got darker and darker the farther out they drove.  She switched the radio channel on his rental until she found the Oldies-But-Goodies station.  For a while they sang along to some of their favorite old-time nostalgic favorites.  But about thirty miles out of town she unexpectedly interrupted the fun-times sing-a-long and indicated he should pull over.  Up ahead at the outer-edge of his headlights he could see a dusty convertible parked on the side of the road.  They pulled in behind it, got out. 

But after they had advanced only a few yards toward the abandoned vehicle the blindingly bright headlights of another car flashed on in front of them. 

Almost before he had a chance to process the meaning of the unexpected intrusion into his fantasy the prostitute beside him shrank away with fear and screamed, "Oh, no!"  She was practically panic-stricken.  "It's my boyfriend," she moaned as she collapsed to her knees.  "He's crazy.  He's going to kill us both." 

The sense of betrayal almost overwhelmed him as the other man stepped out of the light holding a shotgun.  It definitely didn't help that the Philippine dancer yelled out to her pimp that it wasn't her fault, he had forced himself on her, forced her to have sex with him against her will, that he had, in fact, raped her repeatedly for hours on end.  She was practically challenging her boyfriend to kill him.  And just as quickly he realized the plan all along was probably to seduce him, and lure him out to this remote and desolate place to rob and murder him. 

If the two of them had imagined he would go down easily, however, they were seriously mistaken.  For one, he was packing.  Yes-sir-y-Bob, he had some deadly steel tucked away in his belt.  Before the prostitute's boyfriend could raise his rifle waist-high and pull the trigger he shot the Asian pimp twice in the head.  Of course the whore begged for her life, but she was wasting her time.  He put a thirty-three slug right between her breasts.  Their plan was to put his dead body in the convertible, pour gasoline all over it, and light the car on fire to destroy all the evidence, so that's exactly what he did with their bodies.  He piled them into the car and lit it on fire.  The whole scene was gruesome, but as the convertible flared up and was engulfed by flame, he was surprised how easily he shrugged off any sense of moral self-reproach...

"What a kick!" he exclaimed to his wife moments later, a little out of breath after the insane adrenaline-rush he had just experienced, shiny and alert like he had just emerged from the water after a vigorous dip.  His family was reconvened on the front steps of the Museum and Amusement Park of Middle-Class Sexual Fantasy just as they had planned to do.  The fun-park was a Version XXIV Drone Wars addition to the game.  They were lucky.  If they had passed this way a day or two earlier, for instance, none of it would have been here. 

His wife's cheeks were as flushed with color as his were.  He could plainly see Iris d'Mint's face was still all aglow and vibrant after her thrill-ride.  Both girls, he also noticed, were made up and dressed like little sluts. 

As the family got back into their old Buick, he couldn't help himself but entertain all the many unsavory scenarios that raced through his mind about what could have happened to his wife and daughters while he was otherwise concerned with his Philippine seductress.  Had his wife been gang-raped and hate-fucked by a bunch of misogynist Marines?  Was that her fantasy?  After better than ten years of marriage, he realized, much to his chagrin, he had absolutely no clue what her secret turn-on was.  Had his daughters chosen to get sold into sexual slavery?  Had they allowed themselves to be diddled by a bunch of old man perverts?  Had they been bound and gagged, made the nubile playthings of some local minister, or gym teacher? 

Every bit of the pleasure he got from his own fun-park ride seemed to dissolve.  A bit queasy and creeped out by the possibilities of what might have befallen his wife and daughters during his own male fantasy experience, he bit his lip.  As he edged the car back onto the freeway, he genuinely hoped their female sexual desires were completely different from his own middle-class male perversions. 

 

--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010



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February 10, 2010

Phone Call from Terrabella X

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            "Hi, honey."

            "Where are you?"

            "Terrabella X."

            "Where?"

            "Planet Terrabella X.  It's on the outer edge of the galaxy."

            "I don't care where you are.  Get your butt back home pronto.  We've been worried sick about you.  I thought you were dead."

            "Standing room only on the flight, but otherwise no worse for the wear.  I have to tell you a funny story.  When we touched down at the Intergalactic Airport I couldn't help but think of that funny joke by the talking rabbit.  Remember?  We saw it together on the Internet.  The talking rabbit said: Two U.S. Federal Government officials get off a rocket-ship in Nuevo Nebraska.  'Occupation?' the customs official asks them.  'No,' the senior U.S. delegate answers, 'pleasure.'"

            "Darling, I've been heartsick since the Cape Canaveral drone attack on the Chinese rocket-ship."

            "No need for concern, dear.  Really.  The alien race on the planet is generally friendly.  Honestly, it's not that much different than home." 

            "I need you back here now."

            "Don't be so melodramatic.  It could be some time before I can schedule a flight back to Earth."

            "I'm serious.  It's no joking matter.  The little one cries all day and that damn nannybot you bought me is utterly worthless."

            "Maybe you could use some therapy."

            "What?  Are you calling me crazy?"

            "Don't go there.  I'm just saying, maybe a therapist could help you get over your issues with the nannybot."

            "First off, mister, I don't have any issues with the damn robot."

            "You never liked the machine.  You thought of it as a threat to your motherhood."

            "You're sick, you know that.  You're seriously sick in the head if you honestly think that.  Maybe you're the one who should see a therapist?"

            "I'm just saying.  You know.  For your own good."

            "Screw you!  If you seriously think I'm crazy then maybe we don't have anything to talk about."

            "Listen to yourself, honey..."

            "What the hell do you mean?  I can hear myself just fine!"

            "Maybe I shouldn't have called?"

            "Maybe you shouldn't have!"

            "Please don't hang up, sweetheart."

            "Who said anything about hanging up?"

            "We've danced this little dance so many times before, and every time before you've hung the phone up."

            "Well, why shouldn't I?  I've got a lot on my plate right now and the last thing I need is you insinuating I'm crazy."

            "But I'm not.  That's not what I'm saying at all."

            "Sure sounds that way to me."

            "I just wish you would give the booze a break."

            "Dick-less wonder.  Now you're calling me a lush.  Maybe you want me to join AA while I'm at it?"

            "Couldn't hurt."

            "And between my psychiatrist and AA meetings how am I supposed to take care of the baby?  Tell me that, Mister Smart Pants."

            "Look, none of that really matters a whole lot right this very second.  We can discuss it later."

            "Self-righteous bastard.  You really think you can call me drunk and crazy and change the subject just like that?  You're sleeping on the couch when you get back from wherever it is you think you are -- Terrabella X, my ass!  It's taking all my self-control not to play the same stupid power game you are, and not call your sorry ass out.  Where the hell are you?"

            "Planet Terrabella X."

            "Bullshit.  Where are you really?"

            "On a distant planet in a far off solar-system."

            "You're in some bar, aren't you?"

            "Not exactly."

            "You hear that.  That's the baby crying.  What am I supposed to tell her?  Her shit-for-brains father survived the Chinese rocket launch and now he's out there somewhere drunk as a skunk?"

            "You haven't asked me anything about Terrabella X.  It's really quite an advanced civilization, dear.  Did you know on this planet infants are piloting the robot drones?  For Drone Wars Version XXIII they have determined that adolescents are far too sexualized to maintain their concentration on the key, most difficult missions.  They have also initiated a program of cloning babies to fly their droids.  In the future all their remote control drone pilots will be clone-babies.  How remarkable is that? 

What's more their intelligence men are all certifiable loonies.  The Terrebellan Xers believe that while the wars of the last millennium required an army of paranoiacs, the new security challenges we face in this century demand they employ schizophrenics on the front lines.  They believe paranoiacs are far better suited to a democratic form of government and have limited that particular population solely to civic service. 

And get this -- the Top-Cop up here is a flaming transvestite.  I kid you not.  The military on this planet not only accepts gays, transsexuals, hermaphrodites, and every other kind of sexual deviant, they actually promote them to the highest offices for the betterment of the entire planet."

            "Are you talking about Stalker Flogum?"

            "Sounds familiar."

            "You idiot!  Transvestite Top-Cop Stalker Flogum is right here on Earth!"

            "Maybe I got the name wrong?"

            "Maybe?  Maybe if you grew some balls you would stop playing games and come back home?"

            "I don't think you understand the full gravity of my situation."

            "Lay it on me, big daddy.  And please don't spare the details."

            "I'm in a bit of a bind."

            "Do tell."

            "Some Terrabella X officials got it in their head I'm a bit soft."

            "How so, darling?"

            "I was sort of rescued by this alien princess."

            "Rescued by an alien princess you say?"

            "I thought she was my welcoming committee."

            "I suppose you thought wrong."

            "Bit of a miscalculation on my part you could say."

            "And you're so good with numbers."

            "I'm trying to tell you something.  Your snide remarks don't help."

            "Just tell me what the hell happened."

            "Like I said, I met this fabulous alien princess.  She found me on the spaceship.  We went to the mall.  Don't ask me why.  For whatever reason she wanted to go to the mall, so I went with her.  I bought her a cheeseburger and french-fries.  What do I know about the local customs on this far-out alien planet?  I was just trying to make friends."

            "A real cultural diplomat you are."

            "Exactly.  I was an Earth representative on this wonderful exotic planet.  You would have done the same, or something similar anyway.  I mean the only other Earthlings they knew were the Chinese."

            "Big of you to represent the rest of us."

            "Exactly!  I'm so glad you understand.  I was a stranger on a new planet, I didn't know my way around, and here was this young princess to greet me and introduce me to the customs and ways of her people.  Of course, I followed her out of the ship.  If she had wanted macaroni and cheese, I would have gladly got her mac and cheese.  Let's face it, they didn't exactly send their entire diplomatic core.  So, the alien princess was all I had."

            "Now I'm positive you're the one who needs to see a shrink."

            "Don't make fun.  I couldn't be more serious."

            "Get on with it.  I can hardly wait to hear the whole story."

            "The Terrabella Xers have somehow got it into their stupid telepathic skulls my intentions with the child princess were, let us say, less than entirely pure.  I'm down here at the police station.  They are making the wildest accusations.  They claim I groped her.  I've been arrested on child-molestation charges -- can you believe it?  Me?  A child-molester?  No, don't answer that...

Of course, the whole business is libelous and scurrilous.  I never laid a single hand on the little Lolita temptress.  These aliens are so completely out of their oversized misshapen gourds.  Nothing they say makes sense.  Did I already tell you that nothing they say makes any sense at all? 

I'm a bit down on my luck, darling.  You must hurry.  I don't have much time.  The Chinese soldier with the big ray gun, or whatever he is waving in my face, he is telling me my time is up and I have to hang up the phone.  You must believe me, sweetheart.  I've been scheduled for a dawn execution and I think this planet has more than one sun. 

It's all a terrible, terrible mistake.  I've been set up.  Please send money!"

 

--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010



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February 09, 2010

Smack-Down on the Holy Mount

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            "Have you ever checked out Pirate Radio 1?" the young student asked. 

            "Not really," he said.  "I mostly like to watch Michael Michaels' pornographic reenactments of the news."

            "On the state of our national economy Pirate Radio 1 quipped: 'The gravy-train ran out of gravy'.  She's pretty funny that way."

            He was on assignment at Fort College.  Government types were concerned about a recent slew of students radicalized at the university.  Throughout the entire lecture on earnestness and the transparency of written language the young girl next to him tried to strike up a conversation. 

"Even in the epic video game," the pompous professor droned on, "where everything is reconceived as total caricature, and made out like a cartoon, there is no place for the author, or authors to hide." 

            "Blackheart was on the 'Hot-Seat' the other night," she whispered.  "You know, the Rebel leader.  I thought he would be so scary, you know the way he is portrayed in the major monolithic media as a baby eater and all, but he was actually quite the card.  Pirate Radio 1 asked him how he was doing and his answer was rather flippant.  'It's pretty lonely at the top,' he said.  She didn't let him get away with that answer, not for a second.  'How would you know?' she pounced.  'Well,' he shot back: 'All I know for sure is it's pretty darn crowded down here!'  Funny stuff, right?"

            "Are you following me?" he said an hour later in Art Appreciation.  She was apparently also enrolled in the class. 

She squealed with laughter when she saw what he was painting. 

"What's so funny?" he sheepishly asked, embarrassed. 

"You are," she said.

"Haven't you ever seen an upside down smile before?" he tried to explain.  "Like a clown when he paints his smile upside down," the undercover student flailed, "So he's smiling even when he makes a frown."

Overhead the lights flickered, then the painting studio went completely dark.  The electric grid was down.  At first, he was happy.  He didn't have to explain any more about his stupid painting.  But then the reality of the situation began to set in.  None of his appliances would work.  He checked the power supply on his hand-held device.  Of course he had forgotten to recharge it the night before.  The battery was almost dead.  Not that it mattered.  He had zero reception. 

"Class dismissed!" the art teacher announced.  There wasn't much else the old man could do.  His planned multi-media presentation was shot to hell. 

Dusk came unusually early that day.  Not a light shone up and down the campus drive.  Nor could he see any lights in the neighboring town.  The sky was a cloudless, starless uniform dark gray. 

Sitting alone in his dark apartment among all his dead appliances was a depressing thought.  He decided it was not a viable option.  He would follow the young girl instead.  After all it was his job to infiltrate the student body. 

They walked and talked.  The undercover student looked so skinny and emaciated the girl had him pegged for a starving creative type.  Not once during their entire conversation did it ever occur to her he was a government spy. 

Truth to tell he wasn't so sure himself.  His mind raced through the various scenarios.  If the grid was down, and it clearly was, didn't it follow that the game was also down?  If the Internet was down, what about Drone Wars?  Wasn't Drone Wars by extension logically down too?  No Internet, no game, no need to spy.

Momentarily he was unsure of himself.  What, he wondered, was his mission if the game was over?  After all, these students seemed innocent enough.  They talked a good game, he gave them that, but he honestly couldn't see anything about them that could threaten the authority he was assigned to safeguard. 

For a moment, he forgot himself in the general mirth of the situation.  Everything he took as normal depended entirely on the grid.  Without the grid none of it existed.  All this time he had thought of the grid like he thought of the sun and the moon and the weather -- like the grid was a part of nature, like the grid was like the air we breathed or the sea we swam in. 

But, he realized, the grid wasn't anything like that at all.  Nothing said the grid had to stay on line.  The grid was artificial, fake.  And if it could go down after only a few inches of rain how could one live by it?  He had never known a world without the grid.  In fact, he had never suspected such a world existed.  And, yet, here he was on a dark unlit street.  His world, the world he knew, the world of electric appliances and electronic gadgets could disappear just like that. 

Yet another world, this other world he was in right now, that world went on happily without any knowledge of the grid.  Without Drone Wars the tides still presumably rose and fell like they always did.  Autumn leaves turned orange and fell off tree branches just as they had always done, and today, like every other day since before recorded time, the cycle of life continued unabated.

It was as if he heard the melody of birds chirping, and the buzzing bees for the first time.  Scales fell from his eyes.  There was a living, breathing universe all around him that had nothing to do with the video game.

"You still don't get it, do you?" the young student's voice seemed to echo strangely in the quiet of the electric blackout, as if the two of them were not actually walking outside at all, but stood in a large enclosed space.  Even the sound of their footfall, he noticed with a growing sense of irritation, seemed out of place, like they were walking on plywood instead of concrete.  "I come here sometimes," she looked rather frightened by what she herself saw, "to get away, you know, from all the mumbo-jumbo they teach us in school.  For me it's a kind of reality check." 

His attention was drawn to the shops and buildings around them.  All of which, he now saw clearly, were no more than flimsy stage sets. 

"Is it all like this?" he was caught up short. 

"Yup," she said.  "There's even a place where they store the sets further on down a ways, and what looks like a prop-house."

The young intelligence man spun around to take it all in.  "You mean the entire campus is like a giant sound-stage!" 

"And the quaint college town, too," she added dryly.  "I don't know about Freemont, the next town over, but I'm guessing it's another sound-stage, maybe a little bigger than this one, but probably not much.  When the lights are on you wouldn't even notice a thing.  It all looks and feels perfectly real."

"How many other students know?" he was genuinely alarmed. 

"Some," she hesitated, bent down and gently cupped a colorful little bird in her hands that had just fallen out of a tree, and handed it to him. 

The bird was a robot, the tree a fake.  Even the young student's words seemed increasingly stuttered, like her battery was running low. 

So this was the big secret.  This was the reason they had assigned him the undercover job at Fort College.  He wondered if any of the students were real.  Or were they all robots like her?  The whole thing was a set-up, an elaborate charade.  How many other intelligence men had they sent to Fort College to discover the "truth"?  He realized he was on a campus for higher learning, that was for certain, but it definitely wasn't the kind of campus he had assumed it was.  And the reason he was here?  That wasn't what they told him it was either.  Such an elaborate ruse, he wondered.  What possible gain could they hope to achieve by sending him into this rat's maze?

Without any warning the bird came back to life and flew away.  The lights were back on.  Drone Wars Version XXII was once again up and running.  His hand-held electronic device chimed, and he was happy to see Michael Michaels' face on the small screen promoting that evening's pornographic reenactment of the news. 

"Tonight," the anchorman bellowed in his usual stentorian tone, "the lion will lay down with the lamb, and only one of them will leave the ring alive: Smack-down on the Holy Mount!" 

The young student broke free from the undercover intelligence man's embrace.  Her long dark hair trailed in the warm breeze as he chased her across the green grass of the campus commons.  The air was crisp and fresh, the sky perfectly blue, like it only is after the good soaking of a rainstorm.  She giggled with girlish glee as he gathered her back into his arms and kissed her for the first time. 

 

--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010



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February 03, 2010

The Magic Door

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"Wooden, stiff," his face was blurred and his voice was electronically altered to protect his anonymity.  "That's how the critic described the characters in Drone Wars Version XXI.  I mean do I look wooden and stiff?  I ask you: do I look like I'm all surface?"

A man behind the camera introduced him as an underemployed engineer.

"My first thought was: the idiotic critic is out to lunch.  I mean he clearly doesn't get it.  Whether we like it or not we are all in on the game.  Then I started thinking... about a lot of things.  Like, did you ever wonder about the stock market -- why it goes up and why it goes down?  The latest theory out of Fort College is that it goes up every time it rains in Dearborn, or something, but I mean come on, you honestly can't expect me to take such a study seriously, it's nothing but bald conjecture.  No one in this world can honestly explain the fluctuations of the market.  A sane person, such as myself, might start to wonder if a bunch of retarded monkeys are really running the show.  The question is quite clear: where are all these crazy chimps hiding out?  And if they don't exist in our version of reality, then what version of reality do they exist in?" 

He poured some water into his glass.

"As a scientifically minded person I began to wonder if, for example, market prognostications didn't emanate from another reality altogether -- one in which they actually made sense," he sipped from his glass.  "Maybe there was a world outside of Drone Wars in which all the people were not wooden and stiff and there was some kind of rhyme and reason for this otherwise apocalyptic nightmare?  My curiosity nagged at me.  I began to doubt the things I was told about our fate in this world.  I looked for a door through which I could pass to the other side.

"For years I tried every door handle I could find, swung every door I came upon wide open with the hope of gaining entrance into the other world, the one that made sense, because the one I'm in obviously doesn't make any sense at all."

He adjusted himself in his chair.

"Well I found it," he said.  "But I can't tell you where it is.  That was the one and only condition of my return."

"You walked out to the middle of a field," the interviewer said.  "But you can't tell us where that field is.  There was an abandoned farmhouse.  But you can't tell us where it was either.  You walked through many doors before this one, explored many abandoned lots, and mineshafts, and any other place you could think of where there might be a portal to another world.  Hardly a side-alley or wooded area escaped your curiosity.  What was it about this particular ruin that caught your attention?"

"Nothing special," the underemployed engineer said.

"So, you weren't expecting to find anything out of the ordinary."

"No, not really.  By that time I seriously started to doubt my own premise."

"So you walk into this dilapidated house in the middle of a field that you can't tell us where it is.  Then what?"

"Nothing at first.  I nosed around a while like I usually did.  Looked through cupboards and such.  Turned some furniture over.  It was pretty clear no one had lived there for a while.  Nature was reclaiming the place.  Rodents had nested in most every nook-and-cranny.  Rot had set in.  It seemed like another dead end, but for some reason I pulled the carpet back.  I knew from some murder investigations I'd followed closely some of these places had hidden cellars.  And, sure enough, there was the trapdoor.  I felt around for the latch and pulled it up.  You got to understand this was about ten years after I started out looking for 'the magic door'.  I was pretty hardened by that time.  Not nearly the excitable kid I once was."

"So you pulled back the hinged floor-panel and descended the creaky steps.  What did you expect to find?"

"Maybe some old pickle jars and musty old boxes.  For all I knew," he laughed, " I could have found a torture chamber down there."

"Then what?  Take us through it."

"Nothing much.  I pointed my flashlight around.  No chained skeletons.  No bizarre collection of surgical instruments.  Just some cobwebs and an abandoned possum nest.  I ran the beam of light across the floor in case the color of the concrete didn't match.  Wouldn't have been the first time a body was buried in a basement.  But everything checked out."

"You were headed back up the stairs."

"Yeh."

"Then what happened?"

"Nothing much really.

"Let's put a marker here," the intelligence man instructed the video operator.  "The subject seemed to squirm or twitch at the question.  It's unclear if he saw something insane in the face of his interviewer or the interviewer was caught off-guard by something dark and haunting in the subject's demeanor."

"You said earlier in the pre-interview you heard the squeal of a field mouse?" the interviewer prodded.

"That's almost right," he answered.  "I was about halfway up the stairs when a sharp squeak sounded in the dark.  Might have been a field mouse.  At least that's what I thought it was at the time.  I went back down to take a second look not expecting to find much other than a couple of mouse pellets.  Wasn't like I had anything better to do, so I went back down."

"Well, you didn't find any pellets did you?"

"No.  But there was something weird about the wall.  I can't quite put my finger on it.  What was strange was how palatable the feeling was.  Yet, I'm unable to put words to it.  Like something about it didn't quite fit.  Like it was somehow too real or something."

"So what did you do?"

"This is the part where it gets truly bizarre," the underemployed engineer said.  "I put my hand up to the wall to feel it, but I only caught air.  My hand and half my forearm were swallowed up by the brick facade."

"What did you do next?"

"I pulled my arm back as fast as possible.  That's what I did.  The whole scene was so creepy.  But you have to remember I was looking for something like this.  So I pushed my arm through the virtual wall and retracted it a couple of more times just to make sure I wasn't hallucinating.  Believe me I sat there for some time trying to make head-or-tail out of it.  My first impulse was definitely not to jump through the wall right away.  Must have smoked half-a-pack of cigarettes down in that basement.  Finally, I don't know, I must have been out of smokes or something."

"You walked through the wall."

"Man, I wish I hadn't.  It was horrible.  You think we have it bad on our side?  I never saw anything close to it before.  First off, the spectrum of color was wild, unnaturally bright.  Compared to the Federal Government's muted and grayed range, the color spectrum out there was nearly blinding.  I stepped into a field of blooming flowers.  Birds sang.  I never heard so many birds sing in my life.  The sweet fecund smell of nature was fairly overpowering -- nothing but rolling hills of grass, multi-colored flowers and great big shaggy trees all around.  The place was pregnant with life.

"I managed to make my way across the glade towards a little town.  Houses with white picket fences lined both sides of the street.  But what I saw next was even more frightening.  In full view before me was a drive-in restaurant -- complete with waitresses on roller-skates and suped-up muscle cars that revved their engines in the parking lot.  I had apparently walked right into a dissident Rebel encampment.  Teenagers drank sodas and milkshakes, ate hamburgers and freedom fries, and generally enjoyed themselves with an unselfconscious abandon I could in no way mentally process.  The vulgar dancing was what really got to me.  Nothing before in my life had prepared me for that kind of behavior.  The world I walked into was so incongruous with anything I knew, I honestly turned to find my way back to the Federal Government side of the wall as quickly as I could.  I'm embarrassed to say I was discovered desperately digging in the tall grass behind the drive-in cinema where I thought the door back home was by the most dazzling insurgent.  I have never seen a woman with eyelashes that long in my whole entire life." 

"You're out of your mind at about this time?"

"Totally desperate."

"How did you get back?"

"Believe me, I'm not proud. I begged, I pleaded, I cried at the sandaled-foot of that golden-haired Rebel goddess to let me return to my own side.  I kissed the ground she walked on, I admit it -- I grabbed her thin ankle and kissed her shapely foot like there was no tomorrow.  It wasn't pretty, I prostrated myself before a power that was greater than me, but I guess it worked."

"Put another marker here," the intelligence man sternly told the video operator.  "This is the schizophrenic who claims to have information about an immanent and coordinated drone attack by the Rebels on the House of Representatives?" he asked in disbelief.

"He's the one," the operator responded.

"I want this man put through some more tests," the intelligence man indicated.  "We need to know what he is really capable of.  We need to separate fact from fiction.  I need to know.  The government needs to know.  How are these schizophrenics able to react to national security threats so much faster than our own supposed 'experts'.  Pack the interview up nice and tight," he ordered the video operator.

" -- And thanks, again," the cold intelligence man forced a complement against his reserved nature, "I mean for the heads up on this character.  We definitely appreciate the inter-office level of cooperation -- believe me we do.  And we're not the only ones.  The higher-ups do too.

"There are still some very curious aspects of the interview I can't quite square with the facts," he said by way of a rational.  "No one can know that much ahead of time, can they?  Our office is going to have to study the taped footage of the psychotic much more closely in order to puzzle out this mess."

 

 

 

--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010

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