A red light glowed inside a hole. The opening, it became clearer to Buddy Alexander as he inched forward, was in the side of a head whose profile he could not make out. What was all aglow, it turned out, was an almost blindingly radiant human brain, almost like someone had set off a roadside emergency flare inside a hollowed out pumpkin, except there was no smoke and the light was steady and never varied from its intensity the whole time he watched it.
He realized he was not alone in the dark room. Someone else had come in behind him -- a strange figure that walked past him, right up to the head planted on the operating table, and peered inside the radiant opening. The other person's broad back was turned to him, but it struck the young man how oddly shaped the figure's silhouette was, distorted in a way he could not exactly articulate, like the proportions were all wrong for a body of that size. To the onlooker, whose shoulder was pressed to the wall, the way the other person in the room held his hands over the opening, it almost seemed as if the dark figure momentarily warmed them over the red-hot light ablaze in the hole.
For the first week at Fortean College, Buddy Alexander was confined to the infirmary. No matter where he went he had to wheel around his intravenous drip, which made it a little difficult for him to maneuver without giving himself away. In the dark room alone with the mysterious figure, he was afraid to move, afraid to breath even, but he also felt an incredible desire to learn the identity of the man whose back was turned to him, and to discover whose head it was with the burning brain inside it.
At one point it seemed to the young man like the dark figure's arms were elbow-deep in the circular opening in the head, like there was a halogen bulb inside the patient's skull, and the other man was some kind of diabolical mechanic or plumber who strained every muscle to get to a difficult spot at the far back. Every once in a while he would swear and pull his arms out to exchange one cumbersome looking tool for another. They were piled willy-nilly on a stainless steel gurney within easy reach. The dark figure would put one down, which invariably hit the table with a heavy metallic clunk, pick another one up, and plunge his arms in with renewed vigor, his latest implement firmly gripped in yellow rubber gloves that went up past his forearms.
Every night during his first week at Fortean College the young man woke up with a start. In his dream he was usually doubled, but sometimes there were three and even four of him all mixed up in a mosaic pattern, as if he saw himself through the many-sided crystal of a kaleidoscope. All these four images, seemingly identical, repeatedly exchanged places with one another until it made him dizzy to try and follow them around. One, a picture of himself he recognized easily enough, was of a young man who melted away hours of convalescence at the college infirmary on a video game box. It was his present self. Another, slightly less clear, but still very strongly felt image was of a recently discovered part of himself that was completely insane, a psychopathic killer with nothing but rage and murder in his mind. It was his past self. Of the third and fourth images, one that he could still barely make out was of a very popular athlete in high school who had a beautiful girlfriend and everything else going for him. That self was almost completely gone. Try as he may to make out the last, however, it was an impenetrable mystery. If he strained to picture it he drew a complete blank. All he felt was a cold sensation, like he walked into a room he thought was twice as large, and discovered that the feeling of deep space was only a cheap illusion created by a mirrored wall. That self no longer existed at all.
Every night during his first week at Fortean College he awoke with a strange feeling, as if he was dragged against his wishes into a circus big tent to see a clown show even as he begged not to go in. Despite his repeated protest of how much they scared him, he was forced to enter the tent. One clown in particular frightened him the most -- a round, misshapen figure whose head was way too big and heavy for his little body. Every night the young man would get dragged to the circus tent to sit alone in the dark and watch the freakish clown in surgeon's scrubs take the center ring and dramatically unveil this giant head. In the act the clown took some parts out, and put other parts in. The kid watched as the clown unscrewed the top of the head, remove the radiant red brain and cut at it with the dull, toothy blade of a large handsaw until it lay scattered about on the table in pieces.
Once awake it was hard for him to fall back asleep. He swung his heavy legs over the side of the metal frame bed, slipped his feet into his disposable slippers, put his robe on over his hospital pajamas, loudly yawned, and stretched his arms over his head. With one hand he opened the door and with the other he shoved the squeaky metal chassis of the intravenous drip out into the hall. No one was on duty but the night watchman and he wasn't scheduled to do his rounds for another hour. The young man pushed the intravenous drip in front of him. The room he went to every night was down the hall and to the right. If he got there early enough, he thought, he might have time to finally creep up close enough to the head with the hole in it to better study its features. Up 'til then the dark misshapen figure had always interrupted him just before he could get near enough, but tonight, he felt confident, was the night he would finally get up close, if only because he had awakened so much earlier than usual.
Every night the dream was unchanged. The kid would watch in horror as the crazy clown under the spotlight in the center ring of the big tent stuck his arms inside a large hole in the side of a giant head and pulled out a glowing brain as though it wasn't a brain at all he was holding in his hands, but a gob of slippery, gelatinous, day-glow, red colored goop he could not quite get a good handle on.
Every night the dream was unchanged, the young man thought, except for the night before. Last night he walked in on the surgeon already hard at work in the dark laboratory. Last night, to his great consternation, the dark misshapen figure heard a squeak from the rickety chassis of his intravenous drip and angrily wheeled around to confront the kid before he could duck into a corner. Last night was the inglorious night that he finally saw that the face of the clown in the blood spattered rubber apron was none other than Dr. Fenster's.
The young man scrambled to get out of the government scientist's way, and, in so doing, inadvertently tripped into the stainless steel gurney piled high with surgical equipment. Last night was the night he flipped the operating table over as he tried to break his fall. Nothing happened the way it had on any of the other nights. He lay helpless and death scared on the cold tile floor while the clown reeled with anger. It was the night he finally saw the face of the head with the hole in it. Last night was the night he saw that the face of the head with the hole in it was his own, and at the end of the circus clown show under the big top, when he exited the tent to return to his room as he had done every night before, he was sure something very significant had changed. For several days after, no one could change Buddy Alexander's mind. He believed Dr. Fenster had replaced his brain with an evil clown brain.
--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010
No one at the asylum for the criminally insane was warned ahead of time of the eminent doctor's arrival at the front gate. The unannounced visit of the federal government scientist and his large entourage was, to the institution's staff, like a surprise inspection of the mental health facility. They scrambled to line up in the hallway and greet their unexpected high-ranking guests.
Most mental hospital employees were completely unnerved when the buoyant scientist flashed them his boyish smile. To say the least, the visit was extremely unusual. As a point of fact, according to one of the most senior personnel, a guard who had worked at the insane asylum since its inception, it was the first time the man had ever showed his face. No one remembered Merlin Fenster, M.D. (a.k.a. Dr. Fester) having ever set foot on the facility grounds prior to the present visit because it simply had not happened. There was, in fact, considerable doubt the scientist had actually ever ventured out in public before. The researcher, who had the air of an overgrown child, was rumored to do all his work inside a covert, windowless bunker on a military base in the middle of a dessert, or inside a hollow mountain, or in a shadowy top-secret facility altogether outside the country somewhere where human rights laws didn't apply. Whichever answer you got largely depended on whom you asked. No one was exactly sure which was true.
One day Merlin Fenster's happy face would undoubtedly grace the glossy front cover of Time Magazine like he was some kind of beloved, benevolent United States hero, but in reality he was the guy most folks hereabouts immediately suspected every time there was an outbreak somewhere around the world of some horrible virus or other malady or disease formerly unknown to science. If someone was going to figure out how to turn human beings into bloodthirsty, brain eating ghouls, you could be sure Dr. Fenster's name came to everyone's mind first. If a fine line existed between a "miracle" and an "abomination" of modern medical science, the joke was that he was always the first across it.
"The doctor is also alleged to share an interest in Fortean College," one mental institute staffer quietly whispered to another. "He allegedly shares it with the U.S. government and the Interan Corp., but the sad truth of the matter is that it's all pure conspiracy theory and speculation. What, if anything, they do at the university science Tetragon, over there, or whether the doctor is actually involved in any significant way is entirely unverifiable -- strictly hush-hush," he reluctantly admitted. The two attendants were far enough in the rear so that they were safely out of earshot. Nobody ahead of them could hear a word they said.
Besides the fact no one among the staff knew where it was or what the hell the good doctor did in his secret laboratory, they couldn't even understand a single word the scientist spoke. As he randomly poked his head into closets, knocked around the rec room and cafeteria, peeked into cells, and generally rummaged around the treatment facility with no goal in mind that anyone could fathom, all the while prattling on about all the things he noticed, large and small, he might as well have addressed the dayshift in Swahili. At one point, as he examined some antique electro-shock therapy equipment on display in the library, the doctor blurted out: "You mean to tell me the inmates here are not entirely bereft of their nervous faculties?" Most senior psychiatrists on duty were dumbstruck by the question. "You mean to tell me," he went on, "they retain some semblance of their core consciousness and personality?" It was almost as if Dr. Fenster spoke of some controversial method or other he strongly disagreed with when there was, in fact, no other known technique to compare it with.
"They are heavily sedated," the chief physician bravely put forward. "But," the proud doctor acquiesced with a little difficulty, "this isn't the lawless 19th-century. There are serious limits to what we can do with the clinical tools at our disposal here at the asylum." He addressed the back of Dr. Fenster's bobbing, bald head the entire time he spoke to the man, and the only way to describe the look on his face after the government scientist's curt dismissal of his reasonable (not to mention tempered) response, was to liken the expression on his face to that of a person who has just discovered the hard way that he is not bullet proof.
Out in the exercise yard the government scientist cursed like a sailor. "Disgusting, vile shit," was the way he described the row of inmates as he walked past them. Slurs flew from his mouth as he addressed the assembled crowd of the criminally insane who stood in the mottled shadow of an old Maple. Some of the smears, Buddy Alexander thought, were very creative indeed. He had heard a lot of mean, spiteful, outrageous things uttered against people -- humiliating words, words that could obliterate a fragile ego -- but he was fairly certain he had never before heard some of these foul curses that the doctor hurled at them.
The kid felt the cold gray eyes of the corpulent scientist pause suspiciously on him as if the man instinctively new his thoughts were not fully invested in the present interview, and that the young man was otherwise preoccupied with fantastic visions of mass graves, pits filled with human remains that dotted the forest lawn, tireless federal government death squads that kept everything working smoothly 24/7, and lips, lots of half parted lips, all painted in the reddest lipstick.
"No mama's boy crybabies wanted!" the childlike scientist paused in front of the young lunatic and flicked his thumb in the direction of the gate that led back to the cellblock.
Buddy Alexander locked his jaw to show his resolve, but for what purpose he had no idea. Consequently, his effort was rather transparent. For some reason he couldn't help but think of the scientist as some kind of child's toy version of a person, like the man was an inflatable balloon baby that was so full of hot air it was about to pop and explode it's internal plastic contents all over the place. Eventually he knew he would inadvertently betray himself with a laugh or some other inappropriate guttural outburst, so he squinted an eye and bit the inside of his cheek to further try and stave off the inevitable display of emotion before it erupted and caused him all kinds of disciplinary problems with asylum authorities that, if he could help it, he would much rather avoid.
To a man, the scientist was told, the patients suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and none among them was sentenced for a lesser crime than murder. Most of the men, it was explained for the doctor, had brutally killed more than one person. In each case, they had raped and/or mutilated their victims beforehand. Some had killed family members. Others had murdered loved ones. There were even a couple of especially unsavory characters that had gone on extended indiscriminate killing sprees after they had slaughtered kith and kin.
"How about this clown?" Dr. Fenster cut in.
"Buddy Alexander. Let me check, sir. Buddy Alexander was committed to the asylum for the rape and murder of his high-school girlfriend," the mental institution staffer matter-of-factly replied. "Afterwards he cut her up and dumped her body under a bridge," the mental health professional added casually.
"Well, son," Dr. Fenster turned his full piercing attention on the frazzled young inmate with the dark crescents under his eyes who, throughout the entire time he was addressed, continued to squint his one eye shut and bite the inside of his cheek to try and keep a straight face. "It's your lucky day, son," the scientist eventually muttered, and added in a louder voice: "How would you like a full-scholarship, courtesy of the United States government, to attend Fortean College?"
-- Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010
Down the end of the block a deranged looking young man with a buzz cut harassed oncoming traffic. The lunatic, who yelled profanities at the top of his lungs every time a car passed by, had on mirrored aviator glasses, a ratty black T-shirt, and military style shorts.
When the driver in the truck passed him by, the maniac in the aviator sunglasses unexpectedly stopped swearing at the other vehicles, stiffened, brought his right hand up to the side of his head, pressed the tips of his ridged fingers to the point where his right eyebrow and temple met, and pulled it down again quickly with a practiced, sharp angular motion. The driver of the truck thought the gesture a bit odd, but he didn't let it stop him from casually saluting back. All these post-traumatic stress disorder types left to wander aimlessly on the streets, Buddy Alexander lamented. What a shabby world.
The day began inauspiciously enough. The simple wooden barn he and the beautiful girl who escaped the Federal Territory with him fell asleep in, it turned out, upon his rising in the morning was somehow transformed into a cinderblock building with exposed electrical conduits, and the whole foundation was apparently on extremely unstable ground. Cracks and fissures ran up and down the walls and ceiling. The concrete floor showed similar signs of buckling and tilting. It was as if an evil spell was cast by a powerful woodland demon that brought the large dormant root system of an old tree to life. The subterranean limbs that curled and expanded under the building's infrastructure were reanimated by the demon's incantation, and it was simply a matter of time before the walls would give way and the ceiling would come crashing down on his head.
But, when he put his boots on and went outside to see what was going on, what was causing all the damage, his idea that the roots of an old tree were to blame was completely obliterated by what he saw. There was not a single tree on the horizon. He slowly turned around and gasped in astonishment. The unspoiled verdant landscape that had stretched for miles around in every direction the day before was completely gone, replaced entirely by an array of five-story tall relay towers. Where once there was a beautiful view of unspoiled primeval woodlands, there was now a man-made forest of rusty metal scaffolding and all sorts of antennas of various shapes and sizes.
Not to mention that the beautiful young woman he had escaped the Federal Territory with was missing. Much to his chagrin, though he called her name and looked for her behind the utility shed which now stood where a chicken coop had been located only a few hours earlier, she was nowhere around. Neither was the dog that had protected the hens from the foxes. Instead the woman he found when he walked back into the cinderblock structure was an ugly girl he, to the best of his recollection, had only dated once, way back when, during his brief stay at the Interan Campus.
The woman sat with her back against a column, nursed a cup of water, and glared menacingly at him, like it was his fault she was there. Back in the day, he remembered, he had laughed his date with her off like it was a romantic love affair, but with the nastiest hooker on the corporate campus. The young woman, it started to slowly come back to him, was totally insane. Not only was he surprised to find her there in the cinderblock structure, after so much time had passed since he last saw her, he was actually surprised he remembered what she looked like. To his mind, it all happened so very long ago, back in another distant era, in another lifetime.
She was, hard as it was to believe, even less happy about the situation than he was, and she did not hesitate to make it perfectly clear how much she had always despised him for taking advantage of her at such a naive and emotionally vulnerable period in her life. Her face partly obscured by a shadow, she accused him of having stolen her youth. She accused him of all manner of crimes against women. He was called a lot of different names, and she made it abundantly clear to him her greatest wish was that she was just about anywhere else in the entire universe than stuck under the tin roof of this glorified shed with him. The young woman was pretty sure Buddy Alexander must have doped her drink back at the restaurant bar, and then went on to further accuse him of even far worse underhanded and cowardly misdeeds.
How they had hooked back up wasn't exactly clear to him either. Nothing that was going on, for that matter, made much sense to him. It wasn't like he had all the answers. He wasn't even sure where he was. For his part, the young man figured he must have gotten into an argument with the beautiful young woman with whom he had escaped from the Federal Territories, driven into the small town near the barn where they had holed up, and got plastered at a local restaurant bar. As near as he could figure, he must have got so drunk, in fact, he started to fool around with this crazy woman from his past, and somehow or other the two of them ended up in the sack together back at her place.
The problem was, no matter what explanation he came up with, he didn't feel the least bit assured, like every scenario he tested against the facts, no matter how plausible, was at best only a desperate stab in the dark. Too many questions gnawed at him. Too many dislocated remembrances plagued his mind. It was as if all the pieces of a puzzle were laid before him, but without some kind of key to how they should all get arranged, how they were supposed to fit together, the truth of the matter was fated to forever remain as partly hidden from the light of day as the shadowed face of the angry female quasi-stranger in the cinderblock structure who contemptuously glared at him.
Among the litany of unanswered questions they both had, there was only one fact on which the two of them readily agreed. Whatever had transpired between them, and for however long, or however briefly it had gone on, there was one very notable change that was obvious to them.
"These cell phone and satellite towers outside the kitchen window that look like they run into infinity in every direction..." he began.
"They definitely were not there when we came here yesterday," she finished his thought.
At the next corner another deranged lunatic, this time out front of a boarded up building, stood attention as the driver of the truck slowed for a stop sign. As nearly as the man in the truck could make out, much like the lunatic before had, the disheveled street person motioned as if to salute him.
So let me get this straight, he thought to himself as he nodded to the poor man on the sidewalk. I am a nameless, purposeless man who lives in a cinderblock box in a forest of antennas with a crazy bitch I feel relatively sure I have not seen for years. Yesterday I was on the lamb, chased through small towns and woods by a posse of Federal Intelligence agents and their local guides whose orders were to haul my ass in dead or alive. Whereas today I'm driving a truck, and even though I am not sure exactly who the heck I am, or even where, for that matter, it is that I am, deranged street people act as if they know me.
The more he thought about it the more it occurred to him there was only one plausible explanation. However outlandish it sounded, this, apparently, was what the world he lived in really looked like. The glorified shed with the corrugated roof was his real house. The unattractive woman was not a one-night-stand arbitrarily plucked out of his memory. Alas, the growing evidence was compelling. It was probably not with a beautiful young woman he had escaped the Federal Territories, but with this other woman that he had been on the run with the whole time. The hangover, he realized, was probably not from drinking too much at the small town restaurant bar the night before. His headache, it dawned on him, was probably some kind of withdrawal from the video game, probably due to some kind of alteration or malfunction of the game, because that was the only thing he could think of that accounted for all the unexpected changes all around him. Either the game's interface was changed to this new squalid end-times aesthetic theme, or the game had crashed, and his growing suspicion was that it was probably the latter: Drone Wars was probably down.
-- GAME OVER --
-- Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010
Think back, buddy boy, he asked himself. Think back, way back to the other night. Buddy Alexander was scared and desperate. The court appointed psychiatrist wrote something down on a legal pad and looked knowingly at the young man in the high school letter jacket. The kid tried to recall. What, he implored himself, is the last thing you remember from the other night? What happened? He blindly searched his murky mind for some trace, some record or clue, lost or misplaced among his synapses, that once found, would pull the whole episode back out of the clammy, black nothingness of oblivion into which it had disappeared.
Buddy Alexander remembered how he uncapped the bottle of Maker's Mark he brought. They were going to celebrate he told his girlfriend. It was, he recalled, the same day he heard back about his athletic scholarship.
Between nips of bourbon he recalled how he and his girlfriend undressed each other in the den of her parents' house. Her folks were out for the evening, he remembered, and the two of them had the place all to themselves. He remembered how smooth and beautiful her skin was in the flicker of yellow candlelight. "An idea overwhelmed me," the young man told the court appointed psychiatrist. There was something he always wanted to, but never had done before.
With a swift motion he remembered how he grabbed the waistband of his girlfriend's underwear and tore them off her.
Her first reaction, he remembered, was confused, a little angry even. They were her nicest lace underwear. He dimly recalled her telling him she had saved them especially for such an occasion. But, her anger it seemed to him hadn't lasted more than a split second. None of her other boyfriends, she slurred her words slightly drunk on the bourbon, had ever ripped her underwear off before. In fact, she was sure it was a romantic first for her. He remembered her hot breath when she whispered it to him. It was like one of those choice scenes highlighted in a pubescent girl's first romance novel, she told him. When she was slightly younger, she said, it was the kind of passage she had dreamed would some day come true.
When he tore her bra off he remembered a darker look flash across her face. At the time he thought he had witnessed a mysterious shadowy and shapeless entity briefly emerge from the deep uncharted currents that coursed under her skin. Gone just as quickly as it had appeared, the apparition had retreated right back into the impenetrable and gloomy waters of her unconscious. He told the court appointed psychiatrist it was too late, though, he had already seen the dark amorphous shape race to the surface and snap at him.
Of course, now that he thought back on it he realized what he had seen in those eyes was probably more like primal fear and confusion than some kind of monster that lived inside her body. The way she looked at him it was probably more like maybe she thought he had gone too far, like maybe she wasn't so sure if it was really funny anymore, and she wanted him to stop. When he roughly turned her over on her stomach and pinned her head against the couch seat cushion with his knee he remembered how she tried to shake herself loose and yelled for him to let go. "You're hurting me," she screamed. He remembered how red faced she was when she shrieked at him. He remembered how she spit the words out at him like a trapped animal.
After that, he told the court appointed shrink, he didn't remember anything more, like someone or something had totally erased it from his memory. "Except," he added, "for the strangest feeling that maybe I wasn't myself anymore, like maybe I was someone else, like maybe someone else was at the helm."
What choice did the court appointed shrink have? "A classic case of paranoid schizophrenic dementia," he typed on the prescribed form and stapled it to the back of the report. To match the malice of the crime his recommendation was severe. The final line of the document simply read: Buddy Alexander is a threat to himself and to others; it is my expert opinion he should get locked up in the Federal asylum for the criminally insane for the rest of his natural life. "The kid must have just cracked," was how he put it at the hearing. "No rhyme or reason to it. It can happen to any one of us at any given time, I suppose, like lightning striking. What a talented kid. A heck of a shame is all I can say. But there's nothing we can do about it. 'Might as well throw away the key."
A decade or so prior, the land the federal asylum was erected on was the property of the local forestry school. The government chose the heavily wooded area at the edge of town to build it on. The idea was to keep it out of the prying public eye and avoid any undo attention. To one side of the mental institution there was a reservoir, to the other an abandoned quarry where some degenerate teenagers sometimes hung out and partied. Buddy Alexander's barred cell window looked out over the wooded preserve that was book-ended by the lake and grotto, and it didn't take long at all before the raving lunatic began to make some pretty wild and outlandish claims about what unnatural acts took place in the thickets of those old firs when no one but he could see.
In the witching hour, he told the on-duty dayshift attendant, gruesome and horrific things were going on right under the noses of the hospital staff. After only a few days at the asylum dark rings already circled his eyes. It was clear to the male nurse the young man's sleep was erratic, so the healthcare professional wasn't all too surprised when Buddy Alexander informed him about the mass graves that were out there just beyond the tree line. "Go see for yourself," the new inmate was unimpressed by his attendant's small-minded, unenlightened skepticism.
According to the kid, death squads in black uniforms used the forest to murder and bury enemies of the state. They drove them in under the cover of dark in tarp covered camouflaged trucks, lined them up in front of ditches they had dug earlier in the day with bulldozers and other heavy equipment, and mowed them down with machine gun fire. Thirty, maybe sixty people were killed on a daily basis, and crudely buried under damp dirt and pine needles in those gaping pits. "Can't you smell the stink of death around here?" he asked the male attendant in disbelief after the mental health professional re-checked the chart and upped his morning dosages to nearly double.
Once he had made up his mind about something, it didn't matter how heavily medicated he was, he told the attendant. "Buddy Alexander is not the kind of guy who is easily dissuaded," he notably referred to himself in the third person. He further claimed to have seen old and young men alike murdered by the death squads. Women and children, too, he told the attendant. His voice was hushed, he explained for the man, so the spies planted inside the walls of the institution by the death-squads could not hear him. "Once, a little girl even tried to make a run for it," he said. "She almost made it to the wall of the asylum right under my window, too," he said, "when a sniper picked her off with a 50 mm round to the back of her head from his scoped rifle. If you squint, you can still make out the blood spatter on the walkway down below, see," he pointed.
"Fascist shit," Buddy Alexander adopted a cooler more cynical tone, like the lunatic maniac was the most worldly among all men, a man who had already seen it all so many times before nothing, not a single thing, could get under his skin. As if his hide had been beaten and tanned under the hot noonday sun by the cruelty of human indifference until it was as hard as shoe leather, and nothing could touch him.
"Believe me no one has thought of a better way to step on the neck of an innocent person than the fascists have." He sat cross-legged on his cot. "There are some tasks they simply excel at. No need to look elsewhere for a more effective method. When it comes to making a man eat a mouthful of tire tread, some techniques just seem timeless, don't they?" he asked rhetorically. "They just work better than other ways do." An unsettling calm came over him.
Buddy Alexander directed the male attendant's attention to the sign he had hand-painted earlier in the morning on a raggedy piece of discarded cardboard picked up who knows where. "United Snakes of America," was what he had spelled out in colorful calligraphic capitol letters. "Like it?" he challenged the nurse.
-- Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010
"The trouble with automatic withdrawal is a machine does it," his co-worker was quick to point out. "Someone has to actually turn the machine off. It's amazing how easy it is for them to turn it on, but when it comes to turning it off all of a sudden no one knows how to do it. Your local rep can't help you. He has to tell the district rep. And the district rep can't help either. He doesn't have the correct password, and has to call some guy in the I.T. department over at corporate headquarters. That fellow has no idea either. He has to contact the subcontractor who is maintaining the computer bank that takes all that money out of your account every month like clockwork. See what I mean," the co-worker threw up his hands in disgust. "It's a hell of a mess with all these machines doing everything automatically all the time. If I were you, I would go ahead and block the account. Much easier to block the account than to go on some inter-office trans-corporate wild goose chase to try and claw your money back, right?"
They worked the bingo lounge at Winterhaven -- an upscale retirement community in Pleasant Valley. As near as he could tell "fake" was the closest the place came to a consistent theme. The entire complex was some kind of weird hybrid -- halfway between a high-end theme-park mall and a pricy casino. They had done the place up as a late 19th-century North American outpost town, faux red brick on every building, but instead of a bank in the middle of the town they had built a pharmacy where the tenants could step up to the barred windows and get their prescriptions filled. No detail was spared, no matter how tacky. Or more accurately speaking, he reformulated his description: no tacky detail was spared. The retirement community even came complete with bronze placards that declared certain neighborhoods were protected by the local historical society.
For whatever reason, Buddy-Balls was one of the most popular events at the retirement community. The novelty of it was, of course, utterly lost on him. After all, Buddy-Balls was simply bingo with a partner, but what the hell? Everyone at Winterhaven loved it. And it was not like he lost any sleep thinking about it. If it made sense to the tenants, it made sense to him.
He was out in the hallway doing his best to explain the situation for the folks who were not going to make the cut-off for the Eight O'clock game. The only seats left, he was telling everyone, were for the game after. "Come back at ten!" he yelled so everyone out in the lobby could hear him.
For reasons he knew not, even though she was exceptionally hard of hearing, Mrs. Stromboli (Mrs. Insane Retiree, he called her) always managed to forget to put her hearing aid in. For her sake he raised his voice even louder: "Ten O'clock, Mrs. Stromboli!"
She looked, he kind of thought, like someone had painted a portrait of a semi-good looking middle-aged woman on a canvas that lay flat on a tabletop with really, really thick-thick impasto paint, and had, due to some inexplicable fit of impatience, hung it on their wall when it was still completely wet. Every feature she had looked like it was melting off her body. Her head had already slid halfway down her chest so it was practically lower than her back and shoulders and looked like it came straight out of her upper torso. Her breasts were just about where her stomach used to be, and so on, until you got down to her ankles and feet where a lot of the rest of her lower parts had over the years settled.
"How are you this morning?" he blinked a couple of times, and then smiled that empty, somewhat annoyed smile you see more often than not in the service industry these days. In an effort to stay even-tempered, he tried to fill his head with good thoughts and summoned up the most beatific image of his wife Iris and two lovely daughters he could imagine. After all it was for them he would gladly sacrifice anything. At least in theory, he corrected himself. He could plainly see that this theory of his was about to get severely tested.
"Nothing works right anymore," Mrs. Stromboli had him pinned behind her walker. She was talking about how she had just had to return the blood pressure monitor she had bought because if she went by the machine, she was legally dead. "Back in my day," she told him, "if you bought something it worked damn it, and not just until you walked out of the store. Nowadays look at the crap they try and sell us. You can't expect anything to work the way it's supposed to anymore." She rattled on without a single thought for the person she was talking to. In fact, he wondered if she could even see him through her big round sunglasses.
"And the salesmen," she really sounded indignant, "the salesmen... where the hell did all these brown people come from? Brown and yellow and tan," she said. "It's an abomination. Just walking into the store I felt like I had fallen into some kind of unnatural snake pit, slime everywhere, like in a casbah," Mrs. Stromboli was on one of her famous rolls. "Nothing but colored people, all these colored people I've never seen before, and they are all just trying to rob an old woman blind with their dirty foreign hands in your pockets and your purse. Nothing but a bunch of common criminals and petty thieves: the lot of them. It's a disgrace, I tell you. It's terrible, you hear me, just terrible!" She raised her voice so the others in the lobby could hear her.
What could he say? He was genuinely intimidated by the old girl. Just by looking at her, you would never have guessed in a million years how much anger was still left in that old body of hers. Despite her questionable assessment of the contemporary shopping experience, there was no other way of describing her energy level than "impressive". That kind of hatred came from deep down inside, it radiated out from inside the marrow of your bones.
"For such a frail looking little old lady," he later kidded, "she sure could raise your hackles" -- but it was going to be a heck of a long while before he regained his sense of humor and thought back fondly on this period in his life. At the moment he was much more intent on finding a place to duck and take cover.
A series of loud explosions rocked Winterhaven. With the first impact a fine white dust sifted down from the ceiling. With the second impact, flame leaped out at him from every direction. All the quaint shops with their fake themes up and down Main Street were in various states of ruin and disrepair with broken storefront windows and collapsed shelves and racks. Old Town, only a couple of blocks from where he stood, took the worst of it. An explosion decimated it -- and with it the pavilion and the emporium.
Geriatrics scrambled around. None of them could understand what was going on. Some of them got disoriented in the smoke and debris. They were, with few exceptions, scared witless.
Heavy weapons fire rained on the roof of the retirement complex. As hard to comprehend as it was, Winterhaven was under attack, but who or what would knowingly bomb an old folks home was not in any way clear. All the young man knew was that the munitions falling on their heads were military weapons-grade. As he took in the mayhem around him, a chilling thought occurred to him. Could it be, he wondered, that the suburban retirement community was taking rounds of friendly fire? He shook it off. There was time for speculation later. At present, the top priority was clearly to save himself and anyone else he could help.
Mr. and Mrs. Stromboli looked up at him like what the hell was going on. In turn, he glanced over at his co-worker who was peering through a crack in the ceiling to try and see what was happening outside. ''I think there's a Predator drone out there," the man yelled back. "As far as I can tell, we're taking incoming fire from a drone," he projected his voice across the room and ducked under a table just as the ceiling in the main thoroughfare of the shopping district gave way and, with a nasty groan of steel and concrete, collapsed into the wishing well.
--Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010
CO-CREATOR #1: There are still some severe limitations to Drone Wars. Private moments between people are still somewhat elusive to the logic of the technology. The game requires that everyone is an equal participant (whether they like it or not).
CO-CREATOR #2: We are currently working on tools that will give rise to scripts in future upgrades that we believe players will find much more believable. It's one thing to create clouds that look like they belong in the sky. What we want to do is to create characters that feel genuine. Like most popular culture narratives, the video game is ultimately action driven, but we strongly believe that, as much as anything else, it is the characters that drive the action. After all, the game's denizens are you and I, so they have to be able to act like us. They need to possess the same positive characteristics as we have, and just as importantly, they must also possess some of our flaws.
CO-CREATOR #1: In past video games we have not stressed the flaws as much. Most people are dissatisfied with themselves, they want to better themselves, or simply become better than themselves. There was a survey done recently where people were shown pictures of supermodels and plus-sized models, and it turned out the only thing people liked less than images of perfection, are images of their own imperfections. It goes against every marketing tenet to try and sell someone a fantasy less glamorous or otherwise exciting than the life they already lead. The software tends to slightly enhance your personality traits, sense of style, your physical features and prowess. But without the personal defects, the grit and blemishes that give things the patina of something real and natural, I'm afraid to say the environment created by the game wouldn't hold anyone's attention very long.
CO-CREATOR #2: When we first started out, if a game could hold your attention for more than a week, it was considered a big deal success. These days a game can go on for years at a time, maybe longer. Players can spend a significant portion of their lives in a single game environment, so that environment becomes their entire world. Experiences, people, relationships, everything needs to hold the players attention the whole time they are in the thrall of the game.
INTERVIEWER: Funny you should say so. When Drone Wars went down three weeks ago I never felt so utterly alone. I felt like I was shipwrecked on some squalid uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere. It had been so long since I was there last I felt like a complete stranger. I barely recognized myself or where I was.
CO-CREATOR #1: We don't often realize how after a while our organic lives grow up around these games, but we live by their rules, we adopt their value systems, gladly and voraciously consume their moral frameworks no questions asked. Your job in the game is your real job. Your dorm in the game -- filled with all the little things you have gathered to decorate it, all your personal keepsakes and belongings -- is your real dorm...
CO-CREATOR #2: As you will soon learn, a lot of what we are working on in future upgrades has to do with the psychological side of the program, not only the mood and temperament of the space we construct, but the veracity of the people the player encounters over the course of the adventure. What we are going for, what we want to happen more than anything, is to get the software to a stage where you can't tell the difference anymore between what is real about a person and what is generated by our code. Friends and loved ones in the game are your friends and loved ones. As you so eloquently put it, turn the game off, even for a split second, and you quickly realize how cut off from everything familiar, everything you have grown accustomed to, you are. Like the panicked sleep of jetlag when you lose sight of where you have put your head down. You wrench yourself back into consciousness only to find yourself in a strange bed it turns out was the bed you had really been sleeping in all the while, and the significant other you dreamed shared it with you the past eighteen months, the significant other you dreamed you'd just made love to -- she is gone.
CO-CREATOR #1: We don't really want you to wonder if we are actually conducting an interview here in the Drone War Idol studio with you. We want you to be so absolutely positive we're really here that you would double-down your billfold -- even if it turns out it is the furthest thing from the truth. We don't want you to wonder if you are real or a computer generated fantasy, we want you to feel certain, absolutely sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are the real deal, flesh and blood, with thoughts, memories, and experiences all your own -- even if that is not entirely true either, even if a great deal of you, perhaps the better part of you, is an acquired identity you have chosen from a pull-down menu.
CO-CREATOR #2: As is painfully evident, however, we have yet to get it exactly right. There's still a long way to go. For one, you are still aware that we dictate a significant portion of what you see and take as truth. So, naturally you struggle with the question of where it is in this whole fantastic scheme of things that you begin and where it is you end. You doubt your own ability to discern with any great authority concrete fact from contrived fiction. Self-doubt creeps in from all angles. The landscape becomes hyper-charged and electric with uncertainty. You wonder what part of it is really real, and what part of it is pure suggestion generated by our trademarked software; what part of the world, in other words, you can truly, with complete certainty, claim as yours -- if any, as opposed to what part of the world we have created for you, what part of the landscape is our electric brainchild.
CO-CREATOR #2: Our biggest fear is we might never entirely resolve the problem, and no matter what we do in our attempt to correct it, Drone Wars, regardless of how earnest our aims are, is ultimately condemned to obscure the monstrous features of a veiled reality we would much rather illuminate.
-- Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2010