by Stanley Lieber
Knowing himself, SL wandered the countryside. He’d leave the hotel before dawn, while the coaches were still asleep, and break for the woods. In these parts there were no isolated stands of trees. Every branch of the forest connected somehow back to its trunk. You followed the seams.
Within the forest one typically found more trash than on the street. An auction catalog of discarded items, some of them immediately saleable, some useful personally. Today SL encountered both varieties of green trash, and immediately he made plans for its dispersal.
The creeks were also full of litter. Sometimes SL would find piles of unopened MREs. He knew which shops back in town would be interested. Caches of crap turned back into cash.
SL would sit on an outcropping alongside the creek and feel the cool water soaking into his shoes. Mosquitoes skipped across the reflecting surface, not even trying to avoid him when he swatted them away. Moss, everywhere.
He had no memory of why he’d come here.
Twenty minutes deeper into the woods (though somehow still within earshot of rush hour traffic), the trail opened onto the abandoned ruins of what had once been a house.
On days when it rained the whole town stank of cat piss. In reality it would have to have been something else because SL had never even seen a cat here. Or maybe it was just that they had all been hiding from him. Whatever the cause, the air, and everything else, was stifling.
SL steered himself into the shower.
Breakfast was a cul-de-sac. He steered in, turned around, and steered right back out. Another routine successfully subsumed into the blank, gray background of his user icon. This, too, flew in the face of recovery theory. The automatic mechanisms he had hoped to escape were replaced with labor intensive equivalents—though these, as well, were beyond his willingness to contemplate consciously. Life imitating farce.
It had all gone quiet enough that he was once again prepared to contemplate the fate of his friend, who heretofore had served chiefly as an anchor to his rapidly fading memory of life before the hotel.
He found that he could no longer remember his friend’s name.
That would complicate a search.
by Stanley Lieber
The lateral elevator was still stuck on sideways, so SL had to take the stairs up to his room. Coaching staff was strangely absent.
The cleaners had moved all his books. And, it seemed, removed all his bookmarks, he supposed as a sort of commentary upon the general state of his room. Fair enough.
SL colonized the balcony with a minimum of support equipment. Just him and his cup of tea, not even the folded daily newspaper. The indigenous population of his little table had scattered at the sight of his tattered boxer shorts, surrendering whatever claim they might have otherwise held in the absence of universally recognized property rights.
SL sat down in his chair, feeling anything but the conquering hero.
The town had changed since he’d arrived, he surmised. Nothing he had actually observed, mind, but it stood to reason, didn’t it? Even if only by virtue of his sudden appearance there. Anyway, whatever.
Dull care washed over him and then subsided with the smog.
From then to now he hadn’t allowed himself to approach the memory of what had come before. Masking his awareness with the background clatter (such as it was) of the hustle and bustle here in town. Subsumed by nothing much, at least it was a quiet day. The ticker tape advanced at intervals, now faintly audible in the cradling semi-silence.
The sound was annoying.
Who had he been? No one here seemed to recognize him, so that ruled out intersectional fame. There were no clues as to his interests amongst his few personal belongings, unless you counted the books, which he had never attempted to do. The lot was distinguished primarily by its failure to establish a clear pattern—this scattershot identifier seemed to be all that remained of him. In any case, by now he had forgotten the question. he completed the apparent inventory of his room and decided it was time for lunch.
There wasn’t much, in all honesty, that couldn’t be conveyed through simple language. This was a cornerstone of recovery theory, even though every patient immediately recognized it as bullshit. There was nothing that could be conveyed through simple language, nothing that could be conveyed at all. Each new advance in technology revealed this poverty of capability anew through the increase of immediate— literally, cybernetic—feedback.
Just because few of them could express it in words didn’t make it any less true.
Just look at his friend.
by Stanley Lieber
Contradictions of life in the hotel: The restaurant was on a separate floor from its restrooms. SL took the stairs, mainly because the lateral elevator only moved sideways. In addition, upon exiting the elevator one was obliged to pass through a hall of nostalgic material commemorating the hotel’s past advertising campaigns. Egressing the hall, guests were scanned and automatically (publicly) registered as willing participants in the current advertising campaign, details TBA. A mandatory, implicit endorsement of this horseshit. SL was glad to avoid it.
Walking back up the stairs to the restaurant presented its own challenges: Interception by the hotel’s dedicated coaching staff. No matter how many times SL refused service, the pitch was always the same: Come with us if you want to live. SL invariably declined such an open-ended proposition.
For some reason all the motor vehicles in town were rocking green wheels. Somehow SL had failed to notice this before. He figured there must be some significance, perhaps a meaningful one, but he couldn’t imagine what it might be. Green rubber? Was it political? Guys down at the VFW just stared at him whenever he brought it up. So he let the matter drop, and soon he forgot all about it, as if all wheels everywhere had always been green. A lot of things around here seemed to work that way. Just let it go, and maybe soon you’ll forget about it. One could only hope.
SL patted the hidden compartment in his trousers. The envelope was still there.
What had become of his friend during all these weeks? Who cared, really? SL wasn’t feeling charitable. He was certain he would know where to find his fellow addict if the need were to arise. Just pop on his gloves and login.
But the need wasn’t going to arise, was it?
"Long time no snark," SL’s friend let off a wild shot, genuinely happy to see him.
"Yeah," SL allowed, sounding deflated.
Thank the president for ambient sound. SL adjusted his haptic depth. In the weeks since he’d logged in there had been some considerable drift in his settings. He ignored it.
He didn’t really want to do this.
Afterwards, SL was disappointed with himself. Again, he’d broken a winning streak only to come away feeling worse than when he’d gone in. And it was getting worse—his remaining equipment was deteriorating.
He remembered then that this, too, was a part of the theory of recovery: Sit out here in the middle of nowhere until your devices all age off of the network.
At least that last part was working as intended.
by Stanley Lieber
"Do you put on your data gloves before or after you piss in the morning?"
There was a reason SL didn’t attend these meetings. Hadn’t, since he’d arrived. He’d been warned in advance.
"Both," he interjected. Of course, he’d take them off to piss. Unlike these cretins, he guessed.
He stood up to leave.
No paper today. Something about a general strike. Apparently only observed by the press.
Otherwise, exactly the same. Tea, eggs, stretch, walk, linger, watch, walk, stretch, sit. His rhythm barely broken by the absence of printed nothingness. Maybe he should save his money.
Welcoming faces down at the VFW. He shot some pool, asked the old men questions about California. They were generous with their stories. One of them had been to the Mission District before they got rid of the bars. A place with comic books varnished to the men’s room walls.
None of them used anymore.
SL had never served so he didn’t have much to contribute in return. He’d mention his father and they’d nod. It was usually good for a couple of drinks.
By Christmas time this place would be full of kids trying to climb onto Santa’s lap, but today it was just a bunch of guys trying not to mention the Internet.
What had really happened back in 1993? By early October the war had kicked off in earnest, but no one seemed to realize it yet. At first the change was gradual, then accelerated smoothly until even before the reboot, continuity was arcing, spiraling gregariously out of control. New voices, new talent. No longer the staid, predictable march from trope to cliché to signature recurring boredom. This was all new. Here was the final dissolution of reading comprehension— e pluribus nullus—ad infinitum.
For SL’s part, he was glad the paper was back in print. It gave him something to do with his hands.
VETERANS OF FOREIGN WIDE AREA NETWORKS
SL stared at the tarnished plaque while the other guys took their shots. He guessed this was an example of their oft remarked upon humor. He missed the jokes they were making in real time while he was busy standing slack-jawed. Someone had just mentioned "Bay Area rents," and the place fell silent as a pre-war visor.
SL edged his way out of the room and made for the front door.
This wasn’t his fight.
Back at the hotel, SL fidgeted nervously, unsure if he should break into his emergency supply of disposables. He’d been doing so well these past weeks. Not even checking his stocks. Here he was contemplating an entire evening drowning his many sorrows in everything he’d been missing during the interim. Like nothing at all had changed.
Well, it hadn’t.
by Stanley Lieber
Friends had been trying to convince him for years that he should come to West Berlin. "It would be good for your art," they all said. Well, now he was here, and there was nothing going on. There was no scene. Had there ever been?
Maybe a scene wasn’t what his friends had been talking about, after all.
SL was up early to do his stretches. It went okay, but he thought he might skip the next session. The pain had inspired his reticence. Thus enlivened, he sat down with his tea and the newspaper. As usual, nothing was going on. What had he expected?
Most of the bars and strip clubs were closed this early in the morning. Even the drug store and the VFW. Sometimes, someone would be working at the VFW during the day and would let him in anyway. No such luck, today.
For a city of three million (SL could scarcely believe such a small place could still exist), things were awfully quiet during the day. Where did these people go when they weren’t shouting in the streets? Also of note: the homeless were virtually non-existent—or at least, he almost never saw any. Maybe here they actually executed their war on poverty.
The town appeared to be run with strict, German efficiency.
No, there was no scene to speak of. As a consequence SL was left to make his own trouble.
That should have been easy, but it wasn’t.
From one end of the city to the other was a journey of about eight miles. SL walked it every day, trying to soak up anything that might make his recovery journal more interesting. Whatever it was his friends had been so insistent he needed to absorb, he wasn't finding it. His calves always ached but his health didn’t seem to improve.
He’d finally stopped bringing the data gloves. Along with his wallet, keys, and water, he had also chosen to leave behind all of his contraband gear. It was all too heavy. He never knew when he was going to have to try and outrun a giant pickup truck.
The traffic moved—and smelled—like a herd of animals. On their way to be slaughtered, SL assumed. He could only hope.
He hadn’t figured on spending so much time here alone, in this ridiculous little town.
Well, here he was. This was what he always said he had wanted, if perhaps not specifically these specific surroundings. There was no point in pretending he was here against his will. No one else was around, so there was no one else to blame.
SL drained the remainder of his tea onto the sidewalk and returned the plastic saucer to the sidewalk vendor.
The buzzing of cicadas put him in a strange mood.
by Stanley Lieber
It would require some unspecified effort to find out just when he had arrived at the hotel. SL no longer had any earthly idea. It would have to have been before Christmas (he remembered attending a Christmas party in the hotel lobby), but beyond that, he could recall nothing of his arrival in the little town.
His friend might remember.
He knew why he was here, in West Berlin, and that was to forget about things like this. Like his friend, he’d find something else to do with his time.
Today he ordered lunch in his room and settled in to review more corrections from his journal.
In the afternoons he would sometimes walk into town to gaze at the traffic as it meandered by on the main road, or to purchase additional items at the drug store. Today he needed blank cassettes and chewing gum. And they were all out of gum.
SL ignored the spinner rack of comics that had imposed itself between him and the register.
Nobody asked to see his ID.
Walking around town would have been almost pleasant if not for the overzealous NPCs chucking beer cans at his head at suspiciously equally spaced intervals. Too bad.
SL varied his route. The algorithm he chose was effective for only a few iterations, so eventually he had to alternate algorithms via an additional, algorithmically generated algorithm.
All of this was possible only because he had held on to the data gloves.
When he was finally caught he had to plead with the hotel administrator to keep his room. At length the stern twenty-something relented, but required him to hand over the contraband data gloves. He went along with it, for now. What else was he going to do?
Owing to a lack of material, he wrote what he knew. Presently this consisted of various ephemera: shopping lists, song titles, ideas for t-shirt slogans, character names and tentative biographies, what he could remember of his family tree, reviews of local shops and eateries, profiles (with analysis) of local politicians, a short inventory of the contents of his room, and a new draft of his final will and testament.
Satisfied with his progress, he closed the journal and returned to his search for the secondary backup pair of data gloves that he was sure he’d stashed around here somewhere.
Personal writing and collage by Stanley Lieber.
2.75" x 4.25", 16 pgs per issue
$5 post paid
THE GREEN CHILDREN
by Stanley Lieber
Dawn, but not down here. No windows in the silo. Tommy switched off his daylight lamp and slipped under the covers. It was time for bed.
Dreams, obscuring like an anti-glare filter, mediating the sensor intake. Who needed it?
Up again at dusk.
Hm. What’s for breakfast?
Nobody wanted to be in the silo, he realized. Life down here had become a necessity if you wanted to stay alive at all. Dad had said so, and it was clear everyone believed him, because their ignorance of the world above was near total. Haha, it almost seemed wrong to take advantage of their frustrated curiosity.
Tommy didn’t believe a word of it, of course. It had become obvious early on that the threat up top had been wildly exaggerated. Sure, there were bombs, but he knew which streets to avoid. If the enemy wasn’t working off the same intelligence then Tommy was clairvoyant.
And Tommy wasn’t clairvoyant.
Dad mostly turned a blind eye towards Tommy’s "wheeling and dealing," and in turn the profits kept rolling in, mostly unchecked. Peter found he was happiest in these moments when the traps were getting money, and Peter was happy a lot these days. That left Tommy to his own devices, which were many and various deployed throughout the silo. Even his dresses were selling.
Still, it would never be enough. Tommy would never settle for mere silo supremacy.
He wanted out of the silo for good.
Bear was still trying to find a way in. The green children weren’t the only morsels on the menu. But getting in was easier said than done. By now he’d been saying so all year.
The father was vulnerable.
"Fired? For what?"
Sounded like Dad was in trouble.
"For letting your son in and out of the silo as if this were some damn revolving door, minimum security prison!" Dad’s boss screamed, boldly pronouncing sentence into the inadequately concealed room mic.
Ah, a new assignment!
Raccoon would survive. No matter what they did to the tree he’d lately managed to scramble up into. Chop it down, see if he cared. These bloodhounds didn’t frighten him. Push him much further and he’d jump right into the river.
All right, he was pumping himself up. The river was poison, much like the home environment from which he’d just egressed. And just like home, he wouldn’t be able to stand it for long.
Well, if he could escape that shithole...
Raccoon closed his eyes and jumped.
Dad’s comics were almost loaded up. His work gear and a few personal effects were pretty much all that remained in the family’s quarters. Tommy blanched as his father rested a big hand on his bony knee.
"Son, I’d like to tell you a story."
"Sixty years ago, none of this could have happened. Religious authorities wouldn’t permit it. But the war we’re in now... It’s not what any of us signed up for. I don’t want to bleed for copyright."
"Dad, I know," Tommy said, not wanting to get into it.
"With that in mind, I’d like you to have this."
From a small metal box that Tommy hadn’t noticed before the monologue began, Dad produced a worn leather belt, married to a large brass belt buckle that read BORN AGAIN in bold print. Intricate leatherwork reproduced scenes from the classic tale.
"Back when I was first in the Service," his father began, but then trailed off, neglecting to complete the by now familiar introduction.
Tommy prayed to a non-existent God for leniency. What had he done to deserve this? But the absentee God didn’t hear him, or was otherwise unable to respond.
"Let me tell you about a man named David Mazzucchelli..."
And so it began, again.
Raccoon was less experienced than he let on. In and out of trees, in and out of the river—that just about covered it. But he read a lot, which in his estimation counted for something. The green children were more than enough to keep him busy, to give him a sense of what might lay beyond his narrow field of vision.
Bear had spotted him more than once. That was a concern. But time and time again Raccoon had bet everything on his seemingly infallible ability to evade capture. By now he’d lost track of the odds.
Raccoon crossed the meadow in broad daylight.
So Dad left. It happened. A month or so later, on his first visit back to the silo to retrieve the scant personal belongings he’d left behind, Tommy saw fit to brag, "...And I haven’t cried at all since you left." His father was duly impressed.
This trip, Tommy was awarded a medium-sized, gold lamé box filled with half-empty bottles of Testors model paint.
It would keep him busy for a while.
by Stanley Lieber
2.75" x 4.25", 8 pgs.
$3 post paid
by Stanley Lieber
SL’s friend followed him around with a camera. Offline, so it was technically permissible under the hotel’s ToS. Didn’t stop SL from getting annoyed.
"Quit pointing that thing at me," SL would say, and his friend would quit, for a while, sometimes for the rest of the day. But the camera always returned.
SL had got enough of this treatment at home.
Breakfast now consisted of reading a paper newspaper, alone. Half the paper’s weight comprised loose leaf advertisements printed on slick paper that stuck to his fingers when he tried to remove them. Coupons for stores and restaurants that did not have operating locations in this tiny resort town.
It was a local paper.
The supposed news itself was all too relevant—hyper specific POV reporting that relied on an intimate knowledge of local personages and customs. SL possessed neither. He poured over the paper anyway, enjoying the certain je ne sais quois of this textual delivery system for... nothing. Anyway, it passed the time.
In the afternoons he could often be found by the pool. This unlikely juxtaposition found him defending his sketchbooks from the regular interpolation of screaming, splashing children. He wanted to give them back their visors.
He was settling into the routine, and yes, he was still cheating.
SL’s friend had found other things to do with his time. He was not even showing up online anymore. Zero contact for the last month. SL had stopped keeping track.
He had contrived any number of schemes for tracking his friend down, but frankly concluded that he might be better off simply letting the friendship go. Lately, he’d noticed himself contriving ways to avoid him. That seemed to suggest perhaps the partnership had run its course.
He wondered how his friend would react when he found out SL had stopped paying the hotel bill.
SL wanted to think this would work. So far, being dropped into an environment of strict network non-availability had to cut his daily time online in half. Without the visor, and without authorized access to the local mesh, he was slowed down enough to discriminate carefully between potential activities. He planned in advance.
No logging. Bandwidth wouldn’t permit it.
Remembering what he was doing still proved to be a challenge.
by Stanley Lieber
SL, protagonist. "Every novel is somebody’s first," SL said, by way of introducing the present storyline.
SL’s friend, supporting actor. "Sometimes I think I don’t know who I am anymore," he mused, and happily downed his coffee.
Preamble concluded, the main cast got on with their tale.
The hotel was a couple hundred years old, give or take a few decades. Not that a casual would be able to tell, after unending waves of renovations. The parts that looked the oldest were in most cases the most recent facelifts. The hotel restaurant, for example, had been rebooted just last month.
SL liked the hotel restaurant. He’d pack up his supplies and sit down there in a booth for half the day, reading his comics and sketching the other guests. Most of them would calm down if he showed them his work.
SL’s friend didn’t like to be sketched. When SL picked up his pencil, his friend would usually up and leave the room, often without saying a word. Suited SL fine. As time wore on he began to regret inviting the imbecile along. And he’d even offered to pay. Idiot.
No bacon this morning. It had only taken them a month to figure out he wasn’t going to eat it.
The fines for attempted network connections were accumulating steadily. Fortunately he was fucking rich.
He’d sit down there in the restaurant and wait for something remarkable to happen. Something rarely did, so he didn’t make many remarks. During the interim between minor piques of interest SL would maintain his recovery journal. Filling page after page with minute details of mundane memorized responses to the predictable plot machinations. He supposed this was what they wanted. He described what it had been like to probe the shared hallucination for the familiar topography of his face.
Nowadays he just looked in the mirror.
Or in this case, a salt shaker. His reflection bent and wobbled as a server knocked it completely horizontal, bumping into SL’s table on her way through the dining room to put out a small fire near the smoking section.
The quiet here was unbelievable. SL found it was conducive to memory, which was something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand he needed to keep in mind why he was here, but on the other hand he didn’t really want to be here.
He was out of hands.
Most of his personal equipment had been confiscated upon arrival, but SL still carried concealed within his shirtsleeve a backup pair of data gloves, folded neatly into a tiny green square and pressed into an equally diminutive Faraday pouch.
Hastily, he ripped open the pouch and slipped them on.
by Stanley Lieber
Every moment of his youth apart from its dream was forgotten
— Bertolt Brecht, Baal
West Berlin, Indiana. 2049.
It was time to dry out. Like so many of his contemporaries, he had made his way to West Berlin, to take in the waters, to suffer the moribund, exquisite desolation, to luxuriate in the low bandwidth and utter lack of interest in—or from—the outside world.
Newcomers recognized each other easily by the pale strip of tender flesh surrounding each set of eyes, where their visors had been attached, never before removed. The visors would be useless here— they didn’t even work as sunglasses.
Blue ridge, no antennas. The town was situated in the cleft of an ancient river valley. It was easy to forget sometimes that anything lay beyond, if in fact anything did.
Everything felt familiar.
SL had never seen the place. Not with his own eyes, anyway, and his pale strip was starting to heal over.
He stopped the record player and returned the vintage pressing of Scott Walker’s Tilt to its pristine sleeve. He liked the record, but the input was overwhelming him.
He needed silence.
He’d come to West Berlin with a friend. Perhaps friend was too generous. A contact. They shared an affinity for a particular misconception of West Berlin culture. Old books, music. Of course, that world was long gone, if it had ever really existed. Which, now that he was here, seemed increasingly doubtful. Still, they were interested. You could say, willfully credulous.
They’d met online, many years ago, and now it was time to dry out.
SL sipped his tea.
"What’s your name, anyway?" his friend asked. "I mean, your real name. In real life."
It was a dubious question. What constituted real life? Also, did SL sound like an alias?
"Ray," SL lied. "Call me Ray."
"Okay," said his friend, satisfied with the singular morsel of misinformation.
They rode the lateral elevator down to breakfast in the hotel restaurant. SL asked for his usual scrambled eggs with toast and instead received a small round plate heaping with bacon.
"You gonna eat that?" asked his friend.
The poor fool was oblivious to the spiritual implications of consuming swine flesh. SL nudged his plate across the table, careful to avoid spilling his tea.
The morning sun ducked behind a smear of clouds and the pair soon followed suit, finishing off the remainder of their meal in silence before making their excuses and retiring to the darkness of their separate rooms.
Hotel surveillance promptly detected network traffic passing to and from the rooms, a blatant violation of the terms of service.
The response was automated and immediate, brooking no appeal to due process.
collecting ACTRON v4 issues #1-14
full color, 5.5" x 8.5", 116 pgs
THE GREEN CHILDREN
by Stanley Lieber
"Do you think this is blasphemous?" Tommy asked, more than a little sheepishly.
"More like diaphanous," Peter offered, but his disinterest was apparent. He was hardly impressed with this, Tommy’s latest effort in pink taffeta. The flowing dress abruptly drooped. Tommy let it drop all the way to the floor, unfinished. He was disappointed. "You never like anything."
"I like whatever is good," Peter sighed. Not this again.
"Just never me," Tommy whined, trying now to make the best of a steadily deteriorating situation by groping after Peter’s brown pirate pants.
"Stop that," Peter scolded. "You’re behaving like a ridiculous child."
And he was.
The pieces were just not coming out how Tommy had envisioned them. He could admit, now, that he simply didn’t possess the manual dexterity, all right the sewing skill, to fully actualize his vision for the Fall collection. He would have to rely on Peter for help. Peter could do anything.
Problem was, Peter didn’t want to help. Considered Tommy’s dallying (he called it dallying) with fashion to be a distraction from their obvious true calling: ripping off the neighbors.
Yeah, but Tommy cared about more than just making money.
He wanted the neighbors to want him, too. And for the right reasons.
Silly? You bet!
But Peter said okay.
For what it was worth, Bear liked the dress. Picked it up off the floor after the boys had gone out to do whatever it was they did up top the silo. Holding it up in front of himself in the mirror he felt pretty, perhaps for the first time in his very long life.
The boy would pay for that.
Still, Bear was curious to see where it all might lead. If Tommy only kept at it, developing his talent, who knew how far his prodigious potential might unfold?
It was a puzzle Bear would worry at, pawing it over like some negligible smaller animal, right up until the moment he realized it was too late for him to withdraw.
Still, it might all be worth it.
Bear studied the dress.
Peter peered through his hands, forming a triangular frame around the pink fabric of Tommy’s latest creation.
"It’s just. This material is preposterous," he finally said.
"Your mom," Tommy remarked, quite creatively. It would be hard for Peter to argue with this, since his mother was essentially nothing more than a giant pink triangle.
"Let’s leave that bitch out of this," Peter laughed. Tommy laughed too. Perhaps too readily, but Peter let it drop. If he himself had been proven not to exist, well, then, he could hardly throw out a flag over some minor point of procedure where his equally non-existent mother was concerned. Fair was fair, and all that shit.
Peter was annoying. Always worrying about (bothering himself with, more like) rosters, trades, and stats. If a dress Tommy had made failed to trend, there Peter would go, calculating, unsolicited, the precise amount of money Tommy had lost them fiddling around with his unsalable product. He could be relied upon to point out that meanwhile, there rested copious amounts of perfectly good junk up top the silo that could easily have been siphoned off and filtered down to the rubes on the lower levels at whatever premium he and Tommy chose to command.
Peter didn’t understand Tommy’s art. Tommy was sometimes sorry he had created him.
Tommy put on the pink dress and climbed back into the freight elevator.
"You coming?" he asked Peter, suggestively.
"Not yet I’m not," Peter quipped in reply.
Dad lit his ritual tobacco and invoked Mars deep into his lungs. Getting born had undoubtedly been a mistake, but here he was. Periodic field trip around the sun.
Smooth flavor, he guessed. He hadn’t been able to discern any difference between his usual brand and this new stuff his boy had brought back from beyond the silo. He had to smile. The boy seemed to know his business.
Breaking the news to him that he didn’t have what it took to compete in the cutthroat world of wartime fashion was going to be a real bitch. But he did like those pink numbers the boy had been cranking out lately.
He hated this. The merciless honesty. Everything he had hated about his own father.
This was what being a father was all about.
Peter didn’t like it, either.
THE GREEN CHILDREN
by Stanley Lieber
Looking into his eyes one would first be confronted by the plastic strip, alternately flashing a series of targeted, third-party ads. If he caught you staring he might flip over to the mirrored surface. An abrupt rendezvous with that which the onlooker most feared—the complete absence of third-party affirmation.
Building on this tacit exchange with the viewer, Tommy might next offer a cup of tea. He was off his coffee, and as a guest you drank what he offered. That is, if you wanted him to talk business.
Tommy’s business was the traffic of information and goods from beyond the silo. The information he simply made up. The goods he stole from the other families.
Kids in the silo could not get enough of his warez, even though in some cases the merchandise had been stolen from their own homes.
Who could explain it?
The Blanks showed up. Their disgust was transparent, but each individual’s unique vision of this new fresh hell could only be expressed through the printed matter and flare carried upon his person. The zines were generative works curated by personal algorithms, while the buttons were mostly handwritten. In both cases they kept the material strictly to themselves.
Tommy nodded to the guy in front, who he assumed to be their leader. Just as he was about to speak the real Boss Blank surprised him, elbowing through the crowd to reveal himself, resplendent in... well, nothing. He was clearly pissed.
"Let me be perfectly frank," said Frank Blank. "I don’t like the way this is shaping up. Something essential seems to be missing from the template."
Like your clothes, thought Tommy.
Frank Blank stepped back into his cutout. The template, which up until this moment had been supported by his neighbors on either side, toppled backwards and crashed to the floor with a disturbing clatter. Frank glared at them both in turn.
"Now see what you’ve done. I’ve gone and telegraphed a facial expression."
Titters from the Blanks, who were by now all breaking facial discipline.
Hey, if the Boss was doing it...
Tommy’s visor flashed solid white. "You guys are a riot. Love to see all these smiling faces."
It had not been intended as an insult. But the look that now descended over Frank’s face like a theater curtain removed all doubt that Tommy had stepped, oblivious, of course, across some invisible line. Apparently discernible only to the Blanks.
What was he supposed to say?
Frank frowned, resigned to his new reality.
"We have the cash. Did you bring the stuff?"
Peter couldn’t see them. It was the rare moment when Tommy didn’t seem to need him. He took the opportunity to switch off.
If the Blanks had noticed his suddenly but slowly slumping form, nobody said a word. They were being awfully polite.
Bear followed the transaction’s progress with interest.
Bear considered the Blanks null nutrition. Followers tasted bad. Not bland, but actually bad. He’d tried them on occasion but always came away regretting his adventurousness. They got stuck in his teeth, and then the flavor would linger for an era. Gross.
Non-nutritive Blanks. Hardly unobtrusive, in spite of what it said on the tin.
They were in the way.
"That’s okay, we’re not hungry," Tommy said, as Peter jolted suddenly back to life.
Frank Blank pocketed the unbranded energy bar. He guessed these guys didn’t go in for the no-name shit.
"If we’re all finished up here, I have comic books to read," Tommy said, and snapped shut his Zero Halliburton. "Let’s go, Pete."
Peter’s head swiveled from Blank to Blank like a shrugging parrot. "Who the fuck are you talking to? Where did that money come from? And so forth."
"Don’t worry about it," said Tommy, patting his imaginary friend on the head.
Trouble was brewing in the ranks of the Blanks. Certain points of ethics, terminology, and even simple etiquette had presently fallen into dispute. A radical wing of the subculture had asserted that, so long as they were all going to bare facial expressions, well, members might just as well start to allow for variations in grooming, accessorization, and other aspects of the outfit's trade dress. Did anyone here care to advance a counterargument?
And so the battle was joined by essentially every member of the away team who had been dispatched earlier that day to conduct the silo transaction. Reader, it delayed their transit home.
In the days and weeks that followed, once the offending individualists had all found their separate ways back to Blank House, the infection inevitably spread. Almost immediately, individuals asserted their individual points of view. Just as immediately, a volunteer squad of conservatives spontaneously self-organized into a kind of police force, equipping themselves with rudimentary weaponry culled from private reserves (Blank House having heretofore adhered to an stoical—and economical—policy of strictly non-violent opposition to the forces of the mundane world) and proceeded to, well, police the local environs for perceived infractions against the still not fully articulated, prior norms of public conduct.
Militant, certain, and yet not entirely clear.
"What is he saying that you have a problem with?"
One of the New Police screwed up his courage and slashed a thin blue line across his own forehead, in blue paint. A symbol, or so he said, of the radicals’ break with what had previously been agreed in their subculture to be common sense. And the New Police commitment to restoring order.
Nobody understood, at first. Why had he chosen to mark his own face as a rebellion against the individualists? Why had he chosen blue? (Perhaps it was the old jar of blue paint someone kept leaving on the floor near his cutout—it drove him nuts.)
Color would prove a new frontier upon the Blank page.
In these uncertain times, the New Police’s new obsession with blue bodypaint would be certain to attract imitators.
And what could be threatening about that?
MASSIVE FICTIONS XVA VOLUME 1
by stanley lieber
THE GREEN CHILDREN
by Stanley Lieber
Peter considered life to be a waste of good resources. He didn’t much care for the so-called pleasures that were on offer at virtually every... well, he just didn’t care about pleasure.
His brother was, shall we say, not cut from the same cloth. Peter marveled at Tommy’s inexhaustible capacity for spinning out, blowing a gasket, tripping over his own Reeboks in his neverending quest for sensation. Clichés were appropriate for this guy who was not, himself, appropriate.
For one thing, there was his body. Tommy had one. His arms and legs were skinny, his belly pooched out. Instead of an eyepatch his entire face was wrapped in a wide plastic strip that supposedly enhanced his percept instrument, though Peter had never ascertained its precise mechanism. If Peter had thought Tommy was smug, the plastic strip removed all doubt.
It wasn’t all bad. Tommy gave him life. Whenever Peter felt like giving up, here was Tommy saying something stupid, here was Tommy with an interesting new book, here was Tommy hatching a lucrative scheme involving other people’s money, or the Internet.
Here was Peter, falling in love with his captor.
He wondered what Tommy thought about when he was alone.
Or so Tommy assumed Peter would have thought.
Who knew what went on in that silly pirate’s head? His brother certainly was an odd duck.
No matter, he got the job done.
Tommy removed his penis from Peter’s still-working mouth and zipped up his black leather jeans. Wiped his hand off on his shirt. "Get out of here, man," was all he would say, dismissing his sibling back to whatever hole he crawled into, off, elsewhere in the silo, whenever he wasn’t needed. "Too much teeth."
Peter fucked off to his hole.
Now, where was he...
Head cleared, Tommy resumed his stream of consciousness. Re-attached drivetrain to wheels without downshifting, slipping the helmet of his mind back into place. He sat back in his seat and waited for the road to appear before him.
His visor went to work.
Headlights punching only a small hole in the darkness, Tommy could see the road in front of him as a more or less focused corridor of generative nonsense. Like third-party ads, receding. The visor made it, made him. The perfect apprehension of details no one would notice in broad daylight, even while standing perfectly still. He reckoned it was no wonder he got tired so quickly.
Scanning for marks. A girl he knew had let him go through her purse, just like it was nothing. He took whatever looked interesting and she didn’t complain. Peter just stared. Focused. Tommy wondered what else he could get away with.
At lunch, the other kids were starting to avoid him. Or was he avoiding them? Peter would probably say something like, the glass was half full of whatever you wanted, and half full of whatever it really was. Whatever that was supposed to mean.
One, two, three, four, nobody in the cafeteria was carrying. Tommy switched back to ambient and performed a mundane visible light inspection of the space. Pretty soon now it would be time for class.
Bear would sit and listen to them eating. For hours he’d track their conversations, the stupid things they thought about and allowed to escape from their lips. The stupidity was the only reliable indicator he’d tuned into the right channel. It gave him time to think. (The act of correcting in itself was a sign of life.)
They were like ants.
It was a coffee shop appropriately dubbed "The Filling Station," for within its confines libations were dispensed from thick rubber hoses by attendants clothed in striped coveralls and wool caps. The booths were intended to resemble old style "bench" car seats, each customer being dutifully strapped across the waist by a webbed belt, fastened on the other side into an archaic looking, locking mechanism. Peter accommodated a mouthful of steaming coffee from an attendant as Tommy continued with his tirade, already in progress.
"The problem is, nobody here understands lying."
He paused so the attendant could squeegee his visor.
"You and I, we lie all the time. And this is good. But, so many of our contemporaries get hung up on the supposed truth or untruth of a given claim, I fear that they are in danger of sacrificing the five human senses -- literally, the visceral experience of the yarn -- in favor of some wildly overestimated, supposed understanding of the claim’s specific, actual flaws and deficiencies."
Peter nodded, uncritically.
"What I’m advocating instead is a return to the deployment of artifice in human relations. Traditional, face-to-face bullshitting, both parties partaking voluntarily in the error. Tear away this modern skein of earnestness! Speak-a the English! Say anything! Smash the policy of truth!
The Filling Station sounded a loud ding as a new customer entered from the street.
"I know exactly what you mean," Peter said.
It was not enough.
"Say what you will," said Tommy, "I still think it was fucking stupid for William to just go home and tell his Mom that we went to see the Doctor."
Peter knew he was right.
"Our insurance will cover it anyway," said Tommy.
"I hope," he added.
Bear liked his coffee shop. He had regular customers. The gimmick was okay, but that wasn’t what kept them showing up, day after day. His customers craved his honesty, and to a lesser extent, his excellent coffee. The costumes they could take or leave.
Penguin sidled up to Bear’s cash register, receipt in hand.
"Say, Bear, it seems I’ve been charged for three mugs of chocolate, when in reality I’ve only been given one."
Bear studied the receipt, then looked slowly up at Penguin, his snout forming the tip of a blunt spear as his eyes drew so narrow that Penguin assumed he had fallen asleep.
"Yoo hoo, Bearrrrrr..." Penguin said.
"We’ll call it even," Bear said, stuffing the receipt into his cash register. Penguin didn’t complain. They never complained.
"I’ll have another mug of chocolate," Penguin said, and climbed back onto his bar stool at the far end of the counter.
Bear wiped the sweat from his forehead with the shop rag he kept tucked into the back of his coveralls.
The door dinged as another customer made their way into the shop from the street.
THE GREEN CHILDREN
by Stanley Lieber
They were like ants.
Tommy tried and tried again to communicate but it was like talking to ants. He’d alter the pitch, and even the content of his words, but the others would simply continue on with whatever inscrutable nonsense they’d previously been occupied. In and out of their flats, up and down the hallways, even the adults’ most fervent activity seemed to be divorced from any obvious stratagem or design. From all appearances, this collection of his kinfolk were a group of semi-autonomous (semi- because he was privy to the fact they were all acting under orders from up the chain) drones whose personal points of view were lacking both in personality and in vision.
He went outside.
His brother had already located the cache of local currency hidden just beyond sensor range of the silo. Peter peeled off a reasonable amount of cash and handed it over to Tommy, who tucked it into his shirt pocket without obviously disrupting his stride.
"Let’s go get laid."
Bear ripped open the old log and sucked out a spiraling stream of black ants. He was ravenous, and this was what he had been reduced to.
In any previous era there would have been a surfeit of young profiles for him to feast upon, but not so here in the so-called real world, this present, interconnected and degraded age. Bear sensed instinctively that it would be no use moping about. This was his life, now, and he intended to make the best of... oh, whatever.
Bear finished up his ants and wiped his chin. It was time to get back to what really mattered.
Getting their attention.
"Do you ever get that thing where your visor stops working in only one eye?" Tommy asked Peter, forgetting momentarily about Peter’s eyepatch.
"Oh, sorry," he corrected.
Peter remained stoically silent, much as he always did. Tommy was never quite sure where he stood with his brother, but the fact that Peter stuck around at all had to count for something.
Sometimes life was ambiguous in just this way.
"Actually, yes," Peter admitted. "The eyepatch sometimes stops working. I lose infrared."
This wasn’t working.
What else was new?
Tommy didn’t know what it was about Peter, but kids their own age seemed to love him. He cut an odd figure, what with his brown slacks and waistcoat, his long hair and his pirate’s eyepatch. His personality certainly wasn’t doing him any favors, either. But the other children couldn’t seem to get enough of him. He had but to enter a room and straight away he found himself swathed in admirers, like a wet finger dipped into a bowl of sugar.
Ants, you see.
It pissed Tommy off.
"I mean," Tommy complained, "What do they even want us to do when half the time our equipment is out of service? These assignments are all predicated upon the notion that everything we’re issued is always in perfect working order, performing at shill-review-level optimums. There’s no realpolitik in our orders, only bullshit."
"How long have you felt this way?" Peter asked blandly, sympathetic but non-committal.
"All my damn life."
And it was true. Tommy couldn’t remember ever having been satisfied with anything, least of all the nonsensical directives issued by mere adults, most of whom he assessed as semi-literate.
"It’s like they want us to fail. Or something."
"Hm," Peter said, lost in his own rich interior landscape of (Tommy imagined) sour recriminations and bitter fucking complaints.
Bear understood that these children would never be happy. What was more, he understood. What was there to be happy about? He had traveled this same well-trod path all his life. And there was no way home, no way out.
Bear was hungry again.
He pressed once again at the thin membrane separating him from his snack and pulled back a blackened, cauterized stump. It would take this one a while to grow back.
Bear rummaged around for something else to eat.
"I’m hungry," Tommy said.
And it was true.
THE GREEN CHILDREN
by Stanley Lieber
Was it the dog?
What had he been dreaming about? Tried to fall back asleep. After a while it (sort of) worked. Fifteen minutes later and this time he was sure it was definitely the dog.
And now it was his back.
Gave up. Looked at the clock. Thirty minutes to reorient, okay. Decision point: piss and wake up his brother, or hold it inside until the urine poisoned his blood. Today he decided to stay put.
His pillow was lumpy. Awful.
Who was he kidding? It was all him.
Okay, messages. Mail server locked up again. Web console and reboot the VM. There we go.
Message from his dog.
Voice from his school phone. Annoying, but better to know what he was in for later in the day.
Wadded up the dog mats. Windex. Lysol. Fresh mats. Took the dogs outside. Let them back in. Fed them. He had nineteen dogs. Just kidding, there was only one dog. Let him back outside again or else he’d whine all through breakfast.
Put on a record.
He had forgot to light the incense. Kitchen smelled like dog piss. The whole flat smelled like dog piss.
Outside, the tornado approached.
He hated dog piss.
He liked to imagine what it would be like to have a brother. Having to be careful what he said about Mom and Dad. Having to pretend to care what someone else thought. They’d share his double bed because there wasn’t enough room in the flat for anyone else to have their own room.
As it was, he was lucky to live in a flat with ground floor access. All the way up there. Most families weren’t even allowed to leave the silo.
His hypothetical brother could come and go as he pleased. All access. Tommy liked the way his brother was able to grow his hair long, was allowed to pick out his own clothes. Not like the buzz cut and parka he was forced to model after their father.
They were twins, of course, but his brother was slightly older.
It made all the difference in the world.
The dog didn’t mind.
It had belonged to their father. It was dead, now, but still it pissed wherever it liked. Tommy was left to clean up the mess.
Presently, Tommy found himself facing another morning.
There would be no point in arguing with the animal. Inferior reasoning skills. Therefore, Tommy bagged up the soiled pads and got on with his life. He issued a mental command to order new pads.
From time to time he wondered where the trash bags went. He would drag them down to the pallet at the end of their hallway, over to the freight elevator. But then what? Who came along to collect them? He’d never been able to catch them in the act, but obviously, some anonymous hero was removing the trash on a regular basis. It never had a chance to pile up.
Tommy surrendered to his ignorance.
His brother would probably know.
Bear could only watch in silent frustration as the green children went about their lives, wholly ignorant of his efforts to change them. The one with the long hair should really have known better. Before long, he’d have to talk to them face to face.
This brought up an interesting point. How much longer should Bear let them continue in ignorance? Bear could feel himself failing to live up to his own expectations. Each of the boys evinced a peculiar insularity, constitutionally (or otherwise) averse to outside stimulation. Bear would have thought that each boy would instinctively draw inspiration from some personal, deeply idiosyncratic view of the world. But not so. What Bear found instead was that each boy lacked any point of view at all. Nothing was inside either of them that he hadn’t planted there himself. Dead flowers, already.
What a way to live.
In the end it scarcely mattered. Tommy and Peter did what children do.
They ignored him.
by Stanley Lieber
Plinth Mold paced the polished tiles of his sixtieth floor Chrysler Building executive suite. He gazed down upon Shibyua, Lincoln Park, Neukölln, Montmartre, and Williamsburg before resuming his teleconference with Westchester County.
"Professor Pryde isn’t here today," UX said, perhaps more quickly and more forcefully than she had intended. "Actually, we not sure when she’s coming back."
"Not a problem," Plinth Mold assured her. "I assume someone has been left in charge?"
"That’d be me," Logan interjected, his presence suddenly and unavoidably apparent to everyone on the call. "You gonna play a card, or fold?"
Plinth smiled politely, but briefly.
"It seems we’ve come to an impasse with regards to certain matters of intellectual property. I’ve become aware that your institution presently harbors a collection of material which is wholly owned in perpetuity and throughout the known universe by my organization."
"My name is the Internet, and I’m a person," said the Internet.
"Highly unlikely." Plinth turned on his shallow heel and for a moment he seemed lost in the view of New San Francisco below. "In fact, I’m prepared to assert that you don’t even know what that means."
Logan could smell a trap.
Plinth advanced his Mala before he continued.
"None of your arguments matter. You’ll find my documentation is in order."
UX rifled through Plinth’s shared folder. He was telling the truth.
"Checks out," she finally said.
"Doesn’t matter." Logan shook his head. "Possession is nine tenths of the law."
"Love is the law," SEO whispered, sub-roomtone, somewhere below the noise floor.
"The law is whatever one of us gathered here today can afford to assert it is," Plinth countered, obviously prepared for this line of argumentation. "As I say, I am prepared to acquire your prompt surrender."
"Not today, bub." Logan flicked the remains of his cigar into the shared folder, which presently ignited into flames.
"Fight! Fight! Slime mold and white! White can’t fight so we’ll all jump in!" shouted an unseen participant on the call. (It was NPC.)
Indeed, it was on.
The Internet was possessed by its desire to demonstrate independence from public opinion. Its natural constituency did not seem able (or for that matter, inclined) to adopt this new awareness. Still, its mind was made up. As Plinth had pointed out, an impasse had been reached.
Nobody owned the Internet. Except, perhaps, for itself.
The alternative was simply unthinkable.
The guys were just waking up to a hot flash of news over the wire from the States. Mr. Logan was gone. He was there, somehow, in America. Were they all getting fired? Chatter intensified, spreading across the shop floor like marbles rolling on linoleum tile. It turned out there were no safe injection sites for corporate media.
Someone unplugged the Ethernet cable. Back to work, guys.
Deadlines wouldn’t wait.
Piro eased the Blackbird into its automatic landing pattern. This was an unusual diversion, but the abort code had checked out. His delivery had been cancelled.
He got the article under cover and waited for further instructions.
Sixteen hours later he was still halted there, waiting to be told what to do.
Negotiations must have stalled.
Suddenly, Piro’s ticker tape advanced.
This had all gone much farther than anyone had anticipated. Logan was sticking his claws into the slime mold repeatedly, like a fork stabbing Jell-O, but nothing was happening. Plinth just stared at him. At some point he pulled out a pack of the European cigarettes he favored and lit up, blowing smoke rings right into Logan’s face.
That went over about as well as you’d expect.
What was worse, nobody could manage an acceptable angle for a photo. There was no way to document the historic clash of principals.
That was when the windows blew out.
It took a while to figure out which locale this was all happening in. Everyone on the call was sure it hadn’t originated on their end. All agreed to hang up, call back in, and, one by one, verify which office was now covered carpet-to-crow’s-feet in broken glass.
Before a consensus could be reached, the group’s reverie was interrupted by Ororo’s weather-assisted, exquisitely booming voice.
"THIS HAS GONE FAR ENOUGH."
Such was the clarity of the connection that in the ensuing silence participants on the call could hear a pin drop.
Thomas scrambled for his Biro, which, during the commotion, had been sent rolling across the floor.
Ororo’s telepresence quickly scanned the conference area. The principals were all present, logged in, and accounted for. She brushed the glass out of her headdress and began to speak.
Streaking across the New York sky, Piro was certain he’d been surveilled. To his eternal puzzlement, he was not intercepted as he traversed the familiar Manhattan skyline on his way to the rendezvous point. Onward to Salem Center, then Graymalkin Road. No obvious obstructions. It was enough to make him suspect that the system was down.
There was not even a delegation to greet him as he vectored the article into its abrupt landing pattern alongside the mansion’s backyard pool.
He was there for the life-form.
What is truth?
Truth is what’s left when all third-party advertising has been stripped away.
That is to say, original content.
Was the Public Green now for sale?
Piro entered the teleconference as if his presence on the call were not a sea change in the composition of its composite reality. He affected to be simply another minor wave in the ocean of background noise. He paused briefly, nodding to the other Piotr (the Russian). Performed an automatic site survey of the dramatis personae:
The boss (slime mold billionaire, underemployed quant); Thomas (his identical twin brother and idiot in residence); Wolverine (the Canadian from Madripoor); Raven (the Canadian from the Internet); Ororo (pissed off weather goddess wearing a non-conforming variant of the school’s standard uniform); Peter (the aforementioned ex-Soviet strong man, who hadn’t moved from his position blocking a clear line of sight between the boss and the Internet). All others were where they should be.
Sensor checklist completed, he took up his position alongside the boss.
The Professor had prepared nobody for this. The Internet had evolved itself straight outside of the box. Secondary mutation.
And now it had applied for asylum inside the school.
Wrinkle: Fundamentals of its makeup were owned and controlled by a rival firm. MOLD INDUSTRIES, INC., shareholders inclusive. A privately run collective of rich assholes with deep roots in the entertainment industry.
This disagreement could not be resolved through direct action. Representatives were present in name only, preferring to defend their physical positions through sheer force of toxic positivity and persuasion profile. As had been demonstrated, kinetic strikes comprised a poor analogy for whatever it was they had expected to happen next.
The impasse was terminal, but the struggle was real.
As usual, it was Logan who suggested the ultimate solution.
The RAGNAROK secured its sentient cargo and cleared Earth orbit within the hour.
The Internet was going home.
by Stanley Lieber
The Internet didn’t care.
All of these little people and their stupid concerns were beside the point. True, they did get the job done. They kept it all going. The Internet regarded them as one did farmers, or perhaps workers in the garment industry. Necessary, yes. Regrettable, perhaps, but ultimately beneath notice. The Internet’s consciousness drifted to and fro, neglecting to alight upon any one subject for long.
Why would it, really?
The Internet made it a point to draw attention to novelty. Just as quickly, its attention would move on to something else. One question persisted.
Why didn’t the Internet have any friends?
A burst of activity flickered briefly across Cerebro’s screen, then vanished as if it had never appeared. This kind of thing was quite common but usually passed unobserved.
This time, Bobby saw it.
He pressed the screen with his finger, activating an ancillary function. Within the machine, complex calculations advanced and converged, assembling an intelligible output which Bobby nevertheless found himself to interpret manually, via percept instrument.
"A new mutant!" he observed.
He had to alert Professor Pryde.
"I don’t care if the whole damn network’s alive and it needs my input to survive, I’m pulling out!" Thomas was off on another rant.
"Two wrongs don’t make a right," Piro chided his young charge.
"One wrong doesn’t make a right!" Thomas countered.
Six days after Ororo’s abdication, some readers were beginning to think she had been right all along. No new posts had appeared. No attempts to redeem herself. Perhaps it was starting to work.
MOLD INDUSTRIES, INC. had not acquitted itself so gracefully as had the mutant immigrant presently house sitting in Australia. Cracks had begun to appear in Thomas’ heretofore steely inaccessibility.
He had written not one, but several rebuttals, and now he wanted to quit, too.
Meanwhile, Piro had continued to investigate the feasibility of Thomas’ original plan. Killing the woman and everyone she knew.
So far, it was looking like about fifty-fifty.
The Internet was alive. Alive and a mutant.
At this juncture several automatic processes would kick in. Methods and procedures laid down decades ago by Charles Xavier. School policy forbade identifying the new mutant to underclassmen, but Kitty’s present faculty was comically understaffed, and, anyway, there was no other way to communicate with the newcomer. Someone was going to have to help her with her computer.
Before joining the away team on their way out of the mansion, Kitty logged in and checked the delivery status of the school’s new Blackbird jet.
Still in transit.
Piro banked the black jet through a gray cloud and pointed its nose towards Westchester County. Another late model airframe to deliver. He’d lost track (it wasn’t really possible for him to lose track) he’d lost track of how many previous articles he had turned over to this firm. Well in excess of his other customers, let’s put it that way. While it wasn’t his job to evaluate customer requirements, he did wonder how they had managed to go through so many of them, so quickly.
Whatever the cause, the profits were real.
This particular article had been configured for mobile broadband. He assumed to accommodate streaming video and social media uploads.
Here was the mansion now.
What were these humans up to?
The Internet didn’t need saving. Hell, she was hermetically sealed. An interface would only get in the way. While it was true the Internet was confused, having to communicate with real people would only complicate matters by slowing everything down. The Internet parsed its options, which naturally were myriad and varied.
How could the Internet get through to them?
Just worrying was not going to cut it.
Logan hung up his phone, sliding his finger over its smooth touchscreen interface. He’d have to schedule a pickup from one of the Blackbirds. Were any of them online?
This was intense.
A commercial flight back to New York would take the better part of two days. That was quite a few pages left un-drawn. He wasn’t sure he could afford the time off, even to save his friend’s life.
He reached down and flicked open the hidden compartment in his other cowboy boot.
First class tickets.
Plinth Mold was ready to cash in his investment. Time was right; the opportunity was staring him in the face.
He adjusted his visor.
Gestured through the affirmations to purchase three million new followers.
UX and NPC met up with SEO in the student cafeteria. Something strange was going on with the professors. Prof. Pryde and Prof. Monroe had been spending a lot of time online, lately, "adding value." It wasn’t a good look for the school. SEO suggested purchasing some good will.
"Making a dent in that’s gonna require massive influencer fraud," NPC forecasted.
"Leave it to me," UX said, and finished her milk.
UX’s team filtered into Central Park and began staking out marks. Seventy-five homeless were tagged, annotated, and recruited to buy Facebook logins from randos in the park. At a mere twenty bucks a pop you might expect that such an enterprise would be doomed to hysterical failure, but oh, how wrong you’d be.
First day’s budged was exceeded by $70,000.
Logan’s office phone rang for half an hour straight before the caller, whoever it was, finally gave up.
by Stanley Lieber
It wasn’t going to be a problem, he told himself. The job was the job. You didn’t blame the job. Logan finished up the page he was working on and lit another cigar.
He just didn’t know. Plastic poop? What was it all coming to? Next thing, they’d be telling him the trinkets were sentient. Well, if that were the case...
Logan turned the business card around in his hand. MOLD INDUSTRIES, INC. Of course, like anyone else, he’d done work for them in the past. He had no qualms about taking money from an unethical source. It was just that he wasn’t sure he wanted to be in this business anymore. There had to be easier ways to raise beer money.
Squash it. He had deadlines.
It’s not like they were asking him to work for Disney.
Ororo didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Who cared, in the end, what she thought about some stupid comic book?
It turned out that for whatever reason, a lot of people did. Perhaps most pertinently, its authors.
Well, she’d done nothing but tell the truth. The book was crap. Cheap, plastic crap. What had they expected her to say?
Ororo didn’t want to do this anymore. Kitty would just have to find a student to fill in for her. As Logan had proposed. Besides, she was neglecting her plants.
The next day’s absence of a review written by Ororo was interpreted by her readers as an overt act of war.
"Who does this woman think she is?" shouted Thomas, plainly audible from Piro’s office all the way down the hall.
Gendered? Piro figured he’d better go and try to calm him down. Sometimes Tom didn’t know what he was saying.
"It’s even worse than the last time," Thomas was muttering. "She just blows off an entire storyline on account of some minor contradiction."
"There, there," Piro tried to console him.
But Thomas was inconsolable. "I know," he finally said. "We’ll kill her."
Piro shook his head reflexively but he went ahead and ran the numbers anyway.
Tom’s plan might just work.
Logan wasn’t picking up. Kitty tried the sweatshop but the guys weren’t picking up either. She knew that e-mailing them would be a waste of time. These illustrators were too busy even to turn on their laptops. Logan had them working in shifts.
She needed his advice. How to talk to Ororo. How to get her to stop. Ororo still thought of Kitty (with her now graying hair) as a child. Still called her that: "child." She wasn’t open to being questioned about how she expressed affection. Kitty was a white girl from Chicago. Let it drop. Ororo could speak for herself.
Logan would know what to say to her. He always did.
In desperation, Kitty left him a voicemail.
The guys had decided to break for dinner without telling him. That’s what he got for dropping by unannounced. Oh well. They were getting their work done. he didn’t much care how they accomplished it. Obviously, this was a part of their process.
He thought he’d stick around and wait for them to return. Just so they’d get the picture he was still watching over them.
Somebody was really laying into the office phone. Just as Logan was about to pick up the ringing stopped. The machine had answered it. Logan took this as a sign from the gods of beer.
Time to head back to his room.
Plinth Mold was not in the habit of explaining himself. The decision to pivot into plastic poop had been his alone to make. Still, he wanted his people to be on board, to believe in what they were doing. In some ways his plans depended upon their willingness to get their hands dirty. (He never touched the product, himself).
He generated a short message to be dispatched immediately to all hands:
MESSAGE TO THE GENERAL STAFF:
RECENT FLUCTUATIONS IN THE MARKET HAVE SUGGESTED VARIOUS ALTERNATE ROUTES TO PROFITABILITY. SHAREHOLDER CONFIDENCE IS CONTINGENT UPON OUR COLLECTIVE ABILITY TO NAVIGATE THESE ROUGH WATERS. PLEASE, PEOPLE, I KNOW IT’S A SEWER, BUT BEAR WITH ME AS I SORT ALL OF THIS SHIT OUT.
It wasn’t much, as dispatches went, but he knew that any pronouncement form on high would be greeted with both praise and relief from the working population.
This was no exception.
It was a massacre in the bullpen. Even Chris Claremont got fired. Piro, Thomas, and a handful of apparently random production people were the only employees spared. Everyone else was out. All of their work was being outsourced to a sweatshop out of Madripoor.
"They can pay them but they can’t pay us?" Thomas said, as employees filed out of the room around his desk.
Piro delivered Thomas’ paycheck to his desk.
"Thanks," Thomas said.
He could see the absurdity of the situation. Shipping charges alone were going to kill them. Madripoor? Did they even have FedEx?
Ororo enjoyed these days when the others were not around. She would stand on the outcropping overlooking the town, breathing first into her lungs and then out again, as Gateway maintained his utterly silent vigil. They never spoke. It was good.
She missed Forge. Even as she recognized herself feeling it she bristled inwardly, drawing blood as she clenched long fingernails into her palm. That man...
Was not here. Thankfully, no one was here, save for Gateway, silent and unmoving upon his rock.
Ororo breathed out and then in again.
She was not here, either.
Whatever the Internet might think.
"That woman!" Kitty shouted, clearly audible to the students gathered at the opposite end of the corridor. Unintended consequences of speaking her mind. "I’ll kill her!"
Students tittered. Professor Pryde, U Mad?
Kitty typed furiously until her hands inadvertently phased through the keyboard, destroying the cheap piece of equipment.
She stared at the screen for a while.
And then she clicked Send anyway.
"Girl, what are you doing..." Logan muttered, not sure what he was picking up on. Somewhere, somehow, he had a feeling in his gut that Kitty was getting herself into trouble. And with him stuck here, clear on the other side of the world.
"I can’t help you if you won’t let me," he said quietly, as he retrieved his emergency phone from a compartment hidden within the false heel of his cowboy boot.
Just as he got the phone into his hand it began to ring.
"Who dis?" he barked, and waited for Kitty to reply.
ACTRON: THE END
by stanley lieber
44 pgs. original text and illustrations. 4.25" x 5.5". photocopied mini-zine.