by Stanley Lieber
But first, this.
It was Ralph, no doubt about it. Thomas hadn’t seen him since the summer after sixth grade. Nobody had. They’d all hated him beyond any reasonable accounting for taste. Point of fact, hadn’t he died, or something? Thomas felt certain he would have heard about it if anyone from the old team had spotted Ralph before they, themselves, had retired. He could be forgiven his stunned disassociative stupor—nobody would have expected Ralph to survive for two and a half decades on his own.
Thomas shrugged. Sometimes it was precisely those guys who had to struggle at everything who ended up making the best operators. They never gave up, never stopped trying. There was no habitual surrender with them, no sundry moral misgivings to distract them from the mission.
And what was Ralph’s mission, here?
Evidently, to interfere, to cause confusion and delay within Thomas’ government.
He’d better step in before Piotr killed the poor, hardworking idiot.
But first, he had to go potty.
Thomas had made good progress holding it between scheduled breaks, but his latest performance review indicated some spotting in his big boy trousers. He guessed they had detected his little accidents through some kind of embedded sensor array. A haptic diaper. He had loved those leather pants, and it had torn him apart inside to cut them up, searching for the concealed surveillance apparatus. Which he didn’t even find. Well, that just meant it was time to go shopping.
Thomas approached the head, his visor scanning the entrance for signs of recent visitors. He followed the floor into the men’s room, still unconvinced by the seeming cleanliness of the facility. It just didn’t make sense. Shrugging, he unzipped his fly and edged closer to a randomly selected urinal.
Aw, man, it was too late.
"Again?" Piotr asked.
"Fuck off," Thomas groused, embarrassed.
Ralph was still laying there, on the ground. Bruised, but apparently alive.
"I couldn’t get anything out of him," Piotr said, and climbed off of the Little Green Man. He shook up a Grap Pop and cracked it open, directing the overflow as it spurted all over Ralph’s prostrate pre-carcass.
"Hey," Ralph complained, "This gear was expensive."
"Shut up, Ralph," Piotr said.
Dr. James Joyce Fadd arrived at DET-86 shortly thereafter, flanked by two assistants Thomas didn’t recognize. They were there to work with Ralph. Some initial trouble with Dr. Fadd’s login credentials, but within a few hours they were all whizzing downward through the subbasements, even below the government, to a neighborhood Thomas had never seen before. Nice place. Dr. Fadd appeared to know where he was going. As usual, Piotr stared straight ahead and said nothing. Thomas tried to do the same. After a while he tried to whistle, but it seemed he had forgotten how.
No doubt it had been expensive to clear the area above ground in preparation for apprehending Ralph, but all would likely prove worth it in the end. Even if Ralph wasn’t consciously aware of much, quite a lot could be gleaned from the caches in his pressure suit. In spite of the Gray Pop, Ralph’s gear was mostly clean, and still in working order. All in all, Thomas reasoned, a sound investment.
One remaining detail troubled him.
Why had Ralph signed up with the enemy?
by Stanley Lieber
"And rookies ain’t the only ones that drop"
— Threat, Color Blind
DET-86, Mars. 1984.
"No, see, Gaff has to be human," Thomas was saying. "Some or most of them might already be gone, but I refuse to surrender this notion that a handful of especially clever humans have set the machines against themselves. Dekard can be a synthetic, fine, but surely you can agree that Gaff is, at the very least, his handler. And so here’s my pitch for the third movie: Deckard does indeed leave Earth for the Off-World Colonies, where he arrives, years or decades later, having been misrouted during transit. The recipient takes delivery and immediately switches him back on, then, surprise for Deckard, here’s another human being, his contact, apparently, telling him all about the Blackout Event (circa 2022) that wiped out all human life on Earth. Only problem is, half the machines left on the ground don’t realize they’re machines. Gaff’s controllers, whoever they might be, are folding their fingers into hand tents, grinning keenly, as one-half the replicant population hunts the other half to extinction. Neat as you like."
"Anyway, fuck movies," Thomas said. "Let’s go outside and play."
Thomas popped the latch on his lookout and scanned the horizon. All clear. He made a foothold with his gloved hands, and boosted Piotr up, out of the hole, into the pink sand. The sand was coarse, and irritating. It got everywhere. There would be no shortage of irritations in this life, but of course Thomas had known that when he signed up.
Piotr double-checked with his binoculars, sliding his eyes across the sand formations that appeared like subliminal breasts airbrushed into the background of a rock album cover. The bitch in the dunes was laughing at his expense.
"She’s gone," Piotr said.
"No surprise, after what we pulled. Let’s give her a few days to cool off, eh?"
"Why?" Piotr asked.
It was fine to sell coke to the government. The supply was provably infinite, and, anyway, it made the legislature happy. It helped them to forget about ever going home. Call it a perk of the office.
Strictly speaking, the government was meant to be kept squirreled away, sequestered levels below the so-called drug area, but it was still easy enough for him to make deliveries by hand. Thomas would be visiting in the course of his duties, either way. Call it an obligation of rank.
Not that Thomas bothered to justify himself, either out loud or in his head. Reader, it was not for him to think such thoughts. Suffice to say that he fulfilled the requirements of his lofty position within acceptable parameters. And he’d recently been promoted, so he must be doing something right. Call it a day.
Piotr continued to monitor for errors. They had to be coming from the customer side. Soon enough, he spotted them. The Little Green Men.
"There go those motherfuckers right there," he whispered into his collar mic.
Thomas couldn’t see them. Still fiddling with his visor.
"I can’t see them," he admitted. "But you go ahead. I’ll catch up with you as soon as this update completes."
"If it ever does," he added, under his breath. Signal here could be stronger.
Piotr adjusted the angle of his pistol slightly, aligning it more precisely with the throat of his quarry, the recently subdued point man of the Little Green Men. He was sitting on the man’s chest, and the pink dust was still settling around them. As ever, he held his smile in reserve.
"I—I didn’t think you’d recognize me," sputtered the Little Green Man, his accent fluctuating now, admittedly under duress, additionally muddled by his years spent abroad, toiling inexpertly behind a physical computer keyboard.
Piotr didn’t respond.
The silo reminded him of home. No, not the Chrysler Building, not even West Berlin, but the humble depths of the downtown missile silo in Manhattan where he’d grown up. Though he never remarked upon it out loud, Piotr often reminded him of his long lost childhood friend, Peter.
Also, there was that guy at summer camp. The combatives instructor.
Thomas couldn’t keep them straight in his head. He was bad with names, and also, faces. Presently, he became distracted by the next item on his agenda, and abruptly dropped the pleasant reminiscence, retaining no memory of its passing.
The Senate was moving to new chambers.
THE PUNISHER: LIBRARY #1
by Stanley Lieber
8 pgs, 2.6mb
by Stanley Lieber
They came when he wasn’t ready. He wasn’t quite awake, and so he wasn’t quite sure if this was all a part of the usual nightmare of sleeping, or if it was something truly frightening. Big hands removed him from his bed, dressed him in clothing appropriate for the weather, and blindfolded him. This last detail seemed superfluous—casual investigation would have revealed his eyesight was already less than reliable.
Bundled into a small space, he detected the compartment was moving. He might be in the trunk of a car, or the cargo hold of an aircraft. His captors never spoke, but SL sensed there were at least three participants in the kidnapping. He was pretty sure that at one point he had counted six hands groping his Cross Colours all at the same time.
Somebody turned on the radio, which made it worse. Evidently one of his captors agreed because the cacophony was quickly replaced by tradecraft talk radio, which they all endured for the duration of the (it turned out) six hour journey. SL would have preferred the fingersnaps and popping sounds of country music.
Snapping awake in his new office, SL could tell that whomever had occupied it before him had left in a hurry. Or in any case they had left all of their belongings in their cube. After banging his elbows on various swag he swept the most egregious offenders into his trash bin.
SL scanned the open plan office, its hundreds of similarly abandoned desks spread out over an entire floor of the building like trash. He noted from the view of the city skyline that he was still in Megatokyo. Maybe he’d never even taken him out of the building?
Whatever, back to work. Heading up today’s agenda was the task of drafting a reply to a recent request for—
Doors clacked, followed by two sets of footsteps. Each growing steadily louder as they approached his position near the center of the big room.
A tap on the shoulder.
It was an interrogation, all right. He’d sent out a message to the group that had been intercepted by H.R., and now it was going to be his time in the barrel. They’d go over the message line by line, together, as many times as it took to get to the bottom of SL’s unpersonlike behavior. Right to the bottom of the barrel.
Not that he was complaining. No person was an island, no person was immune to criticism, and every single person needed help from time to time. He was always willing to learn whenever the company had something to teach.
But this time it would not be so simple.
They wanted to know about West Berlin.
by Stanley Lieber
The RIVET RIVET program at OL-DET 9 quickly yielded results. Several fresh frog memes were acquired and modified by the staff to accommodate a variety of specific mission requirements. Deployment would be contingent upon the needs of the mission planners, who were in constant contact with program managers at the operating location. Meme techs were insulated from the bureaucracy by SL.
The techs had gone so far as to incorporate a photo of SL’s face into several of their newest memes, and had proceeded to paint, stamp, sculpt, scratch, and otherwise post the SL frog far and wide, until his frog-ified face had become synonymous in some circles with the program’s official product.
As OL-DET 9’s reputation spread throughout the company, department heads, second lines (and above), project managers, sales reps, and marketing evangelists all began to request their own tasking of SL’s obscure new capability. The small bespoke shop was soon inundated with non-mission critical work, leading to an epidemic of fatigue and burnout amongst his men. SL relieved the pressure by changing the shop’s name and moving everyone up to a different floor within the company’s sprawling vertical complex.
At long last, upward mobility.
And so, the Emotional Intelligence Support Activity (EISA) arrived on the 17th floor with morale intact. The place seemed to have been deserted at some time during the past century (a distinct possibility, given the upward rise of executive talent during the building’s frequent growth spurts). Abandoned amidst the deep pile carpeting and dark wood paneling loitered similarly anachronistic, classic advertising, pitching iconic products such as epidural antidepressants and holding company background checks. Spam it all, SL and his boys had arrived.
The lateral elevator dinged, and a stream of newly hired bit players filed contiguously off the EISA bus.
SL waved them all through.
Depot maintenance for his office chair. In the absence of shiatsu massage, SL wandered the open floor plan of his production facility as programmers, bug testers, design techs, and other registered autists prairie-dogged his progress through the restricted zone. Nobody wanted him to see what they were (not really) up to. It figured, SL figured. He wasn’t so far gone that he couldn’t recall his own musings upon the fact that micromanagement was the enemy of all progress. He tried to observe as unobtrusively as possible.
"The observer effect," remarked one of his men, suddenly and quite startlingly standing right beside him.
SL turned his eyes toward the executive lounge without responding to the jibe. His visor had been turned off, he had wanted to say, but this time he decided to keep his mouth shut as he retreated from abject humiliation.
Let them make of it what they will.
RIVET RIVET: FLASHBACK: ORIGINS was a sub-group within the program, tasked with documenting its parent’s progress. The result of their work was circulated via the program’s internal mail system. Field agents paid cover price, while managers filed multiple copies for free (one to read, one to later sell, and one to be slabbed for posterity). Their product was often controversial: history was not just a matter of writing things down, but a process of teasing out nuance from the collective activity of nearly a hundred uncommunicative specialists. The tension between reality and the written word was palpable. The office was stuffy, and these people had all been hired under relaxed grooming standards.
After much internal debate, SL assigned himself the task of compositing the program’s official historical narrative.
Working title: RIVET RIVET: HISTORY IS WRITTEN BY THE MANAGERS.
by Stanley Lieber
So there were at least two projects. Maybe more. SL figured he couldn’t be the only one in charge. Probably he wasn’t the only one multitasking, either. He thought that he might get away with some overlap in personnel if he selected for competence and managed the contractual language with skill, but he was careful not to sashay too far down that road—compartmentalization was next to godliness, and, counting himself, there would already be one person aware of what he was up to.
"I’m from the projects," he would mutter whenever he wasn’t reciting other dialogue.
He didn’t get it.
"I’m from the projects," Aij recited hesitantly but firmly into his shoulder mic. He heard a heavy mechanical click and then the door to his lab slowly began to swing inward, its substantial weight grinding dumbly against the concrete floor. Aij sashayed across the threshold and was immediately detained by a representative of the lab’s security staff, who, eager to apply a contractually precise measure of force, stepped hard on Aij’s Birkenstocks and caused him to stumble several paces backwards on his now sandal-less, black-stockinged feet.
"You’re not on my list," said the rep.
"Hey, asshole," Aij stepped back into his sandals, "I’m just coming back from lunch. You waved me out of here yourself an hour ago."
"Sir, you’re not on my list."
The rep’s hand hovered mere centimeters above his holster. The confrontation had escalated quickly.
Aij decided it wasn’t worth it. He retreated into the big chamber outside of his lab and put in another ticket for his manager, who would not be happy to hear from him again so soon after his last plea for unnecessary help.
It was his lab.
He’d been promoted. Upcycled. Which of course meant no more access to his old work. A neat solution to the largest loophole in the Peter Principle. Cut off from his old sphere of influence, he could no longer tamper with the principals still locked inside it.
He quickly surmised that his new assignment was in fact congruent to what he’d been working on before. Or maybe it was symmetrical—he was bad with visual metaphors. Stipulate that the two projects were related. Aij realized with a familiar sinking feeling that much of his effort had already been duplicated here by other fledging savants, each toiling alone, happily churning out innovations in blessed isolation from the rest of the company. He wondered just how many of them had ever suspected there was a higher power coordinating the whole abysmal procession—a new awareness he’d found himself harnessed to through no real fault of his own.
Probably, he realized, nobody cared.
In this way, Operating Location Detachment 9 stood itself up with a minimum of fuss. Even though some of the contributors doubtless wondered about the underlying scheme, nobody said a word. SL was at first incredulous, but as the years endlessly scrolled by, everything continued to... work. One didn’t tend to interrogate one’s effortless successes too harshly. Maybe the bigger picture really was an irrelevance in the greater scheme of things. Maybe his guys were doing all right.
He was sure he couldn’t say.
by Stanley Lieber
Aij’s first day at the company was uneventful by any measure. He had begun to wonder if he’d made the right decision accepting the job. Massive Fictions was a publisher of lies—that is, stories, magazines, and books (inclusive) blatantly incompatible with material reality as he understood it. Ridiculous, some would say trumped-up, nonsense sandwiched between salacious covers, pawned off on an unsuspecting public at reasonable, irresistible prices. Bargain basement bullshit. Harmful, Q.E.D.
Aij sat at his lunch table and surveilled the assembled personnel, evaluating each at a glance for the usual criteria: signs of good breeding, physical attractiveness, and general suitability for the work (exclusive). Most of them appeared to be left-handed. Why?
The cafeteria was filling up from the lunch rush. He’d chosen the moment deliberately — maximum engagement, forced face-to-face fuckery. He was daring himself to get on with it.
Time to meet his colleagues.
The requirement called for an operating system small enough to be understood by its implementers, obscure enough to pass undetected beneath the noses of management. Cin had already proven the concept by working for months on the unauthorized software at his day job, completely ignoring the company policies with which he personally disagreed.
SL formed the fingers of his data gloves into a metaphorical tent, triggering a near-instantaneous response from the software.
Cin didn’t work for his company.
Levels of classification above SL’s occluded awareness, other officials at his company were also making hand tents, some of them literal. Peering down from their rarefied heights, progress was being monitored by responsible parties, parties responsible for allowing or denying the project to continue. In accordance with best practices, members of the project at the lowest levels were of course aware that they were under constant surveillance, but the precise details of how it was accomplished were left vague. The system worked, provided local project managers at each successive level didn’t lose the plot.
And who paid for all the flowers? The basic technology had been public domain for more than a century, but still the materials and labor cost money, so specific implementations usually remained proprietary. One didn’t simply grow a public housing project out of the green-ness of their heart. There had to be some significant expectation of a profit in order for the effort to take off. But that implied competence, which everyone knew was in short supply...
SL wasn’t particularly invested in the answer to his question, but considering its many angles did occupy his otherwise restless glandular system for the duration of the lateral move back to his dormitory apt. He knew for certain that the money hadn’t come from him, and that seemed to imply—
And he was home.
There were messages. SL didn’t bother to turn on his music. This was more work than they’d dumped on him in years, and some memory of green, quickly and efficiently suppressed, suggested that somebody upstairs was probably having a laugh. SL stabbed himself with his pen, superficially wounding his immediate supervisor. See? Over time they would come to an understanding, but in the meantime, this. Ouch.
With any luck it would impact the division’s numbers all the way up the chain.
Dawn in the fields. Sensors collected data. SL was on hand in an unofficial capacity, examining the anxiously bucking rows of young buildings as they strained naturally toward the artificial light. So much potential.
SL liked to spend his mornings here, wandering the unadvertised areas. That is, when he could get away from the office. The new work had remained steady for months, commandeering steadily more of his otherwise free time. These days, simply making it over to the housing nurseries was something of a personal victory. He was seldom disappointed. The little fellows sure did try hard, and they did it all without calendars or reminders. In this climate he didn’t consider it an insult.
SL headed back to his office as the morning mist abruptly transitioned to bright sunlight.
Aij put on a brave face but he was dying inside. No one had acknowledged his attempts to integrate. No one was meeting him halfway. It was almost as if his peculiar qualities had not even been observed, which, while admittedly unlikely, still galled him to no end.
He fit the profile.
One of SL’s new duties was the care and feeding of such raw, unfiltered talent; to wit: promising new recruits such as Aij. Part of his daily routine (after visiting the building farms) was to scan the daily manifests for new arrivals. He saw that one of his co-conspirators had helpfully underlined Aij’s entry in red. When SL flashed on this he swiped away all the other entries and cleared his schedule for the rest of the day.
This one was already half-done.
Next morning, a priority directive from above admonished:
You are to complete the work assigned to you each day. Do not cherry-pick from the worklist.
SL was duly chastened, but there was no real penalty for getting work done.
He kept going.
by Stanley Lieber
Meguro, Indiana. 2179.
One hundred and thirty years later SL was still sitting at the same desk. To be fair, it hadn’t really felt like that long.
The building had changed. Over the past century they’d re-grown the whole thing around him. Twice. His penthouse dormitory was no longer a penthouse, and his view of the city had been almost entirely obscured by the artfully ivied walls of nearby new construction. His office hadn’t moved an inch but somehow he’d sunk below the windowsill of the city. Stationary, he was moving on down.
Yes, this was precisely the career stasis he had feared, all those many decades ago. His stature in the company had sagged, sliding all the way down the stem to its hilt.
Well, so what? He was allergic to flowers anyway.
It was under these depressing conditions that SL carried out his martial simulations. Violence having been long ago monopolized by the state, SL staged elaborate, semi-covert orchestrations of the movements of his coworkers, who were each and every one of them reliably unaware that they were being thus moved. The data was still good. SL struggled to hold it all in his head. Logging was disabled by default.
Up and down the building he pivoted them, diagonally, sideways, in impossible directions. The interface was still experimental, the results still frustratingly inconsistent. But what successes he did enjoy were encouraging. He was confident now that in the event of an office fire he would be able to get everyone out alive.
Well, managers liked their little jokes. It gave them a focus for their consciences in the absence of explicit corporate policy. Whatever, he objected to the very notion of growing buildings. Next they’d be saying the buildings possessed certain inalienable rights, were living things, all on account of their technically being alive. And that was the problem in a nutshell, wasn’t it? Why, at this rate, anyone could be alive. The implications were obvious and troubling.
From time to time he would experiment with bitterness such as this but he found that he couldn’t sustain the bad mood. Such fashions in comportment had always seemed to him shallow. Where was the fire?
It was all grist for the simulations.
Six hundred feet above Meridian St. SL sipped his tea and waited to retire.
Nobody came to his office. Hey, in this economy?
"In this economy?" Michael said. There was that phrase again. Some things never changed. SL scanned the executive lounge but there was no one else around. He bit his lip. Then he bit it again. Who was steering this guy, anyway?
Perhaps sixty years earlier, SL had said something stupid in front of Michael, who had never forgiven him the professional indiscretion. This had cascaded over the decades into a continuous ticker tape of condescension and blatant insults that SL found at once befuddling and somewhat less than endearing. SL’s younger self, through some considerable effort, had retained his monopoly over idiotic statements, even in the face of some considerable competition. Perhaps Michael was jealous of that, too. These guys both knew intimately the boat they were in.
"Money is perhaps the most beneficial technology yet devised by man," SL observed, ready but less than anxious to mount a defense of the obvious.
Michael looked at SL as if he were stupid, fifteen years old, negotiating his first dalliance with a shaving kit. The old familiar facial expression, by now as natural as a spring blossom.
And maybe SL was stupid. This was nothing to discuss at work.
Over the decades it seemed more and more of SL’s friends were becoming managers. Shedding their contracts, assuming the shiatsu comforts of the big chair. Some of them had achieved a firmer grip on the controls than others. Even Kurt had—
The dead dog moved in the background.
Cin closed up his desk and pivoted to the task of getting the fuck out of his office for the day. The place had made him miss home, which was really saying something. The pollen made his nose hurt. Green particles dislodged from ejectors at each intersection of the network ley lines, making everyone in the office miserable. Dropped connections abounded.
The walk home always took forever, but at least there was kebab. Cin liked kebab but he didn’t like to walk. It was one of the many compromises he allowed himself in the furtherance of his career.
Breakcore! Cin’s apt greeted him with the usual track, cranked up to full volume. He didn’t bother to turn it down. Already climbing into his memory chair, he’d hack out fixes and features until it was time to return to the office. Fuck sleep, and fuck his non-compete. Prost!
In the morning Cin closed up his apt and walked back to the office, stopping not once, but twice for additional kebab. Cube fuel.
"No way you’re bringing that in here," scolded his manager, frowning and gesturing at the kebab. Also blocking the doorway. Cin fished out his override and shut the manager down, watched as he tumbled to the carpet, then ankled his way around the crumpled crap-ass and climbed into his cube.
Started getting things done.
The dead dog sniffed the corpse of the flower and climbed through its pages.
He was no longer afraid.
by Stanley Lieber
"If everybody’s from Megatokyo then nobody’s from Megatokyo."
Nistopher again. He’d come over to SL’s apt after his last day at work, and now, beer in hand, he held forth on matters personal and political.
"Citizenship’s not a zero sum game," SL offered, evenly. "The whole world could join Megatokyo, who cares?"
"Everybody who lives somewhere else," Nistopher countered wistfully and sipped his beer. He poured some of it out on his hand, made a fist. Slammed it down on the kitchen sink. "I used to live somewhere else."
"Well, now that you’re no longer tied to the company maybe you can think about living somewhere else, again."
"In this economy?" was all Nistopher could muster. He stared out the kitchen window, straining through the greasy fingerprints on his visor. His eyes crossed.
SL stole a glance at the wall clock.
"Say, why don’t we move this into the living room. Maybe we can pick up a signal from the office before they start shutting down for the day. I’ve got something I want to show you."
"Don’t let me catch you off that Internet again." Nistopher was imitating the raspy, cigarette ravaged voice SL affected (SL had never smoked) with his subordinates at work. He staggered and nearly toppled SL’s rickety old CRT display. Haha.
"Okay, good one, buddy," SL said, patting his old cubemate on the shoulder. There had to be some way to get him out of here before he puked on the carpet, or on one of his vintage mechanical keyboards. In addition, SL still had to go to work in the morning. What to do?
"I tell you," Nistopher told him, "I don’t know if I’ll be coming back." He was bargaining now with chips that had already been taken away from him. "And that woman can kiss my ass." Here Nistopher referred to their mutual manager, whom SL had also found it hard to get along with. He seemed to be reaching the series finale of his long-running soliloquy, piloted and premiered so many years ago, so SL nodded one last time and patted his ex-coworker’s arm a bit more firmly, locking the door as Nistopher finally exited the apt. Roll credits.
That could have gone better, SL thought, but at least it was over.
SL tapped his visor and shut himself down for the night.
Fell asleep thinking about his 401K.
Promotion. They moved SL up to the second floor. It was very much like the first floor, only with windows. From his desk SL could just make out his car in the strangely-extant, open-air parking lot. There were not a lot of two-story buildings left in this part of the city.
Work was okay. Now he managed the fellow who had moved into his old position down on the first floor. His one and only direct report. Not a recipe for swift advancement, but he’d been promised more direct reports in the next quarter.
On the day of the big fire SL tried to make sure his man made it out of the building safely. That was what you did and that was who you did it for—the man beside (or in this case, under) you. Managers on the second floor were able to break their windows and leap onto the street, some suffering broken ankles, but all surviving the calamity. Most everyone on the first floor was trapped, locked in by the failing security system. Those few who dared venture up the stairwell would later find that their employment had been terminated even before they had jumped out the window. Insurance would not cover their injuries.
SL’s man did not survive. He’d seen a handful of his coworkers running up the stairs but elected not to deviate from company policy. SL had already decided to let him pass, but his man never appeared.
SL’s hands were tied. There was nothing he could do.
A year or so later, promoted again. SL now had his own button on the lateral elevator, which transported him directly to his desk. (All right, everybody used the same button, but when SL pushed it he was delivered to his own desk.)
The building was further downtown, in the heart of the city, and was very much taller than the firebombed wreckage of his old office in the two-story walk-up. This place had history. Gravitas. Balls. A hundred years ago it had been hoisted up, twisted on its base, and then drilled back down into the earth nearly a block down the street. And that was only foreplay, foreshadowing the renovations that would ultimately climax in its grateful reception as the tallest building in Megatokyo, fully six times its original height, eclipsing even the twirling spire of the Shit Emoji Tower across the street. In a city full of tall buildings this place was very fucking tall, indeed.
Advertising on and around the building was minimal, smoothly textured, and mostly generated in-house, which distinguished his company from its many neighboring competitors, each of whose headquarters stood veined with uncurated spam, great marbled sprouts straining futilely towards an indifferent gray sky.
SL’s new job was hard to pin down. He came in to work. He logged in to his meetings. When it came his turn he read form his notecard, valiantly straining credulity, but he had no clear sense of his task. As a senior executive he enjoyed the use of a bunk in the penthouse dormitory, so even the ride to his desk every morning seemed pointless, ostentatious. Why did he bother coming in at all? He always arrived at the same conclusion: his desk was too large and his chair was uncomfortable.
But, it seemed to suit him, and generally he was not unhappy enough with the trajectory of his career to try and make any drastic change.
In his spare time he began to work on his resume, surrendering to the contour of his immediate past, typing and re-typing each draft on his absurd manual typewriter, feeding each resulting hardcopy into his personal paper shredder. He captured one such performance in a picture frame and set it up to cycle indefinitely, facing in toward himself on his desk.
Occassionally he thought about West Berlin.
by Stanley Lieber
Note: You can’t find this shit in a handbook.
— Ice Cube, How To Survive In South Central
Megatokyo, Indiana. 2049.
SL was back at work. Tough interrogation re: his furlough in West Berlin. Well, it sure as shit wasn’t this place, if you know what I mean. They knew what he meant. He was already sorry he’d come back. Well, at least the bandwidth here was civilized.
Most of the work he’d left on his desk was still there, now buried under yet more of the same sad stuff, striated sediment that had accumulated through the usual organic processes during his authorized absence. SL waved it all away with a single gesture, slashing at the horizon with his shimmering, gloved hand. Better by half to start from inbox zero.
"Have a good summer?" SL’s friend looked refreshed. First he’d heard from him since the kiss-off in West Berlin. How long had it been, anyway?
"Shut the fuck up," SL said, and emptied his styrofoam cup onto his friend’s new shoes.
Nike AJV. So-called "Moon Boots."
SL was not impressed.
Multicolored tendrils snaking, now vibrating, suddenly tilting ninety degrees to flash on a cross sectional view of flat squares, arranged in an ordered patchwork of checked, fluorescent light. SL could tell because he could see some of the pixels. He moved them around with his eyes, dumbly relying on his gloves for context. Whatever you called it.
Drilling down, he paused intermittently to evaluate random bullet points, loosely guided by company policy and haptic feedback. Some of the material he would ingest consciously, but the bulk of it was archived for later offline perusal. Of course, he’d never get around to it.
At last he unmuted the audio and shuttered his visor, bounding through the remainder at 2.5x suggested playback speed. Continuously distracted by unrelated matters, he had to start over four times. The repetition impacted his retention.
The backlog was brutal. Even with the mandatory six months re-training, he’d still be expected to pick up some of the leads his people had let drop. High risk credit ratings desperate to... whatever it was they were desperate to do. The relevant factor was that in their desperation they were most likely to go in for the pitch—a high interest, unsecured line of credit that stood up pre-charged nearly to its limit. Exceeding the cap incurred exorbitant fees, which was where the company realized its profits. Something like seventy-eight percent of new customers immediately charged their account to its upper limit, which, since they reliably failed to read the fine print, actually pushed them far into the red. Transactions were never denied, and thus the fees began to mount even before the virtual ink on their credit agreements was virtually dry.
SL didn’t care about the minutiae. His actual job was managing the comfort counselors, who serviced the technicians, who in turn interfaced directly with the customers. Most of his time was spent manually copying their efficiency reports into spreadsheets that he e-mailed to his own boss, or, increasingly, firing them for not having logged in that week.
His arms were waving around like there was something wrong with him.
Nobody approached his desk.
The stairwells were left unguarded. As far as SL could tell there was virtually no security, no countermeasures had been deployed to prevent unauthorized staff from moving freely between floors. But this couldn’t have been the company’s intention, and so it simply wasn’t done. By some silent consent to the non-existing policy, managers never even attempted to go upstairs.
Nistopher, one of SL’s peers, was curious. One afternoon he waited until the corridor was empty and casually Nis-walked to the second level. You’ll never believe what happened next. It surprised him, too: a corridor identical to the one he’d just left on the first floor. "As above, so below," Nistopher muttered to himself, and silently returned to his desk, depressed at this inescapable confirmation of the universe’s natural symmetry.
The moment Nistopher had entered the stairwell his employment had been terminated. Owing to a glitch in [redacted] he was not informed for three weeks. He was not to be compensated for the shifts he worked during the interim, either, even though they continued to let him into the building and he continued to do his job.
Nistopher didn’t seem to mind. When they finally got around to telling him he’d been fired, he simply stood up, leaving his desk and personal effects as-is, and walked silently out of the building.
Just like the Rapture, someone cracked, unhelpfully.
SL counted the days until his next vacation. As a manager his time off was subject to the needs of the business. He didn’t have a contract (management were employed "at will"), so all he could do was submit his request and hope that it didn’t get overtaken by events in the field. That was the price of sitting in the big chair with the shiatsu massage.
But there was always a bigger chair. SL’s own boss, when she was not on vacation, wielded her admittedly limited power with a wild and unpredictable caprice, carpet bombing from high altitude. He tried to stay off her radar, even though he was still obliged to touch base, insert input, massage the numbers (shiatsu or no), and reconcile his own receipts at simultaneous, pre-programmed intervals.
He’d better take this train of thought offline.
Megatokyo nodes were popping up all over. Zoo York, ATL, STL, Texas, Michigan, and Oklahoma. "Hell," SL thought, "If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere."
Unigov, the colloquial name adopted by the city of Indianapolis to describe its ever-widening consolidation of node cities worldwide, was finally beginning to function as intended. Better access to EMS shipping leveraged lower prices for everyone. And autonomy had long ago been proven not to work.
West Berlin and other points south had so far escaped being swallowed up into the Yellow Belt. This generated certain opportunities for trade. Margins that could be skated to slice out a meager living, for those unfortunate enough to be frozen out of the Unigov’s sphere of economic influence.
SL was itching to get back.
by Stanley Lieber
The buildings were connected. (All of them?) Underground, like with the forest. For SL it was just another rumor, but he intended to find out for sure.
The foundations of an old school building still occupied the equivalent of a full city block overlooking the town. Here SL located a service tunnel that supposedly joined the school to the covert subterranean network.
Crosstown traffic was light, so SL was able to confirm that the school connected at least to the abandoned hotel-cum-apartment building down the street before he decided it was time for lunch. He unfolded the sandwich and apple slices from his backpack and unscrewed his jumbo thermos of tea, admiring the decrepit architecture of the vast ballroom into which his tunnel had opened. This place, too, was falling apart. He could tell no one had been in here for a while. Even the trash was obsolete.
Same time, different day. SL was having his lunch in the basement of another abandoned building, also connected to the network of tunnels, though this time he wasn’t yet sure exactly which building he’d stumbled into. Ambient lighting was nil. He ate in total darkness.
He could still hear the traffic.
After a month or two he’d managed to map a lot of tunnels. He set it all down on a big piece of graph paper that he folded into triangles and stuffed into his backpack. Sometimes when he’d go to pull out the map, it would snag on one of his contraband pairs of data gloves, dumping them onto the floor. He’d dutifully pick them back up, but there was no signal down here in the tunnels, so he’d just shrug and stow them away again. It did make him feel more secure, knowing they were in there.
Why was he doing this?
By now his map was crisscrossed with densely annotated routes to and from various tourist traps throughout town. He had no intention of ever visiting any of them again. He had no one to share the map with, nor any desire to do so, which he regarded as a sign of progress.
He folded up the map and stuck it into a crack in the tunnel wall.
Back to his previous routine, sitting on the balcony from breakfast until lunch. SL ate his eggs. There was nothing else to do but think. There was nothing else he wanted to do but think. Was this, too, a sign of progress?? The flame of addiction at long last extinguished?
He found that he couldn’t care. The only thing for him to do was to walk into town and search for a new subject to master and then drop. He was confident something would present itself, because something always did.
It might finally be time to go home.
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.
NO COMPUTER #1-8 complete series
Personal writing and collage by Stanley Lieber.
2.75" x 4.25", 16 pgs per issue
$8 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.
ACTRON vy6, #1-3
by Stanley Lieber
2.75" x 4.25", 8 pgs each issue
$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?