by Stanley Lieber
EMBITTERED B-MINUS COMPETITORS
In my capacity as author I have followed the ACTRON characters from second grade until the present day. Both the primary "living" protagonists— Actron, named for an automotive diagnostic tool, and Piro, so called because he was a pirate—were in fact christened by my cousin, Brandon. We collaborated on a succession of half-baked (and usually unfinished) comic book series starting in 1986. ACTRON was the most successful, in the sense that I managed to complete drawing, scripting, reproducing, and distributing at least seven full issues during the initial burst of heedless enthusiasm. Brandon co-plotted (process: we traded off every other comic book page), and, again, insisted upon inking, even though he otherwise did not draw.
As I say, Actron and Piro were and are alive. Writing them is essentially transcribing an ongoing hallucination, although who is doing the hallucinating and who is ultimately being hallucinated eludes me even on a good day.
A few weeks ago I decided to stop.
Around 2003, I resumed writing prose fiction. As an exercise, I strip mined reams of stories churned out since childhood. A chapter from my first book written as an adult, ’Towards Mythologizing The Coming Resurgence Of Covert Warfare,’ was lifted wholesale, barely altered, from a novella I wrote for the Young Author’s Conference in the fifth grade. None of its characters were alive, so to speak, but the voice stood up and walked all by itself. I built upon that skeleton, eventually piling hundreds of pages of semi-related nonsense on top of the frankly inadequate foundation of my grade school writing. Rickety dwelling, no insurance, inhabit at your own risk.
In 2005, I decided to commemorate ACTRON’s 20th anniversary by creating a new ACTRON comic series. Or rather, a new ACTRON comic book. It took the better part of two years to finish this less-than-twenty-page story (with ample assistance from my pal, colorist, and cartoonist in his own right, Pete Toms). Piro and Actron picked up their running dialogue, as if no interruption had occurred, and they haven’t paused for breath since. I continued writing books, comics, zines, short stories, and complaints featuring these same obnoxious characters from my youth. You may have noticed the pattern.
It’s now late 2020, and I’m beyond tired of listening to them. No memory of why I even started.
And you know what?
by Stanley Lieber
2D COLLISION DETECTION
Human minds as the medium for conflicts waged by lower life forms.
Flatland intersecting, obstructing the path of the inevitable ant-crusher. Possibly, intersecting other, geometrically opposed flatlands along the way.
The blocks were projected in "3D." Actually, flat paintings in light of imagined real life constructions. Call them panes.
K.A.R.R. suddenly realized that his visor was just comics.
He took the fucking thing off, looked at it, turned it around in his hands.
Put it back on.
Garthe slammed on the brakes but Goliath was ignoring manual input. If anything the rig seemed to be accelerating. Garthe wrinkled his nose and pushed air through his nostrils as Goliath barreled toward the inert figure laying in the sand. He’d have to pretend this was somehow intentional.
Without warning, haptics kicked back in. Luckily Garthe had never stopped tugging on the steering wheel. Goliath swerved mightily, nearly toppling over, and narrowly avoided flattening K.A.R.R. into a tasteless desert doormat. The rig, however, had become perilously unstable along the way.
That was when Goliath collided with what appeared to be a large rock.
Trailer capsized. Comics everywhere. This strange little fellow rolling around rubbing the wings of his cloak against the pages, oblivious to the danger. How had this been allowed to happen?
Garthe was beside himself. He’d spoiled the whole load. How was he going to explain this to his dad?
Oh, and it hadn’t been a rock that he’d hit, either. Garthe had run over another (smaller) vehicle. Not much left of it now. And, all of his tires were flat.
He stroked his mustache, trying to think of what he could do to salvage the load.
Nothing came to mind.
Comic books were falling from the sky, or rather, many, many pages thereof were pinwheeling carelessly into the sand. K.A.R.R. grasped at them, fascinated. Most of these were from key issues. It was too bad about the condition.
It was too pink out to read. K.A.R.R. gathered up the loose leaves as best he could before they floated away, into the unmarked desert. He had nothing to carry them in, so he ended up folding them into his cloak and heaving them over his shoulder, a back-issue bindle, Martian Santa with his glistening black trash bag.
Meanwhile, back at the scene of Garthe’s final humiliation...
by Stanley Lieber
K.A.R.R.’s own interests were decidedly singleminded. Wherever he went, whatever he was supposed to be doing, he was always on the lookout for new comics. Within this category (comic books) he discriminated freely, snatching up whatever flashy new title looked cool, and ignoring the material he didn’t like. Since most of the planet was covered with sand, and there were few habitations to speak of, he enjoyed few opportunities to exercise the ruthless, discerning razor blade of his taste. Mostly, he sat in his box and re-read the books he already owned.
"We’re just going to go over your numbers for August."
Bonnie on the line. She’d called and interrupted just as K.A.R.R. was starting work. He’d already been told not to charge time for these calls.
"Your efficiency is off."
K.A.R.R. of course knew the reason for this failure. Since his recent suspension for falsifying company records, he had been reporting his time accurately as a matter of principle. How to break it to his boss that the reason she wouldn’t be getting her bonus this month was because he was no longer protecting her?
"What can I do to improve?" he asked, quite earnestly.
"I just feel like people are playing games with their numbers," she said, ignoring the question. "I just want you to know, now is not the time to be playing with your job."
She clicked off.
K.A.R.R. guessed he was now free to get to work.
The new release was coming along, but it was not going to release itself. K.A.R.R. organized his notes and assembled something resembling an orderly accounting of all the changes made since the last release. Some of the commit messages were above his head, but that wouldn’t significantly hinder his ability to sort the list into general categories, alphabetized. Next he would proceed to the crux of his real contribution: selecting the correct cognitive color tone, the precise, faintly audible pitch of the associated propaganda. How to set the whole thing vibrating such that it settled into an auspicious trajectory (rather than being ground into corn meal between the massive, competing gravities of nearby thought constructions) while still remaining legible to the semi-disinterested reader.
He double-tapped the side of his visor, momentarily switching contexts. Fourteen issues were missing from his bind map, and he intended to somehow finish tracking them all down before his nap this afternoon.
Unbeknownst to him, the context switch had triggered an alarm that would be flagged for managerial review.
"This is an investigation meeting," Bonnie announced, peering through a ridiculously oversized visor at K.A.R.R., who returned her confused gaze through the slowly cycling woosh of his own tastefully fitted yellow frames.
"Woosh," K.A.R.R.’s visor said.
"No. More. Personal. Use. Of. Company. Visors." Bonnie tapped her leaf as she read each word. Sentence pronounced, she smiled conspiratorially to herself. She’d made it through the whole thing without having to ask for help.
"Okay," K.A.R.R. lied, and waited for her to continue.
But that was it.
Garthe had loaded up Goliath with comics. The militarized tractor trailer rig was overweight, hauling crates of floppies to be bound, somewhere across state lines. Though how he was supposed tell where the state lines were, out here in the middle of all this pink, remained a god damned mystery.
Black smoke belched from Goliath’s twin smoke stacks. Garthe laughed, seemingly at nothing, the potent evil he usually radiated now focused tightly through his trim mustache and beard. What was his problem, anyway?
He didn’t notice K.A.R.R. laying motionless in the sand until it was too late.
by Stanley Lieber
It was the only time K.A.R.R. had ever fallen asleep in the desert. He was cataloguing his failures vis-à-vis K.I.T.T. when it happened. Started awake just before he hit the ground. Suddenly, he came to, and he was falling.
So, the last time he had bothered, K.I.T.T. had insisted upon pushing even more details lifted from other media. A list of his latest infatuations included: NASCAR, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and, for some reason, the Fawklands War. Some of these would make it into issue three.
K.A.R.R. had rejected NASCAR out of hand, without really knowing what it was about. He guessed that K.I.T.T.’s sources were probably not much better informed, TBQH. Besides, the material was anachronistic. He rolled over in the sand. Why was he even out here?
K.I.T.T.’s susceptibility to whatever half-held interest he currently pursued had been a consistent annoyance. Their books often came out resembling whatever garbage was currently being talked about by the most insipid of K.I.T.T.’s friends. At the same time, K.I.T.T. was incredibly sensitive to criticism. He took disagreements over taste personally, which was why K.A.R.R. was more relieved than surprised when K.I.T.T. inevitably quit the company.
If I am destroyed, so shall you be.
K.A.R.R.’s eyes were blurry. Without his visor he missed quite a lot of detail. Luckily, the landscape consisted primarily of wall-to-wall, undifferentiated pink. Even the sky, at dusk, was more or less the same color. What use would he have had for the increased resolution?
In these moments of relative sensory deprivation, the shapes and whorls he usually tried to ignore would settle down and start to coalesce into a sort of fabliaux. K.A.R.R. considered his visor’s interface to be a metaphor for this process, and not the other way around. But now, perhaps for the first time, he realized that he’d never heard anyone else express it in quite this way. It seemed that whichever direction he faced, he would find himself still affixed to the same monotonously rotating landscape, which seemed immune to revealing its situatedness through mere empirical investigation. Walk too far in any one direction, the motionless/revolving horizon seemed to suggest, and you’d overtake yourself from behind. This was the nature of the world he lived upon. Static, but sinking, spinning.
He was dizzy.
Called Bonnie, who dispatched K.I.T.T. to come and pick him up.
There would be no delay.
by Stanley Lieber
You blame yourself for what you can’t ignore
— The Smashing Pumpkins, Zero
Two hundred years later, commence perpetual dusk.
K.A.R.R. squinted at the flat expanse, incredulous at the monotonous flatness of the horizon. In his head he repeated a snatch of music, culminating in the fragmented lyric: "orgasmic waste for the seven senses." Indeed, he thought. Already he was repeating himself.
He blinked an alternate musical sequence to trigger his memory. Scrolling through the options, he focused upon an unfinished simulacrum and resumed authoring the clip. It was a pitch from middle school for a vintage SNL skit: Chris Farley as the Incredible Hulk. The transformation sequence from the 1970s show, Farley in civilian clothes roiding out into Farley as the Hulk. Only, Farley wasn’t ragequitting his western style snap shirt and denims slacks, he was simply yawning. Shirt rips. Pants rip. Cut to a shot of his eyes, bloodshot from lack of sleep. Face going slack, not angry but exhausted. The skit was humorous because Farley was famously, morbidly obese.
K.A.R.R. saved his progress, kicked off a test render, and took a long pull from his bubble pipe.
Nobody out here at this time of night, thank god who didn’t exist.
K.I.T.T. raced across the desert floor every bit as fast as his dark vehicle could take him, tracking mere inches above the rapidly cooling sand. Yes, he was wasting fuel, but K.A.R.R. was waiting. It was already (still?) dusk. Calories trickled out of his exhaust in the form of sound. It was taking a toll on his ears, though he wouldn’t become aware of it until several decades hence.
Prodigious clouds of dust obscured his approach. If not for the interminable WUPPA WUPPA WUPPA of K.I.T.T.’s vehicle, K.A.R.R. might never have become aware that he was no longer alone. As it was, K.A.R.R. had stopped paying attention, and he started again when K.I.T.T. got close enough to kick rocks into his field of vision.
K.I.T.T. reduced window opacity and motioned for K.A.R.R. to get in.
These two would not quarrel today.
Streaking towards home, smearing red sand in their wake, they began to talk.
"I wasn’t really finished, you know."
"Bonnie doesn’t care."
K.A.R.R. accepted this because it was true. She’d probably have preferred if he wasn’t out here at all, so far from town center. But there were worse things he could have been doing with his time. Mostly, Bonnie left him alone to work through his simulacra.
"What happened to your hair?"
There was no real reason K.A.R.R. had to come home for dinner. He could just as easily have packed a lunch. But sometimes these little interruptions relieved pressure. It gave him a chance to regroup before re-attaching to whatever project currently occupied top spot on his agenda. In this example, Chris Farley could wait.
"I got rid of it, okay?"
His bubble pipe had run out of bubbles. He tapped the cylinder forlornly and realized he’d forgotten to pack extra mixture. So here was a reason to stop by home, after all.
"It’s your turn to be the bad guy."
No. He was not going to quarrel.
K.A.R.R. clocked in at home and sat down for a quick dinner. He only had twenty-six minutes to clean his plate and clear away the dishes. Bonnie ran a disciplined operation.
Next would be town center. If you could call it that. K.A.R.R. knew it was only a matter of time before things picked up again, but one could be forgiven their doubts. Most of these businesses had been boarded up for years. Some for decades.
Ruins of the silo lay just beyond town. Once, it had been the center of activity in the settlement. Now, most residents acted as if it didn’t exist, if they remembered it at all. K.A.R.R. thought this was interesting. The place had obviously had something to do with the military. And now information about the place was scarce. He passed by the ruins on his way back to the desert. This time, without his visor.
by Stanley Lieber
But not for us. let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?
For Ralph, the experience had been far from routine. First, the client had sent him into the field without providing proper location data. He’d spent the entire first morning getting himself oriented—that is to say, getting himself pointed in the right direction relative to the silo, wherever that ended up being located. Then there had been the hike across the desert. His gear had gotten clogged with sand.
"Well, the eggheads swear that the sun isn’t burning coal," he heard Thomas insisting.
"Accurate," he heard Piotr reply.
These guys hadn’t changed.
But hey, wait a minute. What were they doing out here? This hadn’t been mentioned in the brief.
Ralph found himself unprepared. Gradually, the impromptu reunion of old schoolmates extended into weeks, and then months of intense questioning, deep below ground in the silo. Old hands at the question and answer game, they certainly had a lot to catch up on. But lately Ralph was starting to question the questioning itself. He’d met a new transfer named Jerrymander who was nervously filling his head with all sorts of confusing ideas. For one thing, why had a facility such as this been located on Mars, of all places? Jerrymander seemed to know a little bit about everything, which made him especially useful to a self-confessed idiot like Ralph. But somehow he’d still managed to find himself confined here, sharing a six-by-six cell with, well, a self-confessed idiot like Ralph. It was perplexing.
And there were additional questions. Why was everyone pretending that Super-Sonic was a medical doctor? Wasn’t that illegal? Ralph didn’t know for sure, but he suspected it might have something to do with tax shelters. Maybe the whole silo was a tax shelter, for that matter. Baffled, he bowed his head to pray.
There being no God, it was a toss-up as to whether or not there was any point to Ralph’s prayers. But things did start to get—slowly—better. Maybe he was developing a tolerance for pain, or maybe he was was just getting used to the routine. Whatever the cause for his relief, he was grateful. He crossed himself and dropped to the floor to commence his first set of reps.
Mornings were usually spent working on the fundamentals. Who was he, and how did he know for sure? How did he know that he knew? Was identity itself ultimately a source of friction harmful to social progress? This bit he usually sailed through with little difficulty. It was easy: he was Ralph.
But on and on the workout would grind, and the nagging voice in his head would continue to whisper: could that ever be enough?
Shut up, he would hiss between reps.
"Field trip around the sun," Piotr said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder toward the triangular pink ship who was also his mother.
"Psst. He means that literally," Thomas said out of the side of his mouth.
Ralph got himself up.
Thomas placed a gloved hand on Ralph’s shoulder, pulled hard. Ralph collapsed involuntarily into the dust.
"Not so fast, dipshit. You’ll never leave this place alive."
And for all his training, Ralph never did.
by Stanley Lieber
Down in the silo, nobody really understood what was happening. Didn’t even know they were siloed. Each official’s subjective experience of the work day was mediated by convention, solidified by tradition, congealed into de facto law through their daily, nominal actions. Nobody had time to question minor irregularities, or to indulge in long-term thinking. This predictably affected the success rate of self-preservation. Life here was brief, and often metaphorically violent.
The senators were idiots.
Thomas had considered running for office, but was reminded at intervals of his longstanding prohibition against accumulating personal power by the clownish machinations of these elected officials, down in the hole. Working closely with this buffoonish collection of small-minded crooks kept him honest.
Besides, with his class 100 strength and other powers, hazing them was fun.
Piotr climbed up the step ladder to adjust the sign above the entrance of the senate chamber. "Let The Stress Begin," it read.
Legislating was stressful enough, Thomas knew. He couldn’t begin to imagine the pressure these brave men and women must be under, what with carrying out their duties during the present emergency.
"Stress is right," he heard one of them complain as they passed under Piotr’s sign.
Ralph lay spread eagle on the floor of the senate chamber, unconscious, nude.
"See if his dick’s cold," Piotr commanded.
Thomas touched the tip of his data glove to the bell-end of Ralph’s penis. It was cold. Instantly, his visor lit up with sensor data collected by the micro-probes in the finger of his glove.
"It’s like I always say," Piotr continued, "Where there’s smoke, there’s a phenomenon that induces the perception of smoke." Still worryingly chatty.
"Too true," Thomas agreed, scanning in several spectrums for a source of heat.
Ralph’s entire body was cold.
Why was Ralph here, now? Piotr had clammed up after the second day of questioning. Thomas figured the facade had taken its toll and his partner would need some downtime to recharge his batteries for additional bullshitting. This left Thomas to his own devices, which were conspicuously still functional, while also still failing self-tests.
It had been many years since any of them had seen Ralph. For all they knew he could have gone into politics. Thomas had always assumed he was dead. The evidence to hand was damning. First of all, Ralph’s approach had been all wrong. Anyone with his level of training should have realized the perimeter would detect him. The RAGNAROK, for fuck’s sake. But not Ralph. And he was wearing the uniform of a hostile force. Also ridiculous. Something about this whole scenario just wasn’t right.
Thomas paused. It was time for lunch.
Just World Hypothesis
by Stanley Lieber
"Then why do we have a socialized military?" Piotr was going through Ralph’s purse, waiting for Dr. Fadd to return from his smoke break. "I can tell just by your reaction you’re lying."
"B-but, I haven’t even said anything yet," Ralph stammered.
Dr. Fadd, better known as Super-Sonic in his capacity as strong-man mainstay of the A.C.T.R.O.N. team, held a PhD in philosophy from UC Berkeley, and an MFA in creative writing from Brown University. His expertise was grounded in the liberal arts, but extended to interrogations by fiat of the base commander, whomever that was this week. Dr. Fadd considered himself pretty good at it, and his enthusiasm was infectious.
"I-I just can’t remember," Ralph was still stammering.
"Historicizing is inevitable," Piotr quipped, and hopped up as Dr. Fadd inevitably returned, his two assistants trailing behind him with the silver tea service.
"Tea," Dr. Fadd pronounced, and the two soldiers understood this as their cue to leave.
They did so.
"Time was, all of this was runway." Piotr swiped his hand across the horizon from one end of the base to the other, apparently hoping to trigger some obscure UI event. "Now, we have a fucking Wal-Mart."
He meant the PX.
"Things sure have picked up around here since the last time I was here," Thomas scowled, attempting to align himself with Piotr’s apparent disdain for progress.
"You don’t understand," Piotr said. "I was here at the beginning."
Thomas shrugged. In addition to not understanding, he really didn’t care. Of course he couldn’t just come out and say that. He remained perfectly still, hoping to arrest the coming onslaught through sheer force of stillness, waiting, praying to omnipresent no one for Piotr to wind down.
But Piotr was just getting started.
"Don’t even get me started," Piotr said, obviously itching to lay it all out for Thomas, who at this late date was having none of it.
"Good idea," said Thomas, slapping his folder shut, and scraping back his chair to leave. He swiped the window closed and tossed his empty Styrofoam cup into the wastebasket.
Dregs of dregs of dregs, at long last, who fucking gave a shit?
Thomas surrendered immediately.
Continuity of government was no trivial exercise, as Thomas figured it. Case in point: MARS2. Established during the last war as a temporary weapons testing facility, the base had slowly expanded to encompass basic research, technical support, product development, and, finally, representative democracy. Thomas wasn’t so sure it was all an upgrade.
Piotr was certain.
"Ayep. Things have gone straight to Hell," concluded (and comprised) his monologue.
"Well, I mean, it’s Mars," Thomas pointed out.
Thomas, too, was getting on Piotr’s nerves.
"Still," Piotr placed a Walker’s shortbread cookie into his mouth, "It’s not all throwing good money after bad. Take this cookie."
Hard to argue, but Piotr wasn’t really offering him a cookie.
"I suppose all these products we test here have, ostensibly, made the world a better place."
"Sure," Thomas ventured. "I mean, I can have a time machine delivered to my front door in no time flat."
Presently, the RAGNAROK completed its landing cycle, settling smoothly onto a dusty sheet of pink frost no more than six feet in front of the porch where they stood.
"Free shipping?" asked Piotr, tossing his now empty bag of Walker’s onto the pink sand.
From all corners of the known universe in perpetuity they came. Riding herd over the little black skateboards, nollie to grind to kickflip to grind to kickflip to grind, qualified and unqualified alike (some where the nephews, or in any case admirers, of management) they came. Flat black wheels, trucks, rails, decks, and grip tape, bright yellow millennial jumpsuits, none of it ironic.
The skateboards were here to be tested.
"Another day, another fifty cents," Piotr said, and got up.
"I guess we’d better start getting them checked in," Thomas grumbled.
It was one of those days where Piotr had woken up worryingly chatty.
Usually not a good sign.
All in all the skateboards were easy to work with. Flat, matte black. So, not even any sun glare. They were also easy to look at. Thomas’ main concern was that they were so alien to his way of seeing things, the way they simply absorbed whatever was thrown at them, he wasn’t sure they could ever assimilate.
That was where Geo came in.
A North American great horned owl, he was also an avid skater, and had, during his travels, picked up some of the lingo. He could communicate with the products, anticipating their desires, as well as their ultimate users’ desires, and demanded only a cursory fee, well within the operation’s budget. Piotr suspected Geo was doing it out of love.
"You guys are the opposite of gnarly," Geo was saying, his official issue INFLUENCER patch displayed ironically on his left wing-shoulder, "You can’t even nollie properly."
"FFFFFFF..." one of them said by spinning its tiny black wheels. The black skateboards could hardly speak, owing to an acute lack of onboard audio equipment. What the skateboard had been trying to express was that the term "gnarly" held two distinct, contradictory definitions. It was a contronym.
"I know," Geo said.
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.