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.