Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Killing Jar

Davey keeps the jar under his bed, where it's dark. The killing jar. Grasshoppers are the best. He keeps the jar beneath where his head rests on the pillow so he can hear them struggle. Grasshoppers fight the longest. Sometimes they'll hold out for more than a day. In the mornings he'll lay on the wooden floor of his room, flat against his stomach, and pull up the bed skirt that blocks the light from outside. He'll check to see if the grasshopper--or whatever it is--is still alive. Early morning, when the whole world is quiet. When his father is not yet home.

It is surprising what can be endured.

The morning air is cool as he leaves the house, guiding the screen door with one hand to close with a gentle, unnoticed click. The jar is in his other hand, open end turned downward. It is a comforting, familiar shape. Behind the house there is a stream, dry now from the heat of August afternoons, the heat that's coming, that will wrap him up like a Mother's too-tight embrace. Like the day has had one too many and needs to pull you close, so close you almost drown. This is preferable, of course, to other things.

He carries the jar though he's not sure he will use it. Th last one had been a disappointment. Davey thinks he remembers the first grasshopper taking ages to die. This one had barely lasted the night. He wakes up now, sometimes, at the silence.

Davey follows the dry stream past the clearing where the older kids come to neck and to break bottles against the old felled tree. He treads carefully and quickly by, his eyes on the ground though he knows no one is there to watch him. He follows the streambed to the creek.

I dreamt of him last night. Dreamt I was him, down by that creek where we found him, almost a week before the school year began. This was 1992, I think. I awoke this morning to a dull pain in my right temple and the sound of a cat howling outside my window. I live on the third floor; the howl must have been something. I sat in the dark there, listening to the sound and trying to remember why I'd dreamt of Davey Caldwell.

You learn a lot of things in school. You learn whose parents are poor, you learn who can be dumped on. You learn just how far you can push a thing before the adults force themselves to intervene. I learned those lessons. So did Davey Caldwell.

I gotto feeling guilty about the cat, mainly about how, really, when I looked to inward, I felt nothing. No distress at the thing's state. Not sorrow, nor even guilt, really. The guilt I was feeling was second-hand, guilt at not feeling guilt. I decided to go down to check on the thing, bring it some cat food, if only to shut it up.

We found Davey by the creek. He'd captured a frog in that jar of his he carried everywhere. I think in the years between then and now, I'd convinced myself I told Roger to leave it, to let the poor kid alone. Waking up this morning, I knew that wasn't true. Just one of those things we tell ourselves.

So there we were and there he was. For a long time he didn't see us.

I got about half-way down the last flight of stairs and I saw him. Homeless guy. He was sleeping in the foyer of my building, against the radiator. Stopped me cold. For a second, I had the absurd thought it must be Davey, lying there. Of course, it couldn't be. Davey died, years ago.

"Hey, Davey," Roger said, and I knew this would end badly. "Whatcha doin'?"

"Collectin' frogs." His eyes down. The little frog struggling against the side of the jar.

"Oh yeah? Int'ris'ted in the flora?"

"Fauna" I remember correcting him, but I didn't. I never would have.

"Can I see it?" Roger asked. Smirking.

"No, it's mine."

That act of defiance, that denial...we probably would have gone after him anyway, but that "no" sealed his fate. We rushed him, Jim and I only a half-step behind Roger, who had Davey pinned with next to no effort. We knew our roles. I pinned his right arm. Jim got his feet. Roger sat on Davey's back and pushed his face into the mud. The jar tipped over; the frog got out.

If I went out, I'd probably wake him up. I don't know how long I'd been standing there. If I went outside to tend to the cat, I would have to talk to this guy. I didn't want to talk to him, I didn't want to tell him I'd only come down because of the cat, I didn't want him to ask me for something. So I just stood there, dumbly, for a little while longer, there on the steps at three in the morning, in my bathrobe.

Davey was twisting, writhing to get free. Roger was inching down his back. "Get his other arm!" he shouted at me, his hand on the belt of Davey's pants. "You like that, faggot?" He was saying. "This is what your Dad likes, isn't it?"

"What are you doing?" I finally asked. My attention wavered. I didn't see Davey's fingers find the upturned jar. he jerked his arm free, then brought it up. I was right where I definitely shouldn't have been. There was a terrible crash as the thing broke on my temple, all the lights went on at once, a blinding white-hot flash and I blacked out.

When I came to, Davey was sitting a little ways away from me. he had a frog in his hands. I don't know if it was the same frog. The world swam in and out, I remember that much. And there was blood. A lot of it. Mine.

"Where'd they go?" I managed after a while.

"To get help, I guess," Davey mumbled. "I think they're scared."

"Why are you so fucked up, Davey?"

And he told me. Bits of it, anyway. The rest I think we all worked out years later. He must have been gratified, I suppose, to have me as a captive audience. After a while I sat up. He told me the story of his life; maybe he thought I'd tell someone, maybe he thought I'd never believe him, I don't know. We never talked to each other again. After a while, there were sounds, adults coming, calling after Davey and me.

Davey stood up. He let the little frog go, almost as an afterthought, I think, and he disappeared in to the woods. Roger and the others happened on me a minute or two later.

"Little faggot ran off," I told them. Things got worse in Davey's life after that.

I stared at the middle distance around the homeless guy for a little bit after I made my decision. I wish I could say Roger got what was coming to him. I wish I could say it was him in that foyer. He's a broker. Fortune 500. I didn't do too badly, either, all things considered.

After a little while longer, I went up.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

You Provide The Pictures, I'll Provide The War (On Crime)

The curious problem with any review of a theatrical-release film is that film's immediacy. I get in, my box of Hot Tamales snuck in under my coat, I sit down, and two hours later I gotta leave. It's not like I can get the projectionist to rewind so I can watch the whole first and second acts again. This is a roundabout way of apologizing for whatever diffusiveness afflicts this writeup, but there's something going on in The Green Hornet that I have to get off my chest.

First of all, I enjoyed the movie, much more than many of the reviews told me I would. I wasn't expecting to (I wasn't even expecting to go, but I was bored yesterday and it was this or The King's Speech and I was pretty sure George 6 doesn't blow anything up in that one). However, the movie delivers cheerily-executed violence (who knew Michel Gondry would turn out a fine action director?), Seth Rogen being Seth Rogen and an unexpected--albeit small--role for Space Badass Edward James Olmos.

However, there's something going on in this film, a subplot, an itch, an undercurrent of yellow journalism that disturbs me. Spoilers to follow:

Rogen takes the reins of his father's newspaper and in a prank attempt to get back at his Dad, steals the head off a recently-dedicated statue to the man. He's caught on film right after this and right before he and Kato bust up a bunch of ne'er-do-wells about do so something quite untoward. That night, before he knows he's a hidden-camera film star, Rogen decides he wants to do this full time.

He takes the meager amount of footage and information about his escapade and uses his Dad's paper to explode the thing into a front page story, much to the chagrin of (Edward! James!) Olmos. He gets Cameron Diaz's character (a rarity in an action picture in being an actually interesting lady, the film compensates by giving her no discernible motivation for the setup that made her interesting. So: square one) to do all this criminology research so he can turn it around and use it to plot his strategy, all the while using the Daily Sentinel to blow up his antics to Ed Dillinger proportions.

By the climax of the film, Rogen decides to do something of actual journalistic integrity, Michael Clayton-style, but in the explosive(ly awesome, I don't care that an elevator can't take that kind of weight) climax, it's telling that he aims to put the info on the Net, rather than running it through his paper. Of course it's a guy's voice, which obviously works better on the Net or on TV, but when you combine it with the lack of regard Rogen's character displays for journalism in general, it makes a distasteful cocktail. I can't see Clark Kent or Lois Lane, or, really, Van Williams' Britt Reid doing something akin to what Rogen's Reid does.

Part of this, I acknowledge, is the mechanics of the story. Gondry needs Rogen and Chou to get down to the business of administering beat-downs, and the vigilante-pretending-to-be-a-criminal is a pretty integral part of the GH mythos, and I'm glad they kept it. It just bothers me. By the end of the film, his reputation as a city-wide bad guy secured, Rogen steps down as the Sentinel's chief, but doesn't really ever learn his lesson or anything.

Still. A fun time was had by all, and by "all" I mean "me". I just hope that should a sequel happen, they try and make the newspaper something credible rather than just a prop.

He said on the Internet.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


We carry forever the imprint of those we have loved. At least, that's what the poet says. And science, as ever, is keen to catch up to poetry. That's what they call them, then. Imprints. That's what brought me to Mars. My name is Hawker Ellis. I work in Recovery.

An imprint is a digital clone of your beloved's personality. Everything they are, reduced to ones and zeroes. And it is dispiriting how easy all that turned out to be. For 60,000 credits, you can download a version of your consciousness into someone's brain. A pooka. A Guardian Angel that only you can see and hear and talk to. Soldiers would get them of their sweethearts, and vice versa, before shipping out to the Proxima front. The dying loved them. Funerals became very, very weird.

We needed to get to her, and the only way to do that was through him. Madhuri Choudry, Captain of the Hieronymus Bosch.

Take away the hard radiation, the month-long trip, the blue sunsets & the domed wonders, and Mars is just another place, like Dayton, Ohio. It's amazing how quickly we become desensitized to wonderment. Airplanes then flying cars then rockets; radio then television then holograms; adding machines then computers then imprints. You really can get used to anything.

The thing about space travel is its fabulous anonymity. The distances are so vast, so baffling, they hide the truth. No instant wireless reports. Radio signals take years to travel from star to star, and they may fall apart entirely, If you're the point man, say, of humanity's only contact with an alien race, well, we have to take your word on what happened. Especially when you refuse the mind scan. And everybody on the Bosch, they all backed her claims about what happened. But Choudry and Barquist were they only ones to actually see them, and now Barquist is dead--died alone in some daredevil shit above the Great Red Spot a month ago--and Choudry is halfway to Proxima and there's an alien spaceship making its leisurely way in to the Inner Solar System.

So they sent me. Choudry didn't take a scan and that's her right, sure, Bosch wasn't a military ship. She didn't have to and neither did Barquist. But she did make an Imprint, for her husband, before her ship left for Proxima.

Liang Hao wasn't hard to find. He runs one of those restaurants that gets popular every five to six years. Marvin's. Full of old-school Martian kitsch, mostly American. Cigar-store Thark. Red decor everywhere. Little koi ponds that link through a series of--no kidding--canals. And to think that I found him on Bradbury Street. Unassuming guy, short, starting to gray. Sometimes, just for a moment, I could swear he was talking to her. Out of the corner of his eye. Meant she was Active, which meant Recovery would be that much easier.

Just behind the earlobe--usually the left--of an Imprinted and you'll find the tagport, the point at which the original chip was implanted and through which a competent service technician (or Recoverer) can access your chip and fix any problems you may be experiencing, such as signal lag, aphasia, synesthesia, general customer dissatisfaction, aneurysm, stroke, channeling the dead or deciding the fate of the human race. Okay, I made one up. You can't channel the dead.

My equipment includes a tagjack, neural harness, general assortment of quite-lovely drug cocktails, restraints, and a VR relay/recording device. And, yes, you could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff. Most of the downloads I recover heave the ephemeral quality of dreams, vanishing a few moments after the harness is released. It's important to have the recording equipment.

On his way out after locking up the restaurant, I accosted Liang. Quietly. Gun in his side to show I meant business. It's the part of the job I love. Reminds me of old movies. I even bought a slouch hat. We stepped back inside Marvin's.

"Siddown," I said.

"What's this about?" Liang asked me and it was preliminary interview time.

"Did your wife ever mention the Zonzomma Incident?"

"Yeah. Yes, I mean, of course," Liang said. Is she in some kind of trouble? She left for Proxima a year ago. Nobody said anything about the Zonzomma."

"Do you know what this is?" I asked him, pulling out the harness. At this point he figured out what was in store, and well, they do try to run...

I hit him with the sedative and it was down to business.

The whole thing was a terrible long shot. What I was relying on was that Choudry's impressions of the Incident would be so vivid, so close to the core of who she thought herself to be, that they would be transferred along with whatever packet she prepared for Liang. It's never 1:1. You never get the whole of that person's mind, yapping away at you, 24/7. The brain can't handle it and who would want it in any case? The Imprint is usually a best-face impression of how we'd like to be thought of by our lover. However, this being the brain and the brain being essentially very undisciplined and associative and James-Joyce-on-his-worst-of-all-ever-days, the personality construct tends to get a little bit of bleedback. Side-effect memories. Of course my hope, and that of my employers, is that Choudry's include the Zonzomma.

In order to convey any meaningful sense of the upside-down blushing immediacy of poking about in someone else's brain, I'm going to have to strap on my stream-of-consciousness prose hat. You'll have to trust me, come what may, flowery ostentatiousness and all. We started in the Green Room.

The Green Room is an electropsychic construct, a basic dream space where your average technician (or less-than-trustworthy sort such as myself) can uplink to interact with the Imprint and the host mind. It's a shared fiction we inhabit. Makes it easier to contextualize the more intimate, less quotidian aspects of the whole enterprise.

Choudry was there. Liang was there. I was there. Choudry demanded to know what was going on. I explained. And because she was just ones and zeroes (and so was I and so was he and so was the Green Room, as long as we were all in it) I dove headfirst in to her.

Like I said. Ones and zeroes. The three of us are there, riding the binary infrastructure of her thoughts, leftover memories kept in the fridge, with a heart on them to remind you I love you. They are meeting at a party for the first time. He is trying an especially groan worthy line. They are married. It's their first time together, it's their first fight, it's a jumble, she's leaving that's what the fight's about, she's leaving for the first time, she's alone it's the ship it's THEM.

The Zonzomma are giant diamond jellyfish the size of cities. She and Barquist are afraid the little shuttle they're in will be torn to pieces. The clouds around them shake as the Zonzomma speaks. She is coming home. She sees him, on the platform. Their first date. Sunset in Bangalore. The fields beyond her father's house. University. The first time she felt weightless. The first time they kissed.

See what I mean? I try to nudge Choudry's construct back to the Zonzomma. Liang, protesting, still along for the ride.

Strange readings for years. Clouds over Rossellius. Taking the shuttle down. A flash, a brief flitting image of Barquist's face as he--

Gossip, well. Liang is outraged, somewhere distant and close, but the general framework of the Green Room holds. He doesn't know it, but he holds all the cards. His brain, after all. Back in. The clouds, she and Barquist, the thing breathing. A week spent in the company of that thing, it quickly learning their language as they barely grasp its. Zonzomma is their word for themselves. Between-the-Tall-Clouds is the jellyfish's personal name, it turns out.

There is a memory, hazy, guarded, Choudry protests, but, again, ones and zeroes. You'd think a thing like weekly skinny-dipping sessions in other people's minds would decrease the brain's natural proclivity toward solipsism. This it does not.

The image snaps into view. I am she and she is he and we are all together watching the Earth on their return trip. The foredeck. She and Barquist. Something has happened between them, the night before. "I can't talk to anyone about this," she says he says I say. This, what we saw...nobody will ever be...the world has changed. There are aliens out there. But I love him. And I won't leave him."

"I know," Barquist says. They hold hands in the Earthlight.

Rubbish. Back to the Green Room. Not one usable piece of intelligence in the whole construct. Just your typical human messiness. Liang has gone. Choudry is alone. She is crying, softly.

I close the door on the Green Room and I'm back in the real world, Liang slumped over, dreaming an I-hope-dreamless sleep. Equipment stowed in orderly fashion and I'm out the door. The whole operation took less than ten minutes. Still time to catch a bus out of here, maybe linger. Maybe catch a movie. Give me time to collate my thoughts before the inevitable dressing-down my superiors are sure to give. Big honkin' alien spacecraft. No idea what it would want with us. No idea at all. Still. These things have a way of finding a happy resolution, right?

That's what I tell myself.