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And Why Not?

Sorely overdue for an update, no? There’s a lot going on since my last post and here is as good a place as any to share:

As things have slowed on the copywriting front, I have been taking on more journalism gigs, including my first contribution to Vice’s Noisey blog and a recap of True Detective‘s 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th episodes.

In addition, photographer Kevin Shea Adams and I collaborated on a multi-media short story called “What Ghosts Are.” This is the prelude for the novel I’ve been hatching over the past half-year or so and serves as a good introduction to my fiction writing for those unfamiliar.

I also got to interview Fat Mike, a MacArthur genius, and longtime heroes Trevor Dunn and David Vincent, amongst others. There’s a lot else but those are the notables in my opinion.

Expect more on the fiction front from me this year. It has to happen. HAS TO. There’s too many stories brewing that are going to froth over the top of the glass if not properly unleashed. K, thanks for listening. Be well and do what you do best.

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Philip K. Dick, Science Fiction

There, But Not There: Intertextual Encounters with Blade Runner

I used Grammarly for proofreading because I’m just too tired, okay?

It’s hard to imagine a world without Philip K. Dick (aka PKD for brevity and to avoid the obvious joke of the last-name-appellation standard for authors). His way of thinking is so perfectly suited to our contemporary style of ingestion—short, persistently relevant chunks of compressed information. His ideas were just barely coming into vogue before he died in 1982 but the recent onset of surveillance culture, multiple online masks/personalities, and the generally persistent breakdown of what constitutes “the real” make him seem like a freakin’ prophet in retrospect.

Dick’s ideas are, in fact, so important to the modern way of living and thinking, they’ve been translated from the confines of his short, easily digestible books and immortalized on film, more than any other contemporary author perhaps, save Stephen King. These include, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, and Blade Runner, to name only the more successful and enduring examples. In a way, this inadvertent legacy as an ex post facto film producer is the highest honor our culture can offer him, to say, “What you’re trying to say is so important, even people who don’t read shouldn’t miss this.”


With all due respect to those other films, Blade Runner, based on the novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the only masterpiece adaptation of a PKD book, a complex work of art that extrapolates from the themes of its source material to create its own vibrant atmosphere. If you are in need of convincing of this fact, please, check out thedocumentary covering the creative cottage industry that yielded the film’s visionary set designs and performances. It’s certainly a favorite of mine and one that I’ve revisited for nearly two decades.

Yet, even as a fan of PKD, I hadn’t gotten around to reading the source material (he’s written a lot of books; at 7 titles deep, I am light in the proverbial shit) for reasons that aren’t too compelling. I think the title was a big sticking point: as a rhetorical question devoid of any context,Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is genuinely, impenetrably uninteresting. The fact that it’s based on a subplot from the novel that the creators of Blade Runner neglected—the adoption of android animals by a post-war populace severely lacking in the real thing—is the crucial missing bit of information that turns this frankly goofy prompt into a poignant thought to consider upon completing the book.

My reasons for reading it now? To learn the book’s stance on Deckard’s status as a replicant versus the film’s. The question of whether or not Deckard is a replicant was purportedly put to bed by Ridley Scott at some point (he is) but a quick YouTube search turns up this rather ambiguous response. So the answer is “maybe,” which is a perfectly PKD answer and one supported by the book. The fact remains, however, that he must be, simply, one or the other. The book, as PKD himself was, is much more interested in how its characters perceive the possibility of their own artificiality rather than the firm truth of whether or not they are. This wasn’t navel-gazing, either. PKD’s fascination resides in the ways in which we can read our reality with the simplest tools possible, namely our perceptions. Why is deception and darkness so convincing if they’re untrue or refutable through scientific fact? Why are humans still in the dark ages, emotionally, when so much more is known about the universe in which we live than ever before? And—getting back to the book itself—why are we to regard humans who rely on empathy boxes and programmed psychological states as more real than androids who require none of these mediations and are, in fact, actively seeking their own freedom?

With many of these dilemmas removed from the film, the question becomes balder and harder to determine, and perhaps for the best—existential dithering is not as powerful of a narrative tool in filmmaking as some wish it to be and the film’s focus on in-the-moment action serves it well. This makes the moments when the dialogue veers towards “fortune cookie” territory—most notably in antagonist Roy Baty’s (a show-stealing, and improvising, Rutger Hauer) “Tears in rain” speech. The possibility that Deckard is a replicant is never verbalized. It’s presented through memories, memories of a white horse triggered by Deckard’s spotting of an origami figurine, memories that could be his…or implants. The question is left up for grabs through his conversations with other replicants, his doubt presented to us as a quiet stoicism (in keeping with the strong and silent gumshoe portrayal by Harrison Ford).

In the context of the film, then, Deckard himself isn’t the big question; he is merely a clause within it. But by glossing over the relevance of his replicant status, we miss an important implication: if he is, in fact, a replicant, that implies that he was not only an android being sent to kill other androids, but an android designed to kill other androids. In other words, it was not an incidental part of his task but the sine qua non of his existence. Consequently, his memories, along with his expert ability to determine whether or not someone is a replicant, become significant barriers to the plausibility of his android status, and presumably, palliate the violent Nexus-6 desire for humanity.

(Then there’s this.)

Of course, in keeping with the source material, this is the fundamental irony of Do Androids…: an expert at identifying and decommissioning androids may be an android himself. It’s not, however, the story’s primary preoccupation. The book gets far screwier with this question as Deckard is arrested, told the police station he reports to is obsolete and that the android test he administers does not exist, and is, consequently, accused of being an escaped androids. As it turns out, the people implicating him in this conspiracy are—you guessed it—androids themselves! With the added component of a strange religion called Mercerism and the notion of characters artificially dosing themselves with emotions, PKD spins us around so often and so thoroughly, the book effectively leaves the reader in the “what is real?” state he, apparently, often found himself in in life.

That’s not necessarily the aim of the film, however. The film takes an interest in these issues only insofar as they generate atmospheres and textures that are sufficiently compelling in and of themselves. Baty’s speech, the interview with the replicant in the first scene, and Deckard’s reverie at the memory of the horse—these are all colors in Ridley Scott’s palette.

Which brings us back to the question of how best to adapt a PKD book. There’s a style to it and ample precedent for the approach. In the case of A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater’s slavish adaptation yields one of the least compelling PKD-based films. He gets every detail right and even produces some innovative effects with his rotoscope animation portraying the story’s “scramble suit” as accurately as one could possibly imagine. The problem? Everything is there. There is an art to omission and adapting a novel into film is one of an artist’s key opportunities to practice it. This is because the process of intertextuality gives all involved permission to leave out so much exposition simply due to the existence of the source material. No one need intend or announce it; it simply is. No matter how far transposed PKD’s source material may be, it still exists in dialogue with the film it became. In the case of A Scanner Darkly, the problem then is one of redundancy—why make a film that is exactly like the book? What understanding of the latter’s themes can the former present?

In the case of Blade Runner, a sci-fi noir was pulled out of a prototypical PKD existential crisis, one which calls into question our relationships with God, reality, and each other. And yet, I was surprised to find that it was missing a very special questionable relationship from his repertoire—our relationship with ourselves. Again, being relatively light on the man’s substantial oeuvre, I’d presumed from A Scanner Darkly, VALIS, and Minority Report that the schizophrenic’s theme—in which the pursuant subject becomes the pursued object—was a constant in his stories. That’s why I thought reading Do Androids…would lend more ballast to my notion that Deckard was a special hunting model of the Nexus-6, not less. There was a passage suggesting many varieties of replicants beyond what Deckard imagined but other than that, the topic of his replicant-ness was almost a red herring—apparently not a very interesting topic to PKD!

Blade Runner is where the question of his artificiality has more weight, and in its empty spaces, we can project much. The Deckard of the novel is complex, troubled, and starving for human (and animal—not in that way) contact. The Deckard of the film may be as well but he’s a cypher—macho and reserved, not letting on about much of anything. We’re led to believe that his game face is part of the job, part of why he’s so damn good at decommissioning replicants. If the Deckard of the book were designed exclusively for that reason, I’d send Tyrell Corp. back to the drawing board until they came up with something like the Deckard of the film.

But after reading the book, I’m always going to see Harrison Ford’s Deckard as crying on the inside.

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novel

The Anglekeeper, Ch.1—”The Botched Angle”

[What follows is chapter 1 of The Anglekeeper, a novel that will be released serially, month by month, chapter by chapter, starting on Halloween 2013. Each chapter will be presented as a lovingly designed ebook with a soundtrack tailored to each chapter. The first and last chapter will be available free of charge, each of the middle five will cost $1. All told, it will be $5 for this unique and carefully wrought work. Now, while we’re preparing the full package, enjoy Chapter 1 with its attendant score below.]

He does not have a plan, he only has expectations; there is a difference.

It’s 3:30 A.M. Steve barrels down the 118 West in a 1974 red Ford F-150 pickup, twenty-five miles per hour over the posted fifty-five. He cuts ahead of somnambulist drivers leaving bars and late shifts considerately and quickly, registering as nothing more than a lighted blear escaping from their windshields, not encouraging one of them to disengage their internal auto-pilots. If he were physically near the spot he needs to be, he’d still be inside the window of tonight’s opportunity but considering where they are now, unlikely is a generous assessment. Yet he hustles in the name of a loosely held belief that bluster can bend physical reality in his favor. In his heart of hearts, however, he knows this latest of obstacles is only part of an accumulated range of impasses—many of which, if he’s being honest, are his responsibility—preventing him from the expedited good fortune that he’s always believed lies in his future.

Staring ahead at the road, he draws another deep pull from a girthy 64 oz. plastic reservoir of a cup, a splash of carbonated water and a handful of ice cutting a thick blend of Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew, Diet Coke, Coke Classic, and A&W Root Beer soda syrups. He takes short, nervous sips while twitchily threading and tugging the same golden tuft of hair betwixt his fingers. A glance into the rear-view reveals the reassuring image of the tarp, stretched taut and low, a cross-breeze pulling at the ropes along its periphery. A brilliant full moon glints across its shiny green plastic surface. He presses the gas hard, occasionally rising up in his seat from the pressure his foot exerts against the floor. A sense of urgency practically oozes from his pores, demanding that some force from without accumulate in his name to cleave the infinity of black ahead of him, landing him at his precise destination immediately.

Steve is a pasty-faced young man enslaved to a physics whose outcome consistently maps onto one of many shades of failure. He faces the world in a perpetual outfit of flannel, white wifebeater, grease-caked steel-toe work boots, and one of three pairs of faded blue jeans, ripped at both knees, his left thigh, and below the seam of his crotch, hanging loosely from his rail-thin frame. At the moment, he’s even skinnier and paler than usual due to the enormous stress he’s under, exacerbated by a thirty-six-hour-long diet of high fructose corn syrup and caffeine. His skin’s dry, his eyes bloodshot, and his forehead throbs visibly. A series of long baritone gurgles ripple through his abdomen, churning soda and bile, while his contracting mind rehearses every gesture and movement of tonight’s ritual with a myopic compulsion not unlike a rat dosed with cocaine. He’s supposed to be graduating high school in a couple of days but that diploma’s basically a glorified eviction notice, which is all the more reason why tonight has to go well and why he’s proceeding earnestly despite all indications that it will not.

Having let up a moment while his thoughts drifted to possible outcomes, his foot bears down again on the accelerator with an amphetaminite’s ardor for impossible, extra-dimensional depths. In its current shape, the truck tops out at eighty miles per hour. That the gas level is so low he will end up pushing the car for the last mile back to his home in central Chatsworth once his business in the cow fields of Moorpark is done, is ridiculous given the over-considerations applied to virtually every other aspect of this whole affair. Although he’s yet to spy the faintest glow in the sky, experience and wisdom more reliable than his own indicates the window shall be closed or closing when they arrive. As the simple arithmetic calcifies in his brain, Steve pounds his fist on the wheel until the hard metal dashboard turns his hand purple. Each jab blooms into a keen ache in the bones of his hand, forcing the tears welling in his eye socket to spill out onto the dash.

There’s no keener disappointment than discovering that your best is not good enough. At seventeen-years-old, it’s healthy to have the illusion that your horizons can expand for at least a few more years. The thought strikes Steve’s caffeine-addled, nutrient-depleted brain that the threshold of achievement he’s been eyeing for the past year may be monitored by an intractable gatekeeper that likes to watch him fail and who wishes to taunt him to a grave that presently seems too far off.

A glance at his dad’s silver watch reveals that it’s 3:34 A.M.—only four minutes since last he looked. The non-descript brown hillside to the right gradually builds towards the modest majesty of Stoney Point. They’re closer; once the rosewood fences at the Moorpark city limits rise above the horizon, a wave of relief will pass over his conflicted brain. He can picture it so clearly, his entire begins to relax prematurely in anticipation of an as-yet unearned psycho-chemical reward. Steve fudges the math in his woozy brain yet again, decides he does indeed have a chance if prevailing winds and optimal aerodynamics and, oh, in fact we’re quite a bit closer than you realize, and settles on that general sphere of thinking. For the sake of turning off his brain from any further doubt, he clicks on the radio and flicks the dial to the left until he lands on something that will seal this mood. The airwaves tap into his mystical aspirations and grant him Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter.”

Close the door, put out the light…

The engine hums, straining as the tarp flaps against the wind. Almost there.

…You know they won’t be home tonight…

Maintaining precisely three cars’ distance for a little over two miles now, a police cruiser closes in, curious as to what this particular driver’s story is. He’s not swerving so it’s unlikely he’s been drinking; no, he maintains a nearly symmetrical space between the lines. The Cop surmises he’s tailing a tweeker but there’s a few reasons why he won’t leap to that judgment. Though he’s entitled to pounce, the Cop waits for the driver to commit a more egregious infraction than speeding.

They’re wearing steel that’s bright and true…

The music is coursing through Steve’s brainstem, bending the prohibitive physics that threatened their mission…his mission. His eyes widen as a sense of promise glows inside of him.

…They carry news that must get through…

It is only after this last lane change that the Cop catches sight of a gleaming silver light through a brief upward flap of the tarp, the gleam of something metallic caught in the moonlight. He notices movement, not just the movement of an object passively shifting in the back of a truck. Something expresses volition.

…They choose the path where no one goes!

A blitz of red, blue, and white light engulfs Steve’s rearview mirror causing his eyelids to flicker like a zoetrope. The light is all he can see in any given direction, flooding all glass and chrome surfaces, overwhelming every quantum of visible space, and inducing a dreamlike surreality that slows his sense of time. Immediately, Steve’s reaction is to be pathologically unalarmed. For several luxurious seconds, Steve hypothesizes that the lights are a precursor to the success of tonight’s ritual; he is being congratulated. They’re so enveloping, they comfort him as he prepares himself for what he expects will be a deliverance from the ultimate stage of his task, the part he at last admits he’s unprepared for.

It’s the wail of the police sirens that punctures that illusion, like an ever-rotating trumpeter pivoting atop Mount Purgatory, bleating a canon call for aborted ambitions. Each revolution of the siren brings Steve down lower to the dirty floor of reality.

Nevertheless, through some kind of nervous disjunction between his body and mind, his lead foot continues flooring the gas, the speedometer needle twitching closer to the eighty-five mark. The Cop follows in kind, not so much as flinching, having expected this reaction from Steve. Suddenly, without warning of any sort, Steve lets off the gas and violently slams his brakes, pulling up the e-brake simultaneously, pitching the rear end of the truck upwards two feet before slamming down to the asphalt. Although this kind of excessive action could typically be attributed to the influence of substances, in Steve’s case, there’s no intoxicant to blame but high fructose corn syrup, caffeine, and his own delusional nerves. The police cruiser swerves to avoid rear-ending the pickup, allowing its left front fender to collide with the median. The Cop’s head bounces off the vinyl dash, knocking his skull back hard against the roll bar. The sedan’s headlight slides against the concrete for a foot as it grinds to a stop, mere inches from the rear fender of the Ford pickup. A pregnant, tranquil beat is soon punctuated by a keening metallic crunch rising through the air, like an enormous piece of tin foil folding and crackling in the sky overhead.

Two oncoming cars, lurching at the sight of the siren, slow and swerve past with care. Before he has a moment to process what’s just happened, the Cop sneezes three times in quick succession, only just burying his nose in the hairs on the side of his arm by the last sneeze. He pulls his arm away to find flecks of blood on his skin, a splatter as though from a brush flecked by Pollock, heavy with red paint. The Cop’s lower jaw starts to quaver with rage. Immediately, he bites his wrist hard, visualizing the reactive and violent anger overwhelming him as a current of energy passing from his brain through his teeth and into the pores of the skin on his hand. He waits until he can feel his fingertips tingle and then removes his hand from his jaw. Garish, purple indentations of his teeth remain as he cranks his window down double-quick to wag his hand out into an oncoming wind. It hurts but it’s better than overreacting. Closing his eyes, he breathes in and like a knee-jerk at a doctor’s mallet, draws deeply once again from the same well of patience he taught himself to access all those decades ago. He pokes his head out into the warm night air, his eyes still closed and his jaw slackened, rehearsing in his mind the proper volume to alert the driver of the pickup without betraying his anger. As always, it’s somewhat of a crapshoot, like a soprano attempting her highest F sharp from out of silence.

“Son! Get over to the shoulder immediately!”

Steve shudders at the Cop’s voice, almost forgetting that there was a pending human interaction. He can’t tell his body to move though his eyes ping about like a paranoiac racquetball. In every direction, he finds blinding light reflecting off of metal or glass. His grip on the hard vinyl wheel at ten and two o’clock remains firm. With his mouth slightly agape, Steve stares straight ahead at a white sliver of moon against a starless sky.

“NOW!”

Like a robot belatedly computing an operation held in its queue, Steve releases the e-brake, cranks the wheel hard right, and drives perpendicularly across all three lanes of traffic towards the shoulder. The police cruiser follows, trepidatiously crossing the Westbound lanes while the Cop assesses what he’s dealing with. This astonishingly stupid reactionary vehicular maneuver actually frightens the Cop rather than stoking his anger. It’s the kind of bold gesture that leads him to believe he’s about to encounter something he’s thankful to have avoided over the course of his career: an adversary with his own rules and logic outside of consensual reality—that is, someone who appears and acts insane by consensual standards but is secure in his own sphere, held to a standard beyond which he can fathom. This man can be unrepentantly evil because no reprisal, capture, or comeuppance of this world applies to him. Essentially, the Cop is afraid of meeting a god incarnate.

Both cars sit in a small bank of dust on the dirt shoulder next to a rocky cliff that towers four stories high. The Cop creaks his door open and steps out with his revolver drawn and cocked, its barrel pointed at the ground, always. His hands are steady, his index finger resting gently on the trigger, ruminating, as always on how many years have passed since he’s felt his amateur fear of accidentally pulling it. Approaching the front cabin of the red Ford truck, he glances at the tarp now settling gracefully in the calm night air. The Cop taps on the glass, watching Steve sit petrified, his pale white fingers gripping the steering wheel without so much as glancing in the Cop’s direction.

The Cop is mustachioed, pudgy, a full three decades older than Steve (and although he’s thoroughly able to kick Steve’s ass, it will not come to that). The Cop is also named Steven. Steven’s preternaturally kind compared to your average California Highway Patrolman. He takes the night shift and, due to the lenient stance he’s adopted since leaving the Arizona force for California’s nearly two decades ago, he’s known by his current colleagues, the CHP, as “Sweet Steven.” Although they were teasing him, he couldn’t have been more flattered and relieved to be known as a nice guy again.

The gun still pointed at the dirt below, the Cop approaches the driver side window, barely able to see Steve through the dirt-caked glass. Steve is still locked in a thousand-yard-stare at the black road ahead, gasping at short breaths like he’s running out of oxygen. Upon closer inspection, the Cop realizes that Steve doesn’t realize that there’s someone next to him and so clears his throat loudly.

“Roll down your window, please.”

Steve’s still visualizing the truck barreling down the highway; he’d barely be a mile from Moorpark if he hadn’t stopped. A tear falls down his cheek and his stomach feels like it’s being clutched inside a fist. A sudden screech from the shitty brakes of a Honda Civic that slows to fifty-five miles per hour cuts the silence.

“Can you hear me?”

Gulping a sour mouthful of saliva, Steve parts his dry lips. He enunciates but no sound comes out; every attempt at a word manifests as dry air scratching his throat. He’s not talking to the Cop, though. He’s reciting what he remembers of his instructions for tonight.

Sweet Steven cocks his eyebrow, takes a deep breath, and speaks in the calmest tone he can muster. “If you don’t comply immediately, I am forced to consider you hostile. Do you know what that means?” He’s forcing himself to stop shaking. Still bathed in sensory ignorance, Steve does not notice. “It means, I can arrest you and you’ll spend the night in jail if you don’t open this window, right…now.”

A spasm of his throat muscle chokes Steve, forcing him to cough. A jolt of blood flows to his brain and snaps him out of his daze. He turns and upon catching the incredulous gaze of the Cop, he’s suddenly in his body again. He involuntarily pees a teaspoonful and rapidly cranks open his window.

“Good. Now with your hands up, get out of the car, please.”

Steve incompetently attempts opening the car door while keeping his hands in the air, using his elbows for leverage, until finally the Cop, Sweet Steven—disarmed by the young man’s uncalculating earnestness—opens the door for him. Steve drags his legs out of the car with the slow patient movements of the elderly or the very young. Steve is all blank stare, his face a mosaic of preoccupations like someone awoken from a deep dream moments before fucking the love of his life.

“Dear God, boy, what is the matter?”

A black Corvette whizzes past, displacing a pocket of pressurized air that slams the Ford truck’s door closed, startling both Steve and Steven. Steve coughs and gulps a few times but his mouth is positively infirm with dryness. His knees buckle a bit and he winces at the Cop, carefully lowering his hands to point at the cup holder in his truck.

The Cop sighs and holsters his gun. “Go ahead…”

Steve takes a deep sip, coughs, and can now speak. “Thank you so much, officer, I—”

“Hold up, now. Can you tell me who on earth drives like you just did?!”

“Not me, sir. I mean, not often. I mean, not ever…before tonight, that is.”

“And not ever again, I’m sure.”

“Absolutely, sir.”

“Look, here it is: there’s clearly something important you were in the middle of doing and I just have to make sure it’s on the up-and-up. So what the heck do you have in that bed anyway?”

Steve’s mind erupts; he snorts from the strain of maintaining his cool. His eyes whip over to see the tarp still in place. Though it does not move or flap, in the absence of a cross-breeze, the tarp settles fully and a detail presents itself, one that sends a painful shudder through his body: a massive ten-foot-high humanoid figure stretched along the length of the bed like a Turin Shroud of physical evidence.

“Just a…bunch of bricks, officer. I work with…bricks. Mostly.”

“Oh, uh-huh. Construction?”

“Um…yup. Over down in Pasadena. And in Simi sometimes. That’s where I was headed—Simi.”

“Hunh. Okay. You been drinking tonight?”

“No. No, sir. Absolutely not.”

“Okay, you just seem a little—”

“I can prove it, even. Z…Y…uh, X—”

“That’s fine, that’s fine. You on crystal methamphetamine?”

“Hah! Um, nooo. Never touch the stuff.” Steve’s eyes go wide, a potentially incriminating tell but, again, “Sweet Steven”…

“Okay, fair enough. You just look wired, is all,” Steven is no chump, either—he’s convinced entirely of the boy’s sobriety but only barely of his story. “All the same, I did see something back there and I’d feel better if I took a look.”

Steve’s heart throbs. “Something like what?”

“Metal. You got something metallic back there?”

“Maybe. I don’t remember. Probably.”

“Uh-huh. I would say definitely.”

“Yeah, you know what? For sure there is some metal back there. We did a demolition and we got some silver metal. It’s shining in the moonlight, I bet. Metal beams. We reuse them.”

“For construction?”

“Right. Exactly.”

“At night?”

“I was—”

“In the dead of the night, when you’ve got plenty of time to get where you’re going, you drive like that and then when an officer of the law stops you, you halt quite precariously in the middle of the highway, then drive sideways to cross it? Yeah, that don’t add up. That is the most insane and irresponsible thing I’ve seen in thirty year—.” The cop nearly chokes on his words. Steve couldn’t possibly know what made the Cop give up this train of thought; he presumes it’s the Cop’s anger at Steve’s reckless driving that’s left him at a loss for words.

“Yes. Yes, it was. It was bad. I mean, very bad. Very much so. I’m so sorry, Officer.”

“If you’re not under the influence of any substance, I want to know your reason for being so irresponsible,” the Cop clears his throat and softens a bit. “Maybe, I can help you.”

“I know, I know.” It takes him a second to detect that gentleness. “Well thank you and I’m really, really—”

“Now, I’m giving you a lot of rope here. Don’t go hanging yourself.”

Steve quietly gags on a gob of phlegm. “I just started this job and I’m trying to make a good impression by getting there early. And I haven’t had enough sleep, if I’m being honest—that’s not an excuse but I was just so…so wound up. Wired, like you said. You see, I’m supporting my mom…”

Steve draws the Cop deeper into his part-true, part-invented cosmos. Sweet Steven doesn’t consciously realize that his fear of a reality beyond his purview makes the boy’s story compelling, but Steve’s improvised candor nearly clouds the Cop’s suspicion of the contents of the bed. Steve is about to be released before one off-script incident—specifically, a sound—derails everything.

That knocking sound.

A few steady knocks against the walls of the truck bed and then silence. The Cop hears it, Steve hears it and the Cop sees that Steve hears it. Knocks that would have been inaudible amidst the rush of traffic during the day but against the silence that hollows the wee hours out into an echo chamber, become undeniably explicit: the ringing CLSK of metal touching metal, reverberating against the neighboring hillside and traveling freely across the empty night sky.

“Is that your metal beams I hear moving back there?” Steve opens his mouth to answer and the Cop glares back. “Never mind; I’m done listening to you.” Seeing no other option, Steve jolts to position himself between the Cop and the truck bed, a move so aggressive and brash as to dissolve Sweet Steven’s sweetness. He unholsters his weapon and points it at Steve.

“That’s not gonna end well, son.”

“Sir, you do not want to look in there. Please trust me. Please.”

The Cop snorts and shoves him aside with a firm one-handed gesture that knocks him on his ass. The Cop walks back into the halls of aggression and feels the cold chill run up his spine to alert him to the fact. A voice in his head reminds him that he’s making a choice right now, just as ever before. The Cop pulls the tarp up and shines a mag light into the darkness.

A wave of musty air rises, thick enough to obscure his view. A commingled scent of warm vinegar and metallic rust roots into his sinuses. making his eyes water. The glint of light rising from steel sparkles in a sea of stars, initially not betraying any surface as the source of the illumination like a moon with no light. The hypnotic wash of color gradually coheres into a shape, a torso, and two long limbs extending at either end. A movement (clink-clank) delineates the armored torso as the source of the gleam.

Eyes. They appear abstract at first, like unincorporated body parts. Then a new layer of reality hits: a sense of fear, captivity, and the irrational all emanate from this Thing. At last, the sober recognition that this young man has a ten-foot-tall humanoid robot in his truck bed hits him and energizes him with a strange kind of motivating fear, uprooting his concerns about facing something greater than himself and replacing with a sense of gracious awe. Out of some unbidden sense of pity for this Thing, the Cop whispers, ”Are you okay?”

No answer. The Thing’s arm levitates an inch, a light, barely perceptible twitch. The movement draws Sweet Steven inwards. He’s so near the mesmerizing steel, his head is enveloped in the stars.

Quite suddenly, the twitch of the arm recurs as a jab, slugging the Cop upwards at the base of his jaw. His body pitches backwards, laying him out on his spine in a dry puff of dirt. The Cop touches his bleeding jaw. The shot of pain from his broken mouth makes him wince and pinch his eyes shut. Hemoglobin-sullied saliva and the taste of black coffee fill his mouth. His hands are covered in blood and one of his front teeth dangles by the slightest thread of pulp from his gums. Two more cars zip by, uncharacteristically fast for drivers in the presence of a police cruiser (ninety miles per hour, in fact). That’s because the sirens are shut off for reasons no one will ascertain now; later, it will be discovered that every bulb in the array browned-out from an excessive influx of energy.

In the absence of anyone’s attention, the Cop limps back towards the truck, preternaturally focused, gun in hand. Steve runs to stop him.

“Wait! No! It’s not his fault! Please, leave him—”

“Not his fault?! Dear Lord, what in the fuuu—heff—What is that thing?!”

“Don’t! Please!”

“Get outta my way!”

The Thing’s head rises, pushing against the taut tarp and snapping the cords that brace it. Now standing upright in the truck bed, the Thing extends several more feet beyond its already daunting bounds, its torso and limbs de-contracting, reaching outwards and upwards. A contoured silver helmet frames its red eyes and forms the base for a three-foot long curved proboscis extending downwards, forged of a single continuous piece of surreal alloy.

It’s directly facing the Cop.

Without hesitation, the Cop lets off one round. The shot connects with the armor and sounds a deafening clang, nicking the Great Silver Thing in its shoulder. It takes the bullet, firm and unbending. A sharp wheeze emerges from its steel-like shell, like a factory floor whistle. At the point where the bullet grazed, a gash exposes wires and circuitry, expelling thin ribbons of smoke.

The Thing leaps from the bed of the truck and lands on the dirt sending a tiny tremor along the ground. With the prideful stature of a cyborg chimp covered in contoured gray-blue steel, it raises its fist at the Cop. The Thing’s arm twitches and plummets its fist to the ground with a sick thud like a foley artist punching a sack of sand. The Cop trains his gun at the Thing’s proboscis, praying that it’s a pregnable point. The Thing twitches periodically, fist firmly planted in the ground. The Cop visibly trembles as he trains his gun while bracing himself for reactions beyond what he can conceive.

Without warning or provocation, the Thing marches towards the Cop, scraping its fist along the ground in a trail of dust. Steve’s neural mechanism simply shorts out, anxiously itching himself and dithering in place for a moment before simply giving up.

“Fuck, man! Fuck, you’ve really done it now…”

“What?! Done what?!” The Cop yanks Steve by his collar, wondering what arcane hex he’s inadvertently summoned and how it can be undone. Steve can’t look him in the face. He stares at the ground, his lips quivering and his eyes watering.

“Nothing I can tell you will make any sense. Just try to run.”

They both sprint, and the Great Silver Simian follows, still lurching. Quickly, the Thing, learns to incorporate its handicap, using its infirm arm as a lever by which to pitch itself forward several feet at a time. The Stevens’ quick bounds now shrink; The Cop turns to see that the Thing is now five feet behind him, able to crush him in one stride. In one tragic sequence, the Cop trips, the Thing lunges, and its shiny silver proboscis stabs the Cop through his back.

Sweet Steven’s movements slow to the point at which his face very nearly oozes into a rictus of horror, his mouth widening a micron beyond a human expression. His fingertips glide disbelievingly along the proboscis’ smooth surface, this unexpected tool of his demise. It gleams beautifully under the moonlight, adorned with slick ribbons of ornamental viscera along its length. A sick little gasp escapes his mouth and rattles his torso like a sleeping infant shocked by its own movement.

As if to deposit responsibility for this incident squarely in his lap, the Great Silver Beast turns to face Steve, projecting the vulnerability of a wounded animal. Before he can process the dense tangle of problematic developments looming over his head, Steve bounds for the truck, searching his glove compartment for the crumpled map of sigils.

He starts up the engine while futilely perusing the sigils, unlabeled and with no index or orienting framework. It was essentially a crib sheet of the Thing’s user manual whose results—in his hands, anyway—were unpredictable at best. By using the keys, he invites chaos but resurrects the possibility of regaining control of the Thing. Inspecting them, they look anonymous, a carefully wrought collection of scrawls screaming its curves and angles with loud articulation but signifying nothing. Sigils respond to the confusion of the user; they prey on it, in fact. The affect of a sigil can change in intensity and even invert itself depending on its response to its applicant. He knows this; he is always well-versed in the dimensions of his inadequacy. He bites the inside of his cheek so hard it bleeds. It’s time to do something, even it means fucking up.

Slamming the door shut, he taps the gas gently, lurching along the shoulder towards the dead cop and the Beast. As he gets closer, Steve squints to blur his vision of the Cop’s limp body.

The Thing waits like a dead bee with its pointer stuck. Glancing again at the sigil sheet, increasingly inscrutable as his anxiety level waxes, he realizes the manual task of dislodging the proboscis is something that A) needs to be attended to, and B) he can manage. Without once directly looking at him, Steve pushes the Cop’s lifeless torso forward. It takes barely a nudge for the Cop to slide down to the ground where the tip of the proboscis sits lodged in the dirt. He grasps the Thing at its shoulders, feeling its intense shudder at the shock of being touched. He pulls and, mercifully for him, the proboscis ejects cleanly while the Silver Steel Beast allows itself to fall on its back.

Steve inspects the faint blue glow of a disc on its breast plate, touching it as though mere contact will glean its secrets. This is the canvas upon which he’ll trace the sigil sequence.

“Oh please, God, listen to me: if you’re real, make this all go okay.”

He traces the first sigil, a spiral superimposed with three intersecting triangles. The light brightens. He traces the second, a seemingly related one with the points of the triangles facing outwards and the spiral now a series of concentric circles, then the third, a series of embedded triangles circumscribed inside a broken oval.

The light grows ever brighter and a mechanical whirr laces through it, an encouraging swell of activity. He traces the fourth, a complex one featuring embedded triangles ascribed by rows of horizontal bars, their perimeter lined with tiny pearls whose borders are broken in a spot that cycles clockwise around the border of the outermost triangle. The blue disc reaches a zenith of activity before his fingers trace the fifth and last sigil, a globe with one crack at its top and its circumference lined with triangles composed of horizontal bars, reorienting themselves in a nudge in the counterclockwise direction. The whirr immediately dies, running through slower after slower cycle as the bright blue light fades to a dot about the size of a pinhead in the center of the chest piece.

Three silent, glacial seconds pass before that tiny ball of light expands like a cocoon, engulfing the Thing then contracting to the size of a balloon just as rapidly. In a rush, it ascends fifteen feet skyward then floats purposelessly as a bubble towards the opposite side of the highway. A Datsun Bluebird zips through the black and screeches to a halt at the sight of the iridescent orb floating over the median. The driver’s gaze falls from its mesmerizing glow down towards the shoulder where the visual information of the Cop’s corpse beside Steve seems less believable than a floating ball of light. For the first time since this sequence of unfortunate developments unfolded, Steve comprehends that anyone in their right mind would find him at fault for the result.

“No.” He intones this weak refusal under his breath, partly to the driver who would blame him for all this, and partly to the very cosmos for laying this at his feet. The driver of the Datsun speeds away, his face stuck in the same perplexed stare as when he arrived. A witness. Steve is almost certainly tied to this, not merely a failure but now a fugitive. As if to spite him, the orb rolls in mid-air, accreting momentum from a still point as if falling down a flight of stairs. It floats with impunity down the embankment along the eastbound side.

“Ah, fuck! Fuckfuckfuckf–”

Steve cranks the wheel hard to the left. Taking a deep breath, he rushes the divider, which jolt lifts him out of his seat and knocks the top of his head against the roof. His chassis is just high enough to clear it, its underside scraping the concrete in the process. Decelerating just short of the edge, he lets the car tumble slowly over an embankment composed of rocks, brick-red dust and dry brush, flooring it once he hits the level ground.

The blue orb veers south towards the center of the clearing, coasting along a flat field of dry brush about a half-mile off of Old Santa Susanna Pass. It stops suddenly, and Steve hits the brakes hard. He unlatches the door handle and tumbles out of the truck in one deeply clumsy gesture, the inscrutable sigil list peeking out of his frayed back pocket.

The orb expands. In doing so, its apparently finite material stretches and its impossible luminescence slowly dims. Over the course of a minute, its grown from a tiny blue sphere back to the large tomb-like shape it occupied upon encasing the Thing, its exterior a shimmering blue transparent window revealing the Robot in its full stature, wounded as it had been.

This is not where they’re supposed to be tonight and unfortunately it looks like where they’ll stay. Although they’re nearly twenty miles from where they began their journey this evening, they’re frustratingly only two miles from Steve’s home and less than half a mile from his boss, whom they should be nowhere near at the moment. He’s distracted, eyes darting around the immediate vicinity, feeling tremendously exposed.

Steve frantically scours the sigil grimoire. Deciding that by some miraculous force of Providence, his objective could be fulfilled with a single intentionally articulated sigil, Steve opts to focus and trace another. This one is a triangle within a circle, within a triangle, within a circle, each with a gap in its border whose location shifts in the counterclockwise direction. Rapidly, the brightness and whirring rapidly resume their previous rates. The Thing firms up from its damaged slouch, legs locked straight, arms by its side. At once, it begins to tremble then, as if tipped forward, falls on its face, landing at an angle such that its proboscis hits the dirt at an awkward slant.

“Yes.” Steve mouths the word, too thrilled at his core to make a sound. It’s happening.

A ring of fire ignites, surrounding the Thing, quickly spreading outwards.

“Ohgodohgod.”

Steve runs towards the pass, looking back over his shoulder periodically. The flames look small, not nearly as grandiose as what he’d expected. It spreads quickly, however, and it’s nearly caught up to him, licking at his heels. Steve dives into a nearby bank of what are unfortunately terribly thorny bushes and curls up into a ball awaiting the end of this earth-cleaving Keep.

The low ground-level conflagration dwindles to cinders and ash. A great black disk of burnt ground remains. At its center, the Thing, lies petrified were it fell, seemingly unscathed. Steve runs to it, the incinerated earth sending plumes of warmth through the worn rubber soles of his sneakers.

Steve faces the Thing, mesmerized by how life-like it still looks. He’d expected nothing more than a pillar of ash to remain. Instead it’s intact, a figure of gleaming, unscarred metal.

He raises a shaky hand to touch it but he’s repelled by a concentrated spasm of scalding heat vapor. “GAAAAAAHA!” The sensation is so screamingly intense, it repels his hands inches before he makes contact. The pain knocks him on his ass and he crab crawls backwards with his elbows along the warm ground.

The Thing pushes itself upright, whispers of smoke glide in serpentines around its contours. In the white moonlight, its incandescent metallic shell becomes blindingly bright. The Thing lurches forward, dragging its flailing arm again amongst the black cinders. Its silver proboscis gleams proudly like a forged curving spire dipped in mercury. Marching toward Steve, the Thing lets out a mechanical wheeze with each step, followed by a clunk.

HEE-JOMP…

Still in his inverted crab-like posture, Steve begins to feel the onset of lactic acid rushing through his limbs. He shakes, both from his body losing its strength and from the agonizingly slow approach of the Mech Beast towards him. At last, Steve gives up and lays his skull down upon the now-cooled embers, thankful for at least this modicum of relief before the Thing exacts its revenge upon him. His mind switched off, he slouches in wait for it to descend upon him.

HEE-JOMP…HEE-JOMP…

He fights back tears as an unbidden voice in his head begs Jesus Christ himself for death.

HEE-JOMP…

With a sharp CLACK, the Thing bends down on one knee, rears its head back, and stabs its proboscis into the earth yet again. The ground shudders and the charred soil beneath Steve begins to warm and break. He’s sinking into a hot pit of earth. Clambering his way out, he screams, as clumps of dry hot dirt tumble into his mouth to silence him. Every grasp releases a loose clod, barely maintaining his traction as he scrambles to simply reduce the rate at which he’s sinking. After three full minutes of his best efforts, he’s still losing several inches of ground. His face burns. The desire to give up builds into a screaming head of lactic acid burning through his every limb.

Just as the force of the vacuum defeats Steve’s tread, the Thing slowly rises off its knee and begins to extract its proboscis from the ground, surfacing gleaming and unvarnished. Just shy of the terminus, it stops, leaving the Thing frozen halfway between kneeling and standing. It lets out a periodic rumble that grows louder each time.

Grlrlrlrlp. Grlrlrlrlp. Grlrlrlrlp.

At last it breaks free but not before a three-inch-long piece of the proboscis’ tip breaks off. The Great Silver Thing expels a long muffled whine like a scream bundled in a scrim of gauze.

Eeerrrrrrrrroo—

An impossibly peaceful silence replaces the commotion in the field. The highway above remains empty of cars, the air so still even dust makes a sound. A breeze whistles through nearby brush, picking up speed and volume, accumulating into a howl. Steve cranes his neck in every direction, seeking its source, then turns around to find the Thing mere inches from his face. As Steve clenches his teeth to steel himself for a bludgeoning, the Thing turns away and in a mass of jagged, loping metal marches towards the hills.

The aftermath of an ambitious failure is typically denial, specifically a clinging to the idea that something was achieved even though the principle objective was not. As the Thing’s delicate machinery has now been so irrevocably compromised it cannot be forced to endure another attempt, Steve wonders if it’s possible they had accomplished their objective, despite a complete lack of closure or ceremony. He grasps at all this as he watches the Thing trudge towards the woods along the horizon of his ground’s-eye-view, soon to be obscured from view in a deceptively dense patch of forest along a concave enclosure against the hillside.

A few more grasps at the now-firming soil beneath him and Steve manages to pull himself fully out of the pit. He performs a cursory wipe of dirt from his face, and stumbles towards his truck, rehearsing the familiar motions of giving up. The engine sputters to life, wheezing on the few remaining ounces of gas in the tank. There’s just enough to get him back to the house and then to the station in the morning. Checking the time, it instinctively comforts Steve to realize that the first peek of sunlight is less than an hour from now.

Mundanity quickly blankets his thoughts; it saddens him how unsurprised he is. Greatness may be something he was destined only to covet in his lifetime, a carrot that he was never meant to reach but in his quest to obtain it, a task resembling meaning might fill his days. The truck chugs along the dirt path back towards the main road. Unsure if he can believe what just happened, he turns back in the direction of the Thing, now mostly obscured by shadows and trees. Its shape is discernible, if nondescript—potentially a hallucination at this point. The reality of what happened here tonight recedes in Steve’s mind as day prepares to break. The crushing sense of failure that lies like lead on Steve’s heart now lifts a bit. Mercifully for Steve, the circumstances of the night actively fade, like emotions in a dream. This week’s depressing task of getting himself on the waiting list for next semester’s junior college courses now seems like a great gift, a preferable fate to whatever was supposed to happen tonight, presuming it was indeed a delusion. The day brings with it a nourishing possibility of reinvention and Steve feels something like joy for the first time all night.

He steps on the gas and makes his way home, a soft sigh brushing past his parched lips at the mere thought of his bed. An aching pulse swells behind his eye; it starts to twitch. Inspecting it in the rearview, he spots the enormous purple bruise on his temple, above his right eyebrow. It’s then that his eyelid goes through a series of spasms, fluttering his reflected image like an old zoetrope. Steve backhands the mirror so hard it snaps off. He makes the first and only decision he’s certain he will be able to follow through with tonight: to focus on the road and keep his twitchy eye shut the rest of the way home.

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STAR WARS: BEFORE THE FALL, Pt. 2 — “He’s No Good to Me Dead”

On the bridge of an Imperial Star Destroyer halfway between Bespin and Tatooine, two men argue over money.

“Due to the circumstances of Captain Solo’s capture, the Empire must deduct a small portion of your pay.”

“That is not what I consider small.”

“It’s more than reasonable for the loss of five of my best men.”

He rests his palm on his blaster. “I don’t pay for the Empire’s losses, Lord Vader.”

“Today, I’m afraid, you do.”

Only Darth Vader has the nerve to short Bobba Fett by 100,000 credits. Only Bobba Fett has the nerve to threaten Vader’s life over it. Vader has more than a little respect for the bounty hunter and offers something of a justification for ripping him off.

“Your arrival at Bespin was ostentatious and sloppy in the extreme. I expected a subtler approach from the great Bobba Fett. There’s reason to believe that city guardians were preparing their counter strike before we revealed our presence.”

“That’s preposterous.”

“Make of it what you will. You’re earning much more than any of your peers charge. Frankly, I think you were overpriced.”

That does it. Bobba Fett draws his blaster and shoots off several rounds having switched to automatic rapid-fire without Vader noticing. Vader deflects each shot with his arm, leaving minor scars on his armor. Vader attempts to draw the blaster towards him but Bobba Fett ups the ante tremendously by engaging his jetpack and shooting himself out of the window overhead.

The bridge’s two helmsmen are sucked out into the vacuum of space immediately. Using every ounce of concentration he possesses, Vader keeps his footing and peers out of the gash in the window towards a seemingly patient Bobba Fett. Having deployed two magnetic grapplers on his palm, Bobba Fett hugs the hull on all fours like a stalking animal ready to pounce. It’s not the best vantage point but he can see Vader pushing his apprehension of the Force to its limit, attempting to maintain his position. Surprisingly, he kneels onto the floor as the blast gates of the ship begin to close above him. Effortlessly, with one upraised hand, Lord Vader locks them in place before they shut, a stream of precious oxygen and useless particulate continuing to gust out of the bridge.

Spellbound, Bobba Fett watches from his perch, his heart beating in his throat. For a fleeting moment, the thought crosses his mind that challenging Darth Vader may have been a foolish idea. He squashes this notion instantly and reloads. He has about five minutes of oxygen left in this suit and he gathers Vader may have a little more if he doesn’t exhaust himself by resisting vacuum, that is.

Too late Bobba Fett realizes that passively waiting for his seemingly incapacitated foe is improper. In one fluid motion, Vader casts his head down and lets his body fly out through the gash, tearing it open wider and knocking Bobba Fett back from his spy’s perch. The bounty hunter quickly regains his bearings, catching the edge of the next higher tier along the hull. He scans in every direction for Vader, finding him nowhere. He gazes up at the starry firmament. The astonishing notion that he may have just defeated The Dark Lord of the Sith makes him chuckle. Not so overpriced now, he thinks.

At first, he assumes that his oxygen supply is low. He can hardly catch his breath. A glance at his meter reveals a full three minutes remaining. The thought that that can’t make any sense is abruptly interrupted by an intense constriction about his throat. His airways shut and he presses his helmet against the side of the hull. He doesn’t believe in The Force, he never did; but if it does exist, he thinks, he’d like to formally beg it for mercy right now.

That thought barely escapes his mind when he sees a familiar black boot step before his visor. He looks up and Lord Vader, standing with clenched fist, brushes him away with one hand hurtling back through the open blast gates. Bobba Fett’s jetpack hits the bridge floor with such force it rattles his teeth. The blast gates immediately seal shut and oxygen and gravity return to the bridge floor. Bobba Fett, still supine on the deck, looks about him at the dark abandoned bridge, a single red alert siren bleating and flashing to illuminate the darkness. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the regal gentleman warrior of the Empire approach, walking slowly as if there is no hurry, and indeed, there is not; not when you’re accustomed to thinking several steps ahead of your opponent, calculating outcomes and possibilities, measuring energies and intentions, all with the inevitability of victory in mind. Nothing happens to Vader, the bounty hunter thinks, that he doesn’t expressly wish to happen.

There is never a moment when he is not in control.

Bobba Fett’s jetpack is now empty of fuel. He lost his blaster during one of the upheavals on the ship’s exterior, and he now has barely two minutes of oxygen remaining. There is no upper hand to be had right now and he waits for Lord Vader to approach him, seemingly slower than before, and issue a judgment. The Lord of the Sith glances around him at the carnage and damage left by this stunt and throws the promised amount, minus 100,000 credits as he’d insisted, by the bounty hunter’s feet.

“I did not deduct any more from your compensation. You’ve pointed out to me the folly in having any kind of override for our blast gates. Consider your survival and my agreement to the previous terms as a form of grace.”

Vader turns his back on Bobba Fett who wouldn’t dare retaliate at this point.

“I trust you have faith in the power of the force now.” Vader exits the bridge and this is the last interaction between these two men, arguing over money.

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The Mountain

Every artist is in the process of ascending a mountain. At the peak is their vision. The peak keeps getting higher and higher but that’s ok because the more you climb, the closer you get to it and the better your art gets. The only way up the mountain is through work. Making art: that’s the only way.

Along the way up, there are demerits and credits that are the world’s reactions to your work. The former are your failures which give the sense you’re sliding down the mountain, reverting your progress. The latter are your successes, which give you the sense that you’re climbing it faster. In reality, neither is true, and the result of negotiating either only affects the work in the slightest, most superficial manner.

The real work happens independently from all this and it arises from ideas. Ideas are not the same as thoughts. Thoughts have no meaning in and of themselves. They are fickle. They come and go. They make us happy or sad or whatever. But they don’t plant roots.

Ideas are pure consciousness. They are the powerful ether that we cannot hold but merely excavate and witness; ideas don’t belong to us, and we feel that. Only when you carve with this pure ideational manna are you doing the work, and continuing your climb. Nothing else matters.

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On Malinky Robot and Books for Kids

I couldn’t get my hands on the lovely care package Sonny Liew sent me–which included a CD, playing cards in a cigarette pack, and a few other pieces of ephemera besides his first collection of Malinky Robot stories–not right away at least because my nine-year-old stepson intercepted it as soon as it arrived in the mail and wouldn’t part ways with it for a full week.

That right there might be all the review this collection needs. Comics have this weird a-demographic appeal where the mainest of mainstream titles are essentially designed to be read by anyone from ages 8-100. That is, they’re for everyone and no one. And yet these titles aren’t really grabbing young readers as easily as they once did, partly because of the death of the “spinner rack” which brought monthly comics to places like 7-11, Rite-Aid, and other places a kid could randomly stumble upon a comic outside of the directed mission of entering a comic book shop. Everyone, especially DC and Marvel, wants to bring these kids back to comics and everyone is relatively unsure how to do that. Is there some existing franchise that they love? Is there an art style that they respond to? The answer, at once simple and elusive: don’t try to write for kids.

As you may or may not know, kids have excellent bullshit detectors. They can tell when you’re dragging them somewhere YOU don’t even want to be. They can tell when you explain something but you don’t know what you’re talking about. They might not have the wherewithal to call you on it, but it smells funny (is this perhaps the “Stinky Fish” in chapter 1 of Malinky Robot?) And they can tell when someone is trying to speak in their tongue…and faking it. Again, they may not call you on it, but nor will they be enthusiastic.

That’s what makes those pre-code Disney/Warner cartoons so great and so enduring. When you strip away their fantastic premises, they’re just real: grim and emotional and messy. They don’t impart morals or pave worldviews. There’s characters contending with futility, schizophrenia, and, um, murder. There’s also smoking, innuendo, and other things that are going right over kids’ heads. And it works, because it’s always, always funny.

Functioning on this logic, Malinky Robot is at once aimless and perfected in its aimlessness. It follows a pair of boys, Oliver and Atari, in their subjectively thrilling adventures against boredom in a near-future Asian fishing town. First of all, hats of to Mr. Liew for giving his readers enough credit to suss out the sci-fi subtext without explicitly announcing the year, the place, or anything else that he clearly explains with the visuals. Because beneath the perennial theme of kids trying to entertain themselves, there’s a perfectly subtle pronouncement of the kind of semi-dystopian world we’re entering via our planet’s slow slide into eco-oblivion. It’s in the tones and dreariness with which he renders this decrepit yet utterly modern village. It’s even in the clothes that Atari and Oliver wear, and perhaps in their mutant hybrid species phenotypes as well. And so plots are centered around stinky fish and lost bicycles, around encounters with the people of this town like Mr. Bon Bon, an unhappy suit type who gets his own poignant chapter partway through the collection, and a robot, that… well… I don’t want to spoil that part.

All of this is to say that I get why my nine-year-old dug it. It’s because Malinky Robot rings true to his perspective without once condescending to it. It delineates a world like the one he shares with his friends where a new swear word can yield a whole day of laughs, where a smell can lead you on an all-consuming hunt for its source, and where the entire city that surrounds you is as inspiring and magnificent as it is mundane, stifling, and totally boring. Malinky Robot is a good book, maybe even a great book, because at long last, it’s a true book.

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Junky Cosmonaut

My name is Ethan Kestler. About thirty minutes from now, I will forcibly eject myself from this spacecraft, with only my in-suit life support system to sustain me (a generous estimate for a healthy man in his mid-thirties: approximately fours and thirty minutes, less than half of which will be tolerable). To clarify, this is not suicide; there’s despair in suicide and although I do have despair, it’s not what motivates me to do this. There exists somewhere, on some plane, a scientist who uses me as the reactive element in his experiment. I must eject myself from this experiment for while its machinations are, fascinating—indeed, the very source of my fascination since I was very young—its fruits are the most significant horror of my adult life.

#

My wife’s name is Alana. We used to live together at 213 Empyrean Drive. I’m trying my best to entertain enough enthusiasm about the idea of my “legacy” to commit this all to audio because there is quite a bit of money attached to me and I would be an awful man if I didn’t leave it all to her, as much as she’d had to suffer as my wife. Suffer may sound too dramatic for what she went through and in some respects, it is; in others, it’s barely adequate. Most people speak to the dissolution of their partnerships as a slow process with no specific epicenter but in our case there was a very specific moment that triggered it, the day we lost our baby.

We lost the baby on a Friday. I say “lost” instead of “miscarried” because “miscarried” always struck me as one of those soft, pitiful euphemisms like “passed away” that you use because “died” sounds too harsh. In the case of a fetus, though, “died” isn’t even accurate. They’re only alive, to an extent, in as far as they’re being prepared to be independent and cogent beings. It’s the ideation of them that dies the harder death, our hypothetical conception of what they will grow to be. In that way, a fetus is half an idea and half a real thing, just like a ball in an athlete’s hands is half a goal and half the intention of a goal, and that line between ideating and the fear of failure is what cuts the hardest; you have to be on the other side of the line to succeed. The difference is, as a parent you don’t do much to entertain the notion that you’ll fail to bring the baby to term. Athletes are more realistic; they’re negotiating that fear of death at every turn.

I dreamt I met her, not as a baby but as a grown woman, someone resembling my Aunt Zelda but with Alana’s red hair; I didn’t know why but in the logic of the dream it was definitely her. That, to me, is the last I saw of her, and presumably the first anyone saw of her.

At about 11:30pm, Alana crept through the hallway on the way back from the bathroom, so as not to wake me. I shot upright in bed at what sounded like a large animal tumbling down our hallway followed by a flash of light through the seams of the closed bedroom door, like the hallway light had been turned on and off. Then I heard it: a high-pitched, “Oooo.” Next came another one, longer and higher like an owl until it finally broke:

OooooUNNGH!

The floorboards creaked, followed by a series of long low moans. Something inside me knew it was over and I didn’t stand for a full minute. If I didn’t see it, the possibility that nothing bad had happened existed just a hair’s breadth longer.

I referred to the feeling of losing the baby as The Crusher. Whenever positivity and natural goodwill attempted to resurface, The Crusher came along to sit upon and crush that uptick. I began to actively avoid food or music that I liked, certain that I would create a bad association with it and never enjoy it again. The Crusher was impossible to quantify, meaning you never knew quite how bad you were going to feel. It pulled from this bottomless well of black tar loathing that I never knew I had and whose depths where apparently vaster upon each visit. Over the course of those next few weeks, I realized that I was stuck inside that well in my mind. It’s hard to describe being psychically trapped but there I was, in the middle of conversations, in the middle of making dinner, in the middle of driving south on The 101, having a very specific idea of being stuck in this well to the point where I was entertaining escape routes, of which, I’d ascertained, there were none. Beyond that, I was sliding down deeper into morbidity, drowning in unbidden visions that were beyond what my imagination could generate on its own. At a certain point, the well was not a metaphor; I could see it in my mind’s eye, consistent in structure and dimension. The side was too sheer to climb, digging laterally was not possible as I had no tools, and lastly screaming out for help was not an option because this was not really happening and I’d risk getting committed if I tried to convince people I was stuck in a well.

Despite all this, It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t start using because of her.

#

I’ve only ever had two jobs: one as a marketing executive for a company that sold online ads for business courses (we sold the ads, not the courses) and then as founder of the Second-Wave Cosmonaut Initiative, effectively privatizing NASA and thus, all space travel.

I still remember where I was the day of the first clean launch, the way people remembered where they were on September 11th or the assassination of JFK, although I’ve never met anyone who ascribes that kind of significance to the first clean launch. I was in a bar in Reseda. I had just gotten off of work in Santa Monica but Alana was at her Mom’s in Moorpark so rather than hurry back I decided to go to the bar. I was already at my front door when I realized I didn’t have to be home. Going to a bar is not something I ever do but I don’t have friends in the Valley and I don’t keep liquor in the house so I looked online for the closest bar and The Red Baron was it. The server was visibly annoyed when I took his attention away from the two other patrons of the bar and grew more so when I didn’t know what to order. The bar just happened to be showing the launch on the TV behind him.

It was instantly weird: no explosive gas or big billowing clouds of smoke or anything close to what a space shuttle taking off looked like; just these vapors coming out of a shuttle whose design can only be described as a warped parallelogram. The mutterings about the technological innovations of the clean launch had escaped the majority of the public’s attention, including mine. This was purportedly NASA’s elaborate death rattle. Yet watching this, it looked like a victory lap in spite of its economic realities; I was transfixed and just wanted the bartender to place any drink in front of me that would end our interaction so I could focus on what I was seeing.

“Just give me whatever, please… a beer.”

“Whatever” beer was a bottle of Budweiser (apt, really). I touched the bottle and absent-mindedly left a few dollars (I didn’t look at how much nor did I bother to check for change). They were video tracking the thing all the way to the moon apparently, a flight that would take an unheard-of twenty minutes. It was the takeoff I was most interested in, the way it resisted Earth’s pull and looked so alien as it cleaved the blue of the sky, fashioning ever-lighter shades in its absence. The air around the craft turned an impossibly bright white—apparently scorching hot, hot enough to evaporate animal meat in seconds—without fuel emissions of any kind. It turned blue then red, pink, and orange like the horizon during a coastal sunset. And suddenly it was out of the blue and into the black.

That’s when I finally let myself take a breath, raise the bottle and down my first sip of the beer, which irrigated and nourished my now extremely dry throat. The bartender began speaking to me and I just mechanically nodded, transfixed as the ship cruised through space, abruptly shifting its orientation here and there until down and up became thoroughly meaningless, while the moon appeared to be drawing nearer to it smoothly as if along a string.

Before losing the baby, before junk, this was the start of the interesting part of my life. It was the first time in my adult life that I didn’t feel numb; or rather, everything seemed like numbness before this moment. I felt everything inside my body lightening, like turning thirty never happened, and I suddenly had the enthusiasm I had when I was eleven years old, reading the first book I remember as my favorite, The Inverted Parallax. Reading that was the first time I felt my imagination prodded.

The story concerned a future Earth where we discover that a fast-moving cluster on the edge of the Milky Way will “graze” our star system within a year’s time, obliterating every known planet and moon in our solar system with an influx of super-dense matter from stars 14 times the size of our Sun. The only way to prevent it is to send ships equipped with high-output gravity generators towards a set of supermassive stars, slowly attracting them towards our galaxy to create a defensive perimeter along the edge of The Milky Way thus forcing the cluster off-course and leaving our system safe. This is, however, a suicide mission; the pressure from the incoming rush of super-dense stellar material will crush the pilots’ ships. They agree wholeheartedly and after several tearful goodbyes, they set forth.

Their mission is successful but instead of dying they pass through the calm eye of the stellar vortex, sling-shotting them towards another system in time-space, one that is completely habitable and reminiscent of Earth but with less of a reliance on either technology or spirituality and more of a keen bodily awareness of scientific principles. The planet Thrakkat, whose people somehow never divided themselves from the natural world, eagerly accepted the mission’s pilots as one of their own. They live out the majority of their adult lives there, befriending the scientifically adept community of chemists, biologists, and astronomers, while taking partners and starting families in this utopian society. Eventually, they come to discover that they’d been sent a millennium into the past and that the system in which they’d grown to be old men was in the heart of the cluster they were sent to divert. The twist: their implementation of the massive gravity generators on this cluster initiated its long diversion towards Earth, the precise event that they’d been sent to prevent. It was the first time I thought that people gloss over the interesting parts of life, hurrying instead to the underwhelming inevitable.

#

It was years before NASA invited me to take my first shuttle trip that I started formulating the Second-Wave Cosmonauts Initiative (SWCI was an internal acronym; we never promoted it that way. I used it at a conference once and it stuck; people just liked it). Originally, this was to be my plan to enter the space industry, which is, of course, not an industry in that there are no attendant economic streams to space travel. But that was the whole point, I thought; I’ll create them: advertising, merchandising, investment opportunities. Why didn’t anyone think of this before? The answer is that our philosophy behind what space travel means to us began to atrophy despite the advent of the clean engine, which ought to have been a shot in the arm. The real shot in the arm, though, is never innovative products, it’s always innovative perspectives.

That philosophy had to evolve into something profoundly firm before we could carve competitive revenue streams. That philosophy etched itself onto my brain the night I watched the clean launch—space travel represents the greatest evolutionary step of the human race: exiting its environment and surviving. With no plans to terra-form or otherwise populate nearby planets and no feasible way to reach more remote habitable planets in a pilot’s lifetime, some argued that exploration qua exploration was becoming nigh on masturbatory. My gambit was that, inherently, there was a point. The point was only to keep going to space. Everything unfolds from this persistence; we become citizens of space, acquainted with it until the the next horizon presents itself.

Initially, NASA went into the red, scheduling seventeen manned missions that first year. That’s what I told them to do, without any additional influx of government money, and to the detriment of most of their successful unmanned missions, many of which were prematurely grounded or otherwise shelved. We sent more people into orbit in one year than we had in a decade, with no specific mission objectives; just to go. I distinctly remember the long spreadsheet of 4-6 digit numbers that represented the emptied savings accounts of every willing participant in Mission Control at the time. My heart sank when I realized each of these numbers represented someone’s future, potentially burned. And yet the thought of returning their money felt like a bigger failure than the attempt—at last, I was convinced of my own strategy.

The plan was to have a professional quality live stream for free viewing that we would monetize with ads; at once, simple, dumb, and ultimately effective. I didn’t know if people were going to be interested and at first the numbers were disappointing. We had until Mission 4 to break even; after Mission 3, we were about $2 million in the hole.

To my relief, Mission 4 turned everything around and then some. I was about to plead for an extension as I couldn’t imagine us breaking even, let alone soaring into the black just one mission later. It had been my hope that the live stream of the shuttle launches would grow to become a nail-biting thrill. Apparently, they were; the first few were uninterrupted with some banner ads. By Mission 4, we saw a huge spike in viewers. Then we got really lucky when the shuttle had trouble taking off. It sounds awful in retrospect but the fact that the launch looked doomed for a moment is what made us our fortune. With Mission 4’s live stream, we were trying a more aggressive advertising technique where you would get commercials during the stream but if you paid a flat fee, you could watch it uninterrupted. People were dying for up-to-the-minute progress updates so not only were almost all of our regular viewers paying in, they were calling their friends and family to check it out and they were telling them to pay as though there were no other option. And we were the only game in town: it just wasn’t popular enough for anyone to carry the stream so we had a complete monopoly on reporting this incident.

It may seem objectionable and exploitative to discuss this near-disaster as a money-making venture, but the fact is that the money and interest of the general public kept the space program afloat when it was in danger of becoming irrelevant, setting the stage for a new renaissance.

That’s when an Egyptian venture capitalist by the name of Basim Haqqi began conducting his own research. His marketing team found that in addition to playing really well with the college crowd and the 20-somethings (we knew that), teens aged 12-18—a demographic that actually buys things—were tuning in to these launches. They were over half of the 52 million hits we got on our biggest view for Mission 8. And over half of those were girls, or rather, women (well, girls) aged 14-18. One obvious reason was Calvin Forester, the 6’5” dashing black physicist in Mission 8’s crew. But we were getting 30-40 million hits on other Missions without runway-ready lookers like Forester. Actually we hit 45 million with Mission 6 with a very Plain Jane high school biology teacher on board, a white Jewish woman from Toronto named Naomi Marks. Hers and Forester’s missions were our highest rated and once again, tested highest with teen girls, aged 14-18. From this data, I formulated the same conclusion as Mr. Haqqi: outsiders on space missions are marketing gold.

You have to understand that I am not nor ever been about making money for money’s sake. Well, Mr. Haqqi is, and I definitely realized that no matter how excellent my concepts were, money was his ultimate concern in this endeavor. But the acquisition of marketing dollars through targeted ads and merchandising were only the means to execute my two-fold plan: (1) to create an economically competitive space industry—in the same way that professional athletics is an economically competitive industry—to the point where it influences social structures and possesses sufficient swagger to act on its whims, and, in doing so, (2) to get myself into space. I probably could have found easier ways to generate revenue but after witnessing a clean launch, the thought of going to space was so thrilling, it consumed me and I wanted to share that sensation like a missionary.

The discovery that outsiders rated higher than trained astronauts (we still referred to them as astronauts at this point) was the game changer for both aspects of that plan. I’d just assumed that they’d let me fly at some point, either as a courtesy or at least out of a sense of obligation if it came down to my prodding them for it. That it was now imperative to include “non-trained” (we do not say “untrained”) astronauts in launches (imperative, at least, in the economic sense) was amazingly more than a wish fulfilled; it led to a profound aesthetic sea change in the space administration, one that favored a new kind of space traveler, who was cosmopolitan, creative but not necessarily scientific, and totally apolitical as the nationalistic “space race” was completely irrelevant by this point. As a means of distinguishing this second-wave of space traveler, I suggested we resurrect the outdated Soviet appellation, cosmonaut, to maintain a respectful distinction for professional astronauts, and (although I never admitted this to anyone in Mission Control before now) because it was the aesthetically superior term.

I should confess it was at this time that I first tried junk. It sounds strange even to me that after years raised in social circles amongst lefties, artists, and iconoclasts, I didn’t so much as stumble upon heroin until I began spending all of my time amongst programmers and investors.

It was an accident. I was pitching Mr. Haqqi on a new line of space travel-themed foods while on a jet from London to LA. Mr. Haqqi was distracted and apparently not interested in my pitch, his focus steering towards his 30-year-old bottle of Balvenie and the 22-year-old body of his companion on our trip, his wife’s jet-haired yoga instructor, Alexandra (“Zandra is okay, but never Sandy,” she’d explained to me, unprompted, both times I’d met her). It was embarrassing to be the obvious impediment to two people who want to fuck so I gulped down my frustration and pretended that my pitch was over. I pretended to excuse myself to the restroom, where I forced myself to piss a few drops from my mostly empty bladder. On my way out of the restroom, I heard their moaning at the end of the corridor and even smelled the scent of pussy in the air. Perhaps it was the altitude but I was amazed at how quickly I resolved to enjoy myself, however slightly, by finding some uninhabited portion of this rather large private vessel; My tablet sat in my jacket pocket and I was more than grateful for downtime to revise, or research, or—should those prove fruitless—simply browse porn. Expecting every room to be empty and equally intriguing, I poked my head into the first door on my right that fortunately led, as I’d ideally hoped, to Mr. Haqqi’s study. The soft amber glow of Mr. Haqqi’s illuminated teak cabinets housing a variety of scotch to make Joyce blush was already proving to be more than an adequate refuge. At the very least, he owed me a shot of whatever scotch sat on the highest shelf and the cavalier-ness of putting my feet up on his desk as I read.

It was upon casually inspecting the left-hand drawer for a pen that I noticed the bag of white powder. It didn’t look, smell, or taste like cocaine. Oh shit, I remembered thinking, this is fucking junk! In a small black leather case was a completely clean and unused kit, that looked so elegant and refined with its compartments tailored to the tie, needle, and spoon, it was as if Marks & Spencer’s had it custom made for him (not impossible, actually). I couldn’t stop giggling to myself for maybe a full minute at the sheer absurdity that I was on a private jet, drinking from a bottle of scotch whose value is roughly the list price of a heart transplant, and a bag of (probably) obscenely good heroin. It’s strange to me that the decision to shoot wasn’t really that significant. At the time, I just assumed I had all the time in the world to do something incredibly stupid. The moment I felt the not-at-all-unpleasant pinch of the needle against my bulged vein, an unfathomable wisdom shaded everything in my cosmos and then I knew I’d been right.

It unfolded in stages, each one seeming like the ultimate. The shot initiated a warm rumbling that began in my feet and extended to every part of my underside. This rumbling was the fundamental that kept building, feeling ever warmer until I had the sense that I was rising up out of my chair. I closed my eyes and went with it—the sensation felt even stronger. Gradually, the rumbling peaked and subsided beneath my arms. At once, I felt lighter, like I was floating upwards, gaining speed exponentially. The rumbling turned inward. First my arms and feet, then my back each burst into a tingling sensation as the rumble dissipated from each location. Once the final and strongest rumble dissolved against my tailbone, I felt untethered, propelling through a rush of celestial concentrate, like entering the core of a star. I wanted to sit there forever but even just a glance at the cocoon of light was an eternity inside this sentient rush. If some part of me felt that this could go on forever, another part of me knew that there was indeed a destination and as soon as I’d formulated the thought, I was there: a cavernous sigh rippled through the fabric of space and sucked me in to a silence where I might sleep for lifetimes or longer if I could only conceive of such a thing. The moment I embraced it, I began a descent through the spheres back to the plush leather chair inside a jet hovering a few thousand feet above Earth’s surface.

Long before I’d returned, a plan began to seed itself in my consciousness, a plan to return here one day. It was set in motion and I’d never have to consciously take it part in its unfolding. If I’d had to be conscious of it, I don’t think I could have ever gone through with it. I pocketed one more dose to take me there when the time came.

#

By the time Alexandra and Mr. Haqqi found me—alone and on my knees, my focus shifting from the stars in the night sky to the amber desk lamp reflecting off the window—it had been six hours since I’d shot up. Initially, I hadn’t noticed the door open but I heard a loud celebratory hoot and turned around to see Alexandra holding a magnum of champagne, dancing in her white lace bra and panties, while some modernistic electronic Bollywood-esque music blared behind her. Mr. Haqqi was in his boxer briefs and dancing as well, snapping his fingers in the air as he gyrated his hips back and forth against Alexandra, shimmying and blowing kisses in the air. Both of them are perfected human specimens with olive complexions and lean, slightly muscular bodies. Mr. Haqqi looked about ten years younger than 42, with a decent set of abs and pectoral muscles. Alexandra was slim but not a waif, with sensual lips and a tight round ass that jiggled just the slightest bit each time she planted her heels in the carpet. Despite myself, and the judgment I’d cast upon them, earlier, I smiled. Objectively, they looked very, very happy in that moment.

With slow, impossibly patient movements, I made my way back to the leather armchair I had wanted to wheel towards the window to keep apace of the gestures of the sky. Before I could return, Alexandra plopped in my lap, deftly leaning the seat back and kicking her legs up.

“E-than,” She spoke with a sultry voice that had a little smokiness to it, looking into my eyes with a playful, uncommitted sexuality. “You need to come out and play with us. Don’t be alone so long, it’s sad.”

I chuckled. “It’s okay, uh… Zandy?

“ZANNNDRA!” She yelled, far too loudly in my ear. There was no offense taken apparently, as she then planted wet kisses on both my cheeks then poured champagne down my throat (I resisted slightly but really, come on…). Mr. Haqqi clapped and sat down on the desk next to us. When Alexandra caught sight of him, she leapt in a short elegant bound off of my lap, landing with both feet on the ground. She pushed Mr. Haqqi across the desk and leaned over him at an impressive 80˚ angle while standing straight upon impossibly long tanned legs atop six-inch heels, looking positively Amazonian like a Brazilian Wonder Woman.

“You!” She stabbed her finger into his chest. “Meet me in five minutes.”

“Bay-beh, I have to talk with Ethan—”

Alexandra clicked her tongue. Mr. Haqqi was smiling and feigning innocence. She flashed five fingers then marched out like a petulant yet smug child that knew it was going to get its way, flashing a peace sign over her shoulder at us.

“Hoo! Fun girl, no?” Mr. Haqqi clapped his hands together so hard, I was startled out of my chair.

“Yeah, um… definitely.”

“You’re a good guy, Ethan. You’re honest and loyal and that’s rare.” he gestured in the general direction of Zandra, who was surely impatient by now, “In this life, we get one or the other, even with the people we care about most. If we get both, we’re blessed. Honestly, the only thing that really bothers me about you—and don’t take this personally…” Mr. Haqqi perused the shelf and poured himself a drink of the medium shelf scotch. He took a deep sip and made a pleasant grimace, smiling through gritted teeth as I desperately awaited his conclusion to that sentence. I was surprisingly relaxed and objectively asked myself why my blood wasn’t boiling; I had no answer. It was liberating to realize that I didn’t care what he thought. “…But you’re such a fuckin’ schoolboy.”

That was all. We both laughed. I didn’t want to bring up what I had done but he took another pull from his drink and his tone dropped to something altogether more funereal.

“You look fucked up, man.”

“I’m sorry?” I wanted to care.

“I said, you look fucked up, Ethan. Your eyes; I can see it in your eyes.”

There was no point in lying though I chuckled as the thought crossed my mind.

“It’s because I am. Fucked up, I mean.”

Mr. Haqqi cracked up when I said this. He covered his mouth, laughing while his eyes bugged out. This should tell you how good of a guy I am that he was this surprised to see me high.

“Wow, man. You are full of surprises! And what would Missus Ethan say about this?”

“Nothing.” I answered him confidently, simply, and—somehow—ambiguously. I liked that.

“I don’t believe that.”

To that, I just smiled. He didn’t expect this sort of thing from me, I know, but right now it appears that he’s so surprised that he’s questioning other things that he’d taken for granted. Like maybe when he cheats, his wife is also not being faithful and doting at home. Like maybe Zandra doesn’t worship his dick or even his money and just needs to be near him so she can be near other things, people she couldn’t meet otherwise, places she couldn’t find alone. Yes, this was weird for him and for me too but I had about five months left until I was going to be a dad and I had a couple of feelings left to feel for the sake of being well-rounded. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was enjoying his confusion at my moral complexity, but I don’t have it in me to delude others for longer than a few minutes. I poured another drink, again from the top shelf, and clarified.

“She won’t say anything because she won’t know.”

Mr. Haqqi was visibly less nervous now that he had a handle on my process here. “Oh, look at you! Mr. Boy Scout throwing away his merit badges.” He waved his finger at me like one does to a child. “A-jeeb, we say in Arabic; very strange of you, Ethan.”

At this point I got defensive; The very last thing I needed right now was his judgment. “Look, Basim: I love my wife but I can have a fuckin’ internal life that doesn’t always include her.”

“And your baby? If you become a junky, what happens to her? Your baby’s gonna have a junky for a daddy?”

“I won’t become a junky because I won’t get addicted.” Of that fact, I felt supremely confident. I inhaled a deep lungful of air and went on. “And I love my life. That all makes my transformation into a junky an impossibility. That isn’t self-control, either; that’s just how I am.” Mr. Haqqi stared at me while I went on this impassioned diatribe. I felt like I was winning him back and that made me happy. Mr. Haqqi nodded and had a look on his face like he knew I was going to say that. I wanted him to stop acting like he knew where this was all going. And I wanted the whole thing to be less damn serious. “But really, I was just so fucking bored on this very, very long flight.”

That did it. Mr. Haqqi laughed and clapped in that way he often does. I liked that. It made me feel like I’d put on a good show. Whether or not I was being honest, I guess this was a show. It was time for the encore, though I wasn’t the one presenting it; Mr. Haqqi dropped that bomb:

“You know, that shit you took is not just junk.”

My skin felt cold. “That right?”

“It is junk, but it’s more than that, too. Experimental shit. Psychotropic opioids. You like?” Perplexed over what to make of this, I just smiled and sipped scotch. There was really nothing else to do. Mr. Haqqi toasted me. “Ethan, I gotta go but let me tell you, that took some balls, man.”

I toasted him back. As he stumbled out of the room, I remembered my question. It took me a moment to speak up; I almost didn’t ask. At the time, I had no idea why. “Speaking of balls, Basim, what do you think about sending me up?”

He froze and glanced over his shoulder, though we didn’t meet eyes. He turned and still wouldn’t look at me. It almost seemed as if he were trying to discern what I meant by this vague statement though I knew he knew what I meant.

“The next mission, in two months. I want to go up. I want to be a cosmonaut.”

My heart was sinking; he was still giving me that look. There’s only two people who can decide who goes up: me, because I confirm what’s marketable, and him, because he writes the checks. Beyond that, any unwashed idiot in a bio-suit can fly. I’m not necessarily marketable enough to meet our current numbers though I’m more than willing to say that I am. If you were to ask me right then and there, I would tell you he wasn’t buying it. I took a deep breath and started pitching him on it.

“Amateur numbers are still quite—”

“Sure.”

“Sure?” I choked on my own saliva when I realized what he was saying. “What does ‘sure’ mean?”

“You going on the next mission. You becoming a cosmonaut. Yes. Fine. It’ll be brilliant.”

“Oh.” It had been too easy. Everything I’d been working towards sealed with a conversation that I almost didn’t have the wherewithal to make happen. And if what happened next in my life was any indication, this was a conversation that may never have happened. “Okay, then.”

“I’d love to go too, bro. But, you know, I take these heart meds and I don’t think my doctor would approve. Or my father. Or my shareholders. Haha.”

Though I was acting very cool on the outside—like we’d been on the same page all along—inside I was bursting with the amalgamated glee of receiving a blowjob while hitting a home run in the World Series. Just moments prior, it had appeared as though things were about to go very, very poorly and I’d end up regretting everything I’d done and said on that jet—especially the junk.

Now, looking back, it all seems like empyreal perfection.

#

“That might be the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.”

Gutted doesn’t begin to describe the way I felt when Alana rejected my already-well-in-motion plans to go on the next mission. To be fair, she didn’t know this was some big dream of mine. It seems ridiculous to say it out loud, but I’d never expressed it in as many words, always presuming she’d picked up on my intentions through osmosis or something. She assumed this was designed as a publicity stunt and that I could take it or leave it, otherwise I don’t think she would have been so harsh. Even then, I was hesitant to tell her that it was indeed, a big dream. If I didn’t tell her, I could pretend not to care and be a bit more dispassionate and effective while arguing.

“You know, it’s actually quite safe.”

“Uh, it’s not safer than you not going at all!”

“Statistically, it’s a lower risk than jaywalking.”

“One word: Challenger.”

“That’s not fair. Compared to what we’re using these days, those poor bastards were riding a hot-air balloon.”

“Jesus Christ, Ethan. I cannot believe we’re discussing this! You…are going…to be…a dad.”

I hated when she took that tone with me, like I was being impulsive and reckless. In retrospect, I wish I’d been able to somehow turn off every desire in my brain and just fall in line with her whole argument. Instead, I lied.

“Fine. You obviously feel very strongly about this. I’ll have them send someone else instead of me.” It was a side effect of my eagerness to fulfill this wish that I was so lazy with the subterfuge. Alana flinched like she’d felt a snap of whiplash; I don’t typically give in that easily. Still, she bought it.

“Okay, um…okay. What do you want for dinner?”

I said I didn’t care. She said she’d make rabbit stew. It was a full ten minutes before she started to cry. I remember distinctly: she began crying while she chopped the carrots. I’d remembered because I thought it was strange that the carrots and not the onions were making her cry. She set the knife down and leaned against the counter. I started rubbing her arm to see if she was okay and that’s when she finally let her tears out in earnest. Then she began apologizing to me through sobs. “I’m sorry, Ethan. I’m sorry I didn’t let you do something you wanted to do. I’m really, really sorry. I mean it.” My heart sank. I didn’t say anything; I just kept rubbing her arms and shushing her until sobs settled into sniffles. She went on. “Just when you said that. The only thing I could think in my head was the word, ‘widow’. It wasn’t even that I imagined the shuttle crashing or anything like that; I just kept seeing that word flashing in my brain and I couldn’t turn it off and I—”

“Sh-sh. It’s okay. I’m not going.” I know I sound like a monster for still planning to go and at this point, I wouldn’t disagree. I’d compartmentalized this space mission apart from every other commitment in my life so in a way, I wasn’t betraying anything or anyone; another person was going to do those things. I was a spy in my own body and the worst part is that it was all kinds of fun.

Dinner was delicious. We made love that night, which was rare at this point in the pregnancy. She initiated, probably fueled by the trauma of my near-death in her mind. We got down to it like savages, drunk on each other’s stink. I fell asleep with my hand on her baby bump. The next day, I asked Mr. Haqqi to arrange for someone to fly in my stead, someone who would be unavailable for the launch until the very last minute and for whom I would serve as a last-minute replacement. This replacement would occur so close to the launch, there would be no time to announce it and only those watching the broadcast (which Alana, thankfully, never did) would be aware of my presence on the craft. Mr. Haqqi was so sympathetic to my situation, he’d even suggested I adopt a name and a disguise: grow a beard and bleach my brown hair—a style I’d never cotton to in a million years—to ensure no one noticed when I got on board. He even offered to pick me up from my house—he’d bring breakfast including Alana’s favorite latte in The Valley—to deliver the pretense that we were on our way to the airport to fly to Dubai for a fundraising trip, all for the sake of bolstering an alibi beyond second or third blush. There’s no one better than an adulterer to cross your ‘T’s and dot your ‘I’s when manufacturing a lie.

As it turned out, none of that ended up being necessary.

#

I was sleeping on the chair in my office, two floors up from Mission Control, the morning of the launch. I woke up smelly and unshaven from several days’ worth of neglect and didn’t bother to so much as brush my teeth, much less disguise myself before the launch. I was taking a shot of bourbon every time I thought of my wife’s stomach, plump with our baby.

#

It was exactly fourteen days prior to the launch when I received a phone call from Mr. Haqqi. It seems that the “dummy” cosmonaut who I was to replace on the flight was getting mightily attached to the idea of flying. This man was his business partner U. Gene Gibraltar, a man who was now threatening to expose Haqqi’s affair with Zandra and—this was the really fucked-up part—reveal the identity of their out-of-wedlock son who could potentially stand to inherit all of Haqqi’s fortune when he comes of age. “You see my problem here, Ethan? This bastard Gibraltar, I mean…I’m really, really sorry, man.” Incredulity and numbness contended through my nervous system until I finally slapped myself. This bullshit billionaires’ soap opera was preventing me from my dreams. I didn’t know what to say. I just dropped my phone to the ground without saying goodbye.

At that point, Alana walked back into the kitchen. She’d brought me my favorite breakfast: strong french roast with a spoonful of cream, an everything bagel with lox cream cheese, cucumbers and tomatoes, and a handful of strawberries. She smiled that beaming smile she gets from a full night’s sleep. Her baby bump looked glorious—lovely and round. I was so disarmed by this scene, my lower lip trembled and I began to cry.

“What’s the matter, honey. Did something happen?”

I took the tray from her and set it down. Then I nuzzled my nose into her neck. I breathed in deeply the smell of her lavender soap. If I could somehow manage it, I thought, I will never leave the crook of her neck again.

#

When I went to bed that night, there were no omens foreboding what was to come in a few short hours save for the fact that my wife did not go to bed with me and never did come to bed before it happened. She felt “up” and wanted to eat and work a little.

It was 11:30 P.M. Alana made that sound:

Ooh.

Then this:

“Ooooo…UNNGH!

The weak spot in the floorboards creaked, leaving just that moan. It was over.

Alana wanted to be alone after she lost the baby; it seemed she was repulsed by any human presence, much less mine, on the most fundamental level. She couldn’t even look at me. That’s when the sick feeling in my stomach from losing the baby quivered and turned into real tears flowing down my cheek. It took that—my wife being unable to find comfort with me—to break me; not the deluge of uterine blood that hit our floors, not her sitting spread-eagle on the wood while gathering the blood between her legs, not her finally crying and resting her head on the blood-soaked floorboards; that all looked so unlike my life, I couldn’t process it as real. That’s how real horror feels—like numbness.

She wouldn’t answer me, no matter how many times I called her name, no matter what I said to console her. She spent the whole night out there on the floor, soaked in her own blood. Eventually, 6:30 AM hit and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. The blood had clotted onto the floors. I remembered thinking our floors were ruined. I walked into our bedroom and literally fell asleep, landing unconscious on my face from a standing position.

It was only while asleep that the gears began turning in my mind and I started to process the whole thing. That was it. We won’t try to have another child; Alana won’t put herself through that again. She won’t risk that disappointment of losing a second child. She’s done and that means I’m done. We will not have a family. I felt like I’d dreamt all that until I woke up later that afternoon to find my pillow damp with tears. I walked around the house and everything looked caked over with this white film; I couldn’t clear my eyes or see straight at all. Walking into the kitchen, I could make out Alana through the haze, sitting at the dining table, facing the window. At this point, the haze was so frustratingly thick, I deliberately knocked my head against the wood cabinet in the hopes that I could see straight afterwards. It worked but unfortunately it startled Alana who dropped the bottle of red wine she’d been holding, sending it crashing to the white tile below. We were both frozen, staring at the second deluge of red liquid to cover the ground in our home. With that, she made my decision for me.

“You have to leave.” She didn’t qualify this statement and truly she didn’t need to. She wasn’t leaving me; she was letting me go. I just nodded.

That’s how it ended. If there had been more to me and I’d opted to move on to the next stage of my life, I’m sure we’d have reconnected, possibly even reconciled. I can’t quite explain what switched inside me from that point on but the long game in life ceased to matter. The only thing that made sense was a simpler point-to-point wiring of reality. The whole notion of working towards a future fizzled; suddenly that white film was gone and the circuitry of my new world made itself known. Every phenomenal or imagined aspect of reality became a source of pain; water, air, humans—every joyful thing on Earth was suddenly and drastically inverted into the perfected utensils of Hell. I felt as though I was being hunted and extracted from the Book of Life. In light of these unexpectedly dire circumstances, I took my second trip. It was not going to be the transcendent leap I’d hoped for, but the pain was unbearable and demanded to be dealt with.

#

The second time was like an inverted version of the first: I felt that rush focus itself inward. Instead of my body propelling forward into the vastest realms of space, I felt that vastness compress, converging towards a point centered right in the middle of my forehead. It felt like God was drilling the heavens into my skull. I watched as that limitless celestial wash compressed itself and just at the threshold of a pressure that would have caved in my cranium, it actually asked me for permission to do so. There were no words spoken, it just wanted me to express my willingness.

So I did. It was at that point that the rush drilling itself into my brain began to take form. Star-like specks congealed into recognizable shapes, shapes that slowly took dimension like topographic maps converging into a sea of human faces and bodies, glowing full of light. A swirling morass of illuminated humanoid wraiths whirled in a vortex, expanding and contracting its circumference from as narrow as a pinprick to wider than the visible night sky. Amongst them, I caught eyes with a woman who was a motionless light inside the vortex. She saw me too and she flew back towards my direction to offer me her hand. The first time, it was too sudden and I missed it; she got caught in another revolution of the vortex and flew far away, small as a pinprick. I never lost track of her though, and this time she flew back from a different angle. As she approached me, she aimed herself to arrive behind me. I thought she would miss me again until suddenly I felt myself rising up. I looked back and saw that it was her carrying me as we both floated up towards the eye of the vortex. Floating and rising ever higher, she reoriented me to face her.

She was a beautiful young woman roughly my wife’s age. In fact, I saw much of my wife in her and immediately became enamored of her face; there was then no doubt in my mind that this was what our adult daughter would have looked like. How I was seeing her now and how somewhere in the universe there was a conscious notion of her as an adult when she never survived to be an infant, was completely beyond me though it was only a question I asked myself when this vision subsided. Inside the depth of this vortex it all made perfect sense.

Her stare cut holes in my brain, amplifying the only thought worth thinking: Alana returning from the bathroom, just before a deluge of blood spilled from her uterus. I tried to push the thought away but the woman, this grown facsimile of what may be my daughter, drew closer, asking, “Let me see…” The holes in my head were getting deeper. “Let me see… Let me see…” Her insistence made me want to hide but there was no way I could. Alana was lit up in my head, stark as the moment I found her. A flood of light cast upon her; she flinched from the brightness and the scene grew so impossibly real, I was there, repeating the horror. For some reason, we were seeing her from above and behind, from what was an impossible vantage point for any person in our house. It would have to be coming from the wall, or more specifically, the crown molding. This could only be the view from our security camera.

Suddenly, it all became clear: this woman was not my daughter. “Shh” she repeated, smiling and rushing towards Alana, nullifying the vision in a swarm of grey. Everything went black and the vortex collapsed in on itself. It all happened so fast, stripped like the details of a dream upon waking.

I returned to consciousness in the backseat of my wife’s Subaru. The sunlight played with the cloudy watermarks on the back seat window. One of them looked like her, I swear it—that woman or spirit or banshee that impersonated my adult daughter. I mashed my cheek against the glass and tried to mimic the wheezing sound my wife made the night she lost the baby.

The only thing left to do was prepare for my first mission into space and my last day on Earth.

#

My next destination was the home of Mr. Haqqi where I’d inelegantly attempt to acquire the rest of the bag of psychotropic junk. As I’d expected, he wasn’t willing, yet I debated him continuously and dispassionately.

“Absolutely not.”

“I’ll pay you everything I have for it.” I was so effective at keeping the boiling terror in my brain at bay, I was honestly scaring myself.

“What, you think I need your money? Everything you have I spend in one day.”

“Then just give it to me as a favor.”

“No, my favor to you will be to call the police, my friend.” Very much unlike me, I decided to pull something really awful.

“I can call the police too, Basim. But I can tell them about more interesting things than experimental heroin.”

“You bastard.”

“No. Your bastard.”

“Fuck you, Ethan. What’s the matter with you?!”

“It’s not good, Basim.” I wanted to tell him but where to stop? How could I explain what I saw this morning? It had gotten all too fantastic.

“What about that shit about having something to live for?”

“That’s unfortunately no longer the case.”

He was silent. What do you say to someone who tells you that? Nothing—that’s what I was banking on. However, he wouldn’t be Basim Haqqi if that’s all it took for him to give up.

“You are being stupid right now and I’m not going to let you do this.”

“Yes, you will.” I’d never spoken that defiantly in my life. I didn’t even know what I was going to do to back that up.

“Then tell me why. Why would you go back on your word? If you feel so strongly, make me feel strongly too; the way you did when you convinced me to invest in the Initiative. Make me feel that way about…this.”

I wasn’t ready for that. I truly had nothing to say to him. I just stood there, stone-faced. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel strong in my conviction that I should be on the next mission with a bag of the psychotropic opioids while I dissolve into deep space. The fact is, I was already there in my mind. This was a momentary nuisance, a by-product of the phenomenal experience. Speaking seemed crude so I chose to remain silent.

“Alright, well, if you have nothing to say—”

His phone buzzed and he removed it from the pocket of his polyester track pants. Whatever the person on the other end told him made the blood drain from his face almost instantly. He kept saying, uh-huh and the occasional wow. He hung up the phone and shot me a horrific look. At last he asked me something that might’ve shocked me if I wasn’t already terrified by my own demons.

“Ethan, tell me honestly: you wouldn’t…kill someone, would you?”

“What?! No.” I was too numb to even process this accusation. My pulse didn’t quicken. Mr. Haqqi shot me a sideways glance, his mouth agape, glancing dumbly at the phone in his hands.

“You know who that was?” I shook my head. “Gibraltar’s people. He died last night. Of an aneurysm.” I nodded, still unsure what this had to do with me. “In his sleep. At like 11:30.” My face turned white; I felt it starting. “They said his…that his temple caved in at a point, like he’d been drilled in the head. There was no sign of struggle or a weapon.” I touched my forehead and remembered everything in that vision so clearly it outshone this reality. That was what finally cut me deep.

Mr. Haqqi rubbed his mouth and started fishing around in his pocket. “Too fucking weird, man.” He tossed his airstrip passcard to the ground and walked back into his house. There were no words exchanged. He just repeated the same thing a couple more times. “That’s just too fucking weird. Too fucking weird.” Then he walked back into his house. I picked up the keys and felt a surge run through my body. I felt like a spy with no mission, engaged in deep metaphysical espionage for its own sake. Before I left his property I had a tormenting sensation that I’d split into two consciousnesses and one half of me wasn’t telling myself something that the other half of me knew. This sensation followed me around all day until I found the psychotropic opioids in Mr. Haqqi’s office at the airstrip and began to focus on my last trip.

#

The morning of the launch, I could’ve probably been admitted to an emergency room, so severe was my alcohol poisoning. There was a plank that I maneuvered my legs onto, and it was all I could do to hold back vomit. The news feed was saying I was some kind of artist—a sculptor from Greece, I think?—and that I looked “groggy cool”. My apparent composure was fortunate only for the sake of not getting kicked off the mission; I didn’t particularly care what anyone thought—ironic, because this was our biggest launch ever. My family became very, very rich today. At 35 years old, I could have retired.

Providence kept me here—I was a total mess but something wants me on this ship. As we boarded, they asked each of us our names: I flashed a peace sign, everyone laughed. Once aboard, I’d expected to need some sort of distraction to refit my suit’s glucose IV with an opioid one. There was nothing but distraction abounding as every cosmonaut detailed their flight experience and mourned the loss of the man I had always been intended to replace on this mission. Of course, no one from the press recognized who I was, and just as well. I folded my suit into a port adjacent to the airlock, and with every pertinent task relating to my final hours at last sorted, I plugged in my caffeine IV and let my mind wander.

The shape of the vortex from my opioid vision quests rushed back to my mind. It seemed to be a fingerprinted form of my infinity, a vision of the cosmos from my vantage point. I’d spent my first journey into infinity exploring the extra-human beauty of the universe. I saw things I was probably not supposed to see. The next journey was indulgent and dangerous—I’d allowed myself to be hunted by an assassin, specifically a reaper of consciousness; I knew that now. Whether she led me there or I led her there was the last question to plague me before I inserted the opioid IV.

My logic is convoluted but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sound. I said goodbye to my family and hoped they would forgive me, if not now, then somewhere in eternity. The last thought I want to leave with anyone concerned for my well-being is that I could not be happier at this outcome given the circumstances. Here, there is no judgment, only awe and peace. It’s perhaps fitting that such a biologically untenable setting as deep space—combined with the nullifying opioid high—should so simply meet every need that the most complex circumlocutions commonly known as “lives” could not dream of satisfying. Here, I will burn my whole candle in one blessed night. To the cries and confusion of my cabin mates, I open the airlock and allow the cosmos to suck me out in a rush and drill its beauty into my brain again. Smiling, I can only wave to them as they stare in horror from their seats. I’m leaving this world, alone, and high on the unbearable light of our only star.

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STAR WARS: BEFORE THE FALL, Pt. 1 — “An Older Code”

[The first in a series of (ahem) fan fictions, designed to fill in some interesting cracks in the original Star Wars continuity with pure conjecture based on the actions of minor characters I love. Today’s subject: Admiral Firmus Piett]

With a massive handful of chak, several stalks of which she’s resolved to prepare for breakfast, Nieve Piett tiptoes towards the stove during the pre-dawn hours so as not to wake her children. She’s unsure how this works; collectively, the three-foot stalks are four times the size of her biggest pot. Supposedly, chak boils down and its stalks soften to a creamy texture but she couldn’t place much faith in that level of transmutation this morning.

Most of the indigenous population of the Taere system wakes up two hours earlier to start preparing bundles of chak for much bigger families. Skeptical that it could take so long to cook for three kids, as well as fundamentally unwilling to lose that much sleep over breakfast, Nieve starts boiling water a mere hour before the children awaken. Exhausted from picking the chak (it HAS to be fresh or it tastes distressingly close to rancid Bantha meat) she peers at the water every couple of minutes, her stomach audibly grumbling. If this doesn’t work, she thinks, she’ll forsake sleep and wake up early. It’s important to adopt the culture of the place where you live, she thinks. Even if the Empire successfully stomps it out, perhaps the families of the Imperial Army will sustain it, at least in part. There is certainly nothing better to do as she and her children wait on this planet that is not their home, while Firmus negotiates the unfortunate privilege of standing at the helm of a galactic war.

*

She turns up the heat and laughs inwardly, wondering if this water might boil faster if she had the Force. It is then that she misses Firmus, a fierce pinching feeling that seems to rise along the wall of her stomach. Perhaps it’s the hunger, she thinks, but when she stands she sees her reflection against the still-dark window pane and notices the moisture of tears on her cheek, tears she hadn’t realized she wept. Soon, Firmus had said, soon a significant gesture would be made that will weaken the Rebellion. If not for good, then for long enough so that he could return and spend an entire year, likely longer, with his family.

Still gazing at her reflection, she forces herself to smile, then she does smile of her own accord when she recalls the first time she met him. So clever, so much promise. Once again, she distinctly remembers that conversation they had the second night they’d spent together, one Firmus persistently denies having, the one in which he told her he’d distinctly felt the Force within himself and what if he became a Jedi?

A loud triplet of knocks interrupts her thought, as though Firmus had sent a visitor in his stead before she got carried away with that idea. The water is still cool.

It’s Brenn Ozzel. If there’s anyone she doesn’t have the patience for, and with an empty stomach and the bleakest mood she’s been in since Firmus left, it’s Brenn Ozzel. Being kind to Brenn is a sort of charity. The moment she opens the door, Nieve notices the freshly made dish of chak Brenn holds and suddenly, she feels a bit more charitable.

“Nieve, how are you today?”

“I’m fine. It’s early.”

“Yes. Not early enough of course but certainly hours before the little ones are due to rise. How are they, by the way? Kendal and I love children, you know.”

It always makes her nauseous to hear that name and in her current state, she chokes back vomit.

“Hmm. Yes, they’re fine, Brenn. Did you need something, or…?” Nieve is so anxious for her to offer some of the steaming, fragrant plate of food, she fears it may not in fact happen.

“Of course not. It is you, who needs something, my dear.” Nieve’s eyes widen. She doesn’t care about this whole obnoxious exchange because Brenn is now handing her the hot plate of chak. ”I prepared it just this morning. I make a family’s portion so of course I’ve made far too much.”

Nieve takes the bowl and breathes in a deep waft of the warm steam rising from the bowl. The complex spiced aroma and golden sweet glaze is universes away from the batch of hardy weeds on her table.

“It turned out perfect, as usual. And I’d remembered something you said about attempting to make your own this morning and I thought, well, that’s not going to go too well, I imagine.” Brenn smiles. Nieve’s desire to punch Brenn’s face bloody threatens to build to the surface–it always somehow feels stronger than the last time, as though each offense builds on the one prior–but subsides in pity, as always.

“My goodness it feels like they’ve been gone forever, hasn’t it? I do miss Kendal something fierce.”

Nieve clears her throat. She’s not sure what to say; she’s never sure what to say when they talk about Kendal. She only knows because Firmus knows and they’d agreed they ought to let the Empire inform her, though they hadn’t and may never bother at this point. It is perhaps time for Nieve to take it upon herself and tell Brenn. It’s been long since time, actually but it takes an overwhelming effort to crush this small woman’s soul, ultimately more than Nieve has within her. Tears drop down her cheeks when she so much as considers the idea. So she just nods and listens.

“Did you hear they’re due back as early as tomorrow?”

Nieve face turns white and her eyes go wide. The lid of her largest steel pot clangs as the water finally reaches boiling.

“I– I hadn’t heard anything certain one way or the other.” Nieve is being diplomatic. She’d spoken with Firmus via teleview earlier this week and he was vague about exact times. She pressed him for it but he said nothing was certain and he didn’t want to get her hopes up. Point taken, Firmus, she thinks. Hopes are now officially and impossibly, up.

“Well, that’s what several Imperial families had heard. Obviously I haven’t spoken to Kendal so I make do with murmurings!” That name again. Nieve feels a pang of sourness. Just as she’s about to ask a half dozen questions she knows she shouldn’t, Brenn clicks her tongue and interjects her exit. “How exciting, no? Enjoy the chak. I’ll stop by later for the bowl.” Her complete disinterest in Nieve’s input was never more welcome. Brenn turns and walks away, her clean gray wool suit swaying at her ankles.

A sliver of sun sets the horizon ablaze with deep reds and oranges and Nieve Piett decides that tomorrow she will tell Brenn Ozzel that her husband Kendal is dead.

*

Admiral Firmus Piett is losing the war on behalf of the Empire yet keeping quite calm about the fact. He leans in quietly to express his concerns to the first helmsman aboard The Executor. “Officer Krevot, please listen to me closely. Despite what Lord Vader believes, I am under the impression that we must begin an evasive maneuver.”

“But, sir–”

“Please let me finish. That is, however, not the stated order of The Empire, therefore we must do everything in our power to, shall we say, make progress in that direction as subtly as possible.”

“Admiral Piett, with all due respect, The Executor is incapable of subtlety.”

Piett’s eyes narrow and he does his level best to intimidate Krevot, despite his realization that the young helmsman is indeed, right. “Surely the crown jewel of the Imperial Navy can steel itself against destruction.”

That word ‘destruction’ visibly chills Krevot. Good god, Piett thinks, do they not see how poorly this is going? Do they believe Vader infallible and capable of some advantage even at this juncture? It’s an unfortunate series of circumstances that led Piett to the Admiral’s chair, the ultimate irony being that the highest ranking officer in the Empire has little faith in the Empire’s resolve. He doubts not their power but their ability to respond creatively to subversions of their power. Yes, Admiral Piett wants to turn and run because he feels the Empire is destined to lose, and entertaining that thought–amidst battle on the deck of The Executor, no less–fills him with a terror so massive, only the image of his wife feeding their children consoles him. He swears he can see what she’s doing at any given moment (though he’s never admitted that to her) and right now she’s doing that very thing as the sun is rising in a place that is not their home and he’s filled with a temporarily palliating peace. If he dies, so be it. May the Force be with her.

“Begin evasive maneuvers, Officer Krevot.”

Krevot’s eyes wander the immediate vicinity for validation that he does not find. No one so much as notices Piett’s quiet declaration of mutiny. Krevot, his mind made up the moment the words escaped Piett’s lips, realizes that the Admiral is, in fact, far off script.

“Admiral, I’m afraid I cannot do that.”

“Say again?”

“I said I cannot steer The Executor away from its present course.”

“Cannot or will not?”

Krevot clears his throat, surer in defiance than an allegiance. “Both, sir.”

Piett attempts to regain some composure and curb the terribly emotional flares he’s let off. “It’s become clear to me that this ambush was in fact poorly planned and if we act quickly we might save The Executor. It is an executive decision.”

“Without the explicit order of Lord Vader or The Emperor, I will not–”

Piett grows deeply frustrated. “Am I not your commanding officer, Krevot?”

“Yes sir.”

“And am I not better apprised of the realities of this conflict, given my vantage point?”

“Perhaps, sir, but I–”

“Then is this not insubordination?”

Krevot’s face pinches. He’s genuinely offended though refusing to lose his temper. “You’ve suggested mutiny, Admiral.”

“This will save our lives!”

Piett raps his fist on the helm, having officially captured the attention of everyone in earshot including Captain Gherant, his far more dedicated subordinate.

“Admiral, is there a problem?”

Piett and Krevot eye each other, each wondering who really possesses the upper hand in this unique situation where one is in the right and one is in charge. Krevot is steeling himself to fall on his sword when Piett beats him to the punch.

“No problem at all, Captain.” Piett straightens his posture. “There was a question of tactics, we had a difference of opinion, and I let myself get carried away.” Krevot’s eyes widen and his lips shut. “I think I will defer to the helmsman in this case. Carry on.”

Krevot never entered the next set of coordinates. From the moment Piett began his response, the helmsman hadn’t noted a word of it, fixated as he was on a small rebel craft spinning wildly out of control off starboard, on a course to fly over their heads in a matter of sixty seconds. And yet the craft, through no effort of its own, seemed to be drawing lower as it approached, perhaps due to The Executor’s onboard gravitational engine drawing it closer.

“Admiral, look.”

From this vantage point, Krevot could see the pilot struggling to fire the thrusters but it was clearly no use. The craft was now quite close and, due to the pull of the grav engine, drawing exponentially closer, now destined for the bridge windows.

Even in the maw of death, Piett is not small enough to say, I told you so. “All hands, take evasive action.”

Krevot’s already made up his mind. Captain Gherant is the first one to hit the deck.

“It’s too late!”

The rebel ship bursts through the glass in a conflagration soon to be swallowed by the vacuum of space.

*

It was in the middle of breakfast, her children happily stuffing their faces, when the comm-feed started up, accelerating steadily from that point on. The first few are variations on anonymously sent communiques she receives at least once a week.

“It’s over.”

“They’re done.”

“Rebels on their way.”

It’s not the increasing volume of messages that tips Nieve off, it’s when they start arriving with names attached.

“Death Star destroyed.”

“The reign is over. Pray they don’t find us.”

Names of Imperial families. Just the last names as though such pseudo-anonymity protects the writers. Everyone knows an Imperial family by last name so treasonous dispatches usually get sent out with anonymous home signatures. Sometimes these are the expected rebels hiding amongst indigenous tribes, sowing discontent. Sometimes however it is, in fact, Imperial families, usually an older child afflicted with sympathy for The Rebellion. This happened precisely once where the guilty party, the son of a recently slain Imperial pilot, used his real full name to lament his father’s death and curse the Empire for their “casual and dehumanizing attitude towards butchery.” He demanded to speak with the Emperor himself, confident that he could convince him to convert the Death Star into an orphanage (Lord Vader was purportedly “extremely enthusiastic” about this courageous young man and wanted to meet him personally.)

This morning is officially the second time a first name was used since that incident. The message read: “The Empire is defeated. May The Force be with those you love.”

The signature: Brenn Ozzel.

*

A torrent of bodies flies out the window on the uppermost deck of The Executor bridge before two sets of automatic blast doors close. The last three of these catch in the internal doors’ rapidly closing teeth. Two men, Captain Gherant and Officer Krevot, are stuck with their lower halves facing the outer doors, still alive despite the teeth of the doors gnashing their mid-sections, the gears moaning as they persist in their attempt to close fully. In between them lies Officer Bá, only his legs visible as his torso dangles on the other side of the maw, limp and lifeless, several pink- and blue-colored gooey lumps of his viscera draped atop blunted gunmetal gray teeth.

Captain Gherant spots at least a dozen breathing pods deployed atop the deck floor, most of which are now deflated and taut against the corpses of their occupants. Some of these are black and charred inside, the automatically deployed pods having captured flames from the crash and supplied them with the oxygen to burst, turning the pods into little death traps.

One pod, however, remains inflated, rising and falling in time with its occupant’s breath. Peering out of bleary sweat-soaked eyes from inside the maw of the blast gates, its teeth dully gnawing at the walls of his intestines, Gherant thinks he spies a familiar face through the foggy plastic of the pod.

“Firmus?”

*

Dragging her confused son and daughter behind her, Nieve Piett runs for the Ozzel settlement less than one mile away. She’s heaving breaths and tears. Her children wonder why she’s crying in the unemotional, detached way typical of children of a certain age for whom empathy is not necessary and even potentially toxic. They run in the tall weeds behind her and come to believe that what’s happening is actually some sort of game and so they start laughing to each other while their mother drags them towards Brenn’s door.

She’s doing precisely what she’d feared which was to engage Brenn Ozzel in the midst of tumultuous emotions at the moment when she’s to deliver the horrible news. Between hyperventilating breaths and the pounding pulse of blood in her head, she knocks the door and thinks that for the first time in her life, she’ll make it up as she goes along. May The Force be with her.

Brenn answers the door looking clean and collected as ever. In fact, she looks down with pity at a hunched and emotionally spent Nieve who can barely look up through the tears. Her children play several meters behind her, long since forgetting to care what the point of this walk had been and hiding behind trees and giggling as they chased one another while a now full and bright sun cast gold over the fields.

“Nieve? Oh my goodness, whatever is the matter?”

A thousand things Nieve is too horrified to say pass through her head and as if from somewhere outside herself, she simply allows herself to speak.

“He’s dead.”

Brenn’s face scrunches in confusion. “Who do you mean? Who’s dead?”

“Kendal. He’s been dead. I never could tell you, it’s just–” And with that she bursts into tears. An eerily calm Brenn is now in the strange position of consoling a completely overcome Nieve and, without further ado, pulls back from Nieve and makes a confession of her own.

“Well, of course he is. Didn’t you think I knew?”

The relief that Nieve feels at hearing this is the lightest she’ll feel for the rest of the day and for a long while afterwards. She hugs Brenn and both of them hear Brenn’s comm feed furiously double its output with reports that The Executor has been destroyed.

*

Immediately upon opening his eyes, Firmus Piett thinks he’s blind and on fire. Beneath his sweat-caked uniform, his skin feels tinged with fever. He gasps for quick breaths that cast an ever-blooming shot of condensation onto the blurry plastic before him. The one thing she taught him, that is, the thing he learned once he fell in love, is not to panic. Panic begets rash judgments and imprecision. It is the precursor to all failures, and is right now, quite literally the very oxygen upon which the growing flame on the cuff of his trousers feeds. Firmus Piett focuses on grasping the small blade that resides in his belt pouch, paying no mind to the astonishing progress of the errant flame that spreads to the waist of his trousers in seconds.

The blade extends and with one sure swipe, he slashes open the plastic shell of the oxygen pod. Immediately, Firmus rolls out across the bridge floor, through no effort of his own. The Executor’s orientation shifts drastically, having lost all thruster power. Its nose faces the Death Star and will soon crash against its hull but no one alive on The Executor inside its massively disabled bridge is privy to that information. Elsewhere, the flagship’s occupants make their way towards all available escape pods and TIE fighters. The Empire’s premier battleship has fallen and with it, a substantial chunk of its first officers and Navy. The Rebellion has officially won the battle, if not yet the war.

“Firmus! Come quickly, please!” Captain Gherant spits up blood, his eyes trained firmly on the Admiral as the latter stamps out the flames engulfing his pants leg. Gherant strains not to look to his left, where he knows he’ll spy the dead legs of Bá twitching and further over, Officer Krevot, whose pale face and maimed mid-section mirror too closely Gherant’s own. “Firmus, please drag what’s left of me to an escape pod. I beg you to hurry.”

At last able to focus his attention on something other than his enflamed leg, Admiral Piett glances up, recoiling instantly at the terrifying triptych of Gherant’s and Krevot’s top halves on either side of Bá’s bottom, the whine of the gears unremitting as it pulses to close shut. Presuming that these men still demand a leader, if not for the sake of battle then at least to bolster their flagging wills, Piett calls upon every ounce of his will not to vomit at this scene. Krevot can only utter a barely perceptible periodic moan while Gherant continues to beg for Piett’s speed.

“Please, Admiral. Only my bones prevent these teeth from sealing shut.”

These horrible details are of course useless to Piett, whose tuning out everything he sees and hears to focus on manipulating the control panel beside the blast gates. Tinkering with buttons and circuits disseminates a deeply absorbing calm throughout his system. His panic never fully subsides; instead, it shrinks back and waits like a sniper. Having no proper familiarity with these controls, he experiments with some informed guesses, attempting various protocols, even some highly classified overrides. But as Krevot’s first intelligible utterance confirms, it’s no use.

“No use… sir. Can’t… stop… these doors.”

Piett’s eyes widen. “That’s– that’s monstrous! Are you sure?”

Krevot nods, closing his mouth to mine his palate for precious moisture. “Part of… design.” Then he glances at Piett knowingly and smiles. “Stubborn… ship.”

Choking back tears for this poor boy half his age, he bites his lip and looks about the bridge floor. Noticing a loaded blaster a few paces away, he quickly fetches it and presents his last order as the commanding officer of the now-rumbling and thrusterless Executor.

“I will attempt to bisect the both of you with this blaster, thus freeing the essential top halves of your bodies.”

Gherant vomits blood. “D-dear god.”

“I know this is horrific but I’m confident your bottom halves will be easier to replicate than the top. The blast will also cauterize your wounds thus affording you the best chance of survival possible.”

Krevot still seems too dazed and unaware to realize what’s happening. Gherant is openly weeping. Recalling nothing useful from his astonishingly brief stint as a medical intern, Piett steels himself for an amateur surgerical procedure.

“Gentlemen, are you prepared?”

Piett’s aimed for Gherant’s mid-section but Gherant is anything but prepared.

“Please, Admiral! Free the boy first. It’s only proper!”

Piett nods. Gherant is a coward but he’ll grant him this reprieve for the sake of time, if nothing else. Piett trains his blaster on Krevot and applies a light, fixed pressure to the trigger, unleashing a stream that he uses as a surgical tool. As the laser cuts along his mid-section, Krevot only makes a vague grimace, his nerves likely too damaged to register the pain. As Piett reaches the halfway point, he notices the teeth of the blast doors closing tighter. Gherant notices too.

“Admiral! Please, the teeth are closing! I can feel my insides– GYAH!!!”

Piett pretends not to hear this. The lack of tension from a third body is allowing the gates to close. That, he thinks, is no reason to ignore the task at hand. He guides the laser stream below Krevot’s stomach, mercifully preserving its integrity.

“Admiral! Surely a superior officer must be– AGH– priority?!”

The laser is almost clean across. The teeth are nearly met.

“Please!!!”

I have made my choice.

Krevot’s torso falls to the ground, and the young officer lets a gasp escape from what remains of his body. The teeth meet snapping Bá and Gherant in half in a ceremonious doubled burst of blood. Using time he might have possibly spent cauterizing the captain’s garish mortal wound, Piett performs a perfunctory vital scan on Krevot confirming the operation successful. Gherant bleeds to death atop the bridge floor.

Deep inside the Death Star, unbeknownst to all but one Rebel soldier, the Emperor has also met his end at the hands of Lord Vader.

And with that, the last commanding officer still dedicated to the Imperial cause, dies.

*

Brenn Ozzel finds herself frankly confused as she consoles a tearful Nieve Piett while Rebel craft swarm the skies of Taere. All comm-feeds have been intercepted to formally grant every member of an Imperial family amnesty once the forced migration of non-native Taerens begins.

Nieve’s children are still playing outside, spreading their arms out to ape the landing X-Wing squadron.

*

Piett hoists Krevot’s salvaged half over his shoulders as they make their way towards one of the dozen unjettisoned escape pods available for an almost fully expired bridge crew. Krevot squeaks out a few words in his weak state.

“You saved me?”

Piett plants the torso firmly in the seat opposite his, adjusting Krevot’s safety straps before buckling his own. Firmus Piett clears his throat as though to begin processing his own small rebellion.

“I admire you.”

Krevot nods and looks around the pod with a heavy daze in his eyes before his remarkably casual response.

“I wouldn’t save you.”

Piett pauses before initiating the launch sequence that aims their pod towards the far side of Endor.

“Yes, I suspected that.” Piett pauses a beat before giving a speech that pains him to start but that he must give, now, if his words and his loyalty and his love are to mean anything ever again. “Before we launch, I’d like to make it clear that I intend to surrender myself to the Rebellion. Moreover, I intend to support their cause to its logical end until the day I die. If for any reason you no longer wish to join me, you may stay aboard The Executor and die. But under no circumstances will I tolerate you subverting my plan in the name of The Empire once we reach Endor. Is that clear?”

Krevot stares around the interior of the hatch with a preternatural calm. He looks down where his legs used to be and lets out a small snort. The rattle from explosions on lower decks grows louder and closer. Piett’s nostrils flare though his temper remains even. He’s still holding the blaster in his lap and his grip tightens around its handle.

“What will it be then?”

*

“I can assure you that you and your children will be safe with us. Can I get your name, please?”

“No. Please.”

Nieve Piett does her level best to retain her composure and it’s working but there’s certain things she’s not presently willing to oblige. Like this handsome young rebel pilot asking her name as she boards their transport shuttle. The pilot nods and doesn’t press.

“We understand if some Imperial families wish to remain anonymous. It does not effect your safety. Welcome aboard.”

He smiles at her, a beaming charismatic smile that she doesn’t attempt to return. All she can see when this man smiles, when any of these smug rebels so much as open their mouths, is a missile blast cutting through the flesh of the man she called her husband. Of course, she knows it wasn’t a missile blast; they say it was a crash of some sort. They say that all the occupants of The Executor were killed in the crash. They say that every Imperial commanding officer involved in The Battle of Endor is now dead. All of them? she thinks to herself, each time she spies this message now glutting every visible comm-feed on Taere. How do they know? And how has no one mentioned the Empire’s accidental third in command by name?

The other families on the shuttle, families Nieve Piett doesn’t recognize and never cared to know, show a range of emotions, from anger to sadness to relief to joy, as one might expect. But unlike Nieve they do indeed show these emotions while she stares blankly at the handsome and happy rebel pilot as he jots or withholds names from the ledger. She stares and seethes, hating this Rebellion and its success. The spite feels as though it might rot a hole in her stomach and she idly wonders if there’s enough hate in her heart to help someone more powerful than she destroy this Rebellion.

At long last, this spite releases not in anger, but in sadness. Her tears fall on the shoulder of her oldest son who gently pats the back of her head, not asking her why she cries.

*

The lone escape pod to eject from The Executor maintains its course, unperturbed, to the far side of the forest moon. It’s days before the rebels discover it and its two occupants–one dead, one alive.

According to all known records of the Empire and the Rebellion, Admiral Firmus Piett did not survive The Battle of Endor.

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Uncategorized

On Bolaño’s 2666 and Elevator Pitches

If you traffic in ideas for a living, chances are high that you don’t like those ideas until you can translate them into Elevator Pitches. I’m not sure how old the idea of The Elevator Pitch is but I’m under the (perhaps mistaken) impression that it’s grown to prominence in the relatively recent past, co-ascendant with the telecommunications boom. By all indications, entrepreneurship, creative enterprise, and that multi-disciplinary abstract, “The Next Big Thing”, are all at highs right now and all are dependent on The Elevator Pitch for their genesis, specifically at that point at which you’re asking others to contribute their money and/or talents. But while the Elevator Pitch is terribly useful for weeding out people whose ideas aren’t thought through, doesn’t it also weed out some things we like or, shit, need?

Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot of unfocused, flabby stuff out there, too, and it’s well and good that that stuff dies before polluting our eyeballs and earholes. It does, however, seem that an entire generation threw out the patience baby with the Tarkovsky bathwater and now wants to sell us on pithy little THIS meets THAT narratives, exclusively–zombies meet dinosaurs, Jane Austen meets zombies, everything meets vampires and it’s all on acid as envisioned by Neveldine/Taylor.

On the other hand, I really do appreciate the Borges-ian condensation of a good pitch. Ideas become radiant when you remove exposition or execution and that’s the sublimated form in which they inspire us. That is why, for all the bitching I do about Elevator Pitches, I envy a good one for the power it exercises over our imaginations. It serves, in its ideal form, to crack the crust of the hardiest cynic and make her soul soar–as any good idea should do.

I can’t help but wonder though if there’s a bit of biological myopia at work in our image of idea conception. Borrowing the tree as visual, isn’t it possible that while some ideas start as saplings needing to blossom in multiple fertile grounds to create a healthy grove, while some are fully formed byzantine, branch-dense, trunk-less monstrosities that retain no glory as smaller components and furthermore need no peer group? Furthermore, is this preamble about elevator pitches my roundabout way of discussing the infuriating, intense dark mysticism of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, a novel that after the halfway point tips the scales of the discursive into the waters of the profound?

Yeah, for sure it is.

There’s a lot going on in this book and I won’t try to summarize it but the centerpiece of this story is a 300 page depiction of the massive streak of rapes, murders of the women of the fictional border town of Santa Teresa (a horrifyingly realistic, slow-motion dramatization of this). This is all so patiently and meticulously described, victim by victim, it makes you feel like you’re living it, like you’re the adopted family of the literally hundreds of women whose deaths he chronicles. Their crude traumas, sloppy burials, and generally inconsistent circumstances communicate so little, they have to be cataloged one by one, in the hopes that the lack of pattern in these deaths on a small scale is a thin veil for a horror of a more massive scope.

The seemingly pointless first few hundred pages (well, not pointless, but excessively discursive) come into focus after we begin to count the dead one by one. Bolaño was just easing us into this itemization of reality, running us through the days and habits of some important people and then some not so important people, to help our eyes adjust to a dimension where things can’t be boiled down, where the simplest atomic truth is still big enough to choke Galactus. Bolaño died poor and under-appreciated but one can’t help but believe he knew this to be his fate all along, choosing as he did to hoist the aforementioned unwieldy tree of a hundred branches and no trunks, perpetually carrying it through doorways too narrow with patience and grace. One also can’t help but wonder how many people in his life turned off their receptors whilst he was in mid-sentence (jeez, myself included), believing he was a fountain of meanderings when in fact he was always in the middle of a Sistine Chapel.

God, imagine, pitching a book like 2666. It can’t and shouldn’t be done at least not in that positivist, effervescent light-bulb-over-the-head way. 2666 doesn’t shine a light, it perturbs in the way that someone telling you that you’d been adopted might; it doesn’t inspire the broad smile of a good idea but instead suggests the portal to a different viewpoint, a galactic-sized viewpoint that has the potential to nauseate as much as fascinate. In fact, that’s my pitch for 2666:

“It’s a thousand page portal to a God’s eye view of the world.”

“That sounds rad.”

“It is. Kind of. You’ll want to give up several times before you get there, though.”

“Uh… but it’s worth getting there, right?”

“Yeah, sort of. It’s not a majestic and peaceful god’s-eye-view. It’s a bum you out and make you feel complicit with the evil in the world god’s-eye-view.”

“Hmmm… so this is a little like Todd Solondz meets William Blake?”

“Thank you!”

“Wow. That sounds like an awful pitch for, like, 90% of the world.”

“I know but it is what it is. Arr-eye-pee, Roberto Bolaño. Thank you for the fascination and perspective, and sorry if we fucked up.”

“Arr-eye-pee, Bolaño. Sorry.”

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Abbey Road, Beatles, Bret Easton Ellis, George Harrison, John Lennon, Music Criticism, Music Praise, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr

On The Beatles’ "You Never Give Me Your Money"

Inspired by Bret Easton Ellis recent obsession with the song, I wanted to peel back the layers of that perplexing and transporting Beatles deep cut (well, as close as they have to a deep cut), “You Never Give Me Your Money”, the halfway point of their last album Abbey Road. Also: I can get really intense about The Beatles so…

It’s the official starting point for the Side 2 song suite. Actually, I think “Because” might be but “…Money” is the first movement in the segue. “Because” seems related because it does all the things that the suite does that Side 1 does not. That is to say, every song on Side 1 has impugnable integrity. This does not imply quality but rather that these songs are unto themselves, complete, and wanting for nothing. Every song in the suite seeks the next one. I realize this is an artifact of never having perceived these songs any either way but I’d also argue that their inherent qualities are such that any alternative presentation would be impossible.

If “Because” is the primal soul burst that presages the searching song suite, “You Never Give Me Your Money” is the elaborated taffy pull overture. Paul McCartney never met an idea that he didn’t like, or was unable to cram on top of, in front of, or during an otherwise complete piece of music. That the five separate movements of this song not only work but sound organic against each other is a testament not simply to McCartney’s songwriting acumen but to tapping into the weird conflicting winds of his band’s dissolution.

“You Never Give Me Your Money” is about endings and beginnings, just like the suite is about endings and beginnings. And like the suite, the song connects ideas that don’t seem to have any relation to one another. Which brings me to…hard stop here…what the hell is this song about? There’s that plaintive intro (which is weirdly the only iteration of the chorus) about “negotiations” and “situations”. It sounds like a bad business deal, or perhaps a divorce. Then we’re transported via parlor piano to the situation of virtually every middle class twenty-something (and shit, some thirty-somethings) in the Western world: out of school, broke, and in debt. What did this person have to offer in the negotiations of the preceding section? This might be a story told out of time, with the narrator seeking refuge in the nostalgia of simpler times, hence the jauntiness.

“But oh, that magic feeling/nowhere to go”

This is the precipice of an emotion that we are about to dive into headfirst, wading through a forest of “oohs” and “aahs” and heavenly arpeggiated guitars. This is the first climax of the album and its a foreshadowing for the “real” one in “Golden Slumbers” but this is the one that hits home for me. Once Paul takes us off that cliff with his last “nowhere to go”, we are in that uncanny spot that he was in, realizing that his band was done without it actually being done yet. And he was finding peace and joy in that moment while still realizing that the end was nigh. We mirror our incidents onto that if only because at that point, people who heard this record when it came out had to have realized that they were halfway through the last Beatles album.

This shot in the arm of joyous sentiment sends us into the “one sweet dream” motif which is introduced by Lennon’s strange prog-y guitar solo, climbing and reaching as far as it can go before dropping us down into the dream, which feels like an escape, which doesn’t feel exactly like what the narrator originally wanted to do but “step on the gas and wipe that tear away,” he does. What is the “one sweet dream”? Is it the strange menagerie of characters, ad-libbed weirdness, and psychedelic images that comprise the rest of the suite up until “Golden Slumbers” (which gets us back to the grounding bummer theme of dissolution)? That’s a convenient summation but who knows.

“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7/All good children go to heaven”

I have no clue what this means but it’s sung with such sincerity and conviction that it relieves the emotional consternation of the preceding. I have no doubt that Paul McCartney sincerely believes that hearing some variation on “it’s gonna be okay” is a very real way to alleviate stressful circumstances. Perhaps it’s a testament to The Beatles’ talent (and a by-product of the legendarily grueling recording regimen they were subjected to) that they could churn a handful of seemingly disparate ideas slap them together and defy them not to make narrative and musical sense, while speaking to the depths of their mental states at the time. And perhaps stitched-together ideas, as William Burroughs once opined, will make a greater sense than we allow ourselves to make in real time. This is all to say that this song is a joy and a lesson and far ahead of its time.

Enjoy:

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