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My thinking had become very uptight…

I may go so far as to say if you don’t like The Big Lebowski, stop reading this blog.

(I’m just kidding. Come back. P-please?)

One of the amazing things about the Coen Bros’ story is the way The Dude experiences epiphanies that ultimately enlighten no one but him. He’s like this sub-Philip Marlowe upon whom nothing depends and the only useful realization he forms is that he is the mark. Before expressing his final epiphany, he begins, “My thinking about this case had become very uptight,” a line that’s become a kind of mantra for me. How often, for example, do you express an opinion about something then immediately catch yourself with the thought, “I’m positive I don’t have all the facts.” I skew gullible so for me the answer is, quite often.

Take the Apple Watch, for example. I was ready to join the chorus that this was a luxury item, a status symbol, and a sign that Apple was moving into a high-end product niche for only its richest clients. It’s also clear that it’s impractical to use for typing messages and/or browsing and utterly dependent on the iPhone. None of these things is untrue but none of these observations can be reverse-engineered into a proper motivation for the Apple Watch’s existence. In courting these criticisms, I had no perspective on the motivation for creating such a thing. Which given the amount of money and effort it had to involve, was unlikely to be slight.

I’m sort of appreciating this after reading this incredible Wired piece on the behind-the-scenes thinking and tinkering that went into designing the Apple Watch.

Look, I’m as disappointed as you are that this post turned into me saying, “Actually the Apple Watch is kinda cool?!?!” but hear me out…

The TL;DR of the thing is that Apple is trying to revolutionize and tier our interactions with push notifications. The watch notifies you of different events in different ways while offering a dynamic array of interactions with those notices by sensing your movements. And apparently you’re not meant to actually text with the thing (it’s interesting—read the piece). What these guys tinkered into oblivion was a new way to keep you from looking at your phone. That’s what the fucking Apple Watch does. And that’s…kinda great?

Yes, spending $400 on a thing that keeps you from being enslaved to the thing you bought for $700 (and pay $100 for monthly) is next-level first-world problem solving. But that’s not the point nor what I find interesting about this whole thing. What’s interesting is the idea of intention and how mangled it gets. I don’t want an Apple Watch (not now, anyway) but the amount of love and care these guys put into an electronic watch (well, actually a supercomputer on your arm) made me think of recording sessions where a short space of, say, four seconds and perhaps 50-odd tracks gets belabored with stupid levels of intensity. In that moment, that four seconds becomes your world. And when it’s finally right, it becomes this massively powerful detail in your experience of the music, as a creator.

That detail is almost never meaningful to an outside listener. That’s why when I’m listening to something that isn’t really clicking for me, I try to give it that generous ear, try to isolate and expand one of those expansive four-second cross-sections the band and engineer just labored and argued into being. Sometimes I still hate what I’m hearing. But sometimes, I get it.

That detailed moment is literally everywhere. It’s in the design of a doll’s tiny felt cape or even in the location of the zip ties that braced it to the cardboard. It’s in the load-bearing strength of the guard rail hugging a canyon road and in the plotting of the grade of said road. I’m constantly surprised by what happens haphazardly, just the result of throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks with users/consumers/etc. and what is the result of painstaking consideration. It’s not always obvious.

What’s obvious is almost never worth the trouble, not in the long-term certainly. The surface experience of reality is not only boring, it’ll probably lead you to being exploited at some point. Like The Dude.

“My thinking about this case had become very uptight.”

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Review

Scarier than Skynet

Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence

Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, essentially an academic paper on the concerns around AI, the possible ways by (and speeds at) which it may lap human intelligence, and the multiple potential outcomes of those scenarios is smart, more comprehensive than you can imagine, and really fucking scary. Scary because it’s often as dry as an instruction manual. Imagine reading detailed instructions on a new device and coming across something to this effect: “Do not cross these two wires. Crossing these two wires together yields planetary-level damage. Do not cross these two wires under any circumstances.” Imagine glossing over that detail buried on page 10. Of course, a robot would never do that…

This is no pop science book. It’s a struggle to read sometimes and often slow going. Bostrom has degrees in robotics, philosophy, math, and physics. He occasionally uses a down-to-earth metaphor but as I mentioned, this is an exhaustively researched book that reads like an extremely technical and academic thesis. And, as he demonstrates, it serves no one if he dumbs this down. Here’s why: after enumerating what he believes to be an exhaustive list of edge cases related to a particular scenario in which, say, an AI might pretend to exhibit rational operations while planning a large-scale domination or species-wide genocide, he’ll often suggest that perhaps the AI may take a route that we may not have considered and cannot consider. Always, he insists, this possibility exists.

At it’s best, Superintelligence blends clinical thoroughness with jaw-droppingly evocative as in this fantastic passage:

Consider a superintelligent agent with actuators connected to a nanotech assembler. Such an agent is already powerful enough to overcome any natural obstacles to its indefinite survival. Faced with no intelligent opposition, such an agent could plot a safe course of development that would lead to its acquiring the complete inventory of technologies that would be useful to the attainment of its goals. For example, it could develop the technology to build and launch von Neumann probes, machines capable of interstellar travel that can use resources such as asteroids, planets, and stars to make copies of themselves.[emphasis mine]

Ya don’t say! Throughout the book, Bostrom remains keen to the idea that AI can reach for the resources of the known universe. This is considerably more ambitious and, well, scary than the concept of Skynet. Skynet essentially had one trump move: pit two human superpowers (the US and the USSR) against one another to facilitate mutually assured destruction. Then, after crippling the human race that tried to deactivate it, Skynet continues to defend itself…through a ground war. I admit, I’d never considered this unsophisticated second stage to be an unlikely move for a machine intelligence. If we’re giving credit to The Terminator mythos (and I’m inclined to do so) we could imagine that Skynet operates through what Bostrom calls a “stunted” AI, one that has deliberately been given limited information or a restricted flow of data from which to generate judgments. But as he explains, a proper AI likely can fill in an incomplete picture:

It might be that a superintelligence could correctly surmise a great deal from what seem, to dull-witted human minds, meager scraps of evidence. Even without any designated knowledge base at all, a sufficiently superior mind might be able to learn much by simply introspecting on the workings of its own psyche—the design choices reflected in its source code, the physical characteristics of its circuitry.

Don’t try to get the jump on a machine. As bummer as this book can be at times, it’s actually weirdly fun and a breath of fresh air on the non-fiction tip. With the sustainability of our planet’s resources and the psychotic teetering of our global economy, it’s bonkers to consider adding concerns over machine intelligence superseding our own. If it’s any conciliation, the conditions could accrete so fast, we may never even have the chance to see it coming…

Good night!

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Annihilation(s)

Hi, there.

Today I’m in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley to be exact, visiting family with my daughter. I have the kind of daughter (3-years-old) who doesn’t let me leave her side for more than a few minutes so I made a stealth move while napped and went on a bit of an adventure…

I cut through mid-day traffic, past a few school dismissals and at least one really savage car wreck on the way to Stoney Point, this majestic rock formation/hill/mini-mountain that looms over the Valley and basically constitutes its northern border. Why? Well, I’m doing final edits on a book called The Anglekeeper that I’m going to finally present to you all this year, set in locations throughout the West Valley. People ask me what it’s about and my short pitch is that it’s about a boy who discovers his dad is a transdimensional wizard. And then his realization that he is his dad’s enemy. It’s like an Oedipal Harry Potter, but not for (young) kids. There’s some heavy homages to things like The Terminator and A Wrinkle in Time in there as well (I wouldn’t fault anyone for not catching it, though). But what the book is really about is my obsession with the West Valley as a place. I love(d) it. It’s weird, magical, sedate, and, yes, soul-crushing and boring to some extent as well. It’s a place of contradictions that will always be charged and special to me, and yes, some of that is nostalgia but today, I realized that some of it is just natural beauty hiding in plain sight.

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The traffic forced me to cut a route to Stoney Point that passed almost every key location of the novel: Woodlake Avenue Elementary, Shadow Ranch Park, the corner of Fallbrook and Vanowen (site of aforementioned car wreck), and the corner of Plummer and Topanga. This was likely a case of subconscious steering but it was enough to make me frankly giddy (and, fuck, if I’d TRIED to hit all those spots, something would’ve surely stood in my way). By the time I reached Stoney Point, my breath was nearly taken away. The woods adjacent to the 118 were…lush. And deep enough, seemingly, to get lost in. There’s a seriously epic and confusing altercation that goes in those woods in my book and what I’d imagined wasn’t even doing this justice. I couldn’t believe in the midst of this drought how green everything was. I was so happy.

I drove back through Box Canyon, amazed at how long it takes to get back to the main intersecting roads through that route. Yeah, it’s at an angle to the thoroughfares but, my god, how much land is back there? I passed at least two homes that certainly belonged to creators in the porn community. And after all these years, the old (but renovated) sign indicating the dedicated road that leads to a Boeing facility clearly indicated that there’s something untoward happening at that particular Boeing facility. Something beyond what we know of as nature. After all these years of knowing that that sign was there, I for once felt certain of that fact.

Which brings me to my current read: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. This is the scariest book I’ve read in a long time. Like, check the locks and don’t read it alone at night scary. I’m almost positive that he watched LOST and decided to create something tighter, less sprawling, and more focused on that fear of the unknown that drives those earliest episodes. I struggle to even express what it’s about. Most synopses will tell you it’s about a mysterious Area X and an organization called the Southern Reach manipulating our protagonists struggles from on high. But the truth is, you’re never really thinking about Area X or Southern Reach. The book is about the borders of our perception and how the things that are just outside of it, the things that don’t allow us to face them head-on, become the things that drive us. It’s about how hard it is to trust our brains when we don’t trust everything that they’re receiving, and how what we see and what we feel rarely jibe. I think that’s all I can say about it right now (I’m not quite done) but suffice to say, highly recommended.

Annihilation, of course, isn’t just an abstract concept for some people. Some very good friends of mine and other allies of the Bay Area creative community suffered the loss of their homes, businesses, and—in two cases—life through a terribly destructive fire in Oakland on March 21st. Without further ado, I wanted to strongly suggest that you donate to their cause: http://www.gofundme.com/AKPressFire.

It adds up and whatever you can spare is appreciated. I’m donating $40. Losing one’s home is a profound and severe violation of a basic human right and, as you probably understand, without a substantial safety net (which, in the Bay Area in 2015, means you’re a millionaire) it’s very difficult to bounce back from a set back like this one. Do the right thing. It’s quite easy sometimes.

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The history of American crime…

“The history of American crime is choked with men who were raised right and whom wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

And with that presently homeless quote, I’d like to knock the dust off of ye blogge. Those words are (I think) going to be uttered by a detective whom in my mind is totally Samira Wiley and will likely be in reference to a guy named Rodie Walsh-Herrera who is a game developer accidentally dabbling in the occult.

So, yeah, I’ll be writing here more. At least weekly, if not more. It won’t just be me, me, me, though. Friends that do/make/say cool things will have a home here and I encourage them to reach out so I can share what they make. Seriously, I have great friends whose work is so good that if they weren’t friends, I’d still read/watch their shit but I’d also quietly make voodoo dolls of them to prick because I hate how much better they are so m—

I’ll also be going off about whatever TV, music, or books are currently rocking my world. At present those are:

The Jinx—one-third through and it’s mesmerizing and heartbreaking even though I know how it ends (I’m too stupid to stop looking at the Internet even when it’s the right thing to do.) It doesn’t matter; Robert Durst’s story and physical presence drops one’s jaw. There was at least one moment where I felt complete compassion for this utterly reprehensible man.

John Carpenter/Lost Themes—ground zero for those heavy elemental synth riffs that scream EIGHTIES to so many of us, leaving us giddy and stoked. Nostalgia is a helluva drug. So is marijuana, apparently, as I recently talked with a screenwriter friend of Carpenter’s who insists the man is a profound stoner who works totally off-the-cuff in both film and music. As the title suggests, these are orphaned pieces that might have made it into Carpenter’s films. Somehow they sound completely contemporary. Chalk this up to the parallel effects of an artist ahead of his time and an era shying from innovation.

Octavia Butler/Parable of the Sower—This book is nuts. It’s about a slow motion migration of a group of teens from Southern to Northern California (on FOOT) after/during a near-future societal collapse. It’s set in the mid-2020s in a time where shit has more than hit the fan relative to today—there’s complete murderous anarchy at every turn, social infrastructure is totally decayed for all but the richest, people fucking WALK on the 101—yet there’s still a faint whiff of order. There’s laws that people remind themselves to observe. People fighting for their physical survival still look for jobs. You can still go to “stores” that carry “goods.” She paints a scarily, depressingly plausible future and I find myself delaying finishing it because I’m too scared to see what she’s gonna be totally on-point about next.

That’s all for now. Like I said, I’ll be posting more often. See you again soon…

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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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