The Ticking Clock

The Ticking Clock
By
Andrija Popovic
(C) 2017 Andrija Popovic

4:19 AM Eastern Time. 

Every morning, an hour and a half before his alarm was set to go off, he awoke. His eyes snapped open. He took a deep breath, almost gasping. Reaching out, he touched his snoring wife’s form to one side, and his snoring cat’s from to the other. 

You have time. Just go back to sleep. He would tell himself this lie every time. But his mind would never fall back into torpor. He was awake. The ticking clock inside him said it was time to walk about, to rise. The rest of his body obeyed, despite his mind’s dearest wishes. 

After the fifth night, his wife said: “You need to see a specialist.”

So he visited the body shop and had his specialist crack him open. As he lay back, brain case exposed, the specialist peered at a tiny bit of grey matter held between two foreceps. “Well, that’s your problem right there.”

“What?”

“Damn biological clock was never set to auto-update for daylight savings time.  Gonna have to reprogram it and get it synced again. That’ll probably be another nine-hundred or so.”

Goddamned highway robbery, he thought. The specialist took the grey matter away and tinkered with it, quietly, in the background. Another two thousand down the tubes. Still, what was the value of a good night’s sleep?

4:19 AM Eastern Time. His mental clock did not go off. He did not wake up suddenly.

He woke up slowly, and really had to pee. Son of a bitch…

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We Can Be Heroes

They say you should never meet your heroes. You will realize they have feet of clay, lecherous hands, and spiteful mouths. Let them remain a shadow in the back of your mind. The Platonic idea of your hero will always beat the real thing.

In this case, I’m glad I didn’t listen. Over ten years ago, I went to GenCon with three close friends. We were there to support our favorite mini game at the time. And I realized that Michael Stackpole, fantasy and tie-in fiction author I admired for years, was not only attending but presenting  a multi-day workshop on writing. At the time, I dabbled and tried get a few things published – mostly to see if it would impress folks who really didn’t deserve the attention.

Michael Stackpole changed all of this.

I met him through the Battletech tie-in books. The Warrior trilogy in particular grabbed me by my little mech-powered heart over many a summer when I was young. His Rogue Squadron books influenced some of my favorite sessions of the old West End Games Star Wars RPG. And I will say his fantasy novel, The Dark Glory War, still haunts me.

And I mean it. The ending haunts me. The protagonist lives, but gods, you wish he had death’s peace.

So, I was concerned about the seminars. Would he grab the novella I had tucked in my backpack and set it afire in front of everyone, as I heard some Clarion instructors were wont to do?

No. He was open, forthright, friendly, and smart. His lectures completely turned me around. While they are currently trunk novels, it’s because of him I have three completed books hidden away.  He gave me just the right push, at just the right time, to start acting like  writer. Later, when his 21 Days to a Novel came out, I used it as a blueprint for one of my projects. Michael Stackpole still had a lot to teach me.

I returned to GenCon this year with three publication credits to my name – not much, but a start – and ran into Mr. Stackpole at the Catalyst Games booth. Not only did he put up with my stammering, he graciously signed my autograph book with two words: “Keep writing.”

No worries, sir. I will. Damn right I will.

Bad Decisions Make Good Stories

I’ve seen this on a t-shirt in a few different places. It’s supposed to be some kind of devil-may-care, “I’m try-sexual – I’ll try anything” type of declaration. But I saw it worn by the co-author of Hard Case Crime’s brilliant comic, Peepland.  And it might as well be the thesis for film noir, and their pulp crime antecedents.

It’s also a good guideline for compelling stories, and the hardest one to follow. At least, for me.

But, film noir first. The last few months, every unoccupied Sunday morning, I join Eddie Muller and a gaggle of folks on Twitter for Turner Classic Movie’s Noir Alley.  At 10am Eastern, you can follow #NoirAlley and join a conversation about that morning’s selection.  Yes, they do have well known entries, like The Maltese Falcon (the debut) but they also show off lesser known, but equally deserving entries like the boxing tale The Set-Up featuring one of Robert Ryan’s best performances. I’m still waiting for a chance to see Woman on the Run again – a lost classic starring Ann Sheridan as a wife searching for her estranged husband after he’s witnessed a gangland hit – but there are a large number of interesting films to explore.

Noir Alley was an offshoot of TCM’s “Summer of Darkness” where, for Friday nights in August it was nothing but noir all the time.  An evening of desperate people making rough choices and exposing the dark underbelly of the American dream.  Hearing Eddie Muller’s insights before and after each feature exposed how much of the film noir movement grew organically from the American crime fiction and an onrush of talent escaping the shadow of fascism in Europe.  No one declared a movement until well after the ‘golden years’ of film noir ended.

Defining film noir always started with the aesthetics, but in truth, it was the story and the characters: deeply flawed, often villainous protagonists making bad decisions in their attempt to get what they want.  Many look at the Bogart detective dramas as the template for noir, but I look at Double Indemnity and it’s overlooked counterpart (and feature on this week’s edition of Noir Alley), The Prowler.  Both feature hungry individuals looking for ways out of their stifling lives.

Desperate measures lead to bad decisions. And bad decisions make great stories.

They rarely make for happy endings, though. At least, if you’re following the template of noir fiction. Or, the endings are never bright shiny ones. Let’s take “The Set-Up” for example. The happy ending involves a man having his hands broken and shattered for not falling down and being a terrible boxer, like everyone expected of him. It saves his marriage, and probably his life, but there’s a cost.

Bad decision lead to bad ends. No good deed goes unpunished, and the bad ones often end with you getting gunned down in the desert.  It’s not the best and most hopeful way of seeing the world.  To quote Greg Stoltze’s noir RPG game, it’s A Dirty World. Everything comes at a cost.

Which means adhering to the “Bad decisions lead to good stories” tenant when you’re suffering depression is a very difficult thing to do.  Despite everything you hear, no one ever does their best work when hungry, depressed, strung-out, or miserable. No one wants to write about grim situations and desperate individuals caught in traps of their own making when they’re clinging onto their anti-anxiety meds for a reason not to go back to cutting.

But their are other stories you can tell.

I know many folks deride ‘cozy’ mysteries. And I’m not to fond of them myself in some ways. But one can write mysteries, or stories exploring the dark, where the dark doesn’t consume everything.  The late P.D. James is a perfect example of this balance. She is not a shy lady when it comes to the dark side. She spends the first act of her Adam Dalgliesh books describing the deep flaws and dark desires of her soon-to-be suspects. And when the detective-poet delves into the lives surrounding the crime, darker secrets come to night.

But P.D. James offers the reader something noir doesn’t – a light at the end of the tunnel that isn’t an oncoming train. For all the darkness she finds, at the end of the book, justice exists.  The killer will be found. And while not everyone is innocent, the truly guilty will be found and punished.  Bad decisions may lead to good stories – but they don’t have to be the protagonist’s bad decisions.  And I don’t have to write about them if I’m not in the best place to do so. There are other ways.

So every free Sunday at 10, I’ll settle with TCM and Eddie Muller and #NoirAlley. I’ll see how bad decisions can lead to good stories. But I will also curl up with P. D. James as well. I’ll find different kinds of stories, different kinds of comfort, and know when I can’t write one because it hits too close to home, the other is there for me.

Now both stories will still be shot by John Alton – but that’s another discussion.

Choose your own Adventure

(C) 2017 Andrija Popovic

The door opens up and you find yourself in the main hub area of your beautiful job. Rows of cube-chairs, one after the other, line the massive open plan office space. You can see your reflection in the great silvered mirrors of the executive offices. The executives get private thinking spaces where they can still observe every person. You’re glad they’re always watching over you, able to see and hear everything they do.

As you make your way to your cube chair, you see Don and Samantha. Don is one of the executives. His bespoke suit and designer interface apps show you just how well he’s doing with the company. He has Samantha in a small corner of the office, near one of the windowless ‘consultation rooms.’ He appears to be encouraging her to get inside.

Samantha seems uncomfortable. She wants to want to get back to her cube chair. She’s glancing at Don, and back at her chair, and then back at the consultation room.  Then, she looks at you.

Do you interfere? If so, select <HERE>
Do you head to your cube chair? If so, select <HERE>

[SELECTION CONFIRMED]

You smile to Don and give a not to Samantha, but then walk to your cube chair and get ready for the day. Don gives you a knowing smile as he pulls Samantha in for a private consultation. You feel warm: an executive has given you a positive personal sign.

 Your managers know best. Your Human Resources confessor told you the first day you were inducted into the sixth floor processing pool. Trust their judgement in all things. What’s best for them, is best for the company, and best for you.

You strap yourself into the cube chair, locking down your hands and feet. You plug in the appropriate fluid and waste taps before lowering the workspace helmet over your face and eyes. There’s darkness at first. Then, you can smell the delicious scent of fresh coffee and warmed apple tarts. The startup screen begins with daily announcements from management and HR, as well as your set tasks for the day and the amount of debt reduction you can expect from completing them.

And then static fills your vision. A woman in a silver mask appears and begins speaking to you in modulated tones:

“This is an emergency broadcast from free space to anyone listening. You are being used. Your mind is being used. While your conscious brain is being occupied with garbage work which will never clear your debt, the unoccupied sections of your brain are being hijacked. Your creativity, your dreams, your ideas are all being drained away and classified as company intellectual property.

They are stealing your soul! But you can fight this. Do not call HR and do not hit the cutoff switch. If you stay on-line, we can firewall your mind and let you work freely without the company patenting your dreams. Stay on the line and we will free you.”

This is obviously a dangerous transmission from anti-capitalist forces, but you find something bothering you. What if she is right? What if the company, HR, and management are not being honest with how they use your staff potential? What if the debt will never be wiped away?

Your doubts ring out as you finger the emergency cut-off and HR alarm button.

Do you listen to the broadcast? If so, select <HERE>
Do you call HR? If so, select <HERE>

[SELECTION CONFIRMED]

You hit the button several times. Your work helmet powers down and the transmission has replaced a blues screen, instructing you to wait until HR arrives. “You may remove your helmet at this time.”

You take off your helmet and look out onto the cube chairs. Around you, others are removing their helmets. Red lights flash, highlighting the cubes where assistance is needed. Men and women in black suits and handsome ballistic mesh armor move briskly through the workspace. Some stop and talk with your coworkers, asking them if they are OK, and checking their vitals.

Others move to cubes where co-workers still have their helmets on. They activate overrides and pull your former colleagues out of their cube chairs, quickly sedating and binding them so they do not harm themselves. You can see many of them were from original colonist stock – various shades of dark skin and musculature a not suited for intellectual corporate work.

You remind yourself you need to watch out for other co-workers like them. Did one of them plant the transmission?

And then you notice Samantha leaving the conference room with her clothes torn, trying to avoid the HR presence by heading right to the rest cube.

Do you follow her? If so, select <HERE>
Do you report her to HR? If so, select <HERE>

[SELECTION CONFIRMED]

Extra Large Turing Test with Fries

Extra Large Turing Test with Fries
by Andrija Popovic
(C) 2017 Andrija Popovic

[Excerpt from artificial drive-through attendant Turing Test with Miss Rosa Mirella, 26, of Gaithersburg, MD. In this test series, subjects are randomly exposed to either a human attendant or an artificial one.]

INTERVIEWER: Miss Mirella, just to review, prior to the very end of your experience in the drive through of your local [REDACTED] franchise, you had no sense this was an artificial individual?

R. MIRELLA: Nope. Honestly, I was completely fooled in the beginning. I mean, he had to confirm the order because the speaker was shitty, he forgot to put in extra ketchup packets, all of it. He even looked sweaty. I didn’t think you could do that with fake people yet.
 

INTERVIEWER: But at the very end, as you were reviewing your food, you definitively flagged the attendant as artificial.

R. MIRELLA: Oh, yes. Because of the soda.

INTERVIEWER: The soda?

R. MIRELLA: Yeah.

INTERVIEWER: I don’t understand.

R. MIRELLA: OK, so, you know when you get a soda it has those little dots you push in? The ones that say if it’s Diet, Iced Tea, Root Beer or Other? Well, I ordered a diet Coke and a Dr. Pepper, you get me?

INTERVIEWER: I think so…

R. MIRELLA: So, when I got the drinks, the diet had the little Diet thing pushed in, right? And the Dr. Pepper had the Other thing pushed in.

INTERVIEWER: Yes, we saw that. And that’s correct.

R. MIRELLA: Have you ever been through one of your own drive-thrus? Or worked in one? No one ever just hits the Other button. Everyone pushes all of the buttons in on the lid.

[Extended pause as the Interviewer stares blankly at Miss Mirella.]

R. MIRELLA: What? I did it when I worked there. Only a robot does shit exactly like the manual.

[Interview was then terminated when Interviewer picked up notes, walked out of the interview room, and began to spew out a large number of obscenities in view of the observation team.

[Complied results and recommendations can be found in memo: “How Do We Get AI’s to Act Like Frustrated Employees?”]

[Excerpt ends.]

END

All Politics is Local

All Politics is Local
by
Andrija Popovic

(c) 2017 Andrija Popovic

“Ms. Deveroux, give us a straight answer.” Duane Jefferson, seventy years old and elder statesman of the Groveton city council, crossed all four of his arms. “Is the waste water disposal system for the oil wells causing our inter-dimensional issues?”

Thea Deveroux, an occult seismologist with Oklahoma Geological Survey, tucked one of her antennae back against her pointed ear and replied:  “Yes.”

A storm of growls and keening laments rattled the town hall. Duane just shook his head. His membranous wings, black as his bald head, flapped irritably.

“Order! Dammit, order!” Alicia Sears, new mayor of Groveton, banged the gavel with a cilia-covered hand. Her six eyes were heavy and dark with exhaustion.

Chad Michael Rimer – representative from Halithon Pandimensional Petroleum and the only baseline human in the room- spoke: “Please. Everyone, settle down. Look, we all knew there may be minor environmental issues with this new fracturing and disposal process…”

“What?” Duane clacked his talons. “Look, we know the drilling boosted the economy. And we knew there would be risks. But when y’all came here, you didn’t mention gates to chaos realms on Henderson Drive!”

“The damn hounds mauled my cattle!” John Murphy stood, frills red and agitated. “Protective runes cost money and blood. How the Hell am I supposed to keep out seven dimensional predators without bankruptcy?!”

“I appreciate your concern. But, we don’t know enough about what’s really going on in the dimensional subsurface to know how to mitigate some of this risk,” said Rimer. The pandimensional wards sewn into his Alexander Amosu Bespoke suit gave it an oily sheen. “HPP is continuing its studies. We feel there is no direct correlation between our processes and the regrettable phenomenon–.”

Mayor Sears interrupted.”And the report?”

“Our in-house teams will be releasing a full rebuttal. We disagree with the hasty and ill-evidenced conclusions–”

Howls from the audience overwhelmed Rimer. Deveroux looked moments away from bludgeoning the HPP representative with the six hundred page report.

Duane slapped his wings. “Madame Mayor, I motion that, based on Ms. Deveroux’s testimony and the report submitted, we consider Ordinance 193 and halt this method of waste water dumping.”

Citizens and town council-members alike growled, snarled and slapped their shells in approval. Rimer glanced at the runes dancing on his tablet. “Point of order!”

Silence, and then Rimer said: “The council cannot take up this ordinance.”

“Mr. Rimer, it is well within our jurisdiction to regulate how business is conducted in our town. Especially if it impacts the well being, and pan-dimensional stability of its residents.” The Mayor rattled her spines, annoyed.

“Not anymore.” Rimer placed his tablet into his briefcase. “As of twenty minutes ago the State Legislature voted on, and the Governor signed, HR 193. This blocks local governments from regulating energy operations in the state. If you want to shut us down, take it up with the legislature and the Governor.”

Everyone dove for their tablets as Rimer made his exit. “Thank you for your time,” he said. “Our legal team will be in touch.”

Order was abandoned. People swarmed the council members. Others mobbed Thea Deveroux, demanding answers. Alice had to stand on her chair and let loose an unearthly howl before order resumed.

But no one was in the mood for further business. Motions were tabled, and everyone filtered out. Only Duane and Alice remained in the meeting hall.

“We can’t let this go on, Alice.” Duane stood up, one set of arms folded behind him. “I mean, look at this. We’re barely human anymore. Haystacks of tentacles roam Memorial Park like it’s their back yard. And what do we get out of it? The blood magic expenses eating away at the money HPP brings in. We’ve got to do something.”

“You know my grandfather was from West Virginia?” Duane shook his head. The Mayor clicked her secondary mandibles in thought. “Yep. Coal country. When I was young, he told me how the mining company cut safety gear costs by using outdated masks. Or how botched coal ash storage contaminated the aquifer with heavy metals. Then, he lost his best friend to methane explosion. The mine could have prevented it if they weren’t in such a hurry to open up new seams.”

“Every now and again, someone talked about suing or getting the government involved.” Alice stared at the text of the bill scrolling down her tablet. “No one ever did, though.”

“Why’s that?” Duane tilted his head and antennae.

“I asked my granddad. ‘Why they put up with it?’ He always told me to stand up to bullies when I grew up.” She packed away her tablet, notes, and documents into a messenger bag. “He said, ‘What else are we going to do? That’s just the price you pay for having a job.'”

“Do you believe that?”

Alice laughed. “Fuck no, Duane. I love my Grandad, but he spent his off hours crawled into a bottle of cheap beer.” The Mayor picked up her bag. “I’ve got to get to work, start making a plan to overturn this bill. Maybe go to court. I’ll be in early tomorrow. Should I expect you there?”

Duane smiled. He tucked his wings along his back. “Yep. I’ll be here. See you tomorrow, madam Mayor.”

“See you tomorrow, Duane.” She haded out. Duane turned off the lights, closed the door and locked the town hall behind him.

In the distance, green and purple flares jetted from the drilling wells dotted landscape. The tentacled mounds in the park stood in a circle, undulating around the statue of the town founder. A pair of hounds, lean and barely in this dimension, howled at the moon. They serenaded him all the way home.

Duane hoped they’d hush up, or find a rabbit to chase. Tomorrow would be another long day in local politics.

This Was Not the Corporate Dystopia I Was Promised

The other title for this post is “We Need The Punk In Cyberpunk Now.”

Recent events has me thinking on a big influence on my formative years: the literature and the aesthetic of cyberpunk. While many grew up with images of the space age, with (white, western) humanity cementing its manifest destiny among the stars, I grew up when a certain generation of authors looked at the great space wheel of 2001: A Space Odyssey and wondered how many of the components were built by globalized companies using third world labor.

This was a world were the buds of the modern internet first took root when we started connecting home computers into telephone lines, then immediately used it to trade porn and complain about movies. Cell phones first hinted at the idea we wouldn’t be tied to cables and trunk-lines forever. And corporations grew, adopting a “Shareholder Profits Shall Be the Whole of the Law” attitude which still rules today. Conversations like the one ceased to be dialog out of Alan J. Pakula thrillers:

“We can make tones of money using these quick-term stock scams and hiding the results overseas. Now it’ll crash the economy-”
“What about the quarterly profits?”
“Oh, we’ll see a massive spike before total devastation.”
“We can blame the immigrants. Do it, and we’ll be rich enough to not care.”

And instead became standard operating procedure for every global company out there.

Take all of the above, mingle onto it the visual aesthetics of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the paintings of Patrick Nagel, and Michael Mann’s visual palette from Miami Vice, and you have the birth of a neon-drenched corporate dystopia where the wealthy live in technological splendor, while the same technology alternately imprisons and liberates those scrambling to survive day in, day out. The tools of the oppressors became ways we could give them a massive “Fuck You.”

But while we have cyberpunk’s technology for the most part (No wicked cybernetics, but re-read Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net. The book opens with someone killed by a drone strike, folks), and we certainly have the ever-present corporate domination (Get and watch the Max Headroom collection from Shout Factory. Check “Grossberg’s Return” for the shocking idea of the media creating news, not reporting it –  *cough*InfoWars*cough* – while “Lessons” talks explicitly about education treated as a commodity to keep it out of the hands of the poor), we are missing some things.

The aesthetics for one. I think Starcadian best expresses this longing for a familiar vibe in the video for “Chinatown”

The other part we’ve lost – and some would argue never really had – was the punk part. That rebellious growl at seeing our future stolen, at dehumanization, and at the abuse of power. The part of the aesthetic born from folks like Stiff Little Fingers. Listen to “Suspect Device

They take away our freedom
In the name of liberty
Why can’t they all just clear off
Why can’t they let us be
They make us feel indebted
For saving us from hell
And then they put us through it
It’s time the bastards fell

Don’t believe them
Don’t believe them
Don’t be bitten twice
You gotta suss, suss, suss, suss, suss, suss
Suss, suspect device

Tell me that’s not the punk part of the equation in a song?

This is what we need in the world right now. We need the punk side of cyberpunk. We need our Suspect Devices. We need our Edison Carters, though these days he’d be working for ProPublica, not Network 23.  It’s out there, but right now it’s controlled by people who think swatting a lady for not appreciating the dick picks you sent her after seeing her Steam profile. We need to take it back. We need to use what we learned from our CyberPunk forefathers to take this world and cast it into ugly, sharp relief. We need to channel the growling anger of punk and it’s children, and focus it on the folks who’d take away our freedoms in the name of liberty.

When I see an article posted about how our new administration is taking pages out of Totalitarianism 101 (Say, by de-legitimizing a free press or picking targets for ‘true patriots’ to rail against), I don’t react with a sad face. I use the angry one. And I tell them exactly how they can fight – Maybe not with their fists, but with dollars, votes, and showing up at a town hall meeting with a ZIP code on your chest while getting into a legislator’s grill.

I think anyone writing contemporary SF who felt something shiver inside when they watched the opening minutes of Blade Runner, saw Synners spelled in a unique way, or heard the sky described as television tuned to a dead channel, should do the same.  Or as Henry Rollins put it:

henryrollinsjoestrummer

So, borrowing from Joe’s bandmate, Paul – when they kick down your front door, how you gonna come? With your hands on your head? Or on the record button of your cell phone, streaming live and direct to the world?

It’s cyberpunk time.