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About the Author
John Kilgore tells us: "I have published a dozen stories previously, in magazines including THE NEBRASKA REVIEW, MCCALL'S, NEBULA, THE HORROR SHOW, and SPACE AND TIME. Over the past year a new online magazine, THE SCREAM ONLINE, has published two stories, two essays, and a poem. MADONNA OF THE ROCKET, an SF parable, can be viewed online at http://thescreamonline.com/fiction/fiction08-1/madonna.html. In 1999 I won an Illinois Arts Council Artist's Fellowship to support work on my novel RADIO ROGER, since completed. In 1991 my small chapbook IMPROBABILITIES was published by Illinois Writers Incorporated."
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When I come back I'm in one of those halfway resets you get sometimes. Same season, same time of day, same shirt and pants, but there's a cord jacket that's new. The sirens have carried over, still faint, far off. No Jimmy, no knife, and no wound: or rather, the last of the new skin is just settling into place, sealing down like shrink-wrapped plastic, one of the stranger sensations I've had in a while. I can still remember everything that just happened. For a change.
I'm standing at the door of a bar, and at first I take it to be a place I used to hang out in the ROK, Hwan Li's Nashville Club, specializing in real USA country singalong, only no one ever really did, just played the juke and kept to themselves.
But it turns out to be someplace else. A long high bar, dark wooden stools, webbed leather seats, long mirror behind the barkeep, a TV high in one corner showing Australian Rules football while the juke plays the Stones, Beast of Burden. Signs in English, Slim Jims on the bar, and we're back in the U.S. of A, no question. There may even be a certain logic to the change. Every soldier overseas eventually has the same fantasy, of being magically transported back home for just an hour or two, for a beer or a ball game or whatever. It seems weirdly reasonable because you're not asking for so much.
The place is about two-thirds full, a youngish weekend crowd, lots of jeans and khakis and tight blouses, with the occasional tie and colored shirt. They're sitting at these long low tables that are made out of slabs of wood about four times too heavy for the job, because it's somebody's idea of folksy decor. The sort of place I could have imagined, but why would I bother? Maybe once upon a time I stopped into such a place for a beer, a phone call, a trip to the john.
The most obvious hazards-dazzling women, belligerent men-are nowhere in sight, so I head for the end of the bar. It's where I'm least likely to get drawn into a conversation, but I can still keep an eye on things. If there's a robbery or the bartender has a heart attack, maybe I can slip out in time, avoid battling the bad guys single-handed or administering CPR.
What I need is some time to collect my thoughts. The Program has sent me some weird shit before, but not like today. There's been pain, but it was always something to get past, a little sting on the way to the happy ending. Today the whole plot was Frank Dies, period, and the pain was bonus, deluxe, DVD, economy size. What if this is the start of a new trend, I keep thinking. I remember the noise the knife made, cutting through something papery and slick inside me, and I finish a double scotch, quick. I should think of some brilliant new strategy, but there aren't any ideas in the bottom of the glass. I already steer clear of anything that looks like trouble-like either trouble or bliss, in fact-and look where it gets me. I've also tried the opposite tack, picking fights, propositioning the most beautiful women. It gets me roughly the same places, just a little quicker.
You can never tell what will happen with booze. Once in Tucson (more or less, Tucson) I threw down three quarts of dark rum in an hour, walked right out without stumbling. But there are other times when the spirits do pretty much what they're supposed to, and, lucky me, today turns out to belike that. Three doubles and I'm past scared-and-shaky, well over the line into oh-well mellow. Take the moment, I'm thinking, and hope for the best, what else can you do?
But the next drink doesn't do much, and then I start noticing that there are too many beautiful women in the bar. The sweet Toys all have dates and they've slipped in unobtrusively, at least three in the last half hour that are just my type, in between several porky and plain and just-miss numbers, included as camouflage. There's one in particular that I can hardly keep my eyes off of. Petite and lively, a quick smile, great eyes, wearing a clingy blue dress that somehow convinces you she wore it "for comfort" even while it turns every head in the place. High sculpted breasts, tiny waist, flawless tan. What kills me is this sweet, pixie-ish, kid-sister look she's giving her date as she sits there holding his hand, listening to him. He's older, bright, successful, appreciative. A cute couple, all the way around, and it's just so perverted that I could walk up, introduce myself, and within an hour or two take her off to bed. Or him, for God's sake.
I put a twenty on the bar and walk out.
Only right at the door, something stops me. I walk back, take a look. There's a little alcove I hadn't noticed on the way in, and over in the corner, near a bumper-pool table, is an old arcade-style game, the kind with a button, a joystick, a little metal hood shading the screen. By fiddling the controls you manipulate a brawny cartoon figure who beats up a steady stream of goons. I stare and stare. It all looks so natural, somehow, so innocent. The cartoon figures have about four motions they can make, and they make them over and over, like puppets. Finding it here is the strangest thing that has happened to me so far today.
"You got some problem?"
Belatedly I notice the woman playing the machine. Tall, with narrow shoulders, small breasts, big hips, wearing one of those knit dresses that hits awkwardly at mid-thigh. Short dark hair in a Cleopatra cut, sharp features. More or less the exact physical type I'm not attracted to, which is reassuring; on the other hand I can see that she's an attractive woman, objectively speaking.
"These machines," I say, my tongue a little thick. "They don't exist."
"Sure they don't," she says, indifferent, concentrating on the game. "And neither do I. Only you do. Save it, okay?"
This remark is nearly as strange as the machine. I look at her hard and see nothing much, boredom mainly, depression, irritation. She needs a shampoo.
"Getting stared at like that does not," she mutters, pulling on the joystick, "turn me on. Anymore."
"What I mean is, they don't exist here," I tell her. "It's one of the rules. They could be mimed like anything else, why not. But it would be bad form. Like shooting a movie with the boom mike showing, or the actors talking right at the camera."
"But here it is," she says, juking the machine slightly, like it's pinball she's playing. She sucks in her bottom lip, then blows out, lifting her bangs. "Gee, this must be a red-letter day. You must be an interesting guy. But personally I think masturbation is a form of schizophrenia: playing with yourself, you know."
I can't help smiling. I've never had a Toy be quite so brassy with me, and there's something exhilarating about it. Which should warn me off, but there's the scotch. I lean against the wall for a while, watching her game. I tell her my name and get hers, Gail, and we make a little aimless small talk, like old marrieds or something. Her hero fells a goon with a nifty kick to the throat, but then another one, twice his size, tiptoes up behind, carrying a huge club, and knocks his head off. Really off: it rolls around on the ground for a second, and puddly, stringy things come oozing out the neck. Not so innocent. The GAME OVER sign flashes, with her score. Gail grimaces and turns away; then looks at me for the first time, top to bottom. The dead-bored expression does not leave her face. "They keep getting the physical type all wrong. You're skinny not stocky, your Adam's apple sticks out, and your ass is bony."
I grin at her, seeing the way this one is headed. "But it's what you've been wanting, see? Somebody who isn't just a clever mock-up of your own desires. Someone real."
"So if you're the opposite of what I want," she tells me, "then you're what I want. Not a lot to work with there, champ."
She grabs her purse and doesn't bother to say goodbye, just leaves. I hang back for a while, tantalizing myself with the thought that I won't follow. But she's got me hooked now, like a bad movie you can't resist watching to the end.
When I catch up she's trudging aimlessly along the street, looking in store windows. We're someplace with a downtown now, Midwestern, not too large. Topeka maybe, Joplin, Rockford, Columbus. The same great weather we had on the other side of the globe. So far from being surprised when I come up behind her, she doesn't even look my way. "I got killed today," I tell her. "I mean really killed. They gave me the whole number: agony, death-spasms, final numbness. It's freaking me out."
She looks at the poster in the front window of a travel agency. "One question: why are you telling me?"
I shrug. "You know how it is. If a scam keeps up long enough you fall in with it, even when you know it's a scam." A true fact of existence, I've decided, one well known to dictators and used-car salesmen, back in the world.
"Right." We've come to a street and she heads across without looking. A Ford pickup brakes hard, taps the horn. Gail doesn't even turn her head. I hurry after. "So, Frank," she says, with the air of someone commencing a conversation she'd rather avoid, "why do you want to die?"
"Whoa! It isn't my idea."
For the first time she gives me the ghost of a smile; a quick, shrewd little smirk that makes me like her and dislike her all at once. "Come off of it, Frankie boy. If it's in the Program, you ordered it somehow." She stops at a window to look at her reflection, adjusting an earring. Her voice goes dead again. "Sometimes I think that's the worst part. Knowing that you're responsible. That everything comes from some kind of ugly shit you had floating around inside, all along."
"Now you're the one telling me," I point out.
She doesn't bother to answer, which is probably the best answer when you think about it. We walk along. She's right, of course. My memory is shot to hell, but the thing I do know is that everything in the Program starts with your own wishes. Fulfilling wishes seems to be the thing it's designed for, the thing it's trying to do even when it does the opposite. I don't know. I have this big, vague memory that back in the beginning-a month ago? a year?-everything was a sweet dream, just going on and on. Maybe it was never supposed to go on so long, or maybe it was never supposed to stop. It could be there's a machine that's malfunctioning, or a demiurge that's gone wacko, or an evil fairy.
Personally I go with the machine theory, because there's a kind of memory there. A night out with a pretty little blonde-Sheila? Sherry?-food, drinks, jokes, more drinks, some grass.. All the little things you do to promise each other you're headed for the sack, but then maybe some kind of snag, she's reluctant or we fight or something. I end up in this sort of arcade place at four A.M. An ancient man with a grinning chimpanzee face taking my money, much too much money somehow, and then when I go in to play the machines there's none in there. What I see instead looks like an emergency hospital. A big room like a gym, beds in neat row after row, and on each one someone is sleeping, men and women in street clothes, with all sorts of tubes and wires poking into them. All dark and dim and quiet, apparently nothing at all going on. But after a second you see that actually there are some machines, one per customer, because a thing about the size and shape of an old two-drawer filing cabinet stands next to each bed. There are a couple of lights and dials on the front, and all the tubes and wires from each patient are plugged into it, but if there are flashing lights and crashing sounds and scoreboards and images and unfolding stories, it's all somewhere you can't see.
That's what I seem to remember, but I'll never really know. Because if that's where I am, amnesia is part of what I bought with my overpriced ticket. I've thought about this. Say you're a hotshot engineer, a genius, and you're going to build a perfect pleasure machine. Well, one of the first things you run up against is the problem of memory. Because once a person remembers something he can't enjoy it anymore, not really, not the same way. Over time you get bored, and the corollary is that you're not just a pleasure-seeker but, reluctantly, a pain-seeker. You quit choosing the shell with the pea under it, the path with the cheese at the end, and choose the other one, just for the hell of it. So memory is an obstacle you have to engineer around. And even when you can, pleasure keeps getting harder to find.
I tell Gail, "If I did want it, it's just normal. It's what anyone is going to want after a while, just being here."
She stops a minute to light a Marlboro. "Wow, what a gloomy perspective. And here I was having such a nice time." She exhales, looks away. "You've been thinking about it. I'm impressed. So what now? We go someplace fancy and you spend a lot of time staring into my eyes. You tell me about your theories, it turns out you have a plan, you're going to escape the whole nightmare. We book a room and have dynamite sex, in between discussing your plan."
"Not me," I tell her. "The only plan I've got is ducking and dodging." We get moving again. In fact her sarcasm, her whole superior attitude, is suddenly starting to annoy me. There's a limit to what I'll take from her, a Toy after all, not even all that attractive. She's got me thinking ahead, and all the possibilities look not only bad but boring.
At the next corner I take hold of her, spin her around, and slam her against the wall. Hard. "Okay, bitch. You want a plan? I'll give it to you. No dinner, no sweet talk, no long looks. Just a room, the first one we can find"-there's a TraveLodge just down the street, in fact, I see it as I speak-" and we play a few games. Rough games. We're going to work on that sarcastic attitude of yours."
She looks at me-really at me, for almost the first time-and says, "Let me go!" But her eyes are wide with surprise, and for an instant I see the little flicker there. I'm as startled as she is, I think. I'd been expecting her to feel lifeless, a big rubber doll. Instead she's shaking with fear, and it's so unexpected, so human, that I can't help it: I buy in. I'm turned on suddenly, trembling with it.
I take her by the collar, tearing her dress a little, and twist her arm up behind and start marching her along the street. Her purse flaps awkwardly against her leg, dangling from the arm I'm twisting.
"Frank," she says, pleading. "You're hurting me."
"Shut up," I say into her ear. "Let me tell you the premise for this episode, Gail. It's a killer, you'll love it. You see, we really are both real, but neither of us believes in the other. I mean, why not?"
"Please, Frank," Gail says meekly. "You're hurting me. Please let me go."
Pedestrians are giving us startled, alarmed looks. I push on past, warning them off with my scowl. "You don't want me to let you go," I tell her. "You want to hear the rest of my story. We're both wired into this same machine, see, and the machine broke maybe, or someone went off and left it running-who knows?-but anyway we're trapped. The dreams don't stop like they're supposed to, they just go on and on."
"Ow," Gail says. "Please."
"I'm just coming to the good part," I tell her. "One of the bad things about this place, the worst maybe, is it's so lonely. Because all the people you're meeting are really Toys, and after a while you know that. And sometimes we feel like we could take all the other shit-the amnesia, the weird twists, the cornball plots-if only there was somebody to share it with."
"That hurts like hell," says Gail, tight, focused on her arm.
"So then we meet, see? And it's wonderful, because each of us is just what the other has been wanting: a real person, a companion. Only we can't tell that the other is real, because it feels just like another fantasy, like meeting up with the very thing we've been wanting. Is this great, or what?"
"It's great," she tells me. "I really like it. But you're hurting my arm, please-"
"I know," I tell her, giving an extra twist. "Pain is a part of it. Pain is the key. What I'm doing to you now"-I twist, she yelps-"it's the one thing I wouldn't do if I was your own fantasy. It proves I'm real."
Which is bad logic, but good enough for the situation. People tend to accept your arguments when you're twisting their arms.
"You bastard," she says, rallying. "Let-me-go!"
We've reached the TraveLodge. I turn her loose, step back, grin. "Of course," I tell her. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to do."
"You bastard," she says. "You dirty bastard."
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