The Saturday Morning Post #42: The Rêves, Part 20

Race against time

Brenda had come back home from her conversation with Mom pissed as hell for a lot of reasons, so she did the two things she knew she could do to get absolute privacy. First, she asked the kids if they wanted to play board games with Esme, and none of them could be happier, so they all retreated to the living room.

Next, she ducked her head into Jonah’s office. “If you want to binge some Oprah episodes with me, come on into my office.”

He just grunted, but she knew that this was, to him, the best way to tell him, “Stay the fuck out of my office” without putting it in those words — reverse psychology at its finest.

She did go into her office to binge, but it wasn’t Oprah. Instead, it was CCTV footage from Metro Stations but, more specifically, since she had figured out Joshua and Simon’s working order and timing of things, she started with the first station they’d been spotted at, then worked her way backwards.

Her goal was to find some way to contact them, and she was hoping for some moment when one of them would expose something on cam, like a phone, that would give a full name, or number, or something. She also quickly figured out that their preferred nights to work were Tuesday or Wednesday for the most part, and they never came down over the weekend, probably because the stations were too crowded.

Their outfits also changed, and she watched a sort of backwards evolution as later accessories — hunting tools? — disappeared on the reverse path. Still, nothing that would give them away.

When she’d followed them farther up the A Line into Pasadena, she had a sudden moment of kicking herself, realizing she’d been watching the wrong thing.

They had to get into the stations, and they had to do it with their TAP Cards, so she went back and pulled the time stamps from each station at every moment they had used TAP to enter. Next, she pulled up the TAP usage database, used a query to create a spreadsheet, then used INDEX and MATCH in Excel to pull up matches to the info she’d compiled.

She was practically over the moon when it revealed that all of the check-ins had been done on the same two TAP cards, revealing their numbers and card nicknames: ECTO-J and ECTO-S.

“I’ve got you now, you motherfuckers!” she muttered as she copied the TAP card numbers, then pulled the specific information on to whom they were registered.

“Shit!” she replied at the results, because Joshua and Simon had managed to register the cards with completely fake information, and use anonymous, pre-paid debit cards to fund them. She could tell on sight, because nobody lived at “1234 Main Street, This Town, USA, 90000,” and certainly nobody had the email address goodfucking@luck.com.

And while they had used the first names Joshua and Simon, she really doubted that they both had the last names “McBiteme.”

“Fucking kids,” she muttered, not realizing that both of them were actually on the older end of being millennials, and pushing forty.

She went back to the videos from Pasadena, and then traced them to the Arcadia station where, on a whim, she followed them back out only to see that they had come there from Santa Anita Race Track, and it was one of the few times they’d come down on a Saturday and had arrived at the station so early.

She marked the date and time on a hunch, but then wondered — who did she know at Santa Anita who could give her the info? This would be a major way in for one big reason: While TAP cards weren’t really that regulated, race tracks and gambling were heavily regulated, and no way either of them could get away with fake names or pre-paid debit cards if they wanted to gamble and actually win.

She wondered who she knew who had a connection inside Santa Anita, but then the irony of the answer made her laugh.

Rita’s husband was head of security at the place. Brenda hit the intercom on her home office phone.

“Yeah?” Rita answered.

“Want me to find those boys and get them to call you?” Brenda asked.

“Which part of ‘I already asked you that’ did you all miss?” Rita replied.

“None,” Brenda said. “So, your hubby still works at Santa Anita?”

“Yes,” Rita said. “Why?”

“I’m going to email you some dates and times. I need all of the surveillance cam footage from inside for those, plus any kind of pay out info he can provide — Tax ID, winnings, whatever.”

“Are you fucking shitting me?” Rita asked.

“Nope,” Brenda replied.

“Okay. I can probably get him to give you the video footage,” she explained, “But tax records and IDs?” She let out a belly laugh. “No fucking way. You know that. He’d lose his job, and so would I.”

“Okay, okay, got it,” Brenda said. “But if I can maybe point you to two specific people at a specific time and place, and he can use that info to give us the names and phone numbers…?”

“Dubious,” Rita said, “But I’ll ask. How soon you need this shit?”

“How soon did you want them to call you, again?” Brenda replied

“On it,” Rita answered, then she hung up.

Brenda typed out her email with the info, and ten minutes later a response came back, which Rita had forwarded from her husband. It contained a link to the CCTV videos from Santa Anita for the day she had requested.

“Finally,” she said, poking around until she found the point when Joshua and Simon had left the park to walk to the station and backtracking from there.

She jumped through the footage, tracing backwards from end of race to post time, and at no point did either of them approach the cashier window in order to collect. She was beginning to think that they were bad at this whole thing until very early in the day, when she caught them celebrating at the end of a race.

That’s when she followed them forward via the cameras. Maybe she had just missed the one that showed them collecting. But then, after they’d come downstairs she saw them looking around and then approaching a young black woman who was just sitting in the corner with her son, looking distraught.

There was no audio on this footage, but Joshua and Simon engaged her in conversation until, finally, Simon held out a ticket and handed it to her. She looked at the ticket, then up at them in disbelief, covering her mouth and crying.

Joshua and Simon shrugged and smiled, and then the woman jumped up and hugged them both before heading toward the cashier. Joshua and Simon smiled at each other before heading off to video Brenda had already watched.

She hit pause angrily on her computer. “Oh you goddamn generous motherfucking privileged little white boys!” she grumbled. “Who the hell are you?”

She had almost despaired running back through all of the footage until she hit a point when the two had arrived. Joshua headed toward the restroom while Simon waited, but then Simon pulled out his phone and scrolled — and it was in that moment, one single frame, that Brenda found the holy grail.

It showed Joshua’s full name, as well as a phone number. She screen-capped it, wrote it down, and refrained from screaming in joy.

“Suck it, bitch,” she muttered to herself with Rita in mind as she picked up her own phone and dialed, but after about a ring and a half, it went right to voice mail.”

“Assholes,” she thought, but after the tone, she left a very long and detailed voice mail, hoping that they would actually listen and respond.

But, assuming they wouldn’t, she decided on Plan B: As soon as the streets were passable, she was going to pay them a visit, come hell or high water. Well, so to speak. Also, note to self: See who she knew who could link Joshua’s number back to the one that had texted it at that specific moment…

* * *

Image source: (CC) BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Saturday Morning Post #40: The Rêves, Part 18

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Southern California.

Plan B

From the very beginning, Joshua and Simon had taken their precautions regarding the job with Ausmann, especially because it seemed to have a government connection, and so had created their own insurance policy in case things should ever come to a weird junction like this.

While they had to leave their cellphones and any other technology in lockers on the surface whenever they descended, that only included things that looked like technology — but it was amazing what could be hidden inside of what appeared to be a regular number 2 pencil.

Simon had taken to wearing a pair of fake glasses whenever they went. He didn’t need them at all, but they were crammed with their own tech, which also served as an invisible to others heads-up display on what the other devices were collecting.

One of Joshua’s favorites for the sheer irony of it was a cross he’d wear on a chain around his neck whenever they went in. He wasn’t religious at all. In fact, he was a total atheist, but inside of the cross was more of the technology they used in order to harvest information that would be useful later. Like now. As they headed to JPL.

One of the things their devices had done was to remotely key-log everything Ausmann had typed while they were in or near his office, so they had managed to capture a few of his passwords as he entered them. They also had a remote man-in-the-middle device, and that took care of the transmission of encrypted information that had been auto-filled by the computer, where they couldn’t see it — user names, website URLs, and the like.

They were also able to log in remotely to Ausmann’s own computer, although not the network drive — but today they considered managing that part necessary.

They had come up with two plans for JPL. The first was ostensibly to check in with Ausmann, if he was there. If he wasn’t there, even better. They planned to go down to the lab alone and then… “borrow” every last bit of data they could get their hands on.

That would be a lot, too. They had managed to conceal a 5Tb thumb drive in what looked like an ordinary modern car key, but the USB connection could only be slid out after a series of very specific manipulations of the base of the key.

They had long since determined that the guards normally didn’t make people put keys in the safe except under a few conditions, all of which they had tested over time. If there were any kind of fancy keychains or extra fobs, like a rabbit’s foot or dice or even a small framed dog’s photo, it would be locked up.

But if it was just a few keys on a simple ring, they were good to go.

Of course, under normal circumstances, a regular USB drive would be pretty useless for dealing with terabytes of data. At maximum speed, it would take a USB 3.0 device about 56 hours to download just one terabyte, but Simon had estimated that they were looking at between three and four.

However, they had figured out that the computers in Ausmann’s lab transferred data much faster. An ordinary USB drive put it through at 5 megabytes per second. Ausmann’s did it at 5 gigabytes. This meant that four terabytes of data would take about fourteen minutes to copy.

Still a lot slower than in the movies, but quite doable provided they had the time — and they had already reverse-engineered the technology in order to match the throughput speed.

This time, Simon drove them to JPL as Joshua remotely logged into Ausmann’s computer one more time, to check the logs again. “Nope,” he confirmed. “He hasn’t logged on in person or remotely since the afternoon before the storm. Shit, I wish we could get to their network from here and look at the physical check-ins.”

“It looks like Plan B, then,” Simon said, and Joshua nodded.

“Plan B it is,” Joshua said, and then he started typing and tapping like a madman. Plan B was basically to forge their way in.

In Ausmann’s files, they had discovered an emergency protocol that would allow access by certain personnel in the event that Ausmann became incapacitated or otherwise compromised. Of course, the trick was that Ausmann had to trigger it remotely prior to that incapacitation.

“I don’t think he really thought that one all the way through,” Simon said when Joshua had explained it to him. “What? Dude drops dead, but triggers it first?”

“Good point,” Joshua replied.

But this was to their advantage, because it wasn’t until Ausmann triggered it that he also specified which personnel were to be admitted. Ergo, Joshua now gave access to himself and Simon under Ausmann’s emergency orders, tweaking timestamps so that it would have appeared to have been issued the evening of the storm, with the corresponding alert texts to Simon and Joshua being similarly backdated and showing at the appropriate place in their inboxes.

The extra security in that was that the messages seemed to come from “The Pasadena Social Club,” and the texts themselves read, “Bonus Birthday Brunch, just show this QR code.”

They both knew what that meant, though.

When they had first set up this plan long ago, Simon did think it through as he was wont to do, and one of the questions he asked was this: “What if we get there, think that Ausmann isn’t there, but it turns out he is?”

Joshua thought about it a bit, then had one of his brilliant flashes. “Of course,” he said. “If we got the emergency message, then we’d think that something is wrong, so we’d show up worried, asking, ‘Is Ausmann here?’ Only two answers for that, at least to us. Yes, or no.”

“Makes sense,” Simon said.

“So, if they say no, we go full on emergency protocol plan, we’re in, pan comido. But if they say yes, we turn on a dime, act all relieved, and report in as normal.”

“But with the emergency protocol stuff all hanging out there for Ausmann to see.”

“But that’s the point,” Joshua replied. “I think I can rig it so that once it’s sent, Ausmann is blocked from access to seeing any of the texts or documents or whatever. It only goes to the guards and us. That’s part one.”

“And part two?” Simon asked.

“Instant kill-switch,” Joshua replied. “I can also rig it so that if I text a certain code back, then everything gets erased instantly, like it never happened. So… kill-switch program on my screen as we arrive, you have the text on yours. If they say no, he’s not there, then I just pop up my message, too. If they say yes, I hit the button and we start acting.”

And so it was set, they received their codes, and pulled onto the grounds of JPL and headed to the entrance of Ausmann’s underground lair with no idea what was waiting in it for them.

As it turned out, he wasn’t there, and the boys made a big show of being concerned and upset as they flashed the QR codes for the guards to scan. They didn’t have any tech to turn in because they’d left it all in the car, but agreed to a pat-down search.

Of course, they kept the key, Simon’s glasses, and Joshua’s cross, then headed downstairs.

Joshua had pulled a few other tricks on their way over. For example, from about five minutes before they drove onto the grounds, all of the cameras in the complex stopped recording. They continued to display live shots with the timecode, but at the same time only sent a single frame from each camera while incrementing the timecode.

This meant that while the guards could see them, there would be no record for Ausmann to review later, except for the two cameras at the guard station, but they’d planned ahead for that one, as well.

The outside camera would see and record them, no problem, as would the inside camera, for about a minute. But Joshua had programmed the DVR to reboot when its facial recognition software spotted either of them.

This would put it out of commission for enough time for them to enter the complex, and then the camera would come back online and continue recording. Meanwhile, about two minutes into that reboot, the DVR connected to the outside camera would be fed a short bit of footage to override the actual recording — Joshua and Simon leaving the complex, with the “correct” timecode on it.

They had managed to capture the footage on a previous visit, and even dressed identically to it today so that they would match. But the end result would be that anyone reviewing the actual recorded footage would see them arrive, start to talk to the guards, and then leave shortly thereafter.

The electronic log of their check-in they could erase just as easily remotely. Meanwhile, as for the physical sign-in, which was done on paper, Simon had conjured up one of the oldest tricks in the book: disappearing ink.

In the post-plague days, no one batted an eye at someone insisting on using their own pen rather than a communal instrument, so Simon and Joshua both carefully signed and dated their check-in with the trick pen, knowing that all of the information would be gone in fifteen minutes.

They just had to take it on faith that no one else would be checking in before that, given the circumstances, so that there wouldn’t be two tell-tale blank lines where their names had been. Fortunately, none of the guards signed in on the public sheet, and Ausmann didn’t have to sign in at all.

Once they got downstairs, they went to work quickly and efficiently, knowing that the guards wouldn’t consider anything they did out of the ordinary. But just to be safe, they had hacked one of the exterior cameras that showed part of the parking lot to add a little something to it.

Not sure of the sexual leanings of the guards but wanting to be inclusive, it superimposed footage of a young and very attractive straight couple starting to get frisky inside of a Smart Car, and then next to it.

Although they couldn’t see the results, their gesture had the intended results. Within two minutes, one of the guards had spotted the couple — on the opposite bank from the one showing what was going on downstairs — and that screen became the center of their attention, especially when that couple started tearing each other’s clothes off.

It had the intended effect, though. Four bored and horny men, three in their 20s, one much older, two straight, one bi, and one gay, all focused intently on the screen and ignoring everything else.

The video distraction would run for thirty minutes. Joshua and Simon planned to be out in twenty.

Joshua logged onto the network via Ausmann’s computer, then popped in the USB drive and selected and copied everything that wasn’t part of the operating system. As the process began, the countdown timer indicated approximately fourteen minutes to go.

“God, I hope their IT motherfuckers defrag regularly,” Joshua muttered to himself.

Meanwhile, Simon was casually investigating the various physical binders in the bookcase behind Ausmann’s desk, checking them for any information on the particular Rêves they’d brought in. When he found applicable pages, all he had to do was turn them successively. His glasses did the rest of the job of imaging all of them.

They also kept the feed from the outside camera going to his left eye, in case there were any unexpected visitors.

After ten minutes, he’d made great progress, and worked his way back from Anabel almost all the way to their first catch. Meanwhile, the countdown timer was accurate for once, with just under four minutes left and “29% remaining.”

Right at the three minute mark, somebody came to the front entrance.

“Shit!” Simon snapped.

“What?” Jason asked.

“Visitor,” Simon said.

“Who?” Jason asked.

“Who?” Simon repeated, using a gesture of his eyes to activate facial recognition, then switch to the inside camera. The answer came back in a few seconds as text: “Schliemann, Ausmann Gustav.”

“Fuck!” Simon gasped. “It’s Ausmann. Doesn’t look like him, though.”

“But you’re sure?”

“The computer is. Dude is shaved bald and lost the beard,” Simon explained.

“Shit. Wish I could see that,” Joshua said.

“No you don’t,” Simon replied. “It’s not pretty. How long have we got?”

“Two minutes, forty-five,” Joshua replied. “Are they going to even recognize him?”

“They don’t need to,” Simon said. “Biometrics. Wait, hang on. They didn’t notice him come in because of the video.”

“Hallelujah, that ought to slow things down,” Joshua said.

“Shit, I don’t think so,” Simon replied.

“How do you mean?” Joshua asked.

“Ausmann just walked past where that couple is ostensibly fucking.”

“Oh. Shit!” Joshua exclaimed.

Simon watched as Ausmann stalked outside, the guards following. “Okay, they went outside,” Simon said.

“Good or bad?” Joshua asked.

“It is buying us time. Okay, you remember the emergency exit they showed us when we started here?”

“No.”

“Good, because I do,” Simon said. “Time?”

“Minute fifty.”

Ausamann and the guards stormed back in, Ausmann gesturing wildly, then stepping offscreen.

“He’s in the fucking elevator,” Simon said. “He’ll be here in a minute.”

“Almost done,” Joshua said.

“We’re going to have to rip and run,” Simon warned him.

“Can you slow him down?”

“I… I… oh. Wait…” Simon checked and quickly accessed the elevator controls, then stopped the car.”

“Whew. There,” he said. “Tiger in a box. Let me know when you’re ready.”

“Thirty seconds,” Joshua said.

“Great,” Simon replied.

After what seemed like half a minute, Joshua announced, “Twenty seconds. God, suspense like this just makes me horny as hell.”

“Everything makes you horny as hell,” Simon replied.

“Wrong,” Joshua shot back. “Anything with you involved makes me horny as hell.”

“Thank you and no, we are not doing it at work.”

“Fifteen seconds.”

“How can you even think of sex at a time like this?” Simon demanded

“How can you not? If Ausmann finds us here stealing his shit, we are fucked. And not in the good way.”

“Well then hurr — aw, fuck!”

“What?” Joshua asked.

“Guards turned the elevator back on.”

“Five, four, three, two, one…” Joshua counted, then hooted as he pulled out the drive and hit shutdown on the computer. “Let’s get the fuck out of here,” he said.

“Follow me!” Simon told him, and they headed out the door and around the corner, running flat out as they heard the elevator ding in the distance. They came to the door that led to the emergency exit, Simon slamming through it and Joshua right behind.

Right as that door started to close behind them, they heard the sirens blaring that indicated lockdown. If they hadn’t made it through there before that, they never would have. Fortunately, as Simon knew, nothing past that point was wired up to seal.

That door led to a long corridor that came out on a hillside some distance from the campus, next to a winding and little-traveled road.

“Now what?” Simon asked.

“Time to test that ‘Come get me’ feature our car dealer was so big on selling us, I suppose,” Joshua replied.”

“Oh, right,” Simon replied. Even though they didn’t have their phones, he could still access the app on his glasses, and in a couple of moments, ECTO-42 confirmed that it was on its way to pick them up.

That was a good thing all around. For one, neither of them were sure how far or which way the entrance to JPL was from here. For another, the last thing they would have wanted to do was show up in the parking lot to ask nicely, “Please, can we get our car.”

There was a reason that they’d left all of their actual tech in there in the first place, and that was the Plan C which was the escape route whether they used A or B, or what Simon called “Plan Crap!” As in what would they do if everything went to shit, like it just had.

Joshua drove them home in his usual maniacal way, but en route one question kept bugging him, and he finally asked Simon.

“So… you said that Ausmann had shaved his head and his beard?”

“Yeah. It was freaky, man.”

“Why do you think that was?” Joshua asked.

“I don’t know,” Simon mused. “He doesn’t seem like one to make fashion statements.”

“Or one to catch head lice,” Joshua replied. “Wait… what was the most distinctive thing about him?”

“Oh…” Simon gasped, giving Joshua a look of sudden realization.

“His hair and his beard,” they both said in unison.

“Jinx,” Simon said.

“He is fucking hiding from someone or something,” Joshua said. “But what?”

“Well, I think we’ve got about four terabytes of data that might answer that question,” Simon smiled.

“Oh yeah. Oh, shit. Does Ausmann know where we live?”

“Dude, he doesn’t even know our real names,” Simon assured him. “The employment docs we submitted to him were fake as hell, since the whole job offer wasn’t exactly legit on his part either.”

“Really?” Joshua said.

“Really,” Simon replied. “Our checks from them have never gone to us in the first place, not like we’d notice. If he looks closely, he’ll see that he actually hired a 501(c)(3) that supports Peruvian widows.”

Joshua laughed loudly. “You are a goddamn beautiful fucking genius, Simon.”

“Well, I don’t know about beautiful — ”

“Shut up and take the compliment,” Joshua insisted. “When we get home, let’s dig in this dirt and take this bastard down.”

“I love it when you talk dirt,” Simon said.

They’d made it most of the way home when a call came in on Simon’s phone and the display in the Tesla showed “MASON BRENDA” and a number.

“What does she want?” Simon wondered, but Joshua gestured to stop him from answering.

“More importantly,” Joshua said, “How did she get your number?”

They drove the rest of the way in silence with the unasked question hovering between them. If some county employee could get their number, then couldn’t Ausmann? And, by extension… their address?

“We really need to find out what he’s hiding,” Simon said as they pulled into the garage, and Joshua just nodded in agreement.

* * *

Image: Adam Foster, (CC) BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Neither Face nor Feelings

A while back, the website BigThink had an ultra-short science fiction story contest. This was my entry, which took first place — your Thursday night bonus.

No carnefab Manager liked hearing from an NFA Inspector, but especially not when the message said, “Fieldspec high neuro count. Site audit 213245-1330. Pres Req.” Paul Ingersoll read the message and checked the time. 213245-1312.

“Shit,” he muttered. He barely made it to the factory floor before the Inspector arrived and gave Paul the lot number from the batch in question.

“Restaurant stock, Mendocino,” he explained. “Chef reported a twitcher.”

Paul checked the number, heart sinking — one of their “perfect” batches with ideal genetics. Every vat in this factory was churning out a thousand kilo slab that had been born from those cells. Now the government said every batch from that lot might be useless. No. Not might. Was — if the Inspector’s results confirmed the chef’s report.

The Inspector was already at the nearest vat, a large, open-topped box full of pinkish liquid. Inside sat a rectangular red slab, riddled with veins and marbled with fat. This slab was only at five hundred kilos, so had a few weeks to go, and had never given any indication that it was anything but an entirely senseless block of artificially grown meat, built from cells that divided without consciousness. That was the point — to produce meat with neither face nor feelings. It had worked for nearly a century, except for the two times that it hadn’t, both long before Paul had been born.

The Inspector pulled out a wand and touched it to the slab. There was a blue flash and snap and the slab twitched along its entire length. “Okay,” Paul thought, “Not world end without genetics,” although he knew he was lying to himself.

The Inspector tapped his forearm repeatedly, sending notes to a government computer. Then, emotionless, he pulled out a biop kit, dipped a finger on each hand into a vial of blue goo that grew sterile gloves up to his wrists, sprayed anesthetic on the slab and proceeded to gingerly poke it with a rod that plucked out a small cylinder five millimeters wide and deep. He stuck the rod into a hole in the biop kit case, then sprayed the wound with healer. By the time he peeled off the gloves, the results came back, Paul feeling ill as he waited for the hammer to fall.

“Neuro count exceeds Fed Regs by one hundred sixty parts per million,” he finally said. “Recall ordered for every batch from this lot. You retire the rest. We confiscate the original germ lot. Sig off inspection and results, please.”

The Inspector held out a flat pad and Paul touched his palm to it. What else could he do? They had been producing bad meat and nobody noticed. It probably wasn’t in the original germ lot, but mutations were always possible, and so were deviations with stem cells that decided to grow into

something besides meat, fat, veins and red blood cells that were kept oxygenated by the vats. Still, stem cell deviations generally led to things like hair or teeth, sometimes a hoof. They rarely led to the development of brain cells — so rarely that this was only the third time it had happened, and Paul Ingersoll was the poor unlucky son of a bitch in charge of the factory where it happened. Had been in charge. All the recalled meat that wasn’t already dead would be euthanized. The meat in this factory would be retired, the employees held on retainer until a clean germ line was brought in. Paul, however, would be transferred. Not retired, and not laid off. He would carry the responsibility for this problem for the rest of his career, which was a long time, since he was only twenty-seven.

* * *

The warehouse known as “The Old Cows Home” covered thirty square kilometers in the California desert. Inside were endless rows of swimming pool-sized vats where retired meat went to live because nobody was sure whether it was aware or not and nobody wanted to take the chance that it was. Perhaps the bad meat that had already been sold was lucky. Even if it did develop consciousness, four minutes out of the vat without oxygen would have killed it or severely damaged any sort of brain, so it was easy to think of as dead, and no one would feel guilty if tasked to destroy it.

The retired meat was not so lucky, and neither were the people who had to deal with it. It had to be treated like a living thing, brought from the vats to the warehouse on life support, then re- installed in the larger vats, to be left for… nobody knew how long. The lots already here had arrived thirty-eight and sixty-two years previously, and were still going strong and growing. Each vat started with one slab, the size of an adult cow. The oldest slabs had filled half their 2,500 cubic meter vats, and it was time to worry about what to do when they started to outgrow those. Thanks to the Compassionate Food Act of 2034, amended 2070, killing the slabs would be murder; letting them die, negligent homicide. Paul’s job now was as one of the nurses to all this meat that would have been food had it not developed nerves and at least some rudimentary feelings. Maybe.

Everything was predicated on “Maybe.” Maybe this meat felt pain. Maybe not. No one knew because the world of 2132 was black and white, either/or, and the only way to answer the question was to commit a prohibited act. As long as there was any chance that these inanimate slabs of protein might experience an unpleasant sensation, the question was considered answered, and the answer was, “They are our responsibility for as long as they live.”

If they ever became sentient, and vengeful, Paul hoped that they would understand — they had been created out of the desire to feed the planet humanely.

* * *

You can read this story where it was originally published at BigThink.

Nerding out on Star Wars: Why The Rise of Skywalker worked for me

In which I unleash my inner Star Wars nerd. WARNING: Spoilers galore. If you haven’t seen The Rise of Skywalker yet, stop here, unless you want major plot points revealed. And, most importantly, remember that like all artistic criticism, this is just my personal opinion. Your mileage may vary, and you’re not wrong. I’m not wrong. All art is entirely subjective and personal to the observer. 

Okay. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been a major Star Wars fanboy since forever and why not? It was the major mythology of my childhood, and has carried on through three trilogies, two spin-off movies, and a couple of series.

I will admit to a few things, though. One is that I never really got into Clone Wars because the 3D animation style just didn’t mesh with the Star Wars universe I knew. Two is that while I’ve seen and enjoyed some of the Mandalorian (and Boba Fett was one of my favorite original trilogy characters) I don’t subscribe to Disney+, so rely on friends for viewings.

Three, finally, is that I never got into all of the extended universe stuff in terms of books, comics, etc., but, apparently, that’s all non-canon now, so I guess I won on that front.

All that said, my personal Star Wars film rankings are as follows…

  1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
  2. Episode IV: A New Hope
  3. Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
  4. Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
  5. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
  6. Episode VII: The Force Awakens
  7. Solo: A Star Wars Story
  8. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
  9. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
  10. Episode II: Attack of the Clones
  11. Episode I: The Phantom Menace

The Rise of Skywalker had big shoes to fill but, honestly, I think it filled them by paying off all of the promises made and, no, it did not erase anything set up in The Last Jedi, which did not erase anything set up in The Force Awakens. Remember: Characters lie, or see things from a “certain point of view.” That was established way back at the beginning in Episode IV.

To me, Episode IX played out in the inevitable way it had to. My only complaint about the saga is that a certain character who debuted in Episode VII and was set up to be the villain did not survive through IX, although they died nobly and redeemed. Still, I somehow knew from the first moment we met that character that they’d be doing the ol’ Anakin in reverse saga. And if that wasn’t and isn’t obvious to complainers, I don’t know what movie you watched. Also keep in mind that Luke saved his father from the dark side while Ben was saved from the dark side by his father, or at least what was most likely a force projection that took all of his mother’s energy to make happen, so that we also got a nice little symmetry with the Skywalker sibs, who both performed their last heroic act on a far-away planet in order to turn Kylo Ren back into Ben Solo, and wound up force-ghosting because of it.

And there’s your explanation for that last scene, by the way, you’re welcome.

Lucas is famous for saying that his films rhyme, and a triple trilogy is actually the ultimate act of Aristotelian drama. Ari is the one who created the three-act structure or beginning, middle, and end, even if he was doing it in five act plays. But if you want to take that to its logical extreme, each part of that also has its own beginning, middle, and end, as does each part within that.

Now, just taking the three trilogies and ignoring the extra films, what do we get? Nine three-act films. And it’s always the second act that gets messy (Episodes II, V, and VIII) and the third acts that sometimes wrap it up too quickly (Episodes III, VI, IX.) First acts have to deal with introducing the characters and themes sometimes successfully, sometimes not (Episodes I, IV, VII.)

End result? Three by three by three, which is three cubed, which is twenty-seven. If you’re writing any kind of three-act structure, that is your basic beat-sheet right there.

Thematic rhymes

First acts, Episodes I, IV, and VII (Phantom Menace, A New Hope, The Force Awakens): Intro the innocent: Anakin, Luke, Rey. Send them on a quest they didn’t ask for. Pop them out the other end as a hero.

Second acts, Episodes II, V, and VIII (Attack of the Clones, The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi): Show your heroes a taste of failure, put them at odds with their mentors, and let the villains seem to win in the end.

Third acts, Episodes III, VI, and IX (Revenge of the Sith, Return of the Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker): End your hero’s arc, although this one gets interestingly tricky, because it’s different for each trilogy. In the prequels, Anakin goes from innocent to Sith Lord Darth Vader. In the original trilogy, Luke goes from naïve farm boy to master Jedi, although it’s also the story of Darth Vader going from evil Sith Lord to destroyer of the Empire (although not really). In the sequel trilogy, we start with Rey, but it’s as much Kylo’s story, so while she goes from innocent scavenger to “Be All the Jedi!”, he goes from Big Bad to redeemed hero, perfectly echoing his grandfather Anakin’s storyline in the first six films.

Don’t forget the ultimate big bad, Palps himself. More than any other character, his arcs repeat in each of the three trilogies. In the original trilogy (IV-VI), he only appeared as an idea in the first, had a couple of brief cameos as a hologram in the second, and then came on full force in the third.

Likewise, in the prequel trilogy (I-III), Palpatine starts out as a dedicated servant to Queen Amidala, becomes Chancellor in the second film, and reveals his true self and takes over power in the third.

Finally, in the sequel trilogy (VII-IX), Palpatine is nowhere to be seen in the first episode, apparently not present in the second, although the third makes it clear that Snoke was really his Count Dooku so that he was there all along, and then in the third film he comes back full force and nastier than ever.

Anyway… I’m happy with how it turned out, and I’m not the type of fan who feels it necessary to flame creators who don’t get it “right.” Why? Because, ultimately, I’m not the one creating it, so I have no right to complain. And that’s probably the most important lesson. If it ain’t your franchise, try appreciating what the creators do with it instead of explaining why they screwed it up.

Sunday Nibble #34: Dune

As a kid, I read all of Frank Herbert’s Dune books but, caveat, only the ones he actually wrote, and not all of the add-on attempted canon that came later. I was also a huge, huge fan of the much reviled David Lynch film adaptation — his version, not the bastardized Alan Smithee cut — which is nowhere near as awful as a lot of idiots have made it out to be.

Although, looking at the trailer now, is just a reminder of how, well… cheesy a lot of movie-making and movie marketing was back at that time — not to mention how awful a lot of the special effects look now. But do you remember those days when trailers had narrators that had to explain absolutely everything? Pepperidge Farms remembers.

Still, I have to admit a major fondness for the Syfy Channel’s 2000 and 2003 adaptations of the first three books which, in a lot of ways, went way beyond the Lynch version in scope and depth, although at the same time went with a much more low-budget, mostly unknown cast — which gets really ironic in 2003’s Children of Dune, because this was pretty much America’s intro to James McAvoy who, well, needs no introduction.

And now, there’s a new film adaptation coming out, and it looks like maybe they’re doing it right by only biting off half of the first book now, the second to come later — and the casting is beyond amazing.

Bonus points to them for using a Pink Floyd song in this trailer, which is a huge nod to the aborted attempt to adapt the book way back in the late 60s by Alejandro Jodorowsky, with such mind-blowing ideas as the Emperor being played by Salvador Dali, and Feyd-Rautha portrayed by Mick Jagger, the director’s own son as Paul Atreides.

Soundtrack: Pink Floyd. It’s hard to imagine what would have come out of that collaboration, but it never happened.

As for the source material itself, a good friend of mine always describes Dune as “Lawrence of Arabia on Acid,” which seems pretty accurate to me. Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet this go-round) is the son and heir-apparent to a noble House that is given the task of subjugating the plane Arrakis, source of the spice melange. This substance has both religious and civilian purposes.

It allows Guild Navigators, star pilots mutated by OD-ing on spice, to actually see and plot routes between star systems and making the hyper-jumps entirely with their minds in a process described as “traveling without moving.”

This is what gives spice its true value, because it literally powers all space travel and commerce in the known universe. And it only comes from one planet. Arrakis.

Spice is sacred to both the natives of Arrakis and the religious order of Bene Gesserit, who have been mucking about behind the scenes trying to selectively breed the person who will become the Messiah to the people of Arrakis, thereby giving them indirect control of the planet and the spice.

The big bads of the original book are the House Harkonnen, sent to do the emperor’s dirty work, and House Corrino, to which belongs the Padishah Emperor himself, Shaddam IV.

And if all of this competing houses business absolutely reeks of Game of Thrones, just remember that Frank Herbert came up with his version sometime before 1965.

Interestingly enough, it looks like we don’t get to the Emperor in the first movie, which is probably a good thing.

My only disappointment with the impending project is that there really is enough Dune material to have done it as a very extended streaming series. On the other hand, it’s the kind of the thing that really needs the same kind of big screen that was necessary to tell the story of Lawrence of Arabia.

Of course, there’s always the ideal universe, where director Denis Villeneuve pulls this off and nails the sequel, and then the Dune saga becomes the next (and very grown-up) version of the Potterverse Franchise, which has pretty much lost all of its shine for me.

But there’s plenty of material. The original Dune series comprises six books, one short of Potter: Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse Dune. And god (emperor) knows, Herbert’s son went all Christopher Tolkien on his dad’s IP and spun it out into a ton of further books to rival the ridiculousness in scope of today’s Star Wars extended universe.

Perhaps I’m fanboying too much, but this trailer really does have my hopes up that there will be at least one bright spot coming at the end of 2020. I’m hoping for two, and anyone who’s been paying attention can probably guess what the other one is.

The Saturday Morning Post #28: The Rêves, Part 6

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

Falling short

Ausmann had made some progress with the samples he had managed to keep from escaping, although what Simon and Joshua’s had captured from Hollywood and Vine was disappointing.

The best Ausmann could figure, after he’d called in a colleague to translate, is that he was some young kid who had come with his family from Cuba, and he’d been run down by a drunk driver in Boyle Heights about ten years ago.  His name was Ramón.

He told Ausmann, mostly through the interpreter, that he had been a busboy at a restaurant, lived with his entire family in a two-bedroom apartment in the Heights, and that his mother and sisters still kept a memorial on the corner where he had died, regularly replacing the flowers and photos, and all of the neighbors helped maintain it, too.

He was nineteen when he was killed. The driver was never apprehended, but Ramón knew that his mother firmly believe that he never would be, because he was someone connected.

Ausmann found the information to be underwhelming. The story he’d heard was that these wandering spirits were echoes of the famous, kept alive precisely because of their fame. It made no sense that some glorified dishwasher who probably didn’t look before jaywalking would be among them.

The kid had tried to manifest in the larger containment several times, but mostly just looked like an inky shadow drifting around in a large, waterless aquarium.

“¿Y ahora puedo irme?” he asked. “No me gusta estar en una jaula de vidrio.”

“What is he muttering about?” Ausmann demanded.

“He wants to leave,” the interpreter said. “He doesn’t like being in a glass cage.”

“Tell him I don’t care what he likes,” Ausmann replied.

“Al jefe, no le importa lo que te gusta,” the interpreter explained. “Lo siento. Pero él es un gran pinche pendejo.”

“I do know a few words in Spanish, Victor,” Ausmann said, dryly. “Do watch it.”

“Let him go if you’re done with him,” Victor said.

“What makes you think I’m done with him?”

“He’s alone and he’s scared,” Victor countered.

“He’s dead,” Ausmann explained.

“But he’s still human.”

“Is he? I’m done interviewing him for now.”

He turned away from Victor and focused on his notes, which was Ausmann’s well-known way of telling people, “Please leave before I turn around and look at you.”

He was generally hated by his colleagues. As Victor’s lab partner, Estelle, a charming woman from Texas, put it, “Wouldn’t no one around here piss down his throat even if his guts was on fire.”

Once Victor had left, Ausmann put Ramón back in the small mirror trap and filed it, making the note, “Probably of no further use.”

Then he took out the trap from Hollywood and Highland, and hoped that this one would be more interesting. He released its contents into the larger holding trap and watched as the inky smoke drifted around.

“Hello,” he said. “Can you hear me?”

“Where am I?” the voice asked. Clearly female, American, and with a strong Boston accent.

“Who are you?” Ausmann asked.

“I’m not sure,” she replied. “I think I’m the… Black Dahlia?”

Well, this was intriguing, he thought, quickly tapping in a search. Some of the details fit. Elizabeth Short was from Boston, so the accent checked, although why she didn’t identify herself that way was a bit of a mystery.

“Do you remember your own name?” Ausmann asked her.

“Do you?” she asked. “Because it’s all kind of foggy.”

Indeed, he thought. And then he checked further details, only to see that she had been buried in Oakland, California, which was well over 300 miles away as the crow flew from Los Angeles. That didn’t match what little data they had compiled at all.

“Does the name Elizabeth Short mean anything to you?” Ausmann asked. The smoke in the box immediately seemed to gather into a corner as if shocked away from the other three sides, and then spun and solidified before it all landed with an audible thunk on the bottom, in the form of the top half of a young woman who had been bisected at the waist, and she wasn’t moving at all.

“Elizabeth? Can you hear me?” Ausmann asked. “Elizabeth? Miss Short…?”

Nothing.

Well, this shit was getting him nowhere. Plus the sight of half of a dead woman lying in the bottom of his holding tank was really disturbing, so he turned the valves to put her back in the original trap, but nothing happened.

“Fuck,” he muttered. He turned his attention to his internet searches for Elizabeth Short and the Black Dahlia, quickly realizing that while she seemed to be aware of her real identity, most of who she was in death had been defined under the nickname.

That gave him a bit of a Eureka moment. Of course. It all started to make sense now. Especially the biggest non-sequitur he’d come across so far with her. Normally, these creatures stayed local. Bury them, and they’d not go too far beyond a hundred kilometers in any direction.

The body of Elizabeth Short had been buried in Oakland, but the memory of the Black Dahlia had been interred in Los Angeles. He shut the valves and spoke into the microphone.

“I’m sorry,” Ausmann announced. “I was mistaken. You are the Black Dahlia, aren’t you?”

The figure of the half body suddenly burst into smoky mist again and drifted to the top of the tank, and then swirled around until it formed a jet-black dahlia, which looked like a bastard cross between a dandelion and a marigold.

“I think I get it now,” Ausmann muttered to himself, then he opened the valves again, and the image of the flower and all that was Elizabeth Short was sucked back into the original trap. He tried to ignore what sounded like screaming, then, as he’d done for Ramón, sealed it up and filed it.

His hunters had better bring him something really interesting next time around. Otherwise, he was seriously considering ending the contract. Possibly with extreme prejudice, as they used to say in old gangster films.

Or was that an old government expression? Who knew? Ausmann was too busy working on his own reality down here.

* * *

Morning after

Joshua and Simon had stumbled home just before five in the morning, put their latest catches in the vault, then dropped the blackout shades, stripped off, and fell asleep in each other’s arms in about five minutes.

When they woke up, they smiled at each other and snuggled, then grabbed their phones, both of them rather annoyed to see that it was only nine a.m. They both futzed around with email and social media for a bit, then cuddled and went back to sleep.

Both of them went through a bit of sleep, dream, wake, snuggle, repeat, until Simon finally announced, “Fuck. It’s two-thirty.”

“I know the second part was a statement of fact,” Joshua said, “But was the first part an interjection or a request?”

“You know that what they used to call ‘interjections?’” Simon asked, not waiting for an answer. “Ejaculations.”

“So it was a request?” Joshua smiled up at him.

“It’s still two-thirty,” Simon reminded him.

“And it’s the day after a catch, our traditional day off,” Joshua said, “So we don’t have to get up for anything. I mean, we could get up to one thing…”

“Was that a request?” Simon teased him.

“It’s two-thirty,” Joshua said. “Fuck?”

When it came to Joshua — especially when he turned on his ‘cute face’ — Simon had no resistance, so his interjection became Joshua’s request and, eventually, both of their ejaculations. It was about four in the afternoon when Simon finally said, “Okay, I think we have to get up for real now.”

“Shower, supper, and binge watch?” Joshua suggested.

“Right time for the first, too early for the second, and we have more important things than the third.”

“Yes, daddy,” Joshua muttered, faking resentment. “So what’s more important than stream — ”

“What we caught last night.”

“Oh,” Joshua realized. “Right. Well, one of them is interesting, anyway,” he said. “The other one scared the shit out of me.”

“Me, too,” Simon said. “I assume you’re interested in the shadow who seemed like he wanted to be caught, too.”

“Oh, hell yeah,” Joshua agreed. “I sure as hell don’t mean Scary Mary who went all Goth Chick once she got tazed.”

“Yeah, that was a first. But I have a weird feeling that it’s going to get Ausmann to up us a couple of pay grades.”

“Ooh. It makes me so horny when you talk money.”

“Honey, it makes you horny when I breathe. Admit it.”

“Okay. Guilty. What? You’re fucking sex on legs, shut up. What do you say, then? We get brave and let Smoky out of the bottle?”

“Yeah,” Simon said. “Why not? Although we should probably be presentable, right?”

They jumped out of bed, hit the shower, then made coffee, checked social media again, then retrieved the mirror trap from the vault and set it on the granite living room table, all windows now open to let in the sunny view over NoHo.

“So,” Simon said, “You know the general history. Pull the top off, and these… things run away.”

“Right,” Joshua replied, but remember what was different about this one?

“We got caught by Brenda mid-snatch?”

“Eew, don’t say ‘snatch,’ and no. This one wanted to be caught. I mean, wasn’t that obvious?”

“It did feel a bit different.”

“And then Goth Girl showed up, but she seemed more like, oh, I don’t know… an over-protective big sister or, more likely, a super Fag Hag.”

“So, what are you thinking?” Simon asked.

“I’m thinking that the one we’ve got in the vault right now — ”

“Nasty Morticia?” Simon said.

“Ooh, I like. Yeah, her. I think she’s a lot more valuable to Bossman than the one in the mirror.”

“Oh my god, dude. Bossman. That’s new. Did you just think of that?”

“Yeah, it just came to mind.”

“Love you.”

“Love you more, dork. So ready to unscrew?” Joshua picked up the trap and held it between both hands.

“I guess so,” Simon replied. “I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?”

“Our place winds up haunted and we could rent it out for a fucking fortune to one of those fake ghost-hunter shows? Maybe this spirit is union? I don’t know. Personally, the worst that could happen is that it flies out the window and goes back home.”

“Well, then,” Simon said, “Let’s unscrew him.”

“Phrasing,” Joshua muttered under his breath as he grabbed the top half of the trap and turned it counter-clockwise while holding the bottom steady. After three turns, the top came off, revealing the mirror, and nothing happened.

“Hm,” Simon said, then, “Shit.” The mirror remained dark as they both stared at it. “You think we killed it?” Simon finally asked.

“I don’t know,” Joshua replied, staring down into the silvered glass and seeing his own distorted face. “Hey, little dude. You okay down there? You want to come out and talk to us, it’s okay. Hell, if you want to come out, you’re free as you want to be.”

Nothing happened, so Joshua tapped the mirror. “Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey,” he called out, remembering something that his Aussie grandmother had used to wake him up with.

Suddenly, wisps of shadow, looking like black smoke, started to drift up from the mirror. They lazily gathered above the table, eventually drifting into a vaguely human form, although a not very tall one, like a silhouette painted in the air, with a clear head, arms, legs, and torso.

The arms reached out, one toward Joshua and one toward Simon. They looked at each other, not sure what to do.

“I… I don’t think he’s dangerous,” Simon finally said.

“Neither do I,” Joshua replied.

They gave each other the secret look they always did before agreeing to do something dangerous and stupid — silent eye contact, a half smile, and then a very subtle nod of the head that said “One, two, three,” and then each of them reached out and grabbed one of the inky-smoke hands reaching for them.

As soon as they did, they both felt a sharp but harmless static shock through their bodies, and then the vague and smoky form on the table resolved itself into a quite visible human being.

He’s not tall — maybe 5’7” — but he does have a wide, smiling face with a lupine nose, and eyes that are almond both in shape and color. His hair is a russet chestnut, a little shaggy without being long. He’s also completely nude, not that Simon or Joshua have any complaints, but it only takes one look at the ass and face before they look at each other and gasp.

“Preston LeCard?” they say in unison.

“What?” Preston replies.

Neither Simon nor Joshua knows what to say. They never expected to have trapped one of their favorite porn stars while hunting, and certainly not one who’d only been dead for a few years, and not for any of the usual porn star reasons.

“So… what brings you here?” Simon finally asks.

“I’d like to lie and say two hot nerd daddies like you,” Preston tells them, “But, sadly, no. Honestly, it was my control freak mother.”

“Do we know her?” Joshua wondered.

“Know her?” Preston laughed. “You met her last night.”

“Are you sure?” Simon asked.

“Anabel Chanler LeCard. Does that ring any bells.”

“No,” Simon said. “But do you want us to let her go?”

“You caught her, too?”

“Right after you surrendered to us,” Joshua explained. “But if you think we’re letting her go — ”

“Oh, hell no,” Preston said. “You can keep her for now.”

“So what do you want, really?” Simon asked.

“I have no fucking idea,” Preston replied, “Except that I seem to be the prisoner of two hot daddies, and whatever you want to do, just go on and fucking do — ”

Before he could finish that sentence, Joshua slammed the lid on the trap. It was a crapshoot, but it managed to suck everything back in and shut up Preston. Joshua casually walked into the bedroom, dropped the trap into the vault, and came back out to the living room.

“What the actual fuck?” Simon muttered.

“Never mind,” Joshua replied. “Maybe we toss both their asses to Ausmann next Tuesday. Meanwhile… supper-time. What do you want to eat? And shut up, I’m not on the menu until dessert.”

“Oh, you cock-teasing asshole,” Simon replied, smiling. “Then how about… Victory?”

“Pussy!” Joshua smiled and walked away.

“Never!” Simon called after him, but he could only smile in admiration before trembling in fear. What if they hadn’t defeated that Preston thing? And then he had another awful thought as he headed after Joshua.

“Shit, Joshie. Do you think that Preston wanted us to… fuck him?”

“Seemed like it,” Joshua replied.

“Wouldn’t that be… necrophilia?”

“Hm,” Joshua mused. “No… necrophilia is when a living person wants to fuck a dead body. So when a dead person wants to fuck someone alive…? Hm. I wonder what that would be.”

“Vivephilia?” Simon offered.

“That’s a new one,” Joshua said. “I wonder if it’s just as icky to most of them as other way around is to most of us.”

“One could hope,” Simon replied. “Wait… what did he say Anabel’s full name was?”

“Anabel Chanler LeCard,” Joshua replied.

“So they’re related?” Simon wondered.

“The name sounds really familiar,” Joshua said, tapping on his phone. “Ah. Apparently, her family was quite the thing around here early last century… oh. Check this out. She died in childbirth but her son survived. Her son Preston.”

“So he is her son?” Simon said.

“Now I remember why the name sounded familiar,” Joshua said, scrolling. “We had a gig at her family tomb last year, didn’t pan out but… sure. Here it is… holy shit. Well, that can’t be right?”

“What?” Simon asked as Joshua showed him the screen. It was a photo of the rosette in the center of the family mausoleum. “So?” he asked.

“Died 1926,” Joshua explained.

“Right. And?”

“You do know that your difficulty with math is one of those traits I find really endearing, right?”

“Fuck you, silly. What?”

“Okay. How old is… was Preston LeCard when he died?”

“Um… twenty-something-ish?”

“Twenty-three,” Joshua reminded him. “So he was born in… 1997.”

“Right.”

“And Anabel is his mother?”

“That’s what he…” Simon stopped mid-sentence and started at the photo. “Aw, fuck.”

“Exactly,” Joshua continued. “Unless that was the longest labor ever, or he was born way, way post mortem — ”

“His ’mom’ died more than sixty years before he was born.”

“Bingo! So, Simon, what does this tell us?”

“Preston LeCard is not who he says he is?”

“No,” Joshua replied. “He’s not who he thinks he is. He’s who we think he is. Oh, of course! Oh my god. This could change everything.”

“Really?” Simon asked.

“Really,” Joshua replied before doubling over in laughter.

“What?”

“Okay, this is evil, but hear me out. We keep Preston on ice, as it were, until we can figure out who he really is, but we toss Anabel to Ausmann.”

“And why do that to her?” Simon asked.

“Because she does know who she is, and I have a feeling that she’s the first of their kind we’re going to toss down his rabbit hole who does.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because… she was never a celebrity to anyone,” Joshua explained.

“Shit,” Simon replied, getting it. “So there really is more than one type of these things running around?”

“Oh yeah,” Joshua answered. “I’d bet my left nut on it.”

“Please don’t,” Simon said. “That’s my favorite one.”

“Hyperbolic metaphor, honey,” Joshua replied. “Anyway, we need to figure out who Preston really was, and maybe get some dirt on Anabel, so grab your sunscreen, because we’re going to have to drop in on my uncle Brent and his husband Drew.”

“Do we have to?” Simon asked.

“Yes,” Joshua insisted. “What? Drew’s only ever grabbed your dick once.”

“Yeah, but he’s 97,” Simon replied.

“So… who better to ask about ancient shit like this?”

Simon wanted to resist, but the look Joshua gave him made him relent. They’d stumbled on the biggest mystery of their careers, after all, one that might even be bigger than anything Ausmann could handle and, as they would have said in character as their steampunk ghost-hunters, “In for a penny-farthing, in for a pound sterling.”

Or… whatever. Josh was the one with actual Brits in his background. Simon was stuck with Portuguese and Danes.

* * *

 

The Saturday Morning Post #23: The Rêves, Part 1

The following is an assembly of separate sketches I started working on about three years ago, inspired by my love for the L.A. Metro System, as well as the various lesser-visited places and monuments in town. My intent was to weave them into one cohesive story, but this is the first time that I’ve put the three original sketches together and then started to expand on the idea.

Little did I know that it would eventually become a complete novel, with the first draft done two days before Halloween, 2020. It turned into what I now describe as, “Magical realism meets hard SciFi with a goth/romantic lit injection.” Enjoy and comment!

* * *

Joshua and Simon

You could be forgiven for thinking that two Edwardian gentlemen from somewhere in Europe had suddenly teleported into the Hollywood and Highland Metro Station. You could even (and more probably) be forgiven for thinking that they were cosplayers going to a convention or costumed characters from some movie you’re too old to care about ready to skim the tourist waves for some sweet money.

To be honest, Joshua and Simon would prefer that this is what everyone assumes. It makes their job a lot easier. You’re not wrong in thinking that the costumes are part of the job, but not in any way that you’d think.

They’ve tailored themselves to be midway between Steampunk and Dandy, with Simon leaning toward more of the former and Joshua the latter. Simon’s the one wearing the greenglass goggles and long brown duster, with the strange sort of brass gauntlet on his left hand, cellphone strapped to his right in a case that looks like leather and steel but which is actually ballistic nylon and aluminum. His shirt is a black silk so dark that it’s almost impossible to focus on, ruffled in front but, again, hard to see unless you’re right in front of him.

Various small and arcane looking instruments in wood, brass, and glass dangle from various places on his belt. He wears tan suede trousers and oxblood boots engraved in elaborate paisley with contrasting tan coloring in select areas.

Joshua, meanwhile, is wearing a long black and dark green velvet brocade coat over an orange flocked paisley vest with matching tie and handkerchief, crisp white shirt with cellulose Pembrook collar — the actual kind that detaches, none of this modern fakery — dark black pants with very crisp seams and wing tips in shiny black and dark, emerald green. The phone in his pocket was connected wirelessly to the shiny glass watch on his left wrist. In his right hand he holds a walking stick of dark ebony wood, topped with a glass sphere that reflects a brilliant green from some angles, fading through the rainbow from others.

He did not have the cane due to any specific physical need for it. He, like Simon, was simply armed for whatever occasion they might run into.

Joshua and Simon can’t remember exactly how long they’ve known each other anymore, but it’s one of those friendships that began with a conversation that left both of them feeling like they’d known the other one for years. Now whether it’s that friendship or just the way things are, they resemble each other physically in so many ways that, were their faces not so different, they would be mistaken for brothers.

Both of them are tall and thin, Simon just a bit taller than Joshua’s 6’2” — maybe; it’s a point they constantly argue between themselves, although usually jokingly. Somehow, though, Simon always gives the impression of being skinnier than Joshua even though they can and do wear each other’s clothes all the time. That’s probably because Simon’s shoulders are broader while Joshua’s legs are much more muscular. The effect is that Simon looks leggier and Joshua looks squatter, but that effect, like their costumes, is entirely an illusion.

Joshua’s hair is as ginger as Simon’s is jet. Joshua’s eyes are deep blue except at those times they appear gray, while Simon’s are a very dark jade green. Joshua is pale although sometimes mildly tan. Simon has a much more golden complexion that betrays his Northern Italian ancestors on his mother’s side.

Other than the color, their hair is pretty much identical — thick, wavy masses that dance across their foreheads, and intentionally grown out to abet the costumes. Joshua generally has a beard but one that’s always only just under half way between nothing and full, at about two-thirds full scruff, while Simon sometimes has a goatee, but only that part and no moustache.

Joshua is the older one, but only by a year or so. Neither one of them really ever thinks of age, anyway.

For a long time, their friends have been playing the “Are They or Aren’t They?” game, trying to figure out whether the two were more than just roommates. In fact, they were — but both had been too busy with their current project to arrange the time to gather their nearest and dearest and make the announcement. They had contemplated doing it by Facebook, but then decided that it would just be too impersonal. It wasn’t just going to be a “Hey, we’re a couple now” announcement. It was going to be an engagement party.

Oh, a couple of their very closest friends know already and are very happy for them — although the wedding date still isn’t set.

At home, Simon had framed and hung this quote from Plato over their bed: “Who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?” It was a reference, probably, to the Sacred Band of Thebes, the army of lovers that could not be defeated. He and Joshua thought of themselves now as an army of lovers, and they had descended into the Hollywood and Highland Metro Station ready to do battle.

They had reached the platform at two minutes after one in the morning on a late Tuesday night — which was technically no longer Tuesday. The last train going toward North Hollywood had passed through exactly twenty minutes earlier. They would wait, until the last train to Union Station came through eight minutes from now. After that, it would be three hours and twenty one minutes until the morning train, again headed to North Hollywood, would hit the station, at 4:31 in the morning. The southbound train would come through nine minutes after that.

As they both know from experience, it wouldn’t be until about half an hour after the last train leaves that things on the platforms would start to get… well, Joshua likes to think of it as “lively,” and he’d be the first to tell you that he was being completely ironic with the choice. Simon would describe it as “creepy weird,” with an accent that had started in that part of the Atlantic coast trapped right between north and south but which had been altered by more than thirty years in LaLa Land — especially under the influence of Joshua’s strong Southern California drawl, which used to be a lot more obvious to Simon, who couldn’t even really hear it anymore.

It’s a completely different drawl than the southern kind, anyway.

As the station clears out, they find a bench at the center, which is farthest from the engineers’ layover booths at either end of the platform. This will minimize the chances of them being seen and, as they also know from experience, the various Metro workers seem to have been instructed to leave them alone if they seem homeless.

The bench was long enough that if they laid on their sides facing away from each other and bent their knees up, they could both fit comfortably, with the backs of their heads touching. This gave them maximum visibility. Joshua was facing one side of the platform with an easy glance toward his feet to see the outbound end of the tunnel. Simon was facing the other side with an easy view of the inbound tunnel.

Before they lie on the bench, they take off and reverse their coats. Worn the other way around, they look like they are old, filthy, and badly battered. Simon also stows his goggles and they both put knit hats on their heads. They lie down and curl into position, pretending to go to sleep. But they keep watch, waiting for the next thirty minutes, after which they will start to show up.

* * *

Ausmann

People just called him Ausmann, and nobody knew for sure whether that was his first or last name, or even if it was a real name. He refused any titles as well, so he could have been just a mister, or a doctor, or a father. The one title he did have was the one that always appeared under his name on any company literature or presentations, or when he did his rare media appearance: “Quantum Ethics Consultant.”

But that was just the term they used so that the scientifically illiterate would get some idea, and Ausmann hated it with a passion. But he hated any abuse of the word “quantum,” especially when it was randomly slapped together with any word from the soft sciences, like sociology, or the non-sciences, like philosophy.

Yes, he would insist that philosophy is not a science, and this would lead to many arguments with staff from the philosophy department. They would remind him that his own discipline, ethics, was part of philosophy.

“And I’m no scientist,” he would reply, “So you prove my point.” Of course, he was, in fact, a scientist. His other PhD was in quantum chromodynamics, or QCD, and he was an accomplished theoretical physicist.

“So you’re a philosopher,” his scoffing colleagues would remind him, “”Since all you do is think about what’s going on at the tiniest levels.”

“What I do is play with the math that describes those levels,” he would reply, “And mathematics is the queen of all science.”

That was usually when he would tilt his head back, sniff disdainfully, and walk away. Ausmann was very imposing whichever direction he was walking. He was tall, pushing 6’5”, and thin to an almost ethereal extent. His face was oval and his dark eyes somewhat hollow, and he always seemed to have the beginning of an enigmatic smile teasing his lips. He grew an exceedingly long  goatee from his chin down to his chest under a bushy moustache, and had long black hair with a single white stripe that swept away above his right eye.

The visual impression was somewhere between a wizard and the demigod Pan, although he dressed in emulation of a character most often known as Jerry Cornelius, who resided in a neighborhood of many books and stories that had become their own legend. The uninitiated would probably look at him and assume it was steampunk, but it wasn’t.

The original Cornelius fashion ethos was pure Edwardian fop as interpreted by 1970s tastes, meaning ridiculously bright and clashing colors. Ausmann kept the Edwardian and the fop, but updated everything else to modern sensibilities, so the color scheme was a muted burnt orange velvet long coat over a dark brown suit. He wore a cellulose Westminster collar and a tie that looked like it was made of faded parchment, but it actually held, in 2-point type, the text of the first chapter of Finnegan’s Wake in a typeface that mimicked Joyce’s handwriting — his early writing, from pornographic letters to Nora Barnacle, not (ironically) his later writing, in which he composed this very book using crayons to scrawl large on butcher paper because his eyes had gone so bad.

Joyce would never have been able to read that tie.

Ausmann wore two-tone wingtips in burnt orange and brown and a top hat in the same shade as his suit. He wouldn’t have looked out of place in London in 1905 — but since he was a consultant working at JPL in Pasadena, he was even less out of place on campus.

He wasn’t actually working for JPL, just at a facility buried in a building under a building deep on campus, through two security checkpoints with three different biometric checks. Whoever he was working with he didn’t know, as they liked to keep things very compartmentalized. Ausmann thought that this was just bad science because the free exchange of ideas would lead to breakthroughs — it always did. But it was because of this separation of specialists that he always just knew the whole thing was a government project.

Hell, just from knowing what the actual machine did, he could tell that no private person or corporation had funded it. There was some major black ops taxpayer money being expended sixteen stories beneath Pasadena. There were even rumors that this was the entire reason that the Metro A Line which ran through the city had been built as an at-grade and elevated train instead of as a subway, even though the latter option is what the mayors of all the cities and the County Board of Supervisors involved all wanted.

Ausmann was undecided, thinking it might be the equivalent of the old “the auto industry killed LA’s mass transit in the 1950s” stories; something that everybody believed because it’s what they were taught growing up, but which was 100% false. The joke was that the mass transit system wasn’t killed by the auto industry. It was killed by people deciding to buy cars and stop riding the streetcars and trolleys. The real purpose of the legend wasn’t to spread the word about Giant Evil CorporationTM. It was so the people could absolve themselves of the guilt of having destroyed the whole thing in the first place.

People did a lot of that. Ausmann knew this. He ran into it constantly as an ethicist — people trying to absolve themselves of guilt or responsibility for unpleasant things.

And now whoever was running this project had brought Ausmann on to try to deal with exactly that: abolishing the guilt and responsibility for the unpleasant thing that happened.

Ausmann also knew for certain that there was another team working on the so-far unsuccessful effort to actually turn off the machine they had started, but what he did not know was why they couldn’t or the actual effect it was having. Meanwhile, it was the guilt over and responsibility for that effect that he was apparently here to get rid of.

In layman’s terms, his call to action had been, “Help us cover our asses whether or not we get this thing shut down, and figure out how we can spin it so that it is not your country’s fault.”

The last part had never been stated, only implied, but Ausmann was a very intelligent man. He was also endlessly curious and energetic, so he had found Simon and Joshua and assigned them to their task. They had gotten results very quickly, although Ausmann had botched the first three because he hadn’t yet figured out how to contain them while studying them, and they had a bad habit of running away at the first opportunity. Like humans, they didn’t like being detained.

They’d exhausted all of the stations coming southbound to downtown on the A Line and then made it as far as north as Wilshire and Vermont on the B Line before Ausmann had solved the escape problem. From there, they had eight more stations to hunt in. They hadn’t even tried at Union Station — that place was too busy no matter what time it was.

Ausmann also had Joshua and Simon start collecting data, observing their guests, and classifying all their various traits. They were proceeding toward North Hollywood, progressing to one new station per week night. Well, actually, from Sunday through Thursday nights, but these would have been Monday through Friday morning, technically, by the time Ausmann’s two steampunk hunters had hit the platforms.

He had been pleasantly surprised when the two of them had both come up with the idea of emulating his fashion sense in order to do their job. “After all,” Simon explained, “The best way to not stand out in L.A. is to look like you’re trying to.”

“Only tourists will stare at you,” Joshua added, “But they don’t count, because they just assume everyone is weird.”

“Besides,” Simon said, “Tourism is still down since the plague tapered off.”

“Plague,” Ausmann snorted. What he didn’t say out loud because he couldn’t was, “If only people knew.”

But… the boys had been doing their job, getting more successful as they rode the line, and there were only three stops left on the B Line before they hit its northern terminus and would then double back to follow the E Line.

After Ausmann had successfully contained and kept their results from Hollywood and Western, there was only the existing sample from Hollywood and Vermont, and the ones to be caught at Hollywood and Highland, Universal City, and NoHo stations left to go.

That would give him five strong samples, he hoped, and then the real investigations could begin. And, maybe, the stupid mistake they’d made down here could finally end.

* * *

Underground

They come down into the subway stations because it’s always warm and safe, and because most people who pass through are in a hurry from one place to another, so they won’t take the time to notice. As for the employees who are there all the time — they know of the existence of these regular visitors and also know to leave them alone and let them do what they want to. In exchange for that, the Metro workers are protected.

It’s a peace that had finally been negotiated back in 1993, after what was originally the Blue Line (now the southern part of the A Line) was finished and as the Red Line (now B Line) was just beginning. It was one of Mayor Riordan’s proudest moments, although one that he could never reveal to the public. Unfortunately, the public face of his secret endeavor manifested itself in cost overruns that plagued his entire administration — but there was no way that he could ever defend them without revealing the truth.

In exchange for being mostly left alone, they have looked after the trains and tunnels and observed the passengers ever since. They refer to themselves as the Rêves, but no one knows whether that’s a description of what they are or a common surname. The workers who’ve seen them have said that many of them look alike, but they can never remember details of the faces they’ve seen. Oddly, some of them don’t remember even seeing a Rêve when coworkers right next to them have.

I have a hypothesis on the source of the name. I think it might be short for “reveler,” and they’re a bunch of drunken party guests who got lost in the system one day but who have been allowed to stay. Of course, I only share this idea with people who come poking around about their identity at which point I refer to it as my theory because these idiots wouldn’t know the difference between that and a hypothesis if it bit them in their asses.

What the people who know about them don’t generally realize is that the Rêve bunch isn’t limited to staying in the subway tunnels no matter what time of day it is. They’re free to wander around the city and stay where and when they will. If you know L.A., you can find a lot of old, familiar places they’ve found to hang around in — and they’re far less confrontational outside of their territorial “dens” underground. They’re big with cemeteries, for example, although only certain ones, particularly one of the Forest Lawns, another that’s right next to a studio, and the other improbably at the edge of an airport.

A surprising number of them would hang out in Hollywood, just watching the tourists, sometimes intently so, and another large contingent would loll around the beach, especially around sunset and sunrise. This last group had been overjoyed when the Expo (later E) Line finally opened its last stop in downtown Santa Monica, blocks from the ocean, so that they no longer had to wander so far afield in ways to keep themselves inconspicuous because their general modes of aboveground transportation were rather… unconventional.

When they traveled this way, they preferred to stick to shadows, darkness, and alleys. They would also often use suburban streets and skip through the front-to-back-to-back-to-front yards of the homes, using their skills to give the impression of being a particular bit of wildlife most likely to discourage further investigation.

Tricking people into thinking they’d seen a rabid raccoon or a large skunk was their specialty, although the occasional coyote guise came in handy.

If they absolutely had to, they would take public transportation, but only if they got caught having to cover a long distance by daylight. Since they were willing to wait sunset out most of the time, it would take something extraordinary to force one of them to get on a bus. A Rêve could cover the distance that a forty-five-minute bus ride would take in two thirds of that time under their own power.

But that all became moot when the Santa Monica station opened and the entire E Line tunnel system became just another part of the great underground kingdom of the family Rêve.

Whatever the hell that name means.

* * *

Image: © 2017, Jon Bastian. Content, © 2017, 2020, Jon Bastian. All rights reserved. This content cannot be copied in any form or format without express written permission of the copyright holder.

Momentous Monday: Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch director relocated to America in the 80s and who himself turns 82 in just under two weeks, is actually one of the most amazing and underrated directors of all time. The main reason for this is that once he came to America, he never abandoned his European sensibility, so while it looked like he was making genre movies, he was constantly perverting the genres.

Audiences just didn’t get it.

Then again, I think he’d been like that from the beginning. I have to say “I think,” because I didn’t hear of him until his 1980 film Spetters, and only after it finally made its way to America via the arthouse circuit. Even then, the only reason I deiced to see it was that it had sort of gay themes, three cute male leads and one hot female, and equal opportunity nudity.

I next ran across his amazing The Fourth Man, sort of a twisted next-generation Hitchcock thriller that did not disappoint and, again, involved a flawed and yet gay protagonist — keeping in mind that this was a straight director working in the 80s, and, again, while his gay male character flawed, so were his straight ones — and he was never not sympathetic to any of them.

I didn’t see his true brilliance until I saw Soldier of Orange, probably his most personal film because it dealt with the Dutch Resistance as the Nazis invaded — something Verhoeven experienced and survived as a child. This, along with his earlier films, are probably what helped make Rutger Hauer an international star, by the way, although he got noticed long before Verhoeven finally came to America and worked with him there.

That would be 1985’s Flesh + Blood, a medieval drama and not one of Verhoeven’s most memorably, not to mention that it feels a lot like Hauer’s very recent turn in Ladyhawke, with Matthew Broderick and Michelle Pfeiffer.

But then Verhoeven got a whole lot better. Or, in other words, he dropped his Dutch sensibility on the series of big budget Hollywood films he proceeded to direct for the next fifteen years, lampooned the hell out of his adopted country, and subverted the hell out of genres.

So… here are six American Films by Verhoeven, some beloved by critics and some blasted, but all of them masterpieces in their own right.

Hint: There’s a common theme in all of them and… surprise… it’s been there all along in his other works. I’ll just start with his big American Blockbusters.

RoboCop (1987)

Verhoeven burst onto the scene big time with the way-over-the-top violence of this one, starting with officer Murphy having just about every bit of his body blown off graphically, and then including such best hits as Jose Ferrer’s character knee-capped before being blown up, a guy being shot in the nuts through a woman’s skirt, Eric Forman’s dad being stabbed in the neck, unfortunate ginger being toxic-wasted into a red stain on a speeding car and, finally, the big bad being fired, shot, and dumped out a window in, admittedly, one of the worst-animated doll-arm death-falls in all of cinema.

On the other hand… what Verhoeven meant and only a few people got was that this film was absolutely meant to be an over-the-top satire of American culture of the time. And it was all right there — this was the dawn of the Reagan Era, when public prisons were being privatized, police forces were being militarized, and loyalty to company meant everything. Ironic, then, that Verhoeven made his hero a man turned robot, since this was also during the rise of home computers. His hunch was that pure technology would defeat human evil, and he might have been right.

Total Recall (1990)

Forget the abysmal remake of this film. The original is pure gold, because it pretends to be a Schwarzenegger action flick — but it’s not. Sure, he’s the hero, but the brilliant thing about this film, and where it actually pays attention to its source in the works of Philip K. Dick is this: The entire “vacation” that Schwarzenegger’s character buys is, in fact… entirely fictional.

He gets what he pays for: “Blue Skies on Mars.” He is exactly who we see that he is at the beginning, he hasn’t changed at the end, and it has all been a fantasy vacation. Notable, he didn’t bring his wife along. In fact, in the dream, his wife is the villain’s consort, so make of that what you will. This flick is just another brick in the wall of what Verhoeven is getting at. And, then…

Basic Instinct (1992)

This film got a lot of flak at the time for making the villain a lesbian, or at least a bisexual woman, but that was also missing the point. Why was this character not actually the villain but, rather, the heroine? Flashforward…

Showgirls (1995)

And, once again, Verhoeven satirizes America so hard that no one gets it. In a lot of ways, Showgirls is the flipside to Basic Instinct, but look back. That’s his thing. He works in pairs. And this was the hardest he’d satirized anything until his next film… While, on the surface, the film seems to be all about the tits, in the end, it’s really about the power of women. After all, who makes it out alive finally?

Starship Troopers (1997)

If you take this film on face value, you’re not going to get it. But, really, it’s the logical extension of Verhoeven’s RoboCop world. You’re especially not going to get it if you’re a fan of the Heinlein works it’s based on, mostly because Heinlein was kind of a Libertarian douche, by which I mean “selfish child who thought he was better than everyone else,” q.v. Ayn Rand.

But, in American terms, Verhoeven was always an outsider, and this is one where he went for it. While pretending to go all-in for American jingoism and bullshit, he actually made an incredibly anti-war movie, and made it funny and biting satire at the same time.

Hollow Man (2000)

Forget the recent Invisible Man, a shallow attempt by Universal to become Disney. This film, twenty years ago, is the real deal. It basically is The Invisible Man, under a different title, casts a Hollywood heartthrob, and then Verhoeven lets him do everything that any toxic male asshole would do, given the power to be invisible. And naked. And both at the same time.

And this film happens to be the key to all of the others, because the thing that Verhoeven has been toying with and exposing all along, even back to his Dutch films, has been this: Toxic Masculinity. And there’s not even a question about that. Now, I haven’t seen any of his films post 2000 — Black Book, Tricked, Elle, and Benedetta — but I have seen enough of his works to think that it’s the whole toxic male thing he’s been railing against since the very beginning of his career.

And why shouldn’t he? After all, it’s what the Nazis used to ruin his childhood and his country, right?