_ #35 (2018/04/24)

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#35

by stanley lieber

The boy on the skateboard had attracted attention not because skateboarding was inherently interesting, but because he had wandered into a restricted area. The operator decreed that his progress should be monitored indefinitely, even after he left the restricted area. Daisuke worked out the details and the surveillance was commenced.

This kind of thing was becoming more common. The operator would fixate on some random civilian whose activities obviously contained no intelligence value. But the record would be created. After all, orders were orders. From time to time Daisuke would catch a glimpse of the bigger picture, and, wouldn’t you know it, it was all there. He guessed that the operator really did know what he was doing. Summaries were the purview of a totally different department, so each time he caught a glimpse Daisuke would shrug and shortly forget all about it.

He thought back over the last few years and tried to remember how long he had been working in the office. It was no use. He gave up.

The collapse of his conception of history had been gradual, and he hadn’t noticed it happening at the time. The shape of his thoughts now flattened into a schematic view of a singularly focused event: present time, present day. He checked all his connections and everything seemed to be in order, but there was no orderly progression from A to B, no sequential coherence he could discern in the arrangement of constituent parts, only a continuous, everlasting moment that always seemed to be happening at the precise instant he attempted to observe it. He felt dumb. Was this heaven?

Moments later he was distracted by a comment from the operator. He was obliged to laugh.

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_ #34 (2018/04/23)

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#34

by stanley lieber

No, there would be no New Era. Daisuke dropped the pretense he could return to his old life. Japan or no, he was much too busy with each day’s fresh batch of problems at work.

The operator had moved him to a desk inside his own office. Sitting there, watching his boss breathe, Daisuke found it difficult to concentrate on his work. It didn’t seem to matter. The operator liked having him within earshot, just in case he decided to say something that required an immediate response. Daisuke had faced more challenging work in the past.

Much of it was listening to the operator talk on the phone. He spent a lot of his time chatting with one particular fellow, Slate, or Snake, or something like that. Very deferential. Totally unlike the way he spoke to people in real life. He could only imagine what the other guy must have been saying during all those calls.

Daisuke worked in the office for five, maybe six years. He began to forget what it had been like in the field. The moment-to-moment hustle and bustle conspired to grind all the reflection out of him. He was left with a smooth, matte surface. Blank. By the end of each day he wanted nothing more than to lay down on the floor and never get up again. That, he imagined the operator covering the phone with his hand and saying to him, could be arranged.

Daisuke had begun corresponding with former employees. One in particular, a man named Stan who had returned to his previous job as a mail carrier, had become a good friend (or at least someone who would answer Daisuke’s frequent letters). From Stan he gradually pieced together a clearer picture of the events that had taken place shortly before he was hired. Daisuke was surprised at what he learned.

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_ #33 (2018/04/20)

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#33

by stanley lieber

Daisuke did not particularly miss the business. In recent years the demands on his time had become a nuisance. None of the trappings, none of the people, were essential to his purpose. The operator provided him with direction. His internal monologue ceased.

When a ticket came in he would place it in TAKEN status, then consider the best way to respond. Often he did not need to leave his chair. The operator’s organization had established a policy of minimizing unnecessary travel. He only left the compound when circumstances demanded manual intervention.

One such situation obtained. Daisuke started his mission, exiting the compound and affecting travel via public transportation. He browsed a magazine to pass the time. Once the bus arrived at his stop, Daisuke resumed the street and hiked on foot to his destination. He found that the mechanical aspects of his present employment agreed with him. Every modular action fitted snugly alongside the next. No daylight was visible between modules.

At the end of his employment term Daisuke decided not to re-up. He still found the work agreeable, but perhaps it had distracted from his ongoing goal of gaining access to the Japanese market. In the years since he’d surrendered control of the day-to-day operations of his company, little evident progress had been made. It figured.

At any rate, the boss was back.

"I’m the boss, I can be late," Daisuke announced at the inaugural board meeting of the New Era.

No one present disagreed.

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_ #32 (2018/04/19)

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#32

by stanley lieber

It was a dumb way to think about it, but the signs were all there. The operator’s orders were coming from inside his body. Daisuke knew the setup well: interpret thyself.

He examined his motivations and realized that he’d already traveled some distance towards sympathy with the operator’s goals. Yes, he would follow this thread. The operator’s mind opened to him and he extracted the required information. On his way out he left behind the patterns that would attract the attention of the god. Careful...

He boarded his corporate jet, headed for New San Francisco. These days he traveled light, taking with him only what staff would be necessary to facilitate his mission. And what was that mission? Daisuke wasn’t yet sure. This was no way to run his business but it might yet yield the results he was after.

Once he arrived in New San Francisco he traveled by motorcade to the operator’s compound. The single file line of cars was bound to attract attention, and that was intentional. The operator would know he was on his way.

"I’m here about the job," Daisuke said, maintaining eye contact with the operator even as he settled into the plush leather seat in front of his desk.

"Ah, yes," said the operator.

Arrangements settled, Daisuke retired to his quarters. Thirty-six hours until he shipped out. He reviewed his orders and then tucked them into the secure pouch he carried on his person.

It had been a long day.

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_ #31 (2018/04/18)

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#31

by stanley lieber

Daisuke’s marketing plan was to franchise the skills he’d learned as a child. He preferred married couples for the stability they brought to the finances of his schools (the lazy occult symbolism was never discussed). Candidates could train for their own trips to Japan while simultaneously operating cram schools targeted at students further down the chain. Everybody got what they wanted and the money flowed uphill.

He didn’t ask for permission. Whatever the license holders in Japan might have preferred, this was America: freedom of speech!

Graduates of his program valued their investment, and tended to supply public relations gratis, effective at roping in yet more of the kind of people who sought out this sort of thing. Inside of a decade he had taken the operation global.

Except for Japan. There remained the question of who ultimately owned (or rather, controlled) the intellectual property. Daisuke had no solid claim on his style save for his improbable success. The Japanese had never tried to monetize the material overseas. To his way of thinking this meant that what he was doing was okay. For the most part, so far, the courts had tended to agree. But he wasn’t comfortable that the tacit arrangement would last if the Japanese started to raise objections.

He had to find a way back into Japan.

Back when he had been working contract hits for the Americans he had been hired to understudy for an aging, but unusually reliable operator out of New York. It turned out that he had never had to step in, but he had taken notes (strictly against protocol) on the operator’s Japanese connections. Searching through his notebooks he located the entries he remembered jotting down. The operator had moved freely between New San Francisco and New York, and pretty much anywhere else that he wanted to go. This lack of paperwork was ostentatiously suspicious, and Daisuke had made it a point to follow up on the item and find out what was going on.

What he discovered made his jaw drop. The operator was being manipulated directly by a god.

This could help with Japan.

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_ #29 (2018/04/16)

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#29

by stanley lieber

Daisuke gave up on giving up. He got out of bed and went through his junan taiso fitness routine. His calves hurt. So what.

It kept coming back to the money. He had to get out of Japan. He remembered suddenly a friend of his brother’s, Carmine bin... something or other, whose cousin lived in America, and ran some sort of charity for those too poor to fend for themselves. He supposed that he fit into that category, and wondered if the charity could assist him. It wouldn’t hurt to ask.

But he wasn’t speaking to his brother. He had no idea how to reach Carmine... whatever his family name was. Another dead end.

It would be several more hours before anyone he knew would be awake. He decided to study his English School supplements. He skimmed the videos at 10x, defeating the purpose. Nothing stuck in his mind. He could only observe helplessly as the sense data skittered into and out of his consciousness. He couldn’t muster the will to interpret, or retain, or reflect.

After an early breakfast he walked to school, reciting in his mind the rhyme of the week.

    God damn

    Another fucking payback with a twist

    Them motherfuckers shot but the punks missed

It sounded better with the music. Daisuke had memorized the whole piece, for whatever that was worth. The other students didn’t seem to like the material, but he was like, whatever; it scanned.

He checked his messages for work. No alerts. Twice in the last week he’d booked a job only to have it canceled at the last possible minute. Of course, he still had to pay the fees. It cost money to make money, which seemed perverse.

It started to rain. Daisuke pulled on his hood and hailed a cab.

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_ #28 (2018/04/15)

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#28

by stanley lieber

YOU CAN’T GO TO AMERICA

The legend hung above the Hidden Door English School like a taunt. Daisuke didn’t care. He was going to get some of that Disney money even if it killed him.

The program was not that expensive, really, but the first payment was more than he could afford. It was all he could do to stay current on his tuition at the English School. Hidden door, indeed. How would he ever get out of this place?

All day and all night he thought about getting rich. Trite aphorisms washed over him. "What is the sound of one hand getting money?" And: "Why ask why?" And: "A hard man is good to find." None of them were any help. He was still broke.

He stuck with his training. Every day he learned inane new American phrases. He was able to follow TV and movies now, without subtitles. He was less confident in conversation. At the end of each lesson he would cut the kuji and seal up his notes.

Daisuke had dreamed about leaving Japan his entire life. He wanted to be rich. Somehow, the two goals had gotten tangled up in his mind. One seemed like a prerequisite for the other. And how could that work?

He thought:

EARTH

You endure. Obstacles shatter against your hull. The water parts as you continue on your course unabated.

WATER

You react. Your insight flows around the problem, addressing it from several angles at once. You extinguish the troublesome flames sparked by the problem with your own final solution.

FIRE

You experience. You enjoy the conflagration. It amuses you to observe the opposition as it consumes itself with useless resistance. Oxygen fueling your fire, you burn through the problem on your way to the ultimate victory.

WIND

You engage. You contemplate the myriad possibilities inherent in tackling the problem, mindful of potential pitfalls and traps. You stay clear of the edge; after all, the winds are high, and you don’t want to topple over the side into the abyss.

VOID

What is the sound of one hand getting money? No, seriously.

His will exhausted, Daisuke retired to his futon. He opened and closed several games in his emulator before finally falling asleep. Nothing was helping.

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_ #27 (2018/04/13)

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#27

by stanley lieber

Part of the deal had been to surrender his position on the team. That was fine with him. The whole thing had been confusing. He never really understood his role in the first place.

After the break he never heard from Cy-bra, Dimension Man, or anyone else on the team. He figured it was just as well. These people were just not like him.

It didn’t take long for him to settle back into his old routine. None of the last few years had seemed real. Before long, he convinced himself that they hadn’t been. He picked up more or less where he had left off, delivering the mail and not speaking to anyone unless he was spoken to.

All of this was in service of continuing the real work. He couldn’t continue paying his material into a system that denied him ownership (and access to clear recordings) of his songs. Whatever success the Chief had helped him attain, the spoils could never be equal to simply doing the right thing. Each of his songs was an insurance policy against old age, poverty, madness... He couldn’t just turn them over to the enemy in exchange for a little temporary comfort. He placed the box of CD-Rs under his bed with the cassettes and affirmed that all of this had been in his head, anyway.

For some weeks he came up with no new material, just practiced and refined his fingering on the trickier passages of old favorites. He had started to worry something was broken inside of him, but soon enough the familiar flow of bland, underdeveloped melodies once again began to trickle into his consciousness. It felt like taking the boat home. This was the work he had dreamed about. This was the work he would do.

A light had flipped off inside of his head. He noticed, but he didn’t care.

Thirty years later he died.

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_ #26 (2018/04/11)

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#26

by stanley lieber

He kept the big box of tapes under his bed. It would not be long until he would need a bigger box. He wondered sometimes if he should digitize the lot. He put it off and put it off. Someday, he thought, it would be difficult to get a hold of a working cassette player.

Stan recorded as the mood struck him. It could, and did, happen at the most inconvenient times. He had to set the ideas down as quickly as possible; once they were gone, they were gone. He operated the little 4-track machine with the unshakable confidence of a self-taught expert. Tape hiss was his enemy. Superior technique was his ally.

At some point he realized that the Chief was probably keeping recordings of his own. He wondered if the Chief’s equipment was primarily digital, thus avoiding generation loss and tape hiss. This somewhat lateral insight set him on a cycle of acute obsession, pondering the higher fidelity recordings that must exist in the Chief’s vault. Stan was his own biggest fan, so of course he had to get his hands on them.

Cy-bra was not willing to participate in any mission that would violate the Chief’s trust. Raven told him to fuck off and hung up the phone. Dimension Man had to pick up his kids. John Ratcliff didn’t reply to his e-mail, telephone calls, or forum posts. Stan was on his own. Eventually he decided to just ask the Chief for the tapes. Discs? Whatever.

"It’s complicated," the Chief said. "But we could probably get you your songs."

The Chief winked at him, and motioned for Stan to step back behind his desk. He depressed a switch inside one of his drawers and a panel dissolved to reveal the largest collection of bootleg stork/ibis recordings Stan had ever seen. CD-Rs that Stan assumed must contain at least some of his tracks in perfect digital quality.

"Straight from the soundboard," the Chief confirmed.

Stan had to have them, and the Chief knew that Stan had to have them.

They could do business.

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_ #25 (2018/04/10)

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#25

by stanley lieber

Muted colors shifted slowly, or maybe it was just the light. Red and silver tones on nothing. Stan wondered if storks (or ibises) could even see color. Somehow, he did. Cy-bra lay next to him, still asleep. How had it come to this?

The Chief had put them together, working side by side on various jobs, and one thing had led, improbably as it might seem, to another. He liked to wake up this way, with no need to dwell on the things he wanted to avoid. Instead of himself he could talk to her.

But she was still asleep. He had to work out the reasons why she could be there, why he wasn’t just crazy. He couldn’t come up with anything convincing. She hadn’t just walked out of his guitar... but how had she arrived in his bed? He scratched himself, wishing he hadn’t finished off that last bag of Doritos. Presently, Cy-bra awoke.

"We shouldn’t have done this."

Stan was taken aback, but of course he’d wait to hear her out.

But, that was it. Cy-bra climbed out of bed and stepped purposefully into her clothes. Without another word she left the apartment. Stan figured he’d see her at work.

Work was less satisfying when he knew what he was missing. All along his mail route he could think only of Cy-bra, and his other job. he probably put some envelopes in the wrong mailboxes. This kind of preoccupation wasn’t like him at all. Pretty soon customers would start complaining.

In the evenings he would sit and plink away at his guitar. Frustrated by his inability to resume the Chrysler Building, he would thrash about randomly, not even really trying to play one of his songs. He felt old and ridiculous. Underemployed. Didn’t they still need him out in New San Francisco?

The answer was not forthcoming. He hadn’t expected much, but this was... nothing. In the weeks that followed Stan went through a lot of Doritos.

"Oh, there you are," the Chief said, late one evening just as Stan was about to give up. "We thought we’d lost you."

Stan didn’t know what this meant but he took his guitar out of the trash can and got back to work.

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_ #24 (2018/04/09)

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#24

by stanley lieber

None of it was real. Stan imagined himself participating in... whatever this was supposed to be. But that was as far as it went. The other players may or may not have existed, and he may or may not have really known they existed. Certainly, none of these characters lived on his mail route. And who could he tell? He’d take long breaks from playing his guitar.

Stan didn’t know it was all being recorded.

The team relied on him more than he knew. There had to be a conduit between the Chief and the men in the field. Experiments with Dimension Man’s portals had failed; information must be transmitted by an alert, engaged consciousness (Dimension Man, distracted as he was by his other duties, could not fulfill the requirement). Stan might be inexperienced, but he was there, and he could just about do the job. Anyway, the Chief believed in him.

This all left Stan in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand he was happy to help, but on the other hand he had been telling himself that none of this was real. Maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe the unreality of the situation need not impede his performance. Stan tried to keep a positive attitude. He decided to keep his head down and forge ahead.

When the Chief called him into his office he was relieved. Now he’d find out what this was all about. Maybe he'd even get a new assignment.

"Have a seat," the Chief sad.

Stan performed a quick survey of the objects displayed in the Chief’s office. Not much there. He wondered how long the Chief had been operating out of this location. "Nice chairs, boss," he said.

The Chief paused long enough for Stan to become worried he’d said something irretrievably stupid. Then the Chief began to speak, which was worse than the wondering.

"A periodic review of your performance records has revealed that your presence on away missions is literally more trouble than it is worth. Effective immediately you will remain aboard ship and relay mission data to me that has been transmitted to you via telepathic means by the newest member of our team..."

The Chief depressed a small switch on the side of his desk and the narrow door in the wall behind him slid open. Foley: [SCHLICK]

"...Cy-bra."

The Chief leaned back in his swivel chair and made a tent with his hands. He saw that Stan had noticed the affectation and doubled down on the (he imagined) oblique gesture. In this way the master/servant relationship was firmly substantiated.

Cy-bra emerged from the Chief’s small closet and nodded to Stan. Unsure what to do, Stan nodded in return.

"Since you’ll be working together closely, I imagine the two of you would welcome an opportunity to get acquainted."

The Chief stood up and exited, leaving them to settle the question between themselves.

Stan was more confused than ever.

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_ #23 (2018/04/09)

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#23

by stanley lieber

The job did not go as planned. Discipline had broken down almost immediately. Or at least it had seemed that way; it was never really clear what anyone was doing at any given time.

First, they had materialized in the wrong place. The initial disorientation led to several unauthorized weapons discharges, each of which would need to be accounted for in the paperwork. Civilian bystanders were caught in the crossfire. Members of the team had mistaken the misfire as an incoming attack and responded in kind. This expanded the mishap’s reach exponentially. When the smoke cleared the streets had turned red.

Ignoring the signals to turn back, Raven advanced to the objective, with John Ratcliff laying down suppressing fire. Stan was impressed, he’d never seen anything like it. Well, in real life. He aimed his guitar at the action, ensuring that the Chief would enjoy a clear view. He guessed that this was what they wanted him to do. Nobody had told him anything.

The general disorganization was exacerbated by the team’s failure to locate the target. This had hardly slowed Raven down. He proceeded to carve a path through the civilian-clogged street. At least now the rest of the team could follow. Stan tracked his progress with the guitar. When Raven rounded a corner, Stan realized that he’d have to move forward as well. The crowd closed up behind them like a self-healing wound. Everyone just stepped over the bodies.

At some point Raven returned with the target in tow. John Ratcliff again encouraged the crowd to disperse. Dimension Man was ready with his portal, and Stan nearly missed the doorway as it closed up behind the team.

The first thing Raven did when they reached the ship was to stomp onto the bridge and pin Alix to a bulkhead, his hand stapling the taller man’s frame to the wall like a thick sheet of tan, muscular paper.

"You. Said. No. Mission. Log." he rasped through clenched teeth.

"W-what?" Alix managed to get out, totally confused.

Nobody had paid any attention to Stan, standing by and strumming his guitar. Suddenly they all realized he was there, what he was doing.

"Turn that thing off," John Ratcliff said quietly, laying a hand on his shoulder. Stan immediately complied.

"Turn it back on," the Chief said, rising to his feet and raising voice. "I love this song."

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_ #22 (2018/04/06)

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#22

by stanley lieber

The team was coming together. A delicate job in Japan. The Chief had hand-picked them all:

Stan, communications. Mild and reserved, Stan was a newcomer to the field. With his guitar always in hand, he hoped he could live up to his billing as the team’s messenger and oracle. If not, well, how would anyone know?

Alix Graves, recon scout. Point man, so far out in front of everyone else that he was pulling up the rear. Private investigator and New San Francisco native. Weird sports glasses. His imaginary friend was along for the ride at no extra cost. This netted him all the capabilities of a two-man team at a fifty percent savings.

Raven, hitter. Not really a bird, which led to some awkwardness with Stan. (Stan mostly deferred to the younger man’s superior costuming). Raven’s contempt for his teammates was evident. He didn’t say much, but when he did speak it tended to make people uncomfortable. The target of his professional attentions would surely be made to feel worse. Raven’s training mirrored the Chief’s, but he was definitely (maybe?) human.

Dimension Man, transportation. An early skateboarding accident had triggered the onset of latent superhuman powers, namely the ability to transport people (including himself) and objects over great distances using only the power of his mind. The implications were obvious. Nearing forty, he still skated whenever he got the chance.

John Ratcliff, enforcer. Sometimes known as Super-Sonic, though the name had little to do with his skills: class 100 superhuman strength, physical invulnerability, prolific anti-establishment mythopoetics. Another refugee from the vintage New York team.

Finally, the Chief himself. Still wearing his favorite brown jacket. Still carrying his ancient, somewhat controversial weapon. Sporting that same wooden expression, only seen to crack a grin by those taking their final bows as they prepared to exit the stage. Something was up with him, but you couldn’t tell what it was. That was the Chief, for you.

The mission would kick off in three days time. The men would fly to Japan aboard the Chief’s peculiar pink aircraft (the Chief having thought it would be wise to reserve Dimension Man’s equally peculiar talents for the main event). Once in-country the Chief would run the show from the big board in front of his captain’s chair.

All that remained for Stan was to find out the spec for the job.

He figured he was ready.

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_ #21 (2018/04/05)

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#21

by stanley lieber

No, he was serious. There was another he had tried to be friends with, before college, but it hadn’t worked out. Part of why he left town. He didn’t like to think about that time. Nowadays it was Doritos and the mail truck.

And his music. When he wasn’t snacking or asleep he tried to set down his ideas. His equipment was primitive, but he found he had no aptitude for operating complicated machines. He pressed the record button and played his guitar.

He didn’t talk to anyone about this. It wasn’t for them. Something happened when he played that he wouldn’t have been able to explain. The recordings themselves were superfluous (though they did comprise a record of the experience).

In his bumbling way he was transported.

On the other side, the man he had come to know as the Chief presently resolved into view.

"Report," said the Chief, swiveling in his chair to face Stan and his guitar.

"Slow week," Stan said. "Three tracks, none of them mixed. I’m... not sure where to go from here."

"Don’t worry about it," said the Chief, and broke the connection. Stan set down his guitar. What was that supposed to mean? He stopped the tape recorder and opened another bag of Doritos.

Thirteen years into his career as a mail carrier, Stan still didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up. Spying with his guitar was okay, but he had always assumed he’d get famous for something... else. He still had no idea what that might be. His current pay was sufficient, so he was free to follow his conscience during his free time. He wasn’t even sure that his career needed to encompass his interests.

Whatever, it was time for work.

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image by pete toms, circa some time in the mid-2000s, used without permission.