The four corporations which formerly controlled all the major publishing on the planet had merged into one. Quantity over quality had always been the economic rule, but with the new multinational corporation conglomerate monopoly, in conjunction with literacy’s longstanding slide, Serling Young realized it was time. There really was no other way. He had no money, only debt. He would have to take the plunge.
“You’re gonna go for it, huh?” said Kintar, eyebrows uncharacteristically raised, looking uncharacteristically impressed.
“It’s the only way,” Serling said, and took a sip of filtered water, conscious of being watched. Kintar’s TV was off. From where he sat on the sofa, Serling could see himself in the reflection on the screen.
“How you gonna do it?”
“I don’t know yet. I haven’t decided.” It was ten minutes to seven. “Tomorrow Stars” was about to come on. Serling put down the glass and got up.
Kintar put a hand on Serling’s shoulder seeing him to the door. “I’m proud of you, Serling. You’re doing the right thing. Have they, you know, set the date?”
“Not yet. I have to call my editor tomorrow.”
“Hey, let me know beforehand, okay? After you get it all worked out, I mean.”
“Would it be okay if I come by tomorrow morning? To use your phone?” Serling’s service had been cut for several weeks.
Kintar rather brightened at that. “Sure,” he said, and his brightened expression lasted as he opened up the door. Not the sort of thing he had ever done before. “So long,” he said, “see you tomorrow.” Serling heard the bolts sliding in place as he descended the steps and went into the early night, where a soft gray mist left a hush over the land and the shy stars of evening were gradually born.
On the street everything seemed to revolve around G2. She was the one all set to be the next pop music princess. For Serling, who hadn’t had TV in months, it seemed increasingly strange to see people glued to screens fixated on the stars of tomorrow, entertainers so young they hadn’t even been born. They watched in their cars, and watched when they shopped. They watched in banks and at hospitals, and at the post office. They watched where they slept, where they ate, where they bathed. They watched on tiny screens of telephones. Birds by the thousands dropped from the sky and fish by the millions belly-up choked the shores. Yet somehow these were matters merely incidental, and business went on as usual. A genetically-engineered pop music princess would be born, G2, second in the series. People had to watch. People needed to know. Last week they voted on the color of her hair. It would be blonde. Next week they would vote on the style of her moves. But tonight, tonight was the virtual Bestowing of the Birth Certificate, a “Tomorrow Stars” Extra Patriotism edition of what the media called a runaway success, President Preacher himself presiding via satellite on the Jumbotron as a very special must-see guest star from his Wyoming ranch, lariat in hand, steering the public toward one helluva show. Serling saw this as he passed the Laundromat, where the eyes in the upturned faces spun.
When Serling reached the apartment complex, he swiped his card key through the slot but it didn’t open up the door. Does this mean I’ve been e-victed? he thought. That’s not possible. I’m paid up through next month.
Carefully wiping the card’s magnetic strip on his shirt, he swiped it through again, but the button went red when it should have turned green. He held the card up in his hand, so that the security camera could see, and pointlessly jiggled the handle on the door.
A voice crackled out of a hidden speaker. “I’ll call the cops.”
Serling let go of the handle and looked up at the camera. “I’m trying to get into my apartment.”
“I’m paid up through next month.”
No response. He grabbed the handle again and shook it.
The voice crackled. “I’m calling the cops.”
“Wait! This is my apartment! I’m paid up, you can’t do this!”
“I want to see the manager.”
Down the hall a door opened. Sounds of TV suddenly flooded as a guy with a scowl poked out his head.
“They locked me out of my apartment,” Serling said. “I’m paid up through next month.”
The scowling face retreated and the door slammed shut. Muffled sounds of derisive laughter came from inside. Serling thought he heard the word whiner. Either that or wino. Resolutely, he sat down on the floor with his back to the door and waited.
In the room across the hall someone had a TV going, too. They might have turned it up to drown the sound of Serling trying to get into his apartment, or perhaps he hadn’t noticed it was on when his attention was otherwise taken, but now he couldn’t help but hear the roars of the dazzled television audience when informed that B1 was in the house, B1 being the first in the series of genetically-engineered pop music boys, now age four. Such was the projection of B1’s virtual talent and runaway fame before even being born, people followed the natural cycle and got sick of him the first week after his actual birth. By one he was done, by two he was through. But by three they let him be, and now at four they wanted more. A magician of a musician, his future mastery of pop-and-lock could not help but stun the judges, frankly awed by the virtual presentation of the rigid robot-style dance moves which B1 would one day have. G1, now three, was in the process of making a comeback herself. But judging by the heartfelt booing of the crowd, G1’s glorious return unto the fold wouldn’t be happening until the shocking surprise of G2’s slated popularity slide.
The clean squeak of official gear and blaring blur of a radio dispatch receiver advertised a cop coming up the steps, but he didn’t come up alone. He had in tow Rex Icer, a martial arts actor who had been in B-movies twenty years before, now reduced to TV, in full riot gear and carrying a set of nunchucks. Behind him was a cameraman with a camera mounted on his shoulder. Having recently moved to the area, Rex and the producers of the smash hits “Prime Time Crime” and “Show of Force” struck up a deal with county cops for him to follow them along whenever he wanted as the star of the new show “True Cop Action Force.” Quickly seeing there was nothing to knock down worth the cost involved—also the lighting wasn’t quite right, and already they’d put in a long day’s shoot—Rex and the cameraman went back down to the cruiser and left the cop to listen to Serling complain how he couldn’t get into his apartment. The cop took a couple of swipes with the card key himself, and when that didn’t work seemed at a loss. Serling got the feeling that the cop didn’t like having to miss out on a moment of action alongside Rex Icer and resented having to waste his time with such a piddly non-TV problem. True, there was a guy downstairs in a stained tank top t-shirt who did some basic maintenance, and it might have been him watching on closed circuit and calling the cops, but he certainly did not have any sort of official power. For Serling it was no different than trying to talk face-to-face with an actual person representing the cable company. Getting the guy in the tank top to open Serling’s locked door, or explain why it was locked, or commit himself to any sort of action remotely responsible toward an apartment tenant or fellow human being would have been like trying to get someone behind the counter at a gas station to bring the prices down. The buck was always passed. Anyone who could call a shot lived somewhere offshore, probably on an artificial island, hermetically sealed, with a roving SWAT team on permanent patrol courtesy of the tax-paying public.
“Well what am I supposed to do? Everything I own is in there. Where am I supposed to sleep? They can’t get away with just kicking me out.”
“Sir, the first thing you need to do is settle down.”
“I’d love to settle down. I wish I had a house.”
A joke. For this the cop did not have time. Now he was in his element. The magic bubble in which he had floated down in the service of the secret rich was developing around him again and causing him, after giving Serling a warning that he better not cause any trouble, to slowly, inexorably, drift and drift away.
Left alone in the hall, Serling couldn’t help but hear the omnipresent sound of “Tomorrow Stars.” Dazzling sounds of pyrotechnics, the joyous noise of dutiful audience applause. He had no idea who his neighbors even were. The one who stuck his head in the hall Serling had seen before, but they had never spoken. Serling wondered if he shouldn’t go outside and attempt somehow climbing up and breaking into his apartment through one of the windows. He tried visualizing this without giving anything away to the camera crouched in its corner, but the turning of a handle and cracked vacuum-seal sound of a door being opened across the hall distracted his attention.
He recognized her immediately, flipping through a mental Rolodex of the alphabet to pull up her name. They met when he worked janitorial with her (part-time, temporary, in his case) a couple of years earlier in the same office building. When he got to S he remembered.
“Sedona. Long time no see.”
“I thought that was you,” she said.
For a moment he almost forgot that he was locked out of his apartment, even almost forgot the big decision he had made. Maybe it was her hair that did it. Long and dark, raven tresses, smooth black locks that reflected light. Working as a janitor, he was only grubby. But when she did it she looked great. The coveralls she always wore were thick, and he recalled that she used to wear a heavy jacket over those. Her big boots clomped. Sometimes her hair was braided back. Still, she had a perfect face—classical, Serling thought—framed by intelligent eyebrows, and the earthy, sturdy, pear-shaped body that had to be hidden under all the layers made being statuesque and skinny look sickly and weak.
“Are you locked out?”
“I’m paid up through next month.”
“Those bastards. Well, come on in. We can at least get you out of the hall.”
Stepping into Sedona’s apartment was like entering another world. Shelves of books dominated the walls. A musty smell pervaded, reminding Serling of freshly tilled earth. Cocking his head he explored. Kafka, Poe, Plath. Dickinson, Keats, Baudelaire. Poems by Rupert Brooke, and by Wilfred Owen. Volumes on Van Gogh. Biographies of Anne Frank and Amelia Earhart, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. A book about King Tut. It was all he could do not to make a remark on how nicely the place was stacked. But he really didn’t want to get kicked outside, where a friend would be someone whose picture got clicked on, the image saved, and represented as a number in a collection on a screen.
“You’re a reader,” he said.
“And a writer,” she replied.
“I believe I detect a common theme.”
“Everyone here has a famous death.”
“Everybody loves a good sacrifice. You’re not real till you’re dead.”
This stopped Serling cold. Sedona continued.
“People want life in a box,” she said. Her words were sardonic, the tone deadpan. “We want life contained, we want it controlled. We want an image of a moment captured and frozen. What’s so great about trudging through life compared to being among the honored dead? They don’t make pyramids for the living, you know.”
“What I want to know is, why are there no famous dead editors?”
“Poe was an editor.”
“You know what I mean. That’s not what he’s famous for. Why aren’t there any famous dead agents?”
“Because, that’s like asking bankers and politicians to go to the wars they cause. If pilot whales didn’t beach, think of all the hungry birds that wouldn’t get to feed.”
They sat down on the sofa—one full cushion apart, Serling noticed. It was hard to believe that right outside, politics and Threat Levels had both been color-coded.
“So what are you going to do now that you’re locked out?”
“I don’t know,” Serling said.
“I guess you can crash here tonight on the couch if you need.”
“Really? I can?”
“Unless you have somewhere else to go for the night.”
“I don’t. I wonder what I’m going to do about my stuff.” Immediately he was sorry that he said this. As soon as the words left his mouth it sounded too much to Serling like he was suggesting that he move all his stuff in with her. Attempting to quickly recover he said, “I guess I’ll just have to break in.” In Sedona’s eyes he thought he saw a quizzical look. Then why aren’t you doing that now?
Suddenly the insanity of getting locked out of his apartment was brought home to Serling. Every aspect of life he had taken for granted had slowly but surely been stripped. If he could have gone back in time and told himself what the future would hold, he never would have believed it. He never would have believed that in the future driving a car would be something that happened while talking on a phone and watching TV. He never would have believed that elections would be TV events for billionaires (billionaires, for crying out loud, because merely having millions wouldn’t be enough) whose market research indicated strong potential in the furtherance of economic growth for themselves. He never would have believed that war would be something supported with bumper stickers, duct tape, and little plastic flags made in China, that voting would be something that happened when amateurs tried to sing, or when former TV stars tried to dance, or that people would have to be radiated and humiliated before paying to travel by plane, and for safety sake not be allowed to carry a bottle of water, tap water being too dangerous to drink, and the bottle of water being sold with tap water inside anyway. He never would have believed that the drafting of national energy policy would be a lucrative favor for rich politicians to give to their rich friends, so that both of them could get more rich, or that a cancer-causing fake sugar patent for cola would be owned by the Secretary of Defense, or that the President’s wife would own the ever-increasingly lucrative companies that feed the nation’s prison population, or that corporate oil executives would give the okay for pointed black hoods to go over the heads of people the country tortured with German shepherds and electrodes, while the torturers giggled and posed for pictures like in “Planet of the Apes.” Maybe his e-viction really was for the best. Just another unnecessary incentive for the decision he had already made.
“I’m going to be a writer,” he said.
Sedona asked Serling what he meant. He explained to her the deal laid out by his editor. It was not as though his editor was a person that he met. It was someone with whom he corresponded through e-mail on the web. For all Serling knew, it wasn’t even an actual person. It may have been a software program. He never saw a face. He never heard a voice. Sometimes he took the bus from Drakewood to Bargerville, the one contracted by LowCost to dump people off to stay all day. There he could get online, and that was how he saw the ad and learned about the deal, in a corner of the store between the video racks and where people got inoculated for whatever disease was currently getting the most hype. Apparently a lot of people came to see their faces on the Jumbotron randomly displayed for five minutes of in-store fame, but that wasn’t Serling’s thing. All he wanted was to get published. Until Sedona told him, Serling had no idea that LowCost was owned by SynTech, the synthetic technologies parent company of “Tomorrow Stars” owned by Max Tex, the Texas senator whose real name was John Goodchilde, second-cousin to President Preacher, Goodchilde Industries being the biggest weapons manufacturing company in the country, and therefore the world. But none of that was real to Serling. What mattered to him was a sense of identity. He simply wanted to belong.
Lying on Sedona’s couch that night in his clothes, Serling fantasized about the fame that was to come. He noticed that she hadn’t asked to read any of his stuff. True, none of it was in the room. All of his hard copy was locked up tight across the hall. But what if he’d had a famous name? Caravaggio had killed. Poe once pistol-whipped a man in the street. If he robbed a bank or shot a cop, would he then become immortal?
A dark cabinet appeared before Serling in a dream that night. The feeling that he was sinking, deeper, ever deeper, accompanied him as he examined it, knowing that the cabinet was locked. Ominous sounds, as of ever-heavier notes struck on a giant piano playing at the bottom of a black ocean, pervaded Serling’s mind, until the dark door of the cabinet slowly opened, revealing a shadow inside, the flat silhouette of a man in top hat. Motionless, and with a cold, gravelly voice, the silhouette heavily intoned, “Rest assured you may always trust”—and here the figure in top hat swiveled toward Serling in a sudden flash of color with a chilling exuberance horrible to behold—“Jack the Knife!”
He woke up the next morning to the sounds of Sedona’s shower barely muffled by the door of a small bathroom. He forgot about his dream, but thoughts from hours prior played like a syndicated sitcom, flowed like summer repeats: If he had been famous, would she be showering alone? Not bloody likely. If he’d really wanted to come on to her, conceivably it might have worked out. If fame was the only reason that anyone ever had sex, the world’s population problems would have long ago been solved. But not to recognize the truth was impossible. It was everywhere he went and in everything he saw. Mere dumb fame. That was the golden ticket. If a person with fame had that stripped, no one would care about that person at all. If someone without it suddenly got it, everyone else would suddenly care. If he’d had fame, mere dumb fame, he never would have been locked out of his apartment. Had he been a celebrity, one of the celebrated, he never would have been stuck in a cruddy apartment at all. Everything he did would be suddenly important. Everything he said would be suddenly heard.
The droning patter of the shower cut abruptly off. Serling got up, rubbing his eyes, smacking bad breath with his tongue, back aching from the soft couch, body unrested and feeling gross. Another goddam day. A couple of minutes later, Sedona came out fully clothed.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Morning. What time is it?”
“Quarter after six. We have to cut out of here in half an hour at the latest. The bus comes by at ten to seven.”
Serling started looking stupidly about, trying to blink away the fog. “I have a call I have to make. Do you have a phone I can use?”
She was in the kitchen now, coveralls and all, pouring loud cereal into a bowl. “On the table.”
Serling thought he caught a clipped tone and bit his lower lip in frustration as he shoved on his shoes and moved into action. “I have to call my editor,” he said, somewhat to himself and sounding full of self-importance. He hadn’t consciously intended for that, but the sour feeling he was getting told Serling that a saturation point had been met. In fact the publishing process did demand he make the call. It was Monday morning now, and the documents he uploaded to the publisher on Friday with a flash drive at LowCost set in motion the wheels of a process that required he wait till the next business day to continue. But what he really meant to do was call Kintar, partly to leave a message reminding him that he needed to use the phone, partly to ask if he could stay at his place that night, and mostly because he was desperate and confused. After four rings a voice came on informing Serling that the party he was calling could not be reached and that the party’s mailbox was full.
At this point Serling’s only option was to take the bus to LowCost. He’d had to sell off all his own books the week before at the used bookstore in town. For all its shelves and stacks and boxes of books, The Druid had become only technically a bookstore in about the same way that Drakewood with its mini-mart, Laundromat, and gutted structures of Businesses Past was only technically a town. David, the owner, did most of his trade in used video games and electronics to keep his head above water, and paid for Serling’s books with a small amount of cash peeled from his pocket more out of the goodness of his heart and from his own deep need to cocoon himself in knowledge than from some prudent business sense. Outside the Laundromat waiting for the bus, Serling risked a couple of bucks for a cold, hard breakfast bar and choked it down as best he could standing next to Sedona, glumly chewing imitation everything in a bright plastic package advertised as healthy, and he let himself wonder as he listened against his wishes to the haggard cackles of the witches sitting on a bench in stained stretch pants whether Sedona feared his newfound proximity gave the wrong impression. But when the bus showed up, loud and hot and stinking of diesel, hydraulic door folding quickly open, Sedona took the single seat right behind the driver, so Serling hurried all the way to the back because he wanted to be able to see, and not feel as though he was being watched. Above every other seat was a tiny TV, spewing fake news about G2. People were already sick of her and she wasn’t even born. Cops working for banks were taking people’s homes. Six year-old kids carried guns to bankrupt schools. Rights of corporations increased while those of human beings dropped, and secrets of government crime exposed got into trouble only those who leaked the secrets, but another genetically-engineered princess of pop would be born, and no one could look away.
At LowCost the doors opened automatically. Canned music pumped through tubes hitched along like plastic sludge. Lidless domes peeking from the ceiling quietly caught everyone’s image as they were dumped from the bus like fish into the store. Dour faces under hairnets screamed vaguely of abuse, casting furtive eyes. The Jumbotron was on, pulling the catch to the back. Serling followed the flow hopeful for the chance to sit down at a terminal, but found all five computers being used, so he killed some time browsing around the videos watching secret scenes of himself with Sedona.
Keeping an eye on the guy sitting at the closest computer, Serling flipped through the ½ off video selection. “Corporatocracy and the Commodity Culture,” “Illiteracy in the Neo-Feudal State,” and “Slashed: How Gutting School Funding Helped Corporate Crime Make the U.S. a New Third World Country” all passed his glance. Next to him stood a kid wearing a shirt advertising “Freedom Fries,” a prime-time cartoon about the electric chair which was a spinoff from another one called “Open Torture.” The kid had in hand a copy of the third season of “The Light,” a reality-TV show about a cop priest who extracts confessions, but he discarded that on top of the row of videos containing “Cut Above,” the award-winning series depicting women getting plastic surgery, in favor of “End-Timers,” the one with yesterday’s celebrities battling each other by methods based ostensibly on the votes of the viewing audience, the winner receiving a Golden Dollar bestowed by the Virtual Hand of God.
Finally getting online, Serling had to endure endless prescription drug ads for every imaginable physical dysfunction, plus the ads warning people what drugs they better not use, plus the ads decrying violence, plus the ads promoting war, meanwhile the growing numbers of customers behind him pushing for Serling to hurry up and get done. He could have stood up and stabbed them all in the face, or broken their backs on his bent knee, or thrown them into vats of acid, or benignly smiling spun a Gatling gun.
But when the computer froze, Serling ignored the groans of the bloated cattle, the incessant bleating of the sheep, because of a light at the end of a tunnel, a hope with the name of Editor, a software program, probably, to which Serling in his utter desperation frantically appealed for a sense of identity, for the feeling of belonging, for the purpose of finally getting to be real. All that he needed now was to take the three-drug cocktail owned by the one corporation, where formerly there had been four, the one corporation that owned it all—owned SynTech, owned Senator Tex, owned “Tomorrow Stars,” owned President Preacher—all that he needed was that three-drug cocktail, to follow legal procedure and preserve his organs for someone else’s use, so someone else could have his body, maybe live to a hundred and fifty, someone sealed and hidden away, comfortably residing in an undisclosed location. It didn’t matter that no one would read him. What he wrote was immaterial. All that mattered was becoming real, and there was only one way to do that.
Some part-time workers behind the counter at Inoculations were talking together in smocks. Maybe they could help him. They had to. It was their job.
Serling stood at the counter and waited.