Wednesday, July 27, 2011

#33 -- "Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus" Reviewed | * * *

ALSO,ONE MORE THING: An updated version of this review, and all of our other reviews, can be found on our new official site: No ads, no Google bullshit, just content. [Sly Cooper Review]

"If The Thievius Raccoonus were a real eBook, its marked-down $99.99 price would crash the Amazon servers, this all after a 52-week stint as a bestseller with a sticker price of $firstborn."

The best videogame in the world is a mixture of Red Bull, vodka, smelly ink, velvety poetry, half of those good notes a jazzman isn't playing, and that one girl across the room. Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus is several of these things, retold as a music video. It is the best piece of fan fiction that you wrote based on your favorite Saturday morning cartoon, as edited by Paul Krugman. A lot of the time, you're re-enacting Walt Disney's bold, visionary remake of Shigeru Miyamoto's 1996 platformasterpiece Super Mario 64, and the rest of the time, you're Scotch-taping your older sister's cheap scarf to your lower back and waving a lacrosse stick, shouting: "Broken glass! Broken glass is the gift for the man who has everything!"

The point of Sly Cooper is to steal things you've stolen before but never had a good reason to -- until now. Now, you have a good reason to steal everything.You want to steal things because it's humanity's greatest thrill. You're not Robin Hood in Sly Cooper (you're a raccoon named Sly Cooper in Sly Cooper) but you do rob from deserving people. There is no doubt that you're smarter and craftier than they, so there ain't no doubt that you know the true, deserved value of what's formerly theirs and now futurely [sic] yours. It's a continuous thievery slip-and-slide. Some people go to the gym for no particular reason. Sly Cooper doesn't go to the gym; he erodes villains' treasure hoards. Sly Cooper is a wide river full of gambling boats, each owned by a bully, and your job is to leap from one to the next, deep silhouette illuminated sharp against the moon, until you stop having fun -- that will never happen! You get to bring your friends with you, who are your stuffed animals -- a Nobel Prize-winning tortoise and a carnival cotton-candy hippo -- come to life. 

Games will often handcuff you to an umbrella, whereas Sly Cooper gives you a line of Arrakean Spice to snort and a bunch of houses to break into. Nothing in Sly Cooper is experimental anymore -- everything in Sly Cooper was experimental when you were a young kid, like when you were trying to talk yourself into trapping a live fox with a box, a stick, a jar of Skippy, and lightning-quick reflexes. Sly Cooper is made of powerful magnets. Nothing in the game is haunted by ghosts, friendly or otherwise. The music in Sly Cooper sounds like the album that George Clooney's Ocean's 11 character, Danny Ocean, would sheepishly ask his krav maga sensei to get him for his birthday -- on vinyl. The level design is akin to the moment you gazed at the ceiling during the first family wedding that attended when you were five, wondering how much weight the chandelier could hold and not wondering if anybody could ever have a chance of spotting you. Sly Cooper is sweet, juicy, filled with fun seeds for spitting now, and sticky fingers for un-sticking (and re-sticking) later. It's basically a watermelon. If you like laughing at jokes, you'll like Sly Cooper, because all notions of modern comedic structure becomes outdated when you see a raccoon in blue flirt with a gun-toting fox on a Parisian rooftop. No joke, staring at Sly Cooper's expansive vistas is identical to the sensation an archeologist gets when he punches his hand straight into an ancient Egyptian statue's stone chest and removes a ruby the size of a black bear's brain. "It was a fake," he nods at the wrecked statue. "But this stone belongs in a museum."

Sly Cooper is a tuxedo-justice dispensary. Black, white, creased, and styled alongside infinity. The only motivation to play the game is to keep stealing, which is the snappy glee of scraping ugly paint off of an old house you were just told: "Take it, it's yours, it's not worth anything. Never was, never will." With heavy gloves, Sly Cooper encourages you to rip creeping vines off of the old thing, a house that should have probably been torn down back around the turn of the century. There's no confusion over what needs to be done. The game employs straight-line logic and it's damning that anybody could have considered that shaky wandering is more fun than snatching up every glass-cased treasure in a museum's corridor.

No doubt you're wondering at this point if you could ever be uncomfortable while playing Sly Cooper. The answer is a predictable, convincing: "No." The answer isn't hard to reach. You don't raise your voice to declare it because the conviction in your heart convinces the doubters in a nanosecond. They won't doubt you ever again. They just won't. Sly Cooper doesn't cause you to lose sleep. It's a hunt for keys. It's 36 doors that you want to open. You will be powered by intrinsic compulsion and you've missed that feeling. Here is a game that has no business being so charming. In fact, if you had one-tenth of one percent of Sly Cooper's charm, you could lean against a wall at a senior week keg party, watch a girl across the room reciprocate her dream-boy's four-year crush, wait for her to catch your eye, and you'd ask in simple street-clothes seduction: "Wanna make out?" And she would want to make out. First though, she would rip off the other guy's dick with her bare hands to show how serious she is.

Jumping from place to place in Sly Cooper is a type of short-range parachuting that couldn't exist in reality. Attacking enemies in Sly Cooper is whacking flimsy plants with a glassy flute made of bamboo that might break at any moment but doesn't. You'll do a lot of sneaking between vivid spotlights and stalking cartoon prey in Sly Cooper, a specific action you will become so practiced in that you'll stay up all night to write a screenplay pitch for James Cameron titled Predator Babies, insisting that you do all motion-capturing and snarly, purring voice-work yourself to maintain the creative vision. Nothing is uncomfortably animated in Sly Cooper, nothing is drawn incorrectly. There's a part near the end involving Chinese fireworks in a snowy pagoda when breathing in primary colors has become so easy that you want to don't think you can go back to breathing oxygen. The sky blows up, you punch a panda, and there's no doubt in your mind that your ancestors will be proud.

If The Thievius Raccoonus were a real eBook, its marked-down $99.99 price would crash the Amazon servers, this all after a 52-week stint as a bestseller with a sticker price of $firstborn.

* * *
(out of 4)

Recommended related reading:
[F-Zero GX  |  * * *] by Doberman
[Final Fantasy IX  |  * * * *] by Ghost Little
[LittleBigPlanet  |  Z E R O] by Ghost Little

-- Doberman
on Twitter  |  @GhostLittle_WTF

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

#32 -- V.i.

"At the most basic moment, I/O (1 or 0) was all they knew, and neither was deemed better than the other -- 'yes' and 'no,' despite being opposites, were not recognized as 'here' and 'gone,' even by the most intelligent code. 'On' was not 'better' or 'worse' than 'Off.' . . .The programs inside the V.i. were infinitely and effortlessly replicating -- humans, and the concept of death, were not a threat."

The earth got really cold when it got knocked off its axis and started free-falling through the heavens. After six years since coming within sight of a star bright enough to call a sun and our race's population falling below 16,000 souls, I didn't think we had a snowball's chance in hell. Another ten years passed, and Pumpkin, I was still alive. I think I should make the most of it.

I feel like I've been piped into the V.i. for a really long time. This isn’t the case though. It's been less than six hours of research today. I think it’s my age, honestly. Nowadays, whatever, I was 16 when I started writing this, and I'm only 22 now, time is finally slowing down for the first time in my life.

I was on a tram earlier and I was sitting across from a woman with a baby, which she was carrying in a sling. The thing was staring up at the indifferent woman, at its mama. To the baby, time was instantaneous -- to him, it moved so fast. He was flickering from crying to laughing to baby-talk and then back across all three. Partly because he had no short-term memory, partly because living one moment to the next was the only existence he knew. I listen to a lot of music, but my compulsiveness to change songs out of sheer boredom reduces it all to a jumble of information, and yet, that's the way I'm most comfortable. That's the way?

Wait, the baby. Everything was so fast for him. Click, click, click, click, click, clicking along. He wasn't confusing his emotions one moment to the next, he was entirely aware and expressive at every instant, even if we didn't understand him -– nothing blurred, nothing blended, nothing ignored or forgotten, at least nothing was forgotten at first. For the mother though, she might have been in the midst of an entire week of what she'd learned in life to designate as 'lethargy.' Her emotions were slower to move. Was the rest of her slower to move too? Was her actual life slowed down as a result?

It's cold out there. Of course it is, it's space. There aren't many domes on the surface as there used to be and staring at the sky, into the nebulae, it makes most people seasick. Machines, computers work well in the cold. People don't. We've slowly gotten better at working without an atmosphere. So, we have that.

Again, the baby, sidetracked, apologies. For this mother with her little baby boy, would it all eventually slow down so much that it became synchronized with all the other slowing-down people around her? And then she dies? C'mon, is that how it really works? Our recognition of where we are just becomes so universally agreed upon that we assume that's all? Rather simple. Rather convenient.

I'm way too young to be considering these things. I doubt I've experienced enough in life to possess the emotional vocabulary required to interpret these things correctly -- being aware of that, misfortune, let's say, makes the feeling worse. But I have to. I've been given a task, and it's too important to neglect it. That's a sure fucking thing.

The V.i. upsets my internal clock though. I don't know what time it is. I don't remember sleep but I'm never tired. Even when I'm not piped in, I know the V.i. is still just as active with all its substance and its interactions and its big winners and its pitiful losers. I'm just so glad that I still have the willpower to come up for air and I'm so glad that it didn't go on like this forever. Even when I think I know everything, even when I have absorbed all that the V.i. has to offer, all that data, all those answers, it's always a shock -- that answer. The one I'm not brave enough to admit. That I'm a confused little shit living in absolute terror. I wasn't afraid to leave this world because this world is negligent and won't care when I'm gone. My greatest persuasion was the admission that I didn't know myself entirely -- that I want to see what I'll be convinced of tomorrow.

I remember meeting my dad for the first time. My uncle introduced him to me one day and when I met my dad, he didn't even have to say anything. Nothing at all.

Before meeting him, this was six or so years ago now, I had felt myself slipping in and out of consciousness. It happened at random intervals, days at a time. I'd wake up with no idea where I was, gather up what I could, and return home. The first time it happened, I was worried, wondering if I had been abducted. Maybe somebody had played a joke on me? It was possible. It was easy to play jokes on me back then. But then it kept happening, still randomly, and still harmlessly. I started to accept it -- that there were going to be days I didn't participate in and things I didn't bother to remember. I discovered later though that I wasn't alone in these feelings. Lots of people were going through it, waking up in different places, memories missing -- it was just hard to talk about. In fact, nobody talked about it all. It was just a quiet insomniac-problem that people did their best to ignore as we stared at a spots on the wall for hours, begging for real rest. All I can hear is her soft voice, somebody's soft voice talking in her sleep. It was because of the planet. It was because of the V.i.

I was awake, I talked, I just didn't remember a lot of the things I did. It built on itself. It was built on nothing, nothing worth remembering, so there wasn't really anything to change about myself. No spectrum of betterment to refer to. All of it, all knowledge, was decided upon -- all truth had been solved. Humanity had nothing left to discover and nothing left to master. I mastered myself, I knew where to be, when to be there. The whole thing was very warm. It wasn't right though. I didn't know where the heat was coming from. Thinking about it now, it was coming from my brain.

Warmth shouldn't come from your brain. Dammit, what an idea!

Piped into the V.i., I could see the entire existence of mankind at once and little else. The stacks of data would have reached the sky if they'd rendered one. Everybody was there, the resolution was quite high. It was like a mouse dropped into a box of spices, scents overwhelming senses so completely that you could never name them all, despite knowing that they are indeed all there and unique. Souls, information, twitching past my eyes, there one instant and refreshed the next. Who cares what the data was? This is what it is. I still don't know if they were other people piped in or fragmented avatars -- leftover lightweight-V.i.'s that somebody had programmed to replace something they'd lost. Some people developed filter programs that made the fragmented avatars invisible and others designed deletion scripts shaped like guns that would wipe out non-humans with cool effects (people developed filters to mask these defraggers' effects too so they weren't constantly bombarded by light and sound). There was no way they'd ever defrag them all, but it was a decent way to learn how to tell the difference between human and non-human avatars. I'd gotten better at telling the difference on sight; still not quite there though. People didn't really behave like humans inside the V.i. anyway. There was more excitement, more warmth to be had by doing just the opposite.

You might ask: "I have no computer skills, so can I possibly interface with the V.i. and take advantage of it?" Well, can you order takeout Chinese cuisine? Then you can program a V.i. Just go to a SaaS avatar and tell them what you want made. As long as it didn't run counter to the recognized collective within the Uber-V.i., it would be allowed to exist. Making it very unique helped you with that. It's a bizarre landscape where everybody is invulnerable and individualistic with the means to create towering monuments to themselves.

Creation and individuality in the V.i. was good. Redundancy was bad.

These SaaS programs existed everywhere and nowhere. Part of the program might be running off 0.00006% of your very silicon synapse, part of it might be grabbing bandwidth off of a satellite in orbit. The data was so universal and the fidelity of the wireless signals was so consistent that bits were streamed from every human, sky-drive, and cyber-brain in a capacity humans aren't capable of comprehending. We're all one giant, wireless neural-network -- a lot of people don't even know it. Fun fact about the code and the scripts for the V.i.: a majority of them are running in your brain's background right now. That's why things are slowing down -- because one by one, the humans are dying and there are fewer processor "cores." There might have been a method to it all once, programmed by a person, analyzed and declared efficient by the men building the virtual infrastructure. Those guys were fucking stupid. The codes got smarter than the people making them -- of course they did, it was a binary cognition in a binary plane of existence. No analog human brain was going to keep up or ever doubt the algorithms' compiled data on software efficiency. At some point, the man or woman building the virtual infrastructure realized this unflinching reality and let the software take the lead.

Any question, any service, any request, any creation, they really could do almost anything inside the V.i. Self-maintaining and self-dividing and so far gone from the original human coding, it was surprising how well they still worked. The biggest shock was that they, the entirely sentient codes, even the codes written by non-humans, didn't try to kill people piped-in. They didn't want to drain our precious bodily fluids for heat to compose a material society. They'd skipped the physical existence step entirely, leaping straight to a pure-energy solid-state form. This software evolved into something so different than the programmers could have imagined. It didn't recognize life. Software didn't have greed. It didn't identify itself as "alive" in the way carbon-based animals do.

The programs inside the V.i. were infinitely and effortlessly replicating -- humans, and the concept of death, were not a threat. "Threat" was not even a concept they were cognizant of.

There was no self-preservation. There was no sense of death or loss. If something was deleted, a new copy would be created, or a newer, better version would be written. Individual extinction or existence didn't register for them. At the most basic moment, I/O (1 or 0) was all they knew, and neither was deemed better than the other -- "yes" and "no," despite being opposites, were not recognized as "here" and "gone," even by the most intelligent code because the code can't feel happy or sad or emotional. "On" was not "better" or "worse" than "Off." The software existed entirely "in the present." It solved immediate problems and then solved the next most immediate problem. The codes executed tasks because to them, it was what humans would call "validation of existence," the way a human validation is broken down to Eros and Thanatos: fucking and death.

How much fucking can I squeeze in before death?

These busy code lines were just wandering spirits inside the V.i. Harmless, and inert until you approached them. They were usually friendlier than people, by the way. That's how you start getting good at spotting them amongst the people piped in.

All codes were equal amongst them. The programs that the humans interacted with were so far removed from the source code -- and really, we wouldn't be able to find it if we wanted to, which we didn't, because then we would have to live without the V.i. Programs didn't compete against each other. They didn't see each other as "different." They didn't even see things as "important," at least not anymore, so far gone from human influence as they were. They were just more limbs on the same tree, so to speak, and Yggdrasil’s roots ran deep. If a limb rotted off, there was a reason, probably lack of use or inefficiency. As I stated earlier though, the code didn't default to "mass extermination" as the only solution to save from continual decay or inefficiency, which was what some people feared. No, this was not the case because non-existence was the same as existence -- it was already enduring, so there was no compulsion to switch over to indifference in regard to existence.

Code dying off is not a loss because the code cannot win. The code cannot weep because the code is not alive.

Things were very black and white back then. Not for the V.i., an entity incapable of taking sides. For the humans though, both inside the V.i. and outside, it was a violent age. I only really talked to my brother and I listened to a lot of music, even though I wasn't supposed to. The way people saw it, you were either with them or against them.

If you were with them, they expected a lot of you.

If you were against them, they'd try to kill you -- emotionally at first. Then physically if that didn't work. When you stared into the V.i., you saw everything. People's names, their lives, where they'd been, where they were going, things and people they adored, careers they pursued, their schooling, their expertise, their passions, worlds and walls constructed by steady hands -- I know what people felt though. Envy. Always envy. Envy of the personae people had assembled, envy of the indifferent vanity and opulence that must be untrue. It was an emotionally-damaging weapon that could spread like a deep electrical shock. People projected themselves into the data and allowed the V.i. to filter their self-presentation. Whatever it was they were feeling -- happiness, stress, anger, boredom, loneliness, it all blossomed outward. Their faces and their data, as banal as the man or woman standing beside them, despite being a whole-manifestation of what they were and wanted to be -- and as banal as mine, that's for damn sure -- were isolated emotional reservations. In that instant, the person left a placeholder, acutely aware. And yet the moment could very well be a lie, and most likely was a lie. It wasn't what they were feeling, it was perversion, a human reaction to an infantile moment of clarity meant to elicit a sin from people they were praying would be watching: envy.

I looked at a picture of my brother, hair clean and mopped to the side, his mouth open but not smiling, but in his eyes was a realization that he probably should have. The image whirled away when I blinked, moving on to what was next. The filter hiccuped but snapped back into place before I needed to come up for air or reboot. More info came in. Lines of text scrolling out across the live data feed, history had been made and changed.

I was an arrogant little shit, so I assumed with the entirety of my pulsing ego that there had to be something more. I knew my dad was alive but I had no idea he had anything to do with the Flat Wave. Now, my mom being alive, that was news.

The Flat Wave sent us reeling. Without its decrepit version of "guidance," and its infinitely abundant solar energy, humanity didn't have much to go on. The solar panels it had launched from its space elevator, powering us all -- they came down. The panels' frames, made of cheap, heavy metal were what did the real damage. They made their impacts at every conceivable latitude and the earth's tectonics underwent a massive shift. Rampant plate subduction on a global scale led to what can be best described as a massive elemental rearrangement. You know how there's gold and iron and platinum and plutonium and uranium naturally occurring in different parts of the world? Well, shuffle all that after eons of being settled. Some of those unstable elements don't get along very well when they're close to each other and combined with the dust-clouds the falling panels created, which redirected the planet's magnetic polarity so badly, plus the altered atmospheric pressure caused by the temperature fluctuations, the whole thing spun off of its axis.

With the planet in freefall, the atmosphere ignited, burning itself off entirely. Billions of people burned to death in minutes. We called this event something, I just don't remember what. After it happened though, the rest of us rode the thing through the sky, getting used to breathing re-circulated air. Living in sealed structures while the stars rain by isn't much of a way for humans to live. Living underground is even worse.

The V.i. was the best, quickest, easiest answer. People rarely exit it, "coming up for air," as they say. Out of the V.i., I feel a little more mortal, heavier, sleepier, staring out at the invulnerable black. I feel oneness. Most people exist a few times over within the Virtual-infrastructure. Every so often, copies of the V.i. are jettisoned into space. Just fragments of ourselves, left for, I don't know, somebody to find someday. An iteration of you or me exists out there now. Your history, your data, your possessions, your actions, your life's comings and goings -- as written by you -- is out there. You've been backed-up. Someday, any day now, the planet, this earthly meteor that we're on, might just crack in half or collide just a little too hard with something of decent size, and then all of our physical forms will be dust. But we’ll be alive in the V.i. Or, our copies will. They're all alive already in those storage clouds we dropped. Maybe we'll survive and come back for the back-ups some day? Maybe an alien intelligence will find the data and decide that, yes, there was other sentient life in the universe?

I wonder if somebody with a USB port will find it? I wonder where we're going. I needn't worry though, it's not my job to wonder. Amongst all the command lines and silent crashes and the endlessly re-written data, somewhere inside it all is human history. I want to know how it happened. I pray the V.i. lets me. A lot of people have tried before and the V.i. doesn't have patience for redundancy.

-- Ghost Little
on Twitter  |  @GhostLittle_WTF

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

#14 -- "Paradise Lost" Reviewed | * * * *

"Paradise Lost has the balls to dissolve confusion, changing the topic of conversation from 'why?' to 'because, bitch.' It's a great piece of mythological fan-fiction. It's a great piece of persuasive advertising."

"Satan's actions are all the more identifiable given that there are quite literally no other humans to be found in the story at this point. He doesn't even know that he's evil though.

"There's nothing about the contents of Hell in The Bible. It's woefully under-represented." 

". . .we suppose it's communication that is humanity's greatest survival tool. It fights the confusion. It's a tool for prosperity, for growth, for demonstration of intellectual prowess. When there is communication, there is stability, and when there is stability, there is great opportunity for freedom.

"You're not afraid to leave this world because this world is negligent and it won't care when you're gone, and yet to identify with even one person and admit that you can't name every voice speaking in your soul, and to give over that responsibility in the face of absolute terror, that is the greatest persuasion.

NB: This is entry #14. We've been working on it since the middle of February. Why? Because #14 is Paradise Lost, the greatest thing ever written. Not only did we need to do it justice, we got to writing about it, and left the computer for a bit, and then came back, and had an epiphany. Needless to say, in order to prove a point, we took our time and pledged months ago not to have this thing be "done" until July 19. That's today. Enjoy!

|  |  | 

We're huge admirers of Those guys have got it going on. Their freewheeling aggro-talk inspired a lot of what we do here. Our favorite feature of their site is that they are inclined to re-review things, sometimes more than once, and sometimes months or years later. What a concept! Imagine if we did this for the Academy Awards, for example. Did you know Shakespeare In Love won best picture? It did. Do you know what year it won in? Do you know what didn't win that year? Saving Private Ryan. Can you imagine if the evaluation system involved a re-review process 5 years later? Which of those two movies resonated further with audiences then, now, and a decade from now? Did you know Chicago won best picture? Over both Gangs of New York and The Two Towers.

There's a toxicity in our need for immediacy. It hinges on demand and on people's inability to make decisions for themselves. Make enough small bad decisions in a row, you lose yourself in your vat of errors, and incorrectness becomes unrecognizable. Sure, everybody has a right to accurate news though, to information, and to have it delivered in a timely fashion. It's when information blurs with consumption that things become clouded. We fear the day when all information and interpretation of events, both recent and ancient, are homogenized into a singularity, like the eventuality of Wikipedia. Information might one day be so ubiquitous and accessible that to be "intelligent" will become obsolete. People will be able to claim data and fact from the ether, its finality will be undisputed, and we all go Eloi (cruel irony, tell the people what Eloi are if they don't already know).

This in mind, we say delay immediacy. Slow your mental plow, man. Humans might like to think that their brains are solid-state hard drives. We aren't. We're better than that. What if we operated on a six-month delay of professional critique, analysis, and review? First, a lot of people would lose their jobs. We know we would, for sure.

This delay though -- would it add stability to our critical process? Is your gut reaction your best reaction? Well, write that down, but it won't be official for another six months under this system. Sleep on it. Think about it. Then forget about it. You'll go through a lot of days, moods, and interpretations over the course of that time. If you're doing your job correctly though, you'll arrive at the truest answer. You will always have your initial interpretation to fall back on if you can't discover anything else.

But what are we talking about again? Shit. How about that, four paragraphs and no mention of Paradise Lost, just ramblings about why we like so much. Well, heads-up, this is probably the most importance sentence in the review, since it contains the statement, "Personal, prolonged justification in decision-making is a human's greatest capability, too often lost, and too often perverted, so when you attempt to cast off responsibility, you are also casting off self-worth, and that cuts you in a way that may never properly heal." Or maybe it's not the most important statement. We just riffed that without even looking down at the keyboard or taking a break to check email. Maybe we should write this over the course of six months? That'd be pretty righteous. Patience. We'll see what happens.

So we did.

Understand this: people lean. It makes us great. It's life-affirming and gives us worth. We slouch when we can't stand straight. We rest to collect our thoughts. We go to others when we need to verbalize. Rare is the person that doesn't shudder with fatigue. The other half of this webbed scaffolding we build around ourselves is that we don't quit. People, we mean. We don't lay down and die. There's always one last question we can think of, always one last thing we need to do, one last answer. The human soul runs on description and justification. 

In order to obtain description and justification though, we have to run on a crude fossil fuel: confusion. Paraphrasing Kierkegaard in limited vernacular, "The Bible is a simple book with a simple message, it's just that even the most intelligent man will deliberately refuse to understand it." The confusion powers us. Paradise Lost has the balls to dissolve confusion, changing the topic of conversation from "why?" to "because, bitch." It's a great piece of mythological fan-fiction. It's a great piece of persuasive advertising.

Confusion and rage power our protagonist in Paradise Lost. Beginning in medias res, as the best epics do, our hero is in trouble, annoyed after a fight with his father. It's some heavy shit. Family drama is the meatiest, most sticky drama. Because of the falling out, the kid has been sent to live in a crappy neighborhood with his equally confused friends. The electrical work in his new place is bad and the water damage makes the floors smell. The fight with his dad is rolling around inside his skull like a baker's dozen beetles with megaphones. In the beginning, he just wants to get what he did wrong. Our protagonist's confusion stems from his inability to understand the "why" of his father's displeasure. He felt he'd always done the right thing, admiring dear old dad, talking him up to people he met -- seriously, that's why we're here, right? To make our parents look good? And isn't out-doing them the best way to make our parents look good? 

The answer was apparently "no." This confused the living shit out of our hero. It started a fight and it came to blows. The hero left, sad, angry, violent, upset. He went to bed mad. He doesn't quit. There's always another question, the need for another answer. Approach a bad situation with both eyes open. If you don't like where you're at, change it. Good lessons for all people. 

The biggest problem is that our hero isn't "people." He isn't even human -- he's an angel, and a fallen angel at that. Our snap-judgment kicks in immediately when we're told the most ancient "oh, he'll be bad" red herring drops. Still, we're so compelled to side with him. Now, we've always been told that God created the angels to be different from humans. How different? Well, we were never really told that, the mythology's fuzzy. Yet they are seen as pious, pitying creatures, protecting earth-dwellers. There are no rules about how they "should" behave. In fact, the only rule is that God loves humans more than angels. 


Angels get their wings and their halo and they get that one hard and fast rule. Paradise Lost is the story of the first angel to ask why that is. Worse still though, our fallen angel hero might be central to the story, but his struggle isn't the reason for this story. With that in mind, we readers already know there's no way in hell that he'll get the closure he demands. We know how the Genesis story ends. He doesn't know that yet, so the tragedy stems from the reader knowing before the hero. Also, he isn't a hero, he's an anti-hero. Eventually, he'll grow up to be The Prince of Darkness, Ruler of Hell, once called Lucifer, Satan now. He's a charming piece of work, sympathetic and seductive, and wicked to the core without even realizing it. 

He's the most human character in the story. Definitely easier to identify with than the actual humans. "Humans" and "humanity" are new concepts at the beginning of the story. Lucifer knows they exist and he knows that they've got a deluxe apartment in the sky. He does not. He's in Hell. It's pitch black, it's fucking hot, there are lakes of acid, and he just got his head stoved in by Michael, that kiss-ass punk. A lot of people don't get that. Lucifer was an, and is, an angel. He'll never be stronger than God. He's got the mystical firepower of some mid-level entity like Michael or Gandalf. So the next time you want to claim Satan-induced weakness or insanity, remember that Lucifer was a fairly weak spirit. 

Lucifer decides he should wreck all the nick-knacks hanging on the wall in God's den. We've all been there, it's a reasonable reaction. Satan's actions are all the more identifiable given that there are quite literally no other humans to be found in the story at this point. He doesn't even know that he's evil though. Those are the best villains. Ones that are true believers in their missions. They see themselves as wronged, as righteous, or as so disconnected from good and bad that what they're doing as malevolence. 

Top 10 villains of all time:
  1. Iago, from Othello
  2. Kefka, from Final Fantasy VI
  3. The Operative, from Serenity
  4. Ozymandias, from Watchmen
  5. Aton Chigurh, from No Country For Old Men
  6. Michael Corleone, from The Godfather Part II
  7. Stringer Bell, from The Wire
  8. Mary Tilford, from The Children's Hour
  9. Satan, from Paradise Lost
  10. Kerrigan, from Starcraft
So Satan isn't 'evil.' Or rather, we have no way to actually label Lucifer, the character, as evil. He hasn't done it yet. We know he will. We will always know how the story ends. This is good drama, children. Make the lead sympathetic, make him charismatic, make him wronged in a very human way, make his downfall predestined, then blind him of it. Make the reader hope for him. We hope for redemption, always. What a weird quality -- hearing this story about a guy that's supposedly the embodiment of all evil in existence, and we want to forgive him, want him to be redeemed. Says something about people's hearts being in the right place. The most popular religions are founded on that belief -- the eventuality of redemption. Out of our confusion, there is hope. Eventually. 

Hope will deliver us from confusion? Wishful thinking. Lucifer is an action-man! When others would wallow, he tells his bros that he's gonna go totally sick-house on God's favorite creation: mankind. OK, if you're a human reading the story, at this point, you can't abide that. "No, Lucifer, don't do it! You're going to get God mad at you and you'll be turned into a snake forever! Watch out, it's a fucking trap!" You can't save him. You have to watch him. Watch him and know that his suffering will teach you a lesson. It will teach you, human, the lesson of: "Why God acts the way he does around you."

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there disease? Why do we experience confusion? Why do we experience heartbreak? What is the purpose of giving us free will and then demanding obedience? Why is power given to those who do not know its value?

What is the purpose behind the ways of God to man?

An amazing hook. Everybody grapples with why others act a particular way toward a particular person. Everybody grapples with God, especially atheists. We at What's That From? believe in a non-systemic beliefs system. It's paradoxical and contradictory, like all religions, so it still counts. We don't align with a political party. We rarely vote. We don't believe in a specific god. We don't read a specific book when we feel confused, except maybe The Alchemist. We can understand why people would, but the idea of taking advice from something written, translated, and re-written by a loosely-assembled cult of malnourished, dehydrated, hallucinating, persecuted, angry desert-dwellers that blame another loosely-assembled tribe of malnourished, dehydrated, hallucinating, persecuted, angry desert-dwellers for killing their ret-conned messiah -- it just doesn't sit right. Seriously, ask any Christian, for example, why he or she believes in God. The good ones -- and they do exist -- will answer that they enjoy guidance, or they enjoy the communal betterment the church can bring, or they're trying to nail the organist. 

Then there are the funny ones. They might say something like, "because Jesus will save me." Jesus. The guy from The Bible? OK, we'll ignore that for a sec. What's Jesus going to save you from? "He's going to save me from the devil and get me to Heaven." 

Let's start here. The devil? You mean Lucifer. The prideful angel that stepped out of line in 1337 BC (not the actual year), confused about God's immediate and unexplained love for his second children? Why does God love us more than the angels, by the way? We're getting to that, that's what Paradise Lost explains, dummy! Anyway, the devil runs Hell, and that's where the people that Christians hate go when they die. Man, religion truly is a dish best served cold. Good to know that the motherfuckers of the world will be shot with acid-filled paintballs for, like, forever. Forever is longer than a human mind can fathom, maybe even longer, so they'll get theirs, don't you worry! 

What's Hell like? Well, any well-educated man of God will begin by describing the Circles. And the layers of sins. And the homunculi that torture the exposed flesh of the wicked. And the things that are done to people in their personalized Hellzzz, and how Satan is chained in the deepest frozen circle with three different heads that constantly masticate on the undying remains of the worst sinners in Christian mythology. 

Spoiler: these circles of Hell, the personalized sin-spas that the heathens are hot-tubbing in, these things do not appear anywhere in The Bible. You are thinking of The Inferno cantos from Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. You'd be just as well off reading The Canterbury Tales or Hyperion if you're looking for realizations of Hell. There's nothing about the contents of Hell in The Bible. It's woefully under-represented. The people (characters) in The Bible might refer to Hell on occasion, but what this is saying to us is that the people (characters) in The Bible have no idea what they're talking about. Which means all of their threats are empty. Which means their stories might be exaggerated for dramatic effect, ideally scaring readers into believing them, put there for dramatic effect. Which means they were making it up as they went along. The fact that committees were formed to decide which version of the Revelation story was to be canonized worries us. 

It doesn't matter though. All confusion over religion can be washed away by Paradise Lost. All the annoying fear-mongering and condemnation -- gone.

We are at a strange place in history. We're on a technological launching pad, yet we're still fighting wars circulating around religion and interpretation. Hatred hold-overs because of fear and confusion.

The good technologies in human history were born out of necessity, created for the betterment of the human condition. Consider America as an easy-to-follow example. Are you American? Don't answer that. Welcome, non-American reader!

See, cities needed power, so complex coal mines were developed to fuel growing metropolises. Anybody that says London is foggy doesn't know what they're talking about -- that Dickensian fog they're always talking about is actually coal soot, not actual fog. Always was. Nevertheless, the filth and squalor of early mega-cities brought overpopulation. Overpopulation led to people moving west, railroads systems were crafted. America needed food, invented massive agricultural machines to feed the baby boom after World War II. Pride in one's family lead to expansion, big cars, big houses, big yards, big dreams. Men in particular would say things about themselves without even speaking, poetry, truly, in that pride, pride's the two-faced composition notwithstanding, naturally. Needed to prove themselves, so they bought these things. Still, populations and sub-cultures were established all across the country -- trains too slow, flight industry exploded. Still not fast enough, telecommunication networks were built, people drawn even closer together -- closer still with the speed high-fidelity broadband connections allowed. The concepts of day and night on the planet are nearly negated due to the speed at which humans can communicate today.

There was always a necessity. Always a need. Sometimes for business, sometimes for survival. Always for speed though. The rate at which a human life can be extinguished is lessened with the speed at which one human can communicate with another. Therefore, we suppose it's communication that is humanity's greatest survival tool. It fights the confusion. It's a tool for prosperity, for growth, for demonstration of intellectual prowess. When there is communication, there is stability, and when there is stability, there is great opportunity for freedom. Freedom from time leads to exploration and wonderment, stimulation, and ways to specifically spend the free time that cooperation afforded.

Cooperation, then speed, then communication, then freedom, then stimulation -- art. Expression of existence. Replication of existence. Interpretation of existence. Go read Chapter 4 of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It'll change your life. It'll make you want to buy a dead poet's ashes off of eBay, chop them on a mirror, and do a few lines of an Irishwoman named Angela.

This art will become beauty and reflection. It is still a result of necessity. Human communication's final form is a desire, a necessity, even, perhaps, to convey presence at all times to others. To say without saying, again, is poetry. Yet, when presence becomes omnipresence, it is no longer felt, only its absence is felt. Anything less is inadequate. It can't be maintained, and we should not desire it to be maintained. At which point, we must assume that fluctuation, rising and falling and rising again, is the best communication, the best art, the best freedom, the best stimulation, the clearest expression of existence.

Existence, as humans define it. Buddha said that life is suffering -- we say think that thought is incomplete.

We think there has to be way more than people are aware of. For example, X-rays exist. We can't feel them, but we know they're there. We know they're capable of penetrating our reality, our level of perception -- it just takes a lot of technology and perception. So what else is there? There might be life-forms whose existence we might not even count as alive.

That which serves in symbiosis, aware that it will someday fall apart, will be the proudest. Sound like anybody named Satan that you've heard of? There may perhaps never be another like him, rebel angel that he is, and he knows it, so his uniqueness is a keystone to his expression. Utter individuality simultaneously manages to be just as inadequate as omnipresence, for it is in utter individuality that weakness is bred. It's here that the proudest, which we mentioned above, shows its true colors. It is too driven. Too absorbed into the necessity of self.

In Paradise Lost, God is the omnipresence, and Satan is the first individualist. Neither of them end up doing very well by the end of the story. The question is, and always has been: "Why is it this way?" We're nearing the answer. What is God? What is Satan?

By comparison, what is human?

It's in one's ability to shift, at necessity, that shows life's true colors. A shift from firmness to softness. From fast to slow. From high to low. From light to dark. And back again, if we find ourselves regretful.

People are bad at shifting quickly. Physically, the human body can bend if pressure is applied over time -- coincidentally, the brain is kind of the same. Lucifer is hung up on themes of freedom and fairness. 

Americans, by default, are raised on the concept of freedom and equality, but when released into the wild, like all creatures outside of the familiar, they find themselves without the emotional vocabulary to craft an independent persona capable of conversing with a concept as expansive as freedom, so they gravitate towards something immediate and safe. We don’t just gravitate to the path of least resistance though, we also regress back to baser comprehension. This is a big cause of mid-life crises -- people find themselves unrecognizable later in life, just overgrow meatbags of values described in childhood, running on auto-pilot, too indifferent now to move. From there, we're snuggly and compartmentalized, still deploying unshakable, playground-caliber notions of right and wrong. If we're told that we're not free, we will instantly deny that statement. Anybody that even thinks it would be so humanely inhumane, so starkly wrong! Yet being "just wrong" is not enough for us. There has to be a reason that anybody would suggest America isn't free, so we'll assemble myths behind their motivations, modifying their circumstances, adding gravitas, adding personal complexity to this monolithic wickedness. Recognize that we aren't talking about a trait specific to America anymore. All people create demons. We fight demons. We, free humans, declare we are indeed still human in violent defiance.

Shit, Americans win wars. Our career record is 11-2-2. 

Creatures of conscience, we want to kill our enemies in an odd kind of equation sorta unique to the American brain, marrying violence with freedom. Innumerable modern cultures have borrowed this persuasion recently. America is a culture of psychos (it's okay, Yossarian pointed out that you won't know if you're crazy), a byproduct of the inherent character envy implanted when its citizens are young –- the way one is told that all are equal, and yet it becomes increasingly clear as we stare into our surrounding culture, that Americans are in no way equal, and that gnaws at an American's brainstem. We know it, but to say it out loud is to let our demons win, to admit that we aren't free. We can either accept it or fight, and the fighters, the true, honest psychos, indifferent to the social posturing that the others submitted to, are the ones that get all the envy they can, eventually becoming creatures that feed on the feeling. 

Think. Remember back home to the cagey, self-loathing, dishonest people, knowingly unworthy of being 'American,' the irony not lost, sadly. They've submitted knowingly, debased their independence knowingly, handed envy, a sick emotion, to the truly craziest crazies, and all because they can't channel the freedom they had learned years and years ago. We've been taught it and told it was good, but freedom, and its uses, are so vast and so variable from one person to the next, that its value is lost to so many of us. It's intangible and it has to be given its value. 

All deserve freedom! This isn't right. The answer has to be elsewhere. Lucifer decided he would find it. 

Find the humans. Find out why they've been given freedom and life and love. Lucifer carries hell within him -- back when when was just an individual emotion, and not a metaphysical place -- he verbally abandons good, incapable of rising back to hope. He wishes he could abandon fear. He cannot. He knows what he's doing is wicked, so sorry for himself that he is so predestined to destruction. His dark materials, indeed.

The story of Paradise Lost tapers and accelerates once Satan has entered the Garden. We're nearly there.

There is no turning back. We all know the story. Snake sees woman, woman sees fruit, snake offers casual suggestion, woman fucks up. Did woman fuck up? Eve, proto-lady as she was, proto-innocent as she was, she is not to blame. Everything she did, she did out of love, crafted with the base-simple logic, seeing good, knowing only good. She immediately understands what she did (because, you know, it's the Fruit of Knowledge), yet it's in Adam's identification, even before he himself has eaten, that there is the seed of human redemption. Perhaps God realized this would happen, perhaps not, but to see Eve, afraid, aware, and alone inside 'Knowledge' itself, in proto-humanity that is so much greater than Lucifer's self-diluted pity, Adam would rather die with Eve than live forever alone, ignorant to the meaning of her love for him. 

He eats the fruit. It's a sad triumph. Satan has helped evict humanity from paradise, from the original paradise, and we see him for what he is and always was.

Books IX-XII are so elegant and respectful of the story we all know. It's not mistake that Lucifer goes from charismatic to a recoiling ash serpent, Lord of Darkness, and Fucker of Death (seriously, he had to fuck Death to gain entry to the earthly plane (read this poem!)). The torch is passed to the actual humans, Adam and Eve, who make an emotional calculation of devotion before they technically been given the tools to make such a distinction. It isn't spelled out -- it needn't be. 

Justifying the way of God to men is a difficult task -- mostly because we refuse the answer given. Suppose God is an expansive metaphor for misfortune, bad luck, fate shitting rain and lightning on your weekend plans. We reject this. Satan took a bad situation and attempted to make it good by becoming evil itself. The humans took a bad situation and decided to love one another instead. Who had the better reaction to fate? The ones that were given the capability to create good out of misfortune, rather than the One that couldn't learn from his mistakes? Which would you rather be?

Humans can bend. Evil fallen ang
els can't.

No matter how smart you think you are, there is somebody in the world that has the simplest answer to a question you don't even realize you're asking yourself at the beginning and the end of every day. You can't face that answer until you're brave enough to admit you are a confused little shit living in absolute terror. You're not afraid to leave this world because this world is negligent and it won't care when you're gone, and yet to identify with even one person and admit that you can't name every voice speaking in your soul, and to give over that responsibility in the face of absolute terror, that is the greatest persuasion. It's the admission that you don't know yourself, not entirely. This idea can't be planted in your heads by an outside force. For it to work, you have to persuade yourself. 

It's prolonged serendipity. That's it. That's love. Not forcing yourself, but loosing yourself from your personal singularity, is how love works. You have to persuade yourself that somebody else could have an answer.  

* * * *
(out of 4)

-- Ghost Little and Doberman
on Twitter  |  @GhostLittle_WTF

Monday, July 18, 2011

#31.5 -- 4 | P0W3Я H0µЯ (Part 2)

Another special pre-update for the week of July 18th. Due to our ongoing legal battle with Axel Rose, it took a little bit to obtain the legal rights for non-revenue generating use of "Paradise City." Hence, the delay in part two of our video series going live.

Without further adieu, please enjoy a part two of "4 |  P0W3Я H0µЯ," the video tribute to drinking, music, and video games:

The other parts are cut and loaded on YouTube already, the full playlist you can find here. We'll be adding updates periodically when things get slow. Unfortunately, Part 4 is facing similar licensing issues because Jay-Z is lowballing us. Can you believe that?

Look for full update tomorrow.

-- Ghost Little and Doberman
on Twitter  |  @GhostLittle_WTF

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

#31 -- The Beach Is Weird

"A pristine trip to the beach forms no good memory. A weird trip to the beach forms a fantastic memory." 

What's weird about the beach is that people make every effort to exude a confident aura while they're there and yet simultaneously pretend that they aren't in the most filthy and public place imaginable. We aren't talking just about the looking-good -- there's more bad than good. It's more the "get out of my way, I'm having fun!" attitude.

"This here's my patch of dirt and seafoam, don't you even look at me (or please, please, please do)!" People pack their families and friends into salt-frosted vehicles, throw on highly-specific, and sometimes unbecoming, clothing, lie down in the heat beside water that most will be indifferent to, pretend that they're not hot, and get sand in their cellphones. We suppose it roots back to our theorem on why Winter Is Better Than Summer, and the recurring fact that people love being good at doing jack shit. Americans like to think they're good at this, but they need to understand that the position of "Most Chilled-Out Motherfucker On The Planet" was claimed all the way back in 1901, and we don't think Australia is going to give up her title any time soon. Nevertheless, people love working hard at lounging skills. They love tolerating the haters, blowing off responsibility, giving scheduling the middle finger, and turning up back in reality later on, sunburned and smelling like kelp, stating: "Went to the beach, bitches."

The beach is weird. Everybody wants to go. Not everybody feels good about going. You're either there to enjoy yourself in the half-nudity that you've been crunching together for the last month, or to hate on fatsos that are probably getting laid more frequently than you are. As a plus, you know that there are people inside right now (right-right now!) that are hating that you aren't yourself indoors. Haha! Fools! All your sunshine are belong to us!

Know what the beach is? It's your admission that: "You know what? I surrender. I will default to my inner tantrum-response and go limp, indifferent to the world. Just you try to drag me, mom. I'll read something I know is shitty. I will hold my beach neighbors in contempt for either being fatter or skinnier than I am. I will laugh at the people that I know are not brave enough to throw up their own hands and shout: 'Fuck it! Willful stupidity is where I belong. To the salty shores!' I'll hate myself, feeling niggling grains of guilt stuck under my toenails. I'll complain about the heat in the traffic. I'll complain about the heat on the sand. I'll miss my air conditioner. I'll worry about getting sand in my iPhone. I'll hate that I can't surf, or even boogie board, for that matter. I surrender to this dream I borrowed."

We've never had a moment where we've felt we've earned the right to collapse for a while. Happiness doesn't come from waving guilt away, putting something off. That's why the beach is weird. You have to either earn it or you have to deny responsibility for a while, potentially lying to yourself. There's always something better that could be done with this time, isn't there? There is no "enough for now, let's go to the beach." A pristine trip to the beach forms no good memory. A weird trip to the beach forms a fantastic memory.

People love the beach. That's weird. Almost all people love the beach, and yet they complain when everybody in Japan and America drops $10 to see Transformers 3 on a Wednesday evening (Pro-tip, don't pay $10 to see Transformers 3. Wait for NetFlix and skip the first hour (* 1/2 out of 4).). The beach is the Michael Bay Of Fun. It's loud, long, smelly, stupid, and hateful. And that bothers the large majority of people. 

The beach is "Fun," set to "Default." It's 5 out of 10. Sometimes though, you just kinda need 5 out of 10.

We went to the beach last Saturday and had a pretty good time. There was a lot of falling off of surfboards. There was a lot of bickering with locals about towel location. There was a lot of bro-heckling. Beer led to dark & stormy(s), led to grilled meat, led to meat jokes, led to the sun going down on a good day. Weird how that works. Stupidity is best when enjoyed with friends. Stupidity is best when it's shouted, when it's given a passing glance, and ignored for a little while. Fun can be weird, like the beach. We don't like to shout: "Fun is being had!"

Just please don't tell anybody that we are all shouting that on the inside when things get weird at the beach.

-- Ghost Little (has already had the worst day of his life)
on Twitter  |  @GhostLittle_WTF

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

#30.5 -- Should You Cross The Street?

Are you considering spending some time in the fabulous state of Massachusetts this summer? If so, please be aware of the inherent perils in cross the street [see fig. 1].

fig. 1
(click to embiggen)

Enjoy your time in the Bay State!

-- Doberman
on Twitter  |  @GhostLittle_WTF

#30 -- The Diffused States (Part 4)

"No, the way she stood, it was more like she'd ridden a rocket bareback to Mars, out-drank Bacchus, out-foxed Loki, punched-out Tyson, stolen diamonds, split atoms, won a race, and somehow manage to turn God's girlfriend gay with just a wink and a smile."

Read: [#23 -- The Diffused States (Part 1)], [(Part 2)], and [(Part 3)] to stay caught up. . .

Aran bent his head down for a closer look. The woman's body looked deflated and dry, especially now that the bed was propping her up, her skin obeying gravity while her giving her bones their turn in the spotlight. Behind hair that resembled dust curls, her eyes were indeed moving, blinking -- very much aware, if a bit sedated. He had been struggling out of his foggy hangover with aspirin and coffee, the post-race celebration had been a lengthy affair the night before, packing in noise, substances, and rain -- the latter of which had not yet subsided. All these things thinned Aran's ability to think. He ran his tongue over his teeth, thinking how gritty they felt, and how he hoped it wouldn't activate his gag reflex. Then the woman in the bed looked at him, first with her face, then with her eyes, lids pulling back like the last seconds before a music-box runs out of energy. If Aran had had hiccups, they would have been gone.

"Hi," he said to her in a normal voice.

At first, he expected her to answer, but the doctor that had invited him into the room dissuaded him with a shaking head.

"So, this is really her?"

"One of the first. She did everything right, proved us all right. The D3 accepted her. It carried her, kept her safe. Then, unfortunately for everybody involved, it started to abuse her. That left her with a whole lot of hurt. Looking at her cat-scan, you should see it clearly." The doctor held it in front of Aran, who could see patches in the woman’s brain that almost looked like --

"-- It burned her?" Aran felt a lump in his throat. "Is that what that is? Because that's what it looks like, particularly here. And here. Jesus, it burned her like fondue stuck to a pot."

"You're perceptive. The physical results of emotional rejection, the literal confusion inside the brain, medically, it's wounded the way skin is hurt by chemical burns. The D3 didn't want her anymore. She, however, still needed the connection. The rush, the closeness, the familiarity. And when it was taken away, she didn't understand why. Their team's Angel, who I know personally, and is usually conservative when managing the relationship between the Runner and the D3, initially likened the Runner's reaction to drug addiction. In my opinion though, it's different. It's worse."

"So why's she like this? The woman's a plant. Artichokes are more personable than this. Is her sedation because of the D3?"

"No. Unfortunately, no. This was the result of an intervention from her team's Opticon."

"You said she was on Team Nobis? I've met their Opticon. Vonnegut. The man's an arachnid at heart. He did this?"

The doctor shrugged. "They needed a Runner. She was the best. They needed the old magic, so they forced the issue. An icepick." Aran cocked his brow and pointed to the inner corner of his left eye, asking. "Yup. Old-fashioned. So now, somehow, in her total complacency, the D3 accepts her again. She wasn't much of a racer in that state though, so right before the green flag goes down, they give her a 100 deciliter drip of this."

Aran took a look at the bag of semi-crystallized fluid hanging from I.V. stand. "Quite the meal. It's heavy. This is thick stuff, what is it?"

"It's called Grove," he stated. Aran hoped for elaboration but got none.

"Grove?" Aran repeated, keeping his voice steady when he spoke the word.

"Yeah. They say Vonnegut gets it from The Kingdom. At least that's what Nobis' Dealer said to me."

"Did he say anything else?"


"Could he be. . . encouraged to say anything else?" Aran squinted, trying to see what was really inside the I.V. bag. "Should I have Han ask him about Grove? Persuade him? With sharp words and blunt things? Or blunt words and sharp things? He can do both. He's very encouraging if you catch him in the right mood."

"Aran, I would really like to know what this shit is. And I'd like you to be the guy that finds it out. It turns a dummy athlete into a competitor again. To know how and why, well, that'd be a lot off of my conscience. But listen." He nodded Aran away from the woman in the bed. "When I asked the Dealer about the Grove, it wasn't that he wouldn't tell me anything -- it was the way his eyes shrank away when I pressured him. He knows something, for sure. But there was something funny going on in the back of that guy's brain, and it wasn't because he was intimidated by me that he didn't talk. No, this guy wanted to talk. It was just something bad, he was having fun with his secret."

He pointed to something Aran had stepped in. "What the?"

"When the Dealer was here earlier this morning," the doctor informed him. "He attached the Grove I.V., dumped half a shoe-full of sand on the floor and left. Said he'd been out in the desert earlier in the week."

Aran kicked a clump of the dirt into the corner. "Okay then. So he's dirty and he's ill-mannered. Good to know. I'd have this guy on a short leash if I were Vonnegut."

"If I had to guess, the Dealer knows too much. Maybe by accident though? Vonnegut knows the Dealer knows. And the Dealer knows what Vonnegut likes to do to uncooperative employees. Pumping the Dealer for information is the logical next step for us. Funny situation, isn't it, Mr. Bond?"

"Cute," Aran acknowledged. "But Vonnegut's a dangerous man and an honest man, and those are some wicked complications for somebody in his position to be having. He's old school."

"Like you."

Aran felt his attention drawn back to the woman in the bed. Air bubbles pushed through the crystalline fluid bag, half-empty now. They collected, coalescing at the surface as a heavy shell at the top of it all. Then it snapped loudly. The pop splattered opaque green flecks all across the empty half.

"In all the worst ways," Aran admitted. "Like me. But I think we're finally getting somewhere."

-- |  |  | --

The best Runners were focused and selfish. Rational, maybe even reasonable people, yes, and kind in conversation and encouragement, but terribly independent to the point of selfishness. It kept them contained and in touch with their 1:1 bond to the D3. Not caring about the safety of other people made them ruthless on the track. It kept them competitive. The D3 gradually changed them though. Their contempt faded. The bond with this secondary life-form would grow stronger. They would begin to depend on it. The team's Angels would study them when the runner started to show the signs. The synchronization rate would grow, as did the coordination and trust, but the speed would inevitably drop. The machine wouldn't go as hard, as if the runner was holding it back. The runner wouldn't be as tired after the races until they were an hour or so removed from the D3, when heavy fatigue would set in. It was initially diagnosed as an addiction. This was proven false when the runners started showing signs of separation anxiety when they were put into detox or deprived time in the D3.

It was Team Montblanc that found the solution. "Quite simply," Aran had declared once at a post-race press conference. "The runners are becoming emotionally compromised later in their careers. Their biorhythms are so in-tuned with the D3 that both organisms begin to value the others' life in a cellular level. Medically, we can't prove it, it's an emotional state, not a physical issue. The runner and the D3, stop being self-focused and start to identify their mutual dependencies over time. It isn't symbiotic. The organisms continue to live if separated. It's mental thing."

"How is it a mental thing?" a press member asked.

"Have you ever been in love?"

The press member sat down, nodded, and the room got weird and quiet.

"It's like when you're lying in bed and it feels empty," Aran suggested.

The Runners stopped being selfish later in life. They stopped being focused. They would usually try to hide it because they knew what it meant. Their brains changed somewhere during their development with the D3, morphing from inward-facing into something more expansive. Value changed. Without realizing, the D3 was more valuable than their own lives. Or maybe that wasn’t it. Being with the D3, just being close to it, being one with this separate but identified entity was more important than racing.

The Runners joked that they had to be celibate to participate in the sport, otherwise the biomech would sense their emotional detachment and get "jealous." Research from the early days of the sport and the initial generation of retirees coming out of the Runner community provides decent evidence to this urban myth though. A Runner's career can vary in length like any sport, but they all have one thing in common: their abilities vanish almost instantly and with very few red flags. Statistically, when they do finally retire, they end up as one of two things in their first year out:

Brain-damaged and dead. Or married. Make all the jokes you want about the latter being interchangeable with the former.

Efforts were made to level the relationship, and music was one of the first things added to the equation when they began digging into the human-to-D3 interface. Athletes had always been listening to music to get themselves in the right mood before sporting events. They played organ music at baseball games decades earlier, true, but that was more to excite the fans. The music in the D3 was entirely for the benefit of the Runner. It boosted the sync-rate between the biomech and the Runner.

"Well, what it does is put the D3 in the right mood," [NAME REDACTED], the Laureate of Team Montblanc explained. "It's a weird thought, metering a machine's mood with music. For some reason though, for probably the same reason that in-utero babies can react and benefit from Mozart, the simple organism portion of the D3 bonds with the music we play. It's just really beautiful sound that all cells, big and small, can agree upon. It strengthens its bond with the Runner, gives them freedom to share rhythm better. When we figured this out, it changed the D3 races from side-show to something huge.

"People really started to identify with the races. They saw it as sport and as theater and as dance and as personal and human. They wanted to know about play-calling mid-race and the Runner's training-diets. They wanted to hear the soundtracks that we compose on the fly. They wanted to download each Runner's personal playlist. What does Eliza Shaw feel when she needs to go fast? What does Stro Gilroy need to hear when he loses himself and lets the beat guide his movements?"

-- |  | --

"Aaaaand, we're live! We’re going to go down live trackside with Stro Gilroy --"

"-- Stro, you had trouble during the first half of the race, particularly during laps 42 and 47. How was it that you managed to turn things around? What happened?"

Stro rubbed his chin. "What happened? I got fucking pissed is what happened. I was getting shit information from my Smith and my Jockey. They were fighting with our Angel the whole time about issues with the code. There was shit going on with the D3. I can honestly say I was lucky to finish where I did, and it took a huge effort to come away with as many points as we did."

"There is a silver lining and maybe you haven't heard yet, but your teammate Eliza Shaw truly excelled today. And as you said, you scored big in the points -- how big was it for you to come away with as many overall points as you did, particularly after the trouble you had at Dallas last weekend?"

"Eliza and I just need to work on consistency. We can't be all up and down the leaderboard with each race. We both have the ability to win every time, that I really do believe, but if I go out and win like I did at Dallas but then Eliza has the trouble that she did, and I suppose vice-versa this weekend with her succeeding so admirably, but then I go down in flames, that isn't acceptable. Not for me, not for her, not for our crew or Opticon, that's for damn sure."

Eliza tapped the button to go down on the elevator. She just wanted to get to the dressing room, to get rid of the sloppy hair clinging to her back, darkened with perspiration. The race was done, she'd earned 108 points with the win. Fatigue swung on her eyelids. The way she stood though, pulse still heightened, sweat misting off of her head from the sudden temperature change indoors, you would have thought she'd not simply won a race. No, the way she stood, it was more like she'd ridden a rocket bareback to Mars, out-drank Bacchus, out-foxed Loki, punched-out Tyson, stolen diamonds, split atoms, won a race, and somehow manage to turn God's girlfriend gay with just a wink and a smile.

Looking at her, the way she stood, body half-cocked and just waiting for an elevator, she was invulnerable.

"Hi," she said. They looked at her, two boys, maybe eleven or twelve years old, probably sons of track maintenance guys, brought themselves to wave at her lightly. "How'd you get down here?"

"My dad's key," one of them answered. He held up a single key, no chain, probably lifted from his father's ring.

She smiled. "Yeah. That’s probably what I would've done." She crossed her arms over her chest. "I just got done with the race. I'm Eliza."

"Yeah. We saw you," the other boy said. "How'd you. . . I mean, we saw you. . . you jumped."

"You jumped over a bus like it was just a hurdle!"

"Yeah, it was a pretty crazy day."

"Can I ask you something?"

"Sure," she encouraged. "Ask me anything."

"Umm, how'd you become a Runner? Was it hard? You know, how did you start?"

Eliza relaxed a little bit, and the boys did too. "Honestly? I'm doing it as a favor to a friend," she bent her knees and squatted down so she could be on eye level with them. "He came up to me a few years ago -- I remember this, I was at a party in San Francisco -- and he said, 'Eliza, I have a job. I need somebody focused, passionate, honest, and kind. Somebody that isn't afraid to get her hands dirty. Somebody that isn't afraid to compete. But also somebody that won't compromise, and can't compromise their soul's constitution.' And I just sat there after he said it."

"What'd you say?"

The elevator door dinged. It opened. She kept her eyes on the boys, the bright sky-diver blues not going anywhere. The elevator doors closed. Eliza wiped her mouth, looking a little nervous, then deciding something -- to be truly honest.

"Well, stupidly, I laughed, I told him that I would have to think about it, but you know what was funny? I was lying to him. I didn't have to think about it at all. I'd already made up my mind about what I was going to do. I was just sort of going through the motions, the way that people do, for some reason. I worked my way around the party, talking to a few more people about this or that or whatever, but the entire time, I found myself looking for reasons to refuse his offer. Isn't that weird? I couldn't find any reason, obviously, so I went and I found him later at some donut shop half a block away and I told him I'd do it. I didn't even know what it was. He told me I was going to be a D3 Runner. I told him that I liked the idea but I probably was physically incapable of that kind of thing. He said -- and I remember this very specifically -- 'If you don't like it, Eliza, you can always go back.' And that was it. I went with my gut. That was how I did it."

"Is it hard?" the first boy asked her, watching the elevator door open a second time.

"Yeah," she got in, tugging a knot out of her waved blond hair. "Yeah, but only if you hate it. Fight it, you guys, but don't hate it. Otherwise it'll hate you back."

The bell rang, she stepped in, the doors closed, the elevator dropped. In a few minutes she was in the dressing room, halfway done. It was all she could do, getting partially undressed, the weight of the race finally overcoming her residual adrenaline.

Amusing herself as best she could, Eliza banged her heavy-Kevlar boots against the floor, trying to kick them off. It took a few hard hits before she realized a buckle was still attached. Her earpieces were still in, the outro-track still spinning up and down -- it had been designed by Laureate to calm her down post-race, but she still loved the chord progression too much to shake the last shreds of excitement. Pretty soon, it was a fun game, having that whole dressing room to herself, thumping her heavy boots on the floor with lessening intention of truly removing them.

"I bang-bang my boots on the floor," she sing-songed. "Na-na, na-na / My boots are big and gross / They smell like sinking boats / I'm glad I'm all aloneeeee / 'cause my song has no rhymes --" Eliza looked up to see Stro in the doorway, already changed, and visibly irked by his time talking to the press. She changed her tone. "-- I don't care if I'm not alone," Eliza went on in her broken rhythm. "-- My boots are big and gross / Get up out of my grill / You all up in my grill. Stro."

"Mmm. Grill. Goddamn, I'm hungry. You're up to bat with the press, by the way. Get at 'em, gorgeous girl."

"The press is assholes," she said in deliberately-busted grammar. She slammed her boots and they flew off, skidding across the room to Stro.

"Your boots smell."

"Did you hear my song?" Eliza deadpanned. "It was educational."

"Yeah. I heard your song. It was neat." She tipped over and pressed her face into the bench, grumbling. "It was probably the best song I heard today. Maybe."

"Urgh. I just don't want to talk to the press. They're idiots. They aren't fans. They don't like us. Their's is a vulture culture. They always ask the same questions. And I have to give the same stupid canned-answers." She opened one eye. She knew what she'd see before she even did it. Stro was as predictable as ever but she'd never know just how predictable she was herself. He shut the door, crossed the room, and shook her shoulder the way you would wake up a hungover friend, not gently, but with remarkable affection. "Hmm. This blows."

"I know it does, but we have to do it." Stro kept his hand on her shoulder and she watched him reach for her handset, vibrating on the end of the bench.

"Don't touch my phone," Eliza moaned.

His hand went still, watching it vibrate before going dark. "Didn't want it to buzz of the edge, people really need to get over that stigma. And you really need to stop calling it a phone."

"I'm old school," Eliza responded, her voice sleepy, but satisfied that Stro had listened to her request. "Spend as much time in the UK as I did growing up and some weirdness is bound to stick to you."

"It is a weird place isn't it? Urgh. Okay, I'll go tell them you'll be out in five minutes. Be there in ten, okay? Do me a favor and take some time to chill."


He stayed, continuing to shake her shoulder slowly. She had gotten her suit half-off before directing her attention to her boots, and they both smelled equally bad, like compressed animal sweat sprayed through an aerosol can. The suit was one piece and the arms were knotted around her waist. As bad is it smelled, it was the odor clinging to the layer she wore underneath -- that was the worst, that kind of frozen, unfrozen, and then re-frozen aura that Stro imagined had to be the result of bacteria dying, respawning, and dying again. And even now, years later, you don't get used to the stench.

"Now get dressed."

Eliza sat up. She sniffed herself. "No."

-- | --

"Eliza!" She perked up, straightening the microphone in front of her, looking for the man that had asked the question. She found him. He had taken no notes, and without a handset screen illuminating his face like all the others, he looked downright dim. "You're a little rough on the exterior," he began again, watching her clear the awkward out of her throat. "Why aren't you more humble?"

She rested her face on her knuckle. Why? It felt like one minute passed without a breath. Then it felt more like five, yet try as she might, she was still somehow here, getting talked at by the press corps. Digging down, she found no answer that would make this question go away. No matter what she said, it would be just an answer. What if for once, it was, well, something else?

"Listen," she stated, and she was surprised when they did. The room's noise clapped shut so suddenly that she had to check that she didn't have her earplugs still in. "You guys are just here for soundbites. I get that. People want to know what makes my brain go-round. What makes me human, but the truth, ladies and gentlemen, is that I'm not human. I was raised on the back of a giant turtle in the middle of an ocean on a planet you've never heard of. My heroics will be lauded in hallowed halls over raised glasses of ambrosia come Ragnarok. I was genetically engineered from birth to be perfect in every way. I got dunked head-first into the River Styx by my mom, a demi-goddess herself. It's not my fault that I look this good but it's definitely your fault that you aren't more humbled to be in my presence. I'm a role-model for all the good things in the world, and I'm about to teach a lesson here, so listen up tight, yeah?" She bent closer to her mic for the first time. "My advice to all of you is this: do not tolerate whiny sacks of shit that exist only to leach and grovel. You can't touch me, don't even try. Why am I not more humble? Because then I would be you. Nobody would benefit. Because my existence would be redundant without the golden wall between us. You need me the way a baby needs his ba-ba. Now get out of my sight before I decide to order your sister off of Craigslist."

"You don't have to be rude with your answers," the man answered, half-sarcastic, half passive-aggressive.

"Look, unless you want a sleep-deprived, half-drunk, well-connected, uber-nutritioned white girl to scatter your teeth across the floorboards in front of God and the rest of the birds, you'll walk the fuck away. I will fuck you up. I will fuck you up and I would enjoy it. On an unhealthy level."

Han looked to Aran, who had buried his grumbling face into his palms. "So, that ain't good." 

NEXT: [#62 -- The Diffused States (Part 5)] to see what happens. . .

-- Doberman (is getting closer)
on Twitter | @GhostLittle_WTF