I am able to give you this standing on the shoulders of giants: a tower of them, first Matthew Woodring Stover, next Ray Bradbury (link NSFW unless you work in an English department or library), who in turn is standing on the shoulders of George Orwell, and so on. I’m pretty sure it’s turtles, er, I mean…authors…all the way down.
Still, here, is a pretty cool little story by Devon Oratz. Take it. It’s free.
(Admittedly, in terms of the formatting, you got what you paid for.)
By Devon Oratz
“Buddy you’re a young man, hard man
Shouting in the street, gonna take on the world some day
You got blood on yo’ face
You big disgrace
Wavin’ your banner all over the place”
– Queen, “We Will Rock You”
It was just some fucking music.
And now I’m in another world, about to die—alongside the snake-man who can throw fireballs, and the big guy who at least found a greatsword, and the creepy, lisping shadow that can be smoke when he feels like it—to these goddamn lethally ironic machine-things.
And it wouldn’t be that bad if it wasn’t the worst part.
The worst part is that this is being broadcast back home to millions of viewers live. The worst part is that mom and dad and Jess are probably watching.
I hope they’re not eating popcorn.
We didn’t think that the Studios or their Wardens knew about the tunnels under Newark. Down there, we were kids. Down there, we were kind of free. Like most of the Worker kids, I did everything I could to hustle and score as much blow and meth and dust to trade with. Sometimes I even found some black tar or some Vicodin. Grace told me once that for Specialists and everyone else HigherClass than us, this shit was just something you could go into a pharmacy and buy.
They called her Saving Grace, down in the tunnels.
For us, it’s criminal contraband we use as part of a barter economy. That’s how “They” want it, Grace told me. The Bosses, she called them. The Board. Once, she called them “White Devils”, and that got me really confused.
“I’m white,” I told her. “You’re white. Rico’s white-ish. What do you even mean White Devils?”
Grace scowled the way she always did when she was interrupted, which she seldom was.
“It doesn’t matter,” she told me. “Read more.”
Grace. I had a crush on her back then a mile wide, even though I was 17—old enough to be tried as an adult if the crime in question is Terrorism, I learned the hard way—and she was, I guessed, pushing twice that. Read more, that’s what she always told me, and not not because of the aforementioned crush, I tried.
She taught me how. To read, I mean. I always knew how to try.
Anyway, that’s what I traded my blow or whatever for, while the other kids down in the tunnels just traded drugs for drugs they liked better. I traded mine for fake books—well actually, they were real physical books, carefully preserved for centuries but still disintegrating: more real than anything my Worker parents desperately hustling to get Upcaste to Specialist had on holodisk in the media library—fake music, written by people who didn’t exist, who had never existed.
Unpersons, Grace called them. Which it took me a long time not to be confused by, I’m not gonna lie. Because I could see the books, and they were real. They had names like 1984, Brave New World, Farenheit 451, Heroes Die. The authors had names like Orwell, Camus, Bradbury, Hamilton, Jefferson, Locke, Heinlein, and Stover.
“Unpersons,” Grace called them. The authors of the “fake” books. She had a lot of them, you know, stockpiled down there in her little hidey-hole in the Newark transit tunnels. Way too many. Enough that I wonder if maybe, kind of, she was asking for it. I mean, she sold them to me cheap, too, even when I was short on coke or couldn’t hustle enough quite enough ex or speed. And she even had made bootleg copies of some of them on holodisk—super extra fucking illegal shit!—like the short ones by Jefferson and Locke, the ones I had a hard time reading even after she’d taught me how to read the others.
“Wha?” I asked, young, and stupid, no idea of what my future held: 100% getting fucked, 0% getting laid. “That doesn’t make any sense. Somebody must have written these books at some point.” I was holding one right in my hands, right then. Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, it said.
“That’s the whole point,” Grace told me. “Those people and everything they made, they didn’t just kill them—the ones that didn’t die three hundred years before we were born, I mean—they erased that they had ever existed. These books don’t officially exist. They’re unbooks.”
She started crawling back into her piles. I could have swiped anything I wanted, she was so distracted, but I would never do that to grace. Instead I pointedly didn’t look at Grace’s ass as she bent over to retrieve a carefully preserved paperback “nonbook” from the pile, not least because I thought she was probably closer to my mom’s age than mine.
For someone who didn’t look at it…that time…I can say it was a much, much nicer ass than my mom’s.
“Read this one,” she said, pushing 1984 into my hands, her eyes gleaming. “It explains unpersons, it explains erasure from the narrative, everything, really, all the fundamentals of how shit works now, under Them.”
She got excited again, and pulled out a bootleg holodisk, pushing it into my hands eagerly. It had “Jefferson” written on it in black sharpie. “This,” she said, “explains how it should be. How it will be, if we can ever beat them. If people will ever shut down their trid-sets and—”
“What about this one?” I asked, picking up a holodisk—at least I thought it was a holodisk—in an ancient looking plastic shell case. It showed a black silhouette on white concrete, his right fist raised defiantly in the air. Above the silhouette were the words RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE.
You see it now, right? The irony that is about to literally kill me?
I wanted so, so badly, to rage figuratively against the figurative machine. And as a result, Grace’s “White Devils” have erased me from their narrative and sent me here, in the Splinter, where these terrifyingly literal MACHINES look—and I’m not speaking figuratively here—pretty fucking ‘RAGED at me.
They’re freaky as shit to look at. They look like suits of armor, except they move faster than any suit of armor could ever move with a man inside it, that they are clearly empty, and that both of their arms are rapiers that end in needle-sharp poses. They make a faint clicking sound as they advance. There are seven of them, and four of us.
They call this mode “Survival”, which is a sick fucking joke, because we fucking won’t survive.
As a matter of fact, two of us died in the last room.
As a matter of fact, that was also the first room.
“Your job,” our Manager told us, sounding bored, as if delivering a speech by rote, before we first climbed into our creches and ported in to our overly-elaborate-death-sentence, the SPLINTER, “is to risk your lives in interesting ways for the audience back home. If you are good at your jobs, not only will you survive, you will have taken the first step on the path of the hero. You could be the next Scranch Crain, the next Maurice Beauxxhome, the next Cedrith Antemasque, hell, the next Umbranoxx! If you’re bad at your jobs, well,” he paused, seemingly just to show me the most perfect teeth I’d ever seen, in the ugliest smile I’d ever seen, “one-and-outs are always good for secondhand sales.”
I like to think that if not for the stripcuffs, I would’ve went for the fucker then and there, Wardens or not.
He was still taking. “Just look at Hysterica’s numbers,” he paused then, in a vanishingly rare moment of self-awareness, realizing, perhaps, that we certainly couldn’t do that, not least because he was, in the next five minutes, sending us to our overly-elaborate deaths.
Legloussus, the Asilos, shifts into Lich, turns into a cloud of smog, and flies right through the Cotillion and out the hall in the other side of the room.
So much for fucking sticking together
Part of me wonders if mom and dad and Jess are rooting for me, back home.
The holodisk that went on to become my world was called The Battle of Los Angeles.
Grace also told me it was an album, not a holodisk.
Grace also told me it was on something called a seedy, which looked like a big, impossibly clunky version of a holodisk. And she sold me a big, impossibly clunky machine that looked about four hundred years old—which it was—to play it on for just two grams of Peruvian nose candy.
If you’re too dumb to have figured this out by now, asshole, Grace is fucking dead.
I listened to “The Battle of Los Angeles” over and over again until I was the music and the music was me. My parents think of themselves as music lovers—if I’d let them add The Battle of Los Angeles to their sad collection of EBC approved audio files on the family tridset, I’d have to change think to thought in that last sentence, because no way could mom and dad hack it in the Splinter—but Rage Against The Machine blew their shit away like well…like ashes in the fall.
I listened to it every day. It went beyond becoming my constant companion until it became my philosophy, my religion. My world narrowed, and narrowed, and narrowed until the lens that I viewed it through was The Battle of Los Angeles and nothing else.
Grace told me that these unpersons were supposed to have lived and died 500 years before we were even born, or some shit. But somehow, every single one of their songs felt like it could have been written about me personally, about my life. I took that beat up “seedy” machine with me everywhere as I got in deeper and deeper with the Resistance down in the tunnels, taking the time to school other fools about Stover and Jefferson and Orwell and Bradbury and all that shit, but most of all, about Rage Against The Machine.
Because they got it, man. They got it. They fought the war we’re fighting now, and they fought it like five hundred years ago. Now maybe they won, and maybe they lost, I didn’t know. But the one thing I knew for sure, is that that war was called The Battle of Los Angeles.
Three fucking guesses why that battle’s not on the holodisks we got for history class.
I had become an apostle of Rage.
I listened to “Guerilla Radio”—in actual fact, I turned that shit up—and I convinced myself that we were—somehow—licking shots at the brutal charade, whatever the hell that meant. I spraypainted on the tunnel walls:
“It has to start somewhere. It has to start sometime.
What better place than here? What better time than now?”
I listened to “Testify” as I testified to my fellow young, angry idiots, and I convinced myself that we had found their weakness, and that we were right outside their door.
When a black market deal went bad, I told myself to be “Calm Like A Bomb”.
Grace, who had taught me words like “context”, might have known what “Panther” meant in this context, but I even created a greeting among the tunnel kids, the ones that rallied around Grace, leaning more and more political.
“My Panther, my Brother,” the initiator would say, gripping the other’s forearm.
“We are at war until you’re free,” was the response that told you the other person was in the resistance like you.
I even gave sermons. Like actual sermons, where I took wild ass guesses at the words I’d listened to over and over and over, what they meant way back then, what they meant to us, now.
“In Orwell’s hell,” I was quoting, “a terror era coming through. But this little brother’s watching you too.”
Right about then is when the Wardens raided the tunnels, we scattered like rats, and they arrested everyone they didn’t kill. Personally speaking, I got to feel what a Glock Riot Baton feels like when it graces the back of your leg. What it felt like was every single muscle in my body deciding to strangle my nervous system at the same instant: I fell to the ground, pissed myself, and got stripcuffed.
Poor Saving Grace. The Wardens must have decided that she was too dangerous to live, too dangerous even to publicly execute via the Splinter. There’s no way to tell, because those creepy mirror-faced cyborg fuckers don’t really talk. They just kind of murmur at each other, like some kind of fucked up cyborg telepathy.
In fucked-up-cyborg-telepathy, Saving Grace—who in a lecture about “bread and circuses” had taught me of the Emperors of Rome, who had taught me what the thumbs down meant—must have got the thumbs down from who or what the fuck ever controls those things.
Grace was lying on the dirty concrete of the tunnel, trying to make her body move after a Glock Riot Baton had left her seizing and helpless. One of the Wardens pushed her over onto her back with an armored jackboot. I think she tried to spit blood up at him—at it. I know it casually tilted its Sony Eviscerator casually down to point at her, and squeezed the trigger until there was just a cloud of red mist where her beautiful face had been, where her beautiful brain had been.
So long Saving Grace.
I would describe the trial in which I was convicted of “Conspiracy To Commit Treason”, “Conspiracy To Commit Terrorism”, and “Possession of Contraband Media” as a joke, but that would be unfair to actual jokes.
My scythe-like tail blade sweeps the Rust Cotillion regular off of its feet and it clatters to the ground and falls apart. My wings, which have just slashed apart two more Cotillion, boomerang beautifully back to my back, and reattach themselves snugly to my spine, just as I land on the ground.
I look around me, assessing the situation, and I see almost universally good news. The big guy with the greatsword? That’s Methrax the Needlekin, and he knows how to fucking use it. It doesn’t hurt that his body’s made of armor now, but it doesn’t look like he took a scratch. The snake-man? That crazy bastard actually volunteered to be here. He’s a fresh out of the studio pro: I forget his real name, but the Tzaetzi he’s currently playing goes by Vizznez Lezzaliss. Anyway, thankfully he stopped throwing around fireballs once the melee was joined, but it turned out he was—also thankfully—down to bite animate suits of armor hard enough that they break.
Good for him.
That just leaves oh shit where did that come from what the shit is that?
A clockwork man made of gleaming silver filaments, something related to the tin-men we just scrapped, but even scarier, I see magical energy weaving around its long electrum claws—
–and then it explodes into a hail of shrapnel in an explosion of burning green superfire.
Behind it, I see Legloussos, who is holding a fucking plasma rifle.
Oh, so that’s where he was.
Mom and dad and Jess, I hope you just choked on your fucking popcorn.
I shift down to Zu, feeling my body become heavier and my vestigial wings disappear. I pick up a rapier-arm from one of the scrapped mannequins, test its weight with a few swings, and then toss it to my tail, which plucks it deftly from the air. I give Vizznezz one too, although he turns into a giant golden cobra again seconds after he takes it.
I notice the subscribers I’ve gained on my HUD over the course of the fight, and it doesn’t surprise me that the rush from that fight and the subscribers gained is better than any contraband Peruvian nose candy I ever snorted.
What does surprise me is that I don’t give half a shit if I never listen to The Battle Of Los Angeles again. I don’t remember the name of the People—the Players—we lost in the last world. And I don’t care. They should have fucking won.
I think back on the thousands of hours of Game footage I’ve watched, trying to say something cool, trying to sound cool, like Cedrith Antemasque or Maurice Beauxxhome.
“Alright guys,” I say, speaking for the first time in my Avatar’s voice, which sounds surprisingly like mine, “if we work together, we can do this.”
“We are the champions, my friends
And we’ll keep on fighting ’til the end
We are the champions
We are the champions
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions”
-Queen, “We Are The Champions”