iv: Asshole Ender’s Game (The Choking Bloom of the Blasted Heath)

By the dawn of the tenth century BC, global trade was already a profoundly interwoven endeavor. The world of peoples was no longer an incoherent assemblage of distant insular islands, but a roiling sea of social cross-contamination, amalgamating culturally-disparate thought and technique in the dialectical thresher of aggregate technology, which rapidly harvested and further disseminated the most utilitarian specimens from out of the chaff. 

The human collective was experiencing a firestorm of global technological progress that rivaled any other age of supposedly-singular scientific wonder, ignited by the sparks generated from the rough abrating of early extra-tribal cultures against one another. This process was intense and often traumatic, invariably altering the nature of these indigenous societies’ edges, and thus inherently refashioning the personality of their cores.

It was in the milieu of this moment that the throb of technological advancement began to swell at a near-exponential pace, enabled by the competition and cooperation of these massive initiate institutional hierarchies, the likes of which the world had never experienced; vast intra-tribal networks of communitarian reciprocity, fostering the sort of cultural development which allowed them to evolve beyond “simple” long-term sustenance economies. These conditions complicated trade in a manner that quickly outpaced humanity’s regulatory capacity, thus offering humankind another fulcrum of choice between adaptation or catastrophic failure.

At this juncture, states were already a pivotal emergent technology; the high glory days of Sumer and Kenet had already been rendered into legends of time immemorial, over two millennia in antiquity. But the modes of power and control that they had bequeathed to the world remained essentially unchanged on a superficial level, limited as they were by a purely analog capacity. 

The mechanisms of state administration had not yet sophisticated enough to allow a nation to assert its presence comprehensively, and overcome the unproductive nature of its naive logistics. The most refined theories of labor efficiency still involved throwing numerous bodies at a problem, and working them as hard as you could, until they started dying enough to revolt. 

 But technologies were already in play on the global stage that heralded the approaching ascendance of digitized organization, a form of control that would allow the state to manifest as a fully autonomous agent. Chief among these was the humble token, which was gaining steam as a mechanizing economic force.

Although a fully developed system of legal tender was still incubating conceptually, the fundamental practice of using metaphorical markers in trade was already deeply rooted in our collective development. But in the third millennia BC, the coin remained unmarked and stateless, states themselves having not yet existed long enough to cultivate the habitual redundancy of an overarching economy. 

The token functioned primarily as a symbol of trust between familiar parties, a bartering efficiency that was often as troublesome as it was useful. It existed as a Borgian-pathetic representation of the early state’s rudimentary nature, but it was also a herald of what was to come, and polity’s solidification into a hardened procedural entity was the next necessary step in that cyberizing process. Very soon, the state would no longer function as a mere body of disparate, tenuously collaborating organs, but a highly-tuned and carefully-programmed machine.

As we turn and follow Picky in her sudden decision to retrace her steps, I consider Middalmin’s motivations. His centrism has always been aggressive horseshit; if you simply study his voting record and not the rhetoric he and his defenders employ, you’ll find a bog-standard fiscal and social conservative who very occasionally breaks left for personal-beef social issues by which he’s been directly affected.

But thanks to some savvy personal branding, and a media so desperate for a binary counter-narrative to latch onto that it’s shown it is more than fine with both-sidesing open fascism, he’s somehow twisted his right-wing record into this illusion of a political maverick that walks the razor’s edge of the “spaces between,” never mind that the overton window has shifted so far rightward in the Wayne years as to make “centrism” meaningless other than an identifier of soft-authoritarian leanings.

This has given THE WEDGE’s whims, and the designs of those who openly and covertly control him, an incredible power to dictate the legal constraints of our future. The fact that he’s broken with the fascist majority a mere one out of sixteen times on major human rights cases in the last year is all the evidence I need to understand where his ultimate allegiances lie. 

Still, stepping down suddenly for no apparent reason and letting the Dipshit AI give another unmitigated monster access to the highest court in the land feels like it’s laying things on a little thick.

“They’ve probably got something on him,” the Kid says. “I bet somehow he’s wrapped up in War/Peace in a way.that would compromise him completely if he got outed.”  The Kid’s a conspiratorially-minded fellow, at least slightly more so than the rest of the Chicago Street crew. His mechanically-inclined brain is always in need of a firm answer, and if there isn’t one, he’ll build one; from the ground up, if he has to.

As for me, I see actual conspiracies as quite obvious and pretty much out in the open; the political and financial elites of the Junk Arcade transparently plot at every turn to subvert the proposed tenets of democracy, as they continue to perpetually wage a class war they already won long ago. It’s not something they’re ashamed of; the Latest Capitalism is an ideology one wears proudly. Class collusion by the wealthy seems to me to be generally self-perpetuating, in the same way that reactionary thought is self-organizing.

For the Kid, things are a little more fanciful, but as long as his brand of thinking continues to oppose the Pacters and other RAHOWA fucks that make up the right-wing conspiracy web on the Drop, I’ll suppose I’ll have to allow it.  

“It doesn’t matter,” Picky shrugs, stopping in front of a large metal door. She puts her ear to it and squints her eyes as if seeing less will help her hear better. “For one reason or another, someone’s called in his marker, and he’s gonna do the thing that loyalty to the cause requires.  All that really matters is that the AI’s gonna replace him with the absolute worst possible person.” She opens the door a crack, and then promptly slams it shut. “God damnit.  Sorry, I haven’t been in this area in a minute. I’m still getting my bearings. I know which way we’re going…”  Again, she’s less great at feigning confidence than she assumes.

“Oh, wow, the paranoia agent over here is right, we’re gonna get busted,” the Kid says.  

“We’re not… listen,” Picky says, turning to face us. “I’ve never gotten you guys “busted” before, I’m not going to now. I’m the only one of the three of us that’s spent any time in Minimum, anyway.”

“How in the world do you think explaining that kind of thing helps your position?!” I object.

“Experience in dealing with the negative consequences of my actions benefits my argument, is the thing you seem to be missing,” Picky retorts.

“You wanna process those negative consequences out loud? Because I never see a ton of external evidence that processing your bad shit is something that’s a huge concern to you.

“You know what…” Picky says, cocking her head in that way that reads as either thoughtful, mocking, or most often, both. “I’m really proud of you, you’ve come so far from the no-backbone, zero-lip guy I first met back at the Marvel cabinet at Chinatown Faire.”

“First of all, we met at Southern Hills Golfland, I never liked hanging out with the New York crowd like you did; the fucking SoCal kids were intense enough. And follow up, you lost a shitload of games of Zaibatsu to me before you conned me into playing Marvel with you…”

“If you guys could stop walking down false-memories lane and focus on our actual real world situation, I’d appreciate it,” the Kid says, visibly bristling at the dreamworld nostalgia. 

The Kid is among the two to three percent of the population that has a condition known as Reality aphantasia; on some level, the dream network known as Reality, that we’re all forced into when we sleep by our good friends down at Ethereal Corporation, just doesn’t stick for him in his memory.  

Like, he doesn’t get to avoid it, he still ends up there and has to live his little lives out like the rest of us, but he can’t really ever remember any of it in a coherent fashion. To him, Reality really is a dream. And so it makes him furious when we talk about it as if it’s something that’s real, coherent, and tangible. Like people who have actual aphantasia, and can generate no tangible images in their mind’s eye (your truly, at your service), we kinda think you’re all lying about your ability to do so.

“You’re just embarrassed because you hung out with the DanceMax crowd at the sleep arcade,” Picky snickers. “Instead of the dragonball-button-ups-and-hard-body-odor of our crowd, you spent your nights with people dressed for the moon-disco, who smelled exactly like the whole can of Axe body spray they put on in the car.”

“Well I know none of that’s true, because I haven’t killed myself in my sleep,” the Kid replies, flipping Picky off for good measure. The clanging starts again, closer to us now than when it stopped, and it seems markedly louder as it rumbles aggressively down the hallway.  

“I feel like we’re a little behind, so maybe some light jogging would be appropriate,” Picky says, and then she breaks into a full sprint. “Race you to the Logic Gate!“ 

By the time the Kid and I manage to process that she’s really running, she’s already fifty feet away, and we break into sprints after her. Luckily, she slows down a bit after maybe a hundred meters, right before she vanishes into the darkness. She then breaks into a power trot, which for a runner like her is faster than an out-of-shape loser like me can comfortably jog. 

As she slows down and comes to a quick halt in front of yet another T-bone, a Hot Chirp from the Dipshit AI gets Pushed into my primary feed.  

“MIDDALMIN, HELL OF A GUY, JUST SAID SOME REALLY TREMENDOUS THINGS ABOUT ME RIGHT NOW! GONNA GO AHEAD AND NOMINATE HIS CLERK! JUDGE BEAUXPHYR, TO BE MY NEXT GUY ON THE COURT!”  The Dipshit AI’s Soft Push hovers there, in bright red letters, dominating the bottom of my vision just long enough to leave a slowly fading afterburn after it blinks out.

“Oh shit, they cut a fucking deal for it,” Picky says, as the Kid and I run up beside her, sucking hard wind.  

“They… cut a fucking deal,” the Kid says after a moment. “The fucker must have actually agreed to the NDOath…  …the AI is only ever… enthusiastic like that towards people who fully supplicate to it. …and you made fun of me smelling a conspiracy.”

 “We didn’t say shit, really… but your initial conspiracies always have too many moving parts,” I reply.

“Hey, Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, “the Kid says. “…and where there’s a raging, five alarm fire out in the wide open, there’s really quite a shit ton of fire. The amount of moving parts shifting around in sequence right now is something fucking else.”

He’s not wrong about that last part, for sure. The fact that the Dipshit AI nominated Judge Beauxphyr, a long-time law clerk for Middalmin, and a darling of right-wing court-watchers everywhere, for a position on the big kids court isn’t, on the surface, particularly remarkable. Like most successful conspiracies; that is, most effective plans enacted by a small group of dedicated individuals, this one isn’t terribly obfuscated, because it doesn’t have to be. It adheres so closely to the actual self-organizing reactionary ideology that dominates the Drop’s psyche that it seems, on many levels of examination, to be less a conspiracy and more “the way things ought to be”. 

 But, to be sure, ‘the way things ought to be’ is a subjective construct, one who’s steadfast worship requires embracing an ideology so base that it arranges itself according to the foulest prejudices. And given the sad state of most of the garbage coming out of the Maker lately, toxic ideology seems to be the one product that the Drop still excels in manufacturing.  

“Do you suppose that complexity really makes things more interesting?” Picky says, and begins moving again, walking at top speed, requiring us to again break into a slow jog. It almost feels like she’s trying to wear us down, although to what end I can’t imagine. “Can our existence really be said to be something that gets more or less complex?”

“Maybe save the philosophical wankery for after we’re out of the place they can condemn us to a death sentence for being in,” the Kid says, pushing himself and running up next to her, as I try to keep pace with them while my feet start with the familiar dull throbbing of my plantar fasciitis. Great.

“Oh god, like, the least amount of death you could get sentenced to”, Picky says. 

“I don’t want to get sentenced to any amount of death, please, thank you,” the Kid replies, getting in front of her and breaking into a backwards run. “And if you think your eastern-fried pontifications contradict the basic fact that entropy is constantly increasing in whatever greater system we’re in, then maybe you need to cut back on the grass.”

“Does it, though?” Picky replies.  “Does it, really? Or does it just pretend to?”  

Funny thing about the Drop: its physics seem to be approximated when scrutinized with repeated testing. Systems that should be consistent from what we understand about consistent systems, are not. For instance, background radiation seems to come and go, and something seems inherently broken about our quantum reality; our ‘action at a distance’ ends up pretty mundane. The double slit experiment just straight up doesn’t work half time time.

Meanwhile, the physics of the Reality simulation are exponentially more precise and logical. All of the rules are consistent, and they’re always followed, except when Ethereal gets a bug up its ass and fucks with the program. But that rarely happens, because the energy costs associated with manipulating Reality are enormous, and the ends are often counterproductive.

This apparent discrepancy is strange and fascinating, to some of us, anyway, and the implications and contradictions that such a situation posits are just… really fun to think about on a long, ennui-filled afternoon. But the fact that both of these existential instances seem to have both aspects of the pseudo-real and the hyper-synthetic leads to a lot of chafing between weirdo materialists, and Picky and the Kid qualify. Me too, I suppose, but I’m not a part of this trolling relationship the two of them have about it.  

“Holy Mammon’s ball’s, Picky!“ the Kid hollers, finally getting hot. “Just because you sorta know two weeks worth of physics 101 it doesn’t mean that you can negate classical mechanics!” He stops in his tracks, causing Picky to have to practically wall-check herself to avoid him as she rushes past. 

This kind of shit feels a little dicey; physical confrontation is a bit they toy with, and one I don’t love, thanks to my inherent paternalism. “Aw, fuck, I don’t have a problem hitting a girl,” Picky always says when suggest this game is kind of a drag for me. 

They’ve only come to blows once, obviously under the influence of a great deal of alcohol and political bile, and we’re still technically sworn to secrecy about the sloppiest double-KO any of us have ever seen. So obviously, it’s a favorite story for all witnesses present to tell when they aren’t around.

There’s still been no visible sign of anyone else in the passage, and the only audible uncanniness has been that damn clanking, which could honestly be just about anything. So Picky really hasn’t crossed any lines, but still, all of the running and back-tracking is playing hell on my cortisol levels.

 “Just answer the question,” Picky says, apparently having found a line of attack that feels effective. “Does entropy, on the Drop, have a…” 

“Jesus fucking Christ, Picky…”

“..does it adhere to these classical mechanics?  One to one, as it should?” 

“It doesn’t mean shit,” the Kid says, and he says it with conviction. Out of all of us at Chicago Street, the Kid has the most robust understanding of physics, computer science, mechanics and engineering.  “Our little magic aspie,” Picky used to call him, before Mo finally put her foot down and said that shit wasn’t acceptable. “It doesn’t mean shit, except that there’s a gap in our understanding about the nature of this reality. It’s no different than being able to perceive the effects of dark matter on galactic gravitation without being able to fully realize the mechanisms; just because the model is incomplete doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

The fact that the Kid rejects Reality on so many different levels, and yet recognizes it absolutely as an example of a physical system that actually fundamentally functions, is kind of hard to wrap my head around. But when he explains it slowly to me, it makes a mad bit of sense. That sort of universe, he posits, only really works on a theoretical level, so he’s satisfied to know the model is there, without having to deal with it first hand.

…yeah, I know, as I said, sometimes he can explain it in a way that I get.

“Shhhhhhhh!”  Picky says, putting her hand up, balled into a tight fist. The Kid and I freeze, like the fist has told us to, and my heart leaps into my throat. “…that was a lot of words to avoid answering my question.”

“Asshole!” I say.  “Don’t put up the stop-and-shut-up hand without a good reason. My anxiety is already fully cranked.”

“Didn’t you take your prescription junk before we left Chicago Street?” Picky says, crouching down and examining the floor in front of her.

“Yeah, a double dose since I knew I was going out with you, to commit certain deeds.”

Simpsons did it,” the Kid says.

“Yeah, Kid, I know, it was kind of a direct reference,” I say.  “‘Simpsons did it” is itself a reference.”

“It’s a meta-reference, tho.”

“Yes, meta-references are references, they don’t defy classification.”

“If you two goofs could stop your back and forth about cartoons that are so far past their sell-by date that they’ve gone beyond rancid into some unfathomable choking bloom like the blasted heath, and help me lift this hatch, I’d really ‘ppriciate it,” Picky says. Indeed, what looked like a regular patch of concrete floor reveals, once Picky has wiped away a layer of dust and crud, to be a square metal hatch built into the floor.

“Insults our references, then makes reference to a racist pulp author from a million years ago,’ the Kid says as we maneuver ourselves around the previously-invisible floor door.

“Hey, I could be referencing Macbeth,” Picky says.  “Upon this blasted heath you stop our way, with our prophetic greeting.”

“Ok, then, makes reference to racist play author from a billion years ago.”

“Well, racist Shakespeare may have been, but considering that he was born like 400 years before Lovecraft and was somehow way less of a bigot, maybe we can let him off the hook just this once,” Picky digs out enough space between the door and the lip to get a decent grip on what is turning to be a pretty substantial piece of metal. “I mean his depiction of Othello isn’t… great, but you could pretty easily argue that Iago is an embodiment of senseless racial animosity.”

“Granted, but your weird apologism aside, Shakespeare’s blasted heath wasn’t the same as Howie’s, right?,” the Kid says, as we attempt to find our own creases on which to grip, although I’m already pretty uncertain about our ability to move this hunk at all, even with the three of us. “It’s a barren wasteland, typified by absence, while Lovecraft’s heath is teeming with too much abundance; a fetid, furtive, eldritch, cyclopean, hideous stygian nightmare of blasphemous, non-Euclidian overgrowth, which is clearly what you were referring to with the phrase ‘choking bloom.’  Game, set, match, rhetorical victory is once again mine.“

“Yep, you’re the big, big winner this time, buddy, in whatever contest you’re having with yourself. Ten points to Terfyndor.” Picky says.  “You jerks ready?”

Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness …” I read off of a fresh search tab, for kicks, just wanting to be involved.

“Yes, fun little Roadside Picnic rip-off reference, I get it, in as much as there’s anything to get, your cleverness has been registered with the home office,” she says. “Ok, boys, we’re going to have to exceed our limits on this one, since I reckon it’s about 30 pounds too heavy for us to manage.”

“Then why the hell do you think we’re going to be able to manage it?” I say, my voice filled with a lot more whine than I had thought I intended.  “My back’s already outta whack from work yesterday.”

“You had a three-hour shift, you bougie baby.”

“Spoken like someone who’s never closed down a busy breakfast place with a half-broken dishwasher and not nearly enough hot water in their late thirties. You’d last about five minutes.”

“Oh, less than that, dearest, I wouldn’t put myself through five minutes of some of the shit you’ve endured because you’d rather be in a dish pit than running a place.”

“It’s not a question of capacity, it’s a question of putting up with rape culture and capitalism, and, like, telling people what to do…”

“You love telling people what to do,” Picky says.

“Yeah, it’s like your favorite thing,” the Kid echoes, then snapping his fingers and flashing a double thumbs-up, deeply proud of himself for his recursive reference.

“I like giving tired speeches to the indifferent, and having them take it or most likely leave it,” I mutter. “I don’t like telling someone to do something and then taking away access to their job and revenue. I’m not saying that managers who get their faces blown off in workplace rage incidents deserve it, I’m just saying I would think I did, if I were them.”

Fired, you can just say fired,” Picky sighs. “It’s a normal, shitty part of our lives. Done it plenty, no one shot me in the face, no one died from me no longer paying them…”

“Yeah, congratulations on your extroversion, Picky, and I see you enjoy tired speeches, too…”

All right, all right, truce, I get it,” Picky says, her face suddenly softening, as she presumably recalls her humanity. “I dunno why you gotta make shit so hard on yourself but I assume it’s pathological on some level.”

“Yeah, well, you assume a lot of things are pathological, which is always very funny to me because I don’t think you know what that word precisely means.”

“Well, you may be right,” Picky says, nodding with a thoughtful gleam in her eye. “But still, none of this keen insight changes the fact that something is headed toward us from six o’clock, and when it gets here in about fifteen seconds we need to have done an impossible thing, or else we’re probably getting arrested or killed… “

Ok, three, two, one, lift!” 

It is still essentially true, no matter what segregated reality we inhabit, that economic transactions become fundamentally more speculative the further we travel from the locality call home. The greater the distance you place between yourself and the inviting borders of the world you know, the more disconnected you become from the vital knowledge of ambient cultural and fiduciary mores, and thus, the more likely it is that you’re either going to get taken for the proverbial ride, or cause the sort of transgressive faux-pas that you may suddenly and firmly learn is not acceptable to local custom.

Even after thousands of years of habit and capitulation to a greater global culture, not to mention, in our case, complete temporal displacement, the innate desire for humans to take economic liberties with outgroups appears to be absolute. The further you are from your place of origin, the more likely you are to be ripped off, and not unrelatedly, the less likely you are to gain any satisfaction from the ordeal. 

Before the state found a stable method of securing the general legitimacy of transactions, protection from the sort of malfeasance that only disingenuous strangers could provide was a near technical impossibility. Consider how little leverage you had, out in the wide ancient world, beyond the friendly borders of your ancestral homeland. Everywhere you might wander, you’d find the vacuum of fiat still occupied by tribal loyalties, making “not being from around here” a dangerous proposition that added an extra dimension of peril to any human interaction. 

Nonlocal trades were thus an order of magnitude more treacherous than their parochial counterparts, and the native population’s potential ability to rouse up the countryside against you was always the implicit fulcrum of every interaction.

Conversely, those foreigners who you found more frequently penetrating the borders of your own territory, bringing with them some import that had become, as of late, necessary for the stability of local function, also inevitably brought with them that unsavory element of ancient carnyism. 

The confidence trade had existed as an informal body of knowledge for nearly as long as the more famous “oldest profession” examples, and it was presently busy sophisticating along with its milieu, spreading it’s carny tactics out among the wide world. This exponentially increased the likelihood of having to deal with cloying, malevolent grifters, ready to sell you a bill of goods and then rapidly extricate themselves from a successful swindle, secure in the knowledge that their anonymity and mobility limited the threat of retaliation against them.

These were systemic and connected issues within the burgeoning global trade network, and they required a comprehensive solution. They required a technology that could improve the logistical efficiency of jurisdictional arbitrage without forcing disparate cultures to act in direct concert.

They called for an innovation so frankly beneficial to the wider world that it would inevitably self-universalize into an authority beyond the mere force of community, into an absolute credibility backed, but not utterly tied, to state force. It needed to be hypothetical in the power it represented in order to diffuse itself remotely, but with enough literal potency to directly back up its threats.

What the times demanded ultimately, on a fundamental level, was less economic obscurity, and more direct involvement from these burgeoning nations in assuring that interstate trading remained as honest as could be, given the limitations of the age. This required a regulatory capacity that those proto-kingdom’s became thus inclined to develop, in order to keep pace with the fortunes of their neighbors.

In fact, the world had possessed such technologies for thousands of years before it ultimately found use for them, but in a story that would become well worn by the time it was passed to modernity, they belonged to disparate conceptual lines that had yet to be combined in a manner that captured, and bound to the lash of progress, the imagination of the human spirit. But the humble token was about to have its day, exchanging its own localized agency for the power of fiat by accepting the branding of the official state seal, a consecration that would deliver it true power. 

The consequence, of course, was that this was an inevitable domino on the path to the invention of the coin slot; in effect, by fully legitimizing into a legalistic framework, the coin was compelling the inevitable creation of its own figurative and literal sarcophagus.

As the three of us throw our bodies at the current problem, my immediate rush of anger over Picky once again dangling us above the lapping tongues of the hellmouth flame is converted into rage energy, which helps me really throw just a shit-ton of self-damaging force into the endeavor. The now-familiar rumbling grows louder as it approaches from behind me, pitching in even more incentive for us to strain against the hatch’s weight.

After a few tense moments where it feels like it might not give, the hatch hisses open with a sudden rush, causing the three of us to tumble onto our asses as the inch-thick steel plate pops off of its moorings. It happens so quickly that it nearly falls back shut, and we  scramble to our feet and heave it aside… it occurs to me that there’s no way to get it back on, which means that whatever’s coming is definitely going to know that we’re here, and they’ll certainly know which way we went, and they’ll for sure be able to follow us.

“All right, go go go!,” Picky hollers, and with no further warning she grabs me and yanks me into the dark abyss that we’ve just uncovered; there was just enough time for me to remember the Drop’s deal with dark holes and depth. As I tumble headlong into the void, my feed blows up with breaking news, in with what appears to be a fresh injection of some sort of new nightmare from the breaking-news punishment zone.  

I really can’t make much of any specific sensory input at the moment, beyond the pull of gravity and the flashing of my feed. Then the wind is sucked hard from me as I slam into solidity, onto a smooth, steep slope of indeterminate grade, saving me from the immediate dangers of very sudden impact but giving me no ability to slow myself down. I slide helplessly through the darkness and brace myself as best as I can.

Before either my fear or speed can dangerously accelerate, I feel myself quickly slow, and then I crumple to a stop, the slanting wall having finally bottomed out horizontally. The Kid zips down behind me, torchlight already flipped on, apparently in control of his descent; he dodges past me with a performatively casual air.  Picky slides down behind him, her face already lost deep in feed, somehow having managed the slowest, safest trip of us all.

“Um,” she says, as she slides to a stop, her gape-mouthed feed-face unchanging.

“The fuck!” is all I can really muster for a moment, as I regain my footing and check my face for any bleeding. “…that’s not solely aimed at you, by the way, but it’s definitely partially aimed mostly directly at you.”

“I may have got a little over-excited there,” Picky says, in her detached, fry-heavy feed drawl. “Seriously, sorry about that.”

“I mean, at least you had a super good reason, right?” I say, deducing some things about our situation from her current demeanor.  “Because we were about to be attacked and overwhelmed by some rapidly approaching threat, right?”

“Before you guys go on, I just want to note for the record that I never believed her for a single second,” the Kid says.

“I didn’t know for sure that what sounded like rattling pipes were rattling pipes, for sure,” Picky says, her face returning to a grimacing normality as she shakes off her momentary stupor. “And anyway, we needed to be down here, past an obnoxious obstacle that might have otherwise been seen by some as an insurmountable objective.”

“The way you rationalize this shit post hoc always makes it way worse,” I mutter, even so grabbing the hand she reaches out to me and hoisting her up.

“Nah, I’ve done the math,” she says, fixing the crooked brim of her MaMas hat. “You actually complain way more when I don’t do the whole ‘mild penance through rhetoric’ thing.”

“The fact that you think that self-serving excuses are some kind of penance suggests that the year you thought you might be Catholic really did rub off on you.”

“Well, it does make me feel a little better without having actually done anything, so it’s a pretty effective technology to pick up,” Picky says.  “C’mon…”  She starts walking into the darkness of the new shaft we’ve descended into, but now I’m the one lost in feed as I ponder over the headlines. She turns around and links elbows with me, more or less dragging me along as we make our way forward. 

The slick black walls in this passage are slightly curved and feel plastic to the touch, creating a spongy rebound when you take a step that isn’t unpleasant, although it adds to the tunnel’s overall incongruity. What the hell is something like this for? Why this specific bizarre texture, right here? All part and parcel with the Drop’s general discordant liminality.

 The passage isn’t fully level after all, but continues to slope downward, though thankfully far less precariously than that first drop. When we begin our bouncy trip through it, it’s fairly wide, probably eight feet around, so much so that movement is easy and its winding nature is barely detectable. That pleasant dynamic doesn’t last, however, as the passage constricts rapidly while we move through it, and the walls become more rigid and cold.

Before long we’re hunched over, and the gentle winding becomes a twisting yaw with no apparent pattern to its chaotic tracking. We move as quickly as we can, even as the passage further narrows, finally leveling out completely into a three-foot-wide circle. The Kid has taken point, and the bright, billowing beam of light from his torch doesn’t reveal any sort of exit ahead; just the shaft stretching out into the contracting, vanishing darkness.

I’ve been contemplating the latest breaking news as we’ve made our scramble, which no doubt accounts for me taking up the rear in my sloth. “Possible Years-old Improper Behavior Surfaces Against Nominee” is what the Timems is going with, and the rest of the major media outlets are following suit with this sort of half-committed headline. When I actually scan the stories, things get much heavier and and so much fucking darker than the milquetoast headlines let on, although the included analysis is still steeped in the kind of both-sides rhetoric – pure reverence to of the myth of objectivity – that helps to get us into these bullshit situations in the first place.

“I don’t think anyone had ‘nominates a sex pest to the highest court in the land’ in the pool,” the Kid says.

“You know I’m not a fan of jokes that are even rape-adjacent, so I should probably kick your ass for that, but right now…” Picky says. “I’m just so fuckin’ tired..”

“This is some sort of exponential nightmare,” I say.  “Not only is the court going to swing hard right for a generation, but the guy they’re going to install is a perfect embodiment of race, class, and gender privilege. The more we learn about this creep, the more it seems like his only ideology is nihilism.”

“Yeah, you were right… this is all a little on the nose, isn’t it?” Picky says, her voice steadily rising as she really works herself up. “Here’s a scumbag ivy-league frat-bro abusive alcoholic rapist whose monstrous behavior has long been protected and coddled by the system, since he’s a rich-as-fuck scion of the White Room; he’s uncurious, reactionary, and just smart enough to pass a fucking bar. 

“Why is he hired right out of law school to work for the most prestigious and conservative law firm in all of Passer Winkelhaak? How does he make the shortlist for the federal bench after five middling years of coasting? Why does he immediately shoot to the top of the Fuedal Society’s shitlist for most consistently fascist judge on the Appeals Court before he ever makes a ruling? Why the fuck does Middalmin choose a radical right wing judge as a clerk and make him his closest confidant, and why does the dude accept the offer so readily? It doesn’t just fail the smell test, it radiates stink lines like a garbage can in a Heathcliff cartoon.”

“So now Middalmin, who has his own seven figure stock scandal brewing under the surface, gets to retire from scrutiny, while the fully compromised dipshit with the rapey past and a sweet tooth for the finer barbituates gets launched by the reactionaries into the upper reaches of the judiciary, ahead of a thousand other more qualified candidates, all because the Dipshit AI is savvy enough to recognize someone who’s as big of a scumbag as it is, and because this dude implicitly understands that in this administration, the only concept that matters is mother fucking omerta.”

“Did you get all that?” she says, finally, shooting me a grin over her shoulder as she hunches along.

“Oh, sorry, ran out of space.  It was a little long, you know?” I shoot back.

“I dunno why you think secrecy and loyalty aren’t bog standard parts of every political operation,” the Kid says, although his contrarianism feels pretty weak-tea in its delivery. 

“C’;mon, son,” Picky sighs. “No one here’s gonna suggest any given in-group isn’t ultimately loyal to itself first, but you know actual omerta is different. I’m not being facetious. This is straight up gangster shit.” 

“You make it sound so cool, but really, it’s just plain old fascism, and not actually a new phenonmenon around here,” the Kid says. A new flood of stories pours forth from the ever-gushing media sluiceway into our actives. It’s the second round of dirt dug up on Judge Beauphyr’s apparent lifetime pattern of general debauchery, black-out alcoholism, and sexual harassment and assault, backed up by numerous credible accounts of survivors. It also contains the first round of the right-wing pushback against the idea that any of this is true, or if it were true, that any of it would be a problem.

These dismissals break down in the typical fashion: boys, it is said repeatedly and tediously, will be boys. The myriad permutations of this sort of rhetoric, already being given fertile purchase around the narrative, signals that whatever awful gaslighting bullshit that’s coming will basically boil down to “sexual assault is ok to engage in if you’re young and feel at least privately bad about it later.” 

This vicious kind of permissive legalism telegraphs how tragically plausible many of the reactionaries find these accusations, as they must have a dim awareness that such deficiencies exist within themselves, and yet they lack any desire or will to overcome their own monstrosities, choosing instead to find terrible new ways to call those wicked traits “virtue”.

 And of course this is all accompanied by a very steady, bass-heavy chorus of “the accusers are lying!” as is always the case when any woman is brave enough to publicly tell her story. When taken all together, this situation pretty much embodies a clear example of the totality of rape culture.

“When patriarchy strikes back, it strikes back hard,” I say.

“The patriarchy does not ‘strike back’,” Picky replies. “It re-envelops. It is the medium in which we exist.” 

The passage once again begins its snaking lilt, turning in harder angles with less interval, causing us to struggle forward as we fight against the inefficient and baroque architecture of the Drop.

“I’m trying to determine if shame ever had any significant impact on politics,” I grunt, attempting to distract myself from how difficult all this scrambling seems to be getting. “It’s easy to say things are always as bad as they ever were.”

“Yeah, but if things never changed, all of existence would just be one neverending gray hum, right?” Picky replies. 

“Yeah, right, whatever that means,” the Kid says.  “Nah, these fuckers are all out of shame, you know? Their war is existential. I remember that terror pretty well from my Clanchan days. When power is your identity, both slip away at the same time. When people feel like their identity is being erased, the path to total war is a matter of gravity… that is, time.”

“You know, you’re not precisely a total dumdum, Kid,” Picky says.

“At least one of us in the group needs to not be,” the Kid replies.  “I’ll take that bullet, I guess.” 

The snaking path once again straightens, but grows even narrower now, and my heretofore successfully suppressed claustrophobia begins to bleed up from the depths of my earlier subjugations. I use an old therapy trick, from my monied days, a simple ten countdown, relax, relax… the constricting feeling closing in on my psyche loosens for a moment, and I take the opportunity to power forward, catching up with the two of them, who seem to be taking this whole ‘suffocating, crushing stranglespace’ way better than me.

“The white working class of Drop elected a program so unsophisticated that it sometimes literally eats its own shit and then claims it was a strategic maneuver,” the Kid continues. “And it’s base is so hopeless that half the time, it wouldn’t even be wrong if it did. Shame doesn’t enter into it. These people will kill for the cause if they are given the order.”

“Would you have?” Picky asks. It was a question on the tip of my tongue, too, but I’m inclined to give the Kid more grace than the average person, which I think is more or less fair on both ends. The question of letting former admitted reactionaries into spaces that are inherently inclined to distrust them is fraught, and I generally come down on the side of caution on this one: you can forgive a former fascist, but you can never precisely trust them in the same way, and if they understand the stakes of belief, they should never expect you to. 

Fortunately, the Kid’s misanthropy keeps him from trying to invade spaces where he isn’t wanted, and it allows him to treat his former self with the same kind of vicious deconstruction he employs on everyone else. If there’s one thing that everyone who sticks around Chicago Street seems to possess, it’s a healthy ability to self-criticize. Except Mo, who knows she’s perfect and expects us all to agree. 

“I mean, I was on that path,” the Kid replies, and his voice has that rare earnest edge to it that always freaks me right the fuck out. “Everyone’s on that path, though, right? Everyone has a reason to kill, eventually. Just depends on how far along you are. Maybe I was a little closer than you, on some levels. Maybe not. The only thing I’ve really learned from all the bullshit shrinks I’ve been seen is that no one red line is the same as another… that we’re the same in the aggregate, but not in the trivial…”  The walls finally start to squeeze in for really real, as if they have malign intent for me… the Kid lets his words hang for a few beats. “Thanks for forcing me to randomly defend my past unnecessarily, friend.”

“Sorry, friend,” Picky laughs. “This is the price for flirting so intensely with your own red line.”

“It’s ok. Some people say that friendships shouldn’t be transactional, but I tend to disagree, and it seems that you do, too. So I’ll bide my time on this one, in terms of the bill being due.”

“And that, kids, is how you foreshadow,” Picky says.  “Now, listen.”  She cranes her neck around and looks intently at me with that scrunchy concerned face that I do not love. “Things get… kind of rough for a few meters, but…”

“How many meters is “a few”, Picky?” I feel my pulse accelerate,as the walls tighten around me.

“A couple of a few, but, listen, sweetie, we are so close to almost there! …and I need you to not freak out…”

“What is there to freak out about?” I say, my voice rising in a manner quite beyond my volition.

“Well, because I know you don’t love tight spaces, and the space gets kind of… tight.” She moves down to practically a belly crawl as the passage closes in.  “Also…” her voice is muffled now.  “There’s… actually something on our tail… and it definitely isn’t cops.”  

“What’s on our tail?!” I say… although I guess I might be shouting.  

“Come on now, luv,”. Picky says. Her voice sounds very far away.  “Time to let that incredible survival instinct kick in.” We scramble forward, now in almost complete darkness, as the passage shrinks to less than a two feet wide, forcing me into a near-frantic crawl as I feel utterly exposed by heading up the rear. 

The walls grow mottled and rough as we scurry forward, and my mind can help but wander to what might be behind, filling itself with images of myriad gesticulating limbs and dragging, gripping flesh hulks covered in grease and blood, ceaseless, lifeless, undying… I manage to convince myself it’s a silly idea that they’d be here, and then a strange, whistling growl that reverberates down the tube causes me to sincerely reconsider my previous position. 

We’re moving at a steady clip now, and although a good part of me wants to collapse into itself, I’m able to hold it together thanks to a flash of shimmering light that trickles past the other two’s prone forms. Whatever might be behind us, and it’s probably, almost certainly, just a ventilation system that’s malfunctioning god-I-hope, it’s not going to reach us before we get to the light, I tell myself. 

I choose to ignore the possibility that the light itself is another false end, but then I inevitably remember I’m trying to ignore it, which makes me further panic. I use whatever raw, nervous energy from this extra shot of anxiety that I can manage, screaming at my body to crawl faster, which causes me to nearly faceplant into the business-end of Picky’s trainers.

The loud rattling intensifies into a kind of snarling metallic roar… the approaching light glistens as it oscillates through different colors and hues, one moment a bright, piercing lavender, the next a dull grass green from a washed-out summer day, then an intense pulsing white, followed by a deep aquamarine that totally defocuses my vision… it almost seems like the grinding moan behind me is cycling in time to the rhythm of the light’s fluctuation, but I’m pretty sure I’m hallucinating from a rapid-onset fully blossoming anxiety attack…

As I feel the overwhelming sensory input begin to metaphysically consume me, Picky’s feet vanish in a literal flash, and my vision is flooded with a nearly blinding kaleidoscope of radiating colors. I’m momentarily overwhelmed into freezing inaction, but suddenly I feel two hands grip firmly onto my own, and then I find myself being hoisted out of the tube by Picky and the Kid, landing gently in what takes me a few blinking moments to internalize as a shining, shimmering wonderland.

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