iii: Border Organs/superficial incisions

To suggest that capital is an inherent component of humanity’s cybernetic impulse is no mere hyperbole; the further away a civilization crawls from a hierarchy of implied abstraction and into the codified regulation of the commercial market, the more the machinery of finance will demand the kind of efficiencies that only a breach into the digital sphere can procure.

With the cultivated notion of capital fully at play within the market, ill-defined power dynamics become literalized by the machinations of economic momentum, and hypothetical social currency is converted into the security of solid tender. Caste is subsumed into class, and the suppositional delineations between the functional partitioning of a people become the concrete walls of fortified social strata. 

And so, if sophistication of ennui leads to civilization, then it must be sophistication of capital that leads to mechanization. Mechanics are ultimately an appeal to efficiency, and as the echoing shape of humanity’s collective loneliness could be understood as a primary mechanic in concluding the prehistoric age, so too does an efficient trade, which tends to regulate itself for its own benefit, expedite the epochal technology which shapes its own demise. 

According to classical mechanics, nothing that appears suddenly can be sudden. Definitive situations are the result of surreptitious movements and impulses that, when viewed objectively, clearly manifest long before, and continue to influence long after, any specific event on a given timeline. Singularity is, upon deconstruction, a fundamentally holistic expression of such a point’s plurality within its waveform. 

But that doesn’t mean we can dismiss the significance of focal moments, which are, after all, the very lens by which we are able to observe the nuances and complexities of continuity. Certain entities will actualize so totally within their ambience that dismissing them as mere byproducts of the age is an exercise in aloof understatement; these loci are the narrative weight that anchor our stories to the harbors of human comprehension, safe from the frenzied seas of absolute perspective. 

Now, consider that you might regard two such apparently discreet anomalies, both belonging to the same branch of temporal relativity, yes, but still, separated by the vast intervals of actual space and time contained in that titanic locality. Consider further that you could regard these two distinct phenomena, separated even by the apparent chaos of thousands of years and trillions of miles, and comprehend them as a single solid idea.

Determining the actual interval between two unique but irrevocably linked res novae, both philosophically and within the actual bounds of spacetime, is a thorny proposition. It is the sort of distance that appears decoherent if you attempt to map it comprehensively without fully considering the consequence of all its angles. 

First, there are the physical demands of the numerous exponentially escalating gravitational yolks that the Earth is captured within, each with their own massive trajectories and corresponding speeds. The ostensibly erratic path of a planetary body, as it burrows out an eccentric passage through multiple expanding gravitational constructs over the course of many thousands of light years, is ultimately a false pandemonium, one that only appears chaotic until one can view it from a broad enough perspective to fully grasp the elegant order of this specific observation of the whole.

The terrestrial journey that such tandem technologies embark upon mirror the immensity of that abstruse supra-galactic migration; rambling excursions with distinct inceptions, taking similarly convoluted and polyhedral avenues that ultimately complete in an unambiguous and simultaneous sequence, indicating a greater holistic perspective that thus presages them as a single entity; or, more precisely, as different necessary components of the same body; the former its instigation, and the later its consequence.

This is the relationship between the token and the coin slot.

    “Ok…” Picky sighs, after taking a few more drags, performing only mildly obnoxious pulls this time, so she’s soon merely coughing unpleasantly instead of full on lung-hacking.. “It’s really time we get the fuck up out of here.”

“Feel’s like a reasonable take, considering how you’ve been using what a huge hurry we’re in as a wedge and cudgel against me for a minute now,” I reply.

“Three hours. Three hours I just saved us and you’re gonna full-on give me the business for taking a smoke break to get my bearings.”

“I don’t even see a way off this slab, so if you’ve brought us to a literal dead end, we’re gonna maybe lose some of that made-up time by, y’know, dying.” To be honest, I’ve been giving her the benefit of the doubt that she knows how to get us out of this trench, but sometimes her plans for efficiency end up beefing it in a pretty major way. 

I have visions of us having to catch another tram, this time with in the opposite direction, gravity working very much against us, and decide to stop having those visions immediately.

 “Could you show a little faith in your old pal Picky, at some point today, please?” she says, edging into whine territory herself.  “I’m starting to think collecting sycophants who loathe me wasn’t the winning strategy I’d hoped.”  She pulls her torchlight back out, and shines it at the wall toward the edge of the landing; the words EMERGENCY ACCESS are painted in faded white over the rust-red metal.

“Well that’s helpful, now I understand that human beings should only be on this random dark platform in the middle of a yawning void if it’s an actual emergency,” I reply. 

“Look again, Magoo, and this time without the blocks in your head that make things that don’t pass a proper threat assessment visible to you,” she swirls the beam of light and then focuses it back on the spot, and I see she isn’t referring to the messaging, but a bit of grating that juts pathetically out of the platform’s edge, sloping parallel to the wall, terminating upward into total darkness.

“Mr. Magoo stumbles blindly into danger thanks to his crippling near-sightedness, and that’s the opposite of me being wary about your shoddy escape routes,” I note, regarding the three-foot-wide, somewhat-supported gangplank with the incredulity of any other piece of construction in the Junk Arcade.  It’s probably fine, but.., you never know. Ask an Accadian.

Crippling, huh, now who’s being socially insensitive?” Picky says.

“Heh, good one,” the Kid chimes in, just to remind us he’s alive, one assumes.

“Exactly how much of today is going to be jumping around in the darkness over bottomless pits with no goddamn railing?” I say, my voice starting to heat up again.

“It’s a meter-wide rebar-reinforced steel grating bolted to the wall, would you like a gilded carriage to alight you across it, or do you think you can handle the twenty or so feet to the safety hatch?”

“Ask an Accadian,” I grumble.

“Stop trying to make “ask an Accadian” happen,” Picky snorts.  “Better yet, go actually ask an Accadian about it, to their face.” 

 I consider continuing this needless argument, but we’re interrupted by a vaguely familiar dull, grinding roar. It takes me a moment to place it: the sound of the building collapse effect from just around the bend where we came from on the tram. It would only be playing if another tram was approaching. 

I perform some quick head math, which with my attention-deficit brain is harder than it should be. Extrapolating where we were when the effect went off, roughly seconds before Picky informed us we were about to make a hasty exit from the tram car, it all adds up to the fact that another tram is gonna come through real, real soon.

“Hey, there’s a tram coming!” I say, about five seconds after it’s rounded the bend, and immediately regret it once I hear how it sounds out loud.

“This guy,” the Kid says. “Hey, does he ever miss a beat?”

“Are you frightened by the possibility of a Tram passing over our heads?” Picky says, her voice full of unpleasant sass. “If, by some wonder, there were people on the tram, do you think they’d jump off and beat us up?” 

“If they were cops? Yes in fact I do, sorry if that betrays your trust of the twelve to not put themselves in any danger.” She rolls her eyes at me; the nerve. She can roll them all she wants; even if this tram-line’s security detail is a joke in terms of numbers and skill, the rent-a-pigs in less-traveled places like this tend to make up for their limited numbers by being excessively violent shitheels.

The next tram comes creaking down out of the darkness above, leveling off at about two meters above our heads, a few lengths away.

Three foot jump, huh?” I say, before the loud groaning of the old movement mechanism drowns me out completely.  Picky smiles and gives me an exaggerated shrug as the bus-sized tram roars over us. I flinch into the shadows as best I can, not that it matters; if there were someone up there, looking down, they would definitely see three dipshits standing on what appeared to be thin air.

This tram, however, is empty, which isn’t surprising given the sparse crowd that was inhabiting the queue back at Thebes. But they won’t all be; there were, after all, enough people hanging about to apparently qualify in my head as a crowd

“Could you decide if you’re more afraid of being exposed on this precipice or escaping from it, because if it’s the former, I’ll just go ahead, set up camp, plan to live here for a while,” the Kid says. I turn around and find he’s standing there, staring at me; he’s done that thing where he more or less invisibly morphs from totally disengaged to rudely impatient. 

“You know what, kick rocks, the botha yous,” I say, circling back to the edge, throwing my shoulders up and my chest out in a defiant posture, and boldly stepping toward the gangplank. I place a firm foot on it, and it wobbles just enough to make me emit a high-pitched scream and jump back, practically into the Kid’s arms.

“Classic,” he says, grabbing my shoulder to steady us, lest I somehow pitch us both over the edge. Picky eases around us impatiently, and taps the grate with her foot, seeing that it is indeed a bit springy, but northing to scream like a lady about, and walks out onto the plank. 

She clicks the torch onto its brightest setting and shines it down the path, giving us a look at what we’re facing; the grate is just wide enough to allow me to hug the wall in mere half-terror. It all feels solid enough once I step out onto it, but it’s the pitch black fall into the deep empty darkness that’s on my mind as we move further along the trench.

We hit the slant in the grating; it turns out to be steeper than it first appeared, and with no hand holds our movement is slowed, as we’re buffeted by the various not-so-far-off roars and explosions the tram ride produces as it sequences through the vestigial remains of the original Carnival ride. 

After we’ve waddled along for maybe twenty or thirty meters, I can’t help but notice a couple of things: this tram trench is definitely beginning to choke in, which is a problem, because, second noticed-thing, thanks to the sloping grating, we’re quickly becoming level with the path of the tram itself. 

And also, Picky is doing the act-casual thing where she’s pretending everything’s normal, but she keeps twitching the light over to the wall every few steps as if she expects that some sort of exit would have appeared already.

“Uh, we’re even with the tram right now,” I point out, trying to be helpful. 

“Relax, we still have clearance,” Picky replies, but she starts to quicken her pace. Twenty more meters and the path evens out, but the trench it runs along continues to grow thinner. The safety lights on the far wall are still hard to read, but in my estimation, we’ve gone from thirty meters of trench to maybe ten. The tram itself is starting to grow larger in my mind.

“Hey, Picky, not for nothin, but are we gonna die?” the Kid offers. Picky turns to flash us a dirty look, managing to shine the insanely overpowered flashlight right in both of our eyes.

“God damnit, sorry,” she winces.  “No, we’re not going to die, the exit is just ahead, and you have your tools with you right?”

“Yeah I have my tools, why do I need my tools?” the Kid huffs.

“In case we have to pry it open,” Picky says, and then flashes a big, sheepish grin. As if in response, the fake sound of the phony collapsing building calls out its warning, and as we’ve traveled half-way toward it, the roar is much louder this time, literally vibrating the barely-there “floor” under our feet.. “I’m …pretty certain that won’t be necessary.” 

She lurches forward, doubling her steps and her pace, leaving the Kid and me half-blind and scrambling up after her. The tram predictably rounds the corner up ahead, its headlight flooding the trench with a malevolent brightness that allows us to fully comprehend our predicament. It is indeed both on our level and about as wide as the trench is at this point. And it’s maybe forty meters from where we’re standing, closing fast. 

I struggle to keep my wits about me and try to work out if I’m going to turn and run or make a leap onto the top of the tram, as the motor on the track above screams and whines, nearly overwhelming my perception. When it’s about twenty meters ahead, my panic decides for me; I’m going to turn and run, only then remembering that the Kid is right behind me, and that doing so would probably trip us both off into the void.

 For a moment, my flight turns to freeze, and I consign myself to death, but once I get quickly tired of that I start to process how easy or hard mounting the tram itself will be… before I can finish, I feel Picky yank me into the wall.

The three of us tumble on top of each other, and then I wait for the sound of the tram as it roars past the portal just behind us, letting us know how close we came to certain doom. But it takes a full ten seconds for it to even begin to pass, and as it creaks slowly by, it’s very clear that we were never in an enormous amount of danger, as long as we still had the function to climb five feet up a slow-moving sky-boat. After it passes we all lie there for a moment as it rumbles away, and then Picky leaps to her feet.

“Ta-da!” she says, as if she’s just finished one of her barely-competent sleight-of-hand tricks.

“Well that’s maybe the quickest you’ve almost gotten us killed, I’m sure not for the last time today,” I say, bracing myself against the concrete wall to pull myself up, already feeling the strain of unexpected physical activity plus early middle age.

“Not even close. Remember Shire on the Wold?” the Kid says.  

“I… do remember Shire on the Wold, now that you brought it up,” I reply. “Dick move, too, you know I work very hard to repress it.”

“We’re not relitigating Shire on the fucking Wold today, and you guys didn’t come close to dying. If we had to climb over the tram, we would have. It’s slow as fuck, it just looks fast when you’re… y’know, in its direct path and shit.”

“Ah, another thing you just decided wouldn’t be worth telling us, lest we object to the needless danger?”

“Sure, if you like,” Picky says, hunching up and starting to move forward down the exit portal. It’s just a cramped and dark, vaguely round concrete passage, and smells of a deep dank must that overwhelms the carny scent awash in the trenches. The movement is unpleasant and threatens to trigger my claustrophobia, but before long it opens up so that we can at least stand upright, and when we make our way around a few bends, we pop out into the Backstage.

The state-franked coin and its slot are separated in invention by the space of a millennium, and the divide between their practical application is nearly three times as wide. Yet both technologies are the direct result of the same broad economic cooperation, facilitated by a kind of holistic global equity that ironically gave rise to localized social stratification, as individual cultures were enriched by intra-tribal trade, and the elites suddenly found the resources to put up fences in their own backyards.

The weaponization of wealth is the direct result of its concentration, and that concentration is no more evident in human history than with the invention and dissemination of such incestuous tendrils of capital as coin and slot. They are recursively synchronized methodologies for securing personal wealth, which necessarily cultivate antagonistic forms of protective oppression. 

But although the sequential connection between these functional components of a more digital commerce is absolute, the sequence itself still matters, if one is to fully understand the psycho-social ramifications of their invention. Placing any technology within its very specific anthropological context in our homo sapien evolution is vital for understanding the story of how its success inevitably predicts its own obsolescence. 

The genesis of wealth’s concentration into a comprehensive structure is rooted in the earliest days of trading between distant peoples; a profound border-melding activity which engendered the robust transfer and promulgation of knowledge and material throughout the world.

The further that global trade sophisticated thanks to this economic vibrancy, the faster it collectively moved toward understanding the inherent value of a regulated market. It is from this heady milieu that the progenitor of all economic centralization, the mint-marked token, is born.

 Blessed by the throne and consecrated by fiat, for the sole purpose of fair and regulated transaction, the state-endorsed token represents a rubicon-crossing milestone in the inevitable formalization of social status into physical wealth. When value becomes a literal object, it more clearly allows the all-seeing eyes of societal control to view, and thus become obsessed with, the world-narrowing focus offered by economic cultivation. 

In its official stature as a stand-in for an overseeing body of authority, be it the crown or the elect, it is the token, the coin, the bit, that finally reduces absolutely the total number of individuals required for an economic transaction from many to two. The coin might thus be considered prima causa on the inevitable path to one day removing the need for a human participant from all transactions entirely.

 We’ve crescendoed into a long, humid hallway; a protracted tunnel of spartan gray concrete, made practically vibrant by a diffuse but pulsating red light, which radiates through the haze from a crawl space beneath the metal-grated floor, and scintillates across every condescension-slick surface. 

The hallway, which we’ve t-boned into from our rough portal, is trimmed by thick pipe clusters, which sprawl across both walls horizontally; their chaotic, twisting configurations running haphazardly across one another like snaking vines. The air’s heavy moisture scatters and refracts what little light there is, making the hall’s length impossible to judge, and giving the illusion of perpetuity in both directions. 

This corridor, long as it may be, is a fractal segment of the larger maze of Backstage paths that slash across the Drop. While it doesn’t represent the utter, flesh-hating depths of the Junk Arcade, the Backstage is still buried deep in the mind of the Drop’s denizens; it’s a place beyond the places behind places, lying well out of sight, and thus mostly unknown, just beneath the Drop’s human-inhabited skin.

  This vast sub-dermal capillary network is so interconnected that one could use it to traverse nearly the whole of the Drop, from the very depths of the Token Mines in the Dump all the way up to the Second City, just short of the White Room, although the closer you get to either the top or the bottom, the more extreme the security becomes, as the polar opposites of the Drop represent the primary cop shops the Junk Arcade has to offer.

 But no matter how relatively safe the particular area of the Backstage might be, the wisdom of sticking around any part of it for any amount of time is highly questionable, as although you can generally move about it in a horizontal fashion without too much concern for getting clocked by the fuzz (as long as you’re the least bit careful,) the vertical portions are closely watched by deeply bored and violent men whom, if they catch you, will not be held accountable for their actions, by anyone.

 (The idea of free vertical movement is as close to blasphemy as you can get in the Junk Arcade without throwing tokens straight in the trash, and as a result, any summary punishment could at least be understood by the state, if not forgiven, and thus, eventually, by the state, forgiven.) 

Ultimately, this labyrinth is a vital maintenance network, and its upkeep is one of those quiet, stable professions of vast logistical consequence that no one topside much considers, save for when they’re taking an illicit jaunt down under, or maybe when something Above Ground badly breaks.

The yardmen who ply their mysterious trade in these catacombs, which seem designed for human access only in the vaguest sense, are not unlike a forest animal one might encounter in Reality; in general, they’re more afraid of you than you are of them. Unfortunately, unlike our sleep-time pals Bambi and Thumper, on the Drop that fear is generally backed up by firepower, as the Double Amendment’s requirement for universal self-carry, and the Backyard Technician’s freedom to enact summary violence in their territory, is not a super fun combination.

Beyond these obvious dangers that it presents, the Backyard’s purpose favors a Byzantine layout that’s more about gaining access to specific key logistical hubs, rather than making traversal from place to place easy. This renders it generally impractical for anything other than specific planned shortcuts, if you’re actually using it efficiently to cut any real time off of your travels.

 And although the level portions of the Drop are relatively safer than the perpendicular bits, these areas are not really safe by a normal person’s understanding of the word (Picky may read as hyper-neurotypical but “normal” wouldn’t be an apt descriptor for her.) It’s a fact that if you spend long enough in the bowels of the Drop, the danger starts to increase exponentially. 

Now this is something that is true for most dicey places on the Drop; the Junk Arcade isn’t a world that offers a ton of succor when it comes to guarantees of life, liberty, or happiness pursuing, despite what any of our founding documents might say. Like so many places of the supposedly freedom-loving structure, being present in the Backstage without proper authorization is illegal, punishable by Minimum Death. 

And if you accidentally happen across one of those more rare but quite-present places, where the membrane between the merely embedded and the truly deep starts to disintegrate, living humans will become the very least of your immediate concerns. 

       It should go without saying that I fucking hate this. Having a finely-tuned threat assessment is a true hassle when you’re in the coterie of someone like Picky, who seems to view risk as a philosophical concern rather than a practical one. Obviously, on some masochistic level, I’m attracted to minds such as this, so foreign is that pattern of thinking from my own. But, as I think I’ve already illustrated with the Carnival, being attracted to something doesn’t mean you don’t mostly fucking hate it.

“Ohmygod, that smell,” the Kid says, taking in a deep breath and looking around with as close to a sense of wonder as I ever see him in. True enough, the faux-fun funkiness present in the trench has been replaced with that not unpleasant greasy scent of nothing so much as whatever the fuck they used to put in gasoline. “I didn’t know you were taking us Backstage, Picky, you know I wouldn’t have given you all that fucking business.”

“Well I guess my voice really does operate close to the frequency of silence, because it sure as shit seems like no one’s listening to me,” Picky growls. “I told you like six times that we’d be going Backstage, don’t tell me you have the same wax in your ears as Hellen Keller over here…”

“Ok, that’s fucked,” I interject.

“Consider how much less offended you’d be if I’d said Beethoven and then consider how you are ultimately responsible for all those strong feelings in a row you just felt,” Picky shoots back.

“Nah, it wasn’t some weird word game like the two of you play,” the Kid responds to Picky, registering mild annoyance with the attention-pull of my aside. “I just straight up didn’t believe you. Usually when you talk about your access to the Backstage you’re full of shit, you end up taking us to the alleyway behind a Benihanas or some shit.”

“Wow, that’s a… really specific made up example, especially for you,” Picky nods.  “I don’t think we, uh, have Benihanas?”

“Ok, sorry, I was trying to speak your language; whatever our dumb version of that is,” the Kid says, threatening the fourth wall with violence. Picky smirks, but doesn’t respond, apparently satisfied that this is as much praise as she could hope for from the Kid.

“I hate this,” I say, and I’m surprised I’ve said it out loud, but that’s how my brain works, sometimes. They both give me a look that clearly indicates strongly how they feel about my bullshit, non-verbally. Picky then shrugs and leans into a sudden left, and we follow, trotting along an identical and ostensibly unceasing hallway in silence for a moment.

As I’ve mentioned, the risk in the Backstage is fairly limited, as long as you stick in it for short bursts. But I prefer that my criminal enterprises limit exposure to real cops as much as possible, and they are, in general, the kind of law you’ll find in places like this, given that the Backstage is considered official municipal property. 

Rent-a-cops are bastards, but you can run from them without too much worry. Not so much with actual pigs, who are slightly more likely to be able to catch up with you (or at least their bullets will,) and they’re much more likely to get away with your summary execution when they do (and thus inherently more likely to indulge themselves in such behavior; you know how it goes when those chemicals get racing.)

The wide discretion that Backstage pigs possess, the way they’re almost entirely out-of-sight to the superficial world, makes dealing with them extremely volatile; they might beat the shit out of you, or take a bribe of a bagful of tokens; they might ticket you, or haul you in on blasphemy charges and toss you into the token mines. And you can’t expect any pity back top-side; the Eloi do not empathize with Morlocks.

Do I trust Picky, ultimately? I don’t feel like I’d be here if I didn’t, given my inherent level of general cowardice. As I’ve said, she rarely steers us directly into the jaws of impossible danger, even if the paths she takes us down are often hardly the ones of least resistance. We’ve spent more than our share of time Backstage with Picky, despite the Kid’s skewed memories, and we’ve only had a handful of notable incidents to report… The cadaver thing was more my fault than hers, if we’re going to be completely honest.  

So while I definitely want to get the fuck out of here, I’ve banked enough hubris to kill my most primal anxieties and remain in a state of something like calm, at least for the moment. 

 But still, it should go without saying that I fucking hate this.

            We trudge on silently for a while, through the oppressive humidity; I can feel myself begin to acquire an unpleasant, moist cling. Our feet clank against the metal grating, the only other sound than a low, rumbling hum punctuated by an occasional hiss of steam. 

We pass by a number of ovoid portholes; effective copies of the one that we emerged from hundreds of meters ago. Occasionally, Picky will take as long of a look as our brisk pace will allow down a particular side route, her face showing signs of quick calculation. But she doesn’t slow down until she reaches a portion of the hallway with four of the portals clustered next to one another: two on each side, about five meters apart.

“Well,” she says, stopping suddenly. “Ain’t that some shit?” I can’t tell if she’s talking about a fault in her bearings, or the frankly alarming news that just pushed its way across my feed. Either way, it’s not a great situation. 

As I read the breaking news headlines that pour through my feed, and try to adjust to both their specific enormity, as well as the knowledge that something this momentous was coming, I try to decide if being lost Backstage is a better position to be in than having a front row seat to genuine fascism’s latest salvo against the already reactionary population of the Drop.

 The three of us stand there, for a long, slack-jawed moment, as group feeding descends. My stomach sinks as I crawl deeper into the wire story, and doesn’t let up after I stagger through a few pages of predictably gnashing comments on social. No one I follow who’s been paying attention didn’t know that the Supercourt was already well past the brink, and that once the Dipshit AI got elected, this was another one of those infinite other shoes that were always  just. Gonna. Keep. Dropping.

“THE WEDGE OUT AS SUPERCOURT AT LAST TIPS SLIGHTLY BACK TOWARD CENTER ” is the Journal’s headline.  The Timems goes with a more subdued “OUTER PARTY IN CHAOS AS MIDDALMIN GRACEFULLY STEPS ASIDE FOR SAKE OF INSTITUTIONAL INTEGRITY.” which frankly feels like laying it on a little thick. Folk News doesn’t even have a story for the headline; the page is just giant flashing impact font that says “LOL FUCKIN’ A”

“Ha!” The Kid lets out a too-loud, staccato laugh after a long moment. “Dude cut the Gordian knot by doing the worst thing imaginable. You gotta admit, that’s pretty fucking bold!”  I find it hard to disagree with him on a linguistic level. The move is absolutely bold. But the boldness, in this case, does not come from the resigning judge, but rather the system itself, which feels like it’s making an audacious declaration that the Supercourt is openly compromised, and it knows god damn well no one’s going to do anything about it.

You see, Supercourt Justice Middalmin, who’s been the supposed swing vote on the Supercourt for years, and who has – of late – taken to signing his opinions with the moniker THE WEDGE in self-celebration, has decided to retire suddenly, just in time for the Dipshit AI who currently captains the Drop to replace him with something much more overtly horrible. Middalmin’s departure is unexpected, unwelcome, and honestly, unsurprising if you have anything other than a surface level understanding of what’s been happening for the last decade.

“Not sure if it’s the worst possible thing that could happen right now, but it’s up there,” Picky says, and from her staring-upward-into-nothing pose, it’s clear that she’s trying to scrutinize politics when she should be getting us the fuck out of Dodge. 

     “Hey, Picks, stay frosty,” I say, coming back to life, and immediately giving furtive glances in every direction, certain I’m about to see the harsh beam of a professional-grade cop flashlight at any moment. There’s a dullish roar from somewhere far in the distance; I’m sure it’s the howl of an Engineer, and even though they don’t generally cross up from the Underneath, there’s always a third time for everything. 

  “I’m going to allow that “Picks” because I know you’re very frightened by being Backstage,” Picky grunts. She’s not the kind of person who appreciates nicknames. “As for my relative frostiness, I assure you I am currently ice cold, my molecules are barely even moving, my thermal output is almost nil. C’mon.”  

She starts deliberately down the closest porthole to her, and we are immediately funneled into a thin, meter-wide crevice that seems to be constructed mainly from darkness and funk. We stumble through this constricting furrow for another few hundred feet, according to the biometrics feed on my screen, which I like to bring up when I’m trying not to focus on any of my (honestly very mild) phobias… presently things open back up to a width of about two meters, and after a moment we T-bone into another ponderously long hallway.

The light here is more of a subdued pink than red, with a scattering waveform that barely pierces the hazy darkness. It’s much hotter (apparently that’s possible) and the humidity makes the air itself feel wet. The pipes and tubing aren’t lashed to the walls anymore, but jut out from all angles, creating a criss-crossing lattice of plastic and steel, requiring us to navigate the arduous trestling like children scrambling over a jungle gym at recess, which is ironically something none of us ever got to experience.

Then again, this kind of obstacle-course lifestyle is pretty old-hat, after four or five or six or however many years (who can remember? No one here) hanging out with Picky. It’s not precisely difficult, just obnoxious and draining… except for the occasional pipe that’s hot, but not hot enough to glow (you learn to touch and go.) 

But it’s the kind of muddling that I can’t help but note was a hell of a lot easier a decade ago.  

“So who had a “sudden Middalmin resignation” in the pool, anyway?” I say, as I haul myself over a particularly serpentine bit of plumbing and just barely avoid tripping myself into an embarrassing tumble.  

“Fuck, dude, I can’t get excited about “pool” gags right now,” Picky says. “At least you didn’t do a bingo card bit, I guess.”

“I actually did have that in the pool,” the Kid replies.  “Oh, and, would you look at that, bingo!”

 “This feels like… uh, like a pretty big deal,” I say, the gears in my brain nearly audibly grinding as they run through the implications of this latest rancid nugget of data.

“It’s the ball game,” Picky says, and lets it hang there as we continue to work our way through the cramped framework of plastic and metal. It feels like the walls are tightening again, although that might be my phobia kicking in; the scent has definitely taken on a fouler character. 

…Look, I’m not as claustrophobic as I used to be, perhaps owing to other, later-blooming traumas somewhat overwhelming the earlier ones. But I’m intensely aware at the moment that I’m definitely not not claustrophobic. 

  Picky’s not wrong in her dire assessment, even if she’s being hyperbolic to highlight the gravity of the moment; knowing her, I don’t believe she’s the sort that attributes long term issues to single events. But her ball-game metaphor is apt, if tangentially; power, as I understand it, is a ball that tends to bounce around, and its momentum is as such that it makes it difficult to hold onto, suggesting it’s extremely difficult for any single individual to be the most powerful person in the world for too long of a time.

 But Middlemin’s position as the perceived swing vote on the Supercourt has long found him hogging the ball, more often than any single person ever should, making him one of the more powerful assholes on the Drop in the last few years. When under his control, the ball has been easily weaponized, either by him directly or by the reactionary enablers who sponsor his behavior. In his hands, the ball becomes a bullet.

“This is just another sign that this shithole sinker is dead weight,” the Kid says. “I don’t know why anyone would see this as anything other than a natural progression of the rot.”

Picky heaves a sigh that’s as relatable as it is performative. “Hard to disagree with you on that point, sadly. The hijacking of Supercourt is the culmination of Shelly’s years’ long project to assure Inner Party control of the judiciary, in order to keep on steering our collective boat ceaselessly into the non-existent past they love so much.”

 “Jay Gatsby was, for all his proud excesses… a pathetic failure,” I manage to grunt, very nearly flipped end over end as I struggle to navigate a particularly tricky chunk of corroded pipe.  “Shelly is a pathetic success.”  

“Do the classy literary bits you guys come up with stop Shelly from succeeding, you think?” The Kid says, and I can hear his smug little smile. His latter-day conversion away from the world of reactionary assholes sometimes only feels like a difference of degree, and it means that he still has a lot of residual feelings of pleasure from leftist tears, even if those feelings ultimately align against his current interests. “Does your identification of him as a prime evil of the left hurt or help his power base, you think?”

“Man’s proud to be a scumbag, and he makes it work for him, I’ll give him that,” Picky says.  “‘Prime evil of the left’ might be giving him a little too much institutional credit. If you can be a genius at laconic opportunism, I guess he’s that.”

Shelly’s the Inner Party Majority Minister in the Upper Chamber, and as such, he inhabits one of the most powerful positions on the Drop. Not everyone who gets to sit at the levers of power knows how to operate them effectively, as we have seen with the last two years of a Dipshit AI in charge. 

This is not the case for ol’ Shelly, who, despite the gossamer veneer of respectability that’s institutionally imbued upon him by the Upper Chamber (that hollowed seat of theoretical bi-partisan tact and decorum, that prim lot of landed gentry designed to play timid patrician to the Lower Pit’s teeming rabble,) despite his obviously craven demeanor and hideously vicious countenance, despite the fact that everyone aside for those he needs to not hate him fucking hate him, or perhaps indeed because of all these things, he wields his institutional hegemony with a grim, autocratic effectiveness, and he possesses the singularly strict discipline to never, ever compromise with anyone outside of his coalition. 

Ever since Justice Santagostino, the core of the Supercourt’s conservative intellectualism (such as it is,) died from overindulgence in his self-flagilaring autoerotic asphyxiation hobby, Shelly has done a remarkable job of dismantling any progressive flavor in the Judiciary. Since Timem, no one has so effectively shut down what had once been a routine operation of replacement by the sitting party.

But it isn’t as if he’s been some genuine machiavellian operator, like the Drop’s paid pontificators seem to want to cast him. His particular brand of darkness is only given purchase because the system is fucked up enough to value whatever reactionary inaction he brings to the table. His only real skill in getting things done is doing nothing at all; he just happens to be very, very good at it.

Slow as the march of progress has been for anyone without a prime seat at the white boys table, the determined rise of issues like civil rights and queer love and the growing agency of trans folk, women, enbys, asex, and all the colors under the + rainbow… it’s really fucking freaked out the traditionalist (that is to say, white supremacist) cotingent on the Drop. This fear was what prompted them to elect the Dipshit AI, in a kind of suicide pact with the Drop itself: if they can’t have it, the thinking goes, no one will. 

 It is this blatant revanchism that gives Shelly his power. And ever since he looked former Chief Exec Jane Wayne in the eye and flat out told her she would only fill the open Supercourt seat over his bullet-riddled corpse, he’s held the leverage to get his vile shit accomplished. 

He stonewalled the chamber on appointing Santagostino’s replacement until the Dipshit AI’s unfortunate victory, giving it a free Supercourt seat right out of the gate. Since then, he’s streamlined the appointment of extreme right-wing judges to various levels of the federal judiciary, and now, he’s going to give the AI another Supercourt seat, throwing the entire branch to the harder-right for years, and creating a path to fast-track culture-war-bullshit cases designed to send us back into the Timem dark ages. It’s hard to imagine anyone who loves the idea of liberation facing down a worse scenario.

“What I don’t understand is Middalmin’s game plan here,” I say, as we finally swing out of the latticed artery and into a larger, but no less dim and hot, cement corridor. At least here the pipes return to simply hugging the wall, although there are so many of them that they seem to make up the confines of the corridor itself. Forward movement is much easier, but now I’m coated with sweat, as is the Kid. Picky looks fine, the result of her being as much of a nut about conditioning as she is about putting bad shit into her body, apparently looking to go out with a bang, heart-wise, rather than risk old age on the Drop. “Who benefits from him quitting right now?”

“What do you mean?” Picky replies. “Nothing happens in a vacuum. You don’t need to be the Kid and come up with any wild conspiracy to explain the material reality of the situation.”

“Yeah, but it helps, though,” the Kid interjects.

 “He’s worked for 20 years to establish a judicial legacy as the milquetoast center and now he’s going to throw the court right for a generation?” I posit. As if in reply, a loud clanking rings out from some indiscernible distance, seemingly growing in intensity and volume, as if it’s coming this way, before stopping suddenly somewhere just ahead of us. Picky freezes in place, and I again begin to doubt her backstage stewardship. “…Picky, are we gonna get out the fucking yard before we get rousted by the bulls?”

“Fear not the gendarmes, fair peasant, the watch shall not fell us on this eve,” Picky says, taking a few steps forward and then turning around, heading quickly past us with a casual shrug that says this was the way she meant to do it all along. “Privy, danger doth not approach, but methinks a quick correction of course is the thing.”

“I keep telling you, that’s not how hoboes talked,” I say, allowing her display of confidence to fail to rub off on me.

Leave a Reply