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WHATEVER I WAS JUST WATCHING IS INTERRUPTED BY BREAKING NEWS FROM CNN (AN AMAZON COMPANY):

 

“After the tragic massacre in Sacrifice Square last night,” Big Pharmakos (who’s apparently become a newscaster, or at least started playing one) tells the camera, “a new theory has grown too compelling to ignore. Dr. Schlitz, over to you … ”

 

Dr. Schlitz, a cut-rate Mengele lookalike, clears his throat and says, “What I would like to speak with you all about today is the very real possibility that the man, or should I say creature, you all call Col. Pussygrab, your so-called Mayor, is in fact nothing but a mass hallucination brought on by a fungal infestation of the brain.”

 

“And from where, Dr. Schiltz, might such an infestation have arisen?” Big Pharmakos looks like he’s struggling to read cue cards that are either too small or too far away.

 

“Oh, who knows. Dead Sir, I’m guessing. Or bad meat, bad potatoes, bad soap. Airport security machines. Exhaust. Such spores can find any number of ways in. The question now is whether a procedure involving the frontal lobe — ”

 

“A lobotomy?” Big Pharmakos interrupts.

 

Dr. Schlitz winces at the term, but nods. “Sure, if you like. My crew and I will be setting up a mobile brain unit — a van — and making the rounds throughout Dodge City immediately after this broadcast. We would like to look inside the heads of each Dodge City citizen, nothing invasive, just to check for brain disease. To see if Pussygrabism is indeed, as I suspect, a neurological rather than a political phenomenon. And to see if a simple procedure can neutralize the source of this phenomenon before another, well –” he gestures at the photos of the carnage on the screen behind him.

 

Big Pharmakos looks stranded, like he’s hoping some producer behind the camera will tell him how to respond. When no one does, he coughs into his fist and says, “Well that’s our time for today, folks. You heard the doctor. Please be ready for his, um, van whenever it comes by.”

 

*****

AS THE SCREEN freezes briefly between segments, I wonder if our complicity in submitting to this brain exam (I can already tell there won’t be any resistance) is itself a symptom of Pussygrabism. If we weren’t so rotten-through already, I wonder, would at least some of this strike us as strange?

 

I lose my train of thought as the next set of images fills the screen. Naturally, it’s of Dr. Schlitz and his crew inventorying Dodge City citizens. One at a time (a mobile CNN unit is filming) they load people into the van, sedate them with a blast of Pussygrab imagery straight from a hyper-bright flatscreen, and saw the tops of their heads off. Dr. Schlitz then pokes around in their brains — a number of such procedures are spliced together into a montage, set to a Fleet Foxes tune — with an array of wires, prods, and scalpels. Then he scowls and glues the tops of their heads back on.

 

*****

AFTER THE MONTAGE, the doctor appears back in the studio with Big Pharmakos (was this all filmed before the van scenes?), and says, “Sadly, the brain rot among the people of this town is too advanced. I was unable to perform frontal lobe surgery because said lobe was already mostly gone. Nothing left to do for these people, I’m afraid. Pussygrab is here to stay, folks. Hallucination of not, better get used to him.”

 

Here he makes a strained hiccoughing sound, like he’s suppressing a laugh, and stands up so abruptly the cameraman fumbles and loses the shot. CNN cuts to commercial.

 

*****

ALREADY, from inside the chamber where I sit watching this, I can sense the controversy brewing: what if, while pretending to examine our brains, Dr. Schlitz actually performed the lobotomy that made Pussygrab permanent? What if he was working for the other side all along, and the brain rot was merely an excuse to get in our heads?”

 

As soon as this thought occurs to me, I know it’s true. It has that ring to it, at least in my head. But what about my head? What about my lobotomy, or lack thereof? When’s it coming? Or what if — this is surely the more terrifying possibility — it already has? What if they came in here hours ago, dragged me into the van, snipped my lobe, and dropped me back off, none the wiser?

 

I start to panic, staring at the door, unsure whether I’d rather see it open, thereby proving that they haven’t gotten to me yet, or stay closed, thereby proving …

 

I find I can’t quite complete the thought.

I FIND MYSELF AT THE END OF A TRAILER FOR A MOVIE WHOSE NAME I DON’T CATCH but which seems to depict the formation of 100 soldiers into a Victory Parade in Sacrifice Square. According to the trailer’s narrator, “our troops so thoroughly defeated the enemy that all memory of the war has been erased. No one, today or ever after, will be able to say what the war was about, whom it was against, nor even where it took place.”

 

The question I’m left with (other than whether to see the movie — I know I’ll end up seeing it eventually) is how we can be sure these soldiers are actually the same as the ones who departed Dodge City to fight the forgotten war. They look completely standard-issue, like a random sampling of 100 action figures from a ValuPak of 1000 … so who’s to say these are the same Dodge City boys that supposedly set out all those months or years ago? At the same time, I think, treating myself for once as a rational debate partner, let’s not be too insensitive: who’s to say that the war itself didn’t burn their personalities so thoroughly away that these faceless brutes are all that’s left?

 

I chide myself for either my gullibility or my heartlessness (though not both). Then the next trailer begins. This one’s called Coal Country, and promises to tell the story of how “Pussygrab sent all the unemployed coal miners back underground until the next election.”

 

*****

THEN THE TRAILERS END and the main feature starts up.

 

It’s a sequel to The Dodge City Basement Boys, a special I remember watching a few months ago, back when the Pussygrab Regime still seemed young, before he’d called a snap-referendum and run a second, unopposed campaign in order to be voted “Double Mayor,” a position he then declared “at least twice as powerful as any Mayor in history, maybe three times.”

 

This time around, the narrator tells us that The Dodge City Basement Boys voted for Pussygrab on the promise that he would completely destroy the outside world and thus free them from the bad faith of dwelling inside the Game while knowing that an outside world continued to exist, a world in which they’d made no progress and had no prospects for success or approval.

 

At the same time, the Normcore Voters — most, if not all, of Dodge City’s adults — voted for Pussygrab for a diametrically opposed reason: that he would add entertainment value to their TV viewing because now reality TV would actually be real. “We wanted to feel like what we were seeing on the TV, even when it went beyond belief, was really happening. Like it was news, you know? Otherwise, we feared that watching TV would someday get old, and then where would we be, in terms of our lives and stuff?” says a man identified as Roland Epps, dentist, 43.

 

“So,” the narrator says, “Pussygrab and his Swamp Creatures have a dilemma on their hands. A dilemma that, if they’re not careful, could fracture into an outright Schism: on the one hand, their mandate is to destroy the entirety of Dodge City’s External Reality, leaving nothing but the Game. On the other hand, their mandate is to make Dodge City realer than ever, such that those watching at home might feel their TV diet growing fresher rather than increasingly stale. Ball’s in your court, Pussygrab. What’s your move?”

 

*****

Now the Netflix Movie begins in earnest. In one half of a split-screen, a team of Regime-loyalist hackers is hard at work creating a prototype of “the destroyed Dodge City,” which they plan to import into the Game hoping that the Basement Boys will accept this in lieu of actual destruction of the outside world. (“I mean, if they live full-time in the Game anyway,” one of the hackers says, “how will they even know the difference? They’ll look up from their in-Game lairs and see the ravaged post-Dodge-City wasteland we’ve designed, and believe the Colonel has made good on his campaign promise.”)

 

In the other half of the split-screen, another delegation of Swamp Creatures, led by Paul Sweetie, is hard at work torturing various Dodge City citizens, trying to put them on Permanent Swamp Mode so as to tether them forever to the belief that what they’re watching on TV constitutes the hyperreal world they all believe they voted for, while, presumably, the Regime carries out its real work in secret.

 

“What could go wrong?” Pussygrab is caught asking on a hot mic, his tone seemingly non-rhetorical.

 

*****

THE HACKER TEAM GETS RIGHT DOWN TO WORK, lifting the lid off the Game (which they apparently managed to commandeer right after the election, perhaps taking the reins from the previous administration — no two Dodge City citizens agree as to the Game’s origins, if they even agree about its existence) and beginning to sow destruction.

 

I watch on Netflix as they turn Sacrifice Square into a pile of smoking debris, boil Dead Sir into greenish vapor, reduce the Bar to digital boards and nails sweltering by the side of the road, and even reduce the Hotel (the same one I’m sitting in, the one that doubles as Pussygrab Palace) to a pile of rubble that reminds me of Berlin circa 1947.

 

As a finishing touch, they create an in-Game version of Pussygrab himself, incarnated here as a tribal warlord with sharpened teeth and a necklace of skulls, on the assumption that the more they can do to convince the Basement Boys that all of Dodge City now exists solely within the ravaged landscape of the Game, the less they’ll have to worry about the Boys’ interference aboveground.

 

The Basement Boys initially rejoice at this upgrade, burrowing that much deeper into their basements secure in the knowledge that there’s nothing outside to miss out on. “At last,” one of them says to the camera, “we can breathe free knowing that the basement’s the only place to be. Sex, money, prestige … finally, not having these things makes us stronger, not weaker. Thanks, Pussygrab, for fucking up all the shit you said you were gonna.” He addresses this comment to the in-Game Pussygrab, clearly acknowledging him as the real thing.

 

Then, finishing his ice cream and shouting for his mom to take the bowl, he picks his controller back up, unpauses the Game, and drives his avatar into the smoking remnants.

 

*****

“BUT WHAT OF THE NORMCORE VOTERS, AT HOME WATCHING TV?” the Netflix narrator asks. Indeed, I think. What about them?

 

It turns out that, at first, they’re satisfied too: Dodge City, outside the Game, looks the same as ever, so the entertainment value of watching Pussygrab poison its drinking water, imprison its journalists, and shutter its hospitals has lost none of its pizzazz. They sit at home eating takeout (“Does this Chinese food taste worse?” they wonder. “What happened to all the Chinese people that used to live here?”), laughing and cheering along with the Regime, secure in the knowledge that, just as they always wanted, the reality TV they’re watching is now truly real, and thus no longer a diversion from the lives they might otherwise have to wish they were living.

 

*****

ALL MIGHT HAVE REACHED A DETENTE AT THIS POINT HAD THE HACKERS NOT LEFT THE SEAM TO THE GAME OPEN. But, in their haste to escape the Basement Boys’ notice, they did. They fled the Game after destroying the virtual Dodge City and forgot to patch things up on their way out.

 

So, as is only natural, the air of apocalyptic decay from within the Game begins to ooze out into the real (so-to-speak) Dodge City. Pretty soon (unless Netflix has cut a lot out of this section) one-eyed humanoid hulks are wandering out of the Game and onto the streets of Dodge City, brandishing sharpened sticks and rocks in slings, led by the digital warlord version of Pussygrab himself, who’s now bellowing about burning the corporate overlords alive and eating the hearts of the faithless for lunch.

 

The split-screens merge here. The left-hand side looks slightly more digital, the right-hand side slightly more analog, but it’s clear they’re now both on the same level of reality, one whose consequences will surely apply to everyone watching, myself included.

 

The digital Pussygrab rips a cobblestone from the ground of Sacrifice Square and smashes it over his head, shrieking, “From now on, no Apocalypse is pretend!!”

 

The Basement Boys, I think, must be loving this.

 

The Netflix special stops here for a BREAKING NEWS interlude, featuring Paul Sweetie in his white wedding dress, shouting into a mic:

 

“A contingent of highly undesirable aliens has just poured across our border,” he tells the cameras, as screens behind him show those same faceless soldiers from the Victory Parade shoving the Game characters into armored vans. “This wouldn’t have happened had adequate border security measures been taken by the previous administration, but let’s let bygones be bygones. What matters now is how we respond. And let me tell you, we’re going to respond with extreme violence. The dawn of a new Dodge City Genocide is upon us, folks!”

I’M TRYING TO WATCH A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF SWAMP MODE: PART 2 ON NETFLIX, but it takes so long to load I start to wonder if it’s even been made yet. In my agitation, I open Hulu in another window and start watching whatever comes up first, which turns out to be a film called Bear Country.

 

It’s set in the State Park at the edge of Dodge City, “a dense, nearly primordial wilderness of rushing mountain streams, towering firs and hemlocks, and steep, craggy peaks,” according to the narrator. The protagonists are a pair of park rangers, Bob and Sylvie, both in their mid-twenties, just out of forestry school.

 

As Act I begins, they are elated to receive their first assignment, the most coveted among all the newbies: they’ll be on bear watch, tracking the movements, eating habits, and fluctuating population of the Park’s famed grizzlies, which are known to be both the fiercest and the most majestic in all of North America. It’s an annual census, they’re told, a data set updated every late June, and this year it’ll be their findings that go on file.

 

A quick montage shows them filling their camping packs, practicing with bear spray, and chatting excitedly as they prepare for their first overnight excursion into the Park’s imposing backcountry. There’s an odd romantic comedy tone here, as they banter back and forth and giggle like teenagers while deciding whether to bring one tent or two.

 

Then they set out, following first the main trail, then a secondary, then a tertiary trail before peeling off into the backcountry, where they hack vines with machetes to clear the way. I open a few other browser windows in here, checking back to see if the Netflix special’s finished loading yet (it hasn’t).

 

When I return to Bear Country, Bob and Sylvie are at the edge of a clearing and the narrator’s saying, “Here we see them approaching the place where, according to 2016’s census, the Park’s fiercest grizzlies congregate.”

 

Ominous music starts to play, like it’s a mauling we’re about to witness, and the last of the romantic comedy tone recedes. It seems Bob and Sylvie can hear it too, or else the mood in the clearing is sufficiently tense even in silence: now they’re creeping more slowly, bear spray out and ready, swiveling their heads like a pair of spooked owls.

 

Still, they press further in. On the far side of the clearing, they come to a stand of trees and look through, into another clearing on the far side. The camera cuts to their perspective, which reveals a truly wild sight:

 

Dozens of massive grizzlies are cataloguing human parts. They’ve built (or found) a complex wooden structure with numerous sections, like an open-air vault, and into this structure they’re placing human heads, humans arms, human torsos, and human legs, each in its own section, all very orderly.

 

They work mainly with their mouths, but a few grizzlies sit on stumps and gesticulate in an unmistakably human manner with their paws. This sequence goes on and on, Bob & Sylvie mute and terrified at the edge of the frame, the grizzles working on a gigantic pile of dismembered humans in the center. We watch until the whole pile’s been sorted, everything in its right place.

 

Then the bears settle onto their haunches and regard their work. Just before the screen goes black, one says to the other, “Let’s call it a day and get some rest, yeah?”

 

The other nods.

 

*****

AS PART II BEGINS, Bob & Sylvie are sitting on an outcropping over a rushing stream, drinking from their water bottles and trying to stop panicking.

 

When they’re finally able to speak, Bob says, “We gotta tell Steve.” (“That’s their boss, Director of Park Operations,” the narrator informs us.) “He has to know about this. I mean, it’s …”

 

“What we saw back there, it’s … a kind of miracle,” Sylvie says. “I mean, they were talking, right? You heard them too? Don’t you think we should … try to find out more first? See what they want, before we … ?”

 

Bob nods, but his mind’s clearly scrambled. He doesn’t have the same expression of awe that Sylvie has. It’s clear they’re about to part ways.

 

*****

AS, INDEED, THEY DO. In the next scene, Bob has run off alone to warn Steve. In the Ranger Headquarters near the Park Entrance, Steve sits across from Bob and says, “Look, word wasn’t supposed to get around, but since you saw what’s out there, I might as well explain a few things. For reasons we don’t quite understand, some of the bears are evolving human consciousness. It seems to have coincided with Pussygrab’s election. Something about Swamp Mode, a massive psychic shift in many of Dodge City’s populations, not just its human population … anyway, a delegation of these newly humanoid bears approached us one night in March, to plead for their independence. ‘Now that we can see the power structures that keep us societally disadvantaged,’ their leader said to me — I’ll always remember this moment — ‘we want an autonomous zone within the Park. A genuine Bear Country. Give us that, and we’ll leave you alone. Promise.'”

 

Steve opens a bottle of bourbon from a cabinet behind the table and fills two plastic cups almost to the brim. He pushes one in Bob’s direction and raises his in a grim toast. “Before I could respond to the bear’s request, Paul Sweetie showed up — he must have the whole Park under surveillance — pushed me aside, and started negotiating. ‘Okay,’ he told the bear, who was sitting in the same seat you’re in now. ‘How about this: you do something for us, we do something for you. Deal?’ The bear looked intrigued. It was clear, even at that early stage, that it had no business making a deal with Paul Sweetie. That bear was painfully naive when it came to the finer points of human deal-making, let me tell you. And how could it not be?”

 

Steve refills his cup and continues. “So Paul Sweetie tells the bear, ‘look, I represent a new Regime in Dodge City and we’re trying to get a new Genocide started. A Second Dodge City Genocide, if you will, though by the time we’re done it’ll be the only one people remember. Anyway, what would you say if we were to send some of our undesirables your way, and ask you to dispose of them for us? Say, I don’t know, 5,000 heads?’ Paul Sweetie grins and leans into the bear’s face, completely fearless in his white wedding dress. ‘What if you were to present us with 5,000 human heads, as well as the rest of their bodies — torsos, arms, legs, all nicely sorted — so we can kick this Genocide off in style? If you were to do this for us, we could see our way clear to granting you independence. Just let us know when you’ve got the 5,000, and we’ll draw up the paperwork to make your Bear Country official. You’ll never hear from us again after that. Deal?'”

 

Steve’s eyes mist over as he recalls the decisive moment. Clearly, at heart, he’s as much of an animal lover as Bob is. “And with that, Paul Sweetie holds out his hand until the bear, who’s never seen this ritual before, extends its paw and grasps onto Sweetie until Sweetie lets go. And thus the deal is signed.”

 

Ranger Bob looks around the office, stunned and a little drunk. “But if you knew that was going on out there … why did you send Sylvie and me in anyway?”

 

Steve wipes his eyes and says, “Because we needed someone who didn’t know to find it. Otherwise, it would seem like an inside job.”

 

“An inside job?”

 

But Steve’s already on the phone with The Dodge City Free Press, drunkenly reporting what his junior ranger has just discovered.

 

*****

IN THE NEXT SCENE, a crew of photographers descends on the bear stronghold, snapping photo and video from helicopters hovering just above the sorted bodies. One brave reporter jumps out to interview a bear, who says, “Well, we did kill these people, but only because …” The rest of the quote is cut off.

 

Images of mutilated corpses and blood-stained bears fill the front pages and TV screens of Dodge City for an entire Tuesday, hammering home the atrocity as vividly as possible.

 

That night, Pussygrab makes an emergency announcement from his Throne Room. “This is a deeply sad moment for me, as an animal lover,” he begins, swigging from a bottle of champagne and chewing a greasy hock of mutton. “But, with the news that the State Park’s bears have grown uncontrollably vicious, totally above and beyond what’s reasonable for grizzlies in the wild, I’m left with no option other than to go nuclear. It’s truly a shame, but something must be done to keep the people of Dodge City safe. So, with a heavy heart I hereby announce that at 5am tomorrow, warheads will fall on the bears’ horrific stronghold, and this depraved episode will reach its necessary conclusion.”

 

Canned applause erupts offscreen and I gag, unsure now whether I’m still watching the Hulu movie or the actual Dodge City News.

 

*****

SYLVIE, MEANWHILE, HAS GONE NATIVE. We cut to her living among the bears, transcribing their folklore, helping them sort their heads, and trying to represent humanity as well as she can to them, though she doesn’t shy away from discussing the depths that Pussygrab has already reduced Dodge City to in his short term as Mayor.

 

“Murdering people, in principle, is wrong,” she tells them, “but if they’re Pussygrab goons, have at it.” The bears don’t seem to understand where she’s coming from, and the bodies are too mutilated to be identified, but a viewer like me understands the point she’s making and is inclined to agree. “Humanity,” she says, “is a negotiable quantity. It’s always in flux.”

 

I hate to picture what’s coming, but I can’t help it.

 

“Why did you start doing this?” she asks one of the bears, while they’re taking a break. “Is there some point you’re making?”

 

The bear shakes its head, but it’s too late: the sky is already massing with missiles.

 

“No,” the bear says, its voice marked by an accent I can’t quite place. “We were … there was a man, a man in a white wedding dress, who came to speak with our leader. He said that if we …”

 

Sylvie leans in to hear better as the surrounding trees spark into flames and all the neatly sorted bodies are liquified, heat rippling over the entire clearing. The camera zooms in on Sylvie’s face as a gust of burning ash reduces it to putty.

 

Then it zooms out to reveal the bears running in confused zigzags as more and more blasts erupt around them, making it clear that none will escape.

 

*****

THE FINAL IMAGE IS OF A FLEET OF BACKHOES AND TRACTORS descending on the wreckage, driving right through it, as they begin to harvest the rare earth metals buried in the heart of Bear Country. “Uranium, plutonium, rubidium,” says one of the drivers through her elaborate hazmat suit. “Buried here all along, but out of reach because the land was protected. Endangered species and all. Whoever invested in this dig’s gonna make a fortune!”

 

I close my laptop just as Bear Country 2: A Special Investigation Into The 5,000 Victims starts loading. Sitting in the fresh silence, I’m overcome by a coughing fit. Though the room I’m sitting in has no windows, I can taste the fallout seeping through the walls.

I WANDER IN MY PAJAMAS back down the hallway and into the closet I do most of my viewing in, somewhere in the depths of what used to be the Hotel and is now Pussygrab Palace.

 

As soon as I’m inside, I boot up my laptop and start to scroll. Though it’d be nice to feel like an active participant in my media diet, a Netflix special called A People’s History of Swamp Mode starts playing before I can stop it, and I’m instantly mesmerized.

 

As the special begins, we see a land developer (“let’s call him X,” the special’s narrator says) trying to chop The Dodge City Outskirts into what he calls “condo-izable subdivisions.” He has a decent life — a dog, a family, a midcentury house — when he commits a sudden and seemingly motiveless murder, strangling the UPS delivery man on his doorstep first thing one morning.

 

Forced to testify before The Dodge City High Court, he pleads insanity, claiming that something came over him in the night, that he was “another person entirely” while committing the crime he now stands accused of. “I was a different man,” he says, addressing the camera directly. “A bad man. Not a man I’d ever want to know.”

 

“Well, if you can find this bad man,” the Judge replies, in a gesture of either largesse or deep perversity, “then bring him before me and you, as yourself, will be free to go.”

 

So X does exactly this. He goes back into himself, “all up and down his heart’s halls of mirrors,” as the Netflix narrator puts it, until he reaches the dark inner room where he went the first time. Here he finds the bad man waiting, all too happy to be summoned again.

 

This time, he kills on a larger scale: three people, including a child, which he buries in the frozen foods aisle of ULTRA MAX.

 

Needless to say, he ends up back in court, faced with the same ultimatum, and, again, he follows through: he finds the bad man yet again, closer to the surface this time, more attuned to the deal, even readier to be summoned.

 

This time he burns his whole neighborhood to the ground, killing 50 and radicalizing three followers, who in turn radicalize others.

 

Absurd as it seems, the Judge, apparently terrified of sentencing an innocent man, offers his ultimatum yet again, and again after that. “Bring me the man who did these awful things and we’ll throw him deep into the oily blackness of Dead Sir,” he says to X, after the bad man has initiated the First Dodge City Genocide, killing tens of thousands and leaving entire neighborhoods in ruins.

 

 

*****

SOUL-SICK AT WHAT HE’S WROUGHT and despairing of ever bringing the bad man to justice, X musters the very last of his willpower — free for a brief moment from the bad man’s growing influence — and hurls himself into Dead Sir.

 

“If the Judge won’t sentence me, I’ll sentence myself,” the actor playing him in the Netflix special says to the screen, as he falls, landing with a slurp in the jet black water.

 

PART I ends with the waters closing in, the last of X sinking into the depths, never to rise again.

 

 

*****

THE SCREEN GOES BLACK and I blink for a moment, afraid that the entertainment’s over and I’ll have to find something else to click on before the creeping dread of having nothing to do overwhelms me.

 

Luckily, PART II begins just in time.

 

Down in Dead Sir — the camera’s filming this all underwater, lit in sickly green night-vision — the man formerly known as X sloughs away. His skin puckers, bubbles, and peels back, drifting off in sheets which are eaten by huge solemn carp and gar.

 

Inside, rather than the viscera and bone structure I was expecting, is another man, encased in whitish gelatin. He peels this away and balls it up in his spindly hands, sculpting it into humanoid shapes that he plants in the murk at the bottom of Dead Sir, like he expects them to grow there.

 

And grow they do: over the course of a time-lapse montage, the man — who is clearly the bad man, perpetrator of the First Dodge City Genocide — changes, slowly but surely, into Col. Pussygrab, while all the white humanoids he planted around him grow into his retinue of Swamp Creatures. It’s particularly grotesque to watch Paul Sweetie’s face sprout from the fleshy blob that now constitutes his body.

 

Bubbles spewing from his mouth, the bad man addresses the camera and says, in what is now clearly Pussygrab’s voice, “What I’ve learned down here is that Swamp Mode is latent in all of us. It’s part of who we are, the backmost part, the reptile part. Did we create Dead Sir, or did Dead Sir create us? That, my friends, is the question. What I can say for sure is that it’s not unique to me, I was just smart enough to embrace it first. That poor bastard I used to be? ‘X,’ as you Netflix faggots call him? He’s gone, but I’m here to stay. The Dodge City Mayoral Election is tomorrow, and all I can say is, to anyone who thinks I can’t win … wait and see. It doesn’t matter if you’re sure you won’t vote for me. When the time comes, when you’re alone in that booth, you will. You all will. Swamp Mode’s ascendent. The Second Dodge City Genocide’s ramping up, and let me tell you all right now, it’s gonna be a motherfucking party!”

 

The Netflix special ends with Pussygrab and his Swamp Creatures marching across the bottom of Dead Sir and then slowly rising toward the surface, green hard-ons engorged, as a spooked newscaster’s voice says in the background, “I can’t believe it folks, but reports are coming in that Col. Pussygrab has won the Election in a landslide. Barring a miracle, by dawn he’ll be our next Mayor.”

 

Then the screen goes black and the credits roll over hysterical cackling.

AFTER SOME RESTLESS CHANNEL FLIPPING — I linger for a few minutes on a Netflix special entitled Trade War With The Dodge City Dead, in which Paul Sweetie’s new edict that all aborted fetuses must be buried is contradicted by The Dodge City Dead, who claim that aborted fetuses don’t count as human beings and thus have no business in the underworld. To make their point, they dump a wheelbarrow full of them back in the Town Square in the middle of the night, in a see-through bag labeled THIS IS TRASH — I finally settle on an Amazon special set at Dodge City High:

 

From what I can gather, it has to do with the efforts made by Dodge City’s most infamous private security contractor, Greg van Groos, to run a tactical combat simulation in the high school’s hallways. “In case,” he claims, “anything such as one of those school shootings we hear so much about were ever, God forbid, to go down around here.”

 

The paramilitary forces of Moonstone Securities — van Groos’ firm (or “mercenary army,” as some Left-leaning pundits have taken to calling it) — descend on the school, securing the hallways with giant machine guns and smoke grenades, mowing down every student, admin, and teacher in sight.

 

“Just to be safe, just to be safe,” they keep saying, whenever the smoke and carnage clears enough to reveal their faces.

 

At the same time, on the righthand side of what’s now a split-screen on my laptop, students run in terror, arming themselves in the bathrooms with handguns and slingshots and Molotov cocktails. “We never would’ve done anything like this, but we have no choice,” one of them says. “These maniacs have declared war. Even if it means certain death, we have to defend our school!”

 

They shave their heads and don trench coats and write nihilist manifestos and do themselves up with Slipknot tattoos, “just to get in character,” as one of them puts it.

 

Back on the lefthand side of the split-screen, one of the mercenaries says, “See — here they come now. Total deviants. Terrifying. Just look at these kids. We must remain calm, though. Remember, this is all a simulation.” Still, he ducks when a wall explodes behind him, and the fear on his face as he pulls shrapnel from his neck is either genuine or extremely well-simulated, deep in the uncanny valley.

 

*****

THE SPECTACLE CONTINUES as a voice blares, “Everyone remain calm, everyone remain calm, classes are to proceed as normal,” over the intercom.

 

“The question,” one of the high schoolers says, just before being shot in the head, “is whether their claim that this is all a simulation ought to be believed as such. If we believe it, and thus let our guard down, then we’ll all be killed. But if we insist that all of this is really happening and thus fight back and die anyway, then our deaths will be indisputable. When we die, we’ll surely have died for real. Whereas, perhaps, if we agree that it’s a simulation, then we’ll — ”

 

After lingering on his corpse a little longer than seems strictly necessary, the camera cuts to a scene of two middle-aged Dodge City citizens in a sterile conference room, staring at their fingers splayed on the plywood table.

 

“It’s just so … it’s just so shocking, to think about it, still,” says an overweight middle-aged woman in a sweatshirt bearing a “SURVIVOR #1” logo. “To think of the things that happened to us, back in high school. To think that one minute we were in class, learning about standard deviation, and the next they were shooting the whole place up, like it was a war zone. I mean, those guys were serious. Full-on armor, riot shields, gas masks … you name it.”

 

An overweight middle-aged man in a “PRIVATE SECURITY CONTRACTOR #1” sweatshirt says, “Look, we were just doing our job. We needed to run a convincing-enough simulation to be sure we’d be up to handling the logistics if something like this ever really happened. It was in the interest of all the students of Dodge City High, past and future, to … I mean, no one told us the bullets were real.”

 

He falls silent and twirls his sweatshirt-hood’s drawstrings, like he’s afraid he’s said too much.

 

SURVIVOR #1, picking up the sudden slack: “We — those of us that made it out — never could understand why someone would want to kill us all like that, out of nowhere. If it wasn’t for Dylan and Eric and a few other students who happened to have guns on them that day, Lord knows what would’ve happened. I wouldn’t be here now, that’s for sure. It would’ve been a bloodbath. An even bigger bloodbath, I mean. Those kids are heroes, even if they did kill a lot of my friends.”

 

 

*****

I DOZE OFF FOR AWHILE HERE.

 

When I come to, I’m watching a character that looks like me, in a room that looks like the one I’m sitting in now. He’s just sitting there, thinking, his thoughts narrated either inside my head or out loud by a narrator within the Amazon special:

 

“What about my own high school experience?” my thoughts begin. “At Dodge City High or elsewhere (I’ve long since given up trying to remember) … can I truly claim to have survived it? Does anyone, in the end, emerge from high school intact, or are we all victims of it in one way or another, battered into the adult forms we are then doomed to inhabit?”

 

It occurs to me that perhaps the simple fact of Death enters us all in high school, simulation or not, so that any actual violence in our high school hallways is merely the tip of a very deep iceberg … merely the making-obvious of what was already inherent.

 

“In this sense,” I go on thinking, aware that I’m growing increasingly hypnotized, my thoughts ringing increasingly false to me, “Moonstone is our only bulwark against certain doom, whether it comes in the form of a bullet to the head in algebra class or the slower but in some ways even more insidious creep of decay and despair over the decades and decades after graduation.

 

“If the only true subject of high school is Death, if that’s all we’re there to learn, then surely those who would murder their classmates during study hall are nothing but the manifestation of their schools’ secret beating hearts, the inevitable emergence of what high school truly is and, all along, always was.”

 

 

*****

Here the screen goes black and a giant “MOONSTONE SECURITIES: WAGING THE WAR ON DEATH” slogan comes up, and I realize I’ve been watching an advertisement for the firm this whole time, and am now so confused as to where the lesser evil is to be found that I gladly switch over to Netflix and lose myself in the spectacle of Pussygrab and his goons purging the Chelsea Motel, on the Outskirts of Dodge City, where the last of its counterculture has been hiding out, plotting a “60s Style Celebrity Uprising” that is now gruesomely and spectacularly quashed, even if all the people involved are wax effigies of their real-life counterparts, as it now appears quite likely they are.

 

“Phew,” I hear myself think, aware that I’m reverting to Swamp Mode and will soon be so deep inside it I won’t notice, “at least someone’s doing something around here.”

It’s difficult to talk about the work of David Leo Rice and not mention his natural predilection toward painting all of his protagonists as spectral (sometimes quite literally, as the dead narrator of “Joey in Vermont” in The Opiate, Vol. 2 showed us). His knack for the details–cutting to the core of what “minutiae” really means–only enhances the natural hyper-surreality of his style and preferred tableaus (desolate, sparse and often contingent upon a screen of the porn variety).

This time around, it’s Dodge City, Kansas, an amalgam of every city in the west: lavished in languor, liquor and larceny. No longer the representation of its immortalized silver screen incarnation, the days of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland have faded into a hollow shell. The crime and carnage Dodge City became known for in its true wild west days of the nineteenth century have faded into something far more…

View original post 1,104 more words

A new story of mine …

Life in the surveillance state sure has its perks, as Gribby will be the first to tell you. Like this morning, for instance, as he’s drinking his Ovaltine and Googling guppies – he has a tankful in the living room that won’t quit dying – he comes across a site called PornME that sounds interesting so he clicks it open and it is.

It says, “We’re watching ya all the time anyway, at work and home and everywhere and stuff, so why not pay a lil’ extra to have yr vids porned up, bubba xoxo?” Gribby’s intrigued. He likes porn as much as the next guy, and more especially, he figures, the kind made of vids of him and his coworkers – there’s this gal Kellyanne he’s always been kinda into, for one thing – so, what the hell, he figures, sure, why not pay $12.99/mo. and see if…

View original post 3,798 more words

I FINALLY MAKE IT BACK TO MY ROOM, or what looks like my Room but may in fact be a replica set up in the cramped closet off the hallway I’ve been in all this time, somewhere in the bowels of what used to be the Hotel and is now Pussygrab Palace.

 

My attention, as ever, is quickly absorbed by what’s up next on my laptop: a Netflix News special entitled “The Dodge City Basement Boys: a Key Component of Pussygrab’s Electorate,” billed as “an exclusive look into the depths of The Dodge City Pizza Basement, which is, depending on whom you ask, either Hell, Purgatory, or The Ark.”

 

As the opening titles fade, the screen makes a diving motion, like the camera’s being shoved down a hole, slowly coming into focus in a dim grotto thick with dust motes, Akira posters, and several generations of Playstation controllers balanced on a stack of waterlogged copies of Steppenwolf and Notes from Underground.

 

A skinny, nervous-looking boy in sweatpants and a Tool T-shirt sits scowling at his computer screen while an off-camera reporter clears her throat and says, “Ahem, so … can you tell us what’s been going on with you boys since Pussygrab became Mayor?”

 

The boy, who looks to be around thirty, shrugs and says, “No, but I’ll show you.” He presses Play on a video window on his computer, and the scene zooms in, into a similar basement, where a similar boy sits, grinning and ready to talk like he’s just been tapped-in on a wrestling tag team.

 

“So there was this breeding experiment about thirty years ago,” he begins, fondling a Playstation controller,”set in motion by Mayor Paul Broth, right before he hung himself on the Edge of Town instead of serving the life sentence for war crimes that all previous and subsequent Dodge City Mayors have served immediately after leaving office. In this experiment, a group of neuroscientists set out to discover if it was possible to breed people to have a sort of hyperawareness that would enable them to see beyond the fundamental idiocy, jingoism, and cowardice of the human race. It was, without doubt, Dodge City’s most significant post-humanist attempt to transcend its ancient animosities and superstitions, and thus finally approach Genuine Rational Thought, regardless of any loss in empathy and compassion that might go along with it.

 

“The answer to this experiment was yes, it is possible. The only problem?”

 

He grins and presses the X button on his controller, which sends us deeper into The Dodge City Pizza Basement, which seems to have many nested chambers.

 

Another boy snaps into alertness and says, clearing his throat, “The only problem was they only experimented on boys. Not a single girl among the initial control group. Make of that what you will. What did we make of it? Well, we tried to make the best of it. We got on 4chan and connected up.”

 

He presses Play on his computer screen and turns to face it, motioning for the camera to watch over his shoulder. Onscreen, a hulking samurai paces the ground with an angry erection protruding from his tunic. The boy on the near side of the screen blushes a little as he eases his pajama pants down and fits a joystick-sheath over his groin.

 

“Okay, here goes,” he says, as he starts manipulating the joystick while the samurai onscreen begins fucking a curvaceous anime princess in a nest of thorns. Tentacles, pincers, and other wild appendages grope the screen from all sides. It’s unclear whom they belong to, but they waste no time getting in on the action. Soon the scene looks like an orgy, although it still has only two main participants, as far as I can tell.

 

Each time the boy thrusts in his seat, the samurai thrusts onscreen, and the anime princess moans out a cloud of digital oohs and aahs.

 

Then the boy shudders and hunches over his desk. As he comes inside the joystick, the samurai comes onscreen, pumping the anime princess full before pulling out to reveal gouts of digital semen leaking onto the pixilated ground.

 

“I did it quick since you all were watching,” he says. “Normally I last a lot longer.”

 

Wiping himself off with a sock and pulling his pajama pants back up, he says, “In nine hours, my son will be born. He’ll be half-human and half-Game. Though of course that’s an over-simplification, since I myself am half-human and half-Game, my father being a 4chan Boy like me and my mother being a, well …” He nods upward at a poster for Ghost in the Shell, “you know.”

 

*****

The phrase “NINE HOURS LATER” flashes across my screen, but I can’t tell whether nine hours have actually passed, or only in screen-time. The two are hard to distinguish at this point.

 

Now I’m watching the anime princess give birth to a screaming bundle of pixilated flesh, which then stands, cries, wanders for a while and, after a cross-dissolve, ends up in a basement of its own, bleary-eyed, surrounded by half-eaten chicken nuggets and Chinese takeout, staring at a web browser with at least thirty tabs open.

 

After checking 4chan and posting some garden-variety Hate on a few of its message boards, he cries out, “Mom! Ice cream!”

 

A few moments later, the anime princess from the previous scene — middle-aged now — trudges into the Pizza Basement with an Ikea bowl full of Cherry Garcia, and leaves it near her son’s typing hand, wary of interrupting him. The boy seamlessly incorporates it, spooning ice cream into his open mouth with one hand and Tweeting slurs with the other.

 

*****

“EVERYTHING JUST STARTED TO SEEM FUTILE,” one of the boys says, many generations later. “Like it was all fake, a sham within a sham within a sham, you know?” He adjusts his crotch joystick, which appears to be in foreplay mode, not yet impacting his ability to speak. “Like we were a bunch of mules … an evolutionary dead end. An experiment that was called a success but wasn’t.”

 

“So us Basement Boys started to circle the notion that it was all a Game. You know, like Nietzsche said: the outside world was nothing but neo-liberal hand-wringing and rich bitches crying themselves to sleep in multimillion dollar penthouses. A bunch of smirking bleeding heart coastal dickweeds who insisted on taking everything way too seriously. I mean, how dumb do you have to be to believe that — and please quote me here — Good and Evil still exist? Even with so much obvious evidence to the contrary.”

 

He gestures at his basement bedroom here, as if to imply that this is the evidence he means.

 

“So all of us, through 4chan and through our characters in all the individual games we were playing, began to formulate the theory of The Game.”

 

“The Game?” the reporter asks.

 

The boy nods. “Yeah, the idea that it was all networked together at the very top. That the Apocalypse had already happened, and we were now living in its aftermath. We’ve come to believe that The Game — a fully unified field, the ultimate convergence of all human endeavor — is the only refuge of whatever survivors there are. The Pizza Basement’s an Ark that contains the entire world. The entire universe, even. Underlying all of Dodge City, it opens onto the infinite.”

 

“And Pussygrab?” the reporter asks, looking at her watch. “What does all this have to do with him?”

 

The boy yawns and presses his controller, taking us to a yet-deeper echelon. The air in the room I’ve been watching Netflix in gets tighter and ranker, the smell of old pizza boxes and Big Mac wrappers close to overwhelming.

 

*****

A NEW BOY LOOKS UP from his screen and says, “Well, Pussygrab was a test case. A Swamp Creature we all knew from The Game, a Boss if you like, a natural outgrowth of the Hate we’d been fomenting for years, but the fact that he was somehow also on the ballot in the so-called real world, in Dodge City itself … it was too much to resist. We had to see if, by electing him, Dodge City would prove incapable of accommodating his victory and collapse into chaos, thereby proving that The Game is not ubiquitous, or, as we suspected, whether he would be seamlessly integrated into his new role as Mayor, thus proving that The Game is indeed everything, and that there is no world outside of it. No rules but its rules.”

 

He takes a long slurp from a Big Gulp he’s apparently been cradling in his lap all this time. “And so far, I have to say, all signs point toward the latter. He’s been Mayor for two months now, and Dodge City’s still standing — from what I gather, since I admittedly haven’t been outside yet this year — so what does that tell you? I’d argue that it tells you there’s no getting beyond The Game. The fact that Pussygrab’s both a leering ghoul from the digital depths of Dead Sir whom we elected with our Playstation controllers, and also the actual, real-life Mayor? Doesn’t that pretty much prove that Dodge City can’t be a real place?

 

“At the very least,” he adds, taking another Big Gulp, “isn’t it the funniest thing ever?”

 

“Is it though?” I hear myself ask, shocked to discover I’m now Skyping with him. “I mean, people are going to die.”

 

He nods, unsurprised to be Skyping with me. “True, but think about it: somehow, we made him cross over. The human embodiment of the festering heart of 4chan is now Mayor! And not just our Mayor, but yours too. How could that not be funny? The Line’s been crossed and no one even gets it. You libtards still think the old rules apply.”

 

I stifle a cough and ask, “So what does that mean about the Pizza Basement?”

 

He waves his arm at the dank walls and taped-over windows surrounding him, eyeing a bowl of melted ice cream like he’s weighing the pros and cons of polishing it off. “It means, if you’re watching this, that you’ve survived the collapse of humanity and have, whether you like it or not, succeeded in uploading yourself to The Game. It’s all pretend, so there’s nothing to worry about.”

 

He blushes and stirs the melted ice cream, tasting it carefully. “On the other hand, we’re aware that if it’s all pretend that means we’re pretend too, so in a sense it’s also real. If we and The Game are made of the same code, then we’re not impervious to what goes on here. Which is why we’re kinda hoping Pussygrab doesn’t do that much damage in the end. In The Game, if you die, you have to restart the level. No biggie, in theory, but I’ll admit that we haven’t figured out a way to save our progress yet. And so, yeah, no one wants to go all the way back to the beginning if they can avoid it.”

 

He falls silent here, a bit shamefaced as he stares at me through the Skype window, which is somehow embedded in Netflix.

 

A while later, he says, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, it looks like my wife’s in labor.”

 

The broadcast cuts to the screen he’s watching, where the now-familiar sight of an anime princess giving birth is well underway.

 

*****

THE NETFLIX NEWS SPECIAL ENDS with the termination of the Skype call, and I end up back in the room I started in, though the smell of old pizza boxes and Big Macs and bowls of curdled ice cream and discarded Big Gulps and cum-rags surrounds me, and I have to say I’m not as surprised as I wish I were.

 

Sighing, I log onto Twitter to see what Pussygrab’s been up to since last I checked, thinking, I’ll just clear my mind a little before watching Paul Sweetie Vs. The Dodge City Dead, which is already starting up on Netflix in one of my thirty open tabs.

I’M BACK IN THE ROOM IN THE HALL IN PUSSYGRAB PALACE, where I seem to do the vast majority of my TV-watching these days. It’s not a comfortable room, but it’s one that, by dint of time served, has grown comfortable to me.

 

Onscreen is a parade of Pussygrabs, dying one after another beneath the blade of a guillotine operated by a giant in a Ronald McDonald costume and a leathery white face mask.

 

“Ketchup to my mustard!” he shouts, each time the next Pussygrab’s blood splatters him, though the comparison is strained at best since the blood’s green.

 

After ten such executions, the real Pussygrab (or another Pussygrab) strides onstage and gleefully executes the Ronald McDonald. He pulls the mask off the head, revealing — what else? — another Pussygrab head, dripping green tendrils like pumpkin strands.

 

“Yes!” he shouts, holding the head high for the cameras. “Yes, yes. I am Pussygrab. We are legion. Screw us and we multiply! All assassination requests will be honored. Many of you have called for my head, so here it is!”

 

He kisses the severed head on the lips before kicking it offstage to raucous applause and desperate laughter (my own included).

 

 

*****

THEN A SMASH CUT to a sweaty red face so large its eyes define the upper left and right corners of the screen, its mouth the entire bottom:

 

“For years and years,” it’s saying, as drool pours from its lips and onto my feet under the desk, “I’ve been trying to tell you guys about the Lizards at the top of the pyramid. I’ve been trying to warn you that behind every President, behind every Governor, behind every Mayor and Schoolmarm even, lies a slithering, conscienceless, extra-dimensional Lizard-God whose name must never be spoken, not even in dreams.”

 

He pauses, consulting his notes and sucking down so much spit he has to swallow in two glugs.

 

“Well,” he resumes, momentarily dry-mouthed, “it now appears that I was either very wrong or very, very right.”

 

The screen cuts to footage of the numerous severed Pussygrab heads on the execution stage, rolling gently in the wind, tongues lolling out like Fruit-by-the-Foot.

 

In voice-over, the commentator continues, “You see, the Lizard-Gods are now either unmasking themselves — showing their faces, at last, as they really are, perhaps to call an end to their grand experiment, or to ratchet it up to a new, heretofore unimaginable level — OR, and I stress this possibility, they’ve simply cloaked themselves in new and even more disingenuous forms by appearing to be Lizards, when, all along, they’ve actually been something very, very different … worms, for instance, or slugs. And all this time, using highly sophisticated intergalactic mind-control, they duped us all (myself included, and you know how hard I am to dupe) into believing they were Lizard-Gods, and now, by appearing to be Lizard-Gods, they’re merely –”

 

 

*****

THE SCREEN TEARS IN HALF like a shredded piece of paper, while the words BREAKING NEWS flash across the torn part:

 

We cut to Paul Sweetie in his white wedding dress, weeping in a meadow.

 

Through his sobs I can just make out the words, “I found God! I found God! Look at me mom, I found God!”

 

The camera zooms in as he gets up, brushes himself off, and stretches his frayed New Aryan Skin back over his knees and elbows, covering the lizard-green beneath. Catching his breath as the mic is shoved up to his mouth, he says, “My whole life I’ve been searching for God. The real God, you know? The one I knew when I was a boy. The one that made me feel safe and secure in the universe, like I was at the center of things. Like I was being protected while others weren’t … I’ll never know why that God went away for so long, but now, thank God, He’s back!”

 

He starts crying again here, batting the camera away, shielding his face.

 

“Sorry, sorry,” he says. “I just … it’s just all so emotional.”

 

He points at the meadow, where the camera pans over to reveal a mess of wires, glass, sawdust, wood, goo, slime, and other industrial and extraterrestrial materials.

 

“God,” Sweetie continues, walking into the rubble now, barefoot beneath his wedding dress, “must have been hovering deep in the sky, too high to see. I don’t want to say I ever lost faith entirely, but there were years in there when I couldn’t be sure He wasn’t gone. I just felt abandoned, you know? I felt like the blacks, the gays, the poor … I just felt like they were all ganging up on me.” He starts crying again, looking upward at the clouds.

 

“But, with the ascent of Pussygrab and all the wonderful things that’ve been happening since, well, it looks like God decided to show Himself again! It’s a miracle. A Dodge City Miracle. As simple as that.”

 

 

*****

THE SCREEN RIPS again here, and then — though I thought the feed was live — it flashes on a banner that reads TWO WEEKS LATER:

 

Now it’s showing a Chain Gang in the meadow, with all of Dodge City’s dark-skinned people, and all of its women, and all of its Jews chained at the ankles as they labor to put the fallen God back together and erect a scaffolding to hoist it back into the sky.

 

Paul Sweetie, meanwhile, sits on a wooden lifeguard chair sipping a mojito and fanning himself with a rolled-up magazine.

 

The camera zooms back in for a statement:

 

“It’s just so wonderful,” he says, “to see our citizens working together in harmony for the greater good. Just watch them! Together, as one, they’re restoring God to His rightful place in the firmament: just high enough to be safe from harm and just low enough to be always visible!”

 

The camera pans over to the Chain Gang, where a young woman has collapsed, knocking down her row of conjoined workers. On their knees, those closest to her set about chewing through her ankle so they can cut her loose and get back to work.

 

 

*****

THE BROADCAST JUMPS BACK to the raving commentator who says what I’m already thinking:

 

“So it looks we have a classic battle of Aliens vs. Christians here. Which one ultimately controls The Dodge City Deep State, and what do they want? And which side, if either, is Pussygrab on? Are they attempting to depose him or to make him invincible? Was Paul Sweetie duped by a temporary psychosis into perceiving God amidst all that rubble, or can he see what we cannot? Is Paul Sweetie our next Mayor? All this and more answered on … ”

 

Now the screen goes fully black, and silent too, like someone’s pulled the plug. The drool begins to freeze on my feet as I face the unique terror of having nothing to do.

 

I shiver in the silence and cold of the room, unable to block the sense that a Deep State Tentacle is reaching up from the depths to pull us all — Pussygrab and his clones and Paul Sweetie and his God, and all the rest of us with them — under.

NO SOONER HAVE I CROSSED OVER INTO DALTONLAND, the theme park in which Dodge City’s old-guard, centrist candidate won the election and life went on as normal, than I find myself behind a console, watching what is either the news or a hastily assembled TV Movie on Amazon Prime.

 

In the news-or-Movie, one of the biggest Swamp Creatures, whose New Aryan Skin is bunched up like a shawl around his shoulders, is being sworn in as Director of the CIA. He grunts and drools over the Bible, pulping it with his claws.

 

Clearing his throat after the swearing-in’s complete, he says, “Ladies and germs, my first act as Director of the CIA is to declare all of Dodge City a Black Site.”

 

“What does that mean, exactly?” shouts an off-screen voice.

 

“What does it mean? It means that, from now on, anything goes. Torture works. Whatever we need to do to get to the bottom of what we believe, or imagine, is going on here, we’ll do. With impunity. With secrecy. Without interference. Without oversight. Did I mention that torture works?”

 

He clears his throat again, spits phlegm, and then looks straight at the camera, straight at me. “Torture works,” he says, his voice pinched as he attempts to tighten his New Aryan Skin around his collarbone. “From now on, whatever happens in Dodge City is what was meant to happen. God has returned to this town, after many years in the wilderness.”

 

 

*****

THE SCREEN BOILS and buzzes and then Zizek, the Slovenian Marxist philosopher and bro-provocateur par excellence, appears in a plush brown armchair in front of a tacky photo of an Eastern European cityscape.

 

Deploying some of his signature tics as he scrapes at his tatty beard and neck and wipes spittle from his lips, he says, “Now, what does it mean that Dodge City is a Black Site? In what sense, if any, is such a pronouncement to be understood as meaningful?”

 

I lean closer to the screen, genuinely intrigued by the question. At the same time, I focus on keeping my expression neutral, as I’m wary of being watched. Furthermore, I’m trying to determine if the man onscreen is Zizek himself, or an impersonator. If so, he’s a good one (or else the real Zizek is growing less authentic with age).

 

“What it means,” he says, “is that all contact between Dodge City and the outside world has been suspended, perhaps even permanently walled off. Now, for those of you who’ve lived here for any amount of time, this won’t feel much different from life as it’s always been. After all, who in Dodge City can rightly claim to have maintained a true relationship with the outside world?”

 

He pauses here, as if expecting me to respond. I don’t.

 

“What’s different in this case,” he eventually continues, “is the awareness that it’s now official policy. That there is now, quite literally, no one to hear you scream. Everything that happens in Dodge City from now on is part of the Pussygrab Regime. Assume it’s all intentional, even the chaos. Especially the chaos. Assume that all news is internal, even this news. Even me …”

 

I lean even closer to the screen, trying to determine which possibility scares me more: that I’m being warned of a true terror by an accurate outside source, or that I’m being entertained by an actor from The Dodge City Film Industry, as I’ve been so many times throughout my life … almost consistently throughout my life, to the exclusion of all other experience, now that I think about it.

 

I find that I can’t remember what the real Zizek is supposed to look like and I have no phone or other means of getting online (and who’s to say the whole Internet isn’t controlled by the Black Site now, assuming it hasn’t always been?) … So, the longer I stare at the image onscreen, which goes on talking to me, the less certain I can be about what I’m hearing, and whether to believe it.

 

“The precise nature of the torture that will go on in this Black Site is still unclear,” the man (I’ve grown wary of calling him Zizek, even in my mind) goes on. “Whether the classic tortures — waterboarding and thumbscrews and electrocution and so on and so on — will go into effect, or whether daily life in Dodge City itself will simply become torturous — if it hasn’t been all along — is the question we’re all asking ourselves, as well as the question I’m asking you, aloud, right now, on Live TV.”

 

He winks and vanishes from the screen, leaving his chair empty.

 

My spine seizes up and I turn around, terrified that he’s in here with me now, watching over my shoulder. Is this, I wonder, the first official act of torture undertaken against me? And if so, to what end? What do I know, or do they think I know, that could be of use to them?

 

 

*****

WHEN I LOOK BACK AT THE SCREEN, the CIA Director is sitting in the armchair, cradling a black VHS tape. “This,” he begins, “is the only extant record of the history of torture in Dodge City up to this point. As a token of his largesse and transparency, the Colonel is making it available to the public to reassure them that our torture program has always been entirely civic-minded and aboveboard. He wants you all to see that there is no, so to speak, funny business going on. I want to make it abundantly clear that the Colonel doesn’t have to offer this for viewing. He has chosen to do so. Any Dodge City citizen is free to view this video. Just line up one at a time!”

 

He smiles and his teeth glisten, like in a toothpaste commercial, except they’re dripping yellow sludge and his gums are only partially attached.

 

 

*****

AFTER A LONG AFTERNOON spent watching viewer testimonials about the video — “Beautiful! Just beautiful!” one housewife shouts, as if trying to drown out another voice in her head; “A torture program we can all be comfortable with!” shouts another, munching popcorn from a microwave bag — the screen I’m watching opens to reveal a screen-within-the-screen.

 

This inner screen shows the tape being inserted into a VCR.

 

Now I’m watching the torture video right where I sit, in the supposed sanctity of DaltonLand, deep inside the Black Site.

 

A chair, a naked lightbulb, Paul Sweetie in a white wedding dress … my eyes are peeled, ready to see the horror for what it is … to bear witness and stand up for the truth …

 

BUT:

 

Next thing I know, I’m sitting on a chaise lounge sipping lemon spritzer in a room I don’t recognize (back in the Hotel?), thinking, as I try to remember what I’ve just seen, Well, that didn’t seem so bad … surely if that’s all we’re doing, it’s for the best … isn’t it? I mean, keeping Dodge City safe and all …

 

And then, becalmed, I let myself drift into a cool and dreamless sleep.