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Science Fiction: 'Caspar D. Luckinbill, What Are You Going to Do?'

I

I’m on my way to work when the terrorists strike. The first attack nearly kills me. It’s my fault, partly. I’m jaywalking at the time.

There I am, in the middle of Sixth Avenue, an ad truck bearing down in the rightmost lane. I feel a buzz in my pocket and take out my phone. I assume it’s Lisa, calling about the TV. I put it to my ear and hear a scream.

There are screams, and there are screams. This is the real deal. It’s a scream that ripples. It’s a scream that rings. It’s a scream like a mile-high waterfall of glass, like a drill bit in the heart, like a thousand breaking stars.

From The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017, to be published on October 3.

Mariner Books

I stand shaking in the street. The ad truck advances, blowing paint and air, leaving a strip of toothpaste ads in its wake. I have enough presence of mind to step back as the truck chuffs by. I look down and see a smile on my toes: three perfect spray-painted teeth on each new shoe.

When I get to the curb, the screaming has stopped, and a man is speaking from my phone.

“Caspar D. Luckinbill! Attention, Caspar D. Luckinbill! What you just heard were the screams of Ko Nam, recorded as he was tortured and killed by means of vibrational liquefaction. Men like Ko Nam are murdered every day in the FRF. Caspar D. Luckinbill,
what are you going to do?”

What am I going to do? What am I supposed to do? I stand on the curb staring at my phone. I have no idea who Ko Nam is. I have no idea what the FRF is. And what in God’s name is vibrational liquefaction?

I give it a second’s thought, trying my best to be a good, conscientious, well-informed citizen of the world. But it’s 9:15 and I have teeth on my shoes, and I’m already late for work.

My employer is the contractor for the external relations department of the financial branch of a marketing subsidiary of a worldwide conglomerate that makes NVC-recognition software. NVC: nonverbal communication. The way you walk. The way you move. Our programs can pick you out of a crowd, from behind, at eighty paces, just by the way you swing your arms. Every move you make, every breath you take. Recognizing faces is so old school.

We claim to be the company that launched ubiquitous computing. Every company claims that, of course. That’s what makes it so ubiquitous.

Recognition software is not a technology. Recognition software is an idea. The idea is this: You are the world. Every teenyweeny-tiny thing you do ripples out and out in cascades of expanding influence. Existence is personal. Anonymity is a lie. It’s time we started seeing the faces for the crowd.

I believe that’s true because I wrote it. I wrote it for a pamphlet that was sent to investors in the financial branch of the marketing subsidiary by whose ER department I’m employed. I don’t think they used it.

For eight years running I’ve worked in this office, which is probably a record here in the soi-disant capital del mundo. My wife, Lisa, says I’m wasting my time. She says that someone with my smarts ought to be out there changing the world. I tell her I am changing the world. After all, every teeny-weeny-tiny thing I do ripples out and out in cascades of expanding influence. Lisa says it’s obvious I’ve sold my soul.

about the author

Nick Wolven‘s science fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, F&SF, Clarkesworld, and Analog.

Really, the corporate culture here is quite friendly. The front door greets me by name when I enter. The lobby fixes me coffee, and it knows just how I like it. Seventy percent pan-equator blend, thirty percent biodome-grown Icelandic, roasted charcoal-dark, with twenty milliliters of lactose-reduced Andean free-range llama milk and just a squirt of Sri Lankan cardamom sweetener, timed to be ready the moment I arrive.

It’s a classy workplace. The bathroom stalls are noise-canceling. The lobby plays light jazz all day long.

Today when I go in, the jazz isn’t playing. Today there is silence. Then a crackle. A hum.

And then the screaming begins.

This time there are words. A woman is sobbing. I can’t make out the language. Some of it sounds like English. All of it sounds very, very sad.

The receptionist listens from behind his desk. It seems to me that his eyes are disapproving.

The sobbing goes on for several seconds. Then a man begins to speak.

“Caspar D. Luckinbill!” the man says. “What you just heard were the cries of Kim Pai as her husband was taken away by government agents. People like Kim Pai’s husband are abducted every day in the FRF. Caspar D. Luckinbill, what are you going to do?”

The voice cuts off. The light jazz resumes.

“Abducted!” says the receptionist, looking at the speakers.

“It’s . . . something.” I try to explain. “It’s a wrong number. It’s a crossed wire. I don’t know what it is.”

“The FRF!” the receptionist says, looking at me as if I’ve fallen out of the sky.

I hurry to my desk.

My desk chair sees me coming and rolls out to welcome me. My desk is already on. As I sit down, the desk reads me three urgent messages from my supervisor. Then it plays an ad for eye-widening surgery. “Nothing signals respectful attention to an employer, a teacher, or a lover quite like a tastefully widened eye!” Then it plays a video of a man being killed with a table saw.

I jump out of my chair. I avert my face. When I look back, there’s no more man and no more saw, and the screen is vibrant with blood.

“Caspar D. Luckinbill!” blares the computer. “Caspar D. Luckinbill, do you know what you just saw? Steve Miklos came to the FRF to teach math to learning-disabled children. Because of his promotion of contraceptives, he was afflicted with acute segmentation by supporters of the HAP. Caspar D. Luckinbill, how can you possibly allow such atrocities to continue? Will you sit idly by while innocent people are slaughtered? Caspar D. Luckinbill, what are you going to do?”

I know exactly what I’m going to do. I call my friend Armando.

“Armando,” I say, “I have a computer problem.”

Armando is the kind of friend everyone needs to have. Armando is my friend who knows about computers.

I tell Armando about the phone call this morning. I tell him about the sobbing in the lobby. I hold out my phone and show him what my desk is doing.

“You’ve got a problem,” Armando says.

“I can see that,” I say. “I can hear it too, everywhere and all the time. How do I make it go away?”

“You don’t understand,” Armando says. “This isn’t an IT problem. This is a real problem. You’ve been targeted, Caspar. You’ve been chosen.”

“What is it, some kind of spam?”

“Worse,” Armando says. “Much worse. It’s mediaterrorism.”

Mediaterrorism. The term is not familiar.

“You mean like leaking classified information?”

“I mean,” Armando says, “that you’re being terrorized. Don’t you feel terrorized?”

“I feel confused. I feel perplexed. I feel a certain degree of angst.”

“Exactly,” Armando says.

“I feel bad for the people of the FRF. Where exactly is the FRF?”

“I think it’s somewhere in Africa.”

“The names of the victims don’t sound African. The names of the victims sound Asian.”

“There are Asians in Africa,” Armando says. “There are Africans in Asia. Don’t be so racist.”

I look at my desk, where people are dying and children are starving and Wendy’s franchises are exploding in blooms of shocking light.

“But why did they pick me? What do I have to do with the FRF? Why do they keep using my name?”

“The answer to all those questions,” Armando says, “is, Who knows? It’s all essentially random. It’s done by computer.”

“That doesn’t explain anything.”

“Computers don’t need explanations,” Armando says. “Computers just do what they do.”

“Should I send them some money? What should I do?”

Armando clutches his head. “What’s the matter with you, Caspar? Send them money! Don’t you have principles?”

“I’d send them some money if I knew where they were. The FRF. It sounds postcolonial.”

“Can’t you see?” says Armando. “This is what they want. This is what terrorists do. They get into your head. It’s not about what you do, Caspar. It’s about how you feel.” He points through the screen. “I’ll tell you what you need to do. You need to get off the grid. Before this spreads.”

“Spreads? Do you mean —?”

But I have to end the call. My supervisor, Sheila, is coming through the cubicles.

“Caspar,” Sheila says, “can I ask you something? Can I ask you why people are being butchered in your name?”

I see that she has a sheet of printout in her hand.

“I’ve been trying to figure that out myself,” I say.

Sheila looks at my desk, which currently displays a smoking pile of severed feet.

“I don’t want this to be awkward,” Sheila says. “But I just talked to Danny, out in the lobby. He says he heard screaming when you came in. He says it began the moment you entered. He says it was a pretty awful way to start the morning.”

The severed feet are gone. My desk now shows a picture of a sobbing baby sitting in a pile of bloody soda cans.

“You don’t need to tell me,” I say.

“The thing I want to say,” Sheila says, “is that we’re a very modern office. You know that. We’re more than just coworkers here. We’re cosharers. We’re like thirty people, all ordering and sharing one big pizza. And if one person orders anchovies . . .”

The desk shows a falling building. The concrete cracks and showers into a blossom of dust-colored cloud. I can’t stop looking at the printout in Sheila’s hand.

“I didn’t order anything,” I say. “The anchovies just found me.”

Sheila holds out the printout. I take it and read:

Caspar D. Luckinbill, do you know what you have done?

You have been complicit in the deaths of thousands.

Payments made in your name, Caspar D. Luckinbill, have contributed, directly or indirectly, to supporting the murderous HAP party of the FRF. With your direct or indirect financial assistance, thugs and warlords have hurled this once-peaceful region into anarchy.

Over two hundred thousand people, Caspar, have been tortured, killed, or imprisoned without trial.

One hundred new children a week are recruited into the sex trade, and twice that many are injured in unsafe and illegal working environments.

While you sit idly by, Caspar, a woman is attacked in the FRF every eighteen minutes. An acre of old-growth forest is destroyed every fifty-seven seconds, and every half second, sixty-eight liters of industrial runoff enter the regional watershed. Every sixteen days a new law targeting vulnerable groups is passed by dictatorial fiat, and for every seventeen dollars added annually to the PPP of a person in the upper quintile of your city, Caspar, an estimated eighty and a half times that person’s yearly spending power is subtracted monthly from the FRF’s GDP.

Caspar D. Luckinbill, YOU have enabled this.

YOU have helped to bring about these atrocities.

YOU have heard the cries of women in agony.

YOU have learned the names of murdered men.

YOU have seen the faces of suffering children. Caspar D. Luckinbill, what are you going to do?

“This was posted to the company news feed,” Sheila says. “It went to my account. It went to everybody’s account. It appeared on our public announcement board. There were pictures. Horrible pictures.”

“Aren’t there filters?” I say. “Aren’t there moderators?”

“It got through the filters,” Sheila says. “It got past the moderators.”

“Someone should do something about that.”

“Indeed,” Sheila says, and looks at me very frowningly.

“It’s not my problem,” I say. “It’s like spam. It’s a technical thing. It’s mediaterrorism.”

“I understand,” Sheila says. “I understand everything you’re saying. What I also understand is that we’re a very modern office, and we’re all in this together. And right now, some of us who are in this are being made to feel very unproductive.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I say, and turn back to my desk.

I spend the rest of the morning looking up the FRF. There are no sovereign nations by that name, none that I can find, not in
the world at this time. There are several militias, two major urban areas, five disputed microstates, seven hundred and eighty-two mi- nor political entities, ninety NGOs, most of them defunct, over a thousand corporate entities, over ten thousand documented fictional entities, and a few hundred thousand miscellaneous uses of the acronym.

I check news stories. An island off the coast of the former state of Greece once claimed independence under the name FRF, but it’s now known as the ADP and is considered part of the new Caliphate of Istanbul.

I spend my lunch break obsessing about a phrase.  Payments made in my name. What payments in my name? I don’t make donations to murderous regimes. I give to charity. I eat foreign food. I buy clothes from China and rugs from Azerbaijan. Tin-pot dictators? Not my profile.

I call my bank. I call my credit card companies. Money circulates. Money gets around. The buck never stops, not really, not for
long. Is it all a big bluff? What payments in my name?

No one can tell me.

I obsess about another phrase:  directly or indirectly. It strikes me that the word  indirect is itself, in this context, extremely indirect.

I spend the afternoon looking up mediaterrorism. Armando’s right. It’s a thing. It can come out of nowhere, strike at any time.
Once you’ve been targeted, it’s hard to shake. It’s like identity theft, one article says—“except what they steal is your moral complacency.”

I call the company IT department. They say the problem is with my CloudSpace provider. I call my CloudSpace provider. They say the problem is with my UbiKey account. I call my UbiKey account. They say it sounds like a criminal issue. The woman on the line gets nervous. She isn’t allowed to talk about criminal issues. There are people listening. There are secret agreements. It’s all very murky. It’s a government thing.

I call the government. They thank me for my interest. I call the police. They just laugh.

While I make my calls, I see the mutilated bodies of eighteen torture victims, watch tearful interviews with five assault
survivors, and peer into the charnel-laden depths of three mass graves.

Children’s faces stare from my screen. They are pixelated and human. Their eyes seem unnaturally wide.

At the end of the day, I call Armando. “I’m getting nowhere,” I say. “I’ve been researching all day.”

Armando looks confused.

“My problem,” I remind him. “My mediaterrorism.”

“Aha. Right. Well, at least you’re keeping busy.”

“I’m going in circles, buddy. I don’t know what to do.”

“I’ll tell you what to do,” Armando says. “Go home. Watch TV. Break out the Maker’s Mark. Get in bed with your lovely wife. Put everything to do with the FRF out of your mind. Your mission now, Caspar, is to be a happy man. If you’re not happy, the bastards win.”

I’m almost home when I remember.

Lisa! The new TV!

I run the last two blocks, slapping the pavement with my toothy shoes, nearly crashing into the ad-drone that’s painting a half-naked
woman on our building.

This week my wife and I decided to take the plunge. We’re plunging together into the blissful depths of immersive domestic
entertainment. We’re getting Ubervision.

A day came when Lisa and I could no longer duck the question. Here we were with a videoscreen in the living room, a videoscreen in the bedroom, a videoscreen in the kitchen, videoscreens on our phones, videoscreens on our desks, videoscreens in our books. Why not take the next big leap? Why not have videoscreens everywhere?

Sometimes I would like to read the news in bed without having to prop my head up. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were screens
on the ceiling? Sometimes I would like my floor to be a carpet of roses. Wouldn’t it be nice if the floor could do that? Call me
lazy, call me self-indulgent, but sometimes I would like to use the bathroom, or see what’s in the fridge, without necessarily looking away from my TV show. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could point at any surface in my home, anytime I wanted, and turn it into a full-spectrum screen?

Lisa and I went to school for fifty years between us. We work sixty-hour weeks. Who would deny us life’s little pleasures? And what pleasure could be littler than a TV across from the toilet?

After all, it’s not just about entertainment. Ubervision is smart. Ubervision gets to know you. It learns your habits; it picks up your
tastes. It knows what you want to watch before you do. Ubervision tells you when you’re getting fat, promotes local food, reminds you where your wife goes on Wednesdays. Ubervision’s a key component of the wisely wired life.

I read that in an advertisement painted on the bottom of a swimming pool. Maybe I had chlorine in my eyes. What the advertisement didn’t appear to mention is that Ubervision is also a real pain in the  Allerwertesten to install. Lisa’s been taking off to watch the technicians work. They have to coat every wall, replace every door. This is invasive home surgery.

Normally Lisa works longer hours than I do. She’s a contractor for the auditing department of the fundraising department of the remote offices of the Malaysian branch of a group that does something with endangered animals. Either they put them in zoos or they take them out of zoos; I can never remember.

Today’s the big day. When I get home, Lisa’s lying in her teak sensochair, eating Singaporean vacuum-food, wearing a sleep mask.

“Is it done?” I say.

The sleep mask looks at me. “Check this out,” says Lisa.

I shout. I wave. I try to warn her.

It’s too late.

Ubervision has activated.

I know exactly what’s going to happen.

When the first wave of screams has died away, Lisa sits up and takes off her sleep mask. “This isn’t what I expected,” she says, looking at the bleeding and shrieking walls. “Why is every channel playing the same show? And why is that show so incredibly terrible?”

I feel like a person who’s confused his laundry drone with his dogwalking drone. The living room walls are playing footage of an urban firefight.

“I tried to warn you,” I say.

“Warn me about what? What’s happening? What’s wrong?” Lisa taps the wall, but nothing changes. An explosion goes off in the kitchen floor, and a hi-def severed leg flies all the way through the kitchen, down the hall, across the living room ceiling, and behind the couch. I have to admire the power of the technology.

“Caspar D. Luckinbill!” shouts the stove, or maybe it’s the bathroom mirror. “Caspar D. Luckinbill, look at what your negligence
and apathy have unleashed! In a bloody escalation of urban warfare, renegade militias have overthrown the HAP party of the DRS. Violent reprisals are underway. Dissidents have been purged and journalists persecuted. Soldiers as young as seven lie dead in the streets. Only two minutes ago, Paul Agalu, poet, ophthalmologist, and human-rights advocate, was attacked by a mob and torn to pieces in his home. Caspar D. Luckinbill,  you are responsible for these horrors. Caspar D. Luckinbill, what are you going to do?”

Lisa is punching the wall. “It won’t change. I can’t even adjust the sound. Why do they keep saying your name?”

“Sit down.” I draw her to the couch amid the bombs and rubble and screams and blood. “There’s something I need to explain.”

II

Recognition software doesn’t violate privacy. Recognition software expands privacy. When every machine recognizes every user, the lived environment becomes personal and unique. Stores, cars, homes, and offices all learn to respond to individual needs. Private interest generates private experience. No awkward controls, no intrusive interface: what a user wants is what she gets.

That’s what it says in the promotional materials my company sends to potential investors. I didn’t write it. I don’t believe it. At
least, I don’t think I do. I’m not quite sure anymore what I believe.

I’m riding in Armando’s car. It’s been a year since the terrorists found me. Or maybe ten months. Time seems to pass a lot slower
nowadays.

The windshield of Armando’s car is old-fashioned glass. I watch the trees go sliding by. I’ve come to appreciate trees lately. So nonjudgmental. I like how they just couldn’t care less. I like how they simply stand there, exhaling life and forgiveness.

The other windows of the car are not mere windows. Like most windows in my world, they are also screens. And like most screens in my life, they glow with bloody destruction. Young men stagger in smoke and agony. Something is hurting them; I can’t see what. A sonic pain ray, perhaps. Maybe a laser. Something to do with deadly sound and light.

Gunfire rattles on the radio. Neither of us pays attention. I’m used to gunfire now. Violence is my music. When I sit near a radio,
it sings of murder. When I stand near an advertisement, it cries.

All media recognize me. They conspire against me. Every magazine I open is a gallery of gore. Every book I read becomes a book of the dead. My news feeds tally the tortured, the vanished, the lost, the disappeared.

I can’t sleep at home. The horror show plays day and night. I can’t sleep at a hotel. I can’t even sleep in a shelter. Are there any
bedrooms left in this country that don’t come with TVs?

The other day I bought some toothpaste and cheese. The store machine printed out a long receipt. It had coupons for bullets and first-aid kits. “Caspar D. Luckinbill,” the receipt said at the bottom, “thanks to you, three hundred people were just massacred in the CPC’s St. Ignatius Square. Do you suffer from loose joint skin? Try Ride-X. Have a great day!!!”

“Did I tell you?” Armando reaches for the radio, trying in vain to lower the volume. “I remembered about the FRF. It’s an African country. A tiny place. Just one-tenth of a megacity. The name stands for Firstieme Republique Frasolee.”

“That’s not real French,” I say. “That sounds like French, but it’s not.”

“Well, you know, it’s a very backward country.”

“Anyway,” I say, “it’s not the FRF anymore. Now it’s the CPC. Before that it was the DRS.”

“That’s how it is with names,” Armando says. “They’re so ephemeral.”

I disagree. It seems to me nowadays that names are all too permanent. In the early days of my affliction, I made a point of looking up names. I looked up names of people who had died, of landmarks that had been bombed, of leaders who had vanished. But the world has so very, very many names, and all of them, sooner or later, become the names of ghosts.

“At any rate,” Armando says, “you really can’t complain. At least you’re keeping informed. At least you’re learning about the outside world.”

The screen beside me is playing footage of a burning river. The flames skid and ripple with a fluid surreality. I wonder, as I’ve wondered before, what if it’s all just special FX? What if the gory images I see every day are doctored? What if the whole tragedy is made up?

In the early days of my affliction, I used to do a lot of research. I learned a lot, but the more I learned, the less I felt I understood. Now I don’t do so much research anymore.

Armando gives up on the radio. “Have you . . . have you made any progress? Figured out a way to make it stop?”

I see that he is trying to be tactful. I sympathize. It’s the people around me who suffer most. They haven’t gotten used to the crash of bombs. They can’t handle the screams and blood. They still think these things should be considered abnormal. People are very protective of that notion, normality.

“Have you tried canceling your accounts?” Armando says.

“I tried.”

“Have you tried rebooting your identity?”

“I’m working on it.”

“Have you tried law enforcement?”

“A dozen times.” I tell the car to pull over at the next rest stop. “The problem is,” I tell Armando, “fixing an issue like this takes patience and smarts and concentration. And those are qualities it’s very difficult to summon in the middle of a war zone.”

“I see,” says Armando. “And have you tried tech support?”

I laugh. In the early days of my affliction, people made a lot of tech-support jokes. Everything was a joke back then. When I
walked into work, the receptionist said, “Uh-oh, here comes the apocalypse.” When I entered the staff room, my coworkers covered their ears. They called me Caspar the Unfriendly Ghost. They called me Caspar Track-n-Kill. They called me other, nastier things.

When I went home at night, Lisa would say, “How was your day, dear? Massacre any civilians? Eat any babies?”

Har-de-har.

As the weeks went by, there were fewer jokes. Soon even the stares stopped. No one wanted to make eye contact with the face that had launched a thousand gunships. It’s a time-tested response under fire. Duck and cover.

One day at work, Sheila came to my cubicle. “I don’t want this to be difficult, Caspar,” she said. “I understand this isn’t your fault. But I also need you to understand that we’re all human beings, with thoughts and feelings and work to get done. And these days, with you in the office, Caspar—I don’t want to put this the wrong way—but when I look at you, all I can see is a giant pile of murdered children.”

“Maybe I should take a leave of absence,” I said.

“Yes,” said Sheila, “I think that would be wise.”

The car pulls over in a picnic area. Armando and I walk far into the trees, the shade, the sweet green silence. It’s a weekly ritual, this escape to the woods. Only here can I be at peace, amid the indifferent, ignorant trees. They don’t recognize me, trees. They don’t care. They don’t know what things have been done in my name.

“This won’t be easy to say,” Armando says.

I sink to my knees in the soft pine needles. I know what’s coming, but I don’t blame Armando. I don’t blame him any more than I blame the machines that scream and weep when I pass by. What else are they supposed to do, when innocent children are dying in the streets?

“I want you to know that I support you.” Armando leans against a tree. “I even kind of admire you, Caspar. You seem so . . . connected to things, you know? It’s just . . . it’s getting a little hard to be around you.”

“It’s okay,” I whisper. “I understand.”

“I’ve got my own headaches, you know,” Armando says. “I need to work on me for a while. And that’s pretty tough to do when things keep exploding and dying all the time.”

I don’t answer. I notice a movement in the trees. A deer approaches, soft-stepping and shy.

“Be optimistic,” Armando says. “That’s my advice. Stay positive. I think that’s the way to beat this thing.”

The deer is an ad-deer, painted on both sides—something for the hunters to enjoy while taking aim. I read only half the message on its flank before it sees me and skips away.

Relax, the message says.  Don’t worry. You too can have firm and beautiful knees.

When I get home, the foyer is dark. But not for long. As soon as I enter, the door begins to weep. The ceiling fills with hurrying flame. Burning people run toward me from within the phantasmal walls. Even the floor is a field of carnage. As I walk to the kitchen, I tread on the faces of the maimed.

The kitchen cabinets tell me that churches are burning, that dogs are starving, that a human-rights worker has been killed by forced detegumentation. I open the fridge and take out a tub of four-milk, sumac-seasoned Georgian matzoon.

The living room is being strafed by an airplane. I sit on the couch as children run and scream.

People like to say that you can get used to anything. I know for a fact that this isn’t true. You can get used to bombs. You can get used to gunfire. But you could live as long as God, you could see all he has seen, and you would never get used to the cries of suffering children.

When Lisa comes home, I’m staring into my tub of matzoon, surrounded by faces.

“There you are,” she says, as though being here is a crime.

She goes into the bedroom, which has become a simulation of a torture chamber. Wires curl in curdled blood. A video cat bats a severed thumb. Lisa changes into sweatsocks and jeans. When she comes back into the living room, the faces are still here, hanging all around me, silent and staring.

“Who are these people?” Lisa says, waving. “Gangbangers? Apparatchiks? Assassins?”

I set aside my matzoon. Suddenly I’m angry. I don’t know who the faces are either, but I know this: They are mine. They are faces I will see again, watching from the walls of trains, the tiles above urinals, the backs of cereal boxes. They are faces I will see in my sleep, the way a murderer sees his victims. They are my memories, my future, my dreams.

“What difference,” I say, “does it make to you?”

Lisa stands over me. Her face is like the faces I see on the street, those strangers who turn to stare in disgust at the man who brings
war and death in his wake.

“How dare you?” Lisa says. “How dare you take that tone? I’m dying, Caspar. I’ve put up with this for eight months.”

Eight months—is that all it’s been?

“You think I’m callous?” says Lisa. “You think I don’t care? Look at yourself.”

“What about me?” I say.

Lisa stares. The walls and her face become the color of fire. Something has been building, I see that now. Something has been developing, slowly, fatally, like a war.

“What am I supposed to say,” Lisa says, “to a man who sits here eating yogurt while people are being tortured all around him? What am I supposed to say to a man who loafs around the apartment, day after day, watching rapes and massacres? What am I supposed to say to a man who barely turns his head when he hears a woman screaming?”

“I didn’t ask for this,” I say.

“You don’t seem to mind it.”

I stand. The matzoon container tips and rolls, dribbling white drool. I’m so upset I feel like I’m hovering, suspended in the center of an endless explosion.

“I’ve lost my friends,” I say. “I’ve lost my job. I can’t sleep. I can’t think. You think this is hard for you? Maybe what I need right now is some support.”

“So that’s what it comes to?” Lisa says. “That your pain is bigger than my pain? Really?” She points at the wall. “What about them?” I hold out my arms. I turn in a circle. The room is a killing field now, a farm of bones, and my hands move up and down slowly, as if to try and raise the dead.

“They’re not me,” I say. “They’re not my problem.”

“No,” says Lisa, heading for the door. “They are.”

When the door closes, I walk numbly through the apartment. Missiles arc overhead. Tanks roll.

“What are you going to do?” I say to the sobbing television.

Great works of culture are burning in the hall. “Caspar,” I say to the bloody bedroom, “what are you going to do?”

Outside my window, ad-bugs mill in the night, patterned and phosphorescent, preprogrammed and minute, tiny pixies of light forming pictures of men and women with perfect chins and ears. I stare at these ideal people hovering in the dark, the angels of adspace, so familiar from a thousand daily visions, and realize that what makes them beautiful is not their shapely skulls, their tight skin, their healthy flesh, but their heroic unconcern—untroubled by conscience, unburdened by expectations, they smile for an instant before flickering away into the night.

I sink to my knees.

“Caspar D. Luckinbill,” I say to the bedroom floor, “what are you going to do?”

In the floor I see a body, curled like a twist of wire. The face is obscure, but I would know this man anywhere. I would know him by his NVC alone—hunched with self-pity, shivering with guilt. And I know exactly what I’m going to do.

III

Mediaterrorism is not a concept. Mediaterrorism is an experience.

Every day a new victim is targeted. Make no mistake: it could happen to you.

I wrote that for the voice-over of the teleplay of the documentary I helped to prepare for the British division of a Persian television network. I believe every word, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that everyone else believes it.

It’s a sunny summer day, and I’m walking to the downtown office of the nonprofit organization of which I am founder, spokesman, and president. I don’t worry about jaywalking these days. The light on the corner recognizes me, arranges for me to cross. Money will do that for you. Money has its ways. And money, thank God, is now on my side.

The doors of the building greet me by name. No bombs, no blood, no assaultive sounds. The fake plant in the lobby waves a welcoming leaf. “Caspar D. Luckinbill,” says the elevator, “welcome! What can I do for you today?”

Inside the elevator, an ad-droid is painting a picture on the doors. It’s a picture of my face, from the cover of  Zeit-Life Magazine. In this picture, my eyes have been artificially narrowed, my skin artificially loosened. Everything about me has been made to look harrowed and gaunt.  Special Report, the caption reads.  The Human Face of Mediaterrorism.

I ride the elevator to the fourteenth floor. In my office, Betty lies on her back, screening the new television special. Thanks to the office Ubervision, the image beams from the ceiling. The walls are a forest of virtual, tranquil trees.

“Is he here?” I say.

Betty sits up. “He’s waiting for you.”

Betty is my public awareness manager. She’s also my girlfriend. She is young, smart, media-savvy, and takes care of herself. No loose joint skin on this young lady. She has the firmest, most beautiful knees I’ve ever seen.

“I think it’s finally happened,” Betty says. “I think we’ve finally reached critical mass.”

I put my arms around her and rewind the TV special. The opener begins with doomful music. “Lurking in the shadows of cyberspace,” a man’s voice says, “lies a mysterious new hi-tech predator, on the hunt for human prey. It strikes from your TV, your phone, from the walls of your home, and no one knows who it will target next. Will you be the next victim of . . .  mediaterrorism?”

“Good stuff,” I say. “The deadly part’s a little heavy.”

“We’re covered,” Betty says. “We’ve established links to suicide.”

“In this special two-hour report,” the announcer continues, “you’ll learn about a person—a person just like you—a man named Caspar Luckinbill, who saw his life destroyed when the media he had trusted suddenly and unexpectedly turned against him. And you’ll find out how to protect yourself and those you love from what may be the modern world’s fastest-growing psychological scourge.”

I pause the show. “How wide is the advertising?”

“Wide,” says Betty. “Like, vast. Like, omnipresent. We’re going after seniors first. Then moms. Then kids. By airtime we’ll have total saturation.”

“What about buzz?”

“Are you kidding? People can’t get enough. They’re intrigued. They’re outraged. They’re absolutely terrified.”

The TV special is my baby. I was the one who reached out to the producers. I was the one who made the pitch. I’m chief consultant, assistant producer. And of course I’m the star.

It’s a strange feeling. I’m not just in the charity game. I’m a oneman movement, the soul of a cause, the president of an ever-growing
organization. I’ve become, as the magazines of the globe proclaim, the human face of mediaterrorism.

Betty and I run through other promotional channels—ads, radio, tie-ins, public appearances, even print. It’s important to be comprehensive in this game. You’ve got to blanket the airwaves. You’ve got to speak up. People forget about the big issues, and reminding them is a full-time job. You’ve got to be ubi, omni, toto, round-the-clock. You can have too much of a lot of things in this world, but you can never have too much public awareness.

I give Betty a kiss on her perfect neck. “Keep pushing it. Don’t let up. Let me know if you get overwhelmed.”

“I never get overwhelmed,” Betty says. “I do the whelming.”

I give her another kiss. Then I go into my private office, where Armando sits waiting.

“Caspar D. Luckinbill,” Armando says, rising, “you lucky s.o.b.” He slaps my shoulder. “You’re the talk of the town.”

“I’d better be,” I say. “We’re paying through the nose for it.”

“So that’s your secret? Money talks?”

“Is it a secret?”

“Not many things are, these days,” Armando says.

I shrug. I smile. I feel weirdly ashamed. The truth is, I never expected to be the talk of the town. I guess it’s like a lot of things. I guess you have to hit bottom before you can climb to the top.

When I started my campaign to raise awareness of mediaterrorism, I didn’t honestly hope to be heard. I’d lost my job, my wife, my home, my health. I needed to get busy. I needed to speak out. Speaking out was about the last thing I still had the wherewithal to do.

What I didn’t know was that the reporters would run with it. What makes reporters decide to run with things? “It’s a ripeness issue,” one of the reporters told me. “This is a moment whose time has come.”

What I didn’t know was that there were fellow sufferers. So many, many fellow sufferers.

What I didn’t know was that there were researchers of mediaterrorism—researchers who also wanted to be heard.

What I didn’t know was that the donations I received would be numerous, large, almost reflexive. What I didn’t know was that people would buy my book. I didn’t even know people still read books.

What I didn’t know was that corporations would get involved. Especially the media corporations. Ubervision alone gave $80 million.

What I didn’t know was that the government would take interest, and that consulting with the government can be both lucrative and pleasant.

What I didn’t know, in short, is that something on the order of a mini media and monetary empire can grow up around one man through a process of near-ecological inevitability. Why me? I often wonder.

“Why me?” I say to Armando as we sit in my office sipping South Islay single-malt twenty-three-year-old Scotch over cubes of naturally
refrozen Swiss glacier melt. “That’s what I still don’t understand.”

“It’s obvious,” Armando says. “You’re a nobody, a nonentity. You’re trivial, dull, not even very bright. Another TV-watching office drone who stayed in his mesh-chair and never made a fuss. You’re all of us. You’re an innocent victim.” He crunches glacier. “For what it’s worth, I’ve always supported you.”

“That’s why you’re here,” I say, and beckon him to my desk.

Armando listens while I explain what I need him to do.

“So what I’m hearing,” Armando says, “is that you want this to be discreet.”

“Use your judgment,” I say.

“And you want it to be judicious.”

“Use your discretion.”

“Now it’s my turn to ask,” Armando says. “Why me?”

I look into his wide eyes. I feel sure I can trust him. Of course I never blamed Armando for turning his back on me. It takes a lot of energy, I’ve found, blaming people. It takes more commitment than I’m able to muster.

“You’ve always been someone very special to me, Armando,” I say, and squeeze his shoulder. “You’re my friend who knows about computers.”

When Armando is gone, I go to the office window. Ad-clouds glide through the sky above the city, converted by projectors to flying billboards, sky-high beautiful faces smiling down. I have to go back out to Betty soon, to discuss the campaign for our new fundraising drive. It’s a full-time job, attaining full-time exposure. It doesn’t allow for a lot of freedom.

I hope Armando knows what he’s doing. I don’t want anyone to trace the donations. I don’t want anything linked to my name.

Money circulates. Money gets around. Call it a rich man’s sentimental dream. I’m the human face of a global cause, but I want my
fortune to be infinitely sneaky, invisible as life-giving air or light. I want it to trickle through the world, working its influence unobserved. Above all, I want it to reach the FRF, or whatever that little country’s called now. I see it percolating through the foreign soil, mingling with the graves and seeds and bones. I picture it gathering to itself a secret life, springing skyward as a stand of trees. I picture it inhaling and reaching for the air, and in my better moments I can almost see the details, the windy movement and the flickering leaves, now dark, now bright, like data, like grace.

“Caspar D. Luckinbill, What Are You Going to Do?” by Nick Wolven as seen in THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2017 to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on October 3. Reprinted by permission of the author. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. All rights reserved.


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