“Over here is where we starve them,” I announce. During the first five minutes of the tour, three administrators opted out. One needs medical attention. I follow protocol and never miss anything.
“We’re studying how long it takes before they’ll eat human flesh to survive,” I continue. “You’d be surprised how many people allow themselves to die without becoming cannibals. In the movies, everybody goes cannibal. Under duress, a cinematic man will eat anything. A cinematic woman, on the other hand, demonstrates greater psychological endurance. Whether or not she dines on people depends upon her social and economic status. Curiously, upper-class females are quicker to eat people than trailer trash. It’s peculiar. We still have a lot of work to do.”
Every tour of the Studio leaves something to be desired, but there is never a scarcity of idle exploitation. An administrator asks a question. I shoot him in the femoral artery, throw him into a cell, and slam the door. “There. Let’s watch this old codger bleed out and see what happens. The subject hasn’t eaten for eighteen days, if I’m not mistaken.” I double-check the record. “Excuse me. Twenty days. Fascinating.” I clean the nose of my gun and holster it. “No provocations, now. Remember: the subject has dumb ideas and big beliefs, just like all of us.”
We gather in front of the cell window and watch the wounded administrator die as the subject tries to escape the blood that pools across the floor. Once she was a smiling, full-bodied cover model. Now, gaunt and harried, she climbs onto an empty buffet table and screams in great convulsions, skin tightening onto the compaction of her bones and veins.
“Marvelous,” I say. “Now watch this.”
Several hours later, I hand out jerky and remind everybody that it’s part of the package. “Breakfast is your birthright,” I say, “but that has nothing to do with our project. I can only speak for lunch and dinner. Every day at high noon, you’ll get your fair share of salted pulp. Dinner, then, begins at five-thirty p.m. and runs for ninety minutes. During this interval, you will be provided with an unlimited supply of variably spiced meatballs, fine wine, and top-shelf liquor. No vegetables, fruits, or bread. Above all, no beer. This ain’t rural America, folks. If you are currently holding, or if you attempt to smuggle contraband into the Studio, there will be consequences. I’ll only mention that once.”
Despite the warning, almost all of the administrators try to sneak in beer. I throw one of them to the dogs to set an example even though the suspension of memory precludes it. I even assure them that nobody is to blame. “Technically, memory is synonymous with sanity, and if we remove the past from our mind’s screens, it’s almost impossible to preempt futurity and behave accordingly. Nonetheless, the psyche, we’ve discovered, only needs the Here and Now to function like a cog. Hence cognition. Hence ignition. This is our concern.”
As expected, subjectivity collapses into objectivity within seventy-two hours to the extent that performativity becomes a rule of law. Neither males nor females make a rhetorical or physiological move that can be quantified as “organic.” What belies our expectations is the degree to which this state of terminal limbo veers into acausal pathways and disrupts the offline continuum.
My assistant tries to make sense of the aberration. “It is our capacity for predictability that makes us who we are,” he ruminates. “Who we want to be is another matter. That’s desire. And desire is the reason why war exists, why sorrow exists, why anxiety exists, why—”
“That’s not desire. You’re talking about ideology. One thing has nothing to do with the other.”
“Desire is the very foundation of belief, sir. Without it, why would we worry about the prospect of consciousness?”
Bored, I shoot my assistant and feed him to the half-starved pigs we keep on the mezzanine, assuring my viewers that people do not possess as many comparable traits with swine as contemporary hog rippers would like us to believe.
“Down the hallway is the gender-free area. Follow me. We’ll have to crawl.”
We emerge in the playhouse that overlooks the Afterlife. There are no safety features. One false move and you’ll topple four stories into the surf. Whether or not you hit the rocks or the sweet spot depends upon the wind machines.
The Afterlife is purely for show. It means everything.
Overhead the moon and the sun coexist like old spouses, jockeying for position and intermittently pulsing with would-be valence. Seldom does a ripple of static flow down the Überscreen. Nothing ever breaks the Fourth Wall.
Halfway through a production of John Chrysler’s ’Tis Pity He’s a Gigolo, I realize that the administrators have been digested by an audience that has outgrown the theater. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t know where all these people came from, and the Chief of Spatial Operations won’t provide me with viable intel or even an ad hoc backstory.
During a long scene in which Alessandro beats his whores to death one at a time, commandos gauge viewer responses through the lenses of their telescopic rifles. The variety of reactions to the pimp’s seemingly autistic aggression confound the sermonists on the Mount who attempt to poeticize this demographic even as they sink further and further into their own weird quandaries.
Actors are not immune to reality, and when they die onstage, they die onscreen.
Alessandro hurls the bloody corpses into the sky where they freeze-frame like boneless pantomimes before falling into obscurity.
I detect the commandos’ collective anxiety before it floods their sensoria. Extended doses of ennui and apathy always makes them edgy. Ultraviolence puts them to sleep, and if they sleep for too long, only an apocalypse can wake them up.
In and of themselves, the spectators are expendable, but I would never sacrifice any cellular mass for a case study. I need to act fast.
For the first time in my career, I break protocol.
The tone of my announcement does not align with the content: “I am not a flower. I am not a valve. I am not a long-legged stilt walker. But I could be these things. I could be almost anything. There are only three professions I cannot abide. Number one: surgeon. Number two: astronaut. And finally: soldier. Do you know why? I am afraid to cut into bodies, I am afraid of outer space, and I am afraid of war—hence I’ll never rise to the beatific heights of these old-world nobles. Any other profession I can do or learn to do as good as or better than everybody else. Usually better. I’m not bragging. This isn’t a subjective assertion of insecurity. These are merely the contours of objective reality.”
Dazzled by my impromptu self-absorption, commandos, actors, and viewers alike slip into a momentary reverie that allows me to reset the continuum and recalibrate the Afterlife.
I awake in a Cadillac Eldorado. At first, I think I’m in the trunk. It’s only nighttime, though, and the dashboard lights are off.
I may or may not be in the driver’s seat. In this retrofitted slice of life, the vehicle moves down a proverbial desert highway at sixty-five mph with the high beams on. Signage and roadkill indicate that we are at least twice removed from the former metaphysical station: I can’t read and interpret the font and imagery on the billboards, and the wayside corpses belong to hulking, otherworldly monsters.
In the rearview mirror, I recognize an actor from the production of Chrysler’s play. She must have been sublimated by one of the Gatekeepers.
I don’t think she has on clothes. Reaching across the armrest, she strokes my thigh and pushes on my knee as if to make me go faster. I say, “My knee is not connected to my foot, let alone the gas pedal. All of these things have minds of their own.”
She laughs, perfunctorily.
I remove my foot from the gas pedal. She screams.
The passenger sitting next to me cradles a brown paper bag in his lap. I believe this calm, capable jackanapes used to be my slave. Now he sits there like an evolved god, waiting patiently for the Gatekeepers to rise from the dirt ovens.
In fact, he’s not a slave, and he’s not a god. He’s a filmmaker.
When the actor passes out, I ask the filmmaker about his work. “I haven’t shot anything in decades, possibly centuries,” he laments. “I barely remember my last project. If memory serves, it was a documentary about the Afterlife that failed to recoup production costs several times over. Audiences tried to kill me, but even when I lose, I win. I’m too good at winning to die, as it were.”
“What’s in the bag?” I ask.
“What bag?” He looks at his lap.
I point at his lap. “That bag. That one.”
“This?” He shows it to me like a medal he’s won. “This isn’t a bag. This is the secret of life. Don’t worry. It’s harmless. Everything is good.”
The bag explodes, dousing the fine leather interior of the Eldorado with impossible gore.
I pull over. Reanimated, the actor barrels out of the vehicle and runs naked and screaming into the desert night.
I shouldn’t be alive. I shouldn’t even be intact. This is either an end or a beginning.
During an offline hiatus, I review footage of the last seventy-two hours to establish where my affinities lie. Whichever side I fall on won’t determine the outcome. My name has as much clout as a fallen angel.
Armed with Molotov cocktails, drunken researchers attack the Studio. They set the turrets aflame, then close on the nuclear laboratory.
By the time the researchers ransack the lab and sober up, I have lapsed into a stupor. Protocol brings me back to my senses. I reenter the forum in the guise of an administrator, rendering myself a middleman. Neither gods nor monsters bat an eye. Only the most unstable demons attempt to call me out, but my garish illusions are much stronger than their guerrilla realities.
D. Harlan Wilson is the author of over thirty book-length works of fiction and nonfiction; and hundreds of his stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in magazines, journals, and anthologies across the world in multiple languages. His recent books include Outré, Natural Complexions, The Psychotic Dr. Schreber, and Modern Masters of Science Fiction: J. G. Ballard. Wilson serves as reviews editor for Extrapolation, managing editor for Guide Dog Books, editor-in-chief of Anti-Oedipus Press, and director of the Humanities department at WSU-Lake Campus.