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This is a 24,000 word horror novella about a morbid fascination: self-help.
It’s one of the 21st century’s phenomenons. It’s corruptible linguistically. One letter away from “sell-help”. Another letter away from “self-hell”. It’s corruptible in other ways, too. Scientology. James Arthur Ray. Jonestown. History is full of charismatic sociopaths with the solution to all your problems, so long as those problems are a heavy wallet, your sanity, and your life.
This book takes that idea, turns the dial to 11, and tears it off. Review copies are available. Hit me up at mail @ this website URL, with “Gateless Gate, Skyless Sky” as the subject line.
“…Welcome to the program, Mr Zhang.”
What would you do to change your life?
What if you said ‘anything’…and meant it?
Jiro Zhang is a small-time criminal, steadily circling the drain. Then he meets Makassar, psychologist and founder of the Gateless Gate, Skyless Sky method.
This method is like nothing that has ever existed before. Its techniques are terrifying, illegal, and perhaps deadly. It can cure you of anything, even your humanity. It’s Zen Buddhism on steroids, crack cocaine, and Zyklon B. Jiro just has to sign the dotted line.
Under the guidance of the sinister Makassar, Jiro will walk a path to the edge of sanity, and then far, far beyond. He’s on the ultimate self-help journey…but he might look inside and find there’s no “self” left at the end.
Gateless Gate is a horror novella that mixes Buddhism, transhumanism, and ultra-violence. It’s the tale of a man who tears out the darkness in his soul and replaces it with something a thousand shades blacker.
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If Metallica’s career was a movie narrated by Morgan Freeman, here’s where he’d say “…and that’s when it all started to go wrong.” It was a bold move: they took all their signature elements and shot them behind the woodshed. A few long songs became lots of short ones. Furious speed became a uptempo bounce. Droning slowness became a downtempo plod. Everything was smoothed out, graded even – this is an album so flat you can iron your clothes on it. Pick out something you liked about 80s Metallica. Odds are, that element is now either gone or greatly reduced.
It could have been career suicide, but unknown to everyone, they were positioned ride one of the biggest waves in popular music.
Nevermind by Nirvana was sliding out the bomb bay doors, and soon rock music would be destroyed and rebuilt in a new, “alternative” image. Soon, rock concerts would be the place to get bored out of your skull. With the scent of flannel and stonewashed jeans wafting south from Seattle, Metallica was seen as a heavier alternative to the grunge rock craze. People seemed to dig their new lack of pretension. Unfortunately, The Black Album’s overall effect is one of musical homogeneity.
Sometimes, The Black Album hits home. Sometimes my finger hits home, on the skip button. “Sad but True” is pedestrian and lacks energy. Hetfield’s riffs are weak and Ulrich’s drumming has a mechanical, overproduced quality. It almost seems to flop out of your speakers. “Enter Sandman…chronic overplay is an interesting phenomenon. Some songs survive it, other songs don’t. This one didn’t.
“Nothing Else Matters” is either the most commercial Metallica song ever or an fascinating fusion of genres. Apparently Hetfield wrote the first few bars while on the phone with his girlfriend, which is why the opening arpeggios can be played with one hand.
“Holier than Thou”, “Through the Never”, and “The Struggle Within” all rock fairly hard and pull things back a bit towards a thrash metal sound. “Through” is the strongest, featuring one of Hetfield’s better vocal performances and a powerful set of riffs.
Most of the rest of the album is a crapshoot of commercial-sounding metal made with the intention of not scaring Pearl Jam fans. Tracks like “Don’t Tread on Me” and “My Friend in Misery” are now heavily dated, especially if you believe metal should push against a boundary somewhere. None of it is offensive, but you want something more – more speed, more heaviness, more hooks, better developed ideas. Instead, these songs just show up, punch a clock, do their job, then leave. They’re the Teamsters of the metal world.
For all its failings, The Black Album is not grunge rock. But it’s infected with the grunge rock disease, a pretentious lack of pretension.
Sound contradictory? Welcome to the 90s. Rockstars pretending to be tortured, introverted loners while making millions of dollars. Pantera and Ministry conducting Stalinesque purges of their back catalog, lest anybody suspect they were capable of laughing or having fun. The whole decade sucked. Phony, fake wrist-slashing garbage. Lyrically, Hetfield bows to changing times only once, writing a sob story about his upbringing in “The God that Failed”. Musically, he bent so much he turned into a pretzel.
I wish there was more contrast. It seems like it was written so that every song could be a potential radio hit, and it comes off like a plate of mashed potato – some hills and some valleys, but it’s still pile of mashed spud.
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“I tell you, the phone in my bay’s not ringing,” he said. “Nobody’s called in two hours. Normally I get one every few minutes.”
“Well, the phone’s definitely working,” his supervisor said. “I traced the lines and everything.”
“So what’s happening?”
“Beats me. Maybe the software that diverts the calls doesn’t like you.”
“Can I have another bay?”
“The center’s at maximum capacity. Look, sorry, you’ll just have to sit there and hope whatever’s wrong fixes itself. Conversation’s over, pal. I have a floor to run.”
Then the supervisor disappeared, leaving Dalip fuming. This was going to screw up his metrics for the day.
He tried to clear up his desk, so that at least he was doing something on company time.
Among the scattered papers, he found a 3.5” floppy disk.
On it were two words. STRANGE LOOP.
He couldn’t recall bringing this in to work.
Had the supervisor put the disk there, and he hadn’t noticed? Why would a supervisor at a major telecom company put anything on a floppy in 2016?
Bored and irritable, he inserted it into his computer.
Immediately, a batch file started to execute, running a program called STRANGELOOP.EXE
His screen flashed and was replaced with a computer-rendered image. A moment of panic, then he remembered that his cubicle was in the corner of the building – nobody could see what was on his screen unless they entered his bay.
He looked at the image more closely.
It looked like a computer game from the pre-CD era. The resolution was 320×240. The graphics were 16-color CGA. The neon hues almost burned his eyes.
It was a crude, pixelated image of a man sitting at a desk in front of a computer, with his back to the viewer.
At the bottom was an RPG-style inventory of items. It only had one thing in it: a floppy disk.
He had cursor input, and could move a disembodied hand around the screen with his mouse.
Curious, he clicked on the floppy disk item in the inventory.
The hand picked it up.
He dragged the cursor over to the desk, and clicked again. The floppy disk appeared on the desk.
The pixelated man looked across, saw the floppy disk, picked it up, and after a minute, put it into his computer.
Spellbound, Dalip tried to see what was happening on the computer inside the game. The screen was too small and the resolution too low. A line of text flashed in the empty inventory: PRESS + TO ZOOM.
He zoomed in, saw that the computer inside the game was running a batch file, and that it was launching a file called STRANGELOOP.EXE…
On the man’s screen there was now a digital image of another man sitting at a desk, in front of another computer, with another floppy disk.
The man inside the game started to play.
They’re like little Russian dolls… Dalip thought, zooming in even further to see what was on the screen.
He continued “playing” for the some time, going down iteration after iteration, watching game after game get installed on computer after computer, each one contained within the last.
Eventually, he was at least twenty levels deep, watching another man insert a floppy disk, run a game, use his cursor to place a floppy on a digital desk…
Are they really like Russian dolls? He thought. If I go down far enough, will I reach a final one? Or does it continue forever?
A buzzer beeped beside his head, shocking him back to earth like cold water to the face. He realised he was now at clock-off time.
And his phone still hadn’t rung once.
He no longer thought this was a coincidence.
He gathered his things together, and remembered that company policy forbid the installation of third party programs on the office computers.
Whatever STRANGELOOP.EXE was, he’d get in trouble if it was discovered.
He was about to hit ESC to close the game and then erase it from his system, when something new happened on the screen.
The man at the desk was turning around to look at him.
Hairs stood up on Dalip’s neck as he saw an expression of alarm and confusion resolve amongst the pixels.
He pressed the – key.
Started zooming out.
Another face, looking at him.
He started reassembling the Russian doll, flying backwards through the generations.
In all of the games, the man had turned around and was looking towards the screen, as if staring his own creator. The faces stared outwards, like the endless reflections of two mirrors.
Finally, there were no more games-within-a-game, and Dalip was at the original one.
Or is that really true?
Am I really the first? How can I know?
Each of those digital copies thought he was the first, the original, the only.
And each of them were wrong.
Suddenly, Dalip felt a sensation that he did not like at all, the sensation of being watched.
It was on his back like the hand of a ghost. His nerve endings tingled.
He turned around to see what was behind him.
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Back in 1992, this changed everything. It made people nauseous. It made people upset. There were violent games up to that point, but at least a third person perspective gives you plausible deniability. “You” didn’t rip out other people’s spines in Mortal Kombat, a sprite on the screen did. But from a first person perspective, with a phallic gun-barrel jutting outwards into your field of view, a paradigm shift occurs. No more murder by proxies. You were the one pulling the trigger.
…In reality, that’s overdramatic. Nobody who’s played Wolfenstein 3D could be offended by it. The Nazi element is played for kitsch and camp, this is Springtime for Hitler: The Game. And the illusion of realism is shallow and soon breaks. The corners are all 90 degree angles. The ceilings and floors lack textures. The repetitive environments make you feel like a rat in a maze. And the massive body count has a nugatory effect: late in the game, shooting someone feels about as shocking as the 300th “fuck” on a rap album.
Gameplay kicks off with a screen saying “GET PSYCHED!” and that captures the game’s flavour: a crazy sugar rush that has you charging around turning Wehrmächte into Swiss cheese. You’re not exactly thinking “only the dead have seen the end of war”. This is an arcade game that happens to have Nazis.
The more you play WOLF3D (as the DOS executable was called), the more it seems like a escapee from an arcade machine. You have “lives”. You have a “high score”. All that’s missing is B.J. Blazkowicz telling you to insert a quarter. Modern 3D shooters aspire to be on the cutting edge. There’s the feeling that a game with revolutionary graphics needs to be revolutionary along other axes, too. Wolfenstein 3D remains cheerfully stuck in the past.
There’s lots of fun goodies herein. A hidden “Call Apogee say ‘AARDWOLF’” message, remnants of an aborted contest that was immediately made pointless by fan-made data viewing programs. A Pacman level. Another level made entirely out of swastikas. The statement “This game is rated PC-13, for ‘Profound Carnage’”. A naff and entertaining battle against Adolf Hitler. A episodes 4-6 are called Nocturnal Missions. Barring Rise of the Triad, this is perhaps the most overtly comedic FPS until the release of Duke Nukem 3D (Ken’s Labyrinth was too autistic to be funny).
Little map design is possible with such a limited engine. You wander mazes and shoot groups of enemies. While Doom would give the player new and varied things in its later levels, WOLF3D has nowhere to go except harder mazes and larger groups of enemies. At a certain point, your brain becomes bored, and starts craving more stimulation. You could argue that the game reinforces the social message that mass murder is boring.
Even the game’s technological wizardry smacks of Uri Geller. Just fire up Ultima Underworld, which came out six months earlier, and had angled walls, textured ceilings, slopes, look up/down, swimmable water, etc. Not a fair comparison, since that game was developed over years next to this one’s months. And Wolfenstein 3D’s engine is faster and leaner. Too bad that equals a fast and lean journey through Legoland.
Wolfenstein 3D is a dated experience with immense historical. I can’t imagine myself ever replaying Wolfenstein 3D the same way I play Doom. But though I don’t play it, I can’t ignore it.
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In zoology, you’re not supposed to anthropomorphosize animal behavior. For example, a dog doesn’t “laugh”, it “vocalises”. The idea is that you keep a bit of daylight between human emotions and animal emotions, because they’re not the same thing.
But people are fine with anthropormophisizing other things. We talk about nations, states, churches, backyard mud wrestling federations, etc as if they’re people. Reagan described the USSR as an “evil empire”. Can an empire be evil? Any more than an empire can have a favourite basketball team?
(All adjectives are behavioral. “Evil empire” = “an empire that does evil things”)
Ayn Rand once said “don’t ask me about my family, my childhood, my friends or my feelings. Ask me about the things I think.” But the things she thought were caused by her family, her childhood, her friends, and her feelings. There isn’t some “Ayn Rand” homunculus issuing orders from on high. It seems to me more likely that Rand’s feeling of free will emerged from lots of little incidents, both inside her mind and in the world outside, and they composited to form her personality. And if they created her personality, maybe they deserve the credit or blame for her actions.
Like Rand, The Soviet Union was a very large emergent froth coming from many subunits, which themselves were made up of many subunits, etc. What level of the apparatus bears the mark of Cain? Which level is “evil”? When talking about, say, a massive artificial famine like Holodomor, who do you blame?
The USSR itself? No, it only acted the way it did because of the smaller gears ticking inside. The NKVD, or the People’s Commissariat of Land Cultivation? No, same problem.
What about the minions who enacted the policies? Were they to blame? They would have claimed they were following orders.
So we can blame Stalin. He was the irreducible evil. Hopefully he won’t claim that he acted ideologically, otherwise blame for the Ukrainian famine gets passed back to Vladimir Lenin, then to Karl Marx, then to Adam Smith, then to John Ball, then to Jesus (and then to…). But hey, at least we’ve found the ultimate source of the Holodomor…
…No, we we haven’t. We’re still horsefucked. A nation is very complicated and elaborate, and if we’re withholding judgement on the USSR for this reason, we need to realise that Joseph Stalin’s mind was even more complicated and elaborate. There were 100 billion neurons in his brain. Each hemisphere had 400 to 500 distinct brain areas. His genome encompassed 20,000 genes, 84% of which were expressed in the brain. He was an incredibly sophisticated thinking machine.
Even if we understood a normal person’s brain, I don’t think we could have understood Stalin’s. Everyone who knew him or his works commented on how unusual he seemed, how cold and cruel. No more a human being than HAL9000. Adolf Hitler, although he owned a dog, strikes me as a stereotypical “cat person” – anxious, neurotic, sensitive, and artistically-minded. Benito Mussolini is more like a stereotypical “dog person” – a gregarious backslapping Il Duce, prone to self-aggrandisement and egotism. Stalin strikes me as a person who would have brooked no pets at all. Although maybe he considered Lavrentiy Beria a kind of pet.
So what in this confusing mare’s nest can we “blame”? Stalin’s neurons? They have to fire together in elaborate Hebbian patterns, and no one neuron is responsible for anything. His genes? All behavioural traits are heavily polygenic, there wasn’t any one “evil gene” in Stalin’s mind. And these genes were gifts from his parents, so we’re almost back to blaming cavemen again. “What caused the Holodomor?” It seems the answer might be…everything.
Homer Simpson’s method for getting out of trouble is to say “It was like that when I got here”, and so is mine.
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In the 70s, a journalist was diagnosed with cancer. He had reason to suspect it was terminal. To take his mind off the thing growing in his body, he started work on a fantasy novel about a mighty fortress under siege from a vast army. He left the final chapter unwritten. Did the fortress stand, or did it fall? He didn’t know. Not every question has an answer, but to even stand a chance of resolution you must do one thing: live.
Gemmell didn’t die, and the fortress didn’t fall, and heroic fantasy got a new classic: forty years later, Legend’s still a fun read. And a big one. Every single character is so massive and archetypal that they almost threaten to overpower the story, like ships so big that they displace oceans in their passage.
The Delnai empire is weakening, collapsing from inside from corruption and decadence. The warring Nadir tribes to the north have united under the charismatic warlord Ulric, and are invading. The end of an empire seems to be at hand. A few thousand ill-prepared Delnai warriors assemble at the ancient fortress of Dros Delnoch, where they await their fate. They are joined by legendary hero Druss the Legend, who was instrumental in defending the Delnai from an invasion decades ago. But he’s an old man, in poor health.
Parallels to real world historical events and figures show through (though it always puzzled me that Gemmell’s I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Mongols are lead by a man with a High Germanic name). Gemmell doesn’t do anything wholly new, but he’s an expert at tweaking things that need to be tweaked, so that the experience is one of freshness. When Druss arrives at Dros Delnoch, he finds it commanded by a laughably incompetent martinet whose appointment is political. And yeah, we get the expected scenes of Druss Delnoch whipping this stupid guy into shape like R Lee Ermey, but where Gemmell ends up going with this character…well, it took my by surprise. He didn’t have to go there, but I’m glad he did.
Gemmell has said that one of his goals with this story was to “fix” the Alamo. It’s hard to have heroes in the 21st century, history has become too good and now those stirring American frontier stories make you think of plague blankets, forced marches, slavery, et cetera. Legend is the Alamo story as Gemmell thinks it should have been, with great deeds and golden heroes that will never be sullied by history.
The first half of the novel is a slow, burning build, like lactic acid in a muscle, as the fortress prepares for war. The second half of the novel is virtually a single solid action scene spanning weeks. I liked the way the siege drags on for so long that soon everyone loses hope…but they look at their hands, and those hands are still fighting. Druss’s tale is concluded in spectacular fashion, and you almost wish the book had ended there, because nothing that comes after it matches it.
This is “first novel” territory, and there’s things I never liked. The sheer overdose of heroics kind of cheapens the effect – everyone here’s a master warrior, or magician, or strategist. And there’s a kind of tacky “DnD” element that Gemmell would carry on throughout his career: whenever he wants to demonstrate a character’s martial prowess, he has them kill a bunch of random bandits.
Despite its roughness, Legend is the book that made Gemmell’s name. The action is fast and unrelenting, the pace never flags, and bathos is laid on with a trowel. Forty years later, the fortress still hasn’t fallen.
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“Say what you will about pre-modern European society, no peasant was under any pathetic illusion the monarch would enjoy a beer with them” – @Trilburne
“Our ignorance can be divided into problems and mysteries. When we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for. When we face a mystery, however, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like.” – Noam Chomsky
“I read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It’s about Russia.” – Woody Allen on speed-readers
“Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.” -Unknown
“What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and living beings. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light? You’re stupid.” – Mikhail Bulgakov
“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” – Vladimir Nabokov
“If a mosquito has a soul, it is mostly evil. So I don’t have too many qualms about putting a mosquito out of its misery. I’m a little more respectful of ants.” – Douglas Hofstadter
“Hey Hef, how do you get so many bitches?” “Well, for starters, I don’t call them bitches” – Hugh Hefner
“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” -Arthur Schopenhauer
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” – Antoine de Saint
“My father is the jailhouse. My father is your system… I am only what you made me. I am only a reflection of you.” – Charles Manson
“There is no such thing as a former KGB man.” – Vladimir Putin
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The mortuary has eight chambers. They branch out from a hallway like arms on a spider. Inside these chambers, a maximum of thirty-two cadavers are stored at temperatures not exceeding -2 degrees Celsius.
The corpses stay for hours, or days, and then go to funeral parlors, forensic facilities, and, occasionally, pathology labs. The dead come from many paths to the mortuary, and they leave on many paths.
The mortuary hired me to install the security cameras.
I worked quickly in the chilly light, my fingers going numb in the cold. I made mistakes. I kept forgetting the task in front of me, my brain wandering like a lost and scared dog to the bodies on the slabs. Eyes that were open, but not to see. Mouths that were open, but not to talk. That horrible feeling of being totally alone while in a room full of people.
These weren’t regular cameras.
The mortuary forbids CCTV video feeds in the chambers. There was an embarrassing incident, years ago. A former employee sold photos of an OD’d starlet to the press.
The video coming from these cameras are distorted and garbled. You can’t actually see anything on them.
Instead, the cameras track motion.
Every twentieth frame or so is referenced and compared against the previous frame. If there’s any difference – defined as a pixel that has changed color – then it puts a flag in the camera’s software, stored on a web server.
“One flag is okay – sometimes the software screws up,” the mortuary security chief told me. “Two flags in a row is a suspicious screw-up. Anything more than that, get in your truck and come down here at the double, because there’s been a break-in.”
“Who breaks into a mortuary?” I asked.
“Organ thieves. People who want to be with a loved one, one last time. Frat boys pledging for Alpha Kappa Dumbfuck. It doesn’t matter, you just get down there as fast as you can.”
I’ve been monitoring the motion cameras for the past three months.
Usually, the cameras generate between ten and twenty flags a day. False positives. Sometimes I get two flags coming in within seconds of each other, and hair stands up on my neck for a moment, and after nothing else happens after a minute I go back to reading Deadspin on the office computers.
Once, I had forty flags come from chamber 7. I drove down there, expecting the worst…
…and found a cockroach crawling across a camera lens.
Another time, I got a single flag from all the rooms, simultaneously. A fuse had blown, knocking out the power. I replaced it before any of the cadavers had a chance to warm. Got a nice pay bonus for that.
The job was boring. Losing focus was just a matter of time. I went from checking the flags every few minutes to checking it every half hour, then to every hour, then to…
Today, I was on my phone, arguing with some nimrod online about Brett Favre’s passing stats, when my inner conscience spoke.
How long since you checked the mortuary flags?
Shit. Two hours? Longer?
I logged in to the web server.
I got in my truck, and sped down to the mortuary. I sat my phone on the passenger seat and flicked an eye to it from time to time.
More flags kept coming in. Several a second.
Someone had broken into the mortuary, and they were still there.
And the flags were coming in from multiple cold chambers. There was more than one person.
What was I suppose to do here? Tough talk a bunch of drunken frat boys with crowbars and hammers?
I parked outside the mortuary, the truck slewing sideways in a spray of gravel. I got out, ran to the front door, and tried to open it.
It was still locked.
I stared stupidly at the doorknob, as if reality wasn’t letting me in on some kind of joke.
I looked around, noticing details I hadn’t seen before. Like how there were no other cars in the parking lot, other than me. And no footprints in the gravel, other than mine.
Then, I went on a slow and steady walk around the mortuary.
No broken windows.
No forced-open doors.
No way in whatsoever.
I let that same slow and steady walk take me from the building back to my truck, where I sat in the cabin, phone in my lap.
The number of disturbances inside the building was now at 40,528, and climbing.
I watched more and more flags come through on my phone, wondering how long it would take before I turned on the ignition, picked a direction, and just kept driving forever.
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From his snowbound manse in Portland, Maine, Stephen King has unleashed his most horrifying work yet. A terrifying look at man’s inner heart, a raw and beating extrusion of pure horror.
I refer, of course, to his Twitter account, which is just the drizzling shits.
Imagine a hacky 1930s vaudeville comic with buck teeth, a spinning bow-tie, and a lapel flower that squirts water. Imagine “topical” humor that was growing only slightly musty in the early years of the Bush presidency. Imagine forwards from your grandma that are forwards from her grandma. Welcome to the Stephen King twitter feed.
The handful of pity retweets/favs renew one’s faith in humanity. Some people are taking a stand against this abomination. But there’s no time to relax, the assault has only just begun.
His jokes are best read with a trombone player supply the “waah waah waah” at each punch line.
What the fuck is this happy horseshit? I want to take the Twitter social media platform to a rape crisis center of some kind, whispering reassurances in its ear. “Everything will be OK. You’re being very brave right now. Just remember…it’s not your fault.”
I had a small Mogutu-style breakdown when I saw this. How’s this funny or clever? He just took a famous quote and changed it so it’s about Twitter. Yeah, and Gandhi would be like “be the RT you wish to see in the world.” Scary funny!
But there’s more! Are you a fan of low-effort dumbfuck political pandering? Especially of the left-wing variety? Stevie’s got you covered, my friend.
Somewhere, there is a politburo meeting in secret. They are compiling evidence, and building a case. Their thesis is nothing more than this: Twitter must be destroyed.
Obviously, if they rise to power they’ll close Twitter, bulldoze the corporate headquarters, imprison everyone involve, and grind the hard drives into a fine metal powder. But what will happen to the people who use Twitter? They’re the real problem. Final solution: lobotomies all around. They’ll insert a sharp metal rod under your eyelid, gently (or not) insert it past the sphenoid structure, and sever your frontal brain lobe. Not too far, though, or it might be fatal, and we still need people to drive lorries and empty rubbish bins and things. I’m not saying I support this plan. All I’m saying is that it’s real, it’s happening, and right now @StephenKing’s tweets are in the prosecution’s brief.
Is it too much to ask for some entertaining cornball, such as “The man in black created a Twitter account, and the gunslinger followed”?
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[I won't tell you to read this book or go to hell, I'll tell you to read this book and THEN go to hell]
Prelude 1 – Entrance to the Inferno…
“I am the punishment of God… If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”
– Genghis Khan
New York, New Year’s Eve, 2024…
The white van turned the corner into Times Square and merged into late-morning traffic.
A man lolled back in the driver’s seat—no hands on the steering wheel.
He had touched the wheel of the self-driving vehicle exactly once since crossing the GWB—just a gentle touch, as if to remind the machine of his mastery, and then he’d pulled the hand away.
He studied New York through two layers of glass – the tinted dash, and the glasses on his nose. Rows of billboards, marquees, and coloured lights, all of them calculated to skirt just beneath the edge of the city’s light pollution limits.
A glaze of neon covered the city. Cheap. Thrilling. Saccharine for eyes.
During the day, Times Square had the dead gleam of fake jewellery. At night, it shone like a star too modest to rise into the sky. Even inside the car, he heard the buzz of thousands of voices. Tourists came from everywhere to ring in the new year.
Everyone wanted something from New York – memories, culture, experiences.
The driver didn’t come to New York to take. He considered himself more of a giver.
He pulled in to a metered parking spot and was about to get out when he heard and felt a banging fist on the side of his van.
He turned his head. A NYPD cop.
The big black cop shouted something, and spun his forefinger in a circle. The universal “roll down your window” gesture.
He obeyed. “Can I help, officer?”
“Yeah, buddy, you can. I saw you enter the street without using your turn signal.”
“This is a self-driving car. The computer should have thrown the signal for me.”
“It didn’t. I was watching. Step out of the vehicle for a moment.”
The driver got out. He had a small remote control on a keychain that allowed him to control the van without being inside it.
“Activate your left turn signal.”
The driver tried. The light remained dead. “Hmm. Bulb’s gone. I wonder how long it’s been like that.”
The cop scowled. “Are you the owner of this vehicle?”
“Can I see some paperwork?”
The driver produced his license and registration. The cop unclipped a RFID scanner from his belt and ran it over a microchip on the license paper. He looked over the cop’s shoulder at the LED readout as it checked the NYPD database for tickets, demerits, and other offenses.
There weren’t any.
The cop nodded and handed back the paperwork. “That’s fine. You’re free to go.”
“Will I get a ticket?”
“Naw, I couldn’t do that to a man on New Year’s Eve. Just get that light fixed, okay? There’s a mechanic on East Thirty-Fifth that’s open over the holidays. Best to get these things sorted out, right?”
“Sure, I will. And thanks.” The driver smiled.
“Say, where are you from? I can’t place your accent.”
“I’m from Portland. I’m actually not here to celebrate. My daughter’s coming from back from a vacation in Cancun, and she asked if I could pick her up.”
“Cancun? Aw, that’s such a kid place to go. I’ve got some time off coming up, and I hope to spend it in the Adirondacks wearing orange. You much of a huntin’ man?”
“Can’t say I am.”
“Well, it kicks the shit out of police work. Have a good day, man.”
“You too. And all the best with your hunting trip. It’ll be a good one, I’m sure.”
He reached into his pocket and pressed a button.
The uranium bomb in the van went off.
[Transmission of Vanadium Dark endeth, for now.]
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