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Quilting

        I first got into quilting when the schools were closed down. It was a very hot summer, very dusty, and the water was off for most of the day. There was no electricity most of the time except what we could glean from our own trickle chargers. I was privileged, because I'd been lucky to salvage a couple of solar panels from the wreckage of the local administration building after the missile took it out, and that was enough to keep my heap-of-junk system going, although not enough to run either the printer or the burner.
         Not that I could have used the burner. You couldn't make copies. Although unitary copy code has only recently entered the mainstream, it still existed even back then. With sufficient technological knowhow you could thwart the copy protection, but my resources were limited. I tried, on occasion, but usually the code worked perfectly, scrubbing itself out of existence on one device as it copied itself to another. On the occasions when it didn't work as advertized, I ended up with a nullset ResROM, and in fact I lost one of my favorite pieces of material that way.
         Eventually I gave up on the copying idea, and contented myself with quilting, stitching together my little fragments of Open Nostril - you may not even remember the Open Nostril crew, but they had a monopoly on the market back then - to make longer productions out of the dislocated fragments I had to work with.
         Five seconds in the back of the sedan with a big blue beach toy damp from the water and speckled with sand, then half a second of Hawaii surf, then reaching for the larger can of pineapple in the supermarket, then New York by taxi by night, then a piece of studio laughter, then a raccoon washing food with its paws, and for a moment I am the raccoon, the potato strangely heavy, if it is a potato - but I wasn't sure. And, even after all these years, even in these circumstances, I still wonder, sometimes, exactly what it was the raccoon was holding.
         Back then, I had a job at the local morgue, just doing basic grunt work, really: lift, clean, carry. Even way back then, although computers were really my thing, I could see that there was more money in dead people. Well, more reliable money. Certainly in my community, at any rate. I was a realist, you see.
         .... and Doctor Cameron has read that and has come along with a question.
         "What made you change?"
         Doctor Cameron is a very amiable gentleman and I appreciate the fact that he has been doing his professional best to keep me alive. But, really, he just doesn't get it. He somehow doesn't understand that the obedient logic which led him first from his upmarket boyhood home on Long Island and then to his ivy league university, and then, ultimately, to his present job, just doesn't work in my world.
         I haven't changed.
         That's the thing.
         I haven't become one of the fanatics America so fears, one of the martyrs yearning for suicide. I wish I wasn't dying and I'm sorry that I am. If there was something reasonable that I could do now to stay alive - apologize, confess, convert, you name it - I'd take that path. But, because of the limits of medical science, that option isn't open.
         Let me put this in writing, even though there is no chance that you will understand: what is reasonable in your world is not necessarily reasonable in mine.
         Anyway.
         I had my job, and so I had some spare cash, and so I could go buy myself some fresh Open Nostril now and then, to use in my quilting. It was all Melthorg stuff, already technologically obsolescent, even then, such junk that it was sold cheaper than the secondhand shoes we bought. (You could not imagine such shoes. Shoes limp with other people's sweat.)
         Later, I found out that the stuff was illegally exported from America by waste disposal companies operated by crime syndicates. It was put into cargo ships as ballast and shipped to the Philippines, along with other high-tech garbage rich in highly-evolved pollutants. It was supposed to become landfill, but the image fragments, each a quarter of the size of a matchhead, were salvaged by the people who made a living scavenging on the garbage heaps. And then sold all around the world. A certain proportion eventually reaching us.
         The problem was, you never knew exactly what you were buying. I won't tell you what I was really looking for, what kept me so industriously focused in those teenage years of mine. Anyway, I never found it, though I came close on occasion.
         Brilliant fragments of American life.
         This is how it is ... I've webbed my head with the input set, and I've popped the fragment into the reader, and now ... now I'm in this room and there's this woman sitting across from me, wearing leather, red leather, very shiny, very tight, more like a soldier's bodyarmor than a woman's clothes, only it hugs her body, not really enough padding there to soak up the shot of a high-velocity round, and she's sitting across from me, as I've said, and I can hear a big animal somewhere, maybe behind me (there's something wrong with the sound setup, as if the sound has been dubbed in after the shoot), and it animal, I think it's a dog, is panting ....
         But then that's it, that's where it ends, and I take off the headset and I'm wet with sweat, slick with it, and I can feel my heart, and I imagine what my mother would say, and I sit there with creamy visions of America cruising through my head ....
         Then there's a helicopter clatter and the distinctive sound of a heavy-caliber machinegun being fired in my direction, and I'm down the stairs without a second thought, running for my life ... emerging later, much later, into a hot night of dusty stars ... all the shooting over ... maybe it's going to be safe enough to sleep on the roof tonight ....
         What I can't really describe to you is time. The endlessness of those nullities in the cellar. The way days under curfew stretch out ... oh, I've lost you. You've skimmed ahead, hunting for my confession. Well. Sorry to have bored you. I know you're not reading this to get at the texture of my life. Okay, then. Let's cut to the chase, to the part where I get to kill so many, many Americans.
         .... and Doctor Cameron has made some kind suggestions for modifying the passage above so I can present a better image both of myself and of my community. He says, for an example, that an apology would be in order. Well, maybe so. But I did not receive an apology for my father, my brother, my two cousins, my uncles (all four of them) or my first wife. So you will pardon me, but I am not in an apologetic mood.
         And, frankly, to tell the truth, although I regret my death, the inevitable death which I cannot escape, the death which neither American mercy nor American technology can free me from - although I regret my death, I do not regret those I have caused.
         No, not a bit of it.
         Continuing the story, then.
         As I have said, quilting was the passion of my youth. Later, as I matured, my needs changed, but from time to time I would buy more image and work with it. After all, the pattern of lockdowns and sieges continued, and the quilting helped me maintain my equilibrium, my sanity.
         What always amazed me about these little fragments of America was the colors. It didn't really matter what you'd got. It would be ablaze with most marvelous polychromatic excitement. Carpets, furniture, lipstick, fruit - everything in America was brighter, sharper, inspired by the rainbow. Whereas we, we lived in a world of dust, the marks of tank treads everywhere.
         I never kept it secret, this quilting. It became known in the community that I had quilted together sequences of five, ten, fifty minutes. A lot of work, when some of the sequences are as short as half a second. But, as I have indicated, time was not a problem.
         .... and Doctor Cameron has asked why my love of American culture was tolerated by those around me. What he still doesn't understand, although I have tried to explain it to him several times, is that nobody blames Mickey Mouse for acts of genocide.
         .... and Doctor Cameron is back with a big dictionary, and has shown me the legal definition of genocide, and has asked me to expunge the word for this record. Well, I will not, regardless of the inexactitude of my usage. Doctor Cameron is very friendly, but his helpful American friendliness is starting to become a burden to me, and I am really beginning to feel that life would be simpler if we could just agree to hate each other.
         (Not that I personally hate Doctor Cameron, because, as I have indicated, I am a reasonable person, when all is said and done. I will even go so far as to concede that I was not overjoyed to learn that his mother was one of my victims.)
         Anyway, the killing.
         How did I come to kill so many people?
         Well, it was not my idea to get involved. Life was going fairly well for me by then, despite everything that had happened, and despite everything that continued to happen in the background. I had my own funeral parlor and I had also landed a contact with an NGO. I had no plans on getting involved with anything political, but when the organizers came and spoke to me, it soon became clear that I had little choice.
         "But you had a free choice," says Doctor Cameron.
         My dear Doctor Cameron! He lives in such a clean and simple world! A world luxurious enough to afford him moral choices. You cannot understand my world if you keep both your feet in his. Put at least one foot in my world, if you wish to understand, and let me tell you how it was.
         As I have indicated, I think (the FBI man has once again temporarily removed the earlier pages of my manuscript, so I cannot check) I have made it plain that I am not a political person. I have no faith in the transcendent future promised by the radicals, and I lack the bile to wish to kill for the sake of vengeance. My first wife accused me of being like an old man, oh so careful, so tentative - this when I was still only twenty-four.
         .... a week without writing. I really doubted that I was going to live to finish this, but it seems I might. Thank you, Doctor Cameron! Where was I? The previous pages ... they are back from the FBI. They, too, are interested in the continuation of this narrative. Well, then. To return to our muttons. (Doctor Cameron says that is not an allowable idiom. I told him it was a kind of joke, but apparently it does not work.)
         .... the FBI has threatened to take away my paper unless I get on with it. I think the agents, who still refuse to give their names (fear?) are annoyed that there is no point in threatening to kill me. (Doctor Cameron says I misperceive.)
         .... a new day.
         Let me restart.
         On the one hand, I was not political, and not strongly motivated to kill. On the other hand, I did by profession work with the dead, and there had been so many dead. (My first wife amongst them, though she did not come under my professional care.)
         So I have to admit that, when the organizers came to ask for my assistance, I was not strongly motivated to say "No." And, on top of that, to say "No," or even to say "Maybe" ("Let me think, brothers, let me think") would have been to sign my own death warrant.
         Why? Because what happens in war, or in the stage of siege we live in (still live in, those few of us who are still alive) is that the wisdom of the moderates no longer seems adequate to the extremes of the situation. To be moderate, is, in the end, to be one with the enemy.
         Let me try to explain this in terms of splashed blood. In our world of muted olive and drab gray, the freshness of red arterial blood is stunningly vivid, garish, the most vibrantly alive thing in our universe of privation, and it speaks to us in a way unimaginable to the fat-rich children of the rainbow.
         "Yes," I said to the organizers. "Yes, of course."
         Not zealous, not enthusiastic, but just agreeable, a man doing his duty. Which is acceptable to them, now, though if things continue as they have done for another twenty, thirty, fifty years, then how knows? Maybe in the future you will be killed merely for having said "yes" with insufficient zeal.
         .... the FBI man, the larger one, the walrus, wants to know what I knew, and well. I have done a deal with Doctor Cameron. As long as he goes away and stays away, his partner with him, I will answer the question.
         Did I know that Melthorg technology can produce paranoid states? No, I did not know that then, and I do not know it now. What is commonly said in the media is false.
         Melthorg technology does not produce mind states. I merely provides data inputs. A good horror movie will scare those susceptible to suggestion (I myself have had to hide my eyes from time to time in the face of scenes which my sons watched cheerfully, giggling even.)
         Given the right data inputs, you can know what it feels like to be hunted, to be threatened, nerves tormented by the cunning tension of a skilful violin, eyesight haunted by half-perceived shadows.
         I had a lifetime of quilting to choose from, and I put together a cunning sequence involving fragments of two different productions about a sniper killing random victims in and around Washington D.C. (based on life, I believe), plus various scenes of burglarizing and medical misadventure, splicing this together with ads from drug companies designed to prey on the fears of the elderly.
         America is in love with technology. You have used lie detector technology for generations, despite the fact that it has never caught a spy. As a cure for Alzheimer's, Melthorg implantation is only three per cent efficient. Even so, in the face of class action lawsuits, the geriatric care companies began the systematic in-skull implantation of image tech using the obsolete Melthorg libraries ... a generation of entertainment which could be licensed cheap since technology had moved on.
         Oh yes, we knew all that.
         I didn't know about the Chinese factory or the manager, Mr Chen. Nobody shared mission-critical information with me. Actually, I didn't even know that my paranoia quilt would be mass produced for implantation. But I guessed. It was obvious. Nobody but the geriatric care companies was using Melthorg by then, and it news about it had been unavoidable ... forced implantation of the indigent poor, large-scale jailhouse experiments.
         How did I feel about it? Well, pleased. Pleased that something I had made would be duplicated, reproduced. I had always been frustrated by my inability to make copies of my ... my art, as I think of it. But it was situationally obvious (even though nobody told me the details) that what I was making was destined for mass production.
         No, I didn't know the details. I still don't. But for someone with Mr Chen's resources, subverting the protections offered by unitary copy code would be childishly simple.
         (By the way. Parenthetically ... I think I will live long enough for one parenthetical statement ... you still haven't absorbed the fact that this is not a one-off situation. These days, in America you manufacture next to nothing. Almost everything is sourced from outside the States. Almost all your production processes are in factories in the poorest countries, the most difficult to police. Your vulnerability is limited only by the imaginations of those who oppose you. Maybe next time you will be killed by your electric toasters, by your lightbulbs, by ten million microwave ovens exploding in unison during the same morning TV show.)
         I followed the implantation story on the Internet ... a mistake, I now realize. Nobody has explained how you traced this back to us, but I suppose it was the service provider logs which betrayed us. Rumors circulated, I am sure, and undoubtedly I was not the only one. Who had that premature interest in Melthorg implantation? Well, we did. Our collective guilt might not have convinced a jury - and, even now, I must make the point that most of the incinerated dead were totally ignorant of what was going on - but it was not necessary to convince a jury. It was only necessary to convince your president.
         Anticipation? Yes, I confess I was ... well, looking forward to it. Nobody had told me that my quilts would be activated simultaneously, but I deduced it. Simultaneous activation was the only way for the plan to work. I did my own back-of-the-envelope calculations. My guess was perhaps fifty thousand implantations, of whom maybe a thousand would prove susceptible to suggestion. Of these, perhaps a hundred would have easy access to firearms.
         Of course, we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.
         Well, I have confessed, then, for what it is worth. In closing, let me say that I am not ungrateful for the efforts of the hospital, but Doctor Cameron has made the prognosis clear. My blood cell counts are not recovering, and in a month or so I will be dead, which will be something of a relief. It had taken me a very long three months to write this ... but we are a patient people, not hasty.
         I know that at least one of my sons has survived, because he was in a training camp three borders distant when the fireball transmuted our mud-brown city into a single mangled scream.
         .... Doctor Cameron has invited me, one last time, to apologize. I will not.
         How then to finish?
         What warning should I give you, what further explanation should I make? None, I think. I have had three months to turn this over in my mind, and these have been the longest months of my life, the time spent slowly dying.
         We do not figure in your imaginations. My years of quilting have taught me that. Oh, we pop up as targets now and then, to shoot or to be shot down. But, at the end of the day, the masters of the universe have no interest in the perspective of the cockroach. And that is what we are, when all is said and done. Is that not so?
         Through some genetic accident, we happen to share more or less the same DNA as you, but those who are not your citizens cannot claim to be properly human, unless perhaps they are your favored allies. That has become increasingly clear as your power has grown, and your triumphalism with it.
         That is one problem. The other problem is history. You refuse to recognize the importance of history as a factor in the world's growing antiAmericanism. And what is history? Well, for me, history is my first wife, a rage doll, bloody, hardly recognizable as human. The missile not fired by you, but paid for by your taxes.
         Of course you are nice people, yes, I know that, and your children have white teeth, and your smiles are wonderful. And of course my wife was killed not by you but by your allies, and she was killed not in a spirit of aggression but in a spirit of self-defense. Yes, I know that, too. But history, for me, is the unappeased wailing in my mind, which started then and which nothing has cured.
         I lied.
         I was modest when the organizers came for me, so quiet, but I was proud, too, and fiercely joyful. I was a proud husband to my wife, and she ... but I am a cockroach talking. I should remember that. My clock is running. I have, suddenly, a thousand things I wish to say, but there is so little time, so precious little.
         Let me pick and choose, then.
         You cannot understand why we hate you. How could anyone hate you when you are so rich, so handsome, your bleached teeth so white, your grain fields so productive, your entertainments so creamy and seductive? You have concluded, it seems, that our problem is envy, or feudalism, a reluctance to abandon the culture of the past and enter the modern age.
         But my own joy in your deaths (yes, joy, that is the only word) flows from the simple fact of the death of my wife. (Well. It is a bit more complicated than that. There is the death of my father to think of, too, and the death of the elder brother I knew so briefly, and the deaths of all four of my uncles. But, in the face of the remorseless timetable of death, let me practice the American skill of simplification.)
         So. It is done. I have explained as clearly as I can. It is not clear to me how widely this document will circulate, now that America has become a nation of secret prisons, secret trials. And, however widely it circulates, I do not think that you will understand what I have written, because, as I have said, from your perspective we are cockroaches, not people.
         But I am at heart a man possessed of an overwhelming sense of duty, so I thought it appropriate to leave this record, in the hope that those who ultimately have the duty of documenting your downfall will learn from it, even though you yourselves will not.

The End

This story, "Quilting", made its first appearance when posted on Hugh Cook's website zenvirus.com on 2003 January 10 Friday. Copyright © 2003 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.

This page is part of Hugh Cook's website,
zenvirus.com.

Copyright © 2003 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.


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NIGHT ON BEAR MOUNTAIN

virtual reality SF story


Roy Pajelva liked the great outdoors, so he was a natural to ride herd on the kids when Clean Start House, New York's cutting edge high school, got the chance to trial the Plastic Infinity Corporation's Bear Mountain. So Roy and the twelve Chosen Ones ("I'm giving you a chance, Zinger, despite the drug test") lay down in the maintenance cubicles and were transitioned.



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