How We Got in Town and Out Again
by Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem is the best-selling author of Fortress of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn, and several other novels, his most recent being You Don’t Love Me Yet. His first novel, Gun With Occasional Music, won the William L. Crawford Award, the Locus Award, and was a finalist for the Nebula Award. Lethem has published more than 60 short stories, in a diverse range of markets, from The New Yorker and McSweeney’s to F&SF and Asimov’s; his first collection, The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye, won the World Fantasy Award. In 2005, he was presented with the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for his contributions to literature.
“How We Got in Town and Out Again” is one of a sequence of stories by Lethem railing against virtual reality technologies. In an interview in Science Fiction Studies, Lethem said “I didn’t set out … to write a series of stories … examining my own resistance to that technology. But living in San Francisco during the years of an intense kind of utopian ideological boom in virtual reality and computer technologies, I felt an instinctive need to represent my own skepticism about claims that were being made that seemed to me na"ive. …And so I found these resistance stories coming out of me.”
Combine that with Lethem’s research into 1930s dance marathons, and you’ve got this story.
When we first saw somebody near the mall Gloria and I looked around for sticks. We were going to rob them if they were few enough. The mall was about five miles out of the town we were headed for, so nobody would know. But when we got closer Gloria saw their vans and said they were scapers. I didn’t know what that was, but she told me.
It was summer. Two days before this Gloria and I had broken out of a pack of people that had food but we couldn’t stand their religious chanting anymore. We hadn’t eaten since then.
“So what do we do?” I said.
“You let me talk.” said Gloria.
“You think we could get into town with them?”
“Better than that,” she said. “Just keep quiet.”
I dropped the piece of pipe I’d found and we walked in across the parking lot. This mall was long past being good for finding food anymore but the scapers were taking out folding chairs from a store and strapping them on top of their vans. There were four men and one woman.
“Hey,” said Gloria.
Two guys were just lugs and they ignored us and kept lugging. The woman was sitting in the front of the van. She was smoking a cigarette.
The other two guys turned. This was Kromer and Fearing, but I didn’t know their names yet.
“Beat it,” said Kromer. He was a tall squinty guy with a gold tooth. He was kind of worn but the tooth said he’d never lost a fight or slept in a flop. “We’re busy,” he said.
He was being reasonable. If you weren’t in a town you were nowhere. Why talk to someone you met nowhere?
But the other guy smiled at Gloria. He had a thin face and a little mustache. “Who are you?” he said. He didn’t look at me.
“I know what you guys do,” Gloria said. “I was in one before.”
“Oh?” said the guy, still smiling.
“You’re going to need contestants,” she said.
“She’s a fast one,” this guy said to the other guy. “I’m Fearing,” he said to Gloria.
“Fearing what?” said Gloria.
“Well, I’m just Gloria.”
“That’s fine,” said Fearing. “This is Tommy Kromer. We run this thing. What’s your little friend’s name?”
“I can say my own name,” I said. “I’m Lewis.”
“Are you from the lovely town up ahead?”
“Nope,” said Gloria. “We’re headed there.”
“Getting in exactly how?” said Fearing.
“Anyhow,” said Gloria, like it was an answer. “With you, now.”
“That’s assuming something pretty quick.”
“Or we could go and say how you ripped off the last town and they sent us to warn about you,” said Gloria.
“Fast,” said Fearing again, grinning, and Kromer shook his head. They didn’t look too worried.
“You ought to want me along,” said Gloria. “I’m an attraction.”
“Can’t hurt,” said Fearing.
Kromer shrugged, and said, “Skinny, for an attraction.”
“Sure, I’m skinny,” she said. “That’s why me and Lewis ought to get something to eat.”
Fearing stared at her. Kromer was back to the van with the other guys.
“Or if you can’t feed us—” started Gloria.
“Hold it, sweetheart. No more threats.”
“We need a meal.”
“We’ll eat something when we get in.” Fearing said. “You and Lewis can get a meal if you’re both planning to enter.”
“Sure,” she said. “We’re gonna enter—right, Lewis?”
I knew to say right.
The town militia came out to meet the vans, of course. But they seemed to know the scapers were coming, and after Fearing talked to them for a couple of minutes they opened up the doors and had a quick look then waved us through. Gloria and I were in the back of a van with a bunch of equipment and one of the lugs, named Ed. Kromer drove. Fearing drove the van with the woman in it. The other lug drove the last one alone.
I’d never gotten into a town in a van before, but I’d only gotten in two times before this anyway. The first time by myself, just by creeping in, the second because Gloria went with a militia guy.
Towns weren’t so great anyway. Maybe this would be different.
We drove a few blocks and a guy flagged Fearing down. He came up to the window of the van and they talked, then went back to his car, waving at Kromer on his way. Then we followed him.
“What’s that about?” said Gloria.
“Gilmartin’s the advance man.” said Kromer. “I thought you knew everything.”
Gloria didn’t talk. I said, “What’s an advance man?”
“Gets us a place, and the juice we need,” said Kromer. “Softens the town up. Gets people excited.”
It was getting dark. I was pretty hungry, but I didn’t say anything. Gilmartin’s car led us to this big building shaped like a boathouse only it wasn’t near any water. Kromer said it used to be a bowling alley.
The lugs started moving stuff and Kromer made me help. The building was dusty and empty inside, and some of the lights didn’t work. Kromer said just to get things inside for now. He drove away one of the vans and came back and we unloaded a bunch of little cots that Gilmartin the advance man had rented, so I had an idea where I was going to be sleeping. Apart from that it was stuff for the contest. Computer cables and plastic spacesuits, and loads of televisions.
Fearing took Gloria and they came back with food, fried chicken and potato salad, and we all ate. I couldn’t stop going back for more but nobody said anything. Then I went to sleep on a cot. No one was talking to me. Gloria wasn’t sleeping on a cot. I think she was with Fearing.
Gilmartin the advance man had really done his work. The town was sniffing around first thing in the morning. Fearing was out talking to them when I woke up. “Registration begins at noon, not a minute sooner,” he was saying. “Beat the lines and stick around. We’ll be serving coffee. Be warned, only the fit need apply-our doctor will be examining you, and he’s never been fooled once. It’s Darwinian logic, people. The future is for the strong. The meek will have to inherit the here and now.”
Inside, Ed and the other guy were setting up the gear. They had about thirty of those wired-up plastic suits stretched out in the middle of the place, and so tangled up with cable and little wires that they were like husks of fly bodies in a spider web.
Under each of the suits was a light metal frame, sort of like a bicycle with a seat but no wheels, but with a headrest too. Around the web they were setting up the televisions in an arc facing the seats. The suits each had a number on the back, and the televisions had numbers on top that matched.
When Gloria turned up she didn’t say anything to me but she handed me some donuts and coffee.
“This is just the start,” she said, when she saw my eyes get big. “We’re in for three squares a day as long as this thing lasts. As long as we last, anyway.”
We sat and ate outside where we could listen to Fearing. He went on and on. Some people were lined up like he said. I didn’t blame them since Fearing was such a talker. Others listened and just got nervous or excited and went away, but I could tell they were coming back later, at least to watch. When we finished the donuts Fearing came over and told us to get on line too.
“We don’t have to,” said Gloria.
“Yes, you do,” said Fearing.
On line we met Lane. She said she was twenty like Gloria but she looked younger. She could have been sixteen, like me. “You ever do this before?” asked Gloria. Lane shook her head. “You?”
“Sure,” said Gloria. “You ever been out of this town?”
“A couple of times,” said Lane. “When I was a kid. I’d like to now.”
“I broke up with my boyfriend.”
Gloria stuck out her lip, and said, “But you’re scared to leave town, so you’re doing this instead.” Lane shrugged. I liked her, but Gloria didn’t.
The doctor turned out to be Gilmartin the advance man. I don’t think he was a real doctor, but he listened to my heart. Nobody ever did that before, and it gave me a good feeling.
Registration was a joke, though. It was for show. They asked a lot of questions but they only sent a couple of women and one guy away, Gloria said for being too old. Everyone else was okay, despite how some of them looked pretty hungry, just like me and Gloria. This was a hungry town. Later I figured out that’s part of why Fearing and Kromer picked it. You’d think they’d want to go where the money was, but you’d be wrong.
After registration they told us to get lost for the afternoon. Everything started at eight o’clock.
We walked around downtown but almost all the shops were closed. All the good stuff was in the shopping center and you had to show a town ID card to get in and me and Gloria didn’t have those.
So, like Gloria always says, we killed time since time was what we had.
The place looked different. They had spotlights pointed from on top of the vans and Fearing was talking through a microphone. There was a banner up over the doors. I asked Gloria and she said, “Scape Athon.” Ed was selling beer out of a cooler and some people were buying, even though he must have just bought it right there in town for half the price he was selling at. It was a hot night. They were selling tickets but they weren’t letting anybody in yet. Fearing told us to get inside.
Most of the contestants were there already. Anne, the woman from the van, was there, acting like any other contestant. Lane was there too and we waved at each other. Gilmartin was helping everybody put on the suits. You had to get naked but nobody seemed to mind. Just being contestants made it all right, like we were invisible to each other.
“Can we be next to each other?” I said to Gloria.
“Sure, except it doesn’t matter,” she said. “We won’t be able to see each other inside.”
“Inside where?” I said.
“The scapes,” she said. “You’ll see.”
Gloria got me into my suit. It was plastic with wiring everywhere and padding at my knees and wrists and elbows and under my arms and in my crotch. I tried on the mask but it was heavy and I saw nobody else was wearing theirs so I kept it off until I had to. Then Gilmartin tried to help Gloria but she said she could do it herself.
So there we were, standing around half naked and dripping with cable in the big empty lit-up bowling alley, and then suddenly Fearing and his big voice came inside and they let the people in and the lights went down and it all started.
“Thirty-two young souls ready to swim out of this world, into the bright shiny future,” went Fearing. “The question is, how far into that future will their bodies take them? New worlds are theirs for the taking-a cornucopia of scapes to boggle and amaze and gratify the senses. These lucky kids will be immersed in an ocean of data overwhelming to their undernourished sensibilities-we’ve assembled a really brilliant collection of environments for them to explore-and you’ll be able to see everything they see, on the monitors in front of you. But can they make it in the fast lane? How long can they ride the wave? Which of them will prove able to outlast the others, and take home the big prize-one thousand dollars? That’s what we’re here to find out.”
Gilmartin and Ed were snapping everybody into their masks and turning all the switches to wire us up and getting us to lie down on the frames. It was comfortable on the bicycle seat with your head on the headrest and a belt around your waist. You could move your arms and legs like you were swimming, the way Fearing said. I didn’t mind putting on the mask now because the audience was making me nervous. A lot of them I couldn’t see because of the lights, but I could tell they were there, watching.
The mask covered my ears and eyes. Around my chin there was a strip of wire and tape. Inside it was dark and quiet at first except Fearing’s voice was still coming into the earphones.
“The rules are simple. Our contestants get a thirty-minute rest period every three hours. These kids’ll be well fed, don’t worry about that. Our doctor will monitor their health. You’ve heard the horror stories, but we’re a class outfit: you’ll see no horrors here. The kids earn the quality care we provide one way: continuous, waking engagement with the data stream. We’re firm on that. To sleep is to die-you can sleep on your own time, but not ours. One lapse, and you’re out of the game, them’s the rules.”
The earphones started to hum. I wished I could reach out and hold Gloria’s hand, but she was too far away.
“They’ll have no help from the floor judges, or one another, in locating the perceptual riches of cyberspace. Some will discover the keys that open the doors to a thousand worlds, others will bog down in the antechamber to the future. Anyone caught coaching during rest periods will be disqualified-no warnings, no second chances.”
Then Fearing’s voice dropped out, and the scapes started.
I was in a hallway. The walls were full of drawers, like a big cabinet that went on forever. The drawers had writing on them that I ignored. First I couldn’t move except my head, then I figured out how to walk, and just did that for a while. But I never got anywhere. It felt like I was walking in a giant circle, up the wall, across the ceiling, and then back down the other wall.
So I pulled open a drawer. It only looked big enough to hold some pencils or whatever but when I pulled, it opened like a door and I went through.
“Welcome to Intense Personals,” said a voice. There were just some colours to look at. The door closed behind me. “You must be eighteen years of age or older to use this service. To avoid any charges, please exit now.”
I didn’t exit because I didn’t know how. The space with colours was kind of small except it didn’t have any edges. But it felt small.
“This is the main menu. Please reach out and make one of the following selections: women seeking men, men seeking women, women seeking women, men seeking men, or alternatives.”
Each of them was a block of words in the air. I reached up and touched the first one.
“After each selection touch one to play the recording again, two to record a message for this person, or three to advance to the next selection. You may touch three at any time to advance to the next selection, or four to return to the main menu.”
Then a woman came into the coloured space with me. She was dressed up and wearing lipstick.
“Hi, my name is Kate,” she said. She stared like she was looking through my head at something behind me and poked at her hair while she talked. “I live in San Francisco. I work in the financial district, as a personnel manager, but my real love is the arts, currently painting and writing—”
“How did you get into San Francisco?” I said.
“—just bought a new pair of hiking boots and I’m hoping to tackle Mount Tarn this weekend,” she said, ignoring me. “I never met anyone from there,” I said.
“—looking for a man who’s not intimidated by intelligence,” she went on. “It’s important that you like what you do, like where you are. I also want someone who’s confident enough that I can express my vulnerability. You should be a good listener—”
I touched three. I can read numbers.
Another woman came in, just like that. This one was as young as Gloria, but kind of soft-looking.
“I continue to ask myself why in the heck I’m doing this personals thing,” she said, sighing. “But I know the reason-I want to date. I’m new to the San Francisco area. I like to go to the theatre, but I’m really open-minded. I was born and raised in Chicago, so I think I’m a little more east coast than west. I’m fast-talking and cynical. I guess I’m getting a little cynical about these ads, the sky has yet to part, lightning has yet to strike—”
I got rid of her, now that I knew how.
“—I have my own garden and landscape business—”
“—someone who’s fun, not nerdy—”
“—I’m tender, I’m sensuous—”
I started to wonder how long ago these women were from. I didn’t like the way they were making me feel, sort of guilty and bullied at the same time. I didn’t think I could make any of them happy the way they were hoping but I didn’t think I was going to get a chance to try, anyway.
It took pretty long for me to get back out into the hallway. From then on I paid more attention to how I got into things.
The next drawer I got into was just about the opposite. All space and no people. I was driving an airplane over almost the whole world, as far as I could tell. There was a row of dials and switches under the windows but it didn’t mean anything to me. First I was in the mountains and I crashed a lot, and that was dull because a voice would lecture me before I could start again, and I had to wait. But then I got to the desert and I kept it up without crashing much. I just learned to say “no” whenever the voice suggested something different like “engage target” or “evasive action.” I wanted to fly awhile, that’s all. The desert looked good from up there, even though I’d been walking around in deserts too often.
Except that I had to pee I could have done that forever. Fearing’s voice broke in, though, and said it was time for the first rest period.
“—still fresh and eager after their first plunge into the wonders of the future,” Fearing was saying to the people in the seats. The place was only half full. “Already this world seems drab by comparison. Yet, consider the irony, that as their questing minds grow accustomed to these splendors, their bodies will begin to rebel—”
Gloria showed me how to unsnap the cables so I could walk out of the middle of all that stuff still wearing the suit, leaving the mask behind. Everybody lined up for the bathroom. Then we went to the big hall in the back where they had the cots, but nobody went to sleep or anything. I guessed we’d all want to next time, but right now I was too excited and so was everybody else. Fearing just kept talking like us taking a break was as much a part of the show as anything else.
“Splendors, hah,” said Gloria. “Bunch of second-hand cyberjunk.”
“I was in a plane,” I started.
“Shut up,” said Gloria. “We’re not supposed to talk about it. Only, if you find something you like, remember where it is.” I hadn’t done that, but I wasn’t worried. “Drink some water,” she said. “And get some food.”
They were going around with sandwiches and I got a couple, one for Gloria.
But she didn’t seem to want to talk.
Gilmartin the fake doctor was making a big deal of going around checking everybody even though it was only the first break. I figured that the whole point of taking care of us so hard was to remind the people in the seats that they might see somebody get hurt.
Ed was giving out apples from a bag. I took one and went over and sat on Lane’s cot. She looked nice in her suit.
“My boyfriend’s here,” she said.
“You’re back together?”
“I mean ex—. I’m pretending I didn’t see him.”
“He’s sitting right in front of my monitor.” She tipped her head to point. I didn’t say anything but I wished I had somebody watching me from the audience.
When I went back the first thing I got into was a library of books. Every one you took off the shelf turned into a show, with charts and pictures, but when I figured out that it was all business stuff about how to manage your money, I got bored.
Then I went into a dungeon. It started with a wizard growing me up from a bug. We were in his workshop, which was all full of jars and cobwebs. He had a face like a melted candle and he talked as much as Fearing. There were bats flying around.
“You must resume the quest of Kroydhe said to me and started touching me with his stick. I could see my arms and legs, but they weren’t wearing the scaper suit. They were covered with muscles. When the wizard touched me I got a sword and a shield. “These are your companions, Rip and Batter,” said the wizard. “They will obey you and protect you. You must never betray them for any other. That was Kroyd’s mistake.”
“Okay,” I said.
The wizard sent me into the dungeon and Rip and Batter talked to me. They told me what to do. They sounded a lot like the wizard.
We met a Wormlion. That’s what Rip and Batter called it. It had a head full of worms with little faces and Rip and Batter said to kill it, which wasn’t hard. The head exploded and all the worms started running away into the stones of the floor like water.
Then we met a woman in sexy clothes who was holding a sword and shield too. Hers were loaded with jewels and looked a lot nicer than Rip and Batter. This was Kroyd’s mistake, anyone could see that. Only I figured Kroyd wasn’t here and I was, and so maybe his mistake was one I wanted to make too.
Rip and Batter started screaming when I traded with the woman, and then she put them on and we fought. When she killed me I was back in the doorway to the wizard’s room, where I first ran in, bug-sized. This time I went the other way, back to the drawers.
Which is when I met the snowman.
I was looking around in a drawer that didn’t seem to have anything in it. Everything was just black. Then I saw a little blinking list of numbers in the corner. I touched the numbers. None of them did anything except one.
It was still black but there were five pictures of a snowman. He was three balls of white, more like plastic than snow. His eyes were just o’s and his mouth didn’t move right when he talked. His arms were sticks but they bent like rubber. There were two pictures of him small and far away, one from underneath like he was on a hill and one that showed the top of his head, like he was in a hole. Then there was a big one of just his head, and a big one of his whole body. The last one was of him looking in through a window, only you couldn’t see the window, just the way it cut off part of the snowman.
“What’s your name?” he said.
“I’m Mr. Sneeze.” His head and arms moved in all five pictures when he talked. His eyes got big and small. “What’s this place you’re in?”
“It’s no place,” said Mr. Sneeze. “Just a garbage file.”
“Why do you live in a garbage file?”
“Copyright lawyers,” said Mr. Sneeze. “I made them nervous.” He sounded happy no matter what he was saying.
“Nervous about what?”
“I was in a Christmas special for interactive television. But at the last minute somebody from the legal department thought I looked too much like a snowman on a video game called Mud Flinger. It was too late to redesign me so they just cut me out and dumped me in this file.”
“Can t you go somewhere else?”
“I don’t have too much mobility.” He jumped and twirled upside down and landed in the same place, five times at once. The one without a body spun too. “Do you miss the show?”
“I just hope they’re doing well. Everybody has been working so hard. I didn’t want to tell him it was probably a long time ago. “What are you doing here, Lewis?” said Mr. Sneeze. “I’m in a Scape Athon.”
I told him about Gloria and Fearing and Kromer, and about the contest. I think he liked that he was on television again.
There weren’t too many people left in the seats. Fearing was talking to them about what was going to happen tomorrow when they came back. Kromer and Ed got us all in the back. I looked over at Lane’s cot. She was already asleep. Her boyfriend was gone from the chair out front.
I lay down on the cot beside Gloria. “I’m tired now,” I said.
“So sleep a little,” she said, and put her arm over me. But I could hear Fearing outside talking about a “Sexathon” and I asked Gloria what it was.
“That’s tomorrow night,” she said. “Don’t worry about it now.” Gloria wasn’t going to sleep, just looking around.
I found the SmartHouse Showroom. It was a house with a voice inside. At first I was looking around to see who the voice was but then I figured out it was the house.
“Answer the phone!” it said. The phone was ringing.
I picked up the phone, and the lights in the room changed to a desk light on the table with the phone. The music in the room turned off. “How’s that for responsiveness?”
“Fine,” I said. I hung up the phone.
There was a television in the room, and it turned on. It was a picture of food.
“The food, you mean?” I said.
“That’s the contents of your refrigerator!” it said. “The packages with the blue halo will go bad in the next twenty-four hours. The package with the black halo has already expired! Would you like me to dispose of it for you?”
“Now look out the windows!”
I looked. There were mountains outside.
“Imagine waking up in the Alps every morning!”
“And when you’re ready for work, your car is already warm in the garage!”
The windows switched from the mountains to a picture of a car in a garage.
“And your voicemail tells callers that you’re not home when it senses the car is gone from the garage!”
I wondered if there was somewhere I could get if I went down to drive the car. But they were trying to sell me this house, so probably not.
“And the television notifies you when the book you’re reading is available this week as a movie!”
The television switched to a movie, the window curtains closed, and the light by the phone went off. “I can’t read,” I said.
“All the more important, then, isn’t it?” said the house. “What about the bedroom?” I said. I was thinking about sleep. “Here you go!” A door opened and I went in. The bedroom had another television. But the bed wasn’t right. It had a scribble of electronic stuff over it. “What’s wrong with the bed?”
“Somebody defaced it,” said the house. “Pity.”
I knew it must have been Fearing or Kromer who wrecked the bed because they didn’t want anyone getting that comfortable and falling asleep and out of the contest. At least not yet.
“Sorry!” said the house. “Let me show you the work centre!”
Next rest I got right into Gloria’s cot and curled up and she curled around me. It was real early in the morning and nobody was watching the show now and Fearing wasn’t talking. I think he was off taking a nap of his own.
Kromer woke us up. “He always have to sleep with you, like a baby?”
Gloria said, “Leave him alone. He can sleep where he wants.”
“I can’t figure,” said Kromer. “Is he your boyfriend or your kid brother?”
“Neither,” said Gloria. “What do you care?”
“Okay,” said Kromer. “We’ve got a job for him to do tomorrow, though.”
“What job?” said Gloria. They talked like I wasn’t there.
“We need a hacker boy for a little sideshow we put on.” said Kromer. “He’s it.”
“He’s never been in a scape before,” said Gloria. “He’s no hacker.”
“He’s the nearest we’ve got. We’ll walk him through it.”
“I’ll do it,” I said.
“Okay, but then leave him out of the Sexathon,” said Gloria.
Kromer smiled. “You’re protecting him? Sorry. Everybody plays in the Sexathon, sweetheart. That’s bread and butter. The customers don’t let us break the rules.” He pointed out to the rigs. “You’d better get out there.”
I knew Kromer thought I didn’t know about Gloria and Fearing, or other things. I wanted to tell him I wasn’t so innocent, but I didn’t think Gloria would like it, so I kept quiet.
I went to talk to Mr. Sneeze. I remembered where he was from the first time.
“What’s a Sexathon?” I said.
“I don’t know, Lewis.”
“I’ve never had sex,” I said.
“Me neither,” said Mr. Sneeze.
“Everybody always thinks I do with Gloria just because we go around together. But we’re just friends.”
“That’s fine,” said Mr. Sneeze. “It’s okay to be friends.”
“I’d like to be Lane’s boyfriend,” I said.
Next break Gloria slept while Gilmartin and Kromer told me about the act. A drawer would be marked for me to go into, and there would be a lot of numbers and letters but I just had to keep pressing “1–2-3” no matter what. It was supposed to be a security archive, they said. The people watching would think I was breaking codes but it was just for show. Then something else would happen but they wouldn’t say what, just that I should keep quiet and let Fearing talk. So I knew they were going to pull me out of my mask. I didn’t know if I should tell Gloria.
Fearing was up again welcoming some people back in. I couldn’t believe anybody wanted to start watching first thing in the morning but Fearing was saying “the gritty determination to survive that epitomizes the frontier spirit that once made a country called America great” and “young bodies writhing in agonized congress with the future” and that sounded like a lot of fun, I guess.
A woman from the town had quit already. Not Lane though.
A good quiet place to go was Mars. It was like the airplane, all space and no people, but better since there was no voice telling you to engage targets, and you never crashed.
I went to the drawer they told me about. Fearing’s voice in my ear told me it was time. The place was a storeroom of information like the business library. No people, just files with a lot of blinking lights and complicated words. A voice kept asking me for “security clearance password” but there was always a place for me to touch “1–2-3” and I did. It was kind of a joke, like a wall made out of feathers that falls apart every time you touch it.
I found a bunch of papers with writing. Some of the words were blacked out and some were bright red and blinking. There was a siren sound. Then I felt hands pulling on me from outside and somebody took off my mask.
There were two guys pulling on me who I had never seen before, and Ed and Kromer were pulling on them. Everybody was screaming at each other but it was kind of fake, because nobody was pulling or yelling very hard. Fearing said, “The feds, the feds!” A bunch of people were crowded around my television screen I guess looking at the papers I’d dug up, but now they were watching the action.
Fearing came over and pulled out a toy gun and so did Kromer, and they were backing the two men away from me. I’m sure the audience could tell it was fake. But they were pretty excited, maybe just from remembering when feds were real.
I got off my frame and looked around. I didn’t know what they were going to do with me now that I was out but I didn’t care. It was my first chance to see what it was like when the contestants were all in their suits and masks, swimming in the information. None of them knew what was happening, not even Gloria, who was right next to me the whole time. They just kept moving in the scapes. I looked at Lane. She looked good, like she was dancing.
Meanwhile Fearing and Kromer chased those guys out the back. People were craning around to see. Fearing came out and took his microphone and said, “It isn’t his fault, folks. Just good hacker instincts for ferreting out corruption from encrypted data. The feds don’t want us digging up their trail, but the kid couldn’t help it.”
Ed and Kromer started snapping me back into my suit. “We chased them off,” Fearing said, patting his gun. “We do take care of our own. You can’t tell who’s going to come sniffing around, can you? For his protection and ours we’re going to have to delete that file, but it goes to show, there’s no limit to what a kid with a nose for data’s going to root out of cyberspace. We can’t throw him out of the contest for doing what comes natural. Give him a big hand, folks.”
People clapped and a few threw coins. Ed picked the change up for me, then told me to put on my mask. Meanwhile Gloria and Lane and everybody else just went on through their scapes.
I began to see what Kromer and Fearing were selling. It wasn’t any one thing. Some of it was fake and some was real, and some was a mix so you couldn’t tell.
The people watching probably didn’t know why they wanted to, except it made them forget their screwed-up lives for a while to watch the only suckers bigger than themselves-us.
“Meanwhile, the big show goes on,” said Fearing. “How long will they last? Who will take the prize?”
I told Gloria about it at the break. She just shrugged and said to make sure I got my money from Kromer. Fearing was talking to Anne, the woman from the van, and Gloria was staring at them like she wanted them dead.
A guy was lying in his cot talking to himself as if nobody could hear and Gilmartin and Kromer went over and told him he was kicked out. He didn’t seem to care.
I went to see Lane but we didn’t talk. We sat on her cot and held hands. I didn’t know if it meant the same thing to her that it did to me but I liked it. After the break I went and talked to Mr. Sneeze. He told me the story of the show about Christmas. He said it wasn’t about always getting gifts. Sometimes you had to give gifts too.
The Sexathon was late at night. They cleared the seats and everyone had to pay again to get back in, because it was a special event. Fearing had built it up all day, talking about how it was for adults only, it would separate the men from the boys, things like that. Also that people would get knocked out of the contest. So we were pretty nervous by the time he told us the rules.
“What would scapes be without virtual sex?” he said. “Our voyagers must now prove themselves in the sensual realm-for the future consists of far more than cold, hard information. It’s a place of desire and temptation, and, as always, survival belongs to the fittest. The soldiers will now be steered onto the sexual battlescape, the question is, will they meet with the Little Death, or the Big one?”
Gloria wouldn’t explain. “Not real death,” is all she said.
“The rules again are so simple a child could follow them. In the Sex-Scape environment our contestants will be free to pick from a variety of fantasy partners. We’ve packed this program with options, there’s something for every taste, believe you me. We won’t question their selections, but-here’s the catch-we will chart the results. Their suits will tell us who does and doesn’t attain sexual orgasm in the next session, and those who don’t will be handed their walking papers. The suits don’t lie. Find bliss or die, folks, find bliss or die.”
“You get it now?” said Gloria to me.
“I guess,” I said.
“As ever, audience members are cautioned never to interfere with the contestants during play. Follow their fantasies on the monitors, or watch their youthful bodies strain against exhaustion, seeking to bridge virtual lust and bona fide physical response. But no touchee.”
Kromer was going around, checking the suits. “Who’s gonna be in your fantasy, kid?” he said to me. “The snowman?”
I’d forgotten how they could watch me talk to Mr. Sneeze on my television. I turned red.
“Screw you, Kromer,” said Gloria.
“Whoever you want, honey,” he said, laughing.
Well I found my way around their Sex-Scape and I’m not too embarrassed to say I found a girl who reminded me of Lane, except for the way she was trying so hard to be sexy. But she looked like Lane. I didn’t have to do much to get the subject around to sex. It was the only thing on her mind. She wanted me to tell her what I wanted to do to her and when I couldn’t think of much she suggested things and I just agreed. And when I did that she would move around and sigh as if it were really exciting to talk about even though she was doing the talking. She wanted to touch me but she couldn’t really so she took off her clothes and got close to me and touched herself. I touched her too but she didn’t really feel like much and it was like my hands were made of wood, which couldn’t have felt too nice for her though she acted like it was great.
I touched myself a little too. I tried not to think about the audience. I was a little confused about what was what in the suit and with her breathing in my ear so loud but I got the desired result. That wasn’t hard for me.
Then I could go back to the drawers but Kromer had made me embarrassed about visiting Mr. Sneeze so I went to Mars even though I would have liked to talk to him.
The audience was all stirred up at the next break. They were sure getting their money’s worth now. I got into Gloria’s cot. I asked her if she did it with her own hands too. “You didn’t have to do that,” she said.
“I just pretended. I don’t think they can tell. They just want to see you wiggle around.”
Well some of the women from the town hadn’t wiggled around enough I guess because Kromer and Ed were taking them out of the contest. A couple of them were crying.
“I wish I hadn’t,” I said.
“It’s the same either way,” said Gloria. “Don’t feel bad. Probably some other people did it too.”
They didn’t kick Lane out but I saw she was crying anyway.
Kromer brought a man into the back and said to me, “Get into your own cot, little snowman.”
“Let him stay,” said Gloria. She wasn’t looking at Kromer.
“I’ve got someone here who wants to meet you,” said Kromer to Gloria. “Mr. Warren, this is Gloria.”
Mr. Warren shook her hand. He was pretty old. “I’ve been admiring you,” he said. “You’re very good.”
“Mr. Warren is wondering if you’d let him buy you a drink,” said Kromer.
“Thanks, but I need some sleep,” said Gloria.
“Perhaps later,” said Mr. Warren.
After he left, Kromer came back and said, “You shouldn’t pass up easy money.”
“I don’t need it,” said Gloria. “I’m going to win your contest, you goddamn pimp.”
“Now, Gloria,” said Kromer. “You don’t want to give the wrong impression.”
“Leave me alone.”
I noticed now that Anne wasn’t around in the rest area and I got the idea that the kind of easy money Gloria didn’t want Anne did. I’m not so dumb.
Worrying about the Sexathon had stopped me from feeling how tired I was. Right after that I started nodding off in the scapes. I had to keep moving around. After I’d been to a few new things I went to see the snowman again. It was early in the morning and I figured Kromer was probably asleep and there was barely any audience to see what I was doing on my television. So Mr. Sneeze and I talked and that helped me stay awake.
I wasn’t the only one who was tired after that night. On the next break I saw that a bunch of people had dropped out or been kicked out for sleeping. There were only seventeen left. I couldn’t stay awake myself. But I woke up when I heard some yelling over where Lane was.
It was her parents. I guess they heard about the Sexathon, maybe from her boyfriend, who was there too. Lane was sitting crying behind Fearing who was telling her parents to get out of there, and her father just kept saying, “I’m her father! I’m her father!” Her mother was pulling at Fearing but Ed came over and pulled on her.
I started to get up but Gloria grabbed my arm and said, “Stay out of this.”
“Lane doesn’t want to see that guy,” I said.
“Let the townies take care of themselves, Lewis. Let Lane’s daddy take her home if he can. Worse could happen to her.”
“You just want her out of the contest,” I said.
Gloria laughed. “I’m not worried about your girlfriend outlasting me,” she said. “She’s about to break no matter what.”
So I just watched. Kromer and Ed got Lane’s parents and boyfriend pushed out of the rest area, back toward the seats. Fearing was yelling at them, making a scene for the audience. It was all part of the show as far as he was concerned.
Anne from the van was over talking to Lane, who was still crying, but quiet now.
“Do you really think you can win?” I said to Gloria.
“Sure, why not?” she said. “I can last.”
“I’m pretty tired.” In fact my eyeballs felt like they were full of sand. “Well if you fall out stick around. You can probably get food out of Kromer for cleaning up or something. I’m going to take these bastards.”
“You don’t like Fearing anymore,” I said.
“I never did,” said Gloria.
That afternoon three more people dropped out. Fearing was going on about endurance and I got thinking about how much harder it was to live the way me and Gloria did than it was to be in town and so maybe we had an advantage. Maybe that was why Gloria thought she could win now. But I sure didn’t feel it myself. I was so messed up that I couldn’t always sleep at the rest periods, just lie there and listen to Fearing or eat their sandwiches until I wanted to vomit.
Kromer and Gilmartin were planning some sideshow but it didn’t involve me and I didn’t care. I didn’t want coins thrown at me. I just wanted to get through.
If I built the cities near the water the plague always killed all the people and if I built the cities near the mountains the volcanoes always killed all the people and if I built the cities on the plain the other tribe always came over and killed all the people and I got sick of the whole damn thing.
“When Gloria wins we could live in town for a while,” I said. “We could even get jobs if there are any. Then if Lane doesn’t want to go back to her parents she could stay with us.”
“You could win the contest,” said Mr. Sneeze.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “But Gloria could.”
Why did Lewis cross Mars? To get to the other side. Ha ha.
I came out for the rest period and Gloria was already yelling and I unhooked my suit and rushed over to see what was the matter. It was so late it was getting light outside and almost nobody was in the place. “She’s cheating!” Gloria screamed. She was pounding on Kromer and he was backing up because she was a handful mad. “That bitch is cheating! You let her sleep!” Gloria pointed at Anne from the van. “She’s lying there asleep, you’re running tapes in her monitor you goddamn cheater!”
Anne sat up in her frame and didn’t say anything. She looked confused. “You’re a bunch of cheaters!” Gloria kept saying. Kromer got her by the wrists and said, “Take it easy, take it easy. You’re going scape-crazy, girl.”
“Don’t tell me I’m crazy!” said Gloria. She twisted away from Kromer and ran to the seats. Mr. Warren was there, watching her with his hat in his hands. I ran after Gloria and said her name but she said, “Leave me alone!” and went over to Mr. Warren. “You saw it, didn’t you?” she said.
“I’m sorry?” said Mr. Warren.
“You must have seen it, the way she wasn’t moving at all,” said Gloria. “Come on, tell these cheaters you saw it. I’ll go on that date with you if you tell them.”
“I’m sorry, darling. I was looking at you.”
Kromer knocked me out of the way and grabbed Gloria from behind. “Listen to me, girl. You’re hallucinating. You’re scape-happy. We see it all the time.” He was talking quiet but hard. “Any more of this and you’re out of the show, you understand? Get in the back and lie down now and get some sleep. You need it.”
“You bastard,” said Gloria.
“Sure, I’m a bastard, but you’re seeing things.” He held Gloria’s wrist and she sagged.
Mr. Warren got up and put his hat on. “I’ll see you tomorrow, darling. Don’t worry. I’m rooting for you.” He went out. Gloria didn’t look at him.
Kromer took Gloria back to the rest area but suddenly I wasn’t paying much attention myself. I had been thinking Fearing wasn’t taking advantage of the free action by talking about it because there wasn’t anyone much in the place to impress at this hour. Then I looked around and I realized there were two people missing and that was Fearing and Lane.
I found Ed and I asked him if Lane had dropped out of the contest and he said no.
“Maybe there’s a way you could find out if Anne is really scaping or if she’s a cheat,” I said to Mr. Sneeze.
“I don’t see how I could,” he said. “I can’t visit her, she has to visit me. And nobody visits me except you.” He hopped and jiggled in his five places. “I’d like it if I could meet Gloria and Lane.”
“Let’s not talk about Lane,” I said.
When I saw Fearing again I couldn’t look at him. He was out talking to the people who came by in the morning, not in the microphone but one at a time, shaking hands and taking compliments like it was him doing the scaping.
There were only eight people left in the contest. Lane was still in it but I didn’t care.
I knew if I tried to sleep I would just lie there thinking. So I went to rinse out under my suit, which was getting pretty rank. I hadn’t been out of that suit since the contest started. In the bathroom I looked out the little window at the daylight and I thought about how I hadn’t been out of that building for five days either, no matter how much I’d gone to Mars and elsewhere.
I went back in and saw Gloria asleep and I thought all of a sudden that I should try to win.
But maybe that was just the idea coming over me that Gloria wasn’t going to.
I didn’t notice it right away because I went to other places first. Mr. Sneeze had made me promise I’d always have something new to tell him about so I always opened a few drawers. I went to a tank game but it was boring. Then I found a place called the American History Blood and Wax Museum and I stopped President Lincoln from getting murdered a couple of times. I tried to stop President Kennedy from getting murdered but if I stopped it one way it always happened a different way. I don’t know why.
So then I was going to tell Mr. Sneeze about it and that’s when I found out. I went into his drawer and touched the right numbers but what I got wasn’t the usual five pictures of the snowman. It was pieces of him but chopped up and stretched into thin white strips, around the edge of the black space, like a band of white light.
I said, “Mr. Sneeze?”
There wasn’t any voice.
I went out and came back in but it was the same. He couldn’t talk. The band of white strips got narrower and wider, like it was trying to move or talk. It looked a bit like a hand waving open and shut. But if he was still there he couldn’t talk.
I would have taken my mask off then anyway, but the heat of my face and my tears forced me to.
I saw Fearing up front talking and I started for him without even getting my suit undipped, so I tore up a few of my wires. I didn’t care. I knew I was out now. I went right out and tackled Fearing from behind. He wasn’t so big, anyway. Only his voice was big. I got him down on the floor.
“You killed him,” I said, and I punched him as hard as I could, but you know Kromer and Gilmartin were there holding my arms before I could hit him more than once. I just screamed at Fearing, “You killed him, you killed him.”
Fearing was smiling at me and wiping his mouth. “Your snowman malfunctioned, kid.”
“That’s a lie!”
“You were boring us to death with that snowman, you little punk. Give it a rest, for chrissake.”
I kept kicking out even though they had me pulled away from him. “I’ll kill you!” I said.
“Right,” said Fearing. “Throw him out of here.”
He never stopped smiling. Everything suited his plans, that was what I hated.
Kromer the big ape and Gilmartin pulled me outside into the sunlight and it was like a knife in my eyes. I couldn’t believe how bright it was. They tossed me down in the street and when I got up Kromer punched me, hard.
Then Gloria came outside. I don’t know how she found out, if she heard me screaming or if Ed woke her. Anyway she gave Kromer a pretty good punch in the side and said, “Leave him alone!”
Kromer was surprised and he moaned and I got away from him. Gloria punched him again. Then she turned around and gave Gilmartin a kick in the nuts and he went down. I’ll always remember in spite of what happened next that she gave those guys a couple they’d be feeling for a day or two.
The gang who beat the crap out of us were a mix of the militia and some other guys from the town, including Lane’s boyfriend.
Pretty funny that he’d take out his frustration on us, but that just shows you how good Fearing had that whole town wrapped around his finger.
Outside of town we found an old house that we could hide in and get some sleep. I slept longer than Gloria. When I woke up she was on the front steps rubbing a spoon back and forth on the pavement to make a sharp point, even though I could see it hurt her arm to do it.
“Well, we did get fed for a couple of days,” I said.
Gloria didn’t say anything.
“Let’s go up to San Francisco,” I said. “There’s a lot of lonely women there.” I was making a joke of course.
Gloria looked at me. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just that maybe I can get us in for once.” Gloria didn’t laugh, but I knew she would later.