Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Black Box Chapter 6

The epic tale continues...

Chapter Six
In the Huerto offices, Larry Stevens sat at a desk and cowered. His uncle Lamar, who had gotten him his job, was dropping by, and Larry had myriad reasons to fear and loathe his seemingly harmless kinsman. I shouldn’t have accepted his terms, he thought, as he slowly peeked over his cubicle wall. No sign of him yet. He pulled open his desk drawer and removed a flask and poured some of the amber-colored liquid into his third cup of coffee. It had been stupid to drink so much caffeine, and now he’d have to water down the effects with Kahlua and then someone would inevitably notice, gossip would circulate, and his reputation would plummet even further, along with his morale. 
            Larry wasn’t respected in the office. Everyone knew he had received his position because of his uncle, who was an influential Texas Congressman, and of course that sad fact fostered enmity toward him. But that wasn’t really it; after all, Art Howard was beloved, despite being unqualified for his job. But Art could be fun and self-deprecating; Art could make a joke of himself with a goofy laugh and a few crude words. Art, the hillbilly greaser, the alcoholic raconteur who was bound to a gorgeous succubus. “What did you do this weekend, Art?” they’d asked. “Oh, the old lady tied me to the ceiling with chains and some meat-hooks and drained me of my energies. You know. The usual.” They’d laugh and laugh, with Larry alone wondering what exactly the maniac was talking about. Little Larry, who at the age of twenty-six still looked like an awkward teenager, the kind who kept to the basement and smoked too much pot and devoured too much porn. The type of kid who had no friends, not even nerdy ones. The sort of adolescent that everyone assumes must have had something terrible and damaging happen to him as a small child.
            “I never should’ve agreed to his terms,” Larry whispered as Rhonda waddled past just as he was putting the flask back into the drawer. His shoulders slumped as she glared at him. So she’d seen him drinking—big deal. They’d seen him drink before. They’d seen him hiding in an alcove, out on one the many catwalks that wrapped around monolithic building, lighting a joint. Art had found him once in his doomsday closet, drinking and eating cold soup straight from the can. Larry couldn’t blame them for disliking him—hate was probably too strong a word—not after all the things they’d witnessed. But they didn’t know—they never could know—all the horrors he’d endured. They didn’t understand what it was like to be held utterly in the grip of a powerful and sickly twisted old man.
            He eased back into his chair and tried to concentrate on his work. Louie let him proofread dialogue written for The Game, since Larry had finished college with an English degree. He was a good proofreader, even while drunk. They’d tried to get him into coding, but he’d never made any progress. Trying to learn C++ brought Larry back to his college days. He’d barely managed to complete French, despite taking it for two years. Learning a programming language was just as difficult, and he’d never harbored much affection for mathematics and logic. So he proofread, and he got people coffee sometimes, and he’d even written a couple of quests. He did do his work, they couldn’t argue that.
            He half-stood up and looked about the office. Uncle Lamar hadn’t specified at what time he was arriving. Larry had only received an ominous text message—I’m coming by today—so he had taken plenty of precautions. He’d smoked a joint in his car before coming into work, and then there were the cups of coffee and the liqueur. But still, he knew it wouldn’t be enough. The psychiatrist hadn’t helped—in fact, Larry had a sneaking suspicion that he’d been in league with his uncle—and no matter how many depressants he consumed, he couldn’t get over the past, in which his uncle loomed like an entropic shadow.
            A hand clasped his shoulder and Larry let out a tiny scream.
            “Larry, Christ, what the hell,” said Louis Arlington. “What are you so jumpy about?”
            Larry wasn’t sure how much Louie knew about his uncle or the YETI project. But Louie was the closest thing he had to a friend at Huerto, so he decided to tell him.
            “My uncle is coming by sometime today.”
            “Congressman Stevens?” He furrowed his brow. “Coming by to talk to Rodrico, I assume. You know anything about it?”
            “No.” His lank hair fell over his eyes and he knew Louie could tell he was lying.
            Louie grabbed a chair and pulled it up next to Larry. His desk was covered with action figures—vintage Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men—but there were a lot of people at Huerto who chose to stay closely in-tune with their inner child, and Larry’s toys were nothing out of the ordinary.
            “You have anything special? Anything you wouldn’t take to work?” Louie motioned toward the toys.
            “I have a 1979 Boba Fett Kenner figure, mint condition. Worth around two-thousand. I’ll sell it to you if you're interested,” said Larry suddenly. “I don’t like Star Wars anymore.”
 “No, I don’t either.” Louie grabbed a Transformer and idly fingered it. “What’s this guy’s name again?”
“Gridlock. He transforms into a T-Rex.”
“What do you think about the company’s new direction? Do you like what The Game has become?” Louie put the toy back on Larry's desk and gave him an impassive look.
“We have nearly one-hundred million subscribers,” said Larry, showing his boss that he kept up on the figures. “We’re doing something right.”
“I know you don’t talk to a lot of people around here. That’s why I’m going to tell you something confidential. I have insomnia. I’m plagued by horrible nightmares. Every time I go to sleep, I have a terrible dream. Do you know what that’s like?”
Larry did know what that was like, to an extent, except his nightmare continued while he was conscious.
“Anyway, tell me if you hear anything interesting about YETI from your uncle, okay? I’m sorry if I’m making you uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t ask you to spy without a good reason.” Louie opened Larry's desk door and seeing the flask, grabbed it and looked at him.
“That’s not mine...” stammered Larry.
“Don’t worry about it, all right? You’re a good guy.” Louie patted him on the shoulder and then left.     
They were keeping Louie out of the loop then—Rodrico, his uncle, and that creepy psychologist Dr. Frasier—but why? Louie really ran the company. Louie was responsible for everything decent that went on around here.  That’s why, of course.
Larry took another sip of his cold coffee and decided to forget about his uncle. The quest dialogue he was proofreading was expository. Go to Fort Dragonbreath and retrieve Goldmonger’s sword. Do not be seen. Ten-thousand gold will be your reward. Step and fetch. The editing toolkit (especially the mapmaker), as well as the ability to seamlessly combine custom-created content, was what kept the player’s experience fresh, not the insipid drivel he was reading.
He was about to retreat to the catwalks to smoke when he saw him. Lamar Stevens walked briskly through the elevator door, two muscled men in suits on each side. No one in the busy workplace noticed him striding past the cubicles. These people wouldn’t recognize their own State Congressman, let alone one from Texas. Why did his uncle need bodyguards? True, Lamar had made many enemies during his long tenure in Congress. But they were unlikely to be located in Hillsdale, Indiana.
            Larry considered hiding in the bathroom, but the thought of standing on a toilet for hours didn’t appeal to him much. I should’ve called-in sick. But it was too late for that.
            Like Larry, Lamar Stevens was a short man with a small build. He was balding and always wore a pair of big-framed spectacles. There was the musky scent of aftershave about him, and it lingered long after he was gone. Just as the scent of cloves follows the devil, Larry thought. The Congressman’s main claim to fame was his sponsoring of PIPA, the Protection of Intellectual Properties Act, which advocated the installation of a government firewall. Under PIPA, foreign web sites suspected of piracy would be blocked for United States users. Copyrighted terms—song titles, movies titles, video game trademarks—could not be printed or spoken without the consent of the copyright holders. Bad reviews, homemade cover songs, user-created modifications to games—all were in possible violation of the law. Individuals could be prosecuted on the basis of their IP address, which would be stored, along with their personal information, in a criminal processing computer. Download a song and face twenty-five thousand dollars in fines. It was a bill built by the RIAA and Hollywood, and his uncle had profited greatly from their relationship. PIPA had met strong resistance, but its provisions were tacked onto other pieces of legislation, passed in the evening. The great firewall was in place, and no one knew any better.
            Lamar paused, looking about the office, and Larry ducked. His uncle had a fabulous memory. He didn’t understand technology—the media had quoted him saying “I don’t comprehend the Internet and I’m proud of that”—but that didn’t mean he was stupid. Aides edited his Wikipedia entry daily, and they kept supporters informed via his Twitter and Facebook feeds. His uncle was a manipulator, a man after power, pure and simple. He believed in double-think. Democracy, the Constitution, he proclaimed to respect these institutions, while he did everything in his power to transform the country into an oligarchy. Larry hated him for his hypocrisy the most.
            He hunched down and crawled beneath his desk. The only reason his uncle still took an interest in him was out of perversion. It wasn’t beyond Lamar’s means to engineer an accident, and for all he knew his uncle could be planning to do him in. But Larry suspected that his evil heart received too much pleasure tormenting him. Lamar was like a cat, and he was the pet mouse, ever nervous and cowering, waiting for the final blow.
            “Cats are sadistic animals,” he heard himself whisper. He clamped a hand over his mouth. No telling how close Lamar was.
            “Excuse me, ma’am. Do you know where a Mr. Larry Stevens can be found?” That was Lamar’s voice, from somewhere only a few feet away.
            “Larry’s desk is over that way,” said the voice of Rhonda. “But he might be out on the catwalk smoking if he’s not there. Mr. Arlington can help you find him if you have trouble. Larry’s always off somewhere.”
            Goddamn bitch. At least she didn’t mention the kahlua.
            He heard the soft plod of feet and then six black well-shined shoes appeared before him. Larry sucked in his breath.
            “Well, he seems to have left the buildin’,” said Lamar. “Why don’t we give him a ring?”
            Oh damnit my ringer is on. Larry fumbled in his pockets, desperately trying to remove his phone, but the space was cramped, and as soon as he got it out, it began to ring.
            One of the bodyguards crouched down and Larry was soon staring into the obsidian lenses of sunglasses.
            “He’s down here, sir.”
            “Well, whatcha doin’ down there, Larry?” said his uncle, now squatting. “Why dontcha come on out and join us.”
            Larry crawled out and stood up semi-straight. It was impossible for him not to sulk in front of Lamar.
            “You need a haircut boy, don’t he, Jerry?” The bodyguard on the right nodded. Both guards had buzz cuts; his uncle had a comb-over. “He’s lookin’ like one of them homo rock stars. Don’t quote me on that now, anybody,” he said, looking around.
            “Jesus, Lamar,” Larry mumbled. “This is the twenty-first century...”
            “Don’t you take the Lord’s name in vain, you little shit,” hissed his uncle. “You’ll call me ‘uncle’ as well. I don’t care how old you are. Lewis, why don’t you help Mr. Stevens here come with us.” His uncle smiled like a crocodile. “We’re gonna go up and see the big boss.”
            One of the bodyguards stepped forward and took Larry’s arm firmly.
            “Uncle Lamar, this isn’t really necessary...”
            “You was hidin’ under a desk a minute ago, how am I supposed to know what you’re liable to do?”
            “I’m not going to jump out the window.”
            “You better not. Not yet. I still have use for you. Besides, suicide is a sin.”
            The elevator had plenty of space, but for some reason they were all pushed closely together. Larry could feel the sour breath of his uncle on the back of his neck, and he wondered what the old man was going to do to him. You can work through your past, he remembered his therapist saying. I want you to just come out and say what exactly happened to you. You need to hear the words. You need to acknowledge the pain and the shame. Ignoring the hurt hasn’t worked so far, has it? But you couldn’t tell your therapist everything. There were secrets that you had to keep bricked up alive.
He’d never been up to Rodrico’s offices, and the elaborate décor startled him. The marble floors, the chaise lounge, the harpsichord. The antechamber seemed vaguely familiar, and he was just about to put his finger on it when his uncle interrupted his train of thought with his usual vulgarity.
            “Woo wee, this is a nice office, ain’t it boys? It almost looks like a palace room or a movie set. This whole building is strange and out of place, but this room tops it all. You ever seen one nicer, Jerry? Well, besides certain quarters in the White House and various other mansions and châteaus we’ve visited.”
            “It is an impressive room, sir,” said the emotionless bodyguard.
“Yes, that’s well-put. Jerry has a way with words sometimes. He cuts out all the bullshit. I guess Lewis does as well. Neither of these two is suited to be politicians.” Lamar snickered like a gnome. “Don’t have a room in the ranch like this, do we, Larry?”
The Stevens’ family home was a sprawling dwelling filled with gaudy things and enormous televisions. Animal heads were mounted above every doorway.
“No, we don’t.” There wasn’t a trace of elegance anywhere near the place.
            They stepped up to the partially-open French doors and Larry could see Rodrico hunched over his enormous desk, his hands clutching his curly-haired head. He’d heard stories about his boss’s many ailments, and it was obvious that he was suffering from a migraine. Lamar rapped his knuckles softly against one of the doors. Rodrico waved them in without looking up.
            They stood in front of his desk for at least a minute while Rodrico continued to face downward, still cradling his head. Lamar cleared his throat loudly, and an animal moan uttered up from somewhere deep within the man before them. Gooseflesh prickled all over Larry as the cry grew louder. Has he gone insane? he thought, and the bodyguards beside him stepped back and reached for their weapons. It was the kind of noise one feared to hear beneath a full moon at night, the kind of howl that clawed and gnashed at primordial parts of the brain. It was the throaty, plaintive wail of a monster.
            “Oh, hello,” said Rodrico suddenly, having just ceased his disturbing noise. His eyes were red but the face staring at them was calm. “I left my pills at home and this pain I have, it’s simply unbearable.” He massaged his temples. “Forgive me if I don’t stand to greet you. Large movements must be mitigated. Please, take a seat, gentlemen.”
            “That must be one hell of a headache. You got some lungs on you, Rod,” said Lamar.
            “Please, please, call me Rodrico. My father called me ‘Rod’ and if there’s one person I don’t want to be reminded of often, it is my deceased progenitor.”
            “I beg your pardon, Rodrico, I meant no offense,” replied Lamar with a shrug. “Assuming familiarity is something I do unconsciously. I wasn’t aware you had issues with your daddy. I must say though, I had Lewis here jump the fence over by the parking lot and grab me a couple apples from some of those old, wizened trees, and let me tell you, they were delicious. Some things you have to eat fresh. There’s just no substitute. By the way, you got anything to drink? Something for my boys too?”
 “Help yourselves,” he said, motioning to the mini bar Lamar had been eyeing. “You may have a drink as well, Larry, although I hear Louie has been pacifying belligerent employees by letting them imbibe from his private stash.”
“Loose lips sink ships, Rodrico, I’m sure you’ve heard that before,” said Lamar. “Go get us three Scotch on the rocks. You just take a little now for yourself,” he said to Larry.
“It’s a non-issue. Section B34T has been explained to all employees in detail. Besides, no one wants to risk losing their job in this economy. I treat my workers well. They have no legitimate cause for complaint.”
            They heard the ping of the elevator and the subsequent steps of someone walking on the marble floor. “That should be Dr. Frasier,” said Rodrico. “You might as well get out the cigars, Larry.”
            Dr. Niles Frasier was a tall, lean man with hollow eyes and a gaunt face that he ornamented with a well-groomed beard that encompassed much of his lower jaw. Like Lamar, he was nearly bald, but instead of a comb-over, he’d elected to let his remaining hair grow to create a wavy ridge around his shiny dome of a skull. His suit was grey and ugly, and Larry caught the mingling scents of mothballs and ammonia. An old confidant of his uncle’s, he’d been a constant presence around the ranch, and Larry had learned to fear him nearly as much as Lamar.  
            “Well howdy, Niles,” said Lamar with a Texas-sized grin. “Did you fly from Dallas to Cincinnati? How was your drive?”
            “It was scenic and uneventful, although I was held up briefly by a combine moving at a lugubrious pace.” Larry passed out the drinks and extended a cigar to Frasier. “I see you’re bringing young Mr. Stevens into the fold.”
            “He don’t need to know everything,” said Lamar. “And if he refuses, why, Jerry and Lewis will take him up to the roof and see how he likes the view of the parking lot while dangling by his heels from one-hundred feet up.”
            “No, nothing like that will take place, Lamar. I’m surprised you’d even suggested harming such a fine employee of Huerto as your nephew,” said Rodrico, narrowing his eyes at Larry. He got up from his chair and started to pace around the room. “What has your uncle told you about YETI?”
            “He said its intention is to make good citizens through gaming,” replied Larry. He was unsure of how much more to say.
            “Brief, but yes, that’s YETI’s aim in a nutshell. These are volatile times, and it’s in the best interests of everyone that the government runs smoothly. We don’t need protests on Wall Street. We don’t need children sleeping on legislators’ lawns. We don’t need threats of violence against the rich and successful. People need to be out there buying things, goshdarnit. They need to be replacing their televisions and computers and gaming systems; they need to be driving new cars and looking to build new houses. Now I know the wallet of the average American consumer is shrinking. I know his wage has remained stagnant for years. But it’s a matter of work ethic, honestly. People are spoiled. Forty hours a week is nothing. You want to get ahead? Then work fifty hours a week. Get a second job. Life is a pyramid, and we all can’t live at the top. I didn’t start out as CEO of the world’s most profitable video game company by working forty hours a week.”
“Well-put, my man, well-put,” said Lamar. “You’re preachin’ to the choir, however. We don’t need to justify ourselves. Larry needs to know what we require of him.”
Rodrico stood before his expansive windows, seemingly gazing out at the tinted parking lot below. “The eighth floor knows about YETI. They know its aim and they don’t approve of it. There was no way of hiding it completely from them. But they don’t understand YETI. They think the jumbled code I’m giving them is nonsense; they think the symbols I have them hide in the arenas of the Game are just Easter eggs. Excrement from a deranged mind. They think I’m crazy and trying to pull a fast one on the gullible government.”
“They should know better,” said Lamar.
“Should they?” questioned Rodrico. “I suppose this is a world filled with superstition. People believe in ghosts and UFOs and Bigfoot, but they don’t believe in laissez faire capitalism and trickle-down economics.”
“When it comes to all of those, I prefer to both believe and disbelieve in them,” added Lamar. “Doublethink is crucial to success as a politician.”
Dr. Frasier smiled. “The human mind is a curious thing. It is prone to irrationalism and fancy, yet it is undeniably grounded in the real and the substantial. But what you need to know, Mr. Stevens, is that we made a discovery. Ancient tomes were uncovered that led to the finding of a unique ore with peculiar light-emitting properties. The books were given to us by a certain party that I’m afraid shall remain anonymous, but that is no matter. What you need to comprehend is that the chief aim of YETI is within our capabilities. We can change and mold the human mind without the subject’s knowledge, and we shall accomplish this unprecedented feat through Mr. Rodriguez’s phenomenally popular piece of electronic entertainment.”
“You’re the one we had to bring in, Larry,” said Rodrico. “At least one member of the eighth floor has to be onboard. You haven’t been with the company very long and your job so far has consisted of unimportant busy work. You also haven’t formed any strong bonds amongst your fellow workers. Seeing how you’re Lamar’s kin, the choice was simple.”
“What am I to do?” asked Larry. He failed to keep his voice from stammering.
“You are to handle the last bits of the puzzle,” said Rodrico. “The code and symbols that might lead to unwelcomed questions. You’re the one who will pull the switch, so to speak, when YETI goes live. You must participate in a ritual that will require courage and steadfastness.”
“I wish that I could do it,” said Lamar. “But I don’t know much about computers or sorcery.”
“We’re in undiscovered territory,” replied Dr. Frasier. “There is a certain amount of risk involved, young Mr. Stevens, which is why you shall be our instrument. Are you willing?”
“It’s an easy job, Larry,” added Lamar. “You just got to type what we say to type. And they'll be some blood-letting, but just a little. Nothing to get your panties in a wad about.”
“It’s more involved than that,” said Rodrico. “But Larry is highly capable. What do you say?”
Larry looked at Jerry and Lewis and imagined falling one-hundred feet to the pavement below. They’d call it a suicide. Poor Larry Stevens just couldn’t take it anymore. Coke would be found in his system, hard drugs in his pockets.
“Okay,” he said with a sigh. “I guess I’ll do it.”

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