Sunday, December 20, 2009

Zero Player Game

I wrote this almost two years ago. I actually have little memory of writing it. I was deep into depression and on anti-depressants at the time and my memory is nearly black for a couple of months around that time (which is one of the reasons why I swear against using anti-depressants; so little benefit for so many side effects). I do remember that the story was inspired by an idea from my friend Steve. He came up with the concept of a world without laws, but which was not necessarily anarchic.


Zero Player Game

I am a judge. Not that the title means much these days, not with the New Law, now two decades old -- hard to believe it has been so long, hard to believe New Law is still around, but I guess everyone just loves their drugs and sex and gambling too much. I guess they just loved the fact they could pay for a license to murder or capture those stodgy holdovers that clung to "morality". My grandfather laughingly called those poor suckers the "moral majority", which meant they could never have been more than an irritating minority -- those weirdos who thought freedom was a bad thing. What was that quote from Benjamin Franklin? Something about giving up freedom for security. I can never remember the exact wording. There were protests the first few years. I was too young to understand, and too old not to be frightened.

Change always makes me think of Conway's automaton. Patterns you think might stick around never do. People don't survive by clinging to old ways just because they are old. You've got to adapt -- and run when you need to run, hide when you need to hide. Don't stand in front of the tank and expect it to stop (unless it stops on you, then backs up and over again just to make sure you're dead). We used to live next to a dissident back in the tenement, when I lived with my mother and grandfather. His name was George. He was about forty at the time and had a scraggly mustache, thick glasses and deep wrinkles around his eyes -- too old for his age. He used to be a high school art teacher before the depression. He used to drive a subcompact car called an "Elantra" and he used to own a three bedroom house on an adjustable rate mortgage (which he cursed about regularly). He used to have a wife, but she died of cancer at the start of the depression because the nearest hospital couldn't afford electricity, and George and his wife couldn't afford gas to get to the next nearest one. So she died in her own bed like people used to do hundreds of years ago. George said he could still sometimes hear her screams when he slept, still see the hard, knotty tumors that had crept over her body when he dreamed.

When George lived next door, he supported himself by selling bongs he made online. He let me watch him blow the glass. He made me a translucent pink swan once, with black glass seed beads for eyes, it's beak tipped in orange glass. Watching him work was beautiful and quiet, his deep breathing, his furrowed concentration, the rhythmic rolling of the metal blow tube in his dirty lined hands, the lava hot glow from his makeshift oven all mesmerized me. He always had a look of tiredness. Between each completed bong, he talked at me. "Things are getting worse Gwen", "The politicians don't give a rat's ass about us little people Gwen", "The world is going to hell Gwen", "You aren't going to have any kind of world to grow up into Gwen." He was a bit of a downer for a kid to be around, but I didn't have much else to do. My mother wouldn't let me play with the other children in the building because she was afraid I would get shanked (I may have been on the small and sassy side, but I think she got the potential shankers and shankees reversed). There was no longer any school -- just a lot of hours rumbling around the tenement watching my grandfather get drunk, waiting for my mother to get home from her double-shift at the prison, or hanging out with George and his bongs and his oven.

I remember knocking on his door one day, and a woman with brittle black hair answered. She was overweight and wearing a stained black sack dress.

"Go home," she said, staring down at me.

"Where's George?" I asked. She lit up a cigarette and watched me with beady eyes. She said nothing in reply.

"What happened to George? Who are you?" I asked.

"What do you want with a forty-year old man?"

"I like to watch him make bongs." I wanted to say that I thought he was my friend, but I wasn't too sure about that.

"A little girl like you shouldn't be visiting a forty year-old man."

"Why not? And, I'm not a little girl, I'm twelve." People always assumed I was younger than I was because I was small. It annoyed the crap out of me.

"Aren't you afraid he'll molest you?"

"No. Should I be? Is he a registered sex offender or something?" She just looked at me.

"No," She said. "Go home."

"I'd like to know what happened to George."

"No you don't."

"Yes, I do. I spend every afternoon with him, learning how to blow glass. He gives me lessons." It was a lie, and I knew it probably wasn't convincing. George never let me touch any of his glass blowing stuff.

"Really. Well, then, if you are his student, maybe you better come inside. Seems like you are not about to leave on your own anyway." She moved aside and let me into George's room. I sat down on the tile floor next to the oven. It was still warm from yesterday. I stared up at brittle-hair woman as she bolted the door and turned around.

"Do you know who I am?"

"No," I said.

"I'm George's sister."

" where's George. Why are you here?"

"Listen kid, do you even know what's going on these days? Do you know what our fucking fascist government is up to? What they do to people who think?"

"I dunno--"

"So you are twelve. Can you even comprehend how insane it's gotten? These godless people in charge have no morals, they have no right to tell us what to do and how to live! They've run our country right into the ground -- they've pissed on our flag and our constitution!"

"Why the fuck are you yelling at me?!" She lunged forward and slapped me across the mouth.

"You bitch! You are too young to have a filthy mouth!" She hit me again. "Didn't your parents teach you right and wrong?" Another hit.

"Stop that! Stop hitting me! You used that word too!"

"Have you learned your lesson?" She straightened her back, panting, took a long drag from her cigarette, and peered at me through slitted eyes. I couldn't resist.

"Fuck you lady."

I was expecting another slap, or at least her pulling my hair (my mother's favorite disciplinary tactic), but she just looked at me.

"Harlot. Fucking harlot. You'll never be anything but wild." I had no idea what a harlot was at the time, or that the only people who used that word were of a particularly rigid religious sect.

She sighed. "George is gone."

"Gone where?"

"He's dead."

I never saw George again. That was the only time I saw his sister. The police came later that day and shot her. I heard her fat body thud on tile. I watched them drag her body down the stairs through the peephole in our door. They pushed all his belongings out his window and into the street. A week later a noisy family of six resided in George's apartment.

In retrospect, maybe people like George had a point. Maybe there is a place in society for restraint. Maybe that's why I wanted to become a judge. I think I had a sense that everything was going to unravel.

I get a large office and a government stipend. The office sits like a morbidly obese frog in the middle of a brackish pond. The room itself is wide and long and squat, government green carpeting, rimmed with black walnut flooring and an insulating layer of old law books stretching from floor to ceiling, from back in the day when there were laws on books. No windows. The room is dead-center in Building A of capitol judicial sub-complex H, twelve floors up, with eleven floors above, a labyrinth of green carpeting, black walnut, sallow lighting, and faintly phthalate smells from the electronics snuggled between walls and floors and ceilings. All the judges' quarters are in the center of the building, a layered column shielded with extra concrete -- under New Law the judges act as temporary governors if all other government systems fail. This is something I try not to think about too much, though it does lend my duties a satisfying feeling of gravity. The stipend isn't much to talk about -- it is a nominal token to legitimize the job.

I get a large car that likes leaded gasoline. A big, sleek, black late model custom with a threaded stream of chrome curly-cue lines from hood to trunk, very art deco. Gullwing doors. Privacy tinted windows. Phat fins right out of the 1970s. Whale leather in the cabin with polar bear fur trim. Very expensive, very chic, though far over the top. You have to go to a zoo these days to get those materials, and then only when the animal is dead (zoos are very popular -- people actually pay to watch "criminals" get killed by large predators -- A few of my winning plaintiffs went and payed handsomely for this service). Otherwise the animal lovers will kill you, even if you have a hunting license. They have a well-funded union. Polar bear fur. I wonder how much he had to pay for that. My predecessor had rather rhinestony taste. Come to think of it, he did own a terry bath robe dappled in rhinestones and glitter. That narcissistic asshole.

It was a sad death. It's never much fun watching someone die, even if they are a bastard. He struggled for about twenty minutes. I hired a professional poisoner, so I didn't have to touch him, but I did stay and watch. I guess maybe I was angry. I particularly remember how the blood vessels burst in his eyes. Also, the amount of foam that came out of him was surprising, and of course he got it everywhere as he staggered around cursing me. He left quite a mess on the carpet. I had to get it ripped out (it was a tragedy because it was Peruvian wool -- hand-woven and absolutely gorgeous), and even then the smell lingered for weeks. I could barely sleep -- little tendrils of stench would waft into the bedroom when the air conditioner came on, waking me up. I couldn't have any guests over without someone making a comment, and then of course I had to give them the digest version of how I earned my government commission.

It got old -- telling that story over glasses of absinthe and subsected cheese wheels (my vices) -- a standard, run-of-the-mill sort of death. The only quirk was that I had to re-file the death warrant because I spelled the judge's name incorrectly, the whole i before e fiasco of the English language, and even that was terribly boring to retell after the fifth or sixth time. You just can't do a decent job of entertaining a plaintiff when your predecessor lingers in the room. You just can't get a decent legal fee. It's unprofessional. I finally hired a cleaning company that specializes in human remains to get the stain out of the floor. Their ad in the directory said "We Do People". I liked that it was slightly sexual, a little necrophilic, they had a sense of humor, but who starts a business like that? Who decides "I think I will clean up the stains from dead people, that seems highly lucrative"? They charged and arm and a leg.

The old judge's choking and gurgling was painful to watch, but I deserved the job. Damn it, I deserved that job -- the old bastard didn't take his office seriously and he wronged me. He made me serve out a month long sentence for a perfectly legal crime. He made me serve a month in his bed because I couldn't be bothered to get a fucking drug vending license and I got caught. I had been selling for years to a select, private clientèle -- passing off bribes when necessary. A license meant you got listed in the directory, and I didn't want to be bothered with random calls from addled users looking for a discount on Grade B or C before their veins gave out. The old judge wouldn't take a bribe. I guess he liked the look of me or something -- wanted me. He made me rub his greasy ape-skin back, I had to touch large pimples and coarse hair. He made me touch other parts as well. Fucking gag-worthy. Fuck him, I deserved that job. I watched him work that whole month, and I figured out how to do it better. I compensated his surviving family members with a handsome percentage of my income in the position, so I easily secured their blessing. Apparently they thought as much of him as I did. Luckily I have no family.

I like that the car I get is bullet-proof. I hate being down on street level with the trash, but I'm glad to have that car. Other people of wealth find sport in hanging out their car windows, high on those popular cocaine/mescaline energy drinks with automatic weapons picking out random street people, the poor fucks. I like to keep a lower profile. I am not so wild. I like to be orderly. I like my car to speak for me. Carry a big stick and all that. The New Law doesn't erase revenge from human nature, and you never know who might be slumming. Besides, I am the one assigned to resolve blood disputes, not create them. It's unbecoming.

I have the use of a sprawling luxury apartment midway up Liberty Tower. The view of the city is fantastic with cathedral windows on three sides -- the ruins from the war can be seen to the west, the ocean to the south, and the Garden Reserve to the east, which is quite a sight when the summer hunting games start up. There is something beautiful about the flare of a flame thrower chasing down prey at night -- but then again I am far enough up to see the action but not hear the screams.

I have the use of three slaves bound to the office, three strapping young men serving out their punishment for their juvenile "crimes" (I'm not sure of the specifics, but I'm sure their current tenure with my office involved them not being able to afford their legal fees). Jeffrey, a tall brooder, great in bed. Roderick with small eyes -- he talks too much, with a nervousness I can't quite appreciate, though he seems to look up to me, a reasonable trade-off. Gavin, red-headed, sallow and freckled. He is smart, quiet, and I don't trust him. He seemed highly loyal to the old judge, why I can't fathom. I'm torn between releasing him from his sentence early or just having him murdered and out of my sight, but I'd hate to do the latter because it seems a poor excuse to kill someone simply because they give you a funny look. Maybe he is just inscrutable. See? I am fair, more than most judges. By all accounts I treat them well, and in turn they are loyal enough to protect my life -- an essential service if I am to keep my job for more than a few months.

The best perks are the bribes. Most of my time is taken up with politely and discretely negotiating and accepting bribes. You might think it is a sweet job, but I have to take great care in these negotiations. An offended plaintiff or defendant might file a motion to have me murdered. I can't have that.

People often call me conservative. That's probably a fair label. When I got my license to practice New Law (which costs more than you might think), I had to provide a brief statement of legal philosophy to be listed next to my name in the directory. After a lot of thought, I chose "I listen to all sides". Plaintiffs and defendants have to agree to be seen by the same judge, and the statement of legal philosophy helps them to choose. I was hoping for lots of clients, lots of work. Who wouldn't be partial to a statement like that? I also hope to attract clients that were neither too wealthy (too great a chance of being murdered by the wealthier party if I didn't rule in their favor) or too poverty stricken (what they could pay is not worth my time). I want to be as middle of the road as any could be. I want to be a judge a long time, at least until someone more lucrative steps in my way.

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