My buddy Mark Simon, who does storyboards for The Walking Dead, Stranger Things, and a bunch of other cool shows, put together this animatic of the opening sequence for my TV pilot adaptation of The Villain’s Sidekick. I think it’s kinda fun.
Word of the bombing spread virus-quick across the hi-tension infovine, fingers pointing and accusations flying through the humid miasma of Puerto de San Frantic. Free D. knew about it soon enough to make a few bucks off it before it hit the metamedia. Possibly the last readicash he’d lay hands on for quite some time. Situation ripe for a riot, had been for months, years, maybe the whole of the century, and most of the one before. Free D. could smell the bitter end of his own San Frantic era, already laying the groundwork for his next move, a new base of operations in another hotspot far from home, another 3rdWorld subsidiary a year or two from absolute boilover. For San Frantic, the moment had finally arrived. Thousands of angry citizens, many indigenas, pressed to the limits of their long-seething outrage. Such a minor indignity, this, an indefinite number of civilian casualties caught within the blast radius, wrong-place/wrong-time pedestrians, extras in the epic pageant of subsidized violence, bit players in the corporate cold war. Somebody’s spouse, still and all, somebody’s sibling, parent, offspring. Innocence could only be measured in degrees, but these unlucky few were now instant martyrs, unable to enjoy their elevated status, the spontaneous emergence from anonymity into historic posterity, 15 minutes of posthumous fame for a few dozen corpses blown to glory.
A rally in the zocalo, bracketed by the church, the Edificio Federal, the Nordstrom’s and the US Embassy, remained peaceable for nearly half an hour before incendiary remarks sparked volatile tempers and rebellious fire smoldered, flared and finally blazed out of control. Free D. watched it all from the vista of a penthouse suite at the Mono/Hilton, sipping top shelf scotch with foreign journalists from all over the 1stWorld, tuning in on the Wavemonitors an event that was occuring live right outside their windowall. Copying each other’s notes, Xeroxing each other’s dispatches, transfaxing glib, indifferent, and utterly half-assed reports to UPI and the InterSystem Wavewire, vocalizing contempt for the wretched citizenry and their ill-timed pseudocoup, interfering as it did with 3rd World Cup coverage and delaying payoffs from the bookmakers. Only Free D. and a couple of others watched it live, a Frenchman from the Paris Match overcome with ennui, way past horror or disgust, just plain bored, and a hearty blonde from Lapland, oohing and aahing and trying to figure out just who she should root for; in the end, she went with Nordstrom’s.
On the square, rocks, sticks, bottles, claw hammers, axe handles and small arms flew, swung, and fired, even as gun-happy government thugs rubber-bulleted, tear-gassed, stun-gunned, and billy-clubbed the huddled masses. Clashers on both sides fell, clutching bloody head wounds only to be trampled by boots, sandals, sneakers, and high heels. Not that there were sides, as such. Just a surging mass of bodies, the individuals who comprised the whole somehow able to distinguish the enemy in the midst of all that heat and dust and chemical smoke. Clusters of luckless rioters found themselves coated in fast-hardening crowd-control foam spewing from hoses like a monster-mutant moneyshot from some XXX-rated Japanime. Still others were snared in Taser-charged webs of shocknet. But they were greater in numbers than the better-armed goons, and even the high-tech hand-me-down weaponry was no match for the amorphous collective of raw primal fury.
Free D. looked on, rapt, fascinated, secretly loving it for a bundle of contradictory reasons, happily sucking back the ill-gotten booze from these ratbastards’ double-stocked minibars, ignoring the sophomoric babble of wisecracks and Catholic jokes and Universal toilet humor delivered and traded in two dozen languages, most of which Free understood. Outside, the American Embassy troops remained blandly neutral, stony eyes observing events from their own semi-remote vantage, behind the electrified perimeter gates, as a section of the hostile mob detached itself and surged up the steps of the federal building, into a stuttering hail of real bullets this time, panicky soldiers on full automatic. Another group, mostly women, some kids, swept south, hurling fury at the plate glass display windows of the department store, the overwhelmed Nordstrom’s security contingent resorting to their own lethal means of merchandise protection, negative publicity be damned. Only the church, more or less defenseless, remained immune to the conflagration, regarded by the mob as both sanctuary and headquarters, though a lone altar boy guarded its entrance, equipped with an Israeli flame thrower, mostly for show. Within the cathedral, priests, nuns, and other clerical workers were shuttling gilded treasures to a basement vault, just in case.
Rioters inside the fed edifice now, Free D. didn’t even have to use his imagination; Wavelinx connected the metamedia suite to all the action, covered now by oldschool wallmounted vidcams, images instantaneously colorized as they came over the monitors. Bloodthirsty San Franticanos carrying the carnage down the sumptuously carpeted and ornately adorned halls, into the offices and apartments and conference chambers, bludgeoning hapless secretaries and low-echelon civil servants, left behind when el Presidente and his entourage fled for safety through the labyrinth of subterranean tunnels that led west to the airport, east to the harbor, or straight down to the fortified bunker, an artifact of the Atomic Age. The vidcams down there had all been disabled by a previous administration, during the turnover coups of Decade Zero. Apparently that long-gone dictator’s mistrust of the metamedia joybuzzards extended to the potential betrayal of his sanctuary location; should he be compelled to flee, he didn’t want either his destination or hiding place broadcast to the free world, or even a roomful of pisstakers like this one; from what little history Free D. could remember of that era, the epaulet marionette in question didn’t reign—or survive—long enough to realize his concerns.
Back in the present, whatever passed for leadership on either side was maintaining a profile so low as to render its representatives invisible. Free D. couldn’t help thinking that if the movement possessed any organizational faculties, they might take this opportunity to install a new leader, claim their restless uprising as a legitimate coup, wait for the smoke to clear, the blood to dry, the world to recognize their legitimacy, and the corruption to take hold. But this was classic chaos, old-fashioned anarchy, even the ostensible instigators and principle agitators no longer held any sway over the teeming throngs, their outrage now a multi-headed, many-limbed beast of its own, mythic in proportion, mindless at the core. Wild-eyed, unrelenting, some among its number now armed with the lethal machinery absconded from fallen loyalists, catching each other in the misdirected crossfire of their sadistic ire.
As the melee swirled outward and on, something less than thirty minutes having passed since the first stone was cast, the zocalo ran red with the slick spillage of vital fluid, bodies broken and scattered, assuming impossible contortions, faces frozen in expressions of agony, surprise, terror, and dismay. Even way up here, safe and soundproofed, the screams of the injured and dying could be heard, mingling with the frenzied cacophony of righteous defiance and unbridled contempt, the same rage no matter who fought on which side.
Looters pouring out of Nordstrom’s, Free D. aware of his companion, the girl from reindeer country emitting throat-stuck ululations of outrage and envy as the desperate citizens rushed around frantic and antlike down below, clutching clothing and cosmetics, jewelry and appliances, furniture and housewares. Politics forgotten, ideals abandoned in the mad rush of conspicuous consumption, seizing whatever useless gewgaws were at hand, possession at last of the material trappings so long denied them, inanimate iCons of the good life, as if bath towels and table lamps and IntraVid rigs guaranteed sudden prosperity, an instant change of status inherent in their bulk and heft, the softness of cloth or solidity of hard plastic, the aesthetic freshness of something brand new, mass-produced items heretofore known only to those among them fortunate enough to be involved in their production, handling each fleeting item as it rolled by on the ceaseless assembly line. Willing now to catch a bullet to bring home a handful of the middle-class dream.
And so it raged, bloody and feverish and savage, well into the night, the antic madness backlit by the hellish glow of burning dumpsters and shopfronts and an occasional warning flame from the altar boy when things got too close for the church’s comfort. Diplomats within the embassy reporting events to stateside liaisons, who in turn kept the corporate interests apprised, as the stock market closed at a record low for the day.
Dr. Atlas’ World’s Only Solid Light Rodeo Circus and Wet Methane Carnival was a hybrid of wild west show and science fair. Atlas, a charismatic, vibrant octogenarian, had lived and worked on the cutting edge of designer science for over half of the century. Once Dean of the College of Sciences at a large, state-run University in the Southwest, the good Dr. was hounded out of the institution and into a decade of exile when a secret, privately funded experiment he was conducting on the academic premises was discovered by prying, paranoid, unimaginative campus liberals, who brought it to the attention of the University Board, who informed the mayor, who went to the Governor, who contacted the FBI, who, as it happened, had a vested interest in busting Atlas, and in keeping the whole matter out of the public consciousness.
Atlas was able to spirit away the subjects of his research, his charges, his children, and to escape himself, along with most of his team, thanks to a healthy personal and chemical relationship with key members of the true American underground, the secret class of revolutionaries, resistors, defiers, defilers, soldiers in the war on oppression and ignorance, the ongoing struggle for the means of production and control.
The babies went to orphanages, foster homes, private care facilities established and operated by the dedicated members of the Movement. Atlas travelled the low road, a circle as elliptical, and often convergent with, that of the fugitive Yippie, Abbie Hoffman. The two even struck up a friendship, Atlas picking up where Leary left off as a guru and guide through the dualistic realm of the spiritual sciences; Hoffman provoking Atlas to new levels of understanding as to the insidious, body-and-soul-mangling reality oozing wetly through the ripped and bulging seams of capitalism’s plastic veneer. Atlas finally and formally politicized, a champion of equality, justice, and self-determination for every living being. Hoffman, and indirectly Kesey, inspired Atlas to create his carnival, a free-roving, year-round source of entertainment and edification for the Great Unwashed Masses. He also felt obligated to acknowledge his inspirational debt to Walt Disney, Spanky and Our Gang (“Let’s put on a show!”), and PT Barnum. Ten years below street level had garnered a lot of contacts, an entire invisible community of lifelong friends, extended family, fellow travelers with the knowledge and skill and spirit to aid in his offshoot of the struggle. Technicians, performers, inventors, designers, builders, promoters, producers, day laborers, ticket-takers, hand-stampers, devoted fans and followers. All his as if for the asking, all because he had a contribution that they all found worthwhile enough to sacrifice for, as long as they felt they were getting a return on their investment, if only a sulfurous flash of matchstick enlightenment.
With a Disneyesque entrepreneurial spirit and an Einsteinian level of genius, Atlas brought his fellow citizens of the world into a reality of his own creation. While many of the inventions and technological advances displayed at the Carnival over the years had practical applications, many in use worldwide as a result of his efforts, nothing gave greater satisfaction to the Dr. than to bring delight, fear, wonder, and awe to the faces of young, old, and undetermined. And oftentimes for free. One stint per year at a strategic time and place could earn enough to keep the show going for the other 51 weeks, depending on weather conditions and the sometimes lingering doldrums of the slow season.
This year’s marathon moneyfest was being held at Govt. Site #11.7b, which had once been the city of Detroit. On the eve of the thirtieth anniversary of the catastrophe which had decimated that town, Atlas and his merrily determined crew were driving stakes, raising tents, setting up camp for a week-long run in the Motor City Crater, as the location was popularly known. Advertised as the Armageddon Follies: Old-fashioned Spellbindin’ at Newfangled Prices, or Gimme Dat No-time Religion. The name led to Atlas’ first post-exile legal entanglement when a letter arrived from a man on the West Coast who called himself Leland deMand and claimed to be putting on a three-day musical slugfest that he was billing as the Armageddon Follies. Atlas was indifferent to a lawsuit, but Farley Weege knew of deMand, a son-of-a-bitch LA bigsnot, he said, who probably stole the name from them but would sue them down to sawdust if they didn’t let it go. Weege suggested renaming the show the EndTimes ReVu, and Atlas liked that, thought it sounded like a radical newspaper. Both men thought that would be the last word from Leland deMand, that their selfless consent would leave the sue-happy crew boss of corprock wannababies with nothing to do but stamp his feet like Rumpelstiltskin until he was forever wedged and enraged in the wings of some outdoor ampitheater built astride a high-stress faultline. They had misjudged the competition.
deMand showed up on Thursday afternoon, his vintage ‘Nam-era Bell Huey rising as if from the urban rubble and swooping pterodactylly down to the crusty craterbed. Bodyguards preceded him, steroid-pumped, coke-fueled, twitchy motions of weaponry and personal field phones, constant contact, brains abuzz with hive mentality, data feed readouts to and from the core consciousness to whom they answered instinctively. Catch one alone, all it can do is sting in defense and flee in terror.
Perimeter scans, radiation-level readings, X-ray specscan of all Carnival personnel in immediate vicinity. An all-clear finally signalled and deMand descended with the jaunty ‘life’s so cool and so am I’ spring-step of someone used to being constantly on, on the air, onstage, on-camera, out there in the limelit glare and vacant gaze of the public eye, taking all the credit for what went on behind the scenes, just so everyone knew that their cultural heroes, pop icons, didn’t get there by themselves, were in fact more product, an important but not essential aspect of all he was responsible for creating.
“If you ever so much as catch me in a pair of shades like his, don’t even check for a pulse. Just gut me and stuff me.”
“On me honor, Doc,” Weege replied in his rolling brogue.
“Gentlemen,” was the first lie to come motoring out of his mouth as deMand extended one professionally-manicured and recently palm-read hand.
Atlas responded with a reticent, lackadaisical handshake, and Leland deMand got down to business. Is there someplace we can talk.”
“This isn’t a place?” Atlas jibed him, gesturing at the ashen landscape.
“Truth to tell, I am in a hurry. But I wouldn’t say no to a drink.”
“Spring water okay?”
deMand sighed slightly, response otherwise inscrutable behind mirrored wraparounds.
“Won’t you join me in my tent?”
“If you’re here to serve suit, I think you’re going to be sorely disappointed when you get a peek at our tender boxes.”
“Don’t fuck with my illusions, Atlas. You’re ass-deep in gold, huckster. But I didn’t come here to pose legal threats. I mean, you don’t send a man to do a lawyer’s job, right?” guffawing at his own cheap shot.
“I suppose. Then, at risk of seeming abrupt, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
deMand went from uproarious to no-nonsense in .o6 flat.
“I’m asking you to vacate the premises.”
“For the Armageddon Follies.”
Atlas was furious. “It’s not enough you take our name, now you want our venue?”
“Chill, Doc. I’m in the middle of a presentation. Let me finish.”
A long draw of the Spring water did nothing to cool Atlas’ rage. deMand lit a Castro and continued his spiel.
“Yes, I am forced to find a new location for my extravaganza. Maybe you heard something about that little incident of civil unrest in my hometown? They blew up my stadium. And yes, I did consider grabbing this scene of unnatural wonder out from under you, just because I could, and I’ve trademarked my name by undercutting the competition.”
“Backstabbing, more like.”
“Uh-uh. Backstabbing I reserve for family and close friends. Which I like to think we will be.”
“I find it rather unlikely.”
“You’re in a really negative space, Doc. Please don’t take me there.”
“You’re scum, deMand. Pitiful, wretched, carcinogenic spawn of all the tragic, ruined masses have been trained to hold dear. Everything I despise processed, battered and fat-fried into one ugly little McNugget.”
“True enough, and you’re a semi-reformed fascist turned bleeding-heart philanthropist and New Age Mr. Wizard to make amends for all those years spent helping manufacture A-bombs and other war toys.”
“You’ve done your homework, Mr. deMand. So you see, we don’t have too much in common.”
“Au contraire, mon frere. We’re entrepreneurs, entertainment enthusiasts, and regardless of differences in method or motive, we both know that the only way to keep the show afloat is to turn a tidy profit every now and again.”
“Am I to assume, then, that I am about to recieve a proposal?”
“I hope you don’t expect me to get down on my knees.”
“The point is all I require.”
“Alright. How can I put this? I got a thing, you got a thing, everybody’s got a thing, right? It’s all showiz, to a certain extent, whether you’re putting on Woodstock 4 or just putting the moves on some babe. You gotta give em some of that razmadazzle, the ring-a-ding and bod-a-bing-bod-a-boom wham-bam thank-you-very much for coming goodnight Houston! kind of thing. You know what I’m saying?”
“Sure you do. I’m talking about butts in seats and smiles on faces, I’m talking about what you love most in the world. Making the people happy.”
“Actually, I prefer making them think.”
“I hear you, baby. That’s great, that’s noble. I could use that kind of balance in my organization.”
“You could have your people fitted for souls.”
“You’re a funny man, Doc, and I love to laugh.”
“Are you trying to…hire me?” Atlas shuddered.
“Oh no, Dr., I would never insult you in such a fashion. I am actually interested in more of a partnership. I had this brainstorm, you see, when I was considering aquiring your property lease. Why should the two biggest events of the summer be at odds with one another? Why not team-up? Why not combine our two events and really give em a show. The kind of thing they’ll be flocking from all over the globe, hell, they’ll be streaming in from other planets to check out this action. What say, huh? I can see it now: deMand Product in Conjunction with Dr. Atlas World’s Only Solid Wet Rodeo and Whatall Present THE ARMAGEDDON FOLLIES!!! How about that?”
“Forgive my shortsightedness, Mr. deMand, but I fail to recognize the potential benefits of this…partnership, as it pertains to my own enterprise.”
“Audience, Doc. You want to teach people, I can bring in students. Young, hip, deemed unteachable. But you could reach em, Doc. And believe me, if anyone in this world could use some schooling, it’s these rocknroll kids. Not to knock em, I love these kids, my bread and butter.”
“Do I detect intimations of altruism in your snake‑oil scheme?”
“You’re reading me like a press kit, Doc. It’s like we’re synched up or something. Like this was meant to be.”
“Yes. Perhaps.” Sardonic and wry.
“Are you with me, Doc? Are you in?”
“I don’t understand…”
“The location change. We’re already here. Why can’t you just bring your act here?”
“Well, I’ve given this a lot of thought, Doc, and let’s face it, the Crater’s a dead scene, totally last year. There’s a much hotter venue for our gig, perfect for a concept like the Follies.”
“And where might this be?”
“The Belt, baby. Where else?”
“The Safety Belt.”
“The whole region is off‑limits. Verboten. I hear they’re shooting people on sight. And I doubt seriously the govt.’s going to lift its ban and tear down the barbwire so that you and I can put on a show.”
“Who’s asking? That’s the beauty of it. Two outlaw venture capitalists stage a wild west voodoo millennial extravaganza in the most sought‑after getaway spot this side of the sun, you get fat, I get fatter, and you don’t even have to compromise your precious underground populist credibility.”
“Who’ve you got?”
“Are you kidding me? Fucking with me? What? This roster defies comprehension, and all laws of industry physics. I got Sham Rage. I got Godlips. The Liver Spots. Lungbutter. Shark. Bob Dillo. Kneel Jung. I got fuckin Motorcade. The list goes on. And that’s just the musical groups. This thing’s maximultimedia, full sensory meltdown. I even tried to cop some of your weird science vibe, went and did what no other major promoter has yet succeeded in doing, signed fucking Coathanger Med School. Y’know, that industrial art‑freak anarchist lo‑tech fx crew? Whatever they do, it’s wild, and I tell you, these kids, they fucking eat…What’s up, Doc?”
Atlas had gone glassy and slack somewhere around the mention of CMS, and remained so, staring at nothing, until Leland couldn’t take it anymore.
“You with me, Doc?”
“I’m in, deMand.”
Without another pause, Leland pressed a tiny button on his left cufflink, spoke into it hastily.
“Umploon, bring me the contracts.”