General Public, Part Two

Aside

BROCK STONE

Detroit, Michigan Thanksgiving 1956

General Public—no, Brock Stone; the General was dead to him now—made it as far as Detroit before the withdrawals started. While there may not have been any magic super-serum that transformed him from regular Joe to G.I. Jehovah, there had been a lot more than extra ammo and mystic weapons tech in those belt pouches. On the streets of Chicago, he’d left a pharmacopia of substances that had made General Public possible. The stimulants to improve his speed and agility, not to mention keep him conscious and in so-called fighting form for days at a stretch. Also the senso-enhancers that let him notice absolutely everything within the parameters of his sight, touch, hearing and smell, the mood stabilizers that allowed him to appear the perpetual paragon of unwaveringly upbeat virtue and fortitude, the constant synth-tosterone injections that increased his strength exponentially but made maintaining that supposed virtue off the battlefield that much more unlikely. Not to mention the powerful painkillers that were meant to dull the negative effects of the sensos, which had the unfortunate side effect of making every injury feel even more profound than it was. Problem was, he had to keep taking that stuff in regular and frequently increased dosages pretty much all the time in order to keep up the image. And if/when his supply went dry, which was wont to happen in the privations of a wartime setting, he was well and rightly screwed, crashing into an exhausted gibbering shivering wreck until he could sleep off the comedown or reach a resupply station. He once hid in a Bavarian barn for nearly two weeks waiting for a drop, more afraid of being found out by his own men than caught out by the Nazis. He finally managed to regain enough strength to make his escape by castrating six of the farmer’s bulls and devouring their testicles as a midnight snack.

Now he was going cold turkey, a strung-out ex-hero on the run, if not from actual justice, at least from the burden of being its living symbol.

He found a hotel—a flophouse really—in the heart of downtown, rented a room with the two dollars he’d found in the hollowed-out bootheel of a snoring hobo on the freight train that carried him away from his final battle and deposited him here. Dragged himself up six flights of stairs, kicking at rats with the last of his strength, their rodent hisses and snarls putting him in mind of Doktor Spleisser’s hideous mutant Dobermenschen. Staggered to the door past a sneering whore who briefly transformed into the uber-bitch Sister Hitler, the hapless sailor boy john on her arm never knowing the tortures that awaited him behind her door. Belly-crawled to the bed across a carpet of the dead and dying, trying not to put his hands in the guts and gore that spilled from yawning wounds. Climbed into the bed using the thin blanket like a hastily made rope ladder trailing from a speeding gyrocopter, a hateful face staring down at him from the cockpit, trying to kick him loose with a savage boot. He made it anyway, and threw himself down on the lumpy mattress before the hallucinations kicked off in earnest.

The neon sign blinking outside his window became the red flash of battlefield explosions, and Brock jerked away in spastic reflex. The shouts of people passing by down on State Street were the shocked and terrified screams of doomed soldiers who just wanted one more chance to see their mamas, or kiss their best girls. Brock prayed for unconsciousness, to a God he was sure had abandoned them all, but open or shut, all his eyes could see were nightmares.

All fighting men were witnesses to the unspeakable, but as the appointed savior of the free world, General Public beheld things that regulation dogfaces could scarcely comprehend.

At the entrance to the Hollow Earth, dead Nazi foot soldiers rose once again from the Antarctic snow, mindless killing machine-men with crudely implanted electrodes sending orders to their otherwise thoughtless brains. In his memory, he’d overcome them easily, knocking out servo-motors and pulling wires and watching them slow and still like unwound clocks, frozen statues in full uniform. But now they surged and swarmed, many more of them than he remembered, and it was they that were undoing him, one piece at a time. And he was helpless to stop them, helpless to reach the laughing bastard that created and controlled them, unable to stop the man as he removed Public’s silver helmet, and then his brittle skull…

As fingers sank into soft gray matter, he was transported to the skies over Luxembourg, onboard a dirigible filled with deadly nerve gas, as Air Marshal Bludwulf pumped round after round from his Luger into his impenetrable chest armor. Only this time, the bullets punched through like his uniform was tissue paper, sinking heavily into his torso and taking on lives of their own inside, not just puncturing organs or smashing against bone, but changing him in some terrible way. Bludwulf took the last parachute and jumped free—again, this wasn’t how it happened last time—laughing and falling away and firing one last shot right into the zeppelin’s hull. Just before it exploded and the world went white, Public saw that he wasn’t alone. The laughing maniac from the Hollow Earth expedition was there again, perfectly happy to sit behind the controls and let this play out, as long as it meant watching America’s Last Best Hope die in searing agony as he failed to save even a corner of the world.

The KamiNazi got the best of him on Iwo Jima, delivering a blast of energy that sent him flying nearly two hundred feet. “I’m okay,” he told the medic that rushed to his aid. “I was carried to safety by the explosion.” That was just as he remembered it. Until he looked down and saw that his legs had been blown off, one below the knee and one at the hip. The KamiNazi cheered his own victory and exploded, an orange-yellow blast of rising sun that swept across the island, flash-frying every hopeless soldier in its path. Even as the mushroom cloud turned the skies to winter night, the laughing man was there again, a strange pair of someone else’s legs tucked under his arms, and this time, he spoke. “Not to worry,” he said, and the General was pretty certain he was speaking German, but he understood the creep just fine. “I can fix you. You will be better than ever when I am through with you.” As he shoved the spare body parts against Brock’s bloodied stumps, they fused instantly into place, and he screamed in agony as his hypersenses felt every bit of the unnatural melding, and his body struggled to reject the unwanted limbs. As the shockwave and heat blast from KamiNazi’s self-destruction rolled over him in agonizing slow motion, his new foreign legs were forcing him to stand and walk…

…into a laboratory, high in the German Alps, enormous glass tubes filled with liquid, skinless bodies bobbing within like tropical fish specimens in an alien aquarium. He’d been here, too, after the fall of Berlin. There’d been no resistance then, no one to fight. Just him and a squadron of exhausted soldiers, hoping to find a comfortable bed to sleep in and maybe a hidden cache of fine European liquor, not more horror. But the horror never ended, even when the war did. And even if they were lucky to be alive, they hadn’t really escaped anything. Just moved to the next level of shit.

“It disturbs you, does it not?” The little sneering Nazi fuck again, emerging from the shadows in his labcoat, peering out from thick goggles, holding something under one arm, not a severed limb this time, but a strange jar of some kind, with dials and switches and an electric crackle emanating from one end, filled with thick green liquid and something floating inside, maybe some kind of mutant monster thing, and in the other hand, a giant steel syringe. “To know that in spite of all of your efforts, you have lost? That your own country has managed to handily snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? But did you ever believe, even if you truly managed to save it, that you would return to the same place you had left? It is not America that changed. It was always a dark and terrible place. It is you. The veil has lifted. For the first time, your eyes are truly open. And you are able to see Hell for what it is. And while it believes it has no more need of you, the hard, sad fact is, America needs you more than ever. But it is too late. And in a way, it always was…”

The Nazi rambled on, even as he plunged the syringe into the neck of the jar and drew some of the green stuff into it. When he did, the thing inside seemed to stir, and rolled toward Brock with a pair of wild staring hate-filled eyes on stalks. Eyes attached to a brain that was somehow miraculously alive in there.

Brock tried to say something. He’d been trying the whole time, but nothing would come. It was like he didn’t know any words. The brain in the jar was alive, but his was dead. And what did it matter, really? This was just a hallucination. In a few hours, or days, or weeks, all of this would end, and he’d be able to go downstairs, outside, grab a pint of whisky, eat some pork chops, find a girl to bang. And everything would be fine. Just fine.

“We are here, you know? Even as we speak—well, even as I speak—we walk and work and live among your people, occupying homes on your streets, enjoying the view from corner offices meant for you and yours, brought here on America’s dime, ready and willing to direct your future, to manipulate it to our own ends. To re-orient the path of history and bring the Reich back on track. This is not your homecoming. It never was. It is mine. America is the Fatherland of the Future. And you are a memory.”

His limbs were weak and heavy and even his new self-determined legs were buckling as the sneering Nazi scientist plunged the big needle into his neck, and Brock Stone let out a scream to beat the band.

Failing Up

Aside

I don’t know how people come to find their “calling.” I don’t know why it is that someone decides, sometimes at an early age that they’re going to be a marine biologist, or a career military officer, or a veterinary technician. Similarly, I don’t remember exactly why I decided, when I was in the second grade, that I was going to be a writer. I just know that was when I started writing my first attempt at a “novel” in a spiral notebook with a blue-gray cover. I had just read “Jaws” after seeing the movie the previous summer and it must have had a big influence because my book was called “Jaws” and featured most of the same characters Peter Benchley had created for his shark story. I think I may have also been influenced by early Saturday Night Live because my book was going to feature a shark that could move around on land if I remember correctly. But I never got around to introducing the Land Shark because I abandoned the project after too many people told me I’d be sued for blatantly ripping off an international bestseller. I didn’t really understand what being sued meant but I knew it was bad so I let it go. Nowadays I could just pass it off as fan fiction and rework it into a script for SyFy or The Asylum, but in those pre-internet days, such possibilities didn’t exist.

My next effort was the story of a bumbling detective, a trenchcoat-and-fedora-sporting dachsund named “Inspector Pluto.” My influences on this one ranged from the Pink Panther films to Agent Maxwell Smart to our unneutered, testosterone-crazed pet dachsund Max, who was long since gone from our lives by then. When my classmate (and later best friend) Jeff Coleman asked me about the notebook (a lovely lavender color, this one) I carried under my arm at all times, I told him, “It’s my novel, which I am going to have published.” His reply, and even after all these years I can hear it like it was yesterday, “The day you get a novel published will be the day…no, the day before…no, two days before the world ends.” Even if he had to reach for it, it was a pretty sophisticated insult from the mouth of a fourth grader. I don’t know if it was the fear of apocalypse that made me abandon that project, but more likely it was my mother telling me that if I wasn’t careful, stealing ideas from Blake Edwards and character names from Disney, I was going to get sued.

Somewhere in there, a pattern started emerging: I would start projects and throw myself into them with full force and fervor, scribbling down my “brilliant” ideas and “hilarious” comedic bits between the ruled lines of my notebooks in jagged script or looping cursive whorls, and inevitably, without a plan or a plot or a general clue as to where any of this was headed, I would lose steam, seek distraction and utterly abort the effort, sometimes discouraged, often indifferent. I would simply let it go.

But no matter how many times I gave up on an undertaking, no matter how many unfinished stories piled up, no matter how many unused ideas filled my cheap spiral notebooks (in place of the schoolwork they were intended for) I continued to call myself a writer to anyone and everyone who gave a shit what a prepubescent thought he was gonna be when he grew to manhood.

In junior high, I joined the the after-school literary club, where I did manage to finish something for publication in the stapled slab of mimeograph paper that was our school literary magazine. “Mission to Mars” near as I can tell through the filter of years was at least in part inspired by the movie “Capricorn One,” but without all the messy conspiracy stuff. I think I just based my characters on those in the film (names changed this time, though that may just be because there was no imdb.com on which to look up the names and steal them outright) and sent them on a real mission to Mars, where they encountered some very advanced English-speaking aliens and helped foment a revolution or something. All that matters is that I finished it and it was published and that felt great. Never mind that it was very very bad in the way only the earnest writing of a clueless sixth grader can be. But through a more forgiving lens, I’d probably be pretty proud of my twelve-year-old if he wrote it.

As the years ground on, I continued to think of myself as a writer, just one lucky break away from fame, fortune and true salvation in the form of life as a paid artist. I wrote a story in my first months as a high school freshman that eschewed the genre trappings of my early work and went for pure comedy in a kind of National Lampoon vein. “The Duck Hunter’s Guide” was the sad diary of a lonely (possibly depressed) duck hunter sleeping, drinking and wasting his way through a long weekend of doing anything but actually hunting for ducks. It was also published in the school lit magazine later that year, but more importantly, that raging cynic Jeff Coleman (by now my bestest buddy) passed it around to all the older kids in the elite high school theater circle we were so eager to break into, and they loved it and suddenly we were the new cool kids they were willing to take under their wings and mentor. Between that and acting in the school plays, it was my first genuine taste of art and creativity instantly expanding my world, winning me friends and allowing me to influence people. For better or worse, I was hooked.

Down through the years, the writing continued, the fits and starts and occasional finished products (like “Little Italy,” the Godfather-meets-Chinatown comedic melodrama I wrote more or less from scratch my junior year, which got a fairly epic production in the little theater and included a slo-motion shootout perpetrated by myself and Coleman). Somewhere in that smeary haze of adolescence I also discovered drugs, which first fostered creativity and Big Ideas, then increasingly forced those things into the backseat in favor of more hedonistic diversions.

I majored in English lit in college and discovered an abiding love of film, struggling to find a way to join my multiple interests in writing, performing and the art of storytelling. Some friends and I formed a theater group that was part sketch comedy outfit, part laughably liberal political performance art, and I churned out scripts (finished scripts!) and performed them for appreciative audiences and thought I’d found a way to express myself that could finally put me on “The Map” (whatever that might be).

All the while, I kept toiling on various half-baked novels, and while I would churn out many manuscript pages in sporadic bursts, I was again operating without an outline or an endgame in mind, and while the Big Ideas seemed to spill generously from my pen, or clunky IBM Selectric (this was aeons ago, kiddies), I couldn’t get to the end of any of them. Barely past the middle in most cases. Even short stories seemed beyond my grasp, in terms of just turning out a tight piece of work with a solid beginning, middle and end (much less a theme or a point or a reason to be written). Comedy sketches came easily, but polished prose took work, focus, all those things that didn’t leave enough space for getting royally wasted. It didn’t help when adorable Raye Lane, the punky bleach-blonde actress I had a crush on for awhile, said to me when I told her I was writing a novel, “At your age? How pretentious.” She laughed when she said it, but it was just as devastating to my momentum as Coleman’s words eight or so years earlier. Who did I think I was? What life experience did I have that made me think I should write a book, much less that I could? But what I should have told her was, “It’s not pretentious. It’s science fiction!” Pretension is for angsty memoirs. I just wanted to build a cool, dangerous world and put some people through hell in it.

The years rolled on and after eking out a graduation from the University of Texas, I made my way to San Francisco with less of an outline for my life than I’d ever had for one of my books. Tried joining a writer’s group, tried spinning prose into film scripts, tried speed, tried anything and everything I could to kickstart a career but instead settled none-too-comfortably into a borderline-poverty level of existence working temp jobs and in restaurants, still calling myself a writer because it was less terrifying than surrendering fully into being nothing more than a wage slave.

Wrote drug-addled poetry and made meth-fueled stabs at churning out more long-form fiction. Participated in and even staged a few spoken word readings, tried to reinvent myself as some kind of post-punk pure artist of the living word. At my age? How pretentious. A friend of mine who’d thrown his hat into the small-press publishing ring put out a chapbook of my work, and a subversive newsprint rag called Filth Magazine published some bizarre and angry essays I’d spit from my cruddy Brother word processor (it was the ’90s now!) Formed another sketch comedy group with my old high school buddy Les Milton, one of those theater kids who’d taken us under his wing back in the day, and contented myself with writing–and completing!–more of those comedy sketches. I wrote and wrote and wrote just so I didn’t have to stop telling people I was what I claimed to be but I still felt like I was spinning my wheels.

There comes a moment for every writer when you have to either produce or have your creative license revoked, and mine came when I mentioned something off-handedly to Les one afternoon about my “novel” and he let out a possibly involuntary burst of scoffing laughter as if to say, “What novel? You’ve been working on one novel or another since the day I met you and so far, you got shit.” Later on, he wouldn’t even remember the incident, but I carried it with me for the next several months, way back at the end of the previous millennium, when I got as serious as I’d ever been about completing one of my many half-conceived epics, and burned through the first (and sadly, only) draft of “Celebrity Bandwidth.” A cyberpunk-tainted sci-fi opus about artificially intelligent computer constructs of dead celebrities who start to develop consciousness, and in some cases, consciences, it was 300-plus pages of well-conceived but completely overwritten pap, amphetamine-laced adjectives filling out the word count in preposterous runs of go-nowhere hyper-description. Regardless, somewhere in there, I sent out queries to agents and publishers and lo and behold, amidst the slew of rejections there came genuine interest from a very real, and very supportive, agent in New York named Moses Cardona. I wish I could say that changed my life forever, but the fact is, smart man that he was, Moses saw both the tremendous potential, and the deep deep problems of the book, and encouraged some pretty major rewrites. But within a month of spewing the last triumphant line of my sloppy epic, something else happened that would transform my life, and my career, but would also derail the momentum that “Bandwidth” had given me, and brought my way. I got my first paid writing job.

I don’t know if it was just because I’d been in San Francisco too long, but something in my lazy and chemically saturated brain decided that, instead of requiring myself to knuckle down and do the hard, serious work of turning that book into something worthy of publication for a well-placed agent who was legitimately interested in my work, I should simply accept this new and nearly out-of-nowhere gig writing internet cartoons for a dotcom 3D animation startup with their own propietary motion-capture software as my genuine reward from the Universe for completing a draft of the book and my one true destiny. And for awhile, it felt kind of true.

Les and I were hired on the basis of our work writing, producing and performing our sketch comedy material for a project we called White Noise Radio Theatre (work of which I am and remain justifiably very proud, despite the fact that we never achieved the level of success we could and should have had we maybe been younger and able to dedicate ourselves more thoroughly to whatever it was we were trying to do). Working for Protozoa/dotcomix, at its best, felt like we were toiling in the early days of television, that we were there on the ground floor of the future, soldiers on the forefront of next-wave entertainment, where content was and always would be king. The job lasted a year.

After the ignominious burst of the dotcom bubble, there didn’t seem to be much left for me in San Francisco except a possible return to restaurant jobs or some other low-level wage slavery. So with the support of a loving girlfriend (who would later become my wife) I packed it in and moved to LA to see about keeping the momentum of a nascent writing career alive in some capacity. I turned my attention from novels and stories to scripts (while continuing with the comedy sketches–I’ve been in no less than five sketch comedy groups; we are the garage bands of the new millennium). In my ten years here, I’ve turned out more spec scripts and original pilots than you could air in a single season across the entire basic cable spectrum (or maybe it just feels that way), had pilots produced by real professionals with proven track records, had collaborations and Best-Ideas-Ever wither and die on the vine, gained and lost a manager, and somehow wound up a reality TV story producer (which does involve storytelling but is not the same as writing but you try explaining that to ANYONE who doesn’t do it for a living). I denigrate that job a-plenty, but it has allowed me to pay the bills, buy a house, start raising a child, kept me in comic books (and for awhile too long, drugs) while utilizing a very real skill for storytelling honed over all these years of fits and starts.

The most valuable thing I’ve learned from scriptwriting, aside from the ability to accept failure and rejection as an everyday fact of life, is how to tell a tight, concise, purposeful story and to see it through to completion. To not leave things hanging, whenever possible. To finish. And in the last couple of years, as the siren call of prose–funny, interesting, science fictional as ever–has started to sing inside my head again, I’ve paid attention. After all this time, years both well-spent and wildly wasted, I think I finally see the way through, the means to finish, and the willingness, if not always the free time and founts of energy, to do the hard work to make something as close to right as possible before forcing it out into the world. And finally, thanks to encouragement from those lifelong friends and creative partners like Jeff and Les and my friend Rodney Ascher who made the book cover (an invaluable part of kicking off my foray into digital publishing before I even knew I was ready) and my buddy Dave and his irrepressible Budget Press, who made “The Villain’s Sidekick” his first legitimate paperback publication, I’ve birthed this little book into the world and only time will tell what it does with its life, or I do with the rest of mine.

Within a week or so of releasing “Villain’s Sidekick,” I received a package in the mail from my parents. In addition to a couple of copies of that junior high lit magazine containing my first ever published work, there were two of my yearbooks from that time as well. Amidst all the “Luv Ya Like A Brother”s and the “Raise Hell This Summer”s, a surprising number of friends and acquaintances from those long-ago days wrote words to the effect of “Stephen, you are a great writer and a good friend” or “Keep on writing” (and also “You have a very weird sense of humor” which is equally awesome), so I dunno, maybe I really do have a calling.