Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Empire

A Comic Dystopia
a novel

PREFACE: The following story is set in an imaginary dystopic world in which the superrich elite have sequestered themselves behind the walls of a prosperous and technologically advanced Empire, leaving the rest of the world and its inhabitants to suffer and die. It is just a funny story with absolutely no allegorical relevance to our own global community. In this first chapter, we meet our protagonist, Jack Plank, a miserable, whiny, little bitch, and his girlfriend Heidi, a vision of enlightened wisdom.


Sadness swarmed Jack Plank as the early morning sun shone through the window and lay across the cabin floor in fingers of light. Jack always felt terrible when he first woke up. Even with his girlfriend Heidi Newell sleeping beside him, Jack still felt miserable. Life outside the Empire was tough.

He rolled over and grabbed a package that he kept hidden under his mattress. The package had been delivered a few days ago by post. Despite the utter failure of most basic institutions on the outside, like the economy and the federal government, somehow outsiders had managed to organize the post. The mail was delivered through rain and snow, through sleet and societal collapse. It was the first thing outsiders attended to when they began forming the Fellowship, their half-assed excuse for a Congress, a decentralized, anarchic confederation of unions, syndicates and other local organizations of free association. Through this system of the Fellowship, outsiders organized the post first because people liked getting mail. It made them feel connected — to what was anybody’s guess. Perhaps to each other.

The Fellowship, a profound show of solidarity, was essentially a series of meetings across the ravaged land. Meetings were a powerful thing; the gathering of peoples was awesome. But Fellowship meetings were also quite boring, and most people had a low tolerance for boredom, making the rebuilding of a new and innovative form of society a slow and painstaking process. Moreover, meetings where people argued endlessly about the purpose and legitimacy of “the State” or how to, as the primitivists said, “live off the land,” were less powerful than meetings were people agreed upon a collective vision and then signed historically significant declarations, charters and constitutions. Fellowship meetings were less awesome than meetings where leaders managed to get some electricity, environmentally sound or not, to the people. Or working sewage systems. Or law enforcement. Or laws.

Jack ripped into his package. The return address was: The Empire, The Old White Palace, Department of Citizenship and Immigration, 20529. For three years now, Jack had been secretly applying for Empire citizenship. Only his buddy Lomax knew about it; actually Heidi knew too, but only because she was clairvoyant, not because Jack had told her. The problem with Jack’s dream of citizenship was the Empire’s great prejudice against outsiders. The Department of Citizenship and Immigration was a very reluctant department. While once long ago the Empire had a reputation to live up to — the open land of opportunity thing — a rash of terrorist attacks, actually not that many, had made the Empire resentful and exclusive. Emperians didn’t trust foreigners any more, so they didn’t let them in. Only four percent of applicants were granted admission. It had been decided that the idea of a universal melting pot had proved overrated and highly problematic. History had taught the Empire that you can’t throw a bunch of vastly different people together and expect them all to get along swimmingly. Moreover, there really wasn’t enough money to go around anyway. So walls were built.

Jack spread out the contents of the package before him: the cover letter, Form ETA-9089, Form I-485, Instructions for Form I-485, Abstract of Instructions for Form I-485, Comprehensive List of Common Errors Made When Filling Out Form I-485, Brief Summary of Form I-485 Comprehensive List of Errors. The paperwork was extremely abstruse, and deliberately so.

With his elbows on the floor, and his hands holding his head by its temples, Jack tried to make sense of the cover letter.

“Congratulations Candidate 40,506.88! Step 216.b has been filed in your name by the Committee for Outsider Green Cards (COGC) in the process of reevaluation mode for permanent admittance (RMPA). Stage RMPA signifies that a candidate has fulfilled the necessary checks, both background and foreground. And middleground. You are 37/50ths on your way to Empire citizenship!

“Next complete the enclosed forms and return them to headquarters (HQ) within thirty days. If the ratio of your excellence to the related quality gap of your talent-personality set type in the Empire exceeds the necessary constant of 0.036, then your application will be forwarded to CHOMPA (Center Happenings on Male Prospective Applicants).

“Please do not try to contact CHOMPA directly. Such an attempt will result in immediate disqualification and your application will be shredded at a great speed…”

As Jack reread the letter, the words made less and less sense. He was growing anxious. The completion of step 216.b had seemed to promise more. He thought he was closer than 37/50ths. Thumbing through these new forms and questionnaires, Jack grew distracted and furious. He was going to need to meditate soon. What the hell was this CHOMPA business? He had never heard of it. Moreover, the questions on the lengthy psychological form were bizarre. For example, “1. Do you ever feel you are the only person on the planet?,” or “12. Do you ever sense yourself floating in the ether?” These queries required short answers of no less than 250 words each. This is ridiculous, thought Jack. The survey was haphazard and seemingly endless.

FORM I-485
Psychological Super-Probe C45

20. Give three adjectives, including one color, that best describe the Empire.
21. List these animals in order of your preference: Cow, Chicken, Tiger, Bunny, Cat, Sheep.
22. Do you like fast food? Detail your favorite dollar-menu meal.
23. Describe the influence jazz music has had on your soul. If none, pick another form of Empirean music, except country-western.
24. Describe the influence country-western music has had on your soul.
25. Describe your soul; include one color in said description.
26. Have you enjoyed any movies about characters engaging in any terrorist activities while residing in the Empire?
27. What is more important to you: money or other people’s money?

What a bunch of bullshit, Jack thought. What the hell was fast food? Jack was out of touch with civilization and this bothered him. As for the color of his soul, that was easy enough: blue. Dark, pain blue. And he had heard jazz music once; it had made him feel jittery and spontaneous, so he had that answer. What else? Empire adjectives? Omniscient, omnipotent, and omnivorous. Also, Jack liked cats.

Then Jack lost all motivation for the survey, as was the norm with him and paperwork. After all what did it matter? Jack had plans to infiltrate the Empire. He and Lomax had a connection to the Underground Subway, a group of kind souls dedicated to helping outsiders sneak into the Empire. Jack stood up, grabbed the papers, fetched a pack of matches from the cooking hole, and tiptoed out the front door. Outside in the dirt, he set fire to his dreams of legal Empire admittance. The time for acting above the law had arrived.

Back inside, Jack canoodled Heidi, trying to wake her up. He hated waking up people, seeing as sleep was infinitely preferable to waking life, but he was lonely so he did it anyway. They had to get on the road.

Word had it the Empire was going to drop rations over the weekend. A remarkably benevolent act for a ruthless Empire, but more a mere show of sympathy designed to make Emperians feel good about themselves. So Jack and Heidi camped out in an open field and waited. Waited for free food, or for at least simulacra of food. Fake dry wafers would be a real treat. It had taken Jack and Heidi five days on foot to reach this hillside. Their feet hurt. They had come by way of an OutsiderOutpost where news of the imminent ReliefRations had arrived just ahead of them. Starving people grew very excited at the prospect of fake bread. One emaciated fellow was promising everybody sugary dried cereal, which had been dropped eighteen months earlier to much elation. Another guy grumbled about the possibility of ProteinPacks, which he claimed tasted like rotten bananas. Heidi, with her uncanny knack for prediction, said everybody should expect DigestiPills, a new invention, tiny, yellow pills that supposedly contained enough sustenance for a week.

Jack’s feet hurt, but he wasn’t going to complain about it. He was happy enough to be finished walking. Happy enough to be lying under the sun in an open field with his girl. Happy enough, which was to say not very happy at all: Jack was a melancholic. He was dark foreboding itself, a star of apprehension. After all, he was living in the ruins of civilization, on the outside of the Empire. Fortunately, he had Heidi, who was blessed with a more sanguine constitution.

“Do you want me to rub your feet?” asked Heidi.

“Yes, please,” said Jack.

This was their routine. Heidi carefully unfastened Jack’s homemade sandals. Jack winced, but kept quiet, acted like a man. Heidi ran her fingers gently along the reddened grooves made by the thick straps. Jack had tied them too tight again; there were cuts, dried blood. Slowly Heidi began massaging, until the sensitive skin toughened and she could knead the foot.

In Jack’s drawn-out, painful moans one could hear a hint of ecstasy, a satisfaction of a sexual nature. In fact, Jack enjoyed foot massages more than he enjoyed sex, a bizarre preference conditioned by his increasingly curbed expectations for the world. He held his breath, arched his back against the grass, then exhaled, first in brief gusts, then in a single extended release. The touch of Heidi’s hands enveloped his awareness: her touch was his everything. Jack forgot for a moment that he was tired and hungry, and waiting for Empire airplanes to drop synthetic food.

Heidi went about her task with devoted concentration. She derived her pleasure from pleasing Jack. She understood altruism’s dirty little secret: it felt good to help and please others. She always massaged Jack’s feet until he said enough. It was her clever and determined way of teaching Jack to understand when enough was enough. Because one of Jack’s built-in flaws was that he always craved more. More more more. With Heidi’s help, Jack was learning ever so slowly how to restrict his expectations for the world. Heidi often said, “Only when one desires nothing is one truly aligned with the heavens.” Nevertheless, Jack still had big dreams.

After forty minutes, Jack said, “That’s good. Thanks, Babe.”

Both of his feet pulsed with the gentle, aching afterglow of a good, long massage.

Jack sat up and Heidi nested in next to him. They had arrived early. Of course they had — Heidi had them on a strict schedule. The best place to sit was squarely in the middle of the open field, where no ReliefRations would get caught on tree branches. As the morning drew on, gorgeous light cut through the hazy, polluted sky, and other outsiders began to fill the field.

Jack watched the others set up camp. He observed them closely, their dress, posture and manners, looking for signs of sophistication. That civilization had left these people behind was no reason to behave like savages, Jack figured. But within minutes, he had catalogued much evidence of why these poor outsiders so desperately lacked refinement. One couple allowed their four year-old boy to run naked, which seemed uncouth to Jack’s sensibilities. Another couple strutted around wearing outfits made exclusively from leafs, tree bark and other wild stuff, which was cool and creative, but also quite ridiculous looking. Yet another woman went topless, her voluptuous, tanned breasts hanging freely for all to see, which confused Jack. Like any man he appreciated and was stimulated by the sight of a fine set of healthy female breasts. But dammit, thought Jack, women shouldn’t go topless. Even here, in this post-socioeconomic-collapse world, women shouldn’t go topless. But in reality, many did.

“Stop judging,” said Heidi with her mind, which had curious powers of telepathy. Powers which needless to say tended to bother Jack, who had to work very hard to hide his rich inner life from Heidi’s oppressive clairvoyance.

“Stop reading my mind,” said Jack.

“Can’t help it.”

“Yeah, well, neither can I: I judge.”

They teased each other, and each tease was a serious joke. There should be a word for the way lovers tease each other, a word that means serious joke. A single, perspicuous word for the earnest critique between lovers that goes disguised as comedy.

Empire planes flew overhead dropping pollution on the outsiders, who coughed and waited. Most of the flying objects were private jets and helicars, the most popular forms of transportation in the Empire. One faster, more important plane passed another slower, less important plane. In the southern sky, a hotrod pilot made freewheeling loops and Möbius strips for hours and hours. One plane almost hit another plane the way a car almost hits another car when a driver is changing lanes and fails to see the other car because of the blind spot. That was entertaining for the crowd. Plane watching was a good distraction from starvation. Or at least as good a distraction as one could hope for.

No ReliefRations had yet arrived as evening approached. Even the Empire failed to stick to its schedule. An Empire that had successfully imposed its version of the world on the rest of the globe couldn’t manage to get its own planes to take off on time. But this was a plane on a charity mission. Empire planes launched to kill experienced no such delays.

“Do you want me to rub your feet?” Jack asked Heidi this time.

“Please,” said Heidi.

Jack did a pretty good rub himself. There was ample time on the outside to perfect one’s rub. His method was entirely different from that of Heidi’s. He poured his frustration into his rub. He went at Heidi’s foot as if he were angry with it. As if her foot, like life, had done him wrong. This made for a particularly vigorous and satisfying rub, though sometimes a wave of massive metaphysical fury accidentally seeped from Jack’s fingers into Heidi’s heel, after which Jack would feel embarrassed, apologize, and then continue rubbing violently. Heidi also moaned, like Jack, in a sexual way.

The sun set in pinks and purples and many colors in between, made all the more fantastic by the toxic chemicals saturating the air. People began to doze off, secure in the knowledge that yet another day had closed on a note of bitter disappointment. Proud to remember that they had never expected much from the Empire in the first place. Fuck the Empire, they said to themselves, eating blades of grass, then falling asleep on the hill, hoping for a dry night.

Jack, an insomniac, ran his fingers through Heidi’s hair as she fell asleep in his lap. How beautiful she is, Jack thought to himself. Her hair was the color of the earth, her skin an olive yellow. Her lips were very full; her mouth opened like a flower. She had an adorable strip of peach fuzz that ran down beside her ears, almost a little too far down, spreading onto her cheeks a touch; Jack loved that most.

Heidi’s beauty made Jack think about death. A lovely connection his darkly logical brain made for him. Jack was afraid that death was the loss of beauty. Perhaps death was exactly that, nothing more and nothing less, but the loss of accumulated beauty. How much beauty had Jack bottled up in his twenty-two years? Enough to fear the loss of it. But that was just death; the afterlife was another subject altogether.

And so Jack sat on the hill and practiced philosophy, as he was wont to do. Jack sat and speculated. The question occurred to him: What to make of my earnestness? Because Jack was most certainly earnest. For instance, he had just walked five days for a meal. He loved Heidi doggedly. He read avidly what books he could find on the outside. He was nothing special, but he was an earnest young man. That evening, sitting on the hill, with his love asleep in his lap, Jack came to believe that his earnestness proved the possibility of immortality. What a bolstering thought. What a crazy thought. What an expectant thought!

But how else to explain his earnestness? He didn’t believe in God, not after the shit he’d been through, not after his wretched twenty-two years on the outside. Not after the starvation and the suffering and whatnot. And yet, this tenacious earnestness. So then, Jack thought, the explanation would involve a certain wager. If I live my life right, whatever that could possibly mean, then perhaps I could attain immortality, whatever the hell that might be. Immortality is definitely something I would like to attain if at all possible. If it were not possible, then screw it, at least I would have tried. What was there to lose? The earnestness-immortality formulation was so inspiring that Jack’s head began to hurt. Then he felt crazy; next, painfully foolish. He debated waking Heidi in order to run his new idea by her. Then, to avoid humiliation — because who believed in immortality anymore except for the loons! — he decided against it and instead picked a blade of grass and made a whistle out of it as only an earnest person would do.

The power of ideas to drastically change Jack’s mood was a fascinating phenomenon. The abstract greatly affected the real. But the lift Jack felt from the mere thought of immortality was short-lived, and its afterglow obnoxiously dim. Again, Jack was reminded of the essential suffering and tedium of life. Of the fleetingness of happiness and the spend-the-night nature of gloom. He chewed up his whistle blade of grass and then swallowed it. This upset his stomach. His chemicals were all out of whack. Perhaps it was something in the air. Something like carbon dioxide.

Then a serious pain came on Jack, as it usually did at this time of night. His pain was ineffable, which was the worst thing. Actually it came in many different and terrible forms that Jack patiently and meticulously catalogued. For example, there was the Pain of Starvation, as well as the Pain of Poorly Performed Sexual Intercourse. Then there was the Pain of Utter and Devastating Despair and the Pain of Yet Another Miserable Morning. Generally, Jack’s pain came in the form of heartache, a small, persistent, empty ache. And though he tried diligently to name his pains, in the end, he experienced a thousand nameless natural shocks. So then, his pain was a Shock Pain — a Pain of Being — a Being Pain.

As evening turned to night, the sky taking on a darker shade of black, Jack took up arms and performed his breathing exercises to pass the time. And time passed, which was interesting. Or at least time seemed to pass, which was even more interesting. Why did time seem to pass when all it really did was pile up? And so Jack and a sleeping Heidi waited for the word to come true; they waited on the Empire to make good on its promise.

It was never a good idea to wait for the Empire to make good on its promise because the Empire sucked. While Heidi slept, Jack sat still, waiting, for five hours. Midnight arrived and angry people booed. Stillness was supposed to bring tranquility, but it had failed to do so. Jack was agitated. Jack was hungry. And his being pain was creeping in.

Suddenly the sky filled with tiny boxes attached to red, white and blue parachutes. The ReliefRations arrived and people responded by going crazy. Everyone woke up, even Heidi, who was an unusually deep sleeper. The boxes with Empire logos floated gently downward while the people on the ground acted like savages trying to secure food for their loved ones. They trampled over one another. They threw pointy elbows. One fellow stepped on the back of a fallen woman. The struggle to survive brought out the worst in people.

Some boxes got stuck in the trees. Which was annoying. Inspired by heroism, children scaled the enormous oaks, rescuing rations and throwing them down to their gaunt, open-armed parents. Then, a kid fell and cracked his skull, which was a downer, but he was okay. Just a thin little crack. Nothing a good outsider couldn’t learn to suffer with a quiet pride.

It was like Christmas, only not as fun, and it had nothing to do with Jesus or fourth quarter earnings. Jack and Heidi huddled over their single box. Practicing anti-greed like good outsiders, they had decided that one box would be enough for the two of them, which unfortunately was not true. The contents of the ReliefRation box were befuddling. The first thing they saw was a note written in enormous block letters, “THANK YOU FOR YOUR BUSINESS. SINCERELY, THE EMPIRE.” Entirely inappropriate and somewhat offensive. Next, there was a bumper sticker that read, “I BUY EMPIRE,” a declaration of consumer loyalty that obviously applied only to those who still earned and spent Empire dollars, which outsiders did not. Then, there was a leaflet with information about a new television program called “AssimilationNation.” People didn’t watch much television on the outside due to a lack of electricity (not to mention a lack of good programming). But this show looked pretty hot to Jack. The leaflet explained how the show’s producers selected “less civilized” people from around the globe and invited them to participate in the “great, successful human experiment that is the Empire!” So then, non-Empire citizens would spend six weeks in the Empire “learning the rich culture and imbibing the rich, rich spirit.” Everything was videotaped, which was par for the course in the Empire, where people were obsessed with recording and then watching “reality” because they had been tricked into believing that televised reality was somehow better and more real than reality itself. Apparently, the show’s first season, in which outsider tribesmen lived in the city for six weeks before losing their minds and turning murderous, had been a real hit. The leaflet announced that auditions for the second season of “AssimilationNation” would be taking place next month at a local OutsiderOutpost and that the show’s producers were looking for TV-ready outsiders, or in the words of the leaflet, “star-quality lost Empirians.”

Jack was interested, because let’s face it, life on the outside was pretty much crap. What passed for fun was hanging out in abandoned strip malls pushing each other around in rickety shopping carts until someone got hurt. Or else scavenging for hardened bits of French fries in the oil vats of a closed down fast food joint until someone got sick. Or else waiting in open fields for airplanes to drop boxes full of bullshit. In many ways, it was a wastelife in a wasteland.

“Maybe I’ll try out,” Jack said.

Heidi looked at Jack as if he were very dumb.

“Why not?” Jack said.

“Why?” Heidi rebutted.

“Why not?” Jack answered, continuing their mature and probing conversation.

“Because the show is bad. It exploits people for profit,” said Heidi. A solid moral argument, if one was into that sort of thing.

“But it looks like such fun,” said Jack.

“And so because it’s fun, it’s okay?” said Heidi incredulously.

“Yes. Sometimes bad things are okay because they’re fun,” said Jack. Then he thought about what he had just said, which is often the way it works.

“Sometimes you’re okay because you’re fun,” joked Heidi.

Heidi shook her head at what she considered Jack’s confused personal ethics. Jack shook his head at what he considered Heidi’s overdeveloped conscience, which he thought was sort of a female thing. Not that he was going to bring that up.

“I’m just saying it looks interesting. It’s something to do,” said Jack, concealing the true root of his desire, which was to escape life on the outside. Jack harbored big Empire-infiltration dreams. More than anything he wished to find his fortune in the Empire. But he never told Heidi about his plan to infiltrate, for fear that she would take it to mean that he loved her less than perfectly, which was not true in Jack’s most unbiased opinion. Jack was just curious about all things Empire, while Heidi liked life on the outside and despised the Empire like a good outsider.

“Well, I think it’s ridiculous,” said Heidi. ‘Ridiculous’ was the word Heidi used to describe things not to her liking.

Where was the damn food anyway? They dug deeper into the box, through a slew of advertisements, bubble wrap and free key chains. Something rattled at the bottom. A canister of pills. The Empire had dropped DigestiPills after all, proving Heidi’s clairvoyance. A thick line of text across the top of the canister read, “DIGESTIPILLS ARE MAGIC!” To Jack, this seemed like a joke. Some pharmaceutical giant mocking the outsiders’ proclivity towards belief in the supernatural. Then there was an intimidating WARNING/DANGER label which read, “DIGESTIPILLS PROVIDE ENOUGH SUSTENANCE FOR SEVEN DAYS: DO NOT CONSUME MORE THAN ONE PILL IN SEVEN DAY’S TIME!” So much for the joys of eating. Jack longed for frosted oats in milk made sugary by the cereal’s excessive fructose. He longed for a dry cracker. Or the sweet juiciness of a pluot, a fruit he had only heard about that was a hybrid of a plum and an apricot. Amazing. The Empire simply had the most amazing food, and lots of it.

“DigestiPills,” said Jack glumly, and Jack could say things glumly better than anyone.

“I think it’s exciting,” said Heidi. “Digestipills are an amazing invention. These little pills in our hands could end world hunger. Can you imagine!? An end to hunger across the globe!”

Jack was in one of his moods where Heidi’s enthusiasm made him feel like strangling puppies. He rolled his eyes and thumbed through the “AssimilationNation” leaflet. The picture of the face-painted tribeswomen shopping for handbags at an upscale boutique might have made him laugh, had not the juxtaposition been entirely lost on him.

Jack put the leaflet down. “Well, let’s eat.” Following the instructions, Jack placed a single pill on his tongue and did not swallow. The pill dissolved instantly. Breakfast was over. Lunch and dinner too, for a week. So much for three square meals a day.

“That’s it?” asked Heidi.

“That’s the show.”


They looked each other in the eye, gauging each other’s reaction, of which there was very little.

“I’m hungry,” said Jack.

“Me too,” said Heidi.

“Maybe it takes a little time.”

“I guess.”

“Stupid pills.”

“My stomach kind of hurts.”

“Mine too.”

They waited to feel full.

“I wonder what would happen if someone took two pills at once.”

“Probably death would happen,” said Jack.

Then, directly behind Heidi, a man’s stomach exploded. Not his whole body, just his stomach. The eruption was so forceful that parts of the man’s stomach tore through his skin leaving a big gaping hole where his belly had been. It was gross to look at. He was crying and terrified and staring down at this hole in his body. But he was okay, still breathing, sort of. Though he probably wouldn’t make it much longer. Jack leaned over and picked bits of the man’s innards out of Heidi’s hair.

Another few stomachs exploded making the entire scene macabre. People weren’t designed to follow instructions; people liked to do things their own way. Considering this truth of human behavior, Jack thought it rather cruel that the Empire would drop such dangerous pills. He envisioned some government clerk deep in the belly of the beast watching this terrifying scene and laughing his ass off.
And indeed there was a clerk deep in the belly of the beast watching this terrifying scene and laughing his ass off.

Meanwhile, Heidi, always sympathetic, thought of all the poor mice whose stomachs must have exploded during the testing stages for the DigestiPill. The scientists in their clean white lab coats must have cleaned up hundreds of rat-gut splattered cages. Was there justice in that? No. All these starving outsiders were ostensibly now fed. Did that balance the scales? Then Heidi’s mind got tired and she dropped the subject.

“Do you feel full yet?” Jack asked Heidi.

“Not really.”

“Me neither.”

“Maybe we got placebos by mistake!” joked Heidi.

That was funny, disturbingly so, in the way insanity is funny. They laughed and then laughed some more. A few more bellies exploded because some dyed-in-the-wool idiots thought maybe they could stomach two pills. But the idea of having taken a placebo, and its accompanying threat of continued starvation, was a perfect riot to Jack and Heidi and so they laughed. Hard. Exhaustion and starvation made a person susceptible to hilarious bouts of lunacy. Under the midnight moon, Jack and Heidi laughed and laughed at the insanity of things.