What’s with our current obsession over cancel culture? Am I the only one who is reminded of our childhood days, with some grade-school tyrant sitting divinely inside his fort and denying access to others because they were boys, or girls, or had cooties? As I type this (a month or two before publication), people are climbing aboard the TO JOE ROGAN or NOT TO JOE ROGAN bandwagon, and I’m sitting here thinking, who cares? I’ve listened to a handful of his podcasts and I probably agree with half of what he says. And what of it? I’ll return to Joe on occasion – not because I’m desperate for finding common ground in his answers, but because of the honesty in his questions. As this audience continues to grow, I think about what I want this magazine to become. Like it or not, there’s a responsibility in addressing large crowds - a certain authority that I’d rather shed, but can’t. Here’s what I don’t want: to transform this into just another quagmire of the editor’s beliefs; a shouting match, a soapbox, a ‘safe space’ for like-minded zombies. Do I have my beliefs? Of course (see Jesus, common sense, and the guns I keep losing in tragic boating accidents). Are there lines I won’t cross? Yup. Am I ok with our readers loving or hating or having no regard for any of the above? You bet. Take this month’s story, for example. After reading, you could very well surmise that the author and I have plenty to disagree on (and even that could be miscalculated). And yet I have no qualms about publishing his work. Why? Simple. He tells a good story.
A note on all issues prior to 2023
In 2023, we switched email sending services. Converting entire issues into our new sender and their formatting is a fair bit of work, and with our limited resources, we've decided to expedite the process by focusing on converting only the story and intro. Perhaps some day we'll get around to the rest of it, but for now, enjoy the story.
I had tried all the usual things. Drugs, aromatherapy, the Moonies. I'd hugged trees and run for public office. I'd tried believing the X-Files. I'd spoken up in favor of the electoral system and denounced those who neglected to exercise their democratic voice and then, four years later, laughed at those who cast their ballots. I'd knelt towards Mecca. I'd confessed my sins to priests hidden in the shadows behind screens. And I'd dabbled in those religions that don't actually require any sort of sacrifice, commitment or ceremony.
I thought I'd tried everything. I thought my life would be bereft of a source of meaning forever. But that was before I discovered Dangerous Paranoia.
Getting started was easy. Easy and, apart from the membership to the National Rifle Association, cheap. It just took some self-conscious body language to kick things off.
Like staring at the girl in the Safeway packing my shopping.
Not a malicious stare.
Not an 'I've murdered before and I'm gonna murder again' stare. (I haven't and I'm not going to, I hasten to add, but it was the only audible lesson on a Teach Yourself Stanislavsky tape I picked up in a thrift shop years ago and I guess I probably listened to it a few too many times). But a simple, ordinary stare held just a moment too long.
You can do it, too. Try adding a half-blink, like you're going to blink but change your mind halfway through. And watch the effect it has. She'll drop the milk. She’ll scrabble around for it with her hands blind because her eyes are fixed on your eyes. And then her stare will hit the polished aluminum chute the groceries slide down and you'll see the fastest pack you've ever seen. She'll even double bag without you having to ask. Just in case you wanted it like that all along.
I've heard a variation on this theme where you just shoulder the girl out of the way mumbling ‘This is my shopping… you leave my shopping… mine… mine…’ You can choose between some hick accent and monotone, either works fine.
And don't forget to check under your car with a mirror on a stick on the way out. Make sure everybody notices. Lie down on the sidewalk in their way. Make them step over you.
Other tricks came to me, without hardly thinking. I stopped shaving and tried to go without blinking as long as possible. In the office I made a point of pulling all the papers on my desk an inch or two towards me, away from my co-workers. That, and wearing foil to keep my mind from being read by satellites. After all, they wanted to see what I'd written. They wanted to steal my ideas. And what were ideas if they weren't my soul? They were in the employ of the government and they wanted to steal my soul.
Of course, they weren't really in the employ of the government. Like me, they were in the employ of the December and Johnson Insurance Company. Then, all of sudden, they were in the employ of the December and Johnson Insurance Company, unlike me.
Unemployment allowed me to turn what was, after all, merely a hobby into a vocation. A way of life, even. In addition to not shaving, I stopped washing, although this was driven as much by my move to a small log cabin in the Appalachians which was devoid of running water or any of the other comforts which early twenty-first century man considers necessary.
Although disconnected from radio, television, microwave ovens, and anything else that those behind those in power could use to watch and listen and monitor my every heartbeat I was still, somehow, in contact with the mail service.
Our local mailman, who I took to calling Trotsky, was evidently of the Wells Fargo 'mail must get through' school of thought. He would wend his way up the long mountain track, admittedly on a weekly rather than a daily basis, to both deliver and collect mail. Only somebody in the employ of the government could be that committed, I decided. Trotsky had been sent to spy on me. To note my actions. To steam open my mail. To monitor my thoughts.
I allowed Trotsky the pleasure of collecting my letters, mainly letters to liberal publications berating the possible actions of politicians. I say possible because without radio or television I was totally unaware of the actions of our government. Or any government. So I wrote missive after missive making a lone stand against our needless and callous invasion of Mexico. Who was to say that we hadn't? Hell, even if I was receiving every newspaper published on the planet and was plugged into every satellite channel that was being belched out from space, and every one said that we hadn't invaded Mexico who was to say that we hadn't?
I didn't need the media. They needed me.
But when it came to packages, the small ticking packages that I sent to high officials in the various government departments, I did not trust Trotsky. Instead, I would make the trek into the nearest settlement to post them personally. And what if they had alarm clocks already? Good, sturdy, traditional alarm clocks. What did it matter? All I wanted was for them to hear the ticking, to know what it felt like to live inside my head, to understand what I was going through. To know that I knew. And to know that I knew that they knew that I knew. That was what was important.
Those trips also served a double purpose in that I could get fresh meat for the pack of wild dogs which I had unwittingly acquired over the months. They slept against the cabin, out of the way of the harsh winds and the occasional flurries of snow. I could hear them at night scratching the wooden sides of my abode, grinding their teeth. I was teaching them to kill in preparation for the final battle between good and evil. They were becoming my friends.
The final battle came in a different shape and form to that which I had expected. But, ask yourself, can any of us outside of The Conspiracy foresee the future? Could Jesus have foreseen his crucifixion? Could the Buddha have foreseen obesity-related heart disease? I think not. And I have a lot of time to think.
No, the final battle came in the form of a small envelope from the State Lottery. I had won. Seventeen and a quarter of a million dollars, or thereabouts in their Christmas bonus draw. And would I be kind enough to present myself at some high-rolling hotel in order to be presented with my prize by some aged television personality.
No, I would not.
I'd heard about this kind of trick back in the days when I could still listen to other people meaningfully. The government, in the small number of cases where they did not already know where an undesirable was through the use of surveillance technology and remote viewing, sometimes sent them such congratulatory epistles in the hope of coaxing them out of hiding. Bankrobbers, serial rapists, and various representatives of freedom of expression would find their face in the carpet and a knee in their back listening to the click of cuffs where they had been expecting a teller’s check and, at the very least, the attentions of a minor-league beauty queen.
I tore the letter up. They would not get me so easily.
Nothing happened for a couple of days with the sole exception of a helicopter buzzing my cabin. Other people may put this event down as being purely coincidental, but the years have taught me that there is no such thing as coincidence. Let me give you an example. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Did you realize his chauffeur had taken a wrong turn and that, in theory, the shot which began the bloodiest war the world has ever seen was just a chance potshot? Then how come the descendants of that Serbian shooter now control every significant organization from Wall Street to the NBA? Answer me that.
And then they came. In broad daylight, through the snow. They came in a van. A big white Winnebago type affair with a satellite dish on top and big thick aerials, struggling, its tires slipping. It was decked out with the logos of some television company. Probably just four letters picked out from a scrabble bag. The irony of it. The arrogance of it. We can see you, it all said. We can digitize and broadcast you. We can put our words in your mouth. We can beam your soul out on prime time. If we choose.
The tires spun and it wallowed to a stop, the driver having obviously decided that was as far as he could safely go. I steadied the dogs.
Four got out of the van, pulling inadequate coats close. I could see the driver still behind the wheel, slouched, slumped. How many more of them were in there? With what kind of weaponry?
They made their way carefully up the track towards the cabin. It was clear their footwear was not up to the task. One carried a shoulder-mounted camera with a spotlight on the front. To blind me, I guessed. Another carried a big boom mic and a bag of electronica hung from his shoulder. Recording equipment. Yeah, right. Like the Pope's really Catholic.
The remaining two did not carry any equipment to speak of. One had clearly been groomed to perfection as a bottle blonde with black roots and peroxide teeth anchor. Her eyelashes led the way. She had, no doubt, been briefed well. The other... The other I wasn't sure about. A man in his seventies, fit and trim, with thinning hair and a worried grin. He seemed at once familiar and out of place. He had something under his arm. An envelope? No, bigger.
As they drew closer I wondered what their tactics would be. To draw me out into the open at which point the federal agents in the Winnebago would charge? Or was this farrago simply a diversionary tactic to allow the agents to creep up behind the cabin? The dogs strained on their twine leashes.
And then the false blonde saw me and called out to me by name. "We have seventeen and a quarter million dollars for you. It's all for you, Sir. All tax free."
And then the familiar man held up the thing under his arm. A check. A great big phony cardboard check. And he grinned. A familiar grin.
“Sir,” he called.
“Tax free,” the bottle blonde echoed. I needed no more telling.
These were government agents.
Agents of darkness.
I let the dogs loose with a cry of "Kill, kill, kill!"
The effect on the four was instant and total. The supposed cameraman and the sound engineer shed their equipment in the style of paratroopers ridding themselves of their chutes, then turned and ran. The bottle blonde froze like a rabbit caught in headlights for a second before she, too, turned tail, stumbling down the hill back towards safety.
The elderly man, however, seemed unable to believe his predicament, a bemused smile writ large across his face, his legs, metaphorically, stuck in molasses.
The dogs hit him as one, smothering him, each taking a different part of his body, just as I had trained them to do. He didn't stand a chance. He hardly had time to scream.
I made my way down to his still, dead body, waving a stout stick and screaming. I understood why the man had not been able to escape the dogs. The torn and bloodied face of the man I looked down on wasn't that of a trained solider. It wasn't that of a man who understood hand to hand combat. It was that of a classically trained actor. Alan Alda, to be precise. The man they had promised would hand me my winnings.
Who would have thought that the star of M*A*S*H and California Suite would be in the employ of the powers of darkness? It just went to prove each and every hypothesis I had developed on that lonely mountainside. If Alan Alda, then who else? Diane Keaton? Nathan Lane? Good God, perhaps even William H. Macy?
I had won the battle, but not the war. They would come in numbers next time. With guns and bombs and blaring reggae music to keep me awake at all hours.
I retreated to my cabin to wait.
About the Author Robert Bagnall was born in a doubly-landlocked English county when the Royal Navy still issued a rum ration, but now lives by the sea. He is the author of the science fiction thriller ‘2084 – The Meschera Bandwidth’ and around fifty published short stories, twenty-four of which are collected in the anthology ‘24 0s & a 2’. Both are available on Amazon. Three of his stories have also appeared in NewCon Press’ annual ‘Best of British Science Fiction’ anthologies. He blogs at meschera.blogspot.com and can be contacted there.
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