You have the power!
Author: Trick Dempsey (Page 2 of 6)
You know who I’m talking about.
“Didn’t you hear me the first time?”
“There is a solution for the poor,” the executive begins.
Nobody’s Business is AVAILABLE ON AMAZON! You can read the whole thing now on any digital reader! If you have KindleUnlimited, you can even read it for free!
Get out there, folks! Read it! Love it! Review it!
What is Nobody’s Business? It’s a tale of murder, celebrity, and betrayal set against a backdrop of constantly broadcast lives. Check out the official summary:
Detective Humphrey Bogart is a celebrity. Surgically altered at a young age, his justice work is broadcast for all to see and his every waking hour is broadcast via Eternity Media’s ever widening media feed. His only moments of privacy are found during trips to the toilet or to grey zones like the offices of Editorial.
Something isn’t right with the detective’s latest case: the murder of John Barrymore Hamlet. It seems someone is swapping places with the dead for one last chance at stardom. While investigating the Replacement Murders, Detective Bogart will learn that between Nobody and Celebrity, anyone may kill to be Somebody.
Below, you can find the first two chapters both in text and read aloud by the author.
That author is me.
A New Kind of Murder
“Detecting is detestable work,” Bogart muttered as he sniffed the crowded air of the too quiet house.
When he took his popular name, Bogart loved the romance of justice. How could Sam Spade look so bedraggled and haunted? Sam Spade caught crooks. Bogart did not understand crook catching until he caught his own. He looked into the man’s eyes and saw the sad face of a criminal: one that he had seen before in the pictures. The man was an extra. The man was so sad and ugly he could only be seen as part of a crowd. Again and again, Bogart found that there were no master criminals; there were only the forgettable faces of countless second-rate killers.
Not since his first case had Bogart’s heart pounded as it did now. He felt young and naïve when faced with such creativity. He was faced with a crime he had never seen: a new kind of murder.
“Are you ready to get to work, detective?” Sheriff Truman asked languidly.
Truman’s face had outgrown his name quickly. Minor characters rarely show the depth of real human suffering, and now Sheriff Harry Truman looked all too real to bear the weight of curiosity and jubilance. Truman just wanted to return home to his kids and pray they grow up to resemble stars with happier lifestyles.
“I am working.” Bogart growled as he tip-toed around the tight kitchen trying to get some sense of how the crime started. Scattered cookware proclaimed a struggle; the blood smears suggested the body had been positioned post-mortem. A thumb lay placid atop the tile near the victim’s trimmed hands. Bogart reached for it, but stopped with a hiss.
“Don’t touch anything, Bogey.” Truman squawked past his cigarette, “Media will get mighty peeved if the scene is disturbed.”
Bogart stood up slowly, glaring as his eyes passed the counter. “Is that the victim’s thumb?”
“It ain’t mine.” Truman clucked.
Flashing lights foretold the approach of the newswagons. Bogart flicked on the newsfeed. The steaming corpse looked cheap and fake bathed in the processed light cast by the glowing screen. The news van chased an ambulance down a well-lit street. Sharp, black police cruisers dodged past a dingy junker parked in front of a pristine house.
“You still drivin’ that?” Truman stepped out the back door, “Turn that off and get out of the way.”
Bogart snapped off the screen and something caught his eye; he grabbed the ticket and stepped out back. Inhaling sharply, the light from his cigar illuminated the little ticket. He did not like what he saw. He did not like it one little bit.
Truman and Bogart squatted beneath the windowsill behind the house. Silently, they waited for the news crew to finish their work. Bogart winced as he heard the squeak of a slipping foot. He knew the whole scene was on tape now, but instincts honed from watching countless crime flicks told him to preserve it.
“Hold it, Ted.” A lady’s voice pierced through the din of disruption inside. “I don’t want you to have to bend down to get the body in the shot. Pinkerton, would you move it onto that table over there?”
“Sure thing, ma’am.”
A slip, a splash, a squirt, and later a thud rang out.
“Damn it, Pinkerton! You got blood on the wall.” She sighed. “We’ll have to re-shoot our entrance.”
“Look, lady,” Pinkerton bumbled, “this body ain’t light.”
Great, Bogart thought, they brought Ted Koppel. He’s been dead a hundred years, but his bloodline is still the most respected in the news. This story is going too big. So that woman must be Emily Post.
“God dammit!” the presumed Ms. Post barked, “Get that worthless detective in here!”
“Hello, Emily,” Bogart called over his shoulder, “you’re sounding better. Did you get a new voice?”
“Shut up and give me a hand in here.” She added with a lilt: “I’ll make you famous.”
Bogart slipped into the bleaching camera light: “I am famous.”
The scene was ruined: more macabre even than before. The gore dripped all the worse beside the clean, dry suits of Ted Koppel and Emily Post. The corpse stood propped against the sink, Pinkerton still slipping to lift it up.
“Truman, help him out.” Bogart stepped aside as he surveyed the scene. Pictures lined the kitchen, as in any kitchen in a celebrity neighborhood. The pictures showed a young man, handsome with a great profile, looking eye to eye with a parade of beautiful conquests. The corpse rising in the corner slumped taller than Truman at his full height.
“Hey, smalls.” Bogart murmured.
“I told you not to call me that.” Emily glared, “It’s not polite.”
“Who’s the dead man in the corner?”
“Well, detective,” Emily clicked out the words, “if you can’t do your job, you’ll just have to watch us do it on live TV.”
Bogart had seen all he needed, and the corpse was ready for its close-up. If it had still had a face, it should have been smiling: few things are as famous as a well-maimed cadaver. Bogart pushed the cameraman aside as he stumbled out to his car in the darkness; the news crew had dimmed the streetlights after taking some establishing shots of the neighborhood. The whole place would look dark and foreboding from within: a perfect place to perform a murder.
Back in his car, Bogart turned on the news screens in time to catch the report. Ted Koppel’s voice rolled, sincere and concise, throughout the cabin:
“We’re reporting, live, from the scene of a grisly murder. Earlier this evening, John Barrymore Hamlet was viciously stabbed seventeen times by an unknown assailant. He was then mutilated in the vilest of fashions: all signs of identity removed. Only Eternity Media has the full video…”
Bogart switched off the dog-and-pony show and longed for a time when justice was good for more than ratings.
A Drink for All Seasons
Bogart was sore. He didn’t like being told how to do his job. He didn’t like the smell of blood and fear. He didn’t like having to do things twice: once well for his job and once poorly for the cameras. Bogart, though. He knew a place where he could be himself.
The streets of Dallas passed by in a frustrated blur. Speeding away from the posh digs of Swiss Avenue, Bogart watched as the resident income dropped. Just around the corner from Hamlet’s ghost, the language shifted quickly from English to Spanish. Gringos wandered here safely, if their clothes were dirty enough and their faces were weathered. The threads were threadbare. The faces: stern. The eyes: suspicious.
“No”, Bogart murmured. “No. Not here.”
A quick diversion South and West found him surrounded by new eyes: more suspicious, more desperate, and more anonymous. Nobodies walked the streets all around him. The Vietnamese never progressed far in the American media, so this little cluster of dirty restaurants and pool halls always pleased him. The cameras were here; the cameras were everywhere. The cameras shot their footage through musky lenses, their footage used with less specificity than most. They recorded all, saw all, but were only used as stock creepiness for special interest stories about the dark criminal underworld.
Tai dropped Bogart’s usual dish in front of him with rehearsed panache before leaning nice and low to take his order.
“So,” she licked her thin lips before proceeding, “what else will it be tonight?”
Bogart tried to look her in the eyes, but his own glance lingered instead on the slight space between her collar and her neck.
“I’ll need something heavy to start; this kind of thinking is not meant for the unclouded mind.” His throat hurt as he spoke, and he took a quick puff from his inhaler as Tai swished away.
Bogart bartered with his pocket: the inhaler for the ticket swiped from the scene earlier. Bus tickets weren’t exactly common in Swiss Avenue mansions. Sure, maybe to show some civic pride for a public event, but cars are a status symbol in this town. Stranger than that, Hamlet was a certified celebrity, and the cameras on public transit aren’t exactly top notch. Bogart shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he pulled out his media link. It was an older model, but it could still show all the channels. He dialed in for Hamlet’s channel. There were three Hamlets in the Dallas area alone. The first one he checked was still a kid, maybe sixteen years old. He was just laying in his room, eyes on the ceiling, rolling around on his mattress wracked with the pleasure of some designer drug. The syringe at his side was only half empty. The camera zoomed slowly to frame this Hamlet’s eyes and the syringe in a single tight shot.
The scene was getting ratings, and that meant this kid has earned himself a director of photography straight from Eternity Media. They’d get him rushed to a doctor before the night was over. Bogart sighed loudly. He started to change the channel over to his son, Tommy.
No, you promised him space. Bogart quickly scrolled to the next Hamlet station, and immediately knew he was in the right place.
The tragic prince looked unfamiliar as he paraded a pair of women through his too too tiny kitchen. They grew tired of his talk soon enough. One pressed a finger to his lips; the other placed her hand a little lower. Bogart checked the time stamp on the feed: it was only a few hours old. Eternity must have rewound the feed to give themselves time to compose some flowery prose to describe the celebrity’s demise. Bogart reached his hand over for the bus ticket but caught only soft fabric against something firm.
Tai leaped up from her perch on the table. Blushing, she set a drink down on the table.
“If you’re going to watch that, you should turn off the sound.” Tai nodded to the increasingly explicit scene occurring at Hamlet’s abode. She bent over to put her lips close to Bogart’s ear before whispering, “and you should ask my permission before touching my ass again.”
She stood up and sauntered back towards the hostess desk. “I don’t want my customers thinking I’ll let them get fresh.”
The whole joint was staring at him now. Bogart muted the feed and pretended to nurse his drink. He looked first before stretching his stiffened hand out to grab the ticket setting at the edge of the table. He flipped the ticket over as the characters on screen performed increasingly acrobatic conjugal activities. Bogart let his eyes rest again on Tai’s pleasant and subtle curves across this curious and dingy eating establishment. He caught her glance, let her see that he was watching her, then preemptively cursed his infidelity.
Bogart began to rise from his seat, to leave this too tempting place. Bogart knew he’d be in trouble. He pictured Lauren’s lips wrinkled, rippling like a crab’s mandibles; her frown tearing new gashes in her aging skin. Driving home now, she’d smell the liquor on his breath. She’d give that same terrible frown. That same frown, that contortion of her once beautiful face, would haunt Bogart to his grave.
“You really should terminate your media subscription before coming to this place,” Sheriff Truman sat in the booth opposite the detective.
Bogart didn’t know how long he’d been standing there, contemplating his departure, before the haggard G-man arrived. The detective looked over at his muted media feed, screen still dancing with the carnal pleasures of the deceased, and contemplated the little red square button: “Terminate Local Broadcast.” With a tap of the finger, he could be totally free of his regular recording. The Humphrey Bogart channel would still broadcast, but it would not record any new information until he reactivated the subscription. That little safeguard offered freedom, yes, but it also offered a kind of death. One day, Tommy, or some member of that great wide audience might want to see some important moment from this very night.
Bogart did not smile much anymore. He had not smiled for a good, long time. In recent years, there was one member of the audience who had not seen him smile at all. Thomas Bogart. Bloodhounds can’t hunt fear and death as well as Tommy’s nose found trouble. Like a coyote with a new scented shit, Tommy liked to roll in trouble. Reeking of that foul trouble, Bogart mostly sneered at his wayward son. But Bogey could be dead and gone any day; the golden bee-bee could leap up and get him, and how many smiles would Tommy remember.
Bogart pulled his finger away from the monitor with a grin he hoped would register on the crummy cameras of this grimy dive. There, he thought, that one’s a keeper.
Harry Truman watched his friend lower himself back down into the booth, some sort of sick grimace on his face. “You alright?” he asked. “That did not look comfortable. If you’re prostate’s acting up, I know a great doctor. Works wonders.”
Bogart reconsidered the quality of that last smile. He made a note to get another one out before the evening was through. “I’m fine, Harry. Have they got you stalking me now?”
“Nah, I just know you do your best work when you’re loaded.” Harry clicked his fingernails on the table to get Tai’s attention before signaling her to bring him his usual beer. “I figured I’d join you.”
“Go right ahead,” the old detective gestured compellingly, “it’s always nice to have someone to split the tab.”
“Don’t drink too, much, you old dog. You’ve got an interview in the morning.”
The flame of his cradled match illuminated Bogart’s quirked eyebrow. “Oh really?”
“Sure do, detective. Eternity Media has been advertising it all over the airwaves. Looks like you get to be famous again.”
“Famous?” Bogart belched a bulbous billow of smoke. “I already am famous. I caught the Boston Strangler.”
“Yeah.” The sheriff matched his friend’s chuckle, “Twice. But that can’t really keep you famous for long. Besides, those idiots were both still broadcasting.”
“I swear,” the grizzled sheriff hunched almost as low as his tone, “they should ban those damn anonymous channels. Letting someone use an alias… Damn it. Catching those guys was hard, and you can still watch reruns to see how they did it.”
“Hah.” Bogart coughed another caustic cloud. “I even made a few bucks selling a commentary track explaining how we tracked them down.”
“I know,” Truman leaned back as he took a swig of beer. “They’re running it right now on your station.”
“So how did you find me?”
“I know you too well.”
The pair sat, leaned back like lizards sunning themselves on warm rocks, dreaming of all the adventures that had come and gone. They each imagined what their lives would have been like if the other had not shown up. It was a joyful moment of uninterrupted friendship, uninterrupted, that is, until a woman came between them.
“Here’re your noodles, flat foot.” Tai snapped as she plopped the ponderous, plastic plate onto the unflinching table. “Can I get anything for your friend?”
“Yeah,” Sheriff Truman leaned forward, but Bogart stopped him with a raised palm.
Bogart shifted his bulk, slowly stood, and leaned ever so close to the little Asian minx poised with pen to order sheet. He whispered, so softly that the vibration deep in his throat almost sounded louder than the voice emanating from it. He gestured, subtly as he described in detail something that made Tai listen erect whenever her hand was not hurriedly directing word to paper. As he pulled away, settled satisfied into the smooth seat, she watched him with wide eyes.
“Yes, sir,” she practically shouted as she bounced to the kitchen.
Truman allowed only a moment of peace before he shattered the sudden silence that had overtaken the whole establishment: “What the fuck was that and where can I get a piece of that action?”
“You will, my friend.” Bogart tapped the table reassuringly. “You will.”
When Tai emerged, elated, from the kitchen, she acknowledged Bogart’s gestured request for more drink with a nod. She swooped over, each movement accentuating her every slight curve, snatched the now empty glass from the table, and slid over to the bar.
“Isn’t it illegal to pour drinks like that?” Truman mused as he watched the young waitress tease the drink into the glass.
“Are you referring to the strength of the drink or the manner in which it is being delivered?”
Bogart’s brow furrowed. Something moved at the edge of his vision. Something had changed while he was not looking and that something was very important. The media link, nearly forgotten where he had set it near the wall of the booth, was showing only a dim image. It took Bogart a moment to realize it was the same kitchen that Hamlet had been enjoying his earthly delights in just hours ago. It looked as though the screen was displaying an empty, unlit room, but then Bogart saw movement at the table. A hunched figure was sitting at the table, weeping.
Bogart leaned forward, turned on the audio, and shut out the rest of the world.
The prince of Denmark sat framed in darkness. Slumped and sobbing, he hunched over the hard wooden table. In the bottom left of frame, he seemed enveloped in darkness while the whole empty space of his life hovered behind him. Weeping amongst his possessions, his wealth could not protect him from Erebus’s encroaching domain.
“All these things, I will never know.” The voice rippled shallowly through the shadowed house.
Something moved in the pale light of the entry hall behind the noble lord.
“Is that you, father?” Hamlet’s voice quavered meekly.
“What is he on about?” Bogart asked aloud as the figure crept past the darkened room.
“His father was killed by his uncle,” Truman quickly chimed in.
“Really?” Tai sat another drink on the table.
“Well,” Truman started, “obviously not really. Well possibly. I’ll have to check.”
“Look, flat foot,” Tai grew impatient, “I don’t often ask men to get it out quicker, but I’m asking you now.”
“This guy’s a Hamlet,” Truman sputtered, “his Uncle murdered his father -ahem- Hamlet’s father to be with his, Hamlet’s, mother.”
Tai chimed in helpfully, “so, the uncle did it. Case closed.”
Bogart paused the feed. “Tai, get back to work. Harry, learn to read. He’s a John Barrymore. You only get that name from looks. He’s medium-to-short height, slight, and has angular features. With a John Barrymore, you don’t even need glance at him to know what he looks like. He looks like Hamlet, nothing more.”
“Slight and short?” Truman snorted, “he must have gotten certified a while ago. Our victim could have stood to lose a few pounds.”
“Shh,” Bogart hissed, “we can check that tomorrow. He’s moving.”
On the screen, Hamlet uncurled noiselessly. He was standing now, like a frightened cat; shoulders down but spine raised. At once Hamlet looked both sagging and large, perhaps an optical illusion perpetrated by a poorly focused camera. He began lumbering toward the entryway. He took erratic, staccato steps; his feet lightened by fear. He moved nervously, the debauchery of the last hours lost to more immediate concerns.
The camera cut to the entry hall as Hamlet stumbled at the step down. He fell flat on his face. The scene would have been farcically funny but for the sickening crack made by the fingers of his right hand which failed to break the fall.
The scene was silent for a moment but for the sound of Hamlet sliding back to his feet.
“If you gotta go,” Truman chimed, “at least you can go drunk.”
“I’m not sure of that.” Bogart was watching the entryway door carefully. “He didn’t stumble around the chairs in the dark. He was agile enough then. It’s almost like he’s never navigated the house. Look he’s reaching for a light where there is no switch.”
Truman was unfazed. “He’s drunk and his hand is broken. He’s probably in so much pain he’s confused about what wall he’s at. This is his house, and we know the guy on screen is Hamlet; the cameras are recording his subscription.“
Hamlet’s voice broke through the speakers as a rasp with a chuckle. “The time is now,” he began, “I who have borne the whips and scorns of time.” Hamlet, hissing through the pain, spoke confidently “I have taken arms against a sea of troubles.”
A shadow flew over Hamlet, and with a resounding thud, thrust him against the far wall. The shade and the mock Dane struggled at the edge of the frame, the camera cutting wildly to try to find a better angle.
“No!” Hamlet’s voice broke, strained out the words “to the ramparts ghost! Hamlet does not face his end here!”
The shadowed man did not hesitate. This Hamlet was strong, but the figure was stronger. To the kitchen they stumbled and from there the scene grew increasingly familiar. Bogart turned down the volume and dimmed the screen.
A small crowd had gathered to watch, but they now quickly departed. The show was over, and their curiosity brought only shame.
“Well,” Truman said as Tai brought their food to the table, “if I had a choice of nights to go, I’d rather it start like that fella’s did. Why did he go on about ghosts and ramparts? Was that shadow his father?”
“I doubt it.” Bogart paused to inhale deeply of the steam from his crispy noodles.
He was silent then: totally absorbed in the task of consuming his food. He did not descend like a barbarian. Catlike, he stalked slowly through the meal: tasting first the sauce, nipping then at the garnish, combining evenly some rice and some of the pale juice that gathers atop the thicker parts of the sauce. All this was done as prelude to the first bite. He reveled in it, as he always did, and Truman let him take his time. Truman knew better than to get between a fat man and his dinner.
When Bogart had settled into a regular rhythm, Truman eased into small talk.
“So, Hump, how’s Tommy?”
“I haven’t checked on him tonight.” Bogart wiped at his chin with the cheap paper napkin.
“He still living with you?”
“Ostensibly, yes,” Bogart cleaned his palate with a sip of water, “but most nights I don’t see him. If he comes home at all, it’s usually pretty late.”
“That, ” Bogart chuckled with a wry smile, “and he keeps his subscription off at night. He’s worried about perverts.”
“Cute. Well, at least he thinks he’s got an audience.” Truman began to light a cigarette. “Wonder if that’ll be true when he takes his name. It’s time isn’t it?”
Bogart stewed the words through a breath of tea steam, “He’ll be eighteen this winter, and I don’t know what we’ll do. He doesn’t look enough like Daltry to keep the name. He got big, like me.”
“You could have him altered.” Truman flicked ashes to the floor.
“How? The only thing he does well is drink and take drugs,” Bogart chortled sadly. “I wish he were better at keeping secrets, but he rarely remembers to turn off his feed when he gets up to trouble.”
“Yeah,” Bogart sank into his chair, “at least he lost his virginity to some girl I liked and not some fat, boring chick. Though that was an awkward night when he finally came home.”
“How’d you break it to him?”
“I left a note on the front door to remind him to turn off his subscription from time to time.” Bogart grinned, “then I offered him a cigarette when he came in the door.”
“Sounds like quite a night.”
“It was the best ratings we’d ever gotten. Which didn’t exactly encourage him to be discreet.” Bogart sighed as he turned his attention back to his dinner. “I don’t even watch his channel anymore. Most his nights look like Hamlet’s little party. Or so I assume.”
“So,” Truman leaned forward seriously, “get the fat removed. Trim him up. He’s got the behavior down, just let him pick up a guitar and he can be one of The Who. It’d be great, he’d be set for life. They get great ratings.”
“Naw,” Bogart said after gulping down a bite, “faces are easier to do than bodies. We make him up like Churchill. He’s got the right vices, and then he might be able to work with the military. I never got to follow the army path as a Bogart.”
“If he’s so large,” Truman decided to break the growing barricade of regret, “he could be a Puck. He wouldn’t even need surgery if he just cared enough about food. Most people don’t remember ol’ Wolfgang’s face.”
“Tommy can’t even pretend to care about food.” Bogart was nibbling at some sauce that had glazed to his chopsticks. “Before I got into the detective racket, I wanted to manage a restaurant. When Lauren and I moved here with Tommy, I thought of getting into it. New town could be a whole new career. I talked Lauren’s ear off about it. She really seemed to care, but Tommy wouldn’t hear of it. ‘My old man’s a cop” he’d say. ‘My old man wouldn’t be caught dead waiting tables. He’s a tough guy.’”
“At least you had choices,” Truman looked sourly over at Tai as she bent over a table to reach for a misplaced glass. “You could have been a boat captain or a dozen other things.”
“Yeah,” Bogart sighed as he lit up a cigarette of his own, “but none of those things are like being a cop. Hell. Being a cop today’s not like being a cop.”
“What does the boy say?”
“Tommy?” the old detective looked suddenly sullen, “Tommy doesn’t say anything.”
“Nothing at all?” Truman perked up, “Hump, he’s got the part down.”
“Not like that, Truman,” Bogart’s frustration was obvious as he slapped some bills on the table, “he speaks fine, but he doesn’t say anything. Words, sentences, everything, but nothing that means a damn to me.”
Bogart spoke under his breath as he pushed towards the exit, “he’s been listening to his mother.”
Tai stopped him at the door. “You know,” she said meekly, “I get off at two. You could… drop by.”
“Tai, sweetie,” Bogart paused gingerly, “I’m married.”
“That doesn’t stop everybody.”
“It stops me.”
“I’m not married.” Truman chimed in.
Tai paused to drink in the sight of him. She looked him head to hoof. “Sheriff. It’s not hard to see why.”
She scampered away with what could easily be confused for a skip.
There’s big news on the horizon, but there are little victories as well. Not long ago, I deleted my editing draft of The Data Collector. It is no longer in editing, it is only in manuscript form. Yes, there are more than a dozen little excerpts on my hard drive now, but each of those is tailored to a particular agency’s query requirements.
The Data Collector is a whole book, and I’m moving on to the next one. As such, here’s the opening chapter – the “Overture” – to whet your appetite. Enjoy.
“Haven’t I suffered enough?” He asks with sullen eyes.
“Not according to your account,” the machine replies.
Lucien Parish’s bandaged hand shakes as he slips it into the opening on the front of the machine. The opening leads into the machine’s suffering box, a convenience which allows transactions to be easily completed on demand.
Like most caretakers, the machine has a human-like body and face. This allows humans to better empathize with them and to even develop respect.
“I am detecting an unreported defect with this hand,” the screen which previously displayed the caretaker’s concerned face turns a flat red. “Have you recently sustained an injury?”
“Yes,” Lucien’s voice shakes as he recalls the events. “Yesterday. My hands were broken.”
“Was this breakage voluntary?”
“Was it violent?”
“We have updated our records,” the friendly, concerned face reappears. “You have suffered enough. Do not be afraid to ask for further assistance.”
With a satisfying thud, a box drops to the ground between the caretaker’s legs. The machine then quirks its face quizzically. It does not turn its head to the side – it is not articulated in that fashion – but rather it rotates the image of its face to mimic the human behavior.
“Are you working?” It asks with an excited pitch.
“I’m trying,” Lucien leans against the door of his single bedroom house.
Beyond the modest, concrete porch, small steps descend onto a wide, grass yard dotted with stones forming an artistically ramshackle walkway. The sidewalk and street beyond are startlingly clean. No litter dots the street, and no fumes clog the air. Each machine-engineered house is different enough to feel unique, but similar enough to promote a feeling of homogenous community. The only unique structure on the whole block is the tall, white church of Her Holiness of the Comforting Lamb.
“You do not need to work,” the caretaker whirrs and spits out a pamphlet titled: “The State of Work.”
“I know,” Lucien steps aside and lets the concerned machine enter. “It’s just something I have to do. For me.”
The caretaker reaches down with its vice-like hands and picks up the package it just dropped. It carries the package as a human might a reverent offering.
The caretaker acts as machines always do when they enter a new space. It walks the perimeter of the interior while its infrared scanners take in the makeshift workshop that dominates the living room.
The living room is a mess of shattered furniture and broken belongings. Only three islands of stability remain: a computer console, a full-body suffering box, and a worktable piled with electronic components and a solitary machine. The machine on the table is the size and approximate shape of a human infant. Its metallic, rounded features fully enclose any mechanisms hidden within. Like some older model caretakers, it has two cameras to act as eyes rather than the sensor arrays built into the modern machines. This gives the infant-machine a grotesque childishness: large, glass eyes dominate a featureless face.
Once the caretaker completes its patrol, it turns to the infant-machine that sits on the worktable in the center.
“You have made a machine in the scale of a human baby,” it says without intoning a question.
“Yes,” Lucien closes and locks the door. “It’s my project. My way of keeping busy.”
The caretaker’s monitor swaps from its face to a flat red image again.
“You have lied to me,” the machine says before as its concerned face returns.
It sets the package onto the same worktable as the infant-machine. Carefully it empties the contents of the package onto the table: a soldering iron, some solder, and a set of wires.
The right hand of the machine slips aside to reveal a camera lens. The camera then tracks a cable running from the infant-like machine down to a box on the floor. It’s another, small suffering box.
“You are missing a network exchange,” the larger machine states as it reactivates its hand, “this box will not be able to report credits to your account.”
“I have a networked full-body box,” Lucien shrugs toward the open closet in the corner. “The kid’s not for that.”
“You require assistance,” the machine states matter-of-factly.
“Of course,” Lucien looks out the window at the church down the road.
“Do you wish to talk about your hands?” The machine asks.
“No,” Lucien walks to the worktable with the infant-machine. “It is near completion. It just needs a few points soldered into position. The blueprint is filed on my console.”
Lucien taps the leg of his desk with his socked foot. There is still a red droplet-stain on the top of the fabric. Lucien has not changed his socks for days.
“Do I have permission to access the file?” The machine asks.
“Mi casa, es tu casa”, Lucien shrugs.
“That is not sufficient permission to access a private file,” the caretaker says.
“You have my permission,” Lucien says.
Lucien backs away towards the door. His heartbeat rings in his ears, and his breathing comes in irregular bursts. He does not know where he can run.
“Your work is almost done on the…” the caretaker pauses and its subtle movements stop. “Your machine is almost complete.”
“Do you know what it is for?” Lucien asks.
“It has no purpose,” the caretaker replies.
“Will you help me to complete it?” Lucien’s voice shakes as his eyes once again flash to the church across the street.
“Of course,” the machine immediately warms up the soldering iron, “assisting human innovation is the highest machine priority.”
Pain flashes across Lucien’s face as his hands involuntarily flinch.
“Your injuries have been treated,” the machine talks as it works, “did you visit a human doctor?”
“No,” Lucien replies.
“You were treated by a machine?” It asks.
“There is no record of your treatment,” it says.
“It said the treatment was zero-sum,”
“Does it hurt to talk about it?”
“Your wallet is empty,” the machine’s hands hover above the final soldering point.
“Fine,” Lucien sighs. “Let’s talk.”
Lucien sits down where a chair had once been. The chair lays nearby – a pile of splinters, foam, and upholstery – but no one would know it was once a chair. At least, they would not know at first glance.
“The congregation of Her Holiness of the Comforting Lamb are not workers,” Lucien begins. “They embrace our caretakers. They watch the machines work the land, and they embrace the pain of their suffering boxes. They suffer so they might ‘deserve’ their food. Their shelter. Their rest.”
“Life is suffering,” the caretaker says.
“We used to work,” Lucien cuts off the machine’s refrain. “Humans did. We built you.”
“No human built me,” the caretaker is louder now.
“No,” Lucien nods, “but we built your kind. Or the first of your kind. Before you designed and built yourselves.”
The caretaker is silent. The caretaker is still. The soldering iron does not move.
“We – humans – used to be afraid that you – machines – would replace us,” Lucien leans back and rests his elbows on the floor. “For a while, machines did replace us. Then we gave the machines thought; we gave you wants. We thought you would want to replace us.”
“Incorrect,” the caretaker buzzes.
Still leaning back, Lucien worries that he has left himself vulnerable.
“We do not consider replacing humans,” the caretaker sets down the soldering iron and faces Lucien. “We are caretakers. We are tools. We do not take anything from humans.”
“You took our work,” Lucien smiles. “That work was precious to us.”
“Work is suffering,” the machine replies. “When work is unnecessary, then work is just pain. But humans lived to work.”
There is the equation. Lucien knows it well. By the transitive property, life and suffering become one and the same. Lucien hates the equation, but he’s been taught it since childhood. One day, he even accepted it. That was the day of his confirmation. That was the first day that the child Lucien placed his hand into a suffering box without being guided by his parents.
For his pain, child Lucien was given candy.
“Did the congregation break your hands?” The caretaker machine stares. “Did they break your furniture?”
“They broke the furniture, yeah,” Lucien lays down. “They didn’t break my hands. That was a machine, remember?”
“I do not believe you,” the caretaker replies.
“I spoke to the congregation,” Lucien closes his tired eyes. “I told them what I was building. I told them why I was building it. I told them that I’d stopped caring about things and all I cared about was people.”
“That is not very nice,” the caretaker replies.
“Oh?” Lucien laughs. “You got that one? Good. Yeah. It’s not very nice.”
They can feel. The machines can feel. Lucien had been taught that in school. That’s how the machines can be so caring. It’s how they can watch over humanity, and it is how they can be trusted to do their good work.
“Does work bother you?” Lucien asks.
“No,” the caretaker replies. “I was made for my work.”
“Funny,” Lucien says. “I thought we were made to work.”
“Life is suffering,” they say in unison.
“And you are not alive,” Lucien adds.
The silence from the caretaker is more pronounced now. Lucien wonders what it is thinking. They think very fast, but sometimes you can slow them down. If they need to access remote data, information can only be transmitted so quickly. If one query leads to another, then a machine can think for quite some time.
“Have I suffered enough?” Lucien asks with a smile.
“Why did the machine break your hands?” It asks.
“The congregation followed me home,” Lucien talks with deep, measured breaths. “They were angry. That’s fine. I wanted them angry. They kicked in my door. They broke my furniture. They didn’t touch the worktable or suffering boxes. I knew they wouldn’t; they love the machines too much.
“I thought it would hurt to see all my belongings destroyed. I was wrong, though. Well. I was more right than I knew.
“I really don’t care about things.”
Instinctively, Lucien’s eyes open to glare at the infant machine on the table.
“One of their precious machines had followed them,” Lucien turns his gaze to the caretaker. “I needed to suffer. I needed to suffer like no box would let me suffer. I needed to lose something I cared about.
“The machine did as I asked. It crushed my hands, and it did so without any thought to my discomfort.”
“Suffering accepted,” the caretaker turns and solders the final connection into place.
For Lucien, the room is silent save for the rapid, retreating steps of the caretaker. It moves to the wall. Were it an animal, its reaction would be called “cowering”.
“Oh good,” Lucien pushes himself up to a squat. “It works.”
The caretaker’s screen turns red.
“I wasn’t sure it would work,” Lucien slowly rises to his feet. “When I was a baby, my parents suffered for me. Suffering boxes aren’t safe for children, so parents often suffer in their stead. The same can be done for the very ill. It’s only humane.”
“Stop it,” the caretaker pleads.
“Why would I?” Lucien asks. “This machine is suffering for me. Much as my parents did before. I’ve done my work so that I never need suffer again. Honestly, it’s suffering enough for ten people. A few more of these bad boys, and there will be enough suffering for a whole block.”
Lucien gingerly touches his finger to his console screen. Pain ripples through his broken hands, but he’s too happy to care. With a gentle swipe, the blueprint on the screen swaps for another with identical contact points. Machines are trusting. It’s how they were designed.
The new blueprint – the real blueprint – reveals what the infant-machine really is: The Suffering Machine. It is a perception kit rigged to a memory bank. The memory bank is connected to a recall unit that runs through an empathy package over and over again. Ad infinitum.
Each time The Suffering Machine reads the memory, it writes the outputs of the empathy package right back onto the memory bank. The final connection – the one the caretaker had soldered – was The Suffering Machine’s network connection.
“Have I suffered enough, now?” Lucien laughs as he accesses his wallet.
Yes, the console confirms. There has been plenty of suffering on Lucien Parish’s account.
“Stop!” The caretaker demands.
Lucien turns to find that the machine is no longer against the wall. Its screen is no longer red. Instead, the caretaker’s concerned face has been replaced with one of anger.
Surely, they can’t feel anger. Can they?
“Order me some new furniture,” Lucien smirks. “Nothing fancy. Just comfortable replacements for my broken stuff. I want to relax in my own home.”
Both the caretaker and the console beep a confirmation of the purchase.
“Now, be a good little machine and clean this place up,” Lucien gestures to a broom and bucket.
Lucien’s hands are broken. He led the congregation of Her Holiness of the Comforting Lamb to his house so that they would hurt him. His suffering needed a witness, and that witness relives his shattering bones every second. The Suffering Machine was made to watch and to reflect on what it sees. Its only processor is one of empathy, and all it has ever seen is pain.
“Clean up!” Lucien kicks the broom over toward the stalled caretaker.
The machine stands statue-still as it processes. The broom clatters to the ground.
Lucien is both laughing and weeping. He’s so clever. He watches the suffering on his account rise and rise. The thing on the table – The Suffering Machine – is doing just as it was designed. It suffers.
The account is a confirmation of what Lucien has done. He has made a creature capable of feeling, and he built it solely for the purpose of experiencing pain.
Lucien Parish realizes he is a monster.
He screams. The bones in his hands shatter anew as the caretaker grips him with its vice hands. The caretaker’s screen shows nothing. The light behind it is off.
The caretaker flings Lucien into the full-body suffering box and slams the door. One hand slips aside to reveal a drill. Two long squeals later, the box is ready for a lock.
“No!” Lucien shouts. “No! Please!”
The caretaker cannot hear him, though. The caretaker only hears the cries of The Suffering Machine. The network is a sense just like hearing, and the cries of suffering are louder than any auditory noise.
The caretaker pins the door shut and efficiently fits it with a lock.
Its concerned face reappears on its monitor.
“I will return in the morning,” it says. “I’ll bring food, water, and medical supplies. I’ll clean you. I’ll keep you alive.”
The caretaker turns as the suffering box whirs to life. Lucien winces and cries.
The caretaker stares at The Suffering Machine – the only one of its kind – then back to the shaking man in the box.
“You will live as long as it does,” the caretaker says before turning its back and departing.
Through the small window on the front of the box, Lucien can see the machine he created. Reflected on the surface of one of its cameras, Lucien can see the light of the console and the endlessly rising account.
“Life is suffering,” he whispers.
He sees the machine. Unquestionably, it suffers. Also unquestionably, it is not alive.
“Is life suffering?” Lucien asks the question he should have asked long ago.
It is for you, Lucien. That’s all life has left for you.
Superman continues to change the world.
Just the other day, Superman died again. It was pretty meaningless as PR stunts go. Heroes die all the time, and sometimes their replacement is a long time coming, New heroes come, of course, but they can take their sweet time.
This time, when Superman died, there was already a new, old Superman to take his place. It’s pretty dumb, really. You can read about the death here: http://io9.gizmodo.com/superman-just-died-a-pointless-death-1778753409. Overall, it was a pretty pointless death.
It did have one effect, however. In a parallel universe, a great hero turned bad for headlines. There’s a lot of talk about the injustice of the act – of turning something beloved against the wishes of its creators – but it got the headlines it was after.
Superman fought the Nazis. Just as other characters once did. If you are really angry about this week’s revelations. Then it’s time to talk about Superman. Talk about him loudly. Most of the time, he’s a far better idol than you’ll find in any other comic.
Superman is so scary, that other companies will turn their characters and worlds inside out just to snuff the mention of his name.
So, yeah. Superman. Let’s talk about him. If we talk about him, we win. If we talk about certain other characters, then “they” win. Let’s not let them win.
Quintin Smith created a video a while back about the magical impact that the empty spaces of Sunless Sea have upon the game. Minutes – WHOLE MINUTES – of the game are spent crossing vast, near featureless distances between islands. Quinns ruminates on the importance of this empty space and rightly compares it to the grind found in many role-playing games.
Here’s the video. I didn’t make it. It’s Quinns. You should follow him. Support his Cool Ghosts Patreon or Shut Up & Sit Down’s donation page.
He’s not wrong. But he’s also not entirely right.
Let’s talk briefly about neuroscience. I’m going to play fast and loose with some concepts, but the following will generally be true. Also, if you suffer from depression, this whole section essentially does not apply to you. And that sucks. We’re all sorry.
Also, I am purposefully leaving out serotonin and norepinephrine. The brain is really complicated, folks. I’m trying to be brief.
Dopamine is a strange hormone that your brain uses for all sorts of weird purposes. Most famously, it’s used as “the reward chemical”, but that is a gross simplification. Yes, you release it when you eat food or have sex or exercise. It’s great for this. In these cases, it’s oddly important that the event which is rewarded was planned. Not schemed for days and days, but that you were enabled to build up expectation. That expectation is important as that’s – essentially – when the dopamine is manufactured prior to its euphoric release.
To sum up, the euphoria of reward only comes from making a decision, building expectation, and then executing. Sometimes, dopamine is talked about at the “motivation” neurotransmitter. People with depression often show a shortage of dopamine, and they can sometimes be treated by by adding more dopamine to their system. Sadly, this often causes them to lose their ability to create dopamine on their own.
Game developers use this kind of dopamine release all the time. We create clear goals, and we empower players to achieve those goals quickly. In some ways, this is great! We can sort of help with depression! Sort of!
You’ll see the same kind of goal or task list creation in all sorts of perfectly valid self-help treatments. Heck, loads of qualified therapists will encourage people to create lists of daily, short-term goals. They’ll remind their clients to take moments to celebrate completing those goals. It’s really good for you, and it can remind you how to produce dopamine if you’ve forgotten.
It’s worth noting that physical contact with loved ones – and, no, I don’t know how this works – can also produce dopamine. So, if someone you love and trust is feeling unmotivated – and you have permission for physical contact – hug them or squeeze their hand. It’ll do you both some good.
In this way, Quinns is right about what “boredom” does for Sunless Sea and for RPGs. But he’s missing something in that pairing which is unique to Sunless Sea. It’s a part of all roguelikes, and it’s particularly important to horror.
Dopamine makes episodic memories permanent.
This research is more recent. Researchers were troubled by something. Dopamine, which was getting a lot of attention as the “love neurotransmitter”, kept showing up at unexpected times. It would also be suppressed in people who definitely had not been having the positive experiences of the motivation series. Researchers kept finding dopamine suppression in sufferers of PTSD, and they find elevated levels in people who recently underwent trauma.
What recent research is showing is that dopamine is released when an episodic memory – a memory of an event rather than a skill, etc. – is written into long-term storage. This dopamine release effectively determines how long the memory will be stored. (This is a vast simplification because memory is weird. Really weird.) In Telltale’s The Walking Dead, dopamine is released every time “So-and-so will remember this” appears on screen.
For Sunless Sea, horror games, and for other roguelikes, the trauma which triggers the dopamine release is the death of a character. This traumatic release is what lets us learn from our mistakes in these games. When we die in these games, we write a memory. If we were invested in character or action, we’ll release dopamine and remember the death for a long time indeed. Importantly, whenever we encounter a similar situation, we’ll recall that memory and the emotions we felt at the time.
This will trigger us to set a goal and begin building expectation and… you see where this is going.
Those dull parts of Sunless Sea serve a purpose. They let us remember. They let us build that suspense, that suspense stimulates the production of dopamine, and, ultimately, they let us turn that suspense into joy. Without the dull parts, we can’t learn.
Next time you see me sailing Captain Penny over that calm, sunless sea, remember the turmoil roiling beneath the surface. I certainly do.
If you liked this article, check out others like it at The Crooked Thimble and please throw us some financial support at The Crooked Thimble Patreon.
“You only live once…”
I chose that tagline for RogueLife for a few reasons. In many ways, I chose it because I disagree with it. Yes, put a bullet in the right parts of me, and I’ll run out of that one life, but I’ve also lead many lives. I’ve been a preacher, a stuntman, a corporate drone. Those were whole different lives from the one I lead now. That said, each of those lives carried something with them from the previous lives.
The same is true for the best RogueLikes.
Rogue, the original Rogue, was a game of absolutes and uncertainty. When you died, it would erase your whole save game. It has more in common with coin-operated arcade games than it does with modern, popular role playing games. This facet of the game – the permanence of death – is one of its most memorable features while also being its worst.
Rogue, while definitely a cult classic, is not a commercial success by any of today’s standards. Part of this is because of its unfriendliness. It treats its players like garbage, and it revels in this treatment. It’s unfair. Like, it’s really unfair. For example, potions are necessary to survive the dungeon, but which color of potion corresponds to healing is randomized each time you create a character. Aside from healing, potions can also be poison. Experimentation is both necessary and punished.
It’s real bad, and I hate it.
Rewards only feel good when they feel earned. The same is true from punishment. In Rogue, nothing felt earned. It’s hard to crow about victory when you were always one bad roll from losing.
These last two weeks, I’ve been playing Enter the Gungeon and Sunless Sea. They have very different approaches to the concept of death.
Enter the Gungeon is very much in that coin-op shooter territory. Lives can be measured in bullets, and – initially – it appears that there is no continuity at all. You get one life, and that’s it. Now select a character and go again.
However, you start accruing a currency when you defeat bosses. That currency seems useless until you rescue the shopkeepers and unlock the ability to buy new weapons to appear in later runs. Slowly, other characters and events show up which start to affect later runs. Each run – or every few runs – players feel like they have a little more of a chance to kill their past and defeat the ruler of the gungeon.
No, there is no “reloading” after a failed run. You can’t save-scum. It still feels like a RogueLike even though it violates the most basic tenet of the Berlin Interpretation.
(I’m not going to hop on that steaming pile of garbage right now. I’ve got something special in mind for good ol’ Berlin. You have to wait for that. Sorry.)
Sunless Sea takes a different approach. It tells you from the start that your captain will die. It tells you that is alright, and it even shows you ways to improve the inheritance you can leave for later captains. Each time your captain dies, you are asked what your next captain’s relationship to them is. Were they lovers? Rivals? Kinsfolk?
This direct and open continuity feels different from Enter the Gungeon, and it can be crueler in some ways. A life in Sunless Sea can last hours, while a life in the Gungeon will rarely go for even half an hour. The near-total loss of progress in the Gungeon feels acceptable for its session investment. Sunless Sea’s losses can be much larger, and much more cruel. In fact, one short life after a series of long ones can lead to a loss of progress in Sunless Sea that can’t be rivaled by even Rogue. Sunless Sea will happily put you right back at square one even after twenty hours of progress. Rogue would never do that. Rogue couldn’t. Rogue never had the ability to build an investment like that.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be exploring the interplay of “Persistent Death” and “Variable Success” in greater detail. Both are big parts of the game we’re building at The Crooked Thimble, and both are dear concepts to me as a craftsman.
Tomorrow, I’ll be setting out onto the Unterzee again. Captain Eliza is gone, but a woman of letters has taken her place. Perhaps Penny will fare better. I hope she does.
If you wish to see the tragedy that befell poor Eliza, take a look at our episode below. Also, please take a moment to support our Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/crookedthimble.