Science Fiction: ‘Caspar D. Luckinbill, What Are You Going to Do?’ – WIRED

When I get home, the foyer is dark. But not for long. As soon as I enter, the door begins to weep. The ceiling fills with hurrying flame. Burning people run toward me from within the phantasmal walls. Even the floor is a field of carnage. As I walk to the kitchen, I tread on the faces of the maimed.

The kitchen cabinets tell me that churches are burning, that dogs are starving, that a human-rights worker has been killed by forced detegumentation. I open the fridge and take out a tub of four-milk, sumac-seasoned Georgian matzoon.

The living room is being strafed by an airplane. I sit on the couch as children run and scream.

People like to say that you can get used to anything. I know for a fact that this isn’t true. You can get used to bombs. You can get used to gunfire. But you could live as long as God, you could see all he has seen, and you would never get used to the cries of suffering children.

When Lisa comes home, I’m staring into my tub of matzoon, surrounded by faces.

“There you are,” she says, as though being here is a crime.

She goes into the bedroom, which has become a simulation of a torture chamber. Wires curl in curdled blood. A video cat bats a severed thumb. Lisa changes into sweatsocks and jeans. When she comes back into the living room, the faces are still here, hanging all around me, silent and staring.

“Who are these people?” Lisa says, waving. “Gangbangers? Apparatchiks? Assassins?”

I set aside my matzoon. Suddenly I’m angry. I don’t know who the faces are either, but I know this: They are mine. They are faces I will see again, watching from the walls of trains, the tiles above urinals, the backs of cereal boxes. They are faces I will see in my sleep, the way a murderer sees his victims. They are my memories, my future, my dreams.

“What difference,” I say, “does it make to you?”

Lisa stands over me. Her face is like the faces I see on the street, those strangers who turn to stare in disgust at the man who brings
war and death in his wake.

“How dare you?” Lisa says. “How dare you take that tone? I’m dying, Caspar. I’ve put up with this for eight months.”

Eight months—is that all it’s been?

“You think I’m callous?” says Lisa. “You think I don’t care? Look at yourself.”

“What about me?” I say.

Lisa stares. The walls and her face become the color of fire. Something has been building, I see that now. Something has been developing, slowly, fatally, like a war.

“What am I supposed to say,” Lisa says, “to a man who sits here eating yogurt while people are being tortured all around him? What am I supposed to say to a man who loafs around the apartment, day after day, watching rapes and massacres? What am I supposed to say to a man who barely turns his head when he hears a woman screaming?”

“I didn’t ask for this,” I say.

“You don’t seem to mind it.”

I stand. The matzoon container tips and rolls, dribbling white drool. I’m so upset I feel like I’m hovering, suspended in the center of an endless explosion.

“I’ve lost my friends,” I say. “I’ve lost my job. I can’t sleep. I can’t think. You think this is hard for you? Maybe what I need right now is some support.”

“So that’s what it comes to?” Lisa says. “That your pain is bigger than my pain? Really?” She points at the wall. “What about them?” I hold out my arms. I turn in a circle. The room is a killing field now, a farm of bones, and my hands move up and down slowly, as if to try and raise the dead.

“They’re not me,” I say. “They’re not my problem.”

“No,” says Lisa, heading for the door. “They are.”

When the door closes, I walk numbly through the apartment. Missiles arc overhead. Tanks roll.

“What are you going to do?” I say to the sobbing television.

Great works of culture are burning in the hall. “Caspar,” I say to the bloody bedroom, “what are you going to do?”

Outside my window, ad-bugs mill in the night, patterned and phosphorescent, preprogrammed and minute, tiny pixies of light forming pictures of men and women with perfect chins and ears. I stare at these ideal people hovering in the dark, the angels of adspace, so familiar from a thousand daily visions, and realize that what makes them beautiful is not their shapely skulls, their tight skin, their healthy flesh, but their heroic unconcern—untroubled by conscience, unburdened by expectations, they smile for an instant before flickering away into the night.

I sink to my knees.

“Caspar D. Luckinbill,” I say to the bedroom floor, “what are you going to do?”

In the floor I see a body, curled like a twist of wire. The face is obscure, but I would know this man anywhere. I would know him by his NVC alone—hunched with self-pity, shivering with guilt. And I know exactly what I’m going to do.

III

Mediaterrorism is not a concept. Mediaterrorism is an experience.

Every day a new victim is targeted. Make no mistake: it could happen to you.

I wrote that for the voice-over of the teleplay of the documentary I helped to prepare for the British division of a Persian television network. I believe every word, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that everyone else believes it.

It’s a sunny summer day, and I’m walking to the downtown office of the nonprofit organization of which I am founder, spokesman, and president. I don’t worry about jaywalking these days. The light on the corner recognizes me, arranges for me to cross. Money will do that for you. Money has its ways. And money, thank God, is now on my side.

The doors of the building greet me by name. No bombs, no blood, no assaultive sounds. The fake plant in the lobby waves a welcoming leaf. “Caspar D. Luckinbill,” says the elevator, “welcome! What can I do for you today?”

Inside the elevator, an ad-droid is painting a picture on the doors. It’s a picture of my face, from the cover of  Zeit-Life Magazine. In this picture, my eyes have been artificially narrowed, my skin artificially loosened. Everything about me has been made to look harrowed and gaunt.  Special Report, the caption reads.  The Human Face of Mediaterrorism.

I ride the elevator to the fourteenth floor. In my office, Betty lies on her back, screening the new television special. Thanks to the office Ubervision, the image beams from the ceiling. The walls are a forest of virtual, tranquil trees.

“Is he here?” I say.

Betty sits up. “He’s waiting for you.”

Betty is my public awareness manager. She’s also my girlfriend. She is young, smart, media-savvy, and takes care of herself. No loose joint skin on this young lady. She has the firmest, most beautiful knees I’ve ever seen.

“I think it’s finally happened,” Betty says. “I think we’ve finally reached critical mass.”

I put my arms around her and rewind the TV special. The opener begins with doomful music. “Lurking in the shadows of cyberspace,” a man’s voice says, “lies a mysterious new hi-tech predator, on the hunt for human prey. It strikes from your TV, your phone, from the walls of your home, and no one knows who it will target next. Will you be the next victim of . . .  mediaterrorism?”

“Good stuff,” I say. “The deadly part’s a little heavy.”

“We’re covered,” Betty says. “We’ve established links to suicide.”

“In this special two-hour report,” the announcer continues, “you’ll learn about a person—a person just like you—a man named Caspar Luckinbill, who saw his life destroyed when the media he had trusted suddenly and unexpectedly turned against him. And you’ll find out how to protect yourself and those you love from what may be the modern world’s fastest-growing psychological scourge.”

I pause the show. “How wide is the advertising?”

“Wide,” says Betty. “Like, vast. Like, omnipresent. We’re going after seniors first. Then moms. Then kids. By airtime we’ll have total saturation.”

“What about buzz?”

“Are you kidding? People can’t get enough. They’re intrigued. They’re outraged. They’re absolutely terrified.”

The TV special is my baby. I was the one who reached out to the producers. I was the one who made the pitch. I’m chief consultant, assistant producer. And of course I’m the star.

It’s a strange feeling. I’m not just in the charity game. I’m a oneman movement, the soul of a cause, the president of an ever-growing
organization. I’ve become, as the magazines of the globe proclaim, the human face of mediaterrorism.

Betty and I run through other promotional channels—ads, radio, tie-ins, public appearances, even print. It’s important to be comprehensive in this game. You’ve got to blanket the airwaves. You’ve got to speak up. People forget about the big issues, and reminding them is a full-time job. You’ve got to be ubi, omni, toto, round-the-clock. You can have too much of a lot of things in this world, but you can never have too much public awareness.

I give Betty a kiss on her perfect neck. “Keep pushing it. Don’t let up. Let me know if you get overwhelmed.”

“I never get overwhelmed,” Betty says. “I do the whelming.”

I give her another kiss. Then I go into my private office, where Armando sits waiting.

“Caspar D. Luckinbill,” Armando says, rising, “you lucky s.o.b.” He slaps my shoulder. “You’re the talk of the town.”

“I’d better be,” I say. “We’re paying through the nose for it.”

“So that’s your secret? Money talks?”

“Is it a secret?”

“Not many things are, these days,” Armando says.

I shrug. I smile. I feel weirdly ashamed. The truth is, I never expected to be the talk of the town. I guess it’s like a lot of things. I guess you have to hit bottom before you can climb to the top.

When I started my campaign to raise awareness of mediaterrorism, I didn’t honestly hope to be heard. I’d lost my job, my wife, my home, my health. I needed to get busy. I needed to speak out. Speaking out was about the last thing I still had the wherewithal to do.

What I didn’t know was that the reporters would run with it. What makes reporters decide to run with things? “It’s a ripeness issue,” one of the reporters told me. “This is a moment whose time has come.”

What I didn’t know was that there were fellow sufferers. So many, many fellow sufferers.

What I didn’t know was that there were researchers of mediaterrorism—researchers who also wanted to be heard.

What I didn’t know was that the donations I received would be numerous, large, almost reflexive. What I didn’t know was that people would buy my book. I didn’t even know people still read books.

What I didn’t know was that corporations would get involved. Especially the media corporations. Ubervision alone gave $80 million.

What I didn’t know was that the government would take interest, and that consulting with the government can be both lucrative and pleasant.

What I didn’t know, in short, is that something on the order of a mini media and monetary empire can grow up around one man through a process of near-ecological inevitability. Why me? I often wonder.

“Why me?” I say to Armando as we sit in my office sipping South Islay single-malt twenty-three-year-old Scotch over cubes of naturally
refrozen Swiss glacier melt. “That’s what I still don’t understand.”

“It’s obvious,” Armando says. “You’re a nobody, a nonentity. You’re trivial, dull, not even very bright. Another TV-watching office drone who stayed in his mesh-chair and never made a fuss. You’re all of us. You’re an innocent victim.” He crunches glacier. “For what it’s worth, I’ve always supported you.”

“That’s why you’re here,” I say, and beckon him to my desk.

Armando listens while I explain what I need him to do.

“So what I’m hearing,” Armando says, “is that you want this to be discreet.”

“Use your judgment,” I say.

“And you want it to be judicious.”

“Use your discretion.”

“Now it’s my turn to ask,” Armando says. “Why me?”

I look into his wide eyes. I feel sure I can trust him. Of course I never blamed Armando for turning his back on me. It takes a lot of energy, I’ve found, blaming people. It takes more commitment than I’m able to muster.

“You’ve always been someone very special to me, Armando,” I say, and squeeze his shoulder. “You’re my friend who knows about computers.”

When Armando is gone, I go to the office window. Ad-clouds glide through the sky above the city, converted by projectors to flying billboards, sky-high beautiful faces smiling down. I have to go back out to Betty soon, to discuss the campaign for our new fundraising drive. It’s a full-time job, attaining full-time exposure. It doesn’t allow for a lot of freedom.

I hope Armando knows what he’s doing. I don’t want anyone to trace the donations. I don’t want anything linked to my name.

Money circulates. Money gets around. Call it a rich man’s sentimental dream. I’m the human face of a global cause, but I want my
fortune to be infinitely sneaky, invisible as life-giving air or light. I want it to trickle through the world, working its influence unobserved. Above all, I want it to reach the FRF, or whatever that little country’s called now. I see it percolating through the foreign soil, mingling with the graves and seeds and bones. I picture it gathering to itself a secret life, springing skyward as a stand of trees. I picture it inhaling and reaching for the air, and in my better moments I can almost see the details, the windy movement and the flickering leaves, now dark, now bright, like data, like grace.

“Caspar D. Luckinbill, What Are You Going to Do?” by Nick Wolven as seen in THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2017 to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on October 3. Reprinted by permission of the author. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. All rights reserved.

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