Instead of CJ Hopkins’ regular column this week, we’re posting the following excerpt from his dystopian science fiction novel, Zone 23, which we published, so we can do whatever the hell we want with it, and there is nothing he can do to stop us. We hope you enjoy it. Here it is …
Chapter 12 – Billy Jensen
Six months and a few days later, Billy Jensen, who lived somewhere else, and who had never even heard of Taylor Byrd, or Valentina Constance Briggs, or any of the other people in our story, was … well, basically, he was watching TV. He was doing this on the JumboMax screen of his Tannhäuser Systems In-Home Viewer, a Model 60, Series K, which covered one entire wall of his studio. The Model 60, which he’d bought on credit, and owed about GD 400,000 on, was patched into his Tannhäuser Systems In-Home Professional Gaming Console, which resembled the cockpit of a military aircraft and took up most of the rest of his apartment.
Serious gamers like Billy Jensen didn’t mess around when it came to their Viewers, or their In-Home Professional Gaming Consoles. They shelled out for the seriously high-end Pro-stuff, which was optimized to support whatever professional-quality gaming platforms the company in question designed and marketed, or had the exclusive rights to distribute, or some other kind of lucrative deal. Tannhäuser Systems (a partly-owned subsidiary of another subsidiary of another subsidiary of the Hadley Corporation of Menomonie, Wisconsin), in addition to being the market leader in the seriously high-end Viewer market, and Professional Gaming Console market, and offering an extensive and affordable line of professional quality gaming accessories, and T-shirts, and caps, and branded coffee mugs, was also the maker of the wildly popular interactive simulated MercyKill game, KILL CHAIN, which was Billy Jensen’s game.
KILL CHAIN, despite its aggressive-sounding name, was nothing at all like the horribly violent Anti-Social first-person shooter games people used to play in the bad old days. The violence involved was in no way gratuitous; it was strictly clinical, and compassion-based. The Targets were all Class 4 Anti-Socials, who were needlessly suffering late-stage disease, and whose quality of life was non-existent when measured on the HRQOL scale. Most of them were dangerous faith-based Terrorists, who posed potentially devastating threats, possibly with improvised nuclear devices, or horrible chemical or biological agents that would kill you the second they touched your skin. KILL CHAIN players (or Operators) targeted these poor lost souls remotely, neutralizing any threat they posed, and putting them out of their pointless misery.
KILL CHAIN VIII: Compassionate Hammer, released online the previous December, just in time for the Christmas holidays, was, in Billy Jensen’s opinion, one of the best in the KILL CHAIN series. It was sitting there, loaded, in his gaming console, ready to go when he logged off work. KILL CHAIN VII: For Their Own Good had been a serious disappointment. Too much focus had been placed on the Targets, on their personal lives and medical histories, had been the general critical consensus. Billy Jensen had to agree. It felt like maybe the narrative talent had gotten a little carried away with themselves, building in all these endless layers of exposition, mood, and whatever. It was like they wanted you to work your way through some interminable rambling Russian novel (or some academic sociological text) before you could even sight the Targets, much less put a missile down on them. You sat there, stick in hand, for hours, watching them unnecessarily suffering … which all right, granted, definitely got you all pent-up and, like, itching to tag them, which of course when you did, after all that build-up, certainly heightened the sensation of the kill, which was obviously what the designers were going for, but it left you with this weird kind of empty feeling, which after a while got rather tiresome. KILL CHAIN VIII: Compassionate Hammer had cut way down on patterning time. All that boring background stuff had been relegated to a single window that displayed down in the corner of your screen. Average acquisition-to-action time (or “ATA time”) was under an hour. Veteran players, like Billy Jensen, could get a perfectly decent kill in during their lunch or dinner breaks, which Billy Jensen often did.
Billy Jensen was a Junior Online Customer Service Solutions Specialist. He was twenty-seven years old … a Clear. He worked for a firm called Kierkegaard/Bose, designers of some kind of software solutions that had something to do with needs of business that Billy Jensen did not understand. This wasn’t because he was unintelligent. Billy Jensen was extremely intelligent. He could have understood. He just didn’t care to. It wasn’t Billy’s job to understand. Billy’s job was to virtually chat with K/B’s transterritorial clients, trouble-shoot their myriad problems according to a detailed algorithmic script, and get them off the Live-Chat network in less than seven to eight minutes, ideally. Like most OCS reps, he did this from home (a totally modern single’s unit on the 98th floor of TransCom Towers in Northwest Region 228) while logged into K/B’s global network, which auto-monitored Billy’s keystrokes. Billy worked the lobster shift, from 2300 to 0700, which didn’t bother Billy one bit. He kept to a relatively rigid schedule, which aside from doing his OCS job primarily consisted of playing KILL CHAIN six days a week for up to six hours a day. He logged in as soon as he logged off work, and played until just after 1500, after which he worked out, ate, slept a few hours, got up, showered, ate a light breakfast, viewed some Content, and logged back onto the K/B network.
The Content Billy normally viewed while drinking his vitamin-supplemented, high-protein, micronized-glutamine breakfast was KILL CHAIN LIVE! on Channel 16, hosted by Dr. Roger P. Greenway and Susan Schnupftuch-Boermann Goereszky. And thus, it being a normal day, and the time being circa 2150, this was exactly what Billy was doing. The screen of his Tannhäuser Model 60 was running the standard Real-Time feed of what appeared to be a Quarantine Zone, shot from the nose of a UAV holding at an altitude of twenty-three kilometers. Crosshairs were sweeping a four-block grid of empty streets of unlit buildings. They looked like maybe former warehouses, nothing particularly fascinating.
“Any idea where we are now, Roger?”
“Susan, we’re looking at Zone 18, Southeast Region 423. Looks like a sultry night down there. Not much to see at the moment, I’m afraid.”
“It does look pretty desolate, Roger.”
“Like I said, Susan, hot one down there.”
“Shall we introduce Target Number One then, Roger?”
“Susan, looks like Target Number One is a subject name of Carlos Witherspoon. Designated Class 4 Anti-Social Person. Late stage disease. History of violence. Hiding in one of those buildings there, Susan.”
“Any idea which building, Roger?”
“No, apparently not, Susan. We seem to be standing by at the moment.”
An unflattering photograph of Carlos Witherspoon, bug-eyed, grimacing, needing a shave, appeared in the lower left corner of the screen.
“Here’s a photo of Witherspoon, Susan.”
“Yeah. Obviously in pain.”
“Breaks your heart to see them like that.”
“Yes, it certainly does, Susan.”
“No way to hide that kind of suffering.”
“Hopefully, we can get him some relief tonight.”
Billy Jensen hoped they could too. He disliked watching anything suffer, any form of sentient being, even a dangerous faith-based Terrorist. Being a Clear, he could not help this. Compassion was coded into his genes. His heart went out to Carlos Witherspoon, and all the other Carlos Witherspoons out there, suffering their needless pain and suffering. He meticulously peeled the foil away from his Happy Henry’s low-glycemic gluten-free instant energy bar and tried to imagine their pain and suffering. He couldn’t, or not entirely anyway. The desperate and unfocused rage, the hatred and envy of everything normal, and above all else the unrelenting fear that ruled their existence and governed all their actions, were emotions Billy had never felt, and thus could never completely conceive of, except in some purely intellectual way. The Variant-Positives were challenging enough, with their inner conflicts, and doubts, and questions, and their constant struggle to stay detached. Billy’s heart went out to them too, more so even, as he understood them, and how they thought, and he felt their pain. They wanted to be healthy, the Variant-Positives. They never would be, but they tried their best. The medications they took were crude, but they did seem to slow their disease progression, or at least reduced the worst of their symptoms to something approaching manageable levels. The drugs, however, could never stop them forming their Anti-Social ideations, or clear away the fog of primitive drives and base emotions that shrouded their brains. As uncorrected Homo sapiens sapiens, the best they could do was attempt to maintain a constant state of hypervigilance (i.e. paying close attention to their thoughts and feelings, writing them down, analyzing them, and then verbalizing them to “make them real.”) They did this in their support group meetings, and with friends, family, colleagues and doctors, and whoever was sitting beside them on the train, soliciting feedback from all and sundry, which they then evaluated and processed with others, who gave them feedback on this feedback, which brought up other thoughts and feelings, which they diligently processed, analyzed and verbalized, and meditated on at considerable length. All of which left them totally exhausted and no longer certain what they were feeling, or thinking, or exactly what they wanted, or what they had just been talking about. Billy’s Variant-Positive parents, Woody and Carmen, were perfect examples. They could hardly get through a conversation without stumbling over some thought or emotion that triggered some anxious observation of some possibly symptomatic reaction that they needed to process, accept and detach from, and otherwise discuss at considerable length. Billy loved his parents deeply, and he empathized with their pain, of course, but he couldn’t help feeling they would both be so much happier once they had reincarnated … whatever, Billy reasoned, chewing, in another hundred years or so the endless trials and tribulations of the Variant-Positives would all be over. In the meantime, they had done as much as any defective strain could do. They had tackled the problem (Anti-Social Disease) in a rational and scientific manner. To use a systems-based trouble-shooting analogy, which Billy did whenever possible, they had tracked and found their system error (the aberrant variant of the MAO-A gene), effected repairs to what they could (medicated the Variant-Positives), effectively quarantined what they couldn’t (segregated the A.S.P.s), and taken appropriate long-term steps to eliminate any future recurrence (developed the variant correction technologies, which had produced the Clarions, like Billy Jensen). All of which steps were perfectly logical, and thus, to Billy, complete no-brainers. However, he reflected, swallowing, for the Variant-Positives in charge at the time, these must have been rather difficult decisions, entailing as they did the making redundant, or phasing out, of their entire subspecies. Cognitively challenged as they were, he had to admire those Variant-Positives, those of his parents’ generation, who had made those decisions and who were trying their best to ensure a smooth and peaceful transition to a healthier world they would have no part in.
The A.S.P.s were a different matter. The poor things didn’t even know they were sick. Their brains were so gone, so riddled with disease, that they actually believed that they were normal, and that the Variant-Positives and Clears were the freaks. Which one good look in the mirror should have told them was not just wrong, but completely ridiculous. All right, sure, there were exceptions, but overwhelmingly, the Anti-Socials were simply … well, unattractive. They looked unhealthy, and congenitally so. And this was true of even the least afflicted and most cooperative among them, the ones they allowed outside the Zones to work in the Residential Communities, who Billy sometimes saw in passing on his way to Finkles or Big Buy Basement. The ones they didn’t let out were worse. Their skin was terrible, either dry and cracked or overly oily, and probably stank. Their hair was all greasy, clumped and matted, or it was powdered with dandruff and crawling with lice. Most of them seemed to be missing teeth, which was certainly caused by periodontitis. They bathed infrequently, clearly never flossed, didn’t use condoms, and smoked tobacco. Something like sixty percent, it was said, were chronic Diplastomorphinol users. The rest were mostly alcoholics, or were killing themselves in some other fashion. Billy could not begin to fathom what went through their small, enfeebled minds. How they went on, what they lived for, why they didn’t just euthanize themselves, were questions he had never been able to answer. Still, despite his instinctual revulsion (which any healthy organism felt when confronted with some grotesque abnormality among the members of its potential gene pool), he was, above all else, a Clear … so whenever he saw their photos appear on the screen of his Viewer on KILL CHAIN LIVE!, or even when he was just playing KILL CHAIN, and was confronted with their unrelenting pain, and pointless physical and emotional suffering, he felt himself overcome with compassion, and not just for the Target at hand, but for every living, needlessly suffering, uncorrected sentient being … that, and an irresistible urge to take them out as quickly as possible.
KILL CHAIN LIVE! on Channel 16, had been on the air for some twenty-five years. It ran at 2300 nightly, except for Sundays and major holidays. Billy Jensen had been watching the show, religiously, since the age of twelve, which technically his parents should have prevented, but nobody ever checked that stuff. The production elements had changed through the years as styles went in and out of fashion and new technologies came online, but the basic premise remained the same. Targets posing imminent threats, usually in some Recovering Area, but occasionally in one of the Quarantine Zones, were acquired, locked on, and eventually taken, typically by a laser-guided AGM 660 Godsend missile, the classic air-to-surface munition manufactured by Pfizer-Lockheed, which was one of the major sponsors of the show. The 660 Godsend, a solid fuel rocket, equipped with either a standard condensed or an “indoor” thermobaric warhead, and a Semi-Active Laser Homing guidance system that was totally unrivaled, was the ordnance of choice of Security Services throughout the United Territories. Not only was the Godsend a first class weapon suitable for use in both open and urban Emergency Threat Containment environments, but by licensing the use of its in-flight footage to KILL CHAIN LIVE! on Channel 16, Security Divisions of leading corporations, like the Hadley Corporation of Menomonie, Wisconsin, were doubling and tripling their profit margins. Hi-Def Real-Time NoseCam feed provided PixelPerfect footage of the Godsend’s dizzying Mach 2 descent through diaphanous webs of fluffy white clouds like some monomaniacal avenging angel. Average flight time was 26 seconds, during which the Operator needed to hold the crosshairs steady, painting the target, which was often moving, for the Godsend’s onboard laser seeker. The last few seconds were always a blur, so you had to wait for the slow-mo replays and satellite footage from other angles to see all the details and determine the score. For the overwhelming majority of Targets, death was instant, and presumably painless, unless a Target was exceptionally good, or whoever was manning the UAV screwed up somehow, or something malfunctioned. Normally, the Targets, whoever they were, males mostly, but sometimes females, and sometimes groups, or “hives” as they called them, were vaporized never knowing what hit them. Before the strikes you’d get their backgrounds, names, photos, medical histories, ages, associates, whatever there was. Then came a ten-minute call-in segment, when they read out people’s Fleeps and Tweaks, followed by some kind of medical expert, who Billy Jensen generally ignored. The current hosts, Dr. Roger P. Greenway and Susan Schnupftuch-Boermann Goereszky, were fairly attractive Variant-Positives whose job it was to look “concerned” or “deeply interested” or “wildly excited” while talking into the camera continuously as other people talked in their ears, telling them what to do and say.
“Susan, I think we’re getting the yellow.”
“I’ve got that here as well, Roger.”
Susan Schnupftuch-Boermann Goereszky, who sometimes did the news on Sundays, was “live” at her desk on the KILL CHAIN LIVE! set, a technological phantasmagoria officially located in Studio B of the Channel 16 Broadcast Center. Dr. Greenway was hunkered down in an undisclosed secure location, probably somewhere down the hall, surrounded by screens and wires and panels of buttons that nobody knew what they did.
“Susan, we’re definitely yellow here, Susan.”
“Still no sign of Witherspoon, Roger?”
“Nothing yet. But there must be something, or we wouldn’t be getting the yellow, Susan.”
“Roger, we’re going yellow in the studio.”
The infinity cycs in Studio B faded slowly from orange to yellow. Susan Schnupftuch-Boermann Goereszky cleared her throat and adjusted her posture. An ad for Anabastastic Plus, a painless anal bleaching compound, popped up right in the middle of the screen, which didn’t have anything to do with anything, so Billy minimized and stacked it with the others.
“Susan, it feels like something’s happening.”
“Is something happening?”
“Feels like it, Susan.”
“Still no sign of Witherspoon, Roger?”
“Susan, we’re getting … hold on, Susan. Someone’s talking … yes, good. We’ve got a location.”
“Which satellite, Roger?”
The feed from various orbiting satellites was flipping past in one corner of the screen … overhead shots of abandoned buildings on nearly identical empty streets.
“Do we have a number on that satellite, Roger?”
“Hold on, Susan. It’s coming in now.”
Susan Schnupftuch-Boermann Goereszky rolled her neck and flared her nostrils.
“2230. 2230. Satellite 2230, Susan!”
Dr. Greenway wrenched his neck now, rolling the tension out of his shoulders. Billy smiled and scanned his messages. Nothing that couldn’t wait ten minutes.
“Got him, Roger! There he is now!”
Satellite 2230 was up and feeding a beautiful tracking “god shot” of Carlos Witherspoon barreling out of some random building which was now on fire.
“Looks like that building’s on fire there, Roger.”
“Yes, it certainly does, Susan. It appears we’ve got some boots on the ground. They seem to have flushed him out there, Susan.”
“Oh no. Are they going to take him themselves?”
“Possibly, Susan. We just don’t … wait. Wait. Yes. I’m getting something.”
Consummate professional that she was, Susan Schnupftuch-Boermann Goereszky went straight to Real-Time Operator Feed, a risky move, but she just had a feeling. Carlos Witherspoon ran for his life, across an avenue and into a field, heading for a grove of crumbling buildings.
“We’re getting something …”
“I’m on it, Roger.”
The RTO Feed came up sharply, crosshairs groping and feeling for Carlos, who was doing a crazy zig-zag pattern across the field where there was no cover.
“Green, Susan. We’ve got a green here.”
The cycs in the studio went to green.
“Going green in the studio, Roger.”
Operator 225 was up. A silhouette showing his operator number and season statistics, which were all exemplary, appeared in the lower right corner of the screen.
“What can we say about our operator, Roger?”
“Susan, Operator 225 has 93 kills, 15 collateral, with an EEA of 2.1.”
“Pretty incredible numbers, Roger.”
“That’s right, Susan. And it’s only April.”
Operator 225 was good. Really good. Like circus shot good. Billy had seen him bank a missile off one moving car and into another, wasting an entire family of Targets with virtually zero collateral damage. Another time he’d flown one down a stairwell and into the lobby of this building, vaporizing everyone hiding in the lobby while the others upstairs went on with their breakfasts. What he was doing with Carlos Witherspoon was dancing the crosshairs back and forth against the direction and matching the speed of his zig-zag pattern across the field. Billy gave him, like, another twelve seconds before Carlos reached the safety of the buildings.
“This operator is amazing, Susan. He’s leading the target.”
“We’re watching it, Roger.”
The Foxtrot button on the RTO screen lit up suddenly.
“FOXTROT, SUSAN! FOXTROT! FOXTROT!”
Dr. Greenway leapt to his feet, bringing his crotch up into the camera. Billy chuckled. Carlos ran. Susan Schnupftuch-Boermann Goereszky kept her composure and went to NoseCam.
Southeast Region 423, wherever that was on the planet Earth, was rushing up into the screen, a blur of shuddering white and red and orange lights with squiggly tails, the patchwork grid of endless cities bleeding into other cities, indistinguishable, like a storm of stars, as the Godsend missile screamed down out of the night from twenty kilometers up. In a window in the lower left corner of the screen, Operator 225 was sweeping the delicate crosshairs back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, dancing with Carlos, intersecting him … now … now … now … and finally …
“WHOA! Unbelievable precision! Absolutely textbook, Susan! That’s got to be one for the highlight reel!”
“Let’s take a look at the replays, Roger.”
The screen was already subdividing, running an array of slow-mo replays of the kill from sixteen different angles. Billy froze one in which the missile hung in the air over Carlos Witherspoon, ten or twelve meters above and behind him, its cherry red nose cone pointed at the spot the stride he was taking would carry him into in approximately 0.06 seconds. In another window, he pulled up and readied the login screen of the K/B network. His shift began in forty-three seconds.
“Never knew what hit him, Susan.”
“His needless suffering is over now, Roger.”
“Not to mention the threat he posed, Susan.”
“Any details on what that was, Roger?”
“I’m afraid not, Susan. Definitely serious, though. Oh, look at that shot on Satellite 60! You can almost see the expression on his face.”
Billy pulled up his algorithmic script.
“Roger, we’re getting some breaking news in.”
“That is a dead center hit there, Susan!”
“Roger, we’re breaking away for a second.”
“Say again, Susan.”
Susan was gone. The picture had cut to a stock montage of Jimmy “Jimbo” Cartwright, III, founder and CEO of Finkles, the Transterritorial retail powerhouse, who’d been battling cancer for several decades, and who had suffered some sort of major setback. Senior News Anchor Chastaine Chandler, a stunning young Clear with designer lips and no hips at all who Billy had a crush on, appeared in a window in the upper right corner. Sadly, Jimbo’s condition was grave. The family had gathered at the Cartwright compound, filming on the grounds of which was not permitted, and had issued a statement thanking Jimbo’s millions of loyal customers and fans for their millions of emails, Fleeps and Tweaks, and prayers, and ongoing customer loyalty. Chastaine Chandler took a beat, shook her head in disbelief, and wiped a tear from the corner of her eye.
“I’d like to play a Fleep we received from a Finkles customer in Region 220 …”
Billy Jensen swiped her away and logged onto the K/B network.
Zone 23, by CJ Hopkins
Photo: U.S. Air Force, Tech. Sgt. Richard Lisum/Wikimedia Commons
DISCLAIMER: The preceding excerpt is entirely the work of our in-house satirist and self-appointed political pundit, CJ Hopkins, and does not reflect the views and opinions of the Consent Factory, Inc., its staff, or any of its agents, subsidiaries, or assigns. If, for whatever inexplicable reason, you appreciate Mr. Hopkins’ work and would like to support it, please go to his Patreon page (where you can contribute as little $1 per month), or send your contribution to his PayPal account, so that maybe he’ll stop coming around our offices trying to hit our staff up for money. Alternatively, you could purchase his satirical dystopian novel, Zone 23, which we understand is pretty gosh darn funny, or any of his subversive stage plays, which won some awards in Great Britain and Australia. If you do not appreciate Mr. Hopkins’ work and would like to write him an abusive email, please feel free to contact him directly.