Crappy sign, pre-NT. Black plastic letters, magnetic, affixed to what used to be a white background at the ass end of the previous century.
Definitely not God's handiwork. No way.
The Supreme Deity is not big on extruded plastic with that cracked, yellow look certain long chain polymers get when they've been cooking in the sun for several decades. The magnetic letters are badly spaced, yet! If God can keep the universe humming along, he can definitely handle kerning.
This low-rent, last-century appearance is, no doubt, deliberate. A calculated effect from the man behind the curtain. Or woman. Or whoever's running the shadowy public sector establishment this lousy sign draws your attention to. They're projecting an oldtimey image that's the antithesis of cold perfection, or the nightmares of Orwell, Kafka or Dante. We're crappy, therefore non-threatening. Which makes them all the more threatening. In his opinion.
OK, OK. Let's get on with it.
The badly-spaced magnetic letters read: DEPARTMENT OF REVENGE.
Art's driven by that sign a thousand times. (Strictly speaking 1,117 times. The expression is rhetorical.)
Today, he's finally going in.
By way of background ...
What they used to call a "computer" used to be the size of a warehouse. Thanks to the relentless efforts of engineers, it shrunk to the size of a room, further dwindled to a big ugly box that fit on a desk, then to a small, pretty box, then a 'vice you put in your pocket, then invisible motes that hung in the air. "Ubiquitous computing," another worn-out expression, became a reality. Computers the size of bacteria and the capacity of Big Blue. Everywhere. Up your ass, and not rhetorically.
And all the little eyes, ears and minds watched everybody everywhere. And they talked to each other.The world didn't resemble a bad dystopian movie, thanks to strict regulation enforced by rule-based systems. But the motes would rat you out if you were planning some form of murder, theft, rape or assault. So people stopped doing that stuff.
Imagine a world without crime. It's not so jolly wonderful as it sounds.
Human beings have this hard-wired sense of when they've been wronged -- and a hard-wired need to balance the karmic scales. If you take away the big stuff, the small stuff turns into the big stuff. Snubs, dirty looks, insults. I'm gonna make that bastard pay. If you can't, you go out of your ever-loving mind. The motes figured this out.
Hence, THE DEPARTMENT OF REVENGE.
In a related development, Gregor Samsa was turned into a giant cockroach by the hive mind of Yeptide-7. The experiment turned out badly.
Art navigates a hall under a drop-ceiling of popcorn rectangles interspersed with flickering florescent lights. On the walls, helpful red arrows point to DOR. He follows them, and arrives at the DOR office. Glass door, metal frame. The sign on the door reads ...
VENGEANCE IS YOURS!
Department of Revenge (DOR) District 12
Art pushes his way in. The door squeaks, resists, but opens.
He's in. This is it.
A gum-chewing secretary walks up to him. Female, but let us elide the implication of sexism and focus on her archaic profession. Secretary? She might as well be a blacksmith. In this cowardly new world, secretaries, like blacksmiths, are rarely seen outside of some kind of theater. Which this probably is.
Farthur Cobb. Farter Cobb. Art the Fart. Art the Nob. Arse Cob. Arser Slob. Nobbler Cock. Corncob Fart. Corner Hole. Assbreath Glob.
"Have you been wronged?"
"Sorry to hear that, sir. Do you desire, within the statutory limits of the law, to right that wrong or series of wrongs through your own actions?"
"Well, why do you think I'm here?"
"Sir, are you trying to get smart with me?"
Her big, blue eyes stare at him.
Smart. Nobody's accused him of that. An upgrade upstairs? Art can't afford it.
"I can't read your mind, Mr. Cobb. You have to tell me. That's procedure. Please answer the question."
"Sure .. uh. What's the question?"
"Do you desire, within the statutory limits of the law, to right that wrong or series of wrongs through your own actions?"
"I mean, yes. That's why I'm here. Yes."
She hands him this white flimsy thing. Wha ... he suddenly recognizes it from his childhood. Paper. It's actually a form on a sheet of paper. And now she's handing him a pen! It's a form, he's got a pen. He's supposed to fill out the form. Wow! Art suspects it's more of that "theater." But, after he figures out how the pen works, he fills it out that form thing and hands it to her.
Art's expecting applause or something. But she's not that impressed.
"Thank you, sir. Your Vendetta Counselor will be here shortly. You may sit down in the interim. A waiting room has been provided for your convenience."
She points. There's a clear plastic partition with chairs on the other side, a coffee table with magazines. Taking the hint, Art walks over to that space.
Art sits down. The Vendetta Counselor appears instantly. Art gets back up.
Manly guy, tall, big chin, big smile, bone-crushing handshake.
"Hi, Art. My name's Jack...but you can call me Jack." Big grin. "Please step into my office."
Art follows Jack like a terrier behind a pitbull. Left, right, right, left, left, through a maze of corridors. They finally arrive.
"Ta-da!" says Jack.
Unlike the rest of this set-up, Jack's office is clean, minimalistic, intimidating. Like Jack.
Jack sits down at his desk, a floating black marble slab. Art stands. Jack waves his hand, nods, offering Art permission to sit on an amorphous blob that looks like a giant, sickly white blood cell.
"Like it, Art?"
"Baby! You seriously imagine I give two flying shits what you do or do not like?" Jack pantomimes tossing two invisible turds. "I do not, Art. To put it more politely, fuck your opinions, shove 'em up your ass, keep 'em to yourself, do whatever you want. I like this office. That's my opinion, baby. And that's what counts."
Jack winks, snaps his finger, and points it at Art like he's aiming a gun. Archaic gesture.
Not the kindly priest figure Art was inspecting. Swaggering, insulting. Like an insult comic from the last century. Why? More theater, but Art fails to see the logic. Logic aside, Jack scares the holy crap out of him. Like every bully he's ever known. And all of his ex-wives.
"First impressions, Art?"
"Uh, no complaints, no complaints."
"Translation. No complaints you got the balls to tell me to my face. Am I right? Of course, I am. You're intimidated, right? Relax, kid. This time I'm asking for your opinion. That's different, OK? Feel free to share. Spill your gut, baby. Not about the office. The whole show. What do you think?"
"I think ... I think it's great."
"Bullshit -- exactly the kind of bullshit I'd expect! I'm extremely disappointed in you. Don't be so goddamn predictable. You 'think' we're playing with you, Farthur? This is some kind of game? Don't answer that question. Of course that's what you think. We know. See this form?"
Jack taps the white sheet of paper. Which has magically appeared at the center of his floating desk.
"Fuck the form." Jack crumples it up and bounces it off Art's forehead. "While we're at it, fuck this Colonial Williamsburg shit. Despite appearances, we know what's what. It's in your sweat, Jack. We can read it."
"I think ..."
"Sit the fuck back down!"
Art does as he's told. Hadn't even realized he'd ...
"Why the ... "
"Why the 1997 appearance? Misdirection, disorientation. Your mind's so busy trying to figure this shit out you forget to put up a mask. We wanted a clean reading. We got it."
"Of the dartboard of your heart, Fart. All the darts still stuck there. Have you been wronged? We don't ask if you think we've been wronged. We know. You have. And you can even the karmic scales! That's what we're here for. But there's a price."
Art fumbles for his cred chip.
"No, assmonkey. Psychological, spiritual, whatever."
"OK. What ..."
"You've been wronged? What's that mean? Your feelings are hurt? No." Jack's tone changes. Serious now, reciting a catechism like the solemn priest Art had originally imagined. "Intent is the issue. On the part of the person who wronged you. The fundamental basis of injustice isn't the perception of hurt but the intent."
"Which means ..."
"I thou, I it. Fuck it!" Back to insult comic again. "Failing the fucking empathy test. Treating another person as a thing, as a nothing, a means to an end, not a person. Somebody do that to you?
"Yeah, they did. Stop playing stupid, Art. That smart mouth of yours got your ass kicked. You learned to play stupid. You're not stupid. IQ's at 139 give or take. Do me a favor and drop the stupid act."
Art starts weeping. Jack slaps him.
He points to a sign on the wall. The sign says: NO CRYING!
Art stops crying.
"Now what? What do you think? Payback time? Is that what you think, you dickless wonder? Fuck that shit. We're not interested in some fucking Jacobean revenge tragedy. Here at the DOR, revenge is redemptive. You're going to make that asshole a better person! Every one of those assholes. With government permission, you'll get into their minds, tear 'em apart and put 'em back together."
"It's gonna hurt?'
"Of course it's gonna hurt."
"But it's just bad dreams ..."
"That seem completely real while they're happening."
"You seen the fucking Matrix?"
"Then don't waste my time! They'll feel it, OK? And you'll feel it too."
"It's very simple, dumbass. Think of it this way. You're the executioner, Art -- and it's your head on the block at the same time. You can swing that axe. But if you want the bastards to feel it, you have to feel it."
"I still don't get it."
"Jesus. Duh. The pain you put in somebody else's head goes into your head too. Duh. That's what you gotta do to make the bad guys hurt. Get it?"
Art nods. Yeah. He finally gets it.
"That's the price, my friend. You in?"
Art looks around for pen and paper.
"In the air, asswipe. With your finger."
"It's your life. How the fuck should I know?"
Jack pushes a big red button on his desk that wasn't there five seconds ago.
He's looking up. The lattice of a geodesic dome getting a little closer, a little further away, a little closer ...
He finally realizes where he is.
Refugee camp. Art, like the weakling that he is, is struggling to do a pull-up on the parallel bars. Despite the low lunar gravity, it's still hard. If he can just do one today, and maybe two tomorrow and keep doing it, he'll be strong. The cheerleaders are watching. Out of nowhere, Greg runs over, grabs him by the ankles and pulls. Art slams the ground. Like. Punch in the gut from a giant's fist. Can't. Breathe. Art gasps like a fish, flops. Greg laughs and runs off. The cheerleaders laugh.
Art gets his breath back, staggers to his feet.
Clenches his weak fists. Looks around.
Where is he? Where the fuck is he?
There. Standing behind the ...
Runs. Around the chain link fence where Greg is laughing it up with his lackeys. Art has the element of surprise. Greg's not expecting ...
Art to walk up to him from behind. Pull back his fist. And slam Greg in his fat fucking gut.
There's a vague ghost memory. Some other life. Art doing the gut punch. Greg blinking like he's been stung by a mosquito. Then breaking Art's nose with a fist like a canned ham.
But this time around ...
Art's punch is a popped hydro-cell. Greg drops to his knees, howling.
Art grabs a baseball bat. (Wow, just conveniently lying there, what are the odds?) Metal, new NT-alloy, light but vicious. Bat in hand, Art goes to town.
Welcome to Revenge City. Population You.
Knees. Ribs. Elbow. Ribs again.
Greg screams. Begs.
"Oh, it hurts huh? That's what it feels like, fucker. That's how it feels!"
Another swing to his goddamn right knee. Greg screams like a girl.
"Stop! Please... stop!"
Art doesn't stop. Not for awhile. Then he tosses the bat down. It rings like a church bell on the NT-crete.
He walks away. Some of Greg's toadies actually applaud. Greg is still weeping.
Yeah, that was fun.
His new rep spreads out through the hive mind of this shitty school. Art is reassessed. His standing changes. His status goes up.
Art is crazy this is clear. The shitheads who used to pick on him stop.
The disciplinary review board absolves Art. Consistent pattern of harassment. PTSD. Emotional explosion. Inevitable. Not his fault.
Greg limps after that. Kicked off the football team.
Fatass joke now. Shadow of his former self. Dragging that bad leg around like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. After a week or so, Greg starts doing pull ups to get his strength back.
There he is, grunting and straining.
Art seizes this window of opportunity.
He runs up and grabs Greg by the ankles and pulls him down.
Greg hits the ground. (Slab of NT-crete. Just easier to call it the "ground," OK?) Hard, oh yeah. Greg belly-flops. Just slams right into it.
The cheerleaders laugh
Greg writhes and gasps like a beached fish. (Now where have we seen this before?) Art stands there, enjoying it, really enjoying it.
Then runs off to his new set of pals who spend most of their time kissing Art's ass (metaphorically) telling him how great he is.
And he's back in that nightmare office.
"No," he says.
"Yeah," Jack says.
"Jesus, I'm just as bad as ..."
"Sure. Give a weak sister like you a little power? You're worse."
"No. That's crap you fed into my brain. I wouldn't do ... "
Smiling Jack, having a laugh at his expense. "Yeah, that' s exactly what you'd do, baby. You might remember that old bullshit Indian proverb? 'To judge a man, you must walk a mile in his moccasins.' Some shit like that, remember?"
"Well. It ain't like that. As a matter of fact, it's the other way around. You judge some motherfucker, you'll walk a mile in his moccasins. All of 'em, Art. Every single one. Ready for the next one?"
"No. Wait. I've learned my lesson!"
"Like hell you did. We ain't even started, baby."
"I didn't like it."
"Tough shit. Karma's a bitch, ain't it?"
"You have no right!"
"Hey, you signed the contract, pal. Full payback, as I recall. Every bastard who did whatever is gonna get theirs. The legal lingo's a little more fancy. But that's the point. Now buckle your seatbelt and take it like a ..."
"You're telling me no? Seriously?"
"Who the hell do you think you are, Art?"
"I ...well... could pose the same question to you, Jack!"
It's the perfect comeback.
"Who the hell do you think you are? God?"
Jack blinks. Actually surprised.
"God? You mean ... Me personally?"
"No. This whole ... Department of Revenge ... thing.
"Nah, kid. We're just humble public servants here." Snort. "Just a government agency, separation of church and state and all that. Yeah. 'We're playing God.' Woah. Said accusation has been voiced in certain libertarian and old-time-religion quarters.. But Gawd is clearly a separate category in our book."
"Then why are you ..."
"Government money, stupid. This virtual reality spaghetti western you're experiencing? Some bureaucrat in 2057 thought it balanced the karmic scales or something. Funny thing? Some jerk like you gets revenge. Guess what? All the jerks you put through hell want revenge on you! The wheel goes round and round, baby. This gravy train never stops!"
"What? I .. I want out."
"And out you shall get. The only way out is through, baby."
"Yeah. Bottom line? The bill passed, and nobody actually read it. Sailed through Congress like shit through a goose! Who cares? Ancient history. Let's get going."
Jack pushes the big red button.
Art is 13 years old.
A kid with bad teeth spits in Art's face.