The Hellfire Tutorials

Bryan Alston Patrick

Prelude: The Escapist

“But what is this fascination with the Earth being flat?” Asks celebrity physicist Mariel Lemmon-Quatro or her photorealistic avatar. If it’s not actually her it’s that good.

“Evan Hellfire?” Says host and moderator Sydney Vegas. “Want to take that one?”

This is how ridiculous these shows have gotten, pairing scientists with bloggers and gamers and generalized commentators with no known expertise or credentials in any specific field who professionally appear on these omnicasts to opine on whatever comes up in the course of barely structured exchanges, thinly veiled product placement and self-generating discursive filler.

“Okay. Sure.” Says the cartoon duck named Evan Hellfire. The swashbuckling squirrel most of his followers know from his own work never appears on these cheesy panels. The squirrel is a carefully cultivated representation and thus sacred. The duck came included with some freeware from Dream Reel or Ghost Light in one of the many VPK packages Evan receives everyday from producers eager to get their environments and games featured on his super-blog.

“I think the fascination is pretty obvious.” Evan says.

“Obvious?” Mariel’s smirk shows up slightly jagged. She’s an avatar most likely provided by Sydney’s people to simplify compositing the digital set.

She’s one of only two human looking panelists. Sydney is a shapely blonde fox as usual, unmistakably feminine despite “her” official status as gender neutral.

Lance Kincade showed up as a throwback robot in black and white like he just rolled out of an episode of Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. He started in sportscasting and that’s what he still does most of the time but he’s had to diversify like everyone else in the chat game.

Documentarian Janet Corduroy is really here promoting her recent non-fiction piece about at-risk teens in Westchester Country joining up with thrillionaire cells in Manhattan, Philly and Baltimore. They could be talking about the explosion of recreational terrorism in major cities and its recently alarming spread into rural and exurban communities in decline.

But they’re talking about Flat Wave instead. This is the periodic subcultural fixation on the possibility that the Earth is not spherical and that all scientific evidence to the contrary is manufactured by a small powerful elite using one tool of deception after another to keep the masses in their place.

Lance the robot coughs. Evan tenses up even though they are nowhere near each other physically. That’s a relief momentarily until one considers that there is no conclusive proof that a virus couldn’t adapt to virtual environments. That’s what viral strains do after all—they adapt—it’s their bread and butter as tenacious microorganisms. Without this trait they would have been extinct eons ago. The virtual frontier is simply one more dimension for them to conquer. Terms such as “viral marketing” could have attracted them, introducing computer viruses made of code to traditional ones made of macromolecules.

The cough becomes code so could the expelled particulates become code. Everything and everyone in here is code. People move back and forth, binary code here, genetic code there. In all of the universe it couldn’t be ruled out conclusively that binary could jump to genetic as genetic jumped to binary.

And what can’t be conclusively ruled out is the same as an immanent threat. That’s OCD. That’s what makes it tick.

There is just that smidge of a doubt and that’s all it takes. Evan is white-knuckling through the rest of the show because his boss and benefactor Sheila Nexus basically ordered it. Otherwise, he would unplug immediately and bail on this hinterland of unforeseen risk. Apologies could be issued later to Sydney, with enough time to fabricate reasonable sounding excuses. Sydney would forget all about it in a few days or weeks. Sheila, however, would not.

Sheila’s been more demanding lately than supportive, her maternal touch on hiatus in favor of tough love intended to spring Evan from self-imposed exile. She always has a strategy. You don’t get to be the most powerful person in media without having every move figured out before you make it, steps ahead of everyone else. That’s Sheila.

She tried the patient, compassionate approach but Evan hasn’t gotten any better. He’s been trying to hide it but most likely Sheila sees him getting worse.

It doesn’t help that the environment has a hefty physicality. The enamel on the conference tabletop picks up everyone’s reflection and tracks seamlessly. When Lance finally does sneeze, the robot produces a misty expulsion from its face that hangs and gradually descends, fogging the sleek surface. Obviously, he sprung for the scatological accessory. Eventually the residue disappears, albeit with an abruptness that feels less than realistic.

And the tactile editing is a tad less than—the density and timbre of the table feel and sound more like hard plastic than laminated wood—but it’s solid to the touch and would no doubt bruise one’s knuckles for real were one to drive one’s fist into the surface as Evan is tempted to do right now. Anxiety is oppressive and oppression breeds resentment and rage. Always an outburst away from a faux pas or a panic attack, Evan hasn’t left his apartment in a year.

Slipping up here would land him in Sheila’s office for real and that would mean leaving his apartment due to unavoidable contractual obligations. Instead, his little feathery white duck hands grip the armrests on his chair, digging in, leaving impressions that will disappear completely with the room regenerates for Sydney’s next show.

The conference room itself is supposed to be a pill-shaped spaceship—a space capsule resembling an actual gel-cap. Outside the windows is a highly detailed, speculative rendering of deep space complete with a nearby nebula, twin pulsars off in the distance subtly reacting to an event horizon only the most obsessive viewer would notice slowly devouring everything around it.

“In what ways is it obvious?” Sydney says to fill space and keep the beat going.

Lance’s cough and subsequent throat-clearing were enough to have completely derailed Evan.

“Evan? You were about to say?”

Oh yeah.

“It’s like any other virtual environment.” Evan says because he has to start somewhere. Of the four panelists, he’s almost definitely done the most research because it’s impossible given his obsessive wiring not to. “It’s another form of escapism.”

“But it’s more than a virtual environment.” Says Janet, trying to stay afloat in case there is some unforeseen opportunity to talk about her new doc. “People really believe this stuff. At least from what I hear?”

“Maybe some people.” Evan says, outrunning the paranoia that will chase him for the rest of the day into tomorrow. “Some people believed that President Mitchum was never a man and just made up the whole back story to capture a demographic. There were protests in the streets. Now no one actually believes that. Some people will always believe the Earth is flat no matter what but a lot of them are just momentarily into this and they will move on to something newer and more interesting tomorrow or next month.”

“But why does this kind of pseudo-scientific nonsense still get any traction with anyone?” Mariel asks, half rhetorically. “We’re not living in pre-modern times with no access to electronic media.”

“Careful what you wish for.” Lance says somewhat illogically. “We could be headed back that way any second now.”

His ambiguity is totally deliberate. This is a little bait for his followers. They’ll stay hooked now hoping he’ll explain the remark at some point and if he doesn’t they will comment back and forth as to whether he was silenced before he could. Someone could disconnect his avatar—there’s no telling.

“What gets people going on this,” Evan continues before he can stop himself, “is the mind-fuck piece. Can I say mind-fuck?”

“You can.” Sydney says. “The feed is self-censoring on the viewer side. We’re all about the First Amendment here while completely respecting the rights and tastes and preferences of every individual human, animal and plant worldwide. Viewers with their profanity filters activated will hear the equivalent of either mind-flip or mind-funk in more than a hundred languages depending on region and choice of software.”

“Right on.” Evan says for pacing more than anything. “Anyway, the hook is the mind-fuck, that despite all the space exploration heretofore, there is a shocking dearth of visual evidence showing the Earth in a way that is indisputably physical. Once people see that they are naturally intrigued and once they’re intrigued like that Flat Wave becomes an excellent means of escaping day to day reality. People really dig the idea that everyday reality is an illusion that’s been constructed because that means you might be able to escape it. If I was a shrink I might tell you it has something to do with the natural fear of death, right? If none of this is real, maybe there’s a way out of this mortality deal? Get it?”

“Very interesting.” Sydney says.

Lance rolls his eyes causing the robot to blink rapid-fire like it’s having an episode of some kind. Either he didn’t spring for the full facial expression package or there isn’t one.

“But it’s just so ridiculous.” Says Mariel, toeing the condescending pop scientist line.

“Have you checked out Flatscape on Storm Cellar?” Evan says before he can stop himself from mentioning Storm Cellar and shit, it’s out there. That means a little chat chit with Nexus general counsel, Angus Lee, will be coming right up after the broadcast.

“I haven’t.” Admits Mariel with a hint of superiority because she isn’t familiar with that sort of junk culture.

“It’s pretty dope.” Evan says like bringing up Storm Cellar is nothing because the show must go on and this will give him some precedent for downplaying the incident to Lee. “For anyone unfamiliar with Flatscape, it’s an underground immersive, really well done, really detailed and suspenseful and I think kind of hilarious. I mean it’s like really dramatic and at the same time playful.”

“But does it address the physics at all?” Mariel insists.

“Not really. It has fun with some crazy possibilities like a dome made of smart glass that tints on and off but that’s the main issue I have with all of this anyway.” Evan talks straight to Mariel. “I never hear anyone bring up the basic questions like, if the Earth is flat then how are there different seasons and different time zones and days that are longer or shorter depending on latitude and time of year, etcetera.”

“Well, that’s my point exactly.” Mariel says. “It’s so far-fetched and absurd, how can anyone even enjoy an entertainment derived from such fictitious dreck?”

“For some people, that’s what they like about it.”

“That it’s far-fetched and absurd or that it’s dreck?”

“All of it. Other people take it more seriously. Either way, it has a great hook. People love that mind-fuck quality. All the immersives I feature in my tutorials have to have some killer hook like that, even if it’s just something simple like relaxation or enjoyability—it has to be rich and it has to surprise and satisfy.”

“Even if it’s dreck?”

“That’s subjective. The Flat Wave roots have always been there. Immersives are just a great way to explore it more. That’s why it’s resurged, I think.” Evan says, ready to rest his case. “Great use of the word, dreck though. You should check out this new fan immersive parody called Star Drek, using the alternate spelling of course. Really funny and at the same time genuinely thrilling in its best moments.”

“Thank you, Evan.” Sydney says, totally meaning it. “Lance, you’ve been pretty quiet. I know you of all people must have a POV on all this flat Earth jive?”

Lance takes a moment too long to respond. He might have been taking a leak or just nodded off at home. He coughs again but this time it’s fake.

“Where to begin.” Lance begins. “On the one hand you’ve got many unanswered questions on the part of the scientific community and on the other, well, you just have a lot of morons out there.”

Lance has started working in some conservative punditry to mix it up. Sports is so broad. Studies tell him that millions of sports fans still believe the world was a better place in the 20th Century. These folks love the idea that a master conspiracy is controlling their lives and rendering them powerless. Ironically, Lance’s followers will not feel like he is calling them “morons.” Because they are listening to him, they believe they are among the millions of non-morons implied by Lance’s improvised numbers. So shows the research.

“So, you’re saying what exactly?” Sydney asks. “The Earth could be flat?”

“Surely not.” Mariel adds.

“I’m saying that the footage you see out there doesn’t prove it’s not. We’ve been out in space hundreds of times. Some folks are living out there now. Why is there not one video that convincingly shows the whole dang planet is a ball?”

Evan holds off as long as he can but no one else says anything. Even Mariel looks momentarily concerned. Has Lance gotten to her?

“There actually is,” Evan says, “one in the making. It’s just taking a long time to get one consecutive orbit shot that can be processed into an environment people can experience immersively.”

Mariel lights up. Her eyebrows freeze in a raised position for a moment too long creating giggle fodder. Off-the-shelf products like Natural Avatar are remarkably good but often limited by the source material. The producers probably used a couple of well-known bio photos of Mariel for the composite, leaving the software to fill in everything else and they probably ran it on the “quick dry” setting, causing it to rush the interpolation.

She is just about to add something when blast noise bleeds through someone’s mic. Mariel never gets the first word out but her mouth stalls, freezing in open position along with her raised eyebrows apparently in response to the nearby explosion, resulting in a very surprised expression.

“Oh.” Sydney says. “That’s here outside—right outside our offices.”

“Everybody okay over there?” Asks Lance the cute vintage robot.

“I don’t know, guys.” Sydney answers. “Let me see if I can get a live window here.”

She swipes her fox paw in a arching motion over her end of the table and opens up a virtual window of an actual window through which one of her production assistants is recording the scene outside on the street, two floors below the studio.

“Somebody bombed a robo-cab.” He says off-camera. “Doesn’t look like anyone was in it. Big noise, little damage hopefully.”

He presses himself up against the glass and angles the mobile for the best view he can find. A yellow robo-cab with the classic retro NYC design has been blown in half. The remains of the passenger seats are visible from his POV. No blood or meat.

Passersby move around the blast radius.

“We can’t see much from that angle.” Sydney says. “Let’s all hope it was just the cab and no bystanders were hurt.”

She swipes the window shut.

“Why are these people doing stuff like this? Janet? Are they protesting something? What do they want?”

Janet’s taken time with her avatar. It’s totally responsive. You can see her finish a deep breath, steadying, knowing it’s her turn.

“It’s a number of things.” Janet says. “Some people are protesting things like automated taxis that put them out of work. But more than likely thrillionaires are behind this attack along with many others and they’re credo is ‘no logo.’ That means generic violence for the sake of violence. They actually oppose violence as any sort of political statement. However, they refuse to take action against political terror groups because doing so could arguably be construed as a form of political action.”

“But then what do they want?” Sydney can’t help asking. “Why do they want to destroy things and hurt people if it’s not for a greater purpose?”

“There is no greater purpose. That’s what some of them would tell you. There are different factions. Body Count is a splinter group focused on mass murder because they want to show that society doesn’t value human life. But thrillionaire purists I’ve spoken with say that’s too political. They argue the point of destruction is destruction and acts of violence should aim to destroy things like buildings and machines. If people get hurt so be it but that should be the focus either way.”

“You mean hurting people or protecting them?”

“Correct.  Neither should be considered at all in the planning and execution.”

“But isn’t that a sort of a statement in and of itself?” Evan blurts out before thinking it through, triggering what will be unlimited and boundless anxiety around the possibility of putting himself in thrillionaire crosshairs.

“I was going to ask the same thing.” Says Lance.

“Another faction called Afterburn believes that people should be protected while social structures are annihilated.” Janet explains.

“I say protect the people and the social structures.” Lance adds. “Annihilate these stupid little terrorist fuckers.”

Software instantly translates his last word as flippers or funkers.

Evan nervously plucks a feather from his own duck hand. It hurts for real.