Boldly Gone is a story of nine chapters, posted serially by me, your reality bending host, Cheeseburger Brown.
Have you ever gone to one of the big Auto Shows and seen all the giant video-walls spewing endless loops of speeding cars integrated into the manufacturers' multi-million dollar sets and wondered, "Who makes this crap?"
Well, probably not. But if you did happen to wonder, the answer is: me.
Today my task is to take footage of heavy, clumsy vehicles plodding along closed the parking lots of commercial parks and make it look as if they're going very fast through a beautiful and exciting world. I smear the background along the vectors of motion, tint the sky and kick up roiling clouds of thick dust at the wheels. I remap time and add glints from a non-existant sun. Presto: minivans blazing like Formula 1 racers, sparkling and gorgeous, gorging themselves on the roads of a surreal urban paradise...
Whenever you see media, do remember: nothing is real.
Like the parrot in the doorbell on The Flintstones I squawk and say, "It's a living."
(Don't forget to pick up your copy of the new Cheeseburger Brown anthology today!)
And now, let's continue our tale:
Aaron's apartment smelled terrible, a pungent melange of stale tobacco and marijuana, perished food, old beer and solder. This much impressed Lansing before he'd even knocked on the door.
Lansing let himself in. It was murky inside both on account of the thick ribbons of smoke twisting through the air and the heavy blankets draped over the windows to keep unwelcome daylight at bay. "Aaron?" he called, stepping gingerly over a stack of pizza boxes and then navigating a minefield of pop cans, plastic wrappers and discarded shoes.
"I'm in the command centre," Aaron called back.
"Where?" blinked Lansing, trying to penetrate the gloom.
"Second star to the right, and straight on till morning."
Lansing spotted a bundle of Ethernet cables snaked along the floor and followed them as one might follow a stream to find its source, carefully picking his way through the wilderness, fording runs of dirty laundry and hummocks of kipple. He tracked his way down a dark corridor and into the spare bedroom where the cables split to reach their respective devices. Those devices were arrayed around Aaron like a technological nest as he sat at the nexus of six glowing cathode ray tubes, their buzzing innards exposed and hot. Aaron wore a robe bearing the emblem of the Klingon Empire.
He looked up. "Thank you for coming, Lansing. Come over and grab a seat."
"What's this about, Aaron?"
"Hold on, hold on -- all in good time, hu-mon."
"You said it was urgent."
Lansing waded through a pile of collector toys, detailed replicas of cinema's most famous aliens, obviously fallen from a shelf that appeared to have been smashed in a rage, left to lay where it splintered. More toys could be discerning sticking out of various piles of wires. Aaron had always maintained an unparalleled menagerie since his family owned a toy company and he got access to all the newest products for free.
Aaron manhandled a cracked plastic chair out of the chaos behind him and planted it in a low-ebb pond of ash-stained debris at his right elbow. "Sit thee doon," he commanded. "Welcome to Casa Baron."
"I love what you've done with the place..." muttered Lansing. "Buried it, that is."
"I keep the livingroom clear for guests," Aaron replied defensively, rolling a joint in his lap and apparently oblivious to the sticky green crumbs dropping into his keyboard. "Don't chew my chaps, bitch. I never claimed to be Martha Stewart." He licked the paper, sealed it, and brought a lighter out of nowhere to spark it up. "Feel like a toke?" he mumbled around the joint.
Lansing shook his head, easing himself into the plastic chair.
Aaron shrugged and drew heavily, exhaling blue-grey wads of fume. "Now, I'm sure you're beginning to wonder why I've called you here today to my top secret research facility."
"Yeah," agreed Lansing, "hence my asking that first off." He looked around uncomfortably. "Do you offer any kind of anti-biohazard guarantee?"
"Here at Aaron Baron Co we make no guarantees, we only make important discoveries."
"Like this, for instance," said Aaron, slapping the spacebar. The two monitors directly in front of him winked on to display a grain-choked, blurry photograph of a woman getting into a muscle car. Despite the low photographic fidelity the identity of the woman was immediately apparent.
Lansing frowned. "Have you been spying on Sandy?" he asked, irritated and confused.
"No," said Aaron. "But others have been."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Behold," continued Aaron, keying the slide show forward to another crusty, noise-filled image of Sandy dressed in her red Star Trek miniskirt. It looked like a frame grab from a security camera. "San Francisco, autumn of nineteen ninety-eight."
He looked at Lansing significantly. Lansing furrowed his brow. "So?"
Aaron advanced to the next image. "Detroit, winter of ninety-nine." He advanced again. "Buffalo, spring of ninety-nine."
"Are these convention photos?"
Next came an image that looked like it was ripped from the lobby camera of Lansing's apartment building. "Summer nineteen ninety-nine," declared Aaron, watching Lansing's face. "Toronto."
"Enough with the cryptic bullshit, Aaron. Are you trying to say that somebody's stalking Sandy?"
"No," said Aaron, tight-lipped. He advanced the slide show again, displaying a discoloured scan of a faded Polaroid that featured a younger version of Sandy smiling on a tropical beach, her face splotched by a wide pink birthmark. "Cancun, nineteen eighty-eight."
Lansing said nothing, frowning.
"Acapulco, nineteen eighty-seven. Sint Maarten, eighty-six -- notice the blonde hair here, and the cane. Havana, also eighty-six -- notice the red hair and Coke-bottle glasses..."
Lansing banged on the desk with his fist. "Enough already! What the fuck is all this about, Aaron?"
Aaron chuckled mirthlessly. "Don't you get it, Lansing? She's an operator. She changes identities, hair colour, her details...like changing her socks."
"You think she's a fugitive?"
"No, Lansing," said Aaron heavily, turning away from the computers. "Sandy is a spider."
"She's a trap-door spider. She burrows into a hole, caps it with camouflage and then, when you least expect it, she snaps out to claim her prey."
Lansing scoffed. "What the fuck kind of prey, Aaron?"
"You," said Aaron seriously. "You, my friend, are her prey."
Lansing shook his head, clouded by a strange mix of amusement and worry. "I don't know what's in that shit you're smoking, Aaron, but you've totally lost touch with reality. Where did you get these pictures, anyway?"
"Usenet," said Aaron. "There's a group for the victims of con artists. I started reading there after Henry got screwed over, digging around to see what I could find out. I met a guy named Brian Spelling, the sort of unofficial moderator, and we started talking. Turns out he was very interested in Henry's story."
"Victims of con artists?" Lansing echoed, baffled.
"Yes, you epsilon: Henry was the victim of a con artist. He didn't just get dumped and robbed, he got owned. He was a toy."
"I don't see what that has to do with Sandy, unless your fear of girls has now extended to branding all of them with the same brush...the same paranoid, crack-baby brush."
Aaron snorted, leaned toward the computer and flipped back to the first slide. "Again, for your edification: San Fran, ninety-eight. Please note the apartment in the background -- it's Henry's building."
Lansing started to say something but stopped, squinting at the screen. "Maybe," he conceded. "It's pretty hard to tell."
"I wrote to Henry and asked him to send me a picture of his ex, and you know what he tells me? He says he doesn't have any. Not a single damn photograph."
"Maybe she was shy, like Melody or Cassie Ten."
"No, he says she was happy to have her picture taken -- but when she left she cleaned out his system. Low-level format, scrambled bits, secure delete."
Lansing wasn't impressed. "I think any girl with half a brain would delete photos of herself when breaking up with a guy, otherwise she's liable to see herself all over the Web."
"I'm not. This is ridiculous."
"To be candid, I did send these photos to Henry. He said she didn't look like his ex."
"Well there you go."
Aaron shook his head firmly. "We're talking about a woman who changes her appearance on a regular basis."
"She looks pretty much like Sandy in all these pictures, even the ones with different colour hair."
"Of course she looks 'pretty much' like Sandy in the photos I've found, otherwise how would I know what to look for? The set has a built-in selection bias. In any photos in which she didn't look at all like Sandy I wouldn't recognize her. You follow?"
"I've heard similar logic used to explain UFO sightings."
"There's more. What you're failing to appreciate here is that I've been in contact with an actual victim. Spelling got fleeced by her down in Mexico about fifteen years ago, and he's dedicated himself to helping out other victims ever since. He knows her, man. He even knows her real name."
"What's her real name, then?"
"That sounds made-up."
"Your name sounds made-up."
"At least mine doesn't rhyme."
"I think you're losing sight of the point here, you stupid buttfucker. Did you happen to notice the USB keychain-drive she slipped into her purse after the blow-up over Melody's computer?"
"I did. You ever follow her home?"
"What? No, of course not!"
"Where did she tell you she lives?"
"Some condo on Bloor."
"Wrong. She lives at the Fairbrook Hotel, registered under the name Darlene Peabody."
"You are stalking her!"
"Incidentally, did you know Red Vicious the punk singer works the front desk there?"
"Who cares?" cried Lansing, standing up and pacing through the garbage around Aaron's nest. "This is nuts, Aaron. You've lost it. I can't listen to any more. I'm leaving."
Before he made it to the door Aaron stopped him by saying, "There's something else."
Lansing hesitated, sighing as he leaned into the jamb. He didn't turn around. "What?" he muttered sharply.
"Your uncle called me yesterday."
Lansing blinked, startled. He spun to face Aaron who was sitting smugly behind his monitors, polishing off the end of the joint and squinching it dead against the metal chassis of one of his computers.
"Uncle Miss?" asked Lansing.
Aaron nodded. "Now, you know I don't think much of that creepy old fuck --"
"Hey man, that's my uncle you're talking about!"
"Be that as it may, you'd be hard pressed to argue that he's not a creepy old fuck."
Lansing chewed his lip irritably. "He's not really old."
"Uh-huh," agreed Aaron sardonically. "So, as I was saying, your creepy fuck of a legless uncle called me yesterday."
"Why would he call you?"
"Why does he do anything? He's a creepy fuck. Is there anyone in your family who even pretends to understand that guy?"
Lansing shook his head.
"Right," continued Aaron. "But, as you've bored us all to tears yapping on about many times before, Uncle Miss has a sick habit of sticking his nose into shit only when there's something strange about it. Do you deny it?"
"No. He's a PI, though. PIs are supposed to stick their nose into shit."
"Well, he's sticking his nose into our shit."
"What do you mean?"
"He calls me up and all he says is, 'Do you have a girlfriend right now, Aaron?' and I'm like, 'No,' so he says, 'Good, good.' I go, 'Are you trying to pick me up?' and he says, 'What about Lansing? Does Lansing have a girlfriend?'"
"He could've just called me directly," said Lansing.
"Again, you miss the point. I told him how you'd met some cougar and he goes all quiet, and he's like, 'Oh dear,' and he hangs up on me."
"I don't know what to make of that. Uncle Miss is weird."
"No, man, Uncle Miss is into weirdness. When weird shit happens, suddenly Uncle Miss is there, right? How many times has that happened in your life?"
"Okay, well yeah. So?"
"So, you hu-mon imbecile, Uncle Miss is interested in who you're dating. How can I make this more clear for you? Do you think it was a social call?"
"Uncle Miss doesn't make social calls."
"Right," agreed Aaron, staring down his nose at Lansing. "Right, Lansing. With him, everything's business, isn't it?"
Lansing turned away. He licked his lips nervously.
"Isn't it?" prompted Aaron again.
"Yeah," said Lansing. "That's true."
Aaron grinned darkly and crossed his legs under the desk. "Let's review, shall we?" he said, counting off his points on stubby fingers. "Fact: photos of your mysterious girlfriend are posted to a newsgroup for victims of con artists. Fact: the moderator recognizes her as a known criminal with a history of sweetheart cons. Fact: your girlfriend lies about her name and where she lives. Fact: your girlfriend surreptitiously steals data from other people's laptops. Fact: your batshit-crazy uncle the private detective is worried that you might be getting laid."
Lansing didn't know what to say. After a moment his shoulders slumped. "When you put it all together that way it is sort of bizarre."
Aaron stood up slowly and worked his way out from behind the desk to drop a heavy arm on Lansing's slight shoulders, apparently a gesture of comfort. Aaron's Dorito-breath words were equally ambiguous: "I know it's been fun to imagine that you're attractive enough to score a hot older woman, but you know as well as I that it strains credulity. You're a fucking Star Trek geek, man. Think about it."
Lansing glanced down at the Starfleet insignia sewn onto his jacket. "She likes Trek, too," he offered lamely.
"Does she?" questioned Aaron, clucking his tongue. "Lansing -- you have to face it, buddy: you don't even know the real her."
Lansing cast off Aaron's arm and paced across the room again, rubbing his temples ruefully. "Maybe this is all bullshit, Aaron. Maybe you're just pulling my dick because you're so bent out of shape because we all have girlfriends and all you've got is bitterness and porn."
Aaron spread his hands. "I'm trying to help you."
"Are you, dude? Seriously? Is that why you're taking such pains to make me feel better about all this?"
"I think you deserve to know the truth. I don't sugar coat it. I'm just trying to look out for my friends."
"Maybe, or maybe Melody's right and you're in love with Scott and you'll do or say fucking anything to get us to turn against our girlfriends so you can make it like the old days again, when we just hung out together like a bunch of losers."
Aaron's eyes narrowed menacingly. "Hey, you know what?" he said after a pregnant pause. "Fuck you, Lansing. Get the fuck out of my apartment. Go home. Get conned. See if I care."
"Listen, Aaron --"
"Shut up!" Aaron bellowed, red in the face and breathing hard. "Eh? How do you like it, being told to shut up? I get told to shut up every fucking day, and you assholes just laugh. Well, if you don't want to listen me try to save your ass, to Hell with you."
"Like I said, get the fuck out of my apartment you dickless wonder," said Aaron acidly, turning his back and wading back into his nest. He bent over the keyboard and did not look up again.
Lansing stood there for a moment, hovering indecisively, and then reluctantly shuffled away to climb over the garbage and let himself out the front door. On his way down in the elevator he called his sister to ask if she had a contact number for Uncle Miss, but she didn't. "Why do you want to talk to him?" she asked. "He's crazy."
"Yeah," agreed Lansing. "Thanks anyway, sis."
He hung up. He checked the time and saw that he had only fifteen minutes left of his lunch break -- not even enough to get back to the office on time. Still, he did not get underway; he leaned against a pillar of the carport outside of Aaron's building, tapping his folded phone against his thigh and clenching his teeth.
It took him a while to recognize his own feelings: he was angry. He was very angry. He wasn't sure exactly at whom or for what, but nevertheless the fury boiled inside of him, flavouring his throat with bile and making his head pulse in sympathy with his aching heart.
Lansing reached a decision. Frowning purposefully, he hailed a cab.