03 – Embed – Chapter 1: Morning Hike

Art by hellspawnmotel

I never thought I’d spend my day off work taking a walk. Usually when I don’t have any errands or missions and Karina is busy, I just tend to lounge around the apartment all day.  But it’s nice outside, and not too crowded, the perfect conditions for a good time. Actually getting some decent exercise would have been unthinkable just one week ago. Yet, so would being the temporary custodian of a thirteen-year-old boy.

And of course, it would have been quite a bit more unthinkable to me that that thirteen year old boy would be the son of the infamous Cybermancer known as Moonslash.

In the time that Kobi Gibson came to stay at my apartment, we’ve gone on several walks just like this. The doctors said it would be therapeutic for him; to be honest, it’s worked for me, too. Now, more than ever, I want to spend time out in the sun while it’s still bearably warm.

The kid seems to like it too. I don’t think his father let him out very often, because he gazes off in wonder every time he notices a news terminal on a street corner or a holo-booth on the side of the street. I want to say that I hate his father for it, but I understand why a notorious technological criminal wouldn’t want his son wandering around the city too often.

Kobi doesn’t seem to be in all that much grief or emotional distress over the fact that his father is being sentenced to prison time, or that he is soon going to be forced to move to Tallahassee once his aunt arrives to pick him up. He doesn’t express much outward emotion except when asked about old movies and video games, and that worries me. So keeping him busy by taking him on walks is the best thing I can do.

Today, we’re traversing the Atlanta Beltline. It’s a large trail, a paved pedestrian loop that covers the circumference of the Old Downtown. In the past, it was a series of dilapidated, unused railroad corridors, but a few decades ago it was revitalized, bringing new energy to nearby communities with a nature-friendly public space that included several streetcar lines. Naturally, within a five-year span, every neighborhood adjacent to the Beltline had tripled in price and the whole area got gentrified. That’s how it tends to go in Atlanta.

The Beltline used to be the most densely-packed part of the city, especially when the nearby Innovation District was running at its financial peak, but after the skylift rail was built to service the skyscrapers and the boundary of what was considered “downtown” shifted and expanded, the Beltline ironically fallen back into relative disuse. The trails aren’t well-kept-up-with so there’s a lot of overgrowth around, and the streetcar lines circling the area are the same rickety cars they were using in the eighties.

That’s not a bad thing for us, though. It just means that Kobi and I get to walk the trail in peace instead of being surrounded by hundreds of other people also walking alongside us. It’s a quiet place to talk and reflect, exactly what I wanted to do with Kobi for today. Plus, it gives us both a bit of very-much-needed exercise.

We pass some rusted-up sculptures of robots that seem to be “paused” in motion, as if they were walking the trail beside us. If it weren’t for the rudimentary design I might have suspected they were actual robots whose joints had frozen mid-movement.

I start to thinking. Hmmm… This might be a good topic of conversation for Kobi, especially since his father was so involved in the, uh, technology business.

“I used to like robots a lot as a kid, did you know?” I ask him.

“I only met you a week ago, so I didn’t know that,” he replies.

“Uh… Well, what I mean is, studying robots used to be a hobby of mine when I was a kid. My family never had enough money for fancy computers or robots of our own, but I tried studying them when I could. It was always fun to watch them go about their day. Do you know what I mean?”

“No. My dad didn’t let me go outside much,” he says. “I didn’t see robots except when he was tinkering on them. He usually did that in his workshop.”

“That’s too bad. They’re really interesting things. Very stupid, but the way they are stupid is interesting to study.”

“You don’t seem to like robots very much, though,” Kobi says. “You destroyed a lot of them when you fought with my dad.”

“Well, they WERE attacking me,” I say. “But you’re right. This might all seem out of character for me, but I was a much more precocious child than my current bum of a self would ever let on. I had such good math grades in elementary school that they paid for me to go to a summer camp out in the wilderness near Memphis where we studied robotics and computer science for a whole week.”

“Then how come you’re a bum now?” he asks.

“Because I grew out of it, I guess? I never really thought about it.” Absolutely nothing of my childhood carried over into my adolescence. It’s nice to reminisce about a time when I eagerly awaited the Atlanta Annual Tech Expo every year, but I’m essentially a different person than I was back then. I wonder what happened to change me so significantly, or if it’s just the natural growth cycle of the angsty middle schooler to turn so rapidly away from what they once cared about?

But then since adulthood I feel completely differently, like I haven’t changed one bit as I’ve fallen into the rut of a stagnant adulthood. I’m an asymptote on the chart of human growth. Maybe I should go back to the past and do puberty over a second time.

“I like movies more than robots,” Kobi says.

Kobi is at the exact right age for that stage of teenage angst to begin setting in. Being a homeschooled kid, he probably hasn’t been exposed to all of the same social cues that start to evolve a teenager, but all those changing hormones are sure to have an effect on him soon. I’m just glad I won’t have to be his caretaker by the time that happens, and I get him when he’s still nice and happy about pop culture stuff. Probably a little TOO happy.

As the officially-designated guardian for Kobi, I do have a duty to make him as comfortable as possible, so I indulge it. I wonder if I can put legal guardianship on my resume…

“I really like movies too,” I say. “Not as much as Karina, but that’s a high bar to reach.”

“I think I want to be like Karina. She’s great. She’s like Ellen Ripley.”

“She is.” Huh, Ellen Ripley… I wonder if he means the Ripley from Alien or the Ripley from Aliens… “Well, maybe you should look into robots, too, not just movies. If you got your father’s genes, you might have a little bit of genius inside you, too.”

“I don’t think so,” he says. “It doesn’t interest me. I like robot movies though. Like Robocop.”

“Well, he’s not that much of a robot,” I correct. “More like a human with cyborg enhancements. I mean more along the lines of The Terminator.” I’m not a fan of that one, mostly because of the insufferable Jim Cameron, but it is the perfect example of an advanced robot in old media. I wonder how R8PR feels about it.

“I like The Terminator very much,” Kobi says, “Just like Robot Jox.”

“Again, that’s not exactly a robot movie either… Despite the name it’s very much a movie about mecha pilots.”

“But it’s so good, isn’t it?”

“I mean, of course! Holy crud does that movie have some good fight scenes,” I say. “The final battle is iconic.” Wait– I wanted to talk about robots. “But, yeah, the way they used to portray robots in the movies is kind of interesting. They had just started to produce the first models back in the eighties, so robots are always so weird in anything before the war.”

“But that’s why it’s so fun,” Kobi says. “Any media made after the war just isn’t very interesting to me. There’s too many robots and the stories are just worse than the old stuff, and it’s all too fake.”

“Wait, wait, wait, who told you that?” I ask. “There’s plenty of great stuff made since the war! Especially TV shows.” Normally I’m the one who gets frustrated about those darn kids today and all their darn loud musics and violent comic books, but you shouldn’t exclude an entire era of pop culture, you know. Very rude.

“Not really.”

“You can make an argument for movies, maybe, and the best era for music is always twenty years before you were born, but you can’t exclude everything. What about video games?”

The sun is starting to get high in the sky; it’s noon and the high humidity is kicking in. So much for bearable weather… My pits are an ocean now.

“Video games were better when they were simple,” Kobi says. “Well… that’s what my dad’s friends always told me.”

“Your dad’s friends were also Cybermancers,” I say. “The ultimate techno-geeks who grew up when stuff like Joust and Super Mario were popular. They don’t know everything.”

I realize that Kobi may just not be exposed to the right media. Most everything he experienced came from secondhand copies given to him as presents by Moonslash’s Cybermancer buddies. This means… I must be the one to evangelize him to the things I like while he is still impressionable.

“You know what? I’m going to prove to you that not everything released after the war is lame. We’re going to go home and, uh, I’ll find something for you to love. So let’s head home!”

“That sounds interesting,” Kobi says. “But… I’m starting to feel a little woozy. I think I forgot to put sunscreen on.”

“Yeah, I feel it too,” I say. It’s burning up out here by now. “There’s a Yum Mart about a block from here. Let’s go get some teas and THEN head home.”

***

“…And you’ve never even watched The Scott Stutzman Show?” I balk.

“Is he the son of Jeff Stutzman, pop singer and author of the Martian Trials Cycle?”

“Uh… maybe? I have no idea what that is. But now I understand your uncultured opinions. You haven’t seen the real gems in our society.”

We’re back in my apartment and I’m rummaging through my disorganized shelves and cabinets full of VHS tapes and audio CDs and books. Kobi’s sheer ignorance of the best media of all-time sickens me. This truly was the worst thing his father did to him in his life, definitely not the homeschooling-a-lonely-child thing.

You’d think getting my house ransacked a couple months ago would have lessened the sheer number of useless household items I had, but I guess nobody really wants to take your box of three hundred assorted pens and pencils you have accidentally come into over the years, and especially not your collection of six “Learn Japanese from Scratch!” books you got suckered into from a TV ad and never opened once.

My comic book collection is too minimal to use for recommendations since I had to sell most of them the last time I moved, and most of my books are nonfiction criminal justice academic texts (my sister loves giving the exact same theme of gift every birthday). I go through my laserdisc rack to see if there’s anything worthwhile. Hoo boy I should probably get rid of my copy of Complacency of the Learned, after what happened with Quartermaster, huh… But I keep looking and pull out one of the newest Greats in my collection: Rural Mayhem: The Chase. “You see this baby?” I ask.

“Baby?”

“Huh? Oh, I mean movie. It’s an action car chase extravaganza, where some dirty Atlanta cops go down to South Georgia to trade some weapons for cash, but it turns out that they’re making a deal with some Chinese government officials who are going to double-cross them. And all along the way, they’re being pursued by GBI forces and the Mexican drug cartels. When all the forces converge it turns into this huge chase scene that lasts like, forty-five uninterrupted minutes. The best friggin’ thing out there.”

“That sounds an awful lot like the seventies movie Caravaners, starring Michael Williams and Dorothy Pine. Only that one was a chase across all of the United States.”

“Ah, the good old U.S.A…”

Kobi tilted his head to the side. “Do you remember…?”

“No, not really,” I answer. “I was really young when the war broke out and my parents tried to hide it all from me. I only started to learn more about it when I was in school.”

“Darn,” Kobi says. “My dad never talked about it either. He lived in Philadelphia back then, so I think he might have been in it.”

“Yeah… I know a lot of people like that.” Even my boss got drafted back then. I’ve always been too afraid to broach the subject, in case it either brings back some memories he’d rather not talk about, or ones he’d want to talk about for hours.

The war is an extremely touchy subject among the people in the generation before mine. While kids my age were simply too young to understand what was happening, seeing a nation fall apart before their very eyes really scarred the older generations. My parents were safe living in Atlanta at the time, but… a lot of my Mom’s siblings died fighting.

The reason R8PR works so hard to keep Atlanta safe is partly to prevent any comparable catastrophe from occurring here, and I understand that sentiment completely.

Still, if you look at it from a pragmatist’s point of view, the war really changed Atlanta for the better, propelling it into the status that it inhabits today and never letting that fade. Thirty years ago Atlanta was some minor city in a minor region, and now it’s the economic powerhouse of the continent. We would never have the culture we have today if not for the tragedies. It’s sad, but… But anyone who makes this kind of argument is probably a terrible person.

Oh, hey. I know EXACTLY what I should be getting Kobi to experience. He doesn’t have much experience with postwar media, which means practically anything produced since the early 1990s. That means… I rummage through my box of video games and pull out my shining example of everything that the world has become since it got past the war.

Kobi squints and adjusts his glasses to try and read the print on the small cartridge in my hands. “…Earthbound?”

“Yep!” I shout. “It’s a pretty old game too, but it’s the ultimate classic of the postwar. Came out right after the peace treaty. The top of the top.”

“I think I’ve heard of it.”

“Of course you have. But have you PLAYED it?”

“No… The Cybermancers liked to give me Commodore 64 games.”

“Oh boy, you’re in for a world of difference then,” I say. I walk over to the TV and pop the game into the Super Nintendo. Sorry, Genesis Crush, but you aren’t getting any game time for the next couple days.

Kobi, unsure of what to expect, sits down on the couch. I hand him a controller and let him start the game.

“Earthbound, the number one best-selling video game of all-time. The number-one BEST video game of all-time.” (sorry again, Genesis Crush.) “It’s a role-playing game of otherworldly proportions. You better get ready.”

“…I’m ready.”

Ever since its release in 1995, Earthbound has been a worldwide phenomenon, a premier artistic work of a generation. It became the number-one selling game of the twentieth century and was remade endlessly on every single console to come out. It’s also been adapted into every medium imaginable– stage play, children’s coloring book, webcomic, animated series, LCD handheld electronic watch, modern art exhibit… you name it, Earthbound has probably been adapted into it.

But I like going with the original version, the classic creation of Shigesato Itoi and APE Inc. It’s the pure essence of our modern society distilled into one work, and it still holds true today, though I’m not sure if that’s because of its timelessness or Atlanta’s cultural stagnation.

We get through the intro, showing off a UFO in a small town terrorizing the populace, with the giant message: “THE WAR AGAINST GIYGAS!” Then it flashes to the all-too-hopeful title screen. Here we go. I already have three save files on here that are complete, so I… reluctantly… decide to…. delete one…. Oh my gosh that was hard to do. Dozens of hours of gameplay erased with a few button presses… But that is the cost of progress.

“So first things first,” I say. “You get to name all your characters. There’s the baseball cap-wearing teenage boy.”

“Why is the music so weird? Is that seagulls?”

“It’s experimental.”

“I’m not so sure about this game.”

Oh, come on kid. He loves exclusively stuff from thirty or forty years ago, but not the shit that has made modern pop culture what it is today? I’m not letting this by. “Yeah just name the main character. He’s thirteen and doesn’t talk much and likes to swing bats.”

“He’s Kobi.”

Oh, uh, okay then, kid. Real original, kid.

“Then you have this blonde girl. Spoiler alert, she falls in love with the main character.”

“Then I will name her Sigourney,” he says.

“Uh….”

“From Sigourney Weaver,” he adds. “I love her.”

“Yeah, I got that.”

“Now, you have two more–”

Suddenly, in real life, there’s a loud ringing coming from my cellular. A restricted number. Oh, great, a telemarketer. I pick it up and answer with a harsh tone, “Yes?”

“Morgan,” the robotic voice says. “It’s R8PR. I’ve gotten wind of some trouble coming your way soon. When it happens, come visit me. You know where.”

“Wait, what are you talking about?”

“Can’t say more over the phone. You’ll see soon enough. Alright?”

“Yeah, but I–”

He hangs up on me.

Trouble? That’s not an uncommon thing around here, but R8PR almost never calls if he doesn’t have to, and actually calling me instead of directing it through Karina is even rarer. This must actually be serious.

“What was that?” Kobi asks.

“Just a call from an ally,” I say. That sounds less cool when you say it out loud.

“Well then, what do I name this bald guy?”

“Oh, just do whatever you want. His real name is–”

Loud knocks on the door.

Bang, bang bang. Bang.

My heart stops. That banging sounds oddly familiar.

I get up from the couch and approach the door. “Hello?” I ask. There is no answer, though.

Bang, bang bang. Bang.

It can’t be… can it?

I open the door, and a tall black man wearing a tattered wifebeater stands in front of me.

“Lamar?”

It really friggin’ is. Lamar Gwinnett in the flesh. Holy shit, right as I’m starting a new game of Earthbound, too.

Except… he has a large metallic device attached to his forehead, and his eyes are completely glazed over, the pupils so small his eyes are almost white. Something is clearly wrong here.

“…Lamar?”

He takes one step forward and collapses onto the ground.

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