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The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti
By Stephen Graham Jones
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 2011 Stephen Graham Jones
All rights reserved.
What I remember best about my father are the suicide notes. This is what I tell the homicide detective who calls me at three in the morning.
After I say that, the line is kind of quiet.
I'm guessing he's tired like me. I'm guessing too that he's leaned over his desk, a desk he hasn't seen for months it's so thick with paperwork, and he's holding the receiver up to his right ear with one hand, his head propped on the splayed fingers of his other hand, his eyes closed against everything.
My desk isn't like that at all.
When my shift ends in nine hours, so does my job. My instructions were stuck to my locker with a magnet: lock the door behind me. My check'll be in the mail.
I'm fairly certain that I'm the only person left in the building. All five stories and two wings of it. The only things left behind are broken staplers, miles of printer cable going nowhere, and cartoon panels about the workplace.
Because I spent the first two hours of my last shift walking through all the abandoned cubicles and empty offices, reading these cartoons—they were the same on each floor, sometimes the same from door to door—my desk is different now. Gone is the mouse pad which I had made at the mall, from a picture of my girlfriend Jenn, when she was my girlfriend. And all my different coasters that were supposed to have been a joke, 'mood coasters,' I walked them down the hall, deposited them in recycling to hide them from the archeologists of the future, who I know are already interested in me, sifting through the remains of today, trying to attach whatever they can to me. And I never had any cartoons. Maybe because I never had any wall or door to pin a cartoon to.
The reason I never got a wall or doors like everybody else is that the suite I'm in used to be a radio station, I think, and my desk is where the sound booth was. Except all the soundproof glass that probably used to be around me, it probably made whoever had the job before me feel like they were in a display case. I don't doubt that those four large slabs of glass are stacked down in the basement right now, and that, months after I'm gone and this building's started to really go to seed, some skater punk's going to see them, and seriously start to wonder what they might look like in a thousand tiny pieces, instead of just four boring big ones.
Even without the glass walls, my station, my desk, it still feels like I'm on display. Like I'm in a ticket booth, one selling admission to an event nobody even wants to consider.
The story of my life, yeah.
I do at least understand why the old sound booth was the best spot for me. Or for my job: what I am is customer service for the videogame Camopede. You'll have to imagine the little trademark symbol. But Nitrox, who owns the rights to Camopede, really really insists you imagine it. And that, while you're at it, you maybe try to find the Camopede in whatever environment the level you're on has generated for you.
More on all that later, though. And on the blind ninjas that inhabit those higher levels, and how their congenital blindness has, through the centuries, made them fiercely loyal.
You heard right, too: centuries. The Nitrox designers, or whoever they contracted the back-story of Camopede to ('(tm)'), suggest that Camopede, being outside the normal flow of time, is perhaps responsible for just about every event—calamitous and serendipitous—in the history of the earth. No trademark there, just 'earth.' You don't even have to capitalize it.
But that's no real explanation of my job—of why I'm the last Nitrox-certified employee clocked in. Maybe in the whole Western hemisphere.
The reason I'm here at the bank of phones which, 'serendipitously,' the old sound booth was already wired for, is that if I'm not here for at least nine more hours, then Nitrox will become vulnerable to some kind of legal action, should any gamer out there choose to pursue it.
Trick is, ten years ago, whatever designer was entering the boring warranty info at the back of the little handbook guide that came with the disc, they messed up the wording. Because he or she was a graphic designer, I have to guess; words were just pretty shapes, more or less, but didn't really mean much in and of themselves.
In this case they kind of did, though. To me anyway. And to the Nitrox legal department.
Instead of just saying that customer support and game navigation would be available to players of Camopede, it guaranteed—the designer's calamitous word—that customer support and game navigation would be available to the legions of Camopede novices.
However, as the graphic designer did at least manage not to stipulate any time period, the Nitrox legal department's been able to qualify that 'guaranteed' down to a period of no more than ten years: the average shelf life of all their videogames, as established by sales, obsolescence, later versions, all that.
What this means is that my job duties require me to stay current on a videogame that no human has played now for, I'm guessing, nine years, and maybe even some months on top of that.
Camopede wasn't that popular. The reason the building's empty is that Nitrox is retreating, going back to Japan, its digital tail tucked between its skinny businessman legs.
For as long as I've worked here—four years, I think, though I only recall the first two with anything like clarity—none of my phones have ever rang with a Camopede question. Other stuff, sure: my girlfriend, doing the break-up thing; my friend Simon, using a fake voice to ask questions about videogames so archaic he finally couldn't help laughing; my dad, drunk; my supervisor over and over, doing quality control, then breaking down into laughter too; my mom, telling me about Dad, and not laughing, really; and now this homicide detective.
"Suicide notes?" he says, his fingers surely still splayed across his left eye and the bridge of his nose.
"Are you sure you have the right number?" I ask him back.
It's a feeble attempt. At what, I'm not really all that sure. But the feebility is ridiculously high.
"Nolan Dugatti?" he reads off some card or file, maybe the palm of his hand.
I close my eyes.
"But he ... it was two years ago," I say.
Translation: when my mom called about my dad, it was two years ago.
And yes, I laughed then. That kind that's just through your nose, like what you mean with it is 'finally.'
When I hung the phone up, too, I held the receiver there for a long time, like I was afraid it was going to fall off the hook or something, and I was going to have to hear my mom just sitting there at the kitchen table, wondering what to do with her life now.
None of which I particularly want to be thinking about on the last stretch of the last shift of my first job, the one I got specifically because of my dad—because he told me I never could.
"Yes, I see," the homicide detective says, with zero delicateness (he must have a file, to be able to find this out about my dad so fast already), "Mr. Dugatti passed away ... it'll be two years in March."
March is tomorrow. This tells me he's one of those detail guys.
"Then why are you calling?" I manage to ask.
If I could, what I would be doing right now is punching a button to make one of the other lines ring, loud, so I could ask this homicide detective to hold, please.
That wasn't part of my training, though, and was never covered in any of the weekly quality control exercises.
What he can say here, approximately, is either that he knows what I've done, or that his real name is Simon.
Like any homicide detective in the history of homicide detectives has ever been that uncomplicated, though.
"Suicide notes, you say," he says again, not dropping it at all. I nod, and am pretty sure he hears it somehow.
exhibit 1f :
I know what I'm supposed to say here is that it wasn't your fault. But holy hell, son. I mean, I apologize for taking the Lord's name in vain, but goddamn—sorry, sorry—we could have won. We were winning, even. But no, don't misconstrue this. If you or your mother find me in the morning, and it looks like I've broken open all the thermometers in the house and drank the mercury from them, it's not because of anything you did. It's because we lost. When we were winning. And that's the worst kind of losing, far and away. And by the way, never do this. I'm going to have to start this note all over, I can see. My first words are going to be Not To Ever Do This. When you explain it at school, you can tell your friends or your class or whoever you talk to that your father was an inventor. A scientist. That the reason he drank all the mercury in the house that one night was because he was working on a new liver that was going to save the human race, because it was resistant to cosmic rays or telepathy or something. And that, because the FDA wouldn't approve human trials, I had no choice really but to do what I'm doing now, and install one of those homemade livers, give her a test run. And that it wasn't that hard really, either, that the mercury doesn't even taste like anything. It just snakes right down your throat, son. Hits the old gullet like ... I don't know. Like something's that real small and heavy. Maybe if you melted some triple-A batteries down, then poured them into your mouth. It might feel like this. But don't do that either, cool? Please? For your mother. She'll freak out if you do something like that. Anyway, I kind of am a scientist, really. Right now I'm taking my temperature, to see if what I've already got inside me's doing anything. So far, no. But I'm not confident in the accuracy of some of these. Or, no, forget all this. How about what I'll do, since this is poisoning and all, and not a gunshot or something immediate like that, is throw all the thermometers away then come back in here, just lie down, not wake up. Natural causes, no explanation necessary. So, if that happens, then tear this up. Or, if you have to be sentimental and keep it, at least hide it way back deep somewhere. But I'd prefer you to destroy it. I would do it myself but I'm probably going to be dead before I get to start over here, say that thing about Not To Ever Do This. 'NTEDT.' Just remember those letters, son. This is my advice to you. And here's another piece of advice, that I didn't really think I was going to have to be teaching you: when your loving father makes up for having grounded you from Meteor Attack or whatever that game you play is, when he makes up for it For A Whole Week by building a derby car with you, building it good enough where it's damn sure—'darn,' 'darn,' I said 'darn' there (don't show this to your mother, deal?)—going to leave those other sissy-boy cars at the top of the ramp, because your genius though not unpoisonable dad was smart enough to hollow out a cavity in that car, and put some lead shot in there from his .20 gauge shells (which, note: I'm not using here, though I'm pretty certain you'd be able to see the irony (not fault) there if I did), so that, when the car tilted forward over the starting blocks, or plate, or whatever that ... okay, so I don't know all the terms. That doesn't mean I couldn't build us the kick-assest car ever, Nolan. Blood of my blood. I mean, has anybody ever thought of that before, you think? When the car started to nose down the ramp, all that lead shot, what it did—and we saw the results—was accelerate, like the driver had just thumbed open the nitrous. You see those other kids at the end of the track, waiting for their lightweight cars? They never knew what hit them. And guess what, son? Yeah. My fatherly guess here is pretty much that they never would have either. Not if a certain somebody hadn't, I don't know, I'm just going to get hypothetical and imaginary here for a bit if you'll let me (could be that I'm hallucinating, too—look this up for yourself, later: does early-stage mercury poisoning, or even just toxic levels of mercury, does it induce mirages, or magical thinking, or whatever I'm trying to use here, to understand why my own son would, when the other kids were standing around to see the marvel that was his undeniably awesome champion of a car, why that son would lift his car to one of their ears, and rattle it, so they could hear the cheating. Question mark implied, mostly).
Don't shake me too hard. I might just wake up, realize I wasn't imaging all that.
Later days.CHAPTER 2
So the homicide detective is thinking he might want to come see me, if I'm available.
Inside, I'm screaming.
It could be screaming out loud too, if I wanted, since nobody else is here. But I'm not sure which button on the phone is mute. Or, in my current state, I'm not sure I'd get it pressed down right anyway.
This is what I tell him: "Whenever we found a suicide note, we knew to call the ambulance."
"He didn't ...?" the homicide detective asks.
Translation: you mean your father didn't, like, just leave the notes on his chest, or tacked on the wall beside him, something normal like that?
I get the distinct sense he's leaning back in his chair now, this homicide detective.
"Simon?" I half-whisper.
"Excuse me?" the homicide detective half-whispers back.
"Other line," I lie.
He doesn't say anything about this. Which says volumes. Maybe he's one of the consumers who actually played, and got burned by, Camopede back in the day.
I am too, I suppose. Only 'back in the day' for me is earlier tonight, when I came back from walking all the deserted halls.
To make my job easier, my supervisor has of course installed a console and monitor at my work station, so that, instead of reading from some gamer's bible about what to do at this point in history or in that dungeon, whatever, I can just cheatcode myself there, and describe to them what I'm doing.
It was supposed to make my job immeasurably easier.
If anybody ever called, I mean. Regardless, between calls I'm supposed to 'maintain familiarity' with the 'many and distinct' environments Camopede spits at you.
At first it was chore, kind of; the graphics were ancient.
But then, yeah, I got hooked.
Here's the premise of the game: Camopede is, you're pretty sure (though you keep forgetting, but the red index of your memory bar at lower left is the real indicator of this), a denizen of the future. But you're from the future too, just not as far along in time as the Camopede. You think he's from about two millennia ahead of you, from a time when A) humans are extinct, B) the oceans have all turned to steam, and C) the insects, being passive breathers, have grown to dinosaur proportions in this oxygen-rich, carrion-ridden climate. Camopede, for example: it's essentially a centipede type bug, only as large as a train engine (but of course, as the future you're from is way past trains, you'd never measure anything by 'train' length).
Trick there, though, is that, while Camopede was top predator for a few thousand years, something mean and intergalactic, you think, has decided to nest on what used to be Planet Earth. And it wants to feed Camopede to its young, and does for thousands of years, until there's just a small holdout of Camopede (no 's'—it's a quirk of the (Nitroxian) future, that the plural and the singular are the same. Either that or somebody sucks at translating from the Japanese, or somebody was really good at it, but wanted to make fun of somebody else).
However, what these space invaders don't know about Camopede is that, in addition to the octopus genes it's somehow inherited, allowing it to flutter into new skin tones and disappear against practically any background, it's also managed to nab some genetic material from a much closer relative: the fruit fly.
In its desperate bid for survival, Camopede has been evolving at a furious rate.
But whatever it tries—wings, eye lasers, telekinesis (all of which each generation retains)—the space invader mommies and daddies still, just very businesslike, swoop in, harvest however many they need, and feed them to their young.
These space invaders, however, either they never took any herd management courses or else they only lay eggs once every million years: before too long, the complete population of native Earthlings ('dirtballers,' the space invaders call them) is this one very nervous Camopede, melting into so many backgrounds at such speeds that it even forgets sometimes what it looks like.
Excerpted from The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti by Stephen Graham Jones. Copyright © 2011 Stephen Graham Jones. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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