Mr. Big Stuff

The crackling fire filled the silence among the group of strangers. Shadows danced around the surrounding forest, smoky embers rising into the cloudy night sky.

“This should do for now,” said a tall, strong-jawed man. He dropped a few twigs onto the fire and then settled down, pulling his long coat tighter. He cast a glance at a couple beside him, who smiled back. They had seemed to be the most useful so far, knowing how to start the fire and keep it from burning through the forest.

The rest of the group remained silent. Little had been said for some time.

It had been a few hours since their bus had crashed on the highway, swerving to avoid a deer. Although no one had seen the deer except for the driver, who had died sometime later. The only casualty. Now all that remained were the nine strangers. The bus was a turned-over wreck, and no cars appeared on the dark highway, so all that remained was finding shelter and keeping warm. They just had to survive the night, then find a way back to civilisation.

“Does anyone have any stories?” said a young girl huddled beside her boyfriend. Her wide eyes sparkled in the fire light.

A rotund man with a goatee shook his head, smiling. “What a good idea. It’ll help pass the time.” He looked around the fire-lit group. “Anyone have anything?”

Another man shook his head. “You don’t wanna hear my stories, man.”

The strangers looked between each other; some looked away.

“I have a story.” This came from an old, white-haired man who had yet to speak since the crash. “One of magic, immortality, and eternal tragedy.”

“What, like a fairy tale?” someone said.

The old man shook his head, his frown creasing his wrinkled features. “Not a fairy tale. This is the story of a man named Mr. Big Stuff.”

***

Snow fell over the small mountain town. White roofs were highlighted by the wavering lights coming from hundreds of little windows. The wind howled upon the cliff top, but I was numb to the bitter chill that night.

I stood there now, like I had stood many times before, overlooking the snowy town, my boots on the edge of the cliff. A moment that had once brought a serene bliss had now become a hollow, bitter resentment.

I have gone by many names in my hundreds of years, chained to this world as an immortal being. While my birth name has long been forgotten – if I was even born – the name that has stuck with me the longest is Mr. Big Stuff. A strange moniker, for sure, but one that came from a special person, so long ago.

The origins of immortals like me, of which there are few, have become lost throughout time. Some stories have been told of us, however, from the few that have seen more than our quiet human costumes. Those who have witnessed a bloodied battle, magical spells, or our heightened agility, have re-written us as fantastical beings. Some call us Vampires, although I have never sucked blood or turned into a bat.

My sigh blew a puff of smoke into the wintery air. I brought out a vial, its luminous blue liquid a beacon of light in the darkness. The light illuminated the specks of blood on my hands.

This is what I have struggled for, I tell myself. Everything has led to this potion. Drinking this will make me mortal. Make me killable. I cast another look down over the cliff, at the darkness below.

I could finally end it all, so easily. Return to the darkness that had likely spawned me.

What good is this life I have been given, if I can never truly live it? Despite the love I’ve known, the love I’ve given, it all ends the same way – me alone. But this vial can change that.

I look over my blood-stained hands, and the specks sprayed over my dark coat. So much death, so much hatred.

The horrified faces of my foes still flash through my mind. Ripping through their flesh, tearing limbs, I was a whirlwind of blood and death. Seven beings, once-immortal, were now a pile of mutilated flesh.

At least I know that this potion actually works.

The liquid was synthesised from a fabled crystal, known as a God Killer. A crystal that, when eaten, could turn an immortal into a mortal who would age and die. It had been a decades-long task of mine to find and bring the crystal to those men.

They had been so happy when I finally brought the crystal to them, not knowing that I’d synthesised a part of it into a liquid – which I had dropped into their wine.

I admit to taking pleasure in their shocked faces when they realised something was wrong. There was also pleasure when I attacked them, and they discovered they were mortal. Sprayed blood was highlighted by the flashes of sorcery thrown about. Decades of resentment and hatred unleashed on them.

I had to do it, I tell myself. Their hold on me was too strong, and I had caused so much destruction for them. But now I was free.

Not that it mattered anymore. My love had passed away, just a month ago.

“No more pain,” she had said to me. Her frail form was nestled in bed, her light slowly fading. “No more pain for me. And, promise me, my love, no more pain for you.”

I gripped her hand, feeling the loose skin of her wrinkled fingers. Six decades together had not been enough.

“Peace, Lucas,” she said quietly. “Let my death bring us both peace.”

Melina was the strongest, most special person I had ever known. Far greater than this world deserved. I had told her everything about me, and she accepted it all. When we vowed to spend our lives together, it meant turning our backs on civilisation. We moved to an old castle of mine in the Carpathian Mountains, only visiting the nearby towns and cities on occasion. No one could really know us, and see that I was not aging.

“Please, do not return to those men,” she said, pausing to cough and grimace.

“I promise,” I whispered. “Once you pass, there is nothing more for me.”

Melina smiled weakly. “Never use it, for any purpose. Please. It can do no good.”

We both knew that she spoke of the crystal, the God Killer, and of those evil men I was bound to.

“It will remain with me, I promise. There is no more vengeance left in me.” Even back when I said those words, I knew I was lying.

Melina turned away slightly, her eyes slowly closing. “I will tell the angels of Mr. Big Stuff. And they will tell me they have heard of you.”

I held her hand tighter, sorrow tightening my throat. Despite her aging, her mortal shell withering over the years, she remained the same person I loved. It was a remarkable thing.

“I will see you some day, my love,” I said, fighting back the tears.

Her expression softened, a small smile remaining. Then she became still.

The tears finally fell, and I remember strangely regretting not crying earlier, so that she could see my tears. But she would remember me being strong, and that was a good thing.

We had both come a long way since we first met, which had been strange circumstances indeed.

It was during a battle with a great enemy of mine. My foe and I were bounding through the city streets in an uncommon public display of our powers. Our darting forms must have been dark blurs in the night, although no one could miss our magical bursts.

A car was thrown into the air, hurtling towards a woman in the street below. I dove off a building, streaming down to catch the car just before it crushed her. Despite the moment – my physical exhaustion and the on-going battle – my breath was taken by Melina’s bright green eyes. Oddly, I remember smiling at her.

The heat from an oncoming blast of sorcery brought my urgency back, and I spun and caught the energy with the car, which melted in my hands.

My enemy landed in front of me, her hands blazing with the purple fire of Fie magic. She extinguished the flames and stepped forwards. Behind me, the shocked woman ran for cover.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” I told the sorceress, Alryan.

A heavy cloak flowed behind her, revealing the tight combat clothing beneath. A streetlight showed her long face, firmly set, her dark eyes shining. Her shoulder-length hair fluttered in the wind – much shorter than the long, sleek look she had when I last saw her. She raised her gauntleted hands and shook her head.

“Look around us, Mister,” she said, her voice breathy from the fight. “It’s too late for it to be any other way. It was always going to come down to this.”

I sighed and shook my head. “I never wanted it to, Alryan,” I said, frowning. “Not like this.”

My shirt was ripped and mostly hanging off me, smudges of dirt over my arms and trousers. Her left shoulder was bloodied. How did it all come to this?

I darted into the air, pushing off a window sill and landing onto a rooftop. At this time of night the streets were mostly empty, although I knew that several people were watching us and I wanted to take the fight away from them.

While Alryan wasn’t an immortal, she possessed superior magical abilities to me. But she was still mortal. While she was planning on overpowering me, likely intending to chain me up or keep me somewhere far away for eternity, I knew what I had to do.

The fight took us across the rooftops to a nearby riverside. I managed to barge into her, gripping her tight as we fell through the air and crashed into the water.

She struggled to throw surge after surge of sorcery, but we plunged further into the dark depths. Although breathing under water was not a problem for me, she only had minutes left. Her expression grew pained, her eyes widening, but I held on to her and dragged us down further.

I would never forget her face at that moment. Somewhat pleading, shocked, and something sorrowful. I’d like to think it was regret, a plea to start over. But it was too late. Alryan was taken from me. I had taken her from this world.

I know there was no other way.

But it wasn’t always like that, between her and me. We were lovers for many years, drawn together under the strain of tragedy. We were the best of friends before she changed. No, that wasn’t true. Maybe I changed. Maybe we just grew apart, because it wasn’t the same for a long while.

When she found out a dark truth of mine she erupted with fury. Sorcery entered our arguing and she attacked me then. Her anger brought the building down around us, and while I escaped, she was crushed under the rubble. Or so I had presumed for many years, until she returned, far more powerful, and tried to kill me.

I have never known anyone to possess as much passion and perseverance as Alryan Aldobrasse. She was a descendant of an ancient race of witches, and one of my greatest loves.

Before we became enemies – before we became lovers – we were students under the same mentor.

We trained and studied in a monastery in the mountains, under the mentorship of Yenophis Creel. As a young woman, she witnessed the murder of Yenophis. That face she made when I drowned her was similar to her horrified expression as Yen was killed, torn apart by a figure wreathed in shadow. I could never forget either of those expressions.

It was clear why Yen had been killed, for he possessed the only remaining God Killer crystal in the world. The only one that was known of, anyway. The dark creature took the crystal as it departed, never to be seen again.

Yen was the closest to a father figure I had ever known. I trained under him for many years, discovering the ancient art of Fie sorcery and gaining mental and spiritual strength. He was the wisest, most sincere man I have ever known. While Yen was an immortal like me, he was of a kind that could be killed by conventional means. That he had lived for over four hundred years was a testament to his abilities and strength, and it took a very dark creature to take him down.

Alryan became a student of Yen’s at nine years old; an orphan who had somehow stumbled upon the monastery in her wanderings. Yen saw this as fate, and agreed to bring her under his tutelage.

It was strange at first, me a grown man, learning alongside a young girl, but Alryan and I eventually became friends. I watched her blossom into a young woman, strong willed and fierce. We shared many great times together, visiting the mountain villages, sailing off the coast. Yen and I both marvelled at her feats in conjuring magic. It would be later that we’d learn of Alryan’s magical heritage.

One night, she and I stumbled upon a hidden room within the monastery. We were in awe of a small chest hidden in the ground. It was there we found the God Killer crystal. Yen appeared, full of bluster and anger, but he explained the crystal’s power to us. When swallowed, it could turn an immortal into a mortal, who would grow old and be killable. The crystals once belonged to his people, he told us, and this was the last that remained. I later wondered if his people’s prolonged exposure to the crystal was what had caused them to become killable immortals. Perhaps they were like me, once. But no one had those kinds of answers, as far as I knew.

I was a far different man when I first entered that monastery. Homeless, aimless – a wreck. I had heard of Yen and his teachings and was greatly relieved when he agreed to help me.

My time in that monastery contained some of the most pleasant and enlightening experiences of my life.

That all ended the night Yen was killed. Alryan ran away, and I was left all alone.

Alone, like I should be. Like I deserve to be.

I never wanted my life to go in the direction it did. I have owned many lands and properties, seen the world shift and communities grow and dissolve. I have possessed a great wealth, as well as lived without a penny to my name.

It seemed that those evil men knew just the moment to find me. How they knew of me, I couldn’t say. But there I was, a bum in the streets, having given up on life. I was ashamed at how weak I was, but could see no other way to go. A depression had taken hold of me. Several lifetimes of experiences and memories weighed me down.

They came to me as businessmen in suits, but I knew immediately they were more than that. When they took me in, they revealed they were immortals also. They had existed for almost as long as time, or so they claimed.

They offered me a deal. Do one thing for them, and eternal wealth and happiness would be mine. I was a fool to believe them, but I had no other choice as far as I could see. All I had to do was kill a man, and return a crystal to them.

Before I made the vow, I had to promise my soul to them. Until I returned the crystal, I would be bound to them. Once they found me, they could take away all that I loved, and all that I have ever loved before. They would burn my entire history if I went back on my word. I believed they could do everything they said.

Kill a man. Give them a crystal. It seemed simple.

I could never imagine that this man would become a father figure to me; a mentor I would love and respect above all others. While I tried to go back on the deal, once I had inserted myself into Yen’s life and seen what a great man he was, I found that there was no going back. Those men would take Alryan away from me, and take all that I have ever known and cared for. I had to do what I did. I was just glad that she didn’t know that dark figure was me.

Well, she didn’t know until many years later. But even our love couldn’t stop us from becoming enemies.

This was all so long ago, however. As I stood there now, on that cliff top, I had a choice to make. It seemed simpler now that I’d had time to reflect.

True happiness came from being with loved ones. To truly love and be loved. That meant sharing your life with someone. Someone who you can trust without question.

I removed the stopper from the vial and swallowed the blue liquid. The remainder of the crystal I kept with me, just in case I’d need later.

My body warmed and tingled almost immediately. The synthesised God Killer worked its way through me, turning me into a mortal. I was overwhelmingly tired, as if a great weight had come over me, and at the same time I felt lighter. Cleaner.

I looked over the snowy mountain town, knowing that somewhere out there was the monastery I once trained in. I had come to this cliff edge with Alryan many times, and had even brought Melina here a couple of times.

I studied the darkness below me. That was the last time I would look into that darkness, I told myself.

I turned from the cliff edge and began the rest of my life. Perhaps to love again.

***

“Whoa, that’s some story,” said the young girl who had requested a story.

“It’s nice alright,” said a man around the campfire. “But I call bullshit. Ain’t no one like this Mr. Big Stuff ever been around.”

The old man smiled, though his eyes were sorrowful.

“Hold on,” said the large man with the goatee. “Just how do you know all that?”

A gasp came from the group. They all stared in awe at the old man.

“You’re him,” the young girl said quietly.

The old man just smiled.

Successive approximations to the ideal force prescription

“Cop cams are inextricably tied to Taser, by far the dominant supplier, and the company will likely shape whatever the devices evolve into… Founded at one national moment of police angst, the company is using another such moment to transform from a manufacturer into a technology company. From a business perspective, body cameras are low-margin hunks of plastic designed to get police departments using the real moneymaker: Evidence.com, which provides the software and cloud services for managing all the footage the devices generate…”

 

—Karen Weise, “Will a Camera on Every Cop Make Everyone Safer? Taser Thinks So,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, July 12, 2016

 

Variation I: The endocrine safety

The widespread adoption of body cameras was followed by a wave of high-profile indictments for police misconduct, generally considered a mark of their success—a success qualified, of course, by the only somewhat smaller wave of high-profile exonerations following the indictments. From that success and that qualification came the endocrine safety. This was a trigger lock yoked to an optical sensor monitoring the pituitary gland, which would allow the gun to fire only when the officer’s brain released adrenaline and cortisol in volumes indicating a genuine sense of danger to the self or others.

Venture capital drove the technology to the public eye; opinion-makers and legislators of the technocratic Left kept it there; and initial skepticism crumbled as lab and field evidence showed conclusively that the endocrine safety was, in fact, exquisitely sensitive to an officer’s perception of threat. Body cameras could be used to create like-for-like control simulations: After an officer had successfully fired a “pit-locked” weapon, she could be taken back through the same experience, from the body-camera footage, and directed to shoot in the simulation where she had shot in life. With the same sensory stimulus, but the absence of danger, the safety engaged every time.

There followed a string of satisfying prosecutions, a spate of drops in police violence correlated with regional adoption of the technology. “Neuroscience,” wrote the editors of Nature Neuroscience, “now promises to inform something like an ideal force prescription: If not a clear, then at least a less blurred delineation of the circumstances that justify violence.”

The endocrine safety could exculpate as well as implicate, of course. An officer able to fire a pit-locked weapon was, almost definitionally, acting in self-defense—even when hindsight would reveal that there was nothing to defend against. The issue came to a head as a Trenton grand jury declined to indict Troopers Michael Leblanc and Francisco Barraja, who together sent five dozen bullets from pit-locked sidearms through the flesh of Zora Farrow. Ms. Farrow had been stopped on the street, searched for drugs, and handcuffed, kneeling, to a bike rack while the officers called the stop in from their cruiser; an epileptic, she had begun seizing, and the officers had opened fire. Restrained and known to be unarmed, a dozen feet away, she had apparently kindled a terror in those two men that the endocrine safety and an army of expert witnesses pronounced utter and mortal.

Device error was investigated—prayed for—and ruled out. All evidence indicated that Leblanc and Barraja’s fear had been real.

 

Variation II: The aperture safety

The promise of what was then called “big data” enchanted weaponsmiths as much as it had everyone else. Local wealth and crime rates, the time of day and year, the trails of text and tissue and found light that everybody in a surveillance state left in its wake like footprints in new snow: How could such things fail to pertain to the decision to kill?

And they did not fail. The studies were clear on that: In situations where officers could be agreed, in hindsight, to have erred, statistical models trained on real-time situational information consistently recommended a better course of action. The open question concerned the interface. An algorithm could simply apply weights to the data, compare to a threshold, and decide; for a human officer, no such integration of computed factors and her own judgments could be done in the moment.

Or not consciously. But the machinery of perception, by this point, was in play; law enforcement worldwide was experimenting with improvements to sight, hearing, smell, with new senses for electromagnetism and radiation. Estimates of danger could be fed directly into the inferior temporal lobe, subtly shaping the officer’s visual experience to differentiate high- from low-threat targets. This was called the integration or, more stylishly, the aperture safety.

To support split-second decision-making, the safety tapped into the most entrenched visual archetypes of menace. Dangerous places became darker, closer, more jagged-edged; dangerous people became larger, more graceful, more brutish. Darker-skinned.

Machines are not the only things that learn. Officers from “bad” neighborhoods complained that they were unable to go back, even off duty, the safety disabled; the sense of lurking danger was too great. More saliently: By tightening the association between true threat and swift grace, large size, dark skin, the aperture safety made life more dangerous for non-threatening persons in possession of those features.

This danger was studied, quantified. Biological anthropologists projected that, within two generations, the average size of men in several distressed urban neighborhoods would decrease by several percentage points, their skin lighten by several shades. The ideal force prescription, it seemed, was a Darwinian influence.

 

Interlude: The peppered moth

From a contemporary vantage, looking back, such a claim is absurd on its face. No matter their bias, no matter their intentions—how could officers of the law kill enough people to exert a visible selection pressure in a population of any size?

The peppered moth, Biston betularia, comes in two colorations—typica, white peppered with black spots, andcarbonaria, all black. In 1811, carbonaria was unknown in England. As the nineteenth century progressed, the frequency of carbonariaincreased, until by 1895 its prevalence in the species was 98%. This is due to the interaction of two factors: The “differential bird predation hypothesis,” a compression of the intuitive idea that birds find it easier to find and eat black moths on white backgrounds and white moths on black backgrounds than the reverse; and the increasing frequency, as industrialization took hold in England, of finding light-colored trees whose bark had been darkened by soot.

From those data, J. B. S. Haldane estimated that carbonariahad a 50% fitness advantage relative to typica. What advantage would it take to enact a smaller shift, in fewer generations?

Do the math. That is how it was. That is how it had come to be.

 

Variation III. The empathy safety

The Dallas police department, lauded for its strong relationship with the community it served, collaborated with neuroscientists at the Max Planck to prototype what they termed an empathy safety: A tool that would scour and digest the target’s digital history, injecting relationships, hopes, accomplishments, and a life’s high and low moments directly into an officer’s brain in a split-millisecond dream before he or she could pull the trigger. Proponents reasoned that such a thunderbolt of familiarity would restrict the use of lethal force to the absolute height of necessity; opponents countered that it would cripple enforcement, clouding officers’ judgment with the emotions and contradictions of a relationship that was not even real. The fifteen officers who agreed to a live test of the device revealed a more complicated truth.

Although the empathy safety drastically reduced the test cohort’s use of violence, three of the fifteen did indeed freeze up on their first violent encounter, twice fatally. From the rest, one had to be dropped from the program after taking an intense interest in the family of one man he had spared—slipping extra cash to the almost-victim’s wife at her workplace, fund-raising for a motorized wheelchair for his disabled son, intervening with near-cataclysmic results in the admittedly disastrous love life of his daughter.

Two more were terminated from the force after it emerged that they were threatening innocent people expressly to gather their biographies. In one case, the officer used the information to convince the suspects’ associates that she was psychic, a conviction she used to sell tips on stock prices and the outcomes of sporting events. The other officer was discovered recombining and altering the lives he extracted into short stories, none of which he succeeded in selling.

The death blow to the empathy safety was struck by Nina Abousalem, an officer in the test program whose metrics had shown no change. She worked a dangerous beat in West Dallas, on the other side of the river from where the money was. Internal and external evaluators, both then and after her death, found that she drew her sidearm frequently but judiciously, and that her use of force on the job was essentially without flaw.

One spring morning, months after she had joined the test group, Abousalem’s three-year-old son, Ibrahim, refused to go to daycare. A neighbor of theirs, Hunter Strickland, described what followed:

 

I was on my way out to get the mail and I heard Ibrahim shouting, and Nina talking back at him. Nothing I hadn’t heard before—I think the whole street knew by then that Ibi didn’t always like to leave the house in the morning. But then I heard a different kind of scream. I looked to see what was going on, and I see Nina standing over Ibi in the driveway, talking at him while he holds his shoulder and screams his head off. He’s clearly in pain, and she’s just calmly flaying him—I only caught what she said when he stopped for breath, but stuff like, “If you hate school so much, why don’t you just drive to the station and do my job instead?” And then Yusuf comes out and asks what’s going on and Nina fires on him. She keeps her eyes on Ibi, doesn’t even look at Yusuf, just sort of points the gun in his general direction and pulls the trigger. He jumps, covers his head with his arms, then looks at her and starts to say something. And she says “Fuck off,” and points the gun at Ibi. At that point Yusuf ducks inside, to call the cops, I guess. But she don’t shoot Ibi, just motions him to the car with the gun and says “Get in the car.” And he does. But she don’t, she just pushes the buttons on the key fob that close the door. It don’t take long for the cops to get there, and as soon as she gets a clear line on a cop car, she opens right up —

 

Sgt. Felicia Garza, also outfitted with an empathy safety, fired the killing shot. On the stand, she claimed the safety had revealed to her, in an instant, what Yusef Abousalem had seen only in hindsight: That Nina Abousalem had withdrawn from her relationships, had grown cold and distant from even her closest friends and family. Photos and video with loved ones waned, then ceased; in disputes where Abousalem would normally have been a peacemaker, she was the first to the knives. “The safety didn’t teach her not to shoot people because she knew and loved them,” Garza testified. “It taught her to look past that knowledge, and that love, and shoot anyway.”

No experts confirmed the plausibility of Garza’s diagnosis. It didn’t matter much. Empathy was officially excluded from the ideal force prescription.

 

Coda: The failure of alternatives

At no point during this technological evolution, it should be said, did citizens cease to suggest the usual methods for reducing police-involved violence. There remained heartfelt calls to train police in de-escalation and nonlethal subdual, to draw new officers from the communities they would protect, to abandon broken-windows policing and the “warrior mindset” and using citations as an income stream. Some of these were tried, sometimes with seriousness; results or no, none were widely implemented.

A plausible guess at the reason nearly writes itself. As wealth concentrated around a smaller and smaller cadre of the fortunate, an increasing share of law enforcement budgets came from a decreasing population of constituents. That population was technically gifted and optimistic about technology; they had strong networks and platforms for influencing voters and decision-makers.

Very few of them had spoken to a police officer about anything other than a moving violation. Technology was something they trusted and understood. Police were not. But, as their fortunes mounted and the rest of the country stagnated, they needed the police to protect them from a majority with less and less to lose.

In these circumstances, a mandate to protect the golden goose was natural, if not inescapable. The increasingly violent tactics this mandate entailed were both a response to and an accelerant of a mounting conflagration of class rage, like using a fan to blow flames away.

 

Postlude

In the decades and centuries that followed, a young man from the green country might venture among the black streets and their gutted palaces. If he returned, he might do so having been bestowed, by the native tribes, a weapon more and more likely, as time went on, to be called “blackwand” or “fire-thrower” or “killer-that-shouts.” And, rarely, such a weapon might be endowed with a special property that nearly demanded to be spoken of just before sleep, seated in a circle, around a fire—for example, the “just” weapon of Demetrius the Square-Dealer, which would fire only in defense of his person; or the “discerning” wand of Martin Sky-Eyes, which allowed him to see who was his friend and who his foe.

The wielders of such weapons often rose to prominence among their people as warlords or rangers, mercenaries or homesteaders. Yet their stories—or, in any case, those that were remembered and repeated—partook of a certain sameness. Martin Sky-Eyes was neither the first hero nor the last to kill a well-loved foe and die at his minions’ hands, when parlay (the storytellers assure us) would have saved them both; Demetrius the Square-Dealer was just one of a long line of heroes who had, drunk or new-awakened, mowed down loved ones in a moment’s mistaken terror. And as that long dark age trudged on, a story grew around the stories, to account for their sameness. The men who walk the black streets understand the treachery of magic, it went. There is a reason that they let their treasures go.

 

END