First published in Sci-Fantastic magazine.
by Damien G Walter
Every evening Mike would hang the costume up in his wardrobe and every morning he would take it out again and put it on. Every other day he would hose down the insides to wash away his own stale sweat.
After two months he stopped putting it back into the wardrobe. On Fridays he handed the suit into the central maintenance department for servicing. The odd chemical smell it returned with never totally wore off, but by Tuesday it would recede to the point where he did not notice it.
Mike was happy with the costume. Occasionally he would wear it in the evenings to entertain his friends, and after a while his appearances ‘in character’ became a part of his life. Places on his body that the costume had initially rubbed against and made sore developed a few extra layers of calloused skin and after a year even the discomforting heat that developed during prolonged stints in the costume came to feel quite natural to him. He even gave the costume a pet name: Joey.
Mike had stumbled into the recreations industry by accident. After university the pressures of the ‘real world’ had come as a shock to him. After two months of casual job hunting he had found his bank account empty. He had no money and no prospects.
Kathy, his flat mate at the time, found him crying at the kitchen table. After donating him a dinner from her own cupboard she delivered a very sobering lecture.
‘You’re living in a dream world, Mike.’
He had defended himself, explaining the logic of his choice to study an unusual and impractical degree and how his talents would eventually be noticed. One by one, Kathy discredited his arguments as self-delusion and denial.
‘For the moment you need to make a living and build a stable life for yourself,” she said
The point conceded, Mike listened carefully to Kathy’s advice. A stocky, dependable girl, Kathy had worked her way through university, holding down a series of jobs along the way. She explained to Mike the reality of the situation.
‘Look at Keith. Only a third but walks straight into a plum job. Why? Because Celebrity Anthropology is a solid subject. Wide applications and a reputation for producing clued-up graduates. Economics and business may have been intellectually stimulating but it’s never going to get you a job. I mean, it’s the 22nd century Mike. Who even goes to banks anymore?’
The next morning Mike went to a recruitment agency. He ditched the suit and tie for something more respectable but he could tell from the way the receptionist greeted him that he had not made the right impression. He made a mental note to leave it a while before visiting the barber again.
Apparently he was lucky. The agent found him one of the few jobs that did not stipulate a relaxed, happy attitude and two days later he had turned up for his orientation and induction session at the headquarters of Pleasure Planet Inc.
The other successful applicants – six or seven hundred of them – surrounded him on every side. The small amount of pride he had felt at finally gaining employment shriveled up and died. They sat in small groups, exchanging introductions and snippets of their life histories as they waited for the instructor to arrive and after a few minutes the room began to fill with laughter. Mike found himself sitting alone on a chair, facing forwards, starring up at the huge black letters projected on a screen at the far end of the room, reading them over and over again.
THE BASICS OF RECREATION
From time to time he would glance around the room, through eyes that had gone watery from continual stress-relieving yawns. The recruits lounged around, sitting crossed legged or leaning upon one another. Part of him envied the ease with which they made contact. He caught the eye of a young man but looked away after only a fraction of a second.
STEP ONE : RELAX.
Mike considered leaving, and was close to getting up and exiting the room when the instructor entered. As he did a cheer of adulation and laughter echoed around the room, which Mike thought was a bit over the top. He could hardly see the man from his position near the back of the room; he was not much more than a blue dot in the distance, tiny before the huge screen. He could discern an old face with a shock of wild, white hair and thought for a second he recognized the man. His voice however boomed out across the space, slightly distorted from the amplification but displaying a distinct German accent.
The room replied in kind. Mike tried to join them but only managed a small, scratchy squeal as his voice caught on over-tensed vocal cords.
STEP TWO : RELAX!!!!!!…….:)
Mike tried desperately to concentrate, to focus on the voice, but only managed to take in one in every ten words; such was his state of agitation. He was particularly shocked when everyone in the room moved onto the floor and lay down on their backs. His reactions failed to keep up and by the time he got up from the chair he was alone, like the single uncut stem in a wheat field. He froze with panic, waiting for the rebuke from the instructor.
‘Excellent you two. Nice to see a demonstration of effective self-determination. Now on your backs, both of you.’
Mike looked around and found himself starring into the burning, furious eyes of a dark-haired girl. Even with just a glance he could see she was as out of place as he was. Her hair was pulled back severely into a tight bun, she had small round glasses and the sober lines of a plain black suit marked her out of the crowd of brightly attired youths. He smiled but again failed to control his muscles correctly and the resulting expression resembled that of a man being eaten by a tiger. He sat down quickly and with gratitude, understanding what it actually felt like to have a hole in the ground swallow you up just at the right time.
After the session finished Mike headed for the exit as quickly as possible, navigating through the amblers without paying any attention to them. She came at him from the side, gravitating towards him across the distance of the room.
‘Hi,’ she said quietly with a nervous smile, ‘my name’s Kristen.’
She stuck out her hand and he shook it.
They agreed to get a coffee together and headed for the cafeteria. She delivered a few judgments about some of the other trainees that they passed, none of them overly positive, but Mike found himself agreeing, even chiming in. Over their drinks he turned her monologue into a conversation by admitting he had heard none of the lecture and had no idea what the job involved.
‘Oh.’ she said, followed by a pause indicating that she had not entirely understood either. She unfolded the piece of paper she had been carrying, scanned it and delivered to him the salient points.
‘Congratulations blah blah blah … Pleasure Planet Inc., our employers …’
‘New London facility … cutting edge technology … themed personality areas?’
‘They are opening a leisure park in London where people can go and see famous people. In themed areas,’ she said without really looking at him.
‘Yes. That’s us.’
‘Ah … we have costumes?’
‘Yes. “The very latest in bio-mechanical engineering.” It’s right here.’
Mike inspected the glossy brochure, recoiling in surprise as he assimilated the information. ‘That isn’t possible! I’ll believe it when I see it.’
‘You already have.’ She grinned. ‘Or do you get lectures from Albert Einstein on a regular basis?’
White hair. German. Mike twigged.
‘Oh.’ he said. ‘Wow. Recreation.’ He turned it over in his head a few times. ‘Recreation. Recreation.’
STEP THREE: NEVER TRY. ALWAYS DO.
He got really interested when Kristen told him she was a graduate in Marketing and Corporate Law. He had asked a few generally interested questions about her studies and had fallen in love with the answers he received. She wanted to start a business. A big business. He told her about his own ambitions to one day develop corporate strategy professionally. He knew then they were meant for each other, and he knew she knew he knew by the way she looked at him. For a second they both waited for the other to put it into words. Then his phone rang. He tried to finish the call quickly but failed. A buzzer went off, indicating it was time to return to classes. Kristen left the cafeteria without him. He pretended he did not mind. They sat a long way apart in the hall and never managed to catch the each other’s eye. He approached her as they left but she was caught in conversation with another girl. He had booked a taxi to return home in, and could not afford to keep it waiting. By the time he got back to his room the flat, dull rage that he felt towards himself left him starring at the wall for an hour.
STEP FOUR : DO NOT SEARCH.
ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE FOUND.
Mike almost failed in the first week, but through determination and the full application of all his skills he managed to scrape through. He was removed from the main group and placed in a smaller group of sixteen trainees who had a room to themselves for the remaining two weeks of training. The atmosphere was different from the main hall: more structured, regulated, ordered. They had periods of silent study where they read from the training manual and were expected to be able to list the main points of what they had read. They all began to think of themselves as an elite. The instructor encouraged this, distanced them from their remedial reality and in some ways they did become skilled above the main body of trainees. They mixed less and less with others.
One afternoon the instructor took Mike to one side. The old man put an arm around him in a fatherly gesture and gave him a smile, the wide eyed mad grin famous from over a century of magazine covers and television documentaries. Mike found himself drawn into the great scientist’s magnetic aura.
‘I think you are ready.’
They walked together until they reached a barred and bolted door guarded by two security men. They swung the heavy steel door open at Einstein’s signal and Mike followed the man in.
The sight was horrific. The bodies hung in row upon row, slack-jawed and empty-eyed. They draped from their hangers in folds down to the ground; skin and muscles positioned unnaturally without a skeleton to support them so that even their gender was difficult to discern, the relevant identifying features obscured by a hanging thigh or a flattened arm.
Einstein led him along the aisles, running his fingers over each skin as if searching through them by touch. He stopped and then, pushing a number of the skins to one side pulled out one and draped it over his arm, offering it up in the way a tailor would display a suit during a sale.
Mike starred down at the limp, dead item. He took in the rounded, fat arms and torso, the waxy yellow white skin covered in patches of coarse black hair and saw the jowly, stern face with its spiky black mustache.
‘Mike,’ said Einstein, ‘Meet Stalin.’
STEP FIVE: CLOTHES MAKETH THE MAN
Mike found that he enjoyed Stalin immensely. Even the other trainees, many of whom had been given their costumes weeks before, turned and took notice when he made his first public appearance. It took him some time to discover the appropriate gestures and mannerisms but soon the process came naturally. He found that others would fall silent as he approached and became used to the aura of nervous apprehension that always arose when he spoke. With Stalin came an automatic authority that Mike had never experienced before, a power over the minds of men.
At first Pleasure Planet Inc.’s designers had planned for Stalin to play only a passing role in the never-ending drama of the theme park. During the early rehearsals however Mike’s role had been so successful that Stalin was upgraded to a central character. Mike found himself surrounded by a large entourage of writers, producers and many non-costumed actors employed to fill in non-celebrity roles. His limousine parade would wind through the park’s maze of replica streets; one moment traversing the Champs Elysee, the next engulfed by a Manhattan ticker-tape parade. He perfected Stalin’s severe public salute on the balconies of the world’s palaces and parliaments. Once a week his cortege joined those of the worlds other great political and military leaders for the Parade of Kings; among the park’s most popular events. The crowd sometimes reached over 100,000 to watch as Napoleon’s eagle led the way through the park’s streets, the Popemobile was swamped by the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan and an explosion of gore blew onto the window of JFK’s sedan.
Mike and Joey were selected to feature in the theme parks advertising campaign, a montage of the nuclear family enjoying the sights of the theme park: mom almost fainting into Clarke Gable’s arms, dad enjoying the nineteenth hole with Tiger Woods, teenager Emma dancing next to Brittney, the beautiful boy with the golden locks sat astride the muzzle of a Soviet M-16 heavy tank. Stalin waving from the high walls of the Kremlin. Billy waving back and then signaling the driver. Stalin making a comic attempt to duck out of the way as the shell rockets towards him, then blows him apart, leaving only his smoking boots behind. Fade out on Billy, grinning happily. Tagline in big letters.
THE WORLD. THE WAY YOU WANT IT.
Stalin made the cover of Entertainment Weekly, Time and Esquire; his highest media coverage for over a century. This time, as the marketing men observed smugly, without the slightest mention of war, political dissidents or Siberian labor camps anywhere in sight.
Mike found himself traveling in exalted company. Stalin’s role was expanded. He appeared at state dinners and sporting events, handed the champions trophy to Mohammed Ali at Madison Square Gardens. He walked the red carpet for the Oscars; opened Jack’s Best-Ever Actor golden envelope. Stalin counted down to launch Armstrong towards his second giant step for mankind and joined the solemn minute’s silence at the Cenotaph for every Unknown Soldier.
The days were filled with color and amazement. The nights with blackness and boredom. Drinking with his old friends he would tell them how much he hated his job, share with them his business plans, his corporate strategy and they would join in and encourage him to follow his dream as they were following theirs. He read passionately the works of Gates, Murdoch and Branson, studying every word intently. Each night he would put Stalin back in his closet and then one night as he watched himself inside the great man shaking hands with President George Bush VI on the television, looked down to see his own stern eyes staring up at him from the front-page of the daily newspaper, turned into the eight-foot larger-than-life poster of himself wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shades and sipping from a cocktail that had shifted a million units world wide, seeing his own face as the entire population of the world had come to see it. He realized that real life had already found him with a vengeance and he would never be able to escape it. Mike stopped putting Stalin in the closet. He stopped taking off the costume at all.
Then there were the women. The first was slight and blonde, with a face he recognized but could attach no emotion to. Her name was Olga, the only female cosmonaut, played by Janice, a non-costumed actor. Stalin awarded her a medal of valor every second Monday, just before ordering the soldiers of Stalingrad to fight to the death. He did not remember why she rode in his limousine today. He stared at her coolly. When she noticed she began to fidget with discomfort and then lost the thread of her conversation with the attractive young KGB agent with whom she had been flirting. One by one all the members of the coterie fell silent. He ordered them all out of the car, leaving them stranded in ancient Egypt, nine dark suited shadows cast into the desert sun. He never stopped looking at her as they drove onwards, never even blinked.
After the first few times it became so easy that he lost interest in the preamble, although he regained some enthusiasm for the chase when he discovered the challenge of the great female intellectuals, philosophers and poets, but even these bored him after a time. Eventually he simply dispatched an aide to bring him his latest choice. He never saw any of them again.
STEP SIX: THOU SHALT NOT…
Stalin had only one close friend. They had met at a late night cabaret in occupied Paris. Stalin had wondered how the bearded, longhaired man had gained access to such an exclusive establishment. The room applauded as Stalin entered but He stood up and shouted out in a drunken slur, ‘Stalin! You bastard! Bet you never thought you’d have to face me, did you!’ and then exploded into laughter. Many drinks later they decided they would be comrades forever.
Things changed on a grand tour of Rome. His friend had managed to attract some rather adverse media attention, something about taking the Lord’s name in vain. The press were circling for a media feeding frenzy. They decided to skip town.
It happened on a plaza surrounding a huge fountain, perfect in its Felliniesque beauty. She arrived upon a dais carried by eight glistening slaves, a train of servants and entertainers surrounding. The plaza came to a halt upon her arrival, including Stalin and his friend. At a signal from her a herald stepped forth from the train and addressed the crowd in a clear, declamatory tone.
‘Citizens of Rome.’
An explosion of camera flashes barked around him.
‘The lady Octavia, wife of Caesar, sister of a Caesar departed, having accepted the challenge laid down by Portia, known as the whore of Rome, seeks one hundred men of good health and noble bearing to aid her in her cause. Each man shall be rewarded handsomely.’
‘Excellent,’ said Stalin’s friend. ‘I’ve heard about this. She has to rut with more men than the other woman to win the challenge. I’m off to the palace to join the front of the queue.’
‘You will have a long wait friend,’ roared Stalin, ‘she looks for men of noble bearing!’
His friend gave him an unamused look and then broke into a crazed grin.
‘King of kings.’
And with a wink he set off across the plaza, with Stalin close behind.
STEP SEVEN : DO NOT BE DETERRED BY REJECTION
The queue was already half way around the palace when Stalin and his friend arrived. The streets became a stampede of competing male bodies that Stalin barged his way through, knocking down weaker rivals and intimidating the occasional larger ones, clearing the way for himself and his friend. He only stopped when he reached a pair of inhumanly large, heavily armed and armored guards who even he decided were not worth troubling. His friend attempted to blackmail them with promises of complete absolution and eternal life but they were having none of it. Stalin counted only seven men between himself and his prize. He could wait.
It took a little under an hour, standing in the corridor listening to the moans accompanied by the varying grunts of each new man. Finally she called out, literally screaming for more, ordering her guards to bring her a man, any man. On his way in Stalin caught the eye of the man before him and found it cowed and fearful. His interest increased.
She lay on her back, naked and breathing hard, covered in a film of perspiration.
‘Come on. You have to be quick.’
‘I will be as long as I want to be, woman.’
She looked up, starring at him from between her widely spread knees. He began to unbutton himself but she slid round to face him. One arm covering her chest she reached the other out to touch his face, a move that took him entirely by surprise and he was lost for a reaction. Her eyes had a lost, unhappy look. They stayed like that for a moment and then she said in a low tone, almost inaudible.
‘No. Not you.’
‘What?’ he replied with genuine confusion.
‘GUARDS!’ she screamed.
They stomped in and awaited her order.
‘Take him away and keep him away. And bring me another one. That longhaired hippie will do. Just make sure he doesn’t smell.’
One of the guards grabbed the collar of Stalin’s coat and began to drag him out; he fought back but managed only to delay the inevitable expulsion.
‘But I am Stalin. I AM STALIN!’
She looked at him and for a second seemed to be lost for words. Then she laughed a pitiless, vengeful laugh and shouted back.
‘You are Stalin? YOU ARE NOTHING.’
STEP EIGHT: IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED
‘What the hell happened?’
Stalin’s friend was waiting outside the room. Stalin did not answer, instead making a lunge for the guard who blocked the door. Stalin’s friend intervened before Stalin could get himself hurt.
‘What in God’s name is going on?’ his friend screamed. ‘And why is this idiot sniffing my robes?’ They both looked down to see the other guard on his hands and knees sniffing at their feet.
‘You may enter,’ he said, looking up at Stalin’s friend.
‘Come on Joe,’ he said with horror. ‘Let’s get the hell out of this mad house.’
‘She … would not … have me?’ roared Stalin as they left the palace.
‘Stalin can not be denied!’ he blustered as they crossed the plaza.
‘How does she refuse the love of Stalin?’ he muttered as they searched for a bar and hard liquor.
‘What is wrong with Stalin’s loving?’ he blubbered into his vodka.
‘Oh for fuck’s sake I really have had enough of this,’ announced his friend after two hours of halfheartedly trying to console the emotionally unstable Russian tyrant. ‘If there is one thing I can’t stand it’s self pity. I’m off too visit Hitler, at least you can rely on him not to fall apart over a woman.’
With that he left. Stalin never saw Jesus again.
Stalin went back to the palace in the dark of morning. He waited around well into the next day but caught no glimpse of her, screaming the name Octavia up and over the buildings high walls. He bribed servants to take messages to her but in reply received only the heads of the servants stuck on spikes outside the palace gates. He tried again to storm the building but only managed to get himself thrown out of the city altogether. He sent her a gift of a thousand black roses. No response. He dispatched assassins to kill every last guard and bring her to him. They returned in pieces: all the limbs in one bag, the heads and torsos in another. He threatened her with complete thermonuclear Armageddon and at one point his finger was right over the button but he did not even know if she had got the message and even if she had he was quite obviously bluffing. He was defeated in every way a man could be. Stalin was no longer himself and he no longer belonged in the places where he had been.
He passed through the park’s main gate, the queues of visitors waiting to enter stretched further than he could see. Beyond them were mile upon mile of parked and stationary cars. Nobody paid him any attention as he left until one small boy stepped into his path, blocking his way and in an awed voice said:
‘Is it good?’
‘Yes.’ he said without stopping, following his path away over the horizon.
STEP NINE : DO NOT GET LOST
The air in the little apartment was almost unbreathable; stale and still like death. Rubbish was littered around; fast food containers full of decayed organic matter, cups and glasses of stagnant fluid. He sat down on the musty sofa and gazed at the dirt-shrouded windows through which the faintest light came to illuminate the internal gloom.
He found his old papers with their scrawl of unrealized plans; dry and brittle like ancient parchments. They crumbled under his touch, the pieces scattering to the floor around his feet. At first Stalin laughed but then he to crumpled to the ground, crippled by an incomprehensible pain.
At first he did not hear the knocking at the door, and once it penetrated his thoughts he took slow steps towards the door, reached out his hand to the latch and then waited for a long time with his fingers touching the cold metal before sliding the bolt away and opening it.
Octavia was the same as when he had seen her first; wrapped within her regal air but now without the entourage or guards, alone and standing on his step. Stalin fell to his knees before her.
‘Royal princess. I am yours. Take me back to our world.’
‘I am not here for you Stalin.’ Her tone was commanding but fearful, uncertain.
They moved into the room and sat down upon the floor amongst the shards of paper. They looked at one another and once again she touched him on the cheek. He clasped her hand in his and felt his old strength returning. He pulled her towards him, trapping her but she responded with unexpected strength, hurling him away from her. She rose to her feet and stood above him. As he watched she put her hands behind her neck and tipped her head forward. A small click echoed around the room. She inhaled deeply as if in pain and then pulled her hands forward, the skin around her neck and jaw distorting, the features of her beautiful face twisting around themselves until they fell away completely. She kept pulling until the skin had gone entirely and she dropped it to one side of her.
Stalin watched the small dark haired girl with stunned incomprehension as she moved in on him, her skin pure white from lack of light and slick with slime like a newborn child. She placed her hands against his neck and he heard the click and then he screamed as she tore the skin from his flesh, heaved away the scalp, stripped the fat from the muscle. And she tossed the skin away across the room he felt the heat of a thousand days slide away and cool air brush against his wet body.
‘Mike,’ she said as she looked at him.
‘Kristen,’ he replied.