Brandon had always felt somewhat envious of his sister. This was strange because he was the natural child and she was adopted. And she was a girl while he was a boy. It seemed as if he should have a more natural claim on his parents’ affections. Yet somehow it didn’t seem to work out that way. After all, their parents had chosen her while his arrival had just been dumb luck. They had spent six months in China waiting to adopt her–according to the way his mother told it–while his arrival had involved only a quick trip to the hospital. Perhaps it was because his parents had bent over backwards to make her feel wanted, or maybe it was just big sister envy, but somehow he felt he had gotten the short end of the stick.
All this had made little difference when they were growing up. Susan had been the kindest and most protective of older siblings. Sure they had squabbled all the time, but she was always the one to make up and say she was sorry. Really, he couldn’t say a bad word about her. She had her calligraphy while he had liked soccer and shooting. At twelve his father had bought him his first gun and they had gone to the rifle range regularly. But hunting season was now limited to two weeks in the fall and it was hard to get excited about it throughout the rest of the year. Soccer he practiced all the time, kicking the ball around the yard, taking it to school with him, dribbling off his knees and insteps and finally his head until he could keep the ball in the air for minutes at a time. He played in the youth leagues, made the junior varsity in high school, and was about to move up to varsity when the “void” set in.
No one could define exactly what it was that made boys around age 16 start to lose interest in things, but it usually happened around the time the girls began to get pregnant. There were few sexual inhibitions left and by 15 most boys had lost their virginity, usually with experienced older girls. Sleeping around was easy and most girls were so willing that it hardly seemed a challenge anymore. It was what came next that was difficult. When a girl became pregnant a boy might make a claim on her but there were likely to be a dozen others as well. Some of the old-fashioned parents insisted on paternity tests but the courts generally frowned on it. “The fundamental family unit is the mother and her child,” had been the verdict of some court somewhere. “The unwanted intervention of paternal claims can only do harm to the dyad of mother-and-child.” Most girls went on pregnancy disability, then switched to “family assistance” as it was called. They were allowed to bring their infants to school and many senior classrooms took on the air of a nursery.
There was a kind of class system among the girls between the “mothers” and the “postponers” as they were called, and no one could tell who had the best of it. For the mothers there was the security of a government check and the prospect of returning to school once their basic responsibilities had been met. For the postponers there was the riskier prospect of college and a career with perhaps the chance of marriage and childbearing after age 30. One thing was certain, however. Both of them outdistanced the boys, who were left staring into the yawning darkness of a future without much responsibility.
There were, however, video games. Until they were 18 or so, most boys continued to play in their basements. Parents and single mothers were willing to go to almost any extreme and tolerate any type of behavior in order to avoid the next step, which was the Virtual Reality Parlors. Often compared to opium dens, these were dark, mysterious places into which young men had been known to disappear for months at a time.
In a VRP you could do almost anything. You could have sex with a movie star, climb Mount Everest, jump out of an airplane at 35,000 feet, or go rocketing to the moon. Food and drinks were served continuously, although many patrons were now skipping all that and hooking up intravenously. Sleep was almost unknown. Parlor chairs exercised the muscles at appropriate times and some of the newer places now had REM machines that imitated dreams and cleared the brain for the next round of adventure. A young man usually borrowed money from his parents until they refused to support him anymore, but Video Game Addiction (VGA) had been declared an official disability and checks were available for that as well. Politicians and churchgoers–yes, a few still remained–railed against the parlors and called them the work of the devil, but no one paid much attention. The programmers were endlessly inventive and the young men almost insatiable.
True, there was always talk of turning VR parlors into educational establishments, teaching calculus and history with the same devices. But it hardly ever amounted to anything. “Math adventures” was one VR booth that always remained empty, although the parlor owners liked to keep it around for public relations purposes. The government had even started offering tax credits based on the amount of time the educational booths were occupied. The parlor owners let customers sleep in them in order to collect the subsidies.
Brandon had not reached the VR parlor stage yet. That usually didn’t happen until the promises of high school had evaporated, the complaints of parents or single mothers were beginning to wear thin, and the warm, enveloping environment of the basement game room began to feel suffocating. It was then that boys usually ventured out into the big wide world of VR parlors. Brandon had not quite reached that level of adventure, but he was getting close.
His two friends, Buzz and Tim, were of the same species. Both 19, they had tattoos over large portions of their body haircuts in the style of a century ago, short and flat on top and extra-long and combed back on the sides in what was known as a “DA.” Thin and pale, neither of them had seen the sun for months. Their pupils were terminally dilated from daylong sessions staring at the 20-foot television screens, interrupted only by forays into the kitchen to see if the parents had left any food. The darkened basement, coated with velour from top to bottom, was filled with the detritus of former repasts–half-eaten tacos, pulverized potato chips, ragged pizza crusts, ketchup-smeared wrapping paper, and empty soda bottles, all invisible in the darkness but making their presence known through the faint smorgasbord of stale odors that saturated the room, releasing its grip only when the olfactory nerves became too tired to register them anymore.
Conversation consisted mostly of monosyllables grunted at the television screen.
“Choo see that?”
They were playing a game called “Death Dive,” an attempt to re-create the War in the Pacific of the 1940s. World War II was now remembered as a battle fought by Superheroes — Captain America, Buck Rogers, GI Joe, and other figures from that forgotten age who now morphed into creatures of legend, much the way of Atlas, Icarus, and the other characters of Greek legend had become something more than human.
The Air War had been embellished by jets and rockets, smart bombs and heat-seeking projectiles, all operated by superheroes who could outstrip them all at any speed, catching guided missiles in their teeth and spitting them back at the enemy with supreme accuracy. But the main appeal of the game was the Kamikaze, the magical, two-engine Japanese prop plane that, if played correctly, could weave in and out of this hurricane of fireworks and shrapnel and, with exquisite precision, find its way to the Mother Ship where it could plant itself right in her belly, exploding in suicidal glory. Far from terminating the contest, this self-immolation was immediately followed by a rebirth in which the player became the possessor of three Kamikazes that could be aimed at even more appealing targets, and on and on it went. Games had been known to last for months.
Brandon’s parents tolerated all this because they knew, as did all the others, that the alternative was the VR parlors, where young men often disappeared for years at a time. “VR addiction” was now an official disability and the government was looking for ways to deliver monthly checks to habitués who had no other address. The game parlors were more than willing to cooperate, since it helped them to collect their back bills. It was win-win all the way–at least as long as the Chinese were willing to pay for it.
Brandon scored a direct hit on the Mother Ship. It was his third of the hour and he was ebullient.
“Hey, man, you wanna have breakfast,” he asked his buddies, for it must be morning somewhere.
“Not that same old pizza. I hate that stuff.”
“Nah, I found a new place on the ’net. They’ve got anchovies and all kinds of s–t.”
“Order me one. I’ll pay you later.”
“What’s later, man? You already owe me $300 from last week.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll pay you soon as I get my check.”
“Yeah, what check? What kinda disease you got?”
“Are you kiddin’ me, man? I got A-D-D. My mother had me diagnosed in third grade. That’s when I started on Ritalin. Now I get $200 a week. Is that cool or what?”
“Hey, man,” said Buzz, “I gotta get if my ol’ lady to fix me up wi’ somethin’ like that.”
“Hey guys, how many pizzas do we want,” said Brandon, trying to maintain some sense of purpose. “Two? Three?”
“Come on, guys. Make up your minds.”
“Three. With anchovies.”
“Hey, Brandon. What’s that Chinese sister of yours up to these days?”
“Yeah, she’s a nice little piece. I wish I had a sister like that.”
“Don’t talk about her that way,” said Brandon, who still felt strangely protective of Susan.
“I didn’ mean nothing, man. Just fix me up with some Chinese girls.”
“Yeah, I hear they’re really nice.”
“They got their pu–ies slit sideways.”
“Who tol’ you that?”
“I read it on the ’net someplace.”
“Hey Brandon, that ain’t true, is it?
“Shut up, you guys. I’m trying to make a phone call. I told you to stop talking about my sister. Hello, Tower of Pisa? I want three pizzas delivered to 1414 Maple Avenue, two with anchovies.”
“Pu–ies slit sideways. You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, man.”
“The fu– I don’t. Don’t you remember that Vietnamese girl that was in our class junior year? Veronica somethin’?”
“You banged her?”
“I didn’t bang her but I know a guy who did.”
“She didn’t bang nobody.”
“I swear. She banged this one guy in our class. Jules? You remember him? Big stud.”
“Hey Brandon, you remember that Vietnamese girl Veronica in our class? You think anybody ever banged her?”
But Brandon had gone back to the game. “I ain’t listenin’ to you guys,” he said, staring at the screen. “Wow, look at that! 1400 kills. I bet neither of you guys never got that high.”
Buzz and Tom picked up their controllers and once again were soon lost in the cloudburst of shrapnel and exploding anti-aircraft shells with battleships sinking to the bottom of the sea.
Then after twenty minutes or so a high tremolo worked its way into their consciousness from upstairs.
“Holy s–it, that’s the pizza,” said Brandon, abandoning his controller. “Wow, that was fast.” He bounded upstairs into the light of day.
When Brandon got to the door, however, it was not the pizza deliveryman but a towheaded young man in a Boy Scout uniform. “Excuse me, sir. Would you like to sign our petition asking the government not to make the Chinese orphans go back to China?”
“Whaaat?” Brandon stood in astonishment.
“Would you like to sign our petition? We’re sending it to Washington.”
“What’s this about?” asked Brandon, bewildered.
“The Chinese have invaded Pearl Harbor and are demanding that all adopted Chinese girls be send back to China. We’re arguing they shouldn’t have to go. ”
Buzz came up behind Brandon. “Ask him if he’s got any extra — hey, what’s this? Boy Scouts delivering pizza?”
“Shut up, meathead. I want to hear what he has to say. You said the Chinese have invaded Pearl Harbor?”
“Yessir. It happened a week ago. It’s been all over the Internet.”
“Hey, Pearl Harbor!” said Buzz, “That’s where we were just fighting. You mean the Japs have done it again?”
“No, stupid, this is the Chinese. Listen, what did you say about Chinese girls who have been adopted?”
The youngster gathered himself for his best recitation. “The Chinese Navy is demanding that all girls who have been adopted in this country be returned to China. There’s a group called the Golden Horde that doesn’t have anyone to marry and they say America has stolen these girls from them. We say these girls are American and should stay here.”
A cold wave of fear penetrated Brandon’s heart. “That’s my sister they’re talking about. They say she has to go back to China? They can’t do that. She belongs here.”
The young Scout was now gaining confidence in the presence of his older peers. “The President says we should not do anything to anger the Chinese. She says if we’re nice to them they may go away. But we say that we have to stand up and tell the Chinese that they have no right to force these girls to go back to China. They should only have to go back if they want to go themselves.”
“Hey, this is cool, man,” said Buzz, overwhelmed by the seriousness of it all. “Just like in the movies.”
“Where do you guys meet,” asked Brandon, finally turning to the scout. “I want to help.”