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The Simulators

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This fiction excerpt is a contribution to Incendiary Traces, a conceptually driven, community generated art project lead by artist Hillary Mushkin. Incendiary Traces is holding a series of site-specific draw-ins taking place across Southern California. Artbound is following the draw-ins and publishing related materials as the project develops. This piece was written after the writer participated in the recent draw-in at the 29 Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. A report on the tour and trace of the base will be published in the upcoming weeks.

With most explosio

ns, it's hard to recall after the fact if you'd heard it or felt it first. The deep ground-booming tremble mixed with the loud snap and the eerie sizzle, followed by a brief second of silence before the shoulders relax just enough for the ears to tune in to any other legible noises that might indicate the severity of the blast. While vibration and volume can give you a fairly decent sense of proximity, only the secondary sounds tell you how much adrenaline you'd be needing beyond the initial shock. If you can still hear, then at least you're alive, but you never don't sweat each one out, even if it's always too late to do anything about it anyways.

This time was different, though. A strange metallic scraping seemed to rip out of the blast, and the din of shouting and quick footfalls, pierced by a repeated staccato curse, didn't fit the usual pattern. If unexpected bomb detonations could be said to have a usual pattern, that is.

The Mayor froze, looking me directly in the eyes, listening intently while searching my face for an instinctive response. He gripped a cloth napkin in his hand, and I could see the dirt beneath his fingernails. I sat still as well, trying to make sense of the panic in the soldiers' voices, with something ... unrehearsed in their shouts across the yard.

"That doesn't sound right," I said to the Mayor, slowly releasing the fists I'd just now noticed were clenched tight.

"That wasn't supposed to happen," he said. "Not today, anyway."

"Are you supposed to..." I queried, not sure what exactly I thought he might be responsible for as Mayor, "do something? Call somebody?"

"Or perhaps you might tell me what you know about all this, since after all you were the one who asked to meet me alone for lunch today, here in this spot, my friend."

I couldn't tell if he had serious suspicions, or simply felt like as Mayor he was exhibiting due diligence, given the situation.

One of the Coyotes ran into the tent, his orange safety vest falling off of one shoulder. "All clear," he shouted at us. "We had a situation normal all fucked up kinda SNAFU was what it was." He wiped his nose on his sleeve and took out his notebook. "Oil can IED," he said, as he wrote it down, "Two minor injuries IRL, no sims hurt."

"'IRL'?" asked the Mayor incredulously. "You come in here telling my friend and I that there are real injuries out there?" I couldn't tell if the Mayor was playing it up for my benefit or the Coyote's, or just to amuse himself. Then I remembered that his cousin was the baker, just across the courtyard from where we were sitting.

Someone was yelling just outside our tent. "Cut! Timeout, people!" It was DJ Wilcox, seemingly running in all directions at once.

I watched the Mayor and the Coyote both relax in the same motion: a big exhalation of breath followed by the whole body going slack. The Mayor reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a packet of cigarettes, offering one to each of us before lighting up.

Wilcox stormed into the tent. "Goddamn it, what the hell, Jesus H. crystal meth," he said, sitting down at our table. He looked at the three of us and then jumped up just as quickly. "C'mon, people, what is this, amateur hour? Who cooked this up?"

I looked at the Mayor and then back to Wilcox. "We were, we were just meeting for lunch. Like I was supposed to," I added.

"What the hell happened out there?" demanded the Mayor. Though I'd only been here a week, it was clear that he and the DJ didn't like each other.

"Never mind that," Wilcox said. "Not my fault. A fucked up IED decided to bust its nut in an oil can right next to a bunch of boys doing routine. Wasn't in the script, so there might be some real scrapes for the meds to work with for once."

He took a cigarette from Saeed's pack and lit it. The soldiers called him DJ for "desk jockey," since he was one of those lifers who never left the camp but to get spreadsheet lessons or whatever the fuck gets a bureaucrat hard in his chair, but we told him it was for "discourse jockey" since he liked the idea of him controlling the script.

"Though, it might interest you to know, or rather, it might interest you to know that I couldn't help but notice what you might already know," Wilcox moved around the table until he stood behind the Mayor, facing me. "This particular group of soldiers, just doing their duty and serving their country so that they can go over and fight the likes of you for real -- sorry, not you, but you types, you, you know what I mean -- they just happened to be investigating a tip about the local metalsmith, what do you figure, when suddenly this unauthorized oil can goes kaboom and shreds the shins of two of my men." Outside the tent we could hear what sounded like the oil can being rolled on its side, with something metallic tumbling around inside it.

"Mayor... what's this guy's name again?" Wilcox walked around the table, looking down to his clipboard. "Saeed. The right honorable Saeed here, he, here's the thing," he said to the Coyote, as if Saeed was actually an Iraqi who couldn't understand English. "This guy's a what-you-call known unknown. Who knows who or what the fuck he's playing for."

"But you do know -- you have the script right there!" interjected the Mayor, pointing at the clipboard.

"You know what I mean, Fez," Wilcox retorted impatiently. Then, catching himself, he muttered, "sorry, got blurry there. Not what we want to do here. Or, there, rather. Shit, both, whatever, sorry, anyways..." He looked down at his clipboard again, then up at me.

"OK, who are you? You're new here, right?"

"Moss," I said. "Pete Moss." And then after a pause, "Sir."

"No, your sim name, jackass. Who are you to us? Who are you to him?" Wilcox asked, pointing at the Mayor.

"I'm the metalsmith," I said. "I thought you knew this? I was supposed to have lunch with the Mayor here."

He tapped his cigarette impatiently, ash falling onto the table. "Yeah, fine, but what, what's your, you know, your angle? What's on your agenda today?"

"Don't answer him," said Saeed. "He's supposed to know anyways, but don't ever give up your M.O." He picked up one of the fake pears and bounced it in his hand, as if comparing its weight against that of a grenade. "Can't even get his slurs right, idiot," he muttered.

"Sure, listen to your fake Mayor here. Ask yourself, whose name you want signing your check on payday? Mine or his?" A sudden wind blew through the tent, rustling the papers on the table. I watched the ash from Wilcox's cigarette spread and spill off the edge of the table.

"We must listen to the Americans, my friend. They come to save us from the dead Saddam and the evildoers amongst us, praise Allah," Saeed said to me, over-selling his character's accent and cliché English.

"Listen," said Wilcox, "just stick to the script. You're here to meet the Mayor for lunch. Our point of view, you could be just having lunch. Maybe you wanna marry the Mayor's cousin, or he wants you to make him a special sword or some shit. Orrrr..." he drew out the word as if to increase the sense of drama, "you are his eyes and ears on the street, or you are his line to the insurgents, or who knows what. Or maybe... maybe you decided you want to get cute, improvise, set your own bombs, eh? Point is, I don't care if you know or you don't, point is we don't know, and we gotta find out."

He walked over to the Coyote, grabbing his notebook and looking it over before handing it back, before turning back to us. "Just don't sit around here like you don't know what you're doin' other than rubbin' all over that candy-fake fruit you got there," he said, motioning towards the bowl of fruit on the table, next to the wooded loaves of "bread" and empty pitcher.

"Got it? Good," he said, looking quickly at both of us and then at his watch. "Shit. Okay, fuck. Let's break and try this again after lunch." He exited briskly, the Coyote at his heels.

Mayor Saeed unbuttoned his coat as we walked to the canteen together through the dust and heat. His real name was Amir: an Iranian immigrant who lived about thirty minutes out of town when he wasn't "on duty," as the actors like to call it. This was his third time through training camp, each time playing the Mayor with more or less the same vague instructions for a different team of soldiers rehearsing for the real thing, no matter how little whatever we were doing might compare beyond the dry heat and dirt.

I ordered a hamburger with a side of coleslaw and some water. When I sat down at the roleplayers' table with my tray, Amir was complaining about being typecast.

"What the hell do you expect, man?" asked Johnson, a radio specialist just returned from Iraq. "You're Arab. Of course they're going to want you to be one of the bad guys."

"Not what I mean, John Wayne," replied Amir, wiping mustard off his mouth. "I mean, they make me be the Mayor each time. What, because I have this build," he continued, as he gestured to his large frame, "I must be the big man? I can't play, what, a baker, or an insurgent, or a two-faced bomb-maker like you?" He gave me a wink. Amir loved to wind up Johnson, who this round was playing a weapons smuggler.

He smiled as Johnson rolled his eyes. "Next time I want to play someone... I don't know, just someone without the responsibility of the whole village on my conscience. It's too stressful, keeps me up at night."

Johnson was quiet for a second, and then without looking up, said "This ain't shit you need to be staying up at night about, my friend."

"What about you, Johnson," I asked tentatively. "I heard you asked to play on our side."

"That's right," he said, picking at his cole slaw with a plastic fork. "Feels... I dunno, more real. No, not more real, but like I can use my skills in a way better than I could..." He looked around, taking in the other soldiers in the room. "Plus I can smoke. Can't smoke in the barracks."

"I don't think you're allowed to smoke here either," I began, but Johnson waived me off.

"No, yeah, no, you can, I can smoke when I'm, you know, in character," he said. "Hell, we all smoke over there, even your so-called non-smokers do."

He pushed his tray into the center of the table and then reached under his seat to pull out his rifle, a rag, and an oil tin. We watched as he began to methodically take apart the gun and slowly clean its various parts. I looked at Amir, wondering what to make of this, as the gun Johnson was cleaning was a fake, a prop, and would certainly not need to be kept clean for any reason.

Amir gave me a shrug that seemed to say "let him be." As Johnson seemed to be lost in a meditative state, Amir spoke to me as if he wasn't there. "Johnson likes to clean his gun. Cowboy needs to. I think it helps him calm down."

"Something to do," I ventured, "like, I dunno, knitting?" Though Johnson did not make that he heard me, I instantly felt like an idiot for making such a trite comparison.

"No, more like, like, I think, cleaning a real gun," said Amir. "His gun. His gun over there. Needs to. But also feels, maybe, I think, feels comfortable."

Wilcox strode over to the tables where the actors sat. "Okay, superstars, ten minutes to showtime. Let's clean up here, get your smokes and your shits outta the way and get back out there." He paused -- I want to say "dramatically" -- to let his words sink in before turning and striding out the main entrance. It was strange how many of the officers seemed like they were acting their roles, whether or not we were 'on duty.'

As we finished eating and began to gather up our things, Amir quietly took my script for the day and scribbled something on the reverse side, before sliding it back to me. I picked it up and read:

They are going to torture you. Fake torture, to practice getting you to tell them what they want. Don't tell them. Make the bastards torture you for real. Lose your script. Trust us.

I looked up at Amir but he was already headed with his tray over to the trash bins. Putting away his oil cloth and hoisting his rifle strap over his shoulder, Johnson locked eyes with me just long enough to raise a finger to the side of his nose and give me the most subtle of conspiratorial nods. I folded the paper and stuffed it into my back pocket, then headed to the latrine. Seated on the toilet, I re-read the note, along with my script for the day, which beyond 'lunch' with the Mayor did not contain much for today other than the usual pretending-to-be-a-metalsmith. I tore the script into small pieces and flushed them down the toilet, and prepared to head back out.

When I exited the latrine, Johnson and Amir were nowhere to be seen. I went back to my seat to fetch my jacket, putting it on as I walked out and back towards 'town'. I felt something small and hard in my front breast pocket, and reached inside to find a crudely crafted pocketknife. As I certainly hadn't put it there, I assumed that either Amir or Johnson, or perhaps someone else -- from the village? from the script department? -- had placed it there. But why, for what? Was it being suggested that I might need a weapon? Or that I might need a real-looking fake weapon to use in this afternoon's scenes? Why not just hand me a fake knife like any other prop, then, along with whatever instructions would normally come with it? No, coupled with Amir's note, it seemed to me that something more than just a plot twist was afoot.

In the distance I could hear muffled explosions, deep thuds in the sand. Whether they were real or simulated I could not tell. The wind picked up but was just as hot as in the still baking sun, blowing sand against my boots and shins. I turned into my street as a new group of soldiers marched by, guns drawn. I still had not gotten used to the intensity of the soldiers' engagement with the set, and couldn't help but put my guard up, feeling exposed and vulnerable to their suspicious gazes.

I stepped into my shop to see if my knife had any resemblance to the props in my metalsmith's workshop. Finding none like it, I put it back into my jacket pocket and, taking a deep breath, headed back out into the heat to once more meet the Mayor for lunch, still unsure as to what was supposed to happen next.

David Buuck lives in Oakland, CA. He is the founder of BARGE, the Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics, and co-founder and editor of Tripwire, a journal of poetics. An Army of Lovers, a book of fiction co-written with Juliana Spahr, is forthcoming from City Lights. More information and publications are available here.

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