December 27th, 2000 by Clark Humphrey

(IN OUR FIRST AND SECOND EXCITING CHAPTERS, would-be Internet mogul Benny Bucks has ordered his staff to work on Christmas, telling them they should be proud to give up a bleeding-heart holiday and devote themselves to their (his) goal of getting the site online in time for the bowl-game commercials he’s bought. A programming-nerd named Pratt refused, citing an ill son who needed him. Benny threatened to fire Pratt if he didn’t show up. Later, passed out in front of his home PC, he dreamed of his executive chairman warning him about his anti-Christmas attitude. That was followed by another vision, in which the Spirit of Christmas Past (who looked like the damsel in distress from the original Donkey Kong video game) reminded Benny of his past holidays, which had also been marred by the same hostile attitude.)

BENNY NOW OPENS HIS EYES and stands up to find himself within a hyperrealistic virtual-reality environment, complete with the occasional digital display flaws and breakups.

The Spirit of Christmas Present, now materializing and approaching him, is a Playstation-quality digitized version of Kirsten, the sullen barista from the coffeehouse next to Benny’s dot-com office. Her hair is a solid-color object instead of the real Kirsten’s tangle of streaks and spit ends, but otherwise she’s just the same, from her pasty face to her stooped posture to her too-big butt.

Well, Benny thinks to himself, that’s sure no Lara Croft.

Kirsten immediately stops and stares in his eyes, using that you-male-chauvanist-pig scowl Benny’s seen countless times on countless women. Kirsten reminds Benny that, as a figure in his dream, she knows everything he’s thinking–and he hasn’t exactly been thinking in a peace-and-goodwill groove these days, has he?

She sulkingly leads him past a desolate VR landscape of volcanoes, ice storms, and desert sands. Kirsten monotonically tells Benny these are the landscapes of his heart–forlorn vistas devoid of compassion, where nothing can grow and no one can thrive. Benny doesn’t pay attention; he’s too rapt by an asteroid falling in the far background and exploding in a thousand cool colors.

Eventually, Kirsten and Benny hike into a valley oasis of evergreen trees and babbling brooks. This, Kirsten says with just a slight uplift in her voice, is what Benny’s heart could be, if he would only let the spirit of love inside.

Benny snorts that Kirsten isn’t usually a big glowing ray of sunshine herself. Kirsten half-patiently replies that she knows her own imperfections all too well, but she’s working to improve herself. And so can he; it’s not too late.

Before Benny can think up a defensive comeback, Kirsten leads him into a clearing in the forest. There, standing before him are three life-size QuickTime 360-degree tableaux, side by side like dinosaur-museum dioramas.

The first still-image scene shows (a more realistic depiction of) Kirsten, along with her fellow coffeehouse denizens, celebrating Christmas at the cafe with cheer and togetherness, a spirit only enhanced by their varying degrees of hip cynicism. Regulars and employees are sharing homemade fruit wine and sugar cookies made in the shapes of Mary and Jesus, playing Pictionary, dancing and laughing.

There’s Janis and Anais, the mother and teenage-daughter punk rockers, singing in unison. (The VR Kirsten tells Benny it’s a speedcore rendition of “O Holy Night.”)

There’s Flies-With-Eagles, the self-proclaimed Indian shaman lady, re-spiking her special egg nog from a plastic flask of Monarch Rum.

There’s a spindly boy Benny’s never seen before, whispering something (apparently naughty) in the QuickTime Kirsten’s ear.

The VR Kirsten asks if Benny can imagine what the QuickTime Kirsten and her friends in the panoramic still image are laughing at. Benny says it’s got to be him; he knows they all hate his guts. The VR Kirsten says she hates to disappoint Benny, but his name hasn’t even come up all evening. The world, despite his ever-louder assertions to the contrary, does not revolve entirely around him.

Before Benny can properly phrase an obscene response, the VR Kirsten calmly tells him they’re sharing a joke they’d learned from Pratt, who’d learned it from his son. Why did everybody think the baby Jesus was divine?, Kirsten repeats. Because when you’re born in a barn full of animals, your own poop seems to like the breath of the angels. Benny actually manages a small but perceptible smile, even a very faint chuckle.

The VR Kirsten next calls his attention to the second image. In this picture, Pratt the programmer’s afflicted son is struggling to cope with tree-trimming, smiling through his struggles to stand up straight and control his motor skills.

Apparently, the VR Kirsten coolly explains, the four-year-old has a congenital disease for which there’s a new, potential treatment; but it’s expensive and considered “experimental,” so the cheap HMO used by RevolutioNet won’t cover it.

Benny starts to mumble something about social Darwinism and the need to weed out the weak so the strong can grow to their full potential.

But the frozen image of the boy, in an early stage of stumbling while reaching for a tree ornament, causes Benny to stop in mid-sentence. The child seems to have just become aware in the previous split-second that his weary legs are going to fail him. But his face is filled not with fear or dread but a peaceful smile; as if he were a skateboarder approaching a sidewalk wipeout with fatalistic yet adventurous glee. Benny, in response, begins to slightly relax his stiff stance, to lower his shoulders and open his eyes and lower his jaw.

But when Kirsten looks straight at Benny, he promptly freezes up rather than display any sign of weakness.

Benny knows Kirsten wants to see him get all soft and mushy. So he holds his best poker face when Kirsten points to the third and last tableau.

In this image, the woman Benny had jilted for not being trophy-wife material is having a happy, wholesome, unpretentious holiday dinner with her new community-college-teacher boyfriend. Their apartment kitchen is small; their semi-formal attire and tablecloth are mall-chain-store plain; their wine is a cheap supermarket brand. But, as far as can be seen, they are satisfied with themselves and their condition.

The VR Kirsten explains the woman’s winsome, uptilted expression as a brief pause to wonder what would’ve happened if Benny had stayed with her. Kirsten tells Benny the ex-fiancee is imagining where he is now, whether he’s happy, whether he’s found someone new, whether he’s ever found peace or at least a refuge from whatever demons keep driving him.

You did everything you could to make her hate you, Kirsten tells Benny. But she still cares about you anyway. What do you think of that, bad boy?

Benny holds back a half a tear. He struggles to compose himself. After about fifteen seconds he succeeds in regaining his hardened compsure. He mumbles something about small people with small minds and small ambitions, living out their small existences.

The VR Kirsten scoldingly tells him he’ll need the ultimate lesson now.

Kirsten and the other virtual-reality images surrounding Benny break up into static and, one polygon at a time, disappear. Benny finds himself alone in a cold, dark, silent, infinite space.

For probably the first time in his life, he is truly afraid.

TOMORROW: The thrilling conclusion.

REMEMBER: It’s time to compile the highly awaited MISCmedia In/Out List for 2001. Make your nominations to clark@speakeasy.org or on our handy MISCtalk discussion boards.


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