The first time Joe heard the big red button telling him, “That was easy,” he chuckled. Sure, it was an advertising gimmick for an office supply store, but the irony killed him.
He was at work, where they had just finished lifting a satellite onto the top of its booster, encapsulating it in its payload fairing, and arming most of the pyros and zip cords for the separation events after launch. Sweaty work, to say the least, amplified by the need for constrictive, confining clean-room suits that looked like high-tech blue burqas with rubber soles. So when a coworker slapped that big red toy button on her desk, and it said in its confident voice, “That was easy,” Joe was very amused.
The button’s casual assurance that every action in life was an easy stroll down an elm-bordered shady sidewalk, countered by the twisted and rocky path of reality, took a hold of his brain with the brute strength of an evangelically infectious meme. Inspired, Joe took it home.
That night, he placed the button on the floor, set up a video camera facing the button, and started recording. He put a tie-dyed sweatband on his head and did thirty pushups, smacking his forehead into the button, every time eliciting a “That was easy” echo of his forehead banging into it. Taken my the muse of idiocy, he sped up near the end for a Max Headroom earbuzzing articulation of “That that that that was easy!” It was as moronic as you can get, but when the video hit YouTube, it got over 50,000 hits. Who would sit through something like that?
More importantly, who would do something that stupid and film it? Joe would.
Joe needed fame like a programmer needed Jolt. Thus far it had been limited to the same venues that most attention-seekers found, with karaoke on the weekends at the local pub, pushing his blog like a cheap drug on unsuspecting friends, or being the donut guy on Friday. Just so long as someone would, for a moment, pretend that the monotony of his life had some meaning, some bearing on the motion of the universe. But, in fact, Joe’s unquenched desire for a bit more than his allotted fifteen minutes of fame was an impending disaster waiting for the right tool with which to implement its destruction.
And Joe found that tool.
Joe discovered that there was a local half-marathon the next weekend only an hour drive from his apartment. He got the great idea to stand at the finish line, camera rolling, and hold out the button for the marathoners to whack as they came across the finish line. Twelve of the marathoners actually saw the button and slapped it on the way by, happily receiving their electronic “That was easy” after 13 miles of grueling pain. To Joe’s delight, one of the marathoners laughed so hard that his wobbly legs collapsed under him, where he rolled on the ground and continued to laugh, despite his skinned kneecaps.
Joe got 80,000 hits from that video. Somehow Staples didn’t jump on this free advertising bonanza, which is just as well for them. Sometimes “free” comes with a hefty handling charge.
Other events followed. Wherever someone was doing something truly extraordinary, Joe was there with his camera and the big red button. He managed to get an Olympic weightlifter to smack the button after winning the Gold. He was there when Jared Jenkins won the tightest race ever in California’s gubernatorial election, happy to declare “That was easy” via the bright red button. He sent the button with Mark Satterfield when he made it to the top of Everest, and he faked a video of Neil Armstrong depressing the button after he arrived on the moon (conscientiously leaving out the sound, since it was “in a vacuum”). Ramsey Holstead, the famed brain-surgeon, did him the honor of tapping the button on his way out of the first-ever brain transplant between two consenting, but highly disturbed, adults.
These all got great responses on YouTube. But, as with all pop-cultural fads, this too, had to fade away into apathetic obscurity. The formulaic recounting of incredible feats followed by a button-tap only had so much carrying power. And Joe couldn’t handle that. People had gotten tired of the joke.
Joe sulked. Joe fumed. He had over 500 Facebook friends whom he’d never met who wouldn’t talk to him. His blog readership had eight stalwart readers, and three of them were fake accounts he’d set up himself to pump up his ratings.
He would have happily sold his pathetic soul to regain the delectable fame he had tasted. But it was really an accident that put him on the dark and meandering path into depravity, leading to his subsequent rebirth into self-absorbed glory.
There are few more powerful visuals than a fireman stepping out of a disaster. Joe knew that. He’d watched the Towers fall. So Joe went to a burning house with his button and camera. And he didn’t really mean for it to go bad at first, but the excitement and pressure of the situation dragged him ineluctably forward into his own personal swamp of emotional corruption.
Fireman Max Scheinfeld was carrying someone out of a burning house.
Joe got in his face and shouted over the wailing sirens and roar of fire hoses and fire, “Hit the button! Hit the button!”
Max jerked his head toward him and shouted back, “What the hell?”
“The button!” Joe’s camera was set up twenty feet away, taking in the scene. He held the Easy button out for Max.
“Get the fuck out of the way!” Max pushed past Joe and put the boy he was carrying down on the lawn on a blanket. He did quick checks on the boy and started in on CPR. Joe stood to the side, nervously reluctant to move into Max’s reach and instead just watched him work on the boy. After two minutes, Max stood up and walked back toward Joe, his smoldering eyes and terrible grimace making Joe’s knees shake.
But Joe, being Joe, gingerly held out the button, waiting for Max to do his duty. Max smacked the button out of Joe’s hands, drove his face into Joe’s, and screamed, “You fucking asshole!”
The boy on the grass lay unmoving and untended, like a broken doll.
Max turned away and went back to the task of putting out the fire before it worked its wrath on adjacent houses. Joe ran after His Precious, which to his relief had landed on the thick carpet of grass and came out unscathed from Max’s angry blow. He grinned maniacally at his camera with a thumbs-up, and shut it off.
The YouTube video got just under a million hits. Joe was back in the game.
Joe was no fool. He figured it out. What he needed was some good old-fashioned Geraldo Rivera trash video, something to give his viewers whiplash as they turned away from the screen.
His next video presented a war vet, Jimmy Laredo, coming home from Iraq. Jimmy’s legs and one arm were missing, his left eye covered with a patch. Fortunately, Joe thought, all he needs is one eye and one arm to hit my button. Joe was in the crowd as the war hero rolled down the ramp off the plane in his wheelchair. He held out the button hopefully before anyone knew he was there. The shocked and crowded mass of people became deathly quiet as they realized with disgust what was happening. Jimmy stopped and stared at the button, looking up in disbelief into Joe’s anxious and expectant eyes. He covered his remaining eye with his remaining hand and began to cry.
Joe had twelve stitches and two broken ribs that he took home from that event. His camera was destroyed, but the SIM card survived. YouTube blessed him with well over 10 million hits. Depraved humans worldwide rejoiced in Joe’s unidirectional path to Hell. Joe had become an internet phenomenon, a cultural icon amongst the lowest forms of life inhabiting the digital pathways, a pariah for everyone else, but as with the videotaped lopping of heads, innocents could not help but be drawn into the decaying morass of his vision.
Once Joe healed up and purchased a new camera using the exceptional wealth acquired through tee-shirt and DVD sales, he dove into his next project. William Shandon had just finished a prolonged trial, not because of any question about his guilt, but because it took a long time to present the evidence from thirty brutally raped and vivisectioned young women. Jurors were replaced a number of times as they broke before the waves of horror crashing against their minds. Joe went to visit Shandon a week after he went to jail. He wanted to catch him before Shandon received the thirty death sentences that they handed down. A few bribes in the right hands from his newfound wealth let him bring in his worn Easy button and a video camera. He even got a guard to hold the camera for him.
Joe said, “You’ve admitted to murdering and essentially dissecting thirty women while they were awake.”
Shandon smiled lazily, and rolled his eyes up in his shaved head, reliving the memories. “Oh, yeah, Yeah, I did, baby. There was this pregnant one…”
“Yeah, yeah,” Joe interrupted, “I heard about that. So call it thirty-one. Can you do one thing for me, for my viewers? They want to know just what you thought about killing all those people.” He held out his button like a golden chalice, hands shaking. Little beads of sweat broke out on his forehead, not from fear, but from tense excitement. This would be his crowning achievement, his pinnacle of fame, his virtuoso performance.
Shandon met his eyes and grinned, showing teeth like a rabid badger. He looked down at the big red button, reached out with both manacled hands, and stroked the blood-red surface. He closed his eyes, sighed and pressed it. The button squeaked and clicked, and the happy electronic voice declared to the world, “That was easy!”
From a starship thousands of kilometers above, the Watchers had been monitoring humans for over four thousand years. They were sentient single-celled amorphous blobs with crystalline minds, tennis-ball-sized with the ability to produce a variety of flagella-like appendages to help propel them around their liquid-filled ship. The Watchers had never been seen or detected by humans at all, despite the conviction of many humans that aliens were among them already. The Watchers, in fact, had never been on the surface of the planet, and had technology that assured that electromagnetic, gravitational, and neutrino detectors could in no way sense their presence. They were technically advanced millions of years beyond humans. Avoidance was trivial.
Most of the Watchers knew over a dozen human languages and had nearly perfect translators for those languages that they didn’t speak. Not only could they detect and interpret the primitive electronic transmissions humans vomited forth every which-way into space, they could remotely monitor simple human speech from thousands of miles away using devices that human language is not yet fit to describe.
“This Joe fellow,” K’othek commented, “is a real floater. He pollutes everything around him.”
K’othek was referring to the impolite practice of excreting a ball of waste in the swimming fluids they all occupied.
C’tulu bobbed up and down. “True, true! And five hundred million followers! We should prepare for another Yucatan event!”
K’othek waved a dozen flagella in irritation. “Your solution is always to wipe out everything. You just like dropping asteroids.”
T’oktal, the youngest of them, blew gas into the fluids around him disdainfully. “You’ve dropped asteroids on three promising saurian civilizations on this planet. Before they even had any tech.”
“Saurians are such unpleasant creatures.”
T’oktal bobbed in agreement. “So true. But this Joe, his followers may be little more than momentary voyeurs, returning to normalcy when the nuisance is removed.”
“You still want to drop a rock.”
He looked as sheepish as a tentacled tennis ball could look.
“I think,” said T’oktal, “a more limited response is called for.”
T’oktal nodded. “That would suit. Humans never will figure out what causes it.”
K’othek looked at the two of them. “Fine. But T’oktal does this job. I don’t want C’tulu to get into the habit.”
T’oktal tried to act calm, but inside his borvils had congealed in excitement. “If I must.”
They swam over to what was euphemistically called the Fine Tuning Console and entered Joe’s coordinates. The device would deliver a tightly collimated beam of microwave radiation to Joe’s body as he lay quietly in bed. It would not ding when the cooking was done.
T’oktal flipped up the cover on the device and found himself looking at a big red button. He glanced at the others, but they appeared clueless. He sighed, and pushed the button.
He turned to K’othek, and opened his small mouth to say the words, then closed his mouth again without saying anything. There, he thought, lay the path to ruin, and he would not take it.