Robert Rotstein is the author of the new novel, "Reckless Disregard" (Seventh Street Books, 2014). An entertainment attorney, he has handled lawsuits on behalf of Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Lionel Ritchie, James Cameron, and major motion picture studios, and he has taught as an adjunct professor at Loyola Law School. Robert is currently a partner in a major Los Angeles law firm, where he co-chairs the firm's intellectual property department. He contributed this article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
In Robert Rotstein's new novel, "Reckless Disregard" (Seventh Street Books, 2014), an anonymous video-game designer known only as "Poniard" creates a game that accuses a movie mogul of murder. When the mogul sues for libel, the issue of anonymous speech comes to the fore. Through the story, Rotstein explores the lure of celebrity, the limits of the legal system, and the elusive assumptions that people make about the people and the reality around us.
Below is an excerpt from the book.
The intro drags on too long, but everything else about the game is perfect. The woman is sexy, especially to a ten-year-old boy like Brighton. There are 3D anime-style graphics and an awesome metal-rock soundtrack. It's another soon-to-be classic video game by the developer known as Poniard.
What Brighton especially loves about Abduction! is how hard it plays. No super-easy, easy, or intermediate stages. Just one mode, tagged Unattainable. Leave it to Poniard to disrespect his audience by branding them losers. And what better way to attract their attention? Abduction! has already gone viral. According to the gamer blogs, no one has beaten the game yet, though it's already been out for three days. That's a long time — usually the top experts crack a new game in a couple of hours. Some bloggers write that there's no solution even though Poniard has promised there is. Brighton doesn't really expect to beat the game, but why not try? [How Video Games Help Fuel Space Exploration ]
He dims the monitor and goes down the hall to check on his aunt, who's really his great-aunt. She's in the living room, still snoring away, asleep in her ratty armchair. A cooking show is on TV, the emcee loud and energetic. An empty bottle of sauvignon blanc teeters on the edge of an end table. Several times a month, Aunt Greta drinks too much wine, letting Brighton steal a few hours of freedom. Aunt Greta doesn't approve of computer games or much of anything else that's fun.
He goes back to his bedroom, powers on the monitor, and starts Abduction! from the beginning. The game, like all of Poniard's offerings, starts with a short burst of classical music. Brighton read online that this music is a goof on the major studios' old-fashioned fanfares. The game itself opens with a long shot on a neon sign that says The Tell Tale Bar, the B flickering on and off. The scene quickly shifts to an empty bar, dark and dingy. There are footsteps, and the hot woman, visible from the neck down, struts in. She's wearing a green leather jumpsuit, the neckline plunging to just above the navel, exposing a lot of breast. Her back toward the screen, she sits down on a bar stool, swivels toward the camera, and with flair scissors her legs before crossing them. Her hair, the color of animated fire, is styled in dreadlocks that fall to mid- back. Her skin is fair and freckled. Around her neck, she wears a silver chain, to which a small cross is attached.
"I'm Felicity, and this is my story." Her voice is singsong, kind of like a canary. "It's a story of love and betrayal. And blood. My blood." With her head still facing the viewer, she turns her body sideways and rests her right forearm on the bar, her green eyes narrowing to sultry slits. "Did you ever get lost? So lost you can't find your way out of the darkness? I did. One day when . . ." She sits up with a start, places an index finger to her lower lip, and shakes her head vigorously, each computer-generated dreadlock swaying in perfect rhythm to her movements. Nobody but Poniard can make a game seem so real.
"That's so wrong," she says in her fluty voice. "That's what they want you to think. But it's a lie. I didn't get lost at all. I was taken. Abducted by William the Conqueror and his band of thugs. You see, in this game, you not only know what the crime was, you know who committed it. But this game's not over, it's just beginning. All you have to do is find out how it all happened. Easy, huh? Hardly. An unattainable goal, because you can't rescue me. But there's an answer to what happened to me, I assure you. Let me show you something."
She swivels to face the bar and raises an arm toward the wall. When she snaps her fingers, a big-screen television lights up, displaying a view of the same bar, this time crowded with patrons. The picture zooms in, and the images on the TV and the computer screen merge.
Brighton pauses the video and checks the time. A few minutes after eight. He listens. Another Food Network cooking show. Aunt Greta must still be asleep, because at eight on Mondays she always watches that show with the celebrity dancers. Safe for now, he rewinds the game to get another look at Felicity's boobs and then advances to the next cutscene.
Felicity sits in a booth alone, sipping a glass of amber liquid. Everything in the scene is old-fashioned. Felicity's hair, auburn now, is piled on top of her head. She wears a black jacket over a tight black dress. The scene starts with a classic rock song. Money for Nothing. He knows from an Internet search that the song, by a band called Dire Straits, came out in 1985. So the Abduction! story must have happened in the eighties, a clue. One of the things that make Poniard's games so hard to beat is that you often have to get outside knowledge to advance from level to level.
Felicity gulps down her drink and slams it on the table with a cartoonish clatter. Immediately, the bartender, a tiny man with a mullet, thin face, and rattish moustache, walks out from behind the bar and brings her another.
She continues to stare straight ahead. "Thanks, Dexter." She slurs the words.
"This has to be the last one, Felicity," the bartender says in a squeaky voice that clacks at the end of each sentence. "And I shouldn't say this, but Billy's not coming. He's too much the all-powerful pooh-bah to come into a place like this anymore."
She shrieks, her laugh all the more frightening because Poniard increases the decibel level for the sound effect. Brighton flinches every time he hears it.
"Oh, Billy will come," she says. "He knows if he doesn't, he'll regret it." The bartender shakes his head and clears the empty glass. When he turns to the side, his overlong apron string resembles a rat's tail. Poniard is really playing the rodent card with this character. Over the next minute, a succession of men approach Felicity. Each time, she shakes her head and they leave.
Two goons in identical suits sit down on each side of the booth, one blocking Felicity from leaving. Slasher film music starts playing. Brighton knows this because he secretly watched Saw on TV one night when Aunt Greta fell asleep. The man who sits next to Felicity is tall and burly; the one who sits across from her is short and slim. Both men are white. They have the same exaggerated kinky hair — buzz cut on the sides and absurdly high and cylindrical on top.
"Well, if it isn't George and Lennie," Felicity says.
"You're coming with us, doll," the little one rasps. "Now!"
"If you think I'm going anywhere with you, you're dumber than I thought. Now get out of my way, Einstein." She makes a move to get up, but the hulk puts his hand on her shoulder and pushes her down again. Her scarlet lips open in a newborn scream, but then there's an old-fashioned iris-in like from a silent movie, the click of a switchblade, and a starburst gleam on metal. The big man touches the pointed blade just below her left breast. Her hardened nipples poke through her dress. Aunt Greta hates Poniard's video games because she says they have too much sex and violence.
"You won't get away with this," Felicity says. "I've left—" "Shut up," the small man says.
They stand up, making their way through the crowd of tough guys and skanky girls. The bar is filled with cigarette smoke and the sounds of loud laughter and clinking dishes. The scene shifts outdoors, skid row at nighttime, the street empty except for a homeless man — drunk, asleep, or both — curled up in the alcove of a building. Then the scene cuts to the beach, where the men drag a struggling Felicity across the sand toward the black ocean. Halfway across the beach, she loses one of her gold high- heel shoes. They half-carry her down to a motorboat tied to a pylon on the pier. Her shoulders slump, and her body caves into itself. Literally. That's the beauty of animation — no live actor could do that.
Just as she's about to step into the boat, she turns and raises her hands. Her black-polished nails extend from her fingers, and she makes a catlike swipe at the big man's eyes, hitting the mark. Blood showers down from his face, a dark red. He bellows and falls to his knees, grabbing at her as he goes down. His fingers catch in her silver chain, which breaks and falls to the sand. She runs, but the small man catches up to her and pushes her against a slimy concrete pylon. Her head hits the pylon with a sickening thwack. The blood from her head spurts out like fiery streamers from a skyrocket. Her eyes widen and fade. The picture goes dark except for the fountain of scarlet droplets that continue to cascade down the screen.
"So gross," Brighton says aloud, though he's watched the cutscene twice before.
The screen lights up again. The earlier Felicity reappears, again dressed in green leather and sporting dreadlocks.
"I disappeared," she says. "And I haven't been seen since. Oh, a few reported sightings here and there, but nothing verified. Where am I? What happened? A puzzle. But I do promise that William the Conqueror won't get away with this." She points at the viewer. "Retribution is up to you." There's an extreme close-up on her face, and she lowers her voice as if speaking confidentially. "Here's a tip — don't start in the bar. That's the end of the journey, not the beginning. That's all I can tell you, now and forever." She smiles sadly. A single sparkly tear slides down her cheek. Then the screen shifts to gameplay mode: Level One — Felicity's Appointment.
There's a shatter of glass. Brighton has never heard that sound effect before, and he's about to click the rewind arrow until he realizes the sound came not from the computer but from the living room. He gets up and runs down the hall. Aunt Greta is still sleeping, still snoring, but it's not a snore that he's ever heard before. And her arm is extended, dangling over the end table where the bottle was. There's a snuffling, more animal than human. Afraid to touch her but knowing that he must, he takes a step forward. A shard of glass from the wine bottle pierces the ball of his foot. He yelps and then reaches down and pulls the sliver of glass out of his foot. The blood is nothing like that fake stuff in the video game.
He nudges her. "Aunt Greta. Aunt Greta. Wake up!"
She snorts, almost an oink. And then nothing. He fixates on her chest, willing her to breathe, willing himself to believe she's breathing. He grabs her shoulders and feebly shakes her, still hoping that she'll feel pain if he shakes too hard. Then he remembers her pulse. How do they do it on TV? The arm? The neck? Which side? He feels her wrist and probes at her neck with his fingers. Her skin is the texture of the raw chicken breast that he helped her prepare for dinner the night before. He tries to find her pulse, but he's forgotten what a pulse is.
Brighton is an intelligent boy. He knows he must dial 911, knows it will be futile. He understands now that actual death is ordinary, and for that reason more horrifying than anything he can ever see in a video game.
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