GOD SAVE THE ESTEEM
Ep 4: Melody Power To The People
She sat in darkness lit only by monitors, a spider in a vast electronic web. The suspects were entering the area again. They had to be watched. Only she stood against the terrorists, the drug dealers, the gangstas, the smokers, and the people who put gum under the seats, stood between them and Laaaawndale High.
Li tapped a button and Camera 12's image covered the screen; a push of the controller and it zoomed in on one Daria Morgendorffer.
"You're well behaved and intelligent, Ms Morgendorffer," she told the screen. "And that was what gave you away! Oh, you're going to be trouble, I know it – but I'm got my eye on you, I've got my eye on oh my god-"
She grabbed the security phone, already screaming her commands before the guards had picked it up: "Scarlet alert! Individual with a suspicious bag approaching the entrance – POSSIBLE TERRORIST!"
The guards, faces obscured by hastily donned gas masks, surrounded Mohammed with their tasers drawn. The boy sighed and dropped the sports rucksack on the floor.
"Hey Steve," he said to the lead guard.
"Hey," replied Steve, his voice muffled by the mask.
"It's my Gym gear. Just like it is every day I have Gym."
"The damn screen on this mask has steamed up again, can someone else check the bag?"
Daria stood watching this display with her mouth open. She turned to Jane, remarking: "Please tell me there's a logical reason why Li started doing that."
"Mohammed came into school one day with a T-shirt saying 'Bummer'."
"Well, that's logical for Li. I'd say I was amazed everyone accepted it, but Li ruled this whole country in spirit for eight years and everyone went along with it then too. I'm not sure if we're 1984 or Brave New World here..."
At that point, the Fashion Club – Sandi Griffin, Elsie Sloane, Tiffany Blum-Deckler and Stacy Rowe – walked past, engrossed in philosophical discussion:
"We HAVE to confront Brittany on this, Sandi, I'm telling you – one of her cheerleaders was wearing PLAID. I mean, what's up with that? Even public schools should have more taste!"
"Too true, Elsie dear – though Brittany may be incapable of grasping the severity. All that exercise must have gone to their heads. And all those muscles they develop, ewww."
"I'm so glad I'm not a cheerleader, they work too hard – I'm so glad I'm in the Fashion Club instead!"
Daria blinked as they walked. "Ah. Brave New World it is."
"But we don't have soma to drug us into a state of narcotic, sleepy bliss," said Jane.
"We have O'Neill's soothing voice and Maths class."
O'Neill's class was particularly soothing that day, as he tried to discuss the news media without touching on any potentially touchy or upsetting subjects. His deliberate vagueness helped Daria get a well-earned nap in.
"Anyway, erm, we have a few minutes left, would anyone like to discuss any of the issues or their thoughts from today's lesson?"
"Oh dear. Erm... Jodie! How about you?"
Jodie Landon looked up. "Well, I think you've done the class a disservice by not touching on the pervasive liberal bias and stranglehold on the traditional news media."
"The great liberal bias of wanting to make lots of money," said Daria, earning herself a sharp look from Jodie. "We all remember Marx's seminal Yay Kapital."
"See? The bias is so pervasive that people don't realise it exists! People need to be educated."
"You just snarked yourself so I don't have to."
"This is just typical of the left, you have to put down and smear and insult everyone because you can't put up an argument-"
"The larger members of the American news media uniformly reported President Bush's views on Iraq as clear fact, rarely questioning them or any of the shady backroom deals," said Daria, her voice flat. "This is despite the fact that foreign news media agencies were pointing out the problems, including large media organs in other coalition partners. Today, the American news media contains many stories pointing out mistakes made by and flaws inherent in the Obama administration. Much of news media is owned by a few companies, all large and wealthy and obviously not run by Berkley hippies. And fourth-"
"So that's why Daria sits on the left side of the room!" exclaimed Kevin, his brain catching up with Jodie's last remarks. "Oh, wait, bummer – I'm near the left too! Does that mean I have to move?"
The bell rang, and Mr O'Neill gave a great sigh of relief. "Oh dear that's all we have time for! See you tomorrow, class!"
As the students trooped out, Jodie pointedly ignoring Daria, the teacher called the misfit over. For a brief minute she thought she was going to get a stern talking to until she remembered it was O'Neill and it'd just be a talking. (That's bad enough, she thought)
"Daria, it's... well, I've been reading some of your essays and Language Arts submissions-"
"This is about the Ebola story, isn't it."
The teacher briefly shuddered. "N-No... It's just you've quite the talent for writing – not that you need me to tell you that, of course! I was wondering, have you thought about joining our school newspaper, the Lawndale Lowdown? You'd do great work there, I think! And you'd be able to make some friends!"
She was about to snipe at him for that last remark when she realised – newspapers meant journalism. Journalism meant getting to investigate and show everyone what you found. Investigating Li—
"I'll do it."
The Lowdown staff met after school, working out of O'Neill's room. It brought out the odd print copy but was primarily online, mainly for budget reasons. Since its website was linked to the school's own, Daria knew any investigation she did would have to be sneaked into the print copy - and at the last moment, when nobody was looking, so it'd be in print before anybody could raise a finger. But she could be patient. She knew how to plan.
And then she entered the room and found out Jodie was editor.
I should have known to make a Plan B.
"Daria," said Jodie, her voice brittle. "I didn't really expect you to want to join. You never struck me as the... contributing type."
"Well, we may have our political differences, but I'm sure we both support the principles of journalism!" She grinned, a difficult act.
"But there's nothing happening at the school except sports and gossip, which you hate," said Jodie, looking confused. "Wait a minute. You don't plan to smear Ms Li for trying to keep the school safe and call that journalism, are you? I've had people try that before."
"...oh, perish the thought."
"We have feature slots, if you want to pitch something."
Daria shut her eyes for a brief second and breathed deeply, trying to think of a reply that wouldn't be full of swearing. And then it occurred to her that Jodie have given her an opportunity: an opportunity for a really petty and childish bit of revenge.
"Do you ever publish short stories?"
Melody Powers eased her catsuited form into the chair, her long jet-black hair tossed over her shoulder. She was always relaxing, for there would be time enough in kill-or-die combat to be serious.
Joe Plumer, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, cut straight to the point: a no-nonsense, straight-shooting mid-westerner. "We thought OAK were destroyed but they're reorganising in San Francisco – we have intelligence reports of them courting funding from the sex trade, the Mexican narco-cartels, Cordoba House..."
Melody raised a dainty eyebrow at the last one. "Iran?"
"If it's not the PRC, it's Iran. The President is ignorant of that angle, he's just hoping to use OAK as a proxy to create a socialist uprising on the city streets. His pet senators and judges are already trying to push through his Youth Hope Brigade crap into being compulsory, and once those guys are on the streets on SanFran any opposition to OAK is dead. You have to take out the community organisers before they're done!"
Melody had spent the last two years of her career quietly neutralising threats to America who were from America itself. Plumer would never let her take out the President himself, the principle was too horrific to contemplate, but until 2012 there would be no stopping the Red tide. Her beloved country was on a knife-edge.
"I've got a contact on the ground, a private eye – PI Staker should be able to help me figure it out..."
Daria stopped typing and made a note to include Kenya as a hostile foreign power too.
Meals had gotten strange since cousin Erin and her fiancé Brian had moved in. Jake and Helen were actually using table manners. (Quinn refused to) There was even discussion that didn't involve (much) swearing. Weirdest of all, with Erin around, someone was talking about a normal 9 to 5 job.
"...and the manager said if I keep getting us that many clients, I'm eligible for fast-track promotion to junior management in Sales! It really is a surprise to me, I'm just being myself really."
"It's a good career, Sales, many... opportunities to move up," said Helen cautiously, restraining her usual 'screw the man' rhetoric.
"These clients you keep getting," asked Daria. "They wouldn't happen to be men that sound middle-aged, are they?"
"You're right, Daria, they usually are. I wonder why that is?" wondered the perky, demure-sounding young woman.
"Isn't she a pip!" smarmed Brian. "Great little career she's got going, eh? Course, once I've passed my real estate exam, we're back to good ol' man-the-breadwinner, am I right? It's a tough exam, but I'm really knocking the hell outta the subject!"
"What's a housing cooperative?" asked Daria.
Brian froze. Then he said: "So, young Daria! How's school going?"
"We're studying the news media in English. We learnt how people duck journalist's questions."
"Aww, I remember when you used to work on the school paper in Highland," said Jake. "You were really great!"
"I was kicked off it because my first act as Fashion Reporter was to get Beavis and Butt-head inside the girl's changing rooms, to get their views of current underwear fashions."
"I know! Gonzo journalism, rad!"
"No interest in the Lawndale school paper, sweetie?" asked Helen. "It seems like it'd be just your thing."
"Maybe you'll see me in there, and maybe you won't..."
"Print is dead!" yelled Quinn, figuring out a way to join the conversation. "Old media for old people! **** the old! Down with corporate controlled press! The revolution will be Youtubed!"
"And have lots of comments about it making gay jokes."
After dinner, Daria finished off the remains of "Melody Powers and the Communist Organisers", and did a quick scan to make sure all the plot points were as stupid as possible. After that, it was time for a brief surf of the SSW boards (she was kicking ass on the Caption Contest).
TheNoticeablyFAT had posted a link to another "TOTALLY AWESOME" blog, because the day had a Y in it. Daria would have ignored it – FAT had yesterday linked to a blog that was just photos of someone's pet mouse sleeping – but the blog's name, "The Angry Teacher", perked her interest.
The Angry Teacher's current entry was a furious rant about football players being given byes on their history tests, even though they were plainly ignorant of everything on it. Or, as the blog said, "IGNORANT of even WHAT YEAR that PEARL HARBOR took place!". It especially focused on "Quarterback".
Alarm bells ringing, Daria checked further and saw the teacher worked as "Grassdale".
"Huh. Just when you think you know a man."
On impulse, she searched the entry from yesterday – the day she'd made a very sarcastic comment about the occupation of the Philippines – and found the blog referred to a girl called Dire. Dire's "RELENTLESS jibes", according to the Angry Teacher, were "starting to GROW on me" and he quite liked her response to Quarterback's confusion.
That made Daria's night.
Daria had emailed Melody Powers to the Lawndale Lowdown address before going to bed, and spent the first two periods at school eagerly awaiting Jodie's reaction.
"Every member of a local workers union turn out to be armed KGB sleeper agents," she told Jane and Tom. "Muslim convert sleeper agents. Helping illegal immigrants pass through on their way to raid suburbs."
"Does Melody eat any Irish babies?" asked Tom.
"I knew I forgot something."
"You're not going to be allowed to read the Lowdown from now on, never mind contribute to it," said Jane.
"What can I say? Tacit support of Big Brother just brings out the bitch in me."
"Everything brings out the bitch in you."
Jodie soon found them, and Daria felt a brief surge of triumph. And then it went surging down the drains as she noticed Jodie looked happy.
"Daria, that story was brilliant."
Her mouth hung open. After a second, Jane pushed it shut.
"It's going into the new issue and I'm uploading that issue especially early, just for that short story! It's fast, pacey stuff, you've really got the format down pat! Everyone will love it."
Daria still didn't speak.
"I'll ask Li about a regular slot for Melody Powers, this feature could run and run. Quite surprising, really – I don't think anyone at school would have ever thought you felt that way about things! Anyway, I'll see you around."
Silence reigned after Jodie left before Daria muttered "I think I've miscalculated."
As Melody sun-bathed on the Rio beach, she looked back upon the past few days with a certain quiet satisfaction: twenty three dead Commies, nine dead terrorists, twelve dead illegals. Freedom still reigned in America, she reflected while watching Tonio's exquisite chest rise and fall with his light snoring.
Freedom still reigned, or did it? For as she watched, Tonio – not hearing his demise, and soon nothing ever again – exploded into a red spray, impacted by a grenade launcher. Immediately alert, Melody scanned the sand… but saw only a Hispanic family sunbathing.
Or at least, they appeared to be an American family…
Kevin tracked Daria down after school, a huge grin on his gormless face. "WHOA! Daria, Melody Powers is the most awesome thing I have ever read! It's… it's even more awesome than Ratboy!"
"High praise indeed."
"Man, I never knew the President was a Kenyan Communist Party plant! The things you learn, huh?"
Daria looked at him, aghast. "Kevin, I made that up."
"Ohhhhh." He scratched his head. "But illegal immigrants are working for Iran, right? Hey, Daria, where are you going? Was it something I said?"
Pizza King proved no respite, for many students ate there and it seemed every single one was now a Melody Powers fan and was desperate to read the promised sequel Operation Batter Juarez. She even overheard one of the Three J's using Melody's "Hope and change THIS!" catchphrase before he crushed a beer can against his head.
"I thought my plan was foolproof but I underestimated the power of the determined fool," Daria muttered, face down against the table.
Tom patted her sympathetically. "We can lie and tell you the story sucked if it makes you feel better."
"Oh yeah, the story totally blew," said Jane between bites. "Worst story ever. It sucks so bad it's turning into a black hole. It's so bad it's going to become part of the Language Arts curriculum."
"Thanks," said Daria.
"I actually liked it," said Tom.
"Yes, but you and Jane are smart people and can thus grasp that if there is a character called Piss-taker and another called Joe Plumber, it may not be serious."
"Well, yeah, the satire was pretty funny, but the violence and sex were pretty fun too. I'd like to read more of Melody, honestly."
"So my fatal flaw was I didn't try to suck. Joy."
"You're cursed to be good at things," said Jane with mock-sadness. "Your kind will never fit in at Lawndale, we'll have to run you out of town."
All in all, things were pretty bad – and that's when Jodie turned up, smiling like a cat that had inherited a dairy farm.
"Daria, I'm so glad I found you!" she exclaimed. "The Lowdown website has started to get hits from IP's we've never seen before – all going to your story! News about it has spread to the Internet, it's going to be huge! Ms Li even asked me to give you whatever you want in order to get you to write more!"
Slowly, Daria sat up. Her face and posture remained their normal bland selves, but her eyes burned with anger.
"Jodie. You're not stupid. I therefore assume you know Melody Powers was a deliberate insult."
"Well, yeah. But you think anyone else in school will?"
"This is petty revenge then."
"You're hardly in a position to complain about that."
"And I'm assuming that 'whatever I want' doesn't actually mean 'whatever I want'."
"When you want to use the school paper to rake up muck against the school and its faculty? Come on, Daria, you really thought that'd fly?" Jodie sneered. "I'm sure you had a plan to get around the obvious obstacles, but you're not getting past me. The paper's not for undermining the school."
"Silly me. I thought the press was about the news. What was that you were saying before about bias?"
The atmosphere chilled. Jodie got her face under control, but the brief glimpse of rage showed that a nerve had been touched. And that, Daria knew, was the only thing she could do.
"I'll see you back at the Lowdown, Daria – if and when Li 'convinces' you to write more."
Jodie stalked off, leaving Daria beaten.
The next day, Melody Powers had stormed across the Internet and the blogosphere had found out. Worse still, SSW-MB had found out, and Daria had to send panicked Private Messages to the board members who knew her real name, reaffirming that it was satire. Unfortunately, it seemed the story was a hit on every single Tea Party related board and blog.
Worse, The Angry Teacher had a rant about the "INSIPID RAG that dares call itself a NEWSPAPER" and a short story in it that "ANY idiot" could have seen would be used as propaganda. That hurt.
Worse still, Daria found out Adult already had two pornographic fics of Melody up already.
At school, the line for the entrance was stalled – Mohammed had Gym class again that day. He could be overheard joking to Steve "are you Melody Powers or something?". Grrr.
As Daria waited in line, Quinn and her gang pushed through to her. They didn't look friendly.
"I'm not going to tell Mum and Dad, but if you write any fascist junk like that again-"
"You'll glass me?"
"…I was going to say twat you, but hey, that's much more punk! Andrea, keep your empties!"
"Gah dammit," muttered Daria as the gang wandered off. "Can this get any worse?"
When Daria's class entered Language Arts, O'Neill took one look at her and ran out the class crying and did not come back.
"So you see, it's not all bad," remarked Jane.
"…and SO, your weekend homework is to write an essay about PROPAGANDA-"
That had been the original lesson plan, Daria knew, but DeMartino was being abnormally gleeful about it.
After the lesson, profoundly irritated, Daria went up to his desk and snapped: "I've already done this assignment, can I have my A Plus now?"
"Ms MORGendorffer, I HAD to give that assignment – not my fault I LOVED it!"
"You know, this whole thing started because I wanted to do something about Li and the state of this school, and when that was blocked I thought I'd at least have fun at power's expense. Well, I've learnt my lesson: my parents were wrong, you can't fight 'the man'."
She stormed off, but as she was about to leave the room she heard the teacher say "wait", sounding chastised. She stopped, but didn't turn around.
"I apologise. I know you didn't intend for things to turn out that way."
"If I'd just bitched and not tried to do anything, I'd have saved myself a lot of grief."
"I have never told anyone this but… when I was YOUNGER, I was a NEO-HIPPIE."
She hadn't expected that.
"I went to MILITARY school and before those TWISTED years, I'd seen the rise of HIPPIE counter-culture. I MISSED the decline of it in military school, so it remained in MY mind as the symbol of REBELLION. The MODERN subcultures didn't interest me." He sighed. "YEARS of thinking I could stand OUTSIDE the system… and the system WON. Student DEBT piles up, Daria."
"If you're telling me I should keep trying, you're going the wrong way about it," she said, hoping the sarcasm would push away the image of her teacher as a broken, human man.
"I'm head of the teacher's UNION, and I BLOG about my frustrations, and SOMETIMES – those few GLORIOUS times – I may manage to plant IDEAS into the head of a STUDENT. You make the difference you CAN, by taking into account your ABILITIES and what you're UP AGAINST."
DeMartino fixed her with a glare. "YOU are up against a power that SURROUNDS you at school. But YOUR abilities are great, and you'll learn how to USE them."
She didn't say thank you. She couldn't. Talking would have broken the spell.
That night, after a lot of thought, Daria started to work on a wiki site. She had the name, "Lawndale Leaks", and she had her alias, and she had the host and the programming skills, and she had the contacts on SSW-MB to get the word out.
All she needed now was the dirt, because she didn't know it all. Luckily, she had Tom and Jane on speed-dial and those two knew their dirt.
First article for the wiki: Ms Li's "counter-terrorism" obsession…
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Jodie as hardcore right wing and Li being overly paranoid of a Muslim student comes from ideas by The Angst Guy. Lawndale Leaks was thought up and done before the US State Dept cable leaks and Assange's sex crime allegations, which would've provided extra joke fodder otherwise. Daria's Highland reporter job is from Beavis and Butt-head episode Sporting Goods; there, her parents made her join the paper and she was forced to be the fashion reporter because "I'm a girl!"; punkverse Daria clearly didn't put up with this…
DeMartino as a neo-hippie comes from The Daria Diaries, where his singles ad says he used to be a beatnik – a subculture that had been replaced by the wider counter-culture in the sixties, when he'd have been a teenager. Cue a frantic search on Wikipedia to find something equally out-of-date for the 80's…