Chapter 1: Octobike
‘Octobike,’ said TM firmly. Veggie digested this for a moment.
Veggie tapped his wooden stirrer rhythmically against the rim of his mug of tea. ‘I don’t follow.’
‘Right, well, hear me out –’
‘I thought I was!’
‘Okay, okay, so get this: Octo. Bike.’
‘Octobike! Come on, man.’ TM clapped his face to his cheek, then slammed the whole assembly down on the café table. ‘Bike. Trike. Skip a few steps. Octobike. Ta-da. Next big thing, one hundred percent guaranteed.’
‘Not sure I’m seeing it.’
‘Christ – fine – just – okay, imagine a quad bike. Quad – right? Four wheels – four fucking – quad bike.’
‘Then… shananaa… double it.’
‘Two quad bikes.’
‘Kwaaaaaa,’ TM burbled exasperatedly.
‘I’m trying here,’ said Veggie. ‘Ain’t the super easiest thing to envisualise.’
‘That’s not a word,’ TM said. ‘Besides, that only shows a lack of imagination on your part and is in no way indicative of the definitely amazing future in which the Octobike takes the world by storm.’
‘Hm,’ said Veggie. There was a moment of mutual expectation, each curious as to what the other might say next, followed by the realisation that neither actually had anything more to add. An awkward silence resulted, as usually happens in such circumstances; it was broken when the waitress wandered over to ask if everything was alright for them today. TM thought about saying no, it was sort of a really terrible café, but the tea was cheap and ‘failed inventor’ wasn’t exactly the sort of lucrative career that would have enabled them to afford to go anywhere else. Plus he rather fancied the waitress. She was fully aware, but had remained firmly ‘not interested’.
‘Look, TM,’ said Veggie quietly, when she was gone. He pronounced it long: Teeeeyum. Like a Texan saying ‘Tim’.
Veggie was one of those people who neither looked nor sounded particularly memorable: average height and build, mid-length brown hair, easily absorbed vocal tones that were neither unusually melodic nor unpleasant, with an inoffensive accent. TM, on the other hand, was taller, leaner and darker, with short hair and long eyelashes; still not exactly striking, but more distinctive, if seen only in a still photograph. Yet somehow the real-life experience that was Veggie constituted one of the most magnetic people TM had ever met. Veggie himself alternately claimed it was either pheromones or hypnosis, which TM personally thought was probably bullshit. Whatever it was, his easy charisma regularly got them a long way.
‘It’s not a bad idea. I think. Still not clear what it actually is. But hey, it sounds kinda cool, and that’s about ninety percent of all product design nowadays. We just need… something a bit more easy to market. Patentable. Quick sell and we’re done, you know? Prototyping ain’t exactly within budget right now.’
TM sighed. ‘I know,’ he admitted. ‘It’s barely even a prototype of an idea for a prototype, anyway.’
‘Listen,’ said Veggie, in the sort of overly calming voice employed primarily by dementia nurses and horse whisperers, ‘there might well be a gap in the market for some… sort of… Octobike-type thing. Probably. But we gotta build ourselves and our brand, like, waaaay back up before we can start thinking about doing something that big. And niche.’
‘Hnnnnnnng,’ TM moaned, stretching out in the too-small plastic chair. ‘I know.’
‘Pff,’ said Veggie. ‘Let’s go?’
TM nodded and fished around in his pocket. He made a show of finding a twenty-pence piece inside and leaving it there on the table as a tip, in case the waitress might be wooed by his obvious affluence. Then, wearing matching suits that fit them about as well as a meat dress on a vegan, the two men shuffled out.
‘Anyway,’ said TM, ‘I reckon we might need to ditch the Dogapult.’
‘Yeaaaaaaah, possibly,’ Veggie conceded, stuffing his tie in his pocket. ‘Never easy to tell how a pitch went, but I feel like those guys weren’t convinced.’ It was hard to argue, TM reflected; their career, such that it was, depended on their ability to enter a room full of people in nicer suits than their own and sell them on the strength of their ideas. The last few had ended with one of the nice-suited people standing up and opening the door for them to leave, without saying a word; it was becoming a disheartening tradition for the two to find themselves in Café Cheap after a failed pitch, forlornly suggesting new and even more terrible ideas. Then, after spending a few minutes with the cheapest drink on the menu, they would make tracks through the city centre and have glum discussions about the exact enormity of their failures.
‘Maybe we need to stop pitching inventions based purely on the strength of the punny name,’ TM mused. ‘I mean, cat-apult, dog-apult, it doesn’t even really make sense if you think about it.’
’Maybe we need to keep pitching inventions based purely on the strength of the punny name,’ Veggie countered, ‘if what you’re saying is that the pun wasn’t good enough.’
‘Not my best idea, anyway,’ TM admitted. ‘I mean, there’s not that many breeds of dog small enough for what we were going for.’
Veggie’s eyes looked skyward; TM thought he was probably ticking them off in his head. ‘Hm,’ agreed Veggie, after a moment.
They turned a corner, heading for home. The walk took them through the retail-oriented streets of the city, down past the arcade that had once housed independent shops but was now being remodelled into an urban hub for fine dining – much to the scepticism of the locals – and into the quiet residential areas that were generally pretty, but often smelled a bit funky.
‘You ever hear of Giordano Bruno?’ TM asked, trundling along beside his business partner. Their footsteps sounded off against the pavement in loose syncopation; if they had been marching in time to a drum, TM could only have assumed that the drummer was having some sort of fit.
‘Should I have?’
‘Nah, he dead.’
‘He was one of the first people to realise that the universe is infinite, and what that actually means,’ TM told Veggie, who raised his eyebrows and curved his mouth slightly in that universal expression that means something to the effect of ‘I am paying attention, honest’. ‘He said that, like, if you stand at the edge and fire an arrow, then… it’s not the edge.’
‘You’re terrible at explaining,’ Veggie teased. ‘No wonder the Dogapult didn’t get over.’
‘No, wait, hang on,’ TM spluttered, waving his hands around. ‘So… if you stand at what looks like the edge of the universe, and shoot an arrow outwards, then either it keeps going – in which case it wasn’t really the edge – or it hits a wall. And if it hits a wall, then you can stand on the wall and shoot another one, and so on.’
‘Waste of arrows,’ Veggie opined, shaking his head.
‘It’s supposed to show that the universe doesn’t really have an edge,’ TM said, put out.
‘Neither does a round… thing.’ Veggie cupped his hands around an imaginary ball.
‘It does too, just not corners.’
‘Well, that’s a loss for corners.’ Veggie scratched his nose. ‘Is there a point to this?’
‘Not really,’ TM said. ‘I just thought it was cool.’
Veggie patted his friend on the head. ‘It’s not… not cool. It’s also not something that we can use to make money, and that’s kind of a priority at the mo, to be honest.’ He stroked his chin, which was nicked in a few places from his pre-pitch shave. ‘What we need,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘is something simple. Reaaaaally simple. Like, cable tie simple.’
‘You know, those little do-whats: bind cables together, attach shit to other shit, string up your many helpless victims by the wrists.’
‘Point is,’ Veggie elaborated, slowing and hitting the pedestrian crossing button as they approached a crossroads, on the pavement of which was a single wooden bench trying its best to claim that the urban intersection was in fact a beautiful rural vista, ‘it’s like the most basic-est thing – must cost, like, a billionth of a penny each to make, I reckon – and I bet you anything that the guy who came up with them is totally loaded off it.’
‘He was, but then he died,’ said the girl sitting on the bench.
‘Oh,’ said Veggie. ‘Thanks.’
The crossing light showed the green man, and they went a few steps out into the road before Veggie realised what had happened.
‘Wait,’ he said, walking backwards until he was face-to-face with the girl; TM elected to simply turn around and walk back. The drivers who had been so rudely forced to stop at the lights made a few gestures at the ignominy of having stopped for someone who hadn’t even been grateful enough to actually cross the road. ‘What?’
‘Cable Tie Guy,’ the girl said. She had bright red hair, roughly quiffed; thick, obtrusive neon eyeshadow; a slim-fitting powder-blue suit; a red lightning bold painted from her hairline across one eye and onto her cheek. ‘Maurus Logan, died in twenty-zero-seven aged eighty-six. He was pretty well-off, though – up to that point, obviously.’
Veggie gave TM a look. ‘Of all the things that I thought would happen today,’ he said, deadpan, ‘being told the history of Cable Tie Man by Ziggy Fucking Stardust was… like, seventh or eighth at best.’
‘You wouldn’t happen to have any bright ideas for an invention that would make us equally loaded and slightly less dead, by any chance?’ TM said to the girl, who stretched languidly on her bench and thought about it for a moment.
‘Nah,’ she said eventually. ‘I’m kind of new around here.’
‘So you thought you would cosplay as the bloody Starman, fit in a bit better?’ demanded Veggie incredulously.
‘I did a bit of research,’ she said with a knowing smile. ‘Asked people what someone who came from the stars might look like, and this is what I got. Not good?’
‘Why do you need to look like someone from the stars?’ TM asked.
‘Honesty is the best policy, right?’ she answered, running a hand through her towering quiff. ‘I thought it was best to be upfront about it.’
‘Natch,’ Veggie said. ‘Give us a sec, would ya?’
He marched TM a short distance away, holding his partner by the upper arm. ‘What’s going on, TM?’ he asked, with an air of helplessness.
‘We’re having a conversation with a nice lady?’ TM hazarded.
’This nice lady hijacked our conversation, gave us the run-down on Cable Tie Guy and then said she was from outer space,’ Veggie corrected. ‘That the understanding you got of the situation, too?’
‘Oh, yeah. Something like that.’
Veggie bit the inside of his cheek, which generally meant that he was considering doing something really dumb. ‘She’s smart, though,’ he said after a moment. ‘I assume. Possibly.’
‘What are you –’
‘Let’s bring her in. Junior partner. Well, unpaid intern at first, of course.’
TM stared at Veggie for a moment. ‘Are you serious.’ He very carefully omitted the question mark, just to illustrate how out-there he thought the idea was.
‘Look,’ Veggie instructed, leaning in close. TM looked. ‘We need ideas. For real.’
TM continued to look, but in a way that he hoped came across as comically sceptical. ‘We don’t need another – a junior partner, whatever the fuck that is.’
‘Aw, please,’ said Veggie. ‘Not a partner or whatever, fine, just… bring her back to ours. Show her what we do, see if she can help? We need all the assistance we can get, let’s be real, and besides… she’s kind of doing something for me.’
‘Early seventies Bowie is doing something for you,’ TM corrected him, accurately. ‘And what you’re describing there is basically just a glorified flatmate.’
Veggie made a noise like a horse choking on a kazoo. ‘I’m bringing her in,’ he announced.
‘I don’t,’ said TM, incompletely.