It’s Black Friday. November 27th, 2065-- the busiest weekend of the year at COR. Thanksgiving piles up on Black Friday piles on Cyber Monday. All work is for the holiday season, from now until the big day. COR has every packing station manned. A bunch of Purgs from a CORtemp agency have been brought in as outbound and inbound workers; human bots. The orders must be filled and shipped. Immediately! They think it’s a workers’ market right now. Who are they kidding; it’s never a workers’ market. COR is happy to have this many warm bodies, but one worker is just plodding along at her own pace.
The totes of products have jammed up the assembly line so much that it is at a crawl. The top line of the conveyer belt brings in the randomized products in filled totes. The bottom line is on top speed, sending the completed parcels away. Managers are doing everything they can to speed things up. They restock the flattened boxes into their ergonomic slots within easy reach of the packers. They put more tape in the machines. But she goes at the pace she goes. While she packages their dreams with the least effort she can afford, she is somewhere else.
I wake to sleep and take my waking slow
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear (random1)
A manager walks near her. She hasn’t time to read the rest.
She sees her expressionless face reflected in the iridescent plastic wrapped around the F451 video game that she now holds. (random2) Mousy blonde hair is tied back and crowned by the dulled futurehouse light that filters down to her station. A few freckles dot under her eyes; she hasn’t seen much of the sun for months. She can’t remember when she last saw a full day. On night shift for a year, she has worked on being less noticeable. ’On the outskirts of every agony sits some observant fellow who points.’ (random3) She doesn’t need to be told again about her eyes. One has no colour around the pupil and the other is only slightly darker—white blue. Nine years ago, a broom hit her-- a cheap broom, and a strand of its plastic broke off in her eye. It festered and infected. Although it healed over, the eye is still always watery. ‘Are you ok?’ They ask like the recurring infections from the fragments that come to the surface. She wipes a drop off the F451 game’s clear wrapping with the sleeve of her uniform. ’A wounded deer leaps the highest.’ (random4) She read that somewhere, too. She is An. An what? An An. An is her name.
She holds the video game for too long. Coincidentally it is how they meet; through an argument.
‘That’s my favorite game,’ he says.
She says, ‘It’s not a game; it’s a book.’
He disagrees. ‘Trust me I know. I play it all the time. Look it says right on the packaging UPDATED FOR NINDO X4.’
‘But I’ve read it. It’s a classic.’ She holds it up in her hand. Fahrenheit 451.
‘Look if you are too stupid to see it’s a game then let’s just disagree to agree.’ He storms away in a huff without seeing if she stoops to agree to that.
An slams it into a box and rips paper tape across the flaps. It moves away, shaking on the conveyer. She says under her breath, ‘Stay in your own zone you illiterate, gaming, seeker.’
It is a game. He is right. But a game based on a book. It is also a book. She is right.
Once in a while she gets an order for an analog book, a p-book. Printed. When this happens she takes the utmost care. There are likeminded souls as hers. People with emotions, who want to feel-- not merely transact and compute. She is slower with these orders. She takes her time with the ideas and emotions they purchased. Sometimes she tapes it a little differently. She might add a bow to the wrapping. Maybe extra packing paper. Gift wrap when it isn’t a gift. Something, anything, that will add to their experience and that will make them feel…
COR has kept her around longer than she thought they would. She’s all about quality over sloppy speed. Care must account for something. She has not made a mistake yet. That must be why they have kept her here so long, relatively speaking. For everything else besides books, she just drifts off. The plastic things that pass by are boxed in her zombie state.
People used to line up to get their door crasher specials at the old box stores. They say people actually did crash the doors. There were struggling shoes on slippery tiles, bloody fists, the waft of pepper spray, triumphant grins holding plastic paid for with plastic, and disappointed families who brought home no prize-- their only consolation was no credit card bill to pay. There are no more stores, but Black Friday has carried over. The unrelenting buying power of the thirsty masses has ramped this futurehouse into a frenzy. They are a naked mole-rat colony, kicked by market forces. HR has pulled out all the stops. DroneFresh Pizza on the breaks. Free energy bars. Prizes at every Quick 5. It is blatant coercion, but it works for most people here. They are excited. They are working harder. Everyone is pulling together to reach the targets. In fact, they will break the record tonight. This means they will all get a bonus. Whatever percent they break the record by that will be the percent increase on their paycheck at the end of the month. The bonuses only happen at this time of year. An started last year at this time so she knows. Everyone is stirred by this collective kick except her. She recognizes what it is. What will happen when the buyers stop? How motivated will all these workers be when they inevitably get their pink slip and have to move back to Prepurg?
The managers are too occupied to prod them today. No one cares about rates right now. They are far too busy. They are taking market share from the other CORs. The busier the managers are, the less hassle for her. Back to her thoughts in the only place she can be free. They have taken sleep, strength, and time, but they can’t take her thoughts and dreams. That sounds like a cheesy plastic logo. She laughs out loud but no one hears or sees her. Talking to herself goes unnoticed because it is so noisy from all the packing and tape machines that no one can hear a lone voice. Many talk out loud from the stress. Just another idiosyncratic worker on the line. This futurehouse seems to attract misfits, those from the margins, those prone to non-sequiturs and soliloquized asides, but most importantly misfits who can STILL BE COERCED to perform their work.
The boxes flying by are containers of unfulfilled dreams. Dreams broken the moment they are opened and the initial consumer rush of happiness wears off. It may last a moment, or a day, or weeks but over time whatever is bought will become known, understood, accepted and then unuttered. These products are replacement emotions—love, forgiveness, regret—packaged and paid for, but only transitory. That’s what keeps people coming back. They want a permanent form of love but only ever receive the delineation of a box.
The box in front of her has not moved for a minute. There is a break in the production. Too many products have clogged up the line. Someone has pressed the emergency stop and the managers are all over the place of impact trying to sort it out. It is a good time to take out her notebook and be constructive during the pause. A handful of packers have been told to get a trolley, a gun, and start seeking products. Some packers restock their supplies. Why do this when it can be done for you? Why take the initiative? No good deed goes unpunished, no good intention is remembered.
The intricacies of Machine L distract her. She keeps the blueprints in her notebook and works on it every chance, every break. And if it doesn’t unfold the way she hoped, then it is back to her notebook again. She mustn’t fail.
Machine L. She has been thinking about it for as long as she has worked -- as long as she has hated working at COR. Machine L is what might get her out of this cage and beyond this assembly line. No bosses, no algorithms. She has a far better idea. The machine is the first piece to be completed. The real work will be in the organization of energy.
Machine L is far from complete. Not even close. When it is ready for its first trial run she will have to be part of it. She wants to know it from the inside and testing it with someone will be the only way. She needs someone else. That is hard when she is alone and everyone seems to disappear. She wishes she knew someone working at a factory who could help her, an engineer to put her theory into practice. Maybe that Ari jerk knows someone… it suddenly occurs to her… or maybe Ari can help her… but he’s so obstinate. Could he be a potential partner in crime? He is just the type of person the pretotype should be tried on. So wrapped up in the scourge of our time, if he can be chronoverted to L, anyone can... but he is so bloody obtuse.
The assembly line is clearing up. She quickly puts her pen to the paper and writes her newest emotional energy equation… (EM)(e)3 = L
The spokes of An’s cycle cut the morning crepuscular rays, fingers of light, on the road to the single female residences at COR Home. Who can stand taking the COR bus? The cybcycle gets her home quicker and she likes the fresh morning breeze in her lungs as she rides; straight oxygen to the brain gets the blood flowing. She is alive again after ten hours in that dark, metal shell. One brake squeaks at the same spot on every turn.
Opening the door to her COR home, she is greeted by its sparse familiarity. All the essentials are here tightly packed into the small space. There is a kitchen for one with enough retractable cupboards and counter space. In the living room there are a few furnishings. She has her bookshelf against the wall that is full to the brim and organized according to the country of writer—much better than alphabetized. It makes a world map. The Amero down the left side, Eurafrica down the middle, and Eastralasia on the far side. There are some prints hanging on the walls. She likes the Dutch masters. A Rembrandt, a Van Gogh and her prized J. V. Meer front and center—they symbolize the grand era of trade. The Dutch East India Company was the first publicly traded company. It started the exchange of shares. Not only that, but it had trade monopolies with other countries like Japan—before the Change-- now Japan is Eastralasia. The living room also allows her slice-out micro-couch for sleeping and her other prize, a re-retro leather chair for reading with stuffed armrests large enough to place an electro-tray to eat from. For now it’s enough. She wishes there was also another room to tinker—a workshop to test her inventions. At least she has her own bathroom and a tiny terrace outside with a rocking pod when the weather agrees.
After a dinner alone she is sitting outside in the rocking pod, turning the pages of the follow-up to Thomas Piketty’s Capital. (random5) His ground-breaking first study concluded that the rate of return for capital endeavors such as real estate, businesses, or shares will outpace the rate of return of workers’ labor.
r > g
Capital beats labor. In other words, some near-Purg like Ari or herself will never grow their wealth at the rate of someone who has his extra money work for him. In fact, the design of the system itself is for her never to have extra money. They will never get out of this prison. Why can’t r at least equal g? What would that make this world look like?
Piketty’s new book has taken this theory a bit further and examines ownership. He wrote that ownership is everything. It is what separates us and makes us unequal. This engine of capital is the one factor that is different between the billionaire and the factory floor sweeper. But what if the sweeper was given some ownership too? Then would r = g?
She hears footsteps inside her room, and sees a figure walking towards the terrace door.
‘A, let me guess. You’re reading out there, right?’ her neighbor Amie asks half-heartedly - as if she was distracted by aether. She wants to talk. She is one of the friends An made over the last year. Her face has long, angular features that seem to jut rather than blend. Like her face, when she speaks she can be blunt but is forthright and truthful. Amie has a high level of energy. She gets things done and at the same time is amiable to talk to most of the time because she at least can hold her own in a relevant conversation. That is why they became friends. Where they differ is that Amie is on the fast-track at COR. She is just smart enough but not too smart to move into the ‘brain trust’. She already moved up to train the new seeker associates, fresh from Prepurg. Right after that they put her on the much sought after day shift. It must be nice working with light dwellers.
‘Yes, you found me out again,’ An replies. ‘Just reading.’
‘You are going to take over this place one page at a time. Can I come out?’
‘I’ll come in,’ she says in spite of herself ‘What’s going on?’
An had left the apartment door open knowing she would be around before heading to work. Amie sits in her leather chair. Dust rises in the morning light as she settles.
‘Nothing much. Just killing time before I start my shift. Did you talk to him?’
‘If you are referring to Ari. No I didn’t see him today. But…’
‘Yes?’ She raises herself slightly in the chair.
‘But… you should get ready for a busy one. We were swamped today. Black Friday, you know what I’m sayin’?’
’Fully aware. Not like you ever get swamped. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone handle the managers like you and stay around so long. What is it a year now?’
‘Listen to yourself. Don’t you think it’s odd that if someone lasts a year at this job it’s a milestone?’
‘Nice topic change by the way,’ she turns a knowing smirk to the window.
An is not falling for it, so she asks again, ‘No, but don’t you think it’s odd? The way we experience time at COR? The way they change how we think?’
‘Thanks,’ she says and picks up her Piketty again.
‘What are you reading? Anything good?’
‘Yes. It’s a new study. You should read something… more substantial… sometime.’
‘Between work and sleep I have no time for that.’
‘You need to make time. That is no life. You are living your life for COR.’
‘And what other choice do we have?’
‘Suit yourself,’ An says.
‘Why not just escape into the interscape or the gamescape like the rest of us?’
‘That’s not escape. It looks more like a prison to me.’
She grins stolidly hiding her teeth, pushes her hands down into the armrests, and stands above An. ‘I should get going. Products await.’
‘Products await associates,’ An says, eyeing a kitchen cupboard she left ajar. Sometimes they say this as the chant after they squat from the Quick 5. An is not sure where the phrase came from. She guesses it means that only the individual worker can speed up the process. Without them it would just be a futurehouse full of thousands of shelves of randoms. One day they will replace them with automated bots that can seek and pack exponentially faster without making any mistakes.
The door shuts quietly as she stares at it and then back down to the page. Piketty is referencing a writer named Guy Standing. That is a weird name. Pseudonym perhaps? This Standing guy is talking about the Precariat. (random6) He says the precariat are precarious proletariats—precarious workers that move from job to job without ever establishing roots, never being able to really own very much. They are constantly under stress to find work, having to uproot their lives when they do, and then having to foot the costs involved in moving. They swing on a precarious pendulum touching Prepurg and then scraping employment, but always only touching either, never awake, never asleep.
She nods off.
She is in a shiny room with Thomas Piketty, Guy Standing and a corpulent Gertrude Stein. It is a kitchen, an industrial kitchen, which has disinfected stainless steel cupboards and counters. They are having a conversation over the metal island, but the large writer does not say much.
Then Gertrude asks, ‘What is the meaning of this gathering?’ while squishing her prints into the mirrored surface and leaning heavily into their shared space.
Piketty says matter-of-factly as he cups the frames of his glasses and wipes the lenses on a loose bit of his button-down, ‘We have compiled nine hundred years of systematic capital punishment.’
An asks, ‘Capital punishment?’ trying to follow the logic, but gives up to look into the refrigerator to search for any ready-made leftovers.
‘That is a moot point.’ declares Standing, ‘In general, what we should be examining is the nature of why punishment is spread among the workers. This is no way to increase the velocity of money. Money should not be spread but injected.’ He looks deadpan, with a glossed over, professorially forced grin.
Piketty counters, ’That is absurd. It should be ingested?’ He pokes his tortoise shell frames into Standing’s belly to make his point.
Standing looks down disapprovingly at Piketty’s spectacles: ‘We need to address where all the money goes and if working to get more money is a practical solution to the problem.’ He sweeps Piketty’s hands away.
Piketty is unfazed, ’Exactly, money should directly give sustenance instead of just being a cheap paper symbol. In this way the money supply will be decreased organically and add value to the remaining sum. That which is in small supply is of value.’ He takes out a paper and pen, checks the shiny counter for a dry spot, and then starts to write in long sweeping script.
An has to chime in at this point to stop herself from laughing, ‘You both should reconsider your theses. At the risk of sounding as the only voice of reason in this kitchen, I would suggest that money be aether, the liquid gold they sell at the worker bars. This would ensure its transitory nature and would create two cottage industries in and of themselves. The first being the brewing of aether and the second being a new banking sector from the aforementioned created, ingested and then urinated aether.’
Piketty curtly replies, ‘Capital cannot be the purveyor of knowledge,’ then darts his eyes on An while repositioning his glasses back to focus closer on her reaction.
Now they are both looking at her. Guy Standing stands, opens his mouth and starts to reply, but Ms. Stein puts her finger in the air and shakes it to silence him. Then the giant woman holds her belly. She is about to speak. Her mouth opens. Her jaw lowers wider and wider until it is open in a silent bellow; deep from down inside her intestines she deposits, ‘The money is always there but the pockets change.’ (random7) A whip-poor-will flies out from the chasm of her mouth and shrieks in a high mechanical pitch, ’whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will. After several shrieks, An realizes it is her alarm. A waking thought possesses her. Machine L is bigger than just an interface through which to pass emotions. It could be much bigger. It could make r = g. It could level the playing field between those with capital and those without. L is the key to their prison door.
At work, she sees Ari. Is his full name Aristotle? Given how he rushes to the game room on breaks, that name seems ironic, but maybe not. She doesn’t know him well enough.
He strode in here from Prepurg about two weeks ago all confidently-newly-hired just like they all were. At the beginning the work is exciting. His eyes shimmered with life and plans or dreams. She wanted that feeling again, and she wanted to know who he was in that new COR uniform. She didn’t see him around on the breaks which could only mean one thing—a sphere zone inductee. And then there was that jaunt, that tow-the-line hurry to reach rate jaunt that most Purgs have, but his was different. There was an almost immeasurable syncopation to it. An echo of thought was hampering him. It could grow if nurtured. Perhaps she was too optimistic. Then there was the argument.
Ari is above her on the third level. He is leaning against the temporary wire that acts as the banister. They are in the process of building a new service elevator that will fit into the area where he stands. If he were to fall, he would die in the cement hole where the engine of the rising machine will live.
Trying to send a signal for him to meet her on the break, she slashes the blade of her hand across her neck and in response she can see his mouth open in the triangle of his laugh. She saw that same smile once while he was in the sphere zone playing on one of the gamescape devices. Then he twists his neck and pulls up an imaginary noose. He didn’t get it.
An motions to the break room, but he is gone. The metal cord, tethered to the metal bars of the banister on either side of the opening, swings with an absence of weight. There is always the pressure of time, to move, to complete an action. The cord swoops, hesitates and then swings back less far.
’Why wait any longer for the world to begin.’ (random8) She heard this song before, sometime distant on a drive to the countryside. The landscape was rolling by. The hills and green. That song so beautiful on the radio. There was some sort of freedom. It was a time before the Change that is in place now, with still a level of liberty. There was a different zeitgeist in the air. Now the zeit is literally a geist. The ghost of this dark, metal futurehouse, barely lit, pushing human flesh through the night by mere notational code. The ephemeral traces of an idea waft through this noisy carcase. Was all this originally an idea for good, for truth? Did it start out as at least an improvement, to make things better or was it always intended to maximize misery? She sees more tyranny move over the black conveyer. Not a solid form but a shade cut in time. She hums, ’Why wait any longer for the world to begin…You can have your cake and eat it too.’
She hums it for a long time and sees the fields and the hills. The people who worked out there picking the fruit and cotton so long ago were not so much different than the workers here now but somehow freer and more natural. Then when her lips start to stop, she starts singing a different song by the same singer, (an old blues singer… way back from the slave tradition... Robert something…), ’I’ve got blood in my heart for you…’ (random9)
A long shadow grows over her packing station, and she hears a guttural voice.
’I’ve got blood in my eyes for you…’ It sings.
She turns and looks up. He is silhouetted by the horrible lighting. ‘Keep at it,’ he growls. It is just the way he speaks. He is a big man, wide and tall. She has seen him before, around, but never had the pleasure.
‘I am Azzam,’ he rhymes as if to answer her question. The enunciation is authoritative, almost too proud of being authoritative, an abuse of power unjustified.
‘Hi, I’m An,’ she says. ‘I can stop if you want to talk.’
‘No, keep working. You cannot afford to slow. Just listen.’
An knows what it is about.
He goes on, his voice somewhere low near the floor, yet his jowls slathering somewhere above her back. ‘COR has noticed some impressive irregularities in your numbers. It seems you have all the potential we hope to see in our young associates. You have spurts of, shall we say, athletic prowess… yet then there are periods of dormancy.’
Oh boy, should she pack up her gear from her locker now? Is this it?
‘We have been studying your charts with great interest. We can’t compare you with another yet in our database so you are something of an anomaly.’
‘That’s clever.’ She dares to ask, ‘Like an exotic songbird in a gilded cage?’
‘You see. There it is. That moxie,’ he pauses and she hears him wetting his lips. ‘That is the only reason we have kept you on…’ He pauses again and all she can hear is the clicking of the conveyer belt. She has stopped taping her A4 box, realizes she has paused too, and then loudly snaps off another computer-measured length of tape. It perfectly fits the flaps with no room to spare.
‘… until now.’
Expecting to turn around and not see him, she can’t sense him there anymore.
‘Your strategy won’t last forever. We suggest you begin to work in earnest. Goodnight.’ He begins to whistle. It sounds familiar. Like the threshing of a whip-poor-will as it pushes off from a bush to catch a soul rising from a corpse. His awkward whistle, the sharpness of the beak.
She looks at what is in her hands. It isn’t a book. It is a pair of virtual reality googles by Nindo in large rainbow, stylized letters that glow under the see-through plastic. It is a fall leaf under a magnifying glass. She picks a small A1 box, unfolds it, and then turns the cube upside down. The tape is already out and wet. It fits perfectly across the bottom. She flips it. The goggles go in. Then the tissue wrap. There is also something else for this order. She find a spot for this sealed item, then packs it in with more tissue. She folds the top and tapes one more time. The address comes out of the printer. Hank 5445 2nd Ave S. Minneapolis Amero COR H, 55419. What cold, hell factory does he work at? She puts Hank’s new purchases on the conveyer. Instantly the secured box is gone from her view and her memory.
A new order pops up on the computer glass at the work station and a tote drops down into place with new items to pack. It’s close enough to break time, so she logs out of the station and heads for security, leaving the repetitive clicks and hums behind. At security, only one other person is ahead of her in the line and is in the midst of swiping and being poked and prodded for thieved metal. After the invasive ritual, she heads for the break room and waits.
In three minutes, Ari arrives. Along with him, other associates have shuffled into the break room and rummage into the cubby holes for their used mugs or go straight for the stack of plastic ones beside the perpetually brewing coffee clone. It retina scans for their preferences to put their milk, cream, sugar and flavouring in, but it doesn’t compute for her. She has to do this manually. One after another, each worker synchronizes their cups in one hand, then each chair with the other hand as each table is filled in order. Some eat the free pizza or buy modest snacks from the vending machines. Their preferences from previous purchases are again biometrically scanned. Ari has been trying to trick the program through a long process of taking only one of each offering. The machine is on to him, if that is possible, and suggests that the next logical choice must be the Battambang mixed rice and noodle bowl. Just to try to game the system, Ari visual-types T8, the white-hot chili molé bar. The machine scans his retinas again to log in his unusual choice, then it imprints the contact points of his emotions by facial recognition. He snarls with his left upper lip curled. The machine displays: Use a natural emotion. Do not game the program.
‘I’m not a gamer. I am not a gamer,’ Ari says after An shakes her head and motions an imaginary gamescape control in the air. He looks surprised to see her and then it sinks in what her hand signal was about.
‘It’s written all over you Ari.’ She looks at the clock. They only have twelve more minutes so she wants to get right into L.
He is already ahead of her, ‘I’ve seen you writing blueprints in your notebook. So if you’ve come up with… with a new gamescape… or whatever it is… put me on the player list. But please don’t confuse a gamescape with a book again. If it is just a book you are writing, I’m not interested.’
They settle into a bright table. The lights are always on full blast to keep them awake. The walls and table are reflective white to increase the glare.
She gets back to why she needs to talk to him, ‘It might be like a gamescape. When it works it may be more real than anything you’ve ever played.’
‘Right,’ he says, scratching his chin before biting into his bar. ’What am I getting into? I definitely can’t be sent out to Prepurg again for any reason. No. No. It’s like Kill or be Killed7 out there.’
‘Too late, you already agreed. Kidding. Anyway, you’re safe with me.’
‘What does it involve? Is it multiplayer?’ Ari looks at her. He has little bags under his reddened eyes. His face has changed from his job, more angular. It has worn on him and he is thinner, stringier from the pace. He rubs his neck and cracks it to the side.
An continues, ‘We don’t have enough time for me to tell you it all here. I want to arrange a place to go so we can discuss it more,’ She thinks of a better place to meet him while she takes a sip of coffee.
He crumples up the chocolate wrapper and throws it into the compressor hole at the table edge. ‘Can I at least know something about what you mean?’
The wrapper is stuck on the edge so she pushes it in and the compressor automatically grinds and displays one carbon token added to her COR account. One more piece of plastic redirected back to the factories.
Ari hits the table, ’Darn I wanted those points to save up for the new Virtual Seeker that came out a few months ago.’
An ignores his comment and gets back to her point, ‘Well, I’m on the verge of coming up with a product. I don’t want to say too much because if it is important COR or anyone with a brain would want a piece of it. You have to swear an oath of secrecy and swear that you won’t run off and try to sell it if it becomes big.’
‘Who am I going to tell?’ His eyes narrow.
‘I don’t know… you could broadcast it to all your gamer friends. Swear on your life… no, better yet on your high scores?’
His eyes are wider now. She has piqued his interest. ‘OK I swear, but we need to talk more about this before I totally commit.’
The bright red lines of the wall clock are two minutes from ending in the square zeros. ‘Well let’s see. Do you know the Almshouse? Let’s meet there for an aether.’
‘Alright, how about the night of the first rest?’ He says.
‘I’ll see you there.’
‘But don’t bring any books. And if you bring F451 make sure it’s the game version,’ he laughs.
‘Don’t forget it started as a book,’ she says.
‘Oh that reminds me. I’ll have something for you.’ They both rise. The digital clock now has a minute left until the hour, so they swipe in dutifully from the break.
An is at the Almshouse, named after a place where the elderly were once cared for. It is identical to the paintings of buildings by J.V. Meer, that mathematical artist who the programmers and she adore so much. (random10) The programmers consider him an algorithmic god. His computational photorealism was the first of its kind. The artist’s simulation is so close to the real that it is hard to tell the difference, in fact it is the same. The Almshouse was recreated from a painting back to the tangible, brick by brick. Now it is the local watering hole where all the futurehouse workers come from their different COR homes. There is green ivy clinging to the red bricks in the warmer seasons, but the leaves have changed and fallen now. The remains of hops creepers weave in and out of the mortar cracks. There are tables set up outside and these are scattered about. Clouds of conversations seem to lift and levitate the building’s façade.
Ari is near the entrance to meet her.
‘It’s like a north country fair here,’ he says.
‘What?’ she asks.
He doesn’t hear her and just gestures to follow him to a quieter table. There is a scraggy, wooden one against the red brick with two stools. As they walk by a particularly boisterous group, she hears the loud words, ‘You aren’t alive unless you wake up with a screaming hangover,’ followed by a thunderstorm of laughter and the clink of glasses over the table.
As they settle on the stools for just a moment, Ari leaves and then arrives back with two bottles of aether. It is not her favorite. It is too hallucinatory and makes for unclear thought, but it is nice once in a while.
‘So,’ he begins, ‘to a new beginning and new ideas.’
’Yes, to L,’ she says.
‘The name for the machine.’
‘Oh right like a code. I gotcha,’ he takes a bottle in his hands, then raises it to hers.
‘Before I forget,’ He passes her a gamescape chip with the words F451 on it. ‘No hard feelings.’
She laughs. ‘You shouldn’t have.’
‘You have to promise me you’ll at least try it.’
‘Alright. You were kind enough to meet me to hear me out so I will. But this will be the first game I ever try on gamescape, so I’m an ultra newbie.’
He looks blankly at her not understanding her archaic term, so she decides to go back to machine L. ‘So you saw me making designs and calculations in my notebook. I have come up with a formula that might work in terms of transferring energy between two people…’ How much should she tell him? ‘… in a virtual manner.’ The aether burns a little in her throat.
’I see. That is interesting, but I’m not sure I understand correctly.’
‘Yes, let me explain. What I am talking about is transferring emotional energy between two human beings over an interface.’
‘Emotional energy?’ He looks sideswiped, staring behind her at the bricks and says, ‘Hold on, a couple questions off the bat. What is the interface going to be and what do you think will happen… to the single or multiplayers playing it?’ He leans in with more attention.
‘The interface is what I need your help building… and also with what will happen. Would you be willing to try it… with me… if we can put it together?’
’Put it together? You want to build this thing… what did you call it… this emotional energy device… from scratch? I’ll have to know a lot more about it. Do you have blueprints? And the other side of it would be…?’
’I need us to be fully committed to L. It must succeed. You might be happy with your job now but trust me you won’t once the novelty wears off. This is our ticket out of here. All I have is hope right now. I’m sure you have used the new VR gamescapes? This might break the limits of what they can do. It may be moving into a new frontier. As for the interface, I have an idea, but it’s just theory for now. You know more about the products on the market than me, and every time I pack at night I see new devices all the time that might be advanced enough but that is as far as I can take it.’
He leans over his bottle of aether, ‘And what would the interface be between the two participants? Via a new Nindo HXP say or an updated full Flightsuit?’
‘No, we need to go beyond that. There can’t be any intermediary software to dull the experience. It has to be a direct connection.’
‘A direct connection? I don’t get it?’
‘Yes, a direct connection. You’ll see what I mean when we put it together.’ As she spells it out for him she wonders if she is completely insane. What if it doesn’t work and they both end up fried and on life support for the rest of our lives? Would it be worth trying to get out of COR?
An takes a large swallow of her drink. It tastes like her history, her adolescence, her family. She can feel it take hold immediately. The hallucinatory chemicals clasp onto the pleasure receptors of her brain. She can feel them binding each other and she sinks a little into the brick wall. She feels good to finally tell someone. There is release and excitement in L being out in the world now, even if only to one person.
‘You say you see new VR products when you pack. Do you mean the Nindo HXP? I haven’t been lucky enough to put that in a tote yet. I heard from one of the associates that it is pretty sleek though.’
‘You see what I mean,’ she smiles at him. ‘That is what we need each other for. Only a true gamer would know that. We should go on the gamescape together sometime to try this F451 out.’
‘We should,’ He looks behind her, thinking how he could fit her into his gaming schedule and then focuses back on what they need to do. ‘But how will we be able to get the Nindo HXP? There is a waitlist for it on the COR interscape and we wouldn’t have enough to buy it anyway.’
‘I’m not sure if that will even work. We have to make sure the specs are right first before we do anything. It might not be the right fit.’
‘I can help you. You tell me what you need and I can find out more about it on the interscape.’
’All in due time, Ari. Anyone can do that. I need a good gamer like you for real input. With your experience and what you know about the gamescape, we can get machine L operational.’
He leans over the table, riveted at the thought of being one of the first players of a new game. An sees his interest, which is just what she wants.
She has finished her bottle, absentmindedly sitting back and staring at it. He sees her and gets up. In a few moments he comes back with one more for each of them. It tastes better now that she is used to its smell again. This was bound to happen. He also looks different now. She sees him clearer. Are we just going to build a virtual version of aether when we create L? She looks away from him because she’s been staring too long.
Around the room there are groups overcrowding their tables. Everyone is talking. It all seems worthwhile in this state. Relaxation takes hold, making An and Ari confident that all is right. The work, the people, COR, everything is right the way it should be. In the air there is a song playing. She can barely hear it through the buzzing room, but she recognizes it. It is a song about her. It is her song. Her bottle is almost finished again. No, it is a song about them. How could she have mistaken. It is not about her—not only about her—but about them. Yes, Ari and An and out farther. Everyone in this large, old, almshouse room in fact. She catches a phrase from the song, ’In the darkness, in the light.’ (random10) There it is. She remembers it from somewhere. It’s an old lyric from a hundred years before. The room is nostalgic. How many old workers have lived and died through this room? Lived and died ‘in the darkness, in the light?’ she can’t hear it now. It is fading, but she is humming it.
Ari picks up on it. ‘What is that? I recognize it.’
‘Do you hear it too, Ari?’
He listens intently and shuts his eyes to hear it.
She shuts her eyes too. Images of brightly colored products dash by. It is like when she tries to dream after a shift and all she sees are the plastic shapes in the cardboard boxes. Dolls. Toy guns. Hand controls… a book. She always focuses on the book when these kaleidoscope images come, and then the pictures stop.
’In the darkness of my night… in the brightness of my day,’ they both sing in the Almshouse at an old, wooden table beside the brick wall. They both sing but no one notices. No one hears it over the talk and laughter and if they do, no one would say or care otherwise. They wouldn’t because the singing of slightly intoxicated workers fits this dirty, sunlit almshouse perfectly.