He was having one of those shit days. The general physical exertion had made him damp and slightly warm, and, as moisture collected in that most sacred of spaces between his thighs, he began to feel as though he was perpetually crapping himself.
And, as the town clock made clear in its repeated insistences, he was late.
He stowed his bike in the rack and then, shake wrap click spin, he fastened the lock. You could never be too careful these days.
“DAVID” someone shouted, and he turned, recognizing his name. He then very quickly found something else desperately interesting to look at, as it became very clear that the woman who had so named him, had in fact been interested in attracting the attention of another man, about 6 foot tall with a beard, whom she embraced and lavished attention on.
David awkwardly found an excuse for himself to turn around again and looked, up, up into the sky and took in the full brutalist majesty of the offices in which he worked. That kind of pebbled concrete, which is always a depressingly beige-ish brown color, clad a tower of immense proportions, though not relatively abnormal ones. In fact, were one, not David, he hasn’t quite recovered from his last one eighty, but some other person, standing where David was at that exact moment and performed a kind of ballerina spin, the collected blur of images of tall beige-brownish brutalist towers would be so indistinct that one would be left with a lingering suspicion that one had not in fact spun like an idiot in the middle of an industrial quad in full view of their judging colleagues. But the queer looks one would get for the next few months would probably provide certainty in one’s folly nonetheless.
Speaking of queer looks, David was certainly getting a few for standing alone like a muppet in the unrelenting drizzle from his many co-workers as they surged into the lobby of the tower, eager to clock in and start their twelve hour day.
David noticed one look, from a particularly nasty specimen named Julia, and shook himself from his trance, and stumbled forward, through black plastic doors twice his height, and was crushed into the lobby by the throng.
There were television screens wherever you looked in the lobby – large, flat affairs from which blasted images and sounds – reports from the fronts, both home and foreign, the hundreds dead, the wives widowed, the children orphaned, and all of the horrid rest of it. It wasn’t just a shit day, it was a bloody awful one as well.
And it was just getting started – after the twenty minute line to get into the elevator, he had a half an hour of sitting twiddling his thumbs to look forward to. David took this with the kind of battered grace that one eventually accomplishes when a course of action is the only one left open to one and is left with no choice but to deal with it.
Julia had gotten on the same elevator car he did, for his sins, and, as it crawled slowly into the sky, she took out her lunch, unwrapped the sandwich, and began flicking the mold from the bread at him. Some small snickers from onlookers became a competition to see who could get him to react the most using the smallest bits possible. David was sadly restrained from doing anything to stop them by the mandatory seat belt, but protested vociferously, and futilely, and then not at all.
Fortunately, they were all either dropped off or lost interest twenty minutes up the pike and David was left to his reveries. Or he would have been, had it not been for the television in the ceiling. The lurid colors and sounds of death and the stern grey commentary filtered down into his brain.
Eventually though, there was a soft gong and a sharp sounding female voice announced “floor three hundred and twenty five; Education.”
David extracted himself from his seat and walked with the wobbly gait of one who has been seated for far too long in circumstances not conducive to human comfort out of the door and into the foyer. It was another grey area whose walls were clear of clutter, except, of course, the televisions, whose austere droning continued unabated.
David shook his head and walked down the hall to cubicle 19A and opened the black door and entered his dark office.
It was, as offices go, quite large. There was only one television, which sat above three large blank screens, which in turn sat above a complicated control panel, replete with dials, switches, and little lights, which sat in the tier above a large and black matte keyboard, placed on one of those little sliding trays, so that it could disappear underneath the rest of the assembly if necessary. This was all on the wall to the right of the door, and went about three or four meters into the offices interior. The left wall was bare. However, in the region beginning at about five meters from the door to the end of the twenty-five meter long office, and demarcated by a small fence, there were dozens of tanks stacked on top of each other, each giving off a light green glow that gave everything a slightly sick aura. Inside the tanks were kids – aged anywhere from four to seventeen. They were shipped up from infant care to here when they turned four, and would be sent off to adult processing when they turned eighteen. Until then, though, they were here, in Education. About two thirds of the way up the cranium, they each had a jack. This was the source of their reality. Signals designed to confuse and confound their various sensory centers and motor cortices and all the rest of it. Of course, those old enough to understand what was going on knew their mothers and fathers and schools and friends weren’t real, merely a computer program, but that was the point of Education, after all. They spent twelve hours in a virtual classroom getting stuffed with all of the dense knowledge of humanity. Of the other twelve hours of their daily lives, they spent three pursuing virtual leisure activities, whatever those may be, and nine asleep. It was all very efficient.
As David walked in, the screens flickered to life, and a note from the night operator, who was responsible for overseeing the other twelve hours of the cycle, declared the situation to be normal, and that everything was in order. David pinged them back, saying he was ready to wake them up, and that the night operator could clock out. A mutedly enthusiastic response pinged him back, and David started fiddling with the different switches, paddles, and began the lengthy process of waking his charges up.
First, he had to identify who were in REM sleep, and pump a few chemicals through their intravenous ‘umbilicals’ and set their programs to overlap with their waking up. For those who weren’t already in REM he had the fiddly and often terribly frustrating job of manipulating brain waves to look forward too, where each of the possibly thirty kids who needed manipulation had to be manually coaxed into a near waking state through subtle pulses of electric signals. It was like playing golf with a garden hose; difficult to the point of futility, and all the while feeling like one was somehow cheating. Once all that was done, he had a pleasant day of getting droned at by the television, monitoring the little flickering lights on his control panel, and typing out reports to his supervisor every three hours detailing the nature of those little flickering lights. Mostly they stayed green. He ate his lunch at about noon. Those were the duties of an Education technician.
The shift generally passed without incident, and at the end, David was pinged by his night operator to say that they were ready to take over. Thanking them, David relayed control over, and stood, for the first time in twelve hours. He reached over to the door, and flung it open, wincing at the unnaturally bright light of the corridor. He never understood why the Education units had to be kept in such a low-light environment, and why someone, knowing that they had to be that way, had thought it a good idea to crank up the corridors brightness. He walked, squinting, down the corridor, and took a left into the not quite crowded, but well on its way, foyer, wherefrom the elevator cars would pick them up.
I don’t really need to tell you about the ride down, and about how, when he finally managed to get shoved out of the lobby by the rest of the assembled human mass, he went to the bike rack, and found a snapped bike lock in place of his bicycle. I don’t really need to tell you about how he sighed and turned and began walking home the hard way, hardening himself against the five miles of locomotion in the drizzle he had to look forward too. I don’t need to tell you about any of this because, to be totally honest, it was really, really, dull. As was most of David’s life. I mean, have you seen the guy’s room? He has a beige carpet. There’s not a speck of personality in the guy. He has this kind of mild social anxiety going for him, I suppose, but beyond that, there just isn’t anything. At all. Believe me, I’ve been following this guy for the past few months. Mostly digitally, although I do confess I did steal his bike myself.
Why all this surveillance? I’ll let you make up your own mind. But the point of my grand theft bicycle was to get some quality time with my quarry, and quality time I did have.
There’s a convenient intersection about twenty minutes walk from David’s work, and, surrounded as it was by the great monoliths of our time, it allowed me to get close to David unnoticed. Just as he came around the corner –
“Oh, I am so terribly sorry, I didn’t see you there!”
He looked up at me blankly.
“Really, I am. Blind corners, you know?”
He nodded, reasserted himself over his body, and levered himself into a sitting position. I stuck out my hand as some kind of peace offering.
“Jordan Small, terribly sorry to make your acquaintance.”
Taking my, hand he replied with nought but the smallest of smiles and his name.
He looked for all the world, as if he had accepted not a peace offer, but a demand of unconditional surrender.
“That kind of day, huh?”
“Twelve hour shift, bike stolen, life in general. Just how it is.”
“How far out are you from your apartment? I’m only about ten minutes walk myself. I’ve got a bike there you could borrow.”
For the first time, I think I saw something approaching light in his eyes.
It was in this general theme that our conversation continued for the next ten minutes. He got his bike back (painted over and slightly shredded, didn’t want to make it too obvious) and went on his merry way off home. He promised to return it the following afternoon, as he made his way back home via the reclamations office, where he’d pick up a replacement.
I don’t know what happened when he got home. I do assume he read the materials I had strapped to the underside of the bike’s frame, though I have no real way of knowing. I thought it would be best to give him some alone time.
The mouse had eaten the cheese, and was now creeping unknowingly into the trap.
In any case, when he did finally arrive at my humble residence, he placed the bike in its rack, locked it in, and then fumbled about for a few minutes, mulling it over, rehearsing, justifying, I don’t know, but he took the time, before coming, as I knew he would inevitably, to the little panel by the door to my apartment block and buzzed. It was not until the third buzz I answered.
“Hello, it’s David, I’ve returned your bike, I really appreciate you letting me borrow it.” This was possibly the most complex sentence I’d ever heard him utter.
“No problem! You want to come up?”
“Could I? I want to talk to you about something.” Hah. I bet you do.
“Sure, sure. One second.”
The elevators in residential blocks are generally far more efficient than those in office blocks, and so David arrived outside my door in relatively good time. I had, however, taken what little time had been afforded me to lay out a brochure, two glasses of water, and a bottle of pills on my coffee table.
The door sounded its little sharp ping, and I let David in.
“Please, take a seat.”
He thanked me, sheepishly, and took a seat on the sofa. I sat opposite from him, and looked him in the eye with a stern glare I was rather proud of.
“What was it you wanted to talk to me about, David?”
“Oh, um, there were some papers attached to your bike. I just want to know, is any of it true?”
“Any of what true, David?” Always pays to be certain.
“That these pills can do that? Make life better?”
“They most certainly can, David.”
“It’s just, I’ve worked really hard since I left processing. Really hard. And nothing is getting better. I work and I work and I work and nothing ever changes. The same reports come in on television – people dying, and dying, and dying and here I am, an Education technician, pumping information and nutrients into kids in tanks. I feel like I’m just not doing anything.”
“David, that’s exactly the kind of feeling we exist to ameliorate. Our pills resolve motivational issues and often improve the wellbeing of the client. It’s all in this brochure, here.” I slid the packet across to him.
“So this is, huh, one hundred percent increase in life satisfaction. Universal confidence in chances for promotion. How many do I need to take?”
“Oh, just the one will do” I smiled beatifically.
“In that case consider me sold. Can I take it now?” I hefted the bottle.
“Here you go. Fifty, please.” He handed over the chits, and I the bottle.
“Dissolve in water… OK.” He shook one out and dropped it, gingerly, into his water glass. It fizzed briefly, but quickly resolved into clarity.
He looked me in the eye.
“So begins the rest of my life.”
I didn’t correct him.
A smile came across his features. That would be the endorphins.
“So, now that you’ve taken the pill, could you give me some feedback on its effects?”
“Absolutely.” It was like he was speaking through a dream.
“How satisfied were you with your life previously”
“It was utterly awful.”
“Life couldn’t be better.”
“How likely is it, do you think, that you’ll be more eligible for promotion now you’ve taken the pill?”
“Oh, far more likely”
And then he slumped.
What happened next is a mystery to modern science. It’s one of the essential questions humanity has sought to answer through religion and reason and come up empty. My best guess though is that he felt nothing, and stayed that way, as the world and his thoughts faded slowly, yet inexorably, into a kind of velvet black.