The ground is torn up and black with soot and blood. Bodies, male and female, are piled in great heaps. A lone figure stands amongst it all, his aged face flecked with earth. Spools of smoke gather behind him, then unfurl into the wind. In the control tower, Persephone cues the comms unit. Seconds later, a man rises from the muck and lurches towards the veteran. He hands the old man a flashing device, before collapsing at his feet. Behind the console, she presses her fingers together, tips whitening.
“Hullo,” the old man says flatly, into the unit.
Obscured by the fug over the battlefield, Persephone’s eyes stay locked to her screen. A colossal piece of set design in the bowels of the Defence Towers, the largest ever built, and all for this – this second of movement, this tremble of lip.
“George,” the pre-recorded audio file says – an isolated warble so powerful, the old man nearly buckles under it.
“George, come home, dear. It’s over.”
Shaking, he gives in and collapses, tears pouring from his eyes as his hands clutch sodden earth.
Streams. Rivulets. Columns. Data. Tweets. From the steel desk of his workspace, Greg can see the world’s communications stream in front of him, a digital waterfall down a plane of glass. He is in the underbelly, central command for consumer-brand experiences and authentic, business-to-business correspondence for a leading supermarket chain. He shifts columns, rolling through feeds with a flick of a finger, monitoring customer-to-brand interaction.
This morning, he’s been on the offensive. A competitor posted a photo of their new in-store produce arrangements. One of the featured vegetables was misshapen in proportions open to ignoble interpretation and, after refraining for the industry-regulated number of customer engagements, he joined the thread via an eggplant emoji and had, as of 12.35pm, already hit his daily target for impressions, favourites, mentions and shares. A girl brings him a canister of water from the underbelly’s allowance and he lets her smile hang upon him for a while. He doesn’t feel any way about it.
It’s 10 after 9 and Greg is bombing, horribly. The stillness in the faces of the audience dries the air in his lungs, his words crack as he speaks. He wraps up the set to shudders. A few people actually leave. He exits the stage, un-thanked, carries his trembling form to the bar and orders malt whisky and cartridges.
The next act has already taken the stage by the time his whisky arrives. He pulls from the mouthpiece, letting the vapour roll from his mouth, and watches as the older man, podgy and stoic, begins to take him to pieces; slowly and assiduously, like a pathologist.
“Relationships, bodily functions, death, the rise of commodity prices over inflation, these are things you like; they populate your world, and yet you won’t laugh. He is colouring your life in, he is making a Ruscha of you, and you sit there making small talk. Let me tell you, let me…no, stop. You there in the back, stop laughing. Now, let me tell you, you are lucky to be here, because there is no content so content to be content, as a shit joke.”
The man leaves the stage to rhapsodic applause. Greg is unmoved. Still, the scotch has given him volume and his breath is back. He smokes his cartridge like he’s seen old movie stars smoke cigarettes.
The old comic pulls up a bar stool; under the brass spots, Greg makes out his features. “So, it is Hugo Bell. Listen, you were great up there,” he says, ignorant of the old comic’s indifference, “I’m only starting out. I spend my days doing brand interference at H-Mart.”
“Yeah?” Hugo Bell says, sinking into a stooped posture that, like his cheap suit and dour rictus, he wears well. “They got any jobs?”
“Well, when the Edelmans told us about the lengths you went to for George…”
“We could hardly get them to shut up.”
“Fantastic to hear.”
“They particularly liked the music. I thought that rather strange myself, for a life programme.”
“It’s a legal requirement. I’ve seen other producers use voice-over, too.”
“Miss…sorry, I don’t believe I’m familiar with your last name.”
“Persephone is fine.”
“Miss Persephone, Merry, er, Mrs Evian and I…well, listen, it’s regarding our son, Gregory.”
“The opposite. He works constantly, just not for us.”
“Okay. I think I understand.”
“How will you go about it?”
“I’m not sure just yet. Each subject is different. Surveillance is the first step. Where does he work?”
“H-Mart. An office job.”
“I guess I’ll start there. Can I ask, Mr Evian, why it is you want your son back in the company? H-Mart doesn’t strike me as a competitor.”
“Oh, gosh, no; it’s not that.”
“No, not that at all.”
“It’s the stand-up.”
“Dear god. It’s got to stop.”
Greg stands at the periphery of the group and wonders how he can incorporate his social awkwardness into his act. His five colleagues speak quickly and without faltering. They are all three drinks into the quarterly work party. Greg is yet to say a single word. He sips his beer and taps notes into his device, slowly drifting away from the group.
Persephone watches the scene from her own circle, and seeing him depart wanders over to his group. He is barely out of earshot when they begin to mock him. His tapping. His dumb aloofness. His stand-up. Oh, god, the stand-up, a woman says, holding her hand over her mouth, laughing. He’d sent them all an invite, hadn’t he? One of these days, a man threatens, we’re all going to go. And they all find this hilarious. Persephone observes Greg as he paces by the window, his face downcast in the light, hand to the device; before making her way towards him, beer in hand.
Later that night, at his window, she looks out over the neon city to the pillars of light on the horizon.
“Do you have any cartridges?” she asks.
“But, I thought…”
“Me? No, I only ever smoke after my set.”
“I don’t know.” He flops over on his mattress, arms outstretched. “It makes me feel less… hollow.”
“That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever...” she trails off. The window in front of her has come to life. Dust, ash and earth and blood. Faces contorted in horror. The images rushing to meet her, then dissolving.
“The Centralised Republic of Wales is on the verge of civil war,” the report begins. “Its rebelling lower populace, though decimated by drought...”
Both stay silent, consumed by what they see.
Hugo Bell stalks the stage. His blocking as impactful as the weighting of his sentences.
“I have a watch that tells me that time is infinite.” He stops. “Infinite.” He shudders. Titters rise from the crowd.
“It tells me, I will die and it won’t. It tells me the time. It tells me that I am a mile above land.” He sways; real laughter now.
“It tells me, I am here, and that my blood pressure is 160 over 90. It tells me I need to piss. Ask me, is it all worth it? This technology that counts us away in micromorts? Ask me, is any of it worth it? And I’ll say, I’ll say, hang on, I need the toilet.”
Time speeds by and then he’s done. As he takes his bar stool, he realises that he is not alone. A woman hovers in a loose dress cinched by a wide leather belt. The beauty of the thing – the dress, the belt – conjures a similar outfit and, with it, the scent of chlorinated swimming pools, solvent billowing from dry cleaners’ windows, wet grass under toes and the last warmth from a fading sun: summer’s bliss, the outdoors, captured in simple clothing. It’s strange, though, he thinks; the dress doesn’t suit her at all.
“What do you want?” he says.
“To give you this,” she says, placing a payment chip and de-serialised device in his hand.
Persephone motions towards the boy on stage.
“I want him to open for you.”
“Open for me? He already does that – and not terribly well,” Hugo chuckles. The silent crowd adds emphasis.
She steps closer and with her is the funk of lavender.
“Next month, that’s when you’re planning a run at Modish Halls?”
“Doesn’t matter. The payment chip will explain the rest. Call me with an answer.” She strides away. Her nostalgia-ridden potion lingers for a moment, before that too, disappears.
From the bar, he watches the boy ramble happily on. The crowd look vacant. The boy reminds him of an old cartoon: an animal speeds past the cliff edge and is suspended in mid-air, its legs still spinning in an exaggerated run, belief alone keeping it up.
Laughter breaks, then rises to a roar. The boy has fallen off the stage, landing squarely on his face.
“When using crossways and skypaths, please keep to the designated travelators at all times.”
Greg and Persephone walk hand in hand through the crystalline sky corridors that criss-cross between tower systems and transport junctions. The morning light presses against them, intensified through the panes of the corridor. She looks at him. He searches for the right words to magnify the day's unfolding beauty.
“It’s bright,” he says, holding her gaze a fraction too long.
She tries a smile. He thinks she might hate him. It’s the one feeling he has. He looks across at the men and women in the reverse corridor. The sky surrounding them is the cool blue of dental gel. He traces the opposing corridor’s contours with a finger. And then it explodes like a crimson firework.
Blood and gristle coat their pane. Shoulders and elbows jostle around them and he loses grip of her hand. The smoke clears the reverse corridor’s jagged maw. Beside him, a woman is screaming incessantly. Cracks form on the pane in front of him as their corridor makes a lurching sound, its structural supports barely resisting collapse. He realises he doesn’t know what wind feels like. A man in the other corridor is shrieking at the bloody stump that was his hand. He watches the men – terrorists, freedom fighters, Outsiders – standing at the mouth of the bifurcated corridor. The cracks’ spindly fingers stretch toward him and he closes his eyes. But before he can feel the world outside, hands grasp his shoulders, pulling him away.
“In the event of an emergency, please walk, and do not run, to the security desk at the end of the hall.”
When they find each other at the office, he doesn’t say a word. All that terror rattling around in his skull. And yet nothing. The way the glass shattered and fell like diamonds in the sky. Nothing. He sits quietly through meetings on content distribution and cultural exchange. At the end of the day, he hovers by the water dispenser, surrounded by colleagues dissecting the latest updates. He is still silent when she arrives.
It keeps her up at nights, thinking of him. In the stillness of her apartment, she raises her palm and his file decorates the ceiling. Gregory Donald Evian. School reports. Aptitude tests. Consumer profiles. Career applications. Personal information courses over the walls. He has more credit on his payment chip than his employer’s marketing budget. The facts mean everything and nothing. She lets the file dissolve, as her forearm projector drops into sleep mode. There was nothing to gauge, no tic, no expression. A tired swipe of her arm and her ceiling becomes illuminated with questions. Each one his. Dumb things. Curious. Inquisitive. Ambitious. She watches them glide overhead. Turning, revolving and resizing, until they have no meaning at all.
They approach the spiral shafts that decorate an enormous obsidian wall. Her reflection muted by its darkness. A skylift descends and soon they are floating towards the stalls entrance of Modish Hall. Placing his hands on the rail, Hugo takes in the atrium below as punters move across it, before being distracted by the grotesquery on show. Palaces of leisurewear display the newest trends, as live mannequins tell the story of each fabric. Former docking transports, resembling a spilled tower of blocks, hog the centre of the space. The converters and cooling units inside them expel a symphony of sour smells: fried-chicken flavouring, processed vegetables, boiled algae, puréed roaches. The air turns malodourous with soylent. As people arrive, they flit between the blocks – like flies, he thinks. The walls are lined with pop-up whisky bars and malted beer pumps. Projections of the sky twirl across makeshift dance floors. Drinks are held aloft, but there’s no rhythm in the crowd. They all seem cut off. Inert but willing participants.
She has populated it all. Hugo knows that.
“This is what you do?”
“Yes,” she smiles. “Yes.”
“You turn stories into reality. Colour in the blank bits for an outrageous fee.”
She says nothing.
“What’s it all for?”
His silver suit and red tie start to crowd his aching body. Then he spots him, being led through the crowd, eyes alert and jaw open. Greg.
“It’s all for him,” Hugo says.
He wants to strangle her, but settles for throttling the rail. It’s no joy at all.
“Really, laughable…completely out of proportion. Yes, the skypath! Well, what? We can’t just have some terrorists going and blowing our workforce half to ... Look, for fuck’s sake, just call me when it’s done.”
“I wish you wouldn’t curse when we’re in the air.”
“For god’s sake, Meredith, if you don’t get used to the orbitals now, when will you?”.”
“I wish you wouldn’t get so angry.”
“It’s just, tonight, all the money and Gregory and this Persephone. Well, she was supposed to be getting him to quit, and now he’s performing at Modish Hall! I don’t understand; it’s quite the opposite, isn’t it? And what’s it even for?”
“He’s special, Harry.”
“He better be.”
As he is announced, Greg is hyper conscious of the smallness of his inner workings. His face feels puffy, his cheeks hot with nerves. Setting foot on the stage, he is horribly aware of the frequency of his blinks. And one eye, he feels, is trying to make an escape.
The crowd is impossible to make out beyond the lights. His collar is damp with sweat. The thing to do is speak, he thinks, just speak, that’s what the old comic had said. Wasn’t this what he wanted? He notices he does not know. Greg stumbles through his opening line, unsure if what left his mouth in a dry tumble were even human sounds. And yet, a modest laugh. He carries on.
With each line, he finds it harder and harder to keep his thoughts from spinning, splitting and multiplying. It’s exciting and the black tide of their laughter, full-bellied, edging ever closer, he feels, is bringing him to the brink of something. It is all so sudden and present and pure. The crowd are roaring now. Electric. The curtain drops and it is over, he feels, before it really even began.
People smile into him. The whiteness of their teeth. Hugo, straightening his jacket, walks past without acknowledgment. Vaguely aware of hands on his shoulders, he casts about for Persephone, but she is not there, just faces, beaming faces that he has never seen before. Then, some he has. His parents. His father is shaking his hand. Happy, they’re telling him, so happy. They had no idea, have never found him so funny. Did he hear the way they laughed? Happy, his father keeps saying that. He floats past them, toward the exit. He thinks nothing. He is all feeling. A warm, static ball. He does not notice the music that has been playing throughout. The music that is, in fact, still playing now.
When he arrives at his flat, she isn’t there. Not in person, anyway. Then her image coats the windows and the walls, a projection. What follows is a confession. Her colourful angles play over him, a kaleidoscopic prism. And as she speaks, the tingling in his body quietly subsides. By the time she finishes, it is gone.
At the main access point for the Evian towers, she watches the masses move in and out. Synchronised gates effortlessly steadying their flow. It’s another 40 minutes before she sees him. Dressed differently, now. She can see why they wanted him back. He looks so suited to this place, she is relieved to leave. She takes an orbital towards the outer rim, to the only towers connected to Below. The sign on a threadbare panel above her reads, “Welcome to the future!” Beneath it, her fellow passengers are glued to their screens. She turns her attention to the horizon. Its milky glow. The desert and sky in soft pastels. Opening her hands, she watches his questions scroll across her palms – the vertiginous feeling of something unknown. The announcement says, “End of the line.” And it is.
Illustration by Tabor Robak