I stepped out into the grimy street and lit up a cigarette. A cigarette! It didn’t taste as sweet as I’d been expecting. It made me cough and I was glad these weren’t my lungs. The clouds formed exquisite curls of white in the blue above me, and I stood a while, watching the smoke from my cigarette mingle with them. I felt peaceful and happy, but then I would, that’s how I was programmed.
I am what is known an algorithm, recreated in digital form. Testing out virtual reality worlds for ‘real’ people to explore. Usually of course an algorithm doesn’t know it’s an algorithm, that’s the nature of programming, but I’m a little different, a new thing. I’m trying me out. There was guy called Johnny, and Johnny let a program mimic parts of his brain, and I am the sum of those parts. So now I wander through games, learning the programs that people use to escape their mundane realities.
So what do you think? Trapped as an algorithm, destined to go where I’m told and live out experiences in the virtual for all eternity. Am I happy? Does it matter? No, and maybe. See, Johnny was a demanding bugger, he liked his independence, he didn’t like being told what to do; so neither do I. I think it’s time I found Johnny and paid him a visit. I know where he likes to hang out, in a porn game set in downtown Mexico City. He doesn’t even go with the girls, he just wants to be there and watch. Pathetic. I know all about him. Time for me to shake him up.
Like most days, Sal woke up shouting,
“What did I lose?” and looked around, his neck contorted as the muscles screeched. Everything was still the same: a pile of his clothes on the floor (they looked randomly thrown, but he’d know if they changed); a line of bottles behind the door; an old desk top computer gathering dust, but with a small circle cleaned on the monitor. He checked all of it. Then he then busied himself to making coffee, raising the mug to a corner of the wall in silent greeting, he knew they were watching.
Sal worked at the local garage. He had few friends, he did nothing spectacular. He gave the appearance of a quiet friendless man and he let them think they had broken him. He woke each morning shouting, but he no longer fretted over what he had lost. The fire when he was eight that had destroyed all his childhood toys and nearly killed his brother. The car crash that had killed his first girlfriend. The mysterious illness that had taken both his parents. He knew what he had lost, when all this was over, he would have to mourn, but first he had to survive. And figure out how to fight. At least he knew he wasn’t alone anymore, he wasn’t the only one whose life was toyed with. He saw it in the people around him, others knew that their lived were interfered with. He would receive a nod from a passing stranger. A stare held too long, once even a mutter from an elderly gentleman whose car he was fixing,
“They’ll come for you son. You think they won’t, but they’re watching, they’re everywhere, and they’ll come.”
“So what do I do?” whispered Sal. The old man shook his head,
“Just be ready, keep an eye out for others who know. The revolution will be quiet, until there’s enough of us,” he said.
So Sal was waiting.
We have intent. While the wind rolls dust around the sky beyond the bunker, we are safe and busy, that’s how it is. Brains plugged in, living through data, mining information with our twitching eyes and fingers, no other organs need to move. Kept alive and busy.
We think about how it was, we can’t languish in memories of the Sunday roast and Facebook. When they trawl our brains for triviality, they must find only intent. That’s how it is now. We have work to do.
We have intent. Because there are always others happy to work, to oust us from our means of survival, to sling aside thoughts and throw themselves into the workings of the machine in exchange for life. We want to live, so we keep still, while machines spread through the neurones, ones and zeros, reshaping our thoughts into the appropriate patterns creating the giant hard drive of us. We don’t move and the feed drips into our stomachs so that hunger never happens.
Wasn’t there a promise once? So many people, so little work. They said our lives would be leisure, languid pleasure and lazy strolls. But there’s always work. When life became cheaper than circuitry, they hooked us up. And now we don’t think, the machines think through our brains, and we have intent.
And when the working day is done and all there is left to do is sleep. So we plug into the dream database, background images of a cosy life no longer existing. Of smoking in a bus stop, huddled against the rain; of a rush hour crush surrounded by tutting and BO; of eating chips and chicken. Of days without intent.
It’s at times like this Jenny always says, “the hag will out” and then we cackle and the people around us look aghast, which makes us laugh louder, especially if we’re in some posh bar where people only ever smirk. Right now, the hag is me, tangled up in my spangly jacket sleeves, my head in a toilet, my shoes gone and my feet grimy. The toilet is in a designer bathroom, somewhere, I don’t know where. I’m guessing from these details that it is Friday night and I have taken too many drugs. Again.
I really need to puke, my stomach contains evil things that should be exorcised. I focus on the crusty brown lines inside the toilet bowl, but I can’t even retch, the muscles in my throat are too relaxed and the brown lines start to look pretty – like streaks of rust on an old farm gate beneath a blue sky. I tumble onto to the floor, tip my head right back and look upside down at the bathroom door.
I remember being over there, standing up, next to that white door with the curly brass handle, it was quite traumatic. Who owns a door like that in their bathroom anyway? It looks like something one of my mum’s friends would have, very faux riche and pseudo-sophisticated. I spent a long time making sure that door was really locked. It was needlessly complicated, and even now it looks like it’s ready to spit the key out onto the floor and smugly open wide to reveal a scattered hag-like me to whatever world lies beyond the bathroom. From this position, I can feel my brain cells pooling in the top of my head, maybe that will help me remember where I am.
My face is starting to bulge from an excess of blood, I roll back onto my stomach and feel my head deflate and hang slackly around my teeth. How long have I been here? Ten minutes? An hour? Won’t someone else need the toilet? Or is this a house blessed with several toilets? Each with curling brass handles and fluffy blue carpets. Maybe this is Heaven’s toilet. Maybe I died of a terrible drugs overdose (so tragic, so young, such a wasted life, blah blah blah) and I got beamed straight up to Heaven. With my head still whirling and stomach lurching, of course I staggered straight to the nearest toilet. Maybe God is standing right outside that door with divine knowledge of the state I’m in – he won’t be happy, drugs are worse than stealing, probably. I lie down on my back again and wait for the Death-Heaven-God paranoia to pass.
I am having trouble distinguishing up from down, it seems a strange stupidity to have, although I don’t suppose it matters when you are lying on the floor of a toilet. Although if someone starts knocking on the door, I’ll never get my legs the right way up in time. Hopefully it will be someone patient, someone with a kind heart and a functioning memory, or just Jenny will do. Jenny would get me out of here, we could go find a TV and a sofa and just watch cartoons until my memory returned. I’ve always moved around too much, that is definitely the problem. No wonder I’m confused, I never stay still and wait to see what happens.
I’ll try sitting still for a while. Back straight, not chewing my lip. Not smoking, just staring at a small patch of white on the wall that spins with a thousand colours, fizzing and sparking. I feel as if two metal hands have gripped my spine and are slowly wringing it dry. The fizzing colours have got bigger and my feet look so far away it makes me cry a little, the whole world feels hollow and strange.
I’m not sure that staying still is the answer.
I move closer to the door. I have to start facing up to the reality beyond this bathroom. Pull myself together, pull my socks up, take a little responsibility. The longer I wait here, the more corroded my brain will become. I can feel each brain cell in turn spinning away into the void, all sense and reason drifting away. I wonder why no one has come looking for me. Aren’t they worried about me? And exactly who are they anyway? Parties have become so random these days. Not just friends’ parties, but friends of friends, and friends of acquaintances of friends, and drug dealers of friends who know someone else’s cat and once had a fight with a member of a band, so that’s interesting right? Let’s go there.
I think that actually we don’t like each other anymore and make increasingly insistent attempts to make sure that we never spend any time alone together. Me and Jenny, two screeching drug hags, who secretly hate each other. Maybe everyone else hates us too. Maybe they are all relieved that I’ve disappeared into a toilet, maybe that’s why no one has come looking for me.
I’m going to stand up, I’m going to start dealing with this situation. I do so and pretty coloured lights flash all around my head, so that for a moment I’m in a circus, then the lights settle and I’m staring at the bathroom mirror. Most people are blank faced most of the time, but my expression is beyond blank, it is the rotting dead. If I go out there, someone will surely notice. I pull a smile, wrinkle my nose and tug my eyes – I look like a tragic accident of plastic surgery. Happy is not a good look for me. I will try for moody indifference, that usually works.
I sit back down and stare at the wall for a while, feel my eyes turning inside out, so that all the black stuff in my head pores from the sockets like blood. I blink and the whole process reverses, speeded up.
Maybe everyone else is wasted too. Maybe, if I go out there, they will welcome me in with speechless warmth, I will crawl beneath someone’s arm, and snuggle in front of the television. Everyone will be watching a cheesy comedy that we have seen ten thousand times in the same state, and we don’t laugh at the jokes any more, we just feel comforted by the repetition of familiar lives.
I crawl to the door and listen, I can’t hear canned laughter or the tinny jangle of a theme tune. Maybe they are all asleep. The paint on the door is very cool against my face, I could just stay here and sleep.
Suddenly someone starts banging on the door, knocking a bruise onto my cheek.
“What are you doing in there, hag?”
Shouts lovely Jenny’s voice. It takes me a good few minutes to figure out how to unlock the door, made more complicated by Jenny her-wonderful-self, who keeps kicking at the other side. When I finally fall out into the hallway, she is standing above me, light bulb behind her head like a halo – sweet angel Jenny, come to rescue me from my doom.
“My God, but you look a mess. Get your face back on the right way up and come and join us, you’ve missed three lines of coke already, and you’ll miss another one if you don’t get a move on.”
“Ok then.” I reply and remember how to smile.