Register a SA Forums Account here!

You can: log in, read the tech support FAQ, or request your lost password. This dumb message (and those ads) will appear on every screen until you register! Get rid of this crap by registering your own SA Forums Account and joining roughly 150,000 Goons, for the one-time price of $9.95! We charge money because it costs us money per month for bills, and since we don't believe in showing ads to our users, we try to make the money back through forum registrations.
  • Post
  • Reply
May 29, 2009

"If you'll excuse me, my dinner time is six o'clock. Only gangsters eat at 9 o'clock, after some bootlegging and a hot game of craps."

College Slice

Hi all. I'm a screenwriter and playwright, and I wanted to try my hand at short fiction. After numerous starts and stops, outlines and character lists, I finally finished one, and this is it.

It's about Paul, a man trying to survive in a dystopic future where advertising has literally taken over the world. He lands an enviable, well-paying job at an ad agency that's developing a machine that can beam advertisements directly into peoples' dreams. As he slowly becomes disgusted with the project, he gets obsessed with the idea of living in a world with no advertising, leading to him planning to destroy the machine, knowing he could be destroying his own life in the process.


The lovely young woman smiled drunkenly as he ushered her into the cramped apartment, and as he closed the door behind her, her face was bathed in the yellow of the McDonald's arches. “Wow,” she said, “it's so dim. My door’s got the Chevron logo and it lights up the whole room. It keeps me from sleeping.”

He walked past Time Warner, Budweiser, Pepsi, and Emirates on his way to the kitchenette, and pulled open the refrigerator.



He took two bottles out of the glow and popped the tops off, shutting the door. He handed her one and they clinked.

She smirked, looking at the bottle. “Are you just hyping Stella? You can be honest.”

He shook his head. “I actually like it.”

“That's refreshing.” They drank.

The apartment was small, cluttered, and smelled like laundry detergent and Indian food. The bed was on the other side of the room, a wall-sized flat screen television facing it. There was a chair by a window next to the walled-up fire place. Beside the chair were piles of books in stacks, about thirty or forty, all glossy and crisp. She walked over and picked one up, examining the colorful cover.

“What are you reading these days?”

He strolled up behind her, sipping his beer. “I don't have time. But I keep buying them.”

She laughed. “Same.”

They were closer to the bed now, and very close to each other. She turned and saw him looking down at her. He was brand-new to her, but didn't feel like a stranger, and that made her feel warm, and that warmth made a smile across her face that inspired the same in him. They leaned in near each other, warm breath brushing skin, hips pressing close. Their lips touched, and in the midst of the kiss he tried to find a way to set his bottle down. His hand found its way to the stack of books, but the angle was wrong, and the bottle clattered to the faux-wood flooring, froth spilling everywhere.

The noise tore her away from him for a moment and she stepped aside from the spreading fizz that started soaking into the bottom pages and bindings of the lower-most books. They both laughed.

It didn't matter once they were in bed. Her top was off, the dark pink brassiere almost red in the dark. He reached behind her to finger the metal clasps, and struggled to ignore the vibrant, glowing Folgers logo on the ceiling. When he looked away, his eyes were drawn by the IHOP brand on the lamp, and the heating unit covered in repeated rows that read Valvoline. He wasn't getting anywhere with the bra, prompting a snort from the girl as she reached behind her back with one effortless motion, and the lingerie fell to the bed, covering some of the many Targets that checkered the sheets.

He smiled. “You are so beautiful.”

“I was going to say the same thing.” She gave him a deep kiss before looking him in the eyes. “Do you have one?”

“Yeah, I do.” He pulled her close, hand sliding under the waist of her jeans and gripping her tightly. She let out a breath and grinded her hips into his, breathing into his neck. He left another bite on her shoulder before twisting around and fumbling with the small drawer on the dresser.

“No, wait,” he heard, before turning back to see her pressing her cheek against his. Her hand was outstretched. A bright light forced him to shut his eyes.

“Good thing I brought a Trojan!” She grinned into the light.

The ka-ching of a cash register issued from the phone as she pulled it back towards her. She sat up in bed and watched the footage as Paul looked on. Her pretty face was glowing in the moving lights, and her eyes brightened. “Perfect.”

He laid back, rubbing his eyes. “You're hyping Trojan?”

She sighed loudly as she grabbed her bra and slipped it back on. “I'm so sorry, really. It's nothing personal. Trojan just pays way more for real-life situations. They have a new video algorithm that can tell when it's real.” She stepped out of bed, pulling her shirt back on and looking around for her purse. “It's just I lost this gig at the hospital, and it's almost the first, and I'm overdrawn. I really hope you understand.”

Lying back in his bed, Paul watched her pull her coat back on. She smoothed out her hair and kept talking all the way to the door, deeply pained. “It was great meeting you, though! Again, I'm really sorry, but you understand, right?” She almost tripped over the Walmart vacuum cleaner by the entrance, and laughed. She thoughtfully shut the door behind her, leaving him surrounded by words, letters, stars, arches, triangles, and whirls shimmering in every color.

It was almost one in the morning, and he was late for his quick shift as a stockboy at the grocery store on the bottom floor. He splashed water on his face and changed shirts, grabbing his keys and heading for the door.

It was around dawn when his day ended. Just before he fell asleep his alarm clock switched on and played a cheerful jingle in a loop until he cleared his throat and groaned “Nyquil.” The jingle stopped. His apartment was finally quiet.

He was up four hours later. The morning saw him holding a half-chewed biscuit sandwich in his mouth as he worked himself into a nylon bomber jacket. He fiddled with the settings on the small strip of buttons and the jacket powered on. He looked at himself in a mirror and twisted to see his back covered in moving footage of a gorgeous new Toyota Camry zipping through mountain roads.

On his way through the cold morning air he passed by two or three dozen people wearing identical jackets, although some showed handsome middle-aged couples holding hands amid swirling blue pills and elderly people golfing. Outside a bustling cafe, a girl's purse played flashing footage from the most recent episode of a medical drama.

A beep from his phone. Paul fished it out and saw a message from a girl he'd had a short communication with a week earlier. “would love to tonight, maybe 7?” it read. He tapped a short message back and pressed send.

He found Scott near the front of the line, the air warm as human breath and loud with music, chatter, and sound effects from everyone's wearable ad revenue generators. Scott was about Paul's age, in crisp slacks and a too-tight dress shirt that bulged with his belly. He took Paul in a tight embrace as soon as he saw him. They spent about five minutes waiting to get to the front of the line.

“That's real sad, my man. At least she apologized. Hey, do you want a Reese's?”

Paul shook his head.

“Sorry, I have to do it. I gotta get to a hundred mentions by noon to get a bonus.”

“Don't worry about it. And it's not a big deal, I've got another one tonight after my clerical shift.”

The line lumbered forward.

Scott checked his 70-year old analog watch, the face clean and free of micro-ads. “You know, I noticed that you never hype anything to me. Or anyone, now that I think of it.”

“Well, I wear the jacket.”

“Yeah, I mean that's a good hustle. What I mean is you never hype things.”

“I've already got six jobs.” Paul was next up at the register.

“I've got seven, and I still do it.”

“Maybe when I find the energy.”

It was Paul's turn at the register. He pressed a few images on the touch screen and slid his card, a bright Thank You on the screen as it spit his receipt out. The machine dispensed his coffee and he grabbed it, waiting for Scott.

“I don't know. It doesn't feel good.”

“It can be good money, though.” Scott tapped his choices into the screen pad. “You want a Reese's?”

“No thanks.”

Scott's coffee was more complex for the machine to mix, and he took the moment to look at his phone. “Agh, one more. You have to wait two minutes in between each hype or it doesn't count. Other than that, they don't care how you do it.” He shoved it back in his pocket. “Aren't you looking for work?”

Paul sipped his coffee. “I'm on my way to a gig for Waterman's, actually.”

“Hey, that's great! Ironic, though. Don't ad agencies want people who hype?”

“This one's different. They're working on something new, said my neurology background might help.”

Scott pulled his piping hot latte from the machine, sipped it. “Finally putting that degree to use.”

They slowly nudged their way through the crowded cafe. The cold air hit their faces as they made their way onto the street. Paul turned and shook Scott's free hand. “Good seeing you.”

“You too, buddy. And hey, sorry again about that date last night. You'll find someone.” He looked at the enormous Bulova digital clock up on a building across the street and saw the time. “You sure you don't want a Reese's?”

Ka-ching went his phone.

Paul smirked and raised his coffee in a toast and headed off down the street. Twenty yards away he turned, and saw a slowly receding Scott checking his phone and laughing victoriously at the bonus he just earned.

The central city was a cluster of towering office buildings ringed by converted old hotels and condominiums, a mountainous complex cut through by a grid of wide streets that were constantly packed with traffic. Paul ascended an escalator from the subway far below, and emerged onto a narrow sidewalk. The streets had recently been expanded to make way for two more rows of street parking, and the two street-long rows of parked cars gave the appearance of more traffic than there was. At each parking meter was a small digital billboard endlessly morphing from ad to ad, from soft drinks to restaurants to gasoline. A narrower sidewalk meant people were more pressed in as they nudged, shouldered, and scraped their way by each other.

Paul checked his phone again for the agency's address, looking up at the buildings around him, all plastered with billboards and marquees pushing credit lines, cleaning supplies, and candy bars. He spotted the right one down the next block and headed for the nearest crosswalk. A three-story-high L'Oreal hologram slowly rotated in the morning sky next to an even bigger one for BMW, vivid neon colors that glowed brighter in the day to compete with the sun.

When Paul was growing up, he only saw advertisements on television, billboards, newspapers, free websites, and heard them on the radio. But when he was a teenager, things began to change. Ads began appearing on stationary, dinner plates, car dashboards, and shower heads. People began to see logos and branding on ancient pottery, dinosaur bones, bronze weapons, and statues, which could be filtered out through the use of special glasses offered free-of-charge with a one-time sign-up for a Starbucks credit card. Hit songs featured brief intermissions hawking wine and baby shampoo, and televisions only turned on when you shouted the name of whatever company paid for the privilege that evening.

Then as the costs of living rose and wages stagnated, fewer and fewer people were able to afford even basic housing. Buildings and houses sat unused while the homeless population increased and people began living four families to an apartment. That all changed when a pair of ad agencies developed the concept of interior branding. A company might spend a million dollars on a commercial, which would last perhaps twenty seconds maximum. A few dollars to subsidize someone's housing, in exchange for having their eyes every time they use their refrigerator, shower curtain, or look at their bedroom ceiling, made sense. It took off, and now the insides of homes and apartments were stamped all over from floor to ceiling. Like most people, Paul had learned to tune it all out as best he could.

Then mobile brand ambassadors appeared overnight, and soon there were legions of men and women wandering cities, towns, and neighborhoods spreading the good word of Burger King, or Zara, or Ikea. This wasn't unexpected, however, or even strange. The number of full-time jobs had gone from 1.3 million to under 200,000 in three years, and by the time Paul entered the job market, they were extinct. Like everyone else, he had learned to string together 4 or 5 different gigs at a time, all of which depended on a number of staffing agencies, two of which he worked at. It wasn't unheard of for people to work eleven or twelve different jobs, and for those people, it paid off: they could afford to have a family.

The agency took up an entire floor of an old Art Deco apartment complex, one that had been colonized by companies, startups, and agencies as soon as it was renovated four years earlier. Paul checked in with the receptionist before taking one of the many seats that lined the foyer. Seven other people sat, some checking their phones while others were fast asleep, arms folded, heads forward. A young woman strode in and checked with the receptionist soon after Paul, bubbling with energy. She tried to make eye contact with as many as she could before she settled on Paul and stretched out her hand.

“Hi, how are you?” She grinned, bespectacled and trendy in her cuffed trousers and tight blazer. Paul shook her hand.

“Hi. Sorry, I'm a little tired.” He put on a weary smile. “I'm Paul.”

“That's okay. I'm Sara Subway Adidas.”

Paul smirked a little, but remembered to be polite. “Nice to meet you.” Paul had only known two other people who legally changed their names like that. It was always for a flat fee, but more and more people were going in on it these days, probably why Sara had changed her middle name too.

“It's okay, everyone laughs. What'd you get hired for?”

He checked his electronic mail on his phone. “'Psychological modeling consultant.' You?”

“Senior Corporate Hype Coordinator.” Her eyes flashed, and her grin got wider. “I'm excited. Are you excited?”

“Of course.” Paul sat up, cleared his throat, tried to seem more enthusiastic.

Just then, a woman walked out to greet everyone in the hallway. She looked barely out of college, dark skin against a white digital t-shirt scrolling explosions and lasers, heroes surfing a field of energy against the backdrop of the Horseshoe Nebula. Paul struggled to keep his eyes off of the footage and on the girl's eyes.

“I'm Kayla. Welcome everybody! Let's get a clap going.” She started to clap her hands together slowly, and everyone else started to join in. Those asleep before were now half-asleep, and started clapping as they yawned. Sara's claps were thick and sharp. Paul winced. The tempo sped up, claps hitting closer together until they formed a mass of applause.

“Alright everyone! We feeling awesome?”

Everyone tried to match everyone else's words, but it was incoherent mush.

“I said are we feeling awesome?!”

On their second try a joyful chorus rang out. “Fantastic! Alright, follow me.”

The doors opened behind her and she turned. A blue light blinked on her ear-set and she started having a completely different conversation as she led the group into a corridor lined with ceiling-high windows and doors. Through the glass was a mobile food counter stacked with vending machines full of shrink-wrapped sandwiches, ramen, tacos. Other windows showed plush chairs surrounding large tables facing screens. One window revealed a room much larger than the others, bright with fluorescence like an operating theater. In the center was a coffin-shaped table beside what appeared to be a large radio set, conductors and dials and switches, a sculpture of wires and metal that bloomed at the top like a palm tree.

Paul followed everyone into one of the plush conference rooms and took a seat. At each place was a packet of paper and a pen. Kayla walked to the head of the table.

“So you guys probably want to know what's in that room, right?” The laboratory was right across the hall, the glass walls muting and blurring the sculpture and coffin-table. “That's the future. Sound mysterious enough? I just need you to sign your NDAs and we'll get started.”

Paul flipped through the packet and filled his out. Across from him was Sara, zipping through hers like a sprinter. She slammed the pen down in triumph.

Kayla beamed. “Love the energy!” She paused and looked off. “Oh no,” she said into the ear-set, “I'm just with my new crew.” A pause. Everyone was silent. “You too.” She sucked in a quick breath of air like she'd been forgetting to breathe. “Pass em up!” She looked back to the room. “That's you guys, sorry.”

Everyone snickered and slid their packets to the head of the table. Kayla flicked off her ear-set and pressed one of the thin plastic buttons on the hem of the shirt. The footage on the digi-cotton phased out. The roomful of recruits looked up at her face.

Then she began.

“Thank you everyone for being here. Here at Waterman's we work with only the best people for each job, so congrats. You earned it! You've probably read about us in the marquees, but there's a lot you should know, and it should come from us. First, our agency isn't like the others. We expect people to work hard, and play hard, but who can play hard when they're working 8 other jobs? That's why we offer wages much more competitive than the competition's, and guarantee three straight weeks of employment, minimum. That's twice what the others guys offer. All we ask is that you put us first, and when you consider the kind of work we do, you'll understand why.

“We believe in our people, which is why we make sure that everyone here gets a chance to work on major holidays.” There was some applause at this. She smiled.

“In the next room, like I said, is the future of advertising. Ever since the first lunar holograms for T-Mobile, Waterman's has been hard at work coming up with the next big thing, the next generation of ideas for brand engagement, visibility maintenance, and lead capture. This new project, however, is not only about marketing strategy – but about finding the next frontier of advertising. We used to think space was the final frontier, but Waterman's discovered that it isn't. It's only the furthest. We know what the final frontier is. And it's the one thing we can't see.”

Paul looked around the room. Quizzical faces. But some seemed to have an idea of what she was hinting at.

Kayla walked to the window by the hallway, on the other side of which was the entrance to the operating theater. “In the room across is Matthew. He's a machine that we've been developing for over a year now. The last team put phase 2 into place, but now we're ready for phase 3. That's where you all come in.

“Imagine you're Nike. You know you can count on billions of impressions all around the world as people go to work, meet up with friends, or go for a jog. Even when people go home, you know they'll be seeing you on the television, their bathroom tiles, or their dinner plates. But when they shut their eyes at night, cozy in their beds, you've lost them. Not anymore.

“The last two teams discovered that there's a range of frequencies which can act upon the mind while deep in REM sleep. Tuned correctly, people can see billboards, hear jingles, or – one day – view and take part in full-on interactive commercials. When Matthew is up and running, we'll be able to offer companies what no one else can: 'the ad-space of your dreams.'” Applause. Some people chuckled along with Kayla as she smirked and nodded. “Yes, I came up with that one.” Laughter. Sara whooped and whistled as she clapped.

His work took up where the last psych consultant left off. Paul was directed to a desk off in a different wing of Waterman's, his computer already cued up and surrounded by pages of memos and forms. He briefly flipped through them and saw twenty or thirty different kinds of handwriting as he got further back. Paul knew he wouldn't be the last one, but that didn't bother him. Three weeks of guaranteed work was a miracle.

The psych consultant's job was to create and update the Neural Response Model. They would work with a group of select volunteers and ask questions about topics sent to him by the Project Coordinator's assistant – what emotional reactions they had to certain sensory stimuli, memories, what they associate with colors or foods. Then they'd compose a brief, summing up the findings and making suggestions. The data would be streamlined and formatted according to company standards, attached to the brief, and sent over to the Programming Department to be used in developing and honing Matthew's functionality.

After a few hours of learning the templates and familiarizing himself with the style, he went to work. His subjects were already lined up in the hallway outside, and he kindly escorted them to the sunny interview room, where the windows opened out on the whole sweep of downtown, a forest of buildings and blinking shapes, words, and moving images. Across the street, all 60 floors of a restored ancient International-style commercial facade melted from one scene to the next: people clinking Coca Cola bottles, a woman rocking on a porch swing and thinking about funeral homes, a dog running around on a sculpted lawn as a proud macho man looked on with a Budweiser in hand. Paul offered each volunteer a seat, and their sessions began.

His shift ended five hours later, almost twice what he was allowed to work at other companies. It was a nice change of pace. On his way back to the subway Paul checked his bank balance on his phone, and saw that Waterman's indeed paid everyone out as soon as they clocked out. The pay was good, even after deductions. He felt warm about life in general for the first time all year, and the little boost of joy and adrenaline gave him some extra electricity. He checked his phone and messaged one of his gigs: he was out. The satisfaction of quitting gave him extra confidence for his date in 16 minutes.

Tash was hunched over a bright blue cocktail in a far-off corner of the noisy bar, sitting on one of the last pair of chairs in the whole place. Paul waded through a jungle of arms and coats and took off his flashing jacket, switching it off and crumbling it under his arm. He put out a hand. “Paul.”

“Tash.” She smiled and shook, and Paul sat.

“Been waiting long?”

“I got a bonus from my cab shift, so I decided to take off early.”

“That's great, congrats.” He typed in an order on the slim glowing screen on the wall beside the table and pressed Enter. “What else do you do?”

She sipped her blue drink. “Touch-ups on commercial and personal photographs, I clean apartments, I'm a personal shopper, assistant to the city waste and recycling administrator, and I teach 8th period math.”

“And you drive.”


“Well thanks for making time for me.”

She smiled. There was a long pause where they just looked at each other. “You haven't hyped anything yet.”

“I don't like to.”

Her eyebrows lifted. “That's nice. I noticed because I don't either.”

Paul's pint arrived. Soon the place was even louder and more crowded, and they were each two deep, so they had to shout.

“— you thought of doing what?”

“Making furniture.” Paul checked his phone to make sure he wouldn't be late for his job-staffing shift later that night, and after that, stock boy.


“I wanted to work with my hands, get a place where I can just work all day on something real and tactile.”

“Have you made any yet?”

“One table, but it's in storage.”

“I'd like to see it.”

“Maybe you will.”

Tash looked at her own phone and initiated the close of the evening. “Gotta get going soon. Lots of photos to get done by morning.”

They parted outside just as the city got dark. The second daylight of bright, glowing images and videos surrounding them kept them both . With a brief embrace she was on her way, and Paul, warmed dull with drink, headed to his stop and hoped he'd make it for his next gig, two hours on the phone with people looking for work.

Three jobs and a few hours' sleep later, Paul was back at Waterman's, wrung out and bleary as he leaned over his paperwork. Last night he'd quit his mid-morning security patrol gig Tuesdays and Thursdays, but felt like maybe he picked the wrong one. He'd check with the staffing agency and see if they could shift his hours back, or push it all to the weekend. Paul tried to keep everything moving in his head even as he entered in that day's information into the spreadsheet and started work on his daily analysis brief.

What he'd been learning from his volunteers didn't feel groundbreaking, but it seemed to color in some disparate imperfections and thin, trace gaps in the collective understanding of human behavior. It was meant to make Matthew work better, to make the campaigns companies would use Matthew for be as nuanced, subtle, and seamless as possible. A dream of a camping trip with your family might see dad's Heineken replaced with Pabst. You and your high school crush entwined in lovemaking, your crush might lean in close and whisper a paean to Colgate or J.P. Morgan. Colors and memories, textures and sounds would be the playthings of the Frequency, the invisible voice of the Matthew machine.

In the midst of digitizing his latest session, Paul suddenly became very ill. Ideas and thoughts that had been tapping him on the shoulder or reaching through the veil of the back-brain came pouring in, and he excused himself from the company of the other analysts and consultants in the office to go to the break room and punch in the code for a retextured shrimp quesadilla from the automated dispenser.

Despite being surrounded by advertising at all times, at all hours, in all spaces, Paul – like everyone else he knew – had mostly tuned it all out. He had drawn the line at hyping, because he saw it as some unnatural thing, a cross-over that should never happen, the corruption of something clean and natural. He respected everyone's choice to do it, of course. They needed the extra cash, and so did he. Who could blame them? That's why he'd instructed his staffing agent to send him out for everything – including ad agencies.

When he'd learned what he would be working on at Watermans, the back-knocking thoughts and ideas started calling, the same ones that pestered him whenever a friend or family member sneaked a tagline or slogan or brand name in the middle of a conversation, but he had put them away. Until he'd started to really think about what the project was, and what it meant.

He allowed himself to think the thought he'd put away: that Matthew was an abomination.

For all time the physical space of the world has been a Wild West, and by stepping into it one took upon themselves risks and compromises. The very act of stepping into the world subjected you to the world, and that was understood. The branding of everyone's personal square footage was relatively recent, and while it brought the world and its companies into the domestic realm, it was ultimately a devil's deal to keep housing costs down. But there had to be a line. At some point, Paul thought, some space has to be one's own, free of anyone, free of any outside force or idea or will or expectation. Over the years that slowly receded, as first one's street, then one's house, then one's bedroom all fell to the marching horde of advertisement. It was no longer the case that venturing out into the world subjected you to a plea to buy, but there at least was one consolation, one reassurance, and that was sleep. Sleep was the last private place. Once Matthew was operational, that would all be over. There would finally would be no escape.

Once, in a restaurant with a friend, Paul had guessed that maybe 59% of all the world was advertising. He once wondered if there might be a day when that number reached close to 100%, and what that world might look like. He now saw that world incubated, preparing to emerge. He saw that new planet in the womb when he looked into the operating theater.

He left early that day, on the pretext that he was meeting one last volunteer off the premises at a cafe or something. He messaged Tash to see if she was free. On his way down the escalator to the street, he received the reply that no, she was teaching, but that her shift would end soon.

There was another message from Scott, saying he wanted to see him. Want to catch up? An old friend, yes, but he wasn't in the mood. After his rumination that led to the sick spell at work, he felt a mounting sensitivity in him. He knew that being around Scott would be nauseating. Paul then thought about Scott's watch, the old one with the clean ad-free face, and coveted it. He lowered a hand to the lower seam of his nylon video jacket and clicked the last button. The jacket switched off.

He met Tash later, at a different place in a different part of town. The old marketplace galleria had been repurposed into a sort of sprawling meta-lounge brought to you by Doritos, with bars, dining rooms, smoking sections, and karaoke spaces where stalls and businesses had once been, high ceiling with a skylight through which a night-flier could be seen dragging the billowing sails and laser-bright wooden planks of a neon pirate ship on which stood the laughing, victorious figure of Captain Jack.

“You can't tell me about it?”

“No,” Paul sighed over his pint. “I wish I could, but it's the NDA. They'll figure out who it was pretty quick, and I need the gig. Still have three more weeks there.”

Tash shrugged. “Can't help you then, can I? I'm going to get another.” She stood and headed for one of the many bars.

Paul knew it was unfair to complain about something he couldn't even go into detail about, and with a girl he'd just met, but the beer made him juvenile enough to do it. He resolved to be more positive that night, and spare her listening to his gripes. He wondered if he'd be able to pull it off. He watched her through the crowd, up at the bar, leaning over to shout to the bartender over the din. She was beautiful to him, and while it was hard to think about allowing anyone into his life, he knew he wanted to keep seeing her. She had the satisfying presence of a good friend.

Three more weeks, he thought to himself. Three more weeks to stuff it down deep in him. After that, the project would be someone else's problem, someone else's responsibility. Part of what made him sick earlier wasn't just realizing the reality that Matthew would bring into being, but his part in making it happen. That was enough for him. And then it wasn't. The gnawing came back, a trickle behind which he knew was a wave. No, he might not have anything to do with its creation after he moved on, but that wouldn't make it go away. No, Matthew and his invisible voice would be coming for him. It would get to him eventually, just like the tens of millions of people in the city, and then the billions of the world, wrapping the planet in another atmosphere on a lower unseen plane, lying in wait until they went away from the world and into its inescapable embrace.

Tash came back. Their conversation swung wide, one subject following another in a chained sequence, like they'd rehearsed it.

“I haven't been to the beach in a while. I used to love it, though. Are you the beach type?” Tash checked her phone. Paul sipped his beer.

“Not really, but then I don't get out of the city much. I'm 45 minutes away from the shore, an hour from the forest, and my jobs are all stacked pretty close. I don't think I'd make it without having to give up a shift.”

She nodded. “That'd do it.”

Paul felt hot inside, the knowledge of Matthew burning through him. He looked down. “Look, I don't care about the NDA. I need to tell you, because it's going to affect you.”

Tash looked stumped. “Okay.” Her drink was mid-air, like she'd forgotten it was there.

“Let's go outside.”

They were up on the roof, where there was a spectacular view of downtown's holograms, gorgeous images and lines that shifted like a mountain range of colors just above the city skyline. They watched the designs change and morph from one to another, Pepsi to CostCo, H&M to Intel. Paul related the entirety of what he knew about the Matthew project, and as he progressed, Tash's eyes lowered further and further. By the end, she wasn't looking at the holograms, but somewhere down in the city's bustling streets.

He changed the subject. “You're the only person I've had an honest conversation with in a long, long time.” He looked over to see her response.

She was still looking down into the city. “You too.”

They stood quietly for a while.

“Shouldn't at least something exist for itself? Shouldn't there be some place, some thing that's off-limits, that's safe from ads and promotion?” He paced. “Something has to exist for itself, not as an opportunity to promote something else. Like trees, or the ocean. They just exist. I wish I had that.”

“Maybe we should move to the forest, then.” She was joking, but her face was stern.

He'd never thought of that before. “Do people go to the forest?”

She shook her head. “Maybe.”

It was in that moment that Paul realized he'd never actually been outside the city. From birth, through years and puberty and school and family and loss, all the dramas and enjoyments of his life were lived entirely within the bounds of the city. He knew what forests looked like, of course, had seen them on television, but never set foot in one.

“You know, I don't think I've ever met someone who's been there. The forest.” The glowing pirate night-flier was banking in the distance, and set a course right for them, dragging its bounty through the night sky. “Would you go?”

“I mean, what's out there?”


She gently kicked his calf. “But how do you live? Unless you're a deer.”

He didn't know. The Captain's ship was growing larger, eclipsing the half moon and taking more and more of the sky for itself, passing through a holographic firework display writing out the words VIACOM in gold and green. He looked down at the sea of moving images and music. “We're stuck.” He left his glass on the roof and started for the hatchway back down into the pleasureplex.

Tash followed after. He looked up through the hatch to see her descending. After she'd passed through, Paul saw the Captain looking down at him and smiling in a way that reminded him of his own father.

The Procter and Gamble alarm clock read 9:13, about forty minutes until his next job started. Paul was fixing himself a bowl of cereal during one of the 11-minute commercial breaks in a heart-pounding drama about doctors. Serene, transcendent music drifted from the speakers while someone smiled and sang the praises of a new company that provided the infrastructure to allow people to rent portions of their closet space to others. He struggled to keep his eyes open as he poured in the nut-based milk and mixed it in with the sweetened-corn-and-ancient-grain Honda logos. He shoveled it into his mouth, trying to get as much food metabolized as he could, keep his blood sugar high enough to power through the last few hours of the standard 18-hour working day.

He kept thinking about the forest. He thought about those millions of trees, how they existed apart from the human world, how simple they were. They didn't speak, they didn't think, they just were. He wanted to know what it would look like to see something that was blank, pure, simple, like Scott's watch.

The reverie carried him to work later, and as he stocked cans of preserved cabbage and frozen shredded beef he kept thinking about what it would be like to wander around a place like that, to get lost in a labyrinth of clean simplicity that wasn't polluted with images, slogans, and models.

And that night after he said his nightly Nyquil to the clock, he closed his eyes and pretended to be there in the forest. There was a problem, however. Every tree that he saw in his imagination was covered in stencils of brand names. Vicks. Hyundai. Alibaba. Home Depot. He shook his head and tried again, restarting the simulated forest in his mind. Same thing. As hard as he tried, he could not picture a forest without them. He imagined looking up, hoping to cleanse his palette with a clear blue sky. The sky was indeed clear and blue, but it was an electronic blue, a hexadecimal blue, not the blue he'd seen in photographs. He thought harder, mustered his thought-strength and forced it to be the type of sky he'd seen depicted elsewhere: a clean blue with wispy traces of white cirrus clouds. For a moment it worked, and the image was held sustained for the space of a breath. Then the clouds, moving of their own accord, became the well-known“M” that he saw on his front door every day and every night glowing golden. He started feeling hungry.

He opened his eyes and saw the real M on his front door from across the room. He didn't want to see that either, so he shut them again. Sleep didn't come easily that night.


May 29, 2009

"If you'll excuse me, my dinner time is six o'clock. Only gangsters eat at 9 o'clock, after some bootlegging and a hot game of craps."

College Slice

He was now into the third week of his stint at Waterman's, and he was done with all the psychological profiling. Now his job was to work with other departments with consultations, to write up and offer feedback on reports from others in his own department, and streamline the databases that chopped up, alphabetized, distilled, and hyperlinked all the information he'd found in the course of dozens of hours of interviews.

That afternoon he caught himself smiling at one of his coworkers as he asked to use the microwave next. He didn't like the guy all that much — he'd given Paul a hard time the other day about not going through the preferred workflow in database changes — but he smiled all the same. After he pulled his taco from the microwave and started back down the hall to his desk, he wondered if he hadn't just advertised something. Not a brand, not a product, not a service, but something. Himself. He had, in a way, used an interaction as a means to some other end, which was to get his food cooked faster. It wasn't a pure smile, of the type he imagined smiles and things like that should be.

On his way back to his workspace, he passed by a room where Kayla, hyperactive 20-something lead coordinator, was pacing around and gesticulating in front of a conference screen to six different men and women in various states of business wear —

“By chaining Matthew together with digiprint clothing, fliers, home ads, sidewalk streams, face-to-face hyping, and everything else we offer, a company can advertise to someone 24/7, 365, no interruptions. Now that is brand awareness.”

The people on the call all smiled and clapped, and then started to frame their responses in turn.

Paul sat down at his desk and ate the rest of his taco while looking over some sheets the other departments had sent over. A woman with a vibrant neckscarf that swirled with Burger King logos leaned over towards him.

“You okay?”

He looked up. “Yeah, I'm good. How are you?”

The woman smirked. “Okay, sure.” She found something on her computer screen with her mouse. “Last week, huh?”

Paul nodded, tight-lipped. “Had to end sometime. Got anything once this is over?”

She shook her head. “I'm staying with my boyfriend for a while. We're going to try and hit some bigger goals with his delivery gig together, and then I'm starting a certification program. Tax season is coming up.”

“That's right. Not a bad gig, congrats.”

“Well, I don't know if I'll get it. I hope I do, though. I told them I'll work nightshifts and weekends.”

At some point Paul couldn't even focus on his screen, his thoughts forming a second vision that obscured what his eyes saw. Kayla's words made him sick, sicker than he'd been when he finally let his reservations about Matthew spill into his mind. He couldn't think about anything else, and it prevented him from meeting his goals for the day. He'd have to work longer tomorrow to make up for it, or faster, or he'd lose the completion bonus people were promised by the end of the job period.

Before he left the Waterman's offices that day, he spent a short spell in front of the plexiglass walls that sealed off the laboratory. He saw Matthew again, and it looked a little different. It wasn't bigger, but different. Pieces had shifted around and been replaced, some fittings and wires looked newer, and there were more cables going into it. There were also more computers surrounding it, and more technicians.

There was only one more phase, he knew, before the thing would be operational. That was something an acquaintance of his in marketing had told him over mid-afternoon coffees. One more phase and it would no longer be his problem.

That thought froze in his mind, an error his brain wouldn't let him process. No, it would remain his problem. And always would.

He looked at the way the large tropical plant-looking device was put together. He wondered how much it weighed, if it was water-repellant, if it was secured to the floor. He thought about what time people came in and out of the room, then about what time they came in and out of the offices on the whole. He wondered how many cameras watched the object, watched the door into the lab, watched the hallways and entrances. He wondered about how fast he could get out of the building, whether it would be faster to take the elevator or stairway. He wondered if there was a way to mask his identity without looking like a cartoon cat burglar.

He pushed his way out the glass doors leading onto the street already throbbing with night energy, the sunset augmented by the second daylight of new motorcycles and pouring coffee and wave riders, men on horses and women smiling, words and numbers and colors endlessly wiping and fading and transitioning. He now not only felt nauseous, but hot in the ears and face. Guilty for something he'd not yet done.

Paul swiped his card and passed into the subway. When the car pulled in, he approached, looked up at the miniscreen of the day that held the key to getting aboard, spoke “Visine – for clearer vision!” and was allowed aboard. He looked around the small forest of people, looking at their faces. Most of them were locked onto a glowing phone or tablet, small colored earpieces blocking them out from the warm, comforting Johnson and Johnson ad playing in the compartment. One more period, he thought, and that was it. Then the last refuge all had, that of their own mind, would be colonized. Then the victory would be complete. Unless something were done. Unless something were done.

Why, that's illegal. Of course it is. And then there's the problem of actually preventing this future from coming to be. The device could be sabotaged, naturally, destroyed, thrown from a window – the people below wouldn't like that, never mind – but the research would be there. The computers could be destroyed. What about backups? And then Waterman's could go back and reconstruct the research and in less than a year it would be back and ready to change the world again.

Paul got out and passed through the crowd of flashing jackets and shirts, ignored the hypers at the subway exits aggressively pitching to as many individuals as they could, little cash register dings popping up at an astonishing rate. Then he would be a criminal, and the police would place him high on their to-do list, thanks to Watermans' staggering net worth.

He kept his head and eyes down to avoid the invasive streams of words and videos lining the buildings between him and his apartment. The sidewalk still spoke and gestured to him, but the light-emitting diodes in the city's concrete were more primitive. He knew Watermans' was working on a better tech for that, and that one day the city's population would be walking along 10,000 miles of self-cleaning tv screens, roads of light and sound that would be packed to the brim and optimized for maximum viewer engagement.

When he got to his apartment, his mind was made up.

First the bathroom mirror was broken, the tiled Adidas holograms no longer looking back at him. He looked at the shaving mirror on the sink. It was programmed to superimpose whatever the newest Tom Fords were onto the viewer's face. That also ended up on the floor in pieces. After an hour his apartment looked like a team of demolition specialists had been there, with holes and scars on every surface. Walls, floors, cabinets, doors, and ceilings had been scored of all images and words and symbols. 6 o'clock found him sitting on his bed, his phone buzzing with messages. He missed one twenty-five minute customer service shift, and was about to miss another.

The walls and ceilings were pockmarked and cored out, plaster and wood and metal visible through the gashes and holes left by his hammer and whatever else he'd found to wipe the place clean. Paul looked around and felt a surge of energy and warmth and relief. It was like looking at the moon, scratched and marred but somehow clean. Imperfect but pure. Nature, after all, is full of imperfections, he thought. Earth is covered in rot and overgrowth and jagged edges, but for all of its lack of manicure it is an expression of nothing other than itself. It existed to exist, and for no other purpose. He was excited to be surrounded by it all, finally, the trees and earth and grass below him. Quiet breezes. Birds. A new music to replace the unending urban soundscape of engines, construction, and entertainment.

He took one last look through his bag. Lighter fluid. Matches. Food to last for days. Water purification tablets from the mart. A change of clothing. He'd also read that he'd need a map, but one wasn't available for where he'd be going.

Bag securely around his shoulder, he walked out his front door for the last time. He didn't bother closing it behind him.

Bathed in the cacophany of movement and digital images of the street, he kept his eyes straight forward on his way to the subway stop. A lady in a trendy gray outfit looking down at their phone glanced around confusedly. She saw Paul and raised a hand – “Excuse me, I'm lost.” It took him a full second longer than usual to stop. The woman's plea tore him away from his objective for a moment. She wanted to know how to get to the big church downtown, where a fundraiser was being held. He told her how many streets it was, and she thanked him.

Advertising is, fundamentally, a form of communication. It can be a plea, a statement, a question. The thought had occurred to Paul several times since lunch that day that the thing he hated might not be so simple to distinguish from things like it. Things like human interaction. Society. The more he'd considered it, the harder he found it to consider advertising to be an artificial thing, an unnecessary, a parasite on life.

He scanned his card and descended the escalator to the platform.

That was the problem. If it was something unnatural it would be easy to separate from the rest of the human mind, from nature, from all things. The more he thought about it, the more it became uncomfortably clear that it may not be unnatural, but natural, a thing encoded into the basic DNA of life and intelligence, a natural end result of the teeming trillion capabilities of sentience. To make something known to another, in a transactional economy, must lead inevitably to the desire – or need – to call attention to a thing to make another desire to buy it.

He shook his head. Nature does not advertise. Trees exist, grass exists, birds exist.

What about bird song?

He was jolted out of his reverie by a buzz from Tash. The letters on the phone said she missed him. He sat there on the moving subway car, reading the words, lights washing over his face. Fingers didn't tap in response like they usually did. Though leaving the city now felt like an inevitability, the idea started to sour. He started feeling guilty. He did like her. Idiot, he thought. He felt ice in his chest. His mind was so wrapped up and closed off and fixated on the machine that he hadn't really noticed how well things fit together with Tash. Whereas lots of his courtships had been mad dashes to the bedroom before the highs of the first cocktails could wear off, this had been a slow, easy mechanism where everything clicked into place and moved without friction. Something made of hard wood, and too heavy to move. Fair and soft, familiar and warm.

The tram slowed to a stop. Waterman's was only two streets away, now. Tash's message went unanswered.

There was probably a time when office buildings were difficult to get into after-hours. That was a time when there was such a thing as a time when people did not work. Waterman's had a generous work policy that allowed 24-hour access to all facilities. Paul smiled at the new midnight receptionist and headed down the hall, looking just like any other contractor who was assigned the graveyard shift.

The first thing he had to do, he knew, was to start at the end. Destroying the machine now would be pointless: he had to erase its soul first, end ensure it would never be born again.

To that end, he began his sabotage in the computer room in his office. The place was cold and quiet. A new teammate smiled and waved from his work couch by the window, analyzing images. He sat in the same chair he'd been working in for weeks, pulled up the database he and his team had been using, and set to work. The co-op panel on the screen told of what Paul already had predicted, that no one else on his team was using the database. Their shifts didn't start until 4:30, and it was still 1. Plenty of time. A crash course for a week-long IT position he'd held two years ago provided him the know-how to accomplish what he was about to do.

He went into the database and, through a web of options and sub-options, dug up the never-used executable that would disconnect the local server from the online servers that held copies and links to every file the company had in connection to the Matthew Project, suspended in virtual storage. Documents and videos, spreadsheets and presentations, contact information, schematics, crucial emails, and theoretical documents. Everything needed to create Matthew, make Matthew work, to describe Matthew, laid out in hundreds of folders and subfolders. When Paul was done, there was no trace of the idea of Matthew in any external server. Only in Paul's building could anyone get the plans to piece Matthew together again.

All computers in the building were linked for maximal IT assistance in minimal time. This provided Paul a way into the computers running the local database. Those computers ran hot, requiring many fans to keep the machinery from burning. Paul changed the fan speed settings. In four minutes the equipment would melt and twist into oblivion. The sensitive plastic and small amounts of metal making up the innards of those crucial pieces of hardware, unable to withstand the temperatures they themselves created, would die, along with anything on them.

Of course, bits and pieces of Matthew would be on other drives, voice mails, email clouds, and sketchbooks. He would also exist in the minds of those who conceived him. Paul was counting on a few things to ensure that his sabotage would actually have an effect. One, the original team hired by Watermans, considered as expendable as each successive team, were already off somewhere else, working for another company or seven. Two, the amount of time, money, and effort necessary to reconstitute and redesign the machine may not be considered worth Watermans time. The latter option was probably a vain hope, although it could come to be true if some contractor-designed algorithm determined that there was another more profitable use of resources and people, however minute. Though capturing the dreaming minds of all the millions of the city could provide good ad space, if something else translated into an equal or better amount of money in return, Matthew would be lost and never remade again, consigned to the mass grave of capitalism's merciless Darwinian crucible from which only things of excellence and profitability emerged alive.

The last thing to destroy was Matthew itself. It was not a large thing, but it was complicated. As with all electronics over the decades, power and complexity was matched inversely by size. Once operational, the machine would have to be hooked up to large amplifiers to ensure the signal traveled sufficiently far. The core machine itself, however, was about the size of a man's torso.

Paul closed the lab door behind him. He pulled a fireman's axe he'd taken from the janitor's closet. His plan would have been crazy had the room not been soundproofed to prevent interference while testing the machine.

He didn't leave in a hurry. Instead, he took the long way through to the stairwell, foregoing the elevator. He was no expert at burglary, but it made sense to him that he should leave by a different means than he entered, in case it could make him look less suspicious or trackable to those who might be watching.

The lights in the stairwell were dim and bathed everything in a sickly light from left over from a time before auto-correcting bulbs. He entered the stale, cold air and descended the stairs as the door loudly echoed shut above him. The spare bits of trash here and there were desiccated, but more than the trash or the lighting, what aged this place were the blank walls. No posters, holograms, or even graffiti stained the walls. No one had used this place in years. Paul hoped it would be to his benefit.

He took the exit through the parking garage, hurried through the rows of cars and vans, and found a pedestrian exit up and onto the street.

Then to the subway. He adjusted his backpack, filled with things that would aid him in the coming days, if he made it.

He hadn't checked his phone for an hour or so. No new messages. But Tash's words were still there, fresh as if they'd just been sent, a mark on his phone screen, an urgent matter that required a response, if he had any emotion at all.

Of course he had emotion. He knew, though, that to get in touch with her would be to involve her.

And he was on a one-way tram out into the darkness beyond the city.

For a moment, he thought maybe he was making the wrong decision.

It made his body that much heavier when he stood from the seat and went through the open doors onto the terminus. Behind him were the towers and holographic billboards crowning the night sky. Before him were tall streetlights lining the highway that stretched out and on. No cars went by.

Paul pulled out his phone, looked at it, pulled up Tash's messages. She hadn't followed up, politely waiting for him to tell her why he'd avoided texting or calling her in recent days. Another sign of goodness, of how together she was, of how calm and confident she'd been, all qualities he loved and admired in women.

Then he set his phone on the ground and searched around in the grass beyond the asphalt. He found a sturdy rock, returned to the phone, and smashed it until it was something like shards of hard confetti.

He walked, pieces of the phone and the SIM card in his hand. Every twenty minutes or so he'd toss some of the confetti off the road into the darkness, until there was nothing left.

A soft roar, like an ocean wave approaching the shore. Paul hurried off the highway and into the darkness. The car grew from the far bend in the road, skimmed past, and disappeared up the road a ways. Paul climbed back onto the side of the road and walked on. After an hour, he'd notice that only five or so cars passed in either direction. He felt better. No humming in the sky, no lights on the ground, and no police. Just the night-glowing circuit sprawl miles behind him, the streetlight highway, and the pregnant unmoving bulk of land that he knew was out there beyond, a presence darker than the sky where hung points of light in atmosphere hazy and illuminated from the miles-long city.

He had entered the land where trees ruled. The scar of highway curved and twisted, but in the realm he'd come into, it was insignificant. Here few lived, though they did exist. People who came out into the wilderness and had small lives away from the mass electric jungle. It was a place he hoped was so far away, so pointless to target for commercial success, that it would offer him something of what he'd dreamed of.

Alone and cold, disconnected from the rest of his kind after shattering his last, handheld foothold into the realm of common knowledge and communication with the world, Paul realized that he had done a very crazy thing and felt immediate regret. If anyone had watched what he'd done, he was sure they would think they were looking at an insane person, a psychotic. The things he'd just done weren't what normal people do, but what lunatics did. Normal people do not destroy things, normal people do not trespass, commit sabotage, destroy private property, and then go on the run. That's what crazy people do. That's what criminals and underworld types do in the hologames and videos.

He didn't need a background in psychology to know that many people have breakdowns, points where they have sudden and life-altering changes in emotion, attitude, or behavior. However, he didn't consider that word to be appropriate for him, since for him, it wasn't something he'd done in the heat of passion, anger, disgust, or hate. Far from it, the destruction of his apartment, Matthew, and his phone, plus his plans for escape all were done calmly. The ideas came to him in sequence, he judged them good, and he performed them. That's all. To characterize what he'd done as the result of a breakdown didn't make sense to him, and yet he felt somehow that he had made a mistake all the same. He was confused, and tried to understand his confusion and his thoughts. While others come to regret things they do in the heat of the moment, he regretted what he'd done slowly and coolly.

In a small copse part-lit by the penumbra from a highway light, he found a place to take a break, drink water, and have a snack. It was still dark, but it would only be a few more hours until the sun rose. He existed a while, staring off at the highway and thinking.

When morning came Paul stood and looked past the copse, into the woods beyond. He started toward it, stepping out over a field uneven with small dips and rocks, the treeline a quarter mile away. He was deeply exhausted, but his legs kept moving, adrenaline keeping him going. He began to feel some small growing exhilaration over the idea that he got away with it. He heard no sirens, and no police cars had sped up or down the highway all night.

The trees were nearer now. Everything seemed flat and unfinished, like textures forgotten from a 3D simulation. As he entered the canopy, he realized why his brain had been trying to make sense of why the trees, rocks, and sky were so featureless. It was trying to understand surfaces free of branding. The trees were covered in bark, the earth in earth. As he walked up an incline in the forest, he looked up and saw the long-growing branches thick with leaves and the small speckled bits of blue beyond. No words, no symbols. Birdsong tweeted from somewhere far beyond, and his mind at first thought it a jingle. It did not take long for this place to feel normal.

In the calm and peace of the wood, he sat, set his backpack aside, and fell asleep.

His eyes opened, his brain dragging him from thick, sweet sleep because his primal survival center detected a change in the environment. The change was distant, but it echoed, low and dark and thudding. At first he couldn't tell if it was heading away or toward, if it was still hovering around the edge of the city or if it was traveling the length of the highway he'd left behind. He felt cold, and terrified, and ashamed all at once, like he'd lost a bet with himself. The helicopter sounded nearer and nearer. Paul clove to a tree, clutching himself tight to the serrated bark and holding his breath as if the helicopter could hear it. Eyes up at the canopy, mouth open, trying to gauge its movements.

Like a deer he suddenly darted. He scooped up his backpack and scrambled higher up the hill, away from the treeline, away from the sky and the danger in it.

Idiot, they can detect heat signatures.

He dropped the backpack and got closer to a tree, a larger one this time, and put himself on the other side of the sound. A pricking sensation on his arm. He winced and looked down and saw two large ants, saw their pincers biting and legs moving. He scraped them off and itched where they'd bit, looking back up to gauge where the thunder was headed. Maybe it wasn't very close at all, he thought.

Moments passed. It was quieter, now. Then he could no longer hear it.

He moved upward, upward into the hills, his backpack with him, sipping water, delighting in the innocent quiet stillness of the world without graphics and without taglines. The trees were trees and lived, lived long. The rocks and streams were here before he'd been born, and the hills had been here since before cities had been built. The air here was clean and gave him life, made him want to drink it in just to taste it. Here was no music. Instead, there was the white noise of the world's unthinking processes, pressure systems creating wind and weather, autonomous animals from germs to coyotes acting out their instincts.

He found his way to the top of a ridge, seeing the same clutter of trees crowding all around him for foreseeable miles out ahead and to the sides.

This was what Paul wanted.

And then Paul realized he was thirsty again. Again? He pulled his bottle of water up and swallowed the last mouthful. That went faster than he'd thought. He looked into his bag and suddenly the big store of food he thought he'd brought with seemed no more than a couple of snacks. He'd thought surely he'd brought enough food to last for days. Upon second glance, he wasn't sure it'd last til the end of the week. And then his mind went to what would happen after that: what does he eat? What will he drink? Streams would surely slake his thirst, but hunger would still be with him. He would have to hunt. That, he couldn't do. Shelter, fire, food, and the other obvious necessities of life were things that he had no experience with.

And then the next wave of nausea came. How long had he really planned to be out here? When it was a brief escape from the madness of life in the city, it seemed a good idea. Following his destruction of the Matthew machine and all its creative materials, it became the escape route, and a semi-permanent one. He hadn't thought it through.

God dammit.

He sat there on the trunk of a fallen tree, looking back the way he came. He was aware of his clothing, his haircut, his breathing, and saw himself an alien in a place he didn't belong. He didn't evolve to live here. This was not his environment. His natural habitat was concrete and electric, human and plastic, composed of people and retail goods and transactions. He wasn't a hunter-gatherer. He was a city dweller, adapted to survive through navigating relationships and physical space in order to acquire shelter and food that came pre-made. He couldn't make a fire or a log cabin, but he could organize schedules and collate knowledge, solve math problems, convince people to pay him money for services.

Time passed. The sun was high overhead, the forest bright and beautiful and silent.

The city boy sat on that tree and watched the woods. When the sun seemed to have moved on a bit, he stood up and zipped his backpack. Face burning, stomach cold and twisted, he set back down toward the tree line.

In about an hour appeared the holograms and smoke signals of the city alive and excited to sell just about anything to anyone. The highway that led there had more cars on it now that it was day, but they were still sparse. Most people stayed in the city, for the same reason the alien out in the forest came back out in defeat – odds of survival better, but outlook still not good –, because that's where they'd adapted to live. Like the water insect which travels upon the surface of a pond would perish in the deserts its distant cousins braved, so too did the people of that far-ranging urban chaos know how to survive there.

Paul would be back in that place in a couple of hours. He knew that there was a chance he'd be singled out by the police and arrested for burglary and vandalism, he knew his prospects of being hired again would be drastically low. He knew he'd be submerging again into the sea of images and sounds calling for him to buy, people working slogans and taglines into conversations, and the unhappiness of permanent job insecurity. He wondered too if Tash would still talk to him, or understand what he'd done. In the back of his mind he thought again of what had occurred to him in the woods. Perhaps there was a way to make it work for him, to make life work for him, and to keep away all those things of the city that made his stomach turn and his heart feel heavy and sour. It would be done the way he and the millions of creatures like him had adapted to do, navigate it the way he knew best. He would never be a deer in the woods, but perhaps there was a way to be as peaceful as one.

As the city got closer, a great big floating angel holding aloft a can of Coors Extra Light looked down upon the earth and singled out Paul, clouds parting, and only twelve calories a serving. Though miles away, the electric seraph radiated light upon him alone. The familiar engagement strategy, though he revolted against it, still worked in its own way. He was warm, he felt loved, and Paul smiled.

Oct 23, 2010

Legit Cyberpunk

this is extremely competent and it reads very smoothly, but it feels like someone pointing to a sign with ADVERTISING: BAD for twenty minutes, winking and grinning in ever more exaggerated ways. It's a big swathe of set up of your fairly plausible and well-drawn future, then the protagonist does a thing and leaves and sits by a tree. I don't know there's enough story content for the length, fundamentally. like he destroys his life: so what? what happens next is quite a bit more interesting than what happens, if you see what i mean.

in terms of what to change, i don't think you need as much explanation of your world, it's near enough to ours that you can just have the characters refer to it in passing and i promise you we'll get it. I'd also like some conflict or momentum going in - what's driving our protag at the beginning? can it be a twist or reflection of what drives him to leave the rat race at the end? is it something to do with the nature of reality? skimming through again the first time our guy does or says anything meaningful is halfway through, where he says he'd like to make furniture. this is a fakeout as no furniture is made. then he does his big smashing act, but we don't see anyone react to that.

this needs a rework, but it's a great setup, you just need to reconsider what actually happens and have more of it.

May 13, 2006

I read this last week and I think this part really sums up my experience after reading it:

sebmojo posted:

like he destroys his life: so what? what happens next is quite a bit more interesting than what happens, if you see what i mean.

in terms of what to change, i don't think you need as much explanation of your world, it's near enough to ours that you can just have the characters refer to it in passing and i promise you we'll get it.
The opening scene already did enough to establish setting for me. I felt like I didn't need the exchange with Scott or the internal monologue explaining how the world ended up the way it is since the way you've used description throughout the various scenes was enough to let me deduce it. Whatever you don't spell out will become obvious once Kayla briefs everyone.

Once you get into the scene with Tash, the exchange with Scott feels even more redundant. Tash is way more important to the narrative than Scott so I wanted a little more investment of time in Paul's relationship with her than what we got.

Dynastocles posted:

This was what Paul wanted.


The city boy sat on that tree and watched the woods. When the sun seemed to have moved on a bit, he stood up and zipped his backpack. Face burning, stomach cold and twisted, he set back down toward the tree line.


In the back of his mind he thought again of what had occurred to him in the woods. Perhaps there was a way to make it work for him, to make life work for him, and to keep away all those things of the city that made his stomach turn and his heart feel heavy and sour. It would be done the way he and the millions of creatures like him had adapted to do, navigate it the way he knew best.


The familiar engagement strategy, though he revolted against it, still worked in its own way. He was warm, he felt loved, and Paul smiled.
This is a huge reversal from a flawless execution of a pretty thorough plan to destroy the machine and it happens entirely while Paul's just sitting there, contemplating what he's done and the reality of trying to live in the wilderness.

The reason it feels unsatisfying to me is that I've just gone along with Paul for this journey–including feeling complete revulsion at the thought of having ads in my brain while I'm sleeping that I can't install ad blockers for–and he takes it all back without even trying to live in the wilderness.

He actually goes further than taking it all back - in the beginning of your story, he's an unwilling participant. He does what hyping he needs in order to survive but he doesn't like it. Yet he ends up embracing it after trying to destroy it yesterday and it's this complete 180 in a very short space of time that I have trouble buying as a reader.

May 29, 2009

"If you'll excuse me, my dinner time is six o'clock. Only gangsters eat at 9 o'clock, after some bootlegging and a hot game of craps."

College Slice

sebmojo posted:

in terms of what to change, i don't think you need as much explanation of your world, it's near enough to ours that you can just have the characters refer to it in passing and i promise you we'll get it. I'd also like some conflict or momentum going in - what's driving our protag at the beginning? can it be a twist or reflection of what drives him to leave the rat race at the end? is it something to do with the nature of reality? skimming through again the first time our guy does or says anything meaningful is halfway through, where he says he'd like to make furniture. this is a fakeout as no furniture is made. then he does his big smashing act, but we don't see anyone react to that.

I'm in total agreement. I wrote this after reading too many J.G. Ballard short stories, all of which have the same constant oppressive emphasis on the insane world around the characters. While the stories are about how the characters come to terms living in the world, their inner lives aren't really the focus: the world is. I think I got too wrapped up in that part.

Leng posted:

The opening scene already did enough to establish setting for me. I felt like I didn't need the exchange with Scott or the internal monologue explaining how the world ended up the way it is since the way you've used description throughout the various scenes was enough to let me deduce it. Whatever you don't spell out will become obvious once Kayla briefs everyone.

Once you get into the scene with Tash, the exchange with Scott feels even more redundant. Tash is way more important to the narrative than Scott so I wanted a little more investment of time in Paul's relationship with her than what we got.

He actually goes further than taking it all back - in the beginning of your story, he's an unwilling participant. He does what hyping he needs in order to survive but he doesn't like it. Yet he ends up embracing it after trying to destroy it yesterday and it's this complete 180 in a very short space of time that I have trouble buying as a reader.

Good point. I think at this point I was just looking for a way to end things, because I'd done what I wanted at the time (outlined the world). That, plus writing prose takes a lot out of me and I rather exhaustedly just wanted to get it over with. But you're right, it doesn't make sense. I need to change it.

You both have given me solid ideas of how to rework this. Thanks!

Dynastocles fucked around with this message at 12:56 on Oct 29, 2020

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • Post
  • Reply