Hi there! You’re reading a story from Sixth and Lavaca, a short fiction EP for SXSW 2012 hosted at saladonions.tumblr.com. If you like it, add a short tale of your own to http://sxswstories.tumblr.com. From a tweet to a novella, everything’s welcome!
I don’t know much when I have a hangover, but that morning I knew two things: first, that Hapsburg was in trouble. Second, that he was about to drag me into it. He flicked his hair again and moaned.
“Tess, they’re going to take it all. All my money, all my clothes. All my fingers, if I’m not careful. And…”
He buried his face in a pillow.
“They know where this place is.”
“So, leave.” I can be cold, when I need to.
“I don’t think that would stop them. It’s hopeless!”
This was Hapsburg’s problem, I reflected. I hadn’t known him long but there was already this kind of drama-queen final act mentality that seeped through in a crisis. I’d suspected this from the first time we sat together in the box room and Tay had given him a wide berth, but still: we have a policy here. And that policy is to accept anyone, to give everyone a chance. It’s led to a happy, vibrant household with good projects on the go, and even a little money coming in from time to time. But this was different. Tay could sense it too, and he hopped up on my lap for a stroke as Hapsburg continued.
“Look Tess, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bring this on to you. I thought I’d be doing you a favour, eventually.”
This was too much.
“Eventually happens a lot later than now! That’s why it’s called eventually. Eventually yes, someone may buy your piece-of-shit app. Now, though, between five and fifty very big men with only a fleeting interest in Java are about to knock on the door, take your laptop, and try to make it compatible with your face. And this place will be over.” I cast an eye around the now-empty commune.
Hapsburg was sweating now. The bravura which he seemed to coast on around the house had dissipated. “Couldn’t we… you know… defend the house? There’s what, about fifteen people staying here right now?”
Yes, I thought. Fifteen coders, artists and writers. Fifteen people with no clue of how to survive in anything like the real world. That’s the problem with creating a bubble; thin walls.
It had started with me, and Azealia, last May. I’d come into a little money and she was a friend with a lot of ambition, so we’d found a space above three curry houses in Brick Lane, opposite the bagel shops. It was like someone had knocked through three flats, wood-panelled everything with aspirations of building a giant bowling alley, and then wimped out and put it on the market instead. So we took it for a “workspace”. But as it became pretty obvious that neither of us had the creativity required to fill the whole floor, Azealia and I had gone looking for new recruits. We’d had little luck for weeks, but that’s when she wrote the post on airBnB, and everything changed. People came, people went, and we arrived at a fairly fluid population of fifteen. Fifteen vagabonds, creators and strays, from all corners of London and beyond. All with big dreams, all in a perpetual state of ‘just passing through’.
And if Hapsburg could have passed through just a little quicker, it would have been so much simpler for the commune. He was Azealia’s FOAF: friend of a friend. Except that when I’d asked her the night before, Az couldn’t remember for sure which friend it was. So was he not, I had suggested, just a person? She had said yes, and that that made him equally qualified. Then she had gone back to painting HTML. She was like that. And if Az saw something in him for that, who was I to doubt her?
Hapsburg was shaking. “If you’re gonna kick me out Tess, just do it. At least let me have a head start over those guys.”
“Hapsburg, I’m not like that. This isn’t some ruthless startup, this is a just a commune. We don’t kick people out because they didn’t hit target this quarter. Besides, while your methods were pretty boneheaded, the intent was fairly sound, right? Just, next time you wanna push product out, perhaps paying five grand to a vanity app publisher isn’t the best route.” The kid was allowed to make mistakes, as long as he made his way out of them too. He was the kind of success waiting to happen that you wouldn’t mind to have earned a favour from.
I tossed a leaflet on the table. Hapsburg wiped his eyes and turned it to face him.
“OmniCorp? What’s that?”
“Hapsburg, when I ran out of money during university, I’d volunteer myself for medical experiments. They’d give you bright orange pills and see what kinds of hair grew where, that sort of thing.”
His eyes were like saucers. “And that’s what OmniCorp is?”
“Not too far off.”
* * *
As we got off the bus at Curtain Road, I was turning the same question over and over in my mind: whether OmniCorp was a more evil-sounding name than The Commune. I imagine everyone who starts something does so with the best of intentions; it’s only from the outside that the name carries menace. But these guys were legit enough: I’d done little projects with them before, delivering random art assets that were mostly taken from cutoffs at the back of my book. They’d paid on time, and been nice over the phone. I’d allowed Hapsburg the luxury of imaging a black steel skyscraper like the ones that knifed up through the rest of the city so that when we turned to corner to face OmniCorp, he’d a least have a pleasant surprise.
“That’s it?” He pointed at the window.
“It would seem so.”
The cheery blackboard, done in a market-trader’s hand, read: ‘OmniCorp. User Experience testing and Casual Game Development since 2005.’ It was like one of those old antique shops: single-glazed window, framed in wood with a lick of cheery green paint that was trying its best not to flake at the corners. And through the window, a butchers’ shop of old user interfaces: mice dangled in a row like links of sausages, keyboards stacked in piles, getting smaller and thinner as the eye travelled up, buttons turning into the tiniest of toggles, and then just surfaces, chunky plastic becoming brushed steel. And hanging the corner-
“Is that,” asked Hapsburg, “a Virtual Boy?”
“Some people revered it,” I said. “Just goes to show: there’s always a new idea to be had. Come on, you’ve got an appointment.” I pushed the door, and there was the recorded jingling of a bell. Beyond the faux-wooden door there was a perfectly clean, white room, like the inside of a 2006 iPod. A kindly-looking woman waited behind a kitchen counter, jumping as we entered.
I touched Hapsburg’s arm to calm him. He’d need a little chaperoning.
“A Mr. Hapsburg, to see UX. Sorry, we’re a little late.”
“Not a problem, Dearie. Every willing subject is a blessing. Could you go straight through, please?”
She gestured to a cylindrical lift behind her. I stepped in, herding Hapsburg in front of me, and lift began to corkscrew, and judder, and travel.
Omnicorp had moved up in the world since the last time we worked together. Or rather, down. We bore our way into the depths of the building, into a tube-train darkness. Solitary white lights curved past, the side-lighting only exaggerating Hapsburg’s anxious gaze.
“Tess, is this how you remember it?”
“Hey, I only saw the pictures on streetview this morning.”
“Didn’t you work for them?”
“Well, buh - I just put stuff in Dropbox and took the BitCoins.”
“You take payment in BitCoins?”
I take a lot of things, but my retort went unspoken as the lift ground to a halt in front of what could only be described as a pair of Russian blast doors. Like, a proper bunker. I watched the last bar on my iPhone 5 wink out of existence, and the doors slid open with an industrial hiss.
I’ve met plenty of designers and conceptors in my year of running the commune; generally it was either long hair and loafers, or a hoodie, beanie and triple-Mountain-Dew expression. A white lab coat, squinty eyes and buddha-like smile is not the uniform. But the man standing in front of us didn’t seem to care.
“Welcome, subjects,” he said. “I am Doctor Ostermeyer, your supervisor. We’re very excited to work with you.”
My brain formed the reply he’s the subject, but Ostermeyer’s back was already turned and he was shuffling away down the corridor with surprising speed. We followed down the corridor.
And what a corridor! I mean, what a kind of nothing-corridor lay before us. It was, let’s be clear, an office. A festival of every colour from sepia to magnolia and back, innocuous rubber plants, strip lighting, drywall.
“You are wondering about the decor, yes?” said Ostermeyer over his shoulder. “We… try not to offend. There are many interests at work here.”
Branches began to split and split again like a hedge maze. I tried to count: left, right, right, straight but Ostermeyer’s swiftness, and the mind-numbing power of his sing-song muttering made it hard to concentrate on any more than just following. The uniformity of door after door made things worse: the only distinguishing features were the tiny brass nameplates that I only got the briefest glance of: Signup Bay 005, Social 122, Concepting Suite 072, and a small black door named Retention. For some reason, this made me shiver a little. Finally, we rounded a corner and came to set of double doors marked Subject Hospitality. They looked like the doors to a morgue.
“I shall leave you here,” said Ostermeyer, “and you will be sent for shortly. Much to do, much to do…” and the third ‘much to do’ came muffled and distant and he disappeared down the passage behind.
Hapsburg eyed the door like someone who’s been served a Nokia 6210 for lunch. “Doesn’t look very hospitable.”
“Then maybe you should go back to your app publishers,” I said. “You know, the ones with the bolt cutters.” Hapsburg sighed, and pushed the doors.
At the slightest push, lift muzak poured through the crack in the doors and out into the passage. My stomach turned, but the thought of telling Azealia we’d have to shut the commune was far worse, so I pushed Hapsburg through and stepped after him.
A hospital waiting room, forty metres below ground. There’s no other way to describe it. Utterly silent rejects of society were sitting round the edges, their eyes darting to the other door every time it moved, and fidgeting whenever it didn’t. Nondescript coffee tables held magazines from three years ago, titles from Angling Life to CodeWorld and Generalised App Interest with their crosswords all completed. We sat in a pair of vacant, musty chairs, and the airlessness of the room met the hangover I’d been suppressing all morning, and I passed out.
After a dream of birds hurling themselves at coloured blocks, I came to and found that Hapsburg had gone. In his place was a small, blue-lined notecard, which said
“Dear Friend. I have voluntarily gone to experience User Testing or my own free will. You should not wait for me, as I will be some time. Please return to your/our (delete as appropriate) domicile.
Love, your companion.”
I put the card down. I don’t like waiting, but I also don’t like being told what to do, especially by pieces of card, so I put my feet up and dredged the classic waiting room tactics from memory. I grabbed an assortment of fliers from the cheap plastic rack: minimal 70s designs with Helvetican Titles like “Give Us A Hand! Interface Design Through Limb Donation” and “The Best Things In Life Are Freemium: Playtesting Wins Prizes!” I tried to catch the attention of one of the dead-eyed malcontents around the edge, and then when I noticed what was weird about them. Or rather, what wasn’t weird. Their expressions were vacant and listless, but from the neck down they looked perfectly normal, functioning members of society. A couple of city boys, some students, even a mother and her boy, who couldn’t be more than seven.
I leaned across so that my face broke her eyeline and she flinched and looked down, like a passenger on the Central Line after midnight.
“Excuse me? Miss?”
The boy nudged her. “Mummy, can I-”
And an uncomfortable silence spread across the room. I settled down to wait.
Every five minutes a jumpsuited orderly came in, gently touched someone on the arm, and let them through a door. As they got up, the briefest spark of excitement flashed across their eyes, which was swiftly replaced with the deadness again. After twenty minutes, as I noticed that people would leave but none came back, I resolved to go hunting for Hapsburg. He might have been a little scatterbrained, but he was a good kid. Probably worth saving. Besides, I felt just about responsible for whatever he was in now.
When the next orderly came in and tapped a pixie-haired girl on the shoulder, I fell into step behind them, and walked into the corridor. I’d expected to be challenged, but I was ignored by the orderly. In fact, as I walked down the corridor amongst ranks of tech and scientists, their frenetic pace seemed to stop them from even noticing me. I crept past endless clinical doors, and chickenwire-reinforced windows. I turned my head as much as I dared and out of the corner of my eye, through the wire I saw banks of monitors, the strobing crackles of electrodes, and… cartoon pigs? The room at the junction was an array of colour. I tried my best to look as though I had Something Important to do, and gazed into the animated jungle. Before I could react, I felt an arm loop round my waist and pull me sideways, a jovial voice cry, “ah, you’re here!” and suddenly I was in the jungle.
And I mean in. What looked like a backdrop from the outside was a world I’d been dragged into. I caught sight of the lurid pigs skipping in circles around a tree laden with golden, graphic coins. A lattice of miniature roads crisscrossed the floor, tiny cars like toys running between my legs and into mouseholes in the walls. And thousands of sounds playing over each other, clashing and then layering. It was like all the sounds you’ve ever heard and liked, crushed and mashed together in a blender and squeezed through your head.
Cutting through the noise there was a chirruping and a wooshing, and reflexively I ducked as translucent bubbles with smiling faces and beaks bounced over my shoulder and bobbed across the room in front of me. They came to rest on the shoulders of a familiar-looking woman. She smiled, and that perfectly recreated smile brought the memory back: Mrs. Adams, my year three art teacher. She spoke words like honey.
“Do you remember, Tess? Blowing bubbles was your favourite, wasn’t it? We would pretend they were little creatures. Little friends, just for you.”
She beckoned me forward with a hand, and I felt puppet strings of memory pull me in to the centre, like the bell at playtime. Her words rang inside my head, louder than they should have been.
“You were lonely. You didn’t have many friends, Tess. But you had such an imagination! We would sit, and play with the bubbles. You remember, don’t you?”
The colours of the art bay, the glitter splashed on the benches. The smell of epoxy and acrylic, melting in the sun. Soft figures skirted around me and the edges of my vision began to streak, as Mrs. Adams handed me the bubble with a smile.
“Go on, child. Create.”
I balanced the bubble on my hand. It was heavier than a bubble should have been, and while it was translucent, lines of light traced themselves across its surface with an odd mechanical intensity. I felt it was waiting for something from me.
Mrs. Adams’ voice was harsh now. “Do it, Tess.”
I pushed at the sides of the bubble. It resisted, then twisted under my hands into a crude, four-legged thing. Its surface became soft, even furry. And then I recognized the pointy ears, the cheeky closed eyes, the idle happiness of the commune’s favourite mascot. It was Tay.
A voice whispered over my right shoulder. “Subject has created what appears to be a feline.”
Tay purred in my hands, a tiny ball of warmth. Between my hangover, my confusion, all the colours and the noise there was room for nothing – nothing but Tay, realer than real. Like she’d been dormant in this place, and my hands had come along and woken her. I felt safe and secure in a way I hadn’t since I stepped through those blast doors. Everything began to recede, the orderlies and the waiting room and Ostermeyer, and even Hapsburg.
Then a voice said, “We’ve had this before. Kittenz 2. Big success, but we need something new. Restart.”
And a gloved hard came in with a pin and took my world away. The pin penetrated the form of Tay, popping it so it dissolved back into eerie matter. I looked up, and Mrs. Adams nodded.
“Again, Tess. Show us another thing.”
But everything felt cold and dark, and I was the eight year-old talking back to her teacher again. “I don’t want another thing. I want Tay.”
Mrs. Adams showed her detention face. I hadn’t seen it since I put a snail into Azealia’s trainers in PE. Her voice cracked and dropped a little.
“You must continue the experiment, Tess.”
Her eyes began to glow red. And I knew something was wrong.
Everything came back – the corridors, the scientists, Hapsburg! And the fear showed me knew things. The electrodes that had been placed carefully, so carefully against the back of my neck during my trance. The soft muzak oozing through the room, the same noises that had been in the lift. And across the room, behind Mrs. Adams, a small door.
And for the first time, I saw the image of Mrs. Adams flicker and crackle. I blindly pushed past her and made for the door. I didn’t want to see whatever it really was. As the trodes came out of my head there was a wet noise and a hot pain – and noises, too, angry men shouting “Code Five,” and “restrain.” I hit the door, shoulder first, and burst into pure whiteness. There was a long, bright gantry below harsh striplights, and under my feet an enormous lab space. Below, through the wire, there were hundreds of hospital beds in ranks. After the noise of the other room, what hit me was the silence. You’d expect a room full of people to have the noise of a shopping mall, but it was the quiet of a church. Attendant scientists scuttled between the beds, checking read outs. The only sounds were soft chirps, beeps and clicks of recognition. There was a hiss of containment servos whirring into action, and the door behind slammed and bolted shut. Behind it, I heard a muffled banging and cursing.
I started shuffling along the only route the gantry offered, towards a set of double doors at the far end, and hopefully freedom. As I shuffled, I watched. You ever seen that bit in The Matrix where Neo wakes up and he’s amongst all the pods? Okay, spoiler I know but come on, you’ve got no excuse any more. The point is, imagine if Apple did that, and that’s what it was like. Hanging over each bed was a monitor, connected to some kind of touchpad. And the people in the beds were holding these pads. They looked just like hospital patients, all thin and pale and broken. Except for their faces. Their eyes had that weird vacancy I’d seen in the waiting room, except that now the vacancy was pointed straight at, no, into the monitors. And they were all smiling, serenely. Little notification beeps would pop up from each monitor, and a patient would start, make a few gestures on the pad, then return to their gaze. When they did, a technician would gently pat them on the shoulder, or lean down and whisper something I couldn’t hear. Behind them, colleagues would swipe into their own touchpads, critically eyeing the monitors and the patients. Face after face.
And then I saw him.
There was a long pause. With the slowest movement of the head, Hapsburg looked up to me. He smiled from the bed.
“Tess. Nice to see you. Are you having fun?”
“Fun? Hapsburg, what are they doing to you? What is this?”
His reply had all the relaxed and certain clarity of a Buddha.
“I’m mopping the floor.”
He pointed to the monitor over his bed. I squinted, and in the old CRT I could just make out – yes, a small cartoon version of Hapsburg, mopping away at an endless dirty floor. In the corner, a counter marked ‘COINS’ ticked up, one by one. His face twitched as he looked from the screen to me. The console next to the bed let out a steady flatline.
A tech was by his bed in a flash. “Alpha patterns are decaying. He’s losing attention. Patient, what’s wrong?” Then he followed Hapsburg’s gaze and saw me on the gantry. He spoke into his wrist: “Security to Ad-Lab 3. We’ve a runner on the gantry.”
I shouted down. “Hapsburg, we’ve got to go! I’m coming to get you!”
“But Tess,” he said, “I’ve almost leveled up. I’ll be a plumber, next. I can buy a hat. Don’t you see?”
He pointed above his head and for the first time I tore my eyes away from the beds. On the back wall, in metre-high capital letters, was a painted phrase:
FLOW IS HAPPINESS. HAPPINESS, FLOW
The airlock door I’d come through burst open with a metallic crash and there was the corrupted face of Mrs. Adams, snarling with rage, and behind her countless techs and orderlies. Amongst them I caught Dr. Ostermeyer, but his face was one of pity, not anger. They walked down the gantry.
Listen, I don’t like telling this part, I never have, but you’ve got to understand. Sometimes people have choices. Sure. But sometimes, they don’t. They just don’t – there’s no right and wrong, just survival and not. And I like survival. I looked down at Hapsburg one last time, then sprinted along the gantry for the double doors, and the light. And as I ran, one image was screen-burned into my mind: Hapsburg’s stare. His look of confusion: not like he didn’t understand what was happening to him but as though he knew exactly what he was doing, and couldn’t comprehend why I would turn from it. His stare has implored me not to run from paradise. As I thumped into the doors, Hapsburg’s last words hung in the air behind.
“Won’t you play, Tess?”