OneWorld is a planet orbited by thousands of satellite cities, and home to 23 billion humans. A place where governments, police forces and law courts compete for business within a wholly privatised system; where murder, rape and torture are merely extra items on your insurance policy; where a corporation owns the license for time; and where scientific fact has been replaced by ‘consumer information’. In OneWorld, every product wirelessly links to the ‘grID’, and people spend most of their scheduled ‘waketime’ moving through various overlapping realities via their grID visors.
But now the precarious balance of OneWorld is tipping as the largest of the global corporations launches the next phase of networking: One Network, or ‘ON’. By the time Youren Cartouche, a copywriter working on the advertising campaign for ON, and Constantin Zann, an advanced bio-mechanical detective investigating the strange murder of a human girl, both uncover the truth, they will be fighting for their very existence within a reality disintegrating around them.
"Definitely a book for "Blade Runner" fans. Puckridge comes out of the gate with just a fantastic first novel. Set in a future populated by both humans and "rooins" (androids), it is intelligent, extremely well-written, thought provoking, intricately woven, has fantastic well-developed characters, full of great plot twists and turns (especially the ending!) I could go on and on... Reads a lot like a film. I couldn't tear myself away from it. Highly recommended."
Faithe Streckfuss (NetGalley Reviewer)
Jon Puckridge has crammed his book with wonderful, cynical, prescient ideas.
Library Not Found - lib404.com
Getting switched "On" to this book takes a bit of concentration. If you don't like books that jump around or change perspective, this is not the book for you.
If you like to really consider the meaning of reality, if Descartes's phrase, "I think therefore I am" is worth looking examining, then read this book NOW.
Comparing the outlooks of a business man, a physics geek, an advertising copywriter and a self-aware android while they try to work out reality sounds a bit, well, off with the pixies. Set against the backdrop of a murder enquiry, it's actually fascinating.
Not for the lazy reader, this book makes you think. Which proves you exist I suppose. Maybe.
Karen Fainges - Australian Author
'Clack clack!' The sound cuts through even the whistle and drum of the wind.
Cones and rods interrogate the space, as pinpoints of sparkling blue and white swirl and shift in the sharp light.
Must be somewhere ... wait, what's that?
The little identifier flag blinks hot red against a white noise. With a deep breath, I rise and glide ghost-like over the ground as the grey grID lines pass beneath me, measuring out some sort of meaningful distance.
The flag fades then disappears and my feet settle into the snow with a satisfying crunch. On cue, the wind drops to a light breeze, letting ultra-sharpened snowflakes settle on my ultra-sharpened sleeve. Somewhere nearby, huskies howl convincingly. I take a moment to savour it all. Looking up and the first thing I notice is that there are no clouds. A bold sun hangs hot white in an endless blue.
They've taken a few liberties.
Oh, for fuck's - ! No, it's pointless getting angry. It's just doing its job.
My focus turns towards the memorial - a gold and platinum plaque resting on an obsidian base. Tiny ice crystals have formed a softness over the polished metal, somehow adding extra poignancy to the words engraved there. They've chosen a modern humanist font, with slick typographical flourishes, the prominent grID logo sitting above it all.
'In memory of all those who tragically lost their lives ... '
I skip over the corporate heartfeltness to the list of names, both human and rooin.
'Alvaroz, Azure-B, Buntanimo, Buyries, Capstain, Carter ...
' ... Cartouche.'
I feel a deep sense of closure, as though I can finally -
Obviously, my prompter has detected a neural shift. Normally it's supposed to sound like a polite cough, but mine always sounds like a really big, pissed-off termite.
'Excuse me, Youren. It's Mister Burgeis for you.'
The cold Antarctic light dims then disappears and Lleo's face looms - go-get golden.
"Hey, Youren. Come back, all is forgiven! Ha ha."
The chubby fingers wiggle in front of my face - so close I can almost see the micro-manicure.
Lleo dissolves into a tangerine and grey blur, just as he says "Guess what?"
Lleo returns, unaware he's even gone anywhere.
"Yyy-our-ennn." My name stretches out in some sort of measure of our friendship. "Amazing news! Meet me at the Metatatron. Here's the T."
And with that, he's gone.
I removed the grID visor and immediately felt space contract around me with a jolt. Colours faded, sounds flattened. My room seemed smaller than before. Nothing in it was ultra-sharp. Vague cooking smells from next door blended with the less defined scents of plastic and cloth. And my socks.
I uttered a crypto-command, then said, "Balcony. Open." The wall shimmered, dematerialised. I stepped out, allowing my senses to be assaulted.
Mad, miserable, Medusa. Monstrous Medusa. Commercial capital of OneWorld and easily the most powerful of all the government corporations. For an instant, I couldn't even remember the name of my suburb, maybe the brand name of some sneaker. The city lights in the distance danced and changed colour, doing their best to woo me back. The crowds shuffling below didn't bother. They were too busy shouting, laughing, arguing, and pushing their way into the future.
A warm, moist wind was blowing up. Down by the vehicle corridor, a rooin busker was singing to any human who'd listen.
'Take me back, under the sea
Where life began, and love was free ... '
Above the rooflines, the low ceiling of greenish-black clouds continued to circle slowly.
"Here's the T!"
My grumpy imitation of Lleo kept me amused as I wended my way through the crowd. I had decided not to take the B-tube - I figured with only two stops to Plaza Station, by the time I'd negotiated my way through the tunnels and platforms, it would be quicker to walk.
Towering over the buildings, the environmental lighting screens were now shifting hues to resemble someone's idea of a sunset. Not that I'd know, of course, but I'd seen the 3Vs. The logo of a neuro enhancement company glowed discretely within the sun's dying rays. For this mostly human crowd, their scheduled sleep wasn't far off and so, like children before bedtime, they behaved with a rowdy desperation.
I found myself temporarily caught in a swirl of people who were watching a rooin street performer. High above the crowd, his green skin glowed with exertion and fear as he progressively built a perilous structure out of industrial guillotine blades. As each blade was added beneath him, there was a collective intake of breath from the crowd below.
A woman turned to me with obvious glee, a half-eaten burger poised at her lips.
"Cog's gonna get hisself cut! I'd put money on it," she said.
You will be disappointed, I thought.
I pressed on, passing over several large vehicle corridors. The ionised air rising from below was acrid and hot, and the high-pitched harmonics from so many grav engines hurt my ears. Fine curtains of rain were now drifting down from the clouds and I pulled up my hood. After a few more city blocks, I had arrived and, despite my bad mood, I couldn't help but stop and marvel at the structure before me.
OneWorld Plaza looked like an enormous set of children's blocks which had fallen from above, randomly landing in the improbable arrangement of a perfect circle, each block supporting its neighbour. I'd heard the architect, Petohmi Rad, explaining the design once: 'remove any single element, and the entire impossible creation collapses back into chaos.' Typical architect-speak, but I had to admit the design was impressive.
High above the plaza, dark lights bounced off the 'Dome of Time' - six interlocking rings, each supposedly moving according to an aspect of the old pre-T calendar (though you'd be hard-pressed to work out modern time from it). Tempo Corp had kicked up a fuss during the construction, but there wasn't much they could do without a costly legal battle. And Medusa was a thug of a govcorp.
' ... and the dome's geometry has been derived from the behaviour of water droplets falling onto a flat surface ... '
My grID visor was beginning to map interesting 'facts' plus some dubious 'history' onto the physical structures, all seemlessly blended with social brand messages, recommendations, and just plain ads. I gazed even higher. Beyond the retinal media and the dome itself was, well, the clouds. And beyond them -
"Oi there, curly!"
A dishevelled businessman, drink in hand, had tumbled out of a bar. My visor was already overlaying a Quick-profile matrix onto his face.
'We're Big in Smallgoods'.
The Grindcom jingle started up, but I cut it short with a glare. Then I received a cursory invitation to merge Mr Maddox's details into my grID office of choice and, of course, return the favour. My retina declined. I'd recently developed the habit of leaving my ID channels closed by default - something which was not looked upon kindly at work.
Not a network player, Mr Cartouche! There's no 'I' in Network.
Mr Maddox seemed to feel the same way.
"Are you a player or a spectator?" he demanded, raising his glass and eying me with that blend of camaraderie and menace that the inebriated always exude.
"Monster times!" I yelled, fist held high.
It did the trick. He and the others roared their approval, and I was free to continue.
On the far side of the plaza, was the Metatron, with its oil-on-water windows and obscene gargoyles. The frosted glass panels slid across each other and the entrance opened like some alien sex flower, inviting me inside.
The dimly lit interior was a riot of historical ambiguity. Ancient iconography and neutrino trajectories lined the walls, while spots of light and dark played seductively on the soft-steel lounges, towering white candles, ancient steam engines, and mercury pools. Beneath my feet was a real cobblestone floor.
"Youren! Over here."
Lleo was being served by a girl whose sari changed colour in time to the beat of the Metatron-branded chocolate lounge music. I sat down and removed my grID visor.
Her dark eyes said I was not made for this place.
"Just a Super-Hydra, thanks."
When she had left, Lleo settled into his chair.
"So, how long is it?"
"You want T?"
"Ha! I don't think either of us want to pay for T. Anyway," he raised his glass, "Monster times!"
It sounded like a genuine toast, but Lleo only wanted to talk about one thing. ON. That is to say, he, Lleo Burgeis, was now ON. And I, Youren Cartouche, was not.
"... whole new direction ... revolution in the way we live and work ... the future of ..."
Oh yes, the fabulous future! ON was just one more future that we all needed to jump on, or so I had thought back then. As Lleo prattled on, I recalled the time I had first seen the product in action. Biz Ramachandran, chairman of CoolGlobalGiant, had used his keynote address at the #7A9B San Francisco NeuroCon to launch the company's flagship enterprise. Our agency had already secured a little of CoolGlobalGiant's vast advertising budget, and negotiations were in place for the ON account as well.
Biz confidently strode across the stage in his trademark pink jeans and 'space' jacket.
"Nowadays, one event tends to blend into the next. We tend to forget when this or that happened, don't we?"
He stopped, and turned to face us.
"But this is one event we won't forget." He raised his arms. "Because this is when we were introduced to the Universe of ON!"
The music began, and the large screen behind him filled with images of people flying over fantastic landscapes or holding strange, constantly-morphing objects in their hands. Words like 'innovation', 'future', 'potential', and 'creativity' flew out over our heads.
"As many of you already know, 'ON' stands for 'One Network'. That is no empty promise. ON has the potential to combine every network into just one. A network built upon you. You, me, all human beings. ON will link us all into the One Human Network."
Biz gestured towards the media screen and we were shown a slick little documentary which revisited the key milestones of commercial neurotech. Some of the early quotes were strangely prescient, or hilariously inaccurate.
Biz said, "The pre-T scientist, Isaac Newton once wrote, 'If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.' May I humbly suggest that you, OneWorld's neurotech community, also stand on the shoulders of giants. It's just that some of these giants, well ... they really needed to do something about their wardrobe."
He gestured theatrically, and moved towards the wings.
The next images were so ridiculous, I thought at first they must have been fake. Before us were two young men dressed in identical business suits. On their heads, they wore bulky hemispherical 'helmets' constructed from hundreds of ball bearings. From the back of the helmets, black wires draped down over their shoulders like dreadlocks, and several other wires were attached to adhesive red patches on the temples and between the eyebrows. Two pink antennae protruded from the front of each helmet.
The men were earnestly telling someone off camera about how these devices allowed them to mentally communicate with each other over long distances. One of them concluded with an enthusiastic; "I think there's a big future for this."
The 3V froze on that instant.
It was a risky play for Biz. Essentially, he was saying that commercial attempts at 'remote-neuro' had hit a wall. It was true. Humans just wanted to be humans, not some dork in a silly helmet. The applause started softly, but then steadily rose to a profound and sombre crescendo. The lights faded to black.
"So, where have they been keeping you?"
"I'm sorry, what?" I said, startled.
"Where have you been hiding?"
Lleo managed to make the act of sipping his drink look like a chess move.
"Well?" he asked, salaciously.
"Oh, umm ... holiday," I replied.
"Excellent! I'm sure you needed it. Have fun?"
"To be honest, I can't even remember."
"Must be all the drugs you take. Not my brands of choice." he laughed, raising his glass, eyes scanning the room for opportunities.
"How's Monterey?" I asked.
Lleo sighed. "She's into her Omon thing now."
"They do exercises under coloured lights. The changing wavelengths realign something in the cerebral cortex. It's all very 'spiritual'." His voice trailed off as an attractive blonde woman settled into a nearby chair.
"And the kids?"
Leo peevishly returned his gaze. "Tonal is finishing off his History Design degree at Angkor Wat University. And, umm ..."
"Yeah. Well, we don't know what to do with that girl."
By now, he'd lost interest in the blonde, and was studying two women at the near end of the bar. Both wore 'standard issue' little black dresses, but with one notable addition: on the front of each dress, discretely displayed, was the ON logo.
"See the one on the left?" Lleo pointed rather obtrusively. "Heterochromia. The eyes are different colours, see."
"Can't say I'd noticed."
"Not my type, but definitely yours. A real wild one! Mmm?"
"Thanks for your interest in my love life, Lleo."
"Let's see if they'd like some company."
"Uhh, I don't think that's a very good - "
Before I could stop him, Lleo attempted to make contact with the girls, his face going through a series of contortions, as if he was either about to sneeze or was having a shit. Clearly, he hadn't quite got the hang of ON nOS - the ON neural operating system. People I knew who were ON could easily talk to you while communicating with others on the network, and you wouldn't even notice.
After much effort, it seemed as though Lleo had succeeded. The girls eyes widened. They looked at each other. They looked across to Lleo. Then they collapsed into giggles.
"Did it hurt?" I asked.
"The procedure. Getting the engrafts put in."
"No of course not." He pointed with his finger. "They use this gun thing and put it here ..." He placed the finger behind his ear, at the base of the skull. "... and pffft! You don't feel a thing. There's one on either side."
"Can I see them?"
He rubbed the back of his head.
"They've already healed up. You can't see anything. Nothing at all."
The NeuroCon audience was getting restless. Then a spotlight came up on the empty stage, and a tall woman in a dark suit walked into the light. She spoke in cool, clipped tones.
"Hello, everyone. My name is Li Sun. I am the Communications Officer for CoolGlobalGiant. I am also one of a small, but rapidly growing number of people who have chosen to become ON.
"ON is a profound new way for us to connect with other humans, without the need for any external device." She grinned, "unlike the two gentlemen we just saw.
"But," she continued, "it also allows us to connect to many other things as well. Let me illustrate this by introducing you to my darling cat, Frossle. Jim, could you please bring Frossle out for us?"
A surprised looking Burmese-Siamese was brought onto the stage, and the woman gently took it in her arms. After some soothing words, she lifted the cat up to face the audience. Frossle's enormous blue eyes told us he really didn't want to be there.
"He's a bit shy," Li Sun pointed out unnecessarily.
We gave Frossle some encouraging applause.
"OK, pretty soon, you will see within the screen behind me, exactly what I am seeing with my eyes. This is possible because my brain is currently sending data to a secure media link. Uh, can we check visual now?"
The 3V behind her sprang to life, displaying everything she was seeing - the cat in her hands, the auditorium, and us. There we all were, looking back at ourselves. A few people even waved, accompanied by nervous giggles.
"Alrighty," she continued breezily, as if sensing the need to reassure everyone. "Just like any domestic cat, Frossle is fully nanotagged. Now we don't think much about nanotagging anymore, do we? It's just one of those invisible parts of our world that we take for granted.
"Broadly speaking, nanotags can be divided into two categories: replicating and non-replicating, which equates to biological and industrial products. With bio products, the nanotags are introduced during the insemination process, after which they continue to divide and differentiate, until there is approximately one nanotag per cell. This allows bio-facilitation companies to track their work, protect IP, and all that commercial stuff which I don't even pretend to understand."
"Hey, I had to look this up on the grID just like anyone else!" she added with a grin.
It broke the ice and we all laughed.
"Nanotags publish data about their location, energy state, functional specs, and much more. This data is usually only of interest to manufacturers and various regulatory agencies, but CoolGlobalGiant has made strategic alliances with most of the major nanotag companies, and now you'll see why. Oh, and before we get to the fun stuff, I should stress that none of this would be possible without the release of GPS7.0. What's the resolution? Ten microns? Awesome stuff. Any of you GPS guys out there, you rock!"
The cat had begun to struggle in her hands.
"Well, I can see Frossle is fed up with my gasbagging, so let's move on."
She placed the cat on a table and sat down to watch him. His image now occupied the entire media screen behind her.
"What I'm going to do is switch on some of the channels available to me through ON. Ready? OK, here we go!"
The cat on the screen underwent a transformation, suddenly replaced by an anatomical model of a cat. But this was no model, this was Frossle himself in all his biological complexity. As Frossle moved, so did the figure onscreen. We could see his skeleton, muscles and tendons shifting, his little heart beating, his lungs expanding and contracting. There were also his digestive and circulatory systems, and so on. I lost track of all the biosystems, each one clearly identified by colour.
The place went berserk.
Frossle now decided to roll over onto his back to get his tummy rubbed. And so, of course, did the vast bio-image on the screen behind them.
"Awww, he's so cute!" someone down the front shouted out.
"You know," Li Sun laughed "I think he's cute no matter which way I look at him. But let's filter some of this data. If I want to, I can just see his circulatory system ..." The onscreen cat became a tangled mass of red arteries, veins and capillaries.
"... or nervous system ..." A cat of white hair-like structures appeared.
"... and, on top of all this, I can check Frossle's pedigree, medical history, dietary recommendations, and recent training programs, all without the need for any external device whatsoever.
Li Sun turned to the audience. "Just look at what my brain knows when it's ON."
Pages of information scrolled up the screen. Then the screen went blank.
"I probably don't need to point it out, but this trick only works with brand named animals. So if you're one of those strange people who still own a wild-seed pet then, I'm sorry, but Rover will still look just like a dog."
There was weak laughter, though I wasn't sure why that should even be funny.
"But did you see this?" Lleo smoothed the lapels of his jacket.
"Nice, eh?" he said, taking a long sip of his Jungle. He was already onto his third.
I had to admit that Lleos's new jacket was very cool. CoolGlobalGiant had commissioned XaX of Helsinki to design an exclusive range of metallic black, thermally auto-adjusting street clothing for those who had received the ON engraft procedure. Prominently displayed on the front of Lleo's jacket was the ON logo. The letters were in lowercase, with the design subtly suggesting the infinity symbol. The logo constantly performed a looping animation, although I knew that if I put the jacket on the animation would stop. This was because each garment was linked to the ON protocol. Only when it was worn by its owner would the logo move. There were a few other party tricks that ONs could do - such as making some of their thoughts graphically appear on the front of their ON t-shirt. But by now this was generally considered a bit tacky.
"Psst! Youren! Check it out."
Lleo had parted his jacket to show me his ON t-shirt. It bore a myopic image of the nearby blonde woman, sporting disproportionately large breasts. Occasionally, Lleo could be a bit tacky.
"Well, I'm glad I'm not a cat!"
Biz Ramachandran's voice boomed throughout the auditorium as he strolled down the centre aisle, a spotlight following him. Climbing the stage, he took one look at Frossle having his tummy rubbed, and said, "Although seeing Frossle here, maybe I'm not so sure!"
Li Sun smiled politely, picked up the cat and, with a bow, walked offstage.
"No, but seriously, why am I glad I'm not a cat? Well, that's because no matter how hard Li Sun looks at me, all she'll ever see is plain old Biz Ramachandran. She'll never have the edifying experience of watching how my intestines work." He patted his ample stomach, getting a warm laugh. "That's because I'm a human. Unlike Frossle, I am not nanotagged."
The audience knew this was going somewhere, and kept quiet as nanotagged mice.
"Nanotagging humans in the interest of global security has been proposed more than once. But the shareholder public rejected it every time. We value our privacy, don't we? We don't want some new-fangled gizmo from a global corporation taking that away from us."
Somewhat unnecessarily, scattered applause broke out.
"So, let me assure you that the engrafts are not nanotagged. CoolGlobalGiant, cannot 'track' you because you are ON, if you don't want it. No-one can. With ON, there is no centralised infrastructure because you are the infrastructure. You decide who links up with you, when you do it, and what information you share. Oh, but what about that hypothetical guy outside who is also ON? Can he locate me and 'hack' into me? Can he steal my personal brand and my money?"
"I'll take the money," someone behind me whispered.
"Impossible. The security of ON is based on the sum of genetic, molecular, and neural patterns within your body. Even your identical twin couldn't breach your personal ON security. Because you are unique in this universe, you're safe with ON."
The media screen behind Biz lit up. As it had with Li Sun, the screen showed us his viewpoint. But there was something more. Floating at the bottom of his visual field were a set of icons.
"Now I'm going to show you just a little of how ON works. When you become ON, the first thing you'll notice are these." He gestured towards the icons onscreen. "This is ON's navigation matrix - a powerful set of visual and verbal controls."
Biz went through a demonstration of how he could mentally customise and operate these controls to switch on his visual, audio, and sensual channels. He showed us how he could open or close channels between himself and other people, controlling who received what and when. Biz also demonstrated how he could securely move money from one bank account to another, all with his mind.
"No more passwords, ladies and gentlemen, ever! And I'm not allowed to say this, but ..." he removed a grID visor from his pocket and held it up. "... no more need for one of these."
A shocked murmur went through the audience and Biz grinned like an unrepentant naughty boy. "Now there's just one more important thing I have to do."
The media screen showed a typical grID view of a restaurant check-in desk. Biz was already logged in. A man wearing a white suit, black waistcoat, and brightly coloured hat asked, 'Yes, Mister Ramachandran?' Within the screen, Biz said '72DD. Table for two.'
Biz looked around at us all. "I hope Li Sun likes Peruvian."
Lleo was still fiddling with his new jacket, and glancing round the Metatron to see if anyone else had noticed it. Again, his gaze fell on the nearby blonde woman. I was hoping she'd missed the t-shirt trick.
"You look like someone who is ON," he said, leaning towards her.
"I have no wish to be involved with ON," she replied.
"Oh come on! An attractive woman such as yourself? Surely - "
"Well, let me say I can recommend it. It's a whole new world of knowledge, opportunities ..." he paused, smiling broadly, "... romantic possibilities."
"If you say so."
"Wait! I'll show you. Ask me anything - anything at all, and I'll tell you the answer."
"Really?" She raised a combative eyebrow.
"Sure. Hey, I'm ON. I know the lot!" Lleo spread his arms and uncrossed his legs.
The woman studied him for a while, then said, "OK. Tell me who really owns the SAT island EGK17."
Taken aback by the prosaic nature of the question, Lleo giggled then said, "Aha! Trying to trick me. But ..." he raised a confident finger, "... I happen to have several contacts within the OffWorld Licensing Bureau. So, watch and learn."
Once more, he commenced his unfortunate facial contortions.
"Easy," he said. "Wait, wait, yes. Alright. No. Yes. Wait. Really?" His voice carried across the room, causing a few patrons to look up. "Ooh, what's this? OK, OK. I think we may have it. Just need to open this door, and ..."
Lleo stood bolt upright as if he had received a shock. I reached out to touch his arm.
"Lleo, are you OK?"
Lleo stared straight ahead, as if in a trance.
"I'm a ... I'm a stallion." he said softly.
"A stallion!" he shouted. "My seed is precious."
"Lleo, you need to sit down."
I tried to restrain him, but he broke free and began striding around the Metatron with his chest out and his arms flapping wildly. The girls at the bar nearly fell off their stools laughing.
"Now is the time, ladies! Lleo is here. Lleo is ready for you."
I ran after him, but was beaten to it by two security guards who had fortunately managed to wrestle him to the floor before he could remove his trousers.
"I'm his friend, please, let me through."
Lleo looked up at me with a puzzled expression, then spoke in a strange monotone.
"We are currently experiencing some difficulties."
The advertising agency i++ occupied most of Enterprise Tower, an ancient 'skyscraper' which stood apart from its surroundings, both literally and metaphorically. On all sides, with vehicle corridors snaking between them, were an assortment of modern buildings in the shape of balls, donuts, teardrops, and in one case, a sort of bowler hat, whose candy-coloured skins were peppered with mini gravports. By contrast, Enterprise Tower had just one gravport, retrofitted midway up, on the 23rd floor - a fairly pointless gesture towards the modern world. Structural analysis had shown that the heritage-listed glass and steel building could not support more. Anyway, I preferred the old elevators with their cute 'buttons' and real glass walls.
Some time ago, the street level had been raised, so now the building's original foyer was below ground. Floating above the ancient granite flooring was the enormous i++ logo. And beneath it in elaborately casual handwriting, hung a statement of who we were, what our core values were, and what we were passionate about.
'SEE | HEAR | EXIST'
I pressed the UP button.
"You decided to come in for once," LaLa said brightly, as I stepped from the elevator.
"I've had it with grID-ing. Besides, I wanted to bathe in the beauty of our long-suffering, yet eternally serene receptionist, without whom - "
"Pile of," she sneered, but I saw her blush all the same.
It was Seyemon Silk, our chief production manager.
"I don't believe it! You actually remembered to come in for the 27B meeting."
"Of course." I said, now aware of what it was I had completely forgotten.
"Collings is so looking forwards to hearing your ideas." he said.
"Ah, yes. My ideas."
"You're the 'genius' brand," he said, with undisguised contempt.
"Remind me again, Seyemon, what brand are you?"
"The brand that actually does some work."
I turned to LaLa, and asked, "Hey, you wanna go out for a drink later?"
"Maybe." She didn't look up.
"Ah, Youren, you're here!" Harley Collings was walking towards me with a look of relief. "I knew I shouldn't have worried. Come on. The team's already in there."
Peppo, Bill-San and Agath looked up as we entered the small conference room. They removed their grID visors and placed them on the table. Sarkee, however, continued to stare absently into space. Sarkee was supposed to be an expert in neural media. Everyone told me the girl 'got neural', but I couldn't see how we could know, since no-one had ever heard her speak. She wasn't wearing a visor, which probably meant she was ON.
"Youren. Happening," Peppo said, stroking his eenie weenie beard. He was wearing that striped, pointy-hat thing again.
With his greying temples and tight black shirt, Bill-San looked like an ageing soap star. I knew he would never say anything until he'd established which way the wind was blowing. I was lucky to get a nod.
As usual, Agath just looked grumpy. She was probably figuring out how much more work my 'great ideas' would load onto her.
"So, here we all are," Harley said. "Good. Good. Now, before Youren gives us his vision for the rollout, I'd just like to thank everyone for being a part of this. I don't need to tell you how important the phase-three ON rollout is for i++." With a forced laugh, he added, "And for CoolGlobalGiant, obviously."
There were smiles and nods all round, even from Sarkee.
"So, to bring you all up to speed," Harley continued, "Youren has been working on a ... a ... key establishing statement for ..."
"A core operating proposition." Bill-San added, with bizarre enthusiasm.
"Oh yes, oh yes." Peppo said, tapping his head. "A zero-plus-one emotional promise."
Agath was now juggling her grumpiness with the obvious need to contribute.
"Quite," she declared, briskly. "This rollout needs an essential locating assertion."
"A slogan?" I asked.
The word echoed like an obscenity. An uneasy silence descended on us all.
"I think," Harley began slowly and carefully, "we're looking for something a bit more ..."
"With greater ..." Bill-San offered.
Agath shifted her weight. "Perhaps with a deeper sense of ..."
Peppo wiggled his fingers. "Inner, and yet outer ..."
Sarkee tapped the table in a circular motion.
I raised my hands. "I hear what you're saying. Believe me, I hear what you're saying. I think we're all in the same screen here. But when I use 'the word', I'm not denying the need for an imperative ..."
"Integrated ..." Harley offered.
"Actuating ..." Bill-San added tentatively.
"... basis for our inner and outer ..." a nod in the direction of Peppo, "... communications. But what I'm really saying ..."
Yes, what the fuck am I saying?
"Is that we need to reach back within the origins of our 'communications toolkit', if I may use that phrase, and ..."
It was going pretty well, but I still didn't actually have anything to give them. My mind drifted to the earlier meeting with Lleo at the Metatron. What was all that rubbish he was saying about ON?
Hmm, yes. Yes, that's good. No, that's not just good ...
"So what do we really want to say? I think there's only one thing we can say."
They were all looking at me, expectantly. I paused for effect, before delivering my brand-resonant empathetic vision declaration.
"THE FUTURE IS ON."
All eyes turned to Harley Collings who sat motionless, taking deep meditative breaths as his brain performed some spiritual regimen. After some time, he nodded and spoke.
"That's ... Wow! That's very ..." He sounded as though he was grappling with the effects of some powerful weed.
"It is. Yes, it is," Bill-San said, clearly sensing the direction of that wind.
"I think ..." Harley continued, "... we may just have ..." He looked around at everyone.
"A formative? ..." Agath ventured. Then her face showed that she regretted the word.
"Inner and outer." Peppo mumbled, revisiting past glories.
Sarkee seemed about to utter her first words ever, but then thought better of it. Instead she sank back into the chair, and settled for running a thoughtful orange fingernail along her hairline.
"I see we agree then," Harley declared.
It took everyone by surprise, especially me.
A boyish grin broke across Harley's face. "You wanna know what I really like about this?"
Everyone was nodding. Yes, we all did want to know.
Harley regarded the others warmly, one by one, as if silently thanking them for their individual contribution to the collective success. Then he placed his palms firmly on the table, looked me squarely in the eye, and spoke for everyone in the room.
"It says what it means."
I strolled through the ancient 'open plan' office.
"Hey Roger. Working hard?"
The middle-aged copywriter looked up with exasperation.
"Urinals! They've got me on urinals!" he said peering at me through the smoky lenses of his grID visor.
Roger ran a pair of agitated, sweaty hands through his thinning hair.
"Those media screens above the urinal, where you can immerse yourself in one of our fucking ads while you take a piss! I have to write a bunch of ON 'support communications' for them. Usual bullshit deadline." Then he hissed quietly, through a clenched jaw, "Thanks for that, Seyemon!"
Sympathising with his dislike of our chief production manager I felt a surge of benevolence, a need to somehow make it easier for a fellow creative. "Well that's a very important market segment."
"What, men who piss?"
"No, I mean clubs and venues in general. Sport, entertainment, anywhere where - "
His sadness and self-loathing were palpable.
"You know," he said, "I've been thinking about getting ON myself." Behind the visor lens, his rheumy eyes peered towards some distant goal. "You have to stay ahead just to keep up, don't you? Old fellers like me. Ha, ha."
Then his face brightened. An idea had begun to surface.
"Hey, Youren, what about a bit of word play with ON, like ... um ... switched ON?"
"'Switched' is not right."
"No, of course not. Turned ON. That's better, isn't it? A hot young girl is - Oh, shit!"
I figured he'd just received another prompter message.
"Shit! Shit! Fucking deadlines! Fucking clients! Fucking ... !"
"I'll leave you to it, Roger. I'm sure you'll crack it. And don't go getting ON, by the way. You're one of the few real humans we have left in this place."
I walked over to my desk and sat down. Arlo Arbuckle appeared over the partition separating our desks. His round face, rosy cheeks, and comical eyes made him look like a puppet in a children's show.
"Don't look now, but Captain Communication is doing an inspection of the troops."
On the other side of the studio, I could see Seyemon Silk showing around some CoolGlobalGiant executives. The group would randomly stop at someone's desk, Seyemon would make his introductions, then a little burst of polite laughter would drift across to us. They had now reached Psi-Psi's desk, and Seyemon was effusing about her commitment.
"... And Psi-Psi is passionate about 'neurobranding'." I couldn't catch what the executives were saying, but Seyemon's voice carried well. "... Yes, we have an entire grID reticulum dedicated to it."
Next it was Ugotti's turn.
"I wonder what they'll make of Ugotti." Arlo chuckled.
Ugotti was one of those people who found open plan spaces 'deeply disturbing'. To cope, he'd set-up a small cardboard box next to his desk, and for most of the time worked from inside its cramped confines.
"... Ugotti here is passionate about 'identity spotlighting' ..."
Blinking, Ugotti poked his head out of the box, but didn't actually get out.
"Ugotti is thinking outside the box," Arlo sniggered.
"But at least he's passionate about it," I added.
Seyemon was now looking across at us.
"Uh oh!" Arlo said, "I think we're next."
They were soon upon us, with Seyemon heaping faint praise on me.
"Youren's been impressing everyone today with his phase-three rollout creative, haven't you Youren?" I demurred politely as he turned towards Arlo. "And Arlo? Well, Arlo here is passionate about 'personal corporatisation'."
"No I'm not," said Arlo, "I think it's all meaningless bullshit."
Seyemon looked like someone had shoved a Vibrafriend up his core personal values, but to give him credit he recovered in a heartbeat, shepherding the CoolGlobalGiant delegation away with a world-weary "Waaaay too much Stressless-Plus."
I turned to a grinning Arlo. "For fuck's - , are you trying to get work-nulled!?"
"They can't touch me, man. I upped my ContractSafe insurance to the max. The only way i++ could get rid of me now is to kill me. Actually, I'm pretty sure some of them are already thinking about it. And I guess if their insurance covers that, then ..."
"You have an overactive imagination, you know that, Arlo? Hey, why don't you take a holiday? Get away from all this 'personal corporatisation' shit. What about that trip to the SAT islands you've been talking about?"
Arlo looked glum. "Ah, that's the one thing I can't change in the contract. My holidays aren't due for ages. I guess I'll just have to enjoy selling ON to the world's shareholders. Not that they need any encouraging. You seen the latest figures?"
"Around six per cent, isn't it?"
"Seventeen, Youren. Seventeen."
"For fuck's - ! When did that happen?"
"While you were sleeping, Youren," he said, wiggling his fingers and making scary eyes.
I laughed. "So I take it you're not about to get the engrafts anytime soon?"
"You know what I heard?" Arlo said, lowering his voice. "We're all gonna to have to get it done soon."
"True! i++ have done some deal with CoolGlobalGiant."
"Arlo, they can't do that. We live in a free world."
"No, Youren. Everything has a price tag on it. Especially you and me."
"You're paranoid, Arlo, you know that?"
Before us, is a young man dressed entirely in white: white shoes, white suit, white bowler hat. He stands in the middle of a white room. Everything in the scene is white, except for the bright red apple which the young man holds. He stares impassively at us. The camera zooms towards his face and through his eye, and we emerge into a larger red room with about 50 people all dressed in red. Everything in the scene is red. Our young man is among them, now wearing a red suit and red bowler hat. He still holds the red apple. The camera pans across the faces of the people and zooms into the eye of a young woman. We now emerge into a vast green room containing several thousand people, all dressed in green. The camera quickly zooms into the eye of a young boy in the middle of the crowd and now we are flying over a blue planet. As we descend, we realise the entire planet consists of people wearing blue. The people all look up at us. Everyone has a knowing, yet blank expression. We zoom into the eye of an old man and instantly arrive back in the original room with our lone young man. Once more, he is dressed in white, and everything in the room is white. Except that now he holds, not a red apple, but a single blue rose. He gives a slight smile. It's a coy, affected smile. The words 'You are everyone' come up. Underneath them is the ON logo. The advertisement is silent from beginning to end, except for the sound of a human heartbeat.
I woke up.
On my screen was the ON logo. Groggily, I looked around the office. Almost everyone had left, and most of the lights were turned off. On the far side, Roger was still working away, his desk lamp providing a comforting little oasis of light within the darkness.
"Hey, Roger! Cracked it yet?"
Roger didn't answer. I decided to go and check on him. As I approached, I saw that he was completely motionless, his hands hanging at his sides.
"Roger, are you OK?"
I reached out and touched his shoulder. Roger spun round and gripped my arm. When I saw him, I screamed. Roger's face had become transformed into something inhumanly evil, the muscles rhythmically contracting, the eyes glowing like hot coals in the dim light. His hands closed around my neck, and with what felt like the strength of four men he soon had me on the floor, choking the life out of me. As I lost consciousness, the creature that was once Roger let out a triumphant, hellish roar.
I woke up.
On my screen was the ON logo. Groggily, I looked around the office. Almost everyone had left, and most of the lights were turned off. On the far side, Roger was still working away, his desk lamp providing a comforting little oasis of light within the darkness.
"Hey, Roger! Cracked it yet?"
"Don't bother me now, Youren! I'm almost there."
I looked back at the screen. Above the ON logo were the words 'You are everyone'.
Made for the phase-one rollout, 'You are everyone' was the first ON 3VC the agency had produced. At the time, industry creatives praised it for its 'subversion of neural purchase decision pathways' or something. It even won a gold Octopus at the OneWorld HERE Awards at Cannes. As the principal writer, I had gone with the team to collect the award. We briefly spotted Biz Ramachandran talking to Karl XaX, but everyone was far too cool to stare.
For some reason, I never liked that ad.
LaLa was not happy.
"Where have you been, Youren? I've been waiting for ..." she looked around the room, "... well for a very long time! I was just about to leave."
"I am soooo sorry, LaLa, I got caught up. Can I get you a drink?"
"I've had three already."
"Right. Look, I'm really sorry." I sat down.
"Who gets 'caught up'?"
She tapped the table with a glowing fingernail. "Who in OneWorld ever gets 'caught up'? You got a prompter, don't you?"
"I guess mine's not all that good."
"What do you call yours?" she asked.
"I haven't given it a name, I just bark orders at it. Or is it the other way round?"
She seemed disappointed. "I call mine 'Santa'. He's a pre-T patron saint of commerce. I think that makes him work better."
Stumped for a reply, I said, "I had to help Roger with a few ads. Seyemon had him working late."
"I hate that man."
LaLa nodded. Now we were on common ground. "He wanted me to process all the latest focus group neurals before I left."
"Wow! So what did you ... ?"
"I told him to get! Well, I didn't really say that, but he got the message. Then I came here to meet you. Shouldn't have bothered, as it turned out."
"Hey, c'mon! I said I was sorry."
I touched her hands lightly. It was the first time I had made any physical contact with her. She looked uncomfortable, but didn't move.
"You know," she whispered, leaning forwards, "I was having nightmares about work. I thought they were planning to kill me."
"Ouch!" I said, removing my hand, with rather bad timing. "You know, Arlo was thinking something similar."
LaLa used her liberated arms to hug her chest, as if suddenly cold. "Arlo's a weirdo," she declared. "Anyway, my neuropsych put me on a course of OC pulse therapy."
"Occipital cortex," she said, pronouncing the term with some pride.
"Wow. Isn't that a bit risky?"
"No, it's so! Re-Leaf is a cool brand. And the nightmares stopped too instant. Or maybe I can't remember them. Anywhich."
"Cartouche! Good work!"
I turned to see Kev-O, Dave-O, and some other execs from i++, standing at a drink booth.
"Come over and have a drink." Kev-O shouted.
"You're the golden boy." LaLa said.
"I came up with a few ideas and now they think I'm a genius."
She reached out and gave me a friendly pat. "Yeah? I reckon you look tired or somethin'."
"My sleep schedules keep getting changed around by Tempo and i++."
"You should get ON," she said enthusiastically. "I've just got the engrafts. Much more energy. It's so! Now I'm thoughting all my friends."
Her hands began to jiggle in excitement. "And guess what? You know Bumble B?"
"Who?" Once again, I disappointed her.
"The grunt star! Where's your neural? He's massive!"
She made a face. "You're pathetic. He thoughted me. Bumble B! Imagine! I died!"
Agent Constantin Zann steps out from under the archway and a programmed blend of cold light frequencies falls upon his face. Zann's tarnished face displays an uncommon generosity for his line of work, despite bearing a slight resemblance to a human skull. A promise of a smile seems to constantly hover about his mouth, and his dark eyes glow whenever they engage with something that interests him. Along the centre of his shaved head runs a ridge of blue-black hair which cascades into a ponytail. The rooin's large body has been manufactured to withstand life's cruelties, and it's done well so far.
Zann's foot pauses mid-air.
What time is it?
He hesitates, then uses his thorax brain to connect to his Tempo account.
'0600 4EAB E5F3 1723 © Tempo Corp. All rights reserved.'
Zann sighs. "Money down the drain." he mutters.
Zann frequently has the feeling that he is the only one who exists in the 'present'. Everyone else, rooin or human, operates in another time altogether. Not necessarily past or future, mind you, just sometime else. Zann no longer sees this unique perspective as a manufacturing error, but more of an 'undocumented feature'.
He looks across at her apartment block. The ancient brickwork is held up by modern plasteel struts, their childish colours drained by the cruel environment lighting. Zann crosses the causeway and enters the building. All the scanners have been smashed, and the government corporation in control of this territory has not bothered to fix them; whatever these people do seems to be of no interest to anyone. On the fifth floor Zann finds the apartment door open. He pulls out his GlockZ as a precaution, and walks to the bedroom.
The human girl is lying partially across the low bed, but with her head and shoulders touching the floor. The bedclothes are in disarray, but there are no obvious signs of injury. Something on the floor, partly covered by her hair, catches his eye. A dark glint. Zann picks up the metal vial - heavy, empty. He raises it to his nose. No smell.
He looks down at her. An illuminated sign outside the window lays a strip of light across her face as it stares back at him with an expression of undiluted horror. The room is quiet save for the intrusion of a few street noises. The rooin stands still. Then he kneels, closes the girl's eyes and holds her ice-cold hand. His shoulders moved in time to his silent sobs.
"She was such a lovely girl. But then she just seemed to give up on life."
Mrs Krianti elaborately wipes away a few tears, attempting to peer around Constantin Zann's bulk to catch a glimpse of the dead girl's body. The woman clearly feels she deserves to be part of the action. Behind him, Zann can hear Lakzad and the other rooin agents busying themselves in the bedroom.
"Thank you for contacting us, Mrs Krianti. You've been most helpful. If there's anything else we need, we'll let you know."
Mrs Krianti looks disappointed, but turns and shuffles away. Zann goes back to check on Lakzad. The senior forensic scientist is immaculately dressed, his white shirt shimmering, his little necktie elaborately knotted, and every one of his copper-blond hairs neatly in place. He is busily running a PM analyser over the body.
"What do we have?" Zann asks.
"One Eve Lamente, deceased human, neurotechnology student, although ..."
"Lakzad, we already know all that. We've had her under surveillance, for zork's sake!"
"... it doesn't look like she's been to lectures for some time," Lakzad continues flatly, ignoring Zann's interruption. Lakzad has the floor.
"And this doesn't make us look good to the client, does it?" Zann adds. "So we need to move quickly on it. Cause of death?"
"Heart attack." Lakzad runs bioscans across the bedclothes as he speaks. "Hmm, no sex life to speak of."
"A bit young for a heart attack wasn't she? And what's sex got to do with anything?"
Lakzad looks up from the bed. "Are you OK, Zann? You look ... upset."
"What caused the heart attack?"
"I would say she literally died of fright. There's something else, too. Take a look at this."
Lakzad rolls the girl over and lifts up the hair. At the base of the skull are what appear to be two fresh puncture wounds, quite deep. Blood is crusted into the fine blonde hairs.
"That's what killed her?" Zann asks.
"Hardly. But the wounds are postmortem, which does make the death suspicious. We'll know more when we get her back. I assume we have client clearance to move the body?"
Zann holds out the metal vial.
"What do you make of this?"
Lakzad is somewhat ruffled; this is his crime scene. "Where did you get that?"
"Found it near the body, just under the hair."
"What's got into you, Zann? You know the drill." Lakzad snatches the vial and scans it. "Hmm, no prints." His brow furrows neatly. "And no nanotags, either! Odd. I'll send back a scan of it and see what they've got."
Zann crosses the room to the girl's desk. The surface is littered with lecture notes, old acto-books, medical models, soft primate toys, some neurotech equipment, and a battered grID visor.
"I thought she was supposed to be well organised."
Lakzad forces a laugh, but doesn't bother looking up. "Didn't you read the client's psych report? 'Internalised dissociative neuroreflective disorder' or whatever the zork. Humans eh? Self harm, danger to herself ... My eyes had glazed over by the second chapter."
Zann turns over a couple of the acto-books and reads their titles. "'Branching Structures and Minimal Path Problems'. 'Randomness and determinism: six chaotic linking algorithms.'" Zann looks up. Attached to the wall is a large sheet of fine synthetic vellum, bearing an intricate, almost obsessive drawing, painstakingly created with auto-correcting nano-graphite.
"Lakzad. What do you make of this?"
The scientist briefly appraises the tangled network of lines. "I'd say it was the work of someone with internalised dissociative neuroreflective disorder."
Jon Puckridge completed a Batchelor of Science degree at Monash University, during which time he became editor of the student newspaper ‘Lot’s Wife’. He began his working career in biochemical research but was constantly drawn back to the creative life, and has played in various bands, and written for blogs and music technology magazines.
After studying music composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Jon had one of his compositions performed at the Sydney Opera House. It was later broadcast on ABC radio.
He currently works in his own graphic design business, whilst persuing his love of writing.
‘ON’ is his first novel.
The moral rights of Jon Puckridge to be identified as the author of this work have been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the publisher.
Copyright 2015 Hague Publishing
Cover Art and Typography by ELLIPSE http://www.ellipse.com.au/
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