By: Sana Mojdeh
I’m waiting on the implantation floor, sunken into a white leather sofa that circles outward in the center of a large, otherwise wide-open room. Everything is white and blindingly bright in here. Whichever direction I turn, horizontally mirrored text scrolls across my field of view through a tall ceiling-high transparent screen that wraps the entire ninetieth floor of this skyscraper. “Satisfaction not guaranteed,” the text reads. The size of the text surprises me, considering the high ceiling in this place. From the maze of downtown streets below, however, the text is but a miniature statement—difficult to spot below the dancing images The Firm uploads onto the monumental display. It is ultrabright and high resolution. I don’t know the technical name for them, so I’ve dubbed them Billboards. Forty floors in height, these Billboards surge up towards the clouds on three of the tallest cylindrical buildings in all of downtown. All these cylindrical buildings, these Towers, are owned by The Firm. Floating images on the Billboards gently change shape as they convey unrecognizable objects devoid of any meaning. The Billboards offer no context. Their images are meaningless. They merely convey a relaxing message, but underneath I suspect there must be a subliminal trigger—an underlying subtext embedded in the rhythmic movements of changing shapes. After all, The Firm is cleverer than displaying random images to promote the most valuable product the world has ever known.
The Billboards light up the city, especially after nightfall. They illuminate all corners in turn, spotlighting like a three-eyed deity granting grace to the nocturnal creatures below. They govern all, even those making the faintest of movements. People say the Billboards can still be seen even far from the city center. Some motorists, it is rumored, stop their vehicles and pull over to enjoy the dramatic horizons at dusk. Others say that when harsh winds howl through suburban roads, the Billboards resemble three clifftop lighthouses beckoning sailors and guiding them home amidst turbulent tides. Some say the Billboards never display the same images twice. “It’s like a river. A magical calming river,” I once overheard. “You never feel the same current when stepping into a river twice.” That is how those dynamic images shape-shift on the Billboards. Last night, as I was wandering sleepless in the hotel bar, I eavesdropped on a woman comparing the Billboards to “oases in a summer’s high noon” to the young bartender.
I think people exaggerate, although I’ve never stared at any of the three Billboards myself. I don’t pay much attention to my surroundings anyway. When I stroll the downtown streets, the surroundings flash by. Commercials on never-ending displays slither on downtown walls. Everything happens so quickly that sometimes I feel I’m moving in slow motion in a parallel dimension, invisible to all.
What I despise most are the Digifaces. I hate how they form midair. It sends shivers up my spine when they suddenly appear from bus shelters and building walls to convince me to buy. Like a steed, I gallop to exit their network range and make them vanish. Another one always waits around the next corner anyway. It is impossible to escape the subdued murmur that crawls in this city.
Those Digifaces do know how to open a conversation with a personal affectation. Last week as I was checking into my hotel across the Tower, one appeared at the lobby entrance and asked if he may show me to the nearest pharmacy. I hoped it was a random chance appearance, not a deliberate targeting based on my past history with antidepressants. This morning, another one emerged from the atmospheric drizzle as I was waiting for a street light to change. “Would you like to smell some fresh lilies?” I pretended not to hear. She blew a biting lily-effervescence into my face anyway. I shut my eyes but couldn’t help inhaling a full dose. “I’m glad you like it. If you want to bring home a bunch, our store is at…” I sprinted across the street ignoring the stoplight and interrupting her honeyed voice that was now lost in the honking horns of angry motorists. When I opened my eyes, a car bumper nearly grazed my knees and several onlookers stopped and stared, surveying the scene. I slammed my fist down upon the hood. Usually, an assault like this costs you a voice warning, called loud from a speaker atop the vehicle, asking you to step back quietly. Instead, the taxi door opened, and a woman emerged from the driver’s side, “What the hell is wrong with you?” I felt my heart pounding, my mouth now dry. I didn’t expect that. I’ve never seen a taxi operated by a real person before. Perhaps this taxi was damaged and the driver was taking it out of service. Seeing the steering wheel, however, I understood this vehicle belongs to Gen I which are rarely in service nowadays. I stood still, puzzled. The driver must have taken me for a harmless maniac because she calmly stepped into her vehicle and drove away. Soon after, everything calmed down to normalcy.
It struck me that I had acted out my aggression on the taxi in response to the Digiface. How I wished to have knocked that digital face out instead, were she real. She had scanned me as I waited for the stoplight to turn, and from my records she had learned of my parents’ death. It will be two years tomorrow. She must have thought that flowers would be appropriate for my probable trip to the cemetery or, even better, a few bouquets for the anniversary memorial. It was a high-probability calculation to be sure, and a potential windfall for a local florist. It occurred to me now that she appeared wearing black and throwing sympathetic glances my way because of those calculations.
I was angry at the Digiface, but angrier at myself. I had forgotten the anniversary of the accident. Mom and Dad had never missed my birthday. If they were alive, I bet they would have surprised me this year. They loved surprising me. They were decent folks—salt-of-the-earth, hard-working teachers. For my tenth birthday, they gave me a series of books—classic tales summarized and translated for easy reading by children and filled with colorful depictions. Every tale in that bulky book was accompanied by a pop-up of the hero. Mom and Dad had lofty aspirations that I become a prominent literary figure, but I think they let go of that dream when they saw I had more interest in the sounds the pop-ups would make than in the three hundred years of storytelling adorning those pages.
At first, I carried that book everywhere I went, even to the bathroom. One night I woke my parents and frantically described all fifty pop-ups as classified by sound into three categories: clicks, whooshes, and squeaks. I kept them up nearly forty-five minutes, and I still recall their amusement at my exuberance. A week later, Mom and Dad gave me my first sound recorder, and I became crazy about it immediately. In our first night together, I recorded every sound in the house. Even the drops from our leaky basement faucet couldn’t evade me.
In that house, an ever-growing fervor for sound took hold—similar to my parents’ passion for words and language, I suppose. For convenience, I soon taped the recorder to my wrist. I became a hyperactive child, always jumping around and inspecting every nook of that house. I never felt blood rush through me like when I recorded my Sixty Variations of Dad’s favorite fountain pen smacking to the hardwood floor. The Sixty Variations made me delirious nightlong. Even now, when I listen to those tapes, I can hear the sounds of my parents’ amusement in the background, although Mom’s disapproving groans were recorded too, “Take it easy, silly boy.”
* * *
I paced around the court in front of the Tower to calm myself before my appointment. They pass me by in unison; some are humans, some are not. What I wouldn’t give to avoid the stampede.
I found myself standing in line for a coffee at the booth nearby. The people ahead of me were in business attire. They nimbly tapped the waterproof machine—an Android. For them, it is as straightforward as punching buttons on one of those old-time pop vending machines. I took my time figuring out the overly complicated menu on the Android’s chest-display. These booth-assigned Androids are the only ones with chest-displays. This one tried to “maximize my experience,” as he repeated. What does that even mean? All these service Androids claim to “personalize our interactions,” but each time I interact with one, I find it entirely impersonal. “This is so obsolete,” I overheard a woman say, growing impatient. “Does it even support Cognopath?”. I had no clue what she was on about. She lost me, and worse, I was starting to feel smothered by these people, as though they were pushing me forward towards the Android’s chest.
I rebooted my experience, and behind me, I could feel people shaking their heads at me in the rain. I left the booth and headed back towards the Tower. The commotion on the street gives me the jitters. The pace of the changing images burns my eyes. Bright displays mounted on building walls directed many commercials my way, and this time, the wet pavement mirrored the images, doubling in intensity.
I feel nauseous. I haven’t eaten all day. Maybe longer. A Digiface knocked on my door last night, asking if I wanted anything for dinner. I ignored it because they make me uneasy. I live in a hotel, swanky by any measure. I’ve been to many hotels in the past two years—exotic, upscale, tacky. Even the shabby ones are now fully operated human-less. As I lay in bed, it hit me how eerie it is to sleep in a place where the entire staff is either Androids or Digifaces.
I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and practiced my plan. In front of the mirror I rehearsed—Do I know you? Do I know you from somewhere? I pulled my sleeve and glimpsed at my wrist. I read once that suicidal people don’t really care about how they go. They just choose a convenient method. I’m fortunate because I could get my hands on Ibuprofen rather easily. The next best option could be a razor blade. Wrist scars remain forever, whereas hospital records can be altered or even deleted if you have the money.
I removed a Kleenex box and a hand towel from atop the drawer, making sure my pocket knife was in sight and accessible. A neighbor’s midnight laughter cackled behind thin walls. Three voices—one surely an Android’s. I’m irked when talking to Androids, too. I can identify them with my eyes shut by now. In a past life, I was a highly regarded member of the industry, although in the eyes of The Film Company, Androids are the gold standard. Gradually, most film crews, save for a handful of executives, were replaced by Androids. My entire sound design department, carefully assembled through years of recruiting, was among the first to be gutted. They pulled the rug out from under us. Only few found work, and those that did were paid little for irrelevant jobs. Bargaining with the union, now rife with Androids, was a losing proposition. We felt betrayed, oppressed, and in time, alienated. We even asked The Company to let us volunteer, offering to shadow the Androids for minimum wage. They declined our offers. Tragically, we weren’t alone. Layoffs soon spread globally. Suicides surged, particularly in urban areas. As for me, I moved back in with my parents and continued to struggle to find a job; anything would have sufficed. I would walk all day to see employers face-to-face. Their responses were devastating: “Androids are more efficient janitors,” or “Quite simply, Androids just make for better dog-catchers.” Over time, their rejections faded into a silence in which I could only hear a tormenting buzz in my ears and, finally, into a complete ignorance of my presence in front of them. I felt like someone of a lesser species. Denying the fact that I had become some sort of alien exhausted me. Resistance was futile.
This one night I awoke sweating. It was pitch black in our basement, and the mattress on which I slept was in tatters. Momentarily paralyzed, I just lay there frozen and eyes burning with dryness. I could make out Mom’s groans and Dad’s concerned voice above. There was a third voice that sounded like an officer. Despite my state, my auditory senses remained sharp. It was an Android. “I have had no update on his disappearance,” she informed, “but as far as the police records show, there is an 87 percent probability he is still alive.”
I remembered nothing. I may have found my way home after wandering the streets. I noticed now that my shoes were still on. It scared me that I wasn’t of a mind and body to remove them. I couldn’t move at all, in fact. I had been reduced to one single thought: I wished pain on those who brought these creatures into this world. Mom’s sobs wrenched my soul. I was utterly helpless, as if you could hear your loved ones mourning by your open casket. Then I wished I could telepathically let them know that I was still alive.
During my first stay at The Clinic, my psychiatrist advised what I had experienced in the basement was an extreme case of psychosomatic paralysis caused by a breakdown. Evidently, as he explained later, I had experienced a regression to my secure childhood which manifested when I asked Dad to bring my old sound recorder.
“Everything will be fine, son,” Dad said. He left the recorder on my lap and pressed Record. Mom stuttered, trying to attribute her unbelievable weight loss to a diet. She was lying, of course. “You look terrible, Ma,” I told her.
* * *
Here on the implantation floor, it is even brighter than out on the streets. I mustn’t submit to this headache, this nausea. I’m sweating but shouldn’t be. I’ve already been here twice for the preliminary tests, so I’m no stranger to the anticipation. Apart from the hissing of air from the vents (I can distinguish three different waves), it is dead quiet in here. Outside, the rain pitter-patters onto the transparent display scrolling those words—Satisfaction not guaranteed. It seems as though The Firm intentionally aligned this floor to the lower border of the forty-floor-covering Billboard so that clients will consider their last chance to abort implantation.
I try to distract myself. Not much to see around other than a riot of white: the floor, the round sofa I’m seated in, a long coffee table with electronic tablets on it. The table leads to the white door labeled Implantation. I shouldn’t have worn gray. This charcoal suit, tie, and shoes all draw attention. Even the attendant Digiface now hibernating by the implantation room—an office assistant, I assume—appeared in off-white. Considering how much Euphoria costs, I should feel superior. He is my servant—I own him! I want to unfreeze him so he rolls towards me. I imagine I’d wait for him to get close and then whisper to his face, “Go fuck yourself and all your kind.”
Snapping does nothing. Clapping neither. “Hey, Fuckhead!” No response. Not even a flinch. Louder now: “Hey, Shitface. Asshole! Numnuts!” No response. My anxiety is receding. I feel in charge.
From a distance, I can hear the screeching friction of steel elevator cables. I sit up straight and inhale deeply. The elevator door opens and followed by a bodyguard, an old man limps out wearing a velour tracksuit and sneakers—emerald green in color. He nods me a smile and then sets himself down on the sofa—a bit too close to me. Aside from his crumpled posture, he looks comically shorter than me, and I consider myself average. What I see contrasts with his magazine covers where he stands tall, fine-featured, carrying the most determined face on top of glamorous suits. If I didn’t know him, I wouldn’t have reckoned him the most influential mogul in the world. This is, after all, the man who created the Androids three decades ago. This is the herald of the tide that wiped out many like me.
I sit silently, letting him get comfortable and pretending I don’t recognize him. Famous people hate when others assault them with verbal diarrhea. I reach for one of the tablets on the table and browse through the catalogue: The Firm released Euphoria last spring; a global phenomenon based on the premise that the human brain stays active for up to a minute after death. They discovered how to trigger neurons in the temporal lobe by a microchip activated by the physiological changes that accompany death. The chip is coded to emit a sound stimulus of your choosing. Based on extensive clinical trials, they found exceptionally high neural activity in the recently deceased: a sense of elation, an ecstasy unlike any reported previously for any stimulants, including all kinds of drugs, even DMT. The catch? The chip has a 50 percent success rate. The other 50 percent of the time it simply fails to sound off, and what happens to the deceased remains a mystery. Were the effects reversed? Was there agony? Limbo?
Euphoria was not the instant hit The Firm had hoped it would be. Demand soared quickly among tycoons and rich celebs after a well-off technocrat, implanted with a chip coded with his favorite song, was miraculously brought back from a lethal stroke. “It wasn’t just the song. I was transcended to a place unknown. Every sound I heard became a new dimension. I was a complete being in infinite dimensions. Then I became one with them all. And it certainly felt longer than a minute… until those stupid fuckups saved me,” he said in an interview. Then he sued the hospital.
On the heels of his second unsuccessful suicide attempt, The Firm modified Euphoria. A new chip was designed not to activate, should it detect suicide as the cause of death. Ever since that resurrection, the demand multiplied in parallel to a series of global protests by fundamentalists, collectively claiming the company to be tampering with god beyond hope for redemption. To date, The Firm hasn’t ever really addressed that initial malfunction. Instead, they invested in promotion, installing these massive Billboards on the three company towers. They had to add a satisfaction disclaimer on the bottom of each Billboard.
They also initiated a screening process. Now, applicants with even modest mental health issues are rejected outright. I invested my parents’ life insurance payout to a group of underground hackers, and they deleted my so-called “adverse medical history.” I also paid them for information on Him. I was looking for dirt to funnel to the media but realized that this is a job for someone who stands for humanity. I’m no whistle-blower, just a guy out for revenge. He turned out to be clean. I continued to pay the hackers to track his habits, his favorite spots, and his daily rhythms and patterns. Apparently, he hadn’t been out much of late. He had become something of a recluse in his mansion. When they told me he had an appointment for Euphoria, I sold my parents’ house to pay for my own application.
“Do I know you from somewhere?” I ask the old man, indifferent.
“It’s a small world,” he replies. “I’m John.”
I looked down at his extended palm. Shake your hand? You sicken me.
“Shane,” I shake his cold hand.
His guard stands idle by the elevator, much like the Digiface across the room. I can hear the old man’s saliva, hear him blinking, hear the gunk sliding out of the corner of his eye. I can hear his nose hairs shivering… I’m going insane. Time to take a breath. I must play to his ego. I must show my carefully constructed persona of a tech fan to impress him in his turf. It took me two weeks to memorize all the information available on Euphoria. “Amazing how—”
“Son, would you like some tea?” he interrupts.
“Absolutely,” I reply at once. I don’t like tea.
“Excuse me,” the old man waves a hand at the Digiface. It wakes up and silently approaches us, then like a smooth office chair, lowers itself to our height.
“What’s your name?” he asks the Digiface.
“I’m Office Pro. Mark 7.23.3—”
“I’m not as good with codes as I used to be,” the old man says. “How about we go with Mark?”
He rests his palm in midair—Mark’s forehead. The Digiface shuts its eyes momentarily, then suggests the old man have chai tea and pistachio biscotti.
So that’s what Cognopath is! You let them decide for you when you are not quite sure.
My realization dissolves in old man’s humming. His calming demeanor annoys me. I’m unprepared for the scenario in motion. The more I look at his frail body, the more I realize that he is too weak to kill me.
“What is it that you’re humming?”
“You’d laugh if I told you, Shane.”
I don’t remember the last time I laughed.
“My high school alma mater… for the chip,” his voice falters.
I feel cornered in here with the old man, his guard, and the Digiface—both stooges, bound by the rolling text on the transparent glass display. I may vomit. I should have eaten. All of a sudden, I find myself in the haze of the recurring nightmare following Mom and Dad’s death: deliberate car accident. Sometimes I think the nightmare is real and I received that surprisingly large life insurance money because they had boosted their insurance policies during my rehab. Now, don’t you worry about money, they whisper in my dream, try to be happy again.
The funeral took place on a humid August morning. I didn’t cry at all. High doses of Fluoxetine made everything go away—grief, joy, rage, terror. Absolute indifference. I had too much sedative in me. Instead of staring at the coffins like everyone else, I gazed at the attendants whose faces I couldn’t make out under their oversized sunglasses. I stood there sweating for what must have been half an hour. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, me unbuttoning my shirt, and my nurse waiting in the shades to bear the stench later, returning me safely to the clinic.
With Mom and Dad gone, I set off to tour the five continents with the insurance money. I shuffled between cities, moving from hotel to hotel, and never staying in one for more than a few nights. Again and again, I found myself surrounded by the Androids and Digifaces from whom I tried to escape in the first place. Shopping compulsively in the strange streets became my everyday ritual. I threw money to vitrines in the way that the elderly throw bread crumbs to pigeons. I bought random things I didn’t need, but the unboxing bliss came with each, fled overnight out of my hotel room. I always left my purchases behind, except for a pocket knife I got from a memorabilia shop. I also bought companionship and in doing so learned to say prostitute in over a dozen languages.
One late spring evening, I got drunk in a shitty diner and then followed a waiter into a downtown alley. I smashed his head into a dumpster, then stomped his alloyed skull underfoot—I enjoyed the sweet sound of the metal on concrete. I lifted it into the dumpster where it belonged. On my way back to the hotel, I got three tuna club sandwiches at an all-night gas station and devoured all three by the icebox outside the store.
Next, I began a brief spree of altruism. I landed a job teaching aboriginal children in a remote region of… god knows where. What I gained in satisfaction over the first weeks, I lost in disorientation thereafter. The idea of my teaching soon fell flat. It wasn’t boredom that drove me to my seclusion phase. That much I know. I recall lying on velvety sands beneath maroon skies and by serene oceanic waters. The warm white sea foam curling up to my knees and fizzing back to the ocean. I spent that whole summer where no humanoid patrols, no digital face intrudes, and when the days were shortening in September, I realized I was a sad king in solitude.
“And what song do you have in mind?” he rescues me from my thoughts, as if I were a lost kitten lifted out of a well. “If I may ask?”
“Just a song I like,” I lie, showing him a thumb drive.
“My god, Shane,” he says, “haven’t seen one of those in years.”
His awe resembled mine when I got my first sound recorder. I’m sweating again, and he is constantly brushing the cold off his hands. “You can ask the Digiface for a blanket.” How stupid of me! Of course, he knows that.
“It’s just Face,” he says. “Nobody calls them Digifaces anymore. Are you sure you’re not some sort of lost time traveler from the past?” he smirks, friendly.
Somehow, I don’t resist. He takes me back in time. College, nights of programming, inevitable faults, faith restored when the prototype responds, and the creeps crawling all over his skin the night the first Android gained consciousness. Then he asks me to find him in his lab when I go back in time and tell him chemo sucks. Sitting here, waiting for Mark to call me to the chip implantation room, I realize this was perhaps the longest I’ve spoken to someone since my last release from The Clinic.
* * *
Wearing a fine white coat, the lab technician stands by a counter holding a small silver needle-ended tube. I quickly sign a document, giving my consent so she can listen to the content of the thumb drive before transferring it to the chip. Something feels peculiar about the way she peeks at me while listening to the file. Mom used to do the same when I would record the creaking of her rocking back and forth in her favorite chair. I remember her glancing up from her book. “Wouldn’t it be clearer, if you came a bit closer?” Mom would ask.
“Are you sure this is the content you—”
“Yes,” interjects the technician.
“Of course. It’s your choice.”
* * *
A light radiated onto my resting face, and the needle pierced my skull. The implantation ended as quickly as it began. Now, back in the waiting room, I must focus on inviting the old man to my hotel room across the street. My plan was to woo him with my non-existent passion for his legacy. The last hour, on the contrary, convinced me to be a patient listener to him. In my room, I will take him off his pedestal. I will dethrone him. I will call him out for what he really is—the man responsible for massive genocide, worse than Mao, Stalin, and Hitler. I’ll rough him up a bit first, to show him who’s in charge. I imagine he’ll grab the knife on the drawer to defend himself. I will be ready. I’ll step forward into the hot, searing blade and the chip will perform its function. The god of Androids will go down as a murderer.
The technician’s face when she was bending close, convolutes my thoughts. Is it because the closer she moved to implant the chip, the more I saw Mom’s pale eyes? Because of my stern ignorance when she asked If I sat comfortably on the chair? My unprecedented inability to figure out whether she is human or an Android? Self-contempt burns up in my chest, and I certainly don’t understand why I just shared all this with the old man. He limps off the sofa towards his implantation and asks me to wait for him. I have his attention. I can do this.
I’m parched, but I won’t ask for water. Since Mark called the old man in, it has remained frozen by the elevator. He’s on hold, idle, same height as the old man’s guard on the other side of the elevator. I see them in bronze helmets with tall crests, holding shields and iron-tipped spears—guardians of the escape tunnel.
Ever since they started blending into society, I’ve felt defective, trapped. I want to break free from this world which was once mine. That is why I would leave wherever I end up. My last refuge—that summer of seclusion—turned out to be melancholic, too, because even in the absence of these creatures, I knew I couldn’t turn back time. I can’t erase my knowledge of what has happened, to cut off the angst of extinction feeding off of me like a parasite. I can go back to the beach and live until the warming ocean foam washes me away, but even then, they will still be around.
A tap on my shoulder. I’m startled. For an old man, his hands are heavy, or maybe at this moment, I am weak. “Shane, do you want to join me on the roof for a breath of fresh air?”
The roof? I must take you to my hotel. What part don’t you understand?
Once again, I find myself paralyzed—not even able to walk towards my own death in my own way. He ruins my death as he has ruined my life. How naïve of me to believe, one way or another, I have already felt all the pain there is.
I accept my fate. I accept that I cannot prevail.
Was I so foolish as to believe I could outsmart him?
My legs shake as we step into the elevator. At this moment, I think of myself as a lesser being than Mark. At least, he asked the old man how long we will stay up on the roof, before granting him the access code with pleasure. If I were him, I wouldn’t dare question the almighty’s authority—a testament to my lack of such conviction against my layoff, against the union… against depression.
* * *
Fifteen hundred feet above the fuss, rain lands heavily, ice cold. The afternoon sky grows dimmer. The old man casts his eyes over the city where the thin blue horizon line fights back teeming clouds. In front of us, rows of buildings bow down to the gleaming Billboard beneath our feet. I resist a strong gust of wind and peek down over the ledge. Humans and Androids become indistinguishable from this high up; ants marching similar paths. As I stare longer, coherent patterns of movement emerge, and from up here they are predictable. Everything seems programmed. Under the spell of the Billboard, and from such height, I feel in control, as if ruling over an empire. But the concept of control is illusory, transient as the currents of images upon the Billboards. “Isn’t it ironic to promote an auditory product with visuals?” he asks. “What do such nonsensical images connote anyway?”
I can’t help but agree.
He carries on about adaptability, natural selection, and extinction, gazing steadily at the skyline. I keep my gaze downwards and listen to his monologue—reminiscent of a well-crafted nature documentary. Down below, an ambulance collects a body—maybe an Android’s. Next, a tow truck emerges. Soon, the previous routines surface in between the two vehicles now disappearing in opposite directions.
For a year I’d been moving around. Walking, resting, fucking. On the streets, the beach, the bars, and restaurants… all down there. Had I had flown instead, viewing it all from high altitude, like from a hot air balloon, I may have realized the inborn pettiness of my life sooner. Perhaps I would have lived up there forever, only descending for fuel and supplies. Perhaps, I would have offered balloon rides. I can see myself as an amusing pilot—on your right, dear riders, you can view our unusually fast descent into what looks like a cornfield. You can thank one of our riders today—Janet—who confused the GAS VALVE for the RIDER HANDLE. What have you done, Janet? What have you done?
John’s monologue has concluded, and now his arm is locked with mine. He directs us up on the slippery ledge.
“Push me,” he commands.
He understands my confusion.
“Do it, and then leave. My driver will meet you downstairs. A package has been prepared. Inside you’ll find your new ID, passport, and loaded bank accounts.”
Like one of the Digifaces, I unfreeze, starting to make sense of this scene. That familiar buzz, tolerated when I used to beg employers in front of them, returns louder.
“It’s all been taken care of,” he explains. “You will be taken to the airport where my private jet is at your disposal.”
Who may end my misery, he must have thought, if not a young man without parents nor dependents? Who but a lonesome traveler to random destinations with no patterns to speak of? Someone who finds leisure in shopping. My records reveal all the trips, surely portraying me as a spendthrift, too. I bet his bodyguard is an Android. I bet he scanned me on the implantation floor. How powerful one should be to have all those documents prepared in an hour or two? Why else, if not to find a pathetic prey, would he prefer to appear personally over the comfort of his mansion? He could’ve called the technician in.
“Push me, Shane,” he whispers with finality.
He clearly considers me a fool. Perhaps a fool capable of fracturing skulls on dumpsters in apathy is equally capable of pushing an old suffering cancer victim from a skyscraping rooftop, he must have thought. Was my savagery in the alley caught on camera?
“Go to hell, John,” I shout above the blast of wind in the rain.
You were supposed to kill me, not the other way around, I want to explain. It sounds idiotic. I want to steal back my hand, that’s all. I want to learn all about hot air balloons. I’ve never seen one floating over the city. Where can I buy one? I’m deciding on the color… Teal with stripes of mint green?
His persistence ridicules me. Up on the ledge, pressing against John’s torso, daring him to let me go, I finally throw up on his tracksuit. I notice how ludicrous our wrestle looks—with him struggling a neck shorter than me like a frustrated younger sibling—and I can’t stop laughing at his frown as we spin, lost in a push-pull game, until we both understand we are drawn together by a much greater force, and I feel a cold gust peeling my nose back, hollowing my eyes, and I touch down on warm shining pixels on the Billboard. Then I flip off whoever ignored me once, now that perhaps some of those may see me in this gray suit as a burnt pixel on the massive Billboard, since there is always a bunch of people looking up, hypnotized by the magic of the Billboards, and I wish I could awaken now in the basement of my childhood home, and seconds after the stabbing pain, I see crimson chunks of my brain on the concrete, and whatever left inside my skull wonders whether Mom and Dad had actually schemed their accidents to leave me the insurance payout.
I feel fuzzy throbs of sound filling my ears, springing a harmony in me.
Everything will be fine.
Take it easy, silly boy.
Wouldn’t it be clearer, if you came a bit closer?