90 Deg. 5 H I

His phone alarm interrupted a dream he couldn’t remember. Its violent rattle against the metal surface of the table was worse than the climbing electric chimes. He lay for a couple of minutes collecting his thoughts and then forced himself to sit up. Very soon the room alarm would go off. He got up, grabbed his toothbrush and fumbled his way through cleaning his teeth. He’d just about taken a shit and clambered into the shower before the room alarm went off. A demented air raid siren, a ragged ululating shriek that filled every inch of air in the pod. And underneath the siren a jagged electronic command: ‘OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT.’ It would continue until he left.

‘OUT OUT OUT OUT’ the metal voice demanded as he towelled off and dressed. He’d once smuggled a crowbar into a pod specifically to smash the speakers and cut that voice off, but the speakers were embedded into the wall, shielded by a layer of steel and he’d quickly given up on the idea. It was the same in all pods. He’d heard of people having panic attacks this way. The sonic pressure driving them into a frenzy. Every so often you’d arrive while paramedics were loading someone into an ambulance, the room time siren blaring in the background. A heart attack. Caleb just got grinding headaches. He supposed he should be grateful.

His phone vibrated. Ada had posted her selfie on The Log – she smiled out at him, standing on some random bit of decking near a plain concrete wall, ‘I know my place!’ Below her an unbroken column of people in similarly nondescript locations, all selfies, all captioned with the phrase ‘I know my place!’

As he stumbled out of the room and closed the door behind him the alarm stopped and the voice cut out. He leaned against the wall and considered going back to sleep on the floor. He almost fell down the stairs getting back to reception. The same greying woman was there, perhaps she’d never left. The clock on the wall told him it was ‘11:57’.

‘Got any aspirin?’ he asked

She shook her head. He wondered how she coped with the sirens, but didn’t ask. His phone vibrated in his pocket. He sighed, opened it, a plain text: ‘Your place’ and a set of coordinates and a timer. He checked the map app, lined the coordinates up, and headed out and off down the cracked grey road.

He trotted through empty streets and down alleyways, ignoring the light rain in the low early light. Cobwebs still hung in his head, but the ache had subsided. His place was under a bridge connecting a commercial district and a transit road either side of an abandoned platform. Bottles and cans were scattered around, nestling in cracks, balanced on ledges or standing upright on the floor harbouring dregs. The road was a deserted alcove on the middle tiers, a broad square of empty space without purpose, a slammed door of road that hung there with no other points of connection or reference. Maybe it had been useful at some point, or maybe someone had planned to do something with it. It was forgotten now. Whoever had built it had moved on and up. Below the platform, between the slats and pillars and roads and walkways, the sea churned.

There was one other person – a small woman with a prominent beer belly and a greasy blonde ponytail, inspecting her phone next to a huge dumpster. The flash of his photo lit the dim space like a light from God. ‘I know my place!’ he tapped into The Log.

The woman interrupted. ‘Excuse me, you wouldn’t be confirming your place, would you?’

‘Sure.’

She yawned, ‘Oh, that’s unfortunate – I think you’re lost.’

He suppressed his own yawn, ‘This is where I was sent.’

‘I doubt it – I was also sent here.’ She showed him her phone, a set of coordinates. ‘See?’

He shrugged, ‘You’ve got the wrong coordinates.’

She shook her head. ‘No, these are correct.’

‘Can’t be – look’ he showed her his coordinates, bit down a sense of unease. She kept shaking her head.

‘No, those aren’t the coordinates for this place.’  

‘Look, I don ‘t know who you are, I’ve got things to do this morning. I don’t have time for this.’ His head was starting to ache again.

‘I’m just trying to help you, man – here check these coordinates. What does your message say?’

He gave her a long look and sighed. It seemed like the fastest way to get her to shut up, he pulled up his phone message and held it out to her. She scanned it over, looked back to her phone.

‘You’ve got one of your numbers wrong.’

He looked back at her, looked at his phone. Pulled up the map and compared. Sure enough, the three and the zero were reversed. He’d lost his place. He tried to look nonplussed and shrugged, ‘You’re right. Thanks.’

‘That’s pretty bad. What are you going to do?’

What was he going to do? He had never lost his place before. He shrugged again, ‘I’m just going to submit my log anyway – it’s not like they’ll notice.’ He tapped the submit button on his phone. 

‘You think?’

‘Sure, how much can it matter?’

She looked doubtful. ‘I mean, perhaps you’re right. No offence, but rather you than me.’

He shook his head, ‘Whatever. Thanks anyway.’

She peered at him, pensive now, and nodded. He tried to keep up the image of being unconcerned, but then something crashed in the distance somewhere nearby, a sudden metallic interruption of the background white noise of ocean and distant humanity, and he had to fight from breaking into a frantic sprint to nowhere.

He walked around for a while. When he was tired enough to stop for a rest, he called Ada and suggested a drink. Ada told him to wait. He listened to her tapping and clicking in the background, then she told him he was her number eight and to meet her close to midnight. He suggested earlier, she said no. He agreed.

Marie’s was one long room, a mirror lining the entire back wall, stainless steel tables and discarded anchors hanging from giant bolts along the opposite wall. She was checking herself out in a mirror and pretended not to see him as he approached. She feigned surprise as he announced himself. She’d tried to plaster over the dark rings under her eyes with a smear of makeup. It hadn’t worked. But that was Ada, pinched face and sharp lines, bold colours and shoulder pads. A woman who was trying to turn herself into some sort of human straight razor but couldn’t find a whetstone that could do the job well enough to satisfy her.

He bought a chair next to her, ‘Drink?’

‘That’s why I’m here.’

‘What do you want?’

She frowned, peered around, ‘the usual, I guess’

He tapped their orders into his phone, ‘What’ve you been up to?’

‘Onboarding funnels.’ She made a face. ‘It’s frustrating. The conversion curve is erratic and I’m behind schedule.’

He snorted, feigned horror, ‘You’ll miss a target!’

‘Yes!’ she missed his sarcasm.

The waiter arrived, set their drinks down between them, left without a word.

‘Good service,’ he commented, looking around at the crowded bar.

She paused to take a drink, ‘Well, no. Not exactly. I’ve hit the official targets, but who cares? My base is 200%.’ She took a slow drink. ‘Look, there’s no safety in second place and there’s always someone ahead of you.’

He shrugged ‘Money’s money.’

She shook her head, ‘I’ll miss the targets. Hold that thought.’ She paused, held her phone up in the air, it clicked, she turned back to him. ‘Anyway, more funnels are better, I just need them to convert. I just need to figure out how to get inside their heads and force them to convert. Then I’ll hit my target.’ She drained her glass and held it up at him, ‘another?’

‘Sure.’

‘What would you pick, personality tests or zen backgrounds?’

‘Probably zen backgrounds, but personality tests have more traction.’

‘Good point.’ She pecked at her phone briefly, tutted at something, flicked her hand right and left, rolled her eyes, and reverted her attention. ‘The volunteer isn’t exceeding expectations, I can’t understand it.’ she shook her head. ‘How many of these get made a day? How many more could they make?’

‘If there’s no one to buy them…’

She shook her head, cutting him off – ‘No, it’s great for figures. Next person that guy meets is going to want to know whether he’s competition or not. Numbers reduce the numbers, see? They should be giving me two of these because then I’ll be threatened.’ She turned to the guy next to her, ‘Hey, you.’ He ignored her. She slammed the glass down in front of him. It got his attention. She demanded to know how many he’d bought. He smirked, held up some fingers. She nodded, pouted, asked his multiples. He gave her a figure. She threw some figures back at him. He bought the empty glass. She turned back to Caleb. The guy beside them tried to follow up with her, she ignored him. He tapped her on the shoulder. No response. He gave up, put a card down in front of her and walked off. ‘One more?’ She said, pocketing the card.

He thought about it, glanced at the door, the clock above it read 11:57. He looked back at her, ‘sure.’ 

She hailed a waiter, ‘Same again.’

‘Mine too.’ He reached into his trouser pocket. Then he reached into the other. Then he went through the others. He came up with three chips. The waiter raised an eyebrow.

‘I’ll get it,’ she said, smiling at the waiter.

The conversation faltered and then fizzled out like a dissolving tablet. She downed her drink and got up and walked past him toward the door. He got up, followed her. ‘Another time?’ 

She turned with a pitying look and shook her head. Then she continued towards the door.

He followed, ‘Hey, wait, what’s wrong?’

She snorted, ‘Where do you want me to start?’

‘I’m serious’

She took a long breath, ‘forget it.’

He shook his head. ‘Why are you leaving?’

She gave him a look, ‘because I’ve got my ninth to get to.’ She scowled at him, ’Got any pills?’

‘Can’t they wait?’

‘Listen, no they can’t and I’m not interested.’

‘We could go somewhere else.’

She pointed over his shoulder ‘You should get that before someone sells it.’

‘Let them sell it.’

‘Easy to say when you didn’t pay for it. Thanks.’

He turned back for it.

‘Forget it.’ she growled behind him.

He pivoted again. She was already disappearing through the door.

He turned back, hawked the drink off to the guy who’d taken the seat for 50% and hurried out after her. He turned right, jogged through the drizzle and took another right. She was gone. He stopped under a neon sign promising high quality bricks and looked around. He backtracked, asked someone if they’d seen her. They asked what it was worth to him. He moved on. He ran up the nearest stairway and looked around. Then walked the railings studying people. Eventually he gave up.  

He was standing on a wide timber and steel walkway overlooking a commercial district. The tortured strains of a poorly played violin stalked up to him. A gaggle of people stood on a corner, transfixed by a guy standing on a crate sermonising to them. Another figure in a battered wool coat ground out elevated melodies on a battered violin. None of the melodies held any melody. They kept screeching to a grinding off-key halt or drifting out of sync. His accompaniment was a musical pileup in slow motion, as if the guy had fished the violin out of a pile of rubbish the same afternoon and had somehow convinced himself he was some kind of orchestral maestro in the intervening hours.

The speaker looked like a marketing department’s attempt to design a human by committee. Wearing a carefully cultivated three days of beard growth, designer smart casual, and a haircut that suggested he’d just got out of bed but was so artificial you could’ve used it to sweeten coffee. His friends looked like the members of a beat poet society for meth addicts.

‘You’ve got to decide that you’re not going to take it anymore! The first step is believing you’re special.’ howled the speaker, sweeping an arm, fingers forming a knife blade, through the air, ‘I want to see how high I can climb. I want to see how high you can climb. Don’t look at the cost, just pay the price. Don’t listen to anybody, nobody else knows you. You can always push yourself harder, you can always drag yourself higher. Only when you know you’re willing to pay any price can you win!’

Every time he came to the end of a sentence, one of the guys either side of him would echo the last word of the sentence and the guy on the violin would draw out whatever note he was playing, scrunching up his face like he was straining to produce the world’s worst classical accompaniment.

‘There used to be a time when I used to do things for friends. But now I don’t have friends because friends are a lie. Friends are the bodies between you are the sharks. But you should be the shark. And then you wake up and you’re seventy and you scream at yourself because your parents hate you. Don’t think about it, charge forwards because someday you’ll be seventy and then it’ll be too late!

They looked at the most successful people in the world and found that the reason they were successful is that they set targets and they never slept and they always chased a number. People who sleep are Satanic! You have to exorcise people who sleep! Numbers are God. The higher the number the better. If you can envision a number above a billion that you don’t find erotic, you’re possessed by demons and you sleep too much.’

One of the people in the crowd detached themselves and, swaying, stumbled towards Caleb. Caleb watched him warily, but the person scuttled past. Behind him, the stranger retched and the spattering of vomit played under the violin and the speaker.

‘The demons can’t get to me because I don’t ever sleep,’ screamed the speaker, ‘I just put my shoes on and say ‘yes’. Someone asked me if I can physically jump to the moon and I say ‘yes’ because gravity is just an illusion holding you back and if you keep jumping then one day you’ll escape physics because gravity is a tool of the devil holding you back from success!’

Caleb meandered over to the vomiting guy. A broad smear of viscous liquid fouled the ground. The man looked up, dark spittle lining his chin, a string of dangling from his slack jaw, blood shot eyes confused and distracted. He turned back and threw up another small stream of dark chunky fluid.

‘You know, I don’t think you’re trying hard enough,’ the man muttered to himself and retched again. ‘In fact, you’re probably a demonic host. Look at this. It’s making you lazy.’ The guy’s knees buckled under him. His retching grew more pronounced. His spine stood out through his thin t-shirt every time he heaved another stream out of his battered wasted body. Caleb watched, unimpressed. Another heave. The man collapsed into his own puddle of vomit. 

‘Lying down.’ Caleb shook his head, ‘This is why you’ll never amount to anything.’  The man just groaned. It was pathetic.

He walked back to where the motivational speaker was wrapping up. A crowd of people surrounded him. Half of them were bored or high or drunk. Others studied their shoes. The bad violin music kept playing. An overdressed man with over-gelled hair roamed between the onlookers, ‘he’s right, I’m going to go and do something with my life!’ he said, a little too enthusiastically. ‘This has to be the most inspiring person I’ve ever heard!’

Caleb looked around for bearings, suddenly disoriented. Over at a turning in the road, two posts stood side by side in front of some railings, a collection of belt rusted bolts indicating that this road had once had a name, but that name was now lost.

‘It’s so inspiring’ said someone else beside him. He turned and found a wide-eyed woman in a thin cream coat staring at the speaker. She caught Caleb looking at her and turned to him, ‘don’t you think?’ He couldn’t tell if she was being paid to hype the man, or was genuinely taken in. Someone next to her agreed. He listened to them enthuse to each other about the message, still unsure if they were actors or people. Eventually, he gave up and left to clear his head. ‘A real motivation!’ yelled someone behind him as he descended a set of cracked stairs.

He roamed the walkways between districts trying to find his bearings. There were no road signs. They’d all gone missing or just hadn’t been added. He’d lost sight of Marie’s and couldn’t find it again. Nowhere had a name. Where was he? It didn’t seem that he was anywhere. His being nowhere didn’t seem to matter. How long until he had to find his place again?

He stumbled across a set of low-tier pods and shoved his way into the lobby through a set of malfunctioning front doors with hinges that screamed as he forced them to move. The receptionist watched him stagger in without apparent concern.

He ordered a room with electricity for a night and recoiled at the price. He tried without electricity, but it wasn’t much better, ‘I’m not paying that. My last pods were nearly half the price just yesterday.’

‘Not anymore.’

‘What do you mean ‘not anymore’? I paid nothing close to this price at the last pods.’

‘I mean the price has increased. You’re welcome to try your previous set of pods again, sir.’

‘I will!’ He declared and left.

He spent another hour meandering down faceless nameless routes and found another set of pods. Their prices had also gone up and he refused to pay. When he reached a third set of pods he was dog tired. For low tier pods they weren’t so bad from the outside. They were also fully booked. Curious, he asked the price and swore under his breath when it was the same as the others.

‘Aren’t these privately owned?’ he demanded

The man behind the desk nodded. ‘Yes, sir. That’s right.’

He left those pods and tried to find a dark corner under an awning or overhang where he could curl up. Eventually he found somewhere fitting and set himself down in a shadowed crevice at the back of a large office block. But just as he made to settle in, he caught notice of a slender shadowy figure resting just in sight against a pillar. Waiting. Caleb tried to settle in, convincing himself that the man would leave or was just another guy trying to stop for five minutes, but couldn’t get used to his unmoving presence. Either he was a waker or he was worse. Not wanting to be kicked awake five minutes after falling asleep, he got up again and struggled back onto the main concourse.

From there he headed down into the low levels. It wasn’t as hospitable as the mid-tiers but the wakers were less likely to go. The low places were a tangle of struts and beams and pillars of every size and shape, erected at random, fixed or braced at all angles and often to a purpose that had either never existed or nobody could fathom anymore. Nothing lay flat. The floors warped and buckled, cracked and groaning under the pressure of the titanic weight they were expected to hold up. An uneven mass of material and grinding against each other, fighting for position and space, somehow supporting the world above.

Eventually, too tired to remain upright, he cleared away rotting boxes, fag ends, and empty cans and slumped down in one dirty corner of an underpass. Other shabby figures also slumped in heaps here and there, forms rising and falling steadily. As he began to drift away, a seagull fell from above and slapped into the ground with a wet smack, stone dead. The rats were there before he could turn his attention from the bird, a hundred of them swarmed from unseen openings. He watched the writhing squeaking mass descend into a vicious hissing melee of fang and fur and tail to get at the dead bird. He drew back involuntarily, grinding his spinal vertebrae into the wet stone wall behind him. Within minutes the rats became more focussed on fighting each other than eating. At the outer edges, where the rats were certain not to get a taste of the gull, they descended into a snarling bloodbath, the ring widening as the violence spread inwards like a disease. It took barely a minute. After that they dispersed, a few healthy survivors disappearing just as quickly as they’d come, leaving blood and feathers in their wake. The other survivors dragged themselves away, trailing viscera behind them, seeking somewhere to lick their wounds or die. At the centre of a carpet of rat carcasses the gnawed husk of the gull had been all but stripped. It was a while before he slept.

The cold air blasting off the ocean woke him, slicing through his clothing and setting him shivering. Instinctively he clutched at his bag, pawed around the outside of it and rummaged inside, before settling back. Nobody had stolen anything. A fine drizzle dampened his face. He gradually became aware of the gentle rustling of fur, the sharp snap of bone and soft wet rip of fur, cartilage, and meat. Every now and then an intermittent squeak. Rats were feasting on the carcasses of rats.

His phone vibrated. Paul. An unexpected call. They ran through the usual small-talk and then Paul asked him if he was looking for work. He was. He always was. Who wasn’t? Paul had a removal job – available immediately, couldn’t wait. Was he available? Sure he was. Paul hung up. Caleb’s phone vibrated. A set of coordinates.

Paul was waiting for him at a complex of pods on the mid tiers a couple of stacks over. Smooth plaster in pale pastel colours and glass, open layout, trying to emphasise space where there was none. They made more small-talk. Caleb mentioned the price increase of his previous pods. Paul nodded, waved a hand vaguely, prices, he said, had gone up across the board. Caleb made a noise in his throat.

‘Come’ said Paul, beckoning and heading inside and up a set of narrow stairs.

In a small bare-bones room a woman twisted slowly.

She was naked. She’d folded her clothes in a neat pile next to her bag on the edge of the thin single mattress. There was a functional organisation to her death. Almost clean.

‘The rates are rising,’ mentioned Paul

Caleb nodded absently, ‘The banks are at it again, then?’

Paul smiled, gestured to the hanging girl. ‘Suicide.’

‘Oh. Right.’ He paused, trying to find some appropriate response. ‘Someone should try to lower them.’

Paul shook his head ‘No, it’s fine for the moment.’

 ‘What do you mean?’

‘It’s not eating into profit,’ Paul shrugged, ‘if the rate climbs high enough to sustainably impact profit then we’ve got a problem. If it’s below that threshold there’s nothing lost. It’s important to keep a surplus around to replace the active, but realistically you only need to worry if surplus can’t replace active. If, for example, I remove myself from the equation tomorrow it doesn’t matter because there are already three guys lining up to replace me. Nobody will notice, there’ll just be a new face in an old office. Everything continues without disruption. But if me and the other three guys all leave the equation, then it’s flagged for review.’

‘Very mathematical.’

‘Everything is.’

There was no note. Her belongings contained an ID card – she’d been working in PR for a construction firm. Her skin was clammy, her calves and feet had discoloured and started to swell. She’s voided herself onto the floor below. He wanted to wrap her in the bed sheet. 

‘What happens in the meantime? Apart from data collection and graph drawing, I mean.’

‘The same as always happens.’ He removed his phone from his pocket and tapped at it. He held it out to Caleb, ‘look.’ One the screen there were a packet of gummy nooses. ‘Mostly finished’ he continued ‘just clearing up the last of the A/B testing plans and projections.‘

‘What next, knives and pills? Arsenic?’

‘The first two are in prototyping. Knives have some real potential. We were trying to translate that group car asphyxiation thing, but it’s fairly elaborate and the concept wouldn’t get across in a constrained format, assuming it even gets off the drawing board…’

‘Ever think that life is more than a series of equations?’

‘I’m not an artist, so no.’

‘And the banks?’

Paul blinked at him, ‘what?’ He caught on, his face relaxed again ‘Oh. Oh! Right, yes. Well, yes, rates are rising there, too.’

They shared a muted laugh. The rope creaked.

‘When’s the mortuary due to pick her up?’

‘They aren’t.’

He considered this a second, ‘Where’s she going?’

‘Get her down, we’ll take her outside.’

‘If her family or friends find out?’

He shrugged, ‘Who cares?’

The knot was good, she knew her stuff. They spent ten minutes sawing through the rope with a kitchen knife. Paul took the ankles, grimaced at their pliability. Caleb, looking anywhere but the impression marks left by Paul’s fingers, took her under the arms. She was a small woman, but her dead weight was awkward. They hauled her down the stairs, her head cracked against a step on the way down and they both flinched. Outside, they crossed the street and stood at the railings swinging her back and forth as if throwing mattress onto a skip. A final heave over the side, with a grunt they let go. She flailed, pirouetted, and then plummeted like a wet discarded doll. Paul watched her fall, Caleb turned away and grimaced at the splash.

A man in a brown raincoat with a face like an overripe mushroom scuttled over, ‘What are you doing?’

‘What?’

‘You threw that girl into the sea!’

‘She was dead.’

He looked disgusted, ‘You just dumped her body in broad daylight?’

‘It’s legal.’

‘You can’t do that!’

‘Why not?’

He blinked at them, ‘What about her family? Or her friends? What if she has a partner? Or a child?’

‘What about it?’

‘It’s immoral!’

Paul stopped short, confused, ‘What?’

‘It’s immoral.’

‘How is that relevant?’

‘What?’

‘What does morality have to do with anything?’

‘Grief? Respect? Does that mean nothing to you?’

‘A corpse is incapable of appreciating respect.’

‘The pain of her family and friends?’

 ‘They’ll be in pain, regardless – corpse or no corpse. I don’t see what difference it makes. Do you need a room?’

The man’s face took on a blank astonishment. He started to reply, stopped, sighed, looked over the rail at the spot the girl’s body had sunk, shook his head slowly, and walked away. Paul, bewildered, shook his head at the man’s back and also sighed.

He turned to Caleb. ‘Much appreciated, Caleb, efficient work. I’ll transfer your pay within 24 hours.’

‘Got any of it in chips? I need a drink.’

The coffee shop wrapped itself around the corner like a scarf on the brickwork neck of the local commerce. All glass front, low light and distressed wood surfaces, the familiar projection of clashing modernity and cosy separation, shelter from the helter-skelter blitz outside. He ordered a coffee with a shot of scotch and a hot sandwich, handed over the chips, propped himself up on a rickety stool against a peeling table in the corner. He watched people scurry past outside, wrestling with their umbrellas and bags, through the scuffed rain-streaked window. Maybe one of them was pretending, maybe one of them was waiting. His log had even gained some thumbs.

He plugged his battered laptop in, waited for it to boot, and pulled up the posts, looking for small, one-off jobs. Enough to get done and cover the cost of a pod. The usual landslide of construction and hauling jobs piled up. They came, they went, the recursive loop of construction and destruction and repurposing, cycling on without end. Filtering brought up something that caught his eye. Below a CMS sensor distribution contract, someone wanted a small delivery made. Details withheld until acceptance of contract. Dodgy. Interesting. He shrugged, applied, moved on. He went for a couple of other gigs before the small delivery job pinged a response into his inbox. No details, a single line – ‘Do you accept?’ He considered. Sure. Thirty seconds passed. He drank a couple mouthfuls of coffee, forgot about the congealing sandwich. Another message. Thank you for accepting this position. Here is a location. Here is the number of a deposit box. Here is the time-sensitive password. Here is an address. Here is the recipient. Here is the deadline. Regards, blank.

Caleb picked up his sandwich, now cold, chewed over the job. It occurred to him that he could be walking into a mugging or a setup for some idiot’s attempt at making influencer status. Maybe it was something illegal. Another mouthful, he shrugged to no-one, folded the laptop, downed the last of his coffee and left. 

The address was a squat decrepit plaster and concrete shack down a narrow abandoned alley on the lower levels of a rotting suburb stack. He stepped through an empty doorway onto cracked grime-laced tiles dividing rows of fat black mould amongst which stood a regiment of scarred deposit boxes. Illegible faded graffiti covered them. The sounds of the sea filtered in through the creaking pockmarked structure. The screams of starved gulls dragged themselves through the shattered shards of the windowpanes circling the top of the room.

Inside the deposit box there was a letter and a short-term pass to the upper tiers. There was a single name on the textured envelope in thin slanted spider-like cursive. Who wrote letters anymore? Who was paying for this? Caleb took a knife out of his pocket, stuck the tip under the fold, hesitated and took a deep breath. He removed the tip from the envelope, folded the blade back into the handle and put it back in his pocket. Sticking his oar in was unlikely to gain him anything.

The delivery address was at the top of a stack an hour away. A fat pillar of girders, stone columns, and heavy timber, thrusting its way up above everything around it. Struts and metal plating covered it, wires and antennae sprouting from the openings and cracks like weeds. On the fifth level the power had gone out. He picked his way down a long corridor lined with stone pillars. Each pillar was occupied by rough people in shabby suits digging away at the columns with battered tools and sweeping the chips into burlap sacks, watching their neighbours from the corners of their eyes all the while. Ducks roamed in packs amongst them. The chippers threw nervous glances at them between blows or took nervous steps back when they roamed too close. One of the ducks let loose with a sudden laugh. One of the chippers responded with a strangled croak, dropped his tools, and hurled himself off the edge of the stack.

As Caleb passed through their murky space ignoring dull stares and listening to the rhythmic clink and scrape of tool striking rock and iron, a squabble erupted nearby. One chipper, noticing the man next to him was distracted, had taken the opportunity to steal the chips that hadn’t been stashed away. The second chipper, snarling, lashed out with his tool. The first reeled, the second seized the first’s head between his gnarled hands and slammed it into the pillar he’d been chipping away at. The low wet whack of meat and bone and cartilage impacting again and again and again on ragged stone made a steady bassline to the off-kilter percussion of chipping that went on unabated all around. Eventually the second chipper dropped the first and returned to his work. A duck ambled over with a throaty quack and began rooting around in the mashed remnants of the dead man’s face. Someone new loped over, picked up the dead man’s tools and went to work on the gore-smeared support. 

A sickly figure took a long step into Caleb’s path and halted. Caleb halted. The figure waited, watched him with small, wet, heavy-lidded eyes. Caleb didn’t move. The figure gave up waiting, it didn’t take long. It shuffled towards him, head craned forwards, thinning dirty blonde hair swept over one side of his head by the wind. The figure leered at him, gave an eager hiss, ‘what’ve you got?’

‘What?’

‘I said,’ enunciated the leering chipper, ‘what’ve you got?’

‘Couldn’t say.’

‘Doesn’t know? That’s hard to believe, that is.’ He stopped suddenly and wheeled. A series of ducks had gathered in a rough arc and watched silently. Looking around, Caleb saw that other ducks watched from their scattered places between the columns. The chippers were either uncaring or oblivious. Their layered clinking and scraping did not cease.

The leering chipper span back, closed on him. ‘Fungi, isn’t it?’ his face was inches away, rancid breath pouring between spittle-smeared lips. Caleb leaned back. The chipper grinned through cracked yellowed and blackened teeth, ‘It is. It is, I know it.’

Caleb shook his head. ‘I don’t think it’s fungi.’

One of the ducks shuffled forwards. The chipper twisted, his ragged clothing flailing. He bellowed. The duck was unflustered. It regarded the man dispassionately and then turned and took a few unhurried steps away. The chipper pivoted back towards Caleb but stopped three quarters of the way through the turn, his small glistening eyes widening and narrowing as if he were breathing through them. He thrust out a hand at Caleb, ‘quickly now.’

Caleb shook his head again. The leering chipper stepped towards him. Caleb stepped back and the hideous figure followed, ‘the fungi trace the vectors circumventing rigidity…’ he hissed, the words spilling out of his face. He started to follow his inane statement with something further, but trailed off, reverting to his intent silent staring.

Trying to take very shallow breaths, Caleb leaned in close and gave the man the address of the pod where the fungi was growing through the shower drains. The man stepped back and digested this a moment and nodded lethargically to himself and turned and wandered away. Caleb disguised a retch into his sleeve and staggered onwards.

The checkpoint was a bureaucratic sieve of scanning machines, checks, guards, and ascension methods. A long series of blocky steel arches and short conveyers funnelled and approved queues of harried people while guards cradled guns and looked bored. Caleb stepped onto a conveyer, stuck his bags on the luggage belt, and drifted forwards side by side with it, somewhere between a wedding procession and a tin at a canning factory. The sweating guy in front of him squirmed and fidgeted, a dark stain spreading between his shoulder blades.

On the other end of the conveyer, a series of lifts and a broad ladder. One iron rung-ringed cage attached to heavy chains lined with stacks of broad shelving units tended by a number of exhausted people in plain blue uniforms. He checked his bag in and pocketed the ticket stub. Next to that a foyer set back a ways from the main area, containing several plush sofas and a bar, occupied by four pouting people, in front of several glossy steel lift doors. A bent-backed luggage handler wheeled a cart full of bags off to somewhere Caleb couldn’t see.

As he turned from the baggage lift, a bug-eyed man with a sweat-streaked brow in peaked cap and a grey and off-cream uniform barrelled past him, hurled a series of brown boxes at the handlers who caught them and filed them. The man, waiting for his stub, vibrated in place, checked his phone, looked at the handlers, checked his phone, looked at the handlers again. They gave him his stubs, he turned and sprinted towards the ladder.

Caleb watched the delivery man dash across the lobby toward the broad steel ladder that made up the entire wall section between the current level and the one above. It wasn’t the worst he’d climbed; the rungs were all fitted with rubber grip material and a large sign nearby gave windspeed, direction, weather conditions and climbing suggestions. The people scaling the ladder seemed comfortable enough. The delivery man hurled himself at the ladder and started to scramble up it with a manic energy. Caleb put a hand to his brow, studied the top, and hoped the delivery man wouldn’t lose his puff before getting over the edge.

As it turned out, the delivery man had no shortage of puff. His desperation to reach the top, however, made him reckless. He almost dislodged several people on his way up drawing a volley of enraged threats and insults. A little way from the level above he missed his footing. The people below, still moving towards the ladder, held their collective breath, watched the man scramble for purchase, and then tumble through the air and hit the deck with a wet thunder like a sack of fish. A murmur swept through the crowd as they stepped over his body and around the spreading blood and made their way up the ladder towards the tier above.

The top swayed in the strong winds. The smooth new road creaked and lurched. Everything was clean and polished and moved. He didn’t climb up to the highest places very often, not just because of the guards who usually turned him away. The attention to quality was aggressive. Things were cared for, looked after, maintained. Some sort of obsessive preoccupation with presentation pervaded the inhabitants of the upper rungs. Glass was polished, struts and panels were maintained, loops of wire were held in tight casings, the surfaces and railings were aligned and smooth. Everywhere he looked there were people in uniforms running inspections and taking notes. It made a nice change from dead rats, splintering pillars, and patchwork DIY repairs. It was also cold, expensive, and sterile. 

He took the opportunity to look out over the edge. Below the vast networks of walkway and district stretched out in all directions. People and vehicles crawled about like insects. Distant stacks and districts that climbed higher into the air than the one he stood on. At sea level, docking platforms harboured ships sheltering from the sea, divers and cranes sank and surfaced, harvesting material from below to ship off to warehouses for resale and repurpose and reconstruction. Towers and hulks defying the ocean, battling for space in the ramshackle skyline with its network of walkways and layers and paths and balconies. Sprawls of warehouses stacking as much as they could, shifting materials and goods in all directions, lines of hauling vehicles snaking in and out from buyer to seller. And behind the mass of transit and district and tower complex was the eternal arrogant sawblade of the mountains, contemptuous of the ocean, a titanic wedge dividing the sky, the top lost from view between sundered clouds. The clustered hive of industrial suburb sprawling and climbing aimlessly around the bottom of its ragged vertical miles of cliff, terrace, and overhang.

Up there, there were houses and nobody knew who lived in them, and there were jobs and nobody knew what they did, and there were people and nobody knew who they were, and there were gates between the mountain and the sprawl that nobody would ever get through.

Below, the concrete and asphalt bulk of an industrial road arced between the slats of pedestrian walkways that shuddered every time a truck rolled back and forth between the colossal reinforced girders of dockyards, creaking cranes of warehousing, and the buzzsaw ambience and billowing vents of industrial stretches. A woman struggled to haul a buggy up a long set of uneven steps.

It was 11:57. The delivery address was a lopsided office block. The right side of the building was covered in rudimentary scaffolding, punctuated by broad girders mounted between wide plates, fastened in place by fist-sized bolts. In a blank lobby, a receptionist sat behind a plain metal desk, upon which sat a matte black phone, a computer, and a violently gnawed pen. She waited for him with a celebrity smile.

‘I have a letter,’ he said.

She nodded, picked up the pen and bit down on the dented metal end. Caleb watched her grind it audibly between mirror molars before replacing the pen on the desk, picking up the phone and speaking a handful of words. She nodded at nothing, put the phone back down and looked up at him.

She indicated a pair of polished lift doors. ‘Please go through. Top floor.’ 

The lift was smooth, silent. The doors pinged open and he headed along a carpeted hallway into an office with double doors and a polished hardwood desk in front of a huge glass window. Behind the desk a man with gelled hair in a tailored grey six-button suit stood and smiled at him as he entered, thrusting out a manicured hand. Gold cufflinks glinted under the bright overhead lights. ‘How do you do?’ he said, pumping Caleb’s arm and beaming, ‘Scott Taylor.’

Caleb let the man’s energetic handshaking subside and held up the envelope. ‘A letter for Mr. Barnes.’

The man nodded, his fixed smile unfaltering, ‘I’ll take the letter – I am Mr. Barnes’ surrogate.’

Caleb handed the envelope over. Mr. Taylor produced a silver letter knife inlaid with gold wire in the handle and sat back in a large leather chair holding the paper up in front of him. He was frowning as Caleb turned to leave.

Back outside, he crossed a bridging walkway and headed towards another cafe when an uncomfortable lurching beneath his feet accompanied a multi-tonal scream of metal, timber, and stone. He swivelled, instinctively white-knuckling the nearest railing, and watched as the construction beneath the office block crumpled in on itself like sodden paper. The whole stack collapsed inward, crashing down into the sea, lost from sight in the space of a minute, swallowed by churning water and foam, and then covered over by the eternal rolling grey that washed over the spot as if nothing had ever been there. The secretary gnawing her pen and Mr. Taylor pumping his arm, immaculate hair and fixed smiles and big windows and double doors, it all went to the ocean to be crusted over by kelp and salt and barnacles in time. Nobody would remember them. The money was in his account by the time the sun started to set.

He was looking for another set of pods for the night when a man dressed in an expensive black suit stepped out of an alcove with a broad smile. Caleb kept walking, the lunatics were multiplying. He avoided eye contact. If he met the man’s eyes he would assume his interest and never leave. Caleb marched past pretending to be in a rush.

‘Please, sir,’ announced the man, his studied deliberate accent standing out in the otherwise dismal surroundings, ‘don’t ignore me. You are Caleb.’

Caleb stopped and turned.

The stranger offered a benign smile, ‘I see I have the correct man.’

‘You are?’

‘I am of no consequence. My employer, on the other hand, is. And he would like to meet you.’

‘I see.’

The man produced an envelope of expensive paper on which Caleb’s name was scrawled in tidy looping handwriting.

‘If I refuse?’ he asked.

‘Then you refuse. As is your right. However, it is worth noting that my employer has some of the most influential people around the world requesting his time. Naturally and in addition, this opportunity does not stand indefinitely.’

He crashed at a simple pod, ignored the fungi beginning to force their way through a crack in the corner floorboards, too tired to do much other than sleep, he crawled into the bed, unconcerned with the stiff dirty mattress. The idiot in the next room over had other ideas. The idiot in the next room over had been drinking. Now the idiot in the next room over was singing. Loudly. He’d evidently been trying to drown some sorrows and was singing in what was, presumably, an attempt at melancholy. His voice battered its way through the thin layers of steel and plaster, and was not so much melancholic as it was merely pitiful. At some point he got distracted or bored or passed out and quiet resumed. He drifted off picturing clumped mushrooms growing down the singing stranger’s throat until the singing became gurgling and then choking and then ceased altogether.

Twenty-four hours later, Caleb crossed an empty cracked road to a set of battered railings and watched threatening waves lap against the megalith-sized columns holding the stack up. A hundred feet to the right, a pier sagged into the endless water. Above, the buildings and strata climbed one over the other, forming themselves into a haphazard pile that staggered under its own ill-balanced bulk. A million struts and beams shoved rudely against every conceivable surface – walls, floors, ceilings. It became difficult to tell what the purpose was – what was being braced, what was being held up, what supported what or which supports had been undermined and where? Bolted to one side of the pier a huge rusting level marker creaked in the waves, paint flaking off into the tide.

On a whim he followed the rails around and walked out onto it. The structure looked solid from afar, but the thick heavy boards creaked and bent beneath his feet, rotten through. The sea was rough, the water level had been lower not long ago. He turned back around and craned his neck up at the impossible bulk of the mountain and the endless tiers and shelves that marked its upward progress into the rolling iron clouds. Dotting the titanic vertical surface, a vast network of structures clinging onto the side like limpets. Everything fell under its shadow.

The base of the mountain was a free-for-all. Everyone flocked to it and the maze of building work and industry that clustered the lower crags spread like lichen. Above a certain point it was invitation only. The people there were the people there and those rungs didn’t want anybody else on them. Somewhere up there, through a guarded steel gate, was Edwin’s home. Today Edwin was sitting in an innocuous hole known as Bay 1, on the outskirts of a built-up industrial warren.

He walked the miles of layer-cake promenade besides what passed for a beach, and a prefab shoreline that was restructured and jig sawed around every time the tide came in, with its piles of huts and cafes and arcades and ice cream sellers in disposable and collapsible huts. Everything ready to be dropped at a moment’s notice. At end of the walk, a long stretch of blackened sand that people liked to take photos of, but few liked to walk on. Perhaps because, despite the tide, it never left. Some freakish design had conspired to raise this unsettling beach, mocking the constructions of man every time the tide climbed and new layers of pier and promenade and boardwalk needed adding. And so the general distaste for the distrusted dunes left the old cracked tarmac and concrete beyond relatively undisturbed.

The beach itself made for an innocuous journey. The expected uneven footing, shaking his shoes out on the other side, and the weary knowledge that he’d be brushing sand out of his arse for the next fortnight aside, the most exciting part of the trip was the long rusting ladder that led down to it. Its creaking brittle rungs and lack of protection meant that every time the wind picked up off the ocean Caleb hunkered into the unstable beams, clinging to them as if they were some sort of mother.

On the other side he made his way across a crumbling road caked with solidified seagull shit and chewing gum calcifying in the shadows of a vast office block. The tower had been maintained despite the relative lack of habitation or interest in the area. Through a pair of huge polished teak doors trimmed with silver, a cavernous empty lobby waited for him, carpeted in plush vermillion against salt and pepper marble-panelled walls. Corridors led off in all directions, segmented by thick plate glass dividers. No sign posts. Shrug. Pick a direction. Walk.

He wandered through a network of corridors and rooms illuminated by overhead panel lights, doors with long narrow windows in the centre. Occasionally a large room taken up by a long table of varnished wood or polished metal. The grandeur of the lobby gave way to bland whitewash walls adorned with interlocking gears at random. Exposed piping erupted from the thick industrial plaster, running along every surface before burrowing back into unyielding flesh of the building. Cables and wires wound around pipes, hung in tight-packed ropes from hooks in the ceiling, followed floorboards, corners, and the joins between surfaces. Caleb wandered through the empty expanse. In a long empty hallway, he followed a conveyer belt that ran with a soft hum along the wall from a duct by a set of double doors and disappeared into a hole in the floor at the other end. It carried nothing. In the next room some kind of huge generator clanged and hissed. Vent shafts peppered the ceiling, disappeared into darkness overhead. In another room an empty desk faced a set of large plain double doors at the bottom of a set of marble stairs rising on three sides. Behind it an expanse of the neutral-toned carpet terminated in a series of intimidating glass walls three inches thick, behind which dense shadow obscured everything. He pressed on through this bewildering menagerie until he passed through his hundredth unmarked single door and exited into what seemed to be a cyclopean empty warehouse.

Bay 1 was a cavernous grey concrete box covered in corrugated sheet metal. Caleb’s feet echoed across the hall, he tried to ignore the cold and the emptiness of the space. The only feature of the room was a single functional table set in the centre of the room, on which sat a plain, but expensive, chess set. Behind the table, reclining easily in one of two simple chairs, sat Edwin.

‘You know, my grandfather was good at this game. Do you play?’

‘Sometimes.’

‘I’m not particularly good, myself. Game?’

‘Sure.’ Caleb sat. The chair was hard and cold. Edwin didn’t seem to mind.

‘Who goes first?’

‘I don’t mind.’

‘You’ll be white. Your turn.’

Caleb nodded. Moved a pawn up. Edwin mirrored the move. The early game started out with the expected banality, some advances, some captured pawns.

‘What do your parents do for a living?’

The question caught him off guard. He shook his head, shrugged, ‘I can’t remember.’

‘How’s your furniture?’

‘I don’t own any.’

Caleb nodded to himself. Moved his knight and took Edwin’s bishop. Edwin frowned and moved a pawn. Caleb took the pawn and supressed a smile. He controlled about two thirds of the board.  Edwin didn’t seem at all perturbed. He just nodded to himself, raised one hand over his shoulder and snapped his fingers. The sound carried well in the cavernous hall.

‘How can I help you, sir?’ A nondescript man in an expensive suit and a small silver tray balanced expertly on one hand, seemed to emerge from the background. As if he’d stepped into a reality he hadn’t previously occupied. Caleb tried not to stare. Where had he come from? Edwin put a hand into his jacket pocket, withdrew a stack of notes. Who was this guy, a butler? Edwin placed the notes on the tray. The servant gave a single perfunctory nod and departed. Caleb started to speak, but Edwin held up one hand. Caleb frowned and settled back to wait. The servant reappeared momentarily, the same silver tray now with a selection of game pieces. They waited in silence as he set about replacing each of Edwin’s lost pieces. He left when he was done. Caleb tried to follow him, but Edwin made a move, Caleb shifted his attention, another moved pawn, and when he shifted it back to the room, the servant was gone. The game continued.

‘Did you go to school?’

Caleb frowned at the question, and then, catching on, smirked at his opponent. ‘No. No I didn’t.’

‘A shame.’

‘How’s the wall?’

A casual shrug, ‘Stained. Tall. Unchanged.’

They shared a nod.

Edwin wasn’t lying about his lack of skill. It was strange. Somehow he managed to fail to press his numerical advantage. He focussed on pawns and lost them. He seemed to deliberately kill off his Bishops and Knights for no apparent reason as soon as they started to make headway. Caleb lost pieces, but to his surprise managed to swing the game back to his advantage. He took a pawn. Edwin nodded to himself, raised a hand, snapped his fingers. And there was the servant again. Appearing as if from nowhere, walking into view from behind Caleb now, this time his small silver tray already adorned with pieces. Caleb ran his tongue around the roof of his mouth. They waited in silence as Edwin casually withdrew another stack of notes from his jacket pocket. The servant set about replacing his pieces again. Caleb started to watch him leave, but Edwin interrupted, ‘your turn’ he said.

They continued, but now Caleb’s disadvantages started to tell. A knight took one of his castles, a bishop two of his pawns on consecutive turns. Caleb’s queen took pawn after pawn, but could not get to any higher value pieces. Eventually he was down to three and all he could really do was draw out the inevitable. He looked at the pile of pieces beside the board. The black pieces substantially outnumbered the white.

He tentatively raised his hand and clicked his fingers. The sound of smart footsteps echoed in the hall. The glint of silver in the glow from the strip lights overhead caught the edge of his vision. The waiter waited. Caleb ran his tongue across his lips, slowly reached his hands into his pocket. He looked at the silver tray, chewed his tongue and then withdrew three notes and placed them on the tray. ‘I’d like some new pieces, please.’

The servant performed the same perfunctory nod, ‘Certainly, sir.’

The servant disappeared; Caleb didn’t try to follow him this time. Edwin smiled across the table. The servant reappeared. Caleb watched the board as the servant replaced his pieces and disappeared again. The game swung back in his favour, he retook the pawns and from there a bishop and a castle. Edwin bought his pieces back. The game went on. Caleb ground his teeth. Edwin sacrificed more pieces and whittled Caleb’s pieces down again. Caleb’s head started to ache. He snapped his fingers. The servant appeared again.

‘Got any aspirin?’

The servant shook his head.

‘I’d like to change the game.’

‘Certainly.’ There was a pause. Everybody waited. Caleb snorted, shook his head, reached into his pocket. Three more notes went onto the silver tray. In a series of brisk movements, the servant disposed of the chess pieces and the board and vanished. He reappeared a minute later with another board and set a series of round stones on the table, black by Edwin, white by himself. He took the first turn, set some stones on the board. Edwin snapped his fingers. The servant reappeared. Edwin set another stack of notes on the silver tray.

‘Chess.’

Away went the board, away went the stones. Caleb, exhaled. His headache intensified.

Back to Chess it was. Caleb took pieces, Edwin lost board control and bought back and played as poorly as ever. Caleb retook the pieces, fought his way back to an imminent victory and watched in silence as Edwin purchased yet another set of pieces. They went through the motions, Edwin took Caleb’s pieces, Caleb retreated under the wave assault of pawns. Back down to three pieces, Edwin’s turn.

Edwin surveyed the board, smiled and yawned. He snapped his fingers. The servant appeared. ‘I’m tired now.’ Edwin told him. The servant nodded, left. He returned with a briefcase and set it on the table beside Caleb. Caleb blinked at it. Edwin gestured at it, palm up. Caleb shook his head, not understanding. Edwin gestured. The servant had vanished again. Caleb opened the briefcase. Inside was filled with banknotes. Caleb stared. He looked back to Edwin, who smiled at him like some archangel. ‘Thank for you for playing,’ he said.

Caleb looked at the board. Back to Edwin. Back to the money. Closed the briefcase. Stood, took it, and headed for the exit. 

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