Thursday, 11 February 2010

Beneath the Pleasure Zones - another strand

William was in a hollow chamber. The dream narrator said so. Light flickered. Perhaps he emitted this flickering light. Sometimes the curving walls were impacted earth, and fungal stones densely inscribed with lines and whorls, ones and zeros, but when he looked more closely he couldn't read those codes; and filaments of wire, or dusty webbing, or tangled fibrous roots drifted across his face like insect limbs, and the walls became bony, slippery with secreted fluid, and white matter puffed into everything.

And there was a pillar at the centre, and she was tied to it, her flow of fine hair falling across bare back, pale buttocks, and she turned, smiling, and released her wrists, and took off her head with a single motion, and offered it, eyes gleaming -

The dream rarely went further these days, and William, sweating
in his sleeping bag on the lumpy mattress, had been saved by the
bleeping digits of the clock, and now as he stumped about in the
bathroom, was determined to take a grip on the physical world,
the worn plastic cistern handle, the mottled mirror displaying
his face.

William Crowe had never been tempted to change his face by some magical procedure or change his ID by playing games with the collapsing bureaucracy, even by hacking through networks and infiltrating his corrupted files. None of that would have convinced him, in the lower levels of his being. For the defensive languages encoded in that po-face had somehow irradiated his infrastructure. Crowe was hating the image of his balding head, as he urinated in the blear light.

But this was fuggy August in the outlands of London. Forget your forgettable face, nightmares about brains and sex. Go for bathroom gropes and pangs. A cratered tooth sang of corruption as cold bacterial water surged under dentine. Bowel shakes would wobble him later. He was always a worried organism.

Who had forwarded his CV to Pleasure Centres? Some smart head-
hunter? It was a diabolical liberty, as South Londoners used to say. He hadn't applied for a job for months. Did he really have to find all his certificates in time for this interview? They'd be on a database, somewhere in the silicate wrinkles of the Lobe, cyphers lost in hyperspace, his lost competences... Hurry up, William, stop dreaming...

His mother's imperious voice, over fifty years ago, squalling with
lungfuls of refined indignation - William! - down that little
hall, across the brown linoleum patterned by golden lozenges of
afternoon light... No, he never wanted to hurry off to singing
lessons, he wanted to sit and finish his Meccano aeroplane. He
dreaded most human interfaces, interviews, whatever, but if he
failed to attend his benefits would erase themselves, wouldn't

He'd meant to scan the morning's multimedia, catch the 8.00 Lobe
update. Too much retrospection already. Always scanning for memories that weren't quite there. He shuffled across the bedsit/kitchen room, trying to ignore the skeins of mould on the walls, sidestepping those damned fluffed-up clumps of carpet. He rummaged through the identikit of his possessions.

The name on his old ID pass was the authentic Dr. William
Arthur Crowe. MSc.PhD. High security had to be exact in these
matters. Surely the guard at the Research Establishment used to
smirk as he checked William through the gate and raised the boom
to admit the Rover to the reserved parking place. William may
have been a top-drawer boffin back then. But he had this moony
loonface which once made a girl at a sixth-form dance giggle into
her handkerchief. He blamed his mother back then.

He tried the Lobe Newsnet again as he munched and slurped. Toast,
coffee and a big shot of Dawn Surprise, the budget-priced North Korean vodka. Breakfast of champions. He had to learn which were the morning's relatively safe routes into the West End sector. To the Head Offices of Pleasure Centres plc. His old monitor blipped and flickered, the
mouse was grease-encrusted, but there was something happening...

The screen filled with the quivering monochrome image of a
monitor. This wasn't the Newsnet logo. And on this screen-within-
a-screen William could see two identical grey faces, Caucasian
male, clean-shaven, forty-plus. Sober square-headed men in suits
and ties,anyway. Solid no-nonsense men, with shiny well-parted
hair. Like old 1950s publicity photos of bandleaders, movie gangsters, radio announcers. Each stared formally out of a flickering oval halo. Their graphite-coloured lips moved jerkily in unison.

Another viral infestation by those damned cyber-fibre pirates! He
hadn't time to sort it out. When he had that flatlet in North London
it was just the same, except he kept getting endless loops
of a sermon from the Westminster Mosque when all he sought was a
little diversion on the Fast Fun Action Line. No wonder the poor and/or technically disadvantaged gave up altogether on the cybernautic complexities of accessing the Lobe and still preferred to totally immerse themselves at their neighbourhood Pleasure Centre. It used the Lobe but it was a user-friendly interface, a smiley face. "You can get Virtually anything you want at Pleasure Centres." Corny, but it worked. Perhaps Pleasure Centres really had work for an old cornball prof like him. But he had to stop getting lost in this somnambulistic drift, and get on with it.

He turned away, to delve for his CV; and there, under a
precious, irreplacable back issue of Scientific American, was the last uncrumpled copy.

Approaching seventy, William was still attempting to rescript his life. But the standard version, the bit he couldn't get out of his head, always went like this: he was born in Tooting, South London. An end-of-terrace - but featuring leaded panes, and a privet hedge, in Saunders Road. The only son of Norah and Lionel. His sister Charlotte had somehow died in The War, she wasn't discussed. Lionel was a clerk for London Transport. The Underground, safe as houses, everybody said so. Despite that bomb down the lift shaft at Clapham South. Thin Norah had post-war nerves, couldn't stand the noise of machines, while sour Aunt Doris lurked in the spare bedroom. Everyone listened to the wireless. No-one had any spare change. But Uncle Doug round the corner had a motor-cycle and sidecar.

He ate horrible cod-liver-oil pills in jam at St. Cosmo's Primary
and kids stole his macintosh, then broke his Coronation Mug. But he pulled himself together, mastered long-division, mental arithmetic, decimals, fractions. "Quite the little professor, aren't we?" coo'd Mrs. Tulse, nervously, as he started playing with algebra two years before taking the eleven-plus.

That was probably the year Uncle Doug took him to see the
bouncing bomb in The Dam Busters , maybe the year he saw British
Gaumont newsreels of mushrooming fireballs in the Maralinga
outback, and stared for hours at the battered cone of a V2 rocket-motor in the War Museum at Lambeth. SCIENTISTS WARN , said all the papers. ATOM MEN'S DEADLY SECRETS. He realised big sums created powerfully corrective spells. They were his equalisers, they evoked a stunning revenge on the boring, bullying world.

That's what he needed right now. A triumphal bloody scenario, for
a change. It's all he deserved. A dose of the right destiny, for once. To escape this deep gravity-well, with all its litter and dirty vests. He could not find clean socks. This biopic narration in his head would not stop. It was consuming time, his real-time life. He couldn't help it. He'd become a mechanical dreamer.

Yes, William had enjoyed his technicolour dream, long ago, on the
night before his eleven-plus exam. He was in the UK Secret Space Rocket. The cramped interior of the domed cabin was painted pastel green, walled with panels of round dials, racks of bakelite toggle switches, calibrated pointers, rows of buttons and solid well-machined levers, like the gearshift on Uncle Doug's Ariel Square Four. Secret formulae flashed across the tele-data screen of the electro-computer as he fed in the punched cards. Purple and amber warning lights glowed softly. With rising excitement, using his entire body weight, he'd pressed the central red switch on the Command Pedestal. Then smoke had filled the cabin of the UK Rocket, he could smell gunpowder and hot metal. The solid-fuel rockets were firing in clusters. This was his finest hour. This rocket would be his burning bush. He was about to ascend vertically into the future! And between his wet legs he felt the swelling curvature of the British Bomb...

At grammar school William's dreams had gone totally nuclear
- he was going to control British Atoms for World Peace, he planned to design the first UK atomic space rocket, he was going to turn the launch key and see a finned cylinder rise from Woomera on a pyramid of fire.

For he knew, he damned well knew Maths and Physics had created
his sanity at the Grammar School, had given him a secret enfolded space, a realm of hidden dimensions where he could retreat from the Teddy Boy Years and the Big Beat Boom. Their dirty menace throbbed distantly, on the far side of a glassy wall, the steamed-up windows of coffee bars, youth clubs with girls laughing dangerously.

He'd paid a passing tribute to his youth by trying out some hobbies - archeology, home electronics - but all that really mattered was earning the stingy approval of Mr. Lawson, Head of Physics - who'd actually smiled when he won the Scholarship to read Maths. He was a little too early for the permissive society but no matter, there was work to be done, so he got a Double First. And then there was that ground-breaking doctoral dissertation on artificial intelligence. Once upon a time,he'd been a brilliant flash. It said so, right here on the CV.

No wonder the Ministry of Defence had head-hunted him; and
tasked him to the Establishment. To work on our own truly British warheads. Admittedly he was working most of the time with computers, which were rapidly becoming his specialism, and there were no all-British space battleships to design, for even the Blue Streak missile had long been cancelled. But those years were still his glory days. He'd show those idiots on the Pleasure Centres panel - or as much as the Official Secrets Act would allow. Whatever had happened he was still a loyal Servant of the Crown. A guardian of the Heritage.

Sadly he'd arrived too late to serve Blue Danube and Red Beard,
those mighty fifteen-foot one-megaton monsters. He had missed the
dawn splendours of Yellow Sun and Orange Herald. But he contributed to key projects - the 950 MC, the Chevaline warhead modernisation programme, the A 277 free-fall weapon, and the elaborate preparations for Trident- and then he had a little department of his own, surely, until...

Until the Blackout. He'd lost his mathematical cutting edge after
the Blackout and all those tranquillisers and the ECT and Elaine walking out all over him in her scruffy boots before walking out with the damned kid. But Personnel were very kind (at least he thought so then) and they'd taken off him the serious hard stuff, to fool about with "tele-presence" gimmicks for remote-control weapons assembly and servicing. For a while, anyway.

There's such a bloody amnesiac haze shrouding that whole
episode. How the hell could he gloss it over with Pleasure Centres? That sneak Denis Weekes alleged he was incompetent, too much of a maverick generalist, who could no longer cope with focussing on the specifics of his job. But he was convinced that his demotion - no, redeployment - might have occurred because of his involvement in something else, some other
project under the Establishment umbrella, something big. Which he
couldn't deliver.

That was the worst of it. He couldn't deliver it, and now he wasn't clear what it was. His ROM had been sabotaged, his hard drive had been buried under a ton of shit. Electro-convulsive-therapy, for God's sake. Across his precious lobes. And amenotrophylene, they must have given him some of that, he's certain of it. Sleepy-juice for double-agents, to make them dozy. When he'd only been a hyper-alert patriot, playing his
long game for Britain. No wonder his ancient night brain was deeply fucked, no wonder he needed these big shots of Korean vodka.

But as he recovered from the Blackout, he found the whole country was buggered up by this accursed Event, declining into terminal
lunacy and New Age psycho-burble. Nobody could give him a coherent account of how or why. There was a lot of rhetoric about incursions from an alternate reality but nobody seemed to able to do the maths properly and prove it.

Now Christian and Islamic fundamentalist militia battled with the Panic Police for control of the inner cities, while that New Age brain-fungus,fed and watered by hallucinogens, spread throughout the countryside. After the Blackout Elaine tripped off to some strange neo-pagan community at Lethbridge on the Anglo-Welsh Borderlands. They’d only met once since, after Louise died. Marriage to Elaine had been a cold war from the start, and the Blackout plus the Event not long afterwards provided good opportunities to divorce him. Then it was downhill all the way to eventual redundancy.

For the end of the world came, when suddenly we couldn't even
afford our miracle bomb, when everything was cut, and cancelled,
and decommissioned, and nothing and nobody worked properly any more and the redundancy notices went out for everybody, even creeps like Denis Weekes, and now the grass was growing around the guard-huts and the barbed-wire was corroding in the drizzle...

No, stress the good times in the interview. Pure work. Sixteen
hours on a peak day. Balls to the rest of the silly sixties and seventies and eighties and their lazing and prancing, their obsession with the appearances of mere being, hazy crazy clothes and music. So he'd worn Aertex shirts and Hush Puppies and practical plastic Pakamaks all the way. So bloody what...

Anyway, so many of those public-school radicals had become street-walking bundles of rag and bone. Everyone looked as if they wore charity-shop rejects these days. Some young people even aped his style of haircut. At least he had decent old brogues for his interview. Unlike most people under thirty he could handle the physics and maths behind the computing? At least he'd burnt out with real flair, hehe hehe. He really ought to make up his mind to go.

Unlike some of his colleagues - Ebdon, O'Malley, Weekes - who
sold their talents (and probably nuclear materials) to the Caliphate or the Pacific Rim, William was a true patriot. So they could call him cranky, so there was this problem with his CV and of course, Dr Crowe had to understand that he was too old to find a niche in what little remained of UK industry. But surely the nation needed some glittering fragment of his shattered expertise. He glanced at a week-old business news print-out of The Times:

Pleasure Centres is Britain's only home-grown Virtual Reality
group, and one of its few remaining high-tech hopes. As our environment becomes increasingly threatened by post-Event malaise, overpopulation, crime and pollution there's a world wide demand for cheap interactive fantasy systems.

©Paul A Green 2010 - usual Creative Commons terms apply

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