Max had to make sure that everything was perfect. His small studio apartment had been overturned, flipped back and turned again in the past week. And he was still unhappy with the result. He felt that soft nagging feeling as he stood in the dining space and took it all in. Something just was not right, like a puzzle piece that fit on three sides, but the fourth edge was a disappointing hole-on-hole.
It was an upmarket apartment in one of hightown New York’s “susto builds”. Sustainable living, using every part of a skyline to keep city living affordable in the Twenty-Second Century. That was the tagline and Max was one of those who had bought into it with an open mind. He looked around him and saw progress. He saw progress and a puzzle that he could not solve.
Funnily, a lot of people compared susto builds to jigsaw puzzles. They were like the old, now-decrepit skyscrapers in some ways, but the emphasis was all on perpendicularity. When the world gets full to brimming with people, going straight ahead stops being productive, becomes unsustainable. You need to branch out, get perpendicular. His apartment clung to the underside of a great concrete-nanosteel arm that jutted out from the vertical tower. Microglaze windows ran in neat rows along the top, bottom and sides.
Right at that moment he was standing on a small square of stronger-than-titanium glass with a lurching thousand-foot drop to the teeming hightown streets below. Now that was living, he thought. But what if she didn’t think so? A ringtone sounded and a caller ID appeared between his feet. Manhattan Mind Research Multicorp.
“Answer call,” he said.
“Good evening, Max,” a bright, enthusiastic woman’s voice said.
He didn’t believe a word of it. Canned enthusiasm, that was what he heard. It was a tone of voice that said “Well, it’s just a job. You’re just a job. I’ll keep sounding chipper as long as my wages keep coming.” Still, he made sure to cut the irony from his voice when he replied.
“Hi there. I’m glad you called. About this experiment, I’ve been feeling a bit -“
“That’s perfectly understandable,” she interrupted, reminding Max why he detested predictive calling with such a passion. How was a computer program meant to know what he wanted to say next? “In fact, that’s why we do these quick checkups before the process starts. I’m here to set your mind at ease.”
“That’s great. What I wanted to know is -“
“No, there’s no need to make any special preparations. Remember that your visitor won’t be affected at all by the physical environment. It’s all about you, Max.”
“Thanks, that’s cleared things up for me.”
“No problem,” she said, her voice rising to an almost manic pitch of enthusiasm before dropping away to a mechanical groan. “ETA four minutes.”
The window went clear and Max felt the pit of his stomach plunge down a couple of hundred feet. He stepped off the microglaze with nervous care and began to drag the furniture into a more suitable arrangement. Something was still missing. Why had he ever let himself get talked into a psychology experiment?
“Um, hi. Can you hear me?”
His mind did a double-take and he actually took two steps back, turned and started looking around the room to see who had spoken. The voice had been clear and audible as if the speaker had been standing next to him. It was a woman’s voice, but nothing at all like that of the MMRM caller. She sounded like a professional of some sort, maybe a doctor or a lawyer. If he was being honest, she sounded cute. A blonde, Max guessed, maybe in her mid-thirties.
“Thanks, I guess. I’m Rachel and, oh I don’t know, do I say nice to meet you? It seems kind of odd, doesn’t it?”
Why did he have to be such an idiot? Talk about making a bad first impression. He would have to be very careful about what he thought.
“I think that defeats the purpose.”
Max told himself to snap out of it, and the visitor agreed.
“Hi Rachel. Nice to meet you. I’m Max and welcome to my brain, I guess.”
It was not a long commute from Max’s apartment to his office. He rode the internal rail system across to the vertical and took the first elevator heading down. That morning had been one long, excruciating effort to keep his mind clear.
What was he supposed to do? How could he trust himself to think anything when each thought, random or planned, would be overheard by a woman he had never met before. It had been all he could do not to choke on his cereal.
“This must be pretty stressful for you.”
“How do you mean?”
The people sitting around him in the elevator turned to see who he was talking to. Max pointed to the sleek chrome implant attached above his right ear. There were gasps and excited words whispered behind shielding hands.
“You know what? I’ve had an idea. Of course, I know exactly how this all seems to you. I’m inside your head. Why don’t I let you have a peek inside mine?”
“You can do that?” Max asked, giving his fellow passengers an apologetic smile.
“Not literally, but I can tell you. Since we woke up this morning I’ve had another set of thoughts inside my head. It’s like I’m thinking twice in each moment and those two thoughts can be utterly unrelated. I can hear your voice as well, an internal monologue mumbling away in symphony with my own. ‘I can’t let her know that. I can’t think about that. Quiet. Quiet. Stop.’ I’m worried you might drive yourself crazy.”
“Yeah, you’re right, it’s pretty stressful.”
There was a long pause, a stream of silence that ran on through his mind. It was like taking a breath of fresh air after spending weeks underground. Just able to hear his own inner voice. What was it like for her? She had to listen to his thoughts as well.
“I don’t think it’s as bad as all that.”
“Really?” he asked, not sure whether he should believe her.
“I don’t know. I find it almost soothing, like having white noise playing in the back of my head.”
A buzzer sounded and Max looked up at the doors. They lit up with a flashing green number telling him that he had reached sub-level ten. He stood and waited for the elevator to open, preparing his mind for the working day ahead of him.
When had that lady gotten on? He didn’t remember seeing her at his floor. She looked incredible. Long, slender legs and dark chestnut hair stretched back over her scalp. He didn’t usually think much of people with small noses, but hers looked cute where it turned up slightly at the tip.
“Do you like her?” the voice in his head asked. Why did he have to be such an idiot? All it had taken was seeing a pretty girl and he had forgotten that he had a visitor tagging along in his mind. The voice became more playful, almost mischievous. “Why not talk to her if you think she’s cute? I can tell you what to say.”
There was no way he could just talk to her. She was not the kind of person he found it easy to just strike up a conversation with. The issue was, whatever was wrong with her, he could not see it. She had a trim figure, a great bust from what he could see and a face that was pretty, if not supermodel-beautiful. An image floated through his mind making him look away and fight not to blush.
But normally there was a small thing to make a woman approachable for him. Maybe it was a pimple, a mole or a bad hair day. This lady had none of it. There was nothing wrong with her at all, no matter how hard he ran his eyes over her. The doors slid open and he hesitated in front of them.
“Wow, that was pretty intense. I feel like I’ve just watched a frog being dissected. I think I’m going to check out for a while. Sorry, I know that must be normal for you, but that was too intense. I think I’ll go have a shower.”
‘Don’t do it, Max,’ he warned himself. ‘Do not even start imagining that.’ It was too late, the voice had a body and he could suddenly see all of it.
“Wow, I’m flattered.”
Was that irony? He could not tell and the voice had disappeared.
Sub-level ten didn’t mean all that much. It did what it said on the tin, ten levels below ground. In Max’s opinion, the susto builds were a great leap forward in urban living. But every revolution needed a spark that set it off. The susto builds’ spark had been short and brutal.
It began way back in the past when the skyline was dominated by towers almost exclusively owned by companies, used as offices. Something had to give, so they started digging out a honeycomb warren of tunnels beneath the city. It was a solid plan that might have held water, but the authorities made one of the worst mistakes in the history of governance.
They put the people underground. The glass cubicle at which Max worked would have once been surrounded by four aluminium-plasterboard walls. A family had slept there, squinting in the artificial light and living miles from the nearest window.
There were mass uprisings, squalor and corruption. People died in those holes, huddled together at the mercy of landlords who were little better than the human traffickers of centuries past. In the end it was the businesses that went sub-level. People got to look at clean air again, even if they were separated from it by an inch of microglaze.
That was how Max came to be standing at his workstation deep in the bedrock of New York, looking down to avoid the glare of the lumi-tubes. One day, he told himself, he would get that promotion. He would go ST, super-terra, and have a director’s office under one of the hightown streets. Cars would screech past over his ceiling window and, if he stood on tiptoes on top of his desk, he might touch the micro-glaze and imagine he could feel the chill of the true air outside.
For now, he put his head down and worked. Max was doing what he did best, what nobody else did quite like him, and it sent a small thrill of pleasure up his spine. For the first time in his life someone was there to appreciate it. He had a visitor who could see exactly what his mind was doing and fully comprehend just how extraordinary it was.
“You’re pretty full of yourself right now, aren’t you?”
“Wouldn’t you be?” he asked, smirking with immodest pride.
His brain was working in three different directions at once as he raced against the computer system built into his workstation. That went hand-in-hand with being part of a justified workforce. Every action he took or decision he made had to be justified against a series of questions. Can a machine do it faster? Can a machine do it better? Does the machine need you?
Max was killing the software that day. In his imagination, he was a machine. He was a device programmed to achieve excellence and nothing else.
“I saw that! You just pictured yourself as a robot,” Rachel said, chuckling to herself. “What does the human excellence machine need machine-gun arms for?”
Hot blood surged to Max’s cheeks and he cringed with embarrassment. He had been daydreaming like a little boy. If there had ever been a chance for them to be more than visitor and host, that had probably killed it.
What did he just think? Why had he thought of that? It was the one thing he had tried hardest to keep firmly outside his mind.
“You’re still thinking about that? I thought I’d put you off with how I behaved in the elevator.”
“What? No, you didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Are you kidding me?” she asked, and he could hear the sincere tone of regret. “I was totally out of line. Who am I to barge into your head and then criticize what your subconscious is doing? I shouldn’t have… I can’t believe what I’m about to say. I shouldn’t have stormed off.”
He could feel it coming. It was a tug at his gut and a twitch of a smile at the corner of his mouth. If he knew one thing, it was that some things were better left unsaid. But where did all the wrong things go when they were not spoken? They bounced around in the mind before being put down or set free.
The thought popped into his head and stood out like a flashing lumi-tube sign.
‘How was that shower?’ he wondered.
It was the way he said it, or thought it. There was the image again, making his heart race. He heard an exasperated, pitying intake of breath in his ear.
“I can’t believe you think that’s what I look like. It’s not even a real person. All I’m seeing is… parts of a person glued together like some Frankenstein’s love monster. Sorry, I’m being critical again. I guess it’s all about perception.”
“I bet you think I’ve got a one-track mind,” he said, injecting a little extra dejection into his voice to really sell it.
Then he thought about whether it would work, make her forgive him, and he could have kicked himself.
“The thing is, I don’t,” Rachel replied, and for a moment he was too shocked to think anything. “I’ve been eavesdropping on your mind for hours as it’s jumped from designing a new multi-platform information delivery system to streamlining your workstation’s performance to setting up your own susto build newsletter. I’d call it anything but one-track.”
“Thanks.” And he meant it.
“But something’s going on here, Max. The way you keep thinking about me in that way. I don’t think it’s a ‘guy thing’ and I don’t believe you’re some sort of creep. Can you explain it to me?”
“Well, I suppose it’s like this. I’ve got you in my head. You’re constantly there and so there’s stuff I’m desperate not to think about. You see the problem?”
“You try not to think about something and your mind does the opposite?”
“I think that’s it.”
Was that right? He had only meant to come up with some made-up excuse that sounded plausible. Now it was out there, Max thought it could be the truth.
“Thanks for your dishonest honesty.”
He could tell she was smiling and he grinned back.
The short hour after work finished was Max’s favourite time of day. That went without saying for most people, but words could not describe how much Max loved his job. No, something truly special happened when his workstation shut itself down at five-thirty.
He always ran one finger along the smooth plastiglass-chrome alloy surface. It had not started as a ritual, yet it became one over time. In the beginning it was just a test to see that everything was switched off and staying off, none of the processors running too hot.
“Do you miss it when you’re not here?” Rachel asked.
That was a given for Max. He remembered being a child, he had forgotten exactly how old, and sleeping over in a storage room so that he could be at school before anyone else.
The school had been sub-level, he realised, back in the old days. It had been a dank, gloomy place excavated from the basement ruins of an ancient, ramshackle housing project. He had been terrified that night. He had wet himself.
He didn’t want her to know that.
“That’s alright, something similar happened when I was a kid. It happens to everyone.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
That was hardly fair, but Max didn’t want to press the point. It would take too much time and this was his hour.
He went to the elevator and rode it up to ground-level. That was special in itself. For the vast majority of people, their lives were spent between sub-level and highrise. They only ever saw ground-level as ribbons of rapid traffic hedged in by sheer walls of concrete-nanosteel. But Max knew a place.
His feet carried him along a narrow service walkway, cars rushing past in a roar of sound. Smooth midnight-grey walls rose on his left and a short drop fell away to the road on his right. After a few minutes he arrived at the park.
“Are you serious? You’re not taking another elevator up to a greenspace? It’s a real-life park?”
Max’s pleasure was soured by a sense of jealousy and guilt. Jealous that another person would be going into his secret, sacred place. Guilty that he felt that way.
“No, I understand. It’s your peaceful place and you don’t want me intruding,” she said, so sincere and genuine. He could feel some attachment growing inside his mind, a bridge between himself and that formless voice. Was Rachel his friend? He would like to think so. “I’ll try to keep quiet and let you enjoy it.”
Her voice had broken slightly. It was as if Max had reached out through the implant and touched her, brushed her hand with his. They had both become real to each other. She was more than just a visitor. It was a perpendicular friendship. Max liked that idea.
The park was an accident, which explained how it had survived while the rest of the city grew into itself like a concrete and micro-glaze fungus. Three broad avenues intersected in a Y-shape at the heart of New York’s perpendicularity boom.
Because of how the buildings’ arms reached out to each other overhead, there was no way for anything to be built in a tiny triangular patch of grass at the centre of the intersection.
“I hope you don’t get killed!”
He had been thinking the same thing, but that was just how it went. To get out among the waist-high grass, gnarled and rusted fence, and thick brambles Max would have to cross traffic. Nobody ever tried to cross traffic who didn’t have a deep longing to cut their life short. It was a constant, screaming torrent of chrome whipping past in a horrifying blur, but there was a way through.
It would be about five-thirty-nine. Almost time to go.
An empty void of silence suddenly swallowed up the chasm between the high skyscrapers. Max always found it eerie, no matter how many times he visited ground-level. The cars had stopped, caught in a twist of fate that hung by a fine thread to that coincidence which had allowed the small patch of grass to survive. Every day, at five-forty in the afternoon, traffic at that intersection stopped. If it didn’t, due to some glitch in highway planning, transport across New York would grind to a juddering halt.
Max vaulted over the railing and landed on the soft, springy road surface. He made up for his lack of agility with pure muscle memory, repeating the actions he had taken a hundred times before, and sprinted out towards the bright splash of green that was his island of colour in a sea of charcoal grey.
And there she was, waiting on the other side. She waved to him.