Sunday, 9 May 2010

Part Two: The Offer

there has been some confusion regarding the exact nature of my employment. The various remixes and mashup often overstate my authority, my place in the hierarchy, and my importance in the drug scene generally. So, in this confessional spirit, let me just clear things up a little before I go on.

I worked for De Benoit Ministry of Commerce, pharmacy division, not the other way around. They picked me up a few years after the revolution: the Magic Bus thing had foundered, the vehicle itself left rusting in a field near Levin, with the bodies of Eliot and Jude decomposing, unburied, beside it. Far from being the heroic defeat often portrayed, our final encounter with the Nomad gang was a fractious, humiliating rout, with Katy, Tanya, Buzz and Me just making it out before they opened fire. I still remember the last time I saw Eliot’s face, compassionate and understanding but resolute in his own determination to do the right thing. Fucking idiot.

The year after that I did my best to make a living as a political radical, but you know? I just didn’t have it in me. All the answers I had seemed to lead on to more difficult questions, every attempt at promoting liberty seemed to inhibit freedom a little more somehow. So complicated! You pull a lever, you gotta press a button. You press the button, you gotta turn the winch. You turn the winch and by the tinkling tunes of Metzger you got no time to relax, kick off have a bit fun cos you gotta be somewhere else yanking on another lever. In the end, I had to admit that I didn’t have any answers and the grass and pills and trips were making it impossible for me to think anything through anyway.

Fortunately, DeBenoit came to the rescue. In the lolly scramble following the revolution they’d picked up Commerce, which gave them warrants over product licensing in New Zealand, and they were soon making lots of money in kick-backs and payola. Their main business, however, was consumer pharmaceuticals, their origins being a prohibition-era Ecstasy factory in Belgium. Having had considerable difficulty with health and commerce licensing before the revolution they had been buying up these interests with a will, though I believe that UNUM had acquired the NZ Health Department license before it was taken over, in a hostile action that proved to be the death of Buzz, by Nestles...

Anway, De Benoit was looking around for a front man, and I, it seemed, fit the bill. They paid for me to go to University in Wellington (important for my credibility to get that student market share) and picked up my contract full-time when I graduated with a degree in applied psycho-pharmacology and a post-graduate Diploma in Hallucinogenic Tuition, or a Dip Trip as it was known. I went to work in the licensing division, testing new product for the New Zealand market.

Nominally, I was in charge of licensing. My job description stated that I had to ensure that recreational pharmacueticals submitted by independent manufacturers met health and consumer rights standards for the New Zealand market. In practice, De Benoit in Belgium were the only manufacturers whose products were approved so the real substance of my work was to make myself available to publicise upcoming products (though occasionally we took on other manufacturers’ stuff: who, for instance, could resist the international momentum of White Rabbit?). My right eye was replaced with a tiny cam and I recorded my comings and goings for most of the day (by contract, at least 18 hours out of every 24), during which I had to endeavour to use the Ministry’s products as much as possible. These recordings were broadcast on the media as virtual drama: visual, aural and sense impulses providing the closest simulation of actual experience available at the time (it all seems a bit quaint these days, doesn’t it?).

A whole lot of us did this for various government and corporate interests: policy advisers and communication officers, desk managers and analysts hooked into the data-net. Katy Bate, for instance, had been with the Watties Police Department, running the Hot Buttered Love Ovens before she decided to set up shop on her own.

and punched in the code for the office. The sun was going down so I switched to manual and flew out over Eastbourne and round the Hutt Valley. The sun had dipped below the horizon, and the clouds glowed deep pink that contrasted with the dark blue of the sky. The smell of burning leaves wafted through me, a scent that always had a powerful effect on me, a nostalgia for something I can never quite grasp. Something caught in my throat. I switched on my cam, and thought wistful thoughts, a nice ambient piece to break up the hectic pace.

was a classic 1970s number on Molesworth Street. It had been given a going over about twenty years ago when the De Benoit moved in, a new portico and fleshy mouldings up the corners, but it still retained most of its plain, modernist-era frumpiness.

I sent the car off to my parking space and breezed in. I’d often tried to strike up some sort of Moneypenny thing with Tina, the receptionist, and had frequently asked Zac to make her co-operate, but she wouldn’t have it. She hated me and nothing, not even threats and inducements from above, could make her indulge in playful banter. “Morning”, I said, but her hard stare just bounced it back.

“Sod you, then,” I said under my breath when I was past her.

The mainframe had registered my arrival and coffee waited in the AutoFood by my desk as I arrived. I sat down, shuffled though some papers and took a sip from the cup. It was ice cold and strangely thick with an awful, slimy vegetable taste. I gagged, and it went down the front of my shirt.

“Shit. Computer!”

“Hello Dylan.”

“Could you get me a proper coffee, please?”

“Oh, well okay.” A huffy note of resentment cut its voice. “Iced avocado coffee is the latest thing in Italy, you know, everyone will be drinking it soon.”

That was the image dictated by the De Benoits Marketing Plan, and all corporate policy was based upon it. They followed the latest management trends, had the most up-to-date looking logos and stationery and outfitted all their offices with the latest commercial technology.

So, a couple of years ago, the latest in office automation was the artificially intelligent reactive mainframe and the De Benoits Ministry of Commerce were the first big corp in New Zealand to get it. For a little while we were cock of the walk, favoured by gushing profiles in Government Computing and Wired, and and I was briefed to push the weird programmed personality elements as a kind of comedy robot side-kick. Shortly after it had been installed, however, the limitations became clear: the technology's reasoning was limited, the personality module given to serious mood swings, flip-flopping between obsequious servility and violent paranoia. Just another fucked up government IT contract!

The Ministry, however, soldiered on with it, mainly to save face. The computer tried really hard for a while, but just wasn’t up to the task. It was a terminally fucked unit but no one was willing to admit it. Nicky in personnel disappeared one night after telling it off about a pay-roll glitch, and there was now growing support among the staff collective to have the thing turned off completely. Management held back.

Its main function now, apart from the doors and lifts and monitoring attendance, was the trend register, basically a clipping service combined with a basic statistical reasoning routine. Unfortunately, this meant that personnel in my department had the most contact with the bastard thing.

I only made it into the office for a few hours every couple of days. I’d usually start by having a coffee and opening the mail, flicking though the magazines on distribution and high-lighting any material I wanted conceptualised (no time to read the whole thing). I was flicking through the latest issue of Butts, Tors and Hillocks, and having a bacon sandwich, when the mainframe cut in again.

“You realise Zac wants to see you? He hasn’t got all day.”

“Yes, yeah that’s right. Tell the old cock-sucker I’ll be up in about half an hour, would you?”

“He told me to tell you to get up there immediately. He’s monitoring this conversation, actually.”

Just the sight of one gives me the shits. The greatest day of my life (and indeed the event which shot me on my celebrity career) was the day I decapitated the headmaster of Tawa College on live TV during the school revolts. The old fucker tied up and lying on the steps of the office, I cut his neck in half with a saw from the woodwork room.

I could over-dramatise it, say he was a paedophile or an egomaniac or some such justification, but it’s not true. He was just an old guy with bad ideas. He thought he was doing us a favour, when really he was holding us back: he had to go.

I was shaking from great knots of tension in my stomach. What did Zac want? I was doing my meaty job, why couldn’t he just fucking leave me to it? How did this happen? I asked myself. How did it end up like this? The act of defiance that had spawned my career seemed to have led inevitably back to servitude. This was exactly what I’d tried to get away from, but here I was again, the nervous schoolboy summoned to the headmaster’s office. I took a couple of Pink Floyds to try and chill out a little.

for now, Dylan.” Zac belted a golf ball out the French doors at the end of his office and that opened into the night. Somewhere, a window broke.

“Yeah, sorry about that. I actually thought I’d get the tape and give it to editorial, it’d be a nice little character piece.”

Zac raised his eyebrows questioningly. His body had been replaced with a mechanical prosthesis some years before. I never found out for sure why (I still don’t know) but office gossip said that his flesh body had been eaten away by Ebola when he’d been on some sort of buying tour in Africa while he worked for the Rotary. He’d been the one who recruited me for De Benoit, having only recently been head hunted (as it were) himself. His mechanical body featured systems that allowed him to assess drugs in a chemical way, via computer simulation but (and I have the greatest respect and admiration for Zac) he sometimes didn’t allow for purely physical effects. I guess he relied on me for this sort of information, and I’d always felt there was some sort of special bond between us. I was about to learn that this bond was weaker than I thought.

Anyway, the body looked good - nicely proportioned, well crafted, elegant movement - but it was still, essentially, a mannequin, with preprogrammed stances and actions. The tiny, nervous flickers that give the body away didn’t have the strength to lick down the shining metal limbs, so he had no body language, just bland pre-set poses. To make up for it, he had very vivid facial expressions, like the nervous energy pooled at Zac’s neck, and supercharged every grin and grimace. It was something to see: in even the most serious meetings he’d grin and gurn like a minstrel.

“You know,” I continued, “Dylan the rebel and all that, calling the boss a cocksucker. Ha ha.”

“Oh I see, well I wouldn’t bother.” He whacked another ball out the window; he had a whole row of them lined up on golf tees in front of him, ready to go. He paused, waiting expectantly. The sound of breaking glass wafted in and Zac’s expression melted into a satisfied smile. “The board wants to take you off the list.”

for few seconds, feeling nothing. I shut my eyes and let it sink in, then it exploded back out in a rush of sheer horror. “What!?”

very bad. You’ve been hovering for a while, and I’m afraid that last night you dropped below the hundred mark. Grandma Heelhoffer is now more popular than you.”

I let out a deep breath. “Oh, come off it. Derek Metzger.”

“The marketplace is changing, Dylan. Older viewers are dropping out of the scene, and a lot of your remaining market sector audience identify with Jaffa now: they’re settling down, starting families, buying houses. The younger crowd are moving onto the next wave.”

I was incredulous. “The andy stuff?”

“Yeah.” He turned away from the golf balls and looked at me. His face was a professional, business-like mask, like a doctor explaining the consequences of terminal body rot. “The number of full androgynes jumped 400 percent over the last quarter, there’s no doubt it’s the next big thing. It’s not just you, Dylan, your whole crowd is being edged out by the next generation. We’re working on a new marketing plan and scouting for a couple of andies. We’re moving away from stimulants and hallucinogens and steering more toward hypnotics and depressants, like in Europe.”

“Hey, this isn’t Europe. That scene could bomb here. You should keep me on until you’re sure, you know, er... which way it’ll go.”

“That’s what I told them, Dylan. But the board is convinced.”

“Oh, okay, look, I could go along with it, take on elements of that andy style, appropriate some of that imagery, you know? It’s just another form of youth rebellion, I mean-”

“Dylan, it’s you they’re rebelling against. This is the first generation to come up after the revolution, it’s ancient history to them. They just don’t care. As far as they’re concerned the revolution didn’t change anything. They just want to get out of it, forget everything. You’ve heard of the Silver Machine?”

“Of course I’ve heard of the Silver Machine! You think I don’t read the trades?”

“Well, the Ministry of Justice has been installing them in all the Courtroom bars and clubs and they’re almost permanently in use. Justice saw this coming before we did and they’re making a fortune. We can’t ignore it any more.”

The middle of my head was collapsing in a wave of exhaustion. I sat down and took a couple of uppers. “Bloody kids. Bloody fucking kids. They’ll realise, in a couple of years, they’ll be back.”

“I don’t know, they’re not really into rebels, as such. It’s the new authoritarianism, you see. Our mob-psych people say it’s a reaction against the freedoms of the past, the constant changes in fashion. Fashions change every day now, the world-”

“-is in a constant state of change yes yes yes. I know all this, for Metzger’s sake, I practically fucking invented it.”

Zac smirked, and I could almost hear that smug, meaty voice, That’s not quite true, you know. “These kids are looking for something beyond that,” he said, “Concrete values, concepts that’ll endure.”

“That’s what we wanted! Don’t they fucking realise? The only thing you can depend on is change. There are no universal, eternal constants!” I shook my fists in the air.

Zac put a fine robotic hand on my shoulder, pressing me into the couch. “That’s right, Dylan, nothing lasts for ever, you’ve got to have your eye on the next thing. In ten years something new will come along and all these andies’ll just be another generation of boring old farts.”

“Right, yeah, right.” I stood up and wandered over to the window. The sun had gone down, but afternoon heat still lingered in the rich blue sky. A golf ball swished past my ear and somewhere a window smashed. I rubbed my lacy sleeve around my nose and eyes. “Meat, why didn’t I see this coming?”

“It’s not the end Dylan, you’ve still got options. A lot of senior management started like you. We’ll transfer you to a manager’s post somewhere. Maybe Public Information Services-”

“I’m not going to work in the photocopy room!”

“- you’ll get a bit more money, a place in the suburbs, begin the climb up the corporate ladder.”

I grimaced, all attempts to hide my disappointment abandoned.

said Zac, firing off another shot. He paused for the window crack, but nothing came. He frowned. “I said before that we’ve always got our eyes on the next big thing, well, take look at this.” Zac produced a vial and tossed it over. Inside was a small chip fringed with long thin wires, like whiskers.

Zac set up another shot. He hit the ball and a window shattered in the distance. He smiled to himself. I guess I chose to ignore the wave of cunning that scuttled across Zac’s face like a crab just then in favour of the lifeline that came with it. But then, a face is not a precise instrument, even one as fine-tuned as Zac’s.

“What is it?”

“The latest from the labs in Belgium. It’ll blow you away, Dylan.”

“This goes inside me, doesn’t it?”

“That’s right, straight into the brain, rests on the frontal lobe.” He waved a colourful leaflet at me and read: “Janus (that’s what they call it) works as a direct interface between the mind and electronic networks. It plugs directly into twelve key nodes of the brain controlling the senses, conscious thought and voluntary motor responses. It is capable of mixing different sense arrays between the controller and the subject and...” He trailed off, eyes scanning down the page. “A whole lot of other stuff. This is the future, Dylan. With this we can actually plug you into the media, and feed data directly to you. We can actually overlay computer generated imagery on your own senses.”

I didn’t know what to say. It sounded absurd. “Will it interfere with my recording?”

“Well, maybe. That’s the sort of thing we’ve got to sort out. This actually came from the military section, and they’re being a bit cagey on details.”

“I see.”

“Now, we don’t want a repeat of the Frenzy episode,” I winced and felt a tingle in my spine, “So we want you to test the thing out for a while. You want?”

“Well, I don’t know. This thing goes inside my head? I mean, I don’t know if I’m quite ready for brain surgery.”

“It’s no worse than getting a cam fitted.”

“That’s beside the point. I may be open minded, but I’m not going to let you put anything you like in there. I need to think this over.”

“Okay, take an hour or two. Let me know. Don’t leave it too long, though: we’re interviewing a batch of andies tomorrow. One of them’ll do it, I’m sure.”

What choice did I have?

Next: I thought I Should At Least Try

In the meantime, here's Fashion by David Bowie, a link this time because you can't embed this one.

The image at the head of this post is by flickr user Peter Hodge and is used under the terms of the Creative Commons License.

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