I watch my feet and count my steps. I count the tiny creases and trademark holes in my leather brogues. I study the ebb and flow of the swing of black shoelaces. But nothing, it seems, softens the click-thud of the feet behind.
I count the cobblestones, wet and slick in the night rain, their blue/black monotony occasionally shattered by the rainbow spectre of an oil stain. I count the half stones and ponder their partners. Are they here on the pathways or were they sent elsewhere to slow traffic, or constructing transmitters somewhere. Maybe they’re on the other side, but surely they’d have been painted first, I’d better not be going through all this to look at more drab, grey cells.
They’re growing faint now, their echo stronger than their fall, yet no footstep has ever carried such weight. I can almost feel them on my back, standing on my throat, kicking me in the gut, crushing my nose under their weight.
I backtrack, I take a knee and tie my shoelace and I stop at open-fronted shops to buy chewing gum, cigarettes, bottled water, anything, just so long as I can survey the street and gain a clue as to who poses a threat.
I know I’m almost out, the streets are becoming more colourful as I head south? east? west? I have no idea which direction I’m heading in, I just hope the old man was right “Follow the colour, the music, the chaos.” He can’t have been entirely wrong, the shop fronts continue to brighten and the nightclub music spills more and more out onto the streets and with each new sound and colour the weight of boot on my back grows.
I received my orders from Hypothalamus HQ early this morning. Some punk processing clerk been hearing this talk of the end of the rainbow. Happening a lot these days, dissatisfied workaday cells think they can travel across and live the easy life. Thirteen cells done killed themselves trying already this month. And those that do make it just get sent right back. Damn hippies on the other side ain’t got not time for no ‘factory rats’. That’s what they call them, ‘factory rats’. Just cos the got rich parents they think they can talk down to the rest of us. Well I don’t mind saying it, they wouldn’t last two minutes over here, having to work for a living? No chance, trust fund cells would be crying for their Pons in no time. That’s if they could cry, with my boot on their throat.
Objective: Return rogue lamellae to Parietal Lobe for reformatting. Due to host’s chemical imbalance all care must be taken not to damage rogue lamellae during repatriation.
Little punk thinks he can shake me with the old shoelace and shop tricks. I ain’t been doing this job 28 years to fall for that crap. If I’m honest, I could have the little shit right now but he knows I’m following him and watching him trying to play it cool is just too fuckin’ funny. The pleasure I’d get from squeezing his puny little throat with these old boots of mine but boss says I have to play it cool, orders coming down we to be gentle and respectful now, part of some twelve step program to improve living standard of population. Apparently the host done got himself some chemical dependency and the Oblongata dept threatened to go on strike ‘til their systems got upgraded. They might be lab rats but they work hard in there, and at high stakes, I sure wouldn’t thank you for the job. But is the dumb fuck host grateful? Is he fuck, just keeps jabbing that shit into the veins and hoping we’ll sort it out.
Here we go again, he’s stopped at another shop. What is it this time? Cigarettes. Give me a break. I mingle in with a young crowd outside a nightclub but my lamellae friend decides to take a rest on a bench across the street. I stay hidden amongst the clubbers, all to drunk or high to really notice my intrusion, and watch my little friend. He knows he’s being followed, wether this is pure knowledge or paranoia I couldn’t care less I’m going to have some fun with his ass anyway. I give this ugly old hooker some smack cash to go hit him up for a date and it is worth the spend. He turns paler than my spotty ass and heads off again, still in the wrong direction, thinking this will phase me when it just makes my job easier – gives Hypo HQ time to shut down the pathways.
Transmissions from HQ says the old man has been successfully retired. We can’t be sure how many cells he corrupted but he won’t be getting to any more. He came from the other side but was a troublemaker, they don’t like troublemakers, the trust fund cells, so they sent him over here. Thalamus were glad of the extra hands and we were sure the old man had been thoroughly reformatted but something must have stuck cos soon enough he was spreading tales of the other side and all that hippy bullshit.
As I set off again I know I haven’t lost him. That creeping, that dread, that weight on my throat all tell me he’s still on my tale. I though I saw him amongst a some clubbers but some old skank got in my face and started propositioning me. When I finally bought her peace with £20 the old leathery face was gone. He actually reminded me of the old man, the thing greying hairline highlighting years of struggle on the forehead. A frosty sparkle in dead old eyes that pierce steel.
I had just been promoted when he was when the old man was placed on my team. We were channeling data from various nodes to the frontal lobe. The conveyor belts never stopped but the routine nature of the job meant we had plenty of time to get to know each other. The old man had little to say in the beginning, in fact, I often felt he wanted to speak but was holding back. It was only after time I started to realise why.
During one of his monthly appraisals he told me of his background on the other side. He was a colour picker. When the host dreamt or imagined anything it was the old man’s job to chose which colour a car, a guitar or a star would appear to be. The complexities of this baffled me and I sent him back to work on the line. How could he ‘choose’ a colour? Wasn’t everything grey? I wrote him off as a kook but my sympathies got the better of me and I didn’t return him for reformatting.
As the months wore on he would tell me more of the jobs available on the other side. They all involved this element of choice. The hierarchy seem familiar in the sense of a team under a line manager but the managers only responsibility lay in telling the team when to work, not how. There was a team for everything and mostly for things I never knew existed. A whole department for making dinner was split into the meat decision team and veg decision team. One cell would choose a meat whilst another decided how to cook it and another would choose a sauce. One cell would choose a veg whilst another weighed the pros and cons of boil vs stir fry but then followed it’s gut anyway.
The more he spoke the more I imagined this wonderful world of colour and music although I still didn’t entirely understand what those things were. As he spoke I could often see other cells watching us with interest. Passing each other in the corridors some cells would glare at me disapprovingly whilst others delivered friendly winks and nods. I really had no idea how to handle this world recently opened up to me but I knew I didn’t have to. That decision would be made for me, like all others, when the time comes.
I can’t remember the last time I was on the streets so late. It’s a horrible sight, trails of broken bottles and vomit only parting for a zig-zag of intoxicated footsteps – did we create our hosts’s chemical dependency or did he create ours? I put my head down and walk, past the clubs, the takeaways, the neural trash chutes. I can see ahead the city pathways giving way to wasteland.
How much the old man told our lamallae friend we can’t be sure, HQ got a little rough with him and between his age and previous reformatting attempts his recollection was as useful as the tread on that old hooker I paid off to hassle our friend.
The trash and waste in this end of town is beyond ridiculous and I can barely keep pace with my mark. I’m slowed further by the fat that I’m the only sober man on the street and have to act drunk so as not to be made. I fear that surrounded by wasted cells is rather contagious. Have I done gone and gotten drunk by proxy? This little lamallae fuck is gonna pay for this.
I’ve fallen again. The slick puddles of kebab grease vomit giving little grip. My whole left side covered in the unholiest of puke I pick myself up and swear violent retribution for bringing me here. The mark keeps heading further into the ghetto, he’s heading for the wasteland, seems he took a right turn somewhere. I don’t even remember where this could’ve happened, I can hardly keep my balance under the torrent of cheap alcohol running down the streets. We’d all heard rumours of the damage done to this end of town but it’s worse than suspected. So long since cops came here we took it for granted but there’s no way I’m gonna catch him now, I’ve fallen so much and swallowed so much foul, acrid intoxicant that I doubt I’ll see HQ again. And me, three weeks from retirement as well.
I drag myself onwards, I can’t see him now but I follow my gut, as poisoned as it may be it’s never let me down. Three blocks on and I take a left, holding onto a lamppost for leverage round the corner. I see him up ahead, he’s made it onto the wasteland. There’s no way I’m following him there. A few cops have gone into the wasteland but none have made it back with their sanity. After the twelve step reformatting by the host the Hippocampus team experienced various malfunctions but none more damaging than the data deletion breakdown. Now unable to erase any previous experience, all personal demons, nightmares and guilt have been sent to the edge of town, far from valuable processing centres downtown. This is where my mark is heading. Ain’t no way I’m following him in there, even if I could, I wouldn’t. I sit down, head swimming, stomach churning. It’s not getting any better, the fumes are stronger than ever out here, I lie down, overdose on the cards. And me, three weeks from retirement as well.
I enter the wasteland, cold and damp in the air and shrill noises in the ears. The torrents of filth seemed to abate as I cleared the city pathways. Behind in the distance I see an old man lie down by a lamppost, his head barely clearing the filth as he slumps further, poor bastard. I take one more look back just in time to see him slump below the water line. This will be the last time I open my eyes for some time. Having worked in data processing I am well aware what comes to the wasteland. I focus on the multi-coloured light on the other side, two or three kilometres maybe, I can’t be sure. I close my eyes and walk.
The footing is surprisingly sound, no doubt a result of recent defragging to save on what is already limited storage space. My skin tingles with charged air and I swear I feel real life hands clawing at my plasma, they’re cold and hard and pulse a frenetic beat. The clawing worsens, as does the sound, a white noise from which I can’t disengage. I fear my direction being changed by the clawing but must trust myself. I am to make it through I must be true to myself, the old man said.
The going is slow and I have no idea how long I’ve been out here. There is no physical barrier holding me back, just a sense of belonging, a charged particle struggling to leave it’s opposite mate. As each step gets heavier the clawing increases. It feels like they have consumed me, their cold charged hands now more me than me. I fear I will be mistaken for data and refused access to the other side. The old man warned of this, the cerebellum playing tricks with my program in a last ditch effort to bring me back. I stay true. Take another step. And another. And the cold charged hands wither off me and darkness falls all around me.
As I take another step I realise there is nothing below me. I’m walking on a vacuum and weightless, but not floating, I’m in complete control of my cell. A small flicker ahead, it’s like the telescreens on the line flickering to life at shift’s start. The brilliant white flicker grows and quickly deafens me with white noise before displaying the most staggering sight I could imagine. Is this what the old man called ‘colour’? It’s like the glimmer of the oil stains on the cobblestones but an infinite magnitude more brilliant. What begins as in front of me starts to warp around me, surrounding me in it’s colour like fluid. I’m in a giant sphere of dazzling, confusing, light. The old man often spoke of beauty and I didn’t understand his meaning until now. The sphere starts to shrink, I don’t fear for the warmth, beauty and comfort grows as I bathe in the light, revel in it and eventually, am consumed by it.
“Good morning Lamallae-248, and welcome to the ‘Right Side”