He woke up early in the morning and before anything else walked over to the screen on the far wall, palming it open with a tired and noncommittal wave. He moved his open hand over the sense pads arranged at an angle inside, left to right, until one toned in recognition. The third pad; that meant he was at least the third person in the envoy – probably there were four – and that Minola Stavera was here before him. He was never going to get that promotion at this rate.
The pad chimed again, registering its acknowledgement of him, of his palm print, his flush response and skin hydration, the oils and sweat on his hand, what it said, what it meant. By the time his eyes had lost their sleep blur and he looked around the room his preferences had been logged and projected. The blocky furniture and plain colours had been overlaid with his own VR sheen and the room looked more like – if not perfectly like – his own bedroom at home. One of his contact lenses was askew, though, and half of the room pixelled in and out, and at an angle, so he went to the bathroom to fix himself. In the meantime, the kitchen unit chatted to the sense pad and fixed him a perfectly balanced breakfast shake based on the information it had.
An hour and ten minutes later, on the street. The riot of colour that everyone projected over themselves was too much, so he dialled it down as much as was allowed, sacrificing some of his ad-free time to do so. The adverts came in straight away and tried to sell him things they thought he’d want. He ignored the billboards and the newsstands, ignored the targeted hawkers as they passed, walked through the projections of beautiful redheads created just to sell him anything from fast cars to hair products, and focused on the buildings in the square until he saw beneath the VR sheen for the one he wanted.
He took a seat adjacent to what might have been a stand of Lucidae Primerae and spoke. “Position three, ready.”
In his ear, the roll call – position one, position two, position four, all ready – and then the countdown. He opened the briefcase on his lap. He could tell from the roll call that he was the last to arrive. Powered up. He mentally chided himself – he really needed that promotion. Triangulated. Never mind – he would do better. Everything set.
He pressed the button.
There was a brief unknowable hum. It faded to almost nothing. And then the square and adjacent streets for two blocks around turned off.
Colours vanished. Noises stilled. Flamboyant clothes, indicators of wealth, status, rebelliousness and good or bad taste winked out to reveal the plain grey body suits everyone wore. Advertising hoardings stuttered, completely unaware of what they were selling and who they were supposed to be selling it to. The buildings themselves, both the arbiters of distinction with their classic or modern architecture and the progressives that allowed passersby to overlay their own choice (from Venice to Disneyland, licence permitting) onto them, reverted to the plain grey slabs from which they were made. Instantly out of date and unfashionable cars came to a halt, and municipal transport looked grey and functional, covered in graffiti.
The birds in the sky vanished, for there were no birds in the sky. The fluff of white cloud that broke up the beautiful blue sky was heavier now, and greyer, and it scuffed the yellow skin of the sky like a rash.
He laid his briefcase on the bench and walked away. No one stopped him, or noticed his briefcase.
Everyone was busy shrieking, trying to cover themselves, as if anyone else was bothered that they were exposed, for everyone was exposed. No one knew where they were as instant communication went down. Gratification and validation stopped, so no one knew what to think of themselves or – worse – what to think of others.
They stared at each other and the ugly buildings and the hard-beaten bruise of the sky. There was shit and trash on the pavement; the shit people walked in and the trash they dropped. The homeless popped into existence, shocked that people could suddenly see them. People were shocked to see them. There was no context for thought.
People weren’t being sold anything, so they didn’t know what to believe. Their mapping software refused to tell them where they were or where they were going. They didn’t know if they were late or on time. People assumed instantly that they were late and badly dressed. No one loved them and they had nothing they wanted to buy with that bonus they were no longer going to get.
The man without a briefcase walked briskly out of the square and down the street. It was bland and ugly, filled with bland and ugly people. The shock was wearing off and the panic was about to begin. In two minutes, order would be restored. Thirty seconds before that, the VR he had worked on all month with the three other members of his cell would play. He really didn’t want to be anywhere near here when that happened. It was going to get all monkey, as Stavera was fond of saying.
He checked his antique watch. Right on time.
He wondered what he would have for lunch.