Set in a convincing near-future society ravaged by sudden climate change and controlled through draconian security measures, The Buyer examines issues of identity, fear, paranoia, and power. This extracted chapter finds the narrator, David Medway, working late in the offices of his corporate employer.
At night the lights are motion-activated to save energy, and I sit in an illuminated island, surrounded by darkness. I’m past being able to do any work, but I can’t go home. It is silent but for the ticking of my nano-drive and the semi-audible hum of hidden circuitry and wiring of the sleeping office. The EZe logo has been disintegrating and re-congealing on my screensaver for the last fifteen minutes. I stare at Fidel perched on the desk divider. He hasn’t moved since his victory over the US marine.
I peer through the slats of the blind at the car park. There are only a few vehicles left. The silver paint of Luke’s hydrogen-fuelled sports car looks bronze in the street lights. I sit back down and look through my notes from the meeting. The disembodied buzz words make less and less sense. Prepping, pie, traction. A print-out from Amy’s emailed minutes lies on the desk next to my notes. I pick it up and read. It is a straight narrative. A linear account of the events of the meeting. I scan through to the end.
Any other business: Sally asks about the buying. David replies that the buying team, David and Amy, will be monitoring the situation. Sally asks when we will know quantities. David replies 3 months before the launch date. Sally asks how the suppliers will know what we need. Jessica replies that the suppliers will allocate what we sold last time+. David says the buying is under review.
The three months should have been three weeks, but apart from this error it’s exactly as it happened. I make a note to myself to email a correction. The minutes will have been sent to everyone present at the meeting plus “interested parties”. “Interested parties” being Luke. Perhaps that was why Sally had asked. To get the question recorded. To have her doubt logged should anything go wrong.
But it won’t go wrong.
My chest is tight, a band of pain extending from my sternum out around my ribcage. I breathe in deeply through my mouth and exhale slowly through my nostrils. I’ve seen Mara do this, back when she went through a yoga fad. It is late even for Medway but I can’t go home. I don’t want to drive and feel that urge to accelerate, to roll dice. I want to teleport home with a twitch of my nose. Mara won’t be there. She warned me she’d be late. The apartment will be unlit and empty, the radiators ticking, the unbreathed air heating slowly.
The budget for the P and A must be ten times that of the original Mindfest and I must justify the expense or slash it. I try to muster the interest to work on this but my thoughts keep returning to Zoe and my parents. Their files must be located somewhere on Psi-Tech’s networks, but it’s not something I’ve been able to hack and crack. I’ve tried, but their firewalls are military and even the flightiest AI flounders on them.
Prints and Advertising, the label is almost archaic. Sally and her robotic smile. They say that if you dream of teeth a friend will die.
I locate Scam 2.0 on my handcom and begin to upload it onto the system. It will hide itself better than the last, an AI chameleon-worm attaching itself to innocuous looking files and regularly rewriting itself, changing security protocols and its name, indistinguishable from ordinary subsystems. The accounts it creates or impersonates will be more randomised. It takes less then a second, and then it is gone, working its way around the networks at the speed of an electron.
I close my eyes and see spreadsheets. I open my eyes and see the holographic representation of Sally’s pie chart rotating in front of me. I close it down, making it two dimensional, imprisoning it on the screen. The island of light follows me past the darkened pods to the end of the aisle. As I unlock the door the overhead strip-lights buzz on, dazzling me, washing the toy room with their fluorescence. The old boxes and toys have been removed. A stack of new arrivals is climbing one wall, almost to head height, in three unstable pillars. I should give Amy more, delegate, let her fill my boots. Nobody cares whether I check these products properly anyway. No records are kept.
It makes me feel murky, this crime that’s hardly a crime. It’s more of a game. An unsatisfactory plaything.
There is no fun in the numerical prediction of the sale of toys. Pure metrics. These plasticised objects of desire are merely a boot camp for future consumption. From these to clothes to electronic goods to cars to houses. There is no fun in the sale of toys. It is a shifting desert of numbers, as empty as embezzlement.
Sometimes I feel as if I’m disappearing into my work, as though the spreadsheets, their thousands of little rectangular cells, were the mesh on which my flesh is stretched, as though I breathed logarithms.
A frosty nausea washes from my mouth to my gut and back again, something shivering like fear and regret mixed. My parents would dislike what I’ve made of my new identity, this dead theft. In his articles my father would conjure up the spirits of ghosts, Marx, Guevara, King, Ghandhi; names you never hear now. Only Guevara seems to live on, his spirit reduced to a single image screen-printed onto t-shirts, his revolutionary ideology swamped by a tide of vacuous commodity. I sigh, visualising Dad as I’ve seen him in underground footage wearing baggy corduroys and flat cap, an affectation probably even then, as he passionately debated the influence of television and the internet on the death of ideas.
We have to find others ways of speaking.
If this crime is a game then the rules are of my own making. They can be changed. The money could be used to send a message, a wake-up call for the masses. This is what Zoe has proposed. If I’m going to be caught it might as well be for this than for plain theft. There might be a way into the past that only she can open. The money will be used against Unity and Psi-Tech and the owner-citizens in charge of the disappearances, the bodies by the roadside, the whole thing. The script has already gone, an irretrievable ghost, and the boxes are towering, all around me.
I kick the base of the column of boxes nearest me. It collapses like an office block, some of the packages bouncing off my leg, deceptively light, their contents swathed in shrink-wrap and foam. “Medway,” I roar. I select a box and take aim, striking it squarely in the middle, distorting the cardboard and throwing it hard against the unpainted concrete block wall. “Medway.” I raise my foot to stamp on it but stop myself. I am in control. The box is already split. Little pieces of foam packaging, the size and consistency of reconstituted potato crisps, are spilling onto the floor. My heart is thudding, then fluttering, then thudding again. I reach down and pick up the broken box. It isn’t easy to squeeze my hand through the split but I push until my wrist is deep in it, more packing scattering over my trousers. I grab something cold and hard, and pull. It is an ambulance. I open its rear doors and peer inside. There is a stretcher covered with a plastic red blanket.
Scam 2.0 is irretrievable but it can be adapted, treated, I’ve made sure of that. A properly injected signal can subtly alter its DNA and turn it into a different beast. This is what I’ll give to Zoe to allow her to send the money wherever she wants. Just a taster to begin with, until I’m sure I can trust her and know what she can offer me. I need to figure her out, unveil her agenda. Turning, I look out at the darkened office, at something behind me, that animal sense of being watched. My heartbeat skids.
The island of light that had pursued me to the toy room has deactivated, but at the far end of the office, just out of sight around the corner of the building, is another glow. The cleaners don’t arrive until later. It could be Luke, but it seems unlikely that he’d be down on this floor in the dark. Unless he saw my car in the car park. Unless he came to talk. Unless he saw me lose it.
That’s what I did. I lost it.
No. I didn’t stamp. I’m in control. No broken toys.
I step out of the toy room and lock the door quietly behind me. An overhead light comes on, pooling me. This is no place for sneaking about at night. Walking back to my desk, I can still see the glow, out of sight, around the corner on the other wing of the building. I peek through the window. The blinds in the other wing are backlit in one area. I glance down at the car park. Luke’s car is gone. Mine is the only one left, parked tidily in the rows of empty slots. I can see the security guard’s cabin lit up next to the gate. Perhaps I should call him or the man on the front desk.
Another possibility is that the light has been activated by something falling off a shelf, or the tap-tapping of a perpetual motion desk-toy thrown accidentally into life.
But perpetual motion needs source, stimulus; a point of origin.
The glow behind the blinds is in a different place. It is moving. The lights wink on and off, following its progress. It pauses at the far end of the building and slowly returns. Holding my breath I try to listen for footsteps, for breathing, but there is only my own pulse dancing unsteadily in my ears. I’m still clutching the toy ambulance. I close its rear doors, put it aside, and shut down my screen. I grab my nano-drive and stuff it into my briefcase, my hands trembling.
Stupid. Get a grip.
It takes approximately forty paces to reach the lifts from my pod. The lifts are in the centre of the complex, where the two wings join to form a capital L. I pull on my coat and carry my things, chased by lights. I round the corner of the L.
“Is anyone there?” I call.
But the whole wing is in blackness. Darkened pod after darkened pod.
In a cube of illumination I stand facing the brushed-steel lift doors. They are static, unused. Maybe a cat got in here somehow. A rat even. They say you’re never more than a few metres away from a rat. It could have crawled out of the toilets. I press the button and the doors slide open. A person could have used the stairs, the raggedy man skulking silently into the stairwell. But without a pass it would be impossible. All the doors in and out of the stairwell need a swipe pass. I step into the lift, press [G], and sink towards the ground floor.
Dizziness rocks me as the lift descends. Pins and needles flash up and down my arms. I’m jittery like I’m about to sugar-crash, which I might be as I haven’t eaten since breakfast. That face is flickering through my reflection, a dark double.
I stumble almost backwards out of the lift, watching the mirror until the doors sever my gaze. I’m standing on the marble floors of the lobby, flanked on either side by large ficus trees. The walls and ceilings are granite faced. The EZe emblem, embossed on a six foot high brass plaque, is fixed above the lift doors. The miniature waterfall is trickling behind me.
“What’s the matter?”
I turn. It’s the night doorman, looking up from his novel. I fumble for his name.
“Nothing Harry, I’m fine. It’s just I’ve never quite noticed―” I swing my briefcase up into the air, towards the logo “―how big this all is.”
Harry scowls at me over his desk.
“Anything unusual?” I ask, nodding to the bank of close circuit telly screens at his side. “Anyone else in the building?”
“Reckon you’re the last out. You often are.”
I nod, and head towards the door.
“Burning the candles?”
I turn. “What?”
“Got a lot of work on?”
“I suppose so,” I say.
I stand in front of his desk, swaying slightly, the weight of my bags tugging on my shoulder joints. I expect more questions but he looks at me from his chair with tired, unreflective eyes. The lime-green overalls are too big for him. He isn’t armed.
“You’d be going then. . .” he says finally, his face returning to his book.
I turn away. He opens the doors for me by remote control and I’m struck by the dark and chilling air.