Here in upside-down-land it’s Spring, the season when flowers crawl up our nostrils and attempt to shred the lining of our noses, and emus pelt down from the skies, pecking at our heads demurely. And the sun on the back of our heads reminds us that we are here, again.
Here is a story.
The Warhol-Sleeping Quartet
By Peter M. Ball
1: Cat-Boys El Grande
You’re sitting in a café with Steve, drinking white Kafe el Grandes, eating pale slivers of Swiss cheese on synthesized wafers of watercress. Steve talks about work. His work, not yours. He smiles too much. You watch his teeth, blunt and square. They look like the teeth of Captain Diplodocus: Tuesday Night’s Herbivorous Hero. Cartoon teeth, like miniature credit cards, too white to be real. The overly-clean white of someone who can afford a nanite clean. When Steve smiles it’s a pale, flat expression, like he’s had the possibility of real humour sucked out of him and replaced with his own private laugh-track. He keeps talking, rolling on like you’re not even there.
You know, Marco, there are some things you do for love and some things you do for money. That’s just the way things are, the way they should be, you know? My problem is that I’m not sure why I’m doing what I’m doing anymore. I’ve discovered this fugue state between the two, where you’re doing something you used to love, but now you don’t, but you can’t leave because the money’s too good. You know what I’m saying? What am I saying, of course you don’t. I mean-
You lose interest fast; start gazing around the café, all surreptitious. They’ve got Warhol-Sleeping on the video screen, selling Coke to the locals. You like the way you look on screen, the digitally smooth complexion and the liquid-metal gloss they put on the silver- mop of hair. Warhol-Sleeping peers out at the world, eyes dilated, and you wonder what they did to the feed to get that effect. You wonder if they even needed to do anything – maybe it’s natural? Maybe that’s what you look like when you’re sleeping? You aren’t sure you really want to know.
Steve’s starting to get all woe is me when you spot the kids watching you, their eyes gleaming. They’re both wearing cats eye contacts, the glass glinting when it catches the candlelight, jeans rippling with red-and-black tiger-stripes that roll up and down the pant leg like waves on a beach. One of them wears a t-shirt and a familiar slogan: Buy Your Dreams. They’re obviously fans, but you hope they aren’t fanatics. The big fans are into the minutia and know how to ID you on sight. Some of them even know the difference between you and the guy on the screen. Most of those guys ignore you, but some try to strike up a conversation because it’s better than nothing. It makes you feel bad, worse than you ought too. The simple truth of the matter is this: the big fans, the fanatics, are nothing but trouble.
You turn away, watching their reflection in the rain-splattered window. The room in the window is translucent, indistinct. A picture of another world laid over the shadows and decay of the D. Steve starts winding up, bulldozing his way through to the part he apologizes: It’s not that I don’t respect what you do, Marco. I just don’t get it, I guess. There’s something about the whole sleeper thing, this whole plug-and-play celebrity, it just doesn’t click for me.
You work for Steve’s company, and you tell him so. Well, sure, there’s that. But just because I don’t understand it, doesn’t mean I don’t want to profit.
He clicks his fingers, calling for the bill, and the Cat Eye Boys perk up. They watch Steve sign off and it clicks into place; they aren’t big fans. They aren’t even watching you. The Cat’s Eyes are locked onto Steve, following his every move. Steve in his impeccable Armani-Gautier suit, the carefully purchased, understated style that oozes credit and success. The kids respect that. They ooze edge, minimal buying power, a need for more than they have. Their cat-eyes are a sign of what’s to come, but the hunger in their faces says it all. There’s a gap there, between Steve and the kids, and they know which side they want to be on. One of them catches your eye. You see sharp teeth when he smiles, implanted fangs that jut up from his bottom jaw. Steve shakes his head. Kids.
You wait for it to finish raining before you leave. Outside the café there’s purple neon reflected on the sidewalk. The slick sheen is dark like the skin of a metallic grape. Steve watches the traffic flow past, stops a cab with a code dialled into his phone. The door swings open and he smiles, power ebbing off him. The Cat’s Eyes are pressed against the glass window of the café, watching. The slit pupils giving away nothing. Steve looks at the rain, then looks over at you. You want a lift?
You shrug; you’ve had enough Steve for one day. He flashes you a final grin and disappears into the cab’s belly. You watch it float out into the traffic and down the street, following the flow as it heads towards the towers of light in the city centre. You’re alone on the D, three-and-a-half blocks from home. The purple neon is dripping a staccato pattern. Drip-drip. Drip. Drip. Drip-drip-drip. Drip. You’re standing in a puddle, your feet cold through the synthetic boots. You look up, following the lines of the buildings and the vid-screens and the floating neon. There used to be a sky up there, once upon a time. Blue during the day, black with pin-prick stars during the night. Maybe it’s still there, if you get high enough. Maybe you can catch an elevator to the top of the buildings and scoop great fistfuls of hydrogen from the stars that remain.
Then again, maybe not.
You check your watch: 19:34. You’ve still got five hours until plug-in, if you wanted to play hookey. You’ve still got a night free this week, should you want it. You contemplate the possibilities as you head home, soggy feet slapping concrete as you eat the blocks.
You’re a block from home when you hear them running, frantic feet on the concrete. Two kids moving fast, coming up behind you. You glance back, wary, watching them come. The Cat’s Eyes overtake you, hyped up and blurring, two drug-fucked kids idolizing Steve and his money. It almost makes you laugh. Buy Your Dreams? Sometimes you almost wish you could.
2: Fifteen Minutes, Sleeping
This is what you remember from last night’s episode: anime girls with silver hair; broad-shouldered punks from Babylon wielding knives and chains in a fight; polar bears, lots of polar bears, one with video cameras for eyes; selling cola to the masses in the product placement; Buy Your Dreams echoing in the overdub again and again and again. It was a good show, you remember that, but everything else is just a ghost. A vague notion trapped out on the fringe of your memories, like a dream that belongs to someone else.
And it does, really, no matter what they tell you in the aftermath.
It’s not like it was really you fighting the punks or fucking the women. It’s not like it’s you who put together the catch phrase or writes the stories. You’re just the meat, a subconscious they can plug into the machine. All you have to do is sleep and let the computer take care of the rest. It’s seven in the morning and you really need a coffee. Your mouth is full of dead taste-buds, the bland taste accompanied by a thin sludge that scrapes off on your teeth. The legacy of phantom cola, your alter-ego’s tastes running rife.
You were sixteen when they recruited you, easy prey for the corporate spiel. They promised you fame, money, a shot at the big-time, and they delivered on all three if you look at it right. At sixteen you signed a good deal that did everything they said it would. At thirty-five you’d do better, maybe, but it’s hard to say after all this time.
Someone rings from the HQ. We’re having trouble with the feed.
They promised you a job as a sleeper, plugging your subconscious into an AI.
Have you got another run in you? Can you give us something to edit into the next episode?
They promised you Warhol-Sleeping, a chance to cash in on the latest franchise.
Can you tell us what you ate last night? Can you inform us about what you drank? We need to cross-check the data and figure out if it was the sub-C or the feed. We need to streamline, to provide feedback, to make sure you’re eating right. If there’s something in your diet that affects the story, then we really need to know about it.
You file a report on last night’s dinner, cataloguing ingredients and approximate digestion time. They’ll send you another warning about stimulants, about the caffeine and the beer. They’ll tell you to get to sleep a little earlier, a little later, or not at all. There are rules to sleeping when you’re a sleeper. They’ve spent years burning them into your mind. You make another coffee and wait for the warning to arrive. You wait for the memories of last night’s episode to fade from your mind entirely.
3: TV Rots Your Brain
You’re not supposed to watch the vids, so naturally you do. Flicking the channels, watching them blur past, letting the boredom set in. Too many shows, too many images, there’s just not enough to do in the world if they don’t let you watch TV. You hit the sleeper channels, find Elvis-Sleeping on a rampage. An electronically synthesized fat guy with sequined suit and a shotgun, running through some nightmare of Vegas with a mad-on for the television. He finds himself one of the small, square boxes, lets loose on the antique with the gun on full auto. It shatters into lurid neon, shards of nothing stretching into space.
Elvis-Sleeping just bounces, gun in hand, shaking the cowlick and saying thankyouverymuch over and over again. It’s inane and pointless, the work of a sleeper with a half-baked sub. You pull up the ratings and double-check; it’s tanking. Elvis-Sleeping isn’t what people want tonight, the rampage doing a step lower than the test-pattern channel. It’s desperate work, a punt in the dark. Someone will be looking for a new job in the morning. There’s plenty of Presleys out there, running around with his DNA. They can license the sub from someone else, try for a better configuration.
They talk to you sometimes, the company techs, trying to figure out why you work so well. You don’t really care, barely listen to the conversations. They all have different theories, new ones coming up every week. Sometimes they just cycle through the options: You’re repressed. You’re a showman. You’re gay. You’re glitched. One guy tried a variant, told you it was your fault. You-you, not the sleeper you. You just don’t bother existing much outside of the screen, he said. You shrugged and jacked in, did what you did regardless. Turned in some footage that was better than anything else you did that year.
You run into other sleepers sometimes, not many, mostly burn-outs. Guys who can’t even plug in anymore, their eyes hollow and their dreams dead. Some of them manage to muster up hate, if they can muster any feelings at all. Angry men with electrodes, incompatible with their AI components. You’ve been waiting for the burn for years, hoping it’ll reject you. It hasn’t happened, probably wont. You’re never going to be that lucky.
You flick through the channels, brain-fried and bored. You aren’t really after anything, just TV static. Home shopping. Consumer News. Lifestyles of the rich and famous. On channel Two Fifty-Seven, they’ve got a special on Warhol-Sleeping, all lifestyles of the digitally enhanced. They refused to interview you for that one; didn’t want to destroy the illusion for the viewers. It cost them an extra fifty-thousand to get away with that under licensing. It should have been more, but you were feeling perverse.
You settle on the fight channel, watching Peewee Herman rip out Elizabeth Montgomery’s spinal column in slow motion. They’ve caught it from multiple angles, maximizing the splatter. You’re sucked in, instantly, searching the net for more information. Has-been death matches: The next wave of sleeper entertainment. Semi-AI and Human sub-conscious fighting for survival in a Star-Trek style alien arena. Computer generated icons from years gone by hooked up with desperate sleepers, a way of getting some use from the Sleeper-AI’s taking up space on the company files. The loser is wiped, the sub cut loose. The winner gets another shot at doing something with his alt. It’s mean and vicious, and no-one’s supposed to get hurt.
You’ve met Montgomery-sleeping’s sub before, an alcoholic in his fifties who barely has claim to the DNA match. The only member of the family they could find who’d be bothered jacking in for the money they were offering. You remember him with a sparse beard, drinking champagne at a company function. You can’t say you thought a lot of him. You never knew each other’s names. Just called each other Sleeper, like the techs do when they talk to you.
Peewee-Sleeping chews on the bloody stump of spinal cord, sucking out bone marrow. You think about Montgomery’s sub, left nameless and broke after the company deletes the AI. Just another drunk without credit, wandering the streets and wishing he had a name.
No cabs on the street today. No cars at all, really. Just you walking, letting your feet carry you, trying to remember how to carry a tune when you whistle. There’s a song stuck in your head that you can’t quite get right, one of the early Jack Entropy hits after he went solo. Turns out it’s a walking kind of day; there are people everywhere when you get to the D. You join the crowd, go with the flow, let it sweep you along without thinking. Someone’s scheduled Warhol-Sleeping on the corner vid near King Street, repeats of an old episode that everyone’s seen before. Warhol-Sleep fights dissidents out on Europa, talking about the war and the tragedies that unfold. There’s a small crowd clustered underneath the screen, three kids in lime jacket and a guy in his sixties. The old guy looks like a fan, a long-term prospect. You hurry past, ignore them, grit your teeth until you hit the corner. The vid-screen’s volume follows you as you hustle down the street. I think you should all, you know, maybe buy your dreams, or something. I think that’d be, umm, really, um, cool.
The kids in green know every word; the old guy knows them too. They chant along, word-perfect, and you step a little faster.
It’s coming up on Midday and the city kicks into gear. Traffic becomes gridlocked, the heat becomes sweltering. The sidewalk crowds get too extreme and you duck into a café, order yourself coffee and a plate full of M&M biscuits. They give you the look, eyeing your outfit. You flash them the card and sign off on your order. Money beats style, even here, even now. Radio fills through the room, early Jack Entropy, before he went solo. The guy at the next table plays drums on the table-top, grooving along in his own private nightclub. He looks your way, smiles. You heard these guys before?
You shrug, telling him you’re only mildly familiar.
They were the last live band, back when real people played the instruments. You can’t find this shit anymore.
And he’s right, you can’t, but that doesn’t bother you much. It’s not like you were a fan, way back when, but you and Entropy share a vintage and age makes them familiar. You cock your head and listen to the guitar grating over the drums. There are three other people sitting in the café, all of them ignoring the music. The waitress shows up with your coffee and your biscuits. You thank her, smiling. She ignores you and walks away. The drummer keeps talking, full of air-guitar enthusiasm. Man, this was the shit. Frankie Steiner on bass in this album. The original, not the sleeper they team with the Vid guy. You know the one, the star. Warvhol or something. Frankie S, he was the first gene-code, you know? That’s why he was famous. All science, no natural DNA before. The pirate bands and the Babylon channels, the people who play this shit, they ignore that. Wouldn’t do to notice Frankie’s heritage. They idolize the life stuff, the realness of the sound. The people die off in the face of that, really.
You look at him, eyes dead, wishing he’d just finish. He’s older than he looks, pre-crash at least. Same vintage as you, except he looks his age. Don’t s’pose you youngsters care ’bout this stuff, though.
You shrug, choking on a smile, drinking your coffee and ignoring him. The waitress shows up again. This guy annoying you?
She’s young, cute, grooving on the music. She’s got the details of your card receipt sketched out on her order pad, the short row of numbers telling her how much you’re worth. Youngsters, you think, fucking a. You flash her a smile. This time she smiles back. You order a coffee and watch the old guy rock-out, hammering his hands against the table.
Peter M Ball is a Brisbane writer, a perpetual student, and graduate of Clarion South 2007. His work has been published in Fantasy magazine, Dreaming Again, and a previous installment of Dog vs. Sandwich. He can be found online at http://petermball.livejournal.com