Perfect World Copyright ÂŠ 2011 by AJ Kirby
All rights reserved. No part of this story (eBook) may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or book reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidences are either a product of the authorâ€™s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover Art by Terry Wright Edited by Terry Wright Published by TWB Press USA ISBN 978-1-936991-01-3
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I finally have it, my first line. I guess anyone riding on this Bullet-Train who glances at me in my victorious moment will recognise the self-congratulation chalked across my face. Perhaps they’ll even be aware of that sheen of arrogance, too, on the grin of tabloid journalist Toby Howitt, who can safely say, “This shit writes itself.” The first line used to be the part of writing that I found the most difficult; I’d leave it until last. Now though, I seem to be master of the first line. I mean what better hook for an article than what I’d just written: I found God yesterday, happily retired in Elegant. Problem is though, I haven’t met God yet, haven’t even arrived in Elegant, and for all I know, God might have cottoned on to my discovery of his whereabouts and stolen away during
~4~ the night. I’m restlessly aware that I’m getting ahead of myself. My legs are careering up and down like pistons on trains in the old days. It’s as though I’m trying to drive the Bullet-Train forward more quickly by using my own caffeine-high propulsion. I suddenly fear now, more than anything I’ve ever feared that I will be too late. It would be just my luck to stumble across the best story in my life, and then piss it away because I’ve been banned from driving. That’s why I happen to be on the Bullet, a lost license on account of my last test. Too much sugar, they’d said. And I’m not talking about some malcontent Hoodie pouring sugar in my petrol tank like what used to bollocks-up the cars in the old days. I’m talking about too much sugar in me. In my bloodstream. I wouldn’t mind so much, but these days, I could be dead in my car, and it would still drive me safely up to the double doors of the morgue and deposit me straight into the waiting arms of the undertaker. Now, of course, the only cars I drive are in Perfect World, and maybe it’s that one simple pleasure that I’ll thank God for, if and when I finally meet him. There are other things I have to thank Him for, too, like my second chance: as a real world wash-out, I became the Perfect World investigative journalist of choice. Then there’s the way He made life more exciting, liveable, again. I think of all the exciting new people I’ve met, my wife, the money I’ve made. But the most important thing has been the way that He’s made normality, albeit a digitally-generated normality, interesting again in Perfect World. The Bullet presses relentlessly forward, and I increasingly feel in need of some respite from the lack of meaning in the shapes which shift into view from outside the portal, the landscape of the real world whizzing by. I need the cloak of normality which Perfect World brings, so I slip my Perfect World visor down over my eyes and see what’s going on at home. The alternative world rushes into my brain, becoming clear and solid in a matter of seconds. Somehow, the shapes here seem weighted with more meaning than in the real world. It’s the design quality of the programming that’s behind it all. I know how much work has gone into making that shaft of light cut through the breakfast glasses, or how much code-tweaking has gone into creating that coffee stain on the kitchen tablecloth.
~5~ At first, I move and react slowly. Maybe there’s a bad connection on the Bullet-Train’s wireless network, or maybe we’re simply passing through a zone with poor coverage, but whatever the case, I’m slow. My movements are not as fluid as I’ve grown used to. It’s like I’m drunk. And I know what it’s like to be drunk, though it’s hard to remember what I’m like. I move around the kitchen – my Perfect World hub – and I get on with a few mundane housekeeping tasks. Thoughts take long seconds to translate into actions. I sluggishly clear some tins of Spam out of the cupboard. Depicting the junk and detritus of a life as realistic as tins of Spam was one of God’s good jokes. And so, I focus on the tin opener, and I imagine that I’m opening the tins, pouring the contents down the waste disposal chutes, and then tossing the empty tins into the Recycling Bin. Perfection. Even washing my hands in Perfect World water is a true feat of programming genius. And the wedding ring on my ring finger sparkles dynamically under the faucet spray. In the real world, I don’t have a wedding ring, not even a shadow of the band I wear only in Perfect World. Drying my hands, I notice my wife is seated at the table. She’s wearing an expression of complete inertia. Obviously she’s off shopping or something in the real world and hasn’t logged into Perfect World yet. There’s something incredibly spooky about the way all of her features are arranged in perfect order, and yet she’s incontrovertibly absent. There’s simply nothing going on behind her glassy eyes. We call it daydreaming here. If I were to approach her and attempt to touch her, a message would flash across my vision field informing me that she was offline. These days, everybody follows the rule. Nobody fondles the daydreamers, but we know necrophiliacs are out there, and for them I’m glad that we purchased EyeSpy Security to protect the door entry system on our hundredth-story flat. I glide towards the window, finally moving more naturally, and look out across Perfect World Tokyo. It is truly a magnificent city, stretching farther than the eye can see in every direction. It is a city of lights, of activity, and of freedom: a true city of God. I see advertisements float past, too, and wonder whether we will ever truly live in a society where somebody doesn’t want something from everybody else. The advertisers always float their ads up to our level, despite the knowledge that we have the software to delete them. However, a single sale to one of us High-Risers is worth a million
~6~ times more than a sale to one of the Basement-Levellers. I’m suddenly aware of movement behind me. It’s not like in real life when I become aware of somebody else’s presence in a room by the slight sounds that a body makes: breathing or a cough perhaps, but instead it’s more like the sensation I’d get if I were in the presence of a ghost. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. A light touch on my shoulder tells me my wife has logged into Perfect World. A faint buzzing in me connects our correspondence. “Toby,” she says. I immediately detect a hint of something in her voice. Perhaps it is annoyance. “What’s the matter?” “You’ve got mail,” she mutters. “I opened it by accident. I wish I hadn’t.” I turn to face her and see her expression is a mask of disappointment. Her hands are jammed on her hips. She looks like a caricature of an affronted wife staring at me for a moment before she gestures towards the doormat, where my mail awaits. Mail in Perfect World is one of those things that still stick out like an apple on an anthill. The programming is so poor, the mail seems unreal. I focus on the large, luminous yellow envelope floating at eye level over the doormat, and then I concentrate on walking towards it. When I reach it, I have to perform the ungainly task of actually leaning into the yellow mass in order to read its contents. As I do, the rest of the room fades out. It’s clunky programming. No wonder reading standards have fallen so badly. Nobody can be bothered putting themselves through this arduous task. It makes me sad; I think we lose something of social value. Here in Perfect World, there’d be no way I could surreptitiously glance over the top of a newspaper to steal a look at a beautiful woman sitting opposite me on the train. I’d first have to exit my reading programme, then readjust the colours palette and frame dimensions of Perfect World to focus her into my vision field, by which time, said beautiful woman would have seen my vacant, slightly rabid stare and probably quit her seat. My mail is from the Transport Union, and it’s identical to the one I opened yesterday morning in my real world kitchen. It tells me that I’m banned from driving for a period of two weeks. I close my eyes once and open them again. The mail is gone now, but I’m painfully aware that my real world worries have now managed to leach into Perfect World and pick-pocket
~7~ my attempts at a good mood. I’m embarrassed, of course, but also puzzled as to how this could have happened. It’s as if the two worlds had sprung a leak between each other. “So now you know.” I cower, anticipating the lash of her tongue. “You never tell me anything. What happened? Couldn’t resist a sugar fix? One more piece of Chocolate Cake?” She sneers at me as if I were a common junkie. However, by the miracle of expert programming, her sneer radiates from her face in a way that makes her even more desirable. It also helps that she’s wearing that flimsy dressing gown package I bought from a sex shop somewhere just above Basement level in Downtown. “Someone slipped me a sugar cube,” I mutter, staring at her breasts. “You journalists are all the same,” she shouts, always the fast-burn-temper-type that she is. “Wallowing with the Basement Levellers and doping up on all their sugar.” “You promised to love me in spite of my faults.” I flash my Winning Smile. It’s a smile I’d paid eight hundred credits for only last week. The programmer had promised that it would extricate me from any argument. Amazingly, it does, and within seconds, she has sidled up to me and is nuzzling her nose into my neck. “Oh, my Ayumu,” she whispers. She calls me that whenever I’ve done something irresponsible. It means: one who walks in a dream or vision. “What have you got planned for today?” I ask, trying to slip into the old, familiar burnedtoast-in-the-morning routine. I move away from her inviting body and make for the kitchen table again. “The new fridge is being delivered,” she says. “I have to stay logged in to check that they install the programme correctly.” Some things never change. Delivery guys would just leave our new fridge lying halfinstalled in the mainframe if we aren’t around to check up on them. “It better be more realistic than the old one,” I say, focusing on the old fridge and moving to it. Nobody bothered to design a programme for a fridge door that actually opened. We have to stick our heads through the stainless steel door just to see what we’ve got in there to eat. The new fridge costs more than the bloody flats lower down our building, so it had better be an improvement in realism.
~8~ “Hopefully, we’ll have something other than Spam to put in the new one,” jokes Hakura and she laughs, but she’s sleepy, I can tell – hence the up-and-down mood swings - and I decide to leave her to take a nap. I lift my visor off my eyes and return to the Bullet-Train to think a little more of my story before I meet God. *
Back in the real world, the smell is the first thing that assaults me. And it really does brain me as though I’d been hit with a board. I’m amazed everyone isn’t walking around in bloody gasmasks. And everything is louder here, too. People are shouting to be heard over the low, electronic rumble of the Bullet. I’m sitting in the middle pod, Business Class, with three other passengers. Unlike in Perfect World, I’m not far removed from the common clowns who make up the mass of humanity. The four of us are cramped into a little seated booth – the pod - but we’re all plugged into our own Perfect Worlds. I couldn’t be farther from the man sitting next to me, though his elbow is hogging the armrest, his elbow prodding my ribs. He’s tutting with increasing vigour at the old woman sitting opposite him. I don’t think he likes her much. She’s wearing one of the old visors, like a brick, sellotaped to her forehead. It’s probably a hand-me-down. She clearly hasn’t got the hang of living in Perfect World yet, as she’s waving her hands about as though she’s trying to grab onto something. She’s sitting next to a smelly teenage girl – surely too young to be her daughter. Granddaughter, perhaps? The girl isn’t wearing her Perfect World visor but is desperately texting somebody with her handheld device as though her life depends on this transmission of data. I notice that her fingernails have been bitten to the quick, and her hair looks as though it could do with a good wash, as does her face. These two are not the usual Business Class passengers, but more likely filthy country-folks. I shiver in disgust and try not to stare at the dirty girl. Instead, I watch the poor old woman continue to struggle with technology that is clearly beyond her abilities. I’m trying to imagine where she could possibly be in Perfect World. Maybe she’s one of those tramps who roam the streets of Downtown these days, clutching at passer-bys’ legs outside the Metro stop, begging strangers for help, unable to stand on her own two feet in the digital world.
~9~ The young man sitting next to me, who is sharp in appearance and equally sharp in the smell of after-shave, glares at her for some reason. He’s probably one of those angry young men who’d invested in Perfect World’s Downtown land, expecting that when the new influx of Users came in, he’d make a killing on the market. He certainly looks like a Property Developer. Problem is, they didn’t anticipate how many people would enter Ground Zero Metro Station at the same time, all with little or no idea of what they were supposed to be doing, or how they could do it. Downtown is now little more than a Shanty Town, the property worth nothing. Maybe that’s why he’s glaring at the old woman. I scrunch myself away from his elbow and stare out the window to curb my partaking in idle conjecture. Nobody is who they seem any more. It’s almost impossible to make a proper value judgement. For all I know, I might very well work with this sharp-suited Angry Young Man sitting next to me, and the old woman could be working for him, in some administrative capacity. And in a few years, I might be writing some kiss-and-tell story about the frazzled young girl there, too. I am lulled into a trance by the uniformity of the green fields dotted with cows. There is so much unfilled space here, so little to attract my interest. Vegetation induces a vegetative state. And then, finally, I am saved by the sight of the vast milk-shake spillage of Eden. The vanilla domes bubble up, as though from the very core of the earth, and I emerge from my trance. I’ve seen documentaries about this place. It was once called the Eden Project, but, like the Internet and most of the other early twenty-first century labels, that moniker had soon slipped by the way-side. While the Internet became simply: life, the Eden Project became merely Eden. It was now a closed-off, gated community: the real-world perfect world, they say. My sources in London told me that God is living in a large, stately home in a place called Elegant, which is not far from Eden. Sure enough, as soon as the Bullet whizzes past the domes, it draws into a small station. The train barely pauses as our pod detaches itself from the train and gently settles on the platform. Ours is the only pod that has left the train at this lonely stop. The station looks like it’s from the land that time forgot, there’s even an old-fashioned cigarette machine attached to the ticket office. We four passengers sit in uncomfortable silence until a station employee finally walks out to the platform. The tiny man shuffles towards the pod,
~10~ appearing every inch the sort of man that could never be anything else but somebody else’s employee. He is wearing a lop-sided name badge which reads MERCER. There is no indication whether this is his given name or his surname, or even whether or not it is the company he represents. “Welcome back, Dr. Griffin,” he says. I glance around to check whether Angry Young Man is even going to acknowledge the presence of this servile, bird-like man, but the man I presumed to be the doctor is now engrossed under his own Perfect World visor. Instead, the old woman beams back at the station employee. “How’s he been?” “Not good, Doc,” mumbles the bird-man of Elegant. “Not good.” I’m shocked. The old woman is the doctor. I wonder how the hell she could still be working at her age, or whether Web-Doctors simply keep their titles even after they’ve retired, like real medical doctors. Evidently, Dr. Griffin needs no further explanation from the station employee about whom they were referring. She sighs and raises her bottom from the seat. Angry Young Man has now extracted himself from his alternative reality and is smoothing some wrinkles in his sharp grey suit, huffing with impatience as he waits to get out. Gently, and with no fuss, bird-man offers his arm to Dr. Griffin and helps her out. It’s done with so much mutual respect that I almost feel a warm glow. Almost. Young Girl climbs off next. Her own worldly possessions are a battered little rucksack, the handheld, and a blue Teddy Bear. She stands with the old woman on the platform. Reality appears to be rapidly growing stranger and stranger. What relationship is there between these two females? What connection? I muse over the possibilities as I stand, accidentally blocking Angry Young Man’s way. “Let me off first,” he demands, as though he’s used to people just standing back and letting him take their place in line. I face him, flashing my Winning Smile, but it has no calming effect in the real world. Instead, it seems to drive him further towards his boiling point. I note a slight twitch in the corner of his eye like a Perfect World programming malfunction. I keep smiling. I’m not good with confrontation and somehow this translates itself as a cocky leer. God knows that’s not the image I’m trying to project.
~11~ “What are you grinning at?” “What’s the rush, dude?” I say, for some reason adopting that crazy hippie voice that I once saw in some daft film on the History Channel. I suspect that my interaction with real-world people has been severely affected by spending too much time logged into Perfect World. Angry Young Man is very much part of the real world though. He grabs my lapels and forces me back into my seat. “Look… Dude,’ I gasp, holding up my hands in a placatory gesture. His face transforms into a bestial snarl. “I didn’t mean to get in your way.” He starts climbing over my legs, planting one sharp, shiny shoe onto the step of the pod and breathing heavily from the effort. “Is there some kind of problem here?” asks the old woman, Dr. Griffin, leaning into the pod. “Damn right there’s a problem,” snaps Angry Young Man, his cheeks blazing with a desire for violence. He’s still halfway across my knees, trying to climb over me, and I suddenly feel giggles erupting in my stomach. I start laughing uncontrollably. I’ve not had a fight since school. I’ve barely been in a real-world argument since I started work-proper, and yet here I am, on the verge of discovering one of my greatest stories, and instead I’m laughing at a juvenile game of one-upmanship in a train pod. Hakura wouldn’t just call me irresponsible for this, she’d bloody well throw me out. “What’s so funny?” he demands, but I can’t breathe, I’m laughing so hard, let alone speak. His temper explodes. It’s that fast-burn anger that Hakura is so adept at. My head is suddenly slammed against the cold, hard wall of the pod. I hear a crack. It sounds as though it’s come from somebody else’s head, like it’s one of those fake wrestling bouts in Perfect World, and then I don’t hear anything else. *
I come to, and even before I remember what happened, I know that I’ve somehow screwed up. I feel a cold compress on my brow before I feel the pain that it’s there to soothe. Something’s badly wrong with my head. I gingerly crane open my eyes, somehow hoping that by doing so, I can get rid of the
~12~ throbbing which lies behind them. Although my vision is blurred, I immediately know that I’m looking directly into the watery-blue eyes of Dr. Griffin. “Where am I?” I rasp, trying to sit up. She places a calming hand on my shoulder and gently encourages me to slump back down onto the hard surface on which I am lying. “Don’t worry, son.” Her voice is as smooth as Perfect World honey. “You’re safe here.” “Where?” “In the ticket-master’s quarters behind Elegant Station.” I look around me and take in what appears to be a twentieth-century prison cell. There’s nothing on the walls, and the concrete does strange things to our voices, lending them an air of willowy unreality. Dr. Griffin is seated on a straight-backed chair, uncomfortably close to me. It almost feels like she is doing more than caring for me. Is she watching over me, perhaps? In the bright, naked-bulbed light of the room, her skin looks paper thin. Through it a kind radiance shines, though, like she’s my guardian angel. Suddenly, I don’t feel the miniscule but familiar weight of the Perfect World visor on my head. “My things? Where are my things?” There’s nowhere in this room they could be hidden. Maybe the tiny ticket master has stored them somewhere. He’s here too. I see him lurking in the doorway. He gives me an awkward smile. “My visor? My case?” I ask him. He shakes his head, offers me a consolatory shrug. Then he ups the ante by pulling a small hip-flask from the inside pocket of his jacket. He unscrews the cap with shaky fingers. Its squeaking threads are, for a moment, the only noise in the room. He steps forward, holds it out to me. “Brandy. For the pain. And the shock.” Dr. Griffin shoots him a weary look, waves him away. For a moment, I think she is going to reprimand him for drinking on the job. “It’s okay,” I croak, keen to diffuse another situation. “I’m not, uh, uh… Let’s just say a drink would probably not be the best idea right now.” The ticket master nods knowingly. Something passes between us. “But my stuff, where is it?”
~13~ Dr. Griffin puts her hand over mine, gently, as though she is about to break some terrible news. “Unfortunately,” she says, “as soon as we managed to carry you out of the pod, it left the platform to rejoin the train. Pods wait for no man… I think your… um… visor fell off when Mr. Addam slugged you.” “Mr. Addam?” “That angry young man who was sitting next to you on the Bullet… remember? The sharp suit…” “You know him?” “I’ve had the dubious pleasure of sharing a pod with him on numerous occasions. He works at Eden. I think he’s a Generator of Destinies, or something.” “To hell with destinies.” My chest started to tighten like a junkie needing a fix. I needed my Perfect World visor. “I gotta find that train.” “You can’t travel…” “What about Lost Property? What about cameras? Surely there’s security on the trains?” “You’d be lucky,” says the ticket master, who is still standing sheepishly in the doorway. “Since the trains were nationalised, there’s just no funds left for stuff like that. I mean, I’ve been asking for a new air-con unit for the waiting room for…” A cough interrupted him. I hadn’t been aware of anybody else in the room. Again, I try to lift my head to take a proper look around. “See, Dr. Griff, he’s fine, hunky dory,” says a girl’s squeaky voice. “Can we just go home now?” I remember the sullen young girl. “Please excuse Eva,” says Dr. Griffin. “She’s a very tired little girl.” “I’m fourteen,” she jabs. “All that traipsing around the streets of London for the past few nights has worn her out.” I finally manage to sit upright and see Eva leaning against the wall, nibbling at what tiny shreds of fingernails she has left. She has most of the forefinger of her left hand jammed between her teeth as she speaks. “I ain’t been out on the streets, Griff. Even though my dad thinks I have. There’s places I go, you know. I know people.” Dr. Griffin winces like she’s embarrassed. “This isn’t the time to talk about it, Eva. Mr…
~14~ uh… this poor man is clearly not alright, and he still needs our help.” I feel like shouting to tell them that I don’t need their help, but judging from the pain in my head, I have a feeling that I won’t be shouting for some time. Instead, I meekly tell them my name. “I’m Toby, Toby Howitt. Thanks for looking after me, but I think I’ll be okay now.” “What brings you to Elegant, Mr. Howitt?” asks Dr. Griffin. There’s a strange look in her watery blue eyes, the look of someone who has something to hide. As a journalist, I’ve seen that look many times and decide to play the angles. “Holiday,” I mumble, averting my eyes from hers. “Hmmph. Not many come here on holidays anymore.” “Yeah,” says Eva with a cruel twist on her lips. “They come here cos they’ve had some kind of, like, spiritual awakening. They’re sick of the modern world and wanna escape into Eden. Prats!” “That’s enough, Eva,” snaps Dr. Griffin. “But they do,” Eva presses, and I admire her grit. As she speaks, she is walking closer to me. “These people think that coming down here will solve all their problems. It’s like they think we can wake them all up from their comas.” “Shut up, Eva,” Griffin snarls out. Already, I know Dr. Griffin is not a woman to be taken lightly. I half expect her to give the girl a slap, such is the anger that I see in those watery blue eyes, but she doesn’t, she just stands there and shakes her head. Eva is standing directly over me now, so close that I can smell her sweat. Numerous blackheads cluster around her nose and mouth. I decide she might be slightly deranged, and that Dr. Griffin is actually her helper. She’s probably some spoiled rich kid who’s slipped well off the rails. Her parents bought her a private doctor who she keeps running away from – hence the streets of London comment. I decide to put as much distance between me and them as possible. “I’m all right now, both of you. Thank you for your concern.” By the blank looks on their faces, I fear they still won’t leave me alone. “Bullet won’t let any more pods on today,” says Eva, with a grin. “You’ll have to stay here tonight…” “Where were you planning to stay?” interrupts Dr. Griffin. “I… I hadn’t thought about it yet…”
~15~ “You can’t just wander the countryside with a head injury like that.” I sense her comment isn’t borne of concern for my welfare, rather she wants to watch over me to learn what I’m up to. “There’s a few old farmers around here who I’m sure would put you up for the night.” I imagine I’m tied up in the cow-shed while a mad farmer with spittle foaming at the corners of his mouth threatens me with a pitch-fork. Country-folks have long been left to their own devices; their own devices being in-breeding, carrying rabies, and shagging sheep. They don’t have the Internet; God knows what they get up to instead. “I’ll be fine,” I insist though I don’t have an inkling how I’ll manage. “What do you do for a living, Mr. Howitt?” asks Griffin. “I mean, apart from picking fights with strangers on trains… You’re not from the Government, are you?” “No, not the government.” Griffin and Eva are both kneeling next to me, as though visiting a sick relative. I’ve had about enough of their suspicious over-kindness. They’re making me feel as though I have something to hide. “I’m a writer.” “What are you writing about?” “Finding God.” “Mr. Addam must’ve hit you harder than I thought.” “Come on, Dr. Griff,” moans Eva. “If we have to look after him, at least bring him back with us.” “Your father’s going to love that, Eva.” Dr. Griffin climbs to her feet, slowly, as though she’s resigned herself to some awful fate and dusts herself down. “Come on, Mr. Howitt. We’re going to take you to our house.” As they help me stagger out of the ticket-master’s quarters, I catch a conspiratorial glance pass between the two females. Country-folk, they are like another species. Where’s my Perfect World visor when I need it most? On a Bullet-Train bound for nowhere, like me. For more information on purchasing this ebook go to www.twbpress.com/perfectworld.html
About the Author
A.J Kirby is the award-winning published author of three novels and over forty short stories. He is a sportswriter for the Professional Footballer's Association and a reviewer for The New York Journal of Books and The Short Review.
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