James Morrison

The Fast Lane

Cozi zipped into the glide-thru sushi bar, scooped a sachet of white herring with rice and hoi-sin, swept her card over the pay point, and jetted audaciously through the all-but invisible gap between two hovering suits. They glared at her, jealously, as she soared onwards and upwards, leaving the impatient jostling throng beneath her.

As she stuttered along the crammed streets, shimmying through the slightest break in the crowd but generally being forced to shuffle behind dawdling students and no-jobs and dodge pushy stall-holders, their eyes glinting with miserly relish, she impatiently punched her bean-counter. Time still is time wasted, an inner voice intoned. She flinched at the thought she’d become so much a part of the System that such mantras came to her so instinctively – and she no longer found in them anything distasteful.

The world was moving fast – too fast for some, she mused, glancing pityingly at the sight of a rotund courier, his jetpack belching noisily as he was buffeted into the (even) slow(er) lane by two thrusting hover-boys – and time waited for no man (or woman). There she went again, she reflected, grimacing at the plunging prices of the futures she’d been about to purchase. They’d slumped in the instant she’d allowed herself to gloat at the portly cruiser. She was either very good at this multi-tasking thing, or very bad.

Punching her counter ever faster in an effort to make up for lost time – she must learn to focus her priorities – it occurred to Cozi her sushi would be suffering. She needed to down it tout de suite: by the time she finally reached the boardroom there’d be no time left to lunch. Inserting the counter in her wrist cavity and switching it to auto-scan – a luxury she could afford for a few seconds, as the computer often spotted an option for her if only required to do so in short spurts – she pressed the eject button on her right hip, and slipped the sachet into her intravenous feeder. Within seconds she could feel that familiar whirlpool nutrients oozing into her bloodstream.

Now she could concentrate fully: sated, she knew she was a match for any trader. She noticed a string of attractive futures dart across the screen. The first to catch her eye was a controlling stake in a promising-looking cosmetic surgery start-up, AboutFace Inc. The second and subsequent ones were potentially lucrative holdings in combined energy and communications utilities. Not for me, she decided, making a split-second judgment she hoped she wouldn’t regret. Best to leave those behemoths to the big boys: mine’s a quick buck please, a killing swift and painless enough to give me something nice, but not too high maintenance, for my retirement.

Cozi (full name Coriolanus Azure – blame the parents) was 28, blonde, pretty in a faintly androgynous way, and (she liked to think) as self-reliant, no-nonsense and unsentimental as they came. She had five more years of working life ahead of her, if she was lucky, and every intention of collapsing in the most decadent fashion the second she retired. For the past three generations, no one in her family had lived past 35, so she was damned well going to pig out when her time came. From where she currently stood – or, more accurately, hovered – the prospect of all that still time seemed strangely suffocating. Yet, if she were ever going to enjoy the fruits of her labours, she would have to get used to it. Perhaps she’d learn to read. She chuckled.

She glanced at the time on her handset, nestled, winking reassurance, in her right palm. There were 10 strokes till the board meeting and she was never going to make it. Setting the counter to auto-scan once more, she keyed in the number for Dyle’s PA, Hilde, clumsily misdialling several times before finally being greeted by her grating singsong voicemail. Dyle was probably on a conference call; Hilde robotically taking the minutes as she simultaneously patched him through to another of Headcorp’s overseas subsidiaries and arranged his working lunch for the next day. Cozi felt a twinge in her left shoulder, followed by a fleeting but sharp pain in the middle of her chest. She suddenly realised how wired she was – a faint sweat had broken out on her forehead and her cheeks were flushed. It had been her third night without sleep, and the uppers she was using to keep her alert were playing havoc with her metabolism: one minute she felt hyper-focused, the next like a senseless ghost. She downed some pills, and sighed.

An amber light flickered on her handset: Hilde had picked up her message and placed her on hold. Dyle was evidently nearing the end of his conference call and toying with the idea of granting her an audience. Either that or he was revelling in keeping her on tenterhooks while he smoked a cigar or downed a swift cocaine cocktail. “Time Out of Mind,” she mused, considering Headcorp’s motto and imagining what it must be like to reach a status where such pleasure was possible.

Good old Headcorp, she thought. “Virtual retirement options”, indeed - what a wheeze! They’d certainly latched onto a growth industry (in fact, thinking about it, they’d created it). By tapping into citizens’ phobias about age and death so ruthlessly, so professionally, they’d managed to make the idea of genuine old age – the sort that used to bring creases to your face and aches to your bones, if her shaky memory of her grandmother could be trusted – seem totally out of reach. And give them credit: for most people it now was. When was the last time she’d heard of anyone living beyond 40? Ten, 20, years? Other than her dear, departed gran (41, she recalled, and something of a local celebrity at the time on account of her extreme antiquity), she could think of no one.

So, shorn of their hard-earned still time to enjoy the fruits of their life’s labours, what was there for the masses to live – and sweat - for? Virtual retirement, that’s what. She chuckled at the thought of Dyle and his posse of suited bozos craning over his screen as he hammered out his recipe for Headcorp’s expansion: his master-plan to transfer the redundant concept of deferred pleasure to the here and now. The company had been ailing, like all other pension funds. In an age where few people crept past their mid-30s – and those who did were manifestly on their way out – how could you sell them a future? Step forward RETIRE – Headcorp’s signature brand – and its new generation of alternate reality leisure environments. If punters weren’t going to live to actually reach retirement, they were sure as hell going to experience it anyway. Whoever said there were some things money couldn’t buy obviously hadn’t heard of RETIRE (the acronym stood for Real-time Escapes to Inspire, Relax and Entertain). Cozi snickered, adjusting her gears as she did so.

That thought shower meeting had been a hoot – especially when she’d half-jokingly suggested the last three initials should denote ‘Imbibe, Rut and Evacuate’, only to be blasted down by a glassy eyed Dyle, who’d obviously had his humour glands surgically removed along with much of the rest of him.

RETIRE scenarios had taken holidays to a new level, offering subscribers holistic virtual retreats in which they could spend as much of their spare time as they liked, at whatever “speed” they liked (adequate premiums permitting). Long-standing subscribers with sufficient credit could while away a long weekend in an idyllic alpine spa - replete with their choice of company, hedonistic pastimes and landscape backdrop - spending ‘virtual’ weeks or months fraternising and fornicating before returning
to the reality of workaday obligations (in truth, a mere weekend after they’d left it).

These fantastic sojourns were marketed as glimpses of a brighter, stress-free future - of what was to come when they reached their ‘real’ retirements (which, of course, they never did). And all to fund the vanity of Dyle and his ilk – those irksome corporate stooges who’d make damned sure they saw old age if anyone did by funnelling their bonuses into replacing whatever wore out as and when, and ‘freezing’ (or ‘rewinding’) their body-clocks to relive the edited highlights over again. True dotage they’d never see, but they’d certainly be making the most of the 35-40 years nature allowed them.

Cozi herself was an optimist. She was as fit as, if not fitter than, anyone she knew, burning calories by the bucket-load every day and spending 30 minutes a week minimum in intensive gym therapy. Only last month she had won a regional prize for speed cycling while simultaneously pumping weights and calculating the ratio of her own body mass to her optimum daily nutrient intake. Hers was an exemplary diet too: three vitades followed by raspberry and lemon essence, bran and calcium-free milk for breakfast; fish and fruit for lunch; and a gluten-free, mineral and vitamin-rich evening meal consisting largely of exotic vegetables (she prided herself on being able to hunt these out in the most unlikely places – why, she’d even found a cabbage last month in a back street grocer’s). Her only vice was the occasional caffeine infusion – not the tar-black espresso derivative favoured by her less health-conscious peers, but a potent guarana-based herbal concoction with just a hint of cocaine. No, if anyone would see out their 30s, it was she.

Her thoughts were interrupted by her bleeper. The screen on her right handlebar flashed into life – a blizzard of violent primary colours erupted into the stylised golden hourglass that was the logo of Headcorp. Within seconds it had bled into the familiar perma-tanned, platinum blonde visage of Hilde. Dyle must be ready.

“Mr King will to speak to you now,” Hilde intoned blankly, applying eyeliner with one hand as she mechanically tapped the transfer code on her comm.-set with the other. Why the formality? Cozi mused irritably. I work for him, for Chrissakes. Besides, you’re supposed to be his PA, not his bouncer (Hilde’s surly tone made it hard not to think of a blank-faced doorman blocking the entrance of a one-in-one-out cocktail bar).

“Azure.” Though Cozi resented the businesslike use of her second name, Dyle’s tone was informal, appropriate (even if his blatant lack of concentration wasn’t). On his face was his trademark thin smile. He appeared to be hovering near the top shelf of a cabinet stacked with files, while balancing in his hands some kind of miniature chess console (its screen flickered impatiently as it waited for him to make his next move); a muso-pod whose tinny twittering could still be heard even as he turned towards her; a colourful fizz in an impossibly slender flute; a large Havana; and a bean-counter marginally more compact and up-to-date than hers. Dyle was an old-school type who liked his artefacts: he’d rather be juggling half a dozen gadgets at any one time than invest in an ‘all-in-one’ like everyone else. It seemed to give him a sense of ownership (and, she suspected, make him feel reassuringly substantial).

Cozi was accustomed to Dyle’s inability to focus on one thing: in this respect he was no better nor worse than most. More disconcerting, she noted, wincing, was the steady trickle of orange fluid bubbling from a tube fastened to his left hip. It fizzed into a clear plastic flask on his lower thigh. You could at least turn sideways, she thought: I can’t be the only person who’d rather not watch you use your catheter. “Azure,” he repeated, a note of what she felt certain must be faux solemnity insinuating its way into his voice. “A slight hiccup has arisen. One of our biggest clients is cashing in his premiums. He’s just pocketed his gold watch.”

Cozi furrowed her brow in an effort to look grave. How could she be expected to take seriously a man who professed to be worried about losing money while juggling a clutch of the most expensive executive toys on the market; sipping a champagne cocktail; and urinating the proceeds into a twisted brown tube?

“That’s bad,” she commented dryly, unable to summon up a more alarmed response. “Can’t we do anything to finish him off? A free ‘taster’ weekend somewhere, perhaps? They usually wear those fat execs out. Do we know of any medical conditions we could exploit? I know a vigorous brothel-keeper in Mustique.”

She could swear she saw Dyle’s wig move. His smile remained fixed, but as her words conjured up the image of a corpulent plutocrat, she realised she could almost have been describing him. If he weren’t so vain he would have recognised the allusion himself.

“I’ve had his profile checked out,” he replied. “He’s surprisingly fit. In fact, he’s the sort of person who makes me question our diversification policy: had we remained in life assurance, his constitution alone could have bankrolled us.”

Dyle chuckled at this observation, but the thin-lipped smile remained static. There seemed to be so little flexibility left in his cheeks that his vocal cords were having to escape through his pores. Cozi struggled to mask her repulsion at his plasticated visage and expressionless eyes. Clearly his surgeon had been busy, again.

She became aware of an insistent bleat sounding from somewhere behind Dyle. He appeared to register nothing, but after a fashion Hilde’s voice could be heard trying to get his attention. Could she detect a more agitated tone than normal?

A giant rook could be seen hovering on the screen of Dyle’s chess set – the device was evidently doing its best to badger him into getting on with his game. Leave it much longer, she thought, and the computer will make the move for you (and everyone knows they’re programmed to undermine their human opponents). It was an apt metaphor, she considered: that man should devise machines more capable than him and allow them to continually remind him of his inadequacy seemed perverse. It was at this point that her screen cut out, to be replaced - after a blizzard of ads for cosmetic surgery, holistic life enhancement therapy and intravenous adrenalin-boosters - with a flickering Headcorp logo and a pixelated message informing her the “network” was “busy”. A further reminder of the paradox of technology: that something designed by man to make life simpler should so frequently fail him.

Cozi sighed and turned back to the freeway ahead. She noticed as she did so that her jetpack was belching far too much smoke for her liking. The distraction of conversing with Dyle had taken her mind off the practical consideration of trying to reach the boardroom and she was in danger of running out of fuel before she passed the next pay-point. She hoped it was stocked-up too: so many of them seemed to be running low at the moment, in the wake of the latest fuel crisis. Passing a handy sewage point, she pressed the eject button on her thigh and watched the biodegradable sachet which, until so recently, had contained her sushi, plunge into the gaping maw. As it fell, she could see the lid fly off, releasing the yellow-green drizzle of waste matter she had passed as she digested through her conference with Dyle.

She suddenly felt an overwhelming need to lie down and sleep. A nerve in her left eyelid began to twitch, and nausea descended over her like a heavy blanket. She became aware again of her racing pulse, on this occasion accompanied by an involuntary throbbing sensation at the nape of her neck. A listless fatigue overcame her, and as she glanced at the road ahead, struggling to retain consciousness, it occurred to her this was what it must feel like for someone who was about to crash. There was a traffic signal around the next bend, she remembered, tightening her grip on the handlebars and stretching her eyelids wide in an effort to force herself to stay awake. She had only ever glimpsed it as a flash of green as she whizzed past. She needed it to be that colour today if she was to stand any chance of arriving at the boardroom in time for the tail end of Dyle’s conference with the credit boys.

Always immaculate in their tailored shirts and double-breasted pin-stripes, the credit boys called the shots whenever a difficult client threatened to spoil Dyle’s delicately doctored balance sheets. The seriousness of his tone a few minutes ago – however much he had undermined it with his trademark fixed slim-line grin – left Cozi in no doubt they would be there waiting when she arrived: impassively cross-legged and cigar-chomping; hats tilted at rakish angles; un-winking eyes yielding nothing; fingers toying testily with Chinese puzzle-boxes - the relentless click-click-click playing time with Dyle’s fractious nerves and her twitching eyelid.

Her bleeper sounded again, and she flinched involuntarily. She realised with a start she had been sinking – and at the speed she was going, zipping, as if on autopilot, between flaccid hoverboys and stuttering skimmers, that was no laughing matter. She desperately needed a power nap, but there was no respite on the agenda. Instead, all that awaited her was a shaky, sweat-caked rendezvous with Dyle’s blank-faced barrow boys, no doubt followed by a panicky post mortem as he counted the cost of his folly, punching abstract digits into his bean counter with frantic fatalism. Cozi stifled a yawn as her jetpack belched, complainingly, against the riptide. She eyed the lane ahead, mentally assembling the remainder of the route, beyond the approaching lights. An over-ambitious hoverboy cut across her, dangerously, from the slip lane to her right. She swore at him, swerving to slip through the channel he’d unwittingly left open in his wake. Within seconds, she was well past him, her superior mastery of the slipstream leaving him flailing and spluttering amid a cloud of carbon.

She was still chuckling to herself, girlishly she noted, when she swerved the bend and caught her first sight of the run-up to the traffic signal. Dazzled by a shaft of sunlight, it took her eyes a few seconds to adjust to the view ahead, and a fraction longer to absorb the fact that, for the first time she could remember, the light was red.

She was suddenly overcome with wooziness, and her mouth felt parched and raw. She belched and tasted something like vomit in the back of her throat. At the rate she was approaching the lights she realised she’d have to slam on the brakes within seconds if the signal didn’t flicker to amber. The twitch took up again in her eyelid and, blinded briefly by another harsh beam of sunlight, she squinted to make out if there was any sign of a change. Careering into the shade cast by an overhanging balcony, she caught the signal in full view and felt her heartbeat quicken to a frenetic gallop as the red light beamed bloodily into her field of vision, solid and implacable.

Cozi skidded to a halt less than a metre before she would have hit the crash barrier. She could feel her clothes clinging to her back and legs, skin-tight and sodden. Her pulse seemed to be racing at its own pace, still retaining the momentum her jetpack had abandoned moments earlier. Stalled in an agonising paralysis, the clock ticking, gloatingly, as she waited for the off, she was suddenly aware of how fast everything around her was moving – and how still she seemed by comparison.

Hordes of nattering night-surfers skittered and skated across the byway bisecting her own, unleashed by the green light that had thwarted her progress. Cursing cabbies cruised impatiently between them, slipping through the slimmest of spaces, raised fingers silhouetted against their windows in profane salutes.

Somewhere, countless storeys above her, a giant neon smile flashed – teeth as white as glaciers glinting grotesquely against the starry sky. A woman with mad, frightened eyes sprinted from a shopping mall, screaming into her handset, while beneath her, cruel children bellowed at a baying dog with strange sadistic abandon. Two men with shrunken, shaven heads swore hideous revenge at each other as they clattered into railings on opposite sides of a narrow walkway - each overloaded with testosterone; neither looking beyond the teetering piles of paraphernalia crammed beneath his arms. And all the while these fractured, furious tableaux were sound-tracked by the screech of sirens; the incessant babble of animated advertising hoardings; and the steady, rhythmic thump of pounding dance muzak.

Cozi swallowed, hard. For the first time she could remember, she felt small. Ahead, above and below her, she could hear islands of laughter, sobbing and shouting vie for dominion. The air hissed with menace, and crashed with unexplained violence. Yet, amid this vicious melee, she felt a curious calm descend. And then only stillness.

James Morrison © 2007