The world is dizzy with noise and colour.
Wherever I go, it follows me. Breaking news pours into my consciousness, a parade of football players and war-torn landscapes and women in plastic suits shaking hands. Before the seat of my mind is dangled advertisement after advertisement. Play poker with beautiful men, right now! Buy the latest model 1000-I HomeBot for only 50,000 Bitcoin if you press PURCHASE within the next twenty seconds! Download forty hours of Grade A pornography, no tracking guaranteed!
Walking across the Spiron Plaza, I subconsciously push aside the ads and the headlines. Skyscrapers, towering stacks of neon lights, rise up around me. Blue-lit screens fall transparent across my vision, updating me on the activities of various people in my social media circles.
Ifan Rey has just entered Mr. Montelli’s Restaurant and Bar on the Moon Bay Waterfront.
Cyril Gude and Lianna Hyrfrost are at the Kingpin Disco on Rue Nouveau in the Prairie District.
Finn Estabon has arrived Home. Status: Exhausted, need a beer.
I am stuffed to overflowing with the updates of friends, acquaintances, work colleagues and people whose surnames I would otherwise forget. I read all of them, eagerly, mindlessly.
Having grown up in this city, I’m used to crowds. I push and weave through the throng of people without thinking, not caring that bags and elbows bump against my sides, not noticing the perfumed smells of strangers’ hair and bodies. I notice, but only vaguely, and not for the first time, how beautiful everyone is. The men, are for the most part, tall, with bright, smiling eyes, strong jaws, thick hair, great teeth. Some are dark-skinned, with dark brows and straight noses. Others are fair like seraphim. The women are slender, some statuesque, others petite. They have large, dewy eyes, or half-moon, smiley eyes, and lush hair, and straight backs, and soft hands. Most wear their hair short around their ears and slicked back, or coiffed into a clean ‘do.
To the casual observer, I look no different. I am an unobtrusive figure in black, hair pulled back into a streamlined coif, designer satchel slung over one shoulder. My boots pound the pavement in the same quick rhythm of the busy city worker.
But look closer and you might see that my satchel, which usually floppy with the measly contents of a makeup kit, an energy bar, my pills, and a drink bottle, today bulges and drags against my body. You might notice a twitch in the muscle of my left cheek, which always betrays my anxiety. You might notice that my hands are clenching and unclenching with nervous energy.
For several weeks now I have been in contact with a man from the underground. He goes by the name Dev Gambit, and he is a mixed-gene, which means that he was born of entirely natural process, untampered by genetic manipulation. At least, that’s what he claims. Most of us in the world are pure-genes, but everyone knows there are mixies amongst us. You wouldn’t really be able to pick them out of the crowd, most of the time, though you get the odd obvious mixie—a particularly ugly, obese or backward-looking individual. Then you’d mutter something like, “Well, they certainly didn’t win in the lottery of life,” or, “Stupid leechers,” and move on.
Mixed-genes are generally seen as polluters of the human gene pool and a drain on the resources of the government and the working-class. Mixed-genes, though they comprise perhaps 3% of the country’s population, account for at least a third of our health expenditure and a significant proportion of our unemployment and support benefits.
The studies, however, are not accurate. There are many mixies who keep their biological status a secret and blend in amongst the pures. Dev Gambit, though, is not one to keep secrets.
I run his instructions over and over again in my head. “Come with two magnets from the inside of your water generator, a bottle of ginger beer, and your most important possessions. Lot 23, Allon Way, in the Hawking District, at six thirty in the evening. We’ll be waiting.”
I catch a transport to the Hawking District and it zips me across the city in less than five minutes. We’ll be waiting, he’d said. I knew he had others with him. A shiver went down my spine.
No one else gets off the transport at my stop. I scurry down two flights of stone stairs and wander between graffiti-covered brick buildings. Neon signs flicker halfheartedly and ravens scrabble amongst broken glass and chunks of concrete. I turn off my social media. I don’t want to be seen logging into this area of town. The blue screens dim in my vision.
Allon Way is completely deserted. The space terrifies me. Clutching my arms tight around my body, I walk hesitantly down the road, hugging close to the decrepit buildings. Without the crowd of strangers pressing in around me, I am suddenly afraid that I will explode into a million pieces.
I smell burnt grass, and weed, and faintly, sausages cooking. It smells nothing like perfume. Distantly I hear the transports zooming through the strata, but I don’t turn my head to look back at the city.
I stand in the middle of Lot 23, toeing the clumps of yellow grass that poke up through the slabs of pavement. There is nothing here. I turn my face up to the hard blue sky, feeling the fading sun on my skin, with the incessant noise of the world roaring in my ears and in my head: bombs defused in desert Australia and riots in Lebanon and the coldest winter on record in Russia and babies saved in England and the queen of Indonesia threatened and some actor and actress having a destination wedding. The rush of information is soothing.
There is a youth at my elbow. He is hardly taller than me. His face is interesting, with surprising shadows and angles. He peers into my face. “Rivka Mu?”
I take a step back. “You’re Dev?”
“Yes,” he says. “Follow me.”
A few paces behind him is a young woman with long, bleached-purple hair, in khaki clothing, and another man, muscled and tall, with curly brown hair. I follow the three of them into an abandoned car parking complex. We descend a stairwell, scattered with cigarette butts, into a smoke-filled basement. I blink and wait for my eyes to adjust to the dark.
After a few seconds I realise that I can see a lot. There are at least a dozen people here. Someone is holding a fission lamp. There is a chair in the middle of the room, with a small table at its right hand side.
“Are you ready?” says Dev, and smiles reassuringly at me. I feel like I have known him my whole life.
“Rivka,” says the girl with purple hair, and indicates the chair.
Feeling like I am floating in a bubble, I obey and sit down. I pull out the two magnets and the bottle of ginger beer, and put them on the table on my right. Dev takes the magnets. Another young man steps forward and flicks the cap off the beer. He flashes a brief smile at me. I don’t know him. The faces and shapes of the people around me are foreign and weird and different, and I feel like I am surrounded by a pack of hunting animals, or aliens.
“What’s the beer for?” I ask, my voice cracking.
“For nausea,” the purple-haired girl smiles.
“Are you ready?” Dev asks again. “It’s very hard to go back, once this is done.”
“Yes,” I say. “I’m ready.” He has explained it all before, when we talked over the ether.
Out of the corner of my eye I see him attach the magnets to a crude system of wires connected to a battery box and a control panel. I know that the electromagnetic force passed through the back of my brain will disrupt the embedded receiver chip and disconnect me from the world, for good.
“Bend forward,” says Dev, and he applies the magnets to my scalp.
The breath comes out of me in a sickening punch. The outer layer of my mind is being torn away like a giant scab. It is beyond pain; it makes my bones tremble and my nerves singe in protest. I try to scream but it only comes out as a weak, gasping sigh.
Then, suddenly, it is done. A wave of nausea wrenches my stomach and I double over. Someone pushes the cold rim of the bottle to my lips. I gulp ginger beer like a dying man. A few seconds later I throw up, fiercely, into a bucket. I gulp more ginger beer, and the nausea and the sour taste fade away.
Taking a shuddering breath, I lift my head to meet the eyes of my companions.
I feel expanded, glowing, made anew.
For the first time in my life, I know what quiet is.
There is no noise. There are no headlines, no images, no stream of social consciousness. There is only the waft of smoke drifting under my nose; the soft shuffle of the people around me, watching me hopefully; the cold sensation of darkness on my skin.
Trembling, I sink down through the layers of my mind, gleeful and scared. Thoughts rise up unbidden—my thoughts. I close my eyes. I hear birds, really hear them. I smell smoke and burnt grass, not the way they smelled before; now I smell them like they are being held in front of my nose. I taste ginger on my lips; it is the most amazing flavour.
I open my eyes. I see people around me—mixies, possibly, but I can’t really tell. Their faces are remarkable and beautiful. They are tall and short and pleasant and fierce. I have never seen people like these. I feel an unaccountable pressure to kneel.
“The world,” I gasp out, at last. “It’s so quiet. It’s wonderful.”
Dev Gambit grips me by the wrist and helps me to my feet. His smile is familiar and assuring, and it grounds me as I realise the full impact of what I have done. I have reached escape velocity, punched out of the atmosphere of society. I have turned my back on my previous life and descended into the underground.