The Gutters

Open your eyes. A sliver of light slides through the window of her tent, of her apartment. She sits up.

I’m awake. Good.

The sound of rain and nature is intimate in her ears. She stretches her leather boots over her socked feet and rolls onto her knees. It’s early in the morning, it’s the middle of the night. She throws a few things inside a rucksack.

Change to waterfall. Hmmmm. Louder. There. Set to automatic upon exit.

Between the rooftops in the distance and the bridge above, the sun peeks at her, gold with warmth. She steps out into the quiet world outside, out into the muted masses. Shhhhhhhhhh, her headphones, her messy hair, she drives her hands deep inside her coat pockets and takes a deep breath. Shhhhhhh, she dives into the dense shuffling crowd, shhhhhhhhpp, and much like the vacuum of air penetrating through a tight seal, the sound barrier of rushing water sharply shifts into the sound of a busy intersection. Rush hour: a subtle blend of distant conversations, heels and soles, pant swish, passing vehicles, wind displacement, as complex and as delicate as a familiar fragrance slowly maturing into auricular perfection. Counter-current she weaves her way through the herd. Scarcely noticed, lost in thought. A dark hooded organic thread in a curtain of streaming code. She always felt a simple, more serene loneliness when surrounded yet ignored.

Without breaking stride, she grabs hold of the left lens on her goggles, twists it a quarter turn and takes an exhaustive look around. To her one eye, the world is suddenly grey and lifeless, dark. To the other, the crowd is flowing by still, avoiding her, paying her no attention. Once she is certain the perimeter is clear she drops to her knees and rolls under an old rusty personal transit tube, under an air vent gushing a warm humid night air. Inside the maintenance cubicle, she gathers herself and twists her right lens too to the grey lifeless night. She had begun writing a decor for the cubicle on the overlay she had designed using the old Happiness 3 programming but had eventually thought it too risky. Besides, she reminds herself, the blank slate that provided the physical foundation for the augmented reality, with its cushioned, round-edged dullness kept her sharp, attentive.

From her inside pocket, she withdraws a small anachronistic calculator and proceeds to type on it. The gadget beeps angrily once. Twice. She sighs and begins to type and swipe on a terminal screen that appears mid-air with her gloved left hand. A few disks whir inside the little device as she drops it into the maintenance tunnel at her feet. There is a distant crash and a latch draws back from the grate. Stealthily, she lifts the grate and steps into the tunnel disappearing through a cloud of steam.

Deep inside the bowels of the machinery of her physical world, lit only by the blue-green neon coolant fluid flowing through the pipes and the two tiny LEDs on each side of her goggles, she eventually turns a sharp corner into a small alcove. The air is stagnant, suffocatingly humid. She glances back into the shadows. An indecipherable labyrinth it had taken her years of solitary explorations to unravel, she now could travel in a matter of minutes. A murky veil settles about her in her sudden stillness. Twenty-seven minutes, to be exact. Barely enough time to wonder exactly what it was that had driven her underground, what she had hoped to discover when she had first begun mapping the complex network of subterraneous ladder wells and tunnels. A deeper immersion? Or rather escape?

She so thoroughly enjoyed the company of the throbbing machinery for how tangible, how impermanent, for how mechanical and full of purpose, that she eventually came to remember every passage, every intersection, every shift in infrastructure, every shift in temperature every broken rung and hanging wire. Cyber114. A net of invisible sensors scans her as she crawls through a tiny opening. Once on the other side, she stumbles out of a culvert onto a platform where, before her, a vast expanse lays extending into unfathomable obscure reaches. She sits on her vantage point and draws a soggy day-old sandwich from her bag. She takes small bites and looks on never not bewildered and excited to witness her playground so bare. All this space allocated for further expansion, space enough for an entire world, a world she could architect to imperfection. Where even a single moment is more alive than an entire life of Happiness 5. A dim crease in the underworld of the great city in the sky.

Boot The Gutters.

She slips her other glove on and watches as her creation, her own diminished reality, gradually comes to life before her. The glow of the colourful city lights shimmer in the scratched glass of her goggles. Her feet dangle excitedly over the razor’s edge into nothingness. Just then, a black cat leaps out of the darkness, takes a few tentative steps towards her and stretches glitching. She offers it a few chunks of her sandwich and pets it with her glove.

Hello Monk.

From their perch, the pair sit in silent awe for a long moment, side by side, admiring the spectacle of a city being born into the night.

Let’s see now.

She hides the remainder of her sandwich into her bag, brushes a few crumbs off into the abyss and begins absently swiping and typing.

Pink.

Somehow, it always catches her by surprise.

Are you going to eat with those things on?

She looks up from her bowl of crunch, sideways, defiantly. Her defiance is brief, however, and with a quick tap she deactivates her goggles and slides them up onto her forehead to reveal a world without artifice. She bares her teeth at him then looks away. A deep ring of red outlines the purple arc under her grey eyes. Whereas she chose to use the virtual lenses as a tool, she would at times forget that her dad shunned them altogether. She feels a little exposed at first, a reflex of a feeling, but expressly she represses it. The seer of a naked eye is healthy, she reminds herself, a grounding.

He sits across from her at the kitchen table with a glass of strong coffee, of dark grey liquid and a chocolate chip oat bar, a small drab ration.

She stares back at her plate in disappointment. Her breakfast suddenly reveals itself for the mirage that it is and her milk and cereal transform back into a crunchy type of nothingness. Her half-mouthful sits on her tongue like a wet sock, and even so, she knows he is right. Always so. Painfully so. Her dad crosses his legs and sits more comfortably. She yawns reflexively.

So?

It’s purple.

Why not just add it to your avatar?

He’s probing. She feels it, and squints at him, resenting his untroubled understanding of her rebelliousness.

Can we talk about something else?

Alright.

I’m not like them. This is who I am. They actually like this.., she raises a spoonful of crunch and empties it mid-air, this stuff because they’ve never looked at it. But I’m not like you either ok? I mean how can you eat this stuff?

It’s the same stuff your eating.

Yeah but I don’t look at it! She could feel herself becoming theatrical and hated it. It’s early morning, late in the night for her. I choose. I choose. It’s the only freedom to be had in this, she hesitates, this bunker existence.

The man sitting across from her takes a bite of his breakfast, the creases beside his eyes slightly wrinkle.

To her classmates, her hair isn’t purple but rather her natural brown and her clothes, rather than a study of shades of black, are relevant to the current trend to a fault. She pours all her cleverness into being disarming, a little funny; all her imagination into every slightest detail of her personality. A stark meticulous contrast. All hours of her nights might be spent on all the devilry her mind is able to conjure, he thinks to himself, however, her true masterpiece will forever be the person she so craftily engineers for the social sphere of her life. How deeply rooted is the machinery of her character?

She watches on as her father reflects. How much does he know?, she, in turn, thinks to herself.

As a creator, in The Gutters and otherwise, she had programmed herself to be imperceivable. Very much a stream of code, to the virtual inhabitants of her realities, although with an interactional value of zero. In Happiness 5, a reality shared by all inhabitants of the city in the sky, she had programmed herself to be indistinguishable. As much a survivor of the post-world as any other. No more no less. Yet at home, no guises withstood the raw glances of her father’s eyes.

The balance always seemed to teeter with him between an unconditional acceptance of the way she chooses to live her life, and an odd knowing acceptance. And although, logically, she accepted the former to be the truth, somehow she had always felt the latter’s lingering threat. It barely mattered to her whether her father knew. However, seeing as he so thoroughly lacked the technological wherewithal, let alone the interest, to grasp any of her various projects, the how of it all always remained particularly pervasive to her. A tiny yet stubborn sliver lodged in her confidence. Ever since her first foray in decreased realities, ever since she had released her tapes, she had the inkling that he had known. And what’s more, had somehow participated in its inception.

No one has ever discovered the tapes, she reassures herself. She feels the crooked scar in her pride stretch and settle. The tapes had come to fruition through her need to upset the rigidity of the Happiness programming. Little alterations at first, graffiti art, weather events, modified wildlife behaviours… And as her artform grew, so too did her desire to contaminate other peoples experiences for the better. The Happiness program mirrored but the surface promoting the mere cultivation of the superficial, the cloaking of shame in vanity, worthlessness in extravagance. She sought the opposite. For it to reach deeper into the mire of the human condition. Into its obscure foundations. An overlay that would balance the presets of this augmented reality with a diminished counter-part.

However, as her tapes were nearing completion, her intentions became obscured by a shadow of protective angst. For, what if just anyone found it? Would they understand? Would they so willingly surrender the comfort of their reality for hers? She could not fathom so. And so, delaying the release by three months, she made sure that, first, the tapes were virtually untraceable to her and second,  that a maze was to be designed with which to filter those who would gain access to the diminished reality. The process was to be cryptic, details at the very most, objects that featured neither in the realm of Happiness, nor in the physical world. Once satisfied, she released her tapes into the cyber world.

Six months went passed. Then a year. The sub-culture to which she had envisioned herself giving birth, in the end, never saw a single user. The initial pride of being an undiscovered genius had, by then, been eroded and become embittered. Suddenly, her deep-seated belief that she was special, or that she was meant for more than the happiness realities was scraped raw and left exposed to squint in the light of day. Never quite able to play along with the Happiness illusion, yet unable to justify existence in a place as devoid of life as the physical world, it wasn’t long before she escaped to the underground.

She stands. Lost in the past still, she absently gathers the dishes and brings them to the wall. A tile slides upwards and seals itself again swallowing her half-eaten breakfast, his clean plate and glass. She felt a ghost, caught between realities. Her father had raised her to embrace the physical world. And although he had never implicitly opposed the Happiness reality or her use of it, she felt herself an outsider, cursed, unable to conjure a sufficient suspension of disbelief to fully inhabit the virtual space. Were there greater machinations at play here? Neither a pawn nor a queen has free will, she thinks to herself. Moving freely across realities might offer formidable advantages, however, if she remains oblivious to the greater game at play, how certain could she ever be that the origins of forces that inform her behaviour?

The light creeps into the apartment, she could feel its synthesized warmth. She tries to believe in the presence of a sun yet all the effort brings about is a melancholic weariness that creeps under her defences and weighs upon her weary existence.

I’m going to head home.

When she bids farewell to her father, her words barely break into his absent state. A state she all too often finds him in. As though his mind had escaped, found solace in a different realm. A realm to which she does not pertain. His eyes graze by her as they look onward, through her, and towards the worn metal mask hanging next to the door. It had been a while since his last pilgrimage.

I’m leaving, dad.

Her words found no resonance in his consciousness. A wave crashes against the last of her fortifications, casting a trembling throughout her bones. She feels herself out of focus. A mere program to be dismissed at will. A stream of code among streams of code to the last person who could distinguish.

Fissured and dull, an ancient cathedral bell resounds echoless and unsettles the sacred peace of the night. A stillness settles in the air. The chime comes again. And again. And when at last it ceases, there is a hollow, like a breath withheld, and the night knows such a silence so as to strip darkness of its majesty. The air shivers and a faint whisper filters through the great city. Rodents scurry whimpering from the murky empty streets down deep into the underworld. Inside the cathedral, the air begins to quake with ungodly might. Pillars of tarnished stone suddenly are set into motion, contorting excruciatingly upwards, outstretching like burnt twisted hands into the starless abyss above. Rafters wince and grind and the great chapel collapses in a glockenspiel shower of shattered stained glass. A column of light pours moon-silver through the hollow in the ceiling and is dispersed through the shards of glass whose fall comes to a halt mid-air, in a chandelier of ruin and elegance.

Verdi, Dies Irae. The ground begins to crumble as the pews knot and tangle, driving roots deep into the crypts below. Louder. LOUD! The cathedral floor sinks under her feet as the choir bellows the hymn of death. Her fingers assault wildly the air as she conducts her own orchestrations of doom upon the once sacred place. Saintly paintings of pious scenes and martyrdom fade silently, leaving only bloody limbs and stranded eyes to gaze sinisterly from their sombre alcoves. The vibrations become such that her heart is left unsure of the master of its own rhythm. Fugitive gasps of breath escape in vapour from her mouth. The entirety of her being pushes outwards to erupt and be free, she screams out to relieve the pressure but manages no more than an inaudible rasp. Her eyes begin to water and the overwhelming force redirects itself inside to assail her soul. Her feet softly find the ground anew. The cursed hall reverberates the sound of her troubled breathing in broken echos, as though conjoining in the suffering.

She stands alone, gazing through nebulous eyes at the bedevilled cathedral towering above her, maimed by the wrath of its creator, monument now to a different darkly reverence. She feels hollowed. Miniscule. Insignificant in the presence of such humbling might, albeit her very own. With barely the strength to be, she sets off into the night.

The lights blur and merge as a faint drizzle begins to fall. Her hair sticks to her eyes and nose. She wraps herself tightly into her own arms. Alone, she wanders endlessly, drunkenly through the desolate streets and for the first time being ignored is an unbearable wound.

Someone, she whispers to herself. People. Please.

Gradually people filter through from the alleys and shops. She sighs, and for a moment is relieved. But as she runs to them, to an old lady murmuring to her rosary, a young boy tending his bicycle, a couple sharing an umbrella, all in turn ignore her as per their programming. They avoid her as they would a light post or a sleeping dog.

More.

The street is suddenly swarming with people, the shops open, the stalls, the district is bustling with life.

More.

Hordes rush into the streets and a pedestrian traffic jam forms around her, shifting restlessly like a hive of bees. People push to squeeze by each other. There is much chatter and a fight breaks out in a small square ahead. The crowd shuffles more aggressively as some try to move towards it, some away.

The suffering grows inside her. The force of her emotions pushing in against the core of her being with ever-increasing pressure. She curls into a ball on the wet cobblestones. Minuscule at the foot of the mass of shoving bodies.

Leave, she whispers. Enough! The crowd breaks up and soon she finds herself alone again under the rain.

The crushing weight furthers its work against her soul until the core of her being is so minute, so compressed that she is offered a glance at the very essence of her being, her primal urges, to be loved, to impress, to be special; until she is more suffering than self.

Monk. She waits but the cat doesn’t come. Monk! The outflow of tears catches her by surprise, she slides her goggles onto her forehead and burrows her face into her arms. The obscure abyss surrounding her is so vast that her whimpers find no walls to bounce against.

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