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Vague Visages Short Stories: Cherished Swan by D.M. Palmer

He tried to remain present by focusing on a tiny indentation in the desk’s veneer. He imagined it as a valley populated by a civilisation of diligent but dim-witted creatures. He jammed his little finger into the indentation. He smiled in all the right places and nodded when the time seemed right. His eye contact was intermittent, but sufficient to convey alertness.

“We still have sectors that are not functioning to their fullest capacity…”

He looked at the blobs of damp on the ceiling tiles, but not long enough to be noticeable. Next to the flat-lining Referral Chart was a Wall-Sage: You Don’t Win A Contest You Don’t Compete In. He didn’t have the guts to bring up the dangling preposition with the Lit Dept.

“Also, the Deal Seeker interface times are well below where they should be…”

They performed their morning ape jump — they stood in a circle, holding hands, then jumped up and down and made simian grunts. As they filed out to the break room, he consulted the gratitude list he kept in the pocket of his lustreless cobalt workpants: Full set of limbs. Sense of self-awareness. Decent hair for age. Flawless Talk Portal etiquette record.

They were talking, and it was mostly rebounding off him. From what penetrated, he understood that their conversation consisted mainly of commenting on what was in their immediate environment, and detailing the encroachment of the various physical ailments which resulted from their sedentary habits. It runs so deep they don’t even feel it anymore, he thought. They believe all the promises and mottos the Lit Dept. churns out.

But there is always her. Unruffled by the insults of disgruntled Deal Seekers on the other end. Immune to the vending machine pacts and break room putsches. She sits at her workstation like a hunger striker. A beacon of serenity and self-control in a sea of greasy-fingered rancour. A dusting of refinement over all this chaos. This holding pen for fuck-ups and social defectives. The shiftless. The vindictive. The unmanageably gifted.

He still wondered if some oversight had occurred. He’d somehow succeeded in conveying the impression of being a fully realised human. He wondered if he was projecting something. The act had been pulled off with such élan that they’d offered him a position. A position he wasn’t sure he could assume with sufficient regularity, a position that may cause weight gain and muscle wastage if he were to twist himself into it with any frequency. He’d “aced” the appraisal. The patterns he’d fashioned in the answer buttons amounted to a portrait of responsibility and sobriety, though he’d meant it to look like an elephant.

As he passed her workstation — which he contrived to do at least twice a day — he noticed a new picture on the wall by the interface kit console: a deserted coastline. His inability to engage with people on anything beyond a superficial level had been construed as hostility — his station-mates had filed reports describing him as “uncommunicative” and “evasive.” He went into rooms that were lit with rigid grins, where he was biomass for the contracted hours. Then he left those rooms and went out onto the street, where he was biomass in transit until he reached his company habitation unit and logged onto the Talk Portal.

Grrrstalt06 has logged in.

He opened the drawer of his workstation. He took out the black cube and held it to his ear. He’d found it lying in the road outside his company habitation complex. A faint hum emanated constantly from it. He held the cube close to his ear but the hum was drowned out by the din of interfaces. He’d done some research on the Aletheia Portal and discovered it was “a device used by previous generations to disseminate spurious narratives which promulgated the prevailing values of the pre-Talk Portal age.” It was called a Lie-Tale Box.

He went to the vending machine and bought a GastroSlap bar. Everything was laced in a glaze of syrupy optimism for a moment as he bit into the GastroSlap’s pulpy flesh and his teeth shivered from the hydrogenated oils. He walked to the end of the corridor and opened a door with a picture of flames on it. The room was chilly with a bare concrete floor. Grey light filtered through frosted glass. There was a disposal chute in the centre of the room. He took the Lie-Tale Box from under his lustreless cobalt workshirt and held it over the mouth of the chute. A distant whir and a scorched smell came from the depths of the chute.

He was here because the previous occupant of his workstation had contracted Black Circle Rash. An outbreak had wiped out sixteen operatives. The building had been decontaminated and the remaining workforce were quarantined on Gliese Island. He’d been recruited onto this temp team — referred to internally as the Corpse Mimics — and for the past six months had been travelling from city to city filling in for Black Circle Rash casualties.

He put the Lie-Tale Box under his workshirt and went to the bathroom. He put the Lie-Tale Box under the spigot and set it to emit antimicrobial spray. He lifted the Lie-Tale Box onto the countertop and scrubbed it with sanitising cloths. It vibrated softly on the black tile.

He logged into his interface kit and hooked himself up to the neural relay. He didn’t even know her name. Operatives were discouraged from sharing their real names, merely to refer to each other by their assigned animal names. His was Vibrant Macaw. Hers was Cherished Swan. He’d spoken to her once when they found themselves sharing the break room. They’d briefly discussed the scarcity of adequately scoped deals in the latest packets they’d received. They’d agreed that the Sourcing Dept. was getting lax.

“Hey, want you make mine deal under-neck hurt more now!”

He adjusted the language filter to Socio-Economic Grade D.

“Madam, I’ve brought up a number of nearby clinics within your credit range that perform very reasonable clavicle buttressing procedures…”

“Need hurt stop now under-neck no sleep no work!”

“Madam, I don’t make appointments. I’m here to find you the best deal and refer you.”

The pictures on her workstation walls were all of places — artfully composed shots of abandoned buildings, pigeon shit-encrusted monuments of long-forgotten philanthropists, depopulated winter beaches. The other workstations were slathered in snapshot loops of toothless, Rosacea-plagued baby-men, brittle-boned, over-painted she-blimps and salivating, cave-headed infants, updated with every team-binge and family-gorge.

That night they found themselves standing together in the line for the company bullet train. He discreetly breathed in the piney scent that emanated from her immaculate skin. It rose above the fug of crevice sweat from the bodies packed on the platform. He’d never been so close to her. She was staring at her feet.

“How are those new packets?”

He wasn’t sure if she’d heard him. He’d begun to repeat himself when she looked up.

“Oh, yeah, pretty good…”

“I, er, noticed all the pictures on your workstation. You take those?”

She gave the floor a reticent smile and nodded.

“They’re really good. I walk past your workstation, like, two times a day, not that I’m counting, or anything, that’s just, like, a rough estimate, some days I won’t walk past at all, some days I’ll walk past, like, three of four times, if it’s necessary for me to walk past, I’m not just wandering past whenever I feel like it, that would be… Anyway, yeah, I see those photos and, you know…it makes me feel better about being there, because, you know, like, a person was in an inspiring place when they took them, and now I find out that that person is you, who sits three rows down from me, and that makes me feel…”

He made a gesture which articulated his inability to articulate the feeling.

“Alive?” she said.

“Yes! Exactly! Like…somebody exists here who can appreciate stuff like that!”

Some of the operatives on the platform turned at his exclamations.

“Do you take photos?” she asked.

“No, but I like to collect old stuff. Obsolete technology. Look at this.”

He unzipped his bag and took out the Lie-Tale Box, holding it low with a grin.

“Where did you find this?”

“It was on the ground outside my HU.”

She snatched the Lie-Tale Box and shoved it under her coat. She grabbed his arm and dragged him across the platform. He slammed into shoulders and caught flashes of affronted faces. They went down the stairs and stood under the supports of the elevated rails.

“Do you know what you’ve got here?”

“Yeah, it’s a Lie-Tale Box.”

“A what? Who told you that?”

“I searched it on Aletheia.”

The bullet train rattled past.

“Let’s get a cab to mine.”

She kept the Lie-Tale Box under her coat as the cab took them in silence to a company habitation complex composed of units slightly bigger than the ones where he was stationed. She’d been with the company longer. The company had struggled to find a dept. for her. She was an exemplary operative in terms of workload, but her station-mates had filed reports describing her as “uncooperative” and “solitary.” She was advised that her temperament was better suited to a “less rigidly defined role within the company.”

She put the Lie-Tale Box on her desk and stroked the top until a slot opened. A screen rose from the slot. The screen booted up with a series of splashy animations and dissolved onto a man’s face. The man was speaking, but his voice was a faint hum.

“It’s called a Boost Buddy. People in the past went through a crisis of self-confidence and needed constant reassurance. Before the Talk Portal, this was all they had. The system was shut down, and these boxes have been playing the same day over and over again.”

She ran her finger up the left vertical edge and the volume rose.

“Hello, Cynthia. You’ve had a good day today. You achieved all the goals listed in your objective log. Here are the face-to-face compliments you received today.”

The screen dissolved to a shot of an antiquated office — timecode: 4/16/18 14:37:32. A female operative was sitting at a workstation. A woman approached the workstation and told the operative that her contribution to the Lipsyte Account had been invaluable.

“Wasn’t it nice that your supervisor said something so complimentary to you?”

He was leaning over her. He could see the delicate hairs on the back of her neck in the light.

“It’s weird that they were so insecure,” he said.

“They were conditioned that way.”

“I’m searching the library, Cynthia, for some music to help you sleep.”

He perched on the window sill, then sat on the edge of the bed. Her bed. Her index finger spiralled over the Boost Buddy’s front panel. In a series of rotations, the Boost Buddy reconfigured into a speaker. Soft piano music began to play.

“I wonder what happened to Cynthia.”

“She probably got wiped out by the first wave of Black Circle Rash. Before The Mutation. The Boost Buddy was recalled because it was linked to an outbreak of Black Circle Rash.”

“What?”

“The fan emits a biological agent. Some say on purpose. It all got hushed up. Scrubbed from Aletheia. Apparently, only seven were never tracked down. Which means…”

She turned and looked at him with a smile.

“Didn’t I mention that?”

“How do you know all this?”

“I take pictures for people. You take a photo and you trap a moment that will never happen again. You’ve stopped time.”

“Would you like to dance?”

*AP/REQUEST/LOG/IDENT/ARCANA/SPEC-MON/LIE_TALE_CUBE

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.

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