“Thank you all for coming.”
Like I had a choice boss. You can fill the meeting invite up with all the pleasantries and corporate wank-speak you want, the real message says “Attend or be fired” so here I am.
“I’ve brought Dawkins in from marketing. He’s going to take us through our latest product launch. Real out-of-the-box thinking. Went live…this time last week eh Dawkins?”
The man in the pastel suit nods his sculpted head. He smiles a perfect, retina-scorching smile and fiddles with a laptop smaller than my phone.
“Well Dawkins I think I speak for the whole team when I say we’re excited to get the lowdown on this landmark achievement for our company.”
Did that really just happen? What’s with the lowdown hand gesture? Are you now moonlighting as a middle-aged rapper? Light up the stage I rock the mic with my v-neck, bitches beware I’m…oh, pastel boy is starting I’d better feign attention for a while.
“…very glad you invited me along Kenneth. Can someone dim the lights please? Thanks. It’ll make the PowerPoint stand out more…”
Dawkins continues to drone on in some abstract language composed entirely of meaningless platitudes and three-letter acronyms. That’s when I notice the bubbles for the first time. Grey, thick spheres foam from his lips and spill down the front of his suit. His impossibly small laptop becomes flotsam in the sludge pool forming on the mahogany boardroom table. I stare in equal parts fascination and horror as the gunk edges closer to my coffee cup. I grab it before it can become marooned and sit upright. Behind Dawkins I see a dark figure carrying a long-handled blade and I gasp.
Dawkins excoriates me with his smile. “You’re right to gasp. This is a game-changer. Welcome…to Apathetica.”
There’s no sign of the black figure or the grey sludge. Applause breaks out around the room and I clap along without thinking. What the hell just…? I must be more tired than I thought. Music swells and Dawkins launches into a demonstration.
“This is where your journey begins. Pure. White. Crystalline.”
“Um…” I begin. Dawkins appears close to orgasm as he beckons me to continue. “Well…apart from the logo at the top…it’s…well, it’s just a blank screen?”
“Exactly!” says Dawkins. “Simple. Clean. Perfect. Think of the endless clutter of Facepage, BirdWhisper and the rest. All that news and chat and information it’s enough to drive you insane! Imagine the possibilities of a world with a reward system based around minimalist abstinence? The less you engage the more you receive! We’ve already got thirteen million subscribers this week who have done absolutely nothing! And that number is growing by the day!”
I’m aware that my mouth is open but I cannot muster the means to close it. I must be dreaming this, surely?
“Yes, Kenneth, you have a question?”
The look of glazed ecstasy on Kenneth Parsons’ face suggests a lot of beans are being mentally juggled. “Thirteen million? In one week? That’s…well it’s staggering…simply staggering. And your projections for the first quarter?”
Dawkins is euphoric. “Exponential growth Kenneth. We’ve already seen that trend over the second half of the week when we ironed out the registration criteria…”
“You simplified the process?”
Dawkins taps his nose and winks at the head of IT who posed the question. “We didn’t just simplify it Bob. We removed it entirely! Our target audience doesn’t have the time or the energy to supply an email address. It’s just not the Apathetican way! And now that we’ve implemented CDP…”
“CDP?” I can’t stop myself from asking.
“Click Disablement Protocol. It actively ensures that when temptation strikes our user base they are unable to generate content that goes against the site principles.”
I put my head in my hands and screw my eyes shut. Breathe. “So what you’re saying is, you’ve got a website that you register for by not actually registering and is founded on the sole principle that anyone who does, or rather doesn’t, subscribe will be actively blocked from doing anything at all.”
“They can’t hear you.”
I turn to my left and stare Death in the face. He is sitting on the opposite side of the boardroom, hood down, scythe in hand, sipping what appears to be a skinny latte. I slump back into my chair and suck in air. “I’m…I’m n-not ready to die.”
“Who said anything about dying?” says Death putting his cup on the table. He looks at the scythe in his left hand and laughs. “Ah. Bugger. Sorry about that. Been moonlighting this week while he is on leave.”
My breath heaves out of my lungs. “You moonlight as Death? What do you do on weekends? Play polo with the four horsemen?”
Not-Death chuckles. “Now that’s what I was looking for. Unlike the rest of this room you, my friend, have got a soul. Look, it’s working.”
I follow Not-Death’s gaze to the front of the boardroom. Kenneth, Dawkins, Bob and the rest are knee-deep in grey sludge and frozen in a left-hanging state of mutual high-fiving. Thin rainbow tendrils settle over their heads like a gossamer web and lighten the sludge beneath. I look down and the last smoky wisps of colour drift from my lips. “Was that…?”
“Yes. It was. You have a gift my friend. Your pragmatic cynicism, humour and non-conformance have the power to save The Underland. My land. A land which is choking on the very sludge you see in this room.”
“Oh. Right. I get it. I can save a man who isn’t death, and the entire underworld just by being sarcastic?”
“Not you. Me. You can call me Phil. And it’s the under land.”
“Phil. Of the Underland. Underland Phil. Good old Phil my buddy with a scythe who hangs out with Death. Philphilly-phil…”
The temperature in the boardroom plummets a hundred degrees, raises two hundred and then settles on two degrees above comfort. A wasp falls out of the air and lands in the sludge. The fillings in my teeth hum. A paperclip contorts into a pentagram and returns to its usual form. All of this in less time than it takes me to breathe.
Not-Death-Phil grins. “You’ve got to admit that’s a pretty cool trick. It’s actually all to do with magnets, you just need a…”
“I’m going to wake up now. This has all been lots of fun but I think I need to wake up now. I’ve got a very important presentation to attend this morning. A game-changer.”
“The game has already changed. This is no dream. I need your help. You and the few others like you that remain untouched by this madness.” He gestures at my swamp-bound colleagues and sighs. “Without your help the entire Underland will suffocate.”
I sip my coffee and cover my despair at the hot liquid not waking me from the dream with a look of thoughtful contemplation. “Surely you can just…well…deal with them yourself? I mean, you’ve somehow managed to appear out of nowhere and freeze time. And there was the whole hot cold magnet thing. Why don’t you just…sort them out?”
Phil shakes his head and gives me a tired smile. “They are lost to me. Right now they are not aware that you and I are talking or that I even exist. Their brains are so far removed from reality that they cannot comprehend anything beyond their own self-importance. They are not even aware of the grey rot of banality leeching their souls onto the ergonomically perfect yet somehow lifeless furniture of this very boardroom.”
“Wow. So that grey sludgy stuff is a part of their souls?”
“It is the entirety of their souls. Millions of these corrupted souls are sloughing off as we speak and driving great rivers of the grey choking death through our lands. Our vast fire pits and burning plains are being extinguished. Our fields of skulls are now insipid grey lakes. Even our blind, eyeless Underland children begin to drown in this filth.”
Phil puts his head in his hands. His shoulders are shaking. I rack my brains for something consoling to say.
“You lying twat.”
Phil raises his head and smiles. “What gave me away? The eyeless children?”
I choke out a laugh. “The fields of skulls didn’t sound right either to be honest.” My smile drops and I stare into his unsettling mauve eyes. “But it’s serious though isn’t it?”
Phil nods. “I just described the Underland in keeping with human invented cliché. Our world is much like yours in many ways. We laugh a lot more, we drink about the same and we have no word for guesstimate. But our situation is dire. It’s why I had no choice but to involve you. And our other conduits.”
“Enough with the bad spy thriller speak. Can’t you just be honest with me?” I stare at Phil and behind his eyes I see a flicker of rainbow colours. My heart thumps. “You’re not kidding are you?”
Phil shakes his head. “You are one of us Daniel.”
I start to speak and he raises his hand to cut me off. “For millennia there has been balance between our worlds. Our roles have been as opposing forces. The greyness in your world drips into ours, we take what we need to dampen down our natural exuberance, laugh at the rest to give it some colour and then send it back up. The balance is not always perfect. History is littered with grey periods but nothing like this. Even the corporate greed of the Eighties only served to dent some of the gains we made in the Sixties. But luckily that’s where the seeds were sown.”
“Which is a polite way of saying you shagged a bunch of hippies.”
“It was never our intention Daniel but you’ve seen the footage – free love, free weed, easy to remove clothing – we just got caught up in the moment. But by accident or design it has led to our last remaining hope. You, and the others like you are all that can save us now.”
I finish the remains of my lukewarm coffee and toss the cup towards the bin. “So I’m guessing Grandpa Jack didn’t actually die in a bizarre creosoting accident just prior to my mum being born.”
Phil grins at me. “Intuition. Imagination. That’s the key to it all.”
I sigh. “So what happens next? Actually who cares. It has to be better than this.” I gesture at the self-congratulatory sludge-dwellers. “Wait. Did they just start to move?”
Phil stands up. “We have to work quickly. I can’t hold them for much longer. Do you think you can get to the server room? Great. I need you to re-route the encryptions, plant a trojan horse, re-encrypt the encryptions, plant a dummy virus and then sweep all traces of your cyber-self from the system while the trojan horse propagates to the slave machines powering Apathetica, thereby rendering the site redundant and inoperable.”
“Or failing that take this hammer and twat anything that doesn’t move. Oh, and you can stick this infected flash drive into the USB port of the main server while you’re busy swinging.”
Phil pulls at his hair. “Now what?”
“Well…” I grimace as I try to form the words to reflect the awful truth dawning upon me. “No one’s going to notice anything.”
“Exactly! Why else do you think I froze time?”
“No. I mean the thirteen million users. No one is going to notice that anything has changed.”
Phil settles into a grin once again. “Oh, that! Ah. Yes. I can see where you’re coming from. But you’re overlooking one key factor. The very thing that built Apathetica has the power to destroy it. The slackers, losers and general what-evs that make up the user base will completely forget it ever existed within twenty-four hours! Sure there will be a couple of conspiracy theorists amongst them who will cause a minor fuss but we can handle that. The rest of them will simply go back to buying vinyl, growing beards and taking selfies of themselves brewing craft beer.”
“And what about the next Apathetica?”
Phil fixes me with a hard stare. “It’s up to you and the others to make sure that never happens. Now go! You deal with the server, I’ll take care of the rest. You should have time to finish up and get to the stairs before the fire alarm kicks in.”
“You’re going to burn the building down? But…” I point at my colleagues who have now connected their high fives and are slowly dropping their frenzied smiles.
“They’ll be fine. I’m just taking their hardware into the kitchen so I can set fire to them under the smoke detector. Luckily I can fit all four laptops into a single waste paper bin. They’ll be confused for a few days but no lasting damage.”
I reach across the table and shake Phil’s hand. “Where will you go?”
“Don’t worry about me. Death owes me a favour. See you around kid.”
I walk from the boardroom without a backward glance.
A number of weeks later…
“Thank you all for coming.”
The invite said coffee and cake, how could I refuse?
“I’ve asked Dawkins from marketing to give us a heads up on some of our newer initiatives. Dawkins?”
The smile remains dazzling. “Thank you Kenneth. So as you can see from the flip chart we’ve got a number of projects under way that we believe will give us the kind of ROI numbers we’ve been looking for. A conforming set of KPIs across each will allow us to…”
I raise my hand. Dawkins nods. Smiles. “Sorry to interrupt but…well…couldn’t we just make more money by firing everyone who uses an acronym and using the cost savings to build an army of robots that we could run via remote control from the pub?”
Dawkins’ smile downgrades to a grin. The room is silent. Looks are exchanged. I sip my coffee to calm the butterflies, and then…
“Bravo Spence! Bravo!”
Is that my boss actually laughing?
“That’s exactly the stuff we need around here. Oh for goodness sake you lot lighten up a bit. He’s just having some fun, aren’t you Spence?”
“Well I was pretty keen on the pub part to be honest Sir, but…”
Around me there are grins. Then are smiles. As the smiles take voice in exploratory laughter I see tiny rainbows take flight.
There is hope.