Singing their allegro low anthem, the Meat jumped the barrier into the subway station. Without a flicker of anything but the requisite fixed smile on his face, the inspector in his ticket-office blanked them so perfectly that they gave him a parting round of applause. All around them, commuters continued pouting their black lipstick lips, indifferent, intent on the screens of their devices, listening to muzak through ear-buds. Sluggish but inexorable, the commuters shuffled.
‘Heading someplace else the same.’
The Meat arrived on the platform in a blur and formed up in a seething knot, teasing and jostling each other as they waited for the train, their laughter yoga growing louder and increasingly raucous. One of them sliced off to deface a poster advertising an app: ‘Share the passion!’ - a nudge to encourage commuters to send a chain-reaction text to ‘affirm the challenge and joy of living’. The slice of Meat changed ‘passion’ to ‘poison’ with her aerosol spray paint and added a heart struck through with a large asymmetric A.
When the train came, the Meat reformed into a rolling maul and crammed into an already over-crowded carriage. Forming a tight circle, back to back in the centre of the oppressively hot and airless space, the Meat began shouting greetings to their fellow passengers, waving, winking, flirting… No one responded, dull eyes glued to their screens, black rouge lips slightly parted in pallid faces to reveal rows of perfect pearly-white teeth. Some did bob their heads in time with the muzak streaming in their ears, the sounds of elsewhere nowhere.
Bored, the Meat decided to play a game of pass the object above their heads. Each time one slice received the imaginary object from another, they noisily transformed it, changing its size and shape, mass and form: a squawking chicken, a pulsing quasar, a squeaking mouse, a juggernaut truck sounding its Klaxon… If the pinch-faced commuters even knew the objects the Meat imagined and brought to life, they gave no sign, seemingly effortless in their blanking.
At their stop the Meat quit the carriage, one by one squeezing out and popping like corks from Champagne bottles. They stayed on the platform to wave their erstwhile fellow travellers fond farewells, blowing kisses, clasping their hands over their hearts. Parting even reduced some slices to crocodile tears - ‘such Meat sorrow’. Then, with no discernible signal, they all rushed for the exit, arms out at their sides, roaring jet planes on an un-bombing mission…
Out of the subway and onto the city street, their senses assailed by the chaos of neon and the yowling rush of traffic. Exhaust fumes mingled with the aromas of food from everywhere in the world but no place anyone had ever been. Could ever go. And the sweet-sour odours of multifarious waste, cloying the palate. Surging throngs of blanked, blanking people. Electronic billboards in every ever-shifting colour, every language and then some: pictographs, hieroglyphs.... Adverts for phone implants – ‘call girl’ and a picture of a short-skirted hooker, indecently young and thin, dialling, receiving; adverts for faster food, sweeter soda, designer e-cigarettes, and stronger more exotic spirits; for diets, heath farms, health foods, health care and rehab. For cosmetic surgery, gastric cropping and intimate trimming, for bio-enhancement. Sales slogans for sex and for Jesus, indiscernible offerings of salvation; for handguns – ‘man up, girl’, and automatic weapons; for cologne – ‘free spirited you’ or ‘escape today everyday’; for electronics companies, internet corporations, pharmaceutical giants, banks and bookmakers. Properties for sale or rent, to suit every pocket. ‘Credit yourself’, rock bottom rates.
‘I’m so tired,’ Goldie said, ‘drained. I just need a break, to go with the flow.’
‘You’re leaving us,’ Rom said, failing to get her to meet his gaze.
‘No, of course…’ Goldie began, squeezing her eyes closed, her hands cradling her face. ‘Just a rest. There’s a night job… I can slowly build a little credit, get a few essentials together. I can’t go on against…’
‘If you plug in,’ Rom said, ‘feel it, you’ll stay plugged.’
‘A month, two. No more,’ Goldie promised.
‘You’ll turn,’ Rom said.
‘I just need a little nourishment. And ease. Down-time.’
‘You’ll never rise up again.’
‘I’ll rejoin you at the squat.’
‘Goodbye,’ Rom said.
Rom rejoined the small joint of Meat who were simulating sex in the middle of the packed evening sidewalk. He noted that the crowd was all heading in one direction: There must be a product launch. Without registering the mock pornographic performance of the Meat, the crowd parted to flow around them, re-merging like a miracle sea.
‘Where’s Goldie?’ Puffa asked as she ground her rear into Dom’s crotch, exaggerating her movements to the exotic max.
‘Retired,’ Dom said, automatically responding to Puffa’s mime with his own overstated hip-thrusting, joining in with a Meaty chorus of orgasmic moans, screams and exhortations: ‘deeper, harder, faster…’ Becoming a chant.
‘Tired?’ Puffa queried, yelling to make herself heard above their racket.
‘Yes,’ Dom said.
The crowd converged on the giant store where uni-media told them the new device would be launched in this city. They arrived in their thousands then tens and then hundreds of thousands, making their slow, fixed smiling way in from the suburbs. Each was encouraged by the breaking product news that interrupted their muzak and vid feeds with such regularity that it was the rule not the exception. Though it was impossible to discern just how, their wan unchanging features betrayed something of their fervour. Though the collective pace didn’t quicken, their shuffle was suffused with ardent tension. Tall or short, fat or thin, regardless of skin colour, everyone wore dark clothes, mostly shades of black or the darkest navy. They moved as a tide, washing along the street, filling it, enveloping it. As they neared the mega store, the architecture of the street funnelled then into a tighter, denser throng. A homeless man, sleeping near the warm air vent at one side of the store, awoke as the crowd parted around him and then, with no more room to part, trod over him. His cries and curtailed curses were lost, unheeded. After only a few minutes he no longer even stained the shoes of the famished multitude.
The Meat were evicted and lost the squat. In an impossibly short time it was redeveloped as a fitness centre and fried chicken franchise. Along with the squat went their plans for a social centre, something they’d read about on un-weeded sites still trailing on the web decades after their authors had passed. They had talked of sheltering refugees and the homeless, of free food, of makers’ workshops and legal aid, of street art, music and theatre classes. Most of all they’d talked of developing a cold-turkey capacity, to support people in unplugging. But they had talked too long, planned too closely, hesitated. And lost. Now the Meat was fragmented, slices couch surfing with an ebb of friends, enduring familial condescension, sleeping rough on roofs or in the cavities of the under-city.
Dom waited for other slices at the subway station, at first passing his time by staging shambling monster attacks on passing commuters, all of whom were wholly unmoved. Giving up, he read an ancient e-book downloaded from the under-web on his stolen slate.
“Whose city? The answer, perhaps, is pretty clear: it’s the parasites’ city and their progeny is a species we can now label the parasitic city. A parasite, remember, is an organism that feeds off the larger “host” organism, an uninvited diner at the lodge who doesn’t pay for their grub. Parasites chomp away at the common-wealth the world over, eating their way inside the social body…”
‘Parasites feeding must be what made the zombies,’ Dom reflected aloud, nodding comprehension. ‘They don’t rise from the grave but are consumed to living death. Their spirits are drained.’
Tonight’s action, which he had conceived and proposed, was to be a hit on one of the Terra-Malls. They were going to enter stores and try to give away goods to customers. Christmas was coming and the stores were even more laden than usual, ridiculously crammed with the unneeded, the next moment de-junk. The Meat would press holovision-sets, uni-devices, smoothie synths, well-being monitors, designer clothes - black was the new black again next season – object d’art and game-stations into the hands of baffled, but expressionless shoppers, insisting they were gifts from a grateful management.
“How to incubate such an alternative meme,’ Dom read from the slate, ‘how to dose up on it to strengthen our immunity system? How might it circulate as a prophylactic within the generative cells of our urban politic, permanently ridding us of parasites.’
‘We obviously never found out how,’ Dom muttered. ‘The social body is gutted and putrid to its core.’
When he finished reading and put the slate stand-by, Dom felt drained. Commuters continued to flow around him, oblivious, consumed.
His old-fashioned device quivered and bleated in his pocket and he took it out, thumbed access and read the text.
‘With you in spirit!’
The most vital of them.
The last of them.
Dom smiled, blankly.