Brevity — a short fiction about brief communication — by Neil Dixon

A THOUSAND MILLING BODIES choked the path ahead to that steel door at the far end of the concourse. That unmarked and unremarkable door. The flashing orange teardrop — soon to turn red — bobbed above that door, taunting.

“Not my fault,” she muttered to herself as though anyone around her might hear the deceit, or might care.

In response, an adsync on the building beside her wiped away the image of a smooth-shaved, chiselled hero hopping through a window to deliver chocolates. “Blame Analytics,” the banner now read, “we ensure the +innocent are never guilty. Let your innocence, Aice Sears, be our burden.”

Aice sneered at the adsync. It changed to a brief message from Adsync Preference Authority Inc. regarding her adsync bias and how to tailor it to her preferences. Then returned a dramatic shot of the successful delivery of chocolates.

“The last time I had a chocolate…” The taste memory eluded her.

She mouthed the intent: “Remember to +buy +chocolate.” A smooth voice confirmed for her ears only: “Aice Sears — reminder set — chocolates. Filed: Groceries. I have tagged three stores near your current location. You will have ample time to visit one of them following your next appointment.” Adsync displayed a stream of nutritional information suggesting all manner of healthier alternatives.

Aice cursed every developer of adsync, and their families, and their pets, for a dozen generations past and future. Life had been easier with wearable tech. Leave it at home or pop out the power-cel for a little down-time. Experience the real world, if only a little before muscle-memory promoted a channel check. Escape from adsync was all but impossible. She should have brought a scrambler so she might walk about perceived as a sensor glitch. But such tech could not distinguish between adsync sensors and the populace security sensors. She would also appear as conspicuous shimmering ghost on some Populace Securofficial’s screen. That would have her on the wrong side of a locked door answering awkward questions about the electronic disruption device in her purse.

Aice recognised the ping of a destination drop-marker switching from orange to red. There it was bouncing above that sour steel door, marking her destination, insisting. She cursed her indoctrinated response to that marker. This was to be her fifth visit through that door. She knew where to go. Didn’t it know she still had a crowded concourse to navigate? Of course it did, that was why it was not flashing red — not yet.

Her visit to the Public Executive followed the now familiar routine. Security remained tight, despite no recent disturbed populace in this city province. The biotech scans took longer than usual — or was that merely the boredom of familiarity fused with frustrating travel interruption, and adsync distraction? ‘Adsync consumes 25 hours of the average individual’s week’ she had once read.

THE CORPSE-LIKE COUNSELLOR CHARMERS greeted her with distracted indifference and nodded towards her seat. His attention focused on the infosync for his eyes only, projected within the space between them. He skipped through information about Aice’s childhood imaginary friend — an albino goat named Branstein who spewed poetry in the form of rainbows from his nose — the results of today’s biotech scans, and her recent purchase of a complete set of Kripping Excelsior Everyday Sense crockery following a disastrous mechanical failure in her kitchen. Serial numbers of the new items and the failed dishwasher parts would appear in a sub-list, accessible with little more than a twitch of an eye.

Charmers would not consciously register such trivia unless it became relevant to their conversation. Aice resisted the urge to steer the imminent exchange in the direction of kitchen utensils — just for kicks. Charmers’ would experience sub-lists within sub-lists, dragging him into a rabbit-hole decorated with her obsession for kitchen gadgetry. At least that stuff made tasty food and didn’t talk back.

Charmers cleared his throat before speaking. “Seven minutes +late?”

Aice noted the distinctive contextual lilt in his intonation, triggering his infosync to pop a list of potential causes.

”Transport +failure?” Aice said, “Signal sync at Third and Fletcher?” She watched as his eyes scanned the scrolling data, searching for confirmation.

“Area remains +congested? How did you complete your journey?”

“On foot?”

Charmers raised his head, met her eyes, looking for a sign of deceit. There was little point. Infosync would be listing the day’s congestion reports and performing a point-to-point analysis of her most likely journey, her alternatives, and which kitchen gadget demo stores she had visited en route. He returned his focus to the information. She spotted several register winks, that practiced signal of those spotting something interesting and stashing it for later. Not even the Counsellors of the Public Executive were free of adsync.

She wanted to tell him how much her feet ached in her new shoes (the shoes had no doubt been sub-listed), but how she could not have resisted them even with a Predictive Suitability Analysis adsync alert regarding their lack of suitability for walking more than a handful of metres. She wanted to show him their lines, their style, their exquisite curves that accentuated her already admirable calves and what most men regarded as sublimely beautiful feet — at least those with an interest in that particular part of her anatomy. She wanted to stand and demonstrate, to spin on the balls of her feet, allow her skirt to flail out, revealing her toned, but not too muscular legs, her symmetrical knees, accentuated by those beautiful, painful shoes. Perhaps he would notice her discreet toe-stretching in a vain attempt to ease her discomfort. Perhaps he would question the slight movement, wonder at its purpose, realise her shoes were new, un-stretched. He might then notice their beauty, their curve.

Perhaps not.

“I was fortunate?” was all she said. No reason to risk a verbosity citation, not when her career already hung in the balance.

“Let us +discuss your +employment?”

AICE CLICKED HER FINGERS to have the shot glass before her refilled. She consumed its contents as quickly as they had been poured and slammed the shot glass back to the faux wood of the bar. She stopped herself from smashing it into the small, glass rectangle there: the official determination of her meeting with Public Executive Counsellor Charmers containing notification of a reduction in her employable status.

The glass was refilled. Her cumulative bill flickered in blue text on bar’s surface beside the glass. Below that, her predicted blood alcohol level, and a graph of her beverage consumption over the past month. She had exceeded her contracted consumption. A companion adsync appeared for Alcohol Dependency Recovery Inc.

“-denotion?” said the barkeep.

“You want it?”

“Do I look like I need another? I used to fly jet liners?”

Aice glanced about the bar, realised it rarely attracted the kind of clientele that wore shoes like hers. This was the ideal, inconspicuous bar to hit so many angry shots. Her shoes took some effort to walk in when sober anyway.

Her fingers flicked. The glass filled. Her bill increased. Her graph for today’s consumption turned a shade of warning orange. The glass was empty again.

“I feel like I can work the rest of the day now, you know? Now?” she said. She noticed how her vowels had rounded, her tongue loosened, her voice rising both in pitch and volume. “I mean, I can’t help it if I’m a little late? Can I? Signal glitch? Damn them city financiers cutting mech pay and leaving the rest of us hanging out to dry. OK, so I’m late now and then? 23% Above Average Incidence, say my stats? I mean, we all get a little… what’s the matter with you? You look like I threw up over your shoes? Just don’t throw up over mine, they’re — ”

The barkeep took a step back, distancing himself from her all too public tirade. He almost dropped the bottle of liquor that had filled too many of her shots as his attention became drawn to someone behind her.

“Ah, shit,” she cursed. She realised her error. The leather-clad badge that appeared on the bar beside her came as no surprise. Its owner’s ident flashed across its surface, but her senses were too dulled to read it. Contact information appeared in the bar’s surface alongside his arrest statistics, service awards, an adsync for The Legal Aid Partnership and a disclaimer that he would receive 5% commission should she require their exceptional services — at a 15% reduction for immediate selection, offer to expire in five minutes.

“You’re going to fine me?” she said, without turning to the owner of that badge. She tapped the glass again and gave the barkeep a demanding expression.

“I think you have had enough +drink?” said the voice at her side. Its tone was calculated, its rhythm practiced, its context indicated with a polished lilt. This was a voice of applied authority, a voice conditioned to never utter anything out of place for the sake of legal retribution. This was also not the voice of anyone she had noticed in the bar about her. A chaser, a bloody chaser! And he had chased-up another worthless misdemeanour. She should watch his stats rise the moment he confirmed her violation. Then she would hope he choked on his commission.

Aice slapped the shot glass onto the bar and demanded a refill. The barkeep returned the liquor bottle to its allotted shelf, and shuffled away where something far more important demanded his attention. Aice cursed his family and wished all their adsync would return inappropriate promotions for ever more.

A little of the seriousness of her predicament surfaced from the blurred wash of her inebriation.

“I’m sorry?” she said, attempting to sounding both sincere and pitiful in equal measure. “A little too much? Loosens the tongue?” she added after a squirming silence.

Give a girl a break! She wanted to shout. She fought the urge to turn and deliver this clandestine vulture a tirade that would shake this vile creature of bureaucracy to the core and force his resignation to become the only lower form of life: an adsync exec. Do you know what I’ve been through today? She wanted to scream. Can you understand that sometimes we all have bad days, weeks, months, and nothing we do can make the better of it and you come along and park yourself in this hole of a bar waiting for someone like me to have the worst day of her miserable life so you can add your soured cream topping!

She wanted to shout those things — and perhaps finish by spitting in the man’s face or planting a pointed shoe heel into his foot with a sarcastic apology. But her panic-driven sobering mind managed to check her bluster.

“Shit. What will this one cost me?” she said. Her voice wavered with the struggle to hold back her frustration.

“Get yourself home. Nice shoes.” The badge was scooped from the bar. Air swirled as the figure beside her swept out.

Like the wind, I’ll make my escape! The voice in Aice’s head announced like some adsync for an upcoming movie. She went to stand, faking confidence that her legs could carry her more than a few metres. Within three paces in no particular direction, they turned to jelly and she crumpled, not to the dust-riddled, scratched board floor, but to into someone’s arms. She was carried — she presumed, for floating was not possible despite the sensations she was experiencing — deeper into the bar and into the dark.

A VOICE, AT FIRST DISTANT, drew nearer, not in space but in her perception. Clearer not in timbre, but in meaning. Its rhythm compelled her to seek out the speaker, to listen to every nuance. At first she struggled to comprehend, unsure of what she was hearing. A monologue?

Someone held her. Not forcibly, but comforting. Warm arms wrapped about her, legs either side of her. I’m on the floor, she realised from the lesser warmth beneath. I’m on the floor because I’ve fallen over and someone’s holding me half upright so I don’t drown in my own puke. She was not a pleasant sight in the image in her head. She wriggled to break free, but those warm arms held her tighter.

“It’s OK, be still,” a voice whispered, “take these, they’ll help clear your head.”

Something was placed in her mouth and she bit down without thinking. Those strong arms offered security, compelled trust. The sour bite of an Active Restore tab nipped at her tongue. Sobriety flooded through her like a spring tide. She heard the monologue clearly now, rising through her fading alcohol-blurred awareness as the cleansing tide ebbed away.

“We believe that we can change the things around us in accordance with our desires — we believe it because otherwise we can see no favourable outcome. We do not think of the outcome which generally comes to pass and is also favourable: we do not succeed in changing things in accordance with our desires, but gradually our desires change. The situation that we hoped to change because it was intolerable becomes unimportant to us. We have failed to surmount the obstacle, as we were absolutely determined to do, but life has taken us round it, led us beyond it, and then if we turn round to gaze into the distance of the past, we can barely see it, so imperceptible has it become.”

And so the words streamed, not the stuttering and stilted language of everyday, but flowing each after the other; the rhythm of another time. The images confused, the ideas a tangle within a mind accustomed to such rivers of thought from within, not from without. Here was someone spitting so skilfully and stylishly at her indoctrinated mind. Words upon words upon words, and not one contextual lilt amongst them.

Aice realised her eyes were shut. Those words had coloured her perception so vividly that she had not noticed the dark. She was afraid to open them, anxious of what she might see. A test? Dare she open her eyes to meet the sneering gaze of Councillor Charmers exposing her verbosity. Demotion! He would shout.

“Our new friend has joined us,” it was the voice of the storyteller, “make her feel welcomed.”

There came the muttering of many voices about here, shuffling. Hands reached out and touched her, welcoming, warm hands. She squirmed.

“The lights will be up in a minute. Nearly done.” Came the barkeep’s whisper. Aice fought for the true meaning of such brief words without context notes.

The storyteller resumed and those about her returned to their previous attentive silence. The barkeep held her, still. She eventually relaxed into him. There, she listened, relishing the stream of words that described more than mere passive contextualised fact.

AICE ENTERED HER DORM to the familiar chorus of appliances — and of course adsync. A stuttering zip-zip indicated her dinner was being re-hydrated. The hiss of fresh green tea being brewed. A string of infomercial messages flickering across the adsync wall, each synced to the day’s contexts. Most concerned legal advice and behavioural counselling.

Her mind remained in that dark room filled with colourful words, strange words, stranger people. She had seen little of those about her, even the speaker had remained bathed in enigmatic shadow. She had wanted to talk, discuss, to let her mind feed upon the words she had heard. But the congregation had exited with little more than murmured gratitudes and other, less clandestine places to be. She had followed the group’s lead, not wanting to be the rebel within the mass. Separated from her barkeep saviour, she was whisked out to the street along with the others.

Sleep eluded her, her bed uncomfortable. Adsync played a selection of soothing sounds from rainforests to whale song to distant tribal drums, but none of it worked. By three in the morning, adsync gave up on the therapy and listed sleep-inducing treatments that she could receive within minutes. “You’ll sleep better with a Restful, Aice. Rest is guaranteed or your money back,” promised a husky digital voice.

She could sleep tomorrow. No longer did her mind tweak her anxieties for the next day’s schedule packed with officialism. Now it flowed with ideas she previously thought beyond her means. Ideas she thought only existed within her. Ideas from the beautiful, to the explosive. Ideas that would make her current denotioned status, lack of income, threat of eviction, seem trivial.

She would write, she decided, write it all down and never forget what she had heard.

On what? Came her pragmatic inner voice. That voice had once been imagined as a furry creature something between an obese domestic cat and an antelope — catelope Frank — who spewed shimmering baubles from his ears that burst above his head often to reveal words of wisdom, mostly words of warning, sometimes cake recipes. Aice remembered some paper leftover from an art class she failed to attend the previous summer. It was creased and faded to a yellow hue, but good enough. What you gonna write with? Came that voice again.

Adsync announced it was 8 a.m. and time to begin her morning routine leading to her first Denotion Counselling appointment. By then, each art paper sheet was filled with words, both sides. She had then begun scribbling on anything on which the remaining nub of a pencil would make a mark. The flow of words from her fingers had slowed to little more than a meandering scrawl. She struggled to record the rush in her head, though that, too, had slowed.

The adsync reminder became more urgent. Failure to attend her prescribed counselling would lead to far more trouble than staying up all night scribbling half-remembered ideas.

NO BARKEEP — no human barkeep. Not the two previous evenings, nor this evening. Drinks were served by a bar drobe. Aice loathed the experience, despite the 5% discount as compensation for not offering a human server. The reliability of immediate, precisely measured drinks was no restitution. There was no arguing with a drobe, no persuading, no being carried off into darkened rooms to listen to magical stories.

“What am I supposed to talk to you about?” she asked as the Drobe buzzed over to deliver her fourth shot of Glen Garrick. This would be her last, she told herself. She downed the beverage and savoured as it burned its way to her gut. She fought the urge to chuck the empty glass at the Drobe in the hope of damaging a stabiliser. It would make for a most entertaining few minutes as the drobe swirled and spun, spilling liquor over the room and its occupants. It would by replaced within minutes by a human, and that was no sorry prospect.

On this, the fourth evening of her quest, Aice was close to giving up on this particular bar. Her Denotion Counselling sessions had ended and she had been shuffled along the conveyor to her first Public Executive Career Management group. “Your introduction to work reallocation”. She could drag this out for another few weeks — more than enough time to rediscover the storyteller, she hoped. But with the absence of the barkeep, her one link to the anonymous group in the darkened room, she doubted the possibility.

The city had all but disappeared from her conscious self since the storyteller. She floated through her counselling sessions, maintaining the required brevity and supplying the appropriate contextual responses. On the streets, and at home, the bombardment of omnipresent adsync seemed like the sounds from a distant city. The population bustled by, no more interfering with her purpose than the crisp autumn air. The increasing frequency of transport blockages were no longer an issue for she had taken to walking everywhere. She had purchased appropriate shoes. Each journey took longer, but was more opportunity to think and to feel and to experience her isolation within the crowds.

Story images declined with each passing day. Her society reasserted itself, one contextual adsync at a time. There was no way to recover the full story without its teller. She retained snippets, slices of imagery that had most firmly imprinted themselves upon her mind and that she had materialised onto paper and cards, and boxes and whatever surface would take her mark. But not all words were captured, many were lost. And with each lost word drained a little more colour from the remembered image.

“Will I forget everything?” she said. The drobe refrained from comment.

DEBUER’S WORKSHEET SCROLLED up his desk surface. It wrapped around the base of the coffee mug he had placed there to provoke the display’s legibility subroutine. Somewhere, a tiny sliver of memory had registered a comprehension limitation placed atop Officer DeBuer’s desk. One day, all those slivers of memory would become a file that would alert itself to his superior during a performance review. He shifted the mug. The text re-flowed around its new position, recorded on another sliver.

He allowed the text to scroll past. If anything caused his eye to pause for 12% more time than his average comprehension index, that section would highlight, be re-filed, then merged with his own file. Accompanied by an appropriate adsync context. Thus his day’s tasks would be assigned.

Cases old and new filed past, punctuated by progress reports filed by the previous shift. Few were of interest. Fewer still worthy of direct interaction. A correlation alert sounded and his scrolling stopped. Beneath the picture of a woman in her twenties was a date and location where he and she had been recorded in close proximity. Within the same bar in this particular case, weeks previously. He had many bar attendances on his record, it was where he uncovered most of his leads. But this one was of particular interest for a running investigation. He touched More Information. A list of infractions scrolled: Failure to Attend Mandatory Appointment, multiple instances exceeding defined threshold. He punched Accept this Assignment. The woman’s image was replaced by an adsync for the most cost-effective means of getting himself to her apartment and the 0.003% Conduct Bonus (minus taxes) he would receive as a result of using a verified low-cost courier partner. Another sliver recorded would have recorded that he punched View Next.

The smell from the deceased’s dorm whispered of neglect, filth, and death. A forensic was already picking through the scene. Initial reports had begun populating the case file but DeBuer wanted to see for himself. There was no substitute for experiencing the very air in which this individual had holed herself away from the real world to pass into ever deepening delusion. Death had been the inevitable outcome. Death by self-imposed isolation. When one citizen became so detached from the flow of society that they must reject it, turn inward, and consider themselves no longer a part of it. If it were only one citizen. Solitarism, now so common it had an official name and registered sync context, had spread like an epidemic. The media no longer reported it, politicians no longer debated it. But he studiously screened the Adsync Interaction Threshold Index for signs of these drop-outs. Most of them passed unseen — this one had, until too late. Each death had become a number. A growing number, but one that remained lower than the total people killed crossing the street. Each death a sliver of memory. One day, the slivers might become a file; that file, a report, that report: filed.

The forensic ignored DeBeur as he entered displaying his badge at his left breast pocket. The body had been removed. He could tell where she had died, the stained bed sheet indentation forming a twisted, wrinkled impression of a wasted human being. The Home Environment Policy Group’s mandatory pale blue paint “for the enhancement of illumination within spaces of low illumination” was smothered in writing. Every available space was covered in scribbled, scrawled texts. Bursts of ideas, sentence segments, colourful language broken into fragments of remembered experience. Some passages he recognised, despite discrepancies in the grammar. Elsewhere the writing became smaller, the author conscious of limited space. Had she known that her life was similarly limited? Her deterioration was most clear about the bed. Here the words became unrecognisable scrawls, scratched into any and all available space. Single words, phrases, sometimes a prolonged stream of barely intelligible ideas that wound a ragged path between other passages. He knew what had set this fire of words. He had seen it many times. It was why he had been at that bar on that particular night, and recalled the girl with the ill-fitting red shoes and a tongue loosed by one too many shots. He had moved on from his stakeout too early. That girl, perhaps that night, had experienced a storyteller.

He wanted to decipher these scrawled texts, to extract the ideas she had scribbled. No longer remembered fragments of another’s work, but her own. Ideas that might prove clear, concise, and enlightening should her mind not have deteriorated beyond hope. There could have been no recovery when her only available means of marking the walls — smearing by now — had become her own excrement. DeBeur turned away.

“All scanned. 56% +recognition?” the forensic informed him. The voice startled DeBeur from his absorption of the scene.

“Proximity correlation? Had to see her final place?” DeBeur offered as though the reason for his presence was in question.

“Gotcha,” the forensic said, disinterested.

‘No, you don’t gotcha,’ DeBeur wanted to say. ‘You got no notion of what happened here. You sorry, sick, dispassionate creature who sees not the ending of a glorious life, not the destruction of an individual from the very establishment designed to protect her. No, you don’t understand how one investigator can make a decision not to act only to discover yet another soul consumed by the expression of ideas that she has spent her life withholding from a society unable to accept them. No, you scrawny, villainous beast, who I long to beat to a mushy pulp and watch your brevity-stunted grey-stuff tumble from your shattered skull.’

“I’m +done. Scene’s all +yours?” said DeBeur.

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Neil Dixon

Neil Dixon

Write to feel — draw to see — code to eat.

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