Daniel's stomach folded twice over upon itself as the subway train squirmed through the network of uniform concrete veins that ran beneath the city streets. It wasn't that the ride was a rough one – transportation services were excellent in whatever city this was (the name eluded him for the moment but the subway was good anywhere you went). The teal interior walls were cleanly scrubbed, the comfort filters doing superb work in cleansing the air of the aromas of perspiration, fast food, and cigarette smoke. It was enough to make one feel sorry for the drivers on the streets above whose own personal vehicles – produced as they were by dinosaur companies that yet resisted the call of rationality – had no similar guarantee of sanitation and comfort. No, if there was anything tightening the vise on Daniel's gut, it was internal – jet lag, exhaustion, stress, all the unpleasant hallmarks of an otherwise prestigious position. Years of travel had not yet gifted him with a tolerance for the mental and physical rigors of constant travel.
“You feeling okay, pal?”
“Me?” Daniel locked eyes with the friendly gray suit in the next seat, a fellow business nomad who had taken notice of Daniel's distress. “Sure, just a little worn out from the road.”
“I hear that.”
“Hey, uh...strange question, I know, but is this Guangzhou or Kyoto?”
“Neither. It's Seoul.”
“Seoul...” Daniel groaned out the city name like it was torture just to utter the word. Amid the whirl of headache-colored activity, he'd entirely forgotten that Korea was on his itinerary at all. “Thanks.”
The gray suit sidled over to Daniel. “No offense, pal, but you seem like a wreck. I take it you've been traveling for a while?”
“You could say that.” Daniel mechanically grasped in his pocket for his handwritten itinerary before remembering that he'd misplaced it somewhere between Kuwait City and Delhi. “They started off with a four-week run through the affiliates in the continental United States, then down through South America and over to West Asia. We've still got Russia after this, then Europe. It's about sixteen weeks overall…well, unless the company adds another leg. The Nigerians are on the fence.”
The gray suit whistled. “I can see why you're such a wreck. Longest stretch I ever spent was…I think six weeks. Course, that was when I was starting out, before everything...you know, fell into place.”
“And you've probably still got a month before you're home, don't you? Must be downright sick for it by now.”
“Honestly, it's not so different from home out here.” Daniel raised his heavy head. “This must be my stop.”
It was sheer luck that Daniel was right – he had every intention of hopping off at the next stop, whatever stop, and walking to his meeting if it meant slipping away from yet another round of torture by boredom at the hands of some loquatious businessman. He still fell for it from time to time, accounting to some ancestral memory of the well-traveled salesman and his suitcase full of colorful anecdotes. If such a beast still existed then he hadn't encountered it yet, not on this trip or any other. Perhaps this was a casualty of the times – a rational businessman had no need of a silver tongue, not when he had the irresistable allure of science in his back pocket.
Daniel's destination (he couldn't remember the name of the building in Seoul – hardly a surprise given that he'd forgotten Seoul entirely) was a post-realist skyscraper tucked away in a blandly upscale business quarter, bordered on all sides by a hauntingly familiar series of clean and trendy shops catering to the business crowd. The lobby was curiously silent for such a dynamic place, vacant save for the biometric terminals set into the elegantly carved teal fixtures. Daniel pressed his palm against one of the plates and seconds later (just enough time for the terminal to play the jaunty jingle that he'd helped compose a few lifetimes ago when he was just starting his ascent) a smart elevator arrived at his feet, his destination already preloaded into its simple electronic brain. A man with an admittedly dire sense of direction, Daniel had been somewhat awestruck by the system when he first experienced it. That was nearly forty office buildings ago (or was it fifty?).
“Morning, Daniel. Ready to knock 'em dead?”
The face on the other side of the elevator should have been familiar. He'd given his own presentation alongside Daniel for the entirety of the East Asian branch, but damned if he could remember the guy's name. “Oh, yes. Got it down pat by now.”
“Of course you do,” said the man (Richard? A lot of people in sales seemed to be named Richard – perhaps that was the ideal name for a salesman). “Hey, better get in before the rest of these slackers show up and congest the line for lunch.”
As Richard suggested, the meeting room was still mostly empty. Without the other salesmen and marketers, the tiny room was faintly peaceful, just Daniel and the big conference table and the teal walls and the various machines that took care of the inhabitants. The auto-caterer dispensed Daniel's meal – a medium-rare hamburger with partially melted Swiss cheese and coarse-ground mustard, a small garden salad with raspberry vinegarette, a large kosher pickle (sliced into quarters) and a garnish of kimchi – which Daniel took to his designated spot to eat in silence as the others trickled in. This was how he began each meeting, hunched over his meal to avoid the prolonged eye contact that would lead, inevitably, to another conversation he’d just as soon avoid. Daniel was an odd fit in sales – awkward with small talk, lousy at networking, uncomfortable in cramped rooms with other suits talking business, ignorant of the rules of professional discourse, and just generally out of place in the formalized social situations that had come to define his life. He'd just as soon go back to being a technician, where he was a better fit if not necessarily happy. Not that it was altogether his decision, but at a certain point he stopped resisting the change, though he couldn't quite remember why.
“All right, everyone's present.” The head of the conference – a towering big-faced ruddy-complected man who probably went by “Chip” or “Buddy” with his employees – took the podium and called the meeting to order. “I’m not going to waste your time with idle banter about our philosophy or goals. Time is the only thing left of any genuine value. You wouldn’t dare waste yours and none of us will waste ours, not if I have anything say about it. Keep if efficient, all right? Now, I'm gonna open this up with a group that, on a personal level, I've been chomping at the bit to meet. Last Frontier Psychodynamics – visionary, controversial, profitable, a company that just about everyone has had cause to write about this last few years. They're the crazy people who demonstrated that nothing is beyond the reach of mathematical analysis, not even the personal preferences of the public at large. These fellas and ladies have had a hand in bestsellers and blockbusters for years and now they're looking to expand. And guess what? So are we. Come on up, fellas, let's hear what you've discovered.”
Richard tapped Daniel on the shoulder and the two of them headed for the front, Richard leading the way with head proudly upheld, Daniel shuffling along behind with his gaze leveled somewhere just above the floor. It was time for the speech, the one they had refined over weeks of constant presenting. The first few times he'd delivered his pitch, Daniel could barely remember his lines over the jangling of his wounded nerves. This was not in his skill set – technicians get a bit of training in public speaking but not enough to handle the titans of the capitalist class that filled rooms such as these. His hesitation was born more from weariness now, that entropy that comes from repeating a speech by rote to people who have no interest in or even capacity to understand the finer details. Only his increasing awareness that he was present as little more than a prop made it at all possible to rise before this boardroom.
Richard, on the other hand, was not similarly fatigued, and sprang eagerly to open the presentation. “Okay, big picture first. You work entertainment, you work advertising, you work in media of any kind, you really can't be sure what works and what doesn't, right? It's the little things that get you either way. It's timing. It's world events. It's the economy. It’s what the other guy is doing. It's synergy. It's a thousand little things no one can predict or control. Sounds like a roll of the dice, right? Wrong. It's math. It's science. It’s rationalism. It’s algorithms. It's this man right here.” He threw an arm around Daniel's shoulder. “Business professionals, allow me to introduce a bona fide marketing genius. Does he have an MBA? No, something better. Is he a celebrity? Well, he should be, but no sir! This, friends, is a mind reader. This man has a hundred tricks to look inside the human mind and the soul of society. He's going to explain a few of our techniques, and then we'll open the floor to questions.” He gave Daniel a firm pat on the back and withdrew to the wall, a big grin on his face.
“Yes...of course.” Daniel cleared his throat. “...Our recent research has focused on music, ah...both commercial and advertising music. We have what you might call macro approaches and micro approaches. On a macro level, we've broken down two thousand songs, tagged them and run regressions. By doing this, we've identified certain specific elements, chord changes, things like that which correlate strongly to general popularity.”
Richard cut in. “Now, I know you've heard of systems like this, they’ve been tinkering with this forever, but ours is so much more sophisticated. We took on three clients in a test run last year – big-time pop acts, they're still under contract so I can't give names, but you’ve heard their stuff – and their social interest index rating went up by an average of 61%. That translates to an increase in revenue of 29% year-over-year. The best the competition can do? 15%. We offer those results because we go the extra mile.”
There were a few seconds of silence before Daniel picked up that it was his turn to talk again. “The extra mile...uh, that would be our micro level studies. We run a brain imaging lab where we present all single tracks to a focus group while we run them through three procedurally distinct batteries of neural imaging. This has allowed us to determine which songs have the strongest cognitive impact. We’ve discovered that songs with a high system rating are twice as likely to chart as those with a low rating, and has resulted in a 45% greater chance of screened singles making the top ten in its category. Ah...it's still a small sample size, but the science is absolutely sound.”
“Bottom line it for me,” said Chip. “We put you guys under contract, what can you guarantee us?”
“Well, we can consult with your music department or you can try our experimental automated system,” said Daniel. “The automated generator guarantees a 12% chance of top ten status, and that is projected to increase to the low 20s as it develops. Alternately, we can offer a 30% relative increase to your current department, which for most of our clients has yielded...ah...25% success rate on average.”
“Interesting,” said Chip. “So the songs you fellas produce are really that good?”
“Sure they’re good,” said Richard. “I mean, they’re all…they're profitable, that means they’re good, right?”
* * * * *
“For you. Courtesy of the guy at the bar.”
A few bleary seconds passed as Daniel returned to the land of the living. He had been, if not asleep, at least half in a dream, drifting through some other vibrant-tinted timeline where everything was terrifying in a most sublime way. In reality, he was in an upscale bar and grill whose name had eluded him – one of a hundred identical joints in whatever city this was – staring at the table before him as he awaited the delivery of his meal. He had been snapped out of the fantasy by the bartender, who offered him a rocks glass filled with cola and a synthetic beverage not entirely unlike liquor, a substitute known in the trades as pseudonol (guaranteed no hangovers, goes easy on the liver – a perfect alternative to exercising self-control).
“Thanks.” Daniel rolled the glass back and forth in his hand as he glanced at the gift-giver, a gray suit with a gregarious grin who was already on his way over.
“Pardon me for butting in, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity.” The gray suit took a seat across from Daniel. “You’re from Last Frontier Psychodynamics, right?”
Daniel took a hard swallow of the cocktail, the liquid forcing an impending sigh back down his throat. “That's right, I’m with Last Frontier. Used to be a technician, now I’m on the sales beat.”
“Correct me if I'm wrong, but you are the guys responsible for the color, right? Double zero, double eight, double eight?” The gray suit nodded at the walls, tinged a predictable shade of teal. “Now that's what I call market penetration, like an ad that covers the whole planet. I don’t think there’s a marketing pro on the planet who doesn’t envy you guys, and some of them will envy me for getting your ear! Hey, if you don't mind, could you tell me what goes into sussing out everyone's favorite color?”
It's not my favorite, thought Daniel, though he kept those words silent. “I don't know. I work mostly in audio design.”
“So you write the songs that make the whole world sing? Superb. That's the kind of thing that shapes the world.” The gray suit slapped a business card on the table. “Both of us are in the world-shaping business. I'm with New Future Automation – smart bots, self-modifying gadgets, everything the Jetsons wished they had. We’re not as big as Last Frontier, but we’re pretty damn close.” He pointed to the auto-caterer behind Daniel. “You're certainly familiar with our work.”
At that precise moment, the machine dispensed Daniel's meal, a medium-rare hamburger with partially melted Swiss cheese and coarse-ground mustard, a small garden salad with raspberry vinegarette, a large kosher pickle (sliced into quarters) and a garnish of dressed herring. Daniel gingerly took the plate and placed it before him along with the beverage. “So you're responsible for these?”
“Wonderful, aren't that? They're our best product, and I'm not just saying that because it's my account. Your scientifically determined perfect meal, cooked to order wherever you are on Earth.” The gray suit flashed a satisfied smirk. “Bet you didn't know you could get a burger like that in Moscow, huh?”
“Moscow...is that where we are?” Daniel choked down more of the beverage, hoping that the pseudonol might diminish the sense of unease that still held him in its grip.
The gray suit nodded knowingly. “I get it. You're new at this, aren't you? First big international sales marathon?”
“You came along at just the right time, friend. I've been at it for running on twenty years, been around this planet five or six times at least, and let me tell you, it used to be hell.”
“Hell!” The gray suit downed his own drink and signaled to the bartender for another. “Time was, it was all a crap shoot. You went on a business trip, you never knew what you were gonna get. A two-day jaunt, a month-long fact finding trip, those were bad, but these twenty- or thirty-stop trips were the worst. You'd land in some weird place with weird people and weird customs. If you were lucky, your company set everything up for you. If not? There you were, walking down the street, all these people talking in tongues, looking for a place that would make you a Caesar salad like you'd have back home. Instead, you'd end up trying some local crap that they tell you is a 'delicacy' – who knows what it even is. And sometimes it’s good, other times not so much, and you have no way to tell up front. Awful, right?”
“I don't know. Sounds kinda fun to me.”
The gray suit shook his head with barely reserved disdain. “Believe me, pal, there's nothing 'fun' about not being sure. At least they had the internet, satellite communications, so you could get the same entertainment as back home. Yeah, you'd still get dragged to some local festival or opera from time to time – same problem, you don't know if you're going to like it! If I'm going to be stuck sitting through some three hour play, invest that much of my time, then I want assurances that it'll appeal to me. I want characters I’ll like, plots that are familiar – you neuropsych guys know about that. Don't get me wrong, I love the accents. Tells you you're out and about, you know. But don't bring in this foreign crap and ask me to sit through it.”
Daniel prodded at the herring garnish on his plate as he searched his memory for the last time he'd sampled the regional addendum to his ideal dinner. “Yeah, I guess you're right.”
“Look, what you and I do is important. The commercial airline made travel easy – we make it comfortable. There's nothing comfortable about strange, unexpected things. We're shrinking the world, making it a little happier, a little more cozy.” The gray suit waved for the bartender. “Hey, could you make that last order a double? Oh, would you like something else?”
Daniel prodded at his ideally cooked hamburger with the sullen movements of a picky child. “No, nothing for me. Actually, I’m just not that hungry.”
“You know what that is? Jet lag. The one thing they’ve never managed to fix.” The gray suit tilted his head so that he could keep one eyes fixed on Daniel while the other scanned the bar for his next mark. “The old way’s still best – a couple drinks and off to bed early.”
“I prefer a long walk, myself.” Daniel nudged the plate away and rose from his seat. “I’ll take it now. Nice to meet you.”
There was an unpleasant bite in the air, an unseasonable cold that Daniel didn’t care for. He wondered for a moment if someone – maybe someone in his own company – hadn’t already figured out the perfect weather pattern and they were just waiting for the engineers to master the means of implementing it. In the meantime, a pedestrian still needed a jacket. Daniel zipped up his own as he marched through the rows of teal post-realist skyscrapers that lined the path from the restaurant to his hotel. The gray suit was right – no one in the history of marketing or in the history of humanity had ever achieved brand recognition like this, exposure so all-encompassing that it was literally impossible to ignore. Last Frontier decided on the colors of the world, writing them off until only the best one remained. Next they would decide on the sounds of the world and, one day, everyone on the planet would sing that one harmonically perfect melody in unison.
Daniel hummed a few tunes as he walked – research, he reckoned, for the man who would one day write that melody. It wouldn’t be based on jazz, he knew – too complex, too challenging for the layman to whistle. Just a simple chord progression, most likely. For some reason, pondering this subject always made him a bit weary, so it was a blessing that his hotel was close at hand. Pausing at the entrance, he ran his hand over the entrance and watched as a few minute flecks of teal dust floated away on the Moscow breeze. The structural elements weren’t really teal, but had been hastily repainted in the name of scientifically ideal uniformity.
It wasn’t perfect yet. Maybe that was the problem.
* * * * *
“Afternoon...Daniel, is it?”
The face on the other side of the elevator wasn't specifically familiar to Daniel, though the shape of it was one he’d seen many times. “Good afternoon. I'm sorry, I can't remember your name.”
“That's because I haven't told it to you yet. Richard, please.” He extended his hand. “You been in Stockholm long?”
“Uh...I guess it's...”
“Never mind, not important.” Richard clasped his hands before his face. “Okay, there's no time to work out a specific presentation, but we've both done this often enough. How about this: I'll go out first, warm 'em up, get 'em the big broad strokes, then you'll swing in with the details, drop a little science on them, then I’ll bottom line it, and we can just tag off as necessary. How's that sound?”
“That, uh...that should work.”
“Terrific. Now, we're going on late in the conference, so relax, enjoy your lunch, maybe a drink...” Richard opened the door for Daniel. “...Then we'll knock 'em dead.”
Most of the other businesspeople had already gathered in the conference room, enjoying their meals and chatting over their latest projects and deals. Daniel took his meal – a medium-rare hamburger with partially melted Swiss cheese and coarse-ground mustard, a small garden salad with raspberry vinegarette, a large kosher pickle (sliced into quarters) and a garnish of gravlax – and found a seat between the latest Richard and a diminutive and somewhat homely woman in a gray pantsuit who was probably named Beth (A lot of people in sales seemed to be named Beth). Beth wasn’t in good shape – moving with sluggish deliberateness, eyes wandering around without purpose, minute beads of sweat gathering in uneven rows at her brow. Jet lag, Daniel figured. Maybe her tour is eighteen weeks.
“Okay, it's a little early, but I can sense an energy in this room that tells me that everyone is eager to get started. I know I am. ” The head of the conference – a towering big-faced ruddy-complected who probably went by “Buster” or “Skip” with his employees – signaled for the meeting to begin. “We've all invested a lot of time in this, time that is more valuable than gold or jewels right now, so let's get right to the action. First up, we have a small upstart group that's been making some outsized waves in the market of ideas. I speak, of course, of Unitary Sociolinguistics, an ambitious firm looking to erase that one final barrier that holds back the free flow of commerce. Come on up, let's hear how you're going to revolutionize travel and communications.”
There was the usual mellow applause but no immediate movement. All eyes were on Beth, the woman seated next to Daniel. She somehow looked even worse, and to Daniel's eyes she was degrading by the second. For that first few agonized, she appeared oblivious to the impatient eyes locked on her or to much of anything else in the room. It was like she had become divorced from space and time, from the room and the moment and the duties placed upon her.
“We seem to have…” Buster flicked through his notes. “Beth, from Unitary Sociolinguistics. Are you ready?”
Something flicked on inside Beth – Daniel could sense it on a deeper level, feel it in a way he couldn’t quite put into words. Her eyes, previously frozen and dull, spontaneously flicked around the room with frenetic movements like she'd just awoken in some bizarre and alien place. She was breathing hard, breaths that came faster by the second until they had turned into noisy ragged gasps that suggested she was on the verge of hyperventilating. Daniel had certainly seen this reaction in his research, but it didn’t take a neuroscientist to see what was soon to come.
Buster leaned over the podium. “Beth? Are you okay?”
Beth showed no signs of recognition, not toward Buster or Richard or Daniel or anyone else in the room or the room itself. Her eyes dodged from object to object, the auto-caterer and the fixtures and the AV equipment, never halting for more than a moment before landing on something else. Daniel could catch something else, something that must have been inaudible to everyone else – a sequence of numbers she chanted under her breath, carefully mouthing each syllable as though the words themselves had power: “Double zero, double eight, double eight…”
“…Beth?” Buster’s facade was slipping, the fear of this X-factor creeping into his features even as he blundered into certain chaos. “Uh…if you can’t come up, you’ll have to cede your time.”
“Teal...” she muttered to herself. Then she exploded to life, slamming both hands on the table with such force that Daniel could see it jump an inch into the air. “I HATE TEAL! I HATE IT SO MUCH!”
Buster held out his hands to Beth, a gesture born in equal parts of empathy and anxiety. “Okay, something's the matter. Let's take a moment and defuse this situation, okay?”
“Forty offices...three months, forty offices, every single one of them the same! They're all the same! How can you people stand it, it's making me crazy! You people have no souls, you’re not even human! You can’t be if you like THIS!” Beth clambered onto the table, dragging a small duffel bag behind her. “Just once – just once! - I want to see an office that's not teal!”
Beth reached into the bag and pulled out something that, at first glance, made Daniel's stomach plunge with a velocity reserved for the sense of certain doom. It looked like a funny little carbine until he noticed the paintball hopper emerging from the top. Beth was a changed woman, her tension gone in an instant as her face warped into an expression of rapturous madness. Taking reckless aim at the walls, Beth squeezed the trigger and sent a barrage of spheres splattering the walls. Each burst of paint was a different color, one Daniel could just faintly remember – lavender, burgundy, cyan, goldenrod, lime, violet, amber, maroon, a rainbow of obsolete colors driven nearly to extinction by the color proven to have maximum appeal to the average person. With the walls splattered in anarchic color, she turned the weapon on the auto-caterer, plastering over its spigots and ports with radiant gel. The lights were next, then the empty chairs; nothing was spared the crude redecoration.
“Enough of this, put it down now!” Buster stretched across the table in a desperate attempt to grab the barrel.
Beth let out a fresh cackle. “NO! BACK OFF!” She turned to Buster and squeezed the trigger three times, the trio of paintballs striking him in the sternum with enough force to knock him back. Beth then turned her eye to the others seated at the conference table, growling through locked teeth at the assembled company. Every gray suit and pantsuit dove for cover as Beth, her joy of freedom transformed into insensate fury, blasted round after round at anything that moved of its own power. Daniel, meanwhile, was frozen in shock, watching mutely as this strange woman recolored the room and its inhabitants.
Then Beth walked to the edge of the table, staring down at Daniel with the paintball gun braced against her shoulder, the barrel pointed neatly between his eyes. “It was you.” Daniel could hear the muffled crack of her molars within her locked jaw. “You people did this. You bastards ruined everything.”
“Not me,” said Daniel, his hands over his head. “I'm in audio, I never had anything to do with the color project. And I don’t even like teal. I've always been partial to fire truck red.”
“I hate fire truck red.” Beth relaxed slightly, lowering the barrel an inch as her arms slackened. “So you do music. Do you like reggaeton?”
“I'm not so familiar with it,” said Daniel. “At home, I mostly listen to 1970's rock and a little bit of jazz.”
“Jazz? You listen to that crap, or are you just saying that to sound deep?”
Beth took a deep breath, lowered the paintball gun from her shoulder and hopped down from the table. She didn't say a word to Daniel, didn't even make a sound to acknowledge agreement or derision. She simply marched out of the office, leaving behind the duffel bag and her notes and the poor sod who was helping her with the presentation and marching off down an all but forgotten staircase.
Daniel stood up and scanned the room. With the others on the ground or cowering under the table, it was like he was alone again. The walls and the machines and the monitors were all covered in lines of colors that encircled the room like fiendish tentacles, clashing with each other and with the underlying teal. The other suits had their faces pressed into the teal carpet; the bolder among them peeked out to see if the threat had abated, while the rest quietly nursed their bruises and studied the colorful alterations to their clothes.
Daniel walked to the nearest wall, tracing one of the lines of color with his eyes as though studying some long lost work of art. Looks all right to me, he thought. Could use a little more red.