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Leith leaned out of the large sash window and looked down on the street. It was summer. Even if his skin lacked the sensitivity to detect temperature change, even if he had no frame of reference to decipher that a blue sky meant warmth, he could still tell it was summer from the way people dressed, the lighter clothing, the bare arms and legs, and the way sounds drifted and wobbled through the heat. It had something to do with the denser air molecules – a sort of sonic heat shimmer.
The noise that met his ears felt unfamiliar, like some large metal structure melting under heat, buckling and groaning under the strain of its imminent collapse. He looked skyward and saw the airliner falling on its trajectory towards the airport. Then down at the street where a bus pulled up, its brakes emitting a deep bass note. From somewhere, the clang of scaffolding parts being thrown onto concrete. He almost ducked, then gingerly craned to see the pavement. There was a rank of delivery bikes parked diagonally, and a wide bald head barking instructions to somebody unseen. A builder’s van reversing, then pulling out, then reversing again, trying to ease into a slot marked out by orange cones. [private]
Of course, he knew the blue sky meant warmth, that the airliner was going to the airport, and that the bikes belonged to the pizza place three storeys beneath his flat, but it all came with added data. He knew the precise outside air temperature, at differing altitudes, and how that related to the seasonal average. He was able to ascertain the precise trajectory of the aircraft, and the flight number, that it would arrive at 8.40 am, and that this landing would be 11 minutes earlier than the ETA on the flight plan. He knew the exact dates and places of manufacture of the delivery bikes, and if he’d chosen to, he could have quickly called up the names of previous owners. The bus was 52 seconds overdue. The builder’s van was registered to an address in Newhaven. The orange cones gave him nothing. He stared but no data flowed. He felt his mind empty. Something would fill it. Would that be thought? Pure unadulterated thought? Perhaps he was already blocking Cascade, but no – the traffic cone, invented by Charles D. Scanlon and patented in 1943. The cascade began.
Leith looked up at the startled blue sky. There wouldn’t be long to wait now. He backed away from the window and brewed up some coffee. His studio was spartan, the way he preferred it. There was less to set off Cascade. He kept his clothes and possessions neatly vacuum packed in stackable white cubes. Coffee began as a brewed beverage in the Sufi communities of southern Yemen in the fifteenth century. He closed his eyes. When he opened them again his drink was ready beneath the dispenser. He carried the cup to his armchair and sat gazing at the white walls and ceilings, the coffee steaming. Even so, icons infringed the edges of his vision. The status updates of friends and colleagues, their Cascade streams, tailored adverts, the twenty-four hour news stream. It was easier to submit to it.
By the time he brought the coffee to his lips it was lukewarm. The angle of the daylight had shifted in the room, fifteen minutes had passed. He didn’t need to check. The clue of the light would have been enough, but even so the satellite uplink kept on working. A steady ping. An atomic clock in his head. The buzzer made him jerk, the coffee spilling onto his jeans. He brushed it off with the edge of his palm and went to the intercom.
—Delivery for Mr. Harris.
He squinted at the motorcycle helmet on the screen, feeling his pulse accelerate, and pressed the entry buzzer. His Cascade stream had been initiated on his fifth birthday. His parents hadn’t wanted him to be left behind, struggling for answers that everyone else had at their fingertips. The procedure was simple and painless. He couldn’t remember life before it. His parents were content to keep their technology on the outside, worn or held. He grew to see them as limited, outmoded. What knowledge could they hope to pass on? They both died when he was in his teens. He hadn’t cried. His father had eyed him with disgust on the day they said goodbye to his mother. Do you have no feelings? No heart? The words hadn’t stung deeply. It had taken time for that, the creeping sense that there was something obscured, a dark region that Cascade flowed around, avoided, could shed no light upon. This was why he had to block.
There was a rap on the door. He opened a cube and withdrew a small box. In it was a translucent oval, which he picked up with tweezers and placed over the print of his thumb. This would turn him into Mr. Harris. Another rap. He closed the drawer and approached the door.
—Coming. Just a moment.
Leith slid back the bolts and swung open the heavy door. The delivery rider had removed his helmet. His jugular vein was twitching a pulse of 130 bpm. His body weight looked to be a shade over 13 stone. Leith was momentarily fazed by the sudden Cascade. Was the rider nervous or just unfit? Leith took in the sweat beading on the man’s forehead and the red mark where he helmet had been. Cascade began to analyse. The flicker in the man’s eyes told him that he too was referring to Cascade. The package was squeezed under the man’s arm. With his free arm he held out a pad. Leith took it, placed his thumb over the scanner, and then handed it back.
—Thank you, Mr. Harris. All yours.
The package was placed into Leith’s hands. He waited until he could hear the delivery rider’s footsteps echoing in the stairwell before closing the door and double-bolting it. He skinned the print from his thumb and binned it. It wouldn’t be needed again. The package was small, its contents not much heavier than the padded envelope itself. He sat at the kitchen bar, white like everything else, and peeled back the envelope flap with care. Then he gently shook the envelope until the contents began to slide onto the table. He eased them out with his free hand. There was a syringe, sealed in cellophane, and a vial of saline solution. So, this was Block. He held up the vial between his thumb and forefinger. There was nothing to see with the naked eye. The neuro-repressors were nano-bots designed to disrupt the connection between the retinal implant and the synaptic implants. They had been outlawed almost as soon as they’d come onto the market. The guy in the bar had said it would only be a temporary twelve hour block. A taste of freedom? Leith wasn’t sure. Block would trick Cascade into thinking he was still connected, feeding it with movement data and updates. He would be so precisely mimicked that the networks wouldn’t miss him.
He pulled the needle from its wrapping and inserted it into the soft rubber stopper of the vial, then pulled back the plunger. He carried it over to the armchair, referencing the correct place in his body to make such an injection. Cascade found the vein on his forearm and he guided the needle onto the red spot on his vision. A sharp scratch. That’s what nurses always said to him when he went for the neural updates during adolescence. The red dot faded.
Leith dropped the needle onto the coffee table. He wasn’t certain it had worked. He needed to look at something. Try to trigger a cascade. The room around him looked much the same. Of course it would. Why wouldn’t it? He went to the window and gazed down on the street. The traffic was heavy on the main road. A container lorry with a large advert for fruit juice moved slowly past a bus coming in the other direction, the oversized oranges sailing over the roofs of parked cars. Another airliner was descending in a hollow roar, its silver belly flashing sunlight. The trees, heavy with leaf, ruffled suddenly in the breeze. There was nothing else. No added data. The cascade didn’t come.
Then a sudden panic gripped him. The time. What was the time? The atomic clock in his brain was unplugged. He turned back to the room and looked around, trying several times to reach Cascade for a solution. It took a while for him to remember the watch in his bedside drawer. His father had given it to him on his sixteenth birthday. It had been his grandfather’s. At the time it had struck him as a ridiculous gift, like giving Einstein a set of runes. What possible use would he ever have for such a thing? He pulled the metal bracelet around his wrist and wound the mechanism several times until the second hand burst into life. It took him a while longer to work out how to set the time. The driver had arrived at 8.55 am. He made a rough guess that thirty-five minutes had passed since then, and set the watch accordingly. He had taken the precaution of writing down his appointments for the week. He had taken the week off work, just in case of side-effects, but he had agreed to meet Aiden for breakfast. He was Leith’s oldest friend. If he couldn’t spot the change, then nobody else would.
Leith had to check all of his pockets as he stepped out onto the pavement before he remembered what he’d left behind. It was like awaking into a dream. The traffic seemed to hurtle. Each bus made him jump. The café was only a few streets away, a route he’d walked hundreds of times, but now the way seemed completely alien. Everything looked the same, but wasn’t. There was no green overlay showing the optimum route. He sidestepped awkwardly out of the paths of others and stumbled into the gaps they left. At the crossing he followed in the heels of a young woman as she dodged between the turning vehicles. By the time he reached the cafe his shirt was soaked with sweat.
The aircon cooled him a little as he entered. He automatically glanced for the Friend Finder icon, but it wasn’t there. A quick walk around the cafe satisfied him that Aiden hadn’t arrived yet. He took a seat by a window. It had been a mistake to go out so soon. But how would he know otherwise? How would he find out? He looked down at the watch. It was nearly half past ten. Aiden would arrive on time, of course, just as everybody did. The watch. His grandfather’s. There were photos of him with his grandfather, when he was about four years old. Before Cascade. He thought about the photos but did not see them. It was odd. He stared at the table and for a moment it was as if he could see one of them. In it he is sitting astride a toy bouncer, an inflatable blue dog, holding its ears. It is summer and he is in the garden of his parents’ house, a suburban semi in Guildford. His grandfather is bending towards him, smiling, an arm outstretched. His mother’s voice. The plastic hot on the skin of his thighs. The image faded. He didn’t see all of it at once, but it was as if he saw it in pieces, fragments that built up. It dissipated as soon as it was in sight. It was a fragile thing, elusive. It was more than just a photograph recalled. Was this memory, pure unadulterated thought? The mind’s eye?
He was startled, but only for a moment. He stood and embraced his friend. When they took their seats a waiter came for their orders. Leith looked his friend in the face, met his eyes, and realised with a stab of fear that he couldn’t read him without Cascade. Aiden’s face was blank. There was no way of accurately analysing expression and gesture, perspiration and eye dilation, all of the usual signposts.
—You were miles away when I came in. What were you up to?
—The usual, looking at some old photos actually. I knew you’d arrived from the Friend Finder.
Aiden nodded, his eyes flickering slightly, checking something cascading.
—Family photos, from when I was a kid.
—Share with me.
—You wouldn’t be interested. It’s old stuff.
—You’re right. Don’t know why you’d bother anyway. Got to live the moment, share the moment, that’s what they say.
—That’s what they say.
It was Cascade’s official slogan. Live the moment. Share the moment. Leith felt he was only just taking in its full implication. Why only the moment? Why not the past, or the future for that matter? Why not share these?
—Here, you’ve got to see this girl I was with last night. You won’t believe it. I’ll share it.
His eyes flickered, a smirk playing across his lips.
—Erm, yeah. She’s. . .
His face changed and he leaned in towards Leith.
—I didn’t share it. Now tell me what’s going on?
The waiter arrived with coffees and pastries. Aiden had rumbled him in less than two minutes. He glanced at his grandfather’s watch ticking away the moments. Leith looked out at the street as the waiter placed the items on the table. People, cars, planes, were all on their trajectories. There was never an accident, never a bump or a jostle, just a smooth running present. The waiter left and neither of them spoke. Leith watched the people crowding the pavements. Streaming past the glass they seemed to have come from another world. He looked back at Aiden.
—Don’t you ever wonder what it would be like to disconnect?
—Not forever, just a taste of what it would be like. What it was like before. What it was like for our parents.
—No. I know what it would be like. It would be like going blind, or deaf, or like losing a limb. There’d be something missing.
—What if something is already missing?
—You’ve blocked haven’t you? Don’t you know they talk about hallucinations, delusional states?
—What do you really know, Aiden? I mean really. Just because we can access the whole world, it doesn’t mean we’re not missing something.
—Who would you rather be treated by, a doctor with Cascade, or a doctor who might forget which bit goes where?
—That’s not the point.
—They’ll find out. You’ll lose your job. They might even arrest you.
—It’s only for twelve hours, ten and a half by now, more or less.
—More or less?
Aiden shook his head slowly. His eyes flickered in and out of Cascade. He seemed to Leith to be a half-presence. His oldest friend was a shifting assemblage of status updates and Cascade feeds, a hollow being from which Leith was already severed. The atomic clock was an egg timer now, the sands running. He stood up and made for the exit.
Leith felt himself uncoupling from the present, from the perpetual distracted moment. As he walked back to his flat his blood was warming, and he knew how and where to tread. The path that opened ahead of him was his. He recalled his mother’s hand on his small head. He always thought his parents had been afraid of him, but now he realised that he’d misunderstood their fear. They were afraid for him, of what he was becoming and of what he would never know or feel.
In his flat he watched the hours tick by on his grandfather’s watch. He closed his eyes and pulled filaments of his past into existence, weaving them together into one coherent story. It didn’t matter if it was true, or how it had all actually happened, he realised. It was the sense that you made of it that counted. All these moments, all this time imprisoned in the here and now had to add up to something, even if it was only a fiction. By the time it started to get dark he knew he had only minutes left, a few grains of sand. Cascade would come. He leaned on the windowsill and looked down on the street, breathing in the cooling air and listening to the uneasy clamour of the city, alone with his senses and his thoughts, letting them roam and seek out the dark regions around which Cascade flowed. [/private]
You can also listen to a reading of ‘Cascade’ by actor Greg Page on the Litro Podcast.
About Iain Robinson
Iain Robinson is an academic and writer living in the East of England. His debut novel The Buyer is published by CoLiCo Press. He has recently had articles published on novels by Sarah Hall and Will Self. Iain is currently represented by Litro's bespoke literary agency, Litro Represents.