The future of work is frantically cycling through a cornucopia of performance-enhancing drugs at will.
Art: Rebekka Dunlap
This week, Motherboard is exploring the world of drugs and altered states with Lit Up. So, for today's Terraform entry, here's Tim Maughan with a warped dystopia about the future of work, where you you've no hope of succeeding at the office without a mind-bending array of digitally-administered performance enhancers. —The Eds.
My CEO's face ripples with strobing house centipedes, their legs scratching away at the flesh around his eye sockets, and I want to reach across the table and flick them off him. But I'm suddenly distracted by the board room walls going totally fractal, infinite paisley point-cloud interference falling backwards away behind him, full blown horizontal vertigo. Somehow I manage not to scream, again.
Then everything goes a tiny bit normal, and I wonder whether I might have overdone the pre-meeting CreativeAcid dose. My spine feels like someone just poured a jug of ice down the back of my shirt, and I'm frozen by that overpowering, horrifying, paranoid sensation that everyone in the room is staring at me.
Nervously, I glance around the room. Everyone in it is staring at me.
My CEO opens his mouth and noises come out, followed by a single centipede that zigzags around his skull and apparently into his ear, and I glance down at my phone's screen. It takes all my effort to reach down and swipe it open, because a couple of the wriggly little fucks must have fallen from his face and are sitting there, sucking up the cerium polished screen-warmth. Flicking them into pixel dust I pull up the NuTropic app ('Like You, But Enhanced'), and dial in a shot of Ritalin, a dose of Meta-Caffeine, and a micro-toke sized bump of BudhhaTHC just to take the edge off a little.
The sub-dermal LEDs on the underside of my wrist flare up red, and I watch them fade to green and then vanish, a circular progress bar ticking filling in, just like an app updating itself but where you can feel the ice cold injection burn of nano-synthesised psychoactive chemicals being pumped directly into your ulnar artery.
Boom: clarity. Everything snaps back to normal. Monochrome, with the filters off.
More sounds fall out of my CEO's mouth, taking a few seconds to arrange themselves like Tetris blocks into comprehensible sense.
"So, Rosa? Thoughts? Harrison thinks your strategy for the Hamtramck re-zoning sounds like a fucking space shuttle disaster."
Fuck Harrison, the sweaty little bitch. He's sat over there right now, across the table, scratching his neck like a dog with a tick. Can't make eye contact with me, or anyone. Got the judders, looks like he's going to drop his phone he's shaking so much. His thumb keeps missing the screen, probably trying to dial up some ValiumPro because he's been overdoing the MethLite like a noob.
My CEO is still staring at me. Awareness kicks in. He's expecting a response.
I silently (I think?) curse myself out for being such a lightweight and dialing those downers in so soon. I'm too straight. Where's my fucking Moment Of Profound Experience when I need it?
I start making vaguely sensible noises while dialing under the desk. Another hit of CreatveAcid and a fatty of PsilocybinExpress. A big one, of the extra fast-acting shit.
That ice-burn in my wrist, and a few seconds that feel like hours of that ever-painful 'am I coming up or what' anxiety while my CEO waits
and holyfuckingshit there's rays of light coming out of his fucking third eye, and everything shifts, like on a fundamentally quantum level, you get me, and we're in, and it all makes sense, like the logic of the fabric of space, the secret of world peace, orbital mechanics, and my whole body is filled with butane that burns with a perfect green flame and—
"Free lunches!" I scream. Everyone in the room jumps. "Free lunches. We offer every Hamtramck resident that agrees to the buy-out a year's worth of free lunch coupons for any of the Chennai Express or Panda 2Go franchises in the Detroit Economic Zone area. Regional food demand is spiking, as you know, and we have a 25% stake in all of those chains anyway, so shouldn't be hard to swing the coupons, plus most of those residents are below the state poverty line so we can write it off as a charitable action. Set it up as an official program. Won't just be an incentive for them to move out, but it'll be good PR for both us and our Chinese and Indian partners."
My CEO looks at me like I must be tripping, absentmindedly dialing something in himself, and then stares right at me. Emotionless.
"Would it prove ostentatious if we named the program after me??"
"Of course not!" I say, my volume slightly gauged better this time.
My CEO smiles, his face cracking open again but free of centipedes. Thank fuck.
"I love it! Make it happen. I want a full presentation in my inbox by tomorrow AM. I don't know what you're on Rosa, but it's really working for you. Keep it dialed. Harrison? Pay attention to this lady. This is what I need—what we need—dammit—what THIS CITY needs—answers! Positivity! Not negativity! Solutions! What a fucking rush! Meeting over!"
Harrison starts sobbing, wiping snot from his nose with a vat-grown Armani sleeve, as he and everyone else starts to shuffle out of the boardroom. Me, I stick around a while, watching sunbeams exploding off the walls, and feeling my body fill up with one beautiful vibrating light.
Back at my desk I stare so hard at the retina display that I swear I can see the pixels, each and every one. They're fucking there. It's cool, they don't have to hide anymore. I'm cool with them being there. Nobody should have to hide what they are or where. I feel this very strongly, like so strongly that it's probably a fundamental human truth rather than just the side effects of the CaliRedBeard and NanoSativa hits I just dialed as a reward for that great meeting. A reward for a job well done. A little something just to smooth me out, y'know?
My phone chimes, echoing in the foamlike air around my head, soaked in dub-space tape delay reverb. I slo-mo fumble for it, bring it right up stupid close to my face, like two inches away. I can see you, pixels, ain't no hiding from me. I slide it open with my thumb. Schedule notification. Lunch meeting with zoning committee from the city management team. Like, now. What a fucking bummer. Totes not on that vibe right now.
Some food would be good, though. Tee bee aitch.
Luckily the meeting is just across the street, in Metroplex Munchies, this Detroit Techno heritage themed burger franchise we own a 42% stake in. It's all vintage drum machines in cabinets and murals of the Belleville Three. I stumble through traffic, slapping on some lipstick with one hand and dialing a hit of PartyWorld MDMA and a little SynthiCoke with the other, and by the time they kick in I'm grooving nicely to the DJ Assault booty-tech mix they're playing for the lunchtime crowd.
"This is quite the place" says one of the gross white men I'm meant to be sweet talking, trying to pretend he's not staring at my tits.
"We own a 42% share in this franchise, you know," I tell him. I order another Submerge cocktail from a hologram of Juan Atkins. "It's very popular with the hipster demographic, and a lot of the techno tourists from Berlin that come through on their annual pilgrimage make it a point to eat here."
"You don't say?"
"I do say!" I'm a little sweaty, and suddenly aware that I'm chewing the inside of my lip into a salty pulp. "In fact, it's been so successful that we've got another three locations in mind where we'd like to open restaurants, but of course that depends on getting approval from you guys."
"Well," this fat fuck says, smiling like he's been dialing ViagraOne all morning and jerking off at his desk, "I'm sure we can come to some arrangement…"
My phone chimes again. I hand jerk-off boy my drink and whip it from my pocket, impatiently tapping the screen. Good god it's so fucking slow. Another schedule notification.
Ah fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. Half day at Elsa's school. I've got to go pick her up, and she's way across town. I take the cocktail back from Councillor Sleazeball and down what's left, hand it back to him, turn on my heel and head for the door.
Damn it's bright outside. As I head back to the office to grab my car keys my CEO follows me out, a cocktail in each hand and a joint hanging from his skull-crack of a mouth. I didn't even know he was in there.
"Rosa! Come back! Where the fuck you going?"
"A meeting, boss! An important meeting!" Damn I'd love some gum right now, I think I'm going to chew a hole in my fucking cheek.
"Investors with money! About the Grosse Point condos." I hope he's too high right now to check his schedule.
"Well make sure you're back here by two—conference call with Beijing!" he screams across traffic and the boom of 808 kicks coming from Metroplex Munchies. "Be late and you can clear your desk!"
"Sure thing boss! See you later!" I wave back at him, smiling. An hour ago I could do no wrong, but god knows what he's been dialing since then. I once saw him fire the whole Packard Plant sales team a week after they'd sold half of it to Foxconn, just because he'd been listening to Radiohead and had dropped some TemazepamMelancholy.
So I stay? I suddenly have this vision of Elsa standing alone by the side of the road, sheltering from the Michigan wind near some burnt out wreck of a building. That ice bucket down the back of my shirt feeling. Ah fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.
Driving is cool. Like super fucking fun. They like to say you shouldn't do it on drink and drugs, but the people that say that just haven't dialed the right combination of drink and drugs. Like right now I'm three Submerges down, plus a big hit of RapidoAmphet and a couple nice bumps of ModaConcentrate and Sublinox4U. I got an old 138BPM DJ Bone mix playing loud, and the booze and the pharms and the techno have all come together in this perfect trinity, and I'm just locked into a groove, woman and machine, kick-snare-high-hat, as the roads and the city just blur past effortlessly.
Plus the streets in Detroit are still fairly empty these days, apart from the huge transporters carrying Chinese cars out of the new factories, so you can drive really fucking fast.
Elsa is in the passenger seat though, and she's being kinda whiney, which is bumming out my vibe.
"Mommy, can we get donuts? From Dutch Girl?"
"No sweetie, not now. Mommy is in a hurry. She's gotta drop you off at home, then get back to work for a very important meeting with her boss." Cracked skull smile centipede face horror flashback shudder.
"But I'm hungry mommy!"
"Well, there's food at home. You can have a sandwich when we get home. And candy." Do not take your eyes off the road.
"But I don't want candy. I want donuts! From Dutch Girl!"
"Elsa! No! Listen to mommy—stop whining. No donuts. Not today. There's no time." Jesus Christ I'm so good at driving.
Elsa finally shuts up, and keeps herself occupied by rummaging through the contents of my purse. Out of the corner of my eye I see her pull out my phone and unlock it, and then the next thing I know I feel that ice-burn in my wrist, and I look and see the subdermal LEDs flaring red-to-green again.
I snatch the phone from here. The little bitch just dialed me a hit of TolcaponeEmpathy along with a kick of CompassionEctsasy, and I'm about to scream all shades of shit at her when I suddenly start sobbing, because I love her so very much, my poor beautiful baby, the love of my life, my precious diamond, who I'd do anything for, just anything, who must be so hungry, who must want donuts so much, my darling little baby, and I pull over into Dutch Girl Donuts and jump out of the car to get in line for a mixed dozen.
We're cruising through some dead space in what used to be midtown, where most the houses were pulled down nearly two decades ago, both chomping on donuts while I'm bussing on a couple of dials of ProVigilX and SynthiCoke. Back in control. The emphatics Elsa dosed me with have worn off, and I should be mad at her again, but I let it slide. She's a good kid. I reach over and stroke her hair.
As I do I catch the time on my subdermal, red LED numbers pulsing through my skin. It's gonna be tight, but I should just to make it.
It's pretty deserted out here. Total dead space. Which is why it's even more of a shock when the cyclist bumps off the hood of my Jianghua-Ford Taurus.
Elsa and I both scream. I slam on breaks, but not quick enough to stop that sickening feeling of something bumping under both the left hand wheels. I spill out of the car, and the road behind it is a bit dirty smear of blood, lycra, and bent-up polycarbon.
He's still alive though. I can tell from his screaming, when my panic subsides and my hearing returns.
I pull my phone out, but there's no range here. At all. One of those Detroit dead-wireless spots. I look around and it's like I could be stood out in the country, the trees and the grass reclaiming the landscape so ruthlessly that the occasional glimpse of ancient sidewalk amongst the wild flowers is the only clue that there used to be city here. No sign of anybody else out here. I know where we are: they wanted to make this into farmland, but we were quick and bought it up in partnership with Mahindra & Mahindra Motors, and we're going to build a car factory here. We have a 36% share.
Still no fucking reception though. No way of calling him an ambulance, or even an UberEmergency.
His screaming is real bad, and he's losing a lot of blood, crimson streaks running into the cracked, unloved asphalt of forgotten roadways. Trying not to gag I check his wrist, thinking maybe I can dial him something, but he doesn't even have an implant. Fucking hipsters.
I take deep breaths, try not to panic. If I don't take him straight to hospital now, he's not going to make it, simple as that. I don't have much in the way of options.
I stare at my phone. The clock reads 1.47 PM.
My hands begin to tremble. With the gift of full clarity I pull up the NuTropic app and start to dial.
Two hits of RuthlessVyvanse and a large dose MyTimePriorityConcentrator. Logic bulldozes in, fear and compassion fading like dying light.
The cyclist's helmet, still somehow attached to his now just whimpering head, has a GoPro camera fixed to it, just in case something exactly like this happens. I bend down and rip it from it's mount, find the SD card and drop it on the tarmac. I drop the camera next no it. With a few swift blows from my heel I stomp them both into plastic dust.
The cyclist must see me do this, because he starts screaming again. I nearly tell him not to waste his breath, but I don't want to waste mine, because I really don't give a shit.
I turn and walk back to the car.
Elsa looks at me, donut glazing smeared around her lips, her eyes wide with confusion. "Mommy, is the man going to be okay?"
"Shut the fuck up and eat your donuts," I say, starting the engine.
This story is part of Terraform, our future fiction project. Art by Rebekka Dunlap. Sava Saheli Singh contributed to this speculation. Lit Up is a series about heightening—and dulling—our sense of perception. Follow along here.