My name is Juliet, and I work from home. I am a cog in a machine, and as long as the machine functions, I require no maintenance.
Every day, or sometimes every other day, I am sent a batch of ergs. It is my job to turn the ergs into phlebs, and once this is done I send them back for checking, or sometimes I send them directly on down the chain. Occasionally, whole weeks go by when I am not sent any ergs, then they all come at once, on Friday evening, a muted firework display of flashes in the corner of my screen. Party time.
The ergs come to me from various sources, different email addresses, only some of which are linked to faces. They usually lack any kind of fanfare, and are accompanied by limited metadata. A one-line brief is metadata. A cheery sign-off, of the kind people once used when they wrote letters, is metadata. These days, most of the sources have dispensed with the metadata, because they know that I know what I am doing.
This knowledge is the only power I have, and it helps that my work is obscure. The weakness in my set-up lies in the fact that because the work is obscure, not everyone is convinced that it takes any skill, or indeed that it is necessary. Changing an erg into a phleb is not difficult, but it can require ingenuity. Perhaps the erg is not quite an erg at all, and so it is virtually impossible to convert into a convincing phleb, but still I must attempt it. Usually I can get away with making the defective erg the closest possible approximation of a phleb, even if it might not hold up to scrutiny. My sense of what will just pass muster is finely honed; I have dealt with a great many substandard ergs over the years. Anyway, most of the phlebs will be consumed rapidly and thoughtlessly. Some will never see the light of day at all.
It can happen that not enough time is allowed for the process of transformation. I have tricks to make it more efficient, but it takes as long as it takes, and I have to eat and sleep and work on other ergs. And yes, there are the ergs that are just not very good to start with. Ergs that have been dashed off, created by non-specialists, copied from other ergs. I’m allowed in theory to send ergs back, but in practice I rarely do. It’s usually so much less trouble just to give them a bit of extra manipulation and get on with the next. One of the reasons I am sent so many ergs is that I process them without any fuss.
I work alone, but I am not alone. There are armies of us, working away in our rooms, changing ergs to phlebs 24/7 and scratching out a living. As a veteran operative I make a reasonable income, but finding the time and the mental discipline to enjoy what I earn is a challenge. It can seem that the line of least resistance is simply to return to the screen after a break and process a few more. It’s been years since I left the apartment complex. My work doesn’t require it, and everything can be delivered, even if the drivers complain about the nineteenth-floor address. I have a treadmill in the spare room, though it’s gathering dust and I am slowly expanding to fill every corner of my chair.
Usually, I get no feedback on my work. Rarely, I will receive a phleb back again for a second look. This used to upset me, no matter how politely phrased the metadata, but as the years have gone by I’ve consoled myself with the fact that it’s only a tiny percentage of my phlebs that don’t hit the mark – and after all, I am still human. I think they would like to pretend that we aren’t, but there’s not yet any getting away from that awkward fact.
It’s true that as lone operatives we’re vulnerable. The ergs are not big enough on their own to require more than one of us to work on them; they are carefully portioned to be just right to occupy a few hours or at most a couple of days of one person’s time, so we never work together. I suspect that many of the phlebs we produce are destined to become pieces of a much larger whole, but I will never see the completed article. I wouldn’t know where to start looking for it. And if I did find it, I mightn’t have the capacity to understand it, having dealt exclusively in fragments for so long.
I’ve been turning ergs into phlebs for nearly twenty years now, and the expectation is that I could do it for at least another twenty. I’ve made most of the improvements in my technique that I ever will, although there’s always room for more. None of us will ever attain perfection, though we can die trying.
While I wouldn’t say I was happy exactly, this state of affairs was stable, and I fully expected it to continue for the foreseeable future. I didn’t want to rock the boat; falling out could have been so much worse, so much less controllable. But then something happened that I hadn’t ever allowed myself to imagine. One day, the ergs stopped coming.
It wasn’t common, but there had been times when I’d gone more than a week without ergs, and then usually there was a flood of them – but this time, it had been ten days, and then a fortnight, with none at all. The screen seemed to echo with the lack. For hours each day I would sit there, waiting. Trying to find other things to think about. Fiddling with my split ends, picking my nose, worrying at the frayed edge of the seat cover on my chair. I played games with myself, daring the ergs to come when I wasn’t looking. But still they didn’t arrive. The sun rose behind the blinds each morning, and then set again until the room dissolved around the point of the blinking cursor, and eventually I would go to bed, ergless still, and adrift. I had no one to turn to.
In the early days, I used to chat with other operatives online, but gradually the talk faded as we all figured out what we were doing, and realised that the time spent interacting was time spent not processing, and it wasn’t rewarded. I don’t know. Perhaps the newer operatives still interact. Perhaps my contemporaries never stopped. But then I didn’t know where to get in touch with them, any more.
After a month of tumbleweed – no ergs at all – my confidence had plummeted to its lowest level and I felt barely human, more like a dust ball in the corner of a room, or a smear of dirt on the floor. I hadn’t exactly led a life replete with meaning before the erg-drought, but now there was literally zilch. I was a pulsating nub of nothing, encased in a fat human shell. There were tracts of untracked time that I can’t now account for, like waking nightmares, when I know I was absent but I couldn’t tell you what I was doing. Without the regular drip of work, my life was shapeless, treacherous, a marsh in thick fog riddled with traps.
It was out of this utterly wretched state, somewhere between periods of fitful, useless sleep, that I gathered my senses and finally decided to do something I had never done. I hadn’t done it because I hadn’t ever needed to. Oh, I knew about it from those early days of gossiping and comparing, but none of my closest online buddies had done it either, and we all smugly looked down on those who did: those who went soliciting.
It is easy enough to find a way in. Though it’s not formally sanctioned they want you to be able to solicit if you need to. Otherwise, the whole thing could so easily break down. Those gleaming formal procedures depend on an underlying dark web propping them up, keeping things going. So a few clicks and taps, and I was in already, and putting myself out there. Asking for it. If I closed my eyes I saw flashes inside the lids of a past life in which I walked, but now it wasn’t beside a babbling brook or across rolling parkland, faithful dog at my side and the sun in my hair. No, I was stalking a dark, narrow, rain-streaked pavement, wind whipping my bare legs, on unfamiliar heels, trying not to wrench an ankle. Waiting for the scrunch of tyres on tarmac beside me, the throb of the engine restrained, the window wound down. The voice asking: ‘How much, love?’
I ignored the first two that came by, but then I realised that was stupid; there was no point my being there with that attitude. So when the third one slowed beside me, and the tinted glass zipped down, and the question was asked, I called back my price.
He looked me up and down, long yellowed teeth like those of a giant rodent glinting in the sodium glow from the other side of the car. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said, laughing, but not unkind. ‘I’ll give you half that.’
‘Three-quarters,’ I said, forcing a smile, hoping there was no lipstick on my teeth. ‘I’m very experienced.’
He laughed again, as if he enjoyed the game, and told me to get in, re-zipping the window and popping the door open with a smooth click. Inside the vehicle was warm, smelling of synthetic lily of the valley and fag ash. It was good to be out of the rain and off the street. He put a gloved hand on the white of my thigh, frozen like cheap chicken and painful to the touch.
‘How many?’ he asked.
‘As many as you can give me,’ I said. He held all the power and we both knew it, but I tried to pump my voice up with assertiveness, like an expensively poisoned face.
‘Let’s try five, see how we get on,’ he decided. ‘And for that figure, let’s just say I’ll be expecting something special.’ But he didn’t give me them right away, though by then I’d had enough of the comfortable car and was already desperate to be back out there, submersed in the black evening, fumbling towards anonymous safety. He reached for the glove compartment and drew out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter, lit two and puffed out the smoke, passing me one of them through the choking cloud.
‘But I don’t—’ I started, and he chuckled and said, ‘Oh, but clearly you do.’
He watched as I smoked the whole thing down to the filter, gulping in scented blue air and then spluttering it out, spit flecking the dashboard. His hand was back on my thigh, just resting there the whole time. Then when I had stubbed the thing out he flipped the door open again, and ejected me on to the pavement with a smile flickering around the edges of those lips, between patches of bristle where he’d shaved carelessly. Flash of those curved, wicked teeth in a half-smile as he waited for me to get down on the rough ground, sharp stones puncturing the skin of my knees. ‘Payment on receipt,’ he said, cold now. Only then, when he’d seen me beg, would he give me the five ergs.
I worked through the first four as if in a trance. It had been so long since I’d processed anything I was slow at first, and I had to keep going back to check that I’d done things right. Mostly I had, and I made only small, non-essential adjustments and tweaks on the second pass. My confidence seeped back. These would tide me over, I thought, until the machine cranked into life again, as surely it would. It always had.
Despite their irregular provenance, those first four ergs were unremarkable in terms of quality. They were much like all the others I had ever worked on. Tangible yet weightless, they didn’t linger in the mind. As I finished each one I sent it back as requested, and after a short interval, I received payment as promised.
The fifth erg was different, so I saved it for last. For a start, it was much bigger. As I said, most take only an hour or two to process, sometimes a couple of days. I can usually tell before I inspect them, simply by noting the size of the attachment. The first four had all been roughly equal in size in terms of memory, and they had each taken the time I would have expected them to, and no more. They seemed to have come from similar sources, perhaps even the same source, though they were, as ever, not closely related. They hadn’t been problematic in any way; in fact they had turned out quite lucrative, and for a while I wondered if I had after all been too quick to dismiss a viable income stream. My knees had healed and were it not for the haunting scent of lily of the valley still clinging to my hair like mist, I might have forgotten the ordeal of procuring the things. It had been a business transaction, I told myself. Nothing more.
However this last erg, I estimated, based on its size alone, would take me a fortnight to process: quite a different beast from my regular fare. I had three weeks remaining before it was due, so after sending off the fourth erg I decided to go to bed early and start afresh in the morning.
From the moment my eyes flicked open, I knew the day would bring something unexpected. I had a peculiar lightness inside as I made coffee, and wondered if I was falling ill. I still hadn’t taken any regular deliveries of ergs, but there was time, and I think I was dizzy with the anticipation of working on something potentially quite interesting. Catch of the day! Like a tuna, valuable and glistening, barely breathing, in my inbox. Perhaps it was something important; it seemed like a mark of trust. The closest thing I could imagine to a compliment, it had come to me for a reason. My cheeks flared in the dawn’s half-light, as I carried the mug to my desk.
As soon as I had the erg there in front of me, I knew it was unprecedented. It’s hard to find the words to describe its terrifying beauty; it was beyond that. When I first laid it out for a look at its entirety, my stomach turned over and I felt as if I was falling, and like I might vomit; the bitterness of bile at the back of my tongue. Behind my ribs my heart was out of control, and I took a moment to slow things down, swallowing, taking deep breaths. I closed my eyes and pushed my chair back on its squeaky wheels, physically removing myself from proximity to the erg.
When I was calmer I regarded the erg again. This time the response was different. There was no longer the shock of the completely unfamiliar, and I could begin to appreciate the erg’s particular qualities as I examined it from all angles, letting it flow over me and around me like water, unfolding over time. It wasn’t static, it was changing, as it revealed itself to me: never resting, not still for long enough for me to begin to get comfortable or to understand it. Although I no longer felt sick, it made me dizzy to be near its precipitous edges. After a few moments of exposure, again I pushed back my chair and stood up, then went to the kitchen for a glass of water. I filled the glass right to the top and held it against my temples, then drank it all down and went back to the computer for more.
Now when I returned to the erg it was like an old friend. But no, that’s not quite right, not as human as a friend. Geometric and alien yet strangely familiar, like a virus or a radio wave. The touch of a human hand was somehow all over it, but it was tuning in to a frequency at the heart of things, picking up signals from beyond anywhere I’d ever been, with no beginning and no end. If there was a truth, this was telling it.
Usually I measured my working hours, but I’d forgotten to set the timer going. I only know roughly how long I was with the erg, experiencing it, because the next time I moved my chair back to stand up, back aching and bladder screaming, everything had gone dark again around me. I had wasted an entire day unable to act, existing purely to behold the erg, and I was exhausted. Still, I told myself I had plenty of time, not to worry, and I crawled off to bed, spent.
The next day, I woke late. My sleep had been troubled, and the sun was already high in the sky and streaming in through the blinds when I peeled myself off the bed, sticky and musty with sweat. Eyes closed, I felt my way to the shower and steamed under the water, trying to make sense of the thoughts that had hammered at the door to my dreams all night long. Everything pointed to one simple fact. There was nothing I could do with the erg. It needed no work; it was already there. It had always been already there. Any change I could make would be superfluous and would weaken it, perhaps fatally. It would be dishonest.
My conviction was strong as I let the scalding water wash over me for the longest time. It remained as I soaped myself all over, then lathered my hair twice and watched all the bubbles spiral their way to oblivion. It was unwavering as I stepped out into the fug of the bathroom, wiping away the condensation on the mirror and seeing my own disbelief confronting me through bloodshot eyes. But I knew there was simply nothing I could do. I was right. I would send the erg back untouched.
Of course, Rat-man wasn’t satisfied, and he insisted on a meeting. ‘I can’t accept this,’ he spat, bald as that. ‘You’ve done nothing.’
‘I told you,’ I said, impersonating bravery, ‘I’m experienced. Sometimes it’s as much about what we don’t do. Restraint can be the hardest lesson.’
‘It’s not good enough,’ he hissed, drawing on his cigarette, that left hand there on my thigh once more, skin shrinking slightly away from it. ‘I can’t let you get away with that. That’s not work, it’s not worth anything.’
‘But I can’t make it better,’ I said. ‘It’d be a lie. I won’t do it.’
‘If you think I’m paying for this, you can forget it,’ he said. ‘And don’t think you’ll be getting anything else from me, either. Probation’s over, darling, and you’re not up to scratch. I’d wish you luck for the future, if I thought you’d have one. Get out.’ The door popped and the glove was on my back, and then I was lying on the pavement, inhaling his exhaust, cheekbone grinding into the dust.
I’d never tried to find the originator of an erg before, though the information is there, buried in the metadata, if we care to look. On this erg, I found a series of tiny numbers, like a bar code, in plain sight, and when I ran a search on the code there was an address associated with it.
Preparing to leave the apartment was a trial. All my walking shoes were petrified with disuse, pinching as I pressed my swollen feet inside them. I picked up my keys and slipped the third finger of my left hand into a ring I hadn’t worn in months, always loose but now fitting perfectly, with its carnelian eye. In the hall mirror I saw a small, round brown sparrow of a woman blinking back. So insignificant that at least no one would wonder where I was going. The frigid blast that hit me when I exited the lift shaft on the ground floor sent me scurrying back up to the flat for more layers, but in the end I was out, moving along grey, block-lined streets, the paper with the address in my pocket, worn smooth by nervous fingers. Grains of sleet worked their way between collar and skin, and my toes were numb, but I kept going.
The creeping numbness was a distraction from the crumbling of my world. I sensed that my existence as I knew it had ended, without my really understanding why. Had I been a good worker? Had I done everything expected of me? Had I performed as well as I could? I knew the answer to these questions was yes – but still, it wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.
The blocks grew sporadic and then died out, around the same time as the sleet. I undid the top button of my threadbare coat and descended into a steep-sided, fragrant combe, wooded with tall trees whose highest branches were brushed with gold. A blue butterfly led the way along a narrow footpath scored through the thick ground cover. The slopes were obscured by a green sea of broad, curving leaves, dotted here and there with white flowers like sleigh bells. And that teasing scent on the breeze.
At the bottom of the combe I skipped over a river, light on my feet now despite the shoes. Jumping over the crystal waters I felt something flip: a lurch in my stomach and a subtle realignment of the world. But I shook the feeling off and started to climb up the other side of the valley.
As I ascended the steep slope, I was thinking of the originator. Did he know what he’d created? Did he understand its power? I couldn’t decide if he was old or young; the erg suggested either or neither – it could have been born of bitter experience or the naivety of hope. I imagined that he lived in a very grand house, not an apartment, and perhaps he had a family. I hoped he would be home alone when I knocked, though. I should have felt anxious about turning up unannounced, but I was hoping instinct would carry me through. I had to tell him what it meant to me, tell him how it moved me. Tell him that it had changed my life forever. For the first time in decades, I was following a feeling.
At the top of the slope, the trees thinned out, I left the valley’s microclimate behind, and the sleet set in once more. I shrugged deeper into my coat and checked the address; I was still heading in the right direction. Apartment blocks closed in around me; a neighbourhood like my own. The blocks grew denser until I was in the thick of the grey once more, standing at the bottom of a block. This was it. Into the lift, up nineteen floors, and I was level with where I started. Strange! When I reached out to press the doorbell, the ring winked at me, red like a warming ember on my right hand.
I waited for the originator to open the door, blowing on my fingers and stamping my feet. It opened just a crack at first, and then wider, and I caught my breath. There was the originator of the wondrous erg: a small, round brown sparrow of a woman, blinking into the hallway in confusion.
LIZ JONES writes novels and short stories, and is currently studying part-time for an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. She also works as a freelance editor of non-fiction. She lives in Somerset with her family. Find her on Twitter: @ljedit