It might be beneficial to talk more of Verdant Hark. Then again, it may not. His story isn't one that enriches the soul or makes one feel a need to search for a cure for all mankind's ills. No, Verdant Hark was a symbol of top-level influence, a male – that much can be confirmed here – who had risen from the position of mild significance to the role of the chief shaper of thoughts. He had followed that old pattern set by his forefathers where the thoughts of those beneath him were best manipulated by awkwardly inserted fashions and whims that the ordinary folk could obsessively hope for. Those days long before, when a new item would come onto the market and people would validate themselves based on the acquisition of it? Those were the rudimentary influencers of yesteryear, the ones who could make everyone wear a certain thing or be doused in a certain scent (need we mention the fashion of smearing oneself with pulped Durian fruit to imply wealth that was from just a decade before?). There are exactly three hundred and seven manners in which people of Hark's ilk could execute his work though the elongated male preferred a simple form of news that had worked for him before. A story of alleged truth could be given whatever political slant he favoured at the time or perhaps a celebrity – for such creatures very much still existed in abundance – would endorse a product or lifestyle. The latter would trickle down from the highest levels right down to the fawning tunnel monkeys at the bottom and all would rejoice in being told the correct things to like.
The problem with Building 71, apart from a noticeable lack of corporate sponsorship, was the constant competition from its rivals; nearby 'Calvin's Cherrybomb Lip Balm' Building 67 was encroaching on the spheres of 71's influence day by day. There are a finite number of Great Ones, whether they be rich, beautiful and intelligent, and they vie for supremacy, utilising whatever source of effulgent illumination is currently at the top of the pineapple.
“Ruskin Preece. Welcome.” Verdant Hark announced. His voice was every bit as powerful as the rumours had led Preece to believe. To his left, Cromwell sat on his perch and consumed a fistful of marzipan given to him by his benefactor.
“Yes, sir. May I just say what an honour it is to be here. I thought that sooner or later my hard work would be recognised, but to meet your gloriously brilliant self at such an early stage of my existence is hard to comprehend.” Preece said. It was obsequious, yet completely genuine on Preece's part.
“Hard work? Yes, I'm sure you are doing a triumphant job in the bowels of the building doing whatever it is you do. No, your place here is because of something called 'Equal Opportunities'”
Preece's heart sunk. As suggested by Gregor Greenbaum, his place on the most exalted level was due to the Equality Lottery and nothing more. It started as something called 'Political Correctliness' a social movement started by Tremulous Bez many years before and had now morphed into an all-powerful entity that could wipe out whole communities if it deemed their existence 'unfair'. Even Hark dare not question their demand that, once a month, someone from the guts of the building be given an 'Equal Opportunity' and be allowed to rub nostrils with those who were far better than them.
“Oh, the lottery,” Preece answered in a saddened tone.
Hark surprised himself by detecting a 'feeling' in someone other than himself.
“Yes Preece, the wonderful lottery. Why your tone is one of disappointment, I do not understand. This is your chance to be more than the bottom-feeder that genetics has sadly made you.”
Preece tried to just his impressive and stately chin forward in the hope that Verdant Hark might think him slightly better than human plankton, but far greater chins had graced this space and Preece's movement made little impression on the audience.
“Do you know of Antrobus Wex?” Hark through the side of his mouth like a general giving information to a crippled underling.
“Absolutely sir! The greatest artist of all time. I saw a collection of his work in a gallery was working in once. His triangles are life-changing. When I saw 'Triangle No.78'...”
Verdant Hark had a pained expression on his face as if he was having to tolerate the same crippled underling having to cut a bullet out of the general's gut. So much of the world could be described as 'crippled underling' in Hark's mind and it was crass comments like Preece's that confirmed that some are simply not genetically equipped to appreciate art.
“Mr Preece, I don't think you can call his work 'triangles'. I appreciate that the nuances might be lost on you, but Wex's work is life, it is eternity, it is everything that higher thinking and the pursuit of something more than reality should be.”
Preece was contrite. He couldn't quite understand why he was contrite – it was a natural state of being when corrected by his betters. To Ruskin Preece and those of his ilk, Wex's glorious work was triangles. Different sized ones, isosceles, equilateral, obtuse, pink, purple, orange, different backgrounds behind them, all this was true. But they were still triangles.
“Anyway,” Hark continued. “Antrobus Wex has agreed to give 'Frooz' magazine an interview. Do you have any idea what this would do for our building? Of course, you don't Preece, of course, you don't.” Hark said apologetically. Preece was quite sure he did know what it meant but didn't want to interrupt Hark's flow. “Everyone wants to talk to Wex. He never ever gives interviews. Well, not since he defecated in that bowl for 'Art Lump' magazine and offered it as his response to their questions. I'm not sure even I would count that even if it was one of the most brilliantly witty retorts in human history. We have spent months and years trying to talk to Wex and at last, he has agreed to give us a few words about his upcoming collection. Just a few words from him would validate this whole building, it would increase output, give the birth-rate a shot and make 'Alfrax Pharmaceutical' back in their place.”
As Hark spoke – and he couldn't help but sound more and more emotional as his tone increased – Preece's idealistic eyes opened wider and wider as if crow-barred apart by a wonderful realisation. His mouth, not usually given to the state of being 'agape', fell open and his tongue wagged gently like a greased asparagus in a subtle mistral. To be thought of as worthy to speak to Antrobus Wex, to be considered great enough to represent the world he knew, felt almost transcendent. The danger of being too carried away by the Zeppelin of his thoughts was counteracted by a harsh bolt of realism that punctured the floating whimsy.
“I would be honoured to do say. May I just ask though why one of the Better Ones on this or the level below wasn't chosen? I mean, I thoroughly appreciate the opportunity, but does the Equality Lottery really spread that far?” Curse the gargoyle of self-realisation.
Hark had by now stretched out on his long-backed chair which had the appearance of an ornate throne. It was angled towards the windows that looked out into the buzzing workforce next door and to see the beautiful and monstrously intelligent creatures under his command made his heart skip a beat.
“Ruskin Preece, my dear little plankton. Normally when we've had an Equality Lottery winner here the most they've been given to do is occasional neck massages or holding moving targets for when the cognoscenti are bored and want to shoot rifles at something. I'm not even sure you and Antrobus are of the same species so I surely wouldn't let you speak to him on our behalf. But...”
Preece heard the 'but' though had little interest in what was attached to it. Whatever followed would not negate the fact that 'but' was a remarkable conduit for the greatest opportunity in the history of the Preece family.
“Antrobus is going through a 'phase', a bit like all of the great creators tend to. Unfortunately, this phase has meant that he has gone Out. Not just the outskirts either – he has gone to outer Out. He feels that the muse has spoken to him and wants him to experience the world outside. Preposterous to me; what could the husk out there offer a man of his brilliance? Nevertheless, he has disappeared into the Out, mixed with a few Scorchers, adventurers and general riff-raff, taken his genius in a new direction,”
The 'but' was now a little more significant. Out was not the kind of place that anyone above level eight would want to explore; the parched wasteland, the struggling settlements, the ostracised and those who had upset the order inside, none of these were attractive associates. If one could negotiate the vast uncompromising plains outside, if they could get past the bandits, revolutionaries and anyone else that proudly called themselves a Scorcher, if they could take the ceaseless heat from the angry sun, perhaps then they might survive. It wasn't exactly an ideal excursion even for those young creatures who wanted to explore Out and prove their maturity to their feckless contemporaries inside. Yet there had been a constant stream of Better Ones who, bored of luxury and privilege, wanted to experience what life was like for the less important. Actors who wanted to win glossy gold statuettes would research roles by living among Scorchers for weeks, earnest politicians might take a quick visit to the nearest outpost to show that they understood life, popular music stars might compose an album among the slightly toasted so as to get a 'New Sound' and get lauded by journals like 'FRooz'. Of course, it wasn't a new thing at all as art has always required a reminder of its brilliance by connecting to the average bottom-feeder. Preece, however, could not understand the attraction. Sun=Bad.
“So we need an ordinary guttermuncher to go out there. Someone expendable you might say. And Wex is going through the phase of only wanting to speak to the artless so I feel you are just the man Preece.”
Verdant Hark's words might have been insulting to the more sensitive, but Preece knew that the Better Ones condescend to share the building with people of his lowly status and naturally a certain antipathy might occasionally issue forth. Hark meant no malice with it. At least that's what Ruskin Preece, as idealistic as a smoked ham, thought to himself.
“You don't have any family anymore do you, Preece?”
“No, sir. I have a sister, but she married someone on level seven and doesn't really speak to me anymore. Who can blame her?” Preece snorted.
“So you have little to lose, but much to gain. We'll give you a couple of tickets on the Torpedo so you can take a friend if you have one and are feeling in need of support. That'll take you to the edge. Then you'll have to make your own way. I think Wex is living it up with the cave-crusties in sector eighty so if you head there you should find him or at least someone to help. Take plenty of water and sunscreen, don't eat the brokenwoof out there and report back post haste. What do you think?” Hark concluded.
It was the kind of offer that Ruskin Preece had little hesitation in accepting.
“Definitely. Will I have a weapon?” he said eagerly.
“A firearm? No, I don't think that's wise. You folks can't quite handle those things aright from what statistics say. I do have a big stick that you can take – it has a nasty point at the end too. If anyone comes near you just wave that in their faces and scream and that should be enough. It really is a very impressive stick.”
Preece had heard that there were old tanks, guns and souvenirs of one of those much-loved World Wars of yesteryear and despite having absolute confidence in Verdant Hark he still thought that a stick, however grandiose or overtly pointy, might not deflect shell fire.
“That is very kind of you sir. However, I have an old anti-assault alarm that I carry with me and the pitch of its siren is quite deafening.” Preece answered with pride. The high-pitched squeal of the alarm had been known to curdle milk at modest distances and so Preece was confident that it would be a fearsome protector. He had wanted a gun so that he could feel more like a level sixer, but the lack of one didn't bother him unnecessarily.
“As you wish. We'll keep in contact with you – as long as your head isn't tilted too westerly then you should get a perfect reception even out there. It'll all be recorded on your hard-drive too. Have you had your updates downloaded in that cavernous lump on your shoulders?” Hark said as he pointed to Preece's unremarkable head.
“It may not look much sir, but all the implants are brand new and I'm running 13.6,”
“You're on 13.6?” Verdant Hark said with astonishment. “My, my, technology really does trickle down doesn't it? I thought you lot were still on some old betaware from last decade. Brave new world! Soon you'll be having flushing toilets down there,” Hark asserted cheerfully. He had learnt the majesty of how to pull the chain on a toilet and flush away his detritus while at college and was hopeful that soon everyone would learn the art. Though he had little time for those who wanted 'equality' he could understand that, when taught thoroughly, the tunnel-monkeys could benefit from the system.
“So Preece, here are your tickets. Take the high-speed back to the Torpedo station – something to tell your friends about. A little treat from us. Oh, and don't make eye contact with any of the women on this level as you make your way there as we don't want to traumatise them.” Hark finished and signalled for a hitherto unseen figure to give Preece two small tickets and a quick clearance upgrade.
Thank you for reading!