‘The Unrecognised Gas Bladder’

The Túnel coach has been further delayed. Ducking into the public bus shelter in the hope of evading the all-permeating liquid mist, you jostle for space with a Swiss pensioner in a dated wearable, two identikit businessmen, a gaggle of furtive students, and a young African woman talking excitedly in heavily-accented Portuguese. Sliding through the headlines, the world sluices in through the periphery of your consciousness — smouldering conifers, rolling brownouts, dead songbirds.

The coach rolls up just as you consider cutting your losses and hailing a car. An exhalation of pressure as it lowers to let the Túnel party faithful on board. The pensioner shoots you a look of unconcealed loathing as you touch your ring to the reader. The light blinks green, and you shuffle to the back of the vehicle. Bags thrown into the overhead rack; arms and legs contorted as you wedge your body into a window seat. A city glimpsed through fogged glass, then a border crossing. The coach grinds to a standstill. Chicken wire mesh fences and floodlights; machine guns; sniffer dogs; berets and Kevlar and heads-up displays. Documents are checked, identities confirmed, and the coach pulls back out into the gloom.

Eventually: ‘TÚNEL.’ The cooperative’s name and logo are the only lights in the fog, the obnoxious, backlit san serif a lighthouse guiding them in to land, each letter the size of a small van stood on its nose. You still aren’t quite clear on what it was that attracted the Mexicans to the former CERN complex in the first place. Perhaps an echo of the aura and prestige of ‘big science’ had lingered, even as the desks, lunch tables, and server racks of yesterday’s scientists and graduate students were consigned to a phalanx of rented skips. Perhaps the company founders were simply suckers for a vintage piece of mega-engineering, or got some perverse kick from filling the pipes and tunnels of what was once a glimmering cathedral of transnational scientific collaboration with a shoal of genefixed Latin American salmon. Allowing for a grim, thin-lipped smile, you lever the bag down from the overhead rack as the coach pulls to a stop, and prepare to disembark.

*

Bonjour, monsieur. Sorry for keeping you waiting. What seems to be the issue?” Sonja scratches her nose with the iridescent gilt nail of the little finger on her left hand.

“Ah.” The caller looks up. “The house meter isn’t working. The bladder is in the socket, and the seal worked, but your system won’t recognise it.” Cow farts, subvocalized Sonja, mentally consigning the board of Helvetic Biogas to the eighth circle of hell.

She leaves it slightly too long, and the next line of the script flashes up on the prompter. REQUEST TAG CHECK.

“And the tag?” A rustle of papers and fabric, as the caller steps away from their screen. After a brief silence, she leans in: “It should be at the bottom.”

“The light is green. It’s on and broadcasting, and everything.”

“Right. Well, have you tried—”

“I’ve done everything the agent suggested.” He sounds as tired as she feels.

With an audible sigh, Sonja pulls up a map of the neighbourhood; enters some numbers into a cell in a spreadsheet; tucks an errant strand of hair back behind her ear as the route-planning algorithms do their thing. “Right. One of our field technicians is already in the area, monsieur. I’ve added you to her roster; she should be with you within the hour.”

Disconnecting the call, Sonja removes her earbuds, and, with a flick of her wrist, puts the camera to sleep. She glances down at the agency dashboard, a thin strip of translucent white across the bottom of her screen. She’s banked enough calls from earlier in the week to extend her mid-morning break by a good half-hour. Should be long enough to nip down to Denner and get some of the sundries Jay and their neighbours have added to the shared list.

‘Biofortified milk, dried cricket protein, sanitary towels, toilet paper, piracetam.’

Grabbing a coat, backpack, and umbrella, she takes the tiny, rickety lift down to the building lobby. Fliers for ayurvedic medicine, child-minders, distance learning tutors. A handwritten ad for firewood. Putting her bag down beside the letterboxes, she unzips it, reaches in, and pulls out a small shrink-wrapped parcel blazoned with translucent Chinese characters. Ripping through the thin plastic, she removes a protective face mask and pulls it over her head. It’s slightly too small, and the elastic cuts into her ears. Pulling on her rucksack, she eyes the main door. ‘This handle,’ it reads, ‘is disinfected four times a day.’ Sonja isn’t convinced. Pushing the main door open with her elbow, she steps out into the biodiesel-tinged drizzle of Geneva in the spring.

In the skies to the west, against a slate grey backdrop of snowless mountain peaks, a mid-altitude platform cycles through ads for bacterial detergent, solar installation loans, and Catalan electric bikes. To the south-east, far beyond the swings and rusted roundabout of the neighbourhood park, cows in bulging backpacks shift and shuffle awkwardly on a far hillside. If she cranes her neck just right, Sonja can hear the distant hum of surveillance drones, circling overhead. Gritting her teeth beneath the mask, she pulls up the collar on her fleece, and flags down a passing car.

*

Written by Justin Pickard for Superflux, as scene-setting for their week-long HEAD MEDIA DESIGN workshop ‘FAILED STATES: Tactical Design for Uncertain Futures.’

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