JACK: Steaming

Debug mode: 

You are sitting, half-asleep, in an armchair. Your eyes are closed and you feel very unsteady. Your head's full of a post-viral haze, the cotton-wool of slowed reflexes and dulled awareness. In stark contrast to the normal state of affairs, you can hear yourself think — there's just one little voice wobbling incessantly about from side to side of your cranial prison, which is no surprise after the amount of skunk you just smoked. In the distance, the chiming clangour of tram bells sets a glorious harmony reverberating in icy splendour across the rooftops. And you are asking yourself, like the witchy-weird voice in a video of an old Laurie Anderson performance, 

"What am I doing here?"  


There's a ringing in your ears. Oops, must have drifted off. That's the trouble with smoking shit to help yourselves forget —

Yourselves? Well yeah, there's you, and there's Mitch, and there's Budgie. Tom couldn't come because he was busy being newly married and responsible, but between you and Mitch and Budgie you're three of the four corners of the former Social Networking Architecture Team, and you've flown out here on a budget shuttle from Turnhouse to get falling-down legless and scientifically test all that research into whether cannabis destroys short-term memory, because god help you, it's better than remembering how badly you've been shafted. 

Which is how come you're sitting in a half-collapsed armchair, stoned out of your box, on the narrow strip of flagstoned pavement alongside the Prinsengracht canal, listening to alarm bells — 

And contemplating the wreckage of your career, after four years in the elite Dirty Tricks wing of LupuSoft, working on special projects for nobbling your corporate master's rivals, and then a transfer to the relatively-clean gameplay side of STEAMING. Four years of top-secret death marches and psychotic deadline chases in beige-walled cubicle hell (when you'd rather have been sailing the wine-dark seas); frenzied developer boot camps held in sinister wire-fenced floodlit compounds in the Grampians: weekends spent following the team at home and away events with a laser range-finder and a dynamics package (and wasn't it fun trying to avoid that big ned from Portobello who'd got it into his head that you're some kind of headhunter from down south who's gonnae gut his side, and kept trying to get his posse to stomp your head in?): and all the while you're living off peanut-butter sandwiches and stale sushi take-aways while your waistline expands and your visual range contracts as you stare at a screen the size of a secondary school whiteboard all day long and half of the night.

Then there were the dying weekends, weekends stolen from the company management by sheer bloody-minded smack-downs with HR so you could go back to Rochdale to spend some time with your Ma, who was in a bad way from the lung cancer, or visit Sophie and Bill and the nieces. Until one day Ma wasn't there any more, and the rest of it, and that's you in that corner there, you with your sixty thousand euro salary and your legacy that went partway to a poky wee place in the Colonies and a mortgage you won't pay off before you retire, and no fucking life whatsoever. (Well, there's your knitting habit and your criminal record: but  that's just fodder for your OCD.) This is your life, it's been your life since you clawed your way from CS graduate to start-up seven years ago, and your so-called life is such a bijou bourgeois piece of shit that there's no room for anything but work in it, so you've been keeping yourself too busy to care until —

Last week they cancelled STEAMING and told you to clear your desk at half an hour's notice. Here's your next month's pay in lieu, now get the hell out of here, you freak! And you suddenly realise that you haven't got a life. Even though they made you learn more about Scottish Premier League fitba than the captain of the national squad, the bastards.

"Excuse me. You cannot be sleeping here" — 


The worst thing about it all is that you hate football.

Of course, to have admitted that you hated football while you were working on STEAMING would have been a bit like one of the US President's staffers confessing to thinking religion was overrated, abstinence didn't work, and what the country really needed was a short sharp dose of communism with a side-order of islamic extremism to go. It's one of those things that you just couldn't talk about at LupuSoft, not while they had the exclusive rights to both the Hibs' and Rangers' fan club franchises and were trying to milk the surplus income out of all the assorted bampots, neds and ne'er-do-wells who figured that a LARP where you get to play at football hooligans among consenting adults was better than the other kind of live action role playing. (In which you played at football hooligans with non-consenting adults, while the combined manpower of Lothian's finest and the Rock Steady Crew played collar-the-radge back atcha with CS gas and tasers.) On the other hand, you were able to suppress or sublimate your hatred without too much difficulty. You're a bourgeois liberal geek who thinks "team player" is a term of abuse, but you believe in society, you believe in checks and balances, you believe in getting your own back on the thick-headed sports jocks who made life excitingly unpleasant for you in school ... and as it happens, while you were working on STEAMING you could convince yourself that you were doing your bit, because any job that gets the brangling thugs playing a game on their mobies instead of lobbing tinnies and chibbing innocent by-standers up the high street has got to be a good thing. Network-mediated LARPs have been the gaming story of the decade, ever since SPOOKS came along to gave actuaries a chance to live a secret agent life on the side; STEAMING was set to ring the cash register again and take the nutters off the street.  And it paid the mortgage, besides.

At least, that's how it had been before the Bologna cup final disaster, and the double-whammy of the social psych study in The Lancet the very next week that stuck the proverbial sharpie in and twisted, hard. Questions were asked in the lumpy-looking construction site down Holyrood Road, and the Ministers did wax worthy and serious and proceeded to apply the tawse of uptight self-righteousness to the rump of the dead equine of games industry self-regulation with gusto and vigour. At which point LupuSoft management re-visited the risk-value trade-off inherent in defending their investment in a second-division virtual world football hooliganism game against a class action lawsuit, and decided the professional thing to do was to downsize your team's sorry ass.

Maybe it could have gone the other way in the boardroom, if the Polis hadn't uncovered a network of little league serial killer wannabes who were using STEAMING to rehearse next Saturday's riot over on Easter Road: but that was the final nail in the coffin. All the suit-wearing world loves a geeky scapegoat, and you boys were going down in flames. So there was only one thing to do: fly out to Amsterdam and get absolutely steaming drunk for the weekend, not to mention so stoned you're having auditory hallucinations to the sound of the tram bells.

"Excuse me sir,  but you cannot sleep here."

You open your eyes. The auditory hallucination is peering at you through her surveillance goggles as if she's never seen a stoned tourist before. She's been so polite that for a moment you feel a flash of perverse gratitude until the weed clears enough for you to realize that she is a member of the Politie and quite capable of summoning a van full of black-clad accomplices who will vanish you into some concrete custody cell faster than you can snap your fingers if she chooses to officially notice that you are not terribly conscious.  

You try to say, "please don't arrest me, I'm just a sleepy tourist, I won't be any trouble," but it all runs together at the back of your tongue and comes out as something like "nnnghk". You tense your arms and prepare to lift yourself out of the armchair — standing up would seem like the right thing to do at this point - but that's when you realize the armchair is situated adjacent to a street sign on a pole, to which your friends have kindly handcuffed your left wrist. And that goddamn ringing noise won't stop — it's not in your ears at all, is it?  

"Um?" You say, dully staring past the cop in the direction of the antique shop on the other side of the pavement. There's something odd about the window, the pattern the lights make as they reflect off it — or don't, as the case may be. Broken, you tell yourself sagely. Someone has broken the antique shop window and dragged this annoyingly gezellig armchair out onto the pavement for you to sit in. Talk about game scenarios gone wrong: it's like something you might end up dumped into in STAG NIGHT: THE PURSUIT if you started griefing the bridesmaids.

"Does this chair belong to you, sir?"  

Sometimes when you laugh you come out with a burbling, hiccupping sound, like a hyena that's choking to death on its food. You can hear it right now, welling up out of your shirt pocket, tinny and repetitive. It's the ultimate custom ring-tone, as annoying as a very annoying thing indeed, except this particular piece of intellectual property isn't owned by a bunch of gouging cunts.  

"'Scushe me, tha's my phone ..." Your right hand is free so you try and insert your fingers in your shirt pocket and play chase the phone. Somehow in the past hour your hand has grown cold and numb and your digits feel like frankfurters as the handset slips past them, giggling maniacally.  

"Pay attention, sir. Did you take that chair from the shop? Who handcuffed you to the No Parking sign? I think you'd better blow into this meter, sir."

She's a sight easier to understand than the local Edinburgh Polis, which is no bad thing because the voice at the end of the line is anything but. "Jack? Hi, it's Sophie! Are you alright? Are you busy right now?" 

"No, not now —" 

"Oh that's a shame, I'm really sorry, but can you do me a favour? It's Elsie's birthday the Tuesday after next and I was wondering —" 

You breathe on the end of the cop's torch as she holds it under your mouth, then swallow. Your sister is tweeting on the end of the line, oblivious, and you really need to get her off the phone fast. You force unwilling lips to frame words in an alien language: "Email me. Later ..."

"But it's important!" Sophie insists. "Are you alright Jack? Jack?" The plangent chords of her west midlands accent forming brassy patterns of light on the end of the torch, where an LED is glowing red, like the call disconnect button on your phone. 

"I think you'd better come with me, sir." She has a key to the handcuffs, for which you are duly grateful, but she wants you to put your phone away and that's surprisingly difficult, because Sophie keeps going on about something to do with your oldest niece's birthday and Confirmation — hubby Bill wants Elsie and Mary to have a traditional upbringing — and you keep agreeing with her because will you please put the phone down, a Dutch cop is trying to arrest me isn't a standard way to break off this kind of scenario. (If only families came with safewords, like any other kind of augmented reality game.) Things are stuck at this point for a tense few seconds as you mug furiously at the officer, until she raises one index finger, then unlocks the handcuff from around the pole, twists your arm around the small of your back, wheechs the mobie out of your grasp, and has your wrists pinioned before you can say "hasta la vista".

It's shaping up to be a great weekend, make no mistake. And there's always Monday to look forward to!