‘Immaterial’, Dan Grace

Illustrations © 2016 Cécile Matthey

 [ Immaterial, © 2016 Cécile Matthey ]

Eryn drops.

As she pulls the mask from her face the stink of the lock-up hits her. There’s never been a time when, coming back from a payday, she hasn’t felt her stomach turn at this smell.

The nausea passes and she’s left with the image. Even from a distance she recognised the face. Dark brown eyes framed by those long black braids. But then the complete lack of recognition. Her back as she turned into the crowd. Her own inability to follow, to check.

The sound of a dozen or so others, the gasps, the faint murmur of voices, leak through the thin ply partitions. With an outstretched hand she unhooks the ties from the wall, loosening the knot of ropes that hold her suspended. The landing is awkward, her ankle turns. Slowly she pulls herself up, turns on the tap and hoses herself and the floor down.

A face she hasn’t seen for three years now. Her sister’s face. A face she assumed had vanished from her life. Moira.

Her belongings are still there, folded tight in a thick plastic bag. She pulls on underwear, overalls, boots. Limps out of the booth and glances up at the clock.

Late for work again.

He is a successful businessman. She forgets his name. She has no idea what his business is either, only that it is located in the Immaterial, and that means she has a job here.

He hangs from the ceiling encased in wires and tubes feeding stuff in and out of his body. His rig is a little more sophisticated than the one she so recently vacated, though it does the same thing. No open drain and hose here.

Today, to save time, she just vacuums everything, floors, surfaces, body. It fucks up the filters, but it’s worth it if she’s running late, filters are cheap compared to losing a client. It only really works for those that are in all the time, like him, the ones where she can come back later in the schedule and do things properly. People like him are always there, never here. What they know of this world, her world, is filtered through the haze of the Immaterial.

Its rote, she doesn’t have to think about it. Instead she checks the lists in her head, the ways and means she has of getting through the next seven days until payday.

Home is a bunk in a dorm in a house in a street in a city that is slowly dissolving. Dissolving under a lack of funds, a lack of care, a lack of anything approaching a functioning public sphere.

Home is a word that she’s pretty sure means something other than this.

The mess is quiet at this time of night. She pokes tofu chunks around her plate. Christy is eating fish again. Lifting soft white flakes to her delicate mouth as she reads.

“Where do you get that stuff?”

Christy looks up from her book, chews and swallows.

“Fishing. Out at the old reservoir, down the Rivelin Valley.” She takes a sip of water. “Why? You wanna come sometime?”

Eryn thinks about it. The wet, the cold. Bright scales pulled from the murk.


She hasn’t known Christy long, a few weeks maybe, and you have to be careful. All kinds of stories about trusting strangers. She can hear Moira, advising, teasing. Ever present in the back of her mind. She can’t always make out the words but the voice is always there, pulling her through each day, reminding her of what can happen if you get too close.

“Lend you the gear if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Then again she hasn’t known anyone long.

“I mean, yeah. That’d be good.”

Christy grins and Eryn tries to suppress the smile she can feel behind her lips.

“Week after next I’ll be heading up. Can even stay the night, I know some folk in the camp near there. If you fancy it?”

The smile pushes its way free.

“Yeah, I’d like that. That’d be cool.”

It’s an early start the next day. Back to businessman’s place to clean up what she missed. Then on to half a dozen other places; small or large, wealthy or not so wealthy, but all on the spectrum of privilege, of a way up to the Immaterial.

Her mind is pulling in two directions and it’s tearing a hole inside her.

Moira. Her face.

Christy. Her smile.

She has to go back up. To try and find her again. If it was her. No, it was. She is sure of that.

She finishes a job and pulls out her phone to check her balance. Digits slowly ticking down as debits are pulled for all of life’s essentials. The answer’s always there, in the numbers. And the answers always the same. She can’t afford a trip before payday, before she has to go up and meet her employer and accept the transfer. A trip up is a trip up and it costs what it costs, no matter the reason.

She puts her phone away, picks up her bag and sets off for the next in a never-ending line of jobs.

She pulls her boots off and massages her feet. Overalls and underwear follow and she rapidly hoists herself up, slipping the mask over her face.

It’s a little different every time. Some say it’s like an elevator, others a ladder, others a soft wind beneath them lifting them towards the light. Today it’s none of these. It’s like a bullet from a gun. She is up in the plaza, in the blazing white light quicker than a single beat of her heart.

Disorientated, she stumbles across the open space, tries to pin down the reason she is here. She gets pitying looks from those with their numbers flashing on their wrists, visitors like her. Those with the bright ourobouros, the residents of this place, ignore her entirely.

Payday. Numbers. She shakes her head and moves towards the queue outside the agency building. The representation of the agency building. It’s interior, no doubt, not adhering the logic of its exterior. She’s never been beyond the wide desk at the head of the queue.

Moira had explained all this to her before they came up, together, for their first payday. They’d clung tight to each other as they’d crossed the plaza. The eerie beauty of its residents hit like a brick. Moira had leaned in close.

“Projections,” she’d whispered.

Computer simulations of beauty, uncanny in their grace and poise. That had been the fashion then, things had moved on since. Now imperfection was all the rage, a simulated realism. A simulacrum of the life the inhabitants of the Immaterial no longer had to live.

Moira had been so excited, always rambling on about the beauty and potential of the Immaterial, how the rising tide could lift us all. The clearer it became that this wouldn’t be the case, that the new economy was just the old economy with a different face, the more Moira withdrew from her and from life in general.

Until one day she was just gone.

Eryn stares at the back of the head of the woman in front of her. Gone. Not a word. Not that they talked much by then anyway. She could have been gone a month, two maybe, before Eryn had noticed.

She shuffles to the front of the queue, receives her pay.

She drops.

“They realised their dream of a frictionless economic sphere, a digital informational nirvana of free production and consumption.”

Christy shrugs.

“Of course the lack of friction just means they can’t feel anything.”

Eryn reaches around the edge of the fire, plucks the joint from Christy’s hand and takes a lungful.

“That must be nice. To not feel anything, don’t you think?”

Christy wrinkles up her nose.

“No way. You’ve got to have it all haven’t you? The giddying highs and the terrifying lows, it’s all part of the package. I mean, what’s the point otherwise? And worse still they try to emulate it. They’ve shed the material world and its troubles and then they try to buy it back with projections, images of the real bought from the desperate and stupid.”

Eryn nods. She thinks about saying something, but she isn’t sure what it is she wants to say. A thought clots at the back of her head. She can feel it trying to push through into the foreground of her consciousness. Her mind wanders. They sit in silence.

The camp is up above Ladybower Reservoir. There are people here with no phones, with no jobs, at least in the real sense of the word. There are people here who have never been up. They laugh and they argue and they live and they don’t concern themselves with what goes on in the Immaterial.

She imagines herself living here.

Christy breaks the silence.

“So what do you make of it then?”

She isn’t clear about how it works, how they make decisions or get anything done. What do they eat? Lots of fish she guesses.

“I like it. I really do. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

She surprises herself with how much she means this.

“Well, that’s great. They don’t plan on it being like this forever, but for now it works. I’m thinking about moving out here myself. You should come too.”

Christy looks at her with bloodshot eyes, shrugs. Eryn studies the back of her hands.

“I’d like that, but I have some stuff I need to do.”

Christy cocks her head, narrows her eyes and smiles.


Eryn sighs and leans her head back to look up at the stars.

“It’s hard to explain.”

Christy edges around the fire and pushes herself up against Eryn.

“No rush. Tell me when you’re ready.”

The tents are a bricolage of ingenuity. It’s clear as she gets deeper into the camp, that some of the people here know what they are doing. PV panels sit atop the more solid constructions, windmills too. Her mind is still floating free, like a balloon, only lightly tethered to her body. After they’d kissed she needed to walk, to put some space between them.

Too many new things at once. Moira’s voice that one.

A bell tent catches her eye. The outside is adorned with small flags, scraps of coloured material. The sides are up so she can see figures moving about inside. The thick scent of incense drifts out from its cool interior.

“Come in.”

The voice comes from inside the tent. Eryn peers into the half-light. She can make out one larger figure and several smaller ones. Children she assumes. She feels like sitting down. Her head is starting to throb.


She allows her eyes to adjust to the change of light. A woman, maybe ten years older than her, emerges from the darkness, a smile on her lips. Half a dozen children, none of them older than eight or nine by Eryn’s estimate, sit around on cushions and a bench. A couple seem interested in her, others go on playing or eating. One of them shuffles along the bench a little. The woman gestures.

“Sit here.”

Eryn goes to sit but a small voice pipes up from the opposite side of the tent.

“No, sit here.”

She watches a small girl shuffle over on her cushion to make space. The woman rolls her eyes.

“Children, let our guest choose.”

Eryn realises this means her. She shambles forward.

“I’ll sit here thanks.”

She slumps down next to the first child. A boy, maybe six or so.


The boy wriggles against her side and grins up at her and then across at the girl on the cushion. Eryn notices that he’s pretty dirty. Not in a neglectful sense, she’d seen far worse around the city, more in a child-in-the-woods senses. Mud, leaves, twigs, undiscernible bits and pieces. She smiles back at him.


The woman hands her a steaming bowl. She gulps it down without thinking.

“Thanks, that was lovely.”

The woman laughs.

“I’m Jessie, and I’m glad you liked it. You looked hungry.”

Eryn grins and feels her cheeks flush red. She can hear Moira, laughing, telling her what a fool she must look like, wandering into a stranger’s tent and eating their food with barely a word. But they’d invited her, hadn’t they? She shook her head, tried to clear the fog.

“I’m Eryn, thanks, I don’t have anything to give in return though.”

“Oh don’t be daft, I’d made too much anyway. This lot are so picky sometimes.”

Jessie gestures at the surrounding children. They ignore her. Eryn stretches and yawns. She feels awkward, like she’s interrupting their mealtime.

“Well, ok, I should probably leave you to it.”

Jessie eyes her.

“You’re new here, right?”

Eryn smiles and looks down at the ground.

“That obvious is it?”

“You just seem a little tense, love. Like you’ve still got some of the city in you.”

The boy next to her shuffles away.

“Eww, the city! I wondered what the smell was.”

Jessie rolls her eyes again.

“Jack, that’s not nice, is it?”

The boy pouts and glances up at Eryn.

“True though. The city smells funny.”

Eryn laughs.

“He has a point.”

Jack slides from the bench and points at Eryn.

“Hey, if you’re new I bet you haven’t been to the middle have you?”

Eryn blinks.

“The middle of what?”

He laughs, turns to the others.

“She hasn’t been to the middle!”

The children weave around them as they walk the paths. Jessie points out the various tents of useful services, important people, interesting design and ill-repute. She seems to know everybody they pass, has a word for each of them. Moira’s voice is clear in her head as Eryn passes through; hippies, the lot of them, never trust a hippy. She decides it’s time to ignore her sister.

After a short walk they emerge into an open space, the middle of the camp Eryn assumes. It’s larger than she would have expected. Planted throughout the clearing are young trees.

“Apples mainly.”

Jessie’s voice makes her jump.

“Some hazel and walnut. Pear too. A couple of quince and damson. A full orchard one day, hopefully.”

Eryn nods, watches the children run off amongst the trees.

“That would be good I guess.”

Jessie smiles at her.

“When we first arrived we decided we need to do something beyond just what was necessary. Make a mark in some way, even if this wasn’t going to be permanent. Just something solid, something real, you know? We get a little more fruit each year.”

There’s a rumble of thunder in the distance and Jessie calls to the children. She turns to Eryn once more.

“Come and visit any time, you hear? When you’re more settled.”

With a final smile she’s gone leaving Eryn stood amongst the trees. She wonders if she should have told them that she’s just passing through, not here permanently. Back to the city soon, work to do. The thunder sounds again, closer this time and people start to head for cover.

Eryn stands and waits to feel the rain against her face.

“I’m going back you know. To the camp. To stay.”

They’re curled up in Eryn’s bunk, thin curtain pulled across for a semblance of privacy. She can smell Christy’s sweat below the spiky odour of cleaning products. She had forgotten how much smell matters, how it can set the heart racing or calm it in an instant.

It’s been an intense few weeks. A tangled blur of work and limbs and paydays.

Christy rolls away from her.

“I’d like you to come too.”

Eryn says nothing.

“I know. I know. You want to see your sister, but, Eryn, I’ve been thinking.”

Eryn feels her muscles tense. She knows what’s coming.

“You know it’s probably not her, don’t you? I’m sorry Eryn, but think about it. She’s sold her projection, that’s all. She’s as good as gone. Her image, her voice, her mannerisms, all for the money to get out of here.”

“Shut up. You don’t know. It could be her.”

She pushes Christy away. The spell is broken though. If you avoid saying a thing then it can never be real. Once it’s said, you can’t unsay it.

“Hey! Listen. There’s a way to know. Without hanging around and hoping you might bump into her again. I can’t stop you if you want to go. I wouldn’t want to. I’ve heard there are places, beyond the plaza, where they know about this kind of thing. I’m guessing it will cost, I mean, what doesn’t? But I also know that if I’m leaving I won’t need these.”

She holds her phone up so Eryn can see the flickering digits.

“I want you to have them.”

Eryn shakes her head.

“I can’t.”

Christy smiles and pulls her close.

“Yes you can.”

 [ Drop, © 2016 Cécile Matthey ] The spaces beyond the plaza are an unknown. Each time she and Moira came up they’d talk of exploring, but each time, once they’d collected their pay, they knew that they didn’t have the numbers for it. And so down they went.

This time she ignores the queue, it isn’t payday after all, makes straight for the far side, the place she’d seen Moira move towards. Weeks ago now. Guilt breaks the surface in her chest.

The options are overwhelming. There are at least a couple of dozen exits from this side of the plaza, roads cut through solid cubes of rock or rising to twist around filigreed, impossible structures reaching up through the cloud layer.

The simplest, least daunting of the exits is an enclosed walkway. It’s not unlike images she has seen of shopping malls, glass everywhere and behind the glass things she can see no particular use for but desires all the same. Her reflection, a simple projection devoid of any personality or deeper meaning, designed only to convey that someone is there, matches her step for step as she moves further and further from the plaza. She becomes increasingly aware of how out of place she looks.

From a distance she spots the sign she is looking for and makes for the doorway.

The room is cool and clean, sparsely furnished with few customers in it. Around the wall are projections. Naked human forms of all ethnicities, genders and body types. A man approaches her.

“I assume you are here on your employers behalf?”

Eryn shakes her head.

“No, I’m looking for someone.”

He sighs.

“We do rentals, my dear. But if you can’t afford that,” he glances meaningfully at her exposed wrist. “Then I will have to ask you to leave.”

“No, actually, I can afford it. I can. I’m looking for someone specific and just for a short while. Do you have a catalogue?”

The man stares at her. Glances again at her wrist. He seems to be making a decision.

“Very well, here.”

He gestures to one of the displays, shows her how to input parameters, move back and forth through options.

It doesn’t take long, she knows precisely what she is looking for. Her voice leaps out of her when she finds it.

“This one, this one.”

It takes a fraction of a second. No time to adjust. She never imagined when she saw her sister again it would be here. The cubicle seems to be made of pure white light, a microcosm of the pristine world of the Immaterial, and now she wonders about the sanity of this plan.

There’s a full length mirror. She can’t look at it. Not yet. Instead she looks at her wrist. Moira’s wrist. She doesn’t have long, but her strength is deserting her.

Now she knows. Her sister is gone. Like suicide but without the inconvenience of being dead was how Christy had described it. Gone all the same.

But she was her sister and so.

She stares into the mirror. Moira stares back at her, dark brown eyes filled with recognition. She lets their hand trace the contours of Moira’s face. She opens their mouth and Moira’s voice tumbles out.

“I want to tell you that I miss you, that I wish you’d never left, wherever you’ve gone.”

“I want to tell you about what it’s like now, how it got so much worse, but how I think it’s going to get better.”

“I want to tell you about this person I’ve met, how they make me feel.”

“I want to tell you not to give up, but it’s too late for that, so instead I’ll tell you I’ll never give up. And that I’m not alone.”

She glances down at her wrist, the numbers dropping away. Nearly zero.

Moira’s eyes watch her from the mirror and she holds that image, lets it saturate her. And there it is, the familiar tug of the material.

She makes their hand wave goodbye to her sister.

Eryn drops.

© 2016 Dan Grace

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