“I need three Model B’s by this afternoon,” said George Oxburn, “And Harrison, nothing fancy.”
Oxburn pointed to a sign posted above Ronald Harrison’s cubicle: Seeing is believing; Believing is reality.
“Yes, sir,” replied Harrison. He knew the sign. He knew the words. He did not need to look up at it, but he did, almost against his own will. He followed his supervisor’s finger and looked at the sign.
“Nothing fancy,” Harrison nodded and half smiled at his boss, “Understood, sir.”
Oxburn walked away. Harrison looked back up at the poster.
Above the goldenrod letters in a crisp sans serif font was an image of a keyboard. Instead of letters, each key was a flat icon. An image of a house, a tree, a boat. That was the value of words. They held the power to create anything from nothing, but only if people could believe in them, believe in It.
Harrison turned back to his desk and began typing. Three Model B’s. Three stories. One about a bank that valued hard-working customers who scraped by enough to live paycheck to paycheck. These customers could feel safe, knowing that if they ever did have an extra cent to save, the bank would be there to get them the best possible interest rate: .0001%. In the second story, the second bank was there to support investors, companies, the rich folks who needed a place to stash only what they wanted the government to know they had. The rest of their money existed elsewhere, unspoken, untaxed. The third story, the final bank was for the magpies, the people who cared less about the fate of their money and more about telling their friends why their bank was the best. Walk into the third bank and a robot would greet you, directing you to the nearest automated teller hologram. Everything in the bank would be minimalist in design and maximist in experience. The best technology, the flashiest debit card, and the greatest illusion. Snake oil would always sell better than the truth.
Harrison reread the completed stories. All the details were there. The feelings were right. He sent the stories over to Editing. Someone there would read the stories, check for logical flaws and make changes. From there, the stories would wait in Publishing. Wait for the right customer who was looking to start a bank and for the right price they could buy one of thousands. One of thousands of Bank Model A’s or B’s or C’s, written by Architects just like Harrison, sitting at desks just like his, beneath posters that read: Seeing is believing; Believing is reality.
“Hey, Ron,” Karyn Bedi looked over the cubicle wall, “You going to Happy Hour tonight?”
He could smell her perfume drift over the wall and sink onto his desk. Someone wrote that, he thought. Some Chemist sat down and wrote that, like it was a good idea, to create a scent that invaded other people’s space. And then a company bought it and sent it to a printing press.
“And then she bought it,” he said.
“What?” Karyn asked, “I couldn’t hear you over Dillon’s typing. Mister Stones-for-fingers.”
“Oh,” Harrison shook himself back into reality, “No. No, not tonight, I don’t think.”
“That’s three nights in a row, Ron,” Karyn frowned, “No one can stand that much time alone. It makes a person crazy. What have you been up to?”
“Nothing,” he said, “Just, just thinking.”
“Alone? With your…thoughts? That’s not healthy,” she shook her head, “People are talking. Jan in Editing told me it’s affecting your work.”
She tilted her head with a look that made Harrison feel five years old, caught with cookie crumbs all over his face, hand still in the jar. He frowned, and Karyn drifted below the cubicle. Her perfume left behind, spreading across his desk.
Harrison clicked open his assignment list. Since his conversation with Oxburn, two more jobs appeared. Two Model C’s due by the end of the week. It was a message. A reminder. In six months, not a single story he had written had been ordered for printing. Everyone was opening banks these days. Dozens were built each week. Once a new startup purchased the story that fit their image, their new bank’s special brand, the publishing house sent it over to Printing.
From there, the printing presses processed the stories, analyzed the elements and synthesized the illusion: a new bank appeared right down the corner from fifteen other new banks, but this one was for you. And if you believed the story, the bank was real. If people stopped believing in its story, it disappeared, with everyone’s money, right out of existence. Harrison kept his money under the mattress. No one was going to stop believing in mattresses.
At home, he poured himself a glass of orange juice and sat down in front of his electric fireplace. He had bought it from an antiques dealer over a decade ago, and it took almost that whole time to repair it. Get it back to working order. Tools, let alone, parts were a thing of the past. No one built anything. That was what the printing presses were for. You wrote the story for the product, and the printing press created the image. You saw it, believed it, and it existed. It worked that way for everything nowadays.
“Even the juice in this glass,” Harrison said staring at the orange liquid. He swirled it around in the glass, watching it slosh to the rim and tumble back down. He brought it to his lips. He could not smell it, and as he poured it into his mouth, he could not taste it. Could not even feel it.
He sighed and put the glass down. It was empty, without the telltale coating of pale yellow that should have been sliding down the inside of the glass. The orange juice no longer existed. If he opened his refrigerator, the carton would have vanished too. He put a nutri-pill in his mouth. He still believed in those. How could you not believe in something so lifeless? A day’s worth of food and hydration timed to release automatically. Quality and nutritional value subject to personal financial status.
“Why waste precious time eating and drinking?” he said. Eyes fixed on the fireplace.
Karyn was right. It was dangerous, unhealthy even, to sit alone with your thoughts. But he could not go to the bar. Sit there, pretending to drink something that was not actually there. Pretending to become inebriated by something that never actually entered his system. And then, they would all see it, see him with his not empty, empty glass. He would be sent away. Ronald Harrison, a menace to society. Nonbelievers threatened to collapse the entire illusion.
“Seeing is believing,” he closed his eyes, “Believing is reality.”
He stared at the not empty, empty glass. He remembered pouring the juice into it, but he knew the juice never existed. The nutri-pills destroyed that market. First, they came to help with the food shortages, but then the pills stayed because they were more efficient. Why fight the blight? Labs could create all the chemicals a body needed.
“What could you do?” he said, holding the glass in his hand. That was the marketing campaign for the nutri-pill. If you did not need to waste time preparing a meal and eating the meal, then you had more time to…to do what? Live life? Surely not. It was an illusion. You had more time to work. More work, more money. More money to buy whatever you wanted.
“Whatever…illusions you wanted,” Harrison growled. He threw the glass on the ground. It disappeared, he knew it had never been real. But this thing that was happening to him was real. And it was getting worse. A few weeks ago, he first realized he could no longer smell the orange juice, but now, now he could not even believe he had a glass to pour it in.
He turned off his electric fireplace, and from a drawer beneath his armchair, Harrison pulled out a book. It was the only book he had ever held in his entire life, and one of maybe only ten he had ever seen in person. The cover was makeshift, from old pieces of cardboard and glue. The pages frail. The author was Ray Bradbury, and the title was Fahrenheit 451.
He opened it and began reading, even though he knew all the words. He read the book every night since he discovered it over a year ago while cleaning out his deceased grandfather’s home. Gerhard Harrison had been a hoarder. But no one ever knew until his family went to clean out the home. Ronald found the book in a pile of old coffee maker manuals.
What a concept, Harrison remembered thinking. Entire buildings filled with books. With stories. Fiction writing was extinct in Harrison’s time due to the printing presses. Anyone that could write, wrote as an Architect, or a Chemist, or a Farmer and so forth. You wrote stories about the things people needed or wanted to conduct life, and the printing presses produced the illusion. And the thing existed, so long as people believed in it.
People not employed as writers, either could not write, and worked the undesirable remaining jobs, or they had moved up in their industries and no longer needed to write. Regardless, there was no market for fiction. It was too risky. Writing fantasies for people to believe in as escapes from reality. The printing presses could not handle that. The quantum fields keeping the illusions visible would collapse. Society would be stripped bare.
Movies and TV shows were also things of the past. A few writers whose Muses were not exhausted from days of writing Bank stories or Vaccine stories or Luggage stories, still managed to jot down the occasional song or poem. Something on the edge of reality and fantasy. These writers fascinated Harrison. Were they frustrated with life? Did they yearn for more room to flex their creative talent? Or were they slaves to desire, unable to quell the insatiable urge to escape, forcing them to write until their fingers cramped?
But then, there was this man, this Ray Bradbury. A real fiction author. The only one Harrison had ever encountered. To Harrison, this man was a god. He had created an entire book of fantasy, but every word felt real. As if Harrison was there, walking the streets, seeing the fires rage. Every night, Harrison felt the heat from those flames. Imaginary fires. There was no seeing involved, and yet he was still believing. Which was more than he could say about the orange juice.
At work, Harrison wrote a Model C story. Model C banks needed less windows than Model B’s, and the windows they did have, had bars on them. These banks lacked frills. They needed customers to feel like peons, begging for loans. Crying when their homes were foreclosed. When he finished writing, Harrison felt sick.
“Good work,” Oxburn said as he walked passed Karyn’s cubicle, “Three of your Model A’s sold this week.”
“Thank-you, sir,” she replied.
“If you’re interested,” Oxburn added, “We have a temporary opening for a School Architect. Hadley Withis had a bad skiing accident, broke both hands. We need someone to take her stories until she returns.”
“A, a School Architect?” Karyn stammered, “Sir, me?”
“Just temporary,” Oxburn nodded, “Your banks have real staying power. You’d only be working on the smaller schools. You understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Karyn’s voice pitched higher, “I can start whenever you’ll have me, sir.”
Harrison clicked open his assignment list. Two more Model C’s. A School Architect. He shook his head. Too much pressure. If people stopped believing in the school, the children might vanish. And then a sick thought filled his mind. A pounding, howling thought.
There were writers nowadays for everything. Banks, schools, medicine, clothes, furniture, even arboretums. What if there were other writers. Special writers for the people themselves. Who wrote the stories that dictated a person’s life. Biographers. Someone might say to them, “I need an Architect, but not a great Architect. I don’t want to pay too big a salary. Make him middle of the road.” And so the Architect would appear. Harrison felt lightheaded.
He looked up at the sign: Seeing is believing; Believing is reality. For a moment, he thought he saw it flicker.
After work, he went home and put his thumbprint on the scanning pad of his door. It flashed red. He tried again. Red again.
“Third time’s the charm,” he said. His mouth felt dry.
When the door swung open, Harrison froze. His refrigerator was gone. Another sign of chronic Nonbeliever Syndrome.
“There’s no one to tell,” he said, taking out a nutri-pill, “They’d just send me away to some facility. Or secret island. Or kill me. Or…”
He stared at the pill. That pounding, howling thought came back.
“Is this the story someone paid for?” he whispered.
Harrison turned on his electric fireplace and watched it. The simulated flames. The real heat. The edge of reality and fantasy. He swallowed the nutri-pill.
Later that night, Harrison turned off the fireplace and began rereading Fahrenheit 451. He fell asleep picturing Montag fleeing from the other firemen, rescuing a handful of books clutched to his chest.
The next morning he walked into the bio-sanitizer, but it would not turn on. His toothbrush had vanished during the night, as well.
“If you don’t believe in germs, I guess you can’t smell bad,” he shrugged.
At work, he typed up another Model C story.
“Harrison,” grunted Oxburn, “The Model B you wrote back in January, remember it?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Harrison. The perfect bank for retirees. Small town feel. Cherry stone brick. Antique coin counting machine to remind customers of the good ol’ days.
“Gone, Harrison,” George Oxburn scowled, “No one believes in that kind of hokey crap anymore. You’re being transferred to Sheds. Small market. Even smaller liability. Screw that up and you’ll be living off Pill Stamps. Got that?”
Oxburn pointed to the sign.
“Understood, sir,” Harrison’s jaw clenched. He tried to resist looking at the poster. His movements felt automated as his head turned up towards it. Harrison saw it flicker. He knew it flickered this time.
“Harrison,” Oxburn said, “Go out tonight. Bedi told me you haven’t gone out in nearly a week. What to do you do all night? Stare at the wall? A man’ll get sick doing that. All sorts of thoughts creep up.”
That night, Harrison opened the door to his home with no trouble. The thumbprint scanner was gone. So too was his furniture.
“No,” he gasped, racing inside, “Not my chair. Not the chair.”
Where his armchair once was, Fahrenheit 451 lay on the floor. Harrison gripped it, crumpling the cardboard cover.
“I need help,” he whispered, rocking himself and the book.
“There must be, be some sort of medicine. Something they can give you to, to believe again. If you’re not too far gone. If you catch it early enough.”
He stood up, panting. He could do this. He walked over to the counter.
“I’ll have a nutri-pill and then walk to the nearest Med Clinic.”
The pill bottle was gone. Harrison felt his heart beating in his chest. He gripped the book tighter, bending the pages between the cover.
“They’ll have something at the Clinic,” he said, “I just have to get there.”
He walked to the door. It was gone. A bare wall in front of him. He turned back just as his electric fireplace vanished from existence. Clutching Fahrenheit 451 to his chest, Harrison sat down in his not empty, empty home. His wet eyes stared at the book. The pounding, howling thought returned.
One of them was not real.
“Please, let it be me,” he whimpered, “Let the illusion be me.”
Photo by Randy Jacob on Unsplash