New short fiction from South Australian-born award-winning author DBC Pierre. By DBC Pierre.

Dead-end jobs



Technology Sector: Substantial Package with Car and Comprehensive Benefits including Bonus. Location: Curramungera.

“December eighteenth: I’ve discovered that our passage through time sets up a Doppler effect. Bits of now taste different later, their tone shifts as time blasts over them. It feels subversive to imagine that our plans for the future may, when they come to pass, twist and grow inappropriate in ways we could not have foreseen. Only bones of good intent might remain. Today our vision is dynamic and righteous. Tomorrow it’s in place. The day after, it’s out of sight. The day after that it has collided with someone else’s plan, and from that debris come next week’s ideas.

“So grows culture’s momentum as we fly through space and time, pendulous fates infringing and being infringed upon in turn, endlessly, on and on. So we flail and twist and turn, innocents and ignorants, pulling from an oven our mind’s-eye’s pie to find its filling has rotted before the crust is brown.”

I switch off the cassette. Sounds vaguely familiar, maybe a grandparent or such. Anyway, that there’s something on the tape is all I needed to know. Another three minutes killed. Back to watching the clock.

My first boss told a joke about this place. He used to mind the shop in three-day shifts – three on, two off – just like me. Sat here in his pyjamas eating frozen pizza and playing screen backgammon. Probably the same seat he sat in. Probably the same paint on the walls. The kitchen’s new, though. And the screens. Anyway, he had this joke: two crocodiles languished in a swamp, so steamy and slow that even the mosquitoes hung like specimens. The crocodiles languished and languished, still as stone, and simply nothing happened. Until finally one of them stirred and opened his jaw an inch. “You know,” he eventually said, “I can’t help feeling it’s Thursday.”

Unlike today, a relative Grand Central station of a day. More pizza to make. Coffee to drink. Screens to watch. And I have to transfer this old cassette recording the kids found in the shed, I’ve been promising to do it for weeks, carried the thing around like a load of guilt. Then I have an interview to do, another half hour killed right there. It’s about the job, like most interviews, which can be boring, although my delivery ends up as polished as a political speech. And hey – outside contact. I still get dressed for it. I still shave. After that: community visit and tour, which means an hour with my kids – the cassette better be copied – plus whichever other neighbours from our street signed up. I’m guessing a few did, and hoping at least that little Metz is coming down; he’s blind and I think the acoustic environment will be a good experience for him, not to underplay my qualities as tour guide. It’s just that kind of job, fascinating when you think about it, although only when you think about it. In fact, thinking about it, the job is only an idea. Or rather: guarding an idea. Shop is the wrong word for it.

I brew coffee before the interview, rewind the cassette ready to digitise – it’s a place where we still occasionally use audio cassettes, try finding another like it – then I switch on the news while I try to find the right coaxial cable:

“Thirty Choice College residents were arrested today in New Goulburn after refusing to enforce proper clothing restrictions on the four hundred female students who attend the co-educational school. The students, some of whom number among those arrested, turned up to school wearing a variety of skirts and dresses. A spokesperson for the college said the school had a commitment to freedom of sexual identity, and that heterosexual rape has increased rather than decreased in the area since the Gender Act of 2019. In other news, a row has broken out between the Earth Lobby and the Federal Insurance Arm over the arm’s refusal to insure homes with a history of termite or white ant infestation. Over sixteen thousand members of the Earth Lobby today camped outside the Insurance Arm building in protest over what they claim are human rights abuses by the monopoly. A spokesperson for the insurer said it was in no one’s interest to insure homes that were – quote – being eaten – end quote – without prejudice, and pointed out that over sixty-eight billion new dollars had been paid out in damage and liability claims arising from native or naturally occurring pests since the passing of the Ecological Interventions Act more than a decade ago. He added that it was the Earth Lobby which had first proposed the ban on pest control under the act, and that while it was nice for all creatures to enjoy their right to life, it was a fact that we were still the only life form doing any adjusting, and it came at a price. A spokesperson for the protesters said the issue could expect to go nowhere while such extremists were allowed to occupy senior government positions. Your media counsellor advises that insurance and the ecosystem share similarities and we should try harder to reconcile the two.

“The death toll arising from this year’s pre-Christmas sales has topped three hundred with the legal death this morning of a twenty-nine-year-old Aubrey Vale woman. The single mother of two had spent the past three-and-a-half weeks undergoing resuscitation at Funamori Medical Centre in Melbourne. A further forty-nine provisional deaths have resulted from this year’s sales. A spokesperson for the Miyaki-Myer shopping conglomerate has condemned the government’s handling of the shopping season, adding that personal protective appliance laws are still too lax. Your media counsellor advises that it’s safer to shop at home.”

The cables drawer is a snake pit; this is how long it takes to find anything. By the time I drag the old coaxials out and hook them up, the comm screen lights up and a lad appears, all bouncing and shiny: “Doctor Veegas?” 

I turn off the news. “Welcome to the proto lab.”

“Thanks for your time today, I hope it’s not an interruption,” he fumbles off screen. “Anything in particular you’d like me to ask you?”

“My golf handicap.”

“You have a golf course there?”

“A joke. I’m two hundred foot underground.”

The kid chuckles, nods. None too bright, this kid. Typical screen kid, floppy and huffly and smiley, leaning around his words like they’re opaque. Got the Japanese thing going, too: anime glasses and harlequin cashmere.

“A joke – I thought so.” His brow dips conspiratorially. “So let’s get started,” he reads from a hand-screen: “As the proto lab nears its fiftieth anniversary, the question on everyone’s lips: will the program ever be continued? And isn’t it boring for such highly qualified people to essentially babysit a machine?”

“The program is ongoing. We sent out test signals in the experiment’s early days, and we still scan old media and ambient recordings, as well as permanently monitoring certain frequencies to track transmissions down.”

“You mean track them down in the past?”

“And in the present. You can’t change the past without leaving traces. In fact some of those signatures haven’t even come back yet.”

“Maybe you could remind viewers what the program was all about? A few years ago it was being hailed as a genuine time machine.”

“Make no mistake: it’s a genuine time machine. Problem is, that’s not as simple as it sounds. Whenever you mention time travel people immediately think of blasting around history meeting ancestors, but of course the laws of physics, even quantum mechanics, won’t allow that. It would tear the fabric of space. What we can do, though, and have done, is send proton signatures back in time, carried inside sounds. We’re still bound by absolute laws; for instance, we can’t reach farther back than the day this core technology was invented. And going forward presents problems that take me a day to explain on paper. But in all practical respects this is a functioning time machine and we have altered history with it, subatomically at least.”

“Amazing. And why is the lab underground? There were rumours that the machine was too dangerous to use and too dangerous to ever dismantle, which is why the government still pays for someone to keep an eye on it.”

“Not at all. As I say, we’re still harvesting results. We’re underground to maintain the system’s comfort zone, having to do with magnetism and radio-sterility. Same reason we’re in outback Australia, away from the worst of interference.”

“So while we’re on rumours – ever sent people back in time?”

“No we haven’t.”

“Is it possible?”

“It’s theoretically possible but the complications are beyond our mathematics to compute. We each comprise a universe of particles and they all do their own thing. Some complications are curly, too; for instance certain particles behave differently if you watch them. Most of the lab’s technology has to do with making the capture zone think it’s not being observed. The universe values its privacy at that level.”

“Unbelievable. How do you possibly get around it?”

“The usual mixture of nuts, bolts and bright ideas. At the easy end of the scale we use blackout goggles, so that light won’t be reflected off the eye. The trickier stuff is a computer filtration system like a tax-haven account, using proxy after proxy to appear to ask independent questions and pass back any answers. We’re not completely sure it works: the universe is also savvy. And that’s one of the reasons we can’t risk trying to send matter – we simply don’t know if seeing the event would change it for better or worse; and we can’t know until we try. A big question.”

“A different world. So what’s an average day like?”

“Well, slow but intense in its own way. Monitoring the equipment, running it, checking for old signatures on their way back through the airwaves…”

“You still actually run the machine? Isn’t it scary?”

“Of course not. It’s in another part of the lab, you just hear it humming away in the background. It’s powered up now, for the next hour anyway.”

“And how do you listen to the past? Do sounds just burst into the room when one of your old experiments comes back, or how does that all work?”

“Sometimes they do. Remember, they’re not far away. Time in this case isn’t distance: everything we ever do stays close to where we did it. Also we can theoretically receive the information by any means; could even be word of mouth.”

“And why did the program stop doing those experiments?”

“Because they were never in our job description. As often happens in science, we weren’t looking for space-time discoveries when we set out. The machine was built to prove a different quantum experiment. You’ll laugh, it’s a measure of how little we knew at the time, but the first message we sent was an accident. The project leader was in conversation, and his words – ‘It is urgent that we wait’ – were transmitted over a number of frequencies one day back in 1983. We tracked down archival recordings from the year, even met an engineer who remembered hearing it live.”

“The mind boggles. So what was the original experiment?”

“The universe is made of particles; in order to try to follow them we devised a way to implant frequency signatures inside them. The experiment was to prove connections between them, entanglements. But something mysterious happened: we found that if you lined them up one on top of the other you could only see one signature. It means the signature had fixed to something beyond the protons, something stable, and only showed up when that proton passed over it. Which in turn means time is static. It’s a predictable surface, the universe is like an old TV screen, three-dimensional pixels lighting-up in series as energy passes over them. We and our particles travel over and through a grid like trams; time is measured by the intensity of energy brought to bear on any series of those pixels, hence time seems to speed up when we spend energy.”

An alarm sounds. The security screen shows a minibus disgorging neighbours and kids for the lab visit. “I’m sorry but I’ll have to leave it there, I’m being invaded,” I say.

“Not literally I hope,” laughs the lad.

“Yes, literally.” I buzz the lift open and watch the small throng climb in.

“Well, plenty of food for thought there. Thanks for dispelling the myths and letting us into the weird and wonderful world of time!”

“Any time,” I say without irony. I wave like an astronaut and slide out of camera range on my chair, scrambling for souvenir badges in a locker beside the console.

As the group passes through the airlock I see that not as many have made it as I had hoped. Little Metz is here at least, plus my wife, our rug rats, and the Cavetts from the corner. I pause for more, but only the minibus driver ambles in.

“Welcome, can you switch off all devices please?” I touch Metz’s hand, lifting it to the console to orient him. “Hi Cload, Mary. Is that all of you? What about the Greenliffs?”

Cload Cavett shuffles in, eyes up as if quoting a roofing job. “The Greenliffs have a restraining order on the Mackays, so it was them or Metz. I’m glad it was Metz.”

“And the Sayers?”

“We’ve got an order out on them, unfortunately.”

“Unfortunately?” Mary pauses to let her bulk stop wobbling around her. “Bloody right we’ve got an order on them, after what they did?”

“Well, we’re here now.” Hirana sweeps up our kids and pokes them towards the complicated end of the room, the one with the blinking lights. Good decoying skills, she’s always been good at pointing things the right way.

“The tape!” my boy scampers to the cassette deck.

“Not now. We’ll do that together after the tour.” I try to herd everyone else to a starting point, Mary Cavett muttering oaths about the Greenliffs beside me. By the time Hirana joins me in a swirl of perfume and we settle Mary down – whose huffing and grumbling are so out of place in the lab that I actually stop to watch her for a moment, reminding myself that humanity is, after all, what science is about – I realise, turning around, that Metz has gone missing. “Metz?” I call.

“Metz!” shouts Cload. “Don’t make me wish we’d brought the Mackays!”

There’s a faint scuffling up the corridor. The bunker’s ambient hum grows louder. “Metz!” I run to the machine room, corridor lights pulsing overhead. The machine room door is ajar, darkness spills out with a smell of cool ozone. I burst through it, throwing on the infra-red light and scanning the space for movement. No time to grab blackout goggles. I spot him in a second, trawling along the main console, fingers running over the controls for guidance. “Metz! Stop there – don’t move!” I dive into the zone.

The sound of Hirana scolding the kids filters down the corridor like a thread of lazy smoke. Kids giggle, the cassette deck clunks, and after a moment a rich old voice flows out of the speakers, a wistful, shaky voice.

It grows and resonates inside my head:

“December eighteenth: I’ve discovered that our passage through time sets up a Doppler effect. Bits of now taste different later, their tone shifts as time blasts over them. It feels subversive to imagine that our plans for the future may, when they come to pass, twist and grow inappropriate in ways we could not have foreseen. Only bones of good intent might remain. Today our vision is dynamic and righteous. Tomorrow it’s in place. The day after, it’s out of sight. The day after that it has collided with someone else’s plan, and from that debris come next week’s ideas.

“So grows culture’s momentum as we fly through space and time, pendulous fates infringing and being infringed upon in turn, endlessly, on and on. So we flail and twist and turn, innocents and ignorants, pulling from an oven our mind’s-eye’s pie to find its filling has rotted before the crust is brown.

“Still we wolf it down. It’s all there is.

“Nameless sinewed nuggets of irrelevance, out of control. A gravied sustenance that kills us and without which we would die.

“And all for simple want of tomorrow’s news. Would we so eagerly rewrite our parts in history if tomorrow were ours to grasp – or do we ply the waters of an endless past?”

I open my eyes. Everything is still here. I’m still here.

I’m still here.

A nurse steps in: “Oh, now you’ve upset yourself. Come on out with the others, everyone’s here today – it’s visiting day.”

“I’m making a recording, go away.”

“Now, now. Do you need changing?”

“This is very important.”

“Yes, it’s been important for all the time you’ve been here, and I don’t know for how long before that. You’ve worn out that tape recorder. Here: do you mind? Let’s get you spruced up a bit. Do you want the telly on? I’ll put the telly on while we sort you out. Have you done medication already? Give me that.”

The television crackles on:

“A prominent environmental group has warned that pesticides used to rid homes of common termite and white ant infestation may be having a far more detrimental effect on the environment than had previously been thought. A spokesman for the Green Earth Conference has said incalculable damage could result from commonly used pest-control programs, and that eradication of certain pests could open the way for greater ecological problems down the line. Only by preserving the whole ecological spectrum, the spokesman added, could man guarantee the future health of the environment.

“Three high schools are to take part in an unusual experiment during which students are to wear identical overalls in an attempt to measure gender bias in the absence of external cues. Professors from Monash University will conduct the experiment using normal high schools as controls. Speaking for one of the schools involved, headmaster Glen Harris said he expects the experiment to be a good introduction for students to the social sciences, and welcomed the co-operative effort with Monash.

“Shopping centres around the country continue to draw flak for their handling of the shopping season, in which one woman required first aid after being caught in the crush. The stores in question have vowed to make 1984 a better year for shoppers. In other news, a nuclear research centre has announced it may have discovered a new subatomic particle. A spokesman for the centre says he is cautiously optimistic that the find will provide a new insight into the origins of life and possibly the universe itself. The mystery particle was first sighted during underground testing…”

I finally reach the television plug and pull it from the wall. 

“Mr Veegas, settle down! You’ve got yourself into a state.”

“I’m in the middle of something important! Give it back!”

When the machine comes back I slam the Play and Record buttons down and snatch it to my mouth as if it’s the last thing I’ll do:

“It’s all the same in the end: we spend the rinds of our time on the past, walk backwards and unseeing into our futures, even then unable to find in our wake any semblance of the vision once held…”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake. Why do it if it makes you like this?”

“If I survive beyond the birth of your mother I’ll try my best to entrust these, perhaps by then impotent thoughts to your bloodline, and just maybe some knowledge or comfort can soak through the fabric of lifetimes I’ve so ungraciously torn. Know this: I’ve found no answer save that the question is unaskable. All you must know as you hear this is that I’m but a second away in time – and with you always.”

“Come on now, it’s ridiculous, you’re a mess. Give me that. I’m sending for more medication. It’s just not right. And on visiting day!”

I track the Doppler shift of her voice moving past me to the door, then fading under birdsong through the window as she chirps down the linoleum hall in her nurse’s shoes:

“Old Mr Cavett’s here, the Greenliffs even said they’d drop by. I mean, what a day to break down! Can’t have that, can’t be having that.”

A sonic boom suddenly rattles the doors and windows, rustles the leaves of pot plants, sears through the air all around; and in its wake, a thin disembodied voice:

“It is urgent that we wait…”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2015 as "Dead-end jobs".

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DBC Pierre
is the Booker Prize-winning author of Vernon God Little.

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