Enjoy this reprint of the title story from Tim Maughan’s short story collection Paintwork, a collection which also contains the BSFA Award nominated “Havana Augmented.” His collection comes highly recommended by Cory Doctorow and Ken MacLeod. His short story “Limited Edition” has been shortlisted for the 2012 BSFA Award.
“Paintwork” is a near-futuristic story of a virtual-reality graffiti artist specializing in defacing and reprogramming QR codes who is confronted with a series of impossibly fast takedowns of his latest series. He must find the artist who is dissing his works while struggling to face the validity of their critiques.
3Cube’s feet hurt. His limited edition Eugene Sureshot Nikes are two sizes too small for him, in order to try and fool the gait-tracking software. It is an old writer trick, one that 4Clover had taught him before he got sent down. Advice from a jailed writer. To be fair though it wasn’t the gait-trackers, face-clockers or even the UAVs that got 4Clover in the end. The word on the timelines had said it was a Serbian zombie-swarm hired by an irate art critic that had tracked him down and smeared his co-ordinates all across the Crime and ASB wikis. Right in the middle of a bombing too. Caught red-handed; stencil in one hand, beetle juice in the other.
3Cube doesn’t recall 4Clover ever saying anything about the shoes splitting. Stretched too far by his ill-fitting feet, he knows the Nikes are split, because he can feel the Bristol drizzle soaking up into his socks. He can hear the drizzle too, taptaptaptaptap on the hood of his Adidas stormsuit. The Adidas isn’t too small at least, in fact it’s over-sized and saggy in the decades-old writers’ style, the one-piece’s crotch hanging somewhere between thighs and knees. 3Cube likes the Adidas; it’s relatively new, unworn. The thermostat still works, for a start; the vents still opening just in time to stop him from getting too clammy. Plus he likes the classic three-stripe pattern that runs down the arms and legs. It feels like a badge of writers’ honour, that stretches back decades. Tradition, even. It feels like a uniform.
Except after tonight he won’t be able to wear it again for at least two months. Another 4Clover trick.
3Cube waits, the 3 a.m. drizzle hanging in the air around him. The light from the occasional passing car on the A4 behind picks up the raindrops for an instant, giving the whole scene more depth. 3Cube thinks about depth a lot. Depth, perspective. How to force and manipulate both. It is what he is best known for, second to being the best QR Code writer in South Bristol.
Take the billboard in front of him right now, for example. It is meticulous, unblemished. The red and white of its generic Coca-Cola design seems to shimmer under its protective nano-gloss. All around it though is chaos; every inch of wall is covered in QR Codes—some on stickers, some stencilled—until their matrix of barcodes has merged together to produce a disorientating mess of black and white pixels, like an ancient building’s prized mosaic floor ripped apart by tectonic shifts. 3Cube resists focussing on any single one, instead seeing them as a single, sprawling mass. He doesn’t want to trigger a bombing or a throwup, and anyway he put most of them there. He knows where the QR Codes lead—the few that aren’t long dead links, at least—and he has no interest in his view being filled with flat flyers for club nights and illicit dark-nets. That’s his business, his day job; bombing the streets with digital flyposters, physical links to unreal places. Real paint, paper, glue and beetle juice giving birth to non-existent pixels fleetingly projected onto consenting retinas.
But tonight isn’t about the day job. Tonight is about the art.
3Cube waits, knowing soon the signal will come from Tera, his unseen guardian angel. Unseen and never met, he knows he can trust Tera, that somewhere hidden deep in the damp greyness of Bristol’s collapsing architecture he sits with the CopWatch and Antisocial Behaviour wikis open in front of him, his army of spiders monitoring the data and voice bursts. Between the disgruntled pensioners posting the precise loitering patterns of bored teenagers to the legit wikis, and the dealers and look-outs reporting squad car and UAV movements to the illegal ones, he is putting together a real-time model of police activity across South Bristol. 3Cube trusts him not just because Tera is one of the best, but also because the unseen hacker was once a writer himself, and understands how unfortunate it would be for one of those occasional passing cars to light the raindrops in alternating blue and red at just the wrong moment.
He shudders, thinking of 4Clover again. Caught red-handed, right in the middle of a bombing, stencil in one hand, beetle juice in the other.
So he waits for Tera’s signal before moving, and as he does he lets his eyes fall onto the billboard’s own QR Code, a thirty centimetre square black and white grid, shimmering under the protective nano-gloss. Untouched, unblemished. He focusses on it, and double-blinks acceptance.
The surface of the billboard starts to shimmer and flex. Ripples start to emanate from it’s centre as a huge can of Coke emerges from it’s surface, ring-pull end first. It reminds 3Cube of a tube train at first, but then it starts to buck and move, and he realises it’s meant to be a rodeo horse. The big clue is the Chinese cowgirl sat astride it, undoubtedly some vurt star 3Cube doesn’t recognise, her outfit a focus group-assembled mess of Old West Americana and Asian sci-fi lingerie.
Stars and brightly-lit bubbles fill the air around 3Cube, blocking out the drizzle, while streaks of rainbow light encircle him like a psychedelic lasso. Gently the cowgirl leans forward towards him, her smile simultaneously enchanting and disturbingly vacant, the stars and bubbles reflected in her deep brown eyes. She reaches out an impossibly long and elegant siren’s arm, and with a perfectly tanned hand strokes the side of 3Cube’s face so gently that for a second he can almost feel her.
Then he rips the spex from his face, and she is gone. There is nothing left except for the cold air, the drizzle, the generic red and white Coca-Cola branding.
Just as swiftly, he puts his spex back on; impatient that he might miss Tera’s cue. Still the ad in front of him is passive, the girl trapped behind the wall of nano-gloss and beetle juice, waiting for his gaze to fall once again on the QR code. He resists, and waits.
Something chimes behind his left ear, and in the top right of his periphery an icon appears. A cartoon head—goatee beard, baseball cap, lit cigar—winks at him, as a hand appears next to it, thumb raised.
Time to move.
Tera doesn’t tell him how long he’s got, but 3Cube knows not to fuck around. He drops to one knee on the damp pavement, simultaneously whipping his backpack around to his front. In a series of rehearsed moves his left hand goes into the pack, initially grabbing and unrolling the first stencil. It’s of an empty square, perfectly cut to the same size as the billboard’s QR code. Then his other hand goes back in the bag, and out comes the aerosol of white beetle juice. His left hand struggles to hold the stencil against the impossibly frictionless nano-gloss surface—the drizzle isn’t helping—while the right shakes the can and then directs the spray onto the stencil. Quickly the beetle juice, the only thing 3Cube knows of that will actually stick to the nano-gloss, starts to obliterate the QR code until only a perfectly-formed white square is left.
Then both hands are back in his bag. First out is the second stencil, followed by the aerosol of black beetle juice. The stencil, a seemingly random mess of smaller software-calculated squares, had taken him hours to cut out precisely, and he checks its orientation three times before filling it with black. As the two colours merge the beetle juice fumes fill his nostrils, and 3Cube curses himself for forgetting to bring a facemask; the chemicals burning his sinuses as he imagines the paint’s tiny machines flooding into the blood vessels in his nose. The thought of it, even though he knows he’s probably overreacting, creeps him out to the point of near panic.
He momentarily closes his eyes and focusses again. Gently he peels away the second stencil, and allows himself a little smile—the resulting QR code looks perfect, indistinguishable from the billboard’s own at first glance. And one glance is all it takes.
3Cube makes sure everything is back in his pack and it’s zipped up tight before rising to his feet again. He steps back and blinks acceptance at the freshly painted mass of black and white pixels.
Again the surface of the billboard starts to shimmer and flex, but instead of a gentle ripple the centre of the board blows out backwards, as though someone has punched a hole through a huge sheet of paper. Torn shards billow gently in the wind, and through this ragged portal 3Cube can see the skyline of Bristol, as though he’s looking through the billboard, across the sea of warehouses and industrial units towards the seventy year old towers of the Barton Hill Estate that he calls home. 3Cube allows himself another smile It’s the first time he’s been able to test the depth and perspective he painstakingly calculated from Google Maps and Street View. It looks perfect, almost photorealistic.
But the illusion doesn’t stay set for long. After precisely two seconds the sun starts to burst out from the dark clouds above the towers, banishing the drizzle and turning the Bristol night sky to day. The view turns from monochrome to electric, vivid colour; and where the sunlight—so warm-looking he can almost feel it—hits the structures below they start to transform, huge exotic-looking plants and flowers erupting from the post-war industrial landscape, until the whole scene has become fields of organic, inviting nature. Behind them the towers are warping, becoming more colourful too, as their geometry takes on a thick, felt-pen-scribbled style. The whole thing looks like a child’s drawing brought to vivid, three-dimensional life.
3Cube’s smile spreads into a satisfied grin.
Something buzzes angrily behind his left ear, and in the top right of his periphery the icon turns red. The cartoon head looks worried, and the hand next to it flips upside down, thumb pointing to the ground.
Time to move.
3Cube thumbs off the cheap IKEA mirror in his mum’s bathroom as he brushes his teeth. He doesn’t want to see any of his timelines, or any of the street-art feeds that the mirror so thoughtfully serves up for him whenever it recognises his face. Instead he is left gazing at a smudged thumbprint pressed in toothpaste and saliva, and his own slightly gaunt face. He looks tired. But then he’s hardly slept, buzzing too much from the excitement.
He is the same every time he drops a major piece. Lying in bed waiting for dawn, and then forcing himself to wait that hour or so longer until the commuter traffic has kicked in. He avoids the feeds and online chatter until he’s gone and seen it himself; the looks on the passers-by as they see it for the first time. This is street art and his real audience is the street: the commuters and the office girls, the tramps and the scruffy school kids. If all he wanted was the views of the grab-hipsters and the art bloggers then he could just dump the URL online and let them all pile in. It will happen soon enough anyway, in fact it’s probably already started—it only takes one early morning wanderer, starting an early shift or skulking back from a club, to have grabbed it for their timeline for it to be all over the art-wikis. Which is why 3Cube always maintains radio silence until he’s gone down and seen it himself. He’ll take a first hand wry smile or a confused glance over the re-posted echoes of a gushing thousand-word review or a sarcastic hundred and forty-character tweet any time. He leans to spit down the sink, and catches sight of himself in the mirror again. His reflection is already looking more awake, grinning back at him with a wry smile.
Time to move.
It is 8.37 am on a Wednesday morning when the bus dumps 3Cube into the mass of commuters emptying out of Temple Meads Station. He’s wearing a different storm suit, a red and white Puma number, and this morning his matching trainers actually fit his feet.
As he crosses the bridge onto the A4 his heart starts to thump in his chest, his mouth dry with anticipation. His spex are still in his pocket, but he doesn’t need the timelines to tell him how his burn has been received.
There’s a small group—maybe eight or nine people that he can see from this distance—stood around the billboard, gazing at it. Actually stood there. Not passing it, not glancing at it: actually stood looking at it. An audience of people who have stopped of their own accord to admire it. Like it was an actual piece of art.
He stops in his tracks observing the scene, giddy with satisfaction and relief. There are seven people now—a couple have drifted away—but as he watches another stops. A young woman, maybe twenty one years old. Unlike the rest of the group, which looks to be mainly made up of students or graf-heads drawn down to check out the timeline buzz, she’s dressed in thigh-high transparent boots that stop just an inch short of a smartly tailored but cheap looking storm jacket. Standard office wear this season, and 3Cube guesses she probably works for one of the ad-hoc trend speculation firms based in Temple Quay. A short-term temp with no long term plans, and more interest in the Shanghai gossip timelines than the memetic trend ones she’s paid to blankly follow for eight hours a day.
Watching her, 3Cube feels another victorious relief flood over him. One Bristol office-girl, stopped in the street to admire his work, is worth a terabit of global timeline-chatter bandwidth to him; it proves he can do it, push his work to the next level, from outside his follower-sphere and across to the mainstream. Slowly he starts to move closer to her, watching her face as she flicks a windblown strand of hair away from her scarlet painted lips, and gently pushes her spex up onto her forehead so she can take a better look.
Gently pushes her spex up onto her forehead so she can take a better look.
3Cube stops dead in his tracks again, glancing quickly at the rest the small crowd, each one in turn. None of them are wearing spex.
From where he’s standing he’s at a right angle to the actual billboard, and can’t see the ad or his QR code. Instinctively he darts across the road, oblivious to the angry beeps of the rush-hour traffic, so he can get a clear view.
It looks like a hole has blown through the billboard, revealing the vista behind. The same vista he had so meticulously created, but with all the vibrancy gone. All the colour. The blue sky is now the purest of pitch black, the warm sun replaced by a rain of fin-tailed bombs, each one emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo. Fizzy-drink can bombs, raining down onto the decaying, crumbling towers of Barton Hill that now look somehow both detailed and faded, like an image from an old school textbook that’s been photocopied one too many times. Along their base runs a field of flowers, shrivelled and dying, falling away into nothing but black and white splatter against the corporate red background, as if the impervious nano-gloss has been burned and eaten away by some hazardous, industrial acid. It looks like someone has taken 3Cube’s piece and sucked all the naïve positivity and rebellion out of it, replacing it with bold, stark anger and nihilism. It is also—perhaps most strikingly—firmly, proudly two-dimensional.
Someone has bombed the whole billboard, with actual paint.
Well, with beetle juice, of course. And lots of it. In the only two, utterly unmixable, colours the street has ever seen. It’s a huge piece, chaotic yet precisely realised. And it’s a clear diss at his work too; a blatant, insulting go-over. It’s a declaration of war. From whom he can’t yet tell; there’s a signature, but it’s written in indecipherable wild-style hieroglyphs.
Right across his perfectly crafted, and now so effectively destroyed, QR code.
3Cube is frozen to the spot, numb, when a dirty looking minivan with an animated JCDecaux logo on its side pulls up to the kerb in front of him. He knows the logo all too well—every writer does—because it sits below every billboard in the city. Out of the driver’s seat struggles a fat little balding man in a hi-vis storm suit, day-glo orange with scruffy silver details. He mutters under his breath as he walks over to stand next to 3Cube. Facing the billboard he pulls goggles down over his eyes as he raises an input-gloved hand to waist height and starts to air-type.
Usernames and passwords, 3Cube guesses. He’s seen this happen before, too many times. Every time, in fact. From over the lip of the top of the billboard a nightmarish shape appears, a mess of too many insect limbs and a vibrating plastic carapace. The billboard’s beetle, awakened from its secure nest. Slowly, but disturbingly naturally, the little robot works its way down the expanse of nano-gloss, on feet somehow capable of clinging to the frictionless surface. 3Cube expects it to stop as it reaches the paintwork, but of course it keeps on going. On a day like today, he thinks, there can be only one thing it is interested in, as it continues its horrific crawling descent to where his already near-obliterated QR code sits.
It waits for a second, until the little man from JCDecaux air-types some more commands. And then, with the sort of machine precision that reminds him he isn’t watching an insect or another artist, it starts to spray short bursts of beetle juice from where its mandibles should be, white and black, gradually recreating the original ad’s QR code.
His work is gone. The signature is gone. But the anonymous signatory’s art still remains, as bold and stark as ever.
As if to answer his train of thought, the little orange and silver man speaks.
“I can’t blat the whole thing out, not enough juice left. Plus it’d take fucking hours.” he says. “I don’t know, people round here just don’t care, do they? Don’t understand money, that’s the thing. Probably because they never bloody seen any, to be fair. But they don’t understand. Every time they do something like this they’re costing someone money.”
He sighs and looks back at the billboard, the beetle still labouring away like a mutated, organic inkjet printer. “I dunno, I see a lot of shit sprayed up around here. Most of it nonsense or AR links. But don’t see much like this. Looks a bit dated to me…but…” He trails off, and looks back at 3Cube. “You look like you know about this stuff—is that any good?”
“Yeah.” Says 3Cube, his mouth dry. “Yeah, it is.”
3Cube hurls a mug right through Tera’s avatar’s face, splattering cold tea over the faded Leo Kim poster above his bed.
“Just calm the fuck down man.” the avi says, peering out at him from under its cartoon baseball cap as it hovers cross-legged in the corner of his room. “I know what you must be thinking, but I swear-down it’s fuck-all to do with me.”
“Bullshit.” 3Cube hollers back at him, ignoring his mum’s shouts from the next room to keep the noise down. “You set up the hosting for my burn, you knew exactly where I was going to drop it, you were watching the feeds. Who the fuck else could it have been?”
“I dunno ‘Cube, all I can say is—”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m fucking retarded. Don’t fucking lie to me. That paint-over is a direct fucking diss—”
“That doesn’t prove anything—” Tera is cut short by an ashtray sailing through his forehead.
“FUCK YOU!” screams 3Cube. “Fuck you! No one had seen my burn apart from you!”
“Just calm the fuck down ‘Cube man! Shut the fuck up and think about this!” Tera’s avi scratches its head through its non-existent baseball cap. “Have you even checked the timelines yet? For all you know someone might have walked past five minutes after you’d finished and posted it all across the fucking net, and it’d be sitting there just waiting for someone to take a pop.”
“Nah.” 3Cube replies, doubtful but starting to mellow. “They would have had to have got their shit together too quickly. Too much of a fucking coincidence.”
“Is it though?” Tera protests. “Is it really? Think about it. How many haters you got following you man? How many people biting on your style? How many wannabe writers with alerts set up to track your every move, so they can be the first person to take a shot at the legendary 3Cube?”
“Really fam, think about it. There’s a lot of petty fuckers out there, you know that better than me.”
He has a point, but 3Cube still isn’t convinced.
“Look, I can see you’re vexed,” the avi continues, “But I swear to you I had fuck all to do with this. And I can prove it. Just come visit me at my place, and I’ll prove to you I didn’t do it. That it couldn’t have been me.”
“Serious?” 3Cube is surprised. Hackers like Tera never meet anyone they work with in person, let alone casually invite them round to their mysterious top-secret lairs.
A spinning sphere blinks into existence in the top right corner of 3Cube’s view, a Google Maps link.
“Serious.” replies Tera, his avatar trying its hip-hop cartoon best to portray sincerity. “Come over now, we’ll get all this sorted. I promise you.”
3Cube vaguely remembers a teacher at his school explaining the history of Bristol harbour to a restless class, about how when it was built it had been a wonder of modern engineering. Two hundred years later it was practically deserted, until the city decided to revive it, encouraging businesses and developers to come convert the decaying sheds and warehouses into bars, art centres and luxury flats.
It had worked out for a while, and then—just after 3Cube had been born—the economy had got bad, and no one could afford to eat in the fancy restaurants, let alone live in the even fancier apartments. His teacher had said that most of the people that had lived here had been rich students from the Far East and India, but when the government had decided the universities were a waste of money they’d mainly stopped coming. As a result, most of them had slowly become squats and communes for hippysters, guild members and junkies. Not long after that the droughts and famines had hit North Africa hard, and for the first time in over a century the harbour was filled with boats again, spilling their cargoes of hungry refugees out into the empty buildings.
Which was why for a long while, when 3Cube was still a kid, he was too scared to come down here. The adults told you not to for a start, as “those foreigners were so hungry they might put you in a pot.” For a year or two it had even been fenced off while everyone inside had been “processed,” and no-one could get in or out without having their retinas scanned by the bouncers on the gates. Then there had been some protests and some riots, and they’d torn down the fences, and everything had changed again—the refugees and the hippysters had started to re-open the bars and clubs, and put on raves and parties in the warehouses. Suddenly instead of it being a place 3Cube and his friends were scared of it was somewhere they obsessed over, a world of loud music and bright lights shimmering on the water, of crowded walkways and smiling, shouting people—an escape from the oppressive, greying towers of the estates they awoke to every day.
But today 3Cube can feel a little of that child’s fear return. It is barely 11 am but already the harbour side is busy with bodies, the smell of African spices and fried meats from the food stalls filling the air. He’s not eaten properly today, but he’s not even hungry. He’s too angry, and uncomfortable about Tera asking him to come here to meet him. His head is full of those net myths about hackers downloading genome maps and building custom viruses to infect people that piss them off, and even though he knows it’s probably all bullshit he’s decided he’s not going to eat or drink anything until he’s got home and had a shower.
He’s following a trail of indigo footprints floating an inch above the pavement, put there by his spex based on what Google Maps thinks is the best route. He pauses as the crowds thin out and he sees the footprints disappear into the entrance hall of some squats that were once luxury executive apartments, but now ooze bass rumbles and the smell of stewing genetically modified, harbour-grown seaweed. Maybe Tera gave him a fake link. Maybe he hacked Google Maps, or his spex. Maybe he’s about to walk into a Libyan chem factory full of angry blaze-heads. Or maybe he’s just being paranoid.
He adjusts the collar on his stormsuit and glances behind him, trying to shake off the fear, before following the footprints again.
Twenty minutes later 3Cube is sitting in Tera’s small room, quietly sipping on a mug of strong tea, any fears of custom-built viruses completely forgotten.
“So,” the hacker says to him, grinning curiously, “You’re convinced it couldn’t have been me now, yeah?”
“Yeah. Of course.” 3Cube keeps glancing around the room, his eyes constantly re-scanning the walls that are covered with photos and posters, club flyers and fraying art prints. Despite how much there is, he feels like he’s looked at everything a hundred times already, his eyes desperate to find something new.
In reality, they’re just desperate to avoid looking at Tera. And those legs.
“What’s the matter?” says Tera, tapping the arm of his wheelchair with his mug like he’s noticed, “This thing freaking you out?”
“No, no. Of course not.”
“Not seen one before?”
“No, of course I have… just, y’know. Not that often.”
The thirty-something hacker grins again. For only the second time since he’s arrived 3Cube lets himself look at him properly, and instantly feels guilty for feeling awkward. Tera looks uncannily like his avatar, right down to the baseball cap and goatee. The only major differences are he’s carrying a few extra pounds—but then who doesn’t make their avi a bit slimmer?—and those legs. The completely lifeless, unmoving, awkwardly-angled legs.
“Can’t you get them fixed?”
“In theory, yeah. My spinal cord was severed near the base, so a few months of stem-cell insertion and stimulation and it should re-grow itself.” Tera shrugs. “Apparently I’m on a waiting list. Have been for at least 12 years now. NHS. Only alternative is to go private, but you wouldn’t believe how much that costs. We have the technology, if you have the money. Viva la singularity.”
Tera suddenly laughs loudly at this last bit, and 3Cube joins in, even though he doesn’t understand it. Must be some kind of hacker joke.
Tera sighs. “I tried one of those exoskeletons for a while, you know like the army vets get? I dunno. It was uncomfortable. Itchy and it got smelly. Needed fucking charging every few hours. Plus… I dunno. They’re a pain to get in and out of. Especially if you’re on your own, y’know? So I actually feel more independent in this thing.”
3Cube is flushed with guilt again. “I’m sorry man. Really, I—”
“Hey, don’t worry about it. I’m not. It’s been 12 years, I’ve got used to it.”
Tera had told him the story when he’d first arrived. The condensed life story.
At school Tera had loved drawing, sketching, painting. His art teacher heaped praise upon him on a weekly basis, telling him if he worked hard on improving his skill he would be able to walk into the best art schools the nation had to offer, and from there wherever he wanted his career to take him. And work hard he did, devoting every spare moment to honing his talents. His single mum was ecstatic, telling all her friends, and sticking his pictures on the fridge and joking about how she was going to sell them for millions when he was famous.
At around the age of fifteen, like so many kids in Bristol, Terra became absorbed into the city’s mesh of street culture. It was the music that caught him first, then the clothes and the attitude, but one thing above all became the centre of his focus: graffiti. He found himself poring over websites and wikis, studying the colourful LA slum murals and bold New York Subway burns until he knew every airbrush stroke. He snuck away on Saturdays with his mum’s camera to hunt around Bristol for the latest pieces he’d read about online, or to gaze at the few, still-remaining Banksy works. He practised in his mum’s garage, on old bits of corrugated cardboard, until he was confident enough. And then he took it out on the streets.
Over the course of about two years, Tera’s pieces started to spring up all over the city, from small tags on bus stops to large, complex works under the ring road’s various flyovers. He skulked around the city in the early hours, darting under robotic surveillance cameras with a ninja-like bandanna over his face and a clanking knapsack full of car-repair spray cans on his back, his hands stained with multicoloured rainbows. He was building himself a fierce rep, not just with the city’s graf scene, but also its law enforcement agencies. But even that wasn’t enough. His passion was bordering on obsession, and he had to try and push it further. He started heading up to London, not just to take pictures, but to paint them.
One night, after he’d been hanging out there for a few months, he was invited to a party in a disused tube station somewhere in the East End. He was wary at first, but the invite itself was a sign that his London rep was building, and he couldn’t resist showing his face. When he got there he couldn’t believe he’d thought about not going. They had a generator down there, for the lights and the sick sound system that was blaring out hip-hop and dubstep. And of course there was the graffiti. There were about five major pieces in progress, taking shape in front of his eyes over the course of the night, plus people were just spraying shit and tagging anywhere they wanted, chilling and smoking and trading tips. That night he put faces to some of the names whose work he’d admired for years, and they talked graf to him like he was their equal. For once he felt like he had somewhere he was meant to be.
And then the police turned up. Quietly at first. They just seemed to walk in. Everyone just stared at them for a few seconds before someone cut the power, and the lights and beats were replaced by the chaos of flashing torches and barking dogs. Everyone started running, in every direction. In the darkness Tera found himself following some guy he’d been chatting to down into the tunnel, where it was even darker and wet, with rats writhing in the darkness. Torch lights and angry shouts followed them, drowned out only by the thunder of tube trains that sounded far too close and the thumping of Tera’s own heart. He fell and tore his jeans, but got up and ran again. Someone else fell but didn’t make it up, and then the shouts and lights were further behind; and he paused, exhausted, lying on his front, ready to surrender; until everything lit up like daytime and he felt the wheels of the tube train slice through his back.
He was in hospital for over six weeks, bored and unable to move. It was one of those hospitals in London—an ancient building that stank of sorrow and chemicals—because they couldn’t move him to Bristol safely. Which meant his mum, between working and looking after his kid brother, couldn’t get up to see him very often. When she did she tried to smile and put on a brave face, but really Tera could see she was just tired and disappointed.
The day he came home she couldn’t make it, so they put him in the back of an ambulance on his own, and he sat there for the two hour drive in total silence. When the doors were finally opened and he could see daylight again they were parked outside his mum’s place. She was nowhere to be seen. Instead the police were there, on his doorstep, waiting for him.
They were taking every single piece of his art that was in the house, and tossing it into the back of a van. He tried to tell them that some of it was his A-level Art coursework, but they ignored him, telling him it was nothing more than evidence. Exhausted, he wheeled himself into the kitchen, where his distraught mum and confused brother sat sobbing. They had even taken the pictures from the fridge. In fact, they had taken every single piece of paper they even suspected of bearing his handwriting. He didn’t even hear them when they finally arrested him, he just stared, in silent shock, at his mum’s crumpled, destroyed face as she cried, and let them push him out to the van.
It turned out it had all been an elaborate sting operation; the party organised by a graf artist that had got into a little trouble himself and had turned grass in response. He’d not only given up everyone’s name, but also helpfully arranged an occasion where they could all be found under the same roof.
Tera was charged with over two hundred counts of wanton and deliberate vandalism, and got a two grand fine and a month of community service. His mum didn’t talk to him for a further six. He never got any of his work back. Which of course meant he would have failed his Art A-level, if he hadn’t already dropped out of college. In fact, he told 3Cube, he would never so much as touch a pencil again, as the thought of doing so seemed alien to him now, doing nothing but flood his mind with images of his mum and brother, still crying at the kitchen table.
“So what you gonna do now?” asks Tera, his eyes darting about looking at the multitude of windows that surround him. Wiki pages, video streams, timelines, pages of code and what look like complex, ever evolving flow charts. 3Cube has never shared the workspace of a proper hacker before, and he feels kind of privileged, even if he doesn’t understand half of what is going on.
“What am I gonna do? I’m gonna drop the next piece tonight. What else can I do?”
Tera momentarily turns away from the translucent, floating walls of data to look 3Cube in the eyes. “Really?”
“Yeah, really. It’s a three-night trilogy. I thought about re-dropping the first piece, but fuck it. No looking back.”
“Fair enough. I just wondered if you were going to try and get to the bottom of who is fucking with you first.” He turns back to the timelines and blogs. “Not that I’ve managed to find anything out. There’s a lot of hype over that burn, but no clues or anyone taking credit. And that signature… I’ve had a search running all morning, and nothing.”
“Don’t worry about it, man.” 3Cube gets up to leave. “You just make sure the hosting and everything is ready for tonight. Leave our little griefer friend to me. I’ve got a few ideas.”
3Cube can see the sound waves. They emanate from the speaker stacks in each corner of the room like translucent winds, and as they pass through the crowd they move hair and clothing like ripples across a cornfield. These ones are synced to the kick drum, a steady 4/4 beat made visible through fake air distortion, but every so often they switch to following a melody or bass line, and everything becomes more chaotic. Sound waves clash and interfere in front of his eyes, and where they impact off the concrete pillars they throw clouds of dust and masonry out into the air, triggering the watching dancers to scream and whistle.
He works his way through the crowd, eyes scanning bodies and avatars, more often than not unable to work out the difference. A girl in front of him weaves and twists; and as he pauses to watch, her clothes mutate into chrome tentacles, before splitting and separating into smaller shapes, until her whole body is covered in a swarming, writhing mass of robotic worms. He has seen it all before, a slightly tweaked off-the-shelf plug-in, but something about it makes him feel uneasy. For a second he thinks he can see something moving on the floor, in the shadows between the dancers, billboard beetles with their plastic carapaces buzzing.
Unnerved, he moves on.
He follows the cold tingle of night air, and finds what he has been looking for. Artefackt is leaning against the wall of the abandoned office block, manifesting as a featureless, light-absorbing black silhouette, as though someone has ripped a man-shaped hole in the fabric of space.
3Cube leans next to him, and gazes out of the glassless window. “I see you’re still doing the Mr Mysterious thing.”
Artefackt turns a featureless face towards him. “And I see you’re still giving yourself way too much credit.”
3Cube laughs and shakes his head, staring out at the dimly-lit Bristol skyline. “Same old personality defects, huh Art? Good to see the fame hasn’t changed you.”
It’s a low blow, and 3Cube knows it. He and Artefackt used to run together, tagging bus stops and flyovers when they were kids, even moving into AR stuff at the same time when spex became so affordable that everyone had a pair. But then they’d had a falling out; a minor turf war, and it had even come to blows. Physical ones.
Since then years had passed with them barely speaking, apart from the odd snipe online. Both their reputations had grown, but Artefackt had edged in front due to some favourable hype. The result had been a handful of installations and corporate commissions. Last summer Bristol City Council had even let him suspend a 200 ft high chrome octopus thing over College Green, each tentacle reflecting the surrounding city from a different era. It was a cool piece, even 3Cube had to admit.
But then Artefackt had taken it too far. Unable to resist the money he’d started doing corporate billboard pieces. He’d tried to keep it quiet at first, but that was pretty much impossible these days. The graf community was as hungry for gossip as it was fickle and elitist, and a fact like that couldn’t stay secret for long.
Designing corporate billboards was unspeakable within the writers’ community, a rejection of all its values. He’d had to disappear for a while, and not just behind his light-absorbing avatar. For a solid twenty seven hours—an eon in gossip-time—they’d called him a lot of things on the blogs and the timelines, sell-out being the most popular one, and probably the most civil.
“So that’s the formalities out of the way. You wanna tell me why you got me up here, ‘Cube?”
“Word is you’re getting back into 2D.”
Artefackt’s avatar lets out an emotionless chuckle. “Right. That’s the word is it? I’m getting back into 2D. This wouldn’t have anything to do with that piece of yours getting capped on the A4, would it?”
“I dunno Art. You tell me.”
“Ok. Yeah. I’ll tell you. You stuck up a painfully fucking clichéd toy, and someone came by and saw it for exactly what it was, and reckoned they could do a whole lot better. That sound ‘bout right to you, ‘Cube?”
“Yeah. Clichéd. Played out. You wanna know the truth? Yeah, I am getting back into 2D. 3D is dead. Augmented is over. It’s just fucking background noise. It’s just fucking TV and Twitter and all… this—” He waves a dismissive shadowy hand at the rave behind them. “It’s all this shit. Disposable, infinitely fucking copyable digital noise. Mass-produced and instantly forgotten. 3D is over.”
“Right. They teach you that at art college? Or did one of your advertising agency boyfriends tell you that? Maybe he ran a focus group on—”
“Fuck you ‘Cube. Seriously. I didn’t go over your little plastic landscape out there. I wouldn’t waste my fucking time tagging over your shit with a felt pen. But I’m glad someone fucking did. Your fucking style is a joke, man. It’s bullshit. Your little ‘glass-half-full’ pictures of Bristol… ‘Aw look at me, I can see the positivity in the chaos, I’ll show everyone the truth…’ Fuck you. You’ve got nothing. Nothing but adolescent fucking emotions and video game aesthetics.”
3Cube loses it. He lunges at Artefackt as if to punch him, but there is nothing to make contact with. Instead he falls through the avatar, and for a terrifying second all he knows is black nothingness and a mocking, reverberated laugh. And then he hits the floor and his spex fall from his face, and everything stops.
Artefackt is gone. The music stops. The sound waves disappear. The crowd vanishes, leaving just a group of ketamine-heads in one corner and a handful of dancers, shuffling in puddles of piss and vomit to a beat only they can hear.
Everything is gone, and instantly forgotten.
3Cube’s feet hurt. Drizzle. The thumbs-up from Tera’s icon. Another Coca-Cola billboard.
This one is on Feeder Road, much closer to Barton Hill than the last one. He moves quickly and efficiently. Stencils. Beetle juice. When he steps back to check everything has worked the billboard is blown through again, and there are the towers, already twisting and distorting. The two furthest over to his left fall to one side, one on top of the other, forming an open jaw, shards of masonry and broken glass becoming teeth. The ground beneath the remaining towers swells up, at first looking like a small hill, until it becomes clear it is a humped spine, the towers taking on the appearance of ancient fins. The whole estate has transformed into a massive dinosaur, built from buildings and cars and lampposts and the infinite detail of urban decay. As 3Cube watches, grinning, it turns to face him with its horrifying jaws open, and roars. A deafening roar, so load and fierce that he can almost feel its breath on his face, as the rest of the dying urban landscape transforms itself into thick, vibrant jungle.
An angry buzzing behind his ears, and Tera’s icon gives him the thumbs-down.
Time to move.
“You okay?” Tera asks. Looking at 3Cube’s crumpled face, it’s a pretty redundant question.
“Yeah. I’m fucking great.”
Tera turns back to the wall of floating windows. A bunch of them are showing timelines and blogs full of images of the paint-over on 3Cube’s latest piece; the towers of Barton Hill remodelled into the lifeless fossils of a long dead dinosaur, dead white bones being picked away at by black circling carrion. It’s morbid and full of futility, as if declaring with nihilistic glee that Bristol and its decades old street art movement were finally dead, but it’s hard not to be moved and impressed by it. Certainly most of the commentators and tweeters are.
“The first grabs starting coming in about 6.30am. So a few hours after you finished. Not that anyone would have bothered taking pics before that, it probably would have been too dark. But no-one walked past and grabbed… whoever in the process. Which is fucking annoying.”
“Yeah,” 3Cube says, unenthusiastically. “That’s what I don’t get. It’s a big piece. They would have needed a ladder or scaffold. Which means a van. It’s pretty exposed along there. They were fucking lucky.”
“I dunno. I dunno if luck has anything to do with it. You gotta assume they had someone watching the wikis and shit like I was. Plus you picked that board in the first place because it’s in a CCTV blind spot, and there’s fuck-all traffic down there at that time of the morning.”
“I guess. But… I dunno. It’s the scale of it, man. Look at it.” 3Cube throws a laser-style pointer onto one of the images with his finger, stretching it out until it’s almost a metre across, dominating the air in Tera’s little room. “It’s clearly a direct response to my piece, and there’s some elaborate fucking stencil work there. How the fuck did they get that together so quickly man? How the fuck do you explain that?”
“Whoa,” Tera raises his hands in protest “Lets not fucking go there again. I swear to you I don’t know—”
“Yeah. Yeah I know. It’s nothing to do with you. I believe you. I just don’t get it though. How they could have their shit together like that?”
Tera sighs. “Look, like I’ve said to you before on a hundred runs, this ad-hoc hosting I use isn’t perfect. By definition the AR files have to be publicly available, you know that. Now I don’t put ‘em up till as late as possible, but that’s like an hour before the drop, just to avoid DNS issues. And I don’t advertise them, naturally. But if people wanted to find them—were really determined to do it—they could. There’s some crazy shit you can do with trawl agents these days. You’d be surprised.
“As for the stencils…you cut all yours by hand right? Takes you fucking hours? Kids these days are doing them with fucking 3D printers and fabbers and shit. Just knock up a design at home and the printer churns out the stencil for you, all pre-cut.”
“Yeah. I guess you’re right.” 3Cube feigns appeasement, but in reality what Tera is saying is making him even more uncomfortable. It’s partly because he’s still not sure if he can trust him, but largely because it chimes perfectly with what Artefackt had said to him. 3D printers. Instant designs. Everything is too easy. Disposable. Copied and deleted. Digital and ephemeral. Easily forgotten.
Apart from the two paint-overs, which are still standing, blatant and unavoidable for anyone passing.
“You gonna do the last piece tonight?” Tera asks him.
“Yeah.” He replies. “Of course. What have I got to lose?”
“Come in, come in!” Thomas grins toothlessly at him, beckoning him excitedly with one arm, “Quickly, before anyone sees you! Quickly!”
3Cube steps over the taut string barrier, knocking it with his thigh and triggering the clanking of tin cans and bottles that make up the camp’s intruder defences. Thomas’ place is completely hidden from the casual passers-by on the A4—a couple of tarpaulin-covered tents sheltered behind two billboards—unless you can be bothered to pay attention and notice the tell tale signs of protruding poles and guy ropes. Most people can’t, 3Cube assumes, judging by how long the old tramp has lived there without being disturbed or moved on.
“Tea? That would be nice.” Thomas glances around the muddy, rubbish covered floor as if he’s lost something. “Do you want a tea? Hmm? Tea?”
“I’m fine man, thanks.”
“Really? No tea? Not a nice cup of tea?”
“No, really Tom. No tea. But thank you.” 3Cube always feels guilty when he comes to visit Thomas; they both know he’s really only there for one reason, but 3Cube has a soft spot for the old homeless man, built partly from admiration of his fierce independence. Despite the smell of damp cardboard and rotting vegetation it’s hard not to be impressed by this tiny, secret world that Thomas has built for himself.
That admiration aside, 3Cube can’t come to Thomas’ little kingdom without feeling on edge, uncomfortable. Years ago he used to think it was Thomas himself—the kids at school used to whisper that he was a wizard or a kiddie-fiddler or even a cannibal that had escaped from the refugee camps—but slowly 3Cube realised it wasn’t the scruffy but harmless old man at all. It was something else, something that usually just dwelled in his dreams, but that right now he could sense was there, shuffling, just out of the corner of his eye, and scratching, just above the dull drone of traffic.
With morbid fascination he finds himself drawn to the cages in the corner of the camp, built from what appears to be a mix of abandoned rabbit hutches and old shopping trolley parts. There are six in total, stacked three levels high, and all but one is occupied.
3Cube moves closer, but not too close.
All along the top of the cages, and dotted around the highest parts of the camp and along the rear side of the billboards themselves, are a variety of receptacles. Upturned plastic drink bottles with the bottoms cut off, pieces of abandoned guttering, funnels like he used in science lessons in school. They are all held in position, pointing towards the sky, with duct tape and nails. From the bottom of each one extend hoses and rubber pipe, a tangled mess of tubing that leads back to the stack of cages.
“It’s for the rain” explains Thomas, as he notices 3Cube staring at his elaborate water-collection set-up. “For the rain water. It goes down the holes. Then down the tubes. You see? Down the tubes. Into the cages.”
3Cube follows the hosepipe from one of the collectors—this one fashioned from an old cider bottle—and indeed it does lead into one of the cages. He feels his chest tighten as he leans forward to peer into the shadows within.
Something in there looks like it is breathing.
“Usually the board holes are enough, see?” Thomas is pointing at the back of one of the billboards. Along the top, hidden from the public is a strip of guttering, a long plastic tube with holes cut into it. “See? The board holes. That’s enough to feed one of ‘em. But I got loads here. I’ve always got loads. So I needs more water you see? Loads more.”
In the cage, 3Cube can start to make out a shape. The beetle lies there on a mass of shredded and pulped newspaper, its whole body heaving gently with the pained breathing of an abused, wounded animal. Its twitching carapace is stained with filth and cigarette burns, and one leg is missing, leaving a stump that bleeds wiring and broken servitors. 3Cube can see now that the hosepipe feeds in through a hole on the wooden back of the cage, and connects to where the beetle’s mouth should be, held in position with yet more duct tape. The set up reminds him, when coupled with the pained breathing, of old TV images he’d seen of hunger-striking refugees being force-fed. He feels a bit sick.
“They drink it?” he asks.
“No. They don’t drink it. Not exactly. No. They make the beetle juice with it. You see? The beetle juice. The rain goes in there, into their bellies. You see? And in there it mixes with the machines. The tiny little machines in their bellies. And that makes the beetle juice. Two colours. You see? They don’t drink it. No.”
“About the beetle juice, Thomas—you sold much recently? I mean more than usual? To anyone unusual?”
“No. No. No one unusual. Just the usual people. Just the usual.”
“Yeah, but is anyone buying large amounts, Thomas? I mean a lot? Is anyone wanting to buy a lot of beetle juice from you?”
“No. No.” The old hobo looks at the ground, scratches his beard, agitated. He’s clearly nervous about something. “No. Not a lot. Plus I’d rather not say. If people find out what Thomas does with the beetles, Thomas could be in a lot of trouble…”
“Hey, it’s okay Thomas, forget about it.” 3Cube is feeling that pang of guilt again. “Look, I’ll just grab the usual and then I’ll get out of your way, okay?”
Thomas’ mood lifts instantly. “Yes! Yes! The usual! The usual! Two colours!” In a flurry of activity the old man spins around and disappears into the nearest tent, before emerging with two dirty-looking plastic bottles, both splattered with black and white flecks. With black and white stained hands he excitedly attaches them to two tubes that emerge from around the back of the cages, before typing frantically on an impossibly old and filthy laptop balanced on a nearby stack of milk crates.
Without warning the contents of every cage stir into life, the suddenness enough to make 3Cube take two whole steps backwards. In front of him the hatches are full of life and movement, shuffling and twitching, and a cacophony of whirring and low beeps. Within seconds the two plastic bottles are being filled by the spurting of beetle juice, one filling with black and one with white. Two colours.
3Cube holds his ground, breathing hard to fight back the fear and the urge to run. He can’t remember how long he’s had this irrational phobia of the beetles, but it feels like it has always been with him. He knows they are just robots; dumb, harmless little cleaning machines, but there’s something about them that’s just not right. Maybe it’s knowing that they are full of millions and millions of those tiny little writhing invisible nano-machines, he thinks. But he handles beetle juice almost every day, and that doesn’t scare him on its own, apart from occasionally freaking him out when he can smell the fumes and imagines them all climbing up his nose.
No, he knows what it is. It’s the way they move. The way they can seem completely still one second, and then twitchy and alive the next. It’s the way they seem like they are breathing and reacting even though they’re just metal and plastic. It’s the way their horrifically angled legs are dead and silent one moment, flexing and jerking the next. Thomas once told him that when they invented the first beetles they couldn’t get them to move right, and in order to save money and time they scanned the brains of actual real living insects and installed them inside. 3Cube doesn’t know if that’s true, but it would explain a lot. And if anyone knows anything about beetles it’s Thomas. No one knows more about them than him.
“Hey Thomas, do you think the beetles… do you think they feel anything?”
Thomas looks confused for a second or two, as if he doesn’t understand what 3Cube is asking him. And then he just smiles, his eyes wide from either madness or beetle juice fumes.
“Two colours” he beams with autistic glee. “Two colours! Both black and white!”
3Cube’s feet hurt. Constant drizzle. The thumbs-up from Tera’s icon. Stencils. Beetle juice. Yet another Coca-Cola billboard.
This one is above one of the entrances to Cabot’s Circus, a red and white banner heralding visitors to Bristol’s central shopping district. It’s almost twice as wide as the previous boards, and it’s meant to be the epic finale of 3Cube’s trilogy. It’s also high up, and he nearly breaks his neck when his Nikes slip on damp steel as he clambers back down the fire escape.
Safely on the ground he gazes back up at his freshly juiced QR code and activates it. Instead of a hole being blown through the billboard, this time cracks start to spread across its glossy surface—slowly at first, and then increasingly quickly—until the whole thing falls to the ground. Shards shatter against concrete, unleashing a fine dust cloud that obscures his vision for a few seconds.
As quickly as the dust has risen it clears, and he’s looking through the billboard at the Barton Hill towers again, this time from a completely different angle. But the cracking hasn’t ended; fissures appear in the Bristol landscape and it’s obvious that the city is being rocked by an earthquake, the towers themselves visibly shaking against the grey sky.
The cracking spreads from the ground to the towers themselves. As frothy seawater explodes from the fissures under the city the concrete facades fall from the towers, revealing unbreakable cliff faces studded with patches of vegetation, rising from the now-tranquil waters of the flooded city. Finally the grey sky above cracks, fragments of cloud falling and dissolving in the new urban ocean, as 3Cube is bathed in sunlight so warm-looking he can almost feel it.
3Cube has spent the last 24 hours wracked with doubt, but now that has gone. This is his final statement about how he feels his city—his home—can unleash its vibrancy through defiance of those that would attempt to control and regulate space. The city’s space. His space.
An angry buzzing behind his ears, and Tera’s icon gives him the thumbs-down.
Time to move.
3Cube freezes. He lets a few seconds of self-doubt pass, and then he removes his spex, killing the buzzing. He slips them into a padded pocket and flips his bag back onto his back. Next he’s sprinting away from the billboard, across the few metres of pavement to the shops opposite. Then he’s climbing, his fingers finding handholds in the ridges of a Tesco Metro’s anti-riot shielding. He’s not done this for years, not since the early days of his writing career—the days when being a writer involved almost as much parkour as it did knowing how to hold a spray can. It’s exhilarating. He knows it’s risky too—this being perhaps the most CCTV-saturated part of Bristol—but that just makes it all the more exciting. Plus he’s quick. Within a few seconds he’s on top of the roof, squatting between slowly-turning wind turbines, catching his breath.
He’s now level with the billboard, separated from him by just a dozen or so metres of air. A perfect view. Nobody is going to get past him from here. All he has to do is wait, all night if necessary.
He sits down on the flat roof, his back against the gentle hum of an air conditioning unit. He zips up his stormsuit until only his eyes can be seen from under its fur-trimmed hood. Somewhere above him he can hear the faint drone of a passing police UAV; a single red light blinking in the dark sky.
Bristol was drowning. The drizzle had turned into torrential rain, alternating black and white droplets falling from the heavens. As they hit the forest of decaying architecture they splattered it with toxic paint; acid burning into concrete as clouds of suffocating fumes filled the war-torn streets. With an insidious clanking and scratching the beetles started to emerge from the gutters and alleys in their thousands, mouths turned up to the sky to drink in the poisonous rain….
3Cube is ripped from his nightmares by the insidious clanking and scratching.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been asleep. It’s still dark, and even with his storm suit cranked up to max he can feel the cold night air. He pulls his hood back to let the air in, letting it refresh him. Hopefully he’s not slept through anything important. He rubs his eyes and looks across to the billboard.
Its beetle has emerged, and with terrifyingly organic motion, is descending down the front of the billboard.
3Cube pushes himself to his feet, confused and startled. It isn’t meant to be happening like this. He knows the beetles will come and destroy his work, they always do, but not yet. Not so quickly. Not before anyone has even seen it.
An initial flood of panic is drowned out by rage, and he wants to hurl something. He glances around the rooftop for potential missiles, but: nothing. He steps to the roof’s edge and looks down and along the street, the initial rush of vertigo mixing with confusion—Cabot’s Circus is empty. He expects to see the JCDecaux van and its funny little driver, but: nothing. Silence, except for the cooing of pigeons. Even the beetle is quiet now.
3Cube glances up. The beetle has stopped moving, even though it’s a good six feet away from his QR Code. It’s frozen in place, and 3Cube wonders if it is broken.
The silence is broken by more scratching and clanking. Another beetle has emerged, this one from the other end of the larger-than-average billboard. A two-beetle board, thinks 3Cube. He’s heard of them, but never seen one in action. But then he’s never bombed anything this big before.
The second beetle descends until it is level with the first, which then stirs into life again, the two robots moving in unison. They scuttle left and right, crablike, moving in a flurry of multi-limbed horror, faster than 3Cube has seen them ever move before. And as they creep and crawl they keep their heads pointed towards the billboard’s surface, spitting black and white beetle juice onto its glossy coating.
At first 3Cube still thinks they must be malfunctioning; performing some macabre, haywire dance. But as he watches very quickly the realisation hits him, so hard in fact that he feels his legs almost give way, and lowers himself back down onto the roof, his back once more against the AC unit.
The beetles are rendering an image, line by line, like the dual heads of a huge, ancient inkjet printer.
3Cube isn’t sure how long he has been watching them by the time they’ve finished, but it is starting to get light. A couple of hours, minimum. What they have created is huge; a vast burn the width of the billboard. The towers of Barton Hill are disintegrating silhouettes against a blindingly white blast, a black mushroom cloud rising in the background, the city below them splitting into deep cracks and fissures. It is a far more simple image than the two previous works, and more starkly effective as a result. Something clicks in 3Cube’s head as understanding takes control, and the beetles start their slow accent back to their nest.
The police are already wheeling Tera out of the entrance to the squats when 3Cube gets to the harbour side. He’s ran most of the way there, and as he slows and catches his breath one of the cops spots him from behind his police issue Oakley spex. He steps forward and raises a hand to stop 3Cube.
“I need to talk to him. Please. Just a couple of minutes.”
“He’s under arrest. He’s not going to be talking to anyone apart from us now, mate.”
“Please” Tera says from behind the cop, his voice hollow from exhaustion and defeat. “Let me talk to him. I owe him an explanation.”
The cop glances at Tera then back at 3Cube, and raises a single finger. “One minute.”
3Cube pushes past him, and drops to one knee so he is level with the hacker.
“I’m sorry—” starts Tera.
“No man. No. Don’t apologise. I understand now. I get it—”
“No man, you don’t—”
“No! I do. I get it. I understand what you were trying to say, about how everything is so… fleeting. Trivial… too many colours, too much digital noise. And to make something permanent and handcrafted, but with machines—”
“And so stark! So bold, man. Shit, you made my toys look like some played out shit. It’s like—”
“‘Cube! Shut up man. Really. You’ve got it wrong.” Tera looks down at his useless legs, embarrassed. “It wasn’t about any of that. It was just about the money.”
“The money…? Who—”
“JCDecaux. It was a viral stunt man. They were worried about losing the Coke contract. Everyone’s pulling out of billboards, the market is about to implode. Everybody just walks around with their spex on, looking at their own content. They just wanted a reason to make people look at the billboards, so they could get their blink-through numbers up.”
3Cube is speechless.
“I’m sorry man. Part of the deal was that I painted over an established AR writer, so that they could build hype in the timelines. I’m sorry it had to be you, but that’s the reason it was. It had to be someone with a rep.”
“But… what? So what now?” 3Cube points at the cops, and their waiting van. “You just get locked up now?”
“Hopefully not. I should just get a fine. I’ve gotta keep quiet about JCDecaux, and in turn they’re sorting me out with a lawyer. And then when it’s all over I get paid. And I get my spine fixed, man. I get my legs back.”
And as if on cue, two cops pick up Tera—wheelchair and all—and load him into the back of their van, and the last thing 3Cube sees of him is his damp eyes as they close the doors.
The contents of the Halfords bag make a clinking sound as 3Cube drops it on entering his room. Next he’s ripping shit down from his wall; old QR Code stickers, pictures of Brazilian porn stars, the faded, tea-stained poster of Leo Kim. Within a few minutes he’s cleared a section of wall three metres across, and as high as the ceiling. Bare wall, Bristol City Council regulation-issue magnolia paint.
He steps back, examines it.
Then he’s moving again, his hand darting into the Halfords bag. It pulls out an aerosol can of car-repair spray, black. He sets it down on his desk, and pulls out a second, white. He rips off the lid, points the nozzle at the wall, and squeezes.
“Paintwork” copyright © 2011 by Tim Maughan