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Authors: Christopher Fowler

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BOOK: Breathe
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Title Page



Christopher Fowler

Publisher Information

First published in England in 2004 by

Telos Publishing Ltd

17 Pendre Avenue



a cognizant original v5 release november 11 2010

LL19 9SH


This digital edition published in 2010 under licence to Andrews UK Ltd

Telos Publishing Ltd values feedback. Please e-mail us with any comments you may have about this book to:
[email protected]

© 2004 Christopher Fowler.

Cover artwork by Simon Moore

The moral rights of the author have been asserted.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior written consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

About The Author

Christopher Fowler
lives and works in central London.

After writing several humour books, including
How To Impersonate Famous People
, he shifted into ‘Dark Urban’ writing. His first short story anthology
City Jitters
featured interlinked tales of urban malevolence. He has since had numerous further volumes of short stories published.

His story
The Master Builder
became a movie starring Tippi Hedren and Richard Dean Anderson. Many other short stories have been filmed as short films, and almost all of his novels are currently under option as features for a wide variety of actors and directors.

The film version of
Left Hand Drive
won Best British Short Film of 1993.
won the 1998 BFS Best Short Story Of The Year.
On Edge
, was a theatrically released short starring Doug ‘Pinhead’ Bradley and Charley Boorman. Other stories have been published in
Time Out
The Big Issue
, the
Independent On Sunday
and the
Mail On Sunday

Christopher reviews for the
Independent on Sunday
, and produces articles for publications including
The Third Alternative
Dazed & Confused
Magazine. Recent short stories have appeared in
The Time Out Book Of London Short Stories 2
The New English Library Book Of Internet Stories
Dark Terrors 5 & 6
Best New Horror
London Noir
Neon Lit.
A Book Of Two Halves
Vengeance Is
Love In Vein 2
Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror
Destination Unknown
100 Fiendish Little Frightmares
The Time Out Book Of New York Stories
and many others.


Welcome to the bad world of big business. Companies are like icebergs, mostly hidden from view. Or they’re like hives, where everyone is given a specific job and a limited amount of knowledge. Almost any analogy works, because commerce is amorphous and elusive. If the events of this story have already happened, you won’t be told about them. You’ll be suspicious from the outset, of course. You know how these things tend to shape up. The evil bosses, the downtrodden workers, yadda, yadda.

But this particular company started life as a place that would benefit everyone. It was all planned out by a decent man, albeit a man with little understanding of people and how they work.

It began as an architectural model, a tower of smooth, white-painted balsa and plastic, surrounded by neat round trees. At its base strolled tiny plastic couples. The nearby river was a sheet of shiny blue perspex. The effect was one of space and light, a monument to human endeavour.

The reality is a glittering black jewel box, a saturnine, crystalline spear called the SymaxCorp building. As impersonal as only a modern building can be. The walkways around its rain-bleached base now resemble electronic circuitry, paths snaking between terminals, sparking trade into life. No couples stroll here by the scudding brown river. Workers come, do the job and get the hell out. How can you be comfortable in a building where the windows don’t open? Where the walls reflect back your own lonely image?

Did the designers and architects believe their own lies? Did they ever think, as they peered into the model, that this glass prison would offer freedom and happiness?

It is nearly midnight, and everyone has gone home now. Out of hours, the area has as much life as the surface of the moon.

The entire business district is built in a crescent around the bend in the river. It is less than five years old, but some of the trees have been planted fully grown to provide instant ambience. There are no homes or shops, or old men walking dogs. There is only the fierce crackle of commerce between the hours of nine and six. SymaxCorp is the latest building to be completed, a monolithic cathedral of industry designed not for the benefit of the individual, but for the unification of the masses. Although it is the personification of order, it has not been constructed on a human scale. Everything about it dwarfs the experience of living. If Albert Speer had lived on, this is what he’d have built.

Up on the twentieth floor, a single light shines bright. A salaryman called Felix Draycott is still working, sweating in the icy air, grabbing the last pages of his document as they leave the printer. He hates running out hard copies, but Clarke, his supervisor, refuses to read electronic documents. He hurries between the deserted workstations, heading for the row of glass boxes – individual offices granted only to supervisors – where Clarke stands waiting.

Clarke’s office is decorated with trophies for sporting events – rugby, football, swimming – and endless pictures of his son, in muddy, bloody kit, gap-toothed and downcast, the reluctant champion. There are cups and plaques, and a mounted cricket bat presented by minor royalty. The supervisor is living, through his son, the athletic career that he could never have had himself. Pathetic, really.

Clarke is overweight, red and balding, with a scary combover and a shiny leather built-up boot to compensate for a short leg, which he thinks no-one notices. He’s fifty-three years old, stout and surprisingly strong. And on the inside? Well, let’s just say that he’s been very angry about his life for a very long time.

He reads the document, pacing around the seated Felix.

Drains. Drainage. Dampers? … Ducts. Disposal, waste.

Felix waits for more.

See under Suction.
’ Clarke flips back a few pages. Felix waits with sweating palms cupped between his thighs.

Binary. Bins. Bin liners. Bin fires, small.
’ He turns the page. ‘
Computers. Coronaries. Cardiac arrest.
Very impressive. You’ve really done your homework, Draycott.’ He riffles to the end of the document, reading the conclusion. ‘I like a man who makes up his mind about something.’

‘I talked to the R&D people, ran simulations, drew my own conclusions,’ Felix ventures. ‘Obviously it’s not what you want to hear …’

‘No, it’s a remarkable piece of work.’ There’s a
coming. Felix holds his breath.

‘But it’s a pity you’ve made so many spelling errors. Small slips, but so important, I feel. “i before e except after c”. Here. Here. Here.
. It’s not hard to remember. And what’s this, biro?’ Clarke jabs at the page with a fat finger. Even in the freezing machine-fed air, Felix can feel the sweat dripping down his back.

Clarke puts down the document and casually removes the cricket bat from its chromium mount. ‘Tell me, do you ever play cricket?’

‘No,’ Felix admits. ‘Football, sometimes.’ He is suddenly aware of his proximity to Clarke’s built-up boot. ‘That is, uh …’

Clarke takes a practice swing that comes perilously close to Felix’s face. He’s glancing back down at the document. ‘This is a problem for the board. But I think I can crack it.’

‘That’s a weight off my mind,’ Felix admits. He wasn’t too sure how Clarke would react.

Clarke suddenly swings the bat down hard, cracking Felix a shattering blow over the skull, laying him out across his now-exploded chair. The top of Felix’s head is as flat as a deflated football. Blood is leaking from his ears.

‘I’m a tolerant man,’ Clarke tells him, not that Felix can hear, ‘but there’s no excuse for poor spelling.’ He drags Felix’s body off by the collar, down the darkened corridors, humming happily to himself.

The window through which Clarke can be seen is one of thousands, and now the light is extinguished. Endless windows, millions of workspaces. The black mirrored buildings rise up, vast, dark, dense, muscular with struts and cables, soaring floor by floor, until they blot out the sky.


The same deserted business district of the city is still silent at dawn. Then a single road-sweeper turns into the street. Window-cleaners set to work. Office cleaners appear beyond the windows, pushing vacuum cleaners across floors. Fluorescent lights flicker on. The pistons of business slowly rise and fall. The great engine of the city is coming to life.

Now an astonishing mass of commuters pours from trains and buses, over bridges, across roads, densely packed and determined, a civilian army on the march. People in stations, at bus stops, weaving between each other as more and more arrive. Yawns, coffee-cups, rubbed faces, snatched cigarettes. Workers through train windows, alighting on platforms, heading to work in their thousands. The crystal citadels unlock their doors as employees filter in.

It is the height of the rush hour. Through the commuter crowds on the platform, a young man called Ben Harper makes his way to work. He smooths his sticky-up hair, too alive to his surroundings to be a typical member of the workforce, too open and innocent and obvious. It’s his first day, but you can tell that just by looking at him.

Ben’s suit is too new. His shoes are too shiny. He grimaces and pulls a pin out of his shirt collar, then peels a price sticker off his briefcase. The shoes hurt because he’s used to trainers. He has never worn a tie before in his life. It took him twenty minutes to do the damned thing up.

Ben stands looking at the awesome SymaxCorp building.
My new home,
he thinks proudly. The windows glitter darkly in the early sunlight. This is where Ben has come to begin his corporate existence. He nervously checks his clothes and his minty breath, keen to make a good first impression. After looking up anxiously at the tower, he screws up courage and walks to the great doors, the Scarecrow entering Oz.

Crossing the gleaming, black marble lobby floor is an act of courage in itself. The entrance is vaulted and vast, shafted with angles of light, modern gothic, Sir Christopher Wren crossed with Tim Burton.

Behind him, a uniformed janitor follows with an electric cleaner, wiping away Ben’s footprints as quickly as he leaves them. The building’s impersonal atmosphere is already at work on him. It does that to people – you don’t even notice it’s happening until you’ve changed.

Ben feels out of place, bogus, an interloper here under false pretences. His collar feels as if it’s choking him. He coughs, asks at the desk where he should go, and is directed to the elevators.

He manages to enter one of the daunting steel lifts, but has trouble getting the doors to shut. The buttons won’t respond to his touch. He has had little experience of technology. Just before the doors close, a girl steps in. She wears the corporate armour of high finance, black slacks and a black top. A gold neck-chain. Cropped blonde hair with muted highlights. Pretty, in an unattainable way. Ben reaches across her and tries the doors again, but nothing happens.

‘Here.’ The girl reaches down and removes her shoe, then smacks the destination panel with it. ‘It always does this.’ The elevator jerks and starts up. ‘Technology. Just ’cause it looks good, doesn’t mean it’ll do what you tell it to do.’ She smiles absently at him, then stares ahead.

Ben stands uncomfortably beside her as they wait for their floor. He goes to speak, then changes his mind.

The lift stops and the doors open. The futuristic reception area of SymaxCorp beckons. Black smoked glass, polished steel, underlighters; a cross between a Fred and Ginger dance set and a Mayfair car showroom. Flat-screen monitors display the caring side of the sharing corporation; waterfalls, rainforests, sunsets, horribly soothing music that sounds like an Enya rip-off.

Ben approaches the receptionist, a tousle-haired and frazzled-looking woman with visible bra-straps. She’s wearing a name badge: THOMPSON. She can barely be seen over her desk, which is finished in grey granite. He listens as she complains on the phone to someone, half-heartedly trying not to be overheard.

‘Right across the top of my head, like a red-hot knife sawing into my brain, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. And then I bring everything up.’

Ben coughs. ‘Excuse me?’

Ms Thompson covers the phone as if caught selling state secrets. ‘Can I help you?’

‘Ben Harper. I’m starting work here today?’

The receptionist replaces the phone and does something extraordinary. She drops her head hard onto the counter.

Ben is understandably alarmed. ‘Are you all right?’

‘It’s nothing,’ she mumbles. ‘Just a headache. You’re expected. Please take a seat.’ She keeps her head down as he walks away.

Ben seats himself on a huge, squeaky leather sofa.


Ben jumps up in alarm.

‘That one’s got – something wrong – with it,’ the receptionist explains.

He studies the skinny identikit corporate drones passing through the reception area and realises that, outwardly at least, he has nothing in common with them. He watches the video monitors. The thoughtful transatlantic voiceover intones good things about SymaxCorp – something about ‘The Environment You Deserve’, and, ‘Wouldn’t it be good if everything was this easy?’.

After five minutes he is collected by another name-tag. This one reads: FITCH. No first name. It belongs to a thick-waisted, thick-ankled, efficient young woman with dry ginger hair and an intimidating manner. Ben rises and goes to shake her hand, but she just clips a clearance card on his lapel. She does it with a little gun, and he has a feeling that the card won’t be removable.

‘Glad to have you on board, Mr Harper. This contains a chip with your security clearance. Code 7.’

‘Is that good?’

‘Codes start at 100 and go all the way down to zero. You get the idea.’

Ben nods. ‘I think I do.’

‘It means there are six levels below you, but they’re …’


‘Not far off.’ She points to his badge. ‘You’re required to wear it at all times on the premises. Try not to drop it down the toilet, as replacement cards will be docked from your salary. Come with me.’

‘Please, call me Ben.’

‘We don’t use first names here, Mr Harper. I don’t favour the personal touch.’


‘It’s not meant to be cosy, I’m not your mother. Your OOC is me, then Mr Clarke.’


‘Order Of Command. You are familiar with corporate terminology. The supervisors prefer electronic exchange over face-time.’

‘We’ll probably all get to be pals over a fag break,’ says Ben, then bites his tongue.

‘This building does not have a cancer verandah. Smoking is a dismissable offence. Think of this as a military operation.’

‘Do we get uniforms?’

‘You’re already wearing it. Remember, all commerce is war.’

‘You issue firearms as well?’

‘I so wish.’ She hands Ben a DVD in a steel slipcase embossed with the word SYMAXCORP. ‘Think of this as a holy bible with stiffer penalties for rule-breaking. Please run it and memorise the key points. You may be required by law to answer a questionnaire.’ She stacks hard copy documents into his arms. ‘You’ll also need to read these. As Health and Safety Officer, you may talk to staff only about health and safety issues directly affecting your department. Your first report will be due this Friday.’

Ben tries a tentative smile. It usually works. ‘Well, I’m happy,’ he tells her.

‘Don’t waste a smile on me, Mr Harper, you won’t be the son I never had.’ Fitch turns on her chunky heel and stalks away.

Ben looks around. The offices are dark, silver-grey slate and cherrywood, the new colours of corporate cool. The work-floor is futuristic, ergonomic, designed to prevent time-wasting, a mix of odd perspectives that sometimes curve unexpectedly around corners. There’s even a burbling fountain surrounded by grey pebbles and Japanese plants. Fierce little spots of light pinpoint the workstations like static prison searchlights. It’s elegant but weirdly oppressive. Touches of humanity exist in the way staff have decorated their booths; a photo pinned here, a small vase of flowers there. The workstations still look like hutches. The semi-private supervisor offices line the open centre, underlit glass boxes that are uncomfortably reminiscent of cages for battery hens.

BOOK: Breathe
7.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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