With deliberate resolve he crouched low, carefully gathered his patent leather shoelaces, and strained. He strained with all his might; wrenching his laces with savage force while simultaneously squeezing downward against his sphincter. The seams of his suit bulged; he knew the tailoring was exquisite, but would it hold out? Even more pressing, could his body withstand the strain!? But he pulled ever harder, eyes glued shut and teeth clenched by the fury of his squeezing. Just as he thought he must burst, a sour, almost primordial, honk cut through the air and a great warm rush suffused his cheeks. He dared open his eyes a crack. He was aloft! He’d successfully pulled himself up by his bootstraps!
There he bobbed, laces in hand, the only sound to be heard the gentle murmuring of his stomach as it mixed his buoyant gasses. A glorious horizon spread out in every direction, cool, and calm, and blue. Far beneath him stretched the mismatched collage of the earth. Everything was so small down there. More importantly, he felt bigger. Much bigger.
He whooped in happiness. Once he’d been stuck just like one of them – now he was free, free, free! As soared through the air it brought to mind one of his favourite childhood movies: The Snowman and he hummed a few bars from the signature theme as he burst through a cloud bank.
With a start he looked up. A short way above hovered a circle of suited gentleman, each doubled over like a sprinting cyclist with a firm hand to their laces , buoyed by a soft symphony of whispering gasses. Carefully he angled himself, and letting off a soft squonk, drifted into their company.
“Well done old chap!”
“You’ve uncovered the secret!”
“BOOTSTRAPS!” Bellowed one excitable fellow at the back, old school tie hanging partly chewed from his mouth.
Amongst them he recognized a few fellows from his old alma mater. All had a well-oiled, prosperous look. The eldest one among them stood slightly apart from the rest. Sporting a pencil moustache and a light grey suit as sharp as a paper-cut, he stood upright, maintaining his grip on his shoes via a pair of extraordinarily long shoe laces – a halfway house between reins and ski-poles.
The impressive figure ever so slightly inclined his head. “Allow me to introduce myself, I’m Gordon Oldeboye and these are fine gentleman are part of our Independent Fellowship of Noble Gasses.”
Without thinking he went to present his hand, the instant he let go of his lace however he fell into a paroxysm of spinning and flailing until he managed to re-seize his lace and right himself again. The fellows about him were guffawing and slapping one another over his faux-pas.
“Steady on there, chap,” cautioned Oldeboye gently, with faint smile. “Remember, things are different up here. It’s only through a firm grip on what matters that you’ll maintain your position amongst us.”
“Thank you, my name is Prolson.”
“Come chaps, what say we take our new fellow Prolson on a tour of our great enterprise?”
The fellowship honked their affirmation, arranged themselves about him in a V formation with Oldboye at their head, and, with one simultaneous rip, launched themselves out across the blue.
Prolson soon found that, while his flight pattern was a trifle unsteady, he could gust with the best of them and had no trouble keeping up. His fellows chattered amongst themselves, or else trilled away on their hands-free kits. He wouldn’t allow himself to be distracted though, he knew he would have to closely observe Oldeboye if he was going to learn to be a proper rugged individualist.
As the formation dipped lower, back below the cloud line, Prolson realised they were descending back down toward the lower world. Why on earth would they ever return to the squalor their straps had pulled them free from?
Fortunately Oldeboye was in the mood to lecture. “This my boy, is our world. A land of infinite resources, infinite opportunities. The golden oyster.”
Below them spread a great ghostly vista. A charcoal paradise of pavements, factories and tenements, the scheme broken by garish bill-boards and pithy advertising slogans of luminous fonts, bathed in the harsh orange glow of exhaust flares. He’d remembered hating these streets once upon a time, but he had to admit it all looked far more palatable when viewed at a distance.
Oldeboye continued, “Competition is fierce down there – look how oversubscribed our labour positions are!” The line stretched out from the factory entrance, across the roadway and down several streets.
Indeed, there was only one line longer; it was the queue outside the public relief office. At this sight a difficult mixture of anger and shame stirred within Prolson’s chest.
Oldboye seemed to notice his discomfort and drifted closer until he was leaning just over Prolson’s shoulder. “Difficult to understand, isn’t it? Those creatures below were once men, but they’ve chained themselves to the teat of government.”
The flock immediately erupted into a barrage of curses and spitting noises. “Public health is private injury,” squawked one of their number.
“Remember Prolson,” whispered Oldeboye with a mischievous glint to his eye, “if they had half a chance, they’d have your laces in their hands and pull you back down with them as soon as look at you.”
Prolson felt his body victim to an involuntary shiver, his rump’s purring suddenly reduced to a strangled squeak. To return back down there? Never. He had to stay up, up, up! Panic seized him and, heedless to the cries of his fellows, he shot away with a frantic squawk.
He didn’t know for how long or how far he flew, but his panic gradually subsided and finally he slowed to halt in order to catch his breath. Taking stock of his location he found he was above one of the less inhabited parts of the city, close by where the residues from the factories were allowed to pool.
In the distance a group of barefoot children clambered their way over a clinker heap sifting for fragments of useable coal or recyclable materials. He smiled down on them benevolently. From his height they looked doll like, quite unreal. ‘Like tiny entrepreneurs.’ He thought. ‘If only they had bootstraps to tug.’
Then it struck him. He’d fled like a cur and from what? A past nobody remembered except himself? He was a new man now, with a grip of iron and plenty of roughage. He was a wealth creator.
Now everywhere he looked he saw the mighty hands of progress at work and the fierce activity required to keep it inching ever forward. Things were being made, or refined, or sold; all under the watchful eyes of the peace officers. The work queues outside the factories proved that the economy was ripe for expansion. It was a stunning tapestry. Even better, it was a tapestry he could improve upon. He gazed across the roofs of the tenements, his mind ablaze with a fever of creation. They should be sloped, not flat. More expensive materially, but the cost would be more than paid for by positioning a different billboard on each slope. Those long queues of dead eyed men staring at the ground? Markets waiting to be tapped once they coated the pavement with indelible endorsements for aspirational products! They could even refract holographic images from the smog banks.
He couldn’t bask in his glory for long however, there was something nagging at the edge of his perceptions. Small, insignificant, but somehow it wouldn’t go away. He cast about himself and finally spied a peculiar pair far below him: a man with a clipboard was passing a cheque to a woman clutching a child to her chest.
His nose twinged, his stomach rebelled. It lay there in his bones, deep and ancestral: there was something deeply, deeply wrong about this act. Her clothes were of an inferior cut, her face haggard, and her back bent beneath the weight of the child, while her benefactor had the drab shapeless outfit that could only belong to a unionized government employee. This was clearly an act of public charity.
A strangled cry of loathing clawed its way forth from his lips and, with a truly savage rip, he hurled himself into a dive. He gunned his anus faster and faster, air pressure pushing his eyeballs back into their sockets, but still he wouldn’t blink, his eyes locked in a deaths embrace with that poisonous cheque. Time seemed to slow as the woman’s quivering hand inched ever closer to the ill-gotten prize. He wouldn’t make it in time. Her hands would touch it. In that hazy moment, that lifetime second, a shadow crossed his mind, a memory of second-hand clothing and student loan support. But it was just a shadow, a shadow of somebody else’s life. With a final roar he surrendered his grip on his laces and launched himself forward like a master class diver. With a wrench of his neck he seized the cheque between his teeth and tore it free, re-established the grip on his laces and with a herculean, spine shattering squeeze, scorched his way back into the air.
The official and the woman barely had time to process what had happened before the flock, summoned by his scream of rage, was upon them in a righteous whirlwind of sharp teeth and sharper elbows. The invisible fist of the market. It was over in moments.
He was still wheezing with the effort of his dive when his fellows caught back up to him.
“Laissez-faire.” Coughed a number of the group with nervous excitement as they preened their cufflinks, their once immaculate suits now flecked with scraps of hair and torn clothing.
Oldeboye singled him out with a steely gaze. “What possessed you to loosen your grip?”
He knew with an utmost certainty now. Before he had been consumed by an almost animal rage with the injustice he had witnessed, but his mind had had time to process the complex feelings he had felt at the sight of that cheque about to be exchanged, the horror that it had represented.
“Mine! It was mine!” He bellowed with seam splitting passion.
Around him the flock took up the cry.
Oldeboye’s lips parted in a narrow smile. “Our new brother has committed a most exemplary act. He took risk and risk is always rewarded.”
Feeling like the winning infant on sports day he shyly held aloft his prize as his fellows fluttered their sleeves in appreciation. The figure on the cheque was low, almost pathetically so, but in his eyes he’d never beheld a sum so bountiful and glorious.
As he floated amongst their pungent adulations he realised that something had changed; these men were no longer his fellows; they were his brothers, of shared mind and purpose. In this new light, gone were the receding hairlines, arthritic wheezings, and desperate oily grimaces of his earlier perceptions. In truth he could scarcely credit how he could ever have held such notions. He stood in a Company of Heroes, each man an Adonis in flesh and will. Chests jutted forwarded like ATMs beneath jawlines so hard and straight you could snort lines from them, while hands like great mechanical shovels clasped laces with grips as tight as the terms of a foreclosure. In fact it wasn’t so much a light as a nimbus, as if they were illumed by the very gold standard itself.
“Let us quench our thirst at Golt’s Gooch.” Declared Oldeboye authoritatively. As one the flock wheeled, changing course with a decisive tug and gust.
They sailed on into the fading light, those mighty horsemen of the Free Market.
There was something ahead, twinkling in the twilight. The closer they flew the larger it grew, until it stretched to fill the horizon.
“There she is,” declared Oldeboye with a flourish of his moustache. “The greatest wonder of the modern world, mankind’s very zenith. The city of Tharts.”
And it was. It was a city. A glorious city floating on the clouds. White marble and golden filigree from gutter to gable, it sparkled in the dying rays of the sun with that mixture of gaudiness and anti-septic clinicism that always indicates the finest of taste.
“But this, how can… an entire city!” Stuttered Prolson.
“The pioneering spirit, a monopoly’s worth of bootlaces, and a nasal staggeringly enormous quantity of hot air.”
Now that he noticed it there was a slight haze around the city, the air ever so faintly tinged with the warm comfortable aroma of bot-squawks.
As they zoomed over the gates and into this marvellous edifice groups of fellow entrepreneurs sang out to them and Prolson could instinctively feel his social network profiles blossoming under the weight of friend requests. More domestic scenes abounded as couples crouched lace-in-lace above exquisitely maintained sidewalks, feet never quite touching the ground. Curiously though there didn’t seem to be a single municipal worker in sight.
“It’s so perfect, how is this all maintained?” He asked as they skimmed over another artistically sculpted topiary.
“Through sheer force of will.”
Prolson raised his eyebrows in surprise. This was surely inconceivable, even for the most robust constitution and the leatheriest of laces.
Oldeboye received his with a knowing smile. “Don’t forget the very fact of your own elevation! Anything can be accomplished once one sets their mind to it! After all we achieved all this with nothing but our bootstraps, our private educations, parental connections, and a substantial loan of interest-free capital.”
“Of course.” He affirmed, swiftly quashing a memory of free school breakfasts as it spiralled into his brain.
“Every man must stand alone.” Sermonised Oldeboye as they passed row upon row of carefully guarded and clinically maintained gated communities.
The sky had slowly darkened as they trumped their way across the boulevards and avenues and now a series of floodlights came into play, giving their procession the air of a film premier. It was just as well, for they’d finally arrived at that fabled place, that mecca of all thirsty acolytes of the Profit. Golt’s Gooch declared the sign in imposing letters.
Of course, there was no line to join here, nor need for doormen. It was inconceivable that any but the strappiest of bootmasters could ever make their way to this holy of a-holies. As one the flock about faced and, with one tremendous blast of hot air, jetted their way over the threshold and into the Gooch proper.
The first thing that became apparent to Prolson was that the bar had no floor. It was simply an empty space falling away into a void, eventually giving way to a vast stretch of clanking machinery and jagged scaffolding that descended off into absolute blackness. The pit of some enormous industrial ant-lion.
Behind the bar, mounted in an enormous gold frame, lay the image of a hatchet faced sociopath wielding a dollar topped mitre. With a jerk Prolson realised that he was gazing onto the face of the Profit and lowered his eyes reverently. The very first Guffstronaut. Around him his fellow’s heads were bent in similar repose and as one they uttered the traditional prayer: “Got mine.”
The staff, bereft of proper lace-based propulsion, pulled themselves about the establishment via a system of ingenious pulleys and bungee cords. They carried small trays bearing tiny fluted glasses of that terribly exclusive yet utterly tasteless beverage Sauvignon Blanc-Cheque. Balanced next to these were trays of tiny burgers, the one true culinary expression of opulence and success. Sleek, prosperous go-getters grabbed handfuls of them and tipped them into their noble maws.
“I thought you said there were no Lessers here?” He asked Oldeboye.
“Figments of the mind, old chap. Pay no heed to them. Remember that here money is reality.”
Prolson had never thought he would ever see so many of his fellow strappers in the same place. The air was practically humming with the brassy notes of their combined nether-orchestra. In the same way Oldeboye headed up their flock, the room was grouped around several significant looking figures of unusual appearance.
“Is that fellow alright?” He asked aloud. The rather large man in question held the proper posture required for flight, but appeared to have crammed both his legs into a mouth that could only be described as multinational in scale. It gave him a peculiar ring-like symmetry as he pootled lethargically about.
“Oh don’t worry about our friend Roboros over there. He sits on the upper echelons of the civil bureaucracy. Addicted to his own flavour, but don’t worry, no matter how much he chews he’ll never run out of leg.”
“And him?” He questioned, indicating a middle aged man with a savage cast to his eye that put Prolson in mind of a hungry feral dog. A brilliant blue flame could clearly be seen jetting from the seat of his trousers.
“The fellow with the powerful gas pipe? That’s Ripitov; he made his fortune through some truly obscene asset stripping during a period of serious social and economic instability. Remember, while we may appear to come from different flocks, beneath it all ‘strappers of the leather flock together’.”
This instructive session in Who’s Who was interrupted by a great buzz of conversation; the attention of the room had suddenly shifted toward the labyrinth of gears and pistons beneath their rumps.
“Ah yes, we normally have them use the tradesman’s entrance.” Chuckled Oldeboye softly.
An extraordinarily tall figure was approaching from below. Its flight seemed possible by the two large bunches of balloons looped around it shoulders, all emblazoned with the legend ‘Change’. As it drifted closer it became clear that the figure only appeared to be so tall because a long rope of what appeared to be suit-clad primates were clinging to its legs. These leg limpets gibbered away inanely at one another, clinging on with one hand while using the other to feverishly stab away at an array of smartphones. It was the effigy’s face that really held his attention though; so stiff, so shiny, so plastic, it looked like it should be testing crumple zones on the latest family saloon, with a smile so oily it could have been harnessed as a credible source of bio-diesel. He recognised it at once: it was the Prime Minster.
“Change. This government, this government. Necessity. Future.” Offered the PM in greeting. Through some ventriloquist’s trick it could make sounds without actually moving its lips.
“Greetings.” Returned Oldeboye with a genial smile. “I’m glad you could make it, several of my fellows had some grievances they wished to air and-”
At that mark the PM was immediately deluged in a tidal wave of shouted grievances both complementary and contradictory, as the flocks of bootstrappers fell about him in a frenzy.
“Tax, tax, tax!” Shrieked several from the flocks in chorus, as they rocked themselves from side-to-side in spasms of fury.
“BLOODY DARKIES.” Bellowed school tie.
It was a twittering fluttering maelstrom, punctuated by indignant hisses and spurts of escaping noble gasses. Prolson tried to keep himself back from it all, but there was something stirring within him just below his diaphragm, writhing and pulsing with greater and greater urgency until –
“Welfare Queens!” He blurted out in a torrent of ignorant bile.
These two dread words provoked the assemblage to an even greater frenzy. “Hear, hear,” cried several of the fellows from his own pod, clapping him across the back with a friendly elbow.
Buckling under this siege, the PM seemed to be suffering some sort of overload. “Mandatory, mandatory! Future austere! Firm stance necessary people’s man.” It grovelled in a confused whine as the mob squeaked in closer and closer. To the rear, Oldeboye, Roboros, Ripitov and co looked on impassively.
In the middle of this scrum a flunkey shimmied its way up the prime minister’s leg to present him with what was obviously, but quite curiously a bacon sandwich.
The riot immediately came to halt.
Despite the reprieve the prime minister couldn’t have worn a look of greater horror and confusion if it had been handed slug wrapped hand grenade. Below the flunkeys shrieked in delight. Fearful of this alien object yet conscious of an audience, the creature slowly raised the sandwich towards its face and with a halting effort attempted to achieve some sort of interaction between its perfectly square teeth and the glistening butty. Only succeeding in smearing some of the bap onto the side of its face. It uttered a small buzz of distress and pain as it managed to get some of the butter into its eye.
It was hard to feel empathy toward this bizarre simulacrum, but an acute air of embarrassment had definitely infiltrated the gathering’s otherwise fine pong. “They normally throw up on their food, you see.” Muttered someone hovering near the back.
With a gesture that was at least distantly related to kindness, Oldeboye held out his hand for the ruined sandwich, which the creature gratefully surrendered. “You really did very well.” He soothed in the tones of a sport’s day parent looking down the barrel of 36th place. “Now remember we’ll be sending you a new manifesto and policy guide later to replace the one we left you with last week.”
With a grateful nod and to the shrill wheeze of deflating balloons, the creature and its attendants began the long descent back toward terra inferior.
“And now, to celebrate.”
Oldeboye lifted his glass and led them in chorus.
“We few, we happy few, we band of brokers;
For he to-day that hoards his assets with me
Shall be my brother!”
They fell about themselves, laughing at their own wit. Yet as much as he was enjoying himself, Prolson couldn’t help but feel that something wasn’t quite right. One of their band had been off-key and not in the proper, raucous way.
With the same uncanny accuracy that had enabled him to spy out the wealth leeches earlier, his head span around with the speed and incision of a tawny owl, fixing on a member of his own flock. The fellow had flown with them, fought with them, exchanged contact details with them… but singled out beneath Prolson’s disapproving gaze it was clear that this former comrade’s face was now flushed and shiny, his laces distinctly frayed looking and his intestinal expulsions weak and arrhythmic.
In desperation the fellow reached with one wobbling hand into his jacket pocket and held forth his threadbare wallet, determined to show that he still had what it took, but slowly the rest of the room drew back. It was well known that poverty, unlike wealth, was highly communicable.
All except Prolson. His and frey-lace’s eyes locked. This was what he a missed in the dive for that welfare cheque, so narrowly had he focused on the money itself he hadn’t been able to perceive the human on the other end. Now he gazed into the soul of one who was his equal, born into the same fearful world, possessed of the same trivial yet sympathetic hopes and desires. This man had had a name, a networking profile, several business cards… Once.
Prolson’s hand shot out and snatched the wallet with the practiced ease of a striking viper. “Got mine.” He hissed.
To his credit, fray-lace fell in silence, not a sound passing from between either set of cheeks. The room watched him spiral down toward the waiting reaching darkness. Slowly conversation began to resume.
As Prolson gazed at what he held, the paltry sum of an individual’s net worth, he realized he felt lighter. Much lighter. Something had changed. To the gasps of his comrades he released his laces. Yet did not fall! Instead, with a triumphant trump, he straightened out, proud and erect.
In mirror, but with a tip of his head, Oldeboye performed the same feat. “You see, chap. Your noble gases were always capable of sustaining you.”
His fermentations came forth dank and rich, hanging about him like the aroma of a fine cigar. He sat back and breathed deep. He had mastered the secret science. The heaviest part of the human psyche was, of course, the conscience. The old man nodded slightly, welcoming the challenge in this newcomer’s eyes.
Gain was the orthodoxy. Hail the Profit’s Kingdom off earth.