A new technology seems like it could revolutionise an industry, but what is really going on?
Header artwork by Matty Savidis.
FILL IN THE BLANKS
Suraq, Tregrihi, 36th Pluvos 998.
Tregrihi’s market leader in CGI design, Concrete Graphics, has announced a revolutionary new technology which will put it at the far forefront of digital graphics production.
“The process is complete. Hold on while we remove the apparatus.”
There he is, finishing the setup for our next week or month’s worth of work. He doesn’t know we can see him through this glass. He has a large smile on his face, and a lot of money being put into his account, and only because he could stay still and think for an hour while in the grips of a helmet of temple pads and metal spokes.
I head to the door and open it. Tess shuts it and pulls me back.
“Ben!” I call out. He doesn’t even look round.
“Valerie, I believe I told you to stop this,” Tess mutters to me, and then turns to command the whole group of Fillers, “The new file will be on the server by the end of the day. We’ll give you the details sooner so you Fillers can get started doing your job sooner.”
I sigh and go back to my desk, which, as always, has been neatly arranged over the weekend. I put everything back how it should be and stare at the walls, wishing I could adjust them as well. They’re encased in a dark, plastic shell in the style that Concrete is so fond of. It’s supposed to look modern and stylish, but it just comes across as cheap. Their advanced research and development must have meant they didn’t have much money for interior design. The desks aren’t much, either. Just rows of matching black tables with monitors embedded in them.
I check over the last project while we wait for the latest files. The digital models all look fine; filled to perfection. I visit Claire’s desk to pass the time.
“Hey, Claire. I’m all done on the last project. Is there anything you need a hand with?”
“Val, I’ve told you I don’t need your help anymore,” she snaps, “Go work on animation or something.”
Although only revealed today, it has been in use by the company for several months, and Concrete is now ready to show off the first products utilising the new system. It has also confirmed that it is looking for a CGI artist to join its team in a high-level position, although there has been speculation as to why only one job opening is available.
”Val, you need to leave him alone,” Claire insists, “And stop worrying about all this. Just do your work the best you can, and leave the Thinkers to do the same.”
“How can I? He gets paid as much as us, if not more, for doing nothing. He won’t even talk to me! It isn’t fair. We need to discuss this with Tess. It’s not right.”
I stare at my lunch, wondering when Claire will leave so I can eat it alone.
“Tess won’t care, Val. Her job’s just to make sure we do ours properly.”
“How can we do our jobs properly if we’re not being treated right? Us Fillers do the bulk of the work. All the details are made by us, and that takes far longer than someone in a metal hat with an active imagination.”
“Those Thinkers are responsible for the majority of the end product. That’s all they care about. I’m happy as long as I’m still getting paid. You shouldn’t complain.”
“It’s not just pay. They’re doing something weird to those Thinkers. Even after we split up, Ben and I were still on good terms. But now there’s just nothing. He won’t look at me.”
“If that’s what you call ‘on good terms’, I think you’re getting what you deserve.”
They must’ve got to Claire too. Damn, I thought I was safe. I should hurry up and go.
Based in Suraq, the studio’s acclaimed research and development division has been working on this new system for several years. Through its “DreamProcess Apparatus”, mental imagery can now be converted into digital renders, resulting in huge environments in very little time and with only the skill of imagination required. A “Thinker”, as the company calls them, is set up with a headset that reads brain activity and given instructions as to what to imagine. Concrete’s head of design, Tess Sarreth, cites three hours for the system to then convert recorded brain activity into a usable render.
After lunch, we all check Concrete’s server, and, sure enough, the files from Ben’s session are now on there. I check what model I’ve been allocated to edit – a floating island in an Ancient Lirrinthan-style area. Something seems off about it, though, and not what you’d usually expect to find left blank.
The platform is completely hollow. That’s a bit odd. Normally broad strokes get through, and it’s just the little touches that we have to add. For this to be hollow, Ben must have specifically imagined it as such.
There’s actually something inside it. A hazy, vague sketch of a figure. It’s like a series of line drawings laid over each other. I can’t make out what it’s supposed to be. Should I try to make it clearer? But then… unless this platform is going to break apart, it’s never going to be seen. I’ll have to just leave it for now and see if Tess asks me to do anything with it.
Concrete’s production will now involve a two-stage process, with the company introducing what it calls “Thinkers” to produce the core parts of its renders. This will be done in sessions where a “Thinker”’s brain imagery is recorded while a series of prompts is shown. Mentally-produced renders are vast, but lack detail, so the existing digital modelling team (nicknamed the “Fillers”) will remain to “fill in the blanks” of the designs.
I got up early today, and went to work early. I might as well – there’s a lot of work to be done on Ben’s latest creation, and we only have until the end of the week.
The corridor that leads to the Filler area is notable for being one of the few places in the building with a hint of colour, as a teal stripe is embedded into the plain black wall, leading the way to our offices. There is also an orange stripe which takes one to the Thinker area – sure enough, I catch Ben following it to his next session.
I try being casual. Maybe we can just put this behind us.
“Hey, Ben. How come they called you back in? Did you miss something yesterday?”
He ignores me, but he’s clearly heard what I said. He turns away and quickly heads onwards to his room.
Something is definitely going on. I’ll have to interrogate Tess.
Aside from the environments created for Senjart Games’ currently untitled MMO video game, movies using Concrete’s new setup will also be released as early as next year. Several example renders, including those revealed today for Senjart, are available at Concrete’s website for anyone to browse.
“There’s been a small addendum to the new project. Once again, it’ll take a while to process, but it should be available by the end of the day. Your deadline has been extended to next week.”
I get up to speak to Tess, but she’s already left the room. Why is everyone avoiding me today?
I’ll find Claire and see what she thinks. Let’s figure out if I can still trust her or if she’s also in on this.
“What is it that they’re doing to those Thinkers? Ben’s avoiding me.”
“It took you that long to notice?”
“It’s unnatural. Where’s Tess’ office?”
“Back down the hall, then turn right, and… turn right again. Should be first on the left. But we need to be working on this project, Val. I’m not helping you with this anymore.”
That’s fine. I have what I need. Now I can question Tess and find out everything. Then I can get Ben back, and be rewarded for uncovering whatever shady practices Concrete is using.
How the so-called DreamProcess Apparatus will affect the industry is still unclear. We have reached out to their main competitor, Orange Graphical Group, for comment, but there has yet to be a response. One could expect Concrete to be inundated with projects, so it remains to be seen whether their relatively small team can keep up. The current job opening might be the first of many.
Right, right… left. This should be it. But this is just a supply closet. Claire must’ve got it wrong. Probably another room in this hallway, although it’s nice to find that this closet isn’t decorated in the same way as the rest of the building. The original architecture still shows through in the cold, grey, stone walls, and they look much better.
Another employee is approaching. Looks like a Thinker.
“Are you lost?”
“I’m… No, it’s alright, I’ll find it on my own.”
This door? No. You’d think it’d be clearly marked, but I suppose Tess doesn’t want visitors. That just adds to my case! I wonder if it’s just her team, or if the whole company is in on this shady stuff?
No, her office isn’t anywhere around here. Perhaps she moves it regularly in case someone tries to question her. I’ll just have to head back and ask someone else who’s been there more recently.
Whatever the case, Concrete Graphics is part of a xiranthine wave of new technologies washing across Tregrihi. CGI isn’t the first industry to be revolutionised in recent years, and it certainly won’t be the last.
The lunch hall is starting to feel very cramped. It’s a shame that we’re not allowed to eat in the work room, because the noise in here is overwhelming and there’s nowhere else to go. Claire still insists on eating with me, too.
“So I found Tess’ office, where you said it was, but she wasn’t in.”
“I just don’t understand it. Ben doesn’t have any skill as a designer. He doesn’t have any imagination. Why did they choose him for it? He was always jealous of me for my design skills, but he never bothered to learn how to do any of it. I tried to teach him and he wasn’t interested! So why now?”
“The Thinkers’ task is a different beast to ours. Maybe he’s just better than you thought.”
“No. It doesn’t make sense. There must be something going on.”
“You need to sort this out, Val.”
Claire gets up and leaves. At least it’s a little quieter. If I can find Tess, I can sort this out.
Except I won’t need to, since she’s just found me first.
“Valerie, could we have a word, please? Everyone else, I apologise for the confusion about the extension today. Continue to work on your allocated areas as before.”
Damn. Tess must have realised that I’m onto her. Should I run? No, I can’t just quit my job with nothing else left. I’ll have to go along with it and get some proper evidence.
I follow her to her actual office. It’s nowhere near where Claire said it was, and she never gets this sort of thing wrong.
“How long will this take? I need to get back to work.”
“No, you don’t.”
We sit down, but Tess still seems to tower over me. Her office would have been fairly large, but it’s been made smaller by the amount of filing cabinets and shelves of paper she’s filled it with. How can she bear this?
“Why am I here?”
“Valerie, allow me to show you something.”
She’s going to reveal what they’ve been doing to Ben. I should try to take photos. My testimony alone won’t be enough.
A render appears on her screen. It seems to be a temple that would attach to the environment we’ve been working on since yesterday. It doesn’t seem to fit, though, as it’s overgrown, ruined, and run down. While it’s mostly dark, there are orange and teal stripes on some of the columns. The tone was supposed to be light and airy, but this piece I’d call sinister and foreboding.
“The Thinker for this project, Benjamin Calsant, is conditioned to produce positive-toned environments. Why do you think he imagined this this morning?”
“Conditioned? So you are doing something to him! What drugs have you given him? You must have caused this by poisoning him!”
“He’s not on drugs. He’s in therapy. You said some horrifying things to him during your breakup, and he’s struggling to recover. Yet you continue to try to see him, and that makes it all significantly worse.”
Tess zooms in on part of the temple. There’s a shadowy figure with a distorted version of my face. It looks like it’s flickered in and out of existence into different positions. It’s very unsettling, and certainly not suitable for the project.
“After I saw this, I took a look at the security tapes. Sure enough, against all better judgement, attempts to intervene, and strict instructions for him to avoid you, you managed to talk to Benjamin earlier. So I don’t think I’m the one who’s poisoning him.”
Oh, sure. Act like you’re not involved. Pretend you haven’t made him go crazy at the mere concept of human interaction. I should get out of here, gather my thoughts, put together something proper to say…
“I… Can I go?”
“I was just about to suggest the same thing. Hand me your entry card and security will escort you out.”
She… what? I’ve been here thirteen years. I’m one of her best employees. Probably one of the best designers in all of Tregrihi. Why doesn’t she want me on this project?
“I just meant… The hall… I could work on something else?”
“I can’t have a stalker in any position in this company. You know what – I can just deactivate your card manually. The back exit is just down there, Valerie. Go work for someone else. Help them do the same thing we do in twice the amount of time. Oh, and forget about that government contract and I’ll make sure to forget about your involvement.”
“I don’t understand…”
“Fine, I’ll make it clear… You’re fired and this will be the last time you are on Concrete Graphics’ premises. I would hope you are never so much as in the same room with Benjamin Calsant again. You’ll get your severance pay, don’t worry. And your ‘friend’ Claire will be rewarded for not falling for your insane conspiracy theory. You don’t matter, Valerie. We don’t need you.”
She can’t be serious. I can’t survive without this job! All I can do is design, and Concrete is too far ahead of the competition. I have to find something.
“What are you hiding, Tess? What’s really going on here? Is it a prison? What are you doing to the Thinkers?”
“Nothing that anyone would find problematic – except for you, Valerie. Our Thinkers consent to us helping them achieve the right mindset for their work, and for Benjamin he’s found therapy very helpful. He’s moved on. Perhaps you’d consider the same.”
Why… Is she lying? I can’t stand her. I have to get out of here. It’s not safe, they’re going to get me. It’s not safe. Shut the door. The back exit. Here it is. I can be free.
The door shuts. There’s no way to open it from this side. I’m left in a dirty alley in the back end of Suraq.
“Yes, Claire? You can come in.”
“Hello, Tess. Sorry, I know I should get back to work, but I wanted to ask if you know where Val is. She disappeared after lunch.”
“Val? I’m not sure who that is.”
“Oh, right. Valerie Netta. Have you seen her?”
“Hmm… No, we don’t have an employee by that name.”
“Oh. I see. Sorry to bother you. I’ll get back to working on the project.”
“Thank you, Claire.”
It’s taken a while, but I wanted to properly polish this one. Welcome to Tregrihi, by the way – another country in the world of Tradia. It’s urban and modern, similar to Kylan, but has a darker tone and something to hide. It was actually the first country I created for Tradia, but this is the first story I’ve published that features it.
Many thanks to EW and the whole of Writers’ Bloc for all your feedback on this story. Your notes were very helpful.
Special thanks to Matty, too, for adjusting this story’s header image (and giving some feedback on it). And also because he makes cool art. Check it out.
Also, I’ve started working on a world map of Tradia. I’m planning to do some worldbuilding posts to accompany the short stories – let me know if you’d be interested. Or if you enjoyed Fill in the Blanks. Or if you didn’t. All feedback is very welcome! And feel free to share it around if you did like it. I have some shiny buttons below for you to ignore and copy-paste the link instead.