Is there any message in any of this?

Not really, no. The idea just made me giggle.

The Focus Group huddled around the cheap table, unknowing. As could be expected of all good consumers they had answered the summons without much thought, but now that they had been sitting here for some time doubts were beginning to creep in. For what dark purpose had they been gathered?

Muttered talk of escape and mutiny began to build in intensity and was in danger of boiling over into actual action and deeds when there was a flash and a puff of smoke. The Focus Group gasped obligingly at this, trained as they were to be easily thrilled by theatrics.

From the smoke emerged their assigned Group Leader, swirling his cape and wafting himself a space all to light and polite applause.

“Thank you all for coming today,” the Group Leader said, shrugging off the cape and letting an attendant remove it from the room.

“Your input here will help us move humanity itself forward. Each one of you shall be immortalised – anonymously – as pioneers. Today…we need you to sample something.”

Another collective gasp ripped through the assembled focus group. Had they known, would they still have volunteered? Yes. Yes they would have. In fact, most of them had known, with only a slight minority having put themselves forward for the group the instant someone had even half-suggested it to them. It was hard finding things to do as a family these days.

The attendant, stooped and bent under the weight of their chains, returned bearing what was obviously two trays, though both hidden beneath all-concealing sheets. Wheezing, they placed them onto the table and then hobbled out again and out of sight, the Group Leader waiting until they were properly gone before continuing.

Pulling two folders out from somewhere about their person they held them both up, ensuring that the Focus Group got a good look at both before raising one slightly higher than the other.

“This is Nn’Check, one of the Frigoan people of a dim and distant land you’ve probably never heard of and wouldn’t care much about if you had. Frigoan’s are abandoned by their parents when they are three days old and from that point onwards they are raised by matronly gusts of wind. They eke out a living by harvesting moonbeams with nets woven from the silk of dreams. Their only human contact is when they turn exactly thirty-one years old, at which point they don a blindfold and mate. They have lived this way for six thousand years or maybe even longer.”

The Group Leader then adjusted the levels of the folders and all eyes switched over.

“And this is Steve. Steve lives in a plugged in, web two-point-oh, social-networked hellscape of drudgery and despair. But all is not lost for Steve. He can go to a supermarket and buy fruit that isn’t in season, has access to running water and the sum-total of human knowledge is at his fingertips. Diseases that blighted his ancestors are unknown to Steve, to the point he doesn’t even think they’re that big of a deal. He is also trapped in a meaningless, soul-destroying job and has made no notable or lasting impact on the world whatsoever. In fact, we’re not even sure his name is actually Steve, we just picked a name at random and wrote it on the folder.”

They then laid both folders down onto the table. The focus group looked upon them due reverence. The manilla covers radiated dark, information-packed power. One member of the group tentatively reached out for one of them – it hardly mattered which – but the collective glare of the rest of the group stayed their hand.

“Both of these human beings have been selected by us due to their wildly differing life circumstances. In many ways they are opposed. Some of researchers have even said they are opposed to the point of being a dark mirror of the other. Steve is surrounded every day by humanity, to the point he feels cut-off from his own. Nn’Check had never seen another human being until our capture team tasered him into a drooling heap, yet he is likely more in contact with his essential self than any other person in this room. For this reason we have chosen them, and for this reason we have liquised them.”

The Group Leader – extending a surprise pair of extra hands – pulled back on the ominous sheets to reveal that the two trays loaded with styrofoam cups. Each cup contained within it a dark liquid more ominous by far than the sheet they had been hiding beneath. The focus group cooed, the universal sound of appreciation – for who couldn’t appreciate such a dramatic reveal?

“These two human beings have been rendered down into the carbonated, refreshing beverage you now see filling these cups. Which is in which? That is unknown to you, the better for us to obtain results. Your task is to drink and reflect – take these forms, fill them in with your thoughts and your feeling. One cup from each tray for each of you, and not a drop more. Begin.”

The Group Leader had seen a great many focus groups descend into abject chaos the moment they were urged into action. So much blood spilt, so many orphans, so many spoiled groups. This was not like that, they were pleased to see. This focus group had some discipline and decorum, even going so far as to pass the cups out amongst themselves and waiting until they were all done before starting! The Group Leader could hardly believe it.

There followed much sipping and quiet discussion on the merits of flavour and fizziness. Dragonfly-like Eavesdropper Drones buzzed about the table, clutching to-scale tablets in their little manipulator claws and furiously jotting down notes from what they overheard. These notes were instantly relayed back to Corporate’s Data-Amalgamation and Dissection team who tore them down to the merest atoms in their quest for information. They found very little of value. Yet.

Eventually the Focus Group sipped the cups all the way to the bottom and turned to the Group Leader to await further guidance. The Group Leader, for their part, had been watching proceedings with an enigmatic smile, the better to foster an air of mystery. Seeing that all drink had been drunk, they moved into action. Leaning forward, they put a finger onto each folder, giving them both a coded series of light taps. The message was lost on the Focus Group, but then it had never been for them anyway.

“Now then. Which would you say is which?”

The Focus Group was stumped. Up until that point they’d thought they’d known, but the instant the question was put to them in actual words whatever answer they’d arrived at was blown clear out of their brains. The mere act of posing the question had stabbed the dagger of doubt in deep, leaving them adrift and bewildered. Some started crying, others babbling helplessly. The Group Leader continued to stare, awaiting an answer.

Those members of the Focus Group still in charge of their wits did their best to grapple with the question. On the face of it things should have been simple. Out of a choice of two, which drink had tasted most like the man described? The qualities of both had been well-described – what flavours and textures matched up with what? None of them knew, and this gnawed away at them.

It should not have been difficult, but every time one answer inched out in front of the other some new factors would bubble up in their mind. Had that smoky aftertaste been indicative of a life of solitude, or one of over-connection? They couldn’t be sure, and if they couldn’t be sure they couldn’t commit. One by one the Focus Group succumbed to despair until none remained to even try to give an answer. All wept.

Triumphant, the Group Leader turned their face up to glare directly into the security camera in the corner that had been watching everything.

“Do you see father? Do you see? There is no difference! Mankind is but meat!”

There came from the tiny speaker mounted beneath the camera a world-weary sigh as the Group Leader’s father -safely ensconced far away in a control room – brought himself to respond. This line of discussion had exhausted them, and it just kept coming up.

“I told you, I never disagreed with you. I just thought it wasn’t worth proving. Neither of us have learned anything we didn’t already know. And you didn’t clean the liquidiser, either. That’s just rude.”

The Group Leader became immediately aware of the eyes of everyone in the room suddenly being on them and felt a bit sheepish all of a sudden. They cleared their throat and did their best to keep glaring at the camera, but their heart just wasn’t in it anymore.

“But you always told me…” they started, trailing off into a mumble as they finally realised just what it was their father had always told them. Their father, ever-watchful, picked up on this.

“I always told you that mankind is meat. That’s where you heard it: I said it to you. It’s on the family crest. It hung above your bed when you were a child. It’s why we got into focus-grouping. I know mankind is meat, I kept trying to tell you. Can you just send these people home? We have other things to test.”

The Group Leader shuffled their feet, sweeping the two folders off the table and clutching them to their chest.

“Yes father,” they said, ducking out of the room and signalling the attendant to clear up and herd everyone out. Their chains made it difficult but they managed, as they always did. The Focus Group helped itself out mostly anyway, those still too weak from crying supported by those who had recovered.

The consensus was that nothing of value had been learnt that day, and this was a bad thing.

But it’s always easy to say that sort of thing in retrospect.

END

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