Thursday, October 6, 2011

First Chapter of Untitled Sci-fi(ish) story

            It was raining.  That’s the first thing that came to mind whenever Derek thought about that Tuesday.  Derek had woken up at exactly 7:45 in the morning, in his one bedroom apartment on the 15th story of a building known as San Fernando Valley Residential Palace.  He got out of bed and looked out the window, to the street a hundred feet below. 
            It was raining.
            The cloud seeding helped prevent droughts, of course, but it made the roads slick as hell.  He resigned to leave his bike at home and take the bus to work.  His morning routine was monotonous, but at least it was consistent.  Get up, shower, check e-mail, get dressed, check voice-mail, eat a bowl of probiotic cereal, check social network updates, and get to work.
            Derek grabbed his umbrella from the bedroom closet before putting a rain coat on over his white button-up shirt and blue jeans.  He left his apartment, only briefly pausing to enter the lock code into the keypad next to the doorknob.  He took the elevator down to the lobby and stepped into the busy sidewalk.
            The first rain of the series was always the thickest, and that day was no exception.  He ran the block from his building to the bus stop, the whole time worrying that the raindrops were going to break through fabric of the umbrella and drench him.  He made it to the awning over the crowded bus stop slightly out of breath but just in time. 
            The bus came to a stop.  It was one of the 20 meter models; long and silver, with an LCD display panel along the side.  At that moment, it was displaying an ad for some new reality show starring a celebrity Derek (and most of the country) had entirely forgotten about.  The doors opened and the crowd filed in.  Derek made his way up the steps, now almost frictionless with all the rainwater that dripped off of the people that had boarded before him.  He reached the PayPedestal next to the driver’s seat and held his hand over it, fingers outstretched, palm down.  Somewhere in the city, a bank’s server changed the funds in checking account no. 1019-07-13-378 from $1463.19 to $1461.19.
            The fare was usually one dollar, but when it rained the city doubled it.  It wasn’t malicious, it was just simple supply and demand.  When it rained, the demand rose, but the supply went unchanged.  Ergo, as any schoolchild would’ve been able to explain, the prices rose accordingly.  That is, until the bus reaches capacity.  After all the seats are taken, the prices drop by fifty cents.  Having to stand on a bus was a less desirable service than getting to sit, so it cost less.
            Derek took a window seat in Row 32 and watched the rain drops burst on the window.  He sat transfixed, as only the incredibly tired and the incredibly bored are able to, until he reached his workplace on the corner of Winnetka Avenue and New Ventura Boulevard. 
            He disembarked along with almost a third of the other passengers.  Some were going to the same building he was, but most were going to one of the other dozen or so office complexes on that block.
            The building that served as Derek’s source of income and migraines was the local branch of The Service Professionals, Inc., which promised “Only the most courteous, caring and professional customer service for any industry.”  This was proudly displayed in the window of the five-story, industrial structure along with several suspiciously happy employees waving at whoever happened to be looking at the picture. 
            Derek held his hand in front of the scanner next to the door and beneath the sign that read “DISPLAY CHIP HERE” in bright red letters.  It also had an arrow, in case anyone was still confused as to the procedure.  To the best of his knowledge, this had never happened.
            The door clicked open and Derek stepped inside.  The lobby had a pretentious d├ęcor that barely managed to conceal the “retrofitted from a warehouse” look. The floors and walls were brown marble, as was the fountain in the center of the room.  The receptionist’s desk was immediately in view upon entering, so as to prominently display whichever attractive blonde happened to be working there that week.  On the wall above the receptionist, a screen displayed the time, news, weather, and traffic.  On the other side of the lobby another screen showed how many cubicles were open on each floor.
            Derek rode the elevator to the third floor, using that time to check his reflection in the metal door.  Despite carrying an umbrella, his brown hair looked almost black drenched in rainwater.  His skin was a little pink from the rain, but otherwise demonstrated the pallor one would expect from a job that involved sitting under fluorescent lights for eight hours every day.  His overall shape suffered from his circumstances just as much as his complexion.  While he wouldn’t have been called fat, he was often described as pudgy.
            There was a “ding” as the elevator doors opened.  Derek wondered if elevators had ever actually used bells, or if the dinging noise was just added in at some point.  He made a mental note to Google it later as he walked down one of the gray-carpeted aisles. 
            The cubicles always reminded him of the changing rooms at the North Tarzana Fashion Center.  As a child, his mother would take him there whenever he needed clothes (before it was destabilized by The Earthquake).  There were rows and rows of little rooms made of press board, some open and some closed.  If the little red light next to the handle was on, the room was occupied.  At the office, the walls were white and the lights were green.
            He found an empty cubicle about forty meters from the elevator.  He stepped in, closing the door behind him and flipping the switch on the inside of the door from “Light off” to “Light on.” He plopped down on the desk chair in front of the blank wall.  There was a headset hanging from a hook.  He donned the headset and waved his hand in front of the wall.  The words, “Hello, Derek,” appeared on the wall.  This disappeared and was replaced by a list of names.  Derek touched the first name on the list.  The information came up on the screen.  After glancing it over, Derek pressed “Receive Call.”
            “Thank you for calling Organic Delivery Depot customer service, my name is Charlie, how may I help you?” Derek said.
            “Hi, Charlie,” said a middle-aged woman.  The screen said her name was Lucy Rodgers, age 45.  “My name is Lucy.  I think you may have a problem with your online ordering system.”
            “What seems to be the problem?”
            “I was trying to order some apples, but when I pressed submit order, I got an error message.”
            “What did the message say?”
            “Out of stock.”
            “That’s not an error message, ma’am. It just means the warehouse has already sold all their apples.”
            “That’s just ridiculous.”
            “It’s the truth.  I’m looking at the inventory right now,” He said, dragging the nine of hearts onto the ten of clubs.  “They’re completely gone.  We should get some more in a couple of days.”
            She let out an exaggerated sigh before agreeing.  The screen went back to a list of names.  In the top left corner, a little box appeared that said, “Complete: 1/100.”  Derek picked another caller.  “Hello, and thank you for calling BlendTek Blenders.  My name is Ross, how may I help you today?”
            The rest of the morning passed in the same fashion, the monotony only broken by the hourly passing of the food cart.  He had a hamburger for lunch at just past two in the afternoon.  He went to the screen and touched a tab in the lower left corner that read “personal business.”  The company didn’t mind if its employees goofed around, so long as they met their quota. 
            A calendar appeared on the right side of the screen, the word “Reminders” written in bright red.  There were birthdays for five coworkers he had never met in the upcoming week, as well as his parents’ anniversary.  He’d have to make sure to send the coworkers a message. As to his parents, they were living in a technophobe community in Wales.
            “Does Wales still have a postal system?” he wondered.  He promised himself he’d find out, and try to get a letter to his parents.  But he didn’t expect to actually get around to it.
            He shrugged it off and got back to work.
            He finished his hundredth call at 5:15.  The screen turned back to white, and a monotone woman’s voice said, “Now logging off.  Have a nice day.”  And with that, Derek took his umbrella and headed back to the lobby. 
            The rain had let up a little since that morning, but it was still coming down hard.  The bus stop was crowded with others just getting off of work, also trying to stay dry.  It arrived five minutes later (bearing and advertisement for a new health drink) and the commuters shuffled in.  Derek held his hand over the PayPedestal, and somewhere in the city, a bank’s server changed the balance in Account number 8361-20-54-1041 from $8,324,629.15 to $8,324,627.15.
            

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Witches

I've always enjoyed reading, and sometimes I like to look back on the books I read as a kid.  One that sticks out in my memory is "The Witches," or as I like to call it, "WTF, Roald Dahl?"  Allow me to explain.

The Witches is one of Dahl's less famous books.  While there was a movie made of it, it never reached the popularity of others (e.g. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda), so I hadn't heard of it when it became assigned reading in fourth grade.  And it was freakin' dark.

Now, I know Dahl's books are always a bit dark, but they're usually morality tales.  Charlie is good and kind, so he gets the factory; James is brave and gets a family (So does Matilda); The Big Friendly Giant does what's right and makes friends.  And then there's The Witches.  If you plan on reading it, be warned: There be spoilers ahead.

The Witches starts with the little boy main character (who is never given a name) going to live with his grandmother.  She's the Van Helsing character in the book, who teaches the boy all about witches.  Basically, they look like women, except that they're bald, have no toes, have claws and blue spit.  And they hate the smell of children.  (Incidentally, since dirt and grime mask the smell of children, this is the only children's book I know of that takes an anti-bathing stance.)

But the witches are sadistic. As. Fuck.  The way they kill children ranges from weird (turning them into a porpoise) to surprisingly depressing (a girl lives out her entire life trapped in a painting) to horrifying (American witches would find children at baseball games and turn them into hot dogs so their parents would eat them).

So nothing much happens until the boy and his grandma take a trip to a fancy hotel, where it turns out that the witches of England are having their annual meeting.  The boy is hiding in the room and discovers that the Grand High Witch is there to unveil her new plan: Open up candy stores and give candy to the children on their way to the first day of school.  The candy would be laced with a potion that would turn them into mice at about the time they arrived in the school, so the teachers would crush them.

They turn a boy name Bruno (who reminds me of a British Augustus Gloop) into a mouse then do the same to the main character when they catch him trying to escape.  The potion doesn't work as it was supposed to, as they can both still speak in their own voices.

Long story short, the children/mice and the boys grandmother turn the witches at the hotel into mice.  Then both the boys go back to normal and the witches are forever vanquished.  Just kidding.

There are more witches all over the world ready to carry on killing children.  And Bruno's (proper, high class) parents have trouble accepting what happened to their son, and the last we hear about the issue is the boy's grandmother saying that Bruno's parents are probably just going to drown him in a bucket.  But what to do about the witches?  Well, the elderly woman and the mouse plan to go around the world, sneak into all the witches castles/lairs/what-have-you's and turn them into mice and feed them to the cats.  So the boy will have to stay a mouse, but at least he'll have a long, happy life hunting witches.  Right?

Wrong.  The grandmother explains that, although a mouse has a three year lifespan, since he's a human turned into a mouse, why, he'll live three times as long.  And then comes the line that I've never been able to forget.  The boy says it's okay because, "I wouldn't want to outlive you."  The end.

Holy. Shit.  That ending was depressing.  It wasn't a morality tale, bad kid/bad ending either, because the good guys got the short stick.  It was just dark.