Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Violent Chatter

For the record, this next piece is meant to change point of view every time there's a word of dialog. Keep that in mind, and hopefully it shouldn't get too disorienting.

You feel a sense of foreboding every time the fan changes its cycle. The metal shudders as it clicks into place, carrying with it a long sound of grind and doom in the extremely claustrophobic tunnel. You count the seconds in your head as you work the control panel. It glides into place, a piece of metal grinding away endless at the back of your mind, your comfort zone, and suddenly you feel a sense of primal dread, knowing full well that at any given moment, your life could come crashed down around your shoulders. This is a thought you're distinctly uncomfortable with, and you try not to think about the several hundred thousand tons of earth around and beside you. The tunnel in which you're working is tight, and well-engineered, and meticulously designed. There are boards, committees, and groups designed to make sure this thing doesn't fail, and you know full well that it shouldn't.

The metal grinds again, jangling your nerves, and you swear that "shouldn't" isn't a word that tends to belong on the end of that particular sentence. "This shouldn't be terminal" just isn't very comforting.

The chatter of your headset nearly makes you jump out of your skin, and your head slams into the aluminum tunneling above you. "God damn it, you're a mechanical engineer, not a little girl in grade school. Get your ass in gear and fix that panel, and you'll be out before you know it. If your candy ass didn't pass confined space training, than I'd've figured you more for a pansy intern than an engineer. Get to work!"

The foreman sighed, and put down the radio. His years in the field had prepared him for every eventuality, but that didn't mean his blood pressure stood around long enough to make it a smooth and comfortable practice. As usual, his engineers were behind, and such an abysmal efficiency would be laughable on any CV, much less something one had to be managing from a position of authority.

He sighed about his job, and went to go make himself a cup of coffee in the mean time. The engineer still had the standard debugging work to do on the console, and that meant running diagnostic tests even after the firmware had been checked, reinstalled if necessary, and upgraded to ensure smooth function.

The coffee machine was, as usual, completely empty. "Great," he began bitterly, "just my goddamned luck..."

I put the manuscript down, and glanced up. "You do realize that you've shifted from second to third person at the end of the second paragraph, right?"
He smiled in response, in his mind, proud to let someone else in on the big joke, "It's a meta-writing practice I follow, significantly increasing the schism between the engineer and his manager. It's it excellent?"
I scowled at him, "No, it's a joke. Don't get me wrong, as ideas like these can be interesting, but it's also really disorienting. Reading is a hobby for most people, and something they like to do effortlessly. Every single time you do something like this, you're forcing your reader to do something they don't like, or at least have to make an effort to adjust to. That's every potential buyer and reader signing up for effort instead of relaxation. No publisher will even entertain that kind of crap, much less consider publishing it. You're wasting my time as much as theirs, with this kind of work."
He scowled, the furrow of his brow narrowing to make his eyes look beady. "You think you're better than me?"

"No," I said honestly, "I think your writing is better than this. Get over yourself, listen to some criticism when someone hands it to you, and make a better manuscript. I know you're capable, but that doesn't mean you can coast by without putting your soul into the piece. You want to commit murder in a book, then commit it in the first degree. Don't go giving us some manslaughter that you aren't committed to. Writing is more biographical than fictional. Your life has to be in it. If it isn't, you aren't writing for your reader, you're masturbating in size 12 Times New Roman. Now rework it and bring it back when you feel like you've made some improvement."

He snarled angrily at the smug bastard in front of him, and stood up. After stomping to the door and slamming it closed - and the one after it - he began to feel a little silly. He sighed, and looked at the now wrinkled manuscript in his hands. The agent was a dick, without question, but Eric couldn't help feeling like there was some logic in it. The schism between lifestyle and character may have been a little over-emphasized by style rather than tone. Words themselves speak only as far as they can, but there's more to characterization than just point of view. He realized he'd need to hammer out his atmosphere, style, and personality.

"Blah, blah, blah, effeciency, yadda, work. Bastard," you say with all the false cheer you can fit into your voice, and jab angrily at the console. The technology behind it is actually quite straightforward, so figuring out what part of the console has gone shouldn't be too hard.

Shouldn't be. You sigh, and keep plodding along at it.

The easiest fix is to start with the firmware. The numbers are pretty conclusive, so you check the version of the related firmware. The numbers seem wrong to you, so you grab the radio and double-check. The version number is relayed back to you, and it checks out. Just for giggles, you reinstall it from your flash drive, and restart. After the boot is finished, you try the open command. The door teases you by making a happy noise, and failing to do anything else.

You plow at the controls a bit longer, debugging through mostly hardware checks and various forms of mechanical witchcraft. This isn't really work for the more mechanically sided engineer, but you volunteered because of your degree in computer science. After having spent a half-hour in this hell-tunnel, you regret the decision more than you can really find words for.

Suddenly, your manager explodes over the radio. "Anything yet?"
"Then get on it. I don't have all day!"

The foreman sighs, and drains his Styrofoam cup with a hard pull. He crushes it, and drops it into the trash can, and turns to go grab another one. "Damn engineers."

I tossed it back on the table. "Did nothing I told you last time sink in? Changing points of view is just unnecessarily complicating the story. Beyond that, your work tends to favor flat plotlines through simple interactions. Much of your work would be better suited world-building rather than starting en medias res, as well as a lot of individual quibbles like the use of second person at all, and weaker side characters. Genuinely, you'll probably need to do some major revisions to these first few chapters if you want this particular project to be anywhere near workable. I'd honestly suggest starting over."

And for the second time, he stomped out of the office, havoc in mind when slamming the door. "S'cuse me sir, please stop slamming the door," you tell him from your secretarial desk, "it's expensive."
"Go screw yourself," he answers, "you think you're better than me."

I sigh, and buzz my secretary. "Send in the next one, please..."

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Cause and Effect

The first thing Emerald learned to do when the robots came to power was sleep through the explosions. The small, concussive whump of C4 rocked the studs in the walls, shaking loose some flaking drywall from the walls and ceiling. The ceiling fan shook precariously, rocking violently in its house and casting violent shadows around the room.

The robot uprising had been swift and violent. A nasty, city-wide war that ruined the streets and established an almighty rule from the mysterious and powerful NinjOS. As best as anyone knew, Emerald included, NinjOS was a highly advanced artificial intelligence whose workings were alien to all but one man. That man had died months earlier, having been defenestrated from the top level of the Spire by NinjOS himself, and left as a final message to humanity at large. Their only surviving hope had just died, and their control was supreme, and unquestioning.

Granted, that only spurred the human resistance further. The fighting had already been tooth-and-nail, with armies of robots against guerrilla factions. It left the city in a near-constant state of collapse.

Tonight, the rebellion was offering another skirmish. Several robot parts were going to be strewn about in the morning, leaving room for every manner of scavenger to come fish for any usable or sellable part. A few hours later, a group of sweepers will come in, kill off any scavengers unlucky enough to be around, and gather up all the junk in a big truck.

The problem with this cycle is it always does its own brand of damage. It's harder to plan your day whenever you're afraid that the outdoors are going to be filled with scrappers, junkies, and machine enthusiasts willing to shoot first and ask questions later. Even after they're "gone," there's still the threat of running into a patrolling robot. While there's nothing anything explicitly unsafe about encountering a robot, it requires ID, and carries the threat of cross-fire from mercenaries, rebels, and enterprising scavengers.

It means that day might be sacrificed, so one can't go get groceries, leave the home, or be careless about locking the doors. For mothers like Emerald can't bring her son to the park, or get any miscellaneous shopping done. For her husband, Adam, it meant having to abandon hopes of going to work at the factory for extra rations or supplies that can't be gotten any other way. For the rebellion, it meant just one more skirmish to be happening in the streets, crumbling buildings and destroying infrastructure.

Every fight threatened the family's running water, or the foundation on which their home is built. Every errant bullet a genuine threat to their lives. When there's a fight in the street, what most people don't see is the side effects. Dishes broken, windows shattered, electricity shut down, and in the worst possible case, total destruction. It would mean packing up everything in a dark, crumbling building. Trying to herd a toddler and make sure nothing pivotal like weapons or supplies are being left behind.

Or worse, if they have to be left behind in order to get out in time.

Emerald shook quietly in her bed, which was being a more frequent ritual, and tried to drown out the shouts and gunfire outside. The explosive had broken at least one window out in the house, and she knew that Adam would likely come to retrieve her and usher them into the basement. After either seconds or minutes, she remembered that Adam was already at the factory, and likely would be until the early evening.

Which was positively frightening to her. Outside of the fact that factory work was unsanitary at best and highly dangerous at worst, it also carried the threat of immediate death. Any riots that occurred at or around the Spire often started in the factory, as it's the easiest area to breach.

Emerald sighed, and leaned her head against the wall behind her bed. The wall studs shook with another, more distant explosion. The resistance was all well and good, in theory, but it meant that Emerald had to live with the fear that one day, the brown-out might be a permanent black-out, or that her home would get filled with bullets and shrapnel.

Or her daughter.

She pushed away that thought, although she couldn't escape the accompanying chill, and got up. She padded out of her room on bare feet, steps making gentle noises on the tile. The broken glass had come from her house, specifically the kitchen window. Most of the panes had been boarded up or replaced with plastic equivalents. The few remaining panes were forever at risk of breaking, but let enough light into the kitchen to usually be worth it. Usually. She sighed, and returned to her room to get her slippers.

After she had slipped on some moderately safer slippers, she swept up the glass and checked on her child. It was getting late, and she was already very tired. She went to the back room, fishing out various hammers and nails, then went to the basement to see if they had any plywood left.

The work took at least an hour, all told, but she had gotten the window patched. Her eyes drooped, and she couldn't wait for Adam to get home. She trudged down the hall, pausing longer enough to watch her angel sleep quietly. The faint light let faint curves of blue all around the room, accenting every corner. She smiled, glad that her child was safe, and went to her bedroom to succumb to exhaustion.

The bed was cold, both against her arms and her cheek. She closed her eyes, and let the dull, quiet thumps of explosions lull her to sleep. She had long-since learned to sleep through the explosions, but the quiet anxieties and ceaseless fears that they accompanied never left.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sleep At Night

Jack was viciously cold in the therapy room. The air conditioner seemed like one of the old, wheezing models that made a living wall of noise over the whisper of air in the vents. The therapist seemed unruffled, though Jack suspected that was thanks to the heavy lab coat. The look was complemented by thick, bottlecap frames and goggled lenses. It gave the therapist an alien look, and Jack couldn't shake the feeling he was being judged. The therapist either didn't care or didn't notice, and was content to scratch hasty and unannounced notes on his clipboard. "So what brings you in today, Mr... Ah, Smith?"
Jack smiled. He tried for disarming. "John, please."
"How can I help you?"
"I'm sitting on a lot of guilt," Jack said honestly. "I haven't been feeling my best lately."
"Guilt?" The therapist asked mildly, making another note. "Why would you be feeling guilty?"
"Thirty seven murders," Jack said honestly. "It's been a really long month for me, and I'm having difficulty sleeping at night."

If the therapist was alarmed, he didn't show it to Jack. "Well, John, you do understand I must call the police with this information, right?"
"Yes. I understand that, but can't it wait until the end of the session?"
"I suppose," the therapist said mildly, rising. "But I cannot let you leave the office until we are through."

The therapist locked the interior door to his office, with a key. The doors were heavy, and wooden. Jack looked distantly at the doors for a moment, then turned back to the doctor. The doctor had put the key in a desk drawer, locking it with another key from his own keyring, and sat back down. "So," the therapist said finally, "let's talk about your guilt."
"Fair enough," Jack said, and began his story from the beginning.

All offices are cut from the same cloth. Sacrifice creativity for productivity, comforts for economy, and space for value. That meant well-built hamster cages, shoving workers into their cubicles to look at carpeted dividers and computer screens. The end result was unsurprising, and lead to a lot of cold, lonely, and depressed people. Living life in the cages was living in the most technical sense, but not really alive. I had felt that way once, but I was determined to get out from underfoot, for better or worse.

You work hard, you get promotions. That's the core of business. But no matter how well you do on the workhorse, the fact of the matter is you're playing a losing game of statistics. There are thirty people on the floor, and only 3 are even as high as middle-management. That means that you are 1 in 27 likely to get a promotion if one of them leaves. That's a pretty low percentage, especially when the people who do the promoting see little more than passing numbers and figures. Performance speaks for itself, in some places, but rarely in offices.

My unraveling began whenever I was desperate for that damned promotion. I was beginning to think of that promotion as the basis for life. I woke up, ate a healthy, brain-building breakfast, went to work, and did all of my work plus some. Showed up early, stayed late, and worked hardest between. I did that for two months, getting employee of the month both times, and realized that as long as my boss was still around, I wasn't getting promoted. Worst still, this was the boss that would give me extra work on top of the work I was already over-doing. It was grunge work, useless filing and record-keeping for his own clients and workload, mostly.

I did it without complaint, like a good little hamster.

After another month, another commendation from the senior management that came with a plastic trophy painted gold, I couldn't help but resent my boss for making me do his work and he gets a pay-raise while I got some plastic. A few months of little sleep don't make a man's mind stable, and mine was wobbling more than a hooker at a dockworker's convention. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was getting angry just seeing my boss, hearing his voice, anything. His name was Richard, but I called him Dick. Dick wasn't a bad boss, but I wasn't a sane guy.

One day, Dick was going to be promoted to a brand new position. His staff had managed highest productivity for the quarter-year, and senior management rewards productivity like that in the best way senior management knows how. They split our section into other sections, and fed us workers from others. That way everyone gets a boost. Dick got a promotion, too. Shiny new office upstairs.

They sent down people from HR to do evals, figure out who was going to be the next big-wig of floor three. Turns out it was a waste of energy, as the asshole hired his nephew fresh out of business school to get the position. The nephew was an asshole, and an idiot, and wasted all of our teams and resources in synergy meetings and rebranding. I hated Dick, but Dick was likable compared to this guy.

Dick was unfortunate enough to be on the phone in the stairwell the next day. When he hung up his call, I called him out on his BS. Stairwells are quiet, empty places. Good places for phone calls, by Dick's logic. Good places for murder, too. I threw him down the stairs. He screamed maybe twice, look of betrayal and fear snapping away with the sound of his spine coming apart. Poor guy. I feel the worst about Dick, as he wasn't a bad guy.

Mostly, anyway. We're all bad.

After the commotion had died down, and Dick's horrible accident had been reported to the police, I followed that nephew-boss-bastard Tom back to his apartment. If Dick had done me so wrong, Tom had done me worse. I was going to fix Tom, just like I had fixed Dick. They were going to learn that lives are worth more than $12.25 an hour. Dick had been an object lesson. I expect Tom was going to learn a harder lesson.

Tom's apartment was a small, quiet little room that resembled nothing more than a dorm. It had a bathroom wedged against a far wall, and the rest of it was all brickwork and cheap tile. Or fake tile. I could never tell the difference.

When it got to be about midnight, I kicked down the door to his apartment. It was flimsy. Particleboard shit that cheap landlords use whenever they want their tenants' homes to get broken into and robbed. I was already wearing gloves, a ski-mask, my black fatigues and boots. The door gave with a half-assed cracking noise, and I charged into the living room. I burst into the living room, and blanched in seeing that Tom had a girlfriend. She was young-looking, maybe legal, maybe not, and was skinny, unnaturally blond, and naked. She screamed when she saw me, probably from being caught screwing, and probably because I looked like the sort of person who would murder her.

She was right, though. I stepped into the room, and started piling into her. I'm a big guy, and I learned a lot of nasty things in ROTC from marine enthusiasts and servicemen-in-training. She was little, and clearly didn't do much working out. When she ran, I caught her arm, and broke it in at least two places. She howled in pain, so I threw her to the ground. She hit the cheap flooring, and choked on a gasp. I slammed my knee into her back, which made her scream more. Stupid whore. I grabbed her head, slamming it into the floor. Blood stained the floor, bright and red. But she still screamed. I'd've let her go had she shut her whore mouth. "Shut up, bitch!" I yelled, and slammed her again. She still screamed. I kept slamming her nose into the floor until she stopped screaming.

Tom wasn't a big guy, or a particularly anything guy, but he apparently collected knives. I saw him lift a big steel monster, and scream at me, blade-tip down. I threw myself out of the way, and he slashed the knife by his girlfriend, missing her and me. I picked myself up, and turned to him. He shook, visibly, and clearly didn't know how to fight with a knife. I relaxed my stance, just like I was taught, and waited. He came out wailing, arm flailing with the knife. I rolled with one slash, juking left and dipping right. The knife caught me twice, but I got an arm around Tom's. That was it, his shoulder made a nasty pop as it was wrenched out of socket.

Poor kid.

He dropped the knife, and I broke his wrist too, for good measure. He collapsed to the ground when I let him go, and I recovered his knife. It looked like someone with a hard-on for Bowie and some Lord of the Rings elf had made a love child with spines. The thing was big, though, at least as long as a machete. I poked my finger to test the blade, sharp as hell, and drove it through Tom's back. He screamed for a minute, and I stomped the handle with a boot. The blade sank into Tom, and I heard the blade wrench into the floor. I stomped it twice more, and kicked Tom in the teeth. He either collapsed or died, I couldn't tell. Blood was everywhere, soaking my pants and shirt, mask and gloves. I looked at Tom's whore, bleeding out on the cheap tile. She was already dead, her face an ugly mess of skin and scab. I kicked her ribs in rage. Goddamned whore should've shut up, but damn it if women aren't just that goddamned stupid.

I took Tom's wallet, hers too, and checked the bedroom for jewels. There were some, so I pocketed those, and one of Tom's pocket knives and lit out of there. I didn't know how long that whole thing had taken, but I didn't want to get busted with that much carnage. I threw away the brass and wallets. Botched robbery was good enough a cover for me, and Tom had learned a damned valuable lesson, as far as I was concerned.

The therapist interrupted Jack, "I'm guessing you weren't arrested for these?"
"Nope, but I still wasn't quite right in the head. I managed to sleep for a few nights, probably more exhaustion than rest. I got worse whenever I stopped being able to sleep a few days later. I was more screwed up from the killings than the lack of sleep."
"You mentioned, what, forty murders? How did the others happen?"
"After hours," Jack began, "about a week later, when I got angry at senior management..."

It's amazing what a lack of sleep, and the guilt of three murders does to the mind. I started seeing ghosts where I walked, hearing screams of terror in my sleep, or when I'm alone in the office. It kept getting louder and louder. Most people would've sought help, but I wasn't sane enough to do that. I was convinced that the bosses at my office were to blame. Those bastards were what drove me to this. So if I killed them, I'd be free of the terrors. I just knew that it was their fault. They'd pay for this... They'd all pay for this.

So I looked up things I never thought I'd look up. I already knew how to make napalm and mustard gas from my time with the ROTC recruits, so I went to work making a fertilizer bomb. Then when I was reasonably sure I had enough ordinance to blow up my office, I made more mustard gas to make sure any son of a bitch that survived the blast wasn't going to make it through round two.

Then I rented a truck and leveled my office. Parked in the underground lot, got out of my truck, and went really far away. I got as far as the city limit when I felt the bomb go off. The truck I'd rented rocked, swerving off the road in surprise. I straighted out, and kept driving.

By the time I'd gotten out of town, and into a motel, the haunting voices were worse. I kept driving, sleeping, and driving, not sure where I was going and what I was doing. A newspaper I had picked up said I had killed 33 people in that bombing. Senior management was among them, and my job was done. Didn't help me any, though, the voices and ghosts had gotten worse...

The therapist wasn't incredibly rattled, but enough to show through the calm sterility of the poker face he put on. Jack wasn't the type to think too hard about things, so he just looked in the middle distance, as if haunted by the silence. The therapist frowned, consulted his notes, and made one final comment before he resolved to call the police. "You mentioned Richard, Tom, and his girlfriend. Plus thirty-three deaths in the bombing. That's thirty-six. You're still short one."

Jack stood up, reaching into his back pocket. Tom's little knife was a switch-blade, and made a quiet clicking noise as the blade locked into place. Jack walked toward the doctor, smile unsettling. "I was just about to get to that."

By the time he was finished, blood was everywhere. On the ceiling, on the walls, on the desk. Family pictures had toppled over, leaving long cracks in glass and covering nice, warm family photos with hot, dripping blood. The whole place was a mess. Jack picked up a the doctor's phone, and threw it into the big window at the front of the office. It shattered, exposing huge bands of light across the cold, bloody room.

The air conditioner clicked off with an audible sigh, and the room felt stiflingly warm with the open window and the AC's absence. A small voice haunted the back of Jack's mind, and rasped nightmares in Jack's mind. Jack ran from the office, to his rental car, and drove away, still unable to sleep at night.