Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
“Excuse me what?”
The air was heavy in this district, smog probably. It choked ones throat and stung their eyes but James didn’t care, he was used to it. The voice calling down to him was muffled, James turned to see where it was coming from. A man in a construction helmet and utility jumpsuit, he cupped his hands and looked as if he was yelling at someone. Slowly James hearing cleared, he hadn’t even realise he didn’t have it.
“Watch your head. Mate.” The worker pointed up, steel pillars hung loosely overhead. James looked blankly at the steel and then gave the worker a curt nod, continuing his journey to work. The same journey he repeated day after day without pause. A chill ran down his back, unusual as there was never wind and the city was always uncomfortably humid.
Offices loomed overhead. A skyscraper breached the clouds, he had never seen the top as it was always hidden by the constant roof of grey cloud. The building next to it, a drab concrete square with slanted windows, it barely reached half the height of the skyscraper. It was James workplace, if it had a name he couldn’t remember. Inside a wave of cool air rushed over him and the familiar musty smell of old carpet filled his nose. Looking over at the receptionist’s desk showed an empty chair and a Commodore HRRC computer sat on the desk. A blur of information showed on the screen, it made a soft humming sound, automated. The man waited for the elevator to descend and felt a presence behind him. Not bothering to turn around he continued to wait patiently, the elevator opened, grinding metal on metal and as he stepped inside the man behind him followed. He wore a heavy looking black overcoat, his hair had been cropped to one side. On his lapel there was HRRC ensign. A Commissar, a junior one.
“Commissar.” He said as respectfully as he could flashing the man a smile. The Commissar just nodded casually and pulled a scanner from his overcoat pocket. He silently indicated to James left shoulder, complying he lifted his sleeve and felt the cold pinch of the scanner on his skin.
Finally the Commissar spoke, “Jameson… no last name?” his voice was youthful, not harsh but it held authority and left one with an eerie sense of dread.
“No Commissar, no last name.” James responded doing his best to keep his voice steady as he fully realised his situation. He was stuck in an elevator with someone who could kill him on a whim. “Just James is fine.” He added his voice wavering slightly.
“Very well Jameson.” The elevator door creaked open and he nodded slightly, “Have a good day now.” He felt the corner of his lips move upward, a reflex nothing more.
When he finally reached his floor James walked past cubicle after cubicle, some were empty others had men or women like himself sitting there blankly typing away the only movement their eyes flicking from the screen to the keyboard. He adjusted his tie and sat down in his chair, it groaned under his weight which was discomforting as James was a relatively light man. As he watched his computer screen flash on, he heard someone rapping on the cubicle walls. A short stocky man with dark skin greeted James. His curly hair and round face catered a dopey grin and sharp clear brown eyes.
“Morning Murali.” James muttered grimacing.
“Morning James,” he responded still holding his smile. “How are you feeling today?” he said through his teeth.
With a flash of realisation James instinctively felt his lips curl upwards. “Why good morning Murali.” He repeated enthusiastically. “Why I feel stupendous this fine morning. Didn’t drink too much last night did you?”
Murali laughed loudly without mirth. He briefly stared at his co-worker, the creases scrunching together as he willed his smile wider. The sound of the elevator door closing was all he needed, his face fell and he looked around. The Commissar was gone. He nodded slightly to James and returned to the cubicle in front of him.
Not another word passed between them, or anyone in the office. All that could be heard was the sound of typing. James heard the elevator door squeal open once more, he tensed up and cautiously looked to see a woman in simple office garbs like the rest of them walk inside. She rushed to her desk her face was flushed and panicked. Behind her followed a tall lanky man with a large head and orange hair, a wide grin was cemented to his face. He looked and saw James eying him, he started towards the cubicle. James swore under his breath trying to act natural as the man approached.
“Why hello there Co-worker!” he said, his voice was light and cheery. He gestured with an elongated finger to his face. “Did you notice something on my face?” The worst part of that question that he said it in such a friendly manner, that it could be passed off as a statement.
James sucked in a sharp intake of breath, he stared into the green eyes of the man standing over him. They were dull… hollow. “It’s nice to have you back George… How was the trip?”
George let out a high pitch giggle, forced probably. “Oh James, you have no idea how much fun I had!” he tripped over his own words “I recommend it to you, and everyone here… changed my life it did.” He said his smile still fixed in the same spot as before.
James shuddered as he watched George walk off, most likely to go creep someone else out. He heard Murali let out a low whistle, “What?” he said quickly.
“Nothing…” Murali replied, “Just that what he was only on a ‘trip’ for 3 days.”
“Oh he was, I didn’t notice.”
“Yeah he was and for only three days, is that all it takes now?”
“What did he do?” James looked over the cubicle wall at Murali he stared blankly at his computer.
“Apparently he had a breakdown on floor 6. The guy just collapsed, tears, screaming the whole shemozzle. I heard he didn’t stop even when the HRRC showed up.”
“That all?” James said disinterested.
“What do you mean, ‘is that all’? The guy got brainwashed, that’s clear as day.” He hissed.
James looked at Murali, his knuckles where white and his entire body trembled. “Okay sorry.” James responded bluntly, he slumped back in his chair and remained there for the rest of the day. When his shift was finally over James left without a word, not even a passing glance for Murali. The streets where the same, bleak, empty even when crowded. When he finally got back to his apartment, all he could do was sleep… escape.
This same process happened day in and day out, work, sleep, work again. Nothing changed, nothing happened. Nothing ever changed in this city. It had been 3 years – if the calendar was correct – since James had got this job. There were no weekends, no breaks, and the constant enforcement of ‘keeping your spirits up’ by the HRRC really made everyone’s life a living hell. James was used to it, he knew what they were trying to do… or at least intended too. It had been 8 years since ‘the big one’ with the onset of despair from the huge losses, suicide rates skyrocketed. The world was falling apart, but the HRRC stopped this… to an extent. With new laws enforcing heavy fines on suicides, families and close friends had to pay the cost. James thought it humorous, that law could’ve gone two ways. It would work, or it would not and everyone would die.
James sauntered past the empty reception and waited for the elevator. When it finally creaked open he saw Murali talking with a dishevelled looking brown haired man. The man had a factory workers garb on, and a cigarette hung loosely in his mouth. Murali grinned upon seeing James and ushered him back out onto the street.
“What the hell Murali.” James said, annoyed. “I got to do my shift.”
“Fuck your shift.” He replied still grinning.
How could someone grin so much? James thought, brainwashed? No that couldn’t be true, he would be a dutiful worker otherwise.
“You sure about this guy, li?” the factory worker slid his hand through his hair, vainly attempting to rid some of the grime.
“Yeah he’s cool. James this is my mate Rich” James sent an absent nod his way. Richard sent an equally absent and uncaring nod back. They were going to be friends.
“So what’s this about?” James watched Richard awkwardly, off duty factory workers meant trouble.
“Just a little holiday, is all.” Murali responded, he hurried off before James could ask more questions. Richard followed. The trio walked through empty streets – everyone was at work – they finally reached a smaller alley and turned down it. James was starting to get anxious, he knew skipping work would result in severe punishment but he expected that. He really didn’t want to get involved in some shady business. They approached a doorway covered in graffiti. Murali rapped on the door a few times, it was finally opened after he started pounding his fist on the door.
“What!?” a young tired looking girl with blonde hair stuck her head out the door and glared furiously at Murali.
He grinned and reached out to open the door. “How are you Clara… gonna let us in?”
She huffed and opened the door revealing a dimly lit room, with shelves lined with various goods and a counter in the centre. Behind the counter was most likely Clara’s mother, same complexion and features but her blonde hair was greying. She didn’t look a day over forty however. James still confronted and very confused watched Murali and Richard peruse the apparent stores stock.
He scurried over to the stocky man’s side and whispered. “Um… what is this place?”
A look of genuine confusion washed over Murali’s face when he saw James. “What are you doing here?” he said in hushed tones.
“You dragged me here!” James spat.
“Wha…” a look of realisation crossed his face. “Oh yeah.” He turned back to examining the bottles of dark liquid on the wall.
Real fucking helpful, huh. James thought. “What is this place?” he repeated.
“Hmm, oh a store for black market goods.” Murali absently muttered, he chose a bottle of the shelf and took a swig.
“Hey! No sampling, you better pay for that.” Clara yelled from across the room.
“Ah… a black market store. Of course” James said, “Why?”
“Look around you.” Murali said gesturing to the shelves lined with boxes, bottles and crates of all description. “This stuff is gold, not a single shitty HRRC product in sight. And the best booze a man can find.” He said raising the bottle of liquor up in cheer.
“Drugs too.” muttered Richard, “I’m just here for booze though.”
“Uh-huh, and you needed me, why?” James asked.
“Thought you might want something to spice up your drab life mate.” Murali said, winking.
“And get the HRRC on my backside. No way, that’s risky. I’m fine, I don’t need any of this.”
“Yes you do.” Murali smiled. “Besides the HRRC never come here, so there’s nothing to worry about.” As if on cue, they heard someone banging on the door. James froze, the hairs on his neck stood up. Being found with contraband got you sent to a ‘company encouragement’ camp. He had seen the people who came back, they weren’t… right. That was not something he wanted to experience. A million thoughts rushed through his head as James waited for hell to walk through that door.
Nothing happened, finally Clara opened the door and a black haired woman stepped in. she had a black overcoat on and a HRRC lapel decorating her collar. A commissar. The commissar smiled warmly at the occupants of the room and stepped inside.
“Well now what do we have here?” she said in a teasing manner. Not the cold, authoritative tone James expected from a commissar like herself. She spotted James gawking at her and smiled at him.
What the hell…