MERCS Short Story for MegaCon Games.
The train is crowded this morning, but he manages to grab his usual spot, leaning in the corner. He rests his briefcase down between his leg and the wall and settles in. The gentle whump, whump, whump of the train threatens to lull him back to sleep. The line runs for miles from the edge of the suburban sprawl, slowing only as it nears the heart of the city. For the last twelve years he’s ridden this express, staring out the nearest window at the cold, grey dark of the tunnel, blinking quickly at the short bursts of sunlight when the train runs above ground for a brief few seconds before plunging back into the cloistering grey and artificial light.
Every day for twelve years.
At the few stations, blurred faces are a collage of unknowns, human by assumption only. They could just as easily be stage dressing for the other travelers, cardboard cutouts, or something more ephemeral, ghosts perhaps? Regardless, they are unknowable, unreachable.
Just as remote as the passengers on his train.
The tall man who always boards before him, uniform so similar to his own—slacks, jacket, tie. Always occupied with his HUD, his eyes staring forward but his attention restricted to whatever plays across his retina.
The young woman opposite, her own eyes closed as she leans her head against the window, engrossed in something playing through the miniscule earbud he can barely see, its lime green color the only indication that it isn’t part of her flesh.
There are others he recognizes, fellow travelers, day after day after day. Never talking, rarely acknowledging one another, each in their own world. Anonymous.
When he exits the train he takes the stairs up to the street, twenty four individual steps. He stops at his usual coffee shop. While he waits he stares at the familiar poster. “Together we can make a difference!” it reads. He looks around at the other patrons waiting in line. They don’t chat, they just wait. Engrossed in the fodder they are streaming, getting a head start on answering correspondence, listening to the news. Not a single person daydreaming. No one is together; all alone together, maybe.
He is shaken from this familiar refrain by reaching the counter. The young woman at the register doesn’t ask what he wants. Instead he places his palm on an ident pad while the machine mixes his order.
She is pretty, though her professional smile never quite reaches her eyes. He had tried once, to talk to her, to add some casual contact to his morning routine. After a question or two it was clear that he was making her nervous, and the waiting line behind him impatient. He never tried again.
Coffee in hand, he resumes his routine. Thirty-seven steps across the plaza, through security, into the elevator. It slowly rises to deposit him on the 25th floor. From there it is twenty-one steps to his cubicle where he settles in to make some numbers turn into other numbers.
Every day for twelve years.
He hadn’t always noticed. Hadn’t always felt alone. Hadn’t always counted his steps to stave off the growing panic. He was once, if not content, at least complacent. His salary more than covered his basic needs, work was somewhat challenging and satisfying, and he always found amusement either at the pub or watching the latest soccer match. The change from complacency to gnawing emptiness hadn’t happened over night. Looking back, he knows it was a gradual process. At first he became bored. He moved his lamp from one side of his desk to the other. He got an animatronic dog. He pursued new hobbies, even took up painting for a very short time. For a while, these pursuits would capture his interest, then, inevitably, they would become nothing more than part of his routine as he shuffled back and forth to work. A cog in the great grinding machine of unity, of productivity. Nothing more than an organic automaton. An anonymous clockwork man.
His work had suffered, his productivity decreased, and eventually his superiors noticed. Veiled threats disguised as concern, they suggested he take a holiday. He wondered why he hadn’t thought of it himself. He had still wanted to be content, wanted to rid himself of the growing knot in his stomach.
The first day, he enjoyed the change. Sand beneath his toes, warm sun, fresh ocean air. But as the week wore on he found the routine of the system. By the third day, he floated listlessly in the sea, buoyed by the salt water, letting the gentle waves push him inexorably to the shore until he ended up beached, covered in the soft wet sand.
Evenings found him alone at the corner table until on the fourth night of his vacation he was approached by a young woman. She bought him a drink.
He had expected a few minutes of inane banter before she went on her way. Instead, she engaged him in what would be the most important conversation of his life. With surprising candor, she articulated the ideas, the feelings he had been struggling against for so long. She brought the hope, the promise, that life could be different. There was something beyond the slow swinging motion of the train, the staring eyes of his fellow workers, something more than pushing data.
Eventually, they ended up in bed. The time since then had erased most of the carnal memories. What he did remember though, what he clung to like a drowning man, was lying next to her afterward. He remembered the comfortable weight of her arm across his chest as she slept beside him and he thought over everything she had said. That was the moment he had made his decision. The moment he felt the knot loosening.
In the morning, she was gone. Even then he knew that she had not stumbled upon him by chance.
In the months following that night, he never questioned his decision. He returned to work with a renewed sense of purpose. His reports were outstanding, his superiors pleased. They all agreed a holiday was just what he had needed. Right as rain now, why anyone could see it. He continued riding his train, buying his coffee, riding the elevator up to the 25th floor, and riding it back down eight hours later to take the train back home. Day after day after day after day after day.
Just like today.
It was surprisingly easy; trained to believe that he would be caught, he expected it to be difficult. While he had no doubt that his MegaCon took every prudent precaution against intrusion, he was a loyal cog in the machine. In less time than it would have taken him to grab a cup of coffee, he placed the useful information onto a tag, no thicker than his fingernail. Twelve years of shuffling numbers left him with a good sense of which numbers were important. He stuck it on the inside of his wrist, the opaque tag blending with the lines on his skin until it was practically invisible. Another untraceable tag introduced a virus to the main cloud, slipping itself into every interface, every data safe, every node. Soon the information sealed over his pulse point would be the only copy. His sacrificial offering for a new life. He was finished here.
Slowly, deliberately, he put on his jacket. Out of habit, he reached for his briefcase but realized he no longer needed it. He slid his cubicle door closed behind him and made the short walk to the elevators without encountering anyone. It would take some time for the damage to be assessed, for blame to be placed. By tomorrow morning he would be inside the Lost Margin.
As he exited the building and crossed the plaza he imagined the building collapsing in on itself while his former fellow drones stood around, staring. He visualized the shattered glass exploding outwards, raining down on the plaza below, until the entire edifice stood naked to the elements, bare girders and broken concrete the only evidence it once stood. This vision was so potent, so present, that he was almost surprised to turn and see it still standing, nothing changed.
He shrugged. He gently ran a finger over the data tag, making sure it was safe, and dropped his tie to the ground.
No longer anonymous.
Copyright 2015 J.L. Allan