The writing prompt:
“Your writing prompt for today is to use Chandler’s Rule in the strangest way possible. Start with a scene that is either common place and boring or slow and stalling then throw something at your characters that forces them to totally change what they are doing.”
Chandler’s rule is summarized by this quote of his: “When in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.” It refers to something that kickstarts a boring and predictable story.
I found it a good prompt to give words to a story idea that’s been rattling around my head for a good while. Hope it is an enjoyable read.
By E. J. D’Alise (Disperser)
Copyright September 2013
Lifting the hopper cover, Marisa sighed, and cleared the jam from the feeder. Closing the cover, she gave an expert hit to the lower portion of the hopper using her palm, and then leaned over to press the “Clear” and the “Start” buttons.
The pills resumed flowing, filling each bottle with the proper number of . . . what where they? Oh, yeah . . . Peruvian superfast slimming and toning herbal miracle powder; all natural, all organic, and used by the ancients to prolong life and promote a healthy and youthful appearance.
Marisa off-handedly pondered the fact “the ancients” life expectancy was half that of modern humans . . . half the grief, worry, and misery.
Her mind wandered, as it often did, thinking back to the twists and turns of her life. She had lived through the late stages of the middle-class boom, the beginning of its demise, starting with financial crisis after financial crisis, and ending with the rise of powerful interest groups who, after a while, did not care if everyone knew they owned Senators and Congressmen.
Opportunities dwindled, good jobs slowly disappeared, and menial jobs became the norm. Jobs like working at this pill factory, without benefits, and barely making enough to pay for food. The government took up the slack, providing all sorts of “free” benefits. The ancients might have called it slavery. The politically correct term was “contributing” to society.
Mark had called it; he had seen it coming, and it was the reason he had risked the asteroid mining run. He knew they had no hope of beating a system designed to keep everyone in their place. He called it “the return to feudal times”, where privileged individuals enjoyed the benefits of technological wonders, medical advances, lives of incredible luxury, and never gave a thought to the vast majority of people struggling with little hope beyond survival.
The offer was tempting. Riding on a mostly automated mining spaceship, all one had to do was make the run to the asteroid belt, return, and be set for life with an above-average pension, guaranteed housing, and free basic medical.
Still, Mark would not have tried it without the added insurance; should the person die during the trip, their family would be entitled to those same benefits. Marisa had argued, pleaded, threatened, but ultimately could not stop him from going; he was doing it for them both, but mostly for her.
Eighteen months out, on the return leg, the signals from the ship had stopped. One year later Marisa learned about the buried clause in the contract Mark had signed. Without telemetry reports that the ship had malfunctioned, it was assumed the pilot had either erred, or intentionally sabotaged the mission, and no benefits would be paid to the survivors.
That had been nine years ago, and she had been single ever since. She could not accept that Mark was gone, and besides, he was the only one for her, her soul mate, and no one could ever take his place.
But single people did not fare well in the system; they could not earn enough on their own, and they did not qualify for as many benefits. She could no longer afford an apartment, and now lived in one of the many group homes. She could barely afford the fees, but at least it was shelter. Still, there was no hope of ever leaving the place.
Marisa’s focus returned to the present upon hearing a buzzing. An electrical malfunction; smoke was seeping from behind the control panel. She removed her gloves so she could pry the panel open. It finally came loose, and the hose used to transport the cleaning acid sprayed her face and hands; a melting wire had cut through it.
Marisa staggered backwards, unable to open her eyes, and unwilling to use her hands to wipe them; like her eyes, they too were burning. Her involuntary yell and movement caught the attention of the shift supervisor. The supervisor rushed her to the washing station, and rinsed both her eyes and hands. Finally able to see, Marisa looked at the supervisor; the woman was not happy. This was going to cut into production quotas, and also required reporting a safety occurrence.
“May I go to the restroom to wash up?” Marisa asked, wanting to soothe the lingering burning to her hands and eyes.
“Your break is not for another half hour.” The woman motioned to the repair crew that had been alerted to the problem, pointing them to her machine. “You can work at one of the auxiliary machines until then.”
Marisa looked at the woman. Perhaps frustration, perhaps anger, perhaps just common sense made her reply.
Turning, Marisa walked toward the restroom. When she came out, both her shift supervisor and the plant manager were waiting for her.
“To my office.” The man did not wait for an answer; he just headed off.
Marisa followed, still clutching the wet paper towel, occasionally using it to wipe her eyes.
The office was stark; a desk, a table, and two chairs. The man motioned for her to sit.
Marisa shook her head. She was not going to have him tower over her. “No thanks; I sit all day.”
The man sat behind the desk. He looked at her; he was half smiling.
“Leaving your post is cause for dismissal. As you know, we have a long list of applicants waiting to take your place.” The man enjoyed what little power he had, and leveraged it whenever he could.
“Please,” Marisa tried, and almost succeeded, in keeping her voice from trembling, “I need this job. I’m a good worker, and always exceed my quota. This was an accident.”
“Well, you did walk away from your station when asked to return to it.” The man stood, and came around the desk. He was her height, but still tried towering over her. “Now, I suppose I could be persuaded to be lenient . . . “ He let the word hang out there, looking at Marisa with an even bigger grin on his face.
Marisa looked at him for a few seconds. “I would rather die.”
The man lost his smile, and was about to answer when a strange sound began to grow. Sirens could be heard approaching, and then the sound of helicopters, and what could only be a couple of low-flying military jets. The man ran to the window, looked out, and then ran out the office door, yelling “Stay here!” as he went.
Wiping her eyes, Marisa went to the window.
She had never seen anything like it; no one had. There, in the front of the building, hovering about forty feet off the ground, sat a craft with strange markings. It was big, at least sixty feet long, but not as big as what cast a shadow over the whole parking lot . . . that craft hovered a couple of hundred feet from the ground. It was difficult to see it all, but Marisa guessed it was at least three hundred feet long and at least a hundred and fifty feet wide. The indentation on its underside matched the shape of the craft that was now extending a ramp.
The metal being that came out was at least seven feet tall. As it stepped off the ramp, a dozen police cars stopped on a semi-circle in front of it. The policemen exited the cars, weapons drawn, and used the cars as shields as they trained their weapons at the robot.
Marisa ran out of the room. She wanted to witness first hand the first human contact with an alien race, even if it was a robot. As she ran down the stairs, she absentmindedly thought robot overlords could not be any worse than human overlords.
A few people had ventured outside, but most choked the exit, preferring to remain in the safety of the building. She pushed her way through layers of people, finally standing outside, no more than one hundred feet from the robot.
The robot faced the officers. Regular army personnel had joined the officer’s ranks. The robot did not move as it stared down the barrels of a number of weapons. By then, the helicopter gunships were coming into position, one opposite Marisa, and one off to her side.
The robot looked at the far gunship, and then turned to look at the other. In the process, it turned toward Marisa. It stopped in mid-turn, and seemed to focus on her. It took a step toward her just as the bullhorn blared.
The robot slowly lifted one arm. The hand, or what passed for a hand, resembled a closed fist, and as it rose, a finger-like protrusion extended. It pointed above them.
Everyone looked up. The big ship was nearly silent, and remained silent as port after port opened on its underside, and all manner of barrels protruded from the openings. Along the periphery, shutters opened, and what looked like articulated weapons dropped, each acting independently and focusing on different targets.
The robot resumed walking toward Marisa, who took an involuntary step back.
It stopped a few feet from her, and extended its other hand, also looking like a closed fist. The hand stopped a foot from her chest, and slowly opened.
It took a few moments for Marisa to recognize Mark’s wedding ring. Her eyes swelled with tears as she reached for it. Lifting it gently from the outstretched hand, Marisa clutched it to her chest, her eyes closed in grief.
After a few moments, she opened her eyes. The robot had not moved, and stood in front of her with its hand still outstretched.
Marisa looked up at its head. As she did, letters words began to scroll across the featureless metal.
“Mark is waiting. He sent me to get you.”
This is based on an actual experience (without the boss making a pass or the alien ship appearing) at a vitamin factory my wife and I worked in while at college. My wife got some acid on her hands, and had wiped her eye before realizing it, and they would not let her go and wash her eyes. When I went to pick her up, and she told me about it, I said we were done with the place, and did not return . . . but I would have loved to kick some butt.