I’m a little divided about what to do right now. Ideally, I’m going to make a short-ish story out of this that I’ll submit to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Something that introduces the plot and characters, begins the longer story, yet serves as a complete short story in and of itself.
This could be the first part of that. Or it could be the actual first chapter of the main story. I really don’t know. If this ends up part of the short story, a good deal of this might get changed before then. Actually, some of this will probably get changed in either case.
Ah, I guess I’ve gotten a little ahead of myself. This is a story I came up with last vacation, and didn’t really start writing until a week or so ago. It’s gonna be a long one. Probably about Mostly Hidden-length, if not longer. That may change, but it should still be a good deal longer than my regular stories. I’ve been very excited to work on this, and am getting a good feeling from it. Hope you all feel the same. (By the way, there’s a reference in this to one of my previous stories, something unusual I wrote a while back. Let’s see if any of you find it.)
Stephen awoke with a start. Most of his dreams went by without remembrance, and this was no exception. He remembered nothing about it besides one feeling, a feeling he couldn’t put into words without listing several words that appeared contradictory, confirmation and surprise; relief and horror; relaxation and paranoia.
He got out of his bed and smiled as his dream faded away into his subconscious, leaving reality in its place. He heard a knock at his bedroom door.
“Yes sir,” came the voice from behind the door. “Coffee and biscuits for you, if you’d like.”
“Certainly,” Stephen responded.
The door opened and a tall man wearing formal clothes walked through, carrying a shining silver tray. He set it down and poured a cup of coffee, added a sugar cube and a splash of creamer, then handed the cup to Stephen. He set a small plate of biscuits on Stephen’s bedside table, then picked up the tray again.
“Is there anything else, sir?”
“I don’t think so, Bartholomew,” Stephen said, picking up a biscuit and biting into it. He frowned as he was chewing. “What’s in these?”
“Currants, sir. Do you like them?”
Stephen finished chewing and swallowed. “Yes, I think so. I’d like to have these more.”
“I’ll notify the kitchen staff, sir. Will that be all?”
Stephen nodded without looking towards him, and Bartholomew bowed then left the room, closing the door behind himself. Stephen sat in his bed, eating the biscuits and taking sips of his coffee at regular intervals. He picked up the book on his bedside table and began reading by the light of the mid-morning sun shining through the large windows on two walls of his room.
While Stephen was enjoying his book and biscuits and coffee and, simply, his own existence, someone far away was paying for it. This woman’s name was Caroline.
Caroline plunged her hands into the grey-brown water to wash off her dirtied hands, though it was unclear to her whether this actually cleaned them at all or just added to the layers of filth. While she was thinking this, a cramp made her feel like her core was twisting up, deforming her entire body. She forced her body to relax, taking deep, shaky breaths and praying silently that it wasn’t what she though it was.
She wiped her still-dirty hands on a damp cloth nearby the bucket of water. Once her hands were only streaked instead of coated with dirt, she closed her eyes and focused on breathing, rubbing her temples. This constituted one of her few “breaks” that she could enjoy during a day, and she tried to make as much use of it as she could in the few seconds she had before she had to return to her slavery.
It wasn’t slavery, technically, of course. That was outlawed, even though the government and law enforcement agencies were minuscule and had virtually no power at that time. Most anyone could get away with it, though most who could didn’t want to risk it for quite obvious reasons. Instead, she was paid three quaf a week. It was the most she or anyone else could make then, but she knew from her mother that most people were paid three quaf an hour thirty some-odd years ago.
She shook her head to stop thinking about that. It wouldn’t help anything. Nothing could, and she needed the money. She was saving, as was everyone. Saving money was the only thing anyone could do. Actually, that wasn’t true. Some people decided to get money in different ways. But she wasn’t one of those people, didn’t know any of those people, and didn’t want to.
She realized she had been standing around for far too long. She walked away from the small table that held the bucket and cloth and walked back to her place in a long table with dim, small computer screens – nine inches from corner to corner – side-by-side, chairs side-by-side across from them. The chairs were filled with men and women, side-by-side besides for the one empty chair that was hers. She sat down in it and squinted at the screen. None of the computer screens were backlit, as that would use far too much electricity. The workers had to see the screen just through the sunlight coming through the windows – though it was generous to call it “light” – and through a few dim fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling.
She continued her work, hoping the Watcher didn’t notice she had been gone for over ten seconds longer than she was allowed.
While Caroline worked away in the long line of other people working away, and Stephen enjoyed his existence and wasn’t working away, I profited from them both. I wasn’t particularly aware of either of them at that time. There was no reason to, then, but that’s why this is in past tense.
My name is Thomas. I didn’t live in quite the drudgery and destitution as Caroline, neither did I live in the luxury and opulence of Stephen. I was somewhere in-between, though I definitely considered my situation to be far above both of theirs. I’m not actually very important in the story. I am, however, the only person who knows the entire thing, the only one who has the full picture, you could say. That’s why I’m narrating this.
My name is Thomas Hendrick. I won’t give too much information about myself, at the start of this story anyway, but I’ll just say that I’m in control of something that factors deeply into this story. Don’t worry, you’ll find out just what that is quite soon. I would simply like to build our characters a bit first.
For one thing, I’ll explain what Caroline was doing. She worked on an “information farm”. I’ll go into the details of them a bit later, but they were one of the very few places that people could get paid to work. They were comprised of thousands of computer screens and thousands of people working at them, all connected to one computer that handled the data. The workers would be asked question after question of varying types; they could be math, culture, history, science, or questions of nearly any other sort. It was used as a sort of data-mining farm to decrease the workload of something that compiled it all into a – ah, I’ll explain that when I tell you about what I do and why I’m telling this story. The computer screens were small and unlit merely to decrease operational costs which, when powering thousands of screens per farm, out of the hundred or so farms that were in use, would be quite substantial. And “the Watcher” is often what the farmers call the person who patrols the farm and makes sure no one takes a break they shouldn’t. The power of information farms was their ability to produce massive amounts of data far quicker than it could be computed (especially for things like ethics and morals), and that power would be gone if people took breaks, even for a few seconds. The farm needed to keep going at full speed.
There’s oh so much to tell about Stephen, but this is neither the time nor place. I apologize if it seems that I’m interrupting the story to push in this little speech that contains virtually no real information, but it’s necessary. You’ll need to get used to me doing this ever so often. I am, after all, someone who can give you information about things that is vital to the story that you might miss out on otherwise.
Basically, Stephen’s current situation should be obvious by now. He’s living it up in a mansion somewhere with a butler and maid and kitchen staff and anything else he could want. He doesn’t have a care in the world. Not yet.
Caroline looked up at the clock quickly, hoping the Watcher didn’t notice her taking a second away from work. Seven forty-eight in the evening, twelve minutes before she was done working for the day. They were long days, six in the morning until eight in the evening. She answered the next question, and grimaced when she saw her keyboard. It was nearly black. It had been white at some time, longer ago than she could remember. Typing and typing all day, with few chances to wash her hands or do anything, in dry weather so her hands were chapped and cracking, blood and dead skin and sweat built up very quickly.
Another cramp shot through her. She felt that her abdominal muscles were a tight knot that she couldn’t untie. It could still just be a bad reaction to the even worse food, she thought as she answered another question, gritting through the pain.
Once the cramp subsided, the nausea started. She felt herself lurch forward and her throat resist going in reverse. It eased enough that she could answer another question. She wiped her forehead that was now drenched in sweat. Her reflection on the computer screen was far too pale, almost greyish, though that could’ve just been due to the screen itself.
Her eyes glanced towards the clock again. Nine more minutes. She could do it, she’d be fine. She sat up straight and took deep breaths. It felt like she had swallowed a rock, her stomach felt weighed down and nothing how it should be. She kept taking deep breaths and just focused on answering questions.
She knew what the answers were used for, and she was fine with it. Everyone was fine with it. Well, almost everyone. But those people who acted like they weren’t fine with it were just jealous. They wanted to get out just as much as the next man, and they’d do anything to do so just as everyone did. It was just that those people took different routes to get there, instead of working at an information farm or getting a “regular” job. There weren’t too many “regular” jobs anymore.
The people who had them were always going to have them, in all practicality. Pretty much everyone other than the people who survived by “other means” worked at information farms like her. It was odd, in a way, that they were pretty much divided on opposite sides. The information farm workers and the others, that was. And they feared and hated each other a lot of the time. The existence of one threatened the existence of the other.
Eight more minutes. She thought she heard a gunshot, but decided it was just in her head. Until she saw that all of the other workers were looking around, anyway. She looked around as well. Nothing seemed different, but it had definitely happened. The Watcher was still focused on making sure no one stopped working, though she saw that he too was searching for the origin of the sound.
She went to answer the next question after looking at him, but the computer screen was blank. She tilted her head, trying to get a better angle at it, but there was nothing there. By the looks of the other workers, the same had happened to them.
A voice came over the loudspeaker. Through her pain, she frowned. It wasn’t the normal person speaking.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” it said, “you are allowed to leave work a few minutes early today.”
Laughter came from somewhere behind the speaker. It was definitely not the normal person speaking.
“I would highly recommend that you take that chance,” he continued in a more serious tone. “Your career could meet a… Fast end if you don’t.”
Caroline could feel the instantaneous understanding spread through the workers’ hivemind-like perceptions. None of them had experienced this situation before, and few had heard any true stories about it, but they all knew at once what was happening.
It was funny what your mind set as priorities to think about in a crisis, she thought. Her first thought as she joined the masses that were running towards the living quarters was about what she could do after this all ended. There would be no information farm to speak about here after that, certainly. She could wander and beg, she thought, being jostled from side to side in the mob, but that wouldn’t bring in much money. There was always another choice, but she knew too many women who had fallen into that trap. It was a steady “job” and would be for all time, for sure, but she couldn’t bring herself to it. The amount of degradation necessary was more than she could take.
She was back in her room, not even that aware of the trip back, her mind had been racing. Both about what she would do next, and what was no doubt taking place at that very moment.
There were two sides, the information farmers and “the others”. They feared and hated each other, the presence of one threatening the existence of the other. That’s what she had thought until what had just happened, anyway. “The others” were the people who worked against the company the information farmers worked for, Introspect Inc. She was sure there was far more to them than she knew about, but they were bent upon attacking the company in any way they could.
She had heard bits and pieces about other times things like this had happened. She didn’t really know what happened to the farmers who worked there. She didn’t really want to think about it, since now it was going to be her in that situation.
What surprised her about it, though, was that they hadn’t come after any of the farmers. They were, of course, the people who supplied information and practically powered the company. Perhaps it was because they were used and abused by the company just as much as anyone else, and as such they weren’t in the wrong; they were just doing a job to stay alive.
She ran outside the building and vomited onto the ground. It was partially due to what had been plaguing her before, but was exacerbated by nerves and shock. While she was outside, she could hear yells and gunfire coming from the information farm base. She leaned against the wall of the building, wiping away the vomit that had run down her chin and spitting on the ground to rid her mouth of the acrid taste.