This is a work of fiction. In fact it is story number one from my Saturday Stories Project Challenge, an effort to write a new, original [largely unedited and uncensored] short story once per week for… a while, hopefully. It is not deliberately rough, but due to time constraints it is merely what it is.
In “Just a Guy” two nameless characters meet on a commuter train, one pre-occupied with a mindless mobile game on his tablet computer and just wanting to be left alone, while the other is looking to get something off his chest: a rant, a fear, and a secret.
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Just a Guy
by Brad Salomons
“…and what they don’t want you to know is that we’re all complicit. All of us. You. Me. Every last one of us is in on it, y’know. And we don’t even realize what’s going on.” His foot is resting on the opposite seat, the seat next to mine, and he’s talking too much. Saying anything is too much. No one talks on the train. It’s not normal.
Shut up SHUT UP! I don’t care. I think, but instead I nod politely.
My finger is stroking the smooth glass surface of my tablet, swiping away pixel-bursting, candy-coloured bubbles of abstraction, popping and mashing. The game responds with chimes and chirps, animated explosions of neon confetti that rain across my screen and tickle the pleasure centres of my brain to release a squirt of some endorphin cocktail into my blood. At least, I assume so.
“But you know what?” He confesses passionately, his voice lower and conspiratorial. “I see it. They can’t fool me, not anymore. I mean, y’know, they may think they’re pulling a fast one on us all, you, me, everyone on this train likely as not, all with some fancy talking about peace and long term engagement of the enemy, and what with all their diplomatic bullshit cleverness and so-called anti-robotics spins of flowery language.”
Who are you? Why are you talking to me?
“But I know, bud.” He sneers. “I know.” Then he leans back in his seat and spends a solid three and a half minutes glaring out of the window in silence while I clear another level on my game, swiping a particularly tricky combination move that cascades a four-fold implosion of squarish blue crystals and ends with a fantastically cartoon-like detonation of every orange-toned ringlet in play and ultimately culminating with a pleasant vibrating of the cool metal and glass device in my hand.
“It sounds like you’re playing that damn game.” He says finally, and I notice that his glare has shifted to my tablet. “Everyone is playing that damn game.” He scoffs. “It’s too bad.”
“Are you deliberately ignoring me?” He asks after a moment.
I hesitate only a brief second before tapping the corner of the screen to pause my play, and then I shift my vision upward and away from the glass to meet his gaze. He’s staring at me now, eyes fired with curiosity and a kind of hidden contempt. I look at him for that moment in silence.
“No one talks on the train anymore.” He says. “It used to be people would talk on the train. Have conversations. Chat. Joke, y’know?” His voice is monotone, flat, and focuses. “I suppose it turned out that way so normal, busy folks could deflate, piss away the rough edges from their depressing lives and their thankless jobs. But to me it’s always meant something a little bit more, y’know, something bigger. Sure, talk was cheap. Talk was free and easy, voices filling these same cars with a sort-of naive abandon, maybe, but hat’s how we knew that there was something bigger going on. That’s how we knew we were still the people. People, and not the robots.”
“I guess so.” I say finally, shrugging again and hoping my indifference will end this conversation.
“You guess-so what? You guess-so no one talks anymore or you guess-so that you’re ignoring me?”
Yet another shrug. “Is there a difference?”
He smirks and I think he almost smiles, and then looks out the window again. I wait, holding the tablet in my hand, an agitated “Paused” in a triple layered, rainbow-barfing bubble-font screams in silent frustration at my inattention.
“We’ve stopped giving a shit about anything but our toys.” He says finally, still looking out the window. “We don’t care anymore. Or we only care enough to beat the next level or unlock a new bonus. Keep popping the bubble. Keep bursting the little gems. Keep winning.”
He’s correct. I don’t care.
“Did you know that there is a war going on right now?” He asks, the cadence of his voice suggesting that he legitimately doesn’t expect an answer to this question. “There is. It’s true. We’re blowing up people in some country who’s name neither of us can pronounce. We’re doing it even as you and I sit here peacefully, together, chatting on this train, we’re slagging them with flechette grenades that explode into clouds of lethal steel and light and turn human innards to pulp, each one dropped from a silent robotic drone flying so far above their heads that they neither see nor hear them coming. Just a moment of realization, a pop and…” He trails off and seems to loose himself in the passing blur of rail-side suburbia.
Why are you telling me this? Why are you talking to me? Robots can’t kill people, you idiot. Surely, it’s against the law. Certainly it would break some treaty. I’m positive that I’ve read that somewhere, that there always needs to be someone to push a button, a real person to… the screen of my tablet dims to save battery, and I nudge the button on it’s side to keep it awake.
He notices. “You want to go back to your game, don’t you?”
“Does it matter?” I ask.
“Yeah.” He says firmly. “It does. You haven’t answered my question yet.”
“Maybe I don’t care.”
“I don’t buy it. Everybody cares.” He sneers. “Even if they refuse to acknowledge it. Even if they refuse to even let the words dribble through their brains. Everybody cares, bud. So, maybe I don’t believe you.”
“But maybe I just don’t.” Who are you? Why why why WHY you paranoid deluded freak WHY? Why Why? And why me? No one talks on the train. It’s not normal. It’s not supposed to be this way.
“Fine. Whatever.” He purses his lips. “What would make you care? What would pull you away from that damn game for long enough to give a shit about people in some faraway country. Real people. People being turned into meat-soup by the robots we sent there to kill them, huh? What?”
“What makes you care so much?” I ask and look down at the still-glowing screen of my device. The happy bubble letters spelling ‘Paused’ jitters in anticipation, farting electronic clouds of glittering dust across the graphic colour-explosion of my game waiting quietly in the background.
“I don’t want to be a robot.” He says flatly.
“Are you suggesting that I do?” I glare. “Maybe… what? That I already am one?
He grins. “Bud, what do you think is happening every time you click on that little screen of yours? What do you think is happening in your head? In your heart? Right here or, hell, far, far away somewhere? What do you think the consequences are when you press on that screen.”
Who are you? Not normal not normal NOT NORMAL. “It’s a game.” I say. “Blink. Pop. Whiz-bang. What do I think is happening? I think I’m playing a game.” I’m sneering, defensive, suddenly in his face. That’s not normal.
“Show me.” He says.
I glare at him for a long contemplative moment, and then shift my eyes to look down at the tablet. The word ‘Paused’ continues to dance with a hyperactive blur of tittering movement in the centre of the screen. A spectrum-gorging flurry of confetti generates from a spontaneously infinite electronic supply and speckles the glass with a frantic air of excitement. My finger hovers for a moment, hesitates, but then I let it slip delicately against the surface and release the app from its temporary temporal confines, bubbling chimes of cartoonish glee gratefully acknowledge my renewed attention as I tilt the screen towards the opposing seat of the train so that he can view it.
“That’s what I thought.” He says. “Exactly what I thought.”
I don’t reply and we sit there for a moment in chilly silence, the game belching out warning gurgles of much-less-happy tones as my inattention accumulates towards an inevitable loss of this round.
“How many bonus levels have you cleared?” He asks suddenly. For a moment I mistake his sudden twist of enthusiasm for some personality quirk, an alternate form of his state of attention, and a split sort-of-genuine interest in the game. But no. Wait. Who are you?
“Six.” I reply. “I’ve cleared six bonus levels.”
He smiles sadly, almost wincing. “That’s too bad.”
“Who are you?” I ask, finally, and I notice that he’s starting to stand as the train pulls into the next station. He ignores me for a moment as he pulls a messenger bag over his shoulder and grips the steel pole above the seat, hoisting himself to a stable position by the door.
“No one. Just a guy. Just a former defence contractor for the government.” He says, shrugging. “Creative technology division. I helped to build that game that you’re playing.” And he walks of the train just as the sour klaxon of a lost round hums from the tablet now limply hanging from my hands.