No Box Like Home

Sci-Fi Shorts / Sunday, February 22nd, 2015
He slid the key into the lock and the bolts clunked back releasing the plastic door. The corridor we stood in was mostly well lit which served to illustrate it’s age. I had followed him down the endless tunnel to his box, the regular lighting split by pools of darkness underneath sections of the illumination system which had fallen into disrepair. The air was still and silent, conditioned and controlled. But somehow as we passed doors and walls and doors and walls, the wear and tear of decades showed in every part of the architecture and it lent the place an overwhelming stench of deterioration and decay. I had never been here before. The corporation warehouses I mean, obviously I’d not been to this guys box before. We’d just met. I had known where I’d grown up we were well off, that I’d been lucky. But I hadn’t realised it would be so different from how it had been described to me. I suppose it had been like that once.

It didn’t shock me or surprise me. I wasn’t repelled by it. But I did notice. The images I’d seen of the inside of the warehouses had been recorded when they were new. That was all. They weren’t new anymore.

“You alright?” he enquired. I had been daydreaming. I moved my eyes and my concentration from the building back to him. He smiled.

“Sorry. I’m tired. What time is it?” I immediately regretted saying I was tired. I mean I was, but I hadn’t wanted to admit it. I’d just thrown it down as an excuse for the reason I was staring at the building like a wide-eyed child at the zoo. I hadn’t noticed time pass, but we hadn’t seen another soul on the long walk up here and I felt like it was late. I involuntarily screwed up my nose as my internal monologue cursed me for not thinking faster. He must think I’m an idiot.

He laughed and looked at the screen on his wrist. “It’s just before three. Come on.” He pushed the door and went inside. I took a quiet, deep breath swearing repeatedly in my head and stepped hesitantly after him.

3am! How did it get to be 3am?

I had moved over here a month ago as part of a corporate exchange and outreach programme. I didn’t want to leave the city I’d grown up in, let alone move to another corporate territory. But it was an important job. The memories of war officially belonged to my grandparents. But the brutality, the futility and the violence that they had lived through had seated itself in the public consciousness so deeply that we all felt we had lived through it. I had no opposition when I was chosen for the assignment. On top of that the job itself was exciting. Being a legacy engineer, I have spent my life studying the way the engineers of previous generations built the systems and structures that support our society today and how to look after them. The mechanical infrastructure here was the oldest on the planet and despite its simplicity, some of the best conceived and most enduring that mankind has ever produced.

I had been treated like a VIP on arrival and was assigned a nice living space at the bottom of the executive buildings. Two rooms, and everything maintained and functional. I’d thought nothing of it at the time, but visiting this warehouse I was now in, I appreciated I’d been given special attention.

“Sorry about the mess. I wasn’t expecting company.” As I stepped through the door, he pottered about timidly moving things from one place to another. I barely heard him, the room was such a…I don’t know…a flood of information for my eyes to take in. I moved my field of vision round the room and tried to compartmentalise it. In the corner to my immediate left there was a chair. OK, that’s good. Identified. I’ll come back later to assess the eccentric shape of the chair, what it was made of and the…animal hide that covered it? A chair will do for the moment. Next to it was a desk. Good. Easy. Made of wood. I don’t remember the last time I saw wood, but that’s fine, it’s a desk. On the desk was a light, illuminating an upturned robot with several of it’s innards strewn around the desk. Above the desk was a picture. I was getting the hang of this. It was at this point though, I realised I’d been feeding a growing silence for longer than is socially acceptable. I tried to make a quicker assessment of my surroundings but the flood overwhelmed me and I shut my eyes, just for a moment, then opened them again returning to the desk and the robot.

“It’s a cleaning bot. They need a service from time to time and the maintenance crews are 20 years behind. I’m learning how they work.” He said, interrupting the growing conversational void I’d created.

“Have you seen one before?” he continued, “I thought you might have seen mechanics like this before when you said you were working up at the Engine Rooms.”

The Engine Rooms was what they called the Office of Corporate Engineering and Maintenance. I’d been detailed there to help share the knowledge and experience we had with the Corporation here. The work has turned out to be a lot more of a steep learning curve than I thought, although I relish every moment, I had a lower opinion of the engineering here than was accurate. The people who put this city together had done so on four hundred year old physical theory. They were brilliant for the time. And the scale of manufacturing operations back then is unfathomable. But to understand, maintain and incorporate this infrastructure with modern systems has required me to try and put myself into the mindset of a four hundred year old engineer and that just isn’t easy. It undermines a lot of my education. But I walked over to the machine and he was right. Looking into it’s guts I could see straight away the mobility system with its plastic cogs and gearboxes, and the control chips. The specific functionality systems of this robot remained a mystery, but I was intrigued.

“Sorry.” he said. “I’m a terrible host. Can I get you a drink?”

I looked up at him and smiled. He smiled back. I nodded.

Making friends had been hard this last few weeks. The people aren’t unwelcoming or unfriendly, there’s just a barrier. When they’re being friendly and welcoming it always feels like it’s their job to be. They just have their jobs and their friendship groups and they’re happy. They don’t need any more than that, so it’s my place to make the first move toward socialising and trying to start an interesting non-work-related conversation. Which is fine, but it’s tiring after a month.

So earlier this evening I had decided to step out for a walk. This city was so enclosed and it made me claustrophobic. It was an ancient industrial city and there was immense beauty in it, but only from a distance. At home I was used to public spaces being wide and open, with light coloured stone and glass. And the sky, at home you could see the sky when you looked straight ahead. Our living areas were underground. Here, I stepped out onto a gridded metal street 3 metres wide, with the sheer black metal structure of my executive building facing directly toward the sheer metal structure of it’s twin opposite. To see the sky I had to look straight up between them as they engaged in their eternal staring contest. I had looked up the street in the direction of the city’s core. I had known my new colleagues would be there, getting a tan from the neon lights of the clubs and salons and laughing and having fun. It made me scowl a bit. I hadn’t meant to. I was jealous. But I made the decision to turn the other way and had started walking.

It was meditative to walk. I was relaxed by the anonymity of popping the collar on my raincoat as other evening pedestrian traffic walked up and down around me. It wasn’t social, but none of them looked at me differently. I didn’t feel any need to make an effort, I was just part of the blood in the veins of the city. A part of the bigger machine.

After a half hour or so of trudging through similar executive buildings to my own, the landscape had started to change. Not that much. In fact it was still almost exactly the same, but if you walk and rant in your head as long as I had, with each block having come out the same factory as the last, you notice the little things. Pipes feeding the air and water circulation systems were exposed at the base of these buildings. They crept out of the walls a metre from the ground, turned downward at 90 degrees toward the floor and disappeared into the belly of the city. The panelling that cladded the walls of the buildings turned from metal to plastic. Access panelling on the floor wasn’t seated properly in places, and you could see the circuitry and lighting underneath. That was when it started to rain.

The bar was underground. It was an old substation. Now defunct. A couple had gone in in front of me as I was approaching, and I heard a laid back jazz tune emanating from behind the door, led by a square wave synth. It was good. It had drawn me closer. No sign above the door, no lights, no windows. The music peaked my curiosity though and I stepped toward the door to investigate. If I hadn’t been a fan of jazz though, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the bar was there at all.

Inside it was dark. Across the room, the music came from a duo of players; a drummer on an old kit, and the soloist I had heard outside, playing synth made of home made electronics hooked up to a keyboard. They played to a crowd of 5 or 6 people who were spread out in the near-empty room and I couldn’t see properly in the gloom. Behind them all to my left was a bar made of a plastic slab propped on top of an ancient transformer. The place was conflicted in that practically, it looked as though it had been put together in one day in the ruins of an old substation. But the patronage, the dust and something about the atmosphere had made me feel the place had always been here. I went to the bar and took a stool.

“What can I get you friend?” The barman was a weathered man with buzzcut dark hair.

“You have bourbon?” It was a long shot. I hadn’t seen any here. But I was homesick.

“Next best thing. Try this.” He poured something lighter in colour than a bourbon and pushed the glass over to me. I was skeptical. I didn’t want to be unappreciative though, so I knocked it back. It burned. It burned and it tasted like the back of my head had been blown all over the wall behind me.

“It’s perfect.” I said. “I’ll have another.”

There was a guy next to me at the bar. He laughed. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

“No.” I replied. And laughed too. I wasn’t sure what I was laughing at. But he made me feel comfortable. He was good looking, definitely, but there was something about his voice, or his manner, or the shot I’d just swallowed that pulled me towards him. “And one for my new friend here please barkeep.”

“Thanks.” He’d said. That was the start of it. We’d talked about jazz, he’d offered to be my tour guide, we’d talked about engineering, politics and the sky. I lost track, but the bar had closed and we’d come back here.

So here I was sat in this chair. It was sheepskin apparently and it was so warm and comfortable. And the whisky was good. It needed work, but it was good. He was sitting opposite me on the bed and he was talking about…something. It was his voice I liked. It surrounded me and echoed around my head, melding with the jazz he’d put on the stereo. I closed my eyes and the chair and the music and his voice built a swirling ship around me and we flew home and over the mountains and the sea and over the city and into the sky and…it looked like I was pretty tired.