Fiction – “Occupations” by Andrew S. Fuller
It was a quiet morning around the breakfast table. Even the baby seemed in a ruminative mood. After ten minutes, Karen spoke first. “Going into the office today?” she asked her husband.
“Just like every Wednesday.” Jim resumed sucking his meal through the nutritube.
“I just thought maybe you could use some flex time today, that maybe you’d like to spend some time with your family.” She adjusted the baby’s solar bib, selected carrot-peas-mango on the Lazy Susan’s keypad, and seated herself. Little Jimmy cried until a new sterilized straw extended from the console to his mouth.
“I’m on contract. You know that,” he reminded her. “No benefits, no vacation until the project is done.” The big window adjusted its tint, softening the sun’s glare off the other condo towers.
Karen sighed, and nodded. She selected omelette-blueberrywaffle-orangejuice.
They finished breakfast in near silence, only slurping.
“Full day ahead. Better get a head start.” Jim excused himself from the table and walked over to the sofa. He uncoiled the translucent data wire from the coffee table, and thumbed the glowing tip of the fiber spike. He settled into the cushion, exhaled, plugged the port behind his ear, put the rune in his mouth, his foot in the iron bucket of salt water, and then — he paused. “Carpool?”
Even with her eyes on him, Karen did not answer immediately. He knew that she wanted to ask her own question, to halt the routine and ruminate, and he waited for it with jaw clenched, resisting the urge to look at his watch. Instead, she smiled and said, “Sure.” She lifted the baby from the high chair and followed. She adjusted Jimmy Jr.’s connection and drew a crescent on his forehead with ashes of willow, then she placed two silver coins on her eyes and tucked seaweed into her ears. She kissed her husband.
Together, they touched the crystal ball and dove in.
They flitted the ether, riding the cumin essence track until they could merge with the digisilk boulevard. They dropped the baby off at the nursery ziggurat where he would learn his symbols and play cuckoo tattleball with his friends, while his surplus naptime synapses fed improvement of the peripheral scrimshaw networks. Karen veered away at the server spiral and Jim continued his commute. Traffic jammed at the wicker bypass, and he tried a shortcut on some passing tags of whale song, but they wouldn’t hold. Stuck, he checked his memoglyphs, unraveling their light strands and sucking them through, to brief himself on today’s assignment. The content was generic corporate motiprep, the usual words and graphics about iterative process, megamilestones and depth mining. Eventually the flow resumed. When he came to the ingress, he sighed and plunged in.
The project expanse formed around him. He felt his thousand co-workers assembled alongside, brigades aligned into the crimson distance. The template floor spread instantly away from their feet, swimming flat smoke spotted with heather brush and darting neon details. Behind them, the fortified data keep pulsed, a thunderhead of spinning wisp and substance, scrolling and threading with dynamic cuneibytes. They waited, gripping their scriptiblades anxiously, until the klaxon sounded for work to begin.
The divining stats had been right. Millions more shapes formed on the opposite side, digital spirits sublimated to solids in a crepitant shimmer, and the Bonoto-Vich army appeared, mounted on jittering abstract steeds. When their weapons fully rezzed, they lowered their logo lances and charged, howling hexes as they rode. It was a branding war.
The skirmish lasted all day. The competitors advanced with campaign trebuchets and viral market rams. They pummeled the front lines with brainstorm howitzers and focus group javelins. They unleashed berserker interns from the hinterfarms and expert variable archers, which slew many of the freelance ranks. Jim beheaded their chief commlusionist and proactivated a desperate final assault.
When the pixel dust settled and the enemy stragglers limped away, the project floor smelled of ozone and sweat. The victors gathered the data spoils and filtered them into the hubernacle. Jim received pats on the back and emotiglyphs when the team hunkered around a packet fire. They downed defragging lager and bellowed songs of victory. Some polished their weapons, while most of them slept until endchime. They were rising to leave when a new work order danced in their eyeboxes.
A new army appeared on the horizon. Some of them so massive that they blurred the margins of the conference realm. They roared and chanted, pumping the air with gigantic subpoena shovels, and propaganda truncheons, swinging zealotry cleavers. Jim’s resolve weakened and he saw the huebodies of his colleagues dim as well. They staggered, exhausted and outnumbered, knowing that few had ever won against the Ecclesial Branch, the most powerful arm in the pentacle of the AmalgaNation. He sent off a note to his wife saying he’d be working another extended shift, and tint-coded it with his will and a copy of the life insurance policy he’d hacked from the open source gray market.
He forgot who he was for a time, wading all night in entropy and blood.
He stumbled off the commuter couch just before dawn and found his wife and son asleep on the Murphy plasma platform. He stood over them, sore and overtired, feeling a thrum behind his eyes of jealous resentment that seethed, then deepened, making him heavier by the second, until he wanted to shout and wake them, and then scream.
But he knew it was fatigue, and held his breath and trembled until it passed. He didn’t need to remind himself of the fight that she made every day, hurling her persistent voice in the marble briarpatch coliseum, one determined shout against the rulers and their mutant champions, against the misdirected multitudes, in the name of choice. He knew her dedication and her patience with him. He loved her so much that he forgot his weariness for a moment and didn’t hear the first few knocks at the door. He answered with eyes half-closed.
His neighbor Bill Y. told him the news and he could not believe it, but he knew what needed to be done. There was little time.
They descended on the floating carpet to the parking garage, then watered and saddled the horses. They rode to the edge of town where the men and boys gathered with pool cues and broomstick handles and chair legs and boards with nails in them and antique sticks from an extinct ball game. And they waited for the enemy of their way of life.
About the Author
Andrew S. Fuller grew up in Nebraska and other places, climbing trees and reading books. His stories have appeared in Abyss & Apex, Fantastic Metropolis, The Harrow, Every Day Fiction, and Necrotic Tissue, among others. The Circus Wagon was published by Damnation Books in September 2010. His screenplay Effulgence won Best Screenwriter at the 2009 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, with the short film completed and screening the following year. He is founder and editor of Three-lobed Burning Eye speculative fiction magazine. Now he lives in Portland, Oregon, where he climbs rocks and writes stories. Learn more at www.andrewsfuller.com.