Friday, May 22, 2020

Larry's Terrible Day By James Rumpel

James Rumpel tells of a near future in which a malfunctioning phone is more than just an inconvenience.

Larry Boland glanced at his phone. He had his first phone implanted into his arm was when he was fourteen, a little later than most of his peers. Now, three upgrades and nine years later, his wrist was home to the most advanced communication device bit-coins could buy.

Unfortunately, even with all that technology, he could not make the line to the med-distribution kiosk move any faster. His phone told him that it was 7:41. If he didn't get to the front of the line and get his daily dosage of medications soon, he was in grave danger of missing his train.

For a moment, Larry considered leaving the line and going directly to the boarding area but he knew that was not an option. He needed treatments to deal with his attention deficit disorder, his dry mouth, his occasional bouts of gas, and the subtle throbbing he sometimes felt at his temples. He couldn't imagine trying to survive a day having to deal with all of those maladies.

While waiting in line, Larry tried to examine the day's posts on his phone. For some unknown reason, the downloads were extremely slow. He waited nearly thirty seconds to find out if his friend, Greg, had gone through with the plan to send a private chat invitation to a girl he had met on a dating app. Unable to put up with the eternal delay, Larry decided to check his currency balance. Again, his phone moved at a snail's pace. The display bar which indicated how far along the data feed had progressed, much like the medication line, was barely moving.

When he finally reached the front of the line, Larry placed his left arm in the machine and scanned his phone over the reader. To his great dismay, the monitor flashed red and a message appeared saying "UNABLE TO READ INPUT". He moved his wrist in front of the reader one more time with the same result.

"Come on, Buddy. Get moving," yelled someone in the waiting crowd.

Larry's third failed attempt earned him a different message: "PLEASE MOVE FROM THE LINE AND AWAIT THE ARRIVAL OF TECHNICAL PERSONNEL."

Waiting for help would mean missing the train. He was going to be late for work. The next person in line was already starting to force her way to the kiosk. Frustrated, Larry moved to the side and watched as the young lady received her drugs with no difficulty. Larry rechecked the time on his phone. He noticed the display was not as bright as normal. The time was 7:53. It was with great anxiety that Larry decided to forego his daily treatments. He took off at a brisk pace toward the train platform.

At the entry gate, he swung his wrist and phone in front of the scanner. He nearly tripped over the turnstile when it refused to budge. The scanner had declined his pre-paid boarding pass. A second attempt also failed.

"Not again," shouted someone from behind. "Get out of our way if you don't know how to work a scanner."

Larry was forcibly pushed aside by the agitated crowd. When he looked down at his phone, he noticed that the display screen was now totally black. He had only recently purchased the best available phone implant. This should not have been happening. It took all of his internal strength not to scream in frustration.

"What seems to be the problem?" asked a voice from behind.

Larry turned to see an elderly man of at least 50. "My phone isn't working. I can't get onto the train platform. I know my pass should be good. I paid for the year in advance."

"Well, you're not getting through that gate without it reading your phone. I believe there is an office somewhere that will let you buy a physical ticket."

Succumbing to the fact that he was going to be late for work, Larry decided that the man's suggestion was probably his best course of action. He looked at this blank phone before asking the old man, "Can you direct me to that office? I don't think my direction app is going to work."

"It's somewhere behind the convenience stand. I think there are signs to direct you."

Larry thanked the gentleman and began looking for the ticket-sales office. Usually, his wrist-phone would have directed him to the correct area. Without that option, he tried to decipher the multitude of signs posted throughout the station. He was amazed that he had never noticed them before.

After fifteen exasperating minutes, he finally located the office. It was tucked into a remote corner of the building. He entered to find a small, unkempt room. Tiny pieces of paper and discarded tickets littered the floor. A man was behind the counter. He was leaning on his elbows; his eyes shut.

Larry cleared his throat as he approached, causing the man to straighten with a sudden jerk. Larry couldn't help but notice the man's eyes. The ticket seller's eyes were very large and there was much more white in them than there should have been. Larry couldn't decide if the man's pupils were too small or if his eyeballs were too large. Those eyes would give anyone the initial impression that this fellow was insane.

"Can I help you," asked the strange-eyed man with a remarkably normal voice.

Larry started to lift his phone. He had to take a picture of this guy's eyes and post it on Pic-Share. He was reaching for the screen to open the camera app when he remembered that his phone was dead.

"I need to buy a ticket to Foghill Station," he told the man. "When is the next train?"

"The next train leaves in twenty minutes." The man clicked a few buttons on his computer screen and a printer could be heard humming behind him. The man extended a portable scanner towards Larry and said: "That will be forty-two dollars or twenty-five bit-coins."

Larry waved his wrist in front of the scanner, hoping it would somehow read his phone and subtract the necessary amount from his account. It did not.

"Oh, that's okay," said the clerk. He stared intently at Larry; his eyes blinked far less than they should have. "You can pay with cash."

"I don't carry cash. Nobody does. My phone is broken. Can't you just let me have a ticket? I will repay when I get my phone repaired." Larry realized he was talking louder than he needed to. He felt a subtle throbbing around his eyes.

The ticket clerk shook his head. "I'm not allowed to do that. Don't you have a friend who could let you get the money from their account?"

"No," replied Larry before quickly adding, "I mean, I have friends, two hundred-thirty-seven of them on Social-Page and a bunch more followers on Insta-Quote, but I don't actually know them."

"Well, I don't think I can help you," announced the man. After a brief pause, during which he glanced around the room suspiciously, he gestured for Larry to come closer.

Thinking that the odd-looking man might be offering some sort of clandestine solution to his problem, he obliged.

When Larry moved closer, the clerk whispered, "I think I know what happened to you and your phone. The government randomly deletes people. It doesn't kill them. It just takes away all of their accounts. I think the government has removed you from the database. If you ask me, it's the same thing as being killed."

Larry pulled back. "That's stupid. My phone is broken. There is nothing more or less going on here."

As he stormed out of the office, escaping the lunatic, he decided that his best course of action would be to find a phone repair shop.

He was in the main station when he realized he had no idea where to find a such a shop. He wandered around the building searching for a directory of local businesses. There was none to be found. Again, the urge to scream was nearly irresistible.

"Excuse me," said someone near.

"What?" Larry snapped as he turned to face the same older man who had tried to help him earlier. When he realized how angry he must have sounded, Larry took a deep breath before continuing. "I'm sorry. I am having a terrible day and I have a headache. I'm trying to find a place to get my phone fixed."

The gentleman shook his head slightly. "No problem at all. I understand your frustration. I believe there is a phone repair store about nine or ten blocks north of here. It's on this side of the street."

"Thank you very much." Larry wasn't looking forward to a long hike. He had already reached three-quarters of his daily step goal on his treadmill earlier. With all of his searching about the station, he was certain he was beyond the required number of steps. Of course, he had no way to check his total since his phone was not cooperating.

Larry took a couple of steps towards the station exit but suddenly stopped and turned back to the old man. "Oh, one more thing. Which way is north?"

The first block or two of Larry's walk seemed very awkward to him. Eventually, he realized why. This was the first time in years that he had walked down a street with his head raised. He always walked with his eyes on the phone. Today, he was seeing the faces of passersby and not just their feet. None of the other people on the street made eye contact with him, however. They were all looking at their phones.

Larry was struck by how dull and colorless the street was. For block after block, he passed one gray box-shaped building after another. The only variations from store-front to store-front were the bright video boards by the entrance of each business. The boards would call people by name as they passed by, telling them about the wonders in store for them if they entered. None of the video signs called out to Larry. They were unable to grab his personal information from his phone.

He nearly missed the building he was looking for. His phone failed to announce that the destination had been reached. Had the store not called out to some other person about the great deals available on the newest model phone, Larry would not have realized he was at the correct place.

Inside, he was quickly approached by a smiling saleswoman.

"Good morning, what may I do to help you?" she asked.

"My phone is broken. I think it's still under warranty. I need it fixed as soon as possible."

"Let's have a look. Follow me." The woman led Larry to a booth in the back of the store. "Go ahead and scan your info."

Larry, knowing that it would not work, waved his arm over the scanning device.

"Well, that thing seems to be totally dead." A look of surprise replaced the salesperson's pleasant grin. "I've never seen that before. Let me go see if anybody else here knows about this sort of thing." Without another word, she disappeared into a back room.

Larry waited impatiently for about fifteen minutes. When she returned, the smile was, once again, plastered to her face.

"So, we have three options. None of them are going to be overly convenient for you, however. First, we could schedule surgery to remove your phone and then have it sent in to be repaired. You would probably have to wait a couple of weeks to get the phone back. The other choice is to install a second phone on your left arm. We could probably have that done later today." She paused before continuing.

Larry mulled over those two alternatives. "I guess I don't want to have to go without a phone for multiple weeks, but I sure don't want the hassle of another phone. Plus, I would look like some sort of techno-maniac having a phone on each arm. What is the other possibility?"

"We could scrounge up a non-implanted phone for you to use until a technician can be called in to repair your current device. I know having an unattached phone is a real pain, but it is the easiest alternative. It allows you to have a phone. Do you need a phone?"

Larry's felt his face flush as he snarled, "Of course I need a phone." It seemed to Larry that every conversation he had this day involved him having to inhale slowly to control his temper. "I guess I will take the old-style phone."

The saleswoman was still smiling, seemingly unaffected by Larry's angry tone. "I am going to need some information from you so that I can access your account." She handed Larry a pen and a questionnaire.

The form was not overly lengthy. It asked for Larry's name, address, social identification number, and some banking details. Larry hoped he had remembered the banking information correctly. He found himself shaking his hand to ease the cramping, He couldn't recall the last time he had used a pen. Eventually, Larry returned the questionnaire to the woman.

"Great," she said as she started to enter Larry's data into her computer.

"Not great," she said after a short time. "Are you sure you filled out your name and SI number correctly? The computer system is not recognizing you at all."

Larry grabbed the paper and verified that he had written the correct name and number. "Yes, that is me."

"Excuse me one more time," said the woman as she returned to the back room.

Ten minutes later, a large man emerged from the rear of the store. He walked up to Larry and said, "If you're being honest, we have to wait until someone at headquarters can verify your information. There is nothing about you in the computer system. Come back in three days and we should have your info. That is, if you're not trying to pull off some sort of hustle. If you are, you need to leave right now and not come back. Do I make myself clear?"

Larry just wanted this day to be over. "OK," he said. "I'll be back. I'm telling the truth and I need to get my phone fixed. But I don't like the way I've been treated. I'll be posting some pretty low ratings on Biz-Star when I get my phone back." He stormed out of the store, realizing that his little tirade probably would not increase his chances of getting his phone fixed by this company. He didn't care.

The seventeen-block walk to his apartment did little to improve Larry's mood. He had no way to hail or pay a Share-Car. He was tired and hungry. Without a working phone, he had been unable to purchase any food or drink during his long trek. He had derived a plan to use his old laptop to get hold of his parents even though he had not spoken with them in months. Maybe he could figure out how to send an old-fashioned e-mail. They were old, they might have some real currency.

He reached to open the door to his building and nearly broke into tears when the door refused to budge. The scanner adjacent to the door seemed to mock Larry; beeping softly whenever he pulled on the door handle.

He sat down on the curb and buried his head in his hands.

"Excuse me, I think I can help you," said a somewhat familiar voice.

Larry looked up to see the same gentleman he had encounter twice earlier in the day.

"May I sit? We need to talk," said the man as he joined Larry on the curb.

"You... you're part of all this," accused Larry.

"Yes and no," replied the man. "I did not start the events that have transpired, but I can offer a solution. Have you ever heard the rumors that the government randomly deletes the files of people?"

"I've heard about it once, from a crazy man."

"Apparently, he wasn't all that crazy, because it's true. Well, mostly. The truth is the people are not selected randomly. They choose people who have small families, few close friends, and non-essential jobs. The goal is to create as little chaos as possible when they remove these people."

Larry still found the story unbelievable. "Why would they do that?" he asked.

"It's a secret. Some think it's to absorb the deleted person's funds, sort of the ultimate tax. Others think it's a punishment for failure to be productive. Maybe the government just does it to make things interesting. Whatever the reason, you are no longer recognized by the world's computers. You, for all practical purposes, do not exist."

Larry did not feel any better about his circumstances. He also was still incredibly confused about what was going on. "So, what do you have to do with this?"

The man smiled. "When someone is erased, the government tells me. I, or one of my associates, find that individual and offer them an alternative."

"What kind of alternative?"

"I can take you to a place where it doesn't matter that you have been removed from the grid. Everyone who is removed is offered the same chance. Most end up accepting. Let me take you to the place I am talking about. You can see it for yourself."

Larry was far from convinced. "How do I know this isn't part of some con or scheme? How can I trust you?"

Again, the man smiled. "You can stay and try to figure out how to survive on your own. You've seen how this day has gone. Maybe you can figure it out. I promise you will have a better life coming with me and being part of our world as opposed to being locked out of this one."

Larry continued to search for an alternative. "I could go to the press. I bet if my story was posted on a newsfeed, I could get help."

"Possibly. You would not be the first to try. But you still have the option of trying to do that after you check out my sanctuary."

"OK, I'll come and take a look. I don't have to stay if I don't like it, right?"

The man stood up and offered a hand to help Larry to his feet. "Exactly. Now come with me. My automobile is parked a short distance away."

It was nearly a three-hour drive from the city. The man's outdated ethanol-powered car did not have any of the features that new vehicles offered. There was no automatic navigation or GPS instructions. There wasn't a media center to constantly read texts and social posts. Larry and the man spoke very little. The ride was quiet and peaceful.

Larry stared out the window and noticed that the landscape had slowly transformed from a dark, gray city to lush green vegetation. He contemplated the events of the day. Why had he been erased? Why did have to be the one selected as the loser of this bizarre lottery?

The driver exited the highway and taken a small paved path for the final half-hour of the trip. Larry turned down the window and took a deep breath. He noticed the scent of lilacs in the fresh air. It was then that he realized that, even without his meds, he didn't have a headache. He had not had one since much earlier in the day.

When the car stopped in front of a large steel gate, the two men exited the vehicle and approached the compound. The gate swung open as they neared.

"Here we are," said the man. He stepped back and watched as Larry looked at the scene beyond the gate.

A group of children played on a field of thick green grass. Next to a large wooden home, five young men and women were busy working in a large, bountiful garden. A couple sat, hand in hand, on a swing suspended from the bough of a large tree. Everywhere he looked, Larry saw the beauty of nature and people basking in it.

Larry realized he was smiling. Maybe, just maybe, he had won.

7 comments:

  1. Sorry about the two noticeable errors (the extra "was" in the second sentence and the missing "had" in the first sentence of fourth paragraph from the end.) I am amazed at how I can read something fifty times on my word document and not notice a thing, but as soon as I see it formatted on the web stuff jumps right out at me.

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  2. Larry's post modern predicament is entertainingly written. It mirrors and exaggerates modern techno life, fun parody of our techno addictions. Quiet might take some getting used to for Larry... but I think he's gonna be ok in the nature rehab.facility.

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  3. Interesting (and scary) extrapolation of our current technology. Glad you gave Larry an out. Well done. Thank you.

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  4. I was a little relieved that the phone was just implanted on people's arms, rather than a microchip in the brain. But I fear that is coming. Larry's mounting frustration is well conveyed.

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  5. The complete dependence on technology is very believable, we're basically there already (aside from the surgical implants). Still trying to sort out the government's motivation for "deleting" people...doesn't seem like the scale is large enough to be about $$...very mysterious.

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  6. I agree that I couldn't understand any rationale for the government deleting people. But the presentation of tech dependance was great. When we get to "Which way is north?" we know we are in trouble.

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  7. I really enjoyed the mystery behind the government deleting. Perhaps they are experimenting to see if humans can survive without the technology for further experimentations? It's interesting and fun to sit back and think about what their purpose really is. Thanks for writing! I have always enjoyed your stories!

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