My Kind of People
by Travis Cummings
Richard Kepler gripped the steering wheel, as the tension and frustration caused his knuckles to turn white. This was a situation Richard Kepler was neither very experienced with or in the right frame of mind to cope with. Normally GridLockT would take him right to his driveway doing all the work, while he could sit back and relax or maybe get some more paperwork done during the 2-hour commute. The problem was GridLockT was down, and this forced all the under-powered electric cars on the highway to rely on their operators for navigation. Unfortunately left to their own devices the worker ants in their cheap mass-produced business suits, driving their little plastic coffins on wheels were only really good at two things. One was causing accidents, with multiple car pile-ups was the most common. The other thing was linear thinking, driving blindly towards the pile-up, often causing another pile-up a few hundred meters from the first, and generally resulting in a traffic jam of epic proportions. This of course blocked the flow of worker ants on their way home, which in turn would make the ants angry at the stupidity of all the other ants around them.
The horns and shouts were muffled by his own thoughts, which had been burning inside him since the meeting before lunch. It had been his employee evaluation meeting, one where he took the regular loyalty test and discussed his performance with a panel of human resource managers. Heíd gone there with anticipation and pride. The year had been bad for the company, with a strong overseas competitor finding itís way into the domestic market and cutting local margins. But Kepler had done his bit as a shift manager for one of the minor coding lines, keeping up to schedule despite a couple of defections from his programming team. Heíd earnt his promotion, and it was certainly over due. Instead heíd been passed over again, the third time in three years. Grilled about his team and why he hadnít spotted the disloyalty sooner. Accused of not being efficient and queried on how he was able to maintain productivity when down two programmers. He left the meeting in shame and returned to his cubicle, working over lunchtime, avoiding his breaks for the rest of the day, while the resentment and anger brewed quietly.
Now he sat in his car, stuck halfway between a work place he struggled not to hate, and the little piece of sprawling suburban wasteland he called home. His wife would be waiting for him, with her high expectations that would quickly turn when she learnt of his failure. She didnít love him, just the money he brought home, and the prestige he was supposed to win. He didnít look forward to dealing with her contempt and her infidelity just now. So unlike the others around him, angry and animated in their frustrations, Richard Kepler just sat, unconsciously clutching at the wheel, his last element of control and dignity, afraid to let go.
He ignored the people getting out of their cars and cursing at each other about some little fender bender, the pushing and the shoving in his mind took precedence over that which was unfolding through the windscreen in front of him. He ignored the Lone Star police cruisers, creeping along the service lane, trying to clear it of the occasional commuter looking to make some ground, maintaining a presence and keeping people under control. He ignored the heat as much as he could. The smog blanket above him blocked the sun but it also trapped the heat, with which his air-conditioning was fighting a losing battle. He ignored the complaints of his body for as long as he could, his stomach complaining of the missed lunch, his throat betraying his thirst, and his head suffering from the suppressed raging. Eventually, he had to do something.
Loosing the last of his tolerance, refusing to be held back anymore, he spun the wheel to take him into the service lane. Immediately one of the Lone Star patrol drones buzzing overhead focused in on his vehicle. Richard saw the beam illuminate in the dusty haze as it scanned the barcode on its plates, identifying and automatically billing him for his traffic offense. Even as he drove up along and past the frozen stream of traffic a patrol cruiser would be notified and dispatched to deal with the offender, Richard didnít care, he was taking action, he needed to get away from the herd.
He took the first off-ramp that offered him a hope of freedom, turning away from the honking traffic that was slowly choking itself. He followed the road, barely noticing the neighborhood that grew up around him as he drove. The buildings were old and mistreated, neglected for too long and taken for granted. They were suffering, stained and scarred by the corrosive rain, occasionally branded by the local parasites with vivid displays of gang colors marking out who claimed each block. Theyíd been left to do their job, without respect, without reward. It probably even surprised the building owners when they discovered the decay, but even then they didnít act. The owners just left them to rot, renting them out to the people most likely to accelerate the process, the people that couldnít afford better, the lower quartile of humanity.
Richard could see them now, scuttling home from their factory jobs before it got dark and the bottom- feeders came out to play. Others were just heading out, afraid to linger, and hurrying to their destinations based on the assumption it was better than here. Some cast shadows of the nightlife, youths gathering in packs and streetwalkers beginning their working day, already staking out territory along the harsh neon strip. A few tried to flag him down, displaying their wares, trying to make an early sale. These people were discards, made ugly by their environment and unwanted by all. Richard could see that. Something tangled inside him could also see a little bit of himself in these people and buildings around him. That hard twisted knot inside kept him focused on his anger and hunger, and found him a spot in the parking lot of Sparkyís Bar and Grill.
He slammed the door without thinking, clicking the key chain and leaving the car to flash and beep as he turned to march toward the door of the bar. The young gutter punks and street trash looked on with uncertainty, trying to evaluate this newcomer. His clothes and car marked him as an outsider, and his coming here marked him as someone that was either a stupid fool or someone that could take care of himself. He didnít show the fear and anxiety that normally branded a suitable victim so they gave him the benefit of the doubt right now, turning their attention to finding an easier score. Richard dismissed them with a casual glance, they barely registered as he walked past and entered the bar.
It was darker in here; the few windows that were here were covered in a strong mesh, obscuring and twisting the dwindling light from outside. Small tables were scattered around, dim lights from above illuminating them. The booths around the walls seemed happier in the shadows, with the occasional light fixture on the flimsy dividing walls. The bar itself was well lit and protruded out into the middle of the room from the far wall, and Richard could see a few figures, one dirty old man keeping bar in a greasy apron and two hunched figures perched on stools and drinking at the bar. Muffled bass beats thumped from the jukebox as he sat down on stool, slapping his hands down on the bar, bringing the bartender shuffling over.
"Yo, whatcha after?"
"A shot of synth-whisky and a beer. You got food here?" Richard was direct, as he looked around studying his environment, paying little attention the man behind the bar.
"Sure, Iíll just get you menu"
"Donít bother, just get me a soy-steak," Richard pulled out his cred-stick and jammed it into the slot- reader molded into the bar beside him, authorizing the transfer of enough nuyen to pay for his order and leave a healthy tip. "Make it quick."
"Five minutes okay?"
Richard switched the focus of his attention and looked at the bartender, as if surprised the man was still here, and then dismissed him with a sharp nod of his head. He watched as the man went about his work, a little more urgency in his shuffle than before. He soon received his drinks, downing the whisky quickly and then nursing the beer. This place seemed right, itís gritty darkness providing comfort and companionship to his tangled knot of frustrations and rejections, allowing him to slowly unwind without unraveling.
He found himself studying the other two patrons further down the bar. They tried to ignore him, their grim tired faces turned away, talking in low voices punctuated by irregular bitter laughter, cut short before they drew too much attention. Richard was fascinated by them, and began to imagine their lives. They were like him, hard workers, deserving of more than what they got. Their surroundings held them back, fed off their dreams and ideas, took away any thing good they created. A part of him belonged here with them, and he took comfort in knowing there were others like him, it helped him cope.
Caught up in his critical fantasy he didnít notice the approach of a stranger, emerging from one of the darkened booths moving across the room and taking a seat beside him. The stranger gripped his shoulder and spoke a soft greeting that Richard missed as he jumped from the surprise, knocking his drink over the bar.
"Frag!" Richard was brought back to reality quickly, beer dripping from his left cuff which had been resting on the bar, a strong hand on his shoulder, and he turned angrily towards the stranger.
"Sorry about that," the Ork was grinning a wide smile, displaying his ivory tusks. "I didnít mean to startle you."
Richard had never seen an Ork before. Well heíd seen them in movies and on the 3D of course and once or twice on the side of the road begging as he drove past. Heíd never been this close, able to see the wrinkles of amusement on his green leathery face, close enough to shake hands, which is what this victim of goblinization wanted to do, sticky out a friendly hand. This Orkís behavior went against every preconception Richard had. Instead of dealing with a violent human-hating criminal here was a well kept person dressed in reasonable clothing, smiling and offering his open hand? Heart pounding, his preconceptions not quite willing to be brushed away just yet, Richard accepted the hand.
"Iím Nark, itís a pleasure to meet you."
"Ah, yeah. Likewise." Richard was still in shock as his shook the Orkís solid hand.
"Iíll get you another drink," said Nark, speaking in a warm calming voice as he waved over the bartender, to clean up the mess and poor another beer.
"Um, donít worry about it," mumbled Richard, stunned by the clarity of speech. The entertainment industry had taught him to expect slurred guttural language from an Ork. This man spoke as if heíd been educated.
"I do that all the time Iím afraid. I unfortunately happen to be very quiet when I move; itís almost a curse. I always forget to make some noise when Iím about to greet someone. Still, it can be a very useful skill at times so I canít really complain. Marketable some would say."
Richard wasnít getting enough time to think. He was still blinking and his heart rate was slowly dropping.
"Iím sure youíre a very busy man," queried Nark, his voice still warm and relaxed. "Shall we proceed to the business at hand Mr. Johnson?"
"You had a proposal for me to consider."
"Iím sorry?" Richard was very confused.
"You are Mr. Johnson?" It was a cautious question rather than a statement.
"Itís Richard Kepler actually. Iím just here for some food and a drink."
Nark cleared his throat carefully, as if suppressing a curse. "My apologies Mr. Kepler, I mistook you for someone else. We donít normally get many business people stopping by for dinner. I canít imagine itís what youíre used to."
"Oh no, I think I like it here," explained Richard. "My kind of people."
Nark looked at this man. A freaking fruit loop. What were they putting in the corporate water supply these days?
©1999, Travis Cummings - used with permission