I’m taking part in this year’s version of the NYC Midnight Short Story contest. The way it works is that for every round folks are divided into groups and each group is given a particular assignment in terms of genre, scenario, and a required character, along with a limited amount of time to write a story. As the competition goes on (there are four rounds in total) the time given to write the stories shrinks (as do the maximum word counts, thankfully).
The first round stories were due back in January. I was drawn into a group where the required genre was sci-fi, the scenario was a job interview, and the character was a mercenary. The word limit was 2500 words. The results finally came in last week and I made it out of the first group! So along with about 800 others I had to write a new story last weekend for the second round. We’ll see how that goes.
Here’s the story from the first round, “The Nickel Tour.” I took the title from a phrase used in my office when we interview someone and then show them around the office. That definitely played into the story and the setting. Enjoy!
The Nickel Tour
Reynolds was having a hard time taking his eyes off the stun grenade sitting on of the table. It was inert, or so the mercenary sitting across from them had said. Ada – that was all, just Ada – had assured her interviewers that unless the lights along the centerline were flashing it was perfectly safe, a harmless lump about the size of an egg, shaped like a rugby ball. Nothing to worry about.
Nearly all the other mercenaries interviewed for this new security position had been caught at the building checkpoint trying to bring in some kind of weapon. Ada hadn’t, which made her all the more impressive. She didn’t even look like a merc. The others looked like they had all come from central casting, clad in leather and with enough scars to fill a plastic surgery convention. Ada sat calmly, in a tailored light grey suit, with short blond hair, and blouse buttoned up to her neck. If someone from outside walked in on this, she would look like just another lawyer trying to get a job. Yet, somehow, she got that grenade into the office.
“You’ve had experience with sudden, emergent, rapidly changing situations?” Tacey, one of the partners, asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ada said, shifting to look the attorney directly in the eyes. “I was part of the response team that dealt with the environmental collapse on Keneally Station out in The Ring. There was a sudden spike in CO2 levels, along with failing hydroponics and water regulators. Within a day the place was becoming toxic. Needless to say, people there were panicked and had to be contained.”
The way she said “contained” made Reynolds’ mouth dry. She made the violent control of desperate people sound like no more than a Saturday picnic.
“What about more long term problems? Something that you just can’t fix overnight?” Dipali, the senior partner, asked.
“Sir, I was on the Revenant when that mess went down,” she said, shifting again. “I can assure you, there was no short term solution there, but we managed to keep a lid on things.”
“What happened on the Revenant?” Reynolds asked. The others at the table looked at him like he’d asked them why water was wet.
“It was a long haul liner bound for Europa,” Ada explained. “There was some unpleasantness aboard.”
“On a cruise ship?” Reynolds asked, chuckling nervously.
“It wasn’t that kind of a liner, sir,” Ada continued. “It was full of refugees wanting to start a new life off-world. What the agents hadn’t realized is that they put a bunch of people in this ship who came from different clans that had been battling each other for generations – in business, arts, politics. Left with months of nothing to do other than stew on old grudges in close quarters, things turned . . . unpleasant.”
Everyone else around the table nodded, so Reynolds didn’t ask anything else. He returned his attention to the stun grenade and wondered how many of them she’d used during that “unpleasantness.”
“Your resume is impressive,” Tacey said, “but almost all of it is off-world.”
Ada nodded. “I’ve spent most of my career in The Ring, working for various mining co-ops. There was also a stint on Mars as part of a personal security detail. And I did a pair of deep space runs. I’m very comfortable in space. I’m very comfortable taking control of situations.”
“Then why come back to Earth? Why now?”
“Life in space can be very transitory, very unsettled,” she said. “I’ve reached the point in my life where I want more permanence. It sounds corny, but I just want to find a place to call home, maybe raise a family.”
“How long have you been off-world?” asked Dipali.
“Long enough that I need to make the choice before my body does it for me,” Ada said. “I’ve chosen Earth and I think this position would suit me very well.”
Tacey asked, “any experience with interdimensional beings?”
She squirmed in her seat. “Nothing professionally, ma’am. I’ve seen the vids, I’ve done some reading. I can assure you, however, that I’m very good at getting up to speed in a new situation.”
The members of the hiring committee looked at each other and nodded.
“I think that’s all we need,” Dipali said, standing and extending his hand. “We’ll be in touch before the end of the week. For now, Reynolds here will give you the nickel tour. It was very nice to meet you.”
“You, too, sir.” Ada shook hands before everyone else left the room, leaving her and Reynolds alone. “Does every interviewee get to see the office?”
Reynolds shook his head. “You’re the first. I’d say that’s a good sign.” He nodded to the grenade. “Should you pick that up?”
“Leave it,” she said. “It’s a paperweight.”
“You’re the expert,” he said, opening the door into the back office.
The offices of Dipali, Tacey, and Waldroup were like one of those tunnel systems that prairie rodents dig. The outside world sees, at most, the reception area and one of the two conference rooms adjacent to it. Only employees, the odd repair person, and select interviewees get to see what lies beyond.
“Probably seems a little confusing,” Reynolds said as he led her back past a cube farm filled with busy legal assistants. “It will actually make perfect sense once we get back out front.”
“It’s a circle,” Ada said. “But lead on.”
They paused for some introductions, then continued into the more secluded area of the attorneys’ offices.
“How many attorneys are there?” Ada asked after they’d met another pair of associates.
“A dozen,” Reynolds said. “The three partners on the front door, a couple of junior partners, and then the associates, like me.”
“How long have you worked here?”
“Couple of years. That’s why I was in on your interview, since I was the last hire. It’s kind of a tradition.”
“And what is it you do, exactly?” She was in earnest, information gathering mode, not just making idle chit chat.
“I specialize in cultural understandings, and misunderstandings, in interdimensional contract law. I was brought on when the firm started doing interdimensional work. It’s the same reason we’re hiring a security specialist.”
Ada nodded as they walked down the curved corridor. “Cultural understandings? You make sure nobody’s feelings get hurt?”
He shook his head. “A contract is a meeting of the minds between two parties, or more, to do particular things. You have to know the cultural background of each party to know how that meeting of the minds happens or if it happens at all. Think of it as a way to avoid any . . . unpleasantness.”
Ada nodded at the call back. “Like what?”
“You said you’ve never dealt with an interdimensional being before.”
She shook her head. “Only humans out in space.”
“Well, consider how contract terms might mean different things to a human from our world and, say, a human from Earth-13, where the sky is purple and the sun never really sets. Or if the other party to the contract is a being of pure energy, like the Sostu. Some of our clients are Tuv’O, which for all the world look just like orchids. But they’re sentient!” Reynolds couldn’t help getting excited when he talked about his work.
“And they need contracts?” Ada asked, tugging at her collar.
“If they’re plants, then how do they,” she paused for a moment, swallowing hard, “how do they get around, much less to another dimension?”
“They’re carried around by a bonded pair of Ez’ak – think a Chihuahua crossed with a beetle – with whom they communicate telepathically. It’s really fascinating.”
“If you say so.”
“Now you’re in for a real treat,” Reynolds said. He knocked on a door, then opened it, letting Ada walk in before him. “Meet Frunobulax.”
Ada looked around the cramped room, jammed with sleek, black computer equipment. On top of one black box, near the door, was a small orb, pulsing with pale orange light. “Who?”
“It’s our office AI,” Reynolds said. “Say hi to Ada, Fru.”
The orb’s glow intensified and deepened into the color of a rich sunset. “Hello, Ada,” it said in a smooth, controlled voice that was clearly artificial without sounding like a computer.
“Had much experience with AI?” Reynolds asked.
Ada shook her head. “Just about every ship making runs out past Luna has some kind of AI, but nothing like this.”
“Fru is the cutting edge of AI and machine learning. He was given basic programming, then let loose on the entirety of human knowledge to develop a personality. That’s where he got the name.”
Ada looked at him, confused.
“Frunobulax has something to do with Frank Zappa,” Reynolds explained. “Fru fell deep into his discography during his learning phase and liked the name.”
“It is a very large poodle dog,” Fru threw in.
She nodded, still not getting it. “What does Fru do?”
“I handle most of the background office functions, from environmental controls to lighting,” Fru said.
“All of that’s out of human hands?” Ada asked, voice cracking slightly.
Reynolds nodded. “Those factors can be very important, depending on which clients are around,” Reynolds explained. “Fru is much better at handling them in real time than we’d ever be.”
“I can also analyze data at a much faster rate than the humans,” Fru continued. “And, of course, I manage the mathematics behind the rift generator.”
Her eyes went wide. “What did it say?”
Reynolds grinned. “Come on,” he said, leading her out of the room, closing the door behind him.
They walked past a few more doors, as the loop that was the inner office turned back toward reception, when they came to a black door without any visible handle. Ada looked around as they walked, like all of a sudden she was plotting an exit strategy.
“You’ll like this,” Reynolds said, grinning like a kid showing off his Christmas toys. He leaned in to a panel near the door while a laser scanned his eyes. Once a soft “bong” confirmed he’d passed that test, he exhaled on the panel. It turned green and the door whisked open. He stepped into the doorway to hold it open while Ada walked inside.
The room itself was about the size of a two-car garage. It was immaculately clean, with what appeared to be bare white walls, floor, and ceiling. At the far end was an arch of dull grey metal, studded with pulsing, purple emitters.
When Ada saw it, her hands shot too her mouth, like she’d seen a ghost.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Reynolds said, beaming.
“This law firm really has an interdimensional rift generator?” She said, mouth agape. “I hoped that computer was joking!”
Reynolds nodded. “I said we were on the cutting edge of interdimensional law. How else could we be? It’s a small one, but it gets the job done.”
She gave him a sharp look. “Is that legal?”
“It’s not illegal,” Reynolds said with a shrug. “There’s no law against it, if that’s what you mean. This is an office full of lawyers. You think they’d do something that might be against the law?”
Ada didn’t seem convinced. “But all the other rift generators are in space, either in Earth orbit or out in The Ring.”
“Because that’s where they were first built,” Reynolds said, strolling around the room. “There’s nothing about rift generation that requires vacuum or zero gravity. No reason why you shouldn’t have one on Earth.”
“No reason?” Her voice was rising. She undid the top button on her blouse with one hand and fanned herself with the other. “What about Field Station? That, that . . . thing they summoned?”
“An early calculation error,” Reynolds said, waving away her concern. “Fru would never let that happen here.”
“What about that entire mining colony in The Ring, the one that just disappeared?”
“Sabotage, of course” Reynolds said. “That’s why we’re hiring a security specialist. Are you all right?”
Ada was breathing fast, taking gulping breaths.
“Come on, let’s finish up the tour.” He repeated the process to open the door and Ada ran out ahead of him into the hallway. She was doubled over, gasping, hands on her knees.
Reynolds started to pat her on the back, but thought better of it. “Maybe should have saved that for another day. It’s probably a lot to take in.”
She stood and nodded. “That a device capable of ripping apart the fabric of space, and perhaps wiping out the Earth in the process, is in the hands of a boutique law firm? Yeah, that’s one way to put it.”
“We’re not James Bond villains,” Reynolds said, chuckling. “Come on, we’ll stop by Mr. Waldroup’s office, so you can meet him.”
“Actually, if it’s all right, I should be going,” Ada said. “I know you’ve got work to do and I need to get to the shuttle pad to catch my flight back to Luna.”
Reynolds stopped and was going to ask why she didn’t want to meet the one named partner she hadn’t seen yet, but decided against it. “Sure, Ada. Whatever you say.”
Walking back towards reception he had a hard time matching her pace without starting to trot. It was like she knew where she was going now and was intent on getting there as quickly as possible.
When they reached reception, Reynolds took a couple of longer strides just to make sure she couldn’t bolt straight through the door. He was certain she could brush him aside if need be, but he hoped she wouldn’t end a job interview like that.
Ada stopped, ran a hand through her hair, and took a deep breath. She held out her hand. “Thanks for the tour. It was . . . eye opening.”
“You’re welcome,” Reynolds said. “Like Mr. Dipali said, I’m sure you’ll hear something back by the end of the week.”
She nodded, stepped around him, and through the door.
“Safe travels,” Reynolds said, waving at the closed glass front door.
“What was that all about?” asked the receptionist.
Reynolds shrugged. “Beats me.”
The next morning, Reynolds was checking his email when a new message arrived. The subject line said “Sorry.” It was from Ada.
“Thanks for the tour yesterday,” she said. “I’ve decided that coming back to Earth isn’t the right decision for me, so I won’t be joining your firm.”
“I wanted to tell you to go grab that stun grenade, if you can,” the message continued. “You can activate it by twisting the narrow end three times to the right, then twice to the left. After that, all you have to do is compress it between your hands, throw it, and run like hell.”
“Memorize that, Reynolds,” she said in closing. “You’re going to need it.”
Reynolds locked his workstation and headed for the conference room.