29 comments

Jan 21, 2021

Drama

It started snowing at 11am. Though I have a birds-eye view of the parking lot from my second-floor window, frost coats the edges of the glass, leaving only a small porthole to peer through. I can see the snow piling up near the electric fence and slowly creeping its way across the battered pavement towards the warehouse where I'm stationed.


There are no cars in the lot. Everyone was sent home months ago because of the pandemic, except for the five of us—the skeleton crew—who needed to be onsite in case anything breaks and needs fixing.


Aedna and Hal do the hardware stuff, fitting the robots with new wheels and cameras. Kash and Mo do the software stuff, something about algorithms and coding. Anyway they tell the robots where to go, what to pick up. Then there’s me, Alex. My job is to keep the floors clean so the robots can see the painted lines and find their way through the tidy maze of boxes full of books and dumbbells and blow-up dolls. Though I suppose there's a lot less demand for that stuff now.


1pm. The snow looks about a foot deep, falling in big, fat, heavy flakes. When the wind kicks up, the flakes swirl like those sufi whirling dancers I saw on youtube once. They wore long white tunics and skirts, and twirled like crazy, their hair flying out beneath their tubular hats. Huh, how did they keep the hats on? Maybe they stapled them to their heads. Anyway, you stare at those swirling flakes long enough and you get mesmerized. Hypnotized. You are feeling sleepy, very sleeeeepy, Alex. Very relaxed. Long deep breaths. Nothing can hurt you now, Alex. You’re in a safe place.


I’ve eaten all the food in the communal kitchen, except for a jar of anchovies, because that’s gross. Aedna loves anchovies. She puts them on salads and toast and pizza for Christ's sake. What kind of a degenerate puts anchovies on pizza? 


Pizza. I could really go for a slice of Louie’s famous pepperoni pizza, but I doubt old Louie is still making pizza pie, even if I could call him. The phones haven’t worked for weeks. The landlines went first, and then the mobile phones. Mo left as soon as the phones were cut off. His wife was seven months’ pregnant. They might have had the baby by now.


3pm. A foot and a half of snow, and some small drifts forming. I’d turn on the news to hear the weather report but we’ve not had TV or radio broadcasts for about ten days. It doesn’t matter much anyway. It’s not like I have a car or somewhere to go. The first news report after the phones went down said there was some kind of glitch in the system, but we found out it later it was purposefully destroyed. Sab-o-tage. 


The generator is still working, powering the lights and dormant computers, but there's no warmth running through the radiators. It's gotten so cold the past few days that I've finally resorted to wearing Kash's goose down parka. It was hanging in the cloakroom on the ground floor. I kept thinking he'd come back to get it, but I guess he can't be bothered.


And as much I'd love to order an electric heater with same-day delivery, that's a no-go since the internet went dark last week. That’s also when Kash and Aedna decided to leave. Hal was disappointed, he didn’t think they should abandon their posts. I could hear them arguing all the way from from Hal's office as I stirred my cup-o-soup.


My favourite flavor of cup-o-soup is tomato, though chicken noodle isn't bad either. I glance toward the trash bin near the elevator. The styrofoam cup with remnants of red pulp is still perched on top. I was throwing it in the bin when Aenda and Kash asked if I wanted to leave too. They were getting a ride from Hal.


But Hal was already in the elevator, impatiently swinging a keyring round his left index finger while holding the door open with his right. I could tell he was in a hurry and didn't want to wait for me. I shook my head in a silent 'no thanks' and waved as the elevator doors closed. That was seven days ago. I've been on my own since.


4pm. At least two feet of snow with drifts twice as high, climbing up the fence. My fingers absently twirl the key fob in my coat pocket. It unlocks the stock room in the basement that I’ve cleaned every day for months. Correction, every day except the past seven days. Can you call yourself a skeleton crew if there's only one of you? I'm just a thigh bone on my own.


And this thigh bone ain't getting any warmer or fatter watching the world turn white. Time to see if I can find a heater and some food in the labyrinth of bar-coded boxes.


I take the stairs to the basement because I don’t trust the elevator. If I get stuck, who am I gonna call? I press the key fob against the panel near the stock room door and hear the familiar sound of bolts moving, clicking, and unlocking. I pull the door open and step in. It looks pretty much like I remember. A big room, the size of a football field with a 30-foot ceiling and rows of metal shelves stacked to the brim with boxes, creating narrow corridors where the robots roam.


The motion-activated lights nearest me wake up. I notice my breath rising in little puffs of steam and rub my hands together to warm them. It's always cold in here, but it cuts to the bone today. On my left, I spot the dim shapes of the robots, sleeping in their bays. The size of squat washing machines, they're two feet tall, but powerful enough to move rolling shelves loaded with laptops, and Barbie dolls, and barbecue grills.


All the bays are full except one. I make a mental note to look out for the rogue robot. It's probably roving the corridors, trying to find its way back to the recharging roost before its battery dies. If I run across it, I'd like nothing more than to ask, 'hey bud, take me to the cups-o-soup', because I have no idea how things are organised. The cardboard boxes have bar codes or RFID tags, whatever those are. All I know is that I don’t read robot.


I pick a row at random and grab one of the boxes on the shelf that’s waist-high. I cut it open with my pen knife and fish around inside to find out what I’ve won. Tampons. The next box along has tubes of toothpaste. I pocket a few, and try another row, venturing deeper into the room. More lights flicker on.


The smell hits me first.


It reminds me of the time I came back to my apartment after two weeks away to find my pet rat, Mable, dead and decomposing in her cage. I thought I’d pretty much lost my sense of smell over the years, but whatever this is, it’s pungent. Maybe some meat has spoiled?


I hear a noise, a faint whirring sound. I hold my breath and walk quietly toward it.


It’s the wayward robot, poking around the corner of a row, fifteen-feet dead ahead. I breathe out in relief, releasing a large cloud of steam. Approaching the robot, I see that the back wheels are trying to turn, but something is preventing escape.


Rounding the corner, I see the source of the stalemate. A bloody tablecloth is twisted around the robot's front wheels. Kash is kneeling on the floor, half-slumped against a shelf. A perfect bullet hole mars his forehead, but there are no other signs of struggle. Aedna is lying face down, her torso bent over a crushed box of tablecloths, blood soaking through the contents. Her right hand rests limply on the trapped robot.


I hear breathing behind me. I turn slowly.


Hal is standing in front of me, holding a gun casually in one hand, and an opened can of kidney beans in the other. He smiles, offers me the beans and says, “Guess we’ll be a proper skeleton crew tonight.”

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29 comments

Heather Mcquaid
12:55 Jan 23, 2021

I've noodled this a few times already, based on some excellent feedback. But I welcome more!

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Tom .
20:56 Jan 22, 2021

Dont write a part 2. People need to appreciate the beauty of a smart cliffhanger. I was trying to look for a 'Saturn 3' type twist (it's the robot). So the human reveal was perfect. It was a fresh locked in premise, current and up to date. I loved how she was almost a robot servant. Cleaning for them. Good Job.

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Heather Mcquaid
21:11 Jan 22, 2021

Hi Tom, many thanks for reading and commenting. I was thinking about hinting that the robot was the killer, that's why I chose Hal as the killer's name (from the psychotic computer in 2001: Space Odyssey). But probably most folks on here are too young to know that movie/book. :) And I for one, welcome our robot overlords... Ah, I'm not sure I consciously chose Alex to be a servant to the robots, I just wanted him/her to not really care about technology that much, but now that you mention it, let's go with the subtext you identified, it'...

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Tom .
21:14 Jan 22, 2021

I didn't spot the HAL reference. I feel dumb now. The inspiration for HAL came from one of my favourite books. Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

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Heather Mcquaid
21:19 Jan 22, 2021

Well, I was trying to be all subtle and subliminal about it, so maybe it's better you didn't consciously make the connection. I've not read much Heinlein, but I do like good sci fi, so I'll add it to my reading list.

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Tom .
21:23 Jan 22, 2021

Start with 'Stranger in a Strange Land'. 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' is written entirely in space slang. Even when I reread it, it takes about 50 pages to tune my brain back in.

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Heather Mcquaid
21:27 Jan 22, 2021

Yeah, Stranger in Strange Land was great. That may have been only Heinlein I've read, and it was many years ago, so probably worth a re-read.

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Claire Lewis
15:01 Jan 23, 2021

I feel like I have to honor your pun with one of my own... I think you packaged this nicely! Ha. But seriously, this is just awesome. I love how you have so much going on but it doesn’t feel overdone or rushed at all! That’s something I always have a hard time with, so kudos to you :) The warehouse, the sab-o-tage, and the narrator’s dilemma of no food/heat give enough conflict and tension that there’s no way to see the ending coming. I was shocked and I loved every second of it! Here are some other things I liked: -the narrative voice ...

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Heather Mcquaid
15:22 Jan 23, 2021

thank you, thank you, thank you (and also for the pun). I'm realising that writing densely-packed descriptions of minutiae does't come naturally to me, like it does to others. I prefer to move to the action forward, or give insight into people's motivations. Not sure if that means I'm more suited to some genres than others. Anyway, I digress. The "chilling" word choice. Yeah, I went back and forth on that. "Chilly' didn't seem quite right, Frosty might be better. I was also trying a bit of foreshadowing with using "chilling' (associating ...

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Claire Lewis
18:16 Jan 23, 2021

I had a feeling that foreshadowing was the idea there and now I'm fixated on the hunt for a good word hahaha... maybe something with an ominous/bloody connotation instead? 'It's always cold in here, but the air has an unusual bite to it today' or 'the air cuts through me spitefully today.' I doubt this is helpful at all but maybe it sparks an idea!

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Heather Mcquaid
19:31 Jan 23, 2021

Hmm. I like where you're going with that,. Might be something there. I'll let it incubate. 🥚🐣

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Heather Mcquaid
11:17 Jan 24, 2021

I tried "cuts to the bone today", as that plays into the skeleton theme. What do you think?

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David G.
00:16 Jan 23, 2021

I liked this. Being trapped post-apocalypse in a locked up Amazon warehouse would be a great premise for a longer piece or a screenplay. I think some explanation of Hal, Kash, and Aedna disappearing might benefit this story. Did they vanish in the middle of the night? The narrator needs to not see them go, otherwise it feels like he/she knows those three left, but then suddenly they're still there in the warehouse. On this sentence: I would say to put a period after the word "coding." Then start a new sentence. "Kash and Mo do the softw...

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Heather Mcquaid
00:41 Jan 23, 2021

Ha, I was totally imagining an Amazon warehouse, but trying not say it out loud. :) I agree with all your points. I briefly wondered whether I ought to write a bit more about Alex's last sighting of Kash, Aenda and Hal other than the 3 of them arguing (which provides a hint of motivation, but perhaps not quite enough context). So that settles it, I'll figure a way to fit that in. As always, many many thanks for reading and providing constructive comments.

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David G.
00:51 Jan 23, 2021

No problem! It’s my pleasure. Also, you’re forgetting your american roots! Mesmerised?!?! Hypnotised?!!! Come one. Don’t be afraid to use those “zeds.”

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Heather Mcquaid
01:58 Jan 23, 2021

I don't even know what's American versus British at this point. 😂

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Kristin Neubauer
21:27 Jan 22, 2021

Yikes! I loved this! I like what Tom said in his comment about appreciating the beauty of a smart cliffhanger. Yes - this story ended right where it needed to. You condensed so much into such a brief story and it all worked. The narrator's voice felt authentic and I appreciated all the details. That gave us such a clear idea of his environment. I especially liked the bit about Alex eating all the food - that would absolutely happen. I had no idea where the story was headed and that kept me intrigued the whole time....I did not expect ...

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Heather Mcquaid
21:39 Jan 22, 2021

Thank you Kristin. I worked hard to find a balance.. telling the necessary, relevant details while providing a sense of the main character's voice and thoughts...all in as few words as possible. I'm so happy that you thought it worked. Yay!

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Kristin Neubauer
00:17 Jan 23, 2021

It worked! So powerful in its brevity.

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Janey Finch
18:27 Jan 22, 2021

Wow! This was really well done, I love how you incorporated the pandemic, making it seem like it's happening right now! One typo I noticed is in this line, "boxes full of books, and dumbbells and blow-up dolls" You may want to take out the first and and just leave a comma. But it's up to you! Another typo, when you say "It's not like I have car or somewhere to go" You forgot the 'a car' I really love how you spelled out Sab-o-tage! When you were explaining the stock room appearance, you double typed 'and rows' You accidentally wrote "a ...

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Heather Mcquaid
18:40 Jan 22, 2021

Janey, thank you so much for catching the typos. I will fix them forthwith! Regarding the mars vs marks...`I kept going back and forth on those, because I think they both could work. "Mar' kinda works because that's the only injury that Alex can see, but mark works too. And I wasn't certain about the 'not reading robot' line, because I worried it might not make sense--so thank you for pointing that line out in particular--I'm so glad it works! As for why Hal did what he did...it's an excellent question. We only see what Alex sees or k...

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Janey Finch
19:17 Jan 22, 2021

Ohhh, you know what, I see how it could be mars now. To be honest, I guess I was craving chocolate because I was like, Mars is a word now too? I can't wait to read the next chapter! And I can't wait to see your critique! :)

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Heather Mcquaid
20:00 Jan 22, 2021

Gosh darn Janey, now you're making me hanker for chocolate. Yes, "to mar" is indeed a real verb, though maybe not one that people encounter that frequently, hence me wondering whether I should use 'mark' or some other, more recognisable verb. Be careful what you wish for, I just gave you a very long critique. 😂

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Janey Finch
21:49 Jan 23, 2021

Hey! Thanks so much for the critique, I really loved it! I just posted a new story if you're down for giving me some more feedback! :) Be prepared though, it's definitely a different genre...

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Beth Connor
01:26 Jan 22, 2021

Well done- You did a great job using your character's perspective to tell the story. It was a very creepy dark ending. It brought Jack Torrence in The Shining to my mind.

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Heather Mcquaid
10:34 Jan 22, 2021

Thanks, Beth! I think the prompt (about being stuck somewhere in a blizzard) definitely encourages associations with aspects of 'The Shining' (isolation, no escape from homicidal maniac, haha). I just wish I could write character descriptions like Stephen King. :)

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K. Antonio
16:45 Jan 21, 2021

I can't believe you went for this prompt! It was so complicated to me, that I did not even attempt to try it. This story is very rich in details, it all seemed very current and real. I enjoyed the moments when the character detached himself from his current situation and would get all punny (not a real word a know). I also liked how everyone and everything was explained, the use of telling really simplified things and kept me, at least, more focused on the story and not so much on the technical aspects. The story had nice tidbits of ch...

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Heather Mcquaid
17:55 Jan 21, 2021

Hi K, Thanks very much for the feedback. I tried to steer clear of too much techno babble as I don't really know how all that works. So it was a good thing Alex didn't know either. ;) I'll read your submission later today or tomorrow if I can.

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