Friday, January 4, 2013

'Discontinuity' by Troy Blackford

This is a little story I wrote a while ago that kept getting rejected by publications. Now that I've cut it down by about a fourth, it would probably have better luck, but I think it's high time I just share it with the world and move on. It's a strange little story, to be sure, but it has a lot in its favor. Like, for example, the fact that nobody has to read it. Anyway, hope you enjoy this exciting tale of intrigue, aluminum, and college dorm rooms. Consider it an adventure on the high seas, filled with smartphones, microwaves, and broken dreams.

-Troy Blackford

by Troy Blackford

The idea that I might be trapped in this room permanently didn't occur to me until perhaps the second month. Why it should have taken so long for the idea to enter my head, I cannot say.

I’m always the last to notice even the most obvious things.

When I was a child, my mother brought home a hamster, in a little paper box. As my mother put the creature's tiny plastic home together, I thought to myself 'Look at his little food dish, his tiny water hole! He has everything he needs for a hamster-sized life!'   

Upon first entering my room here, I should have thought something similar. That I didn’t only shows how much more hubris I have than a hamster.

*    *    *

The back story concocted to dupe me into complicity wasn't even compelling. I should have realized that receiving a full ride scholarship I didn't apply for, from a foundation no one had ever heard of, really might be too good to be true.

They flew me out to the coast. Along with, supposedly, dozens of other ‘recipients’ of the scholarship. The other recipients all seemed a trustworthy bunch. That was the whole point of having them there.   

It was quiet in the assembly room where we gathered for our ‘orientation.’ The slides started, full of explanations. In hindsight, they didn't explain anything. That’s what all the other people in the audience were for. Their job was to nod knowingly, pretend to take notes; to surround me and act as though everything made sense; to daunt me into thinking that if I didn't understand what was being said, it was my own fault.

After all, everybody else in this room completely understood what was going on. In such situations, one is easily convinced to go along with the ‘flow.’ Well--I am, at least.

*    *    *

After orientation, we were led to what they claimed would be our new dorms. We lined up in groups, each assigned to a ‘Resident Assistant.’ Oh, such duplicity! The pointless, needless layers of it. Once we had met our ‘RA’ as a group, we had individual interviews with them. So they could get a ‘handle’ on us.

I was to be interviewed third out of five. The first two folks to enter that office door had shorter interviews than I did--they were each out of there in about five minutes. I’ve yet to leave the room.

This was about half a year ago.

*    *    *

It wasn’t supposed to be a standalone dorm room, so I was surprised to see there was a shower stall, bathroom implements just sitting in the corner, a refrigerator. I was about to ask our RA, whose nametag read Rafael, what was with the accoutrements, but before I could start, he politely excused himself from the room.

That was the second to last person I have ever seen. My own reflection in spoons and in the shiny part of the microwave door doesn’t count.

Almost two whole months passed before I communicated with another soul. Not for a lack of trying. Within minutes, I broke down, wailing and pounding at the door. I trustingly assumed that whoever heard my pleas, and realized I had been inadvertently trapped, would be even more embarrassed. I took for granted that I had been the unintentional victim of a combination of poor scheduling and bad facility management. It took a while before I learned to stop thinking in such a trusting way.

Eventually I did come to speak with one other person. Namely one Mr. Robert Livingston, the internationally renowned and furiously wealthy industrial magnate. The man who had the answer to many of my most burning questions. Chief among them: 'What the hell?'

*    *    *

The richest individuals who have ever lived made their fortunes via the industry of materials manufacturing. Doesn’t sound very exciting. Yet buzz doesn’t always translate into cash. Easy to forget that the unexciting can be blindingly--almost appallingly--lucrative.

Pure aluminum enjoyed, for a few decades, status as the most valuable material in the world. It was almost impossible to make, via dangerous and dimly understood chemical reactions which unlocked the atom of aluminum from the molecules of salt in which Nature had imprisoned it. It wasn’t until after Lincoln’s assassination that the process became simplified, and now aluminum is so easy to make, and thus worthless, that empty cans made out of it line the streets.

In our modern world it’s easy to forget that the makers of plastic and glass and metal earn even more than the companies that turn those materials into televisions and computers and smartphones. Less glamorous, less exciting, perhaps. But those who supply materials do not lack. It is from just such an empire that Livingston emerged. With great wealth came great eccentricity, as I have been reminded time and again by the man himself.

You see, he started coming in here himself, all the time, about sixty days after I arrived.

*    *    *

The primary thing Robert Livingston wants to impress upon me is just how unique he is. It is his fervent wish that I understand how, thanks to his power and, above all, his incredible uniqueness, my entire life has become a further expression of his personal eccentricity.

Eccentricity. He believes the concept is the most sublime in nature, and that the very word is the most divine sound human tongues have fashioned. “Eee-cen-TRISS-ity,” he says, screwing up his face as though singing a hymn. He claims it is the duty of the individual to be as eccentric as possible. He insists that to be human and eschew one’s uniqueness is to ‘spit in the face of Existence.’

He is a man who has Vision. He is a man who pursues Goals. Robert Livingston is a man Given to Passion for capitalized Concepts.

His wealth has given him enough power to, say, create a fake scholarship and stage an entire ‘college orientation’ as a facade for the sole purpose of snaring exactly one (1) random youngish American citizen and entrapping him in a glorified hamster cage indefinitely, just to see if he could.

Because, as far as I can tell, ‘to see if he can’ and ‘cuz he wants ta’ are the two main reasons I’m here. And it ends up he can, and he does.

*    *    *

Of course, to hear him tell it, it’s nowhere near that simple. No, it’s all part of his grand Vision and noble Purpose. My theory is a bit different. When you are as rich and as powerful as Mr. Livingston, thrill and challenge become harder and harder to find.

See the world? Again? Climb Everest? Been there, done that. Hobnob with world leaders, captains of industry, the celebrity elite? Yawn.  

Livingston wanted to try his hand at something special, a hobby that would undoubtedly strike even the most seasoned billionaire wunderkind as being odd. As being ‘eccentric.’ Mr. Livingston is so fond of pointing out that “Anyone can be anyone.”

It takes a rich, powerful, arrogant, insane man to be Robert Livingston.

That, I guess, is his point.

*    *    *

Every day at around five o’ clock, he has come to my room. Over the last two weeks, he has convinced himself that I was approaching a ‘breakthrough’ with my understanding of my role here. He is very emphatic about that--it is essential to him that I understand exactly why he has commandeered my life.

He seems to feel that if he explains his motivations clearly enough, I will suddenly ‘get’ why I am here and appreciate all this. He thinks the day will come when I have an awakening, grab his hand, pump it proudly, and thank him until I run out of breath.

That day is not at hand, I assure you.

*    *    *

I started this little adventure a small, meek, and inexperienced young man. I don’t know what it is like to own a car, live in my own home, or kiss a girlfriend goodnight--but now I know what it is to be held prisoner, and I know what it is to wish death on another person.

And now, I know what it is to kill.


*    *    *

They’ve taken great pains to keep my living quarters free of sharp or blunt objects of any size. They’ve done a tremendous job with that. I searched from floor to ceiling and found nothing more deadly than a small blue spot on the corner of the bathroom wall where some glass cleaner once dried before it could be wiped away.

It took some real thinking to come up with a plan of action--but that was where Livingston and his decent, respectable staff of professional kidnappers underestimated me.

Give even the most foolish person enough time and a big enough problem and... these things have a way of working themselves out.

*    *    *

I used my thumbnails, and slowly carved a slot in the sole of my left shoe. I dumped the rubbery shavings down the drain each day. This alone took almost a week, even though the space I created wasn’t much larger than two USB memory sticks. Walking on the modified shoe was a little awkward, but it wasn’t as though I had far to go in my tiny room.

So far, so good.

The next step was a little weirder. I took part of a slice of bread from one of my daily sandwiches, and compacted it as much as possible down into a wad. The next day, the next sandwich, same deal. Smooshed as tight as I could get it, I forced the two bread slices together.

Now they formed a hard clump of drying bread, which I microwaved that first day, in order to remove as much moisture as possible. For weeks, I kept the thing in the secret compartment of my shoe. Over time, the dense clot further desiccated. Anyone who has forgotten a cheese sandwich overnight and encountered a rock-solid slab the next day could imagine what I had to work with after a month.

What was the point of a tiny, rock hard slab of bread? It would make a poor projectile weapon. Livingston never showed up without a very apparent handgun hanging from a holster on his armpit. Attacking an armed Livingston point blank with a piece of stale bread wouldn’t be any more effective than trying to reason with him.

But what it could do, it turned out, was act as a very rough sort of screwdriver. I ground away much of my giant, homemade crouton in the effort, but when I was done, I still had a thimble-sized nub of the stuff. Surprising even me, what I also had was the magnetron from the inside of the microwave, still functioning and hooked into the current.

After working towards this single goal for so long, I was nevertheless shocked that my hare-brained plan had actually worked. When it takes you over a month to make a dried-out piece of bread, you don’t get your hopes up that a few minutes later, you’ll be holding a homemade ray-gun.

Such is the beauty of life, I suppose.

*    *    *

To test the device, I aimed it at the remnants of the microwave I had extracted it from, and blew a blistering, expanding hole in its door. I stretched the power cord as far as I could and trained the charged particle emitter at the crack of my chamber door. Soon Livingston would come for his daily ‘lecture.’

Once the door showed the slightest motion, I would hold the positive wire to the transformer and ‘fire.’

*    *    *

What does human flesh smell like when it burns? Better than human hair, I’ll say that much.

*    *    *

When I searched Livingston’s body, he had one of those fancy new iPhones on him. That was to be expected--your too-young-to-drive paperboy probably has a phone like this these days. I’ve never gotten to play with one myself, so I was quite surprised to find that it had a ‘transcribe’ feature. How cool is that? I can just speak into it at length as I run for my life, and it all automatically uploads onto the internet.

I have synced it up with my blog, but I’m sure it will take a while for anyone to find it there. I’m not exactly a popular person, if you’ll recall--that’s a major contributing factor to why I was selected for this Eccentric Experiment. Still, everything on the internet gets read at some point.

I have faith.

*    *    *

This is my third day after the escape, and I know they’ll find me soon. There is no way out. Livingston had his fingers in many pies, and apparently seasteading was atop the list. At some point, my living space was transferred from the west coast to well off the west coast. I escaped the ‘dorm’ compound to find myself on a massive, six-acre floating ocean rig, far out at sea.

If I had only happened to take helicopter piloting lessons somewhere along the way, I might have a fighting chance. As it is, my only hope would be something like stowing away in a transport vessel. None have come or left since my escape.

Finding the lynchpin of the corporation dead in the hallway outside my cell may have put them somewhat on their guard. They seem to be looking for me.

For whatever reason, Livingston’s death has not been publically reported. I have a couple guesses about this. The most likely reason: there would be no way of explaining to authorities that the man had been murdered with a homemade MASER just outside a makeshift prison cell on an artificial island he had been assembling in secret, without it slipping out that the deceased happened to be a lunatic who was holding a frightened young adult hostage for his own amusement.

To my mind, this theory holds a lot of water.

I doubt Livingston Industries wants a contingent of international police swarming this place. There’s lots going on here that doesn’t seem to meet ‘regulatory standards.’ We are in international waters. That’s the whole point of seasteading: rich people want to go somewhere where nobody can take their money or tell them what to do. That way they can make sure they meet the strict, rigorous safety standards they have set for themselves, such as ‘dump all that toxic waste straight into the ocean, buddy!’

Also, I believe the upper-tier Livingston Industries executives might well execute a homebrewed ‘severance plan.’ Pretend Livingston is alive a bit longer, launder all the money out of his empire before it goes up in flames, then stage some kind of pyrotechnic ‘accident’ to fill the headlines with explanations and obliterate any trace of what they’ve done here on this ‘island.’

*    *    *

Here, on the underside of the giant floating platforms holding this giant city of the waves aloft, as I’m clinging to the rig and trying to keep this stolen phone dry and working as long as I can, I’ve decided that I hope that’s what happens. You can turn sand into glass if you’ve got the heat, and you can build rocks into computers if you know what you’re doing--but you can never turn power into happiness. I can see that now more clearly than ever, even though I have nothing in this world but a pilfered smartphone and a soaking wet pair of pants.

Even when I had to save up the quarters from my couch to buy another packet of Ramen, the thought of tricking Robert Livingston to my house and trapping him so I could feel important never entered my mind. Though I have nothing but the sun in my eyes and sweat on my brow, I see now that I have a peace of mind that a person who needs to feel that kind of control never knows. Ambition can be a cancer, you know? Eat a person whole.

And whaddya know? Looks like I was right. The north side of the rig is already on fire. They did it, tricky bastards. One silo after another: boom, boom, boom. The explosions will catch up to me soon. That’s a downside to being right. But still: what did I tell ya?

That’s a nice feeling, at least--knowing that the last thing I will ever say was ‘Looks like I was ri--’

- Sent from my iPhone


  1. Oh wow Troy, you made my coffee go cold! this is really good. even though I got a sinking feeling when he figured the phone could transcribe, I didn't want to stop reading, was still hoping! and I love how you made him so real and, well, ordinary (the quarters and the Ramen) fabulous touch that was. So yeah, another good one from your, must be cramned full, mind to entertain and provoke thought, way past clicking back off the link. Thank you :-)x

  2. I love how clever you write ! This to me was very enjoyable and I'm glad you included it here. My coffee also is getting cold but its worth it! Genius writing as always!

  3. Pretty good. Thanks! :)

  4. As i began reading, as much as i hoped that there would be a "happy" ending for the story's protagonist, i knew that there was a certain inevitability that things would not pan out as i wished for him.
    The hamster cage analogy was just perfect, and if my phone ever goes missing when i visit my sister, i hope never to see a blog entry from her guinea pigs on the worldwide web!
    For me, "Discontinuity" illustrates that even under the tightest of physical restraints, one's thoughts and ideas remain free forever.
    It reminded me somewhat of Terry Gilliam's film "Brazil", and that is a very good thing!
    Thank you, Troy!

  5. Unique concept, kept right on moving until the end in a good flow with resonance in the writing. Humorous and intriguing. Very good read

  6. "You can turn sand into glass if you’ve got the heat, and you can build rocks into computers if you know what you’re doing – but you can never turn power into happiness."

    That should hang in the office of every industrial and political leader.

    Intriguing is right. Love it!

  7. Thanks for sharing....amazing and definitely intriguing. I'm hooked.

  8. This was a great short story! It was completely compelling.

  9. Really enjoyed this story Troy. Loved the improvised microwave oven ray-gun. Inspired. :)

  10. Nice story,,,thanks for sharing....keep writing