"Grape Juice and the Clan from the Corner of the World"

Alex Gill

Marcus Dobbs walked through the silver "swinging doors" and looked around. This Outlet hadn't been here a day ago, though this one wasn't anything new; it resembled the five others in New Randolph. On one side was the bar, which served flavored alcohol and sometimes notch and hum. In the middle were eight or nine round tables in assorted colors sitting on colored tile, and on the opposite side were the stations where other Artists could work, which was convenient, very convenient. The Scientists have stations in each of their Outlets, too . . . probably with intricate, webbing carnivals of chemistry sets and rows of microscopes instead of blank canvas, oils, pens and typewriters, though.

He walked to a stool at the bar and sat down. He had been sitting all day, in his area at work, shoulders bent forward and eyes squinted over his laptop where his nonexistent new novel sat unwritten somewhere in the isolated confines of unexplored cyber-space and mind-space. Well, by October, it will have to have been written, or he will not have met the quota. Each Artist was required to make a work of art in a certain amount of time. Marcus, being an author, was required to write a novel every six months. What happened if one was not written by then was not really talked about.

"What can I get you, Marc?" The bartender said. Marcus had never seen the man before but he knew his name.

"Ah, do you have hum today?"

"No, sorry, Marc. Hum's here on Tew and Thur. But we got a-hum, if you want that. It tastes almost the same and it's got the near same amounta bubbles. Costs less; only three d'lairs."

"It's artificial?"

The bartender nodded quickly. So many things are artificial now; you take a natural thing and tack an 'a' at the beginning and you've got something that tastes the same and feels the same and looks the same—but in reality is totally different.

"I guess I'll get adbeer," Marcus said, sighing. He watched the bartender return to the mysterious depths of the room of liquid fountains and spouts through another silver "swinging door." He'd gotten adbeer yesterday, at the other, older Outlet a street over. Adbeer didn't taste bad, necessarily . . . but after you drank it, you didn't feel different at all. A couple cups of notch would free you from distractions; some brill would make you more observational. It really depends on what mood you're in, and what your Outlet's carrying that particular day. Adbeer is . . . dispassionate, unaligned . . . unexciting. But it's cheap. Only half a d'lair.

He took a sip. As the bartender went to attend to another customer, Marcus noticed that he was being scrutinized by an old man sitting on the stool just next to him holding a cup of a purple-colored liquid. The old man had a long, uneven beard and a brown nose. His clothes were torn and filthy, which was strange. Why would he choose to wear rags when the State issued perfectly good, clean, colorful clothes every week (the hassle of washing machines and dryers got to be too much, so the State just started issuing new clothes every week)?

"What are you looking at, old man?" Marcus said, his nostrils flaring. The old man did nothing; he still sat smiling and gripping a half-empty cup of that strange drink. He sized the guy up and with a snort of disgust looked away and faced the rest of the room.

On the other side, the stations were almost completely empty. The solitary Artist was a painter working overtime to meet her quota and finish her weekly "masterpiece." About half of the tables were filled, though one table seemed to attract the unwilling attention of surrounding tables. The members of this certain cluster talked loudly and laughed and once in a while pounded the table. This is strange, Marcus thought, looking distraught, because people aren't supposed to act like this. Other tables were not near as rowdy and uncontained—they sat, contemplating their wives or their children or their quota, seldom even talking to each other. Though once in a while the bar got a shipment of comile and people were generally more social, but this was not today—there would've been a sign on the door to attract more users.

He could not make out much of what these people were saying. They would all lean their heads in and whisper to each other for a minute, and then, in unison, they would throw their heads back and cackle madly like a clan of savages. Marcus could hear their teeth clatter, could hear their barbarian excitement. What is wrong with these people, Marcus thought; were they acting – were they all high on superbromile?

Standing, he took his glass of adbeer and made his way to a nearby table. Maybe there, he'd be able to discern what of such entertaining values was being discussed. Almost immediately after he sat down, a waiterbot wheeled over to his table and asked if he needed anything else. It mentioned that they served (unlike the older Outlet) three types of meat: turkey flavored; ham flavored and beef flavored. Annoyed, he dismissed the waitress after ordering a small plate of ham flavored meat.

As he shoveled the first forkful of meat into his mouth, a word from the uproarious table jolted his nerves. It had come from a man's mouth—the trademark deep tone and hoarse static of an older man: "Kill." Marcus's jaw fell and he looked around to see if anyone else had heard this unmentionable term. No one had; it seemed as if everyone else was trying to ignore their words, though that other ragged old man still stared at him.

Listening closer, he heard a few other pieces of sentences, mostly marked with raspy syllables and accidentally catapulted spittle that partially impeded Marcus's understanding of what they were saying. One word, though, suddenly jolted his body as he dropped his grease-laden fork with a clatter to the table top and then to the tiled floor.

Out of the corner of his eye, Marcus saw ten darkly clothed men rush into the Outlet and make their way for the table. Ha, they really'd messed up now. A few words later, you're nothing more and nothing less than sizzling ashes on your chair; fried potential, kinetic energy and all.

So, the six or seven residents of this table were reduced to dust. And finally, Marcus thought as the men disappeared into the night, I can get some peace and quiet.

The queer old man was still staring, though. When they made eye contact, the old man said, "Artists are so stupid nowadays. Creating ingenious masterpieces but stupid themselves." Then he disappeared into thin air. Marcus blinked. That was strange, he thought. Looking down at his glass, he wondered whether the bartender or the bot put something strange into his food or his meat; something to make him hallucinate. But he was hungry, so he ignored the thought and forked another chunk of meat into his mouth as another bot came out of the closet to clean up the ashes.

This girl sat in the corner of the world. She watched as others walked past her, moving bodies of brilliant, blurry light. They laughed, they insulted without even thinking about it. An unconscious action, like the beating of the heart or the expanding of the pupil in darkness. They offended her without even knowing what they were doing. Yet soon, the dinner tone would sound and she would have to see those faces once again. Of course, she didn't have to make eye contact. A few murmurs to each other between and through mouthfuls of meat did not demand eye contact.

Suddenly, she felt a soft hand on her shoulder. It was her sister's. Sitting beside her, she opened her mouth to say something, but she couldn't think of anything to say. All consoling words had been removed from her mind. So she just sat; maybe this was better than speaking.

Soon, her sister said, "Amy. Amy. The tone. Dinner's ready." Together they stood, and Jessica helped her sister to the center of the room where the meat was being handed out in greasy paper packets. After they got their food, they sat down and Amy wiped some left over tears from her swollen cheeks.

"You know what they're sayin?" Amy said through a mouth of meat.

Jessica asked, "Who?"

"Them," Amy said, and pointed across the room to a large group of teenaged girls and boys sitting in a circle and snickering. "They were sayin if I don't quit cryin, the machines're gonna take me next."

"Now, I don't—"

"An' what if I can't quit crying? What if I don't?" She sniffed and wiped her nose with the raggedy sleeve that she had worn for at least a week.

"You can! You can!" She tried for other words to describe what she was thinking, but none came to mind. She knew not how to express these thoughts.

Amy shoved the last piece of bland meat into her mouth and crumpled the used paper into a ball. How she wished to take that ball and fling it with all of her strength at that group of leeches—but she didn't. She couldn't.

"T'mor'w, that's the next day. Of the machines. They're comin t'mor'w. And they said I'm gonna be took!" She looked at her sister with an almost comically worried facial expression framed by that ridiculously untidy tangle of blond hair.

"Amy, Amy!" Jessica said. "You're not gonna be took. I know it!"

"How do you know it?"

She was silent. A bot came to them, bearing four hypodermic needles and two pillboxes. Jessica said, "I just . . . you just can't keep thinkin like that." Her arm muscles flexed as the strange solution entered her veins. "If you keep thinkin like that, then thull get you for sure." The bot's arm extended and forced her mouth open, spilling both pills inside and dousing her whole face with a fair amount of water.

It went on to Amy. Jessica wiped her face. It didn't matter what you said around the bots; they can't hear you. All they have is metal and metal and electricity and metal in them. They can't hear; they can't talk.

"All right . . ." Amy said when they left. "Do you promise?"

Jessica smiled and patted her sister's head and smiled. "I promise." The tone sounded again and they stood and walked to their Sleeping Room. When they got inside, Amy said, "You know what?"

"What?"

"It's not cold anymore," Amy said as she withdrew under her blankets. "And it isn't hot anymore."

"You're right."

"Remember, yesterday, when those bots came in here? And they took the air condidgener?"

"Yes."

Amy sighed as the lights turned off, leaving the world in blackness. Immediately she pulled the blankets over her head. "Night, Jessica."

"Night, Amy."

Amy was all alone in the darkness. She felt it swarm around, saw little patches of deeper darkness take shape and attack each other. She slept and dreamt of a world that she herself controlled. Yet, still, she sat in the corner of the world; in the community room.

That night, the pills that had been given were used to completely wipe them out until morning. The machines came, buzzing and whirring and squeaking through the total darkness, and they took Amy by the waist. They loaded her into a bin with the seventy other selections, still asleep, and wheeled the bins out through a hole in the wall that went straight through to the Administrator's office. The Administrator woke from the trance of the television and loaded the bins into his car. The car went to the K-Building, and the car was unloaded by twelve bots programmed exactly for this task. The bins were emptied in the Cleansing room, where the still-unconscious bodies were sprayed with a chemical that cause the people's clothing and hair to disintegrate and collect in dust deposits through small sewer gratings in the floor. From here, they were taken to the butchering room and here they finally lost their life as their internal organs were removed and their flesh was converted into bloody, raw meat. (Almost all of the animals on the planet had been long extinct.) From here, the meat was transported to the Freezer, which used a special gas developed by the Scientists decades ago to keep the meat fresh for uncountable days. Here Amy waited. In a week, what had been her right arm was sprinkled with Honey Ham spice and thrown into the oven. It came out in an Outlet for Artists and was served to an Artist named Dobbs. (He was not human; he was an Artist.)

Marcus Dobbs stared at the wall as he prodded his second plate of meat that night. The far wall was decorated with various projects that painters had worked on specifically for this reason, but in the middle of the wall was the poster that was the same in every single building in New Randolph. It read, in dark, red, foreboding capitals

LAWS FOR THE BETTERMENT OF SOCIETY

ONE SHALL NOT INFRINGE UPON THE RIGHTS OF OTHERS (UNLESS GIVEN SPECIAL PERMISSION)

ONE SHALL NOT ASSOCIATE WITH THE OTHER FAMILIES (NO SCIENTIST-ARTIST, UNCS-SCIENTISTS RELATIONSHIPS ARE ALLOWED)

ONE SHALL ALWAYS ATTEMPT TO IMPROVE THE SOCIETY ( SUCH AS COMPLETING ASSIGNED TASKS BY ASSIGNED DEADLINES)

He sipped his comile. Even though it was supposed to improve your social skills, it seemed to be doing nothing to him. Yet this and adbeer and scotch and hum were all the drinks they served at all now. He couldn't even remember what beverages were not being sold anymore. What had he drunk yesterday; what had he eaten yesterday? What did it matter?

The old man suddenly appeared before him, sitting at the chair on the other side of the table. Gasping with surprise, Marcus scooted his chair backwards and spilled his comile he had been holding all over the table. The old man drank a strange purplish liquid from a glass. "What the hell are you doing here? Who are you?" Marcus shouted, his face turning red.

The old man did nothing but laugh as he sipped that queer purple drink. He was sad.