09 – The Dial-Up Demon – Chapter 1: Another Day

Art by hellspawnmotel

Sigh.

The loudest sigh I can ever give.

It’s a bit of a hyperbole, saying that it’s the “loudest sigh.”

Seems like only yesterday when I was sitting at my desk at work, eyes stuck like magnets to the clock on the wall as it ticked down each second remaining in my shift. Seems like only yesterday that I accomplished about nothing but collating a stack of papers that got knocked on the floor.

Oh wait. It really was yesterday.

And today’s just the same.

It’s all a waste of time, toiling away at a job so simple a robot could (almost) do it. It’s productive to manage customers and organize memos and answer calls, but what is productivity, really? I’m helping a bank get richer, and doing so at a very low wage which I am too embarrassed to disclose. I’m an assistant clerk at a branch office of Atlanta Cares, the seventh-biggest bank in the city—no matter what else I accomplish in life, this is my true place in society.

Perhaps, given enough waiting and mindfulness, someone will come into the office looking for trouble, or maybe has already found it. They’ll waltz right up to me and beg for my help with something truly important. Not an account statement error or a question about opening a super saver account. I mean something like, a spouse who’s run away from home, or a long-lost friend popping up, or some rowdy teens getting into trouble, or some two-bit gangster running a big op… The sort of stuff where solving it actually makes the world a better place.

None of that actually happens, of course. Time passes at precisely one second per tick of the clock, and I have nothing better to do than rest my face on my palms and stare.

I, Morgan Harding, am bored out of my damn mind.

Right now, there are no customers. My coworkers are all jerks, and the A/C hardly cools down the place even at full blast. In the empty lobby where I sit, there’s only the clock, the tiny CRT on mute, and Mr. Larkins pacing around in circles as he mumbles about whatever’s on his mind.

Oh, Mr. Larkins. There’s a reason I’m staring at the wall clock instead of my boss. That’s because making eye contact with him when he’s in one of his moods is something akin to a death sentence for the average slacker. If he sees you, he will pull you in, no doubt about it. For as bored as I am, there is no chance in hell I’m getting involved in whatever get-rich-quick scheme he’s dreaming up.

Other workers at the bank have long since learned not to interact with the manager if they can help it. I’m not so lucky. As the one most often at the reception desk, it’s me who’s right there in plain sight sitting in front of a thin layer of glass and helpless against any overenthusiastic rants.

About this time last week, he talked to me about an article he read about feuding technology manufacturers in the middle of a format war for a new type of compact laserdisc. He talked about this… for two hours. Yes, I was paid to listen to this. No, I do not think it was noticeably better than the papers I had to collate.

Today though, Mr. Larkins’s pacing has taken a new form. It’s transformed slightly from its natural state. It’s taken on a more frenzied, worried pace. His circles are tighter, and he’s wearing out the carpet at an alarming rate.

I’d hate to come off as a decent person, so I decline to ask him if there’s anything wrong.

Instead, I wait until the clock hits that 5 PM mark and I zip on out of here.

***

Thank God for Cool Biz fashion. It’s absolutely sweltering out here this evening. What is it, eighty degrees? Normally I have to wear suits to work like everyone else who hates dresses, but starting in that sweet spot of June 15th, we’re allowed to wear short sleeves, and we can ditch the jacket and tie. Say goodbye to heat stroke, and say hello to merely sweating my butt off.

Thanks to the temperatures lately, the sky rail’s always too full in rush hour to get a seat. So, with a sigh, I walk home straight from Peach Towers.

The streets are crowded with folks doing their evening shopping, or just loitering about waiting for the nightlife to begin. Peach Towers doesn’t close until 10 and even has little craft beer festivals every weekend up on the top floors.

I bump into an overweight woman typing on her portable PC. Her partner turns back and glares at me through their visor before putting their arm around her and moving along.

You know what? That was my first interaction with other human beings outside of work in like, three days. I just realized that.

Another sigh.

This time a month ago, I was really doing something. Donald Blyth wreaking havoc on the city, the search for Jones Burrow heating up, the discovery of some mysterious technological cult… All that really important stuff that actually affected the course of history, maybe.

The greasy smell of a nearby Slappy Burger… No, I can’t. There’s food at home. I put my hands in my pockets and slink down the sidewalk.

Only a month has passed since we discovered the Ascendants and saved the day. And it feels like everything is different now. Peaceful, even though it’s not.

There’s been no big technological mysteries to solve. No political scandals. No heinous villains popping up out of nowhere. Nothing but a heatwave and a dead-end job. R8PR hasn’t even contacted me in a week and a half…

Oh well. I’m going to go home, plop down on the sofa, kick up my legs on the coffee table, and… Uh, I don’t know. The Scott Stutzman Show is off season and I’m not really into Seinfeld Season 23. I guess I could, uh, play a game?

It’s going to be another one of those nights.

***

Shelia makes a great leap and strikes down with her scythe, obliterating most of the enemies around her in an instant. Those remaining have but a sliver of health that does little to prevent them from bursting into digital miss the moment she makes another slice.

Even the miniboss here, a Megatank, goes down in just a few hits. Shelia is just too strong for this area now.

…Yep, it’s a night for Genesis Crush. Leftover meatloaf, Genesis Crush, and my blank stare to hold it all together.

Shelia, Queen of Genesis City, has extended the range of her territory by threefold in the past fifty hours of gameplay. There is now little remaining land on the entire continent still under the control of the barbarian aliens that still seek to stake a claim. Those pests will soon be eliminated. Before long, Genesis City will become Genesis Continent. I will have crushed all who stand in my way.

Oh, that’s what the title means, isn’t it?

It took me a really long time to realize that, probably because I didn’t get to this power-grabbing expansion part of the game until really recently. The dating sim elements were very absorbing, okay…

One thing that sucks about Genesis Crush: You need two hands to play it.

So I can’t eat my meatloaf and play the game at the same time. I’ll have to flip the game off and switch to TV, since eating while alone with my thoughts is a recipe for disaster. (Get it? Recipe? Oh, okay.)

I go to save my game…

And there I see the save file list with each of the characters whose progress is saved to the cartridge. There’s Shelia here with a hundred and ninety hours at the top, and below that… Kuro the samurai, with sixty-nine hours. Karina’s character.

It’s been a long month, hasn’t it?

I save the game, turn it off, and let out yet another sigh.

Karina’s having fun in Japan right now. I’m really happy for her. But I do miss her. I miss her a whole lot. Like enough that… I probably sent too many idling e-mails about how my days went, because she hasn’t responded in a little while. It’s just me being clingy again, I think. She’ll respond when she has the time.

Okay, time for TV.

Bad thoughts, go away. Be replaced by the savory taste of reheated meatloaf.

Mmm… This is pretty decent. Texture’s still solid. The little ketchup-y part at the top kept its flavor. I’m a good cook when I try. I just wish other people could enjoy it is all.

The television program on right now is the news. The robot news anchor, wearing a Cool Biz outfit of its own, lists off the ten-day weather forecast. The highs for the week are ninety, ninety-five, ninety-seven, eighty-nine, ninety again… It’s not looking good at all. Not for my armpits, anyway.

I munch on my meatloaf and continue idly watching the TV. It goes to commercials that advertise Bustable Lemons, that new movie Dogsitter, some holo-concert by a pop star named Soli⭐, a campaign ad by Nathan Nguyen… You know, the works.

Then the news comes back on. The robot anchor delivers a brand-new story on a mysterious shock jock DJ on FM radio who’s been hijacking signals and broadcasting disturbing messages: the Dial-Up Demon. He promises to inflict pain and terror on the city and…

And…

I stare at the icon on the little news thumbnail. An outline of some kind of demonic creature, blacked out with a ? over it. The Dial-up Demon… A figure shrouded in mystery who is threatening to commit heinous crimes and using free radio broadcasts to spread his message?

It’s…

It’s a little…

I finish my last bite of meatloaf, set down my plate, and turn the TV back to Genesis Crush.

Yeah, that Dial-Up Demon shit is just a Social Media Killer copycating ripoff. I really can’t justify caring about it beyond my base instinct to relieve boredom. And when I have the best video game of the past ten years plugged in already, what’s the point?

Who even owns a radio in the current year? I certainly don’t unless it’s buried under boxes of crap. It’s just media-driven drivel to perpetuate a slow news cycle.

And that’s what I decide to tell myself as I continue playing games into the wee hours of the night, alone and silent.

<Previous Story | <== Previous ♠ Next ==>

6 comments

Leave a Reply