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One Game to the Next

E.E. Wesley is currently a student pursuing a masters in philosophy, and enjoys reading and writing science fiction in his (admittedly sparse) free time.
Michael sat at his desk staring at his computer, casually clicking through the puzzle on the screen. The garish colors filling his gaze flashed and reorganized as he finished the level. A small, unsatisfied smile briefly crossed his lips as his score blinked and grew. Twelve points for completing the puzzle, and three points for speed. He spared the leaderboard a glance before setting into the next level. He was 123rd out of 400 at the company, three below where he started today. An exasperated sigh escaped him as he reoriented on the newest level. He would probably be even lower by the time he left work. His heart wasn't in it today. Four months ago he had set the company record, neatly capping off a six-month winning streak. It was downhill from there, though. Last month he scored third place.
Of course the puzzle was more than just a dumb game. Michael worked for the logistics division of one of the farming conglomerates that fed most of Europe. A rather complicated job was repackaged as a set of scored puzzles by an algorithm and given to 400 people in cube farms around the world. The conglomerate provided him with food, a small apartment, and entertainment credit proportional to his ranking.
Michael bit his lip as he deliberately clicked through his new puzzle, struggling to keep his focus. His stomach was tying itself in anxious knots as his thoughts wandered to his plans for the evening. He brushed the sleeve of his blank, white sweater and looked at his watch. 4:37. In two hours he could leave his cubicle without attracting attention from his cube-mates.
This puzzle was difficult, forcing him to restart four or five times before he finished it. No time bonuses this time. As his next puzzle started his mind wandered back to his meeting that night. A meeting with dangerous men. A meeting to fuel his addiction.
The addiction started four months ago. 116 day ago, to be precise. Initially it helped his work, helping him maintain a small lead over a competitor in Paris, and then propelling him to his record-setting month. Lately though, it had become increasingly distracting. The leaderboard lost its thrill. When he went home the movies felt formulaic and the console shooters felt repetitive. The world had become pale.
He finished the next puzzle quickly enough, getting nine points for the puzzle and six for speed. Another glance at the leader board showed that he had fallen to 126 though. His disappointment and frustration were only tempered by his apathy.
A black hoody replaced the white sweater and grey jeans replaced the sweatpants he had been wearing. As he left his apartment, Michael retrieved a bottle of methamphetamines and a short serrated knife from a hidden drawer in his dresser. After a final, apprehensive look in the mirror he left his apartment.
He walked down the complex's plain grey halls and into Birmingham's sterile train station. People, absorbed in their phones, milled around him as he stepped onto his train and then off of it fifteen minutes later. Michael moved with a small crowd towards the theater district, absently swiping his card for a movie ticket. He was running low on entertainment credit, he'd have to kick it up at work, even if caring was a struggle.
The first half of the movie was a constant battle to not stare at his watch. He still checked it surreptitiously every couple minutes though. Finally 11:00 rolled around and he ducked out of the movie and walked with affected surety to the restroom. He went to the third stall and nervously locked himself in and sat on the toilet. One hand was fidgeting with the bottle of drugs in his lap, and the other was in his pocket, clenching his knife as if his life depended on it. Maybe it did.
A few minutes later someone obnoxiously clanged into the stall to his right and after a couple of minutes knocked on the shared wall. The man's nasal voice grated "You there bro? You got the product?"
Michael steadied his voice. "I do."
A small bag slid under the wall. Michael lifted the bag and felt its weight. It was heavy, probably five hundred pages. The man terrified Michael, but he always delivered.
Michael slid the methamphetamines under to the neighboring stall.
"You're a saint bro, see you in two weeks." With a bang the man swaggered out of the bathroom.
After he was gone Michael let out a sigh and tried to get his heart to beat at its correct rate. He tucked the bag into his hoody and returned to the movie that he wasn't watching. He couldn't keep himself from running his hands through the soft, worn pages within.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, March 13th, 2017

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