Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
Sixty-eight people milled about on the beach pretending to enjoy various activities. There was a game of volleyball going; the ball hadn’t touched the ground in more than forty minutes. Neither team had scored yet. They didn’t need to. The game was simply decoration, like the surfers lounging against their posted boards and the children building sand castles so tall and symmetrical that no actual child could resist toppling them.
Leor the Tenth, or Leor X as she had the shells call her, was the only who could have any real fun. She wasn’t having it yet. Somebody had to drown first. There were three shells assigned to the task, and all three of them were sixty feet out into the surf treading water. They could’ve pretended to drown immediately, but Leor wanted it to be real. She had instructed them to tread water forever, but given their human bodies they could only go so long before their muscles tensed up or gave out. There was no telling how long that would take any random shell, which was why she sent three out there.
The first one that began to flail and shout for help was the bald fellow in the blue swimming suit. She didn’t have a name for him, the city’s census was only ever one name at a time, so she just thought of him as Blue. The other two drowners were Red and Yellow. Each of the shells around her wore a suit of one solid color, just as ordered. That way she could keep track of all the people with certain qualities. Blues made excellent wimpy civilians. They weren’t very attractive or strong. Perfect fodder for heroics.
Leor pulled off her sunglasses and tried to pick out Blue’s flailing arms from the foam of the surf. It was difficult with so many shells walking in front of her, so she shouted for them to move and made a parting gesture like Moses splitting the sea. The beach-goers obeyed immediately, clearing her line of sight to the ocean. Yes, the drowning had started. Now she could have some fun.
The only person in Perfected City 4X leapt to her bare feet and ran into the surf, life preserver under one arm. The crowd cheered her on as she swam out to Blue. His fingers stretched toward the sun, but the sea swallowed up his elbow. His forearm. His wrist. The shell was possibly suffering permanent damage now; there was actually something to save. Every watery breath he was forced to take was a percentage of his brain that she would rescue. If the city ever picked him he would owe the very complexity of his thoughts to her. She would have a legacy.
The raven-haired woman dove after a deep breath. Blue was sinking, but his arm was still stretched straight up, mechanically so. His brain struggled to keep up the illusion of an actual victim. She rolled her eyes in the treated fresh water of the artificial beach. Her hand wrapped around his wrist and pulled up. They made their way back to the surface; she grabbed a white stripe on the preserver while Blue grabbed a green one. He was still capable of grabbing, but his body was turning his namesake color. He wasn’t breathing. Leor kicked as fast as she could, taking them back to the sand. No shell dared step foot in the tide, lest she order the disobedient husk to throw itself into the sewer system.
The real woman dragged him into the hot dry sand, placed him on her designated resuscitation towel. She took a moment to straighten out the curl at the end caused by his dragging feet. The shells gathered around in a circle, leaning forward to see the drama.
“You’re going to live, damn you!” Leor shouted at his blue face and fluttering eyelids. She pulled his mouth open and began CPR. An orchestrated hush fell over the crowd. Leor did a series of chest compressions. It wasn’t the recommended number, but she only ever did what felt right. She tried to breathe life into him once more. The blue finally sputtered and expelled the swallowed water. He rolled over onto his side, coughing and gagging. She wanted to shut him up, but certain reflexes and instincts overrode the shell programming. Until his breathing was stable his body would do all his thinking for him.
“Three cheers for Leor X!” a random pink shouted.
“Five,” Leor corrected.
“Five cheers for Leor X!” The crowd cheered in such perfect unison that it sounded more like choir practice than celeration. Their hands went up and down five times and then transitioned into applause. She bathed in their admiration, closing her eyes and twirling, nearly tripping over the blue. Two others took it upon themselves to grab his elbows and drag him away now that his moment in the sunlight was over.
A medal was brought out and draped over Leor’s shoulders. She examined her own likeness on its face and tried to make her reflection match its contours. This was the only way to have fun. It was a shame actual danger took so much effort to set up. Those old idiots that perfected the city rounded all the sharp corners, put autopilots in all the vehicles, and even took every last atom of lead out of the water supply. Leor’s shells couldn’t be saved unless Leor put them in rough spots herself.
Car accidents usually wound up maiming them, and once they were maimed they had a hard time keeping up with her jaunty pace. They lost a lot of utility; they couldn’t carry her shopping bags, dance with her in the concert hall, or carry her to bed at night. The drowning was much safer. If they lived they were intact. Minor brain damage could easily be overcome by the programming. She’d saved ten drowners already. It was close to a perfect record, but as she had her crowd follow her off the beach and into the boardwalk she forgot about the other two she’d ordered to tread water. They sank without complaint shortly after. Deep in the bowels of the city a computer ordered four shells to copulate in order to replace the two lost.
“What else do I want to do today?” she wondered aloud, dripping all over the asphalt. She snapped her fingers; a shell wrapped a towel around her while another ran into the nearest department store to fetch her a fresh outfit. There was base jumping off the city’s highest tower, petting the muzzled big cats at the zoo, or perhaps the theater. The computer usually scheduled at least one good movie each day, even if it was a hundred years old. She went mostly to flirt with the green behind the concession stand anyway. She ordered him to live back there, to sleep under the candies, so that his pretty face could be the most reliable thing in her life.
“What do you think I should do?” she asked, turning to the hunched blue she had just rescued. He looked at her like he was supposed to, but his pupils seemed to vibrate. The programming trying to catch up after his trauma.
“I… don’t know,” he sputtered, a little more seawater drooling out. “We live for you Leor X. Life decisions are yours. Orders are ours. We hold your pearl in our shells.”
“We hold your pearl in our shells,” the others repeated in a whisper.
Leor sighed, turning it into a frustrated grunt halfway through. She walked out into the street, forcing a bus to stop for her. She pulled its door open and climbed aboard. The thirty shells riding inside, who all stared ahead blankly moments before, turned to her.
“What about you?” she asked row after row as she walked between them. “Any thoughts in here? Any ideas? Have any of you ever had any fun?”
“No, Leor X,” they answered. “Fun is all for you. The city is all for you. You don’t have to worry about anyone else.” She kicked open the emergency door at the back and jumped out onto the street. The bus resumed its route, one shell pulling the door closed. Her eyes passed over the front of the library. She was a swift learner, but she could only access what the city wanted her to. Its history was purposefully hidden.
She knew only what she needed to know in order to enjoy her privileges. Perfected City 4X was hers to do with whatever she pleased, until the time of her natural death, suicide, or catastrophic illness requiring euthanasia. All of the shells were her playthings, human in every respect except for the conditioning that began in the womb. All personality, all desire, all disobedience, was pushed down by a series of tones and electrical pulses, turning them into shells.
When Leor the tenth, tenth person to own the city, to live in it as no others could, perished, the shells would participate in a lottery. The lucky winner would receive the antidote to their shell conditioning. They would come out of the slave fugue and understand for the first time that they were alive. They would be the eleventh, and all other shells would be their servants, lovers, and even foils if they wanted them.
Tires screeched. That caught her attention. Had she ever heard that sound in her life? On film sure, but the computerized vehicles never made mistakes while driving. Even in floodwaters and hail they moved like marching ants. She threw off her towel just as her new outfit was catching up and ran toward the sound. She rounded a corner, only to converge with the rogue vehicle. It didn’t swerve. She needed to jump. She actually needed to move or she would die. The long-dormant instincts kicked in at the last possible moment and threw her onto the sidewalk.
The vehicle, something small and beige, roared past her and screeched around another corner. Sirens blared as it was chased by two computerized police units. She jumped to her feet. The shells took advantage of her stunned moment by undressing her and putting on the new outfit. She didn’t even have the presence of mind to swat them away. Instead her thoughts raced after the speeding cars, trying to make sense of what just happened.
“Can it be?” she wondered aloud. “Actual resistance? Have some of you shells been sneaking life from a secret fountain? Are you going to overthrow me? Riot in the streets and chop off my head?”
“We would never do that… unless ordered,” the nearest one said, expression blank. Leor leaned closer to the taller shell, tried to see any rebellion in the pupils. She smacked the woman across the face, but there was no reaction. She did it twice more, but her victim was completely unaware of the yellow bruise already forming on her cheek.
“Then what was that?” Leor asked, gesturing in the direction of the car chase.
“I don’t know,” the shell answered.
“Then I have to assume it’s rebellion,” Leor said with an illicit thrill. Her heart tumbled and pattered, like a puppy chasing a squirrel for the first time. “I have to be ready for the fight. I’m finally going to fight. All of you, leave me. None of you can be trusted.” The shells dispersed, some returning to the beach, others going back to their assigned homes to change out of their swimwear. They would sit, motionless, in their padded compartments until the city’s algorithm called on them to be part of that day’s street crowd. Or they could be personally requested by the singular citizen, but Leor didn’t care about any of the individuals. She never forged relationships with them the way some of her predecessors did. To her all their faces blurred together, necessitating her clever organization of trait and color.
She was not capable of cloak and dagger, not with a security camera on every corner hooked up to the mighty computer, but she still did her best avoid any organic eyes. She slipped into an alley behind one of the buildings where she kept an apartment. There was a fire ladder she could climb up to its window. Halfway up she stopped and looked out at her city. She couldn’t decide if she actually wanted someone to try and take it from her.
It would be exciting no doubt, but then there was the danger. It wasn’t programmed into her shells. It would be visited upon her own body, a thing she’d lived in for ten of its twenty-nine years. Even though her mind was only present for about a third of it she was still quite attached.
Leor the tenth slipped under her unlocked window and silently tiptoed to what used to be a game room. She kept all the lights off. As far as she could tell the city didn’t keep any bugs in her places of residence. Whoever decided that complete selfishness was the best way to live, be they computers or people, thought the solitary citizens deserved at least a little privacy. They needed a place to think about ending their lives, should the shell game prove insufficient, to think about giving someone else a chance before they aged into the grave without a single raw emotion.
Leor didn’t use that apartment for being alone. No, she had three others near the hotel for that. This was the lair where she schemed and planned in the hopes that some shadowy mind was doing the same thing to counter her. She walked into the game room and switched the lights on. Ten shells stood in a row, equidistant from each other and the walls.
They were of varying ages and colored attire: an old green, three young reds, an overweight purple… The true tenth walked up and down the row, looking for anything suspicious. Those ten had been ordered to live in that room for some time now, only lying down at night so their feet didn’t give out. Leor had some theories about them, and so needed them all in one place. Like every day, they’d been staring blankly at the mural on the wall, a young woman dancing across Saturn’s rings, for several hours. They would’ve continued until sundown if Leor hadn’t shown up and started asking her questions.
“There’s a rebellion afoot!” she blurted, hoping one would blink. When none did she shoved through them, opened a closet, and began pulling out safety pads meant for young bikers and roller bladers. She attached them to her elbows and knees. It was the closest she could find to battle armor. “Which one of you is in charge, hmm?” she asked as she tugged on the pile. Out tumbled recreations of swords she’d stolen from the museum and sharpened in the butcher shop.
None of the shells answered her. Leor circled around to the front again and placed a sword against the old green’s throat. He didn’t flinch. She moved from throat to throat, pressing it in enough to bend the skin. Still no reaction. She couldn’t possibly have been wrong about all of them.
The library books told her how the shell game worked, but not whether or not it had any flaws. She had her own theories. A lottery didn’t seem right. It just didn’t feel like luck that she won a life. There were memories of being something like a worm swimming between layers of dense tissue and cloudy blood. It was her own rebellion, her own instincts. They had wriggled their way close to the surface. The computer had seen them rising and preempted her own breaking of her shell by giving her the city’s one life.
If that was true, if it was possible that she was special, there had to be a few others. So for a long time she’d researched every shell in the city. She would run, in the middle of an activity to minimize preparedness, and jump into a new room or building to see if any shells were doing things they weren’t supposed to. Most of the time she found idle crowds that only stirred, sluggishly moving into background tedium, once they knew she was watching.
Occasionally though she would spot something slightly out of the ordinary. One of them would look at a newspaper a little too long. That was the old green. A couple would lose count in their jump rope game; that was the three young reds. Mistakes weren’t programming. They were humanity. That’s what Leor guessed anyway.
The ten before her all had behavioral quirks, all gunned for her life force. That was why she kept them locked up and still, but now she sensed the possibility of a mistake of her own. That might’ve allowed these determined worms to plot with each other, to combine their spirits into something she couldn’t overcome. There were ways to quash their usurpation efforts.
“Tell me who is behind the rebellion or this one dies,” Leor the tenth said, sword poked into an orange’s stomach.
“We know of no rebellion,” they all said.
“Fine, have it your way!” She stabbed the orange, the blade sinking deep into her center. The shell collapsed with a whimper and bled on the floor. Leor watched. No eyes moved. No fingers twitched. This wasn’t their doing then. Somebody she had missed. She grabbed a clean blade from the pile and left the apartment. She would follow the skid marks in the street instead, see where the police units had chased the beige car.
She stormed through the streets minutes later, waving her sword and telling all shells to keep their distance. Her exact phrasing was ‘keep the hell away from me’, which the shells interpreted as a distance somewhere between thirty and two hundred feet. When that distance forced them up against walls they scurried along the side until they could comply, like roaches feeling their way along a seam.
There were only so many tire tracks to follow; Leor hated having to ask the shells which way the chase had gone. When they all pointed it made her feel like she wasn’t a detective at all. The trail led her down into a parking garage where she found something she’d never seen in person before: a standoff!
In a dark corner, three police cars encircled the trapped beige vehicle. The hood of the rebellious car was crumpled, having smacked into a wall and a mounted fire extinguisher. There were shrinking piles of gray foam everywhere, even on the shirts of the two rebels. There was one man and one woman, one yellow and one tan, holding up whatever weapons they could find: a shovel and an ice pick. Their posture was hunched, genuinely afraid by Leor’s measure.
There were three officers: loyal shells with guns raised at the rebels. Actual guns! She ran up and touched them to be sure, but the shells tried to warn her to stay back. She raised her sword and ignored their warning, shuffling closer and closer to the rebels.
“So, you’ve broken through the programming,” she addressed them. “Tell me… what was it like?”
“None of your business!” the woman in the tan jacket shouted. “We hate you Leor X! You sample us all like grapes from the bunch and don’t care when we roll under the table and rot! You’ll rot now! This will be our city!”
“Our city!” the man in yellow pants repeated, raising the shovel and hooting.
“Fight me for it!” Leor screeched, jumping forward. Her sword clashed with the shovel handle. The tan woman ran in, ice pick raised. Leor caught her wrist while pushing the man against the back of the car. She struggled on two fronts and managed to keep them at bay for several seconds. Several more. Several more. The truth dawned on her. The man’s mouth was contorted into a snarl, but his eyes were as dead as everyone else’s.
Leor loosened her grip on the woman’s wrist, yet the ice pick did not get closer. The shell matched whatever strength Leor put out; both of them did. If they’d fought to their fullest capacity she would’ve been dead on the ground by now. They couldn’t kill her, because they weren’t real rebels.
“You knew I wanted this,” she whispered, looking into the man’s eyes but speaking to the city’s many microphones. “You knew I was bored. Lonely and unhated. So you made me some rebels.” She sighed and was surprised when it nearly brought tears to her eyes. “Your rebellion is dead now.” She stood. They dropped their weapons.
“Yes Leor X,” the rebels said as one. “You have defeated us.” Leor tossed her sword across the garage, where it smashed into a windshield. No alarm went off, because nothing could be stolen.
“Praise me,” Leor whispered, ripping off her helmet and pads. She didn’t know if the praise would help, but she had to try something to get rid of the sudden dump of foul-smelling emotions in the bottom of her mind.
“Your bravery was a sight to behold,” one of the police officers said. “It makes me proud to wear this badge.” He pointed to it. Leor walked up to him and grabbed it, nearly tearing it off hi shirt. Her face was printed onto it. There came a horrible thought of her casket, decades in the future, being dumped into the sea. Of all those badges and flags being recalled to be melted down and recast into the face of the eleventh. She checked the clip of his gun. Empty. “You should put these two rebels in the museum,” the officer said, interrupting her morbid thoughts. “So we can all remember your sacrifice here today.”
“Good idea,” she muttered angrily. “You two follow me.” She turned to leave, the rebels right behind.
The trio entered the museum a short while later. The space was tall and sparsely decorated, with nonthreatening walls of a light yellow that clashed with the male rebel’s pants. It wasn’t the same sort of museum where she pilfered her weapons from. This exhibit was all about her legacy. If she moved down the hall she would find those for her nine predecessors. Every last person allotted a life. All because clashing desires made a cloud of misery humanity thought it could never penetrate.
Most of the pedestals held shells associated with one of her achievements. The first was a woman with curly red hair, the same age as Leor. They had been best friends back when Leor thought friendship was real. When the illusion broke she put her friend in the museum so she could watch her grow and compare their looks. See who wound up prettier.
Leor dragged her feet through the finely-dressed shells of her first wedding party. For a while she’d been obsessed with playing out marriages and affairs, but that had grown stale years ago. If she wanted to relive any of them she could just come look at these living photographs in their tuxedos and dresses, their flower corsages replaced daily.
She found two empty pedestals and ordered her rebels to stand atop them. They obeyed, proudly wielding their weapons and standing in aggressive poses, like taxidermy bears mounted in the middle of a claw swipe. She was about to leave when she noticed several more empty pedestals in the row.
“These are supposed to be full,” she said to no one in particular. “I saved them. They’re still alive because of me.” She walked to the end and found one obedient shell on the last pedestal. It was the blue she’d rescued from drowning earlier that day. All the others she’d resuscitated should’ve been standing there too. “You,” she addressed her recent victim, “where are your brethren?” His head lolled on his neck, his eyes turning slugggishly.
“You broke us,” he said slowly, eyes quivering under their lids. “Put us back together. But we can still see the cracks…” She ordered him to continue, but it was too difficult to discern what he meant through the now-obvious brain damage.
Leor looked at the empty pedestals. They were out in her city, living in the cracks. Thinking things. Letting a philosophy pool in the craters of her staged heroism. Perhaps one among them was the eleventh.