A dystopian novel I'm working on. First chapter, for reviews, criticism and suggestions.
| He stared at himself in the bathroom mirror. In front of him was a receding hairline, slowly revealing his scalp from beneath the flat, lifeless brown hair; eyes surrounded by dark bags, making him look much older than the forty-two years he had endured; and a pitiful facial expression akin to that of an old mutt, wanting to let loose of this world and forever rest in the calm he's been waiting for. His brown trench coat hid an aging body, covered in dimples and birthmarks, but his mocha-coloured khakis gave him a look of cleanliness and prosperity.
But it was not the outer appearances of this man that bothered him. On the contrary, his body he could live with. It was the personality, the man beneath the shell, which annoyed him. The underappreciated wasted talent, the bitter old man, the cynicism and the nihilism. More than that, it was his mannerisms. Specifically, the twitch - to constantly see his thumb and middle finger snap together, twice each time, was what made him the cynical middle-aged man he was. This twitch was something out of the ordinary, something that made him stick out like a sore thumb. Even though no one commented on it, he knew deep inside that they all spoke of him as Charles Heuer, the man with the odd tick.
He continued staring at the reflection, as if there was something too captivating not to look at. He looked into the grey-green eyes, staring deep into them, to unravel what mysteries they kept within themselves. He knew that something was off, that something wasn't truly him, but he couldn't put his finger on what it was. The eyes told a story, different from his own yet exactly the same.
Staring at the reflection, he breathed in the silence, calm but concerning. There was something about the dark room, inhabited only by his thoughts, his presence and his reflection, that made him uncomfortable. The darkness screamed silence, horrible silence, as if it was something to be feared. He agreed; the thing that frightened him most was not what was, but what wasn't. The eyes awoke more questions than answers. Why were they so piercing? What life lay behind them? What made them differ from his own, still being his? What made those eyes so un-Charles?
Amidst his thoughts, he noticed that the snapping hadn't occurred for a while. That's peculiar, he thought. Before he had time to ponder more thoroughly, the reflection lifted its hand, containing a small, shining scalpel. He knew what the scalpel was for, yet he was frightened of what the reflection would do. The grey-green eyes stared back at him for what felt like an eternity of condescendence. Suddenly, the scalpel rose to the reflection's forehead, and, in an agonizingly slow and forceful move, cut a deep groove.
Charles flew back; his eyes screaming in horror as their reflective counterparts slowly became engulfed in thick, oozing red liquid, hiding their mystery once again. The blood slowly flowed across his - the reflection's - face, creeping down its nose bridge like the lava erupted from an angry volcano. Charles wanted to scream, to let his emotions run wild, but in the pure shock, he could not utter one sound. He stood, frightened, watching the reflection disappearing behind the blood. He looked down at the edge of the mirror, seeing blood seeping out of the cabinet, slowly dripping onto his own shoes. He could feel his lungs finally filling with air, as he screamed for all that he could, praying to whatever deity came to mind to relieve him from this pain.
He woke up, covered in sweat, his sheets lying scattered across the bedroom. Still feeling the rush of adrenaline and the engulfment of pure fear, he looked across the room. His gaze was greeted by white walls, here and there sporting small pictures of a metropolis. In front of him was the familiar dresser, made of metal and glass, dirty and dimpled. The rug on the floor looked soft, calling for Charles with promises of warmth and safety. He slowly assured himself that this was his bedroom, that he was in his apartment in Socrates, and that he hadn't moved an inch from the city of Empyrea.
Calm down, Charles, he thought. You're safe. It was only a dream.
He rose from his bed, turning around to glance at it with a look of disdain, as if it had insulted him. The very essence of the bed, with its comfortable sheets and soft, yet supporting mattress somehow made him sick in his stomach. This was supposed to be the epitome of safety - no man should be frightened of his own bed - and yet, he could barely look at it without anxiety, as if it was hell-bent on harming him.
Taking a deep breath, as to finally remove himself from the nightmare, he walked out of the room. He was greeted by the familiar hallway, sporting more pictures and landscapes. Taking a right, he walked down to the bathroom, but stopped at the door.
Pathetic, he thought. A man of forty-two years was afraid of entering his own bathroom, knowing what lay beyond the surprisingly high threshold. Though trying to assure himself otherwise, he felt uncomfortable, walking through the doorway as if it was a portal to lands unknown, to the domain of fear and anguish.
He was greeted by the old shower, as grimy and cold as always; the porcelain toilet, a relic of an era where porcelain still was in common use; and... the bathroom mirror.
I need to take that mirror down, he thought.
I can't keep living like this. Also, that toilet has got to go - it's 2093, and I'm still shitting on porcelain.
Charles stepped up to the mirror, careful not to look himself in the eyes, as if this action would mark his succumbing to their mystery power; their very presence reminded him of the reflection, which made him beyond uncomfortable. It took all his effort not to look into the mirror, as he picked up his pen razor from beside the sink, turned it on and started shaving.
As the laser burned away his shadow from the day before, he relished in the slight discomfort the razor brought. It made him forget all about the nightmare. Still, he couldn't completely shake off the mental image of his reflection, cutting away at its - his? - forehead.
He had dreamt the same nightmare countless times, each time ending in exactly the same way, but it still shocked him as much. And the medicine they had given him at the hospital didn't help one bit. The doctor had insisted on the fact that the "psycho-activity suppressants" would take care of the nightmares in no time, but Charles had always had his doubts. He knew that they wouldn't disappear overnight - he had, after all, had them for ten years now, seeing no change whatsoever.
Suddenly, he felt the razor flying out of his grip, burning the tip of his nose as it fell down into the sink.
"Goddam it," he muttered, angry at his twitch. Ten years had gone by, and he still couldn't manage mundane tasks like shaving. He couldn't even count the times the twitch had caused him problems. Being a righty, it was hard for Charles to give up right-handed precision because of a small tick, which was why he still used his right hand for everyday tasks. Some called him stubborn for not giving up on the hand; he called it determination. That, and he didn't want to feel like a slight motor dysfunction would get the best of him.
Picking up the razor and continuing shaving, he felt a slight burning tinge as the laser swept over the last remaining patches of his over-night shadow. He turned off the razor and gauged its work in the mirror, still avoiding the eyes. Deeming it good enough - partially because he didn't want to see those eyes for a second longer - he put down the razor and washed his face. As the cold water swept over his sore face, he felt himself waking up from the drowsy state he had been in.
Wiping his face dry, he took one last glance at the reflection in the mirror, slowly forcing himself to look it in the eyes. They still shone grey-green, but no more were they hiding something. They were his again.
Every morning, he would wonder why he had these recurring nightmares, and today was no exception. The one with his reflection was only the tip of the iceberg - close to every night he would experience one of many, each as disturbing and frightening as the next. Whether it was the sight of a city burning, him drowning in water accompanied by whispering shadows, or this one, he would always wake up in a state of shock, covered in cold sweat, his sheets tumbled and wet. He visited his psychiatrist more often than not, but he still got no answer pertaining to these events of horror - just reassurance that the medication would soon kick in and that his troubles would then be a thing of the past. The first time Charles heard that sentence was eight years ago, and he still relived the horrors almost daily. The past year, though, the nightmares had grown in frequency, attacking his sleeping mind.
Feeling awake but disturbed, he left the bathroom and walked down the hallway, passing the small paintings and photographs of the cityscape of New York City, his old home.
He had moved to Empyrea ten years ago, an autumn day in 2083, upon receiving an invitation to be a part of the European Agency for Scientific Advancements' ground-breaking project, Project Empyrea. The invitation couldn't have arrived at a more vulnerable time - his long-standing wife, Gia, had left Charles because of his newly-developed addiction to gambling, and his fourteen-year-old son Winston had disappeared, leaving no traces of his whereabouts. Charles was devastated, miserable and filled with hopelessness, so the chance to start anew was like the voice of the gods. Still, not a day went by when he wouldn't reminisce about his former life, about his former job, about his former family. To this day, he didn't know where Winston had gone, or whether or not the boy even was alive.
Charles suddenly found himself standing on his balcony, overlooking the waking city of Empyrea. The artificial sky-dome revealed that it was morning, shining a soft, yellowish light across the large apartment complexes around Charles'. Slowly, he could hear the laughing voices of children, smell the sweet smell of breakfast, and see the thickening traffic down below. The city looked as tempting and beautiful as always, ever it not for the grey, brutal apartment buildings, skyscrapers towering above the city closer to the Origin, and billboards shouting about Lectron's newest technological advancements.
Charles had been told, upon arriving to the gates of Empyrea, that he was to be thankful for Lectron; the "multi-billion euro global conglomerate specialized in tech and innovations"; for single-handedly giving the means for the EASA to build and uphold this marvellous city. Charles had always found the pro-Lectron propaganda spouted at every corner shop, every billboard and every formal meeting at the Ministries to be somewhat repulsive in its manipulative nature, but he kept that opinion to himself - working as a civil servant, the last thing he would have wanted to do was to slur the very company that paid his monthly check.
Still, the city looked beautiful. The thirty million inhabitants below swam in the pseudo-sun's orange warmth. From his apartment, near the edge of the city, he had a perfect view of the slightly convex, circular city, as he looked down on the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
"It's quite a sight, isn't it?" he muttered fleetingly, turning around to face his right side, where no one stood. The sudden feeling of loneliness overtook him, and his smile slowly settled down into an acidic expression, and he returned inside through the glass door.
The lonely expression soon grew into a slight smile of enjoyment, as he was greeted by his plain and simple apartment - divided into three half-stories, the flat was furnished in a simplistic fashion, with metallic furniture, concrete floor and pictures covering the dull, grey walls. The hallway he had walked through split in the middle to two staircases, one going down half a floor to the living room and the other up to the kitchen. To think; his apartment was one of the poorer in the sector dedicated to culture, and yet it was miles apart from the crummy concrete jungle he had lived in, back in New York City. He knew, of course, that the "poor" appearance of the apartment was relative - the city was divided into eight sectors, each dedicated to their own produce, and his home in Socrates definitely belonged to the better part of the city.
Charles took the stairs up to the elevated kitchen floor, where he was greeted by the dishes of yesterday.
"This again. Goddam auto-washer won't turn on," he grumbled, pondering how much a repairman would set him back. He decided to ignore the mountain of dishes, and went straight for the electronics panel, which lit up from his presence.
"Good morning, Mister Heuer," the panel spoke with a smooth womanly voice.
"Morning, Lia," he answered, grunting the words as if they were an effort.
"What would you like me to do, Sir?"
"Brew me a cup of coffee, will you?"
"Could you repeat that, Sir?"
Charles stared at the panel, his left eyebrow raised slightly. He lived in 2093, and voice automation still didn't function properly.
"A cup of coffee, Lia," he repeated, a tone of irritation in his voice.
"Coming right up, Sir," the panel stated, and a slight rumbling noise commenced, originating from the refrigerator. Charles walked up to the machine, as a panel glided up to reveal a large, black mug filled to the brim with piping hot coffee.
"Here you go, Sir. Shall I turn on the television?" Lia enquired, to which Charles grunted as to approve of the action and stepped up to the railing. He placed his mug on the thick wrought iron pane that covered the railing and stared down at the television - a large, seamless screen situated on the wall of the living room, two half-stories down.
"- Recent reports show that the anomalies in Becquerel Sector have calmed down, and that the police have arrested the rebels suspected of the pipe bombing," the morning news reported stated, as dully and calmly as ever. "Tap your Augmented Information Device for Lord Chancellor Donald O'Connor's statement regarding the recent outbreaks. In other news, the farmer's market -"
"Just turn it off, Lia," Charles sighed, receiving a quick "Yes, Sir" as a response from the electronic panel. Even though Charles was a civil servant, he didn't care for current events as much as he perhaps ought to. He was, after all, a middle-aged, regular Empyrean citizen, working a normal nine-to-five job, with no family or hobbies - not a politician or a diplomat.
He took a sip of his now cooled coffee and turned to stare at the electronic panel, which showed a constant stream of notes, weather reports and messages. The system, which was obligatory in all apartments in Empyrea, was called the Looping Information Automaton, or Lia for short. Its main purpose was to connect the government to all citizens in case of emergencies, but the clever folks down at Berners-Lee had engineered a software update which allowed system users to keep in contact with each other via video calls and messaging. Seeing as Charles, however, didn't socialize all too much, his screens were filled with nothing but important notes - as deemed by the Ministry of Coin, not Charles - regarding his work, along missed calls from Wiley, his co-worker.
Wiley was a young thirty-something, and his age showed - he had a knack for getting things done faster than you could say "Thank Lectron", but also for screwing said things up even quicker. He was a friendly and sociable person; just not the kind of person Charles enjoyed having breathing down his neck at any given hour of the day. Wiley enjoyed calling Charles at any and all times, trying to lure Charles to a pub, a game of chess, a social gathering, you name it. Charles, however, only accepted Wiley's invitations once in a blue moon, and then only because of courtesy - not that there was anything wrong with Wiley as a person; Charles was just more of the hermit type.
This morning, Charles saw seven missed calls from Wiley. He wondered whether the man slept at all, and how he could persist with the calls even though Charles never answered. Nevertheless, Charles decided to check his messages, to see whether Wiley had had something important on his mind - Charles did feel enough for Wiley not to let him become the boy that cried wolf... Even though the man surely made it hard not to.
"'How about a stroll in the park, mate?' ... 'Come join me, the sunset and a bottle of forty-year old whiskey!'" Charles muttered under his breath. "Nothing important, as always."
He deleted the messages and returned to his morning coffee, only to discover it had gone cold.
"Dam it," he cursed, and decided that this was his queue to leave for work. Placing the cup along the tonne of dishes, he walked downstairs to change into his work attire; a suit coupled with the most boring tie he had ever seen, what with its grey, matte finish.
"Lia, would you mind making sure a repairman is ordered for the auto-washer?" he shouted over his shoulder, while trying to accomplish a good-enough knot.
"Yes, Sir, an appointment request will be sent. At what time shall I let him in, Sir?"
"Whenever, just make sure the washer gets fixed."
"Booking an appointment for Thursday in two weeks' time - is this alright with you, Sir?"
"Two weeks No, it bloody well isn't! I need the washer fixed as soon as possible!" Charles cried at the panel, being less than eager to wait two weeks for clean dishes.
"I am sorry, Sir, but that is the only available time," the panel responded, its tone as cold and inhumane as a pre-recorded woman's voice would be.
"Great. Whatever, just book it," he grunted, tying the last shoelace and grabbing his suitcase from under the kitchen stairs. Looking at the panel, he realized he had to get moving; his workday started at nine in the morning, at Friedman Hill, and the clock had already turned a quarter to nine, at his apartment half a city away. He hurried out of the front door, locking it with his electronic key over his shoulder as he ran down the stairs to the reception, and out to the streets.
He was greeted by the old familiar noise of people hurrying to work, electronic billboards flickering, and a constant stream of loudspeaker advertisements, all competing for the citizens' attention. His home row, Row L, housed some small theatres and cinemas, but mostly the landscape was dominated by tall apartment buildings, each looking like an apartment complex would have a century ago, sporting grey walls, parabolic antennas and clothes drying on the balconies, stretched across the street. The subtle aromas of street kitchens and tarmac entered his nose, accompanied by the view of children begging their mothers to buy them lollipops as breakfast from the small stands.
He took a right at the door and preceded towards one of the main roads, separating Socrates from Alhazen, the education sector. These main roads were gigantic in size, often impossible to cross due to dense traffic. It was lucky, then, that Charles never had to cross said road - every main road began at row C surrounding Friedman Hill, ended in a large police watchtower, and housed no importance to Charles Heuer.
Walking down the road briskly, Charles looked around himself and found a multitude of electric vehicles, all honking their horns as if the drivers' lives depended on it; street artists of all kinds; and a larger moving human mass than one would ever dream of seeing, even if one, like Charles, came from New York City, a flourishing metropolis in the eastern North American Province. Empyrea, the true city that never slept, was to Charles a constant struggle of noise pollution and crowdedness.
"It's quite a sight, isn't it?" a nearby woman sighed to her child, admiring the city.