Vague Visages Short Stories: Find Your Perfection by D.M. Palmer

Editor’s Note: All of Vague Visages’ short stories are free-to-read.

I’d been selected to keynote the Diurnal Congressional Encomium. It was a tremendous honour to represent the Dept. Deep down, I knew I’d only been selected because of what happened with Bonnie and Sasha; but the Gov. Insight Logs tell us that one must seize an opportunity, however painful its origin.

Yeah, sorry, stay on topic:

I caught the tail-end of the Devotional Procession traffic on the expressway, but I got to the bore-port with plenty of time. I passed through the blast barriers and the scanner.

The concourse went silent for the hourly Moment of Strength. Sec-Gen XXVI’s face filled the walls and ceiling. Sec-Gen XXVI’s theme played at distorting volume. Images ran behind Sec-Gen XXVI’s smiling face — the fiery vanquishing of our foes in the Tentaclos Campaign; our exultant victory in the Globaleisure Campaign; the glorious advance in the Klotco Campaign. The music ended and we all said “sustain him, insulate him, fortify him,” falling into unison, following the most passionate voices. I’d only ever experienced the Moment of Strength from the Dept. observation deck, so it was strange to see it there.

Yeah, sorry, stay on topic:

I wanted to give my encomium a final once-over before my MOLE was called, so I went to get a Velocity Tonic at Dwam — avocado and ginger is my preferred blend.

Conversations were happening around me as I stood in line for Godfrey the Parrot:

The guy in front was telling the woman standing next to him that he keeps having this dream where he’s telling his therapist he keeps having this dream that he’s a sniper positioned on the top of a tall building, and he’s scanning the crowd through the scope until he stops on this white-haired woman who he doesn’t recognise, but something makes him stop on her. She asked him if he’s talked to his therapist about it IRL. Only in the dream, he told her. She asked him if that’s a dream he’s been having. He told her that he only has the recollection of the dream (his emphasis). She told him that technically he is having the dream (her emphasis). He told her that the dream doesn’t exist beyond his recollecting it. She told him he needs to get a Klotco Dream Jammer, that she’s slept like a baby since she installed hers.

Yeah, sorry, stay on topic:

Godfrey was on his perch at the order station. He scanned my face. I stated my size and blend. He thanked me for choosing Dwam. His pupils spun as my order was processed.

I waited at the collection hatch. The beak-shaped hatch opened and a red cup slid out. A mouth formed on the cup and said my name. As I picked up the cup, the mouth informed me that my patron rating is 43, which entitles me to occupy the outer layer of red tables.

It’s okay, I’m going somewhere with this:

I searched the red tables, but the outer layers were packed with people on their way to the Continental Devotionals. The only empty chairs were at a table by the Evac Station. He was sitting there alone. I asked him if I could join him. He looked up from his Device. He was wearing an Eye-Veil. He muted the Eye-Veil and we exchanged a look I couldn’t read as his pupils stabilised. I smiled and sat across from him. He was lean and pale with thinning curly brown hair and a patchy beard. From the white in his beard and the crow’s feet, I’d say he was late thirties. His clothes were faded and grubby. He smelt of soil.

We sat in silence. His Device played laugh-loops in his lap. Every time I took a drink, I could see him in the corner of my eye, looking up furtively from his Device.

His voice gave out as he started to speak.

He told me he always sits there. He told me the smell of Ploxic Gel reminds him of his aunt, who he’d been living with since his parents died. Aunt Myrna has been terrified of contamination since The sacrifice of Malta, and she smears the walls, the floors and even her pets with Ploxic Gel. As if that will save them. He laughed a little when he said this. But then the laugh kind of stalled in his mouth and he was breathing hard.

We exchanged names. He told me his name was Jacob.

I asked him if his trip was work or pleasure. He told me his father always told him that you have to try and be the best at something, no matter what that thing is. So that’s what he’s doing. Finding his perfection. He told me he is the most successful claw machine competitor in the Northern Hemisphere. There’s a girl in Paraguay who’s some kind of savant. He has to graft for every grab, but it seems to come effortless to her.

I asked him if somebody paid him to do that. He told me he doesn’t need money. This is about the quest for legacy. I asked him what he did with all the toys he grabbed. He told me he has storage facilities in seventeen cities. I asked him why he didn’t give the toys away to sick kids, or something. He looked perplexed and explained that each grab has to be verified and logged by the Arbitration Panel. A grabber is only as good as their verified haul.

I asked him if grabbing was popular. He told me there are seventy-two Guild-approved grabbers (GAGs) operating globally. I asked him how he got into it. He hesitated, then told me that after the accident he took a leave of absence from his job as a packet stacker with Tentaclos. He started spending his afternoons at a bowling alley, where a Guild scout saw him clear out the alley’s entire claw-bin of Hats 3: Captain Stovepipe’s Quest plushies in a single afternoon. The GAG has an itinerary: they hit the coastal resorts, then work the theme parks until the supply of fresh grabs runs dry. The bore-port circuit is where GAGs pick up the few remaining scraps of a franchise’s ancillary revenue stream; they have to keep moving until a fresh haul of promotional tie-ins hits the claw-bins. Winter is the worst. Many a GAG has succumbed to a punishing winter. But a GAG must follow the Cycle of Tentpoles.

I asked him how long he’d been grabbing. He told me that time in the macro becomes immaterial to the GAG. For the GAG, the only focus is the next grab. The only unit of measurement is the verified grab. The haul is the only barometer of self-worth.

I asked him where he was headed. He told me he was going to Denmark, where one of his trackers had located an untapped haul of Snuggle Bunnies: Nasty Furry Backlash plushies at a nudist theme park in the Copenhagen suburbs. Snuggle Bunnies: Nasty Furry Backlash wasa notorious flop, and it was believed all the promotional plushies had been withdrawn. If he could procure those plushies, his Guild Esteem Rating would skyrocket. I asked him if he’d have to take off his clothes to get into the park. He told me he was willing to do it for the haul. I asked him if the climate would affect his grabbing abilities. He told me he had grabbed in a wide variety of climates. I asked him where he’d put his haul — I have to admit, I was being facetious, and I think he picked up on it because he went quiet.

He didn’t mention that he was meeting anyone. I got the impression he was making up the whole thing. I haven’t checked out if that nudist theme park exists. He got defensive when I started asking questions. I thought nothing of it. We all tell lies to get people off our back, then we have to back up the lie, and it takes on a life of its own, you know.

Yeah, sorry, stay on topic:

I started filling in the silence by talking about my encomium. He suddenly got interested, started asking where it was taking place and who’d be attending. I told him not to worry, there wouldn’t be any claw machines. I meant it as a joke, but I realise it came out sounding mean. He told me in a low voice that I’m just another fucking naysayer who has no idea of the sacrifices he’s made to find his perfection. He told me I’m just a fucking Dept. drone who’s done as I’m told my whole dry little life, and I can’t understand someone who puts it all on the line for a sliver of immortality. He told me everything I value will die with me. He told me people have laughed at him his whole life, and he’d let their hate control him for so long, but now he has nothing to fear because he has a mission and a passion.

He really got to me, I’m ashamed to say. I reached across the table and shoved him. He fell back against the Evac Station. Ploxic Gel spurted onto the floor. I told him to watch his fucking mouth. I told him he has no idea what I’ve been through. I told him his stupid little hobby means nothing, that I’d been a father and a husband and I did everything in my powers to keep my girls safe. My voice had risen and people were turning to watch.

I guess, in hindsight, what he’s done makes sense. If you can even think about it like that. I mean, none of it makes sense, does it. That’s why we’ll never be able to beat it. All we’ve got is arguments. I know as a Dept. head I shouldn’t be saying stuff like this on the record, but it’s true. What do we have to offer that can live up to a sliver of immortality?

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.