Here this week's prompt, from Flash Fiction Friday, looks into a shopping cart.
Apparently, my characters suck. Too boring. My editor sent back my latest novel with the suggestion that I get out more and do some people watching. I figured a good spot for that would be at the new Discount Mart, where the customers were definitely a cross section of humanity. It was less of a store and more of a sprawling collection of outlet malls, selling everything from bananas to boats, from cars to khakis. I'd wandered around and taken some notes, but nothing clicked, so I bought some coffee and chips on sale and headed for the express checkout.
“Ten Items or Less,” said the sign. I resisted the urge to edit it with a marker and casually glanced into the cart in front of me. The shopper was muttering to himself as he placed each item onto the belt. Maybe I could try to build a character from his shopping items. There was a hairbrush, a package of bookmarks, a bag of wine corks, sewing needles, a souvenir key chain, laundry soap, a beautiful model sailboat, and a bundle of what we used to call 'parakeet flooring'. Oh, and a helmet, on his head. Other than that, nothing popped out at me so far. Maybe it was someone on a scavenger hunt.
“Box please,” he said. “Not bags.”
She pointed to his head. “And the helmet sir, I'll need you to take it off so that I can scan it.”
“Just hold up your scanner,” he said.
“No sir, you have to take it off. It's the rule?”
He glared at her. “No, I don't need to take it off,” he said. “You will just scan it and then pack everything up and that will be it.”
Except, I was watching his angry face at the time, and I could swear his lips didn't move. Okay, so he's a ventriloquist on a scavenger hunt. Then I realized I hadn't actually heard him speak – it had just popped into my mind as a thought. He shot a glance at me as I gasped, so I just stared past him, with what I hoped was a bored expression.
She nodded, reached up and scanned his helmet, packed everything else in the box, and smiled as he walked out. Without paying.
I was intrigued. Mind control? I'd read about it in other's sci-fi stories, so maybe it was time to write about it myself. Or maybe this guy was just some kind of instant hypnotist and I'd imagined the whole weird voices in the head thing. I'd follow him and see what else happened.
Except by the time I was checked through, he was nowhere to be seen. I took a chance and hurried into the underground parking. As I peered around a pillar I felt a sharp object in my back.
I turned around, very slowly. It was the guy from the store.
He smiled and said, or actually thought, “Why are you following me?”
“I saw what happened at the cash and was intrigued.”
“And apparently you also could hear what I thought at the cashier. Interesting. But now, you will turn and walk away and forget all of this.”
I just smiled at him.
“Hmm. An immunity. Well, I can just kill you too.”
“No, wait,” I said. “I won't tell anyone, I swear. I'm a writer, I do science fiction. I want to learn how this works, who you are, why you are here.”
“A writer? I remember those. Sci-fi? That could work, Okay what do you want to know?”
Well, long story short, it turned out he was some kind of collector, for a museum that was studying our 21st century. He did need someone to help him, so I was hired. And the mind control? He was an alien. His race had a modest psionic capability, and the ship amplified it for him to use. Only when out in the field though, as it didn't work inside the ship.
He was a nice enough alien, generous with my pay and expenses, and not too demanding. Each week he'd print out our lists and we'd head out to search for each item. Sometimes I could find things locally, sometimes I'd have to fly half way around the world. Size was not a problem, as he gave me a device that could shrink anything down to a foot tall, from a sailboat to a giraffe. At the end of the week, I'd bring everything back to the ship for him to catalogue and store away. I did miss my writing, but figured I was seeing enough of the world to keep my imagination going for years. Never mind this whole alien mind control thing.
One week I came back early and decided to explore the ship. The control room was obvious, with all the screens and buttons; the galley I'd seen when he'd replicated a meal for me; the bathroom was peculiar but functional. His quarters were still sealed off, but there were several rooms filled with supplies and machines. And of course the warehouse area. I peeked in the main door—rows and rows of shelving, stacked to the ceiling with plastic bins, each carefully labelled. There was a smaller door to the side, labelled “Climate controlled. Keep closed”. Probably where he'd been putting the animals. I cautiously looked inside. Yup, there they were. This time in small cages, so that they could breath of course. There was a network of tubing between the cages too, for nutrients and waste probably. There were even rows of twelve inch tall action figures too – like a warrior and a soldier and a musician—all in little dioramas. I peered into the soldier's cage, then jumped back when he yelled—in a tiny little voice. Shit, he was real. They all were real. Okay, this was not good. I didn't mind grabbing a car or a carpet for this guy, or even a wild animal or two, but people was another thing.
I almost made it out the main door, but skidded to a halt, just as my employer walked in.
“People?” I said. “You can't collect people. That's kidnapping. I quit.”
“Ah, you found them,” he said. “Well, I certainly can't let you go now.” He pulled out a gun and fired.
I managed to duck behind a pillar, just as the ray melted where I'd been standing, and then ran back down the corridor. He had me trapped. Maybe I could find a weapon in the warehouse. I did have the shrinking device with me, and he had mentioned it also could reverse the effects. Maybe people would help me to overpower him. I checked the shrinker as I ran back down to the warehouse. Damn, it was almost dead. I explained my plan to the caged people, and that I probably had just enough charge to bring back one person. They immediately started begging to be picked, explaining why each of them was the best choice. The warrior looked pretty strong. The soldier had a hand gun but it might not have enough range. The next cage had a geeky looking guy, with greasy looking hair, and thick glasses. He had a cell phone in one hand, a Bluetooth headset, and his diorama had a desk with several monitors on it.
“Let me out,” he said. “I can hack the system and use all this technology against that murderous bastard.”
“But it's an alien system.”
“No problem,” he said. “The operating system in these is always the same.”
I opened his cage, set him on the floor and aimed the device at him. As soon as he stopped growing he raced over to one of the ship panels and started typing.
“Quick,” I said. “I can hear him coming.”
“Shit,” he said.
“Shit? Don't say shit. Say no problem. Then push a button and say 'ta-da' or something.”
“Sorry,” he said. “I assumed it would be a Linux system, even for an alien. But it's OSX.”
I had no idea what all that meant, but I knew I should have gone for brawn over brains.
When I awoke it looked like I was back in my own office, with a desk, a computer, pads of paper, pencils and a shelf full of books. And a coffee machine. And bars. I assumed the label on the front read “Writer – circa 2015”. Maybe they'd like my books.