1st Place – October 2018

Hybrid Experience

Gary Christenson
Musical genius doesn’t pay living expenses. My bank balance approached absolute zero. I survived in a tiny apartment with recycled thread-bare furniture. Rent was due in nine days, but I could barely afford beans and rice. I started tea water on the stove and descended three flights of stairs in my creaky Queens building to retrieve mail. A check among the junk mail would be a lifesaver.
A plain white envelope with a New York City postmark and no return address awaited me. I wondered if it was a scam.
        Mr. Jerome Jenkins:
We have observed your musical talents and wish to employ you for three weeks beginning next Thursday. Listen to our proposal and we’ll pay you one thousand dollars in cash. Complete the assignment and we’ll pay you twenty thousand dollars. Come to 154 Frontline Street in Brooklyn at eleven on Thursday morning.
We expect to see you then.
Director Alfred Timex
“Ha! The scams are getting more interesting.”
But after drinking a cup of tea and reconsidering my finances, I warmed to the proposal. I needed the thousand bucks.
Dark green ivy covered the pre-World War One brownstone building on Frontline Street. Light reflected from a mandala design etched in the gray steel door. Planning to listen, take the grand and leave, I stepped inside.
A wavering purple glow surrounded a carved mahogany door at the end of a short yellow hallway. I entered.
“Good morning Mr. Jenkins. I’m Stella, your new assistant.”
My face flushed as I stared at the beautiful, full figured young woman. She wore a tight white blouse and short navy pencil skirt. In high heels she stood as tall as me. Shoulder-length blond hair and bright blue eyes added to her stunning appearance. I froze while staring at her.
She flashed me a come-hither smile. “Here is your thousand dollars. My employer wants you to write music for an upcoming celebration. We hope you’ll commit to the project.”
I stuffed the bills into a pocket and stammered, “Well… maybe.” Her wonderful smile and sexual magnetism had knotted my tongue.
Stella floated toward me, wrapped her arms around my neck and passionately kissed me.
A while later I agreed, “Wow! Yes!”
“Excellent! Prepare for a glorious three week vacation. Return to your apartment and your new life will begin.” Stella pointed toward the mahogany door. “See you soon.”
I paid next month’s rent, ate and deposited cash into my drained bank account. My mother gushed with pleasure when I told her I had work, and I’d return in several weeks.
My head spun while dreaming about Stella. Walking home in a daze I stumbled several times. What have I gotten myself into?
I climbed the stairs to my apartment. A faint purple glow circled the door.
I entered and discovered everything had changed. My apartment was five times larger. The furnishings could have come from a show home featured in a glossy magazine. My mouth dropped open. I smelled freshly baked cookies.
“Welcome to our world. We call it Utopium.” Stella stood in front of a double-wide picture window and waved me forward. “It’s a huge improvement. Look down at the streets below. You’ll love it here.”
Her kiss was fresh in my memory. I rushed to her.
Stella kissed me and said, “There will be time for love-making later. Let’s get acquainted with your new world and then we’ll meet the Director.”
My Queens apartment overlooks a dingy New York boulevard scarred by gang violence. Below me was an immaculate street where smiling men, women and children walked on a golden sidewalk while interacting with their electronic devices. The cars passing on the street below were sleek and looked nothing like vehicles in New York.
“What happened to Queens? Where’s my stuff? How did you do this?”
Stella smiled and said, “The transition from the world you know through a space portal to Utopium can be disconcerting. I’m here to help you adjust. The Director will explain everything.”
Later we ascended in an elevator to the fiftieth floor of a magnificent white marble building. The Director emerged from his office and said, “Mr. Jenkins, thank you for accepting our offer. Walk with me.”
The Director moved with an easy grace and greeted everyone he met. “Centuries ago our world split from yours into a parallel universe. Utopium became an ordered and sane society. We mastered surveillance technologies, psychological scanning, thought control, behavior modification and the use of portals to travel between parallel universes.
“People live happy and fulfilled lives. We despise waste, inefficiency and lawless activities. Our world has removed almost one hundred percent of the violence, crime and inefficiency that infected our people before the split.”
He pointed out the window and said, “Look below. You’ll see no signs of violence, danger or premature death anywhere in Utopium. Fabulous isn’t it?”
“Yes, it looks clean and safe.” I asked, “How do you control human behavior and repress violence?” Utopium seemed too ideal to be real.
“We removed violence and waste through direct brain programming and behavior changing drugs decades ago. But an unexpected consequence happened. Our people lost their creative souls. We produce no artists or musicians. Utopium is efficient, safe and pleasant, but the arts died.”
The Director placed his arm around my shoulders and explained, “That’s why we need you. We want you to compose celebratory music that will commemorate one hundred years without violence. You must write a triumphant musical piece that inspires people.”
“I can compose music. Piano, orchestra, strings, what instruments?”
The Director told me, “We no longer train musicians. You must compose the music and create it with electronics. Our musical simulations are indistinguishable from the original instruments.”
“I’ll try.” No musicians! What a shame.
Back in our kitchen Stella produced an evening meal with the food manufacturing appliance. It tasted adequate but uninspired. Over dessert I asked her, “How were you chosen for this job?”
“You should know I’m a hybrid human. I have an implanted chip that directs many of my thoughts and actions. My programming guides me to meet your needs, whether they are musical, culinary, administrative or sexual. For almost everything non-violent I want to serve and obey you. They chose me because my physical appearance matched your image of an ideal woman. We discovered that image when our technicians scanned your psychology.”
I stared in shock. Realization spread through me like the burn from a hot pepper. They spied on me, evaluated my psychological characteristics and programmed Stella to entice me into Utopium. “Show me your chip.”
She stood, walked to my side of the table and leaned toward me. Her musky scent was intoxicating, and my manhood responded.
Stella touched a ridge on her head. “My chip is here at the base of my skull. Since implantation I’ve been happy.” The ridge opened when she touched it. The chip and its socket extended deep into her brain.
“Now, if you’re finished eating, I suggest a nightcap before I take you to bed.”
I composed music during the day. Stella read and glanced adoringly at me every twenty minutes. Her glances were never less than nineteen minutes or more than twenty-one minutes apart. At night she loved me until I blurted out, “No more. I need sleep.”
“As you wish,” and Stella would roll over.
The days flew by. I composed on their musical simulator, made improvements, tightened passages, and pondered my life. Do I like Utopium? Am I happy with programmed behaviors, continual surveillance and obsessive safety?
I handed my composition to the Director on a chip. He listened and beamed. “This will inspire our people. We hope you’ll remain in Utopium. Surveillance video confirms you like it here. I have other projects for you that will pay well.”
“Utopium is pleasant and I appreciate your hospitality. I’ll consider your offer, but I can’t stay without first visiting my mother. Please give me the additional twenty thousand and send me home.”
“Stella with arrange everything. She’ll visit in one month and encourage your return to Utopium.”
I stuffed the twenty grand into a backpack and followed Stella to the space portal. She gave me another unforgettable kiss, and I reconsidered leaving.
After stepping through the portal I emerged in my tiny Queens apartment.
On the sidewalk outside the building I bought a newspaper, choked on diesel fumes, and smelled rotting piles of garbage dumped on filthy streets. I read about the Sanitation Workers’ Union strike. Ten people died from gunshot wounds the night before. The Mayor had banned soft drinks in large cups. National politicians demanded war in the Mid-East. Democrats and Republicans screamed obscenities at each other while markets crashed and inflation raged higher.
I laughed until I cried for the first time in months.
I liked my passionate but unsafe, filthy, violent, non-programmed world where stupidity and waste are normal.

Writers’ workshop and writing group