Are You Being Served?

TASWG assignment: Write two descriptions of a room – the same room – used for different purposes at different times.

(1400 words)
It was a drab, windy day in late March and the dismal, grey sky bore down on me, making me feel like I was being pressed into the pavement. An old newspaper tumbled down the street past my stationary feet as I stood, looking up at an old office building, slabs of concrete and dark windows like soulless eyes, towering above me. Plucking up courage, I went to the contrasting front door of steel and glass and punched in the code I’d been sent. The door sighed open, and I found myself in a warm, well-lit lobby. The door closed behind me, and I noticed that there didn’t seem to be a corresponding number pad to exit. No matter. I would cross that bridge later.
There was no receptionist, just two lift doors, one orange and one green. Each one had a large shiny silver button to the right of it. Here goes! I plumped for the orange door and pressed the corresponding button. The door whispered open, revealing a spacious mirrored interior and I stepped inside. There was no control panel, but the door closed, and to my surprise, I felt myself descending. I noticed a small camera pointing at me from above the door and self-consciously tried not to look at it.
It felt like we had descended some distance when the lift stopped and the door opened, revealing an unexpected scene.
The room was large, high, and hot, and it hummed as if it had a life of its own. Bright strip lights mounted in the roof cast strong shadows from banks of servers, perhaps five feet high, standing like a silent army in two groups on the far side of the room. Between the rows of servers, was a wide walkway, comprised of grey stone flags. Rows of small flashing turquoise lights on each unit produced an ethereal effect where the shadows were darkest. About two-thirds of the way up the walls were black panels which sloped inwards, giving the room a pyramid-like interior. A blue holographic image hovered in front of one panel giving information about servers and access codes.
I noticed a faint, wraith-like smoke, swirling up high by the lights, and large power cables coiled around the units, feeding them from some omnipotent source. There were gratings in the floor and near the lift on the side of the room I’d just entered were a table and chairs, standing haphazardly, as if there just for show. At the far end of the walkway, beyond the banks of computers was a double sliding door. Steeling myself, I walked across the room, between the humming, flashing ‘sentries’, smelling the aroma of electricity at work.
I tapped on a server and to my surprise, it sounded as if I’d knocked on a thin piece of wood, rather than a solid metal cabinet. Just then, a relay clicked loudly close by, and I jumped, expecting something or someone to leap out at me, but the machines continued with their anonymous business, communicating with users in thousands of unimaginable locations. The doors slid open, and I found myself in a long corridor.
I walked along perforated steel panels, dark grey in colour, on which my footsteps sounded muted, and I ran my fingers over the walls, smooth concrete slabs, slightly concave, giving the corridor a tube-like appearance. The walls were lined with pipes of various types, ranging from narrow black ones to wide silver ones, and light came from bright fluorescent strips running along both sides of the corridor. All was silent out here save for an almost imperceptible hum, and the corridor curved around and out of sight.
After a few minutes, not sure where I was going, and starting to feel slightly nervous, I decided to go back the way I came, so trod the panels back to the door. As I approached it, I was astounded to hear laughter, chatter, and clinking glasses from behind it. I pressed a large square, silver knob, the doors slid open, and I gasped in shock. Instead of banks of servers, there was a futuristic cocktail bar.
Blue and yellow spotlights illuminated a haze of cigarette and hookah smoke, emanating from a crowd of exotic characters seated around a circular bar. Steam came from vents in the floor.
Above the bar was another level, surrounded by strange symbols in blue neon lighting. There was a cage-like frame around the upper level, and I could see vividly-dressed patrons seated both inside the framed area and outside it, close to the edge. A sweeping staircase led from the lower to the higher level.
I approached the bar and an attractive young woman, with a Mohican haircut and a face tattooed with strange symbols, moved aside to let me through the noisy throng. She wore a red dress with strategic gaps, revealing a shapely, tanned body. “Howdy stranger!” she said.
“Oh, hello,” I replied. The hubbub of conversation and thumping music made conversation difficult, and I had to almost shout. “What is this place?”
Just then a bartender appeared. He wore a spacesuit, minus helmet, and was extremely handsome. He looked like an android.
“Give me a lager please,” I said, loudly.
“Surely, sir, which would you require? We have Coors, Brand X, Bud and Johnson’s Special.”
“Bud, and make it a large one, bud!”
“Certainly sir.” His face remained neutral. Definitely an android.
“It’s an entertainment module, surely you know that!” Despite her cyberpunk appearance, she had an endearing expression and her big brown eyes seemed friendly.
Just then, one of the spotlights shone directly into my face, so that I was momentarily blinded. The music toned down and a voice boomed out over a PA system, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a special guest here today. Please put your hands together for Mr Simon Johns!” There was rapturous applause. “In fact, it’s his birthday today. Altogether now! Happy Birthday to You ….”
This isn’t happening! I felt hugely embarrassed.
Suddenly, the scene dissolved and there was just framework and scaffolding everywhere, draped with white screens. Spotlights of various colours hung from gantries, and I realised we were in a large studio. Everyone was laughing, not at me, I realised, but at some huge joke of which I was ignorant.
Then, from behind, came another chorus of “Happy Birthday to You.” I turned, and there was my brother, Sam, laughing along with a crowd of friends and relatives who had obviously just entered the room. Sam grabbed a microphone, “… Happy Birthday dear Si-mon, Happy Birthday to You!” He laughed. “Glad you made it bro, let the party commence!”
The room suddenly transformed into a bar on an alien planet. We appeared to be on a golden sandy beach adjacent to a green lake, around the shores of which were huge irregular cream-coloured towers that looked to be vegetable in nature. The sky was full of small puffy clouds, green in the reflection of the lake, and above us, dominating the view, the gargantuan form of a green planet surrounded by a ring system at a 45-degree angle to us. Half of the planet and the ring system were below the horizon.
Sam put his arm around me, “Sorry bro, couldn’t resist, George owed me one!”
That’d be George Lucas, the man behind Star Wars, Indiana Jones and state-of-the-art SFX in general. The whole illusion would be courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic, for whom Sam was a leading designer.
“Good one Sam, I thought I was going mad!” The music was thumping louder now, more people seemed to have appeared from nowhere, lights were flashing, and everyone was dancing.
Sam saw me looking anxious. “You OK bro?”
“Yeah, fine, just wondering what happened to my lager?”
Sam laughed and beckoned over the too-handsome ‘spaceman’, who threaded through the crowd, balancing a bottle and a tall glass on a silver tray. He poured the drink, and I raised the frothing amber liquid to my lips. The salty, hoppy lager hit my tongue and brain, and I took a step backwards, reeling from the effect of the alcohol.
Just then I felt an arm around me and a soft kiss on my cheek. It was the Mohican girl.
The ‘spaceman’ laughed and pulled at his ears. A mask came off and I recognised a familiar, furrowed, yet still-handsome face. He spoke. “Hello son, Happy Birthday!”
The End

Featured in the book, To Cut a Short Story Short: 111 Little Stories

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