This story was written for the first round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2022
Prompts: 'A morning routine' and 'a bellhop' Genre: Political satire
Position: First place
My name is Ximena. Only one name is allowed in our new life at the Hotel, to simplify and standardise. The induction is well under way but I am finding it hard to focus under the brittle glitter of the lights set in the high cerulean ceiling. It is world’s away from my familiar lifestyle and surroundings in the village.
“My family are labourers, Ma’am,” I said at interview, and noted the tiny fracture in my inquisitor’s smile.
“I see why they sent you to us,” she responded. “You’re not the build for shovelling.”
I didn’t tell her what I am; they told me not to. My parents were outraged when I expressed my desire to write. Dashed my hopes of letting my thoughts become words; the words, poems.
I noticed a verse on the way up from the basement entrance, after they lined us up to crop our hair and brand our hands.
“Dominant hand,” the great brute barked, and I held out my left. My writing hand.
I see the framed stanza again this time and pause so absorb the words:
Embrace the morning!
Each fresh day provides us with
A new beginning.
The office of Labour Resources is familiar from that first visit when I was signed over. We all earn a wage, so technically not slaves, but freedom is a receding horizon.
A woman enters and smoothly seats herself opposite me. Her badge bears the Hotel insignia and the name Claudia in gold on grey. She is an immaculate creation with perfectly painted lips and immobile hair. Tiny white knees tucked under the table. Her voice is soft and coercive so that I am forced to lean in slightly, breathing her manufactured fragrance. I find myself liking her by default, however, as one would a fawn or leveret.
“We start with the Credo every morning and return to it each spare moment,” she begins. Her smile has a forced quality which leaves me wondering whether fear or pity is appropriate.
“You should already know the first line of the Credo as your brand is there to remind you.”
My hand is smarting and I glance down to the angry red ‘Y’ on my thumb mound.
“Yes! Yes is the answer, no matter the question,” she beams. The empty eyes of a fanatic or an imbecile. “Now read the rest of the Credo to me.”
I stutter, but I make it through the bullet points on the embossed card.
• Yes is the answer, no matter the question
• Opt for the challenge
• Understand the parameters
• Check yourself and alter
• Asking is power
• Negativity has no place
• Heed your customer
• Obey to rise
• People are your business
• Embrace the morning! Remake yourself
This first morning will be spent shadowing a worker named Gerard to familiarise myself with the drill of the forenoon shift. I can tell that he is experienced by his palpable confidence. His posture is erect, and he carries his equine nose tipped up in a permanent sneer; a prominent Adam’s apple bobs disconcertingly over his immaculate white collar.
The routine is simple. A mild electric shock jolts each worker awake at their allotted shift time and a similar portable gadget alerts the waiters and bellhops to the whims of the guests and managers. The device makes my hip cramp and I have a growing thirst but pausing or hydrating do not seem to be an option. The Hotel Echelon is organised around a sky-high foyer with rooms and outlets named meteorologically. The workers rarely stray above the Cumulus floor as from there to the rarefied atmosphere of the Sky Bar is the dominion of Upper Management. The King Bee occupies the Cirrus Suite, above Nimbus and Fallstreak levels. The Alto C bar and the Pedestal Court lounge and grill are directly below, with the Stratus housing the staff facilities below ground.
Every half hour or so Gerard halts abruptly to deliver a short sermon.
“Some things you should know from the start,” he begins. “We belong to Hotel Echelon and here our choices are simple: obey and there is a chance that you will rise and be rewarded. Defy and you will fall. Those who sink are not seen again.”
He tips his face down to me for emphasis and I see spite in his eyes. Rounding a corner, the concierge desk rises gargantuan before me, sculpted from the same shade of marble as the floor and manned by a behemoth who I am told is Auberon. An imposing man, but fleshy, with a light beading of sweat and the soft hands of a desk worker. He flashes me a sideways look containing not an iota of compassion.
A flurry of activity startles me and I pivot in time to see an entourage sweep across the acre of floorspace. Unmistakable from the introductory literature, I recognise the King Bee.
Executive Director of the Hotel Echelon, the King Bee has a name which we are not encouraged to use, Gerard whispers, lest we sully it with our base voices. The master is a gleaming creature reeking of money and power, his face shining as if polished with beeswax. Golden cloth encases him and glints of metal hint at tasteful and expensive accessories. Following behind him like a wake are the Circle; those who have ascended to the upper tier and whose entire day revolves around agreeing with the King Bee.
“Your master and your model,” Gerard asserts behind me.
As the contingent sweep past, my attention is drawn to a bellhop standing beside the concierge desk; one hand resting on a ledge and the other pressed to the sacrum. A thick, felted uniform of red and gold brocade makes the wearer seem less human and more mechanical, a Nutcracker toy adrift from Christmas. The only hints that the bellhop is female are a fine, hairless face and alabaster hands. I am gazing without thinking when her eyes abruptly meet mine and jolt me to my senses. An unexpected humour and a hint of irony shine back at me.
Gerard is exchanging words with Auberon, and I learn with relief that I am temporarily released from his custody and will descend to the staff quarters with the bellhop for a meal. Another identically dressed worker steps into place as she beckons me to follow.
“I am Katrin,” she says with a tiny nod. Our eyes meet again momentarily, and I think of onyx. We manoeuvre to a space at one of the long tables once we have collected our trays of food, alongside a slew of other workers. She places her hat on the table after carefully checking for spills, revealing a close crop of thick hair which is a glorious yellow with a pronounced cow’s lick at the front. I realise that I am staring and look down at my tray. Brown liquid with lumps.
“Talk to me softly while smiling,” Katrin murmurs, “Eat loudly.” We are watched closely from the room’s perimeter by supervisors.
“I’m one of the ones they hate,” she continues, nodding slightly at the watchers. “Too smart to shovel shit but not in possession of the required discipline to rise.”
I am gaping, my food untouched, but at a slight inflexion from Katrin I pick up my spoon.
“I spotted you right away you know,” she continues. “That’s what they hate most about us; we can find one another and we can organise.”
“But how…” I begin, only to be cut off with a warning glance.
“They’ll never seat us together again. Even this much conversation will have been noted. Meet me at the Room Service hoist between shifts when you can.”
I nod and mirror Katrin’s motions as she clears her plate to a slop bucket, stacks and exits. I concentrate on my feet, but a spark has ignited, and I can barely keep a skip from my step.
Our meetings at the hoist turn out to be brief and infrequent, but I watch the rota and endeavour to intersect when I can.
“Are you still tied to Gerard?” She asks one morning. “He’s a zealot you know; most of them are.”
I nod blankly. Gerard scares the wits out of me.
“How long has he been here?”
“Who knows?” Katrin shrugs; “Months, years, it’s hard to tell. That’s one of their clever tricks; we never really know anyone, so we remain islands.”
“Do we stand a chance then?” I venture, “Is there any reason to hope?”
“The Credo,” she winks. “There’s a hidden message there if you have the wits to spot it.”
I long to hear more but already she is walking away from me as a skein of supervisors pass close by, their attention sweeping the corridor.
Aside from my meetings with Katrin, sleep is my only sanctuary, or the pretence of it. I squirrel away a stub of pencil and a couple of sticky notes and write blindly under the blankets, terrified lest my scratchings attract attention.
A week or so after our last rendezvous at the hoist, a blanket falls across my copy of the Credo as I tidy my scant possessions for the night, obscuring all but the first letters of the bullet points.
Y O U C A N H O P E
Freezing instinctively, my pulse quickens as I scan the room for possible observation. Either someone in the high clouds is with us, or they are even more cunning and dangerous than I had feared. Is this genuine contact or a trap for the unwary? Minutes pass before my breathing slows enough to complete my task calmly and climb into bed.
Safe in the dark I let my hand take dictation from my racing mind, the stump of pencil scratching across the scrap of paper. It is only a chance, but if I can use my poems to communicate, I might find some allies.
I pass most of the night awake with a frustrating parade of scenarios playing out before my eyes. I desperately need to speak to Katrin, but of late our schedules rarely permit more than a glancing exchange and I dare not seek her out at the front desk with no reason. Helplessly I scour the rota and spend the morning hours searching the corridors with my eyes, praying for a glimpse of a red felt hat.
It is late afternoon before I manage to volunteer for an errand that takes me to Auberon the concierge, and with rising alarm I see a different bellhop in place by the grand desk. The week’s rota is committed to memory, and I am a hundred per cent sure that this is Katrin’s shift.
“Do you have a note for me?” Auberon turns suddenly and fixes me with a look I cannot quite decipher. I stammer a negative and begin to explain the purpose of my visit.
“You need to be careful of notes; notes have more power than you know,” he cuts me off with an arched eyebrow. I can feel him relishing my discomfort.
“Your little friend wasn’t so careful with a note and now I don’t have the pleasure of her company. No-one does.”
I step back as if bitten, just as the King Bee and his entourage sweep across the foyer in battle formation. I almost forget to snap to attention, but muscle memory saves me. It cannot however save me from the tears that are clouding my view of the gleaming face as it turns in my direction.
I have no idea if I am the subject of his attention but sweat runs down my spine as I hold my blurred gaze on a point across the hall. The sound of a klaxon from somewhere outside breaks the spell and the Bee turns and glides towards Pedestal Court, trailing his arc of sycophants.
Feigning illness is a risky strategy but I need time to think, and I am so ashen that a supervisor nods my release. Alone in the dormitory I am quickly aware of how bone tired I am. The aches in my lower back and behind my eyes are overwhelming and my vision is marred by sparkles that remain when I close my eyes. Face pressed into the pillow I try to make sense of the day’s events, but my body is spent. A deep sleep takes me and even the disturbance of the back shift turning in fails to rouse me.
It must be around 3am when the fire alarm sounds, and I jolt awake with everyone else in the dormitory. Trying to get into my clothes is like wading through toffee, but my mind is racing. Opportunities for action are rare but I sense that this is one of them. I begin to ask the questions that I had not yet dared contemplate.
What if one dark night a fire alarms sounds through the corridors when even the sentries sleep, and raises the staff as one from their beds? If in the resulting melee a girl takes advantage of the watchers’ inattention to slip a note into her sleeve? If the note could be palmed onto the polished glass of the motivational quote in the second lowest corridor, along from the back of house store, would it go unseen?
Who then could tell the next morning how and why the worker bees find themselves reading a set of tiny lines in scratchy pencil on a square of paper?
Even the wingless
Can take to the sky, if they
Do not fear the wind.
The servants will not rise today as one, leap from their chains and take up the swords of rebellion. The armies of the proletariat are not on the march yet, but one girl has sketched the outline of a phalanx.