Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Beast, Pt. 30 (Chapter 14)

14

Our experience at NAC-1-28 Ted’s passes smoothly, with Erb ultimately folding before Monk’s child-like glee and opting to fire the Cruz Missile, controlling it with the HUD that appeared in his space suit and guiding it towards the hard light space mites with the practiced ease of a man who’s wasted his youth playing violent video games. We got our money’s worth and then we left, Monk going on all the while about how amazing it was to fire actual military-grade weaponry, to reenact history, to destroy something with nuclear weapons even if that something was just a hard light projection, the modern day equivalent of a paper target.

“You know,” Erb hisses in my ear as we walk away from NAC-1-28 Ted’s, “that’s humanity all over. We develop nuclear weapons and we blow them up for our entertainment. We could invent the technology to harness the power of a star, not just solar cells but the actual fusion process of a star, and rather than generate electricity directly, we’d still use it to heat water so the steam would spin some fucking turbines.”

“What, you don’t like turbines?”

Erb blinks then stares off thoughtfully in silence. After a moment, a gentle smile comes to his face and he says, “No, turbines are pretty rad, I guess.”

I roll my eyes, prepare to unleash some weapons-grade snark, when Papa Chub greets us from down the walkway. He’s got a sharp new haircut, his hair parted perfect from the right side of his head to the left, curled up slightly at the edge, conveying a youthfulness and a playfulness that had not been there prior to his restyling.

“Hey, man,” I say. “Looking sharp.”

He does a mock bow. “Thank you, thank you.”

“Where’s Googe? Did he get a makeover, too?”

Papa Chub frowns. “Of sorts.”

A figure appears then alongside us, his hair unnaturally red, his skin unnaturally orange, and together we try to ignore this abomination. And yet slowly it becomes abundantly clear that this monstrosity knows us, that it counts itself amongst our ranks. For as long as possible, we try to ignore this technicolor creature, this monster born of a lazy imagination and irrational prejudices, and then finally it calls us each by name and we can ignore it no longer.

“Dude. Guys,” the monstrosity says. “Guys. How was the range?”

Finally, we are forced to acknowledge it. Monk, still excited and confident from his time at NAC-1-28 Ted’s, speaks for us all and says, “Goddamn, Googe. What the fuck happened to you?”

He shrugs like a child professing his innocence and gestures towards Papa Chub. “We started talking about our plans for tonight and agreed that we’d probably be going out, so we should look our best. We found a spa, got our hair cut, got our skin exfoliated, and then I got a treatment.”

“A treatment?”

“A procedure.”

“A procedure?”

“An infusion.”

“An infusion of what?”

“Beta-Carotene.”

There’s a moment of silence as we all try to remember what exactly that is. It occurs to Erb first. At the very least, he starts laughing while Monk and me are still scratching our heads in confusion.

“Wait,” I say hesitantly. “Beta-Carotene like the chemical in leaves and plants?”

“Yeah. It’s all-natural and organic. See, it lets you–”

“Beta-Carotene like the the stuff that makes carrots orange?” Monk asks. Erb laughs a little louder at this. Googe sighs and rolls his eyes.

“Yes, it’s the same chemical. But the health benefits–”

“Dude. You look like a fucking carrot.”

“I do not!”

“He really does,” Papa Chub says with a note of sadness in his voice.

“Hey, you know what? It’s good for the body and it looked really good in the ads they had at the spa and it’s supposed to mellow into a nice tan after, like, four hours.”

I shake my head in disbelief. “Jesus, man. Do you at least photosynthesize now?”

Googe blinks in surprise at the question, pauses for a moment to seriously consider it. “Maybe? I was standing under the sun lamps they had in the spa and I felt pretty good.”

Erb stops laughing just long enough to choke out, “How about that? Functional and fashionable.”

We walk along in no particular destination, gently teasing Googe all the while. After a few minutes pass Erb regains control of himself long enough to ask, “Okay. What are we doing now?”

“The Libretto’s supposed to have a nice pool,” Papa Chub says. “Why don’t we go check that out?”

“That sounds good.”

“Yeah, I’d be down for that.”

Monk frowns. “I think I’ll pass. I might just do some gambling while you guys are there.”

We make our way back towards the hotel, head up to the villa, change into swimsuits, teasing Googe all the while. “Man, if you get sunburned, how will we even tell?”

“Fuck you.”

“So, did you just point at your hair and say, ‘I want that, but everywhere?’”

“Fuck you.”

“You know, the whole thing kind of makes you look some sort of children’s entertainer. We can call you Googey!”

“Fuck you.” And so forth.

We all make our way towards the elevator, sunglasses on, sunscreen applied, shirts ready to be discarded at a moment’s notice. We get off, say goodbye to Monk, watch as the elevator doors close around him and he leaves for destinations and purposes unknown. The sounds of laughter and electronic music guide us the short distance from the elevator to the pool, and then we’re there, standing under the artificial sun, soaking up the heat, watching the crowd of young beautiful people, pondering what our first move should be.

“Where’s the pool?” Erb asks. I give a nod of my head towards the portion of the crowd that seemed to be three feet shorter than the rest. “Wait, seriously?”

“Seriously, it’s that crowded, or seriously, it’s that shallow?”

“Both.”

“Yes. Seriously. Both.”

“Why the Hell is it so shallow?”

“Well, look at it this way. The hotels are making the most money when you’re gambling and drinking, not when you’re swimming. If they were deep enough to dive and swim in, you’d spend more time here. And it’d be easier for your drunk ass to drown in them, and nobody wants that.” Erb frowns, opens his mouth to speak, but I continue. “Plus, look at the clientele. These people aren’t here to swim. They’re here to show off their bodies. They’re here to look at other people’s bodies. The animals have come here looking to mate, and they’re going to show off their reproductive fitness with six-pack abs and tan skin and bulging muscles and bouncing breasts.”

“You know, actual displays of athleticism would probably be a better indicator of reproductive fitness than just appearance.”

“Come on. I know that. You don’t need to tell me that. But this is a descriptivist interpretation of the pool scene, man. You’ve got to call them like you see them. If you’d rather line everybody up by height and check their gums and make them do some push-ups and a forty yard dash, hey, dream big. I don’t think it’ll go over too well, though.”

Erb snorts. “Man, I just wanted to swim.”

“No swimming in the pool. Go stare at half-naked women instead.”

He grunts and makes his way over towards the crowd, Googe trailing behind him. Papa Chub and I make our way over towards the bar, instead. “You know,” he says to me once the others are out of earshot, “I can’t help but notice that quite a few of the people here actually have the same profoundly bronze complexion as are good friend Googe.”

I glance around. There’s no shortage of men and women whose skin has been artificially tanned into an unnatural shade. “So they do.”

“Maybe the treatment’s more popular than we thought.”

“Maybe it is.”

“Maybe there’s actual a real benefit to it.”

“Maybe so.” There’s a moment of silence as two such afflicted individuals passes us by, a man and a woman, both of them six feet tall, both of them thin and toned and impossibly bronze. “They still look like carrots, though.”

“Oh, certainly.”

The poolside bar is staffed by two men and two women, utterly indistinguishable from the clientele they’re serving save for matching black and white swimwear emblazoned with the Libretto’s logo. But then again, I’m pretty sure I noticed men’s and women’s swimsuits emblazoned with the Libretto’s logo in one of the many gift shops throughout the hotel, so maybe they’re not employees at all. Maybe they’re just four unfortunate souls who happened to get suckered into manning the bar, opening an endless procession of beer bottles with twist off tops, making drinks by adding the prescribed liquor to the appropriate mix and giving it a stir, eagerly awaiting the next hapless customer who will linger a bit too long and ask a few too many questions so they can offer to trade places. “Here, come try it,” they’ll say. “It’s super easy. There’s nothing to it. Yeah, just like that.” And then they’ll slip away.

Best not to think about it too long. Best not to hesitate lest I find myself behind the counter wondering where it all went wrong.

Papa Chub and I find ourselves in front of an impeccably handsome man with a strong square jaw, wavy dark hair cut short, and a big smile. “Hey, guys. What can I get you?”

Papa Chub frowns in contemplation, looks over his shoulder at me. “We should probably get drinks for the others, right?”

“Yeah, probably.”

Our bartender claps his hands together in a display of enthusiasm and professionalism. “If you’re looking to share, I recommend a bucket of beers. 30 creds for six bottles. It’s a pretty good deal.”

“Is that a bucket full of beer, or a bunch of beers in a bucket?”

“Bunch of beers in a bucket.”

Papa Chub laughs. “Did you really think it was going to be a bucket?”

I gesture towards the chalkboard advertising the day’s specials. “Why not? The coconut of rum is an actual coconut.”

“Guys?”

“Yeah, but a bucket’s not a standard unit of measurement.”

“10 liters is a pretty common size for a bucket.”

“What is that like, two-and-a-half gallons? You really think you’re going to get that much beer for 30 creds?”

“If I did, it’d actually be a pretty good deal.”

“Granted.”

“Guys.”

Papa Chub turns to look back at the bartender as if he’s surprised that the man is still there. “Yeah. A bucket of beers, please.”

“And I’ll have a coconut of rum.”

Papa Chub smirks as the man turns away from us to fill a plastic novelty bucket with ice and slip six aluminum bottles into it. “Is that a coconut full of rum, or a coconut as a unit of measurement?”

“As a unit of measurement. It’s metric.”

The smirk disappears from his face. “What?”

“It’s one of the few remaining physical measurements in the world. Like how a meter used to be a fraction of the distance from Earth’s equator to the North Pole, but now it’s the distance light travels in a vacuum at some ridiculously small fraction of a second.”

“What in the hell are you talking about?”

“They keep a replica coconut in Maryland somewhere under two bell jars. It’s a near-perfect duplicate of a coconut kept in France under identical conditions. That one’s the alpha coconut. The ur-coconut, if you will. All coconut measurements are based on that one mystical coconut.”

“Uh huh. Fascinating.”

The bartender sets a bucket on the counter before us, turns his attention to a machete and an unripened coconut.

“The really neat part is that the measurement of the things is so precise that the coconut changes over time. Atmospheric contamination settles on its surface, the coconut gains micrograms of mass, and everything gets offset. They’ve got to be cleaned every so often and the other coconuts all around the world are flown to Paris so that they can be compared to the alpha.”

“But the alpha coconut’s weight gets off, too.”

“Its mass, not its weight. And no, no it doesn’t. It’s the coconut. If, after decontamination, it has less mass than the replica coconuts, then those coconuts are said to have a mass of one C plus however many micrograms. And vice-versa if the alpha has more more and the replicas have less.”

“So how much booze is a coconut’s worth of booze, then?”

“Oh, like, a shitload.”

“And it’s served in a coconut?”

“Of course.”

Papa Chub shakes his head.“What an age of miracles we live in.”

“Truly it’s a wondrous time to be alive.”

The bartender sets the coconut before me and pops a straw into it. We pay him and turn to head back towards the writhing mass of flesh in the pool. There’s a large sign posted saying drinks are expressly forbidden in the pool, so we opt to claim four lounge chairs a ways away from the speakers. The noise is inescapable, but at the very least, we can try not to go deaf. We wave at Googe and Erb. They wave back to us and make absolutely not effort to leave the water.

There’s something relaxing about lazing by the pool. At a distance, the sound of the crowd blends into a kind of white noise and the music becomes almost pleasant. The artificial sun is hot, but not cripplingly so as it was when we were marching to the Tropicali. The men and women that come and go become a kind of visual white noise, largely identical on a superficial level but different enough under close observation to make people watching fun. The fact that my sunglasses are dark enough to obscure my eyes the process easy, too.

I’ve become invisible in a good way. I am the fly on the wall, the outside observer, impartial and apart from the greater mass of humanity.

I sip at my drink. The sweetness of the rum blends well with the water within the coconut, a flavor I normally wouldn’t care for but that somehow feels appropriate in this setting.

Time passes. Papa Chub finishes a beer and sets down the empty bottle. “I’m going to hop in the pool,” he says in a way that’s more like an observation than a statement of intent, like the state of being in the pool is somehow inevitable.

I nod and grunt in response. “I’m good here. Relaxing.”

He looks over his shoulder at me and grins. “Try not to get skin cancer, yeah?”

Behind my sunglasses, I roll my eyes. “Please. I guarantee that melanoma isn’t going to be what does me in.” But he’s already walking away to join the others.

After a while, I set down my drink and roll over onto my stomach, my head resting on my arms. The lounge chair next to my own squeaks, but I pay it no mind, figuring that it’s probably just one of the boys come to sip a beer and people watch for a while. Then the person clears their throat and speaks. It’s a woman’s voice, high and loud and cheerful. “I know you. You’re the guy that’s going to live forever, right?”

I lift my head off of my arms and turn to look at her, and for a second, my heart stops. The sun is behind her and I’m looking up into it, but she’s wearing a white bikini, has fair skin and light hair, is wearing large-framed sunglasses, and it’s kind of like I can’t see her face at all, like between the sunglasses and the sun she might as well be wearing a veil.

I try to push myself away from her, but my hand slips off the chair and I tumble onto the ground. “Jesus!” I croak, and I am absolutely certain that any moment she’s going to descend on me and I will cease to exist.

Instead she just throws back her head and laughs. “Oh, my god! I didn’t mean to startle you! Sorry!” I watch her for a moment, and from this angle I can see that her skin isn’t so fair, that her hair’s not really that light, that she’s not a demon come to drag me to hell.

Word Count: 41,906. Post-mortem tomorrow.


The Beast, Pt. 29 (Chapter 12d and 13)

I’m not complaining.”

“To answer your question,” I interject, “no, we didn’t decide on anything.”

“Oh. Well, what are we going to do?”

“Whatever we want,” I say with a shrug.

“What are our options?” Erb asks.

“Honestly, whatever we want. Short of something patently absurd like, ‘Enjoy a feast of tenderest human flesh while our vat-grown superintelligent octopus sexually pleasures you,’ I don’t think any one indulgence is out of our price range. Especially if we pool our money. Or we could split up for a bit, do our own things for a while, and meet back up later for dinner.”

“But, like, what can we do?”

I don’t see how this isn’t sinking in amongst my friends yet. Either they’re too repressed and unimaginative to embrace the possibilities that being flushed with cash in the Meadows afford us, or I’ve embraced the absurdity and impossibility of our situation far more quickly than is reasonable or healthy. Or both.

“Guys,” I say after taking a deep breath. “We can do pretty much literally anything. I mean, Hell. We’re so rich we could probably pay to murder someone just for fun.”

The room goes silent. Nobody says anything. Papa Chub coughs.

“You’re thinking about murdering someone, aren’t you?” Googe finally asks. I recoil in surprise.

“Like, considering it or wondering what it would be like?”

He grunts in disgust and turns away.

“Because now that you mention it, yeah, I’m definitely wondering what it would be like. But I’m not seriously considering it.”

“I bet we could get a synth to kill,” Papa Chub says to no one in particular. He’s staring at a spot on the wall, his mind somewhere far away. Possibly thinking about murdering a synth.

“Killing a synth’s destruction of property, not murder,” Erb says thoughtfully. “The pilot would survive the synth’s destruction.”

“Yeah, but it’d still hurt,” Papa Chub says, his focus being gradually drawn back to the conversation at hand.

I blink in surprise at that. “Whoa, hold on. I don’t want the person we murder to be in pain.”

Monk frowns. He glances from Erb to Papa Chub to me and back again. “Wait, is this actually what we’re doing? Are we really going to murder someone?”

“What about a clone?” Papa Chub asks me.

“Well, then that’s murder,” Erb replies before I get a chance to respond.

“Yeah, but murder is the whole point of the exercise.”

“What about a clone grown specifically to be murdered?” I pose. “Like how they clone and raise animals specifically to be eaten.”

The room is silent as we all consider the ethics of this newest twist. “That still seems, like, morally wrong,” Monk finally says.

“What if they’re into it?”

The room fills with humming and the drumming of fingers on the tabletop and the squeaking of mental wheels grinding away at the dilemma.

“You mean,” Papa Chub says slowly, choosing his words with the careful consideration of an amateur legal expert, “they’re okay with it and they’ve signed a contract that pays them for their services and reanimation and such, or into it sexually?”

Monk’s nose twists up in disgust. “That seems viscerally wrong.”

“I meant the legal thing, but if they’re into it sexually, what’s the harm?” I say with a shrug. “At least they’re dying doing something they enjoy.” A pause. “Literally.” Another. I frown. “Shit, I wish my life had that kind of teleological clarity.”

Googe clears his throat. As a group, we turn to look at him. He makes eye contact with each of us in turn, clears his throat yet again, and bellows out, “Why the fuck are we sitting around having a philosophical discussion when we could be out spending this money and living the good life?”

We are all silent as the weight of Googe’s words sinks in. He is right, of course. The silliest thing we could do with our time here would be nothing. If we were sitting around talking and gaining something from our discussion, that would be one thing, but as it is, we’re paralyzed. Inertia binds us. We are trying to go somewhere, and because we cannot collectively decide on a direction, we’re going nowhere at all.

It is entirely unacceptable.

I set my hands on the table, fold my fingers neatly together and calmly ask, “What do you propose?”

“Anything! Let’s get drinks! Let’s go buy a bar! Let’s go see a show! Let’s rent a club and kick everyone else out! Let’s go to a strip club! Let’s get an army of hookers and make them reenact battles from the Second Civil War! Anything! Anything but sitting around talking! Anything at all!”

Which is not, of course, a suggestion. More of an unfocused demand. Still, it sparks an idea. My lips curl back in a smile, and I say softly, “Hey, I know what we can do.”

13

The upper reaches of the Meadows are a spider’s nest of aerial walkways and cables of indeterminate purpose. The Meadows’s more lighthearted and novel attractions, the roller coasters and the jet pack and the aquariums and the museums and the genetically engineered creatures you can ride for a small exorbitant fee are all up here. It seems like the higher you ascend, the hotter and more humid it becomes, almost like moving up through some kind of a canopy ecosystem in a jungle. You expect to see monkeys swinging from fiber optic cables, lizards and snakes draped and coiled over concrete branches, the air thick with the buzz of exotic insects and arachnids. The atmosphere, the sense of hot sweaty oppression, is never unbearable, but just uncomfortable to the point where every gust of cool air that escapes from an open door feels like an invitation to come inside and see what wonders and souvenirs there are to behold.

It’s probably deliberate. “Being outside is terrible. Come in, come in! Come, spend money!”

Even if it’s not a proper jungle, the walkways do have their own indigenous wildlife. There are amateur buskers playing guitar, flute, sousaphone, electronic instruments of all stripes and sorts, as well as professional performers hired by the hotels to promote their various shows and attractions. It’s an interesting contrast, the kind of thing that makes a person given to wondering wonder how it is that the buskers came to be here. Are they the men and women who lost it all at the bars and the casinos and now this is their only hope of ever leaving? Are they trying not to leave but to work up enough funds to give their dreams another go? Or did they come here following their dreams, convinced that that if they showcased their talents in the right spot someone would notice and lift them up out of the streets? For that matter, why were they allowed here at all? In an environment as tightly controlled and regulated as the Meadows, one would think that having a sizable homeless population would be something to be avoided. Or any homeless at all. It seemed like the kind of problem that could be solved by paying to send them back to Earth.

Maybe it wasn’t cost-effective. Maybe it was cheaper in the long run to just pay to clean up after them and provide them with the occasional goods and services. Maybe the cost of the bad press from rounding up a beleaguered people and shipping them off to parts unknown was greater than the cost of just tolerating their presence, although that seemed unlikely. Whatever bad press might arise from such a decision, it couldn’t possibly deter anyone who actually intended to go to the Meadows. Whatever else one might think of the place, there truly is nothing else quite like it in the solar system.

Or maybe they’re supposed to be here. As curated as the Meadows is, does it really make sense to think that they can’t control this one little aspect? It’s easy to examine the whole situation with a certain cynicism and suspicion that borders on the paranoid. The buskers seem to be distributed according to a set pattern, albeit one that I can’t identify. They’re actually fairly entertaining, playing their instruments competently if not sublimely, providing surprisingly insightful observational comedy about the people who pass by, and most important of all, they’re non-threatening. There’s no cursing, no incoherent rambling about the end of days or government conspiracies, no catcalling, no flagrant display of genitalia. In a world that’s just dirty enough to seem real but not grimy and gritty enough to be upsetting, is it really a stretch to think that even the homeless here in the Meadows are supposed to be here? That somewhere there’s a researcher slowly but surely determining the optimal amount of vagrants per capita in an oversized theme park?

The mind reels at the possibilities, at the possibility that such an interpretation is right. At the possibility that one’s crazy for even conceiving of looking at the world in such a way. At the near certainty that you’ll never know one way or the other.

“You know, this whole layout seems really unsafe,” Erb says, drawing me back to reality.

“Hm?”

“Like, the walkways are pretty crowded and the safety rails aren’t very high and there are no nets or anything. What’s to keep some body from falling off or jumping?”

I point towards a sign, black text against a white background, the font plain and tasteful, the print size sensible. There are many like it posted at regular intervals where the walkways would be easiest to hop off of. It reads in bold letters, “PLEASE DO NOT ATTEMPT SUICIDE. THANK YOU!”

“Oh. Okay, then. Mystery solved.”

“Hey, why are we doing this?” Papa Chub asks.

“I told you. It’s a secret. You’ll see when we get there.”

“No, I got that. I mean, why are we walking? We have tons of money. We can afford a shuttle. We can afford a lift in a private elevator. We could pay people to carry us on their shoulders.”

“Man, being flush with cash will changes the way you look at the world, huh?” Erb asks, a note of mockery in his voice. “Give a guy a little extra money and sudenly he’s wondering why he’s a sucker doing everything for himself.”

“Walking’s a form of oppression,” Papa Chub mutters.

I blink in surprise. “Wait, did you say that last night? I thought I was the one who said that.”

“Huh?”

“What?”

“You know,” Googe says, “if you had cybernetic leg augmentations, you could basically just set them to walk for you and come along for the ride.”

“I don’t mind the walk,” Monk says happily. “It gives us another perspective on things, you know? Adds value to the trip. We’re actually seeing and doing stuff, not just sitting in some kind of air conditioned container the entire time.” He pauses for a moment, then thoughtfully adds, “Plus, I’m sure we could all use the exercise.”

“If you’re implying I live anything less than an active and healthful life, I’m offended,” I say with a snort. “But anyway, we’re almost there.” I raise my hand and point to the way ahead of us.

“Where are we… Oh, you have got to be kidding me.”

There are stores and attractions lining every inch of the walkways, people scurrying in and out of them like ants in a hive, but I am pointing at the largest and most garish of them all, the most ridiculous, the most cartoonish: NAC-1-28 Ted’s Firearms, Destructive Device, and Heavy Ordinance Emporium.

“Wait, the gun store? What are we–”

“Oh, my God! Do they have nukes?” Monk asks. The joy is plain to hear in his voice, written across every cell on his face, oozing from his pores and his various sweat and sebacious glands. Googe looks skeptical, Erb intrigued, Papa Chub disgusted. A woman clad in a bikini, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat who looks suspiciously like Betsy, our waitress from back at the Commisariat, hears us talking about her establishment and steps forward to give us the hard sell.

“We sure do, pardners! Projectile firearms, nuclear weapons, kinetic bombardment, we’ve got it all! If it goes bang, boom, or doesn’t make any kind of a noise as it slips silently through the atmosphere and accelerates to lethal velocity, we’ve got it, and you can play with it!”

Without another word, Monk steps past the woman and disappears into the depths of NAC-1-28 Ted’s.

Papa Chub raises his hands in front of his chest, shakes them and his head both like he’s trying to ward off some kind of an attack. “No. Uh-uh. I’m out. Sorry. I don’t really feel like literally blowing up my money.”

“Yeah, I’m not really feeling it either,” Googe says. This surprises me a bit, but I say nothing. Instead, I just turn to Erb, at the conflict playing out on his face, within his soul and his heart, within his wallet.

“What about you, man? What say you?”

“I don’t know…”

“We’ve got three-for-one specials going on today, only!” the bikini clad woman helpfully adds.

“Three-for-one?”

“Yes, sir! When it comes to heavy ordinance, three can play when you have fun the NAC-1-28 Ted way!”

“And what if it’s just one or two?”

The woman’s smile stretches into a wide grin, her teeth straight and white and perfect. “Well, then the price doubles.”

Erb’s face twists in disbelief. “What? How’s that work?”

The woman shrugs, her smile returning to more normal proportions. NAC-1-28 Ted authorizes his employees to make special deals for customers as they see fit. And it seems to me like your friend really wants to try out our hardware. It’d be a shame if he didn’t get the very best deal around because his friends didn’t want to have fun with him.”

“It really would,” I say. Erb turns to look at me and glares. I just grin. “Come on, man. We’re already here, and you know your inner technophile-slash-antiquarian is going to love seeing all that outdated military hardware.”

He frowns, turns to consult Papa Chub and Googe, but they’re already walking away, waving goodbye and saying, “You guys have fun! We’ll catch up with you later!”

“Aw, son of a bitch.”

I put my hand on his shoulder, gently lead him towards the store. “Come on. You’ll enjoy it, I’m sure.”

* * *

The inside of NAC-1-28 Ted’s is just as silly and themed as tasteless as the Commisariat was, albeit in a wholly different direction. It’s largely a celebration of NAC-1 and NAC-1-28’s history, all cowboys killing NAC-1-IND, killing the people of NAC-2, killing foreigners of a thousand different complexions and facial structures. There are stuffed animals mounted from the walls, posters and signs advertising beers and liquors and soft drinks that haven’t been produced in decades, tasteless caricatures of people of color reducing humans to cartoons. There’s a yellow flag on the wall with a crudely drawn snake exhorting the viewer not to tread upon it.

“Holy God,” Ed hisses behind me. “What kind of freakshow did you bring us to?”

“Have you not seen pictures from NAC-1-28 back in the day? This is basically what it looked like.”

He sniffs. “Everything about this place offends me.”

I gesture towards another model dressed in the same outfit as the one that led us into the store. “Even the employees?”

Erb pauses for a moment, considers his answer carefully. “While I respect her right to work in the field of her choosing and her right to the ownership of her own body and sexuality, I resent that this establishment is cynically trying to cash in on her appearance. Women are more than just sex objects.”

I glance around the shop, taking stock of its employees and its clientele. “Would you feel better about this whole thing if they had some half-naked dudes in here, too?”

Erb’s face contorts in disgust. “What kind of question is that?”

Before I can respond, Monk comes rushing up to us, child-like grin on his face. “Guys, I bought us the three-for-one package! Come on, they’re waiting for us!”

“How convenient!”

“Wait, how’d he know to buy the three-for-one special? How’d he know Googe and Papa Chub weren’t going to be joining us?”

“Inductive reasoning? Come on, man. Don’t think about it too hard.”

We follow Monk over towards the airlock where another bikini-clad woman is waiting for us with a smile. “Right this way, boys! Just a friendly reminder, neither NAC-1-28 Tim’s nor its employees are liable for any injury that may result from your time here. You’ve all seen the required safety demonstration, right?”

“Yes!” Monk says louder than necessary.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Wait, what?”

“Great! Step through the airlock, throw on the space suits, and Little Boy will assist you once you’re outside!”

“Outside?” Erb asks. The hesitation is plain to hear in his voice, and the woman’s smile falters for a moment as she realizes that maybe he hasn’t actually seen the safety demonstration.

I clap him on the back and smile at her. “It’s his first time. He’s a little nervous. City slicker, you know?”

Her smile returns. “Oh! I remember my first time. I was seven years old, and it was just a thermobaric weapon. Not a nuclear one.”

Before I can respond, the airlock door opens with a hiss. “Have fun, boys! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask Little Boy. He’s one of our best!”

We step through the airlock and it seals shut behind us. Erb casts an angry accusative glance at me, but I just shrug. We throw on the suits, soft fabric first and then the padded layer wired with electronics and finally the heavy armored layer. “Jesus,” Erb says, his voice crackling in our headsets as we lurch towards the other airlock and whatever awaits beyond it. “What the Hell are these things?”

“RAH-59!” Monk says excitedly. “Older military models from the Unification Wars. Common on the secondary market. Probably overkill for what we’re doing, but they’re built like brick shithouses, they’re cheap if you buy them in bulk, and they fit the whole atmosphere of this place pretty well, don’t you think?”

“Monk with the answers! Come on, let’s get this show on the road.”

Monk activates the airlock. We wait in silence as it cycles. Suddenly it opens, and that’s just it. We’re on the outside of the Meadows staring into the void of space with nothing to keep us from floating away but the magnetized boots of our space suits. Somewhere a thousand miles away, Earth floats above us, emerald and sapphire and topaz. I raise my arm, stick out my thumb, and imagine the planet covered entirely by it.

I feel very small.

I don’t like it.

“Come on,” I say, my voice so much static in my friends’ heads, in my own, in the universe at large. “Let’s blow something up.”

“Yeah!”

“Yeah, alright.”

There’s a skinny android next to a cache of weapons a short walk ahead of us. We move towards it on unsteady legs, our movement hampered both by the suits’ safety systems intended to keep us from floating away and from the greatly reduced gravity outside the Meadows. It waves at us as we approach, it’s head a thin oval, its body little more than a collection of cylinders. There’s a speaker in a half-circle shape on its head where a human’s mouth would be, a perpetual smile to go with its bright green LED eyes. “Howdy, pardners! The name’s Little Boy!” it calls out in a mechanical drawl, its voice coming through our headsets. “Welcome to Captain Colonel’s Thermonuclear Shooting Range. Cindy Lou May Summer tells me you fellas picked the three-for-one ‘Remember the Alamo’ special. Is that right?”

“That’s right!” Monk says.

“Excellent choice, pardner! That means today you’ll be firing the Dubya, the Ricky P., and the Cruz Missile at a variety of hard light projections. Today, we’ll be using Ionian Space Mites! Now, who’s going to be firing what?”

Erb waves his arms before his face, a gesture made all the more awkward by the bulky suit he’s wearing. “None for me. I’m just here to watch.”

Little Boy’s eyes flash to a cool blue and its mechanical shoulders slump. “Oh. That’s too bad.” It instantly perks up again. “We’ll go one at a time and if you change your mind, you just let me know! You can also purchase more shells if you decide you boys are just having too much fun to quit.”

“Good to know, thanks. My buddy here would like to go first.” I push Monk forward. He stumbles for a step or two before catching himself.

“That’s great! What do you want to shoot, pardner?”

“Uh… How about the Dubya?”

“Excellent choice! The Dubya was developed in response to the old United States’s engagements with nuclear-capable non-governmental organizations in the late 21st century. It’s inspired by the Davy Crockett project of the 1950s and 60s. That weapon’s most dangerous aspect was the extreme radiation hazard they posed the enemy soldiers around the detonation, but with the rise of drones and robotic warfare…” Little Boy pauses here and stands up a bit straighter, as if he’s discussing ancestors he’s proud of, “more physically devastating weapons became necessary. Engineers and researchers set about the task of making a man-portable tactical nuclear weapon capable of rapid deployment, and so was born the Dubya!”

“Thanks for the history lesson, Little Boy!” I say, grateful that robots are generally terrible at detecting and responding to insincere compliments.

“You’re welcome!”

“Now, how do we play with this thing?”

Before Little Boy can respond, Erb raises his hand and asks, “Isn’t this dangerous?”

I snort in irritation and dismissal, a sound that comes through remarkably well across our headsets. “Please. We’re in space. What are we going to nuke, all the nothing around us?”

“What if some nut,” Erb asks, ignoring Monk and pointing square at me, “were to turn around and blow a hole in the station?”

The robot emits a burst of static that is probably supposed to be the sound of it clearing its throat. “Excellent question, Sir. If I may, you needn’t concern yourselves with that possibility. There are a variety of security measures in place to ensure that the station is never in danger from NAC-1-28 Ted’s or Captain Colonel’s Thermonuclear Shooting Range. To begin, all visitors’ identities are scanned upon entry to the store itself. Anyone with a history of violent crimes is politely turned away.”

Erb raises his hand again, no doubt to inform the robot of my own youthful indiscretions, but I slap it down before Little Boy notices. “Second, visitors are watched at all times. Any visitors exhibiting unsafe tendencies are politely restrained. Third, our hardware are fitted with a variety of mechanisms that prevent them from firing if they are aimed in an unsafe direction. Additionally, any visitors aiming the launchers in an unsafe direction are politely tackled to the ground. Finally, the nuclear device itself picks up a signal from the station that prevents fusion. Fusion will only occur at a safe distance from the station.”

I clap Erb on the back, a precarious gesture that needs to be hard enough for him to feel it through the suit but not so hard as to knock him off balance. Unfortunately, I fail and he stumbles forward a few steps, although he does not fall over completely. “See?” I tell him. “It’s perfectly safe.”

“If a visitor were to somehow fire the device in the direction of the station, the only possible outcome would be the impact of a seventy-five pound projectile traveling at approximately 650 feet per second. In the case of such an event, the visitor in question would be politely subdued via electrical and chemical non-lethal weapons, arrested, and deported from the Meadows.”

Erb turns to look at me, and somehow through the polarized lens of my own helmet and his helmet and the reflectiveness of the surrounding surfaces and the million things that interfere with the light, I can see him arch an eyebrow in skepticism at me. I grin, hoping he can see it as well as he can see my own expression. Monk is already fifty feet away from us, setting up the Dubya launcher and getting ready to hoist the thing, intended to be set up on the ground and fired from a stable platform, onto his shoulder. “Yep. Perfectly safe. Now, come on. Let’s go blow up some fake meteoroids.”

“Ionian Space Mites,” the robot corrects me.

“What-the-fuck-ever.”

Word Count: ¯\(º_o)/¯


The Beast, Pt. 28 (Chapter 12c)

Longer posts have been preempted by feelings of exhaustion and sickness. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

To Googe’s credit, the sushi makes for a delicious breakfast. Satisfying, but light enough not to leave us feeling like we ate too much, a good mix of carbs and protein to see our aching bodies through the recovery process. The chef is a good conversationalist, too. Fun to talk to. He explains what kind of animal each brightly colored hunk of meat came from, what part of its body, the process of identifying the tastiest specimens of each species and then cloning the things ad nauseum to ensure consistent taste and texture. We spend about an hour in the company of the man before he prepares the remaining fish, leaves them in the refrigerator, and gracefully exits.

“So. How’s everyone feeling?” I ask despite the fact that everyone seems to be obviously doing well.

“Not bad,” Papa Chub says. “A little rough this morning, but there’s an auto-doc in the fitness center. It mixed up a cocktail of pain killers and vitamins and whatnot, and now I feel great.”

Despite myself, I frown at that. “Dude. I could have done that for you.”

“Yeah, but you’re not a doctor.”

“But neither is the robot.”

“It’s more of a doctor than you are, man.”

I grunt in irritation and cross my arms, but let it go. Then Erb says, “Oh, man! There’s an auto-doc in here? I should check it out. I’m still feeling a little off,” and all I can do is throw up my hands in disgust as everyone laughs.

“Whatever. Sure let’s just trust the soulless, infallible machine instead of the amateur pharmacist. I see how it is.”

“I’m okay,” Monk says. “A little rough this morning, but I drank some water and now I’m good.”

“I’m fine,” Googe says. “I paced myself.” We all roll our eyes at that but let it pass without comment. “And, I finally got my sushi!”

“Alright, I’ll admit it: good call on the sushi, man,” Papa Chub says, popping another roll into his mouth for emphasis. He picks up another one, considers it for a moment, and then sets it down and looks me square in the eyes. “Now, what was this about you gambling away all our money while you were–”

“Hey. Hey. I did not ‘gamble away all your money.’ According to my inadequate math skills, I made us all about ten times our initial investment.”

“More like a hundred times,” Erb says, his voice surprisingly neutral. I turn to look at him, a single eyebrow arched in surprise. “What? Really?”

“You’re just thinking about that last bet at the craps table. You’d been leading us by the nose to blackjack and roulette and slot machines for like an hour before we ever got there.

Papa Chub eyes him with outrage. “Dude! Whose side are you on?”

Erb shrugs. “Hey, don’t get me wrong. He’s still an idiot. I’m just saying, accuracy is important.”

“Well, gee,” I say. “Thanks. Ass.”

Erb smiles and raises an empty glass in mock salute.

“My point stands, though,” I say as I turn back to Papa Chub. “I didn’t gamble away the money. I won. Thanks to me, we’re all a little richer. A little gratitude’s in order, I think.”

Murmurs and grunts of gratitude fill the air. I nod and pop a roll into my mouth, vindicated at last. “Don’t I do right by my boys?”

We settle the money issue, agree to pull out funds for everyone equal to what they contributed, agree that I’m not allowed to do anymore gambling with people’s money if I’m out of my mind on drugs, agree that my friends should stop and ask themselves if I’m out of my mind on drugs before greedily handing over their money. Once that subject’s done with, Monk asks, “What are we doing today? Did we ever reach a decision? I don’t remember all that much in between cracking open that bottle of whiskey and waking up as Erb’s little spoon.”

“You’re warm and cuddly, and I was drunk. I apologize for nothing.”

Word Count: oh no i am running out of November


The Beast, Pt. 27 (Chapter 12b)

I come to in the morning to discover that I’ve actually come to in the afternoon. The Meadows’ artificial sun is high in the artificial sky, impossibly bright. I roll over in bed and groan, my head throbbing in protest of my existence, my eyes burning like they’d had needles shoved into them the night before. Which I suppose is a distinct possibility, albeit an unlikely one.

A litany of thoughts goes through my head. I should get up. I don’t want to get up. I should at least look at the time. Oh, God, it’s probably four in the afternoon, how could I let myself sleep so late? Ah, screw it, I’m on vacation. Still, I’m not optimizing the time I’m spending here. I don’t have to optimize my time because that’s the point of a vacation. It’s not like anything in this place ever closes and I’m somehow going to find myself wide awake with nothing to do. Man, I’m hungry. I should eat breakfast. Lunch. What-the-fuck-ever.

I push myself upright, swing my legs over the side of the bed, and stand still for a moment as I interpret the stimulus and sensations my body is feeding me. The carpet is soft beneath my feet, some kind of luxurious deep pile thing. The room isn’t spinning and my headache isn’t getting any worse so I’m probably not as hung over as I’d initially feared. Thanks, tiny little robots in my blood stream that were originally designed to help combat oil spills and were subsequently repurposed to prevent feeling unwell from overindulgence! Oh, the bathos!

I take a few steps towards the door before I hear the talking and laughter coming through from the other side, noises that intensify as it swings open and I make my way towards the living room. There’s the sound of something heavy striking something thick, like an axe biting into a tree trunk. A grunt of exertion. An appreciative gasp. Soft clapping. I have no idea what I’m about to walk into, but I assume I’m about to come face-to-face with some sort of combination of a stripper and a personal chef.

I’m half-right. Instead of a naked woman, there’s a wizened old man of Asian descent in what appears to be a labcoat and a chef’s hat. He is standing at the dining room table, an assortment of colorful meats and a few different vegetables before him. My friends’ back are to me, Monk and Googe and Erb in the assorted shirts and shorts that pass as their pajamas, Papa Chub in the clothes he fell asleep in. I look down and realize that I’m wearing nothing but my underwear and wonder if this will be an issue. After a moment’s consideration, I decide that the risk of my penis escaping through the hole in front is unacceptably high and return to my room to throw on a pair of jeans. As I return and slide into a seat next to Googe, he glances over at me and frowns. “Where’s your shirt?”

“You’re lucky I’m wearing pants,” I mutter. “What’s on the menu?”

He just grins, nods his head over towards the food arrayed before him. Meat, but with a certain delicateness to it. It’s colorful, orange and red and yellow and pink and white. There’s a faint scent to the air, salt and the sea.

Sushi.

I arch an eyebrow, meet Googe’s grin with a look of mild amusement. “Did you do this?”

He nods, an eager child. “I figured, hey, we’ve got to eat and we can afford the good stuff now. Why not, right? I’m paying for it out of my share of the winnings, so no harm done even if nobody likes it.”

I nod along with his reasoning until that last part. “Wait, what?”

“My share of the winnings. When you got us to all pitch in before you went to the craps table, you told us that whoever paid in would get out an amount proportionate to what they put up. Remember?”

“Oh. Yeah. I mean, no. I was blacked out pretty much that whole time. Did Erb and Monk not tell you guys this?”

Googe’s jaw drops. His expression flits uncertainly between disbelief and rage.

“Uh… hey, look! Sushi!”

“You were–”

“We’ll talk about it later, no harm, no foul, et cetera, and now you’re rich enough that you can afford actual sushi and not fish-flavored TIP. All is well in the world. Hell, better than it was before.”

Papa Chub leans forward, looks across the table at me. “Wait, did I just hear you say–”

“After sushi!”

Word Count: oh no i am running out of emojis


The Beast, Pt. 26 (Chapter 12a)

Edit: Hey, this was my 555th post. Make a wish, everyone!

12

Googe lets out a low whistle. “Jesus.”

“Pretty sure we’re sitting in a temple to Mammon, buddy.”

For a mere 10,000 creds a night, we claimed the Libretto’s “villa” all to ourselves. Another stiff in a suit (this place seems to have an endless supply of them, all interchangeable. Maybe they’re highly advanced androids or synths, or maybe it’s just a really strict dress code) gives us the grand tour. Two stories, three bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, a living room, a lounge, a fitness center with a sauna, a kitchen, a dining room big enough to seat ten, a staircase and an elevator. The list goes on and on. It’s bigger than every place I’ve ever called home, probably as big as two or three of them put together. It’s decadent. It’s outrageous. It’s ostentatious. It’s opulent. This is the kind of place kings and queens, celebrities, executives, et cetera, yada yada yada, jerk off motion goes here.

It’s obscene.

I love it and I hate it with the kind of intensity you can only muster if you’ve spent your whole life railing against the excesses of capitalism and the concentration of wealth, the evils of conspicuous consumption, the unsustainability of building a fake goddamn moon around the Earth and turning it into a playground, all the while wondering what it would be like to be rich enough to shit into a toilet with an AI that’s smarter than you are.

I make a mental note to use the bathroom as soon as the stiff is gone.

It takes another hour for the Libretto workers to bring our things over from the Tropicali. It’s “four” in the “morning” Meadows Standard Time, and everyone looks like they’re fading fast. Even I’m feeling my energy flag at this point, and the thought of propping myself up with a pharmaceutical cocktail of some kind doesn’t seem particularly appealing. I also have no idea what’s in my system at this point, and I’m sure the medi-nanites in my blood are at the end of the operational life cycle. It wouldn’t do to win a bunch of money and then have a heart attack. So instead of reaching out to the women Papa Chub and Googe were gregarious enough to introduce themselves to, we start putting our things away, claiming rooms and beds, stripping off dress shirts and pants and trading them for whatever passes for pajamas.

We convene in the living room, five glasses and a bottle of whiskey sitting on a real wooden table. It’s four-thirty. Monk looks a little distressed at the sight of the bottle, but he sits down anyway. I fill everyone’s glass and call the meeting to order.

“Okay. So. We’re rich as Hell and in the Meadows for another two nights. How do we make the most of our time here?”

“Girls,” Papa Chub says.

“Seconded,” Googe adds. He nods furiously, his face a mask of grim determination born of whiskey and absolute conviction.

“Maybe we should actually see the shows now,” Erb says. His voice is soft, his eyes distant. He is somewhere far away, thinking of Cat Berry perhaps.

Monk considers his glass, his face solemn. His lips part, his mouth opening to speak, but they close. They open, shut again. He takes a deep breath, never looks up from the depths of his drink. “Whatever we do, it’s going to be awesome. I love you guys, man. I’m just happy to be here.”

We’re all silent after hearing this. It’s a frank, touching sentiment, one I believe completely. It’s not the kind of thing Monk would repress, but words don’t always come easy to him. He doesn’t always speak his mind, and when he does, it’s usually because the spirits are moving him.

I reach across the table, smile at him, pat him on the knee. “That’s touching, man. Thank you.” He returns my smile. I lean back in my seat. Frank, touching statements are not the our currency. They are some rare and beautiful bird, the kind of thing you never expect to see or witness so you never even bother to look for it. It just appears one day, alights upon your windowsill. It chirps out its song, It studies you. All you can do is be still and wait, let it exist in peace, just bear witness to its ephemerality.

That is the tragedy of rare and beautiful things, perhaps. The first instinct is to enjoy it, and that’s good. Things are meant to be enjoyed, to be appreciated. But then this desire switches, becomes a desire to preserve it. Preservation becomes possession. Possession becomes obsession, becomes jealousy, becomes fear, becomes a thousand other emotions. All the while, the simple act of appreciation is gone. We don’t appreciate the rare and beautiful things we have, we experience, we know, we love until they are gone.

And when they are gone, they haunt us.

Tonight, at least, I will say nothing. Tonight, at least, I will be still and I will appreciate.

We are still. Time passes. It always does.

We talk about nothing. Suggestions are made. No decisions are reached, but that’s fine. They can wait for the morning.

We dance the old dances and sing the old songs. We tell the old stories and laugh in all the right places, and though we are still young, we are not as young as we were, and therefore we are not young enough. But tonight that doesn’t matter.

We grow tired but we try to ignore it. Finally, the sensible can ignore it no longer and they retire to the spaces they have claimed for the beds. The insensate, a group that is largely just myself endure, persist, kill the bottle of whiskey.

The morning “sun” begins to poke through the windows, insistently spilling itself across the walls and floors, but its no match for the advanced technological comforts of the Libretto’s villa. With an angry look and a wave of my hand, the nanomaterials in the massive glass windows that form the exterior walls rearrange themselves and polarize the light until it is no brighter than a candle.

I consult my Conncomm. It’s six in the morning, Meadows time. It is late enough, I suppose. I get up from my seat in the living room, where I have been sitting alone for quite some time, and make my way towards the master bedroom, surveying the chaos as I stagger and stumble towards a king-size bed with Egyptian cotton sheets, whatever Egyptian means and whatever synthetic fabric cotton is.

Googe has claimed a couch for his resting place for whatever reason. Papa Chub is sprawled face down on the floor of the kitchen, legs splayed wildly, one arm out, the other tucked under his head as a makeshift pillow. I stand over him swaying, dimly aware that there layeth I but for the grace of God and the difference in our size and our desensitization to drugs of all stripes.

Still, it’s funny to judge him. “Goddamn, man,” I say, my voice slurring. “Really?”

His free hand lifts off the ground slightly. He flips me off. His arm goes slack and falls back down.

“You want me to carry you to a bed?”

He grunts.

“You want a pillow and a blanket?”

He gives me the thumbs up.

I stumble over to the nearest bedroom, not caring that Erb and Monk are lying in it as far apart from each other as possible. I pull the pillow out from under Erb’s head and the duvet off the bed, and make my way back towards the bathroom. Behind me, Erb murmurs in his sleep. I hear the squeak of springs as he rolls over and cuddles up against Monk for warmth and for a piece of the pillow.

Papa Chub’s on the floor where I’d left him. I tap gently on the back of his skull and say, “Pick up your head a second.” He does so with a groan and I slide the pillow underneath. I lay the cover over him. He looks comfortable, all things considered. “You need anything else?”

A grunt.

“Alright. Good night, man.”

A murmur, likely meaningless. But I choose to believe he’s saying good night back.

Word Count: ヘ(◕。◕ヘ)


The Beast, Pt. 25 (Chapter 11d)

Wait, I don’t get it,” Monk says, but that sounds like willful ignorance on his part, like he actually does get and he’s trying desperately to believe that he doesn’t.

“He blacked out,” Erb replies, his voice quiet with disbelief. “This whole time he’s been blacked out.”

“Is that true?” Monk asks, so much like a wounded animal.

I just shrug. “I guess so.”

“Well, what’s the last thing you remember?”

I stop. I wrack my brain trying to think of the answer. “The last thing I remember clearly is… looking in the mirror back at the Tropicali.”

“The big mirrors by the shopping center?”

“No, the mirror in our room’s bathroom.”

“Oh, you son of a bitch!” Monk shouts. “That was five hours ago!”

Erb’s eyes are screwed shut in pain. He’s massaging his temples, as if that will alleviate the pressure and regret building up within his brain. “Jesus Christ, man. You’ve been out of it for five fucking hours?”

“I guess?”

“I gave you my wedding ring!”

“Yeah, I saw that. Why?”

“What do you mean, ‘Why?’” he shouts. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Monk so angry. I can understand his anger on an intellectual level. I somehow convinced him that he should let me wager his wedding ring, that I had a system, a sure thing, and the whole time I’d been running around in some kind of drug-induced psychosis. But I honestly had no idea what I had done. I don’t know what buttons I’d pushed, what fears I’d preyed on, what impossible promises I’d made. Save for the time I blacked out and woke up in a jail cell, I don’t know that I’ve ever been so confused and helpless.

And the funny thing about feeling confused and helpless is that it’s usually a precursor to feeling angry and defensive. I puff up my chest and clench my jaw and hiss through my teeth. “I mean, ‘I don’t know what the fuck is going on, and I can appreciate that something disastrous very nearly happened, but it didn’t. Quite the opposite, in fact. So, given that there’s no harm and thus no foul, will someone please fill me in on what the fuck we’ve been doing all night.” Neither Monk nor Erb responds. They glance at each other, then back at me. I take a deep breath, stand up straighter from the defensive posture I’d adopted with bent knees and shoulders drawn forward and fists clenched tight. “I’m serious. Someone please explain to me how the Hell I convinced you guys to give me all your money and let me gamble it away in the Libretto.”

Erb’s mouth twists up in disgust. I’m expecting a deluge of criticism to pour forth, but instead he says, “Because we didn’t think you were blacked out. Because we thought you actually knew what you were doing.”

I blink once, twice. “Huh?”

“You’ve been on point all night, man”

“You came out of the bathroom wired,” Monk says. “We were standing around in the other room, and you hustled us out into the street. You got a cab without even trying. We were going to go to Buddha, but you convinced us to go to Rive Gauche.”

“You insisted. You got a pack of cigs from the bar there, and then you traded them to this drunk guy for his limo service to Buddha.”

“There was a line at the door, but we sprang for bottle service.”

“There were these girls…”

“There was–”

“There were–”

“And then you–”

Their words blend into white noise. The story is impossible to believe, an unlikely string of events that even a child would call cliched and hackneyed and improbable. All things considered, the night could not have gone more smoothly if a hack screenwriter trying to write some kind of insipid buddy comedy had put the whole thing together. Things could not have turned out more impossibly perfect if Zeus himself had come down from the sky with a rope tied around his waist, spread his arms, and shouted that all would be well.

The interactions, the insults, the gambling, the winning, the losses that I swore were carefully calculated. There were a million points of failure in the entire thing. Why did no one stop us? Why did no woman kick me in the genitals? Why did no man punch me in the face? Why did no harried doorman or bartender or waitress roll their eyes, snap their fingers, and have security toss me out on my ass?

The Beast. The blackout.

A blackout’s a strange thing. Too much alcohol will leave you a vomiting mess. Too much stim and your heart will explode. Too much of a hallucinogen, and your brain will burn itself out like a computer chip fallen victim to a power surge. But just the right amount and the little man inside your head who watches the conveyor belt of your mind, whose job it is to sort through the things you see and experience and transfer them from short-term to long-term memory, throws up his hands and announces, “Fuck it! I quit!” Like an ancient vaudeville comedian in a sketch about the perils of industry, that little man leans back in a chair, kicks up his feet, and watches the flood of memory go by without a care in the world. The memories pile up like so much trash, and within a matter of minutes, if even that, they’re gone forever.

Unless it’s something your mind’s fixated on. Unless you’ve decided, “Goddamnit, you know what sounds good right now? A TIP sandwich from Diable en Boîte!” and you then march a mile in the dead of night to get your sandwich, eat it with the sense of profound satisfaction that only the addicted know, and then ask your friends five minutes later, “Wait, when did we get to D in the B?”

That little bastard in my head had called in sick, and I’d gotten obsessed on something stupid. It must have happened in the space in between blacking out and the Beast kicking in. It all made sense now, and I hated myself for it, but at least it made sense.

I hadn’t wasted the Beast. Not exactly. I’d misused it.

Instead of going into the past, my perception walking the surface of time and untangling the threads of my own life and finding the moment that the Lady in White started haunting and eliminating her for good, I’d gone into the future. I’d chased money, of all the stupid things. I’d looked ahead and scene the places I would be, the decisions I could make, their outcomes, infinite possibilities spiraling out from each other like cells in the leaves on the branches of the tree of life. And I’d chased a fucking jackpot. A payday. Creds. What the Hell was I going to do with creds?

I mean, I do have a lot of debt I could pay off. I could spend some money upgrading my habitation and my transportation, certainly. Or I could take a vacation somewhere that wasn’t a fake floating rock orbiting the Earth.

Or just a better vacation on that aforementioned rock.

And people liked people with money. Or rather, they liked following the lives of people with money who did “interesting” things. Or who gave freely of that money.

But creds weren’t peace of mind. Not to someone like me.

“Goddamnit, did he black out again?” Monk asked.

I snap back to reality, shake my head. “No, no. I’m good. Just a little freaked out is all.”

Erb rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I bet. Damn junkie.”

My eyes narrow. My nostrils flare in anger. “Hey! A junkie’s an addict! I’m not an addict. I just tend not to take the consequences of my actions and decisions very seriously.”

“And now you’re addicted to a variety of dangerous and illegal drugs?”

“No. I just use the drugs to keep myself together with a blind faith in them that borders on the spiritual. Or the delusional.”

Erb shakes his head. “How can–”

“Hey! Here’s an idea!” I blurt out. “Instead of looking a gift horse in the mandibles, how about we go get our money, book the nicest suite we can afford, order room service, and invite whatever girls Papa Chub and Googe are able to wrangle upstairs?”

Monk nods once, emphatically, sharply. “Sold. Let’s go do that.”

We stumble around uselessly for a little while before we find the cash cage. There’s all kinds of paperwork to sort through and inspections to be done and mistrustful looks to wither under. It turns out that when you win a lot of money all at once the casino wants to make sure you’re not ripping them off and the government wants its cut of the action. Who knew?

But even after everything is said and done, after the fees and taxes are levied, the suspicions laid to rest, hands firmly shaken and backs heartily clapped, there’s still a sense of barely perceptible energy arcing back and forth between my friends and I like electricity. Papa Chub and Googe find us, watch eagerly and expectantly as funds are disbursed and contracts signed. The majority of the money remains in the Libretto’s coffers “for safekeeping until [we] leave” (but of course we’re free to spend it within any of the Libretto’s properties.) Thankfully, the Tropicali just happens to be such a property. We have the management gather our things, cancel the rest of our reservation there and transfer our belongings over to the Libretto, and we go through the motions and we do the dance, and finally we get in the private elevator and go up to the penthouse floor.

Silence reigns as we all consider the paths and the decisions that have taken us to this moment. Googe speaks first. “Guys, I’m pretty tired.”

“You’d better get your second wind,” Papa Chub says. “We’re going to be throwing a party in about thirty minutes.”

“This is going to be good,” I say with a smile. “The night is young.”

“It’s three in the morning,” Monk points out.

My smile grows a little wider. “The day is early, then.”

Word Count: (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻


The Beast, Pt. 24 (Chapter 11c)

There’s a process to winning an actual literal pile of money at a casino. There are steps you can take to accept your winnings with poise and grace, tips to be given, drinks to be shared. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no idea what that process might be and what those steps actually are.

Instead of quiet dignity, I’m laughing and whooping like an ape, taking long pulls from the bottle of whiskey and passing it back and forth with my friends, pulling women in tight dresses close, laughing with them, laughing at their jokes, telling jokes for them to laugh at, and if ever we felt invincible before I can’t even imagine what it is that we’re feeling now. We’re drawing looks of disgust from some of the folks around us that look like they actually belong here, like they actually come to the Meadows and risk tens of thousands of creds on a roll of the dice all the time. Just think. The equivalent of people’s annual salaries, of their lives’ savings, the amount of money that means the difference between waking up knowing all is right in the world and sticking a gun in your mouth must be lost here all the time. Most of these people probably never even bat an eye. Just shrug their shoulders, say, “Oh, well,” and then try to remember the rules for writing off gambling losses on your taxes.

“Let’s get out of here,” I say to no one in particular.

“Cashing out, Sir?” the stickbot intones and I grunt an affirmative. It gathers our bet, sets aside our personal valuables and deducts them from the total, sets aside some chips for us to continue playing and or cash out itself. It deals itself back the rest of the chips and then spits out a biometrically locked token to be redeemed with the hotel management. “Thank you for playing, Sir!” it chirps happily and I nod and I smile. I flick one of the two dozen or so chips it’s given me back at it and say, “That’s for you,” and its animatronic eyebrows go up and it’s uLED eyes flash and it says, “Oh, thank you so much, Sir!” Whether I just gave a bunch of money back to the casino or if the stickbot actually has a life outside of its primary function, the AI to have hopes and dreams and things it’s excited to spend money on, I can’t say. Nor do I especially care. Even if it was a mechanical facsimile of happiness, the stickbot’s joy was pretty damn convincing, and I feel good about that. I think I understand why Monk was so pleased with the giant crab robot back at the spaceport. Even if the thing can’t really feel, it feels good to make something happy. Like giving a dog a cheeseburger.

I turn around to walk away, realize I have no idea what direction the cash cage is in, or where we are relative to anything within the casino, or even what goddamn casino we’re actually in, so I stop, spin around on my heels and grin at my friends who are lagging some behind me. There are already hangers-on and women talking to them and a dozen distractions all seeking to get some of our attention and money, so I do what comes naturally. I stride forward, a smirk on my face and say, “Gentlemen, you may all fuck off. Seriously, get out of here. We don’t want to be your friends, we don’t want to offer any advice on gambling, and we don’t want to hear your stories. Shoo. Be gone. Get thee behind me.” Some of the men who have gathered around us look shocked and insulted, and few of them look like they might even want to get physical over my abject rudeness, but the crowd disperses. My eyes are darting around, and I can see big burly casino staff watching us, and I kind of remember that we sprung for bottle service at a club somewhere and were exceptionally well taken care of. Now that we’re, to coin a phrase, filthy fucking rich, I feel like I could snap my fingers and a squad of armed goons would descend upon my enemies, beat them to a pulp, throw them into the street, and then charge them for the dry-cleaning bill to remove blood from the carpet.

I take a deep breath through my nostrils, let it out, and my smirk gets smugger still. “Now. Ladies. As you may be aware, my friends and I have recently come into a large sum of money. We are going to be celebrating our good fortune, most likely with a penthouse suite and a lot of fancy alcohol and a lot of expensive drugs. If you’d like to join us, please leave your contact information with my friend and associate.” I gesture towards Papa Chub. He waves awkwardly at the gathered women, and the ones who haven’t walked away in disgust, whose jaws haven’t dropped to the floor in outrage, giggle. “We’re going to settle our affairs, then we’ll reach out to you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to see a man-and-or-woman-and-or-robot at getting my money.” I flourish my hand, take a deep bow and walk away without another word. Papa Chub stays behind, rising to the task that’s been foisted upon him. Googe stays behind to help, possibly out of general good will and possibly just for the thrill of having a crowd of attractive women competing for his attention. Monk and Erb join me in my march in no particular direction. Thankfully.

“Hey, where the fuck are we?” I ask.

“I think we can cash out over there,” Monk says, his hand raised and finger pointing in a direction that’s absolutely meaningless to me.

“Okay. Good to know. But, like, where are we?”

There’s no response from either of my friends. They look confused. They look concerned. They look worried.

“What do you mean?” Erb asks.

“Like, what casino are we in?”

A long pause. “We’re in the Libretto.”

“Oh. Cool. When did we get here?”

“Oh, you son of a bitch,” Erb says, all the weight of the world in his voice.

Word Count: (╯°Д°)╯︵ /(.□ . \)


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