Edit: At. The fucking. Buzzer.
The shuttle touches down, the airbridge mating with the airlock and providing a safe, heated birth canal for us to stumble out of and into the Meadows. Like drunk, drugged infants, we leave the womb of our seats and step into the existential uncertainty between the shuttle, the docking bay, and the Meadows proper.
The madness of the Meadows truly begins once you reach the hotels and the casinos, but even the port is, in its own small way, a temple to excess and consumption and vice. The spaceport’s terminal is a riot of noise and smells: screaming children, shouting adults, machines beeping and chirping at each other, vid screens and holograms and robots and synths and lions and tigers and bears, holy shit. I can smell barbecue and stir fry and roasting vegetables and sizzling bacon and perfume and sweat and sex and alcohol and all the good things of the Earth. God help me, I think there might be not just textured vegetable protein and lab-grown meat but actual animal flesh for sale here. There is neon and sound and performers and “performers” and drugs and all here on blatant display, and what isn’t out in the open is hidden away with a nod and a wink. There are “goods” and “services” to be had here. Not in the quantity or quality with which they’d be available once we reached our final destination, but available nevertheless.
If one were so inclined, one could spend the entirety of their trip, from the moment they stepped off their shuttle until the moment they stepped back on to a different one, in a comfortable hedonistic haze. It’s the kind of trap some people can’t help but fall into. And, if I’m being perfectly honest, it’s the kind of trap I’ve fallen into in the past. Hours and days inadvertently lost due to a fleeting lack of attention, a momentary lapse in judgment.
That’s why I’d popped the nootropics this time. I’m going to make it to the hotel room with my wallet and my various chemical, hormonal, and metabolic processes intact, Goddammit.
If only everyone could be as prepared as me. My comrades’ eyes are darting around freely, moving like they’re almost spinning loose in their heads. Every second brings with it some new wonder to tantalize the senses, some new horror to inflame the mind, and they are helpless before the onslaught. The hotels and casinos of the Meadows subsidize the shuttles to provide passengers with free booze and drugs so their brains are dulled and more susceptible to it all. By the time your addled little mind has registered what’s on offer, the good-and-or-service has already been forced into your hands, your money plucked from your pocket, the next scammer lined up and salivating, all before you can even react. Your average individual can’t hope to keep up with it.
But not me. Thanks to everything in my system, my attention is focused solely on procuring some Beast and my vision is firmly locked on the ground. I’ve never been so invested in a carpet pattern in all my life.
Somewhere in front of our group a man’s voice, loud and friendly and boisterous, like a friend that’s a little too amused at how stupid you are, says, “Excuse me, gentlemen! Did you know that for less than the cost of a night’s stay in a hotel, you can walk along the exterior of the Meadows and fire a small tactical nuclear weapon at Ionian Space Mites?”
I mumble a response that’s somewhere in between, “Not interested,” and, “Get thee behind me, Shaitan!” The rest of the group ignores the peddler altogether.
Monk, however, starts to slow down.
“Wait, a nuke?” he asks. I can hear the excitement in his voice. I can just imagine his eyes going wide with child-like wonder. “They have nukes here? We can fire nukes?”
I can’t blame him. Firing a nuclear weapon? That’s absurd. Ridiculous. Preposterous.
And for less than the cost of a hotel room? What a deal! How is anyone supposed to say no to that? Hell, the more I think about it, the more shocked I am that I was able to turn it down as abruptly as I did. I’m half-tempted to turn around and tell the glorified space carny, “My good man, I’ll take two!” and I’ve been mentally preparing myself for this trip for weeks. How is Monk, a man who dreamed of serving in the USSMC like his father and his grandfather before him but had been disqualified for health reasons, who married young, who still dreams of grand adventures but instead shuffles off to a boring job every morning supposed to say no to something like that? This could be one of his only chances to feel the thrill of battle without any of the danger, to cause untold destruction with reckless abandon and no real consequences. To experience the glory that is his birthright, at least in his own head. What’s a man to do?
Monk’s just standing there paralyzed. He’s no more than a few seconds away from engaging with the sales goblin and dropping hundreds of credits on a tactical nuclear device of questionable origin. It’s unconscionable. One should only by tactical nuclear devices from certified and accredited arms dealers. And so, good friend that I am, I shove him as hard as I can from behind. “Sorry, he’s not interested,” I say, and before he can respond, I’m walking into him, pushing him forward with my body. He’s half a foot shorter than me and his protests come from the unkempt mop of dusty hair atop his head.
The terminal is crowded, a wave of bodies scurrying away from the shuttles, a different wave returning to them, all of us so many ants in a hive gone mad. But even so, I’m invading my friend’s personal space with a shamelessness and an intensity that few of the others around us can match. I can smell Monk’s shampoo. I can feel the weave of his shirt against the skin of my arms. He throws an elbow half-heartedly into my gut and hisses, “Dude, what the fuck? Stop it.”
I headbutt the back of his skull and tell him, “I can’t man. I’m too busy saving your life.” He digs in his heels and I push harder, and for a second he actually stops me. But only for a second.
We tumble forward like dominoes, me plowing into Monk plowing into Googe plowing into Papa Chub plowing into Erb, the five of us moving in horrid lockstep, a complaining mass of flesh. Even as we walk forward like some kind of misshapen millipede, I can see that they are still looking at the things that attract them, ignoring the things that don’t.
That’s the thing about the Meadows. It is utterly unnatural. Artificial. A second satellite orbiting Earth that’s larger than anything ever built for any other purpose, scientific, military, or otherwise. Some of the solar system’s greediest, most alien, most inhuman minds got together one day a century ago, and these horrible lizard people, these heartless machines, these politicians and business people and criminals and celebrities dreamt up a place where fools of all walks of life, of all backgrounds, of all income levels, could come and part with their money.
At disgusting initial expense they stripmined asteroids, redirected comets, skimmed hydrogen from the Moon’s surface, and blocked the sun with the Great Wall of Dyson. They captured the sun’s energy and divided it from the endless dark of space. They built a great celestial sphere to keep out the cold and the micrometeors. They accreted soil and water upon which they could build their buildings, terraformed it. They perfected climate control, charted the path of an artificial sun and moon so that visitors would think they were still on earth. They filled the place with animals from Earth and genetically engineered designer creatures for the amusement of tourists. And then they threw open the gates and the suckers came pouring in.
And then the politicians and the business people and the criminals and the celebrities called it all good.
The Meadows were designed, you see. The whole place is carefully crafted and constructed so it has something to offer everyone. Unlike what little wilderness remains on Earth, unlike the organic growth and sprawl of cities dozens, hundreds, thousands of years old, it has no history, no natural evolution of its own. It’s built on the bones of the past and filled with the dreams of the future. There’s a million novelties on display, and if the ones before your very eyes aren’t doing it for you, you can just turn your head and encounter another.
If your self-conception has you as a suave, sophisticated individual with a taste for the finer things in life, there’s fine dining and shopping to be had. You can spend thousands of credits on the latest fashions, the finest foods. Delicacies imported from a dozen alien worlds. Exotic meats and fruits and vegetables and booze the likes of which you’d have to travel a lifetime to experience in their native environments, all in one convenient location.
Or maybe you’re a hedonist, into earthly pleasures and sensations. Sex and drugs and all-you-can-eat buffets and loud music and nightclubs where the air is so hot and humid with sweat that you might think you’re at an orgy. The Meadows has all of those.
Want a family vacation? There’s carefully curated spaces where Junior and Princess can run around like they’re in the most safe and saccharine amusement park known to man, and you, the doting concerned parent, need never worry that your adorable little spawn will see a sextuple-breasted centauridae passing out fliers and pamphelets for a horsey show. You’ll never have to think about how absurd that all is. I mean, come on. Horses generally only give birth to a single foal, so they only have two nipples. Let’s at least try and keep one foot in the pool of reality when we’re creating horsemen for our own sexual gratification.
Speaking of horsey shows, maybe you want to see a theatrical performance that’ll move you to tears? The greatest entertainers in the system can all be counted upon to do a show at the Meadows at some point in their careers. On any given night (if the measurement of time means anything in a place with an artificial day and night) you can find your favorite actors and actresses, your favorite singers and comedians, your favorite contortionists and body artists, your favorite post-human things we don’t even have names for who have altered themselves forever in the service of their own vision.
Seriously, though. If you get a chance, see the horsey show. It’s life-changing.
My heart sinks into my stomach, somewhere in the vicinity of Monk’s upper-back. Under the guise of a gathering of a friends, a catching-up of brothers, I’ve brought my friends to this awful place. And it truly is an awful place, awesome, even. Like a voice from the sky shouting a great tower to ruin. Like a woman turned to a pillar of salt for having the audacity to look over her shoulder. It’s a burning bush telling you your future. It’s a box that’ll melt the skin right off your Nazi skull if you look directly at it. And to think, under the banner of my own quest, an ulterior motive I’ve kept secret, I’m leading my friends right into the belly of the beast.
The only thing I can do to begin to atone for it is be a good leader.
“March,” I shout. “March! Forward! Don’t look ’em in the eye! They’ll suck the life out of you! There’ll be nukes and hookers and drugs at the hotel! Onward! Onward and upward!”
We draw a few stares, but only a few. I look like a maniac and my friends look like maniacs by association, but it doesn’t matter. In this crowd, who could tell? We’re all maniacs here. Everyone comes of their own volition, and the faceless hordes around us are all looking for something. So are my friends.
Googe wants women. Monk wants the superlative, the legendary, the experiences his current life simply can’t deliver. Papa Chub is an old hat at this game, a hedonist in search of some new thrill. Erb’s morbid curiosity drives him with the same emotion that lead good, upright citizens of the 19th and 20th centuries to visit freak shows. Each one of us has come to this unearthly place for his own reason, searching for his own grail, walking the path of his own hero’s journey.
As for me, I need an exorcism.
Word Count: 2,319 (And that basically uses up the last of the extant text. A healthy percentage of what you’ve read thus far has been new material written since the start of the month, but from here on out, it will be almost all completely new. You might recognize one or two passages, but that’ll be about it.)