Edit: I added the beginning of the next chapter to the end of this one. I think it works better here, and also this helps pad my word count. Nyah nyah. If you’ve already read this post, scroll to the bottom and read the new material!
After a couple minutes, Papa Chub and Monk both return with their luggage, an single large piece of polycarbonate and aluminum for Papa Chub and two small duffel bags for Monk, smaller even than my own. I wonder idly about what’s in them, what he did and didn’t bring. How many changes of clothes? A swimsuit? A dress suit? How dressy? I tried to imagine Monk in a black bow tie, a vest, a dress coat with the tails and everything. It was silly. The outfit, not Monk in the outfit. Well, Monk in the outfit was silly, but only because anyone in the outfit would have been silly.
Actually, I could kind of see Papa Chub in it. Erb too, but Erb looked uncomfortable in my mind’s eye. Papa Chub wore it more naturally. I wonder why? Formal wear’s roots are in fashions from centuries ago, clothes worn by the aristocracy of countries that no longer exist. Those nations had undergone countless revolutions and upheaval, trading their proud ancestral names for corporate branding like Pepco-Cola Presents Ye Olde Inglin! and Foxple’s Soviet Republic of Indo-China. Thankfully those garish and ridiculous names had long since been abolished and countries now had simple names based on their ranking in international shows of strength and dexterity.
Go, North America Continent-1! NAC-1! NAC-1! We’re number one! Literally!
“Dude! Move!” Erb shouts in my face. I jump in surprise, my swell of national pride suddenly quashed. I look around in confusion and see that we’re outside now (outside relative to the spaceport’s terminal and baggage claim area. We are still, of course, encased in a giant bubble orbiting Earth which we would die if we were outside of.)
I hurry after my friends and together we march in single-file line alongside the curb in front of the port. There’s an endless mass of cars moving just alongside us, the automated ones going impossibly fast, the human driven ones going at a slower but still reckless pace. There is little rhyme or reason to it that the human eye can discern. The automatons are moving at a clip determined by their own programming and the constant flow of information they are each broadcasting and receiving and analyzing, moving figuratively literally at the speed of data. The humans go as fast as they please, counting on the automatons to calculate a safe way to travel around them and account for their recklessness. It seems to work quite well.
The sound of catastrophic crashes is very infrequent, at any rate.
We come to a podium where a smiling blonde woman in her late teens or early twenties is typing away frantically at something. Papa Chub goes up to talk to her while the rest of us hang back.
“What’s going on?” I ask no one in particular, my voice the level of a stage whisper. “What’d I miss?”
“We’re getting a cab,” Googe offers. I cast a glance back towards Papa Chub and the woman. I am skeptical that running a fleet of what are surely automated cabs requires so much data entry. Hell, I’m skeptical that this woman is doing anything useful at all, since it’d be infinitely more practical to have the cabs on a private network coordinating and dispatching themselves. Probably she’s just playing some kind of game on her computer. Probably she’s just there to be attractive and lure customers away from competing businesses.
I glance around at the other cab companies’ podiums. One is staffed by an android in fetish gear, another by an preposterously handsome man in a tight-fitting dress shirt who appears to be holding a kitten. A third is staffed by what I can only hope is a person in a nine-tailed fox suit and not an actual five-and-a-half foot tall kitsune. I’m already starting to feel loopy, either because I’m coming down from an amphetamine high or the nootropics are leaving my brain, and I really don’t want to be bewitched by a mythical fox spirit on top of that.
Papa Chub wraps up his business with the woman at the podium and passes out the plastic chips that will serve as our cab fare. “Our ride should be ready in a minute, she said.”
“What, we’re leaving this wonderful spaceport so soon?”
Erb snorts. “The sooner we get to the hotel, the sooner we can start drinking, the faster the time will pass, the sooner we can go back home.”
I put an exaggerated pout on my face. “Aw, come on. Where’s the fun in that?”
“The fun in this place is in people watching from a safe distance. Going to shows. Eating at fine restaurants. Not standing around in a crowded spaceport teeming with germs and sweaty tourists. This place is one big zoo, and you don’t want to feed the animals, man. They bite.”
“But what about the social aspects? The pool parties? The amusements and attractions? My God, man! What about the clubs? The clubs where you pay an ungodly sum just to get in the door and be deafened by noise that might be generously called ‘music?’ The clubs where you can pay people to take their clothes off for your titillation and entertainment? The clubs where everyone’s wearing metal and leather and everything’s sticky and it’s hot and humid and wait a minute, I can’t remember if this is a club or a horror vid I once saw.”
Googe’s fair skin goes a shade paler. “Wait, what? We’re not going to a club like that, are we?”
“It might have been a nightmare, actually. Or a nightmare caused by a vid. Hold on. Let me try and remember.”
Monk slaps Googe on the back and grins. “Hey, live a little. Try everything once, man.”
Papa Chub shrugs. “Yeah. Hell, why not?”
Erb shakes his head. “Pass. Thanks.”
I sigh and roll my eyes. “If your claustrophobia and your misanthropy are going to kick in before you even get to the hotel, why’d you even suggest we come to the Meadows?”
Monk laughs. “Yeah, Erb. God.”
Erb’s mouth twists in a frown. “Hey, man. When you guys are broke and you’re going crazy from the ebolyphilis you picked up at a sex club, don’t come crying to me.” He spins on his heels and points a finger accusingly in my face. It’s mere inches from my nose. I am surprised at how tempted I am to snap my mouth forward and bite it. “This whole thing was his idea. I’m just along for the ride. I just want to stare at the wreckage alongside everyone else.”
“If you’re along for the ride, that means you’re going to be in the wreckage.”
Erb thinks about this for a moment then shrugs. “I’d bail out at the last minute.”
“We’d be going a hundred. It’d still kill you. You’d just die smeared on the road instead of against the windshield.”
“I’d be wearing a helmet and clothes with impact gel. I’d break some bones, but I’d survive.”
“Oh, bullshit you ‘d be wearing impact gear. Nobody just walks around dressed like they’re expecting to get in a car crash.”
“Hey, it’s a metaphor and if I want to metaphorically walk around in a suit of armor, then I metaphorically will.”
Before I can respond, our cab arrives, sliding alongside us with the screeching of brakes and the squeal of rubber. For a brief moment, I think we’re going to die, the mass of the thing coming towards us like some kind of unavoidable howling animal. If the cab had been piloted by a human driver, it probably would have been the end of us all, the five of us smeared against the podium, the woman crushed underneath it, the cab itself rolling until it slams against the wall of the port. Thankfully, the cab’s automated. It comes to a perfect stop at a spot that’s equidistant from the two of us that are on the outside of the group linearly.
The shutters that serve as the cab’s doors retract into its roof, and the bot’s head swivels to greet us. It’s an older model, an ugly one, with bright LCD eyes and latex skin covering the articulation points along its face. It’s wearing a suit and a cap, it’s body permanently attached to its seat, its hands permanently attached to a steering wheel that does absolutely nothing given that the cab’s automated and the company that built the things certainly didn’t want anyone being able to steal them and drive them.
I glance at the ancient contraption before us, then back over my shoulder at the woman at the podium. Her youthful beauty stands in stark contrast to the decaying wreck we’re about to trust with our lives. “Let the suckering begin,” I whisper to myself.
Movement next to the woman catches my eye and my vision shifts slightly to see it, and that’s when I see it.
She’s here, standing motionless behind the woman, looking right at me. I cannot see her face, have never seen her face, but I can feel in my bones and my blood that she is looking at me. White gloves, white shoes, white dress, white veil. The air around her seems darker. The world around her seems darker. She is light itself, a terrible light that consumes, that burns. She never moves. The veil never moves. She never breathes. She is here. She followed me from Earth, followed me on my quest to get the one thing that might rid me of her, and there is no where for me to run.
I can feel beads of sweat forming on my forehead, the palms of my hands. My breath is coming quicker, my heart beating stacatto in my chest. “Uh, hey, guys,” I say to no one in particular. “Guys, come on. Faster. get in the fucking cab, yeah?”
“What, now you’re in a rush?” Erb says. “I thought–”
Something inside me breaks. This isn’t the time for banter, and it’s not the time for fear. The adrenaline coursing through my blood demands action, and I agree wholeheartedly.“Cab! Come on! Let’s get to the fucking hotel! Let’s get to the fucking clubs! Meadows, baby! Meadows! We’re all getting laid!”
I push forward, lower my body, my center of gravity, and shove my friends into the passenger compartment of the cab. They swear at me, at each other, at the luggage that’s poking them and crushing them, but the door’s already sliding shut, the cab already moving, the driver bot prattling on about something inane. I glance out the window back towards the podium, and she’s still there, unmoving. I’ve never seen her move, but she always follows.
The cab pulls away from the spaceport. The Lady in White watches.
Word Count: 6,947 (2,050 words a day to go!)