The check-in process is painless, at least as far as these things usually go. There’s some misunderstanding about whose name the reservation is in, how we intend to pay, what rooms we want, but in the end Papa Chub puts it on his acccount, we agree to pay him back in cash and firstborn children (not necessarily our own,) and we get two adjacent rooms with a shared door, not terribly unlike the situation one might find in a college dorm. This is fitting, as we wind up on the thirty-fifth floor. It’s a boring floor, but it’s cheap, it’s away from the main drag so its not too loud, and it’s overlooking the pool, so it’s not too quiet. The crowd will probably skew five to seven years younger than us, but that’s fine. Ideal, even.
We gather up our things and pile into the elevator, clowns loading into a car. You could probably fit fifteen people into the thing if they were all pressed against one another, but between our postures and the way we carelessly set down our bags so that we don’t have to hold them anymore, we fill up the space pretty well full.
“So,” Monk says, breaking the silence as we all stare at the little light up numbers and wish them to pass by faster. “What’s the plan? What are we doing first?”
“I’m still hungry,” Googe says unapologetically.
There are murmurs of assent. We are not super hungry, but we should have something. We could eat. We’re pretty damn hungry, now that you mention it, and so forth. This may be the closest we’ve come to all seeing eye to eye since we landed on the Meadows. It’s a rare and beautiful shining moment of diplomacy and mutual goodwill.
And then the subject of what to have comes up and everything goes to shit again.
“I still want sushi.”
“You want a ten-foot-long tapeworm living in your gut.”
“Okay, enough, enough,” I say. “Let’s get to the rooms, shower, regroup, whatever, and then figure it out. Maybe once we’re all a little bit hungrier, we’ll find it easier to reach consensus.”
“And if we don’t?” Erb asks, knowing full well as I do that we won’t.
“Then we’ll settle it with trial by combat.”
“If it worked for feudal Europe, it’ll work for modern man.”
“Sure. Just like the Black Death.”
We split up into two groups, myself and Googe claiming one and Erb, Monk, and Papa Chub disappearing into the other. The rooms are about as well-appointed as they could be for what they cost. Each one has two queen size beds, a desk, a chair, a loveseat. We could easily fit into a single room, with two men to a bed and one on the floor, but in the interests of preserving our dignity and our slowly aging spines, we bit the bullet and got two rooms. Someone will still have snuggle up with someone else, or else sleep on the floor, but at least our plan for the trip doesn’t involve huddling together in a pile to sleep like sheep.
That’s not the plan, at any rate. It is, however, still an entirely real possibility. Particularly after a night of drinking.
Setting aside the furniture, the décor of the room is chaotic. The design seems to be intended to honor or celebrate or whatever the history of NAC-1-31, but the whole thing feels like parody. Instead of a sense of awe at the rich history of the state or a feeling of pride at the place my distant ancestors came from, I’m watching the room suspiciously, looking for things that might break easily that we could find ourselves charged for, things that will blink and make noise when we’re exhausted and trying to sleep in the middle of the night (or more realistically, the early morning.)
There are antique printed circuit boards for wallpaper, digital frames cycling through pictures of movie stars centuries dead, gold accent marks on things, artificial orange flowers in a vase on the desk, sports memorabilia on the walls, and a device attached to the beds that says, “FEEL THE BIG ONE!”with a cartoon drawing of a suspension bridge crumbling into dust and an opening for credit chips.
“Hey, Googe. Want to feel the big one?”
“Stay away from me, you degenerate.”
“I’ll ask again once you’ve had dinner and you’re in a better mood.”
“Seriously. I’m warning you.”
He sets downs his things, claims the bed closest to the bathroom, and disappears into the shower. I drop my bags, lie down on the free bed, and just spend a few minutes staring up at the ceiling. I briefly contemplate activating the “FEEL THE BIG ONE!” machine, which I’m fairly certain will make the bed vibrate in a manner not terribly similar to receiving a massage, but decide against it. Whatever the thing may or may not do, I’m pretty certain that I’m against feeling natural disasters on principle.
Probably I would try it later, though. I mean, it could be fun. And if it actually caused a real earthquake, well, Hell. That’s certainly worth a cred.
The sound of running water comes through the walls of the bathroom, as does the sound of Googe singing some pop song at the top of his lungs. I sigh and pull out my Foxple Conncomm and start going through it, looking at all the exciting developments I missed while I was traveling. I don’t think I’ve looked at the thing since we were standing around at the port back on Earth hours ago. The realization surprises me. While I would never say that I check the thing with a feverish frequency thanks to a crippling compulsion that borders on a mental disorder and a misplaced sense of existential validation, I really do. That I managed to go for a few hours without looking at work and personal messages, at vids of animals being cute and humans being stupid, at pictures of naked people expressing their individuality and exercising poor judgment is somewhat unprecedented. I idly wonder if something’s wrong with me. Or if something’s been wrong with me and is now fixed.
Either way, I might be dying. But that’s the kind of problem you can wait to solve.
My inbox is full of dozens of messages from work, which I move to a folder marked “To Be Read” and promptly delete. There are messages from friends and family saying we should hang out, saying have a safe trip, saying, “Hey, put twenty creds on black for me, ha ha ha.” I delete those too. There’s a smattering of missed calls, unwatched vid messages, unlistened to audio messages. I ignore it, ignore it all. There’s only one person I want to hear from.
Thankfully, her message is there, at the bottom of the list, buried under all the nonsense. Audrey Gai, my best contact for all things illicit. A trained chemist, a brilliant social networker, a warm personality, and a deft hand with a gun, she was perfectly suited for making the kind of connections good honest folk don’t need but that fun dishonest folk thrive on. Plus, there’s something satisfying about being able to say, “You need blah blah? Well, lucky for you, I know A. Gai,” and meaning it literally.
* * *
A few months back we’d been sitting in a coffee shop, sipping coffee and talking about everything and nothing. There was a lull in the conversation and she’d leaned back in her chair, folded her hands on the table in front of her. Her hands were delicate, her eyebrows as dark and thick as brushstrokes, her smile warm, her eyes turned up ever so slightly at the ends. I was struck, and not for the first time, by how pretty she was, and how funny and terrifying it was in equal measure when I’d seen her pull a knife from her pocket and slowly dig it into the underside of a man’s chin as he stammered out an apology. “So,” she said. “Is this a social call, or is this business?”
“Can’t it be both? I mean, I do enjoy our chats, even if–”
“Chad,” she said. She was smiling, but her voice was as firm as granite. “There are a lot of things I need to take care of today, and I have to budget my time. Social or business?”
My tongue darted across my lips like a snake’s. I swallowed nervously. I’d known Audrey for long enough that I trusted her, but I was about to make a request in the same vein as, “I want you to help me turn lead into gold.” I was opening myself up to being laughed at. I was opening myself up to being ridiculed. Worst of all, I was talking to the one person I knew who might be able to tell me definitively, “What you’re looking for is not real.”
But she was also the one person who might be able to tell me, “Yeah, I know where to get that,” so I had no choice but to take a deep breath and ask the question that would set everything in motion. “Audrey, I want to get some Beast.”
She didn’t even say anything. She just rolled her eyes, exhaled, began to stand up. “Alright, Chad. Thanks for the coffee. Let me know when you–”
I put my hand over hers for just a moment, just long enough to make her pause. She looked down at it with a frown on her face, and I pulled it away. But she sat back down. “I’m serious, Audrey,” I said, my voice barely more than a whisper.
“Chad, come on. Beast doesn’t exist.”
“Yeah, well, everyone used to say that flying saucers didn’t exist, and it turned out the old US government had so many it wound up selling the things as military surplus. So, I want some Beast and you’re the only person I trust enough to ask.”
“But Beast isn’t real.”
“You sure about that?”
Audrey’s mouth twisted up at the corner. Not a frown, exactly, but more like she’d tasted something sour or bitter, some insidious and evil flavor that didn’t sit well with her. She leaned back in her chair, folded her arms across her chest. “I’ve never seen it,” she said, ever the skeptic. “I’ve never known anyone who’s taken it.
“But you’ve heard about it.” I could hear the need in my voice, and it was a little sickening. Not like a junkie’s need (at the very least, I couldn’t be fiending for something I’d never taken before,) but like a child’s, so desperate to believe in something unreal.
She rolled her eyes. “Of course I’ve heard about it. Everybody’s heard about it.”
“So you know what it does.”
She snorted. “I know what people say it does, the same way I know what people say Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Termagant do. Doesn’t mean any of it actually exists.”
“Chad. Come on. It’s some sci-fi fantasy bullshit. Shouldn’t you of all people be above putting your hopes and dreams in the basket of consciousness expansion and communicating with the universe?”
I must have look wounded by her words, because she reacheed her hand across the table and gently put it over my own. A smile came to her face, soft and reassuring, and I don’t think I’d ever felt like so much of a fool. “Aren’t you the guy that once reduced a philosophy major to tears by screaming them down saying, ‘It’s all chemical reactions, it’s all dumb luck, it’s all God playing dice with the world?’”
“That was years ago, and he was talking about ley lines and quintessence and Xenu and who knows what the fuck else. I’m talking about math, science, strings and dimensions and shit.”
“It makes sense, though! It’s possible! The theories are sound, right? So if time really is non-linear and it’s just our limited processes and perceptions that make it a line traveling in one direction, changing those processes and perceptions should open the whole thing up to us.”
She just shook her head.
“Is that your professional opinion as a chemist? As a scientist? As a theoretical physicist?” My voice was rising, and I knew from personal observation that there was no quicker way to get Audrey to pack up her things and leave than to lose one’s temper around her. The only upside was that I wasn’t trying to screw Audrey on a deal, and so it was unlikely that she’d stab me.
“Chad, that’s my opinion as your friend. There are… We can…” She closed her eyes, exhaled, inhaled, opened them. “Chad. There are better ways to cope with ______ than–”
* * *
…she said a name. I know she said a name. Why can’t I think of the name?
* * *
“–I can’t even think of a good analogy. Than wishing upon a star? Than praying to God to make everything magically better? Than going off in search of a magical lamp with a genie inside it?”
It was useless. There’d be no explaining myself, no understanding on Audrey’s part. I needed Beast to be real the same way a patient dying of an exotic disease needed miracle cures to work, the same way the explorers of the New World needed there to be gold and jewels and magic. There was something empty inside me, and I was lucky enough to know what it would take to fill the void.
Unfortunately, that thing was a drug that let humans experience their lives as another dimension to be navigated and interacted with, time as a flat plane instead of a straight line, a drug that was likely a modern urban legend, a Macrobian fountain for a new millenium, an El Dorado in easy-swallow gel capsules. Maybe it was just a hallucinogen with a remarkably consistent and convincing effect. Probably it was just a mishmash of various chemicals that would kill you more likely than not.
But maybe it was real. Maybe it would solve all my problems, take away all my pain. Maybe it would answer all my questions, reveal the secrets of my life yet to come.
Maybe it would give me the tools and the knowledge I needed to exorcise the Lady in White from my life once and for all.
“Audrey. I want Beast,” I said plainly, firmly.
She sighed, still intent on debating this with me like I was a stubborn child. “Why? So you can go time traveling? Come on, Chad. We’re all time travelers. Just very slowly and sadly.”
“So I can change my past.”
“No offense, but I don’t think I’d want a guy like you changing the past.”
This was a feint on her part, a deliberate ploy to nick my ego and get me off topic.
Unfortunately, it worked perfectly. “Why the Hell not? You think I’d fuck it up?”
“I think you’d create the perfect world as you envision it and you wouldn’t stop to think about what that means. It wouldn’t be the perfect world in the sense of the best of all possible worlds. It’d be the perfect world for one man. It’d be the perfect world for Chad Studlu. And everyone else? Well, probably there would be a place for them. Maybe. But if not, it doesn’t matter because it all fits your grand vision and things are better for it.”
I leaned back in my seat, angry that I’d gotten sucked into this debate but utterly unwilling to let it go. This has always been a character flaw of mine, I suppose. “You’re saying I’m a monster, then.”
“I’m saying you wouldn’t be a great god.”
I shook my head. There was nothing to do but get back on topic. “Well, I said my past, not the past. I want to fix my mistakes, not the world’s.”
“An individual’s mistakes are supposed to be fixed with apologies, with compromise, with recognition. Not with fucking time travel.”
I leaned forward again. I was done with the conversation. This would be a business transaction, or it would be nothing at all. “Audrey Gai.”
“Oh, fuck you. Don’t do this.”
“I want to procure a single serving of Beast. As a matter of business. Will you reach out to your contacts for me?”
She crossed her arms and frowned. “Absolutely not. It’ll damage my rep. People will think I’ve lost my goddamn mind. I might as well tell them I want to plan an expedition to Atlantis or that I’m going to go looking for bigfoot.”
I sank into my seat. My shoulders slumped. I took on the most defeated body language I could think of, an act every bit as calculated as her accusing me of having delusions of grandeur. There were insults I would always rise to respond to, and there were scenes so pathetic that she couldn’t help but try and bring some kind of respite to them. “Then, as a friend, will you help me? Just ask the people who will take you seriously. Ask the ones who won’t think you’re nuts. Please.”
After a moment, her body language began to crack. She sighed, unfolded her arms, rubbed at her temples. “Jesus, chad. This isn’t healthy.”
* * *
“My guy’s waiting for you in the Commisariat. Go alone. Not on me if you get burned,” the message reads.
Word Count: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯