The Beast, Pt. 17 (Chapter 8a)

8

Well, that settles that. We’re going to be having dinner in the lovely Commisariat, which I’m pretty sure is in a different hotel completely. There I will have to figure out how to ditch my friends so I can buy highly illegal, most likely fatal, and almost certainly fake drugs from someone I’ve never met before who is a business acquaintance of someone who’s annoyed with me.

Easy. Sensible. Child’s play. The hard part will be convincing everyone that whatever the hell the Commisariat serves is something we’ll want to eat. God help me if it’s textured insect protein or sushi.

I decide that the smart way to go about this is to slip away while everyone’s showering and primping and preening. Maybe I’ll get lucky and I’ll even be able to make the deal and return before folks notice I’m gone. It’s wishful thinking, but Hell, it’s possible. It’s as good a plan as anything else, at least. I sniff my clothes and my person to ensure that I’m not too offensive for dinner in a public space. I am, of course. Between the miniature freakout in the shuttle’s bathroom and the death march across the Meadows’s artificial desert, I smell like a refugee from a warzone.

I decide to change into something a little fresher and less sweat-stained, a pair of dark jeans and a black t-shirt, hi top sneakers to complete the look: forgettable. Granted he Meadows are so crowded, a hive buzzing and swarming with countless face drones with only a few screaming loud enough to be heard over the din that pretty much everybody is forgettable, but still. It doesn’t hurt to double down on an unremarkable appearance when one is engaging in illicit activities. I send a message to the group letting them all know that I’m going to check out the casino floor and slip away without another word.

The hallways of the Tropicali are dimly lit in warm light the color of an early sunset, of a late sunrise, of candlelight. It’s a cunning bit of chicanery on the part of hotels since as far back as such things existed. Everything looks better in dim lit. Your companions. The stained carpet. The smudges on the wallpaper. The elevators continue the trend, improving the complexions of the passengers. Tanned and muscular young men and women in swimsuits making their way to the Tropicali’s 24-hour pool party. Harried parents and snot-nosed children. Fattened older folk, sweating and breathing heavily, agreeably muttering about their blood being too thick for the Meadows’s weather, the climate-controlled, artificial, scientifically perfected weather. And me standing in the corner, my hands in my pocket, my head down, my eyes darting around taking it all in.

Huh. The nootropics should have worn off an hour ago. Maybe I’m just always like this.

The elevator reaches the lobby with a loud ding, disgorges the passengers it’d picked up along its descent. The assault on the senses is immediate and unrelenting. There’s laughter, there’s shouting, there’s the smell of smoke and booze, the occasional cry of anguish as someone’s rent or college fund or life savings disappears forever, and above it all the merciless din of machines. Beeping and buzzing and ringing and digitized voices crying out, “Try your luck! Everybody’s a winner! Millions of credits given away daily!” and the cries of the stickbots as they rack chips and take bets and distribute winnings. This whole place is a machine. A ruthless engine designed to run itself, to fuel itself with the hopes and dreams of suckers.

It’s also literally a machine, of course. As far as human achievement goes, it’s really something. A second, more cynical moon. Would that there were as much money to be made in scientific and humanitarian pursuits as there were in soaking fools of their wealth. We’d have conquered death and poverty and hunger.

Anyway! Time to go buy some drugs!

I make my way through the slot machines, the poker tables, the roulette wheels and the craps and the blackjack with my head down. I ignore the waitresses and waiters in their skimpy outfits, the barkers crying out for attention with promises of fortune and fame, insults and compliments. I will say that there’s an art to the artifice of the place, a science to the scam. Even as determined as I am, I find my eyes occasionally darting towards a beautiful woman, a free drink, an empty spot at a table on a hot streak. But there’s a more important task at hand, and I will not let myself deviate from it.

I pull up my Conncomm and look up the Commisariat. It’s a theme restaurant, of course, intended to celebrate the Cold War of the mid-20th century. I can’t help but roll my eyes with that. “Couldn’t they have let a chef or a celebrity open a restaurant?” I mutter to myself. “Was there no one available? Or, shit, couldn’t they at least have picked one of the more interesting Cold Wars?” The restaurant’s in the Hotel Foxple, about a half a mile up the strip. Shouldn’t be more than a ten minute walk, assuming the endless flow of traffic doesn’t slow me down too badly. Getting there and back before my friends start messaging asking, “Dude, where the fuck are you?” might actually be possible.

Stepping outside of the Tropicali is like walking into a Hell stranger than anything Bosch could have imagined. The heat is oppressive, and I begin to suspect that it’s actually a cunning conspiracy on the part of the various hotel and resort and casino owners, a cunning scheme to make being outside so unpleasant that people have no choice but to stay indoors where they can more easily spend their money. The pedestrians come and go in endless succession, so many ants swarming mindlessly, the cars and the automated vehicles giant beetles. Banners grander and more opulent than any work of art the vast majority of human history could have produced proclaim, “Cat Berry, One Night Only!” “Come to the Granite Pool Party and Get Laid!” “Filthiest Loosest Slots in Town!” The banners promise events with names like, “Recovery” and “Binge” and “Rhabdomyolysis” and “Tremens.” It’s a fairly impressive vortex of chaos and vice and indulgence and decadence, although I personally prefer my Hells with a bird demon shitting humans into a chamber pot.

I shake the old art history trivia from mind and move forward to merge with the crowd, another cell flowing the arteries and veins of the Meadows. My mind wanders aimlessly, my feet moving mechanically, and before long I find myself in front of the Hotel Foxple. It has a sensible design, with the shops and restaurants immediately inside the entrance, the casino floor just beyond, the lobby and the elevators beyond that in a fabled land most may never reach. The Commisariat stands out plainly amongst the other restaurants with an obnoxious logo that’s half-cold straight lines and concrete and steel in a sort of Brutalist style that I suppose is intended to represent ancient Soviet Russia and half-warmth and wood and curves that’s supposed to be the old United States. The two styles complete all throughout the restaurant with half being the Soviet Union and half being the United States. There is a clear dividing line down the center, blue on the US’s side, red on the Soviet’s.

I pass through the wide open doors and look around uncertainly. It’s mostly full of families with children, the occasional group of younger men and younger women. There’s nobody sitting by themselves. Maybe Audrey’s contact is an employee, then.

“Greetings, comrade!” a female voice says from somewhere close by and behind me, and I jump. “I’m Anya! How many in your party?”

I turn around to find myself eye to eye with a blue-eyed blonde woman nearly as tall as I am. She’s got a bright grin, her teeth, perfectly straight, her body clad in a tight red uniform bedecked with gold and black accents, carefully crafted to show off not just her curves but also the not inconsiderable muscle tone of her arms and legs. I imagine that she’s intended to represent the best the Soviet Union had to offer. Strange science building the perfect athletes, the Communist ideal, the product of a state-run eugenics program.

Did the Soviet Union have a eugenics program? I don’t actually know. Probably the restaurant’s owner and manager don’t either. Probably they just hired the most attractive men and women to walk through their doors, resume in hand and smile on their face.

“I, uh, just me. Yeah. Just me. For now. Maybe I can just get a seat at the bar or something?”

She smiles and nods. “Of course, comrade! Right this way, please.” I followed her all of ten feet over to the bar’s counter where I sat alone, empty stools in either direction next to me. I glanced around the room as she placed a menu before me. Still no one jumped out at me as a possible drug dealer. At least I was now in an obvious space, so if I’d gotten there before them, it should be easy enough to spot me.

“I’ll be back in a couple minutes to take your order. Can I get you a drink while you look over our menu, comrade?”

“Yeah. I’ll have a vodka-stim. Whatever’s in the well.”

She nods and disappears out of my peripheral vision. I glance down at the menu. It’s filled with the same ugly font as on the building’s logo, the pages divided between “American” cuisine and “Soviet” cuisine. Nothing really jumps out at me so I flip it over to examine the children’s menu. There are silly little cartoons of fat Americans eating entire cows, babushkas chugging unmarked bottles of grain alcohol, children eating rats, gorging themselves on donuts, riding nukes and waving cowboy hats and ushankas with wild-eyed glee on their faces.

Probably I should just wait to eat with the boys anyway.

Anya returns with my vodka-stim, sets it before me, and smiles her perfect smile. “Ready to order, comrade?”

“No, thank you. Just the drink for now. I’m waiting to meet someone.”

Her smile flickers for just a moment, undoubtedly irritated at the prospect of having to serve someone who won’t be ordering enough food to leave a substantial tip, but pro that she is, it quickly returns. “No problem. Just let me know if you need anything else.”

I watch her go, admiring the Soviet ingenuity of the stitching on her pants, and then pull out my Conncomm. I don’t want to wait any longer than I have to, and I’m sure my friends will be messaging soon looking for me, so it’s time to get a bit more active in my search. I pull up the messenger and set it to send out a burst to anyone with a short range. “I’m looking for a guy that knows A. Gai,” I write, then send it out into the aether to see if anyone responds. I set the Conncomm on the table and wait, nursing my vodka-stim trying to decide how long to wait until I give up and go.

After a few moments, Anya returns, smile firmly affixed to her face. “Can I get you anything else, comrade?”

“No, thanks,” I say reflexively, not looking up from my Conncomm. “Just enjoying my drink.” If the damn thing doesn’t buzz by the time I’m done with the vodka-stim, I’m leaving.

“Are you sure about that, comrade?” There’s a mocking note to Anya’s voice, the kind of tone that says, “I know something you don’t know,” and I glance over my shoulder to look at her. Her hand darts into her pocket and she pulls out a tiny plastic bag filled with black powder and holds it close and low against her body so only I can see it.

Well. That was easy.

I look up from the bag, stare into her eyes, try to keep my expression neutral. “I’ll have another vodka-stim. Finest you’ve got.” I lower my eyes back to the bag, give a quick nod of my head towards it, look back up at her eyes.

“Sure thing, comrade.” She says. She leans forward a bit, her eyes glancing around to make sure that no one’s close enough to hear us and whispers, “That’ll be five hundred creds.”

Despite myself, my eyes go wide at that. I open my mouth to protest, realize that if I make a scene this whole thing’s blown, and lean forward to. “Five hundred? Are you shitting me?”

“This is Beast,” she hisses. “Not a stim, not a depressant, not an opioid. Beast. This is the real thing. You want it, it’s five hundred. You don’t, you finish your drink and leave. You cause any problems and I’ll have Boris kick your ass so hard, you’ll taste his fucking toes. Five hundred. Non-negotiable.”

“I already paid Audrey,” I whisper. Which was true. I had. Handsomely.

“You paid a middle man for the contact. Now you’re paying me for the product. Five hundred.”

“I don’t have five hundred on me.”

“Come on. You’re in the meadows. Find a teller and pull out the funds.” She stands up straight again and smiles that professional Soviet smile of hers. “I also accept transfers and extend lines of credit to my most valued customers.”

I open my mouth to reply when she cuts me off. “You don’t get credit. You look like a deadbeat.”

I sit perfectly still for a moment, my face contorting in anger, and then I sigh and reach for my Conncomm, pull up my finances, set up a personal transfer of five hundred creds. I slide it across the counter to where she can see it and her grin goes wider. “One more vodka-stim coming up, comrade!”

“It’d better be good,” I mutter.

“Finest in the house!”

She disappears for a moment and returns much more quickly this time. She sets down the glass, and I can see the bag of black powder underneath it. God, I hope that’s waterproof I think to myself.

“Close your tab, comrade?” she asks, but it isn’t really a question. More of a command.

“Yeah, sure.” I pick up my Conncomm and she reaches into her pocket to pull out the tablet with my order on it, surreptitiously slides her own over it, and we do the transfer. She slides her own back into the pocket and then presents me with the Commisariat’s. “Thirty-five creds, comrade.”

My eyes go wide again. This is the most surprised I’ve been in days, and I’m not an especially big fan of it. “For two drinks?”

“Two of the finest drinks in all the Soviet Union!”

I grumble, punch thirty-five into my finances, and do the transfer with the Commisariat’s tablet. She smiles, glances down at it, and the smile disappears from her face. “Really? No tip?” she asks, her voice about an octave lower and substantially less warm than before.

I groan, add another five creds to the bill, and wave her away.

Word Count: ᕕ( ᐛ )ᕗ

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