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.

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