The Beast, Pt. 95 (Chapter 23d)

We pack our bags, perform one last sweep of the villa and slink away as quietly as possible. Doubtless there will be some kind of bill from the Libretto, an obscene sum so full of commas and zeroes that it’s an affront to both God and man. But that’s a problem for the future. That’s a concern for another day. All we have to do now is get back to the spaceport, get off the Meadows, and get back to our regularly scheduled little lives down on Earth. This has become a stealth mission, and between our luggage, our hangovers, and our general inability to keep from blurting out commentary on the world around us, we have all the subtlety of a troupe of masturbating circus clowns.

Fortunately, there’s an actual troupe of masturbating circus clowns in the lobby, and they seem to be especially needy, taxing the Libretto’s concierge and staff to the utmost. I stop dead in my tracks as soon as the elevator doors open and just stand staring, concerned about how rude I’m being but unable to do anything to stop myself.

“Do you guys see that, too?”

“What, the hundred year old man with the barely legal child bride?” Papa Chub asks, a note of irritation in his voice. “Don’t stare. In fact, don’t do anything. Just keep walking. We don’t need you picking a fight the last day of the trip because you think it’ll have a nice symmetry with the fight you picked on the first.”

“What? No, man, the clowns.”

“Oh. Yeah. They’re with Trompe L’oeil. We saw them with Cassie and her friends last night. They’re great. Really thought provoking stuff, you know?”

“You’ve got to wear one of the complimentary ponchos if you sit in the front, though,” Monk adds. “It’s a splash zone.”

Despite the relief I feel that I’m not going insane, I frown. I always miss all the interesting sights on trips. “Wait, who’s Cassie?”

“A Goddamn bitch,” Googe mutters under his breath. I decide not to press the issue any further.

Out of the fear of getting a vengeful Johnny Cab and general stinginess now that we were no longer collectively obscenely wealthy, we take a human-driven shuttle back to the starport. The risk is, of course, obscene, but if the Meadows haven’t killed us after three days, a crappy driver surely won’t. The universe wouldn’t allow it. It’d be too unsatisfying an ending to our trip.

We shuffle through security like cattle, await the launch of our shuttle in uncomfortable plastic chairs as is expected of us. The talking is minimal. We’ve each entered into a sort of fugue state, a post-Bacchanal catatonia where our bodies realize all at once that it’s been days since we’ve slept or ate or not done tons of drugs properly, and they are not fucking happy about it.

I briefly consider vomiting into a trash can, but decide against it. If I can wait an hour, I can do it back on Earth.

A disembodied voice announces that boarding will begin shortly. No one moves to line up to get on the shuttle, a population of hungover and broke and broken tourists perfectly content to wait until the last possible moment before standing in another line. “So that was a pretty good trip, huh?” Googe says after the loudspeaker goes silent. “Right? I had a good time. I wish we’d gone to a strip club, but I guess there’s always next time.”

Erb shakes his head. “No. No ‘next time.’ Next time we’re going to a tropical beach or something. Something with fewer people and more nature.”

Papa Chub smiles. “Oh, you say that now, but after you spend a few weeks back on Earth, you’ll start to fantasize about it. That said, we are never coming back here again.”

“Until we do,” Monk says.

Papa Chub nods. “Until we do.”

“What about you?” Googe asks me. “Did you have a good time?”

I don’t answer him. I just sit back in my chair, my eyes shut, my hands folded in my lip, my feet resting against my luggage. I’m not asleep, but I wish that I was, and if I pretend that’s good enough.

I don’t know that I had a good time. I don’t feel good, exactly. What I do feel is empty, but not in a bad way. Unburdened. Clean. Like something malignant has been removed from me, and I am ready to have something good take it’s place. What that thing might be, and if it actually will take the malignancy’s place, I cannot say. But it might. And that’s certainly better than where I was when we first got here.

I got what I came for, I suppose. Perhaps on some level I should be grateful for this circus sideshow of an artificial satellite for providing me with an environment where that could happen. But as the disembodied voice announce that we may begin the boarding process, every fiber of my being tells me that it’s time to leave.

I mean, the money’s gone. We might as well go, too.

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