The plane landed, or grounded as Nick called it, and we disembarked.
One passenger couldn’t let go of the shitty airline VR server and had to be dragged out of his seat by two of the bulkier flight attendants, yelling beach tunnel, beach tunnel as he went.
It was mildly entertaining, for everyone except the filmn star.
He was too busy licking his left hand.
No idea why.
We walked along the flat escalator tracks, onto the MAV train and under the tarmac to the main terminal. Stahl didn’t say anything the entire way.
Reaching the mouth of the immigration line, he pulled out a card with his number and address and told me to give him a call soon as I figured out he was right about the girl.
‘You can keep Moon Prison too, my treat.’
‘Out of here, dude.’
Holding up a solitary arm, he walked off to the left, joining the queue for American citizens. I pulled up next to the nearest form rack and watched. It took about two minutes before he looked at his ticket, mouthed something into the neck of the man in front of him, maybe a curse, then sauntered back over.
‘Don’t say a fucking word,’ he barked, pupils flashing purple.
We carried on past the immigration line, along another escalator track and over to the gate where our connecting flight to LAX was waiting for us.
To avoid laughing, I pretended to read the back of Moon Prison.
It mostly worked.
Until I saw the Beyond The Rabbit Hole comparison.
‘Equals Tsukubashi’s work then surpasses it…’ I muttered, reading out the quote and adding an even lower, ‘says a fucking clown,’ at the end.
‘Read it. Study it. Emulate it,’ said Nick, tapping the back cover.
On the plane, the first two hours were pretty much the same as the previous flight [minus the writing].
Stahl fell asleep quickly, with his head back against the seat cushion, abnormally straight, while I sat there and re-read my few paragraphs on the yellow alien blob, thinking about that time scale he’d mentioned. Two years? Maybe a year? I was only twenty-two. Would I really go so far so quickly?
I read my story for a seventh time.
Not based on this shit.
The second half of the flight was marginally better.
Stahl found some playing cards in the seat pocket and roped in the guy absorbed by an Everton Jacket next to us to play blackjack, or twenty-one as I knew it.
Surprisingly, for the guy who’d set up the game, Nick Stahl was an awful card player.
The first hour, he lost almost every hand.
Then he suggested we start playing for money.
I said, ‘sure, why not?’ but the other guy backed out, saying that was a shark’s line.
‘Dude, you go to the cinema much? You ever seen Terminator? Dead Bitch On Pluto? Yeah? That was me. Nick Stahl.’
‘Those are old filmns.’
‘What, they don’t exist now? I don’t still get residuals every month?’
‘Not what I said, mate.’
‘I’m fucking loaded, comrade.’
‘Movie stars can still be sharks,’ the man said, sucking in his Everton jacket and folding arms over it.
‘Ha, grey wheels of a desperate reeling machine. Serious, us movie stars can barely count out a full suit, let alone scam games. Ask anyone, dude. It’s almost legendary how bad we are.’ He started shuffling the cards. ‘That’s why we play so much. Losses don’t mean anything to us. Money comes in, sails out, comes in, sails out, comes in…on infinite fucking loop.’
The man buckled and said he’d play one hand to see what was what.
Stahl said, fine, one hand, Cautious Joe.
We played, I won.
The man stayed in for ten more hands. Stahl won them all.
‘Knew you were a shark.’
‘So why did you play?’
‘Fucking obvious,’ the man mumbled and tried to turn away.
‘No, why did you play? If you knew I was a shark, why did you play?’
‘I’m asleep, movie stir. Good night.’
The man put the hood of his footy jacket up and closed his eyes.
‘Just me and you then,’ I said, already shuffling the cards.
Stahl didn’t hear it. Too busy reaching over and placing his fingertips on the man’s throat.
A dazed what was all I could get out.
The man’s eyes popped back open as Stahl tightened his grip, asking in a brusque whisper, ‘why did you play, why did you play?’ Then leaned his elbow in when there was no response. Lifted his body into a semi-standing position and pushed. Licked the back of his own hand.
As most people would in the same situation, the man wriggled, gasped for breath, made desperate whistling sounds in lieu of speech, yet, for some bizarro reason, declined to raise his hands in self-defence.
Was this real?
I looked around for help, but the other passengers was either watching screens or patched in to the shitty VR. No one seemed to be noticing the live strangulation taking place in plain sight, not even the flight attendants.
Turning back to the lunacy, I graveled-up my voice and told Stahl to stop.
I tried again, rougher, louder, but still the choking continued. What was I supposed to do here? It was insane, a faded movie star, killing a guy while everyone just sat back and did nothing. It didn’t make sense…he couldn’t-…
‘Nick, stop…you’re killing him.’
I put a hand on his shoulder, but he shrugged it off like it was a mosquito selling blood insurance.
Fuck, it couldn’t wait much longer, the guy was on the brink. Movie star or not, you couldn’t just end people because they pissed you off at cards.
I took a breath and gripped both hands on Stahl’s shoulder, using around 98% of my strength to pull him off the guy’s neck.
It worked, kind of. Stahl came back a little then spun round to strangle a new victim. I raised an arm, vaguely to defend myself, but there was no need as his hands had dropped and he was now smiling like a preacher in a mega-church.
He picked up the cards and started shuffling, humming a melody to himself.
I checked on the man he’d half-choked to death and saw he was asleep, chest moving up and down, no marks on his neck.
‘Looks like it’s just you and me, dude,’ Stahl said between hums, dealing out the cards.
At LAX, we ran through the same procedure as before.
In the immigration line, Stahl pulled out his card and told me the same things, but this time added, ‘dude, I get why you want to try.’
‘She is a very young, relatively pretty girl.’
‘But don’t let it distract from Moon Prison. Or the yellow blob thing.’
He patted me on the shoulder then walked off into the line for American citizens. I waited until he was through then walked further along, latching onto the end of the other, longer queue, the one with the FOREIGN ALIENS sign.
In the Arrivals Hall, there were lots of desks with leaflets for San Diego and LA and San Francisco, but none for Fresno.
I went to the information lady and asked her how to get there.
‘No buses to Fresno today.’
‘No, no buses. Go to the bus station, ask them.’
‘LA bus station?’
She looked at me like I was simple.
‘Okay. Do you know how to-…’
‘Shuttle bus outside, turn left, right, left again then go straight.’
‘And that’ll take me to-…’
‘Downtown. Hollywood. Venice Beach. Wherever you wanna go.’
I opened my mouth to say more, but a Spanish guy came from the side and asked her where the station VR servers were.
I left him to it and wandered off to find the shuttle bus.
In my head, I made loose plans: find hostel, get bus info, go to Fresno. Then added on Find Sadia. And a detailed sex fantasy in a diner. Followed by a who the fuck are you scene outside a front door, with a topless Andi Chopra lurking in the background. Then air on Pluto. Martokras dancing on human corpses. Tsukubashi colouring in a messy-looking spiral that he insisted was a wormhole.
Kuso…blank. Go blank. Deflate for a bit. Jesus.
Heading outside, I saw two women smoking by their wheeled luggage, talking very fast, very confidently, about the state of the music scene in LA.
They looked young, maybe twenty, twenty one.
Around Sadia’s age.
I hovered near them for a few minutes, wondering if they were singers or in a band I might’ve heard of. Almost on cue, they changed subject to the movie industry.
Woman 1: ‘Like, I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but the thing he’s writing it’s really out there, really satirical…’
Woman 2: ‘Satire…cool…like Catdog and Microwaves Go To Hell…’
Woman 1: ‘Yeah, right, Catdog…and, like, I don’t know if this premise has been done before, it’s like, all these primary school kids being stalked and killed one at a time by this schizo Argentinian robot and…’
Woman 2: ‘Kinda weird, but cool…’
Woman 1:’…he said it’s not really satire, it’s more political, like, there’s a political layer or something underneath, but that’s kinda irrelevant cos the core story’s so fucking funny. Like, seriously, little kids getting slaughtered, who’s done that before? And the best part is, it’s set in Brazil, where he’s from…and he’s grafting a pretty big part into it just for me…yeah, I know, pretty cool…like, I could be hitting Brazilian movie land or something, y’know…finally getting out of this lake of shit…so fucking about time.’
Man, they talked fast…was Sadia like this too?
In my head, I made corrections: find hostel, get bus info…go to Fresno the day after tomorrow.
The hostel I ended up at was on Hollywood Boulevard.
The rough side, by the looks of it.
Poor fuckers in messiah robes and disheveled tents and actual shopping trolleys with shit piled up inside and hordes of tourists lost in the adventurist shlock on the opposite side putting absolutely no pieces of the puzzle together or even realizing the puzzle existed cos they had theirs, they were okay and all those tents were probably full of junkies anyway, can’t help someone who won’t help themselves, hand up not hand out etc. etc.
How I got there was completely accidental, too.
Some random English girl on the shuttle bus told me she was staying there and maybe they’d have other rooms still free, for drop-ins.
By a stroke of luck, or other guests catching a glimpse of the homeless encampment outside, they did.
I didn’t get the same room as the girl on the bus, but I saw her later in the common room, wearing a skin-tight Waif Astronaut t-shirt, and, taking the seat opposite, let her know I was planning to go to Fresno the day after next.
‘Cool. Where’s that?’
‘Not sure, actually. Somewhere near LA.’
‘Like a day trip or something?’
‘Probably longer.’ I paused, looking at the girl’s face and realising she was really quite pretty. ‘I’m gonna see my cousin.’
‘You staying here long?’
‘Actually, I’m here for like one night then I’m moving to this resort place…it’s in Compton, I think.’
‘Compton. Wait, isn’t that Ice Cube?’
‘Ice Cube, the old rapper guy. NWA. Ghosts of Mars. Thin Buddha. Didn’t he come from Compton?’
‘Err, maybe, I guess. It’s a pretty cool hostel anyway. There’s a pool and a barr and palm trees planted in, stuff like that.’
‘But…isn’t it a gang area?’
‘Nah, no way. Like, crime gangs?’
‘Maybe not, don’t know. It’s mostly filmns I’ve seen…and it might’ve been the other one anyway…Inglewood.’
‘But…like it doesn’t make sense, right? If it’s got all these gangs and stuff, why is there, like, a resort hostel there too?’
‘Nah, there’s no gangs. They would’ve told me.’
She looked at the Pluto 2280 poster on the wall, confused, then back at me, smiling evangelical.
Kuso, she was pretty.
Colombian / Middle Eastern mix maybe, with a slight Essex accent.
And right in front of me, alive, breathing, real face, real body.
‘You’re British-Chinese, right?’ she asked, sipping coffee.
‘Just British.’ I coughed, almost forgetting the face. ‘Some Japanese ancestry.’
‘Cool, cool. I like Asian guys.’
‘Really? Then yes, I’m completely Japanese.’
She laughed, not a huge one, but enough.
‘Maybe I’ll see you around later.’
She got up and took her coffee cup to the sink, then left it there.
‘I’m Syria,’ she said on the way out.
‘Like the country?’
‘I’ll pretend you didn’t say that.’
‘Yeah, sorry. Probably not the first time you’ve heard it. I’m Mark, by the way. Not a very Japanese…’
The rest died out, dried up, self-sublimated.
Obviously didn’t matter who I was, the real face, real body Syria had already gone, without a look back either.
Fuck, she really was pretty though.
And at least fifty per cent interested.
That night on my bunk, with two Germans and a Chinese girl comatose in the other beds, I made a tentative plan to go into Syria’s room and slip naked under her duvet.
Problem: I didn’t know which room she was in.
And I had no way to find out as I hadn’t seen her since the common area earlier.
Solution: go into each room, do a quick scan, and then say sorry, wrong door. When I get to Syria’s, say, ‘hi, I’ve been looking for you, mind if I slip in there too?’
My gut told me she wouldn’t mind.
I stared up at the holographic Neptune orbiting the main bulb.
No, she probably would.
Alteration: check out of this place and go to the Compton hostel tomorrow.
What about Sadia?
Fuck, my beautiful Sadia. Well, she’d still be there. And the truth was…I wasn’t ready for her yet. Even talking to Syria, I’d been slow, lethargic…
Needed to practise a little first.
Elevate my level.
That night I dreamt I was Hamlet.
No-one had been murdered…things were generally okay in Denmark…but Polonius was nagging me to go to Fresno.
It’s a no, Polonius.
I’m not ready.
Don’t care. Go.
Go and kiss her.
Leave me alone, Polonius.
Marry her now.
Do it, do it, do it.
Fuck off, old man.
I woke up sweating, right arm stretched out, stabbing dream Polonius in his annoyingly persistent face.