The walk back to his quarters was long and curved and involved one elevator pad, just like it did for everyone else on Dah Heen.
Also, like everyone else on Dah Heen, he had a flat-mate.
Helium miner, off-planet.
Far as he knew, she was currently out near Haumea, and, long as she didn’t pick a helmet with a crack in it, should be back within a few weeks.
Which meant his quarters was free.
He could kick back and sing out whatever crawled out of his ID, whatever he yanked out by the ankles, shit like,
‘fuck you on the megaship’
‘my grandma and your grandma dancing by the river’
Some others he couldn’t think of.
Gone to Haumea.
Back in a few weeks.
I stopped reading and stared at the video shelves on the opposite side of the caffé.
Moon Prison stayed in my head for another minute or so – the idea of having a flat on Charon, singing from the swamp of my Id – then switched inevitably to Sadia and her disappearing act.
In some of my scenarios, she was still in Fresno, staying in a hostel, potentially coming back to this video caffé-store-timehole, while in the more persistent ones, she was out of Cali completely, in a loft conversion, fucking a tanned guy with abs who could write better than me…better than Lunar Crone and Dream Fucker and Yellow Muon Blob and whatever future shit I managed to vomit out the right side of my brain.
Unless I radically altered my style?
Maybe re-read her stuff and try to emulate some aspects. Or watch some old bizarro filmns like Holy Mountain and riff off of that.
Mildly intrigued, I pulled out my phone and searched bizarro filmns new-old.
The first on the list was Eraserhead, which had already been sucked dry by 90’s filmn students, so I moved on and on and on until I found one I’d never heard of.
‘Drawn from elements of various creation myths Begotten opens with the suicide of a godlike figure and the births of Mother Earth and the Son of Earth, who set out on a journey of death and rebirth through a barren landscape.’
I read more of the plot and then tried to apply it to the first chapter of Yellow Muon Blob, with an imaginary, semi-naked Sadia watching from a nearby seat.
The blob = all the gods.
Main character = angst
Villain = entropy?
It wasn’t really working, and the Sadia figure had already sunk down through the floorboards so I took a sip of coffee and went back to Moon Prison.
‘Is that an old book?’
I looked up, knowing it was the waitress but blinking in surprise anyway.
‘Sorry, didn’t mean to pull you out of it.’
‘It’s okay. Bit of a slow page, actually.’ I closed the book and then opened it again, remembering her initial question. ‘Ah. 2029…not that old.’
‘Really? Cover looks like some of that VHS art over there.’
I glanced over for the three-hundredth time to the shelves, my brain singling out the neon green of Re-animator. ‘I think it’s the trend…last thirty years or so. Retro covers. 80’s and 90’s stuff.’
‘Slow reterritorialization of the future…’ she muttered, finally remembering she had my cup of coffee in her hand and putting it down on the table. I watched it land, brain scanning past unii seminars for a rejoinder to the very familiar thing she’d just said. Re-territory something. The thing I could never say right. Linked to the other R word. Deleuze and his…futurism?
‘Rhizome of a rhizome that denies it’s a rhizome,’ I managed after another twenty seconds of internal scan, and probably misquoting.
‘Tomomi Itō…you just said one of her lines. I think.’
‘Ah, you know her?’
‘Reterritorialization of the future, corpse-muon, skim-hauntology…I did a module on it at unii. Her, Derrida, Deleuze, Fisher…Bōl…’
‘Okay, well, you’re way ahead of me then. I just watched some analysis vids online. Or half-watched due to being stuck here most of the time. Yeah, corpse-muon…I think that was one of them.’
‘You watched a full analysis vid here? At work?’
‘Sure. Right over there by the counter…under that yellow nightmare. Wah, looks kinda eerie in daylight.’
Like a sponge, I followed her finger and then laughed when I realized she was pointing at The Running Man poster. A pretty subtle joke. So subtle I wasn’t sure exactly what the punchline was. The Running Man was set in a future imagined in the 80’s which was remade again and again and again in the actual future, therefore the actual future was a pastiche of a future that was never tangibly real? Was that it?
Actually, was she even pointing at that poster?
I looked up to confirm and saw that she was now staring at the other side of the counter, at her colleague, the tall guy in the orange headband, playfully licking the rim of a coffee cup. She shook her head then turned back and smiled. ‘I’m Lexi, by the way. In case you need to call me over again. And don’t want to shout HEY YOU.’
‘Mark.’ I paused, my brain telling me not to add anything. ‘In case you need to call me over.’
She laughed, looking at the vacant seat next to me. ‘Or I could just sit down now, save time.’
‘Err…sure. If you’re not too busy.’
She did a panoramic of the caffé and then shrugged.
‘It’s okay, really,’ I continued, realizing if you’re not too busy wasn’t exactly an ironclad invitation. ‘You’re a fellow Itō fan.’
‘Probably not many of us in Fresno,’ she replied, hesitating a second then taking the edge of the seat. ‘What’s your book about?’
I lifted up the cover and ran my finger along the bottom of the title.
‘Moon Prison…that’s the plot?’
‘Actually, I’m not sure. I’ve only read half of it…but the main guy’s out near Pluto now so there’s a chance it’s metaphorical.’
‘Well, you picked a good place to read it.’ She gestured at the rest of the booths, which were all vacant except for one holding a young guy with a giant V tattoo on the back of his neck…who seemed to be doing nothing except slowly stirring his coffee with a straw. ‘Plenty of quiet time here.’
I nodded. Drank some of my coffee. Nodded some more.
The waitress, Lexi, was right, it was quiet. Only two customers to deal with. No one fresh coming in off the street. If she wanted she could’ve been on her phone, absorbing Tomomi Itō vids, but she was here, sitting opposite, looking very much like she wanted me to wait around to the end of shift and take her somewhere.
Or maybe I was imagining things?
Sexual desperation at the loss of Sadia…fumbling around for someone new to latch onto…a bored waitress in a Tenebrae t-shirt who just didn’t want to talk to the sleaze licking the cup behind the counter. Or the potential loon stirring coffee under the Critters 2 poster.
‘I should get back to my spot,’ she said, putting Moon Prison on the table. ‘Let you read in peace.’
‘It’s okay, you’ve just sat down. And I wasn’t really taking much of it in. Honestly.’
She stayed perched halfway between up and down for a moment…then, acting out a tough decision face, reclaimed the seat. Kuso, actual interest. To make things worse, she smiled. Right at me. With lips that looked like…
Not Sadia, not Sadia, not Sadia, not Sadia, ran through my head, forcing my eyes away from her mouth and back to the video shelves.
‘This might be a weird question…’ I started, the question in barrel only half thought out. ‘…but did a girl called Sadia ever come here?’
‘Err…that’s a pretty broad net.’
‘She’s blonde, around seventeen or eighteen. Said she came here a lot.’
Lexi lost the smile and looked at the man in the other booth, or the Critters 2 poster on the wall next to him. ‘The girl who went missing.’
‘Yes. I just found out about that today…’
‘She did come in here a lot. Mostly at night. But I never really talked to her.’
‘Is she a friend of yours?’
My eyes drifted back to the shelves, scanning the VHS covers for advice. Wishmaster seemed to stand out the most this time, which I interpreted as a discreet prod towards raw honesty.
‘Not really a friend, no. We talked online, she told me to come and visit her and…things weren’t so good back home so…’ I paused, trying to gauge the reaction on Lexi’s face. Seemed quite blank; no smile, yet no bitter disgust either. ‘Yeah, sounds pretty pathetic when I say it out loud. Coming all this way for a picture on a computerr. A few back and forth messages. But now that I’m here…and she’s missing…’
‘You want to know that she’s okay.’
‘Yeah. If possible.’
Lexi put her right hand on the table, edging a little towards mine then stopping next to Moon Prison. ‘Juana might know something. My boss.’
I instinctively glanced over towards the STAFF ONLY door.
‘They watched videos together sometimes and…I don’t know. I guess they were pretty close. Seemed like it anyway.’
‘Is your boss here now?’
‘Juana? No, no, it’s way too early for her. She usually comes in around half nine.’
‘That’s pretty late. What time do you close?’
‘You mean…she comes in for an hour and a half?’
‘And goes straight to the back room. Usually to watch videos on the projector. If it’s quiet, she’ll get us to watch them too. Which has been happening quite a lot recently, the last few weeks.’
‘Hard working boss.’
Lexi laughed, retracting her hand and standing up. ‘If you really wanna talk to her, come back about ten. She’ll definitely be here by then.’
I nodded and sipped more of the coffee, bracing myself for more Moon Prison. Then unbracing. ‘Is there anything to do around here? To kill an hour or two?’
‘Look at your phone.’
This time I laughed. ‘Anything else?’
The answer was a nod towards the street. I didn’t need to turn to know what she was gesturing at.
‘Personally, I’d go with Nightmare Castle. It’s a few years old, kinda creaky in places, but it lets you explore a lot, like in a pastiche medieval castle…skim-hauntology style…if you’re into that kind of thing?’
‘There are some sleazy types who join now and then…but they usually leave you alone when they know you’re not an NPC. Plus, you’re not a woman so…’
‘I might give it a try.’
Giving one more look at Moon Prison, Lexi said, ‘see you around ten then,’ and headed back to the clown in the orange headband at the counter. I couldn’t hear what he said, but it was obvious from the frat grin on his face that it was something sordid.
Like most big VR franchises, the Lux had a must-have-ticket queue stretching out the front door and halfway down the street for Quarter-Life and the Harem Survival games, and a come as you like deal for almost everything else.
That suited me fine as my sex drive was in deep retrograde…if that was even the right word…and all I wanted was to kill an hour or two wandering vapid round a moon base.
Luckily, Moon Factory 7 still had some free spots on its server so I patched in and went straight to an empty bench over-looking the Byrgius Crater.
And thought of Lexi.
Then Lexi and Sadia, hair down, throwing VHS cases at me.
No no no no no no
The plan. Focus.
Go back to the video caffé, talk to the night owl boss. If she doesn’t know anything, stay at the counter, talk to Lexi. Tell her I didn’t try Nightmare Castle cos the last time I patched in I ended up fingering Lavinia the Goddess of Death in the sacrifice chamber.
No, don’t say that.
Tell her I was waiting for her to get off work so we could go over together and patch in. Walk around the castle and look at the paintings. Find a quiet spot and take off that Tenebrae t-shirt her boss probably made her wear. Use it as a sweat cloth while we-
Focus, you wretch.
Get out of Fresno, hunt down Nick Stahl. Ask him to utilise his connections and help locate Sadia. Did he have connections? Not really, not anymore. And he tried to strangle that Everton fan on the plane. Probably not a good guy to be around.
I blinked, realizing there was a youngish Japanese man on the bench next to me.
His face…eyes…seemed familiar somehow.
One of the NPCs?
‘So this is where you’re hiding,’ he said, clamping a very firm hand on my shoulder, keeping it there for several seconds, then using it as leverage to push himself up.
As soon as he was vertical, looming Jupiter-like over the bench, the curtain dropped.
‘Ryu…’ I mumbled, only half aware of my own voice.
‘Keni the little layabout,’ he replied, adding an incongruous smile. ‘Drowning in this wretch industrial mega-scape.’
I reached out towards his hand, praying for flesh, warmth, but it was already moving, drifting away with the rest of my brother’s form down the promenade.
‘You in?’ asked a rough voice from the other side.
I turned, managing a wah sound.
‘No more fence sitting. The reactor’s gotta go down tonight.’
‘You’ve got three seconds to lose the goldfish face or I’m gone.’
My brain kicked back in, sending the signal to my vocal chords that would tell the NPC to fuck off.
‘You’re making a big mistake, Ratko,’ he continued, grabbing my sleeve. ‘The powers behind this don’t take kindly to…
I swatted the arm away and pushed back, muttering kuso as the guy’s legs buffered, lost balance, dropped…then another kuso over faint static background noise when the game re-rendered the thug’s whole body on the promenade floor, stabilizing him as if nothing had happened.
Ah, didn’t matter, he wouldn’t do anything. He couldn’t. The server would be neutering his improv-field, putting him on temporary loop, and then in about two minutes I’d get a warning message, telling me to please use violence sparingly and in scripted scenarios only.
But I didn’t care about any of that, it was a guest server and I was already ten metres away from the holo-thug, running down the promenade, moving past people with only the slightest of shoves, checking the shopps and corridors and VR within VR booths I passed, looking for the face of Ryu, the man I was certain was my Japanese brother
but as I ran
and found no trace of him
I changed tack and started to wonder what I was doing
who I was chasing
My legs pulled up, outside a moon boot insurance depot.
‘Ryu…’ I said, so soft that even the NPCs hovering nearby couldn’t detect it. ‘You died…’
A red light flashed four times in the top corner of my peripheral vision, followed by a lush female voice:
‘Warning Player Mark. This server is Category II Rated. To avoid scaring other players, please use violence sparingly and in scripted scenarios only. Thank you.’
I waited for the closing beeps to echo out then let out a frustrated breath.
All I did was push an NPC.
At twenty-four minutes past ten, I pushed open the door to the weird, noiseless voidspace of the Last Video Caffé and reflexively checked my phone.
Nope, definitely not eleven.
And there were still cups on the tables.
The door was unlocked.
Someone’s jacket was bunched up on a stool.
Yet…no staff, no customers. No people sounds.
I moved over to the counter, peering over the side and hoping to god I wouldn’t see any dead bodies, or worse, the sleazy guy and Lexi fucking on the floor.
Nope, no one there.
Though the floor could use a clean.
Weird yellow stains and…shapes that looked vaguely satanic, masonic…possibly tile design.
An occult caffé?
Switching to the counter surface, I noticed a cup of half-finished coffee and wrapped my hand around it. Lukewarm, which meant there was at least someone nearby.
Probably in the back room, I thought, walking past the jacket stool, heading over to the video section.
But what about the caffé?
I stopped, making a quick detour to the exit and discovering that the sign in the window actually said CLOSED.
Kuso, must’ve been daydreaming when I came in. Though it still didn’t make much sense. The door hadn’t been locked, anyone could walk in the same way I did.
Maybe the sleazy guy had been in charge of door locking? And his Id was so focused on perving on Lexi that he’d forgotten to take care of it?
I rubbed my head, aware that I was talking myself into a migraine.
Just dial down and check the back room.
See if the boss is there at least.
Obeying my inner guide, I strolled through the video aisles, did pretty well not to be distracted by the gonzo cover art on some of the cases, and made it to the door that said STAFF ONLY.
Friends of staff only, I edited, and pushed it open.
Beyond the door was a corridor that could’ve been teleported in directly from the cheapest VR scenery creator, with generic cream walls, framed posters lining both sides and a stack of four boxes at the end.
Symptom of a symptom of a symptom of a symptom of a
Walking slowly forward, I passed some of the posters, most of them in Spanish, and came to a door on the left that promised STORAGE. I didn’t really wanna go in but tried the handle anyway.
It was locked.
Taking a breath as if I were halfway up Olympus Mans, I examined the rest of the corridor. There weren’t any more doors, but I could hear some faint sounds coming from around the corner. Could be Lexi and the boss. Hopefully not the other guy.
My body continued on, dragging the rest of me with it.
Brain somewhere between Itō and death haze.
A loon dropping from the ceiling, swinging an axe.
Eyes in the walls.
Corridor as stomach.
Infinite revenge of the object.
Itō straddling a rail gun, shaking her book at me.
Lexi as Damijana Chu, topless.
My hand reached out, touching wall.
Stop. Fucking. Wandering.
Boss talk. Focus.
Hand back, the legs moved on.
Find the boss, ask about Sadia. Find the boss, ask about Sadia.
Examine those boxes.
At the end of the corridor, I stopped and examined the boxes. It wasn’t much of a mystery what lay within as each one had MACA printed in giant black capitals on the side. What was MACA? I had no idea and didn’t really care.
All I wanted to do was find the hard-working boss and ask about Sadia.
Then go with Lexi to play Nightmare Castle.
If she was still keen.
Moving round the corner, things instantly got creepier and more promising. Creepy cos of the flickering bulb at the far end, next to a closed door with the letters BOSS ONLY, and promising cos of the surplus light glowing against the wall. It seemed to be coming from a room near to the right, possibly a TV stream.
Coupled to the light were the sounds again, human sounds, someone shouting at someone else to put on the glasses.
That voice…sounded very familiar.
Definitely not female, but…
Sticking close to the wall, I edged round the side of the open door and peeked into the room. Ah, it wasn’t a TV, it was a giant projection screen, rigged up against the far wall. And sat in front of it, on a four person sofa, were Lexi, her sleazy colleague [plus orange headband] and another guy.
No, wait…the V on his neck…it was the lone customer from earlier. The psycho coffee stirrer.
Fuck, he got an invite too?
I hung back, half-watching the filmn [which I now realized was the Haneke version of They Live], half-balling my fist at the thought of either guy putting their shitty arm around Lexi’s shoulder.
After two minutes, I decided it wouldn’t happen, that they were all just friends.
After four minutes, I realized that each of them looked unusually still.
After seven minutes, I put a hand over my mouth and seriously wondered if they were even alive.
No filmn could be this riveting.
Definitely not Haneke sci-fi.
Or Haneke anything.
Before I could make any kind of move, the sleazy colleague had cropped a hand around his left ear, muttered something inaudible and was now pulling his heavy frame up into a surprisingly rigid standing position. He stood there for a second watching the projection screen. Making nothing but breathing noise. Then, without symbol, sign or yawn, swiveled hard right, towards my position.
Patching in to something akin to caveman instinct, I yanked myself backwards, beyond the entrance to the room, pretty certain I’d been spotted. Or the blur of my hoodie had.
Okay, no problem. Door was unlocked, I was looking for a member of staff, followed the noise down this corridor.
Nothing weird about being back there.
Kuso, footsteps, heavy breathing noises, the weirdo was coming out.
Hurrying back to the box corner of the corridor, I kept one eyeball concentrated on the projector room, slowing my breath as the sleazy colleague emerged. For some reason, he had a hold of the other guy’s sleeve, pretty rough, as if he were going to kick him out of the caffé.
Yet the V tattoo guy did nothing.
Just let himself be led.
Pills in the coffee?
The two of them continued down to the end of the corridor, ignoring the streaks from the flickering bulb, and pushed open the door that said BOSS ONLY. Couldn’t see much from my position, but I did catch the sleazy guy’s orange headband descending, which meant it was the basement they were sinking into.
Kuso, a basement, I thought, speeding up my breaths. Nothing good ever happened in one of those.
But that was just my paranoia. Or immersion haze from the VR.
Basements could be mundane places too.
Wine storage, children’s play rooms, yoga zones, rat study.
Didn’t have to be anything sinister.
Besides, whatever was going on, I still needed to talk to the boss, and I was pretty sure I could take either one of those guys in a fight…especially if I had the high ground, at the top of the stairs.
Find the boss, ask about Sadia.
Sadia. Sadia. Sadia. Sadia. Lexi. Sadia.
I left my hiding place and walked as naturally as I could down the corridor. The projection room was tempting, briefly, but, when I passed by, Lexi’s head was tilted to the side in a sleeping pose. Better not disturb her, it would look too weird. Just keep going, find the boss.
Hurrying down the rest of the corridor – and flinching at the slowly dying bulb – I poked the door open and took ninja steps down into the basement.
Then stopped, flinching again.
There were noises deeper down, odd noises, like a cat slurping a bowl of stolen ice cream.
And surprisingly good lighting.
Crouching by the rail – slowly to make sure my knees didn’t crack – I squinted through the gaps.
It was hard to make out exactly what I was seeing, but…there was the back of the sleazy guy, his stupid orange headband…and a Mexican woman beyond him, seated in the middle of the basement space, beside an office desk, with both hands on something round…a bowl of some-…
Her head tilted up suddenly, bright yellow eyes scanning the upper window that opened out onto the floor of an alley. She stared that way for a good twenty seconds, maybe longer, frozen. Then, apparently satisfied, glided back down to the bowl, and began making the same slurping noises as before.
This was the boss?
She looked more like a grunge poet from the 70’s. Messy hair, jacket with different shades of blue stripe…err…oddly yellow eyes.
More slurping noises, followed by a muffled groan.
I moved down another step, curious what it was she was eating, why the sleazy guy had to stand there and watch her do it, had to be paid OT and-
Something crashed on the floor below.
I looked at my shoe, confused, then back at the banquet scene.
The woman had stopped eating and was looking right at me…blood rolling down from the corners of her lips.
The sleazy guy had moved and the bowl was now visible…only it wasn’t a bowl…not even close to one…it was a cracked-open skull, with a V tattoo branded on bold at the bottom.
Abject. Not real. Abject. Not…
Vomiting would’ve been the normal response, or retching at the very least, but both were beyond me.
Cos what I was seeing was a cartoon.
That’s what my brain kept saying as my eyes watched the Mexican woman mouth words into the sleeve of her jacket, and then a half turn to follow the sleazy guy coming up the stairs towards me.
Okay, he’s not that strong, high ground advantage…a human fucking skull! Cracked wide open and-
No, not real. Not there. No.
The sleazy guy kept coming, like one of Ito’s old-new golems, absolutely nothing behind the eyes.
When he was two steps away, I stumbled three back up and held out my left hand, my peace hand, and said, ‘it’s okay, it’s a cartoon, I understand.’
He either didn’t recognize the words or didn’t care as his claw reached out and tried to grab my hoodie sleeve.
I shrugged off the first attempt, and pushed him away with shouts of fuck off the second and third times, but when he came up another step and tried to take a chunk out of my neck, the darker instinct kicked in. Feigning backswing with my right, I switched fast and jabbed with my left, hitting hard enough to knock him off the step, into the wooden rail and then all the way back down to the basement floor.
‘That’s your fault,’ I shouted down, then turned to the Mexican woman and yelled it was her fault too.
It was a lunatic line and it looked like she wanted to growl in response, the yellow in her pupils growing so bright they were usurping her actual eyeballs, but slightly accented words came out instead. ‘…one of my longest serving staff.’
‘Almost two years.’
Okay, so she wasn’t talking about the human head bowl. Must be the orange headband guy I just put on the floor down there…who now had a pool of blood outlining his skull.
Kuso…that wasn’t carpeted?
That cracking noise was actually his-…
Something inside told me to run, get out of there, and my legs were on it immediately, taking another two, three steps back up towards the door before a big vertical cushion came out of nowhere and blocked the way. A cushion that was the spitting image of Lexi…dressed in the same Tenebrae t-shirt…holding a bottle of green juice and a tissue pad.
‘Cartoon…dead people…’ I blurted out, putting one hand on her waist to shove her aside while waving the other wildly back towards the basement floor.
Just like her sleazy, not dead colleague, the lights were out.
No facial expression, no blinking.
But she did eke out a faint no as her hand moved to touch my forehead, then zagged left at the last millisecond, shoving the wet tissue pad into my mouth.
I pushed her away, coughing, retching, trying to spit out what she’d forced in
but it was already
pungent taste, smell like
blurry Lexi face
four of her spinning in loose
‘He’s dropping, catch him.’