[Void Galaxia] Chapter 41: The Lake Arrowhead Experience

+++

      Fifty-four years ago, in a Ljubljana barr…

+

      ‘So fucking tired of all this cowshit, comrade. Nobody listens to philosophers anymore. Nobody cares about cultural theory or Hegel or Bōl or Kapok or anything. Why do we bother? I could’ve been an architect. Could’ve redesigned this whole pocket city, but no, no, I chose the insanity path. Cultural theory. Who beyond Allah has time for that? Ah, I know, I know, English graduates, reams of them. Infinite chutes pumping them straight out into my seminars. Honest talk, comrade, you have no idea how small the philosophy circle truly is…no idea how wankish it is. How chok. Sorry, Cantonese word, my fault.’

      The comrade took a sip of his cranberry juice and told Žižek not to worry, there were always ways to become relevant.

       ‘Yes, I know. I could go on TV, say something provocative. Get my dick out and-…’

       ‘No, not that.’

      ‘What then?’

       The comrade smiled. ‘Movies.’

       ‘Huh? Make movies?’

      ‘No, talk about them. Write about them. The proles watch movies, you analyse them through a theoretical lens, there’s your relevance.’

      Žižek stroked his chin and nodded.

      ‘Also,’ added the comrade, staring at Žižek’s chin. ‘Grow a beard. A giant one.’

‘Hmm.’

‘And spit more.’

‘Eh?’

+++

      One year later, after taking a stab at Die Hard and the comfort of crisis, Žižek broke out of the small [wankish] circle of philosophy and became an international luminary.

       In the same barr, with a bear-like beard, he told his old comrade he was a genius.

      ‘It was a simple idea, really,’ replied the comrade, stirring his cranberry juice. ‘I’m just glad I could help.’

      ‘No, not you…me. It was my idea if you recall.’

      ‘Fairly certain it wasn’t.’

      ‘What, do you not remember? You said, movie reviews are interesting, then I said, ja, why don’t I analyse movies? And then you said, ja, it could be a good idea.’

      ‘I remember it quite differently.’

      ‘Ja, incorrectly.’

      ‘No, I’m pretty sure I’m right.’

      ‘Bullshit, it was my idea.’

      ‘Slavoj…’

      ‘Mine, mine, mine, mine…times infinity. Try to claim it publicly and I’ll crucify you. I don’t want to, that would be a Leninist move, but I will if you push me.’

      The comrade stared at Žižek for forty seconds straight, with oddly lilac eyes, then got up, left his flak jacket on the stool and walked out into the winter night without saying another word.

+++

      Two days later, Žižek was visited in a dream by a cheap-looking magician with blinding purple eyes.

      ‘Who are you? What do you want?’

      ‘You know who I am.’

      Žižek squinted, struggling with the purple glare. ‘Marty McFly?’

      ‘No.’

      ‘Mandrake?’

‘No.’

‘Q?’

‘Enough.’

      The magician told him he was a demon and it was his mission to destroy the world and only cultural theory could stop him.

      ‘Wait, what? Who’s a demon?’

      ‘I am,’ said the magician/demon.

      ‘And you want to destroy the world…’

      ‘No. I am destroying the world, day by day. It’s started already, can’t you see?’

      ‘It has?’

      ‘Of course it has.’

      Žižek did an ahhh face. ‘Capitalism.’

      The magician nodded.

      ‘But…why are you telling me this?’

      ‘Simple. I need an adversary, someone to give my destruction meaning. That’s you, by the way.’

      ‘How? I can’t fight…’

      ‘Of course you can.’

      ‘No, really. I’ve never even punched a child.’

      ‘You can hold a knife, can’t you?’

      Žižek looked at his hand and saw a long green dagger.

      ‘Good. Now what you must do…your mission…is to find me and stab me through the heart with that blade. There is only one of me, one kill, one victory, but I warn you I am very difficult to find. I do not travel by conventional means. You will not find me in airports or ferry terminals.’

      ‘Then where?’

      ‘In the void-realm of cabinets.’

      ‘Cabinets?’

      ‘You repeat well. Yes, cabinets. Just like Doctor Caligari.’

      ‘How will I know which cabinet is yours?’

      ‘You won’t.’

      ‘Then how…’

      ‘You must check them all. Every city you visit, every convention and symposium you attend, check all nearby cabinets. Got it?’

      Žižek looked at the green knife and nodded.

      ‘It might take you a while…possibly your whole life. Is that acceptable?’

      ‘It is my mission. I will do what I must.’

      ‘Good, good. See you then, nemesis.’

      ‘Ja, goodbye…demon.’

      The demon/magician vanished and a few seconds later a small wisp of smoke appeared. Žižek put the green knife under his pillow and went back to sleep, ecstatic that he’d found such a Nietzschean sense of purpose.

      Then realised he was already asleep and woke up.

      His hand dived quickly under the pillow, desperate to feel metal.

      The green knife…

      He pulled it out and there it was.

      Thank Gods.

[Conceptually]

+++

Five years later, Zizek sat in a train station, reviewing his quest notes:

      Zagreb symposium for chok professors, 2006 – 18 cabinets checked, no demon.

      Munich symposium on Hegel and how right he was – 212 cabinets checked, no demon

      Edinburgh symposium on sex and death in giallo – 54 cabinets checked, no demon. Stabbed a janitor by mistake while checking cabinet no. 12, said sorry and ran away, seemed to get away with it.

He paused, looking up at a nearby billboard, stroking the longest tip of his beard.

Perhaps the demon does not want me in jail?

Perhaps…I’m protected?

+++

      At the Las Vegas Star Trek convention, Nick Stahl leaned against the wall of the building forty floors up in the air and watched his old friend Žižek tiptoe towards the cabinet in Michael Dorn’s dressing room.

      It had stopped being really funny a while ago, but it was still enough to raise a smirk.

      Another ten, twelve years and poor Žižek would be as mad as a deck chair.

Maybe then he’d forgive him.

Or maybe not.

+++

Back at Lake Arrowhead…

+

      Nick Stahl…or whoever it really was…dipped his head in a continual, slightly off-kilter loop, apparently waiting for me to say something.

      When I didn’t, he breathed out in clear disappointment and said, simply, ‘kitchen.’

      ‘Who are you?’ I asked, finally, as I trailed him back downstairs, past all the Laputa pics.

      ‘Predictable, Keni.’

      ‘Okay. Why is the other Nick Stahl in your closet? In a bucket, with blue skin? And Juana…what is she doing-…’

      ‘Ah, don’t go pinball, dude. Kitchen first, answers later.’

      He clamped a hand on my shoulder and shone those mystical purple eyes at me and that, coupled with the Kryptonian death grip, was enough to shut me up.

+++

      The kitchen was just about as desolate as it had been ten minutes earlier.

      Zero posters to look at, and no stools to sit on so I just leaned against the table-island surface, while Stahl did circles around me, a litre carton of cranberry juice in his hand.

      ‘Can’t believe you just walked in here,’ he said, ignoring the surplus juice dribbling down his chin. ‘You know most of my neighbours are armed, right?’

      ‘Took a chance, I guess…’

      ‘Yeah, huge one. Arquette would’ve shot you on sight. Most of the others too. Lucky for you, I’m a more rational kind of guy.’

      I looked at my own glass, only about one tenth of it containing juice.

      ‘A savior even. If we’re talking about that whole video caffé, Mexican cannibal situation. And the recuperation centre that is my lakeside home.’ He put the juice down and went back to the fridge, pulling out another carton. ‘Dude, wait to you see some of the spots around here. The Ray Chandler stuff, the other homes, the boat jump…’

      ‘I’d like to know what’s going on first,’ I said, as soft as I could make it.

      ‘About what?’

      ‘This, what happened before, the stuff upstairs.’

      ‘That’s pretty vague.’

      ‘Your-…the other you, in the ice bucket…Juana…’

      He put the carton to his lips and sucked down the juice, dribbling again. When he was done, he threw it at the bin [and missed] then came next to the table surface and studied my forehead.

      ‘I know you have…some abilities,’ I continued, putting one hand up as a kind of surrender flag, ‘and that you rescued me from the basement. I appreciate that.’

      ‘Appreciate?’

      ‘Really appreciate. I mean, I owe you my life, obviously, but…’

      ‘Ah, this is venturing into awkward territory. In my own fucking kitchen. Okay, how about this? I give you one question, and that’s it.’

      ‘Only one?’

      ‘An allowance, not an offer.’

      I picked up my glass and took the tiniest sip of juice…and almost choked. It was unbelievably sour, as if it’d been in the fridge for years.

      ‘One minute deadline too. Which gives you ten more seconds to spit something out.’

      I put the glass down and looked around the kitchen, then around the outline of Stahl’s barely creased face. I’d already asked him what he was and he’d evaded…would it be a bad idea to ask the same thing again?

      ‘Two seconds…one…’

      ‘What are you?’ I shot out, along with some spit.

      He smiled, eyes flashing purple. ‘Alien, of course.’

      ‘Kuso. Seriously? An alien?’

      ‘Yes.’

      ‘Wah…from Space?’

      ‘That sounds like a second question.’

      ‘No…I mean, space as in-…where are you from? Why are you here? Is this your real face…or form?’

      ‘Third, fourth, fifth question. This could quickly get out of control.’

      ‘Sorry, it’s just-…’

      ‘Enough rambling. I need to get out of this kitchen, it’s depressing. The housse too. Let’s go for a drive around the lake, see if we can catch some of the boat jumps.’

      His eyes were increasing their glare factor so I looked at my glass full of expired juice instead. He was an alien. According to himself. His own promotion. But no…he was, I’d seen it with my own eyes. The purple glow, the change from Ryu to Nick Stahl to god knows what else. The way he’d strangled that guy on the plane, the real Nick Stahl upstairs in a bucket, ice-cold, blue skin, knocking out Juana without touching her at all.

      Wait…Lexi…

      I looked up, jumping back a bit when I saw him fixed on me with that purple hypno-vision.

      ‘She’s back home,’ he said, looking down at my glass.

      ‘In the basement? You left her there?’

      ‘No, dude…I’m not an animal. I used my own time and effort to carry her upstairs, then put her carefully down on the couch. I even put a movie on for her. Re-Animator 2, if I remember correctly.’

      ‘She’s not hurt?’

      ‘Might have a bit of a headache when she wakes up, but the rest of her, no problem. Why? Do you miss her?’

      I opened my mouth, but had no idea what words to send out.

      ‘It’s okay, Keni, you fuck someone a few times, you develop something. Not a bond, but something.’

      ‘How did you-…’

      ‘And you can always go back there, after out little lake tour. Move in with her, buttress the cave walls, run around that little VR castle, finger each other in the dungeons. Say you’ll get round to the writing, but you never really do. And Sadia…Sadia who? Little elf’s gone already. Flitted in and cruised out, with her shitty teen poetry. Dude, now I’m rambling. Must be the expired juice. Yeah, let’s head out. Forget Lexi, she’s gone, forget Sadia, she’s fucking some other guy in Portland. Focus on our spectacular, about-to-start-any-minute-now lake tour.’

      He clapped his hands together as a full stop, but it didn’t erase my question.

      ‘How did you know about me and Lexi?’ I asked again.

      ‘Ah, fucking pedant…’

      ‘You were watching?’

      ‘Telepathy, you perv. Your mind’s like an open crayon book. I know you fucked a girl in LA too, and tried to fuck another one in the…’ His line faded out, as did the purple in his eyes. ‘Hmm. Nice evasion.’

      ‘You mean you can-…you’re actually reading my thoughts, right now?’

      He blinked, almost like he was rebooting.

      ‘Nick?’

      Then switched back on again.

      ‘Car’s out in the driveway. Lake time.’

+++

      For some reason, the alien posing as Nick Stahl had a Lego car.

      Or that’s what it looked like.

      Barely enough to fit in the driver, let alone a passenger, and with both of us not having Lego-sized legs, a real struggle to get comfortable.

      ‘Raymond Chandler lake, just to the right there,’ Nick said, pointing his arm across my body and out the passenger side window. ‘VR is better in this case, obviously, but they did put in a fake corpse of the woman to give it some verisimilitude. It’s pretty cool, actually, a few times every hour, she’ll bob up to the surface and they’ll have a fish swim out of her mouth…’

      ‘Is it from a movie?’

      ‘Huh? You don’t know Ray Chandler? Lady in the Lake?’

      ‘I’ve heard of the woman with the sword, and King Arthur.’

      ‘Dude…you call yourself a writer?’

      ‘I didn’t say that.’

      ‘Lady in the Lake is one of the greatest books ever written. And Ray Chandler, serious, if you wanna know how to write description, or voice, read that guy. But don’t copy, you might end up with Neuromancer or Snow Crash…try-hard, pastiche shit.’

      ‘Okay.’

      ‘Okay? That’s not a very committed answer.’

      ‘To be honest, I haven’t thought much about writing recently.’

      ‘Cos of the girl?’

      ‘No.’

      ‘Residue depression from your previous work?’

      I turned my head to him, careful not to move forward too much and inadvertently headbutt him. I thought you were telepathic came to mind, but was probably too caustic, so I settled for a quiet ‘no’ instead.

      ‘Ah, I see. Is it cos I’m an alien?’

      ‘No.’

      He made a tutting sound…and enjoyed it so much he made two more…judging me through the windscreen mirrror.

      ‘Well, it wasn’t,’ I offered, slouching back in the seat and inevitably clipping my knees against the dashboard. ‘It might be now.’

      ‘That’s better.’

      ‘Maybe if I knew a bit more about you…’

      ‘No digging, Keni.’

      ‘I mean, it could help me get comfortable with things. And then I could start writing something.’

      Nick laughed and steered us right, onto a dirt track. He didn’t say anything for a while, just looked at the trees ahead, until finally they parted on both sides and the track ended next to quite a serene, picturesque lake.

      ‘This one isn’t so well known…’ he said, getting out of the car, perching himself on the bonnet. As soon as he did, the front of the car dipped by about five inches.

      For the sake of my legs, I got out and sat next to him. Followed his outstretched finger across the lake.

      ‘Bunch of Reagan fanatics holed up over there, back in the 80’s. Thought they were getting covert signals from his TV speeches, directives to kidnap sexy, young, black women from Compton and turn them into blondes.’

      ‘Err…’

      ‘FBI found out about it and let it ride for a while, curious at how it would turn out. But then some of the lower level agents found out and they were forced to deal with it. Charged in and found two black women, naked, blonde hair all over…and the Reagan nuts dead from blood loss after chopping their own dicks off. I think one guy escaped with all the cash, and dick intact, but I’m not sure.’

      ‘That’s real?’

      ‘You can play it on the village VR if you don’t believe me. They’ve got the tame version and the X-rated one where you play the Reagan fans. Maybe an S&M one from the black girl viewpoint too.’

      ‘I think I’ll stick to Nightmare Castle.’

      ‘Coward.’

+++

      After looking at the lake [and the pin-sized cabin at the far end where all the bizarro stuff took place] a little longer, we got back in the car and continued the tour.

      Nick telling me about all the celebrities who lived in the area, and me subtly trying to redirect each little anecdote back onto the alien question.

      Finally, I wore him down to such a level that he stopped the car outside the gate of Breckin Meyer’s housse and gave me a choice: boat jumps or alien talk.

      ‘Alien talk,’ I replied quickly.

      ‘Instead of boat jumps?’

      ‘Yes. Please.’

      He emptied his lungs with a drawn out trail and stared off at the SEXY VISITORS WELCOME sign pinned up outside Meyer’s front gate.

      ‘You don’t have to tell me that much…’ I said, my hand hovering halfway over to his shoulder, but not having the guts to pat.

      ‘Don’t have to tell you anything.’

      ‘Yeah, of course. I know that.’

      ‘But in the interest of future shorthand…’ He patted the wheel and swerved back onto the road. ‘Lunch and ME talk. Until I get bored.’

      ‘Lunch?’

+++

      The lakeside diner called A DINER was on the bustling side of Lake Arrowhead and, when we walked in, completely deserted except for the waitress, the chef and a white-haired guy reading a newspaper four days old.

      Actually, I couldn’t see the chef, but I assumed there was one cos chopping noises were coming from the kitchen.

      And foreign music, possibly fado.

      Nick sat us down in the corner booth, ordering two tuna surprises and four black coffees without asking me anything. Then he stretched back in his seat and announced that the old guy reading the paper was, in fact, Malachai from Children of the Corn.

      ‘Sorry?’

      ‘Lives a few doors down from me. Comes in here at least five times a week, then heads across the road to the VR plaza. Says he’s reliving the classical Lake Arrowhead era, communing with dead friends, but really he’s just using it to slap and fuck Malina Weissman. She lives here too, out on the east shore. Don’t know why she allowed her real profile to be used, but it’s in there. My guy too, actually. Blue-skinned devil, Nick Stahl. Must be some kind of vicarious desperation factor, faded actors trying to…’

      I nodded and listened on as he segued into the limits of the X-rated VR servers compared to real life depravity, and then how the lake wasn’t that good in the 90’s anyway, how the restoration of the Ray Chandler aesthetic in 2028 was the thing that saved the place, and that was only cos not enough people cared enough about Chandler novels to turn it into a tourist mud swamp.

      ‘Just the right level of attention and entropy…probably by accident, but still…hell of a place to live. Ah, quadruple coffee, finally.’

      The waitress put all four cups down with a polite, ‘there you go, Mr. Stahl,’ paused a second as if he would respond, then turned and walked with a slight curve back to the counter. As she went, the old guy who had apparently starred in Children Of The Corn before, leaned over and made slurping noises at her ass.

      ‘Everyone seems to know you here,’ I said, taking some of what I assumed was my coffee.

      ‘Not me.’

      ‘I mean that waitress, she just-…’

      ‘Nope. That was the other Nick, during one of his red phases.’ He paused, picking up one cup and downing it. Then pulled over the other and blew at the steam. ‘He kept her locked up at his housse for over a month. Made her dress up like Claire Danes one day, told her to stop looking like her the next. Then escorted her to the road outside his driveway and locked the gate.’

      ‘That’s pretty messed up.’

      ‘Ah, just the usual generic human shit. Tedious as fuck. Let’s move on to the alien talk, get it over with.’

      ‘Err…okay. What should I ask first?’

      ‘Not that.’

      I laughed, nervously, and took more of my coffee. ‘Okay, something more specific. Which planet are you from?’

      ‘A big one,’ he answered, taking the tiniest sip from his second cup.

      ‘Is it outside this solar system or…’

      ‘Obviously.’

      ‘It is outside?’

      He rubbed his eye, possibly an affectation of tiredness.

      ‘So you’ve come from outside it, to here?’

      ‘No.’

      ‘You’ve come from inside it?’

      Nick grabbed the sugar shaker and added almost half of it to his coffee, then put his elbows on the table and stared at me. ‘Let’s skip the questions…way too convoluted. Besides, you’re stuck on the basics, inside the solar system, outside it. What we need to be establishing is the true size of things.’

      ‘I don’t understand.’

      ‘Fine. An example. The universe is a very big, very empty place.’

      ‘Err…’

      ‘Don’t give that face, dude. I know you think you know, but you don’t, not the way I do. See, your maps are always trying to squeeze everything onto one page, eight planets lined up in a straight line, but that’s bullshit, the universe doesn’t work that way. It is huge and unrelenting and…beyond human comprehension.’

      I nodded, a video of the true size of the universe that I’d watched a few months back paused in my brain.

      ‘Even your own solar system. You ask me if I’ve been outside of it as if it’s just a little place at the end of the road.’

      ‘I didn’t mean it like-…’

      He put a finger to his lips. The waitress came over with two tuna surprises and put both in front of Nick. Then asked if we needed anything else.

      Nick didn’t look at her, so I said, no, we were fine, and pulled one of the plates over to my side.

      The waitress wiped the edge of the table then bent down to pick something up off the floor. I couldn’t be sure but it looked like her hand was reaching over to Nick’s thigh.

      Then it wasn’t.

      She was back up and walking off towards the counter.

      ‘That was weird,’ I said, pulling one of the plates over to my side.

      ‘Scale and distances,’ Nick continued, sliding the salt and pepper pots over. ‘This salt pot is Earth, the pepper, Mars. You wanna go from one to the other, that’s practically next door. It takes humans…what, a year to get there? Takes me about two seconds.’

      ‘Two seconds…’

      ‘But that’s only cos I’ve been there before. See, if I know a place, I can set up shortcuts so I don’t need to actively go there. Nah, don’t even ask, dude, it’s way above your level.’

      I lowered my hand, surprised I’d raised it in the first place.

      ‘If there’s no shortcut, if I go in my own vessel then…six hours, maybe seven…I’m not sure the exact number cos, honestly, I haven’t done it for a long time. I only really go up there to drift nowadays…the last few decades or so.’ He paused, eating some of the tuna surprise while also staring at the one on my plate. ‘The point is…Mars isn’t that far. Jupiter isn’t that far. None of the planets are…Makemake might take a week or two, its orbit is pretty weird, but mostly it’s just like you humans on your airplanes.’

      I drank some coffee and looked at the dark green sauce smeared on the side of my plate. ‘Think I get it.’

      ‘I doubt it, dude.’

      ‘You’re an alien, you can do some things humans can’t…’

      ‘Some?’

      ‘…travel places we can’t reach. With better technology. Though I’m still not sure where you actually come from…which planet, I mean.’

      He glared at me, his eyes turning that classical shade of lilac.

      ‘Wah…your eyes…they’re purple again.’

      ‘So?’

      ‘Is that normal?’

      ‘Normal…’

      ‘For your kind, I mean?’

      ‘My kind…’

      He ripped off a chunk of tuna with his bare hand and looked out the window. Was he annoyed? Or just tired of talking to an ant? I assumed it was at least one of the two, so I backed off a little, focusing on the VR promo screen on the wall nearby. They were playing the ad for the Lakeside VR game, or experience as the credits called it. Play by the lake. Mingle with celebrities in their homes. Visit the darker side of the human soul. In the Category IV version, do so much more.

      When it was over, they played it again. And again. Five times in a row before Pluto 2280 finally elbowed its way in.

      ‘Your favourite game…’ said Stahl, finishing off the last bit of tuna.

      ‘Mine?’

      ‘Back in Japan…you were very taken by it.’

      I watched the ad play its last few scenes and had a sudden rush of phantom bile come up my throat as a female astronaut sat up with her bare back turned, asking the audience if they wanted to go again.

      ‘Less said about the science the better though. I mean, dude, those little aliens running around…Martokras. And the idea that the Oort Cloud is just a few hours away from Pluto, at that made-up speed measurement they use…’

      ‘They didn’t wear helmets.’

      ‘Even if you hit a lottery patch of stretched space, it’d still take you the best part of half a year. Assuming you’ve got enough shielding to get past the heliosphere, which you don’t…’

      ‘Stretched what?’

      ‘…in fact, your scientists don’t even have a concept of it yet. Stretched space, dude. It’s like subspace from that Trek show. Small pockets of it everywhere, speeding you up, redirecting you. Yeah, technically it makes the distance longer, makes things further away, but really, it speeds you up cos it’s not really stretched the same way you-…’

      He paused, distracted by the waitress as she came back over and asked if everything was okay.

      ‘Tuna’s nice,’ I said, hoping she wouldn’t notice that I’d only had one bite.

      ‘And you Mr. Stahl?’

      ‘Yes, very good.’

      ‘More coffee?’ she asked, tilting the jug over his barely touched second cup.

      ‘Obviously not.’

      She flinched, keeping the coffee pot at an angle for a moment before saying ‘okay’ and turning back towards the counter. Two steps gone and she was yanked back by the sleeve, Stahl leaning in close to her ear and saying, in a whisper that wasn’t actually a whisper at all, next time she should pour the coffee over his miserable junkie head.

      She shrugged him off and stepped back, the coffee pot hanging loose in her hand…so loose that I moved forward and steadied it for her.

      ‘He’s not feeling well today,’ I explained, but it didn’t land as she was glued to his purple eyes…mouthing words without any sound…

      ‘Nick…’ I said softly, waving my hand vaguely near his face.

      It didn’t work the first time, but the second time it did as the flare from his pupils dimmed and his body seated itself back down. Prepping another apology, I turned to the side of the table and let out a genuine wah as the waitress was already back at the counter, swiping at her phone as if nothing had happened.

      ‘How did you do that?’ I asked, retaking my seat. ‘She was here and then…she was over there. Instantly.’

      ‘Magic.’

      ‘The purple in your eyes…is that how you do it?’

      ‘Previous topic, please.’

      I paused, looking at the waitress again. Then back at Nick. Then at the waitress again. Then at the shrunken dots of purple at the centre of his eyes.

      ‘Your stretched space question would be a good place to start,’ he said, stirring more sugar into his coffee.

      ‘Err…okay.’

      ‘And stop saying err, it’s annoying.’

      ‘Sorry. I’m just trying to keep up.’

      ‘Question.’

      I nodded, rotating my coffee cup with zero thought of actually drinking any. Why would I? It wasn’t barking at me, making costumed threats. Nick Stahl the alien was. ‘Is it-…are there pockets of stretched space between solar systems too?’

      ‘That’s basically what I just said.’

      ‘So…you can go back to your planet…using that method?’

      Breathing out with an attached fucking jesus, he scanned his plate for remaining chunks of tuna. When he couldn’t see any, he switched to mine, picking up some of the fries which I hadn’t even realized were hidden underneath.

      ‘Should I ask a different question?’

      He chewed my own food at me, his eyes doing the lilac party trick yet again.

      ‘Okay…’

      I picked up my coffee and drank, looking around.

      The VR promo screen was still on the same loop, so I tried the old guy at the counter. He was stroking his own thigh, talking to the waitress. Poor woman. She probably had to put up with him every day. Like Lexi and that guy who’d asked her out to GRAPE FEST, then sulked when she’d said no.

      I looked outside and projected an image of her…my zombie girlfriend…leading a guy into the back of a car. Surprisingly not in her Tenebrae t-shirt, but a dark blue sports vest, and…wait a second…

      My eyes closed and opened again, followed by several auxiliary blinks.

      No, it wasn’t an image. She was there, Lexi…actually, physically there in the parking lot. And it was the guy leading her into the car, not-…kuso. What was this? A lookalike? Hallucination?

      I pushed off the seat and almost tripped onto the floor, telling Nick that Lexi might be out there, with a guy, and it looked she was moving funny, limping, could be some kind of trouble.

      ‘Dude, what are you jabbering about?’

      ‘Come on…’

      I didn’t bother waiting for him, I just stumbled out of the diner and onto the gravel as it spat up at my shins, the car accelerating out onto the main road.

       ‘Lexi…’ I shouted, pinning my eyes to the shadow of the back of her head in the car window.

      No movement.

      At all.

      Like she was drugged.

      Or tired.

      If it was even her.

      Fuck.

      Was it?

      My eyes…brain…

      Hallucinating?

      ‘Well, that was about the fastest I’ve ever seen a human move,’ Nick said, coming up behind me, rubbing his hands with Vlad-like glee. ‘Don’t worry, I took care of the bill. You can pay for the next meal.’

      ‘Lexi…I think she just got in that car.’

      ‘Yeah, I saw that.’

      ‘But…it can’t be her cos you said she was back home, in Fresno.’

      ‘Well, that’s the direction she was headed last I saw her.’

      ‘What?’

      ‘I think you mean when. About five minutes before you woke up.’

      ‘She was…in your housse?’

      ‘Briefly. Until she freaked out and ran.’

      My hand flipped into fist mode and in some other dimension I was already on top of the alien wretch, caving in his face, but in this one…

      ‘It really was her then,’ I said, filtering out most of the aggression, looking back out at the main road.

      ‘Seems like it.’

      ‘Fuck, she really might be in trouble.’

      ‘Sure. Tangentially.’

      ‘Tangent? What’s that supposed to mean?’

      ‘It means…Keni-cat…that I have nothing but your best interests at heart.’ Nick walked over to his car and opened the driver’s door, then turned back. ‘So? Are we pursuing or not?’

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