A full loop of the lake was a must, according to Nick, in order to fully appreciate the difference between daytime Arrowhead and nightscape Arrowhead, though the only real change I could see was the weird roadside lighting system – dark blue strips attached to promo-boards every ten metres or so – which, in effect, made it seem like the whole place was a closed-off racing circuit.
Somehow, I’d ended up squeezed in the back with Juana, head against the side window, arm at a right angle in case she tried anything.
Luckily, the Mexican cannibal was pretty lax for most of the first loop, though when we passed the turn off track for the Reagan Cult Hangout, she put her nose against the glass and asked what the [something Spanish] that was all about.
‘Wacky memories for Lexi down there,’ replied Nick, accelerating another 10km. ‘Best not to dig too deep.’
‘Wacky? asked Lexi, frowning.
‘In a Debordian sense. Bathtub you were in, the dim lighting, blonde wig…all spectacle, no real violence inherent in any of it.’
‘Are we stopping somewhere soon?’ I asked, leaning in between the two front seats.
‘Wah, I thought you were asleep.’
‘That diner caffé maybe?’
‘Startled me. Nah, not in the same day. Too desperate. Besides, I’ve got somewhere better in mind. Over on the other side of the lake.’
I checked past Lexi’s shoulder, catching a flash cut of another blue light strip. ‘You mean we’ve already been past it?’
‘Don’t get bolshie, Keni-cat,’ spat Nick, half-throwing an elbow back, clipping the back of his own seat. ‘I said we needed to do a full loop first and now we have. Next stop, the Barn.’
‘Is that a restaurrant?’
‘At the front, yeah. Barr and MMA out back. Mostly ex-filmn stars waddling around drunk, but now and then they cast some voodoo…reel in a couple of semi-pros.’
I glanced at Lexi, who was staring left at the moon-sheened lake, rubbing her temple again.
‘You want me to massage you?’
‘Wah, quick answer.’
‘At the back, hard.’
I put my hands on top of her skull and slowly made my way lower down. After a minute, her own hands dropped and she started making ‘ahhhh’ sounds.
‘Feeling anything?’ asked Nick, turning onto the main street and loudly tutting at the DINER caffé to the left, and then the VR plaza on the opposite side, both signs the same neon green.
Lexi didn’t answer, which made me a bit anxious as I knew what Nick was like when he got ignored, but then I looked at the windscreen mirrror and realized he was staring at me.
‘Do you feel anything?’ he repeated, eyes sparking lilac.
‘Not especially,’ I answered, acting out a confused look.
He stared a little longer, his eyes dimming, then went back to the road.
‘Well, this is huge fucking disappointment.’
‘Maybe it’s not open yet?’ I offered, peering out from the back window of the LEGO mobile.
‘All day fights, all day food. No, wait, there’s a sign up. Hang on.’ Nick sat forward and focused on the alleged barr-stroke-fight housse that did indeed look like a giant converted barn. ‘Closed for disinfection.’
‘Where are you seeing that?’
‘The sign on the door.’
‘I can’t see anything.’
‘Cos you’ve got the eyes of a cave fish.’
‘How about we go back to the main street, try the VR plaza?’ suggested Lexi, rotating her neck in slow circles.
‘What, lose ourselves in Nightmare Castle…’
‘Or another game.’
‘…turn into a piece of fucking plastic, no stake in the world, no consequences.’
‘Err…it’s just VR…’
‘Yeah, fraudulent. Realm of a cosplaying coward.’
‘She’s right, it’s just a bit of fun,’ I interjected, poking my head through the middle of the seats again. ‘Unless there’s something better to do?’
‘What do you say, Juana?’ Nick asked, turning back to the right side window. ‘VR cowardice or real life fun time?’
‘Cowardice is a bit strong.’
I sat back and pushed against the window…then turned…also curious to see what the Mexican brain eater would say. At first, nothing. She just sat there, staring at the fringes of the Barn, pulling at the strings of her Moon Factory Ø hoodie.
After hearing an owl hoot four separate times outside, she finally responded, asking where the worst of the lake people lived.
It was a strange question…then a sinister one when I remembered Nick’s defence of her earlier. She only ate bad people.
Our alien tour guide, however, didn’t seem to care.
‘Bad is relative, but I know where the biggest number of people will be.’
‘Is it nearby?’ asked Juana, hand pausing on the hoodie string.
‘About a seven minute drive. Forty seconds if I use the purple. Nah, I shouldn’t do that, it’s disrespectful. Might clip one of those 90’s action stars…Brian Bosworth…Cynthia Rothrock. Okay, no cheats. Juana’s the map-maker tonight. Let’s check out Kip’s place, see if he’s got anyone over.’
I breathed out, keeping it just the right side of frustration.
Kip’s place did not sound like a relaxing time.
In fact, if we weren’t going to do VR or eat dinner at DINER then I would’ve preferred to just go back and sleep, maybe play around with Lexi if her brain was stable enough.
I looked forward and saw her grinding her temples again.
Or just let her be for a while.
Give her time to adapt.
Another quarter loop round Lake Arrowhead and we were outside another Frankenstein mansion [half-Spanish Colonial, half art deco, half gothic and half a dozen other styles], this one signposted in garish white neon as KIP’S PLACE.
My brain instantly ejected about a dozen capsules of epinephrine as I saw the array of expensive-looking cars parked along the outside stucco wall, with a few more just dumped erratically on the forest side of the road.
Lexi seemed to share my sense of unease, as the four of us walked through the incongruously rustic front gates and onto a driveway lined with giant bonsai trees.
‘Is it too late to check out the VR plaza,’ she whispered, pulling me back by the Bored Real Hard jacket [that Nick had gifted] to create a gap between us and the other two.
‘Give it ten minutes. If it’s too bleak, we’ll leave.’
‘No conspiring back there,’ shouted Nick, jumping across to one of the huge bonsai trees and chopping off a branch with his bare hand. ‘We’re here for at least two hours, so you better make the most of it.’
‘It’s easy. Start with a smile. You too, Juana.’
The Mexican performed a half second grin then returned to blankness.
‘Okay, forget smiling, it’s inauthentic. And the people in here probably wouldn’t notice anyway. Don’t touch that.’
I stopped, my hand an inch away from the fallen bonsai branch.
‘If Kip sees you, he’ll get annoyed.’
‘But it’s fake…isn’t it?’
‘All the more reason not to break the spell. No, no follow-ups. Keep moving. We’ll go straight round the back, that’s where the water is.’
Standing back up, I let Lexi fold her hand up in mine, then followed the trail of the alien and the cannibal demon around the side of what looked like a cut-out simulacrum of Nick’s place a few kilometres away.
‘He can’t stop us,’ whispered Lexi again, ‘if we really don’t want to stay.’
‘It’s not like he’s our dad.’
The phrase alien dad crept onto the cliff of my motor cortex, got scared of the drop and edged back again. No, don’t tell her that. She’ll think I’m crazy. Mexican demon and bathtub perversion were more than enough for today. Not to mention the several bouts of memory fingering Nick had done.
Unless he paved the way for that kind of acceptance?
Or she knew already and knew that I knew too?
Should I ask her?
The thought stretched out a little further then evaporated into neutrino dust as we turned the corner into the pool area.
Live Varo recreation was my first reaction as blue vapour swirled over an arrow-shaped pool, drifting between live flesh sticks and cocktail tubes and plastic alien models and out through the branches of yet more gargantuan bonsai trees.
No, too weird.
I blinked and tried again.
Same image, only sharpened.
The mist was real, pumped out by industrial-sized fans set up in each corner, and the flesh sticks were actually dozens of identically tanned guests, half of them fully naked, standing around the garden with retro-futuristic wine goblets in their hands.
Some were in the pool, either swimming or hitting each other with what I hoped were inflatable swords. Others were on the sun-loungers at the side, chatting and giving oral sex…and chatting again. One guy was trying to insert himself into the back of the plastic-replica Ondōan model and film himself doing it.
Caligula meets Tsukubashi meets Caligula II, III and IV, I thought, editing my initial description.
Definitely no Varo.
The background music stopped, then started up again, playing the theme tune to something very familiar…an old sci-fi thing…
‘Is that the Portals & Portals song?’ asked Lexi, leaning in to my shoulder.
Ah P & P, that was it.
But why was it playing here, with all this?
‘Weird choice…’ muttered Lexi, reading my mind.
We kept going, towards the pool, trying not to lose sight of Nick through all the sensualist lunacy.
As we got closer, I did a double-take at two of the guests…it seemed that I was looking at a de-aged James Caan and Shibasaki Kou, but then someone got thrown on top one of them and snapped Caan’s neck and I realized they were both incredibly life-like dummies. There was no time to reflect on this as the surrounding imagery was even more ludicrous. To the left was a woman painting a fox green, a remarkably still fox, and next to her was a naked white guy pouring flour onto the dick of another guest, giving a few strokes, then diving forward and licking it off.
‘Is that coke?’ asked Lexi, swatting her hand through a particularly thick swathe of blue mist to get a better look.
‘Thought it was flour.’
‘That would be weird. Or weirder. Jesus, are they fucking down there?’
I followed her line of sight to the shallow of the pool, where a guy was thrusting behind another guy, who himself was thrusting into the back of an Indian woman dressed as the backlash version of Red Sonja. It was hard to tell if they were really doing it at first, but as we moved past them, it was clear that they were.
‘They don’t look very excited…’ said Lexi, half-waving when the guy at the back noticed her looking.
‘Probably too coked up to know what’s happening.’
I laughed, like a stuttered cough, then really processed the line and laughed in a series of stuttered coughs.
‘Or maybe they’ve done it so many times that it’s…’
Her line trailed off as Nick shouted at us from the patio screen door, telling us to stop perving on the pool kids and get inside.
‘I’m almost scared to enter,’ Lexi said, dodging a flying sword from the pool.
‘If this is what’s happening outside…’
‘Maybe we can find the front door, sneak out.’
‘Walk back to the VR plaza.’
‘Even better idea.’
One of the shallow end fucking guys used someone else’s head as leverage to pull himself out of the pool, sucked in a cloud of blue mist then zig-zagged up to us, reaching out for Lexi’s hand.
‘Pool fuck,’ he shouted, puzzled at the resistance.
‘Get your paw off her,’ I said, balling my fist and then deballing it when I saw Lexi bite his hand and shove him full force back into the water.
‘Fuuuuuck, a Viking,’ he shouted, holding up his wounded hand and biting into the small speck of blood dribbling off. ‘I’ll come for you later, Agatha tha tha tha.’
‘Front door,’ Lexi repeated, pulling me towards the patio screen door.
In contrast to the Caligula-Marinetti meltdown in the pool area, the living room was relatively tame.
But still oddball.
Mostly cos it had been renovated to look like the OPS centre from Moon Factory 7.
Walking in, I actually checked my temple to see if I was patched in cos, not only did the décor look pretty much identical – xanadu grey walls, pale green and blue lights – but a lot of the guests were dressed in game-appropriate costumes too. Some had even altered their faces to look like the main cast members of the original Moon Factory 7 TV serial, the thing that spawned a later relaunch that the game version was based on, which meant they were now copies of a copy of a copy eschewing a copy that the original writers of the TV serial probably copied from somewhere else.
Kuso, my head…
‘What the fuck is this?’ asked Lexi, taking a drink from a woman dressed as a near-future factory engineer.
‘Half of them must be staff,’ I replied, prodding one of the monitors on the wall and jumping a bit when it lit up pale blue. ‘Wah, it’s active.’
‘Course it is,’ shouted Nick from a nearby chair. ‘This is Kip’s place, a giant fuck you to your precious VR.’
Both Lexi and I took a few steps over, stopping when we saw there were no free seats for us. The couches were taken by guests who were actually chatting to each other, without fucking or green paint – or they were taking a break – while Nick and Juana were seated on two of the plush in-game chairs reserved for OPS Command.
‘My good friend Nick here exaggerates,’ said the youngish man with greying hair sat on the captain’s chair between them, presumably Kip. ‘VR has its place in the world…the same way a Picasso starts with a sketch pad…what I do is extrapolate, and reconfigure. Pull out the best parts…the core.’
I looked at Nick’s reaction, which was limited, then did another scan of the room. It truly was the Moon Factory 7 OPS room, an almost identical replica. Same size, same colours, same props in the same places. And I only used almost out of logical caveat cos I couldn’t believe that anyone would truly, physically go to the trouble of copying it all out down to the last atom.
‘Looks like a replica of Moon Factory 7 to me,’ said Lexi, her brain obviously on the same track.
‘You’re a pretty command officer,’ replied Kip, sitting up straight in his chair and adjusting what I now realized was the skin mask on his face. A Youth Plus rip of his own, younger face, if I had to guess. ‘Why don’t you come and sit by my feet, let me tell you about the time I saved the Phantasm franchise?’
‘Sorry, my boyfriend and I are leaving soon.’
‘Then I’ll tell it to my second in command.’ He turned to Juana and kissed her on the hand, then accidentally brushed along her thigh as his arm dropped back down. ‘Only known her two minutes, but already she intrigues me.’
‘Thought you didn’t like Mexicans,’ said Nick, finishing the drink in his hand and then grabbing another.
‘Could be that hoodie you’re wearing…’ continued Kip, putting a hand out to silence Nick. ‘…or those odd pajama pants.’
‘They’re not mine,’ Juana answered, her gaze half on Kip, half outside by the pool.
‘Or that ethereal yellow glint in your eyes.’
Repeating contact lenses in a low growl, he reached for her waist and slipped his hand around, and, for some reason I couldn’t fathom, Juana let it remain there.
Was she interested in him?
It wasn’t like she could eat his brain here…not with a party going on. Unless she managed to get him somewhere quiet? But Nick wouldn’t allow that. This Kip lunatic was his neighbour, his friend. Wasn’t he?
Something pointy nudged me in the side and I turned to see Lexi tilting her forehead towards a door on the far side of the room.
‘Think it’s the way out,’ she whispered, almost ventriloquist standard.
Phasing ourselves out of the weird Juana-Kip dynamic, we worked our way slowly round OPS, feigning interest in the wall monitors, saying, ‘nice costume,’ to a few of the guests, until finally we reached the moon-base door.
Beyond it was the hallway, which was much more like a regular housse interior, and at the end of that was a large wooden entrance slab.
‘Just open and go,’ said Lexi, pushing the handle down, letting in the night air…plus, somehow, a few wisps of rogue blue vapour from the pool.
‘All the way to Nightmare Castle.’
‘Works for me.’
We walked out through the exterior arch and onto the driveway and, after a few steps, turned to see if we were being followed.
Apparently we were…by the entire swimming pool area.
‘What…’ was all I could say, and Lexi couldn’t do much better, except to add fuck on the end.
We turned back to what should’ve been the main gate leading out to the loop road…but which was now the living room, with a smirking Nick sitting with one leg over the other in Kip’s chair.
‘One more hour, officers,’ he said, not a shout exactly but near enough the same volume.
‘How did you…’ I started, then answered my own query with alien.
Lexi didn’t have the same luxury, seizing my jacket sleeve, pulling me back over to the OPS exit, through the hallway and out the front door again.
‘Illusion,’ she said, over my attempts to pull her back.
Then fuck again as we re-appeared back within the Xanadu grey walls of the living room.
‘What is happening?’ she asked, turning to me.
‘Don’t know,’ I lied.
That wasn’t much of an answer, so she walked over to the chair Juana had been perched on the edge of and asked Nick directly.
‘Part of you does not want to leave,’ he answered, waving his hand towards me and then gesturing at the third chair. ‘Because it’s fun here. Especially out by the pool.’
‘That doesn’t explain the magic trick.’
‘No trick. Just misplaced memory.’
‘Keni…are you sitting down or not?’ he asked, leaning over and dragging the replica chair a foot closer to me.
‘Hey…over here,’ shouted Lexi, pulling Nick back roughly by the sleeve. ‘What misplaced memory?’
‘Yours and his.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It means you left twice already, dude. Got about a hundred metres down the road then talked yourselves out of it. Came back, punched the swimming pool guy, and walked in here. Second time, you kissed and groped each other on the sun lounger for a bit…with zero reaction from Keni, by the way…and now you’re here, being dangerously assertive.’
‘No…that didn’t happen.’
‘Give it a minute, things will fill in.’
Lexi took her hand off his sleeve in a gradual sliding motion and looked at me. There was nothing I could offer except a shrug and verbal distraction. ‘Where’s Juana?’ I asked, searching the faces in the room.
‘Actually, it’s probably time to check in on her. Don’t want things to get out of hand.’
He stood up and walked off towards the same moon-base door we had taken during our thwarted attempts at escape, grabbing another gassy citrine cocktail from a bored-looking technician staff on the way out. Lexi and I stayed seated for a few seconds longer, until two guys dressed as lava-skinned Kontolians came over and asked if they could do a line off our thighs and possibly Lexi’s muff, assuming she wasn’t overly hairy.
‘What the fuck is this place?’ she asked, vaguely to my ear but also to the air in the corridor as we chased after Nick, who was already halfway up the stairs to the second floor.
‘Hope they don’t call the cops,’ I replied, half looking back at the living room, wincing at one of the Kontolians still clutching his calf.
Paintings of surreal Toyen-esque landscapes marked the wall as we went up, Lexi almost tripping on the little railing spread across the top stair, possibly to keep in a pet, or maybe an impromptu prank by Nick.
‘Where did he go?’ she asked, squinting at the Phantasm VI Hell Immigration corridor ahead of us, its red lighting on the ceiling completely at odds with the hall we’d just come from…and even the Moon Factory shit downstairs in the living room.
‘Over there,’ I replied, pointing at the end of the corridor.
She turned and peered back down over the staircase railings. ‘We could make another run for it.’
‘And end up in OPS again.’
She was reaching for her head, hand shaking, so I intercepted and patted for her, adding a few pinches of massage for good measure.
‘Did we black out? Is that what happened?’
I opened my mouth…
‘And don’t say you don’t know.’
…and closed it again.
‘You fucking idiot,’ came from the open door at the end of the corridor, the staggered laugh buried within telling us that it was probably Nick. We walked forward, blinking through the occasional flashes of red light, and when we got close, I moved ahead a step and pushed the already open door into the wall behind.
Inside was something not unexpected.
Juana on the pillows of a king-size bed, claws on the head of an unconscious Kip, blood streaming down both her chin and his skin mask cheeks.
Nick was headmaster-like next to her, arms folded, assessing the damage.
‘Told you four times, vapour only…and you go and do this.’
Juana let go of Kip’s head and reached for the Moon Factory Ø hoodie on top of the pillow behind her.
‘What, no excuses?’
‘He’s not dead,’ she replied monotone, poking Kip in the neck and getting a moan in response.
‘No, but he’s got a huge hole in his head. Which is gonna need some explaining.’
‘I can do it.’
‘Fuck. I’ll have to go down, grab some witnesses. Rub his wound on…’ Nick paused, scanning the room for something. ‘…that table over there. Seems low enough. Implant a slip memory. Mess up the carpet, drop some ornaments, cigarette papers. Hmm. Should be sufficient.’
‘Juana…’ said Lexi, finally processing the horror in front of her.
‘Lexi…’ The Mexican wiped her chin with the duvet, then dragged half of it off the bed as she pushed her feet down onto the floor. ‘This isn’t what it looks like. He said he wanted to practise Spanish…then groped my tits…tried to finger me. Not a good guy.’
‘You ate his brain?’
‘No, no. Nibbled on it…with restraint.’
Lexi laughed, one solitary, maniacal HA, then turned and zombie-walked back out into the flashing red lights.
‘Give us a hand, Keni,’ said Nick, whistling as he lifted Kip up level with his shoulder. ‘We’ve gotta get him over to the table.’
‘I’m going after Lexi.’
‘Ah, don’t worry about her, she’s still adapting. Be fine in an hour. Here, grab the other arm, he’s slipping.’
‘Get Juana to help you. She’s the one who did all this.’
‘That feels like a no. Okay, fine, go fetch Lexi and wait in the car. We’ll be down in a bit. Juana, you’re up.’
‘I’m going with Lexi too…’ said Juana, fixing her hoodie on properly.
‘The fuck you are, witch. Get over here.’
‘I have to explain to her, what happened…’
I watched as Juana stiffened suddenly, walked back to the bed with her head rolled to the side, then woke up with her hand on Kip’s elbow. Possibly due to her demon nature, she took it quite well, muttering something in rough Spanish before rolling up her right arm sleeve and getting on with the task.
‘You going after her physically or conceptually?’ poked Nick, hands under Kip’s armpits.
‘Cos if you’re just gonna stand there…’
My brain caught up, pulling back the perverts downstairs and Lexi stumbling among them. Then the bathtub incident earlier.
‘Well?’ asked Nick, lowering Kip’s head down to the edge of the table.
I turned and walked out without another word, swinging the door shut behind me as there were two naked guys coming out of a room nearby, one of them clutching an engineeringprop.
‘Still occupied,’ I said, waiting under the Phantasm lights until they’d reached the stairs, then blowing out a long kusoooo and following their trail.