Nick's life as a monkey began with a wedding.
He wasn't getting hitched; that would be too predictable. Man gets married. Becomes lower primate. No, the wedding was just the beginning of this story, so you know it's not going to be a classy one.
Except for a slightly strange smell - incense mixed with some nameless funk - it started off like a pleasant dream. Sunlight streamed through the stain-glass windows, and flecks of dust floated in the beams, tiny specks of brilliance that slow danced like faeries reeling with whiskey and magic mushrooms. The wedding march played, women shed happy tears, and a bride festooned in about ten pounds of baby's breath walked up the aisle towards the groom and Dr. Maximilian Tundra, who was officiating. He looked about as priestly as you'd expect a drug-addled psychiatrist with fire-red hair, a yellowish green cassock and boundary issues possibly could. Actually, without the chartreuse cassock, I think somebody might have asked him to leave.
Most of the participants in the ceremony were friends from university, and I was attending with Erma, one of the two single females in our circle. The other woman, Hot Helena, was strangely absent. How Tundra had convinced Tom and Dina to allow him to perform their marriage, I never did find out. He was an ordained minister in the Church of the Irredeemable Bong-Hit, or some equally questionable Internet sect. (Nothing as mainstream as Rastafarianism, or even Scientology.) Tundra was a madman, which is why I knew something was going to go terribly, terribly wrong with these nuptials.
I had itchy palms and an awful, sick twitchy feeling just behind my left eye. Perhaps the incense had been laced with something? I'm tall and fit and good looking (really), so it never occurred to me that I might be having a heart attack.
I looked over to see how Nick was handling it, and I was astonished to see that he was climbing a set of stairs to the balcony, presumably where the choir sang during church services. What the hell is he doing, I thought.
Then I was distracted by Max, who began the service; I was pleasantly surprised that he was going for the traditional "dearly beloved" spiel, instead of something unusual enough to match the bright yellow robes he was wearing. Erma patted away a few more tears, while my attention returned to Nick. What was he up to in the balcony? When he got to the top, he'd obviously decided to get on his hands and knees so that nobody could see him. Staging a pre-emptive rice strike? Releasing doves? I heard a strange noise - kind of like a dove but more of an "oo-oo" sound than a cooing. I had a feeling the answer would not be so benign as doves. My attention wandered between the menace hiding up in the balcony, and the service itself, which seemed to be going off without a hitch. Tom remembered his lines, and though Dina faltered a bit, overcome by emotion, she got out her personalized vows too.
The ceremony approached its climax, and the tonal qualities of the dream changed from that pleasant [cue posh British accent] "Oooh, isn't this a lovely punt down the river?" feeling, to the sensation you have when you can't wake up, and you know the dream is about to become a nightmare - a mood much more in line with my itchy palms. (And no, I wasn't having a heart attack.)
Tundra's green eyes telegraphed it too. The adoring couple were exchanging promises of life, liberty, the purfuit of happiness. Fidelity. Obedience. A corporate reward system that was actually worth something. It didn't matter, because it was about to be overwhelmed by the perfidy that is Dr. Maximilian Tundra.
He blessed them. He said that by the powers vested in him by a variety of vile and hierarchical organizations, they were now pronounced husband and wife. Then the hammer fell, and he shouted:
"Release the monkeys!"
If you have ever been in an enclosed space filled with monkeys, then you will know the terror of the sound of thirty macaques being set free. It is an awesome, mind-bending experience.
I still have no idea how they kept them so quiet during the ceremony, but the mechanism that opened their cages sounded like a gunshot. The noise terrified the poor beasts. The macaques didn't like it very much either. A number of cages were stored strategically under the pews, and of course, up in the balcony with Nick.
Suddenly the church was filled with the shouts of outraged humans and the screaming of lower primates. The dream had turned the corner, from that lovely vision of boating on the Cam, to one where you suddenly had an angry monkey clawing at your eyes or biting your ears. Tom's mom must have been wearing some cutting-edge perfume designed to attract the maximum number of unsophisticated primates possible, because she found herself assaulted above and below by six of them. Two were hanging from her geometrically coifed hair, two were climbing her legs, and two had landed on her chest. They were hanging from the only protuberances available. Luckily for the little devils, Tom's mom was relatively well-endowed in that department.
At this point, thankfully, the bride fainted. (Also not a heart attack, at least not literally.)
People were running around, shouting, and the monkeys were chattering loudly, no doubt terrified by the whole thing. I sat quietly in the pew, and physically restrained Erma, though she was panicking. All the yelling and movement seemed to draw the monkeys' attention, so I thought it best to keep still. "So that's what's causing the weird smell," I said to Erma as I held her down with my right arm.
"Rob... I'm freaking out," Erma said, confirming that she was, indeed, in the freak-out zone.
"Shhh," I said. "Let it flow Erma." I'm still not sure what that meant.
Max blew a shrill whistle that he'd produced from under his cassock. Instead of calming the macaques, this drove them onto further paroxysms of monkey violence. You can hardly blame them. I was frightened, and I'd been to other weddings.
Nick started tossing some of the poor creatures off the balcony into the assembled congregation beneath. He later confided that those had been the macaques too terrified by the screaming and whistle to sneak out of their cages; to Nick's credit, he felt some remorse about that later, the fear of those tiny, way-distant cousins. He also felt some remorse about what happened next.
Some of Tom's relatives from Hong Kong were a little more used to the idea of catastrophic invasions, and managed to form a small cordon around Tom's parents. They fought their way towards the side door, where they hoped to escape the simian assault. Unfortunately, that was exactly where Max had left the cage for the climax of this little marraigerie.
Just as Tom's dad managed to get the last macaque off his wife's décolletage, Tundra bellowed: "The Monkey has been sated. Release the Lizard!"
A collective "Huah?" went through the crowd - humans and monkeys alike. Lizard? I gently grabbed Erma's elbow, and steered her, slowly, making no threatening noises or movements, towards the emergency exit to the right of the nave.
Another ominous crack, as the bolt on the Lizard's cage was released. The momentary silence ended, and a new fear gripped us all. Releasing the Lizard - you could definitely hear the uppercase "L" there - didn't sound like a good idea. Tom's parents and their protectors suddenly saw what kind of "Lizard" Tundra meant.
I have no idea where they got their hands on a fucking komodo dragon. They're an endangered species, you know. Except for a few islands in Indonesia and some zoos, I'm pretty sure they're all-but extinct. Still, Max had managed to procure a komodo dragon for the festivities.
It ran straight at the small throng of Hong Kongers who wisely jumped out of the way. Tom's mom managed an impressive three-foot vertical leap out of the aisle and onto a pew. Only the matriarch of Tom's family - an elderly Chinese woman who'd survived the Japanese, expatriated British twits, and the Communist takeover - was unable to get out of the komodo dragon's way. In Chinese mythology, people born in the year of the dragon are supposed to be feisty and gifted with power and luck. I'm not sure when this particular lizard was born, but it was certainly feisty, and powerful; all seven feet of it steamed out of its cage at full speed, and launched itself at Tom's grandmother.
It's pretty safe to say that she wasn't born in a lucky year. She tried to run, but it grabbed her by the ankle and dragged her down, thrashing its head back and forth.
As Erma and I got to the emergency exit, I could hear Tom scream, "Holy fuck, the Lizard's got granny!"
Then it let her go. Apparently, komodos normally attack and then let their wounded prey limp off into the forest to die, where they can snack on them later at their leisure.
That wedding had a real hallucinatory feel to it, which is something most couples don't achieve on their special day. I was glad that I'd attended. As strange as it sounds, something spiritual happened when that vestige of the Cretaceous Period grabbed Tom's grandma by the ankle. I was a little peeved Max and Nick didn't include me in their plans, but I understand why: it was too on-the-nose for me, and I probably would have warned Tom.
I'd never admit it to anyone, but I thought that ceremony was a work of demented art. I still dream about it - and what happened next.
While Dr. Tundra violated the institution of marriage, Helena was face down on the desk in her corner office; her skirt was hiked up above her hips, her panties pulled over to the side of her love delta, and the CEO of Gargantuan Enterprises rogered her from behind. Both of them were looking out over the city, the bay beyond, and to some internal place they would not be able to describe to you. For Helena, this zen-like state brought her a kind of peace and bliss where she just experienced the physical sensations, the pleasures of rubbing and friction - even the uncomfortable bite of the edge of the table into her hips was pleasurable in its own way. The sour for the sweet. The slapping noise of their skin contacting so rhythmically might have been comical if not for her state of mind.
Ted Shute's mind was not so empty, and so, his pleasure was less than physical. In fact, he was barely experiencing the sensations and sounds, as he roamed over his sexual history, remembering past over-the-desk quickies, some as recent as the day before. He briefly looked down at Helena's rear end and slapped a cheek roughly, trying to get a sound out of her that would embarrass her in front of her staff, but she merely moaned and pushed back at his thrusts even harder.
Then he remembered it was Sunday, and there wouldn't be anyone out there anyway.
It didn't matter. There was something about Helena that got him all worked up, all tempestuous and slobbery. It was more than her shapely legs, her beautiful Slavic cheekbones and intelligent eyes. She had an entrepreneurial mind, yet she had integrity, and this pleased him. Of course, if he enjoyed her front so much, you have to wonder why he was so fixated on the back. But there was a part of Shute that wanted to break her down, possibly over the course of years. That meant marriage, naturally, and it would take some time to get her into that position. Yes, Helena would make a fine Mrs. Shute (the third), once he finally got rid of the second Mrs. Shute, the loathsome Phaedra.
Thinking of Phaedra brought her brother, Johnny, to mind, and suddenly he was in the room with Helena and Shute, watching from the far left corner.
The years had stopped moving forward for Johnny when Shute had electrocuted him "accidentally," so he still looked like a vigorous 37-year-old. Johnny Thipirous had been Shute's business partner, best friend, and first murder victim. He glared at Shute, his eyes flashing as they had in life, under a shock of thick black hair.
"You'd better not hurt my sister, you shit."
Shute found himself unable to respond, so close was he to climax. Helena was also reaching her orgasm, and the intimation of that muscular pulse set Shute off. He groaned while Johnny watched with a look of disgust. Helena did all that she could to keep herself from moaning as well, but his climax was the final straw - that and the sudden gust of icy cold air that ran over her exposed skin, creating delicious gooseflesh.
Johnny was quiet as the two basked in a temporary post-coital glow. Shute withdrew, and sliding his wet cock back into his pants, he said, "You have no idea how good it is to see you like this."
Helena naturally understood that he was talking to her, and said, "Yes, it's been too long."
"Hmm?" Shute asked, suddenly aware of Helena's presence again, as she pulled her panties back into place and shimmied her tailored skirt back down.
"It's been a while since we did it in the office, Ted. Too long. I like the view from here."
"So you don't mind what your staff thinks?"
"There's nobody out there. I thought that's why you called on a Sunday. Besides, they don't know anything," Helena said.
"Of course they do," said Johnny, unable to help himself.
Shute laughed, and went over to the corner where Johnny was standing. He looked directly into the eyes of the ghost, and said, "Well, even if they do, what can they say. I'm the boss. King, in a way."
"Not for long, Shute. I'll get you to slip up, you know," said Johnny.
"King, I say."
"Sure," Helena agreed, smiling as she smoothed out the front of her skirt. "So I guess that makes me the King's consort."
"A duchess too," Shute added, turning to face Helena as she finished putting her clothes back in order. "You're a VP, and who knows where that may lead someday? Well, I gotta go, Borovich -" he always addressed her by her last name. "Duty calls. First the xenotransplantation labs, and then the special project."
"Special project?" Helena asked.
"Oberon. It's a company secret at this point. Need-to-know."
"You don't want to know, poor girl," Johnny interjected.
"Yeah. She doesn't want to know." Shute agreed.
"What?" Helena asked.
"You don't really want to know. Don't worry, you'll get a heads up when we need some marketing help, or some help with my head," he chortled at his own weak pun, and Helena forced a smile.
She found him arrogant, cruel and even a bit obscene. But still, there was something alluring about him. Shute was charismatic. A visionary. He was dangerous and Helena found herself drawn irresistibly to him. Even when she sometimes looked into his light blue eyes, and saw nothing but predatory thoughts.
Johnny could hear her thoughts, but he didn't reveal them to Shute.
The King turned away from both of them, living and dead, and left the room without another word. Wherever Shute walked a kind of void followed him; many people had noticed that often it got cold in his presence, as though Shute was a harbinger of entropy.
The Ghost of Johnny Thipirious shed a tear as he looked at Helena, who tapped on her teeth with her fingers, and looked out at the ocean. She had come very far at Gargen Enterprises (the real name of the company) very quickly, and she didn't really think it was because she was screwing the boss in her corner office. She'd earned the position as VP of Marketing even before she'd met Shute, long before she started to date him. Actually, to call it dating was to romanticize it. She was having sex with him. She had no desire to take the relationship any farther than that, and she had no idea of the plans he had for her. Another ghostly tear fell from Johnny's spectral eye, and he turned to follow Shute, leaving Helena to her tooth-tapping contemplation of the sea.
Shute was already headed to the xeno-transplantation labs to see how their legal, federally approved science project was proceeding. Shute and his scientists were trying to figure out how to get the human body to accept pig organs for transplant - there was a desperate shortage of livers and kidneys for humans who needed new organs, and it would open up a brand new market. Using pig organs did not present any kind of ethical dilemma for Shute: "If we eat them," he'd once told concerned shareholders, "why can't we use their organs too?"
Johnny had been at the meeting (making everyone's nipples pucker, and not with excitement about opening up a new market). He answered, "What about the danger of inter-species viral crossover. What if pig flu moves into human populations. Not to mention it's kind of disgusting." Of course, Johnny is well past the need for organs, so he can afford to be a bit squeamish at the idea of stuffing pig parts into a human, I mean, aside from something to go with one's eggs in the morning. But he was beyond breakfast too.
"Well you pustule, what do you think your pet scientists will say to you about your little piggy experiments today," Johnny said as he materialized next to Shute, who was walking towards the xeno-transplantation labs.
Shute ignored the ghost.
"Soo-eeee!" Johnny called in Shute's ear. "Soo-eee! Here piggy, piggy, piggy!"
Shute continued to ignore his dead friend and one-time business partner. In the years since he'd been murdered, the Ghost of Johnny had been able to materialize more easily. All Shute had to do was think of Johnny, and the Ghost appeared; and once he had, the specter seemed to be able to tag along with the CEO for much of the day. The murderer had a disciplined mind, but he still occasionally slipped, particularly when he thought about his current wife, and his wife's younger sister, Ariadne Thipirious.
"Don't you go there, pig-boy!" Johnny was silent for a moment as Shute grimaced, trying to ignore the Ghost's hollering.
Then Johnny changed tack, and whispered right in Shute's ear in his best Ozark accent: "You know, you've got a pretty mouth. Squeal like a pig. Squeal like a pig!"
In all their years together, both as friends and as haunter and hauntee, Johnny had come to know which buttons he could push. As always, the buggery button paid off.
"Shut the FUCK up!" Shute yelled at his Ghost. Unfortunately, a young researcher happened to be walking down the hallway at the same time. He'd been wondering why his boss had called him in on to work on a Sunday, and when he saw Shute farther down the hall, he realized why: Shute was checking in on their work. The young researcher could neither see nor hear the Ghost of Johnny, so it just seemed as though his boss was screaming at him for no reason - either that or his boss was, well, schizo or something.
Shute noticed his peon.
"Who are you?"
"I'm... uh... Dan," said the peon.
"Uh, Dan, who?"
"Dan Shigamatsu. I work in your xeno-lab, sir."
"Hmph," Shute said, and then walked on. He tapped on his ubiquitous phone, which connected him with his crack team of minions. While the unfortunate underling was still in earshot, he said to the bio-serf on the other end, Denny, "Terminate Dan Shigamatsu. Corridor 6, Level 22. Extreme prejudice." He tapped on the earpiece to stop transmitting, and said to Johnny, sotto voce, "That was your fault shithead. Now that poor schmuck is toast."
Shute reached his destination. He and Johnny watched while security guards escorted the bewildered and somewhat terrified "Uh" Dan Shigamatsu, an erstwhile researcher with Gargen Enterprises, off the floor, to eventually take him outside the building. Seeing the look of horror on Dan's face, the senior security guard said, "Don't worry, kid. Extreme prejudice just means you're fired and you're not going to get a reference from us. We don't kill people."
"Not yet," Johnny said. His work was done for the day, or at least he was; his campaign against Shute had caused a lot of collateral damage that he found kind of regrettable, and sometimes, when his will wavered, so did his existence.
Shute could see the guilt on Johnny's face, and he sneered at him: "Sucker."
That helped the Ghost maintain his presence. It even got a little colder.
The pigs screamed as Shute entered the xeno-lab.
Nick's rendezvous with his simian destiny began early the next morning.
While everyone else was still abed, dreaming dreams of lizards in wedding dresses, my friend Nick approached the famous Phallus Building - the huge shaft of glass and black metal that was a paean to corporate greed and the towering ego of Ted S. Shute, CEO of Gargantuan Enterprises. Of course, it wasn't actually called the Phallus Building, any more than Gargen was called Gargantuan or even "The Gag." (Though GAG was its stock ticker name.)
Nick is probably my best friend, but that doesn't mean that I really get him. He gave up traditional work a few years ago to pursue his dream of creating a "transformative surrealistic form of writing." He actually talks like that. The working title of this baffling opus is "monkeyjoy!" I can't tell you much about it, because he's never let me read a word of it. Unfortunately, he still inflicts his poetry on me from time to time.
Since he dropped out of the nine-to-five, Nick has been making ends meet by working as a test subject for a variety of multinational companies. His body chemistry is probably a nightmare, but he seems happy enough. He's free to follow his art, as much as anyone is. So, that's why he was approaching the Gargantuan building - he'd signed on for a new study with them.
The lobby was empty except for a female security guard who looked exhausted - it was five in the morning and she'd been on shift since eleven. Nick was a fairly non-descript fellow, with curly brown hair and a medium build going slightly to paunch. So he didn't look threatening and he didn't do anything weird, so the security guard buzzed him in. Nick's face was rounder than it was when we were at the Good University together, but his eyes were still the same deep blue they've always been, with a perpetually intelligent, yet distracted look to them. Some women have describe his eyes as "dreamy," which I don't get, but so what? He's always grooved with women, and the security guard was no different.
"Hey hon," she said warmly as Nick approached her desk, "what are you doing here so early?"
"They said to report to the security offices by 5 am," Nick said. "The subject is late."
"You are, huh? Well, I'll give them a call and let them know you're here. Just go up those stairs and take the hallway to the right. Past the elevators. End of the hallway is a door, and they'll take it from there."
Nick took in the sterile surroundings as he walked, feeling a little anxious. This was his first time working with Gargantuan, and he'd heard stories about its overweening evil. (From me.) But there was no denying the pay was excellent.
Unlike the rest of the offices and shops on the ground floor of the Gargantuan building, which were put together by the best interior decorators and featured lots of black marble, the security offices were utilitarian and far from classy.
And they were belligerently pink.
Nick sat in a small waiting area in the "public" part of the offices. It was somewhat reminiscent of the kind of waiting area you'd find at a LubeItUp or any car service outlet, without the smell of petrochemicals and stale coffee. There were four uncomfortable seats made of black metal tubing and worn cloth that looked like it was once teal in color. There were no magazines, or any other form of amusement. A large two-way mirror spanned one wall of the waiting room, which allowed the security team to watch people waiting to speak with them. The entrance door was locked, and controlled from a large room that housed security feeds from around the building. The rest of the security department was hidden behind another door that had both a keypad and a biometric lock. In other words, Nick was not able to leave the room, even though it was seriously fucking with his chi. He had his computer with him, but he was too distracted to write anything, sitting there, waiting for security to establish that he wasn't an eco-terrorist, or plain-old regular terrorist, hoping to de-erect the great big Glass Dick with a pocket full of Semtex.
The room was extremely pink and it caused chi-fuckage.
"Can you guys hear me?" Nick asked, sort of speaking towards the two-way mirror.
There is a moment's pause, and then a voice said from a speaker: "Yes, we can hear you Mr. Motbot. What is wrong?"
"This room is freaking me out."
"There's something wrong with it. It has a bad vibe. It's not... right."
"Mr. Motbot, the room is designed to be calming, even though you are essentially our prisoner."
"Designed?" Nick asked the unseen security guard, ignoring the issue of his imprisonment.
"Yes. We've painted the room pink."
"How is that going to make me calm?" Nick asked. "What if I don't like pink?"
"Psychological studies show that pink reduces aggression and can have a calming influence."
"What do psychological studies show about observing someone through a two-way mirror and forcing them to sit on threadbare mid-80s furniture?"
"We're just checking your references and the government security databases so we can give you clearance," the voice reassured him.
Nick was not reassured.
"I think you've got color wrong."
"Excuse me?" the disembodied voice said.
Nick put his face right next to the glass, and tried to look through. He could not see anything beyond it, but he noticed that there was a set of light switches near the doors to the rest of the security offices. He turned them off, and then returned to the two-way mirror. He could make out a figure standing next to someone who was clearly sitting in front of a computer screen.
"What are you doing Mr. Motbot?"
"I like to see the people I'm talking with, unless it's, you know, a dream. Or some kind of trip."
"Please turn the lights back on, Mr. Motbot. We'll be done here shortly."
"I think you've got the pink wrong. Instead of the calming pink, I think you've painted it the insanity pink."
Nick could detect a note of panic in the security guard's voice, and he could see him moving towards the exit of the room behind the two-way mirror.
"Insanity pink. Too much blue and platinum in the mix, so it makes the brain resonate at a lower frequency. Causes grand mal seizures in rhesus monkeys. It was in a study," Nick said.
"Is that true?"
"Stop looking at me," the security guard said. "We're nearly done... Stop looking at me."
Nick stared at the standing figure. The security officer at the computer poked his head out to look at Nick, and then ducked back.
"Have you heard of the Panopticon?" Nick asked.
"He's okay," a second male voice - presumably that of the guy behind the computer - said. "He checks out."
"The Panopticon was invented by Jeremy Benthaman - an 18th century English philosopher. Utilitarian. Had himself mummified and put on display in a wooden cabinet. He was some freaky Dude."
"I'm going to come out and get you fill out the agreements," the security guard warned Nick, not wanting to know anything more about the fetishes of 18th century pervert philosophers.
The man behind the computer pressed the intercom button and said: "I know about the Panopticon. It's a prison designed so that the prisoners don't know if they're being watched or not, so essentially, they're always being watched."
"Right," Nick said enthusiastically. He pressed his face up against the glass. "Just like this."
The security door opened and the officer turned on the lights.
"Okay, here are the forms and agreements. You sign where there is a sticky. Then we can get you out of here."
"I tell you, this is the insanity pink," Nick shook his head at the guard. "You should do something about it, especially if you have to watch this room on a regular basis. It's probably affecting your mind."
"Yeah, or maybe I need a new job. Here are the forms, and then you can get the hell out of here."
"Tourniquet onion powder," Nick said.
While Nick was clearing security and experiencing the insanity pink, I was having the kind of strange early morning dream that makes a real impression:
It felt as though I was on the beach, but instead of watching all the couples sitting on the giant logs, taking in the sunset, there was only a small pool of light in which I stood. My feet were bare, and I could feel the sand between my toes, cold and damp in the night air.
"Rob," a voice whispered from the dark.
"Who's there," I asked. I didn't feel any fear, but then a figure flickered in the edge of the circle of light. For the briefest of moments, I thought I saw a woman's leg, and a wispy bit of cloth that was probably light cotton, or perhaps that filmy stuff that sometimes gets turned into bewitching summer skirts and dresses - the humble nylon? But probably silk before the invention of nylon. Both the leg and the material suggested a sensual person was dancing outside the pool of light. So why did a shiver of fear run up the back of my neck?
"Rob," the voice repeated. Definitely a woman's, but this was a dream. The question remained: would it be a sexy dream?
"What do you want?" my voice had the echoless sound you get in dreams. That or a sort of telepathy when you're communicating, but there weren't any actual voices. I guess there couldn't be real sound in a dream, could there? So it was a simulacrum of conversation.
"I want you to listen," she said. And flickered in the edge of the light. Despite the lack of sound, I could hear the surf in the distance.
"Where am I?"
"Safe in your bed. Don't worry, Rob. It's not time for you to step out of that reality yet."
"Your waking life, Rob Goodman. Your waking life, which you think is all there is."
"Huh?" I replied cleverly.
"And now I need to tell you something -"
"Who ARE you," I asked.
"Antonia. The Shade of Antonia, rather."
"So why don't you step into the light Antonia, so we can have a proper conversation."
"Shades can't live in the light. They are cast by the Light."
"Okay," I mulled that one for a second - or an hour, who knows how long that takes in dream-time? "I'm not finding this conversation very sexy. More skin, please."
I heard some laughter in the darkness, and she said, "You wouldn't want to see my skin. But I can promise you humor if you do something for me. Listen, Rob Goodman. You work for a man who is building something that will kill many people. You are helping him do it."
"No, not Bob, you dolt. His boss. The CEO."
"Okay," calling me a dolt was somewhat humorous, I had to admit. "That's sort of funny."
"What will amuse you more is what happens when you let the rest of the world know. We will help you."
"I can't say yet, Rob Goodman. But soon."
I didn't like the sound of that, and it certainly wasn't funny. And it really wasn't sexy. On the whole, it was a disappointment: "Can you give me another dream now? And what the hell is Shute planning?"
I had been working for Gargantuan Enterprises for the past year.
"I can't tell you. You have to find out yourself."
"Bummer. Can you do that dancing thing again, with the wispy dress, or whatever it was?"
"No, but I can let you return to sleep, a sleep that is deep and restful, but you will remember this conversation, and soon you'll know things," she said.
I was about to say something even wittier than "Unh" when her voice faded away into the sound of the surf, and she was right; I felt this sense of peace, and warmth, and the cold, wet sand under my feet melded into my cotton sheets, warm with sleep. I think I may have briefly awoke to realize I'd been dreaming, but then I slipped back under the surface.
The Shade of Antonia was true to her word. I slept like a baby. And I did start to know things too.
But not what Shute's company was about to do to Nick.
Nick smelled the lab technician before he saw her get off the elevators, just down the hallway from the security offices. Nick was wearing his brand new identity card like it was some kind of talisman - he was fascinated by the hologram embedded within his picture.
"Oooh, I like your musk," Nick said as he looked up.
"I am he, in the flesh and in the mind," Nick said.
"Um, I have some more forms for you to fill out, but we can do that in the research offices, okay?"
"Tendinous pulpwork it is then! Lead on Lady Musk."
"Actually, you can call me Jennifer, I'm Dr. Smetchov's personal lab assistant."
"And the musk keeps him at bay?"
"No, actually, it doesn't. I don't think draping a dead skunk around my neck would keep The Letch at bay, but how did you..."
"Tone. The circles under your eyes. A slight aura of massively inappropriate hit-on-uponness."
"Oh... kay. Well, it won't take long to fill out the forms, and then we can get ready for the experiment. We've already gone over the physical report from your doctor. Follow me."
They got into the elevator and went down to a set of utilitarian offices on a floor below the parking garage. Once the paperwork was done, Nick was all business.
"Well, I'm afraid we have to ask you to put on this mask and wear these earplugs. And you'll have to leave your computer here. Our lab is actually a big secret," Jennifer said.
"I suppose I should put in the earplugs first. Is there anything else you need to tell me before I do?"
Jennifer didn't really know what the research was about, or she would have told Nick to run away at that point.
The mask was slightly claustrophobic, but Nick was assuaged when Jennifer hooked her left arm around his waist, and took his hand. She led him slowly to another office where there was a secret door. Behind the door, another elevator awaited them. She was careful to ensure he did not bump into anything or move while she entered a key command and had her eye scanned by a device next to the elevator; even wearing the mask, the smell of her perfume suffused him.
"I do like your perfume," he said.
"Thanks," she replied, and then said, "Oh, right you can't hear me."
"I can't hear you," Nick said. "But I wanted you to know it's nice."
The elevator went down to the secret laboratories of Gargantuan Enterprises. The biolab where all the "cool" activities - the really promising, illegal, men-in-black-bursting-through-the-door, kinda stuff - took place. Jennifer led Nick to another set of rooms, this time even more sterile and utilitarian than the first, and helped him remove the hood and earplugs.
"Gravity down, eh?"
"Can't say, Mr. Motbot. But can I make a suggestion? The researchers will come in now and ask you some questions - you might want to go with a more conventional way of speaking."
"Right. Full human."
"Sure," she smiled. "Good luck." See? Women like him.
Several moments later, two men in white labcoats came in the room and peppered Nick with questions:
"So how often do you eat?" one asked - he did not introduce himself but Nick immediately thought of him as Doctor Flanksteak.
"Three squares a day, chief."
"Good, and how many servings of fruit do you have per diem?"
"Well, if I'm feeling Latin, sometimes I'll have a glass of orange juice, and occasionally an apple."
"Fine. We just need to know," the other scientist said, whom Nick thought of as Mr. Squeeze, Master of Constriction.
Dr. Flanksteak and Mr. Squeeze proceeded to ask him many questions, most of which Nick answered truthfully.
To the question: "Have you ever had a hallucination, vision or other psychotic episode," Nick said, "No."
They believed him, which just goes to show how good an actor Nick was, because at that very moment, the dreadful maw of the komodo dragon was superimposed over Dr. Flanksteak's face.
"Okay then, Mr. Motbot, drop your pants."
"We have to give you a shot, and it has to go in the base of your spine. I won't lie to you, it is going to hurt," Dr. Flanksteak said. Mr. Squeeze had already left the room and was returning with a flat stainless steel tray, which held two needles, an alcohol swab, and bandages on top of a paper towel.
"The first needle will numb the area, and the second one will deliver the serum," Dr. Flanksteak explained while Nick undid his belt and shimmied his jeans halfway down his buttocks.
"That's far enough," Mr. Squeeze said.
He sounded even more nervous than Nick felt.
"Okay," the good doctor said, "here goes. We'll numb you up first, and then the serum."
Nick endured the procedure stoically, wondering the whole time if perhaps he should just get a day job and work on monkeyjoy! in the evenings.
Dr. Flanksteak was true to his word. Even with the novacaine numbing the area, the second needle hurt immensely. Nick didn't scream, but at that moment he started to hallucinate wildly. Dr. Flanksteak had completely morphed into the komodo dragon, except it was wearing a labcoat. Mr. Squeeze, Master of Constriction did not turn into an anaconda, even though there was something mildly reptilian about him. He looked more like a gigantic paramecium, his hair becoming the cilia. It was still wearing a labcoat, and it produced an electronic notepad.
The komodo dragon produced a pipe from the depths of its labcoat pockets and lit it, while it said, "Now, I'd like you to tell us what you're feeling. Are you experiencing any anxiety?"
Nick wanted to say, fucking right I'm experiencing anxiety. Why don't you try carrying on a conversation with a giant lizard and his single-celled buddy, but instead he said, "Not more than would seem normal for these circumstances."
"I see," Dr. Flanksteak said.
"Click, click, click," said the paramecium.
"Yes," Nick said. "And of course, the shot was as painful as you said it would be - it felt as though you'd stabbed me in the spine with an icicle."
"Good, good," Dr. Flanksteak said.
"Slp, slp, slp," said the paramecium.
"Can I go now?" Nick said.
"Of course. This is only the first part of the procedure. We'll have more shots for you tomorrow, and then we can begin the sessions in the device."
"I'm afraid I can't explain that to you, Mr. Motbot. Remember, you agreed not to ask questions about the experiment when you signed the non-disclosure forms?"
They didn't mention anything about hallucinogenic spine-stabbings either, Nick thought, but instead he just said, "Right. Can I go?"
"Flgl, flgl, flglee," Mr. Squeeze said, and then ciliated its way out of the room.
"The luscious Jennifer will be right back, and then you're free to go. See you tomorrow," Dr. Flanksteak said, puffing on its pipe and sampling the resulting tendrils of smoke with its tongue.
Nick managed to hold it together until Jennifer came to get him.
While Nick escaped the ciliated clutches of Mr. Squeeze, Tom's granny was still waiting to see a doctor. The EMTs stabilized her in the ambulance, and she was out of danger by the time they arrived at St. Dymphna's hospital. So instead of getting drunk at a wedding reception, Tom's family had spent a delightful night in the waiting room of the city's busiest emerg. This long dark cavalcade of citizens in distress was capped off when Spider Johnson came in, streaming blood.
"Hairy Christ-on-a-Shitstick!" he shouted as he came through the sliding doors, accompanied by Blossom, Seedy, and Hippolyta.
Spider's wound did look pretty bad, as he had been stabbed a few times - twice in the torso and at least three or four times in the arms. His choice of blasphemy didn't exactly endear him to the nun (who was also a nurse) working on triage. However, he was bleeding copiously, and she could see by the pulsating cuts he would need immediate attention, or he would probably die.
"Help me you stupid bitch!" Spider shouted at her, and the nurse (who was also a nun) frowned, and steered him towards an examination room.
"Better get the crash cart!" she shouted at the other nurse on duty (who was not a nun) and added, "We've got a bleeder."
The nurse (who was also a nun) got a whiff of Spider's breath, and asked: "Have you been drinking young man? And what drugs have you taken? Are you HIV Positive?"
"No drugs, no booze, no AIDS, you cow. Now stitch me up!" Spider shouted, right before he passed out, and pitched on his face, hard, breaking his nose.
Perhaps the nun (who was also a nurse) could have prevented him from falling over, perhaps not. I couldn't really blame her for not wanting to throw out her back in an attempt, though.
Blossom ran to Spider, tears streaming down her face, smearing her inexpertly applied make-up, and filming her vision. Blossom was Spider's girlfriend, and as such, was also his principal source of income. She sobbed as the other nurse (who was not a nun) pulled her away and told Seedy and Hippolyta to stay in the waiting area with Blossom, who started to wail. Such was the depth of Blossom's servitude that she could not imagine her life without her pimp - boyfriend, Blossom would no doubt correct me, if she knew I was talking to you about this. But above that, Spider Johnson was her pimp.
A pimp, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, is: "a man who lives off the earnings of a prostitute or a brothel; a pander; a ponce." I'll let you look up ponce and pander, but I will say that Spider was definitely the former and not in the least the latter. I'd describe him as a malignant heterosexual with festering relationship issues, and a complete inability to think in non-Euclidean terms. Or to complete a sentence without the word "fuck."
But he looked good. At about six feet, two inches tall, Spider had a lean, muscular frame over which was draped ruddy skin, lanky black hair, and a thorough shellacking of Polo. To the impressionable Blossom, he was catnip. Perhaps the aftershave had caused a pheromone short-circuit. Blossom thought of him as her 'boyfriend', much in the same way we are starting to accept entertainment as 'news'.
Of course, after this incident, Spider would have a little more character in the nose department, probably making him even more attractive to impressionable young women like Blossom.
An orderly arrived and helped the nurse (the one who was not a nun) get him into a treatment room, where she and the other nurse (who was) on duty applied nurse-y (not nun-ish) things: tubes, bandages, and intimate touches normally reserved for the boudoir (and perhaps certain x-rated nunneries). There were no doctors about, not for a while, anyway. Luckily for Spider, his profuse bleeding meant that he was treated first, while those with serious conditions, such as incipient brain hemorrhages and collapsing lungs, and potentially lethal komodo dragon bites had to wait their turn while the bleeder was processed. Of course, he wouldn't have been bleeding quite so badly if Seedy or any of the others knew to apply pressure to stop it.
Most of Tom's family watched the whole gory mess from the relative safety of the waiting room, while Tom's father stood by the matriarch's gurney, wishing he'd never immigrated from Hong Kong. He couldn't imagine anyone ever "lereasing the rizard" at a wedding there. It would be too disrespectful even if their relatives or friends were crazy racist maniacs like Max and Nick.
Seedy walked by Tom's dad and granny, and the father gagged a little. Seedy stank worse than anything he'd ever smelled, and keep in mind, his family had recently been violated by Barbary apes and a komodo dragon.
Seedy went into the treatment room, where Spider was conscious again, and the nurses (one of whom you'll recall was a nun, but who also moonlit as a singer/flautist for the amateur Christian rock group Jehovah Tull) had left him tied down to the bed so that he wouldn't open up any of the bandages they'd just put on him.
"It's your own fault, dude," said Seedy, once known as Jake Besterdson to his mother and a series of bemused public school teachers. Where Spider was tall, dark and handsome, Seedy was short, spotty and easy to overlook. Seedy was a better name for him than Jake. When you hear the name Jake, you imagine a regular Joe, an affable guy that can change the oil on your car and liked to drink Bud. Unless you're an Elizabethan wit, in which case a toilet would come to mind. That might make more sense in Seedy's case, because he was, as I mentioned, somewhat odiferous. He had long greasy black hair that clung to his head like an octopus humping his skull, and then fell onto his shoulders in oily post-coital exhaustion. He had a scraggly Fu Manchu moustache and the bags under his eyes were so black, it looked like he was about to summit Everest after doing ten rounds in the latest Ultimate Fighting Championship wearing handcuffs and a "kick me" sign. His breath was the apex of disgusting - the worse thing I've ever smelled coming out of another human, and that includes the evil flatulence vented by Dr. Tundra during a ten-day peyote bender.
Despite their relative disparity in the looks department, Spider still suffered by some comparisons. Spider was rapacious and cruel, but he was a complete dolt. A serious zero. By any measure, Seedy was hardly intelligent, but compared with Spider, he was Mensa material.
"Yah, I know Seedy! If they don't put down before, I should let them bust their nut before I ask for the cash. Got it. Fuuuuch, my nose hurts! Where's Blossom?"
"Out in the waiting room."
"Tell her to get the fuck in here."
Seedy poked his head out of the examination room and shouted: "Hey. Yo! Ho! Spider wants to see you!"
The people in the waiting room tried to ignore this latest outburst. Tom's mother was out of restraint, and she started weeping into her sister's shoulder.
Blossom went in to comfort her beloved Spider, and Hippolyta tagged along.
"Fuck baby, I think I might be dying," Spider confided to Blossom in his softest voice.
Blossom looked like you might expect: Julia Roberts with fewer teeth and shorter legs - you know, her character from "Pretty Woman," but along more human dimensions. Blossom had droopy sacs of sleeplessness under her eyes, and a sallow appearance from not getting enough time in the sun. Despite her oppressive "boyfriend" and suicide-inducing lifestyle, there were no track marks in her arm. She was stillbeautiful.
"I'm sorry hon," Blossom said, "I didn't know he had a knife until he had it at my neck. Thank god you came in to ask about the money!"
"He might have sliced you and I wouldn't have seen a fucking dime."
"Un huh, he might have killed me."
"Instead, the fucker cut me." Spider turned to Seedy: "How's that for bad luck."
"Hey, your own fault, dude," Seedy said.
Hippolyta watched the whole charade from the doorway of the treatment room. She entered, and pulled on Blossom's sleeve.
"Hey, Blossom, I'm going to go for a smoke - wanna' join me?"
"Before we fix Spider? No!"
"Okay, whatever. Smell you dopes later," she said, and clopped out of the examination room in her Dr Martins, which suffered from a freakish case of gigantism. In addition to the boots that made her half a foot taller (and totter a bit on uneven ground), Hippolyta Shute wore a black skirt with frilly bits at the hem and a long-sleeved t-shirt (black, of course) with a red skull and crossbones embroidered on the front. Her hair was dyed jet black, but she didn't wear any makeup. Not that she needed any, to achieve the pale, black-eyed look favoured by the emo set.
As she walked away, Spider nodded his head towards her, and said to Seedy: "You know who Lyta is?"
"Recreational junk," Seedy said, naming her poison. To him, everyone was what they used.
"No, no, fuck no. You gotta think outside the edges..."
"Outside the box, hon," Blossom corrected.
"Box. Huh," Seedy said, non-committal. "Anyway, I have to tell you who the fuck she is, dude."
Then the police arrived, and in the waiting room, Tom's family breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps they could get things under control. Some of them had come to North America to see a wedding, and so far, they'd seen hell. A monkey-infested, lizard-leleasing, knife-wounded, stinky cheese-smelling, greasy-octopus-haired, drug-dealer hell.
Seedy, spotting the cops, left Spider and Blossom and ducked into the public washroom down the hallway.
The nurse (who in addition to being a nun/singer/ flautist also cooked a chili con carne reputed to be so hot it made Father Fuentes cry) returned at that moment, and seeing the police, nodded a greeting. She took them to Spider's room.
Seedy waited until both cops were occupied, and then dashed down the hallway and out of the building. Hippolyta was standing outside the Emergency Room entrance, smoking a clove cigarette.
"Did you see the cops in there?" Seedy asked her.
"Yeah, saw them go in."
"They're talking to Spider and Blossom now. I'm bookin' before they spot me."
"I don't think I'd like to talk with them either," Hippolyta said, stamping out her smoke with her gigantic boots, and then walking along with him.
"Wanna ride?" Seedy asked, his oily eyebrows bending up and down repeatedly, as though that would make the innuendo more palatable.
"I jest! I know you don't do that shit. You just like the occasional high, right kid?"
"What-ever," Hippolyta sighed. "And call me Lyta, not 'kid'. I'm not a fucking kid."
She thought about it for a moment. Did she really want to endure his unholy funk just to save on cab fare? On the other hand, she didn't want to tick him off and lose her connection.
She thought of how monumentally pissed Phaedra (her step-mom, and the second wife of the CEO of Gargantuan Enterprises) would be if that happened, and said, "Sure, why not?"
They got into his car, and he asked her where her mom lived. She told him and his eyebrows arched again, though not with as much vigor. "Hmm. Nice part of town."
He made a mental note to ask Spider what he meant about Lyta.
And Hippolyta made a mental note to risk losing her connection the next time Seedy offered her a ride, while she tried to prevent her stomach from leaping out of her mouth and beating her with her own lower intestine, just to reinforce the point.
In the light of day, the surreal goings-on of the wedding, my dreams, and the other incidents which I have related to you, and of which I was just starting to get an intimation of, seemed less foreboding. I headed into work, unusually late. But my contract with Gargantuan's meteorological division was pretty much over; I'd spent a year in their offices downtown and I was really just heading in to pick up my stuff.
I hate to bite the hand that fed me so well, but that corporation was a real shit-hole. I mean, worse than most big companies. The Gag was basically a biotech company, but out of that suspect parentage has sprung an evil child that was the meteorological research division. Ostensibly, they were building a weather satellite, and I'd spent my year debugging one part of its software. But after my dream, I was wondering if it was meant to be a weather control satellite.
It was my last few hours on the job, and I was feeling guilty that I might have helped Gargantuan Enterprises build something destructive. When I got to the veal-fattening pen that had served as my work space for the last year, my project manager, Bob, was waiting for me.
"Where the hell have you been all morning?"
"I just came in to clean up," I said. "You didn't actually expect me to do anything on my last day here did you? I submitted my final report on Friday. I'm done."
"We're paying you for the time."
"So dock me the four hours," I said. "No, wait. You paid me for the project. I don't have to be here at all, you know. I just came by to get my stuff."
Bob, as you can see, was a dick. How the hell he'd ever managed to keep his job as a project manager, I'll never guess. He was terrible at managing people, but I guess he got lucky with his team - like everyone else in our project group, I'd been hired by someone else in the organization upon the recommendation of a previous client. I preferred to work independently, but the Gargantuan people didn't want me taking any of the code off-site, so I'd been dealing with Mr. Dick for a year, and I was in no mood to placate him any more.
"Tell you what, Bob. You let this slide and I promise I won't mention your unwanted sexual advances to human resources during my exit interview."
"I'm flattered in a way, Bob. You are an attractive man, and can you imagine how much fun our answering machine message could be - it's Rob and Bob! Sorry Bob can't come to the phone right now cause he's doing something with a knob."
This actually shut him up for a second while he tried to process it. When he did, he looked horrified. I was kind of hurt, actually. I mean, I was WAY out of his league. He would be so lucky.
Having cleared up the rest of my day, I decided to track down Helena, who had suspiciously missed the wedding. Had Max tipped her off? And as the Vice-President of Marketing at Gargantuan, I wondered if she could tell me more about the project I'd been working on.
When I contacted the marketing division, they gave me the run-around. Typical.
It was clear I wasn't going to get to talk with her through regular channels, so I hacked into the company directory (it locked out everything except the people you were supposed to be working with), and found her direct number. I got her assistant, and she was nice; she said she'd pass along the message that I'd called.
As I hung up the phone, I wondered why was I worried, anyway? Who cared if Gargantuan wanted to put a satellite in orbit that may or may not have something to do with weather control? It was impossible, right?
I'd like to say that it was the evolved human part of my consciousness that was prodding me on, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it was my inner monkey ee-ee-egging me on. Wouldn't it be fun to thumb my nose at the big bad Gag, and get away with it? Perhaps I could even implicate Bob. And perhaps it was the dream that really was driving me. I'd signed all kinds of non-disclosure documents when they hired me on to debug the software, so I'd be in violation of those if I said anything. I could even go to jail. Perhaps they were doing some kind of secret government work and I could end up in a hole somewhere, tormented by some thick-necked Republican with halitosis and a vague understanding of the Bill of Rights.
First, though, I needed to confirm my suspicions. I could have hacked the company network, but I didn't want to try that first, because it was pretty extreme. Also, my skills probably weren't up to it. Helena called me back.
"Rob, how was the wedding?"
"You mean you haven't heard?"
"Tell you what Mizz VP. You buy me a coffee and I'll tell you the whole sordid tale."
"Okay, I'll meet you in the Den of Ubiquity." (Yeah, we have a sarcastic name for the coffee shop too.)
I ordered a triple espresso, and she had a low-fat latte. We chatted while we looked out at the well-lit black marble expanse of the Gag lobby. I relayed the story of Max and Nick's Cult of the Claw ceremony.
"Why Cult of the Claw?"
"Oh, it's this stupid game we used to play at school."
"Did you have access to lots of wildlife at school?" Helena smirked.
"No, it was theoretical. Basically, the idea is that as you drink, you delve deeper into your evolutionary brain."
"So as we turn off certain aspects of our brains, our consciousness devolves to the point that we're basically exhibiting animal behaviors. The top layer of our consciousness is the human layer. The human part of our brain is the part that is civilized. That's the part that knows it's intrinsically wrong to sic a big lizard on Tom's granny."
"I don't know... there are some people that deserve a big lizard up the ass," Helena said wistfully.
"The next layer down is the monkey layer. You need to have a few drinks to peel off the human layers, the conscience, before you get to the monkey layer. This part of our mind understands that there are consequences to actions. It's the part that might want to sic a big lizard on Tom's granny, but wouldn't, because it knew it would get in trouble."
"Uh huh. And ARE they in trouble?"
"I talked with Peter and Frank this morning, and they've convinced Tom not to press charges." Peter, Frank and Tom were all in engineering school together and are best friends. Heh.
"So they've bucked the Law of the Claw."
"I guess so. But it's not just about legal ramifications. It's social too. The monkey might want to say... have sex with your sister, but it probably wouldn't because it would understand that it would get punished if it did."
"I don't have a sister."
"I was speaking metaphorically. It was just an example."
"And if I had a sister, and you showed her your monkey, I'd probably be jealous you didn't show it to me first."
"Well, that's a pure monkey response," I said thinking, Hot Helena would like to see the Sultan of Swing?
"So the monkey is the Ego?"
"Yeah," I said, "It may WANT to do something, but it restrains itself because it knows that if it does, it will be BAD."
"So then the lower level is the Id, right? I vaguely remember this from Psych 101. The Id is represented by the lizard?"
"You got it. The lizard is all our basic impulses. The pleasure principle as Freud called it. Sex. Eating. Sex. Sunning yourself. Did I mention the sex? Anyway, it's all that good physical sensation stuff."
She smiled at this thought and did her best Homer Simpson impression: "Hmmm. Physical sensations." She laughed and said: "You guys are really weird, you know that?"
"Uh huh. But except for Max, we mostly just treated this Claw stuff as a joke. Preferably over multiple pints of Guinness, when we'd announce that we'd just achieved monkey-level and make the sign of the Claw." I held up my hand, forming a makeshift claw out of my thumb, index and middle finger, and said, "Clee-aw... Anyway, Max took it to a whole new level."
"And how is Granny doing?"
"Out of danger, and out of the hospital, and Peter and Frank have convinced Tom and his family not to have Max and Nick sent to the cage for naughty humans. But none of this is what I wanted to talk with you about. This is my last day here."
"Yeah, it went fast. But I'm a bit worried about what I've been doing for the past year. Do you know anything about the Oberon project?"
"No, not really. I know it's something in the Met-div - the meteorological division - but that's all. Why?"
"You know how it is; they don't really let the free-lancers know what they're actually doing so we can't steal any of it, but I believe it's a weather satellite."
"I think it might be a new kind of weather satellite. One that controls the weather, not just predicts it."
Helena was amused. She had a warm, throaty laugh, but there was an edge to it too. Her father had been a dissident, and forced to flee Czechoslovakia when Helena was just 11. Her adolescent years had been spent trying to fit in with American society and shed her accent. Not much fun, I'd guess. Plus she had a sunny, cynical side. "A satellite that controls the weather. I think you've been hanging out with Max too long. That sounds like one of his post-peyote paranoid fantasies. Or some crazy conspiracy from a 60s James Bond movie." She smiled and did a passable Sean Connery imitation, as she said, "No Mr. Goodman, I expect you to die!"
"Okay, okay, double-oh-sexy, I know it sounds nuts, but I'm serious." I grinned, and added, "I mean, as serious as I can be. Do you know anything about Chaos Theory?"
"Yeah, sure, I saw Jurassic Park: A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and causes a typhoon in the Pacific or something. Chaotic systems are all extremely sensitive to initial conditions - the butterfly flapping its wings, for example. Therefore, the final results are unpredictable - the typhoon. Chaos theory says that everything is connected. But the system of connections is too complex for us to model, so it seems like chaos."
"Hey, just cause I've got nice legs and work in marketing doesn't mean I'm an idiot. Also, that's all straight out of Jurassic Park. Jeff Goldblum's character? The dreamy Jeff Goldblum, I mean, you know, before he got ashen and wrinkly."
"Uh, right," I said, trying not to get sidetracked by how well or badly the uh - idiosyncratic - actor was aging. "So chaos theory explains things like why snowflakes are all supposed to be different, and even the increase of diversity in evolution. But you've hit on one of the major uses of the idea - meteorology. So say, for sake of argument, I'm right, and your company is creating a weather-controlling satellite. Can you imagine what trying to keep it from raining here, or making it rain here, or whatever, will do to weather in other places? You think we've got extreme weather now. This would be a nightmare."
"Except for wherever the satellite could control it."
"Well... yeah, I guess."
"But can you see how valuable that would be? Imagine being able to control the weather in a specific region. You could charge whatever you wanted. You could make deserts bloom and here in town, stop the rain in the winter. Think of all the suicides you could prevent!"
"Well, yeah, there would be a financial incentive to do it, but imagine what it would do to other regions. You might stop a flood here and cause a drought in Central America that caused a famine."
"Yes, that would be a problem, but not for most of our shareholders," Helena said, "I'm sure you're overreacting Rob. You spend too much time reading science fiction. There isn't a way to control the weather."
"Sure you can. Global warming is weather control. Okay, not control. It's not intentional, but we can affect weather. And I think Oberon is designed for specific weather control."
"How is that possible?"
"Remember that Gargantuan is a genetics company. Did you know that the atmosphere is lousy with life? There are all kinds of microbes up there in the sky. I read about a research group in Britain trying to understand the mechanisms of how the little buggers actually influence the weather. They haven't explained it all yet. But Gargantuan is a corporation: It's built to make a profit the way that your Jurassic Park T-Rex is built to eat lawyers sitting on a toilet."
"Anyway," I continued, "imagine that they have some way of manipulating those microbes, presumably to do more efficient cloud seeding, and eventually weather control."
"Hmm. Well, there's something funny about it. Would you mind looking into it?"
"Uh, that project is need-to-know Rob. Ted told me that yesterday."
"Um, yes. I am a VP here, you know. That's why I didn't make the wedding. We had a special meeting."
I could sense she was being cagey, so I asked: "So how did you know about it, if it's secret?"
A woman laughed - a distant sound, like the crash of the sea coming onshore when you're a mile away. I looked around and couldn't see anyone laughing, and I thought of the Shade with a shiver.
"Are you some kind of hobby detective now Rob? He just mentioned that he was about to go check up on the project."
"Do you think you could find out more?"
"I probably could. But why would I? They'll tell me about it when they need help marketing it, and until then, I've got lots of other stuff to do."
"But what if it gets your company in trouble? Don't you have a duty to your shareholders or something?"
"Possibly," Helena said. "I'll think about it, and let you know if I can help."
Just then, Nick passed by, dressed casually in jeans and a bright yellow t-shirt that said, "meat is murder." He carried his shiny laptop under his arm, his prized Titania3000, and was recovering from his experience with Dr. Flanksteak and Mr. Squeeze.
"Nick!" I waved at him; he smiled at us lazily, and walked over.
"Hi guys. Whatcha knowin?"
"The usual. We're just talking about chaos theory and corporate greed," I said, teasing Helena.
"Actually," Helena bit, "we're trying to get to the root of Rob's paranoid fantasies. What are you doing here, Nick?"
"Oh, your genetics division has some kind of testing program on, and they're paying handsomely," Nick explained. His eyes were luminescent and dreamy, and I could see Helena notice their blue depths, mysterious like the sea. It might have been my imagination, but I think she caught her breath. "I've just returned from the lab and my first basting. What are you guys up to?"
"Just drinkin' coffee with the man," I said.
"Hmm," said Nick. "I think you are the man sometimes, Rob, but then you go and do something like get Peter and Frank to talk Tom's folks into not prosecuting me and Max, and I know that you're trying to get to the bottom of it all too. Aren't you?"
"Sometimes you give me a headache, Nick. The bottom of what? And how did you know about my chat with the engineers."
"Tortoise-shell custard!" he shouted, drawing stares from the other well-to-do industrial coffee connoisseurs. You could see them thinking, who let the schizo in here? Nick laughed, and said, "Gotta go. Think down. Think monkey." With that, he turned and walked towards the street, a flash of colour in a swath of brushed stainless steel, black marble and muted corporate money-green.
"He's definitely getting weirder," I said. "But he seems happier than he's ever been."
"Yeah? I never really knew him until after he moved to town, so I wouldn't know. You guys always ran with kind of a wild crowd at university," Helena said.
"As opposed to the beautiful people?"
"Hey, they let me hang with them, but I didn't belong, really. My family wasn't, you know..."
"For lack of a better word, but the BPs tended to be old money, so they weren't too in-your-face about it. But I didn't get invited to lots of things because they knew I couldn't afford it."
"Hey don't be. Some of those connections helped me get to my exalted position here at Gargantuan."
You see, we even had Helena calling it Gargantuan Enterprises.
"Nick never cared about that stuff even when we were young. Of all the people I know, I think he's the only one who will ever understand life."
"Or he might just be barking mad."
Helena laughed, but she didn't take her eyes off him as he left the building, his metamorphosis already begun.
Notes from Nick's journal:
Fishday 35, Earth, Galactic spiral arm
A wonderful fishday. There is special sauce on my butt still from the fine workmanship at Gargantuan Enterprises. They fuel the work with test tubes and needles and high tensile steel that coats their tongues like thrush, thick and heavy with mercury. They have given me a new pass, and there are marvelous colours in it, beyond those of my own. A small hologram resides in the iris of my eyes, filled with the phallic imagery of their tower, the tower that Rob likes to tease us with. The glass tower. Incandescent in the evening, but cold, and clear and spraying the mind with glycerin that doesn't lubricate but annihilates.
Their lab is a secret. I could not smell where we were going, no more than I could see or hear. But I could still feel. From their offices, we got on an elevator, and we went down. Down deep, below the roots of the great phallus, and deeper still, beyond the prostate. Somewhere underground, they removed my guide-hiders, and asked me to sit down in a sterile room. (Such contradictions - sterile rooms in a penis-shaped building!) And there, they asked me questions about my state of mind, and so on. I tried to say no monkeyjoy to them. I hid the deeper self, the vast unconscious self that so desperately needs to be found if I am to survive - we, I mean, the humans.
Images. Since the icy hallucinogenic injection, they have been flying at my eyes unbidden and stinging like citrus. I saw Erma crying as she got ready for work. Lovely Erma. And I know other things too. You may have the simian gnosis of nits and numbers, but I see. I can see The Robert, ethereal and earthly, a contradiction in persona, speaking to the Engineers; he convinces them to make things safe for Dr. Tundra and me. And Tom reluctantly agrees while a nun plays a flute.
My mind enjoyed Helena again today. So pretty, so tall, and long in the limbs like an ancient Greek goddess. Why does she not know of her own beauty? Because she was tall at 12? Were they hurtful? Only to be expected when we are all so bifurcated.
In the lab they asked me questions. Deep questions and I hid the answers. Like I do every day, except with you, my lovely Titania3000!
Happily, the scientists decided to proceed. And they swabbed the lower end of my spine with Novocain, stinging, then numb. And in went a deep needle, fushed my fish, mealed my monkey, and deeper went the vile liquid that they wanted to test on me. It did no harm, except to say that now there is a large, swollen bump there, very near the base of my spine. It is tender. And red. Delicate like the prose in monkeyjoy!
It proceeds in another file, a digital brother to this record of my transformation. Who knows, perhaps someday it will be done and we can all have soup for our souls - and not just of the chicken noodle variety! Mulligatawny ho!
Dr. Tundra was wrong to hurt the monkeys, the lizard, and even the smelly granny. He was wrong to do that, but sometimes I think he is right to confront the world with its blindness and stupidity.
If only he could be kind when he does it.
This bump is most swollen. I will ice it and eat garbanzo beans!
The Human Ideal
Ariadne Thipirous worked at the Consume-It! drugstore near Bland Street and Dead White Guy Avenue. I think it would be fair to say that she hated working there as much she hated the idea of needing a special cream for toe fungus, but despite that, she was polite and pleasant with almost everyone who purchased something from the store. It was not their fault that they needed genetically modified foods, mood drugs, panty liners, jock itch cream and many other useful items that kept the minor evils of life at bay. Well, it was their fault, but she could hardly blame them for it without feeling like a hypocrite, particularly as she was working there.
Ariadne was 22 years old, and looked more like she was 16 years old. She was threateningly slender, had radiant black hair that came to her shoulders and beautiful skin (evidence that she wasn't 16). Her eyes were deep brown, almost to the point of being black pools, bottomless Highland lakes that you could stumble into in the fog because you did not expect to find them there in the heather.
That was how I met her, you know, metaphorically. At first, I was taken with her eyes, and the sad look on her face, even when she smiled at a customer. Her face was delicate, and pale, and she wore the Consume-It! polyester uniform with shameful dignity. She had the dignity and the corporation got the shame. She was really very extremely unthinkably - but not anorexically - thin. She had a doll's wrists and a less enlightened guy would say she was flat-chested: I saw self-respect and excellent posture.
It was the day after my coffee with Helena, and I was in the store, waiting for Nick to show up. Ariadne had caught my attention, and I watched as she dealt with a long line of customers, waiting to purchase their ConsumeAbles! An ancient fellow was trying to buy a bottle of vitamins, and was having problems with getting the right change out of his wallet - one of those old-fashioned monstrosities that included a pouch for coins along with the usual slots for credit cards and cash. His face looked like he'd been visited (repeatedly) by the wrinkle fairy, and you could see that he was struggling to get the pennies out, his fingers betraying him at the crucial point of his purchase.
Given the same situation, many check-out clerks might look exasperated, or pop their chewing gum with annoyance, glaring at the fumbling customer. The young bravo in line behind the pensioner was doing that - "Come... on, man. Use a freakin' bill. Use some cash. The pennies won't go bad." He was 19, if that. (The skin, again, was a good clue.)
Unlike other old men, this gent was not cantankerous with his senescence. In fact, he looked mortified.
"Here, let me help," Ariadne said, and gently pulled the wallet out of his hands. She found the right change, took it out of the wallet, and showed it to him. "Okay?"
He nodded, grateful. She must have known he would be okay with it - a lot of people would be offended. Thus served, he tottered off, and the young man put his items down in front of Ariadne, annoyance still oozing off him.
I spotted a wry smile as she looked at his stuff, and rang it through efficiently, except for one item which would inexplicably not be read by the bar code. I couldn't see how she managed it. She picked up her phone and spoke into it, her voice booming throughout the store: "I need a price check on hemorrhoid medication!"
"What kind?" someone yelled from the pharmacy.
"Oh, sorry," she spoke into the phone, telling everyone in the store that she needed a price check on a jumbo order of Roid-A-Way.
The middle-aged lady standing behind our now-cringing bravo giggled.
Yes, Ariadne had panache, even if she hated Consume-It!
My job with Gargantuan Enterprises was now officially over. I was a little sad not to have the opportunity to harass Bob with homosexual innuendo, but at least I was at loose ends again. I liked living that way. I would work for a while - however long the contract would last - and then I would take some time, sometimes a month, sometimes longer, just hanging out with Nick and Max, and occasionally with Tom, Frank and Peter when their time allowed. I hadn't had a steady girlfriend for years, and I wasn't really looking for one either. Even as I watched Ariadne, I wasn't thinking of her that way. Sexually yes, but normally I like a woman with a bit more, uh, curve to her.
Marriage was even harder to imagine. Tom and Dina, for example. How weird was that? I suppose getting married is a normal thing, but except for Tom, none of my close circle of friends had taken the step. On the other hand, things would definitely start changing. I'd seen it happen to other friends - outside of the small Good University clique I still hung out with - and it did change relationships. Without a partner, it was difficult for my married friends to invite me to "couple-y" kinds of things.
Still, without Tom around constantly, I imagine that the other mechanical engineers, Peter and Frank, would have disappeared for a while. No doubt they were exploring a life where they didn't have to keep Tom in the dark. Frank and Peter were lovers, and had been for many, many years, but they hadn't yet come out of the closet. This was largely due to Tom's homophobia; in a weird way, Tom was the third engineer in their mechanical troika, and it was a pivotal role. Still, they were nervous about their parents and their co-workers at the engineering firm where they both worked too. I'd guessed a long time ago, and Frank had confirmed it, swearing me to secrecy. Pete and Frank been together since they were room-mates back in undergraduate days. Frank, Peter, Tom, Max, Nick and myself had all gone away to the Good University for our undergraduate studies. The first three studied engineering, and the rest of us took a variety of arts and humanities degrees. For most of us, our first degrees were appetizers, and we all went on to a main course of graduate studies.
The engineers filled up on MBAs; I still don't know how Max somehow got into a medical school. I did the philosophy thing. But Nick's undergrad in comparative literature was more than enough for him to chew on for the rest of his life. He joined me and Max briefly at the Hated University, where we both did our grad work, but dropped out in the first semester. It all seemed like a long time ago.
Not for Ariadne. She hadn't had her chance to go to college yet; she wanted to go, even if she didn't like the idea of buying into the whole education thing. Just another commodity to be purchased. But she knew that if she didn't get a degree, she was going to be stuck working for corporate ticks like Consume-It! for the rest of her life. Eventually, she'd want to have children, or even worse, she might get pregnant by accident. Then the one slave-wage job would not be enough, and she'd have to find herself a second. Ariadne saw the other minimum-wage slaves on her bus-ride to work. They were tired. They were pallid - and not in a good supermodel kind of way - exhausted, drudging through their days with no thought for play or joy, except for the snatches of bliss they could catch from their young children, before they grew older and discovered that they were too poor to expect much from life. Ariadne didn't know if an education would make her happier, but at least it would give her a chance. She needed to work one more year, saving as much as she could, and she'd be able to start part time studies.
These were the thoughts that were running through her mind as I waited in the store for Nick. After she'd dealt with her line-up, she noticed me waiting, and asked if she could help me.
"No, sorry, I'm just waiting to meet someone."
"Your girlfriend keeps you waiting?"
"No, not my girlfriend, just a friend."
"Whatever," she said, pretending to be cool. Nick arrived, and I wasn't able to carry on the conversation right then.
"Sorry Rob," he started, "monkey just wants to play, know?" He had a small sheaf of papers clutched in his right hand. They were prescriptions that Max had given him; methylphenidate, which was basically Ritalin, and Vicodin, a powerful painkiller. I'm pretty sure that Max knew Nick was just selling them to someone else, but it was his way of helping out a friend - see, I told you it was a miracle he hadn't lost his license yet. "They've got a good magazine section, if you don't mind waiting for a bit more. I need to get these filled right away."
"Okay." I wandered off, looking not for the magazines, but the alluring Ariadne. She was back at the register, checking out more ointments and greeting cards.
"Actually," I said to her as she finished with the last customer in line, "there is something you can help me with."
"Yes, sir." She looked at her co-worker at the other till, and said, "Can you watch for now?" Her cohort smiled and nodded her head. I walked towards the family planning section, and waited for her to catch up.
As we walked down the aisle, I said, "I'd like to get a woman's perspective on this purchase."
I stopped in front of the rack of condoms, and her face went red. "What do you think is better," I asked, watching for her reaction. She was getting past her embarrassment, and verging on anger, when I finished the question, "roses or chocolates?"
"We don't sell roses, sir," she said to me, the anger flashing out of those dark eyes, and then turning to something akin to appreciation when she realized I was smiling, "but I think roses are more romantic. You know this is the wrong aisle for chocolates?"
"Oh, sorry," I said.
"Probably not," she smiled at me. I liked her smile. A lot.
"So you would prefer roses?"
"Yes... No... Actually, I'd prefer orchids. Roses are done to death."
"So you get a lot of flowers?"
Her face went red again, almost angry, until she saw that I wasn't making fun of her. I wanted to know, because it wouldn't surprise me that she got a lot of roses.
"No. I don't."
"Then maybe I can bring you some, say when you get off work?"
She smiled at me again, and said, "I get off work now, but not today. I have to... be somewhere today. But how about another time?"
"I'd like that."
"My name is Rob. Rob Goodman," I said, unaccountably nervous.
"I'm Ariadne, Rob Rob Goodman," she grinned as she delivered the old joke. It was charming though.
"So how did you do that?"
"Well, comedy-boy, what you do is take your intention, and purposefully misinterpret it. You meant to say just your first name and then you thought to add your last name, but you said your first name again, and I..."
"I meant the thing with the 'roid cream."
"Oh," she smiled again. Funny, that smile was genuine, but the eyes remained sad, even when she was clearly enjoying herself. "What you do is just put a little tiny bit of your nail over one part of the bar, and that will muck it up. Either that, or you can push the void button as you run the item over the scanner. Both work pretty well."
I loved that she said "muck it up."
"You little devil," I said. "Well you showed him, he will have to clean off his belly the way he slunk out of here."
"Meh... he deserves it. The old guy was just having a motor-control problem. It does happen when you get older."
"What do you know about getting older?" I asked.
"Well, clearly not as much as you, but I did have grandparents for a while." She was good.
"Are you always this saucy?"
"Hmm. Saucy," she smiled. "Actually, I'm being restrained because of our Consume-It! customer service policy. I'm not allowed to say anything of a sexual nature, even while I'm standing in front of a wall of condoms."
To tell you the truth, I'd forgotten all about them, and I grinned.
"Actually, while we're on that topic, I do have a question."
She raised an eyebrow, and said, "Oh really?"
"Yes, uh," I said, thinking, shit, now what do I say? The only thing that popped into my head was a silly joke I'd received from one of my moronic friends, probably Max, via email: "Two old ladies were outside their nursing home, having a smoke, when it started to rain. One of the ladies, Mavis, pulled out a condom, cut off the end, put it over her cigarette, and continued smoking.
"The other lady, Delores, asks: 'What's that?'
"Mavis answers: 'A condom. This way my cigarette doesn't get wet. You can get them at any drugstore.'
"The next day, Dolores goes to the drugstore and tells the pharmacist she wants a box of condoms. The guy, obviously embarrassed, looks at her strangely (she is, after all, over 80 years old), but very delicately asks what brand she prefers. 'Doesn't matter son, as long as it fits a Camel.'"
She gave me a sympathy laugh, and said, "Okay, that's a joke, not a question. And kind of a lame joke too, but I still want the rain-check. Here's my number." She took the pen and a pad of paper out of her Consume-It! smock pocket, and wrote it down.
The pen used purple ink, and why did I find that strangely exciting? What the hell is wrong with me?
"I have to take off," she said. "It would be good if you could work on your material a bit before we go out." She grinned at me; for a second, her eyes glittered with amusement, and no trace of sorrow lingered.
By the time I caught up with Nick, he had already purchased his drugs, and we were ready to go.
As we left the store, I noticed the King of Gag himself, Ted Shute, sitting in his Porsche, obviously waiting for someone. I pulled on Nick's sleeve to slow him down, and watched as Ariadne got into his shiny red roadster, and they screamed away from the curb.
Ariadne saw me watch, and the look on her face could only be called despair.
... continued ...
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