by Armel Dagorn
I’m getting to 9.2 on the boredom scale (not that I’m casting it, of course, but then I wouldn’t bet an arm that the feed isn’t tapping my meat for emotional data), placing trays on the counter and loading them with wax-paper parcels of food as fast as I can, when I glimpse Stuart Mafokate’s perfect face on the screenwall that lines the entrance.
I have worked fast enough this morning that I haven’t once had Manager buzz me for lagging behind, but now the shiver creeps down my spine. I must have lingered longer than I thought, reading through the rushing headlines that Stuart Mafokate, that handsome son of a mother, has just pinged in a shoe bar in midtown Finbarrside, Level 3, because the damn Pavlovian nerve tease, deemed insufficient, is followed by a PLACE TRAY ON COUNTER straight into my ear canal.
I slam a tray on the counter, buying myself 2.7 seconds of reprieve, and nod at the already pissed-off Guest, scratching the little bump on my neck. I might be paranoid, but the way his left eye is wandering, the lens fogged up, and the twitchy frog-like bloating of his throat, I’d bet he’s Subvocking right now, giving Grubness, Lowtown Finbarrside Branch yet another bad review with Yours Truly tagged.
‘A WookieWrap,’ he says, and I step back, my eyes still glued to the screen. I paw around the burger chute, the layout of the counter area so ingrained in me that I find the right line straight off. ‘And a Burgermeister, and two chips and curry,’ the Guest adds. Stuart Mafokate is exiting a shop and stepping onto an escalator going down. Down? I stab a finger into a Burgermeister, through the paper and into bloody ketchup and sauerkraut, and as if to chastise me for it, Manager rings PLACE ORDER ON TRAY in my ear. I look down at my hands, one holding the pierced parcel of the Burgermeister, and the other, damn stupid me, still holding the WookieWrap.
PLACE ORD– I slam the food on the tray, and the demented look on my face as I shake sauerkraut off my finger, my eyes aflame with anger, but still smiling so the cams won’t pick up on my Inappropriate Facial Presentation, seems to be enough to deter the Guest from complaining about his mauled Burgermeister.
Stuart Mafokate is coming down? I eyeball the screen as I grab the Guest’s money and see the multi-Oscared Adonis’s handsome silhouette blinking in the superfluous flashes of the crowd’s phones. He is looking into the distance as if lost, as if he weren’t a gorgeous god in our midst. He pings on Level 0 just as the Guest leaves and a swarm of teens steps up, and I bash a tray on the counter as I reel out ‘Welcome to Grubness, What Will You Grub Today?’, letting the kids know through my clenched-teeth smile that I will take No Shit.
‘Day’s fave’s is Dog Vindaloo,’ I offer when they don’t answer, keeping Manager’s cattle-subtle prod at bay for a few extra secs. The kids don’t seem much more interested than I am in the ordering of food. They stare at the screen, where Stuart Mafokate, Swoon Master of the Plebs, can be seen crossing Nano Nagle Plaza.
ASK GUEST FOR ORDER buzzes my cerebellum, but despite the nagging tickle I don’t move, don’t shift my eyes from the screen. I can see Tash’s body shudder in the corner of my eye the next till over, and I know she is being likewise tormented by Manager’s neural lash, and, likewise, beyond caring about it. Stuart Mafokate is strutting towards Grubness.
We see him cross the threshold, and Manager’s electro-blame is but a distant cry, a phantom pain of a twitch, as the PA flutes the two tones of a Guest locasting in at the exact time that Stuart Mafokate pings in Grubness. The screen shows his angel face shot by our own lowtown cams, and his 3-sec-ago cast bubbles ‘IM INA MooD 4 A DIRTY GrubMiChanga®’.
The sea of teens splits, leaving a clear path between Stuart Mafokate and my till. The kids have turned to rock, the whole life in them concentrated in the twitching eyeballs behind their lenses and their throbbing voice boxes, casting their eyewitness accounts of this Historical Moment.
And then, Stuart Mafokate, Thou Legend, you plant your feet right in front of me, and just as your soft pillowy lips part to order, yes, order me, I catch a glance of the screen, your livefeed, you Suave Motherkisser, a simple ‘YUM-YUM’ stamped at the bottom of a sightgrab at the centre of which I stand, in my Grubness uniform, my Grubness tag saved for eternity, my ugly unshaved mug under the flashing menus, and the wild confused smile that scars it.
And I know then, I know this is the picture they’ll use on the news, this mugshot extraordinaire, the lunatic captured by the victim milliseconds before the act.
‘I’ll have a GrubMiChanga, with side sweet chips, boy,’ Stuart Mafokate says, in the crooning baritone of myriad catch phrases. I lean forward a little, mouth agape, and he does too, repeating ‘GrubMiChanga, sweet chips’ as our heads bridge the gap over the counter.
Stuart Mafokate must be used to attendants too starstruck or too busy casting their lucky encounters to register his needs, because he just smiles his benevolent smile, even as my face keeps advancing towards his, my lips parting ever more. He keeps the cool of Olympians slumming the depths of Hell, who know a million eyes are catching and casting their every moves, and that the smallest reaction, a sneer, a reflex jerk out of a crazed fan’s kissing trajectory, can easily end a career.
As I dig my teeth into the side of his neck I see his latest cast on the screen, another sightgrab of me, up close, mouth like a sink hole, eyes of a devil, with a simple ‘FANS, UH?’ for comment. No, I think as I jerk my head back, ripping Stuart Mafokate’s implant out of his neck, this is the pic they’ll use.
Everything goes still, the teens, Tash next to me, the screenwall, Stuart Mafokate – except for the spring of blood originating from his neck – then all of a sudden everything is screams and movement. I one-hand cowboy-hop the counter, and I just have time to glimpse casts on the screenwall as I run out, commenting along the lines of ‘WTF’ and ‘IS DIS 4 REAL?!?’
I sprint across Nano Nagle Plaza as Stuart Mafokate’s implant, coated in his scarred flesh, goes down my digestive track. I feel the lump down there of Stuart Mafokate spelunking down to my intestine, more intimate, my Sweet Master, than I would have ever imagined possible.
At the bottom of the escalator I get a quick hair-raising zap of the confused force field before it relents, detecting the All-Levels of Stewie’s SIM. As I progress upwards the crowd on the moving steps stare at me, these handsomer, better dressed citizens, their eyes glued to my mouth, to the blood dripping from it onto my chest still.
I picture Stuart Mafokate on the floor of Grubness, sitting against my counter, a hand to his pumping neck, desperately trying to cast an emergency call despite his lack of terminal (Stuart Mafokate, Simple Meatbag), but I am a romantic, and I fancy his missives connect with his implant inside me, the hardware throbbing with his hectic thoughts.
I’m not worried for him – I know he’ll get help. News travels fast.
The Feed And Caption Takeover clause must have kicked off on the teens’ feeds. One by one their awkward frames will have adopted the robotic twitches of remote control, their necks craning at odd angles for better footage, and they’ll wake up in a couple of hours with unexplainable cramps. They won’t regret not reading the humongous T&Cs if the indenture gets their handles mildly trending.
I get the schizophrenic, ACCESS DENIED/ACCES GRANTED buzz from the Level 2 then Level 3 portals, and as I peek down I see some commotion, a scrambling of human ants, on the Plaza below. On the giant screens I see they’ve switched from the pictures of floor-bound, bleeding Stuart Mafokate and of my crazed face to straight mugshots, his with a faint smile, a bowtie across his neck, mine my Grubness employee ID. The voiceover is recounting the facts in a loop, the ‘attack’, the flight of the suspect Hightown-ward. The banner at the bottom of the screen scans the juiciest bits from my feed, from years-old rants to this morning’s pre-work whinge, and Frankensteins a narrative with the logical climax of me snacking on Stuart Mafokate’s neck.
I hope I can escape the mall goons long enough to get my full Fifteen Minutes Of Fame. As I pass the portal to Level 6 I’m the only one riding up. People seem to have got wise to the loose, escalator-trolling cannibal killer. I see a couple of helmeted heads peering out of the next landing, batons sticking up like antennas, and I feel a bit light-headed and nauseous.
I don’t regret going all-out Lee Harvey. Or – what was that Beatle guy’s killer’s name again? Well, you know. At least I’ll always have that. Be immortal.
I glimpse behind the cops a strange kind of light, a soft light, and I wonder if it might be it. The sky. I’ve come so far. Level 9 seems like it’s only a few steps away. The ceilingless home of the stars.
A few steps, yes, but giant steps. I unpin the Grubness tag from my chest, hold it tight in my right fist, needle out.
‘I surrender!’ I shout, casting it simultaneously, and I see the riot-proof heads lift up above the coppers’ relaxing bodies. As I reach the landing I Subvoc ‘…NOT, suckers!’ and cast it along with a sightgrab of my fist connecting with the first goon’s face.
Armel Dagorn now lives back in his native France after spending some years in Ireland. His writing has appeared in magazines such as Holdfast, Apex Magazine and Tin House online, and is forthcoming in the anthologies Haunted Futures and Strange California. W: armeldagorn.wordpress.com T: @ARMELDAGORN
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