Click HERE to read Part 1
Penelope stared at the flickering image of the body lying on her Receiving room floor.
“Oh, wow,” she said. “Oh, holy crap.” She pecked frantically at the Concierge button on her HoloGreet terminal. Finally, a cheery male voice piped into the room.
“HoloGreet H-to-the-Q!” sang the voice. “What’s up-arrow? This is Freddy with a ‘Y’! Tell me how to fluff your tail -feathers, superstar!”
“Umm…” said Penelope. “What?”
“How may I help you?”
“Yeah, I’ve got a…situation here?” said Penelope. “Something must’ve happened during my holo-date and I think my date might be, like, hurt a little bit or something?”
“Oh, honey,” said the voice. “Not a problem! Happens all the time. You’re using our Trix Domina materials? Does he have something…stuck?”
“Jammed? Is something jammed? Lodged?”
“We can send an extraction associate over to his sliver, no extra cost. Totes confidential.”
“Oh. No, no, no! Nothing stuck or jammed,” said Penelope. “Just a normal date over here, Freddy.”
“That’s a normal date for me!” A trill of laughter swept from low to high octave.
“I think it might be serious.” Penelope knelt by the static-y image of Richard/Rich/Dick, whatever his name was. “It looks kinda like his head is…bashed in, maybe?”
“I wouldn’t worry about it, sweetheart.”
“Really. I’m super-positive it’s nothing. What’s your confirmation number?”
“Oh, gosh.” Penelope patted herself down, scanning the room. “I lost it.”
“No problem, sistahwife! I can look it up by last name.”
“Thanks. It’s Birdsong. Penelope Birdsong.”
“What a painfully exquisite name! Let’s see. Da, da di da, da da da. Ratatatatah! Birdsong! Got it! My god, Pips. You had me worried there for a second. Looks like you’re all set!”
“Well, I’m looking at your profile, and you just met the guy, right?”
“Yup,” said Penelope. “First holo-date.”
“Great!” said Freddy. “So, there you go! No worries!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well, you don’t know the guy. Hardly. Since there’s barely a shred of emotion, nary a scrap of sentiment attached to this fellow, you won’t be upset about his maiming and/or killing! He pre-paid for the date, so you’re all set there. Boom! No money owed on your end. That’s free and clear. Zero balance!”
Penelope’s lips parted. Before she could speak, the perky voice continued.
“Oh! What’s super amazing, too, Pips? By using HoloGreet, you have an A-1 alibi! What I’m saying is, even if he is, hypothetically speaking, lying there, murdered, bludgeoned by some mysterious evil-doer, who I guarantee isn’t associated with HoloGreet — not that I have any details about this nefarious alleged bludgeoner one way or the other, nor do I think your date is even bludgeoned or dead, probably just has something stuck or jammed or lodged – but, you see, even if he is, bludgeoned that is, you’re here, and he’s halfway across town! You couldn’t have done it, Pips! And we have PROOF!”
“Of course I didn’t do it!” said Penelope.
“Well, how do I know?” said the voice. “Maybe you’re some brand of brainy, badass sociopath. I’m just trying to make this easy for you, killer.”
“I’m trying to help the guy!”
“Maybe that’s part of your plan to divert suspicion away from yourself?” said the voice. “I mean, you seem nice and all, but let’s just say it wouldn’t blow my mind to find out you were a genius murderer.”
“Freddy, I didn’t do anything to the guy! Just trying to figure out if he needs medical attention.”
“But…who cares? Am I right?”
A profound sigh crackled through Audio.
“Permission to come in-room?”
Penelope cupped her forehead in her hands, spreading outward. “I consent.”
“See you in a blip!”
A blip later, a disembodied head appeared in Penelope’s Casting room. Mustachioed. Bald. Eyebrow extensions were fashioned in the same spiraling curve as the mustache, giving a parallel, two-tiered effect. Where the eyebrow-ends met the mustache-ends, festive knots were tied.
“Well, aren’t you just a sweet dollop of hell yes!” exclaimed the head.
“Gee, thanks,” said Penelope. “You see, in my Receiving area, he’s just lying there?”
The head made a sweep of the room. “Damn, Pips! Looks like you sex-crazed space-apes had a sizzling little soiré happenin’ here!”
“Look on the floor, Freddy. Behind the coffee table?”
The holographic head floated forward into her Receiving area, lofting a few feet higher off the ground. “Well, wouldja look at that!” it said. “Oh, no, precious. He’s just sleeping. Soundly, by the look of it.”
The holo-head turned back to her.
“You should grab a disco-nap yourself, partygirl! Thanks so much for using HoloGreet! If I could just ask you to do me a massive B-F-Favor and pleasepleaseplease don’t forget to fill out the survey they send to your terminal? That’s how I get my bonus.” The head winked at her. “Daddy needs a full body laser-lance demulsion!”
“Wait, what?” said Penelope. “Hold on! How do you know he’s sleeping? Look at the blood – I think it’s blood – dripping from his forehead?”
“Oh! No, no, no!” said Freddy. “My delicate, deranged damsel. That’s just chocolate sauce!”
“That’s just wine!”
“We were drinking beer and Scotch.”
“What a little hellcat!”
“Freddy,” said Penelope. “Look closer. Don’t you think his head looks kinda, like, smashed?”
“Looks like you guys were kinda smashed!” Laugh trill.
“I have audio control of his Casting room,” said Penelope. “I cranked the music super loud on his end, shouted at him, everything.”
The holo-head tilted downward, squinting at something.
“Oh my god!” exclaimed the head. “I can’t believe this!”
“What?” said Penelope. “What is it?”
“You like The Semplica Girls?”
“Well,” said Penelope. “Yes. But what does that have to do –“
“- Pips,” said Freddy. “I misjudged you. I adore The Semplica Girls!”
“Aren’t they’re great?” said Penelope, grinning despite herself.
“Frankly, I’m surprised that you listen to The Semplica Girls, but don’t use our Trix Domina materials.”
“I guess I don’t take the lyrics literally.”
The holo-head winked again. “Oh, I do.”
“Freddy,” said Penelope, “would it be ok if we focused on the possibly dead guy here?”
“Oh, right. Well, I told you, sillypuss! He’s just sleeping. Probably just super spent after such an amazing HoloGreet holo-date!”
“Can’t you access his Casting room camera and zoom in or whatever, to make sure?”
“I can’t, princess. He has to give consent.”
“He can’t give consent if he’s fucking dead!”
“Woah! And a diva! Listen, supermodel, I don’t think he’s dead, and even if I did, I’m sure it isn’t HoloGreet’s fault. You’re definitely barking up the wrong tree there, maneater. That’s a harsh allegation. Can I just give you some advice? Definitely, definitely don’t mention that on the survey. It’s not like HoloGreet just goes around bludgeoning people then covering it up. We’re a good-time company!”
“You’re missing the point!” shouted Penelope.
“I think the point is that you’re freaking out for no reason, dramaclub! Let me ask you this, did you try turning his side off, then turning it back on again?”
“Do I look stupid?”
“Did you try it?”
“I’ve got fix-bot goo jamming my Visual button!”
“Mangy microscopic maggots! Did you try a manual reboot of the entire system?”
Penelope’s eyes hit the ceiling, then the floor. “No,” she said sheepishly.
“Oh, dear,” said Freddy. “Waste my time next time! The holo is probably just frozen. I’ll refresh it.” The image of Richard/Rich/Dick’s Casting room dissipated, restoring Penelope’s Receiving area to its natural state, an empty twelve-by-fourteen space covered in light-green softplast. After a few minutes, the holo-projectors blared back to life, rendering the scene again.
“Well, wouldja look at that?” said Freddy. “Looks like he’s still just lying there, sleeping.”
Penelope threw her arms in the air. “Sleeping, Freddy?”
“Well, it’s not like he’s been murdered! At least not by HoloGreet! Have you tried shooting in some scents to try to rouse the tuckered tiger?”
“Yes, I tried that!”
“Did you try sending in a fart?”
“No.” She pinched the bridge of her nose, squeezing her eyes closed. “I didn’t try sending in a fart, Freddy.”
“You must assent for scent!” barked the holo-head, followed by another laugh trill. “Seriously, though, doll-face. Why not try sending in a fart?”
“What we need to do is send a medi-cloud to his sliver!” said Penelope.
“Pips, think about it! If he’s dead, he’s not going to be offended by a little fart! Sheesh!”
“I’m not sending him a fart!” said Penelope.
“Cool your crotch, princess!” said Freddy. “I’ll send one in. Quite frankly, I’m surprised that a girl who listens to The Semplica Girls is too shy to send in a fart.”
Penelope leapt in front of the holo-head, raising her hands.
“DON’T SEND IN A FART!”
Penelope hugged her elbows, rocking back and forth like an asylum resident. “Well, because,” she said. “We had a really unbelievable date. I don’t want to…sour it.”
Freddy’s face softened.
“Oh, honey. I get it. I understand.” The scintillating head smiled benevolently, its voice a gentle whisper now. “I’ll just send in some mulch. Mulch doesn’t smell as bad. Ok?”
“Well,” said Penelope. “I guess that would be ok. It’s just that –“
“What is it, sweet spirit? You can tell me anything. Freddy’s here.”
“I know I just met him and all, but…I think he could be the one.”
“Oh, my love. You destroy me. I am so super-convinced now that you aren’t the murderer! Wow. This is huge. The profundity of this moment! The tender triumph of love at first sight, of true love! So touching! So hallmark! I’m tearing up right now. Can you see it through the display? Can you? Wow. Just wow! Ok. Mulch isn’t too bad, Penelope. I’m just going to send in a little stinky mulch, ok?”
“All right,” said Penelope. She traced a delicate figure-eight with her toe on the floor. “I guess mulch isn’t so bad.” When she looked up, a fine mist was twinkling into Richard/Rich/Dick’s Casting room.
“Hrm,” said Freddy.
“Hrm?” said Penelope.
“Wouldja look at that?” said Freddy. “He’s still not moving.”
“You see?” said Penelope. “We need to send a medi-cloud to his sliver!”
“I’m sure that’s not necessary,” said Freddy. “At this point, I’m going to say that you’re just being hysterical. No offence, partygirl, but from where I’m sitting, you’re kinda goin’ Lohan.”
Penelope closed her eyes, bowing her head. “Maybe – ”
“Yes, my damsel?”
“– Maybe we should just go ahead and…send in a fart.”
“Oh, precious, I already did. We don’t have mulch on file yet. It’s coming soon, though. All sorts of off-the-beaten-path smells! Mulch! Manure! Burnt hair! Millipedes!”
“Ugh! People use those?”
“Oh, god yes.” The holo-head raised a curled eyebrow, pulling the ends of the festively-tied mustache with it. “People are different.”
“Freddy, can you please just send a medi-cloud?”
“What am I, nine-to-the-double-uno? I’d love to, sincerely I would, but that’s not my department, shorty. You think they give HoloGreet medi-clouds to shoot off all willy-nilly? It’s illegal to send a cloud without cause. Plently of nanos floating out there without mucking the air up any further. I’ll tell you, Pips. Once, just once, I’d like to eat a stack of pancakes without having to pick nanos out of my maple syrup!”
“Then call the medcenter at his complex! Have them go to his sliver to check on him!”
“YOU CALL THEM, TRAMPSTAMP!” Freddy whimper-yelped an instant later, a holographic hand popping over his mouth.
“I don’t know where he lives, asshole!”
“Penelope, I am deeply sorry. Listen to me when I tell you this: You are my treasure.”
“I’m just so frustrated!”
“Dear heart, we must regroup. WE’RE ON THE SAME TEAM. I would totes call his medcenter, in a nanosecond! But medcenters don’t take calls from outside complex during dusting hours, you know that! And the dusting started at 3:00. Now, if you had just asked me five minutes ago – ”
“Ahhh!” shouted Penelope. “Fine!” She marched to the corner of the room and pulled open a dresser hatch. “I’m going over there myself.”
“Pips, are you insane?” said Freddy. “The dusting has started!”
“I’ve got a duster suit.”
“Wooptie-doo, priceshopper! You’ll still get arrested!”
“The Bluesuits hardly patrol during dustings anymore,” said Penelope. “Trust me, I have friends who go out for fun.”
“I need his address, Freddy.”
“Oh, sugarplum, you know I can’t give you that.”
“Gosh, I would hate to have to trash you on the survey, Freddy.”
“Woah! Don’t smear your makeup, diva! Let’s see. Da, da di da da. Kri-kri-kri-kri-krah! Boom! Richard Righsen, 52 Fellsway West, Complex Sirius, Sixth floor, Sliver 601. It’s a luxury sliver! More of a hunk than a sliver. Nice, Pips. He’s only ten minutes away by foot! Let’s hope he’s a hunk, for your sake.”
“Thanks, Freddy,” said Penelope. “He is.”
“—and that he’s working with more than a sliver!” Laugh trill, almost three octaves. “Oh, we’re having too much fun! Girl, can I just tell you something?”
“Quick,” said Penelope.
“That blouse is super-cute.”
“Gee, thanks Freddy.” She pulled the duster suit over her clothes and donned the facemask. “That’s helpful.”
“Color, Pattern, Texture and Shine!”
“You can get out of my sliver now.”
“Whatever you say, fashionforward! You’ll fill out the survey and say totally amazing things about me, right?”
“Oh, Freddy,” said Penelope. “I am going to fill out that survey and say things you wouldn’t believe!”
“Appreciate it, superstar!” said Freddy. “Good luck! And keep an eye out for that survey!”
“Oh, definitely,” said Penelope. “Hey, Freddy, any nicknames on Richard’s profile?”
“What does he go by?”
“Dick!” Laugh trill, achieving three octaves.
“Hilarious,” said Penelope. “About nicknames, Freddy? No one calls me ‘Pips’.”
“Damn, Mistress P.! Hurt me! Put me in my place!”
Penelope marched toward the blast foyer. The holographic head floated in front of her. “Penelope. Wait! I need to warn you about one thing before you go out into that hot mess.”
“Quickly!” snapped Penelope.
“It’s about the survey. It’s obnoxious. Instead of one through five, five meaning ‘most agree,’ it’s a scale of five through one, one meaning ‘most agree.’”
“Really! Isn’t that annoying? Does that make sense? You’ll remember that?”
Penelope pushed past the hologram, the image of Freddy’s bald head and facial hair-craft stretching across her duster suit as she passed.
“You didn’t answer, so I’m just going to assume you understand what I said about the survey!” said Freddy as Penelope parted. “Thanks for using HoloGreet! I hope your holo-date was a hopeful holler! They make me say that! Remember, Pips! Survey!”
Freddy’s disembodied head poofed.
“Dear lord,” said Penelope.
She entered the blast foyer, disengaging the inner door and raising her arms parallel to the floor. On cue, a rush of air blasted her suit, filters in the ceiling sucking up any errant nano-bots on her person. She engaged the outer door and stepped out into the hallway. Thankfully, it was empty, everyone hunkered down in their slivers for the dusting. She hurried to the end of the hall and entered the MG cylinder, which skipped most floors and took you straight to the mezzanine. Most older tenants wouldn’t take the cylinder, opting for the old-school elevator. They had lobbied the management of Complex Acrididae to install a hologram that would make the MG cylinder appear like a classic elevator, to make it less terrifying. They were turned down.
Penelope pressed ‘M,’ feeling the embrace of the magna-gravity take hold immediately. Three dings chimed from low to high, and she was shot downward cradled safely in physics she couldn’t comprehend. After falling 47 floors, the hug of the magna-gravity loosened, setting her down safely on the mezzanine, momentum reeling her forward as she stepped free of the tug of the cylinder.
Complex Acrididae’s mall stretched before her, as big as several city blocks. Clothing shops and a food court, virtual golf course, arcade, medcenter. Penelope had the immediate craving to shop and eat, but the place was a ghost town. Promontory had decreed that, other than a skeleton crew at each complex’s medcenter, mall businesses would be shut down during dustings to encourage residents to stay in their slivers. The shops were pissed, but the rule was effective, discouraged people from going out price-shopping during dusting hours. The pheromone was supposed to be harmless. If you were caught in an errant gust of the stuff, though, you’d have a swarm of hot-and-bothered grasshoppers humping and munching on you within seconds. Still, plenty used to risk the swarms to get the amazing deals at Complex Drexler.
Penelope hustled across the marble expanse, steering clear of the medcenter, which she needn’t have done, since the orderly was engrossed in a game of virtual Tetris, gesturing wildly as a circular wall built up around him faster than he could eliminate rows. She entered the blast hall near the main entrance and was air-blown again.
Penelope’s heart fluttered in her chest as the air coursed over her suit. Maybe I shouldn’t worry, she thought. Frank and Pratima do this all the time. Hell, they try to get hit by the pheromone. It was a rush, according to Pratima, locusts swarming around you, enveloping you like a womb. It all sounded pretty gross to Penelope, but the way Frank described it, you’d think it was a spiritual experience. Locusts don’t mean the end of times, she remembered him saying once, when they were at the city orphan crèche together. They’re our protectors, our saviors. It’s perfect irony!
When the blast hall finished its cycle, Penelope took a deep breath. Here goes. She shoulder-checked the main gate. It was open, as she hoped. Promontory had stopped short of locking down complexes during dustings, fearing backlash if they took away the basic freedom of people to make poor decisions for themselves.
Penelope pushed out into the grey. Twelve or so dusters hovered in the sky, floating behemoths. They were massive, beetle-shaped. Much larger than they looked on TV. The dusters pumped a pale purple mist onto several dense nano-clouds.
She was familiar with the gist of the process, if not the science. When the nano-clouds were sufficiently coated, they’d release several million locusts from silos presiding along the outskirts of the city. Swooning at the pheromone’s scent, the swarms would run rampant on the clouds of microscopic robots, an orgiastic romp that lasted about an hour before the chemical killed the locusts themselves, who rained to the ground, stomachs full. Hoover teams would suck up the engorged grasshoppers, making the city look presentable for shopping again. The drill was never-ending, thousands of varieties of nano-bots having been designed to self-replicate before The Big Fuckup. Maybe it was just as well. Half the city was employed by the process — in the pheromone plant, the breeding silos, or on hoover teams.
Penelope cut down Fellsway, where Complex Sirius loomed. It was dome-style, one of the richer complexes in the city. Some tenants were even allowed sheerscreen balconies, which filtered out even the most microscopic nanos while letting air flow freely, giving the feeling of being outdoors. Of course, you had to make a massive contribution to Promontory for the privilege.
In the distance, plumes were rising from the breeding silos, like clouds from the nuclear power plants Penelope remembered from her childhood. A thick billowy line extended from each silo in the direction of the nano-clouds. Presently, a baritone hiss began to pervade the air.
“Crap!” said Penelope. “Crapcrapcrapcrap!” Errant grasshoppers, astray from their swarm, were already starting to dot the air. She picked up her pace.
“Almost there,” she said. “Piece of cake.”
A moment later, she wished she hadn’t spoken. Twenty yards from Complex Sirius’s main gate, she heard an alarm sound. Penelope froze. Did someone spot me? She scanned the area. No. The plaza was desolate. The caustic wail of a second alarm cut through the air, sounding like it came from Complex Acrididae. Finally, the city alarm began to howl.
What the hell? Penelope sprinted up the long, broad stairway of Complex Sirius. Only a few feet from the entrance, the swarm gates came crashing down, sealing the complex.
“Oh, boy,” said Penelope. “Not cool.” She pounded gloved fists on the gate. “Not cool, dudes!”
Across the plaza, an older stone building came to life. Blue lights fastened around its octagonal perimeter flashed in random rhythm. Eight doors opened in unison with a loud shhunk!, Bluesuits streaming out in eight different directions. One was heading directly toward her.
“Shit!” said Penelope. She ducked behind a standing billboard outside the mezzanine entrance, a luminescent panel scrolling through revelatory testimonials about the miraculous benefits of facial chalk. A Bluesuit cadre stormed up the stairs, breaking off into groups of three, inspecting the swarm gates, speaking in gruff, authoritative tones. Penelope strained to make out what they were saying. She wasn’t sure, but it sounded like it had something to do with the pheromone. Something was wrong with the pheromone.
She crouched statue-still behind the billboard until the Bluesuit cadre re-formed, storming off in the direction of Complex Citi. The plaza was empty again. Gotta make a break for it, she thought. No sooner had Penelope stepped out from behind the billboard than she spotted a Bluesuit running in her direction. She stifled a screech, leaping back behind the billboard.
Did he see me? She pressed her body to the ground. In the space between the billboard and the plaza pavement, two blue boots approached. Several feet from the billboard, the boots stopped.
“Sir or m’am!” said a male voice. “Exit the advertisement!”
Penelope rose from the ground, inching out from behind the billboard. “Who, ‘lil ‘ole me?” she said sweetly.
“M’am,” said the Bluesuit, “You are on the street during dusting hours in violation of the law. I’m going to need you to come with me.”
“Oh, hahaha, handsome,” said Penelope. She went to swoop her hair, succeeding only in drawing a gloved hand awkwardly across the mouth filter of her facemask. “I mean, that won’t really be necessary, will it, good-looking?”
“M’am, martial law has been declared, and I need to take you off the street,” said the Bluesuit.
“What’s going on?” said Penelope.
“Is there a problem with the new pheromone or something?”
“Ummm…” said the Bluesuit. He looked left and right, then back to her. “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”
“Wow.” Penelope rolled her eyes. “Cute and mature! Sir, let me explain. I have to get into this complex. I have a friend who might be injured and need my help.”
“The complexes are locked down.”
“Yes. I can see that, otherwise I’d definitely be inside! If you can just get me in here, I’ll never go out during a dusting again. I promise!”
“M’am, you have to come with me.”
Penelope took a step backward. “I’m sorry, I totally can’t!”
“You totally can, and you totally will.”
The Bluesuit reached into a sheath in the back of his suit, pulling out a stunner.
“Officer, that’s not necessary!”
“M’am, this will be non-lethal.”
“Are you shitting me?”
“Your tone indicates mischief and anti-capitalist sentiments.”
“Anti-capitalist? I love to shop! All I do is fucking shop!”
“I am authorized by Promontory to immobilize you for your own safety.”
The Bluesuit advanced upon her, stunner raised. Penelope cowered, tripping backward over the spurs of the billboard. She came down hard, slamming the back of her head onto the concrete.
In the moments before her vision faded into unconsciousness, Penelope found herself staring at the sky, pondering the wanton, aggressive dance of the swarm-clouds above. The locust-clouds enveloped the nano-clouds in a seductive, fatal embrace. There was something beautiful about it, in a way. So wild. So passionate.
Then she noticed something else.
Oh, dear, thought Penelope, as she faded to black. I get it, now…
Above her, the locusts were swarming, but not just the nano-clouds. They were attacking the dusters.
<<End Part 2. Continue the story by clicking HERE>>