When Penelope came to, a man in a blue suit lay on top of her. Two figures loomed, decked out in faded green duster suits. The taller one brandished an old-fashioned billy club, like cops carried in classic movies.
“Well, well, well,” said a male voice. “Look who decided to join the swarm?”
“And you said she had complex-complex,” said the other, a woman. “I just figured she was a snob.”
“Not so indoorsy after all,” said the man. “Every grasshopper ventures out beyond the fray at some point. Thing is — fly out alone, you’re liable to end up a crunchy snack.”
“You end up a crunchy snack anyway.”
“True.” The man tapped the billy club into his left palm. “True…”
“Please,” said Penelope. She raised her hands to shield her face. “Don’t hurt me.”
“Hurt you?” said the man. “Penelope Birdsong! We just saved you from imminent extinction!”
Penelope’s hands parted. Behind the man’s facemask, she could make out magenta contacts and a telltale, trapezoidal eyebrow weave.
“Frank?” said Penelope.
The man took a boot and shoved the Bluesuit off of her. “We have a winner!”
“Frank!” exclaimed Penelope. “Pratima!”
“’Lil Orphan Annie!” said the woman. Penelope had practically grown up with Frank and Pratima at the city orphan crèche. She had gone her own way after liberation, but Frank and Pratima had remained glued. “Having a helluva time?”
“Having a super amazing time,” said Penelope. “What’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you what’s going on,” said Frank. “The new pheromone is totally jetpack!”
“Wait. What? I thought something was wrong with it,” said Penelope. “The dusters. Closing the swarm gates. Bluesuits going mental?”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Pratima. “I mean, we’re probably all gonna die, but –” She pulled an orange canister from her pack. “My buddy Adrian works at the plant. He was able to get us the good stuff! Hand me my waders, Frank.”
Frank tossed Pratima a pair of thick green overalls, which she slipped over her duster suit. “Ok, Frank, my good man.” Pratima raised her arms. “Do me.”
Frank sprayed the waders with a generous coating of pheromone. A volley of locusts hurtled toward Pratima, a maelstrom rallying around her legs and chest. Within moments, it was almost half a foot thick.
“Ahhhh!” said Pratima. “So amazing!”
“What the –” said Penelope.
“– Watch this, ‘Lil Orphan Annie!” Pratima walked toward the broad stairway that led down to street level. As she neared the edge, she broke into a run, leaping when she reached it. “Zen Nouveau, byotch!”
There was a collective, mournful wail as she jumped, the locusts blitzing Pratima’s waders in waves, chasing the nectar that so enraptured them. “Weeeeee!” Pratima floated down the length of the stairway, buoyed by infinite flapping wings. She touched down safely on the sidewalk below.
“Great googly moogly!” said Penelope.
“Now you’re getting it,” said Frank. He had his waders on and was coating them with pheromone. A crowd of grasshoppers began clinging rapturously. When the crowd became a mob, he crouched down, then sprung up, hurtling at least forty feet straight into the air. He levitated above the plaza, waving his arms for balance. “So jetpack!” The acute drone softened to a warm purr after the locusts had made their rendezvous, and Frank floated slowly, then faster, downward. A few feet from the ground, he was in freefall.
“Frank!” said Penelope. “You’re falling!”
Frank bent his knees to absorb the shock then tumbled into a forward roll. He shot upright. “Way higher than last time, Pratima!”
“Newsworthy!” said Pratima, who had ascended the stairs back to the plaza, a several-inches-thick layer of grasshoppers still persisting around her.
“Holy — !” exclaimed Penelope. “That’s incredible!” Something occurred to her. She scanned the tiers of balconies set into the side of Complex Sirius.
“Frank, do you have an extra pair of those things?” said Penelope. “Those…waders?”
“You’re in luck,” said Frank. “We were supposed to meet Christian, but he stayed in gaming.”
“Laming,” said Pratima. “Yup. As you can see, he’s definitely not here.”
“Well, then,” said Penelope. “Throw me a pair and spray me down!”
“Get it, girl.” Frank tossed a pair of waders to Penelope. They were heavy, inter-woven with a fibrous, metallic material. “They can’t chew through that stuff,” said Frank. “No chance.”
Penelope pulled on the waders as Frank and Pratima circled, graffiti artists, covering her with a slick layer of pheromone. Locusts swarmed on cue. Thousands. Tens of thousands? The drone of the swooning swarm was practically deafening.
“You know,” shouted Penelope over the din. “I feel like a real price-shopper!”
“I know, right?” said Pratima.
“Now,” said Frank, “as soon as you move, they’ll spaz out and follow the scent. They’ll flap like crazy thinking their soul mate is making a break for it. That’ll lift you!”
“I just need to jump to the sixth story, to that balcony.” Penelope pointed to the target. “Would that be Sliver 601, you think?”
“You mean the one that says ‘601’ on the side?” said Frank. “Yeah, I think that might be Sliver 601, Birdsong!”
“Whatever, Frank!” said Penelope.
“Why?” said Pratima.
“It’s a long story,” said Penelope, “but let’s just say I think my soul mate may be up there!”
“That’s so totally hallmark!” Pratima put an elbow into Frank’s ribs. “You never did anything romantic like this when we started dating!”
“Sure!” Frank screamed over the cacophony, which continued to rise in volume. “Like spraying grasshopper pheromone on specially designed overalls so I could jump six floors using a technique we just discovered to your non-existent sheerscreen balcony? You’re right, I never did anything like that!”
“Whatever, Frank!” said Pratima.
“Ok!” said Penelope. “What do I do?”
“Just crouch down and jump up!” said Frank “Be careful. It only lasts a few seconds!”
“Pratima, can you spare another can of pheromone?” Penelope eyed the sheerscreen balcony. “I may need it.”
“Sure.” Pratima tossed a can to Penelope, which she tucked under the waders. “We’ve got cases of the stuff.”
Penelope lowered herself to the ground. The grasshoppers were mad with lust, crawling over one another to ingratiate themselves to the mesh skin of the waders. She aimed for Dick’s balcony and lunged skyward. The locusts responded, a frenzy of little wings pursuing her as she ascended. As each wave of bodies reconnected, she was pumped farther upward, shooting past the sixth floor to the eighth before the winged hurricane began to wane.
She looked down on the plaza in awe. Eight floors below, Frank and Pratima were grinning through their facemasks. For several moments, she hovered, then started dropping. Slowly at first, then faster.
“Ummmmmm!” said Penelope.
“Lean forward a little bit!” shouted Pratima. “Not too much, or they’ll push you into the side of the complex and you’ll go splat!”
“Th-thanks!” said Penelope. She tilted forward. Her momentum seemed to be directing the swarm, but they were calming now, and she was rapidly approaching freefall. “Wouldn’t want to g-go sp-splat or anything!” She registered the swarm starting to push her down, chasing the pheromone as it headed in the other direction, speeding her descent. She hooked her arm over the railing of the sixth floor balcony, a torrent of pain slicing down her shoulder blade. Deep-tissue massage, thought Penelope. She wrenched herself over the railing onto the utility balcony that stretched along the perimeter of sheerscreen. For several moments, she lay there, breathless.
“Newsworthy!” shouted Frank from below.
“Featurette!” said Pratima. “Drumsolo!”
Penelope tore off the waders, hurling them to the far side of the utility balcony, where the grasshoppers continued to have their way with it. She leaned over the railing. “Beginner’s luck!” she yelled down.
“Awesome, isn’t it?” said Pratima.
“Totally jetpack!” said Penelope. “We should do this all the time!”
“Right?” said Pratima.
“Hell, no!” said Penelope. “That was fucking terrifying!”
Pratima waved her hand dismissively. “Bah!”
Penelope made her way along the utility balcony, pressing her facemask against the sheerscreen. The sliver was dark, with the exception of one room, which was flickering. Dick’s holo-room. She pulled out the canister of pheromone Pratima had given her, tracing a large circle on the sheerscreen. Locusts instantly bound to it — feasting, frolicking, fornicating. Sheerscreen was supposed to be virtually impervious to swarms, but that was before the new pheromone.
Come on, thought Penelope. Come on. She could see the sheerscreen material starting to degrade, paradoxically losing its transparency as its structure eroded. Yes, she thought. It’s working!
“Frank!” she called down. “I need that billy club!”
“Be there in a blip!” Pratima refreshed Frank’s waders, and he rocketed toward her, reaching the fifth floor before his buoy-swarm began to fade.
“You’re gonna have to catch it!” Frank was falling. “Ready?”
“Ready!” Penelope swiped the billy club from the air just before it fell to the utility balcony below.
“Quality catch!” said Frank.
“Catchpenny throw!” said Penelope.
Penelope turned back to the sheerscreen, where the locusts had ravaged the circle of pheromone. She stabbed at it with the billy club, punching the circle inward, tumbling through the hole onto Dick’s inner balcony. A pile of heated lazepillows broke her fall. Grabbing the grasshopper-covered sheerscreen, she frisbee-tossed it back outside. It cleared the utility balcony and lofted across the plaza. She could hear Frank and Pratima squealing with delight.
“Rockstar!” said Frank.
“Heiress!” exclaimed Pratima. “Sextape!”
“See you up there, Penelop –!” said a third voice, cut short by a pained yelp.
“—Mute it, locust-breath!” snapped Frank.
“What?” said Penelope. “Who’s that?”
“N-n-nothing!” said Pratima. “No one! Carry on! As you were! Good luck!”
Penelope took a deep breath, surveying the scene. Dick’s balcony was luxurious, outfitted with its own bar and kitchen setup, sprawling couches encircling a state-of-the-art media pit. She crossed the lavish space. Mercifully, the door to the sliver was unlocked. That would have sucked. She slid open the door and tucked her head inside.
“Dick? You here, buddy? You ok?” She slid the door closed behind her. The interior was so dark, she could hardly make anything out. It was huge, though, she could tell that much, as impressive as the balcony. Damn, Dick, thought Penelope. Nice work.
The holo-room glowed on the far side of the living area. Penelope’s heart fluttered. She rushed to the glimmering space. Pushing inside, she came upon the same scene from only an hour earlier, no longer in hologram: Couch cushions akimbo, Amstels littering the floor, cookie-covered couch. In Dick’s Receiving area, holo-projectors blared an image of her own Casting room at Complex Acrididae, a near match to Dick’s, though less disheveled.
Penelope tiptoed to the edge of the Casting couch, tensing. On the far side, coming slowly into view, was Dick’s body. Lifeless. Or so it appeared. A pool of blood congealed around a concave wound on his head, collapsed inward, revealing a jagged portion of skull.
“Oh, my god!” Penelope fell on the body, shaking it. “Dick!”
She pressed fingers against his neck. No pulse. His skin was cold, rubbery. She lowered her head onto his chest. No heartbeat.
“Dick, I’m so sorry.” She took his face in her hands. “I’m so, totally sorry.” Leaning down, she whispered into his ear. “I just know that you were the one…”
Penelope Birdsong craned her neck to the heavens.
“Fuck my life!” she shouted.
“PENELOPE! YOU MARVELOUS, MELANCHOLY MEERCAT! YOU ABSOLUTELY SLAY ME!”
The voice had boomed from across the sliver.
Penelope cowered as the projectors went dark and the walls of the holo-room crashed outward.
Light washed across the sliver, where a man in a gem-studded tuxedo sparkled under a spotlight. Several tiers of hairchitecture encircled his head, smaller with each layer, like a wedding cake. Eyebrow extensions ran along the same curving line as his mustache, creating a parallel effect, tied festively where the eyebrow-ends met the mustache-ends.
In each hand, the man held a champagne glass.
“Hello, Pips!” said the man.
Penelope couldn’t believe it.
“…Freddy?” she said.
<<End Part 3. Continue the story by clicking HERE>>