Tag Archives: far future

Locusts In Your Froyo

Story 1 Penelope at the fridge ( for email )

You could go outside when the dusters weren’t spraying, but Penelope wouldn’t be going out. Not today.

Peeling the covers from her face, she grimaced resentfully as shards of light stabbed through the slits between the sunblockers. She sat up, too quickly, the bedroom lurching forward in concert with her stomach. Her cranium howled, its innards throbbing, molten.

Spilling herself onto the floor, Penelope army-crawled to the toilet. She flipped the lid and braced the tank, making a pistol with her right hand, jamming the barrel down her throat and pulling the trigger. After hunching over the receptacle for several cathartic heaves, she collapsed onto the cool tile of the bathroom floor, undulating waves of blood coursing ecstatically beneath her sweaty forehead.

“Fuck,” said Penelope.

She whipped her hand in the direction of the door, using the momentum to flop onto her stomach. After slithering a few feet, she evolved from shamed salamander to downtrodden dog, propping herself up on all fours and padding the rest of the way to the kitchen. She yanked the door to the inter-fridge, a threatened cat now, hissing as fluorescent light screamed out at her. Squinting to make out shapes, she finally saw it. A glint of something. Yes. Bright orange. That’s it. Glorious. Hope.

“Oh, thank god,” said Penelope. She seized the bottle of Crush Orange and slapped the fridge closed. It bleeped, addressing her:

‘Weather: 99 Degrees Fahrenheit! Air Quality: Poor! Vapor Clouds: Moderate! Nano Clouds: Moderate! Locust Clouds: Prohibitive! Dustings will occur today {June 4th, 2057} between {9:00 am and 11:00 am} and again between {3:00 pm and 5:00 pm}! Calories extracted: 1,083.884 for {Crush Orange Soda, Two Liter Bottle}! Say ‘More Information’ for further nutritional information, or push the green Info button!’

“Shut up, fridge,” said Penelope. She tore off the cap and jammed the nozzle down her throat, suckling the cold soda greedily. Sliding down the side of the fridge, she nursed a few more minutes on the floor. Satiated, she slammed the restorative down triumphantly, wiping orange fluid from her chin. She raised a fist into the air.

“I say goddamn that’s good!” Penelope announced, to no one in particular. A rush of faux-energy permeated the cells of her body.

She squeezed her tongue between thumb and pointer finger, pinching off a wee-bot. A pipsqueak drone. One of the larger varieties, despite its name. At least you can see the damn thing. She flicked the wee-bot across the room, where it came to life just before hitting the floor, barely audible as it hovered purposelessly. Levitating too close to the ventilator, the wee-bot was sucked inside. Penelope could swear she heard a tiny robotic yelp.

Suddenly, Penelope felt ravenous. Grasping the edge of the kitchen island, she pulled herself to her feet and launched her upper body back into the fridge, scrounging frenziedly. Retreating from the fray, she transferred her rations to the kitchen island.

Calories extracted: 865.54 for: {Hot Dogs, Beef}, {Tomatoes, Cherry}, {Cheese, String}, {Bread, Wheat} — 

“Don’t care right now, fridge!” she said. The fridge blooped, dejected.

Penelope slipped two hot dogs from slimy packaging and slammed them on top of a piece of wheat bread, then commenced stripping countless spindles of string cheese on top of the hot dogs.

“Come on, come on,” Penelope urged the string cheese. Finally, there was enough.

She passed on slicing the cherry tomatoes, the crucible of the string cheese having been so profound. She fisted a bunch onto the sandwich. Several petered to the end of the island and fell to the floor, sheep off a cliff. She mashed the top piece of bread down on the dubious structure to stop further roll-off, realizing, too late, that she hadn’t cooked the hot dogs.

Penelope allowed herself only a nanosecond to consider the morbid piece of work before punching it into her mouth. She shut off all thoughts, gorging. In under a minute the sandwich, if you could call it that, was within her.

“That was good,” said Penelope, still chewing, breathing heavily.

“It’s a good idea to eat,” she opined. She swallowed the last piece of sandwich, clenching her throat to force it down.

“I’m feeling better,” she announced. “That was a good idea.” She nodded gravely.

“I’m feeling better,” Penelope repeated. She steadied herself against the kitchen island, squeezing her eyes closed, giving off the air of one in a state of deep contemplation who has just come to a profoundly tragic conclusion.

“Trash!” she shouted. A receptacle shot out from the island with a triumphant trumpet call, where a deconstructed version of the uncooked-hot-dog, string cheese and cherry tomato sandwich projected from her mouth propelled by a torrent of orange soda. After several exquisite convulsions, Penelope found herself back on the floor.

“Ok,” said Penelope, staring at the ceiling of her sliver. “That wasn’t good. That was a stupid fucking idea.”

She pulled herself up. Opening the freezer, she rescued a bottle of vodka from the center of an encroaching crust of freezer ice. She dumped a few fingers of vodka into a glass and mixed it with more orange soda. Bracing the edge of the island, she swallowed a large gulp, shivering with nauseous ecstasy as the alcohol warmed her viscera.

“If that’s how it’s gotta be,” said Penelope, “then that’s how it’s gotta be.” She shuffled to the couch with her restorative, a biped now, though still shamed. She collapsed onto the couch, managing to stay upright, mostly.

“Television,” said Penelope in monotone. Nothing happened.

“TV!” she shouted. The telescreen came to life. A Tyrannosaurus Rex came bounding toward her. Penelope cowered, cradling her drink like mother-shielding-child. “3D off!” she screamed. The T-Rex receded into the screen. Penelope checked her drink, caressing the glass gently for a few moments before putting it to her mouth and taking another generous swallow.

“Channel up,” said Penelope. News. She stared at the talking head dully. Promontory rolling out enhanced version of the pheromone today…dusters spraying two troublesome nano-clouds in south city…new pheromone makes nanos even more irresistible to locusts…Promontory hopeful that nano-clouds significantly reduced in upcoming weeks…

“…Yada yada yada,” said Penelope. “Channel.”

Pimp Your Shelter.

“Channel.”

Low-Cal Low-Cost Locust with Laura-Lee.

“Channel.”

Doomsday Gloaters.

Penelope fingered the lip of her glass. She took another gulp. The benevolent glow of self-esteem was gratifying. She felt almost human again.

“Channel…channel…channel…channel…channel…”

The Bachelorette.

“TV off!” said Penelope.

The TV blooped, rejected.

Penelope sighed. In her periphery, the soft glow of the holo-room still beckoned from the night before. For the first time that day, Penelope smiled. She gathered herself up from the couch and puttered to the holo-room to shut it down. After taking a step inside, she leapt out with a shrill screech, pressing her back against the opposite wall.

“Really?” she said.

She darted her head back into the holo-room. A man was splayed on the floor, prostrate. Rather, the image of a man. Richard. Or was it Rich? Dick? She couldn’t believe she had forgotten. He strongly preferred one of them, she remembered that much. Did he actually prefer Dick?

Richard/Rich/Dick scintillated on the floor of Receiving, surrounded by flickering images from last night’s holo-debauche. His Casting room was littered with snack miscellany, the cushions from his Casting couch scattered to-and-fro around the room, a few lying on top of him. A bag of Newman’s Own Choco-Gourmet Grasshopper Grahams was spilled all over his couch. He must have kept partying after I left, thought Penelope. Those weren’t on the date supply list.

Several cans of Amstel orbited the man’s head, and an outstretched hand clutched an empty bottle of Glenlivet. The gentlemanly-looking glass he had been teetering flirtatiously the night before was smashed a few feet away, and his hair was matted with chocolate sauce.

“Wow, what a mess,” said Penelope. She giggled, casting her mind back. “What an amazing date,” she said with an uncharacteristic lack of sarcasm.

Penelope tiptoed into her Casting room. A glass-encased mini-bar held the remnants of her own bacchanal consumption — a few Amstels and a fifth of Glenlivet, hers only a quarter gone. She had nibbled, apparently, on crackers, cheese and strawberries, but didn’t particularly remember that. Richard/Rich/Dick had the same spread in Receiving. HoloGreet recommended that couples coordinate identical food in Casting and Receiving to make it feel more like a real date. For hetero holo-dates, it was customary for the man to send a package with the date supplies a few days prior, but with the nano-clouds increasingly prohibitive, city postal was more and more unreliable. ‘Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor hail, nor nano-storm, nor locust swarm shall keep us from our appointed rounds!’ But they weren’t living up. These days, it was common for each side to pick up date supplies from their own complex.

Penelope walked to the control panel and switched on Audio. The Semplica Girls were still blasting on his side. She had been blown away when Richard/Rich/Dick said he had heard of her favorite Cloud Wave group, much less that it was his favorite band. The Semplica Girls were not for everyone, to put it mildly. Post-originalist gothic neo-punk. But he sang along (passionately!) with every lyric of Tami Xay’s scorched-lung wail as it cut above Gwen Maksimenko’s sinister synths.

How the hell is he sleeping through this? she thought. Audio controls were shared, so she killed the music from her end.

“Toodles, whatever your name is!” said Penelope. She pressed the Visual button, but it was jammed. A grey goo of fixbots had embedded themselves in the crevice around the button in a vain attempt to repair something, anything. There must have been tens of thousands of them to make a goo this thick.

“Damn it!” said Penelope. Nanos were always getting through the complex ventilators, far afield of their fabrication plants and workshops, which had been closed for decades now anyway — ever since The Big Fuckup of 2026. The management of Complex Acrididae claimed they were working on the nano-filtering problem, but it only seemed to get worse.

Penelope snatched a knife from the cheese plate and started scraping off the fix-bot goo, but it wasn’t happening — they kept whirring off the knife back into the crevice. She gave up, tossing the knife across the room in frustration.

For a few minutes, she stared fondly at the image of Richard/Rich/Dick sleeping peacefully on the floor of Receiving. What a great guy. He was a Strategic Foresight grad student, whatever that meant. Brownish-blonde hair, with piercing blue eyes and a distinguished mustache. She was usually distrustful of men with mustaches, assuming they were likely pedophiles and/or serial killers, but Richard/Rich/Dick really made it work.

Penelope clicked Audio back on.

“Richard?” she said. “Wake up, morning rose!” He didn’t stir. She would have flung a couch cushion at him if he was actually in the room.

“Rich!” she shouted. “Wake up, locust-breath! The date’s way over, dumpling!”

She cranked the music until it was blaring on his side. The Semplica Girls were killin’ it in his sliver, wherever it was. Richard/Rich/Dick didn’t move.

“Oh, I got it,” said Penelope. He had assented to scent control, and the permissions were still active. Penelope’s manicured fingers danced across the Scent Pad, sending him a myriad assortment: vanilla, cinnamon, honeysuckle, sage, lavender. Apple pie baking. Bacon cooking. Coffee brewing.

“Coffee’s on!” said Penelope. “Bacon cooking, man!” Penelope could see the mist seeping into his Casting room, but he was sleeping through all of it. HoloGreet did provide an assortment of disgusting scents, for fetishists. Penelope’s brow furrowed. She shook her head. She didn’t have the heart.

“DICK!” yelled Penelope. She fell back onto her Casting couch. “Tell you what, I’m just gonna lie here with you, handsome.” She smiled at the man lying there with chocolate sauce smeared all over the side of his head. “Although, buddy, you could seriously use a shower.”

She reached over and plucked a strawberry from the bowl, still half full on her end. She went to dip the strawberry in her chocolate sauce, but couldn’t find it. Oh, yeah, she remembered. Not on the date menu.

At that moment, a seed that had been slowly germinating suddenly breached the surface. Penelope shot up.

“Chocolate sauce?”

She burst from the couch, ran into her Receiving area and knelt by the image of Richard/Rich/Dick.

“Oh my god,” said Penelope.

She flew to the kitchen. Yes, she had a bag of Choco-Gourmet Grasshopper Grahams. Racing back to the holo-room, she shook the cookies onto her Casting couch. She sprinted to the control panel, adjusting color settings, looking from his Casting room to hers, matching the color of the cookies on her Casting couch to the image of the ones on his. When the browns were consistent between Casting and Receiving, she looked back at Richard/Rich/Dick’s head, his hair caked with fluid.

Not brown, thought Penelope desperately. Not chocolate sauce.

Red.

Blood.

*                                                 *                                            *

Froyo YOLO Part 2

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?”

“Stuck?”

“Jammed? Is something jammed? Lodged?”

“What?”

“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?”

“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!”

“Excuse me?”

“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?”

“Freddy!”

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!”

“It’s red.”

“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!”

“Why not?”

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.”

“Kinky!”

“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.”

“C.P.T.S.!”

“What?”

“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?”

“Yup!”

“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, Freddy?”

“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.

“Excuse me?”

“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.

*                                                 *                                            *

Froyo Part 3

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.

“Bah!”

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.

*                                                 *                                            *

Froyo Part 4 no logos

Penelope huddled with Dick’s lifeless body on the floor of what used to be his holo-room, that is, before the walls had caved outward.

Across the sliver, a man in a gem-studded tuxedo scintillated under a spotlight. In his hands, he held two champagne glasses. A second beam broke off, making a searchlight-sweep of the room. It landed on Penelope, drenching her. She shielded Dick from the glare, catching a glimpse of his face fully illuminated. Something was odd about it. His skin was shiny, waxy. It was all wrong. She pressed a thumb into Dick’s cheek. It was rigid at first, then gave way suddenly, becoming gelatinous.

Softplast? Penelope felt the gel hardening on the end of her thumb as she inspected it.

“Not bad, eh?” said the sparkling man across the sliver. He parked the glasses on an octagonal standing table and began fussing with his multi-tiered hairchitecture.

Penelope’s eyes went wide. She turned back to Dick.

“Dick?” She tugged on his arm. “Are you –?”

Dick’s arm tore off.

“Ah!” said Penelope. “Oh, god!”

“At least,” said the man, “good enough for TV!”

“Oh, wow!” Penelope held Dick’s appendage aloft. A wooden spur jutted from its shoulder. “Oh, geez!”

“My damsel!” The tuxedoed man put hand-to-heart, bounding toward Penelope. The spotlight followed.

“What the –” said Penelope. “Freddy? What are you doing here?”

“Come hither, superstar!” The man gathered Penelope from the floor, spinning her toward the rear of the sliver. “I want to show you something!”

Penelope squinted through the brilliance. A dark curtain was draped in a curved arc along the entire width of the sliver, obscuring half the space. A head poked out from behind the curtain, thick hands pulling it aside to reveal the body of a small man. A dwarf. He was wearing a headset, frown-smiling.

“Lester, if you please!”

“Yep!” The dwarf leapt, snagging a rod dangling from the curtain. “Onnit!” He skittered across the sliver clutching the rod.

The curtain furled, unveiling a sea of levi-hats and hairchitecture floating and bopping on a half-moon grandstand. The crowd of dandies let out a collective exhale, as if they had been holding their breath together.

“What the –?” said Penelope. The room came awash with light. Three flutter-cams released from the ceiling, swooping to-and-fro, while two stationary cameras were fixed directly on her. “What is this?”

“Well, don’t be rude, now!” said Freddy. “Say hello!”

Penelope cocked her head like a dog honing in on a pod of windowwash widgets.

“Lester, bring me that champagne, STAT!”

“Onnit!” The dwarf scrambled across the sliver and retrieved the glasses.

“Thank you kindly, Lester,” said Freddy.

The dwarf smile-frowned. “Yep,” he said.

Freddy opened Penelope’s hand.

“…Soo?” He curled her fingers around the glass until she was holding it. “Are you surprised?”

“Who –” said Penelope. “What?”

“Studio audience, what do you think?” said Freddy. “Is she surprised?”

The flamboyant throng came to life, cheering. Joyous. Levi-hats and hairchitecture bounced to a brutal drumbeat as it pumped under a zany hammered-bird jingle. The theme was vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it.

“Where did – ?” said Penelope. “Why is – ?”

“Ok, ok!” said Freddy. “You’re killing me, Pips! How about it, studio audience? Say it with me?”

A proplasma sign flashed. Freddy shouted, the audience as chorus:

“PENELOPE BIRDSONG, WELCOME TO THESPIAN PERSUASION!”

The drove of dandies went nuts as the proplasma display pulsed the imperative: ‘GO NUTS!’

Freddy gave ‘settle-down’ hands followed by ‘give-me-more’ hands. He bowed, coming up with an aww-shucks smile.

“Yes! Yes!” he said. “Welcome, Penelope Birdsong! Welcome, studio audience! And our viewers at home watching on Tesla! Welcome to Thespian Persuasion! I’m your not-so-humble host, Freddie Clover!”

“Who?” said Penelope. “But you’re the –“

“Friends!” Freddie’s face went earnest as he addressed the audience. “I want you to consider something. I mean, really consider it! What would you do if you woke up to find the most incredible holo-date of your life injured, or, god forbid, mysteriously bludgeoned?”

The dandies conferred in precious tones.

“Would you zap off that display and pretend nothing happened?” posed Freddie. “Take a nap? Take a pill? Or…” He raised a manicured finger. “…Would you help?”

The audience did not seem of one mind. The proplasma sign flashed.

“Help!” they exclaimed.

“I know you would!” said Freddie. “Of course you would! But consider this! What if there was no one to call, no medi-cloud available, no one to help? And! What if it was dusting hours? What if the only way to help was…to go out during a dusting?”

The chorus gasped.

“Now you’re starting to comprehend the conundrum of our courageous, comely curmudgeon!” said Freddie.  “And this week’s challenge!”

Freddie raised his champagne glass.

“Penelope Birdsong!” he said. “Real talk? Cheers to you.”

“Uh,” said Penelope.

Freddie drained his glass in one gulp, brandishing it at the audience. “None for you!” he teased. The chorus let out a uniform ‘awwww.’

“Pips!” said Freddie. “Drink up!”

Penelope felt something pushing on her elbow. The dwarf was standing below her.

“Uh,” said Penelope. “Oh.” She managed a sip.

“Atsit,” said the dwarf. “Atsit.”

“Wee bit of the bubbly wubbly!” said Freddie.

“Bubble wubble,” said the dwarf. He took the glass from her, vanishing into a makeshift backstage area.

“Now, Penelope,” said Freddie. “We’ve been secretly taping you for the past two weeks –“

“You’ve been –?” said Penelope. “Is that allowed?”

“Of course it is!” said Freddie. “Especially when you consent!”

“Consent?” said Penelope. “When did I — ? What did I fucking –?”

“Hey now!” Freddie hugged Penelope so tight that she chirped. “You’re lucky we’re on Tesla!”

“But I –” said Penelope.

“You must have double-tapped on something!” said Freddie. “Because here you are, sweetstuff!”

“Double-tapped?”

“Double-blinked?” said Freddie.

“No,” said Penelope. “I’m sure I didn’t –”

“Don’t tell me you double-clicked!” said Freddie. “Pips, upgrade your hardware!”

“What?” said Penelope. “I didn’t tap or blink or click on anything!”

“Oh!” said Freddie. He pulled away from Penelope, cupping a hand over his mouth as he stabbed a finger in her direction. “She just winked at me! Did you see it? Did you see it?” Hairchitecture dipped and levi-hats bobbed. “Did I tell you she was a diva?”

Freddie pulled Penelope tight under his arm, facing her toward a stationary cam. “Young lady! Can I just say something? This wasn’t all my fault!” He swept a hand across the sliver. “Let’s bring out our nominators!”

Two figures in duster suits slinked into view from the backstage area, one much taller than the other. Flutter-cams swooped in to capture their entrance.

“Lester, help them take those nasty things off!”

“Onnit!” said the dwarf. “Get dem nasty dangs off!”

Laughter spiked from pockets of the audience as the dwarf molested the smaller figure, overcompensating when he pulled off her facemask, tumbling down a small flight of stairs. One of the flutter-cams broke off and followed him, capturing the slapstick.

“Pratima?” said Penelope. The taller figure removed his facemask. “Frank?”

Frank and Pratima raised their hands.

“Guilty!” they said in unison.

The chorus howled.

“Why are –?”

“Get over here, you nutty ne’er-do-wells!” Freddie gathered Pratima and Frank under his left arm as he gripped Penelope under his right.

“Pips,” said Freddie. “These true friends of yours nominated you for Thespian Persuasion. Pratima! You dodgy, duplicitous double-crosser, can you tell us why you nominated Penelope?”

Pratima cleared her throat. “Well, Freddie,” she said. “Penelope just sits on the couch all the time. She never pushes her boundaries.” As Pratima spoke, a reel of footage played on an enormous telescreen, Penelope in her kitty space jammies squeezing the last globs of an ice cream tube into her face. “She’s always talking doom-and-gloom and end-of-times junk! I think it’s important to get out of your comfort zone if you’re going to grow. To blossom! I think she’ll realize from this experience that with the right attitude, life on Earth can really rock, even after The Big Fuckup!”

Pratima shot a fist into the air. The chorus erupted in thunderous applause.

Suddenly, the door to the sliver burst open. A Bluesuit ran in, waving a stunner.

“YOU’RE ALL UNDER ARREST FOR VIOLATION OF DUSTING CURFEW AND ANTI-CAPITIALIST SENTIMENTS!” shouted the Bluesuit. He lumbered toward Penelope, stunner raised.

The chorus of dandies put a hand to its collective mouth.

“No!” Penelope flinched. “Not again!”

The Bluesuit dropped the stunner and doubled over, clutching his stomach.

“Pips!” said Freddie. “You’re just too easy!”

The Bluesuit removed his facemask. She hadn’t seen Christian for almost a decade, not since they were liberated from the orphan crèche.

“Christian?” said Penelope. “Jesus!”

“Ha!” said Freddie. “No pun intended!” He turned to Christian. “What about it? Et tu, Brutus?

“Huh?” said Christian. “Oh, no. I’m Christian.”

Freddie raised a weaved eyebrow, pulling the tied mustache along with it.

“On that note!” he said.  “Let’s take a break! We’ll be back with more from my crafty co-conspirators Frank, Pratima and Brutus – I mean Christian — after these messages!”

The audience went mental on proplasma cue. The lights dimmed.

“Mekkup!” barked the headsetted dwarf. Three spindly girls sprang into action, dancing around Freddie, slicking his mustache and refreshing his facial chalk.

Freddie cast eyes at Penelope.

“It’s simply spectacular to meet you in person!” he said.

“Freddie,” said Penelope. “The dusters…the pheromone malfunctioning…complexes closing the swarm gates. That was all staged?”

“Oh, god no!” said Freddie. “We just got lucky with that!” He swatted away the spindly girls. “Of course, it forced us to improvise a little bit. Didn’t it, Christian?”

“Yup!” said Christian, beaming.

“So,” said Penelope. “That’s all real?”

“That’s all good television!” said Freddie.

“But, like,” said Penelope, “that’s all really happening right now?”

“You betcha!” said Freddie.

“Shouldn’t we be worried?” said Penelope. “Like, that we’re all going to die or anything?”

“I think we should be more worried about never topping this episode!” said Freddie. “Now, Pips, when we come back from break, I’m going to bring out Dick, and you’ll talk about your date and why you were willing to –“

“– Wait!” said Penelope. “Dick’s alive?”

“Well,” said Freddie. “Of course he is, sillyspanx!”

“Oh, thank god!” said Penelope. “That’s wonderful!”

“Freeze!” Freddie shot a palm over Penelope’s face. “Keep that feeling when we’re back. Go with that!”

A dull tone raised in volume.

“We’re coming back!” Freddie took his hand away from Penelope’s face, inspecting it to make sure it hadn’t changed.

“Heat dem camra’s up in tree, doo, wan!” said the headsetted dwarf. When the proplasma sign flashed, the chorus of dandies exploded.

“Settle, settle!” said Freddie. “You don’t want to give me a big ego, do you?” He shook his head. “Too late!”

“Oh, please,” Penelope heard Pratima say under her breath.

“Welcome!” said Freddie. “Welcome back to Thespian Persuasion, sponsored this week by HoloGreet! Where every holo-date is a hopeful holler!”

“…stupidest slogan…” Penelope caught from Frank.

“Now, Penelope,” said Freddie. “Speaking of holo-dates. You obviously had a dynamite date with the dashing Dick, considering everything you were willing to do to help him.”

“Mm hm,” said Penelope.

“Mm hm?” said Freddie. “Just ‘mm hm’? I think Dick made more of an impression than that, judging by the footage I’ve seen!”

“It was pretty allright,” said Penelope, “as far as holo-dates go.”

“Pretty allright?” said Freddie.

“Actually, it was pretty great,” said Penelope.

“Can I ask you something?” said Freddie. “Would you like to meet him in the flesh?”

Penelope took a deep breath. “I guess…” she said, “I guess I really would like to meet him.”

“Meek, mumbling mousey! Can’t hear you!” Freddie cupped a hand behind his ear. “Penelope Birdsong, would you like to meet your holo-date soul-mate?”

“Yes!” Cutting through the confusion, Penelope felt a burst of excitement. “Yes! Yes!”

“You heard it, folks! Everybody, please give a warm welcome to the man who charmed Pips into flouting the laws of society and risking her own life! I’m so lucky to have him this week. This is huge. Friends, give it up for Gabriel Deauchamp!”

Dick came jogging out. He grabbed Penelope and dipped her, planting a kiss. The audience swooned.

“Gabriel?” said Penelope at the bottom of the dip. “Your name is –?”

“– You know who I am,” the man whispered. He pulled her up, casting her away to execute a disco spin. He came to rest facing the audience, flashing a bright, toothy smile. For over a minute, he basked in the gush.

“Sit, sit!” said Freddie. “Everybody!”

Something clipped the back of Penelope’s legs. The dwarf was pushing a neon pink chair under her.

“Siddown,” he said. Penelope fell back into the chair.

“Thank you kindly, Lester!” said Freddie. He tussled the dwarf’s brown hair. “Isn’t he great?”

“The best!” Gabriel reclined on a light blue, cushioned chair. “You know? Ever since the failure of nanotechnology. The Big – er — Drexler’s Folly. Oh, this is Tesla…I can say it? The Big Fuckup! Ever since The Big Fuckup, people think good things can’t come in small packages. I say, screw that!” He pinched the dwarf’s cheek. “This little fella is terrific!”

“How about Lester the Dwarf, everybody?” said Freddie.

“Le-ster…Le-ster…Le-ster…” said the chorus. The dwarf’s smile-frown only made the chant crest to a fever pitch. “Le-ster! Le-ster! Le-ster! LE-STER! LE-STER! LE-STER!”

Freddie came behind Penelope, massaging her shoulders.

“Pips! My vivacious, vexed vixen! As you know, on Thespian Persuasion, actors prove their Masterpiece meddle by wielding their acting skills to convince our unsuspecting contributor to do all sorts of crazy things!”

“I’m sorry,” said Penelope. “I’ve never heard of this show.”

“But you signed up for it!” said Freddie.

“I did?”

“You must have blinked on a link somewhere, supermodel!”

“Whatever.”

“On this edition of Thespian Persuasion,” Freddie continued, “we asked the question: ‘Could a skilled actor seduce a woman so powerfully by holo-date that she’s willing to go out during a dusting?’”

“Can I just say something?” said Penelope.

“It’s your show, princess!” said Freddie. “We’re just paparazzi in your presence.”

“What if I had been injured?… Wait!” Penelope rubbed the bump on the back of her head. “I was injured!”

Is this a dream? thought Penelope. Maybe it’s a dream!

“Did you hear that, audience?” said Freddie. “I can’t tell you how many times we get accused of coaching our contributors or staging events. Didn’t she seem truly terrified? Doesn’t she look duly damaged? Good thing she signed the waiver or we’d be on the hook for that dent on her dome!”

“Waiver?” said Penelope.

“Oh, here we go again!” said Freddie. “Pips, you gotta watch where you’re blinking! We’re gonna have to call you linkblinker from now on! Penelope Linkblinker! How about it, gang?”

“Linkblinker!” shouted the chorus.

“I swear I didn’t…”

Freddie flicked his tuxedo tails to the side, setting down on a shiny green chair. “Gabriel, can I just tell you?” he said. “You did such an amazing job playing Dick. The showing was…singularly Streep.”

“Too kind, too kind!” Gabriel looked over at Penelope, winking at her. “I’ll tell ya. Working with such a pretty girl made it easy-breezy.”

“She’s a cutie, isn’t she?” said Freddie. “Almost as beautiful as some of your co-stars.”

“I wouldn’t go that far!” Gabriel gave Penelope a friendly punch on the shoulder. “She’s allright.”

“What about Nug Shavit from Foghorn Duckling?” said Freddie.

“Sure,” said Gabriel. “She’s maybe equal to Nug, I guess. Why not!”

Penelope folded her hands on her lap, squeezing .

“Now, Gabriel,” said Freddie, “I’ve seen the footage, but I want to hear it from the artist himself. How did you woo Penelope so effectively, so forcefully, so…persuasively?”

“Well,” said Gabriel. “I have to say a massive ‘thank you’ to the Thespian Persuasion staff, not to mention Pratima, Frank and Christian.” He turned to Christian. “Or is it Brutus?” When Christian was vacant, Gabriel went on. “Without the secret footage, journals and omnibus postings, I wouldn’t have been able to properly –”

“Journals?” said Penelope. “How did you –”

“– and the special effects team that made the Dick dummy with his head bashed in? The detail! Exquisite!”

“Ok, ok,” said Freddie.  “My staff rules and I rule. Tell me something I don’t know! Still. You did all the heavy lifting. How did you pull it off?”

“Well,” said Gabriel, “there were a few things that worked for me. First and foremost, it was great to get the food intel.” He flipped a thumb at Penelope. “Although I’m gonna need to hit the gravity-mill soo hard after eating the cal-cals in this chick’s diet for one night!”

“I noticed,” said Freddie. “She likes stuff that tends to make one…how can I say this…fat and unattractive!”

“Oh, well,” said Gabriel. “She’s still young. Getting away with it so far!”

“That she is,” said Freddie. “Alas, time takes its toll.”

“Excuse me?” said Penelope.

“Nug’ll edge her out soon enough!” said Freddie.

“Nug works out!” said Gabriel. “Not easy with a club foot!”

“Gabriel, this is truly titillating!” said Freddie. “What other tricky tactics did you try?”

“Well,” said Gabriel. “The foundation for good acting lies in setting the stage, if you will. For example, we were able to get some photos of Penelope’s father when he was my age…”

“Early fort –”

“— Exactly, early thirties,” said Gabriel. “Your design team did an incredible job tailoring an outfit that screamed ‘Daddy’ to Penelope. Pips here had a great relationship with her dad before he died, so my appearance no doubt had a profound effect on her delicate psyche.”

“This is fascinating!” said Freddie. He turned to the audience. “Psychology, gang!”

“Of course,” said Gabriel. “I looked like a millennial cabbie!”

“Is it safe to say,” said Freddie, “that you felt like kind of a…Dick?”

Gabriel doubled over. A minute later, he came up for air. “And I looked like one, too!”

Penelope gazed on in horror.

“Oh!” said Gabriel. “The sacrifices I make for my art!”

“Tell me about it!” said Freddie.

“I have to say,” said Gabriel, when the room had settled. “Aside from the fatty food and daddy issues, what really got Penelope was the music.”

Freddie rested chin-on-palm. “Explain.”

“Well, our intel told us that Penelope’s favorite band was The Semplica Girls. When I told Pips I thought ‘SG’ was the bees-knees during the holo-date? The look in her eyes…I knew I had her.”

“And you’re a fan,” said Freddie, “of these…Semplica Girls?”

“Oh, god no!” said Gabriel. “They’re awful! I can see why she’s so depressed!”

“Who says I’m depressed?” said Penelope.

Freddie shot up a pinky finger. “Side note,” he said. “We asked the Semplica Girls to perform live during today’s taping, but they not-so-politely declined. Guess they needed more time to learn their instruments!”

“Seriously, not my thing,” said Gabriel. “In any case, the music, if you can call it that, was the final ‘in’ with Pips here. Foundation established, I was able to use my craft to quickly have her under my spell!”

Freddie bowed his head. “Such a performance…Gripping. Funny. Emotional. Stirring.” When Freddie raised his head, his eyes were moist.

The telescreen came to life.

“Ok, gang!” said Freddie. “Let’s look at some highlights!” Penelope craned her neck to see the telescreen. She didn’t remember performing a play for Dick with her stuffed frogs or neo-twerking on the coffee table. The recap came up to present, snap-edits of Christian hamming it up for the camera in the Bluesuit costume before confronting Penelope behind the billboard, making her trip and knock herself out. Quick cuts from a shaky camera followed Frank and Pratima as they scrambled to improvise a way to get Penelope up to the studio, where Freddie Clover had greeted her in dramatic fashion. There were even a few snips from the Dick/Gabriel reveal from only minutes ago. Penelope half expected the footage to come up to real time, showing her sitting there, mouth agape, watching footage of herself sitting there, mouth agape. She felt dizzy.

“Great stuff!” said Freddie. He placed a hand on Penelope’s knee. “This must be such a thrill for you to meet Gabriel Deauchamp in person. Did you know it was him? Be honest!”

“Well, no,” said Penelope, “but I don’t know who he is now.”

The chorus sucked in dramatic air.

“Gabriel Deauchamp!” said Freddie. “It’s Gabriel Deauchamp!”

Penelope shrugged.

Gabriel leaned in. “Gabriel Deauchamp,” he said.

“Sorry,” said Penelope.

“Oops!” Gabriel gripped the top of his head. Pulling off a brown wig, he shook out a shock of blonde hair. He plucked out contacts, and, finally, tore off his mustache.

“Umm,” said Gabriel. “I think that might help!”

“Sorry.” Penelope flipped her palms to the ceiling. “Not a blip.”

“You’ve never seen Love, Apocalyptically?” Gabriel looked stunned behind the plastered smile.

“Nope,” said Penelope.

Wow,” said Gabriel. “It’s only the biggest romantic comedy since Love, Actually.”

“Don’t do rom-coms,” said Penelope.

“Makes sense,” said Gabriel.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Whoa! Simmer down, sweathearts!” said Freddie. “I think we’re having our first lover’s spat, only I don’t think Gabriel’s acting this time!”

Gabriel’s face snapped from angry to jovial. He flipped a thumb at Freddie. “Penelope, did you fill out the survey on this guy yet? I’ve got a few things to say!”

Freddie spit out his drink, doubling over.

Gabriel waggled a finger. “Speaking of which, Mister ‘Freddy with a Y’,” he said. “You didn’t make this easy on me. You practically begged Penelope not to go out!”

Freddie pressed his finger to pursed lips. “Oopsie!” he said. “Hey, pal! I’ve got some acting chops of my own I like to whip out every once in a while!”

“Sure, sure,” said Gabriel. “I see how it is.”

“Speaking of whipping it out,” said Freddie. “Why did you name your character Dick?”

“Oh, just a personal challenge,” said Gabriel. “A little inside joke. No one got it, though!”

“Got what?” said Freddie. “We got it! Dick! Spunky! Hilarious!”

“No,” said Gabriel. “His full name.”

“What about it?” said Freddie.

“Richard Righsen?” said Gabriel. “Dick Righsen?”

“Yes…” said Freddie. “…and?”

“Dick Risin’?”

Freddie smacked his hand over his mouth. “You naughty little scamp! You are so lucky this is on Tesla!” He poked a finger into Gabriel’s chest as he addressed the audience. “This is a naughty little scamp right here! This is a naughty little scamp!”

Gabriel waved Freddie’s hand away. “Speaking of naughty little scamps,” he said. “Thanks for sending in that fart, buddy!”

“I was in character!” said Freddie. “I had to stay in character!”

“Bah!” said Gabriel. “Did you have to do it for real?”

“Method acting!” said Freddie.

The chorus of dandies was nearly crippled with laughter. A few levi-hats even broke away from their magna-gravity fields, floating to the floor.

“Oh, we’re having too much fun!” said Freddie.

“If you can call it that!” said Gabriel.

Freddie pounced out of his chair.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” he said. “I think we’ve seen enough! It’s time we declare our winner for this episode of Thespian Persuasion!”

Freddie grabbed Gabriel by the hand and pulled him out of his chair.

“I give you our winner for…what should we call this one, gang? Damsel in the Dusting? Yes! I like it! I give you our winner for Damsel in the Dusting,” said Freddie. “Gabriel Deauchamp!”

Gabriel launched out of his chair, bouncing up and down, mock-boxing the air. He knocked Freddie’s wedding-cake hairchitecture to the ground and put him in a headlock. He huffed on his hand, polishing the host’s bald head.

“Thank you for this prestigious award!” said Gabriel. “Oh, gosh! I have so many people I want to thank – “

Freddie pulled away. “You cad!” He rescued his hairchitecture, hurrying it back into place. Freddie and Gabriel embraced, best of friends.

“Ladies and Gentlemen!” said Freddie. He held Gabriel’s hand aloft. “I think you’ll agree! Gabriel Deauchamp has once again proven that the power of acting can bring people to action and, truly, change lives! Gabriel, tell the audience what charity you were playing for!”

“The charity I chose today,” said Gabriel, “is TVs for Orphans. I know that Penelope was an orphan, not to mention Pratima, Frank, and Christian. So…needless to say, this charity has special meaning for me. If we can give even the most hapless little tyke the precious gift of entertainment, I say…Go for it.”

“So haltingly hallmark,” said Freddie.

“Yes,” said Gabriel. “It is.”

“Makes you think,” said Freddie.

“Yes,” said Gabriel. “It does.”

“Pips!” Freddie turned to Penelope. “What can I say? Thanks for being such an incredibly good sport!”

Penelope’s vision seemed to be moving in slow motion now. She panned across the sea of manic smiles. Frank and Pratima came into frame. Frank offered a clenched-teeth smile as Pratima mouthed the words ‘I’m soo sorry’.

A metallic groan shocked Penelope back to attention, so loud it cut above the blare of the audience.

Oh, no, thought Penelope. Outside, two dusters hovered at improbable angles, just a few hundred yards from Complex Sirius. They never come that close.

Freddie raced to the balcony, eyes wide.

A swath of frenzied locusts was snaking into the smaller duster’s pheromone ducts. The sheerscreen paneling enclosing the navigator’s deck had been chewed through on the larger, a maelstrom tearing through the deck as crewmembers dashed about wildly.

“Oh, boy!” shouted Freddie.

Gabriel snapped his face into a confident, excited visage. “Hey, gang! Check it out!”

Countless genres of nanobots, caught up in the locust swarm, were infesting the smaller duster and its occupants, attempting to fix, protect, monitor, heal or destroy things they weren’t programmed to fix, protect, monitor, heal or destroy.

“Go to break, go to break!” said Freddie. He darted to-and-fro, gathering his crew. “Flutter-cams, to me! Off your marks! To the balcony! This footage is going to be dreamy!”

A crowd began to gather on the sheerscrean balcony. Lester the Dwarf pushed back audience members to keep the camera-view clear. “Gehback!” he blurted. “Gehback!”

Freddie gave his mustache a hurried twirl. “Cameras, on me. On me! Not too close! Make sure to get all the great action in the background!”

“This is crazy,” said Penelope.

“Totes fukushima,” said Pratima.

On the balcony, Freddie evangelized.

“Cherished audience!” he said. “And to our fans watching on Tesla! What was a simple celebration of the humble and powerful form of art known as acting has turned into a veritable action movie!” He gave the camera a thumbs-up. “But an action movie in real life!” He yanked Gabriel, who was pacing off-camera.

“But!” said Freddie. “Lucky for us! We’ve got our very own action hero to see us through it!”

Gabriel pulled away. “Screw that!” he said. “I do rom-coms!” He fled inside, stomping to the front door of the sliver. When he pulled on it, it didn’t give. He fired a right hook at the door, letting out a feint whimper when it connected with solid steel.

The sliver doors are locked? thought Penelope. Not a good sign.

“Oh!” moaned Freddie Clover from the balcony. “Oh! The humility – er – OH! THE HUMANITY!”

The smaller duster, which had been listing slowly across the horizon, angled downward toward the larger. For a moment it looked like they would miss each other, but the external fuselage of the larger caught on the rudder of the smaller, forming a hinge that forced the dusters to swing into each other, churning metal-on-metal.

“Why?” said Gabriel. He cradled his hand, scanning the room for answers. “Why would they lock the sliver doors?” He sprinted to the mini-bar, pouring himself a shaky drink of magenta liquid. He downed it it in one gulp.

“Who’s drinking with me?” he shouted. “WHO WANTS TO DRINK WITH MOTHERFUCKING GABRIEL DEAUCHAMP?” Several dandies saddled up to the bar nervously. “Here!” said Gabriel, pouring shots. “Here!”

“Dude’s going totally Lohan,” said Frank.

“Frank!” said Penelope. “We’ve gotta get out of here.”

“Affirmative,” said Frank. “But the sliver’s locked!”

Penelope pointed backstage, where the Thespian Persuasion crew had gathered their duster suits and waders. Several cannisters of pheromone lay on top of the pile.

“Well, then,” said Penelope. “We’ll just have to go out the way we came in.”

“Hawking logic,” said Frank.

“Totally Trojan!” exclaimed Pratima.

“You guys don’t want to do a shot with Gabriel Deauchamp first?” said Christian.

“Really, Christian?” said Penelope.

Frank was gathering supplies. “Christian, I’m sorry, there aren’t any waders for you,” he said. “Hopefully the locusts won’t, like, chew your suit off or anything.”

“S’all good!” said Christian.

“Frank,” said Penelope. “Have you ever tried this from…like…the air?”

“Ack!” said Frank. “I didn’t think about that. Hopefully enough of the little buggers will attach to us on the way down?”

“Only spray your front side?” said Penelope. “And maybe do sort of like a swan dive? Like a belly-flop?”

“Why?” said Frank.

“Because if we spray our backs, the locusts will push us down and we’ll go splat?”

“True,” said Frank. “Penelope, can I ask you something?”

“Yeah.”

“Can you not say ‘splat’ right now?”

“Right.”

“Thanks.”

The impact of the larger duster had changed the course of the smaller, pushing them faster in the direction of Complex Sirius. The jagged screech of metal-on-metal chain-sawed the air as the hopelessly interlocked dusters tumbled toward the complex.

Penelope cupped her hands to her ears, screaming over the cacophony. “Frank, if we’re gonna do this, we gotta go now!”

“Spray fronts and belly flop!” said Frank. He tossed cans of pheromone to each.

“Don’t be stingy!” said Pratima. “We have one chance at this!”

“Ok!” said Frank, when they had used the last of the pheromone. “Ladies first!”

“Golly! Thanks, Frank!”

Penelope pushed her way through the throng to the balcony, where Freddie was still gesticulating for the camera, oblivious to the dusters looming right behind him.

Mercifully, the path to the hole in the sheerscreen was clear.

“Holy crap,” said Pratima.

“Yeah,” said Frank.

“Now or never!” said Penelope. She broke into a run.

Lester the Dwarf jumped in front of her, arms raised.

“Where yeh goin’?” he said. “Eggzit footage! Emotional wrappup!”

“Sorry, pal!” Penelope shoulder-checked the dwarf, sending him sliding across the balcony floor. She leapt out the hole, clearing the utility balcony.

For several floors, Penelope dropped in freefall, screaming. The howls of Pratima, Frank, and Christian joined, one by one. The ground rushed at her. In nanoseconds, her facemask was dotted with grasshoppers, and moments later it was covered. Blind, Penelope screamed anew, but then she felt lift. She wiped the fog of insects from her facemask. To her right was Frank, and below her, but rising, were Pratima and Christian.

“Wipe your facemasks!” shouted Penelope.

“We’re not falling!” said Pratima. “We didn’t go splat!”

They weren’t falling. They were, in fact, flying. Wobbly, awkward flying, but flying nonetheless. Droves of locusts joined the love-fest beneath them, a cloud ushering them over the city plaza.

“Lean left!” shouted Frank. “Aim for the park!” The swarm-cloud mellowed, crash-landing them on the grass of Park Duré.

“Haha!” exclaimed Christian. “Tickles! Tickles!” The grasshoppers had chewed through the top half of his duster suit and were starting on his shirt. Penelope helped him pull off his suit, then discarded her own. Across the lawn, Frank and Pratima had ditched their suits and were plucking grasshoppers off eachother’s clothes.

Penelope looked up. In the distance, entwined in a fiery embrace, the dusters careened into Complex Sirius, setting off an explosion that shook the city.

“Ah!” said Pratima. “Oh, geez!”

“Oh, my god,” said Penelope. “We just made it out of there.”

“Woah,” said Frank.

Penelope felt something smack into the top of her head, stinging her scalp. She pulled a small, hard object from her hair. It was a grasshopper. Dead. Its belly engorged.

Full of nanobots, thought Penelope.

Locusts began raining down on Park Duré.

Penelope tented her hands over her head. “The cycle’s over!” she said. The pheromone’s killing them!”

“Ah!” said Christian. “Ouchies! Ouchies!”

“What do you think we are?” said Frank. He pulled a rod from a sheath in his duster suit. “Amateurs?” When he tapped on the rod, it feathered out into a metallic umbrella.

“Here!” Pratima tossed rods to Penelope and Christian. “Double-tap the bottom!”

Penelope’s umbrella sprung open. It was fashioned from thin colored metal, with a vintage logo. Hers was orange, Hello Kitty. Christian’s was purple, Pokemon.

“Nice,” said Penelope.

“Right?” said Pratima.

It was hailing locusts.

For several minutes, the four stood staring at the scene, safe from the pelting bodies raining from above. The smell of roasted grasshopper wafted from the direction of Complex Sirius as locusts poured down on the inferno.

“Wow,” said Frank. “R.I.P. Freddy with a Y.”

“Freddie Clover,” Pratima corrected.

“Whatever,” said Frank.

“Gabriel was so great in Love, Apocalyptically,” said Christian, wistful.

“Look!” said Penelope. A small figure dropped from a tangle of metal cords spilling from the viscera of Complex Sirius, a bent headset still attached to its face.

“It’s Lester!” said Frank. “Lester the Dwarf! He made it!”

“Yes!” said Pratima. She pumped a fist in the air. “LE-STER! LE-STER! LE-STER!”

“Oh, my god,” said Christian. He pointed south-west, where a duster had collided with Complex Acrididae, leaving it a smoldering pile. “Complex Acrididae is toast.”

“I’m so sorry, Penelope,” said Pratima.

Penelope sighed. “Typical,” she said. “Oh, well. I was kinda over that sliver anyway.” She flipped her free palm skyward. “It’s not like they let me have cats.”

Penelope scanned the city skyline. Dark smoke billowed from Complex Acrididae, Complex Sirius, and Complex Citi, but Complex Drexler appeared intact. Several dusters still listed in the air, looking almost peaceful now as they floated aimlessly. The dissonant drone of alarms heralded countless malfunctions.

“Wow,” said Pratima. “Epic pheromone fail.”

“Huh,” said Christian. “Maybe that’s what they’ll call it.” He presented the partially-destroyed horizon with an outstretched hand. “‘The Epic Pheromone Fail of Fifty-Seven.’”

“No one says ‘epic’ anymore, guys,” said Frank. “What is this, 2012?”

“Well,” said Christian. “Maybe just ‘The Pheromone Fail of Fifty-Seven’. I don’t know!”

“God,” said Penelope. “I am so hung over.”

“We should break into a food court and get some grub,” said Frank.

“I’m in,” said Penelope. “I’m literally starving.”

“Super perf,” said Pratima. “Hey! Maybe we can hook up with Lester on the way.”

“He seems terrific,” said Christian. “Just really terrific.”

Frank turned to Penelope. “Come on, Damsel in the Dusting. Let’s get you some carbs for that hangover.”

Penelope, Frank, Pratima and Christian walked in the direction of Complex Drexler, a hail of locusts springing off their multi-colored umbrellas as they strolled.

“Can I just say something?” said Pratima. “Real talk? Things are getting super post-apocalyptic around here.”

Frank snorted. “The apocalypse has to be over for it to be post-apocalyptic, dummy.”

“Whatever, Frank,” said Pratima.

“Guys,” said Christian. “We should really look on the bright side. At least there aren’t zombies.” He kicked a hunk of duster schrapnel a few yards down the street. “There could be zombies, you know.”

“You know what?” said Pratima. “I guess that’s true!”

“Very true,” said Frank.

“Awesome point, Christian,” said Penelope. “Zombies are probably a real hassle.”

FIN

[centup]

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