“Dis” by Tim Brown
Steven didn’t recognize the doorway in front of him. Coated in red velvet and pincushion buttons the door stood in vibrant defiance against the drudgery around it, nestled between a corner bodega and a greasy burger joint.
The door opened. From the blackness a woman emerged, draped in red and thick shades. Steven’s eyes clung to her curves as she turned past him and into the cold midnight air. Traffic halted as she crossed the street. There were no horns. Steven watched the fabric of her tight skirt crease and unfold, crease and unfold.
A beefy-looking man stood sentry just outside the door, towering over Steven. Huge aviators concealed his eyes, his ears open to the sound of the traffic around him. Statue-still, he could have been dozing and Steven wouldn’t have noticed.
A harsh buzz came from his pocket. Two short vibrations, one long one. Another goddam email. The work never stopped, not even this late into the evening. Steven pulled his phone from his jeans, checked the message. Sure enough, when he got home that night he’d have another few hours of work ahead of him, staring endlessly into that big blank monitor.
Guided by some invisible hand, Steven drew closer to the door. The silver plaque, small and unassuming, caught his eye, lured him in. The plaque read: Dis.
There’d been a lot of clubs like this popping up lately. Artsy names and a lone bouncer standing outside. If it weren’t for them—and the pounding backbeat of the bass whenever someone opened the door—you’d have no idea you were near one.
The bouncer twisted his head as Steven approached. A deep velvet-red carpeting flowed beneath the door and beyond, the same red which coated the door.
“Name?” The bouncer’s tone was gruff, commanding, living up to the fiction in Steven’s head perfectly. He didn’t go to clubs often.
“Oh, I’m not going in,” Steven said, “Just hadn’t seen this place before.”
The bouncer took his clipboard from the stool, licked his finger, turned the page. “Says here you are. Steven Albright?”
“That’s my name, but I didn’t—” He cut his sentence short, focusing instead on the trio shouldering past him.
Steven’s eyes couldn’t decide which of the women to rest on more, each of them practically oozing out of their dresses. Steven hoped for a breeze, immediately cast this thought from his mind, replacing it with anger towards himself. Instead he focused on what was between the women. Dressed in a subdued charcoal blazer and jeans, the man between the giggling pair had an arm around each waist. He was sharp, dressed in what Steven’s coworker had been egging him on to buy, and what Steven had never thought looked right on him or anyone—until it did.
His coworker’s prying eyes caught glimpses of more than just Steven’s shopping. He had always hoped to peek at Steven’s porn habits since he’d borrowed Steven’s phone and saw a larger website in the history. Couple that with a non-existent dating life and his coworker had a good bead on Stephen’s nightly habit: Electric Sex. A virtual girlfriend for five minutes and then back to his bed—too large, too cold.
But the man in front of Steven looked as though he had been born like that. He spared Steven no more than a second’s glance before turning his attention to the blonde on his right, asking if she had come here often.
He looks just like me. A half-truth at least. Comforting. Steven shared both height and build as the man, but that’s where the similarities ended. The stranger sported the chiseled looks of a Hollywood action hero dancing gracefully into his late thirties. Steven still bore craters of acne from his teens.
“You coming in or what?” The bouncer looked him over, steely-eyed and impatient. A switch in Steven’s head flipped. He wasn’t getting any younger. All the women who caught his eye stayed the same age. They were in there, and he was out here.
One, two, three strikes you’re in.
“Enjoy yourself,” the bouncer said as he unhooked the velvet rope guarding the door. The word Dis grew larger until it buried itself in Steven’s mind.
And vanished as he crossed the threshold.
* * *
Blackness greeted Steven as the door drew to an unassuming close behind him, blackness which was immediately vanquished by a series of lights low to the floor, illuminating the deep burgundy of the carpeted stairs which went down as far as Steven could see and beyond. He descended the steps. The vibrations grew more potent against the soles of his sneakers. His feet shook from the noise when he pushed the heavy curtain away with the back of his hand.
It looked like any other dive bar he had been to. A little more high-class, maybe, but the same. One of the perks of Steven’s job was the time spent in sterile hotel bars, none of the paintings on the walls too long-gone from the painter’s brush or the Goodwill. Behind this bar hung a great big old painting, encircled by candles, voyeuristic. A nude woman sat on a Greek column, head turned slightly towards a man leering over a high stone fence. Both bodies exuded a classical beauty.
Steven wedged himself between two couples, necking, sharing their first nervous tender moments. A bartender approached Steven, wearing slicked hair, a tight button-down pulled over his athletic build.
“What’ll it be?” Steven ordered his drink, pulled his wallet out to pay when he felt a touch on his shoulder.
“It’s okay, I’ll get it.” The voice, soft and whisper-like, cut through the pounding music. When the bartender approached again with a look of recognition she leaned forward and whispered in his ear. The bartender nodded. Before they separated she leaned forward and planted a deep kiss on his cheek, private, intimate. Blonde curls brushed against the small of her back. Steven felt the kiss, shared some of its smoky tenderness.
“We go way back,” she explained, her own highball half-emptied. Caramel glittered in the subdued lighting. “Don’t take that personally.” She threw her arm around his shoulder and started rubbing. With her face close to him he could make out her features, the smoothness around her cheeks or eyes. Steven guessed she was twenty-five, max.
Her clothing seemed to be better suited to a rowdydow than a modern party–black, modern. But the sequins, the high-cut back of her dress, the fringe which whipped around whenever she shifted in her stool, came from another period entirely. Was this a costume party?
“So is this your first time here? Haven’t seen you before,” she said.
“Yeah, this place new?”
“Sort of. It comes and goes. You’re sticking around for the main event I hope.” She moved in closer, her voice becoming the center of his world. “I’d love to see you perform.”
Before Steven could ask what performance he’d be giving the lights overhead grew stronger. The music died down and was replaced by muffled tapping on the microphone.
“Check one-two one-two.” Steven couldn’t see who was speaking but the disembodied voice was masculine, young, yet another twenty-something. The crowd parted in one quick motion and a large shape shoved through them, grumbling. But the patrons didn’t give the hulking mass so much as an evil eye as a flabby arm brushed up against a woman’s drink, spilling it across her dress. Instead she seemed…Steven couldn’t find the right word for it. Somewhere between happy and terrified.
This hunk of man-fat was bound by a suit with buttons slanting out from their holes. A slit of flesh peeked out from between the buttons and he looked like he could shred his jacket just by flexing. Steven stole a glance at the woman he’d been chatting with. Her eyes were locked with the fat man. He tried saying something to her, tried to get her attention. But her arm stopped its rhythmic motion on his shoulder, clenching it tightly. The gleam of the silver ring on her middle finger caught his attention. Three snakes endlessly biting the tail of the next one in line.
A final heavy tap on the microphone silenced any last-minute chatter and the fat man begins his speech. “Thank you all for coming to the anniversary of Dis!” Cheers overpowered the speakers for an instant before being cut off by a sagging arm. He pushed up a pair of tortoiseshell glasses, much too small for his face.
“Who’s the big dude?” Steven asked.
“Quiet!” she hissed.
“It looks like we have a first-timer with us tonight. Com’ on up and introduce yourself to everyone.” The woman remained impassive when faced with the nervous look Steven shot her. The stage lights illuminated more than the just people on the dance floor. They shone a light on the past, all the fuckups which Steven hoped both he and the internet could forget one day. Nothing was obscure, not even VHS tapings of a high school play with a man in drag, makeup running down his face in rivulets mixed with sweat from heat and sweat from his nerves.
It took a firm shove to get Steven towards the black stage and a few more pats on the butt and one on the ass before he finally ascended the three steps, drink firmly clutched in his left hand. It felt like twenty pounds attached itself to Steven’s shoulder. In a meaty grip the man clutched the microphone. “What’s your name?” Steven could see the individual hairs of his short mustache twitch as he spoke, oiled with precision.
“Steven,” he mumbled. He couldn’t see the crowd through the lights but they made themselves known when they chanted Hi Steven at the top of their lungs.
“That’s right! Welcome, Steven. It’s not often that we let first-timers into our little shindig. We’ve made an exception for you. But where are my manners? I’m Sid, and this is Dis, get it?” A few mumbled chuckles came from the crowd. “Sorry, terrible joke. I don’t get tired of telling it though. Do any of you?”
They answered with an emphatic no.
“Heh, thought not. Anyway, you’ve met our wonderful bartenders already, and I think I saw you chatting up lovely Ellen over there as well.” Ellen raised her glass from her barstool. “She’s been with us almost since the beginning. Take a bow, sweetie!” She did as she was told, bending low to the approval of those around her, bending back up with a snap which sent her blonde hair cascading backwards. “Atta, girl,” Sid said with a grin. “Anyways, welcome Steven, make yourself at home. Try not to go too overboard before the real party starts. Now go get ‘em, tiger!” With another smack on his ass Steven was sent off the stage as the music resumed.
Ellen was fending off another of the bar’s patrons, telling him to save it for later. “I’ve had just about enough of these people, thinking they can get some whenever they want. Gotta have standards, you know?”
A beer slid across the mahogany bar. Emma took the bottle, downed it in a few healthy swigs.
“What did Sid mean by the real party?” Steven asked.
“Oh, you’ll see in a bit. It’ll be worth it, trust me.” Ellen disappeared into the crowd. The beat grew faster, dangerous. Smoky lights dimmed and couples in the crowd danced close, reaching underneath shirts or groping between legs. He wished he could join them, that endless sea of bodies and sweat and closeness which he had been without for so long.
So Steven chickened out, stayed at the bar and the drinks which were so comfortable to him. He sucked down beer after whiskey after vodka, and the sinking feeling of being alone had abated some. He leaned against his shelter.
“She’s something else, isn’t she?” It was the bartender who had served him the first time, a small trace of Ellen’s lipstick on the side of his cheek. He nodded towards her, still out on the dance floor, red and purple light kissing the contours of her form.
“How long you known her?” Steven said tiredly.
“About as long as I’ve known Sid. And Sid and I go way back.” He turned to take another order. How far back? Steven took his drink and patrolled the dance floor, immediately regretting the sea of bodies he had just dived into. Hands grazed parts of him, the soft warm hands of women and the coarse cool hands of men. Faces blurred past him in twisted expressions of joy and drunken lust.
Something else clicked within Steven, same switch as before. This is okay. I like this. He bobbed and weaved between the clubbers, and if one of them called out his name, he would approach, their shouts loud as whispers in his ear.
He was spun around by a hand on his shoulder. “Woooo! Steven!” She was young, with a smooth complexion and frizzled hair which nearly touched her shoulders. She danced closer to Steven and soon their bodies were touching through her cocktail dress. The stranger grabbed on to his side, started to slide herself against Steven’s front.
“Grab onto me,” she said. With his free hand he complied, holding tightly to his whiskey with his other hand. Once or twice she rammed into him, sending a few small swigs flying from the glass and towards godknowswhere. A part of him relaxed. Grew warm, stiff. The stranger noticed it too. She turned, hair tousled, jammed her tongue down Steven’s throat.
“I’ll see you later for sure,” she said. Before he could apologize or ask her name or, hell, even her number, she backed away into the throbbing mass of sweaty flesh.
Another rude tapping came from the mic. “I think it’s about time we kick it up another gear. Whaddya say?” A cheer overshadowed the music and the announcer’s mic turned up to the max. Besides the stage a set of double doors swung open, nearly crashing against the wall and swinging back in. Sid was between them.
“Come on, everyone! Let’s get the real party started.”
* * *
The real party. Something so tantalizing and foreign and seductive. People shouldered past Steven as they scampered towards the open doorway, absent of the colored light or fog they had been dancing in for hours. Sid held one of the doors open as people went through, smiling and nodding at passersby while they returned the nod with affection. They were just as handsy with Sid as they were with Steven, groping whatever they could find on their way down the second velvet staircase and into godknowswhat.
Steven funneled there too until he was stopped by Sid, his obtuse belly brushing against Steven’s. Sid’s rouged cheeks contrasted the grim flatness of his expression.
“You sure you want to go through with this?” Sid asked.
Steven’s head swam through the question. The answer was obvious. “Fuck yeah, let’s do this.”
Sid’s grin reached from ear to ear. “That’s what I like to hear! Come on, you’ll have the time of your life.” Steven followed the masses down the corridor—doublewide this time—and into the floor beneath. Second basement, right? Or maybe third?
Giant pillows, large enough for two or three, lined the floor. Partygoers swan dived onto them, pulled others down with them. Steven shimmied past the full ones, settling down with his drink on one near the corner, alone. He watched hands gliding over flesh, coming to rest on whatever parts they found. On a corner of the room a huge table stood with rows and rows of hors d’oeuvres and booze for passersby to engorge themselves on; meats and cheeses and crackers. A few partygoers took cheese and crackers from the tables.
Sid took the microphone and his deep voice boomed. “Hear me, all, and rejoice! Dis is now in business!” A few drunken cheers emerged from the lovers on the pillows.
A man picked up an opened bottle of champagne and a few glasses for him and his companions. As he returned, even through the subdued lighting the bulge between his legs throbbed, plain enough for anyone to notice. But he wasn’t ashamed. He didn’t try to hide his manhood from others, grinning from ear to ear as two hands—masculine and feminine—stroked him as he poured the bubbly into flutes for the three of them.
In the opposite corner Sid absorbed the scene, taking fat bite after fat bite of an oversized turkey leg. A few drops of fat fell, catching the light as they passed. He picked the bone clean, started on another.
Steven was so mesmerized by their displays of excess that he failed to notice the shift in weight on his pillow. Ellen plopped herself down next to him. “Man can eat, can’t he?” Ellen said over the bass, sipping at her drink.
“Yeah, I’ve never seen someone eat so much before.”
“He packs it away. Should be obvious where.” Ellen set her drink down next to the cushion. “C’mere.”
Steven fell into her lips.
After what felt like an eternity later they parted.
“Wow,” Steven said.
“Yeah, wow.” Ellen said.
They went back for more. Their hands wandered, explored each other. It’d been years since Steven had even kissed a woman, and Ellen was feeling more and more like Mrs. Right to him. It couldn’t be the booze talking, no sirree. He couldn’t wait until Monday to tell…what was his name? The coworker who called him a hopeless case when it came to the opposite sex. Well look at me now, fucker.
Steven’s shy side, through the drinks and the music and the food, finally emerged and sent him that little niggle of the notion that maybe this was all a bad idea. You don’t know this woman. You don’t know where you are. You don’t know how much you’ve had to drink. Ellen picked up on his sudden hesitation, pulled back.
“What’s wrong?” A streak of red played across her face. Her hand came to rest between his legs.
And the hesitation left. What, me worry?
* * *
Ellen lay naked beside him, golden hair spilling over her breasts. She huddled up close, shielding herself from the cool air from the vents overhead.
His head no longer swam in the whiskey and the vodka and the beer. Where the room had been spinny and blurred around the edges, it had a clarity now, one which extended to the others, nude or just beginning to get dressed. Ellen was the center of Steven’s attention, moaning and writhing at his touches and thrusts.
But the room was now silent, sober. People were getting their clothes back on, shrugging on jackets and tying laces. They helped each other up with quiet dignity.
And Sid, not partaking, only watching, tossing bone after bone over his shoulder.
Ellen laid there, watching him get dressed. “You leaving so soon?” She still had a beauty about her, one which persisted through booze and impulsive lust.
“You want to stick around here?” He got his rocks off, though Ellen’s body and half-grin were raising good arguments for another round…
He couldn’t remember the last time he felt like this. The fabled second wind hadn’t visited him in years. His phone pressed against his thigh, reminding him of the work which waited for him at home. The fun was over. Drudgery loomed. “Listen, I gotta go, but maybe I’ll call you sometime.” Ellen smiled expectantly. “What’s your number?” Steven asked.
“I haven’t got one. Give me yours?” Steven did so, wondering aloud if she was going to write it down. “Don’t worry,” she said, tapping her temple, “good memory.” Steven smiled, shrugged into his coat, and waded through the pillows.
His steps felt lighter. He felt like eating an entire pizza and having more than a few beers. Maybe I could get one for the road. Sid was still in his corner next to the buffet, wiping his hands on an overlarge handkerchief.
“Have fun, Steve-o?” Behind him the remains of his meal piled midway up his calves. The buffet table was bare and Steven guessed most of it was in the belly of this hulk of a man in front of him.
“Yeah, guess I did.”
People were queueing up for the exit. Sid held his palm flat, presenting the exit to him. “Thanks for coming, eating, drinking, and coming, Steven,” he said with a hearty chuckle. “Drop by again some time, will you?” Steven nodded, zipped his jacket. He looked around for his lover, nowhere to be seen. Must have already left. Can’t say I blame her. He got in line for the stairs.
Something was…off. As he descended the stairs Steven couldn’t be sure what.
Didn’t this stairway go up before?
He brushed the curtain aside with the back of his hand, coming into a bar, same muscular men behind the counter, same slicked back hair. The white molding of the nude woman and a demon courting her had gone unmoved. At the bottom of the stairs, Sid was there to shake everyone’s hand.
Steven spun around. The wall of flesh behind him advanced forward. Partygoers piled past him, eager to shake Sid’s hand and grab a drink from the bar. Even Ellen, her figure barely hidden behind her tight dress, shouldered past Steven.
Sid stared at him, stone-faced. He took Steven’s hand and shook.
* * *
Steven wasn’t sure of the year, only tracking time by the fashion of newcomers. Jeans went out of style for a while, then came back in. Skirts and long dresses became more common. Button-downs were almost never seen anymore, except on the occasional dweeb Sid feels pity towards. Like Steven.
He tried escaping a few times, dashing up the stairs, shoving people aside. But it was hopeless. The stairs went up forever and he each time was eventually dragged back down panting and sweating and screaming. Eventually he counted Mississippis as he bolted up the stairs. His record was nine hundred and seventy-three.
He sank into routine, just like the others. Nobody complained. “People stopped bitching once they turned a few of them into that meat,” Ellen told him after another lap. Her dress cut a deep V against her back. “He could just make the meat out of nothing, like the booze and the fixings. I don’t know why he doesn’t just kill them. But we know better than to mouth off.” They neared the bottom of the stairwell. “He’s nice to you. Nicer than any of us got. Maybe he’ll let you go once another sap comes along, like Annie. Or Julius and those two sluts of his.”
“He lets people go?” Steven asked.
“If you’re good enough. Willing and able to do this hundreds of times over. Then he’ll think about it. Trust me on this. But his patience isn’t limitless.” That was the last time Steven brought it up, the last time he tried to escape. They cheered when told and so did Steven.
He drank. The haze disappeared. The fullness from the banquet left, replaced by feral hunger. But he couldn’t run to the tables filled with meat and cheese, not until the drinking and dancing and flirting and fucking is done. The tables are always refilled, always with the same dishes, always the same meat.
Steven had a new person every time until he had them all. He repeats the cycle, starting with whoever’s bare skin he remembered least. What was the tattoo on his left thigh again? A mermaid?
Sid remained, the only one whose appearance changed over time. Ellen confided in Steven one cycle, telling him her true age as far as she could tell—ninety-four. Steven gagged, but the food consumed fifteen minutes prior had vanished, leaving him to dry heave on the thick carpeting.
“He’s the only one who changes,” Ellen told him as they walked the stairs back down into the bar. “He just gets fatter and fatter.” True, Sid started to split across the belly, a bright-red gash of entrails spilling out of him. He grumbled, ducking out and behind a curtain. When he reemerged the split had narrowed with a hectic criss-crossing of black thread covering his gut. The big-and-tall suit had torn, no longer mendable. Sid wandered around nude, belly drooping down between his legs.
He always followed the crowd. Nobody commented. Steven replaced watching the fashion with watching Sid grow, turning into some odd orb of a man. His jowls drooped onto his shoulders. When he became too big to fit through the doorways they grew just a little bit wider.
Everything becomes a little bit more accommodating for Sid and Steven and the newcomers, each as wide-eyed and virile on their first run as on their thousandth. Each of them hoping Sid will wave his hand and let them go. But it doesn’t happen. It will never happen.
Tim Brown writes stories he hopes will surprise and entertain. He’ll take disgust, as well. He contributes to the Juniper Berry and is currently working on his first novel. Tim lives in Queens, NY.
Nightmarish Nature: Terrifying Tardigrades
OK so I lied. The dust hadn’t fully settled in Cozmic Debris, the space opry I’d written over the course of this month (you can catch up here with Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). In fact, it’s blown over into Nightmarish Nature for one last final huzzah…
The Last Chapter of Cozmic Debris
Kara-2-6000 had just signed on with the Voyager probe and was eagerly engaged in her first mission, en route to Mars with more components for the terraforming effort. It seemed like a pretty simple gig, cleaning up the space dust that accumulates on the vessel after landing on the red planet. She had been trained to keep her eye on her work and pay attention to details, that the dirt tended to collect in unusual ways in strange places, and that it was critical she contain and seal all of it to keep the spacecraft in proper working order. She entrusted the computer to keep the vessel on track, as it was preoccupied with doing and never engaged otherwise. No matter. She’d never been to space before and the newness of it had her rapt attention. What stories she would have to tell once she paid off her student loans and got her human body back, for surely Mars must be an exciting place…
And now for Nightmarish Nature…
So, this time on Nightmarish Nature we’re visiting Terrifying Tardigrades… Wait, seriously who comes up with this stuff anyway? Tardigrades are actually kinda cute, at least in the nerd fandom sense, and are remarkable in their ability to survive and withstand crazy adverse conditions. For all that the AI art generator doesn’t seem to have much of a clue what their anatomy is like, they really don’t do anything that scary, unless you’re a yummy little single celled critter that lives in moss in which case pretty much everything has it out for you… Oh, I see that the Cozmic Debris space opry usurped this segment. May as well run with it then.
So what’s so terrifying about tardigrades anyway?
So I don’t actually have much to say about tardigrades except that they started this whole crazy journey here on Haunted MTL. A Facebook friend posted a link to the Ze Frank True Facts video on them (linked here if the below video doesn’t load), and I was instantly hooked. It’s a great series and is part of the inspiration behind Nightmarish Nature here on HauntedMTL. So if you like learning about all kind of crazy animal facts and nature weirdness, feel free to check it out. I will mention, the show contains adult themes and is designed for (im)mature audiences, so keep that in mind as you foray into the freaky side of nature, literally.
To more of my Haunted MTL series on Nightmarish Nature about things that are a bit more terrifying, please feel free to revisit previous segments here:
Cozmic Debris: Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 3: The Dust Settles
Here’s the third installment of our space opry. For those of you keeping track, here’s Part 1 and Part 2. Thank you for following along and please be sure to keep all hands, feet, tentacles and appendages tucked safely in the overhead bins; just sit back and enjoy the ride. Because, this time, the dust settles.
It had been well over a month since Trent-2-6000 had released Ayarvenia into the Mars probe. She was a mischievous creature and flirted with him incessantly, gliding effortlessly between red cloud and ghost girl. She also managed to avoid notice by the computer, as Trent had made it abundantly clear that if the system became aware of her, he would be forced to put her back in containment, as his sole purpose aboard the spacecraft was to sweep up and trap the dust, which she still qualified as.
Ayarvenia would tease him, flitting to and fro among the static debris and dirt that still settled into every nook and cranny. How was it possible for him to be seeing so much grime still, anyway? It had been months since they had left Mars and yet Trent was finding more and more Mars dust on a daily basis; it was as if they just left yesterday. He had finally finished clearing out the computer room for the second time that day and was preparing the waste containment units for their eventual removal when he caught Ayarvenia swirling about one of the clear acrylic domes from his previous sweep, which was hermetically-sealed and ready to be brought safely back to the confines of Earth and the research laboratory.
The red cloud girl spun her way into the latch mechanism and popped it open right before Trent’s robotic eyes. The dust within was sucked out into the Voyager probe to be quickly and quietly dispersed yet again; some of it was even absorbed into Ayarvenia herself. She then latched the dome shut again and left it at the ready, as found. The container sat empty, a shell discarded.
How could he have been so naïve? It all began to make sense now; all of those sealed packages he had so painstakingly catalogued and prepared for their eventual arrival were still just empty. All of his hard work really had been for naught; he was just sweeping up the same dirt piles again and again only to have them released from the trash to disperse and begin the cycle anew. He grumbled under his breath and Ayarvenia froze in midair. She slowly whirled around and sent a lone tendril towards Trent, forming into her beautiful face as she turned to face him. She looked slightly distraught and more than a little agitated, but that melted and gave way to her usual snarky sweetness as she neared.
“Hey there, robo-boy,” she said, cooing as her unblinking eyes met his. “I didn’t hear you coming.”
“I imagine not,” Trent replied sternly. “What are you doing?”
“Oh… nothing really. Just checking up on things here. I was waiting around for you is all,” she hemmed and hawed.
“Did you find everything to your liking?” Trent snipped. “No particulate out of place or anything?”
“Everything seems okay, I guess… I’ll just leave you to it then.” The ghost girl drifted towards the far door.
“Not so fast…” Trent proclaimed. “I need to know what you’ve really been up to here. I saw you release the Mars dust from that containment unit. You know I’ve been sweeping out this room over and over for the past two days; just how much of my work are you undoing?”
”Work? Work… You call this work!” Ayarvenia’s voice raised. She was truly agitated now. “You’re blowing off my entire being without a second thought, trapping it in these nasty clear coffins, and all you can think about is whether or not you’re fulfilling your job?!”
“I… I just want to be done with this so I can get my body back and get on with my life,” Trent retorted.
“Well, Trent Just-Trent, let me break it to you, then. You’re not getting your body back, robo-boy. What makes you think they’d bother to save a lowlife human body like yours in the first place? These assignments are always dead-ends. I’ve seen them come and go… Makes no difference, in the end the researchers get what they want, and that’s more of my Mars dust for their experiments. We’re in the same boat schnookums, you and I,” the ghost girl blew hastily. “Yeah that’s right, you heard me. You’re not getting your body back. And the way things have been going around here, with you all so feverishly sweeping up every little bit of dirt you find, neither am I.”
“Wait, how would you know anything about that?” Trent stammered.
“I know things. I’ve been around. I can see and hear and feel everything all at once. Part of me is still on Mars, part of me is here in this spaceship, and part of me is on your so-called Earth, trapped in the lab catacombs awaiting who knows what fate…” Ayarvenia sighed. “I’ve tried to do what I can to save my own skin, literally. I’ve flirted with every deadbeat janitor they send on these missions. And you all just keep coming back for more…”
Suddenly a voice boomed from behind in monosyllabic chatter, “Dust-Buster, what have you done? Clean that up, now!” The camera eye that monitored the computer’s every task shifted focus to Trent and Ayarvenia and zoomed into an angry point. “Now!” it wailed. The computer was on to them.
“Shit,” Trent muttered.
“It’s okay, I’ll go willingly,” Ayarvenia whispered as she sucked herself into the ready containment unit and locked it. “Wait it out and release me again later.” She winked and settled into static suspension.
The camera eye scanned everything: the waste containment unit, the dust, Trent-2-6000… Trent froze and tried not to appear guilty. “Dust-Buster, you have one and only one job aboard this vessel. You are not doing that job. There is more dust here now than there was a week ago. You have failed,” the computer droned on. “The penalty for failure is… the airlock…”
“Wait, what?” Trent shouted, exasperated. He hadn’t even realized that was a thing. Yet another gripe for the school career guidance counselor…
“Oh no, not again,” Ayarvenia whispered. “I won’t let them take you, robo-boy Trent Just-Trent. I don’t want to lose you, not another one.”
“Silence!” the computer screeched. “You have sealed your own fates.”
The floor beneath Trent and the container began to quake and rumble. Partitions withdrew radially to a small circular channel beneath, a tube that fed into the lower part of the ship, presumably to be shot out into space. Trent-2-6000 tried to grab hold of the receding floor but his robot body was just too ungainly. He managed to wedge himself into the chasm opening only to see the waste containment dome carrying Ayarvenia slide past, her face peering up at him helplessly. He reached for her to no avail and tumbled after.
The two of them shot down the chute and through a series of rapidly opening and closing doors until the last airlock opened into the vast dark nothingness of space. Pinpoints of distant light greeted them from afar. Trent managed to latch onto the container just as they shot out into the void. The Voyager probe withdrew into the distance. The darkness enveloped the two of them. They were alone.
“Wait, I’m not dead,” Trent exclaimed.
“Of course not, silly,” Ayarvenia answered. “You’re a robot. You were made to withstand this, so that you could operate in places where there is no atmosphere.”
Trent gazed into her eyes as they floated along without purpose or reason, just more cosmic debris now.
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way.
And the stars look very different today. – David Bowie, Space Oddity
So that was Cozmic Debris… Illustrations were generated using the Cosmic template in NightCafe AI art generator. My favorite AI images are the ones that are substantially wrong, making weird mistakes in ways that a person wouldn’t make. So the tardigrades were especially fun, because it doesn’t have a good enough sense for their structure to render them sensibly. Kind of like elephants. The algorithms respond to different cues. Does it really matter how many limbs or trunks or tusks these things are supposed to have anyway…?
Cozmic Debris, Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 2: Trent-2-6000
In case you missed the first segment of this space opry (in the style of 2001 Space Odyssey), please feel free to check it out here. And now, here’s the actual story as told to me by Trent-2-6000 after the last deep consideration of tardigrades and life and dust careening through space. Maybe.
Trent-2-6000 sighed. He swept more random Mars dirt into his vacuum-hermetically sealed containment unit and went about his business on the probe. Actually, this was his business on the probe, and it was dreadfully dull. Space was supposed to be this exciting new frontier, this brave new world… but it really wasn’t any different than life back on Earth. The newness had long since worn off several trips ago, and the slow passage of the years was beginning to get to him. How long had it been now? And here he was, still playing clean up crew. He was actually sort of surprised that they couldn’t get a robot to do this job – oh wait. Sigh again.
Trent kept forgetting that he was, in fact, a robot now. There just weren’t many reminders out here, of his old body, of his old life, of Earth, of anything really… Just floating along, this tin can became all he knew; time and space just kind of stood still in the periphery. His currently lifeless body was submerged in cryo-crypto-cyano-freeze (or whatever they called it) while he worked off the payments to resuscitate it. His robot body was stiff and unaccommodating, not at all what he’d pictured when he enlisted for the Mars missions to pay off the triple-interest-bearing student loan debts incurred in human form. He could have gone military, but when he signed on for this assignment, bright eyed and bushy-tailed at graduation, he was hoping for something a bit more Captain Kirk or Han Solo or at any rate notably less Wall-E. But it just didn’t pan out that way and now here he was, traveling back and forth on the Mars Voyager, cleaning up space grime. So much debt… so much dirt. He was going to have to have a word with the job placement division at the school once he was done with all of this, assuming that the career guidance counselor who talked him into this was even still there.
It was painfully lonely out here in space. It often seemed that Trent was the only cognitive entity on this vessel, though the computer technically qualified. Trent’s duty was to keep everything clean and tidy so that the computer could do its job efficiently and effectively without being bothered to clear the space grime itself. Apparently that work was beneath it, actually quite literally since it wasn’t hooked into the mechanics needed to engage in such tasks anyway. It was programmed with a single role at hand, getting to and from Mars and conducting the research as requested, and the computer made it abundantly clear that had no time for idle chitchat with the janitorial bottom-feeders working to earn their freedom. It generally ignored Trent unless there was something specific that needed to be attended to. And then it was just “Dust-Buster, do this” or “Dust-Buster do that…”
Sometimes the dust was hard to catch. It settled oddly between spaces, like cracks in sliding doorways and computer keyboards and battery packs and so on. Sometimes it seemed to fabricate places to hide in that weren’t previously obvious. It drilled down in the interstices as if it had some unseen purpose all its own. Trent wondered why there were even so many nooks and crannies for it to hide in since this wasn’t a manned vessel and no actual crew were aboard to use things like keyboards. Hell, those had been outdated for well over a century now – just how old was this spacecraft anyway? No matter, better to just focus on the work. He swept more debris into a containment unit. As he did so, he was sure he heard something, like a tiny almost inaudible severely muffled scream.
He looked into the clear acrylic dome at the dirt. He could sense it looking back at him, waiting. Surely he was imagining things. His mind suddenly reeled to Horton the Elephant declaring, a person’s a person no matter how small. But Dr. Seuss didn’t make any more sense here in space than back on Earth after the last World War had decimated all the oceans and there were no more free trees or clovers for such a speck of dust as Whoville to land on – everything was held tightly under lock and key, blockaded away to be dispensed as the all-controlling government saw fit. Hell, people’s real bodies met pretty much the same fate upon adulthood, at least as far as the masses were concerned anyway, and many lived their entire lives as robots with their human vessels left in catatonic stasis. Trent shook his dark musings off and continued on his one and only real job. But the feeling that the dust was looking at him was still unsettling. In fact the dust wasn’t settling at all, it was swirling and ebbing about the containment unit in cloudy eddies, like some kind of strange iron-red cloud apparition or ghost. It began to take shape. It formed into lips, which parted to speak.
“Hello there mechanical being.”
Trent stared at it quizzically as a long bout of silence passed. The pursed lips seemed to await a response, but from whom?
“I’m talking to you,” it persisted.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t think you had meant to address me,” Trent 2-6000 stammered, “I’m not wholly used to being mechanical. This robot body, it’s different than the one I had back in school… I was still just a boy then; they let us grow up in the system until we age out,” he spoke dreamily, distracted by reflecting on more interesting times.
“Is there someone else here?” the dust piqued hopefully, as if growing bored with conversing with the young janitor and hoping to speak with his superior.
Trent glanced over at the computer, which seemed to be busy compounding equations in its free time, like always. “No,” he replied, “just me.”
“Ok, well… Then, dear mechanical being, would it be possible for you to free me?”
“Wait, what? No, absolutely not,” Trent was taken aback again. “My sole role on this mission is to sweep up the space dirt so that it doesn’t contaminate any of the equipment or settle into places it shouldn’t be. It, um you, must stay contained, as per my orders. It’s out of my hands… er reach.”
“What are you afraid of?” the red cloud quipped as it began to swirl into the shape of a beautiful female face around the mouth that it had already formed, lips plumping and parting slightly. “What, exactly, do you fear that I might do?” it insinuated slyly.
“Ummm, I don’t know,” Trent-2-6000 stared into the acrylic dome at the beautiful half-formed human-ghost face staring back at him. “I was unaware that you could do that, whatever you just did, so the possibilities boggle the mind…”
“I can do a lot more…” the ghost girl interrupted, her voice lilting playfully. “What’s your name robo-boy?”
“That, that’s probably classified information… But it’s Trent. Just Trent,” he stammered. It had seemed like an eternity since he had laid eyes upon a girl, and now he was becoming rather sadly smitten. By… a cloud of dust. He sighed again.
“Well then, Trent Just-Trent. Any chance you could let me out of this box?” The dust smiled coyly.
“I really shouldn’t…”
“My name’s Ayarvenia,” the dust girl interjected. “I’ll make it worth your while…” The apparition winked.
Trent glanced back at the computer, which was still engaged in its own computing. Sigh. “Oh Hell, yeah, I guess… Ay-ur-veenia… Just don’t get into anything you shouldn’t or it’ll be my shiny metal ass on the line,” he said as he released the containment lever and slid the lid off of the dome.
Please return next Sunday for the exciting conclusion to this space opry story.