time famine: excerpt

lance olsen
© 1996

 

The paranoid silence nightmares are made of, funerals give birth to, and astronauts hear when their oxygen cuts off without warning in mid-spacewalk sluiced through the situation room at Klub Med corporate headquarters several thousand meters beneath the mountain that once housed the SAC command center near Cheyenne, Mitsubishi Wyoming.

Klub Med bought the fraying colossus in the teens from a collapsing US military as part of its economic restructuring plan, and within three years had converted what was supposed to've been pretty much the last stand of democracy in time of war into a rose-scented below-ground company resort ornamented with elegant Thai and Somalian restaurants, imitation Roman baths, Swiss aging clinics, NorAm exercise chambers, an olympic-sized swimming pool tricked out in Portuguese luxuriance, Japanese gardens, Russian bordellos, astroturf tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course floating in the midst of a manmade lake, multiplexes, Cambodian knife-fighting arenas, Swedish sex shows, Turkish mestos, and assorted conference rooms...all connected by an efficient system of air-cushioned monorails and chauffeur-driven electric BMW golf carts.

Telly-Savalas Dahmer, surrounded by all this tongue-flopping success, the very subterranean ether shot through with the sweet fragrance of prestige and indulgence, felt like a highly polished Oxford leather loafer just dipped into a pile of steaming pumpkin-chunked cat shit.

All that bluster, bravado, bulldozing through the King's Chamber in Khufu off the coast of DisCouver Island earlier this morning? It'd shrunken into a withered beef jerky of its former phallic self. Telly-Savalas was no longer a pissed-off prophet commanding awe and devotion from his sycophants. He was a spineless roundworm trying to stand at attention. His dandelion-yellow simulated silk Shock suit had wrinkled and bunched during the flight. He'd lost three centimeters of height. His vestigial neck had vanished altogether. And his penitentiary-cement-gray eyes had gone into hiding under his brushy brows.

Telly-Savalas Dahmer had forgotten who Napoleon was, and he'd made his gofer, Stanley Zircon, guy with those idiot-anxious pudgy pink hands, look like a cross between Steve McQueen and Zyklon B. Baffo.

When Telly-Savalas wasn't thumbing his diamond Elba-shaped ring on his pinkie, envisioning the company boys in business suits dismantling his dream, he was swilling cup after cup of saké and torpidly picking through the platter in front of him decorated with some kind of bland breaded whitish meat-sticks and red spicy smart-drug dip on a bed of hydroponic lettuce and carrot-colored shreds of tissue culture that tasted a little like sucking on a multiple vitamin. But he wasn't paying attention to what was going on around him, which was a mistake, given the fact that the White House's EPA Advisor was asking him a question for the third time from one of the three large HDTVs at the end of the very long, very crowded table at which he slumped.

"Goddamn it!" the advisor said, "will somebody kick that guy over there or something? We're trying to hold a fucking emergency session here."

Stanley Zircon, who sat next to his boss, attempting extremely hard to look like he was taking diligent notes on his pocket computer, obliged.

Saké sloshed over the side of one of Telly-Savalas's many eggshell cups foresting the table in front of him.

"Um, sir," said Stanley in a low voice, sampling one of those breaded whitish meat sticks between words, "Mr. Converse has a question for you?"

A waiter appeared, Japanese man in black face and white tux, dabbed up the spilt drink, removed the empties, and set down a fresh cup. Telly-Savalas polished it off immediately. The waiter picked it up and set down another. Something dim and sputtering illumined the far reaches of Telly-Savalas's mind.

As if from a great distance, the idea of where he was and why beckoned to him.

He raised his head and turtled it forward, then side to side, pulling his surroundings into focus. The walls, floor, long narrow conference table, and bulky chairs were Neo-Shriek. Glass shards, broken plates, space shuttle shingles, ancient fuses, voltage regulators, photoelectric eyes, keypads, car-radio speakers, and fifteen-centimeter-long gray-blue shark fetuses soaking in formaldehyde-filled vials were set deep into a pebbly base and sanded to a smooth mosaic finish. Every chair was occupied by a Klub Med VP or gofer, all of whom were looking at Telly-Savalas. On the first HDTV inserted flush into the wall was Sabrina Triode, President-and-CEOs' Press Secretary. She wore tiger-eye contacts and a yellow bowl-cut. Back in the twenties she'd chemically dyed her skin a rich, silky, anti-melanomatic basalt. Before that, rumor had it, she'd been albino. On the second screen was Vladimir Al-Faruk, SuperFund Coordinator. Although Egyptian by birth, he wore tribal scars slivered into his cheeks and a split right nostril. He was a hero from the South American war where he'd flown laser-armed ultralights on sniper missions for the Special Forces.

The third screen displayed the guy shouting at Telly-Savalas...Neiman-Marcus Converse. Neiman-Marcus was in his early forties now. In his early twenties, already a good old boy out of Saturn Tennessee, he'd spent a fair amount of his inheritance (his parents co-founded Air Pyrate Muzzik) on monthly shots of Blue Prime, an anti-aging drug developed by a subsidiary of Mainline Pharmaceuticals at one of its health-spa research facilities in St. Petersburg. The stuff worked great, keeping the taker's skin moist and supple, crow's feet invisible, hair full-bodied and lustrous, eyes bright, metabolism fast and spunky as any long-distant runner's...till, that is, the greenhouse effect started seriously working its black magic on earth's atmosphere, at which point Blue Prime within the cells' nuclei started interacting with the mounting UV rays, sauteing their basic genetic information in a mean radioactive broth, and, by 2013, those rich beautiful people who'd bought into the Blue Prime mystique had undergone all manner of protoplasmic misfires while their sterile bodies acquired an abiding biochemical addiction to the increasingly expensive (Mainline Pharmaceuticals having got wind of the situation) wonder drug.

For Neiman-Marcus this boded poorly. By the time he was thirty, his skin had tinted a jaundiced yellow and erupted into a glistening topographical model of tumorous ridges, valleys, and hills. By the time he was thirty-five, he'd gone blind in his left eye, cartilage in both ears had crumpled and died, he'd lost handfuls of hair from his ulcerous scalp, and a good portion of his nose had dropped off, leaving two pink commas in the middle of his face with the consistency of the underside of a mushroom.

For obvious political reasons, Neiman-Marcus was a boon to the current administration. He was the embodiment of an environment gone rotten in the teeth, more metaphor than man. The public listened to Neiman-Marcus Converse, believed what he had to say, because how could such a man, struck down by atmospheric calamity, lie? He was a full-service media package.

For less obvious political reasons, Neiman-Marcus was an even bigger asset to the current administration. He was a drug addict who needed regular fixes of his favorite elixir to survive, and, having spent almost all his inheritance on his hunger, and having recently sold Air Pyrate Muzzik to Marco Polydor and his wife for desperate chickenfeed, he tightroped above the squalid abyss of bankruptcy. He was the kind of guy, in other words, who would sell both his grandmother's kidneys for his next hit without exhibiting a moral semi-quaver. He was the kind of guy who had sold both his grandmother's kidneys for his next hit.

And now he was in a very, very, very bad mood. He'd been awakened at 6:00 p.m. EST, already two hours immersed in his nightly drug-induced REM, yanked out of his iron lung, plugged into his portable life-support system, and wheelchaired up from the subbasement to his office in the White House, only to be told by the President-and-CEO on duty, Fujiwara Muzaffar al-Din, that the environmental shit had just hit the administrative fan, the Security Profit Margins Amendment had already been secretly invoked, and some major media damage-control was in the cards...and here he was, staring down at this table full of rejects, twenty or twenty-five of them, one blanker and more backward than the next, trying to get an approximation of an estimation of something remotely like the truth, a task more difficult than trying to hold a pissing contest with a steroidal skunk.

"Am I fucking boring you or something?" he asked Telly-Savalas. "Cuz if I'm fucking boring you, boy, well, then, I guess I'm just gonna have to apologize. Cuz I sure as hell don't fucking want to bore you, or anything, on the eve of the biggest fucking scandal to hit this administration in the last fucking six months."

Telly-Savalas, feeling like the water in the Hudson River looked, mumbled something to his crotch.

Neiman-Marcus leaned up real close to the camera. He had no lips, just layers of semi-transparent scars. His dead eye was leaking something the color and consistency of peach yogurt.

"What?" he shouted. "What?"

"I, um...no, sir."

"No what?"

"No, sir, you're not boring me."

Neiman-Marcus leaned back. A whitish foam began oozing from the tumors comprising his left cheek.

"Well that's real good to know, now. I sure as fucking hell don't want to bore someone as important as you, you little shit." A latexed hand, probably belonging to his nurse, reached across his face and wiped the foam off with a handkerchief. "So tell me, boys and girls...what the fuck just happened? What the fuck just shat on LA?"

Stanley Zircon, his mouth full of breaded meat sticks and red dip, passed Telly-Savalas his pocket computer with his notes on it.

"Okay," he said "Well. The facts, as we currently understand them, shake out like this. At, uh, 12:07 Pacific Standard Time, an earthquake measuring six-point-one on the Richter scale hit the LA area. And, well..." he coughed demurely "...the epicenter occurred really near one of our concerns."

"BelsenLand."

"Right."

"How really near?"

He punched up some numbers.

"Oh, um, about ten meters away from the north entrance."

"And?"

"And, well, our nuclear reactor functioned perfectly, given its design parameters."

Neiman-Marcus looked befuddled. A dried pea-sized tumor fell off his forehead.

"So," he said. "What's the fucking problem?"

Telly-Savalas looked at a shark fetus curled into a small gray squash.

"Well, that's the thing, sir. The quake exceeded the design parameters by a, uh, statistically significant margin."

Neiman-Marcus glared at Telly-Savalas with his good eye, which was mostly the color of custard, though there were some awfully mean-looking red veins fissuring around in there too.

"What?"

"A statistically very significant margin."

"Oh," Neiman-Marcus said, "fuck."

"A margin that, well, sir, reeks of statistical significance, if I may be utterly frank."

Telly-Savalas was feeling the saké beginning to tiptoe around in his brain. Neiman-Marcus scowled at the camera for what seemed five hundred years. Stanley Zircon popped another breaded meat stick into his mouth and signaled the waiter to bring more. He'd never tasted anything so good.

"That's great," Neiman-Marcus said at last. "That's just fucking great. This administration's facing a shit-squall, and I'm playing twenty questions with a fucking retard...Okay. So dumb this down for me. By how fucking much did the quake exceed the fucking design parameters?"

Telly-Savalas reviewed his notes.

"Well it sort of, uh, blew up."

"Blew up?"

"Melted down," clarified Tokyo Sin, dwarf VP from DisCal sitting on a pile of maroon pillows across the table from Telly-Savalas. She wore a sexy cosmetic harelip, one of those Calvin Klein jobs, and a tattooed purple birthmark blobbing like a long drippy continent from her left temple down below the Nehru collar of her lilac silk kimono patterned with silver erect penises and carving knives. She had that toyboyish look which, on another day, in different circumstances, would've hooked Telly-Savalas's attention just like that.

"Like a candle on a hot afternoon, sir," Telly-Savalas said.

"One of the cores and the housing ruptured," explained José Ziff from Turner Oregon. José had replaced all his teeth with gold caps. They matched his gold mirrorshades.

"Two cores, tops," Modesta LaMode from Gates Washington said. Modesta LaMode, who used to be Monroe LaMode, and before that Manny Modus, had slept with every man, and every other woman, at the table. "Plutonium-uranium mix."

"Maybe three," said Tokyo.

"Okay," Modesta said. "Three. Right. Certainly no more than four."

Neiman-Marcus's cheek began foaming again.

Vladimir Al-Faruk, SuperFund Coordinator, shocked, said from the next screen over: "You mean you don't know? You actually don't know what the extent of the malf is?"

"Jesus," said Sabrina Triode, the Press Secretary, from the third screen, more to herself than anyone else.

Telly-Savalas cleared his throat.

"The thing is this. You know all those fires and aftershocks and radioactive clouds and stuff? Well, they're preventing us from getting an inspection team in there. Best we can do are copter flyovers."

"We sent in a squad of robotectors this morning," Tokyo said.

"And?" Neiman-Marcus asked.

"They melted." "It's really, really messy," Telly-Savalas said.

"All going well," said Modesta, "we're thinking a week and a half."

"Two, max," said Tokyo.

Stanley Zircon, cheeks ballooned, lips glistening, flecks of whitish meat and reddish-brown bread crumbs on his chin, looked from one VP to the next like he was watching a ricocheting bullet. He was having a great time. He signaled for some more saké to go with the hors d'oeuvres. Worst-case scenario, he got promoted to VP with a telephone-number-large raise. And if things worked out for his boss, that was fine, too: Stanley got to hold the job he already had for a while longer, biding time till Dahmer dropped the grenade again.

"But from the size and dispersal rate of the leak..." Telly-Savalas continued.

"Leak?" Neiman-Marcus said.

"Well, yes, sir," Telly-Savalas said, surprised. "Leak, sir. The structural compromise and all?"

"Holy shit," Neiman-Marcus said.

"The fallout event has been moving north by northeast," José said.

"Last traces crossed into Brigham-Young Idaho a couple hours ago," said Telly-Savalas.

"The dispersal curve has just about been realized," said Tokyo.

"We're seeing a rapid decline in the negative inorganic output potential," Modesta said.

"Unfavorable environmental impact eventualities are falling, too," said José.

Neiman-Marcus let out a long sibilant breath. The nurse inserted oxygen tubes into his mushroomy commas. He sat there inhaling and exhaling.

Telly-Savalas chugged another saké.

Modesta surreptitiously crossed herself.

"Okay," Neiman-Marcus began again, estimating. "Okay. So. At least we're safe there."

Nobody in the room said anything for a long time. Stanley made gooey wet sounds with his mouth. Telly-Savalas kicked him in the shin. Stanley stopped momentarily, then started chewing again.

"Well," Modesta piped up. "That's correct, sir. To a...a certain degree. Right."

"You're telling me we're not safe?"

"No, no," Telly-Savalas said. "Nothing like that. Absolutely not. No. We're, um, safe...there."

"From now on," Tokyo said.

"From here on out," said José.

Sabrina uttered a petite peep that sounded like a field mouse that'd just had a brick dropped on it.

"From now on?" echoed Vladimir Al-Faruk.

"Exactly," Telly-Savalas said. "Yes, sir."

"But not before now?"

"Well, no, sir. That would be correct."

"Meaning precisely...what?"

"The fallout event? It seems to be having a few minor adverse demographically-centered effects."

Neiman-Marcus gurgled. He was bringing up some colorful goop, mostly blues and greens, into a bed pan held at chin level.

"From what we can tell..." Telly-Savalas began.

"At the present time..." Tokyo added.

"At the present time...is, uh...medical personnel? Along the distribution path? Well, they're reporting these cases of...they're not exactly sure what. Some sort of...the word they use is disorientation."

"In a statistically significant portion of their patients," Modesta said.

"Within the last twenty-four hours," said José.

The nurse patted Neiman-Marcus's mouth clean. He spat out a small chip of dried tongue. It stuck to his power tie, blue background studded with maize-yellow nuclear blasts. The nurse picked it off with tweezers and added it to the contents already in the bed pan.

"Well who the fuck cares about some dizzy patients in the middle of fucking nowhere?" he asked. "They probably don't even fucking vote."

"Time disorientation," Tokyo said.

"Kind of a syndrome deal," said Telly-Savalas. "People are experiencing these seizure-like things, hallucinations, and a sense of intense memory."

"Memory?" "Yes, sir."

"As in recollections?"

"Yes, sir."

"Radiation poisoning?" he asked.

"The wind? It was really strong and high. So it's pretty hard to know when or where or how much of the fallout-event actually came down. We're running tests on that right now. And, uh, everyone responds differently to radiation? In one person a small dose can have huge effects. In another, a huge dose can have no effects whatsoever. And the effects? Well, they manifest themselves really differently in different people? One person with a couple of extra rads suddenly breaks out in this humongous gross malignancy. Another gets a little sick to his stomach. So, well, maybe this all has to do with the reactor situation."

"...And, then again, maybe it doesn't," took up the Press Secretary.

"Right," Telly-Savalas said. "Exactly."

"And maybe it's all just some new bug that's shown up all of a sudden," posed the SuperFund Coordinator.

"Fresh strain of encephalitis," Tokyo proposed.

"Toxic psychosis," suggested José.

"Altogether new virus, as yet unnamed and undefined," proffered Modesta. "So maybe..." Neiman-Marcus said, "just maybe...the fucking frog-and-beaver crowd can't prove a fucking thing. Maybe they don't fucking have a case that's worth a fucking damn. And maybe we can just deny our way right out of this political rattlesnake nest..."

Everyone contemplated this happily.

"So, people," Sabrina Triode asked, tiger-eye contacts wide and searching, "what's our operative sound-bite going to be going into this thing?"

"White House, as you know, okayed our use of the National Security Profit Margins Amendment," Vladimir Al-Faruk said. "We have full actuality-constraint potential here."

"And Mr. Loew went on TV this afternoon, assuring the public that the reactor's structure is secure," Sabrina said. "BelsenLand, according to our press releases, will be up and running within the week."

"Nothing outside the expectational parameters has occurred," Modesta said.

"Perhaps we should recall the tracking teams," said José. "No data, no incident."

"Lose the records," Tokyo said.

"They'll be lost by midnight," Vladimir said.

"We're discussing something that didn't happen, then," said Telly-Savalas.

"We're discussing a non-event event here," said Sabrina.

"Vacationers already booked will be redirected," Vladimir said. "No new reservations will be accepted by the company computers."

"Couple minor injuries sustained, it goes without saying," Modesta added.

"Minor damage to rides," said Tokyo.

"Enough loss to make the public feel like the news coverage was worth it, like they experienced something worth experiencing," said Modesta.

"We don't want to hurt the ratings capacity," said Sabrina. "Cleanup activities underway. Engineers already on the scene. What you would assume from a six-point-one seismic condition."

"I'll hit the airwaves first thing tomorrow morning and turn on the credibility template," Neiman-Marcus said.

"What about the reality scenario?" Vladimir asked.

"The what?" asked Neiman-Marcus.

"The reality scenario. The, uh, truth?"\

"Oh," he said.

"I think I can help you there," said Telly-Savalas, consulting Stanley's pocket computer. "Estimations run around eighty to a hundred personnel terminational situations on site. Perhaps another twenty or thirty in the surrounding area, especially downwind."

"So we're really talking full Sacrifice Zone Enhancement here?" Sabrina asked.

"Right," said Modesta.

"Our people are on their way even as we speak," Vladimir said.

"Good," said Neiman-Marcus. "Excellent. Fucking wonderful. Okay. So. This thing didn't happen."

"Absolutely not," Vladimir confirmed.

"What thing?" asked Modesta.

Everyone chortled.

"By noon tomorrow the DT program will be in place," Telly-Savalas said, confidence returning.

"Governcorp subsidies to the compulsory relocationers within a ten-kilometer evacuation-wellness arena," Vladimir said, thinking out loud.

"Understated media-redefinition campaign," Sabrina added.

"News refocusing enterprise," suggested Vladimir.

"ChaseMan York food riots are always nice about this time of year," Tokyo offered. "Pan-African epidemics."

"Everyone loves a good scene of mass starvation," said José.

"Maybe a little incident on the moon?" proposed Telly-Savalas. "Small terrorist attack? Cult suicides?"

"Former President Redford as well," said Sabrina. "We can ask him to do a little retrospective on his favorite wars."

"I'm getting a readout from our AIs here," Vladimir said. "They're telling us the mean NorAm blip-with-lifestyle's concern will drop exponentially within the next forty-eight hours. Given our current trajectories, polls conducted next week will fail to register a statistically significant reaction to the BelsenLand contretemps." He looked up, smiling. His tribal scars flashed. "I think we're in the clear, ladies and gentlemen."

"Halle-fucking-lujah," Neiman-Marcus said. "Now we're getting somewhere."

A psychic dam burst, flood of goodwill pouring through the situation room. Everyone began to clap.

Telly-Savalas, feeling a reprieve wash over him as water from a Baptismal font, smacked his palms together like a three-year-old at the head of his own birthday party. Everything was going to be okay. He was going to get through this. He sat jovially among his colleagues, letting this sweet information in.

Eventually Stanley Zircon spoke up. His mouth was still bloated, his chin dappled with sheen and grit. He was delighted by all the festive spirit.

"Say," he said, beaming. "What kind of meat is this, anyway? It's just, um..." He popped another breaded stick between his greasy lips and chomped. "Really delicious."

"Succulent, huh?" Modesta said, laughing.

"Juicy," said Tokyo.

"Tender," said José.

"A veritable delicacy," said Sabrina from the screen.

Neiman-Marcus pumped his shoulders up and down, guffawing without a sound.

Stanley looked from one to the other.

"What?" he asked.

"Well," Neiman-Marcus explained, "you're eating...uh...leftovers there, boy...And I gotta tell you: I've never seen anyone take to 'em like you. Regular fox in a henhouse."

"Maybe that's because our young friend here doesn't quite realize just how...environmentally conscientious he's being," said Vladimir.

"A veritable recycling machine," said Modesta.

"Whole resource management team in one body," said José.

"Waste not, want not," said Tokyo.

"You ever...you ever hear of Tyrone O'Kult?" Neiman-Marcus asked.

Stanley thought a minute.

"Sure," he said. "Major stockholder in..."

Then it snuck up on him. He stopped chewing. His smile retracted. He suffered a language crash.

"That's right, boy," Neiman-Marcus said. "Lazarus Project. Great enterprise. Major undertaking. Happening all over the globe. What you think? That our Mr. O'Kult'd just go and waste all that good unused meat once it's been gutted and all those over-priced organs removed? Hell no. We're talking four-star businessman here...fucking world-class entrepreneur..."

Stanley spoke through his food, which seemed to multiply in his mouth.

"You mean this stuff is..."

"Pass the Gerber's," said Modesta from across the table.