Alexa Weik von Mossner
“Welcome to the Déluge.”
The host smiles at him as he dives into the dimly lit lobby of the restaurant, relieved to be out of the rain. Her greeting sounds funny, the pronunciation halfway between English and French, plus he finds it fitting given that he’s dripping wet from the torrents coming down outside. She offers a towel and a dry jacket for him to wear during dinner and reminds him to put his Spine in full 3D mode, as if that wasn’t the default. He’s still surrounded by the holographic maps and track forecasts he’s been working with on his way up here from the West Village, trying to arrive at a decision.
He used to be better at this, making decisions. But lately he has grown terrified of his choices. They have grown into monstrous, impossible things, whatever he does a death knell for hundreds or thousands. He stares at what is now a severe tropical storm in the Southern Pacific, the Philippines still outside the forecast cone. It’s impossible to tell where the storm will be in two days or how fierce it will be, but it’s his job to guess and decide. If he makes a mistake, fails to foresee the next supply chain breakdown, New Yorkers will be dying in two weeks from now due to lack of critical medical supply. If he gets it right, it won’t be New Yorkers who will be dying. He has to make his decision and the idea was that he’d figure things out before reaching the restaurant. Now he is here and nothing.
“Please, this way,” the host says and it’s clear from her tone that she’s said it already.
He mutters an apology and manages a smile as he follows her. Behind the translucent coastline of the Philippines on the interactive Spine map, he can make out the walls of the lobby, painted a soothing pale green and lined with awards for the restaurant’s famed animal cuisine. It’s one of the few places in Manhattan that still serve the flesh of formerly living things, catering to those who can afford somewhat more exotic tastes. But what it’s even more famous for than its food is its enthralling environment. And since there’s no chance he’s going to make any progress while here, he decides to finally take a break and closes all files related to work. Perhaps diversion will help, and his rare dates with Marla are as diverting as it gets for him. He hooks up his Spine with the restaurant’s VR system as the host leads him through a lock into the dining room like it’s some rite of passage.
The circular room shows an African veldt, complete with grass, scrubs, and a group of lions in the distance. Despite himself, he pauses, amazed and in awe. His job requires him to stare at screen walls all day long, so he is no stranger to virtual worlds. But this is something else. Everything—wall, ceiling, and his implanted Spine processor—works in concert to create a seamless illusion of a natural environment. Along the walls, the tall grass of the savanna stretches out to the horizon, swaying softly in the slight draft from the aircon and populated by 3D holograms of grazing springboks produced by his Spine. All of it illuminated in supple orange by the setting sun on the west side of the room. The arched ceiling is filled with the reddish blue of a darkening sky and what looks like a million stars.
“They finally put Africa back in rotation.” Marla smiles as he approaches their table. “You’re pretty late.”
His kisses her forehead and sits down across from her, still wet inside his dry jacket.
“Don’t tell me you’ve walked up here?” It’s a rhetorical question since she knows that he always walks, no matter the weather or the time. It is the one thing that keeps him sane, moving his feet one in front of the other for as many blocks as he possibly can. And so instead of answering it, he makes an announcement.
“This,” he gestures toward the surrounding savanna, “is insane.”
Marla takes a sip from her half-empty glass. “Well, as I said, you don’t have to like it, but it’s my favorite restaurant in the whole world, so please indulge me, will you?” She attempts a pout that is at odds with both her still-smiling eyes and her hunched body posture. She’s big-boned but thin, a slouch making her always look deflated and now causing the red dress she’s wearing to sag around her bony chest. She has gotten thinner again since he last saw her. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail that makes her cheekbones stand out and the thick layer of mascara emphasizes gray eyes that are pretty but permanently dimmed from years of abuse. Behind her rounded shoulder, a group of elephants comes into view.
“Do they even exist anymore like that?” he asks, nodding toward the animals now nearing their table, seemingly oblivious of them.
Marla turns around and then back toward him. “A few of them, at Kruger. It’s basically a giant zoo now. But this is fiction, Jake. Can you please let me enjoy it?”
He’s unsure whether he actually can, wondering once again why she wanted to meet here. She must have known what effect it would have on him. Or are they so disconnected that she didn’t? But it’s his one evening off and so he decides, once again, that he will play along. The restaurant clearly is going for the picturesque, and perhaps it’ll do him some good to see those places thriving and intact for a change. He looks at Marla’s drink.
“Is that a Bradbury?”
She nods and he orders one for himself, hoping it will help him relax. The world around them changes slowly to night and then to the dazzling white of an Antarctic landscape with massive penguin colonies in the distance, teeming with life. It is fiction alright. He tries to focus on Marla’s face.
“How have you been?” It seems a necessary question to him, and he is genuinely interested in the answer even though he knows it will be inadequate. When they first started dating, a little over two years ago, Marla insisted they make a pact to never ruin their evenings talking about work. It’s been tricky because they both do nothing but.
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