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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


 
The Essay
Show #536
Trocadero's
David Gunn

From the tip of his radiation visor down to his wingtip boots, Boise was a bundle of nerves. He'd been driving for two hundred miles now, searching for a filling station to fill his vehicle's fuel tank. He'd passed dozens of petrol kiosks, but they'd either been abandoned or plundered by others more desperate than him. The hot, post-apocalyptic sun beat down on him, and the heat rose up in waves from the road. Boise was broiling inside the car; still, he kept his air conditioner turned off in the hope that that would help conserve fuel. He'd also cut his speed to 90 clips per hour and held his breath for minutes at a time, but the needle on the car's fuel gauge continued its inexorable downward spiral. Indeed, for the last twenty minutes, it had conducted a thorough exploration of the red Empty zone. Abruptly, the engine coughed. Boise slowed his speed to 60 clips and held his breath for an extra minute. The car recovered, and even seemed to perk up a bit. Then it coughed again, a deep, hacking cough that had traces of phlegm in it. Boise glanced at the fuel gauge. The pointer had completely vanished. He sighed. He knew that he couldn't circumvent Einstein's Revised Theory of Relativity: E = Out of Gas. The coughing turned into convulsions, and the car was slowing without him having to ease up on the throttle pedal.

And then, he saw it. Like a phoenix rising out of southcentralmost Arizona, a service station with an illuminated "We Have Liquid Hydrocarbons!" sign appeared on the horizon. The car saw it, too and, having exhausted its conventional fuel reservoir, snatched some printed matter from the magazine rack behind Boise's seat and converted it to energy. It was just enough, and the car coasted to a stop right in front of the station's lone pump.

Boise prized open the cockpit door and climbed out. Stretching, he took off his hat, but a gust of hot wind blew it right back onto his head. Above him, the sign creaked on rusty hinges in the breeze. He peered at the adjoining building. Hmm. Maybe it wasn't the oasis he'd hoped for after all. There was no sign of life, and it looked like it had been deserted for years. Two of the windows were broken; a third was boarded up. The door hung from a solitary hinge. Above the doorway, a faded "Welcome to Trocadero's" sign was barely legible. An old wicker chair next to the door was propped against the side of the building as if its tenant had been suddenly plucked from it. Boise's gaze at last settled on the fuel pump. It was an ancient analog type, without either a thorium filter or laser debit accounting system. Why, he hadn't seen one like this for years! But he still had hope that it would work. After all, there was no alternative.

He unfastened the hose and held it in the air, like a divining rod of yore. The nozzle twitched, swung right, then left, then pointed unhesitatingly to the car's fuel reservoir vent. Boise exhaled a sigh of relief. At least that part of the system still worked. He connected the nozzle to the car's fuel stalk and pushed the Access key on the pump's terminal.

Nothing happened.

Boise banged his fist down on the pump in frustration. It had to work! He pushed the Access key again. Still nothing. Muttering a string of imprecations, he pushed the key again, and again, and was about to kick the pump when ...

"You must push the primer first."

If Boise had been wearing his skin, he would have jumped out of it. He wheeled to see an old, wizened man sitting in the wicker chair. The voice had been booming, resonant, and entirely incongruous coming from such a frail-looking human being. If, indeed, it had come from him, for the man otherwise offered no sign that he was alive. He didn't move; he didn't even appear to be entirely in focus. Boise took a step towards him, but another blast of hot wind blew him back against his car. And held him there.

As the impossibly strong wind whistled past his ears, the whistle turned briefly into "Dixie," and then into the word "primer" as if whispered by two humpback whales in parallel fifths. Studying the pump more closely, Boise noticed a small button mechanism directly beneath the Access key. It pulsed precisely out of sync with the whispered "primer." Temporarily leaving his corporeal belongings pressed against the car, he disembodied over to the pump, extended a wraithlike appendage, and pressed the button.

Immediately, the machine throbbed to life, pinged once, twice, then the payment menu on the pump's terminal illuminated. The wind abruptly died down, and Boise rejoined the rest of his body before it collapsed onto the ground. He fished around in his pocket for his wallet, snagged it, and reeled it in. Unfortunately, it rivaled his car's reservoir in the contents department, but he wasn't about to let a little thing like penury get in the way of a good fill-up. So he turned the dial to "On Account" and pressed the Go button.

With an accompanying mechanical borborygmus, the pump dutifully began to transfer liquid hydrocarbons into his car's fuel tank. The system apparently wasn't sealed because a strong odor suddenly permeated the area. But it certainly wasn't the smell of a petroleum distillate. Boise sniffed again. No, he knew that aroma. And it didn't belong here! It was ...

"Krill," said the old man.

Indeed it was. Krill. Marine crustaceans. Whale fare.

Boise turned to the man in the chair. But the man had vanished. The chair now supported, but just barely, a pair of humpback whales. The wind whistled "Dixie" in Boise's ears again as the whales whispered to one another. Never one to shirk his interspecific communication duties, Boise raised his hands in the universal sign for plankton.

"Greetings, fellow fishmongers," he said. "I am Boise, a human. I come in peace and for fuel."

The noises from the two leviathans modulated to the sound of a rug being dragged through a large lemon tart. Boise shook his head, not understanding. The sound became a raspberry tart dancing the fandango, and then, suddenly, Oxford Anthropomorphic English.

"Welcome, human fishmonger, to Trocadero's." The words buzzed inside Boise's head as both whales simultaneously flippered the plankton sign.

"Nice place you have here," offered Boise, trying to look at the whole picture and not just the dilapidated building.

"It is the onset of the Kingdom of Parnok," came the intercranial voice again, "which very soon will spread throughout this land you call Erd."

"Earth," corrected Boise, trying to coax a faster flow of liquid hydrocarbons from the pump.

"Whatever." The word was a mixture of insouciance and menace.

With a satisfying belch, the car's reservoir bladder at last declared itself topped off. Boise disengaged the fuel hose and reattached it to the pump apparatus, which pinged its assent. The payment menu registered an on-account figure that approximated the value of Boise's car. He frowned. First contact opportunity or no, he did not like to be taken advantage of.

Bowing formally, he said, "Thanks to you, my good leviathans, for your fuel. However, I must object to its exorbitance."

"You get what you pay for," came the somewhat snippy retort. "Our product contains planktane. Increases clippage. You'll see, you'll see."

The voice modulated back to the sound of tarts, then whispering, then disappeared altogether. The two whales briefly transmogrified into the form of the wizened old man in the chair before likewise vanishing. Boise was suddenly fearful that he had hallucinated the entire incident. But no, his car's fuel tank was surfeited. And, he noted, smelled of krill.

Ignoring the pump's plaintive plea for payment, Boise clambered back into the cockpit and pulled the door closed. The aroma of marine crustaceans was even stronger in here, but nothing his air conditioning system couldn't manage. Starting the engine, he noticed a new whispery accompaniment to the normal churning of pistons and fuel rods. He put the car in gear and tapped the throttle pedal. Instantly, the vehicle blasted down the highway in excess of 250 clips per hour.

Planktane, that's what the whales had called it, Boise recalled after a full day of high-speed driving had failed to budge the fuel gauge from its G for Glutted mark. Even Boise felt remarkably refreshed. He couldn't even recollect the passage of either time or distance. Or, unfortunately, his destination. He had a sudden urge to stop somewhere and ask directions, and at that moment, a service station with an illuminated "We Have Liquid Hydrocarbons!" sign appeared on the horizon. Something in his subconscious tingled as he slowed down, but he repressed it. He parked in front of the ramshackle building, silently acknowledging the universal sign for krill from the wizened old man sitting in the chair by the door.

Well, if you think we have time to bring this story to a logical conclusion, you're about as wrong as today's performers on this 536th and penultimate episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar are right. And right now is the logical time to move on to Kalvos.