At the top of the lift were the imperious double doors she remembered so well, carved with satyrs and nymphs and other creatures only Mr. Masterson would remember. There was that beautiful, patchwork figure that had so captivated her upon her first visit, with its lion head and caprine body ending in a serpent’s tail. She could not imagine what life must have been like in the old days, when such fearsome beasts shared the world with humanity.
“Come on then. We’ve got work to do.” Mr. Thick pulled on the immense knocker and one half of the entrance swung open.
The dining room was just as she remembered it. Nothing changed in this place. The immense oval table that served as the centerpiece of the room could easily seat sixteen though tonight they were expecting only eight, one of whom would not be eating at all. Salad-bowls, plates, and cutlery in twos: two spoons, two forks, two knives, had already been laid out at each setting, punctuated by a fluted crystal glass.
She followed Mr. Thick, windingly, through the room strictly as a formality: she knew every inch of it and the one beyond: as far as she was concerned, this new Thick was the neophyte. But his calculated warning against one-upmanship had chastened on her. In any case, the Performance demanded she treat him as her superior. There would be time later to lick her wounds.
They passed through swinging doors and into the kitchen where the meal to be served was still under preparation. Automat BOIs whisked away at confectioner’s bowls, tended to cucurbits in which the reintegration of essential nutrients and fungal matter took place, and kneaded the faux-dough into chapattis that would be baked inside the open oven with its brick coping that sat in an alcove next to the subduction vent through which thermals coursed.
And of course, there were mushrooms.
A multitudinous ocean of fungus covered the stone table, sliced, marinated, braised, and skewered. From the great floppy-brimmed mushrooms that were harvested from the depths by nano-botanists and their dwarf masters, to the miniscule pitted caps, no bigger than a finger tip, that grew in clusters beneath the ossified deep roots of trees. Mushrooms and mushrooms. A lifetime’s worth. A treasure. What a waste.
As she passed, she glimpsed into one vat, being stirred by a BOI™. The meat substitute, Veganomania™, was agglutinating as it cooled down. At this final stage, the stuff required constant mixing. She often wondered what it really was. Rumors abounded, the most macabre of which involved reclaimed Citizens, though she found that hard to believe. Then again, aspects of youth, when culled appropriately, could help offset the ravages of time. Such alchemy was very much sought after by those residing in the inviolable towers.
The BOI™ paid her no heed, even as she stuck her head nigh near into the vat, and she halfway resented, halfway regretted its inability to acknowledge her—but that was silly, of course. This was why she and Mr. Thick were there. For acknowledgement of this grand occasion.
Mr. Thick turned and saw her peering into the meat: “I’m afraid there’s none of that for us tonight. Just the usual fare.”
She nodded: she had expected as much. Perhaps she’d be able to sneak a clot down her gullet, in clearing plates.
“Hmm…let’s see,” he was eyeing her, hand on chin. Was his maleness finally getting the better of him? It didn’t take much examination to see that she was, in actuality, nowhere near the age Mrs. Smith was supposed to be. She decided there were worse things than being admired by the competition. But alas: “A trace of flour on your frock will do nicely.”
“Excuse me?” she asked as he wiped her elbow, leaving a pale smudge.
“For appearances sake.”
“And you?” she demanded.
“Me?” he guffawed, “I’m much more in control of my faculties. You, on the other hand, are a doddering old woman, a comedic afterthought, of sorts. A foil to my suave and impenetrable distinction.”
He stepped back, appraising her. “Well, that’s better.”
She almost protested but thought better of it. She had to concede it was in no way divergent from the role. And it was also believable that such a man as Masterson might amend the script without letting her—or anyone else—know. Doddering indeed. She would sneak a look, when she had a chance.
“I think I’ll—” he stopped speaking suddenly and cocked his head. D.I.S. implants activated. “Yes sir. Right away sit.” He looked at her, eyes shining: “They’re here.”
Mrs. Smith was in a fluster. It hadn’t been more than ten minutes since she’d arrived, and here the guests had come already? She stammered a weak protest, but Mr. Thick was already striding through the swinging doors and out into the dining room. She smoothed her dress and followed.