They were all seated and so could now continue. Masterson signaled the resumption of the Performance by the symbolic lifting of his glass.
Mr. Badubim was set to begin, “President Bashar, as we all know, is dedicated to the Martian Venture.”
“Well of course he is,” Mr. Blum muttered. “He’s a bleeding idiot.”
“But a canny politico, one cannot dispute that,” Xian rejoined, cocking her head and daring Blum to dispute, which he did not.
And so it continued: the ancient, stale Performance the recounted one story of mankind’s Exodus.
Artaud sat glumly by himself. He had come for the free meal. All attempts at small talk with the other guests had been confounded; the fact that he had no role to play per se, nonplussed them. Only Mr. Thick would take the time to talk with him, and then only to boast of the wonders Masterson had at his disposal. Mrs. Smith, for her part, would have loved to talk with him—she thought perhaps they hailed from a similar Level—but she had work to do. In any case, she knew from experience that Masterson did not like the help to gel too closely with the guests.
As Badubim put forth his position—one that favored both Martian exploration and the increase of his personal fortune—abetted by the populist Xian, who served both as sounding board and articulator, and paced around the table in his ridiculous trousers and jacket, Mrs. Smith who had been standing their peacefully, heard a noise from the kitchen.
She and Mr. Thick just next to the swinging doors that led to the back house. He seemed oblivious. Perhaps she was imagining it. But it paid to be sure.
“I’ll be back,” she told him.
“What?” he asked.
“Someone needs to check the Veganomania™.”
There was a shudder now. They both felt it through the wall they stood against.
“Did you feel that?” Mr. Thick hissed. Then he giggled. “So that’s why you’re leaving, you chary old bird.”
She glared at him. “Keep your voice down.” Badubim was in the middle of his long-winded oratory, not even ten feet away.
“I told you,” he hugged the drink tray to his chest. “I warned you. They’re in the walls.”
He seemed positively giddy.
“I’ll be back.”
“We wouldn’t want anything untoward to happen to Mrs. Smith,” he whispered. “I’ll join you.”
In his circumnavigation of the table, Badubim had stopped between Thick and Smith and the other guests. He looked blindly in their direction, pausing as he recollected his next lines.
“But this will happen only if we get in now,” back on track, the diminutive man continued his pitch as Mrs. Smith waited for an opportune moment to steal away unnoticed. “IndoSteelNGas has been offered sole broadcast rights of the enterprise. But we will require other investors.”
“Broadcast rights?” demanded Shinseki. “I thought we were here to discuss the preservation of the human race!”
“Yes,” Mr. Blum agreed. “Talking about this entire venture as though it were just another one of your game shows is absurd. Can Mars accommodate the millions upon millions that will soon need refuge?”
“Here, here!” Artaud cheered, flourishing his glass in the air. “Millions upon millions. More than ever did make it down here, my fri—”
Badubim cut short his drunken bawling. “It would be the greatest Reality Show ever. Better than ‘Feet on the Floor’.”
“ ‘Feet on the Floor’,” spat Shinseki. “We’re not talking about an eight-man—”
“—and woman,” Xian interjected.
“Submersible into the bloody Pacific Ocean.” Continued Shinseki.
Mrs. Smith remembered this discussion as being particularly long and drawn-out, needlessly involving obscure technical language. Now was as good a time as any to disappear. She slid through the doors and into the kitchen.
Something with beating wings floated above the spot Mr. Thick had earlier pressed his eager head against.
Here is what she saw: an ebon figure with black wings, holding in its right hand a dusky briefcase. With one languorous flap, it sank to the ground and just as its soot black toes touched the floor, it disappeared.
Accompanying its disappearance in fearful symmetry was a dull thump that came from behind the bulkhead. It was followed by a screech, which announced to her dismay the sundering of the wall. A cloud of steam erupted into the room, those thermal updrafts that sent mineral water to the surface, where it could be condensed.
“Moshe!” Mr. Thick sighed in ecstasy. He had followed her through the doors. His eyes trembled with excitement.
Mrs. Smith was surprised but only momentarily. As was her character, she tucked into this new problem with the same gusto Artaud had reserved in the draining of Masterson’s wine cellar.
“Block it!” she barked at the chefs and sous chefs, the dicers and slicers. “With your bodies if need be!”
The nearest BOI™ pressed its body against the rent, its Plasteel™ frame twisting and warping. The wheels dripped at their hottest points, puddling on the stone. The ocular lenses dulled as the scalded synapses gave up the ghost, but the BOI™’s body remained stuck to the wall, limbs and tendrils twisted as though by rigor mortis.
“Don’t just stand there, man!” She bawled at Mr. Thick, who was gnawing his fingers in excitement. “Do something.” But he was less than useless.
She ran to where the Bubblizer™ hung, next to the oven and hefting it, squeezed off a shot. The globule floated through the air before collapsing as it struck the BOI™’s body and the rent below, covering them in a viscous layer that hardened immediately, sealing the breach—at least for now.
“No, no!” Mr. Thick yelled. He ran to the hole and tried to rip the BOI™ in the bubble off of it.
“What in the devil are you playing at, Mr. Thick?” she screamed.
His fingers dug beneath the seal and as he pried the clotted goop from the wall, a jet of steam escaped. It struck him full in the face, whereupon the meat and cartilage that had so perfectly obscured the bones of his skull evaporated.
He fell over, never even having uttered a sound and Mrs. Smith found herself a bit surprised as how salubrious the scent was of his disappeared features. It now filled the kitchen and was better by far than the stink of those great flabby Beast-shrooms that had been harvested by the nano-botanical extremophiles and their dwarf masters.
She squeezed off another bubble just to be sure, effectively resealing the gap that Mr. Thick had prized. She then enlisted a BOI™ (though she detested the interaction) to remove Mr. Thick’s faceless body from the kitchen—she was afraid it might sully the remaining dishes.
She was winded by this ordeal, but when the cleanup was done she was pleased to hear that their had been no further abeyance in the Performance: she could still hear Badubim’s adenoidal voice, rattling off his grandiose plans of abscondence to the Red Planet.
She always felt that this part, with its reliance on technical jargon, could easily run the risk of alienating the viewer. She often wondered why Masterson hadn’t made the Performance more accessible, with more romance, perhaps as was supposed to have happened between she and Mr. Thick. She wondered offhand how they would adjust, when that time came.