"Flame" by Carl Goodman

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Conspicuous Consumption
by Gary Piserchio and Frank Tagader


1. August 2004: Gage County Fair -- Beatrice, Nebraska

First contact. No argument there. June Haverstock's home video made CNN within the hour. It's just that... it wasn't the most noble way we could have met extraterrestrials for the first time. But seeing how it all ended, it was somehow fitting.

It was just a pinpoint, but bright enough to make Idelia Gentry shade her eyes. The light hung about five feet above the ground, like a lightning bug stuck in midair. It just appeared there. A couple of seconds later yellow ooze began to slide out along with a terrible stench. It washed over Idelia, causing her gullet to skip rope.

"What the hell is that?" said Eustis, walking up next to his wife. He was grimacing against the stench with the same crinkled face he used when tasting her cooking.

The light had enlarged to the size of one of those Frisbees that the hippies over on the Lincoln campus were always throwing at each other. A lot of ooze was spilling out, making a sucking, farting noise. Idelia squished up her own face at the sound, not to mention the smell. Then the light jerked wider to the size of a hula hoop and a big mess of yellow just plopped out onto the fairgrounds.

"What the heck?" she whispered.

The yellow stuff reminded Idelia of Helen Craptree's cream-cheese-and-grapefruit-gelatin salad. That is, if the salad were four-feet tall, could sort of stand on its own, and stunk to High Heaven. Then two more gelatin salads plopped out of the light, and with a wink the light was gone.

"Howthee," was the sound she heard.

"Howdy yourself, partner," said Eustis, smiling broadly. "What can I do for you?"

"Howdy?" said Idelia, looking sideways at her husband.

"Shut up, dear."

Idelia strained to understand the sputtering sounds that the things made. She realized that their "voices" were coming from little black boxes they wore around their... middles. You certainly couldn't say they had waists.

"Well," said Eustis, "we've got plenty of what you're looking for." Idelia was trying to figure out what they were looking for. She'd picked out the words "fried" and "lots of butter."

Eustis continued, "Follow me, gents."

Idelia turned with Eustis. Everyone else from the crowded fairgrounds was now standing well beyond the rows of plywood booths, and they were all inching farther away as she watched -- except for June Haverstock, who had her video camera pointed at them. Idelia waved at her.

The creatures followed Eustis, leaving a snail-like slime trail behind them in the dirt. She couldn't see any feet on them -- nor could she see any arms or hands. Godawful ugly. And just plain smelly.

They stopped at the Boy Scouts' booth. The little tykes had been frying up potatoes and onion rings. The alien things seemed to quiver more as they got close to the booth and the food.

"Like that smell, do you?"

She distinctly heard, "Yes."

Eustis grabbed a small order of rings that had been left behind by the scouts who were now standing with their scoutmaster in the parking lot. "This one's on the house," he said, holding the onion rings out towards the three oozing gelatin salads.

Something long and pastry looking extended from the middle alien. Like a very long finger, or worse. She grimaced at it. Disgusting.

Eustis placed a couple of the deep-fried rings on the extension, which immediately whipped back into its body like a slingshot. The onion rings vanished with a faint sucking sound.

"Good?" asked Eustis.

"Mmmmm," the black box hummed. "More fat."

"Another satisfied customer, Idelia, honey."

A different gelatin salad began to extend a "finger" out towards her husband. Eustis put the onion rings back on the counter and the thing's extension slowly withdrew, somehow looking disappointed.

"I'm sorry, folks, but I can't go giving away food for free," and he laughed, "I gotta eat, too, you know. Now if you possibly had something to trade, I'm sure I could cut a deal with you for the onion rings."

"Iss thith good?" Idelia couldn't tell which one of them spoke.

Out of the one on the right extended something that looked -- Idelia gasped and Eustis covered her mouth -- just like gold. Eustis also covered her nose, and she had to slap his hand away to breathe.

Eustis plucked the walnut-sized nugget from the creature and squinted at it. "This real?" He hefted it in his hand. "Feels right."

"Like you'd know what gold feels like."

"Shut up, dear."

"I guess this'll have to do," Eustis said. "That'll pay for some more rings. Are the rest of you hungry?"

Idelia covered her own mouth. The other two alien gelatin salads produced their own nuggets of gold.

2. March 2014: Frenchie's Fast Food Restaurant.

Ten years later and people... criminy, people... got used to the idea of aliens. They got used to the idea of aliens handing out gold even more quickly. No one seemed to care where the gold was coming from.

Cindy sniffed and began to gag -- swallowing back her dinner. Gross. A smell settled around her like burned rubber, and the Lysol/puke smell from school when one of her classmates blew chunks.

She smiled with excitement. Far-freakin'-out. That smell could only mean the Sorotines. She clasped her hands together to keep them from shaking. This can't be happening to me. I'm just not this lucky. With still-trembling hands, she straightened her Frenchie's ball cap and smoothed out her brown-and-blue apron. Then she clasped her hands back together. Bigger smile. She wished that the several customers near her counter would stop making those awful retching sounds.

"Welcome to Frenchie's," she said to the Sorotine that plopped out in front of her. It looked kind of like the Frenchie's Breakfast Special cheez-n-egg omelet -- except yellower.

"What do you have deep fried, please?" The voice was unmistakable; she'd heard their translator box millions of times on holo-vids and radio. All the Sorotines had the same "voice." In person it sounded even grosser, like farts. This was just too cool.

Cindy tried not to gag as she spoke. "The Monte Crisco is deep fried, sir... ma'am... uh?..." her voice faded. Cripes, don't screw this up. She could see her Harvard professor admonishing her for letting a Sorotine slip -- or ooze --through her hands. Her manager here at Frenchie's would have her deep fried if she screwed this up. "We wrap two beef patties, both well over 50 percent fat, in bacon -- lots of bacon. We pile on four kinds of cheese, spread on gobs of butter, dip it in our secret-recipe egg-yolk batter and deep fry the whole thing in lard." That was better. Calm. Even voice. She may have still had a semester left for her Harvard School of Business degree, with its emphasis on franchise cashier, but she felt confident she knew enough to handle this situation.

"I'll have two dozen Monte Criscoes, please, and seventeen orders of large fries -- the curly kind -- thirty-one Neapolitan shakes, and a cherry strudel," it farted from its black translator box that protruded from its middle.

Cindy punched the order into her station's computer, afraid her fingers would stutter on the pad and punch the wrong entry. "Will that be all?"

"Yes, thank you. How much will that be?"

She pushed the special yellow Sorotine-Total button and stared in awe at the number on her register. She took a deep breath. Steady. "That'll be 965,117 dollars." Her voice almost cracked. "And 14 cents."

"You take plastic, don't you?" Its extension periscoped out a credit card.

3. November 2032: Slopes of Vail, Colorado

It's getting a bit warm by this time. The greenhouse effect and the subtle change in Earth's orbit are taking its toll. Money, and not to mention power, can strike many blind.

Yolanda climbed aboard the ski gondola. Synthesnow still fell in heavy vertical lines of white. Damn, that meant keeping on the friggin' oxygen mask. She was already sweating like a Sorotine. But any of that fake snow crap in your lungs and it was only months before the cancer showed up. The skiers around her on the gondola looked like large-mandibled bugs. And the masks smelled so damn stale. The smell seemed to invade her mouth. She'd have paid Sorotine prices for a breath mint. She looked outside at the fake snow. It would be at least another half hour before the EPA would allow any skiing, giving the synthesnow time to set up and lose its carcinogenic side effects.

Through the oxygen mask's glass goggles, giving everything a hazy look because of the countless scratches on the glass, she looked over the skiers sitting around her. She was sitting in the front row and had to crane her neck around to see everyone. Was the scientist one of them? Were any of them CPAs?

The air-conditioner in the gondola helped with the heat, but it was still hot in the long-sleeve turtleneck and full-length trousers that she wore. Even though it was 94 degrees outside, she had to stay covered or the sun would eat her skin like acid. She shook her head. How could the CPAs say there wasn't any global warming? What the hell did they call this? This was January, for God's sake. This was Vail. She patted her front pants pocket for the sunscreen. She always carried SPF 102.

She tried to relax and enjoy the view of the white stuff out of the gondola's front window, but knowing it had more in common with old-style instant potatoes and Teflon than real snow kept her on edge. How could people actually ski on that crap? She longed for the days of freezing temperature and real frozen water -- of breaking off icicles from overhangs and crunching them in her mouth like frozen carrots. But maybe the world would see real snow again once she blew the cover off of the CPAs' stranglehold on the scientific community and the stifling of the global-warming data. Once the story was splashed across the front page of every major news digisquirt around the world, the CPAs would finally be brought to their collective knees. That would be a wonderful sight -- even through these damn goggles.

She was about to meet the top geomorphing technologist in the world. As a top freelance investigative reporter, Yolanda had often set up junkets such as this to get information on stories -- but why the scientist had picked the Rockies as their meeting place was beyond her.

She knew the scientist only by his/her code name: Sly and the Family Stone. What the hell did that mean? Glancing to her right she hoped it wasn't the jerk seated across the aisle from her. He was some kind of throwback to the 20th Century. His shirt was unbuttoned to his navel, and he was sporting a ton and half of gold chains around his neck. Even his pocket protector was gold lame'.

She sighed, looking back out through the front window. She thought she saw the fuzzy outline of the gondola station through the waves of synthesnow. At the same time, the window spider-webbed with a strange popping sound -- almost like a champagne cork being popped. She could just make out two men in what appeared to be three-piece suits, oxygen masks, and snowshoes. They were standing on top of the station, their LaseRifles pointed at the gondola.

Oh, Christ. She fell to her knees. It was the CPAs. She ignored the pain shooting up her legs from landing so hard on the uncarpeted floor of the gondola.

With a shiver of fear and panic, Yolanda realized that only inches had separated her from death. There was a smoking hole in the seat across the aisle from her where the man with the chains had been sitting. The only thing -- things -- left of him were small, half-melted links of gold chain scattered around the gondola floor like discarded bits of popcorn at a movie theatre.

No one else in the gondola had even moved, unaware of what was going on. Yolanda peered over the edge of the window. The CPAs were gone. Were they hiding and waiting for her? Or had they hit their target? She turned and looked at the black spot where the gold-chained man had been sitting. The spot was still smoldering.

4. January 2065: Office of Nancy Quidley, CPA

Oh so close to stopping it all. Note to universe: never underestimate a CPA.

"Ma'am, it's the director of the IRS on line two," said Stanley Kenton via the vidlink, his narrow, weasely face as somber as ever. Didn't he ever smile?

Quidely sighed and nodded. Big whoop. "Thanks, Stan. Has Percy reported back on the scientist problem?"

There was a pause as Stan's face disappeared momentarily from view. When he returned he shook his head. "Nothing yet, ma'am," his eyes scanning what Quidely assumed was the hard copy of the phone messages. "But ma'am? Gertie checked in to report that the audit was the muscle needed to get the cops off our Denver office. She says they should be real quiet from now on."

"Good," said Quidely, pushing the button to cut the link. Everything was running smoothly. Too bad she had to ruin this good mood by talking to Gustafson over at the IRS.

Her eyes caught the glint off of her Golden Calculator she'd received from the CPA award banquet just last week. She won in the most coveted category: Schedule A. She picked up the award off her desk, loving the cool, smooth surface of the 24 karat gold. Loving its hard, solid weight in her hands. She even liked the smell -- mildly metallic and reeking of money. She slowly rubbed her hands up and down along the curved edges of the representation of the first manual adding machine. She moved her hands up and down ever so slowly, watching her reflection in the highly polished gold -- solid gold. Her hands moved in a slow and steady motion. Up and down. A little faster. Faster. She moaned almost inaudibly then blinked. Sadly, she put the award back on her desk. Another time.

She punched up the waiting IRS director.

"Yeah, Gustafson, what is it?" she said, giving a half scowl. "I don't have much time."

Gus Gustafson nodded. He was an obese man -- his multiple chins threatened to overrun the bottom of the vidlink screen. He seemed to be trying to emulate the Sorotine's obesity. He made Quidely's skin crawl.

"I won't take up much time, Nancy...."

She raised an eyebrow. "Nancy?" She liked to make his life a living hell.

His face went several shades paler. "Uh, Ms. Quidely!" he said too loudly.

She let the eyebrow fall slowly. "What the hell do you want?"

His eyes were wild, like those of a terrified and bloated horse. He stopped looking into the camera. What a spineless sap. He seemed to be trying to find an object on his desk to focus on. His eyes finally stopped roving, but still wouldn't look back into the camera.

"Well, ma'am, it was just that I was ... er, wondering, uh, if it wouldn't be too much trouble if you could meet with the President over this tax issue?"

"Why would I want to do that? My client's are satisfied with their taxes."

"Uh, it's just that, you know, the president is worried, er, that there aren't enough taxes coming in -- and me being, you know, the director of the IRS, he wanted me to call you, and all, since you run the, uh, largest accounting firm on the planet, and all."

"That's not my problem, Gustafson. I can't help it if the congress and the last eleven presidents couldn't come up with one tax increase for those fine citizens with an income over $200,000 annually."

She could see the sweat rolling over the bloated ridges of his cheeks and down the creases of his chins to drip, thankfully, out of sight of the camera. A disgusting, sweating spineless sap. "But, uh, Ms. Quidely, how could any of those presidents have foreseen the aliens and the sudden, er, phenomenal growth of -- like you said -- those fine citizens into the upper tax brackets?"

Gustafson's face started to sink below the eye of the camera. In the wimpiest voice she'd ever heard -- almost making her cut the audio feed -- he said, "Dammit, Nancy, there just aren't any poor or middle-income families left to tax. We need money -- your country needs money."

Quidely sighed, a practiced and impatient sigh. "Then get your congress and your President to pass new tax laws."

All she could see of Gustafson now was the greasy black and gray hair on the back of his head shaking from side to side -- she assumed his face was resting on his arms. He was probably crying.

His muffled voice was hard to discern. "You know damn well your lobbyists won't...."

Stanley's face appeared in the lower-right corner of the screen. "The Department of Alien Affairs director is on line one, ma'am."

Quidely blinked. "Sorry, Gustafson, gotta go."

She pushed the disconnect button. She took a deep breath. Stay calm, she told herself and took the call. Patrick Finn's boyish good looks came into focus. What a prick.

"Ah, Mr. Finn, what a pleasant...."

"Can it, Quidely. Your luck just ran out; I got my hands on the scientific data. My God, Quidely, how could you suppress this information?"

She feigned surprise as her body went cold. "What on Earth are you talking about?" Her hands wrestled each other beneath the view of the camera. They were cold and clammy.

"I'm going to the President with this. Your twisted utopia is over." But he didn't disconnect. Oh, no, of course not. He always had one last thing to say. Shaking his head, he said, "Is all this money worth the consequences, Nancy? I'm surprised the country -- hell -- the world hasn't fallen into complete anarchy already."

His picture faded.

"Stanley," she said softly, barely above a whisper. She didn't think she could muster more strength than that.

Stanley's face filled the screen. "Ma'am?"

"Have Finn killed. Now. Immediately."

5. October 2097: Chorizo Chalet Restaurant

Anarchy and chaos. This is the ugly of the ugly at this juncture. Only the
strong, well-armed survived.

The back door to the Chorizo Chalet hung by a single hinge. Kyle Hultquist eased the police cruiser to a stop in the alley opposite the restaurant's back door. He could feel his partner's tension next to him. His partner was wound up tighter than a hangman's noose. A woman in a floppy hat with yellow smiley faces all over it ran towards them from the back of the restaurant.

"Look what those bastards did!" she screamed. "I'm ruined. Ruined. I want them dead. Dead, I tell you."

"You cool off, lady," said Pete as he cycled his door open and started raising his hulking frame from the car. Kyle put a restraining hand on his cohort's arm.

"Cool off? Are you crazy? Those bastards might as well have shot me through the head!"

Kyle took a deep breath as he eased out of the car, making the woman take a few steps back. "Listen, ma'am. It's hot enough out here already." Easily 125 degrees, thought Kyle. "Let's take this inside where you can show us the damage."

She opened her mouth to speak, and Kyle took her by the elbow and led her towards the restaurant. She wasn't missing any meals. He could feel plenty of meat and fat on her arm. He heard Pete following behind.

Inside, the three made their way through a maze of freezers -- which looked damned inviting in this heat -- sinks, dishwashers, stoves, hanging pots and pans, as well as debris strewn about as though someone had had a massive food fight in the kitchen. Kyle picked his way carefully through the scattered carrots, celery, lettuce, and flour like a light dusting of ash over everything, to the fry pit, which was the cleanest spot in the kitchen.

The heat was getting to the veggies strewn across the floor. Kyle wrinkled his nose. As bad a smell as any dead animal.

"Can you believe it?" she said, pointing to the empty fryer. "They didn't leave a drop. They even scraped off the exhaust fans. All the fat's been stripped from the meat in the freezer. I'm finished, I tell you. The Sorotines won't come here if I don't have any fat, and how in the hell am I supposed to get any more fat? The lard shipments get later and later and the price just keeps rising -- ten million for a tankard full. Hell, if one bastard isn't shooting me in the head as they drop off the lard another one's shooting me in the head as they steal my lard."

Kyle nodded, trying to look concerned. "Did they hit your storage unit?"

"Hell, yes. What the hell do you think they came here for?" She took a step towards Kyle, shaking a finger at him. Pete also took a step forward. He was tempted to let Pete at her.

"Please remain calm," said Kyle, as much to Pete as to the lady.

"Again with calm?" She was beginning to vibrate. That was not a good sign. "Calm? I'm dead! Why the hell should I remain calm?"

"Surely you have an emergency tank hidden somewhere, ma'am. That should get you through until the lard trucks show up."

She took a deep breath and her vibrations seemed to diminish. Good. Her nervous style was beginning to make him nervous.

"Yes, I have a back-up tank," she said, patting the large, stainless steel dishwasher at her side. "But, dammit, you've got to get those bastards."

Kyle realized for the first time that the kitchen had two dishwashers. "Very clever hiding place, ma'am."

She smiled. "Yeah, I can be a crafty bitch when I want to be."

Kyle nodded to Pete, who drew his gun and fired one shot into her head -- she was dead before she hit the floor in an explosion of flour like an impossible snowstorm. Of course, Kyle had only seen snow on old holo-vids. He grabbed a dishtowel and wrapped it around the wound to keep the blood from getting everywhere.

Pete rapped out a beat on the fake dishwasher. "They're getting better at hiding these things. I never would have thought to look in here."

"Yeah, we must have walked past it a dozen times this morning," said Kyle. "Now let's get her out to the car, then we'll come back for the fat."

The alley was still deserted when they brought her body out the back door. Pete cycled the trunk open and they dumped her on top of the two cops' bodies already inside.

"We'll take them back and liposuction them before we burn the bodies," said Kyle, cycling the trunk shut.

6. April 2108: Greenland

It's just about the end of the line. I'm putting my affairs in order and
recording this last bit. Not for posterity, there won't be anyone around to see it, but as a warning to anyone out amongst the stars who may be listening. Good luck.

Dude popped another blackened marshmallow into his mouth. The goo was hot against his tongue for a split second before cooling. He pinched another marshmallow from the bag and speared it on the end of the old car antenna. He hated raw marshmallows, but give them a blackened layer of ash and he was near Nirvana -- or an uncanny facsimile.

"Dude," said Bianco's holo-head, appearing in the ether above Dude's CPU. Her red hair was plastered flat and radiated out from her head like a sombrero. "Que mas Sorotines does it take to screw in una light bulb?" She grinned and tipped her head back and forth. "Tick tock, tick tock... you're outta time -- of course, we all got no time. But the answer, my big kahuna, is it don't matter, 'cause they're all gone. Bye-bye. Last ship jumped the system una hora ago. Adios, amigo."

They've all gone bye-bye. That fits. He put the Nike Heat glove on and waved the fully extended and marshmallowed antenna out beyond the protection of his solar hut -- a fast slicing motion. When he brought the antenna in, the marshmallow was black and beginning to ooze. He twirled the antenna to keep the marshmallow from falling off.

"Crabby Neb, you still out there?" he said.

Crabby Neb's wizened twenty-year-old face shimmered above the CPU. "Hey."

Dude delicately took the marshmallow from the antenna and stuffed it into his mouth. Ash and sugar -- lovely combination. He shook the glove off and let the antenna fall to the sand. "What's the Crabby Neb's Almanac say about the sunset tonight?"

Crabby Neb's skin looked brittle, like the hardened skin of one of Dude's toasted marshmallows. We're all looking like that, thought Dude.

"Gonna be a whale of a sunset. From your Greenland vantage point, assuming you're facing Baffin Island -- damn, I bet the ocean swells are awesome to watch -- the sun should be setting in little over an hour. But, Dude, it'll be setting for quite some time. Let's just say this is when the fat Sorotine sings. I'm envious of your view. Ciao."

"Thanks," said Dude mostly to himself. This was it. The final gasp of a dying planet laid to waste. Dude squinted at the transcript of Idelia Gentry's interviews with the then newly formed Department of Alien Affairs over one hundred years ago. He snorted softly and shook his head. An entire planet raped and plundered by Helen Craptree's cream-cheese-and-grapefruit-gelatin salads.

Dude sat back and watched the waves crash into the sandy shore little more than a quarter-mile from his hut. They were generating a hell of a pipeline. He squinted into the sunset. The waves had to be cresting at forty feet now. The sound was a majestic roar of power.

"Well, this is Dude signing off for the last time, folks. It's been a blast communing with all of you. I'm downloading the stats you holo-heads collected for me and I'm transmitting it off-planet. Let's hope it reaches the folks at the Sorotine's next stop before they eat them out of house and home.

"As for me, I officially resign my post as director of the Department of Alien Affairs on this fine Friday afternoon, April 12th, 2108. For the next few hours, I'm going to enjoy my retirement. Aloha."

Pulling himself up, he struggled into his Nike Heat suit and fastened the bindings. He slipped on the matching Hi-Intense goggle/face mask, and ducked out from under the shelter.

The sun's last rays glittered across the ocean swells. Dude pulled his surfboard out of the sand, tucked it under his arm, and jogged into the waves. The surf was definitely up.

Story copyright 2002 by Gary Piserchio and Frank Tagader gjperch@idcomm.com

Illustration copyright 2002 by Carl Goodman carl.goodman@peppersghost.com

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