THE STEPHANIE GLITCH - PART 3
Featuring hologram kebabs and space battles
As usual, I am leaving my section titles in because they are sometimes amusing, and so it is easier for you to navigate.
THE STEPHANIE GLITCH
“This isn’t dancing. Dancing is social.”
“It is dancing,” Emma said. Stephanie adjusted the back over her shoulder as Emma took her hands and joined in with the dance.
“Stand awkwardly beside the dancing people?” Emma smiled convincingly, raising her eyebrows. She continued raising and lowering her eyebrows a few more times, as if the decision to stand near dancing people was the best decision that had ever been made. Stephanie tried not to laugh.
“You could always take a year out, come to my uni for a week, see how you feel,” Stephanie raised her voice over the music.
“Sleep on your floor, sample the nightlife?” Emma asked.
“Yeah!” Stephanie shouted.
As they pushed through the crowd with no particular destination in mind, glancing back at their abandoned table as it was claimed by a trio of younger girls, Stephanie caught sight of another skeleton glass filled with light greenish liquid, perhaps a cocktail. The skeleton on this one was a silver-grey, and for a moment Stephanie remembered an idea about a skeleton floating in a glass tube somewhere. The image lingered in her mind as they approached the dance floor, giving her an idea for a story.
“You good?” Emma said. Stephanie re-entered reality. She looked up at the Bowieesque light show of red and blue lights, breathed in a puff of fake smoke, and prepared to embarrass herself by either dancing or not dancing.
“As soon as I ask you to dance you want to leave?”
“I want to eat,” Stephanie said.
“Right now?” Emma began dancing, weaving through the crowd backwards with a lazy rhythm that did not match the music at all. They weren’t at the dance floor yet.
“You’re dancing. This is dancing.” Stephanie feigned disappointment.
“No I’m not.”
“You definitely are. Your feet are moving.”
“I am walking rhythmically,” Emma protested.
Emma winked, saying “No, it isn’t.”
The pair danced to the rest of the song, jumping up and down out of tune with everyone else, but everyone else was too drunk to notice.
“Proper want chips now you mention it,” Emma screamed over the music.
“Maybe after this song,” Stephanie barked back, “Celebratory kebab.”
“Is that another of Jay’s band names?” Emma yelled through the crowd.
“No, just a suggestion.”
“It’s a good suggestion,” Emma said. She reached out for Stephanie’s hand again as the crowd split them apart. The pair crossed the threshold between regular floor and disco floor. The disco floor stood slightly higher than the rest of the bar, and from here Stephanie could see all the way from the toilets to the entrance. Both places were presently occupied by bickering couples, and as the enormity of the place began to be processed in her brain, Stephanie felt a deep stabbing anxiety for her friend. She reached out and got Emma by the shoulder, bringing her onto the disco floor.
The anxiety faded as suddenly as it had arrived. From here Stephanie could see that the mass of people was really a clustering of much smaller groups, each preoccupied with their own conversations and awkwardness. Strangely, on this lit-up floor, Stephanie felt pleasantly invisible.
After a while the pair finally managed to get in tune with the music. The colours shooting through Stephanie’s perception mingled with the real colours shooting from the projectors, and everything was beautiful and chaotic and meditative again. Another brilliant darkwave song came on a few minutes later, bringing with it a trio of impossibly tall goths. One of them noticed that Stephanie and her brightly adorned friend both knew the words.
After brief, incoherent introductions had been yelled over the song, the truly awkward dancing began. Emma was spinning and moving her arms about in slow motion to some chorus about being buried alive, Stephanie was swaying from side to side just appreciating the music, and the three tall goths whose names would be forgotten by the end of the night were jumping up and down beside them. One of them was the happiest goth Stephanie had ever seen. In fact, he was so happy that he made Emma look bored by comparison.
“Shall I leave? Am I embarrassing you?” Emma teased. She started headbanging out of tune, throwing her lion’s mane of ginger hair back and forth. Stephanie didn’t respond. Instead, she turned to the tallest of the goths and tapped them on the shoulder.
“Hey. Can you pretend I just said something really funny?”
The man laughed loudly. Emma looked to him and back at Stephanie, yelling, “Hey, what did you tell him?”
“Oh, nothing,” Stephanie grinned.
“That’s not fair,” Emma replied. She reached out and grabbed Stephanie, pulling her further into the dancefloor and spinning her around.
“Tell me what you told him, or I’m going to make you do a silly little dance.”
“No,” Stephanie said. Emma grabbed Stephanie’s wrists and began moving her around like a puppet, speaking into her ear. She got her feet under Stephanie’s and began the awkward process of dancing for two people.
“I told him to pretend I said something funny.”
“So we can both feel awkward.”
“Oh, my dancing makes you feel awkward?” Emma released Stephanie, who quickly turned to face her again.
“If I say yes, will you get worse?”
Emma didn’t respond. Instead, she guided Stephanie into a circle of older women, who were having a dance-off, and inserted her into the group. After a minute or two of awkward drunken dance battles in the centre, Stephanie re-emerged with messier hair and murder in her eyes.
“I am going to kill you.”
“Kebab first,” Emma reminded her. She started weaving back and forth between more dancing groups, but Stephanie now had food on her mind. She grabbed Emma by one finger and dragged her away from the dance floor, even as she was still dancing and saying hello to people.
“I think I got invited to a wedding,” Stephanie said as they reached the front door.
“By the circle women?”
“Yeah.” They exited the bar. Stephanie winced as brutal hailstones pelted down from the black and orange sky, clattering against parked cars and bus stops. It felt as if the clouds were closer and angrier than usual, as if the outside world was demanding she go back inside. There was something ancient and threatening about the weather. It pressed a part of Stephanie’s consciousness back into a metaphorical cave, but the thought of hot food kept her going. She walked ahead of Emma, stepping carefully out into the street and walking with purpose and speed toward the roundabout that would lead them to the kebab shop.
“It’s freezing,” Emma said, as if Stephanie wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
“Kebab,” was the only response given. It was a fine argument.
LP and Toumai discuss Stephanie
There was a moment of tangible confusion. LP turned to face Toumai and stared into his blank eye. The machine selected his next words carefully.
“I do not understand.”
“I don’t expect you to. Look, your captain will wake up you know, now you’ve told him.”
“I believe he trusts my decision making.”
“No matter. I guess we don’t have long until I have to have a talk with the grown-ups.”
LP placed her naked hands on the cold glass, directly opposite the skeleton’s hands, and looked up into vacant eye sockets. She tried to get back into her thoughts.
“She is unfinished,” she said.
“I am aware.”
“She has such a beautiful skull, don’t you think?” said LP. She bumped her forehead lightly against the glass, pressing against it. She recalled her own experiences in coldbeds and stasis chambers, the feeling of waking up after decades, the smell of the coldbed gel and the prickling sensation as her nervous system rebooted itself after a false death.
“I said beautiful skull, don’t you think? It is freezing in here by the way. How long has everyone been asleep?”
Toumai ignored both questions.
“Why do you want to extract her, if you can simply defend this ship from the Virtualists?”
“I won’t be able to forever,” LP replied. She pulled her hands away from the glass. She twisted and stretched inside her dark blue spacesuit. Toumai replayed what she had said, checking it again. Dishonesty. Misdirection. It wasn’t an outright lie, but it did cover up the real answer to the question.
How to counter vague answers? Ask straightforward questions.
The machine nudged in close to LP, his welding arm releasing a single warning spark.
“Where are you from?”
“Upstairs. Another universe. I already told you.”
“How did you get in here?”
“I told the universe I was here, and it put me here.”
“Is her universe in danger?”
LP barely glanced back at him, still entranced by the teenage skeleton floating in the cylinder and the printer bugs that attended to its construction. The final layers were being added now, preparing for the attachment of musculature. Toumai was growing impatient. Another spark, this time close enough for LP to feel it against the tiny hairs on her skin.
“Is her universe in danger? Yes or no.”
LP considered the question, contemplated the benefits of giving a detailed or flippant answer, then returned her gaze to the empty skull of the girl in the tube. She thought of how far she had come to get here, how far she still had left to go, and if there was time left to prepare.
“All of them are.”
Steph eats kebab (Hologram kebab)
Stephanie crossed the road with a strip of kebab meat hanging between her teeth. Emma carried the yellow Styrofoam box and a box of cheesy chips behind her like a loyal servant.
“Uni,” Stephanie mumbled. Emma grunted in agreement.
“Uni means free money to create chaos,” she said.
“Uni means more kebab shops,” Stephanie explained. She raised an inquisitive eyebrow, envisioning the foreign kebabs at the other end of the train tunnels. She stopped on the corner of the next road, turning back to see the kebab shop. The distant windows were steamy against the frigid cold outside, and the image of someone moving around inside the place, behind the steam and the heat, reminded Stephanie of the skeleton glass and of the short story she hadn’t yet written down. Whatever it was, it was still forming in her mind, crystallising like grass in winter.
The pair got to outer edge of a roundabout, which was illumed by a grim yellow light from within. From this distance, it looked as if some alien spaceship had given up upon landing here, choosing this place to die.
“We’re not going through the subway,” Emma said.
“I know,” Stephanie replied. She turned her attention back to their pilgrimage, to the roundabout. It had five unappealing exits, each with a precarious strip of pavement for pedestrians. The centre was occupied not by flowers or fountains or a small mound of dirt, but by a crater in the earth into which the subway had been carved. The subway was a sickly yellow corridor of cracked tiles and flickering fluorescent tubes, a cannula forced through the old skin of the earth, its bloodied exit wound opening up into the roundabout crater. From where they were stood, Stephanie could just about make out the grim aura of the thing over the brim of the roundabout. She led Emma to the left, following the busiest part of the road where a pub was still open, and a 24/7 garage was still selling pork pies to any drunk who could understand its sliding door, or later in the evening, its small theft-proof kiosk window. The subway, whilst hideous, was a landmark on days and nights out, something to dimly recognise from the top floor of a bus. But as far as Stephanie knew, nobody had ever actually used it to get from one side of the roads to the other. Instead, most people would take the long way round, orbiting it. The subway seemed to exist only to distinguish this roundabout from others nearby, or as somewhere for people to sell drugs.
“Almost back,” Stephanie said. They crossed another road, looking both ways carefully. Taxis were known to appear from nowhere here. The pair turned the next corner and could see the bar ahead.
“Not done,” Emma said, slowing down. She sat down on a low-lying wall to some café and continued eating her cheesy chips, passing Stephanie the kebab.
“It’s freezing,” Stephanie said after a long and cold minute.
“No chips in bar.”
“They’ll be fine with it.”
“Jay got told off for taking cookies that time.”
“You’re wearing a summer dress. You are going to die.”
“Chips give warm,” Emma replied. “Big warm inside tummy.”
“We’ve got to go back, I’m cold.” Stephanie said. She tried to pluck Emma from the wall, but her friend was bigger and willing to fight for her mossy chair. A late-night bus rumbled past, and Emma finished the last handful of chips. They continued walking. Emma took the kebab box off Stephanie and began eating what was left of it. By the time they were almost outside the bar, she only had the pita left.
“I don’t want to lose the pita,” Emma said.
“Don’t have to. Look,” Stephanie said. She took the pita bread from its Styrofoam prison and lifted it above Emma’s head. She set it down, putting an unreasonable amount of care into angling it properly.
“Hat,” she said. Emma smiled.
“Meat infused hat.”
“Meat juice spice hat.”
“If only Jay were here to collect these radical band names,” Emma said. “Do you think they’ll let me in?”
“Just tell them it’s a beret,” Stephanie said. They walked the rest of the distance to the bar and stood laughing outside for a moment. Stephanie got a blurry picture of Emma posing with her new hat. The pair back inside without issue. Emma picked bits off her ‘hat’ as they sidled up to the bar and offered scraps of it to her tall goth friends when they inevitably reunited and got chatting.
“Jagerbomb?” Stephanie said. Emma’s eyes lit up. She ate a bit of her hat and moved to the bar. As they waited, she explained a little more about her upcoming assignment.
“One of the things I’ve got to do,” Emma said, biting the hat, “Is paint something meaningful to me. But I can’t pick just one moment.”
Stephanie reached up and picked a loose slice of red onion from Emma’s hair and handed it to her, raising her voice over the music and saying, “This one’s pretty good. And the river that time.”
“We need a third moment,” Emma replied.
“We’ll make one someday.”
“Your fresher’s week?”
“If not earlier.”
Finally, as if ordained by fate itself, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance began playing. Stephanie grinned and began to pogo madly in place. Emma joined her, smiling broadly as a herd of goths and emos and other people from adjacent subcultures started copying them. Eventually the whole bar seemed to be copying Stephanie’s signature move.
“I didn’t know they’d play Bowie!” Stephanie said.
“They don’t,” Emma replied. “I got Nath to request it.”
“Big mohawk boy.”
The rest of the night was a hyperactive blur of Jagerbombs and 80s tunes. At some point Stephanie stole the remaining quarter of pita hat and dropped it. Its sacrifice was mourned with more Jagerbombs and slow dancing to several songs by The Cure.
End (for now)
Thanks for reading. You can expect the next chapter to come through in two weeks.
The bit after the end.
My last post ‘releasing stories backwards’ contained an explanation of the next four stories I’m making free, and why I picked them. It’s been moved over to the new Spoilers subletter. You’re not subscribed to it right now, and you don’t have to be. It’s included as a tab on the main page of this Substack, which you can dip into as and when it suits you.
What I want to know is how many people who are here for my stories, are also interested in posts like ‘releasing stories backwards’. Your input here will help me refine the shape of this Substack newsletter.
I’m enjoying the subletters feature on Substack. I was thinking today that I could make a ‘time travel’ subsection and fill it with time travel stories. I certainly have enough.