Radial Symmetry (2 of 10)
Tentacle 2: Duplicity
" . . . One gestures off to the side in a flashy movement to distract one's prey so that the other tentacles may do their duty . . . the duplicitous limb . . . "
"Can you walk?" Rob asked again, his voice rising higher than he expected.
"OF COURSE I MAY WALK. MY MIGHT AND STRENGTH ARE LIMITLESS, LITTLE MONKLEY-MONKLEY MAN."
There was a pause, and then the Giant Squid's smooth squidskin wrinkled and drew tight in effort, his arms and muscular mantle going rigid, his skin shifting hues deep into red, then blue, then violet. The velocitator shuddered, wobbled, and finally stood, like a new-born colt taking his legs. The Squid swayed precipitously, then steadied, and there was a quiet moment; Rob smiled broadly, relieved, and the Squid clicked on his public-address speaker when a sound rang out. The sound was a high metallic tink, something like the noise of a golf ball slicing hard and crashing through the windshield of a Ford Explorer as it gunned up past 100 MPH on the 696 expressway while trying to pass a double-long semi; the golfball strikes the meaty chest of the obese, cigar-smoking prosecutor driving the SUV. He is arguing with his ex-wife over alimony payments, and the sudden shock of the golfball being introduced to his soft office-grown flesh sends his heart into palpitations, loosening plaque from the walls of his arteries. He goes into arrest, jerks the steering wheel hard right and swerves into the semi truck, which then also swerves, and tips, and hangs for long seconds at the apex of its roll before crashing down on a small Honda Civic carrying four teenagers home from choir practice as they practice harmonizing Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."
The sound Rob hears is exactly like the sound those teens' parents' hearts make after the young police officer, hat in hand, explains to them what happened.
There is a tink, a slip, a squeal, a crunch, a grind and the thunder of collapse as the velocitator crumbles gracefully to the ground in the Autumn light of the Shady Pines Mobile Home, oil and hydraulic fluid soaking into the dust and stones below.
Rob felt the wind knocked out of him. "Shit, Lord A," he gasped. "You are in bad shape. We need to get you fixed the fuck up."
"ROB . . . I INDEED DO SEEM TO BE EXPERIENCING SOME DIFFICULTIES. I DO NOT FEEL WELL AT ALL."
Rob put his hands to his forehead and crouched down low. "I don't know what to do. I mean, who the fuck can fix steampunk aquarium battlesuits? I can't just fucking google that shit, can I?"
"What's wrong with Mr. Squid?" Rob shot to his feet and whirled on the voice. The voice was a greasy, slouching teen in a Tiger's jersey. His brown hair was thick, and combed straight back from his forehead. He had a thin and patchy moustache that, esoterically, reminded Rob simultaneously of pizza and middle school.
"What's wrong with Mr. Squid?" Donny repeated, not looking at Rob.
"You a friend of his?"
"I guess. Kinda. We hang out sometimes, and I kind of run errands for him."
"No doubt." Rob looked harder at Donny. "I know what that's like."
"FRIEND DONNY. IT IS GOOD TO SEE YOU. THIS IS MY FORMER EMPLOYEE, CONFIDANT AND TEST SUBJECT, ROB." The servos in the foremost tentacle twitched and whined as the Squid clearly tried to point at Rob. "AND THIS, DEAR ROB, IS MY NEIGHBOR DONNY. HE IS THE DUNGEON MASTER AND ALSO EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH AT THE TELE-MARKETEERING PHONE BANK. PLEASE GIVE HIM ALL THE HONORS DUE THIS SINGULAR AWARD."
"Uh, that was two months ago. Ivan got this month's."
Rob blinked. "Ivan? You mean the Ivan that worked in the lab with us?"
Donny shrugged, "How do I know where else he worked?" he said evasively. It was clear to Rob that Donny was trying to play tight-lipped, and doing so badly.
Rob rolled his eyes "Russian dude," he said, holding his hand up a little over his own head, "Bulky guy. Just sits around and looks at the Internet all day and pretends to make podcasts? That lazy slavic fuck is here, too?"
"Call that borscht-slurping, hammer-and-sickle-loving, bread-line-standing-in, America-hating, Commie bastard up!" Rob gestured vaguely at the Squid and his ruined mechano-suit, "You don't look like a shop-class kid." Rob examined Donny, "You were a computer lab kid," he squinted," or a drama club kid."
"Science club, actually." Donny looked at the ground, scuffing up the gravel with his Converse. "Whatever," he mumbled, "Ivan'll be here in a few hours for our, uh, D&D game."
"JACK! MY DEAREST FRIEND. IT HAS BEEN SO VERY LONG SINCE I HAVE SEEN YOU. MY HEART, IT BROKE WHEN YOU LEFT UNDER SUCH POOR TERMS. I . . . I AM SO VERY SORRY FOR THE THINGS I DID. TELL ME— OH! I SEE YOU HAVE BROUGHT SAMUEL AND NIKI WITH YOU! HOW VERY SPLENDID . . . "
Rob pointed to the Squid, "Are you hearing this shit? Call Ivan now!"
"He's just talking in his sleep—"
"HE DOESN'T SLEEP, peckerwood! Get Ivan here. The dude is good with cars, yeah? Drives a big fucking dually pickup?"
"Yeah, so? I'm not really seein' where you're going with this and I wish you'd stop yelling at me, man. You're freaking me out." Donny looked at the Squid, whose eyes rolled blankly, then focused, "VERA?" the Squid asked. Then the eyes were glassy again.
"He's sleeping, dreaming," Donny said dubiously, "I had this really bad flu once, and got a high temperature, and muttered and talked crazy like this. He just needs to sleep it off."
"He's a fucking squid!" Rob shouted, "They Never Sleep! They're just awake or dead. You had a fever cause you had a bacterial infection that you caught from the outside world, dig? Your body raised its temp to burn it out. The squid there," Rob smacked his hand against the dome of the Velocitator, "lives in a closed-fucking-fishbowl. If he has a fever and is trying to get rid of bacteria then they are there in that fucked up bubble with him. They ain't goin' nowhere. He'll fucking cook. He's fucking cooking right now."
Rob could actually see the moment that Donny's mind, seeing that it had the option of seeing that his friend was for-real dying or believing that the Squid would sleep it off and be fine on Friday, closed. Rob grabbed Donny's jersey with his left hand and pulled him close. He thrust his good right hand into Donny's thick hair, took a fistful and twisted hard, spitting in the boy's face. "LISTEN!" he roared, then hissed through his teeth, "The. Squid. Is. Dying." He shook Donny hard, hard enough to make his teeth clack together like a cameraman's slate, then threw him on the ground. Donny's eyes were watering, and his hands were wrapped around his scalp. His breath came in ragged gasps.
Rob blinked, then brought his hands up to cover his eyes, "We need a forklift" he said out of the darkness of his palms, "or a flatbed or something to get him moving so we can get him back into his old tank at the lab. I'm hoping Ivan can get this suit going enough so that Lord A can step into the back of a pickup and we can drive him the eight miles to the lab. Now are you going to help, junior, or are you going to let this goddamn sea-monster die?"
"Yes." Donny shook his head. He wiped his eyes. "I mean, fuck yeah. I'll call Ivan and tell him to hurry."
Ivan arrived in a shiny Dodge pickup within minutes. He had floored it from his apartment building's driveway, down 8 Mile road and into the gravel lanes of the Shady Pines Mobile Home. The tires slid and crunched on the gravel as the whole truck fishtailed perilously. Ivan had never been an especially good driver, Rob knew, but this had never stopped him from driving like he was in a Renny Harlin movie. Ivan dragged the side of his truck against the back wall of a cream-colored double-wide at fifty miles an hour, and slammed on his brakes. His black, shiny truck slipped across the loose stones of the parking lot and barrelled toward the Squid's prone body, Donny and Rob. When he was nearly upon them he jerked his parking break and turned the wheel sharply, spinning the truck around a full one-hundred and eighty degrees so that the open bay of the pickup faced the trembling mechano-suit, the Squid held inside like a cricket in a cage. In the process Ivan, not a seat-belt man, managed to smack his face hard into the steering column, splitting his upper lip.
"Fuck!" Rob shouted, rising from his protective crouch, "Nice entrance, shitdick."
"How ya been, Rob?" Ivan climbed out of the truck cab, a rusty red bucket clattering with tools swinging from his right hand.
"Me? I've been . . . weird. It's a long story. Look, Lord A is bad off here and—"
"Who's Lord A?" Ivan asked.
"He means Mr. Squid," Donny said.
"Yeah," Ivan said, nodding curtly, "So it's back to the lab again, yo?" Ivan shook the bucket of tools at the Squid. "Patch you up and see if Sang can do something more permanent-like, right, Holmes?"
The Squid bobbed behind the dome.
"Is there supposed to be this much leaking and stuff," Ivan asked, looking at the little rivulets of water wending their way across the hardpack and gravel.
Rob paced across the lot, "Do you fucking think it's supposed to leak? If you went to fucking Starbucks and gotta mocha and the shit was all over your lap in your fucking Dodge, would you be, like," now Rob put on his best, classic retard voice, " 'Herm-dee-da-doo, I wonder if this cup is leaking in the approved fashion'?"
Ivan shook his head, dismissing Rob as he crouched next to the crumpled suit. "These legs are fucked," he called back to Rob, who continued to pace, stopping only to shake his head disapprovingly as Ivan tinkered with the raw mechanics of the suit, "Not all of them but . . . at least . . . shit." Ivan delicately shifted the legs around, like a veterinarian examining a lobster dinner, "Shit. Like, five of the legs, the walking legs, I can't do anything. The big tentacles—"
"Hunting tentacles," Rob snapped.
"The hunting tentacles I can fix, and maybe three of the legs. Maybe. And the leaking." Ivan shook his head, dug through his bucket, returned to the suit. "OK, I get it. This isn't so bad," he said, working a ratchet, the rhythmic staccato chirp sounding all the world like progress, "Those legs were crimped by the fall, but these will be cool once we get the hydraulics on the left working again. See, it's all powered off this one pump, and it's just that all of these bolts have worked loose—" a bolt sheared and there was a spray of water. "FUCK! Donny! Donny, get me, like, a house-clamp. There's a box in the truck bed, a wood box, and there are some hose clamps in a cardboard box in that. Shit. Hurry!" Foul meat-smelling water sprayed forth from the rear of the velocitator, soaking Ivan's shirt.
Donny dug through the box, found two cardboard boxes, and returned with two things he thought might be hose clamps. Ivan took the one in Donny's right hand—which was a hose clamp—fitted it and tightened it down.
"I don't get it," Rob said loudly to himself, apropos of nothing, "How do you go from being the President of the United Fucking States of Goddamn America to living in a trailer park with nerds?"
"Dude, I'm standing right here," Ivan shouted over his shoulder. "This isn't a soliloquy, Miller." Donny frowned at Rob and opened his mouth to speak when a second car pulled up, a wheezing early-80s Cadillac, this one at more conventional and legally tolerated speeds. A short, pudgy vaguely ethnic teenager climbed out of it. He was wearing a black t-shirt that was so long it hung past his knees, dark jeans that were baggy enough to fit four of him and pristine, untied white sneakers puffy as marshmallows.
"'Sup, Dungeonmaster. Who's this gump?"
Donny sighed. "Rob, this is Mohammed. Mohammed, this is Rob. We play D&D together on the weekend. I mean, it's not just us. Ivan plays too, and Mr. Squid."
"What's up with President Mr. Squid?" Mohammed asked, frowning and yanking his pants up.
"I can't explain it all again," Donny said, "I'm exhausted."
"SAMUEL, WHAT A FINE JEST THAT IS! AHAH-HAH-HA! PLEASE DO BE PASSING UNTO ME MORE OF THAT FRIED DOBERMAN."
The squid's eyes squinted and widened, darted around wildly.
"We've gotta get him into Ivan's truck, is all, and take him to the Ren Cen, to his old lab," Donny told Mohammed as Rob urged Ivan on.
"Man, I ain't been to the Ren Cen since I was little. They still got movies there?"
Donny said he didn't know, and then Ivan called them over. Rob, Donny, Ivan and Mohammed gathered behind the massive dome of the velocitator and shoved. Their collective feet—spotless white Addidas, torn black Converse and two pairs of workboots—struggled for purchase on the ever-shifting footing of the parking lot. They struggled, swayed and cursed but did not move the Squid even an inch.
"Fuck this, there's gotta be an easier way," panted Mohammed.
"Electric scissors?" Ivan hazarded, quoting a David Cross stand-up routine, and the two laughed raggedly, their lungs burning from the exertion.
Donny leapt into the back of the truck and shouted at the Squid, "Hey Mr. Squid," he clapped his hands, "Hey, sir! We need to go downtown now! Up here! C'mon boy!" He whistled, but the Squid did not budge, he only continued raving and muttering.
Next Ivan shrugged and clambered into the truck's bed and said, "Hello, Mr. Squid, it's me, your friend Samuel. Let's go on a little journey, shall we? Plenty of tasty fried fish up here." But the Squid didn't respond.
"I think he said fried doberman before," Mohammed said, but was ignored, "Is that right? Fried dog?"
Rob thought for a second. He looked around the park at the squat trailers with their K-Mart Halloween decorations, the rotting cars, the unemployed men sitting inside watching the blue glow of television sets older than Mohammed. His eyes rested on the trailer the squid had ripped open and strewn about like a piñata hit by Barry Bonds. The refrigerator lay on its side, spilling milk and pickles onto the paisley carpet of the trailer. The bathroom cabinet had been shattered into splinters and pills lay across the yard like buckshot. A chessboard stood undisturbed on a milk crate in the midst of the chaos. Rob had an idea. He jumped into the bed of the truck.
"Hey, hey, Lord A!" he sang, "I facefucked your girlfrien' yesterday." Donny gasped, and Ivan scrambled down from the bed. The Squid stopped his babbling, and his eyes grew sharp and focused on Rob. Rob thrust his hips saucily, like a toddler aping a 2-Live Crew video. Donny was a-gog. "She told me I didn't have to pay," the Squid lunged forward, thrusting its heft with the hunting tentacles and gripping the bed with the sharp tips of the three working legs. Mohammed and Ivan pulled Donny out of the bed of the truck. "But I wasn't gonna anyway!" The Squid lunged again, his legs gouging into the steel of the truck gate and tearing one of the hinges free. Rob hopped down. The Squid scrabbled desperately up into the truck, liked a maimed hermit crab escaping a flushing toiled, and slumped to rest in the bed.
"SAMUEL CLEMENS," he mumbled, "AND THE DISCORPORATE HEAD OF THOMAS ALVA EDISON JUST SANG A RIBALD SONG DISPARAGING MY HAZEL! I SHALL DEVOUR THEIR FLESH ANEW AND ANON!"
"I know," Rob said, gently stroking the Squid's dome with his right hand and waving the boys into the truck's cab with his left, "Edison is a fucker." He climbed into the bed with the Squid.
"JOE-LOUIE ARMSTRONG WAS ACCOMPANYING ON TRUMPET. EZRA POUND WAS SUCKLING UPON ARMSTRONG'S ERECT, UNSHORN MEMBER WITH THE GUSTO AND RELISH AND DIJONAISE. I BELIEVE THIS MAY ALL HAVE BEEN HAPPENING IN HEAVEN. WHERE THERE IS THE GIANT FERRIC WHEEL AND THE TIGERS AND THE RIVER OF FRESH DOGS ON WHICH TO FEED, YES?."
"Yes," Rob said.
Ivan gunned the engine and flew down the broken streets of Detroit toward the spire at the hub of D-town, the tallest building around, the home of Sang's lab where the Giant Squid once lived: the Renaissance Center. The Squid's non-functioning legs and one hunting tentacle hung out of the back, kicking up sparks and widening the occasional pot-hole. Rob held on for dear life in the bed, mumbling under his breath, something that was one-third soothing-nothings for the Squid, one-third assurance for himself, one-third prayers to a Faceless, Indefatigable and Nameless God who he did not even believe in, precisely.
Ivan found that his old elevator passcard still worked, although Rob's did not, even though the cards were outwardly indistinguishable. Rob, Ivan and Mohammed ascended to the lab while Donny waited silently, terrified, with the Squid in the truck on the street below. The elevator doors opened onto a beige hallway that ended in a slick marble reception desk. Behind the desk was a marble wall with a large blank rectangle where a company name and logo clearly should be displayed. A young man in a black suit sat at the desk and eyed Rob warily.
"Shit's changed around here," Rob marvelled, "This is slick shit," he walked slowly down the hallway, "Remember Maeve?"
"The fat chick in the short skirts from downriver? Yeah, she was a trip. She got canned even before I did. When I left they didn't even have a receptionist."
"Shit, when I left it was still all second-hand Steelcase desks and dented filing cabinets with no keys. Fuck, we didn't even have a coffee machine that last month."
"Yeah. Doesn't smell like wet dog here anymore either," Ivan walked at his side, with Mohammed taking up the rear.
"I never understood that. The dogs were dry when we fed them into that launch tube and as soon as they hit the water they were eaten. How could it smell like wet dog if they never walked around wet?"
Rob approached the clean Mormon-looking receptionist. "Hey man, can you tell Sang that Rob is here to see him. Rob Miller."
The receptionist stared at Rob coolly. "And what is this regarding?"
Mohammed stepped forward, "It regards a seriously ill cephalopod and your dumb ass getting fired if you don't get this Sang guy right now!"
A buzzing noise sounded and the receptionist gently put his finger to his ear. "I'm sorry, Mr. Sang is not in the office right now, but if you'd like to—"
"It doesn't matter," Rob said, "Lord A is downstairs and needs to come back up to his tank, is all. Can you get the freight elevator unlocked for us, and raise the gate for the underground garage."
The receptionist stitched his brow, "Lord who?" he asked, legitimately confused.
Rob slapped his hands on the desk. "Fuck! Is Devo here? Spider?" He made a motion to walk deeper into the lab, but there was no obvious door to charge through—the whole layout had been changed since he'd come by for his cubicle junk; walls added, doors removed. Although he knew he was in the right offices, he had the persistent suspicion he'd gotten off on the wrong floor.
"I'm very sorry, sir," the receptionist purred, "But those gentlemen no longer work for the company." He steepled his fingers and grinned at Rob. "Now as you have no legitimate business here I'll have to ask you to leave."
Rob took in a breath to yell—he didn't know what, but something forceful and cinematic—when he was interrupted by a large hand clamping down on his biceps. The large hand belonged to one of two large men who grabbed him and Ivan and dragged them down the hall to elevator. Mohammed meekly walked behind them. They found themselves back in the glass atrium of the lobby, pulling in the humid air and the smell of eucalyptus and fig trees, hearing the soothing, enuresis-inspiring tinkle of a fountain hidden somewhere in the gardens. Back outside, in street parking, they stared at the pickup full of Squid and armor and growing pools of feculent water.
They drove back to the trailer park in silence. No one played music or spoke, except for the Giant Squid who alternated between brooding silence and joyous singing. Most of the songs Rob didn't know, although he recognized a ribald alternate version of "When the Saints Go Marching In," and "Pour Some Sugar on Me" sung with such dirge-like slowness and solemnity that he at first mistook it for a hymn. Pulling into the parking space beside Hazel's home they saw a new car with Ohio plates and an Ohio State sticker on the back window parked nearby.
An older man in khakis and a button-down shirt surveyed the destroyed trailer. He was bald and soft—his hands white and fresh as Wonderbread, his eyes runny like egg yolks, his nose like a little marshmallow—a man made of junk food. He had thick-rimmed glasses and a day's growth of stubble. The chessboard had been upended and now sat askew, tilted on the trailer wall. Scrawled on it, in black marker was "¡Concédez ou elle meurt!"
The man turned and tracked the pickup's approach. Ivan killed the engine, and the D&D boys and Rob looked at the man, who looked at them. "Fuck," Rob sighed, "I don't know who the fuck that is, but I know that this isn't gonna fuckin' help us move shit along. Motherfucking distractions." They got out of the truck, the man smoothed his hair and approached Rob.
"Yeah?" Rob said.
Pointing at the chessboard the man asked quietly, "What have you boys done? What have you done with my daughter?"
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Copyright (c) 2000, 2004, David Erik Nelson, Fritz Swanson, Morgan Johnson