Gerardo sat on the warm bench and listened.
Claude was on his right, thumping away at some game on his laptop, rocking the park bench, occasionally taking bites out of his wrap. On Gerardo's left sat an immense old man, eating fistfuls of something that Gerardo couldn't identify from a bag, chewing with a vacant expression. And seated on the other side of the bench, her back to him, was a young woman with piercings in unlikely places and hair down to here. She was on her phone.
"She did? Well, I really thought she'd go for his type," she said. "He certainly had all the equipment... yes, well, with three of them, you'd think even she'dbe satisfied! ...No, from what I understand, they have to be used one after the other, not at the same time. I guess that would kill him, or her, or something... Yes, exactly!"
The wind tickled the leaves of the tree that overhung the bench, making the splotches of sunlight dance. Gerardo pictured the woman under discussion, and an exotic life filled with unusual people, all doing outlandish and pleasant things to one another. He'd been married to the same person for twenty-one years, and if their romance wasn't dead, it had certainly been in a persistent vegetative state for some time.
How did one meet such women? Where did they come from, where did they go? Where were they when they weren't in the park at lunchtime?
An older man strode by, brow furrowed as he barked into his phone.
"Yeah, well, the Navy is going to be on our necks if the new planetbuster isn't up to specs, but if I can't find some way to negate the blowback, more than just the planet could go. In fact, entire globular clusters might--"
What a job hemust have. Pushing back the frontiers of human understanding, with consequences stretching out into the far future. No one leaning over him, micro-managing every little decision and bathroom break.
That guy probably met women like the one with hair down to here and brought them home to his place for frantic lovemaking, and then he would probably collapse onto the bed in exhaustion, only to wake up in the clear blue morning with some kind of scientific breakthrough blossoming in his mind.
Gerardo finished his sandwich, drank off his juice. As he got up from the bench to throw his trash away, a bald man, half his face burned and creased, walked by, talking to a trailing gaggle of young children.
"So there I was, clinging to the hull – outside, and with no air at all left! Suddenly I noticed that one of the pirate ships was no more than half a kilometer behind me. I pushed off—"
The breeze rippled the grass, and the turf was springy under his feet. Gerardo tossed the garbage into the bin, and on the way back to the bench he passed some kid, couldn't be more than nineteen, talking too loudly to another boy, with an enormous nose and the first hints of a beard.
"The radiation's going to die down, it won't take that long," the first kid said. "But in the meantime it makes the whole place glow, just glow, and they got this thing that you can take, in this place right next to the shooting range. They'll make it all illegal as soon as they figure out what's going on! If we get the morning shuttle, we can have at least three or four days on the beach, and the radiation does things to the girls that you just wouldn't believe! They just want to…"
Claude had rolled up his laptop. "Joren just sent an urgent message – we’ve got some cleaning up to take care of, right away. Ready to get back to work?" He stood up.
Gerardo shook his head.
"Huh?" Claude asked.
"I want it," Gerardo said softly. "I want it all."
There was a buzzing in his head. "All of it. The exotic women in strange places, the sexy job and vacations of mindless animal fun. I want it all, Claude! I'm sick of my life!"
Claude put a hand on Gerardo's shoulder. "It's only natural," he said. "The common fate of humanity, and all that."
The energy drained out of Gerardo, flowing down, out of his shoes into the grass. He sighed. "I guess so."
"Now come on," Claude said. "We got to get back to the office." They began making their way through the park. "As usual, they ignored our warnings," he sighed, "and now look what we have. Joren gives the planetary population no more than four, five hours. The mutation rate of the surviving experimental jaguar-ape hybrids is over sixty-seven percent, and some of them are viable! More than viable – they're reproducing like rabbits, and they're mean as hell!"
Claude paused and looked at Gerardo. "Buddy, you've got to work your magic again, find an answer. We gotta move, and fast – maybe you can call in a favor from the old general, or from that ex-pirate shapeshifter friend of yours – if you think they can be of any help at all.
"I suppose to a guy like you, married to a Xylarian Sex Priestess, the adrenalin rush is negligible, but speaking for myself, I just don't need this kind of excitement!" Claude said. They began walking again. “I’m getting too old for this kind of crap.”
“I think if we bombard the local sun with Dimension 12 sub-particles,” Gerardo said, “the resulting change in the stellar wind might reverse the mutations, at least buy us some time. And that means we’ll have to break the Slixoid Behemoth out of jail first—“
Suddenly Claude stopped. He gestured with his laptop. "Tomorrow, we got to have lunch over on that side of the park, the other side of the lake. The grass there looks so… So – I don't know."
"That's not grass," Gerardo said. "It's a holo, put up while the lawn is being replanted. I overheard some guy talking about it."
This story originally appeared in Abandoned Towers.