Not Recommended for Guests of a Philosophically Uncertain Disposition

A Sci-Fi Short Story written by Michelle Ann King

Not Recommended for Guests of a Philosophically Uncertain Disposition

by Michelle Ann King

Michelle Ann King is a writer of speculative, crime, and horror fiction whose work has appeared in over a hundred different venues, including Strange Horizons, Interzone, and Black Static. Her short story collections are available in ebook and paperback from Amazon and other online retailers. See www.transientcactus.co.uk for details.

More TTTV stories by Michelle Ann King:

https://talltaletv.com/tag/michelle-ann-king/

Damita managed The Fracture’s visitor centre and gift shop, while Jem took the guided tours. There was also a cafe, which always had fresh coffee and an inventive selection of hot sandwiches, although Damita had never met anyone who worked in the kitchens.

‘They’re all very industrious, just highly introverted,’ Jem said. ‘You should go and get one of today’s specials — Cajun pheasant and fried pickles on a toasted sesame seed bagel. Marvellous.’

‘Sounds a little rich for breakfast,’ Damita said. ‘Maybe later.’

A stock delivery had arrived in the night, and she was working her way through the boxes. They contained fridge magnets, earplugs, bandages with pictures of cacti on them, and snowglobes. Damita picked one up and shook it. Black glitter fell on a scale model of the visitor centre, and lightning flashed.

‘Food is important,’ Jem said. ‘Blood sugar should be kept within optimum parameters to ensure emotional stability. It says so in the Employee Handbook.’

Damita put a bunch of the snowglobes on a shelf and used a rolled-up brochure to push them into place. The gift shop was green this week — an unsettling, luminous green — with fixtures and fittings made from a moulded black plastic that looked like it would be soft, and possibly clammy, to the touch.

Small, regular meals,’ Jem went on. ‘Human food is recommended, for convenience of digestion. Page sixty-two, section five. You have read it, haven’t you?’

‘Sure, sure,’ Damita said, sticking a set of scorpion-shaped magnets to the display board. ‘Well, not entirely. It’s pretty long. But I’m working through it.’

She went back to the boxes and pulled out a bag of woolly gloves. They were the same green as the walls. ‘Gloves? It’s a hundred and twenty in the shade out here. Who needs gloves?’

‘People who don’t want to leave fingerprints,’ Jem said. She glanced over. ‘Nice colour. I’ll take a pair.’

Damita shrugged and rang them up at staff discount. Jem never seemed to feel the heat, anyway. ‘It’s because I’m English,’ she’d explained, once. ‘We’re born with fog and rain in our bone marrow. It’s like an internal air conditioning system.’

Jem used to work in London, but lost her job at the start of the last financial crisis. How she’d ended up at the Fracture was a complicated story involving a diverted flight, a gangster’s mother-in-law, and twelve hours locked in the trunk of a car. Somehow, she’d managed to make it seem like a logical sequence of events.

For Damita’s part, she’d left home looking for adventure, not a job. She’d imagined the wind rushing through her hair and the miles disappearing under her wheels — maybe she’d hit California, maybe Utah, maybe Mexico.

As it turned out, she’d made it as far as the turn-off for US 93 before stopping at a diner for lunch, where she picked up a flyer advertising the Fracture. It’d sounded like exactly the sort of fun, impulsive side-trip a true adventurer would take, so she’d driven up to the visitor centre and wandered inside. Jem had given her an appraising look and said, ‘You look like someone who can cope with weird shit.’

Damita laughed. ‘I was raised in Vegas, so yeah, I guess you could say that.’

Sold,’ Jem said, and before Damita had even realised it was an interview, she’d been given a uniform — a blue t-shirt with an aerial photograph of the visitor centre on the front and ‘Last Exit Before The End Of Euclidean Space’ on the back — a key to the restroom, and a copy of the Employee Handbook. Which she probably should try and get around to reading, at some point.

‘Do you ever wonder about all this?’ she said.

Jem looked up. ‘All what?’

‘This,’ Damita said, sweeping her arms wide. ‘Us. The visitor centre. Souvenir snowglobes. Is it right? I’m not sure it’s right. Should we really be treating this place as a tourist attraction?’

Jem shrugged and peeled off the gloves. ‘What else are we going to do with it?’

‘That’s kinda what I mean. Maybe we shouldn’t be doing anything with it. Maybe it should just be left alone.’

‘And disappoint all the visitors?’

Damita looked around. The centre, as usual, was empty. What tourists there were always barrelled straight past, magnetised by the greater attractions of Las Vegas on the skyline.

‘You should have more faith,’ Jem said.

‘In what?’

‘Fate. There’s a tour group on their way here right now — a secret society of spiritual seekers, inexorably drawn by the alignment of esoteric energies. I can feel it in the feathers.’

Jem had been trying to teach herself to predict the future by casting vulture feathers, although the results had been mixed so far.

‘I’m not sure I really believe in the accuracy of the feathers,’ Damita said. ‘Or in fate, come to that.’

‘I bet it still believes in you,’ Jem said. She shook her feathers out of their little leather pouch and spread them on the reception desk.

Damita sneezed, blowing them into the air and reducing at least four of them to tiny pieces of damp fluff.

‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I think I might be allergic to vultures.’

Jem gazed at the destruction. ‘I knew you were going to say that,’ she said mournfully.

*

The tour group arrived an hour later; eight men tumbling out of a minibus in a flurry of cowboy hats, sunburns, and alcohol fumes.

‘I see,’ Jem said, jotting something in a notebook. ‘So an acute angle at that degree in a five-feather spread means stag do, not secret society of spiritual seekers. Useful distinction. I’ll have to remember that.’

The men filed inside, whooping and hollering. ‘Hey there, doll,’ the leader said. He leaned on the front desk and grinned at Jem. ‘I’m Cody. We’ve come to see your crack.’

The men behind him sniggered.

‘I’m sure it will be equally delighted to see you,’ Jem said. ‘That’ll be ten dollars each, and please pay careful attention to the safety information on the reverse of your tickets. Kindly read, absorb, and apply as required.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ Cody said. He folded the tickets without looking at them, and stuffed them into the back pocket of his shorts.

‘These places are lame,’ one of the others said. ‘They’ll tell you all this stuff about how the laws of physics don’t apply, and water runs uphill, or whatever, but it’s not real. It’s all just tilted rooms and optical illusions.’

‘That’s what’s often called a mystery spot,’ Jem said. ‘And yes, young man, you’re quite right: the effects are achieved through tricks of perspective. But the Fracture isn’t a mystery spot.’

The young guy didn’t look mollified. ‘What is it, then?’

‘That’s actually quite a tricky question. Some people say it’s an alien crash site, some that it’s where the last of the primordial gods departed this world. Others think it’s the battlefield of a secretly fought, and barely averted, supernatural apocalypse.’

Jem looked around at each of the men in turn. ‘Maybe you’ll agree with one of these theories, maybe you’ll come up with your own. You don’t need to know what the Fracture is to enjoy your time here, but we do recommend that you know who you are. The best way to approach the Fracture is with a strong, unwavering sense of yourself and your specific place in the universe.’

She smiled. ‘Plus a sturdy pair of walking shoes, sunscreen, and a half-litre of water per person. All of which are available for purchase in the gift shop, for your convenience. We have a fifty percent discount on all snowglobes today, and please note that flash photography and video recording are strictly prohibited. Any questions?’

‘Got any beer?’ Cody asked.

‘The ingestion of intoxicating substances can be useful for the expansion of consciousness during meditative rites,’ Jem said, ‘but it’s not particularly recommended otherwise. Do you think you’ll be meditating today?’

Cody just blinked at her. The rest of the group followed suit.

After a while, Jem shrugged. ‘There are six-packs in the cooler.’

Cody whooped. ‘Now you’re talking our language.’

Damita frowned as she watched him crack open a can of Bud. ‘Since when did we start carrying beer?’

‘We carry whatever the guests ask for,’ Jem said, and clapped her hands. ‘Okay, are we all ready? Then let’s go.’

‘Good luck,’ Damita called after them.

*

The minibus sat in the middle of the parking lot, slowly turning the same sandy colour as everything else. After a while, the door slid open and a man, older than the others and without a cowboy hat, stumbled out. He yawned and scratched a grey-stubbled cheek, then came inside.

‘Huh,’ he said, looking around. ‘Guess I must have fallen asleep. I’m Orson, I was supposed to be with the bachelor party. My son’s the groom.’

‘Sorry,’ Damita said. ‘You missed them. They went out on the tour about half an hour ago.’

‘Can I go and catch them up?’

‘Sorry, sir, can’t let you do that. Not without a guide.’

‘Why? It’s not dangerous, is it?’

‘That probably depends on your definition of the word.’

‘What you mean by that?’ He frowned. ‘Hey, is my boy going to be okay?’

That probably depends on his definition of the word.’

Orson glared at her. ‘What the hell is this place?’

‘That’s kind of a tricky question. Some people say it’s an alien—’

Orson held up a hand. ‘All right, that’s enough. I want to get my son and get out of here. When are they going to be back?’

Damita pulled one of the walkie-talkies off the rack and keyed it. ‘Jem? Jem, do you copy?’

It crackled, then Jem’s voice came on. She sounded out of breath. ‘I’m here. We’re doing okay. It’s a bit squally, but we’re hanging in there. Over.’

Orson glanced back through the large plate window at the broiling sunshine outside and gave Damita a quizzical look.

She gave him her best reassuring smile. Which might, judging by his reaction, need a little more work.

She brought the walkie-talkie back up again. ‘When do you expect to get back, Jem?’

There was a burst of static, then Jem said, ‘Return ETA about an hour, your time.’

‘Your time?’ Orson said. ‘What does she mean, your time? Where the hell have they gone?’

Damita offered him another smile. ‘That’s also kind of a tricky question,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you get some lunch while you wait? The cafe does some very nice sandwiches. What are your feelings about Cajun pheasant and fried pickles?’

*

‘Wait, wait, don’t tell me,’ Jem said. She extended her hands over the pile of bones on the cafe table and waggled her fingers. ‘There’s a dead rattlesnake in the cactus garden. That’s what you’re going to say.’

‘No,’ Damita said. ‘All the rattlesnakes have been dead for years. You know that.’

Jem sighed, her shoulders sagging. ‘Divination is definitely more art than science, you know.’

She gathered up the bones, shook them in her cupped hands, then re-scattered them. ‘You look perturbed. What’s wrong? You’re not still worrying about that guy, what was his name, Cody, are you?’

Damita poured herself a coffee and tucked the money under the Be Back Soon! sign on the counter. ‘Kinda, yeah, a bit. Aren’t you? You saw him.’

Jem waved a hand. ‘A minor digestive disturbance. He’ll be fine after a good night’s sleep and plenty of green, leafy vegetables. Maybe a little therapy, some light psycho-philosophical reconstruction.’ She shrugged. ‘I did try to warn him about the beer. Anyway, he signed the full liability waiver, so no harm done.’

‘I don’t know,’ Damita said, staring into her cup. ‘Maybe we should just leave. Put up the Closed sign and clear out. We could go to Disneyworld, get work there. Or Stonehenge, or Area 51, or the Bermuda Triangle. I’m sure we’d be qualified.’

Jem pulled a battered copy of the Employee Handbook out of her purse and slid it across the cafe table. ‘Page one thousand, two hundred and eleven,’ she said. ‘Section five, paragraph two. You really ought to read this, you know. It’s very good.’

Damita looked it up: No member of staff, their dependants or descendants, should ever, under any circumstances, attempt to get work at Area 51. Or Disneyworld.

Damita sighed, finished her coffee and threw the cup in the trash. The money she’d left was gone.

‘Tell you what,’ Jem said. ‘How about we flip for it? If you win, we leave. If I win, we stay.’

‘All right,’ Damita said. She took a quarter out of her pocket and sent it somersaulting into the air, then caught it and slapped it on the back of her hand. ‘Heads or tails?’

‘Cactus,’ Jem said.

Damita lifted her hand and checked the coin, which showed an engraving of a prickly pear. She turned it over and saw the same design on the back.

‘That’s cheating,’ she said.

‘That’s fate,’ Jem said. She stared at the bones on the table, then pushed her chair back and stood up. ‘But you’re leaving anyway, aren’t you?’

Damita nodded. Her stuff was already in a box, sitting on the back seat of her Chevy. At the last minute, she’d added a snowglobe and a leftover beetroot and banana sandwich.

She looked up at Jem, and waited for what she would say next:

Bye, then.

Don’t go.

Send me a postcard.

Can I come with you?

Damita spun the coin, watching it glint in the sun as it moved across the table. She wished she’d learned the art of divination.

Jem leaned down and pressed her lips, light as a grain of sand, against the corner of Damita’s mouth. ‘I’ll see you soon,’ she said.

*

Damita’s watch said it was three o’clock in the morning but the sun was still glowing overhead, so something had clearly gone awry with that. The road from the visitor centre back to the 93 was straight, with no turn-offs, so there was no way she could have gotten lost. But she’d been driving for miles, and the road just wasn’t this long. She’d eaten her sandwich hours ago, and there was still nothing on the horizon ahead but sand, rocks, and the occasional sprout of cactus. Directly ahead of her was a dead rattlesnake.

Damita opened the glove box and rooted around for her phone, but the only thing inside was a copy of the Employee Handbook.

She stopped the car, closed her eyes and rested her forehead on the steering wheel. It burned.

When she opened her eyes again and looked in the rear view mirror, the reflection of the visitor centre looked back at her. She turned the car around and pulled back into her allocated space in the parking lot.

She left the box on the back seat and went inside, up to the front desk.

‘One, please,’ she said, and handed over a ten dollar bill.

‘Of course, Madam,’ Jem said, and gave her a ticket. ‘Come right this way. Have you ever been on a tour with us before?’

Damita shook her head. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever felt philosophically certain about myself and my specific place in the universe.’

‘And now?’ Jem said, holding out a hand. She was wearing new gloves; these ones were neon orange and had pictures of sandwiches on them.

‘I guess we’ll see,’ Damita said, and took her hand.

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