Kaylen followed Tom down two flights of stairs to an opening that emerged into an enormous space—a pub in a basement! The pub did not look like an earth-pub at all. It had the appearance of a bowling alley out of an 80’s film, the lanes set just beyond a series of brick arches that gave the pub a grand appearance, despite the lack of natural lighting.
A man wearing a crumpled baseball cap sat on a stool by the door, stacks of green prize tickets, strung together, in his hands—the sort of tickets that Kaylen remembered redeeming at Adventure Zone for turns on the space commander arcade game, as a child. Tom fumbled around in his pockets for a moment and then withdrew a string of his own tickets. “Evening, Chaucer,” Tom said. “Is my usual spot available?”
Chaucer took the tickets, examined them, and then tore off two of them and handed the rest back to Tom. He shook his head. “Not your normal spot. Darius is here, said you’d be arriving soon. Got you a booth –second one from the wall.” Chaucer waved towards the far wall.
“Oh,” said Tom, surprised. He motioned to Kaylen to follow. “Darius. He’s a friend of mine—actually, and also something of a renaissance man.”
The booth’s red leather seats had a dull luster to them, and the waxed, wooden table already had several rings of water on it next to an empty glass, indicating that Darius had been there for awhile, or else had been drinking quickly. With a mug of fizzy drink raised in one hand, he raised it and took a sip as Tom appeared. “Tom!” he said, with a note of melancholy in his voice. “The man I need to see right now. You’ve always seemed to understand me.” Darius stopped as he noticed Kaylen for the first time. “Who might this be?” he said, with a sly grin at Tom. “Brought a lady-friend to our chat, eh? You are a fox, my man.”
“Passenger,” said Tom, brushing off whatever awkwardness might be occasioned by this comment and sitting down opposite Darius. “This is Kaylen. Kaylen, Darius is one of the main designers of the self-driving taxis we were observing earlier.” Kaylen sat down.
“Taxis?” said Darius. “More like self-driving catastrophes.” He gave Kaylen, who wore a puzzled expression, a sideways glance. “You’re new here. You have a fresh pair of eyes. Tell me—what do you think about them? I just need some honest feedback.” He looked at Kaylen with an intensity that startled her. She wasn’t sure how to respond.
“Its…an interesting idea,” she stammered.
“An interesting idea!” Darius repeated, spreading his arms wide. “But that’s not what you really think—you think it’s annoyed how slowly they work, and how silly and impractical they look next to real taxis!”
“Well,” said Kaylen, trying to think of something hopeful, “Yeah. But this is just the first iteration, right? The technology will improve right and get better?”
Darius nodded, as if expecting this answer. He looked down at the sparkly foam sitting at the top of his drink. “You’re an idealist, I can tell. That’s what I thought, too, when I got here—let’s improve the place! The point of purgatory, however, I’m sure Tom here has already filled you in on.”
“Something about…purification,” said Kaylen, looking at Tom. Tom nodded in agreement.
“That’s more or less it,” said Darius. “But what does purification mean? How do you teach someone patience? You give them something that causes normal people impatience, so they can practice patience. So, I have a theory about purgatory–”
“Just a theory!” broke in Tom. “Don’t think of this as gospel.”
Darius paused, and then nodded. “Yes, it is a theory, but it’s this: purgatory is designed to be irritating: it has long lines, annoying waits, uncomfortable weather year-round, and…” Darius paused and looked down at his drink again before continuing, “gin fizzes that never quite rise to the level of a buzz until you’ve drunk two dozen of them and are about to burst.”
“Anyway,” continued Darius. “I thought to myself, I can improve this place! I’ll engineer a self-driving car that coordinates with all the other self-driving cars in order to optimize traffic, so that taxi drivers can simply relax and the traffic will be so smooth that we won’t see this state of perpetual gridlock. That was my dream.” A wistful look came into Darius’s eyes. “That I could leave my mark on purgatory so that one day travelers would pass through. But you know what? For each annoyance that inventors have conquered over the centuries, dozens of new annoyances have sprung up to take their place. Our latest iteration was supposed to achieve level 12 self-driving automation—the highest level—but instead we have simply engineered a quivering WRECK of a machine, so that now…I need another gin fizz!” This last part of his monologue Darius directed at a passing waiter.
The conversation lulled. Little did Kaylen realize during this moment that less than 15 minutes later, she would be on the run from Tom, through this world she had just arrived in, feeling more alive than she had in all her life, despite the fact that she was now dead.
“I’d like a gin fizz, too!” said Kaylen.
To be continued…