Aphelion Issue 289, Volume 27
November 2023
 
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Hotel Commodore

by Rodica Bretin




The building seemed familiar – Global Vortex, the headquarters. Along with me, on the escalators were going down men and women with VIP or Global Vortex badges, all of them looking concerned, like an ID worn where everybody could see it. In the lobby on the ground floor, there were clerks, lawyers, notaries, and secretaries, all coming in waves. As soon as I set foot on the floor mosaic, the human river had swallowed me, dragging me along. For just one moment, I felt safe – anonymous, losing myself in the crowd that was unabatedly heading towards the exit. Were the working hours over, was that a fire drill?

I was walking along the glass wall, and, looking outside, I noticed the first inconsistency with reality. It was noon, and the sidewalks, the streets, should have been crowded. Today, I couldn’t see anybody. It didn’t seem strange to the people in the building – not this, not the leaden sky that was so low that it seemed to have swallowed the floors of the skyscrapers in the area.

All of a sudden, it started raining; big drops were hitting the ground like bullets, and it wasn’t just a figure of speech. The raindrops were making holes in the pavement with liquid jackhammers, and the asphalt was starting to look like a sieve, from which green steam rose, coiling in the air.

Was it raining sulfuric acid, cyanide, or heavy water?

The doormen stepped aside, letting out the first human echelon from the column advancing in order. Then the doors closed again, and what followed happened in grim silence.

About thirty men and women had gotten out. None of them got too far, collapsing one by one under the gusts of rain, under the sky that seemed to have guns with countless loaders. A secretary was able to open her umbrella, just to be left only with a skeleton of spikes in her hand, and her face covered with spots like measles. The rainwas melting cotton and plastic, vinyl and skin. One man was looking doubtfully at his palms, where the flesh torn into strips revealed its phalanges. Some of the people were falling, getting up just to take a few more steps, and then they were collapsing never to get up again. Others were taking off their steaming clothes, peeling them off along with their skin. Many were crawling on their elbows and knees, or they were writhing on the pavement. Some of them had found cover under the eaves, but the rain still found them, falling sideways, with the precision of a sniper. They all wanted to gain one more minute of life, of agony. Plenty of them had tried to go back to the building, but the doors remained closed, under the careless watchful eyes of the doormen. One woman was hitting with her fists against the unbreakable glass, until she melted, dripping down the window like a crushed jellyfish. One lawyer took out a gun from his jacket’s pocket – how come the security guys didn’t seize it from him? He put the barrel under his chin and fired one shot. I didn’t hear it. Beyond the glass splattered with pieces of brain, death was unleashing silently, in an orgy of red and grey – more red than grey.

The people inside didn’t seem to panic. They were standing shoulder to shoulder, in a compact mass that kept increasing with newcomers, brought by the escalators. The first rows had frozen in front of the doors – couldn’t they see what was happening outside? Something was vibrating in the amorphous crowd, like a barely restrained impatience.

They were waiting to get out.

On the street, no one was moving anymore. On the ground floor of Global Vortex, I could hear the buzzing of the surveillance cameras. When the doors opened again, employees and customers got out all at once looking forward to a cyanide shower, and the column was ten steps farther.

And I went along with it.

The doors closed again, airtight, letting the show unfold silently. I ignored it. I had seen the premiere; I was not into seeing the movie again. The third time, I was going to be one of the protagonists – and that was a problem!

I wasn’t sharing the self-destructive enthusiasm of the herd; neither did I feel the need to be purified, permanently.

But, did I have a choice?

I wasn’t just some background performer, I was the main character. Skylar had worked so hard to stage the show only for me – how could I not appreciate it? I could. The Karghan knew I was ingrate, ungrateful, that’s why he had removed my free will with a virtual scalpel. My thoughts were still mine, but my body was obeying the will of the programmers.

Beyond the glass windows, the bodies were lying stiff on the pavement, and those who were dying were struggling less and less. Soon, the column will move again. Solutions? An asbestos umbrella was ideal but impossible. A bullet through my head, shot with one of the doormen’s gun, again it was tempting, if I hadn’t been on autopilot.

Suddenly, the transparent gates glided sideways, spitting out the first rows into the square paved with dead bodies. The human stream started to move forward, taking me with it, like an encrusted scales in the skin of a suicidal snake.

No! I shouted voicelessly. Four more steps, and then I’ll be out in the deadly rain. I closed my eyes, so I wouldn’t see the Styx pouring down from the sky, closer and closer.

I felt someone grabbing my hand and pulling me apart from the kamikaze stream. Something like thunder went through me as if I had touched a high voltage wire. Each cell of my body – electrocuted, scorched − was screaming in silence.

“Breathe deep, Lorena.”

Ewan. Was it possible? My eyelids twitched, and our looks mingled, blue and green.

“I’m all right,” I answered his unspoken question.

I was still shaking, and I was moving slowly as if I was learning how to walk again. But I had regained control over my body. I measured my steps after Ewan’s, getting farther from the exit towards which everybody was heading. No-one stopped us; no-one turned their heads to look at us. We had become invisible, as we were immune to the force that was controlling the people on the ground floor.

My heart was beating fast, but not out of fear. Ewan had found me, he would have waited for me on the edge of any mouth of hell that The Master of Nightmares wanted to push me into.

“Always,” he smiled modestly.

I smiled too – he had read my thoughts, but I forgave him. It hadn’t been easy for him to find thisparticular dream, among so many possibilities; otherwise, he would have come earlier, sparing me the delights of suspense. And next time he might be too late, as we both knew it very well.

In front of the door with an electronic display above it, Ewan pushed the call button and the doors slid sideways, allowing us to enter the nickel-plated cage. We had just gotten in, and the elevator started to go up by itself. We had been going up for several minutes, when it suddenly stopped, and the lights went out, leaving us suspended in darkness. It was a blackout? Before I figure things out, it started going up again, shaking and squeaking. A dusted flickering light bulb, ready to take its last breath, had replaced the spots in the ceiling, and it went perfectly with the rest – a wooden cage with a wrought-iron grill door.

When that fossil stopped, rattling all over, Ewan slid the grill with a protesting squeak, and I got out, grateful to feel the floor under my feet again.

More like a purple carpet, crossing a hallway bordered by two rows of identical doors – the floor of a Victorian hotel, at a time when there were no elevators. The one we came with had disappeared, replaced by the upholstered door with number 307. Ewan had brought me from a time and place that were unknown to him, to ones where he had once been – therefore the trip through the museum of technology. I was walking between the tapestry walls, passing by the gas lamps, trying to figure out whenwe were. The Global Vortex steel and glass mammoth building was dating from the ‘80s. Two centuries earlier, it had been a luxury hotel. It was called …

“Hotel Commodore,” Ewan reminded me.

In front of door number 307, he took a key out of his pocket and unlocked it, inviting me inside. All the apartments in all the hotels in the world gave me the same feeling, and the one we had just entered was no exception – an artificial comfort, as if everything was temporary, as if it meant many people came here, but no one left any lasting print. Stuccos, paneling, baroque furniture, Buhara carpets, Meissen china, tapestries – it was a mix of French refinement, British snobbism, and American bad taste. But Ewan was thinking about something else.

“I almost let you down, Lorena. I made it on time today, but what about tomorrow?”

The helplessness to protect the person you love, for whom you would give your life a thousand times was a feeling I could understand, a feeling I had lived.

“I don’t worry, nothing will happen to me.”

“Do you really think so?”

He searched my eyes, letting me tell him with words what he didn’t dare to read in my mind.

“I believe in you, Ewan.”

We love with our heart, not our mind, but I kept this through only to myself. And I did well, because Ewan pulled me close to him as if we were getting ready to jump into the void, tied by the same elastic cord. He put his palms around my temples, sticking his forehead to mine. And I saw the aquarium sarcophagus inside which Ewan was floating, eyes closed, arms wide open – a drowned man, descending into the deep ocean, without ever touching the sand on the bottom. Around him, countless tubes were pulsating, vibrating, and wrapping him like the arms of an octopus that was draining his blood through mouths like suction cups. Actually, it was the other way around – the rubber cephalopod was feeding him, keeping him alive, just like the gelatinous fluid was replacing the air in his lungs. When was the last time he had really breathed? Suspended animation was like being imprisoned in a liquid coffin, with no sounds, no images, and no sensations – that was neither life nor death. Anyone would have gone insane after something like that. Anyone.

Tears were rolling down my cheeks, and Ewan picked them up one by one with his lips, and dried them with his breath. He was there, but he was also here, with me. He had found a way to escape the morbid hug of the tubes, the amphibian body, preserved in the caloric soup.

I looked again at the man inside – sensors stuck to his forehead were extending into translucent cables, struggling like Medusa’s snakes, ready to grab any scattered thought. But the monitoring screens remained blank, the oscilloscope needles were inert...Ewan had isolated himself in his universe, where he was intangible, at least for now, until The Master of Nightmares would lose his patience and cut the feeding cord.

But that was the last thing on Ewan’s mind.

He was feverishly unbuttoning my silver-grey suit with which the programmers had dressed me to push me into the nightmare – to look just like the businesswomen, tycoons, and the elite of the white collars from Global Vortex, all of them with the single secret desire to die in terrible torment. The blouse also had buttons, mother-of-pearl buttons. Ewan made them pop with a single jerk, and then he kissed me on the neck, on the shoulders. For a moment, we broke away, just enough for me to pull his T-shirt over his head, and for him to unzip my skirt, letting it slip down on my hips. I stepped out of the cloth ring, and I took off my shoes, one by one – Dolce & Gabbana, high heels, and pointed-toe shoes – not exactly my style. I took off my blouse, discovering with amazement what I was wearing underneath – Calvin Klein electric red underwear.

Ewan was looking at me with Pygmalion eyes, the carver that had fallen in love with his creation. I wasn’t Galatea, but the hands that were slipping over my body could have brought a block of marble to life. And I wasn’t feeling like I was made of stone, but rather of hot boiling magma.

A whisper brought chills through my ear lobe.

“Lorena, when was the last time you made love?”

“I don’t remember,” I answered sincerely.

Was Ewan teasing me? He seemed serious, but he hadn’t stopped his anatomic exploration. He was finally able to untie my bra, and he had one more question.

“Do you think I forgot how it’s done?”

I started to laugh, although two centuries of abstinence was a hard-to-match record.

“I will help you remember.”

I kissed him too – pretty convincing, because, the next moment he took me in his arms, carrying me to the sofa. I could feel his body pressed against mine, his tense muscles, and I could hear his strong heartbeats.

Ewan was kissing my eyelids, forehead, and cheeks, with burning, healing lips.

“Lorena!”

The calling made me shudder, awakening a volcano of feelings and sensations that had been dormant under the snow, in the lethargy of a long arctic winter.

“Yes?” I was able to say between two quick breaths.

“I’m beginning to remember.”

Then there were no more words, only the light flowing from Ewan’s eyes, a green sun rising from the ocean towards the sky that was me, waiting for it, receiving it; just the silent dance of the bodies, synchronized moves that answered to one another without mistake – slowly on purpose, then faster. We touched, we tasted, we got lost in one other, each time finding our identity and the desire to lose it. Me, him – who was who? We were melting in a pot from which a perfect, androgynous being was born. Us , another word for fulfillment. The rush of blood was calling us, taking us deeper into a frantic trance. We were trying to meld completely, atom by atom. Not the gravitational attraction – we were realizing at that moment with amazement – was the real engine of the universe, but the desire . It had always been in me, chained to the rock of the unconscious mind. I freed it, letting it grow, devour me, consume me. I died and I was reborn, again and again, from my ashes.

It was a dream, a beautiful illusion, a moment stolen from eternity. I knew it, just as well as Ewan did. And we made it last.


THE END


2023 Rodica Bretin

Bio: Rodica Bretin is a member of the Union of Writers from Romania, the PEN organization and the Association of Fiction Creators from Romania. She is the author of novels and storybooks in the domains of fantasy, science-fiction, paranormal, and medieval times. Rodica Bretin is published in magazines from her country, but also in Cirsova Magazine, Aphelion, Gracious Light (SUA), Teoria Omicron, Maquina Combinatoria (Ecuador), and Antares (France).

She lives, with her cat Lorena, in Transylvania, Romania, in a town called Brasov, surrounded by old and dark forests, not far from Bran Castle were the legend of Dracula was borne. 

True stories from the sixth decade, the Communist period in the Eastern European countries, are published in her blog.

E-mail: Rodica Bretin

Website: Rodica Bretin 's Website

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