Chapter Ten: Ashes to Ashes
"Do you think Val is here?" Nash asked me.
"I do," I said, and motioned for my companions to follow me up the stairs. As we quietly ascended, I noticed a low humming building in intensity. It was coming from a window up ahead pointing towards the core of the mountain. The window was a small and frameless, in the shape of a circle with two pointy ears. I glanced at Joyce, who was scratching her armpit nonchalantly, and peeked in.
Through the window I saw the enormous inner chamber of the mountain. It was bigger than most shopping malls. In the center of it, larger than could be believed, stood Garfield. Or, at least, his instantly recognizable body. His giant feet and tail provided a mighty base support for his plump little belly, while his thin arms and legs proved far more disturbing to perceive in this realm than in the daily strips. His head was missing though, and I saw far above me that his squat body disappeared directly into the flat ceiling at the top of the room. Below him, thronging around the feet, humming and swaying in unison, were hundreds of what looked like ravers or kinksters. There was very little clothing to be seen, save for bits of leather or nylon here and there. Facepaint and accessories were in abundance though, and from my vantage point just a few dozen feet off the ground I could make out at least a few people in fursuits. Some appeared to be orgying. Everyone seemed to be staring up towards Garfield or at each other's naughty bits but I quickly ducked my head back down anyways in case anyone were to turn around and spot me.
"Is Val there?" Nash asked desperately.
"I don't think so," I said, "And there's way too many people down there anyway. We gotta keep climbing."
"But what if she is down there? Shouldn't we at least check?"
"It's like a thousand people down there, girl." said Joyce, grabbing Nash's beefy shoulder with one of her tiny hands. "And they're probably cultists. I don't wanna fucking die today."
Nash closed her mouth and we continued our ascent of the spiral staircase around the huge chamber. More humming and chants of "PAPA OOH MA MEOW MEOW" echoed from the windows every hundred steps or so. It took much longer than climbing the mountain from the outside would have, and even though it was warmer I felt like I was going insane by the time we finally stepped out onto a landing.
From the landing the staircase continued to the right, while to the left was another wooden door, this one with windows to either side instead of torches. Once again, I approached the left window to sneak a peek, but was toppled by Nash as she shoulder bumped me in her haste to do the same. Joyce and I gave her some space by sharing the view offered by the right window.
Val was inside, curled up on the floor in front of Garfield's gaping mouth. His huge sarcastic eyes stared her down as he might stare at Nermal before offering a biting and humorous rejoinder. Directly above his eyes was a black ceiling, with a few circuits and pipes jutting out in places. Val appeared to be asleep on a bed of tattered rags. Around her neck was a pink collar with a bell on it. Her long black hair was messy and slightly damp, with black cat ears peeking out from it. Her tights were torn. Nash seemed like she was about to break.
"Hold on, Nash," I whispered.
There were six figures surrounding Val, all shrouded in black robes. They all had tails poking out, lifting the back of the robes and exposing some pretty awesome behinds. Three of them were sitting at a large blue console on the left side of the room, watching monitors and pushing buttons. One was monitoring Val- this figure held a spray bottle in one hand. The fifth figure had a microphone, and kept repeating "papa ooh ma mow mow" into it. The final figure was tending to something inside Garfield's mouth, the size of which easily doubled their height. When they left the mouth I saw who remained: it was Jim Davis. He was suspended above the ground, his body consumed by a mass of tendril-like wires connected to the back of Garfield's mouth. His head rolled to the side, but his eyes were still open. He looked old, though not as old as I had expected. There was no long gray beard, just the same white hair hanging on to the back of his balding head. There was a pain behind those eyes that betrayed the truth of his age.
I pulled my head away from the window and the disturbing scene it contained. I reached slowly for Nash's shoulder. She slapped my hand away hard.
"No! I'm not leaving her!" she yell-whispered.
"Come on- there's more stairs!" I whispered back, "Besides, whatever they're doing to her is no worse than how I like to spend a typical Wednesday evening."
"That's true... weird. She was always so vanilla."
"Uh, yeah, whatever! Come on, let's go up one more floor! We'll come right back."
"No, Riese. I'm staying here." Nash responded, staring at me with dead seriousness.
"Okay, okay- just go in yet! Seriously, Nash- wait until me and Joyce come back."
Nash nodded and planted her face back in the window. I hoped no one would see her sharp narrow face mad-dogging them through their black hoods while we were gone. Joyce grabbed my hand and lead me toward the staircase, and we climbed up together. Halfway up we came to a small gate, like the ones installed to keep babies safe. It had a tiny monitor by the lock mechanism. It flickered on and flashed the words single file across the display: Which Video Game Babe Is Hotter? Candy Kong or Lara Croft?
I considered my decision carefully- was whoever crafting it looking for the traditional answer, or were they a renegade like me? I recalled that we were inside the peak of a hollowed-out mountain right now and felt I had my answer. I pushed the button on the left and the display flashed green. The lock opened and the monitor displayed another message: Ah-a Femoid of Taste, I See! I pushed the gate open and climbed the final steps with Joyce.
We came up directly into the topmost chamber, where the ceiling ended in a point encased by the mountain's peak. It was half the size of the last chamber, and exponentially smaller than the first. A song by the legendary trans dreamgirl SOPHIE played from three speakers around the peak of the ceiling. The bulk of the floor was taken up by the top of Garfield's head. In front of his great ears, a hole was carved into the fat cat's head, revealing the squishy pinkness within. Sat in the hole was a girl wearing a pink sweatshirt and jeans. She was squatting in her seat, her head peering between her knees at a small monitor and keyboard poking out the edge of her hole. Her hair was short and white with messy bangs, and slightly longer in the back. Her winged eyeliner was impressively pointy- more so than I had ever managed to make my own. She had black lipstick too, and a spiked dog collar around her neck.
The girl turned around in her little brain hole and regarded us slyly. She pouted her lip in a show of mock despair.
"Oh no someone got in! And it's a human girl and her high-res friend!" said the comfily-dressed woman, "You found my hidden gamer pad! No one else has ever made it past the gate. Well, there's not much I can do- I cut off all communication with those annoying cat people downstairs."
"Who are you? And why are you in Garfield's head?" I asked.
"My name's Ashe," said Ashe, "And that's how I control the biggest Mecha in the Pacific Northwest! Hahahaha!"
I braced myself for annihilation, wincing and silently bemoaning my deferred dreams. Who would stop the plague of buff nerds from doing vague untold evil? Who would write the great American novel? Who would suck the most dicks at Dick's Dick-Suckin Sundays in Sacramento? It was not for me to know. Annihilation missed its due date at this juncture, though, and I opened my eyes to see Ashe still laughing. Joyce looked pretty pissed off.
"Ahaha! I was just kidding. This is actually how I play games- the statue can interface with God's Computer outside. There are some really great games on that thing- wanna see?"
"No, our friend's downstairs," I said, "Look, I don't know what's going on here, but there's no way you're up here just playing video games all the time. They got fucking Jim Davis all wired up down there! Show me what else you can access on that computer."
Ashe stuck her lower lip out and pouted at me again.
"Please?" I added.
"Okay," she said, "Let me bring up the spreadsheet."
The snow-haired gamer girl pressed a hotkey on her keyboard and brought up said document. Rows and rows of names appeared, along with their IQs, BMIs, High Scores and Zodiac signs. Ashe scrolled down and I saw there were thousands of names, comprising of what could be the entire remaining population of North America for all I knew.
"What is this?" I asked.
"Oh, there's a company called Permanent Solutions over in the City that I've been doing some contract work for. Just while I'm stuck in lobby queues in-game. They developed an algorithm that'll use God's Computer to restructure the population. I'm just managing the data and converting it to GCL. And the data the algorithm uses to make its decisions is all in this spreadsheet."
"Wow, what the fuck is wrong with you? This is going to kill people based on bullshit pseudoscience! And also Zodiac signs, but still that's fucked up!"
"Yeah," said Joyce, "I was the one who added those. Sorry."
"Well, it's not like I'm saying all Geminis need to die- and they won't!" said Ashe, "The algorithm makes that call, and it uses all the determinants on a weighed scale. So, ethically, I mean- yeah it's gonna kill some people, but I'm not deciding who! It could kill me for all I know- except my IQ is 179. What have people done for me? Ever? Even when I had to scrounge for estrogen vials like you two- nothing! I didn't need them then and I definitely don't need them now! I'm doing fine here and I have everything I need!"
"Great, I'm glad you're doing so well," I said.
"No, seriously- the people who are going to get weeded out by the program- an OBJECTIVE program, by the way- are the ones who started all this crap in the first place. Once we delete them we'll be able to build society back up again! Things are going to be way better for you, believe me. I know! I had to make it on my own when the Internet fell! I didn't have friends, guns, I didn't have shit! I know how fucked up it still is out there. Thing will get a lot better when we weed out the SCUM, the Reich, the Arbuckles, those gullible idiots downstairs- all these stupid violent factions who can only think about the past. Not the future we should be headed towards! You, lady-" Joyce pointed at me, "You made it here! That means you must be better than them- a woman of the future. You'll do great."
Ashe turned around to close the spreadsheet on her monitor then turned turned back to me. She grabbed the sides of the hole in Garfield's head she was occupying and started pushing herself up and out of it. In a flash, Joyce was there before her on the head. She stepped on Ashe's thigh with her black vinyl boots, pushing her down and preventing her from leaving.
"I'm gonna need you to transfer that data directly to me," said Joyce, "All of it."
"Even if your program could handle a file that size," said Ashe, "I can't afford to lose this job. He would find out, believe me, and I'd be sacked. Also, I don't want to."
From downstairs, I heard a door creak loudly open, and then some shouting. Some of it sounded like Nash. Then came a silence which was even more worrying.
"Joyce- can you handle this?" I asked.
"Yeah, you can go," she said.
I left her there with her foot pressing down on Ashe's thigh, eliciting some grunting and a lot of wiggling beneath her leg's weight. Joyce's eyes didn't leave Ashe for a second, and had the icy glow I remembered from the first night we shared together back when she was a human and not a computer program made flesh. I had very little time to think about any of this as I sped toward the stairs and down into the dark of the mountain staircase, plunging once more into the chamber in which Jim Davis spent his tortured days.