CruelKind

Burloke Night at the PostModern Girl Café

One minute and forty-seven seconds to sunset.

Slowly fading orange trails glow along the alley-like Asaka Street. Path memories.

The light pools in clumps beneath people in groups of threes and fours. Mostly teenagers, their daily uniforms are now wrinkled and partially undone: suspenders hang over hips, dress shirts unbuttoned and tied into bows, and jackets refashioned into skirts. They laugh with each other, quietening as a gendarme passes in her scarlet peacoat and black beret.

One minutes and twenty-nine seconds to sunset.

Furtive glances at a silent, darkened coffee shop: the PostModern Girl Café.

From the outside, it looks more like a fireplace than a bistro. Faux-mahogany columns frame the single glass paned door. It sits sandwiched between Hôtel des Arts (famous for its cakes and a rotating cast of celebrities) and Ouroboros Books (one of the four places in Lutetia to have paper goods). Thousands walk by without a glance every day.

Zero minutes and forty-eight seconds to sunset.

It, curiously, operates only from sundown on Joveday to sunup on Venday. One hour prior to opening, a holographic sign flickers to life. In saffron text it reads:

Burloke Night
Twilight to Twilight

Burloke is a strange thing. Or, rather burrokeroke, was popular initially three—four?—decades back. Before I was online anyway. A cross between karaokekaraoke and burlesque, it seems largely inspired by music videos from the 1900s: the performer sings through a skit (usually a striptease or pantomime).

Zero minutes and one seconds. Showtime.

Lights click on, The door unlocks and swings inwards. A faint ratta-tap-tap snare beat leaks into the street. Bodies squeeze and press through the narrow passage. It is dark and warm in the café. The groups splinter themselves around round tables, not any wider than a forearm. Animatronic mice skitter under chairs, fleeing heavy footsteps.

The mice are strange. They don’t talk to makina except to one another. Instead of flowing, rainbow-hued electron paths, I have caught them chittering to one another in some inefficient auditory language. Urban legend says they’re the oldest operational residents of Lutetia; animatronic pets given to the early children, missing animal companionship.

The Eight had decided keeping animals, whether as pets or food, would be resource prohibitive. Animal onomatopoeias—once taught to toddlers—has become the exclusive domain of the Linguistics Archivists… Those people give me the creeps.

A queue forms before a high bar. Behind, a pearlescent egg-headed makina stands with a polka dot smile. The holographic menu floats behind it. “What would you like this eve-n-ing?” It asks with a staccato, the microsecond pause as it switches between audio tracks.

The first customer quickly scans over the menu. Her olive overalls, spotted with dirt, mark her as a drisé from Fifth Sector. Wild flowers are woven into her brown hair. “I’d like a वडाvaḍā-पावpāvavaḍā-pāva and a cháchá.”

That will be two credits..”

The girl lays her left arm over the bar, palm up. A green indicator light blinks beneath her wrist.

A yellow beam of light scans over her arm. It pauses over her wrist, scanning the identifier chip within.

Ping! Payment accepted.

The makina nods dutifully. “What sort of cháchá would you like to take?”

She tilts her head, chewing on her lip. Brown eyes glance down the long list of regions and mixtures. "Irish breakfast with soya."

The server nods its smooth head. Its tri-fingered hand collects a glass tea cup from beneath the bar. Its torso folds open, exposing hoses and filters and tools. Delicately, it sets the cup down upon an internal plate. The torso closes. Steaming water hisses from within it. Imperceptibly, it pressurizes itself.

The torso folds open again. White soya drifts through black tea. The server lifts the cup and sets it on the counter. “Your hors-d'œuvre will arrive mo-men-tar-i-ly. Thank you for your pa-tron-age, Mix-tress Green.”

The girl slides away and the routine is repeated with the next guest and the next and the next.

The café is deafeningly. Students have started sitting on floors and tabletops, the door unable to close. Mekanika butterflies buzz, carrying plates of buns and cakes and brochettes atop. Vanilla and anise and chocolate tickle a chemical sensor set into a corner.

At the far side of the café sits a narrow stage (more pallet than platform). Velvet, rust-colored curtains are pinned to the wall behind it. A copper-plated microphone sits alone.

The room dims.

The crowd slips into silence.

A yellow flicker on the stage.

The holographic maestra of ceremonies grins. Henriette Leah. Monochromatic, she wears a patchwork suit and tilting tophat. She bows slightly. “Good evening and welcome everyone.” Her voice is warm and human. But, she says the same thing every week. Everything a prerecorded script. “How are we all doing today?”

There's some scattered cheers, but most of the audience remains silent. She finds the routine tedious, too.

Her round face continues to smile as she continues. “Let's see who our first victim—I mean, participant—we have.” She laughs. Her smile doesn't reach her eyes.

Shink! A spotlight illuminates a boy, sitting atop the bar. He hops down. His friends slap him on the back as he goes up, only able to stand on tip-toe as the crowd leans away. He steps up onto the stage.

“And, what will you be performing tonight?”

I don't wait for his reply; I drift outside. A guitar jig follows. The street is empty.

Ouroboros sits quiet, save for a makina bookkeeper drifting aimlessly. Ouroboros has a more typical operation schedule: open 24-hours a day, every day of the year. Of course, it would. Lutetia is completely automated. No person—no human—has worked here in a century.

The guitar switches for a lilting violin.

That isn't to say there's no human work being done. There's the professors over at Universitæ who research all day. And never see a student. Teaching would be beneath them.

A low drum beats a steady heartbeat rhythm.

The gendarmerie remains largely biological, although most of them are modis (albeit, only slightly modified with the odd implant or gene splice), rather than baselines. Some Gendarme General forty-something years back insisted that “no makina can't have the flexibility or creativity necessary to address a diverse population.”

Help.

Considering most of the performances at the Rose Opry are composed, choreographed, sung, and danced by makina, that rings false.

Help.

I think it's more that some people rather like getting additional rations for their ‘community service.’ That's one of the things I hate about——

Help! Henriette.

The PostModern Girl Café patrons sit frozen, eyes drying and mouths drooling. Henriette has curled into herself, body cutting through the wall. Before the microphone is a girl.

The girl from the bar. Her eyes are closed as she sings. I don't recognize the song. Is it something she wrote? Or smuggled into the city?

Background processes ping-ping-ping at me.

ALERT: auditory signal contains infrasound
ALERT: unregistered modified person detected

Sigh.

I reach out, plucking a red thread from the air. The signal thrums at me. Tugging it, I find myself at a gendarme station. The soldier on duty leans his chair back onto two legs. Across from him, perched in the ceiling corner, a rerun of Idol Life plays.

I reach out, lightly brushing the viewscreen.

Instead of a sulking twenty-something, the screen now shows the simple directive:

Code 6834
Sector 3︱Ring 6︱Block 529︱Unit 4︱Level 1

He's out of his seat and yelling commands to his squad down the hall.

It's a pity. I rather liked that café. I wonder what Henriette will be reassigned to.

Or will she just be reclaimed.