Everyone was staring. The other party attendees. The wenches. The musicians. Charlie. And Harmon, of course.
Harmon lifted a wench off his lap and stood up. Mitchell hadn’t seen him this angry since the time someone had eaten all his yogurt.
It was Mitchell. Michell had eaten all the yogurt. He’d never admitted to it, either. Not in fifty years. Harmon still carried a grudge.
But even the great yogurt theft of 2070 was nothing compared to how angry Harmon was now.
Mitchell felt that a train was coming at him. What did he say?
He looked around. Angry faces were all around. He could understand why the musicians and wenches were mad. They lived here on Krim. They probably took his remark personally.
Even though he was just being honest. Some people were so sensitive.
And probably some of the other guests spent time online or even lived virtually.
In two steps, Harmon loomed over Mitchell. “Did you just call my future husband a loser?”
“No, of course not…” Mitchell stammered.
“Charlie’s got ten times the life you have,” said Harmon. “What do you even do, besides selling small-town real estate to spoiled rich people? I swear I don’t know.”
“Let it go, man,” said Charlie. “Don’t let him ruin the night.”
“I just mean that it’s not the same,” Mitchell said. “Living online. It’s not real. You can’t even stub your toe. It’s all fake.”
Then the waitress piped up. “You can stub your toe in Krim. It really hurts.”
“But nobody actually wants to live here,” said Mitchell. “This place is awful. And it smells bad.”
Again, the silence was almost painful.
Mitchell looked behind him. The exit was four tables away. Maybe if he ran…
“I don’t even want to see you right now,” Harmon finally said. “Just get out of here.” He turned around and walked away.
Michell slumped, relieved that he wasn’t going to be beaten.
Charlie came over and patted Mitchell on the shoulder. “He’s drunk. Give him a couple of days to get over it.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
“I know,” said Charlie. “You’re just an idiot. It’s not your fault. Come on and get out of here before someone else decides to disembowel you.”
Michell stood up and walked warily to the door, trying to look in all directions at once. Nobody attacked him. Once he was at the entryway, the musicians started playing again.
He sighed and opened the door. It was dark and raining outside.
The blonde waitress joined him on the front steps under the inn’s awning.
“Are you going to be okay?”
“Sure,” said Mitchell. “And I do have a life. I have a job. I go to museums. I enjoy nature.”
“I like nature too,” she said. “Do you believe in the healing power of crystals?”
“Of course. Who doesn’t?”
“That’s my dream,” she said. “I want to have a shop that sells crystals. Donna’s Dazzles. I’m Donna.”
“Do you mean, back in real life?”
“No, here on Krim. I live here.”
“You could get a new body printed,” he said. “They do that now.”
“It’s not the same,” she said. “And it costs too much. Besides, I like it here.”
He looked away, embarrassed. “I guess I’ll go then.”
“Do you know the way back to the gate?”
“I’ll figure it out.”
“Wait a second.”
She ducked back inside and returned a few seconds later with the bouncer.
“You’ll get him safely off the grid, won’t you?”
The giant grunted.
“Oh, good.” Donna smiled brightly. “Mitchell, this is Einstein. Einstein, Mitchell. He’s new.”
“I know.” Einstein glared down at him. “I heard what you said inside.”
“I’m sorry,” said Mitchell.
“Just promise you’ll visit my shop when I open it,” said Donna.
Donna went back inside.
“So. Einstein. That’s an odd name for a medieval grid.” Mitchell giggled nervously.
“My in-world name is supposed to be Iron Mountain,” said Einstein, in a slow, low-pitched voice. “But I keep forgetting and tell people my real name.”
“Your real name is Einstein? Did your parents want you to be a scientist?”
“Einstein Petrowsky. And I am a scientist. I’m on sabbatical from running a subquantum communications research lab.”
“There’s a thorny problem we’re trying to solve and keep hitting dead ends. I thought I’d take some time off and clear my head.”
He stepped forward into the rain. “Come on, I promised Donna I’d get you home safe.”
“Can we wait for the rain to stop?”
“No, it’s going to keep going all night.”
“That’s crazy,” said Mitchell. “Everybody must hate it.”
“It washes away all the dirt,” said Einstein. “There’s nobody to clean the streets here.”
Mitchell stepped down, gingerly avoiding a puddle. The cold rain soaked him in seconds.
“This way.” The giant turned to the right.
“I could have sworn we’d come from the other direction,” Mitchell said, following behind him.
“This way is quicker.”
That sounded good. Mitchell didn’t want to spend any more time in the rain than he had to. His feet already felt like he was wearing ice cubes.
Einstein led him around the corner of the building and into a narrow alley where the two men had to walk single file. Einstein’s shoulders slightly grazed the walls as he walked.
“How do they clean up the stuff that’s too big for the rain to wash away?” Mitchell asked.
“The business owners get fined if they don’t keep their sidewalk clear,” said Einstein.
“So, what, they hire someone to cart stuff off?”
“You mean, like dead bodies?” Einstein laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding. No, Krim has a disposal system.”
They came to the end of the alley and Mitchell followed Einstein to the right again into a slightly wider alley.
Mitchell guessed that they were now behind the Inn.
Its back door was slightly open, and the sounds of music drifted out, accompanied by the smell of fried food.
There was a giant bin next to it, about waist high, covered by a wooden lid.
Einstein opened it.
“They toss everything in here.”
There wasn’t much light here behind the inn, but the darkness inside the bin was blacker than Mitchell would have expected.
He peered inside. “How deep is this?”
“Oh, it goes all the way.”
Einstein turned and grabbed Mitchell by the front of his jacket, then before Mitchell knew what happened he’d bent down, grabbed him by the leg, and tossed him head-first down the hole.
Mitchell screamed all the way down.