Chapter 23 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

The Four emerged from the subway tunnel at the intersection of 46th and Iceland, and walked briskly up the street toward the Cafe. Since it was now almost two AM, the streets were more or less quiet.

They stopped in front of a closed door set into a plain brick facade. Ordinary shops flanked the door on either side, a pawn shop to the left, antiques to the right, and at this hour, these other businesses were closed up, heavy steel gates protecting their openings, the owners at home, sleeping or watching television.

The door had only one feature: a small image of the planet Saturn, mounted at eye level in the center of the door. The Four stood before the opening and said nothing. They knew what was happening: they were being scanned. A tiny camera lens was concealed behind that image of Saturn. As the men approached, the man behind the camera pulled their files, studied their case histories, their credit ratings, sexual preferences, and levels of cool.

A barely audible click indicated that the door was now unlocked, temporarily. Dave turned the knob, and in they went, glancing over their shoulders as they vanished from the street. The door closed behind them, and the lock snapped shut.

They walked down a darkened hallway, which made a right angle turn ten feet in. Here, a small sign lit by a blue light bulb said, "This Way." After another ten feet they came to a door, above which was a sign that said, "The Saturn Cafe." The door slid open as they approached.

The Cafe was busy, but not crowded; one would normally expect more of a crowd at this hour. Many of the Icehouse tables that dominated the center of the room were unoccupied, which was unusual considering the hours a person sometimes had to wait to get a seat at one of those tables. As The Four entered, the Synthesist in the pit began a new piece. The electronic tones poured out of the speakers and sailed up into the darkness of the ceiling, swirling in and around the various customers of the Cafe.

The lights were kept low in the Saturn Cafe. The designers of the interior had worked on the principle of "pools of light," that is, small areas of lightness here and there in the darkness. The room was generally quite dark, and there were no bright lights at all in the Cafe, only small, shaded lamps. Dim lamps were suspended over each of the tables, and small lights with blue bulbs protruded from the walls. The ceiling could not be discerned at all, since it was fairly high and there was no direct lighting cast upon it. The overall effect was like being underwater, an effect that the designers had deliberately cultivated. Special lighting equipment had been installed that projected faint streamers of light which danced across the walls, similar to those that reflect off of lighted swimming pools at night.

An attractive young waitress named Maria approached The Four. She was wearing a very small dress made of dark green velvet, with a bare midriff. On her head was the halo-like circle of aluminum that was worn by all of the Saturn Cafe waitresses. It was a grouping of rings, in all about two inches wide, which rested on her ears and balanced delicately across her forehead. It reminded one of the rings of Saturn, as it was clearly designed to, and it was the only thing that the waitresses were specifically required to wear, as far as uniforms were concerned. It was rumored that some of the waitresses wore nothing else, but this was rarely substantiated.

The Four ordered drinks, and sought out their usual Icehouse table, located at the back of the room, underneath the huge neon image of Saturn. Its rings were sculpted from blue, green, and purple tubes, the planet itself being formed out of yellow neon. They began a game.

Maria arrived with the drinks. These she placed into the circular holes at the four corners of the table. The drinks were served in laboratory glassware, 400 ml Pyrex beakers to be exact. This was the only size beverage served by the Cafe, since the tables had been designed to hold this particular form of tumbler. The design of the table allowed for a full playing area undisturbed by drinking glasses or other such mundane distractions.

The drinks were a sort of tea/chocolate combination, a specialty of the Saturn Cafe. It was called ceetea, as in C-tea, short for chocolate tea. This drink was to tea what mocha is to coffee.

As Maria turned to go, Dave said "Are the Android Sisters around tonight?"

Maria said, "No, I think they're all off tonight, but I can check for you."


Maria vanished into the darkness, and shortly returned. "Sorry."

"Thanks anyway."

Dave turned his full attention back to the game, and found, to his dismay, that he was in the Icehouse.

"Should have been paying more attention," said Paul.

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

News Search Gift Shop Games About Us | contact us