Chapter 3 - Deli Dining and the NewsMature

Joe last ate that morning, something chocolaty and chewy from a long undisturbed vending machine in the rich tunnels between City Hall and the old police station, where the banks long ago forgot their hoards of paper records. He'd wolfed that chewy, content with the data gold fourteen days of digging had got him. His back ached from sleeping on file boxes. But the city clerk never appeared at the archives desk, to sign him out. It was the first indication that something was wrong above in Corporea.

Joe's belly growled. Unlike the dog, he couldn't smell the closed-up delicatessen from the outside. He could imagine the place. Savoury cured meats, his favourites sliced paper-thin. Cheeses. Pickles. Perhaps all the world's unpronounceable delicacies under one roof. He recognized two of the eight salamis dangling above the cheese wheels just the other side of dark plate glass.

Mirrored on the glass door, he saw himself standing on the sidewalk, thick-waisted in rumpled shirt and cargo-chinos, balding and spectacled, indistinct in the sodium-yellow night. And accompanied by the dog, watching him, its tail just noticeably swaying.

The brushy tail spun full around as Joe rattled the door handle. The tail hung, as he rattled the door again, to be sure. Inside, the CLOSED sign tapped against the glass.

The dog whimpered. "SMASH it. My before-master...he'd smash it, he'd feed me. Two angry men in a wailing car took him away before he could feed me. SMASH, SMASH, ALL THE ANGRY MEN LEFT."

But Joe didn't want to smash. He wanted those two salamis in the window, to start. He also very much wanted a door he could lock between himself and the huge something in the night above the city. Even if only a glass deli door and CLOSED showing inside.

And smashing wasn't necessary. Joe tugged the hacker from a thigh pocket. The dog backed away. Joe fiddled the lock. The latch clacked. They went inside, the dog brushing past his knee. Welcoming bells ting-tinged above the door. Joe disarmed the alarm pad. Flicked on both light switches. Locked the door.

"GO AWAY!" The dog. Somewhere among the packed shelves. Paper flags of the world were strung over the ceiling.

Joe thumped his shoulder in reflex against the locked door. He tasted deli air, mostly delicious, but now also a sour something.

"Dog, what is it?" Joe didn't want to abandon the deli. He sidled by the cheese wheels in the big window. Shouldered by the hanging salamis. Scooped up five tins from a stack. He could throw, well enough to distract. Probably. The heavy tins fit his hand. Anchovies.

"Dog?" Joe saw him. He was before the main counter, the meats case glowing alongside, the dog's snout directed at a wood-cased radio on the back wall crowded with snapshots.

"Make it go!" snarled the dog, as Joe reached him. The air reeked.

The radio hissed on its shelf. It crackled, popped. It whistled, oddly. It resumed hissing.

Opened newspapers covered the countertop. Joe caught in quick glances they dated back two weeks. He squinted against the glare from the meats case. Dropped the tinned anchovies. His hand over his nose and mouth, he came around the end of the counter, and slid shut the back panel. Disturbed inside the case, trapped flies spun their fat shadows over the newspapers, over the deli, over the flags of the world.

A forgotten milk carton, green inside, stood on another countertop, by a sink. The seeping faucet drummed upon week-old dishes. Joe noted two doors at the side, one marked Private.

"MAKE IT GO!" The dog's eyes were wild.

The radio whistled. Joe switched it off.

Crowding the wall around the radio, the snapshots seemed to stare at Joe. He looked them over. A squat smiling man with hair like Toscanini appeared in every picture. He was smiling with a lot of famous people. Actors. Successive city mayors. Buckie Rogers. There were also pictures of this contented man like Toscanini working the deli. One of him standing on the sunny sidewalk beside the Capri Delicatessen van when it was new. A string of pictures of him and a pretty woman he had aged alongside.

The dog pushed his cool nose against Joe's dangling hand. "We're safe now. You promised you'd feed me."

Joe kept his promise. The corner bread cases yielded week-old fossils. Packets of crisp breads would do. Slicing a salami with a knife as long as his arm, he made dinner for them both. He set down the dog's plate. Pulled back his fingers in time. The dog wolfed his dinner, tapping the plate against the floor.

Joe read the newspaper headlines while he ate. He mined all the story of what had happened to Corporea, to the world, by the time he'd finished his dry dinner.

Beyond the rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Mars Mining Corp had encountered a moon-sized alien ship sucking away the Jovian atmosphere, presumably for fuel. The moon-ship didn't respond to hails. That was three months ago. One month later, the ship turned its attention on Mars. Mars fell silent. Earth's Security Council seemingly had already initiated a plan for evacuation. In secret. Because there weren't ships enough, nor time for building more. And it was of course impossible to evacuate more than a small essential percentage of the world's ten billions.

World media found out two weeks ago. Just as Joe had gone below to begin mining city archives. He'd missed more than the last lifeboat away. He'd missed worldwide panic and riots. The seven-day F-U Concert. The big pharma corps selflessly for once working with the World health Organization in swiftly distributing eutho pills, free for all takers.

Joe poured San Pellegrino water, mostly into a cappuccino cup. Some spilling onto the newspaper underneath. His hand shook badly. He drank. He coughed.

The dog was watching him. Licking his chops. Joe poured him a cappuccino cup of San Pellegrino, spilled none of it as he set the cup slowly on the floor. The dog drank noisily.

The flies buzzing inside the meats case spun their crazy shadows around the deli. Joe wanted a bed, somewhere else. He remembered the apartments, curtained, over the deli. And the door behind the counter marked Private. He went to the door, turned the knob. It wasn't locked.

The End

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