It was only the third annual company barbecue, but already it had become a high point in the social calendar for the employees of Evil Mountain. The preparations began months in advance, ensuring that a vibrant buzz of anticipation echoed through the miles of subterranean corridors hollowed out from the rock; the research labs had been talking about nothing else for weeks, and even those who worked on Level Five, renowned for their sadism and lack of humour, peppered the screams of the interrogation chambers with idle chatter about fancy dress costumes and bunting.
Employees from around the world had made the trek with their families to the mountain’s desert location; they gathered at its base, chattering in groups, exchanging small-talk with colleagues and participating in the many summer games and diversions that their leader- Garth- had arranged for them. An empty podium overlooked the gathering; clustered around it were a gang of Hench, typically sullen and unsociable, keeping up appearances by comparing weaponry and pretending they were having an awful time.
At the end of a vast line of sizzling grills, barely breaking a sweat in a black cashmere polo neck, stood a man with a Styrofoam cup of punch in one hand and a pair of cooking tongs in the other. One of his eyes was hidden behind a patch, but the other studied the meat intently, enjoying the sight of fat dripping onto the white hot coals. The man wore a name badge: Jared, Project Manager: Climate Control.
Garth had arranged for the capture of some prisoners to man the barbecue, but Jared had quickly elbowed his way behind one of the industrial-sized grills and began to take charge. The task of charring of the food perfectly masked his inability to exchange pleasantries or participate in office chat. As a child, his school report had been an early indication of his later discomfort: does not work well with others, distant, sociopathic. In many industries this would be seen as a handicap, but when Jared arrived at Evil Mountain, he was greeted warmly by Garth who saw the vast potential in his psychological CV.
Jared sipped his punch gently, wanting to maintain control of his faculties, at least until after Garth’s speech. The team in Chemistry had added their own secret ingredients to the beverage; part neural relaxant, part amnesia compound, together with a dash of coconut and passion fruit to mask the narcotics. It enabled the guests to get up to whatever drunken antics they desired, and then forget all about it shortly afterwards.
“JARED! My man!”
The shout had come from a swaggering giant with a square jaw, Hawaiian shirt and plaid Bermuda shorts. He lumbered his way towards Jared’s grill. It was Trey, drunk on punch serum, his brash volume louder than his usual life-and-soul setting. What Trey lacked in manners he made up for in his talent for destabilising governments.
“This food!” said Trey, theatrically smacking his lips before wiping a moustache of mesquite glaze onto his sleeve. “It’s exquisite! What is it? Ibex? Sumatran Tiger? Spill the beans bro!”
Jared pointed with the tongs, giving Trey a guided tour of the grill: anaconda, snow leopard, Philippine crocodile, Kodiak bear.
“Word has it that Garth hunted them personally,” said Jared.
“Garth’s the best.”
Jared nodded. “How’s the hand?” he asked.
“Oh this?” Trey raised a hook in the air. The polished appendage glinted in the remains of the fading sunlight. “Garth had his own doctor on the case for me. Nothing but the best. Titanium.”
Trey hooked a hunk of Kodiak straight from the grill. He began to gnaw at the meat, the hot juices dripped unnoticed onto his arm; he had been conditioned not to notice any pain.
He carried on talking during mouthfuls. “Man, I haven’t seen you since Afghanistan!”
“Beijing,” Jared corrected. It was a simple in-and-out job, way back when they were Hench and chasing promotion: a party official, prostitutes, opium and photographic evidence. In those days they still had the prerequisite number of limbs and organs between them.
“A lot of water since then,”
Jared turned the crocodile steaks, careful not to overcook the rare meat.
A queue had begun to form behind Trey: Nikita from Hacking, an intern from Surveillance and Selina from Genetics. Jared let Selina jump the queue and placed a chunk of Anaconda onto a paper plate for her.
“Thanks!” she said. “I’m pooped.”
Selina had been busy all week removing the creatures from the mountain’s grotto so it could be turned into a family pool. Children queued up to slide through the trap door in Garth’s office, squealing as they plunged into the waters below, happily splashing in what usually housed the likes of tiger sharks, barracuda and Portuguese men-of-war. It was a hugely popular attraction, well worth the effort of temporarily housing the displaced creatures in a makeshift aquarium.
“My kid loved looking at your new piranha tank,” congratulated Trey. “He’s been going on about nothing else all afternoon.”
“How is little Mikey?” Selina asked.
Trey pointed the skewered Kodiak towards a makeshift archery range. A six-year-old boy was taking aim with a crossbow while a live target nervously squirmed yards away. The boy fired. There was an abrupt scream before a crowd of spectators broke into applause.
“Garth knows how to throw a party,” munched Trey. “Word had it that his speech this year is a real killer.”
Garth’s showstopper was an open secret: a large ballistic missile had been delivered earlier in the week and had been promptly whisked off to the company silo. The missile was so large that its nose cone peeked out of the mountainside. The sun was setting behind it and beginning to cast a shadow across the assembly. Colourful garlands had been rigged around the warhead, obscuring the Korean lettering on the side of the rocket.
“Garth’s the best,” said Trey again.
They all nodded.
As if on cue, a fanfare blew to announce their leader’s arrival. He appeared flanked by a guard of Hench and followed by a ragged band of prisoners, former inmates of the interrogation programme, each shackled closely together.
The company applauded wildly as Garth ascended onto the podium. He wore an immaculate tuxedo and his fingers were bejewelled with solid gold rings bearing the Evil Mountain corporate logo of a flaming griffin crossed with a trident. Garth’s ensemble was completed by a baby monitor lizard that had become a recent fixture on his left shoulder.
His employees fell silent. The sound of crackling fat carried through the crowd and mingled with the dull sobbing from the hopeless prisoners.
“Friends!” said Garth; his voice was rich, benevolent, cosmopolitan. “I want to thank you all for taking the trouble to get here today. I just flew in from Syria myself… boy are my arms tired!”
The crowd laughed and, in lieu of a snare drum to underline the pun, Garth shot one of the prisoners in the head. The crowd applauded; it was very droll.
The unknown man fell to the ground, blood spurted from his shattered skull where it mingled with the hot sand and discarded barbecue bones.
“That reminds me,” whispered Trey as he grabbed more food from Jared’s grill. “You got any ketchup?”
Jared shook his head and returned to flipping the steaks.
Ketchup on Philippine Crocodile? he thought. What a fucking imbecile.
Astronaut Hiroshi Nagada was snacking in the cupola module of the International Space Station. Tiny globules of paste floated around him; he idly chased the suspended goo, imagining himself as a zero gravity Pac-Man savouring the processed morsels one by one.
The astronauts regularly used the module as a place in which to relax and gaze through the windows out onto the Earth below. Hiroshi had lost count of the times he had been transfixed by the sight of life on the blue planet spinning silently below. It was the sunrises that he liked the most; the platform orbited the Earth at a rapid pace and they would see a new one sixteen times a day. He observed the planet like a god; below him was the ragged geology of the continents, the electric cities at night and the spiralling weather systems revealing marvellous patterns of life in all its glory.
The beauty so muted his senses that Hiroshi had become deaf to the klaxons that were suddenly echoing throughout the platform. Nor did he notice the large warhead which was speeding directly towards the platform from a remote desert location.
Back at the mountain, Garth’s speech concluded with a spectacular light display as fragments of space technology skimmed the Earth’s atmosphere, glittering into unique patterns of light as they burnt on re-entry.
The audience gave a standing ovation.
Everyone agreed that they couldn’t wait to see what Garth had in store for them at the Christmas party.
Darren Lee lives in London and has had stories published in Transportation, Fugue and the Lover’s Lies and Fifty Stories For Pakistan anthologies. Several of his stories have appeared in the pages of Open Pen magazine and have also been performed at Liars’ League. In 2011 he won copies of the Booker long list in a Twitter fiction competition, thus enabling him to legitimately claim that he has won a Booker prize for his writing.
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