The steady glow of neon signs light the way through the masses, as neon purples, yellows, and reds illuminate faces searching for their next destination. The Commerce Levels are a steady multi-color patchwork of hive-like human behavior at all hours; there is no day or night here. With New City above, and Old City below, this middle tier of architecture shields those participating in the dance of commerce from most weather, and time.
A weird mashup of new and old, decaying storefronts and brand new facades are interlaced seamlessly. As Ma’rud paces through the diverse landscape of culture and business, they take note of all the new businesses that have popped up in this sector lately. Some have kept the older aesthetic alive, while others have rebuilt their exteriors to be more modern. It appears there is always demand for both the old and the new.
A gaggle of tourists suddenly appear in the crowd, wearing so much of the local Middle Eastern style that they look like they bought out an entire souvenir shop. Caricatures of an ancient culture, they are oblivious to the amused looks of native passers-by. Nobody is bitter. Inhabitants of the Legacy Arch region are thankful for a steady stream of income from across the Sprawl. This, the epicenter of restoration after Skyfall, is the bastion of the new world economy built on blockchains.
Riddled with memory loss, denizens move through the densely bustling C-Levels with varying regard for old or new. Ma’rud ponders on the obsession with nostalgia The Sprawl exhibits on a daily basis. Some folks wants to move up to New City where everything is crisp and modern, while others prefer the gritty, authentic culture of Old City. Everybody passes through the C-Levels sectors though. After all, there are things to buy and sell at all times.
Nearing their gift shop, Ma’rud sees a motorbike propped up in an adjacent alley. They immediately identify it as Liz’s motorbike, its matte black exterior adorned with sleek purple highlights. They spot her leaning against her ancient glass shop window, wisps of smoke trailing out of a spliff between her fingers, her black leather reflecting violet neon from the sign hovering above her. It reads: TIMELESS GIFTS.
Looking up, Liz waves at Ma’rud and straightens up a little.
Ma’rud receives a big hug, and returns the squish as much as they can. They’ve never been very big on physical contact, but Liz is an exception to many, many things in their life.
“Hi Liz. You look like you’re in a good mood.”
Liz smiles and nods, as Ma’rud passes her ledger over the shop’s lock. With a beep and a click, the paneled old world door slides open to let them into their place of business. They both walk in, and strips of well concealed LEDs steadily illuminate the interior in response to their proximity. Ma’rud gestures at Liz to hang out, and begins digging through some boxes.
Liz picks up a toy that’s sitting on the main shop counter and inspects it closely. She gasps at the pill-headed figurine as she realizes the head resembles a Stacy Pill. Leaning on a baseball bat, with some cool sneaks, baseball cap, and a backpack, it looks like it may be up to some mischief.
“Where did you get this?!” she blurts out.
Smiling, Ma’rud says gently, “The Founder dropped off some goodies, and that was among them. It’s not for sale right now.”
“What does he want you to do with it?”
Standing up with a box in their hands, they come over to the counter to join Liz. They open the box so she can look inside at a dozen more little pillheads. Grinning, “You’ll see soon enough.”
Liz scoffs, “Like he wouldn’t tell me anyway. He’s been showing up with some new stuff more and more lately, huh?”
Ma’rud waves at the other end of the counter, and starts aranging the figurines neatly on a shelf.
“I got some new graphic novels and some animated picture frames if you wanna check them out as well!”
Smirking at the topic change, Liz walks over and takes a look at a comic titled ‘Pillheads #1,’ and a nifty little frame portraying a group of pillheads just like the figurines. She raises an eyebrow and looks up at Ma’rud.
“What is with these pillheads?!”
They look back at her and say simply, “take the frame, it’s a gift! The Founder is gifting them to all of us who have supported his operation so far. I have one for Ringo as well!”
Liz grins a little as she slides the frame into a hidden pocket in her jacket.
“I do love free shit. Speaking of which, I got something for you!”
Seemingly out of nowhere, she produces a neatly wrapped package and places it in front of Ma’rud. They knowingly pick it up and ask excitedly, “Which one is this?”
“The Cheese Pill!”
Dubiously, “The what?”
Liz laughs and encourages them to open the packaging.
“Cheese! Thank me later, this one is delicious! I hope you’re ready for a really absurd ride.”
Opening the packaging, Ma’rud finds a pill made of cheese staring back at them, positioned perfectly above a wooden pedestal, just like the ancient Costa Rican bamboo cutting boards they sell in their shop.
“What in the fuck-”
Swiftly, “Trust me, this one is super super fun. Just keep an open mind for a very different sensory experience.”
Ma’rud eyes the Swiss cheese looking pill and gives Liz a doubtful look, and without giving her a chance to say anything else, throws the pill in their mouth. As Liz’s eyes widen, they gulp down the pill that happens to taste just like a well aged gruyère
The transition is immediate.
The neon frequencies of light wash over the masses with purples, yellows, and reds, as they flow ceaselessly through the Commerce Levels. A non-stop hive-like dance of searching and acquiring, the locomotion of human behavior is 24/7 here. Time is an ethereal concept between New City above, and Old City below; nothing can slow down the hunger for consumption here.
Entwined strangely, brand new storefronts have weaved their way in with aging architecture that predates them by decades, if not millenia. As Ma’rud traverses this landscape defined by culture and business, they note how the aged buildings stand out with their own narratives, with all of the newer shops standing in contrast. This sector has favored both new and old, not discriminating between the varieties of timeless and fresh aesthetic flavors in the area.
As a throng of tourists suddenly appear before them, Ma’rud stops mid-step as they realize the out-of-towners are melting digitally into strange forms resembling a chunky bruschetta. Recoiling in surprise, they reach out to steady themselves, and find the wall they are leaning on has turned into firm Gouda. Pulling their hand back they feel slightly off balance, and look down to find themselves standing on what appears to be a wax-like shell one would find around some Brie.
What was once artificial neon light is now a warm series of light rays, shooting across a frozen landscape of what appears to be a city built like a Mediterranean charcuterie board. Cucumber spires cast shadows on the scene, as little onion hovercars zip across the skylanes. Everything frozen before them, Ma’rud steps delicately forward, and finds that they are feeling rather crumbly. By the time they have attempted a second step, they find themselves in a state of sheer panic, as they turn into a pile of Feta cheese.
As they inch forward breaking into smaller and smaller fragments, they find themselves tumbling across what appears to be an elegantly crafted bamboo floor. As they lose control entirely of their physicality, terror grips them, and they turn into a blob of goat cheese smeared across a floor that is now a massive cutting board spanning into infinity. Unexpectedly, everything reaches a state of calmness, as Ma’rud contemplates their existence as a soft cheese looking for meaning in a culinary world.
They slowly come to realize there are a number of sliced meats and other cheeses around them, a whole community of delicious snacks pondering their reality together. They find themselves wondering if they can taste themselves, or if they even have taste buds at all. The answer, they find, is that they have a desire to experience flavor more than anything else. As they reach inward to find the sensory mechanisms to do so, they find themselves suddenly dissolving into a cloud of seasoning.
Now just a nexus of particles made of herbs and spices, they find the myriad totality of their selves landing on a cracker layered with manchego and sopressata. Having seasoned this stack of flavor, they realize with pure terror that they are now en route towards an open mouth, tongue extended, teeth above and below waiting to chomp down with desire. As the maw begins to close Ma’rud attempts to close their non-extant eyes, and discovers that instead of being crushed, they are being transformed into particles being absorbed through thousands of flavor receptors.
They begin to travel at impossible speed through a complex nervous system, having transformed into a grouping of chemical signals. The ride through dendrites and nodes has turned into a pure rush of energy, surging through a network of experiences speeding towards terminals ending in synapses. Eventually, Ma’rud’s collective totality arrives at its destinations. Reconstituted, an immense sense of euphoria washes over them. The ensuing clarity that follows the crossing of this sensory threshold brings with it epiphanies.
The hunger of society is apparent to Ma’rud. Not just for physical sustenance, but all forms of sensory stimulus. Humanity seeks to be satiated by feeding its desires, and attaining states of resultant joy and happiness. On a deeper level, they see that these states of glee are the endpoints of an escape from fear and pain. Humankind is hurting deep down inside, and the pain of suffering and loss is a receptacle that seeks to be replaced with serotonin and dopamine releases.
Ma’rud experiences a great sadness for a moment. And as they question these feelings, a great sense of hope swells around them, as ethereal synapses all around them crackle with dancing electricity. They realize all of their companions from the charcuterie board of life have come to join them here, in this place of lucidity and coherence. The realization that community is the answer to ending pain settles in, and they feel an elation even greater than before. Feeding off of each other as beings of light, the previously unconsumed variety of antipasti has reconnected on a higher chemical level.
Riding high on the sense of connectedness and hope, Ma’rud feels the current shift around them, and is swept away into a different state of being. Suddenly ionized, they find themselves looking into a string of memories. A series of flipbook-like images whip through their perception: communal scenes of people eating food. An Indian family sits around an ancient marble table inlaid with colorful stones, and feast on rices, lentil dishes, flatbreads, and more. A group of Japanese friends sit around a low table and raise their cups of Sake over a meal of fish and vegetables. They yell, “Kampai!” A group of Ghanaians feast on yam and tomato stews, their bodies draped in multi-colored and patterned textiles. Scenes of many cultures fly by, and finally settle on a couple sitting by an ocean, sharing a charcuterie board with some wine. Their demeanor is calm as they watch a setting sun.
The myriad of memories from past and present cultures has filled Ma’rud with a sense of hope, and satisfaction; a sense of fullness pervades their being. They blink at the brightness of the setting sun, and find themselves looking at a series of neurotransmitters releasing crackling explosions of dopamine. They blink at the brightness, and are now observing the world from the perspective of a morsel of existentially inclined cheese. Blink. The city is one big architectural charcuterie board. One last blink, and Liz is looking at them with curiosity in their eyes, and a mischievous smile. She reaches out and holds Ma’rud’s hand, and they are assured that they are back from the trip.
Liz asks, “How was it?”
Not letting go of Liz’s hand, they search for words. A tear rolls down their cheek.
“My mental palette is cleansed, and I’m really craving a solid meal!”
Liz wipes the tear away, and smiles knowingly at them.
“How about a sandwich? They’re always timeless.”
Ma’rud laughs, “I’ll buy, my treat!”