One Hour Fiction: The Panelist

The pounding in my head is in sync with the ticking of the escalator steps as they rise from the netherworld of the convention center's floor. I pull a smile from memory and ignore the sweat in my eyebrows. So many happy attendees, clipping into their badges and ribbons to start the day, unaware of my suffering.

I should tune in.

"Show me the convention," I say, and the names of the people around me appear above their heads. As my eyes rest on a disturbingly green sari of Shawani King two steps ahead of me on the escalator, their public profile shows up. The animation in their history timeline is a little shaky and my stomach clenches and then gurgles. What did I do last night? All I get when I try to put it together is a few hours at the hotel bar after the keynote drinking Iranian homebrew and chatting up another panelist (maybe their name was Simi?) and then something with a scooter. My pic stream is all blurry faces and someone's butt shaking it on the dance floor.

The colors of the convention info are too, too bright so I tut a bit into the configuration and give them a nice grey theme. While I'm in there, I tune to my chems and start an analgesic for my headache and bump down my stomach acid production. My agent keeps asking me to read a text about paying the price for indulgences, but this is too much.

When I reach the convention floor and escape the eddy of chitchat around registration, I find the booth with the most expensive looking coffee stand and get in line while a barista takes their sweet time pulling shots and creating on-brand foam art. My culture layer notices that I'm confused by their hair coloring, so above their head appears a short snippet about a local stylist who is experimenting with reflective dyes. I ignore the link for more information and shuffle forward in line.

Caffeinated and with my headache receding, I start a slow walk around the floor, saying hello to the usual con lizards and eyeing the fresh faces. The conference has had enough time to build a heat map of conversations, so I watch it float above our heads and tut my keywords and filters until I find a hot spot over by the main hall. Of course it's centered on Sylvor, my coworker and travel partner, because who else would be energetically talking up our new series in the middle of a debate about vintage vids.

Ve catches my eye as I approach and tuts a pic my way. It's me, passed out in a cab with a stranger's finger in my nose. I don't interrupt vis diatribe about pre- and post-Stephen Universe color themes, but ve doesn't need any help to read my irritated expression. I receive urgent messages from my backside so I look around until signage for the nearest restroom appears. I barely make it to one of the squatting stalls.

The cool of the metal stall rail feels nice against my cheek. I cry a little, completing the fluidic performance of the morning. I'll never drink again. Please let me survive this and I'm done, I promise every god and goddess I can think of. The floor of the stall isn't as dirty as some others I've known, so I take a little rest.

There, that's better. I pull myself up and straighten my clothes. At the sink mirror I don't make eye contact until after I wash and dry my face. Sympathetic looks from other attendees aside; so far this is one of my better mornings.

I can do a panel in my sleep. It's equal parts blowhard baiting and story spinning, with a dash of fan pandering. The moderator on this one keeps throwing softballs to the new kid, but ve doesn't know what to do with them so I pinch hit and save us from stream death. One of my comments about pantsing my third hit actually trends a bit on the locals.

I make it off stage before the shakes take hold. Sylvor is waiting with compliments and a doctored green drink. I wonder, not for the first time, whether my agent hired vim to step up when I need help.

Our cluster of aging writers looks ready to go, so we migrate to the VIP lounge. As we make our way through a case of passable wine the shakes subside and I begin to feel human. Fragments of conversation go into my notes and I even enjoy the volley of links as each of us shares precious discoveries since our last conference.

Eventually, we run out of steam and I descend the escalator, back to ground. I tune out the conference and wait for night to fall.

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