I blinked at the flash of light as the roar of white noise receded. I was standing in a lobby.
A man said my name and handed me a badge and some papers. “Your talk is at four tomorrow”.
The room swam and shimmied.
Another man steadied me. “Feeling a bit woozy? That should pass soon.”
I blinked and nodded, but he looked concerned. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
I nodded and he lead me to a folding chair.
“Do you have any shellfish allergies?”
“No, but I’m vegan.”
“Oh, well, we’ll get you a glass of water then. Do you have any friends here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe you’d like to check into your hotel room? Are you staying at the Hilbert?” Without waiting he looked at my welcome pack. “Yes, you’re in room 1024. Why don’t you drop off your bags there now?”
An hour later, I stood much more steadily in the main convention hall. I was still blank on most details about arriving or even deciding to come, but I knew I was at CVQ Con. A legendary mix of academics, arts, industry, and cosplayers. Fans compared it to Burning Man and Comic Con mashed up with Coachella. I’d never been to any of those, but now I was in exhibit hall B, next to the Prion Disease booth! I surveyed the crowd excitedly. A queue snaked up to the prion booth, who were giving away free lobster slushies.
I frowned and decided to go to the most famous CVQ Con standby, the “bottomless” ball pit. The signs for the pit meandered around the hall like traversing an Ikea. I looked for a shortcut, but my printed map and the posted maps seemed to be mirror images of each other. I walked, following the signs, until I was again in front of the prion booth. Damn it. But, wait, didn’t the booth have a sign with black letters on a white background? This one had white letters on a black background. How many prion booths does one con need? I kept following the ball pit signs.
As I walked I looked at my phone. Social media revealed that I did have friends there, but mostly not people I knew in real life. “I’m on the grass, come find me,” Agatha posted. But where was the grass? Not only had I not seen any outdoor space since arriving, I hadn’t even seen anything that resembled an exterior wall. The centre seemed improbably huge.
I turned left and found myself in the food hall and suddenly realised I was starving. The first vendor sold lobster bisque. The second sold fried lobster sticks. The third, lobster cakes. Lobster burgers. Lobster dogs. A large banner proclaimed that the food was “Proudly Sponsored by International Lobster.” My head started to hurt.
I went to the nearest stall. “Can I just get a cup of black coffee?” I asked.
“Sure!” The barista started up the grinder.
“No lobster!” I joked.
The grinding stopped. “Oh, sorry.” she said. “We can’t do lobster-free coffee.”
“What?? Do you have tea?”
She looked apologetic, “Yes, but -”
“What in the hell?”
“International Lobster sponsored all the food this year. All of it. Even the vending machines.”
“There’s a food truck outside. Over the road by the grass.”
“Where is that?”
Another customer pushed in front of me. “If you’re not helping him, can I have a grande lobstercinno?”
“Coming right up!” said the barista cheerfully. The grinder started again, at least 5 times louder than before. A queue had formed behind me. Giving up, I turned to walk away and nearly crashed into somebody several centimetres shorter than I.
“Excuse me, are you Charles?” he said.
“Yes . . .”
“I recognise you from your profile picture on the fediverse! It’s nice to meet you in real life.”
“Oh, yeah, amazing! Sorry, who did you say you were?”
“Oh, uh, great.”
“Isn’t this incredible!!” he enthused.
“Yeah, it’s super cool. I’m kind of a bit hungry, though.”
“The lobster dogs are fantastic!”
“Yeah. I’m vegan. I don’t even know where to get a cup of tea.”
“Ohhhhh” he thought “I actually came for the lobster tea. It’s really good. If you like lobster, I mean.”
“Say, have you been to the bottomless ball pit? I heard it was closed because somebody peed in it. But then somebody else said it was filling up with lobster.”
“Not food!” he clarified. “Apparently the basement of the centre is International Lobster’s main processing facility. All the pipes running everywhere are pneumatic lobster tubes.”
I looked at a nearby pillar which did have some large pipes attached to it.
“If you put your ear to them, you can hear the lobsters whizzing by.” He placed his ear on the pipe and, unsure what to think, I also had a listen. After a moment, there came a rattling zing, as if something had quickly swept by. “Did you hear that?” He exclaimed. “It’s their pressurised lobster system! It’s revolutionised the shellfish industry!”
“Wow.” I laughed nervously.
“Anyway, I heard that one of the pipes under the ball pit ruptured and it’s been filling up with lobsters.”
“That sounds bad.”
“If it keeps up, they’ll have to evacuate the centre!”
As he spoke, a klaxon rang out overhead. “Would guests please proceed to the nearest exit” said a posh, pre-recorded voice.
“What did I tell you!” BeatCruelEatcha said proudly. “Are you staying at the Hilbert? The monorail station to the hotel is just to the left there.”
I woke up the next morning with a hangover that could inspire epic poetry. I don’t normally drink, but there had been mead. Little food. Arguments about Marxism. Furries? I found alka seltzer laid out on my bedside label next to a scrawled note I couldn’t read.
Half an hour later, I saw it said “4pm paper”. Oh god, the paper. What was it about? Had I even written it? I found half a slide presentation on my computer and the details slowly came back to me. I made more slides.
Microsoft teams chimed to life. “Good luck on your paper!” said a message from my boss. The fan on my computer started racing. Oh no! I switched back to my presentation software to hit control-S but the windowing system froze on the Teams alert. The fan reached supersonic speeds. The screen went black, the presentation changes lost forever.
Ninety minutes later, presentation sorted, but feeling very woozy, I bought a faux lobster roll from the takeaway just outside the train station. It seemed to squirm in my hands and wriggled free, falling to the ground and rolling into a storm grate as I heard my train arrive. They only came every half an hour. I ran for the platform, but it pulled away as I cleared the ticket gates.
I went to the station guard. “Can I get out to get a snack while I wait for the next train.”
“You’d have to buy another ticket.”
“Sorry, company policy.”
I sat and my head spun. I couldn’t do a day of no food with a head like this. I looked up at the sky in despair and it seemed purplish. The banner over the platform said “Welcome to CVQCon2023.”
BeatCruelEatcha, sat down next to me. He’d grown a full beard since I’d seen him the previous night. “You too, eh?”
“What?” I noticed a lobster on the platform. It seemed to glance at a wrist watch. Another lobster came to stand next to it. It was holding a tiny newspaper.
“The fast train that just left – it’s temporal flux adjuster is out of alignment. It’s cast us all into 2023.” He gestured at the large, white blank spot floating in front of me. “It’s why those voids are everywhere. 2023 isn’t built yet.” A train honked in the distance. “That’s our train,” he said standing up. The honking got louder and louder.
I open my eyes to the insistent beeping of my alarm. I don’t normally drink, but I had a hangover that could inspire epic poetry. On my bedside table was some alka seltzer and a note I couldn’t read.
Half an hour later, I was making slides for a presentation, pressing save after every change. Just as I finished, my boss sent a Teams message wishing me luck. The computer crashed and I left my room. I was half way to the train station when I realised I hadn’t brought my ID badge and went back for it.
I bought a faux lobster roll outside the station and dropped it. I heard the train coming, but missed it. I sat down with an overwhelming sense of deja vu.
A woman sat down next to me. “Are you Charles?” She asked. “Actually, I know you’re Charles. I met you last night, but I have a feeling you might not remember.”
I frowned. “I’ve had a totally mundane but entirely peculiar morning.”
“I can imagine. Anyway, last night, you asked me to remind you that there’s vegan food next to the bottomless ball pit, which is next to the room where your paper is.”
“Isn’t the ball pit full of lobsters?”
“What? It’s full of bottoms. Every year, people think this is the funniest joke, too many people pile in and it breaks. Again.”
“Also, your paper time has changed. You should head straight to the room when you arrive.”
“Thank you! You’re very helpful!”
“I the chair of your paper session. I’ve also had an odd morning. I had the most incredible dream about our session topic.”
“I’ve thrown away all my notes and am going to relay my dream instead!”
The room with the paper session was mostly empty and seemed to throb with hangover. I kept thinking I saw lobsters from the corners of my eyes.
With great enthusiasm, the chair launched into the presentation from her dream. Like everything else that day it seemed familiar. Too familiar. It was the first half of my paper!
I blinked in disbelief, with no idea what to do. Everyone was looking at me. Not because they knew what had happened but because it was now my turn to talk. I panicked. “Um, following on from that . . .” I skipped to my new slides and started from the middle.
“Poppycock!” someone shouted.
I squinted at the audience. There were only about three people there. “Excuse me?”
“This is completely derivative and utterly mundane.”
I couldn’t tell who was speaking. From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw my dropped breakfast tumble past. The fire alarm went off.
“Oh, this is another dream” I said into the microphone.
“Would guests please proceed to the nearest exit” said a posh pre-recorded voice.
I waited to wake up.
“You need to evacuate” said the paper chair.
“I’m certain I must be dreaming right now.”
“That may be so, but you still need to evacuate.”
We walked single file into a corridor and down the stairs. A faux lobster roll bounced along side me.
“Sorry, I dropped my breakfast” said a man behind me. It was BeatCruelEatcha, clean shaven.
“Is two alarms in two days normal for this event?” I asked him.
“Oh no, not at all.”
“It’s normally much higher.”
“I think I’m going home.”
“Oh, but you’ll miss the dancing lobster!”
“I’m too hung over for this.”
“I’m not surprised.”
I thought for a moment. “Lobsters aren’t normally a dancing species, are they? I mean, don’t they usually just scuttle?”
We reached the pavement. I looked up at the convention centre and saw flames coming from the windows.
I arrived home the next morning. “You’re back early!” my spouse said, “How did you paper go?”
“I got heckled by a lobster roll and then the convention centre burned to the ground.”
“I thought you were vegan?”
“It was faux lobster.”
“Oh, that reminds me. A bunch of postcards arrived for you while you were gone. I’m not sure what they’re about.”
On the table there was a stack of at least 20 vintage postcards, mostly bearing the names of towns in Maine. They all had pictures of lobsters. “Poppycock!” they said.
“What the fuck?”
“There’s one more.”
This one had a picture of Dali’s lobster phone. “I found your paper to be very salient and was disappointed when you were interrupted.” Like the others, it was unsigned.
“When did these arrive?”
“What? All of them?”
“Oh no. The Dali one arrived earlier.”
“Are you sure?”
She shrugged and went to to answer a knock at the door. “Did you order this?” I heard her call to me.
A delivery driver was at the door with five cases of lobster. I looked at the labels. “These are for next door.”
“As I was just saying, your neighbour asked if you could take them if they’re not in.” said the driver.
“Yeah, fine” I said. The boxes were vented on the sides and I peered into them. The lobsters were alive. One of them was wearing a wrist watch. “What the hell?”
“Keep them in a cool place, out of direct sunlight.”
“It’s wearing a wristwatch!”
The driver gave me a look. “They have rubber bands to keep them from pinching you, but you should still avoid sticking your fingers in the boxes.”
“You don’t seem yourself” said my spouse when we were back at the table.
“I feel like I’m seeing lobster everywhere.”
“It’s just a coincidence.”
“No, I mean out of the corners of my eyes. In the train stations, under our bed, lurking in the dark.”
The lobsters in their boxes all started to move.
“They’re dancing.” I said.