Edition 30: Conflict Calories by Fredrick Obermeyer
When the world can be fed on the hurts, the small slights and arguments that pepper our lives, surely most people could be well fed? Not so for Greg, who looks out into the universes to see how it could be done differently. Sometimes though, people just need to get their teeth into something. – SY
Meek as a newborn lamb, Greg Rindes bowed his head and plodded inside the strifeteria. The yellow-painted brick building was several thousand feet long and wide and held nearly all the staff of Milligan’s Alternate Reality Analysis Center.
Today the strifeteria was holding its monthly puncheon full of rich, junk food physical conflict. Several of Greg’s co-workers were standing in the dining rings, beating each other with their fists and feet. The air was thick with the stink of blood and sweat.
Each time one of the combat diners struck a blow, the air between them filled with high-calorie conflict threads that both chubby combatants absorbed through the conflict pores around their bodies. Like the fighters, several staff members outside the dining rings had grown fat from consuming too many physical conflict calories. Nevertheless, they still cheered when the diner fighters resumed beating each other senseless.
For those who were more conscious of their figures, a nearby disagreement buffet with several mental conflict meals had been set up as well. Baiters stood in front of tables and began arguments and other forms of mental conflict with the diners. Though the conflict threads between and baiter and diner were smaller, they did not contain as much fat and other empty calories as the physical conflict threads.
Weary beyond words, Greg sighed and looked down at his skeletal frame. At his last weigh-in, he was only ninety-six pounds.
“You need to consume more conflict, Mr. Rindes, or else you’ll die,” the doctor had warned him.
Still the very idea of consuming either physical or mental conflict made him feel sick. He didn’t want to fight or argue or even raise his voice. He just wanted to blend in like a shadow in a dark room and do his job in peace.
Don’t make any waves or take any more conflict than you need, son, his father had always said. Just keep your head down and do your job and you’ll be fine.
Such a strategy had led to his father’s early death from conflict starvation at fifty. Still, Greg took his father’s advice to heart, even though he hated his job as an alternate reality observation tech. Resentment became an ember smoldering inside him, fueling a latent, lingering rage. Still, he endured this resentment quietly, as he had endured so many other disappointments in his life.
Year after fruitless year, Greg watched multiple crosscam screens in his pale yellow office, searching for new technology concepts and ideas from alternate realities to pilfer and reverse engineer.
On more than one occasion, he had seen alternate realities where humans gained nutrition from eating food rather than from absorbing conflict. At first the idea had disgusted Greg, but over time he grew to like it.
Alas, no reality crossing technology currently existed, nor could he become like those other humans. So Greg meekly did his work and went to punch today as he had so many other days.
Greg only wanted to have a brief argument and a few conflict calories, so he walked towards the disagreement buffet.
But on his way there, Linda Frelbic intercepted him and said, “Hi, Greggy!” in a loud, nasally voice.
“Hi, Linda,” Greg said in a voice so unenthusiastic that it was barely audible.
Greg frowned as Linda invaded his personal space. She was a tall, black-haired woman with big breasts and an even bigger belly and lovehandles. Her plum-colored business casual shirt and shorts were as loud as her voice.
“You want to join me in the puncheon?” Linda said. “I’m not going on my arbitration diet until next week.”
“Um, no thanks, I just—” Greg said.
“Oh, come on, silly. It’ll be funny.”
She slapped Greg in the shoulder and nearly knocked him into a table. Pain exploded into his already-weak shoulder.
Did she break a bone? Greg thought. Anger surged in him for an instant but then faded in the meekness.
“Oh, you poor dear, I’m so sorry,” Linda said. “Sometimes I don’t know my own strength.”
She grabbed Greg by the arm and slammed him up against her fat, pillow-like breasts. Her body reeked of overly strong lilac perfume. Greg gasped, struggling to breathe. After a few seconds of sheer torture, she finally let him go. Greg coughed and wheezed a few times.
Linda smiled and said, “You really need to consume more, Greggy. You’re all skin and bones.”
Greg wanted to tell her where she could take her conflict, but he bowed his head and said, “I know.”
Linda had been pursuing him every day since the company hired her three weeks earlier. He had tried to subtly hint that he wasn’t in the mood to date her or even be around her, but like an especially noxious peace fart she just kept drifting back into his airspace.
“Let’s go have some punch,” Linda said.
“No, that’s all right. I just—”
“Come on, it’ll be fun. And you can put some flesh back onto your body.”
Before Greg could protest any further, she dragged him over to one of the dining rings. He grunted and tried to pull away, but several other co-workers shoved him along and cheered.
Greg whined and said, “I don’t know about this.”
He tried to climb away, but Linda pulled him into the sweat and blood-filled ring and said, “You need to build energy.”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on. I’ll get you an extra bonus and two days off if you agree. Plus, I’ll even pay for the locker fees.”
He tried to climb out of the ring, but the others pushed him back in.
“Come on, Greggy,” Linda said, her voice low and threatening. “If you don’t fight me, I’ll tell Hardanero about that money you took. But if you fight me, I’ll spot you for it.”
Greg frowned. Three days earlier his paycheck had bounced due to a clerical error, and he ended up broke. While waiting for payroll to settle the matter, Greg had borrowed some petty cash out of the drawer to buy new shoes to replace his ragged old ones and not paid it back yet. Linda had caught him taking the money but promised to remain quiet on the matter.
Still, if his boss, William Hardanero, found out about the theft, Greg would get fired and lose his benefits and his home.
Defeated, Greg sighed.
Some nearby baiters stripped off the top of his tan business casual shirt. Many in the crowd frowned and shook their head at his skeletal frame. He let the baiters put self-lacing, adjustable boxing gloves on him and a mouth guard inside his mouth.
Linda stripped to her bra, revealing her fat belly and lovehandles, proudly displaying her ample love for high-caloric combat. A meal bell rang and Linda came right at him, her ripples of fat jiggling as if in anticipation.
Unable to fight well, Greg weakly put his hands up. Linda came up and socked him in the gut. Pain burst through his body like lightning. He gagged and stumbled back against the ropes. Some of the other diners booed and threw junk at him.
Greg moaned and lay against the ropes, but Linda came at him again smiling. Weak conflict threads emerged in the air between them like bluish cotton candy. Linda absorbed some of them into her pores and frowned.
“Come on, Greggy! Put a little more fight into it. I’m hungry today.”
Greg groaned, staggered off the ropes and threw a pitifully weak punch at her. The blow was so pathetic that it didn’t even rattle Linda. A few thin strands of red conflict waves appeared in the air and dissipated so fast that they couldn’t be consumed.
The nearby diners booed louder and a paper menu bounced off Greg’s head.
Linda sighed and decked him right in the face. Greg crashed back into the rope and the bloody mouth guard went flying out of his mouth. He tasted blood in his mouth and spat out three broken teeth.
Boos and cheers came from the other diners. Greg collapsed on the mat, the pain so terrible he wanted to scream. He tried to get up but fell back down again.
Hands grabbed him and dragged him out of the dining ring and down the nearby hall to the regenerative shower room. Inside the dank white tiled room, he moaned as they stripped him and stuck him under one of the shower heads. A black screen on the white-tile shower wall flashed with green text, indicating that Linda Frelbic had transferred a generous amount of money for him to use the locker room facilities.
Cool silver healwater spilled over him and quickly made the bruises disappear while regenerating the missing teeth. Soon the taste of blood disappeared as well, though his sense of personal shame still lingered.
Once the shower finished healing him, the baiters dropped him on the wooden bench and left laughing.
“That’s the lamest conflict diner I’ve ever seen,” one baiter said.
“You said it,” the other baiter said.
He sat up, his shoulders slumped.
I wish I could live in one of those other realities where they eat food, Greg thought.
After a moment, Greg walked over to the air drier tube and re-clothing area. Another screen indicated that Linda had paid for these amenities as well. He dried off, then ordered the nearby company clothes copier to make a new temporary business suit and shoes and trudged his way back to the dining area.
Linda was fighting another female employee. They were beating the crap out of each other and gold tendrils full of rich, fatty conflict appeared in the air as gobs of blood splattered the canvas. The two women consumed the rich tendrils and continued fighting, the other diners cheering and feeding on stray conflict threads that occasionally drifted out of the ring.
Greg tried to consume one of them, but the rich and sweet taste of physical conflict made him gag and his pores closed up. In the ring, Linda delivered a devastating uppercut to her opponent’s chin and she went down to the canvas. The crowd roared their approval. Linda smiled and jiggled her belly fat, making the crowd cheer all the louder.
Nauseated, Greg staggered over to the disagreement buffet and looked over the meal options for a minute. He bypassed “Intellectual Mash,” “Acerbic Salad,” and “Light Roasting” and eventually settled on “Barbed Insult Stew.”
Above the “Barbed Insult Stew” table sign, a heavily bald and old baiter glared at him.
“What do you want?” the baiter said.
“You are bald and ugly and your head looks like a balloon,” Greg said, stimulating mental conflict. But it was a weak insult, the conflict barely sparking into the air.
“Yeah, and you look like a three-day-old corpse. Maybe they should send you to medical school so the students there can dissect you.”
As they argued, thin blue and red conflict strands appeared. Greg tried to take them in, but the acidic, gin-like taste of them made him feel sick. He coughed.
“Are you sure you had enough?” the baiter said. “I wouldn’t want you to have too much and grow a few pounds, you walking anatomy display.”
The conflict fizzed.
“I…” He frowned, trying to find a more stimulating insult for nutritional purposes. But his mind couldn’t.
Linda came over, her face bright with bruises and dripping blood.
“Greggy, are you okay?” Linda said.
“I’m fine. No problem here.”
The conflict fizzled out, lost by his agreement.
“You don’t look fine, pal,” the baiter said. “In fact, I’ve seen harmony turds that look better than you.”
The conflict sparked a bit.
Greg sighed and bowed his head.
“You’re right. I’m sorry.”
The conflict flickered and winked out.
The baiter frowned and said, “Come on, pal. Help me out here. I can’t cook up a good argument all by myself.”
“Come on now, Greggy. You need some more conflict.” She glared at the baiter. “What’ve you been doing?”
“I’m trying to get some conflict into your friend here.”
“Well try harder!”
“Why don’t you try harder, you bloated whale?”
“And why don’t you stick your head up a donkey’s ass and keep it there till he farts?”
Their sudden conflict caused the conflict strands to grow like warming embers, growing gold.
“Come on, Greggy. Have some conflict.”
Greg tried to suck on it, but the taste of conflict was repulsive. His pores closed up again, and he stumbled away, feeling faint and dizzy.
“I just need to take, take a nap,” Greg said. “I’ll be just fine. I…”
He stumbled away from the disagreement buffet table, took a few steps and crashed to the floor.
“Greggy, are you all right?! Greggy!”
Linda reached down with her hand and shook him so hard that he thought his head would snap off. Several co-workers crowded around the pair.
“Stay back,” Linda said. “Give him some room.”
Linda slapped him twice. The blows stung and Greg moaned.
“Stop, please stop,” Greg said.
“No, Greggy, you’re going to stay awake if I have to beat you back to life.”
She slapped him again, until tears were spilling down his cheeks. By now his cheek was molten steel, burning bright orange with pain.
“Stop hitting me!” Greg said.
“Then get up.”
She slapped him again and again. The continual blows suddenly snapped something inside Greg. The weeks of trying to avoid her, the pummeling in the dining ring, the insults from the baiters in the locker room and finally her barging into his disagreement meal, all these separate acts fueled a rage that had long lay dormant and festering inside him, creating the perfect storm of rage and resentment.
“I said stop hitting me!” Greg said.
He grabbed her hand out of the air. Though he was weak, a sudden swell of strength filled him. He pulled her down and slapped her with his bony hand as hard as he could. Though it wasn’t a strong blow, the apparent shock of it knocked her down. She cried out and the air filled with bright red and blue conflict threads.
She collapsed next to him and shivered. Greg pulled the conflict into his pores.
Unlike the other conflict threads, these tasted sweet, lacking the reluctant bitterness of before. Greg sucked them up and sighed with relish.
“Greggy, you’re consuming conflict,” Linda said.
“No thanks to you, you bloated oaf!”
“I hate you! Get out of my face and don’t ever talk to me again!”
The crowd grew quiet as the air exploded with conflict. Greg devoured more threads, his body feeling fueled for the first time ever.
Linda’s face tightened with rage. She bolted up from the floor and said, “How can you be so mean to me?”
“Because I hate you and I don’t want you near me. You’re a cold, manipulative bitch!”
The air ignited with conflict.
Linda grunted and swung a punch at him. But the new conflict threads had filled him with energy. He ducked her punch, and then punched her in the gut and the face. She collapsed and moaned. The air filled with rich golden conflict threads and Greg savored them, the taste of rage.
Their co-workers looked at Greg as if he were a stranger.
Looking hurt and angry, Linda moaned again and rubbed her gut.
“I’m telling Hardanero,” Linda said.
“Go ahead,” Greg said. “I’m done here anyway. I quit. And fuck all of you! But fuck you most of all, Linda!”
Two employees tried to grab Greg and pull him back, but he shoved them back into the disagreement buffet tables.
The air exploded with more golden, red and blue conflict threads. Greg sucked them up. After so many years of meek subservience and pent up frustration, the sudden outburst of rage felt so good, so cathartic.
Greg smiled as he absorbed a few more conflict threads and strode out of the strifeteria, feeling a bit of new weight already beginning to plump up his belly ever so slightly.
For the first time since Greg could remember, he felt full.
Fredrick Obermeyer enjoys writing science-fiction, fantasy, horror and crime stories. He has had work published in NFG, Electric Spec, Newmyths, Perihelion SF, Acidic Fiction, the Destination: Future anthology, and other markets.