Drabblecast 293 – The Call of the Pancake Factory



Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Cover for Drabblecast episode 293, The Call of the Pancake Factory, by Bill HalliarThe bar is plenty kitschy: goofy statues made from coconuts everywhere and strings of shell beads hanging from the ceiling. I smile when I see a coconut sporting a pair of mouse ears made from scallop shells.

Tourists from all over the world are sitting around, ordering drinks non-stop because the sun is so hot at this time in Indonesia that you’ll wilt if you go outside and also because the drinks are so watered down. But that’s all right with me. I’m here to blend in, not to get drunk.

The Call of the Pancake Factory

by Ken Liu

The bar is plenty kitschy: goofy statues made from coconuts everywhere and strings of shell beads hanging from the ceiling. I smile when I see a coconut sporting a pair of mouse ears made from scallop shells.

Tourists from all over the world are sitting around, ordering drinks non-stop because the sun is so hot at this time in Indonesia that you’ll wilt if you go outside and also because the drinks are so watered down. But that’s all right with me. I’m here to blend in, not to get drunk.

“You look like an American!” A middle-aged man sits down on the stool next to mine. He’s ruddy-faced, balding, and so friendly that it makes the New Yorker in me recoil. “I’m Steve. It’s nice to see another American out here in the Banda Sea.”

“Likewise,” I say, and ignore his extended hand. I scan around the bar one more time to be sure I don’t see anyone who looks like they could be after me. I see a couple of Taiwanese guys by the door, but they look too happy to be working for Boss Gou.

“I didn’t catch your name?”

I try to keep the irritation out of my voice. “I didn’t tell you my name, and I’m not going to.”

He stares at me, the smile on his face frozen. But he’s drunk enough that, despite the chilly reception he’s getting from me, he decides to ask more questions rather than slink away. “You a gangster or something?”

He’s so wide of the mark that he’s almost hitting Boss Gou. Yeah, some of you may know Gou as the Taiwanese mogul who owns all these theme parks all over Asia, but I bet not many of you know he runs a few casinos out of Macao as well. He’s got hired goons running around chasing down people who-_allegedly_, I emphasize-stole from him.

Since Steve doesn’t seem to scare easily, I decide that I need to appear kooky enough to drive him away so he’ll leave me alone. “I’m a spy,” I whisper conspiratorially. Well, the technical term is Competitive Research Analyst, but close enough. Sometimes the truth is just strange enough that people will think you’re nuts.

“Oh, like with the CIA?”

“No, I’m with the-” I pause. I don’t want to give the name of my employer outright-they do have a reputation to uphold. I can’t use too obvious a code name either, like, say, “Mus musculus.” But then the fact that he mentioned the Pickle Factory inspires me. Countless parents have appeased their children on Sunday mornings by making pancakes in the iconic shape involving one big and two little circles. “-Pancake Factory,” I finish.

“I had no idea restaurants needed spies.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised.” In truth, few people know how competitive the Pancake Factory’s business is. Boss Gou, our direct competitor in Hong Kong, is cutthroat. A month after the “Journey to the West Adventure” opened in our theme park, his theme park opened the “Monkey King Rebels Against Heaven” attraction, which did everything ours did, only better. Somehow he had gotten our plans ahead of time and worked out how to beat it. It was a disaster for gate receipts. “It’s like any business. You have to stay informed about what your competitors are doing: new dishes, ambience, trade dress, service model, and so on.”

“So you’re here to research authentic Indonesian cuisine, is that it?”

This guy is like a leech that you can’t shake. I mumble at him, distracted because I need to stay alert and look around to see if Boss Gou has tracked me all the way from Taipei to Indonesia. You see, I managed to get ahold of his plans for the next water park, and he’s not happy. I can’t just get on a plane back to Florida because the plans are in the form of a gel-filled model. Devious, that Boss Gou. So we’re playing, _ahem_, cat-and-mouse around his backyard until I can get the model replicated in some TSA-approved material.

“Listen, if it’s authentic, traditional Pacific Island cooking culture you’re after, you might want to go check out this island twenty miles or so east from here. They’ve got a New Age commune-thing going on there with a guru and stone ovens and all sort of …”

I’m only listening with half of an ear. Now, it could be that I’m just paranoid, but I could have sworn I’ve seen the same Jeep passing by the bar twice in the last hour. And that yacht in the bay … why do I get the feeling that I’d seen it in Tamsui Harbor?

“… You should take the offer to tour their island. They ask you about your dreams and there are bonfires and roast pig and crazy dances in the middle of the night and ancient tribal liquor. You’ll get a kick out of it.”

“Where can I find this guide?” I ask. The Jeep just went by a third time, and I duck down, hoping whoever’s inside can’t see into the dim interior of the bar. A trip to some obscure island so I can hide with a New Age cult sounds like just the way to shake off Boss Gou. Besides, I can do some research for our Pacific-themed attractions.

#

I and five others are whisked to the island by speedboat. Our guide, Otto, is a man of indeterminate age whose bronzed and heavily tattooed skin makes a nice contrast with his white shirt and dress pants.

I try to make conversation as we skim over the waves glimmering in the afternoon sun. “How long have you been with the … um …”

“Cult?” he says, a smile on his face. “You can say what you think.”

“I was going to say community.”

“I prefer school of philosophy, myself. I joined about twenty years ago, and now some would say I’m the leader of my fellow philosophers. Before that, I was a wanderer like you, blinded by pursuit of the meaningless.”

If the guru himself has to be out recruiting, they aren’t doing so well in the revenue department. “What drew you to this school of philosophy?”

“An acceptance of the permanent state of ignorance of our species and the ultimate futility of seeking knowledge.”

“That”-I struggle to find a diplomatic way to phrase this-“does not sound very attractive. I like knowing things.”

“Do you?” He appraises me with some care. “You are a scientist then?”

“Not exactly, but I know a little bit about lots of things, and a lot about a few things.”

“Just the kind of men our arrogant modern world is so good at producing,” he says. “You and I are members of one species on one planet that is no different from billions of others in a galaxy that is itself but one of a trillion galaxies in the universe. What can we possibly know?”

This is standard touchy feely, airy fairy nonsense. Next I imagine he’ll spew some poetry about the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. But I play along. “We know much more than our ancestors, and the speed of discovery is exponentially increasing.”

“So optimistic,” he says. “Imagine, if you will, a colony of ants. They explore the land around them, the grass and the flowers, the dead beetles and dropped crumbs. They formulate theories to explain their environment: why there’s a region where the giant rose bushes are laid out in rows; how much of the landscape is dominated by one species of grass all about the same height; what causes water to sprinkle down from great geysers in the ground at certain times during the day. They believe, with time, they can explain everything they see.”

Another well-worn fable, but the breeze across the sea is pleasant, and it would be rude to excuse myself now from this conversation. “I’m guessing we’re the ants.”

“They believe they’re gaining knowledge and understanding until the day they’re crushed into pulp at the foot of a child, a being who has never paid attention to them until that day, and whose parents are responsible for all the features of the backyard world they have sought in vain to explain. The ants were never even part of their plans save for extermination. The gods care as little about us as we about the ants, and that is why all our efforts at understanding are useless.”

“So what should the ant in your fable do, if not to pursue useless knowledge?”

“Beg for mercy,” he says. “And pray that the Great Ones hear.”

#

The unpleasant speech from Otto aside, members of the cult-or “school of philosophy”-certainly know how to throw a party, especially considering that they have no electricity or modern conveniences to work with, as far as I can see.

There was a very touristy and inauthentic Pacific luau to welcome us for the evening. They claimed that the roasted pig had been cooking underground all day, but I had seen two men carrying the pig out of the gigantic stone edifice set a little back from the beach to the burying spot as we disembarked. The pig tasted fine, even if it was probably cooked on a gas grill in an industrial kitchen. Otto was a loquacious and engaging host, urging everyone to drink and eat and made no mention of his gloomy beliefs. I used my cellphone to take a few photos of the festivities, noticing that I got no reception here.

And now there’s a big ring-shaped bonfire on the beach, and as we visitors sip our drinks-not watered down this time, for sure-the cast members-oops, wrong lingo, I mean our hosts-are dancing around the fire, enacting a ritual that I’m sure some anthropologist would point out is a theatrical, incongruous admixture of dozens of real cultures. I don’t judge. The Pancake Factory does the same thing.

In the middle of the ring of fire is a stone platform on top of which is an idol. If I squint hard enough it seems to be a lizard with wings whose head sprouts tentacles-again, probably cobbled together from the mythology of several real cultures.

They whoop and shout, stripping off their clothes in their ecstasy. The other visitors sitting around the fire look mesmerized, or perhaps more accurately, dazed. I noticed after my first drink that there was a medicinal aftertaste and have been careful since. Who knows what kind of hallucinogens they’ve mixed in to help set the mood?

The language they’re using in their chants is incomprehensible and nothing like what I’ve heard before. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s also made up. Considering the rough conditions on this remote island, their dedication to creating a complete experience for their guests rival the Pancake Factory’s.

What I can’t figure out, of course, is the money angle. Otto has not charged any of us for this little Pacific-themed cruise or even made us sign pledges to attend some proselytizing session, the way time-share salesmen connected with the Pancake Factory would. Maybe they rely on having members join and give to the cult all their worldly possessions, but that’s a highly uncertain revenue model. Maybe I should talk to Otto and give him some advice.

Still, whatever I have drunk is having an effect. The dancers seems to be floating in the air as they gyrate, and the rhythmic chants with their heavy beat is making me rather drowsy. The idol in the center of the ring of fire seems to be coming alive in the flickering light of the flames and shifting shadows.

I stand up and sway, my footing uncertain, and Otto is at my side instantly.

“Ready to sleep?” he asks.

I nod.

He brings me to the entrance of the great edifice whose walls seem formed from giant blocks of stone, all sharp angles and flat surfaces. The effect is one of prehistoric antiquity. I seriously doubt this is real either, as the seams and joints seem too neat and clean, reminding me of some of the Pancake Factory’s re-creations.

He brings me through a few twisting tunnels lit only by torchlight, and the lingering effect of the drink is such that it seems sometimes we’re moving _up_ a downward slope and sometimes we’re walking with our feet on the ceilings. Begrudgingly, I admit that if this is all part of their presentation, it’s very well conceived.

Finally, he brings me to a windowless room lit with oil lamps, and points me at a bed in the corner. I crawl into it and fall asleep almost immediately, hearing only a whispered wish for “sweet dreams.”

#

My sleep is filled with bizarre images and nightmarish visions. Great, lumbering _things_ as big as skyscrapers fall out of the sky. They look like giant versions of the idols I had seen, complete with tiny wings-useless for flight-and writhing tentacles around their heads. I suppose I’ve been thinking about how to revamp our horror-themed attractions too much lately.

I wake up, my body covered in a sheen of sweat. I feel completely sober, and I don’t know how many hours have passed.

“You have one of the most attuned minds I’ve ever seen,” says Otto from the darkness.

I almost jump out of the bed. The creepy man is standing in the shadow by the door.

“Have you been here all this time?” I demand. “Watching me sleep?”

“You can hear him, can’t you? The call of Dread Cthulhu?”

_Something_ is speaking in my mind all right: thunderous, immense, the syllables and sounds strange and impossible for me to imitate. I gather that the noises Otto is making with his mouth are meant to imitate this alien sound in my mind, the unpronounceable name of his deity.

I don’t know how he’s doing this but I have a guess. Back at the Pancake Factory, we experimented with ultrasonic speakers that beam sounds only to a specific point so that only the person at that point can hear it. It’s great for haunted mansion type of rides since it sounds like the voice is speaking from inside your head. We never got the kinks worked out to put it into production, but apparently Uncle Otto here has got it working on his island. Most impressive.

“They come from the stars, you know,” says Otto, his tone full of reverence. “Uncountable eons ago, they came to our world and ruled it when our ancestors were barely conscious. Then they fell into a deep slumber in cities beneath the sea. But they continued to dream, and in dreams they communicate with those of us who are attuned to them. We worship them because one day, when the stars are aligned again, they’ll awaken from their deep sleep and rule over us again, and the world shall be cleansed in a wild apocalypse of flames and ecstasy-”

“Okay, okay, I get it,” I interrupt him. The purple prose was getting on my nerves. I like theatre, but this was a bit too much. “We are the ants, and this Cthulhu is the little boy in your fable. And you want me to start praying to him, before he decides to squish me.”

He’s taken aback by my lack of awe. But once you know how the sausage is made, the magic ceases to hold you-a professional hazard. I sometimes wish I could enjoy our rides as much as the guests. “Strictly speaking,” Otto says, “Cthulhu is more like one of the parents of the child in my fable. But you _do_ hear him?”

“Oh, loud and clear. This is a very good job. I like how you’ve got the electricity to power all these speakers but you don’t reveal it with any electric lights. I do think the use of the drugs is effective but a bit dangerous-what if I had an allergic reaction? Personally, I think some flashing lights judiciously used can really add to the experience. Maybe even some animatronics.”

“This isn’t some kind of theme park ride!”

“Sure it isn’t,” I say. “Look, I’m on your side here. I like what you’ve done. Just trying to help you make the presentation a bit crisper. I know what I’m talking about and I’m not even charging you at my consulting rate.”

He frowns at me and shakes his head. “You must come and see for yourself.”

Once more we go through dark, twisty tunnels lit only by flickering torches. I’m impressed by the craftsmanship and attention to detail. I run my fingers over some of the cracks between the stone slabs: there’s even moss, actual, living moss! Considering how small a staff he’s working with here, this is nothing short of a Stone Henge- or Easter Island-level of achievement.

Though I’m now no longer drugged-or at least I don’t think I am-in sections of the tunnels I still feel as though I’m walking uphill when the tunnel seems to be slanting downwards, and the rivulets of water along channels in the floor are flowing _upwards_. The effect is extremely realistic. Hidden pumps? Hydraulics that tilt sections of the floor as we move over them? I make a mental note to try to dig the secret out of Otto. Whether or not he knows it, he’s really a genius for theme park design, and maybe there’s a way I can recruit him for the Pancake Factory.

Finally, we arrive at a cavern the size of a stadium whose walls are ringed with torches. In the middle is a giant, bottomless pool.

“Prepare to have your illusions shattered, mortal,” he says, and begins to chant:

_Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn._

On cue, the water in the pool begins to churn.

“Amazing,” I say. “Again though, I think you’ve overdone the lighting here. I understand the desire to rely only on non-electric light for ambience, but I think a few spotlights hidden behind some rocks can really add to the visual experience. Sometimes, authenticity is enhanced with-”

I’m interrupted by the most amazing animatronic creation I’ve ever seen rising out of the water. There’s no word to describe it: immense, gigantic, cyclopean, monolithic. Oh it’s a monster!

The head rises out of the pool until it’s towering over us like a four-story building. Tentacles as thick as me and twenty, thirty feet long writhe about the cave-like maw. Cascades of water slough off the head, leaving behind slime and seaweed. The stench of fishy rot fills the whole cave.

And the monster begins to roar.

I’m utterly entranced, my mouth agape. This is without a doubt the finest animatronics display I’ve ever seen. Nothing back home in Florida can even touch it. The full sensory experience is complete. As the head waves about and the monster’s body hits the edge of the pool, the entire floor of the cave shakes.

The monster begins to turn its head in our direction.

“I thought you said it’s asleep,” I say.

“It is,” says Otto. “But as it dreams, it sometimes rises to the surface to observe this world, a god opening an eye for a moment before sinking back into his slumber.”

I’m about to heap more praise on Otto for his artistry when the monster’s head stops moving, and the eyes suddenly snap open: ancient, otherworldly, completely alien.

And in that moment, a great pressure impinges on my skull and I fall down, unconscious.

#

I wake up again to the concerned face of Otto flickering in the torch light.

“How long was I out?” I groan.

“About fifteen minutes.”

“It seemed much longer.” I sit up. Behind the shadowy figure of Otto, the immense form of Cthulhu is bobbing up and down in the water. His eyes are closed for the moment.

“Did you dream-converse with him?”

“Yes,” I say. My mouth feels dry, like I’ve woken up after falling asleep on a transcontinental flight. “It is indeed as you say. We’re insignificant ants digging about in the backyard of Dread Cthulhu.”

Otto beams. “And now you understand the futility of seeking knowledge.”

“Absolutely.”

“And the utter hopelessness of the human condition before cosmic horror.”

“Indubitably so.”

“And the acceptance of our insignificance at the space and time scale of our god Cthulhu.”

“It is exactly as you say. In the long run, we’re all dead.”

“And you’re now prepared to pray and beg for mercy, and dedicate your life to the preparation of his eventual awakening when the stars are aligned.”

“Eh, that’s a bit too much planning for me.”

I begin to chant, doing my best to imitate Otto:

_Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn._

And in one swift motion, Cthulhu lashes out with his tentacles and snatches up Otto. Before he even has time to scream, Cthulhu stuffs him down his maw, and Otto is no more.

You see, during those fifteen minutes I was out, Cthulhu and I did indeed have a “dream-conversation,” as Otto would say. It’s not so much conversing in words as showing each other pictures-a skill I’m very good at, as the Pancake Factory is a big believer in not using words where pictures will do, considering we have visitors from across the globe. They don’t call us “imagineers” for nothing.

The topics that Otto was so interested in didn’t take very long. I mean, once I accepted that Cthulhu was real, none of the rest of it was worth arguing.

But, and here’s the but: I’m a guy focused on the here and now. I don’t really care if in a hundred generations, after the stars have aligned or whatever, Cthulhu enslaves my unknown descendants. I don’t even worry about global warming, and you want me to think _that_ far ahead?

I quickly explained to Cthulhu what I did. I’m not sure the concept of the Pancake Factory made much sense to him, but the idea of millions, billions even, craving images of him and paying tribute to see him did appeal. I explained how we managed to make children the world over worship and demand to be taken to visit idols of _rodents_, and he was suitably impressed. Like all gods, Cthulhu likes worshippers, having lots and lots of worshippers. I’ve no idea why. Maybe he thinks they’ll make his eventual reign more pleasant.

But the point is: Ants don’t always have to beg; they can sometimes bargain.

I promised to make him at least as dreaded and feared by men and women and children the world over as the iconic rodent is beloved; provided that he listen to me and do what I say.

Cthulhu convulses and spits out a few bones. They clatter at my feet. Sometimes, to create the most authentic experience, you have to rely on the real.

“Okay, we can’t do that once we get to the coast of Florida,” I say. “You have to promise not to actually eat any visitors. Only pretend.”

Cthulhu grumbles, and the whole cave shakes again.

Boss Gou and his goons no longer seem such a big deal, not when I have _this_ with me.

_Cthulhu World_ has a memorable ring to it, I think. I already have some ideas about how to set up the main attraction-a pirate ship, an abandoned island, lots of cast members dancing about a bonfire, possibly a musical. But I really need to work out the merchandizing possibilities.

 

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A Drabblecast original.
Episode Art:  Bill Halliar
Read by:   Rish Outfield and Big anklevich of the Dunesteef Podcast

Twabble:  “"Grains," said the vegetarian zombie hoard. Farmer Bill aimed his shotgun. The alfalfalypse wasn't happening today. ”  by  MonsierMoustache


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