Jude had seen broadcasts of the Grand Synthatorium before, but to witness its grand scale in person took his breath from him. Capable of seating a half million citizens, the multi-tiered stadium featured precision hologram technology, allowing the current trio of performers to dominate the arena as enormous ten-story goliaths. A moment later and their massive forms shatter like glass, the individual shards forming tiny winged sprites of pure light, flying out to dance playfully before each spectator’s eyes. From their secret placement in the central synth bay, paneled entirely with one-way glass, the two boys had the best seat in the house. Though as the mechanic gazed out in awe, Nero remained too focused on banging out the code to notice the spectacle.
“She’s coming out” Jude informed him as the sprites faded in a puff of smoke, a single white pillar rising from the bottom of the arena, directly below them.
“I know” Nero confirmed, still tapping away frantically. Strangely unconcerned with the plan, Jude pulled his engineer’s goggles down over his eyes, zooming in on the serene figure veiled entirely in white. Even despite the millions of eyes watching her from every conceivable angle, every viewbox in colonized space turned in to witness the show; she stood there more alone than ever. A silent beacon of light amidst the darkness.
‘Perhaps even the Alters watch her now’ Jude surmised, picturing the alien menace aboard their featureless droneships, their radio-optic eyes scanning every wave of energy radiating through her. Suddenly her gown changes color, tinted by the light filtering through the pink mist now filling the auditorium. The audience’s lungs soon fill with the carefully formulated toxin, pupils dilating as the latest euphoria triggers. The same programmed synth was now being beamed to the soma-boxes of every colonist in the galaxy, all of them reveling in one majestic galactic-wide high.
“Done” Nero announced then, letting fly a final keystroke. Immediately the princesses gown changed color again, the delicate pink mist now the dark red color of blood. Jude watched in wonder as the illegal synth Nero had programmed took full effect, everywhere people’s eyes rolling back in their heads, their mouths agape with stupefied smiles. Nero had mentioned that a good portion of them would likely void themselves, though Jude tried not to focus on that detail. Instead he looked again to the princess, to see her reaction to their desperate plan. Within her sealed environment sphere the princess removed her veil, the mechanic expecting a look of great shock.
Instead, she simply grinned.
Women in Refrigerators
I am in a coffin, buried alive, my gravediggers not even kind enough to lay me down to rest. Rather my remains fully upright, its tight confines not allowing me to stand, keeping me firmly planted on the small folding stool thrown in along with me. I guess I can thank the caretakers for this, among a few other minor comforts, though I still wish they could’ve found a more powerful air circulation system, the tiny fan mounted above my head not enough to keep me from sweating profusely. I similarly wish they could’ve packed better provisions into the miniscule cooler awkwardly positioned beneath the stool, my sweaty hands grasping about at the unseen content, eventually fishing out a wet can of Coca-Cola and what the penlight tucked behind my ear reveals to be a bologna sandwich in a plastic baggie.
Actually, the Coke I don’t mind so much.
As I eat my meal in the quiet dark, the forward angle my head is forced to assume causes its narrow illumination to fall squarely on the paperback in my lap. The book, given to me by a strange techno-fetishist who believes I may be personally destined to prevent the destruction of the universe, is an honestly decent read even despite my disdain for science-fiction. I’ll admit the first time through it felt a bit pedestrian, a common narrative skeleton dressed up with spaceships and rayguns. Though after my third re-reading I began to discover deeper themes previously gone unnoticed, characters which had once seemed so one-dimensional revealing hidden depths. Not that I accepted the idea that the book was a prophecy of things to come (or of things which had already come, I’m not entirely sure), though as far as holy books go, this one was actually quite thrilling, even despite its “to be continued” cliffhanger.
It’s then I hear footsteps outside my coffin, and excitedly I press my face to the sheet of plastic standing between myself and the world, a bologna sandwich still hanging from my mouth. I’m disappointed then to see it’s simply another craft services worker, now empting a party size bag of peanut M&Ms into a glass bowl. In the darkness I check the LED watch I’ve been given. Four hours until the show.
I take another sip of Coke and reach for my book.
Despite the ridiculous comfort of the padded velvet chair I’m planted in, it’s not enough for me to ignore the bulging stack of twenty dollar bills pressing against my thigh, a tip from the generous pachinko benefactor now sitting across from me. The Emperor, chief crime boss of Casinotown and a man with an immaculately maintained comb-over. The kind of hairstyle which, combined with a custom-fit silk suit, is a million times more intimidating than a full head of hair would be. Revealing that this man before us has no desire to hide his age behind the follicle rejuvenation treatments he can assuredly afford, his power too immense for the superficiality of appearance to diminish it even slightly.
“You’ll have to excuse my office. It’s a bit of a mess” he tells us, sitting tall in a huge leather chair likely ten times more comfortable than our own plush seats. His apology is not an understatement. While the expected gangster décor; black marble desk, crimson red wallpaper, two frowning bodyguards flanking the door behind me; is all in its place, these elements are entirely overwhelmed by the room’s haphazard collection of random fantasy memorabilia. Framed posters of beautiful women in chainmail armor, ceremonial weaponry hung high on the wall, and most obviously the glass trophy case dominating the entirety of the right wall, a multitude of golden statuettes topped by fearsome dragons and barbarians proudly holding their broadswords aloft.
“Quite a throne room” Greg remarks, apparently unconcerned by the strange surroundings. The emperor laughs.
“Throne room…” he repeats. “You think I’d be tired of these meaningless prizes by now. But they’re a good reminder of where I come from. The youthful potential I wasted.”
“You were the champion” Greg counters, a bit surprised at the man’s shame.
“A champion of children’s games” the emperor he regrets with a heavy sigh. “Who remembers the champion of marbles? The champion of… hopscotch?” He looks to me then. “Have you heard of Dragonforge?”
“No” I admit. He smirks, satisfied. “What is it?”
“A video game” Greg informs me.
“Not just a video game” he interrupts, frowning at the simplification. “A massively multiplayer online role playing game. When I was young Dragonforge was the biggest of them. Me and my friends, we used to play at a little PC bang back when this place was still just Chinatown. Every day after school I was there, hell sometimes I would skip school entirely, just hacking and slashing my way to the top of the servers. After awhile I was so good at PVP I actually got sponsored, started playing professionally.”
“Paid to play video games?” I ask. “Must’ve been fun.”
“Far from it. It was a job, like any other. Still, I was good at my job.”
“Is that why they call you the emperor?” He nods, almost ashamedly.
“That was my character name. I guess it stuck.” He sighs, again glancing around the room. “I was too good though, there was no competition left for me. So I found a new game, started playing cards. Made my first fortune at the tables.”
“I’ve seen some videos of your games” Greg remarks. “You were good. No one could read you.”
“A useful skill. I bet you’d be good at poker yourself” Greg smiles politely. “But again, I reached the top of that game and simply wanted another. So I moved into the business…”
“Crime” I define.
“Call it what you will, but somebody had to run this city” he says with a laugh. “The stupid Italians were low-level pushers when I came in, barely organized, half of them working from behind bars. So I took over the trade. A bit of a war we had there, but a bunch of three-hundred pound goombas trying to run Casinotown? Asians were the majority, we weren’t going to stand for that. So I moved in, started buying up the dying mismanaged casinos for a fraction of the cost. Stopped trying to cater to the stupid weekend tourists and turned the place into a haven for the Asian high-rollers, added some class, Monte Carlo-style. Brought in the Asian games, Mahjong, Pai-gong, Pachinko of course, that was a favorite of mine. Fifteen years ago it was a different scene of course, all the Chinese businessmen would fly into New York on business, then spend all their money in my Casinos… I still turn profit now but god I miss those milk and honey days.”
“You don’t seem to be struggling too badly” Greg opines.
“Oh I’m still making a fortune” Liu agrees with a laugh. “People are content to throw their money away, especially when the news tells them we’re all going to get blown to hell by a nuclear bomb. I’m actually moving into the shipping business as well. I can get the boats for nothing now, with all these export restrictions. China’s demanding we rescind the DPA, and if we do those boats are going to be worth a fortune.”
“And if we don’t?” Greg puts forward.
“Then I’d be better off spending my money on coffins” Liu shakes his head in disdain. “That’s the thing about this game we’re playing. You can struggle so hard to reach the top, and still wind up having all your pieces wiped from the board.”
“This is all another game to you” Greg confirms.
“Of course” Liu responds, almost surprised that anyone would question what he clearly sees as simple fact. “Life is nothing more than another game to be conquered, conquered by those strong enough to understand the rules. You know what the rules are?”
“No” Greg admits. Liu’s face turns cold.
“There aren’t any” he reveals. “Rules, laws, whatever you want to call them… morality. It’s all an illusion. You know where I’d be now if I accepted rules? I’d be running my parent’s laundromat, getting yelled at because the coin washer stole somebody’s dollar.” He shakes his head disdainfully. “That’s the sort of thing that terrifies me, boredom, there’s no thrill in living a regular life, working a shitty job, waiting around to die. That’s why I played Dragonforge as a kid, I wanted something to conquer. Millions of people playing, but I was the best. All the gold I would ever need, the most powerful equipment…” He chuckles, considering it. “But even that wasn’t enough. I dominated the poker world but that wasn’t enough either. Hell, I could conquer the world, but it wouldn’t be enough. You can’t win in this life, nobody wins. The game always ends the same.”
“So why play?” I ask.
“Because it’s not about winning” he defines. It’s about playing, playing harder than anyone who came before you. Being so goddamn good at playing that people fear you, respect you… sometimes even love you. There’s fools out there, people who there’s some prize to be won. But there isn’t, there’s only the game. The same game you’re both playing now, whether you know it or not.” I look to Greg, who’s eyes remain locked on the speech-maker before us, his face expressionless. I turn then to see Liu reaching into the ornate wooden box beside him, pulling out a thin cigar and lighting it, delicate wisps of smoke curling through the air like the curling Chinese dragons atop his trophies. “So—“ he continues. “Now that you understand who I am, and what I want, make your proposal.”
“We need your help” Greg admits.
“You need my money” the emperor defines. Greg shakes his head no.
“No, we don’t need money. We need your connections.” I glance to Greg, telepathically quizzing him about the idea this idea that “we don’t need money.” He ignores my psychic concern.
“You come to make your move, and you wish to make it with my pieces” the emperor ponders, tapping the cigar on the edge of a jet black ashtray. “I hate to make such an obvious inquiry, but what’s in it for me?”
“You control a significant portion of the greatest city on Earth” Greg starts, having clearly had a minor speech prepared for this moment. “But that’s not going to matter once the bombs start flying.”
“Maybe not” the emperor admits.
“We’ve going to stop that.”
“So you claim, but I’ve met reckless jockeys before. But why I should I bet on your horse?”
“You’ve seen what we can do.”
“I’ve seen publicity stunts” he counters. “I like publicity stunts, but I’ve yet to see any substance, any meat.”
“You’ve seen my writing?”
I have. It’s bold.”
“Thank you—“ Liu cuts him off.
“Bold, but vague” he adds harshly. “You can talk about uniting the disenfranchised all you want, pretty words don’t sway me. What’s your plan?”
“You know I can’t tell you that.” Liu laughs.
“I shouldn’t have praised your poker face” he laments. “You want my help, and won’t even tip your hand?” He looks to Greg, eyes cold. My comrade stares back in silence, the tension in the room too strong for me to even scratch the tip of my nose for fear these two jungle animals would immediately pounce tearing me to shreds. “I’ll ask you again. Let’s assume you succeed, that you convince the country to rise in opposition to their leaders. Another revolutionary war or some such nonsense. What do I stand to gain?”
“We’re going to stop the war—“
“That’s not enough” Liu cuts him off. “Seems to me everybody gets that deal, and if I understand correctly, the only way they get that deal is with my help. So, I want to be compensated. You’re proposing a bold new world.”
“And how do I fit in?” Greg’s eyes narrow as he considers the question, then raising his head to stare down the man posting it.
“I’m offering you an empty board. All players restarting at zero. I trust you can figure out how to place your pieces” Greg lets the challenge hang in the air, grinning before he reminds the man in front of him: “You’re the emperor after all.”
Liu looks over Greg for a moment, reclining in his leather chair as he smokes the cigar in contemplative silence. A moment of thought later, he nods.
“Tell me what you need.”
“Frontal assault” Rufus declares to our roundtable.
“Guns blazin’” agrees Safir.
“Bang, bang” adds Kao. Greg rolls his eyes.
“No ‘bang, bang” he sighs, exasperated with by trio’s faulty grasp of reality. “Look, the Garden is loaded up with PROTECT goons. We try to storm in there like Rambo and we’ll be shot to bits. We need to get in unnoticed, grab the girl, and get out.” I look around the room to see the Shock Krew is clearly disappointed by the denied opportunity to act out their favorite action movies. All of us are seated comfortably in the living room area of the Shanghai’s luxury suite, having pulled together the room’s many white leather chairs into a semi-circle facing our clearly distraught operation leader. Liu had promised to help use his considerable connections to procure whatever outlandish resources we might’ve asked for. The problem now was figuring out exactly what tools would help in kidnapping a pop idol from a packed concert arena. Greg looks to me then. “Got any ideas?”
“Are there any… air ducts?” I put forward. Greg groans.
“Jesus Christ…” He mutters, grabbing the screen remote from the coffee table beside him, quickly flipping to the premium channels and randomly flipping a generic thriller titled ‘Death Bullet 3: The Final Shot.’ “There, you guys need help thinking of action movie clichés? Go nuts.” The Shock Krew shoot him a look of disdain, though quickly turn their attention to the bloody carnage on the screen. I follow Greg to the hotel balcony, the night air slamming against us as we gaze out over the candy-neon streets of an Asian wonderland, feeling so very, very far from home.
“You okay?” I wonder. He sighs.
“I should have a plan by now. I always have a plan.”
“You’ll figure it out. You always do.” Greg shakes his head, pulling a pack of Marlboros from his breast pocket, quickly lighting it and taking a hard drag.
“Forty thousand fucking people” he curses, staring out into the distance. “Any chance you know anything about programming synth-emitters?”
“What?” He smirks to himself.
“Nothing.” In a pocket his reader beeps, Greg quickly pulling it out with his free hand. “It’s Liu. He got ahold of the tour rider.”
“That’s good right?”
“Maybe. Here, read it to me.” Greg passes over the reader, me quickly scrolling through the feed in search of any helpful information as my cohort finishes his smoke.
“This thing is long…” I murmur, scanning quickly through the endless lines of glowing text. “It looks like each artist has their own specific demands… who is Bobby Roadhouse?”
“Country singer” Greg mentions. “One of those good ‘ol boys, sings about how Jesus loves driving a truck or whatever.”
“I hope they got cornbread in heaven—“ croons Safir from the living room. Greg sneers.
“Here’s Ashley’s section, it’s not all that long” I say, carefully reading through the details. “Bottles of fresh spring water, assorted fruit and vegetable platter… a carton of cigarettes?”
“Ashley smokes?” Greg’s eyebrows go up. “What brand?”
“Good girl” he remarks with a smirk.
“This part is bold” I say, reading on. “Ms. Harrison has an exclusive contract with the Coca-Cola beverage corporation. Any competing soft drink brands are not allowed in the dressing room, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. A model-FUT01 Coca-Cola vending machine must be prominently featured in her dressing room. For a list of approved vendors—“
“Stop–” Greg interjects. “A coke machine?”
“Yeah, a specific one.”
“Kao, you know what they’re talking about?” Greg asks the room. The Asian boy nods, not taking his eyes from the movie.
“Big machine” he confirms.
“Retina scan” adds Safir.
“Earn merchandise points” Rufus chimes in.
“Those machines are pretty big” Greg ponders, tossing his cigarette butt off the balcony and pacing back into the living room. “Shanghai has some on the casino floor, right?” Greg asks. The distracted trio nods in agreement. Greg moves to grab the screen remote again from its charging bay set into the table, tapping away at it until a scant voice suddenly garbles forth from the speakers. “Yeah, this is the presidential suite” Greg confirms, the device now to his ear. “Those big Coke vending machines you guys have downstairs, can you send one up?” A pause, Greg frowning. “No, I don’t want a Coke. I want the whole damn machine. Listen, we are personal guests of the emperor—well, call him yourself! I want a goddamn Coke machine in my room and quick!”
“Cheeseburger” Kim mentions.
“And two cheeseburgers” he confirms, still holding the device as he looks around the room. “You know what, send up six cheeseburgers, fries, onion rings, everything. And a chocolate milkshake. Anybody else want a chocolate milkshake? Just one milkshake.”
Greg puts down the screen, shaking his head as he turns to us. “Service these days…” he gripes.
A half hour later and I’m finishing off the remains of a very tasty cheeseburger, watching as action hero Duncan Chase fires a few hundred death bullets into the evil Chinese dictator across from him, blood painting the walls like a first-year student of modern art. I turn from my meal to bear witness to the imprecise mechanical carnage behind me, Greg and the boys using a set of tools procured by the hotel’s maintenance staff to rip apart the massive vending machine now set at the center of the living room.
“You get any sodas out of that thing yet?” I query. Rufus rips a plastic bottle from the machines innards and tosses it to me. I open it and take a sip, pleased.
“Okay, I think I’ve got the whole refrigeration section loosened from the frame” Greg says from behind the machine. “Try and rip it out.” He grips the machine from behind to steady it, the Shock Krew grabbing the grey metal insides and pulling hard. The beast’s entrails spill forth eagerly, leaving behind only a slick plastic carapace adorned in soda logos. Greg comes around front to examine the now vacant cavity, grinning. “It’s perfect” he declares.
“For what?” I wonder, taking another slow sip of high-fructose corn syrup. “You gonna make it into a bomb?”
“You think I’m such a one-trick pony, don’t you?” Greg gripes. “Safir, get in there.” The Indian boy nods, attempting to squeeze his body into the container.
“Tight” he mentions, body bent into an awkward Z shape.
“Rufus?” We all look to the African American male, who stands a good half a foot over the rest of us. He shrugs. “Yeah, that’s not going to work” Greg agrees. “Kao, it’s gotta be you.” The Asian boy looks over the metal box, shaking his head. “What?”
“Claustrophobia” he admits. Greg sighs.
“Well fuck, I’ve gotta handle most of the shit, I can’t do it from inside a vending machine. He turns to me then. “What about you?”
“Get in” he commands. I recoil in surprise.
“What? Why me?”
“Why the fuck not? Just get in.” Greg grabs me by the shoulder, forcing me towards the box before I can even put down my soda. The confines of the box force my body into an uncomfortable crouching position, my feet pushing against the corner of the machine to keep me from slipping down the smooth aluminum walls. “How’s it feel?”
“Like I’m in a vending machine” I admit, looking out of my box at the assembled crew, all of whom wear strange smiles on their faces. “What?” The grin doesn’t leave Greg’s face as he muses:
“Looks like we’ve got our backstage pass”
It was honestly quite surprising to see how little interest the supposedly highly-trained PROTECT soldiers took in Greg and Rufus, who’s minor disguises consisted of a Coca-Cola branded jumpsuit and cap combination, that same pair of outdated box sunglasses obscuring Greg’s eyes. He’d ignored my plea to let another member of the Shock Krew take his place wheeling the machine into the building, but as always Greg’s hubris had been far too powerful to be dissuaded, his reckless need to confirm his invisibility. Despite my reservations, one glance at the pair’s ID badges had been enough to get them past the arena’s security checkpoint, me silently sighing with relief as I nursed the bruise on my head I’d incurred when they’d ungracefully dropped my coffin onto a hand-truck. Depositing me in the corner of Ashley’s dressing room, Greg had quickly tapped on the wall of curved plexiglass between us, offering me a simple “good luck” before exiting. I hope I won’t need it. There’s too much here to trust to simple luck, and if Liu’s mantras on the subject had taught me anything, it’s that luck is a disgusting mistress to place one’s trust in anyhow.
I consider these things as my feet play in the soft grass beneath me, pacing barefoot towards the end of the world, the place where all timelines converged, where time ceased to exist. I lift my head to find my lover waiting for me in our secret glen, her features distorted beyond recognition, face a rapidly-shifting blur of computer-generated mosaic. I attempt to run to her then, before forced to stop, a previously unseen wall of meter-thick glass halting my advance. In the distance I hear the fierce buzzing of insects, and I attempt to yell to her across the divide, my shouts becoming frantic as I realize they’re unable to penetrate the indestructible barrier. It’s then her features shift, a hideously wide grin appearing beneath the blur of pixels, mouth pulled impossibly outwards like that of the Cheshire cat. Despite her horrible appearance I still call to her desperately, though her only response is to continue holding the fake plastic smile while gesturing like a game-show model to an object in her right hand. Overhead swarm the thousands of B2 bombers, littering the sky like locusts, and as they drop their atomic warheads my eyes go wide in terror, suddenly able to read the distant labeling of the object in my lover’s hand.
I wake with a silent gasp, face painted with cold sweat as I find myself in the tiny box, briefly forgetting my role in this elaborate plot and believing the bombers have done their job, placing me six feet under. Regaining my composure, I hear a stirring from beyond the confines of my mausoleum, realizing that my previously solitary sanctum finally has some company. Excited at the thought of remembering what a fellow human looks like, I press my face to the thin plastic glass in hopes of seeing who’s arrived.
Not a moment later and I’m recoiling in shame, the image of a naked young redhead dancing in my head. Thoughts which are immediately dislodged as I bang my head against the inside of my box, cursing beneath my breath.
“Hm?” Comes a query from outside, and I tense up, horrified that I’ve been discovered. Hesitantly I return my eyes to the port window, rationalizing my actions as those not of your standard peeping Tom, but of a quick-thinking rebel fighter. Doing so, my eyes lock with hers, and for a moment I’m sure I’ve been spotted. Quickly though she shrugs off her apprehension, returning to her undressing. Despite my shame, some primitive impulse overtakes me as I keep my eyes pressed to the peephole, my pubescent teenage fantasies of nubile willing redheads a distant thought as I considered the reality of the flesh, a sight my beta-male self had never before witnessed in person.
She’s beautiful of course, she has to be. Yet there’s something more to it than that celebrity glamour, a true intrinsic beauty, the kind that inspires man to take raw marble and to chip away in the hopes that some pale imitation of this reality might be formed. Shame fades from me, replaced instead by the base desire to be close to this paragon of the flesh. To shed the lie of humanity and resort to pure animalistic instinct, to hold another close and feel our souls beating, their frequencies uniting into one burst of light, rushing out towards the ends of the universe. Letting the whole of existence know that we had lived, in that moment.
I blink, instantly aware of the boner in my pants, revealing my desires to be only somewhat existential.
Within moments the red-haired beauty is gone, replaced with a pop-fetish nightmare of pink lace and black leather. A male makeup artist makes unheard small talk as Ashley sits passively in her chair, her raw beauty camouflaged by layers of blush and rogue. How scared we humans are to confront our true selves. Casting our chosen idols as elaborate plastic mockeries, rather than confront them as fellow human beings. As the makeup session continues, a massive black man in a black polo shirt enters alongside a leggy blonde carrying a clipboard. Spotting the pair, Ashley groans.
“Ashley, you’ve got the setlist memorized?” the blonde asks.
“Yes” the pop starlet replies with disdain, rolling her eyes.
“Because it’s changed. You’re doing the new single tonight, so we dropped ‘Whatever You’ve Got’ from—“
“I know” the redhead interjects. “I can remember a single change to a setlist. I’m not like the other bimbos you manage. How much longer Raph?”
“Just finishing now” the fay makeup artist replies, adding a few finishing touches of eyeliner before stepping back. “Perfect” he declares.
“Finally. I’ve gotta eat something.” She begins sitting up.
“You’ll ruin your lipstick” the makeup man protests, but Ashley is already pacing my way. For some reason I’m struck with immediate panic, even knowing I’m still safely concealed within my gutted mechanical prison. Still, I can’t help but watch with apprehension as she stops at the craft table beside myself, pulling a rolled slice of turkey from the deli platter with bare fingers and taking a bite. She turns then to me, and my heart skips a beat, what feels like eye contact just her gazing into the retina scanner on the front of the machine. “What the fuck?” she curses, pressing a few of the buttons on the front after the automatic dispensing functionality we’d ripped out fails to respond. “They can’t even bring me a working machine?” She kicks my coffin, causing me to jump in fright.
“Jesus Ashley, don’t kick the thing” the blonde exclaims. “You know what sort of PR nightmare I’d have if there was a picture of you kicking the sponsor’s machine?”
“Well fuck! I’m thirsty!” She curses again, followed by another kick. This time however, I’m prepared, thrusting a can of soda into the slot beside me. It flops into the retrieval bin with a satisfying ‘ka-chunk,’ where the pleasantly surprised pop star grabs it. Immediately however, her face turns.
“It’s not even cold” she groans, a look of disgust on her face as she holds the wet can of cola out at arm’s length before giving my box another kick for good measure. I feel strangely ashamed for a moment, before remembering that I am not a dysfunctional soda machine, I am a free man. “James?” She wonders aloud, turning to the hulking brute beside her.
“I’ll find some ice” he confirms, leaving the room. Ashley smiles, taking a seat.
“You’re on in thirty minutes” her handler confirms. Another shock hits me, as I check my watch then. It’s 7:15, assuming no delays in the show, teen heartthrob Jeremiah Burbank now almost halfway through his forty-five minute set. In five minutes, utter chaos will be breaking loose. I press my face back to the glass, finding that Ashley is now alone in the room, the perfect opportunity for me to complete my part of the mission. Unfortunately, I soon find that every muscle in my body has atrophied after my ten hour stint in the box, a fact I unfortunately only realize after I’ve already pulling the quick release handle the boys installed. The crypt opens, my corpse spilling out onto the carpeted dressing room floor as I groan in pain. Ashley gets up from her chair, eyes wide with surprise.
“What the fuck!?” She curses.
“Sorry! I’m sorry” I blurt out, not sure exactly what I’m apologizing for. Perhaps the earlier peeping Tom incident, though I doubt that’s what she’s thinking about as I struggle to find my footing, flopping about on the floor like a fish.
“I’m getting security” she says, moving for the door.
“No, don’t!” I pant, somehow summoning some feeling back into my arm, reaching for the gun tucked into my side holster. A convincing replica actually, hopefully convincing enough to sway my victim’s thoughts of calling for her security guard. I point it at the starlet, her hands up in surrender. “Don’t. I’ll shoot, I swear.”
“Alright” she agrees quietly, watching as I finally stumble to my feet, breathing nervously as I glance around the room. “How did you get in here?” She wonders, then noticing the open sarcophagus behind me. “Wait, were you hiding in the Coke machine?” I don’t answer, a blush crawling across my face as she inspects me curiously. “Aren’t you a little short to be a soldier?”
“Huh?” I consider this question for a moment, confused, before looking in the large wall mirror beside us, spotting the large ‘PROTECT’ label adorning my bulletproof vest. “Oh, the uniform” I murmur to myself, dropping the gun to my side. “No, I’m not a soldier, I’m… here kidnap you” I realize immediately how unconvincing I sound, a fact hammered home by my to-be victim’s grin.
“Wait, I know you” Ashley confirms, her brow arched. “You’re that terrorist guy.” Her assertion takes me completely off guard. In the past few months I’d become convinced that I was truly a ghost, though while the masses barely took notice of the scrawny teenage kid with the buzzcut, this pop sensation had seen through my disguise without barely a second thought.
“You’ve… heard of me?”
“Yeah” she confirms, nodding her head. “Blowing up schools, internet manifestos. I ‘m kind of a fan.”
“Really?” I ask, blushing again. It’s then I hear the distant sound of panicked screaming from the arena, as the jumbotron screens are assumedly flooded with the cartoonish video loop Greg had shown me earlier, a pixilated video game ghost cackling as the fuse of a cartoonish 8-bit bomb burns. “Shit!” I curse, running to the dressing room door and locking it. A moment later and there’s a fierce pounding from behind, Ashley’s security detail struggling with the knob as he screams her name. A second later and he’s throwing himself against the door with full force, the wood splintering more with each assault.
“Get in the fridge!” I command, again pointing the gun at her.
“Say please” she replies with a sly smile.
“Please!” She grins, taking a seat in the box. I slam the front of the machine closed, hoping to god Greg’s timing is as precise as he’s claimed. Not a second later I hear his voice down the hallway.
“Bomb squad!” His voice screams from the distance. “Out of the way!” I take this as my cue to unlock the door, pressing myself flat to the wall as Greg bursts in alongside the Shock Krew. All of them wearing PROTECT uniforms identical to mine, gas masks obscuring their faces. I pull mine into place just as Ashley’s security goon enters.
“There’s the bomb!” Greg screams, pointing to the Coke machine. A tall soldier, who I recognize as Rufus, immediately wheels a handtruck behind it, myself and Safir quickly negotiating the machine onto the device, the sudden appearance of this forth bomb squad member gone completely unnoticed by the huge black man frantically tearing through the dressing room.
“Sir! I need you to clear out!” Greg demands.
“Where the fuck is she?!” The guard yells, ripping open the mobile dressing rack and throwing a selection of glittering costumes to the ground in search of the missing pop idol. Greg takes this opportunity to move forward with his taser, pressing the prongs deep into the man’s thick neck, the force of his huge body collapsing to the ground a minor seismic event. My comrade turns then, seeing the machine loaded onto the hand truck.
“Let’s move!” he commands.
Out in the hallway, people run past us screaming, trying to avoid the explosive Coke machine being pushed through the corridor at breakneck speed. “Bomb coming through!” Greg yells to the terrified crowd of fleeing backup dancers and production staff . “Got a live bomb here!” We eventually emerge through a doorway into the venue’s delivery bay, Kao waving us towards the back of a large black van with the engine already running. As Greg and Rufus pull open the doors, I press my face to the front of the Coke machine.
“Sorry for this” I murmur to the trapped pop star, before her coffin is pulled over the lip of the van’s rear bay and forcefully shoved towards the front of the vehicle. I hop in first, taking a seat on the left bench and sliding towards the black chain mesh between myself and the driver. Rufus and Safir jump in behind me, taking a seats across the aisle, the Indian boy tossing me a mysterious black object before going to remove his gasmask. Kao rips the car into drive as Greg slides into the passenger seat, me turning the large magnet over in my hands to reveal the familiar block lettering: ‘PROTECT, BOMB SQUAD DIVISION.’
“Punch it!” Greg commands, tires squealing as we rush through the concrete parking bay. The thrill of adrenaline courses through me as the skilled driver screams through the lot, a lowered security bar completely ignored as the van smashes through the wooden bar and onto the crowded streets of New York, sirens blaring all the while. The tenseness of the situation fading, I can’t help but laugh with nervous relief.
“We did it” I announce, pulling my mask away, sighing deeply between my giggles.
“We did” Greg agrees. “You would think kidnapping the daughter of a presidential nominee would be more of a hassle.”
Ashley Harrison, daughter of presidential candidate Benjamin Harrison. The realization hits me over the head like a glass bottle of cold, refreshing Coca-Cola. I look down at the huge soda machine lying in front of me. Listening as it yells:
“Let me out of here you assholes!”