Episode 3

Act 1

Beep

As the plastic explosive connected to the pillar approached its final countdown, the beeps picked up pace.

“Jerry! Let’s go!”

Leave his ass, she could hear Sami say.

“Go,” he said.

Beep

“Why?”

“If it’s filmed, it’s fine.”

She looked at him one last time.

Beep

She left.

Down the stairs, running, passing open office doors to empty space without even floors but those support pillars running all the way down, dotted with bombs. She had to hurry.

Beep

Hurry down 60 floors after hurrying up it, after two fights, after splattering on the pavement, after a sleepless night, after not enough coffee.

Beep

She didn’t have it in her.

Beep

The energy.

Beep

Around floor 40, the piercing intermittent beep chasing her down the stairs had picked up enough pace as it counted down that it was a warbling screech and then a single, prolonged whine and she looked around but there wasn’t time and there wasn’t a window.

The bombs went off.

From the outside, the explosions sparked in the windows running from the top floor down. Glass burst out. Dust drifted down a few floors. But the building stood. Then the second series of detonations with a meatier fireball at the base and the building collapsed in on itself.

Kyeongwan fell among the rubble.

Smoke and dust shaped around the building. Thunder cut through it.


Supes Episode 3.png


~

The woman in leather pulled off her helmet. From the forest road around The City, she watched that golden eyesore collapse for the dozenth time. It never got old for her. She liked the skyline without it.

A few drones flitted out of her motorcycle sidecar but she kept hold of one.

She went in the direction it tugged.

~

They’d chase her to the edge of the city.

They’d chase her into her dreams.

They’d chase her beyond.

She had escaped amid the Yasser-on-Yasser violence in the dark, but the trauma followed her in a horde of footprints and wet pant-legs carrying the stench of sewage. These people were not him and they were not his. His influence had faded with him.

And Sami was surrounded.

When they first caught up, she shoved one into the others, bowling them down. But they got up.

She ran, but every reasonable human being hated running.

Her brother hadn’t ever been reasonable. As an intern at OP, he’d gotten an ornate compass tattooed on his hand--a promise that he’d never work a stuffy corporate job. When his internship completed, he wasn’t offered a full-time position. The company didn’t need him in those days where the office was two rooms and no one pooped because walls were thin and so to make ends meet, Yasser sold swords at a mall kiosk. He blew his first paycheck on one. One that he used as a workout in those post-university anime days. One that broke. One that lost him the deposit on the apartment he couldn’t really afford. But he kept working out. Running every morning. Running even after death.

And eventually, after sprinting down the stairs into an alley of ivy-draped brick, he caught Sami.

She couldn’t bear to punch him again. Real, fake, she couldn’t. She couldn’t smash his face in. She couldn’t knock his head off. She couldn’t reach inside and see there was no beating heart or anything human because what if there was?

One caught her arm, and she whipped him off. Another caught her other arm. She shook him but he clung to her. Another on her. She let him. She let come what may.

The handsome horde flooded down the stairs.

They clogged the alley.

They squeezed past one another to get as close as possible.

Dozens of hands reaching for her.

Then a laser of intense heat pierced the one next to her and Sami saw what was inside her brother’s head.

~

A pipe dripped. The splash stirred a smell of poo water with desiccating dust of a collapsed building layered 63-stories deep over the entrance so that light, sun or artificial, could not filter through the cracks.

Kyeongwan was blind. Her feet were cold. Every sound threatened to be a second collapse.

But it was the smell, the wretched, gagging smell, that bothered her most.

Drones were equipped with spotlights for situations like this. Total darkness on screen only set a mood of confusion. The audience wanted the hint of darkness, told in shadows, but her drone had caught rubble in its propeller, had fallen 40+ floors, and landed in sewage. She didn’t even know where the broken thing was. But as she wandered slowly with her hands out feeling for a wall, she kicked a loose hunk of metal. The drone.

She felt the dents in its chassis. The cracked lens. The proprietary charging port.

Eo-ddok-hae?” she mumbled to herself, trying to figure out this idea. Could she? How?

The fractured rotors spun up.

It was working.

The light flicked on.

She could see the corridor around her and what she was stepping in.

She could smell something, too, something new now that there was light.

Smoke.

The electronics inside the drone sparked and the light intensified then cut to a pale bulb before that, too, faded. The rotors coasted to a stop.

Heol…

The electricity from her fingertips had burnt out the circuits and though she tried again with less oomph, whether that was amps or voltage or watts she didn’t know, but it was less and it didn’t work this time. And when she gave it all she had, internal components melted.

But she’d seen the wall and the only way not blocked by rubble around her. She followed it.

~

Sami watched her brother fall into a crowd too dense to let him get scrape on the pavement. Another brother unintentionally caught him. Another went down. A few more shots pierced around her. She heard them. She felt the heat. And soon the crowd engulfing her thinned enough that she could see daylight as more than cracks.

The shots had stopped, though.

There were still enemies. They were still vicious.

The shots had stopped, though.

And this sort of old-man pounding started, the kind a grandfather might’ve done on a TV when the signal went out back in the day. The kind he probably did on his CD player with growing frequency after the first time. The kind he probably still did.

The shots had stopped because the dented, charred laser rifle in Jerry’s hands had suffered too much today and finally it stopped working. He’d already flung himself down the stairs to save her, so, giving up on the rifle, he used it as a club. Bashing it against moldy skulls might knock components back into place and if not, this violence worked, too.

Sami parted the moshpit around her. She always could, but now she had to.

As she came out, Jerry flashed a smile surrounded by beard but less beard than she’d left him with on the plane. The dents, the char, the beard--she had a lot of questions about his day. Those could wait. For now, she had one demand.

He smiled heroically as he swung the rifle-club over her head at an enemy clawing at her hair--she caught the club.

~

The noise, what must’ve been the outside world, drew her faster through the sewers but the way the volume rose--it was still a way off. Getting louder certainly. But too quickly for how quickly she moved and when she stopped, it continued getting louder. She wasn’t heading toward the outside world. The outside world was heading for her.

She wasn’t ready for another encounter. She wasn’t ready for this audition to continue. She wasn’t ready for the light that rounded the corner and shone in her eyes.

But that confirmed it. This was another contestant.

The drone sped past her for an over-the-shoulder angle as its owner was still behind the corner.

She was so tired. So hungry. But she summoned the water at her feet to ripple at the ready.

And then, a Canadian-Filipino woman, pale in the light, with long dark hair and a leather jacket said, “Found ya, friend!”

Kyeongwan knew her. Everyone knew her, even out of costume. Slipstream. Slip. Darna.

Before knowing if she was friend or foe today, if she was Sami or Jerry, hero or villain, for or against The Classic, she ran past the dry walkway so the separated water collided on her jeans to hug Kyeongwan. “You are so precious!”

From the clutches of the smaller woman, Kyeongwan had to ask, “Do you have any food?”

Darna patted her pockets till she heard a familiar rustling and pulled out a twisted closed bag of peanut butter M&Ms she’d picked up on the drive here.

“I love you.”

“Love you, too, big bean.”

Darna spiraled up some sewer water, but her control was over purely the water, and by some techniques, she purified it of poo particles and even after seeing it taste-tested, Kyeongwan was thankful but reticent. Darna let it fall. She had a lot of tricks like that. It was how she found Kyeongwan to start. She sent little bits of herself into the water to perform reconnaissance and when one pinged that someone was alive down there, Darna followed it back. “So the Classic--where’d he go?”

“I haven’t seen him since he dropped me out of a plane.”

“Thrilling!” She headed off the way she came.

“Also I fell a building. A friend betrayed me and is probably dead. There were office workers.”

“Ugh, office workers. No thank you!” She stopped to look at the young, fresh face. “You still look cute. That’ll get you a lot of points today.”

“I don’t want a point! I want to sleep.”

Tenderly, Darna caressed Kyeongwan’s arm then continued on wordlessly and Kyeongwan followed expecting to be led out. Through the dark tunnel, Darna parted the drone-lit source of the stench so that neither had to traipse through it. It did nothing for the smell. It maybe even churned some up, but they were almost out.

The light shined on a great, metal door.

That has to be an exit, Kyeongwan thought.

ACT 2

“What are you--”

If Jerry had been intent on holding onto the rifle-club, then Sami would have separated his grip at the bone but he wasn’t that strong. He let go.

“You see who you’re whacking, right?” she demanded.

“That’s what you say? Not ‘Glad you’re alive!’ or ‘Thanks for saving my ass.’ Nothing like that?”

Sami tossed the club to the other side of the handsome horde that brushed shoulders with the brick to get closer to her till they were fighting one another more than her.

“I get how they look, Sam. But you know how this works.”

He slammed a pale fist into one of them. It reeled back. A tooth fell out. It got smashed into the pavement by the chaos of the moshpit and when the foot lifted, the tooth dust was gone.

They wanted her. Jerry wanted them. And she wanted to scream.

“You know that’s not him,” he said.

The fingers interlaced in her hair would not come undone, no matter how he pulled, until Jerry was just tugging out her roots. All while he kept lecturing her.

“You know that, right?”

She finally did something about the ones tearing out her hair. Jerry and her brother. Yasser went flying into his posse.

“Glad to see I’m not losing another friend today.” Jerry patted her on the back but she took that hand and dragged him up the stairs. “What are you doing?” he cried.

“I don’t want to lose someone else today so we’re getting out of here.”

The brakes went on. She wasn’t going to tear off his toenails while towing him around town. She stopped pulling.

“Hit me,” he said.

“Jerry, let’s go.”

“Don’t you want to know how I survived? Knocked out, sent crashing to the mountains in a smoking fuselage, and I stepped out just fine.”

“Not your beard.”

“If you won’t, they will.” He turned toward their pursuers. Arms spread out like he was Jesus sacrificing himself to stop the horde ascending the steps en masse, the one missing a tooth still at the front. “Run if you’re scared.”

But Sami yoked him by the neck and leapt to the east.

This distance would be enough to keep everyone safe.

~

It was not.

The door opened to medical equipment and machinery. A pump that churned as it fed its exhaust up through a peak in the skyline. Through many IVs in a gaunt man’s arms, legs, back, chest, and even neck, it sucked dry the color from his skin to release the spores that had infected the city. That had taken hold of those office workers and shoppers. Of that little girl. Maybe of Jerry.

“You’re the intern dating Sami, right?” Darna asked.

“Just friend.”

“Not your type?”

“No one is, unnie.” It didn’t mean much to Darna, if she noticed it at all, but it meant a lot to Kyeongwan to find a guide and relief. “And I’m not an intern.”

“Not after today!”

“I do production and now community managing.”

The sickly, drained man on the machine was less interesting than this information. With a wide-eyed realization, Darna said, “You’re a little me! I did that! Then this and now you’re--oh, it’s exciting.”

If Kyeongwan had any intent to continue this audition, she thought she could learn a lot from Darna. But for now, she had one question: “Who’s that?”

The smell had not left them when the door closed. The smell had joined them as Darna dragged in ammunition with her, and though she only had control of the water, there was a stench and Kyeongwan was again glad she didn’t accept the offer before, but Darna hosed down the medical equipment with enough force that the man lying there distressed vanished.

Her water returned to her darker. Full of spores and mold.

“Number 9.”

Kyeongwan didn’t understand.

“Now you’re one of hundreds of employees but for the first five years, the show was just the founders. Then Psy came on. Sami, then me, then Yasser and Jerry got hired around the same time and Jerry always made a big deal out of who was hired when to the new employees and because Yasser came on for contract work and Jerry came on full-time, Jerry wanted to count himself as Number 9. No one let him. No one else cared about the number but he cared so much, that whatever he should’ve been, we all called him Number 10. I haven’t hung out with him in ages. He’s here today, right? Bet he’s happy about that.”

“He was the betrayer.”

Another mold man came stumbling through a door in the back of the room, one that wasn’t visible from this angle. He looked the same. Dressed the same. Already gaunt and sapped of color. He went to lie on the machines and to hook himself up when he saw the two chatting.

“Let him have it, kid.” Darna stepped back. “Whatever powers you got, let the cameras see your catharsis.”

“I don’t…”

He puffed up and the brown in his cheeks returned. He wanted a fight.

“Let out all that’s weighing you down. It’s fine. He’s not really Number 9.”

“I’m done today.”

Darna pushed her toward the shambling man with a whisper, “You’re never done while the camera’s rolling.”

The drone panned around.

“He wouldn’t leave! I’d won and then--Why did we fight? It started because he took the hostage but then the hostage were outside. I could’ve left with a lot of time. But I stayed to win and he sat at the top floor as I ran away. And when the building collapsed, it wasn’t bombs. Those were just special effects. It was me. I collapsed the building on him.”

Again, dark and dirty mold filled Darna’s water.

“Please, unnie, can you show me how to get out?” Kyeongwan squatted so she could hug her knees. She didn’t care that she was nearer the smell of her footprints. She wanted the comfort of childhood innocence while waiting for the 117 bus on a humid summer day.

“I have to find The Classic,” Darna said. “Have you ever had a dog?”

“A few months ago. My first.”

“Adorable?”

“Yeah.”

“Potty trained? Snuggles with you?”

“Yeah?”

“And when you’re eating, she puts her chin on your leg with those big wet eyes gazing at you and even after a year with this good girl, you don’t want to leave for work. Even your 15-year-old cat that you’ve had since middle school likes the dog. But one day, you come home after a long shoot, expecting her to maybe have pooped the bed, but instead, the cat’s dead. She brings you the body like she might bring her favorite de-stuffed plush. I’m not saying you get rid of it, you don’t have to put it down, but it’s a conversation you have to have.”

Darna entered the door the clone had come from and reluctantly, Kyeongwan followed, to find a man behind it at a computer screen monitoring the other room via cameras. He was tall, a pale white, with glasses on the desk beside the mousepad. He put them on when they entered. “Aren’t you off today?” he said.

~

Snap

Snap

Snap

The sewage and sweat had matted the Voice Actor’s long brown hair. The rubber band tying it up in a man-bun had snapped as had the replacements he wore about his wrist. Except one.

Snap

Snap

He fled in the spot-lit dark till he tripped off the walkway. He slid through the canal of sludge. He saw a barred culvert that he couldn’t slip his Hollywood frame through but he tried, before slumping against the rounded wall and comfort-fiddling with his rubber band like he did when he needed a Coke.

Snap

Why had he transitioned from voice acting to live action? The man of a million voices had saved himself by throwing generically Euro-accented English echoing down the tunnels till The Classic pursued, but that had worked for only so long and now, the hero just followed the slosh of panicked footsteps.

And now, large boots stomped through the tunnel, stopping at the culvert.

Snap

~

Cafe Polyn’s window had shattered outward toward the street. The shards were clear but cloudy except where the window had been painted and an area where the concrete was dark and wet. There, the shards were long, sharp, and black. Whatever had broken the window had been removed.

The coffee shop offered no shelter in its condition so Sami dragged her hostage out back.

A cloudy tarpaulin covered the the backyard garden and woven around the metal frame, a garden hose had been punctured to mist the many rows of fragrant colors.

In a corner, there was an ax.

Maybe never used. Maybe never intended for use. A decoration permanently wedged into a stump to give the florist’s that rugged feel. Maybe just a threat the owner never wished to need.

“We’re not getting any points sitting out here.”

“Try standing,” Sami said. She watched the skies for any signs, but The Classic seemed grounded. Crashing a plane, destroying a building, probably some other unscripted chaos. He must be tired, too.

Ready to King Arthur this, Jerry gripped the ax handle.

But the weight of Sami’s foot sunk the blade deeper into the stump.

He heaved at the ax. “When you need help again, what am I supposed to do?”

He heaved until his face was red.

“What could you?” she said.

He heaved until she took her foot off and then he rubbed his hands together before giving it one last go. The ax stayed deep in the stump.

“Ha!”

“Why doesn’t anyone want me to have a chance?” His voice was getting loud. And whiny. “Why’s everyone have to sabotage me?”

“No one cares enough to sabotage you.”

He yelled, “I’ve been busting my ass since I was 10 years old! I deserve it more than anyone else, but no, you get a second chance after throwing the first one away.”

“Threw it away?” She clenched her hand around the handle. “It was stolen! By some asshole who wrecked that gaudy-ass setpiece, crashed our plane, took Kyeongwan away, took Yasser! And he still has a job.”

“They signed a waiver.”

All the strength the serum had given her shouldn’t have been enough to hold in her volcanic rage.

But she stayed quiet.

Their eyes locked.

~

The screen showed a few angles in an array of lighting. The dark that looked so natural under the soft light. The hard rim lights that caught shadows off Yasser’s nose when he lay there. This trash-tier night vision that never, ever got used but was there just in case.

The way they spoke--

“Weren’t you off today?”

"I was, Bretty boo, but the life of an all-star and all that.”

“Everyone else in post-OPX comas?”

“Probably.”

--they knew each other.

Darna explained, “I’m here to hand-deliver a message: Cease all high and low threat-level activities till clearance comes in.”

“Okay, let’s have it.”

She looked at him. He waited for her. There was a silence and Kyeongwan didn’t know who’d end it or what they were waiting on.

He held up his radio. “I haven’t gotten any word, so I assume there’s a letter from The Director that you’re hand-delivering.”

“Not literally hand-delivered. Mouth-delivered.”

He grimaced in his folding chair. It creaked under him like his conscience creaked under the possibility of incurring The Director’s wrath. “Without a letter... You get it, D.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure. Do you have a pen?” Darna looked to Kyeongwan as he felt around but Kyeongwan could only shrug and then Brett found one, handed it to her, and waited as she scrawled something in her palm, going over it repeatedly, tickling herself as she made the lines thick and tall. She showed her hand.

“STOP” it said with a scribble that was meant to be a signature. “There you go. Hand-delivered.”

“As literal as it is pitiful.”

“I swear this is legit, but the reception is shit down here.”

“Ha!” Kyeongwan laughed at the pun, rare for her to get, but it was apparently unintended the way Darna looked at her.

“Just trust me on this? I wouldn’t be here without orders.”

“Who’s that?” the guy finally acknowledged the tall, tan Korean woman looming in the back listening as the adults spoke.

“My apprentice. Are you going to stop?”

Kyeongwan noticed something finally. Something tugging at her. Something moving about the walls. Something clear and carrying a stench that’d been moving this whole time at the behest of an invisible, skillful will that had stalled till she was ready.

And when Brett answered, “No,” the water shot out to bind his arms and legs and neck and ultimately bend him till his back cracked and he fell into the puddle.

A puddle that Kyeongwan snatched control of to spray Darna.

But Darna was water. She couldn’t be disheveled by it, let alone defeated, and though this was her first realization that not only did Kyeongwan follow in her footsteps professionally, but that they also shared a power, she still couldn’t be beaten by surprise.

Kyeongwan whipped the water around for another attack and felt her control contested when suddenly, tendrils behind her caught her arms as they had Brett’s but like Slip, water had no hold over her--until it froze. The ice held her in place.

“Sorry, big bean, but I’m not letting the camera catch me play tug-of-war with a newbie. I win, I’m the bully. I lose and I’m old news. I don’t want either.”

~

A pyramid of clay pots stair-stepped up the concrete walls surrounding the cafe garden. Jerry didn’t even have to drag over too many, which was good. They were heavy. But as he went for that first step, his foot went into the loose topsoil and it felt too unstable so he tried the clay rim, more narrow, and more unbalanced, and after all his work, there was no safe way up. Sami watched from her spot blockading the door, waiting for him to embarrass himself.

He wasn’t afraid of falling. He was afraid of her being right. “Give me the ax.”

“Get it yourself,” she said.

It was sunk deep into the stump still.

“You expect to tear down a wall and you can’t pull it out yourself?” Sami asked. “It’s not a sledgehammer.”

“Then let me out.”

“Make me.” She wasn’t going to move either.

He wanted a fight. He wanted the cameras to capture his heroic violence against aggressive but ultimately powerless enemies and he wanted those small victories to earn him the spot he deserved on the show. But what could he do without a weapon? Even with one, what could he do? Nothing.

Then, one of those enemies started scaling the wall. It came tumbling onto the pyramid of pots, crashing with them till he was covered in soil and tangled in baby roots. Jerry jumped at this chance to stomp him further but Sami shoved him off her brother.

Fine, he thought, with her here, he could go out the door but she shoved him again.

“Stop,” Jerry said.

“I want to hit you so bad but I’m not going to hurt you so shoving’s about all I can do.”

“I’ve been in a plane crash, a building collapse, and you think you’re going to do anything to me? Give it all you’ve got and we’ll see who walks away.”

A clone busted open the door and Sami slammed it shut, but a hand had gotten through. With her strength, with that force, the severed hand fell to the concrete.

“Talk about a double standard. You can do it?”

“I don’t want to do any of this but all of you are--”

“They’re not him! They feel nothing.” He kicked the one by the flower pot crumbles. “It’s just some animatronic!” Kick. ”Or illusion!” Kick. “Or--” Kick. “--a--” A breath and then a final kick deep into his face. “--fake.”

“How many times do I have to watch him die?”

Sami had been there that day. After making a name for herself shooting advertisements and learning cinematography and more so, high-speed cameras, after working on films, after starting her own internet channel and just that one age-gated video was under a million views because the firecracker sent some shards of glass into her hand and people reported the blood and it didn’t get recommended in the algorithm and you had to sign in to view it, after all her success, she’d been hired by Orange Peals. Just hired. Coming on to shoot slow-mo and hold the boom mic and do some editing and a little directing on the small scale projects. It’d taken years of luck to get to that point. Then years more to get on camera and that opportunity only opened up because The Classic retired suddenly and she had to fight for years to be one of the guys and one of the regulars and then the star and then--and then--and then Warren came back. The Classic. Returning to the show. A big star with all the views that dropped off when everyone saw how he’d changed, but her episodes still got views. Her brother still got views. And she was filming the scene at 10,000 frames per second when The Classic killed him.

It didn’t air, obviously, but it wasn’t lost. It wasn’t deleted. It was played frame-by-frame over and over and over and…

And now he was back, real or not, and she had to watch him die over and over and…

And she’d never be over it, but she didn’t know what to do. It was an accident. She took time off. She went to therapy. She was on medication. The production company upped their safety regulations. It was an accident.

But it was still allowed.

Because it was for views.

The drone floated over her shoulder, trying to avoid her spiking the lens, so she punched it instead.

“That’s company property!”

It came floating back. It didn’t learn its lesson. The intern on the other side hadn’t taken control yet. It slammed into the wall this time.

“Stop it!” Without that drone, there was no contest for Jerry. No chance.

A third time but it swerved out of the way.

“You’re next,” she said to it, knowing The Director was watching. Then she chokeslammed Jerry into the floor.

It cracked and fell away to the sewer below. She lingered on the edge, looking down into the arena for today’s final bout.

ACT 3

Suspended by ice, Kyeongwan couldn’t even itch her nose. “He was a friend.”

“That’s the show, henny. We film over 600 hours of footage to get just 10 of them right. You get real close to real good people--off-camera. But the moment they’re on, you’re on. You’ll get used to it.”

“Your friend.”

“And Jerry is yours. And mine. Ish. Coworker.”

Kyeongwan hated that she trusted this woman so quickly. She should’ve known after today, after everything today, she made the same mistake and had Jerry thrown in her face.

Slip had turned her water to ice. Kyeongwan could see the progression as the hard shackles slushed and then were full drippy liquid connecting Slip to it. She couldn’t maintain the ice otherwise. And with that connection and with the conductivity, Kyeongwan’s hair stood on end as sparks lit up around her and gave Slip an unexpected jolt.

The ice cracked. Slip fell back.

“Didn’t know you were stacked like that. Sploosh.”

“I didn’t kill him!” Kyeongwan yelled as she strode ahead.

“If anyone ever calls you a Mary Sue, remind them The Classic’s got about 10 powers he forgot about.”

“Jerry wasn’t my fault! I didn’t kill him like you killed… what was his name?”

“Whoa, whoa!” Slip put her hands up to stop this now. “Brett’s not dead.”

The hair on Kyeongwan’s head dipped but static remained, as tentative to stop as she was. “He’s not?”

“Hell no! He won’t be happy in the morning, but I just needed him to back off with the extras till The Classic’s back on script. Don’t you know? These powers come with some serious gains beyond shooting water and defying gravity and laser-tits--season 13 was a weird one. Sometimes the serum’s a dud in terms of powers but if every extra or minor character that took a hit from The Classic died, we’d have been shut down and jailed ages ago. Accidents happen, sure, but Brett’s fine. Just needs to sleep it off.”

“Then Jerry…”

“He was in the 63 building?”

Kyeongwan nodded.

“Then no, he’s dead.”

“I survived! You survived!”

“Any powers like ours? Sorry, kid, but even for me it was a close call.” Darna pulled out a sapphire from her pocket. It was the same one that slotted into the back of her costume. She spun it around to reveal a crack. “I never go anywhere without this. Inside is a little bit of me, like a nucleus in case I’m ever right and truly fucked. When that explosion went off, we got lucky this was blown into the lake, but they had a funeral for me and that kind of accident--we had therapists called in even after I emerged. It’s not perfect, but better to have a Plan B--or C, D, E, G, Z. I recommend it.”

The water pinged Slip like a tap on the shoulder and she broke mid-conversation to follow it but when Kyeongwan hesitated to step back into the sewage, parted or not, the iced incline pulled her toward their new goal.

A flat walkway in the dark presented a choice:

Take her chance

with the light of the new drone in a labyrinth

or

with Slip.

She wasn’t sure of either anymore.

~

One giant, veiny hand covered the Voice Actor’s horse face. It stunk of more than sweat and sewage. It stunk of what had come and what was coming. It stunk of sin.

The blood-dipped fingers with crimes beneath the fingernails dug into the flesh beneath his cheek bones.

But the VA smiled.

Even blind like this, he could see now. He could stretch his perception through these dark tunnels and even without his drone lighting the way, he could see. Little psychic sonar telling him where the ledge was, where the corner was, where this madman was. It hadn’t taken much mental strain to drag behind him a few bombs he’d found, either.

They rose up out of the water.

Their timers pinned at 0:05.

0:04

0:03

0:02

~

“Stop.”

Slip answered by ignoring.

As they reached a steep ramp that they didn’t need ice to slide down, Kyeongwan protested again but the question went not ignored but unheard as water, waste, and gravity combined to a rushing roar echoing through cinematic tunnels. Slip grabbed her by the wrist to steady her.

The sound built. The static of echoes opened up but the source was louder, rolling over on itself, and by instinct alone, Kyeongwan knew a drop was ahead and before Slip could pull her over the edge of the waterfall frothing into a soup that churned until the stench was as strong as the roar, she shocked the older actress. Slip went surfing over solo.

Kyeongwan stared down into the dark. It might not have been far but the angle of the light intentionally didn’t show the depth and, being afraid of heights, the dark only let her imagination exaggerate the possible fall.

A surge of water flowed upward. “What’s the deal?” Slip asked.

“No!”

“We have to. It’s The Classic.”

“Very no!” Kyeongwan took a deep breath and mist sprayed her tongue. “Very, very, very no. Not fighting him.”

“We’re not fighting. We’re talking.”

She looked back the way they’d come and saw only darkness beyond the drone. “Like we talked Brett?”

“Exactly! And just like with Brett, fighting’s the last resort. Or like third resort. Collapsing the sewer is probably last.”

“Do you really see it ending any other way?”

“No!” Slip tried pulling Kyeongwan over again but found the taller woman more than sturdy. It wasn’t just how the lighting hit the youth--those sculpted arms were real and just a bonus to the real work dancing had done on her build.

~

The Classic’s ragged red costume hung by scraps about his neck as he sat just outside the sewer entrance, listening for the next cry for help. He’d respond.

~

A few more useless tugs and Slip said, “He wasn’t always like that.”

Season 1, he was the underdog even. “I don’t know how scripted that season was,” but at least in the show, he was some random sidekick pulled in sporadically to be the naive moral center and he even quit the team till the final episode where, plain-clothed, he wandered the rubble--they filmed in a quarry before they had the money for real destruction--and the final shot was him standing tall among the defeated.

Fans loved him!

He wasn’t even that strong, silent cliche. That came later. Back then he was the motivational speech kid. “I have a lot of memories of tearing up because of him.” Everything was different then. The whole feel of the show.

Kyeongwan saw her getting lost in nostalgia. “Why’d he leave?”

“The company doesn’t talk about it.”

A fan broke into his home. This was right after season 10. “I remember we had to cut around it because some pick-ups hadn’t been filmed, and we even talked about missing deadlines.” And after filming, actors weren’t juiced up. It was a strain: physically, mentally, and probably the real reason, financially. They didn’t tell fans that. It’d break the fantasy. So a month or two of the stuff, then done except at the OPXes.

So between filming, when the stuff had worn off, a fan broke in. Obsessed. Couldn’t understand. Deranged. “Warren had to hide in a closet and call the police and the response time was just a few minutes.”

During that time, the guy found him.

He was shot seven times, then the nutjob shot himself. “Warren almost didn’t make it.”

And in Hollywood, on shows, when you’re shot in the knee, just slap a sling on the guy and they’re back in action the next day. But in real life, it was a year for even the most basic recovery.

“Couldn’t they give him powers to help?” Kyeongwan asked.

“I told you: it’s a physical strain. After yours wears off, you’ll probably sleep for a day. It was a year till that was possible. And you remember season 11? We wrote it as if he was missing and we were searching for him and the finale had that big reveal that he was back”--but after filming, after welcoming him back and setting up OPX as the big fan reveal where he was going to descend through the glass, he backed out last minute.

They threw in Yasser instead and “I think that really soured fans toward him at the start but that kid shit charm.” Fans got over it.

So Warren left to recover psychologically and if he couldn’t, maybe retire, but he was a founder. He was The Director’s oldest friend. He got whatever he wanted and his one request was, dangers be damned, to be dosed up till eternity. “He stopped being Warren. It’s weird to call him that.” He was The Classic, on and off the show.

“Why?” Kyeongwan asked.

Slip shook her head. She had ideas but nothing concrete. “And when he came back after a few years, you know the community reaction, but for us, we weren’t worried about being replaced or upstaged--we were just so excited it was more permanent than an appearance at the company holiday party. All the hugs. All the photos.”

Slip took a breath.

“And you know when you get really hyped about something and you’re wrong? Disappointment hurts but with hype, it’s like climbing a mountain to be shoved off.”

~

Before Sami jumped into the final arena, littered with tables and chairs, dead and dusty plants, and the clearance rack from the clothing store next door, she pulled the ax out of the stump.

~

Ricocheting through the tunnels and overpowering even Filth Falls--The Classic. It had to be. Who else made such a ruckus that even Slip paused?

“Ready?”

“I already fought him today and no! I know what he does.”

“Did you have any powers then? Now you have two. And you have me.” Slip hugged her and all the shocks Kyeongwan could muster wouldn’t shock her off.

Kyeongwan, for a third time that day, fell.

And for the third time, she got up.

Rising from the filth, she didn’t have to wash herself off. Darna did it for her. They were fine. They’d fallen and they were fine.

“Ready?”

Still, Kyeongwan hesitated.

She survived but…

“What if those sounds are The Classic and Sami Round 2?” Darna asked.

~

Jerry had no chance against Sami. She had experience. She had powers. She had the right powers. She punched and kicked and even The Classic would feel it. Jerry slammed into a wall. She didn’t need the ax. She lobbed shopping racks at him and he’d jump out of the way but a rolling wheel would clip his ankle. The shirts on clearance drifted to the dusty basement floor and draped over his body.

But Jerry got up.

Plastic pants hangers went whizzing by his head like a boomerang and the clips burst to shrapnel against the concrete wall, and he shielded himself, instinct focusing cover across his eyes.

When she launched herself toward him to slam a fist through his face, he dodged--gracefully tripping--and her fist crumpled the calligraphed OPEN sign.

The fight wore on her. She wasn’t invulnerable.

But it seemed he was.

A punch to the gut and he hunched over, but she was the one out of breath.

While she panted, he grabbed the ax.

~

The tunnels split and they listened and Slip felt it and Kyeongwan thought she did, too, the pull of action at her feet, and they went left. And the tunnel split again and Kyeongwan guessed right and was right. And the tunnel split and Kyeongwan thought she was ready to decide for herself, but couldn’t. And neither could Slip.

Left or right.

Sounds were from both.

Fights were either way.

“If you find him.” Slip handed Kyeongwan her company phone. “ Don’t break that. They’ll charge me for it.”

“And if you--”

“Ha! Not a chance, kid.”

Slip left. Kyeongwan right. And they went toward their final fights, though neither knew that.

ACT 4

The City was quite clean with street sweepers and a poop patrol around convention time and a militant force of senior citizens with mechanical grabbers, but the scummiest people the world over were still allowed to apply for apartments. Genocidal dictators, petnappers, people who spit when they spoke and never apologized--peanuts compared to the rare litterbug. And one litterbug left a wax-coated paper cup for their tobacco spit by a tree. And in it, a puddle of water.

Between the apartments, neighbors hung clothing lines on pulley systems with an agreed upon schedule for who got which days and often, often, often the neighbor in Apartment 232A would leave theirs out a full day more than what they were allowed and Apartment 232B wouldn’t say a word. Both neighbors were gone today. And across the line, a layer of water. Across every line, a layer of water.

The fire escape--little dew drops on the railing.

The moisture that hadn’t soaked into potted plants.

A sewer rushing like it’d poured all night.

And a naked, hulking man stopping near a manhole cover. The Classic looked around.

Had she been spotted?

~

The fight was through the rubble blocking the sewer passage. She could hear it. The final battle. The sounds of punches hitting flesh or stone. The story told in sudden exclamations and the efforts. She could hear the combatants calling the other’s name.

But there was no doorway through the rubble.

Just cracks she’d slip through.

~

Apartment 232A crumbled and the clothes lines connecting the two severed with it. All it took was one stomp of his foot to send a shockwave through the street to destroy a million-dollar investment and pop a hydrant. Out came Slip.

“Guess that’s not working this time, but hey, you’re learning!” She threw her hands up in a friendly surrender. The universal you-got-me pose.

The Classic flung the manhole cover like a discus behind him and its dull edge flew with such force and rotation that it sawed the fire escape on Apartment 232B. The tripwires she’d rolled out were cut. The traps had failed.

“Warren, you’re not supposed to be here.”

“Where am I supposed to be?” The Classic asked. His dirty feet lifted off the street and he slowly floated away.

“Wait!”

He didn’t.

Before the day started, Apartment Building 230 was having morning tea on the roof as they picked at club sandwiches and discussed last night’s news. Then the call went out. The infection. They wandered off to battle the crashing actors, should any survive, leaving their tea to go cold. Slip had run a line through the sewers, through the twisting, fatberged pipes, out the sink, and up and around till she could dip her little toe in that cold tea and now it shot out like so many lassos, from the spills on the saucers to the electric kettle, to wrangle the man by his every limb.

“There are no cameras here,” he said.

He chopped the lines holding him. They splashed to the rooftops and rubble and he continued upward.

“You’re right,” Slip said. “Not a single camera so none of that fanservice pole dance-fighting and I don’t have to worry about angry comments when you lose.”

The manhole he’d uncovered shot out its rushing sewage into a geyser that froze around him and the chunk fell to the street too solid and cold to even crack on impact. And more water wrapped around the iceberg piling on layers to flash-freeze and expose him to the misery of Neandertals unprepared for Arctic conditions and sap him of every ounce of struggle within him till he was ready to get to his mark.

It didn’t work.

It only turned him on her.

He drilled his way out of the cube and barreled toward her, his steps shaking the trees, and she melted the cube to slick the ground so he slipped. A semi-truck hydroplaning.

But he could fly.

And when he did, still aimed her way, he splashed her into a million little droplets that then rained down on him and formed into ice stakes that spiked his limbs by piercing the muscles and even getting between bones and then flowering deep in the concrete to root him in place for all of time if necessary.

And still it didn’t work.

She popped up across the street. Her hand was missing. A frozen chunk came flying at her, melting mid-air and configuring, till she was popping her fingers to feel that bodily connection with them again. “Come on, Big C. Years of this and I’m checking my mental logs, but outside filming, you haven’t won yet. So get to your mark or we’re doing this till they wrap.”

Her hair was shorter currently. She liked Kyeongwan’s style. Wanted to try it out. It wasn’t for her, but she left the chunk hiding among the Apartment 232A’s rubble.

Till The Classic spotted it and his eyes lit up with a quiet fury that shot out and evaporated the missing length of her hair.

“Laser eyes…” She sighed. “Another new power. Great.”

~

The ax head dragged scratches across the broken concrete. White on the dark. There was no sheen on the metal head. He hefted it over to his shoulders.

Sami watched from her knees.

If she stayed down, Jerry wouldn’t…

A small hand palmed his face from beard to eyes and jettisoned him wet through the drywall.

Thinking it was Slip to the rescue, knowing that she wouldn’t approve of the mission, Sami stayed down. But then, wide-eyed, scrambling in the dust to find leverage to get to her feet and fast, Sami went full-speed at Kyeongwan, heaving from the attack. Or maybe from rage.

“You were alive?” Kyeongwan yelled at him.

“You’re alive?” Sami turned the question on her. “And pissed at him?” Sami turned to him. “You knew?”

Finally, getting up, he felt around for the ax, but it’d been swept away by the current as Kyeongwan reformed and it lay at her feet with a wet T-shirt.

“Toss me that, Kyeongie.”

“Who needs it for him?”

“I’ve been going at him and nothing. Into the wall. Into the ground. Apparently even an airplane and building can’t do it. But one good chop from me--it’s the only way.”

“Only way for what?”

“Toss me it.”

“Sami.”

“Give it here.”

“It’s Jerry!”

“You put down rabid dogs. We’re the past the point of discourse, past reprimand, he is beyond the moral horizon and this is what it’s come to.”

Jerry came charging at Kyeongwan, tackling her to get the ax, but he swam through, finding a current in her belly that swirled him around and he came out empty-handed headed for the wreckage of the register when Sami grabbed him by the shirt collar, letting the momentum build as she spun him round, the collar choking him then starting to tear--it was only a $20 shirt that he paid $40 for because it was limited edition--and when she let go, again toward the register, but with such speed, they’d both explode into a spray of teeth and keyboard buttons.

Kyeongwan guided him down a slip-n-slide away from danger. He rolled and scraped himself on the metal hook of a hanger, but his teeth were intact.

Full-force Sami ran to spear him with a shard from full-length mirror and Kyeongwan threw an inch of water at her feet. She hydroplaned to the floor.

“Stop please?” Kyeongwan asked.

His feet grated the silt into the concrete as he approached and Kyeongwan stared him down. He didn’t stop. He knew what she could do and he knew what he had to do.

Sami rose. But Kyeongwan and the ax weren’t her target. Jerry was.

However little sympathy Kyeongwan had for him, she had to protect him from Sami till everyone calmed down.

Her phone rang.

The battle took a break.

~

In the canon, Slipstream was designed to nullify The Classic. No matter how he beat and bucked and thrashed, Slip would get back up. He couldn’t bruise water. Darna was the lucky chosen one to forever keep him in check--or so was the story before he left and when finally, he returned, they got to test that. He couldn’t win. And at first, rarely could she. It was a stalemate till The Director yelled, “Cut!” She worked and schemed and ran through it in her head until she’d gotten control over not just liquid water but solid water. Ice. Sap his strength with mild hypothermia.

She’d never mastered gaseous form, however, and when The Classic fried up her hair--it was gone. But so be it. Those baby blues of his flashed redder than his absent costume then pierced her skull. Her head was just gone.

Once again, he floated upward to find his next challenge. The next camera.

But Slip came spraying upward, still headless, and pounded him on the chin with an icy stump neck with enough force to crack it.

He grabbed those shoulders and evaporated the ice so quick it popped as it changed states.

Then a quick, heated scan of her waist.

And the ice melted away.

That wasn’t her. It never had been.

It’d shot up to distract him from the army seeping out the cracks in the road, and now each shot up with their own icy edges. None hit their target dead on. They weren’t meant to. Whatever force her geyser could create, it was still fighting gravity. If they missed or just grazed his love-handles with little papercuts, they rose high into the atmosphere where nature hardened them further and gravity pulled them down with such wild, frictioned velocity that these frozen treats would cauterize what they slashed.

The Classic shot his eyes at what he could but the narrow beam caught only a few, and those split into more projectiles. He dodged. He swatted. He tried to get out of the way but the bright day was dimmed by how many Slips there were.

And still more rose up.

Ice sapping him. Nicks in his iron flesh draining blood by the drop.

And finally.

Finally.

Finally.

He fell.

Through the concrete like a drill boring for oil, but instead what he found was the real Slip, and he collapsed the sewer. Four blocks leveled, one in each direction of the six-lane intersection and a circumference of coffee shops, department stores, even a daycare. All to smoke her out.

The glimmer of her sapphire sparkled as she solidified through the debris, then stayed hidden in her pocket.

His hits connected now.

And he aimed for something very specific in the moments of vulnerability when her control was knocked away.

“Listen, buddy, I get you don’t like being told what to do but maybe pick another profession than--”

A meaty fist knocked her to droplets.

A finger reached out.

It touched the sapphire.

“What the hell, man?” she yelled.

His eyes lit up and she swirled around the beam but even the surrounding air boiled away.

“Take it up with The Direct--”

He caught her.

Every trick in her book wasn’t enough. The icy spikes. The pressure points. Nothing loosened his grip.

He dragged her up to the sky. The water whipped up trailing the sapphire and she continued to struggle, but the higher they got, the colder it got. Her fingers turned to slush as he held tight. Her ice cube teeth chattered.

Ice in summer was cake, easy but short lasting. But water in winter? She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t do anything. She was his.

She pulled out her phone.

~

Yeo-bo-sa-yo?” Kyeongwan answered. “Hello? This is Slipstream’s phone.”

On the other end, Slip’s voice was faint behind the wind. “I know, big bean.”

“Did you find him? What happened? Did you win yet?”

“Not much time left so just promise me something. Look for me next time it rains, okay?”

Unnie?

The line clicked off.

Silence against her ear.

Then the approach of Sami’s heavy footsteps and Kyeongwan threw her against the wall and when she got up, again, a jetstream pinned her down, and when that didn’t stop her, the electricity lit up the water. Sami’s jaw locked up and she grunted with the pain, wanting to open wide and let out a fierce roar but every muscle spasmed and she felt it most in her ears till finally, with no control, she fell and stayed down. For too long. Had Kyeongwan gone overboard? She sprinted over to check, leaving the ax for Jerry to scoop up.

“Just stop!” Kyeongwan yelled.

The three drones panned around them, each with its own angle and distance. “There’s no stopping while it’s rolling,” Jerry said.

Sami groaned next to her. “I’m not stopping while this show’s still going.”

“Either stay out of this,” they said in unison, “or fight.”

ACT 5

The ice around his fist shattered.

The sculpture of her body fell away.

The phone slipped out of her hand.

High in the sky, The Classic examined the cracks in the sapphire.

His eyes lit up.

~

A river encircled Jerry and when Kyeongwan solidified, she held him at his wrists, on his knees, her foot on his back for leverage. He was trapped. And while he was bigger than her, whenever he struggled, she tazed him till he submitted.

“There! He’s down and we’re done,” she announced, but Sami had just snatched the ax. “Stop!”

Sami didn’t.

Sami had known Slip for years. She’d seen a mirror slide off a wall and split Slip in two. And Slip had reformed.

“Stop!”

She’d watched Kyeongwan closely this fight, too. They were the same.

And so, Sami didn’t stop. She marched toward Jerry held in the stocks.

Would Kyeongwan let him go?

Sami raised the ax.

“Stop!”

It was too late.

She brought it down.

Episode 2

ACT 1

The force of the parachute spreading wide and catching air tore Kyeongwan and Sami apart.

Kyeongwan fell.

The plane glided overhead with Jerry still inside the smoky fuselage. The dot of The Classic zipped off for his next victim. The wind took Sami’s parachute toward the lightning rod on the 63 Building and Kyeongwan lost sight of her.

Supes Episode 2.png

In the reflection of the windows, she was a rag-doll.

On the street, she was a puddle in clothes.

~

There he was.

Not a memory.

Not a video Sami had watched a hundred times.

Not a photo hanging in her house with that stupid grin.

It was him.

She hurried down the steps of the helipad but the parachute snagged on the opposite corner, draping it across the limit for weight printed in thousands of pounds and the limit for rotor diameter printed in feet, and as she looked down to fumble with the buckles and straps, she lost sight of him.

The camera drone floated in her face to catch her reaction and she swatted at it but missed.

A heavy door slammed closed.

“Yasser!” She chased him.

Her voice echoed down the stairwell that led to locked doors and at the final one, floor 57, she was ready to rip the door off. She didn’t have to.

All the top ten lists of tourist attractions in The City, even the one put out by Orange Peals’ socials, listed the 63 Building at number 10. It was a great first thing to do. The lowest floor had restaurants and shops and an elevator that went straight to the top, no other stops, where visitors ignored the office art for a view of the city. But there wasn’t much else. None of the restaurants made anyone’s radar. The shopping was there because why not? The other 61 floors had their own entrance and elevators so the office workers could get to their desks each morning without paying an exorbitant $30 admission. It was just a good central view of The City, and in the series, a landmark you wanted a selfie at. However, some patrons would sneak in to see the rest of the building hoping for a special treasure and the secretaries were tasked with answering calls and gatekeeping.

“Ma’am, do you have a visitor’s badge?” the secretary said.

“A man came through here.”

“Ma’am, you can get a badge at the security desk if you take this elevator to—”

“Tall. V-neck and blazer. It couldn’t have been—”

“Ma’am.”

“more than a minute—”

Ma’am—”

TELL ME WHERE HE WENT!” Sami screamed over whatever inane script she followed.

This drew the branch manager from his desk, a 50-something redhead with thick tortoise shell glasses that didn’t look good back when Bradley here adopted the style. “Janine asked you to leave, ma’am.”

“Listen, Bradley, I don’t care anymore about this stupid...”

The man’s shirt was untucked and splashed with blood. His tie was snipped where thin. “I’m going to have to escort you out.”

“Touch me and we’ll see where that hand can fit.”

He stepped toward her and she kicked the umbrella bin at his ruddy face, knocking those glasses off. A few office employees gathered blocking the entrance and behind them, Sami saw there’d been violence.

Overturned desks arranged in an octagon formed an arena. A man, unconscious, bloody and shirtless, lay inside and the victor raised his wrists clad in coffee pot handles, regular and decaf, brown and orange, with the glass gouging deep after his makeshift boxing gloves shattered upon KO.

Sami backed up to the elevator doors. Her hand smudged the wall panel as she slapped for a button. Up, down, what did it matter once she was on? Above the door, the LED flashed the elevator’s current floor: 5.

The office workers closed in.

~

The drone hovered over the wet crater in the center of the street. Water trickled down the sides, running over exposed pipes, gathering in a puddle beneath the yellow plaid shirt. A fine mist had splashed outside the hole. The cracks in the pavement funneled the remains, but even the droplets on the flat intact land were pulled down.

From the crater, Kyeongwan emerged. A pebble fell out of her fingertip.

The shimmering gold of the 63 Building towered above the apartments and small businesses lining the city block. The shimmering gold that she’d seen her reflection in as she fell.

She remembered.

The feeling.

The sound.

The impact.

She remembered seeing Sami’s emergency parachute drifting toward the top of the building.

~

“How many now?”

In the broadcast room with more monitors than people, quiet chatter into headsets helped Tim the intern in the back corner behind a stack of curved ultra-wide screens communicate with Marshall up front. His whispers barely registered over the hum of equipment. Tim the intern said, “Six. No, five. Kyeongwan’s camera is still up.”

“Send it north,” The Director commanded. “Replace the one in the crash.”

“But...” Tim the intern hesitated to ignore the direction. “But she’s up, too.” He couldn’t see The Director’s reaction. The Director hadn’t looked away from the main screen, even when he barked that he’d been watching this view for too long and Eli had panic-switched through a few till she found one with something happening. Tim would hate for that bark to be sicced on him. “Should I still send it?”

Marshall cringed in his ear. “Dude.”

The Director turned around with the answer in his silence.

“Just checking.”

ACT 2

Tarnished splendor, mirroring the reflection Kyeongwan saw in the fall, lay beyond the front door.

Usually the center of the room had a tree decorated in fairy lights year round with astroturf at the base. Modern murals blended styles and stories, and the myth it wove started in school with a child raising their hand and after destruction, atrocities, and vengeance painted above the elegance of restaurants and the convenience of pretzel vendors, the circular room wrapped back around to that child still asking to go to the toilet.

The tree was still there, but nutrients from a body trickled down whetted branches.

The restaurants had shuttered in time but the dents came from inside: prisons, not shelters.

The mural had gone untouched, but perhaps Kyeongwan had arrived too early.

Mall shoppers, between a dozen and two, were split into two clashing groups with a blurry delineation at the center where only violence was apparent, violence and victory, as the groups split even enough that either had a chance but too many on one team were frightened individuals pressed against the murals wishing it were a portal they could escape into because fairytale destruction, atrocities, and vengeance were preferable to this reality. Those who refused to be victims shouted and chucked the contents of their purses at the attackers, whether it was a book or a sunglasses case. Some lobbed their purses. Some took off their shoes to beat back the swell of bodies that threatened to engulf them. A security guard held the line the best he could (not well at all), urging everyone on both sides to backup, calm down, and go home, but his words went unheeded in the chatter of panic and violence.

Behind Kyeongwan, the door sealed shut. A few ears caught the new arrival. They started yelling to her, “You have to help us!”

They chanted it until others in the crowd joined in the chorus.

“You have to help us,” the security guard said. The pocket of his uniform had torn. The aggressors and employees around him, all dirty faces and wrinkled clothes, approached Kyeongwan en masse, while those against the mural watched uncertain.

She said, “I’ll take care of this.” But she didn’t really know how she’d do that.

But another repeated, “You have to help us,” in this dry, distant voice.

She looked at the automatic door she had come through. “Go, go!”

The crowd was torn between listening to their tender nursery rhyme-filled hearts that insisted on helping and listening to that fear wildly bruising their hearts against ribs, but with regret already fading, many stood under the sensor for the automatic door—and it didn’t open. They worked their fingers into the seam. The lock had latched. Even those who wanted to help Kyeongwan had a new task: beat down that door.

The mob was nearly on Kyeongwan.

“You have to help us.” They backed her into a wall with no escape route. When Kyeongwan pushed into the crowd, they pushed back and forced her onto a cushioned bench. The security guard flashed his Maglite in her eyes.

“What are you doing?” she asked the guard. “I thought you were...”

“You have to help us.” They leaned in like they wanted to devour her.

She kicked the woman in the middle.

From the second rank, another filled the hole.

The woman with the footprint on her shirt rose.

Kyeongwan kicked and flailed and tried but there were too many. Someone grabbed her ankle. She had waited too long to fight back and now that wasn’t an option. She could only scream. The shoppers working on the door to no success charged to her aid but they only jostled the mob, adding pressure to Kyeongwan, pressing these gaping-mouth crazies inches toward her and she had no room left to kick or flail.

The security guard raised his heavy, metal flashlight above with the beam aimed at the ceiling as he prepared to swing it down into her skull.

Her arm slipped from its captor.

The light came swinging.

She raised that free arm to block it out of instinct. She tensed as she expected pain. Light splashed through, slowed but not stopped, still coming for her nose, but that too, when hit, splashed. And then she was behind them, her arm intact, her nose as cute as ever, their shoes a bit wet.

“That was weird feeling,” she admitted to the crowd of would-be rescuers and attackers. Then she sent them on their way while she kept her promise: “GO!” she yelled.

The peaceful crowd retreated to another store, trusting that what they’d just seen her do would keep her and, more importantly, them safe.

Just ahead, Kyeongwan saw a luggage store with the metal shutter open half a meter. Faster than these foot-dragging, mouth-hanging freaks, Kyeongwan outran them, sliding along the smooth marble floor, but she didn’t get low enough and when her head wanged on the metal, the brain liquid and the hair liquid and the ear liquid zipped back in place and she reformed with the thrilled smile of discovery. She was getting the hang of this already.

~

In a separate part of the city, in the shadow of a hotel that was in the shadow of the 63 Building, Cafe Polyn, a privately owned coffee shop where the owner brought in her gentle giant yellow Lab, was overrun by a similar crowd of infected individuals.

The owner had pulled down the blinds of the glass storefront with beautiful calligraphy stating, “We are always your friend,” but the roving mob had smashed through the slogan and the customers, the sane ones, hid in the garden out back where she hadn’t picked up Polyn’s morning poop yet. There was no windows to the back. The door locked by key only. It was the only entrance unless people started climbing the surrounding, six-foot brick fence. But it wouldn’t be safe forever.

The community team, the only plane to land safely on a nearby 8-lane highway, stumbled upon the scene. “Um... hi?” one of the four said to crowd tossing the espresso cups to smash against the locked door. He didn’t have the confidence or experience to be as heroic as he’d been last night in his fantasies while unable to sleep.

The crowd turned to the community.

The community looked to each other, nervously laughing, waiting for someone else to make the first move.

There was the guy who could fly. The guy who oozed obsidian from his skin that hardened into a protective shell. The guy who could unhinge his jaw like a snake and probably swallow something quite large, and the guy who made flowers grow, but he hadn’t figured that out yet and thought he was a dud. No one truly offensive.

But this was why they were here. Flower Power shoved the nearest man in the crowd.

The crowd shoved back. They overwhelmed him. Kicked him on the ground. Drew blood from a loose tooth and the community team only realized when a wild kick covered in enough blood flung crimson droplets onto the white tile. The Obsidian Ooze dove on top of his new compatriot to shield him. Sharp volcanic glass that could survive all these kicks, breaking phalanges and metatarsals before cracking and exposing the hero to damage, but he was so thin and short and his downed teammate neither of those and the shield only blocked a few blows.

“Stop!” Fly Guy yelled in his Australian accent. “Stop!”

~

“What are they doing?”

“Nothing,” Marshall reported.

“Put it center.” The big screen at the front of the room switched the main cam away from the scene at the top of the 63 Building to Fly Guy’s view of the mosh pit. “Boa Boy can’t do anything. Can’t even watch. Who screened these four?” His voice rose to frightening levels, but casting was home, so it cut low again. “Who’s going to watch this?” The Director was about to instruct Bandile to relay some instructions. Give them a chance at least.

But Boa Boy’s drone swung around for a view behind him and Marshall, spying it on the small screen, interrupted. “Wait.”

~

Boa Boy couldn’t watch the coming carnage. He looked away and saw, descending from the heavens in a costume tattered to its last, The Classic.

What hope! What fortune! These 4 mega-fans, a local, two from opposite coasts, one from Australia for crying out loud, not only got to meet this long time icon but they were being saved by him.

He strode through the glass, letting remnants shatter against his shoulder. He pulled the two boys from the ground.

The attackers persisted. They grabbed for fabric and limbs. One caught a shoelace and pulled till it was uncomfortably tight.

He tossed the boys to the safety of the street. Flower Power getting a bit of road rash from the roughness but the Obsidian Ooze was fine, just his shell scratched.

Rather than turning to the swarm of opponents at his back, The Classic faced down the two standing boys.

~

A wet piece of rolling luggage tumbled from its display stack to the patterned floor and Kyeongwan was ready for her attackers. It took them a bit to chase her over here, choosing to crawl under the rolling shutter rather than lift it, but that gave her time to test and prep.

She waited behind an L-shaped counter with three registers, a key in hand.

Their steps sounded on the black marble.

Judging by the noise, they roamed in a pack. They paused in a pack. They peeked around the luggage in a pack.

Her back was against the locked cabinet that contained rolls of receipt paper and her eyes were on the swinging gate that was easy to step over but social conventions stopped customers. That would not stop this mob. So she watched. And waited.

But it was from behind that they yanked her up and over with reward card applications forms flying everywhere.

After the momentary panic, she dripped from their clutches and went on with her plan.

She squirted them in the face with all the pressure of a thumb over a garden hose, then ran the cracks of the floor pattern toward the entrance till she was out, carrying a padlock in her current. She slammed the metal gate shut and locked it. They banged against it so it echoed in the lobby like so many aluminum oven liners. The clanking and clatter. The rumble of her empty stomach.

Baegopa,” she moaned.

The feeling was exhilarating but ultimately these powers exhausted her. She needed a little rest before continuing upward, but there was still the matter of the shoppers. The peaceful ones.

“Are you okay?” she asked, coming into the clothing store. A few peeked out from behind the racks. “What happened?”

A mom with her young daughter came forward. The little girl’s short hair was in twin space buns and Kyeongwan almost thought she was cute, almost. The mom explained, “They just went nuts.”

Kyeongwan remembered.

The mold.

The infection.

Brainwashing.

Anyone could turn suddenly.

She nodded at the crowd then led them to the door. It stayed closed so she charged it with her shoulder and it rocked under the weight of her tsunami as she splashed against it. A few drops went through the cracks. She tried again. A deep breath, and again. This time, panting, there was no starting as her legs sloshed in her shoes, her feet spilling out. She belly flopped forward. She needed to rest. The floor was a good place for that.

The mother helped her to the bench by the tree. “I’m okay,” she mumbled.

Now it opened. She looked her drone in the lens, wondering who on the other side was in control, what else they had planned, and if they were laughing at her struggle. Embarrassment like this better not make the cut.

She sent the crowd on through that entrance big enough for two at a time, but then the people beyond the exit cried and ran while those waiting in line stopped pushing forward. Something was happening between the set of doors. Kyeongwan rushed through to see the mother on the ground, curled up in a defensive position as the little girl with twin space buns kicked repeatedly.

Kyeongwan’s voice went ragged as she yelled, “Stop!” but she couldn’t get through the surge of people fleeing. She full-on barked, “HAJIMA!” and her rage rolled over on itself. She pushed through. Tackled the girl into the bushes outside, then rolled off and the girl ran into the city looking for her next victim.

The others in the crowd had already taken the unconscious mother for treatment and so Kyeongwan, needing physical and emotional respite, stopped at the bench circling the bloody tree, she leaned back and her head hit a beeping plastic explosive, counting down.

As she headed for the door, she remembered why she was here.

Sami.

Top floor.

The timer read two hours still, but Kyeongie didn’t know if that was accurate. If there were more. If they were all set to the same time.

However, she did know that this was a show. No one participating knew how to disarm a bomb. Most films had the hero sweating over which wire, in her same predicament, not a clue what they were doing, and in the end, they always, always, always chose correctly. She grabbed some scissors from the pen cup of a clothing store. She cut the green wire.

And the timer stopped.

Kyeongwan headed up the stairs without a clue that she’d gotten very lucky.

~

From the garden behind Cafe Polyn, the owner grabbed the decorative ax. Any damage was from bashing a painted, wedge-shaped mace that gave the illusion of sharp. The screams from inside the cafe terrified some into scrambling atop each other, over the walls, but she was left alone, too short to get herself up. She’d save Polyn, the cafe and the dog, with this ax.

She unlocked the door and saw the mob of aggressors mumbling as they stood around in the glass they’d shattered into the cafe.

Her clutch softened. The metal fell to the soil.

On the street was more glass. Black glass. Volcanic glass. The glass of camera lenses. And so much blood.

Rising above the flat-top roof, she saw The Classic.

~

The second floor housed more shopping, but beyond that, doors were locked from this side to prevent nosy customers from wandering into the offices that actually filled the floors of this building. Kyeongwan had never been here. She didn’t know that between populated floors there were 10 stories missing because it was wasted space on a decorative set piece that got evacuated to be destroyed twice a season. She saw the locked employees-only door and slipped under to follow the staircase as high as it’d take her before she wandered into a trashed office.

No swivel chairs—they’d been tossed to the street. A breeze cut itself on jagged window panes. Electrical cords stretched the canyons between overturned computer desks. Filing cabinets spilled the contracts with dotted lines signed by the muck of footprints. An arena in the center. And all the office workers tied up on the inside.

But for the moment, she could ignore that.

She said, “I thought I never see you again.”

~

The mob of dowdy employees had their individuality boiled down to the width of silver stripes on their uniform tie, some a quarter inch, some an eighth, even pinstripes, and these automatons ran down the steps, the stairs ringing with speed while Sami had taken the elevator. Beat them by a cool minute with enough time to sneak out to the backstreet and slide a car in front of the door. After some futile beating, they returned to the elevator.

Each morning, the employees parked on both sides of the single-lane street so the middle path, popular for pedestrians who wanted to avoid the main roads, was already narrow. The kind of street you’d hear a horn and get to the side between stationary, randomly generated license plates to wait for the car to pass. But today, the cars that would normally honk were abandoned. And just a few ahead of Sami was the man she’d been chasing.

“Yasser!” she yelled.

He continued on his way.

She sidled between cars, folding in mirrors and scooting the vehicles aside for an extra few inches, but still going too slow to catch him.

“Hey!”

Still slim and tall, he easily slid around the obstacles. This wasn’t a costume, this wasn’t hair, this wasn’t any more makeup than he normally wore. This was him and she was losing him. Again.

“Stop!”

He didn’t.

“Screw it.” Sami flipped the car over her head. She only needed her one working hand but car after car after this long morning, she was getting worn out, cursing at an unexpectedly heavy electric vehicle and then her control went loose with the bed of a pickup truck that hit the building, shattering gold behind her. Still, she kept on. She had to. He was so close and he wasn’t stopping so neither could she. There was no time for patience.

After wiping sweat from her brow, she grabbed the fender of the next car and let go too soon and it flipped—forward.

Toward him.

He didn’t turn.

He didn’t see it.

He didn’t know.

OUT OF THE WAY, DUMBASS!

In the chaos, she couldn’t see that the car had landed on its roof. That the 64-ounce jug from the gas station had hooked on the rear view mirror, dumping its Diet Coke onto the shattered safety glass. That somewhere beneath was her brother.

She charged the alley. It hurt to shove aside the cars like this but every second might have been the difference between saving him and losing him again.

But at the crash site, she hesitated, not ready for reality.

The doors around her opened with squeaky hinges. An army surrounded her in the same drab uniform. Not a hint of individuality. All the same as the man under the car, splattered in Diet Coke. The man she once thought no more was a dozen around her, closing in.

~

In the Belmont parking lot, there were the skeleton broadcast crew’s cars and then a few of the animators’ that seemed to be paying rent for no reason when Slipstream pulled up.

The sidecar for her motorcycle was loaded with replacement drones. They could fly. They’d make the distance fine. But might as well save the battery power since she had to go anyway.

“Make him remember,” The Director told her. “His role is to sit and wait.”

“Oh, he remembers, but you know how he is.”

“Then make him do it.”

She slid on her helmet with the gold ornamental V-fin then flipped the visor down. “Got it, boss.”

~

*Pow!*

Her brother’s beautiful head flew off into the hands of her brother. These shitty imitations wouldn’t capture Sami. She’d clobber every one of them that came for her.

She clobbered that one, but no more.

None of him came for her.

All of him retreated.

But she wouldn’t let them do that either. How much heartbreak had she endured already today and now, these things went and got her hopes up? That stupid V-neck with a casual blazer. That stupid face. It was unforgivable. So, aggressive or not, they’d be dust.

They fled down the alley till it parted two ways and so did the retreating army.

One path led to the main road that they blocked, funneling her the other way, to the labyrinth of sewers, where they lined up on either side of the entrance to allow her passage. She saw this trap and turned around, but there they were, too.

When she challenged that blockage, however, they parted.

Their presence was encouragement. GPS directing her “This way.” Should she refuse, they’d reroute and pop up with new directions and be the classic bothersome brother she knew, but should she continue to refuse--nothing more. There was no consequence.

Other than never seeing the real him again.

And so, wordlessly, she accepted. Sami followed them deep into the sewers.

ACT 3

When The Classic tore open the plane to a team of 5, actors and OP cast mixed in, the Dominican-American actress from Chicago, Carla, was the first with her hackles up. And when he started toward her in the front, she opened a portal and her telekinetic teammate sucked him through. Whatever clouds the brute wound up in were far from them and the autopilot descending to accommodate for the loss of cabin pressure would soon steer them to a safe landing. Everyone thought they had passed the first test.

But the second test, when they leveled off looking for an open street wide enough, was The Classic returning with a quicker plan to eradicate the plane at once.

He tore off a wing.

And Carla, again, didn’t hesitate to open a portal. Not for him. Not for their safety. But for her and her alone. She wound up on the ground, watching her plane spiral toward the woods and then a second plane crashing much closer.

Now she was hesitant. She flew a lot. She knew how hot and volatile jet fuel was. But she watched the wreckage smoke, peeking in with a small portal in the back.

It was empty.

The seats from row 9 to 1, to the torn down door, were empty.

Then a dufflebag was tossed out the other side of the portal and someone walked out unscathed.

She was ready to get out of there if it was The Classic again and this guy was big but soft. As the sole survivors of their teams as far as they knew, they forged an alliance. He knew this city and show better than she did. “Where we heading?”

He pointed to the tallest building shimmering gold in the distance.

~

“I never thought I’d see you again,” Kyeongwan said. After the plane, the fight, the fall, climbing to get here on tired legs that sloshed with every stair but she had pushed through and the reward was not what she wanted but a reward all the same. Sami was still out there. She knew that. She hadn’t known Jerry was. “I’m so glad…”

Jerry stood up from behind an office worker with red-hair and a necktie snipped where it was narrow. Jerry held black plastic strips: zip ties. One was around the office worker’s wrists. One was around each office worker’s wrists.

“How did you…?”

He’d fought through this office solo. Not even just escaping the plane, somehow, maybe waking up last minute and finding a parachute and jumping, but then surviving this fight and coming out on top.

Then she remembered why she was up here. Not just to find Sami. But to warn Sami. About the bombs. “No time to talking. We need people out.”

Not saying anything, mouth hanging, he stayed where he was, watching her go to work on his zip ties with the scissors from the first floor. She cut the binds around their ankles. They couldn’t be trusted, even the docile ones, because of the infection and each would need help standing, but for now, she just cut.

The third person Kyeongwan freed, she recognized. Vaguely. A Dominican-American woman with light brown skin. Strong cheekbones and parted, tight curls.

She moved onto the next guy. She didn’t know him.

But she kept looking back. No name came to mind. She was good with names, but none came.

Just a bleary-eyed memory of a phone gone missing.

She left the office worker tied at the feet to go back to the woman. As she worked on the gag about the woman’s mouth, Kyeongwan really took in the scene again. The arena. The other hostages that weren’t gagged. Had she been especially troublesome? Was Jerry just getting to the rest? She looked beyond the arena to the stained floor and the smashed windows and the interior pillars. There were four pillars. Two had plastic explosives, blinking lights, beeping, counting down. 20 minutes left.

Kyeongwan undid the gag.

“My hands!” the actress pleaded.

Kyeongwan went for the bomb with her scissors, and Jerry stepped in her way with a duffle bag full of his props as she finally realized his treachery.

Unable to accept it, she asked, “Why are you doing?”

Any explanation would do!

He reached into the bag and pulled out what could have been a squirt gun as easily as a photon rifle.

“Are you infected? A zombie?”

He aimed it at her.

“I’ve got powers and I know you don’t,” she said.

“I’m just not ready to reveal them.” He pulled the trigger. The thrumming electro-coil around the barrel left a charge on the ferromagnetic rod fired toward Kyeongwan that summoned light bulbs, thumb tacks, and staplers among every other bit of metallic shrapnel in the nearby cubicles. The opposite of a grenade. The sparking light bulbs that were ripped from their sockets smashed on the floor. A calendar fell from the cork board as a wet thumb tack went whizzing for Jerry’s cheek. He flinched and groped his eye socket like it might’ve blinded him, but it hadn’t even left a mark.

As the last ripple around her heart settled, Kyeongwan, like a fire hose, blasted her friend through the window to the branch manager’s office. The venetian blinds tangled around him.

“My hands!” the actress yelled again. “If you get my hands free, I can get us out of here.”

Kyeongwan yanked the scissors from the junk pile around the magnetized rod that maintained a weak charge. She cut the actress free and Carla waved her hands in a large circle which opened a wormhole like a long tunnel of swirling thunderclouds and at the end of it, a swivel chair on the street below.

“You can travel!” Kyeongwan didn’t have the word for the power exactly. “Can you escape these people?”

“Better idea: I’ll open a portal to the clouds; you blast him through.”

Kyeongwan calmed the swirling hands. “He’s hypnoed.”

Carla yanked away. “I don’t care! That crotch goblin had me thinking we were on the same side till he came up behind me with a three-hole punch.”

Jerry bent behind a desk picking through his bag. The window to the office was broken and wet. The window in the office, the shimmering gold lens to the rest of the city, maybe a panel she’d seen herself in, was broken, too.

“Even if he’s lost, I can’t do that to a friend.”

The actress let that moment hang before relenting. “I can only take one at a time and even that’s--I don’t know if I have it in me for 8 trips.”

“Can you 7?” Kyeongwan said. “I’m okay.”

It took her a breath to accept that, but then Carla pulled Bradley by the snipped necktie through the portal and it closed behind them.

When he emerged through the office door, Jerry had glass shards in his beard and a rifle in hand. Red with a glass chamber where a bullet normally went. “So, you’re like Slip. You’re not special. I know how to deal with you.”

~

When the city planners on the Orange Peals staff conceived the city, they included buildings that’d look good destroyed, scenic parks and lakes, forest flatlands surrounding the city on one side and a mountain that rose high enough for snow peaks. They wanted every environment to fight in without the overhead of travel for cast, crew, and equipment. That planning included sewers that spanned the entirety of the city in a confusing maze with secret lairs.

Sami hated shooting in the sewers. It smelled authentic. In slow motion, the glimmer of studio lights off pooey water looked even worse.

Even after corridors and corners, following the parade of Yassers, between them, in front of, surrounded by, and--she hoped--headed for, her nose hadn’t gotten used to the smell, but when they stopped at a windowless double door of dull metal, she wished the trip had taken longer.

They waited.

She waited.

They wouldn’t go another step.

The camera drone lined up for her reaction. Whoever was behind it knew.

There was no more patience left in her. She pushed through, which, after the first shove, was unnecessary. They wanted her through. They filled the gap from where she came.

Her hand on the handle, she told herself, whatever was beyond, she couldn’t expect it to be him.

But she did.

And it was.

It really, really was.

~

At the far side of the office, the scratchy fabric cubicle walls visually separated Kyeongwan from Jerry, but his red rifle tore holes through them. The charge between shots took long enough for Kyeongwan to duck-walk to a new hiding spot or to sweat and hope he found a possible but wrong hiding spot to shoot at while she took a breath. One office separator covered in robin egg blue wallpaper had so many holes that the overhead bin collapsed onto the family photo of Dolores and her three ugly kids.

She dove to the next stacked drawers between reloads.

“Put on a show, dancer!”

“Why are you doing this?”

She watched for his shadow on the walls. He was to the right. She’d go left. She was ready to dive when a blast cut the aisle a margin wider and went out the window where her drone floated catching the perfect angle of her hiding spot. The angle that gave her away. The window was her last option. She’d done it once. Even if she shuddered at the memory, she could again. But not yet. Carla had only a few workers left.

“Content! While the cameras are watching you can be graceful, you can be raw, but never be boring, Kyeongie.”

But if her drone signaled her position, so did his. He was approaching, and she circled around the other side and when he saw she had moved, he sprinted back where he’d come but she’d already melted to a puddle under the desk where workers kicked off their shoes to play footsie with the electrical strip. When she popped back up, both she and Carla nearly let loose sounds of surprise. Kyeongwan’s sweat absorbed back into her forehead, but Carla dripped. She needed a breather. She needed more time, time Kyeongwan would’ve loved to give her, but the digital readout hooked to the pillars didn’t care.

Kyeongwan ran to behind the copy machine. “I don’t care about cameras!”

Jerry fired toward her.

This gave Carla a moment to choose a hostage to rest with on the street.

“Make your dodges artful, attacks a flurry. Haven’t you seen how Slip does it?”

Carla’s portal opened and as she sprinted through, finding every second in that domain draining, Jerry walked in front with the rifle. There was no time. She hooked the final worker’s bound wrists as her hand swirled a portal between her and that maniac viking and she ran—she ran straight into the red rifle’s glowing muzzle. She let go of the worker to save herself at least but all the hand waving and nothing came.

The rifle was charged.

A stream snaked around his ankles ripped him off his feet as the beam fired upward into a ceiling light. The fluorescent tubes shattered and the metal casing slammed down onto Jerry. Carla disappeared.

“How’s that?” Kyeongwan said into his camera.

The collapsed casing should’ve reminded him he was human, that he still bled, but the sharp corner missed him, denting on the floor, and he was just dazed as she rolled it off.

“Are you done?”

He reached for his rifle.

The force of her flood sent him toward the manager’s window, but she floated him back from the edge, letting her own rage recede from the edge as well.

“Now? Or you ready to show powers you definitely have?”

When she buried him beneath her waves, she hadn’t seen that his reach for the rifle had been successful and she hadn’t seen in all this chaos that it was red for a reason and the blast hadn’t torn holes through the office with concussive force, but now she saw that it evaporated her water with a beam of such intense heat that it now tore through her shoulder. Her arm sloshed off.

She hid once more in the arena of filing cabinets.

Carla was there, too, holding her necklace, praying for the first time this month. She had overexerted herself getting the office workers to safety and yet, she came back. She saw Kyeongwan’s incinerated sleeve. The arm missing. “Him or you! This is my last trip, so which one is it? Him or you?”

The receptionist in a purple blouse was bound, crouching, cowering near the filing cabinet. The others hadn’t cowered. Or cried. Had she ever been infected? Had it all been an act?

Kyeongwan’s arm, a small puddle, lapped at her shoes then returned where the sleeve once was. She felt frail. 5 kilograms lighter and it showed on her cheeks. The skin visible around her neck rippled with every heartbeat. She cut the ties on the woman in purple. “Her.”

She slapped herself and water splashed over her, and it was like exam prep month again, falling asleep mid-essay, slouching down till she gagged on the motionless mechanical pencil. The teacher tapping her desk the first time. Then some stern warnings. Then dropping a book on the floor. Pelting her with shredded eraser bits before Kyeongwan finally, in a dreamy state, not sure if she had permission, wandered to the toilet sink where she could throw cold water on her face even in winter when the building didn’t have centralized heating and some would drip onto her uniform collar, a constant discomfort that kept her awake—for a bit.

“And once you’re out, stay out.”

ACT 4

When Yasser premiered on the show, he hated it. He didn’t know what the roulette would give him but when he discovered it…

“How am I ever supposed to get a date now?”

“Give it a rest,” Sami said on the drive home. She flipped on the radio to drown it out.

Yasser complained louder. “Would you date Mold Man with all the powers of leftover bread?”

“You have to spin it.”

“Spin it? Huh! Spin it.” He slumped in his seat. He could infect people to grow his influence if they breathed in his spores. He could even plant spores in moist environments to grow clones given enough time, though in a pinch he could pop one out as a decoy if he was ready to nap for a day after. His bacteria even had the properties of penicillin or poison. But none of that was Tinder sexy. “Call me the blue cheese dildo.”

There was some silence that she hated to break but… curiosity. “You’re not, like, jizzing curds, are you?”

“Don’t ask me that!”

~

The door had been heavy enough to seal in the sound, but now a hum encased her with the occasional sputtering exhaust pump that fed into the ceiling, that fed up through the road, up through a peak in the skyline. It drained Yasser’s spores to spread throughout the city.

The scent had changed, too, to that of a bathroom someone sprayed in teenage deodorant to cover the smell but instead of dueling till the least offensive permeated, they united to form a super stench.

Still she smiled. A little. Painfully.

Her brother’s gaunt, unconscious--she hoped--body hung from the machinery by so many straps and tubes that poked into his veins, fueling the machine.

She wasn’t a doctor. She had no training. Maybe this would kill him, but she pulled out the IVs anyway.

The drugs feeding into him were to keep him alive and dazed, but none were anesthesia. Only a paralytic that kept him in a screaming dream.

And as they were removed, the effects wore off. His eyes moved under the lids and his teeth unclenched.

Like so many times when they were young and again after their debut, she threw him on for a piggyback ride. She’d carry him out through the pooey water and get him a bath and today would be okay, however hard that was to accept.

His eyes fluttered opened.

He took in the environment and wrote off the escape as a dream. A pleasant one for a change. His big sis wasn’t yelling in this one. “Miyah?”

“Sup?” Casual as could be feeling his hug on her back. She’d cry when they were out.

But with every step toward the door, he understood this wasn’t a dream and this wasn’t good. “What are you doing?”

“Mom missed you.” There was no hesitation when her hand touched the door this time.

“Stop!” His voice was weak.

Outside the door, the army of imitations that had led her to the original greeted them as a group. Samiyah pushed through, expecting them to separate like before.

“You don’t understand,” Yasser pleaded.

The army didn’t separate.

“They’re not mine!”

~

The mineral fiber ceiling tiles lay broken and singed on the office carpet. Now that Kyeongwan was not as invincible or overpowered as she came into this match, for intimidation, Jerry shot upward and hit an intersection of ceiling frame that collapsed the surrounding tiles on him. It pissed him off more.

His hostages were gone. Time was running down. His troll beard was covered in ceiling dust and Kyeongwan was still hiding.

“What’d you think this was?” he yelled. “The moment I saw you were the same as Slip, I knew what to do! Of all people, my encyclopedic knowledge of possible powers and their strengths and weaknesses, I knew exactly how to beat you so what were you doing acting all uppity before? Huh?

He melted the copy machine.

“This is the problem with not being unique.”

Kyeongwan had been retreating as a trickle around the wall trim, but today had taken too much from her and too much out of her. She had left a trail that soaked into the carpet. Whenever she reformed out of necessity, she saw her fingers were shorter. Still whole for now but shrinking. Child-like. Slipping into a puddle took more energy than she had left and while he fired wildly, she’d dart around, her ankles sloshing, till she needed to stay still and breathe. She’d been behind that copy machine when he melted it. It had hit her foot. The foot was gone and not coming back. There wasn’t enough water.

He appeared around the corner.

She had nothing left.

“You either have to overpower everyone or outlast them.” Jerry aimed at her.

He let the tension hang and then for just a glance, he checked the cameras. They were trained on him. The interns and the broadcast crew and The Director watching from Belmont. And in that moment, Kyeongwan sprayed him. His finger twitched on instinct and the ray cut through her other sleeve at the elbow, but the water had angled the blast away enough for an escape.

Jerry rubbed his eyes.

In the bathroom, there were a few tiles fallen around the holes she slipped through and she thought she might be safe lying on the ground missing so much of herself.

But she’d left a trail.

He’d caught on.

He fired directly at the bathroom without pause.

This was the moment to make her stand or she’d go out without leaving a single mark on him.

He fired again.

That beard was his pride.

Again.

It popped a pipe.

Her legacy would be tearing a chunk out.

Water rained down.

She rose on two legs. Her plaid yellow shirt was fucked. She loved that thing, but she ripped it off. Just a black tank top underneath and all the years of lithe muscle dancing had packed on her. Every limb intact. Every kilogram regained.

~

At an intersection, Samiyah waited for a gust of fresh air to guide her out, but they were too deep and too lost in the stink to find their way.

“At least put me down,” Yasser said.

Left.

“They’ll catch us otherwise.”

Left again.

“This isn’t a maze. Just going left will send you in a circle.”

Right then.

Why had she listened to the annoying potato sack on her back? Ahead, the impostor army splashed toward her with no regard toward what they were stepping in or how it soaked into their pants. But the troop they’d broken through to get this far hadn’t stopped their pursuit and now they were pincered in.

“You can’t fight them.”

She squared up, letting her hand bashed broken on The Classic’s skull pin his arms to her chest in case he got some heroically idiotic idea to let go.

“You remember my powers?” he said.

She spun around to catch anyone from behind creeping up on her.

“A few spores up your butt and you’re mine. Dancing on the table or pronouncing quinoa like it’s spelled.”

“I do those anyway.” Sami wiped her bloody hand against her temples to catch the sweat. “Now shut up and let me use my powers.”

“Punching when you have open wounds? Doesn’t matter if you hit or get hit. These guys might be fakes but they’ve got my powers turnt up.”

The army stayed mostly in place, trapping the siblings in the sewer, and when Sami stepped their way, they waited. Like Yasser, they thought whatever she did was futile.

Sami disagreed. “Don’t fight and we’re definitely theirs. Fight and maybe we make it. Not that hard of a decision.”

“You turn optimist while I was gone?” Yasser asked.

“Not telling. You have to see that for yourself when we’re out, okay?”

“You have to put me down.”

“No.”

“Miyah...” If she wouldn’t listen, he’d have to handle it. They were ahead and behind and he didn’t even know which way they’d come from. “Pick a side.”

“What?”

“Front or back? Where you heading?”

Sami shifted his weight on her shoulders. “Why?”

“You’ve spun me around like we’re in ballet again so I forget: which way’s the exit?”

“What are you doing?” she asked.

That dust and stench from the machine room was back. The dust and stench of his spores flecking off his skin.

With all the volume he could muster, he said, “Pick a side or I will and fuck me, if I’m wrong but I won’t be around.”

“Stop it.”

“Pick a side, Miyah!”

He was just that frail kid on her back after scraping his knee during Nutcracker rehearsal. The kid in so much makeup to rosy up his cheeks so, even Mom in row 7, even under the stage lights, everyone saw his cheer. The kid that looked surprisingly good in eyeliner. The kid in a gold and purple costume that spent all summer and fall complaining about friends laughing at him, but now that he was up in front of everyone, twirling and taking his turn behind the other kids to drag her under the archway of stage parents; while Sami panted, then and now, Yasser was the kid with the biggest beaming smile full of wired crooked teeth watching the curtain fall.

“Front!” she yelled.

“Thank you…” His voice was a soft, raspy whisper.

As the army in front charged toward Sami, then past her, with one final exertion now under his control, to tackle the army behind them, he whispered one more thing to her. “Promise me something? Don’t let The Classic get away with this.”

“I won’t.”

“Promise you’ll…”

ACT 5

Kyeongwan dangled the shirt in the doorway and listened for the whir of the rifle charging. It fired into the door frame, cutting the molding around it, and Kyeongwan sprayed through the hole in the wall that had saved her. She solidified with one hand palming his face and the flooding momentum slammed him through an IKEA desk.

As Kyeongwan strode toward him, Jerry charged and fired.

Kyeongwan’s arm fell to a puddle on the carpet but while he waited on the recharge, she floated him toward the window, then pulled back. Her footsteps stayed damp in the carpet. She was still low on energy, but ready to use the last of it to destroy him, if she had to. He’d made that decision. She had to as well. He aimed and fired and Kyeongwan was the perfect wave for surfing, barreling around the beam and arriving on the other side of him.

He ran. He needed distance to aim. Distance to be at all effective against her. He stood over the puddle where her arm fell as he reloaded the gun, and when he turned—when he tried to turn—he felt a sharp pain in his face.

The last time he fired, it hadn’t hit Kyeongwan; it hadn’t severed her arm.

She had dropped her arm to avoid the beam.

It waited on the floor for her command, for this moment, for him to stand over so it could rise up and grip that ginger viking beard and pull. Some strands ripped. Some came out at the follicles. And when a detached chunk of hair was wet in her fist, an uppercut rocketed into him. The wet floor. The force of it. The whole exhausting day. It knocked him off his feet.

The puddle absorbed into Kyeongwan and she was whole again, holding the rifle in one hand and the hair in the other. She discarded both out the window.

~

The battle was won and she let go of all that emotion holding her up. Kyeongwan’s first real fight. She’d won. She fell forward. A belly flop splashing. Lying in a pool of herself. Just a little nap.

In the quiet, with everyone gone, she heard it clear.

Beep

Beep

Beep

Her alarm.

Alarms.

She had about a hundred.

One for waking up.

One for starting breakfast.

Showering.

Leaving for class.

Leaving for work.

And an extra for ease of mind.

Which one was this?

She was too tired to remember so probably the one for coffee, but she opened her eye to find the phone. She wasn’t in bed but that was normal. She fell asleep many places, but her phone wasn’t next to her. Where was it? she thought, closing her eye to look in her dreams. The plane. She remembered. Smashed and crashed. And she was in a building looking for Sami to warn her about the beep. About the bombs.

“Better run, Kyeongie.”

She started getting up. “Let’s go.”

“No,” Jerry said.

“No time. Let’s go.”

“I think I’ll stay and think about today. Where did it go wrong?”

“I’ll drag you out.”

The power to the elevator was out. “Down all 57 flights of stairs? We won’t make it in time. Slip had an incident like this once and we were all really concerned. And you’re not Slip. You definitely can’t survive what’s next.”

Beep

“Go!”

“You.”

“Jerry!”

Beep

Leave his ass, she heard Sami say. Sami wasn’t there. It was in her mind. If he’s not making this easy and you don’t have the power to get him out, leave him.

“Sorry, Kyeongie.”

Beep

But she did have the power! She could swallow him in a pool and jump out. That’d make the landing survivable—right? She hadn’t taken physics. She hated physics. Chemistry, okay. Biology, good! Physics, shoot it dead. But she was sure this could work and he’d be swept away whether he resisted or not. When she tried, she didn’t have the energy. She summoned her strength again, spritzed her face with water, tried again, but nothing.

Beep

“Go,” he said.

Beep

Go, Sami said.

Beep

No energy.

Beep

She looked at Jerry one last time.

~

Samiyah emerged from the sewer alone in time to feel the shockwave and see the 63 Building collapse once more.

"You do it every damn season, you hack,” she said and went to face The Classic, wherever he may be.

Episode 1

ACT 1

Steel whined, bent, and snapped as the office tower that glimmered gold rained down its 63 stories of windows onto bomb-shattered pavement.

A founder of this new world clad in tattered red, a rip in his white circle emblem—The Classic stood atop the rubble to meet his challengers, the world collapsing behind him. He was the wall standing tall, and these two, breathing ragged, could not topple him.

“What’s the plan?”

Psy needed time to calculate. “You won’t like it.”

Slipstream never did. Hers were better. She flooded toward The Classic, spinning round behind him to hook her legs on each of his meaty shoulders and snap his head back toward the sky. He was a hulking mass that she strained for the leverage so late in the fight. Clasping her wrist, he splattered her onto the concrete into a spray that dripped down the cracks. The sapphire on her costume clinked against the concrete.

Psy had processed the new data.

His only option—

The Classic was too fast. With a series of blows, The Classic dented the titanium alloy that made up a large part of Psy’s cybernetic body. One massive fist, wound up and stretched back, launched with the force of space travel to crack the shielding around the plutonium core in his gut. Psy went crashing into a bank, rebooting among the deposit slips.  

As Psy’s core sparked, he decided. He’d do it.

He raised his arm, letting the gears whir and click, till it shifted into a cannon.

The Classic strode toward him without fear. It hadn’t worked before. Piddly blaster pellets had dissipated on his chest.

But what Psy had in mind now—Hawaii would be lucky to survive.

“We don’t have to do this,” he warned.

Spraying up from the cracks like a geyser, Slip lifted The Classic off his feet and solidified strangling him from behind. She needed five seconds of air time in this hold to make him blackout. Had she shot him high enough?

The Classic could fly.

He could fly up, over, and—

Down.

He plummeted through the sprinkle into a crater, Slip taking the impact. Too exhausted from overuse of her powers, Slip couldn’t reform this time.

The gauge on the arm cannon began to fill.

Energy built up sending quivers into Psy’s cheetah prosthetic legs. With a neural command, he initiated the rebar spikes in his legs to drill into the Earth while braces folded out of his back, grating against the dented armor plating.

A familiar whir turned The Classic’s attention from finding Slip’s sapphire to across the street, where Psy’s leaking chest swirled with gathering radiation. What relatively meager energy streaked from his cannon singed Psy’s skin and carved the bank tiles to dust and the groans of struggle as his body twitched and ached and pleaded for him to stop this crazy, desperate plan because there had to be a better way than total mutual annihilation, but there was not. And so he groaned. He twitched. He ached. And he continued.

For the first time today, The Classic rushed. Would he make it in time?

No.

Slip emerged, a puddle in a crater, but she found enough in her to yell, “Don’t! You’ll scorch the whole planet!”

Psy didn’t hear. He couldn’t. But he thought the same.

He hesitated.

The massive electromagnetic forces generated by Psy’s cannon, only charging, flung debris into buildings. A rock flew the distance to the shielding for the camera and crew. A few still flinched: the dolly grip and the best boy, the drone operator, one of the paramedics.

The Director did not. He looked on, hungry, mouthing, “Good, good.”

In that moment of hesitation, The Classic reached Psy. A hand covered Psy’s mouth. The fingernails dug through the synthetic flesh as easily as they did the metal behind it.

Psy’s spikes held against the charge.

Then creaked.

Then tore through the Earth as The Classic dragged him into through a law firm full of mahogany desks, then through the high ceilings of a supermarket until The Classic planted him into a crater outside a Dutch bakery. The baguettes rolled off the shelves as dust kicked up.

Slip screamed out his name but got no reply.

Cameras could see nothing.

Not from afar. Not the drones. There was silence.

“Do it,” The Director whispered.

A lilac beam of pure energy cut the clouds and shot beyond the atmosphere. Thank god, it missed the moon.

From a distance, the beam seemed thin but it was enough to engulf The Classic’s frame save that one hand clenching Psy’s jaw. The hand that covered Psy’s smile. A shred of red costume hung from the wrist.

Supes Episode 1 (1).jpg

However, as the beam faded, as the dust parted, as Slip raised up and the drones focused on the crater, everyone saw it was only the costume gone.

The Classic, naked and hairless, no more scraggly beard, pinned Psy with one hand and reeled back the other before slamming it deep into his chest. That hand freed itself gripping servos and wires that dripped oil. Not just oil.

He tossed the scrap aside.

The robotic man, the cyborg who got his start in the industry with his own educational channel called Cy Psy the Sci Guy where he sung his own theme song parodying Bill Nye’s and though there were actual words, the convention audience just sang “Psy Psy the Psy Psy” on loop; the 30-year-old first-generation Korean-American who taught kids mechanical engineering and AI coding and how to hack pay-to-win freemium mobile games—Psy. The light faded from his eyes, the cybernetic one and the human one.

 

~

 

With the rising cost of movie budgets, Hollywood, Bollywood, and the Royal Shakespeare Company decided it was cheaper to just give actors super powers. The founders of Orange Peals Productions including The Classic and The Director were among the first to bring it to the fifth estate, the Internet. Free content made by five guys in their 20s that for nearly a decade had been a seasonal show supported by merch and however much fans wanted to donate before the company branched into let’s plays, podcasts with host-read sponsors, comedy shorts, improv games, then a convention of its own where the hundred employees, even legal, attended. The Classic quietly retired.

Season 11, all season, fans waited for his return. He had to return. He was the star. He was truth and justice in a hellscape.

The finale came and every comment asked, “Where was he?”

Those comments were there next season, too, and the next, but slowly, they were upvoted less, downvoted more, buried by democracy. Everyone accepted he was gone.

For five whole seasons.

New stars replaced him. Slipstream and Psy were second-generation, fans of the show, living on the community site, uploading cosplays, custom builds, vlogs, journals, chatting in the forums until they were hired. Until they made it onto the show with mixed reactions for a time till their presence was normal and their absence demanded explanation.

It was an event the day The Classic returned.

Still, with an ever-growing audience, with ever-growing engagement, with more marketing, more variety, just more—and still, that episode, Season 16 Episode 7: Sunset, had the most views in the company’s history. Unique views, repeat views. Every metric dominated the other episodes till graphs showed blips for the history of the company next to a tower. The lifetime website traffic doubled that year.

And so, with such excitement, it took a few episodes for the audience to grow uncomfortable with the wildness The Classic had returned with.

 

~

 

As the cameras recorded the final moments, the young paramechanic watching the drone feed rushed to the door of the cage. The latch was not there to keep anyone in or anyone out, but it was known to squeal and no one oiled it.

The Director’s glare turned from the set to the door.

To the paramechanic.

The camera operator took his eyes off the 16:9 framed up ahead to look to him then to her then back to him for what he’d do to her now.

The paramechanic removed her hand from the door.

Filming continued.

 

~

 

Slipstream disappeared down the sewers with her sapphire and costume getting carried by the tide as The Classic, this chiseled marble man now naked and hairless white but for the elbow-deep stain, rose up through the hole Psy had burn into the clouds.

Cameras tracked him, the drones getting close-ups, catching the final drip from his fingertips, before The Director yelled, “Cut!” and still no one moved. They waited on his next word. The paramechanic held her breath to hear it clear. “Wind, reel, and print.”

The door latch squealed and she sprinted toward Psy with her medical bag.

The remaining crew struck the set, gathering equipment and marking digital checklists before loading it onto the trucks with the help of the best boys. The Classic landed and felt the sheen on his head. Slipstream poured out a few liters of sludgy poo water she’d absorbed. They crossed each other’s paths, Slip giving a tired smile, before they found their trailers and closed the doors. The other paramedic went to knock on each.

The Classic didn’t answer.

Slip poked her head out but insisted she was hungry but fine.

It was a standard wrap to a day of filming.

After attending to Psy, the paramechanic dragged herself back to the cage where The Director reviewed the footage from the shoot on an outdated LCD screen that he had to squint into but it worked for initial viewings. As she walked in, the camera operator and cinematographer exited. They watched from the outside, careful not to be noticeable but straining to hear what she said. They didn’t need to strain to hear him.

He screamed, “If I see you on my set again, you’ll wish it was you.”

She fled out the door.

 

~

 

A Korean woman with brown hair in an outgrown bowl cut wavy from how it dried after the morning drizzle had been texting on her phone in a squat waiting with a binder thick enough to bulk up. The color coded tabs stuck out. Now that the paramechanic had left, Kyeongwan approached the cage when an older woman clad in clothes darker than her brown skin hugged her, excitedly saying, “Kyeongie! What are you doing on set?”

The unexpected hug and the spin that went with it had her dizzy. “Mwo-hae! He wanted to know when the DCP for the con next weekend was ready. Instant! Immediate?”

“It’s ready?”

“No.”

When her friend let go, Kyeongwan was facing the parking lot.

“I’d give him a minute,” Samiyah said. Her black Ozzy Osbourne sunglasses were unnecessary on the overcast day but they went with the overall goth outfit. A choker. Matte lipstick lined in black. This tunic so long on her short body that no one could see if she had on shorts. She didn’t. Just her most comfortable leggings.

“He said instant.”

“Instant doesn’t have to be instant right now.”

A year in the US and Kyeongwan had gotten much better at listening than the meager skills her language academy had trained into her. English in Korea was about tests, not conversations, and so she stared blankly at her friend wondering what those words meant.

“Back when the show started getting corporate attention, we had this sponsorship where they wanted us to do a let’s play to show off our characters in their game. But the game wasn’t… good? And The Director wasn’t… good at the game. This was back in my intern days, when it was like 8 of us in a three-room office and I saw him snap a $200 pro controller in half. The rest of us, Warren included, took a very long lunch.”

Jinjja?” she asked, reverting to her native tongue. “Really?”

“That was oh-eight? Oh-seven maybe? He’s usually chill now, but let him breathe.”

“He likes me.”

“I do, too. That’s why I’m telling you.” Sami wrapped an arm around her, intending for a buddy-buddy shoulder wrap but with the height difference, it was closer to her foreign friend’s waist.

Kyeongwan spun free and threw up a finger-heart. “I’ll be fine.”

Sami watched her march into the cage with an angry, bearded bear.

And so, she didn’t notice the viking beard approach. The pale man that loomed over all had the most representative dress of others at the company: a graphic tee with The Classics’s logo and baggy jeans his heels had frayed at the cuffs since his mom bought them for Christmas nearly a decade ago. “Can I see? Is it processed? Does it actually take any time to process?” Jerry asked like an impatient kid.

“Why do you want shitty early access?” Sami followed the line into the rubble to her Phantom Flex8K, capable of shooting 120,000 frames per second—with the resolution of a postage stamp. She only used that when breaking glass. It’d show the shock wave rippling through before a crater appeared in five to ten frames then the cracks spreading. Really, glass needed faster cameras still but technology wasn’t there so today’s 63 Building shot would be CG. “You’ll get the final, touched-up version with actual sound in…”

“Six weeks! Seven? Have we already had the mid-season break? Either way, a six-week minimum.”

“Too long?”

When he nodded, the dark auburn beard with ginger highlights he hadn’t shaved clean once in his 28 years bristled against itself.

Sami set up the playback for him.

“Also I’m nervous about the paint job.”

Jerry had started in IT, getting hired a few years after Sami and Slip to redesign the infrastructure of the community site so it could handle an influx of audience uploaded videos, and he still worked there as a consulting supervisor, but due to his cosplay obsession, he’d achieved a dream gig designing and building weapons, costumes, and even furniture. This season was his first as the propmaster, no longer a trainee under Psy who had retired—everyone thought to focus on acting, but the way this season ended…

“Paint on what?” Sami asked.

The two were by the setting of the final shot, where she had set up her high-speed camera in its own cage, where Psy still lay in a scorched crater and pool of his—its own synthetic oil and, apparently, synthetic blood. Jerry tapped it with his foot. “The Director asked me for a replica. Pretty last minute.”

The final shot played silent the lilac beam vaporizing the smoke and engulfing The Classic till it faded and that fist reaching into the remains of Psy’s soul to crush it—it’d be more palatable knowing that was not her long-time friend in a scene filmed real to be raw, but Sami looked at the remaining paramedic.

Then Jerry asked, “Why’s it blurry?”

 

~

 

Only the expensive equipment remained in the cage. The veteran crew had been quick to gather up the uninsured tech. There was only a table from IKEA and The Director had hit the fiberboard top, splintering a fist size hole on the edge. Now he was angrier because of the splinter in his hand.

The door had been left open. When Kyeongwan entered, there was no squeal of the latch or the hinges. She stood behind, the room silent, but for his heavy breathing. He always had that ruddy complexion of plumper white guys, but now his face, his neck, his whole head was red and she could tell from behind. She adjusted her large, round brass-rimmed glasses till it’d been too long and then turned around for the doorway, to knock on it, but maybe her shoes grated the silt or her skinny jeans rubbed at the knees or something, because he suddenly said, “I want to review yesterday’s dailies.”

“They’re on your trailer.”

He looked over at the sound of her voice. He had expected Alex, his new assistant. “On? They’re on my trailer?”

“At?” Prepositions were hard. “In?”

“Why are you here, Yoo?”

As a production assistant, Yoo Kyeongwan was often on set and while she continued working as a PA, her primary role had transitioned into revitalizing community engagement. She worked closely with the community manager and social media managers, but she focused on their own site since other social media networks were transitory. They had started the community site before ubiquitous SNS. They’d seen several cycles of collapse. And while the Orange Peals Production community site was never the most popular way to engage cast and crew with audience, it’d been consistently there and the latest push at the convention this weekend was to make sure everyone knew it. She also had university classes, 20 study hours because more would cost more. And so, Kyeongwan was on set less and less. “You said instant!”

“It’s ready? Finally.” Relief flooded into his voice.

“No.” Opening the binder on the table, she carefully laid the polypropylene sheets to the side to keep the weight of preparation from creasing documents till she had parted to the proper tab, a purple one. There were several pages of 28-pound stock in one clear sleeve and in the next, old napkins.

“Why is there trash in an official binder?”

“We need approval on the CGI. It doesn’t match the final design document and notes from that first lunch are very different. You said those notes were important.”

“The ideas. The ideas are important.” His voice was seething again. “You type them up.”

She slid the page with the typed initial notes toward him. “But sometimes handwriting can capture my mind. I thought both would be okay.”

“Did you?”

Kyeongwan suddenly understood Samiyah. His eyes locked on her. He wasn’t looking at the binder. She had seen him flash anger, scream during a podcast because someone off-camera wadded up a foil bag of potato chips but then the other host diffused the situation and he was laughing within the same minute. She’d seen deep breaths during her early days when she made mistakes or couldn’t communicate clearly because she lacked the confidence. But he had never yelled at her.

“Yes,” she admitted.

That was maybe about to change.

“How long to fix?”

“I don’t know.”

“We didn’t rent out the Moreland to play it off a laptop. I’m not doing that again!”

“I’ll find out,” she said.

“Thursday, Yoo.”

She would’ve left, but he had started looking at the binder.

 

~

 

Sami lowered her sunglasses and rewound the footage.

She yelled, “256 gigabytes! Of blurry! USELESS! footage—”

She stormed toward The Classic’s trailer.

“—because SOME asshole made a crater big enough for a high dive—”

The lock wasn’t stopping her from trying to beat it down.

“—AND STILL MISSED HIS GODDAMN MARK!”

As curiosity piqued in those striking set, they peeked from packing equipment, from around corners, from over their shoulders, until The Classic’s door lock unbolted. The pause before what was next could be counted in held breaths. Jerry had followed to keep Sami from overdoing it but he dreaded playing middle-man to these two tempers. The door creaked open. There wasn’t a word from the fuming or from the audience until finally, The Classic stuck his head out, then Jerry said, “Heyyy, do you have a sec?”

The Classic was still naked.

“What’s this?” Sami had filmed the playback on her phone from the smoke clearing to the washed-out, out-of-focus death moment of the season. Since she started as an apprentice working on commercials, even capturing premier stock footage of a dandelion back when film was preferable quality over digital and high-speed cameras sucked through a reel so fast it came out steaming in Vancouver, through her thousand Internet videos and the million GIFs they spawned, through all the seasons with slow-mo and, since she came on board, there’d been a lot, she hadn’t missed a single shot. Any time she was the talent for the shoot and had to explain the very large and simple button to trigger four seconds of filming: the previous four, the next four, split somewhere between either, during those rare moments where they wouldn’t let her film in a Mario costume because she had to be in frame, maybe a shot had been missed by a new, nervous trigger finger, but never in her career by her. Fire tornadoes, glass, paint explosions, porn! Nothing had been poorly exposed. Nothing had been out of frame. Nothing about the composition of the shot went wrong. Maybe the experiment had unforeseen complications—the wind taking a firework awry, one of the detonation cords dudding out on her but, dammit, she still got the shot right. So why was there a bright green X, green so it’d be easy to key out and even easier to see on the dreary pavement, why was his mark outside the crater? The quiet in her voice now was more threatening than her stomp over. “Warren, what’s this?”

He said nothing.

“These things happen,” Jerry said.

“That’s your mark, right?”

He did nothing.

“Warren!” she yelled.

The Classic flew off.

“Sorry about that,” Jerry yelled after.

 

~

 

The Director found the treatment for the season. A page. Thirteen 10 to 20-minute episodes encapsulated in a page. They filmed this reality-style, drones following the heroes around during specified times at specified locations, each with a mission and certain actors told to stir the pot, but beyond that guidance, the rest was free-form. The company term was Pantsing with Powers. Then they’d edit, find the exciting thread of humanity through petty arguments, and reshoot with scripts to add cohesion to the plot. That was today.

“Psy was supposed to win.” He closed the binder. “But we can’t reshoot something iconic. If the story wants to go to Reno, we can’t drag it to Vegas, you know?”

“No,” Kyeongwan admitted.

“What would Yoo do?”

She didn’t have an answer and didn’t need one because at that moment, The Classic roared into the sky and The Director came out roaring, “Well where’s he going?”

Sami stepped up. “I was telling him we need to reshoot that last five seconds and he threw one of his Classic fits.”

Those packing up stopped.

“You don’t miss shots,” The Director said. “Not on my set.”

“He missed his mark.”

“How bad?”

“By a damn mile.”

He screamed, “How bad is the shot?”

Sami looked toward the sky. She wished she’d taken off, too, years ago, but she was a professional and she owed this place.

“Soft focus?” he asked.

Jerry was the only other one to see the shot. Thinking about the After Effects, the potential, maybe he’d defend it. He didn’t. He stayed in back. He stayed quiet.

“Out of focus?” The Director’s voice was getting larger.

“Out of frame.”

“Out of frame?” His rage rolled over on itself like an engine starting up and they all saw they’d missed their opportunity to escape. High-stress environments required a dictator, someone who when they lost it, you felt it; that way everyone knew to put in the work. Out of fear. “Out of fucking frame. Perfect. We’ll reshoot the whole thing. Whole goddamn season. Oh wait, I’ve got a hero missing, another dead, no fourth fucking act to an episode due out in a month and—”

The Jersey accent had been stripped away over the years, neutralized, corrected, gentled, but it’d been slipping out till he paused to breathe.

Sami had backed up toward the crowd, and from there, she could see over his shoulder to the cage. He was blocking the door. Kyeongwan was trapped inside. She’d heard, mostly from Sami, about these moments, this possibility, this relic of the past. She didn’t think she’d ever see it and if she did that it’d shake her like this.

The pause went long.

But his voice lilted. “And I’ve also got passionate superfans that have loved this show enough to work on it for years. Many of you aspiring actors. Many of you on-screen talent in other productions. And this weekend, forty thousand rabid fans coming from all over who’d love to be in their favorite production.”

People’s fear broke into chatter, still tight-lipped, mostly in the back.

“Yoo, get on legal drafting waivers and contracts then put out on the site that we’re holding auditions at the con for three to five community members with a dream.”

“I’ll tell Bobi.” She was the head of community and social media, Kyeongwan’s direct supervisor.

“Site only!” he snapped. “We’ll also need drones outfitted with high-speed cameras. How many do we have?”

Sami said, “Three and a cracked lens.”

“Rush the replacement.”

Slip stepped out of her trailer to a crew quieter than she’d ever seen. The bustle of setting lights. The construction and demolition crews clearing rock. The Director shouting—that was what had woken her from her pizza coma, but none of that was there now. Just quiet. She joined everyone in her housecoat. “What are we doing?” she asked.

“Who among you want to be heroes?” The Director announced, ”Next week is your chance.”

She still didn’t know but everyone got excited so she clapped, too.

 

~

 

The crew had dispersed. Trucks sprayed mud as they took the gravel road toward Portland. Kyeongwan couldn’t drive. Jerry didn’t drive. The two rode in Samiyah’s Subaru hatchback, not noticing that the radio hadn’t been playing and they’d been in silence for the hour till traffic. A horn, demanding she inch forward to keep pace, startled Sami.

“He might be… him,” she said, “But god, his passion is contagious.”

Jerry nodded from the bench in back. He sat in the middle so he could spread his legs. “I’d get it if you didn’t feel comfortable stepping back into that role, but are you thinking about auditioning?”

“Six years.” She checked her blind spot and when she looked back, she caught his eyes. She changed lanes. “We stepped up safety procedures and it’s… dealt with. As much as it ever can be. He’d want me to continue.”

He smiled at the rear view mirror to show support. She didn’t notice.

“Plus you cuties are going to need my help.”

Kyeongwan hadn’t been thinking in English but caught that. “I can handle the requests by myself. I can get the drones ready, too, if you hand over the Phantoms.”

“One, I’m the only one who touches those. Two, I meant help surviving. Or are you passing on this?”

“Passing? Who would do that?” Jerry asked, stumbling over words as he processed such a baffling possibility. “I get that the audience can be harsh on anyone new, but looking like you, they’re sure—”

“I’m so very busy,” she said.

“Two jobs and a full-course load is a lot to balance,” Sami said. They were near their exit for the studio, so she got on the shoulder behind everyone else heading that way.

“But isn’t this opportunity why we got into this?” Jerry couldn’t believe it. “The 16-hour days, the all-nighters with the show on repeat, all to get rock monster powers or whatever the roulette gives you. Everyone looking up to you. Action figures. Some voice actor in Japan dubbing over you! Why else would you be at this company?”

“I have a lot of debt.” Kyeongwan opened the ride sharing app so when they pulled into their parking lot, the driver might be there already to take her home.

Sami saw, shook her head and said, “I got you, squish.”

Komawong!” Kyeongwan offered half of a heart hand and Sami completed it. They got back on the interstate.

 

ACT 2

The mecha sniper launched a dart at the knight sheathed in clanking, shimmering armor with spiked skull pauldrons, but their shield deflected the foam projectile and the knight rushed with their double-sided axe-sword that clashed against the mecha’s rifle. A merchant interrupted the two to sell them flasks of red potions. “Only ten copper pieces,” he warbled in a frail wisp of a voice. A goblin with a porcelain doll’s mask hanging from her neck pickpocketed the merchant and he and the two warriors chased off the pest till a bare knuckle brawler with his abs out distracted the mecha, now hearts in their eyes. A garbage can shuffled on stage. A disgruntled robot popped open the lid to sweep up the mess the fighters had made.

Lights flashed at every entrance, pose, and exit. Cameras. The crowd. The applause.

“I’m so excited to be here! How about you?” Sami yelled to the dark beyond the curtain of stage lights, while she was decked out in elven robes she’d stitched together. The dual swords on her back. A coin dangled from a choker. She had a lot of fans drooling over how that cloak hung on her, but she could’ve been in a knit sweater and her loyal army would’ve cheered the same, enough to drown out those offended by her desire to feel sexy regardless of traditional beauty standards. She was not thin, she was not tall, she was not young, and she was not white, and still she made as many sexy costumes as she pleased. Her fans paid for monthly lewd, not nude photoshoots and collectively, they cleared her wishlist of crafting supplies for plans to show no skin or curves, just genuine craftsmanship. Anyone could see from her fingertips how passionate she was. Even non-Patrons might have loved her from productions at Orange Peals, hosting gigs at cons and events, her podcast appearances, her slow-mo science channel. She had spread her presence more than anyone at the company. Kyeongwan cheered loudest among the crowd.

“Maybe I’m biased, but in my opinion, year after year, we at OPX have proved that our convention has the best cosplay contest in the country! So I hope you enjoyed the preliminary exhibition. There are some amazing costumes in there, but they’ve opted not to enter the judging.”

Those with cool costumes got cheers of “Woo!” and those with sexy ones got “ooOOoo!” and the cute couple costumes got “Aww” and the funny ones got the laughs. The original designs, the obscure fandoms, the big name references, everything everyone supported with all they had till their lungs went itchy. Sami introduced each cosplayer and their chosen character. Once, the woman spun around to correct Sami that she’d been introduced wrong and Sami asked the next guy who he was, in case there was a drop out or mix-up, but no. “Please stay in your assigned orders, champions!” There was a bit of tension to that delivery.

From their corner seats near the stage and the line of entrants, Jerry explained each character that Kyeongwan didn’t know and many that she did. She clapped the same regardless. Loud slapping over her head every time Sami spoke.

Jerry, in costume, too, hadn’t enter the contest. Not even the exhibition. In the crowd of a few hundred behind him, Kyeongwan had spotted seven other Classic costumes but to be fair, his was the only vintage one from before the hiatus when they called him The Captain. Those were low-budget days for the company and Jerry’s costume stayed true to that.

To start off the awards for the event and to give the judges time to debate, Sami announced the lifetime achievement award. “For a cosplayer we all know, we all love, we all laugh at for how she trips. Whether its her quirky Mail Monday vlogs or her time-lapses of builds or even her photoshoots, she never fails to impress. I’m not sure she’s ever slept. This award goes to my friend for so many years, still slaying it, Jean McFadden!”

The screen behind Sami cut to a tall, black woman in the most impressive cyberpunk gold and purple armor with LEDS on the wings that made it difficult to turn. Her whole face lit up and she turned to the camera to wave and smile wide so you could see all the way to her molars. But her hands were full with the staff and she had her phone, too, and so where else was she to put it but her mouth?

The crowd stood to applaud.

This woman, Jean, was Jerry’s idol. His crush. The kind that gave him high school jitters. The woman he’d brought a daffodil for when he heard she’d be getting this award. And she was why Kyeongwan and he had sat here by the aisle.

She’d walk up. He’d stand to give her a hug as so many other friends in the community did now and he’d hand her the flower. He had it all planned out. He had cleared it with Sami that this was an okay, non-sleazy way to congratulate her—she already had so many in her hands: roses and orchids and--and he’d chosen the daffodil because in a video from last year, she’d put googly eyes on the one in her mom’s garden and it looked like a gen-one Pokemon. Jerry had done the same. Given the glue plenty of time to dry. It’d stand out. He’d stand out.

She was nearly to him.

Just one row left.

He grabbed the stem.

She was coming.

Kyeongwan put a hand on Jerry’s back, urging him to now, now.

Jean passed.

Jerry let her.

He sat down before the rest of the crowd. The applause faded as she got to the stage and took the phone out of her mouth, setting it and the flowers on the podium. The camera pulled in tight on her face for those in back and she gave a wave and a smile, then a face of disgust as she picked something off her tongue. She leaned in to the mic, quietly, awkwardly saying, “Hair.”

Everyone laughed.

Wae, wae, wae?” Kyeongwan asked Jerry. “Why didn’t you give her?”

“I’ll do it after. That’s when you give someone a flower. After the show. It’s rude to fill up their hands with stuff when they’re in the middle of it.”

With the map of the convention center, Kyeongwan bopped the coward on the head.

Jean gave her speech, a slideshow flashing her previous builds from her online photo album, and then she exited the other side of the stage.

Sami announced the awards for the best couple cosplay, the best family cosplay for a dog mom with her baby boy as the poop, the funniest cosplay, the most impressive technical display, the best low-budget one, and there were a few more but they all built up to the best in show.

A guardian handed Sami the envelope with the winner. She looked around. Built up the tension. Letting the room noise settle before she opened it. “There’s a reason we started with her lifetime achievement! Winner for best in show! Jean McFadden!”

Cameras cut to Jean again, this time real surprise on her face. She’d known about the other award but this? There were so many good costumes! She thought a few were better than hers. She left her flowers with her friend in the audience. She only had her battle staff and her phone, once again in her teeth, as she walked up, accepting hugs but everyone had given their flowers already. Except for Jerry.

“If you don’t this time,” Kyeongwan said as a threat.

“Okay!”

Here she was.

He stepped in her way. “Congrats!” He pointed the googly-eyed daffodil at her.

She took it, without looking or noticing the eyes, and hugged him. “Thanks, Jer!” she whispered into his beard then went on stage.

She held it in the same hand as her battle staff so when she raised the staff to rally everyone, like her character does in-game, everyone cheered—cheered at her, cheered at the staff, cheered at the daffodil. The daffodil, that as it shook, the glue loosened and an eye rained down on her. “Ah! Ah! Ahh!” she overreacted, looking around as some laughed tentatively and others waited for permission to laugh, but she saw the eye land on the podium. She looked at the flower. Saw the other. Made the connection. Held in a big laugh till she could show the camera, holding the loose eye in place, then she mimicked the Pokemon’s cry to everyone’s enjoyment, even those too young to know, which was most of the crowd. It gave her a chance to breathe, too. She really needed that moment to shake the jitters she still got after all these years and after all these wins.

Then as she found her words, a murmur broke out on the end-seats where she’d walked up as a man-child rushed past Jerry and Kyeongwan toward the stage, leaping the steps in two-bounds, till he passed Sami and in a fumbling sweep, grabbed one of the dual blades off her back.

No one was sure if this was part of the show.

“What do these bakka judges know?” He had some sort of Euro accent but obviously one he learned from bad American movies and hadn’t practiced away from the mirror. It did not give him the sophistication he thought it did. “It is our dark queen that deserves this honor.”

The guardians were community volunteers, some 16, some 50, but none certified to handle unruly guests so a few exited at the back to fetch con security, actual paid members that rarely had to do anything beyond look threatening. But Sami had attended and even organized a lot of con events. She used to be in charge of planning OPX during the first few but as the company hired more employees, specialists took care of that. Still, she had the experience of idiot attendees trying nonsense and she knew policy dictated that a direct confrontation could escalate the situation and leave a bad taste in the audience’s mouth. “Get off the stage, idiot.”

The idiot brandished the stolen blade at Jean, even jabbed at her.

She did not play along. “Jesus fucker, if this were functional…” The mic did not pick up the juicy part of the threat.

Jerry would not stay back. He probably didn’t even know policy. He ran up, too, and grabbed Sami’s other sword.

Looking to the back, Sami saw the doors still closed and no one coming as Jerry distracted the first idiot with some play-fight, but the first swing, maybe out of excitement or nervousness or just consistent obliviousness, maybe to prove his masculinity, put too much force for fake blades. Sami’s props dented. The shining paint cracked.

Sami grabbed one idiot from behind and lobbed him, then threw Jerry so they both went flying over the stairs at opposite ends of the stage.

Security was finally there, looking for the offender.

“That one,” Sami pointed at the attendee. “The other’s just an idiot.”

Whoever was running the camera had been instructed not to show the attendee’s face so as not to give him any attention. That was what he wanted. Security took him as he yelled, “What about the memes?” But Jerry was free game for the camera. He was up on the big screen behind Jean, still floored and embarrassed as Kyeongwan helped him up. He shook her off to get up himself then left out the back.

“Please, people, don’t be dumbasses,” Sami said at the podium. “Even if no one presses charges, that guy will be banned from attending our conventions and possibly even our panels at other conventions, all for…? The memes? Not worth it, people. Let’s all create a pleasant experience by acting like adults.”

But the audience was silent, wowed and amazed, including Jean right next to Sami.

“Girl,” Jean asked, “you back?”

It was the question the audience wanted to know.

And Sami realized she’d shown her revival ahead of schedule.

She took a breath into her standalone mic. “If you love our spin-offs for how they add depth to the main canon, you’re going to want to attend tomorrow’s Founders panel for a very exciting announcement.”

The energy of the room returned.  

“Some of you might even get a chance to participate.”

 

~

 

Out on the con floor, people shuffled in comfortable clothes with actual pockets. T-shirts and cargo shorts, button-ups, dresses, con swag, backpacks, tennis shoes! And as the audience flooded out, costumes slowly started appearing among the crowd once more. They weren’t the rare sight they were during the competition but maybe a 30-70 mix. A few stayed back to grab photos with competitors, especially Jean and Sami and even Jerry. No bad publicity and all that.

Kyeongwan designated herself the photographer. No one knew her by face and even by name, she was a tiny personality that only site forum frequenters might know. Still, some, especially the boys, saw she had an official company badge and a pretty face and asked her to be in photos, too.

She insisted politely, “You need a full photos, not just selcas.”

So Jean and Sami were on either side of the attendee with Jerry next to Sami, giving her extra space in case she was still angry about the swords. She was but pulled him in close so he didn’t get an arm cut off in the photo.

 

~

 

After the line had come and gone, Sami and Kyeongwan found the employees-only door with a guardian checking their badges. The door led to a series of hallways that connected focal points at the convention center. Down the way where the Psygning was scheduled for, the substitute Founders signing and inevitable business propositions was going strong past its time limit, but The Director was great about walking a few steps, taking a photo, walking some more, and getting a business card with a link to a fan’s portfolio, then walking some more and while he was still late doing this, what was his guardian to do? This section was empty.

“I’ve got to grab some food,” Sami said. “I’ll meet you at the panel?”

“Half an hour!” Kyeongwan reminded her. “Will you bring me some eat? Two!”

“If I’m late, you’re the host.”

Mwoya?

Sami ran down the hall, the opposite direction they needed to go. “You’ll do great!”

 

~

 

The line to the LGBTQ+ panel stretched the halls with cosplayers chatting with hair-colored lumberjanes or a huddle of guys comparing tattoos or many awkwardly alone. The doors opened.

It was known among the company to schedule Samiyah 30 minutes early to any meeting, shoot, or other event that required punctuality. When Kyeongwan had told her “30 minutes,” they actually had an hour till the animation panel let out their audience and the new panelists could wait backstage for the 10 to 20 minutes that the new audience filled in.

Sami still wasn’t here.

And the audience was sat.

Their lights darkened. Stage lights went on.

After a guardian on stage introduced the panel, the two panelists Kyeongwan didn’t know marched out with her at the rear. They got a mild applause. The other two sat in their spots. Sami’s was empty. And then Kyeongwan at the end.

To the table, the guardian said, “Sami’s running late. Key-yee-ong-wahn?” The guardian cringed for saying it wrong but didn’t actually apologize. “She said you’re the host till she gets here.”

She adjusted the mic in its stand. The speakers rang out with interference. “Joesonghabnida…” Kyeongwan started. “Annyeong haseyo. Kyeongwan ibnida, gurigo…

The audience and the panel didn’t understand.

She cleared her throat.

There was a long pause.

The audience was too dark to see beyond their silhouettes.

The other mics picked up some of the table murmur between the other panelists.

Shirking the nervous act, she announced, “Hello, Allos and Aces!”

The relief amped the reaction of the audience as some laughed and others clapped and then one audience member rushed up on stage and no one, despite what happened in the cosplay competition, despite the vulnerable nature of the audience and panelists, no one stopped them—because it was Sami. “Sorry, Kyeongie. You did great. Right, folks?”

As a founder of this panel, Sami got a roar from the audience for addressing them. Some even yelled out, “Late!”

“I wasn’t late!”

Kyeongwan leaned into the mic. “Late.”

“It was a joke.”

The other panelists joined in till the whole audience chanted, “Late, late, late.”

“A little late. I could’ve made it but I thought it’d be a better introduction for my Kyeongwan here. Do you want to properly introduce yourself?”

Annyeong haseyo—

“So everyone can understand!”

“Hi, my name is Yoo Kyeongwan. I’m 19 years old and my favorite color is purple. I’m asexual and it’s nice to meet you.”

“She’s a production assistant on set and some of you might know her from the community forums. She’s recently been promoted to community manager for on-site activities. She’s from Korea, but not Seoul, right?”

“Ung,” Kyeongwan grunted in affirmation.

Everyone knew Sami so she let the person next to her talk. They were androgynously dressed with short platinum hair. “As you can hear, I’m also not from here. This is the best of the British accents: the northern Welsh. I’m from Llandudno, which good luck spelling that. My name’s Trevor and I’m genderfluid in a long-term poly relationship. They/them please. I work in the sales and marketing department, so sorry for the host-read ads during podcasts, but it’s part of keeping the lights on. Cheers.”

And the woman on the end introduced herself a bit timidly. She had mermaid hair. “Hi, I’m Morgan. If you’ve seen me anywhere, it’s probably on the community channel for video essay content. I try to explain music theory used in anime and movies.”

Kyeongwan said, “Your hair—” then gave a thumbs-up.

“Really? T-t-thanks, yours too. I also help make some of the songs for productions. When they want me. Mostly guitar.”

“She also sings,” Sami interrupted.

“The temp track,” she said with a self-deprecating laugh. “I’m a trans lesbian. She/her.”

Kyeongwan realized she hadn’t said her pronouns. “She/her for me, too. English pronouns are still hard for me so if I make a mistake, please correct me.”

Sami the MC took up her mic again to say, “For any cishets in the crowd that are here to be better allies, we’ll throw out a lot of words that might not be in your vocabulary yet, but please remember a little homework is nothing compared to the struggles of identifying as we do. I’m bi and still get homophobic remarks since I almost exclusively date women. There’s even erasure within the community.”

 

~

 

A bit into the panel, after getting a nod from the tech bros offstage, Sami flashed a devilish smile at her friend.

Aigoo.

“So Kyeongwan here actually has a secret past. This is okay, right?”

Kyeongwan sighed audibly into the mic, then addressed the audience. “Our rule at the company is if it’s filmed, it’s fine.”

A video played on the projector screen behind them. Even the panelists turned to watch. A wooden floor with a five-girl V-formation and a pair on one side, posing together to form a heart with their arms, and a single girl on the other forming a broken heart. They were dressed in hoodies and loose button-ups unbuttoned and leggings and ripped skinny jeans—all with comfortable dance shoes. Music started. A young, long-haired girl ran to her partner. She looked familiar. They bounced with the bubbly intro then slowly twirled and twisted their arms into yoga poses as the EDM beat built to a drop. Then the dancing started. The girls chanted “Ya, ya, ya, ya!” to keep the rhythm with their hard soles pounding a matching tattoo into the floor. A few lip-synced to the Kpop classic. They synchronized every movement, which were sharp and well-practiced so they flowed to their positions as each girl cycled through their solo parts in the center. Even the attitudes on display were honed and directed. A bright, stretched smile. A wistful longing. The rappers with cool eyes. And the young, long-haired, familiar girl from before got her solo. Right into the camera. It was Kyeongwan.

Sami came on the mic. “We don’t have to watch it all. I just wanted everyone to see just how cool my squish is.”  

Kyeongwan had her eyes covered so she wouldn’t see the audience reaction.

Trevor waited for the applause. “So why are you here?”

“Isn’t America the greatest country on Earth?” She snickered then whispered, “Joke. I don’t know. I’m--it’s hard. Many peoples don’t succeed.”

 

~

 

The panel continued by talking about coming out. Sami had tried to make it like a game show for her mom. She recruited her younger brother. The family of three went out to TGIFriday’s and took turns asking their mom questions. Favorite colors (hers black and his green), the hobby they hated most that she’d insisted they try (The Nutcracker). Then her brother said, “Mom, if you can correctly guess this last one, we’ll treat you to anything on the menu, even dessert. Who at this table has a girlfriend? Me? Is that your final answer? Well sorry, mom, but this one’s on you!”

 

“Is your brother also?” Trevor asked.

 

“That’d be something! Making it a two-for-one, but no, he wasn’t. Just ugly.”

 

“How’d your mom take it?”

 

“Confused about why we did it that way, but overall, supportive. She didn’t have the most freedom growing up and she’s always let us be and wear and do what we want. Other than The Nutcracker.”

 

Kyeongwan pointed at the screen behind them. “Next year, your photos.”

Trevor, on a few forms of social media, joined genderfluid discussions till they never had to tell their friend group in so many words but everyone just knew. It was how their eldest sister found out, but she quietly liked their posts without outing them. Many friends identified similarly, but none that they lost evenings with until one friend with a mutual love for cheesy sci-fi spent many video calls falling asleep together despite the time difference. Trevor might fart on the call, pause, before nervously asking if the mic picked that up, and they’d lie until it was a group call with someone on the line who was not so timid. After years and years of this kind of relationship, Trevor moved to Quebec to live with them both. They missed their family after. A brother who was trans. Parents that encouraged exploring aches of curiosity. Two sisters, including a gothic artist working on concept art for games. It was tough to leave. Trevor married their partner for legal reasons but they both lived in a large house with another few people and it was something of a mystery of who was with who for friends on the outside until, again, without saying much directly, by being vocally in support of certain lifestyles, it became clear to everyone that they were in a polyamorous relationship, too.

“If I’d grown up with that kind of support,” Morgan said. “Maybe I wouldn’t feel like my life started at 27.”

“History is full of people who got late starts,” Trevor reminded her. “I don’t know any off the top of my head, but you’re up here in front of people who can relate. I think you’re the success that can inspire them.”

“I don’t know if I’d call what I have success.”

“I would,” Kyeongwan said. “For both of you.”

Morgan’s family were staunch, Baptist republicans from the Midwest. Coming out was a cry for help. That was how she saw it, too, after years of brainwashing. It was, in her mind, why she was depressed. Anxious. Why she failed university. Why she couldn’t keep a hetero-relationship working, despite loving her partners but in a complicated way that tore up the relationships. She still stuck close to Jesus but after nearly submitting herself to conversion therapy, she began accepting maybe it wasn’t her that was broken. That was her first step toward a healthier lifestyle, toward transitioning, but she still liked her family when they weren’t faced with the crunch of real choices.

“Maybe if I’d come out as trans then a lesbian, it’d be easier for them, but I did both at once.”

“Think that day might ever come?” Trevor asked. “Where they become too toxic?”

“My mom sent me a drink recipe last night so we’re still close, but she never wants to talk about my partners. She’s at least past saying, ‘How can you be a lesbian? You’re a man.’ So that’s progress. I have a younger brother, too, who’s a good kid but doesn’t have the exposure to anyone outside his default worldview. I know it’s not our responsibility—there’s already so many burdens being trans, but personally, I feel like it’s my job to educate him, to normalize being trans, to normalize being a lesbian. That the two are at odds with each other. I don’t know if I’m doing a good job, but I’m trying.”

When the applause overwhelmed Morgan into quiet, Kyeongwan added, “I also can’t imagine cutting off my family. I owe them so much and if they don’t understand, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“They don’t know?” Morgan asked.

"I didn’t know until recently. Some history…”

 

~

 

Kyeongwan’s mom grew up in a city on the southern coast of Korea called Yeosu in the Jeollanamdo province. She owned a seafood restaurant when she met Kyeongwan’s father, a chef at the Grand Seoul Hotel.

Sami interrupted, “Both her parents are chefs and she struggles with rice.”

“It’s true. My older sister is better at that. American people don’t know but it’s a very, very prestigious position to work there. He cooked for president.”

But it was a job. It wasn’t his restaurant. Her mom’s place was hers, however small, and so they were getting serious together, traveling to meet every two weeks at least. “And my father say, ‘I want you here.’

‘You want me to sell my restaurant or hand it over to someone so I can raise children.’

‘I will get you a new job, if you want.’”

Kyeongwan did voices that didn’t match her parents at all but made it clear who was talking. She laughed. Audience laughed. Sami just beamed looking at her friend opening up. “And my mother say, ‘I don’t have a job. I have a restaurant. We can find you a new job here or I can find a new man here.’”

She laughed very genuinely so her teeth showed.

Her father moved to Yeosu as this chef with stories about drama and pop idols, and for years, he joked, he could get a job at any restaurant in Korea— “Except my mother’s.”

“She’s my hero,” Sami said.

“Mine too.”

But when Kyeongwan was a middle school student, her mother got sick. It was becoming expensive and her father started working at the restaurant when she couldn’t anymore. “He gave up his job to keep her restaurant open.”

Meanwhile, Kyeongwan’s older sister was at an acting school in Seoul and she mentioned an open audition at this music agency. “She thought I was good enough, but I didn’t.”

She was getting into the real story of her Kpop trainee days.

“And you see idols and you see their hair and make-up, their outfits, the concerts in Dubai or America sometimes and you think they’re very rich.” So, as a naive 14-year-old, she thought to solve their financial problem, “I’d become famous and have many, many, many money and my mother would be healthy enough for her restaurant and my father wouldn’t have to work.”

With the help of her sister, she skipped her academies to take the train to Seoul to audition and, she hadn’t mentioned who her sister was but, “They said I looked like my sister so maybe that helped.” She had to sign and get her parents’ signature and that meant telling them what she did. Three hours on the train and she started thinking the worst of everything. The excitement faded. The stress multiplied. Why did she spend 100,000 won traveling? Why would they be okay with both their daughters being gone? There was a tuition fee to train at the agency, too. “I started to become angry at my sister for tricking me.”

 

~

 

Her dialect got stronger as she talked and she had to pause to think of certain words, but the audience was patient and the panelists didn’t fill the dead air, instead letting deep, steadying breaths hang in her story.

 

~

 

It was late when she arrived home, walking from the train station despite the dark. She told them what she did. She didn’t say why because “I was realizing how foolish it was. My dad said he’d have to talk in private to my mother, but she said, right there, ‘I can’t believe you’re going to leave us, too!’” It sounded like a complaint but she was like that, where everything sounded that way, but Kyeongwan knew “She was saying in her way, ‘You are going to do this.’”

Training caused her more stress. At first, it was different from the constant pressure of school. She was actually working fewer hours, but soon the novelty ended. “You have no control over what you eat or what you wear. You live there. They own you.”

They pushed her every day to learn dances and songs but also how to act in front of a crowd or a camera. “They tell you your type. That you look this way so everyone thinks you’re this way so you have to be this way.”

They cut her hair short. “I used to have it long, covering half my face to look mysterious but really I just couldn’t see anything, then they told me short hair suited me better. My name is kind of masculine and my voice kind of low. I was told I was the oppa, which American people sometimes use thinking its meaning is cool or badass, which I am!” But oppa is used for a girl’s older brother or an older boy she’s close to, and even though Kyeongwan was a girl and liked being cute, everyone started calling her oppa. “I can’t look like I do and like girly things and be an unnie and still be cool and badass and smart and funny and in every way the best—That’s accurate, right?”

“The most, Kyeongie,” Sami said.

Every now and then, her mother would text her, complaining that Kyeongwan was too busy for her now that she was a star, but that was how she asked, "Are you getting enough rest?"

“Sometimes I’d send back, ‘I’m dying here.’ But after about a year and a half, my mother sent me, ‘Me too.’” Kyeongwan fumbled with the mic. "I thought she really meant it.”

She survived. They had an operation. She survived.

 

~

 

Kyeongwan needed a minute. No one vamped. They let her have that minute to let her tears come and settle where they would. A few in her lap. A few on her chin. Many hanging in her eyes.

“Do any of you like Kpop?”

A few in the audience answered. The table was pretty unfamiliar.

“When I was 16, in talks to debut in a six-person group, there was a group from the second generation of idols where one of the idols suicided.”

He wasn’t anyone she knew personally but she knew people who did. The funeral’s when and where, despite everyone's effort, was leaked with fans and fansite photographers outside. They weren’t allowed in but they did anything to get the best view of crying idols. Idols snapped their own photos to show how gross these people really were, a huge crowd of men with big, black cameras pointed at the pallbearers with the coffin coming out of the hall. The group’s next album and the idol’s mostly finished solo debut released posthumously reached the number one spot.

“I didn’t want to end up like that. Living as a trainee was already hard, but I thought it’d get better.” Korea’s suicide rate ranked top 5 in the world for a long time. There was too much pressure in a hyper-competitive, capitalist society. Failure was hard; success was hard.

“I told my mom I was dying there. And I didn’t want to. And she told me she didn’t want me eating chicken every night after academy.”

Breaking contract was a lot of debt. The company tallies up how much they invested into the dropout’s training, room and board, uniforms and allowances and haircuts, even stationery, but her parents paid. Then they paid to send her to her old academies after public school, where she didn’t know anyone anymore, not the students, not the teachers, and even the owners didn’t know her. “It just looks good on your application for university, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do and my mom was still sick but sometimes well enough to visit the restaurant and I felt like I’d given them all this debt, like any meal where we didn’t eat meat was because we couldn’t afford it. Because of me.”

“To be honest, I don’t know how I ended up in America.”

“Another expense.”

“I don’t even dye my hair anymore because I want to pay them back for all they’ve done for me. That’s why I haven’t come out to them. I don’t want them to misunderstand. Or to understand and not accept it.”

Though it seemed clear she had finished, if she hadn’t, the room stayed sympathetically silent so she could say whatever she needed and sometimes people needed a lot of time and space for whatever’s inside them.

“Thank you for listening.”

“Thank you for sharing. I never knew all that.” Sami said. “And feel like a bit of a dick for bringing it up.”

“Not a dick.” Kyeongwan gave a thumbs-up. “Unnie.”

They fist-bumped and pressed their thumbs together to seal it. Sami announced, “We’re in our last 10 minutes of the panel so we’re moving onto the Q&A. Line up politely, and if you want to anonymously give a question to a guardian, we’ll read those, too, but fair warning, those get moderated for triggering topics and intentional dickishness. If anyone says anything about how they identify as a goddamn attack helicopter, you will be banned. Don’t test me. As much as we want this to be a safe space, unfortunately that moderation is necessary for everyone else’s well-being.”

The first few questions came with a preamble of praise that the panelists were polite about but Sami reminded everyone, time was limited and the lines long.

A question came about how to deal with friends and families who were trying to help and be supportive, but ultimately made the person feel worse.

Morgan said, “My strategy is to ignore it, passive-aggressively post articles telling straight people not to do whatever, and then hope they figure it out for themselves.”

“Does that ever work?” Trevor asked.

“Nope.”

Kyeongwan hadn’t examined these topics before and had little to contribute, so she listened, taking the time to recover from letting out what she hadn’t before. There was relief and panic, certainly panic over if she was understood at all, not just because of the language barrier—she insisted she was a beginner at English—but because maybe she’d forgotten a detail, or gotten lost in the details without choosing only the important ones. It was not eloquent. She knew that much. But she hoped it came through. And she hoped to learn a lot from everyone on stage and everyone in the crowd as well, and she hoped she had the chance to tell them a happier story like about meeting Sami. That was a good story. A funny one. She'd tell them next time. 

 

~

 

The applause woke her from her thoughts. The exuberant crowd upon ending their meeting with Kyeongwan was loud. People were on their feet. The cheering was as much for the stage and the others as for her. She’d dreamed for years but quit before it was hers. And, getting softer than she ever showed anyone, she mewled in Korean, “But I’m just Kyeongwan.”

Sami pulled her in and wiped the tears before they came.

The others left the stage to get photos with the crowd, the line stretching through the aisles, and Sami kept holding Kyeongie.

 

~

 

The next panel was here to set up and Sami directed their group and audience outside to the main floor where they could continue taking photos together. It was the end of Sami and Kyeongwan’s schedule and they could wander the floor after this and there was no rush to get to that.

Like after the cosplay competition, Kyeongwan tried being the group photographer so everyone’s faces weren’t squished, and then a boy, still in middle school with his mom waiting in the wings, asked Kyeongwan specifically, “Can I get a photo with you?” He would go on to ask everyone else next but he went to her first because he’d been to a few conventions now, when they were close, when he could save his allowance to cover the tickets, when his parents weren’t working that weekend, and he’d never been to a panel where someone else was ace.

Kyeongwan took the phone. “Say kimchi!” She put up a peace sign by her eyes for the first photo, for the next: finger hearts, then she directed him to arc his arm above his head to mirror hers and it turned into a big heart.

His mom took that photo. She mouthed, “Thank you so much.” Click!

The next person asking for a group shot of the three of them (Morgan had to rush off), Kyeongwan lined up behind Sami, who she loomed over, doing the most extra pose she could with a wide, gummy smile.

 

~

 

That evening, when Jerry got home to his sixth floor apartment, he stepped over the frozen French fries he’d spilled that morning. He’d been in a rush. Too excited for the con. His cats had overturned the baking sheet to lick up the melted frost and nibble at the uncooked potato, deciding they didn’t like it. He tossed the remains in the sink full of dishes that’d been soaking for a week. One tuxedo kitty was buried in the pile of clean clothes and the other, a mini-jungle kitty, was on the dresser, considering where to leap to next. Maybe into the corner of half-finished cosplay designs, maybe onto the shelf of figurines. For now, he stayed put.

Jerry took a cookie sheet from the sink to the bathroom with a month-old sponge. After scraping off the crusties, he thought they came off easily for how burnt on they were. A sign? The orange veins in his arm had faded. His arms strained to bend the metal before he set it on the toilet cistern.

It was good he didn’t have Sami’s powers. She had seniority. She had 15 million subscribers. Regular hosting gigs. Crowdfunding from thirsty assholes. However he compared to her, he’d be the excess. He’d get cut.

In the kitchen, an already small place before considering his size, he opened a new bag of French fries and turned on the oven. He stared at the frozen spuds.  Focusing his eyes. His fingertips. His breath.

They remained frostbitten.

His Bengal cat had decided where to jump, onto the top shelf where Jerry kept his Master Grade mecha, hoping the height and how crowded the shelf was might discourage the cats. It did not. The cat made a few lurches and Jerry rushed with all his speed to stop him—this was it! This had to be his power! It awoke to a need, not a desire. It had to!

Jerry was too slow. The cat landed on the shelf but nothing fell. He sat. Licked his paws. Then looked at the damage-painted robot with a sword and a laser rifle taller than its frame and the cat said fuck that thing in particular before knocking it off. The cat in the clothes didn’t react.

The sword slid under the bed with soda cans. The head popped off.

He yelled at the cat, “Bad!” and when the cat continued licking his paw, louder, “BAD!”

No reaction from the shelf.

He slapped the wall.

The cat looked around, then back to his grooming.

“Asshole,” Jerry muttered. He gave the kitty scritches but he didn’t enjoy rewarding bad behavior. Then with a blank face, he tried to communicate, “Bad cat.”

Either the cat didn’t care or Jerry wasn’t—thank god—psychic.

But if the veins had faded and he was still nothing, was his serum a dud? Was he doomed before auditions even started? Should he call in a favor?

In the dirty mirror, he looked at himself. His beard was long. The audience liked it, he had convinced himself. He was the manly viking with piercing eyes. Samiyah hated it. She rallied others to tease him about it, too. She told him all about how disgusting it was after they ate together or god forbid, he had a cold one winter and needed to blow his nose. And today, she had lobbed him in front of a crowd when he was only trying to help in a fun way. Didn’t the audience love fights on-screen? Why not live?

He looked for bruises it had left. He’d tumbled down those stairs after all.

On Monday, Sami would see them and apologize probably, unless he covered up.

None on his neck.

Or his chest.

Or, while he didn’t have the greatest flexibility (another power to check off), as far as he could see, none on his back.

Nothing hurt.

He ordered delivery to celebrate.

 

~

 

At her home, big enough for two, Samiyah threw off her costume opting for sweats and a T-shirt, no bra, glasses over contacts. She found Lisa in the bedroom all packed for Austin tonight while a few news reads about the best game demos at OPX uploaded from Sami’s computer.

“Enjoy the con?” Sami asked.

Lisa went in for a hug and a kiss. She had long, Irish blond hair to match her pale skin dotted with freckles. Sami liked playing connect the dots. Freckles here, freckles there, freckles everywhere.

Their bedroom was clean except for the sheets after two long-haired women had shed. The kitchen needed mopping and vacuuming but the sink was clear of dishes. Only Samiyah’s cosplay rooms were a mess. One for constructing with a work bench and laptop to watch How-Tos, specifically for the armor. Currently she was mid-project with this chainmail that wasn’t going well around the shoulders. Another room for storage that seemed overflowing even after selling costumes that no longer fit or were such a slog that she wanted them gone after they were retired. Then she had her fitting room. They were all a mess, they were all her shame, they were all forbidden for Lisa to step into, especially since she liked organizing in her own way and Sami’s workspace needed to be hers. She compartmentalized workspaces to reduce stress.

“You have to leave?” Sami asked, still holding the hug.

“I do.”

"You don’t!”

“What’s got you sappy? I like it, but what? Are you nervous about stepping back into it?”

“No.”

“You are! If you drive, that’s 30 minutes to get anything out. Or at least 10 if I don’t cancel my ride.”

“If you’re staying another 10 minutes, we’re not talking.”

Their faces so close, they smiled at one another. The long-distance thing sucked but neither was ready to move to the other. Austin was too hot. Portland too rainy. Their jobs were in their own cities. And a month apart was tough but they met up at work events and cons and if not, they traveled out-of-pocket.

“Okay, I’m going,” Lisa said. “I’ll call you when I land? If you’ve changed your mind…”

"Love you.” Sami let the hug end.

“You too.”

And Lisa was gone. Sami went to the kitchen to heat up something simple. Maybe grilled cheese. She used to make it as a kid, her mom even designating her the official cheese griller. She’d make five at a time. Her mom got one, she got two, her brother two. His picture was on the wall, an old headshot he’d signed for her as Christmas present the year they’d premiered on the show. His handsome face in a cheesy smile, his septum piercing, his dark brown skin. Looking at it, she expected it to wink any second. That was all he gave her that Christmas and a big grin and a bigger headache. She missed him.

 

~

 

This long-haired black biter with a skunk streak on his butt leaned against his playpen as Kyeongwan changed into comfortable leggings and a loose sweatshirt. Sushi, her dog, often tapped dance with her but, when free, tended to cross his blocking and she'd stepped on his little paws too many times, heard that piercing, heart-wrenching yelp of betrayal and apology that put her on her knees to massage and kiss the boy better so he knew it wasn't him, it wasn't punishment, it wasn't like before the shelter.

Music cycled through a playlist on her 33-centimeter laptop. She never bought a TV. A larger screen, twice the size even, would have helped her on a near-nightly basis, but her eyesight was okay if she wore her lenses. She could usually see the dance tutorials.

The playlist was from a Seoul-based dance studio that specialized in hip-hop, and tonight especially, she needed that. Americans had solo acts. Musicians with instruments. Great music in many genres but the dance culture in the US was wanting. So many of her dance tutorials were from Korea in Korean, the language of her mind, a comfort of home.

She warmed up with one of her favorites, one of her firsts, Redbone by Childish Gambino. Something modern that had her acting out a scene on the floor, pouting into her knees then spinning and pausing with her hands thrown up for a ragged breath, a scene she felt in the reedy voice as much as the dance but couldn’t explain why it filled her with sorrow still. Maybe it was the instructors, normally bubbly or fierce, wearing a solemn expression and Kyeongwan trusting they knew the mood.

They posted videos weekly. Multiple times a week often. With the playlist on random and a decade of tutorials, she never knew what was new.

The song changed and this one was new. Choreography by Yang Ji Eun.

She stared at the screen, waiting for the title card to fade and the instructor to come on, and there she was! It really was! Her fake maknae, Dubu. In those days, she was a trainee that’d been at the agency for 4 years and they always had her on a strict no-rice, no-ramyeon diet because she had puffy, pale cheeks that she’d pinch and jiggle like tofu. She still had them. The dance mesmerized Kyeongwan. It featured a lot of popping, the style she always liked most. She said it felt like a puppet fighting its strings.

Her choreography ended and the next group came on with their own interpretation of it and usually Kyeongwan loved watching them, too, how they changed it, how they executed, many learners and future stars mixed in and it was a time to breathe and study and think on how she did it herself and how she’d do it next time, and it was just tonight that she ran out on the learners to grab her phone from the counter.

In those days, their trainee days, Kyeongwan and Ji Eun weren’t allowed smartphones. Not until they debuted, the agency said. That was what so many of the trainees dreamed of buying with their first paycheck, maybe after a year of touring. Getting the latest and greatest phone. To take a million selcas (self-cameras, selfies) a day in new places around the world, around the country.

But not until they debuted.

Kyeongwan had never debuted. Her first smartphone was in America to be able to video call her parents. The only numbers she had it in were family, professors, co-workers, American friends.

That video in particular didn’t have many views relative to their most popular ones. A quarter million instead of 50 million. Hundreds of comments instead of thousands. Kyeongwan’s job was reading comments, posts, and hundreds was daunting and many at her company followed the rule to never read comments. Hers would be lost here. She didn’t know how to reach out to her old friend, discovered again, with so many questions.

So into the search bar she went. “Dance tutorial Yang Ji Eun.” Three videos so far.

She watched the second one through first, several times in fact, before attempting and while watching, these memories came back. Faces and names and the way each of them laughed or dealt with anger. Ji Eun would go quiet. Kyeongwan got loud. SooA played peace maker. Nayeon ordered chicken and had it delivered to the back alley where she’d pop a squat and eat under the electric lines.

There were others, many she didn’t know anymore because she hadn’t known them then. In those days, so desperate for debuting, she just worked. Friendships were a by-product and if someone left for another agency, if they left for another schedule, if they just left, that was how it was and Kyeongwan could let them go and it was only Ji Eun’s forceful friendship that made Kyeongwan stick around. She didn’t really have a choice.

Ji Eun was never a vocalist. She couldn’t rap. The producers never placed her as a visual either. She’d only ever be a dancer with a few lines per song, and being a little chubby by crazy man standards, they didn’t think she could do that either. Was that why she never debuted?

Who else hadn’t?

After leaving the agency, Kyeongwan lost contact with everyone there. The dongsaeng who looked up to her even when she didn’t know what she was doing, the unnie who taught her how to survive that life, her friends. More than losing contact, Kyeongwan had severed it. She didn’t want to tell her new classmates about what it was like, though they asked a lot those first few months. She wanted to move on and to recover and to pay off that debt so it’d stop haunting her.

The song ended and Kyeongwan was too slow to scroll back before the next video in the playlist came on.

It was a classic they’d learned together as trainees. Red Velvet’s Look, this 80s synth kpop bop. It didn’t even have an M/V but it had a dance practice with millions of views. A crowd favorite at concerts and the members, Kyeongwan remembered, looked so sharp and in sync and she always wanted to meet them because of that dance.

She scrolled back the video and ran into position, panting already from excited, nervous energy.

Ji Eun had taken the center position with her four students so Kyeongwan started the same, a mirror, and the song started with these gentle voices bursting, “bwa, bwa, bwa” like stars in the night as the line of girls spun in succession, Ji Eun’s long, natural hair already thrown in her face, then they hip-walked toward the camera before turning back and then again towards the camera, a full Vogue walk with these elegant arm poses—that she knew! These weren’t the original poses. These were Ji Eun’s and hers. The ones they’d made goofing around and liked and had introduced to the girls. A lot of these moves were theirs! Not originals, by any means, but the sequence, they’d thrown that together together! And—oh, Kyeongwan forgot that slide from astride position to get the turn.

Her legs, her hips, her arms, her fingers and her toes stumbled into the rhythm she had not sought out in years, the rhythm that had thrown her into the kind of debt where she lived off cold rice.

The routine so often called for facing away and it was clearer in her limbs than in her mind so she went with the muscle-memory, but even that failed her now.

She had to stop her own choreography.

She had to watch her own moves.

How had Ji Eun kept up with this so perfectly after quitting the agency that demanded better than perfection?

Why had she?

Why had she quit if she was going to keep dancing anyway?

Why had Kyeongwan?

After returning to school, no one ever mentioned the debt in her family. Or the agency. Or dancing. But it suffocated Kyeongwan every dinner with them, which wasn’t often after academies started, and even less when she’d started part-time at Paris Baguette, one of the two big bakery chains in Korea, and she thought, after some time there, maybe this could be her life. She loved the smell of bread. And her parents had an oven. She’d made so many bad cookies, fantasizing of her own bakery, but vanilla extract was 10,000 won! 10 dollars! For 50 milliliters.

It was unsustainable.

And the old dreams got back in her mind at night. Of paying off debt with fame. The old, stupid, childish dreams that tempted her. And she had failed there, in Korea, in Seoul, so she’d have to make it in America—but not singing. Like her sister, acting.

And she’d made it! Into school. An internship at a huge Internet production company. Learning English was probably more difficult than finding fame with her luck.

She had uprooted her life, moved countries, left her family, put them in more debt to send her there—only to stay behind the cameras. Community management. Producing. Assistant.

She lived off cold rice and she might always.

Ji Eun on the video was having so much fun with their moves. The tone of the dance called for this cool expression, which she could do no problem, but her lips were full curled into a smile when she wasn’t mouthing the words.

She really loved dancing.

And so had Kyeongwan.

Being a trainee made her forget that.

She ran to get her phone and sent a long text that she needed to get the English right on.

In half an hour, the doorbell rang. It was The Director.

 

~

 

The crack of veins in her arm nearly lit the night under her blanket and she was too nervous to sleep. Auditions were in two days.

 

ACT 3

Before it was a production studio, OPHQ, called Belmont by employees for the street it was on, used to be an airport hangar. The Director loved that. They’d outgrown their last office when they expanded the animation team and had a few options on the table and Belmont was in an okay location, was bigger than the previous place, though not the biggest option, but that hangar history and functionality sold The Director. He unilaterally decided, “Here.” That was how he knew they’d made it big, when the budget allowed skydiving and air battles from rented planes that’d land on their runway. They only needed that expense once a season: the opener, the finale, mid-season break maybe, but for this pilot episode, he was willing to invest.

Sami’s SUV rolled into a spot behind the building. As Jerry fetched his bag of props from the trunk (“No one told me I couldn’t bring props!”), Sami saw a figure in the sky. The Classic flying off.

Four planes for four teams of two to five people. A plane for community members that’d won the contest Sunday; they were bonding as they huddled under the stadium lights which weren’t warm but they were bright and that was enough.

A plane for actors, schmoozing with others and asking if they’d starred in anything before.

“A few shorts. You?”

Then they’d list their filmography as a means of bragging and shaming the other for not recognizing an iconic voice in that one game from a few years ago.

The final planes were for guest celebrities and fan favorites from the OP cast like Sami. Jean had turned down the chance.

A few crew members did the final prep on the camera drones.

Most were white. Most were men. It seemed like everyone was there, but one. They waited on him like they waited on the golden hour. It’d come when it did and leave when it did and there’d be no say.

A pick-up truck parked in a reserved spot.

It was The Director. The group en masse shuffled toward him. “Why are you waiting out here?” He led them inside but stopped before opening the hangar door. “Everyone here?” He looked around. “We can at least get make-up started.”

His was not the final car. The final car didn’t park. It drove away after dropping off Kyeongwan, who was immediately hugged, lifted, and spun by Sami.

“Morning, squish.”

“I knew you’d come after seeing OPX. That was your first, right?” Jerry said.

It was too early for words. She grunted, “Ung.” She’d thrown on a beanie and a face mask at 4 am, bleary-eyed and in the dark, ass-crack still wet from the shower.

 

~

 

With 3 make-up chairs and 15 contestants, it took a while. Some used that time for introductions, a chance to show off. One of the community members, this tall, lanky Australian, floated off the pavement ever so slightly, enough that people weren’t sure till they put a cheek to the ground to see if there was a gap between the soles of his shoes and the concrete floor—there was! He was flying! Very shakily, holding his breath because it exhausted him but he didn’t want to show that. Still, for the community team and the actors still waiting on their powers to manifest, this was a big moment, to see the powers in real life. No special effects.

Someone was filming on their phone till a bearded voice actor with a man-bun knocked it out of their hands; it flipped an arc toward the ground but before it hit, it levitated. He smirked.

Then a Hispanic woman snatched up the phone and when she closed her hand, it was empty, only to appear in the other hand. She wound up her softball pitch and threw it at man-bun man, who ducked, but the phone had disappeared in the air.

The guy filming was too amazed to ask for it back and he didn’t get it back, something he realized much later but if he had, it would’ve still been filming where it’d gone when she teleported it.

Those showing off were the rare ones, though. Eager and naive.

This was competition.

Most kept theirs hidden.

The make-up artist looked Sami over, moved her hair out of the way to check a spot, then gave one little swipe and declared her perfect for the camera. As Kyeongwan sat, Sami asked, “What about you? Ready to show me what you got?”

Kyeongwan rolled up her sleeve to reveal the orange crack of veins. Once it disappeared, she’d have her powers.

“We’ll protect you,” Jerry said.

“I’ll protect you,” Sami said.

He laughed like it was a joke. “Just wait. Once you see what I’ve got, you’ll know we’re a shoe-in for the show. Just don’t ask yet.”

“I won’t.”

“It’s a secret till the dramatic reveal.”

They both gave him thumbs-up.

 

~

 

When everyone looked beautiful, The Director explained the situation in full, though everyone had heard it before when they signed the contracts and this was mostly a reminder with flavor text. It was Reality TV and they’d edit out the boring parts. “If everything you do is a boring part, maybe don’t tell your friends and family to watch because you might get edited out.”

They’d fly to The City, this real fake city OP had grown over the years where entrepreneurs and wage workers migrated organically till it was a fully functional fake city with its own school district and taxes that made for great filming. With their housing agreements, citizens of The City had signed over their rights to appear on camera and to act in whatever scenario was laid out. Damage done to their property would be covered by insurance, though newer agencies in The City, ones that were national branches, paid out as little and as slowly as possible.

“This shoot’s scenario has townspeople taken over by spores.”

From the back, Sami stopped chewing her gum to listen.

A projector cast The City on the hangar wall, showing plumes of smoke rising toward the rebuilt 63 Building, chaos in the streets as people ran from gunfire. “They’ve captured their neighbors as hostages. They’ve planted bombs around major landmarks. If you want to earn Hero points, you need to save citizens and take out the mold clone army—anyone actually attacking you is professionally trained or an animatronic or illusion or--Don’t hold back. They might hurt you but nothing permanent.” The final image shown was of a van being overrun by an army of the same handsome man with brown skin and a septum piercing.

Sami’s gum fell out her open mouth.

“Now if we have 15 contestants competing for the role of the heroes, some of you will do quality work and still get cut, but if there’s 14 heroes and 1 villain, the villain has a decent shot of making it. You can earn Villain points by letting bombs go off. Betraying your teammates at a critical moment. And an even spread of heroes and villains will still favor casting for villains because heroes fight villains; villains fight anyone who looks at them wrong. And there’s something about creating conflict, stirring the pot, that makes for more interesting content than watching Mr. Do-Good. Get ruthless.”

That was the signal to break into their teams, which, other than the community team, were free-form, trading members and combining as they pleased.

While Jerry raved about the brilliance of this plan, reminiscent of six seasons ago when The Classic went mad from the infection, Kyeongwan listened on and off but the coffee hadn’t quite kicked in enough to walk away like Sami did. Toward The Director.

Their conversation, though not every specific word, was loud enough to hear anywhere.

“How fucking dare you!”

He was against the wall, the projection still playing out the scenes of terror now cast upon his face. “The writers and producers thought it’d be okay. I thought they cleared it with you.”

“I’m not getting on that plane.”

“Breaching a SAG contract…” He leaned back and forth, hoping the motion might stir an idea for how she’d get out of this okay. “I’ll help you with the expenses. The serum alone…”

Sami fumed. This constant state of rage she’d settled into six years ago helped her from punching anything, though she wanted to. She wanted to punch him and not just because he was closest. “You should have told me.”

“I thought they did.”

“I said you.”

 

~

 

When Sami returned, Kyeongwan asked, "Gwaenchana?”

“You know I don’t know what that means.”

“Are you okay?”

She wasn’t looking at either of them, just sort of nearby with them in her peripherals. “Look, you probably thought we were going to team up and whatever, but it’s better we don’t. The real shit’s coming for me and neither of you have powers.”

Jerry said, “I have powers.”

“Find a group. Hole up somewhere. I’m winning this thing.”

“You’re on!”

Kyeongwan looked around at the planes in the hangar. Colorful private planes, 10 or fewer people per, flown autonomously. She’d heard they rocked more than even commercial flights and that was her least favorite part of the flight to America. “I didn’t know we were flying today. Maybe we can both just go to home.” Kyeongwan put it out there with a little laugh.

“I said I’m winning this.”

“But before, with The Director…”

Sami snapped, “Are you only doing this because of me?”

Kyeongwan stayed quiet.

“You think this is all just fun.” Sami’s voice rose louder than with The Director. “But you don’t know what the risks really are so if you’re here because you think I need your back-up—”

She caught herself getting lost in the heat of the moment. She looked over at The Director, checking the drones one last time. A few had flitted off toward the contestants. She marched toward an empty plane.

From the steps, she said, “Let’s go.”

Jerry waited for Kyeongwan.

“I said, let’s go!” Sami yelled.

They ran toward the plane. The drones followed them on and perched on headrests at angles with the right view. It was a bit weird for Kyeongwan, who looked away from the lens. Jerry, too, for different reasons, but his eyes kept wandering back and his smile brightening. This was his chance. Finally. Everyone would see what he was made of. No one else joined them on the flight.

 

~

 

The skip to the city left them half an hour at cruising altitude where they could stretch their legs and go to the bathroom and little else. Kyeongwan finally let go of the armrest. Her joints ached from the strain. The three had not sat together, had not spoken. Jerry awkwardly stayed in back waiting for conversation to arise naturally and it didn’t. Sami stared out the window with the hood of her sweatshirt up so the camera didn’t see.

Turbulence hit.

The nightmare her mind had grown the last flight into couldn’t compare to living it now. She muttered mantras in Korean that did nothing but force her to breathe.

Jerry, well-intentioned, rattled off a fact he heard somewhere once. “Only three people have died from turbulence since the 80s.”

Sami from her seat let out an angry breath.

“People have died from this?” Kyeongwan asked.

“Well actually, three Americans.”

“I’m not American!”

Jerry wasn’t sure why that worsened the panic but it did and so he just went on with the fact. “They were stewardess so just stay in your seat and you’re fine. Normally the killer is overhead bins and we don’t have any of those.” His props and their backpacks were stored in back, near the bathroom.

He had to be stopped or Sami would’ve stayed stewing against the window. “It’s better if you two team-up. I won’t be able to protect you both.”

“Who needs protection?”

“What powers, Jerry?”

“Wait till the time is--”

“Maybe you’d be useful if you were at least psychic.”

He shot up to his feet, nearly too big for the cabin ceiling. “I’m not psychic!”

And suddenly both sides of this conversation were emotionally charged. He stared across the aisle at her over the shoulder side-eye, and though he should’ve, he didn’t back down.  

Kyeongwan found it in her shaky voice to ask, “Why is bad about being psychic?”

There was a pause with a look like any true fan should know this by now. “How do you show it off?” he asked.

“I’d find out your password or something.”

“Scripted.”

“But we don’t do that?” She peeked over her shoulder but stayed buckled in.

“How do you prove that to thousands of Internet commenters that will claim and believe anything with enough upvotes. They’d have to ADR in your voice or their voice to show the audience, which is more recording time for everyone involved and remembering whatever you heard or in the moment if you’re thinking about it, you repeat what you just heard for the cameras, but how do we know you weren’t fed that line via an ear piece? And if they’re using special effects anyway, why give you the serum at all? You’re more work than your worth.”

She thought on it with some counter ideas but also assumed he knew what he was talking about, that in the history of the show, too few psychic characters had made it and that made it a power with a death sentence, at least as far as the canon cared.

In her thought, she looked out the window for the first time. The rays of daybreak enveloping the horizon, the other planes distant shapes against it. The forerunner started to descend.

They weren’t there yet.

Their plane rocked and Kyeongwan prepped her panic for descent but they stayed level. It was more awful turbulence.

Sami settled back to her lean against headrest where she could almost fall asleep, even if the camera caught her snoring.

Kyeongwan peeked out the window again. The first plane was gone. The plane parallel to them started to descend, too, and still their own plane stayed level.

“Are we landing?” she asked.

“Maybe 20 minutes till descent?” Jerry said.

Those other planes weren’t landing. They had crashed.

“Seatbelts!” she yelled.

Sami rushed next to her friend to shutter the view so Kyeongwan would stop staring. “Close your eyes. We’re fine.”

Turbulence hit before Kyeongwan could explain and Sami squeezed her hand as it rumbled the floors. It kept rumbling. The oxygen masks popped like gunfire, dangling from bungee cords against their heads and then their stomachs were left above as the plane plummeted toward the clouds. Psy’s recorded voice came on over the intercom telling them to fasten their seatbelts and to attach their masks first before helping those around them and the announcement could hardly be heard over Kyeongie and Jerry’s tuned chorus as Sami gripped tight her friend, forgetting her renewed strength and crushing her hand.

Then the plane leveled off.

They weren’t just gliding. The engines were fine. Their trajectory was fine. They were fine.  The computerized pilot Psy had programmed regained control of the plane.

Still, Kyeongwan screamed and Sami cooed that they were all right, but it did nothing to alleviate her fear expressed in deafening decibels. The worst she had feared had come true and she’d never fly again. But Kyeongwan needed to breathe eventually. The oxygen masks were still in their faces.

“Please don’t start again,” Sami asked.

“My hand…”

"I’m sorry.”

There were a few tears.

“The moment we land, I’ll dig out the first aid kit and I promise there are good drugs in those. Just ten minutes, okay?”

The plane’s trajectory continued downward and Kyeongwan opened her mouth wide again but Sami stopped her saying, “We’re landing. This is how it’s supposed to feel. Not like before. This is normal. This is good.”

At the front of the plane, between the automated pilots cabinet and the passenger seats, a whine pierced the cabin like a fuse on fire that set off a screech of twisted metal. The door tore off. The contrails sucked it toward the engines, barely missing.

“That’s not,” Sami said.

 

~

 

In the broadcast room in Belmont, standing behind the intern at the switcher with screens for each plane and a few to focus on the feeds with the most action, feeds that at the start should’ve been boring but not quiet, not cut, The Director stared.

“How many have we lost?”

“Five cameras.”

“The hell is he doing?”

 

~

 

Dread paralyzed Kyeongwan this time. The pressure change in the cabin was noticeable but not deadly or damaging. It was what skydivers felt. They had descended enough to survive that. However, it was not normal.

They waited.

For the rest of their plane to rip apart. For Psy’s voice to instruct them to jump with parachutes. For something to happen.

They waited.

A large hand gripped the doorway as The Classic pulled himself in.

Sami spoke in a hushed voice. “Jerry, do your props work?”

 

~

 

ACT 4

Jerry shook off the question with a dismissive confused look. “Here to wish us luck?”

The Classic strode down the aisle.

“Is this part of the…?”

Jerry was a big guy, always put on his knees in fantasy shorts and still needed forced perspective to make him a dwarf, but sized up to The Classic, he was curtains on an open window. The Classic lifted him like he was nothing. Threw him like he was less.

The reclining hinges of the back row seats were forever stripped as Jerry hurtled into them.

And The Classic kept coming.

But Sami stepped into the aisle. “You’re not doing this again, Warren.”

He swung a massive fist at her, but he was slow. She ducked. The fist struck a headrest, snapping it off and sending it to dent into the wall.

Her punch didn’t miss. Straight through his solar plexus. Then a kick to his ankles, followed up with a shove into the cockpit door. It crumpled under the force and his weight.

“I’m not some starry-eyed fangirl anymore. I know what you’re doing, I know it wasn’t an accident, and it’s not happening again.”

He climbed out. He kept coming.

 

~

 

Kyeongwan stumbled to Jerry’s side in the back by the burst-open luggage compartment and bathroom.

Draped across the aisle, his foot on an armrest, his arm twisted behind his back, he lay there gazing at the ceiling, not moving. His props spilled around him.

“Please be fine, Jerry. Sami will save us so please be fine.”

He shook her off. “I am.”

“These are real?” She picked up a bright blue squirt gun with a crystal instead of a chamber. The crystal was broken. Most of the props were bright, colorful, and broken from the dive. The two rummaged through for one that worked.

 

~

 

Sami snapped his jaw back with a powerful uppercut. His teeth chipped. His head hit the ceiling. There was blood on his face--but it was hers.

This exchange of blows was in her favor. He was a slow, plodding brawler with more strength than skill, more fury than finesse, more rage than patience. His strikes hit only shoulder or a block, but most whiffed. A strong breeze rivaling that from the open door.

But in a bare knuckle brawl, damage went to whoever hit as much as whoever was hit. The many bones in her hand shifted. Knuckles dislocated. The bones broke on impact and tore her skin. Her right hand had become useless.

And still he kept coming.

She hesitated to hit him. The pain made her.

In that moment, he grabbed her. He threw her into the crumpled cockpit door and she crashed among the computers installed by her old friend.

~

 

In the heaps of twisted plastic and bent metal, Kyeongwan found something that looked intact: this electric slingshot that looked like it might shrink a man. She turned to Jerry to ask, “What does this?”

He had on a parachute.

Nothing in hand.

Her heart sunk and neither could look at each other, but she understood. They’d seen what The Classic did to Sami.

She nodded. “I will distract.”

 

~

 

As she lined up her first shot on The Classic, her hands shook, but she held her breath. It’d go right into the back of his burned bald skull. It whirred up as she squeezed the trigger and the static beam crossing the two bulbs stretched back.

He heard the noise. Turned.

The beam died.

She slapped the gun to get it back on but if it was going to, if it even could to begin with, it didn’t before The Classic was on her, smacking the toy through the window. She watched her last chance fly out another hole sinking the plane.

Then he grabbed her by the jaw. He’d done this to Psy. She knew what was next. Her toes no longer touched the carpet.

Jerry came barreling through with his parachute on.

The Classic stopped him one-handed. He bashed Jerry from above and this time, he was out, but if he wasn’t, for good measure, The Classic kicked him to the back. He landed in the lavatory.

Kyeongwan fought, banging her hands against his, kicking, trying to pry his fingers off, but he carried her toward the front of the cabin with no problem.

He stopped at the doorway.

She felt her shirt flapping. The wind tried pulling her out. It wouldn’t have to. This madman was planning to drop her down to the city below.

Her hands fell to her sides.

Breaths came in gulps but as he dangled her outside, there wasn’t air. It moved too fast. It was too cold. His hand too tight. She too scared.

She fell.

He fell, too.

She didn’t know what was happening next, it was all tumbling and confusion, but Sami had kicked him and grabbed Kyeongwan’s hood to reel her in. Sami might’ve been yanked out, too, if not for the jump seat’s belt she’d wrapped around her busted arm.

As Sami pulled Kyeongwan into the plane, she also pulled her into a hug.

 

~

 

But The Classic could fly. And if the door was defended by someone his equal, then he’d rip through the turbine. It sucked him in and he fell away, his costume ripped to its final shreds that blew in the contrails.

 

~

 

The plane lurched and again, Kyeongwan was thrown and she hadn’t even recovered from the first time. She felt it in every bone. She was being thrown out.

But Sami held tight. “I’ve got you. I swear to god, I’ve got you.”

 

ACT 5

They crawled to the aisle where they could breathe. The plane glided toward The City with no control.

“We're crashing,” Sami said.

“What?”

“We have to jump.”

“What?”

“I’ve done it before. Trust me.”

Kyeongwan couldn’t move. She stayed in the aisle while Sami fetched the parachutes. Sami strapped herself in. It was intuitive, but she’d have to help her friend.

“What about Jerry?” Kyeongwan asked.

“He’s dead.”

“No!”

“Look!”

They did. From Kyeongwan’s view, Jerry stirred ever so slightly, but to Sami, that was the plane rocking him.

There was no denying her friend, though. Sami shook her head. “Get that thing on and I’ll get him.”

But the Classic was back. He survived one turbine. He’d survive the next, too. And if the plane was still in the air, he’d rip the wing off.

When the plane lurched this time, Sami was holding the wrong friend. Kyeongwan fell out the door. She didn’t have her parachute.

 

~

 

Sami had lied. She’d never done this before. She could figure it out easy enough. This chord probably deployed the chute. There was a gauge with a needle halfway and halfway couldn’t be good or bad or what was the point of it? She didn’t know it was an altimeter.

The plane fell over head toward the mountains on the outskirt of the city as Kyeongwan plummeted and Sami dove after her. They were low. The helicopter pad on the 63 Building was in view. The parked cars had colors.

The needle on the altimeter crept closer toward red.

Sami tackled her mid-air and held tight.

Kyeongwan had lost her breath from screaming. Her eyes were wrinkly shut.

The needle was on the border. The tallest lightning rod was above them.

Sami said, “I’m letting go to--”

Andwae!” Kyeongie clutched her savior’s collar.

“I promise I’ve got--”

The needle hit the red.

The emergency chute deployed.

Neither were ready.

Sami was strapped in at her shoulders.

Kyeongwan had no straps.

No super strength.

The strength she had was screamed away and the force of the parachute spreading wide and catching air tore the two apart.

Kyeongwan fell.