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—
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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?”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
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?”
“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.
“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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
“What’s got you sappy? I like it, but what? Are you nervous about stepping back into it?”
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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.”
“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.
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?”
“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.
For the rest of their plane to rip apart. For Psy’s voice to instruct them to jump with parachutes. For something to happen.
A large hand gripped the doorway as The Classic pulled himself in.
Sami spoke in a hushed voice. “Jerry, do your props work?”
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.
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.”
They crawled to the aisle where they could breathe. The plane glided toward The City with no control.
“We're crashing,” Sami said.
“We have to jump.”
“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.
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.