As the plastic explosive connected to the pillar approached its final countdown, the beeps picked up pace.
“Jerry! Let’s go!”
Leave his ass, she could hear Sami say.
“Go,” he said.
“If it’s filmed, it’s fine.”
She looked at him one last time.
Down the stairs, running, passing open office doors to empty space without even floors but those support pillars running all the way down, dotted with bombs. She had to hurry.
Hurry down 60 floors after hurrying up it, after two fights, after splattering on the pavement, after a sleepless night, after not enough coffee.
She didn’t have it in her.
Around floor 40, the piercing intermittent beep chasing her down the stairs had picked up enough pace as it counted down that it was a warbling screech and then a single, prolonged whine and she looked around but there wasn’t time and there wasn’t a window.
The bombs went off.
From the outside, the explosions sparked in the windows running from the top floor down. Glass burst out. Dust drifted down a few floors. But the building stood. Then the second series of detonations with a meatier fireball at the base and the building collapsed in on itself.
Kyeongwan fell among the rubble.
Smoke and dust shaped around the building. Thunder cut through it.
The woman in leather pulled off her helmet. From the forest road around The City, she watched that golden eyesore collapse for the dozenth time. It never got old for her. She liked the skyline without it.
A few drones flitted out of her motorcycle sidecar but she kept hold of one.
She went in the direction it tugged.
They’d chase her to the edge of the city.
They’d chase her into her dreams.
They’d chase her beyond.
She had escaped amid the Yasser-on-Yasser violence in the dark, but the trauma followed her in a horde of footprints and wet pant-legs carrying the stench of sewage. These people were not him and they were not his. His influence had faded with him.
And Sami was surrounded.
When they first caught up, she shoved one into the others, bowling them down. But they got up.
She ran, but every reasonable human being hated running.
Her brother hadn’t ever been reasonable. As an intern at OP, he’d gotten an ornate compass tattooed on his hand--a promise that he’d never work a stuffy corporate job. When his internship completed, he wasn’t offered a full-time position. The company didn’t need him in those days where the office was two rooms and no one pooped because walls were thin and so to make ends meet, Yasser sold swords at a mall kiosk. He blew his first paycheck on one. One that he used as a workout in those post-university anime days. One that broke. One that lost him the deposit on the apartment he couldn’t really afford. But he kept working out. Running every morning. Running even after death.
And eventually, after sprinting down the stairs into an alley of ivy-draped brick, he caught Sami.
She couldn’t bear to punch him again. Real, fake, she couldn’t. She couldn’t smash his face in. She couldn’t knock his head off. She couldn’t reach inside and see there was no beating heart or anything human because what if there was?
One caught her arm, and she whipped him off. Another caught her other arm. She shook him but he clung to her. Another on her. She let him. She let come what may.
The handsome horde flooded down the stairs.
They clogged the alley.
They squeezed past one another to get as close as possible.
Dozens of hands reaching for her.
Then a laser of intense heat pierced the one next to her and Sami saw what was inside her brother’s head.
A pipe dripped. The splash stirred a smell of poo water with desiccating dust of a collapsed building layered 63-stories deep over the entrance so that light, sun or artificial, could not filter through the cracks.
Kyeongwan was blind. Her feet were cold. Every sound threatened to be a second collapse.
But it was the smell, the wretched, gagging smell, that bothered her most.
Drones were equipped with spotlights for situations like this. Total darkness on screen only set a mood of confusion. The audience wanted the hint of darkness, told in shadows, but her drone had caught rubble in its propeller, had fallen 40+ floors, and landed in sewage. She didn’t even know where the broken thing was. But as she wandered slowly with her hands out feeling for a wall, she kicked a loose hunk of metal. The drone.
She felt the dents in its chassis. The cracked lens. The proprietary charging port.
“Eo-ddok-hae?” she mumbled to herself, trying to figure out this idea. Could she? How?
The fractured rotors spun up.
It was working.
The light flicked on.
She could see the corridor around her and what she was stepping in.
She could smell something, too, something new now that there was light.
The electronics inside the drone sparked and the light intensified then cut to a pale bulb before that, too, faded. The rotors coasted to a stop.
The electricity from her fingertips had burnt out the circuits and though she tried again with less oomph, whether that was amps or voltage or watts she didn’t know, but it was less and it didn’t work this time. And when she gave it all she had, internal components melted.
But she’d seen the wall and the only way not blocked by rubble around her. She followed it.
Sami watched her brother fall into a crowd too dense to let him get scrape on the pavement. Another brother unintentionally caught him. Another went down. A few more shots pierced around her. She heard them. She felt the heat. And soon the crowd engulfing her thinned enough that she could see daylight as more than cracks.
The shots had stopped, though.
There were still enemies. They were still vicious.
The shots had stopped, though.
And this sort of old-man pounding started, the kind a grandfather might’ve done on a TV when the signal went out back in the day. The kind he probably did on his CD player with growing frequency after the first time. The kind he probably still did.
The shots had stopped because the dented, charred laser rifle in Jerry’s hands had suffered too much today and finally it stopped working. He’d already flung himself down the stairs to save her, so, giving up on the rifle, he used it as a club. Bashing it against moldy skulls might knock components back into place and if not, this violence worked, too.
Sami parted the moshpit around her. She always could, but now she had to.
As she came out, Jerry flashed a smile surrounded by beard but less beard than she’d left him with on the plane. The dents, the char, the beard--she had a lot of questions about his day. Those could wait. For now, she had one demand.
He smiled heroically as he swung the rifle-club over her head at an enemy clawing at her hair--she caught the club.
The noise, what must’ve been the outside world, drew her faster through the sewers but the way the volume rose--it was still a way off. Getting louder certainly. But too quickly for how quickly she moved and when she stopped, it continued getting louder. She wasn’t heading toward the outside world. The outside world was heading for her.
She wasn’t ready for another encounter. She wasn’t ready for this audition to continue. She wasn’t ready for the light that rounded the corner and shone in her eyes.
But that confirmed it. This was another contestant.
The drone sped past her for an over-the-shoulder angle as its owner was still behind the corner.
She was so tired. So hungry. But she summoned the water at her feet to ripple at the ready.
And then, a Canadian-Filipino woman, pale in the light, with long dark hair and a leather jacket said, “Found ya, friend!”
Kyeongwan knew her. Everyone knew her, even out of costume. Slipstream. Slip. Darna.
Before knowing if she was friend or foe today, if she was Sami or Jerry, hero or villain, for or against The Classic, she ran past the dry walkway so the separated water collided on her jeans to hug Kyeongwan. “You are so precious!”
From the clutches of the smaller woman, Kyeongwan had to ask, “Do you have any food?”
Darna patted her pockets till she heard a familiar rustling and pulled out a twisted closed bag of peanut butter M&Ms she’d picked up on the drive here.
“I love you.”
“Love you, too, big bean.”
Darna spiraled up some sewer water, but her control was over purely the water, and by some techniques, she purified it of poo particles and even after seeing it taste-tested, Kyeongwan was thankful but reticent. Darna let it fall. She had a lot of tricks like that. It was how she found Kyeongwan to start. She sent little bits of herself into the water to perform reconnaissance and when one pinged that someone was alive down there, Darna followed it back. “So the Classic--where’d he go?”
“I haven’t seen him since he dropped me out of a plane.”
“Thrilling!” She headed off the way she came.
“Also I fell a building. A friend betrayed me and is probably dead. There were office workers.”
“Ugh, office workers. No thank you!” She stopped to look at the young, fresh face. “You still look cute. That’ll get you a lot of points today.”
“I don’t want a point! I want to sleep.”
Tenderly, Darna caressed Kyeongwan’s arm then continued on wordlessly and Kyeongwan followed expecting to be led out. Through the dark tunnel, Darna parted the drone-lit source of the stench so that neither had to traipse through it. It did nothing for the smell. It maybe even churned some up, but they were almost out.
The light shined on a great, metal door.
That has to be an exit, Kyeongwan thought.
“What are you--”
If Jerry had been intent on holding onto the rifle-club, then Sami would have separated his grip at the bone but he wasn’t that strong. He let go.
“You see who you’re whacking, right?” she demanded.
“That’s what you say? Not ‘Glad you’re alive!’ or ‘Thanks for saving my ass.’ Nothing like that?”
Sami tossed the club to the other side of the handsome horde that brushed shoulders with the brick to get closer to her till they were fighting one another more than her.
“I get how they look, Sam. But you know how this works.”
He slammed a pale fist into one of them. It reeled back. A tooth fell out. It got smashed into the pavement by the chaos of the moshpit and when the foot lifted, the tooth dust was gone.
They wanted her. Jerry wanted them. And she wanted to scream.
“You know that’s not him,” he said.
The fingers interlaced in her hair would not come undone, no matter how he pulled, until Jerry was just tugging out her roots. All while he kept lecturing her.
“You know that, right?”
She finally did something about the ones tearing out her hair. Jerry and her brother. Yasser went flying into his posse.
“Glad to see I’m not losing another friend today.” Jerry patted her on the back but she took that hand and dragged him up the stairs. “What are you doing?” he cried.
“I don’t want to lose someone else today so we’re getting out of here.”
The brakes went on. She wasn’t going to tear off his toenails while towing him around town. She stopped pulling.
“Hit me,” he said.
“Jerry, let’s go.”
“Don’t you want to know how I survived? Knocked out, sent crashing to the mountains in a smoking fuselage, and I stepped out just fine.”
“Not your beard.”
“If you won’t, they will.” He turned toward their pursuers. Arms spread out like he was Jesus sacrificing himself to stop the horde ascending the steps en masse, the one missing a tooth still at the front. “Run if you’re scared.”
But Sami yoked him by the neck and leapt to the east.
This distance would be enough to keep everyone safe.
It was not.
The door opened to medical equipment and machinery. A pump that churned as it fed its exhaust up through a peak in the skyline. Through many IVs in a gaunt man’s arms, legs, back, chest, and even neck, it sucked dry the color from his skin to release the spores that had infected the city. That had taken hold of those office workers and shoppers. Of that little girl. Maybe of Jerry.
“You’re the intern dating Sami, right?” Darna asked.
“Not your type?”
“No one is, unnie.” It didn’t mean much to Darna, if she noticed it at all, but it meant a lot to Kyeongwan to find a guide and relief. “And I’m not an intern.”
“Not after today!”
“I do production and now community managing.”
The sickly, drained man on the machine was less interesting than this information. With a wide-eyed realization, Darna said, “You’re a little me! I did that! Then this and now you’re--oh, it’s exciting.”
If Kyeongwan had any intent to continue this audition, she thought she could learn a lot from Darna. But for now, she had one question: “Who’s that?”
The smell had not left them when the door closed. The smell had joined them as Darna dragged in ammunition with her, and though she only had control of the water, there was a stench and Kyeongwan was again glad she didn’t accept the offer before, but Darna hosed down the medical equipment with enough force that the man lying there distressed vanished.
Her water returned to her darker. Full of spores and mold.
Kyeongwan didn’t understand.
“Now you’re one of hundreds of employees but for the first five years, the show was just the founders. Then Psy came on. Sami, then me, then Yasser and Jerry got hired around the same time and Jerry always made a big deal out of who was hired when to the new employees and because Yasser came on for contract work and Jerry came on full-time, Jerry wanted to count himself as Number 9. No one let him. No one else cared about the number but he cared so much, that whatever he should’ve been, we all called him Number 10. I haven’t hung out with him in ages. He’s here today, right? Bet he’s happy about that.”
“He was the betrayer.”
Another mold man came stumbling through a door in the back of the room, one that wasn’t visible from this angle. He looked the same. Dressed the same. Already gaunt and sapped of color. He went to lie on the machines and to hook himself up when he saw the two chatting.
“Let him have it, kid.” Darna stepped back. “Whatever powers you got, let the cameras see your catharsis.”
He puffed up and the brown in his cheeks returned. He wanted a fight.
“Let out all that’s weighing you down. It’s fine. He’s not really Number 9.”
“I’m done today.”
Darna pushed her toward the shambling man with a whisper, “You’re never done while the camera’s rolling.”
The drone panned around.
“He wouldn’t leave! I’d won and then--Why did we fight? It started because he took the hostage but then the hostage were outside. I could’ve left with a lot of time. But I stayed to win and he sat at the top floor as I ran away. And when the building collapsed, it wasn’t bombs. Those were just special effects. It was me. I collapsed the building on him.”
Again, dark and dirty mold filled Darna’s water.
“Please, unnie, can you show me how to get out?” Kyeongwan squatted so she could hug her knees. She didn’t care that she was nearer the smell of her footprints. She wanted the comfort of childhood innocence while waiting for the 117 bus on a humid summer day.
“I have to find The Classic,” Darna said. “Have you ever had a dog?”
“A few months ago. My first.”
“Potty trained? Snuggles with you?”
“And when you’re eating, she puts her chin on your leg with those big wet eyes gazing at you and even after a year with this good girl, you don’t want to leave for work. Even your 15-year-old cat that you’ve had since middle school likes the dog. But one day, you come home after a long shoot, expecting her to maybe have pooped the bed, but instead, the cat’s dead. She brings you the body like she might bring her favorite de-stuffed plush. I’m not saying you get rid of it, you don’t have to put it down, but it’s a conversation you have to have.”
Darna entered the door the clone had come from and reluctantly, Kyeongwan followed, to find a man behind it at a computer screen monitoring the other room via cameras. He was tall, a pale white, with glasses on the desk beside the mousepad. He put them on when they entered. “Aren’t you off today?” he said.
The sewage and sweat had matted the Voice Actor’s long brown hair. The rubber band tying it up in a man-bun had snapped as had the replacements he wore about his wrist. Except one.
He fled in the spot-lit dark till he tripped off the walkway. He slid through the canal of sludge. He saw a barred culvert that he couldn’t slip his Hollywood frame through but he tried, before slumping against the rounded wall and comfort-fiddling with his rubber band like he did when he needed a Coke.
Why had he transitioned from voice acting to live action? The man of a million voices had saved himself by throwing generically Euro-accented English echoing down the tunnels till The Classic pursued, but that had worked for only so long and now, the hero just followed the slosh of panicked footsteps.
And now, large boots stomped through the tunnel, stopping at the culvert.
Cafe Polyn’s window had shattered outward toward the street. The shards were clear but cloudy except where the window had been painted and an area where the concrete was dark and wet. There, the shards were long, sharp, and black. Whatever had broken the window had been removed.
The coffee shop offered no shelter in its condition so Sami dragged her hostage out back.
A cloudy tarpaulin covered the the backyard garden and woven around the metal frame, a garden hose had been punctured to mist the many rows of fragrant colors.
In a corner, there was an ax.
Maybe never used. Maybe never intended for use. A decoration permanently wedged into a stump to give the florist’s that rugged feel. Maybe just a threat the owner never wished to need.
“We’re not getting any points sitting out here.”
“Try standing,” Sami said. She watched the skies for any signs, but The Classic seemed grounded. Crashing a plane, destroying a building, probably some other unscripted chaos. He must be tired, too.
Ready to King Arthur this, Jerry gripped the ax handle.
But the weight of Sami’s foot sunk the blade deeper into the stump.
He heaved at the ax. “When you need help again, what am I supposed to do?”
He heaved until his face was red.
“What could you?” she said.
He heaved until she took her foot off and then he rubbed his hands together before giving it one last go. The ax stayed deep in the stump.
“Why doesn’t anyone want me to have a chance?” His voice was getting loud. And whiny. “Why’s everyone have to sabotage me?”
“No one cares enough to sabotage you.”
He yelled, “I’ve been busting my ass since I was 10 years old! I deserve it more than anyone else, but no, you get a second chance after throwing the first one away.”
“Threw it away?” She clenched her hand around the handle. “It was stolen! By some asshole who wrecked that gaudy-ass setpiece, crashed our plane, took Kyeongwan away, took Yasser! And he still has a job.”
“They signed a waiver.”
All the strength the serum had given her shouldn’t have been enough to hold in her volcanic rage.
But she stayed quiet.
Their eyes locked.
The screen showed a few angles in an array of lighting. The dark that looked so natural under the soft light. The hard rim lights that caught shadows off Yasser’s nose when he lay there. This trash-tier night vision that never, ever got used but was there just in case.
The way they spoke--
“Weren’t you off today?”
"I was, Bretty boo, but the life of an all-star and all that.”
“Everyone else in post-OPX comas?”
--they knew each other.
Darna explained, “I’m here to hand-deliver a message: Cease all high and low threat-level activities till clearance comes in.”
“Okay, let’s have it.”
She looked at him. He waited for her. There was a silence and Kyeongwan didn’t know who’d end it or what they were waiting on.
He held up his radio. “I haven’t gotten any word, so I assume there’s a letter from The Director that you’re hand-delivering.”
“Not literally hand-delivered. Mouth-delivered.”
He grimaced in his folding chair. It creaked under him like his conscience creaked under the possibility of incurring The Director’s wrath. “Without a letter... You get it, D.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure. Do you have a pen?” Darna looked to Kyeongwan as he felt around but Kyeongwan could only shrug and then Brett found one, handed it to her, and waited as she scrawled something in her palm, going over it repeatedly, tickling herself as she made the lines thick and tall. She showed her hand.
“STOP” it said with a scribble that was meant to be a signature. “There you go. Hand-delivered.”
“As literal as it is pitiful.”
“I swear this is legit, but the reception is shit down here.”
“Ha!” Kyeongwan laughed at the pun, rare for her to get, but it was apparently unintended the way Darna looked at her.
“Just trust me on this? I wouldn’t be here without orders.”
“Who’s that?” the guy finally acknowledged the tall, tan Korean woman looming in the back listening as the adults spoke.
“My apprentice. Are you going to stop?”
Kyeongwan noticed something finally. Something tugging at her. Something moving about the walls. Something clear and carrying a stench that’d been moving this whole time at the behest of an invisible, skillful will that had stalled till she was ready.
And when Brett answered, “No,” the water shot out to bind his arms and legs and neck and ultimately bend him till his back cracked and he fell into the puddle.
A puddle that Kyeongwan snatched control of to spray Darna.
But Darna was water. She couldn’t be disheveled by it, let alone defeated, and though this was her first realization that not only did Kyeongwan follow in her footsteps professionally, but that they also shared a power, she still couldn’t be beaten by surprise.
Kyeongwan whipped the water around for another attack and felt her control contested when suddenly, tendrils behind her caught her arms as they had Brett’s but like Slip, water had no hold over her--until it froze. The ice held her in place.
“Sorry, big bean, but I’m not letting the camera catch me play tug-of-war with a newbie. I win, I’m the bully. I lose and I’m old news. I don’t want either.”
A pyramid of clay pots stair-stepped up the concrete walls surrounding the cafe garden. Jerry didn’t even have to drag over too many, which was good. They were heavy. But as he went for that first step, his foot went into the loose topsoil and it felt too unstable so he tried the clay rim, more narrow, and more unbalanced, and after all his work, there was no safe way up. Sami watched from her spot blockading the door, waiting for him to embarrass himself.
He wasn’t afraid of falling. He was afraid of her being right. “Give me the ax.”
“Get it yourself,” she said.
It was sunk deep into the stump still.
“You expect to tear down a wall and you can’t pull it out yourself?” Sami asked. “It’s not a sledgehammer.”
“Then let me out.”
“Make me.” She wasn’t going to move either.
He wanted a fight. He wanted the cameras to capture his heroic violence against aggressive but ultimately powerless enemies and he wanted those small victories to earn him the spot he deserved on the show. But what could he do without a weapon? Even with one, what could he do? Nothing.
Then, one of those enemies started scaling the wall. It came tumbling onto the pyramid of pots, crashing with them till he was covered in soil and tangled in baby roots. Jerry jumped at this chance to stomp him further but Sami shoved him off her brother.
Fine, he thought, with her here, he could go out the door but she shoved him again.
“Stop,” Jerry said.
“I want to hit you so bad but I’m not going to hurt you so shoving’s about all I can do.”
“I’ve been in a plane crash, a building collapse, and you think you’re going to do anything to me? Give it all you’ve got and we’ll see who walks away.”
A clone busted open the door and Sami slammed it shut, but a hand had gotten through. With her strength, with that force, the severed hand fell to the concrete.
“Talk about a double standard. You can do it?”
“I don’t want to do any of this but all of you are--”
“They’re not him! They feel nothing.” He kicked the one by the flower pot crumbles. “It’s just some animatronic!” Kick. ”Or illusion!” Kick. “Or--” Kick. “--a--” A breath and then a final kick deep into his face. “--fake.”
“How many times do I have to watch him die?”
Sami had been there that day. After making a name for herself shooting advertisements and learning cinematography and more so, high-speed cameras, after working on films, after starting her own internet channel and just that one age-gated video was under a million views because the firecracker sent some shards of glass into her hand and people reported the blood and it didn’t get recommended in the algorithm and you had to sign in to view it, after all her success, she’d been hired by Orange Peals. Just hired. Coming on to shoot slow-mo and hold the boom mic and do some editing and a little directing on the small scale projects. It’d taken years of luck to get to that point. Then years more to get on camera and that opportunity only opened up because The Classic retired suddenly and she had to fight for years to be one of the guys and one of the regulars and then the star and then--and then--and then Warren came back. The Classic. Returning to the show. A big star with all the views that dropped off when everyone saw how he’d changed, but her episodes still got views. Her brother still got views. And she was filming the scene at 10,000 frames per second when The Classic killed him.
It didn’t air, obviously, but it wasn’t lost. It wasn’t deleted. It was played frame-by-frame over and over and over and…
And now he was back, real or not, and she had to watch him die over and over and…
And she’d never be over it, but she didn’t know what to do. It was an accident. She took time off. She went to therapy. She was on medication. The production company upped their safety regulations. It was an accident.
But it was still allowed.
Because it was for views.
The drone floated over her shoulder, trying to avoid her spiking the lens, so she punched it instead.
“That’s company property!”
It came floating back. It didn’t learn its lesson. The intern on the other side hadn’t taken control yet. It slammed into the wall this time.
“Stop it!” Without that drone, there was no contest for Jerry. No chance.
A third time but it swerved out of the way.
“You’re next,” she said to it, knowing The Director was watching. Then she chokeslammed Jerry into the floor.
It cracked and fell away to the sewer below. She lingered on the edge, looking down into the arena for today’s final bout.
Suspended by ice, Kyeongwan couldn’t even itch her nose. “He was a friend.”
“That’s the show, henny. We film over 600 hours of footage to get just 10 of them right. You get real close to real good people--off-camera. But the moment they’re on, you’re on. You’ll get used to it.”
“And Jerry is yours. And mine. Ish. Coworker.”
Kyeongwan hated that she trusted this woman so quickly. She should’ve known after today, after everything today, she made the same mistake and had Jerry thrown in her face.
Slip had turned her water to ice. Kyeongwan could see the progression as the hard shackles slushed and then were full drippy liquid connecting Slip to it. She couldn’t maintain the ice otherwise. And with that connection and with the conductivity, Kyeongwan’s hair stood on end as sparks lit up around her and gave Slip an unexpected jolt.
The ice cracked. Slip fell back.
“Didn’t know you were stacked like that. Sploosh.”
“I didn’t kill him!” Kyeongwan yelled as she strode ahead.
“If anyone ever calls you a Mary Sue, remind them The Classic’s got about 10 powers he forgot about.”
“Jerry wasn’t my fault! I didn’t kill him like you killed… what was his name?”
“Whoa, whoa!” Slip put her hands up to stop this now. “Brett’s not dead.”
The hair on Kyeongwan’s head dipped but static remained, as tentative to stop as she was. “He’s not?”
“Hell no! He won’t be happy in the morning, but I just needed him to back off with the extras till The Classic’s back on script. Don’t you know? These powers come with some serious gains beyond shooting water and defying gravity and laser-tits--season 13 was a weird one. Sometimes the serum’s a dud in terms of powers but if every extra or minor character that took a hit from The Classic died, we’d have been shut down and jailed ages ago. Accidents happen, sure, but Brett’s fine. Just needs to sleep it off.”
“He was in the 63 building?”
“Then no, he’s dead.”
“I survived! You survived!”
“Any powers like ours? Sorry, kid, but even for me it was a close call.” Darna pulled out a sapphire from her pocket. It was the same one that slotted into the back of her costume. She spun it around to reveal a crack. “I never go anywhere without this. Inside is a little bit of me, like a nucleus in case I’m ever right and truly fucked. When that explosion went off, we got lucky this was blown into the lake, but they had a funeral for me and that kind of accident--we had therapists called in even after I emerged. It’s not perfect, but better to have a Plan B--or C, D, E, G, Z. I recommend it.”
The water pinged Slip like a tap on the shoulder and she broke mid-conversation to follow it but when Kyeongwan hesitated to step back into the sewage, parted or not, the iced incline pulled her toward their new goal.
A flat walkway in the dark presented a choice:
Take her chance
with the light of the new drone in a labyrinth
She wasn’t sure of either anymore.
One giant, veiny hand covered the Voice Actor’s horse face. It stunk of more than sweat and sewage. It stunk of what had come and what was coming. It stunk of sin.
The blood-dipped fingers with crimes beneath the fingernails dug into the flesh beneath his cheek bones.
But the VA smiled.
Even blind like this, he could see now. He could stretch his perception through these dark tunnels and even without his drone lighting the way, he could see. Little psychic sonar telling him where the ledge was, where the corner was, where this madman was. It hadn’t taken much mental strain to drag behind him a few bombs he’d found, either.
They rose up out of the water.
Their timers pinned at 0:05.
Slip answered by ignoring.
As they reached a steep ramp that they didn’t need ice to slide down, Kyeongwan protested again but the question went not ignored but unheard as water, waste, and gravity combined to a rushing roar echoing through cinematic tunnels. Slip grabbed her by the wrist to steady her.
The sound built. The static of echoes opened up but the source was louder, rolling over on itself, and by instinct alone, Kyeongwan knew a drop was ahead and before Slip could pull her over the edge of the waterfall frothing into a soup that churned until the stench was as strong as the roar, she shocked the older actress. Slip went surfing over solo.
Kyeongwan stared down into the dark. It might not have been far but the angle of the light intentionally didn’t show the depth and, being afraid of heights, the dark only let her imagination exaggerate the possible fall.
A surge of water flowed upward. “What’s the deal?” Slip asked.
“We have to. It’s The Classic.”
“Very no!” Kyeongwan took a deep breath and mist sprayed her tongue. “Very, very, very no. Not fighting him.”
“We’re not fighting. We’re talking.”
She looked back the way they’d come and saw only darkness beyond the drone. “Like we talked Brett?”
“Exactly! And just like with Brett, fighting’s the last resort. Or like third resort. Collapsing the sewer is probably last.”
“Do you really see it ending any other way?”
“No!” Slip tried pulling Kyeongwan over again but found the taller woman more than sturdy. It wasn’t just how the lighting hit the youth--those sculpted arms were real and just a bonus to the real work dancing had done on her build.
The Classic’s ragged red costume hung by scraps about his neck as he sat just outside the sewer entrance, listening for the next cry for help. He’d respond.
A few more useless tugs and Slip said, “He wasn’t always like that.”
Season 1, he was the underdog even. “I don’t know how scripted that season was,” but at least in the show, he was some random sidekick pulled in sporadically to be the naive moral center and he even quit the team till the final episode where, plain-clothed, he wandered the rubble--they filmed in a quarry before they had the money for real destruction--and the final shot was him standing tall among the defeated.
Fans loved him!
He wasn’t even that strong, silent cliche. That came later. Back then he was the motivational speech kid. “I have a lot of memories of tearing up because of him.” Everything was different then. The whole feel of the show.
Kyeongwan saw her getting lost in nostalgia. “Why’d he leave?”
“The company doesn’t talk about it.”
A fan broke into his home. This was right after season 10. “I remember we had to cut around it because some pick-ups hadn’t been filmed, and we even talked about missing deadlines.” And after filming, actors weren’t juiced up. It was a strain: physically, mentally, and probably the real reason, financially. They didn’t tell fans that. It’d break the fantasy. So a month or two of the stuff, then done except at the OPXes.
So between filming, when the stuff had worn off, a fan broke in. Obsessed. Couldn’t understand. Deranged. “Warren had to hide in a closet and call the police and the response time was just a few minutes.”
During that time, the guy found him.
He was shot seven times, then the nutjob shot himself. “Warren almost didn’t make it.”
And in Hollywood, on shows, when you’re shot in the knee, just slap a sling on the guy and they’re back in action the next day. But in real life, it was a year for even the most basic recovery.
“Couldn’t they give him powers to help?” Kyeongwan asked.
“I told you: it’s a physical strain. After yours wears off, you’ll probably sleep for a day. It was a year till that was possible. And you remember season 11? We wrote it as if he was missing and we were searching for him and the finale had that big reveal that he was back”--but after filming, after welcoming him back and setting up OPX as the big fan reveal where he was going to descend through the glass, he backed out last minute.
They threw in Yasser instead and “I think that really soured fans toward him at the start but that kid shit charm.” Fans got over it.
So Warren left to recover psychologically and if he couldn’t, maybe retire, but he was a founder. He was The Director’s oldest friend. He got whatever he wanted and his one request was, dangers be damned, to be dosed up till eternity. “He stopped being Warren. It’s weird to call him that.” He was The Classic, on and off the show.
“Why?” Kyeongwan asked.
Slip shook her head. She had ideas but nothing concrete. “And when he came back after a few years, you know the community reaction, but for us, we weren’t worried about being replaced or upstaged--we were just so excited it was more permanent than an appearance at the company holiday party. All the hugs. All the photos.”
Slip took a breath.
“And you know when you get really hyped about something and you’re wrong? Disappointment hurts but with hype, it’s like climbing a mountain to be shoved off.”
Before Sami jumped into the final arena, littered with tables and chairs, dead and dusty plants, and the clearance rack from the clothing store next door, she pulled the ax out of the stump.
Ricocheting through the tunnels and overpowering even Filth Falls--The Classic. It had to be. Who else made such a ruckus that even Slip paused?
“I already fought him today and no! I know what he does.”
“Did you have any powers then? Now you have two. And you have me.” Slip hugged her and all the shocks Kyeongwan could muster wouldn’t shock her off.
Kyeongwan, for a third time that day, fell.
And for the third time, she got up.
Rising from the filth, she didn’t have to wash herself off. Darna did it for her. They were fine. They’d fallen and they were fine.
Still, Kyeongwan hesitated.
She survived but…
“What if those sounds are The Classic and Sami Round 2?” Darna asked.
Jerry had no chance against Sami. She had experience. She had powers. She had the right powers. She punched and kicked and even The Classic would feel it. Jerry slammed into a wall. She didn’t need the ax. She lobbed shopping racks at him and he’d jump out of the way but a rolling wheel would clip his ankle. The shirts on clearance drifted to the dusty basement floor and draped over his body.
But Jerry got up.
Plastic pants hangers went whizzing by his head like a boomerang and the clips burst to shrapnel against the concrete wall, and he shielded himself, instinct focusing cover across his eyes.
When she launched herself toward him to slam a fist through his face, he dodged--gracefully tripping--and her fist crumpled the calligraphed OPEN sign.
The fight wore on her. She wasn’t invulnerable.
But it seemed he was.
A punch to the gut and he hunched over, but she was the one out of breath.
While she panted, he grabbed the ax.
The tunnels split and they listened and Slip felt it and Kyeongwan thought she did, too, the pull of action at her feet, and they went left. And the tunnel split again and Kyeongwan guessed right and was right. And the tunnel split and Kyeongwan thought she was ready to decide for herself, but couldn’t. And neither could Slip.
Left or right.
Sounds were from both.
Fights were either way.
“If you find him.” Slip handed Kyeongwan her company phone. “ Don’t break that. They’ll charge me for it.”
“And if you--”
“Ha! Not a chance, kid.”
Slip left. Kyeongwan right. And they went toward their final fights, though neither knew that.
The City was quite clean with street sweepers and a poop patrol around convention time and a militant force of senior citizens with mechanical grabbers, but the scummiest people the world over were still allowed to apply for apartments. Genocidal dictators, petnappers, people who spit when they spoke and never apologized--peanuts compared to the rare litterbug. And one litterbug left a wax-coated paper cup for their tobacco spit by a tree. And in it, a puddle of water.
Between the apartments, neighbors hung clothing lines on pulley systems with an agreed upon schedule for who got which days and often, often, often the neighbor in Apartment 232A would leave theirs out a full day more than what they were allowed and Apartment 232B wouldn’t say a word. Both neighbors were gone today. And across the line, a layer of water. Across every line, a layer of water.
The fire escape--little dew drops on the railing.
The moisture that hadn’t soaked into potted plants.
A sewer rushing like it’d poured all night.
And a naked, hulking man stopping near a manhole cover. The Classic looked around.
Had she been spotted?
The fight was through the rubble blocking the sewer passage. She could hear it. The final battle. The sounds of punches hitting flesh or stone. The story told in sudden exclamations and the efforts. She could hear the combatants calling the other’s name.
But there was no doorway through the rubble.
Just cracks she’d slip through.
Apartment 232A crumbled and the clothes lines connecting the two severed with it. All it took was one stomp of his foot to send a shockwave through the street to destroy a million-dollar investment and pop a hydrant. Out came Slip.
“Guess that’s not working this time, but hey, you’re learning!” She threw her hands up in a friendly surrender. The universal you-got-me pose.
The Classic flung the manhole cover like a discus behind him and its dull edge flew with such force and rotation that it sawed the fire escape on Apartment 232B. The tripwires she’d rolled out were cut. The traps had failed.
“Warren, you’re not supposed to be here.”
“Where am I supposed to be?” The Classic asked. His dirty feet lifted off the street and he slowly floated away.
Before the day started, Apartment Building 230 was having morning tea on the roof as they picked at club sandwiches and discussed last night’s news. Then the call went out. The infection. They wandered off to battle the crashing actors, should any survive, leaving their tea to go cold. Slip had run a line through the sewers, through the twisting, fatberged pipes, out the sink, and up and around till she could dip her little toe in that cold tea and now it shot out like so many lassos, from the spills on the saucers to the electric kettle, to wrangle the man by his every limb.
“There are no cameras here,” he said.
He chopped the lines holding him. They splashed to the rooftops and rubble and he continued upward.
“You’re right,” Slip said. “Not a single camera so none of that fanservice pole dance-fighting and I don’t have to worry about angry comments when you lose.”
The manhole he’d uncovered shot out its rushing sewage into a geyser that froze around him and the chunk fell to the street too solid and cold to even crack on impact. And more water wrapped around the iceberg piling on layers to flash-freeze and expose him to the misery of Neandertals unprepared for Arctic conditions and sap him of every ounce of struggle within him till he was ready to get to his mark.
It didn’t work.
It only turned him on her.
He drilled his way out of the cube and barreled toward her, his steps shaking the trees, and she melted the cube to slick the ground so he slipped. A semi-truck hydroplaning.
But he could fly.
And when he did, still aimed her way, he splashed her into a million little droplets that then rained down on him and formed into ice stakes that spiked his limbs by piercing the muscles and even getting between bones and then flowering deep in the concrete to root him in place for all of time if necessary.
And still it didn’t work.
She popped up across the street. Her hand was missing. A frozen chunk came flying at her, melting mid-air and configuring, till she was popping her fingers to feel that bodily connection with them again. “Come on, Big C. Years of this and I’m checking my mental logs, but outside filming, you haven’t won yet. So get to your mark or we’re doing this till they wrap.”
Her hair was shorter currently. She liked Kyeongwan’s style. Wanted to try it out. It wasn’t for her, but she left the chunk hiding among the Apartment 232A’s rubble.
Till The Classic spotted it and his eyes lit up with a quiet fury that shot out and evaporated the missing length of her hair.
“Laser eyes…” She sighed. “Another new power. Great.”
The ax head dragged scratches across the broken concrete. White on the dark. There was no sheen on the metal head. He hefted it over to his shoulders.
Sami watched from her knees.
If she stayed down, Jerry wouldn’t…
A small hand palmed his face from beard to eyes and jettisoned him wet through the drywall.
Thinking it was Slip to the rescue, knowing that she wouldn’t approve of the mission, Sami stayed down. But then, wide-eyed, scrambling in the dust to find leverage to get to her feet and fast, Sami went full-speed at Kyeongwan, heaving from the attack. Or maybe from rage.
“You were alive?” Kyeongwan yelled at him.
“You’re alive?” Sami turned the question on her. “And pissed at him?” Sami turned to him. “You knew?”
Finally, getting up, he felt around for the ax, but it’d been swept away by the current as Kyeongwan reformed and it lay at her feet with a wet T-shirt.
“Toss me that, Kyeongie.”
“Who needs it for him?”
“I’ve been going at him and nothing. Into the wall. Into the ground. Apparently even an airplane and building can’t do it. But one good chop from me--it’s the only way.”
“Only way for what?”
“Toss me it.”
“Give it here.”
“You put down rabid dogs. We’re the past the point of discourse, past reprimand, he is beyond the moral horizon and this is what it’s come to.”
Jerry came charging at Kyeongwan, tackling her to get the ax, but he swam through, finding a current in her belly that swirled him around and he came out empty-handed headed for the wreckage of the register when Sami grabbed him by the shirt collar, letting the momentum build as she spun him round, the collar choking him then starting to tear--it was only a $20 shirt that he paid $40 for because it was limited edition--and when she let go, again toward the register, but with such speed, they’d both explode into a spray of teeth and keyboard buttons.
Kyeongwan guided him down a slip-n-slide away from danger. He rolled and scraped himself on the metal hook of a hanger, but his teeth were intact.
Full-force Sami ran to spear him with a shard from full-length mirror and Kyeongwan threw an inch of water at her feet. She hydroplaned to the floor.
“Stop please?” Kyeongwan asked.
His feet grated the silt into the concrete as he approached and Kyeongwan stared him down. He didn’t stop. He knew what she could do and he knew what he had to do.
Sami rose. But Kyeongwan and the ax weren’t her target. Jerry was.
However little sympathy Kyeongwan had for him, she had to protect him from Sami till everyone calmed down.
Her phone rang.
The battle took a break.
In the canon, Slipstream was designed to nullify The Classic. No matter how he beat and bucked and thrashed, Slip would get back up. He couldn’t bruise water. Darna was the lucky chosen one to forever keep him in check--or so was the story before he left and when finally, he returned, they got to test that. He couldn’t win. And at first, rarely could she. It was a stalemate till The Director yelled, “Cut!” She worked and schemed and ran through it in her head until she’d gotten control over not just liquid water but solid water. Ice. Sap his strength with mild hypothermia.
She’d never mastered gaseous form, however, and when The Classic fried up her hair--it was gone. But so be it. Those baby blues of his flashed redder than his absent costume then pierced her skull. Her head was just gone.
Once again, he floated upward to find his next challenge. The next camera.
But Slip came spraying upward, still headless, and pounded him on the chin with an icy stump neck with enough force to crack it.
He grabbed those shoulders and evaporated the ice so quick it popped as it changed states.
Then a quick, heated scan of her waist.
And the ice melted away.
That wasn’t her. It never had been.
It’d shot up to distract him from the army seeping out the cracks in the road, and now each shot up with their own icy edges. None hit their target dead on. They weren’t meant to. Whatever force her geyser could create, it was still fighting gravity. If they missed or just grazed his love-handles with little papercuts, they rose high into the atmosphere where nature hardened them further and gravity pulled them down with such wild, frictioned velocity that these frozen treats would cauterize what they slashed.
The Classic shot his eyes at what he could but the narrow beam caught only a few, and those split into more projectiles. He dodged. He swatted. He tried to get out of the way but the bright day was dimmed by how many Slips there were.
And still more rose up.
Ice sapping him. Nicks in his iron flesh draining blood by the drop.
Through the concrete like a drill boring for oil, but instead what he found was the real Slip, and he collapsed the sewer. Four blocks leveled, one in each direction of the six-lane intersection and a circumference of coffee shops, department stores, even a daycare. All to smoke her out.
The glimmer of her sapphire sparkled as she solidified through the debris, then stayed hidden in her pocket.
His hits connected now.
And he aimed for something very specific in the moments of vulnerability when her control was knocked away.
“Listen, buddy, I get you don’t like being told what to do but maybe pick another profession than--”
A meaty fist knocked her to droplets.
A finger reached out.
It touched the sapphire.
“What the hell, man?” she yelled.
His eyes lit up and she swirled around the beam but even the surrounding air boiled away.
“Take it up with The Direct--”
He caught her.
Every trick in her book wasn’t enough. The icy spikes. The pressure points. Nothing loosened his grip.
He dragged her up to the sky. The water whipped up trailing the sapphire and she continued to struggle, but the higher they got, the colder it got. Her fingers turned to slush as he held tight. Her ice cube teeth chattered.
Ice in summer was cake, easy but short lasting. But water in winter? She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t do anything. She was his.
She pulled out her phone.
“Yeo-bo-sa-yo?” Kyeongwan answered. “Hello? This is Slipstream’s phone.”
On the other end, Slip’s voice was faint behind the wind. “I know, big bean.”
“Did you find him? What happened? Did you win yet?”
“Not much time left so just promise me something. Look for me next time it rains, okay?”
The line clicked off.
Silence against her ear.
Then the approach of Sami’s heavy footsteps and Kyeongwan threw her against the wall and when she got up, again, a jetstream pinned her down, and when that didn’t stop her, the electricity lit up the water. Sami’s jaw locked up and she grunted with the pain, wanting to open wide and let out a fierce roar but every muscle spasmed and she felt it most in her ears till finally, with no control, she fell and stayed down. For too long. Had Kyeongwan gone overboard? She sprinted over to check, leaving the ax for Jerry to scoop up.
“Just stop!” Kyeongwan yelled.
The three drones panned around them, each with its own angle and distance. “There’s no stopping while it’s rolling,” Jerry said.
Sami groaned next to her. “I’m not stopping while this show’s still going.”
“Either stay out of this,” they said in unison, “or fight.”
The ice around his fist shattered.
The sculpture of her body fell away.
The phone slipped out of her hand.
High in the sky, The Classic examined the cracks in the sapphire.
His eyes lit up.
A river encircled Jerry and when Kyeongwan solidified, she held him at his wrists, on his knees, her foot on his back for leverage. He was trapped. And while he was bigger than her, whenever he struggled, she tazed him till he submitted.
“There! He’s down and we’re done,” she announced, but Sami had just snatched the ax. “Stop!”
Sami had known Slip for years. She’d seen a mirror slide off a wall and split Slip in two. And Slip had reformed.
She’d watched Kyeongwan closely this fight, too. They were the same.
And so, Sami didn’t stop. She marched toward Jerry held in the stocks.
Would Kyeongwan let him go?
Sami raised the ax.
It was too late.
She brought it down.