Kyeongwan’s hold on Jerry was tight, and it stayed that way out of paralyzing horror for what was about to happen. Sami approached with the ax.
The ax shattered the earth when it shattered his vertebrae. It had splashed through her arms.
Jerry’s head rolled.
Kyeongwan let the body fall.
As Sami breathed in, the reality of what she’d done hit her and the handle slipped from her torn, trembling hands.
The two women were silent.
“A plane, a building, and The Classic himself couldn’t and you think a decorative axe could?” Jerry stretched his neck, feeling for seams, but there was no mark. No blood. There was nothing pumping through his veins and still he lived. “Who’s psychic now?”
Her appendages lapped at Kyeongwan’s knees. She needed hands to hold herself. The sensations were real and so was this exhausting day.
Exhausting not just for her.
Not just for Sami ragged with regret and defeat.
But for him, too. Jerry passed out, face planting into a wrinkled shirt 20% off.
As he snored, the two eyed each other across the pit. Without stairs, the surface wasn’t accessible from the sewer basement and without the energy to use their powers, they were stuck down here.
Stuck with each other.
“My brother’s dead,” Sami said.
This wasn’t new information to Kyeongwan.
“And yet that was him walking around out there. Attacking everyone.”
He’d never been a villain on the show.
“The studio has the rights.”
What an insult to his memory.
“They thought it’d fit.”
What a great complication to the greatest comeback since The Classic. An emotional reunion with her brother and yet, it wasn’t as it seemed.
“They didn’t care that I’m not a fictional character who lost her fictional brother, but a real person who really misses him.”
“It wasn’t him, though.” Kyeongwan broke her silence. “Slip and I met a man making him. It wasn’t your brother.”
“I know.” Sami's legs were cramped. She wandered a little closer to Kyeongwan and leaned against the wall. “I got caught up in the moment and wanted to believe, but does that make it any less of an asshole thing they did?”
“I don’t know.”
“You know what they had him say? His final words? ‘Don’t let The Classic get away with this.’ A call to action against the wrong one.”
The wrong one? “Wasn’t it…?” Kyeongwan asked.
This time, Kyeongwan’s legs were cramped. “An accident, I guess.”
The two sat by each other.
Sami got up.
“They did this. The show did this. The Director did this.”
If Jerry were awake, he’d run through the history in great detail. He had a good memory. 10,000 hours to become an expert and all that, and even when hired by the company, he kept watching. That was rare. Sami, Darna, Psy, they’d all been too busy after but Jerry could do IT and have the show on in the background. He could study the episodes for accuracy when making props. And he’d never been on it, so the illusion hadn’t been shattered and even now that he was on it, he was still in love. He was the problem.
Season 1, The Founders were astounded the show hadn’t taken off yet. Everything about it looked real because it was real but they realized everything about the old movies that weren’t real looked real, too. So, young 24 year-olds Warren and Theo went outside when the Pita Pit shared the lot with the Orange Peals Founders so long as they parked in back and paid rent by buying lunch there a minimum of twice a week each.
And in the parking lot, on a live stream, streamed from Theo’s phone which wanted to connect to the office wifi so it was really choppy till he switched to data and bitched about price gouging, Warren with that frat-boy farm bod lifted up the biggest SUV he could find. This was Portland. Portlanders swore they needed the horsepower for the hills. They didn’t.
Season 1 Classic wasn’t The Classic. He wasn’t even The Captain yet. He really only ever got referred to as Beer Belly by the boys. He didn’t have quite the power to lift the SUV with ease and when the owner came out, yelling, “What the hell, man?” Beer Belly Warren dropped it.
The windshield cracked. “We’ll pay for that,” he said.
Theo, still filming, yelled, “That wasn’t our fault! It was like that when we got here.”
“Insurance will pay for that!” Beer Belly said. Then he scooped up Theo and flew off, the two laughing, hoping the Pita Pit didn’t rat them out.
Fans suddenly believed. Free content with five jackasses messing around in a way that you knew, sooner or later, someone would get hurt.
In Season 3, The Captain was the star. He’d slimmed down to the right kind of bulk and there wasn’t a shoot that went by where he didn’t admire himself in the mirror, but behind the scenes, there was a secret. Warren wasn’t always so cut.
He needed to get his pump on before filming and his shirtless shots were scheduled ahead of time so he could get cut via dehydration and a decrease in calories the days before. It made his veins pop, which in turn made his eyes pop.
Nate, the original wiseguy brainiac, never let him get too big of a head, though. He never let that Beer Belly nickname die.
And one day, Warren had had enough. The cameras were rolling but and the fight was expected, not with so much force and the framing was all wrong. It didn’t track how far Nate went flying.
When tiny Nate woke up in an ambulance, his hair dyed by dust and a head wound, his first words were, quick as ever, “Is Beer Belly okay?”
The Founders' youthful luck would run out eventually and these dumb stunts would maim them sooner or later, so a trickle of them retired, replaced by sidekicks and the stories slimmed down to the most popular characters and more serious storylines were introduced. This had always been The Director’s vision and even if he was not one of the most popular characters, if his vision could live on, all right.
And things were going great. Fewer personal squabbles.
Until someone thought real hard at The Director. They weren’t sure if he was still dosing now that he was behind the camera. They thought in his direction that his first wife was cheating on him, a joke, a lie, but also something The Director had suspected and all the psychic powers in the world hadn’t been able to confirm, but this, this was enough with his temper, and that someone isn’t on Founders’ Panels anymore.
Other accidents were covered up, unaired or aired but unannounced, and from her grief, Sami watched the company grow used to how frequent they were after The Classic had returned, and from her grief, she led a campaign to improve safety.
There was little resistance but a lot of delaying discussion on how while preserving the show’s essence.
“Fuck its essence,” she’d said.
The accidents still happened even if the audience and cast never knew.
After listening to it be recounted in the dust, Kyeongwan asked, “Psy’s dead, isn’t he?”
“Hello down there! Any damsels in distress?” Down climbed The Director. “Show’s over. Time to go home,” he said. “But first…”
He threw off his backpack, brought out binders Kyeongwan had bought when she was primarily his assistant. And out came two forms, identical, asking them to appear in the mini-series Young Bloods.
Sami stared at the page. Legalese, dotted lines, a large signing bonus.
The day, the language, it was all too much for Kyeongwan right now and she just looked to Sami for what to do.
“It was such a great showing, you two! We were on the edge of our seats the whole time. Not just you two, but there are several cast members that had these great arcs. Obviously after editing and reshoots it’ll become clearer, but I think this has potential to grow beyond a spin-off.”
“I’m awake now!” Dusting his frayed beard off while also wondering how manly he looked right now, Jerry asked, “Do… Do you have one for me, too?”
The Director reached back into his bag, but instead of a binder full of stapled papers, he pulled out a tablet. He tapped through. He showed Jerry the feed from the cameras. Kyeongwan’s aimed at her and Sami. Sami’s aimed at the hole The Director had come through.
“It must’ve happened in the crash,” The Director explained. “We’ll have to review the drone to see exactly when and if any footage is salvageable, but at this time…”
“Yeah, I get it.”
“We’re not prepared to offer you a contract.”
Jerry had no blood, but from how his eyes wetted, there was still something inside.
“You’ll still be in the first episode, a two-parter to be sure, but without your view, I don’t think audiences will connect with your motivations. Even I wasn’t sure what flipped you.”
“Content,” Sami muttered.
“That’s great for us! But that alone…” The Director turned toward the other two to use them as an example. “Sami was left alone then a fishing line thrown out--her brother’s alive. Yoo there wasn’t dead and wanted to reunite with Sami.”
“I knew you would. But hey, nothing wrong with a cameo like yours.”
“Cameo?” The static on Jerry’s feed was very loud.
“The violence against you awakens the strength in Sami and Yoo to fight back against their twisted hero.”
“I was saving my own ass,” Sami said. She was still holding the contract in the binder. The fountain pen clipped to the cover.
Kyeongwan watched the very real scribbles scratch through the heavy cardstock. This wasn’t the well-practiced lovely loops fans got. Sami dated it. Closed it. Handed it back.
“Yoo?” The Directed asked.
Eyes on her. Sami’s. The Director’s. The camera.
“No,” she said. “This isn’t mine. I don’t want this life.”
Jerry perked up, like a spot had opened up that he might fill, but The Director nodded at her and offered a hand. “Sure, the limelight’s not for everyone.”
As they climbed up the rope ladder, outside was a whole set of crew members and paramedics and cast. Kyeongwan quickly counted. Twenty cast members, Carla included. Everyone was there. Everyone was fine.
“We hereby formally invite YOU to Perth, Australia to attend OPX Down Under, Mate presented by The Pita Pit from September 7 to 10. Your fans and family want to see you! Formally RSVP by emailing Eleanor Ridgeman at…”
The email icon popped up at the top of the phone among the dozen other alerts. Kakao Talk. Melon. And so many other Korean apps Kyeongwan used daily now that she’d returned home to Yeosu. She still hadn’t seen her sister, but maybe for Chuseok in October. She ignored the official invitation.
It’d been a month. Her dad especially had fallen in love with Sushi and her mom only liked him when he barked away the evangelists. It saved her the trouble of doing it herself.
“To my dearest Kyeongie that I’ve longed for ever since your departure…” Sami started the text, “you goin’ or what? They’re about to mark you down as a no and fill your spot on the panel with a Chris. I forget which one. All expenses paid if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Kyeongwan had never been good at cooking, burning even rice, but her mother and father needed an extra server at the restaurant, especially with how often her father took Sushi for walks at the beach, and that kept her busy from lunch until an hour after academies closed. 1 am during exam season. Kyeongwan remembered those days. After some midnight tteokbokki--extra spicy to keep them awake--they’d end their nights in a study room.
Those days weren’t so far away.
But none of the students who came in called her sunbaenim, upperclassman. None knew of her Kpop days. Her America days. They only knew her from the restaurant, a dropout doing part-time.
“I miss you,” Sami sent the next day.
A link to the site.
“Check it. We look good.”
She’d left Orange Peals behind and Yeosu felt quiet, so what we was Sami talking about? Some convention selfie they’d been tagged in?
A trailer for Young Bloods.
The planes going down. Carla stepping through a portal with freed hostages. Sami opening the door to her brother. Fly Guy and Flower Power and the whole community team squaring off against the rabid mob. A hundred edits in the 43 seconds. The 63 Building collapsing in a thunderstrike. The Classic’s torn costume. Sami punching him through the cockpit door. Kyeongwan falling to her death.
Cut to black.
Kyeongwan hadn’t expected to see herself. Her hair was so much shorter even just a few months ago.
Title screen. Young Bloods.
She guessed that hugely traumatic moment in her life served the same function as Jerry now. A horrible death to spur on Sami’s revenge against The Classic. Probably the season finale.
But the title screen was at 0:35 / 0:42.
A musical cue.
Young Bloods Trailer #1 continued. A static shot of a street Kyeongwan knew. Broken, wet pavement. A puddle in clothes. She watched herself rise from the crater and head toward the 63 Building.
At the computer, she tried to drip from her finger, but the serum had dried up the day after shooting.
The end card linked to the last season’s first episode and the latest OPdcast. The sidebar had videos of fan reactions.
She used the search bar.
All fan submitted content. She clicked a few but just recuts or animations or discussions.
International texting was 20 won a message. “Is Trailer #2?“
7 am Korea time.
3 am Portland time.
She put her phone away, but it buzzed. A text.
Can you come to the station to pick me up? Don’t tell mom! It’s a surprise.”
A photo of her sister with hair put up in a bun, hidden under a baseball cap and her face with a cloth mask. She was already waiting in front of the Yeosu EXPO train station.
While booking the taxi through the app, Kyeongwan received Sami’s reply.
How you been?
The directory folder.
Your ID should still work.
Or you can use mine.
Do you remember it?
If you forgot
She pulled up Trailer #2 on her laptop when KakaoTaxi texted her they were out front. She’d have to watch later.
Overjoyed their favorite daughter was home (“If you’d told me, I could’ve prepared something!” their mom had shouted), Kyeongwan and Seungyeon threw on cooking bandanas and aprons to help their mom mold the sesame leaf Korean pancakes, gen-ip jeon. The ugly ones were Seungyeon’s.
The whole family together, again, after almost 2 years, but Seungyeon had auditions next week, commercial films, and some variety shows. She couldn’t stay more than two days, three nights.
“Your eyes are dark!” their mother said. (“Please rest well tonight.”)
“Yes, mama,” Seungyeon said.
She retired first after dinner to take out her colored lenses and get ready for bed, and when Kyeongwan went into their shared room, her sister had cracked the password to her laptop looking to catch her sister searching yadong. She discovered something amazing instead. She patted the bed furiously for Kyeongwan to join her.
She did, confused.
Her sister poked her in amazement.
“Mwoya!?” Kyeongwan shouted with fire breath shooting out.
“A double?” Seungyeon asked.
The laptop still had Trailer #1 on the screen and the view count was at least 5 higher.
“That’s really you! Daebak... I don’t get to do cool scenes. I get pretty scenes. Pitiful scenes. Emotional scenes. Scenes for long-haired girls in high school.” Seungyeon was 23.
A professional actress enthralled by the performance almost made that day worth it. “Unnie, Trailer #2 has a rough cut,” Kyeongwan said.
The power cord ripped out from how fast she shoved the laptop onto Kyeongwan’s lap.
The raw file downloaded. Her older sister was transfixed and Kyeongwan watched her till the video started.
A door kicked open and a team flew through with Sami at the back. Some jokes. Some in-team fighting. Sami seemed to really have it out with the Telekinetic Manbun Voice Actor. The women’s fight with Jerry. A car chase. And finally Sami fell down an elevator shaft, her hand reaching out desperately.
If that initial audition captured episodes 1 & 2, Trailer #2 showed filming from later in the season. Her scenes featured a bit of what Kyeongwan remembered, but also much she’d forgotten.
A musical cue.
Sami and Kyeongwan on a plane once more, the door ripped off, but surrounded by lab equipment. The same glowing orange serum that’d cracked the vein in her arms. The women spun around. A tight shot on The Classic’s signature gold accented boots as he stepped onto the plane. He set down whoever he was carrying and a cut back to Kyeongwan, wide-eyed at the mastermind of it all.
Seungyeon, who had cheered “one-shot!” with soju-loving music and movie idols, who had worked alongside those with international successes, Seungyeon who was a big deal herself, gazed at her little sister--amazed. “Daebak!”
However, the praise was lost. The trailer featured not just what Kyeongwan had forgotten, but much she knew she’d never filmed.
“Are you okay?”
Kyeongwan searched all around the room for her phone, tossing her sister’s luggage aside.
“What are you doing?”
She found it. She tapped out a message and spoke it aloud in English, “I’m going Australia.”
The chaotic energy of OPX Prime in Portland carried around the globe with only a change in accent and Kyeongwan was reminded she hadn’t practiced English in months, but it didn’t help that Australians spoke a million words a minute, many of which weren’t real.
The Young Blood’s panel was tomorrow, the final day of OPX Perth, but her pass let her into all three days. She could check out games, all-star studded panels, get autographs, see cosplays, and pay $20 for a small, so-so meat pie. Mostly, she sat on a bench.
After a quick circuit around the convention center, she found the LGBTQ+ panel that Sami was on. It was packed. The whole convention was packed. But she managed to get into line early and find a seat in back by the aisle in case she needed to make a quick escape.
When Sami came on, not late this time, she yelled out, “Hello Allos and Aces!”
A stolen greeting.
The panel cast wasn’t OP specific, but for internet influencers somewhere in the acronym.
This tall, skinny man styled in hobo-chic, Devin had a language channel teaching youths vocabulary not covered in standard textbooks. Some words like sensitivity, feminism, activism, and socialized healthcare had an agenda, and others were just nerdy jargon. He brought on his boyfriend regularly who was still learning English and it was a good gauge of what words weren’t core to ESL.
A bi woman with a side-shave, Cathryn, DJed at local night clubs and had a lifestyle vlog about the club scene, often with tips on where to go for queer youths and general tips about staying safe when partying. She was a big proponent of medical legalization of shrooms to treat depression. After psilocybin had reset her brain, she credited the psychadelic drug for letting her see the beauty of life. She hoped one day that the stigma around mental health and treatment for it would go away.
Then an empty chair.
She hadn’t found a Chris to replace her squish.
Listening to them, Kyeongwan understood about 60%. She really focused on Sami, an easy accent compared to these Australians. Apparently Devin was a bit of a bogan, whatever that meant, and especially when he interacted with Cat, his accent went wild and so did the crowd. But Sami--Kyeongwan knew her voice. She felt comfortable with it.
As usual, the topic of coming out and coming to terms with their identity came up. Sami told her story. The others theirs. But then there was a fourth story.
“Devin, I love the concept of your channel. Education is really important and maybe schools aren’t intentionally teaching heteronormative nonsense, but they are. And that neglects our people. My friend found out when she was 19 how to identify herself because it’d never been brought up.”
“So much stress before you admit it to yourself or have a word for it or know that there’s a community out there,” Devin said.
“For sure. We meant to tell this story at the last OPX, but just got caught up in other topics and everything that we ran out of time. I wish she was here for her side, but here goes. For a Halloween short, we were on a bus being rocked by zombies outside and I was delivering a news report. Anyone remember this video? Well, my Korean friend Kyeongwan was just there to fill the bus. An extra. Y’all might know her from community management and she’s even in the Young Bloods trailer so check that out. She might be at the panel tomorrow? I hope.”
“Either way, I knew a passenger was about to turn. Now, you know I hate being scared. Jump scares are the legit worst and being on set, even knowing what’s about to happen, you don’t fake reactions but you put yourself in a place to let them be real but amplified. So my friend Kyeongwan when she snuck up on me--you have to hear that scream.” Sami shook her head in embarrassment as the laughter died down.
“Is it on video?” Cat asked.
“One of the behind the scenes. Maybe one of the tech guys can pull it up? She wasn’t even the zombie, though. She just thought it’d be funny to hear me freak out and, well, I did. We had a good laugh about it after. We were talking. And I don’t know. A funny, attractive cutie like her playing a joke on me, I thought, maybe it was a signal. I invited her to this Italian place. My treat. A chance to get to know each other.”
“Exactly! We’re laughing. It’s a really good time. I pay. I very quickly break that touch barrier and put my hand on her arm.”
“You get it! The end of the date comes. I thought it went great. But nothing happens. Okay, sure, first date, young girl from a conservative culture. I get it. My mom’s from a hateful hetero culture, too, so maybe she’s not ready yet. And not everyone’s as thirsty as me.”
“Never change, girl.”
Sami winked at Cat. “But after a few more dates and work-dates and just constant texting, nothing’s happening still. I decide to be forward. Dinner at my place. Her parents are both like renowned chefs or something and she’s just a terrible, TERRIBLE cook. So I thought I’d teach her to cook spaghetti with homemade sauce.”
“Lewd. I love it.”
“Her hands in the tomatoes, I come up behind her. Reach into the sauce with her. My breath on her neck. Romantic, right?” Sami asked the crowd.
There were some oohs and ahhs.
“But?” Devin asked.
“But she’s ace. She swears she had no idea, which is hard to believe, but being asexual, she doesn’t think like that. I was so embarrassed. She turns around like, ‘Oh.’ It takes a lot to see me blush, but, god…”
“You’re a bit red now.”
“It’s my shame! So we’re talking and I ask her directly if she likes women and she said she always thought she did. That she grew up thinking those were the choices: men, women, or both and that since she didn’t like men, she must be into women, but there I was, throwing myself at her, and she’s not picking it up so I realize, ‘Oh! You’re asexual.’ She’d never heard that word. We looked it up in Korean even and she knew it from like biology class but not as an identity.”
Devin took the mic. “That’s what I’ve found is pretty common. Not just in other countries but for our own as well. When you’re young, you know who you are but you don’t know there are others or there’s a name for it and there’s a certain stress that goes with not knowing where you fit in. We’re all looking for that.”
In back, where the stage lights didn’t reach, Kyeongwan remembered that moment, Sami’s blush and her own, and she softened.
Whatever was going, whyever she chose to sign the contract, Kyeongwan didn’t understand but her friend wasn’t the enemy.
Featuring the primary cast of Young Bloods: Sami, Manbun, Fly Guy, and Carla and then The Director.
“Thanks everyone for coming out,” The Director said as the applause died down. “We’re here with a special... opped-cast? Oh-peed-cast? We titled the podcast as a joke 10 or 20 years ago at this point and I still don’t know our official pronunciation of it.”
The audience yelled out their opinions and then started fighting, slowly focusing up.
“And that why I just avoid saying it,” Sami agreed.
This was the big event with the Trailer #2 reveal for the public and an early release of Episode 1 at the end of for those lucky enough to squeeze into the auditorium. Kyeongwan almost didn’t get in, but a guardian saw her “Cast” badge and let her sit in back. Even the cameras live streaming the audience reactions only caught her in shadows. The stage itself was brilliantly lit but the light faded by row 3, where they had microphones set up in each aisle for the Q&A to end the panel.
A few minutes in, everyone was asked to put their phones away for the reveal of Trailer #2.
Kyeongwan shrunk in her seat when she looked at those next to her gazing at her up on the big screen. If only they knew. But would they care?
“Are we back?” Sami asked.
“We never left,” The Director said.
“I’m just thinking about our normal viewers that can’t watch this live at Upside-Down O’Clock.”
“Normal, huh? How do you like that, Perth? She’s calling you abnormal.”
“They defy gravity. Pretty abnormal in my world.”
These two took the lead as the other three in the cast weren’t experienced in off-the-cuff banter. Even the actors had a tough time adjusting to unscripted, long-form discussions beneath scorching stage lights that showed the audience only radiance. No pimples or stray hairs. This aura of divinity helped save Fly Guy the Australian community member who tried a few humorous comments that stumbled out of his mouth and fell flat before the audience, because maybe he couldn’t talk, but those greased, golden curls earned him a few points.
While the big screen froze on the team-up pose with every cast member; Sami, Kyeongwan, Fly Guy, Manbun, and Carla; Sami launched into talking about shooting, “See that cutie in the plaid? That’s my squish..”
“Is Yoo why there’s an extra chair?” The Director asked.
“You run this company, man, and you didn’t know she was supposed to be up here?”
“I haven’t run this company in about 15 years.”
The Director explained, “For those of you who don’t know, Kyeongwan was my personal assistant and like all good assistants, she eventually wound up on-screen and then moving onto better things. Her sister’s like actually famous, right? In Korea anyway.”
“She does K-dramas, but pretty much anything is better than this. At OPXes, I feel like an ounce of what it’s like to be a real celebrity but on the day-to-day, I can walk around without anyone noticing me. So whatever she’s doing has to be better than here.”
A Koreaboo in the audience started yelling, excited his obsession aligned with the current topic finally. He shouted out, “Yoo Seungyeon is so cute! You should watch her in…”
The Director turned on him so fast from that stage bathed in blinding light. “You don’t have a mic; your opinion doesn’t count.”
A few fingers on stage pointed had the guardians swarm the heckler to drag him out past the Q&A microphone. If only he’d waited. And while the guardians were taking this man’s information to make sure he wasn’t a repeat offender, Kyeongwan grabbed the Q&A mic. “I got a mic.”
But it wasn’t turned on.
She fiddled with the switch on the bottom and the red light was on, but there was no volume.
“I know you’re trying to be clever,” The Director said seeing the commotion around the silhouette, “But what do you get out of creating a disturbance? You’re just wrecking the fun.”
She gripped the mic to shock it on, but that hadn’t worked since the serum had dried up months ago.
Still, Sami recognized that vague shape, that distant voice. “Kyeongie?”
With Sami’s go-ahead, the audio tech turned up the mic volume so she could be heard. There was some massive feedback, but when it settled, Kyeongwan said, “Protest is meant to disturb the fun.”
“Protest?” The Director said with a laugh, “What are we protesting, Yoo? Global warming? Seal clubbing? You’re not annoying enough to be a vegan.”
“Hey!” the Manbun voice actor said.
“The show,” Kyeongwan announced.
The Director’s good-natured smirk had turned to an annoyed strain on his face. He had an appearance to maintain but anger to constrain.
“I didn’t sign that contract.”
Sami got up from her mic. “Kyeongie, stop.”
“But you did,” The Director said. “You signed over your rights before the audition. Did you think we were going to toss out the footage?”
“That’s not going to stop me from telling people what I know about the company.”
Sami warned her at the edge of the stage, “You signed an NDA.”
“And you’re dangerously close to breaking it.”
“You don’t care what happens to us, so why should I?” Kyeongwan glared past her friend to the stage of juiced-up actors. Then, as she saw security approaching, she backed out of the light to find the side exit. The fire alarm went off.
Sami followed her into the dark.
“After her,” The Director said into the mic.
Fly Guy, Manbun, security and the whole audience got up to chase her and only The Director remained on stage.
He hadn’t noticed when Carla had disappeared.
Over the PA system put in place to warn of fire, active shooters, or a sale on merchandise, The Director’s voice boomed.
And the halls emptied onto the floor. Booths went abandoned. The lines snaking through the stanchions reversed and for once, the newest demo for The Legend of Zelda was free.
50,000 people chased Kyeongwan through a maze of displays, dead-ended by crowds. The alarms blared but almost couldn’t be heard over the stampede of shouts. Cosplayers brandished their weapons. Even foam would be deadly with these numbers.
She grabbed the security badge about her neck to scan at the exhibitor-only doors and waited for the light.
It blinked on.
“Andwae, andwae,” she cried. She tried again, flipping it over.
She pulled it out of the plastic pouch on the lanyard for a last chance at a miracle before they’d catch up.
She slammed her fists against the double doors, screaming above the alarm, trying to liquidate herself through the crack. She fell through.
The door had opened inward and shut behind her.
“You too?” she said from the floor.
“No, squish.” Sami offered her a hand. “I’m on your side.”
Sami led her to a back room that required another badge scan. Red. This wasn’t accessible to random exhibitors. It wasn’t accessible to Kyeongwan. They’d all get the red light and only the Founders and specially cleared OP staff got the go-ahead. It shouldn’t have been accessible to Sami, either, but she kicked the door down no problem.
“Can I trust you now?” Kyeongwan asked.
“You always could.”
“Then why’d you sign? If you hate them too much, why are you a part of it?”
Sami looked at the demolished door. “When was the last time you could handle that? I didn’t like it, but without the serum, without the show, I had no way of fighting back.”
“Then why’d you wait so long?”
Medical machinery everywhere. Scales and calipers. An eye chart next to a shooting range target, two tightly grouped pinpoints burned through. Beds to lie down in as the orange serum cracked cast members’ veins.
“I needed you back in fighting form,” Sami said.
Last time, it took a full day to take effect, but now that those genes were awakened in Kyeongwan, it’d be less than an hour till she dripped and zipped through the mob.
This backroom was standard at OPXes. The fans wanted to see their heroes display powers beyond imagination, but even including the randos guest starring…
“Why is there so many?” Kyeongwan asked.
Based on the boxes, there was enough to dose the entire convention.
“Still trying to figure that part out.” Sami hooked up her friend. She’d done it enough in those early days that she only missed the vein once. The machine pumped out the blood and put it back in orange. “This isn’t even all of it. The Director’s plane is full of more.”
“We can’t let it take off.” Kyeongwan pulled the needle out herself.
“First, let’s smash up this place.”
Sami handed her a crowbar since she didn’t need it, but it got ripped from Kyeongwan’s hands by an unseen force. The metal edge left a gash in her palm that dripped to the floor.
“Can’t let you do that.”
At the door, Fly Guy and the Manbun Voice Actor blocked their escape.
“Kyeongie, whatever happens, I got this until your powers are back.”
A fist that could’ve crushed concrete froze in the air. Manbun had caught it before it hollowed out his chest, but the trembling resistance Sami used to push through the kinetic field still struck fear into him.
Up above, Fly Guy hadn’t seen where Kyeongwan had hid at the start of the fight but he was looking for clues and so when Sami flung a bed at him, he had no time to duck or dodge or descend, but Manbun caught it, too. The bed frame came crashing down into a pile of support beams. The impact bent them, twisted them. Sharpened them.
A trail of blood gave Kyeongwan away. Her palm had smeared the concrete floor when she crawled under the bed and now Fly Guy dragged her out.
Manbun pulled her away.
“God dammit, Chris!”
She went flying into the wall while Kyeongwan went flying overhead, upside-down, screaming. Her glasses fell off.
But all of Fly Guy’s skinny strength couldn’t hold her up. He could fly but that didn’t turn off gravity. His hands slipped. She dove to the floor. She had two things going for her, though: the mattress from the bed Sami had hurled and grade school taekwondo teaching her to roll through a fall. It hurt, to be sure, but she was alive.
Manbun watched for a splat. It didn’t come. So he lifted the twisted metal frame and aimed it at Kyeongwan.
“Run!” Sami screamed and Kyeongie was out the door before he could even launch them, but he felt her out in the hall, estimated how accurate he could be without seeing, and while he was thinking it over, Sami threw another bed.
As before, as with everything, he caught it. He caught the big frame and mattress before it hit him. He caught them and they blocked his vision. And he couldn’t see what followed.
Sami clung to the floating bed as it spun around on an invisible axis then leapt off it straight at the horse-faced voice actor.
There was, as survival instinct, a constant kinetic dampening field around him but she still got her fingers at his throat. Squeezing.
And so, with his target gone and his partner zipping out the door to chase her, an enemy at his throat, and twisted metal beams still under his control--he aimed them her way.
Kyeongwan opened the fire escape. The alarm was already going so what was one more sound surrounding her?
But as she went to slip out, Fly Guy tackled her from behind and they both rolled onto the pavement as the door swung shut behind them. A bloody palm and now a scraped up knee where her jeans had come pre-ripped. Fly Guy hung above her.
She yelled, “What are you thinking? Pick me up again with twig arms? I see you panting from here.”
He lowered himself to be more than a speck in her vision. She saw the crowbar.
Then, the fire escape behind her opened once more.
“Not you, too.”
Their time together in the 63 Building meant nothing now. She was under contract. She was getting paid.
Fly Guy came hurtling down, clutching the curved end so he could spear Kyeongwan with the other. Carla sprinted toward her. In the panic, Kyeongwan caught glimpses of her own imagination, seeing herself roll out of the way at just the right time and her two enemies taking each other out, but her legs froze.
Fly Guy nearly on her.
Carla passed by.
Her arms swirled.
A portal opened.
Fly Guy sped through. He didn’t know it exited into the wall of the convention center.
He hit full speed. The crowbar stuck in 10 feet up. The rounded end hit him square in the solar plexus. He fell. He gasped for air. The crowbar fell, too, sharp end down. His eyes shut. It clanged against the pavement.
“This time, we’re escaping together,” Carla said.
“Why take a plane when I can just teleport us out of here?”
Kyeongwan grabbed the crowbar. “We have to stop it.”
With a face twisted from annoyance, Carla looked over at Fly Guy, finding his breath again. There was no time to discuss this. “Remember when we played hero last time? You’re not getting lucky again.”
“I told Sami we’d stop it.”
“You drive me absolutely crazy, you know that? But--fine!” She opened a portal to the plane and Kyeongwan stepped through, for the first time seeing the swirling abyss between realms. “We’ll do it your wa--”
Fly Guy charged into Carla.
Carla closed the entrance before Kyeongwan turned back. She could only go forward.
“You again?” On the stairs down to the cargo hold of the plane, Kyeongwan saw the digitally organized and mechanically crammed-in crates. Even if she could pry open the first row and dispose of their contents, there was no aisle to get beyond that. She didn’t have a plan yet, but she knew step one. “Out of my way, Jerry.”
He turned to let her pass. “I’m not here to stop you. I want to help.”
“Why would I want you?”
“You have to understand. The serum does something to you. And the cameras. And my own insecurities,” Jerry said. “But I’m trying to do better.”
She jammed in the crowbar and he helped her with the leverage.
Lifting Carla into the air on his shoulders, Fly Guy didn’t need a strong grip like this.
As they soared, she opened a portal for them high above the clouds where there was little air and a lot of cold.
“Just made it easier for me,” the Australian said, shivering, but he actually couldn’t concentrate up here. He froze in place.
Her, too, but she’d been prepared for this. She’d set up a portal to catch them. The momentum might scratch them up but better a few bloody bumps than a bloody puddle. She just had to make sure she hit it on the fall.
Which was the problem.
Fly Guy, vaguely had control still. And they were still drifting in the air. And without being able to see where she was making the portal…
When Fly Guy finally conked out...
When they fell...
One of the sharpened support beams came whizzing for Sami, but sailed right by into a computer display that bled out its liquid crystals.
“Do it,” she said. “You know it’ll go right through both of us.”
“That was a warning.”
He spun them around with his mind. They floated upward and he tried separating them but her grip was too strong and it took a lot of concentration to keep it from crushing his windpipe, but from this angle, Sami saw the two remaining missiles.
And she saw one launch at Manbun’s manbun with so much force it was a sure thing they were both dead and her eyes shut on their own.
It was painless.
Because it had stopped before it hit him.
He had complete control.
“Your last warning.” He spun them back around so Sami would take the impact and the missile would stop once it pierced her spine. “Now let go so we can talk about this. You’re not the one he wants.”
The nails ripped up. The amount of wiggle room above the lid was negligible, but Kyeongwan and Jerry did, with a lot of work, get access to the contents. Rows of over-the-counter boxes with a sheet of 12 orange pills in each. The foil rattled. The instructions read, “For a super way to start your day, take with breakfast.” Then a bunch of fine print and legal information that meant nothing to Kyeongwan or your average consumer.
“They were passing these out at the con,” Jerry said. “You don’t think it’s…?”
“Doesn’t matter now. We destroy them.”
Then a voice came from the seats. “I wish you wouldn’t, Yoo.”
As she turned away, Jerry snuck a packet into his pocket.
And the plane lurched forward as it started down the runway, slowly picking up speed, then lifting off. When the two finally got off the ground with a new appreciation for takeoff safety procedures, Kyeongwan saw on the main floor The Classic striding down the aisle, almost too big to fit. And behind him, the one the voice belonged to, The Director.
Sami let go.
Manbun did not. He held them up in the air. He held the missiles.
“Now you,” she insisted.
“Not till I’m out of here.”
“At least put us down. You can stab me wherever we are but my feet are falling asleep dangling up here.”
Their shoes touched the concrete.
She paced about the room like a tiger waiting to pounce, but wherever she prowled, the missiles followed her. They were out of her reach. “Okay, let’s talk. What is it you even want?”
“To get paid. Voice acting is a gig economy. There’s no guarantee I’ll get work that month or even that year, so maybe this is still a contract, but at least it’s for a bit and you’re screwing that up.”
“What does He want?” She settled against the headboard of the final bed.
“Not really my place to ask. He’s the visionary whether I see it or not.”
“So you’re just following orders.” Her hands squeezed the metal bar behind her. She eyed him then the missiles then him.
“I don’t love it, but…”
“Then this is your last chance, Chris,” she said.
She flipped the bed at him and it arced through the air dumping its pillowtop mattress. He caught it. And simultaneously launched his missiles at her.
They sped his way. His heart raced. They stopped. One at his nose, two at his nips.
So focused on them, like a macro lens with the background blurred, he didn’t see Sami racing behind with the mattress whipping around to hammer the spikes home.
As Sami ran into the hall to catch up with Kyeongie, the exhibitor-only security door was being cut at the hinges with an arc-welder. She smelled it.
But the convention site had strict guidelines about what was allowed in and whatever The Director had done, he couldn’t have expected to reveal himself here. He didn’t even know Kyeongwan had attended and only sicced his fanboys on her as a way of scrambling once challenged. Why would he have required exhibitor-only security doors if he was also going to allow them to be cut?
The cutting stopped.
Slime stuck to the outside and pulled the door down. It was used as a doormat for the 50,000 fans to funnel into the corridor.
Carla tried another portal to catch her and the Fly Guy, but she was too slow. By the time she completed the circle, they were below it.
How had Felix Bumgartner done this?
They plummeted at terminal velocity when she bucked the fanboy and formed the portal where she’d pass through.
She shot out the other side going 120 miles per hour--upward.
Then she reached the top of her parabolic arc and when her speed reversed, she portaled to the ground, landing with all the force of a trip.
Fly Guy was lucky enough to fall in her view and she gave him the same courtesy, except as he went sailing upward, she caught him near the ground each time so he had a series of arcs leaping through the air until finally his momentum had petered out and she let him hit the ground, rolling as he puked.
She finished just in time to see the plane take off. And to see the door to the convention center open violently with the clamor of thousands of fans crammed into the hall with their own assortment of powers.
The plane in the air.
The Classic shielding the mastermind behind this all.
Jerry fiddled in his pocket.
“What’s going on?” Kyeongwan said, looking around and remembering.
“It’s simple. You remember the community revitalization project you were working on before you quit?” The Director pulled up the website on his tablet. He was logged in as a random fan account. A big banner read, “Upload now for your chance to win $1,000 and receive monetization.”
It wasn’t quite the same. Sami was missing, but Kyeongwan couldn’t shake the feeling of deja vu.
A portal opened up and Carla stepped through, hurriedly to escape the fan stampede, and behind her was Sami.
“Oh good, you’re here, too. Just in time,” The Director said. “You both interrupted our other big podcast announcement, but we’ve opened monetized community uploads once again, but it won’t just be lore videos and music and cosplay. Soon, spontaneous awakenings will be caught on camera. Not just here, but all over the world. Truly, the community can be super, too.”
Carla hadn’t been here. Or Jerry. But still.
“You’re doing to this to serve ads on more fan-content?” Sami asked.
“I don’t care about ads. They can have 90% of the revenue. That’s just to incentivize uploads. More than the ‘Holy shit, it’s real!’ factor.”
“Then why?” Sami asked.
“Think of all the shaky-cam footage we’re about to see! Kids having fun. Terrible people doing terrible things. Others trying to stop them and become heroes themselves.” He was lost in his own fantasy. “Think of how much more exciting the world’s going to be now?”
The Classic wasn’t going to let Sami pound their boss’s face in, so she settled for starting with his. This wasn’t that rusty fight on the plane. She was back in business, warmed up, and pissed off.
The two cramped powerhouses tore up the place.
Sami crashed his chin into the floor. He came up among a pile of vitamin packets, ready to rocket her through the roof, but Carla separated him. He was lost in the clouds while they soared away.
Before she could close her portal, though, he flew back through and went through the hull of the plane. He quickly returned to the fight.
When Carla made another portal, he zipped around it with more deftness than anyone would expect. He charged for her. She was the biggest hassle in the fight, but Sami clocked him straight in face. She felt his nose go concave.
He tried to return the blow but his fist went through a portal. He yanked it back before it closed and severed the limb.
They’d figured out their synergy pretty quick, but executing on this unspoken plan took just one word from Sami: “Behind!”
A portal opened. Sami shoved him through, going with him, and wherever the hell they wound up, high in the sky, she kicked him off. He flew away. She fell away. And the portal returning home opened for Sami, nowhere near her, but Carla closed it and opened another and another and another till finally she caught her teammate, who hurtled through the cabinet and took some of the seats with her, but she was back and he was gone.
“Now what are you going to do?” Kyeongwan asked The Director. It was her, Sami, Carla, and Jerry against him.
“Oh, I don’t need him. I don’t even need that ray gun under the seat. I don’t need to fight you at all.” The Director turned to Jerry. “Can you believe your hero’s been beaten?”
Jerry looked out the window. “He’ll be back.”
“Good,” Sami said. “He hasn’t touched me once and I know I felt a rib snap with one of those gut shots.”
“He’s had enough. We’ve won.”
“Not while he’s still breathing.”
“You’re going to kill him!”
“Yeah! I am!”
Jerry leaned over the seat. He pulled out a ray gun and fired at Sami.
But Kyeongwan jumped in the way.
Her powers weren’t back yet.