LNH: Dashing Tales #2
ben.rawluk at gmail.com
Sun Aug 30 19:04:59 PDT 2015
DASHING TALES, episode the second,
"Auditioning for an Off-Baudway Play,"
by Ben Rawluk
The taxi takes them along the Avenue of Net.Heroes, with Emma engrossed in her phone and Marco? Marco is freaking out. "There are going to be Vogon jokes," he says. The swim goggles dig into his face and he doesn't know where to look; the statues of Legionnaires make his anxiety spike, and there are so many of them. They're tall and golden but the metal's been tarnished by weather and Marco doesn't recognize half of them. Legionnaires who are long-dead or disappeared or retconned out of existence. Legionnaires conjured out of nothing. And then there's the Ultimate Ninja. He definitely recognizes the Ultimate Ninja. "I don't think this was a good idea, Em."
Can she not see that he's freaking out?
Emma sighs, clicks off her phone and slips it into the leather satchel braced between her legs. "Don't worry," she says. "You'll be fine. They'll let you join. I can report on your experience. You get to do something useful with -- with your power. I'll have something for my portfolio." And then she can get away from the Net.ropolis Netizen, not that she says that. It's implied. They both get away from the Netizen. The cab follows the curve of the road and they pass corroded reproductions of Organic Lass and Pocket Man.
"So you don't think -- I mean, you don't think my super-power is too stupid?"
"Cheesecake-Eater Lad has made a very successful career out of being very good at making cheesecake. And eating cheesecake."
"And they won't think I'm a villain? It's not, like -- it's kind of a destructive power."
"Pretty sure Tsar Chasm was a member, once upon a time. I think. Actually, I'm not sure." Emma taps at her chin, before glancing back across at him. "There's probably some paperwork, and a test. I've read articles about the process, but I think it depends on who's conducting the evaluation and--"
"They used to make you fight Ultimate Ninja."
"I'm pretty sure that's against the Geneva Convention." There is a full beat, and then Emma says, "I mean, except when it's not. Are you actually freaking out about this, or is this about Steve?"
"I'm not freaking out about Steve!" Oh god. He should never have said anything. It seemed so, so theoretical, when the words came out of his mouth back on the rooftop of the Netizen, looking out over the city. Maybe I should join up, he'd said. It was supposed to be a joke, but somehow they live in a world where joining the Legion of Net.Heroes is a reasonable back-up plan for failing at poetry. But really, this is Emma's fault. They're only doing this so that--
"You a net.hero?"
The cab driver is watching him in the rear-view mirror. Marco blinks, because the cab driver has been mostly, mercifully silent since they got in and Emma told him where they were going. He would have preferred transit -- cheaper, and less chance of getting into an awkward conversation. "Uh," Marco says, and he hopes this isn't how he'll respond when they get there and he's applying. "Yeah," he says, after a full ten seconds. "Yes, I am. A net.hero." Said with such conviction, too. Imagine him facing down villains like this, imagine him facing down the entire Dorf Empire. Bad-Poetry Boy. Hah. "You must, you must drive a lot of net.heroes around over here--"
"Net.heroes usually fly."
And that feels, well, that feels like it really sets the tone for Marco Ramirez's first day as a net.hero.
The cab leaves them at the front gates of the LNHQ, the golden statues of the Avenue giving way to an extensive lawn and front garden that looks like it's seen better days -- scarred and smashed by the latest cataclysmic battle, no doubt -- and Marco stands there awkwardly, very aware of the ridiculous costume he shimmied himself into that morning, while Emma deals with the cab driver. She asks for a receipt as though the Netizen is about to reimburse her for expenses all of a sudden. She bangs on the roof of the cab and it takes off, leaving the two of them next to swooping metal shaped into cursive LNH across the gates. When she turns to face him, Marco can't help hissing, "Vogons."
"You're panicking over nothing, Marco." They turn toward the LNHQ, and that's when it happens. "Security measures," Emma says, loud enough that he's pretty sure she's trying to quell any coming panic attacks. A swarm of machines emerges from some hidden alcover in the gate posts and flies around them. Cameras shutter open and shut. Weird pink lights envelope them. After a moment, Emma digs around in her satchel and pulls out a laminated rectangular card and holds it up where the cameras can see it. They respond to the movement, clicking and whirring and turning as one to stare at her. Never mind that Marco is the one in the ridiculous costume with the turquoise tank-top and blue tights. The goggles. "Emma Dash," says Emma, clearly. "The Net.ropolis Netizen. This is my press pass."
The machines hum and blink, turning toward each other before dispersing. The pair of them are left alone. After a moment, the gates creak and begin to swing open.
Marco coughs. "You have a press pass?"
Emma shrugs, then brushes past him to walk along the cobblestone walkway toward the main building. "It's a coffee card for that place down the block from the Netizen. You have to believe in the power of the media, Marco."
"Bad-Poetry Boy," he says. "We're almost there. Don't they stick to code-names?"
"If you call me 'Girl Reporter,' I will murder you."
He's never been to the LNHQ before, but he's seen pictures. There are trading cards for some of the "special locations," like the Peril Room or the Cafeteria. There was at least one well-received but perplexing feature in Architectural Digest, although the writer's never been heard from since and there's an internet forum that grew out of the aftermath.
Even still: the LNHQ doesn't look like he expects it to. He expected clean and white and expansive, clinical somehow. He wasn't expecting a lobby that looks like something out of a seedy 1950s hotel, with framed portraits of past leaders (Mostly Boy Lad and Ultimate Ninja, by various artists, though there is one wall by a sitting area with courtesy telephones where close to 500 tiny portraits have been lined up, too small to decipher from here).
Emma has dropped back behind him, and she has her phone out, she's opening up the recorder app, and he knows that she's on the clock now, that she's a silent observer and he's on his own. Bad-Poetry Boy. Right. He crosses the lobby with its orange shag carpeting and carefully positioned vintage furniture and steps up to the reception desk, where an older woman -- close to his Tia's age, maybe -- is watching him over top of thin reading glasses. Her hair is piled high on her head, and there is a certain gaunt quality to her cheekbones. "Hello," she says. She's pert when she says it, but there's a certain underlying absence of enthusiasm. "Which is it?"
"Are you here to join, or are you here to challenge somebody to a duel?" She clears her throat, and types something on the laptop in front of her without tearing her eyes away from him. "Unless you're here from a parallel Looniverse, maybe? Has your world just been destroyed? Sole survivors are instructed to go to the E wing--"
"Joining!" Maybe that was too loud. Probably that was too loud.
The woman watches him. Her hand hovers over a large red button inset into the desk. Something that looks suspiciously like a cartoonist's idea of a panic button. "Right," she says, and retracts her hand. She peers at him for a moment, and then shifts her attention to Emma, who is standing a good four feet behind him. "And does that go for you as well?"
Emma holds up her hands -- without the coffee card, this time. "I'm media. I'm, ah." She clears her throat. "Net.ropolis Netizen."
"Oh. Are we counting that as media, these days?"
Marco is resolute about not laughing.
The receptionist has turned her attention back toward him. "Fine. You're applying for membership with, ah, your PR manager." She shuffles around in the drawers beneath her desk until eventually she pulls up something that looks like a roulette wheel? Made from sleek plastic, with a golden arrow-pointer and little spherical planetoids above each wedge. All the colours of the rainbow. "This is the Membership Application Wheel," she says. Her voice has taken on an edge, like a narrator from a nature documentary. "There are dozens of ways a person can become a member of the Legion of Net.Heroes, and that doesn't count the ways that are less than savoury, like body-swapping or mystical pregnancy." Now that the wheel has been set up, Marco can see all the tiny options. "Maybe you'll have to fill out forms in quadruplicate. Maybe you'll have to face Ultimate Ninja in combat. Doc Stomper might assign you an audition mission. You might be asked to face a hideous Kirbian monster at the centre of our underground labyrinth, go on a date with Easily-Discovered Man Lite, or clean the Augean Stables. Sing-Along Lass could require you to perform from Les Mis, or there may be a vote by senior members of the Legion. Now, what's your name?"
"Uh. Bad-Poetry Boy."
Something shifts in her face. "Oh, that's funny. We voted in Sonnet Queen last week! She's a darling."
"Now, Legion bylaws require that I don't touch the roulette myself," says the receptionist. "Applicants must do so themselves. You are also required by law to disclose if you have any probability-altering or telekinetic abilities that might alter the outcome of the roulette. Failure to do so will result in being declared a Legion Traitor, followed by banishment to the Antimatter Looniverse of Thhhppp. Do you understand?"
"I. Yes. I understand." Antimatter Looniverse? He turns to look back at Emma, who has on her Intrepid Reporter face, completely immune to shock.
"And do you?"
"Do I--?" He stares into the face of the receptionist, before it clicks. "Oh! No, no probability-altering powers. Or telekinesis. I just--"
"Spin the arrow."
Emma is watching. She's snapping a photo of the wheel with her phone, and then flipping the voice recorder back on. She's so intent. The whole thing feels doubly embarrassing, with the stupid costume (Goggles? Really?) and the sheer concentration Emma's devoting to this. He's read her articles and they have style, they have a certain enthusiasm that differs from the rote descriptions of detached horror that mark Clement Bogus's weird occult crime reports. She's the kind of reporter than should be jumping out of planes and narrowly escaping mummies. It feels strange to have her directing all of that energy at him. He doesn't really feel like Bad-Poetry Boy. But maybe that comes later. Maybe he's allowed to feel like pathetic Marco Ramirez right now, before he spins the wheel, before he gets his shot at the Legion of Net.Heroes. He got dumped two days ago and the closest thing he has to a job is an unpaid internship.
But spin the arrow...
He reaches out, and spins the arrow. It runs smoothly and quickly, clicking away as it hits every spoke, the tiny planetoids wiggling from the movement. He doesn't want to have to face Ultimate Ninja in battle, even in the Peril Room where (or so the trading cards say) death is ultimately meaningless. He doesn't know what the optimal outcome would be -- paperwork? Cleaning the stables the receptionist was talking about?
(The LNH has stables?)
Click, click, click--
(And he wonders what would happen if he recited something? If he leaned in and recited that haiku he wrote last summer, about the smell of ocean in Hovel Homes? Would the roulette wheel stop? Would it explode? Seventeen syllables, barely long enough to give anybody brain damage?)
"Oh," says the receptionist. Marco's eyes are closed. When did he close his eyes? "That one's a classic! You're very lucky, I don't think he does that one as often anymore. Special Bonding Boy had some concerns about how the associated trauma would affect new members."
"The Membership Application Wheel responds to the thoughts of applicants, you know," says the receptionist, who sounds as though she's reading off the back of another one of those trading cards. "You must have been hoping to prove yourself in battle against the Ultimate Ninja." She presses a few stray keys and pushes a Bluetooth earpiece into her right ear. "Sally? This is Irma, down on the desk. Yes, we have a new member application. He spun -- yes, exactly. Five minutes? Wonderful." She looks back up at Marco then, and smiles. It is a less than hospitable smile, this time. "If you go along this corridor," she indicates to her right with a pair of manicured fingers. "You'll find your way to the Peril Room. Don't worry, it's impossible for you to get lost. You're only allowed to go to the Peril Room before there's a final decision." After that, she calls over his shoulder to Emma. "And you -- I'm afraid we don't let members of the media into the Peril Room. Doctor Stomper will be along shortly to deal with you."
"What?" Emma rockets forward, almost pushing Marco out of the way. "Deal with me? Excuse me? I have every right to be here--"
"This is private property, and media are required to follow certain rules when on the premises."
The receptionist holds up a hand. "Doctor Stomper will be be along shortly to deal with you." Her eyes flick over to Marco. "And you should be on your way, young man. You absolutely don't want to keep Ultimate Ninja waiting."
"I--" Marco pauses, looking across at Emma, who shrugs her shoulders.
"Good luck. I'll deal with this."
"Fine." Marco shrugs, and slinks past her. He doesn't look back, because he doesn't know what will happen if he looks back. He passes through a set of double doors off the lobby, and finds the hand-crafted detail of the lobby gives away to a kind of cold, science-fiction atmosphere in a long corridor, with touchscreens laid into the wall on either side. It is less like a hotel now and more like being on a spaceship. He hugged himself as he walked, no pockets to shove his hands in, and no idea where he was going. She said he would only be able to go to the Peril Room. He looks back -- the exit back to the lobby is gone? "It's fine," he says. "It's absolutely fine. The LNHQ does stuff like this. It's -- everybody knows it."
He hopes Emma is all right.
He doesn't want to meet Ultimate Ninja. He doesn't want to fight him. If he walks into the Peril Room and tries to use his super-power, what if it damages the Peril Room? What if the safety protocols go off line and he ends up with a Ginsu Katana through his throat?
He drags his feet for a while. After about ten minutes of walking he looks up. He still hasn't passed a door, but then -- PERIL ROOM, reads the display overhead. A pair of gigantic mechanized doors. The computer panel next to the door chirps when he steps closer and an electronic voice buzzes: "Marco Ramirez, also known as Bad Poetry Boy." How did it know his full real name? He hadn't -- "Subject has access for ten minutes. Status: training mode. Current occupants: Ultimate Ninja." The voice halts after that, and the doors hum and grind as they open to reveal a vast white space. It's almost suffocating to look at.
After a moment, a voice calls out: "You coming in?"
Marco clears his throat and steps inside. "I was hoping my friend was going to be allowed to watch, at least," he says.
"There's a reason there haven't been many exposes on the Legion." It is then that the Ultimate Ninja appears: tall and impossibly thin, dressed in jet black from head to toe, except for the red-white-and-blue belt. Marco's mouth goes dry. "We're very particular about who gets to walk around in the LNHQ without clearance. You learn after the first, oh, dozen or so secret traitors and saboteurs."
"But applicants can just walk in?"
Ultimate Ninja seems to ignore the question, and walks in a slow circle around Marco. "Ramirez, Marco. Listed as Bad-Poetry Boy. Just to confirm, you're not from the Oddball Looniverse, right? I can't remember who the Oddball version of Bad-Timing Boy was."
"Uh. I was raised in Hovel Homes, sir. I've lived in Net.ropolis my entire life. I'm not -- I'm a real person, okay?"
"Well, are any of us?"
"First rule of the Legion of Net.Heroes, kid. Get used to metafiction." The Ultimate Ninja is carrying no obvious weapons. He's walking, step by step, never taking his eyes off Marco. "I can tell by the set of your jaw and the way you're holding your shoulders that you've heard of this particular method of joining the Legion. It used to be pretty popular in the old days, but methods vary. If you'd gotten 'Retcon,' we would have had to use a plot-device that would make it so that you'd always been a member. One of the founders, maybe. I don't have a lot of patience for that method, you understand. It's messy."
(Messy like spilling blood everywhere because a ninja has just cut your head off?)
"If Stomper was here, he'd want to give a long-winded speech describing the full nature of your powers, of course. He'd want to study what you can do so that it could be better catalogued in the Roster. He'd want strengths, weaknesses. He'd want to classify you as magical or scientific, whether or not you're an elemental -- all of that. I only care how long you'd last in battle with me. A Legionnaire never knows when they'll have to face a comrade. Could be from an evil Looniverse, or a clone, or mind control. Not to mention zombies." The Ultimate Ninja sighs, and it is long and strange and tired in a way that Marco never expected from someone purported to the deadliest Legionnaire ever imagined. "There have been several of me already."
"You don't want to know my power?"
"Half of us have no powers, you know that? Half of us are very gifted amateurs, or protected purely by Editorial Fiat." The Ultimate Ninja. "Half of us will never know real pain."
Marco really, really wishes he'd gotten the paperwork.
The Ultimate Ninja attacks. Marco hasn't got time to duck to the side before the Ninja has hit him with the butt of his hand, right in the nose. Marco stumbles backwards. From somewhere, the Ninja has pulled a long blade. Ginsu Katana. Marco has seen the commercials on late-night cable. They say only the Ultimate Ninja can use it to the full extent of its art. He's turning, and Marco opens his mouth and starts to recite that haiku, that stupid, terrible haiku--
The Ultimate Ninja shrieks something that sounds like "Basho," before slicing the edge of the blade right across Marco's throat. He only made it five syllables in, and now he's going to die like--
He's having an out-of-body experience. Marco stands next to the Ultimate Ninja, watching himself seize and sputter and gurgle while blood gushes out of his opened throat. His eyes -- well, the eyes of the Marco that is currently sprawled on the ground in a pool of blood -- have gone slack. Marco is biting into his bottom lip and watching himself die. "Am I dead?" He looks up at the Ultimate Ninja, who seems engrossed in the other Marco dying in front of them. "God, are you the Angel of Death too?"
"Ending of the Finishless," says the Ultimate Ninja. He catches the look. "Ask Retcon Lad, some time. No. We conduct interviews in the Peril Room because it exists in a state of Temporal Grace; nobody dies permanently here." They both watch the other version of Marco convulse for a moment before he -- before Marco -- has to turn away. He can't pinpoint the moment when he stopped being the Marco on the floor and started being the Marco watching the Marco on the floor. The Ultimate Ninja cracks his knuckles. When Marco looks back, his other self is fading into the blankness of the Peril Room, like being overcome in a snowstorm. Even the blood is gone.
Marco feels uncomfortable, like he can't breathe.
"You almost managed to attack me," says the Ninja. "I would say you've earned yourself a probationary membership."
"I mean, your name may give away too much about your powers, but we're hardly people to complaining about on-the-nose names." The Ninja pads over to the doors, where he taps on a touchscreen. "You'll be wondering about your friend, the reporter. She's with Doctor Stomper. I believe he's escorted her to the Mission Monitor Room. The corridor will guide you there. The Doctor will outfit you with a communicator badge and give you access to the computers. No WiFi password needed for Legionnaires. He'll brief you on what comes next." He pauses, and looks back at Marco, who must look shell-shocked, because the next thing out of his mouth is: "Sorry, the Ultimate Ninja doesn't do orientation."
Bad-Poetry Boy (Marco Ramirez), Emma Dash, Clement Bogus and Sonnet Queen are owned by Ben Rawluk, copyright 2015.
Irma the receptionist is a creation of Ben Rawluk as well, because I'm still sorting out the State of the Receptionist Union, but others are free to use her.
Ultimate Ninja is the creation of wReam but still seems to be open for use (and still seems to be leader!).
Doctor Vincent Stomper is the creation of T.M. Neeck, also open for use.
There are a lot of different ways a net.hero can join the Legion. In some versions of Dashing Tales, I pretty much skipped over the audition process, but they always seem to be inevitable. The Membership Application Roulette Wheel is definitely open to anyone who wants to use it, and while I feel a little uncreative having it turn out to be a fight against UN (which sort of felt inevitable, based on Marco's anxiety), I'd never written a fight with the Ninja before and it is a classic trope, after all.
I'm keeping these short so I can churn out a couple in sporadic heaps. Next time will focus pretty heavily on Emma with the possibility of an interlude or two, to break the "big long scene" vignette structure.
More information about the racc