LNH: Dashing Tales #3
ben.rawluk at gmail.com
Wed Sep 2 21:36:39 PDT 2015
DASHING TALES, episode the third,
"Down the Drain,"
by Ben Rawluk
One day, Emma Dash will be famous. She will have reported from war zones, both terrestrial and alien. She will have interviewed kidnappers while tied to a chair, the ropes digging into her arms and dehydration making it harder to remember every single quote with precision. She will be remembered for that one interview with Bad-Poetry Boy, the day he saves the world all on his own. She will have ridden dinosaurs, seen the very end of time. One day she will be behind the editor's desk of the Net.ropolis Times, grizzled and complaining about the good old days, when she was a reporter, when she was on the front lines.
(In the future, also, print will not be dead.)
Today, though? Today she has to deal with Doctor Vincent Stomper. Everybody knows Doctor Vincent Stomper. He looks like he walked out of one of those B-movies they show on NNN in the wee hours of the morning, when Emma is awake and worrying about her career. He looks like he should be black-and-white, his perfect black coiffure slicked with Brylcreem and something about the set of his jaw that suggests he should be smoking from a pipe.
The goddamn labcoat won't stop fluttering. Is there a wind machine in here?
And he won't stop pacing while he yammers, either. "You have to understand, Ms. Dash." They're in the Mission Monitor Room, a hundred screens blinking and flickering and switching through thousands of emergency feeds. "We have policies in place for a reason," Stomper says. Behind him, a purple-bowtied person who introduced themselves as Mashup Laq and offered their pronouns first thing is rolling back and forth on an ergonomic office chair, almost in time with Stomper. The fact that they're a second or so behind him is really starting to grate on Emma. "If you published the wrong thing -- some detail not meant for the public -- there could be dire consequences. There are secret identities at stake here." And then he sighs, and it's a particular sigh, a sigh that Emma has heard before, she's gritting her teeth when the next sentence hits: "And the Netizen -- I'm sorry, but we have standards--"
"Well, we aren't all in a position to have standards, are we?" She should be polite, she knows that, this man could stop Marco from becoming a Legionnaire, he could toss her into the Antimatter Looniverse apparently -- or somewhere worse, really. Who knows what goes on in those sub-basements. But she can picture Victor King behind the editor's desk of the Netizen, so far away from the Net.ropolis Times, the difference between Didio Drive and Enright Avenue, and she can see that skeezy, puckered face of his. Telling her she better produce something that would put the Netizen back on the map, or else he'll find someone else for her desk. The city's full of interns, after all. Happy to work for the exposure. "I'm trying to better myself."
That stops him short. He stands there, wobbling, before turning to look at her.
After a moment, he clears his throat. "What's your angle, Dash?"
"Angle? I don't have--"
Stomper is squinting at her.
Oh. "I mean, I wanted to walk through what it was like for a new, ah, a new Legionnaire. What it's like to go on your first mission, trying to find your quarters, all of--all of that." Truthfully, she didn't have a full pitch, even when she was fast-talking in front of Victor King. It sprang from her head up on that rooftop. "You guys -- the Legion is so huge, for most people. Extending back decades. Extending all the way back to Boy Lad. Do you think people understand Boy Lad? He's so -- he was so good. I wanted to write about what it's like for someone like Marco. I mean, Bad-Poetry Boy. Starting out at the bottom. What it's like when you've never had to save the world, but it might happen tomorrow."
She wishes he'd stop looking at her. There's something unnerving about Doctor Stomper, the way he looks at everything like there might be giant, radioactive ants at any moment. Even Mashup Laq has slowed in their swivelling, has stopped paying attention to the hum and buzz of switching screens, has stopped responding to the emergency alerts binging at irregular intervals. Emma tears her eyes away, looks up, hundreds of tiny holographic icons hovering over their heads. The Mission Monitor Board, each icon a Legionnaire. Grouped for missions, for duty rosters, like clusters of leaves at the end of tree branches. She wonders if there's one for Bad-Poetry Boy up there somewhere, or if she's ruined his chances.
"It's funny you should mention Boy Lad."
She doesn't say anything. She just -- that may have been a monologue, her pitch, whatever -- but she isn't a net.hero. A net.hero monologuing is something different, and for a moment it occurs to her that someone like Stomper, particularly, born in the Golden Age of the LNH, someone like him was bit for the soliloquy, was born to -- "In Boy Lad's time, this was a newspaper city." His voice has the same bright, lively quality as an old newsreel announcer, the sort she used to watch on Youtube all the time, gobbling up some strange desire to be a journalist. "There were reporters everywhere. Two-fisted, justice-drunk reporters. Something about the Writers, I suppose. They have a soft-spot. Or, had. That was the old days. They had the best of intentions, then. They were empowered by truth."
Emma finds herself smiling.
"Things changed. The world got complicated. The Net.Tastic Nine operating out of the Mando Building. Storylines moved like tides, shifting with public opinion. There were complicated wars happening in the world, and net.heroes were coming under scrutiny." Stomper clears his throat again. She can almost see him as a teenager, reading a Net.Tastic Nine comic book in a high school restroom stall at lunch. "Reporters write stories, but they tend to cause trouble when they do it. Millionaire rocket scientist lose their fortunes. It's like you concentrate drama. And a paper like the Netizen, well. Nobody believes the tabloids, sure, but they can sow seeds." He steps past her and fiddles with the touchscreen on the wall. "Anyway, everyone knows trenchcoaters read the tabloids, and I don't need them knowing any more about us than is strictly necessary."
Emma stands there, biting her lip. "Where does that leave us?"
"Well, hopefully we won't be reading any stories about Thesaurus Lass's love-children."
And then something cold and heavy takes up residence in her chest. "I'm not going to write propaganda, if that's what you're getting at," she says. "For you or against you. During Boy Lad's time -- things were different. The city was different. And then." It's like trying to explain the apple and the Garden of Eden and why that was a metaphor. But everything runs on metaphor. And Doctor Stomper should know that. His whole schtick is knowing. "Okay, so I work for a paper that trenchcoaters read. That reports on swamp monsters and evil twins. You're expecting me to adhere to super-morality. I've wanted to be a journalist since I was four. They were like net.heroes." She grins, but it's hard and sharp. "I want to save the world too."
"Be that as it may, you walked right in without announcing yourself or going through appropriate channels, when you had every intention of acting in your professional capacity--"
"Intrepid reporters gotta bend the rules. Same as net.heroes."
"The LNH depends on a precise balance of drama to function, to exist."
"And what, you'll banish me to Thhhppp if I disturb that by hanging around?" She has somehow ended up right in front of Stomper, almost spitting in his face, and she's about to -- what? Back off? Only when she rocks back on her heels, she rocks back on her heels, the ground pulling out from under her. "What," she says, because the disorientation is right up on her in that moment, the solid tiled floor dissolving under foot. Stomper's still in front of her but it's like he's slowing down, everything's slowing down.
Is she -- what's--
The Mission Monitor Room goes dark all around her. Stomper is reaching out for her, and she tries to yank at his hand, but it's like they're not -- like he's just a hologram--
Oh god. He' s actually done it. He's actually banished her to the Antimatter Looniverse of Thhhppp. The asshole!
(It's like those weird commercials where the camera slips down a drain and into the pipes--)
The smell. Emma isn't ready for the smell. The Mission Monitor Room smelled faintly like copper and bleach, smelled like rigourous exertions of Captain Cleanup and Squeaky Clean. Emma blinks, her chin digging into something hard and sharp and warm like -- gravel? Like she's on a gravel beach under the hot sun. But the smell. It isn't bleach, or copper, or the ocean. It's acrid, putrid, and her nose shrivels upon contact. "What," she says, but she's mostly speaking to hear her voice, to confirm that it's there. She remembers the spinning, the falling backward through space that wasn't supposed to be there, everything around her splattering like paint. It's very warm but it's also very dark, like that time she went down into the basement of the Netizen, to the file room. The Archives.
She blinks, and puffs air out of her lungs, tries not to think about that stink. It reminds her of the cooking dumpster behind the office. She hauls her chin away from the gravel and brushes a hand over it, little pebbles falling away. Stomper did something, right? She was being mouthy so he hit a button and she was sent -- god! When she digs her way out of this, she's going to--
Someone is watching her.
The dumpster was closer to reality than she realizes. They're in some kind of landfill, right, crammed into a cavern amid rotting garbage and -- and it's like she's curled up in between the layers of a lost city, covered over by sediment. And the light is dim (but where is it coming from?) and a figure sits crosslegged to the side, their face slick with shadow. There's a silhouette to work with. Is this really the Antimatter Looniverse? A dump? In the distance there's a sound, like squealing, or air escaping from a whoopee-cushion. It almost feels disappointing, a half-assed dimension, not the mention the question of why she wasn't exploding on contact with all the anti-matter -- no.
There's a cigarette dangling from the shadow's mouth.
Just enough of an ember to trace--
"Sorry about that," says Clement Bogus, but she can tell that he doesn't actually care, that the apology is more something to say than something he means. He doesn't stand, exactly, but he pulls himself up and hovers there, bent at the waist. Everything shivers and grunts when he moves, hundreds of thousands piece of trash settling. "The transfer can be really unsettling the first time. I'm impressed you didn't puke." He scrapes hand through his scalp and flicks his cigarette away. It -- disappears. "I puked, if I'm going to be perfectly honest."
Emma stands. Emma stares at him. "What did you do?"
"I was trying to help."
"You were trying -- what did you -- where are we?"
"We're in -- this is Hell."
"Well, one of the lesser Hells. I think, geographically speaking, we're in the belly of a great beast."
"Belly of a--" Her mouth shuts. She has no control over it. There, somewhere deep in the pit of her stomach, is the impulse to throw up. Finally catching up with her. She contemplates it. "You sent -- you brought me -- you brought me to Hell. A hell. Lesser Hell. Whatever. To help? You -- what did you think was happening? How did you--?"
Bogus is a mess; his hair is slicked down with something that looks like like it might be phlegm. An ooze of some kind. "I, ah. I have access to certain things." He huffs. "Look, just because I was no good at -- at -- at this, doesn't mean I can't do anything."
Never in her life has Emma Dash imagined Clement Bogus capable of anything, really. His prose certainly leaves something to be desired. "You, what, you were watching us? Me? And this is how you helped? You yanked me into Hell -- LESSER Hell, whatever -- because you were helping? Why would you even want to help? You've never--"
"Trenchcoater," Bogus says, sharply. "Unfathomable!"
And then, very carefully, Emma puts her hands on his chest and shoves him, making Bogus fall completely over. The landscape (such as it is) dribbles and undulates around him. "I was in the middle of talking to Doctor Stomper. I might have convinced him. I might have -- he was monologuing. I could have delivered a speech about justice, about freedom of the press, something, and everything would have been fine. I don't need you pulling me down into the Underworld because you've decided the best thing for a creeper like you to do is bodily remove someone from a situation because you want to help. Trenchcoater isn't an excuse."
"What? Maybe I'm rooting for you and the intern!"
"Ugh, maybe you want to get into his pants, I don't know."
Bogus is struggling to stand but not quite making it. "Trenchcoaters are despicable, you can't really fault us for--"
"You failed as a trenchcoater. Remember? You like to get drunk and complain about it?"
"I can do really horrible things to you if I want," says Bogus. "I could make your nose disappear. I could, I could send you to one of the even worse Hells. I could--"
"Look," she says, very carefully, and she leans in close to him, because the rotting, garbage-filled cavern is alive, and it contracts, pushing everything together. "I'm sure you have some really weird motivation for spying on me and quote-unquote helping me because you decided that yanking me out of the dimension was a solid conflict resolution strategy." She grabs him by his lapels. He smells terrible, like cigarettes and garbage and secretions. "All I know is that you get pass out in the office most nights after drinking too much and somehow manage to file your stories and King never fires you but I have absolutely zero evidence you aren't an asshole, because you're always an asshole. Quote-unquote helping me is only telling me that helping me is helping you somehow."
"I'm serious about the thing with your nose."
"Which would only make this easier because I wouldn't have to smell, well, everything right now." Emma hauls him up. She doesn't want to think about all the part of her that are touching the pulsating, fleshy mass all around them, the rot. "And knowing that you pass out in the office most nights, I'm going out on a limb and thinking you maybe can't do all that much to me. You could be an emperor or something, otherwise."
"Well, trenchcoaters make bad life choices, as a rule."
"Yes. This would be one of them." She's grinding her teeth. "You want to explain how helping me is helping you?"
Bogus halfheartedly wiggles his fingers and mutters, "Unfathomable."
"Fine. Then get me an interview with Satan."
"If I'm stuck in Hell, at the very least I'm getting a story out of it."
"But this is one of the lesser Hells--"
She holds him very, very close, nose to nose. "Get me an interview with Satan right now."
One day, Emma Dash will be famous.
Emma Dash, Clement Bogus and Bad-Poetry Boy (Marco Ramirez) are owned by Ben Rawluk, copyright 2015.
Doctor Vincent Stomper is the creation of T.M. Neeck, also open for use.
Mashup Laq is the creation of Andrew Perron, and I one-hundred-percent promise they will get way more attention the next time I write them.
More information about the racc