Penelope huddled with Dick’s lifeless body on the floor of what used to be his holo-room, that is, before the walls had caved outward.
Across the sliver, a man in a gem-studded tuxedo scintillated under a spotlight. In his hands, he held two champagne glasses. A second beam broke off, making a searchlight-sweep of the room. It landed on Penelope, drenching her. She shielded Dick from the glare, catching a glimpse of his face fully illuminated. Something was odd about it. His skin was shiny, waxy. It was all wrong. She pressed a thumb into Dick’s cheek. It was rigid at first, then gave way suddenly, becoming gelatinous.
Softplast? Penelope felt the gel hardening on the end of her thumb as she inspected it.
“Not bad, eh?” said the sparkling man across the sliver. He parked the glasses on an octagonal standing table and began fussing with his multi-tiered hairchitecture.
Penelope’s eyes went wide. She turned back to Dick.
“Dick?” She tugged on his arm. “Are you –?”
Dick’s arm tore off.
“Ah!” said Penelope. “Oh, god!”
“At least,” said the man, “good enough for TV!”
“Oh, wow!” Penelope held Dick’s appendage aloft. A wooden spur jutted from its shoulder. “Oh, geez!”
“My damsel!” The tuxedoed man put hand-to-heart, bounding toward Penelope. The spotlight followed.
“What the –” said Penelope. “Freddy? What are you doing here?”
“Come hither, superstar!” The man gathered Penelope from the floor, spinning her toward the rear of the sliver. “I want to show you something!”
Penelope squinted through the brilliance. A dark curtain was draped in a curved arc along the entire width of the sliver, obscuring half the space. A head poked out from behind the curtain, thick hands pulling it aside to reveal the body of a small man. A dwarf. He was wearing a headset, frown-smiling.
“Lester, if you please!”
“Yep!” The dwarf leapt, snagging a rod dangling from the curtain. “Onnit!” He skittered across the sliver clutching the rod.
The curtain furled, unveiling a sea of levi-hats and hairchitecture floating and bopping on a half-moon grandstand. The crowd of dandies let out a collective exhale, as if they had been holding their breath together.
“What the –?” said Penelope. The room came awash with light. Three flutter-cams released from the ceiling, swooping to-and-fro, while two stationary cameras were fixed directly on her. “What is this?”
“Well, don’t be rude, now!” said Freddy. “Say hello!”
Penelope cocked her head like a dog honing in on a pod of windowwash widgets.
“Lester, bring me that champagne, STAT!”
“Onnit!” The dwarf scrambled across the sliver and retrieved the glasses.
“Thank you kindly, Lester,” said Freddy.
The dwarf smile-frowned. “Yep,” he said.
Freddy opened Penelope’s hand.
“…Soo?” He curled her fingers around the glass until she was holding it. “Are you surprised?”
“Who –” said Penelope. “What?”
“Studio audience, what do you think?” said Freddy. “Is she surprised?”
The flamboyant throng came to life, cheering. Joyous. Levi-hats and hairchitecture bounced to a brutal drumbeat as it pumped under a zany hammered-bird jingle. The theme was vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it.
“Where did – ?” said Penelope. “Why is – ?”
“Ok, ok!” said Freddy. “You’re killing me, Pips! How about it, studio audience? Say it with me?”
A proplasma sign flashed. Freddy shouted, the audience as chorus:
“PENELOPE BIRDSONG, WELCOME TO THESPIAN PERSUASION!”
The drove of dandies went nuts as the proplasma display pulsed the imperative: ‘GO NUTS!’
Freddy gave ‘settle-down’ hands followed by ‘give-me-more’ hands. He bowed, coming up with an aww-shucks smile.
“Yes! Yes!” he said. “Welcome, Penelope Birdsong! Welcome, studio audience! And our viewers at home watching on Tesla! Welcome to Thespian Persuasion! I’m your not-so-humble host, Freddie Clover!”
“Who?” said Penelope. “But you’re the –“
“Friends!” Freddie’s face went earnest as he addressed the audience. “I want you to consider something. I mean, really consider it! What would you do if you woke up to find the most incredible holo-date of your life injured, or, god forbid, mysteriously bludgeoned?”
The dandies conferred in precious tones.
“Would you zap off that display and pretend nothing happened?” posed Freddie. “Take a nap? Take a pill? Or…” He raised a manicured finger. “…Would you help?”
The audience did not seem of one mind. The proplasma sign flashed.
“Help!” they exclaimed.
“I know you would!” said Freddie. “Of course you would! But consider this! What if there was no one to call, no medi-cloud available, no one to help? And! What if it was dusting hours? What if the only way to help was…to go out during a dusting?”
The chorus gasped.
“Now you’re starting to comprehend the conundrum of our courageous, comely curmudgeon!” said Freddie. “And this week’s challenge!”
Freddie raised his champagne glass.
“Penelope Birdsong!” he said. “Real talk? Cheers to you.”
“Uh,” said Penelope.
Freddie drained his glass in one gulp, brandishing it at the audience. “None for you!” he teased. The chorus let out a uniform ‘awwww.’
“Pips!” said Freddie. “Drink up!”
Penelope felt something pushing on her elbow. The dwarf was standing below her.
“Uh,” said Penelope. “Oh.” She managed a sip.
“Atsit,” said the dwarf. “Atsit.”
“Wee bit of the bubbly wubbly!” said Freddie.
“Bubble wubble,” said the dwarf. He took the glass from her, vanishing into a makeshift backstage area.
“Now, Penelope,” said Freddie. “We’ve been secretly taping you for the past two weeks –“
“You’ve been –?” said Penelope. “Is that allowed?”
“Of course it is!” said Freddie. “Especially when you consent!”
“Consent?” said Penelope. “When did I — ? What did I fucking –?”
“Hey now!” Freddie hugged Penelope so tight that she chirped. “You’re lucky we’re on Tesla!”
“But I –” said Penelope.
“You must have double-tapped on something!” said Freddie. “Because here you are, sweetstuff!”
“Double-blinked?” said Freddie.
“No,” said Penelope. “I’m sure I didn’t –”
“Don’t tell me you double-clicked!” said Freddie. “Pips, upgrade your hardware!”
“What?” said Penelope. “I didn’t tap or blink or click on anything!”
“Oh!” said Freddie. He pulled away from Penelope, cupping a hand over his mouth as he stabbed a finger in her direction. “She just winked at me! Did you see it? Did you see it?” Hairchitecture dipped and levi-hats bobbed. “Did I tell you she was a diva?”
Freddie pulled Penelope tight under his arm, facing her toward a stationary cam. “Young lady! Can I just say something? This wasn’t all my fault!” He swept a hand across the sliver. “Let’s bring out our nominators!”
Two figures in duster suits slinked into view from the backstage area, one much taller than the other. Flutter-cams swooped in to capture their entrance.
“Lester, help them take those nasty things off!”
“Onnit!” said the dwarf. “Get dem nasty dangs off!”
Laughter spiked from pockets of the audience as the dwarf molested the smaller figure, overcompensating when he pulled off her facemask, tumbling down a small flight of stairs. One of the flutter-cams broke off and followed him, capturing the slapstick.
“Pratima?” said Penelope. The taller figure removed his facemask. “Frank?”
Frank and Pratima raised their hands.
“Guilty!” they said in unison.
The chorus howled.
“Why are –?”
“Get over here, you nutty ne’er-do-wells!” Freddie gathered Pratima and Frank under his left arm as he gripped Penelope under his right.
“Pips,” said Freddie. “These true friends of yours nominated you for Thespian Persuasion. Pratima! You dodgy, duplicitous double-crosser, can you tell us why you nominated Penelope?”
Pratima cleared her throat. “Well, Freddie,” she said. “Penelope just sits on the couch all the time. She never pushes her boundaries.” As Pratima spoke, a reel of footage played on an enormous telescreen, Penelope in her kitty space jammies squeezing the last globs of an ice cream tube into her face. “She’s always talking doom-and-gloom and end-of-times junk! I think it’s important to get out of your comfort zone if you’re going to grow. To blossom! I think she’ll realize from this experience that with the right attitude, life on Earth can really rock, even after The Big Fuckup!”
Pratima shot a fist into the air. The chorus erupted in thunderous applause.
Suddenly, the door to the sliver burst open. A Bluesuit ran in, waving a stunner.
“YOU’RE ALL UNDER ARREST FOR VIOLATION OF DUSTING CURFEW AND ANTI-CAPITIALIST SENTIMENTS!” shouted the Bluesuit. He lumbered toward Penelope, stunner raised.
The chorus of dandies put a hand to its collective mouth.
“No!” Penelope flinched. “Not again!”
The Bluesuit dropped the stunner and doubled over, clutching his stomach.
“Pips!” said Freddie. “You’re just too easy!”
The Bluesuit removed his facemask. She hadn’t seen Christian for almost a decade, not since they were liberated from the orphan crèche.
“Christian?” said Penelope. “Jesus!”
“Ha!” said Freddie. “No pun intended!” He turned to Christian. “What about it? Et tu, Brutus?”
“Huh?” said Christian. “Oh, no. I’m Christian.”
Freddie raised a weaved eyebrow, pulling the tied mustache along with it.
“On that note!” he said. “Let’s take a break! We’ll be back with more from my crafty co-conspirators Frank, Pratima and Brutus – I mean Christian — after these messages!”
The audience went mental on proplasma cue. The lights dimmed.
“Mekkup!” barked the headsetted dwarf. Three spindly girls sprang into action, dancing around Freddie, slicking his mustache and refreshing his facial chalk.
Freddie cast eyes at Penelope.
“It’s simply spectacular to meet you in person!” he said.
“Freddie,” said Penelope. “The dusters…the pheromone malfunctioning…complexes closing the swarm gates. That was all staged?”
“Oh, god no!” said Freddie. “We just got lucky with that!” He swatted away the spindly girls. “Of course, it forced us to improvise a little bit. Didn’t it, Christian?”
“Yup!” said Christian, beaming.
“So,” said Penelope. “That’s all real?”
“That’s all good television!” said Freddie.
“But, like,” said Penelope, “that’s all really happening right now?”
“You betcha!” said Freddie.
“Shouldn’t we be worried?” said Penelope. “Like, that we’re all going to die or anything?”
“I think we should be more worried about never topping this episode!” said Freddie. “Now, Pips, when we come back from break, I’m going to bring out Dick, and you’ll talk about your date and why you were willing to –“
“– Wait!” said Penelope. “Dick’s alive?”
“Well,” said Freddie. “Of course he is, sillyspanx!”
“Oh, thank god!” said Penelope. “That’s wonderful!”
“Freeze!” Freddie shot a palm over Penelope’s face. “Keep that feeling when we’re back. Go with that!”
A dull tone raised in volume.
“We’re coming back!” Freddie took his hand away from Penelope’s face, inspecting it to make sure it hadn’t changed.
“Heat dem camra’s up in tree, doo, wan!” said the headsetted dwarf. When the proplasma sign flashed, the chorus of dandies exploded.
“Settle, settle!” said Freddie. “You don’t want to give me a big ego, do you?” He shook his head. “Too late!”
“Oh, please,” Penelope heard Pratima say under her breath.
“Welcome!” said Freddie. “Welcome back to Thespian Persuasion, sponsored this week by HoloGreet! Where every holo-date is a hopeful holler!”
“…stupidest slogan…” Penelope caught from Frank.
“Now, Penelope,” said Freddie. “Speaking of holo-dates. You obviously had a dynamite date with the dashing Dick, considering everything you were willing to do to help him.”
“Mm hm,” said Penelope.
“Mm hm?” said Freddie. “Just ‘mm hm’? I think Dick made more of an impression than that, judging by the footage I’ve seen!”
“It was pretty allright,” said Penelope, “as far as holo-dates go.”
“Pretty allright?” said Freddie.
“Actually, it was pretty great,” said Penelope.
“Can I ask you something?” said Freddie. “Would you like to meet him in the flesh?”
Penelope took a deep breath. “I guess…” she said, “I guess I really would like to meet him.”
“Meek, mumbling mousey! Can’t hear you!” Freddie cupped a hand behind his ear. “Penelope Birdsong, would you like to meet your holo-date soul-mate?”
“Yes!” Cutting through the confusion, Penelope felt a burst of excitement. “Yes! Yes!”
“You heard it, folks! Everybody, please give a warm welcome to the man who charmed Pips into flouting the laws of society and risking her own life! I’m so lucky to have him this week. This is huge. Friends, give it up for Gabriel Deauchamp!”
Dick came jogging out. He grabbed Penelope and dipped her, planting a kiss. The audience swooned.
“Gabriel?” said Penelope at the bottom of the dip. “Your name is –?”
“– You know who I am,” the man whispered. He pulled her up, casting her away to execute a disco spin. He came to rest facing the audience, flashing a bright, toothy smile. For over a minute, he basked in the gush.
“Sit, sit!” said Freddie. “Everybody!”
Something clipped the back of Penelope’s legs. The dwarf was pushing a neon pink chair under her.
“Siddown,” he said. Penelope fell back into the chair.
“Thank you kindly, Lester!” said Freddie. He tussled the dwarf’s brown hair. “Isn’t he great?”
“The best!” Gabriel reclined on a light blue, cushioned chair. “You know? Ever since the failure of nanotechnology. The Big – er — Drexler’s Folly. Oh, this is Tesla…I can say it? The Big Fuckup! Ever since The Big Fuckup, people think good things can’t come in small packages. I say, screw that!” He pinched the dwarf’s cheek. “This little fella is terrific!”
“How about Lester the Dwarf, everybody?” said Freddie.
“Le-ster…Le-ster…Le-ster…” said the chorus. The dwarf’s smile-frown only made the chant crest to a fever pitch. “Le-ster! Le-ster! Le-ster! LE-STER! LE-STER! LE-STER!”
Freddie came behind Penelope, massaging her shoulders.
“Pips! My vivacious, vexed vixen! As you know, on Thespian Persuasion, actors prove their Masterpiece meddle by wielding their acting skills to convince our unsuspecting contributor to do all sorts of crazy things!”
“I’m sorry,” said Penelope. “I’ve never heard of this show.”
“But you signed up for it!” said Freddie.
“You must have blinked on a link somewhere, supermodel!”
“On this edition of Thespian Persuasion,” Freddie continued, “we asked the question: ‘Could a skilled actor seduce a woman so powerfully by holo-date that she’s willing to go out during a dusting?’”
“Can I just say something?” said Penelope.
“It’s your show, princess!” said Freddie. “We’re just paparazzi in your presence.”
“What if I had been injured?… Wait!” Penelope rubbed the bump on the back of her head. “I was injured!”
Is this a dream? thought Penelope. Maybe it’s a dream!
“Did you hear that, audience?” said Freddie. “I can’t tell you how many times we get accused of coaching our contributors or staging events. Didn’t she seem truly terrified? Doesn’t she look duly damaged? Good thing she signed the waiver or we’d be on the hook for that dent on her dome!”
“Waiver?” said Penelope.
“Oh, here we go again!” said Freddie. “Pips, you gotta watch where you’re blinking! We’re gonna have to call you linkblinker from now on! Penelope Linkblinker! How about it, gang?”
“Linkblinker!” shouted the chorus.
“I swear I didn’t…”
Freddie flicked his tuxedo tails to the side, setting down on a shiny green chair. “Gabriel, can I just tell you?” he said. “You did such an amazing job playing Dick. The showing was…singularly Streep.”
“Too kind, too kind!” Gabriel looked over at Penelope, winking at her. “I’ll tell ya. Working with such a pretty girl made it easy-breezy.”
“She’s a cutie, isn’t she?” said Freddie. “Almost as beautiful as some of your co-stars.”
“I wouldn’t go that far!” Gabriel gave Penelope a friendly punch on the shoulder. “She’s allright.”
“What about Nug Shavit from Foghorn Duckling?” said Freddie.
“Sure,” said Gabriel. “She’s maybe equal to Nug, I guess. Why not!”
Penelope folded her hands on her lap, squeezing .
“Now, Gabriel,” said Freddie, “I’ve seen the footage, but I want to hear it from the artist himself. How did you woo Penelope so effectively, so forcefully, so…persuasively?”
“Well,” said Gabriel. “I have to say a massive ‘thank you’ to the Thespian Persuasion staff, not to mention Pratima, Frank and Christian.” He turned to Christian. “Or is it Brutus?” When Christian was vacant, Gabriel went on. “Without the secret footage, journals and omnibus postings, I wouldn’t have been able to properly –”
“Journals?” said Penelope. “How did you –”
“– and the special effects team that made the Dick dummy with his head bashed in? The detail! Exquisite!”
“Ok, ok,” said Freddie. “My staff rules and I rule. Tell me something I don’t know! Still. You did all the heavy lifting. How did you pull it off?”
“Well,” said Gabriel, “there were a few things that worked for me. First and foremost, it was great to get the food intel.” He flipped a thumb at Penelope. “Although I’m gonna need to hit the gravity-mill soo hard after eating the cal-cals in this chick’s diet for one night!”
“I noticed,” said Freddie. “She likes stuff that tends to make one…how can I say this…fat and unattractive!”
“Oh, well,” said Gabriel. “She’s still young. Getting away with it so far!”
“That she is,” said Freddie. “Alas, time takes its toll.”
“Excuse me?” said Penelope.
“Nug’ll edge her out soon enough!” said Freddie.
“Nug works out!” said Gabriel. “Not easy with a club foot!”
“Gabriel, this is truly titillating!” said Freddie. “What other tricky tactics did you try?”
“Well,” said Gabriel. “The foundation for good acting lies in setting the stage, if you will. For example, we were able to get some photos of Penelope’s father when he was my age…”
“Early fort –”
“— Exactly, early thirties,” said Gabriel. “Your design team did an incredible job tailoring an outfit that screamed ‘Daddy’ to Penelope. Pips here had a great relationship with her dad before he died, so my appearance no doubt had a profound effect on her delicate psyche.”
“This is fascinating!” said Freddie. He turned to the audience. “Psychology, gang!”
“Of course,” said Gabriel. “I looked like a millennial cabbie!”
“Is it safe to say,” said Freddie, “that you felt like kind of a…Dick?”
Gabriel doubled over. A minute later, he came up for air. “And I looked like one, too!”
Penelope gazed on in horror.
“Oh!” said Gabriel. “The sacrifices I make for my art!”
“Tell me about it!” said Freddie.
“I have to say,” said Gabriel, when the room had settled. “Aside from the fatty food and daddy issues, what really got Penelope was the music.”
Freddie rested chin-on-palm. “Explain.”
“Well, our intel told us that Penelope’s favorite band was The Semplica Girls. When I told Pips I thought ‘SG’ was the bees-knees during the holo-date? The look in her eyes…I knew I had her.”
“And you’re a fan,” said Freddie, “of these…Semplica Girls?”
“Oh, god no!” said Gabriel. “They’re awful! I can see why she’s so depressed!”
“Who says I’m depressed?” said Penelope.
Freddie shot up a pinky finger. “Side note,” he said. “We asked the Semplica Girls to perform live during today’s taping, but they not-so-politely declined. Guess they needed more time to learn their instruments!”
“Seriously, not my thing,” said Gabriel. “In any case, the music, if you can call it that, was the final ‘in’ with Pips here. Foundation established, I was able to use my craft to quickly have her under my spell!”
Freddie bowed his head. “Such a performance…Gripping. Funny. Emotional. Stirring.” When Freddie raised his head, his eyes were moist.
The telescreen came to life.
“Ok, gang!” said Freddie. “Let’s look at some highlights!” Penelope craned her neck to see the telescreen. She didn’t remember performing a play for Dick with her stuffed frogs or neo-twerking on the coffee table. The recap came up to present, snap-edits of Christian hamming it up for the camera in the Bluesuit costume before confronting Penelope behind the billboard, making her trip and knock herself out. Quick cuts from a shaky camera followed Frank and Pratima as they scrambled to improvise a way to get Penelope up to the studio, where Freddie Clover had greeted her in dramatic fashion. There were even a few snips from the Dick/Gabriel reveal from only minutes ago. Penelope half expected the footage to come up to real time, showing her sitting there, mouth agape, watching footage of herself sitting there, mouth agape. She felt dizzy.
“Great stuff!” said Freddie. He placed a hand on Penelope’s knee. “This must be such a thrill for you to meet Gabriel Deauchamp in person. Did you know it was him? Be honest!”
“Well, no,” said Penelope, “but I don’t know who he is now.”
The chorus sucked in dramatic air.
“Gabriel Deauchamp!” said Freddie. “It’s Gabriel Deauchamp!”
Gabriel leaned in. “Gabriel Deauchamp,” he said.
“Sorry,” said Penelope.
“Oops!” Gabriel gripped the top of his head. Pulling off a brown wig, he shook out a shock of blonde hair. He plucked out contacts, and, finally, tore off his mustache.
“Umm,” said Gabriel. “I think that might help!”
“Sorry.” Penelope flipped her palms to the ceiling. “Not a blip.”
“You’ve never seen Love, Apocalyptically?” Gabriel looked stunned behind the plastered smile.
“Nope,” said Penelope.
“Wow,” said Gabriel. “It’s only the biggest romantic comedy since Love, Actually.”
“Don’t do rom-coms,” said Penelope.
“Makes sense,” said Gabriel.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Whoa! Simmer down, sweathearts!” said Freddie. “I think we’re having our first lover’s spat, only I don’t think Gabriel’s acting this time!”
Gabriel’s face snapped from angry to jovial. He flipped a thumb at Freddie. “Penelope, did you fill out the survey on this guy yet? I’ve got a few things to say!”
Freddie spit out his drink, doubling over.
Gabriel waggled a finger. “Speaking of which, Mister ‘Freddy with a Y’,” he said. “You didn’t make this easy on me. You practically begged Penelope not to go out!”
Freddie pressed his finger to pursed lips. “Oopsie!” he said. “Hey, pal! I’ve got some acting chops of my own I like to whip out every once in a while!”
“Sure, sure,” said Gabriel. “I see how it is.”
“Speaking of whipping it out,” said Freddie. “Why did you name your character Dick?”
“Oh, just a personal challenge,” said Gabriel. “A little inside joke. No one got it, though!”
“Got what?” said Freddie. “We got it! Dick! Spunky! Hilarious!”
“No,” said Gabriel. “His full name.”
“What about it?” said Freddie.
“Richard Righsen?” said Gabriel. “Dick Righsen?”
“Yes…” said Freddie. “…and?”
Freddie smacked his hand over his mouth. “You naughty little scamp! You are so lucky this is on Tesla!” He poked a finger into Gabriel’s chest as he addressed the audience. “This is a naughty little scamp right here! This is a naughty little scamp!”
Gabriel waved Freddie’s hand away. “Speaking of naughty little scamps,” he said. “Thanks for sending in that fart, buddy!”
“I was in character!” said Freddie. “I had to stay in character!”
“Bah!” said Gabriel. “Did you have to do it for real?”
“Method acting!” said Freddie.
The chorus of dandies was nearly crippled with laughter. A few levi-hats even broke away from their magna-gravity fields, floating to the floor.
“Oh, we’re having too much fun!” said Freddie.
“If you can call it that!” said Gabriel.
Freddie pounced out of his chair.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” he said. “I think we’ve seen enough! It’s time we declare our winner for this episode of Thespian Persuasion!”
Freddie grabbed Gabriel by the hand and pulled him out of his chair.
“I give you our winner for…what should we call this one, gang? Damsel in the Dusting? Yes! I like it! I give you our winner for Damsel in the Dusting,” said Freddie. “Gabriel Deauchamp!”
Gabriel launched out of his chair, bouncing up and down, mock-boxing the air. He knocked Freddie’s wedding-cake hairchitecture to the ground and put him in a headlock. He huffed on his hand, polishing the host’s bald head.
“Thank you for this prestigious award!” said Gabriel. “Oh, gosh! I have so many people I want to thank – ”
Freddie pulled away. “You cad!” He rescued his hairchitecture, hurrying it back into place. Freddie and Gabriel embraced, best of friends.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” said Freddie. He held Gabriel’s hand aloft. “I think you’ll agree! Gabriel Deauchamp has once again proven that the power of acting can bring people to action and, truly, change lives! Gabriel, tell the audience what charity you were playing for!”
“The charity I chose today,” said Gabriel, “is TVs for Orphans. I know that Penelope was an orphan, not to mention Pratima, Frank, and Christian. So…needless to say, this charity has special meaning for me. If we can give even the most hapless little tyke the precious gift of entertainment, I say…Go for it.”
“So haltingly hallmark,” said Freddie.
“Yes,” said Gabriel. “It is.”
“Makes you think,” said Freddie.
“Yes,” said Gabriel. “It does.”
“Pips!” Freddie turned to Penelope. “What can I say? Thanks for being such an incredibly good sport!”
Penelope’s vision seemed to be moving in slow motion now. She panned across the sea of manic smiles. Frank and Pratima came into frame. Frank offered a clenched-teeth smile as Pratima mouthed the words ‘I’m soo sorry’.
A metallic groan shocked Penelope back to attention, so loud it cut above the blare of the audience.
Oh, no, thought Penelope. Outside, two dusters hovered at improbable angles, just a few hundred yards from Complex Sirius. They never come that close.
Freddie raced to the balcony, eyes wide.
A swath of frenzied locusts was snaking into the smaller duster’s pheromone ducts. The sheerscreen paneling enclosing the navigator’s deck had been chewed through on the larger, a maelstrom tearing through the deck as crewmembers dashed about wildly.
“Oh, boy!” shouted Freddie.
Gabriel snapped his face into a confident, excited visage. “Hey, gang! Check it out!”
Countless genres of nanobots, caught up in the locust swarm, were infesting the smaller duster and its occupants, attempting to fix, protect, monitor, heal or destroy things they weren’t programmed to fix, protect, monitor, heal or destroy.
“Go to break, go to break!” said Freddie. He darted to-and-fro, gathering his crew. “Flutter-cams, to me! Off your marks! To the balcony! This footage is going to be dreamy!”
A crowd began to gather on the sheerscrean balcony. Lester the Dwarf pushed back audience members to keep the camera-view clear. “Gehback!” he blurted. “Gehback!”
Freddie gave his mustache a hurried twirl. “Cameras, on me. On me! Not too close! Make sure to get all the great action in the background!”
“This is crazy,” said Penelope.
“Totes fukushima,” said Pratima.
On the balcony, Freddie evangelized.
“Cherished audience!” he said. “And to our fans watching on Tesla! What was a simple celebration of the humble and powerful form of art known as acting has turned into a veritable action movie!” He gave the camera a thumbs-up. “But an action movie in real life!” He yanked Gabriel, who was pacing off-camera.
“But!” said Freddie. “Lucky for us! We’ve got our very own action hero to see us through it!”
Gabriel pulled away. “Screw that!” he said. “I do rom-coms!” He fled inside, stomping to the front door of the sliver. When he pulled on it, it didn’t give. He fired a right hook at the door, letting out a feint whimper when it connected with solid steel.
The sliver doors are locked? thought Penelope. Not a good sign.
“Oh!” moaned Freddie Clover from the balcony. “Oh! The humility – er – OH! THE HUMANITY!”
The smaller duster, which had been listing slowly across the horizon, angled downward toward the larger. For a moment it looked like they would miss each other, but the external fuselage of the larger caught on the rudder of the smaller, forming a hinge that forced the dusters to swing into each other, churning metal-on-metal.
“Why?” said Gabriel. He cradled his hand, scanning the room for answers. “Why would they lock the sliver doors?” He sprinted to the mini-bar, pouring himself a shaky drink of magenta liquid. He downed it it in one gulp.
“Who’s drinking with me?” he shouted. “WHO WANTS TO DRINK WITH MOTHERFUCKING GABRIEL DEAUCHAMP?” Several dandies saddled up to the bar nervously. “Here!” said Gabriel, pouring shots. “Here!”
“Dude’s going totally Lohan,” said Frank.
“Frank!” said Penelope. “We’ve gotta get out of here.”
“Affirmative,” said Frank. “But the sliver’s locked!”
Penelope pointed backstage, where the Thespian Persuasion crew had gathered their duster suits and waders. Several cannisters of pheromone lay on top of the pile.
“Well, then,” said Penelope. “We’ll just have to go out the way we came in.”
“Hawking logic,” said Frank.
“Totally Trojan!” exclaimed Pratima.
“You guys don’t want to do a shot with Gabriel Deauchamp first?” said Christian.
“Really, Christian?” said Penelope.
Frank was gathering supplies. “Christian, I’m sorry, there aren’t any waders for you,” he said. “Hopefully the locusts won’t, like, chew your suit off or anything.”
“S’all good!” said Christian.
“Frank,” said Penelope. “Have you ever tried this from…like…the air?”
“Ack!” said Frank. “I didn’t think about that. Hopefully enough of the little buggers will attach to us on the way down?”
“Only spray your front side?” said Penelope. “And maybe do sort of like a swan dive? Like a belly-flop?”
“Why?” said Frank.
“Because if we spray our backs, the locusts will push us down and we’ll go splat?”
“True,” said Frank. “Penelope, can I ask you something?”
“Can you not say ‘splat’ right now?”
The impact of the larger duster had changed the course of the smaller, pushing them faster in the direction of Complex Sirius. The jagged screech of metal-on-metal chain-sawed the air as the hopelessly interlocked dusters tumbled toward the complex.
Penelope cupped her hands to her ears, screaming over the cacophony. “Frank, if we’re gonna do this, we gotta go now!”
“Spray fronts and belly flop!” said Frank. He tossed cans of pheromone to each.
“Don’t be stingy!” said Pratima. “We have one chance at this!”
“Ok!” said Frank, when they had used the last of the pheromone. “Ladies first!”
“Golly! Thanks, Frank!”
Penelope pushed her way through the throng to the balcony, where Freddie was still gesticulating for the camera, oblivious to the dusters looming right behind him.
Mercifully, the path to the hole in the sheerscreen was clear.
“Holy crap,” said Pratima.
“Yeah,” said Frank.
“Now or never!” said Penelope. She broke into a run.
Lester the Dwarf jumped in front of her, arms raised.
“Where yeh goin’?” he said. “Eggzit footage! Emotional wrappup!”
“Sorry, pal!” Penelope shoulder-checked the dwarf, sending him sliding across the balcony floor. She leapt out the hole, clearing the utility balcony.
For several floors, Penelope dropped in freefall, screaming. The howls of Pratima, Frank, and Christian joined, one by one. The ground rushed at her. In nanoseconds, her facemask was dotted with grasshoppers, and moments later it was covered. Blind, Penelope screamed anew, but then she felt lift. She wiped the fog of insects from her facemask. To her right was Frank, and below her, but rising, were Pratima and Christian.
“Wipe your facemasks!” shouted Penelope.
“We’re not falling!” said Pratima. “We didn’t go splat!”
They weren’t falling. They were, in fact, flying. Wobbly, awkward flying, but flying nonetheless. Droves of locusts joined the love-fest beneath them, a cloud ushering them over the city plaza.
“Lean left!” shouted Frank. “Aim for the park!” The swarm-cloud mellowed, crash-landing them on the grass of Park Duré.
“Haha!” exclaimed Christian. “Tickles! Tickles!” The grasshoppers had chewed through the top half of his duster suit and were starting on his shirt. Penelope helped him pull off his suit, then discarded her own. Across the lawn, Frank and Pratima had ditched their suits and were plucking grasshoppers off eachother’s clothes.
Penelope looked up. In the distance, entwined in a fiery embrace, the dusters careened into Complex Sirius, setting off an explosion that shook the city.
“Ah!” said Pratima. “Oh, geez!”
“Oh, my god,” said Penelope. “We just made it out of there.”
“Woah,” said Frank.
Penelope felt something smack into the top of her head, stinging her scalp. She pulled a small, hard object from her hair. It was a grasshopper. Dead. Its belly engorged.
Full of nanobots, thought Penelope.
Locusts began raining down on Park Duré.
Penelope tented her hands over her head. “The cycle’s over!” she said. The pheromone’s killing them!”
“Ah!” said Christian. “Ouchies! Ouchies!”
“What do you think we are?” said Frank. He pulled a rod from a sheath in his duster suit. “Amateurs?” When he tapped on the rod, it feathered out into a metallic umbrella.
“Here!” Pratima tossed rods to Penelope and Christian. “Double-tap the bottom!”
Penelope’s umbrella sprung open. It was fashioned from thin colored metal, with a vintage logo. Hers was orange, Hello Kitty. Christian’s was purple, Pokemon.
“Nice,” said Penelope.
“Right?” said Pratima.
It was hailing locusts.
For several minutes, the four stood staring at the scene, safe from the pelting bodies raining from above. The smell of roasted grasshopper wafted from the direction of Complex Sirius as locusts poured down on the inferno.
“Wow,” said Frank. “R.I.P. Freddy with a Y.”
“Freddie Clover,” Pratima corrected.
“Whatever,” said Frank.
“Gabriel was so great in Love, Apocalyptically,” said Christian, wistful.
“Look!” said Penelope. A small figure dropped from a tangle of metal cords spilling from the viscera of Complex Sirius, a bent headset still attached to its face.
“It’s Lester!” said Frank. “Lester the Dwarf! He made it!”
“Yes!” said Pratima. She pumped a fist in the air. “LE-STER! LE-STER! LE-STER!”
“Oh, my god,” said Christian. He pointed south-west, where a duster had collided with Complex Acrididae, leaving it a smoldering pile. “Complex Acrididae is toast.”
“I’m so sorry, Penelope,” said Pratima.
Penelope sighed. “Typical,” she said. “Oh, well. I was kinda over that sliver anyway.” She flipped her free palm skyward. “It’s not like they let me have cats.”
Penelope scanned the city skyline. Dark smoke billowed from Complex Acrididae, Complex Sirius, and Complex Citi, but Complex Drexler appeared intact. Several dusters still listed in the air, looking almost peaceful now as they floated aimlessly. The dissonant drone of alarms heralded countless malfunctions.
“Wow,” said Pratima. “Epic pheromone fail.”
“Huh,” said Christian. “Maybe that’s what they’ll call it.” He presented the partially-destroyed horizon with an outstretched hand. “‘The Epic Pheromone Fail of Fifty-Seven.’”
“No one says ‘epic’ anymore, guys,” said Frank. “What is this, 2012?”
“Well,” said Christian. “Maybe just ‘The Pheromone Fail of Fifty-Seven’. I don’t know!”
“God,” said Penelope. “I am so hung over.”
“We should break into a food court and get some grub,” said Frank.
“I’m in,” said Penelope. “I’m literally starving.”
“Super perf,” said Pratima. “Hey! Maybe we can hook up with Lester on the way.”
“He seems terrific,” said Christian. “Just really terrific.”
Frank turned to Penelope. “Come on, Damsel in the Dusting. Let’s get you some carbs for that hangover.”
Penelope, Frank, Pratima and Christian walked in the direction of Complex Drexler, a hail of locusts springing off their multi-colored umbrellas as they strolled.
“Can I just say something?” said Pratima. “Real talk? Things are getting super post-apocalyptic around here.”
Frank snorted. “The apocalypse has to be over for it to be post-apocalyptic, dummy.”
“Whatever, Frank,” said Pratima.
“Guys,” said Christian. “We should really look on the bright side. At least there aren’t zombies.” He kicked a hunk of duster schrapnel a few yards down the street. “There could be zombies, you know.”
“You know what?” said Pratima. “I guess that’s true!”
“Very true,” said Frank.
“Awesome point, Christian,” said Penelope. “Zombies are probably a real hassle.”