Symphony of the Iron Underbelly, Movement No. VII – TOO LOW TERRAIN, PULL UP!
__________________________________________________________________________________[The Past – Juba International Airport, Central Equatoria, Southern Sudan, Summer 2013]
Rain ran in twisting torrents that swirled around sunken rivetheads, running in channels between the panels and gathering momentum as they followed the dip of the wings stretching out for twenty metres on each side. Tall floodlights set back all along the apron rocked in an angry wind, streaking olive-green paint with patches of shifting white, their high intensity bleaching out the subtle detail of pockmarked, dented metal.
Where the water cascaded over wingtips, finally free, it splashed against the sun-bleached concrete down below, making stained puddles of murky black where leaking hydraulic fluid and grime intermixed. Huddled under an overhang set back thirty feet, a handful of mechanics, loadmasters and support workers listened to the hollow bang of the storm playing out against a thin tin roof over their heads. They listened while waiting for someplace – anyplace – better to be.
That opportunity came speeding around a corner, chunky rubber tyres screeching as they struggled to retain purchase on a slick roadway. Cracked headlights swept blinding beams over the parked aircraft and its miserable ground crew, engine revving to rival the rhythmic banging of badly-fitting body panels ringing and shaking with every divot and bump. The long wheelbase truck screeched to a halt with over-enthusiastic brakes, continuing for a few metres forward on locked wheels.
The driver’s side door swung open with enough force that it crashed against the front wing, and a plain grey duffel bag launched itself clear to land on the rainswept concrete with a soft thump. Polished brown boots swung over the lip of the door, tapping against metalwork. A tanned forefinger jerked free, pointing down towards a bag.
The crew still sat underneath the lean-to nearby exchanged grimaces and grunts before spontaneously expelling one of their number with a hard shove. He stumbled down onto his knees, offering his so-called teammates a middle finger before climbing up and splashing through the rain to retrieve the bag.
Jumping a short distance down to the road in a form-fitting flight suit coloured dark blue, the pilot pulled the sunglasses free from her nose and folded the arms in on themselves. The waiting wind blew in, forcing her shoulder length hair to billow up and out.
“Let’s fucking go already and get this bird good to soar!” She shouted, twirling the glasses in her hand. The rest of the crew finally broke shelter and began to descend on the aircraft, hauling dripping bowsers that wept caustic-smelling fluid and creaking trolleys laden with stacked cargo containers. “You think I want to hold these things all day long?”
From the rear of the truck, a half-dozen passengers slowly and painfully extracted themselves, some slipping on wet metal to tumble the short distance down against the apron. A tall woman, blonde hair pinned to the back of her head in a coil beginning to sag under the storm, pushed away from the stink of the shuddering exhaust belching a sickly black cloud from its still-idling engine. Bright blue eyes looked across at the pilot sauntering towards the aircraft, pausing to gesticulate with a crewmember or make some vague gesture about insufficient time or interest in whatever they had tried to say.
Struggling to swing his leg over the truck’s tailgate, one of the passengers grunted. “A little help, Miss … Uh …”
“Doctor,” She said without looking back up.
The man frowned, testing his grip and weight against the slick steel frame. “ … Huh?”
“I am a Doctor,” She clarified. “Not a Miss.”
“Okay …” He replied, shrugging. “Little help, Doctor … Uh …”
She extended a hand and when he took hold of it and stepped over, she pulled sharply and brought him leaping off the edge of the bed to land unceremoniously down on the concrete, legs buckling painfully.
Abigayle watched him wheeze and grimace, sucking air in with a whistle through clenched teeth. “Doctor DeLune,” She said, eventually, but he wasn’t listening to anything except the discomfort in his kneecaps.
“Any other night and I’d say we ain’t flying out, Doc.”
She turned to look over her shoulder at the middle-aged man clad in army green as he dropped down to standing. He wore deep creases all across his face, the unmistakable sky blue hue of a United Nations peacekeeper bound in an armband about his upper bicep, the rank pins of a Major on either lapel corner and RAMIREZ stitched in black lettering across his chest.
A violent change in wind whipped a streak of rainwater across Abigayle’s face, slapping her hard in the cheek and temple. She blinked clear her eyes. “What is special about tonight?”
Ramirez pulled his own duffel bag out from the truck bed and slung it over his shoulder, gesturing towards the aircraft and, more specifically, its pilot with a nod. “Yanna always gets the job done. She ain’t met a storm she couldn’t sail straight through. Flies like a gull. Most dominant flygirl on the block, make no mistake. Must have done this supply drop nineteen times straight without fail. What’s an even twenty to someone that good? Just a little rain is all. Beaten it all before.”
The unmistakable flash of lightning split thick, dark blankets of cloud squatting over their heads. Abigayle’s nostrils flared at the stink of ozone competing with a smoky pall of loitering exhaust gas, and she turned to accept her bag from the Major as he held it out.
“You have flown with her before?”
Ramirez shook his head as he splashed past. “Ain’t personally, Doc. Heard plenty of stories though. Besides, nobody who talks as good a game as she does could play badly, right?”
Thunder boomed, cutting off Abigayle’s reply and leaving it lost in the rain.
\~*~*~*~/The elderly transport had taken every single inch of asphalt on its roll down the slick runway, turbine engines threatening to deafen them all as they roared with the effort required to convince the aircraft to nudge its nose up towards a stormy sky. Main landing gear, hanging short on leaking hydraulic struts underneath a squat, dented fuselage, kicked up thick clouds of dust even as the transport rotated; still-spinning tyres scraping through the tussled scrubland as they rolled past the end of the runway itself.
Laden down with medical supplies strapped, shoved and squeezed into any available space, it spent a lazy few minutes trapped in the ground effect a few hundred feet up in the air, buffeted by intense crosswinds and gusts. With no space in the cargo hold, Abigayle watched the pilot wrestle and jerk the control yoke from her position in one of the cockpit’s jump seats, behind. The rhythmic thump of the rudder pedals being slammed left and right added a bass drum to the multi-frequency whine of the propeller blades, spinning furiously out to either side.
Leaning forwards to look back, she could make out the brilliant strobing of anti-collision lights illuminating the surrounding storm for fractions of a second from either wingtip. Eventually, painfully, languidly, the transport climbed clear of Juba and the high angle of the nose – enough to force her back hard against the seat – reduced to something approaching level.
Off to her right, Ramirez finished throwing up into a paper bag clasped tight between his hands. Inexplicably, he peered down inside at the contents before folding the top closed.
Reaching over the myriad dials, gauges and displays, Yanna flicked a series of switches set into the central pedestal of the flight deck, released the yoke and leaned back. “Hard part’s done,” She drawled, releasing her four-point harness, running a hand through long, tangled hair and cupping it behind her head as she slouched down. “Autopilot will take us most of the way.”
The pilot craned her neck around the seatback and towards Abigayle. “Don’t worry darling – you’re in safe hands. Know how to keep this bird straight and true.”
“I have every confidence in the automatic systems,” DeLune replied. “I am not worried.” Blue eyes shifted towards the empty seat to the other woman’s right hand side. “Is it typical to fly without another pilot?”
Yanna shrugged. “Typical when they can’t handle it. None of them would take the gig – weather’s too risky. Aircraft’s too risky. Everything’s too risky. If we all thought like that, we’d never get out of bed or take a shit in case the porcelain cracked.”
As if to emphasise her point, she slapped the top of the instrument panel in front. The internal lights flickered, and all but one of the gauges stuttered. Frowning, she leaned in and tapped its glass face. The needle didn’t move.
She shrugged again. “Never use that one anyway. Just means more money for me anyway. Done this route nineteen times now – it’s just what I do. Get the job done every time and look good doing it.”
She smirked, the corner of her mouth twisting upwards. “What d’you say I show you a good time once I make this thing kiss the earth at Nyal?”
Abigayle’s eyebrow rose up, creasing her forehead. “A good time?”
“It’ll be pretty bad,” Yanna chuckled. “I really just meant go out on the town.”
“Nyal is a village with a dirt strip and a field hospital.”
Pursing her lips, the pilot nodded. “Sure is – but they have booze and someplace to drink it and then sleep it off.”
Lips parting to decline, Abigayle’s response was cut off by a shrill series of warning tones that crackled from the broken speaker cone set on either side of the instrument panel ahead. Yanna barely glanced back at the annunciator panel and its flashing, urgent, orange lamp before returning to the good Doctor.
Ramirez sat as far forward as the straps set tight across his shoulders allowed. “What’s that?”
“Huh?” The Pilot muttered, pulling her eyes away from Abigayle and towards the Major. “ … RADAR Warning Receiver. False alarm.”
The Soldier didn’t like that, and his demeanour immediately changed, jaw tightening. “How’d you know?”
“No way we can be painted this far out and this high up,” Yanna shrugged. “Whole EW suite on this bird is a turkey. Just look around. Rebels don’t have anything that can see us let alone hit us up here, anyway. I’ll get you there in one piece, no need to fret. Don’t have a whole lot more of those sickbags on-board if you do.”
Abigayle cocked her head to the side. “Have you had these warnings on the previous nineteen occasions?”
“Don’t remember,” Yanna replied, swinging her legs over the armrest. “Not important. I’ll make it an even twenty. Got a reputation to maintain. Lot of people talk a lot of bullshit. I back it up.”
The Doctor narrowed her eyes. “ … And what is that?”
“Being the most dominant bitch on the block–”
For a single moment, Abigayle’s subconscious registered the flash of one of the aircraft’s anti-collision lights, but before her rational mind could query why it came from directly in front of the cockpit windscreen and not out to one of the wingtips on either side, her entire world was replaced by an all-consuming roar. In subsequent moments, the flash developed into a raging fireball that rolled against the glass before cracking it in fractured tendrils of failure. A violent shudder strong enough to shift the meat inside her skull from side to side grew from teeth-rattling to bone-jarring.
A moment further on, and the instrument panel lit up with every fault bulb, failure alert and contraindication it had ever been built to display as if in a factory test mode. Banks of red, orange and yellow flickered and flashed, building like an instantaneous sunrise to mid-afternoon zenith. Warning horns competed with each other to the point of producing gibberish from overwhelmed speakers, reduced to a glitched white noise.
Suddenly, Abigayle felt her weight fall away; body lifting up against the straps as the aircraft’s nose pitched sharply down and accelerated. A terrible banging reverberated around everywhere, and she could hear the tone of the turbine-driven propellers outside in the rain begin to fluctuate and waver. Begin to struggle. The unmistakable, agonising sound of metal-on-metal crashed and thumped.
It was difficult to keep her eyes open, register anything useful as crushing g-forces tinged her vision bright red. Blood engorged her brain, flowing away from her feet and making it impossible to move her arms which floated limply in the air. She was dimly aware of Yanna clinging on to the armrest of her chair ahead, feet drifting up towards the cockpit ceiling.
TOO LOW, TERRAIN!
Impossible to see through blood-filled eyes the altimeter, backlight flickering in spasm, committed suicide – needle winding backwards in an irresistible spiral which counted down the precious altitude remaining. The stink of burning electrical cabling wafted through on thick plumes of smoke, rising lazily in the negative-g environment to hang in vibrating air.
TOO LOW TERRAIN!
Something hot and slick dripped from Abigayle’s nose and her head lolled forwards. Something heavy broke free from the aircraft and spun away, disappearing in a spinning cloud of debris. Outside – unable to turn her head to look or see even if she could – one of the engines exploded, molten propeller blades shearing apart to slice burning holes through the paper-thin metal skin of the fuselage and puncture it in staccato perforations. Bang-bang-bang.
TOO LOW TERRAIN, PULL UP!
Free from ruptured piping and set on fire by the detonations, hydraulic fluid streamed in a wide orange trail behind the port wing and as it bled away, flight controls actuated without command and the aircraft began to pitch up – nose climbing briefly. The sudden change in orientation abruptly cancelled out the g-forces and all of the cockpit’s occupants slumped down hard against their seats.
Yanna slipped into her shoulder straps, set the harness, reached forwards and wrestled the control yoke backwards as the aircraft dropped back below the horizon.
TOO LOW TERRAIN, PULL UP!
Abigayle’s vision swam, but as the blood drained away she could see a hundred points of fuzzy light ahead … Below? All linked by silver ribbons …
TOO LOW TERRAIN, PULL UP!
… Towns, highways, streetlights …
TOO LOW TERRAIN, PULL UP!
… The ground …
TOO LOW TERRAIN, PULL UP!
… The nose inched up, too slowly. They were going to crash …
TOO LOW TERRAIN, PULL–
\~*~*~*~/She lay in a furrow of dirt and listened to the devastation all around, staring up at the night. Stars faded in and out of sight, occasionally obscured by the billowing columns of smoke twisting across the sky. A ruddy red glow made a pretend dawn as fires raged all around, fed by jet fuel, lubricant, cargo and something sickly-sweet that cooked tender. The air itself was a poisonous smog of heavy metals and eventually, it replaced all the useful oxygen in her lungs . Abigayle retched violently, rolling onto her side and up to her knees.
The shattered remains of her jump seat lay ahead, apparently ripped free from the crumpled remains of the nose of the aircraft that lay burst open over to her left. Its torn sides shifted in concertinaed petals that billowed in thermals generated by the intense fires all around.
Dumbly, hand clamped around the jagged fragment of plastic plunged deep in her side to keep it from shifting, fingers slick red, she limped past the burnt body of Ramirez. He was missing from just underneath the armpits up. She paused, glancing around, but couldn’t see the rest of him and so she kept going.
Progress was slow thanks to the almost-certainly fractured ankle she dragged slightly behind, but it didn’t hurt. Pain was only useful as a warning, and they were far beyond the point of benefiting from those.
She found Yanna still strapped in, head lolling from side to side as she groaned somewhere between consciousness and not. The impact had obviously been shallow enough to survive, but not gentle enough to avoid the consequences. Her seat had been driven forward into the instrument panel, pulping both legs into bulging meat held in place by the ballooning, wet fabric of her flight suit. The runners underneath the Pilot’s chair had deformed under the enormous forces of the crash, making it impossible to lever backwards. The whole seat would have to be disassembled piece-by-piece, with the greatest of care given the severity of the obvious injuries and the likelihood of even more internally.
Yanna’s eyes rolled open and she gasped, blood trickling over the lip as she tried to make the impossible choice to breathe or speak.
“Help me …” She wheezed.
Eyes narrowed with effort and pain, Abigayle reached down and began to flip shattered panels of the fuselage over, searching through nearby wreckage. Eventually, she found an orange rucksack stained with soot and smeared by heavy fuel oil. An emergency survival kit, packed with rations, cutting tools, basic medical supplies, a navigational tracker, camping equipment and a battery-powered radio.
She turned back towards the Pilot. “You did not back it up.”
Lifting her head up and immediately regretting it, Yanna sagged. “ … What’re you talking about … Fucking help me …”
“Your bullshit,” Abigayle replied as if that was all the clarity required. “An even twenty. You did this. I am not even sure you know anything about birds.”
Something like realisation dawned in the groaning woman’s tearing eyes. “Wait … I didn’t … It wasn’t …”
“You might survive if you were rescued in the next ninety minutes,” The Doctor continued with a glance down at the mess below the Pilot’s waist. “However, you would never walk again. That is not so important, because since I cannot risk using the radio on the assumption that those who attacked us are nearby, listening, you will not be rescued at all.”
“Fucking bitch …” Yanna spat in bloody flecks that sprayed against the shattered dials of the instrument panel ahead, their broken backlights flickering. “ … Can’t, or won’t …”
“Won’t,” Abigayle clarified. “Perhaps if you had listened to your colleagues, you would not die alone, in a field in South Sudan, weeping for your mother.”
The Pilot summoned the last of her strength to lift an arm up, making a beeline for DeLune’s chin but it petered out into nothing more than a limp swing. Abigayle batted it away effortlessly, all the while still holding the plastic cut deep into her gut in place with a free hand. “My mother’s dead …” Yanna gasped.
“Good,” Abigayle nodded. “You will soon be reunited then. If there is something beyond this life, you can apply the lesson you have learned here, there – do not believe your own bullshit.”
Doctor DeLune dragged herself through the brush fires towards a line of hills due east, making a wide circle around the still-twirling remnants of a propeller as it finished disintegrating to the backdrop of Yanna’s screams and curses and desperate pleas. Where the Pilot stopped for breath or because the pain became too much, the pop of oxygen canisters exploding in overpressure or the rhythmic whoosh made by igniting jet fuel took over.
Eventually, a little further on from the crash site the stink of burning plastic gave her lungs a welcome rest and massive internal haemorrhaging finally did the same for Abigayle’s ears.
At last, she thought.
_________________________________________________________________________________[The Rapture]We are all at risk of buying into our own bullshit, Miss Hernandez. Success breeds confidence, and that leads to assuredness, which improves performance and ultimately, brings more success. A positive feedback loop where belief makes good that then makes excellence. But no trend continues upwards indefinitely. Nothing lasts forever.
Entropy does not allow for infinite glory. It will take everything from you, eventually.
So the question is not when you will fail, because you will fail. Take a hard fall. Instead, it is a matter of timing and the mechanism of that failure. Not the if, but the when and the how. The temporal element seems obvious – it will occur this Sunday, on the Island of Corfu, adrift on a lonely sea. Of that you have no control, no blame.
But what will be the manner in which the Internet Championship is prized from your dominant bitch fingertips? Do you regret that nickname yet? How much blame will you have to shoulder when that comes to pass? There are two vehicles which will provide transportation from the so-called summit of the mountain you think you currently enjoy, a splendid and proud firebird reigning bright and beautiful, down to its base to gawk and push shoulder-to-shoulder with the rank-and-file poultry, cawing and clucking waist deep in the mud and the muck.
One owes itself to the mortgaging of everything you have achieved on everything you think you will achieve – believing and selling shares in your afore-mentioned bullshit. The market has been engorged, made ripe to bursting with speculation and hype. A bubble. Anticipation built to a fever pitch – watch the ticker-tape spew in whirling reams of meaningless numbers. Numbers which go up and up and up. Your stock increases, becomes more worthwhile. Everyone wins.
Oh, how the numbers impress. How could they not? Miss Vargas so eloquently saved me the trouble of delving into corporate records. An embarrassment of riches such that I am not sure where to start. Two hundred and three days …
Perhaps that is the only metric that truly matters. For two hundred and three days you will have held the Internet Championship and demonstrated a ruthless, brutal predilection for dispatching your opponents with the minimum of respect and due. So callous. I have seen how you treat those you have bested – with an arrogance verging on the comical, like some two-dimensional representation of evil as viewed from the mind’s eye of a child conjuring a dread monster in the closet. There is something unseemly, unhygienic about it. Something more unpalatable than catching Zdunich-19, or some bird flu in your braying, clucking words.
You wield the language with all the finesse and gumption of a slaughterhouse simpleton paid to hack bug-eyed heads from flailing avian necks. You treat your opponents as if they are little better than battery birds, farmed collectively for the express purpose of helping you pump those numbers up. Cruel.
Do you hear yourself? Whooping and preening and strutting in a tight wire cage, Supreme Commander of the Midcard, confident in your ability to reign absolute in some small slice of this company, wedged firmly between the mediocre below and the magnificent above. An average. There is no exception made for you on the slaughterhouse line because your feathers shine more radiantly, or you do not peck the other hens to death as they squawk and scramble in their own filth.
Talk shit long enough, Miss Hernandez, and you will attract a real monster that is so much more than a figment of imagination.
And so two hundred and three folds into nineteen. On nineteen separate occasions, you have emerged victorious, none the wiser for each of those achievements but still unassailable. Untouchable. Wonderful. The world, of course, likes what it sees. It wishes to see more, and you oblige. With every passing week the henhouse turned echo chamber grows more concentrated – its mirrors ever more polished, walls ever stronger, until the reflections of your own magnificence become a standing wave. A rolling sonic assault of self-congratulations, internal affirmations and personal validation.
You are good because you tell yourself you are great. Confidence, after all, is to be admired. Until it becomes comic-book arrogance. Perverted. Until with the benefit of a maglite torch under the bedcovers we see the truth lit up bright on tissue-paper thin newsprint. Until that monster is conjured into being and comes to teach you a lesson you were given nineteen distinct opportunities to learn beforehand. You brought this on yourself.
Believe your own bullshit and make-believe a nightmare you cannot wake up from. Something made real by you, and you alone. Above all else, remember that you could have made it an even twenty. So close. Our paths might never have crossed and in some related multiverse distinct from cinematic epics, Miss Varga might have extolled the incredible exploits of the longest-reigning Internet Champion of all time.
None of those things will ever come to pass, because you watched the ticker-tape machine spew ever maddening numbers and believed the graph only pointed up. You looked into a polished mirror made of the echoes of your own over-confidence, saw your magnificent feathers and beautiful fire, and firmly believed nothing could knock you from your company perch.
You are right, Andrea, about being grossly misrepresented. Some choose to perceive my role within this company as some sort of boogy(wo)man – something to invoke and inspire fear and unscheduled bowel movements. They are right. Perhaps there is a little fun in that; I would be terribly bored if all there was to do was conceive of bad Coronavirus-related puns. But that is not why I am here, and that is not why this Sunday, we will test just how brave you really are.
I am here to build my shining celestial machine at the heart of this company, fashioned from all its peoples and their talents and intricately assembled to change everything and everyone. There are a great number of parts, and so many are now in place. Miss Beaufort, Miss Rainbow, Miss Salco have all been enraptured and taken their place in it. Stolen. A part of it. They make the strong foundations for all the shining metal and clockwork gears to turn, with the heart of a Hurricane to power it all.
But there is a problem in all of this, an inherent paradox which threatens my grand design. As I succeed in bringing the Rapture to more and more deserving participants – components – it becomes harder and harder to find new sources, new donors willing to be remade. They shy away from me. Some are fearful, others see a simple cost-benefit that does not line up. When you are added to my machine, Andrea, my task will become even harder.
Except there is something you can do for me, give me. Your Internet Championship.
I need something sweet and sugary to hang on an outstretched branch and tempt fools to rush in without checking their tread. Forbidden. A lure, bobbing on the rippling surface for the unwary or desperate or glory-hungry to try to seize. An invitation to step through a warm door and out of a cold, cruel night.
I need a gateway, Andrea. Something to bring more participants, more non-believers – more parts for my grand design to me. No more long hunts. Once I have my gateway, your Internet Championship … My Internet Championship, they will come to me.
An inversion, a 180° shift in perspective. Suddenly, they will think I am the hunted. How much more efficient will it be to dismantle them for their constituent components, take something precious from them when they come to take something from me?
You will be the greatest contribution to my celestial machine, Miss Hernandez. Second only to my Resplendent Hurricane. She is so lost. Through you, I will have my lure. My attraction.
My gateway. Her Gateway.
You have been so very grossly misrepresented. There is no fear, not any more so than the inevitable void in the pit of your gut, when your mind takes brief hiatus from congratulating itself on your own inherent grandeur to consider the notion of losing that title and accolade. Instead there is conceit. Delusion. A pure, distilled conceit built up to toxic levels as a simple defence against the poisonous self-actualisation you would do anything to avoid admitting; a truth that can never be accepted.
The realisation and truth that quite simply, you have already fulfilled your potential. There is nothing more left for you to do except fail and fall. Hurtle towards the ground. Time for the market to crash, Andrea, and your stock to plummet. As wonderful and bright as your plumage is, the slaughterhouse has quotas to fill and yours is the next neck scheduled to be involuntarily separated from the rest of your body. Do you know what other numbers interest me from your storied time in SCW?
Seven hundred and nineteen days since your solitary reign as Bombshells’ World Champion.
Fifty six days as the de-jure, evidenced, empirical, actual most dominant bitch on the block.
Six hundred and sixty five days between losing that status, and losing the Internet Championship on a warm Mediterranean island in the Ionian Sea, this Sunday at Climax Control.
You have proven your ability to deliver crushing defeat to those who want to take what is precious from you on nineteen consecutive occasions. Only a fool rushing to snatch up that sweet treat dangling from a beautiful cherry tree would dismiss the skill you bring and the ease at which you indulge in brutal, efficient dismissal of opposition with your tongue and your fists. That is beyond question.
But you must see the hierarchy you are a part of? The reality. There is no shame in being a Champion, but you are not the Champion. You know that, because you have been the latter for the flicker of a moment, a short spell of time and never regained such fleeting success. Why then, do you act as if you are at the top of the mountain when to see the summit still requires you to crane your neck?
You are not looking down, Andrea. You are looking up. You have found your level, but cannot accept it. Tell me, in all the long while you have been a part of SCW, how many title matches have you received? How many won?
Let me give you another number: seventy days. That is how long I have been under contract with this company before my first equivalent title opportunity. Tragedy. Do you begin to see how ridiculous you sound? You have squandered the gift of time not because you have been insufficiently successful – you have achieved a modicum – but because you cannot let your deeds stand without a need to curate them. This is not the Museum of Andrea Hernandez, and I did not come here to hear your hackneyed, two-dimensional comic book stories.
I came to be the monster you attracted with all the shit talked and talked and talked.
I have one more number for you. Three hundred and fifty seven. That is for how long my Resplendent Hurricane stood unassailable, untouchable at a summit you spent less than sixteen percent of the equivalent time on. I suspect that there will be a greater clamour in the years from now to hear her stories than yours.
You are my gateway to greatness, to realising my grand design. I hope it brings you comfort to know there is still something wonderful you can achieve in losing your title, and facing the reality of your plateau.
Welcome to the Rapture.
I do not think I have ever seen Cassiopeia drink so I cannot say if this is the first time, but she has been doing it all evening and is only now beginning to suffer. She skirts around the pavement on heels suddenly too tall to safely manage and as she tips, balance falling away with all her cares, she grasps a nearby lamppost and swings slowly around. The post rings against the collar bolting it to the concrete, creaking and groaning but still she spins. It rattles and shakes under her slight weight.
The sun sinks behind the cityscape of the Iron Underbelly, silhouetting Atlantic City’s sprawl in fat bands of perfused orange and dusking yellow. Already muddled, Cassiopeia slips free and falls to the asphalt in a mess of billowing red fabric. She rolls onto her back and laughs at the evening sky, palms scored pink, smiling as she blinks away stars that have yet to come out and shine.
I watch her laugh. So do the two men who have trailed her and the associated downward spiral from high-class eatery – where coats are cared for by a dedicated expert in hanging and fluffing – to sticky dive bars and neon-flushed jukeboxes. Unlike me, both stand in the relative open. After all, this is Atlantic City. Nobody cares what is about to happen.
Using the shaking lamppost to pull herself back up, wiping bloodied hands on the hem of her torn dress, Cassiopeia takes a series of shuddering steps away. She makes such very hard work of ransacking through her purse, examining each object with painful detail as her recall completely fails and she struggles to differentiate a mobile phone from a makeup compact. Eventually, she recognises her keys – apparently from the way they jangle, which makes her laugh again.
She slips out from my sight through a doorway, but I can hear her falling from side-to-side against the painted walls of the main hall as she struggles up the steep stairs of her apartment building. The two men slowly follow, but I do not. They laugh between each other, sly smiles and slick palms rubbing together. Anticipation building.
Slipping between the building and its neighbour I reach above, curling the plastic fingers of my prosthetic around a rusted ladder that leads up a fragile-looking fire escape. The ramshackle structure climbs around the side of a pockmarked brick wall, studded with windows, and it shakes as I leap and swing.
The only hand made of flesh left to me reaches over the top of my head, twisting the tensioner which holds the composite porcelain face against my own. Plastic presses down deeper and something hot tries to trickle between an impossibly narrow gap.
Third floor, sixth from the right. It is unlocked – it is always unlocked. Her extraction fan, rattling on worn bearings, never clears the steam from the shower …
“We just wanna’ make sure you’re okay! That you got home fine!”
The handle jerks down hard once, twice.
“Yeah baby – just let us in … How come you’re so shy now?”
A meaty slab of a fist bangs hard against the wood, making the top and bottom of the door flex in its frame. She did not engage the deadbolts.
Stepping out of the shower cubicle, I pull the bathroom door open and Cassieopia falls backwards, head banging painfully against the monochrome-patch tiles. She squeezes her eyes shut, rolling onto her side and drawing skinned knees up against her chest.
“Open the fucking door!”
Her eyes snap open, and find mine.
“I’m scared …” She whispers.
Dropping to one knee, I smooth the matted hair out from her features with a sweep of my prosthetic. “Close and lock the door.”
Meaty fists are replaced by the unmistakable, booming sound of the flat of a boot. A picture of Cassieopia and the former Bombshells’ World Champion, my Resplendent Hurricane, shakes and shudders under the rolling, vibrational assault. I pause for a moment and study it.
Cassieopia is smiling wide, head tilted, hand perched on a hip slanted right. Amber looks considerably less composed and photogenic. No smile – the faint afterglow of one started the evening before and left to burn out, perhaps … But the eyes tell a different story. Something I recognise, something I have been trying so hard to cultivate. Something apparently now lost. A ruthlessness, a hunger, a fury. Such strength, then. How she had been so disrespected and instead of extracting her vengeance, subsequently allowed herself to be toppled.
“You fucking bitch! You asked for it and you’re gonna’ get it!”
A powerful kick is punctuated by the crack of splintering wood. The picture next to me jerks and threatens to spin free from the wall. Reaching out I pick the frame up and carefully set it down on the carpet, making it back to standing as the door swings open in a creaking arc initiated with shards of metal and plastic spilling free from its ruined lock.
“Who the fuck are you?” The first ogre of a man grunts as he steps inside. The second stands just behind, a little more cautiously. Shrinking back. He will survive this relatively unscathed.
I cock my head to the side. “Why do you care now?”
Stepping forward as the door finishes its swung and hits the wall with a dull thud, I repeat myself. “Why do you care now? You were obviously ready for whatever you thought was on the other side. After all, why would you shout so loudly to make sure you were heard?”
The two men exchange looks, before the first comes lumbering forward. The fist he launches is gnarled and scored with scars – he has thrown many punches before. Despite his unquestionable ugliness, he lacks the cauliflower ears and flattened nose of someone who has taken all that many. Whatever this neanderthal does for a living, he has spent much of it fighting and most of it winning.
He must think he is going to win, now.
When he regains consciousness – if he does – he will realise that being good at something inevitably attracts the attention of someone who is better.
I told you there were two ways which would explain how your time as Internet Championship ends on Sunday. The first is because you made the mistake of believing your superiority was unassailable, unquestionable, untouchable. Bombastic – pun intended. It is insidious, more subtle. Self-inflicted.
The second is brutalistic in its simplicity and it hides nothing and takes no unexpected route. So obvious . This vehicle, that takes you from something to nothing, is what happens when your success and associated boasting attracts the attention of someone who decides to do something about it. This is not about what you brought on yourself, or anything so psychologically tortuous. No …
This is about the physical and mental suffering that will be your reward in Corfu. Misery.
You have made so much noise, Miss Hernandez. Thumping and banging and letting the shining plate of your Internet Championship reflect the stage lights so bright it shines like a beacon all across the Ionian Sea. I see you. A lighthouse, but not for the reason you metaphysically think.
It is not a warning to others to avoid, to steer clear. Nineteen does not make a sufficient dataset to apply to the totality of opposition, after all. Instead it is a beacon – begging for attention, Yearning to be confronted.
I have seen it, and I will answer it, although I am curious. Why have you failed to learn the lessons of the past? Mistakes. When you blinked away the stars and the tears in Las Vegas all those years ago, after Miss Jordan had taken the World Title from you after a paltry fifty six days, you must have understood then what it was like to be dethroned. Made small. Comprehended the consequences of attracting someone who decided to do something about it.
Presumably, since you did not begin your auspicious and current reign for fifteen months thereafter, between which you achieved nothing, there was plenty of time to ruminate on your failure?
There is progress, if I am not to misrepresent you as others have. The truth. Two hundred and three is greater than fifty six, but ultimately, the result will be the same. Because you could not listen to the lessons of the past, you will feel the consequences of the future. From my thorn-painted hand they will be delivered, and I suspect the wounds will linger for far longer than those previously enraptured.
My Strange Beast, the grizzled veteran, Kaiju. Keep moving forward.
My Beautiful Rose, the vibrant flower turned to face the sun, Adrienne.
My dear Jessica …
None of them will carry the result of their encounter with me like you will, Andrea. Scarred. For the nonchalance of experience, the naivety of youth or the simple ignorance of someone who should have known better, none of those Bombshells stood to lose themselves. They are as much who they were now as before our paths ever crossed.
But you, Miss Hernandez? No. You might originally have called me here with the unavoidable stench of your bullshit and preening alone, eventually, but it is the lighthouse you set burning bright that took me quickest across a long and lonely sea. A flare. Proving your comic book stories wrong is not what will destroy the most dominant bitch on the block – it is reinforcing your place in the pecking order. It is being forced to watch the closet door explode open and know that no matter how hard you swing that maglite torch, it cannot stop me.
I have not misrepresented you, and so now do me the same courtesy and face the simple reality: you are the underdog in your own championship defence. You made enough noise to wake up something better than you; something you cannot handle. When that monster tears away the bedsheet from over your shaking head, no overdose of the most potent conceit will counteract the fatal dose of self-actualisation you will finally be forced to confront.
You are a nobody, briefly made a somebody, by something you have made so important to your core identity that to lose it is to lose everything. I want you to burn into your memory with instant recall and agonising, head-spinning vividness the hard-knock street you could have followed to your twentieth consecutive victory; if only you had kept quiet and silent as you passed through the block of a most dominant bitch and a monster worthy of the greatest comic book stories.
If only you had not disregarded the warnings, shrill, loud, plaintive and urgent. If only you had pulled up before the ground raced up.
Welcome to the Rapture.