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[Fiction] The Next Episode


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It was going to be a long day.

Slouched in one of the many comfortable chairs in his agent’s office’s waiting room, Neurosis fumed silently. He dimly remembered being a patient person once upon a time, but a great deal had changed in the last couple of years. Now, he was supposed to be the latest media darling for N!, the living and breathing superhuman cash cow. And yet he found his nascent celebrity didn’t get him any special priority with Mitch Washington’s secretary.

He glared across the room at the baseline working the phones. She was pleasantly plump, the picture of service-with-a-smile-and-a-couple-of-pounds-of-make-up. She was nattering away on a headset while also typing away furiously on her computer. She was no nova, but Neurosis had to at least admire her ability to multitask so efficiently while maintaining such a amiable disposition. Even when she informed Neurosis that Mitch would be busy for at least another fifteen minutes, she had done so with such saccharine skill that even Neurosis felt momentarily mollified.

“Mr. Malkav, Mr. Washington will see you now.”

Neurosis almost didn’t notice her say it. It was so matter-of-fact and nudged fluidly in the conversation she was deeply engaged in. Still, the sentence was sweet emancipation from boredom, and Neurosis leapt to his feet, swaggering haughtily into his agent’s abode.

It was the atypical Hollywood agent’s office. The walls were painted a neutral gray, to prevent any colorful imagination seeping into a haven of single-minded, ruthless business. Autographed photos of baseline and nova actors alike adorned the walls, all thanking Mitch in various vague terms. A bookshelf full of self-help and New Age titles stood tall behind a desk cluttered with paperwork and cute little corporate toys probably bought and given with no sentimentality at Christmas parties. There was even one of those little stress dolls, with the eyes and nose that popped out when squeezed.

Mitch himself was hard at work on a treadmill, talking into a headset of his own. Judging by the swear words pouring out of his mouth are barely-below-a-shout, he was in far less a pleasant mood than his secretary. He lifted a finger as Neurosis came into the door and took a seat, indicating it would only be a minute.

It was five. When he was done negotiating a higher percentage of …something, he clicked a button and let the treadmill slowly cease. Grabbing a towel and wiping the sweat from his receding hairline, he faked a giant smile with little effort. “Hey, champ, what can I do for you?”

“I don’t know,” Neurosis said, twitching slightly in his leather chair. “You’re the one that asked me to make an appointment, remember?”

“You’re right,” Mitch said, slapping his forehead with an open palm. “Sorry, baby. It’s been a long day. Swimming with sharks. It’s hell.”

Neurosis couldn’t help but think that since it was him and not Mitch who was the real-life TV action hero facing real life danger out in the real world, “hell” wasn’t quite the right world for Mitch’s constantly air-conditioned, Perrier-fueled, well-financed existence. “Right. Anyway, what’s this about?”

“Change of plans,” Mitch said, twisting off the cap of a Perrier bottle pulled from a mini-fridge. “The network boys want you to do some filming for your next episode this evening, not tomorrow. You’re supposed to get your sweet nova self down to Mulholland A.S.A.P. Kevin and Kevin will meet you there. You’ll be filled in on the details once you get there.”

Neurosis rubbed his temples. “Christ, Mitch. This is short notice, don’t you think? Alexus is going to be pissed. We made reservations at the Avian tonight.”

Mitch threw up his hands. For a “shark,” he showed his belly more than he fought. “Hey, baby, I know it’s hard to have personal commitments in this business, but you have a bigger commitment to N!. How the hell are they supposed to make a show if they don’t have footage of you doing your thing. No footage, no more episodes. No more episodes, no show, and then no more action figures, no more Neurosis placemats for the kids, no more Neurosis adult board games for Mom and Dad, no more…”

“I get it, I get it,” Neurosis said, putting up a hand. “Why the re-scheduling?”

“It’s the bad guys,” Mitch replied, draping a towel on his chair before sitting down. “I mean, these aren’t extras they pulled out of some mall on Rodeo Drive. These are real deal degenerates and lowlifes here. They don’t work for cheap, and like it or not, they actually get some say in how things go down.”

“For the pilot, all I did was nab some purse-thieves and some carjackers. You’re telling me these creeps actually get to discuss when and where I beat them up? They should be happy they’re getting paid and getting on TV, for crying out loud! Now I can’t have dinner with my girlfriend because he’s got to rob a liquor store tomorrow?”

Mitch laughed the fakest laugh Neurosis had ever heard. “Johnny, you’re a riot. That’s why the kids love you. And I love you. And the network loves you. Trust me, this isn’t some juvenile delinquents this time. Ratings were good for the premiere, but they think if they throw you some more challenging fare… Through the roof, baby, through the roof.” He opened a desk drawer and pulled out a wrist exercise machine. The sound of metal creaking back and forth squealed throughout the room.

Neurosis sighed. “Okay. All right. I’ll go. I’m going. But tell those adolescent wunderkinds they got working over at N! that I’m not their pet monkey. If they want me to dance for them at their whim, their organ grinder has got to play some sweeter music than that chump change they’re putting in my account. I want more, Mitch.”

Mitch raised his hands again. “Hey, baby, I’m going to war for you as it is. These network guys are misers, let me tell you. But I think you’ll be surprised. Now get over to Mulholland. The network should have a cab waiting for you outside.”

“A taxi? Can’t they get me something a little more… dynamic than that?”

“Marketing is working on the designs for a car for you. Fast, stylish and sexy. Something for the kids to buy little miniature versions of. They want to figure out how to make it economic in the gas department, though. They can’t break the bank on you, baby!”

“Yeah… Right.”


On the ride to the Hollywood hills, Neurosis quietly inhaled the subtle stink of the unwashed baseline driver. He had never been much of a driver, so the promise of car didn’t do much for him. Then again, Mitch didn’t do much for him either. The usually hard-as-nails agent had been reduced to harmless puppy status thanks to the disconcerting aura Neurosis and other novas like him emitted, and with even more working over through superhuman powers, he was virtually Neurosis’ lackey. Neurosis had managed to convince Mitch of selling N! the TV show, and when N! had initially balked, he had managed to convince them that it was in fact an innovative and potentially profitable proposal. It had taken a good deal of persuasion on Neurosis’ part, and to his credit he had been successful so far. There wasn’t a form of media out there that hadn’t been soaked with ads for Neurosis’ show. It was like electronic carpet bombing, and it was from an idea Neurosis pitched. With time, he could convince N! a car wasn’t the right means of transportation needed for the show.

What other options were there? A nova who could teleport? That would be useful, but Neurosis had his misgivings about working with other novas. As it was, Neurosis was still new to the scene, and the possibility of another superhuman upstaging him on his own show didn’t sit well to say the least. Still, N! was constantly juggling around the idea of turning the one-man show to a full-out Broadway production, complete with star-studded cast. Neurosis had made it very clear, though, that if it did happen, his continuing involvement would hinge on him being team leader. Thanks to some finesse and quantum influence, the demand had worked… for now.

The taxi rolled up next to van on the side of the road. It was near the top of a steep hill, and on either side was just rock and wilderness. Neurosis was about to ask the taxi driver what the deal was when he sped off. N! must have already paid him. Or his aura had caused him to say “Screw the fare” and leave. Was his aura that much worse than the driver’s odor of week-old bologna?

From the rear of the van emerged the Kevins – Kevin Jones and Kevin Anderson, both graduate students at some film school Neurosis had never heard of. They had been hired by N! to follow Neurosis around on his missions, doing their best to capture the most riveting stuff they could. Neurosis did his best to accommodate them, and while most Hollywood hacks had more talent in their thumbs than either of the Kevins did in their whole bodies put together, they served their purpose well.

“Hey, Neurosis!” one of the Kevins said with a wave. Neurosis wasn’t sure which one. The one who was fat and always wore his hat backwards. The thin one with the glasses and bowl cut just nodded with a smile.

“Hey.” He folded his arms and waited. “Well? What’s the deal? Is N! planning to film me frolicking around in the woods or what?”

The fat Kevin laughed. “No, man. See, over that hill is the driveway to a mansion. And in that mansion are several celebrities. Baseline celebrities who haven’t had much work lately and are looking to scare up some publicity. And it just so happens these celebrities have been taken hostage by some terrorists…”

Neurosis nodded. “I follow. You guys are going to be the only ones covering me?”

The thin Kevin shook his head. “No way, dude. Local media is on the scene. That’s why we had you meet us here first. Network couldn’t have you showing up to save the day in a cab. So…”

Neurosis scoffed as he looked at the van. “So, what? You expect me to show up in the back of this thing?”

“No way,” thin Kevin said. Then he looked at Neurosis like a deer in the headlights. “You’ll have to hoof it, man. Or learn to fly. Come on, you’re the superhero here. Ain’t nothing going to happen until you show up, so take it easy.” He slapped a hand on the shoulder of Neurosis’ Eufiber costume.

Neurosis’ eyes fell on the hand, ran along the arm and then burned a hole into thin Kevin’s skull. Kevin gulped and pulled back his hand, rubbing it with the other as if he just touched a stove.

“If looks could kill – which is another power I don’t have, unfortunately – you’d both be dead.” With some focus, he juiced up the fear the Kevins were obviously already experiencing. It was good to get some practice before the fight.


Neurosis waved to the local news cameras as he ran up the mansion driveway. The vultures had formed a circle outside of the courtyard. Talking heads, normally too engrossed in addressing camera lenses to pay heed to anything else, turned and pointed to him, nosily announcing his appearance. You couldn’t get a better commercial. And the price was good too. Plus, the people got to be entertained. It was win-win all around, right? It boggled Neurosis that some people would actually take offense at what he was doing. Utopians and Teragen. No matter what you call it, idealism is idealism, and it’s still just as stupid.

Neurosis made sure he spotted the Kevins with their cameras before he busted down the front door. They flanked him on either side, getting all kinds of different angles. They did their best to stay out of the way, naturally, because it didn’t look very heroic in public for N! cameras to be all in the hero’s face. Plus, the Kevins weren’t dumb – novas fighting meant things had a tendency to get out of control rather easily, and cameramen assigned to nova events tended to have a somewhat high mortality rate.

As soon as the front door went down, there were loud squawks on what sounded like nine different communicators. Neurosis looked around the main hall of the mansion, but all he could see was a huge staircase in front of him, splitting into two different directions as it hit the far wall, with two stairs on opposing sides leading to the second floor and the surrounding balcony.

Then hell broke loose. Automatic weapons fire from the balcony. The sound of bullets hitting the marble floor. Even if the gun hadn’t exactly been aimed at Neurosis, he still managed to pull a well-done roll out of the way. As he began bounding up the stairs, the bullets sliced up carpet and wood, but still managed to miss the real target.

Coming to where the stairs separated, Neurosis kneeled down and looked toward the source of the fire. A young kid dressed in military fatigues was holding his weapon with white knuckles, clicking away at the trigger. It took a moment for Neurosis to realize it, but it dawned on him that the kid really had been aiming at him. Thankfully, as a hired gun, it wasn’t much of a shot and the clip had emptied before Neurosis took time to pause.

Back on his feet, Neurosis sprinted up the stair and toward the shooter. A fist threw through the air and landed squarely on the kid’s chin, knocking him off balance. As the gun fell from his hands, Neurosis grabbed the kid by the collar and held him stationary while he socked a few more hard punches to the rib section. If the kid had been so overzealous as to think he could really take out a real celebrity and earn some street cred, Neurosis figured he deserved a little more of a beating.

Looking over his shoulder to make sure the Kevins were still following, he ran down the hallway, looking for the others. It didn’t take long.

Three more guys – older, bigger and meaner-looking, also dressed in fatigues – emerged from three separate rooms, pistols drawn and aimed. “Okay, hero,” one yelled. “Stop where you are! That’s far enough!”

False bravado was still false. He could hear the suppressed trembling in his voice. With some concentration, Neurosis pumped up the fear. They fell back, put their guards down. One let off a few rounds as he started to perspire, but they shot into the ceiling. The others hesitated long enough for Neurosis to move in and disarm them before handing out a few more haymakers. Grabbing two by their hair, he knocked their heads together while kicking the third in his stomach. As they slumped to the floor, Neurosis smiled toward one of the Kevins, who replied with a thumbs-up.

Peeking into the rooms the kidnappers had come from, he found them empty. There was only one more door in the corridor – the one to the master bedroom. One hard kick and the door went down. Four more kidnappers, two holding rifles and the others with pistols. They looked more like ex-convicts than mercenaries. Five celebrities were down on the carpet, hands over their heads, shaking like trees in the wind. They looked more like scared schoolchildren than actors and actresses who once upon a time were able to cross velvet ropes.

Neurosis stared at the kidnapper closest to him, one with a rifle. Suddenly, the kidnapper noticed that he wasn’t in a Hollywood mansion, being paid as part of a scripted mission to enhance Neurosis’ career and five others. Instead, he was on the moon, running out of oxygen and surrounded by nightmarish aliens with razor-sharp teeth and claws. Screaming hysterically, he let off a volley into a wall, eventually just dropping his weapon and grabbing his head in terror. Dropping to his knees, he held his face in his hands as he sobbed loudly.

The remaining trio ducked as their companion lost it. Neurosis picked up the rifle and twirled it around in his hands, so the butt was facing outwards. He wanted for a moment to fire at them as he had been fired upon, but a nova using firearms and killing people didn’t make for very safe television. Besides, despite the difficulty earlier, these guys hadn’t done anything wrong – they were just working for a paycheck, like he was.

Misaimed pistols went off as Neurosis spun around the room, knocking one in the chin with the rifle butt and delivering an uppercut to a second. The third tried a shot that came dangerously close to grazing its mark, but Neurosis dodged and came up on the side of him, yanking the gun away. The kidnapper, as was his direction, offered a fist fight, throwing punches that failed to connect. Neurosis responded with a kick that did little besides generate a slight breeze. The kidnapper hit home a punch – the only one he was allowed – on Neurosis’ chest. It was supposed to hit square in the middle, but it fell short and hit the rib section. Neurosis grunted as he put a knee hard in the kidnapper’s sternum – probably harder than was appreciated, at any rate.

“Where are the others?” Neurosis asked, peering around. The cameras were there, as planned. It was a fine bit of acting on his part, if he could say so himself, even though he doubted he would be getting nominated for an Emmy soon.

One of the bedroom windows shattered as a kidnapper crashed through it, releasing himself from the Eufiber wire he had around his waist. This guy was a pro, a guy recently paroled that Neurosis had personally requested. As usual, he had gotten his way.

An actor screamed shrilly as the kidnapper yanked a pair of machetes from sheathes on his back. It was a neat gimmick, one that probably had impressed in the barrio. Neurosis observed it would look cool in a video game, and made a mental note to point that out if one was ever planned.

With surprising calm and collection, Neurosis leaned backward as the machetes were lunged at him. One narrowly scraped his neck, but it was little more than a nick. Still annoyed, Neurosis grabbed his attacker by his wrists and squeezed. As the kidnapper clenched his teeth, Neurosis put his boot into the kidnapper’s crotch. Squirming, he fell. For his talent and his injury, this one would be getting paid a little extra. In return, the audience would get some comic relief.

“Looking for me, hero?” a voice called from the doorway. Spinning around, Neurosis spied the final kidnapper standing before him. He was a big guy, bald and ripped, wearing a black wifebeater. He pointed a handgun that looked almost as big as his head. “Time to die!”

The shots were loud and disorienting. He had practiced these moves a hundred times, but Neurosis couldn’t escape the apprehension that he would mess up and end up taking a hit. Ducking, rolling, running jumping, ducking again, running. When the rounds were spent, Neurosis felt the reflexive urge to check for wounds. But there was no pain, and he contented himself with that.

Now came the finale: the knife fight. The kidnapper pulled a nasty-looking blade from a sheath strapped to a calf, wielded it while looking menacing, and then let out a bestial roar as he lunged across the room, moving far faster than someone his size should have. In fact, he was moving so fast, there was no way he could cease his momentum before he reached Neurosis. Not about to stand there and be stabbed, he moved out of the way.

There was a quizzical expression on the face of the kidnapper as he sailed through the air, stabbing at nothing. Then there was horror as he saw the window in front of him, and then nothing but screaming as he went through the glass and then out of sight.

There was a sickening sound of a thud. Flesh and bone collided hard with asphalt. For the first time since he had entered the house, Neurosis didn’t know what to do.

He credited instincts with having enough sense to round up the kidnappers for the cops, pose with the saved celebrities for the cameras, and then hightailing it out of there.


“That guy is dead,” fat Kevin said behind the wheel of his van. He and the other Kevin had picked up Neurosis once they regrouped where they met up earlier. This time around Neurosis was more than happy to be sitting in the backseat.

“Yeah,” Neurosis said. Somehow, he knew inside that wouldn’t be enough.

“I mean, he’s dead!” fat Kevin repeated. “For good! He’s not coming back, man! He’s gone!”

“He was also a career criminal,” Neurosis snapped. “Or, at least, he used to be one. And in all likelihood, with the money he would have gotten had he lived, he probably would do bad things, just like those guys back there who didn’t do something stupid and kill themselves. If the gorilla had just followed the storyboard, none of this would have happened!”

The Kevins were quiet the rest of the way back into the city. So was Neurosis. If anything, the death on-camera would probably help ratings. If the network people had any doubt, well, he would convince them, just as he had so many times before. The people wanted to see violence, and that was just what Neurosis was going to give them.

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