A (fictional) tale by Prosper Keating
Illustration by Will Kevans
“Ken!” Todd exclaimed. “Got Menswear Daily out here wanting a sound byte about the show!”
“They can wait. I’m busy,” Ken responded.
“Come on, Ken! It’s Hedley Sandip. He’s here with a crew.”
Ken leaned back against the tiles. The boy kneeling amongst the crumpled handiwipes and discarded inhalers kept up the steady, soothing rhythm. Hedley Sandip…that fat bitch. What was it Sandip had written once? As for the cut of his men’s clothing, one can only surmise that Ken Cross is getting his revenge for a fat childhood. Oh yes, very funny! Well, Hedley Sandip could wait.
“Todd! Get him to try on some clothes. And feed him something fattening!”
“Very funny, Ken. I’ll tell them you’ll be there in five, right?”
“I’ll be there when I’m there!”
He observed his face in the small vanity mirror on the door of the toilet cubicle. He had to admit that he was pretty hot. Not like so many of those sickly queens inhabiting Planet Fashion. He liked boys, sure, but he was still a man’s man, with a classical, manly Nordic face and physique from one of those old Hollywood movies.
“Ken! Are you nearly finished? Tom’s come backstage! Good video op!”
“Get out of here, Todd! He’s over eighty. Coffindodgers aren’t cool. And he smells of dog.”
“Ken, Tom’s seventy. He’s very rateable. It’s good PR. You done in there?”
Ken looked down at the boy.
“Are we nearly finished?”
The boy moved a bit faster now. He was good. He was very good. He was too good. Obviously had a lot of job interview experience.
He was pretty, like many Chinese boys, with gun blue hair flopping over honey eyes, shaded by long lashes. But a bit too knowing. Not really what he was looking for in a new assistant. Maybe he could keep him around for corporate entertainment.
“Why do you want to work for me?” Ken asked the boy. “Because I’m the greatest?”
As the boy tried to answer, Ken’s hands closed around the back of his head, increasing the speed of the rhythm.
“I’m the greatest! I’m the greatest! I’m…the…uhh…ooooooohhhh…I’m…”
His head spun, the cubicle closing in on him as he gave himself to it and let go, again and again and again and again, countless times, before a soft, welcoming dark wave rolled through his mind, fading out the whiteness of the light and the restroom decor.
A few days later two local detectives, Inspector Xhiang and Sergeant Yao, find a grizzly scene on a dingy bathroom floor.
“Whew! What a stink! How long, boss?” Sergeant Yao asked.
“Less than a week, judging by the state of him,” Inspector Xhiang responded. “The maggots ate a hole in him before he could swell and burst, see?”
“Doesn’t look like it, Sergeant Yao. No phials anywhere. See this?”
Inspector Xhiang picked up some packaging emblazoned with the legend Planet Fashion and the logos of several leading global fashion and luxury brands. A cloud of fat blue and green flies rose around him, their grumpy buzzing drowning out the building hum, before dropping lazily back down to their business.
“I don’t understand English, boss. It’s an SRP, isn’t it? Something about fashion?”
“Correct! This is one of those Second World simulated reality programmes with global brands and celebrities. Planet Fashion is one of the most popular ones.”
“Second World? They do euthanasia, don’t they?”
“Yeah, but only the voluntary kind now. Their real business is entertainment and recreation, sponsorship deals and so on. Real moneyspinner.”
“More than this kid could ever afford, judging by the state of this shithole.”
“You got that right. The sports and music versions are just as pricey. Selling dreams to the hopeless.”
“Chuang Zhu, sir! The Butterfly Dream…”
“In a way. Except that the man who had the Butterfly Dream woke up. But this is a bootleg dream. Probably made in one of those American sweatshops. Bet you a hundred Yuan this is what killed our boy. I reckon what we have here is a looper.”
“Yeah, players who get stuck in a simulated reality programme when it gets stuck in loop mode.”
“Like a freeze?”
“Not quite. These bootlegs are made from cracked programmes. The genuine ones need a code to run. The crack sometimes erases the failsafe function and…well…the programme goes into a loop and the player is trapped.”
“Unless someone gets him out of it.”
“No, not really. You usually end up in a coma even if someone pulls the plug. The makers fixed it like that as a deterrent.”
“But that’s…I mean, sir, why aren’t we going after the scum selling this stuff?”
“Second World Corp doesn’t want us to. Suits them fine if people buying bootleg serps die. Suits the sponsors too. The ultimate penalty, in a way.”
“But they’re a private company…they’re… The government should do something!”
“Come on, Yao! Who do you think some of the biggest shareholders in Second World are?”
“These fucking gweilo illegals selling this knock-off shit, they should be rounded up and thrown out! We should deport them all back to America!”
“Oh, they’d all be rounded up and processed in a week if it suited the powers-that-be and their fellow shareholders. Got a name yet?”
“Not getting anything on the scanner, boss.”
“The No-Name Kid, eh? Probably bought a blocker from the same white devil who sold him his final dream. Leave it for the Collections Department. Let’s get something to eat.”
“What about the neighbours? We can’t leave him like that.”
“His neighbours? They only called us when their dog got in and started bringing bits of him home. Too fucking stoned to notice the stink.”
“I thought it was rats. Hope he was dead!”
“Oh, I should think so. There’d be blood spray otherwise.”
“What a way to go!”
“Probably painless. These programmes are basically the same as the ones we used in Operation Cyclone, when we reduced homelessness and unemployment figures.”
“I wonder what he was in his dream.”
“Who knows? Bet he wasn’t a fucking butterfly. Do you know, one of the pathologists over in Huangpu District told me they had a couple of loopers who died of exhaustion instead of dehydration?” “
“Yeah, the programme looped just as they were in orgasm. Imagine that! They came as they went…or went as they came. Serps interact with the body, you see.”
“That would be a good way to go, wouldn’t it, with a beautiful girl, over and over again?”
“Quicker than dying of thirst, I suppose. Come on, Yao, let’s go. I’m famished.”