Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
It was vital that his crew see him as immovable. He had to be the only fixed point in the entire universe, especially given that they’d lost their band of home planets just one year prior. This was the final battle, the end of season eight, with every last ship in their fleet there before the nebula to take on the Mortaxa scourge.
“Fire on my mark,” Admiral Mooncloud said with a steady voice. He raised one hand. When he dropped it their titan-class laser cannons would fire, drawing power from their emergency engines, as they knew there was no leaving this battle either way. Either the Coalition of Bipedal Species turned back the centipede-like Mortaxa here or they all found quiet cold spots in space to pray and then die. He couldn’t fire yet, not without a motivating speech before the break.
“Do you think we have any chance Admiral?” Lieutenant Beeliskana asked. She was of a child-like species with orange and yellow faces and several wriggling barbels that took post-production many hours to animate properly. He couldn’t tell her they were all about to be obliterated; it was too much like explaining death to an actual child. Instead he conjured up memories of his previous victories.
They had turned the Mortaxa away at the experimental planet Echo Orange. They’d done it with just a dust freighter and a threatening video message. The insectoid creatures won by sheer numbers, but determination could mimic an even greater force and convince them to turn their five-pronged tails and flee. The last of the fuel reserves poured into their cannon’s priming chambers, and the last of Mooncloud’s morale pooled in his throat, ready to become a geyser of hope visible in every military and civilian ship poised at all angles around him.
“This is not the end any more than we are the last ship,” Mooncloud began. “It is in the very nature of bipedal life to misstep, to fall, and to rise again. I tell you this is not the moment where we lie there with a broken ankle, morning chips of bone, begging the decomposers not to take us.” The crew rose from their seats, putting their hands and claws over their heights, though they were sometimes located on odd spots of the torso, and in the case of rear gunner Gallzwed, visibly beating at the end of a lure on his second head. “This is the moment where we pull ourselves up from the ground, see the dirt in our skinned knees, grit our teeth, and curse at the world. Where we let anger heal us. Where we step on a few bugs just to prove we’re still alive.”
He was applauded. His finger dropped, the cannons fired amazing green arcs across the stars, and the Mortaxa were defeated. It was the best season of the whole show, perfect to end on, so Mooncloud thought it was the perfect speech to use for the cosplay contest. The reactions he got was quite positive, though nowhere near the glowing cheers awarded to the winner of the contest. She got a trophy and a bit of crowd-surfing to boot. The surfing was slow, given that the many hands didn’t want to damage her lieutenant Beeliskana costume. All true fans knew how expensive that orange make-up was.
Mooncloud, not the real Mooncloud of course, just one fan among thousands at this year’s Rocketcon scifi and fantasy convention, would have to settle for second place. His rewards were a box set of DVDs for the show he’d just paraphrased in his in-character performance onstage, and a mocking smile from his wife, who had taken first place. When the crowd set her down she deigned to appear by his side for hand-holding photo opportunity. All the false Mooncloud could do was shrug and let her have her moment.
He was in a haven of things he enjoyed, so Mooncloud told himself he was going to find a way to fix his disappointment. Yes, they’d worked on their costumes together, yes she’d probably won because her character wasn’t human, but he still thought that he’d sewn the badges onto his uniform in a more expert fashion.
“I’m not thinking about that,” Mooncloud mumbled to himself as he strolled through the rows of official merchandise mixed with independent fan artists. “I’m getting a souvenir for our costumed success as a couple.” Wife Beeliskana was off getting more pictures taken, she was probably going to be in the paper, so he was on his own for now.
He preferred the artisanal work of the people who looked like they hadn’t seen the sun since his show’s first season, so the first place he stopped had a metalworker hammering away at small charms for fantasy necklaces. The whole stand smelled like struck iron and leather touched by a few too many different hands. He noticed a rune from an animated show in the 80’s called The Mighty Man-bears and picked up by its leather cord. The merchant was distracted by a teenager holding too many necklaces at one time, so he had the closest thing to a moment alone with it that one could have in such a crowded space.
“You watched the show, didn’t you?” the metal rune asked him. Mooncloud furrowed his brow. The rune depicted the face of a bear, but its mouth didn’t move. He held his left ear a little closer. “It’s okay, you can tell me. We’re both old hands at this.” Mooncloud’s head whipped around, but nobody else seemed to hear the voice.
“Are there batteries in this thing?” he mumbled, turning it over and over in his hand, already knowing that wasn’t possible. It was as thin as a silver dollar.
“I won’t need a battery change for a long time,” the rune answered. “Long after me and you have had our good times. What do you say bro, you ready to make this place yours?”
“What are you?” Mooncloud asked the trinket, mustering up some of the authority of his galaxy-saving performance.
“I’m your friend. More like your big brother really. I’ve been around even longer than you, and you’re looking a little long in the fang.” The light seemed to glint off one of the bear’s canines. “Tell me what I already know; you watched the show. You know everything about The Mighty Man-bears.”
“Not everything. It was a good show. One of the voice actors is running for congress now, but I don’t think I can vote for him because he voiced one of the villains. Can’t picture anything else now.”
“Didn’t you love it in season three when the blood red panda went on that rampage through downtown?”
Mooncloud was about to respond when a young woman tapped him on the shoulder and asked if she could get a picture of him. He set the pendant down and the voice ceased. She snapped her photo and skipped away. The false admiral decided that the voices were a bad sign, perhaps a little too much of this sugary convention food. Besides, he wanted to get something that would be easier to share with his wife.
Next up was a poster, but they were all mass-produced and laminated in a way that didn’t quite agree with the con’s lighting. He could barely make out the face of a sea serpent through the glare. He touched the edge to see how slick the posters were, but then he heard the voice again, from the center of the glare.
“Hey man, you walked away,” it complained. “That was rude. You are a rude dude. That’s okay; I can be pretty rude myself. So are we taking that trophy from your wife or are we going to guilt her into giving it up?”
“How are you… I thought you were a necklace.” He pinched the corner of the poster to see if it would yelp in pain, but the only response was a glare from the woman manning the stand. He let go and never got an answer, at least not until the next row when he gently placed a fingertip on a dice tower carved from walnut wood.
“I can be whatever I want in a place like this,” the voice said as if they’d never been interrupted. “As long as it’s a symbol that somebody is really invested in. These nerdy places are great for that. Buy me. You got that one hundred dollar bill burning a hole in your pocket anyway. Wife give you that as your allowance? Heh. Pretty lame pal. Don’t forget the tax.”
“Why would I buy you?” he muttered. A pair of dice shot out from the bottom of the tower, though none had seemed present moments before. They impacted his stomach like paintballs, causing him to double over and nearly take out the whole stand.
“Because I’m real close to your internal organs, and I can roll some dice way faster than that. Now buy me you pansy.” Mooncloud felt the bruises spreading under his costume. They felt very real. With his free hand he pulled out his wallet, unfolded it on the stand like a pop-up book and dug out the bill. He made his 64.99 purchase and begged the owner of the stand to double wrap it in a bag, just to keep it safe of course.
Unfortunately the two layers of brown paper did nothing to stop the voice as long as he was holding it. Mooncloud wandered away from the merchandise stands into the more sparsely-populated independent video game booths. He hid behind a cardboard cutout of a giant robot with crashing waves painted on all its limbs.
“Explain yourself,” he demanded of the dice tower, but when he pulled it out of the bag it was a tower no more. It wasn’t any kind of memorabilia; it was just a simple black cylinder with a textured grip and a shiny blue button like those on arcade cabinets that usually activated the block or the shield for the player character. “What the hell? You know the dice tower was worth it because of the quality of the wood.”
“You’re like the only guy who asked this many questions,” the button proclaimed. Mooncloud sensed the roll of invisible eyes. “As you can see, I’m a device. A divisive device. The guy who invented me calls me the angerator. It’s a combination of anger and detonator. You probably figured that out on your own, huh sport? I love it when you’re clever.”
“What do you want?” Mooncloud hunched over and walked away, following the bundles of cables in search of a more isolated space. He didn’t even want cardboard watching this. Something about the the object he held was off. It seemed to seep into his skin through his admiral’s gloves and climb his arm. There was this itch to push the button, even with no idea what it did.
“I don’t need a proposal,” the angerator snorted. “Just use me. We’ll keep it real casual. Hit that button and you won’t be second best anymore. You’ll know just what to yell and just who to yell at. You’ll know everything about every piece of entertainment here and you’ll be able to claim the title of ultimate fan. You could have legions of fans of your own. Just push.”
Mooncloud opened a door and found an empty dim stairwell. The only occupants were three dead moths in the corner of a window. He took a breath as if about to respond, but then chucked the angerator to the bottom of the stairs, covering his head in case it exploded. Tonk! Tonk. It bounced twice and rolled a few inches, but nothing happened.
“You still… alive?” he asked it.
“No thanks to you,” the voice said. Mooncloud fell over backward at the sound. He wasn’t even touching it anymore, but he could still hear it. That was the seeping feeling. Already it had a grip on him in some way. Who would place a curse on something at a con? This one wasn’t even horror-themed. Couldn’t they wait until October’s Pale Party 2018 in the same building? “Why you trying to get rid of your big bro?”
“You’re not my brother,” Mooncloud spat, though his voice sounded more childish than usual. This angerator made him defensive. It reminded him of the that one guy from his high school who was at all the parties, who never spoke to Mooncloud as an individual, just wrapping a sweaty arm around his shoulders and shaking whenever he made a pronouncement, as if everyone trapped near him was in jovial agreement with everything he said.
“So you don’t want to be king of this con by simply picking me up and pushing my button?”
“What would you get out of any of this?” Mooncloud was on his knees at the top of the stairs, but he needed both hands on the railing, for something pulled him down. The stairwell door started to open on its own, so he kicked out with one foot to force it closed, to keep out the giggling chatter of the crowds. The angerator didn’t like being kept away from everyone.
“It’s not about me,” the device insisted. “It’s about you. It’s always about who’s holding me. I used to work in politics, but this nerdy stuff is easier. Fewer eyes on it. You can be the biggest A-hole in the world, and people just think you really love your favorite Japanese cartoon.”
“What do you mean you used to work in politics?”
“Firebrand political parties. I turn into a symbol, some old version of a cross or a rune or anything they think has history, and then they push me. They push everybody else. They get insular, they get high on their own ideas, and eventually they explode beautifully, collapsing into the lull of ‘I was just following orders’. Oh, but you won’t explode. You’ll use me just right. You’re one of the smart ones, that’s why I call you bro. We’re kindred spirits.”
Mooncloud remembered his studies, the ones that came long after that sweaty guy from high school. He probably never made it that far. There were a few classes here and there on political science. Some symbols came to mind. The swastika. The iron cross. Celtic knots that certain raging fools didn’t even understand. He knew what symbols could do, how they could divide.
“I’m not interested. Go back to being a key chain.” Mooncloud pulled himself toward the door, his hands slapping against the stone floor. The pull was getting stronger.
“Look at me,” the angerator said, no term of endearment this time. Mooncloud glanced to the bottom of the stairs and saw the device’s new form. It was an exact replica of Admiral Mooncloud’s laser sidearm, complete with the scratches across the top left by the vicious Carzoldile of the Charlie system. The weapon made its priming sound, like a microwave trying to sing opera. He’d heard it hundreds of times, just while putting together his costume.
“You can only turn into symbols,” Mooncould challenged. “Toys and posters. You can’t actually fire.” The angerator tilted its barrel just as the tip flashed red. A smoking hole appeared next to the door, splashing plaster dust in Mooncloud’s eyes.
“Symbols are power; you know that,” the angerator said. “I can be the real version of any of these things, another advantage of how colorful all this nerd stuff is. You don’t want to work with me? Fine. You can be in my blast radius. Take me back out there and put me back up for sale. I’ll blend right in until I smell somebody with more potential.”
Mooncloud tried to crawl away once more, but the sidearm fired again, right where his fingers were about to land. He didn’t have a choice. That sidearm’s charge pack held a grand total of one hundred and seventy shots. He couldn’t trick the angerator into using up all that ammo. It was so easy to give into the pull; he practically stumbled down the stairs.
When he picked up the blaster it just looked like part of his costume. Maybe if he’d had it during the contest he wouldn’t be second best. His wife wouldn’t have embarrassed him… No, that wasn’t how he thought. That was just the impulse, just the push of the button. Mooncloud didn’t know what kind of twisted gifted scientist would invent such an advanced but also horribly instinctual thing, but he knew there was no shortage of people ready to use it.
“See, don’t I just feel right in your hand?” the angerator said. It wiggled a little, settling in. “Now, go put me back by all that many bear stuff. That’s a great place to fish for losers like you.” Mooncloud nodded, but said nothing. One by one he ascended the stairs. He let the device ramble and rave, but his mind went elsewhere.
It could only see the divisions between all the people at the con. To it, nobody was there to have fun; they were there to make camps, put up flags, make whiny war with the other fans over the superiority of their stories and games.
Mooncloud saw something else: the common thread. The desire to be around the things you loved and to share them with the people you loved. His wife knew he had a temper, but he kept it under control. He hadn’t blown his lid in years, but he needed to do it now, to shut down the angerator. He could do it silently, without anyone noticing, not even the device.
The sounds of the con washed over him like cascades of warm popcorn. He breathed deeply of it and waded back into the booths and stands. The angerator flicked its barrel back and forth, eagerly searching for the best place to set down. It was about to tell Mooncloud he was a good obedient little boy; that was when Mooncloud set the device down on a very colorful table and quickly took three steps back.
“What is this stuff?” he heard the device moan. It was surrounded by stuffed animals and children’s backpacks covered in pastel cartoons. “Whehh… I feel strange. Pick me back up!” The sidearm tried to fire at Mooncloud, rip open his guts with a steaming shot, but the only thing that came out was a tiny wad of stuffing that drifted to the ground.
There was a moment where it was a harmless plush gun covered in blue hypoallergenic fabric. The next it was a blue-striped zebra with vacant googly eyes and a tiny tag that read: Friendly Colors TM
“You’ll love the fans of this show,” Mooncloud whispered with a sneer. “It’s one of those modern cartoons. Everyone’s very open about their friendships and the gender identities. The whole point is that people don’t divide. A bunch of colorful animals work out their emotions with each other, and sometimes there’s cathartic crying.”
“Noooooooooooooo!” the angerator shrieked. It wriggled, but its natural camouflage feature prevented it from returning to a violent form. What good were symbols that couldn’t divide!? There were no buttons to push. It looked around for a spark of anger in the children around the booth, but their eyes were clear. Friendly Colors had taught them to share and to love. There was nothing to power the anger detonator.
Mooncloud, feeling like a real admiral, marched away with his arms folded behind his back. Rather like the redemption arc in season five. The shows he grew up with might’ve been a touch more violent and even more commercialized, but they still showed him that heroes were stoic. They knew when to walk away and keep their fingers off the buttons.
He found his wife enjoying a cone of mint melt-away ice cream, her patience with her extensive make-up having worn thin. It was smeared into the ice cream in a fashion he found adorable. They shared their overpriced dessert and watched the sea of fans shuffle back and forth, raising newly-purchased treasure to the sky.
There was no second best.