by Jeffrey Doka
0. WHEN READING YOU CAN:
CHOOSE YOUR PATH (GO TO 1)
- READ FROM START TO FINISH IGNORING THE PATHS (GO TO 1)
- CHAOS MODE (ROLL A D20 DICE AND GO TO THAT NUMBER)
1. TAKE A SEAT
I switch the HDMI cable from input 3 to 4 and tug down the hem of my formal black dress to protect myself from the subzero tundra of this horrible beige conference room. It’s so cold, there should be icicles crusting the AC vents.
Grumbling, I try HDMI input 2 again. The glitchy projector mounted to the room’s oak table hums and smells like burning wires. My presentation’s title slide flickers on screen, but the screen flashes white, then goes black. WeightWin Inc’s entire senior leadership team will be here in two minutes.
Why in God’s name are there so many inputs?
I jiggle the HDMI cable, praying to whichever dark gods oversee crappy projectors. Suddenly my black metal band’s last recording that I’d left playing muted on my computer blasts over the room’s speakers. Heart slamming out an extra beat, I close my music player. “Damn this stupid, Panasonic piec—”
“I thought Dead Mountain only rocked out on the weekends,” Alex says from the doorway. He strolls inside and flops into a chair across from me. He sports a sleek gray suit, his traditional smile, and a pair of snug-fitting slacks. That musky cologne that I always liked hangs around him, his aura.
I jiggle the HDMI again. Don’t get distracted.
“No mind-blowing bass solos today,” I say. “Consider this my step-up opportunity.”
“Must be. I didn’t think lowly managers got invited to the marketing leads meeting.”
I try input 1 again. Then switch back to 2. “You’re no director, either. Who invited a support team manager to my meeting?”
“Look, can I help? This projector has a feedback loop or something.”
“Fine, but tell me who invited you.”
He fiddles with the projector’s menu settings. “Considering your proposal impacts my support team, you should have. But if you must know, it was Hector.”
Hector? Word of my proposal must be getting around. This is… well… it’s amazing, considering people have been talking about layoffs since last week. If Hector, our CMO and cofounder, is talking about my presentation, I might not just be safe, I might be in line for a promotion to Director.
I shuddered; a promotion like that would mean taking my boss Xian’s job. I felt horrible thinking about it, but with the extra money from a Director’s paycheck, I could finally take my band to a real recording studio and cut our dream album: Frozen Sphere. We just needed one hit, and a platinum album mounted on the wall of my Hollywood home would quickly follow. Dead Mountain would be immortalized beside the Metallicas and Cannibal Corpses of the world. I just needed to blow minds in this presentation.
Still, I felt for Xian. I hate it, but in tech, you kill to eat. Talk about the wrong time for him to go on paternity leave.
“Hey.” Alex flicks a switch on the projector, grinning. “It’s working.”
The words “Customer Onboarding Full Restructure Proposal” flicker to life beside a picture of our flagship product: a squat Wi-Fi-enabled scale built to connect with our weight tracking app. Just then, the door opens and the directors, VPs, and visionaries of the weight management and health sector file in.
Alex sits back in his chair. “You’re welcome.”
I start to reply, but one of the Product VPs gives me an expectant nod. I address the room, “Thanks for coming. We’ll get started in one minute.”
Jostling each other, the execs settle into their seats like well-tailored sardines, and as bone-achingly cold as it is, the room takes on the tangy scent of too many people in a cramped space. I turn to thank Alex for helping me with the projector, but he’s already hammering away at his email, frowning and avoiding my gaze.
A stitch of annoyance tightens my jaw, but I turn, force a smile, and address the shuffling VPs. “For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Diana Wall, a marketing manager on Xian’s team, and let’s face it: our email campaigns are useless.”
This gets a few laughs, and even Alex gives me an approving smile.
“My proposal is simple. Let’s cut the—”
A hand seizes my arm, fingers clammy and abnormally strong. A hawk-nosed VP from Sales or Operations looks at me, eyes wide, and says in an iron voice, “We wait for Hector.”
I jerk my hand back, but the hawk-nosed VP holds tight. All the executives stare up at me with fearful looks. My presentation will take the full hour, and if I wait, I might not get to my recommendations. Sure, Hector could get angry, but it’s his fault for being late.
>> WAIT FOR HECTOR (GO TO 2)
>> START WITHOUT HIM (GO TO 3)
2. WAIT FOR HECTOR
I give the hawk-nosed VP a thumbs-up. “What a great idea.”
The VP smiles, the fear leaving her eyes. She wears a black suit that defies gender, and her papery skin stretches across her sharp features from one too many Botox treatments.
Ten minutes pass, then twelve. I walk to the door and look across the desk pods outside. Hector is nowhere in sight.
“What do you think?” I whisper to Alex.
He tugs his sports coat’s sleeves. “I’d say reschedule, right?”
“Yeah, there’s not enough time now. Thanks.” I lay a hand on his shoulder, and his body stiffens. Strange. He never let me get past a few dates because, “I rocked out and worked too much.” I do miss that cologne though.
I drop my hand and circle to the room’s front. Bored gazes turn up to me. The waspish VP who interrupted me raises her eyebrows as if I’d caused Hector’s tardiness.
“Looks like we’ll have to hold off on overhauling our emails until Hector is here to give approval,” I say.
One of the VPs grunts and stands, marching toward the door.
“I’ll be…I’ll send the slides around so we’ll all be on the same page when we reconvene,” I call after him.
Just then, the door opens. A thin-shouldered and potbellied man wearing cargo shorts and a T-shirt with the words “I AM TECH” blazoned on it lumbers into the room. Hector himself. His flat nose and protruding lips make him look like a Neanderthal. Too bad that Neanderthal is worth fifteen million.
Holding a MacBook in one hand and a deli sandwich in the other, he nudges one of the VPs out of their chair and slumps into it. I smell the toasted salami as he unwraps the sandwich and flips open a file. It takes a second for me to realize it’s my employee history. My stomach sinks as he speaks to me in his thick French accent, “It is ah…Jessica, yes?”
“Actually, it’s Diana.” I try to smile. “I was just saying, I can present in the next meet—”
“Pah! Nonsense. Start now. I don’t want to waste my time twice.” He takes a massive bite of his sandwich, chewing loudly.
A wave of heat ripples up my back. I don’t care how much this bastard is worth, I want to march across the conference room and slap the sandwich out of his mouth.
>> PUSH TO RESCHEDULE (GO TO 4)
>> START THE PRESENTATION (GO TO 6)
3. START WITHOUT HIM
I silence the hawk-nosed VP with a firm look, just like a heckler at a Dead Mountain concert. “I’m sure Hector will be aligned with anything I present.”
Alex raises his eyebrows, but the hawk-nosed VP only straightens her shapeless suit and scowls at me from his seat, accepting the scolding. I feel bad, but I remind myself that, during layoffs, the strong will not only survive, but advance.
I walk everybody through a few slides outlining the problem, which is that after customers purchase our Wi-Fi-enabled scales, they don’t know how to set up their initial connection. As a solution, I propose building a few “Get Started” emails and a website that they can reference when confused.
The executives love it.
Even the hawk-nosed VP in his frumpy suit nods along. It’s as if I’ve broken some spell. Their eyes seem more alert, brighter. The room doesn’t feel as freezing cold anymore. Unfortunately, it’s only a matter of time before they wonder why Xian didn’t think of this himself; still, if I play this right, Xian might be able to keep his job, but just working below me or even as a peer.
A third of the way through presenting my budget, the door opens, and the smiles fade.
Hector’s pear-shaped frame casts a shadow as he enters. He stands around six feet or so with a big potbelly, and his face looks mashed, like a gorilla who somehow managed to squeeze into a too-small puce polo shirt and designer jeans. Dress code doesn’t apply when you’re worth forty million.
Holding a tin of sushi, he points at the hawk-nosed VP, and motions for him to stand, stealing his seat without even a “thank you.” Settling into the chair, he snaps his chopsticks apart and starts munching on a California roll. Between bites, he flips open a folder with my name on it. My employee file. He asks me, in his pointed French accent, “Why are you starting on a budget slide, Susan?”
Alex puts his head in his hands. I give Hector a strained smile. “My name is Diana, sir, and I’m on this slide because we’ve already discussed the framing slides.”
“Ah, OK, OK.” He stares at me expectantly.
Confused, I resume the presentation, but he interrupts. “No. Start over.”
“My deck takes the full hour.” I point to the clock above the whiteboards.
“I don’t care.” He moves on to a vegetarian roll, motioning to the projector. “Start again.”The room feels like zero Kelvin again, but my face still grows hot. Jaw clenched, I hold my mouse pointer over the presentation’s reset button.
>> OBJECT AND KEEP GOING (GO TO 5)
>> RESTART THE PRESENTATION (GO TO 6)
4. PUSH TO RESCHEDULE
“This plan changes how we talk to our customers. It deserves your full attention,” I say.
“Jessica, you listen to me.” He takes another bite of his sandwich, a leer spreading across his thick lips. “I don’t care what you think deserves my attention. I built this company from nothing, when Wi-Fi-connected scales were a joke. Do you think I don’t know how to appropriately use my time, eh? Start over.”
“I just think that—”
“Enough!” He takes a calming breath and mutters. “Foolish child.”
My mouth opens. No words come out. The hawk-nosed VP smirks at me. I step toward Hector, fists clenched. The lights flicker. Noticing the threat in my gaze, Alex shakes his head at me from across the room.
Some voice in the back of my head screams that I’m killing my career, and I should just take a breath and restart. But that fat millionaire punk is grinning up at me, bread crumbs dribbling onto his “I AM TECH” shirt.
>> REFUSE AND GET MAD (GO TO 8)
>> CAVE AND START THE PRESENTATION (GO TO 6)
5. OBJECT AND KEEP GOING
“Well, next time try showing up on time.” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop. The execs gasp. They look so horrified that I get nervous, and for a moment it feels like even the floor trembles. The hawk-nosed VP smirks, narrowing his beady eyes.
Hector looks up from his sushi. “Is that so, Susan?”
“You said ‘next time.’ Right now, you will be fortunate if there is a next time.”
“I just meant—”
“Stupid girl!” The lights flicker. The executives gasp, but a moment later they’re all looking at their hands, silent. Hector presses a finger to the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes. “Start over. Now.”
I reel back, placing a stabilizing hand on the beige wall behind me. Have I just earned a spot on the layoffs list? Well, done, Diana, well done. Still, that overpaid French jackass called me stupid.
>> STAND UP FOR MYSELF AND GET MAD (GO TO 8)
>> GIVE UP AND START THE PRESENTATION (GO TO 6)
6. THE PRESENTATION
I breathe in, out. My braids have frizzed themselves free from their tie, and my nails have pressed dimples into my palms. Thankfully, no one notices my threatening posture. Slayer of the bass that I am, I only weigh one-ten soaking wet, and someone who barely reaches most guys’ chins doesn’t ooze intimidation. Ignoring Hector’s grin, I flick to my opening slide and stumble onward. “Well, um…yeah. So, our email campaigns…”
My thoughts fuzz. What are my lines? Then, from the other side of the table, Alex mouths the word “research” to me. Chivalry ain’t dead.
“Yeah, the last customer survey stated that fifty percent of our customers give up on connecting their scales to the app. That’s insane.”
Murmurs of approval rise from the collected executives, even ol’ hawk-nose. Back on track.
I go through two slides, ignoring the loud crunches of Hector wolfing down his lunch. It’s when I get to the recommendations slide, describing my emails, that Hector booms, “No, no, no. This won’t work.”
I open my mouth to argue, but Alex replies first, “I like her idea. Half of our support volume comes from installation how-to’s. Emailing customers before they call would save thousands.”
Alex saved my whole presentation twice. I owe him a beer or five or fifteen.
“He’s right; if we implement this, we’d reduce support volume by thirty percent.” I skip ahead and point out a graph of support’s monthly tickets.
I give Alex a conspiratorial smile, and he returns it with a wink. Interesting.
Hector groans and kicks his feet up on the conference table. He’s wearing old tennis shoes, and I can see where the soles have worn through. He replies slowly, as if speaking to children, “Did. You. Not. Hear. Me?”
“I did.” I point to the graph. “But the data doesn’t lie. I recomm—”
“Wrong!” He looks over his shoes at me, crumbs from his meal caking his ugly shirt. The other executives drop their gazes, eyes vacant. “Our customers are stupid; do you understand me? Stupid. Dieu, this is too much! I don’t want emails. I don’t want a website.” He pauses, arms folded, waiting.
Unbelievable. He expects me to ask. I scowl. “What do you want, then?”
“Text messages,” he says with a flourish. The members of the leads team ooh and ahh at this revelation, nodding with mechanical vigor. I look at Alex, the only person in the room besides me who’s not a director or a VP. He frowns in confusion with me.
Hector says, “Yes, we will send tens, no, hundreds of text messages to our customers during their first week. How else will the fools learn to use a Wi-Fi-enabled scale properly?”
“Text messages? Seriously? Show of hands, who in here wants ten texts a day from a scale company?”
For a moment, I think I’ve won the argument.
Then, that stupid hawk-nosed VP’s hand shoots up. Then, the Operations Director. Then, the rest of them. The room goes silent except for the projector’s hum, and everyone except Alex smiles at me from around the table, hands raised, a pack of idiots. Hector leans his chair back, a king relishing his control over docile subjects. “Now, will you let me explain?”
>> LISTEN PATIENTLY TO HIS STUPID IDEA (GO TO 10)
>> KEEP ARGUING FOR WHAT’S RIGHT (GO TO 7)
7. ARGUE, FOR LOGIC!
“No! This is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. I’m not doing it.”
Hector scowls, and a shiver ripples down my back. The projector flickers a few times. He leans forward, elbows on the conference table, steepling his fingers. “I’ll tell you once, I’ll tell you a thousand times: Americans are fat and stupid. Our petabytes of scale data tell us this. You talk to fat and stupid Americans with text messages. They don’t care how many they get. They don’t care what they say. They just want to click on something when their phone beeps.”
The executives shift uncomfortably, keeping their heads down. Maybe that’s why I never got Director. I can’t roll over like that. The conference table shakes beneath my fingers. Alex waves me back, but I ignore him and shout at Hector, “Let me prove you wrong. If you just give me one month, I co—”
“Silly girl.” A confident grin spreads across Hector’s thick cheeks. “My idea is brilliant. Obey your CMO.”
>> LISTEN TO HIS STUPID IDEA (GO TO 10)
>> KEEP ARGUING, FOR LOGIC! (GO TO 7 AGAIN)
>> [AVAILABLE AFTER GOING THROUGH 7 FIFTY TIMES] FIGHT ENDLESSLY (GO TO 9)
8. GET MAD
“At least I’m not some too-rich-for-his-own-good idiot who’s too busy mashing food into his fat mouth-hole to show up to a meeting on time.” The projector’s hum is all that breaks the silence. I can’t stop yelling. “And look at you. Was following your own dress code and wearing a suit too hard? Or are we changing it to clown costumes?”
Whimpering, the executives cower in their seats, heads in their hands. The floor rumbles, shaking the soles of my feet. What’s going on?
Hector laughs at me, icier than the air conditioning, but doesn’t interrupt my raving.
“Is something amusing?” I’m shouting so loud I’m getting dizzy, and with the shaking floor, it’s hard to stay standing. “Oh, maybe you think our dropping sales are hilarious because no one knows how to use your stupid product!”
Alex, the only other soul in the room who’s not a director level or above, is the only bystander who expresses an emotion besides abject terror: shame.
Yell at my boss’s boss’s boss? Check. Terrify the entire leadership team? Check. Humiliate my only ally in the meeting? Check.
Hector stands and leans forward, a tiger tensing to strike. For someone so pear-shaped and potbellied, he’s damned intimidating.
“Something is amusing, foolish child. You.” his voice softens to velvet. He opens my employee file, and a picture of me when I first started at WeightWin comes into view, paper clipped to copies of my personal emails. The floor shakes harder. Wait, personal emails? He smiles. “This sad show you’ve put on is amusing but not surprising. It’s all here in your records.”
He steps around the table, closing in. An animal instinct makes me want to circle around the opposite side, a game of keep away, but I plant my feet.
“You applied for a director’s position, what, five times? And you’re still just a manager when Xian, who was hired the same month as you, has already reached Director? Embarrassing.” Hector slides VPs and directors in rolling chairs out of his way on his march toward me. “The reviews say you were too distracted. What was distracting, eh? Your music? Oh, that’s in the report, too. You couldn’t pay the bills playing bass guitar for your little death metal band—what was it—eeh ‘Bread Mountain,’ so you joined the business world. But now that you’re here, you’re not advancing. So many failures. Tell me, what is it like to fail at everything?”
“It’s ‘Dead Mountain.’” I want to vomit.
“And then there’s Alex.” Across the table, Alex goes pale as Hector addresses him, “I suppose she failed at her relationships, too? Was she too…ah…distracted? Too inadequate?”
Alex looks like he wants to sink into the rolling chair until he disappears.
“I’d say that’s a yes.” Hector turns back to me. “Explain how you know better than me, a CMO of a multimillion-dollar company?”
“Go screw yourself.”
He laughs again, louder this time, and the executives join in like terrified hyenas, laughing and laughing and laughing. Alex stares, mortified. I struggle to stay on my feet; is no one else feeling the floor shaking?
“I don’t need to screw myself. Hundreds of women beg to do that for me.” Hector rounds the last corner of the conference table, standing inches from my face. I look up at his squashed nose and his two bright, hateful eyes. I’m surprised they’re not glowing red. “From the sounds of things, you can’t even convince one man to screw you.”
I shove him back, and almost fall myself. The floor shakes violently now. Hector stumbles from my shove but remains standing, still laughing.
“My band…” I don’t know why I need to explain the band of all things, why I need to justify the music, playing bass night after night after night. Years of hoping. “We’re damned good, and we’re getting an agent.”
“An agent? Which one?”
“Go to hell!” The scent of sulfur cuts the air. The ground quakes so hard I grab the table for stability. Then, with one final jolt, the shaking stops.
A black sphere the size of a tennis ball hovers over the projector.
It’s perfectly round with no visible openings, and icy electricity crackles around it. As I approach it, my breath fogs. I shiver. The room feels like it’s being filled with water from a frozen lake.
“I said which agent, eh?” Hector’s voice seems distant as if he’s shouting from on a faraway mountain. Ignoring him, I study the sphere, hands at my side.
Hector keeps shouting insults while his cadre of executives laugh. Even Alex doesn’t seem to see it, head buried in his hands. A wild desire to make them stop laughing, to make them hurt and scream instead rises in my stomach. I reach for the sphere.
>> SEIZE THE SPHERE (GO TO 12)
>> PULL BACK AND IGNORE IT (GO TO 14)
9. THE ENDLESS FIGHT
The room shudders. I stumble and grasp at the edge of the table to stay upright. The sterile smell of cleaning fluid stings my eyes. The projector reels in the quake, looping between my budget and intro slide, whipping images across the walls.
Whatever wires Alex fixed on the projector come loose, making the projection flicker like a strobe light as the table shakes. Standing now, Hector smiles at me, hands open like he’d caused the earthquake and repeating his last words, “I told you, girl. I’m the CMO.”
The room shakes harder. Gashes appear on the walls, and they start to rip. White light flashes through the cracks. Then, darkness. Then, light. The glitching image vomiting out of the dying projector bends the wall backward, widening the tears. The executives cower before Hector.
“No,” I say. “This is the stupidest idea I’ve ever…” Wait. I’ve been here before. How long has it been? Has the meeting run out of time yet?
A chunk of the wall bursts free and vanishes into an infinite field of glitching light stretching out past the edges of the room. I stumble back to the projector; it bounces wildly in its mount on the table, spitting up a guttering image of my intro slide. I press it flat, trying to steady it and get my presentation back on track. That’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?
I can’t remember walking into this room anymore. I can’t remember why we’re arguing. Text messages, that’s right. I’ve been fighting for so long, surely, it’s time to… let go.
>> BREAK MY SPIRIT AND LISTEN TO HIS IDEA (GO TO 10)
>> KEEP ARGUING, KEEP LOOPING (GO TO 11)
10. LISTEN PATIENTLY TO HIS IDEA
I take a breath and press my mouth shut, swallowing my arguments. The room goes quiet, and I steady myself with a hand on the oak table. After a breath, I nod and give him the floor. Let the moron talk.
“All right.” Hector watches me for further interruptions. “This is the improved plan: the moment a customer buys our scale and sets up the Wi-Fi, we capture their mobile number.”
I slump into in a rolling chair beside the projector, letting my momentum slide me back against the conference room’s mirrored rear wall. I say, “You’re assuming the scales are already on Wi-Fi. It doesn’t—”
Hector raises an eyebrow, silencing me. “Each text will represent a page on our website. One for the weight tracker home, another for the leaderboards, and body mass index. Customers will get three text messages in the first hour.”
The executives applaud. Is it only obvious to me that Hector thought this idea up on the spot?
He waves a paw at me. “Ok, get started on this.”
“We don’t have a tool to send text messages,” I say.
“That seems like a mistake made by your dear absent manager. One of many.”
“Xian? He’s on paternity leave. How is this his fault?”
“He uses archaic systems like email. What’s next, eh? Print mailers? Billboards? Handing out flyers for our scales? No.” He surveys the rapt faces of his executive team. “Xian is a fool. I guarantee he will not last through the layoffs.”
Talk about the wrong time to go on paternity leave. I mean, I’ve always wanted Xian’s job and that Director’s salary, but right now I just feel queasy. Still, this is my shot at getting enough cash to record a bone-breakingly good metal album. I’d just need to badmouth my own kind and supportive boss in front of his boss. Ugh.
>> BADMOUTH MY MANAGER TO HECTOR (GO TO 15)
>> SPACE OUT AND IGNORE THE WHOLE SITUATION (GO TO 16)
>> SCREW THIS, THE IDEA IS DUMB, I WANT TO ARGUE (GO TO 7)
Wind howls through the widening gashes in the conference room walls. As I try to wrestle the projector back into its mounts, its beam rips the gaps in the wall further open.
Panicking, I press too hard and its casing crumbles apart in a mess of plastic and circuit boards, leaving only its still-flickering bulb.
With a pop, the bulb shatters. Its dying light rushes out, alive, glitching; it shoves huge chunks of walls out into the flickering expanse of white light and darkness opening around the conference room.
The executive team, Alex, and the conference table fade into the background. Only Hector remains, laughing, still arguing, doing his part to continue the loop.
He wants to break me, but damn it, I’ll die before I lose. I follow the script. “No,” I shout over the screaming wind, dress whipping around my ankles. “This is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. I’m not doing it.”
My vision blurs, and the glitching light suddenly goes perfectly white. I stagger. The conference room vanishes. We’re alone, standing on an infinite plane of white. Hector shouts his lines, and I sense with horrible certainty that the loop has closed.
I’ve achieved immortality, escaping time itself in this loop, but as my mouth moves against my will, forming the words, “No! This is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard…” I wonder whether I should really have kept arguing for my damned principles.
Hector replies again, and with horror, I realize: Immortality isn’t worth the cost.
12. SEIZE THE SPHERE
My fingers wrap around the smoking sphere of black ice, and a jet of cold flashes over my body. I stagger, holding it tight. Frost hardens my dress’s sleeves and creeps toward my neck. My toes rise a few inches off the ground, and still Hector yells, not noticing.
A voice, small but as icy as the tundra, whispers in my skull. Knight of Metal, I offer you the black power of Velmoracah, power to crush your enemy.
I want to wipe that smirk off Hector’s face, show him the price for insulting my music, all the work I’ve done, and Alex. I glance at Alex, and he holds his face in his hands. Is he crying? Call me insane, but I’d rather accept power from a talking black sphere than let Hector utter another insult.
>> TAKE THE POWER (GO TO 13)
>> LET GO OF THE SPHERE (GO TO 14)
13. TAKE UP THE POWER
Inch-thick ice ripples up my arm, and I seize like I jammed my finger into a power socket. My vision blurs. I float above the conference room. How small these people are, how insignificant. One pack of arguing egoists among hundreds of buildings overflowing with arguing egoists. The voice whispers. Let all grow cold.
“Yes,” I say. The word echoes across downtown San Francisco, shaking buildings to their foundations.
Pressure, like freezing water snapping a boulder, crackles my joints. Unleash the power.
I open my mouth, my hands, and arms. Howling, I let it out. A blue and white light rips from my fingertips. My bones stretch the tendons between them.
Everything goes black.
When my eyes open, I’m back in the conference room. Ice encases everything. Hector stands frozen, his hand raised for another insult. Beneath a plate of frost, his eyes stare lifelessly.
I… I just wanted to make him hurt. Not kill him. Hector deserved a good ass kicking. Hell, the entire industry deserved a good ass kicking, but this?
Behind me, Alex slouches in his chair, an icy carapace covering his neat suit. I can’t smell his cologne anymore.
No. Alex doesn’t deserve this. Even among all those conference rooms full of arrogance there is some good, isn’t there? I’ve killed that, too.
I stagger away from the frozen corpses in the conference room and head into the office.
A sea of ice glitters in the sunlight. Icicles hang in place of the windows that once circled WeightWin’s open office space. Hundreds of my friends, fellow marketers, analysts sit entombed at their desks. I sprint to a window overlooking the street. All of San Francisco: ice.
What have I done?
>> THE END
14. PULL BACK AND IGNORE THE SPHERE
The biting cold lessens, and the room returns to its normal levels of frozen tundra. I realize I haven’t been talking for minutes. It seems Hector kindly filled that with a ceaseless stream of insults. Finally, he finishes.
The sphere is gone.
As silence falls, the executives stare at me, expecting a response.
I blink, dizzy. “Well, uh…should we get on with the presentation?”
Hector folds his arms and frowns. The hawk-nosed VP laughs.
I get the picture.
I close my laptop and leave, trudging across the open office space. I reach my desk pod, wrap a scarf over my shoulders, and finally start warming up. My coworkers ask how it went, but I only respond by packing the pictures and gadgets littered across my desk into a box before marching toward the exit.
>> THE END
15. THE WO/MAN OF A THOUSAND YESSES
A dopey smile crosses my lips. “Yeah, Xian is kind of a jackass. I get you, Hector. Text messages are the way of the future.”
I push my chair back and stand, pointing at each executive for emphasis. “We shouldn’t stop at the onboarding emails. We could change all Xian’s emails to text messages. Let’s just wipe out his narrow-minded vision altogether.”
A grin spreads across Hector’s thick face. “Finally, a professional like myself. This woman understands vision!”
The executives turn mechanically to me and start applauding. Alex only stares, open-mouthed with shame, as I sell out my boss.
My skin tingles. My voice sounds different, deeper. “I can lead the overhaul myself.”
Hector marches across the room, shoves executives in rolling chairs out of his way, and clasps my hand. I recoil on reflex, but after a moment, I return his grip. My hand feels stronger. Like, really strong. And it’s tingling.
I look down.
My thin, never-exercised forearm grows muscles before my eyes. Dark hair covers my once-smooth skin. The room shrinks, but a moment later I realize that it’s me growing. The zipper running down the back of my dress digs into my flesh. I’m about to collapse, but Hector’s grip tightens, keeping me upright.
Our hands look identical now.
I catch myself in the mirror behind me. Hector’s face stares back. There are two Hectors now. A panicked, animal fear rushes through my mind, before suddenly falling silent. This is good. This is right.
“Welcome,” Hector says. “Welcome to the executive team.”
I grin back and say with a hint of a French accent, “Merci.”
>> THE END
16. ENTER THE LAND OF FANTASY
Hector rambles about how the entire team needs change. I let him talk, slumping into a seat beside the glitchy projector and my forgotten slides. I wish I was at home reading a fantasy book or in a venue slaying a riff with my bass guitar in front of a surging crowd. I lean my head against the conference room’s mirrored rear wall.
Alex gives me a hopeful thumbs-up and a weak smile. Ignoring him, ignoring Hector, ignoring everything, my eyes lose focus and the conference room fades from view.
…Frost coats the black mountainside, and the air resonates with the hum of a struck chord. Every breath tastes of brimstone. Two red pinpricks glow from the top of the dead mountain—Velgaracha’s hateful eyes. I’ve been called from the lost valley, from home and peace, to slay that dark god.
My legs ache, and dried sweat cements the hair of my two warrior’s braids into rope. I’m exhausted, but when I see the Nameless One, hate revives me.
He defied our god, the all-seeing Glorbroth, and stole his chosen prince from our castle. At the hill’s zenith, a coffin of spikes opens around the prince’s beaten body. Royal blood is powerful, and Velgooracha has found a brutal way to steal it.
The prince heaves for breath, and his exposed chest is bruised, only wearing the tatters of his tight-fitting royal slacks. I want to rush to him, embrace him, and smell the royal perfumes again, those ambrosial odors that trailed him through the palace like Glorbroth’s own muses, but no, this is no time for distraction.
A smile twists Velramacha’s foul lips, and green flame bursts from his snout. “Welcome to my domain, servant of the all-seeing. You shall bear witness of my becoming. You shall watch me bathe in your chosen’s blood.”
I don’t reply. Only fools exchange words with the blackness. The cords of lean muscle on my neck tense as I slide my weapon from my back. Crafted by Yang Hsu, it’s half bass guitar, half axe, half sword. I strike a power note. Velbamacha screams in pain, covering its shadowy ears with its black hooves.
“You dare bring Glorbroth’s song to me?” Velmabacha marches toward the prince, reaching to slam the iron maiden on his starved body and drain his blood. I have seconds. I dash forward.
As I near, Velamabacha lunges toward me, leaving the iron maiden behind. A trick. He wanted me to attack recklessly.
I leap backward, and his black sword dusts a boulder in front of me. A howl like ripping steel issues from the dark god. He rips his sword free of the mountain, throwing off specks of rock and frost, and unbalanced, he stumbles a few feet downhill and away from the iron maiden.
>> ATTACK VELMABCAH IN HIS MOMENT OF WEAKNESS (GO TO 17)
>> RUN FOR THE PRINCE WHILE THE BEAST IS DISTRACTED (GO TO 18)
17. ATTACK VELMABACAH IN HIS MOMENT OF WEAKNESS
Behind me, the prince shouts something. Whether it’s a warning cry or another scream of the tortured, I ignore it—no time for distractions. War braids flying behind me, I raise my bass/axe/sword and swing for the beast’s shadowy neck before he can regain his balance.
As I fly, my fingers ripple across the strings, slapping out a mind-numbing bass line. Velmuracah screeches, cringing at the sound.
My axe connects with his flesh, searing skin and sinew. I roar as I land on the frozen stones, dust rising around me. The final music of my notes echoes across the black mountainside and empty valleys.
I look back at what should be the beast’s corpse and see the unthinkable.
He still stands. A black sphere, swirling with ice, glows in one of his hands, and Velumracah’s wounds knit themselves together like crawling frost. His voice is a rumbling laugh, “Silly girl. Did you not think I had my own sources of power?”
Frost blasts from the stone and encrusts my feet. Through the power imbued in my armor, I break free, but I’m too slow to dodge the monster’s second sword attack. I raise my bass/axe/sword to defend, but the beast shatters my weapon. I’m defenseless. Lost.
I scream as his teeth shred my armor. I cough up blood.
…I jolt out of my seat in the low conference room, with a howl.
Cartwheeling my arms, I tumble to the floor. Alex leaps out of his chair and seizes my arm, “Are you all right, Diana?”
I blink up at him. “I…his teeth…my sword.”
Hector scowls. “Enough. Go to the hospital if you are raving. I have work to do.”
Alex hefts me to my feet, but I resist, my voice slurring, “Wait, wait, my presentation.”
Looking concerned, Alex drags me out of the room, insisting on driving me to the hospital. As the door closes, I meet eyes with Hector and realize: this had been my only chance.
>> THE END
18. RUN FOR THE PRINCE WHILE THE BEAST IS DISTRACTED
Striking a power chord to keep Velumracah on his heels, I dive toward the iron maiden where the prince lies bound. His bare chest heaves as he takes terrified breaths. I shout, “Lean forward.”
He obeys, and I start cutting his bonds with a knife stowed in my armor. The prince is delirious, but he manages to stammer, “No. Not me. Vel…he has a new weapon. Take this. From my father…should counter his power.”
He hands me a bulb made from blown glass, weakly flickering with white light. It sputters, casting shadows that almost form some projected image, before making a sad, popping sound, and going dim again.
Trying not to wonder at the worthless boon, I give him a placating smile, stuff it in my pocket, and resume sawing at his bonds. He’s almost free when Velmiracah approaches, shadow sword raised. No time. I step out to fend off his attack when the bulb in my pocket vibrates and sends shimmering white light down the length of my bass/axe/sword. A feeling of Glorbroth’s grace washes over me, and I grin at the dark god.
Upon seeing the white light issuing from my bass/axe/sword in sporadic puffs, Velimracah’s eyes widen. The dark god begins to back away, shadow sword dissolving as quickly as it had been summoned. He flees down the black mountain and into the lost plateaus beyond.
>> PURSUE THE DARK GOD (GO TO 19)
>> LET THE DARK GOD ESCAPE AND SAVE THE PRINCE (GO TO 20)
19. HUNT DOWN AND SLAY THE DARK GOD
No pity shall enter my world. Velrimacah the Nameless shall never escape Glorbroth’s justice. Bass/axe/sword ringing with power in my hands, I pursue the fell beast across the lost plateau, cornering him at a precipice at the plateau’s end.
With the blessing of Glorbroth flashing from my bass/axe/sword, I leap into the air, high above Velmaircah’s black form, strike a chord of supreme resonance, and bring my weapon down through his black center. His scream is wild as I smite his end on the hillside, snuffing the fire from his glowing eyes. Velruircah crumbles to dust, leaving only a spherical black stone among the ashes.
It reeks of sulfur, and weakened though its power is, it still sends a shiver of icy rage through my stomach. Rage at the destruction Velmaurcah has wrought across the seven valleys. Rage at the injustice and pain that has come from him. Rage at the unfairness that this world did not recognize my power earlier. At some level I know the rage is not my own, but it is too savory to put aside. It is good to hate. I seize the sphere, claiming it as my prize.
…I blink my eyes open in the freezing conference room. Rage tightens my muscles. Hector rambles on, outlining each text message. I cannot let the injustice go on. The projector glitches between flickering white light and my neglected slides. Damn that crappy machine. I scream, vision going red. I rip the projector out of its mounts, and in a shower of popping sparks and broken power lines, I hurl it at Hector’s brutish French face.
A burst of light fills the room as the projector’s glitching bulb smashes. Hector collapses backward, blood oozing out of a deep gash on his forehead.
At last, the remnants of that horrible rage fade. Mouth open in shock, Alex calls the police. Everyone looks at me, horrified. I stumble backward, staring at my hands. I’ve gone too far.
>> THE END
20. LET THE DARK GOD ESCAPE AND SAVE THE PRINCE
I play one final power chord, sending waves of energy after Velchamcah’s retreating form. I take a breath, relieved. The dark god looks pitiful in his flight and I realize, he isn’t the enemy, the equal, I longed to kill. He is a weak, fallen thing.
I throw my bass/axe/sword aside, finish cutting the prince’s bonds, and throw one of his arms over my shoulder. He smiles at me, understanding, and we start the long journey home.
…I take a calming breath and stand. Hector falters mid-ramble. “Something to add?”
I stretch out my hand, bracelets tinkling down to my wrist, and with a deft move, I shove Hector backward. Eyes wide, he flops back into a chair behind him. “Par dieu!”
I look him dead in the eyes. He cowers and doesn’t stand back up. “I’m done. Have fun making the world’s spammiest scale.”
I march toward the door but a hand falls on my shoulder. It’s Alex. He speaks in a confidential whisper, “That was amazing.”
I shrug. “I’m pretty metal.”
“Seriously.” His cheeks turn red beneath his stubble. “Well, since you’re not really going to be around here anymore…um…”
“How does late night tacos after my concert on Friday sound?”
“Eh,” he laughs and glances over at Hector who’s blustering at the other side of the room, but still avoiding my gaze. “If I can get time off work.”
“You’ll figure something out.” I march out the door and start packing my desk.
>> THE END
21. THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS
White light ripples across the room. My eyes lose focus, and a warm rush of elation spreads from my toes to the top of my head.
I look across the conference table. Hector smiles up at me from his seat, condescension gone. He pushes his food aside. “I’m so sorry. I don’t want to interrupt with my noisy eating.”
“It’s ok.” A tingling giddiness blooms in my chest. “Accept the proposal and we’ll move on.”
“I’ll do you one better, mon amie.” He rubs his hands together excitedly. “With how good this email idea is, we can avoid the layoffs altogether. In fact, we can open new leadership roles. That means a promotion to a newly minted role for you. How does becoming Director of Special Events sound?”
I gasp. Alex gives me a high five from across the table, and as he settles back into his seat, he adds a wink.
I ask, “So what does a Director of Special Events do?”
“They create amazing experiences that drive sales. You can choose anything from attending conferences worldwide to hosting musical events.” He lets out a low chuckle. “Including a few Black Metal performances, I would imagine.”
I’m breathless. “Thank you.”
“Of course.” He wades through the sea of rolling chairs to the conference room door and opens it. Warm air rolls in, dispelling the freezing cold. “In France, with good news, comes celebration. Happy hour begins in five minutes.”
The executives cheer before they hurry out. I stay back, packing my laptop, head still ringing from the promotion. I notice Alex hasn’t left either. He sits with his elbows on the table, studying me. “I’m impressed, but not surprised. You deserved it.”
“Thanks.” I grab my bag and walk toward the door to prep for happy hour.
“Wait.” He takes a breath and stands, working himself up to something. “Dinner?”
“Mmm…I could let you buy me some Chinese food after happy hour.” Flush with victory, I head to the door and call back over my shoulder, “But only if you get me a few drinks first.”
>> THE END
Jeffrey Doka grew up in El Paso, Texas, and now lives and writes in Daly City, California. He works as a digital marketing consultant and story development editor while studying for an MFA in Creative Writing at USF and drafting his post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel. He’s always looking for new ways that technology and writing can mix, including live-streaming his editing and occasionally his writing process.