Franklin Pierce was on the prowl for some young blood. In his mid-thirties, Pierce was way too old to be hooking up at a college bar, but he was fit and trim as a college athlete and it didn’t hurt that he was good looking. His small stature and boyish looks helped him to fit right in with the young college students from Oregon State University who were looking to unwind at O’Malley’s pub after a stressful day at school.
As he sat, sipping an oatmeal stout at the small Irish pub—decorated in rich mahogany tones and brown Irish whiskey—Franklin chatted it up with a baby-faced kid named Charles. Charles was tall and thin, and his thick wiry hair stood stiff as Bermuda grass. He wore a bright orange tee-shirt which bore the emblem of a beaver, the mascot of the university football team.
The lanky kid and Franklin were discussing whether or not the Beavers were going to beat the Ducks in the annual Civil War game this year. They hadn’t won in years and it didn’t look like they were going to this year either. But Franklin could care less about that. What he was really doing was scanning the faces of the patrons. Talking to the kid was merely a ploy to make him look like a sociable fellow and less like a predator on the prowl.
From across the room, Franklin caught the eye of a pretty blonde. There was something about her face that he rather liked. Her honey-colored hair fell past her shoulders down to a smallish bosom. Franklin smiled at her with one corner of his mouth, inducing a dimple as deep as a canyon. He glanced away and briefly watched the flatscreen at the end of the bar.
Two lawnmower sized remote-controlled robots, driving around inside a caged arena, were bashing the shit out of each other with actuated arms. One of them burst into flames and started chugging black smoke. Franklin chuckled as the winner did victory laps around the burning wreck, slashing the air with its buzzsaw arm.
Glancing back at the blonde, Franklin saw her lean over and say something to her friend who in turn, stole a look at him. That was always a good sign. He turned to his bar-buddy who was still going on about the Beavers and their need for a new defensive coordinator.
“You want to go to a party?” Franklin asked the kid.
“Huh?” The kid looked surprised by the sudden change in topic.
“Bartender,” Franklin said, getting his attention. “Two drinks for the ladies by the door.”
Franklin was pointing across the room at the two women. The bartender nodded and went to work. The kid also looked, and his mouth spawned into a massive smile.
“Let me do the talking,” Franklin said.
“Whatever you say, coach,” Charles replied and slid off the stool.
Two drinks landed on coasters like a pair of SpaceX rocket boosters. The kid grabbed them and followed Franklin, who was carrying their beers. He held the bottles out in front of him as if he was holding a steering wheel and he drove his way around the room full of crowded tables.
Seeing them coming, the girls leaned into each other and started giggling. Franklin stepped aside, allowing the kid to move past him. Charles set the drinks down on the table that already had a drink in front of each woman. Franklin handed Charles his beer.
“You ladies order a couple of drinks?” Franklin said, showing off his bright white teeth.
The young ladies didn’t respond but just sat there. The guys waited for a long moment not saying anything as if they were waiting for a traffic light to turn green. Finally, the blonde sighed and waved a hand towards two empty chairs.
“Okay, have a seat. But when the drinks are gone, so are you.”
“Don’t be rude, Natty. They seem like nice men,” the girlfriend said, smiling at Charles.
“It’s all good,” Franklin said. “Just don’t drink too fast.”
Franklin took a seat next to the blonde and did a quick assessment of her girlfriend. She had light brown hair that framed an oval face that was nearly as pretty as the blonde. He glanced at her muscular body and suspected she worked out a lot. Otherwise, she was the perfect size.
“I’m Franklin and that’s my pal, Charles.” Franklin said, gesturing to the kid who was sitting by the girlfriend. “We’re engineering majors.”
The kid smiled and gave them a quick wave. Unsure of what to say, he took a nervous sip of beer. His Adam's apple did jumping jacks as he swallowed down some fortitude.
“You’ll have to excuse Charles he gets a bit tongue tied around beautiful women,” Franklin said and then added conspiratorially, “though he did confide in me at the bar he’s a huge fan of the Beavers.”
The kid spit beer down his chin. The girls cackled at him.
“I couldn’t tell by his tee-shirt,” the girlfriend said, giggling.
“Natty,” the pretty blonde said to Franklin. “Aerospace engineering. I’m into rocket engines.”
“I’m Kat, her big sister from Portland.” She smiled at the kid. “I like rockets too.”
Natasha rolled her eyes. “My big sister drove all the way down to check up on me.”
“No … I came down to have some fun,” her big sister said. She sipped her drink. “This is a party town, isn’t it Charles?” she said and patted the kid’s knobby knee.
Charles arched his eyebrows and nodded his head in an exaggerated motion. Painfully self-conscious, he took another long pull off his beer. Franklin remembered that age; how uncomfortable he was in his own skin. Now his gabbing came as naturally as his good-looks.
“What’s the matter Charles, your face is all red,” Katrina said to the kid.
Charles looked over at Franklin with eyes that said, help me.
Franklin chuckled. “Poor kid … he’s suffering from the most dreaded of sexual diseases.”
Charles fired a harsh look at Franklin.
“He’s a virgin,” Franklin said flatly.
Katrina exploded with laughter. The kid’s face turned chili pepper red, and he sneered at Franklin through narrow slits.
“I am not!”
Katrina patted the kid’s leg. “You should really fix that.”
“He does need a ride home.” Franklin arched his eyebrows up and down.
“Is that right,” Katrina said as she considered the kid with her traveling eyes.
“It’s past his curfew,” Franklin added. “His mother will be worried.”
The kid glared back at Franklin. “I have my own room, thank you.”
“Oh, really?” Katrina turned to her sister, “Do you mind?”
Natasha’s eyes went wide. “What!? We just got here.”
“Have a heart, Natty ... he looks like he’s ready to pop,” Katrina said as she rubbed the kid’s upper thigh.
“How am I getting home? And don’t think I’m riding with him,” Natasha said pointing her chin at Franklin.
“Hey, I’ll have you know I’m a Hop-In driver in my spare time,” Franklin said.
“That makes me feel so much better,” Natasha said sarcastically. “Sorry, but I’ve heard too many horror stories about rideshare drivers,” she said. “They’re rape-mobiles.”
There was a moment of silence as Natasha studied her drink that she rotated on the table between her long delicate fingers. Franklin watched Katrina make goo-goo eyes at the kid. He sighed. That’s when it came to. Why not all three?
“Hey! You guys want to come to my place?” Franklin asked.
Katrina perked up. "A party?"
“I don't live far away and there’s plenty of room in my Tesla,” Franklin said.
“Ohhh … a Tesla! They’re so sexy.” Katrina turned to her sister. “What do you say, Natty?”
Natasha frowned at her big sister who was leaning her head against the kid’s shoulder.
“The three of us could take him on,” the kid said. “You know, if he tried anything.”
Franklin nodded. “Kid’s got a point. Anyway, you don’t have to worry about that. I’m a nice guy. Promise.”
Natasha shot Katrina a disapproving look. “I thought you wanted to hang out tonight?”
“I do! But … you know,” she said as she grabbed Charle’s hand with her own and pressed it against her bosom. The kid’s face turned red. He was obviously excited.
“Sorry if I’m such a bore.” Natasha said. After a beat, she sighed heavily and rolled her eyes in an exaggerated manner. “Okay, fine. But we leave at ten. I have classes in the morning.”
“Hooray!” Katrina said brightening. “Let’s go party!”
Natashsa sat in the front passenger seat of Franklin’s black-on-black Tesla. As he drove through a quiet neighborhood, ‘Hey Ladies’ by the Beastie Boys, thumped through high-end speakers. Natasha stared out the window at rows of older homes with wrap around porches and thick overhangs. Eventually the Tesla moved out of the neighborhood and entered an industrial part of town where long-low buildings sat on huge swaths of land with tall grass.
Natasha couldn’t hear over the loud music, but she could smell the sex wafting from the backseat. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the shadow of her sister sucking face with the fresh-faced boy. Their hands were working overtime somewhere out of view. Natasha couldn’t believe what a slut her sister was and she rolled her eyes in disgust.
“At least Kat is having fun. Isn’t she Natty?” said the man who called himself Franklin.
Natasha examined him closely. He was devilishly handsome with dimples at the corners of his mouth. Happy lines radiated from his eyes making him appear older. Reaching over, she lowered the music.
“Are you really a student?” she asked.
Franklin eyebrows furrowed. “Of course.”
Natasha shifted in her seat, so she was facing him head on.
“This is way too nice a car for a Hop-In driver. So are your clothes. Who's your physics professor, Mister Engineering Major? Don’t try to lie to me ... I know them all.”
Franklin shot her an irritated glance. He didn't answer her, but took a sudden left turn onto a road without any street lights. The Tesla drove between two rows of closely packed arborvitaes. With the blackness of night overhead it was like traveling down a darkened hallway lit only by halogen headlamps.
Franklin reached up and pressed a remote control that was clipped to the Tesla’s sun visor. Natasha peered into the side view mirror. Reflected in the red glow of the Tesla’s tail lights was a gate that slid closed behind them. The wheels popped as they rolled over loose gravel.
“Where‘re we going?” Natasha said, looking suddenly worried.
“Just relax, we’re almost there,” Franklin said.
His thigh flexed as he pressed down on the foot pedal. The rising pitch of the electric motor matched the acceleration pressing against Natasha’s queasy stomach. As they flew ahead, the arborvitaes blurred into a green wall.
Craning her neck to check on her sister, Natasha was met with a writhing mass of intertwining arms and grinding hips and moaning so loud she thought they were climaxing.
The electric car shot out of the passage and entered several acres of dark, empty parking lot. The arborvitaes fanned out and surrounded the entire lot, forming a castellated wall of dark foliage. The faint glow of city-light revealed a tall rectangular structure sitting in the middle of the gravel field like a giant coffin.
As they neared the structure, a shadowy three story brick building took shape. It had arched windows that Natasha could now see were filled in with bricks. Dozens of fancy cars were parked outside the main entrance.
“I don’t like this. Take us back,” Natasha demanded.
“Oh, come on. What’s the fuss? We’re here.”
Franklin turned the Tesla to his left and aligned the vehicle with the narrow side of the long building. He reached up and pressed a button to a second remote. A crack of light appeared at the base of the building and grew wider. As they got closer, Natasha made out a metal door coiling inside a large drum mounted above the opening.
Franklin slowed his approach, allowing time for the door to fully retract.
“What is this place?” Natasha asked.
“It’s where I live. I have an apartment inside,” Franklin said, his voice flat.
“But it’s a-a … Factory.”
“Factory? No. It was my father’s newspaper printing plant. He left it to me years ago.”
Fluorescent lights flickered inside of the large cavern looming ahead of them.
“And you live inside?” Natasha said, her lips curling back.
“I know it doesn’t look like much, but wait till you see the inside.” Franklin waggled his eyebrows and shot her a wicked grin.
“Kat!” Natasha called, raising her voice over the music.
“Not … now!” Katrina yelled between heaving breaths.
Natasha yanked on the handle to open the door, but it was locked. Franklin chuckled.
“Good ol’ Tesla. Always concerned about passenger safety,” Franklin said in a snarky tone. “It’ll open after I stop.”
As the Tesla rolled into the abysmal opening, it slowed to a stop in front of a shipping and receiving dock. Three fifty-five gallon drums―each painted a different color―sat on a wooden pallet. Natasha thought there was something off about them and then noticed each had plexiglass windows installed on the upper end of each barrel.
Parked nearby was a beat up looking forklift with it’s long tines sitting on the ground. A brown rat scampered from behind the yellow truck and scurried through a darkened doorway.
Turning towards their driver, Natasha noticed he was facing away from her bent over doing something. The metallic rattling of the door closing behind them caught her attention.
Natasha unbuckled her seat belt, grabbed the handle and smashed her shoulder against the door, but it remained firmly locked.
“I lied,” Franklin said, his voice sounding muffled and thin.
She turned towards Franklin and gasped in something sweet. He was looking at her through a pair of big plastic lenses encased inside a black rubber skin. Between them sat a bulbous snout covered with holes. There was a hissing of air and her nostrils flared as the sickly sweet odor of ginger assaulted her senses.
Franklin was holding a small red canister in one hand and a big black nozzle in the other which he was pointing at her face. Wavy lines of an invisible vapor distorted his gasmask. She knocked it away with one hand and tried to hold her breath, but it was too late. The last thing she remembered were millions of stars bursting inside her skull. Then everything went black.
Natasha awoke inside cramped darkness. Disoriented, and with a throbbing headache, she tried to move but couldn’t. She was sitting upright with her knees pinned against her chest making it difficult to breathe. She was trapped inside of something but didn’t know what. A hard surface was pressing in all around as if she was in an iron fist.
A wave of panic washed over her, causing her heart to hammer against her chest as if it was trying to escape its confines. Bile from her stomach rose up into her throat and she fought to swallow it back down. The thought of having to deal with her own puke, terrified her even more than the claustrophobia. She needed to calm herself.
Focused on her breathing, Natasha noticed the air was stale and had an oily smell. Whatever she was inside of was warm and her skin was prickly with sweat. She wiped her brow with her hand. Since her hands were free, she felt around the curving wall. It was rough and scaly. Above her was a metal lid that was slightly domed and sealed around the edges.
An image of brightly colored fifty-five gallon drums sitting on a wooden pallet suddenly flashed in her mind. It was followed by the memory of a black nozzle. She’d been gassed.
The sonuvabitch stuffed me inside a metal drum!
She slid her hands forward until she crossed over an edge where the surface became smooth as polished glass. Her right hand bumped into something sitting above her knees. It was a thin vertical shaft connected to a square base. A small round button sat nearby. It made a clicking noise when she pressed it. What it was for, she didn’t know, but something told her she was going to find out.
“Natty! You out there?” a muffled female voice called out to her.
Natasha recognized her sister’s voice. She felt a flutter of relief: “Kat! Are you okay?”
“I’m trapped inside a fucking can! What the hell do you think?”
A ripple of laughter swept through the room. It reminded Natasha of a sit-com laugh track.
“Who’s that? Who’s laughing?” a man yelled.
“I’m claustrophobic! Let me out!” a panicked voice bawled.
More frightened voices joined in: “Where am I?” “What the hell is going on?” “Help!”
High-pitched feedback crackled from several locations at once. It was followed by screaming loud rave music with a thumping baseline. The song, similar to those played in techno dance clubs, built into a frenzied crescendo until a man’s voice boomed over the top of it all:
“Ladies and gentlemen! … Welcome to the games!”
Cheers roared in overwhelming approval followed by enthusiastic clapping and whistling. There was a series of loud clunks as flood lights switched on and circled dizzily overhead. Natasha found she was looking through a plexiglass window and blinked against the bright lights that penetrated the darkness of her cramped barrel.
A joystick, silhouetted by the light, sat above her knees. A cone of light shined through a small hole in the lid above her, which supplied her with air. Somewhere nearby, hidden beneath the background of the loud music, Natasha sensed the dull throb of heavy machinery pulsing like a heartbeat.
Through her viewport, Natasha made out other steel barrels and wondered which one her sister was in. Above them, mounted on black support beams criss-crossing the wall, hung a giant flatscreen monitor that flashed to life. The larger than life image of Franklin appeared in ultra high definition, wearing a black headset and mic that was pressed against his lips.
“I can't hear you!" Franklin yelled.
The fans rewarded him with a deafening roar.
"That's better! I’ll be your host tonight. Are you ready for battle!?”
The unseen crowd bellowed their full-throated support. The Hop-In driver smiled as he pushed a mouse around and his eyes flicked from one part of the screen to another.
“Betting is now open. Please use your betting app to place your wagers. You have ten minutes!” Franklin said. “In the meantime, allow me to introduce our contestants!”
Natasha couldn’t restrain herself and yelled up at the screen: “Fuck you, asshole!”
Franklin couldn’t hear a word inside his control room. He continued talking as he introduced this evening’s contestants. On screen were a dozen steel drums packed tightly together in the middle of a square room. Each was a different color and had a plexiglass window facing the screen. A big bold number was painted on the side of each barrel. Natasha wondered which one she and her sister were in.
The camera zoomed in on a red barrel with the number “one” on the outside. Three gnarled fingers stuck out of the hole, wiggling maddly. A video of an aged man appeared on screen. Natasha could tell it was taken inside of a vehicle.
When Natasha’s terrified face appeared on-screen, she was frantically trying to open the door. Natasha stuck her middle finger through the hole on a blue barrel marked “six.” As the camera zoomed in on it, raucous laughter came from the invisible fans.
Franklin went on to introduce the other contestants along with their faces as they sat inside various vehicles. Apparently, Franklin wasn’t the only driver delivering victims to the factory. When he was finished, Natasha still had no clue which steel drum contained her sister. She guessed she was in the middle of the pack somewhere.
“Five minutes remain to place your bets!” Franklin announced.
He reached over and turned a knob, the music grew louder. His image was replaced with random shots of the crowd, standing on a balcony that overlooked an arena. Awash in excitement, they were dressed to kill wearing fine jewelry that sparkled in the flashing lights. Popping pills that they chased down with alcohol, the rich danced to the rhythm of the hard-driving rave music.
Natasha worried about what was coming.
The music cut out and was replaced with a jaunty tune. An animated cartoon of a fifty-five gallon drum rolling on six wheels zipped onto the big screen and screeched to a halt. A joystick appeared and it’s back and forth movement matched that of the moving steel drum.
Natasha looked at her own joystick between her knees. So that’s what it’s for.
“All right, contestants! Better listen up!” Franklin said. “Tonight’s game is called: Last Can Standing.”
The animated fifty-five gallon drum followed a dotted line to an oversized mallet that was suspended in mid-air. A square module mounted on the front of the drum latched onto the mechanical arm. Another dotted line pointed to the joystick button which triggered the oversized mallet to swing down and smash against the floor. A second fifty-five gallon drum rolled into frame and the mallet flattened it into a pancake―ala Wile E. Coyote.
Franklin continued, “Your goal, eliminate the other contestants. Be the last can standing and you’ll win ten milllllllion dollars. Are you ready to battle!?”
The spectators bellowed their approval.
“Good. The betting app is now closed.”
Natasha was beginning to understand the deadly nature of the game and she wondered if they really thought they were going to kill each other for their entertainment. The rave music returned. A thin voice came from behind Natasha’s head.
“Hello, Natty,” Franklin's voice hissed from behind her head.
Startled, Natasha jerked her arm back unaware that she knocked the joystick off its platform and fell behind her ankles.
“You have a choice to make.”
“Fuck you and your choices!” she shot back. “What’re you going to do to us?”
“Never mind that, just listen: You can either fight or you can head for the viewing platform at the other end of the arena. Underneath you’ll find something to help you.”
“You expect me to believe you, you fucking shitweasle?” she asked.
“No, but if you and your sister want to get out of this alive, you better.”
“I swear, if I get out of here, I’m going to kill you!”
“That’s the spirit.” He cut out.
Natasha slammed her fist against the wall. A low chant rose from the crowd.
“Battle. Battle. Battle. Battle.”
“Players are you ready?” Franklin yelled.
A drum roll played over the speakers.
"On your marks!”
The chanting from the spectators rose: “BATTLE! BATTLE! BATTLE!“
Rattling chains came from Natasha’s left. The wall was lifting upward revealing a brightly lit arena.
A high-pitched air-horn exploded from the speakers.
All around Natasha the steel drums of the other contestants began to move. Remembering her joystick, she reached for but it was gone. She didn’t know she had knocked it off.
As she felt around for it in the darkness, she kept her eyes on the other barrels. They bumped into each other as they headed for the opening, but almost as quickly, they reversed direction and moved back into the room.
Turning her head to look, Natasha immediately understood why; scattered about were dozens of deadly machines going through their lethal machinations.
A swinging pendulum with a curved blade swung over the floor in a wide arc. An eight foot square block of solid steel rose and fell with a resounding crash that shook the floor. A metal cylinder moved along a slot, swinging two enormous metal balls in a wide circle.
There were many more, but Natasha’s eyes went past them towards the raised viewing platform at the end of the arena. Supported by a steel girder high above the floor, dozens of spectators were crowded behind a railing that stretched the width of the rectangular building. She tried to see what was underneath, but it was too dark.
Loud rumbling came from her right.
Natasha looked the other way. Another wall had lifted revealing a shiny metal cylinder as wide as the room they were in. Welded to the smooth surface in even rows were thousands of spikes. It started to spin and gained speed until the spikes became a blur.
The intended effect was immediate.
The fifty-five gallon drums dashed away from the spinning cylinder as fast their electric motors would carry them and entered the arena. Only Natasha and the old man remained. Natasha tried to reach for her joystick but she could only brush against it with her fingertips.
“What are you waiting for?” Franklin said through the tiny speaker behind her head.
Natasha ignored him, but she heard voices in the background. Franklin wasn’t alone. After a few moments, Franklin’s voice returned, somewhat subdued.
“Sorry, sweetheart, you’re all outta time. Boss’s orders.”
The floor underneath Natasha jerked sideways and started moving towards the spinning cylinder. The old man jerked forward and moved between Natasha and the cylinder.
Her fingers grasped the joystick and as she pulled it up, the old man lurched forward and rammed into her, knocking the joystick free. She screamed in frustration. Through the plexiglass, she saw the old man bang into her again. He was pushing her towards the opening.
Oh my God! He’s trying to help me!
The old man did this a couple of more times and Natty thought they might escape. But the floor picked up speed and the gains they made were eaten up by the hungry cylinder that seemed to be pulling the floor into its steely teeth.
There was a roar as the fans cried out and Natasha glanced up at the screen. Someone had just been squashed by the giant steel block. As it rose up on a thick chain, long red strands of gelatinous goo stretched up with it. A handful of small robots shot out of holes in the wall and dragged the flattened drum off the floor, leaving behind a bloody trail.
“Number eleven is the first casualty. Congratulations to the lucky bettors,” Franklin said.
Natasha heard several of the spectators shout with joy. Closing her eyes, she prayed it wasn’t her sister, Katrina.
There was a flash of light as a spike cut through the edge of the old man’s can causing it to bounce forward and bang into Natasha. The flying sparks shone inside Natasha’s barrel like a strobe. That’s when she saw it: a black wire traveling from the bracket down to the joystick.
Natasha pulled the wire until the joystick plopped back into place. She looped the excess wire around it to make sure it didn’t fall again. Pulling the joystick backwards, she rolled away from the old man who was looking at her with big shining eyes.
She watched in horror as the spikes caught the edge of his barrel again. Only this time, the teeth sank into the lid and crumpled the barrel like an aluminum can and sucked him under. Natasha reached out for him.
“No!” she cried out.
Blood from the spinning spikes splattered against the plexiglass of her drum.
Gleeful shouts bellowed from the fans as they pumped their fists up and down on the big screen above her. Rage coursed through Natasha’s veins. She swore before the night was out, she would have her revenge.
She whipped the joystick to the right and wheeled around. She glided across the moving floor at an angle and entered the arena with a bump and a bounce. The wall slammed down behind her with a convincing thud.
All hell was waiting for her.
Franklin was staring at one of three flatscreens sitting on a wrap-around desk inside a large corner office. To the right of the display panels was a control bank with an array of square buttons and round dials. Two boxy computer cabinets bookended the entire setup. The screen Franklin was looking at had a checkerboard of images sort of like a large Zoom meeting.
With his left index finger, he tapped on an image inside the crowded field and it filled the screen. The words “Start Room” hovered over the grainy image of two barrels sitting alone inside the square room. Both sat perfectly still next to the spinning metal cylinder. The one in front had the number six painted on its side. That was Natty and Franklin didn’t understand why she wasn’t moving. The old man maybe, but not her. She was smart.
Franklin reached for the control panel to his right. With his right index finger, he lightly caressed button number six as if it was the person he desired at the other end―Natty. After going through their purses, he’d learned that Natty and Kat were short for Natasha and Katrina and that their last name was Ivanov. They were Russain. Franklin had a thing for Russain girls. It was one of the filters on his dating app and it explained why he found Natty so damn attractive.
Had he known that at the bar, he would’ve chosen some other victims instead. Now he wanted to help them but it would mean stoking the ire of his boss, Peter Daltry. Once the contestants were inside the death arena, Peter forbade Franklin from helping them. Normally, Franklin did as he was told, but lately he didn’t give a damn what Peter thought or wanted.
Besides, he liked Natty and the thought of her dying ate away at what little conscience he had left. As Franklin considered the options, it occurred to him there was one way he could help, but it was extremely dangerous. Not for him, but for Natty and Kat. Going against the rules, he contacted Natasha and told her to head for the platform. There she would find a way out.
But that was several minutes ago and Natty was still sitting there just a few feet from the spinning wheel of death. He worried she wasn’t going to make it out of the start room, never mind all the way to the platform. What was going on? He pressed button number six to find out.
“What are you waiting for?” he said earnestly into his mic.
He didn’t hear her answer. Peter Daltry flung the door open and marched into the control room with two bodyguards in tow. Franklin wheeled around and leaned back as Peter approached him. Peter’s eyes darted from the lit-up button number six over to Franklin’s nervous face.
“What have I told you about talking to the fucking contestants, Pierce?” the tall, square shouldered man said with eyes on fire. His fists were balled up tight like he was ready to fight.
“Sorry, Boss. I-I was just having a bit of fun,” he said, smiling.
Peter slapped the smile off Franklin’s face, knocking his headset off. As Franklin was putting it back on, Peter continued:
“People are pissed. That fucking old man would’ve died first if you had turned on the goddamn conveyor belt. Now turn it on!”
Franklin stared at Peter defiantly before speaking into his mic:
“Sorry, sweetheart. You’re all outta time. Boss’s orders,” he said and toggled a switch.
Peter watched the conveyor belt kick on and the barrels begin a slow march towards the spinning spikes.
“I swear by all that is fucking holy,” Peter said, “do that again and I’ll fucking kill you.”
“It won’t happen again, boss.”
“Damn right it won’t.”
Peter stormed out of the office followed by his two bodyguards. The last guard to leave slammed the door behind him as if he was an extension of Peter’s arm.
Franklin fought the urge to yell something stupid. Instead, he scooted over to the door on his wheeled chair and locked it. After returning to his desk, he peeked at the start room. Natty was inching towards the deadly cylinder. He didn’t want to watch, so he double-tapped the image, making it disappear. A knot was forming in his gut and he thought he might puke.
Peter was going to kill him.
He’d seen Peter do the same to other drivers for screwing up. Like when a contestant turned out to be too big to fit inside a can. Angry, Peter would jam the driver inside and put them in the game. Franklin was sure Peter was going to do that to him. Maybe not tonight, but after their little chat just now, he was certain it would be soon.
Just like how certain Franklin was the people inside the death arena were all going to die. Nobody was going to win ten million dollars. He only said that to help motivate them to fight. It always amazed Franklin how well it worked. Greed was a strong primal force, strong enough to make people face death if the reward was big enough.
No, the contestants were on an expressway to hell and Franklin was right behind them. He used to think he was indispensable and that such an ending would never happen to him. This was his building afterall and he set up the arena and the control room.
Nobody knew how to operate the show better than him, including Peter.
Franklin recalled the night as a ride-share driver when he picked Peter up inside his pitiful little beat-to-shit KIA. Just another fare, he thought. But Peter knew all about him and how his deceased father had left Franklin his failed newspaper printing business. Caused by the popularity of the internet, it now carried more debt now than assets. At first, Franklin thought Peter wanted to buy the building that housed the broken down printing press. But Peter said he didn’t want his name attached to it. He had other plans. Illegal ones.
Peter was a billionaire with lots of billionaire friends who liked to be entertained in ways that weren’t lawful. Like Peter’s safari venture where he and his friends tracked down and killed unarmed transients. The killing was fun, but it was a lot of work for a brief thrill and some of the clients hated getting their hands dirty. Peter had something else in mind, something that would make him a lot more money and Franklin’s building was exactly what Peter was looking for.
At first Franklin refused, but the money Peter offered him was too good to pass up, so he sold his soul to the devil. Six years into this sordid business Franklin learned what a truly enormous prick Peter was. There were too many missing people, too many close calls with authorities and Franklin sensed it was reaching a breaking point. There was no doubt in his mind, Peter was going to kill him and after that, destroy the evidence.
But not if Franklin killed him first.
Franklin rechecked the start room. He smiled as Natasha bounced off the conveyor belt and entered the arena. He flipped a switch that dropped the wall behind her. He was happy to see she was negotiating her way around the hazards and heading straight for the platform at the far end of the building. Franklin hovered a finger over button number six and caressed it lightly.
He wanted to hear her voice again.
As soon as Natasha entered the arena, her ears were met with the crisp ring of metal slicing through metal. She turned in time to witness the backswing of the bladed pendulum slinging crimson fluid from its sharpened edge. The drum it had just sliced through peeled apart and fell in two pieces onto the floor. Its gory contents were on display like some macab science exhibit.
The audience cheered the death as if a touchdown had just been scored.
Natasha couldn’t be a hundred percent sure, but the person inside the split barrel was wearing an orange shirt, the color Charles from the pub was wearing. She hoped it wasn’t him.
“Betting reopens after three more player eliminations, so get your apps ready!” Franklin announced to the audience.
Natasha looked up at the spectator’s faces glowing from smartphones they held up close. She remembered what Franklin had told her and moved towards the platform, trying to avoid the many death traps all around her. As she worked her way through, she noticed some of the contestants had weapons attached to the front of their drums. One contestant was cutting open another with a chainsaw. Scintillating sparks flew and bounced off the floor.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a drum zooming towards her. Extended out in front was an arm with sharp pincers that opened and closed like oversized scissors.
Natasha swung to her right to avoid the pincers, but was hit from behind by a big metal ball on a spinning cylinder. It didn’t hit her full on or it would have crushed her.
Instead it was a glancing blow but powerful enough to toss her into another contestant whom she knocked over. He rolled into the path of a high speed circular blade that rose out of the floor like a table saw. A rooster tail of blood showered a pursuer’s view window, blinding him.
That person shot through the gaping mouth of a towering clown face with sharp teeth. A row of swords chomped down with a sickening crunch. As the teeth rose up, the steel drum slipped off and fell on its side. Viscous streams poured from four blade holes and splashed onto the metal floor as bright red as strawberry syrup.
“Six contestants left! Betting has reopened. You have thirty seconds!”
A moment later she heard Franklin’s voice speaking inside her drum.
“You might want to reconsider who you’re killing next time.”
As the barrel was dragged away by the tiny robots, Natasha was overcome with grief. Who else could he be referring to except . . .
“Oh my God, Kat!” she choked on her words.
“Not her. That dumb kid she was banging in the back seat of my car.”
Natasha wanted to curse at Franklin, but she didn’t. “Is … Is Kat still alive?”
Franklin hesitated before answering. “Yes, but that’s all I can tell you. Now go.”
As the speaker cut out, Natasha wondered if this was another one of his sick games. Could she really trust a psychopath who got a thrill out of watching people die. She didn’t really have a choice. As her sister so eloquently put it: she was trapped inside a fucking can.
She turned and continued her journey to the viewing platform.
Peter was pounding on the locked door, screaming obscenities. Franklin unlocked it before he tried to break the door down. Peter barged in, followed by his two slabs of meat.
“Why’s this door locked?”
“I don’t know, Boss,” Franklin lied. “Musta locked when you slammed the door.”
“Fucking smartass. What’s the numbers, wise-guy?”
“We’re up seventeen mill and change.”
“Seventeen?” his eyebrows shot up. “Not bad.”
“Not bad? It’s a record.”
“How much time do I have?”
“Soon,” Franklin said. “Very soon.”
"Your rig is all set."
"Good, I love seeing their faces when I come into the death arena swinging my buzzsaw."
Franklin glanced at the monitor. “They’re killing each other pretty fast down there.”
“How many cans left?”
“Six―” a buzzer sounded inside the office. “Make that five.”
“Right. It’s showtime,” Peter said excitedly. He started to leave, but stopped and turned around, “Keep an eye on him until I get back, boys. We got some unfinished business,” he said with a thin smile.
He slammed the door as he left and Peter’s bodyguards positioned themselves in front of it. Franklin didn’t like the way Peter smiled at him. He didn’t like the way his boy’s sneered at him either. Like the contestants on the arena floor, Franklin felt his time was running out.
Peter was heading down to the garage where he would climb inside his personal killing-bot. It was a tank really and he liked to end the night by finishing off the remaining contestants. Peter was a bloodthirsty killer who loved getting his rocks off, so just to be sure, he always went down at the half-way point to get ready.
Franklin was well aware of that fact. Earlier, when no one was around, he’d rigged several pounds of explosives at one of the death traps. When Peter drove near it―he would flick a switch and―kablooey! Franklin didn’t want the slabs of meat to hear him as he spoke to Natasha again, so he cranked up the volume inside the office.
Using her joystick, Natasha moved through the gauntlet of death by carefully maneuvering around one deadly hazard after another. She also managed to avoid any further altercation with the other contestants. About halfway across the arena, she came into an open area that appeared to be free of any obstacles. As she was about to zip across, a voice crackled to life.
“Wait here a second,” Franklin said from the usual point behind her head.
Natasha jerked to a stop. She couldn’t get used to the sound of his disembodied voice appearing suddenly. As she waited, she noticed the floor was covered with rows of small holes, their edges were scorched black. A loud hissing sound was followed by the stench of rotten eggs.
That was the only warning she got before a bright fireball erupted in mid-air. The heat radiated inside her drum, making the air hot and heavy to breathe.
“Quickly now, little butterfly . . . before you burn your wings off,” Franklin said.
Natasha hurried across the rows of holes afraid Franklin would reignite the flames and roast her alive. But he didn’t. As she neared the other side, she smelled the rotten eggs again. She barely got across before the fire belched from the holes, unfurling like an explosion.
“Why are you helping me?” she asked.
“I’ve got my reasons. Fly away little butterfly.”
Natasha scoffed, she felt more like a larva trapped inside its cocoon.
From her left, a contestant with an oversized battleaxe chased another with a metal claw. The axe came down and cleaved the lid but apparently didn’t harm the contestant inside. Because that person whirled around and clamped it’s metal claw around the steel drum of its attacker. The claw squeezed until the seams of the can popped and then released the drum. It fell to the ground and wobbled drunkenly as it scooted away.
The driver with the claw then came after Natasha who sped away. But she ran over a rotating platform that redirected her onto a conveyor belt with rails on both sides. Natasha tried to drive off the belt, but the rails prevented her from leaving the belt that carried her towards her final destination: a pair of air-actuated pistons, slamming into each other with a sharp clang.
Natasha tried to back up, but the conveyor belt was going faster. Her heart was banging inside her chest like the pistons in front of her. She thought she was about to die.
Sharp metal scraped against the sides of her barrel. Using her joystick she turned to face the driver with the claw. A glaring light hid the driver’s face. At first Natasha thought the driver meant to crush her, but she felt herself being lifted.
From this higher angle, the glare was gone and she could see who was lifting her. It was her sister, Katrina! She carried Natasha off the conveyor belt and dropped her to the floor. Natasha smiled at her through the plexiglass and Katrina smiled back at her.
“Oh my, God!” Natasha yelled and waved at her big sister. “You’re alive!”
Katrina held a hand up next to her ear and shook her head. She couldn’t hear her.
A surge of hope filled Natasha’s soul. Franklin hadn’t lied about her sister. Maybe there was something under the platform that could help them escape this slaughterhouse. With no means to communicate, she pointed towards the platform and beckoned her sister to follow.
“No more dilly-dallying,” Franklin’s voice said. “The final boss is coming.”
Natasha and her sister deftly negotiated the remaining obstacles without further incident. As they rolled under the platform Natasha didn’t see anything helpful at all. There was a roll-up door that was as wide and tall as a semi. Above it was a yellow light attached to the wall. To the right were a couple of long black pipes that hugged the brick wall. Each had a round handle.
“We’re here! I don’t see anything, asshole!” Natasha yelled from inside her barrel.
“Give it a minute,” Franklin said.
The yellow light lit up and started rotating just as the door cracked open at the bottom. Thinking Franklin was opening it, Natasha moved closer. But as the door rose higher, something on the other side came into view.
It was monstrous, whatever it was, and sat on a dozen wheels that Natasha decided probably wasn’t friendly. She moved to the right of the door and hugged the brick wall. Her sister joined her.
Dramatic music filled the room and Natasha heard stamping feet coming from the excited crowd above her. They began to chant over and over:
“Boss ... Boss ... Boss ... Boss ... Boss.”
“That’s right! We’re down to the final four! Please extend a warm welcome to … ”
A big armored monster hurtled out of the opening. Painted on its back, in big fat sloppy paint strokes, were two words:
“... The Final Bosssssss!” Franklin shouted.
The size of a dumpster, the big rig rumbled into the death arena, flailing its long arms. The fans jumped up and down and screamed. The monstrosity spun around and exercised its weapons: a snapping lobster claw and a swiveling buzzsaw. It charged across the arena, plowing through death traps without harm, chasing after three barrels that scattered in different directions.
“Who the fuck is that?” Natasha yelled.
“My boss. He’s a real asshole. Go inside, you’ll find a can-opener,” Franklin’s voice said.
“A can opener?” Natasha said disbelievingly.
Natasha wheeled into the empty garage where the monster had come out of. To her right was a regular door with a glowing red “EXIT” sign above it. Across from that, mounted on the wall to her left, was a weird looking apparatus with a circular band of metal.
Natasha wheeled over to the door but there was no way she could open the doorknob without the use of her hands. She spun around and faced the weird looking apparatus. Below the circular ring was a square module like the one in the cartoon. Maybe that was the can opener.
Outside the garage, the horrible sound of a buzzsaw cutting through steel made its way into the garage along with the enthusiastic screams of the fans outside.
“One down. Three to go,” Franklin’s voice echoed from the loudspeakers. "You have one minute to make your wagers!"
Natasha moved towards the thing on the opposite wall and docked with the module. She felt as well as heard the connection. The arm pivoted down and the ring clamped around the upper end of her barrel.
“Press your joystick button.” Franklin said to her urgently.
Natasha hesitated: “Is this thing going to kill me?”
“No, but you might want to stay away from the sides.”
“The hell? No way!”
“You want to get out?”
Natasha sighed. “What happens after that?”
“You saw the door, follow it to the front entrance. The keys are on the front seat of my Tesla outside. Now hurry. He’s coming.”
Grinding sound of a steel drum being ripped in half carried into the garage. An ecstatic ovation erupted from the onlookers.
“I’m calling the police first chance I get.”
“I’m counting on it.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“To get even with my asshole of a boss. This is his operation. I just work for him.”
“And you picked today to find a conscience?”
“Yes and no. I’ve been planning to screw him over, but I’m doing this for you.”
“Don’t think this absolves you of anything. I hope you rot in jail.”
“I expect I will. Now hurry, little butterfly.”
Natasha pressed the joystick button. A high speed grating screeched inside the drum and she grit her teeth as a pair of diamond saws cut the metal in a perfectly straight line just above the plexiglass viewport. Glowing hot embers splashed inside and burned through her clothing and stung her skin. She screamed in agony.
As the blade traveled behind her, she leaned forward as far as she could, but the heat burned her back. When she didn’t think she could stand any more, the top end of the barrel lifted abruptly and a rush of cool air enveloped her. She took in a deep breath.
The module disengaged from the steel drum and the lid fell to the floor with a loud clatter. Katrina grabbed Natasha with her claw and turned the barrel sideways spilling Natasha onto the floor. Her movements were stiff and slow like a newborn baby gazelle.
The rolling wheels nearing the garage made both women look up. The mechanical nightmare extended its arms outward, brandishing bloody weapons.
Natasha pushed herself up to her knees. She tried to stand, but her legs wouldn’t work. They were stiff and numb from the lack of circulation. She grimaced in pain.
“My legs! I can’t … I can’t … I can’t stand up,” Natasha cried.
Katrina looked down at her sister and then at the incoming beast. She bit her bottom lip.
“I got this,” Katrina said.
“Katrina, don’t! You can’t win,” Natasha pleaded.
“Do you remember when we were kids and the oven exploded?”
It took Natasha a moment but she remembered. As a little girl, the pilot light in the oven went out. It smelled like rotten eggs right before the oven blew up in a ball of flame. She nodded her head.
Katrina continued: “There are two valves just outside the entrance. One is labeled, pilot.”
The lumbering monstrosity was almost to the edge of the viewing platform. Katrina turned and flew out of the garage. She headed straight at it.
“Katrina! Wait!” Natasha yelled after her.
But it was too late. Katrina was gone. Natasha watched her big sister race out of the garage with the bottom half of the steel drum in her claw. Katrina raced around the support beam just as the buzzsaw was about to hit her. It bounced off the iron girder instead.
Katrina sped around the beam in a big circle and smashed the steel drum against the back of the metal monster. It bounced off harmlessly. The monster spun around and she scooted to the opposite side of the beam well out of reach of its swinging arms.
Natasha crawled on all fours towards the opening and watched Katrina playing keep away from the less nimble mechanical boss by keeping the thick support beam between them. Occasionally, the buzzsaw would miss Katrina and cut into the beam, chipping off big chunks.
Outside the entrance, Natasha found the two valves: each attached to its own pipe that ran down the wall into the floor. Natash was up on her knees and she found the valve marked ‘pilot’ as Katrina had told her.
She cranked it clockwise until it wouldn’t turn anymore. She then cranked the other valve marked ‘main’ all the way open. Natasha knew it would take forever to fill the building with enough gas to cause an explosion. But that would buy them time to get away.
Her sister screamed and Natasha whirled. The Boss had grabbed Katrina’s claw and ripped the mechanical arm from Katrina’s drum. The monster swung the buzzsaw at her but hit the beam again. This time it cut so deep that it jammed and wouldn’t break free.
Natasha pulled herself up using the pipe until she was standing on wobbly legs.
“Katrina! Katrina! Come on!!” Natasha yelled.
She got her sister’s attention but also the metal beast as well. It extended its snapping lobster claw at Natasha, but the jammed blade held him in place.
Natasha leapt into the garage. Katrina sped around him, barely missing the scissoring pincers and entered the garage.
Natasha had spotted a control panel with two buttons labeled: Up and Down. As Katrina rolled inside, Natasha slammed the button and as the door lowered closed, the behemoth tried repeatedly to free its buzzsaw from the steel girder.
Looking back, Natasha saw Katrina docking with the can opener like she had earlier. The ring powered around the top of her barrel. Natasha limped towards her, the feeling in her legs returning slowly. As she got closer, she heard the buzzsaw winding up outside.
The door was hit by the beast’s lobster claw, putting a big dent in it. He hit it again and again, the dent growing in size. Then the buzzsaw cut through the door and sliced in a horizontal line. Red and orange sparks showered inside the garage.
Natasha stood by helplessly as she waited for the can-opener to continue spinning and cutting, spitting out a dazzling spray of white hot metal. It seemed like it was taking forever.
“Come on!” Katrina yelled from inside the barrel.
The diamond blades stopped spinning and lifted the lid, revealing her sister stuffed inside. Globs of sweat ran down her red face.
“Katrina, are you okay?”
Katrina looked up at her Natasha. “Get me … the fuck out … of this goddamn can!”
She threw the joystick against the wall, smashing it into a million plastic pieces.
“On it,” Natasha said.
She placed both hands on the warm jagged edge. As she readied herself to push, chunks of red brick peppered her face like buckshot.
Shielding her eyes with her hand, the blade had grinded its way into the brick. A shudder ran through her body as she realized where the blade was headed. A blast of adrenaline spurred Natasha into action.
“Tip me over!” Katrina screamed.
Ignoring her sister, Natasha wheeled Katrina towards the door, grabbed the doorknob, and for a split second, feared it was locked. She pulled.
The door flew open.
Natasha heard a metallic ring which was followed by a blazing flash of light and then an explosion. Natasha heaved her sister and herself through the opening as a powerful blast rocked the room. The door smashed Natasha into her sister as it slammed shut.
Franklin watched the battle taking place between his boss and Katrina underneath the viewing platform. The patrons hung by the waist over the railing to watch the fight. The rest watched the battle on the big screen above the arena. It played well on the betting app as bets started climbing for Katrina. He scoffed at the idea, but the odds were high and some people can’t resist voting for the underdog.
Behind the battling duo, Franklin saw movement. Double tapping the screen, the image zoomed into Natasha. She was crawling through the opening on her hands and knees. He pressed the button.
“Don’t go out there,” he said.
But the lid was behind her and she couldn’t hear him over the noise. When Natasha started cranking the valves, Franklin scratched his head. He couldn’t remember what they went to, but he reasoned it out quickly. Only two things required a valve: water and gas.
“The fireballs,” he said, whispering to himself.
Tapping the screen again, he zoomed in on the flooring where the fireballs shot out. He counted to twenty seconds. Instead of seeing a huge ball of flame, the floor became distorted by rising gas. That was where he placed the explosives.
His lips stretched into a frown that lasted maybe three seconds. The frown curled the other way and into a devious smile as an idea entered his devious mind. Tapping a series of buttons, Franklin locked all the doors in the building except for the main entrance.
It was too bad about Natasha. He really liked her, but he didn’t think she would abandon her sister. Which is what she needed to do if she was going to survive the impending explosion.
With the bodyguards blocking his way only out, Franklin reached down as if to tie his shoes. He grabbed a revolver from an ankle holster and swiveled his chair around.
Franklin laughed at the dumb look on their sweaty faces as he put a hole in each man’s chest and they fell in a heap on top of each other.
As Franklin dragged the dead bodyguards from the door, the office shook as if hit by an earthquake and he lost his balance. A muffled explosion reverberated through the walls. He looked at the monitors, but most of the cameras had gone blank, robbing him of visual information. He manually directed a working camera with his mouse and saw the unimaginable:
His boss, Peter, was dead.
Natasha’s eyes flickered open. Her sister was leaning against the wall, her legs stretched out in front of her. The steel drum laid on its side several feet away. It seemed only moments had passed. Natasha sat up.
“Katrina. Katrina. Wake up.” she said to her sister.
Katrina rolled her head loosely as if she were drunk. Her lips stretched into a painful grimace as she tried to move her stiff legs.
“Oh shit. My legs. I can’t feel them.”
Natasha climbed to her feet and stumbled towards the door. A whistling wind sang a high pitched tune as it flew under the door and into the garage. Gently, she touched the doorknob. It was warm, but not hot.
Deciding to investigate, Natasha intended to crack the door only an inch, but a strong gust ripped the doorknob out of her hand and the door swung open with a bang. She was hit with a wave of superheated air and she threw her arms up in front of her face.
She squinted against a brilliant yellow light that shined like the sun from where the garage door had been. Her ears were assailed by the sound of a rocket engine at lift off. A multitude of horrific screams echoed from the viewing platform that was still standing.
She didn’t know that Franklin had locked all the doors and they were roasting alive on the balcony above. An occasional figure leapt off over the rail and crumpled on impact.
Natasha took a tentative step into the furnace and shielded her eyes. A thick yellow stream of fire vomited forth like a dragon's breath. Natasha knew immediately what had happened. The buzzsaw had cut into the gas lines, sparking an explosion. It knocked the final boss into the metal support beam. Both were now glowing a bright yellow under a focused blow torch from the reputed main.
The beam shook violently.
“The hell is going on!?” Katrina said as she stuck her head inside the garage.
“We need to go,” Natasha said, backing into the hallway.
There was a loud groan as thick steel slowly surrendered to the stresses and ruptured into a thunderous explosion. Tons of metal from the viewing platform crumbled and fell on Franklin’s boss, Peter, obliterating him completely. The spectators rained down and their screams were snuffed out one by one as they tumbled into the inferno.
Natasha pushed Katrina back into the hallway. She looped an arm around her waist and together they ran down the hall and entered the first open doorway. Billowing smoke curled into the room. The building shook from another massive explosion. Natasha thought it was going to go on forever and she feared the brick building would fall down on them.
She scanned the room, looking for cover, but there wasn’t any. Only stacks of cardboard boxes against the four walls up to the ceiling. Handwritten with a black magic marker on the side of each box were labels: coats, hats, purses, wallets, jewelry, phones, and so on until Natasha saw one marked, weapons.
After pulling the box down, she opened it and removed a shiny silver pistol with a pearl handle. Her sister, Katrina smiled at the sight of it.
Franklin ran through the double-doors of the main entrance and skipped down the rough concrete steps to the sidewalk. He turned around and leaned back to look at the old plant one more time. There weren't any exterior lights and the building stood dark against the starlit night. At the far end the glow of red flames licked the smoke dotted sky. Franklin decided there was no way anyone could survive that explosion and the fire that followed.
As Franklin strolled towards the parking lot, he was hit with a wave of mixed emotions. Sorrow for the loss of his father's old newspaper plant. Relief that he’d gotten away with it. Happiness that his horrible boss was dead. Sadness for the loss of Katrina. But under it all, a glowing tingle of anticipation from what he was about to rake in.
He glanced at the phone in his hands and laughed out loud at how much money was in the betting app: twenty-six million dollars.
“What’s so funny?” Natasha asked.
Franklin looked up. There was a shadow blocking his path. A silver plated pistol shined in the dark and moved towards him until Natasha’s glowing red face came into view.
“Oh … Hey! You made it!” Franklin said, raising his hands in the air.
“You forgot what I said earlier?” Natasha asked, continuing her slow approach.
Franklin shrugged. "Remind me," he said as he slowly backed away.
“I said, I was going to kill you.” She stopped walking and leveled the gun at his face.
Franklin bumped into something. He looked back. Katrina was standing behind him.
“Come on now. You-you don't want to shoot me. I can make you rich”
Natasha tilted her head sideways. "I never said I was going to shoot you."
Franklin looked down at his feet. “Oh look, my shoe’s untied.”
As he bent down and wrapped his fingers around the gun, a sharp blow to the back of his head made him grunt. He wheeled as he fell and saw Katrina holding a nightstick in her hand.
Franklin was broiling. Sweat ran in rivulets down his slick face, tickling his skin until he woke up. His eyes snapped open and he gasped in a mouthful of hot air. In front of him stood a towering inferno that was eating the ceiling inside the arena.
Giant red chunks rained a fiery cascade onto the burning floor. Franklin reflexively tried to back away, but he couldn’t. He was trapped inside a steel drum and he felt his heart leap into his throat and choke him. Between his knees sat the joystick. He grabbed it and tried to back away from the advancing wall of fire but he charged towards the fire instead.
“Oopsy! Did we put that in backwards?” Natasha’s voice said from behind his head.
Katrina’s voice came next: “Sorry, we’re kind of new at this.”
Franklin pushed the joystick forward and reversed direction, moving away from the burning fire that was filling the arena.
“What’s the matter, butterfly? Afraid you're going to burn your wings?” Natasha said.
“Why are you doing this!” Franklin yelled. “I tried to help you, you fucking ingrates!”
“You have a choice to make. You can head towards the viewing platform,” Natasha said.
Franklin heard a rumbling noise and jerked the joystick to the right―but spun left. It was disorienting and he felt like he was going to throw up. The metal cylinder had come alive and was spinning up, the spikes beginning to blur.
“Or, you can take the easy way out,” Katrina finished for her sister.
Franklin turned his steel drum until the screen came into view. Both Natasha and Katrina were staring down at him. From outside came the muted sound of approaching sirens.
“We’d love to chat, but the fire department is here,” Natasha said.
“Byee,” Katrina said waving the tips of her fingers at him.
The screen blanked out and Franklin stared up at it for a minute. The heat inside the drum was growing and he reckoned it must be a hundred and thirty. He tried to swallow but it felt like razor blades in his throat. His eyes stung from sweat. Jerking the joystick, he spun in the wrong direction again. He yanked it the opposite direction, but overcorrected and the joystick fell from his slippery grasp and fell between his ankles.
As Franklin sat there, baking inside his steel drum a thunderous crash fell from behind. A tree length piece of burning timber had just hit the floor. It bounced and rolled and smashed into the wheeled barrel, knocking Franklin into the spiked cylinder that chewed through his barrel from the top down until nothing was left but the wheels.
The silver light of dawn had topped the arborvitaes and shone down on the dozen fire trucks that surrounded the crumbling red brick building. Firemen pointed hoses at the smoldering ruins, shooting streams of water that hissed on contact and kicked up clouds of ash. The gray flecks billowed into the sunlight and floated back down onto the rows of expensive cars forming a thin layer of ash over the bright paint jobs.
Natasha and her sister, Katrina, sat on the grated steel bumper of an EMT vehicle. Each wore a blanket thrown over their shoulders. A police officer moved past the paramedics and neared the two women whose faces were smeared with streaks of black soot.
“I understand you’re the only survivors,” he said.
Natasha’s lips stretched tight and she nodded her head almost imperceptibly.
“What happened?” he asked.
Natasha looked up at the cop and barked out a bitter laugh.
“Oh, you know … fucking rich people.”
Katrina started snickering. Natasha leaned against her and the two of them lost it. Their cackling laughter echoed across the parking lot and rose above the hissing hoses. They continued laughing like that for several minutes.