The lights of the stadium glowed against the backdrop of the metallic skyline like an electric sun ascending from the lake at the edge of the city. The arena was a fortified hive buzzing with society's most prominent event engineers and their army of technicians.
Inside the concrete walls of the rising star were the most influential figureheads of a mass-manufactured culture.
Like the Coliseum, the concrete behemoth was the newest mutation of the most widely recognized symbol of imperial decay. The hollowed grounds were the chosen sight to orchestrating the spectacle that could very well be considered the eulogy for a civilization
Stephan Landsman was one of the events field producers. He supervised the many logistical aspects as well as managed the many inflated egos of astonishingly wealthy court jesters.
The success of this money-drenched carnival was dependent upon his competence. His chattering teeth and trembling leg were just a few of the manifestations of the over-ambitious careerist's imminent breakdown.
He was at the center of an argument between two performers who were at the time part of the core of the entertainment industry.
They each had tens of millions of dollars behind them and were under the umbrella of corporations that had resources in the billions.
To many of those in their immediate circle as well as to the millions and millions plugged into the omnipotent communications network, their images dominated they were living deities, and it was up to Landsman to make sure the gods were pleased.
Right now, he was stuck between two angry titans battling over the details of the act of altruism they had been recruited for. One was a veteran of the industry the other a star still reaching the peak of her fame
To his left was Melony Ryan or Rah, as the public knew her was a nineteen-year-old girl who had become the latest incarnation to be inducted into the pantheon. She jumped at the opportunity to perform in what was set to be the largest benefit show in the history of modern entertainment.
It was a way to legitimize her as someone who identified with marginalized people and a way to demonstrate just what her star power meant into the most meaningful metrics, viewers, and dollars. She had begun her career as a model, then she had her first major role in film, and somewhere along the line, it was discovered she could dance and sing. She was the perfect trifecta. So long as your standards for any of these abilities weren't too high.
To his right was Axle Jefferson, who at 39 was considered something of a relic. His money went quite a distance in preserving his youth. He had been a chart-topper for the last decade and was considered the country's premier folk artists, again depending on what your standards are.
"If he goes through with his guns for kids program you can count me out of this show." The teenager huffed,
"It's not guns for kids Rah, it's simply a firearms education program geared towards children." The producer explained in his best diplomatic tone.
"If they can show they know how to operate a firearm safely, I see no reason we shouldn't give kids the tools to defend themselves." Retorted Jefferson
"How is giving a city full of refugees guns going to help them?" Shouted Rah.
"Just the ones who have shown they could be responsible! What don't you understand about that?" Axle said, rolling his eyes. "Besides, just what in the hell are they going to do with two hundred thousand birth control pills?" Snarled Axle.
"birth control pills?" asked Stephan
"Birth control pills and transgender bathroom signs." She told Stephan. "And Overpopulation is a problem in the poor community!" Rah fired back at Axle. "Also, it will help young women take control of their own bodies!"
"Guys, just listen for a second," insisted the determined producer. "Let's not forget why we're here. We need you guys to get the word about what's going on out there. If you guys both perform who knows how much money we'll raise, but if you guys don't, I'm guessing people are going to change the channel."
The primadonnas silently sized each other up.
"Can we just put this behind us for now?" Siad Landsman
Before either answered, a panicked functionary ran up to their little semi-circle of reconciliation to deliver some more bad news.
"Jake Mills just quoted Malcolm X in a tweet, and now Prototype is saying he may refuse to go up." The red-faced minion said in between his gasps for breath. "Mills tweeted back now they're in a Twitter war."
Landsman had a vague idea why the rapper might take issue with the 16-year-old industry prince quoting the late civil rights leader, but he had to maintain his diplomatic posture.
"Ok, what exactly did Prototype say?" Landsman asked.
"He's in a holding pattern right now."
Prototype's agent, as if having manifested from nothing, was suddenly standing right there.
"Ok, what does that mean?" Asked the producer cautiously.
"Well, there are a few ways we can play this. Prototype can either walk away from the show in protest, or he could come out and support Jake in a touching moment of reconciliation," The Armani-clad agent said, seeming unaware or at least indifferent to his own cynicism.
"Let me talk to him." Insisted LandsmanLandsman.
"If Prototype is out, so am I!" Declared Rah. "We have to stick together."
"What? Who has to stick together?" Asked Axle.
"It's a solidarity thing you wouldn't understand." Said the indignant teenager.
"This is typical." Huffed Axle, "You get out of here then little girl. I'll get on the other side of the wall and start really helping people by giving them a way to protect themselves! Where are the crates of AR-15s I brought?"
The Downtown area was an oasis surrounded by crumbling ruins. The sprawling blemish of lights that one spread out for miles was now burnt down to a single glowing ember.
An armed force kept the bastion of the sanctuary for the wealthy amputated from the devastated world. Blast walls were erected and topped with razor wire. Armored vehicles lurched around the perimeter, the barrels of their mounted machine guns warning away anyone who approached the cocoon.
Human refuse scurried like vermin amid the hollowed collapsing structures choked full of the discarded dead. Acrid black smoke billowing up from the corridors of the urban grid spread across the sky. The wind pushed the smoke in every direction, causing a gentle fall of ashen human remains over the city.
They were kept alive by scraps helicopters dropped down to them at irregular intervals. The contents often being commandeered and distributed by crack militias that controlled the fringes of the decimated urban mar.
Helen took the advice of the authorities and holed up in her apartment, severed from all essential services with her son until deprivation forced them to emerge like hungry rats from their concrete hole.
Her son's thin frame spilled over Helen's trembling arms. She looked down at his face, still as stone. His heavy eyelids sealed shut, and Rose-red rashes blemished his colorless flesh.
His illness was a familiar one. It was a disease that lay dormant underneath civilization's thin veneer, ready to spring forth from the slightest fissure. The ruins were a pest-infested environment, and these traditional agents of plague roamed the streets freely.
Little Michael would just be one of the thousands to be claimed by a rampaging pathogen.
A fleet of low-flying helicopters passed overhead, whipping the air into a howling cyclone and rattling the rows of hollowed out buildings. She leaned into so she could listen for his shallow, weakening breath.
"Michale….Michael, can you hear me?." She whispered, hoping he could hear her over the blades of the flying war machines.
Countless wide-eyed faces with emaciated frames darted from the darkness of their caverns, driving by a Pavlovian response to the whirling blades they chased the aircraft through the streets hoping it might be there to bring them any sustenance.
The surging mob ran past Hellen and her dying child. As far as anyone was concerned The boy was either already a corpse or about to be one he meant little to the beasts that remained in the decaying metropolis.
The child's withering body didn't weigh much, but Helen had already carried him further than her malnourished body could handle. She was close; she could see the soldiers through small gaps in the crowd. She pushed through the crowd and called for help.
"I need a doctor right away!" She screamed.
She was afraid he might pass without her even noticing. She held her boy to her chest and started counting every breath.
She inched forward, and people silently parted to let her through to the soldiers who hadn't noticed her yet.
Helen's stringy hair fell over her face and draped over her son as she silently wept. Welling tears spilled from her eyelids and dripped down her cheeks. The days and days of sweat beaded up in her stringy hair like rain on the fibers of a spider's web.
"My son needs help now!"
The pauses between breaths spread into longer and longer durations.
A steady trickle of refugees seeking refuge behind the city wall turned into a rushing river swelling behind the locks of military checkpoints. The bewildered people were kept at bay at the point of automatic rifles. Luitenent Railsback was the gatekeeper at one of the access points to downtown.
Railsback was part of a regular army unit called in to protect the walled cluster of skyscrapers and high rises from the unsettled masses seething out from the steel fabric of the city. It was his job to direct the flow of human traffic.
Some were allowed past the gates to work for the privileged inhabitants of the gleaming sanctuary still plugged into society's critical lifelines. Some were even lucky enough to get access to medical care and housing. Railsback and his men screened anyone who was trying to get by.
His unit was drawn mostly from the southwest, parts of the country far removed from the city they occupied. The armed cadre had no connection to the place, and that's how their commanders wanted it.
"Work detail keep to the center. If you are ill, proceed to the right. If you are wounded or need any other kind of assistance, proceed to the left." A monotone voice repeated over mounted loudspeakers
"If you are wounded or sick, and are seeking medical attention, proceed to the right! Otherwise, if you're here for work detail, stay in this line!" Railsback shouted, reinforcing the message.
He assessed everyone who passed by him with piercing scrutiny. The soldier peered at the world from behind the deformed polymer eyes of a gas mask. His frame was plated with ebony combat armor. The thick kevlar shell was a barrier between the desperate asylum seekers and what little humanity remained in the weary troopers.
"If you are wounded or sick, and are seeking medical attention, proceed to the right! Otherwise, if you're here for work detail, stay in this line!" Railsback repeated
"Luitenent, you better check this out I think we have a code 14." A young trooper's voice cracked over the radio.
"Roger," Railsback replied cooly.
He was flanked by an escort of two privates. They waded through the sea of people, parting them with the blunt end of their rifles when necessary.
A circle formed in the line. The privates went in first and split everyone up. "Step the fuck back!" the barked, pointing the barrels of their guns directly in the face of whoever they felt was too close.
They found Helen on the ground cradling Mikey's motionless body. Two troops were standing over her, keeping people away.
"What's going on here?" Asked Railsback.
One of the soldiers silently knelt down next to Helen and grabbed Mikey.
"No!" She gasped, squeezing him closer to her.
"Ma'am, don't resist!" The soldier barked.
The trooper shouldered his weapon and attempted to pull her by the shoulders. The exhausted mother clung tightly. The two couldn't break her grip. The soldier behind her put her in a chokehold. She gasped, and her face turned a violet red.
"Hey, what the fuck are you guys doing to her?" a stocky man shouted, taking a step towards the troops.
"Stay where you are!" One of Railsback escorts ordered raising his rifle.
Helen's body began to tremble. She let go of the boy and fell to her side.
"You can't take him she said, struggling to catch her breath. The soldier showed the boy to Railsback. He looked at the crimson blemishes on his otherwise colorless flesh and took a step back.
"That's fuckin typhus!" Shouted Railsback. "Take that kid over to the CDC tent now!"
"No! Don't take him!" Helen shrieked as she struggled to her feet.
""Gate four this is unit three eight reporting a possible case of Typus in sector nine-block seven!" Railsback said with urgency.
"Roger, that three eight shut down the checkpoint." Was the reply.
"Roger." Answered Railsback
"Alright, everyone pullback, we're shutting down the checkpoint!" He shouted to his troops.
Helen was being held back while the soldier carried away her son.
"You can't go, you can't!" She howled at the soldiers who conveyed no emotion through the insect-like eyes of their masks.
A glass bottle hit the street next to the trooper restraining Helen, and he immediately dropped her and pointed his weapon at the crowd.
"Who the fuck threw that!" He demanded.
The rest of the squad drew their weapons, and the crowd backed away. Railsback kept calm.
"Alright, everyone go back to your homes. The checkpoint is closed!"
"All military checkpoints are now closed until further notice. Please return to your homes." The recording followed him over the loudspeakers.
The angry crowd did not disperse, though. They shouted at the soldiers, and soon more debris began to fly. A brick hit a trooper in the leg, and the soldiers fired their weapons into the crowd.
"Cease fire!" Ceasefire!" Shouted Railsback.
The crowd turned into a chaotic swarm. People ran in every direction. More bottles were flung into the air. Glass began to explode around the feet of the withdrawing soldiers.
"Let's get the fuck out of her!" Ordered Railsback.
The distant clattering of a heavy machine gun reverberated through the streets.
"Shit, what the hell was that?" Railsback peered into the distance down the sights of his weapon. His squad was scanning the distant rooftops for any sign of danger.
"Gate four this is unit three eight reporting small arms fire in sector nine-block seven!" Railsback said urgently.
The machine-gun fire was answered by the popping of multiple rifles. An explosion rang out like a thunderclap followed the sound of a million shards of glass raining onto the streets. A column of fire sprang up from between the buildings before descending back to the ground. There was a collective scream, and the panicked herd began to stampede towards the checkpoint.
"Move out now!" Ordered Railsback, but it was too late his squad was engulfed by the horde. The wall was breached.
Stephan was in Jake Mill's dressing room. The teenage heartthrob was laying back on a love seat surrounded by a silent entourage who were all dining on shrimp cocktails.
"There prototype messaged me back he says he accepts my apology. The show goes on." The superstar boy said with a cocky grin.
"Good, that's good news said, Landsman."
"Yeah, I don't even know what I thought when I tweeted that shit. I'm sure there are tons of black astronauts." Jake said, taking a bite of shrimp.
"Uhh yeah, probably." Said Landsman sounding unsure. "Well, at any rate, I think this little feud will actually be great for the final act."
"Yeah, I think they'll go ape shit out there." Agreed Mills.
"Absolutely, well, I gotta get some things ready. You alright there?"
"Yeah, everything is copasetic." Mills said dreamily.
"Sounds good then," Landsman said, going for the door.
"Oh wait, actually think you could get me some bars?"
"Bars?" Asked Landsman.
"You know Xanax. I like to have a bar or two with my Mimosas before I hate the stage."
"Oh sure, I'll send some down," said Stephan.
He closed the door and found himself face to face with the same messenger he felt like shooting before.
"Sir, we're being told to evacuate the stadium." the quivering functionary said.
"What the fuck do you mean?" Roared Landsman
"The army called. They said the blast walls have been breached. There's some kind of attack happening."
"Goddamit!" Shouted Landsman was shaking with anger.
"What should we do?" Asked the frightened assistant.
"We're not evacuating shit this show goes on," Declared a defiant Landsman. "On, I say!"
The stadium held some sixty thousand attendees, people completely insulated from the hell beyond the blast walls. Rainbow colored pyrotechnics, walls of speakers, and the zealous worship of Hollywood idols drowned out the sound of the gunfire and the airbursts of IEDs.
An alternate digital universe allowed everyone to keep up with the schism between the performers they so admired. An eerie calm had fallen over the stadium. The stage was empty, the lights had dimmed, and the amplifiers had quite.
They were still oblivious to the human stampede that had smashed through their barrier, and the still distant but approaching gunfire seemed inconsequential. They didn't understand these were the sounds that were awakening them from a carefully crafted dream.
People muttered to each other about what might be happening. Soon people started to become restless. Rumors spread through the rows like a plague. Was the show over? Did everyone drop out? The concert-goers had been so suddenly cut off from the entertainment they were addicted to became agitated and returned to the comfort of their portable screens where they vented their frustrations.
As if speaking from the heavens, the sound of Jake Mill's voice filled the stadium. Causing tens of thousands to at once fall into a euphoric frenzy.
"You know we may all be different." Mills said, "We come from different places, have different religions, eat different foods." His voice trailed off for a brief moment before being followed by prototype
"We might have different color skin and like to wear different kinds of clothes." He said in a dreamy tone.
"But, we're all just human." Chimed in the disembodied voice of Rah.
"Sharing one planet," Axle concluded.
"Just imagine." Said Mills
"Imagine what we could do," said Prototype
"Imagine who we could become." Said Rah.
"Just....imagine," said Axle
The lights burst on illuminating the stage and revealing the four performers to their rabid fans. The teenage superstar Jake Mills stepped into the spotlight and began leading the group in a rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine."
"Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
above the only sky
Imagine all the people...
An explosion shook the stadium, causing the stage lights to tremble and flicker. The singers stumbled but quickly regained their composure
"Imagine there's no countries....
A fleet of gunships passing by muffled the performance with their whirling blades as they raced overhead.
"It isn't hard to do...
Flames leaped into the summer sky, and a shockwave rattled the stage. The lights fell from their metallic fixtures, and the stadium went black. The electronically induced dream had come to an end. The hell being contained beyond the city walls had burned through. The self-induced lethargy of mass entertainment couldn't keep what remained of privileged society in a trance any longer.
The slumbering people were ripped from their mirage. The algorithmically produced feel-good beats were lost along with a world that was being reduced to ashes.