Union Dues: Sidekicks in Stockholm
By Jeffrey R. DeRego
Five of them at least, with submachine guns, body armor, and more dynamite than I’ve seen outside a Tom and Jerry cartoon. They all sound the same thanks to some digital vocal thing built into their black suits. They all look the same with black ski masks underneath a mesh sort of fencing helmet, black everything else right to the boots, and all about the same size, like someone took a picture of a terrorist and photocopied it.
This whole drama seems like it began a million years ago by now. I was scheduled to come here and open a convention of business leaders and up-and-coming corporate types. My speech, Good Corporate Citizenship, with examples of how The Union gives back to the communities it serves, is a two year old piece worked up and updated by Marketing and Promotions to accommodate a new administration in Washington, and some new economic stuff that I don’t really understand. I’d delivered only half of the text before these guys burst through the door.
I froze at the first gunshot, not for long, just a few seconds, just long enough to be useless.
The girl who sits beside me – her name tag reads “Hello my name is Stacy” – leans in close. She whispers, “What are you going to do, Adam?”
I try and ignore her and watch the men. My wrist feels weirdly cool and light without the communicator gauntlet and beacon strapped around it. I glance down at my gloves and the tatters of honeycombed teflon-spandex straps where the gauntlet was stitched on. You’re Adam Smasher! Goddamn it. Do something! I’ve only been in the orange suit and cape for three years. I had the physique and the right chin at the right time and until about and hour ago thought the role fit pretty well.
My predecessor died of a heart attack in the New York Pyramid training room two days after his thirtieth birthday, the original Adam Smasher sits connected to a mechanical heart pump in The Village somewhere in Antarctica. He’s the Adam Smasher everyone remembers from Saturday-morning TV, blonde and chiseled, his orange one piece suit and mask almost glowing, his tritium atom insignia a mark of galactic strength as he caught speeding, robber-filled cars, fought off robots and gangsters and the evil machinations of Dr. Destruction. Don’t get me wrong, when people talk to me, they talk to Adam Smasher, but sometimes I want to scream out, “I used to watch ‘The Adventures of Adam Smasher’ on TV too, in syndication!”
I should be thankful anyone remembers the show at all.
Atom Comics’ teen and adult readers have moved on to darker, grittier titles by competing publishers and, well, look at me? I’m like a smiling Day-Glo orange tree. The kid demographic wants the crazy soap opera stuff like Team Shikaragaki not a creaky old walking ethics lesson. So, The Union pulls Adam Smasher comics. My figure goes into the much less produced “classics” line. No playsets. No video game adaptations. No TV. Meanwhile, I wait for Marketing and Promotions to generate interest in Adam Smasher. Maybe I come back darker, or kiddier, or something completely different. Until then, my whole life is giving lectures about doing the right thing and leveraging the audience’s nostalgia for a true-blue – well, orange – Union Superhero.
“Adam, how are you going to get us out of this?” Stacy is maybe twenty five. Blue eyed, petite – but then, everyone looks sort of petite to me as I’m just scraping seven-foot-three tall and thirty nine inches across the shoulders – every time she looks at the terrorists her eyes widen with fear, and every time she looks at me they widen more, with hope.
I try not to look at her.
The Union guidelines for participating in a hostage situation are very specific; The Union will negotiate in good faith that member, or members, in custody will not take initiative, instead as hostages you will accommodate the reasonable demands of the captors (”reasonable’ is defined as any requested act that in so doing does not cause harm to themselves or other hostages be they Normal or Super). Remember, your best asset is fame – hostage takers are reluctant to harm famous persons, or harm others in the presence of famous people. Your second best weapon is The Union itself – we will work tirelessly to secure your release by any means necessary. The third best weapon is your mouth – talk, buy time, engage in conversation, distract and redirect. Union of Super Heroes Contingency Guidelines, 1973 revision, “So You’re a Hostage” Section 2, paragraph 1. All I have to do is think about those guidelines the right way and the whole document races up and down my frontal lobes sort of like a snippet of a song chorus, or TV character catch phrase.
Stacy says, “Adam, you have to help us.”
I’m probably worth a lot, being a Team leader. I say, “I have to wait,” then immediately wish I’d kept quiet.
“Wait?” Stacy’s voice falls back into a half whisper when it’s clear that the men have started paying attention to the line of us sitting against the wall. “What the hell makes you think Sekula Industries is going to pony up ransom for an Executive Assistant?”
“Shut it!” The nearest gunman’s voice is emotionless, mechanical.
“And I’m not the only one. Jeanna over there is a Marketing Manager, Cleavon is a Human Resources guy, there’s a few more engineers and personnel managers. You think they’re worth a few million each? We’re being set us up to die and you’re just sitting there.”
“I can’t do anything. I’m sorry.” Think Adam, think. This is one of the few times I regret my super strength and wish I’d been blessed with any one of the other powers, mind reading, strategic planning, agility, or electrical generation. Those guys are useful in close quarters and could probably shut this hostage thing down. Me? If I get physical it’s likely to get innocent people killed.
Another two dozen hostages line the wall where I sit. All of the chairs are pushed opposite. A handful of gunmen stand on the stage. Others guard the doors and hallway. A table heaped with cell phones sits at the far end of the room. One woman in a purple suit stands beside the phone covered table. She talks quietly. She covers one ear with her hand. A gunman points a submachine gun at her head.
“Adam, you have to help us –”
“We don’t even know how many gunmen –”
“Just grab one of them! Turn the tables. You’re a superhero!” She tugs on the yellow and white cape that hangs just past the small of my back. “Jesus don’t you even know your own stories? This plot’s been done a million and a half times.”
“This isn’t a fucking comic book –” I snap my mouth shut and suffocate the rest of my frustration. Adam Smasher doesn’t swear.
“You,” one of the gunmen singles me out .
I stand, swallow hard, and walk to the center of the room.
“That’s close enough,” the man says, “relax, Adam Smasher, we don’t intend to shoot you.”
I lower my arms and try not to look relieved. “I don’t know what your game is, or even who you are but –”
The man twirls around, which at first seems almost unnecessarily flamboyant. He finishes the spin just before two taser darts stick into my chest. Their tiny electrical charge isn’t enough to harm me and the suit’s grounding makes the gesture that much more futile.
I tug the wires free and drop the still-sparking ends to the ground. “Playtime is over.”
The man quickly unsnaps the taser element from the handle and trigger and clicks another into place. “Let’s see if the others are as resilient as you.”
He fires directly at an older man dressed in a blue silk suit.
The man heaves upwards. His mouth jerks open. The loud tick-tick-tick of electrical shocks fills the room. He tries to scream, fails, then collapses, twitching, to the carpet.
I lunge forward but only get two steps before the other gunmen bring their weapons to bear on the sitting hostages. I stop dead center in the middle of the dance floor.
“Your heroism is noted.” he says, “but misplaced. Do you know what man generously accepted your voltage?”
I breathe like a furious bull. “Do what you want to me, but leave them alone –”
“That is Clayton Morris, Chief Financial Officer of International Jetway. Mr. Morris has a terrible cardiac condition Adam, I bet you didn’t know that, and any significant shock to his chest could very easily stop what’s left of his heart.” The man walks slowly to where Morris groans and twitches.
I growl, “If he dies it’s on your conscience.”
The man cocks his head. “Interesting choice of words Adam. You imply that I have one. In that respect, both Mr. Morris and I share some rather surprising similarities. You see, last year while amassing a record ten billion dollar profit, he oversaw the firing over over thirty two thousand employees – Heartless indeed – and migrating their jobs to several low-wage foreign countries.”
“You’re a murderer –”
“– Murderer! Patriot! Anarchist! Martyr! Synonyms for the new company guidelines.”
“Adam Smasher, I used to watch you every Saturday morning. I had your action figure and coloring books. I even memorized the opening. In a world gone mad! Only Adam Smasher, can put things right! Strong as titanium, fast as lightning, the bonds of justice, the power of liberty! Adam Smasher! Enemy of evil. Protector of the innocent. Champion of the people!” The man draws a large combat-style knife from his belt and tosses high up towards the vaulted ceiling. The knife sticks down in the floor beside my yellow boot. “Some could say that I have chosen this path because of you.” He pauses. “Those company markings cheapen your image. Cut them off.”
The man points at the hostages. “Bring out a surrogate!”
A gunman drags a woman to the center of the room. He draws an identical knife. She, the hostage, has an air of familiar; older, maybe fifty, stage-curtain haircut, stylish, purple suit and shoes. She makes no attempt to hide an enormous diamond ring and jeweled watch. I know I’ve seen her somewhere before today.
“Cut off your markings or we cut of hers, beginning with her famous face.”
I reach down and collect the knife and in my enormous hands it’s like a razor sharp miniature. A little flick would put it through a gunman’s mask, skull, and helmet. They’ll shoot all the hostages. Remember, grant their reasonable demands.
The blade glides through the first layers of armorgel and spandex as cut a three foot wide semi-rectangle across my chest. I drop the tritium atom over The Union “U” graphic to the floor and do the same with the smaller Union “U” graphics on the outside of my biceps, and my aluminum “U” belt buckle and attached utility belt. The costume foams and hardens around the perimeter of the jagged empty space where my trademarks used to be. Cold air brushes my hairless chest and a bloom of goose pimples grows up my arms and the nape of my neck. “Now, Release the woman.” I pause but its only for effect. The situation doesn’t change. “Who are you? I can’t keep referring to you as ‘the man’.” I kick the knife back across the floor to the man’s feet.
“We are the sleeping giant. We are the faceless masses. We are the line items. We are the growing anger. We are the revolution!” The man squats down slowly. His black gloved fingers snatch up the blade. He hurls the knife into my right chest muscle just above my exposed nipple. “For the sake of today’s meeting you may call me ‘The Chairman’.”
The blade only penetrates an inch or so, not life threatening, but still painful. I don’t flinch, but slowly draw the knife from my flesh, and as I do the other terrorists brandish their machine guns with more gusto. I bury the blade to the hilt in the laminate dance floor with a snap of my fingers. “Not impressed, Chairman.”
“So noble, mangling your poor defenseless clothing and offering yourself to to save –” He stops short and walks almost close enough for me to snatch up. Almost. “You do know who this woman is?”
“I have a feeling you’re going to tell me –”
The Chairman waves his arms in frustration. “Really Adam, you must pay more attention to real world.”
“What do you want from me? I’ve done what you’ve asked and I’ve listened to you rant like a crazy person. I don’t know about layoffs of profits or whatever. But I can tell you this, hurting innocent people is evil.”
The Chairman laughs so hard he almost has to balance himself on a table to stay standing. “Evil?” he laughs harder this time. “If you know good and evil as well as you know fame and fortune –.”
“I’m tired of your boasting!”
The woman asks, “You really don’t know who I am?”
The Chairman turns to his associate. “Release her,” then back to me, “do you recognize any of these people?”
I stare over the row of frightened and well dressed hostages. “No.”
“Astounding.” This time even his voice changer can’t mask the amazement in his voice. He paces towards the stage and back. “Utterly astounding. You claim to be society’s protectors and yet you cannot recognize the most evil of villains when they are presented to you like well wrapped gifts? Astonishing! If I told you their names would it make any difference?”
“I don’t know. Probably.”
“We aren’t the ones holding guns on innocent businesspeople,” The woman says.
“This mouthy one is Holly McWinters. Former President of Sekula Industries. For god’s sake, Adam, she’s been on television every week for the last six months because she’s trying to buy herself the Governor’s office, and,” The Man says, “you don’t recognize her?”
“None of this changes the game, Chairman –”
“The Union sent you here to give a speech about corporate responsibility, and she’s one of the reasons that we need speeches about corporate responsibility!” The Chairman crosses his arms. The submachine gun hangs down from his right hand. The casualness of the posture is even more disconcerting than the soldier-solid menace of earlier. He walks closer to the hostages and thrusts the gun at a fifty-plus year old man in a gray suit and red tie. “Him? Do you know him?”
“Get to the point –”
“You don’t know him, do you? He’s Clarence Haller, Chief Financial Officer of Talon Security, the largest operator of private prisons in the United States. How is he not on The Union’s radar? Stand up Clarence and introduce yourself.”
Haller struggles to his feet. He took a bullet graze to the thigh during the initial infiltration and blood stains his right trouser leg. “Hu – hello. I’m a big – uh – fan, Adam.”
“Talon, under Clarence’s leadership expanded from a simple slave-wage institutional food service business into a behemoth billion-dollar corporation who now wields enough power to purchase federal state, and local parole boards, judges, and zoning committees, to force through the construction of new, more expensive prisons.” The Chairman waves his gun and Clarence sits back down.
“What’s wrong with running prisons? Criminals have to pay their debts –”
“But who defines a criminal, Adam?”
“Normals do. Society does. The courts.”
“Are you really that naïve? Talon has lobbied for nationwide expansion of a brutal three-strikes law that, in some states, routinely puts human being into jail for life, with no possibility of parole, for such offenses as stealing a loaf of bread, expand punishments for non-violent offenders, expand the war on drugs, demand mandatory minimum sentences for what should be misdemeanor offenses. Why? Because every inmate earns Talon Security upwards of fifty grand a year, and packed sometimes ten to a cell, in a prison with 500 cells, it’s a recipe for enormous profits.”
Most of The Chairman’s words bounce off my head like they’re written on ping-pong balls. At least if I’m at the center of attention then the gunmen keeps his trigger fingers still. It’s a hundred feet to the fire door, three gunmen between me and that, at least two more behind me, and no doubt more in the hallway behind them. Even if I get three of them, and they all concentrate on me, there’s the dynamite spread around the room –
“You see, Adam? all of these captain of industry, for lack of a better expression, are beholden to a board of directors and they to an auditorium full of stockholders. All I’ve done is place the fate of these executives, these kings, in the hands of their subjects. Holly has personally ‘force reduced’ over eighty thousand employees. Her horrific leadership bloated Sekula stock. When the market readjusted tens of thousands of employees lost everything. Suicides. Divorces. Murder. Whole regions stripped of their economic engines. Now, like Clarence, when Sekula’s board convenes to discuss our price – exactly seventy percent of the company worth at time of her appointment, plus double her golden parachute – we will see how much stomach they have to exercise the will of their stockholders in realigning resources to meet the challenges of a globalizing market. ”
“This is all about money. You’re no better than a bank robber.”
“Exactly! We are Robin Hood! We are John Dillinger!”
“It’s still just a robbery. Let these people go before the police burst in here and they get caught in the crossfire.”
“There will be no police, Adam.” The Chairman points down at an elderly man in a quasi-military jacket. “Horace Jameson, President and founder of InterCity Incorporated. InterCity collected over two billion dollars last year, while starving two hundred police districts, putting fifteen hundred officers out of a job. He’s as much a criminal as the starving shoplifters and drug dealers his employees routinely brutalize. But his ransom isn’t monetary, it’s a simple stand-down order. He gave it happily. Disgusting that he, who claims to bring more humanity to law enforcement, would capitulate so quickly. ”
“You didn’t give him much of a choice.”
The Chairman’s breath explodes through his opaque mask for a good ten seconds. He shivers once and leans his head over until the his neck offers a loud crack-crack-crack. “You’re dragging me into the details, Adam. You should know these things. Why don’t you know these things?”
“All I know is that the flatfeet at InterCity are nice, down to earth and noble public servants, mostly. Who don’t hurt people to make a political point – When they aren’t protesting our existence – but this hardly seems like the time to get into The Union’s PR issues. We don’t put a premium on knowing the day-to-day mundane problems of your society. We don’t fight a bad economy other than reducing prices on comics or action figures.”
Stacy’s voice echoes from behind me. “We’re not all captains of industry, Chairman.”
“Ah, a voice from the rabble. State your name and position.”
“Stacy, I’m an Executive Assistant at Sekula Industries. There are many other people here who aren’t robber barons, just people trying to make a living to feed their families. There’s absolutely nothing to be gained by holding us too. We have no boards of directors to consider our fate.” Stacy’s voice is strong, even, almost daring. “If you claim to speak for us, then let us go.”
“Executive Assistant? Not an assistant to this executive?” The Chairman points at Holly.
“Yes. Well, I was until she transitioned out to jump into politics.”
“Oh, what irony. We have one superhero, and one sidekick!” The Chairman raises his black-gloved hand to his chin. “Did you know that Adam Smasher does not know who any of our more prominent guests are?”
“So to him, all of you are innocents. Isn’t that refreshing?”
“We are innocents.”
A batch of the cell phones simultaneously rings and draws the attention of The Chairman and several of the other gunmen away from the hostages.
Stacy glances at the knife hilt sticking out of the floor and the rivulets of blood running down over the chalky hardened foam of my uniform and grimaces. She whispers, “does it hurt?”
I answer, “What do you think?”
“What’s your plan?”
“I don’t have one yet. He sure talks a lot.” I glance over at the table of cell phones. The Men begin to escort hostages to the stage mouth and hand out phones over to them. They are negotiating for their lives with their boards of directors.
“I counted eleven gunmen all spread out.” Stacy catches the eye of Holly McWinters. “What do we do? Will the board pay?”
“He’s going to kill us all,” Holly says, “you have to get me out of here. I’ll give you anything you want, money, anything.” She turns to Stacy. “Tell him, explain who I am and why he should help me.”
“You really don’t know who these people are, Adam?” Stacy struggles to keep her eyes off the bleeding slice in my exposed chest.
“Why does that even matter?”
“You gave a speech, a really good speech that sounded like you knew the issues from the inside out and back again.” She pauses for a second. “Don’t you?”
“I didn’t write the freaking speech – The Union implanted it, I memorized it.”
The Chairman returns to the conversation. “And what a speech it was, if I may paraphrase – And with these amazing gains it is incumbent upon you to pour back that wealth into the communities from which it was farmed. To bring new, better schools, libraries, parks, hospitals, scholarships, and the infrastructure necessary to advance the progress of America. A rising tide indeed lifts all boats. Such inspiring words, Adam. Don’t you agree, Stacy?”
Stacy shrugs. “This conversation is pointless because Adam has no idea what he was saying anyway. But, it’s nice to know that our fate,” Stacy waves across the line of hostages, “is tied up with your insane blood feud.”
“Martyrs live forever, Stacy,” The Chairman’s voice changer crackles a little. “Holly, tell me, did Adam’s carefully scripted words have any bearing on your perspective on wealth and social responsibility?”
She whispers, “no.”
“You don’t believe that the super rich have a duty to those beneath them.”
Holly shakes her head.
“At least an honest answer.” The Chairman says, “Adam?”
“I – I don’t know enough about any of this to have an opinion.” My mind races over and over and over through fuzzy almost-memories of my dad. I think he was laid off once. Weird. I can’t remember the details of his face or voice or history. I snap back to the hotel ballroom with The Chairman still yapping.
“Imagine if she runs a state government with the same slash and burn approach as Sekula Industries?”
Stacy says, “I don’t care, you psycho, I just want to get out of here alive. You want to change the world? Run for office. I’m sure once you get your millions and we’re all dead, you’ll go retire to some third world country where the value of your caper is bumped up a few hundred times. Then you can live your fantasy of being a successful Robin Hood where in your wake nothing’s changed here. Regular schmoes like me still get laid off, people still lose their homes, and get divorced, and commit suicide, and people like them,” She points at Holly, “still run the game.”
I try and put the whole picture together. “Holly, did you do all that stuff? Hurt all those people?”
She just stares at me for a minute in silence then asks. “Are you listening to this criminal lunatic’s bullshit, Adam?”
“I’m trying to put it all in perspective.” I turn to Stacy. “Did she?”
Stacy glances from Holly to The Chairman to me. “Sort of. It sort of depends on how you look at the world. America is chaotic, twenty percent unemployment, a bunch of tax-obsessed wackos picket town hall meetings, banks foreclosed a million homes last year. I mean, it’s bad, it’s as bad as things have been in decades.”
“I didn’t know –”
“But that doesn’t mean that these people are the root cause.”
“Not the root cause, no, but they perpetuate and amplify the misery, twist the knife in the back of the American dream.” The Chairman strides to the cell phone table and fishes out the one belonging to Holly. “We expect Sekula’s answer in less than twenty minutes.”
The words American dream resonate strangely like they set off a chain of buried memories of home and mom and dad and all that stuff. I changed just about half way through junior year of high school, the school principal turned me in, my folks received a payout when I left to train. “My American dream was a hundred grand for my folks and a job for life with The Union.”
The Chairman asks, “how much are you paid for your lifetime employment, Adam?”
“Paid? Well – I have little account for spending in our Pyramid commissary for incidentals, shampoo, noodles, that sort of stuff. Like an allowance I guess. What’s left after expenses.”
The Chairman almost laughs. “What do you mean, ‘not paid’? You can’t walk into a convenience or department or toy store anywhere in America and not see Union stuff, TV shows on every afternoon, they have to pay you something!”
“Well no. I mean, I get a piece of the big Union pie, but my piece also gets cut up to pay for things like my food, rent, my custom fitted costumes aren’t cheap, travel expenses, general upkeep, that sort of thing – Every month I get a statement with a little box showing what’s in my day-to-day account, usually a few dollars here and there.”
The Chairman asks, “you have to buy your own costume? My god that’s the saddest thing I think I’ve ever heard. That can’t be correct. You’ve been around for, like, 50 years or something. Right?” He turns to the hostage line. “Bring Clarence to font and center.”
A gunman walks the CEO of Talon security back to the conversation.
The Chairman waves his submachine gun like a classroom pointer as he speaks. “Adam Smasher is at least 50 years old, right?”
Clarence says, “Older. I read him as a little kid, back in the late 1940s or so. He’s at least sixty, or should be. I always figured that when you came out as a Union character that they’d just bought the rights to the suit and stuff. So he’s not really Adam Smasher, just a guy dressed like Adam Smasher.”
“The comic guy was fiction, I’m not.”
Clarence stares as if trying to look through my mask and mangled costume.
I smile. “Sounds like you both need to start collecting the books again. Maybe I’ll send you a subscription Chairman, when you’re spending the rest of your life behind bars.”
The Chairman cackles, though the voice changer munges it all into a sort of deep hiccupy static. “to spend the rest of my life in jail I must be proven guilty, and tried, and arrested, and caught. But, I won’t be caught. I’ll just watch the news stands if it’s all the same to you.”
Holly asks, “You don’t get residuals from licensing? If not you need better management, Adam.”
“I do better when I have a comic in print, but I’ve been hiatused due to low sales so the Marketing group can work out what to do with me; until then I run in the red. Since this is a lifetime job it’ll cycle back to me earning out. I guess – I never really thought about this until now.”
The Chairman says, “This would be hilarious if it weren’t tragic. You are a superhero, yet you live like a convict paid in the modern equivalent of Pullman scrip! And to think it’s called The Union.” He makes a noise like sort of a digital burp. “I don’t know whether to ask you to join us, or simply shoot you in the head out of mercy.”
Holly says, “The Union is like the idealistic fantasyland that The Chairman envisions where everything you earn is taken away and spread out among all of the others whether they earn or not. So that there can be never be winners. If Stacy stays with us and works hard and demonstrates her worth then there is no reason at all she couldn’t be a winner. Just like you, Adam. You weren’t born as Adam Smasher, but you worked hard and you earned it and whatever benefits came with that costume.”
I chuckle a little. “You so don’t understand how The Union operates.”
Stacy turns to face The Chairman. “I work hard, I come in every day, early, and stay late. I expect my work to matter, that someone will notice and reward me. That’s the American dream for the 21st century. There is no guilt in being a hard worker.”
The Chairman cackles and his voice changer makes it sound like a gargling robot. “Do you seriously think you’d be rewarded for hard work with lifelong employment at Sekula industries?” The Chairman turns to Holly. “Would she? And be honest.” He puts the submachine gun to her temple.
Holly whispers, “Probably not. Long term employees are a liability. We can hire five interns for the price of one long term person.”
The Chairman steps back. “No doubt the shareholders are rewarded by your thrift, and they in turn reward you with more money in a single year than it would cost to hire a thousand Stacy’s.”
Holly glances between her assistant and The Chairman. “If Stacy works hard and plays by the rules, she could find herself in my old job –”
Stacy roars with laughter. “You don’t honestly believe that. Where did you work before Sekula, Holly? One of the telecom places that failed, before that a marketing conglomerate that failed, before that an investment group part owned by your first husband. I may only be an executive assistant but I’m not an idiot. The top people at a corporate gig hire top people from other corporate gigs even if, like certain former CEOs in this room they are fiscal idiots who leave nothing but destruction in their wake.” Stacy looks at The Chairman. “I can’t believe you’re lumping me in with them – with her.”
I listen to all of this but it’s like a big swirl of confusion. My fists ball and release, ball and release. I want to tell them all to shut up. Now they’ve got me thinking about where I fit in the big Union pie. Sure, I lead Team 1 in New York City, a prestige gig for sure, but my day-to-day account has less than twenty bucks in it.
“Don’t you ever shut up?” Holly slaps her hands over her ears. “My god I almost wish you’d shoot me just so I don’t have to listen to your goddamned speeches –”
“Listen here, I’m not the one who’s dragging the whole country back to 1890 –”
Holly screams, “Would you just shut up! Oh my god, Adam, squash him or something. I’ll take my chances with the bullets –”
“I have the floor! I have the floor goddamn it!” The Chairman unleashes a barrage of bullets into the wall above the heads of the hostages. “You don’t get to talk! None of you get to say anything!”
Holly and The Chairman are almost nose to mask. Holly might be evil, but she’s fearless. The Chairman is worked up to the point where he’s going to make mistakes or just order the hostages killed. They both scream at one another but I force myself not to listen.
“Adam, what are we going to do?” Stacy tugs at my arm, “how are we going to get out of this?”
I stare off again at some point of nothingness between me and the wall. “What if he’s not wrong?”
“The Chairman. What if he’s right? Holly just said she’d take her chances with the bullets. She begged me to kill The Chairman. She’d let you all die if it meant she’d get out.”
Holly breaks off her argument with The Chairman who begins to chuckle mechanically.
I say, “Everything The Chairman said you did, you actually did –”
Holly screams, “what? Are you insane! It’s business! I’m not some fucking comic book villain! Stacy, tell him how the world is! He listens to you –”
I point at Holly like a giant Day-Glo orange schoolteacher. “You don’t care about any of the other hostages. If I squish The Chairman the other gunmen open up on the hostage line. You figure because I’m only two steps away I’ll be obligated to try and protect you. You stay next to Stacy so even if I only try and save her you’ll have a better chance.”
Stacy pulls closer to me. “This isn’t real life in here, Adam. We’re all equals under their guns.”
I look over the hostages. “I’m not. I’ve stood here and argued, I shredded a fifty-thousand dollar custom costume – I took a knife to the chest! – to protect all of you. I could have charged the door, probably killed The Chairman and his men, but that would mean some of you would be hurt or killed. Even here in this situation, where you should all stand together for strength, you’re all in it for yourselves.”
The Chairman says, “the blinders fall away and the children finally see.”
Clarence says, “We’re people, Adam. Normal people just like you –”
“I’m not a Normal!” I point over the line of terrified hostages. “How is The Chairman worse than any of you?” I squat down and collect the Tritium atom logo and surrounding fabric that’s hardened to rigidity. “The Union sent me here to talk about being a good corporate citizen to the worst citizens in America – It’s like being sent to give a speech on not picking pockets to a room full of serial killers. What if the world is better off without you all? The Union doesn’t care either way or we’d have been told to step in and make things right before now.” I pause for a second. The room has fallen eerily silent. All the hostages watch me. “There’s a last bit of my speech, the part that didn’t get said before, We at The Union know that good opportunity isn’t always good business. We know that sometimes what may be perceived as a short term loss can become a much larger long term societal gain. Sometimes to do the right thing, to be good corporate citizens, we must walk away.”
Stacy screams, “You can’t let us die!”
“You said yourself that they are root of misery that may affect millions. What if I stand back and do nothing?”
“We’re people for god’s sake!” Stacy grabs my huge fingers and pulls at my arm. “He’s going to kill us all! Don’t you understand?”
The Chairman begins to laugh. “I merely carry out the will of the board.”
Holly eyes burn into mine, “You’re a hero, you’re supposed to save us!”
“Why? Because I wear an orange costume, a cape and mask? Because I’m The Union’s version of truth, justice, and the American way? Because maybe the next time some CEO sees an Adam Smasher lunchbox it’ll serve as a reminder not to completely fuck over every other Normal within a thousand miles?” I turn to Stacy. “I’m sorry. Maybe this is what’s supposed to happen. Maybe this is a natural correction in the way history works. A reboot, or re-imagine-ing, like I’m getting in Marketing and Promotions. Same as with you, maybe you all have to die here, or find a way work out your differences peacefully, and move forward. Either way, I can’t help you.” I turn to The Chairman. “I’m leaving. You can’t stop me.”
“Wait! What about us!” Holly screams.
I answer, “what about you?”
Stacy runs for the exit but one of The Chairman’s men tackles her. She’s dragged back to the hostage line shrieking, “Let me go! Let me out of here!”
I turn for the door and walk. The Chairman’s mechanical voice bellows for the remaining hostages to shut up. A hundred cell phones chime out in different tones. A submachine blast smothers all the other noises.
I leave them all behind.
About the Author
Jeffrey R. DeRego is the author of the Escape Pod fan-favorite Union Dues stories, and other things, as well.
About the Narrator
Serah Eley is the original producer, editor and host of Escape Pod. She mispronounced her name as Steve Eley at the time, but has since realized that life is much more fun as a woman, and came out as transgender in 2015. Serah lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her two spouses (she prefers “spice”), Sadi and Cat.
So if there were ever any betting pools on what happened to Steve: the dark-horse winner is “changed sex and joined a committed lesbian love triangle.” She is, obviously, still Having Fun.