Warning: Spoilers abound! This is a (still rough) cut of one of the revamped chapters in the upcoming Socialpunk serials, which I discussed here.

A pixelated screen several stories high stood on a huge stage in the middle of a dead-end street. The screen curved around, creating a hollow dome that faced outward. The images projected from it in 3-D above the crowd.

A battle between a jack-in-the-box clown and a sunburst played on the screen as each artist attempted to change the other one’s image while holding their own. It reminded Cinder of Reversi, a board game she played with Dash on lazy weekends when her father grounded her and she couldn’t leave their apartment complex. Only this game used pixels instead—they changed back and forth depending on who was winning. At the moment, that was the sunburst.

Vaughn stared at the battle raging above their heads as they waited in the wings. “This is too risky,” he told her.

A smack of hissing erupted as one of the players’ Clout tickers gained momentum, surpassing the other. While the Clout tickers on both sides increased throughout the smash, the artist with the most Clout at the end would claim victory. This was how she would make money, hopefully enough to bail Nasser out of jail.

She nodded, agreeing with Vaughn; she needed to keep a low profile after what had happened with the black chip. She risked exposing herself and her fake identity by battling in the smash, especially since she had never used the technology before and had no artistic chops. But the thought of Dash, and Nahum, and doing nothing to help either of them, strengthened her resolve. “We don’t have a choice.”

Vaughn leaned in, almost whispering through his teeth. “What if he’s here? He recognized you once and almost caught us.”

She shrugged to hide her anxiety. “My back will be to the audience.” The mysterious man who had hacked Vaughn’s black bead didn’t scare her as much as doing nothing, though she knew she couldn’t let her guard down. Either way, she didn’t want to give her fears life by speaking them out loud.

Vaughn’s voice spilled with urgency. “You do understand that this smash is not for amateurs. I wouldn’t even enter. Neither would Ember. There’s a slim chance you’ll make enough to post Nasser’s bail, plus—”

“Oh, let her do it.” Ember huffed, ignoring Vaughn’s recoil. In a softer tone, she said, “Nasser won’t survive in jail much longer without getting beaten up, if he hasn’t been already. He’s pissed off too many people.” She glanced at Cinder from the corner of her eye. “You want to save Dash, don’t you? And you said you had a plan. If you’re going to play hero, now’s the moment.”

Ember’s defense of her surprised her, but she didn’t have time to dissect it now. She watched the stage, forcing herself to focus by listening to the chaotic thumps of her heart jumping all around in her chest, trying to spring loose. To Ember, she nodded. “I’m ready.”

Ember gave her a small smile, like a thank you without words. “We’ll cheer for you.” She understood her meaning; for the moment, in the absence of Nasser, the girl needed a leader. And she had pledged her momentary allegiance to her.

Vaughn looked like he had something gravely serious on his mind. But then his face went blank of emotion and he gave her a single, solitary nod of approval.

The battle in front of them ended, the jack-in-the-box having turned things around and won. An announcement rang through the crowd. “The victor, with three hundred seventy-five thousand, four hundred twelve Clout is A9BYRE2BDFHW12!”

The man named Trilogy took the center of the stage, raising his hands in the air to a roaring crowd. Her body went cold all over as Trilogy shook hands with his opponent, Sun-Times, who looked none too pleased. With a smirk from Trilogy, the two parted to their respective sides.

Sun-Times, the sunburst girl, shoved her shoulder as she passed her. She spit onto the concrete, barely missing Ember’s boots. “Good luck,” she told her, in a way that made her think the girl would love to see her destroyed.

“What was that about?” she asked.

Ember pumped her shoulders in the air. “Artists,” she said. “Such drama queens.”

Now was the moment of truth. She blinked several times, collecting herself as she stared out over the daunting crowd. It went on for what seemed like miles. She was starting to think that Nahum was right. Maybe she wasn’t cut out to be an Artist, not if she had to do this on a regular basis.

I’m not afraid, she reminded herself. No matter how mortifying it was to attempt a smash and fail in front of all these people, she would do it and more if it meant that she was one step closer to getting Dash back.

She stepped onto the stage and grabbed a helmet, strapping her head into it. The helmet projected her thoughts on screen so everyone could see her art. She didn’t understand exactly how it worked, only that she had certain actions she could command, and that combinations of those actions would shift the pixels of the other player’s character.

Her plan to create combinations was simple. Back in The Dome, there was a restaurant nearby her apartment complex called Emporium Arcade Bar. It had one of those dated Mortal Combat arcade games where there are two fighters who try to win two out of three rounds.

She had never once lost to Dash—not once. He had always asked her secret, but the truth was that her naivety helped her win. She had never learned how to create combinations; she simply pressed all the buttons as fast as she could, winding her fingers in different patterns, until her character took out the other one.

She would employ the same tactic here. It was a numbers game, but she hadn’t had time to learn the true rules. She would have to rely on probability to guide her now.

When her opponent, a boy named Kaiser, joined her onstage, the crowd roared with approval. She caught a glimpse of Ember putting her hand to her head, and she knew she was in trouble. She knew going into the smash that the regulators often paired new entrants with experienced ones, to protect earnings and make it nearly impossible for amateurs to break in. But the look on Ember’s face indicated more—a danger. She just wasn’t sure what.

She looked over Kaiser a bit closer—he looked a bit familiar, though she was sure she had never seen him before. He grinned at her, grinding his fist into the palm of his other hand menacingly.

Deafening music blasted throughout the streets, indicating that the smash was about to start. The crowd controlled the notes that played, creating a cacophony of harmonies that she would not typically expect to hear layered on top of each other.

She and her opponent took their places at opposite ends of the stage, waiting for the signal to begin.

She adjusted her tongue, letting the medallion Nahum had given her slide to the roof of her mouth. Using someone else’s work was strictly forbidden and grounds for disqualification, but she didn’t think Nahum would mind in this case.

She closed her eyes and ran her tongue over the medallion’s bead. Within seconds, before she even knew they had started, images appeared on screen.

Under a night sky twinkling with bright stars, a girl with a dress made of roses in all different colors searched for a something. Cinder concentrated on every small detail of the girl and the dress—the silkiness of the petals, the slant of the girl’s eyes. She painted them as vividly as possible, as Nahum had envisioned the girl, to get the full and dazzling effect.

The girl swirled over the crowd in a dreamlike wave, which caused a steady buzz of excitement as she moved. Characters were a big part of winning, and the true fans of the game upped their Clout the more they appreciated the character.

She had expected people to love his character—she had never seen artistry like it before—but she hadn’t expected the onslaught of requests to know her name.

Cinder let the letter “E” float to the front of her mind, and the crowd roared with approval, though she didn’t fully understand why. E was a personal name for her, an ode to her connection to Nahum. It wasn’t particularly clever on its own, but for whatever reason, the crowd was eating it up.

Unsatiated, they pinged her with more questions—E’s backstory, E’s likes and dislikes, what E was searching for… she answered as best she could, staying as close to her truth as possible without giving out too many personal details that would get her discovered.

She suddenly realized why Vaughn thought this was so dangerous. There was much more to the game than she had thought originally. It was impossible to compete without revealing herself—though, she wasn’t sure why that surprised her, when she was broadcasting a portion of her brain to the world. The more she shared, the more anxious she grew of getting caught and exposing her true identity.

Focus, she reminded herself.

She spotted a dragon that loomed nearby, threatening to flame her character to oblivion with his large nostrils. That had to be Kaiser’s character—and she knew by the thundering crowd that it was a popular one, one they were cheering for.

E ran farther out above the crowd, putting distance between them. The dragon roared, blowing fire from its nose.

The fire didn’t make contact, though the dragon was gaining on E. Cinder fired away at her mind, attempting combinations, moving her character away farther still.

Suddenly, E lifted her hands above her head and began to dance, the most graceful dance a girl could step through.

At the same time, blue roses sprang from a coiling vine at the earth beneath the dragon, wrapping themselves around its stumpy legs like tiny garden snakes. The rose stems grew thicker until thorns poked out, piercing the dragon’s skin. The dragon twisted all around, blowing fire in any direction it could. E continued dancing, closer and closer to the dragon, helping the stems grow thicker, stronger, thornier.

E dodged the dragon’s fire with her waltz, though her energy was fading. When she was only a few feet from him, her dress having wilted away from the excessive heat, she ran naked between its legs, avoiding its spiky tail.

A brown-haired man with olive skin entered the picture, riding a white horse, like the one she’d seen earlier in Nahum’s medallion. This hadn’t been part of the plan—where had he come from? Why had she conjured him, and how? From her understanding of the rules, it was impossible to create a second character on the screen—so how had she?

Her mind provided the answer—the man and the girl were a single character, destined to be together, sharing the same soul… she shook her head, still not understanding.

It didn’t matter though, because the crowd was going absolutely insane from the introduction of the new entrant.

She focused on the brown-haired man… he had been blonde earlier, but now he looked an awful lot like Nahum. She named him Infinite, giving him a symbol that looked like a mirrored E, wondering if anyone would notice that the pairing of their names formed Infinity in both sound and symbol.

A huge cheer rose from the crowd, and she smiled to herself—they had gotten it, and they loved it.  Images of tears, swelling of love—it all came back to her in their pings, overwhelming her with emotion. She could see how this could become so addicting for both the Artist and the crowd—they were forming deep bonds asynchronously, getting to know each other faster than any human contact she’d ever experienced before.

Like her connection with Nahum.

Infinite found E and the dragon in a stalemate, it unable to move, her avoiding its flames. The man pulled a bright, red rose from his sleeve and grabbed onto the dragon’s tail, which whipped him around wildly as he straddled it.

Immediately, blood covered the man’s body—he had gotten caught in one of the dragon’s deadly spikes.

The crowd gasped, tensions running high. She could feel the support mounting both for her and against her, climbing and climbing…

Infinite reached his hand out to the E and she took it, allowing him to swing her up onto the dragon’s back. The tail swung once more, and the man tossed E his rose on the upswing, right before his eyes went blank.

Weeping sounds rang out from the crowd, sounds that Cinder felt in her heart. His quick death had broken a part of her too, reminding her brutally of Nahum’s sacrifice.

E climbed to the middle of the dragon’s back, almost getting thrown from it. The dragon bucked underneath her, trying to add her body to Infinite’s along his tail. But she grabbed on to its thick skin and stabbed the rose straight down, burying it in the dragon’s back.

The rose bloomed, taking roots inside the dragon. E jumped away, tumbling across the empty ground, and watched as the dragon stopped struggling, in shock and pain from the injury.

She circled the dragon, looking all over the tail for Infinite, but he had evanesced from view, leaving her in her original state of searching for him.

The roots sprang quickly from all sides of the dragon, piercing through its skin until it stopped moving entirely.

When the roots reached the ground, they dug in, forming a tightly wound stem around the dragon until it was encompassed, tangled, and trapped. The rose grew and grew, shooting up several stories high, until the bloom finally vanished from the screen.

E’s naked body sprawled next to rooted stem, which looked more like a trunk. Several roses, in all different colors, grew from the ground to cover her, slowly reforming her dress as she gained her strength back.

The girl rose and placed her hand on the trunk of the tree, peeking around it, crouching low, tiptoeing high, as if she were seeking something that she expected to be there.

Was it over?

Had she won?

Was it enough to save Dash?

Cinder heard deafening screams at her back and opened her eyes.

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