The year was 2137 and everyone was finally famous. They were also rich and extremely good-looking. All this fame, fortune and beauty was due to the 213th, 214th and 215th Amendments to the Constitution and the unwavering dedication of the agents of the United States Entertainment General.
Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. Holidays were announced and exploited by advertisers too far in advance and some people still kept their Christmas lights up long after New Year’s was over. It was during Christmastime that the E-G men took Samuel and Sharon Neerborg’s nineteen-year-old son, Rale, away.
It was unfortunate, but you couldn’t change things. Besides, Sharon was too distracted by her role in the daytime drama Tri-State Shoppers to devote much time to worrying about it. And Samuel had a demanding schedule doing voice-over work for fast food corporations.
Samuel and Sharon were watching TV.
“What’s the name of that program our neighbor down the hall is on? I keep forgetting to watch it,” Samuel said.
“I think it’s called The Settlers or something. Or Nesters, maybe?” Sharon said.
“Settlers. I think that’s it.” Samuel began to voice-command the TV. When he finally located the show, the info guide informed him it was regularly broadcast at four in the morning.
“Oh, that’s a bad time slot,” Samuel said. “Of course with two thousand programs in production, prime time fills up pretty quick. Wanna pay to watch it now?”
“What’s the show about?”
The guide informed them it was about Chilean farmers who provide agricultural support to fledgling planets.
“Sounds kinda hum-drum if you ask me,” Sharon said. “How about another time?”
“Oh, OK,” Samuel said. “Anything you want to watch in particular?”
“I never know what’s on, you know me. Just pick something.”
“I’m the same way. We’ll just let the TV pick, how about that?” Samuel asked for a randomize. The screen scrambled for a moment then a reality show called Biker Gang Newbies came on. In the show, people competed to survive a biker gang initiation process that tested the limits of their physical endurance and moral compass.
The guide claimed that the show was highly rated, but the guide claimed that about almost every show. The program Sharon acted in, Tri-State Shoppers, for instance, was supposedly wildly popular in Sudan.
On screen, a nervous-looking man in a biker bar was being forced to eat the eye of a pig and wash it down with a shot of Wild Turkey.
“I had some of that stuff once. The Wild Turkey, I mean,” Samuel said. “Up chuck, city.”
“Ewww! ” Sharon said. “This is gross. Put on something else.”
Samuel randomized again and landed on a concert performance by Felicia Donnybrook, a Megastar. You could tell she was a Megastar because a star appeared next to her name in the program description. Felicia was young, blonde and curvy, dressed in thigh-high boots and cut-offs.
As she gyrated to the synth-pop, a squadron of athletic dancers followed along holding up cans of Vitomic soda. When the song finished, Felicia smiled and bowed. The unobstructed view of her cleavage put a smile on Samuel’s face. Sharon shot him a look.
“What?” Samuel said defensively. “That was a good performance!”
Samuel commanded the TV to go to a channel in their favorites queue. The screen now showed Sharon in character as Darnella O’Sweede, the Texas oil baroness on Tri-State Shoppers. Darnella was being crushed and ravished against a water cooler by an unshaven Romeo wearing a brown bomber jacket.
“Well, look who’s the prude,” Samuel said.
Sharon sniffed. “You know it’s my job,” she said. “It’s not like I enjoy it or anything. Please change it. I hate watching myself.”
“Sure, sure,” Samuel said. He did change it, but only after letting the show linger a bit longer. They were now watching a game show called Win, Lose or Lose in which contestants who performed poorly on guessing prices of new products had the word “Loser” tattooed on their hand. A tattoo removal service was a sponsor of the show.
A pretty young woman who had incorrectly guessed the price of a new Chevy Dictator was crying as she was branded with the L word.
“I’ve seen this before,” Sharon said. “Or maybe I heard about it. This show is so mean.”
“Why? It’s not like anyone forced her to be on the show,” Samuel said. As soon as he said it though, he wondered if perhaps they were forced to be on the show. Maybe these people were Abnormals, like his son Rale. Maybe they had resisted celebrity like he had.
Samuel switched to a wrestling program. In the ring were two outsize men, one with long stringy black hair and another with a blonde crew cut. The dark-haired one was called The Rejuvenator and the other one was BadAss Monkey. BadAss Monkey had The Rejuvenator in a supine position with his nose just inches from a pair of underwear said to belong to the Secretary of the Interior, Georgianne Fullblunt.
“Do you ever wish you weren’t famous?” Sharon said, accepting the rum cocktail proffered by the Drink-Bot located in the sofa armrest. “It’s so crazy sometimes, I think, how things are.”
“How do you mean?” Samuel said. “The Entertainment Revolution turned this country around. Before that we were making products nobody wanted. We were pretending to be good at math and science. Now we have it all. The production schedules are hell, but look at the benefits—we haven’t had a standing army in over forty years. If anybody blows up America, there goes all the good TV.”
“Yeah I know,” Sharon said. “I just wish I could do something else sometimes. You know—make something with my own hands. The clothing we wear on the show is so beautiful, but it’s all made in other countries. I know it’s crazy, but sometimes I wish I could make a dress.”
“It’s a slippery slope,” Samuel said. “You start making stuff, others would start doing it and pretty soon we’d be back to making bombs. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
“No,” Sharon said. “I’m just thinking aloud is all.”
On the TV, an Amazon-sized woman named Gillette joined the fray and came to The Rejuvenator’s aid. The crowd cheered madly as the colored lights swirled.
Before the match ended, attention turned to a narrow man in a yellow wrestling mask pushing a wheelchair containing an obese man in a red mask. Confetti cannons triggered along the ramp leading to the stage. The crowd mindlessly applauded their approach.
When the wrestlers in the ring realized they were no longer the main attraction, they stopped tossing each other around. From their position at a table ringside, announcers Gil Tremain and Barry Chuff were, as was their custom, astonished and excited as orangutans by the developments taking place before them, but a close observer would have noticed that they seemed just a bit more subdued than usual.
“What do you make of this, Barry?” Gil said, rubbing his chin in concentration. “Boy oh boy, who—or what—do we have here?”
Barry looked center stage and saw Gillette, BadAss Monkey and The Rejuvenator being waved off the mat by some of the floor crew. He shuffled his notes uneasily. The production assistant holding the cue cards shrugged—he was no help.
“It looks like this character, whoever he is, has some kind of maniac tied up in that wheelchair. That’s what it looks like to me.”
The men exchanged questioning glances while the crowd continued to cheer the newcomers. The volume increased when they saw the man in the wheelchair was not only chained to it, he was draped in an odd, bulky vest. The pair was granted passage onto the center ring. The man in the yellow mask held a remote-control device up for all to see.
“Is that a bomb of some kind?” Tremain asked, then answered himself. “I think it is! That’s a detonator he’s got there Barry!”
The camera focused on the face of the seated man. His eyes looked wild and frightened.
“I’ve never seen anything like this!” Tremain said, ad-libbing his way through the proceedings. Barry Chuff just squinted at the duo, hoping that his failure to understand what was going on wouldn’t end his announcing career.
“It looks like he’s going to speak!” Tremain continued. “He’s going to say something!”
Though they were not wrestling fans, Samuel and Sharon Neerborg found themselves mesmerized. This was a spectacle, after all, and spectacles were always hard to turn away from.
In response to gestures by the man in the yellow mask, a microphone slid down from the rafters above. The man in the yellow mask grabbed the microphone and walked a semi-circle around his captive.
“I have a bomb,” he said to the crowd. “So I suggest you let me say what I’m going to say.”
The crowd roared at this statement, but quickly quieted down. There was something unrehearsed and unusual in the high-timbered voice. To Gil and Barry, the stadium became as quiet as they had ever heard it during a live performance.
Samuel sat up on the couch and peered closer at the TV. “Did you hear his voice?” he said. “It sounds like Rale!”
Diminutive, yet eerily frightening, the figure stood center ring and removed his mask. Then he removed the mask of the man bound to the wheelchair.
“Oh my God! It is Rale!” Sharon said, her drink falling with a crash to the floor. Perhaps even more shocking was who was beside their son in the ring—the fleshy and liver-spotted CEO of Nationwide Broadcasting, Oliver Wheedley.
“You want a show?” Rale intoned. The crowd seemed unsure of their expected response. Only about half cheered.
“You know who this is?” Rale said, pointing to Wheedley. “That’s right, this is Oliver Wheedley, fame pusher, celeb creator, former master of the universe.”
Wheedley was saying something, pleading for his life, probably, but could hardly be heard.
“Today, however,” Rale continued. “I am master of the universe! Me, a mere unfamous mortal. Today you will learn my name. Today and hereafter.”
Rale held up the detonator for all to see. “You want blood?” he said, spinning around to face everyone. “Well, you got it!”
It was then that security chief, Hoki Junko signaled his best sharpshooter to fire, and fire he did.
Under the blazing white lights of the arena, live on interplanetary TV, nineteen-year-old Rale Neerborg fell with the drugged innocence of a forest animal robbed of life by the precision of a hunter’s rifle.
When Rale collapsed and no explosion touched off, a collective exhale swept through the cavernous arena. Security personnel rushed to the ring as attendees stormed the exits.
The TV screen went dark as programmers synced to another show—Psych Majors Gone Wild.
“That—That was our Rale, wasn’t it?” Sharon asked Samuel. A tear ran down her cheek and spotted her blouse.
“He escaped from wherever they had him, I guess,” Samuel said. “Jesus.” He moved to comfort his wife.
Over the next few days, the media was full of news reports on the incident. Reporters mobbed the Neerborg’s home, hoping for comments and reaction. They were portrayed as the parents of a hideous monster, an anarchist who tried to overthrow America’s entertainment industry. Their parenting skills, dedication to celebrity and even their genetics were called into question.
Ultimately, it was a widely publicized news report by Irwin Couple, the well-respected content celebrity, which helped put some perspective on the tragedy and calm the storm. In his video, Irwin pointed out the fact that, for a boy who detested fame, Rale had taken the surest route to become famous—the attempted assassination of one of the highest authorities in the land. Why else had he escaped from his work camp, disguised himself as Wheedley’s chauffeur, kidnapped him and attempted to execute him on live TV? The report caused an attitude shift among the masses. People started to think of Rale Neerborg as a misguided youth, deserving of sympathy rather than scorn. Even Oliver Wheedley forgave him publicly.
One night several months after losing their son, Samuel and Sharon were sitting on the couch watching a paid advertisement about the Tropical Oblivion Retirement Community. Halfway through the show, a commercial came on advertising a set of commemorative dinner plates featuring Rale.
One of the plates depicted Gillette, The Rejuvenator and BadAss Monkey looking stunned by the sight of the man in the yellow mask. Another showed Rale and Wheedley unmasked, center ring. The third plate was a misty airbrushed close up of Rale modeled after his senior yearbook photo. On all plates, Rale’s name appeared with a star beside it.
When the initial shock of seeing their boy etched into pieces of dinnerware subsided, Sharon grasped Samuel’s hand.
“Do you think—?” she said. “I mean, should we?”
With his eyes fixed on the screen, Samuel nodded solemnly and noted the toll free number.
“Sure. We should order them—we should order five or six. It’ll be our way of remembering how our son became a Megastar,” he said.
John Howard Matthews is the author of the short story collection, This is Where it Gets Interesting. He lives near Chicago with his wife, dog and robot vacuum.