PRW Runner-Up Tour: Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing by Alyce Wilson
He wiggled his nose thoughtfully before replying, “Two or three? I’ve lost count.” After bouncing several times on the tip of his toes, the White Rabbit checked his watch… again. “When is this line going to start moving? Don’t they know we have very, very important things to do?”
Alice sighed. They’d been in line since 5 a.m., hoping to beat the rush to register for the Masquerade contest at Star*Con. That idea had been futile, since the line had already stretched down the hallway and around the corner before they’d even arrived. Since then, pink-shirted staff members had moved them a couple times into increasingly more complex maze-like formations. However, since registration didn’t even open for another 20 minutes, any real progress had been illusory.
The Cheshire Cat grinned even more broadly. “We were mad to get up this early.”
Bored beyond belief, Alice fed him the line he was seeking. “But I’m not mad!”
“Yes, you are,” he answered. “Or you wouldn’t have come here.”
The convention was bigger than any they’d attended before: an all-encompassing con for fans of science fiction, anime, gaming, and just about every geek fandom imaginable. Alice had been the one to suggest the theme for her cosplaying friends, who had labored for weeks creating costumes, writing and rehearsing their Wonderland-inspired skit, and perfecting their makeup. Even though they were up against some stiff competition, Alice felt that in their category — for novice cosplayers — they stood a real chance of placing. But that was before everything began to go all topsy-turvy.
People often get punchy at conventions, especially after long drives and late nights. This was doubly true for cosplayers, Alice knew, due to the stress of transporting boxes of costume components and getting up early enough to make sure the entire group was dressed and ready to hit the stage. But she couldn’t help thinking that her friends’ behavior was growing odder and odder, the longer they stood in line.
As the White Rabbit grew more and more obsessed with the time, the Cheshire Cat had grown more blissfully quixotic. The Mad Hatter had taken to odd outbursts, quoting popular song lyrics and challenging his friends to nonsensical “riddles.” Earlier, when they’d been dressing in her hotel room, she’d thought the Mad Hatter looked hot in his steampunk-inspired purple velvet suit, complete with distressed top hat. But right now, there was a strange sort of light in his eyes that made him seem about as attractive as a drunk Santa.
Alice stretched her arms over her head and strained to see the head of the line. Still no movement. When she swung back, the Cheshire Cat had disappeared. Probably hitting up the group of fairies two groups behind them. He had a thing for faeries. More importantly, where was the Queen of Hearts? She hadn’t seen her for a while. No sooner had the thought occurred to her than the Queen herself materialized, followed by a dutiful Card, played by the Queen’s younger brother.
The Card was lugging a case of energy drinks. A vendor had been selling them there for $5 a case, a price so unbelievable Alice wasn’t surprised that everywhere around her, she saw her fellow cosplayers sipping on the sickly-green-colored cans.
The Card whined, “It’s so not fair that you made me carry all these when you won’t let me have any.”
With an icy stare, the Queen said, “You don’t need any. You slept in while everyone else was getting dressed. Plus, if Mom heard that I let you drink energy drinks on top of that huge chocolate bar you just downed, she’d never let me come to one of these again.”
“I won’t tell,” he promised, giving her the sort of grin that little boys give their older sisters to get something they want. Unfortunately, his little boy charm had begun to fade as he’d hit the awkward tween years. These days, he seemed less like a cuddly teddy bear and more like a sock monkey, all floppy arms and legs.
Summarily, the Queen told him, “Silence. I am your Queen, remember? No energy drinks for you.” She sipped on the can she’d already opened on the way back from the Dealers’ Room.
“Whoa, that’s a little harsh. He is your brother, not your subject,” Alice said, flashing the Card a sympathetic smile; he just shrugged. Alice had seen them squabbling before, so maybe he was used to this treatment.
The Queen rolled her eyes and sucked down the rest of the can. “Girlie, I don’t see a crown on your head either, so back off.”
Alice curtseyed in a sarcastic display of fealty. “Yes, your Highness.” But the Queen didn’t seem to get the message and simply gave her a regal nod with her tightly-coiffed auburn head. Whatever. It wasn’t worth getting into a big argument before the show. Falling to diva drama could lose them the contest; there’d be time for wig-pulling afterwards, if the situation required it.
Speaking of divas, the Queen was getting touchier by the minute. She was already halfway through another can and, when the Mad Hatter faltered into her while attempting to tap dance. The Queen pushed him down and called him a cretin. The Mad Hatter answered by rattling off the verse of a pop song that Alice thought she recognized. But didn’t he have the lyrics a little wrong? She was certain the refrain wasn’t “Kiss my boot and call me gravy.”
The White Rabbit paced back and forth, loudly demanding the time. This time, though, instead of checking his wristwatch, he was opening and closing the case of his oversized prop pocket watch.
“That clock isn’t real,” she reminded him, but he didn’t seem to care. “Is this line EVER going to start moving?” she asked, but no one seemed to be listening. She strained her eyes for one of the Pink Shirts, in order to ask them what the hold-up was, but the only pink she spied came from the costumes of other cosplayers. A fairy, flitting aimlessly about, had bright pink wings. A sailor-suited anime girl sporting pink hair was waving her wand around in the air just like in her famous transformation sequence. At first, Alice thought that maybe everyone was just practicing their skits, but she’d never seen so many cosplayers rehearsing at once. Usually, they waited until after registering and then found a quiet corner to run lines. How very, very odd.
And it got odder but fast. From ninjas skulking about to Disney princesses batting their big eyes at anyone resembling a prince, it soon became evident that the cosplayers were all just ever so slightly “in character” than normal. But why? Had she missed some announcement while taking a bathroom break? Was this some sort of flash mob, passed between participants via social network, from typing thumbs to typing thumbs? Well, that couldn’t be it; nobody was typing.
Wait a minute. NOBODY was typing. Furthermore, nobody was swiping, jabbing or otherwise interacting with their smartphones, notepads, or newfangled write phones. At first she thought maybe they were in a dead spot in the convention center, but surely, someone would be at least bewailing the lack of service. Nobody was even trying to access their phones.
She regarded her fellow cosplayers carefully. In fact, none of them was doing anything that could be remotely considered out of character. No one was chatting up their neighbor, or studying Masquerade rules in the program book, or bopping to an tune in their ear buds. And the part that gave her chills, because it meant there was truly, truly something wrong: No one was preening or primping. Nobody. In a group of cosplayers, nobody was even trying to find a mirror.
“What’s going on?” the Card asked. “Everybody’s acting major weird.”
Gratefully, Alice turned to him, the one person besides herself who seemed to be acting normally. “I don’t know. It’s like they’ve all turned into their characters. But why?” She cast her eyes around the room again, taking in all the emptied cans, littering the landscape like bright green nuclear waste, and had an inkling. She picked up a can.
It was called “True U,” and the back contained an insane amount of almost unreadable fine print. She held a can up to the closest window, where the light was better, and read. When she finished reading, she grabbed The Card’s hand and shouted, “Run!”
“What’s the matter?” the boy asked, gasping for breath as he tried to keep up with her fleeting feet.
She answered him without slowing down. “It’s a special energy drink for cosplayers, supposed to help you get into character. The problem is, you’re not supposed to drink more than two of them.”
“Are they crazy? Who stops at two energy drinks at a CONVENTION?” the Card sputtered.
“Well, you can have two drinks every six to eight hours, it says. But my guess is nearly everybody there has already exceeded their limit.”
The Card stopped in his tracks. “So let’s go back there and watch the fun. This will be, like, the best Masquerade ever!”
I shook my head. “I’m not worried about them. In fact, I’m hoping to help them. Don’t you remember what the big noon event was supposed to be?”
As the Card thought, Alice could almost hear the gerbil squeaking in its wheel inside his brain. He might be nicer than the Queen, but he was certainly her relative. “Umm…. wasn’t it… a zombie dance?”
“Yes! We’ve got to assume they’ve been drinking these drinks, too. And we’ve got to find a way to protect everybody else from them.”
The Card stepped up the pace again but still wouldn’t stop yapping. “You mean, we’re running INTO danger now?”
Alice grunted an affirmative. “If you don’t think you’re up for it, head back to the Cosplay line. I’m sure your sister will start mistaking the Pink Shirts for flamingos soon, which should add up to a lot of vicarious fun. Me, I’m off to save the world.”
“Save the world?” a strange voice asked. She turned and saw a generic superhero, who from the way he was acting, had imbibed enough of the green stuff to reverse the earth on its axis.
“From zombies,” she told him, breathlessly. “And we need all the help we can get, Super — I mean, Bat…”
“I’m Generic Man!” he proclaimed in a smarmy voice.
Of course he was. “Please help us, Generic Man.”
He gamely followed, although some of his ideas were less than helpful, such as offering to scoop up the other two to fly them to Main Events. Alice managed to convince him she was afraid of heights. The Card chimed in and informed him that Mega Evil Dude, the villain they were fighting, had rendered the rules of gravity different so that anybody who tried to fly would die. Alice shuddered to think what would happen when any of the other supers roaming around tried out their skills. She hoped that none of them thought they were stronger than a speeding car. (If you ever find yourself in an alternate reality, she told herself, Remember that cars are real.)
The groaning and grunting were audible now, where the zombies had lined up outside Main Events in order to get inside. Were they too late? She braced herself for the carnage they might see when they arrived. Fortunately, everyone was playing the shambling, half-brained zombies, and they seemingly hadn’t yet figured out they should be seeking brains.
“Wait a minute,” the Card said, as they grew closer. “They’re not real zombies. Just people in costumes. So why should we worry about them?”
Alice gave him the sort of look an older, not-very-mean sister gives her somewhat-dim-witted younger brother. “Seriously? Do you want to get bitten?” From the look on his face, he finally seemed to get it.
Generic Man boldly took a spot in the hallway, holding up his fingers and commanding, “Earthquake hands, go!” Nothing happened. He looked at his fingers, astonished.
“Yes, that’s not going to do it, Generic Man,” she said. Having a superhero on her side wasn’t as awesome as she’d hoped.
The Card quickly explained that Mega Evil Dude had worked a magic spell that robbed all superheroes temporarily of their powers. To her, The Card asked, “What should we do?”
“Off with their heads!” commanded a voice from behind. It was the Queen, who must have been following them the entire time. The Queen grabbed a fallen prop sword off the ground and ran towards the zombies.
“Noooo!!!!” Alice screamed, staying her hand just in time. “Don’t cut off their heads. They’re — special zombies. If you cut off their heads, they grow two.”
“That is the strangest thing I’ve ever heard,” the Queen said. “Subjects’ heads never grow back.”
Right. The Queen was stuck in Wonderland. To her, these weren’t zombies but royal subjects. Alice thought for a moment. Actually, that might come in handy…
With a little help from the Card and Generic Man, she whipped the plan into shape. Then, telling the Queen that her subjects were heading inside to crown a new queen, who would take over Wonderland, she sat back and watched the fun. The Queen, ever more a drama queen than ever, flounced about angrily, shouting at the top of her lungs that the offending royal pretender must be dispatched as soon as possible. Her histrionics drew all the attention of the zombie hoards, as one by one they turned to look at the flouncing red thing, as pretty as a bird. As delicious looking as… brains.
And as she stomped inside, they all stumbled in after her. The Card, Generic Man and Alice each took up position at one of the doors and shut them tight, then jammed as much stuff through the handles as they could to make them harder to open.
The Card figured it out first. “Wait a minute. What about my sister?”
Alice flagged down a passing Pink Shirt. “Is there a stage entrance?” she asked. The Pink Shirt, who was mid-energy drink, had apparently become the most committed staffer ever. She not only let them through the secret staff entrance but made a distraction on the stage by “testing microphones” so that the other three could rescue their friend.
As they made to run for freedom, the Pink Shirt yelled, “Don’t worry about me. I’ll hold them off. I have about a zillion announcements I need to read.”
“Should we be worried?” the Card asked. “I mean, she’s the only one who knows her way around here.”
Alice nodded, and without speaking, they each grabbed one of the Pink Shirt’s arms, dragging her offstage as she intoned, “No flash photography. The vampires don’t like it.”
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