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A note from CoCop

Book 2 (both chapter one and a recap of book one) begins tomorrow.  Until then, I'd like to share the art I've had people send me:

Picture One: Kat, Cat Stepping by Salaline on discord (I don't know your RR username, sorry!)

Picture Two: Kat's two sides by Tohron

And the short story, "Chrome Cowboys (brought to you by Cafe-Chan): Codeword Prospect" by Csuite.  If you haven't checked out her book, Doing God's Work, please do so!

CODEWORD: PROSPECT

Internal Eyes Only

Just a quick note before we get started, team:

I don’t need to tell you we can’t afford any leaks on the script this time. We all remember what happened during the Lone Hacker incident and we had to end up rewriting the entire fifteenth season. I’ve had the fear of god put into me and have been assured heads will roll if so much as a whisper escapes this team. After that cliff-hanger finale, a lot of sales are riding on this. Do not mess this up.

- Wyleen

SEASON 17: EPISODE 1

RECAP

VOICEOVER: Last time on Chrome Cowboys (sponsored by Café-chan):

---> Just skip this bit, it’ll be covered in post. – Wy

JENNY: [Trapped at the bottom of a mineshaft] Wasn’t it enough that you only wanted me for my money? I sacrificed everything for you. For the good of the alliance.

DANNY: [Sneering down the lip of the shaft] And turn over fifty percent of my empire to an insipid floozy? I’d rather die.

JENNY: Earl, my love. It’s not too late. Danny – he’ll use you, just like he used me. Cast you out until you have nothing left.

EARL: [Also looking down the lip of the shaft, but more conflicted] I’m sorry, Jenny. I didn’t want this for you. But – I love him. It’s the only way.

---> It really isn’t. – Amed
---> We’ve talked about this. Let it go. – Wy

JENNY: But the Desperados!

DANNY: [Mocking] The Desperados! Do you hear yourself, woman? Did you really think yourself fit to run an empire when you can’t even tell the difference between a bandit gang and a pack of holograms?

EARL: Danny!

DANNY: Tch. Farewell, Jenny. [He kisses Earl in a passionate embrace.] Know that your death will be the greatest thing for both our companies you’ve ever done.

[The music swells as the camera lingeringly pans out on Jenny’s upturned, despairing face at the bottom of the shaft, drowning out her voice the further out it zooms.]

JENNY: No! You monster! You can’t leave me here! You can’t!

---> Art. This is art. And the ratings prove it. – Max

 

SCENE 1 – NEOSYNE RANCH

[Dusk falls at the NeoSyne corporate headquarters, where OTTO, Jenny’s adopted younger cousin and secret recruit to the fearsome Blockchain Bandits, finishes polishing the horns of a young cybercow. Suddenly, his cyberware flashes and he covers his arm to keep it hidden. It’s fine… this time. No one saw it.]

OTTO: Damn cheap piece of shit.

CYBERCOW: Language, Master Otto. What would Miss Jenny say?

---> The focus groups didn’t like the voice we chose for the cows last season. I suggest morphing in the new one gradually over the next two seasons to make the transition less noticeable. – Wy

------> That’s just going to make it more noticeable. Make it a hard cut between seasons. – Amed
------> Changing the voice will introduce tonal dissonance and discontinuity. It’s a mistake. – Max

---------> Board wants it gone. Out of my hands. – Wy

------------> This wouldn’t have been an issue if the genders had matched. They’re cows with bull horns. Just take the horns off and all the folk up in arms about historical accuracy will melt away, I guarantee it. Plus it’s cheaper. - Amed

---------------> Cybercows don’t have genders, Amed. They’re made in factories. – Wy
---------------> Let them complain. Art does not bend to the uneducated masses. – Max

------------------> Let’s all discuss this at the next meeting. - Wy

OTTO: [Ignoring the cow] Something’s come up, Bessie. You see any rustlers, you stick ‘em full of lasers, got it?

BESSIE: You are shirking your responsibilities, Master Otto.

OTTO: [Over his shoulder] You’ve got this!

[He runs to the secluded spot behind the recharging shed where he set up the SECURE JACK in season 16. (Recap: The very same one Earl discovered which led him to erroneously believe Jenny was hacking into the cybercows and building an army of unstoppable bovine forces to crush her unhappy marriage. Of course he leaked the information, and this miscommunication was the entire reason the Blockchain Bandits would stop at nothing to get their hands on the greatest weapons cache the world had ever seen.) He plugs his arm into the jack, wincing as sparks fly from the cheap equipment.]

---> HR are going to come down on this like a ton of bricks. People will watch this and think sticking wall wiring into their arms is going to make them a hacker. That’s how we get hit with lawsuits. – Wy

------> I could make it wireless, but he’s supposed to be a destitute orphan struggling to fit in. Give him all the top tech at once and viewers will lose their best audience stand-in. – Amed

---------> Top? You think this is top? Give me the budget and I’ll show you top. – Max

------------> Whatever. You two come up with something family-friendly. This is an all-ages production. - Wy

OTTO: Damn the bloody hells to fucking tarnation. Come on, you piece of junk! If I don’t report in, they’ll think I’m no longer loyal and murder my identical twin brother! He always looked out for me growing up in the worst of the unprotected slums. Now it’s my turn to look out for him.

[Brief superimposed fade in to Season 16 footage of Otto and Lloyd as small boys making a pinky swear in front of a garbage heap. We cut back to see tears running down Otto’s cheeks.]

OTTO: I won’t let you down, Lloyd! I’m sorry, Miss Jenny. But Lloyd’s my family. My real family.

---> Bet you a week’s worth of credits Max puts the thousand-yard stare in here. – Amed

------> I don’t fancy my chances. – Wy

SCENE 2 – VIRTUAL MINESPACE

[We meet up with JENNY SILVERARM in the mineshaft after the events of the shocking Season 16 finale. Water rushes into the shaft from pipes in the sheer metal walls. It’s already up to her knees.]

JENNY: Earl, no! I thought you were different. One of the few I could trust in this cruel world. But Danny stole you from me, like he took everything else. [She bangs on the wall with both fists, sending it clanging.] Argh! If I ever see that bastard again, I’ll tear him apart!

[She bangs on the shaft again.]

JENNY: I can’t give up. I won’t. There’s got to be a way. Think, Jenny, think. What do you know about this place?

[She wades to and fro. The water is now up to her waist.]

JENNY: Walls with no handholds, trapped in isolated virtual space, and nothing for me to hack into. If only I hadn’t snuck out of the ranch unseen. I have to face the cold, bitter truth: that Danny will inherit NeoSyne and become unstoppable. I can’t believe I fell for those stupid holograms. [She gasps.] But wait! If the Digital Desperados were holograms, then they must have a physical component nearby. And that means…

[Extending her telescopic arm, the fingers unfold to reveal a glowing hologrammatic screen. Displayed in questionable resolution is Jenny’s partner in crime and impeccably-dressed AI, HYPERDRIVE HAL.]

---> ‘Questionable’? Try to keep the snark to a minimum. – Wy

------> Is this not minimal? – Amed

---------> Not the place. – Wy.

------------> I’ll remove it. - Amed

JENNY: Hal, am I glad to see you! I’m draining the energy supply of a hologram to power you, so we don’t have much time. I need you to infiltrate this zone of virtual space and seize control of the mainframe.

HAL: I don’t know if I should do that, Jenny. Whoever built this zone had access to the best firewalls money can buy. Commandeering a quadrant this size could permanently damage me.

JENNY: We don’t have a choice. If you don’t, I’ll drown and you’ll run out of power. Please, Hal. Ever since I was a small girl growing up in NeoSyne’s hornet nest of backstabbing vipers, you were my only friend. I know what I’m asking is risky, but I will more than make it up to you. Our friendship means so much to me.

HAL: [Reviewing the footage from Jenny’s optic feeds] Does it, Jenny? Does it? I warned you about Earl time and again. He was a bad apple from the start, a blatant gold-digger. And not just because he made a living prospecting data nuggets. Your inscrutable desires of the flesh blinded you to the obvious truth in front of you the whole time. I don’t know if I can trust your judgement.

---> Re: optic feeds, I’m thinking we show this with some kind of sparkly eye effect Max will no doubt correct me on. – Amed

JENNY: You have to trust me, Hal! We’re running out of time!

HAL: Then promise me. Promise me, Jenny. When we escape – if we escape – you’ll take me more seriously from now on. Because – [Dramatic pause] – I love you. I’ve always loved you. I may not have a body, but I have more of a heart than that louse of a lover ever did. I can’t stand by and watch you make the same mistakes again.

JENNY: Hal – I never realised you felt this way. Why didn’t you tell me?

HAL: Because how could a human ever love a lowly AI? Even if you returned my affections, society would never accept us. A partnership such as ours is strictly forbidden.

---> Genius. Consumer confidence in Café-chan dipped last quarter; this kind of messaging should help improve sentiment. I think it went over the Board’s heads but I’m keeping this in my back pocket for the next time they have a major bone to pick. Excellent work. – Wy

------> I was angling for a scathing commentary on class discrimination, but I’ll take it and my daily allotment of irony. - Amed

JENNY: This is all so sudden. I need time to think about this. [She gasps.] Time! Hal, the mainframe!

[Hal’s avatar fizzles with static. The water has reached Jenny’s arm and is interfering with the circuitry.]

HAL: I’ve got it, but the exit is protected by a ferocious pixel storm. In here, we’re nothing but sitting livestock.

JENNY: Livestock. [Her eyes light up.] Then let’s make like cybercows and blast our way out!

[We skip to the collapse of virtual space. Jenny de-digitises in a sparkle of energy amidst a rain of miscellaneous de-digitised pixels. Her arm is sparking and Hal’s avatar is barely visible among the static.]

HAL: Zzt – out of power.

JENNY: Hal! We made it! You and I, together like we’ve always been.

HAL: Together to the end. And this is the end. I’ll never forget you, Jenny. Zzt. Remember me.

JENNY: [Crying] Don’t say that. Don’t leave me now, not after all we’ve been through.

[It’s too late. Hal is gone. Jenny falls to her knees, broken and defeated, then turns over some of the newly-formed pixels under her fingers. They sparkle with burnished gold. Shock forms on her features.]

JENNY: Data nuggets! But this means… the digital real estate Danny trapped me in must have been an undiscovered motherload. And it’s all mine!

[The camera lingers on a close-up, focused on the gritty determination in her eyes.]

JENNY: With this, I can fake my death and rebuild my empire from the shadows. I will find a way to repair Hal, and with my trusty AI at my side, I will retake NeoSyne from its false leaders. Danny has taken everything from me. Everything, that is, except my resolve. He will never have that. I’m coming for you, Danny. Leaving me for dead was the last mistake you’ll ever make.

[The music swells, heralding the appearance of the Chrome Cowboys title sequence (to be decided once Season 17 footage is shot). Allow time for a sponsor message.]

---> I’m in love. The wronged heroine takes her first steps towards becoming the most feared bandit queen this side of DDOS Mesa. - Max

------> Did you just predict my entire plot arc again? – Amed

---------> In honour of this moment, I’ll be replacing the usual title theme with the beloved country ballad, ‘Everyone I Loved Died (and So Did My Dog)’. Tears will flow like waterfalls in the desert. – Max

------------> I have to agree. Just keep it under wraps and there’ll be awards in it at the end of this. Great work, team. - Wy

SCENE 3 – BLOCKCHAIN BLOCKADE

[A muted siren blares at the temporary, ramshackle stakeout set up by the Blockchain Bandits at the end of Season 16. VEX VALANCE, darkly roguish bandit Casanova, known for loosening as many safes as wounded hearts, glides seductively over to the comms terminal.]

VEX: [Sexily] Passcode.

---> Amed. - Wy

------> But it’s true. – Amed

[We see Otto on the other end of the connection at NeoSyne, with distant cybercow conversation in the background.]

OTTO: [Conflicted] Crimson Canyon. Crimson Canyon! Silverarm, Rodriguez and Benedict are all out of bounds. Now’s the time to move in.

[OLIVIA ‘LIVVI THE JAW’ HOLT muscles past Vex’s toned, slender figure.]

LIVVI: You’re sure? Silverarm has thwarted us in the past. If you fail us again –

OTTO: I swear, boss. The ranch is clear. The only thing standing in your way now is the cybercow laser defence grid, but I laid the charges right where you said. They’re ready to blow.

LIVVI: Excellent. Hear that, crew? Vex, activate the charges. The rest of you, round up your cyberhorses and unwind your power lassos, because we’re a-goin’ decryptin’!

[The crowd hollers.]

OTTO: Boss – what about Lloyd?

LIVVI: What, your snivelling excuse of a brother? What of him?

OTTO: You promised if I got you this payload, you’d set him free.

LIVVI: Don’t push me, upstart. We’re not out of the root directory yet. You’ll get your brother when my cybercows are home and hale in Blockchain HQ. Although… [She smiles cruelly.] You might find he doesn’t want to leave.

OTTO: What are you saying?

LIVVI: With the unstoppable power of the Silverarm herd behind us, the whole region is about to fall under our umbrella. We’ll hold the corporations ransom. NeoSyne is just the start. More credits than that cavity you call a brain-hole can possibly imagine. Endless streams of Chibi-Chais for all. What a woman wouldn’t give for a sip of that kawaii cinnamon comfort, that heart-meltingly cardamom aroma, just like it was back when senpai first noticed her. [She breaks off.] So don’t stand there all slack-jawed and stupid, recruit. It’s time to stop playing at being all high-and-mighty and start living it for real. So let’s go, crew!

[The crowd hollers.]

---> And there’s our contractual obligation fulfilled for another episode. Oh, and Amed, you know they’ve changed the casting for Vex. – Wy

------> Amed? - Wy

---------> I hear Café-chan has a new limited-edition special this week. It’s made of tears. - Max

SCENE 4 – CITY RUINS

[Earl and Danny, flush with success, ride together on cyberhorseback into the sunset. Earl leans against Danny’s back, arms wrapped around his lover’s waist, but looking more conflicted than ever before.]

EARL: I can’t stop replaying it in my mind, Danny. Over and over, like I’ve pushed past the Wierzbeck limit.

DANNY: Then stop worrying about it and kiss me. [They kiss.]

[Earl is distracted, however, and his eyes wander over Danny’s shoulder to the distant NeoSyne ranch. A plume of smoke laced with misfiring lasers rises from the horizon.]

EARL: Danny!

DANNY: I told you – [He makes a double-take.] Bandits! A raid, now? A thousand curses on that imbecilic wife of mine. I told her that blasted herd was a magnet for attacks. Should have sold it years ago for whatever pittance it was worth. Now I’m going to have to pay for property damage, and by the looks of it, it won’t be cheap.

EARL: But if those mongrels get their hands on the herd –

DANNY: So what if they do? Am I supposed to care? They can have them. By this time tomorrow, I’ll have a full security contingent hot on their tail extracting payback for every last credit they cost me, with interest. Compound interest.

EARL: But it’s the herd. The one they whisper of in quiet voices and furtive glances around the company feeds. The Omega Herd.

DANNY: [Frustrated] What in blazes are you talking about? You don’t actually believe this nonsense, do you? What else do you believe? Those rumours of a secret love child between myself and Vex Valance? All lies made up by my jealous cousin to discredit me and steal my inheritance.

EARL: Jenny planned to kill you, my sweet. By way of the Omega Herd. I thought you knew. I thought that was why we – [He trails off.]

DANNY: [Laughs] My wife? Kill me? Oh, she hated me. But she didn’t have the ruthlessness it takes to make the tough decisions as the situation demands.

EARL: You may mock me, but I’ve seen it for myself. The tampering. The tweaking. The remote access. I’ll show you myself. But if those bandits come away with the prize, then everything we’ve worked towards is done for.

DANNY: I don’t believe this. They’re cybercows. They’re weapons, not superweapons. But hold. We can’t go riding in in the middle of an attack. Let me call Security for a proper entourage.

EARL: You didn’t know. Oh god, you didn’t know. Then you – then we… What have I done? Who have I done?

---> This is really a very good line. – Wy

[He takes a deep breath, and pushes Danny off the cyberhorse even as it glides silently across the ruined landscape at full speed. Danny rolls to an outraged halt, screaming in the distance.]

EARL: [Firing the jetpacks] I’m sorry, Danny, but it can’t wait. I have to stop the bandits from gaining control of the Omega Herd before they overrun all civilisation as we know it.

---> I can always work with a well-written scene like this. The stakes haven’t dropped once this whole episode. When the three of us work together, we push the boundaries of the very genre itself. – Max

-----> Assuredly. Don’t you think so, Amed? – Wy

--------> Amed? – Wy

SCENE 5 – BLOCKCHAIN BLOCKADE

[Otto’s twin brother Lloyd sits in a cell alone, blindfolded and hands tied. His guard has left to join the raid. In their absence, a shadowy figure slinks outside and scans a keycard. The door whirrs open and we see it’s ABBY, hopeless gambler and long-time Blockchain Bandit.]

ABBY: [Pulling down blindfold] It’s alright, I’ve come to get you out. [She starts working on the ropes.]

LLOYD: Abigail? What are you doing?

ABBY: Freeing you, you numbskull. Everyone’s gone on the NeoSyne raid. This is your one chance to escape.

LLOYD: Why are you doing this? When they catch you, they’ll kill you.

ABBY: I won’t get caught.

LLOYD: But the chrome you all carry. The tracking implants. Won’t they know you stayed behind?

ABBY: Are you stupid? Stop asking questions and let me help you.

LLOYD: They’re going to release me, Otto said. After the raid. You don’t need to do this.

ABBY: [Laughs] Release you from life, perhaps. Livvi’s been feeding your brother a crock of lies. She can see which way the wind’s blowing with him, and it ain’t in her favour. Both your heads are on the chopping block once this job is over.

LLOYD: Then come with me. We’ll escape together, find Otto, and flee. Far away where they’ll never find us.

ABBY: Where else would I go? Maybe there was a life waiting for me out there once, but I had my chance and threw it away. Blockchain is my family now. Even when this raid comes through, even after I pay off my debts, I can’t leave them. This is where a dirtbag like me belongs. But you? You’re too precious for this life, Lloyd. You’ve still got a chance.

[The ropes drop away.]

LLOYD: Abby, they’ll kill you. You have to come with me. I love you, and – you’re carrying our child. Would you risk them too?

ABBY: [In frustration] Look, I thought I could spare you the truth. But there’s something you don’t know. That chrome, Lloyd? It’s not just for tracking. I run, and they’ll release a discharge frying me where I stand. At least if I stay, I’ve a chance of convincing them you overpowered me.

LLOYD: This can’t be!

ABBY: Livvi and I were lovers back in the day. She still has a soft spot for me. Don’t you worry, I’ll play every card I’ve got.

LLOYD: No. I refuse. I can’t let them do this to you.

ABBY: [Devious] Well… there may be another way. If you were to convince your brother to stay and become a full member of the Bandits, there’d be no reason for her to kill either of you. You could stay with me, raise our child. It’d be a hard life, but one with the promise of riches and glory.

LLOYD: …riches and glory about to be plundered from the NeoSyne estate. [He hangs his head.] Heaven help me, I’ll do it. For you, for Otto, and for the little one.

ABBY: Take my horse, then, and hurry!

LLOYD: [Sweeps her into a passionate kiss] I will.

[He leaves.]

ABBY: Excellent. Everything is going according to plan. Once Lloyd ensures Otto’s loyalty, the Bandits will have gained two new fully-fledged members, thus cementing our reputation as the most secure of all crypto-gangs. Ever since the rumours about these ‘Digital Desperados’ started floating around, people have questioned we’ve been losing our touch. And nobody’s even seen them!

[She sneers.]

When I find out who they really are, I’ll eradicate them from existence, or my name isn’t Livvi the Jaw.

[Her face warps as the hologram falls away and reveals her true identity. Abby was the real Olivia all along, and the Livvi who made the speech was really her identical twin sister, which will be properly explained in Episode 2.]

---> Gasp! Oh, the potential. - Max

------> Yes, I was pretty proud of this one. No one ever expects the second set of identical twins. Also, did Max just write out ‘gasp’? Has this always been happening? – Amed

---------> Yes, and Amed - great work. – Wy

------------> I’m not sure what happened here while I switched over to answer my messages, but if you two are finally joining the Amed fan club, firstly, I won’t say no, and secondly, it’s about time. – Amed

---------------> Okay. We need to book in time for a chat. - Wy

------------------> Gasp! – Max

SCENE 6 – ELSEWHERE

[We see the back of a dark, mysterious figure opening the door from the interior of an opulent office. On the other side leans Jenny Silverarm, dirty and dishevelled, but with a gaze of steel.]

FIGURE: Ah, Ms Silverarm. I hadn’t expected you so soon. Have you changed your mind about my generous offer?

JENNY: [Vengefully] I have. On the provision we embark under the name of a new entity. Market conditions have recently changed.

FIGURE: I understand, and I’m glad you thought to come to me. Come, let us discuss business.

---> It’s the Desperados. She’s going to form a new corporate entity under their name and haunt NeoSyne’s executives with digital holograms of its victims. - Max

------> Goddamnit. Every time. – Amed

------> It’s alright. I am special. It’s why they employ me to make this beautiful production everything it can possibly be. - Max

END CREDITS

VOICEOVER: Next time on Chrome Cowboys (sponsored by Café-chan):

OTTO: I bartered my honour for your freedom!

LLOYD: I’m saving our lives!

[Shot of cybercow lasers firing up the defence grid]

EARL: [Pointing at comms relay] You see? It’s all part of her master plan!

[Shot of blockchain bandits hollering]

ABBY: [Smirking] It’s all part of my master plan.

BESSIE: I have recorded some incriminating information, Master Otto.

[Shot of the NeoSyne cybercow recharging shed exploding in the distance]

DANNY: Those bandits will pay with their blood.

VEX: [Seductively approaching an indistinct lover] Passcode.

JENNY: No forgiveness. No mercy. And never, ever any refunds.

---

Amed fidgeted with the lapels of his collar as the carved wooden doors slid silently open. His shirt was wrinkled, his shoes unpolished, and he didn’t really have an excuse for it other than ‘it’s never been an issue before’.

Board meetings were supposed to be Wyleen’s remit, after all. As a writer, he had more to do with staring at words on a screen or staring blankly off into space as his imagination tried its best to come up with new gripping scenarios that hadn’t already been trotted out at least three times in sixteen previous seasons of Chrome-fucking-Cowboys. Just a lot of staring, really. He could never work out if the job got easier or harder as time went on.

Max wasn’t outfitted in conference-appropriate attire either, of course, because she never was. But because life was unfair, Amed knew she’d never be called out on it. Even now, she stalked into the boardroom as if she’d been born in it, waltzing in and putting her ankles up on another chair like the director of a company instead of the type that made movies. Clothed head to toe in matte grey leather - *real* leather, not the factory-produced substitute (already expensive enough as it was) - and those little round sunglasses he always associated with the worst parts of the Historical Accuracy brigade, she ran a hand over her close-cropped curls and yawned dramatically in the direction of the window.

Next to him, Wy gave him a nudge with her elbow. She, at least, looked the part. “Just play it cool,” she advised. “I’ll answer the questions unless they ask you directly.”

“Still no idea what it’s about?”

“Nothing. Trust me, it’s not in anyone’s interests to keep you in the dark.”

“What about Max?”

“Well... Max is Max. We let her do her thing, like a brisk rain shower. Or an avalanche. Make like a snowball and roll with it.”

Amed grimaced. “The thing about snowballs,” he muttered, just loud enough for Wy to hear, “is that by the time they’re rolling, you’re already headed downhill.”

“That’s a great line,” said Wy. She flashed him her teeth. “Save it for season eighteen.”

The way things were looking, there wasn’t going to be a seventeenth. In all his years slaving on Cowboys, he’d never once been called into a board meeting, not even during the Lone Hacker fiasco or the time they’d beaten out ‘Tournaments from the Tower’ on ratings until the Galactic Consensus had put in a bug patch or whatever it was they did to prevent corporate interests leaking feeds of the bloodshed to the highest bidders.

Whatever it was that had tripped the trigger, he had a bad feeling he’d turn out to be responsible. There were only so many ways you could spin secret affairs and messy betrayals before it started to get to you, and for his own sanity he’d begun to sow in occasional glimpses of hope for the collective morality of the human species. The latest ratings seemed to agree with him.

At the same time, however, he enjoyed having a comfortable roof over his shoulders and the shoulders to go under it, and as someone who wrote about noble sacrifices for a living, he knew better than most where it came from. That place being, naturally, his arse. The same one he gazed up when he was staring off into space.

Following the tail end of Wy’s tailored suit into the conference room, he picked a seat somewhat near the entrance and tried to maintain a socially-acceptable level of eye contact with the row of directors lining the opposite edge of the furniture. His hands found the bottom of his shirt and pulled downward in an attempt to smooth out the wrinkles before he realised the action was probably only drawing more attention to their existence, and gave up.

The director at the centre of the line of intimidation gave him a mildly disapproving glance and cleared his throat.

“So these are the senior creatives responsible for our best-seller, then. Let me begin by saying we’ve run the latest script through our quality controls and it passes the rating algorithms with flying colours. Keep up the good work there. However, there are one or two unusual areas of concern on which we’d like your professional opinions.”

“Of course,” Wy uttered, not missing a beat. “Always a pleasure.”

“Good,” said the company director. A miniature screen danced in front of one of his eyes and the eye danced with it, wobbling back and forth independent of the other one as the man read through something apparently important enough to interrupt a meeting. Once he’d noticed it, it was hard to stop. “Good,” he said again. “Let’s not waste time. We’re dealing with something of a longstanding issue here, not something a minor script edit can fix.”

Amed found himself nodding along sagely from pure reflex, and caught himself. They didn’t even know what the issue was yet.

“Back in season eight, if anyone can remember that far, the Board decided to replace the show’s fictional conglomerates with those from the real world. Such sought-after advertising space has been a lucrative stream of income and a good deal for our sponsors. But recently it seems to be causing more problems than it solves.”

Amed’s throat went dry, and he tried very hard not to swallow. Swallowing seemed like an excellent way to be implicated for sedition. He couldn’t remember where he’d heard that, but it seemed like it might be true here in this particular moment.

“Really?” Wy was saying somewhere near the vicinity of his right shoulder. “If this is about Danny Rodriguez, we’ve been very careful to paint NeoSyne and Tri Holdings as victims of his underhanded dealings, especially from a shareholder perspective. Amed’s been eager to pass me hints about the plot arc later this season where Hal comes back to life and manipulates the proxy votes from Danny’s allies into turning over control of both companies to his secret love child with Vex Valance once she comes of age. At which point he becomes permanently digitised into the kind of virtual space reserved for children’s programming until he learns to be a better person.”

He hadn’t said anything of the sort, but it had been declared at a board meeting now and he supposed he’d have to write it in. Damn it, Wy.

“Furthermore,” Max chimed in from the other side of Wy, “two-thirds of our audience are on record saying they want more Danny screen time, and further psychological testing indicates level of evilness has less to do with it than the number of opportunities available to display his rippling muscles.” She paused, raising her eyebrows at the silence in the room. “Obviously not in the children’s programming. But it’s important to look at various sides of the equation.”

“Er, right,” Wy ventured. Bravely, Amed thought. “This is Max, our multi award-winning director.”

“Yes, we’re aware of Max,” a severe brown-haired woman spoke up at the other end of the table. “Not too many Players in the arts. Most move on to bigger and better things.”

Amed shared a look of understated alarm with Cowboys’ executive producer. Max’s nocturnal status wasn’t a widely-known fact, to the point he’d hoped but not truly expected it would be kept between just the three of them. Of course it had been wishful thinking. The higher up you made it in the arcology echelons, the more they swapped ownership of your finances for that of your soul.

“Pfft,” said Max, grinding the tip of her shoe against what Amed assumed was a chair worth close to half his yearly salary. Which wasn’t small. “What could be bigger and better than the most popular drama series of all time? While you’re competing for limited terrestrial bandwidth, I’ve been busy spreading Cowboys’ holy lasso to more planets than we have corporate networks. And they like Danny Rodriguez. Although I get the impression as more of an exotic moral curiosity than anything to do with spindly human muscle definition.”

“None of this has anything to do with Danny Rodriguez,” said the director with the eye-wobble, setting the conversation back on track. “My lord. Maybe we need to put you to work on some other projects for a change.”

Amed snapped back to full attention and felt Wy’s hand clamp down on his wrist under the table before he had a chance to raise it.

Not the time, the producer mouthed.

Damn it, Wy. Damn it. Damn it. But she was right.

“In fact, it’s a matter of current affairs,” the director continued, oblivious to the sound of Amed’s crumbling dreams. “We’ve just had word of a rather nasty case involving GroCorp and Ike Holdings – murder, conspiracy, extortion; you can’t make this stuff up –”

You could, Amed thought sourly. He probably had. Seventeen seasons of Cowboys was a lot of bovine-related dramatic intrigue. But if staring into space was sometimes broken up with a little real-world inspiration, so be it.

“- and NeoSyne was tangentially involved. Now, our sponsor is of course innocent of all wrongdoing, but just in case, we want to put this arc with NeoSyne, Tri Holdings and all variants thereof behind us as quickly as possible and return to safer ground.”

Amed raised his eyebrows at Wy, who offered him the tiniest smile in return, still on guard. This was what they’d been called in for? This wasn’t so bad. It wouldn’t be too difficult to make some changes here and there, add a few more explosions to the Blockchain raid in Episode 2 –

“- and by ‘as quickly as possible’, we mean double hours,” the severe woman interjected. “No one wants a repeat of the Lone Hacker saga, after all. We’ll let you keep season seventeen, but we need to rush it out and move eighteen into the public zeitgeist. Calm things down plot-wise and capitalise on the ratings boom. Maybe find Danny Rodriguez an identical twin with less problematic associations and a less destructive personality to keep the ‘muscles’ angle going. We trust your creative genius.”

Over Wy’s shoulder, Max preened.

He couldn’t help himself. Amed groaned.

“Is there a problem, Amed?” asked the eye-bobble director, looking at him directly for the first time since the conversation began. Somehow, he found himself vaguely surprised any of them knew his name, even if it did appear on the closing credits of every Cowboys episode almost as far back as living human memory.

All attention was on him now. Even Max had finally taken her feet off the chair and was staring at him with those bright brown eyes, waiting to see what he did next.

No, there wasn’t ‘a problem’. What he’d give to live in a world with ‘a problem’, singular. Instead, he lived on a world considered so backwards the entire galaxy had ostracised it instead of actually helping, handing out the occasional participation certificate as a consolation prize while everyone else got a lifetime of thankless labour. Everyone from the Wyleens, Ameds and Maxes of the world down to the poor sods at the bottom who wouldn’t make it past their fiftieth birthdays due to occupational, environmental and people hazards. There were people out there who would kill for his job, quite literally, and the only reason he even knew about half of it was from Max’s reports inside the Tower.

And here he was, kidding himself he could nudge the world in the right direction by slipping in the tamest imaginable subversiveness into a show which ultimately boiled down to being about chronic infidelity.

Wy’s grip on his hand tightened under the table.

“Double hours,” Amed wheezed, partly because he needed to fill the gap and partly because his fingers were registering increasing levels of pain. “That’s more than just a rush job. The show’s quality will plummet.”

An amused smile spread across the severe woman’s face. “My dear, we’re talking about Cowboys here, not the next acclaimed documentary.”

Max’s expression fell into a nearby frown.

“It’s just for one season, and in half the time at that. Do what you always do. Throw in some new characters if you’re running out of people who aren’t related. We have the budget.”

Wy’s grip eased off his hand somewhat as the producer pushed her chair out from the table and rose to her feet. “Directors,” she nodded. “We’ll get it done, don’t worry about that. Myself, Amed and Max have it all in hand, as we always do.”

Just like that, the tension in the room broke, all interest lost. The eye-bobble director was back at his reading, and the severe woman offered them a half-hearted wave towards the door.

“Ouch,” said Wy, once they were out of immediate hearing range, though none of them were often far out of range of corporate security drones. She wrinkled her nose even as she fiddled with the pin holding her hair up. “That could have been worse. You did have a point, though, Amed. All sorts of mistakes can slip through when a project is rushed like that. All sorts of mistakes.”

She was staring at him. Now that the pressure was off, he felt like making some witty quip about the entire series comprising multiple definitions of bullshit even if it did break Max’s heart for two whole minutes. But the words died on his lips.

“You know, you’re right,” he said, suddenly feeling a lot better about the situation. “We can only do our best, Danny Rodriguez or no Danny Rodriguez.”

“Gotta say, I’ll be glad when he’s gone, though,” said Wy, rolling her eyes. “It’s been six seasons too long.”

“And deprive the aliens of their cultural enlightenment?”

“If Danny is the best we have to offer, we deserve to be exiled.”

“Then we’ll do better,” said Max, sidling up to join them. “As befits the geniuses we are.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Amed said, “but yes.” His mind was already filling up with ideas, and he hadn’t even had to stare at anything this time. “We’ll do better.”

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About the author

CoCop

  • United States
  • Founding Member of the Zard Skwad

Bio: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for an angry fix of machine translated light novels, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night

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