Lazur looks around the gaming hall, mentally diagramming the exits, the best place to store a bomb if you wanted to blow out the supports of the building. He’s in Semi Nova for a wargaming convention, south of the equator, the air feels different, and this is the closest he can get to taking a vacation because he still gets to gnaw on the problem via cardboard simulation, mass destruction methadone.
His little cousin is here, playing toyetic card games at the kid’s area, by a mural of Crash Bandicoot and Vegeta. Half his family is Semi Novan, from the Lechian migration to the Creciente Fértil region. He spent the morning with them, guilty at each touch, like he was involving them in something too ugly to comprehend. A physical taint, a contagious violence, or just a crippling paranoia.
“Che. Lazur. You awake?”
Isidoro is about ten years older than him, with glasses and neatly-trimmed hair and rosacea. A safe friend to have, play-by-mail correspondence, nothing to cross the wires of their lives. We are here to dispassionately reenact the worst battles in history, like gentlemen.
Isidoro hands him a coffee. “Try a caffeinated trance.”
A trance. That’s exactly what he needs. The fastidiously mediated dopamine ritual of an overly complex game that forces him to map onto an entirely different circuit.
Isidoro says, “What did you bring this time?”
Lazur always brings some expensive cardboard when he meets his online friends, because of the high exchange rate for buying gaming materials in Semi Nova. He hauls out the boxes. Diet of Worms, Szlachta of the Bar, The Guano Wars, and XX00: Deredemption. He looks apologetic at the last one. “A little ahistorical, but it has an interesting central mechanic.”
Isidor shrugs. “It’s all ahistorical at this point.”
“Yes. The…it was…”
“You look jetlagged. I’m not taking an easy victory.”
“Sorry. I think I’m still touching down.”
“Let’s get your head on. We’re drafting the new Magic set over here. I know you don’t like bomb-heavy formats but…”
Lazur plays a few rounds, but it’s not enough. Over the next eight hours, he plays enough different games to approximate the entire globe through a variety of ideological, ludic, and aesthetic lenses. As he slides chits around, he plays back the moves he made over the last year. Burnt warehouse. Raided cargo ship. All the gourmet ingredients for a snob like Rubicon. Without his materials, he’s just a kid in a wheelchair.
With these varnished maps, these flat fantasies of the world, everything reduced to numbers and icons and rules, it all feels safer. As if nothing else lived between the hexes.
He enters his hotel room and crosses the smooth floor made of faux-marble embedded with iridescent minerals, emerging into the open air of the balcony, the night sky.
He sips a mate cocido, thinking of how he could have avoided the earlier loss. He made the right move. A textbook move. But it doesn’t matter unless you know your opponent. You have to know when to be smart, and when to be stupid.
A splashing sound, he looks down at the swimming pool below his balcony. It would be nice to feel the water on his face. But maybe he’ll take a shower instead. He’s been around people all day.
Music plays from the surrounding neighborhood, dark city blocks fringed with neon. They explode, like everything does when he looks at it. The calmer the skyline, the more detonations his eye interjects. Every time he blinks another block bursts until the blur of the city seems a desolate blackness of rubble lit by orange fires.
He goes back inside. As he nears the bathroom, he stops. The light inside is red.
Tick tick tick.
He tilts his head slightly, then steps into the red light. It shines from the ceiling. The heat lamp timer is winding down. He wonders if it turned on automatically, if everyone’s bathroom is doing this at this exact time of night. But this is a warm country on a warm night.
He turns around and something explodes in his face.
He opens his eyes. At first he thinks it’s an animatronic, the figure seated in the wheelchair across from him. The uncanniness of severe bodily damage, stiff like plastic, incapable of the subtle micro-movements we’re used to. But through the burnt skin, eyes flick, hyper-alert.
He can feel his body now. Pain in his stomach. Part of his face missing. He can’t move his lips. He tastes chemical in his sinuses, medicinal, sedative. He tries to get up and his stomach gets tight, he has the feeling of something being broken, some kind of injury he can’t understand yet. His ankles rattle, his wrists bend back. He’s in a chair, feels like plastic with metal legs. Cuffs are pulled through the underside, some kind of bar or against the legs, keeping his ankles tight. Another pair runs taut below the seat, pulling his arms behind his back, fingers splayed helplessly behind him.
He tries to speak but there’s nothing there, just flat buzzing. Duct tape.
The discomfort sharpens with nauseating clarity. It isn’t his stomach that hurts. The more awake he gets, the thicker and more uncomfortable it becomes. Stickiness between his bare skin and the plastic seat. His pulse throbbing around the circumference of whatever is inside him, a vascular halo. His entire body strains against it, cuffs scraping. He needs to pant but his mouth is sealed, so his nostrils suck and exhale wet air, eyelids fluttering. That boy is watching him, posture encrypted, crippled, just watching—
“You’re dynamite, Lazur.”
Lazur seethes into the tape.
“Don’t worry, Laz. I very clinically introduced the uh, foreign element to your rectal cavity. The lubricant is an explosive gel of my own design.”
The volatile lube itches in the furrow of his ass, the dark hairs at the cusp of his spine tingling in the cool air from the open balcony.
“Skin-safe. Warming sensation for that extra-flirty fun night with your besty.” Rubicon rolls back and forth giddily, spinning his wheels. “Hypo-allergenic. Cruelty and fragrance-free. Well, not anymore. Haha.”
Lazur’s eyes are furious over the duct tape.
“But that’s just showoff. Molecular gastrointestinal, gastronomy. It’s all about the dynamite. Classic. Streamlined. Iconic. I’m taking you back to those cartoons you watched from the floor. Lil Lazzy. Did you laugh at those juicy red sticks with the cwazy fuses? Is that what I look like? A crispy critter with blinking eyes? It’s not cute like the cartoons, is it?”
Rubicon swivels the wheelchair, a tuft of blond hair swinging, eyes blinking reptilian.
“I’m bored. You can beg me for your life now, or whatever.” He rips the tape off Lazur’s mouth.
Lazur licks the life back into his numbed lips, then says, “You can’t forgive me for what happened to you.”
Air escapes from the side of Rubicon’s mouth, you can see the aborted sentences leaking from him, the kind other people can conceal. He fiddles with the zipper of his crimson bomber jacket, the vintage leather cracked like dried blood.
“I’d think about it too. If every part of my body was ruined like that. Even the parts that look normal. They don’t work the same anymore, do they? Does it hurt to breathe? To spit? Are you even continent?”
Rubicon struggles with his face, then smiles out the side of his scar. “Well, I’ll try the hotel breakfast. I heard it helps with that kind of thing.”
Still in the hotel room. For some reason Lazur hadn’t considered it, senses still clouded by sedative, staring at the dark half of the room.
Rubicon says, “And you’re wrong. This is about you impounding my shit. You’re being mean.”
“So I was right. Those were all meant for you.”
“Quit smiling. I don’t have enough material to level a city block. But I have enough to blow your ass up.”
“You hate me that much?”
“I’m going door to door asking for a cup of sugar and potassium chlorate. You’re humiliating me in front of my friends.”
“I’m the one who fucked a bomb in public.” Lazur’s cock is shrunk between his legs, the cuffs too tight to close them. He feels incredible rage.
“And now you’ll know how it feels. From the other side.”
Rubicon flushes. “This isn’t sexual. This is the best way to hurt you.” He hesitates, then puts his hand on Lazur’s abdomen, those incomplete alien fingers brushing the tensed skin. “This is where the pressure builds up. You have to feel the incredible explosive potential inside you.”
Lazur jerks his body and the chair shrieks forward. Rubicon pulls his hand away just before the snapping teeth get it. “Haha! Wow!”
Lazur’s head hangs forward, oozing saliva from his recently sedated mouth, teeth framed by the ghost of adhesive.
“Feel how perfectly snug it is? That’s a custom-trimmed stick, every grain sifted by hand, with a silicone casing.”
Nothing to bite or break, no plans to make, no wires to cut, only tightness, pain, too much—
“I know every part of your body inside out. I’ve seen the airport scans. The MRIs. I have your doctor files.” Rubicon holds out an imaginary piece of paper. “Here stands before us the 5’11’ 161 to 170 pounds fluctuating bomb defusal officer, agent, guy, Lazur Cortázar. Brings to mind the aging post-modern action hero, aging survival horror protagonist, the aging interchangeable male cannon fodder—”
“Aging, I get it, you keep saying that.”
“It’s all about the countdown, Lazur.”
Silence. When the boy doesn’t have anything to say, he gets nervous, he sneaks sideways glances, Lazur was watching his mouth so much he didn’t see how big the eyes were, that hungry curiosity, almost shy. “But you’ve never seen this.”
“It’s different in person, isn’t it? The body. No screen. No latency.”
“Yeah. It’s sweatier.”
“When you wake up, do you even recognize yourself?”
Rubicon flinches. “You have a real stick up your ass, don’t you?”
Lazur has to laugh, his nerves inflamed, sensitive. Then fear comes back, ignites into rage. “I don’t think I’d ever get used to it. Not looking human.”
“You keep playing with my weak point like that, you’re going to desensitize me.”
Lazur is out of words, exhausted by the enduring throb in his ass. He waits for someone to save him, someone to think of him and come to him, call him, blunder by accident, anything. How many times has he walked past the end of someone’s life, in some quiet way, and not seen it? Maybe it would be better if all these buildings were leveled, so we could see each other again. The bomb mentality is seeping into his DNA, fraying his telomeres, this mere telos, so easily polluted blasted blown into a new shape, and soon his particles will be converted to poison, not even simple biological gore that can return to the earth, but super-charred acrylamides, fused with the thing he hated. The guys who jumped on grenades were pussies, they never put their whole ass on the line.
Tick tick tick. Rubicon has a camera now, the instant kind, counting down on the kitchen counter. The boy wheels over and puts his shriveled arm around Lazur and the man can’t help but notice how awkward and virginal the touch is under the scar tissue.
Rubicon laughs shakily. “Wow, you’re really sweating. You got my arm all sticky.”
Lazur can barely think with the dynamite crammed inside him. He swivels his wrists, tries to remember if you can really break your thumb to get out of cuffs, or if he’d just give the boy another thing to laugh at. With one arm free he could snap the freak’s head off, is that why you’re nervous, because you can feel how easily my muscles could break you—
The instant camera goes off and Lazur twitches at the bright flash.
Rubicon brings the photo back and holds it in front of Lazur’s face. “Look! It’s us!”
The photo is still developing so the room looks even darker than it is, Lazur in a chair at the bottom of the sea, naked, furious, black hair messy, and that toothy cripple with an arm draped over him, the burnt wrist disappearing behind his neck and emerging as clean fingers, like a totally different limb. And behind, the Semi Novan skyline, still developing, a phantom of light pollution.
Rubicon sighs. “Time to say bye bye.”
“So cold and modern, Laz. You’re not a microwave.” The wheelchair rolls around behind Lazur and he tenses. “I went old-school this time. Like I said, classic, visceral, taste the difference.”
Lazur gasps as something tugs on his rectal canal. Then, slithering across his neck, a rope or wire, pulling his head back, forcing eye contact with Rubicon. Upside down, the mutilated boy looks even more alien, a chaos of ruined tissue and blinking eyes, teeth spreading in a unidirectional smile.
A cord circles Lazur’s neck. Rubicon brushes his face with the fuse, frayed at the tip. “Wow, it’s like a tail.” He releases the cord and it whips back around the man’s neck, dropping to the floor. Wheels roll back and the cord goes taut, yanking pain from Lazur’s asshole.
“You’re like a cat…bomb…boy…guy…real meow meow shit. But when I was watching those godless foreign cartoons growing up, you know what I wanted to happen? I wanted to see those fucking catboys explode into a million pieces. I looked at all those magic girls and wanted to blast them across the dream everyone else was having. You feel me? You ever just want to blow some shit up?”
Chkchk. A lighter. “So, to answer your question. This will take about ten minutes to go off. Less precise than your fancy digital timer, but it adds spice. You know? Determinism is boring.”
Lazur says, “I’m handcuffed, this isn’t, you can’t call this fair—”
“Wow, you’re right, Laz, this violates the Geneva Conventions.”
“Someone call the ref. Someone. Haha. Someone get the UN council of whatever the fuck this is. And. Hhhk. Hahaha.”
Rage churns impotently in Lazur’s gut. The heat can’t explode from his fists or the barrel of a gun, it diffuses across his naked skin in a patina of burning shame. “You stupid, sadistic fetus.”
“You always had a short fuse, Laz.”
Lazur turns his neck, fighting the stiffness in his muscles from the fading sedative. The wall flickers with the glow of the fuse.
Rubicon says, “Oh yeah. The lube will start to dry a little every minute. Isn’t that fun?”
“Death spiral, baby!” Rubicon kicks off, his wheelchair sailing back past Lazur. In his lap sits the instant camera, the flash jolting Lazur again as the light bleaches his sweating legs. Rubicon laughs. “Cunt toward enemy. Pussy facing the world!”
The boy’s bare foot, too twisted for shoes, pushes weakly at the floor as he rotates the wheelchair toward the door, one arm forward, the other back. “I have a jet to catch. But I hope you have a blast.”
The wheelchair rolls away.
The wheels stop.
“Are you really going to kill me?”
A slight pivot, spokes rolling slowly. “If you don’t survive, this wasn’t meant to be.”
Lazur notices a crumpled strip of red adhesive stuck to the floor. He’s shocked the boy didn’t put the duct tape back over his mouth. As if sensing his thoughts, Rubicon smiles over his shoulder, teeth spilling from the ruptured side of his face. “If you scream for help. More people will die.”
Despair, cold as the cuffs. Lazur hangs his head, dark hair over his face, streaks of silver. “You know ten minutes isn’t enough.”
Rubicon tilts to show off the other side of his face, a clean, boyish smile like a snip of collage. “Well, you know what they say. You shouldn’t cross me.”
The door opens and he rolls into the light of the hall, then someone shuts it behind him, leaving Lazur in the dark of the hotel room. The fuse licks at the shadows with an orange tongue, reflective mica catching fuselight in fragile facets.
He feels anally deformed, part-bomb. His bare toes tap at the hard floor, testing the balance of the chair. He can’t afford to tip over. He considers making a puddle of urine around him, but he pissed just before coming up, a boneheaded oversight. He should have known to maintain a strategic reserve for just such an occasion.
Need water. A sink. The bathroom door is shut. Rubicon must have closed it, knowing how cruel such a simple act would be.
Sparks sting his ass and he clenches, it came faster than he expected, he can’t tell how close it is or if the cord is arranged in a spiral, hot then cold then hot again, that would be Rubicon’s humor. He can’t think with this primal overriding threat, FLAME, his logic breaks—
Oxygen. Deprive it of oxygen. He focuses on the growing heat, trying to judge the position, then pushes the balls of his feet into the floor, throwing himself back, trying to land the plastic headrest on the fuse. The impact bangs through his body, gut squeezing around the dynamite like an internal bruise.
Hissssss. The fuse flicks past him, sparks stinging his hip. He tries to roll onto it, desperate enough to crush it with his flesh, but it circles out of sight, a snake on the other side of him.
He’s laying on his left side. The left lateral position. Because the colon is asymmetrical. He takes a breath, trying to relax. Relax or die. Another intimate region detourned by that terrorist brat.
He stares at the sky through the open door of the balcony, light reflecting on the clouds, the radiance of nocturnal desire. The ones who don’t sleep, but stay up, trying to get something even when the day ends, forced there by money or pulled by longing. It’s so pretty and stupid. The honking, the obnoxious radio music, the screams and laughter, all flowing together in this impossible mixed-up world.
Sparks rain like slivers of hot glass. He squeezes the dynamite out centimeter by centimeter. He thinks of baseball. Continental breakfast. If he lives all he wants to do is stress-eat an entire table of medialunas and black coffee—
Another centimeter. It’s not enough. The fuse is burning the soft flesh of his ass, singing the hairs, pooling sweat around the stretched hole, each second he expects it to explode, but the fuse must be wrapped around the top of the dynamite, forcing it to circle his hole, Rubicon’s scorching touch.
There’s no time, he grinds his teeth and squeezes, the tendons of his neck standing out, tears dripping down his face, chains ringing with the strain, sympathetic twangs through his pelvis. Fuck fuck fuck me inside out—
The dynamite spurts from his ass and skids across the floor and for a moment he is gaping with the explosive potential that was inside him, toes curled, hole dripping and sore.
He looks down at the sideways hotel room. A glistening red stick of dynamite, rolled under the mini fridge. It felt bigger inside him. The fuse is coiled around it. No sparks. Snuffed by the rolling impact? Dragged through the lube?
He laughs in relief, then gathers his breath to yell.
Something glows under the mini fridge. He exhales in shock. Residual heat?
The glow brightens, and a flame travels along the piece of cord laying outside the fridge. Magnesium in the fuse. Like a trick candle. Hahaha.
Ten minutes. He left me here to die. Like I was no longer worth studying. No longer worth the challenge.
The flame turns from red to purple. Potassium in the fuse. A reward for getting this far. Or a goodbye.
Lazur rocks the chair toward the dynamite, clawing with fingers and toes, a killing inefficiency, so much energy lost with each exertion. He just has to crush the flame.
The flame slithers back under the mini fridge, taunting him from the dark. Fuck. Shit. He aims toward the door instead, same direction. Then he stops.
Even if he got upright again, or stretched his foot up, the door swings inward, so he’d be fighting it. And it’s a knob, not a handle, so his teeth won’t work, nothing less than a full grip will do. He could bang on the door and hope someone answered in time, but that’s a hopeless wish. He’s dead weight in this chair, only tools can break the chains. He’d just be involving someone else in a private explosion.
But that’s not all, folks. The smooth floor is spattered in lube from the trail of the dynamite. If he gets it on his skin, he’ll lose precious traction. The anal lubricant glitters under the city lights, a river of death.
He rocks the chair in the other direction, inch by inch toward the balcony, bruises growing on his elbow as he hits it repeatedly against the floor. Cold night air blows his dark hair back, cooling the sweat on his brow. Even the slightest obstacle on the floor hurts, ribs banging on the runner track to the sliding door.
The railing is horrible to look at. Like a baby fence. But there’s no time to look back, not a single second can be spared.
When he was 19, his friend jumped from the roof of a cheap motel, landing in the pool. That was two stories and a running jump. This is four stories, no jump. You have to cross that hard rim around the pool, the concrete coping that smashes your face if you even slip at ground level.
He looks through the railing, the world divided into chaotic slices. A balcony two floors below has its awning out, blue plastic speckled with guano.
He pushes on a terracotta pot with his foot, forcing the chair against the railing as he pulls himself up from behind, bad grips at a painful angle. Another push, torso twisting forcefully, and the chair balances on the railing, teetering over the side closest to the awning. He shudders, trying to focus on the blue plastic, nothing else, no impossible distances humans weren’t meant to consider.
This is all part of the bomb. Just another mechanism. Another wire to cut. The sky is a wire. This fear is a wire.
He can’t hear anything but his panicked breathing. He flings himself over and the breathing stops, then the air forces itself through him and he can’t control it.
Wind whips his ears and he hits something and it hurts, the slap and bounce of plastic, the world spins and he has the split-second delusion of being a bodycam, whirling and shaking and crashing down, his breath sucks out again and distorted voices and car sounds whir past him and he hits the ground, the hard concrete, damp from dripping swimmers, pain blanks him out for a black second, then the concrete breaks under his body and turns to water, no concrete, just surface tension at high speed, and he sinks to the floor of the pool, the shockwave expanding above him, hitting the walls and surging back, air pockets bursting and collapsing in cavitation.
He laughs and bubbles come out. He watches them rise and pop, transfixed by this serene moment, this blue void that cradles his stinging skin. He laughs again, the last of his lungs, happy to be alive.
The facade of the hotel ripples above, a bulwark against the night sky. Then it flashes like a star and the sky turns black, ink bursting through space.
The surface of the pool shatters, volcanic rain piercing, the water turns bitter and hot. A piece of burning debris floats above him, staining the water red.
The chair wobbles in slow motion as he struggles against the cuffs, ankles clinking, hands pinned under his body, going numb. He stares at the quivering ceiling of debris, muscles torn, knowing when he’s forced to swallow water that it will taste like a blast site, particles of glass drifting through his nostrils, pulverized concrete filling his lungs.
Can’t control it. The world got away from you. It keeps exploding and exploding and it’ll never stop, tectonic plates and big bangs and the final pop of your consciousness—
Hands grip him and pull him up and drag him to the steps of the pool. Voices vibrate in the liquid trapped in his ears, it crackles and drains and he hears, “¿Estás bien?”
He coughs up water, pureed architecture spilling across his chest. Someone shouts with relief and pulls him up to the rim. Women in swimsuits surround him, patting his body, cupping his head on their thighs as he spits out chlorinated phlegm and gobs of ash, the cuffs shining, hair slicked like a wet dog.
“Gracias, gracias,” he says, legs heavy in the warm water, a tide of burning sediment lapping against his stomach, their hair dripping over him, cellulite bunching against his shoulders, polyester torsos and the breath of strangers. “Thank you so much.”