Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 19
Stories
Expendables
by Orson Scott Card
Schadenfreude
by Michelle Scott
Deathsmith
by Pete Aldin
Bonus OSC Story Serialization
Eye for Eye Part Three
by Orson Scott Card
IGMS Audio
Expendables by Orson Scott Card
Read by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Growing Pains
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Schadenfreude
    by Michelle Scott

Schadenfreude
Artwork by Scott Altmann

From the moment Chad pressed the big, red button that set his latest machine into motion, his audience was laughing. They cheered as the helium balloons rose to lift levers which released marbles that triggered switches. Every cockeyed operation was met with greater and greater applause. Yet while his Rube-Goldberg fly-swatter seemed to be a hit, Chad knew the entire thing was doomed to failure unless he managed to make the big finale work.

His heart pounding, he tracked the progression, ready to step in at the right moment. Timing was everything. Then, a split second before a spring-loaded boxing glove punched its target - an enormous plastic fly stuck on the wall - he moved into place so that the glove struck him right between the eyes.

The impact brought no pain, but it knocked him backwards onto his butt. Disoriented, he staggered to his feet. He reeled drunkenly about the stage as bright bursts of light cartwheeled before his eyes, and blood gushed warmly down his upper lip. Sounds receded; he could no longer hear his audience. But they were applauding. He was certain of it.

As the curtain came down, Chad staggered offstage. Al, his manager, helped him into a chair, then gently pressed on his head to get him to lean over the bucket.

Finally his hearing cleared, allowing him to appreciate the audience's frenzied applause. "They really loved it," Al said. He handed Chad a clean towel.

Chad could only nod. The pain might be gone, but he was still in distress, his body a bewildered animal desperate for relief. He felt weak. Dizzy. Sick.

"You're doing an encore?"

It wasn't really a question. In this business, you were only as good as your last performance. But they both knew that the act was taking its toll on Chad's body. Even with the latest generation of nanobots, his body didn't heal as quickly as it used to.

Still, the show must go on. After a moment, Chad handed back the bloodied towel and stood. Immediately the floor under his feet pitched upward and he staggered, clinging to Al for support. His stomach lurched. Bots could repair damage and block pain, but they could not compensate for blood loss as quickly as he needed them to.

"Get a grip, already, and get out there," Al said. "They're waiting for you." His tone was sharp, like the bracing sting of smelling salts. Chad struggled to obey. He took the water bottle Al pushed into his hands, rinsed his mouth, and spit into the bucket. He could do this. He must do this. Al helped him change from his bloody lab coat into a spotless white one and gave him a new pair of thick-framed glasses to replace the pair that had been broken by the punch. He wiped Chad's face a final time to get rid of the blood, and motioned the makeup girl forward so she could touch up Chad's eyes. Then Chad, pasting on a smile, went back onstage.

The encore involved a three-hundred pound weight and a rolling grand piano, a broken collar bone and a dislocated elbow. But it was worth it; like the pain bots, the audience's laughter would keep him going.

After the show, Chad lay on the couch in his dressing room, a cold compress pressed against his still swollen nose, a bag of ice on his shoulder. He tried to remain perfectly still. Though his pain channels were still mostly blocked, if he moved too quickly, he'd suffer a spike of agony. Shoulder injuries always took the longest to heal. Closing his eyes, he envisioned the tiny bots working inside of him, repairing muscle, rebuilding bone. He owed them so much.

But it was worth it. The pain was moderate, the injuries repairable. His audience was what mattered. All his life, he'd loved to make people laugh. As a kid, he'd always been cutting up in class. He'd escaped punishment by amusing his teachers. Even the principal chuckled at his antics. But his biggest laughs had come the day he'd fallen off the monkey bars. Everyone thought his ungainly plunge to the blacktop was part of the act. His best friend, Teddy, had laughed so hard he'd peed his pants. Those were the days before the nanobots, of course, yet even in midst of the red haze of pain from his broken arm, Chad had reveled in the laughter of his school mates.

He'd been pretending to fall down and walk into doors for most of his life, but nothing had made the other kids laugh like seeing the real thing. On that day, Chad understood how funny pain really was.

Al gave his familiar rap on the door, then poked his head into the dressing room. "You ready for some company?"

Chad, still slightly woozy, said, "Not tonight."

"You sure? It's a woman."

Even this didn't spark Chad's interest. Every year, the post-show letdown was harder and harder to shrug off. "Get rid of her."

Al came into the room and shut the door behind him. "It's Constance Gestler."

"Who?"

"Crazy Connie Lingus."

At this, Chad sat upright so quickly that his shoulder screeched in protest and his vision momentarily swam. "Are you sure it's really her? No one's seen her in years." Crazy Connie had crossed the comedy frontier by introducing the world to pain comedy, and as a result had been hailed as the Lenny Bruce of the modern era. Nothing had been too over the top for her. During her last performance, she'd done bit called "Van Gogh's Wife" in which she actually sliced off her breast. Unfortunately, the result had been as tragic as it had been funny. While the audience had watched, frenzied with hilarity, she'd nearly bled to death on stage.

"It's Connie, all right." Al, whose gamut of emotions seemed to run only from disgust to greed, sounded humbled. "She's got the scars to prove it."

"Give me a minute," Chad told him. As quickly as he could, he changed his shirt, ran a comb through his hair, and brushed his teeth. He'd never met the woman, but he'd always had a thing for her. Her act was unequalled. Her stunts, her timing, her monologue - everything was amazing.

But when she stepped into his dressing room, he felt a wave of disappointment. This couldn't be Connie Lingus. Connie had flaming hair and a wide, red-lipped smile. She was brazen and wild; nearly frightening. The woman standing in front of him now, this Constance Gestler, was short and dumpy. Her hair was pale and wispy; her eyes were dull. The worst part, however, were her scars. One ran across her forehead, mangling her right eyebrow and making her eyelid droop; the other cut through her lip, giving her a permanent sneer.

Suddenly, he didn't know what to say. He offered her a seat on the couch, then sat on the little stool by the dressing table. The room was so small that their knees almost touched. She folded her hands in her lap and glanced at the pictures on his wall: the one with him in his stage getup mugging at the camera, the one with him standing next to three buddies in a comedy club in Phoenix, the one where he was bent over at the waist, his arms and head up in a kind of salaam to the audience.

Constance pointed to the last picture. "What happened there? Was that part of the act?"

"Not really," he admitted. He got up and pointed to a corner of the picture where it was just possible to see the outline of an airplane wheel. "One of my props - this life-sized model of a Messerschmitt - came crashing down on me and fractured my hip. But the crowd loved it." He shrugged. "I guess you could call it improv."

She continued to stare at the picture. "I've seen you. You're pretty good."

On the dressing table lay a pair of the glasses he always wore on stage. He put them on. "Dr. Chad N. Freud knows vat is funny," he said, adopting the ridiculously thick German accent. He made a grab for the glass of water by the mirror, purposely missed it, and sent it crashing to the floor. Even the simple stunts of the absent-minded professor usually got a chuckle.

Constance, however, didn't even crack a smile. "You don't need to perform for me," she said, cutting him to the quick. He took off the glasses and tossed them aside.

She finally looked at him, but her gaze was so starkly appraising that he turned away. "You're good," she said, "but your act is getting old. You didn't even sell out tonight's show, did you?"

His back stiffened. "Did you come here to break my balls?"

"No, I came here to make you an offer."

"An offer?" He knew that Constance had connections. She might be able to get him his own television special. Maybe even his own primetime show. "What kind of offer?"

"You and I pair up and start doing a new routine. Something different."

"You mean that two pain comics would be funnier than one?"

She shook her head. "No pain. No broken bones and bloody noses. No bots and nanos to clean up the mess afterwards."

"So, what, we return to the old days? Standup? Vaudeville, maybe?" He snorted, disgusted, then winced at the painful vibration in his nose. "Or maybe you think we should fake the whole thing?"

The very idea of it repelled him. The previous summer, top comic Joe Dixon had been caught doing a phony act. When his audience discovered that there'd been no real pain, just clever stunts and cow's blood, his career died so quickly and got buried so deep that his subsequent suicide only made the public scratch their heads and wonder where they'd heard his name before. "I would never go for that," Chad said, dabbing at his bleeding nostrils.

Constance glanced in the vanity mirror behind him. With a finger, she traced the scar above her lip. "Don't you think things have gotten out of hand?"

He couldn't believe it. This was Connie Lingus he was talking to. Connie Lingus! The first comedienne to draw blood - her own blood - on stage in front of a live audience. The woman who had battled the courts and the social conservatives for the right to continue her show. Freedom of expression and all that jazz. The wretched person sitting across from him bore no resemblance to her. Sure, the face was hers, but her fiery personality was gone.

Chad retrieved his icepack and placed it on his faintly throbbing shoulder. "I've got better things to do than boost your failed career."

She flinched and looked away. "You and I could be good together."

"Forget it."

She nodded, as if expecting this. "Call me if you're ever ready to talk." She got up to leave, but when she reached the door, she hesitated. "You're playing a dangerous game. I almost died doing that show, you know. Even my manager thought it was a gag."

"But you ended up okay, didn't you," he argued. "I mean, the bots were able to re-grow your . . .?" He made a cupping motion in front of his chest.

Her lips pressed together in a thin line. She looked deeply disappointed in him. "My breast? Yes."

So what's your beef then, Chad wondered after she had left, and he was once more laying down on the couch. Why didn't you return to the stage? Sure, there were scars, but every pain comic - Chad included - had scars. Occupational hazard.

Chad hadn't even finished reading the headlines about Sam Jaber's death when his phone rang. Numb with shock, he picked it up. "Yeah?"

"You heard the news?" It was Al.

Chad sank down onto a chair and pressed his hand to his forehead. "Sam. I can't believe it." Sam had still been in his teens. Just a kid, for God's sake. "What happened?"

"Prop malfunction." Al's voice was breezy, just like it was whenever a problem cropped up that he didn't want Chad to be concerned about. "That kid was always using those non-union chumps to set up his show. You can't depend on them. He should have been using a better class of crew. Like you do."

Chad knew that Al was telling him not to worry, but he could feel sweat forming along his hairline. A prop malfunction. Even among pain comics, Sam Jaber's act was known to be intense. He worked with instruments of torture - everything from a medieval rack to one of those car battery/electrode rigs that made Chad squirm and want to cup his balls protectively whenever he watched Sam use it. But while the professionals cringed at Sam's audacity, his audiences had loved it. Sam, his body wrecked and bleeding, could deliver one-liners to his would-be torturers like nobody's business.

And now the kid was dead.

"I wanted to make sure you were okay," Al said. "You good?"

"I'm good," Chad said, still feeling numb.

"Ready for tonight's show?"

"Yeah."

When Al hung up, Chad turned on the television. One of the news channels was interviewing a girl who had seen Sam die on stage. Chad turned up the volume.

"At first, we didn't know what was going on." The girl, not much older than Sam himself had been, was wearing a skin-tight halter that showed off her nipples. Her hair was dyed bright orange. "I thought it was part of the show, you know?" She clutched her purse and smiled uncertainly at the camera.

"When did you know it wasn't?" the interviewer asked.

"Well, he was thrashing around and stuff. Because of the electricity, I guess. It must have been like his insides were cooking or something, because we could smell him." Her smile wavered and she looked away. "Even in the back row we could smell him."

There was more, but Chad didn't hear it. He was racing for the bathroom.

Chad paced the dressing room. He was always worked up before a show, but he hadn't been this nervous since he'd first started in the business.

The knock at the door made him jump. "Hey, hey, hey! Dr. Buzz is here." Buzz Whitely strode into the room without waiting for permission. He had the shoulders of a linebacker, and his presence in the tiny dressing room made the place claustrophobic. But Chad was glad to see him. Everything was going to be all right.

Yet even as he thought this, he felt a tremor of disquiet; Buzz's eyes were all wrong. The pupils were a little too wide, the gaze slightly unfocused. Everyone knew the good doctor was a user, but Chad didn't want him using before performing a procedure. "You okay?" he asked.

"Never better," Buzz said. And though Chad was still wary, he had to admit that Buzz's hands were steady and his speech was clear. Besides, Chad was desperate for a shot. Before he went out on stage tonight, he wanted to make absolutely sure he wouldn't feel any pain.

"When Al said that you wanted another boost, I was surprised, but who am I to argue with my favorite client?" Buzz clapped Chad on the back, hard, and motioned for him to lie down on the couch.

Chad lay on his side, facing the wall, and drew his knees up to his chest. His guts churned. He just couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. But where else was he supposed to get pain bots two hours before a show? Legally, he shouldn't be using them at all. That kind of nanotechnology was supposed to be reserved for cancer patients and burn victims, not pain comedians. Chad's legal monthly dose had been used up weeks ago. Dr. Buzz was the only alternative.

In back of him, Chad could hear Buzz rummaging about in his bag and readying the syringe. "I know you just came last week," Chad said, "but I wanted to be sure."

"No problem," Buzz said.

"You heard about Sam?" Chad asked.

"Sam Jaber? Yeah, that's a shame. He was a client of mine. But don't worry about Sam. He might have gone out in a blaze of glory, but he was feeling no pain when he did."

This should have been comforting news, but it wasn't. When Buzz touched Chad's back to lift up his shirt, Chad flinched.

"Hey, easy there, big guy. Relax." Buzz massaged Chad's shoulders, working muscles that had gone stiff from tension. Chad tried to, but couldn't. Buzz was no doctor. He was hardly more than a massage therapist with connections. But, so far, his work had been impressive. Chad had yet to feel any of his injuries.

Once more, Buzz touched the bare skin at the base of Chad's spine. "Little poke, okay?"

It was more than a little poke, but Chad endured the pain of the hypo, gritting his teeth as the needle entered his spine. In a moment, it was over, and Buzz gently rubbed the site of the injection. "You relax and let those little pain bots do their job, okay?" Buzz said, now sounding every bit like the doctor he pretended to be.

Despite Buzz's assurances, however, Chad just couldn't make himself relax. When show time came, the audience didn't seem to notice - they laughed at all of his stunts - but during intermission, Al took him aside. "What's up?"

Chad shrugged. "Maybe we should scratch the new bit. Give me some more time to work on it."

"Are you serious?" Al stared at him. "How much more time do you need?"

"A week. Maybe two."

Al blew out his breath and looked away. Chad knew that his manager was trying to decide whether he needed to be a hard-ass or an understanding friend. To his relief, Al settled on the friend routine. "Look, it's a good bit. You've been practicing it for months." He put his hand on Chad's shoulder. "It's up to you, but I say let's go for it."

"Okay," Chad said, already working himself up. "Okay."

Compared to the stuff that Sam had been doing, Chad's new routine was fairly simple. All it involved was an exploding beaker. Dr. Chad N. Freud would pick up two test tubes of solution, mix them together, and have the result literally blow up in his face. There'd be glass embedded in his cheeks and forehead - nothing new on the Dr. Freud front - but there would also be the added hilarity of Chad's hair catching on fire. That was the tricky part. The part that had kept Chad awake the night before.

When he went out on stage, the crowd's cheers bolstered him. This would be great. They'd love it. And it just might be enough to boost ticket sales once more. Chad gave his spiel, building tension and gaining confidence as he went through the act. Everything was going to be fine. Just dandy.

But the moment he picked up the two test tubes, he heard as clearly as if he were still in front of his television watching the girl talk about Sam's death: "Even in the back row we could smell him." His hands began to tremble.

Even so, he was able to pour the liquids into the beaker. And, just as it had before, the beaker foamed. Dr. Freud cried out, "Ach, du lieber!" And then the thing exploded.

Chad was blinded, but he had expected this. While the audience roared, he groped about for the pull rope that would release the firefighting foam. He could smell his hair burning. The heat from the flames brought tears to his eyes. He reached wildly, suddenly terrified. The audience went nuts, screaming and whistling as he stumbled around trying to find the pull rope. He tripped over the lab table, landing with an 'ooph' on the floor. Where was he? The lab table seemed to have vanished. Bits of blackened hair drifted into his eyes. He blindly crawled along the floor, desperate to find something that would reorient him. If only he could see! When, at last, his fingers finally brushed against the table, he quickly pulled himself up. The smoke from the chemical reaction was now clogging his airways, making it impossible to breathe. And still the audience laughed.

When the pain hit, Chad screamed. He hadn't expected it. The flesh on his forehead seared like fish blackened in a frying pan. The stink of burning hair was replaced by a meatier smell. The pull rope was forgotten now as he tried to wipe the chemicals from his face. His fingertips burned. "Help me! God, help me!"

He was dimly aware that the curtain had fallen, and that someone was pulling on him from behind. Somewhere distant, he heard a hiss and smelled the sharp scent of neutralizing chemicals. The cord he'd been searching for had finally been pulled.

"Nice job." Al was trying to sound hearty, but Chad wasn't fooled. His manager's voice was unnaturally high and unsteady. "They loved you. You were great!" And as Chad's consciousness faded into black, he wondered if it was true.

Constance agreed to meet him at a café down the street from his apartment. Though it was really too dark and too cold to be dining outside, she didn't protest when Chad asked for a table on the patio.

"I need my space," he said when they were alone. He motioned at the windows, which gave a view of the cozily lit dining room filled with happy customers. "I can't stand to be around people."

"I understand." It was a great comfort to know that she wasn't just mouthing an empty sentiment. She took his hand. "You look good."

Almost without thinking, he touched his face. Most of his hair had grown back in, but the hairline itself had taken on irregular contours, like a complex shoreline drawn on a map. He kept his bangs long and combed to the front, hoping that it looked like a new fashion trend instead of what it really was: a desperate attempt to hide the scars on his now pockmarked forehead.

"How do you feel?" she asked.

He shrugged. "Okay." A partial truth. The skin on his face was extremely sensitive. Not painful, exactly, but raw, like an exposed nerve. Even the caress of the slight evening breeze against his check was making him wince. He had come to dread shaving in the morning and was thinking of growing a beard.

"What about your doctor?"

Chad laughed bitterly. "Buzz was long gone by the time I was in any condition to look him up."

"I read in the paper about the bots he gave you. You ended up exposing quite a scandal, you know."

He knew. And he supposed he should have been glad since the illegal factory where Buzz had gotten his goods had been shut down and was no longer making the defective pain bots. But he wasn't. He just wished the entire thing hadn't happened.

The waiter came, and they ordered drinks. Chad's was a double scotch. Neat.

"I'd like to pair up," Chad said. "If you still want me."

"Still want you?" Constance grinned and leaned back in her chair, seductively thrusting out her breasts. For the first time since he'd met her, Chad saw the old Connie Lingus. "Honey, after your last show, you're hot."

She was right. Ticket sales had spiked dramatically after his stage fiasco. But to Al's fury, Chad had closed the show and returned the money. As far as he was concerned, Dr. Chad N. Freud was dead for good. Even now, looking into the dining room at the other customers, he felt a flush of anger. I almost died, you bastards, he thought. And all you did was laugh.

As if reading his mind, Connie once more reached for his hand. "We'll be great together, I promise. They'll be laughing at what we can do, not at how we can bleed."

He clutched her hand and let her certainty fill him with hope.

A week later, however, when she started outlining her ideas, he wasn't so sure. It wasn't that her routines were bad; they were just far too folksy - too yesteryear - to interest an audience weaned on blood.

But for her sake as much as his, Chad tried to make it work. They rehearsed together daily, each of them improving on the lines and making changes. And the more they worked, the more Chad relaxed. Even Al looked happy.

Two weeks into rehearsals, he and Connie drove to an old airplane hangar outside of town where their sets were being built. Connie looped her arm through his and led him over to where a trio of men were spray-painting one of her props: a computer as large as a school bus.

One of the men shut off his spraying wand and took off his mask. "What do you think?"

Connie was beaming. "Oh, baby, I love it!" The computer was for her sketch in which she played a technophobic old lady who unwittingly logged herself into a porno chat room. While the workers looked on, Connie sat in front of the monstrous screen, gave herself a moment to get into character, then said, "Merciful heavens! Why, those aren't mountains!"

All three men laughed. Not a polite, she's-the-lady-who's-paying us guffaw, but a real laugh. Chad could always tell the difference. It was a relief to know that Connie still had her magic.

The two of them left the computer and went to examine a gargantuan spider that Chad would end up battling in his scene about an arachnophobic exterminator. He stroked one of the black, furry legs that was twice as tall as he was. "I love these giant props," he said. "They're totally surreal."

"They're certainly larger than life," Connie agreed. Then she punched his arm. "That's our show! Freud and Lingus - Larger than Life."

It was perfect, and not just because Chad got top billing.

He put his arm around her and squeezed her. Hard. "You're a genius."

"Hey, Dr. Freud," one of the men called out. "Are you and Connie an item now?"

Chad and Connie exchanged a look. His favorite bit in the show was a tribute to their old characters. The bumbling Dr. Chad N. Freud giving psychiatric advice to the notoriously nymphomaniacal Connie Lingus, who did her best to seduce the clueless doctor. "Ve haff a professional relationship only, ya?"

Connie pinched his left buttock and nipped at his earlobe. "Or not."

This got laughs and a little applause as well. Yes, Chad thought as they walked back to the car, the magic was there. This was going to work.

On opening night, he was giddy with anticipation. When he and Connie walked out on stage, it was just like he remembered from the good old days. Cheers and whistles exploded from the audience. The applause went on and on.

But after ten minutes, the audience had cooled so much he was sure the temperature in the auditorium had dropped below freezing. During the second bit, he even heard a "boo." He flinched, and his guts clenched.

Connie Lingus, her hair a flaming red once more, didn't seemed fazed, but when they went offstage for the first time and she looked at him, he could see bewildered anger in her eyes. "We're dying out there." She snatched a towel from a stagehand and roughly dried her face. She'd been dowsed with several buckets of water in the last act and now looked drowned, her red hair flattened against her scalp, her smudged mascara making bruises underneath her eyes.

"We'll be okay," Chad said, unconvinced.

"Okay? They hate us." She glared at the wall, as if seeing the audience on the other side. "Bastards! They want our blood. They want pain."

It was sheer professionalism that drove the pair of them back on stage. Neither one wanted to face the audience, but it had to be done. They rushed back into the lights wearing lock-jawed smiles, cringing inside at the thought of booing and hecklers.

The crew must have been similarly uninspired, for they hadn't cleaned up the stage properly from the first act. Chad saw the puddle of water a moment before Connie reached it, but it was too late to whisper a warning. She skidded across it, her arms pinwheeling as she fought to regain her balance. She ended up falling on her ass. For the first time that night, they got a real laugh.

Chad knew the audience wanted more.

So did Connie. She threw herself into the second act with manic intensity. The lines were now much pithier in her mouth, her gestures far more exaggerated. At one point, she shoved him hard, but he was ready for her and didn't give ground. A few people in the crowd whooped. He felt a chill up his spine.

The sketch ending the second act involved a lovers' quarrel with Connie playing the overbearing wife and Chad the hen-pecked husband. It was the edgiest part of the show, for Chad was supposed to lose his pants - literally - and flash his dick at the audience. But this time, when the argument reached its climax, Connie changed her lines. Instead of saying, "I'm going to give it to you," she said, "So you're going to give it to me," and she tilted her head slightly, lifting her chin up.

She wanted him to hit her.

After all those weeks working together, Chad knew this beyond a doubt. Like a defeated animal baring its jugular to the victor, Connie was offering up her jaw. Not only to Chad, who would be the one to deliver the blow, but to the audience as well. She was desperate to sacrifice herself for another laugh. Her eyes begged him to strike her. Pleaded with him.

The audience held its breath.

One blow to her face, and the two of them would be back on top. He'd been right on that first night she'd come to see him in his dressing room: two pain comics really could be funnier than one. Everyone wanted it: Connie, the audience; even Al, who was probably already counting the profits he could make off the two of them. Chad's hand formed a fist and he drew back his arm.

Sweat beaded along his forehead, making his skin itch. The lights were suddenly too bright, the tension too great. "Hit her!" screamed someone in the audience. Another man echoed the sentiment: "Send the bitch to the moon!"

Chad's jaw clenched, then - with a silent apology - he delivered an uppercut that he hoped looked harder than it really was.

Connie rocked backwards. The audience's roar of approval was too loud for Chad to hear a gasp of pain, but from the look in her eyes, he knew she'd made one. She dropped to the ground. Terrified that he'd hurt her worse than he'd intended, he rushed to her side. Connie looked up, winked, and delivered a kick to his groin.

Luckily, she misjudged the mark, and the full impact of her hit caught him mostly in the upper thigh. But one stiletto managed to target his left ball. The pain was exquisite, doubling him over in an instant. His stomach lurched. His first instinct was to not puke on stage, but then he thought otherwise and let it fly.

His spectacular splash of vomit received a standing O.

At the end of the show, the two of them hobbled off stage. Connie's jaw was already beginning to bruise.

Chad, trembling too hard to stand any longer, dropped to his knees. Al hurried up, assessing the damage and shouting for ice packs.

"Great show," Al said, for once sounding like he meant it. "Really terrific."

Chad tried to smile, but grimaced instead. "Glad you liked it."

Al handed him a bottle of water. "I just wish you would have given me a heads up beforehand."

"We didn't know ourselves," Connie mumbled through swollen lips.

"That's okay. Next time we'll be sure to bill it. 'Pain Comics 2.0' or something. God, it's the next frontier." Al was practically jumping out of his skin. "First real blood, now real pain."

Chad lifted his head, trying to see Al's face through the red haze that seemed to hang in front of his eyes. "What are you talking about?"

Al's smile faltered. "What are you talking about? I thought you two were nano-free tonight. No pain bots. Au natural."

Connie, too, was puzzled. "We're clean. At least, I am. I wasn't planning on getting hit tonight." Wincing, she pressed an icepack against her jaw.

"Me, too," Chad said. After what had happened with Dr. Buzz, he'd sworn off nanos and bots.

Al's smile returned. "Well, okay then. We're good. And when word gets out that you two are doing live pain comedy with no anesthetics, our audience will double. Triple, maybe."

The news sucked the air from Chad's lungs. Was Al serious? Pain comedy without a safety net? He glanced at Connie, whose complexion was alarmingly pale.

Al either didn't notice their horror or didn't care. "But next time you do this act, you need to go all out. You pulled your punch, didn't you," he said to Chad. "Chickened out at the last minute, am I right?"

Chad couldn't meet his eyes. When he'd hit Connie he'd tried to do as little damage as possible.

"Look, if you're going to do pain comedy, then do it. Understand? None of this half-assed crap." He turned to Connie. "And you, sweetheart. Balls are always here, got it?" He grabbed his crotch. "It's the same location on every guy. You missed by a mile."

This time, Connie looked away.

"Don't worry," Al said. "We'll make sure you two practice."

An intern, a doe-eyed coed who'd confessed to Chad that she'd always wanted to do stand-up, came over and handed him another icepack. Her face was pale, her eyes even wider than usual. "You're bleeding." She pointed to Chad's crotch, where a spot the size of a bottle cap was rapidly blooming.

Al tilted his head, considering. "Those stilettos of hers were wicked. They probably tore something down there." He sounded as matter-of-fact as if he was discussing a flat tire. "Too bad it didn't bleed on stage."

If Chad could have stood, he would have happily delivered some pain to his manager right then. It would do the smart-ass good to get a taste of what it was like to get a stiletto to the balls. The way Chad felt right now, he'd happily deliver some heavy pain to his entire audience. Never mind their standing O.

That thought sent a vibration through his brain, and somewhere in the dark recesses of his mind, an idea stirred. Something very important. He tried to nail it down, but the more he chased after it, the further it receded. The pain was too much of a distraction.

In the hospital, Chad was given anesthetics (medicine this time, not bots) so the doctor could carefully stitch him back together. The doctor, a defeated-looking man with stooped shoulders and thinning hair, asked, "How did this happen?"

Chad said, "Would you believe it's an occupational hazard?"

The doctor rolled his chair backwards. "I know who you are." He looked over the tops of his glasses and held Chad's gaze. "There's a crowd of reporters waiting for you outside."

Reporters! Chad would need to get his hands on a comb and wash his face before leaving the room. He wondered if Connie had already spoken to them, and what she might have said.

The doctor stood up and stripped off his gloves. "I don't know who disgusts me more, pain comics or their audiences." His gray eyes smoldered. "There's nothing funny about watching a man bleed. If the audience had felt the pain that you did when you were brought in here, they'd understand."

And there it was. That elusive little thought that had been teasing him was now laid right out in the open. Chad laughed. The doctor's eyes narrowed. He muttered something under his breath and left.

A few minutes later, Connie came into the room. Her jaw was still swollen, and the bruises had begun to darken. She tied a balloon bouquet to the foot of the hospital bed. "God, I'm so sorry." She gently touched his shoulder.

He grinned, woozy with drugs. "It's okay. Looks like I got you pretty good, too."

She didn't smile. "I wanted you to be the first to know that I'm getting out of the game. For good."

He took her hand. "Don't leave. Not yet." He pulled her closer. "You have to try our new show. At least once." And before she could protest, he told her his plan. He explained about turning the tables on the audience, asking for volunteers. He explained age-of-consent and pain thresholds and the need for waivers. God knew, they couldn't risk having a pregnant woman or someone with a heart condition strapped to one of Dr. Chad N. Freud's machines.

Connie shook her head. "It won't work. No one would volunteer."

"Of course they will," he insisted. "It will be perfectly safe. Besides, comics have been doing it for years. Penn and Teller, Cirque du Soleil . . . All of them. And we'll give away t-shirts, too, that say, 'I submitted to Connie Lingus.'"

Connie's mouth quirked in a half smile. "I suppose there'll always be suckers."

"That there will," Chad agreed. He envisioned an audience member, prepped with nanos and bots, strapped into Dr. Chad N. Freude's automatic nose-hair clipper. Even someone who'd been given am ample dose of pain meds would blanch at the sight of a giant, rotating blade heading straight for his left nostril. The look of horror on the volunteer's face would be hysterical, especially if the image was projected on an overhead screen so large it would make the JumboTron in Times Square look puny.

Connie tapped her chin as she considered. "My S&M skit might work well for that."

Chad quickly agreed. Connie's famous S&M skit, the one that had always ended up with her forgetting the safe word and getting stuck in the iron maiden, would be perfect. Or, better yet, forget the iron maiden. It was too enclosed. A medieval rack. Yes, that would be much better. The cameras would be able to pick up on the facial expressions as the straps tugged on the volunteer's wrists and ankles.

Connie gave a huge sigh. "Okay. Count me in."

Chad, thrilled, hugged her. "We'll start a whole new era of pain comedy." The two of them would put on a show that would never be forgotten.

Because there would always be enough pain to go around for everyone.


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