C.K. sat down next to Blackout, across from Fern. It was nighttime. They were haunting an old mom-and-pops pizza place that didn’t seem to get much business, but was more than worth the twelve bucks for a large, two-topping. The empty tray lay covered in crumbs and several pieces of crust Blackout didn’t eat. Everything was surrounded by the blunt noises of the city outside the pale shop window: cars honking in intermittent bursts, dogs barking at one another when they passed on the street, half-finished cellphone conversations, tires gripping the pavement, the occasional helicopter.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Fern asked. He leaned agains the metal back of his chair, relaxed from a full stomach.
“I think so,” C.K. answered. It was as much as he could promise. Recently unemployed, he was searching for a new gig—something to keep him from banging his head against his keyboard 40 hours a week.
Blackout turned in his direction and smiled, “That’s enough for now, kiddo.” He put an elbow on the back of his seat before cracking his neck. “We’ll be sure you get a few chances to see what it’s all about.”
After glancing around to make sure the staff was in the back, Fern sat up. “But we need to introduce you to the game, first.”
C.K. looked mildly confused. “Game?”
“It’s all a game, C.K.,” Blackout stated. “Everything you’ve seen on the news, all of the internet reports, the Hero’s Federation. It’s a game.”
“People die,” Fern added. “All the time. But that’s part of it, you see?”
“We’ve all signed up for the risks,” continued Fern, “and we’re trying our damnedest to get the rewards.”
“You’re the genius,” Blackout said, nudging C.K. on the shoulder. “You tell me how the city gets all of the money to keep rebuilding everything the heroes and villains destroy all the time.”
“They have a budget for municipal restoration,” he explained with a certain confidence. “Everything else they’ve privately insured or contracted out.”
“Do you think it’s profitable for insurance companies to constantly pay-out claims?”
“Obviously not,” he answered.
“So, what would they have to do generate a profit and stay in business?”
C.K. had never really thought about it before. What had brought him to the meeting with Fern and Blackout today was the prospect of becoming a Super Villain. He knew how that worked, because he had done research into the hidden compensation methods behind the financing of all the hero-villain operations.
“Is it the same as the Hero/Villain compensation system?” C.K. asked.
“So, you already know a little, then,” Fern said. “But it goes deeper than that small stuff.”
Blackout picked up where Fern had left C.K. dangling. “The Supers create stories, dramas, really, into which the public invests viewing time.”
“That viewing time is funneled to TV contracts via news and programming specials, driving up the costs of advertising,” Fern expanded.
“A portion of the advertising and subsequent merchandising of hero/villain related items is siphoned to the Supers, and then the process repeats.” C.K. finished their conclusion for them. “I know that much,” he said, a little insulted.
“Not quite,” Fern said. “You’re leaving out the bigger picture. The one we can’t even figure out, and we’re in the system.”
“Kind of,” commented Blackout.
Fern took a long blink, then moved on, “The city is the machine. Without the city, the constant fighting of the heroes and villains would tear everything apart. There would be no infrastructure. No news teams with the ability to report anything. No constant updates. It would be a war.”
“And a quick war,” said a solemn Blackout, “because winning means killing in this game. Guess who the best killers are humanity has ever produced.”
C.K. nodded. That made sense. People killed each other easily enough without shooting fire or ice straight out of their hands. Plus, all you needed was a disguise; it was like putting a tuxedo on a tactical nuke. Everyone knew that the heroes didn’t kill the villains, often at least. But what he hadn’t considered was the stage the performance was played on. “You’re saying the entirety of Upville is simply a ruse for this Super Hero/Villain game?”
Fern leaned forward and dropped his tone, “I’m saying there’s a reason Upville is the fastest-growing city in the entire country by all metrics.” The college kid who took their order came out of the back, passed his eyes over the mostly empty shop, then disappeared back into the kitchen via swinging door. A few moments later, Fern continued, “The insurance companies can pay out the claims because they’re the ones who are actually receiving all of the construction contracts, for a price, of course.”
“Which is illegal,” said Blackout with a raise of his eyebrows, “unless you’re making money, too, that is.”
“Political corruption,” C.K. grinned. “Nothing new.”
“Not at all,” agreed Fern. “What’s happened here is that the insurance companies are getting the contracts, which allows them to pay the claims, yes. But they also have a constant stream of premiums for new, personal possession insurance contracts, which are a necessity in this town.”
“People keep moving in.”
Blackout nodded. “New faces, more money. Who wouldn’t want to live in the same city as your favorite super hero?”
“What do you think about your city-sponsored health insurance, C.K.?” posed Fern.
C.K. took a second, then everything clicked, “It’s the best in the country, by far,” he said. “New facilities, new doctors, plenty of specialists, a state-run research university to bring in new talent and government grants, low out-of-pocket cost…” a slow breath. “Everything depends on the Supers, doesn’t it? It’s all part of the Game.”
“Bingo,” chimed Blackout.
“There’s probably more,” Fern said. “We just haven’t gotten that deep in to figure it out, yet. Another perk of being a Super.”
C.K.’s eyes were alight with the tease of forbidden knowledge, “Let’s do it.”
Smoke escaped Fern’s lips through a few, short chuckles that revealed crimson-tinged teeth.
A hand from Blackout slipped itself around C.K.’s shoulders, “My man.” Then he looked at Fern. “I think we got ourselves a little team here.”