Lights Out: An MC Ruff and DJ Tumble Adventure – Part 3

Lights Out:

An MC Ruff and DJ Tumble Adventure – Part 3

by

Phillip McCollum

 

[If you’re just jumping into the story, start from the beginning!]

The look on his face may have been worth the price of a new engine alone.

Sharky stood over the catering table with a mouth full of pretzels. He was a short, thin man, who wore round, wire-frame glasses with green-tinted lenses. His salt-and-peppa hair was slicked back, held down against the forces of gravity by a gallon of Jimmy Oil.

“Ruff! Tumble! What…”

He tried to hide his split-second of surprise by launching into one of his usual verbal onslaughts.

“You made it in one piece! I knew you would! What the hell happened? I’ve been worried sick about you boys. I have the Feds scouring the galaxy for you. You don’t call. You don’t message. I got zero sleep last night. My hemorrhoids are really acting up. Guys, guys…things have changed and there’s been some rearranging. I don’t know if we can get your headline spot now. I’ve been trying to get them to hold off, but at this point, the sponsors are all expecting Cubicle to take the stage. Can you believe it? It’s killin’ me. Killin’ me! The–”

Ruff drowned out the noise and worked through the plan in his head. He and his team had landed the night before. They kept a low profile and stayed at a nearby hotel booked under one of Cubicle’s many aliases. The rappers agreed to proceed under the public’s assumption that MC Ruff and DJ Tumble would not make Beat Street and that Cubicle would indeed take their place as the headline act. If things went down as expected, in a roundabout way, Sharky and Poindexter would get their wish, only not on their terms.

“–so I find you guys here and see you still have this shit team working for you.” Sharky pulled his glasses down over the tip of his nose and gave Ruff and Tumble’s posse the stink-eye. “Look, I can’t dictate who you hire for security, but you’re making my job real hard by putting your life in jeopardy.”

Ruff could practically feel the heat emanating from Nizumi’s face. Metsk’s breathing increased in pace and you could hear his teeth grinding over the pulsating music emanating from behind the backstage walls. He knew he could rely on both of them to play it cool, but Sharky was pushing it. If Dado and Sanchez were here instead of helping Tumble prep his equipment, he might not have been able to hold back the combined forces.

“Sorry for the inconvenience,” Ruff said, trying desperately to keep his eyes from rolling out of his head. “We had a little engine trouble. I tried to call you. Why didn’t you pick up your cube?”

Let’s see you sweat a little, he thought.

Sharky wiped crumbs from his thin lips and the lapels of his checker-green suit. He pulled his ID Cube from his pocket like it was a piece of court evidence.

“It’s garbage. Ruff, let me tell you, I’ve been trying to get it fixed for the past day. It’s been doing weird stuff. Clicks, whirs, beeps. First it started out small, waking me up in the middle of the night playing creepy lullabies. I thought the damned thing was haunted. Turns out it was just hacked.”

“Man, it’s a dangerous world out there,” Ruff said. “It’s hard knowing who to trust. Do you know who hacked it?” He was having fun now, seeing just how far Sharky would take his story.

“No. Tech support wouldn’t say once they found the problem. Said it was a matter of network security and they would handle it. Probably some punk ass kid trying to steal any correspondence between us so he can post it on the fan boards.”

“Huh,” Ruff said, feigning interest. “Well, I hope it gets sorted out. So you say we’re not headlining. No way we can get the sponsors to change their minds?”

Sharky crossed his arms and managed a poor imitation of being really upset. “You think I haven’t tried? That I won’t keep trying?”

It felt good to play the player.

Sharky continued. “You know how much money the label’s put out there promoting this?” He held a fist to the air. “I told them you’d make it. Told them flat out.”

Then came the expected excuses. “But these sponsors like to play it safe. Cubicle was here last night for rehearsal and they liked what they saw. As far as I’m concerned, these Beat Street sonsabitches can have him. If they want some real superstars, they’re gonna have to pay double next time.”

Good show, Ruff thought.

“Look, I’m gonna see what I can do. Try to work some goddamn magic. But the opening acts are nearly done and primetime is in an hour. You might as well enjoy the show until I get back to you.” Sharky patted Ruff on the back and as he passed by Nizumi and Metsk, they stared him down, causing him to trip over a loose grouping of power cables and nearly fall to the ground.

Embarrassed, he straightened his coat and picked up the pace.

“Piece of shit venue!” he yelled into the air as he left. “You need to hire professionals!”

Metsk chuckled.

“It would be so easy,” Nizumi said. “No one would know, Ruff. I promise.”

Ruff furrowed his brow. “Sometimes, I don’t know if you’re joking or serious. I don’t think I want to know.”

“No, you don’t,” Metsk said.

“Look,” Ruff continued. “We have our plan. Tumble is getting ready. I need to go over some things myself.”

Muffled sounds of the current act continued to echo backstage. He recognized the group as a favorite of his: UFO. Unbelievably Fly Operators.

“We’ll be watching,” Nizumi said, oddly hesitant. And then Ruff realized why as she reached in to give him a quick, tight hug.

“Thank you,” she whispered into his ear, “for everything.”

If she had worn perfume, its scent would have left a mark on his memory. But Nizumi always said that smells were traceable, so he was left with only the vague memory of her touch as she and Metsk walked away.

Blue smoke filled the stage, triggering post-traumatic stress symptoms nailed into Ruff’s memory banks courtesy of Sharky and Poindexter. Ruff shook them off though, reminding himself that he and his team were in control this time. There would be no lasers grazing his or anyone else’s head tonight.

Sharky had disappeared since their earlier meeting, probably working with Poindexter to figure out what to do now that Ruff and Tumble were actually here.

“You ready?” Cubicle asked.

They were standing at the bottom of the rear steps leading to the stage. Tumble was already in place, standing behind a wall of said smoke and his prized pair of turntables. The stage was surrounded by giant video screens reaching several stories high. Images of breakdancers wearing FPs and track pants flashed in and out as Cubicle’s opening track began to play. Half the crowd cheered and Ruff could have sworn the other half was booing. Admittedly, it made him feel a little warm inside. A week ago, a Cubicle sample album would never have been allowed to be within fifty meters of one of Tumble’s record players, let alone making contact with a needle. Ruff laughed at how such a big change could happen in such a short period of time.

“Let’s do this,” he said.

The music halted.

The screens went blank.

The alternating cheers and boos subsided while the blue smoke hovered silently over the stage.

Suddenly, the larger screens lit up again, only this time displaying a series of video clips synchronized to the 808 kick drum bleeding out of every monitor.

Boom.

Bronze sword slamming into bronze shield, each shattering into thousands of pieces.

Boom.

A glass jar of oil and water being dropped to the ground, exploding on contact.

Boom.

A liquified yin and yang pattern, spinning around until it became an indistinguishable, inseparable whole.

Boom.

Now every monitor showed the same thing: To the left, Cubicle’s name built out of blocks of shining gold. To the right, MC Ruff and DJ Tumble’s monikers scribbled in graffiti against a brick wall.

The smoke machines cut off, the haze disappeared, and the crowd roared as Ruff and Cubicle ran to the front of the stage, each with a microphone in hand. Tumble spun up the saxophone loop.

There were no adequate words for what Ruff saw in the audience. Ecstasy? Rapture?

It didn’t matter.

No more boos. All cheers. Butterflies fluttered in Ruff’s stomach to a level he hadn’t felt since he and Tumble played their first show back in New-New Queens.

Cubicle took the lead as planned.

“Whoooo wants to rummbble?” he asked, positioning the mic out over the audience.

Weeee doooo!  Weee doooo!

Now Ruff: “My boy Cubicle said, ‘Whoooo wants to rummmmmble?’”

Weeee doooo!  Weee doooo!

Nizumi and Metsk were at alternate sides of the stage, each looking out over the crowd. Ruff smiled at Nizumi, but she was so busy watching for potential trouble and ensuring Beat Street security were doing their job that she didn’t see him.

Back in her element. Unrelenting, Ruff thought.

“Yo,” he said.

The music cut out along with the lights. You could have heard a termite sneeze. If there was a greater feeling than taking control of a crowd of tens of thousands, Ruff had never experienced it and didn’t much care.

“You know you can’t mess with the combined, universal, imperial, soopa-doopa, hella-dope, greatest, motha-fuckin’ unstoppable forces of Cubicle, Ruff, and Tummmmmmbbbbllleee!”

The most glorious sight that Ruff’s eyes ever beheld took place. The lights kicked on, controlled and synchronized perfectly with the breakbeats flowing out of Tumble’s gear. The entire arena went insane.

In.

Sane.

Looking back, Ruff realized the irony of that thought.

That brief moment of glory, that feeling of control, was rudely interrupted by the notion that something very wrong was happening. He seemed to notice it before Cubicle did. His old rival was completely oblivious. Cubicle’s gleaming teeth could have lit up whole cities as he smiled on the crowd like a damned fool, then turned to Ruff and kept on smiling. It wasn’t until a thin red laser bored a perfectly round hole through his coif that he, too, realized something very wrong was happening.

His smile began to fade.

More red lasers appeared, shot out randomly from the audience. Some didn’t travel more than a few meters before finding another body to slam into. Others began punching holes in the stage equipment, generating sparks and small fires. Ruff halfway hoped this was some part of the act which Cubicle neglected to mention. That half wanted to whoop the MC’s ass, but caught only the back of his new fairweather homey’s smoking blue hair as he went running off the rear of the stage.

Time seemed to crawl. In the audience, people were panicking as they had at Chubb’s, only this time, the mass was so large that it looked like waves crashing against each other. Arms and legs flew crazily. Heads snapped back and forth. Screams mixed with shouts mixed with cries.

Ruff’s legs were frozen, but he turned and saw Nizumi rushing toward him.

Another laser went right through the framework holding the giant stage monitors over the DJ’s head. Metal creaked and twisted. Tumble took his headphones off and looked up in a daze, only to be tackled and swept away by the giant, moving shadow that was Metsk. The DJ folded in like a leaf. A skinny, cracked-out leaf.

Ruff’s eyes met Nizumi’s, letting her know that though he wouldn’t mind her body on top of his again, she didn’t need to tackle him to the ground. His legs seemed to have regained full functionality and he followed her toward the back of the stage.

Everyone was there at the bottom of the steps. Cubicle was pressed tightly between Sasha and Masha. His legs and arms were visibly shaking.

“There, there,” Sasha said. Or Masha. Ruff felt embarrassed he couldn’t tell them apart. Either way, one of them was stroking his blue hair with her hand while the other hummed to him softly.

Ruff hoped there was no press nearby. The “lyrical gangsta’” was not making it easy on himself to keep up his rep.

Sharky was arguing with another man, who but for a bald head and thick glasses, could have been the manager’s twin.

Must be Poindexter.

“Alright,” Ruff said, trying to catch his breath, “don’t you guys think you’re taking this a little too far? You almost killed my homeboy out there!”

Tumble scowled at the stage, obviously upset his records and turntables were there and he was here.

Metsk held on tight to Tumble’s arms. “Let them go, Tumble. Let them go.”

“Almost killed your homeboy? What the hell are you talking about?” Sharky asked.

“We know what you two are up to,” Ruff said. “Enough. I knew you were a schemer, but this is ridiculous. I’m pretty sure attempted murder is enough justification for me to tear up our contract.”

Sharky looked at Poindexter who shrugged in response. He made a motion toward Ruff.

“Look, Ruff, my man, I–”

Nizumi swung around like a lithe cat and wrapped her arm’s around Sharky’s neck, putting him in a sleeper hold. His eyes grew big as he gasped for air. Within seconds, they were closed and Nizumi laid him gently on the ground. Now that was something Ruff was not used to seeing–a quiet Sharky.

Nizumi stood and looked at Poindexter. He scrambled behind Sasha and Masha.

“I don’t know what you’ve been told,” he said, “but we had nothing to do with this!” His voice was nasal. Near falsetto.

“Yeah, we’ll see about that,” Ruff replied. He looked at Cubicle who was audibly whimpering.

Man, still a sucka MC after all, Tumble thought.

Screams, shouts, and the movements of the agitated crowd could still be heard from behind the stage walls. But then there was another sound that caught everyone’s ear. Loud. A combination of high hiss and low thunder. The entire ground shook and every piece of the stage rattled.

“What the hell is that?” Cubicle asked. By the expression on his face, Ruff hoped the poser had packed a second pair of pants.

Ruff looked at Nizumi. They ran up the stairs and peeked around the stage walls.

Nizumi spoke into her nanoset, calm and collected. “Sanchez, Dado. Get us a transport back to the hotel. Now.”

Ruff tried to remember if he had also packed a second pair of pants.

Partly, it was the make and model of the ships.

Partly, it was the insignia, a red sword and shield hovering over a golden star, painted on their gunmetal gray sides.

But the strongest indicator that Ruff may have had everything wrong was the tetracarbon-suited troopers dropping down from said ships, descending on the crowd like they were performing a choreographed dance number.

He and Nizumi were transfixed on the action.

Soldiers poured down slick nucleon ropes like spiders on a string of web, hitting the ground and taking cover behind any apparatus they could find: Speaker cabinets, turned-over merchandise tables, even Blue Bowl™ machines filled with energy supplements, though these ended up being shoddy cover because lasers were punching right through the cans within, showering what was left of a panicking crowd with caffeine and guarana extract.

It was a battlefield of chaos as fans were running towards all directions, trying to avoid both soldiers and those who had initiated the shooting.

Ruff focused on a particularly pudgy kid who confirmed that the girl from Chubb’s may not have been so high after all. Pudgy was running, or rather, waddling around. His belly bounced up and down until it could no longer be contained by his tie-dyed Rob “Reggae Mon” Charley t-shirt, revealing its pale and hairy glory. It was the only fluid part of a body that appeared as stiff as a board and from the kid’s eye (Ruff was certain it was his left eye) came red laser after red laser. They were flying in the direction of the troops, though seemingly without any particular target in mind.

One of the soldiers popped out from behind a canvas-covered pretzel stand and fired in response. A direct hit to the groin and Pudgy collapsed.

“They’re killing these kids!” Ruff said.

“Not killing, just stunning.”

Ruff turned around and saw four people standing behind him and Nizumi. Three were towering Temelians and Ruff wasn’t about to try and guess their gender. The other was an older man, maybe in his fifties, sporting a flattop and wearing a blue-and-gray military uniform with enough bling across his chest to make Ruff twinge with envy. He seemed completely relaxed with his hands in his pockets.

“Nizumi,” he said with a smile, “is this what you’ve been reduced to?” The soldier indicated Ruff with his elbow.

She said nothing, only giving him a glassy stare.

“We need you both to come with us,” he said.

Ruff looked at Nizumi for affirmation. Her eyebrows indicated that they had better comply.

The whole crew was in the large dressing room they shared with Cubicle before the show. They were lined up on a sofa from big to small like those old Russian dolls.

Cubicle was sitting on Sasha’s (or Masha’s) lap like a child, sucking on a pacifier. He’d obviously been ‘medicated’ and was trying not to grind his teeth. The man had no shame.

Sandwiched between Metsk and Sanchez, Tumble looked dejected with his head in his hands.

Finally, Dado, Poindexter, and Sharky finished the line-up. Poindexter was holding a wet cloth against Sharky’s forehead. He flinched slightly when he saw Nizumi walk in, but Dado and Poindexter tried to soothe him.

The Federation had already taken over the room. Plastic cups littered every counter. Ten, maybe fifteen, soldiers spoke over each other into nanosets while status reports came in left and right.

“You want to tell us what’s happening here?” Nizumi asked the man who led them.

“Have a seat,” he said. “Can I get you some coffee?”

“No,” Ruff said. “You can’t get us some coffee and you can’t make us take a seat.”

The soldier looked at him and smiled. “Suit yourself.” He turned to one of his Temelian adjutants. “The usual.”

The Temelian walked away, leaving the other two hovering behind.

“Do you want the short version or the long version?”

“Look, Colonel Flattop, give me whatever version explains why you’re ruining what was going to be one of the better performances of my career and why kids are trying to kill me by shooting lasers out of their eye.”

The ‘Colonel Flattop’ quip seemed to annoy him. “It’s Captain Desmond, and you damned hip-hoppers have egos the size of Sol. No one’s trying to kill you. In fact, that’s why the program was discontinued.”

“Huh?”

The previously dispatched Temelian returned and handed Desmond his cup of coffee. He took a long, annoying slurp.

“Exploring the galaxy is dangerous work. There’s a jerk in every neighborhood. Back in the old days, everything in our solar system was a known quantity. But we’ve been expanding so quickly, we don’t know what we’re bound to run into. So, some genius Federation bureaucrat decided a couple of decades ago that we ought to have the means to deal with any hostile forces at any time with the slightest amount of notice.

“The project was dubbed Conscription 2.0. ‘The draft without the hassle,’ is still burned into my memory banks.” Captain Desmond took another sip of coffee as if it would wash away a bad taste.

“Anyway, a random number of babies born between the years 2111 and 2116 had nanochips implanted in their skulls, each one connected to various parts of their anatomy.”

“Man,” Ruff interrupted, “that cannot have been legal.”

Legal is as simple as a digital pen stroke. It was all above water. You don’t have kids, so you wouldn’t know, but there’s a mountain of legal documentation that parents are forced to sign before the hospital will release a child into their custody. It was all in the fine print that their child might be randomly selected for beta testing.

“Of course, like any ridiculous idea dreamed up by some fatcat politician with an excess of money but an absence of brain matter, it was a failure from the start. The chip work had been outsourced to Chinilium, and since the marching orders from these types of projects are always ‘Ready, Fire, Aim,’ these pieces of junk had already been rolled out to a significant portion of the population. By the time it was determined that enough Federation funds had been pissed down the drain and that these new citizen-soldiers wouldn’t work out as well as hoped, many of these kids were already enrolled in school and living their lives without a clue of what was in their body.”

“It’s a familiar story, Desmond,” Nizumi said, “But why now? What’s causing these kids to…activate?”

“That’s where you all come in. The scientists and sponsors agreed that the best way to trigger the function was to use a combination of tones that were unlikely to be emitted from any source other than the government. If the time came, there was a procedure to send them through ID Cubes and nanosets. Well, apparently they did a piss poor job of choosing the trigger, believing no one would dare think of violating the Federation Statutes on Audio and Visual Performances.

As if through some magnetic force, everyone looked toward Tumble.

His head didn’t move, but his eyes shifted around looking for a means of escape.

“Man,” Ruff said. “You tweaked the 808 during the breakbeats, didn’t you?”

Tumble pursed his lips, gazed at the floor, and shrugged.

“How did you know it was going to happen in Chubb’s?” Nizumi asked.

Ruff thought back to the girl’s story of her boyfriend–Daniel?–getting carried away by a couple of big guys.

Captain Desmond snorted. “Luckily, one of the scientists working on the project has horrible taste in music. He detected it when he downloaded your latest album and warned us as soon as he saw your Twister message go out.”

“So what do we do from here?” Ruff asked the Captain. The room was still humming with activity. Muted sounds of hoverships wavered just outside.

You don’t do anything except sign this pile of electronic forms,” he said. One of his Temelians handed Ruff a small tablet. “You and your DJ will consent to having your album pulled from every distribution network and deleted from every traceable Cube. The original cuts, as well as tracks in your possession, will also be destroyed.”

Tumble released an audible howl.

Unbelieveable, Ruff thought. A thriving career single-handedly put in jeopardy, not by new trends or shady managers, but by a goddamn combination of tones.

“You’re making a lot of noise out there,” Ruff said. “How are you going to keep this from getting out?”

The standard Federation Procedure. We’ll blitz the news sources with one of our false narratives. Space terrorists, probably. Mothers Against Hip-Hop. Of course, we’ll have to seed some conspiracy theorists to balance things.”

“And if I don’t sign this?” Ruff said, holding the tablet out as if it was one of his post-show, sweat-drenched undershirts.

“I’m sorry. You seem to be under the impression that we’re asking. If we catch word that you have a leaky ship–” Desmond looked around the room “–we’ll dispatch someone to patch it.”

The rest of the night became a blur to the exhausted MC. He and Cubicle exchanged no words as the chump slinked off quietly at some point with his girls and Poindexter. Sharky was still on edge, keeping a polite distance from Nizumi. The only consolation for Ruff that evening was seeing a fully-functioning Fly Honey waiting for them at a nearby spaceport.

Everyone boarded in silence and, except for Ruff and Nizumi, went their separate ways. The two of them slumped down onto the leather couches.

“You knew that dude?” he asked.

“We’ve worked together in the past,” she said and left it at that.

Ruff took a long, deep breath. “As crazy as this has all been, I’m glad it’s over.”

“Yeah,” Nizumi said, a hint of disappointment in her voice. “Me too.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, putting a comforting hand on her arm. “I’m sure there will be more ridiculously fantastic action for you to come and save me from.”

Tumble fiddled faders and twiddled knobs behind the engineering console. Instead of a Roland 808 bass drum, the DJ plugged in a sharper sample–more along the lines of the 505. Ruff stood in the isolation booth, feeling his warm breath reflect off the hanging microphone. He monitored the track through a pair of black, over-the-ear headphones. Like any good artist, he weaved the truth into his craft.

Yo, take a step back,

while we wind up for the attack.

We’ll take control of your brain,

Drive ya’ll insane.

 

Some bustas thought that they could lase us,

but, yo, them fools don’t faze us.

Doesn’t matter if you’re terrorists,

Ruff’s spittin’ rhymes like fists.

 

So, set your phasers on stun,

and let’s have some fun.

Ruff and Tumble,

will always be Number One.

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