“Would you like fries with that?”
Tarla smiled at the four men who stood before her counter. They were dressed in savage opulence, with bracelets of black sapphire, earrings of jade, and uncompromising leather clothing marked with intricate silver-weave patterns. There was no man among them but that carried a sword, and three that had knives besides. Their faces showed no kindness, but no malice either; there was only a hard disciplined edge.
“Yes.” Their leader nodded. “And supersize me.”
Tarla ignored their eyes on her as she worked to prepare their order. It was harder to ignore their muttered words.
“Look at her move,” one said, in tones of admiration.
“He’s definitely here.”
“Why would he train a girl like her? He’s gone daft.”
“She has talent.”
“We could take her,” the fourth one on the left proposed. “If he comes for her, it’ll save the work of bringing him in; and if he doesn’t, she’ll meet our quota.”
The leader’s necklace jingled: a curt nod, or so she imagined.
“Go,” he said.
She flipped one of the burgers. The men came over the counter. One of the swords reached out to prod her back—intended, no doubt, as a threat. Tarla turned smoothly, caught the blade with her spatula, and let the man’s own weak stance carry him stumbling forward into the grill.
“I remember,” she said, “when my shift supervisor would harangue me over the proper turning of burgers. He’d correct my posture. He’d adjust my spatula. He’d say, ‘Your technique won’t do! What if someone came at you with a sword while you were flipping burgers?’ I always thought he was hitting on me.”
The second and third men advanced more cautiously. Their blades tested the air before her; with smooth and willowy motions, she turned them aside. Her left hand reached behind her to pull the fries out of the sizzling grease; both men flinched, but she only set the bin down in the appointed place to drain. They advanced; she dropped low, and spun, and swept their feet out from under them. They could not brace themselves: the detritus of long-ago spilled soda was under their feet, and gave them no purchase. She rose. She assembled a burger.
“Make yourself one with the fries,” he would say. “Sizzle as they sizzle. Burn with their inner fire. Become a small slice of salted potato, cooked in grease. Submerge yourself in that power. That’s the fire you need to survive in my world—the world of burger sovereigns!”
“I never really believed his stories of the seamy side of the fast food industry,” she admitted. “That all the mind-numbing training served only to prepare us for terrible games of chess, played with living pieces. But if it’s for real, I’m not going. I like my job as is.”
The leader smiled kindly at her. “The games aren’t so bad,” he said, “if you have the skills.”
As he vaulted over the counter, she tossed him his burger and his fries; with the practiced reflexes of a trained fast food employee, he snatched them out of the air. This left him no hands to support himself with; unable to check his vault, he struck feet first against the machine that dispenses miniature pies. As it rumbled and began to disgorge its treasures, she slipped out the staff entrance. But the door had not yet closed when he said, “Will you leave the register unattended, then, my lady?”
She hesitated. The first man had already risen, and in that moment of hesitation, she was lost. His seared hands closed around her arms. She struggled, but it did not suffice. They carried her away to their swift black cars. They drove her off into the night.
They drove to Burger Bangkok.
There are no words that suffice to express the wonders of that place—the strange and opulent majesty of the fast food city. It is always lit, a burger joint that never sleeps, with its glaring white sigils and yellow ceiling lamps shining deep into the night. A hundred exotic odors drift through Burger Bangkok’s aisles, and the rooms off of its main room promise entertainments the like of which are rarely known to humanity. There are the performances of men and women dressed as living burgers, erotic only to the deranged yet strangely titillating to all; the sales of rare specials; and even the chance to hunt your own cow, bird, or that most dangerous game—the trans-fat llama! The golden oysters of Burger Bangkok hold secret gods and goddesses; and if the diner is lucky, little in the way of food poisoning. Nor is this the end of Burger Bangkok’s marvels: for in the tunnels under this “jewel of efficiency” are the great chess tournaments held. There they dragged Tarla, under protest, to register as a Princess of the game.
“Your name?” asked a games official. He had a snooty smile. He wore a staid uniform and a burger-shaped hat.
She drew herself up tall. “Tarla,” she said, “of the Socialist Burger Sovereignty. ‘You don’t need a despotic autocrat on a throne to serve a burger in royal style!'”
“Ah,” he said. “One of the . . . smaller . . . burger joints.”
Her eyes flashed. “Your ignorance betrays you. There is no man or woman in the industry who should not fear my shift supervisor, Mr. Carter. Even if he does not come for me, then you ought still be afraid. I intend to demolish this ‘Burger Bangkok’ with my own two hands, and if you have annoyed me, I shall seek you out early on and baptize you in the special sauce of my terrible vengeance.”
“Your name tag says, ‘Melanie.'”
“I abandoned that name,” Tarla said, tossing her head to let her hair net free. “It did not suit the untamed glory of my profession.”
“Best apply for a new tag, then,” he said, and ushered her off to the games.
“Understand the way of the soda. Ice left; Coke right. Ice left; Coke right. Soda will shield you from all harm.” He would strike at her then, and she would marvel at how well she blocked him, without even spilling the sodas she so carefully prepared.
The underbelly of the fast food industry is the tides of blood: of men, and women, and lions, fighting in the dark. For ten months she fought, and an endless list died at her hand: their nametags read “Steve,” “Imelda,” “Monsignor,” “Rock,” “Carrot,” “Szoren”—the list went on and on. There was a brutal elegance to her battles: she cared not for the strategy of chess, nor for the tactics of blade on blade, but rather read the hearts of each man and woman she fought, and turned their greater graces against them. One by one, they fell through cracks in the glass chessboard to the lions and winged bear traps below; until, at last, she came to play against the greatest master of the game.
She met his eyes across the great glass chessboard, and a chill ran down her spine.
“You,” she said. “Clark. You have the look.”
“I too trained under Mr. Carter,” Clark said. “And I have only to look at you to know that you are weak.”
She lowered her head. Then she turned to all the living pieces that stood beside her. “This time,” she said, “we must act with strategy.”
Pawn Eight looked down. “There’s only so much strategy I can engage in,” she said. “I can walk forward one step. Maybe two steps, if I get a running start.”
Tarla patted Pawn Eight on the head. “That’s all right,” she said. “I suppose I mean, I must act with strategy, and all of you must abide by my direction.”
“And if I do not?” asked a boisterous Bishop.
“Then I shall shatter the chessboard beneath your feet and send you plunging down to the lions and evil dictionaries below.”
“Ah,” said the Bishop.
The other chess pieces looked cowed.
“Good.” Tarla said, and she began her war. She moved her pieces with skill and grace; and fought like a champion; but it was not enough. Clark was skilled enough to force a Prince-and-Princess battle. When she met him, in six moves he stripped the spatula from her and flung it to the side; and she stumbled, and went down on one knee, and he drew back his sword to kill.
“Surrender,” he said.
She looked down. She grit her teeth. She shook her head.
“Surrender,” he demanded.
She was quiet.
“You’ll die,” he warned her.
The remaining chess pieces, as one, began to stamp their feet. Thump thump thump. Thump thump thump. Thump thump thump.
There was a desire to live in her, even her, the fairest daughter of Socialist Burger Sovereignty. She bit her tongue until it bled to keep her silence.
Thump thump thump. Thump thump thump. Thump thump thump. Thump thump thump. CRACK.
Cracks shivered and spread through the chessboard; and the chesspieces moved to stand on the interstice lines; and then the glass shattered, all as one. The lions and unwise acts of Congress that paced below shook their heads, angrily, and roared, as glass shards rained down.
Swiftly as an adder, he struck. She caught his hand and his sword, and twisted to the side, and they teetered on the edge of the abyss. She had lost; she had no interest in self-preservation: she struggled only for both of them to fall. And for this reason, he knew that he would die.
“Burger Bangkok never knew what it had, in us,” he said.
“Will you let me borrow the ladder to update the numbers on our ‘People Served Since 9/11’ Sign?”
“When you’re ready,” he’d promise, “you won’t need a ladder.”
They still tell stories of her, in Burger Bangkok. Most people say she died, horribly, and Clark with her; but there are a few who tell it differently.
That she rose through the floor again like the steam of superheated coffee, with a mutated venus flytrap still clinging to her ankle. That the chess pieces, witness to a miracle, rose up against their masters; that they put Burger Bangkok to fire and the sword, razed it to the ground—they say.
It’s an old place, Burger Bangkok. It has a thousand stories. It could have happened. She could have razed the city and left. It would have grown up again, none the worse for wear.
No matter how horrible something is, people will rebuild it, if it serves them well.
“The customer is always right,” Mr. Carter would say. Then he’d turn to a customer. “Hey,” he’d say. “Can a fast food service person fly?”
“Sure,” the customer would say. “Whatever.”
And also there are miracles.