The floor of Dance Dance Revolution shook under the combined vibrations of dozens of pairs of feet and the whomping impact of a killer bass line. Neon lights blinked everywhere, illuminating the dance floor an electric blue. A huge crowd bumped and jostled in a ring around the center of the dance floor, the spot that the playable characters usually performed when the game was being played, where four figures gyrated wildly in the nightly DDR dance-off challenge.
Ralph, Vanellope, Felix, and Calhoun were in precise synchronization with each other. Vanellope twirled and leapt as if she had pure caffeine running through her veins. Ralph shook the floor with every step he took. Felix snapped from one pose to the next in the blink of an eye. Calhoun had her eyes locked shut in deep concentration as she moved. Bright blue and pink arrows rose out of the floor around the four of them and vanished with words of praise: "Great!" "Perfect!" "MARVELOUS!"
Taffyta, Rancis, and Candlehead squeezed through the crowd, pushing aside DigDug and Chun-Li to get a look at Vanellope on the stage. Taffyta's rage seethed again at the sight of all the glory Vanellope was getting.
The music ended with a pulsating bass note, and the crowd erupted in applause as Vanellope and her friends all took a bow. They staggered back into the crowd, exhausted, as another pounding dance tune started up.
"Wow!" Ralph whooshed, trying to catch his breath. "Calhoun, where'd you learn to move like that?"
Calhoun brushed her hair from her eyes again and smirked. "Well, soldier, when your daily routine consists of dodging and weaving through a swarm of murderous insects with a hankering for human flesh, let's just say agility becomes something of a learned trait."
Felix collapsed into a chair at a nearby table, where Q-bert sat slurping a drink with his long proboscis. "Jiminy jaminy, that was fun!" Felix panted. "I haven't moved that fast since the last time somebody made it to level 36!"
"C'mon, you bunch of Hostess Snowballs, don't tell me you're already pooped out!" Vanellope exclaimed, still a bundle of energy. "Let's go again! I could wipe the floor with ya!"
"Oh sure, Little Miss Glitchy can just do it all, can't she?"
Vanellope turned around. Taffyta, Rancis, and Candlehead stood behind her, looking like they were ready for a fight.
"Hey, Taffyta!" Vanellope said, smiling. "How'd you guys get in here?"
"I told the bouncer I knew the president of Sugar Rush," Taffyta grumbled.
Vanellope laughed. "Oh, usin' your connections, eh? You three just made the Christmas card list. Boy, how 'bout those races today, huh? Did you see me almost spin out in Gumball Valley that third time?"
"I wish you had!" Taffyta spit suddenly. "You think you're so hot, just 'cause you got your fancy little superpower there! Well, you may have won the hearts of everyone who plays Sugar Rush, but you don't impress me!"
"Or me!" Candlehead chimed in.
"Yeah, me neither," said Rancis, though with slightly less conviction than his friends. He seemed more interested in the floor.
Vanellope's face fell. "What's the matter with you guys? Oh man, don't tell me somebody started screwin' around with your code again!"
"My code is just fine!" Taffyta shot back. "It's yours that needs a good reboot, you licorice-laced loser!"
Ralph sprang out of his chair and thudded to his feet.
"Listen, fun-size, if you've got a problem with Vanellope, you've got a problem with me, got that?" he growled, flexing his humongous fingers menacingly.
"Don't sweat it, Ralphie, I can handle this," Vanellope said, patting Ralph on the knee (the highest part of him she could reach). "Look, Taffyta, if you're gonna get all diaper-baby about not being picked as a character, I don't know what to tell ya. I can't control which one of us the players select!"
"Oh yes you can!" Taffyta retorted. "You wouldn't be everybody's favorite if you couldn't do that freakish glitchy thing you do!"
"So, what, you want to be able to glitch too?" Vanellope asked, her arms folded in front of her chest. "Well, tell you what, I'll get some psychotic power-hungry racecar driver to unhook you from the game's code and we'll see what happens, okay?"
Taffyta's face reddened with anger.
"I don't want to be a glitch, you filthy little freakazoid!"
Ralph knocked a nearby table aside. "HEY!" he bellowed. "You apologize to her right now!"
Vanellope chuckled. "Ralph, I really do appreciate your support, but I know better than to let some platinum-haired pop-sucker like this get under my skin."
She turned to head back to her table.
"Who are you calling pop-sucker?" Taffyta shouted. "You dirty-haired, pixel-popping, candy-coated cheater!"
Vanellope froze in her tracks.
"What did you just call me?" she hissed, her eyes narrowing in fury.
Taffyta glared menacingly at her rival. "You heard me, glitch," she said coolly. "Everyone heard me. Vanellope Von Schweetz is a big, fat cheater."
In a blink of azure pixels, Vanellope teleported directly on top of Taffyta and landed a right hook to her jaw. The two of them flailed and kicked in a massive brawl, both screaming incoherent insults at each other. The other patrons of the club backed away, confused by the fracas.
Ralph, Felix, and Calhoun all leapt to Vanellope's defense, pulling the two girls apart. "Hey, hey, HEY!" Calhoun shouted above the din. "Knock it off, both of you! That's no way for a politician to behave!"
"Don't you ever call me a cheater again!" Vanellope screamed at Taffyta, her hair falling into her face. "I've never cheated in my life and I never will!"
"Oh, don't make me laugh!" Taffyta snarled, as Rancis and Candlehead helped her back to her feet. "If teleporting halfway up the track during the home stretch isn't cheating, then what do you call it?"
Vanellope mouthed wordlessly, too furious to speak.
"Look, girls," Felix said gingerly, not wanting to incite another brawl, "I don't know much about racing games, but it seems to me like Vanellope's glitching is more like just a special ability. Sort of like a power-up that just never goes away. I wouldn't call it cheating, really…"
"And besides," Calhoun added, shooting a steely glare at Taffyta, "you oughta know that being a playable character isn't about personal glory. Our primary objective is to help the players win, not to brag about how good we are at it."
A small shudder ran up Ralph's spine. Calhoun's words had brought back memories of Turbo, and how he'd corrupted Sugar Rush for the glorification of his insatiable ego. Ralph looked at Taffyta with an uncomfortable feeling of apprehension.
"Well, what about the nightly placement races?" Taffyta barked. "The ones to determine who makes the roster next morning? There's nobody playing the game then, and she's still blinkin' all over the track!"
Felix twiddled his ear nervously, anxious to put an end to the conflict as soon as possible. "Well, y'know, gosh, that's…uh, that's kind of a gray area, I guess…"
"Ever since she became playable again, she's made the roster every single day!" Taffyta shouted bitterly. "If she hadn't been glitching, she wouldn't have won any of those races!"
Vanellope struggled as Ralph and Calhoun held her back. "Like Fun Dip I wouldn't have! I'm a great racer, it's in my code!"
"Yeah, then prove it, Hot Tamale! At tonight's race, you can't glitch at all! You just gotta run the course normal like the rest of us! And then we'll see just how good you really are!"
"Listen," Ralph interjected, "Vanellope doesn't need to prove anything to anybody. As long as kids keep playing Sugar Rush, it shouldn't matter which racers they select or what they do to get across the finish line. Right, Vanellope? …Vanellope?"
Vanellope scowled at her rival, her eyes burning.
"You're on, Muttonfudge. See you at the finish line."