A meeting was held in Candy Hollow in the hours before Litwak's opened that day, and it was decided that the election would be conducted on Friday morning. Taffyta wanted it to happen immediately, but Ralph, Felix, and Calhoun had argued to give Vanellope the rest of the week to campaign. (The motion was nearly vetoed, but Ralph needed only to discreetly flex his powerful arms and pound his fist into his palm to convince any contrary voters.) This gave her three days to sway the residents of Sugar Rush back to her side.
Unfortunately, this was much easier said than done. Taffyta's words had filled the other racers with a kind of mob-like passion, and nearly everyone in Sugar Rush seemed to be convinced that her slights against Vanellope's character were valid. Worse still, Vanellope had failed to make the roster of playable characters for the second day in a row, meaning she had no chances to prove herself on the track.
"And even if I did," she grumbled, "I'm sure Taffyta would find some way to make me look like an idiot. There's no way I'm gonna let her win this election!"
On the plus side, Vanellope's time off from racing allowed her to devote a great deal of energy towards her re-election campaign. Ralph, Felix, and Calhoun were all more than willing to pitch in, and in the brief spare time they had between games that day, they poured all their best efforts into making sure Vanellope kept her office. Ralph tried to compete with Taffyta's fancy taffy bunting with a campaign poster of his own – a huge white piece of paper that read "VAN 4 PREZ". ("I write big," he explained sheepishly, "and I ran out of room.") Felix enlisted the help of the Nicelanders to spearhead a bake sale featuring Mary's famous pastries, including a massive cake in the shape of Vanellope's kart.
Calhoun, meanwhile, put her troops to work as muckraking espionage agents, commanding them to seek out as much incriminating information on Taffyta as they could find. ("If that rotten little strawberry seed wants to play hardball, then I say let her step up to the mound and we'll hit a line drive right back!") The entire Hero's Duty squadron spent the evening combing Game Central Station, interrogating as many characters as they could about Taffyta. But since the Sugar Rush characters had been completely cut off from the rest of the arcade until just a month ago (during his fifteen-year masquerade as King Candy, Turbo had made it a point to disengage the train, so nobody could come into the game and question his presence there), the reconnaissance mission turned up mostly empty.
"All anybody knows is that she spends a lot of time hanging out with this one kid who wears a peanut butter cup and another who wears a birthday candle," Markowski reported back to Calhoun.
"Fluggerbutter and Candlehead," Calhoun muttered. "All right, then we know who we have to pump for info. I want a stealth team on 24-hour watch in Candy Hollow between now and the election. Anything we find that can turn Muttonfudge's sweet campaign sour, I want it delivered to me in flashing neon letters!"
Vanellope wasn't having much luck getting her voice heard. A handful of racers still supported her – Adorabeezle Winterpop refused to believe what Taffyta was saying, and Jubileena Bing-Bing had offered her apologies for everyone else's sorry behavior and assured Vanellope that she could count on her vote – but most everyone else had already fallen under Taffyta's smooth-talking influence. In every qualifying race, Vanellope became the target of jeers and insults from her fellow competitors, not to mention an uncountable number of Sweet Seekers aimed at her rear bumper. Sticky Wipplesnit and Torvald Batterbutter actually sacrificed their second- and third-place positions during Wednesday night's race just so they could box in Vanellope against the guardrail and ensure she came in lower than ninth.
"What's the matter with these dummies?" she griped after losing Thursday night's race, thanks to a well-timed sideswipe from Swizzle Malarkey that had sent her careening off the track and into Lake Lemonade. "How could they ignore all the good stuff I've done for 'em over the past month? Sheesh, it's like they've got the memory span of a Goldfish cracker."
"Don't you worry," Ralph growled, clenching his fists. "I'll make sure these kids learn not to push you around ever again!"
"Thanks for stickin' up for me, Ralphie," Vanellope said sincerely, "but something tells me I'll have a better chance of getting re-elected if my campaign manager doesn't go around smashing my constituents' cars."
Ralph lowered his fists and chuckled. "Good point."
"Trust me," she said with a smile, "I've endured much worse than this. And once Calhoun's goons get some dirt on Taffyta, everyone'll know I was telling the truth."
The polls were to open early on Friday morning, and they'd be closing just before Litwak's opened for business. Vanellope still had time after her loss in the Thursday night race to get a few more voters on her side, and fortunately, her bake sale was all ready to go. Felix, Ralph, and a parade of Nicelanders all gathered in the Candy Hollow town square, with a dozen booths full of Mary's best and most delicious baked goods. At the largest booth, where Vanellope and Sour Bill stood, the car-shaped cake drew everyone's eye, its sugar-dusted frosting glistening in the sunlight.
Calhoun and her men were there too. The election was right down to the wire now, and the reconnaissance team still hadn't turned up much dirt on Taffyta. While two soldiers covertly followed Rancis and Candlehead around Sugar Rush, the rest of them were stationed at vantage points around the town square, acting as Vanellope's secret service and ensuring that nothing went wrong.
"Come on, folks!" Vanellope barked from her booth. "Enjoy a delicious pastry, compliments of President Vanellope Von Schweetz! The sweetest you'll find in all of Sugar Rush!"
A small crowd of racers and candy-headed spectators had begun to gather in the town square. Swizzle Malarkey wandered over to Gene's table and picked up a cupcake, eyeing it as if he expected it to sprout legs and attack him.
"What is this, 8-bit pastry?" he remarked, unimpressed. "What's the sell-by date on this stuff, 1985?"
"Don't judge it 'til you try it, kid," Gene responded. "They're the best in the whole arcade! And every one's a vote for Vanellope!"
"So you're trying to bribe me?" Swizzle scoffed, chucking the cupcake over his shoulder. It landed in the chocolate fountain with a plunk. "Some democracy this is."
Vanellope watched with narrowed eyes as Swizzle walked away. "Well, fudge," she grumbled. "I'm not gonna sway any of these losers if they won't even eat the dang cupcakes."
"Ix-nay on the osers-lay, Ms. President," Sour Bill mumbled out of the corner of his mouth.
Jubileena Bing-Bing and Adorabeezle Winterpop approached Vanellope's table. "Wow!" Jubileena said in awe. "What a cool cake! It looks just like your car! I feel like I could hop in and drive it away!"
Vanellope smiled her best. "Well, you can do the next best thing – eat it!" She produced a small serving knife and two plates, cutting off slices for both girls. "Here ya go! Don't forget to vote Von Schweetz!"
"Mm!" Adorabeezle said through a mouthful of cake. "This is really good!" Turning to the rest of the crowd, she called "Hey everybody! You gotta try this!"
More curious spectators began to crowd around Vanellope's table. Others began sampling cookies and pies from the other booths.
"That's right, gather 'round, folks!" Felix said cheerfully, doling out slices of pie. "There's plenty for everyone! That's a Team Von Schweetz promise!"
Ralph sidled over to Vanellope's table. "Way to go, Madam President! I think Taffyta can kiss that throne room goodbye!"
"You better believe it, buddy!" Vanellope whispered, bumping Ralph's fist as she handed out another plate of cake.
Calhoun smiled confidently, then spoke into her wrist communicator. "Mama Bird to Eagle One. Status report, over."
From his vantage point in the bell tower atop Town Hall, Markowski responded into his own communicator. He could see the entire town square clearly. "Eagle One to Mama Bird. All clear up here. Nothing unusual to report. Everything A-okay. Over."
Markowski flipped the visor of his helmet up to get a better look at the action below. A long line was beginning to form at Vanellope's table. He felt his stomach grumble. He could use a bite to eat after a long night of lookout duty, and an even longer day of fighting those horrible traumatizing Cy-Bugs…
The haunting memories began to swim before his eyes, but he shook his head to rid himself of them. He couldn't let himself get distracted now. He had a duty to take care of. A big, important duty…
And then he heard something that made every muscle in his body go tense.
There, on the candy cane railing before him, was a tiny brown insect, skittering along on its six legs and buzzing its wings. It looked up at Markowski. Their eyes met.
His heart racing, Markowski acted on the first frightened impulse he had. Grabbing his plasma cannon, he fired blindly at the railing. In his distressed state, he missed; the plasma blast hit the fountain in the center of the square, and it exploded in a shower of chocolate syrup, soaking everyone around it. Stunned townspeople turned in confusion, many of them dropping their pastries.
Screaming at the top of his lungs, Markowski kept firing, his mind running away with him. Terrified racers and Nicelanders dove for cover as plasma flew everywhere, blasting holes in the buildings and obliterating tables in a spray of candy and crumbs.
Ralph grabbed Vanellope and sheltered her from the melee with his massive arms. Calhoun ducked beneath an alcove in a nearby building and bellowed into her communicator. "Eagle One! Eagle One! Hold your fire! Repeat, HOLD YOUR FIRE! What the holy hotcakes do you think you're doing?"
Markowski didn't hear her. He emptied the last of his magazine in a vain attempt to slaughter the helpless bug, which was now nowhere to be seen. The final plasma shot hit Vanellope's table, blasting the kart cake into bits and splattering the cowering Sugar Rush residents with icing and sprinkles.
Trembling, Ralph and Vanellope stood up, staring in disbelief at the destruction that lay before them. Miraculously, nobody had been hurt, but the town square was in ruins. Necco wafer dust swirled everywhere as frightened racers and spectators got to their feet, wiping frosting and crumbs off of themselves.
"So, this is who you people are voting for?"
Vanellope's heart skipped a beat as she saw Taffyta step out from the cloud of dust, standing right where the chocolate fountain had stood mere seconds earlier. Her eyes blazed with fury.
"This is the kind of protection she offers us?" Taffyta continued, her voice building in intensity. "She invites everyone out for a pleasant day of pastries and sunshine, and her secret service mooks go crazy and nearly kill everyone? We're not going to stand for this insanity, are we?"
A loud rumble of assent rippled across the shaken residents of Sugar Rush.
"Come on!" Taffyta bellowed. "Everyone come to my garage, I'll get you all cleaned up! And I've got enough lollipops in my garden for everybody – locally-grown lollipops, not imported from some other game!"
"Well, I never!" Mary blustered.
The few racers who still had intact pastries threw them on the ground in disgust as they followed Taffyta out of the town square. Jubileena and Adorabeezle each shot Vanellope a look of contempt as they chucked their plates aside and joined Taffyta's throng. As Taffyta passed Vanellope's broken table, she hissed under her breath, just barely loud enough for Vanellope to hear:
"Game over, glitch."
Vanellope's eyes burned as she watched the crowd empty out of the square. She looked around at the shattered tables, the mounds of icing lining the ground and the walls, the smoking holes in the sides of the buildings…
"Hey, wait!" Felix called after the crowd. "Don't go away! I mean, sure, it looks like a mess, but I can…I can fix it…"
It was no use. Everyone had left.
Ralph put a huge hand on Vanellope's shoulder. "Hey, it's okay…"
"No, it isn't," Vanellope gulped, pulling away from her friend's grip.
The men of Calhoun's squadron emerged from their hiding places, looking aghast at the damage before them. Markowski stumbled out the front door of the town hall, looking haggard and confused. He held his plasma cannon limply at his side, and his helmet was off.
Calhoun strode swiftly up to Markowski and slapped him in the face. "What's your major malfunction, maggot?" she snarled. "You wanna explain to me why you just served up three courses of Doomsday back there?"
Markowski began to speak, but the words caught in his throat as he spotted the brown bug on the ground, still skittering away as if nothing had happened. He shrieked, pointing at the innocuous insect. "That thing tried to kill me! It could have sucked my brains out through my eye sockets!"
Calhoun stamped her boot down on the bug, crunching it; it regenerated instantly and scrambled away under an upturned table. "It's just a harmless choc-roach, you cross-eyed sack of doorknobs!" she bellowed, an inch away from Markowski's face. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't discharge you from your position and string you up from the tower by your –"
Before she could continue, another soldier ran into the town square, clutching a racer by the arm. "Sergeant!" he shouted with a hasty salute. "We found out who disengaged the target's brake line the other night."
He held up the child dangling helplessly from his fist. It was Rancis.
Vanellope's jaw dropped. "You!" she shrieked. "I should have known! Of course Taffyta didn't cut my brakes herself, she had one of her stooges do it for her! She was cheating!"
The soldier threw Rancis to the ground. He got to his knees and gulped, too afraid to look Vanellope in the eye. "No," he said, his voice cracking. "Taffyta didn't put me up to it…I did it all on my own."
Vanellope looked like she'd been struck.
"What?" she gasped.
"It's true," the soldier continued. "We interrogated him for an hour, but he maintains that he acted independently. I hate to say it, but it looks like Muttonfudge is 100% in the clear."
Vanellope couldn't believe her ears. This was too much on top of everything else.
"So…so you wanted me out of the race on Tuesday night?" she said, suppressing her rage.
Rancis kept his eyes fixed on the ground. "That's right," he mumbled. "I just… I just wanted to beat you… for once…"
"There's only one of us who's going to get beaten around here!" Ralph growled, lunging forward with his fists raised.
Vanellope put out a hand, and Ralph stopped in his tracks. "Let me handle this," she said quietly.
She looked down at Rancis, who still refused to meet her eyes. "I know it won't do any good," she began weakly, "since Taffyta's going to win the election in a few hours anyway and she'll just pardon you as soon as she gets into office. But until then, Rancis Fluggerbutter, you're to spend the rest of the night in prison. Soldiers, take him to the police station." She gulped again. "Officers Wynchell and Duncan will keep an eye on him."
And as Calhoun's men dragged Rancis away, Vanellope turned back around to face what few friends she still had left. Ralph, Felix, Sour Bill, and the Nicelanders all looked forlornly at her, knowing they'd done all they could to help. Calhoun knelt down by Vanellope's side.
"Sorry, kiddo," she said softly. "It was my fault. Made a rookie mistake. Should have known better than to put a loose cannon like Markowski on guard duty."
Vanellope tried to make herself laugh at the word "duty". But as she wiped her nose and blinked back the tears that were welling up in her eyes, nothing seemed very funny at the moment.