“Positive,” replied AJ, putting his phone back into his pocket. They had followed the coordinates from Aaron’s Instagram Live location to a far away, yet familiar galaxy. “Welcome to the Planet of Misfit Fans.”
The Backstreet Boys had once been welcomed like kings by the outcasts who inhabited this forsaken world, but they knew that would no longer be the case - not since the war that had been waged between them five years ago, when the Misfit Fans had invaded Earth and tried to destroy all the Disney parks on the planet. The Misfit Fans may have been defeated, but they weren’t completely decimated. It only made sense that they had spent the past five years biding their time as they plotted revenge against the boyband that had led to their downfall. AJ had a feeling Brian’s hunch had been right: Since Nick’s computer virus had been the key to their undoing, putting a price on his head seemed just like something the Misfit Fans would do.
But the Boys had come up with a plan of their own to get their brother back.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Lance muttered to himself as he made his way across the rocky terrain, heading toward the castle.
“It’ll be fine,” he heard Kevin assure him. “They’ve got nothing against *NSYNC.”
Lance looked down at his phone, from which the disembodied voice had come. He could see Kevin’s face filling its screen, still connected via FaceTime. Taking a deep breath, he sighed and said, “I hope you’re right.”
Hesitantly, he approached the colossal castle door alone. “I’d better knock, I suppose,” he said, rapping his knuckles lightly against the heavy metal.
Almost immediately, the door began to lift slowly off the ground, gradually opening to reveal a wide entrance hall, where a woman was standing guard, armed with a spear. “Halt!” she called. “Who goes there?”
Lance adjusted the red bandana he had tied around his neck and cleared his throat. “Hello... my name is Lance Bass,” he began pleasantly. “And you must be…” He looked at the sentry’s nametag. “...Mariah?”
“No,” she snapped. “It’s Audrey.”
“Oh.” Lance blinked, taken aback. “My mistake. Well, either way, it’s lovely to meet you, Audrey. I’d like to speak with whoever’s in charge here. I have an important message for your leader.”
Audrey’s eyes narrowed. “What’s the message?” she wanted to know.
“I’m terribly sorry, but my instructions were to give it only to your leader herself,” said Lance. “Could you take me to see her, please?”
The sentry seemed to be sizing him up as she considered his request. Finally, after several seconds of uncomfortable silence, she gave a curt nod. “Come with me.”
Lance reluctantly followed her into the castle, holding his phone up with the camera facing forward so that Kevin and the Boys could see what he was seeing. Audrey led him down a long hallway to a large chamber, where the rest of the Misfit Fans were gathered.
“Well, I’ll be goddamned,” AJ swore, gazing over Kevin’s shoulder at his phone. The four Backstreet Boys were hunched together, watching via FaceTime as a platform appeared on the screen. Perched upon it was none other than... “Melissa Fucking Schuman.”
“We should’ve figured,” muttered Brian, his blue eyes darkening as they narrowed at the former Dream singer and failed actress who had tried to destroy his little brother’s reputation with her rape accusation. “Who else would wanna hurt Nick?”
“Shh...” Kevin hissed, as Lance approached the platform. Melissa was lying on her left side in a leisurely pose, being fanned by a small team of her most devoted minions. An older man was sitting to her right; they recognized him as Melissa’s meddling troll of a father, Jerry Schuman. A younger man dozed at her feet, his body curled into the fetal position. With a start, Kevin realized it was Aaron Carter.
“Oh Aaron,” whispered Howie, shaking his head sadly at the sight of Nick’s brother. The younger Carter was barely clothed, naked but for a pair of briefs that appeared to be made of copper. He could see practically every bone protruding from Aaron’s emaciated body and count his ribs as they expanded and contracted beneath the paper-thin skin of his narrow chest. He looked utterly pathetic, chained to Melissa’s platform like a dog on a leash.
“Good morning,” Lance said politely, as Audrey leaned in to whisper something into Melissa’s ear.
“Oohh shoodah,” Melissa murmured in a low voice, gazing down at him with a haughty look on her face.
This didn’t make the slightest bit of sense to any of the Backstreet Boys, but Lance proceeded with his part of the plan anyway. “I bring you a message from a mutual acquaintance of ours, I believe,” he said, holding up his phone so she could see Kevin’s face on the screen.
“Greetings, Assaulted One,” Kevin spoke slowly and clearly. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Kevin Richardson, Backstreet Boy and friend to Nick Carter. I know that you are powerful, Ms. Schuman, and that your anger with Nick must be equally powerful. I seek an audience with Your Greatness to bargain for Nick’s life.”
“Ha, ha, ha!” chuckled Melissa.
“With your wisdom,” Kevin continued, “I’m sure we can work out an arrangement which will be mutually beneficial and enable us to avoid any unpleasant confrontation. As a token of my goodwill, I present to you a gift: Lance Bass from *NSYNC.”
“What did he say?” whispered Lance, looking down at his phone in dismay.
“He is homosexual and will not rape you,” Kevin went on reassuringly.
“This can’t be!” cried Lance, rotating the camera so he could see Kevin. “Kevin, you’re giving the wrong message!”
“Ah ha ha ha!” cackled Melissa’s father.
“Mistress, bargonay tua Backstreet Boy?” Audrey murmured into Melissa’s ear. “He’s no #MeToo advocate.”
Reluctantly, Lance turned the camera back around so Melissa could address Kevin. As she began, still speaking in a language he didn’t understand, Aaron suddenly sat up. “None of my brother’s co-conspirators are trauma-informed,” he told Melissa sanctimoniously, “so allow me to translate for them: There will be no bargain.”
“We’re doomed,” whispered Howie as he watched from Kevin’s side, just out of sight of the camera.
“I don’t understand,” said Brian softly, shaking his head. “Is Aaron her ally or her prisoner? Whose side is he on?”
“He’s her little bitch!” spat AJ under his breath. “Fuck him.”
“I will not give up my favorite decoration,” Aaron continued interpreting Melissa’s unintelligible words. “I like Mr. Carter where he is.”
Lance turned the camera in the direction Melissa pointed so they could see the block of carbonite mounted on the wall. Nick was still clearly embedded inside it.
“AJ, look - it’s Nick,” muttered Brian, as they both snuck another peek at Kevin’s phone. “And he’s still frozen in carbonite.”
“Ah ha ha!” Jerry Schuman cackled some more. The Misfit Fans who filled the chamber started cracking up, too, their condescending laughter echoing through the large room.
Kevin quickly ended the call and put down his phone, turning to face the others. “Well, at least we know for sure where Nick is now,” he told them, trying to stay positive. “Time for Plan B.”
Meanwhile, within the Misfit Fans’ castle, Lance was being led away by one of Melissa’s minions. “Betrayed by the Backstreet Boys,” he muttered, shaking his head in disbelief, as the woman took him down another long hallway.
“You and me both,” the woman replied. “I used to be a big fan, but that was before I knew one of them was a rapist.”
“You really think Nick raped Melissa Schuman?” asked Lance.
“Of course he did - and the other four covered it up to protect his reputation and save their own careers,” she argued. “All five of them are complicit.”
“Ohh, how horrid!” cried Lance.
The Misfit Fan looked him up and down. “You produced that documentary on Lou Pearlman, did you not?”
With a surge of pride, Lance puffed out his chest importantly. “It was called The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Sto-” he started to reply, but was quickly cut off.
“Yes or no will do.”
“Oh.” Lance felt himself deflate a little. “Well, yes.”
“How many followers do you have?
Lance thought quickly. “I have over four hundred thousand followers on Twitter and-”
“Splendid,” said the minion, stroking her chin as she continued to survey him. “We have been looking for someone to produce a new documentary series Queen Melissa has pitched called Surviving Nick Carter. Lupine!”
“Yes, Hater Hayley?” Lance jumped as another one of the Misfit Fans poked her head out of a doorway down the hall.
“This pop singer might be useful,” Hater Hayley told her. “Fit him with restraints and take him back up to Her Excellency’s main audience chamber.”
“Kevin, don’t leave me!” Lance cried desperately as he was dragged away, but the FaceTime call had long since been disconnected.
That evening, a party was in full swing inside the palace.
“The doorbell rings ‘cause the party’s here! I’m crankin’ up the stereo like it’s New Year’s,” Aaron rapped, his chains rattling as he danced in front of Melissa’s platform with a posse of Misfit Fans who were also members of his Love Money Gang. “Walkin’ ‘round the house like who’s da man…”
“Ain’t nobody do it like Aaron can,” chanted the LMG girls. “First on the floor!”
“Yo, that’s me, bustin’ out the moves like it’s MTV,” Aaron went on, his arms flailing as he strutted across the dance floor. “I guess somewhere along, I lost my head. Then I jumped on the table. This is what I said: People all around, you gotta-”
“Come get it!” chorused his gang.
“Everyone together, sing it loud!”
“Come get it!”
“Jump all around, come on!”
“Come get it! Come get it! Come get it!”
“People all around, you gotta-”
“Come get it!”
“From the left to the right, make noise.”
“Come get it!”
“Aaron C’s in the house!” called Aaron, nearly tripping over his chain as he tried to do a twirl.
“Come get it! Come get it! Come get it!” the cult members chanted, waving their arms in the air behind him. “Na-na, na-na! Na-na, na-na! Na-na, na-na! Yeah, yeah, yeah… Come get it! Come get it!”
“Things are goin’ great, then to my surprise, some people walked in I didn’t recognize. I said-” Aaron’s rap was cut short by a sudden commotion in the hallway. As the music stopped abruptly, heads turned toward the entrance to the hall to see what was going on.
To their surprise, two people walked in whom they did recognize: Brian Littrell and AJ McLean. They were accompanied by a large white rabbit - or, rather, a man in a white rabbit costume.
“I have come for the bounty on these Backstreet Boys,” said the rabbit in a strange, reedy, slightly robotic voice, which had obviously been altered by the creepy, red-eyed mask he wore. It covered his whole head, leaving no part of his face exposed.
“Ah, Brian… and AJ,” said Aaron, smirking at the sight of Nick’s bandmates being led into the chamber in chains. “‘Bout time you joined my brother, the serial rapist.”
With a tug of Aaron’s leash, Melissa summoned him back to her side to translate for her again, as she knew neither Brian nor AJ were trauma-informed. Both Backstreet Boys had made public statements in support of Nick after Melissa’s allegations against him and, in doing so, denied that the rape had ever taken place. They had been on her shit list ever since.
“The illustrious Melissa bids you welcome and will gladly pay you the reward of twenty-five thousand,” Aaron informed the bunny bounty hunter.
The rabbit’s red eyes glowed in the dimly-lit room. “Twenty-five thousand each,” he said in his robotic voice. “I want fifty thousand. No less.”
Melissa responded with something indecipherable to trauma-uninformed ears. Aaron translanted: “The thirsty Melissa cannot afford to pay fifty thousand. That is why she has been so desperate to get her name back in the news by accusing my bro-” His words were cut off as Melissa suddenly whacked him in the chest with her arm, knocking the wind out of him.
“Very well,” said the rabbit. “How about the two Backstreet Boys in exchange for forty thousand and the *NSYNC member?”
The Queen of the Misfit Fans made her counter-offer. Coughing as he straightened up, massaging his tattooed chest, her translator choked out, “Melissa offers the sum of thirty-five, plus Lance Bass - and I do suggest you take it.”
The rabbit sized them up through his beady red eyes before giving a brief nod.
“He agrees!” announced Aaron, watching with relief as Brian and AJ were hauled away to the dungeon.
Keeping one eye on the man in the rabbit costume, Melissa leaned over and whispered something in Aaron’s ear.
“Melissa wishes to know who is under your mask,” Aaron addressed the rabbit.
“I am The Rabbit,” the masked hare declared, as his head twitched. “I’ve spent most of my life onstage, but I was never alone.”
“Ooday moh groopah,” said Melissa, and Aaron translated, “That means in a group!”
“Now I pop up here, and I pop up there,” added the rabbit, bounding back and forth before Melissa’s platform.
“Oh, is it like a magician or an illusionist?” asked Audrey. “They’re popping up everywhere?”
“Synchronized singing is my forte,” the rabbit continued.
“Ohh, poopah groopah!” cried Melissa, pointing, and again, Aaron translated: “A pop group!”
“‘I pop up’... oh! I didn’t catch that!” chuckled her dim-witted father.
“It’s as if I’ve been training for this my entire life,” the rabbit went on.
“That means something,” said Audrey.
The rabbit cracked his knuckles through his white gloves. “Performed on stage? Check. Performed in a mask? Check. Have a voice? Check, check. This rabbit is here to win, and you better believe the last mask standing is gonna be me.”
“Win what?” Mr. Schuman wondered.
“Y’all must not have watched ‘The Masked Singer’ here on the Planet of Misfit Fans,” Lance Bass spoke up for the first time, stepping forward from one side of the room. “I know exactly who this is.”
“Magician Criss Angel?” guessed Audrey.
“Actor Jake Gyllenhaal?” added Jerry Schuman eagerly.
“What? No!” scoffed Lance. “C’mon, people. ‘Performed on stage?’ ‘Never alone?’ ‘Synchronized singing?’ ‘Pop up?’ ‘It’s gonna be me?’ It’s obviously my former bandmate, Joey Fatone from *NSYNC! He was on ‘The Masked Singer’ in this same costume, with these same clues. He must have come here to rescue me!”
“Um, hello, spoiler alert!” shouted Audrey, looking scandalized, as the rabbit simply shrugged.
Lance raised his eyebrows. “You literally didn’t even know this was a thing ten seconds ago,” he replied, “but sorry, my bad.”
“So who is The Rabbit?” Out of nowhere, Nick Cannon appeared, wearing a red turban wrapped around his head. “Stay tuned to find out which celebrity is under the mask… later tonight!”
Later that night, the rabbit, still in his mask, slunk into a shadowy corner of the queen’s chamber. The chamber was eerily quiet. Behind a closed curtain, Melissa and her minions were all asleep.
Hidden by the curtain, the rabbit crept toward the slab of carbonite mounted on the wall. Even in the darkness, he could clearly see Nick Carter contained within it, his face frozen into a painful grimace. His hands were raised in protest, the fingers curled like claws, as if he had tried to fight back against his captor.
Don’t worry, Nicky, thought the rabbit. I’ve come here to rescue you.
Flattening himself against the wall next to Nick’s frozen form, the rabbit looked around and listened, his head twitching in all directions as he tried to ensure he wasn’t being watched before he made his next move. Finally satisfied that he was, in fact, alone, he pressed a button on the wall to release the block of carbonite from its mount. The heavy slab slid to the floor with a dull thud.
The rabbit froze, his heart drumming in his throat, and held his breath, expecting at least one of the Misfit Fans to pull back the curtain at any second and find him standing there. But after a full minute had passed without any of them waking, he released his breath in a sigh of relief, relaxing a bit as he got back to work.
There was a small panel on the side of the slab of carbonite that controlled its temperature settings. Upon finding it, he fiddled with the dial and pushed a few buttons, until the display screen began to flash. The rabbit drew back, hoping he had done it right.
He watched as Nick’s body glowed red beneath the coating of carbonite. Holes began to appear, melding together as the frozen carbon quickly melted away to reveal human flesh. As the last of the carbonite that had encased him seemed to evaporate, Nick fell forward and collapsed face-first onto the floor, unconscious.
The rabbit knelt beside him and rolled him onto his back, relieved to find that he was breathing. Nick’s body was wet and cold, racked by violent shivers. As the rabbit pulled him into his arms, hoping to warm him, Nick started to come around.
“Just relax for a moment,” said the rabbit in the reedy voice the mask gave him. “You’re free of the carbonite. You have hibernation sickness.”
Nick looked around for his rescuer, rubbing his eyes in confusion. “I can’t see,” he replied, his voice shaking almost as much as the rest of him.
“Your eyesight will return in time,” the rabbit assured him.
“Where am I?” asked Nick.
“Melissa Schuman’s palace on the Planet of Misfit Fans.”
Nick frowned. “Who are you?”
“Who is The Rabbit?” said a loud voice behind them, as bright lights suddenly came on. Startled, the rabbit whirled around. The curtain had slid open to reveal Nick Cannon, who was still wearing his red turban, and an audience of Melissa and her minions, who were all very much awake.
“I know that voice,” said Nick Carter in a low voice. “What the hell is Nick Cannon doing here?”
“Nobody knows,” the rabbit muttered back, his heart sinking. He had a bad feeling about this. Again.
“Rabbit!” called Nick Cannon. “Show us all who’s... behind... the mask!”
“Are we on some kind of game show?” Nick Carter asked in a whisper.
“No - Nick Cannon just doesn’t know how to not be a host,” replied the rabbit.
But it sure felt like they were on a game show, as the lights began to flash and a song by The Who started playing in the background. “Whooooo are you… who-ooh, who-ooh?” Over the music, the Misfit Fans had started chanting, “Take. It. Off! Take. It. Off!”
The rabbit sighed, knowing he had no choice but to remove his mask. He took his time, stalling as long as possible, as Nick sang along with The Who. “C’mon, tell me who are you… you… you…”
In spite of the danger they were in, the rabbit couldn’t help but smile as he lifted the mask off his head, knowing Nick would recognize his real voice. “Someone who loves you,” he said softly.
“Howie!” Nick cried with relief.
“Ladies and gentleman, Howie Dorough!” announced Nick Cannon, as Howie kissed his friend’s forehead and helped him climb to his feet. Nick leaned heavily on him, his legs still shaky and weak. Howie put a protective arm around his waist to hold him steady.
“Ho ho ho ho ho!” laughed Melissa. Standing behind her, Lance Bass gave Howie an apologetic look. It had been his idea to loan Howie Joey Fatone’s rabbit costume, but the plan had failed. They may have freed Nick from the carbonite, but there was no way Melissa would let him go without being punished.
“Look, Melissa,” Nick addressed her. “I never meant to hurt you. How was I supposed to know you didn’t wanna have sex with me when you literally followed me from room to room like a little puppy, made out with me, let me go down on you, and then gave me a blow job? I’m sorry you regret it now, but that’s not my fault.”
Melissa muttered something unintelligible, and Aaron translated, “It’s too late for that, Carter.”
“Aaron?” said Nick in surprise.
“You may be a good singer,” Aaron continued as if he hadn’t spoken, “but you’re also a piece of shit.”
“Ah ha ha ha ha!” cackled Melissa’s father.
“Aaron, why the hell are you siding with her? I’m your brother!” Nick cried, his body quivering against Howie’s. “Bros before hos, dude!”
“You’re also a serial rapist who uses and abuses women,” replied Aaron coldly, speaking for himself this time. “You recruited your little BSB gang stalkers to start a smear campaign and take the heat off you by making wild accusations against me. But your gaslighting won’t work. I know I’m not crazy or any of the other things they say about me.”
Nick shook his head sadly. “You need help, Aaron. And I’m willing to get you that help, if you would just accept it. That’s why I got the whole family together for Christmas, so we could try to help you.”
“Ah-ha! So you admit it!” Aaron accused. “Your ‘fun old-fashioned Carter family Christmas’ was nothing but a way to stage an intervention on me! Well, guess what, Nick? I already knew that before I came because, you see, I’m very intelligent. Who do you think conspired with Queen Melissa to have you brought here? It was me! I’m the mastermind of all of this! I’m the Joker!”
“Oh ho ho ho ho!” laughed Melissa in the middle of Aaron’s rant.
“Ah ha ha ha ha!” cackled her father.
Aaron smirked down at his brother. “See, I’m not playing your game. You’re playing mine. You and your little BSB gang stalkers have got nothing on me and LMG or Melissa and her Misfit Fans. We’re gonna take you down, bro, and dismantle the Backstreet Boys, once and for all! Take them away!”
Howie’s heart sank as a pair of Melissa’s minions came to haul Nick and him to the dungeon. They were doomed.
“Melissa!” Nick called out desperately, as their clawed hands closed firmly around his arm. “We can record another song together! I’ll cast you in my next SyFy movie! You’re throwing away a huge opportunity here; don’t be a fool!”
“We have powerful friends!” Howie added, but this was an empty threat. Most of their friends were already in her custody. Kevin was the only one left who could come to their rescue.
He was their last hope.