The Sav-Mart Express on the corner of Van Buren and Jefferson was like every other Sav-Mart Express: an overpriced drugstore designed to drive Walgreens out of the overpriced by convenient stand-alone pharmacy business, a niche the full-size Sav-Marts were ill-equipped to fill. And a big part of that gouging was tantalizing people with glistening bottles of caramel-colored liquid toothrot at checkout with vast coolers filled with every variety of soda pop known to man.

The Sani-Cola delivery man arrived one day with a pallet of fresh-bottled Sani-Cola, Diet Sani-Cola, Sani-Cola Classic (with chlorophyll!), only to find that another bottle truck had pulled up to the other side of the Sav-Mart Express, which lacked a loading dock.

“Well, well, well,” said the the AtlantiCola driver, his yellow shirt a keen contrast from the Sani-Cola driver’s green. “Look what the cat dragged in.”

“Still pushing your knockoff sugar water on people who think that drinks taste better when you’re skydiving?” sneered Mr. Sani-Cola.

“Only if you’re still hawking that ancient patent medicine snake oil that you call a drink,” Mr. AtlantiCola responded.

They regarded each other over the two competing soft drink pallets gumming up the aisle. “So what are we going to do about this, huh?” said Sani-Cola.

“I think we both know the answer to that,” drawled AtlantiCola.

Sani-Cola seized a pair of glass Commemorative Edition bottles, smashed each, and assumed the Creeping Soda Lotus ready position. The raw chi of his Classic Cola Combo fighting style made the spilled liquid orbit him like a protective shield as he held up a jagged bottle in either hand.

AtlantiCola countered by grabbing a six-pack of AtlantiCola Xtreme held together by fish-trapping plastic rings. A few quick snaps and it was a long, weighted chain of bottles, ready to be grappled with extreme, deadly accuracy. The chi of nearby dead fish surrounded him, summoned by the Ten Thousand Broken Jade Fish Rings fighting style.

The Sav-Mart counter jockey sighed, and sank beneath their counter.

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Whether you call it soda, pop, soda pop, Coke, fizzlers, The Bubbly, or simply cola, you have to admit that this family of soft drinks has never been more pervasive in global society. From ubiquitous advertising to cultural practices that normalize “going out for a cola or two after work with the boys,” people do not realize that colas carry the same risk of addiction as hard drinks (but not medium-strength drinks).

People do not realize that, in a cola addict’s brain, consuming a fizzy caramel-colored beverages lights up the same Important Brain Areas as sex, straight morphine, cocaine, huffed paint, and the Russian skin-rotting drug krokodil (all at the same time). Long-term abuse of cola can lead to:

– diabeetus
– Africanized killer cancers
– kidney hijinks
– bladder explosion
– British Smile Syndrome (BSS)

But we’re here to help. The John Pemberton Center for Cola Addictions is a nonprofit organization that, provided you have the money which we totally do not use for profits of any kind, can help you through your addiction. Our exclusive inpatient treatment center is equipped with all the amenities, support, and strong-armed orderlies to help you deal with cola withdrawal side effects such as:

– sleepiness
– The Bad Shakes
– too much sugar in the form of pastries
– coffee consumption (in conjunction with our sister institution, the Betty Folgers Center)
– irritability
– lack of pop and fizz in one’s step
– sudden increase in tooth health and whiteness
– hours rather than minutes between bathroom breaks

Don’t delay! The John Pemberton Center for Cola Addictions is here to help.

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Earth was prepared for a conventional attack, with a network of early warning satellites and nuclear weapons on a hair-trigger alert. It was prepared for an all-out alien invasion the likes of which had long been discussed in Earth literature.

Only the Xanthic didn’t attack that way.

Instead, their agents carefully snuck nanogenetically modified caffeine molecules into the Earth’s supply. Everything from coffee to soda pop to energy drinks was targeted and infiltrated. Then, at the touch of a button, anyone with an iota of caffeine in their system fell instantly unconscious.

In one swift masterstroke, the Xanthic had decapitated Earth’s command and control by incapacitating two-thirds of the adult population in the First World. The non-drinkers were not numerous enough to run the planetary defenses by themselves, and the Second and Third World countries without a critical mass of coffee drinkers were not invested enough in the defense network (thanks to their suspicious neighbors).

Every province and state of NATO and the UN Security Council was swiftly occupied, except for Utah. The rest of the world, starved of imports, swiftly capitulated with only local resistance.

The Xanthic celebrated their victory by buying every human being on Earth a nanogenetically engineered latté and by using their new force of slave laborers to build a massive Cola and Coffee Monument out of gratitude to the humble nonsentient plants which had allowed such a swift takeover.

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The thing a lot of people don’t realize is that the skills available to a person are directly impacted by the contents of their day to day world. In the old days, the natural life energy that flows forth from the Divine Source might have graced a lucky Greek warrior with strength or high-invulnerability. The Chinese occasionally found their entreaties for ten thousand years of life at least partially granted, and magicians were able to call on at least some of the cantrips that are now associated with them in legend.

But today? Living in a consumer society with disposable income? The gifts that flow from the Divine Source reflect that environment. Gifts like miraculous extra mileage in an SUV, the occasional 500-calorie chocolate bar that registers as zero, and an intrinsic field that causes iPhones to lose their charge.

And then there’s Alethia Bussel’s gift: sodamancy.

She could manipulate any carbonated beverage, with the degree of control varying by how carbonated it was. Full bottles of soda pop could be levitated and manipulated, while flat Coke could only be coaxed to dance a little bit. She could also cause soda to instantly release all its carbon dioxide, shattering its container, or instantly cause painful gastrointestinal swelling (or monstrous belching) in anyone who’d recently imbibed the stuff.

Her favorite trick, though, was to take control of the stream that issued forth when you dropped a Mentos into soda. Soda dancing was perhaps the only joy Alethia got from her otherwise bothersome gift.

Then again, that was before the Agnates launched their secret campaign against everyone with a gift from the Divine Source…

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It was late and I was hungry after a 14-hour flight back to flyover country from the west coast. It was close to 2am, though, so all the restaurants were closed and the only option was a cold sandwich or rotisserie horror from one of the gas stations. I wouldn’t have bothered, but it was a further 90-minute drive from the airport to home. The joys of working at a relatively rural magnet school, I suppose: you can afford to go to conferences but pay a price in fatigue.

I pulled into the least seedy-looking station, one of the Gas n’ Guzzle chain. The clerk didn’t acknowledge me, being behind bulletproof glass and with a bleeping iPhone besides. The cold sandwiches all looked like they had been manufactured during the Truman administration, but there were some appetizing-looking hot pockets and pizza slices under the klieg lights. I grabbed a hot pocket that was in an easy-eat cardboard sleeve (figuring that the calories would mostly be burned off by the stress of late-night driving) and a bag of chips; I still had half a Diet Coke in the car, so there was no need for a drink (the Coke had been purchased at the extortionate airport price of $4, so I was determined to see it to the last drop.

The clerk, looking bored, rang up the purchases on my debit card without a word. I signed the receipt she thrust at me and was about to leave when she thumped down a big paper fountain drink cup.

“What’s that?” I said.

“For your drink.” All this time, the clerk hadn’t looked up from her iPhone, doing everything else by rote.

“I didn’t order a drink.”

“It’s part of the combo meal, ma’am.” Still not looking up, the clerk tapped a sign.

I looked at the receipt and did a little quick mental arithmetic–I am a math/science teacher after all. The combo meal was a good deal if you got a loaded hot dog or pizza slice, but for the hot pocket–half the price–and potato chips–50 cent offbranders–the extra cost same to nearly five dollars. “I didn’t order a combo meal,” I said, feeling the sting of another sugarwater ripoff.

“Yes you did.”

“No, I didn’t!” I cried. “How could I have ordered the combo meal? You and I didn’t say a single word until a second ago!”

“You asked for the combo meal and I gave it to you.” Eyes still riveted on the iPhone.

“No I didn’t. I have a drink in the car and I don’t need another.” I thrust my debit card at the clerk. “Take it off.”

Those iPhone-engrossed eyes, still downward cast. “Sorry, ma’am. I can’t do refunds without a manager.”

“Get a manager, then. I’ll wait.”

“No manager here after 2am. They don’t come in until 7.”

I could feel a vein in my forehead beginning to throb. “Just give me the difference in cash from the register,” I said.

“Can’t open the register unless you make a purchase, and if I take money out the total will be wrong and I’ll get written up.”

I squeezed my potato chips so hard that the bag popped and hissed out all the air. “What am I supposed to do then?”

The clerk–who had not made eye contact with me and appeared dead-set on never doing so–tapped the paper cup she’d set out. “Get a fountain drink.”

That was it. I hate to be the customer from hell, but sometimes one has no other option. I snatched the cup, filled it with Coke, and dug in my purse. There was no need for a lid or straw.

I returned to the counter, with the clerk iPhoning safe and smug behind the glass, with only a small depression just big enough for a paper cup underneath for unwanted combo drinks and the exchange of money. Crinkling the cup into a rough pitcher, I poured the contents into that trough.

“Hey…!” The clerk was trying to make eye contact with me now, wasn’t she? But I wasn’t done. I produced the mints that I always keep in my purse–half a roll of Mentos–and tossed them into the newly-formed soda moat. I left before the sputtering soda pop explosion had fully engulfed the counter in a sticky mess.

And that, children, is why science and math teachers are not to be trifled with.

The Great Southeast Bottling Company eventually became known simply as GSBC. It was still a Moxi-Cola franchisee, but in the 1990’s it had aggressively tried to expand its own range of soft drinks to keep more profit in-house instead of frittering away to Kentucky.

GSBC had started with a discount cola, AtlantiCola, distributed primarily to big-box retailers on the coast. It had sold well enough that an entire line of flavored AtlantiColas had been built up, with the fruit-flavored varieties becoming popular in large cities like Atlanta and outselling even the Moxi-Cola GSBC distributed. That lasted until rumors–some believed spread by competitors–that AtlantiCola was competitively priced because it caused impotence. The rumors initially spread by word of mouth in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, and by the time GSBC execs were aware of the problem, sales had plummeted 98%. The entire AtlantiCola line was pulled not long after.

Under its new Cola Coast imprint, GSBC tried to rebound. They produced a clear cola at the tail end of the craze, followed by an unpopular strawberry drink. Their vanilla-flavored Cola Coast Fountain line was popular only with competitors’ executives, and was swamped in the vanilla cola wave of the early 2000’s. By the time Gerard signed on, GSBC was living from paycheck to paycheck on distributed Moxi-Cola and a potpourri of their own brands with less than $2 million in annual sales.