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  1. #1
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    Ben Fury's Greatest Hits: A Post-Modern Superhero Story

    Ben Fury's Greatest Hits
    By Quentin J. Goodwin

    Synopsis: An Ice Cream man with a traumatic past as a teenaged superhero struggles with his own self-destructive behavior in his new civilian life - all while dealing with nosy government agents, Japanese loan sharks, millenial dating, and the growing pressures to continue carrying the responsibility of humanity's survival on his shoulders.

    Genre: Action/Science Fiction/Fantasy/Slice Of Life

    Rated: PG-13

    Prologue


    I've been to hell once.

    I still have nightmares about that first moment when my brain registered the heat against my skin. I pried my crusted eyes open like I was using them for the first time in years. The blinding light of the sun jogged my other senses into my awareness and the pain settled in. A piece of metal was jabbing into the back of my kidney. I adjusted over the trash and the faux Homecoming crown my friends gave me fell onto the sash that was sticking to the sweat of my chest. I used the side of the dumpster for support, but it took all the strength I could muster just to pull myself upright. One attempt at swallowing made the inside of my throat feel like I was ripping a band-aid off in my esophagus.

    Giant blood red canyon walls surrounded the building behind me like it was located in the middle of a set piece from a Road Runner episode, the vibrant cartoony style replaced with a drab, lifeless saturation. The trembling sun hung right in the middle of the crimson sky, robbing me of any shade the canyons might have provided. It was disorienting. As I propped myself up, my leg slipped off the side and I collapsed onto the frying pan sidewalk. The concrete stung my flesh and I hopped up immediately. The parking lot was empty, weeds twisting up from the splinters in the pavement. The building looked like a diner from the old west but it was so decrepit and uninviting, I assumed it was closed down. It looked like it hadn't seen business in decades. A wooden sign hung from a pole in front of the entrance with Spanish writing: "La Casa De Diablo." I've never been sure if my eyes were playing tricks on me or not, but it's what I remembered.

    A dusty, unsettling mist hung over the desert with a sense of desolation that gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was a long way from home. I scurried to a corner beside the dumpster where a small shadow provided the faintest of shade amongst the broken glass and hills of ants I manuevered past. It was the kind of heat that felt like it was slumped over my shoulders by the sun. There was something pressed up against my penis in my boxers. A smartphone had been tucked inside when I was unconscious. I had no memory of anything from the night before, just the moments leading up to our departure in the limousine. The fortigen flowing through my veins normally strengthened my awareness and kept me from experiencing fatigue or physical ailments, but at the time, I felt like my body was falling apart. My hands shook when I held the smartphone and it wasn't doing much for my stomach either.

    The diner's wooden door creaked open and a figure stepped out onto the porch. He was a Latino man with dark skin. He wore a greasy tanktop and denim jeans, walking with confidence to a destination unknown. I called out to him.

    "Oye, ¿Dónde estamos ahora?" It caught me off-guard. I was failing Spanish II back at Fairbrook High, but the language fell from my lips like it was my native tongue, my first taste of the Xenoglossy that came with cosmic awareness. The Spanish man stopped and looked me up and down. I'm sure he was puzzled as to what an awkward, half-nude sixteen-year-old black boy was doing stranded in the desert with no supervision, but that confusion soon turned to amusement. I felt vulnerable standing there in my underwear, covered in sweat and sores, probably coming off like I was on drugs or insane. He gave a crooked smirk and chuckled to himself, shaking his head before starting off in the opposite direction. There were no cars parked in front of the diner and the road ahead of us went on along the canyon in both directions for miles. I didn't know where he was going, but apparently he did.

    I turned the smartphone on. The battery life was at 15%. The lock screen was open and once I scrolled up, a paused video frame appeared on the screen - a blurred figure of a man stepping through the dark hallways of what appeared to be a school. A feeling of dread washed over me. I needed it to see it. The second I hit it the play button, I saw another figure coming out from around the diner. A Latino boy stood on the other side of the building, staring in my direction. I tried to ignore him and soon, it wasn't difficult because the video caught my attention and with each passing second, chipped away at me until I was in pieces. Sreams blared through the phone's audio and I rose my own voice for it to stop, slamming my hand on the hot pavement as if it would do something to change what I was seeing. I paused the video repeatedly in a desperate attempt to end the horror, but there was nothing I could do to erase the events from my life. That was clearly the intention behind leaving the phone. This was done to mock me. My stomach turned and I emptied my gut on the sidewalk. The images were seared into my head. I forced myself to keep watching. I needed to see it through.

    Soon, I was unable to identify what was happening in the video - the tears and sweaty fingers I used to wipe them away blinded me and the anguish ripping into my gut left me enraged to the point where the phone snapped right in half under the weight of my grasp. It crumbled between my fingers. Then I could finally hear the soft cackle that had been drowned out by the cries of mercy, maniacal laughter, and violent noise blasting out of the phone's speakers, harmonized with my own screams of powerlessness. It was clear now. I peered over in disbelief, watching the boy snickering at my misfortune with a sinister grin. Just like that, the grasp on my sanity loosened. That was enough confirmation for me. I was in hell.
    Last edited by Onlyne; 07-03-2018 at 07:43 AM.


    The Legend begins....Order your copy today!

  2. #2
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    Chapter 1: North Star City


    The biggest thing the movies don't tell you is that you're not owed happiness for being a hero. In fact, that's the first thing to go.

    The world has developed an obsession with superheroes recently and it bugs the crap out of me. My friends would call me a buzzkill for bringing it up, but I couldn't help but notice how it bled harder and harder into the foreground on cue with an increasingly cynical, dystopian world forming out of the internet age. People pine after an idealized image of the altruistic people we all want to be as a catharsis, a way of living vicariously through them and achieving the fulfillment of being a good Samaritan without actually doing anything. Don't get me wrong, I loved comic books growing up and I always recognized the positive imagery and their influence on the next generation, but what I learned from my own personal experience is that the attributes people assume make up a hero - you know, like being a good person, putting others above yourself, making sacrifices for the greater good - all seem to be dismissed as someone else's burden to bare. Most will ignore that impulse telling them to "take action" against injustice and opt towards live streaming it from their phone. We seek the best of human morality in our fictional heroes and not in ourselves. Half the people who ever wanted to be a superhero would never have a stupid desire like that again if they knew what they would be losing in the process to protect an eternally, ungrateful world. I had to find out first hand that the stuff really does rot the brain.

    Imagine being a teenage superhero. I always fantasized about it as a kid before it actually happened, but I never expected that it would be akin tosay, becoming a child soldier. The similarities became clearer when I got older, realizing that I'd been given the responsibility of deciding what lives were worth saving and who could get dealt with the hard way before I could fully understand what that meant or the consequences that come along with it. My self-esteem was too low in my teen years to ever have any sort of Messianic fantasies, but history taught us that the chosen ones are forced to sacrifice more than anyone else around them. There's nothing more frustrating than seeing how the world pays you back for your service - tends to help you wonder too late if the world is actually worth saving. It's not, by the way.

    The hell dreams from a decade ago normally had me waking up in cold sweats, but today, I was given a more peaceful step back into reality. I opened my eyes, having been awakened already by the loud bangs in the living room shaking the whole apartment. Zane and Sean Thomas were practicing their kickflips on the hardwood floors. An action figure was propped up on the shelf above the inflated cot I was lying on. It shook with each crash. A prolonged bump from one of the twins likely busting their ass on the hard floor caused the figure to topple off the shelf and fall towards my face. I caught it in an instant, examining the toy. It was an armored superhero in a red suit with silver plating over the shoulders, forearms, hands, shins, and belt. The center buckle carried a symbol of a hawk with its wings spread wide in front of a jagged lightning bolt. Its helmet was split into two visors for both eyes, a short collar jutting up from the shoulder blades. I gripped the toy with more force than necessary, then gave into my impulses and tossed the figurine across the room. It smashed against the wall and fell to the carpet.

    "Hey, don't throw my stuff around, bro!" Napalm called across the room, sitting at his desktop with his Nikon camera on a tripod pointed right in my direction.

    "Jesus, dude!" I shuffled uncomfortably. “Really?”

    "I'm not filming you sleep, don't worry. It's for another arthouse film. The twins were at it again, so I wanted to get your first moments of consciousness on film for this next piece. Trying to capture footage of a wild millennial in its natural habitat."

    "So you were filming me sleep." I croaked with a deep, early morning bass. It was probably the afternoon. "That's what's hot in the movie market these days? People waking up in shitty moods?"

    "Of course. Inception was huge. The Matrix"-

    I whistled, flying my hand over my head like an airplane. Napalm frowned, but I gave him a smirk and he kicked my inflated bed. He was a skinny Pakistani kid with curly black hair and was only a few years younger than me, studying film at the University of North Star City downtown. Napir was a year away from graduating and he was already planning to make his nickname a professional moniker, like Director X or Banksy. His films ranged from comedy sketches to artsy experimental pieces to shameless amateur porn organized by co-eds at the school. He didn't discriminate with where he provided his talents as long as it was up his alley and sometimes he blended genres (like in the case of the occasional avant-garde pornographic piece) but he always made sure to put his personal touch in all of his work. We had been roommates for the past year – I let him share my room to help him get back on his feet after his parents were killed in an accident and he lost all financial assistance for school. I wasn't using the secret closet space anymore, so I didn't mind lending the room to him. He sat at his computer desk, the room now covered in plenty of nerd memorabilia – pop dolls, mannequins, figurines, and the like. He was ingrained in the culture. Just like I used to be. I leaned up in the bed with the covers still on. "So you got your footage, right? Or do you need my morning wood in your movie too?"

    “Nah, you're good. Last night you got that charlie horse, so I was hoping for something like that, but your little temper tantrum will do." Napalm turned off the Nikon camera and took it off the tripod to review the footage. "I've got a new project coming up though. It's a skin flick, but it pays well and the story is kinda neat – it's in a dystopian alternate universe where Trump has a second and third tyrannical term as a dictator and his personal assassin falls for the daughter of the leader of the rebellion. Need somebody to play a Mad Max version of Obama if you're interested.”

    "Not really cut out for showbiz," I said. "Thanks for the offer though."

    Napalm nodded. “So what's on the agenda for today?”

    “Work. Then nothing.”

    “So you're free to see a movie tonight?”

    “Not the movie you want to see.”

    “Oh come on, dude,” he said, his arms outstretched. He couldn't hide his excitement. I knew it was coming. All he ever talked about was rap and superhero movies. “Midnight premiere for the end of our childhood, man. Ben Fury X. The final chapter in the epic saga.”

    I turned over, tossing a cover over my arm. "I'm good on that epic saga right now. Unless it's a new strand you picked up."

    Napalm shook his head in confusion. He got up to retrieve the action figure I threw behind his shelf. “You're so weird, my guy. You've got the same first name as the main dude, I would expect you to be a bigger fan than me. I already feel some type of way about you disrespecting little Ben over here. You should apologize.”

    “If you bring that toy anywhere near me, I'm gonna make you eat it,” I warned. Napalm took a seat back at his desk and began scrolling through his phone.

    “Okay, forgetting the fact that Epic Saga does sound like a dope name for a strand, what do you have against the Ben Fury movies?” Napalm asked. He started pulling out rolling paper from his stash by the desk and retrieved a jar filled to the brim with nuggets of marijuana. “Have you even seen the last one, Ben Fury V8?”

    “God, that's such a shitty name for a movie.”

    "You're such a hater, bro. But check this out." He picked up his phone and surfed through it, rolling the joint with the other hand. I watched him multitask over the blasting rap music and constant ruckus pounding through the walls. I never saw myself becoming a stoner growing up, but I eventually took part in just about every natural medicine in the world to repair my mind after I left Kingdom City. My home. The place where all my closest peeps once lived, where I was raised by my mom and grandfather and mentored by my dad in the last few months of his life. I remembered being angry at him for being absent for so long, but I'd give anything to have him back now. All those memories felt so distant these days like they came from a past life.

    Napalm waltzed over, taking a hit of the joint. He handed it to me along with his phone. “Here and here.”

    I took both and examined the Instagram photo of two girls posing together in front of a bar and grill somewhere downtown. They were both gorgeous - a black girl with curly hair to her shoulders, a nose ring, and a beautiful smile stood next to a white brunette with bright green eyes, both in black dresses looking radiant and carefree. “Who am I looking at?”

    “The girls we're seeing the movie with tonight. Molly and Denise. They're undercover nerds, bro.” Napalm stretched his arms out again with a beckoning grin. “Eh? Get it in, dude. Of course, they're mainly into it because Graham Hunter's in it and he's a heartthrob, but I asked them questions about the series and they knew stuff even I didn't know. Mad sexy. Letting you know now, I'm shooting my shot with the white girl, Molly, so handle yours.”

    I grunted, holding in a cloud of smoke while I glared at the photo. “Okay. So I gotta sit and talk about Ben Fury for an hour and see the movie?”

    “Bro, we're not just gonna talk about the movie the whole time.” Napalm shook his head. I handed the joint back to him. “As long as we've known each other, I've never seen you with a girl. Or a guy, if that's your thing, I honestly don't even know. Are you asexual or something?”

    “Nope." I handed the joint back. "Just a lonely loser.”

    “You don't believe that. You're a cool dude. You're dry-witted, you've got the Kid Cudi style going on. All you have to do is put yourself out there and eventually you'll find someone willing to put up with your shit. I just need someone to double date with me and Molly tonight. If you do me this solid, I'll be out of your hair for the rest of the week – me and the twins are going up to the mountains to shoot some footage this weekend.”

    “So you're leaving regardless of if I go or not?” Napalm gave me a side-eye and I finally relented. “All right, whatever. You're picking me up from work. And paying for my ticket. Give me the money now so I don't look like a scrub later.”

    “Good deal.” Napalm pulled a twenty dollar bill from his wallet and handed it to me in our handshake. “So you said you never saw V8, right? Let me catch you up...”

    Napalm handed the joint back to me and gave me a quick recap of the previous installment in the “critically acclaimed” Ben Fury series – and by "quick recap," I mean complete oral retelling of the entire franchise. I could see the excitement in his eyes when he talked about it, but I couldn't for the life of me reciprocate it. I knew the whole story already – a teenage superhero gifted with an armored suit from the future by a post-apocalyptic resistance movement called I.M.R.A, founded by his future self. In his own time, he fights against a malevolent cosmic force spilling into the world that threatens to one day consume it and the universe. In terms of the first installment, Napalm had no clue that he was speaking about were events that had actually taken place, but I sat and listened to him describe it with such detail that it was like he had been there himself. I appreciated how emotionally invested he was in the story.

    I managed to finish the joint without him noticing – he was too busy chronicling the epic three-movie tale and listing off all of his theories for the fourth and final installment to notice. His droning mixed with the blaring music and crashes coming from the living room was enough to drive any other potential roommates insane, but I learned to appreciate the unique madness of it quickly. The monotony was comforting. It was a reminder that things could be worse. Always.

    When Napalm was tired of talking, he retreated to his phone and I went to the bathroom in the hall to get ready for work. I didn't like what I saw when I looked in the mirror. My name is Benjamin Blake, I said to myself. It felt wrong in my head. The low self-esteem mostly came from the fact that my face was covered in scars. There was a rugged charm to it when I received the first few, but now there was an entire collection - one over my eyebrow, across my lip, over the bridge of my nose, and across my left cheek, all from isolated incidents. My right eye drooped at half-mast from a condition called ptosis, a weakening of the muscles in the eyelid after head or facial trauma. The collage as a whole was unseemly to look at especially the more I grimaced at it, considering how my love life was practically nonexistent these days and my face was likely the reason. It became the easiest way to think myself into a bad mood. It wasn't so bad that people stared, but it was enough to make me nervous talking to women without a few drinks in me. It was the perfect steam pot to boil me over, so I grabbed a licorice root from a tray by the sink to clean my teeth with and kept moving.

    I hopped in the shower and left the bathroom in my long-sleeved plaid red flannel and black skinny jeans, faking the same confidence as everyone else. The living room was void of furniture aside from a single dusty couch against the wall by the entrance. The twins, Zane and Sean Thomas, were still doing tricks over a white cloud of scuffed wood in the floor formed by the constant pummeling of skateboard wheels against it. The two were identical, their blonde hair flowing down to their shoulders in their skater attire, blasting loud trap music from the stereo across the room. They were both deaf, so I knew they were only playing it for the bass, which could be felt throughout the house.

    I grabbed a mango from the kitchen and took a seat on the couch, waiting on my Lyft. Zane stood back with his board up, watching his brother pop ollies and kickflips and shake the foundation of the apartment with each crash landing.

    "Headed to work?" Zane asked in sign. I nodded. "Bring home another box of ice cream sandwiches. We smashed the last ones."

    “Napalm is dragging me to the movies when I get off,” I signed back. “I'm sure you don't want them melted.”

    He threw his head back, groaning. "Tell him to buy a cooler."

    “He's not gonna buy a cooler.” I signed, shaking my head. Zane chuckled, waving me off. Their parents owned the complex and approved of me signing my name on the lease, even after lending out my room in the two-bedroom apartment we were staying in. They knew Apartment 5C at the Melbourne Commons held sentimental value in my family and were sympathetic enough to let me stay there with little trouble or paperwork, although the way it was treated by their sons made it clear that the room didn't hold much value to the rest of the complex, so they weren't bending over backwards to make it happen. There were no neighbors in this wing to complain about the noise. We watched his brother for a few more moments until my ride arrived.

    I chewed on the licorice root and put my headphones in as soon as I was in the back of the Sedan. Then we were off. Melbourne Commons was right on the diverse edge of the historic Japantown community of North Star City, one of the largest metropolises on the east coast. Since I first moved here, I was impressed by the atomic era architecture in the skyline and the city's design, most of which was built in the 50's and 60's with the intent of being futurist in nature and progressive for its time. It was enough to give the city a timeless, Space Age atmosphere that would likely remain for generations to come. I've only explored so much of the metropolis myself since moving here, but I was aware that even though it played the part well, there was little else to the city beyond its good looks and I was fine with that. It made me living here a tiny bit easier.

    My job was downtown between the Narrow Industries Bank and the North Star Rockets Coliseum. It was inside the famed Avery Station, an atompunk-themed amusement park and one of the biggest attractions the city had to offer. I worked for a small ice cream company called Tesla's Creamery that had just rebranded with decals of blue electric bolts and a cartoon caricature of a mad scientist meant to be Nikola Tesla on all of our vans. This was because, coincidentally, Nikola shared last names with the owner of the company,Mr. Charlie who reluctantly moved forward with the rebranding when he was encouraged to start outsourcing his business to the park. Before then, our vans only had routes in suburban neighborhoods throughout the city, but the one I drove was the special one designated for park use only, which gave me a slight pay increase over other drivers and employee park access without necessarily working for the park itself.

    I got out of the Lyft by the front entrance of Avery Station which was christened with a Googie style archway, the name of the park stretched out over its winding frame. Flashing lights could be seen near the gates by the ticket booths. Police were parked in the valet and a crowd had formed. A few teens were being escorted out of the gates with their families, their clothes covered in spots of blood. There was tension in my gut.

    A figure stepped into view in my peripheral view and I nodded. "What's up, Zazzo?" I greeted the homeless gentleman that had come jogging up next to me with his scraggly brown mane circling his face like a reef, his red t-shirt oversized and stained over the pair of cargo jeans and strap-on sandals he hustled up in. He was white with a deep, bronze tan from being out in the sun all day, every day. "What's going on?"

    "Boy, I tell you, brother man, it was gruesome!" he shouted with a faster and louder tone of voice than necessary. I was used to it. Zazzo walked with a pep in his step like some kind of wind up toy. He was missing some teeth and was probably no older than his late 30's, but his appearance was a different story. "Heard folks tahm bout the damn roller coaster running over a family 'a squirrels on the tracks with all them people on it. Sprayed them poor babies with nuts and guts and stuff. Prolly scarred 'em for life."

    “Jesus.” I shook my head and kept walking. We were closing up on the gates and I could see security eyeing us. They weren't going to let him in, but he was going to try. “That's the second time this year. Last time, it was a flock of birds.”

    “That was worse, be honest.”

    “Yeah, lots of feathers -”

    "Hey, you hear anything from the werewolf lady yet?" There was desperation in his voice as I started to step through the turnstile. I showed the guard the badge with my name on it - "Benny Blake." He let me through.

    “No, man, haven't heard from any wolf lady yet, but I'll let you know if I do.” The security guard smirked at me, shaking his head. He had heard the story plenty of times as well.

    “Okay, 'cause she 'posed to show up to you tahm bout them folks coming here to attack the park like I saw, 'Member? 'Member I was tellin' you bout the visions-”

    "Right, man - I'm on it, I promise!" The guards pushed him back and the two entered a brief standoff before Zazzo resigned in frustration and walked back to his sleeping quarters around the corner. Nobody ever talked to Zazzo but me. I could always sense a strong spiritual presence in him that was comforting to be around, so when he begged for money, I knew his heart was in the right place. He was just off his rocker. I dealt with weird looks from the park employees whenever they saw me with him, but I would usually ignore it or if I was feeling petty, flip them off. I stopped caring about how I was perceived by the rest of the park after a while There were no rules to civilian life for me.

    The ice cream van was parked by the entrance, its body designed to look like a battery inside the retrofuturistic space city that made up the park. It was as busy as ever today. Commander John Avery, the space-faring mascot of the park greeted me at the gate in his flashy military uniform. Stylish flying vehicles were attached discreetly to walls so they appeared to be hovering above the ground. Costumed soldiers, robots, and space rangers with ray guns and authentic outfits interacted with wide-eyed guests, captivated by the extravagant displays that made up each ride and attraction. There were even classic milkshake shops with servers in glowing uniforms and roller skates, all helping to create the authentic World Of Tomorrow experience that Avery Station was known for. The roller coaster where the accident happened was closed off with police tape and surrounded by law enforcement still investigating the incident. It didn't surprise me. This place was known for its insane long history.

    One of my co-workers, Braxton, was handing out fudge bars to a group of teens. He was wearing the same collared, red and white striped work shirt that our boss, Charlie Tesla, made us wear despite it not matching the black and blue color scheme of our trucks. I knocked on the back door until it flung open. Braxton was covered in sweat, even in the cool temperatures of the van. He looked irritable. He already had his belongings with him when he stepped out.

    "Hey, Brax"- he grunted, barreling past me. I didn't take it personally – some days, Braxton was the life of the party and others, he was not to be bothered. Today's work load must not have been so good, so he was taking off for the day. I changed out of my flannel and into my work shirt, folding the other in my backpack so it would be clean for tonight's festivities. I had a specific route I was supposed to make around the park over the course of the afternoon, stopping in designated spots to tend to any hungry customers looking to cool down with some delicious, artery-clogging treats. Before I made my rounds, one of the kids from the squirrel accident walked up to the van to buy a popsicle. He had a towel around him, his shirt still covered in blood, as was the dollar he handed over. All joy accumulated over the day was gone from his dazed eyes. I felt bad, so I gave him a second popsicle on the house.

    I traveled through the park, eventually stopping by Spirit Rush Games, an arcade and gift shop on the south side of the park. Most guests were friendly today – occasionally, some kids would catch themselves staring or some teen girls would snicker with judgment, pointing at my scars and my falling eyelid. I didn't care as long as I was getting paid to be here. Traffic in this area had a tendency to die down, giving me a chance to relax before my break. Just as I took a seat at the van window, I spotted a heavy set teenager standing outside of the arcade beat red with tears streaming down his furious face. His eyes were beaming at a Rocketeer with an oversized helmet and a light-up jetpack posing for a photo with some guests. I could already tell what was about to happen.

    I opened the back and hopped out just as the teenager rushed across the pavement. He skirted through the passing crowd, then tucked low and tackled the cartoony Rocketeer in his abdomen just as the picture was taken. I rushed over to pull the boy off. He was screaming hysterically in high pitch. The guests watched as I grappled him under his arms and immobilized him until he finally stopped struggling and calmed his breath. Believe it or not, this happened as regularly as a few times a week. Some of the kids complained that they felt threatened by the mascots for some reason which led to frequent confrontations between younger guests and costumed employees, most of which felt absurdly unprovoked. The heat made people do crazy things.

    A couple of park employees were walking by when they saw me breaking up the scuffle in front of the puzzled photographer. They were laughing as security came to escort the teen away. The Rocketeer went to the bathroom to nurse a wounded elbow.

    “What was that all about?” Eckard, a punkish kid with blue hair asked. It matched his blue merchandising associate uniform. It looked like he was heading back to Spirit Rush Games which had been left unattended in his absence. The gate wasn't down and guests were heading in and out with plenty of prizes, looking more than joyous. Eckard didn't seem to care. “Rocket Man getting touchy-feely again?”

    “The guard said it was an anxiety attack,” I said, still panting. We walked back to the Ice Cream van together. “Could have fooled me. That kid definitely scraped his sneakers on the ground a few times before he snapped.”

    "I swear there's something in the water here," said Gemma, a Spanish employee from the Martian Explorers Ride on the northwest end of the park. She was gorgeous with long, straight brown hair, a perfectly symmetrical face, and subtle features that made it easy to fall for her. Thanks to Eckard, I learned that I would be at the back of the line on that front – every other male employee here was pining after her only to seeth in loathsome envy at Warren, the Shaggy-looking white dude she had her arms around all the time. He was the last employee walking up with the two. Any time he passed by male onlookers gawking at his girlfriend, he would wrap his arm around her waist, staring right in their eyes, and grab a handful of her ass just to see the look on their face. He was that type of boyfriend. That was drama I could do without. "Benny, before I clock out, you don't happen to have any more ingredients to make me one of those bomb sundaes, do you?"

    "No, it's crazy," I said, shaking my head. "Mr. Tesla doesn't want to order any more bananas from the company he was with. The last shipment they ordered had a nest of banana spiders in it. One bit his nephew, put him in the hospital. They said it could be months til he recovers, so Tesla's filing a lawsuit."

    “Damn!” Eckard exclaimed, leaning on the side of the van. “Banana spiders are no joke. They attack you unprovoked. They're about as big as a human hand too.”

    “Oh god!” Gemma shivered, causing Warren to grin.

    "Babe, I didn't know you were afraid of spiders." He took advantage of her sudden jumpiness, tickling her neck with his fingers until she pushed him away, squealing with laughter. Eckard's cheeks puffed as he pretended to hold down his vomit. I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing myself. Warren scooped Gemma up again and stared up at the menu above my head. "Yeah, get me something with a spider on it. You got any spider-shaped popsicles?"

    I sighed in annoyance, not wanting to look. "I'll see." I dug through the cooler in the back until I found an old Spider-Man popsicle in between two boxes at the bottom. I wasn't sure how long it had been there, but Warren asked for it. I brought it to him. "All we've got is this."

    "Aw, man, Spider-Man? You don't have any leftover Halloween spider popsicles or nothing?"

    "It's May. All we've got is this." I really wanted him to take it now. Clearly the age of the ice cream didn't matter to him anyway. Eventually, he shrugged and paid for the popsicle, then bought a snow cone for the lady. Gemma left her man's side for a second to grab the ice cream from my hand, then she looked me in the eye and spoke softer than usual.

    "Thanks, Benny." She caressed my hand when she took the ice cream. I watched her bite her lip and giggle, realizing that I probably looked like a confused idiot. Warren was too busy tearing the paper off of his popsicle to notice. Gemma winked, then backed away from the van window and accompanied her boyfriend to the exit arm in arm. I hated being called Benny, but that was the first time I didn't cringe when I heard it. Ten years of self-sufficiency and now I could feel my face getting hot from a simple hand brush. I undid one of the buttons of my collar.

    “What is her deal?” I asked, watching them leave. “Did you see how she came on to me just now?”

    “Yes, please don't fall for that trap,” Eckard said. He lit a cigarette. “No offense, but she's down to screw just about anybody here. I heard Warren admitted he was cool with them being in an open relationship, which he only agreed to because she said she was bisexual. That's gonna blow up in their faces. Watch yourself around those two. They were just telling me about how they're planning to get somebody here fired for talking behind their back. I think it's Julia from Android Hill.”

    “Maybe it's you. You talk more shit than anybody here.”

    “Yeah, but I don't always talk bad. I sing praises too. Everybody's in everybody's business here. Oh yeah.” Eckard leaned his hand out for a shake. It was another secret dap transfer. A blunt rolled into my hand and I dropped it discreetly under the window for later. “I forgot I owed you that from the other week.”

    I nodded with gratitude. I rarely hung out with people outside of work unless green was involved. I've been antisocial all my life. I could remember one brief period of time where I had many friends and I was the most popular kid in my school, but even that was a lie in the end. I'd seen the worst of people and I had had my fill, but civilian life was boring without some kind of stimulus outside the prisons they assigned to us.

    Eckard scrolled through his phone for a moment, snuffing the cigarette out with his foot. “Did you hear that there was another shooting in Kingdom City?”

    My ears perked and I held my breath. “Really?”

    “Yeah. This one was at Royal Park Mall. Three people injured, but that's it.”

    I sighed with a bit of relief. “Glad it's not worse.”

    “Yeah, dude. I don't think Kingdom can take another blow like that. It's been what, ten years since the Fairbrook shooting?” Eckard put his hand to his chest. “That one hurt my heart. It's crazy that we're living in a time where stuff like this is just normal.”

    “Yep." I leaned out of the window, scoping out the park. "It's crazy that this is the third one Kingdon City has dealt with in a little more than a decade. I remember when it was just another boring city.”

    “Wait, third one?”

    "Yeah, there was one two years before Fairbrook." I was surprised he didn't know. "School shooter by the name of Sam Stewart. Same school, lesser body count."

    Eckard shook his head in confusion until a thought hit him and he started smirking. “Wait a minute – yeah, I know what you're talking about. That was for that viral marketing thing, right? For Ben Fury.

    “What?” Fuck. There was no escaping this damn thing.

    “Yeah, I remember 'cause one person was shot and the Genesis dude stopped him and gave him over to the cops. That's what the news said and then it happened in the movie. They changed the school name because of the real massacre that happened after, but it was a badass scene. He used the Genesis Wave to-”

    “I knew some people who went to Fairbrook High,” I said. “They told me what happened was real.”

    "I don't know about that, I remember how freaked out I was when I first saw it on the news as a kid. Just the thought of the Genesis coming to save me at my own school made me nerd out. Then they were like, 'Surprise! It's all fake.' Tragic. What grade were they in?"

    “10th.”

    “Wait so...” He was cautious. “Are they still alive?”

    “One of them is.” I saw him flinch. He knew I was from Kingdom City but he didn't know I'd lost people in the massacre.

    “I'm sorry for your loss, man,” he said, thinking it over. “They had to have graduated before the massacre though, right? The news said there were no survivors. Unless you know something I don't - I mean, I've heard conspiracies.”

    “Yep,” I nodded, getting up. “It's a conspiracy, all right.” I grabbed the blunt and stashed it in my shirt pocket. “I'm about to go on break, man. Good talking to you though.”

    “Y-yeah, you too, man,” I saw his puzzled looks out of the corner of my eye as he backed away, trying to peer into the truck. I watched him in the van's side mirror until he stepped back inside the arcade, then I grabbed my backpack and turned off the lights and music on my way out of the van. There was a quiet area around the corner from the Rogerstone Cafeteria for park employees, but the place I was goingt to was on its own secret path that gave me some privacy. I sat down at a picnic table surrounded by bushes and sparked up the blunt before peeling the mango. It was my only lunch and it added to my feelings of being a total weirdo, sitting alone eating fruit and smoking at work. I preferred my solitude though, especially in a place like this. I scrolled through my phone for updates in the news, but I was on sabbatical indefinitely from social media. It was the best way to stay off the grid, but it was hard to find something to do whenever I needed to retreat to my phone to avoid conversations.

    When the park was closing down later that afternoon, I drove the van through the back parking lot and traveled a few neighborhoods east to Charlie Tesla's brownstone garage, the headquarters of his thriving business. Mr. Tesla was Haitian like my father – they flew to the States on the same flight in the 1980's and were friends in the years before he left for college. He knew nothing about my dad's work as an engineer and I never even brought up our relation – I only found out through a group photo he'd taken with a few neighborhood kids from back when he was growing up on the outskirts of J-Town. He kept it on the work bench in his garage. I recognized my father in the photo, age 10. It was confirmation that I'd made the right choice working here, even though the pay was underwhelming.

    Mr. Tesla had me stay for an extra hour to help him move some boxes of inventory into the freezer room he kept at the back of the garage. Since his nephew was no longer there to help, I was asked to assist in lightening the load. Mr. Tesla left to park the ice cream van in a separate garage around the corner and I stayed to store the rest of the boxes away. I could feel my phone buzzing against my thigh the whole time. I knew it was Napalm. I got a minute to respond, telling him to pick me up at Mr. Tesla's place. I didn't mind staying to work. I considered it a better way to spend my night. Napalm sent back an emoji blowing raspberries and twenty minutes later, he pulled up in his beloved, teal 1998 Ford Mustang, blasting Kevin Gates's "Change Lanes" at full volume like he had been for the past couple weeks. He turned it up extra loud when he pulled up. I was still hauling away the last few boxes in front of the garage. Mr. Tesla realized that it was my ride and told me he'd handle the rest.

    “Here's your check,” he said, handing me an envelope. “Came early this week.”

    “Much appreciated, Mr. Tesla,” I said, beaming when I took it. It happened occasionally, but it was always a treat. “See you tomorrow.”

    I waved, heading to the Mustang where Napalm was leaning out of the driver's window, staring at me from over the roof. He was rapping with the song and probably knew the whole thing by heart no,w considering he kept it on repeat since discovering it two weeks ago. He claimed it was my theme song because it was about being introverted, but he was the one obsessed with it.

    “Forest Whitaker in the flesh!” he shouted when I was close enough to hear it. The girls were in the car already. Molly sat in the front next to Napalm while Denise leaned out of the backseat window, both watching me as I walked up.

    “Easy, Prince of Persia, don't make me snatch you out of your own ride.” I waved at the girls. “Hello.”

    “Ladies, this is my roommate, 'Plain Jane,'” he introduced. It was a nickname pulled from the song's lyrics in reference to my rejection of labels, name brands, and the overall gaudiness of our generation. I didn't do it to make a statement. I was just that out of touch. “I mean Benny Blake! That's my bad, bro. Benny, these are our lovely companions for the evening.”

    “Did you bring any ice cream for us?” Denise asked.

    “Yeah, if you've got ice cream money,” I said, being serious. The three of them groaned.

    "You don't get free hookups?" Molly asked.

    “Nothing in this world is free,” I said, laughing. Denise opened the back door for me and scooted over to give me room. I nodded gratefully.

    “That's absolutely right!” Napalm said. He climbed back into the car once I was inside. “Stay woke, people!”

    He started the car and we were on our way. I let him know that I wanted to cash my check before we stopped at the Windsor Cinemas by our place, so I told him to take me to my bank, Goods Cargo. Instead, he started the song over for the umpteenth time and ran his mouth for another few minutes, completely forgetting what I'd said and stopping outside of the Narrow Industries Bank that was closer to the theater. I nearly lost my temper, but Napalm made it out to be no big deal since they cash checks from other banks with a smaller fee than most others. I couldn't explain to him why putting any of my money in the company's pocket left a bad taste in my mouth, so I was forced to go inside and cash it. The fee was 7 dollars. Smaller fee, my ass.

    With the funds taken care of, we arrived at the cinema with thirty minutes to spare. Napalm paid for all of our tickets online, so we were able to skip the massive line and head inside. We immediately migrated to the bar. The last movie I'd seen in theaters was the live-action adaptation of the animated series, Team Velocity, created by the famed animation studio, GC Entertainment. That was when I was still in school, way before they were installing bars in movie theaters. That was new for me. Now I was back to watch the latest project under their umbrella – the franchise that betrayed my loyalty to their works in the years to come, Ben Fury X.

    There were posters and cardboard displays everywhere. A line stretched around the corner and when we entered, the entire floor was full of people wearing Ben Fury t-shirts and cosplaying in the red and silver Genesis suit from the movie. The main poster in the middle of the theater lobby made my stomach flip violently. A brunette white boy with a scruffy goatee stood in the form-fitting armor with his helmet under his arm, staring off into the distance with determination. It was Graham Hunter, the actor portraying the role of Benjamin Fury A.K.A. The Genesis. Way to add insult to injury.

    Napalm and Molly were engaged in a debate about some details in the most recent film. I was quiet for most of it. “I just don't get how the Gladiator suit would work with his DNA if Ben is supposed to be a clone now,” Molly asked, drinking a spritzer.

    “Well remember, the Gladiator suit doesn't need his DNA specifically,” Napalm explained. He babysat his vodka through their whole conversation. “IMRA sent that suit back too far - to the 90's where Ben's second mentor , Donnie Wells, got it to work, remember? He's the one that runs the comic shop. That was a reference to the original Metalmen Legends they used to tell around town. I'm pretty sure that's what the whole series is based on.”

    “Wait, there are actual legends like that here?” Denise asked, surprised. I could tell she was from out of town too.

    Napalm nodded. "North Star City used to be known for those sightings back then. Men in colorful spacesuits walking around blowing shit up. To this day, no one knows what that was about. That was way before they started the viral marketing for Ben Fury.”

    "Oooh, remember that scene when Gaia and Menace killed him in the final battle and then, it flashed forward to him waking up back in IMRA's future?!" Molly asked with excitement. "Then Commander Nathan's just there in the future looking super old and dying - just to tell him that the resistance fell in the 20 years it took Nathan to clone him. I got chills in that scene."

    “Yeah, all hope is lost now,” Denise replied, sipping her chardonnay. “I don't know how they're gonna finish up this last one.”

    Napalm rose an eyebrow, giving a condescending smirk. “Oh, mark my words, he's gonna get the Omega suit and there's gonna be a badass scene of him flying through space from the time crystal planet to get to Earth and stop the cosmic cancer for good.”

    Cosmic cancer, I thought in disbelief. That's what they called it. My jaw was hanging when Denise glanced over at me, trying not to laugh.

    “I don't know about you, but this stuff makes my head hurt,” she laughed.

    I smiled, sipping some Bailey's Irish Cream that I didn't even think they would sell here. “You and me both.”

    “Yeah, you and you both love hating,” Napalm said, finally drinking his vodka. “Ben Fury is the greatest superhero franchise out there next to Deadpool and the Marvel movies and you know it. Stop playing around.”

    “It's super generic,” Denise said candidly. “And the story is convoluted. You've got time travel, demon zombies, post-apocalyptic worlds, evil spies, and superheroes in the same movie. You're doing too much..”

    'Thank you!" I exclaimed. Finally, someone who understood my sentiment. "It's like, pick one and stick with it, right? I can't do it all at once."

    “I'm literally only in it for Graham,” she said, laughing. “It's not that great.”

    “How dare you?” Molly said. “Ben Fury is a sophisticated sci-fi epic grounded in realism and drama.”

    “Wasn't there a guy with giant dragons for fingers in one of the movies?” she asked. Napalm and Molly exchanged looks, unsure how to respond. Denise looked at me, raising her eyebrows and we both laughed. “Just face it, it's generic superhero fluff that's only popular because the lead actor is hot and it has good effects. It's a mindless blockbuster, but that's why we love it.”

    “Why you love it,” I corrected. “The DCEU is better.”

    “Blasphemy!” Napalm cried, pointing at me like I had insulted his livelihood.

    “I kind of agree,” Denise replied. Napalm gasped sharply, holding his chest. The two of us laughed again, Molly shaking her head.

    "Neither of you deserve to be here for this momentous occasion," she said. "This premiere should be reserved for real fans."

    “Hey, you invited us,” I said, putting my arm around her. The Bailey's had me feeling courageous. Luckily, Denise was into it. She looked over, softening her gaze, then asked me a bit about myself. I kept my answers short, segueing into her life and career. She and Molly were going to school for Computer Engineering, which was how they met Napalm who was studying it as his minor. She seemed to like talking about herself and her passions, which was good because I had nothing good to say about myself. I didn't go to college and had no plans to, I didn't have a car, and I wasn't making a butt ton of money. I was just an Ice Cream man with lots of baggage. I hoped that was enough.

    When it came time for the movie to start, we bought some snacks and began to make our way down the hall to Theater 4 on the right. In the hallway ahead, a confrontation broke out between a father of two boys and a Genesis cosplayer and grew heated in a split second - to the point where blows were thrown. The two wrestled each other to the carpeted floor while security guards rushed over from the other side of the theater. A crowd was forming to watch and record. I dug my hands in my pockets, observing the Genesis cosplay. This was one mascot fight I wasn't going to break up.

    Denise scoffed behind me. When I glanced back, both she and Molly were giving disgusted looks. “What?”

    “Are you gonna open the door for us?” Denise said as if I should have known. I looked over and noticed that Napalm's arms were filled with popcorn and drinks. The girls were standing a few feet from the theater's double doors waiting for me to open it for them. Napalm gave a frantic look.

    “Oh.” I made a move, but Denise rolled her eyes and pushed me out of the way to open it herself. Molly laughed at my expense and I could see Napalm glaring me down as we followed them in.

    “Dude!”

    "What?! It's a damn door!" I guess I had ruined the date. I couldn't believe such a minor screw up shattered any chance of Denise wanting to see me again. I wasn't angry at myself. I didn't want to date someone I'd have to walk on eggshells around anyway, but I couldn't help but feel my mood descendr by the minute. I didn't want to come out tonight in the first place and now my only reason for being here had been compromised by a missed opportunity for chivalry. In the age of the dick pic, forgetting to hold the door for a lady was still a deal breaker. I tried to wrap my head around it for the rest of the evening.

    Denise sat in the center section and Molly took the seat next to her. Napalm sat next to Molly, but when I tried to get past him to take the last seat, both Denise and Molly threw their feet up on the seats in front of them and gave condescending smirks, watching my reaction in their peripheral. I held my tongue, turned around, and took the seat beside Napalm, listening to them giggle like school girls.

    “Thanks for the invite, man,” I said, slumping into the chair. He was already stuffing his face with popcorn.

    “Hey, don't forget the door next time, Plain Jane.” He tried to smirk and toss a kernel in his mouth at the same time but missed and it slipped down his shirt. He groaned in annoyance, fishing for it. Exactly, I thought. Shut up.

    The movie felt like it went on forever. We were about an hour and a half into this “epic finale” when I checked my phone and realized it had only been 30 minutes. This Ben Fury guy had been fighting off the 'cosmic cancer' - the demon zombie horde Denise referred to - nonstop and the scene Napalm predicted of him flying through space had just taken place, so I assumed it was almost over. We weren't even halfway through.

    I remembered at the last minute that I'd saved the rest of the blunt from work for tonight and I had no reason to justify why I hadn't already left. Napalm was soaking in every action sequence and contrived line of dialogue, cheering and hooting the entire time. I knew he wouldn't care if I snuck out. He had his arm around Molly and she was snuggled up to him. He was good for the night. I snuck out through the front and circled around to the alley beside the theater. This was going to be my third time smoking in the last 8 hours. I had been high since I woke up. I considered it a harmless vice, even though I fit every qualification of a stoner. It was too hard for me to admit that sobriety was cold and lonely these days.

    As I rounded the corner, I could see two guys walking up from the opposite end. They moved slowly, conversing and taking their time. They were rough, working-class guys, not exactly homeless, but barely getting by. One was wearing a reflector jacket from his construction job and the other a hoodie, laughing and enjoying the other's company. I had already sparked the joint with my Zippo, posting up on the wall beside a dumpster. An Emergency Exit was on the other side of it. Soon, they were close enough for me to make them out clearly.

    “Hey, man!” the one in the hoodie greeted, waving. I blew out a cloud of smoke, looking around. He was talking to me. “Hey bro!” he repeated with the same energy.

    “Do I know you?” I asked softly. Hoodie was closing in, his hand up for a high five, but I could tell by his body language that something was off. He was tensing up. I raised my right hand for the high five, just to provoke the first move.

    Sure enough, he jerked, making a fist with his opposite hand. He swung low for an uppercut and I caught it with my open palm, then drove my fist into his face with all my strength and body weight. Hoodie went flying and collapsed over a trash can. Bob the Builder lifted his shirt and ripped a pistol from his jeans. The second he pointed it, I grasped his hand and worked the gun from his fingers immediately, smashing the barrel against the bridge of his nose. He went flying back.

    Hoodie regained his composure and I saw the thought of rushing me cross his mind again. When he was close, I wound up a roundhouse kick that sent him flying into the wall by the dumpster. Bob held his bleeding face and reached down, scooping some rainwater into his palm. He tossed it at my face, but I jerked back to avoid it, then launched forward, tackling him into the wall. I drove my knuckle into his Adam's apple and he choked. He grabbed his throat, coughing, and I slammed his head and back against the brick wall with enough force to knock him out cold. Bob fell to the alley floor next to his pal and that was the end of that.

    I picked up the blunt that I'd dropped in the scuffle and tried lighting it again with my trusty Zippo, then continuied my stroll through the alley. A thought hit me. "Were you guys trying to mug me?" I asked, glancing back without breaking stride. "Was that what that was?"

    They were too unconscious to hear me, so I kept walking. I was playing it cool to maintain the illusion in my head, but I was exhilarated. Seeing action was so rare for me nowadays that I'd forgotten how much of a badass I used to be - how much of a badass I still was, despite civilian life, low self-esteem, bourgeoise girls, my nightmarish past, etc. I wasn't about to let any of it tear me down anymore.

    Tires screeched behind me. I whipped around to see a black van skidding to a stop outside the alley. Several Japanese men in flashy suits hopped out to examine the men I had just made short work of. I stopped to see what they were up to. The leader of the bunch appeared to be a young man with soft features and frosted tips in his hair, looking like some J-pop star from the early 2000's. He smirked at me.

    “This your work?” he asked, pointing down at the men. I eyed the entire outfit and didn't respond. They took no offense to it. “Good job. We were just planning to ace this guys. You saved us the trouble. Maybe you should come work for us-”

    “Hey, don't I know you from somewhere?” a big guy with a bowl cut chimed in, stepping up. He squinted at me suspiciously.

    I shrugged. “I know people around here”-

    “You come by the Shiki No Uta sometimes to play blackjack, don't you?” he said, pointing. “Didn't you just lose 800 bones last weekend?”

    "Uh..."Must have been some other guy, bro. I don't gamble." What he said was true. I wasn't a gambler, but I liked to play blackjack. I didn't know why I walked into their club in Japantown and decided to accumulate debt with what was likely an American-based Yakuza just to impress a girl. Yuko Ishikawa was more than just a girl to me. In another time, she was supposed to be the love of my life. If I'd let the world end like it was supposed to, we would have been together by now, fighting for our lives but watching each other's back. Seeing her at the club did something to me. I felt robbed. I knew nothing about her other than the fact that her family owned the J-Town club, Shiki No Uta, and ran an illegal gambling operation called the "Lotus Room" which was made to resemble a classic dojo. Luka, one of the Rocketeer mascots I befriended when I first started working at Avery Station got me inside months ago, but then he stopped showing up to work and when I investigated further, I found that the club had increased security tenfold. The Lotus Room was now an exclusive-playing club and there were eyes on me the moment I stepped onto their sidewalk. I still had access from my first time, but I knew couldn't investigate. So I decided to play.

    I wasn't completely certain that they were Yakuza until I started winning big and I could see them watching me like hawks from the balconies above the game table. Yuko was among them, looking gorgeous with her hair tied up, smirking softly as she watched me clean house. Then, as one might expect, I lost all my chips in one fell swoop. They gave me until Tuesday to pay it off, but I forgot because I quite honestly underestimated them. I figured whatever they came at me with, I could handle. All my ties were cut and I was used to being on the go if need be. Now I looked like an idiot. I could see the tattoos under their sleeves and collars. I knew better. And yet, that was part of the reason why I did it in the first place.

    "No, I remember your little messed-up eye," he said. "Looked like somebody rocked your shit back in the day."

    I shrugged. “Some people say I look like I mixed Nyquil with Dayquil. Pretty common. It's actually Sativa and Indica.”

    The big guy nudged his leader. “He owes us money.”

    The frosted shorty narrowed his glare in my direction and I knew the jig was up. The men stepped into the alley with hands on their concealed weapons. I stuffed the blunt in my shirt and rose a cautious hand. “Hey, I thought I just did you a favor? Knocking those guys out doesn't count for?-”

    I bolted down the alley, zig-zagging and ducking low when the gunshots began to ring. I saw zips of light shoot past me as I dipped in and out of the alley's center. I reached the fire escape on the building beside the theater. It was nothing for me to climb it – I vaulted up the railings, scaling up the side of the building and dodging bullets until I reached the rooftop. I could hear the Yakuzas cursing in bewilderment at my agility. I had parkoured my way from the alley to the roof in less than ten seconds. I sprinted to the other side and spotted a street light up ahead that I could escape to. I leaped from the roof, descending from the pole with a fireman's slide. A train station was across the street and I could see its doors opening on the platform up ahead. I sprinted over, bursting through the doors and clearing the turnstile. I felt as light as a rabbit on my feet – a far cry from the knuckle-dragging that dominated the past few years of my life. It was the best. I dashed through the doors just as they were closing and twirled into an empty seat. The rest of the train car was empty too. No one was chasing me. I let out an invigorated sigh. This was better than weed ever was. It always had been.

    The gangsters didn't know where I lived and I only gambled under my real name, which was only an alias to them. That didn't stop the fact that I was going to need more protection for myself and everyone around me. I came from a time where I let people make the choice of how involved they wanted to be in my double life and when they would eventually come to regret ever knowing me at all, I was left bearing the burden and grief that followed. Some of those threats were eventually dealt with, but there were still forces out there that took measures to ensure that I would never live a balanced life if I ever entertained the idea of being a hero again. So I allowed that fiasco to happen. Just to feel what it felt like again. I was regretting it. Euphoria, followed by paranoia. I could feel the pressure on my shoulders again.

    The apartment was empty when I got home. I was grateful. Napalm wouldn't be home until later tonight and the twins were probably still out skating. I sprinted to the back room and shut the door, grabbing the sage out of the suitcase bag at the foot of my inflated cot. I lit its end, smudging the room with as much smoke as possible until the place was engulfed and completely cleansed. Then I heading for the closet. Napalm kept his clothes in the dresser and let me maintain the closet, which helped ensure he would never have to go in there. I pulled the hangers from the hooks and tossed the clothes out of the way. A bit of graffiti had been left on the closet wall – a circular insignia originating from ancient shaman divination that had been practiced for thousands of years. 98% of that stuff was foreign to me, but I knew what was required. I grabbed my Zippo and set fire to the invocation until it engulfed just the ink. The flame suddenly expanded and a metal door materialized over the closet right before my eyes. It blew me away every time.

    I still needed to pass the access terminal on the wall where the closet ended. I stuck my hand inside, allowing the mechanism to draw my blood and analyze my DNA. A moment later, the door lifted up, ejected, then slid aside, revealing a hallway that looked like a corridor of a spacecraft. I took a breath and stepped through. The world I entered next was so far removed from the rest of North Star City, it might as well have not been on Earth. And technically, it wasn't.

    A technological marvel greeted me on the other side – a high-tech moon base in a remote location hidden from the Hubble telescope and any observing satellites that could examine the moon's surface. Beyond the windows of the station, I could see the grey, rocky surface of the landscape ending at the dark void horizon ahead. My footsteps echoed through the cold room until I reached the farthest window where I could see the Earth – the planet I'd just left – staring back at me in all its lively glory shrouded in the darkness of space. It felt good to finally be back here after all this time.

    Four devices were on display behind a set of glass. I pressed my thumb against a print scanner and the glass receded for me to get a good look at them. I felt a strong sense of nostalgia. The G-Watch, a red, futuristic wristwatch sat on the far left. It once housed the Genesis suit the rest of the world knew so well. It was the suit I wore in the first two years of my career, built for war. It was eventually destroyed and the watch became useless, but I kept it for old time's sake.

    The X-Buckle was next to it, a black and grey belt buckle with a red trim, displaying an X symbol on the front – the conduit for the Exodus suit I wore in my Junior year, at the time of the Fairbrook massacre. It was built for espionage.

    The Pager was the only device not designed or built by the International Mercenary Resistance Agency, but instead by the creator of the moon base, Martin Blake, a Haitian engineer, former member of a covert agency called the Faction, and the origin of “Metalmen” folklore.

    Next to that was the L-Phone, a version of the Pager designed by IMRA from Martin's blueprints with far more advanced tech. The Leviticus suit was built to be the most powerful of all the designs, but it was destroyed in my last fight three years ago. The collection felt like a small, lost museum for the tools that prevented the extinction of life everywhere in the universe and I was likely the only person to ever see or cherish them.

    I grabbed the X-Buckle from the display and hooked it to the front of my belt. There were four triggers on each corner of the buckle. I pressed my fingers against each of them until they clicked into the buckle, then I pulled the triggers out and a pair of red light rays extended from them like measuring tape. I pulled them half the length of my wingspan, grasping the ends, then I wrapped the ribbons of light around my fists and crossed my arms over my torso where the light expanded into energy waves. The waves slowly sculpted the outline of a form-fitting exoskeleton over every inch of my body. They traveled up my arms and down my legs simultaneously, meeting over my torso and around the belt before folding out the helmet and visor over my face. The heads-up display was simple and unobtrusive. "WELCOME BACK, MR. BENJAMIN FURY." Glad someone cared.

    There was nothing to say when I looked in the mirror. The black and grey armor fit comfortably with its neon red accents glowing throughout the frame in an organized pattern within the rubber that held the armor together. The visor glowed crimson as well, a short collar jutting up from the shoulder blades. A burst of warmth and euphoria washed over me in an instant – a side effect of the hormone known as Fortigen being released into my bloodstream as a power source for the suit. The hormone was being siphoned from my “third eye” - the pineal gland between the two hemispheres of my brain.

    At first, the hormone acted as a supplement that enhanced my biology outside of the suit as well, giving me heightened senses and superhuman endurance. In my later years, I unlocked a few cosmic cheat codes that proved useful to this day. With my equilibrium centered at all times, my agility was at inhuman levels and I could also detect cosmic beings that weren't human on the rare chance I encountered any. In some cases, I could sniff out certain qualities in people that even they might not be aware of, but that didn't make me the best judge of character. It only gave me vague insight into their intentions. Fortigen also helped me develop xenoglossy, allowing me to speak any native tongue and also talk to animals, which sounds cool in theory until you realize communicating any information that makes them question reality will ruin that animal for life. I couldn't own pets anymore and I had to learn that the hard way.

    With all of my abilities being attributed to the suit, which in turn used my body's biomagnetic field as a battery, everything good that came from those torrential years trying to fight for everyone's survival came flooding back into memory at once. I flexed in the mirror. I felt more powerful than I ever had. There was a time when I felt manipulated by it, as if it seduced me with the peace of mind I needed to fall for IMRA's games and entertain the idea of preventing the total destruction of all life. That was back when I was still angry at the world, wishing I hadn't gotten involved. I've cooled down since then, but the longer I've watched society descend into the post-apocalyptic direction I sacrificed everything to steer it away from, the easier it became to make decisions like gambling with Yakuza for fun. One thing was for sure, cosmic awareness did not equate to mental clarity.

    An alarm went off by the door and I hustled to it. Someone was buzzing into the apartment outside. Shit, I thought. The sage must not have cleansed well enough. "Shut down," I muttered, pressing the triggers on the suit's new buckle. It's composition morphed into the light waves again and retreated back into the X-Buckle, which I replaced back in the display. I sprinted out of the pocket dimension, reversing the invocation in the closet to hide the door. I grabbed a can of white spray paint by the door and quickly cover the symbol with a white spot. As soon as I ditched the bundle of sage, I could hear banging at the front door that continued until a massive "BOOM!" rocked the complex and I was forced to investigate. If it was the Yakuza after all, I was likely sealing off my only escape.

    Instead, the men who stood in front of the broken front door were the idiots I expected to see. They were both white; one was an older man in his 40's with fiery red hair and the other was closer to my age with a long, greasy mane and a bushy beard. I recognized the older one right away.

    “What the hell?!” I exclaimed, gesturing at the door. “Is that really necessary?”

    “Damn, you've got like, no furniture,” Remi, the greasy-haired man mentioned, eyeing the place. “Are you squatting or something?”

    “I know you'd never consider getting a real warrant since you guys think you're 'above the law' and everything, but by that logic, I could kick both of your asses right now and get away with it.”

    "Until the rest of the gang comes back to finish the job." Arthur Pichot replied, smirking. The red-haired man strolled into the apartment with his partner. He was holding an electronic scanner, signaling it around the room for anything out of the ordinary. Both were well-dressed but casual. Arthur even carried a Rolex watch around his wrist. They didn't want for much because they worked for an organization that could code an infinity symbol into your bank account with total validity. They were under the employ of the men behind the throne. I hated them with a passion. "Expect to kiss this depressing shithole goodbye too."

    "The Illuminati can't protect you forever, Arthur," I snarled.

    Arthur caught the fiery look in my eye and walked closer. "It's Ministrata, cowboy." That's what they chose to call themselves, even though they fulfilled the same role as the conspiracy suggested. The difference was their origins – the Ministrata was formed by a society of ancient shamans who once worshipped the cosmic beings that commanded the world millennia ago until conflict among these "gods" led to civil war and the collapse of order in the cosmos. From then on, the Ministrata decided to nestle themselves in the cracks of every governing body thereafter to function as a secret world government, burying all things occult, extraterrestrial, or extradimensional into myth so that modern society could develop free of influence from elements deemed "metacosmic" in nature, i.e. myself. I didn't learn about them until they retrieved me from self-imposed exile in Africa six years ago to finish what I started. Now they refused to leave me alone. "What are you hiding in here, old buddy?"

    I watched the two investigate the apartment, assessing the damage to the door. I would probably be able to fix it before the fellas got home, as long as these two clowns were out of here in time. I caught Remi staring at me from the kitchen.

    “So that's him, huh?” he said, nudging Arthur. They spoke like I couldn't hear them. “The Ministrata based that whole shitty franchise on this guy?”

    “Yep,” Arthur explained. “The real Ben Fury. Dumbass slipped up and let his identity get leaked to the public, so they did a massive cover-up when he disappeared, tried to pass off all the news coverage on his antics as a viral marketing campaign for a movie. So many cops and reporters had to get paid off or silenced to set it in stone. The entire internet had to be scrubbed clean of his face." He glanced at me from the hall leading to the rooms. "Everything after that first movie is made up though. In my timeline, this guy was a real hero. I'm glad I picked the right side for this one."

    “Yeah, really,” Remi laughed. I was moments away from snapping on both of them. Arthur was once an IMRA operative. He was the first human being I crossed paths with the first time I was given a taste of the future. He saved my life. He was the first to hand me the G-Watch that night in the rainy ruins of my hometown. After the Genesis suit was destroyed and IMRA assigned him to be my bodyguard, we bonded immediately. Then the "cosmic cancer" that they had been fighting for decades started to win. IMRA stopped being able to provide support from their timeline and then we lost communication with them for good.

    We called this malevolent and unstoppable cosmic force, “The Razakin.” They originated from a foreign realm and were starting to break through to the physical world when I was still in high school – in fact, most of my early career was spent fighting these monstrous creatures. They are infinite in number, so infinite that they could consume the universe and to this day, there was no way to kill them all – the only thing we could do was prevent them from crossing over. That was the whole reason why IMRA counted on me, but Arthur would eventually lose all faith after IMRA's fall and with little remorse, sold me and our team out to the Ministrata. He ended up joining their ranks and took pleasure in killing some of his (and my) allies on their behalf. I've wanted him dead ever since, but the Ministrata made him untouchable.

    The two probed each of the rooms until they reached the one I shared with Napalm and spotted the clothes that I left on the cot, still on their hangers. The closet was wide open and the white spot of paint on the wall could be seen as soon as they walked in.

    “Whoa!” Remi said, pointing it out. “Look at what we've got here!”

    “Yep, bedroom,” I shrugged. “Exciting.”

    "Looks like an invocation cover-up." Arthur crept inside the closet with his device and ran it over the white spray paint on the wall. It didn't respond. "Can't read any signals though. He probably cleansed the place."

    “Wait, so you're saying you don't have evidence?” I asked with sarcasm. “So you can get the fuck out of my apartment now?”

    Remi caught an attitude. “We captured a spike in positrons in this area. What were you doing?”

    “Decorating.” They didn't buy it. “Maybe if you guys weren't breathing down my back so hard trying to imagine I might be up to something, you could focus more on making this world liveable. You know, without the war and injustice and corruption. That'd be ideal, wouldn't it?”

    "So you really think you're some kind of pussyfoot superhero, huh?" Remi asked with all disrespect, sizing me up. "You think you can do our job better than us? Huh, Captain Fury?”

    “Doesn't matter.” Arthur left the closet and joined us by the door. “We're taking over his old job in two weeks. Even if he did have the suits, it's not gonna mean much to us anyhow.”

    "Oh yeah," Remi said with a gloating excitement. "Both of us just got transferred to the Faction. Arthur was promoted as the head. Feels good to be the first to tell you."

    I wanted to reply with a snarky remark, but I was caught off-guard by the news. The Faction was my first exposure to just how malicious the Ministrata could be. They were formed in the 90's as a paranormal research group to study daemons, nature spirits outside our realm manifested from karmic energies. The Razakin were thought to be manifested from “sin” and were classified in their jurisdiction, but the threat they posed to our reality made them the Faction's top priority, which put them in frequent conflict with me. They tortured me for access to the G-Watch in my second year, but IMRA helped me destroy their main facility in retaliation. The Ministrata rebuilt them from the ground up and six years ago, I was forced into working with them to take down a supernatural cult called the Thiasos, known for their worship of the Razakin and for being the ones responsible for the apocalyptic future we were all fighting to avoid.

    After the cult was taken out, they instructed me to give up my last remaining functional armor, the Exodus suit, to be kept in Ministrata custody. I was forced to comply, but months later, the Faction discovered that my suits had been stolen from the lockup of their remote Canadian facility. I was being forced against my will to give the suit up and while they did suspect me, I wasn't involved in the theft as far as they knew . That's why they were always watching.

    “Come on, Mr. Narrow,” Arthur said, addressing his partner. “Let's leave Mr. Fury to enjoy his night in peace.”

    “Narrow?” I said. For once, I couldn't control my expression. I was holding back.

    "Yeah. Why do you think I wanted to meet you so bad?" Remi chuckled to himself, following Arthur out of the room. Arthur kicked the door off its last hinge on his way out of the front, causing it to clatter to the floor. What a spiteful asshole. Where he came from, there was no real civilization. Everyone was fighting for survival against the same threat. Here, he could live in comfort with all the riches he could ever ask for, courtesy of the magic Illuminati. I couldn't blame him for selling his soul, given what he managed to escape. I had the choice of pursuing a one-man vendetta against them before, but I had to be willing to let go of the possibility of ever living a normal life again. The Ministrata controlled the world government, the internet, the banks, corporations, Hollywood, and every other institution under the sun. There was nowhere I could go to avoid them and they were too powerful to handle by myself.

    I was done fighting for people who didn't want to be saved anyway. I'd seen the influence of the Razakin overtake humans and turn them into pawns in their agenda plenty of times over – it made sense considering the symbiotic relationship they shared with us. It was almost our destiny to meet our demise at their hands. Humanity still reigned supreme in ruining everything good in the world and Arthur was one of the many with no problem abusing that power.

    I had little to show for all I lost in my career as a hero, but I was still alive. After my twelve years of heroism, I thought I'd reached the end of my journey the night we took out the Thiasos and stopped Armageddon when it was prophecized to happen, but I would never come to enjoy the ever after happily without finding a way to make something of the mess of a life I was left with. I wanted to slip through the cracks and make a difference against the system that was really driving this world towards the destruction, but to do that, I had to be the one, yet again, to sacrifice everything I loved for the second time. I had to wonder if it was selfish to choose to, for the first time in years, act in favor of my own self-interest instead of society's or more likely, the Ministrata's. Most superhero movie fans would say yes. They would forget that its the choice they value most for themselves and celebrate as individuality.

    I was robbed of that freedom early on in life. Now it was time for me to take it back.
    Last edited by Onlyne; 07-03-2018 at 05:08 PM.


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    Chapter 2: Amanda

    I wished that I could muster a genuine desire to meet new people. All it did was make me paranoid these days.

    I took the subway across town to the neighborhood of Brightwalk, the concrete sanctuary for yuppies and indie kids in the city. It was filled with young hipsters and millennials enjoying the “vintage” and “urban” scenery that had been left for them post-gentrification. A black and Latino community occupied the area in the 80's and some of their artistic influence rubbed off on the forthcoming population enough for some of the art pieces to remain untouched. The previous residents mostly migrated to the Section 8 housing projects on the outskirts of town. I was familiar with the wall mural that loomed over Washington Park - Storm Rider, the legendary vigilante that was said to have protected the city once upon a time stood poised in his armored Ultraman-esque suit next to Casey Chambers, a young black teen athlete and equal neighborhood celebrity who managed to escape a life on the streets to become a revered basketball star that played for the Kingdom City Knights. They were both inspirations to the community. Casey passed away decades ago in Kingdom City during a chemical attack caused by one of the Razakin's human lieutenants and the first major enemy I ever encountered, the “Black Lion.” I finally defeated him that same day and my first suit was destroyed in the fight. The attack infected the entire city. I didn't hear about Casey's death until years later. He had been murdered in all the chaos.

    I used to make fun of Martin for taking on such a dramatic name, but I knew where his inspiration came from. The Metalmen legends were immortalized by him and Brightwalk was one of his favorite stomping grounds back in the day. I had only been in the neighborhood once during a night of drunken escapades with the boys, but I was heading over now to meet with someone that Napalm knew from school. Actually it was someone that knew one of the students Napalm befriended, but it was the only connection for weed I could acquire on short notice. My regular guy, who Eckard also got his supply from, was planning to go on vacation for the weekend as was my only other source, Napalm and the twins, who were traveling up to the Great Wolf Lodge in the Frostberry Mountains. Napalm was in a hurry when I asked for his plug's info, but he was able to text me her number and the address while on the road and now I was riding the subway by my lonesome to a stranger's house to pick up illegal substances.

    The plug was a girl named Amanda. She didn't actually attend UNSC, but she sold plenty of weed to college kids there and was the first name Napalm was able to find in his phone on his way out of the door. If I didn't have my abilities, I might have been more cautious about heading to this mysterious address just to re-up on some pot, but I didn't have much to worry about in way of physical threats. The Ministrata could give a rat's ass about my recreational habits and even if there was some loose thread coming back to haunt me in the form of a trap, I had become nigh invulnerable. I was being thrown through glass, solid walls, and out of buildings at fourteen. That was my first exposure to the effects of Fortigen on my body. I had twelve years of the hormone flowing through my veins now. Anyone willing to test me could get the business.

    I texted Amanda to schedule the meet up before leaving. She didn't answer the first time, but I was told by Napalm that she was extremely difficult to get a hold of and required an unacceptably excessive amount of pestering to get her to answer a text or phone call. He said she wouldn't mind it. When she finally responded and we set a time, I hit the train and arrived in the mid-afternoon. The building was upscale. There was a lobby where a security guard could watch from me behind the glass, but the door was locked when I tried to enter. I had to be buzzed in.

    I must have stood outside for at least fifteen minutes trying to get a hold of her. I buzzed the right apartment on the door phone plate several times and called her from my phone, but it went to voicemail every time. I sent texts and paced around in front of the apartment until I looked suspicious enough for the old, white security guard to come out looking for answers.

    “Can I help you, sir?” he asked, sizing me up. I was still circling the front of the apartment with my phone to my ear, watching people pass me on the sidewalk.

    “Hey, I'm just trying to get a friend to buzz me up. She's not answering her phone.”

    “Well, you can't be pacing around in front the building like that, you hear?” he grunted. “It's bad for business.”

    “What business?” I asked, looking puzzled. “This is an apartment. You think me walking around in front of it is gonna make people not wanna stay here?”

    The security guard developed an attitude. “The landlord doesn't like loiterers in front of his building.”

    “I'm not loitering, I'm trying to get inside.” He was frustrating me now. “If you would help instead of being the asshole trying to shoo me off, then I wouldn't have to be out here making your precious castle look like a project or whatever it is you think I'm doing.”

    The guard sucked his teeth, leaning back into the building. “That's it. I'm calling it in.”

    “Oh yeah, call the cops!” I shouted, curling my fists. He closed the door in my face, but he could hear me behind the glass. I was already grabbing my phone. “You must want to be famous or something! Clearly you don't care about your job enough.”

    The second the guard walked behind the desk to dial 911, the intercom by the door came to life. “Hey, uh...Ben?!” a deep female voice crackled.

    I pressed the button beside the orange light coming from Apartment 23B. “Hey, it's me. Buzz me up.”

    “Okay! Sorry for the wait, I'm just getting up for the day and I”-

    “Yeah, there's a security guard down here calling the police on me right now, so no worries with the other stuff but um...”

    “Oh, it's fine. I've got you!” The door buzzed and clicked open, allowing me inside. I could see and hear the security guard panicking at his desk. The phone was at his ear.

    “He is in the building,” he tried to mutter calmly, poorly masking his quiet hysteria. “I repeat, he is inside the building.”

    “That means I was buzzed up,” I said, shaking my head. I made my way down the hall, waving him off. “Tell them I said hi.”

    I spotted an elevator down the hall and took it up to the second floor where Apartment 23B was located. The door was cracked open when I approached the right room and I crept inside to find a small, messy studio apartment. The floors were brown wood tiles until it reached the carpet in the living room and the walls were painted crudely in an aqua shade, likely by the tenant. One entire wall to the right was covered in artist renditions of celebrity head shots on display along with movie and music posters, all indie and nothing I recognized. Amanda was clearly in the demographic that dominated this neighborhood.

    A table was positioned behind the sofa that sat in front of the television. When I walked closer, I spotted a tan-colored open binder filled to the brim with colorful trading cards, all drawn to feature unique and highly impressive creatures. Their stats were listed at the bottom. The fresh and original art style was a signature of these collectible cards in particular. I was familiar with the game – it was called Gigamon, another media franchise owned by GC Entertainment. I had a lot of nostalgia for the game myself – I played it pretty often with Terry, one of my closest friends growing up. We grew out of it once we moved to high school, but the binder helped bring back fond memories.

    As I started flipping though, I got distracted by the nature documentary playing on the flat screen in front of me. Two silverback gorillas had been interacting with one another and then before I knew it, one jumped on top of the other, riding him like a drunk cowgirl on a mechanical bull. I let out a shocked laugh, unsure how I was supposed to feel.

    “What the...” I said aloud. I must have been heard from the kitchen nearby because I heard a pan hit the floor, followed by a loud curse. “...Everything all right?”

    Instead of getting an answer, I watched a short, full-figured brunette girl in pajamas and an apron stumble recklessly into the room. She dove over the couch for the remote, hitting the fast forward button on the DVR as quickly as possible.

    “Jesus,” Amanda panted, sitting up in the sofa. She turned around and grinned, displaying a beautiful smile that made my heart melt a little. “Talk about walking in on the worst part, huh? I promise I'm not a weirdo.”

    “I don't believe you,” I laughed. I held my hand out to shake. “I'm Ben.”

    “Amanda,” she greeted, taking it. Her demeanor was sweet and easygoing. Even though I knew they existed, this was my first time interacting with a female weed dealer. I had almost lost my patience with her before, but I was learning to forgive pretty quickly. “Sorry to put you through that. I like to put on nature shows when I wake and bake.”

    “No worries. I'm a space doc fan myself. Cosmos with Neil Degrasse Tyson. That's my go-to.”

    Amanda headed back into the kitchen and waved for me to follow. “Not the original? With Carl Sagan?”

    “That one is dope too. Neil's version has the spaceship stuff though.” The kitchen was like a mini-greenhouse with several marijuana trees in designated pots wherever there was room for them. A collection of jars sat on the end table, filled with nugget-sized buds. Plenty of them were packed into vacuum sealed bags and medicine containers, spread out and labeled with different names based on their strand. A tray full of freshly baked weed cookies lie on the table beside the stove. When I asked, Amanda explained that she had a supplier but the plants she was growing were for herself. She was maneuvering through the “don't get high on your own supply” rule by saving seeds and growing her own stash separate from what she sold. The plants were for her private supply.

    Amanda led me to the kitchen table where she organized the medicine bottles and bags for me to observe, then she began listing off each strand, their type, and what effect I could expect from it. She handed them to me to sniff and I could smell a difference, but the variety was always a bit overwhelming. There were strands for creativity, relaxation, functional work, catatonic states - body high, head high, etc. It was all the same for me. I just wanted something to keep me lifted.

    Amanda had a reckless charm that I took to with ease. She was rough around the edges but clearly comfortable in her own skin. I watched her tie her hair up with a rubber band before she went through the rest of the selection. She was wearing loose sweatpants and a tank top, a tattoo of a quote showcased under her right forearm. I got to an angle where I could read it: “Peace to the world, let it rotate. Sex, money, murder, our DNA.” She was a fan of Kendrick Lamar by the looks of it. I thought it was awesome, but her second tattoo made me apprehensive – a hawk with its wings spread wide over a lightning bolt positioned right on the back of her neck. The IMRA symbol. I could see it clearly now that her hair was up. I tried to keep an open mind. She was just a fan of nerd culture. There was nothing wrong with that.

    I took her suggestion and settled on an eighth of Sour Diesel, putting it in the backpack I brought with me. She threw in an extra gram for all my troubles, which now made us completely square. I'd gotten what I came for and was about to head out when Amanda invited me to smoke with her. “When folks come by to make a pick up, I usually invite them to smoke with me, especially if it's our first time doing business,” she explained. “Just a show of good faith. I'm rolling up from my private stash.”

    “Sounds like a plan,” I said with excitement. Amanda led the way back into the living room and we took a seat beside each other on the couch. A pack of hyenas were devouring a gazelle right in front of us somewhere in Africa. Amanda picked apart a bud that she pulled from the tree by her fridge, then split the cigarello wrapper and dumped the tobacco in a leftover fast food bag.

    “Getting to actually see you, it makes sense why Carl called the police,” she explained. Suddenly, she flinched. “I didn't mean that in offense, I meant”-

    “I get what you mean,” I nodded. “He's got a problem with folks like me.”

    “You and others. He called the cops on a Mexican couple because their kid was crying too loud in the lobby. I'm pretty sure the only reason he still works here is because he's related to the landlord or the property owner or something.”

    “Right. Do we need to be worried about the police?-”

    Amanda shook her head. “He's made enough false calls for the cops to ignore him. I feel wholly unsafe with him as a guard and enough people have made complaints for him to be long gone by now. And yet he still works here. Has for months.”

    “The system tends function like that,” I replied bluntly. Amanda looked over, but didn't say anything and went back to constructing the blunt we were about to share. “So I see you collect Gigamon cards and stuff too?”

    Amanda shook her head. “I don't really collect them. I mean, I do, but I wouldn't consider myself a collector. I sell them. You have no idea how lucrative the trading card business is, dude.”

    “I can only imagine.” I was surprised. She didn't seem like the type of person that would be into that market.

    “Yeah, Gigamon is huge, especially in Canada. That's where I'm from, by the way. It's got a bubbling market because they don't do reprints. All cards are original and once they're gone, they're gone. Rare cards go up in value every year. I was a fan of the studio back in the day, so I've been into the game for a while.”

    “Same,” I replied. I pointed to the binder on the table behind us. “I couldn't help but feel nostalgic looking through all those cards. Took me back to better days.”

    “Yeah, back before everything got political and complicated and impending doom didn't feel like it was right around the corner.” Amanda licked the wrap lightly and sealed it shut. She grabbed the lighter, running it under the blunt. “What was your favorite GC show back in the day?”

    “Oh, Team Velocity, for sure,” I answered. The memories came flooding back. The show was about an academy for teenage superheroes, focusing on four students assembled into one of the thirty teams that would be trained into task forces throughout their educational tenure – Allen, the main protagonist and an energy-wielding alien, Vlad, a shadow manipulator, Charlotte, a water-conjuring ninja, and Donovan, the black earth elemental and team leader whom I looked up to most as a kid. Amanda gave me a high five.

    “You're all right, Ben,” she laughed. She lit the blunt and took a few hits, then handed it to me. “I loved that show so much. I was so obsessed with Charlotte as a kid, I went as her for Halloween six years in a row. Then I ripped the crotch of the ninja outfit by accident trying to do a split. I was still gonna keep it, but my mom made me throw it away.. Oooh! Remember that episode with the sparring match in the rain between Charlotte and Donovan?”

    “Of course! They both kept pulling water and dirt molecules out of the mud to use for combat, but they were too evenly matched and had to call it a draw.” This was my first time talking about this kind of stuff in quite a while. I usually didn't enjoy it because of how frequently the conversation steered towards the studio's most popular I.P currently, but the walk down memory lane was tempting. “Me and my friends were already big fans by that point, but that episode was the moment it hit for me. I remember being obsessed ever since. I had all the box sets and collectibles growing up.”

    “Same!” Amanda said with enthusiasm. She looked off, remembering the good ol' days. “I grew up in Yarmouth. It's a small town in Nova Scotia. I had to order all of my collectibles online to have them shipped to my house because none of the stores carried what I wanted. That's why I'm such a homebody now. I never had much of a reason to leave – til I had to.”

    I nodded, sympathizing. She took the blunt when I handed it. “Happens like that. Life will move you out of your comfort zone eventually.”

    “Totally. I ended up moving to Toronto for a while. That's where I learned the tricks of the trade with the weed and trading card business. I eventually earned enough to move down here. I've never actually held down a real job in my life. I've only ever made money selling weed and Gigamon cards. And sometimes art.”

    “Wow...So what made you want to move to North Star?” I asked, feeling my eyes get low. I could sense that we were transitioning into the introspective part of the smoking session, but Amanda seemed to hesitate. She blew out smoke and didn't answer until it completely left her lips.

    “Opportunities.” She turned to me, changing the subject. “What about yourself? What do you do for a living?”

    “Oh, I'm just a humble Ice Cream man,” I shrugged, chuckling. “I moved here from Kingdom City six years ago. Needed a change of scenery.”

    “That's cool as hell,” Amanda said, lighting up. She handed the blunt back to me. “So you drive one of those ice cream vans around town and stuff?”

    “ Yeah. Primarily at Avery Station downtown. We have a contract with them.”

    Amanda glanced over and took a moment, as if testing the waters. “Do you have a girlfriend?”

    The question caught me off-guard, but I let it roll off my shoulders. “Not at moment.”

    “Why not?”

    I shrugged, looking away. I was searching for an answer that didn't make me sound I was struggling to find love, but also didn't make her assume that I was unavailable. “I've been prioritizing other stuff for a while...but I'm patient when it comes to that. I just let things play out the way they're supposed to.”

    “Hmm.” Amanda studied me in thought for a moment and I read all kinds of different signals from it before she finally looked away and switched gears. “You ever see the Storm Rider mural?” She stood up, waving for me to follow her to the window beside the kitchen. From our view, we had a perfectly clear shot of the historic display right across the street. Storm Rider's silver and blue suit contrasted with the fiery background as he stood back to back with Casey, who posed with his arms crossed in a hoodie and basketball shorts, cheesing happily. Amanda smiled at it. “It's so cool. As you can see, I'm really into art and stuff. I was sold on this spot because of this view. It makes me feel bad though because the property owner said they want to have the mural removed soon. Apparently, it's too distracting now.”

    “Wow,” I said, blowing smoke.

    “The nerve, right? How are you going to move into someone else's neighborhood and just remove a part of their history like that.” She paused and withdrew a bit. “I got this place because it was cheap, but I know I'm part of the problem. I'm the demographic influencing them to make choices like that. I'm probably worse because I'm not even part of the work force.”

    “Feeling guilty?” I chuckled, passing the blunt. Amanda clammed up and I shook my head. “Don't. That guilt shit falls on deaf ears, trust me. It's a win for you to even acknowledge it. Most just go on about their lives, completely excluding it from their reality. And God forbid someone brings it up, then they assume someone is calling them racist and complain about SJW Propaganda. The problem is suddenly about them, not the people getting hurt.”

    “Yeah, it's crazy.” Amanda took a toke, then closed her eyes and reflected. “I hope the community rallies behind keeping the mural up. It's like what they say in Ben Fury, 'We fight forward to protect what's behind us.' That's the mercenary code. It's why I got this tattoo.”

    She moved her ponytail out of the way to show me. I stuffed my hands in my pockets. “Right...” I said, trying not to seem awkward. “I feel that.”

    “I just wanna get out there and see it all, you know? I know I sound like a cliché, but I wanna travel the world. Escape. Restore my faith in humanity. Everything I see nowadays just brings me down, whether its on TV, the internet, or right in front of our faces. The key is out there somewhere.”

    I really wanted to agree, but something in me couldn't. I shook my head. “I've traveled before.” Amanda glanced over. “I saw a lot of what's out there. It's great. But there are no answers. That's what we go searching for, even if we aren't thinking about it. That urge you have to go find out why you're here and what your purpose is...You won't find it out there. That stuff is inward, not outward.”

    I could feel Amanda's eyes on me as I stared out of the window. “What do you think we're here for?” she asked softly.

    What a loaded question, I thought. I ignored the first thought that came to my head and took an extra second to think of an answer that was best for the moment. “To learn.”

    Amanda nodded, taking it in. “Major keys, man. Bit anti-climatic though.”

    “As life tends to be.” I smiled and she smiled back. She held my gaze for a moment, then glanced away handing the last of the blunt back to me. I waved it away. “I'm good. I smoked before I got here. Need to make sure I get on the right train home.”

    Amanda giggled. “Right on. Let me know when you need to re-up. I may be around. Usually, you can't get in touch with me unless I get in touch with you first. I'm just like that sometimes. My bad.”

    “How do you make money then?” I asked, laughing. Amanda walked me back to the entrance and stood at the doorway when I stepped out.

    “By the skin of my teeth, I guess. Somebody's looking out for me.”

    “Apparently so.” I glanced down the empty hallway on either side and shuffled awkwardly, giving a farewell wave. “Thanks for the bouquet.”

    Amanda gave a hearty laugh and leaned against the door with a confident gaze. “Anytime! If it knocks your lights out, let me know!” She held eye contact as I started for the stairs and didn't break it until I rounded the corner.

    #

    I rarely had the apartment to myself. It was a freedom that I didn't take lightly. I went home with my smokes and put on some Leon Bridges as loud as the stereo would go. The soulful music blasted it through the complex and I danced around shirtless like no one was watching, waving the sage bundle through each room like I was either trying to summon rain or win in a Risky Business re-enactment contest. A part of me used to listen to the voice telling me that alone time was for the lonely and sad, but I knew how to keep myself entertained. I could throw my own private party removed from everyone else's bullshit. I knew it was important to I surround myself with good vibes. For the first time in a while, I felt pretty good. Maybe it was because of my meeting with Amanda, but I couldn't deny that she was a joy to be around even before we started smoking and getting comfortable. I couldn't stop thinking about her and it kept me in a decent mood, even though the likelihood of me complicating things were high. I knew thinking like that was liable to keep me single forever, but the double edged sword almost didn't make it worth it. I had plenty of female friends who stopped texting back after I took my shot.

    I felt so behind when it came to dating and relationships – I was only able to hold down one very early in my career, but after that, circumstances got in the way of any escapes or pursuits of happiness, let alone those of the romantic variety. I was better off keeping things tempered at a friendship and saving myself the potential hurt. For the night though, I could imagine a reality where Amanda and I truly understood each other and realized that we were two of a kind. If I ever considered bringing it into reality, I had her number and that was enough for the possibility to stay on the table.

    I spent the rest of the night binge-watching old episodes of Team Velocity on Netflix before turning in. I smoked one last bowl and went to my room to dig through my luggage bag. A lunchbox-sized metallic case was stuffed under some of my clothes and when I pulled it out, the IMRA hawk and lightning bolt reflected against the moonlight from the window. The same symbol had been branded onto the right side of my chest after my first year of service. I unhooked the latch and pushed a few of Mr. Zone's futuristic gadgets out of the way to grab what I was looking for: An old MP3 player. It was the same one that Mr. Grimm, Fairbrook High's tyrannical principal, confiscated during one of the routine classroom searches he conducted at random. That was back when the weight on my shoulders weighed the same as everyone else's. It was the morning before everything changed forever.

    I put the dusty old earphones in and laid back on the cot, taking myself back to my youth when the main things I worried about was whether or not my crush, Jessica, liked me back or my bully, Joe Buttz, would catch me slipping in the hallways after class. The events of that day played out through my head: My mother and I rushing to school, me sitting in the cafeteria writing bullshit essays about tardiness for Mr. Grimm, my adventures with my best friends, Terry and Kim, my fight with Joe, the hours of class spent ogling Jessica like I had no sense of decency, etc. I remembered visiting my mother and berating George Narrow, Terry's deadbeat dad, in his corporate office where she worked as his secretary. I remembered the black trail of mist that tried to attack me and my grandfather on our way home that day and of course, “Biology Of The Cell,” by Bruce Alberts, the book that my science teacher and undercover time traveler, Michael Zone, recommended I check out from the Kingdom City Public Library that day, “guaranteed to give you an A.” The bread crumb pheromones he left behind in that book was what led me to the temporal crystal in the first place like some rat in a maze. I never returned that book. After my retirement, I found it in our storage with the other Fury Family belongings. I burned it in a fire pit with most of the stuff I owned from back then. The MP3 was one of the only things I kept.

    The nostalgic hits of the 2000's lullaby-ed me to sleep in no time. It was a peaceful drift at first - until I could feel their presence. Dread. Guilt. Darkness. Then I could see them; unfathomably infinite in ranks, an army made up of grotesque monstrosities with hollow, demonic voids where their eyes should have been, scrambling about in a huddled mass across the vast realm where they were trapped. Their skin and flesh was torn and burnt. Their ears were pointed and their massive jaws were lined with razor sharp teeth that clamped in unison against nothing but air in search of a meal to consume. It was the darkness inside of us all, manifested into a cancerous breed of interdimensional beasts that represented the hunger of the human ego. It was destined to annihilate our reality and consume all of existence. That would have come to pass if I hadn't stopped it. Did I really? I couldn't help but wonder as I felt their presence strengthen around me. I was being suffocated by it. They were so infinite in number that they could never be entirely defeated or destroyed, only contained. Even then, there was always a chance that someone else could come along to release them like those that tried before. Did I only delay the inevitable?

    I could feel the claws of the Razakin close around me and I screamed at the top of my lungs. I reached up through their ragged, skeletal arms to break free until I emerged back into consciousness with someone else simultaneously screaming at my face right along with me. The short Japanese man with frosted tips and colorful earrings had been startled by my awakening and now the two of us were face to face with each other hollering our heads off. I was the first to stop, realizing that there were more men standing over my cot in their black suits, carrying blunt weapons. They were Japanese as well. The frosted man stopped screaming a second after I did, then he regained control of himself and swung a fist at my cheek.

    All at once, the burglars began to stomp me out with the frosted man ripping me from the cot by my feet and onto the floor where I was more vulnerable. I covered myself to block the blows, but soon, a pair of hands lifted me up, tossing me through the window beside Napalm's desktop. The glass shattered and I slammed onto the pavement in the fenced alley between our apartment and the next. I graveled in the glass for a moment before slowly picking myself off the ground. I could hear footsteps. They were coming out to continue the beat down. I was still dazed and just as I started to get my bearings, I felt the corner of a computer monitor slam against the side of my head, knocking me back to the concrete. Napalm's monitor shattered when it hit the ground.

    I felt the back of my knee give out as someone came up to kicked me from behind. This was strange. It wasn't often that regular human beings not affiliated with the Faction could get the drop on me. Something was disrupting my awareness.

    The gangsters pulled their black van into the alley as their outfit organized around of me, pulling me up on my knees to face them. The short one with frosted tips held me in a headlock while the others kept their guns trained on me. Frost's partner - the big one - got out of the van and popped the hood while his colleagues grabbed a pair of jumper cables from the back. There were two new additions to their crew now. One was an older Japanese man in a trench coat with a thick black beard and round glasses who appeared to be leading the group this time. His face looked familiar. The other was a woman around my age, dressed in all black like the rest. Her curly black hair hung past her shoulders, but her bangs curled over her eyebrows, bringing out her amber eyes. Yuko Ishikawa. It made sense now. She was the reason my awareness was off.

    I watched her glare at me with a strange curiosity that I probably imagined as I stared back at her. She gnawed at her fingernails, observing me from afar. I gave a faint smile. A second later, another fist came hurling across my lips, knocking my head back. Frosted kept me in place.

    “Stop looking at my daughter,” the Yakuza boss growled with a rocky bass in his voice. He stood over me.

    I glanced at Yuko, who didn't react, then back up at her dad. “Tell your daughter to quit looking at me.”

    “She's a big girl. She makes her own choices. You on the other hand are about to lose that luxury. $800 plus $50 in interest. Where is it?”

    “$50 in interest?!” I snapped. I wasn't afraid of these guys and I wasn't about to show it. “Who do you think I am?”

    “Who do you think I am?” the boss asked, eyeing me curiously. I didn't respond and a smile peered through his dark mane. “Kondō Ishikawa. I was named after a legendary swordsman.”

    I shrugged. “Good for you.” A thought suddenly hit me and my eyes went wide. “Wait...aren't you with the police?”

    “Commissioner actually,” Kondō declared proudly. I could see the big man connecting the cables to the van's battery up ahead. He walked the clips over to his oyabun and I understood what was happening. “I run North Star. Inside and out. Surface world and underworld. Meaning I could drag you out into the street and sever your head right in front of these apartments without any police interference. Here or thereafter.”

    “Wait, so you run the Yakuza and the police force?” I asked in a bit of shock. “You can't have both, man. That's just not fair.”

    “I can, I do, and it is.” Kondō grabbed the clips from his kobun and sparked them together in front my face. I flinched a bit from the light. The frosted gangster grasped my cheeks to force my mouth open and stuffed a dirty rag between my teeth, then he bound my wrists with a zip tie behind my back. “I'm a fair ruler. You play by the rules, you prosper. You don't and”-

    Kondō pressed the tips of the jumper cables against my temples, causing me to convulse immediately. I bit down hard on the rag, fighting back the pain coursing through me until he finally pulled them away. I panted, getting my wits together. Kondō grinned.

    “I heard you're a slippery fella. Heard Dai and Eji tried to chase you down and you pulled some Assassin's Creed shit to get away.”

    “Dai almost blew a gasket trying to chase after him,” the big guy chuckled, crossing his arms.

    “Yeah, I'm looking forward to doing in those kneecaps,” Dai, the frosted gangster said. I turned around and noticed for the first time that someone had given him the IMRA case from my room. He carried it with him, examining it. I clenched my fists. “Runaway slave style”-

    “Easy, kid,” Kondō warned playfully. “You make it about race and he'll start crying 'police brutality' on us.”

    Dai laughed and I watched him pry open the case. His expression changed to one of wonder as he rummaged through it. He pulled out a small coin-shaped device and held it close to his face. I nearly jumped up. “Don't touch that”-

    Dai pressed a button on the device and it suddenly ignited, shooting a ray of light directly into his face. He shouted when his head shot back, dropping the case, and the relaxed demeanor of the Ishikawa clan was gone. Dai wiped at the spot where the light hit him hissing in pain, but it did nothing to help. His wiping turned to frantic slapping. “Ah, what the hell?!”

    Kondō dropped the clips, then he pulled open his coat. He ripped a gun from his torso holster, pressing it against my cheek. His eyes were frenzied. “What's happening to him?!”

    “He's gonna die if I don't help him.” I said it firmly because I was genuinely concerned. I could see that they were scared. Dai was scraping at his face and when the street light hit it, we could all see the extent of the damage: Dai's face was deteriorating before our eyes. There was no blood – only a glowing red hole by the bridge of his nose, slowly expanding as his flesh began to break down around it. It wasn't long before the hole had burned through his nose and skull, causing his eye to give way under his disintegrating cheekbone. Dai let out a bloodcurdling scream. The Yakuza was horrified. “His atoms are literally collapsing! You need to let me loose!”

    Otochan!” Yuko yelled to her father nearby. She rushed past us in time to catch Dai as he fell to the ground. Kondō hesitated for a moment longer before signaling one of his men to cut the zip tie around my wrists. I jumped into action, scooping up the case and its contents until I had one of the cylindrical handle device in my grip. I twisted off its top and pressed the button on the side, spraying a large cloud of blue smoke into Dai's face. Yuko glanced back and forth between me and her father's minion, her hands shaking. The disintegration stopped and the flesh was cauterized, leaving a giant gaping hole in the middle of his face where his nose and eyes should have been. The front of his temporal lobe was almost exposed. Dai twitched neurotically, still reeling from the effects of the ray. He gasped for air.

    “Is that it?” Yuko asked. She was looking for me to heal him. I didn't have that kind of power.

    “That's all I can do for him.” I looked her in the eye. “I never meant for this to happen. I promise-”

    Kondō came up from behind, slamming the butt of his gun against my balls with a clean swoop around my shoulder. I was kneeling down beside them and the blow made me double over. I grabbed myself, seething with pain.

    “Didn't I tell you not to look at my daughter?” Kondō pulled me up by the shoulder and reared back with the gun. I was ready this time. He swung and I grasped it in mid-air. Yuko jumped up from Dai's side.

    Otochan!” she exclaimed again. Kondō stopped in his tracks and so did I. “Let me handle this.” Kondō slowly made eye contact with me. I knew he felt my hand pushing the weight of the gun back. For a brief moment, he was probably unsure which one of us was the lucky one. Kondō finally stood down and took a step back. Yuko approached me, her big brown eyes scanning my body from head to toe. I could sense her hostility. I was into it. “Your name. It's Benjamin, correct?”

    I nodded with a coy grin. “I go by Ben.”

    “Ben.” Yuko mulled the name over in her head for a moment. She sized me up again, this time with a seductive gaze. “What are you, some kind of spy?”

    “Just a science geek,” I replied, shaking my head.

    Yuko smirked. “Okay...Ben, the science geek. You stay with your friends, right? Napir, Zane, and Sean?” My grin began to fade. Yuko sensed my deflation, smiling in my place now. “Right...They're up at Great Wolf Lodge for the week, aren't they? Have they been up to the mountains before? They could get lost. Maybe my dad should send a squad car up there to check up on them. Just to be safe. Right, dad?”

    “That could be arranged.” Kondō gave a sinister smirk. Yuko reached out for his pistol and her father handed it over. He watched her proudly, crossing his arms. I probably looked like a real simp in that moment. Yuko rose the gun to my face.

    “Your debt just doubled,” she muttered spitefully. “$1,600 by next weekend or your friends will be staying in the mountains. Indefinitely.”

    I must have fucked something up, I thought. I totally misread whatever energy was there before. There was a coldness to her gaze. I recognized where it came from. I couldn't judge – I carried a darkness with me that held on just as strong. Somehow, all I could do was sympathize with her. We could have been so happy together if the world had just ended.

    Yuko seemed to sense my softened presence and reached for my hand slowly. She kept her eyes on mine, lifting it so that my fingers locked with hers. Then she glanced away for the first time, pushing her hand so that our palms were up. She examined each individual finger with her own before-

    BANG! Yuko lifted the gun, shooting right at the bottom of my pinky finger. It flew off in an instant and I jumped, crying out in agony. She stepped away as I hit the ground, blood gushing from my stub. Eji and the other men stepped over me to help carry Dai back to the van. Yuko handed the pistol back to her dad and he gave another proud smile, escorting her away. He signaled for the rest of his men to follow. I was gripping my wrist with all my might as I watched them leave.

    “You assholes have been in America too long!” I shouted as they were loading the van. The bleeding from my severed finger eventually stopped and I could see that the regeneration process was slowly beginning. “Some Yakuza you are. What happened to slicing pinkies off the old-fashioned way?”

    “The old-fashioned ways are done, Ben.” Yuko gazed back, stepping into the van after her father. They watched me writhe on the ground for a while before finally pulling off. “They were too slow. Move faster.”

    #

    Don't get me wrong. I'm as much an advocate for mental health as the next guy. Lord knows I, of all people, should have nothing against seeking psychiatric help after what I'd been through. I just personally hate therapy. Not because of the sessions themselves, but because of who was conducting them.

    Kim sighed with her face in her palm. “Ben, what have you gotten yourself into?”

    That's what I hated. That sigh of judgment. Every time she facepalmed, I wanted to do the same. Kimberly Sumato had been doing that to me for years, even before she became my therapist. I apparently inspired her to choose the career path. When we first met in high school, she wanted to be a defense attorney. Us being close friends caused her to get swept into the tornado of my life, but she happily contributed in whatever ways she could to my efforts as a hero. Deep down, I knew she was just as scared about the world coming to an end as I was, but we never talked in depth about it. Kim was the voice of reason back then, but I almost felt like she was afraid to open up to me. It was almost as if she saw me as some kind of cautionary tale that convinced her why she should keep people at a distance.

    “A shit show!” I replied, sitting up on her couch in irritation. “Of the best kind. Fuck them. They threatened my friends.”

    “Napir and the twins are your friends now?” Kim gazed through her glasses down at her clipboard. She wore a stylish, blue pant suit and her long brown hair was tied up in a bun. She was Japanese American, but had no affiliation with the local Yakuza and even lived as far away as she could from J-Town because of their reputation. “I thought they were just-” she squinted, reading, “'NPC's occupying the same Sim home.'”

    “I said I felt like they were NPC's. I didn't actually mean they were like Non-Playable Characters, that's why I said 'for lack of a better phrase.' You love trying to make me look like an asshole, don't you?”

    Kim shrugged. “I mean, you're the one who admitted you've had an urge to fight since before you started dealing with these criminals. I gave you healthy alternatives to channel your aggression.”

    “I've torn creatures apart with my bare hands, Kim,” I argued. “I'm used to free running off of skyscrapers and blasting heads off with the 88 Shockwave. I spent years channeling all of my anxieties, insecurities, and pint-up anger into that suit. Zone's punk ass taught me that.”

    Kim nodded, writing something on her clipboard. “So you admit that you consciously antagonized these criminals with little disregard for the people around you so that you could have an excuse to add danger and excitement to your post-retirement life. As well as boost your ego?”

    I rose an eyebrow. “Is that what you got from everything I said?”

    “Of course. Your behavior has been self-destructive. You know that using the suit again is only going to make you a target”-

    “They threatened my friends, Kim,” I said slowly and firmly. “I remember when you used to have my back with this sort of thing.”

    “Fighting Razakin,” She retorted. “You're talking about murdering people, Ben.”

    I rolled my eyes. “I've killed before. I murdered George Narrow.”

    “For raping your mother. It was a crime of passion.”

    I picked up the glass of water on the table between us. A myriad of Kim's achievement plaques were displayed on the walls around the room where the session took place. It felt strange realizing to be the catalyst for all this. "I shot him to pieces with an arm-mounted machine gun. I heard his last words. I tore him apart. I saw everything that made him George Narrow. They say it gets easier after the first one." I took a sip and shook my head. “I'm not going to kill all of them. Not Yuko at least. She's different. Her darkness matches mine.”

    Kim sighed again, this time pulling her glasses off to rub her face. Every time she did it, I shuffled, looking just as uncomfortable. We both had a tendency to make this an ordeal for the both of us. “Why can't you ever just be doing well? Why do you have to show up here after God knows how long and dump a whole new fresh pile of baggage at my door?”

    “I'm sorry for being such a goddamn inconvenience to your life, Kim,” I snapped. My temper was flaring. “Everyone we knew growing up is dead because I had to save the world and now I can't process my emotions correctly, but I guess it's too much to ask for you to be patient with me. I guess I'm just some case study to you. I hope you know that you've been a brick wall ever since that day I told you and Terry that I was the Genesis. No one asked you to join IMRA officially afterwards. No one asked you to look down on me with such a patronizing sense of pity that you had to dedicate your entire life to figuring out what's wrong with me. The world was gonna end. I had to do what I had to do and now I'm a fucking mess. So...” I grew flustered, tossing my hands up in defeat. I didn't know what else to say. “Sorry.”

    I was shaking with frustration. Kim softened. I wasn't like any of her other clients and she had forgotten that. I couldn't blame her. I hadn't been to one of these sessions in months.

    “I was always going to be a member of IMRA,” Kim said after a while. I finally looked back at her. “I don't know if Zone ever told you that, but he told me. Right around the time you disappeared. I was a General in the other timeline. Appointed by you. We even left Earth together after the temporal crystals were discovered. That's why I joined them in this timeline.” She pulled back her shirt collar, exposing the IMRA symbol branded on her shoulder. “You and I were always meant to have each other's backs. That's the reason I gave up my lawyer career to become a therapist. I've seen you broken three times, Ben – at the Faction base, Mexico, and the Thiasos church. Every time it happened, it did something to me to see you that way. I felt...I don't know, responsible.”

    “'Responsible'?” I said questionably. “Responsible for me?-”

    “No, just...” Kim hesitated. She laid the clipboard by her side and looked at me straight. “Your emotional well-being was crucial to saving this world. So I did what I could to help you maintain your sanity. Now that the fight is over, it's just...regardless of how it was done, the Faction, the Razakin, and every adversary you've had to face couldn't take you down and honestly, if it turns out to be the Yakuza, or even worse, your own recklessness that does you in, I'm going to feel like I failed you. The things I've seen you do defy imagination, Ben. You're a hero. I've always looked up to you. This whole city is supposed to be in ruins right now. The world is here and intact because of you. I married the love of my life and pursued a career of helping people because of you. I couldn't look down on you even if I tried. I just don't want to see you defy the impossible and save the world only to collapse under the weight of regular life. That's just...anti-climatic. There's no way being a civilian is tougher than what you've already been through. Call me crazy, but your well-being gives me hope. It always has.”

    That was the first time Kim had been that open with me in years. The two of us had seen a lot together – Kim herself had seen me at my best and at my worse. I was always a little uncomfortable around her as a result. She knew more about me than anyone else and not by my own choice. I'd completely lost my mind at one point in my life and she was integral in helping me put the pieces back together. It was a kind of intimacy I never thought I'd have in a platonic relationship. We tried dating once in our Junior year when Jessica and I were taking a break. It was only a few weeks before homecoming. It became clear that we got on each other's nerves too much to ever pursue something romantic. Our friendship was stronger than that, but unfortunately, those were our last days enjoying it from a place of comfort. The Fairbrook High Massacre took place a couple weeks later, changing both our lives forever. Terry, Zone, Kim, and I were the only survivors of the incident. Well, the three of them were. I was never present for it. In every incident she mentioned, there was a consistent factor in all of them: Kim had always been my tether back to the real world.

    “So what else have you been up to?” she asked after we sat in silence for a while. “I know you said you were thinking about dating again last time we spoke.”

    “Yeah.” I looked down. I was still insecure about the fact that I had only dated one person in my life and Kim was one of the few people who knew just how inexperienced I was with the whole dating scene in the internet age. “I met someone yesterday. Her name is Amanda.”

    Kim straightened up in her seat, looking interested. “That's great. Where did you meet her?”

    “At her apartment. She sold me weed.” Kim rolled her eyes. “It's nothing though. We just met. I don't think anything's gonna come out of it.”

    “Well not with that attitude, it's not. Tell me about her. What's she like?”

    I shrugged. “We like a lot of the same things. She's...insightful.”

    “Sounds like she could be special.” I scoffed, shaking my head. Kim honed in on it. “You don't have to be a cynic all the time, you know Ben?”

    I looked her in the eye, sitting up. “Maybe I do. You know, black people only comprise 13 percent of America's population and yet, we make up 34 percent of missing people in this country. It's a truth that comes as a result of racial and socioeconomic factors rendering black lives demonstratively less valuable than white lives in society as a whole. That's something that has gone through my mind ever since I first saw that they cast a white guy to play me in those movies. There's always been an effort to keep me silent, make me feel like my reality doesn't matter. It just...piles on this darkness I keep feeling. I don't know how to deal with. It gives me these weird thoughts.”

    “Like what?” Kim asked with some concern.

    “Like...maybe we shouldn't have changed anything. Maybe we shouldn't have gotten involved at all.”

    “You don't really believe that”-

    “The world is in a better place than it would have been, but it sure as hell isn't a better place than it has been. Look around you. There's a mass shooting every week. Most everyone in power is a scared little bigot that wants to rip the rights away from everybody that doesn't look, sound, or live like them and the Ministrata is happy to let them do it. Instead of everything coming to an end on one night, now we have to sit back and watch it die slow. It makes me feel like letting the Razakin take over would have been more merciful. I'm not saying that's true. It's just how I feel most days.”

    Kim took a moment to process my words before responding. “Well, I'm happy that you're being honest about these feelings you've been having. Admittance is the first step. I think the problem with your statement though is how easily it reflects the sentiments of the Thiasos when you think about. They worshiped the Razakin because they believed that releasing them would be a fair euthanization of physical life and that it was our destiny to fall under their infinite might because we created them. But we didn't fall. The human race has a chance to get things right this time. You gave them that. So no matter how much you want to give up on the rest of us for making rookie mistakes, you can't deny the fact that some of us are trying. Just like you are. If you want anyone to cut you some slack, you've got to cut some for the rest of us, Ben.”

    I sat back and ler her words sink in. Kim was always wise beyond her years and that was never going to change. As irritating as she was sometimes, I loved to hear her speak and that was probably why she had a way of getting through to me. She gazed down at her watch. “I hate to cut this short because I have no clue when you might decide to show up here again, but I have another appointment in ten minutes. Can you please make some time to show up for a session next week? Maybe Tuesday at 8 if you're not busy. I don't charge you, so you really have no excuse.”

    “Yeah, yeah.” I stood up to leave and Kim followed me to the door. “Next week might not be so good, depending on how this raid turns out.”

    Her shoulders dropped. She looked as if all the progress made over the past hour was being thrown out the window. “You're still going after the Yakuza?”

    I glanced back sternly as if I had no choice. “They still have my friends, Kim. I don't suppose you have a grand to help me pay them off by next Sunday, do you?”

    Kim wasn't sure how to respond. She thought for a moment and I sighed, opening the door. “Maybe I can make some arrangements”-

    I chuckled, shaking my head. I had to admire her effort to resolve issues with the least amount of collateral damage as possible. If only the situation was as gray as she made it out to be. The two of us looked at each other. I could see the ever-present concern in Kim's eyes and I was grateful for it. It was the reason I was alive and sane right now. I hugged her, then gave a soft smile and a reassuring nod. “I'm gonna kill as many of them as I can,” I said, kissing her on the forehead. “You take care of yourself.”

    I could feel her eyes on the back of my head as I left her office.
    Last edited by Onlyne; 08-02-2018 at 08:51 AM.


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  4. #4
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    Chapter 3: Exodus


    The morning of the attack, I sat inside the Tesla Ice Cream van, planning my course of action. The van was parked outside of the 25th Century Space Adventure ride on the west side of the park. There wasn't as much traffic today because it was during the week, which gave me time to download the floor plan of the Shiki No Uta Hostess Club onto my tablet and work out my method of infiltration. I didn't find enjoyment in the idea of killing the Yakuza, but I wasn't dreading it either. I'm sure it was the indifference that Kim was trying to hone in on, but I wasn't ready to pull that layer back just yet. Not until Napalm and the twins were safe. It had already been four days. I tried calling them a few times since the encounter with Yuko, but I never got a response. It only motivated me to work faster.

    It felt weird writing notes about my one-man war against a crime family over the techno version of the Mister Softee music playing in the truck. I walked up to the front and cut it off. When I returned to take my seat by the window, Zazzo suddenly peaked his head inside.

    “Boy, why you turn off that jam? I was feelin' it!” He began to dance drunkenly and I laughed. Zazzo loved sneaking in through the west entrance, which was left unchecked occasionally by its chain-smoking security guard and his tendency to sneak off for a cigarette whenever it was slow enough for him to get away with it. It wouldn't be long before someone spotted him, but I was never the first to rat him out. I enjoyed his company too much.

    “The music is off, you can stop dancing now,” I said. I continued scrolling through the 3D display of the club's blueprints, scribbling vague annotations that only I could decipher, just in case the tablet left my possession any time between now and the attack.

    “Boy, I tell ya, ya'll runnin' a madhouse in this space city or what?” Zazzo asked with his hands on his hips.

    “What do you mean?”

    “Boy, you ain't heard yet? Little white girl with pigtails fell out flat, just toppled like a' oak tree right on a family table - knocked the fries, the condiments, and her teeth all on the floor and shit, scared the bejeezus out of them poor folks. Had that girl pulled out on a stretcher, said they found mushroom traces in her blood. Not the happy, Super Mario kind neither. Poisonous.”

    I leaned up curiously. “Who was it?”

    “I 'on't know. Some Robo-waitress over on Android Hill.” Android Hill was the restaurant where Eckard said Gemma and Warren were planning something nefarious against one of the employees.

    “Do they know who did it?” I asked.

    “Yeah, this couple said it was some girl name' Julia, 'nother Robo-waitress. They took her in the back, fired her on the spot. Had her escorted out to a squad car in tears. Face covered in mascara. I 'on't know how them young ladies be walking around with all that ink in them eyes – how they even put that shit on? I can't put nothing close to my eye, I'll stab myself so quick”-

    “How did you find out about all of this?”

    “Oh, I seen it all from the employee building in the back,” he muttered, grinning widely. His yellow teeth shined through his scraggly beard. “Through the fence. Watched the whole thing go down. That girl Julia going away for a long time, that's for damn sure.”

    Something about this didn't sit right with me. I usually tried to distance myself from any drama between park employees, but this was something different. If the wrong person crossed those two, they were bound to frame someone else. This place just became less tolerable.

    “Aye, but I tell you, that ain't even the worse to come, you hear?” Zazzo leaned into the van again. This time he was so close, it almost appeared as if he were trying to climb inside. “It's gon' be a supernatural attack! Ya'll need to be getting ready. I told you about them visions I saw. You still 'sposed to meet”-

    “I know, the werewolf lady,” I replied, sighing. “I'm still on the look out, man.”

    “Okay, 'cause, I know you got the sauce, my man, and on the real, I'm shaking in my sneaks 'cause this”-

    “Hey!” I heard someone shout from behind the van, slightly out of view behind the window. Zazzo took off in the middle of his sentence, sprinting from the van like his life was in danger. A security guard chased him and I watched them head through the “Alien Forest” pathway up ahead until they were out of sight. I chuckled, ready to get back to work when I spotted a kid standing alone next to a pole and a sitting area directly on the path. He couldn't have been older than five years. His red hair and freckled face stood out and so did his Ben Fury t-shirt and shorts. The security guard must not have seen him. The little boy was bound by a child leash which was wrapped around the pole like a dog left outside while his owner went browsing through one of the stores. If it were anywhere else but Avery Station, I wouldn't have believed it. This job really knew how to test my faith in humanity.

    I stepped out of the van through the back and headed over to the boy, examining the area for any sign of his parents. “Hey!” I greeted cheerfully, kneeling down to him. “Where's your mommy and daddy?” The kid didn't answer and instead, gnawed at his fingers shyly, his eyes glued to my shoes. I unwrapped the leash from the pole and patted him on the back, leading him back over to the van so I could keep an eye on him until I could flag down another security guard. I didn't feel comfortable holding him by the leash, so I bunched it up and shoved the ropes into his pocket to keep it out of the way. He held my hand on the way over. “I have to get back in the van, okay?” I told him, gesturing at the window. “Stay in front here so I can keep an eye on you.” The boy didn't respond, inspecting the van quietly as he approached it. I climbed back inside and leaned out of the window with a bored sigh. “What's your name, kid?”

    The boy hesitated, still sucking on his fingers and staring up at me with puppy dog eyes. “...Andre.”

    “Andre...” I repeated. “Little white kid named Andre. That's new.”

    “'Andre' is Italian!” the boy called.

    I drew back, but smirked. “Well, excuse me. I didn't know there were Italian gingers. My bad.” I got an idea and went to the back to pull a blue popsicle out from the freezer. When I came back to hand it to him, another customer approached the window.

    “Hey!” the guest greeted, stepping up to the van. I was caught off-guard in an instant – it was Amanda, dressed in normal clothes now and looking vibrant as she stepped into the shade of the massive roller coaster overlooking our side of the park. If I hadn't thought she was pretty before, she was absolutely gorgeous now. She hadn't been wearing make-up the first time we met and I didn't even notice until now, seeing her dolled up with her curly hair down to her shoulders, accented with teal highlights. She was dressed in a blue top, torn skinny jeans, and sneakers. She took in the battery-shaped body of Ice Cream van when she walked up. “This is way cooler than what I saw in my head.”

    “I totally expected you to say the opposite, so I appreciate that,” I grinned, waving. I tried to keep my cool. “How's it going?”

    “Solid. Just...hanging out.” Amanda shuffled around and for the first time, she appeared a little anxious as if she was unsure why she was here. She waved at Andre, who was still enjoying his popsicle. “Hey buddy! What's your name?”

    “Andre.”

    “He's Italian,” I whispered. Amanda looked confused, but went along with it.

    “That's pretty cool!” She knelt down to face him. “You know any Italian, Andre?”

    “I'm not Italian,” Andre said with a bit of attitude. Amanda and I exchanged curious looks. “I said my name is Italian. Pay attention.”

    Now the two of us were withdrawing in surprise. We looked at each other and laughed. Andre started glaring, but he was so adorable that it only added to our joy. “This kid is going places,” Amanda said.

    “Absolutely.” A brief moment passed and Amanda continued to loiter for a minute longer. I decided to take advantage of it. “So what brings you to Avery Station today? I thought you were a homebody.”

    “Yeah, sometimes I like to come out of my cave so I don't end up evolving beyond the need for eye sight and stuff. You know how it is.”

    “Of course. Gotta stay ahead of the curve.” And that was it. Now I was out of things to talk about again. Amanda leaned up against the van beside the window and pulled out her phone, scrolling through. With nothing else to contribute, I scooped up my tablet and started scrolling through the floor plans absentmindedly, waiting for something else to happen. Amanda was hesitating hardcore with whatever she was here for, but I wasn't going to send her away. Whatever happened to be on her mind, I was patient to hear it. Andre looked back and forth between us, his lips and teeth dyed blue by his freezer pop.

    “You guys are weird,” the boy said with a disgusted tone. He was twisting the last of the popsicle around his lips, judging us with his gaze. The comment seemed to jog Amanda out of her apprehension when she noticed the shirt that Andre was wearing.

    “Cool shirt, bro!” she complimented. “Where did you get it?”

    “Wal-Mart!” he answered with enthusiasm. “I love Ben Fury!

    “I do too! Have you seen the new movie?” The boy nodded his head. “Well don't spoil it for me 'cause I'm seeing it tonight, okay?” Andre nodded again and Amanda chuckled, turning back to me. “Is it ever weird for you having a movie with your first name in it?”

    “You have no idea,” I laughed.

    “I can only imagine – I completely avoided The Amanda Show as a kid because of that. It's just weird. I react every time I hear it. Kids couldn't shut up about it at school.”

    “That's funny. It's like when you hear your voice on your voicemail and you start to wonder if you should seek medical help because of how bad it sounds.”

    “Exactly!” Amanda gave one of her contagious, hearty laughs. Rarely would I ever consider myself charming, but something about her put me at ease. She was easy to talk to and joke with. Amanda was suddenly comfortable again and leaned into the window. She looked me in the eye. “Hey, I've actually got an extra ticket if you're not doing anything tonight. I know you said you were into GC Studios and what not...”

    In any other situation, I would have said no but there was no way that was going to happen now, given how fast I got lost in her eyes when she asked me. It almost didn't register at first. Did she just ask me out? I thought women were usually afraid to make the first move. Now it was clear why she had been lingering about, working up the courage for this. I understood the effort. It was bold. I had heard there were guys who were turned off by the forwardness of a girl asking them out, but that sure as hell wasn't me. It's not like my pickings were bountiful. As much as I complained about my non-existent love life, I wasn't about to turn down a girl this beautiful who also shared my geek and pothead sensibilities all wrapped in a warm, carefree personality. Especially not if she was interested too. I'd sit through my own fake, whitewashed biopic for that.

    “Yeah, that sounds...” I stopped in my tracks, staring down at the tablet lying face up in my seat. I'd nearly forgotten just that fast. I still had two more days before the Yakuza were expecting payment. I could knock out this mini-date thing or whatever we were labeling it and then go handle business tomorrow. I returned her eye contact. “That sounds pretty dope actually. I'd be up for that. I mean, I'm not doing anything tonight.”

    “Cool!” Amanda said with more enthusiasm than before. Her awkwardness was replaced with a wave of relief and she smiled brightly. I melted every time. “We can hang out and smoke afterwards. Should be fun!”

    “Oooh!” Andre said, pointing at the two of us. “I'm telling! You guys do drugs!”

    Amanda studied the little boy, chuckling. “Who is this kid?”

    I laughed again, climbing out once more and circling around to meet the two. I held out my hand for Andre to take. “Let's go find your parents, little man.”

    #

    I was pretty conflicted. A part of me wanted tonight to be a success and for Amanda to enjoy herself enough to want to see me again or even - if she was into it - spend the night at my place. That was shooting for the moon though. I was okay with things moving slow as long as they moved at all, but another part of me wanted the night to end sooner rather than later so there would still be a chance to initiate my assault on Shiki No Uta later tonight.

    Just in case that option was still on the table, I stepped into the moon base and retrieved the X-Buckle from its display. I covered the apartment with sage and other spiritual herbs from a Holistic shop outside of the amusement park. This time there was no visit from Ministrata agents, but Remi and Arthur were the only two ever assigned to observe my goings on and since they had apparently been transferred to the Faction, there was a likelihood that I had finally been taken off of the suspects list for the theft of “Item B” A.K.A. the X-Buckle from the Faction facility in Ontario. Obviously, I had nothing to do with that.

    Like the G-Watch that came before it, the X-Buckle had an incognito setting that transformed it from the high-tech belt buckle with activation triggers to an inconspicuous silver emblem that I hid with my red V-neck t-shirt so it wouldn't make me look like some kind of cowboy. I wore a pair of dark blue chinos and a cap, stepping out of the apartment oozing with confidence. Half the battle was already won – It was clear that Amanda was romantically interested, so all the heavy lifting was done. All I had to do was be myself and let the night play out smoothly. I'd focus on the aftermath once we were ready to cross that bridge.

    I took the subway to the same theater I went to with Napalm and the girls. I realized at the last minute that I was going to be putting my money into this franchise after all, but once I approached the glowing entrance and spotted Amanda looking magnificent as she waited by the wall, I stopped caring as much. Even sitting through the movie itself wasn't as grueling as I expected and I managed to get through the mediocre finale unscathed. Amanda seemed disappointed by the film's ending which depicted Ben fighting and defeating the love of his life to bury the “cosmic cancer” beneath the Earth for good. We spoke about it in the lobby afterwards, discussing how the film seemed to end as if the story wasn't truly finished. Because the cosmic cancer couldn't be defeated completely, there was always room for another sequel, she explained. God, I hope not, I thought.

    I realized that my reluctance to discuss the movie must have been apparent because Amanda changed the subject a few minutes after we left the theater. Our next stop was the Quantum Realm Laser Tag arena a block from the theater, which we stumbled upon on our walk to the nearby park. It sounded like an attraction from Avery Station. Amanda suggested we check it out and I got to put my tactical skills to the test. I sensed that Amanda had a competitive nature to her, which was confirmed when we put on our glow-in-the dark vests and stepped out into the arena with a bunch of kids and teens, going to war on the fluorescent 90's neon battlefield. We took no mercy on the weak peasants. When Amanda wasn't around, I let loose – vaulting off of walls and flipping through the air like a mad ninja, spraying infrared death at every target that crossed my path. Nostalgia, adrenaline, and that good ol' Fortigen juice were the ingredients pumping through my veins, strengthening my focus in my every move. I was taking things way too seriously, but so was Amanda. I watched her sprint down the hallways of the maze, laughing maniacally and waving her blaster at a pair of eight year olds. She took as much pleasure in crushing their dreams as I did.

    After our twenty-minute session, our vests began to flash and blare, notifying us that the game was over. We filed out into the lobby to check the scoreboard on the player screen. I was at the top with 48 hits and zero deaths. Amanda was ranked second with 25 hits and three deaths. The scores under hers were closer in range. Amanda looked to me with her jaw hanging.

    “Dude, you're a beast!” she laughed, hitting my arm.

    “It's crazy,” I said, shaking my head at the score. “I was 14 the last time I played laser tag and I was at the bottom of the scoreboard.”

    “Were you in the military or something?” she asked. We started walking off and I hesitated. In a manner of speaking, the answer was yes, but I couldn't tell her that I literally enlisted the next year and that the military in question was a resistance movement from the future. Well, actually...

    “Yeah, I enlisted the next year. I joined the Mercenaries to help fight the cosmic cancer.” Amanda flinched at first as if she was ready to believe me, but then she shook her head and laughed, shoving me again. So far, she seemed to be having a blast and so was I. I asked the manager behind the desk if they had a prize for first place, but all I got was a “#1 Good Job” sticker, which I wore on my t-shirt proudly because why the fuck not. Amanda took a selfie of the two of us, pointing at the sticker with envy.

    Cobalt Park was within walking distance. The trail that led through the park's forest gave us enough privacy to light up a joint and get a quick buzz before we hit up a local Bar and Grill to grab something to eat. Amanda admitted that she had smoked before arriving at the theater. I didn't because I wanted to make sure I was sober when we linked up. That visit from the Yakuza made smoking a chore. I was paranoid most of the time and couldn't stop worrying about Napalm and the twins, which only made me more furious and bloodthirsty. At least with the Yakuza out of the way, I wouldn't have to worry about retaliation. For now though, the herbs would help me relax, which wasn't hard considering how much Amanda and I were enjoying each other's company. We were quiet for the rest of the smoking session and I caught her staring out of the corner of my eye a few times.

    That's when something very minor suddenly threw the night into disarray. Amanda took out her phone and started surfing through it to play some music while we walked through the forest. I was on board until she made her selection and it started to play: “Shy” by Leon Bridges. Of all the artists she could have chosen, Amanda picked the guy I had just been listening to the night after we met. “You a fan of Leon Bridges?”

    “Sure,” I said, withdrawing some. Something wasn't right. There was no way this was some kind of fateful connection – I didn't operate in a world where romance played out that way. It actually hurt. Here I was thinking all the pieces were falling into place and the two of us were really hitting it off and now all I could do was doubt her every move, watching her close her eyes and sway to the music like it was her favorite song. We took a seat by a picnic table and I watched her dance under the pines, gazing back at me with a lustful smile that I desperately wanted to feed into, but my suspicions weren't letting it sink in. This sucks, I thought. There was a chance I was being paranoid. She was certainly hipster enough to have a genuine, coincidental appreciation for an indie soul artist that I happened to also enjoy. Or the Ministrata could have bugged my apartment during Remi and Arthur's little visit a week ago. I couldn't escape the thought and it was ruining our date night. Or whatever this was supposed to be.

    Everything reached a head once we stepped into the bar. Snappy's Diner Bar and Grill was fairly empty when we entered, so it was easy to scope out the place. Only a handful of people were present. We were in the clear. We took a seat on the stools by the bar and waited to have our orders taken. A small Open Mic event was being hosted by a middle-aged DJ in the middle of the floor but no one was paying attention to the folks taking the stage, singing drunken show tunes over the constant feedback of the mic. We took our seats at the bar and ordered our food. I did more people watching than anything throughout our meal. Once we were finished, the Open Mic seemed to be coming to a close.

    “You okay?” Amanda asked after the last of our last refills arrived. She must have sensed that my enthusiasm from earlier had dissipated. My eyes were focused on the people in the restaurant. “You look like you're zoning in and out.”

    “Yeah, sorry,” I said, shaking my head. “ I just got distracted.”

    She glanced down at her drink. “I must have said something stupid. I have the tendency to do that.”

    “No, no, you're fine, it's just...a lot of wild stuff has been going on lately.” I scratched the back of my head, hesitating. “Finding it hard to trust people nowadays.”

    Amanda nodded, but I couldn't tell if my comment tipped her off or not. “You're right. I have something to confess.” I rose an eyebrow. She shrugged. “I really am a weirdo.”

    “Ah, so you do like watching gorillas have sex”-

    “Not that kind of weirdo, smart ass!” she laughed, taking a sip of her Heineken. “What I meant was...I came to North Star for a specific reason. A weird one.”

    “Is that so?” The second I turned to look at her, I spotted two uniformed police officers stepping into the bar. I kept them in my peripheral view and saw them split up, one heading to the bathroom on the left side and the other making his way to the end of the bar. I could still smell the marijuana on us faintly, but hoped that it wasn't too strong or at the very least, Amanda didn't have any more on her person. She was a weed dealer though, so that probably wasn't likely. She didn't seem bothered by their presence.

    “Do you...” Amanda hesitated. “Do you believe in the supernatural?”

    I gave her a cautious look. “To a degree. Are we talking ghosts and stuff or something more?”

    “More. How much do you know about ESP?”

    “Don't tell me you're a psychic or something,” I chuckled humorlessly, shaking my head. I know she probably thought I was joking, but if she was serious, I was going to flip a table. Working under Zone and IMRA, I did learn that the Razakin and their dimension were just one cataclysmic component in an infinite community of astral realms that were home to many different cosmic beings who interacted with our reality on occasion. The physical universe, Earth in particular, was a playground to them. They played with human lives for fun even more than the Ministrata did and I wanted nothing to do with any of that. I was over being treated like a chess piece in a game I had no stake in.

    “No, no, of course not,” Amanda said, shaking her head. I could tell that she was really struggling with this. “I do have something I need to get off my chest though...”

    Unfortunately, I wasn't paying attention anymore. My eyes were scanning the room, zoning in on the cop sitting at the end of the bar with his drink. He watched us from the corner of his eye. There was another man sitting in one of the booths by the bathroom. He was Japanese, wearing a suit and reading a newspaper discreetly like I didn't notice how rare it was to be reading a newspaper in the age of the smartphone. I caught him glancing up, making eye contact. He smirked.

    I glanced behind me. The cop at the end of the bar looked away just in time, but I caught him staring too. The cop that entered the bathroom returned, strolling down the aisles slowly. I noticed in that moment that the rest of the bar had cleared out for the night including the bartender and the DJ, who's audio system had been left behind playing Mack Morrison's “Return of the Mack” on loop. The second cop was staring in my direction as well. The walls were closing in.

    “Are you setting me up?” I asked sternly, looking Amanda in the eye. She drew back in surprise.

    “What now?”

    “Are you setting me up?!” I repeated louder this time. I hopped off of the bar stool and backed away from her, scoping the room to get my bearings. My paranoia was taking over, but I was counting on it this time. They should have brought more men if they wanted to take me out like this. What a cheap move. “How did you know I liked Leon Bridges, huh? Did you bug my apartment?”

    Amanda looked thrown for a loop. “What are you talking about?! I thought I was the weirdo”-

    “Shut up!” I snapped, pointing at her. The jig was up. The cop at the end of the bar stood up with caution, eyeing me before making his way over. The second cop did the same and the Japanese man stood to his feet, staring over just as curious. I was ready for them. “You guys must think I'm some kind of pussy if this was the best you could do. Time to meet God.”

    I didn't have to think about it. When I looked down, the buckle instinctively took on its X-format, the triggers clicking outward from the belt for my use. I pulled them out, wrapping the light rays around my fists, then crossed them over my arms until the energy waves that expanded from them sculpted over my body. A sense of comfort (and sobriety) washed over me and for the first time ever, I was brought back to my senses by it just in time to see the flabbergasted expression plastered on Amanda's overwhelmed face. The black, gray, and neon green armor materialized. She shook her head like a cartoon, tossing up her hands.

    “Holy shit!” She shouted at the top of her lungs. It was a genuine reaction and I could see it in her eyes. She nearly stumbled back on the stool as she got to her feet, backing away from me. Oh crap, I thought, gazing around. Did I really just fuck this whole thing up?

    The answer was no, because the second the Exodus suit was on, the men jumped into action. The Yakuza hopped up from his booth, pointing in my direction with wide, bewildered eyes. “Tokusatsu!” The cops pulled out their guns on command and started firing. Of course they were in league together, I thought. They shared the same boss. As soon as the bullets started flying, I scooped Amanda into my grasp and conjured an energy shield on either side of us from my wrist-mounted projectors. The impact created a loud, otherworldly reverb that shook the bar with each shot. Amanda clung to my armor to shield herself from the gunfire. She was frightened out of her mind. If I let something happen to her at this point, I would surely be to blame.

    The second that the cop at the end of the bar stopped to reload, I activated an X-shaped drone that ejected from the bottom of my wrist and spun it out like a boomerang. The drone cut through the air at lightning speed and sliced through the officer's hand. His gun and several fingers dropped to the floor. I could control the drone's movements from the suit's interface and swung it back to the other side of the room where the last cop and his Yakuza boss were standing. In the same motion, I pulled Amanda towards the entrance, diving behind one of the booths before switching the drone to explosive mode. The drone embedded itself into the floor right beside the two men who gazed at it curiously before it ignited, blasting them to pieces. The windows of the dive bar shattered and the building shook underneath us. I checked to make sure Amanda was all right.

    “Jesus, man!” she exclaimed next to me, baffled by the level of violence that seemed to spike out of no where. “You couldn't just tranquilize them or something?!”

    “This suit wasn't made to play nice!” I shouted over the constant crashing of debris from parts of the diner where the infrastructure was coming loose. I was panting hard, overwhelmed by the chaos as well, but of course there was pleasure to be found in it on my end. I was finally back. Kind of. The Fortigen and adrenaline were flowing freely now.

    I peered out through the shattered door and stood, grabbing Amanda's hand. I went into my suit's inventory and ejected a small bandage from the center of the IMRA buckle, then ripped it off and slapped it onto her forehead. She grabbed for it. “Don't pick at it!”

    “What is it?!” she asked frantically.

    “It'll keep you safe! We have to go!”

    The second we stepped out into the bar's empty parking lot, there were gunmen on us again. It looked like the block had been evacuated and only soldiers remained. Kondō wasn't kidding when he said he controlled this city inside and out. There were officers of the law fighting alongside professional criminals, their guns drawn and firing in our direction when we sprinted out. They were using their squad cars and vehicles parked across the street as cover. He sent a whole brigade after me. That atomic collapser grenade must have left a hell of an impression for this type of display. I guessed Kondō felt like his daughter's warnings were too light a punishment after what happened to his henchman.

    The block was lit up with gunfire from all sides. Amanda tossed up her hands, but I was already sprinting forward. She flinched back as the bullets ricocheted off of the force field materializing in front of her. It knocked her onto her back and she scurried away from the gunfire, even though she was protected. I glanced up at the gunmen as I walked into their bullets. I could see them glancing at one another, looking panicked. The suit was built to take down supernatural predators with abnormal strength and an impulse for consumption equal to all of humanity's packed into one. It was made to withstand the overwhelming force that destroyed all of humanity in a forgotten timeline. If bullets couldn't take them down, they sure as hell wouldn't effect me. I hadn't felt power like this in years.

    Two ports opened around my wrist, firing off puffs of exhaust with a blue glow that permeated around my arm. The ports suddenly began to spin clockwise around the wrist, emitting a blue mist of concentrated sound waves that intensified gradually the faster they rotated. The Sliders in my boots activated and I zipped several feet across the concrete in an instant, leaving a trail of dust behind me. The gunmen reacted a second later, astonished but never letting up on their triggers in hopes that one might pierce through the right crevice. The dash sent several bullets flying back at them, hitting a few. As they began to dive for cover, I flipped through the air with the momentum of the slide and smashed my charging fist into the street, sending a shock wave out towards the parked cars that Kondō's soldiers cowered behind. Back when I was doing this full time, I called it the Exodus Punch. The fact that I named my attacks back then showed my optimism towards saving the world and strengthened my cynicism when I saw the movies emulating it years later. It was only cool when I did it.

    I watched the shock wave knock the men to the ground. The force caused the vehicles to topple over some. The punch itself catapulted me into the air where I got a good view of the remaining gunmen on the block. An abandoned parking lot stretched out behind them, separated by metal fences that were pulled from the ground by the blast. There were still plenty left and they were backing out from their cover, holding their guns up to the sky. I targeted each of them and spun out dozens of X-Drones left and right with expert precision, raining a monsoon of shuriken down onto each and every gunman who stood out in the open on the block. They fell in an instant and the bloodshed was much more gruesome than I expected when I strategized it in my head, but the moment I flipped and landed back onto my feet behind the cars, none of them got back up to continue the fight.

    The last few men fled into the empty parking lot in front of us, stumbling over the toppled fences. I activated the Sliders again and the spinning X-shaped propellers in my boots dug into the ground, shooting me forward after them. A pair of arm-mounted blades protruded from my forearms, allowing me to sliced through them as I skated by. With each dash, I skidded to a stop and shot off again, taking out every last cop and/or Yakuza thug until they were all lying in pools of their own blood and limbs. My suit was drenched in the stuff. I had to boil it off with the suit's cleaning function. Damn. This was not as fun as I thought it was gonna be. But at least it was taken care of.

    I slid back to the bar, skidding to a stop in front of Amanda who was lying up against the wall by the entrance in a daze. She watched the entire thing play out right before her eyes, which was probably an even bigger deal than it would have been had she not just seen something similar occur on a movie screen in Make-Believe Land where none of it could hurt her. The entire fight must have lasted only ten or twenty seconds, if that. She glanced up when I approached.

    “I have a safe house a few blocks from here where we can lay low,” I offered. “The subway is right around the corner. Let's go.”

    Amanda hesitated, gulping and eyeing my armor with caution. The visor lifted and my helmet folded back into the suit to reveal my face so that she knew I was still human. I reached my hand out. Amanda backed away from it slightly, but soon she relented, grabbing my armored hand. “I know this is pretty crazy, but there are more on”-

    “Let's just go.” She got to her feet and hustled past me, strutting across the bar's front parking lot which was in total shambles from the gunfire. I followed behind her and we rounded the corner, taking a set of steps down into the subway station. My helmet reformed over my face as we waited for the train to arrive and I could feel Amanda staring me down like I somehow didn't belong in this reality anymore. It wasn't a judging gaze. She was just afraid. It was understandable.

    “So uh...” I started, trying to ease the tension. “What was it you wanted to get off your chest? Since, you know...all the cards are on the table-”

    “Later.” Amanda swallowed nervously, unable to look at me. She reached up to touch the shielding bandage on her forehead, but stopped for fear that it would stop working when she needed it most. I felt bad. I had dragged her into this mess without even realizing it, thinking she was a part of it all. I still had the feeling that she knew more than she let on, but as of right now, I had to take this L and make sure I didn't make it any worse. The train arrived and we stepped on. Only a few passengers occupied the car we entered. Some were staring at my armor curiously while the older folks rolled their eyes, minding their business. We held on to a pole and stood together awkwardly, waiting to reach Holster Street where the Melbourne Commons were located. A young skater kid sat by the subway doors, quietly admiring the suit.

    “Nice cosplay, bro,” he complimented. I nodded gratefully, but didn't say anything. Amanda's eyes were glued to me the entire time. I tried not to stare back, but my visor hid my eyes so I was tempted to look back. Maybe this needed to happen. If Amanda really was the one, it'd be best for her to learn about this as quickly as possible so she knew what she was getting into. Perhaps she'll grow to accept it in time, I hoped deeply. I tried not to focus on it too much. The most important thing right now was keeping her safe.

    “You look like a Fortnite Omega skin.” She said it so lightly that I almost didn't notice. I glanced up and saw her give a conservative smile.

    “How specific.” My laugh crackled through the helmet's speaker, but I doubt she could hear it over the rumble of the train. At least she was lighting up a bit.

    We got off at Holster Street and stepped out onto the platform. I looked down either side and saw that it was empty – except for the small gang of Japanese gangsters that stepped off of the train with us a few feet down. I signaled for Amanda to run and she left my side in a hurry, sprinting up the steps to the street. The train continued down the tunnel and I watched the four men step out towards the center of the platform, dressed in all black with their tattoos visible. I met their gaze across it. I recognized their leader – he was one of the goons that stomped me out the night they broke into my apartment. He was a tall, slim man with a long vertical face and an Adam's apple that poked through the skin of his neck like a pitched tent. His hair was slicked back and his voice was deep enough to echo throughout the subway station.

    “Tokusatsu!” the man said playfully. He strolled in my direction. “So the Metalmen Legends are true after all, huh? And here I thought it was Kondō being his usual paranoid self.”

    My ears perked. “What does Kondō know about me?”

    “Oh, he fought one of you Super Sentai punks back in '96, when he was just a crooked little beat cop. Nearly got the life beat out of him. He always told us not to believe that viral movie nonsense. All those fights that made the news a while back - 'The Genesis'. He said it was all real. I had to see it to believe it. After we take out you and the girl”-

    A cannon suddenly formed over my wrist and I aimed it at the three men standing around the talkative one. I fired beams of collapser plasma at their faces and they melted into tiny puddles of primordial fluid in only a matter of seconds, much quicker than Dai's disintegration. The leader did a double take on either side of him, watching his men's atoms collapse in a molten flurry before he knew what was happening. When he looked forward again, I had dashed up within an inch of his face, grasping his windpipe like a foam pool noodle. His face went blue in an instant.

    “What does the girl have to do with this?!” I shouted angrily. “Is Kondō with the Ministrata?”

    “Mini...what?” he croaked with a duck voice.

    “Who does he answer to?!”

    The Yakuza wriggled his neck to get his voice box loose. “Kondō works for nobody but himself. He had internal...affairs agents assassinated...Threatened a few politicians' kids. They stopped bothering him. He controls crime in this city. It helps him keep the place safe.”

    “As long as he's running the gun and drug trade, right?” I growled. “Why does he want the girl dead? Is someone putting him up to this?”

    The Yakuza twisted a smirk onto his pale face, suddenly unfazed by the pressure on his throat. His speech was still strained. “Ask him yourself when he strings your ass up. You're smoking rocks if you think Kondō's gonna bow to a friggin' Power Ranger. Disintegrate me all you want. I wanted to be cremated anyhow.”

    The wails of the tracks signaled the arrival of another train. I glanced up and saw the lights growing brighter in the tunnel ahead, then I looked back at the Yakuza, tightening my grip on his neck. “I guess we're done here.”

    I tossed him like a ragdoll and the man flew off of the platform, smacking against the steel of the tracks with a sickening thud. I was already heading for the stairs by the time the train entered the station. So many years of fighting faceless enemies and enhanced psychopaths was causing me to build up a tolerance for this kind of violence, even if they were human. It truly was getting easier. Was I losing myself? After all these years, I had to wonder if I even had much “self” left to lose.

    When I approached the final flight of steps leading up to Holster Street, a confounding sight stopped me dead in my tracks. Blood was trickling down the yellow paint of the concrete, spilling down the steps from the open entrance to where I stood. I sprinted up the steps and saw the body it came from. It was Amanda. She was lying on her back and holding her throat, her face going pale with blood gushing out between her fingers. The shielding bandage on her forehead was gone. I collapsed over her, holding her face in a panic.

    “No, no, no, no, this isn't happening.” The streets were empty and a row of streetlights illuminated the quiet neighborhood. My apartment complex was right across the street from here. We were so close. Amanda gazed up at me, gasping for breath. I held her hand to keep her company. “You're gonna be okay”-

    Amanda slapped my hand away and pointed behind me. I was confused. When I turned around, my heart sank into my stomach and my body went cold. That almost never happened in the suit. A chill travel from my vertebrae to my tailbone like a roller coaster. I clenched my fists, glaring at the silhouetted creature snarling at me under the streetlight a few feet down the sidewalk. The zombified husk was nearly skin and bone as its dry, rattled breath filled the silence. It's dead eyes pierced through the darkness, glaring at me with its massive claws drawn, dripping with Amanda's blood. The raspy breath turned into a snarl, then a full-on roar as the Razakin sprinted on all fours, it's humanoid form contorting and leaping great distances to reach me.

    The moment it was close enough, I jabbed the Exodus Blade into its abdomen. The roar stopped at once and I swung the creature off of my arm, flinging it down the sidewalk in the opposite direction. It's blood splattered against the pavement. I hadn't seen one of them since the night we took out the Thiasos church and locked the monsters away in their realm for good. Folks had been releasing them from their prison in spurts for centuries, but the Razakin threat didn't escalate until the 2000's when their sightings became most frequent due to their controlled release facilitated by the cult in secret. Now, for the first time, I had confirmation that my job still wasn't over.

    Or so I thought. When I glanced back at the husk I disposed of, I realized that it wasn't a husk at all. It was a man - another Japanese fellow in black, holding a switchblade and covered in blood thanks to the disemboweling I'd just executed. It took a moment for me to realize that I'd imagined the creature from my dreams, but my relief was short lived. Amanda reached up, grasping at my armor. I could tell that she was slipping away. I took a deep breath and kept my composure, leaning down to pick her up. There was still time to save her.

    #

    The stress was back and heavier than ever now.

    I didn't know where to go from here. I rushed Amanda back to my apartment and didn't have time to smudge the area before opening the wormhole to the moon base. I would have to deal with the consequences later. Once inside, I managed to get her stable by locking her in a cryogenic pod in the med bay. It was designed to immediately stabilize any organism in critical condition. That was the most I could do for her as of now. This base was constructed with a combination of my father, Martin Blake's “meta-tech,” the advanced technology powered and perfected with occult sciences outlawed by the Ministrata, and IMRA's modified version of the same tech that was used to power their weaponry and the savior suits in the future. When we were using it as a base during our time working under the Faction, Zone patched me, a few others, and even himself up from near fatal injuries in the med bay plenty of times between missions. I didn't have any of that expertise – Michael Zone, however, was once a tech genius in the society he came from. He knew his way around all of IMRA's technology and not only was he good with the hardware and medicine, but he was a master investigator. He always seemed to know everything we needed to know about saving the world from the Razakin threat and if he didn't, he would take the necessary steps to acquire that information. That is until that drive left him.

    The entire Zone Family served under IMRA in the old timeline. When his brother and last blood relative was killed in battle, he was promoted from Field Tech to Temporal Agent assigned to the most sensitive mission in the history of human intelligence – pose as a high school science teacher at Fairbrook High and bait the future founder of the resistance into becoming the savior of mankind ahead of schedule. Because it wasn't like I had a choice. I admit that my animosity towards that fact was part of what caused a rift between the two of us in later years. Zone's life hadn't panned out the way he'd hoped in the two decades he spent here. He was an excellent mentor the first few years I knew him, but that was because his cover was all he knew life to be once he got here. What I mean is – Zone grew up in the apocalypse. There was no civilization where he came from. From birth, all resources went to the fight for survival. That was all they knew and he was only trained in how to adapt to 21st Century society for about six months before being placed here.

    As a result, the triple whammy of the Fairbrook Massacre and the fall of IMRA set his life completely off-course. We were so close back then that I gave him my blessing to date my mother. When she was killed in the massacre, he took it just as hard as I did. His only job was gone, but he could at least focus on his work with the IMRA Intelligence Unit that was hiding in our timeline as a support team against the Ministrata and their efforts to take control of the situation. Then that rug was pulled from under us as well. After a brief period of little Razakin activity, a massive resurgence occurred in the old timeline, devastating every stronghold in the country until the main headquarters in Kingdom City fell. I remember watching it all unfold on the monitors of the secret compound with everyone. That was the beginning of the end for Zone.

    The wave of apocalyptic refugees that traveled here with what remained of the temporal crystals overwhelmed the Unit's resources. I was still recovering from the trauma of the massacre. Maybe that was a flimsy excuse after all, but I ended up leaving the conflict behind all together for a time and traveling the world to find myself. I had already been destroyed by the madness once already and I couldn't take any more of it. When Zone and I were forced to work for the Faction years later, I learned that the Ministrata took advantage of Present IMRA's distractions and conducted an attack on the compound. Many were killed, others scattered and were never heard from again. Some, like Arthur Pichot, put all their chips on the winning side, but Zone decided to leave it all behind and try to continue the fight on his own. Because of his lack of experience in a stable society, he crashed and burned almost immediately. When we reconnected, he wasn't taking care of himself. He was doing hard drugs as early as my mother's passing, but then it got worse. The Faction was forcing him to undergo sex addiction classes, as he had begun to drown himself in his vices to cope with losing the war and being stranded in an era of consumption that allowed him to chase his pain away freely.

    It wasn't until I learned that he was earning his living selling off IMRA gadgets and weaponry on the black market and the dark web that our relationship deteriorated. When he refused to be accountable for his irresponsibility, I lost all respect for him and eventually let it be known, calling his integrity into question. He lashed out, blaming me for the fall of IMRA in my absence, and admitted that he gave my location up to the Faction which was what led to my indentured servitude alongside him. Before long, things got physical. We were forced to work together for a few more weeks until the Razakin threat was finally neutralized and then we went our separate ways. I couldn't remember the last time we had a candid conversation that wasn't either related to a mission or a constant exchange of insults. And now here I was with a dying girl's blood on my hands with no knowledge of how to use this leftover technology to save her. I needed him.

    After keeping watch outside my apartment for several hours, I set a few boobie traps on the outside of the pocket dimension's entrance. So far, it seemed as if the hunt had been called off, otherwise Kondō's men or the Ministrata would be headed straight here to finish the job. Once enough time passed without activity, I tracked Michael Zone down to the Section 8 Projects on North Star's outskirts where the futuristic architecture ended and the usual snapshot of American poverty was left in its place. It was almost dawn, but I wasn't going to get any sleep tonight. I had to go out and find him.

    An hour later, I entered the parking lot of the Aceland Project building where he was apparently staying - according to his tracker, he was at least somewhere in the vicinity. I passed a couple of shady folks on the sidewalk who eyed the tablet device I was using to track him like they wanted to take it off my hands. I kept my cool. I never imagined a white bread boy scout like Zone surviving in the hood, especially not one like this, but it looked like I was closing in on his location. A group of guys were hanging out on the corner in front of the building, shooting dice and playing music from a bluetooth speaker. They all turned when they spotted me, eyeing my Fairbrook High Letterman jacket that I hadn't worn out in the open in years. I saw them whisper amongst each other at the sight of it, but when I glanced over, they went back to their business. If the news said there were no survivors, I had either seen some shit and deserved to be left alone or I was one tough son of a bitch as far as they were concerned. Both were true.

    A 1988 Pontiac Firebird was parked by its lonesome not far from the building. The tracker pointed directly to its coordinates and I could see someone sitting in the front seat. When I got closer, I could make out his face. When he was still my science teacher, Michael was an honest, handsome, wavy-haired white dude with a scruffy beard and a timid smile - a real male-model, “rolled-up sleeves and espresso in the morning” kind of man. He carried himself like the lovable heartthrob in every romantic comedy - the best case scenario for a potential stepfather back when I gave him my blessing to court my mom. I'd never extend that sentiment now. I could see his shaven head leaned back over the head rest, his mouth hanging open with the pair of silver grills over his teeth shining through his thick, brown goatee. They probably covered the broken set I knocked out of his mouth the night after the Thiasos raid. I could hear “Ball For Me” by Post Malone blasting from the speakers with clouds of weed smoke swirling around inside the closed windows. He wore a bomber jacket, resting his hand on the wheel, and appeared to be passed out. I approached the driver's side, tapping lightly on the window.

    Zone jumped in his seat and rushed to roll the window down, spilling enough smoke out for me to see that there was someone else in the passenger seat leaning down over his crotch underneath the steering wheel. Zone glanced up and recognized me right away.

    “Ben!” he exclaimed with more enthusiasm than I was expecting or hoping for in that moment. “Just the man I wanted to see!”

    “I hope not.” I turned my head in disgust and backed away from the car. Zone tapped the prostitute fellating him on the back and she came up for air. I let them talk for a bit and once the money was exchanged, she got out of the car and waved in my direction cutely before clopping out of the parking lot in her high heels. Zone signaled for me to get in and zipped his pants up as I circled around. I definitely second guessed myself on my way over but I got into the passenger seat anyway, sitting delicately and making sure not to touch anything. His car was filthy. The back seat was covered in trash and clothing. It was clear that he was living out of it. Zone started the car and began to pull out of the parking lot.

    “So what brings you this way, man?!” Zone asked brightly. The proper accent I was accustomed to contrasted entirely with his appearance. He still wanted me to see him as the soldier scientist I grew up under the tutelage of. Zone was in his mid-40's now and the years of heavy drug use were showing in his face. He pulled his grills out, wiping the saliva off on his shirt, and tossed them into the glove box. His pearly whites were intact now, so I guess the grills were for show. I squinted at him with suspicion. There was no reason for him to be this chipper after the way we left things.

    “Is someone after you?” I asked. I scanned the car, looking for anything out of the ordinary besides his occasional miscellaneous tech accessory. He kept the most convenient gadgets on his person, mostly to impress women.

    “No, why would someone be after you? I mean, me.” Zone wouldn't make eye contact and scanned the streets ahead from the lot. I waved for him to hit the brakes.

    “Stop driving please.”

    He was already pulling out. “I don't think we should stay in this neighborhood”-

    “Stop the car.” Zone put the car in park by the side of the road and turned it off, looking me in the eye. I sighed, speaking sternly. “I get that you're probably running on a high right now, but I need you to focus. I'm here for a very specific reason.”

    Zone nodded, giving a confident smirk. “I know that. You're here because of the Faction. It's okay, we're ahead of the curve. We've finally got a lead on what they've been up to for the past few years.”

    “What?” I said, puzzled. “Who is we?”

    “We, as in”- Zone stopped, looking just as confused now. “Wait, why do you think you're here?”

    “...I think I'm here because there's a girl dying at my apartment and I need you to help me save her.”

    Zone faced forward in his seat, looking awkward. “O-oh okay, well...the stuff with the Faction can wait. What do you need?”

    I sighed, looking around the car again. “Are you living in here?”

    Zone glanced away, turning the ignition once more. His cheery facade began to fade. “That's definitely none of your business. And for the record, I don't need you to grade me on how well I've assimilated into your crumbling society. At least I'm still out here trying to save what's left of it. Your world is looking more and more familiar to me every day. And not because I'm getting used to it.”

    I couldn't argue with him there. I decided to let up on the judgment for once, considering how I'd walked myself into the very predicament I was asking for assistance with. I had no room to talk. I gave him directions back to J-Town and filled him in on the events of the last couple weeks, although my pride caused me to gloss over the part where I decided to gamble with the Yakuza of my own free will. I wanted to keep the conversation focused on Amanda and the task at hand.

    Zone didn't say much until we arrived at the apartment complex. He had his blaster ready when we stepped back into the apartment, but there hadn't been any activity since I left according to the trap's sensors. We stepped into the moon base where Zone was able to transfer Amanda from the cryo-pod to the med bay's clinical chamber. Once it was filled with medical fluid, he was able to isolate her neck wounds and repair the tissue with artificial stem cells administered manually with a surgery apparatus controlled from outside the chamber. When the medical fluid finished reconstructing her damaged skin, Zone flushed it out, then removed her and laid her flat on the med bay's recovery bed. I sat at her bedside for the next few minutes until Zone re-entered the room. He had just finished reviewing the results of the procedure.

    “She's stable,” he said, walking in. He slapped the invisible dirt off his hands after a job well done.

    “She was stable when I saved her,” I replied. “Is she gonna live?”

    “Yes, she will live, Ben.” He glanced at her unconscious body, then back at me. “You really like this girl, huh?” I gave him a questionable look, wondering if he truly cared. He waited for me to answer and I looked away, nodding. “What do you know about her?”

    “Nothing really. I was trying to get to know her but...bullets got in the way of that.” I thought for a moment. “She did bring up something weird before everything went down. Something about psychics.”

    Zone rose an eyebrow with interest and stepped over to the other side of the med bay, hitting a switch on the wall. A transparent image was displayed on the glass wall that separated the med bay from the main hall of the base. Zone swiped through a series of images before stopping on a map of a human brain, zooming in on a small pine cone-shaped gland between the two hemispheres of the cerebrum. The organ was highlighted on the image. Zone stepped back, examining it.

    “Do you know what that is?”

    I nodded. “Pineal gland. The 'Third Eye.' Produces melatonin for sleep.” Zone narrowed his look and I shrugged. “...And Fortigen under controlled circumstances.”

    Zone gave a satisfied nod. “Good. It's dormant in most human beings, but when it's organically active, it produces a third hormone – Oneirium. The hormone responsible for Extra-Sensory Perception.”

    I rose an eyebrow. Now I was just as interested. “You think there's a connection?”

    “Who knows? Maybe she put herself under the Faction's radar looking into this stuff. I've been keeping tabs on most of their satellite feeds and back channels for the past six years. The Ministrata have been doing third eye research for decades, but it wasn't until recently that the Faction started funneling all of their resources into a Third Eye program.”

    I looked off in thought. “I saw Arthur a while ago. He told me he got transferred to the Faction. They appointed him head of the organization, so it's obviously going through some changes. I thought they were gonna stick to experimenting with Razakin DNA and bothering me about the watch. Guess they're reshuffling their agenda. To what end though?”

    “Profit,” Zone answered. “Active pineal glands have become a hot commodity on the Metacosmic market. The Ministrata always say they want nothing to do with the upper community, but they know they have to have some kind stake in the game to keep the cosmic entities from dividing the world up amongst themselves. So they've repurposed the Faction into a poaching business.”

    “Poaching?!” I exclaimed. “They're poaching psychics?!”

    Zone nodded. “Mostly American ones. They've been holding secret controlled raids every month or so under the guise of a shooting massacre. The frequency of shootings in the US provides the perfect cover. They find some way to draw a bunch into the same place and then take out as many as three dozen at one time, then convince the public only a handful of people were killed. No one questions it anymore. They've actually been doing it since before we worked for them – I never found out because they didn't make it a priority task until a couple of years ago. I've been tracking their progress ever since. What I'm sure they don't know is that the removal of psychics in even that small a quantity can cause devastating changes to the cosmic ecosystem. For one, it has an effect on the psychology of the human race as a whole, intensifying mental illness and making us more susceptible to supernatural manipulations across the board like possession. Not only that, but it can lead to breaches between realms that can be exploited by entities looking to bleed into our world. Including...”

    “Razakin,” I finished for him. This was a lot of information to take in at once and as far as I knew, my friends were still being held hostage in the mountains. If this was the real reason Amanda came to North Star, I would have to slap another big fat layer of complications onto my grill with zero appetite left to stomach it. I had to get involved now because like always, I had no choice. I squeezed my head in anguish, wanting to scream in frustration and call it a life, but I kept my cool. Zone probably knew exactly what I was feeling. Like Kim, he was there for every low point. I chuckled to myself.

    “So what's the daily life of a lost time traveler nowadays, huh?” I asked jokingly. “You just research ways to take down the Faction while you're screwing hookers and doing blow?”

    “Yeah, the drugs and sex are just part-time. My full-time profession is protecting your fucking planet.” He laughed and I couldn't help but join him. “Fighting is all I know. Yes, I got distracted by the freedom this timeline grants me. Yes, I look for fulfillment in artificial ways. You couldn't find that anywhere where I came from, so it makes no difference to me if it's real or not. As long as it keeps fuel in the tank up here,” he pointed to his temple, “So I can continue the fight. You can judge all you want, but you decided to retire. I didn't. Anyone who has a problem with how I feed my drive can gladly pick up where I left off.”

    I took in his words. They made sense. I had become an agoraphobic stoner after just a decade of taking on responsibility for the world's well-being. Zone had technically been in that fight since birth. I couldn't help but sympathize a bit. With great power comes great responsibility comes great suffering. This fight turned us all into human messes. I finally calmed down and thought hard about the events of the night.

    “I killed a lot of people tonight,” I said, staring off in a daze. “Does that make me a bad person?”

    Zone sighed and took a seat across from me. He looked me in the eye when he spoke. “This is the real world. Those men tried to kill you. Fuck 'em.” I shrugged it off, but Zone knew he had to keep trying. “At worse, you're an anti-hero.”

    I chuckled. “So I'm a bad person who does good things.”

    “I was thinking you're a great person who sometimes has to do bad things because the world isn't black and white. That's the problem with hero worship. Everybody wants to project their morals on to you like they have even an ounce of courage to do what we do. They don't. So they would never understand. You're not God, as much as they might want you to be. They'll still tell you that the responsibility is yours alone, so live with what you do and tell them to eat a dick or contribute. All you can do is what feels right in the moment. Like you've always done.”

    I hadn't heard a speech like that from Zone since before the Fairbrook Massacre. It made me nostalgic and for the first time, I actually felt optimistic about the future, despite what lie ahead on the horizon. In the middle of our sweet little moment together, Amanda began to stir. We both got up from our seats as she opened her eyes, but the first person she noticed standing over her was Zone.

    “Oh thank god you're here, Mr. Zone,” she croaked in a dazed relief. I snapped a look at him. He was signaling for her to keep quiet. “Now I don't have to pretend to be straight anymore.” She turned her head and noticed me standing there, looking like the biggest, most furious idiot on the planet. Her eyes grew wide. “Oh shit.”

    'Oh shit,' was right. I glared back at Zone with disdain and he tossed up his hands in defense, hoping to ease the tension. “Okay, I know you're upset. Let me explain.”

    It looked like I did have a choice in the matter after all. And now my choice was made.
    Last edited by Onlyne; 09-13-2018 at 09:56 PM.


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    Chapter 4: The Temple


    “You two can leave now,” I said, pointing to the exit. Amanda was rushing out of the bed, but her body was still in recovery mode and she collapsed back onto it for balance. Zone and I instinctively reached out to catch her but while Zone tried to lay her back down, I was wrapping her arm over my neck to help her up. I was dead serious. “Let's go.”

    “Ben, it sounds worse than it actually is,” Zone interjected.

    “Clue me in then,” I said lazily. I didn't stop, even though Amanda was dragging her feet. I was starting to feel a little bad, but then I thought about how stupid I felt after all the time I spent pining after this girl like a wounded, gullible puppy. Little did I know I was being played with like one, just for it to be yet another cruel maze leading me into another sacrificial crusade.

    “Ben, we just met a few months ago, okay?” Amanda explained with a tone that sounded like she was trying to convince me to change my mind. “Everything I told you before is true. I lived in Toronto and I reached out to Zone on the dark web about going after the Faction. That's the group you hate, right? I'm after them too!”

    “Oh okay,” I nodded. “Well that explains why you pretended you were into me and tried to serenade me with Leon Bridges like some kind of evil hipster witch. Smart course of action. Bet that was your idea, huh, Zone?”

    Amanda snapped an angry look at Zone as we entered the main hall of the base. “I told you it was a bad move.”

    “Oh what, you're gonna throw me under the bus now?” Zone protested, following behind us.

    “I told you we should have just asked him!”

    “I would have said no,” I admitted without thought. Zone threw up his hands.

    “See?”

    I glared at him over my shoulder, rolling my eyes. “It didn't work this time either. Wait, what am I doing?” I suddenly stopped and changed directions., carrying Amanda over to Zone. I picked her arm off me and wrapped her over Zone, then gestured for the door that led them back to my bedroom on Earth. “After you.”

    “Ben...” Zone sighed. He tread lightly, making one last plea. “Re-think what you're doing.”

    “I'm not doing anything. Even if I was gonna help with this little coup de'tat, when was I going to find out the truth? How long were you gonna let me think I was actually desirable enough to be asked out without it actually being bait to some more bullshit? I bet you used those bread crumb pheromones again too, didn't you? Why else would Napalm give me her number?”

    “Ben, listen,” Amanda said delicately. She tried to stand on her own, but she was still too weak. Zone held her steady. “I think you're a great guy. I wouldn't have agreed to this if I didn't think that were true”-

    “You don't even know me!” I exclaimed.

    “I know your reputation! I know that you saved the universe and you sacrificed everything to do it-”

    “Are you really gay?” I asked in defeat. I was embarrassed to show even that much weakness and when she shrugged, I tossed my hands up. “Well, that friggin' sucks.”

    “Whoa!” Amanda said with some offense. “Little homophobic, man.”

    “Are you joking right now?!” I was nearly shouting and stepped closer, but Zone put himself between us. “You broke my fucking heart! What are you, some kind of sociopath?”

    “It's okay, Ben. Calm down.”

    “You really fell for me?” Amanda asked with a touch of sympathy in her voice. I paced around. I couldn't bare to look at her. She chuckled under her breath. “...I still got it.”

    “Why are you even still talking?” I walked over to a compartment in the wall by the exit, sliding back a small touch screen terminal. I typed a code into it and a levered flipped into its place on the wall. It was a self-destruct switch. As soon as I flipped it, an alarm went off and the sirens wailed, red and white lights flashing from the ceiling to evacuate the base. An intercom came in over it.

    “Emergency Self-Destruction in 2 minutes.”

    I posted myself up against the wall to get comfortable. Zone dropped his shoulders – he was the one looking defeated now. “God, you really have gotten petty over the years, Ben.”

    “Hey, I'm cool with going out with a bang. It's not like I've got anything left to lose. Just some probably already dead friends being tortured in the mountains and a whole damn army looking to put my helmet on their fireplace. Oh, and a wasted evening on a fake date with a lesbian. That's a self-esteem blow I'll never forget if I live past the next minute or so.”

    “Come on, man, don't be like that.” Amanda pleaded. They still weren't budging. “I thought we had fun.”

    “Emergency Self-Destruction in 1 minute.”

    “I'm actually looking forward to this so, on second thought, stay as long as you want,” I said. Amanda and Zone exchanged helpless looks and sighed in frustration as they began to make their way for the door. Zone stopped in front of me on his way by and handed me a business card.

    “So you have my number,” he said. I tossed the card behind me almost immediately and gestured for the two to pick up the pace.

    “Move it along, “ I said, snapping. “It's almost daylight back on Earth and either I'm sleeping in or sleeping forever. Haven't decided yet. Let's hustle.”

    The two glanced back as if they still had more to say, but they were speaking to a brick wall at this point. Finally, they stepped down the luminescent hallway and through the wormhole invocation. They could find their own way out from there. The two could wait outside in my apartment for as long as they pleased because I had no plans of leaving the moon base any time soon.

    I walked back to the self-destruct switch. As the countdown continued, I stared at it with an intensity I had never felt before. It was surreal. Standing on the brink of destruction. I didn't have the luxury of ending it all before because there was so much on the line. It was bigger than me. I never considered the freedom I possessed now. Flirting with it made me feel something that was foreign to me. The timer was down to 15 seconds. I let it count down to ten and a burning sensation overwhelmed my gut. I could feel my soul separating from my body as my physical connection to the cosmic realm that granted me my heightened awareness began to teeter back and forth between the here and the astral. 5...4...3...2...1-

    I flipped the switch back and it sunk back into the wall, displaying the terminal again. “Self-Destruct Sequence Canceled.” I took a deep breath and rubbed the sweat from my face, layering on more sweat from my palms. I stood there for maybe a moment longer before I worked up the nerve to leave, heading back to the med bay where I slept for the rest of the morning.

    #

    A brand new attraction was being constructed in the epicenter of the park right outside of Spirit Rush Games. It was apparently a 4DX Virtual Reality ride called “The Final Flight of Captain Avery” that would take guests on a fantastical adventure across time and space with the mascot of the park in his interstellar battle against some kind of space invaders or something. They gave us fliers so we would know what to tell guests when they asked, but I barely skimmed through it. Eckard and I watched the construction workers building the outer walls of the infrastructure nearby. It was going to be an indoor attraction with a simple motion sensitive spaceship ride pulled along on a winding track and most of the spectacle would come from the VR goggles and the ride's immersive movements synchronized with the 4D movie. Translation: Someone was going to have to clean up a lot of vomit the first few weeks after it opened.

    Eckard and I were talking for a while and I entertained the conversation to get my mind off of recent events. I still couldn't get in touch with Napalm or the twins by phone and there were no updates on either of their social media accounts to let me know that everything was normal. I considered catching a cab at some point during the night and taking the five-hour trip to the Frostberry Mountains myself just to make sure they were still breathing. If I didn't do that, I at least needed some kind of outlet to wash the shame and embarrassment off from letting myself be vulnerable around people who could care less about my feelings as long as I contributed to their agenda.

    At some point in that hour of the day, Gemma walked by the ice cream van, smiling and waving at the two of us. Her hair was cut pixie short now and she was sporting a new look, her nose pierced with a dozen earrings on the outer rim of her ear and twice as much makeup. We played it cool until she rounded the corner and Eckard leaned in.

    “Wondering why she's alone?” he asked.

    My mind was elsewhere. “Not really.”

    “Her and Warren broke up. Apparently, they had a fight after they framed Julia for the poisoning and Gemma ended it. I hear she has no qualms about giving it up now if you're looking to take a shot. I know you need a win after last night.”

    Omitting the major details, I had informed him of everything that had taken place during the “date.” I shook my head. “I don't trust it. Poisoning someone to frame a co-worker is a pretty huge red flag for me.”

    “Well, I heard that was all Warren's idea, but I get what you mean. Guilty by association.” Eckard let a moment pass before whispering, “Telling you right now though, I'm throwing my hat in the ring. Between you and me, I haven't gotten laid in over a year.”

    “I haven't gotten laid in almost a decade,” I admitted without shame. I held my head up with my hands, staring out at the construction work from the van. Eckard seemed surprised by my honesty.

    “Damn, dude. You sure you don't want to try your luck with Gemma? She's literally giving it up to half the park right now.”

    “I don't wanna just have sex. There's gotta be something after. I can't have that type of connection and nothing beyond that. It's just not me.”

    “That's admirable, man, it really is. Me though – I'm only gonna look this good for a few more years. You have nothing to worry about because of that 'black don't crack' phenomenon, but I've got another ten years or so to go before I start growing a gut. I drink like a sailor and my dad has one, so I know it's coming. I'm trying to get some mileage under my belt until the inevitable day when I'll have to pay for sex.”

    I nodded, but a thought occurred to me. “You took a girl out on a lobster and steak dinner last month, didn't you?”

    “Yeah, so?”

    “Sounds like you're already paying for it,” I laughed.

    “Hey, there's nothing wrong with making investments. All my money goes to car payments, rent, lavish dates, and weed. If you're gonna do it, might as well do it big, right? Live fast and die young.”

    I shook my head. “Every generation says that. Then they get old and judge their grandkids for doing the same shit. You really wanna be part of that cycle?”

    “Absolutely. It's the American way.” Eckard saw that traffic was picking up outside the arcade and extended a closed hand. “I gotta take off. Be easy, man.”

    “You too.” I bumped his fist and watched him step back into Spirit Rush Games. I grabbed my tablet from my backpack and sat back to review the notes I made to the Shiki No Uta blueprints, but I couldn't focus. My mind was still racing. I bounced back and forth between my friend's whereabouts, Kondō's forces, the Faction's new agenda, the failed date from last night, and every little anxiety and minor irritation that could be peppered in between. I knew I was stressing myself out, but it was hard to sit still. The inside of the van wasn't tall enough for me to pace and I technically wasn't allowed to be outside the van for longer than a few minutes unless I was taking my break or going to the bathroom. I had to sit in this a box-shaped prison for the next few hours and deal with it.

    I reached into my backpack for my headphones and plugged them into my phone to play some music – when a customer walked up to the van to order.

    “Hey, can I get a fudge pop?” he asked and I did a double take when I saw who it was. He was a brown-haired white boy with a scruffy beard and a handsome smile around the same age as me or younger. The man bared an uncanny resemblance to Graham Hunter, the actor who portrayed me in the Ben Fury films but there was no way it could be the same guy. Could it? It took me a minute to register what he said, but I reached into the freezer for a fudge pop and handed it to him. He handed me the money, then gave a smirk as if he knew I recognized him. There were people walking by, but no one seemed to notice that a blockbuster movie star just happened to be hanging out at Avery Station by himself, standing out in a light blue dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves, white shorts, and sandals. He nodded gratefully and stepped away from the van with an confident strut. I watched him cross the epicenter, disappearing into the crowd. Even then, no one spotted him out. I was baffled.

    I grabbed my keys and stepped out through the back, taking off after him. I saw him head between the Space Age Burger Shop and the Alien Tavern building where they held kid-friendly stage productions for the toddlers in cute and colorful alien costumes. Once I reached the alley he slipped into, I saw him go through a side entrance into the tavern by the dead end. I ran in after him and found the backstage area of the theater, which was closed for the evening. It was dark and empty, filled with rows of scaffolds, production equipment, and leftover set pieces that were scattered down each hallway. I maneuvered through the maze of rooms and corridors, searching for any sign of the movie star. Some noise echoed from down one hall and I followed it until I found the source – a large tarp in the middle of a scaffold in the corner outside the empty stage. It was shuffling back and forth as a series of animal-like sounds groaned underneath. I approached it cautiously and pulled the plastic back, revealing two alien mascots humping under the scaffolds. They stopped bumping uglies to gaze back at me with their suits partly unzipped, huffing and puffing like they were in the middle of an alien jungle. I jumped back, fiddling my way to the exit.

    “Sorry,” I muttered softly, leaving them to their business. I held my gag reflex and rushed back out to the van outside. I didn't see Graham again.

    #

    Amanda managed to catch me just as I was leaving Mr. Tesla's apartment around the block from the amusement park. I was waiting on an Uber to take me back to the apartment after dropping the van off at his place. She pulled up by the side of the road where I sat. The Uber was still five minutes away. I rolled my eyes when I saw her step out of Zone's Pontiac Firebird and I immediately got up from the curb to head off in the other direction. Of course he was kept tabs on me enough to know exactly where I worked and where I'd be at this time. I needed to clean my tracks. Whatever she had to say, I wasn't hearing it.

    “Can I tell you why I came here?” Amanda called behind me.

    “To waste more of my time apparently.”

    “I mean why I came to North Star.”

    I finally stopped and turned back to look at her. She was standing in the middle of the street making a scene. It was a good thing Mr. Tesla had turned in for the evening. I shrugged impatiently. “Something to do with the psychics?”

    “Yeah,” she nodded sternly. “My girlfriend. When I left Nova Scotia, it wasn't of my own free will. You know how small towns are. 'Traditional.' I couldn't stay home anymore, so I moved to Toronto where I met India. That was her name. She was...” Amanda sighed, trying to get her words together. “She was an artist. She was actually the head of the design team for the Gigamon trading card company under GC Studios.”

    I softened a bit. “That's pretty cool.”

    “I know,” she smiled proudly, thinking about her. “I loved her. I mean, really loved her, not like you thought you loved me”-

    “I didn't love you,” I snapped.

    “You said I broke your heart”-

    “All right, I'm headed out. Bye”-

    “Hold on.” Amanda closed her eyes and tried to restrain herself. I glanced at my phone. My ride was still three minutes out. It couldn't come soon enough. “Sorry. Look, I sacrificed everything for this girl, okay? Not like what you sacrificed, I'm not saying that, but...we got engaged. Then she started telling me about these visions she kept having. They were telling her that she needed to be in New York City in three days and she booked her plane ticket with no explanation as to why or anything. After I pestered her about it, she finally told me the truth. She had a thing she called “second sight.” It allowed her to see things - visions of the future, of the past, remote viewing, even glances into other worlds according to her. It was what inspired her to make art. Before she left, I asked India what she saw of our future together or if she ever had any visions of that. She told me to just stay in the moment, so...I assumed not because I never saw her again after that. Well, not until I found the video of her pineal gland being removed from her skull on the dark web.”

    I was listening closely now. Amanda walked closer to meet me. “Do you know how they do it? They use this apparatus type thing, looks like a portable medieval weapon. The poachers hold it like a rifle and the ends burrow into the head and crack it open like a coconut. Then a little crane thing scoops the gland out from the brain stem. I watched that happen to my fiancee. So like you, I'm no stranger to seeing some gruesome shit happen to people I love. The difference is, you got to do something about it. I'm still waiting on my chance. That's why I started doing research into the Faction. I found the files they had on you and Zone, that's why I reached out to him. I learned about you. I don't know everything, but I know you've got beef with the Faction too. Now look, I'm not asking you to involve yourself in my problems, but I will need your help. In whatever way you can provide it. Honestly, if you could teach me how to do what you do, that would be ideal because I'm totally down to fight this fight by myself.”

    I think I shook my head in that instant because I was thrown for a loop. “You want to do what I do?” Amanda nodded and I chuckled. “Are you sure”-

    “I've got nothing to lose, man. This is all I want.” Amanda looked more serious than I'd ever seen her before. Her fists were clenched and I could tell that she was making a last ditch effort to get me on board so that she could finally have the resources to take the fight into her own hands. Resources that only I possessed. I had to give it up to her. I was under the impression that Zone had put her up to this in order to get me back into a fight I'd left a long time ago, but hearing that Amanda got this far on her own to see things through and receive closure was admirable. I felt kind of bad, because based on my own experience, that closure was likely to never come. I respected her for chasing it though.

    I sighed, canceling my Uber and shoving my phone in my pocket. At least I was saving money. I gestured back to her Pontiac and I could see Amanda begin to grin as I passed her. She followed me to the car.

    #

    “I was assaulted by both my past and my future,” I said, my voice strained as the smoke left my throat. I entered a coughing fit and passed the joint and my lighter to Amanda, who sat on the floor across from me. We were in my room. “Ended up making my present a living hell.”

    “How long has it been since you retired?” she asked. I took in the room around us. I was truly beginning miss the company in the week that Napalm hadn't been here and all of his belongings were still in his corner of the room, starting to collect dust. It didn't make the process easier. Amanda had her hair tied up and took a big toke from the joint, listening to me speak.

    “'Retired' implies I was working a job, which implies I was getting paid - which I wasn't - so that's not accurate. I'd call it, 'transitioning into civilian life.' You know, like when mercenaries and child soldiers rejoin normal society as adults. It's been three years since we took down the Thiasos.”

    “That's the cult that worshipped the uh...cosmic cancer thing. I don't remember what the files called it”-

    “Razakin,” I replied, probably looking dark. “Atlantean for 'Raw Skin'. As in the raw skin of humanity.”

    Amanda nearly choked on a cloud of smoke. She coughed to clear her throat and looked surprised. “I'm sorry, did you just say Atlantean?”

    “Yeah, that's where the Ministrata hides their institution for occult sciences. They coined the term, not I.”

    “Ministrata?”

    “The shadow group that owns the Faction. You gotta keep up, Amanda.”

    “Right. Sorry, My knowledge only goes as far as the folders I hacked and a lot of it was redacted. Beyond what Zone has filled me in on. That's all I know.”

    I sighed, scratching my head. “Well, I'm gonna tell you this now. None of that shit you saw in those movies is accurate, so unlearn all of it. It's all Ministrata propaganda.”

    “Okay. Well, start with the Metalmen Legends. That started with your father, right?”

    I took a deep breath. The walk down memory lane was gonna be painful. “Yeah. My dad was an engineer named Martin Blake Louverture . He was born in Haiti, moved to the US when he was 3. He lived here in J-Town, then the Ministrata noticed that he was a child prodigy and took him in. He met my mom when she was working at Royal Park Mall in Kingdom City. That was before he started working for them full time in the 90's and when they assigned him to work with the Faction, they made him cut his ties with my mom and our family. He had ideas to design a form-fitting exoskeleton with an organic power source that could function as a weapon, a suit of armor, and a super soldier serum all in one. When he was a little boy, he would hang out with some of the Japanese kids in the neighborhood and they introduced him to Tokusatsu - Japanese entertainment with giant monsters and colorful heroes like Ultraman, Kamen Rider, Super Sentai – or 'Power Rangers'here. All that stuff inspired him, that's why he designed the suits. When he left the Faction, he stole back one of the finished prototypes and used it to fight against them years later.”

    “So where does the whole 'time travel' thing fit into this equation?”

    I sighed. “Like I said, I was the prophetic son. In the original future, the Thiasos eventually opened the doorway for the Razakin to come and 'cleanse' the world, as they put it. The older version of me created a resistance movement to fight them and decided to take my dad's unused 'savior suit' designs and manufacture them for battle. Around this time, they began mining these 'temporal' crystals from some meteor that let them travel through time and after my disappearance, it was decided that the back-up plan was to try and prevent the Razakin from being released all together. So they sent Zone and a few others back to manipulate things and start laying the foundations for young me to become what they brainwashed me into thinking was a 'superhero'.”

    “When did all of that take place?” Amanda asked.

    “I started when I was 14.”

    She looked surprised. “Why so young?”

    “They wanted my fortigen levels to increase over time. Fortigen is the hormone that powers the suits, it also comes from the pineal gland. It effects me physically, rather than mentally like Oneirium. My physiology evolved long term. After a while, it gave me cosmic awareness. I can sense cosmic beings and people out of the ordinary. I can also talk to animals and speak any language. The animal thing isn't as cool as you'd think either – I accidentally made my dog progress to the evolutionary state of self-awareness and now he hates all of existence. And me. I can't have pets anymore”-

    “Let's get back to your dad,” Amanda said, trying to keep me on track. “When did you find out about his past?”

    “Not until my third year on the job. He wasn't in my life – up until that point, I had been raised by my mom and grandpa. I only ever knew him as 'Storm Rider.' I knew nothing about him when we met, but he had been active since the late 90's, then took a hiatus and resurfaced around the time I started making waves. We fought against each other at first, then we started working together. I didn't find out that he was my father until after he died.”

    “The Fairbrook Massacre?” she said delicately. I nodded. “I'm sorry for your loss. That's terrible. So you never got to have an actual relationship with him?”

    I shook my head. “I mean, I grew to appreciate him as a hero, but I never trusted him. I never knew who he was under the mask, but he knew who I was the whole time. He had a friend reach out to me years later, telling me about this place. Martin left instructions on how to open the wormhole to his secret base on the moon. The Ministrata gave it to him back when he was Lead Engineer for the Faction. When he found out that they were crooked and resigned, he took all his research with him and changed the location of the wormhole so it could serve as a safe house. He always planned to leave it for me. I found a video message that he left behind telling me that he had a dream the night after he met my mom that told him he would father a child that would save our realm from total destruction. He knew everything...”

    “Wow,” Amanda said, a little overwhelmed. “So what made the Faction reach out to you later? I know they tortured you to get the suit your first year”-

    “They didn't reach out, they kidnapped me. I was laying low in Madagascar. I had just finished piecing myself back together after the massacre, so I left the fight behind for a while and traveled the world to keep myself from drowning in the chaos again. Zone assumed that I was abandoning the mission and gave up my location when they forced him to work for them too. We were assigned to a unit and tasked with investigating, dismantling, and...ultimately eradicating the Thiasos cult. I had...” I sighed, hesitating. Amanda was patient as she'd just crossed the same bridge in sharing her story. “I had a conflict of interest. An ex. My high school sweetheart. The only...only girl I ever dated. She became a high-ranking member of the Thiasos. The Faction didn't give a shit, of course, so I had to...I had to, uh...”

    Amanda leaned forward and put a hand on mine. “It's okay.”

    I snatched my hand out from under hers, glaring. Amanda backed off. I still wasn't over what she'd done to me and I didn't need her sympathy. It made me feel more pathetic than I already did. She hadn't cared enough about my feelings before and I wasn't convinced of it now. I shrugged it off and continued. “The Faction only wanted them out of the way so they could collect the ones who became Razakin Lieutenants and experiment on them.”

    “Lieutenants?”

    “The Razakin can grant power to human beings that serve them. Since they feed off the thirst for power, people who devote themselves to their name are gifted with god-like abilities. That can be granted by lots of cosmic beings, but you're selling your soul nonetheless. I figured the Lieutenants were the Faction's endgame. I didn't learn about their psychic genocide plans until last night. That's new for them.”

    “Not really,” Amanda shook her head. “They've been doing Third Eye research since the year you started, back when they first abducted you. It pertains to their studies into daemons. The third eye is our connection to the astral realms. We tap into them through our subconscious all the time, but only those with active ones can tap into the higher states.”

    “You learned all of this from files you hacked?” I asked curiously.

    “And from Zone's research, yeah.” She handed the joint back to me and watched me take a few tokes. “So...how can I get you to help me go after these guys?”

    I couldn't help but laugh. I shook my head with a sigh. “I'll help you. To a point.”

    “You will?”

    “To a point. If you want to go after the Faction, you're gonna need firepower that'll give them a run for their money. Only thing out there that can do that is the savior suits.”

    Amanda's eyes went wide. “You want me to use one of your suits?”

    “You want to do what I do, right?” I asked. “If you're trying to be my successor, you've got to get a suit. I'd let you have the Exodus suit, but you would need a Fortigen boost to be able to power it correctly without passing out right away.”

    “And how would I go about that? Didn't you have a suit before that one that you trained with?”

    “Yeah, the Genesis but that one's been out of commission for years. The only other suit that's intact is my dad's Storm Rider suit. It's not virtually indestructible like the Exodus, so it won't do you any good against a group like the Faction. They've got the means to annihilate you if you're not totally prepared.”

    “So what are we supposed to do to get me to the level where I can use the suit?”

    I thought for a moment, but when the answer became clear, I let out another stressed sigh. I got to my feet and paced around the room with Amanda watching closely.

    “There's a compound that IMRA had built in Uruguay years ago. It's called the Temple. It's where they took me for psychiatric help after the massacre made me lose my mind.”

    “I heard about that,” Amanda said cautiously. “You were really going through it back then”-

    “Oh yeah,” I said quickly. “And if you're fighting this fight, be prepared to lose yours too. Because you're definitely going to get close.” I rubbed my chin in thought. “Zone said the compound was compromised after I left and the Ministrata repurposed it into a research center for Razakin experiments for a bit before it was abandoned. Zone took me there to use this machine – something called a 'Siphoner'. It extracts and circulates Fortigen in large quantities to varying degrees of normalcy based on what the body can handle. It's how I got to the level required to use the granddaddy of the savior suits, Leviticus.”

    “Sounds bad ass. Wish that was an option.”

    “That one was destroyed too, but the Siphoner would kill you if you tried to raise your levels that high. It's already painful enough as it is. You've never felt pain on a cosmic scale, but you will. And remember, it's your choice.”

    Amanda looked away, sighing. It seemed to be hitting her all at once. “You're right, it is.”

    I studied her for a moment. Amanda was in over her head, but she had a fighting spirit that was likely to push her to succeed in her mission in spite of that. Here she was - this average, tenacious girl, taking it upon herself to wage a one-woman war against the entire secret government than ran the world. I didn't even know what her goal was beyond shaking their cage, but something about her made her cause worth rallying behind. It would have made more sense for IMRA to have recruited her for the Savior Suit program instead of me. Every part of me was fighting back against comforting her, but I had to give credit where it was due.

    “I'll have to go with you,” I said finally. Amanda glanced up in surprise. “To Uruguay. You'll need my DNA to access the Siphoner, if it's even still there. It should be, it was locked in the underground quarters where the Ministrata couldn't get to it. I'll go with you to help you get your Fortigen boost and hand over the Exodus suit. After that, we'll go our separate ways. I still need to get back and figure out what to do about Kondō and the Yakuza.”

    “Okay.” Amanda nodded with an enthusiasm that had been missing since the night of our fake date. I could tell that this was all she wanted, from the moment we first met to her awkward lingering outside of my ice cream van – all of it led up to her asking for my help in getting justice for her lover's death. The closer she got, the more she put herself in danger, but it didn't bother her. She managed to even survive having her throat sliced open and it did nothing to slow her pursuit even a little. Amanda gave a curious look. “If you don't mind me asking, what made you change your mind? About helping me, I mean?”

    I had a feeling she was going to ask. “This path was chosen for me. I never got to make the choice myself. If I did, I'd have refused. I know that, everyone knows that. I did it anyway because the conflict was bigger than me – even if I wasn't prophesied to be some kind of savior, I was already born into a legacy. You're just an average girl. You made it your choice to have this life. Part of me thinks you're insane and part of me has a great deal of respect for you. I doubt you think the same of me, but I know what it's like to lose everything. The only thing that drives me nowadays is...getting to see if that sacrifice actually meant something in the end. I doubt it more and more every day, but I don't see why that's asking for too much, you know? I just want to find love. Simple as that. Romantically and in general. Not the plastic, Post-9/11 version of love, I'm talking about that corny, 60's hippie stuff. The peaceful, happy future I was promised for saving the fucking world. I know it doesn't exist, but that's me. Ben Fury. Living in the past.”

    “Hey, I live in the past too, don't forget,” Amanda countered. “I'm trying to move forward too. I know I'm standing in my own way, but you know...so are the Faction. And they've gotta get out of the way first.”

    “I hear that,” I said, smirking. Every time I began to open up to her, I could feel an anger accompanying it and felt the need to bring it up. “I still can't believe you tried to serenade me with Leon Bridges? What the hell is wrong with you?”

    “Dude, I genuinely like Leon Bridges!” Amanda exclaimed. “I thought it'd be some more common ground to explore”-

    “You should have used 'Coming Home.' I wouldn't have suspected that. But 'Shy'? Come on, that's just insulting. Especially for an introvert. As a matter of fact.” I stood up, making my way for the door. I gestured for her to follow. “Come on. You're gonna help me find that damn bug you two planted in here. Where is it?”

    #

    I couldn't believe it. Just yesterday, I was sitting alone in my ice cream van contemplating the direction of my life up to this point and now, not even 24 hours later, I was flying in a private helicopter over the jungles of South America with Amanda Washington (whose last name I learned that same day from her passport) and Michael Zone.

    The rain forests of Uruguay were producing mists of low clouds that hung under the plane as we passed over. We were dressed sporty for the expedition, strapped in tightly with headphones on to hear ourselves over the rumbling winds. The smell of the jungle was nostalgic, reminding me of my time on the run. We landed in an open field by the Porongos River and strapped our hiking equipment to our backs, trotting across the field of tall grass and into the wilderness of another world. I had to admit, it felt good to get away from the mundane after so long.

    When I asked Zone how he was able to afford a private helicopter on such short notice, he admitted that he still had plenty of ends left over from selling off his tech, although he was quick to mention that it wasn't a regular practice anymore. The helicopter pilot planned to return to that spot the same time tomorrow, so we were going to be out here on our own for the time being. Once we reached the edge of the jungle, Zone reached into his bag and pulled out a small high-tech drone, which lifted into the air with its anti-gravity boosters, zipping high into the sky to give him a thorough, schematic layout of the jungles ahead. He monitored it from a tablet and led the way into the rain forest.

    I'm sure I wasn't the only one who noticed how jarring the sounds of wilderness felt after living in the city for so long. There wasn't another human in the area for miles – IMRA made sure of its isolation when they picked the location. The entire trek was going to take a few hours, so I kept the conversation going to pass the time.

    “96 bottles of beer on the wall, 96 bottles of beer,” I sang with more soul than necessary. We pressed on, stepping lightly through the dense forest, shrouded in greenery. “You take one down and pass it around, 95 bottles of beer on the wall...You know that song is about alcoholism. That's crazy to me. They used it in cartoons and everything. It's probably the longest song ever too, 99 verses”-

    “Is he always like this on trips?” Amanda asked Zone, whose nose was nearly buried into the tablet. We were starting up a hill where a clearing opened up between the trees. Zone barely acknowledged her, pressing forward.

    “Yeah, he has his moments. Usually he's quiet until he feels like going on. Then he doesn't stop.”

    I sucked my teeth. “I'm just trying to keep you guys entertained. I could just put my headphones in and ignore you the whole trip, considering I can survive a cougar attack out here. You two on the other hand...”

    “Okay, we get it, you're the only one with superpowers out here,” Amanda laughed. “Sorry. Please continue.”

    “Thank you,” I gave a snarky grin that made Amanda chuckle.

    “He gets it from Terry,” Zone mentioned. “He used to always think up the most random things and bring it up at the most inappropriate time.”

    “Oh yeah,” I chuckled, reminiscing. “Even in battle, his mind never took a break.”

    “Terry was your best friend from Fairbrook, right?” Amanda asked curiously.

    I nodded. “He fought with us from the start. When there was nobody else, there was me, Zone, Kim, and Terry. He even got his own suit temporarily. You would like him.”

    “Whatever happened to him?”

    “He's fine,” Zone answered. “Married with a kid on the way. He's the only one of us that was able to get out of the game entirely. He got the happy ending we all wanted.”

    “He's the most deserving of it though,” I countered. Zone harbored some resentment towards Terry for being able to remove himself from the fight to save the world, even though it was never his fight. Zone could argue otherwise though, because the original version of Terry from the timeline where the world came to an end caused us a great deal of turmoil and hardship in my first year and when Zone learned that he would grow to become one of our greatest enemies, he started monitoring Terry's every move on the off-chance that he strayed from the beaten path like he was destined to. The invasion of privacy was part of the reason why Terry left all together and contributed to my initial falling out with my former mentor. Zone bitterly bringing him up like that helped fan those embers inside me again, but I chose to let it go. I wasn't going to be spending too much more time around him anyway. “Terry has been through a lot. If there was anyone out of our group that I wanted to prosper in the end, it's him. Kim has been doing well for herself too, I don't see why you've got a problem with Terry”-

    “Shut up, we're here.” Zone climbed the last few steps up the hill and looked out beyond the opening in the trees. We followed and took in the sight that greeted him at the top: A giant metal building stood in the center of a clearing within the forest, its once high-tech structure now one with the nature around it. Vines and moss seeped into every rusted corner like ancient ruins and the paint of the hawk and lightning bolt symbol on the side wall that once represented the International Mercenary Resistance Agency was rotting away under the jungle's embrace with the forgotten history of an alternate timeline that no longer existed. I could only imagine what it did to Zone seeing his people's legacy reduced to this.

    “Unbelievable,” Amanda exclaimed in wonder. I kept forgetting that everything she knew about our world was from hearsay. Now she was experiencing it all right before her eyes for the first time. It was transcending from walls of text in secret government documents to a fully-rendered reality. A marsh land had formed in front of the broken entrance. It was my first time seeing the place in this condition. At one time, it was a technological hallmark hidden in the rain forest, but it really did look like an ancient temple now. It hadn't aged well in the least.

    Zone led the way down the hill and into the marsh. A sloped platform led up to the shattered glass doors where the steel slabs from the second layer of the building's defense system lay pried away from the rest of the fortified steel that covered one side of the structure. Most of it was removed from its surface at the time it was abandoned.

    Zone shined one of his high-tech magnum flashlights into the dark ruins as we entered. The lobby was dead quiet, our footsteps echoing clear as day against the metallic floors. A struggle had definitely taken place before the building was abandoned. Shell casings littered across the floor with enough bullet holes in the walls to correspond and most of the debris and decay could probably be attributed to a massive throw down of sorts. A motion-sensitive holographic display activated at the sign of movement, nearly causing us to jump out of our hiking boots. The cyber woman tried to materialize to greet us but glitched out, contorting and flashing spurts of light across foyer. Most of the IMRA touchstones had been painted over or redesigned when the Ministrata seized the place, but due to their short tenure, what remained of the advanced technology appeared to have been left behind. An office towards the end of the lobby came into view before we moved on. A hover chair was scooted close to a conference table and it appeared as if someone were sitting in it. Zone crept in and I followed behind as back up, but we both stopped when seated figure became visible in the light – a headless body was slumped over in the chair, bound tightly with rotting ropes like some kind of Cartel aftermath.

    “So...why did the Ministrata abandon this place again?” I asked, hungry for answers now. Amanda's interest had peaked also. Zone turned around to head back out and explore the rest of the Temple.

    “They used it as a testing facility for Razakin research and development,” he answered, staying vigilant. “A couple of Lieutenants were listed on file here. Heard they even tried to breed their own artificial ones. Always trying to get ahead in the super soldier race. Don't think they got far with any of that though – my guess is a Lieutenant got out and laid waste to the staff, so they jumped ship.”

    “Kind of strange that they didn't leave some kind of security here though, don't you think?” Amanda said. She adjusted the strap of her backpack and I could tell she was getting nervous. “I mean, if the thing that did this is really gone, wouldn't they come back to secure the location? Make sure no one could stumble on it? That's their usual M.O.”

    “Well, there's the possibility that whatever did this isn't gone,” Zone said as if it were nothing. It almost physically hurt to hear him say that out loud. I was so done with these Razakin fucks.

    “I was afraid you'd say that...So these Razakin Lieutenants...” She was speaking mostly to me now. At least I would be considerate of her spiking anxiety. “They're pretty dangerous, right? You said they have god-like power?”

    “Yeah, the Ministrata's records say that Judas from the Bible was the first Lieutenant for the Razakin,” I explained. “They were the demons he saw after he betrayed Jesus. He didn't provide much before his suicide, but that was the start of humanity's flirtation with our own wickedness. Well, not the actual start, but the start on a physical level. They come in all shapes and sizes too. The Black Lion had a suit like mine with power like mine, but then there are some that are just plain weird. Like William Feare. His fingers turned into giant dragons.”

    “Wait, I remember that,” Amanda exclaimed. “That was in the first movie! I thought you said not to trust them?”

    “Yeah, still don't. I believe that was one of the fights that made the news. They passed it off as one of their viral ad.”

    “That's insane.” Amanda shuttered at the thought of running into something like that down here. It was terrifying enough in the film, as far as she knew. As we made our way to the elevator shaft leading to the facility below, I could tell that she was having second thoughts about making this journey. I wanted to console her but she had every reason to be apprehensive and that attitude was likely to end up saving her life. The elevator shaft was empty and easily scale-able from our position. Zone pulled off his bag to retrieve the equipment and attached a hook to the top of the open doorway. We strapped ourselves in the harness one by one and lowered ourselves into the shaft, descending with the cord until we reached the bottom where the elevator doors were also left destroyed by the conflict. An empty hallway led to the sealed-off underground quarters that were still protected by a large white, heavily fortified vault. Zone approached the terminal beside it and waved for me to join him. The facial scanner recognized my bone structure and pulled back its massive doors, allowing us inside.

    The underground facility was a futuristic laboratory with all manner of elaborate medical tech that I could barely wrap my head around the first time I saw them, let alone now. It was especially jarring to see these powerful state-of-the-art innovations collecting dust in the basement of a crumbling landmark in the middle of the Amazon jungle. A series of rooms were separated by protective glass and Zone escorted us through until we entered one with a giant tank similar to the clinical chamber from the med bay back on the moon base. He approached it, flipping switches and tapping the touch screen on its side immediately. It came to life.

    “I always suspected the Faction would have something to do with bringing the Lieutenants back into the fold,” Zone complained as he got to work. “Amanda, I'd advise you to get used to the idea of going up against them too if you're taking up Ben's mantle.”

    “Right,” she replied, though her tone sounded like she was just now accepting the gravity of the situation. “I can handle it.”

    Zone glanced back at me, but didn't say anything. He turned back to the machine, murmuring under his breath.. “Still not sure why Ben can't do it himself. Perfectly healthy, prime age, peak condition mentally and physically”-

    “You're right,” I chimed in. “You forget the most important thing though. She wants to do it. I don't.”

    “And yet, you came this far.” Zone tampered with the machine for a minute longer until it went off suddenly, causing an alarm to sound throughout the facility. As the lights shut down, the normal siren was replaced with the soft opening percussion of “Shout” by Tears For Fears which came blaring through the speakers around the building. Zone glanced around in confusion, but I nearly jumped in excitement.

    “Aw, hell yeah,” I laughed, nodding my head to it. “I forgot about this!” Zone rolled his eyes, but turned away to hide his own smile. “Shout, shout, let it all out / These are the things I can do without / Come on / I'm talking to you / Come on!”

    Amanda watched me sing along for a second, wondering if she was going to have to ask or if I was going to clue her in at some point. “Me and Terry pranked the whole compound back in the day by installing this song as the alarm during one of their drills. One of the technicians helped us do it.”

    “I remember that,” Zone said, shaking his head. “It took us six hours to stop the loop from playing.”

    “We jammed out the entire time too. It was Terry's idea, but I picked the song. I chose it for jokes and ended up falling in love with it. Man, this takes me back. I gotta add this to my playlist.”

    “You've got a playlist too?” Amanda asked. She leaned against the glass beside the Siphoner. Zone hacked through the firewall we coded into the system, turning off the music. He got back to work. “I've always felt like the best way to get to know a person is through their personal playlist. People don't realize it, but you can tell a lot about a person by their taste in music.”

    “Can't say I agree, but you seem like the type that would believe something like that,” I teased. “I bet you still record mixtapes on cassettes, don't you?”

    Amanda scoffed. “No...I've actually graduated to CD's, thank you very much”-

    I had prepared myself for a laugh, but it got caught in my throat in an instant. The glass behind Amanda suddenly shattered and a pair of solid white arms snatched her over the waist-high wall under the window. She screamed at the top of her lungs and Zone whipped around with a high-tech pistol pulled from inside his jacket. The lights were still dimmed by the alarms and he fired a couple of shots into the darkness, but they were gone in a flash. I lunged after her and into the hallways of the lab, but the second they left my sight, I'd lost them completely. I stumbled around, scanning the area for any sign of them.

    “Amanda!” I shouted into the void. The X-Buckle blossomed out of its camo form and I instinctively grabbed the triggers, pulling the ribbons to activate the suit. The armor covered the surface of my body and my adrenaline started rushing. A pair of blades protruded from my forearms. As I paced around the area on guard, I turned back to the room where Zone had just been and saw that it was empty. “Zone?!”

    Now they were both missing. I took off through the maze of glass rooms inside the facility but it wasn't long before I felt like I was running in circles. A young, raspy voice suddenly rattled through the loud speaker.

    “I'd say it's a joy to see you, but that would be an understatement.” I could only vaguely recognize it, but I could tell by it's clarity that it probably wasn't coming from the speakers at all. It was in my head. I paced around helplessly. “Yeah, I knew all along they never deserved you. I saw the potential when no one else did. I saw the potential where there was none.”

    The disembodied voice was only going to show itself when it chose to, so I finally calmed myself to a reasonable state and as if on cue, a man came into view when I turned again. His entire body was glowing pure white and he was nude but as smooth as a ken doll in the nether regions. His hair was platinum and his pupils were tiny black dots inside the void of his face, piercing through with a potency that could shatter bones. I recognized him.

    “Sam Stewart,” I said. A crystallized grin flashed across the whiteness, intensifying his already radiant visage. Over ten years ago, Sam was a student at Fairbrook High. No one knew who he was but years before the massacre took place, he was a school shooter. I faced him down on the anniversary of my first year, hours before one of the most intense battles of my life. Sam and I grew up together and were close in our Kindergarten and First Grade years, but as we got older, I moved on to other friend groups and Sam's isolated home life began to take a toll on him, transforming him into a demented young man behind closed doors. He became a bully who took every opportunity to make my life a living hell as often as he could and when he lost all sense of reality during the shooting, he made attempts to make me believe it was my own fault that he nearly killed my best friend and the rest of the school. I learned that his excuses weren't true at all and the mind games he loved to play intensified tenfold when he saw visions of the Razakin in his jail cell one dreary evening. Ever since then, I came to know him very well under his new moniker, “Menace.” “So you're the one the Ministrata kept here. Thought you'd be long gone by now.”

    Sam rose his finger to the visor of my helmet and the glass walls around us began to dissolve. My focus wavered for a brief moment as the vertigo threw me off balance, but I was able to get my bearings quickly and my surroundings materialized under my feet once more. Thunder rumbled above us and I realized that my location had changed. The two of us were standing between two buildings in an alley somewhere in the city, dark rainy skies pouring buckets down onto the flooding concrete at our feet. The flashes of lightning illuminated the areas that Sam's scintillating body couldn't reach. I could feel my muscles tensing up. I was having another out-of-body experience as my awareness shifted, but this time it came from my feelings of Déjà Vu . I had been here before.

    “I know you have,” Menace muttered, reading my thoughts. It was invasive. “That's the whole point. You see they all wanted you for your physical power, for your suit, but the real power comes from inside that helmet, doesn't it? That's the control room.”

    “I guess,” I said, watching him with extreme caution. I never let my blades down with him around. I knew my way around his usual illusions, but this was more elaborate than anything I was used to before. It was possible that the Ministrata's experiments made him stronger over the years. Just our luck, I thought. “Where are you going with all this?”

    “Where are you from?” a soft, tender voice whisked through the sound of pounding rain from behind me. It was followed by another voice that hit me in a way no other voice would.

    “I hope I'm from here. I kinda just teleported here by accident...Where are your parents?” I turned around slowly, feeling Menace's eyes watching the realization hit me behind the visor. The voice was my own, just several tones higher. A few feet down the alley, closer to the opening, two figures stood next to a rusted dumpster eroding away in the rain water. One was a tiny girl in a soaked night gown. The other was a 14-year old me, an awkward black teenage boy with glasses dressed in a polo shirt, high water jeans, and dirty white sneakers. I was shivering in the rain, holding myself. The young girl cocked her head, her smile fading.

    “Are you a human?” she asked.

    “Yeah...aren't you?”

    “No.” The girl's eyes went hollow and her mouth opened to scream, but no sound escaped. I felt Menace's voice rattle between my ears.

    “So this is how it all started, huh?” It almost seemed like those words went through my head without me realizing it the moment I experienced this. It was the moment when everything changed. The girl's jaw extended and razor-like teeth sharpened to points, projecting from her gums. Her eyelids and mouth stretched back, her hair coming to life and forming into loose tentacles. My younger self began to back away slowly as the little girl underwent this grotesque transformation into a demonic beast, growing in size. Soon, it towered over me. The creature bucked, letting out an ear-shattering screech. I grabbed a trashcan lid from behind the dumpster and tossed it at the creature's face. It swiped the tin away with ease, but it was distracted long enough for me to slip past it and flee into the dark streets beyond. I could feel the rain against my face again as I watched myself sprint through it. The Razakin galloped at full speed behind me. A bead of sweat trickled down beneath my helmet. I was standing there in my suit, watching a chase unfold that I was still engaged in to this day.

    We were in Kingdom City, 2065. This was how it all started.
    Last edited by Onlyne; 09-14-2018 at 01:44 PM.


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    Chapter 5: Summer Breeze


    My first brush with the hero life was traumatic, but dignified to say the least.

    It could have been worse. I had just been transported from Kingdom City Public Library 2005 to downtown Kingdom City 2065 thanks to the glowing, temporal crystal that was left in the library's boiler room downstairs. I was led there without realizing it thanks to Zone's bread crumb pheromones left on the text book he recommended me, Bruce Alberts's “Biology of A Cell.” In my armored adult body, I followed myself and the creature out of the alley and watched the events unfold as I remembered them.

    I was running in the middle of the street, swaying about from the torrential rain and winds. A hurricane was sweeping the desolate city. Every time the lightning flashed, I could see that most of the buildings were crumbling around me, but all my focus was on the monster galloping behind me. I reached down for a rock and tossed it back without breaking my stride, but it bounced off the creature like it was nothing. It kept charging. A flash of bright light swooped into view up ahead – a flying ship of some kind with glowing turbines and an oval-shaped design. A mini-gun ejected from its undercarriage, firing dozens of rounds a second into the creature. It stopped to defend itself, the bullets bouncing off of its tough skin as it rose its arms to block. I stopped briefly to watch, but the Razakin launched out its tentacles, wrapping them around the base of the aircraft. The creature shifted its weight, pulling the ship into a skyscraper beside us where it burst into flames. The force of the blast, knocked me off my feet and into a puddle of water. My heart sank as I watched the creature turn back in my direction. I got up and I took off again, but as soon as I did, the stomping footsteps of the creature were replaced by warped gunfire. I stopped to look again.

    Three soldiers stepped out from the wreckage of the building with high-tech rifles, firing at the creature. They surrounded it in battle formation until one of them moved in my direction. Their weapons were glowing, their armor dark blue camouflage. One of the soldiers tossed a device to the one closest to me.

    “Protect the boy!” he shouted over the rain, gunfire, and monstrous snarling. “Give him the watch! Show him how to use it!”

    The soldier rushed over as the creature finally bolted into another alley. The others followed. I backed away when the soldier approached me, nearly tripping over my feet again. He tossed the watch in my direction. It was red and black, built like a sports watch but far more advanced than anything I'd ever seen.

    “Put it on,” the soldier instructed. I looked him in his eyes. His hands shook around the rifle. This was his first mission out in the field – retrieving the founder of his organization. It was my first brush with Private Arthur Pichot, IMRA Agent-turned-Ministrata puppet, back when he was still an ambitious young rookie. The hopeful look in his eyes inspired me to take his advice in that moment. I latched the watch around my wrist. It's embrace was warm. “When you're in danger, press the buttons on the side simultaneously.”

    “What will it do?” I asked.

    “Everything.” I would have appreciated a clearer answer, but that was all I needed to hear. As far as I was concerned, I was in danger now, so I pressed the buttons as instructed. Nothing happened. Private Pichot kept his eyes on the alley. The creature was climbing the fire escape with the soldiers closing behind. He noticed me struggling with the device. “It's not going to work until it processes your DNA. Give it time.”

    An ear-shattering scream rang out, drawing our attention in time to see one of the soldiers being tossed from the roof of the building. The ground broke his fall head first, silencing the screams with a sickening thud against the concrete. I felt sick to my stomach. We glanced up to the spot where he fell. The second soldier was fighting a losing battle against the creature and soon, it wrapped its tentacles around his appendages, slinging him through the rain and into the building opposite us. He shattered the window on the second floor and disappeared. The creature hopped from the rooftop and landed gracefully on the soaked sidewalk beside the first fallen soldier. Private Pichot nearly collapsed. He was shaking worse than I was.

    “NOW KID, NOW!” The creature was closing in, but the watch face was still inactive. I pressed the buttons repeatedly with no results. Pichot rose his weapon and began firing at the creature. It extended one of its tentacles, knocking him across the street and through a window. I lost balance again and fell in the rain as the creature trotted closer. This was it.

    I heard a soft chirp and looked down. The core of the watch face was glowing blue. Without thinking, I pressed the buttons again. Warmth and adrenaline washed over me in an instant. The watch activated, ejecting up to release ribbons of light that slithered out from the device and wrapped themselves around my body, covering every inch of it. The ribbons molded into an armored texture with elastic in between for mobility. The helmet took form and I looked down at the crimson armor that now covered me from head to toe. I clenched my fists. All of my anxiety and fear was gone. I stared out of the visor at the creature, who had been blinded by the transformation. A message greeted me in the heads up display: “Greetings, Mr. Benjamin Fury.”

    The Razakin roared, dashing through the rain in my direction with its nails extended to the length of knives. It came dangerously close, rearing back to drive its fingers into my torso. The nails shattered the moment they made contact with the suit, crumbling to the concrete like glass. I swiped its arm aside, plunging my fist into its gut. The creature staggered back and I felt more power in my grasp than ever in my life up to that point. Its blood seeped between my fingers.

    “Good, kid,” said the soldier. He climbed out of the opening in the window and walked up from behind. “Now use a Genesis Wave. It's voice activated.”

    “A what now?” I turned back, but the creature was regaining its composure, preparing to strike again.

    “Do it NOW!”

    The monster shot out its tentacles once more, wrapping them around my forearms. “GENESIS WAVE!” I screamed. My palms were pulled together like magnets and a tremendous burst of concussive force expanded outward, parting the rain around us and obliterating the creature that took the brunt of it. The Razakin crumbled into a heap of ashes that quickly turned to mud in the rain and washed away against the concrete of the empty street. I stared at it in disbelief.

    My muscles weakened and fatigue took over. My body wasn't yet ready for the surge of Fortigen that had been released into my blood stream and I could feel myself losing consciousness. I collapsed onto the ground, but Pichot was there to catch me as the suit released from my body, morphing back into energy waves that retreated into the watch. The rain pounded against my bare skin again and I was only conscious long enough to see another helicarrier off in the distance behind one of the ruined buildings. It landed in the middle of the wreckage, more soldiers pouring out and heading in my direction. The younger me slipped into darkness, but I watched it all quietly from a distance, still armored up with “Menace” witnessing it for the first time behind me.

    “What's the point of this?” I asked him over my shoulder. “You tried to drive me insane once before and it didn't work. What makes you think it will now?”

    Sam dropped his head, smiling. “I don’t want to drive you mad anymore. I just want to show you that you were never deserving of love. Or a happy ending. You know that already, but I want to show you why. First hand.”

    I glanced back at him and the reality around us dissolved once again, taking the form of a High School gymnasium that was full of students engaged in activity. I felt out of place, standing in my Exodus suit with teenagers in work-out clothes running to and fro across the gym. It was a P.E. Class, but a basketball game was underway and some of the students were watching from the bleachers. A skinny skater kid with blonde, side-swept hair sat on the bottom bleach next to a young Asian girl with glasses. My heart warmed at the sight of them: Terry and Kim. Right above them, two girls sat also watching the game closely. One, a scowling Spanish girl divided her attention between the game and her phone while the other, a freckle-faced brunette with a ponytail and green eyes sat at the edge of her seat. Regina and Jessica. I froze at the sight of the latter, feeling a heat rise in my chest. There she was, staring off in the distance, looking intense with the single strand of hair hanging down her face and that gorgeous wide grin. I couldn't take my eyes off her. She suddenly grew frustrated, looking away in disappointment. Everyone in the gymnasium reacted, bursting out in laughter or shaking their heads. My attention went back to the game and I placed the memory.

    I was sprawled out on the floor after being crossed over and dunked on by Anthony Kelly, another popular kid that was once a buddy of mine and had a brief stint as one of the trio of kids that remained constant thorns in my side in my first couple years of high school. Incidentally, they were his teammates in this game – Joe Buttz and Sam Stewart himself. Sam, a pale kid with bleached hair, joined in the laughing fit as I got back to my feet. He watched me with dark, sagging eyes but I ignored his glare and got up, pouting and already looking defeated. He checked the ball to Joe and they continued down the court.. This was an exhibition game for gym class. I was no good at basketball and never came close to making the team, but I joined the game out of pride after Anthony called me out in front of Jessica. I thought I had some balls apparently or at least something to prove, but it was getting embarrassing.

    My teammate, Bradford Johnson, was another popular kid but a good friend throughout the years. He was a black kid with dreads and a laidback, friendly demeanor. Unlike myself, he was on the team, so he was having no problems in the game, but I could tell his patience was wearing thin. The ball ended up in his possession and I followed him down the court again. He took a shot and it bounced off the rim, landing right in my hands. I hesitated, bounced the ball once, then aimed to take the shot. Anthony dove for it, slamming the ball out of my hands and into my face. I remembered being grateful that Terry was holding my glasses for the game. The blow knocked me on my back and I could hear the gym erupt in laughter once again.

    “Get up, dude!” Terry shouted, standing.

    A prickling sensation tickled my wrist and I glanced down. The watch had appeared on my wrist in plain view. It had only been a day since I returned from the future, having reluctantly accepted the responsibility of becoming the savior of the universe by tracking down the harbingers of the Razakin in 2005. There had been times up until that moment where I wondered if all I had experienced was a dream. But then the watch appeared. I was emboldened at the sight of it. The moment I acknowledged its presence, the watch morphed into a rubber bracelet. The word “Bravery” was engraved on it. I remembered it fueling me as I got to my feet, feeling energized, but I knew deep down that it was all part of the indoctrination process. The suit did function organically with my body as its power source after all, which required some form of basic artificial intelligence to regulate and ensure that the suit couldn’t accidentally kill me. It could sense my emotions and take form whenever my awareness changed, just like the X-Buckle, but there were some mechanics built in to improve my mental health as well. It was designed to craft me into the perfect soldier, inside and out.

    I stood again, my body welcoming the Fortigen now flowing through my veins. I sprinted down the court and reached the others in an instant just as Anthony was laying up the shot. I hopped into view when the ball came up and scooped it into my grasp, barreling past him. He struggled to keep up, as did his teammates. I could hear the crowd reacting with excitement as I charged back to the other end of the court, spun in the air, and dunked the ball, shoving my body weight into Anthony and Sam when they jumped up to block it. The rim shook in my grasp and I cheered myself on like a little idiot, but the other students were loving it now. How the tables have turned. I spent the next few minutes wiping the floor with them and showing no restraint with my newfound abilities. Terry and Kim were cheering me on. Jessica gave a modest grin, keeping her excitement in check next to Regina, who simply nodded, impressed.

    “You were all for the job when it gave you power, when it gave you purpose...” Sam whispered from behind me. “She really had your heart in her pocket, didn't she? Blissfully unaware. That power really turned your life around. Gave you a new sense of worth. Not unlike my kind.”

    I gave him a look. “You're saying I'm the same as a Lieutenant?”

    Sam shrugged as if it were obvious. “You just sold your soul to the wrong devil. The sacrifices we make for power.”

    I scoffed. “I took the responsibility to save everybody, including your sorry ass-”

    “Wrong,” Menace said, shaking his head. He grinned again as the scenery around us transformed into an outdoor plaza outside of the Fairbrook High cafeteria. One of four picnic benches in the plaza was occupied by myself and Kim as it was every lunch. Terry hopped down from the steps into the sitting area and approached us with his skateboard under his arm and a bag of chips as his only meal.

    “Guess what I've got,” he said, his eyes stretched with excitement. Kim and I looked at each other, uninterested. “FUNYUNS!!” He held up the bag of fun onion rings with the goofiest grin that always made us laugh, then took a seat beside us and opened the bag. “You know, I still don't get why they only put half the chips in the bag every time. It's half-air. All that wasted space. Somebody should get sued.”

    “Well if you do it, please call me first so I can represent you and explain how that’s a bad idea,” Kim replied.

    “I mean, why not fill the bag all the way? I didn't buy a bag of Funyuns to get half the Funyuns. If that was the case, I'd have bought a second bag.”

    “Why didn't you just do that?” I asked.

    “Do what?”

    “Buy two bags.”

    “Why would I do that when I have a perfectly good bag right here?”

    I shook my head. “Terry, shut up.”

    The three of us entered a laughing fit. I stood in the middle of the plaza in my suit and watched us enjoy each other's company for a moment longer before a dark cloud suddenly covered the entire school. The memories were blending together. Students began to scatter and moments later, fourteen-year old me was now in the Genesis suit with my arm-mounted blades drawn, slashing through the zombified carcasses of the Razakin that were dropping from the black clouds. A series of gun barrels ejected from my wrist, using it as a central axis for an arm-mounted gatling gun. It shifted forward and rotated around my fist when it fired, laying waste to dozens of them in a row as they charged forward. The power I held in my hands in that moment was intoxicating.

    “You were like a drug addict,” Sam said. “As long as the high feels good, everyone else be damned, right?”

    I didn't answer, but watched my younger self vault through the air, slicing and dicing through Razakin with the training I'd picked up from my session with Zone only an hour before in the secret facility he had built secretly in his classroom. Blood splattered across the plaza and onto my suit, but it was my first time doing battle with these creatures at full capacity. The high did feel good, at least enough for me to commit to the fight for the long run. I remembered Kim giving an interview with a local news crew after the incident took place, where she revealed my name to the world as “The Genesis.” It would later become the archival footage that was used to kick off the viral marketing campaign for the film series to come.

    Menace continued to recreate my own memories around me in rapid succession. I watched myself get captured by the original clandestine leader of the Faction known simply as “Parker,” who then kept me captive in a large metallic room in hopes that they could torture me into giving up the Genesis watch. Even if they could get it off my arm with no resistance from its built-in A.I, it was built only to respond to my DNA. The big room was cold and empty, no bed or book to keep me entertained. I never changed out of the pajamas I wore when escaping from my grandmother's house and I was only let out to be dragged to a pool room where I was strapped to a chair and zapped with metal prongs that burned my nerves worse than any electrical torturing device ever could. Whatever meta-tech they had at their disposal was being used to make me break. It felt like knives were being buried into every inch of my body and when my heart rate spiked to dangerous levels, they untied me from the chair and tossed me into the pool where the water only increased the agony tenfold. The knives turned into swords and I nearly lost consciousness from the pain before they fished me out and dragged my bleeding body back into the room. Then, like clockwork, as I attempted to rest off the pain, a deafening siren would go off and continue for the next few hours to ensure that I driven to my breaking point.

    They let me starve in between sessions and I lost a lot of weight as a result. This routine continued for several months during my first summer break since becoming a superhero. I had endured numerous battles against the Razakin and Razakin Lieutenants that took a lot out of me, but none so much as this. It was the worst thing I had ever experienced up to that point and that became clear to Kim when she was somehow able to lobby her way into a visit. That was the first time she saw me broken. Zone was eventually forced to call for reinforcements and led an entire brigade of IMRA soldiers and vehicles onto the secret compound where the Faction was keeping me captive. I fought Parker in his rudimentary US-branded “savior” suit based on a mock design meant to replicate my father's, nothing of which I knew about at the time. The suit was grey, blocky, and no where near as advanced as mine. Using my own suit again for the first time returned all my energy in an instant, but the psychological damage had been done.

    Soon, Sam and I transported to an office building. I placed the memory immediately – I had been the Genesis for a full year and this was my first moment of weakness that loosened the title of “hero” from my vocabulary and identity. I stood across George Narrow, CEO of the multi-million dollar banking corporation, Narrow Industries, of which the famed Narrow Tower stood as the tallest skyscraper in Kingdom City and its crown jewel. My mother, Monica Fury, worked as a secretary here, but was fired months ago. It was night and only the light on his desk illuminated the room beyond the glittering skyscrapers outside. I had been stalking him in the darkness and now he was holding a gun in front of my face. He had no clue what I was capable of.

    “Answer...the question,” I seethed.

    “What's there to answer?” he shrugged. His tie was loosened for the night, his blazer lying on the back of his chair. He stood with his sleeves rolled up. His light-brown salt and pepper hair and deep tan hid any resemblance he might have had to his estranged son, Terry. “I didn't lay a finger on your mother and therefore, the baby isn't mine. I fired your mother for lying to you about the pregnancy and trying to tarnish my reputation-”

    “You told me she was fired before I ever mentioned that she was pregnant over the phone,” I growled, clenching my fists. “You're lying through your teeth, you bastard. I should kill you right now.”

    “Kill me?!” George laughed. “You came here to kill me? I'm the one with the gun! What are you, like 14”-

    “15,” I corrected.

    George dropped the gun and laughed even harder this time. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “You come in here accusing me of raping your mother and expect me to take you seriously in your little polo shirt and skinny jeans. Come on, kid. You don't understand, do you? I rule this city. I am this city. Nothing goes on here without my consent.”

    “Not even the Genesis?” I asked, gauging his reaction.

    “Yes, not even the Genesis,” he said, smirking. “He's my creation. My protector. He answers to me and through him, we're the ones that keep this city safe. Killing me is killing this city.”

    “You're a pathological liar. Is this the legacy you're leaving behind. Abandoning your family – my best friend, leaving his mother to turn to drugs so she could abandon him too. And then you play with my mother's heart, make her fall for you, and then when she was most vulnerable, you...I wanted to kill you the moment I found out you were the father. How do you sleep at night knowing that you've ruined so many lives, huh?”

    George didn't take much time to think before he shrugged, raising the gun again. “Change requires sacrifice. In order to invoke true change, it’s a requirement. That's something you'll come to learn when you're older, kid. I am more willing to make those sacrifices than most around me. I can cut ties like its nothing, I pride myself on that. I wouldn’t be the success I am without that skill. But I think we’ve talked enough tonight. Soon as I get rid of you, I’ll be calling up my private number to dispose of the rest of your family in case your mom opened her big mouth to rest of them. Hell, I might even get the Genesis to do it”-

    “Shut the fuck up,” I snapped. “I am the Genesis. Pull the trigger and see.”

    George shrugged again, raising the gun. “Sure thing.” He pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. The gun was jammed. “Shit.” He pulled it close to examine it, but the moment it was fixed, I was on him. He stretched the gun out again, but I was close enough to twist his arm out of place and slam him face first against the table. The lamp shook when his head hit the desk and I used all my body weight to toss him across the room where he smashed against a mirror that covered the left wall of the office. It splintered from the impact and he struggled to turn around.

    “How the fuck are you so strong?” he asked, bewildered. I rushed him, throwing a fist, but he dodged it in time. I smashed it against the glass, bloodying my hand, but before I could cry out, George grabbed my head and slammed me against the glass, then tossed me away in the same motion. I stumbled back and his foot hit my chest, knocking the wind out of me. I flipped onto my back across the room, but I scrambled back to my feet. We were both winded. George smiled. I charged again.

    We exchanged blows, George still thrown off by my fighting prowess. I managed to get the upper hand again and knocked him against the window by his desk, which splintered under his weight again. He cried out this time, grabbing his shoulder. I nearly lost my balance stepping back, but my foot slipped against the 9mm pistol George dropped in the scuffle. The gun's barrel lifted slightly and it went off, firing a bullet into George's side. He grabbed it, screaming at the top of his lungs and collapsing to the floor with a trail of blood following him down the window. I suddenly felt a hint of remorse for what was happening. What was I doing here? I asked myself. I couldn't even come up with a good reason. This had nothing to do with saving the world from total destruction. I was settling a personal debt by riding George Narrow from the face of the earth. He needed to pay for the turmoil he put my family through, but I had no right to deliver that kind of justice. I needed to leave before I made a decision I'd regret.

    Moments after I turned and headed for the door, a gunshot rang out and my body tensed up, an unbearable stinging sensation covering my entire back as the hot steel entered my body. It burned in my stomach and throughout my torso. I couldn't breath. The moment I caught my breath, blood shot out from my throat and I nearly lost my balance. When I turned, George was holding a gun that had been holstered in his ankle. He flashed a wide grin.

    “Your mother and your grandfather are going to suffer. I'll make sure of it.”

    The heat from bullet burning inside my gut was indistinguishable from the rage. My only chance of survival had morphed from the rubber bracelet back into the G-Watch around my wrist. I pressed the triggers immediately and the pain of the gunshot dissipated slowly with the suit that took materialized around me. The suit's healing function kicked in. I watched George's eyes widen. He climbed up the broken window to get a better look, dumbfounded.

    He made his way up to me, crawling up my armor to examine it. He caressed its smooth surface in amazement. There would be no hesitation from my end this time.

    “This technology...” he said in awe, as if observing an angel from heaven with his own two eyes. “Where did you get it?”

    I lifted my arm and the gun barrels ejected from my wrist again, sliding up to the fist. I pointed it at his chest and took pleasure in it. “The future.”

    The barrels began to rotate, sending dozens of lethal blue capsules into his torso at once. George staggered back, his body falling to pieces with each step he took. The impact of the capsules were powerful enough to travel through his body and out of the window, shattering it completely. I stopped the machine gun before he reached it, holding himself back with both arms against the window's borders, then just one arm. The other was nearly removed from his body, which was drenched in blood now. Part of his face and been destroyed by the gunfire. How he was capable of standing in that moment was beyond me. He struggled to speak, but all that came out was a wheezing death rattle. I was horrified by what I had done. I never used the suit's weapons on another human before.

    George gazed up with the last of his energy, then his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he let go of the window's borders, falling back out of the skyscraper. It took me a minute to realize that I'd killed him. I approached the window, looking down, but I was too high up to see a body hit the ground. I stopped looking immediately and turned my attention to the moon. I knew I had crossed a line that I shouldn't have. My first instinct was to distract myself and the moon was my target. I fired a canister of genetic spray to erase my DNA from the scene and activated the sonic speakers in my boots, shooting myself high into the sky above the city, leaving George Narrow's office behind.

    Sam and I watched in the darkness and I could hear him chiming in once again. “See? Power. That's true justice. You sold your soul for it, just like us. Just like George. You always thought you were so different – such a little reject that no one understood. One of a kind. Even the forces of the universe convinced you of this. But the question is, would you have tried to end his life if you didn't have the power to? Would you have even thought about it?”

    We were hopping in and out of memories again before I could adjust. I relived my fights with the Black Lion - the specter in the black and gold armor with a lion's mane around the collar, his strength far superior to mine for quite some time until I was able to unlock parts of the suit I didn't know were built in. I would come to learn that behind the mask, he was Mr. Edward Grimm, the principal of Fairbrook, who had taken the name from a deceased teacher years prior to hide his true identity: Terrence George Narrow. In the original timeline, Terry followed in the footsteps of his mother once we parted ways for college, turning to hard drugs and eventually to the Razakin themselves to fill the void taking control of his life. When they brought about the end of civilization, he denounced them and joined IMRA. He kept his powers and former allegiance secret, however, and when the future Ben learned that Terry was one of them, the asshole apparently turned his back on him, resulting in Terry's full embrace of his Razakin powers and the theft of one of my suits he traveled back to the 1990's and planted his roots to ensure my demise. He commanded the Razakin that attacked in present day and our fights supplied him with more power to speed up the process of release before I stopped him.

    The building changed, but we were still in an office. I glanced to my side and spotted the Narrow Tower across the street. We were close to the top, but the building towered over us. I glanced up, squinting. Two figures were fighting somewhere on the top floor and there were windows busted out of some of the floors around it.

    “You know where this is?” Sam asked.

    I nodded. “My last fight with the Black Lion.”

    The visor allowed me to zoom in and I could see the tail end of the fight. I was in the 2.0 version of the Genesis armor with silver plating, the same design of Napalm's action figure. Where the Exodus suit was built for stealth, the Genesis was built for power and its destructive capabilities caught a lot of attention in my early days. I was also an amateur. The Black Lion's helmet was down, his pale, stoic face and jet black hair exposed to the “Sniper Strike” that burned his face and incapacitated him long enough for me to charge my fist. The prongs of lightning spun around my wrist and I roared, throwing the Genesis Punch into his chest. The blow sent him flying back into the Pollen Machine - one of many that had been installed throughout the city to infect its citizens with a Razakin-based contagion that turned some of them into savages. This was the last and it shattered when he made contact. The Black Lion convulsed inside the machinery and a shockwave caused the entire building to shake. I zoomed out and watched my younger self dive through the window to escape. A bright light nearly engulfed the building, followed by an enormous explosion. The remaining floors began to give way - the explosion continued down the skyscraper until its entire infrastructure was blown out in a fiery blaze that shattered the windows of our building, sending smoke and debris barreling into the empty room.

    I peered through the fire and wreckage, spotting a tiny speck spinning through the sky above, the armors of the Genesis suit peeling from my body from all the damage I'd taken. The suit was falling a part mid-flight and I was moments away from losing consciousness. Another figure eclipsed the explosion and collided with my body before descending in the direction of our office building. Before long, I could make out both figures and a second later, the two landed beside Sam and I in the office. Storm Rider laid my body down in the corner of the room, propping me upright against the wall. He took a step back in his green and blue armor, observing the young black boy in the tattered jump suit. Then he lifted his helmet, revealing his face.

    “Wow,” he said with a chuckle. We had the same block head and wide nose, but he was much darker than me. He looked overwhelmed with emotion, but in a good way. He fought back a smile, his eyes welling. “It came true. Wow.”

    He knew all along. The Storm Rider suit was less advanced than mine, its meta-tech material synthetic yet strong and powered naturally using Martin’s bioelectrical field as its organic power source. I could see the influences of his designs in my own suit. There was so much I wanted to say to him in that moment, but he placed the helmet back on his head and made his way to the window. He leapt out and disappeared.

    I would spend the next year without a suit, which allowed me some time to focus on my personal life. I dedicated more time to Jessica, whom I finally worked up the courage to ask out, not knowing that she carried her crush since before I even noticed her back when she was a shy, lonely girl that blended into the background. She made me feel desired for the first time in my life. The entire school had come to know who I was due to the Black Lion, in the form of Grimm, forcing me to expose my identity at a pep rally the night before our last fight. I managed to diffuse the hostage situation before anyone was hurt and created a means for them to escape. The students had come to respect the Genesis after the numerous times I’d saved the school, to the point where they made a collective vow to maintain their silence about my identity. I felt appreciated after all the shit I had been through over the past year and it was an awakening for me. I went from the gum-shoe kid of Fairbrook High to one of its most popular students. I came to know and respect everyone that went there and I received love from just about every kid and teacher that I greeted in the hallways. It felt good. Except when it didn't. I knew I didn't deserve it.

    I was back in my mother's house in East Kingdom City, staring into the mirror at the black tuxedo and pink flower lapel that my grandfather had me suited for in time for Homecoming. I leaned over the sink, looking at the scars on my face from previous battles. Regina said they gave me a “rugged charm.” I was 17. “The Exodus,” a seemingly new armored hero taking the streets, had been active for a year, but this persona was more low-key, which I’d learned to achieve after a couple years of experience under my belt. The buckle was tucked away safely under the lip of my tucked-in shirt and blazer. My hand shook as I ran my fingers through my short 'fro. I took a deep breath and stepped out of the bathroom where the party continued.

    Everyone was here. My grandfather, Jake Fury, was the first to greet me when I entered the living room.

    “Looking sharp, man!” He was ark-skinned with a shaved head and a greying goatee, wearing his signature cango and windbreaker jacket. He directed the room’s attention to me and the others awed in approval.

    “SECRET AGENT MAN!” Terry sang on the sofa, dressed his own royal blue tux next to his date and longtime girlfriend, Regina in her extravagant teal gown. Kim and her boyfriend, Larry Ficus sat across from them. Larry, a ginger kid in an ROTC uniform, had a reputation as a troublemaker especially when Grimm was principal. He caught suspensions on a regular basis, but disciplinary actions were eventually made to keep him on the straight and narrow by putting him in the ROTC Department. He had a role to play in our original timeline too, but he was one of several that we kept outside of the fight for their own safety. Anthony was also present with his girlfriend, Tori - we settled our differences and rekindled our friendship before my identity was exposed. After that, he had my back in ways I couldn’t have ever asked him to. How the tables had turned.

    “That’s a ‘save the world’ outfit if I’ve ever seen one,” Anthony said, motioning with his drink.

    “It’s still missing something,” Kim said. She signaled Terry, who stood up, unwrapping the plastic off of some kind of ribbon with a Party City label on it. He pulled it out and didn’t allow me to see it until it was wrapped over my torso. He topped it off with a plastic tiara and I realized what it was.

    “Voila,” he said, gesturing at the Homecoming King sash that they managed to buy me despite my protests. I tossed up my hands, but the others applauded. “Since we know they won’t actually give it to you with you being too obvious of a choice and all, you should still rock it.”

    “I am not going to the Homecoming dance in my own bootleg Homecoming King sash,” I said, taking the tiara off. “What would I look like doing something like that?”

    “A total dick,” Regina said. “People will respect that though. Half those idiots are gonna assume you were crowned by default anyhow.”

    “It does look good on you though,” Grandpa said. “In fact, you should wear it for the picture at least. So your mom will forget you weren’t actually Homecoming King when she looks back on the pictures like she does for those karate pics she got from that one class you attended.”

    I shook my head, chuckling. “Mom doesn’t care about superficial stuff like me being Homecoming King”-

    “Look at my little Homecoming King!” Mom cried, rounding the corner from the kitchen with Michael Zone by her side. They were both wearing aprons covered in flour. She had her curly natural hair wrapped in a head wrap, glancing at me over her half-moon glasses. “Oh my god, you look so handsome in that suit! Dad, you really put in work on this boy, didn’t you? What a far cry from all the flannels and those nut hugger jeans you and your generation keep squeezing into like your balls aren’t suffocating the whole time”-

    “Mom, please.” I gestured at our party guests but she didn’t care about that.

    “What? I’m just saying its like trying to fit a pair of eggs in a wallet. It’s not gonna work.”

    “Why say these things?” I asked with genuine interest in an answer, Grandpa protesting now as well while the others laughed. Mom tossed up her hands, shrugging.

    “Excuse your mom,” Michael said, his hands on her shoulders. She touched one of them. It was a simple gesture but moves like that made me increasingly okay with the idea of them dating. I felt weird about it at first, but Michael was a good man and he hadn’t given me any reason not to trust him with my mother. That was saying a lot, considering I was extra protective of her after all she had been through. His tall, wavy brown hair, five O’clock shadow, and soft, puppy dog eyes made it easy to get comfortable in his presence and I could tell right away how my mom was able to fall for him, unlike some of the men she dated in the past. “She just got finished mixing some eggs in a batter for three hours straight, she’s been making egg analogies all afternoon. Food is almost ready guys. Let’s start heading into the kitchen to say grace.”

    “Make sure to wear your bibs, everybody!” Terry said in the weirdest voice he could make. He led everyone into the kitchen for the meal that had been prepared before the event. I remembered everyone joking and enjoying good conversation. I was on cloud 9.

    Michael pulled me aside once everyone was in the kitchen. “Jessica’s on her way?”

    “Yeah, she should be pulling up any minute now with her dad so we can get started.”
    
“Good deal,” he nodded. Then he leaned closer. “Your mother asked about our trip to North Star last week. I had to make up some nonsense about a field trip, but I hate lying to her.”

    I nodded. “I get it. I’m still not comfortable with her or my grandpa finding out about everything yet. They’re the only ones who don’t know at this point and I’m not sure they’ll ever be ready to hear that their son/grandson is the friggin’ maniac that’s been tearing up the city for the past couple years.”

    “Well, it’s just like Kim said. Knowing might make them safer. At least they’ll know the risks, I mean, the Black Lion already burned your last house down and came after your mom once before.”

    I sighed, trying not to think about it. “ I know. We’ve been doing a good job keeping them safe so far though. I just don’t want them to worry more than they already do, you know? That’s adding gasoline to an already steady fire.”

    Michael shrugged. “It’s up to you at the end of the day. After all the years we’ve spent training together, I’m learning to finally let go of the reigns and let you handle business on your own. You’ve truly come a long way and you’re more than capable of taking charge in our missions going forward. I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel pigeonholed up to this point, but I needed to make sure you were ready. I feel like you are now. I’m proud of you, Ben.”

    “Thanks, Mr. Zone,” I said with a warm grin. I held out my hand to shake and Michael chuckled, taking it. The doorbell rang and he stepped into the kitchen, leaving me to answer it. I could see a large shadow eclipsing the door and opened it to find Jessica standing in front of the screen door with her retired NFL star father looming behind her with watchful eyes, taking in the residence he was about to step into. I ignored his glares and got lost in Jessica’s gaze, her single curl falling over the left side of her face with the rest of her hair pinned into a classy ponytail. Her dark violet gown matched my suit. I opened the screen door, stunned .

    “Jess…”

    “Ben,” she said, mocking my dramatic tone with a teasing smile.

    “You gonna invite us in?” Mr. Scott asked, impatient.

    “Sure.” I stepped out of the way, welcoming the two inside. I was on my utmost behavior around Mr. Scott but this was the first time we would be spending a prolonged amount of time together. As we all entered into the kitchen to enjoy the enormous buffet and desert that my mom and Michael tag-teamed for the occasion. Jessica and her dad managed to gel well with the group and I saw him open up for the first time. It made the two of us more comfortable, but we were attached at the hip for the majority of the night. Terry teased us for reeking of that bubbly new couple gooeyness that I called him out for when he started dating Regina. He told us to wait a couple years when we can’t stand each other. I was quick to remind him that their relationship was different - Regina and Terry couldn’t stand each other when they first met and even now, their rapport was comprised mostly of mean-spirited banter that seemed to be just as entertaining to them as to us.

    Mom had some oldies playing in the background, “Summer Breeze,” by the Isley Brothers and other classic 70’s R&B hits. Once our meals were finished, we sat around the table shooting the shit and enjoying each other’s company with at least thirty minutes to spare before the start of the dance. My mom had already gotten a head start on the dishes, but Michael insisted on taking over and letting her get dressed. She and Michael would be chaperoning the dance together and reliving their own teenage years along with us. We stepped out into the back to take a bunch of group and couple pictures together. I had a habit of sneaking away in the middle of the festivities to get some alone time by the time everyone migrated back into the living room, I slipped back outside to get some air, taking in the clear night sky that stretched above the shed in our tiny backyard. I took a seat on the patio and before long, Jess came out to join me.

    “Always the lonely soul, huh?” She asked.

    I shook my head, smiling. “Always.”

    “They always ask about you when you go missing. ‘Where’s Ben?’ ‘Did Ben go missing?’ Then they task me with track you down.”

    I nodded. “It’s a lot. They can be a lot.”

    “Yep. And they’re there. Through thick and thin.”

    “Of course, Mike Tyson,” I joked. She hit me in the shoulder. “No, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t help being an introvert though. My battery gets low sometimes. I still remember when the only person I hung out with on Saturday nights was Terry and all we did was watch Team Velocity reruns and play video games at each other’s houses. Now we’re doing group dates and beach vacations and visiting wineries. All that goofy Saved By The Bell shit. So much has changed. Sometimes it’s unfamiliar. Makes me uncomfortable.”

    “Isn’t that the point of stepping out of your comfort zone?” Jess asked. She took a seat beside me on the step, careful not to get her dress dirty. “Trying new things, experiencing life. I know you don’t like to talk about the whole hero thing, but I’ve brought it up to Terry and Kim from time to time.”

    I shot her a look. “What have they told you?”

    “Enough. I know there’s something coming. It obviously has to do with all the attacks and you’re trying to prevent it. I also know there’s always a possibility that you may not ever prevent it.”

    I looked her in the eye. “If I don’t prevent it, that’s the end of everything. The entire physical universe.”

    Jess shrugged. “Then so be it. You still have to live your life right now. You still have to stay in the moment and experience the world as it truly is. Until that day comes, the only thing you have control over is the time we have now. Do you remember when we were first grade and you totally ghosted me every time I tried to speak to you?”

    I shook my head, laughing. “Yeah, ‘cause you won’t let me live it down.”

    “Damn straight, you shallow prick. I had such a massive crush on you, but I had that butter face with the coke bottle glasses that made me look like an old lady. Nobody even looked in my direction, especially not you. I used to be alone a lot too before I became friends with Regina. She was the one who gave me a makeover and helped me become more social. This evolution was a slow, meticulous process that I’m sure you’re no stranger to. I know you don’t remember how I used to sit by the top of the jungle gym slide and I would stare at you every time you passed by. You used to give me the weirdest looks like ‘what the hell is this weird chick staring at me for?” Then one day, I worked up the courage to ask you to push me down the slide. I thought you were gonna laugh in my face or tell me to kick rocks, but you didn’t. You smiled and said ‘okay,’ then pushed me down. If you hadn’t done that, I would have gotten over you eventually. But the fact that you did - it kept you on my mind. Hardcore. All the way up to the moment you asked me out.”

    “Wow. Never knew that.” I ran my hand across my head and tried to play it cool, but Jess could tell I was blushing and laughed. “That’s crazy because that’s my first memory of you. I remember it vividly. I thought about it a lot when we first started talking, before I knew you liked me back. The only thing that went through my head was ‘why is she asking me to do it? Can’t she push herself?’”

    “See? And if you had said that to me, I could be with a whole other guy right now.”

    “And then I’d have to use this suit to off some poor bastard,” I laughed. “That’s the thing though. I kept wondering about that moment. I remembered hoping there was something to it. I thought I was an idiot.”

    “Well, you are, but you pick things up eventually. And now you’re my idiot.” We giggled like a couple of goofballs and I leaned in for a kiss. Jess ran her hand through my hair and I held her in my arms. When we parted, I pushed her hair back and saw a marking I hadn’t noticed under her left earlobe behind her ruby earrings. It was a tattoo of some kind, a three letter word in a foreign language - “חטא.” “You got a tattoo?”

    “Oh, it’s not a tattoo.” She tilted her head to give me a better look. “It’s a marking I got from this church me and my dad joined a few weeks ago. It’s Hebrew.”

    I rose an eyebrow. “They’re branding people at churches now?”

    “It translates to ‘sin.’ It’s symbolic, it’s supposed to represent the idea of embracing your flaws. And you have no room to talk, you’ve got a friggin’ hawk symbol branded on your chest.”

    “Hey, don’t knock the IMRA symbol. I had to kick some major ass to get it. It. makes me feel like a bad ass when I take my shirt off.”

    “Hate to interrupt this conversation about shirts coming off,” Terry called from the kitchen behind us. “But the limos are here. You guys are still riding solo together, right? Wait, how can you be riding solo..together? Together solo? Two at a time”-

    “Yes, we’re riding together,” I interrupted. “Just the two of us.”

    “Just the two of us / We can make it if we try, just the two of us,” Terry began singing before his collar was snatched by Regina. She pulled him back into the house.

    “Come on, boy, I called first dibs on the mini-fridge!”

    Jessica stood up to follow them back inside. I grabbed her hand before she could go. “Hey.” She turned. “Love you.”

    “Who loves me?” She asked.

    I love you.”

    “Then say ‘I love you.’ Don’t shorten it”-

    “Leave, woman!” I waved her off and she laughed. When Jess was gone, I stood up and took another look out into the backyard. The shed in the corner sat under an oak tree beside one of the wood fences that boxed in our lawn and it kept drawing my attention. After a few moments, I stepped off the patio step and walked closer to it.

    “You should take the night off tonight, man,” I said. “Or at the very least, mind your own business.”

    “You don’t like having someone watching your back?” Said a metallic voice hiding in the shadows of the oak tree. I could see the outline of his figure, perched above the shed.

    “Not when they’re stalking me in the darkness. The Black Lion used to do that as an intimidation practice.”

    “Apologies. I don’t mean to bring up bad memories. But you’re very vulnerable right now.”

    I chuckled. “You don’t think I know that? We’re not gonna put our lives on hold and live in fear. I’ve managed pretty good in the two years you haven’t been around”-

    “Aside from the time you were kidnapped and tortured by a secret government agency. I get that the people who gave you your suit told you that the Razakin are a major priority, but they are only as dangerous as the individuals that want to release them and you can bet that they aren’t half as dangerous as the Faction is.”

    “In case you forgot, my allies and I destroyed the Faction’s compound. They’re a non-issue now.”

    “You don’t get it, do you? Everyone in the Faction could be taken out and it would still exist. The Ministrata will bring them back and funnel even more resources into their projects.”

    “You keep mentioning this ‘Ministrata’ crap like it means something to me,” I said, annoyed. “That’s your fight, man. I have my own to deal with.”

    Storm Rider sighed, his voice growing stern. “Ben, the Razakin are only dangerous because they are manifested from the sins of humankind, but it’s humankind that manipulates that same energy for their own gain. Mark my words, they will become your true enemy. When all is said and done. If you don’t prioritize your fight against the Faction, they will make your life a living hell. They are only biding their time because you’re a wild card, but you best believe they are planning how they’re going to tear you down and manipulate you into serving their agenda. That’s what they do.”

    “And what happens if we go after this Ministrata, huh? I’m supposed to rally up all of IMRA, launch an assault on the Ministrata and dismantle the whole system that keeps civilization in tact? What happens if they’re gone, won’t society collapse?”

    “That’s an excuse that has kept them in power for too long, Ben. I’ve been fighting the Ministrata for years now and I’ve seen the horrifying things they’ve allowed to happen. First hand. You can’t be afraid of changing the status quo just because you’re afraid of change.”

    “Just because you’re cool with cutting off everyone in your life and waging war against the system, doesn’t mean that works for me. What you’re asking of me is impossible and only leads to a life of misery and loneliness. My job is to prevent the Razakin from consuming the universe and just in case we end up losing, I’m doing everything I can to hold on to what little I have of a normal life. I’m not trying to derail that by starting a revolution”-

    “Benjamin!” Storm Rider snapped. I tensed up, but I could hear the vigilante sigh, calming down. “I’m not asking you start a revolution. I am not asking you to abandon your family and friends. I’m asking you to lay it on the line where it counts. Sacrifices are going to have to be made. The Ministrata know who you are. Everything you know is being threatened, no matter how bad you don’t want to hear that.”

    “Yeah, I don’t want to hear that.” I turned, heading back up the patio. “Nothing you’re saying is new and you’re really killing my vibe right now. I’m headed to my Homecoming Dance, so congrats on pulling me out of my element. Like you always do.”

    “Ben,” he called one last time. I didn’t stop and he called a second time. I slowed my stride, but didn’t turn. “I want what’s best for you. I know what you’re destined to be for this world. The Ministrata destroys everything good in this world that doesn’t coalesce with their agenda and they do it with a swiftness and brutality that you aren’t prepared for. I just wanted to warn you. The truth is, I know them well. I used to work for them until I realized that I couldn’t any longer and I’ve put my life on the line for the past few years, removing myself from everything I ever loved in order to focus on bringing them down. That journey has led us to cross paths. You’re a remarkable young man, Ben, but you have too much to lose. I want you to think about that tonight.”

    I laughed, turning to him. “You know you’re actually just as bad as the Black Lion. I already have a problem with staying in the moment. It takes so much work for me to not get consumed by my own paranoia and just live my life. Now I’m leaving here with the same unease he left me with, so thanks…Take the night off, Storm Rider. The world will thank you for it.”

    I stepped off with my middle finger turned up behind me and headed back inside.

    “Ben,” he called again. I couldn’t believe I stopped once more. “You really should be Homecoming King.” I didn’t respond. Once inside, I shut the curtains behind the glass door but peaked out of the side, waiting for him to leave. He remained in the shadows for a moment longer before his figure disappeared behind the shed and he was gone.

    The kitchen and living room were empty now. Everyone had migrated out in the front where a pair of limousines were parked to provide our transportation to Fairbrook High for the big night. I was angry with Storm Rider for taking me out of the moment, but I was never truly there in the first place. It was why I always had to mentally prepare myself whenever I stepped out to speak to anyone. I was wearing a mask, even though I had nothing to hide. I let the vigilante’s words roll off and put up the facade again to join the others. We chatted it up on the front lawn for an extra fifteen minutes under the belief that we had plenty of time until we we were rushing to grab our last minute belongings and load up the limos. Grandpa, mom, and Michael carpooled in my mom’s Prius while the others traveled in the party limo that would be leading the way to the school. Jess and I got into the back of the second limo, which had me facing some heat from Jess’s dad, who hit me with a ton of questions about us riding solo together. She managed to talk him down and he reconsidered opting out of the chaperone opportunity, but he left in a semi-content mood which was good enough for me. Soon, we were on our way.

    Five minutes into the drive, Jess reached between her cleavage and pulled out a small joint she had been saving for the occasion. She and her dad suggested the limo company after using them for her older brother’s Prom years ago, which was how she learned that they were somehow okay with smoking in their limousines as long as they took the necessary precautions to remove the smell. The limo driver had his window up, giving us privacy. We lounged back on the leather seats while Jess sparked up. I shuffled about, anxious.

    “‘Summer breeze, makes me feel fine,’” she sang, letting a little smoke seep from her mouth. She sucked it back in quick, then exhaled the cloud. “‘Blowing through the jasmine in my mind.’ What a pretty song. Your mom has great taste in music.”

    “Yeah, all they play in the house is oldies,” I said. I watched her take a few more tokes and then she hand me the joint. I was delicate with it, unsure what to do.

    “Are you scared?” She asked. I shook my head quickly and she giggled, watching me take a quick breath into my lungs. It was my first time feeling anything other than oxygen in my lungs and it was strange. I expelled my lungs until there was nothing in them, then I inhaled a complete lung full to ensure that I got high my first time. I instantly regretted it. “Are you sure you’ve never smoked before? You’re like a natural.”

    I shook my head with a smooth exhale accompanied by a whimpering roar as I fought back the burn, passing the joint back immediately. It felt like my chest was on fire. I coughed a couple times, but my lungs were so shot, it did nothing to ease the pain. I had to fight to keep from throwing up as the burn reached my throat, but after a moment, I felt myself regaining my composure. I stared into space, concentrating hard on not dying before I realized in my dazed state, that I was high. Jess handed the joint back, but I waved it away. She looked into my drooping eyes and gave a slow hefty laugh, falling over my lap.

    “Are you okay?” She asked with a big grin.

    “I could use a drink,” I strained. She laughed even harder. Jess scooted across the seat towards the mini-fridge up front and found a bottle of Pinot Noir but no corkscrew to open it with. She tapped on the driver’s window and I protested. “Don’t alert him. He’s gonna smell the weed.”

    “Relax, it’s fine.” Jess leaned in. “Hey, do you have a corkscrew up there for this wine?”

    “Uh, there should be one in the cabinet beside the fridge,” the limo driver answered. I glanced past him for a moment and saw that we were traveling down the Southboro tunnels leading to the Fairbrook suburbs and housing developments that surrounded the school. The limo Terry and the others rode in was too far up for us to see, but the mouth of the tunnel came up on the road ahead and I realized that our trip was nearly over. My perception of time had lapsed and we were already nearly finished with the blunt. Jess glanced back at my dazed expression and laughed again. I called her out for teasing me, but she only smiled.

    I love you,” she said, locking eyes with me. I was ready to repeat the words, but they were forced back by the sight of an object dropping down from above the tunnel opening. It stood upright in the middle of the road. The limo driver, distracted by his conversation with Jess, noticed only at the last minute.

    “Whoa, whoa, WHOA!” I exclaimed, shooting towards the front to get their attention. I felt the limo driver motion his feet over the gas, but the shadow in the street came to life in the headlights and I froze. A tall, muscular man grinned at us, his brownish, salt and pepper hair and dark tan making him appear as if he were covered in dirt from a distance. Even the two-piece suit he wore was desert sand red. I couldn’t speak. It was George.

    I launched forward and wrapped Jess in my arms. George reared a fist back and swiped his muddy arm across the road. It expanded into a bolder-like form and smashed against the front grill of the limousine, knocking it completely off course and into the guard rail. The force of the collision caused us to flip down the hill and at some point in my high, frantic state, Jess slipped out of my grasp and I blacked out.

    #

    Those first few seconds of consciousness were brutal. My brain registered the heat against my skin. I pried my crusted eyes open like I was using them for the first time in years.

    Giant blood red canyon walls surrounded the building behind me like it was located in the middle of a set piece from a Road Runner episode, the vibrant cartoony style replaced with a drab, lifeless desaturation. The trembling sun hung right in the middle of the crimson sky, robbing me of any shade from the canyons. The parking lot was empty, weeds twisting up from the splinters in the pavement. The building looked like a diner, decrepit and uninviting like it hadn't seen business in decades. A wooden sign hung from a pole in front of the entrance with Spanish writing: "La Casa De Diablo."

    There was something pressed up against my penis in my boxers. A smartphone had been tucked inside when I was unconscious. I had no memory of anything from the night before, just the moments leading up to our departure in the limousine, but now I was watching it all play out again before my eyes. My hands shook when I turned the smartphone on. The battery life was at 15%. The lock screen was open and when I scrolled up, a paused video frame appeared on the screen - a blurred figure of a man stepping through the dark hallways of what appeared to be a school. A feeling of dread washed over me. I needed it to see it.

    The moment I hit play, my old life ended. George, in his terrestrial form, took a stroll beside the cameraman, who remained silent as he spoke. “Hey there, Ben! It’s been a while. Two years, right? Boy, it’s good to be back. Wouldn’t you know you’ve got enemies out the wazoo. Especially on the Razakin side. They sure know the best people to recruit, right Sam? Anyways, ignore the vlog format - it’s just a formality to ensure get you the full effect of the tour I’m about to take you on. Come on, follow me.”

    He winked into the camera and circled a corner, entering the gymnasium of Fairbrook High. Before he entered and in the hallways he came from, I could see the light of a fire shining off him and those flames were scattered across the gym when the camera panned out to showcase the destruction. My heart sank into my stomach. There were poles lined up along the court with objects on top of them and George gestured at them.

    “Check out how I’ve decorated the place.” The camera got closer to the poles and I realized that they were pikes with severed heads on them. The floor was covered in blood. When the camera got close enough, I could see the victims and that’s when.I felt the pieces of myself be chipped away: Anthony, Brad, Joe, Tori, Larry, and the heads of a dozen other students were impaled onto the pikes, their lifeless mouths and eyes hanging open like stage props. This was real. This was my worst fear, my absolute and total failure come to life. At the end of the row, the heads of Monica and Jake Fury were perched like the main display in a twisted museum and I lost it. I slammed my palm on the ground, unable to concentrate on the screen as I tried to process what I was seeing. George’s voice taunted me.

    “Well, would you look at that! No one can ever say I don’t fulfill my promises, right?” He made the camera focus on my mom’s pale, lifeless face. “And you can bet your ass they suffered. Man, I tell you, the way you stole everything from me for this dumb bitch and robbed me of the life I worked so hard for, it felt too goddamn good to finally do this. It’s insane. I really died that night. But a higher power was looking out for me. And now they’ve got plans for you.”
    
George leaned in, planting a kiss on my mother’s cheek. I screamed through the tears, enraged beyond rational thought. I couldn’t believe this was happening. George stepped away and beckoned the cameraman to follow him to a spot beside the bleachers where someone was lying against the wall, bloodied and bruised. When it was close enough, I could make him out. Storm Rider. His suit was falling apart and it looked like his arms and legs had been broken. George whistled and several men in dark suits approached with their faces covered. They stood back and watched.

    “Your little partner here tried to stop us,” George explained. “Failed miserably. So did your other friends, their bodies are around here somewhere.” He knelt close to Storm Rider and lifted the helmet from his head, tossing it aside. I saw my father’s face for the first time. He was stoic, glaring up at George with weary eyes. “What’s your name, bitch?” Storm Rider didn’t answer and George curled his fist into one made of rock, smashing it against his face. It was like he had been hit with a brick. “I asked you what your name is. How many hits do you think you can take before I give you permanent brain damage? I’m actually curious, so it’d be wise to tell me your name is right now.”

    “M-Martin Blake,” he answered through bloody lips. The phone nearly slipped from my grasp. I remembered my mom always referring to that name with disdain in her voice. To her, he was some deadbeat who ran out on his family. It all made sense while at the same time, shattered everything I thought I knew about myself and the world before I could even get answers.

    “Martin Blake, huh? Your suit ain’t as advanced as the Genesis. Why is that?” Martin kept his mouth closed and George lost his patience again. He solidified his fist and punched Martin in the face with all his might, alternating hands and bouncing his head against the wall. I paused the video in an attempt to stop George, but realized I did not have that power. That was the point of recording the video - to make me truly feel powerless to stop it because it was already over. Martin’s face was nearly destroyed after the first few blows. It didn’t take much effort on George’s part. He knelt again, cuffing his ear towards him. “What was that?”

    Martin struggled to fix his mouth to speak, but after a while, he muttered, “I love you, son.”

    “Son? Wait, Ben Fury is your son?” George asked in surprise. “Huh…that makes total sense. In that case, bring out the Nutcracker. Time to test that shit out anyway.”

    George’s men rushed up to flip Martin down face first against the dusty gym floor. One approached holding a rifle-like device with a box-shaped apparatus at its end made of four prongs, evenly divided. He stood above Martin, clamping the device over the corners of his temple and jawline. It increased pressure and the way it held his head in place, I knew something horrible was about to happen. Martin fought through the pain and spoke.

    “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I was never there, but I tried to make up for it when I found out about you. I tried to teach you what I could, but I still failed because you never trusted me. I should have just told you”-

    “Jesus Christ, you talk to much,” George muttered. “Hurry up with that thing, will ya?”

    “I know you hate me, I know your ma and grandpa hated me, but everything I did, I did to keep you safe. Please know this!” The device made a pneumatic sound and Martin shut his eyes, the pain taking over. The prongs began drilling into his head. His groans turned to screams and his eyes became blood shot, then the ends of the apparatus split, prying his skull open from the top and spraying blood all over the camera. I turned away, emptying my gut on the sidewalk. I couldn’t hold myself together, tears, mucus, and saliva drenching my dry, cracked face. Sam and I stood a few feet away, observing the crumbling boy in the middle of his mental breakdown. I took in the surroundings of the dry, Mexican desert around us and understood how this setting was chosen, how this means of torture was designed to drive me mad.

    A small crane extended from the axis of the Nutcracker, plucking the pineal gland organ from two hemispheres of my father’s brain, then the apparatus released the open cranium. Blood flowed freely from the corpse as the men dropped it on the court and removed the gland from the machine, securing it inside a container. The camera panned around and a group burst through the gym doors. More masked men were dragging three hostages in: Terry, Kim, and Michael. They put up a struggle in vain.

    “Menace, since these are your former people, would you like to do the honors?” George offered to hold the camera. Sam laughed, then walked into frame, his solid white visage creating a glare over the lens, but everything could still be seen. A blade materialize from his hand as if growing straight from his flesh and he used it to flay my friends alive as I watched, entirely powerless. Eventually, the phone snapped under the weight of my grasp and I dropped it on the hot concrete, stunned and broken. My face was blank.

    “This is why I know you’re addicted to power,” Sam whispered. “Because you lost your mind when you lost it. Just like the rest of us.”
    
“Fuck you,” I snapped, glaring behind the visor. “You killing Terry, Kim, and Zone was an illusion. You tried to bury me in this.”

    “Honestly, it could have all been an illusion. If it were up to me, you would have been the only victim. But Gaia had other plans. I wasn’t going to stop him”-

    “Why are you still in the Temple if you’ve killed everyone there? Why didn’t you escape?”

    Sam seemed to hesitate, but eventually gave an answer. “I’m a trap. For anyone who steps in the building.”

    “Under who’s orders? The Ministrata?” Sam didn’t respond this time and I lost my patience with him. I put all my strength into a punch, knocking him straight into the dirt at my feet. The ground under him cracked from the impact. I reached down, clenching his throat and letting a decade of resentment seep into my grip which was tightening by the second. Sam looked unfazed, however. He grinned.

    “You’re cracking.” I didn’t know what he meant and was ready to twist his neck out of place when a soft cackle caught my attention. I looked over my shoulder and noticed that my younger self was alone. The small Mexican boy that took pleasure in my crumbling sanity was no where to be found. The laughter was coming from younger me. I snickered, flashing a lost grin at the sky and my mind was in pieces from that day forth. My wrestle for control over the illusion was lost and we were whisked away once again.


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