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  1. #1

    VR Troopers: When Worlds Collide

    Hey everyone. This is a fanfic I have pitched out if VR Troopers were to be rebooted in today's digital world of media. For almost two years, I've been working on laying the groundwork for this ongoing story. It was quite a work in progress, and I figured why not attempt to give this a shot and see what you guys all think? Enjoy.

    6/12/2020: I made some minor tweaks along the way. One of my gripes about the original series is that unlike similar Ameritoku shows like Power Rangers, Beetleborgs, Mystics Knights, & Kamen Rider Dragon Knight, the VR Troopers did not have actual color designations to their suits. In the show, they're only referred to as VR [insert main character of first name here]. But for the sake of this reboot, I gave individual names to the VR Troopers to help better distinguish the three heroes while in their respective forms. The Titanium Knight, a name originally coined for J.B's VR suit, will now be referred to as the Silver Samurai, coinciding with the emphasis of his suit and signature Twin Blade weapon that originated from his Japanese counterpart Spielban.

    Plot:

    When three lifelong friends beta test a video game during a trade show, a hardware malfunction not only causes the game to crash; but to witness a master plan gone accordingly when it severs the reality barrier, allowing a faction of robots to cross over from the virtual gaming universe into the real world. An evil avatar named Grimlord leads the charge in hopes to eradicate all of humanity to make way for his own group of species to flourish. Using virtual reality technology, co-creators Horatio Hart and Tyler Steele along with his team at Steele Labs developed a set of specially enhanced armor suits to combat in the line of duty. Upon discovering their work, Ryan along with his friends J.B and Kaitlin harness the powers of VR in their effort to thwart off Grimlord’s plans to conquer both worlds. Together they are the VR Troopers.

    Cast:

    The VR Troopers
    (From left to right)

    trio.jpg
    Leo Howard as Ryan Steele/Blue Hawk Trooper
    Darnell Barthlomew as Jonathan Benjamin "J.B" Reese/Silver Samurai Trooper
    Grace Dzienny as Kaitlin Star/Red Sheriff Trooper


    Keith David as Professor Horatio Hart, Mentor and co-creator of the VR Troopers suits



    Matt Mullins as Tyler Steele, founder of Steele Labs and co-creator of the VR Troopers suits



    Jamie Kennedy as Woody Stocker, Newspaper Chief Editor of The Crossworld Chronicle



    Anna Torv as Rebecca Steele, Police Chief/Commissioner of the Crossworld City Police Department
    304A0B0B-E4EA-4980-AEBC-DACFC5734525.jpg


    Fredric Lehne as Karl Ziktor, founding Chairman of Ziktor Industries aka Grimlord, main villain and ruler of the Mutant Empire in the Metal Fighters Franchise
    FE2A164D-965C-49AA-B5A8-3346123F2D44.JPG


    Burt Ward as Sam Strickland, founder of Strickland Gaming and contributor to the making of the video game Metal Fighters




    Prologue

    A widespread of panic echoes inside the gloomy interior of Steele Labs. Sparks of flames ignite from the damage previously sustained by an unknowingly evil force. Piers collapsed from the destroyed ceiling of the facility's top floor leaving a dosage of debris that scattered all over the ground. A number of employees screamed in horror based on the incident that transpired. Some were their coworkers covered up in blood, even going as far to help others in need. The facility continued to be under attack as the entire division of Steele Labs made their desperate attempt for escape.

    Inside the conference room, a male scientist with short black hair sporting a white lab coat motioned from room to room advising his coworkers to evacuate the building. Tyler Steele put forth the effort into doing what he could to ensure their safety. As he notices a man trapped beneath a fallen pillar, Tyler did not hesitate than to lend his assistance.

    "Horatio just hang in there. We'll get you out," he assured to his fellow colleague.

    "My leg is crippled Tyler.” Sporting a snow colored hair along with a brown business suit and red tie, the African-American college professor struggled to regain his feet. Tyler helped Horatio to his feet swinging the professor's arm around his. One step at a time they continued to progress their way to the emergency exit door ahead. Initially, what they believed was home sweet home. All that hope devoured the instant they find the exit had been blocked off as a result of the ignited fire barricading their intended destination.

    "Damn it. That's our ticket on out of here!" Tyler cursed. Not only did frustration cloud his judgment. As a life or death situation hangs in the balance, this scenario left these hostages into a corner.

    As Tyler and Horatio took a detour, it wouldn’t be for long before they overheard the sound of a person's cry for help.

    "Someone else is still in here. We have to find them," Horatio insisted. As Tyler nodded, they continued to navigate the location in which they heard the echo derived from. It was only a matter of time before they came across the victim's presence leaning back against the dashboard control. Although they spotted the victim, however, they were not alone.

    Tyler and Horatio hid across opposite walls from one another, eavesdropping on the conversation in progress.

    "I am going to ask you this once. Tell me where the Virtualizers are or this place goes down with you!" Spoke a grey skinned creature clad in steel based armor with the same designed helmet attached to his head. A red cape was attached from the shoulders down to the back of his ankles. From the distorted facial implant, it was the glare of his ominous red eyes that left his victim begging for mercy. Grimlord pulled out his sword pointing his weapon towards the said employee.

    "Oh my," Horatio muttered. In awe by the intruder that stood in the room, the two took caution for every move they made. Or so it seemed.

    "We have to take our chances. Whatever this creature is, we can't let them get to him," Tyler warned to Horatio.

    “You’re going to need a bulletproof vest from your office,” the professor encouraged.

    “There is no time. At this rate, this lab is already on life support,” Tyler argued.

    “If you plan on helping one of your scientists, it’d better off if I aide you here,” said Horatio. “Let me go ahead and play decoy. I can give you a moment to help rescue your coworker without doing anything drastic.”

    Despite the professor’s good intentions, Tyler rejected his offer. “I appreciate it but that won’t be necessary. I can’t risk losing a friend of mine.”

    Horatio questioned the behalf of Tyler’s decision. “This is insane. Don’t you realize what consequence you’re getting into?” He commented.

    “I understand that but you’re too badly injured,” Tyler acknowledged. “Look, this place is likely going to come crashing down if neither of us make it out alive. I’m not going to leave until everyone in this facility evacuates.”

    Horatio shook his head. “No, I’m not leaving any of you. We work as a team Tyler. This isn’t a one man show,” he said.

    “Would you rather have someone risk their lives to save everyone or let them all perish knowing you had the chance to save them?” Tyler confessed.

    Upon hearing his comment, Horatio was unable to give out a straight answer.

    “We’ve backed ourselves in a corner here. Part of me doesn’t want to do this but at the same time it has to be done,” said Tyler leaving a slight shed of tear dampening the corner of his eye. “Tell Rebecca that no matter where I am, I’ll always be in her heart. Just let her know how much I loved her, and I wish I could be there knowing she and my son always comes first.”

    Given the implication, this instance stunned Horatio. As a lifelong friend, he couldn’t believe the potential sacrifice Tyler would be making. Not only does this affect his well being but how exactly will his loved ones cope with his absence?

    For a moment Horatio sighed prior to making a decision. “Well I hate to say but at this rate, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Do you have a weapon in your disposal?”

    Tyler reached inside his lab coat but with nothing of such.

    “I suppose I’m out of luck,” he said.

    "You don't have to worry. I've tested out this weapon at my base so it should be operable," Horatio said directing his close colleague's attention over to his holster gun. "Here, take my laser pistol. It's always good to have a backup plan in handy."

    As instructed, Horatio pulled out his weapon handing it over for Tyler Steele to obtain.

    "You are a good friend Horatio. I owe you one," Tyler complimented him.

    "This is your final warning. I've been told they were stored in this facility. Either you direct me to the source or this laboratory will collapse along with everyone in it," Grimlord threatened him. Despite his request, the scientist refused to comply.

    "Then you leave me with no choice. For that I shall perish you!" Before Grimlord could use his quarter staff weapon to kill the said scientist, a sudden laser beam blasted directly at him. , a sudden laser beam blasted directly at him. The creature turned around to confront the founding father of Steele Labs.

    "I don't know who you are. But you are not going to find what you're looking for in here," he scolded much to Grimlord's dismay. Tyler turned his attention over to the coworker he rescued, instructing to assist an injured Horatio out of the lab.

    "I take it you happen to be in charge of this dump of a laboratory, Tyler Steele," Grimlord took into assumption. "When I overheard your science division had been conducting a project using VR technology, it was a matter of time before I stepped in on that regard. Now I must ask. Where have you stored your Virtualizer keys?"

    Tyler glared at the cold menacingly eyes of the evil figure. Questions clouded his mind. What would he want with the engineering scientist? Matter of fact, what would Grimlord have to gain by obtaining an important object?

    "Even if I told you the truth of where it's stored, the Virtualizers are a special device that has yet to be tested. You won't go anywhere near them," Tyler warned him.

    "How stubborn,” Grimlord said. “Since you won't give me a direct answer, I'm afraid I have to take matters into my own hands."

    Grimlord let out a blast from his signature weapon. Tyler dodged out of range immediately firing back with multiple shots from his pistol. Despite these attempts, not a single scratch affected the stoic presence of Grimlord. Remaining unharmed, Tyler backed himself into a corner - a corner in which his life hangs in the balance.

    Outside of the flames that engulfed the lab, firefighters arrived on the scene looking to extinguish the fire that has left the building in shambles. A number of law enforcement agents surveyed the crime scene. Cops exited out from their police vehicles as well as paramedics that arrived from the ambulance trucks. A yellow caution tape extended across throughout the front entrance of Steele Labs.

    Exiting out of a jet black rental car, a middle aged woman with strands of long blonde hair approached her way to the scene alone. Rebecca Steele took her chances without the necessity of second thoughts clouding her mind. Dressed professionally in a black suit and same colored dress pants, her eyes remained focus on the burning building ahead from her windshield.

    "Excuse me Commissioner. I'm sorry but for your safety, you'll need to step back," spoke a fire fighter.

    By showing him her police badge, Rebecca took no prisoner.

    "For your sake, my husband is in that very building. His life will be at risk if we don't get him out," she spoke vocally about the situation.

    But maim!

    As firefighters took notice of her presence, they approached the police chief in hopes to talk her out of the situation. Despite their efforts, Rebecca refused to comply with their orders.

    With the circuit breaker inoperable, Tyler progressed through the gloomy corridors of his laboratory. Grimlord continued his pursuit of his intended target, looking to seek for punishment.

    Tyler stumbled upon a switch output comprising of a lever on the wall. The ever menacing creature followed the scent of his tracks. As Grimlord drew closer to his prey, Tyler pulled the lever switch downward, triggering a gate mechanism that kept them barricaded from one another. This allowed him to buy the time needed to escape the lab. It seemed there would be a light in the tunnel...at least that was what the scientist hoped for.

    Please, somebody help!

    Trapped underneath a filing cabinet, he overheard the sound of a local employee screaming desperately.

    Tyler entered the room of a small office that the employee cried for help. He attempted to lift the cabinet that collapsed on top of them. Despite utilizing all of his weight, his body remained wounded from the implosion that transpired. As the facility gradually crumbled to its last breath, it would only be a matter of time before superstition catches him off guard.

    "You thought you could escape from me? Just as I suspect, I do not like to be insulted." Grimlord's sudden presence left a seemingly helpless Tyler into a corner. At this rate, there was only one method he could do to defend himself. With the laser, Tyler continued to fire numerous shots at Grimlord. Not even a single scratch was able to weaken the creature. Putting aside his laser pistol, he laid in on the offense with a series of right hand punches, followed up with a spin kick to the creature's stomach. Shaking off the endured blows, Grimlord retaliated going as far as tackling Tyler towards the control panels. Punch after punch, he repeatedly laid an assault on the defenseless scientist. Bruises on his face became apparent rendering Tyler's inability to maintain consciousness. In an attempt to turn the tide, he took notice of a set of tranquilizers lying on a lab table. As Tyler prepared to strike the needle at him, Grimlord blocked his arm leaving an intimidating expression on his face. Continuing to strain Tyler's arm, these following words spewed from the gruesome fiend.

    "You may have a lot of guts to face me toe to toe. But nobody underestimates the Wizard of Darkness, not even you!" Grimlord exclaimed.

    Despite Tyler's effort, he struggled to maintain momentum of Grimlord's deadly grasp. The ever increasing flames raging from his crimson eyes proved to have a disadvantage effect on the scientist. Not even he could withstand the creature's immense power.

    Grimlord twisted Tyler's arm pointing the needle right back at his enemy. Out of his control, Tyler gasped as he felt the needle squeezing down on the back of his neck. The scientist's eyes began to flicker like a light switch before gradually losing consciousness. Subsequently, Tyler collapsed on the floor while Grimlord stood in triumph.

    As Rebecca navigated her way through the building, she passed through a set of pillars piling on top of one another. Sparks of electricity erupted from the damaged cable wires hanging above the ceiling. With her handgun firmly intact, she surveyed the area in search of her husband. Repeatedly, she shouted his name; everywhere she went she couldn't help but let out a cry of desperation. She had to know if Tyler was alright. By the time she approached the hallway leading into Tyler's office, she spotted the presence of an unorthodox figure with a distorted face implant penetrating from the right of his cheekbones. Rebecca's eyes widen in horror to witness the maniacal creature standing across from her. As the flames fueled with anger, any trace of Grimlord's sightings diminished within an instant.

    "Commissioner, do you copy." She overheard the dispatch of a police officer coming from her earpiece. Rebecca stood frozen on site leaving no verbal response. "You have to get out of there stat. The lab is falling apart as we speak."

    Despite their attempt of contact, it was the same song and dance. What could possibly be done to grab her attention?

    "Commissioner," The officer exclaimed. This allowed Rebecca to revert her attention to the instruction provided. With only minimal time to spare, the thought of losing her husband seemed nonsense. All she intended was to check to see if he was fine. As Rebecca checked the office Grimlord walked out from, she looked around the vicinity with the hope of hearing a cry from Tyler.

    "Help me," cried a local employee with their leg piled underneath from a fallen cabinet file. Without hesitating, Rebecca used all her might to lift up the cabinet. Laying it to the side, she gradually pulled the employee up on their feet.

    "Commissioner," spoke a police sergeant while approaching toward her. "We better get moving. Here, I'll help you."
    Together they assisted one another through the dim corridors of the laboratory. By exiting through the emergency door, they made their escape out of the burning facility that has been left piling in shambles. As they stood behind the caution tape, the expression on Rebecca's face indicated an unfathomable tragedy. In premature fashion, the person she knew and loved may have been taken away from her. The man she had spent most of her life with was nowhere present in the lab - the same lab he founded as a vehicle to his traditional experimentation of bio engineering. Not only would he witness his lifelong career collapse in front of him. Rather that it came with the expense of his life in the process.

    But with the loss of a loved one came questions. Apart from the "who" aspect, what sort of purpose did they intend to achieve? Why would they go as far as severely destroying a research lab, harming a number of employees occupied in that vicinity? The truth is out there she thought; Something Rebecca intended to scope answers for.

    Later that night, a young man in his twenties entered the home of his studio apartment. Carrying a bag filled with carton boxes of Chinese food, he arrived at the kitchen as he prepared to set up dinner on the table ready to be consumed. He scrolled through the text messages from his phone in curiosity of their whereabouts. In the meantime, he flickered on the light switch looking to bring life to the seemingly empty house. By the living room, he used the remote to turn on the television. While scrolling through the channels, he did not expect to encounter a breaking news bulletin simulcast throughout the feed. It didn’t help that the headquarters belonging to Tyler Steele would not only grab his attention; hearing the name alone had his heart racing pound for pound, in the vein of participating in a marathon but with no finish line. It was as though he had a much deeper connection to the victim like he recognized him. He turned up the volume on his remote taking a glance at the screen with intrigue over the event that unfolds.

    While monitoring the news coverage, he overheard the sound of a door knocking from the house’s main door. As he opened the door, Rebecca stood from the hallway emotionally shaken from the tragedy that transpired. Her eyes weep a sea of sorrow that ache a sense of pain and loss of a beloved one.

    “Ryan sweetie,” she cried choking up in the middle of her sentence. Struggling to convey a verbal reaction, a moment of embrace ensues between mother and son. The past few hours or so have been a roller coaster ride of emotions. Whose intention was it to infiltrate the facility if it meant jeopardizing the lives of employees going through their day at work? What kind of injustice did it serve for the fiend not to spare the life of the laboratory’s founding father? Such an incident remains superstitious that not even local authorities could comprehend.
    Last edited by Quantum Leap Ranger; 06-13-2020 at 05:31 AM.

  2. #2
    Originally, I intended to post the 1st chapter the other night alongside with the prologue, but I had a little of getting used to the forum as I haven't been active on here since the Rangertalk days. Chapters will be updated slowly but it'll take some time to proofread through all the ones I've completed so far. If you guys have any feedback of sorts, that would be appreciated as well.


    Chapter 1:
    Friendly Reunions


    During the midst of typing up a blog post, Ryan took a moment to reflect a personal tragedy that has left an impact on his everyday life:

    Grief – It’s that feeling we have to endure when losing someone who holds dear to you. Ever since that fateful night, I couldn’t help thinking about the good times I shared with my father. No matter where I went, his spirit would be there to guide me even through a harsh phase in my life. While all living organisms in life eventually pass on, the fact that he was taking from me too soon is a burden my mother and I have since had to deal with. I don’t know what happened or who helped set the fire at my dad’s laboratory. But they don’t realize just how deeply it has an effect on the people close to him.

    Ever since the fire that broke loose, my friends and I began to uncover the mystery surrounding my father’s absence. It was soon that we realize that he and his team had been experimenting with a specially enhanced armor that would serve a sole purpose to protect our city from a vile faction. To say the world needs heroes makes quite an understatement. But when evil begins to lurk among us, there is one team that could stop them from taking over our reality. I, for one, was beginning to cope with that responsibility.


    Inside the digital newsroom on the upper floor of the Crossworld Chronicle, a team of journalists spent a busy morning performing a set of assignments to kick start their day. Over by the phone lines, some of their employees got into contact with some witnesses involved during the fire. Other journalists including reporters and news editors continued to gather information that may link up to a potential perpetrator responsible for the incident. When it comes down to the world of journalism, such a career investment requires a number of traits that may benefit them in the long haul; such examples include persistence, integrity, courageousness, and honesty that helps better comprehend a subject matter on hand. Every day in life there is an event that has yet to be publicized.

    An elegant woman in a navy blue cardigan suit sporting black dress pants and shoes monitored the news coverage in progress. She had scrunched the longing of her blonde hair into a bun, her blue eyes peering towards the television screen. Police Chief Rebecca Steele of the Crossworld City's Police Department is seen walking pass the paparazzi that consist of photographers and reporters alike. Coming off the heels of her husband's death, she declined to address her comment on the matter. Who could blame her? Through the eyes of investigative reporter Kaitlin Star, she expressed nothing but compassion and genuineness towards the chief.

    Chiming in from behind, a middle aged man with dark hair dressed in a buttoned down purple shirt and black tie stood next to his employee.

    "Miss Star, how are we doing on our latest news feed?" Woody Stocker, the newspaper's chief editor startled in front of Kaitlin.

    "I was hoping to get word from the Crossworld City P.D but their phone lines are busy at the moment," she answered.

    "This isn't sounding good coming from my best reporter here," Woody said in a displeasing manner.

    "I'm doing the best I can," she vented. Kaitlin approached her desk arranging some filed reports scattered on the table.

    "Handling pressure, now that's the trait I like to see in an employee," Woody admired. During the course of the past few weeks, the mystery surrounding Tyler Steele's death has sparked attention among citizens residing in Crossworld City. Not just restricted to news outlets and newspapers alone. In the age of Social Media, users have left message tweets paying their condolence to the scientists who were involved at the time of the incident.

    "I'm sorry. With all the latest news going around, there's one person that could only do so much to sustain herself," said Kaitlin taking a deep breath to maintain her personal emotions from affecting her performance.

    "Oh for the love, would you please spare me the excuses," Woody insisted. "I am just as stress out of my position as much as the next person." By continuing to monitor the bulletin up close, it was that instant he began to engage in the emotions that clouded Kaitlin's mind.

    "It must be difficult to experience what she's been through. I can't imagine how the rest of his coworkers involved in the incident are coping with what they went through," he further commented.

    "Good point," Kaitlin responded. "But think of how tragic it must have been for her son now their loved one is gone. How would you feel if someone close to you dies knowing they had so much more they could offer in this world?"

    Woody continued to listened taking into account on the serious matter being addressed in this discussion.

    "Look, I've been best friends with their son since we were children. They would welcome me over to their place while my parents would be busy working during the late shifts," she continued. "Not only did they lose someone so close to them. To think the last person to pop up on the bulletin just so happens to be someone close to me." Kaitlin took empathy with the situation surrounding Tyler's surviving family members.

    With a hand on her shoulder, Woody stepped in to offer a gesture of comfort towards his loyal coworker.

    "They say family runs deeper than blood," he said. As Kaitlin's eyes dampened, she immediately wiped even the slightest shed of tears before her boss could notice.

    "Woody, someone has claimed to have a sketch of our potential suspect." Chiming in the middle of their discussion, another journalist handed in a drawing for the chief editor to observe.

    "No offense but this looks like something a Kindergartner drew in art class," Woody responded taking the time to take a glimpse at the sketch.

    "Well don't look at me I didn't draw that," they said.

    "I didn't claim you did," he defended. "Come back to me when you have clear evidence behind what happened back there."

    Woody handed the sketch back to the said reporter before leaving his sight. They approached the Chronicle's chief editor to inform him that a coworker of theirs has taken a sick leave of absence.

    "Kaitlin, I have a special assignment for you. Apparently we have an employee calling out sick, and I was wondering if you could fill in for them?" Woody offered to Kaitlin.

    "What assignment are we talking about?" She asked based on the insinuation of her supervisor.

    "In this digital age we live in, we can't seem to live our day without looking at our smart phones or tablets," Woody said. "When you're not working, what do you like to do in your free time?"

    By raising her eyebrow, Kaitlin responded to him with a dumbfounded expression.

    "Well for starters, I usually get up and have a morning jog or on occasions playing some flag football, baseball, and tennis," she replied.

    Do you also happen to be an avid gamer? Lately virtual reality has been the talk of the town when it comes to video gaming," Woody further clarified. There's a trade show going on in our city and we were hoping if you could write up an article, and take some photos while you're at it?"

    Kaitlin chuckled. "Funny thing you mentioned that because my boyfriend and I made plans to head there that weekend. Talk about happenstance," she said.

    "Will it be a simple 'yes Woody, I can do it? Or I'm sorry I'm too preoccupied that week?'" The chief's editor waited his employee for a straight answer.

    "If I said I am attending the Crossworld City Gaming Expo, presumably it's a yes," Kaitlin told him.

    "Now that's the response I was looking for," Woody spoke with joy and relief. "I would love to have that assignment on my desk the morning after the expo. I'll be looking forward to reading your article."

    "I won't let you down," Kaitlin assured to her boss. "Thanks Woody."

    "No, thank you," he exchanged with a similar gratitude of his own.

    The conversation came to a screeching halt when a messenger alerts Woody of a telephone call. As he returns to his office, Kaitlin felt the vibration of her cell phone coming from her purse. As she went to pick it up, she would receive a text message sent from J.B Reese.

    Are u and Ryan able to make it for dinner?

    Kaitlin read his text message before coming up with a response of her own.

    I'll text him 2 see if he can make it. My shift is almost over so I should be leaving pretty soon.

    She pressed the send tab as the message transfers over to J.B's phone. Kaitlin waited momentarily for him to conclude with one more response.

    Ok but be sure to stop by the dojo when you're out. I've been practicing a technique for my students in class, and I was looking for a volunteer to help me demonstrate.

    Kaitlin read his message as she prepared to make a response.

    Don't see the reason why not

    She continued to type in another message by sending out yet another text of hers.

    Was wondering if u had a chance to look over at my car this weekend; my car battery died so i had to take a cab just now.

    In regards to Kaitlin's text, J.B followed it up with a reply of his own.

    Ur battery is dead? I just put in a new carburetor less than a month ago.

    I have classes to teach that will take a long portion of my weekend. I'll have to figure out a way to arrange a time to look it over.

    Wouldn't mind taking the metro but u realize how crowded the passengers are in there.

    J.B read the messages thoroughly while coming up with a solution to the problem.

    No worry. Let me have a look at it after dinner and we'll see what we can do. K?

    Rather than to prolong their text messaging, Kaitlin took those words kindly by heart.

    K, just be sure u know what Ur doing. I hate to see my car break down time and time again.

    I let u know when I'm on my way...love u....

    Concluding their chat, J.B closed out their texting with a bit of reassurance to his mate.

    No hard feelings...Love u 2 Kaitlin...see u here in a bit.

    Following an exchange of back and forth texting, Kaitlin secured her phone back in her pouch. As she entered her cubical, she switched to her desktop computer, looking to express her point of view on the circumstance regarding the tragedy that occurred at Steele Labs, as well as the mystery that shrouds such a catastrophe to begin with. Wrapping her hands around her head, Kaitlin took a moment to absorb the recent events that have transpired the last twenty-four hours. It wasn't just the fact she knew of the scientist as displayed on the headline. To think of the potential sorrow pouring from the eyes of not only Tyler's son but to her childhood friend in Ryan, the thought of it seemed nerve racking. Even factoring in how his wife would be feeling with an alarming crowd of reporters attempting to get word from the CCPD, neither scenario she could bare to witness.

    The only thing she can do was pray that somehow and someway, Rebecca and Ryan will eventually pull through.

    ***

    Construction carpenter Ryan Steele laid the final touches to a local neighbor's kitchen. All of what remained is a single door cabinet that has yet to be drilled. Stains of cement were scattered over his white sleeveless shirt including his Tommy Jean blue pants and a white sleeved shirt. Drips of sweat moistened from the strands of his short brown hair. A toolbox comprising of a screwdriver, hammer, wrench, and a drill was set beside him on the floor. With the latter equipped, he drilled the screws of each cabinet wall. When finishing with the equipment, he placed the drill aside as he took a moment to observe his work.

    "I think that should do it. I can't believe it took me long to get that to hold." He wiped the drip of sweat falling from his forehead.

    "You did a wonderful job. If only my husband were here to see this, he would have been flattered," spoke the mother of the household.

    "Could you show me how to use that drill you were holding? I've thought about wanting to be a construction worker when I grow up," said a young boy presumably in his preteens.

    "Thanks, it really means a lot," said Ryan offering his sincere condolence. "It's going to take plenty of hard work. But the most important thing when it comes to using tools is to handle them with care, and know when it's appropriate to use."

    "We really appreciate you stopping by." As a reward for his effort, the mother paid him back the $100 bills using a bundle of $20 bills to cover on the expenses.

    With further assistance from the child, Ryan gathered all of the equipment loading his tool box safely onto the back of his truck. After turning on the engine, he waved a goodbye to the mother and son while preparing to leave the driveway.

    As he prepares to make a turn along the highway, Ryan could hear the vibrating of his cell phone he charged in his car. The instant he picks it up, he receives a phone call indicating Kaitlin's name and phone number on the touch screen. By pressing on the speakerphone tab, an audio communication between the two friends ensues.

    "Kaitlin, how is it going?"

    "Tiring, I just got off of work," she said. "I left a few text messages on your phone so I figured you would eventually respond. No emergency or anything. I thought we'd give each other updates on our daily lives."

    Ryan commented in regards to the purpose of their call. "You're not the only one just getting off. Right now I am behind the wheel, and if only I can bypass these cars along the highway, I should be quick to get through those traffic lights."

    Kaitlin snickered. "Listen J.B and I are going to meet with you at the Crossworld Cafe tonight. I just thought I remind you in case you forgot."

    "Coming from someone who I've been friends with since grade school, why would I forget?" Ryan debated. "Are you sure you want to do this? I don't want to butt in on your guys' parade and all."

    Ryan's skepticism brought him in a position that he may not feel comfortable.

    "Sorry, I didn't mean it like that. I figured it'd be best if you could use some comfort by hanging out with us. You know like the good old days."

    Kaitlin further clarified. Since his father's untimely tragedy, Ryan continues to cope with his absence, hiding his grieving sorrow with a sense of optimism that with every negative there is a positive. Unfortunately, with that came a feeling of half heartedness.

    "I guess it wouldn't hurt. We could all use some enjoyment even at the darkest times," he said.

    "Cool I'll meet you there," Kaitlin told him.

    "Are you sure about this though? Even though we've been friends for a long time, it doesn't feel right being a third wheel next to you guys," Ryan went in to address his concern.

    "You don't have to worry. It'll be like the good old days. We haven't hung out like this for lord knows how long it must have been," Kaitlin assured.

    "Well if you're wondering, I am just driving my way back home right now," Ryan told her. "Not that I need to know but where exactly are you now?" He asked out of curiosity.

    "I'm by the parking lot next to Tao Dojo. J.B should be finishing off with his lecture by now," Kaitlin answered.

    "I'm going to get cleaned up. I'll text you when I get there," He informed her. "I'll meet you then."

    "Yeah, absolutely," Kaitlin stammered looking for another way to respond. All it matter was hearing a simple answer in regards to his availability.

    "Hey Ryan," she paused momentarily trying to figure on how to convey her confession.

    "Kaitlin, is everything okay?" Ryan spoke with a concern expression on his face.

    "No, I'm fine," she went on for the record. "I get that it's been rough for you these past few weeks or so. But you're not alone Ryan. I lost somebody too you know," Kaitlin assured. Temporarily, their discussion came to a sudden silence. Neither could express the kind of reaction needed to respond to a gut wrenched of emotions as displayed as of this instance.

    "How is the newspaper going for you," Ryan wondered as he changed the subject matter.

    "Honestly for me it's been pretty busy. My boss has been asking me to conduct interviews on the folks who were there when the lab was on fire," said Kaitlin. "Look, I am just stopping by the dojo to pick up J.B. I just thought I call to keep you posted on a few things. I'll meet you at the restaurant."

    "Yeah, you too Kate," Ryan replied. Concluding their chat, they immediately hung up their phones thereafter.

    Meanwhile, the cab driver parked along the driveway just outside of the dojo entrance. Kaitlin exited from the cab even tipping some cash as a 'thank you' for the ride. She took a glimpse at the window to witness J.B teaching a class in front of his students. As she entered the dojo, she stood by the reception table continuing to monitor the lesson demonstrated in his training session.

    "Great job everyone. Keep practicing what we've discussed in class today. We'll continue expanding more on the lesson tomorrow." On cue, J.B and the students exchanged a bow as a formal gesture of respect.

    "Well you've certainly been quite the teacher around here." Kaitlin approached J.B by the mat. Despite acknowledging her presence, J.B went over to grab a towel along with a cold water bottle by the cooler."

    "How was work for you today?" J.B asked.

    "Let me just say I've had quite a busy week to put it at best," Kaitlin answered finding the appropriate sentence to describe a seemingly drawn out shift.

    "I sure can relate to the sound of that," said J.B. He took a look around to see the Martial Arts students socializing while gathering their belongings.

    "Now that you are here, we can prepare to do warm ups before starting up our demonstration," said J.B coordinating along with the plan they agreed upon.

    "Are you sure about this? I don't want to embarrass myself in front of your students." Kaitlin's face blemished nervously in regards to her reaction.

    "You agreed to volunteer so I figured you would be okay with it," J.B defended. "Look, we've practiced this technique enough to pull this off. All you do is follow my lead and we'll go from there."

    "Lead the way then," Kaitlin concluded. She watched as the martial arts instructor alerted his students doing everything he could to give them his undivided attention.

    "Excuse me folks. Before we close out our session, there is one more technique I would like to show you." J.B gathered his students back on the mat for one more lesson. He and Kaitlin stood beside one another as the demonstration went underway.

    "But first and foremost before we get started, we have a very special guest at this time. Let's give it up for Kaitlin," J.B provided with a formal greeting.

    "Hi Kaitlin," The students exchanged their welcome with a greeting of their own.

    As the two gathered on the center of the mat, J.B choreographed a self defense maneuver, providing a step by step process on how the technique should be coordinated. After properly explaining the procedure, they proceeded to move along with the tutorial. As they got themselves positioned on the mat, Kaitlin started on the offense extending out her arm with her thumb wrapped underneath her clenched fist. Unfortunately for her, it was a matter of time before J.B countered it into an Armbar take down, dragging her body onto the mat.

    As an act of sportsmanship, J.B extended his arm looking to lend out a hand. Kaitlin's eyes glared sternly across from her boyfriend. Feeling insecure, she felt as if she could bit more than she could chew. As she maintained her temper, Kaitlin accepted his hand allowing J.B to pull her up from the ground.

    "J.B is such an amazing teacher. You should come by more often to see what technique and lesson he'll teach us," spoke a student of his.

    "Well gee you didn't have to pull back my arm that hard," Kaitlin winced in pain on behalf of J.B's counter attack.

    "It's nothing personal. But the more you train the better you'll be accustomed to defending myself," J.B assured. "Thank all of you for stopping by. Tomorrow we will continue to work on the technique we demonstrated."

    Once more J.B and his students bowed to one another signifying the official conclusion of their session.

    "I have to admit. As much as that hurt, I see why I happen to train with a gifted instructor like you," said Kaitlin as she squealed a smile.

    "Your free trial is about to be up pretty soon. If you ever consider signing up for our adult class, we could definitely use someone who is enthusiastic to learn," J.B offered.

    "Coming from a journalist, I'm going to have to arrange time," Kaitlin added. "I'll let you know as soon as possible."

    Kaitlin stood as she watched her boyfriend carried his belongings. Upon making his way to the showers, Kaitlin had another confession she wanted to address.

    "J.B wait," she said. J.B turned around looking to hear what she had to say.

    "Do you still have the passes to the Crossworld Gaming Expo? I just thought I ask so just in case you lose them," she said curiously.

    "Last I checked they're inside the cabinet of my car back home," J.B replied. "Is everything okay?"

    "Yeah I'm fine it's-" Kaitlin stammered taking a moment to come up with the right words to put it. "It's just that we've been too focused as a couple, and I'm not saying we should take a break or anything. But it doesn't hurt if we bring someone to tag along with."

    "Which reminds me," J.B said. "Michael's parents are supposed to be out of town that day, so he'll be coming along the ride. What was it you were trying to say again?"

    She took a moment to jog through her thought process in clarifying her point.

    "I just got off the phone with Ryan. He doesn't know about this but when we meet with him, I thought I let you in on a gift that I left by the reception desk," Kaitlin informed him.

    "What did you give him?" He asked out of curiosity. Kaitlin directed him to the gift bag containing a mysterious item inside wrapped underneath the tissues. J.B took a quick peek before drawing to a conclusion.

    "He is going to be thrilled when he sees this," he remarked. "It's been ages since we've done anything together with Ryan. I don't know where to begin."

    "Just because we're together doesn't mean we should alienate our friends," she defended. "After what's been going on the news, he could really use some cheering up."

    J.B grabbed his gym bag from against the wall. After grabbing his towel on the chair, he prepares to march into the corridor leading to the men's restroom.

    "I'm going to hit the showers and then we can go," he said. "Now that you just came out of work, you could definitely use one."

    Kaitlin raised her eyebrow. "Um J.B, I don't think that's a good idea. If we were in there together even in a public facility, people would be spreading gossip all around the area."

    "I don't mean that," he clarified in regards to spewing out innuendo.

    "I'm freaking kidding," Kaitlin joked. "Besides I'm not in any hurry. I have some clothes at home to change. I'll text Ryan to let him know we're ready. "

    "Not a problem," J.B spoke with courtesy. They leaned in on a kiss as J.B marched his way towards the men's locker room.


    ***

    On the upper floor inside of an oval shaped office, a middle aged business man sat on his reclining chair signing a plethora of documents scattered across his desk. Karl Ziktor, chairman and founder of a science based corporation known as Ziktor Industries, finished off his speech by announcing a set of goals that will grossly enhance the company moving forward.

    "Our meeting is adjourned. Thank you all for coming by this afternoon. We'll continue our conference tomorrow." Upon conclusion of their meeting, Ziktor shook the hands of each business shareholder. They compiled the necessary documentations inside their respective portfolios.

    "Mister Ziktor, you have a visitor waiting outside," spoke an associate from his earphone.

    "Bring him in," Ziktor instructed. He stood outside by the doorway waiting for his unannounced guest to make his presence known.

    Ding

    Ziktor turned his focus towards the elevator. As it opened, he began to recognize a familiar face from his past.

    "How is it going Karl? Long time no see." Spotting a blue buttoned down shirt and brown khaki pants, Sam Strickland approached Ziktor extending his arms out for a potential hug.

    "Strickland, I'm glad to see you again." Ziktor and Strickland bestowed an embrace; In other words, it sparked a reunion of two lifelong companions.

    "What have you been up to these days?"

    "What I've been up to you ask? I've been busting my butt showcasing my creativity in what I do," Sam joked. "Now that you've asked, I was going to mention the same question."

    As they released the hug, Ziktor went on to make a response. "Good so far. Business is remaining strong, and I couldn't be any more proud to see how well received our products has been."

    Strickland smiled. "I'm just in the same boat as you are," he said. "In all seriousness, I'm going to be in Crossworld City for this upcoming weekend. This is going to be a hell of an event for sure."

    Ziktor exchanged with a somewhat reluctant smile of his own. For a friendly reunion, the excessive amount of stress consumed the chairman of the board.

    "Is everything alright Karl? It seems like you've been spending all this time sitting at your desk when you could be going outside and enjoying the warm breeze," he took into account.

    "I've had a lot on my mind going on. With all the press coverage I've been receiving with a former colleague of mine, it's hard to relax when you've got photographers and news reporters barging in on your personal life," Ziktor commented.

    "I can see why Forbes Magazine listed your company as the highest grossing tech company in the nation," Strickland replied. "But keep up the great work. That's how I do when I've been hands on developing the latest virtual reality video game."

    "I appreciate your moral support," Ziktor applauded. "Listen Ziktor Industries will be under maintenance for the next few days. We've been conducting on some high tech equipment, and we like to ensure they're fully operable before our team moves forward," Ziktor answered. Strickland nodded his head in acknowledging the latest update from his companion.

    Ziktor grew intrigued on behalf of his companion's insight. "How is the development going so far?"

    Strickland reached inside his pocket to pull out a key chain containing a Flash Drive. Ziktor directed Strickland over to his desktop computer. With the device intact, they inserted the USB inside the hard drive. A Power point browser is displayed on the monitor containing a list of information displayed in bullet points. In addition, cropped images are illustrated on the slide show as depicted.

    "With virtual reality being all the rage recently, Metal Fighters has been the most talked about gaming being announced at this year's convention," Strickland explained. "Like in the original, a grand wizard has unlocked a gate that bridges the gateway between Virtual Reality and the Living World. In doing so, he sends out an army of robots that end up wiping off a majority of the human population."

    "Go on," Ziktor said absorbing the important details that was being addressed to him.

    "In this reboot, a group of armored clad soldiers thrust into combat against the evil Grimlord and his army of robots to expand on his growing empire," Strickland continued. "With a fraction of Earth's population in shambles, the Metal Fighters look to fight back and will stop at nothing to right the wrongs that his army has caused throughout the game." While toggling the screen with the computer mouse, a close up shot of the villain with his heartless demeanor is displayed in the background. "By assembling their combined arsenal, the players must ban together to rid away Grimlord and his vile faction and seal them back to the dimension they came from."

    Ziktor continued to observe some sample images of the multi-colored armor suits presented on the screen.

    "Karl, is everything alright?" He spoke with concern.

    "These suits look very remarkable," Ziktor said. "But there is one thing I don't understand. How would it take three people to destroy a never ending army of robots?"

    "I've been receiving constant feedback about this on Social Media," he said. "So far it's very early in the stages but more characters will be introduced as development rolls along. A trailer for that game should be released during the trade show."

    While in the midst of their conversation, a raven haired woman dressed in a gray business suit and black dress pants entered through the door.

    "Mister Ziktor. I don't mean to rudely interrupt but we have a board meeting to attend to in the next hour. It's best if we commute now before traffic starts getting worse," she told him.

    Ziktor glanced at his watch to check the time on the dot.

    "Well would you look at that," he said. "I'll be down there shortly. Thank you Juliet."

    "Very well then," she complied before leaving his office.

    Ziktor gathered his file folders stacked on top of one another. While doing so, he accidentally knocks off a picture frame consisting of a photo that he and Tyler took together long ago. Strickland grabs the fallen object from the ground, taking a glimpse at the close bonding between two men.

    "From the looks of it you guys seem to be pretty close," Strickland observed from the still frame up close.

    "We were," Ziktor spoke in past tense. "I appreciate you coming in today. I apologize if our reunion had to be cut short. The expo is just around the corner so perhaps we can continue our chat some other time."

    "It's alright. I was going to head on out here anyway," he said resisting the sense of disappointment from his face. Strickland removed his USB from the desktop's hard drive. Shutting off the computer, he stood up from his chair while preparing to bid their goodbyes. They bestowed a firm handshake with one another upon their approach towards the staircase. The chairman of Ziktor Industries escorted his companion out to a corridor leading to the lobby. They each waved a hand as Strickland made his way outside the building.

    Juliet approached Ziktor to notify him of some importance.

    "Ziktor, it's about the crystal orb. It appears Grimlord is still having difficulty adjusting to being under a human vessel. For as long as he has been in exile, your best bet is to ensure the orb remains protected at all cost," she informed while holding a clipboard under her arm.

    "Keep a close eye out on the orb. Let me know if it continues to act like its unusual self," he said.

    Juliet came forth to address an advice. "It's best to take caution of your actions. The aura that Grimlord possesses may have a higher risk of taking its toll on your body," she continued. "I understand your partnership with Tyler didn't end on good terms. But don't let your personal grudge towards him cloud your judgment."

    Ziktor sighed. As a businessperson, he had been known to be humble in front of his associates. However, it didn't matter much if his mannerism came off patronizing.

    "You don't have to worry. I'll make sure Grimlord doesn't do anything that will jeopardize my health," he assured her.

    Meanwhile, a male bodyguard dressed in a black suit and tie chimed in on the two executives.

    "Mister Ziktor, your limo will be arriving shortly in a few minutes. I'll be more than happy to escort you whenever you're ready."

    Ziktor nodded on behalf of the favor.

    "Tyler didn't know what he was getting himself into. Make sure you keep the orb someplace safe," he insisted. "As long as it remains under our radar, no one will discover the truth behind what I have in store."

    Ziktor took a glimpse at his reflection along the staircase window. A close up shot of a smirk drew from the subtle expression of his face. On the outside was your average civilian living his daily life. However, beneath his heart lies a darkness hidden within; It's a darkness so hidden nobody would even dare to question about. What agenda lurks beneath the deranged mind of Karl Ziktor?


    ***

    The Crossworld Café is regarded as one of the city's infamous attraction for civilians to dine in and socialize. The Café serves patrons of children and adults alike in providing the best efficient meals provided on the menu; these meals range from sandwiches and soups to beverages and desserts. In addition to serving food and beverage, the Café also includes a set of built in arcade machines as well as extracurricular activities such as pool, darts, and ping pong to entertain their customers.

    By the dining area, J.B and Kaitlin gazed over at their menus looking to decide on an entree they should order. As Ryan entered the restaurant, he approached his way to the table they were reserving.

    "It's been awhile. How are you guys doing? I've never thought all of us would be gathering here again," he said.

    "We're doing really well," J.B replied.

    "How are you doing as an instructor at the dojo?" Ryan wondered.

    "It's been going really well. Lately we've been getting new students coming along, and our free trial training program has been smooth sailing," J.B told him. "How has carpentry work been for you?" J.B asked willing to provide an update in regards to his friend's social life.

    "I had to repair some equipment in a neighbor's kitchen. To say I've been sweating my rear off would be an understatement," Ryan responded.

    "I can't imagine how it must be working with all that hardware. It's one thing to deal with pound for pound martial arts. But all that hammering and drilling takes up a lot of your muscle," said Kaitlin.

    "Oh you wouldn't believe the countless hours I've spent making houses look all neat," Ryan told them. By turning his focus towards Kaitlin, he began to switch gears upon alluding to her martial arts reference. "Speaking of Martial Arts, I was reading up your Face Book feed, and I didn't realize you had interest."

    Kaitlin further commented on the matter. "Well I figured I stay actively fit while studying more about Karate."

    In the middle of their conversation, a waiter walked up towards the trio with a pen and notepad intact. "Hi, are you three ready to order?"

    "Let me have some barbecue ribs with some veggies on the sides please," J.B said.

    "I'm going to have some clam chowder with a baguette, and for beverage I would like to have a strawberry banana smoothie," Ryan told the waiter. Kaitlin took her time deciding on a particular entrée meal to dine.

    "I'm having whatever J.B is having. When it comes to maintaining a healthy diet, he certainly knows his way of measuring calories," she concluded.

    By confirming his order, the restaurant waiter successfully jotted down the meals they requested. They handed their menus upon anticipation for them to be served.

    "...And how is our little miss journalist adjusting to her role in the Chronicle?" Ryan changed the subject turning his attention towards Kaitlin.

    "Just for the record I've been working there since I was an intern back in college," Kaitlin insinuated. "We just want to say that if there is anything, and I mean anything you need, don't be afraid to ask. You're still our best friend whether J.B and I are a couple or not."

    Ryan took some of Kaitlin's advice to heart while simultaneously hiding away the grieving sorrow in his heart.

    "Come on guys. Why would I feel at all neglected than to be with my two BFFs," he spoke in a more passionate tone. Despite the tragedy he and his mother experienced, Ryan maintained a sense of optimism with the urge not to let the despair consume him from within.

    "Well in that case then, J.B and I have a gift we like to give to you." Kaitlin unveiled a gift bag from underneath the table as she handed it over to Ryan.

    "Wow, this is quite a large one to say the least." Ryan removed the sheets of red gift wrap from inside. He pulled out the mystery item from the bag to unveil a metallic blue helmet with a silver mouth plate intact.

    "Well what do you know," Ryan mumbled. "Out of all the video games I've played, I remember enjoy playing as this character growing up."

    "There is actually more to it in there. Open the mouth plate," J.B instructed. Ryan opened the lid of the silver mouth plate leaving a ticket that slips out from underneath.

    "I don't believe it." His jaw dropped in astonishment. "I know that the expo is around the corner. I never thought I get a chance to attend one," he said. "I don't know how to thank you guys."

    "With everything that's been going on, you might as well use a bit of fun every once in awhile," Kaitlin figured. Ryan's eyes gazed in awe of the presents bestowed upon him; Presents that he received by two friends he has known throughout his life.

    As time passed, the chef arrived to serve them their respective meals. The three friends dug in while treasuring the smell of delicious food placed in front of them. In the midst of their lunch, they continued to reminisce a time when their friendship together was at its apex. Whether it would be an embarrassing moment at work or the sense of them remembering a particular event from their childhood, they were thrilled to be there. By continuing to socialize, the trio savored every instant they've spent together. As all is well inside the Crossworld Café, it would be nothing compared to a crime scene that would unfold.

    Outside a young group of criminals aimed their handgun from a local civilian swearing their innocence. The civilian handed over their wallet to them while preparing to ride off with their bicycles.

    "They're taking off with my wallet!" They screamed having been victimized as a result of the mugging. Ryan, J.B, and Kaitlin glanced over at the window to spot the incident that unfolded.

    "We better do something out there." J.B got up from his chair storming out of the café upon exiting. Ryan prepared to follow suit keeping a look out on his friend.

    "Kaitlin, keep my gift safe. I'll be back for it later." Ryan stormed out of the Café leaving Kaitlin as the only patron sitting by the table.

    "Um guys!" She exclaimed. Upon leaving, she laid out some cash left behind on the table. Arriving outside, Kaitlin took a moment to use J.B's car keys he left behind, unlocking the back seat to store the gift bag. After locking the doors, she confronted with the victim, gathering Intel based from their point of view. When asked of the suspects' location, Kaitlin directed the said victim to a vehicle of theirs as they rode off.

    In pursuit of capturing the robbers, the trio ran across the city looking to retrieve the stolen item. J.B borrowed a bicycle from another local civilian while continuing the chase. Meanwhile, Ryan spent the duration tracking down his best friend's whereabouts. Looking around for transportation, it wouldn't be long before Kaitlin pulled the car over to the curb.

    "Hop on," she insisted. Without hesitating, Ryan got into the back seat to provide further guidance to their sightings.

    Soon J.B would come across his targeted suspects. The more he pedaled the increase in acceleration necessary to gain a close range at them. The robbers would be caught off guard before encountering a dumpster truck ahead. Despite swerving left to the alleyway, one of the robbers began to lose control of their steering, eventually falling out from their bike.

    As they managed to spot J.B's presence, Kaitlin pulled the car over once more.

    "Keep a look out on the victim. I'll go chase him," he insisted. Ryan exited out of the car continuing to follow his friend by foot. Kaitlin reached inside her purse for her phone dialing the emergency number to get in touch with the police.

    J.B chased the robbers through the alley going through a series of obstacle courses laid in their paths. From tossing garbage cans on the ground to climbing up a chain linked fence, neither could afford to slow down. By the time he arrived at a spacious part of the alley, traces leftover from the group were nowhere in sight.

    J.B surveyed the area. A moment of silence filled the air around him. Using his gut instinct they had to be nearby. The silence proved to be temporary when one of the criminals leaped on top of J.B's shoulders from behind. The fight ensues when more of his friends gang up on the Martial Arts veteran.

    Ryan jumped in on the chance, laying one out using his stiff right arm. Against all odds, they tag teamed in an effort to thwart off the suspects in front of them. When the smokes cleared, J.B and Ryan stood tall against the criminals in their vulnerable state.

    "Hey man, are you alright?" Ryan wondered in concern of his friend's well being.

    "Even though this shouldn't have happened, I have to admit that was quite a work out experience." J.B panted regaining his composure from the amount of pain they had endured. Suddenly, a police siren began to echo nearby from their location. The cops arrived on the scene to discover the crooks lying in pain and agony.

    Ryan and J.B would encounter the commissioner of the Crossworld City Police Department. Sported in a brown trench coat wearing black dress pants and brown boots, she confronted with the two gentlemen in regards to what unfolded.

    "Chief, I didn't think we would bump into you today," said J.B.

    "Kaitlin managed to contact me about what happened," Rebecca assured. She placed her police badge in her jacket pouch with the original intention of tracking down the suspects responsible for the alerted crime.

    "Um, Mom, whatever that it is that you saw back there, we did it in self defense." Ryan's face blemished in an expression of embarrassment.

    "You're off the cuff Ryan, and it's not just for the obvious fact that I am your mother," Rebecca replied. "After all, it's the CCPD's duty to ensure justice is being served every step of the way." With the conversation still in progress, they monitored the cops walking on by with the crooks being handcuffed. "It's been awhile since I've seen you two hanging out for a change."

    Ryan stepped forth to address the situation. "The three of us were just coming out of the Café just now. We thought it'd be great to hang out and catch up on what we've been doing," he said. "I mean with everything that's happened recently, I could surely use some time to get out and relieve my anxiety."

    With an intimidating facial expression, Rebecca scoffed at the arrested suspects. "At this rate, they'll be spending a hell of a time behind bars," she concluded.

    Suddenly, Kaitlin along with the victim arrived to thank J.B and Ryan for securing a personal belonging of theirs.

    "I can't help but thank you for what you did back there. I owe you guys one," the civilian admired their assistance.

    "That's what happens when you have friends to help clean out the crime in this city. All that self defense training really pays off in the end," said Ryan bumping his fist lightly onto J.B's shoulder.

    "One thing is for sure. Those crooks never knew what hit them." As J.B retrieved the wallet from the ground, he handed it back to the civilian, even going on to thank them for their assistance.

    "Are you guys alright?" Kaitlin turned her focus to her friends in regards to their condition.

    "Some minor bruises here and there but nothing severe," Ryan told her.

    "Thank you for alerting me Kaitlin. Without the notification, these crooks would be continuing to roam the streets at this point," Rebecca complimented.

    "To be fair all of us deserve credit for what we did," Ryan corrected his mother. They paused briefly to witness the cops direct the captured crooks over to their vehicles.

    "Ryan, when you have a chance, let me know what items you plan on selling for our garage sale," she said. "We'll load them in the boxes by the garage to finalize our inventory."

    Ryan commented in regards to their personal lives. "No worries, I have time off this weekend to get started."

    Meanwhile, Rebecca took a brief glance at the civilian having been robbed of their belonging.

    "I could lend you guys a ride back to the Cafe. We appreciate you guys notifying us right out of the bat," she offered to the three.

    "That's okay, I owe these guys for their help," the civilian chimed in. "I could go ahead and drop them back if that is fine with everyone."

    The trio along with Rebecca looked at each other briefly before coming to a verdict.

    "I suppose that you have enough room, so we could sure use a ride," Kaitlin concluded. Upon conclusion of their meeting, the civilian escorted the trio through the alleyway back to her car. As they prepared to ride off, the trio bid goodbye to the police chief with sincere gratitude.

    When they arrived back at the Café, Ryan along with J.B and Kaitlin thanked the civilian they assisted for providing transportation.

    "You have to admit that was quite a hell of a moment right there," Ryan reflected over the event that just transpired.

    "No kidding," Kaitlin yawned. "After all that went down, I think I've had enough for today."

    "Oh don't forget the gift we gave you from earlier ago. By the way, where did you put it?" J.B wondered having stormed out of the café at the time not to remember what happened.

    "That's okay it's in your car," Ryan told him. Subsequently, J.B unlocked the keys to his car in obtaining the gift bag.

    Ryan complimented them the instant J.B handed the bag over to his friend. "Thanks you guys. It's just like the good old days," he said.

    "That's what we friends do," J.B assured. "Just for the record, we'll be taking the subway when we get to the convention that day. I'm going to be looking forward to this bro."

    "Likewise J.B," Ryan said. Needless to say, he and Ryan coincided with an exchanging fist bump as a sign of an ongoing friendship that dates back to childhood. As they parted ways, Ryan entered the driver's seat of his truck. After turning on the key ignition, he strapped on his seat belt before leaving the parking lot.

    Ryan returned to his apartment later that evening. As his eyes stared blankly at the ceiling, he reflected on the events that have unfolded the past few hours. It was the first time in ages he had an opportunity to socialize with two lifelong companions he hadn't spoken to one another; two of whom have since blossomed into an ongoing relationship sometime after their college graduation. While there were no hard feelings, Ryan couldn't bring himself to interfere or potentially sabotage their love for one another. After risking his life to save J.B from the expense of the odds stacked against him, such a risk taking measure indicated that their friendship would remain intact.

    Earlier that day, he had a brief moment with his mother in regards to their upcoming garage sale. Ryan brought out some boxes of junk underneath the bunk of his bed. He took a moment to dig through a pile of goodies from years' past. Ryan pulls out a copy of a strategy guide that contains the original adaptation of the classic Metal Fighters video game. As Ryan skimmed through each page, the feeling of nostalgia started to come together. On the back of the guide contained an autograph signing in black ink followed up by a signature of the person's name on the right handed corner.

    To my dearest fan Ryan. I've had the pleasure of meeting a genuine being with a mind filled with optimism and open possibilities. Thank you for playing, and I hope you continue to share that joy of experience with your peers - Sam Strickland

    Underneath the box contained a dusty but operable camcorder dating back to a time prior to the advent of Social Media. As he brought it out, he took a moment to observe the equipment in his hands. To Ryan, however, it was more than just recording videos; In fact, it was a collection of every defining moment that he and his family have experienced. With a camcorder hooked into the ADV output of his television set, he sat back on his reclining chair watching footage from his childhood. He heard the echoes of his father in the background keeping the camera close up on his son.

    Every moment he sees spark tears of joy streaming down from his face. It was like reliving a moment in his life that showed an innocent time in his life; a time he had the least amount of stress to worry of.

    While remaining glued to the footage alone, Ryan grabbed a cold glass of root beer from a small refrigerator next to him. He took a sip of the sweetened vanilla concocted within the beverage.

    Upon witnessing a head shot of Tyler on the screen, by using his remote, Ryan pressed the stop button. To see the warmth of his smile brought amazing chills down his spine. He would do anything to interact with his father one last time even for a few minutes.

    By pushing the play button, Ryan resumed the tape of him and his parents spending quality time as a family. His father may not be around but the memories he cherished with him would forever remain in his heart.

    To Be Continued…
    Last edited by Quantum Leap Ranger; 06-07-2020 at 10:19 AM.

  3. #3
    Chapter 2:
    Bridge to Reality


    The Crossworld City Gaming Expo has been an annual event for avid video gaming fanatics. Once a year, tourists from all across the globe gather to continually embrace similar interests. The beauty when it comes to attending a trade show is the opportunity for gamers to get a brief glimpse of an unfinished video game - one in which includes the accessibility to beta test. In an attempt to garner attraction, a plethora of programmers and voice actors would arrive to promote the upcoming release of their respective video games. From an in person perspective, their eyes wandered with awe and excitement.

    “This place is incredible. I knew the place would be packed but just, wow.” Spoke a young African-American male sporting a short curly haircut and brown eyes. His facial expression sparkled in awe of the many tourists who have gathered upon anticipation of such an annual event.

    “That’s how I felt when I was your age Michael,” J.B empathized.

    “Same, I used to beg my parents to take me here,” Ryan followed up with a comment of his own. “They invested some hard earned money in their paycheck to attend these events. When it's all said and done, it's safe to say it was money worth spending.”

    Meanwhile, Kaitlin took a moment to observe the brochure that displays the locations around the facility; this includes a list of specific events scheduled to take place during the course of the festivity.

    “The panel for the new Metal Fighters game is going to start soon. Hall Room H should be down the very end of this narrow hallway to our right,” said Kaitlin. Navigating their way through the crowded hall of tourists, they approached another room to find more folks beta testing unreleased video games that exhibited the area.

    “Hey can we check out the skydiving simulation? Man I want to get a kick out of it,” Michael begged his uncle to get him to do so.

    “Michael, last time you spent a long time on a headset you nearly got motion sickness,” J.B told him.

    “Oh come on J.B, please? I admit I got a little carried away from the experience,” Michael defended. “It didn’t stop you from testing out other VR games?”

    J.B sighed looking of a way to follow up with a response.

    “Fine but if you’re not feeling right, remove the headset right away.” He agreed much to his nephew’s delight. “You guys go on ahead. I’ll monitor Mike while you two check out some of the other simulations.”

    Kaitlin monitored the area to spot a green screen display already arranged with a set of golf clubs and a headset. “If you have a chance, we could square off in a game of golf,” she said.

    J.B responded in laughter. “Thanks but for some reason I could never understand the rules behind it.”

    “FYI you were the reason why I got into Martial Arts. Now it’s time for me to return the favor by providing you with a tutorial,” Kaitlin bragged.

    “That’s great and all but I’m not in the mood. Second its virtual reality not actual golf you play along on the field,” J.B stood by his decision.

    “Thank you captain obvious,” said Kaitlin. She then turned her attention over towards Ryan to determine which game they should simulate in the meantime.

    “Speaking of VR Ryan, there’s a shooting range both of us could try out,” Kaitlin chimed in. “What do you say?”

    Ryan gulped but did his best not to display a sign of fear.

    “Last time I used up all of my ammo because I tried so hard to get a perfect bulls’ eye,” he responded.

    “I never said it was competition,” Kaitlin smiled in contrast to Ryan’s frown. “Let’s not have video games ruin friendships. How about giving it a go?”

    “No hard feelings Kaitlin. I think I’m interested in finding another VR game out of my comfort zone,” Ryan appreciated the gesture. He took a step back watching on as his friends savored every moment of excitement stimulating their fiber. He felt the need to express the same thrill they were witnessing.

    Ryan looked around in search of a video game to simulate. He monitored the area to spot another simulation display arranged with boxing equipment including gloves and a headset. By strapping on the headset, his eyes sparkled with fascination over the game’s digitally framed graphics. Formatted in a first person perspective, it’s as though he is standing in the center of the ring hearing the roar of the audience echoing throughout the arena.
    Utilizing the gloves at his disposal, Ryan swung his arms around exchanging left and right blows to his opponent. While on the defensive side, he put every effort to dodge when necessary. Each round increased in difficulty the more he continued playing. When it came time for round twelve, the match determined all or nothing. There had to be a winner. As the round concluded, the ring announcer announced its final decision in which despite heavy competition, Ryan ended up falling short in the overall bout.

    “Well, so much for my game play,” he mumbled. Ryan removed his visor for the next person to use.

    He soon approached a determined Kaitlin as she makes an attempt to receive the highest accuracy in the shooting range. As the result screen displays, Kaitlin was left unsatisfied of her performance.

    “Damn it I was so close,” she shouted channeling all the frustration pumping through her veins.

    “Well, so much for being a target shooting master.” Ryan spoke from behind.

    “I never claimed myself to be. Besides I was off by a few targets,” Kaitlin defended. “It’s only a beta version so there’s likely to be bug issues along the way.”

    As their conversation was in progress, they overheard a PA announcement echoing from the intercoms.

    “May I have your attention please? In just a few minutes our panel for Metal Fighters: a Mutant’s Escape will take place at Hall Room H. Be sure to have your pass ready and enjoy the adventurous thrill of our most anticipated game yet.”

    Following the announcement, the gang reunited outside upon heading their way to the site where the event would be scheduled at.

    “Oh man I am psyched,” Michael said with enthusiasm.

    “You had a chance to play the original game?” Ryan wondered curiously.

    “Michael and I did a play through on it recently. It was pretty challenging but we managed to beat the game in less than a week,” J.B explained.
    “Talk about having free time on your hands,” said Ryan.

    Kaitlin’s rebuttal attempt brought the conversation back to their original purpose. “Well what we are waiting for? Let’s get a move on.”

    Putting their chatter aside, they steered their way down to the hall room in which the panel will take place. The crowd marched in anticipation of the upcoming virtual reality game to unfold in public domain.

    With a stoic presence, Grimlord stood against the wall allowing space for tourists to navigate their way around. Suspicion looms behind the eyes of the menacing villain.

    “Whoa cool cosplay,” spoke a local tourist in attendance. Despite the compliment, he walked out of sight leaving no verbal response.

    As they arrived on site, a horde of die hard fans from all over the world gathered to witness this monumental presentation.

    “Oh cool, look at this place. I’ve seen panel discussions online but being here in person, talk about being jam packed,” Michael said.

    “That’s the beauty when it comes to these shows. You get to meet and greet all these fans who share a similar interest. Let me tell you it’s a thrilling experience,” J.B commented.

    While in the middle of the chatter, it was that moment in which Ryan experienced a sign of stomach cramps.

    “Well it might be a good time to hurry to the rest room. I wouldn’t want to miss this panel. Save me a seat will you?” he insisted to his friends. Ryan hurried out of the panel room looking to find a nearby men’s restroom. Upon entering, it wasn’t long before he encountered a man carrying a pack of index cards in preparation of the event.

    “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize for a moment I was in your way,” Ryan apologized as the cards were scattered all over the carpet floor. While assisting
    the panelist in retrieving his belongings, it was that instant when the expression on Ryan’s face sparked a sense of familiarity in the man.

    “Sam Strickland? I’m not sure if you recognize me but you responded to a fan mail I sent to you when I was a kid,” Ryan said extending his offer of a handshake. “I’m Ryan, Ryan Steele.”

    “Ryan how are you doing,” Strickland acknowledged him. “It feels like yesterday when you and your parents visited the expo. If I’m being honest, you’ve certainly gotten tall from the last time we crossed paths. It must be a matter of a ‘me getting old’ phase from our last panel.”

    Ryan chuckled for a bit while maintaining his level of star struck to a minimum.

    “It’s an honor meeting you again. I didn’t think you would recognize me off the bat. Given how busy your work has been, and how often you interact
    with your followers on Social Media, truth be told I don’t blame you.”

    “Being a gaming developer requires a lot of time and devotion. But when there’s an effective idea that sticks out, our team make the most in crafting that design out to the best of our ability,” Strickland said.

    “I hear you,” Ryan replied handing over the remaining half of the index cards back to Strickland.

    “Well, the show is going to start momentarily. I’m going to make sure I have my note cards in order to get my speech across,” he said.

    “I was just headed my way to use the rest room. One thing I know for sure. When it comes to attending a panel, you sure know you’re in for a long but interesting discussion,” Ryan assured.

    “A long discussion it’ll be,” Strickland concluded. Needless to say, the panelist and thanked him for his assistance.

    Eventually, as Ryan returned from the rest room, a crowd of fans gathered in their seats divided into two columns. With his eyes wandering aimlessly, he would eventually regroup with his friends who were located to the left column of the middle row.

    “About time you came back,” J.B said.

    “I had a little setback along the way. Now that’s taken care of, all it matters is I’m here,” Ryan assured. In the middle of all the chatter echoing in the hall room, a spokesperson got on the microphone, directing everyone’s attention to what they had to address.

    Ladies and gentlemen to all of you in attendance this afternoon; it’s with great honor and privilege to be having all of you gaming fanatics here to kick off this year’s show. But before we get started, be sure to remain seated and quiet at all times while our panelist is speaking. If you feel to need to leave to use the restrooms or make a phone call, be sure to exit through the back door where you last entered. Questions will be provided as soon as the panel finishes. If you have one in mind, feel free to assemble in a line and they’ll be kindly enough to answer them. With that being said, I want you to please give a round of applause for our panelist at this time. He traveled all this way along with his team of developers at Strickland Gaming Entertainment to provide you with one of the most anticipated games to be released worldwide. Please give it up with my guest, the president and founder of that said company, Sam Strickland!

    Following the introduction speech, the audience popped hard for the panelist that arrived in the room. Strickland waved his hand at the capacity crowd that bestowed him with positive response. As the cheering died down, he utilized this time to give them his undivided attention.

    “Thank you. I know this place was going to be packed but my goodness,” he said. “I hope you’re having a wonderful time here this afternoon, and I could not be any more proud than to happily announce the latest entry in the Metal Fighters series.”

    Once more, the audience cheered with excitement as the first panel of this year’s expo went underway. Folks applauded casually as others stood in massive ovation. This overwhelming positive reception sent an emotional wave of chills down his spine.

    “Alright everyone let’s settle down. I am equally as psyched about this as much as you fans have in quite some time,” Strickland continued. “It’s been over two years since we started development of this awaited project. We realize that the resurgence in the wave of virtual reality has created a large buzz in the video gaming community. In addition to the large marketing of nostalgia, it was those set of factors that inspired our team to revisit a classic that helped popularized the idea of an open world adventure. For the first time in its illustrious history, this iteration of Metal Fighters will feature a ‘Create a Fighter’ mode. You’ll begin to customize your own avatar that comprises of body type armor, weaponry equipment, and the ability to adjust your stamina attributes. Along the way, you will also earn upgrades by visiting new places and encountering new allies as players make progress through the story.

    While the audience continues to applaud in regards to the speech, a sense of vagueness began to stir from Michael’s mind.

    “Is this dude going to go on forever about this?” Michael asked.

    “Listen what he has to say,” J.B insisted on behalf of his nephew’s behavior.

    Strickland directed a staff member to switch off the lights in the crowded room. A projector was turned on to display illustrations taken while during development of the game. Ranging from the designing models to the computer art design displayed in the background, this would be a preview for the development team to keep a record of their progress.

    “In this installment, a mutant named Grimlord has been a man without a country since the fall of his empire. His loyal servants have been imprisoned behind the reality barrier that links between two worlds. However, despite his lack of hope, he was not alone. A team of foot soldiers known as Skugs have orchestrated a plot to destroy our heroes’ headquarters, and in turn the Metal Fighters themselves. But before they could do that, they made plans to track the coordinates to the Dark Fortress.”

    In the midst of Strickland’s commentary, a person in the audience raised their hand with a question in mind.

    “Yes?”

    “Why would the Skugs travel to the Dark Fortress knowing they’re large of an army enough to destroy the main characters?”

    Strickland snickered having caught off guard by the interruption.

    “I was just getting to that part actually,” he resumed his speech. “Inside the Dark Fortress, there lays a cemetery which is preserved as a resting place for mutants who have served their clan with pride. For the now deceased robots that died while serving their war lord, they hope to resurrect their fallen warriors and aiding them in the war against the main characters of our story, better collectively known as the Metal Fighters.”

    Another fan stood from their seat to ask yet another question.

    “I was looking up in an article, and I swear it’s not from some click bait newsfeed. Reading up the premise of the trailer, I read that Grimlord’s army had already laid waste to the world. I am really confused whether this takes place right at the beginning or at some point towards the game?”

    “Ugh…some of these fans are just cutting him off. Talk about being rude,” Kaitlin whispered.

    “Yeah no kidding,” Ryan agreed.

    “With all due respect to the rest of the audience, I would like to remind you not to rudely interrupt the speaker at this time. You’re more than welcome to ask questions following the conclusion of this panel,” informed a staff member on the microphone.

    “I’ll let this slide for once. The story takes place in the moments prior to the destruction of our heroes’ headquarters. The Fighters have done everything in their power to defend their territory. But the sheer strength of Grimlord and his army have done more than enough harm to leave their enemies’ land in shambles.”

    As if there weren’t any more interruptions, Juliet stormed through from the back door while approaching towards Strickland. She whispered to his ear taking the time to listen to what seemed to be a change of game plan.

    “Ladies and gentlemen, while we take into our account that this is not a college lecture, we will proceed to showcase our first trailer for the upcoming remake of this wonderful game. As this game is early in development, it is a project that we at Strickland Gaming strive to put on one that will have you gamers coming back for more – or replay value I should say. You’ve seen the teasers online and on television. But whichever source of media you managed to spot them from, you’re finally going to witness history in the making. If we roll the projector screen, may I present to everyone sitting in the crowd the E3 trailer for our latest virtual reality port. Ladies and gentlemen I bring to you, Metal Fighters: a Mutant’s Escape. Lights please?

    In front of a jam packed crowd, the audience applauded in anticipation of the trailer projected on the screen. The lights began to dim inside the hall room whereas the fans quietly calmed. The trailer showcased a flash of key important plots reflecting the game’s narrative plot with a snippet of cut scenes as well as dialogue behind the characters’ motives and why they act the way around their peers. Some action scenes were shown with a heavy emphasis on weapon usage. In addition, a number of explosives managed to set off causing a vast majority of buildings to be destroyed. With the intense sound effects, such pounding noise from the loudspeakers echoed throughout the room. A large fraction of the audience gasped watching a brief glimpse of climatic scenes witness in the blink of an eye. As the trailer came to a startling conclusion lurked a scowl upon the wrinkles of Grimlord’s intimidating face, sitting on his throne to observe the battle unfold. The crowd applauded while simultaneously giving the presentation a standing ovation.

    “Thank you so very much. I am sure when the game is released nationwide you will witness the true capability that virtual reality has to offer.” Strickland guaranteed.

    “Oh man I can’t wait until the game is released. Why can’t they just ship it out now?” Michael asked eager to get an opportunity to witness the experience up close.

    “Because if they did you’ll be complaining about how bugged the mechanics are,” J.B argued much to Michael’s dismay.

    Juliet returned to the hall room once more; only this time, however, Strickland politely handed his microphone for her to make an announcement.

    “Ladies and gentlemen thank you all for coming this afternoon. But we still have more than enough time to showcase a live game play demo for Metal Fighters.”

    Strickland turned his attention towards an unknown display concealed by a large fabric.

    “I would like for you all to feast your eyes, and prepare to witness a demo take on the remake of this instant classic.” He removed the fabric to unveil the designing of the 9D Egg Cabin VR machine. This 360 degree interactive machine is comprised with enough seating arrangements for more than one player. Each seat contains a 3D surround sound system accompanied by a high resolution immersion helmet required to wear over their heads. They include an Intelligent Handle required to simulate the game play in progress. Below the machine features a spectrum of neon colored led effects to indicate the system’s overall functionality.

    “Unfortunately, due to limited space, we can only afford at the least three participants. Do we have any takers?”

    Fans in attendance raised their hands expressing interest to volunteer. To the likes of Ryan, J.B, Kaitlin, and Michael, they were no exception.

    Strickland pandered to the crowd as he took a moment to observe potential candidates. It was matter of time before he came to a final verdict.

    “Well it appears we have our three beta testers. Come on up you guys.” Strickland directed his attention at the three friends sitting beside one another.

    Ryan and Kaitlin stepped forward as they approached towards the VR machine in front of them. Initially, J.B encouraged Michael to participate but refused the offer.

    “Are you sure you don’t want to participate? How about you head on up there with Ryan and Kaitlin instead?” J.B asked.

    “No really-I’m okay. You’ve owned me in the original game more times I could count,” Michael insisted. “It’s fine. I can wait until the actual game is released. Go in and kick some virtual ass.”

    J.B nodded responding to his nephew’s content with a smile. They embraced with a hug just shortly before he regrouped with the two volunteers on stage.

    “Alright now we have our three beta testers let’s get the show on the road.” Strickland’s final words were spoken as the play through went underway.

    The trio positioned onto their chairs leaning their backs underneath the blue lit background of the VR Egg Cabin.

    “As we get started, we do have a screen large enough for everyone to witness the game play unfold. We would strongly advise that you remain seated at all times for all folks in the back to see.” Juliet notified towards the audience. After leaving the altar, the entire crowd in attendance watched on whereas footage of the simulation began to play on the said screen.

    Upon selecting the “new game” option in the main title card, the game segues way into the introduction of the story. Sub titles were added to reflect the dialogue as being heard on the loudspeakers. A language translator stood to the right corner of the screen using hand gestures to decipher the context behind the characters’ speeches.

    Set in a first person viewpoint, the players find themselves inside what appears to be a wreckage of a somewhat burnt down facility. A group of scientists were overheard screaming in horror of what they’ve witnessed. Others appeared injured leaving scorched bruises stained throughout their bodies. Several remaining bodies, however, were left lying motionless on the ground presumably deceased as a result of such heinous attack.

    A group of gold headed foot soldiers marched along from the background. With their demeaning crimson eyes, they searched around looking for any trace of human scent in their surroundings. Each of them featured dark rubber suits with gold capes attached to the back of their shoulders. Another fiery explosive imploded in the laboratory leaving a significant amount of smoke that dispersed in the air.

    “No pun intended but holy smokes it’s hot in here,” said J.B. His avatar is disguised underneath a silver body armor coated with streaks of black and red all around his suit and helmet. The yellow eyes on his visor resembles to that of an android.

    “You could say that again.” On the contrary, Ryan’s avatar is materialized in a blue suit and helmet accompanied with a blend of titanium based armor that is enveloped throughout his body.

    “I’ve seen documentaries on virtual reality. But experiencing this up close is phenomenal,” Kaitlin commented. Her avatar comprises a hybrid of red and yellow streaks embodied from her white suit. Kaitlin’s helmet would be surrounded by another dash of red edging around the perimeter of her visor. By continuing to monitor the activity, they begin to overhear some static within their helmet.

    Listen, there is not much time. The whole place is going to crumble underneath us if we don’t act quickly.


    Displayed on their visors, they pulled up a map displaying the layout of the entire interior building. Looking to devise an escape plan, a yellow marker highlights the trail they need to be in their attempt to escape.

    “Who is this?” Kaitlin asked.

    You have to trust me. These never ending Skug soldiers are going to destroy our headquarters, especially with the odds stacked against us. Follow the map radar on your visor screen and it will guide you with an escape route.


    By toggling the control of their handles, J.B and Kaitlin followed suit in advancing with the game. A blank stare across Ryan’s face leaves him reminded of the event that cost his father’s life.

    “Ryan,” J.B took notice of the expression coming from his friend’s face. Meanwhile, Kaitlin waved her hand to attract his attention.

    “Oh uh…right,” Ryan immediately snapped out of the trance. The trio proceeded to follow the provided coordinates courtesy of their blip radar. As they prepare to make their way out into the debris of narrow corridors, more Skugs arrived to enhance their obstacle.

    “Well these guys are the last people I want to stumble upon,” said J.B.

    “If they want a fight, then it’s a fight they’re going to get,” Ryan concluded. In unison, the battle raged on between the players and the army of Skug soldiers. A series of hand to hand combat started off. Each of them put forth the effort they could to defend themselves in the midst of the building’s demise.

    Unfortunately, with much fortitude as they had to endure, the numbers keeps adding on. With the Skugs pummeling Kaitlin down to the floor, she opened up her inventory menu in search for a particular weapon. Not a single one was featured on the display.

    “Kate, hang on!” J.B assured already aware of the danger his girlfriend would endure. However, the foot soldiers continued to overwhelm the players in their attempt to move forward in the scene.

    “Red Sheriff, over there - use the laser gun on the desk counter behind you!” The A.I instructed. The Skugs continue to clutch onto the legs of the intended foe. While extending out her arm, Kaitlin utilized all of the weight in her body to reach the weapon displayed on the desk. She would successfully retrieve the laser gun, firing numerous shots at the Skugs swarming around her.

    Meanwhile, J.B and Ryan continued in their valiant effort to thwart them off.

    “Silver Samurai, there is a twin blade holstered over by the display case. I’m going to key in the combo lock to open it!” Operating the mechanism inside the facility, the A.I provided automatic assistance to the trio on duty. With a push of a button, the case slides opens to unveil the double edged sword.

    As J.B fought on, Ryan looked around to find a wooden plank on the ground. As he retrieved the object, he used it to his advantage backing the foot soldiers against the wall.

    “I’ll hold them off as much as I can. Get a move on!” Ryan exclaimed.

    J.B moved forth with the order as instructed, releasing himself from the chain of Skug soldiers. By removing the twin blade from its holster, he proceeded to make use of the weapon thwarting them off one by one.

    Elsewhere, the Skugs broke hold from Ryan following a temporary distraction. They went in on the offense as he embraced himself in these odds on battle.

    “Blue Hawk, I’ve assembled the equipment necessary for you to utilize the Laser Saber. Just go to your inventory box and equip the item displayed on the icon,” the scientist informed him.

    Ryan made use of this opportunity in using the aforementioned weapon added to his disposal. With the saber in his grasp, Ryan swung his saber at the Skugs. Sparks of pyrotechnic erupted from their suits displaying significant damage done to the foot soldiers.

    “Talk about intense gang warfare,” he mumbled. The trio went all in on the numbers’ game using their respective signature weapons that has changed the complexion of the bout. With all the Skugs piled like junk, they dissipated from the ground leaving no trace of their presence.

    “So far so good guys,” said Ryan. As the building continues to tremble, they could only stall for a short period of time.

    “Guys the exit is just up ahead,” Kaitlin insisted to her teammates. Using the map radar displayed on their visor screen, the trio navigated their way into the fallen debris of the corridors. Piles of rock barricaded a large portion of the trail causing the trio to slow their tracks. As a pier collapsed on them, they immediately clutched onto the object as a precaution to their well being.

    “Ugh as if this place isn’t already in shambles,” J.B bantered. On a count of three, they each ducked underneath the pier leaving Ryan as the remaining person to follow suit. The trio would successfully navigate through the narrow corridor, eventually approaching the emergency exit door barricaded by another pile of rubble.

    “Now what do we do?” Ryan wondered. Backed into a corner, the trio remained with little option to spare.

    “Why ask questions when we have the weapons in our hands. Stand back,” Kaitlin ordered taking out her laser gun she retrieved earlier ago. By blasting the rocks in front of them, a wave of debris scattered throughout. When the dust settled, there remained no trace of objects barricading their way of escape.

    “Let’s get our rears out of here.” Upon Ryan’s comment, the trio made their way out through the emergency exit door. As they further distanced themselves from the building, they turned around to witness their headquarters crumble one after the other.

    The trio panted in exhaustion. It wasn’t the traditional video game in a sense of playing it through a home console. Rather the thrill of the experience that allows players to be in the moment enticed with high crisp physics that leaves them intrigued than ever before.

    “Whew just when I thought we were going to mess up on the first try, this play-through is too breathtaking,” J.B reacted. Just when they thought they could simmer down, lasers shot fire among the players. An armada of military jets began to invade the area of the remains left behind from the laboratory.

    “Metal Fighters, evacuate the territory immediately. I repeat evacuate the territory!” Originating from the audio speaker inside their helmets, the trio overheard an unknown spectator communicating with the team.

    “Where exactly is this person contacting us from?” Kaitlin wondered.

    “We better get moving, and I mean fast,” said Ryan. With less time for bantering, the players hurried out of the danger zone in which they have now been targeted. Sparks of pyrotechnics ignite from the firing missiles triggered among them.

    “Is there a nearby vehicle we can ride on? At this rate, running could only do so much with these jets above us,” J.B shouted. Even with their respective weapons, it would take more than their limited inventory to counteract the fighter jets in pursuit.

    “I’ve managed to pin point the coordinates of your location. There is a military vehicle that is stored inside of the garage. One of you will place your hand on the detection pad. The shed should automatically open from there.”

    Upon acknowledging the command, Ryan followed. “Let’s give it a go.”

    Using the hand cursor from his controlling handle, he pressed his hand onto the pad allowing access inside the garage that contains a Humvee in store. As soon as they hopped on, the motoring sound of the key ignition began to operate. Sitting behind the wheel, Ryan drove off from the garage and onto the road that lies ahead. With an additional army of fighter jets threatening to destroy our heroes, it would require more than simply evading their enemies.

    J.B climbed up to the back of the Humvee locking aim on a machine consisting ammo rounds of laser missiles.

    “Ryan, keep on driving. I’ve got these bad boys right where we want them,” he assured. In retaliation, J.B fires back destroying each jet that attacked them. As more approached, an additional army of Skugs arrived on the scene riding on their motorbikes.

    “Great this is just what we need. More enemies,” Kaitlin said. With her laser gun equipped, she took aim before successfully pulling the trigger. Shots blasted on the tire wheels causing a pair of Skugs to fall off from their bikes. Some foot soldiers were even shot directly by the blast that fired at them.

    “Try and keep the wheels straight. I don’t know how long we’re going to keep this up,” J.B warned to Ryan.

    With a lack of response, Ryan continued to operate the Humvee with every obstacle in their path. From bumpy to winding roads along the empty freeway, the players managed to progress this far in the scene. It seemed the tide has turned in their favor. What all seemed well would be a tipping point waiting to happen; that tipping point that leaves our heroes on a gradual downturn.

    “Ryan, look out!” Kaitlin cried the instant they encountered a broken bridge up ahead.

    “Holy…” The shout of fear coming from Ryan’s mouth manifested from the intensity of the scene that would unfold. Immediately as the vehicle spirals down, the camera zooms in on the ground before fading in to black.

    We cut to a following sequence with an echo of babble chattering in the background. The players find themselves inside a prison cell of a gloomy dungeon.

    “Is everyone alright?” J.B asked.

    “Whew, as far as I’m concern video games are some serious business,” Ryan said in regards to his friend’s comment. As the trio observed their surroundings, they overheard some brief static echoing from their helmet.

    “Fighters, do you read me?” Following some minor technical error, the spectator reconnected its communication towards the players.

    “Thank goodness you are alright. Communication had been cut off with all those fighter jets in your way. While I’ve pinpointed the map of your location, I’m unable to detect any trace of your presence. However, there is a feature in your helmet that will allow you to use your visor in brightening this darkened facility. Shout out the phrase ‘VR scanner activate’ and lord and behold.”

    “One thing is for sure. At least it gives us a clue to how we got here,” said Kaitlin. On cue the trio signaled their command allowing the activation of their head beams that penetrated from their visors.

    In an attempt to release them from the cell, Ryan grabbed hold onto the caged door utilizing the hand icon displayed on the screen. Despite given the option, the door failed to budge.

    “Well what do you know? Not even metal armor could get us out of this imprisonment,” he bantered.

    The gang pondered in hopes of a way to free them out of the cell.

    “Kaitlin see if you could use your laser gun to release the lock,” J.B suggested to her.

    While observing her inventory, she took out her weapon holding aim on the door lock. Pulling the trigger once more, the impact of the laser left an eruption of sparks that destroyed the binding chains from the cell door.

    “Easy pee zee. I’m surprised there isn’t anyone guarding this place,” Kaitlin pointed out.

    “Wouldn’t that be a good thing?” Ryan questioned.

    “Let’s keep a move on. Whether or not how tight security there is, we’re going to have to stay close,” J.B said insisting not to argue further on the matter.

    The trio progressed along the passageway unknowingly familiar with the interior layout. In the midst of their navigation, they would soon encounter some Skugs scouting the area.

    “Guys hold on.” Ryan pulled his friends away from the intersecting hallway. Preventing to be seen, the Skugs would be the least of their worries. A robot with its head that resembled the shape of a rocket ship confronted the gold headed foot soldiers.

    “Skugs, have you located the cemetery? This place almost seems like a maze that has us back at square one.” Better known as General Ivar, the incense tone in his voice motivated his soldiers to carry out their assignment.

    In response to their general’s comment, the Skugs shook their head. They even displayed him a map in an effort to track down their designated location.

    “Err you know how to read a map. Decimator’s body has to be here somewhere. Keep looking,” Ivar scolded. As their mere presence faded from the background, the trio regrouped to figure out a way to progress through the story.

    “This is going to be a pain trying to evade these guys,” Kaitlin said.

    “Like I said, we’re going to have to stay close,” J.B reiterated. They resumed the game afterward looking to explore around the ill lit fortress. Approaching the remains of an abandoned control center, more Skugs surveyed the area divided up to guard the upper and bottom floors. Some guarded the different sectors of the entrance areas. Due to the overwhelming fleet of soldiers, to overcome such a feat would require the players’ emphasis on stealth and evasion.

    “Ryan, you take the one on the left. Kaitlin and I are going to take out these Skugs on our right,” said J.B. They followed upon command sneaking behind the soldiers. Wrapping their arms around their necks, it was a matter of a second before a simple snap would render them unconscious. They continued to navigate their way through the room thwarting off any potential shenanigan that would expose their presence.

    During the middle of the game play demo, Grimlord monitored the play through from a secluded room inside the convention. A number of monitor screens were displayed up close like a set of surveillance cameras closing in on one another. Each consisted of a sequence of events taking place involving the players and his army of robots surveying the fortress. Not a single word uttered from his mouth. The stern expression from his eyes became apparent while observing the fight scenes in progress.

    Cutting right back into the game, the trio would encounter a light up ahead. Smokes engulfed from the designated area leaving chills sent shivering down their spine.

    “Whew, that didn’t take long,” Kaitlin said. They navigated through the winding hallways while observing the many intersecting corridors to avoid enemy detection. Ryan along with Kaitlin and J.B stopped their tracks upon standing in front of an enclosed gate.

    “Be careful, who knows what kind of shenanigans will pop out from there,” J.B said with the intention of warning his mates.

    “It’s alright. I can go in first and check if the coast is clear,” Ryan said. As his friends watched on, he opened the gate partway letting out a creek that echoed throughout. Passing through the gate, he would arrive outside before stumbling across a number of gravesites scattered throughout the confines of the cemetery. Black fences surrounded the perimeter of an almost open field.

    Ryan signaled his teammates giving them the thumbs up for the go ahead. Standing foot within the grave sites, a sense of tranquility echoed their surroundings. They surveyed the area to ensure of potential suspicious activity that may be conducted nearby.

    “To think all the many loved ones who lost their lives while serving their faction. This war really took a lot out of everyone,” he observed. Devastated by the number of graves and flowers bestowed on each tombstone, such a heinous act by Grimlord and his army has left an impact on the population - an impact that has not only cost the lives of innocent people but with the subsequent destruction of mother nature’s beauty that came with it.

    “Let’s keep checking around. Whoever left that gate open first, I have a feeling there’s more going on than we realize,” J.B commanded. Individually, the trio wandered around the different sectors of the cemetery. Kaitlin would stumble across a large gravestone up ahead. A patch of dirt piled in front of the stone leaving behind a surplus of shovels lying all over it. A king sized white coffin resembling a Japanese styled architecture laid adjacently in front of the stone, engraved using Decimator’s name in the country’s handwritten language.

    “Guys, something is not right,” Kaitlin told them.

    An awkward silence of what was once a place in which folks congregated to pay their respects to a loved one. Cobwebs were displayed everywhere from the walls making up the perimeter. The ringing of drum bells echoed the seemingly spacious facility they just entered. Up ahead contained a king sized statue of two Skug soldiers doing battle with one another.

    “What on Earth happened here?” Ryan chimed in to observe the only coffin remaining in sight. He placed the firm of his hand onto the coffin carefully opening the lid. Inside a spark of dynamite flared up from the wires of a detonating device already ignited.

    “Get back!” He exclaimed. Ryan and Kaitlin hurried away from the coffin, leaping over the grave stones in an attempt for cover. J.B followed suit as the coffin instantly bursts out from behind. The sounding cracks of charcoal were overheard by the outskirts. Gulf of flames spread throughout what remained of the coffin allowing smoke to ascend above the crimson sky.

    Hiding behind the tombstones, the trio took a glance to observe the explosion as it happened.

    “Talk about some kind of practical joke. What in the world was that about?” Kaitlin wondered. The instant her words sputtered out loud, they overheard a sudden swoosh looming from the players’ presence. As they paused to wonder about the superstition, it was a matter of time before this anonymous figure made his presence known. With a double edged sword equipped in his hand, a formidable robot clad in white armor with a red cape attached to his shoulders stood across from the players.

    “It appears I detected some intruders trespassing from my turf. How irrational of you buffoons to walk out here to disrespect the dead,” he said.

    “I don’t know who you are to accuse us of breaking and entering. But you don’t realize who the hell you are messing with,” Ryan replied looking to build steam beneath the foe’s inner skin.

    “It’s a big mistake to sound cocky especially in front of a veteran swordsman. Now it’s time for me to extinguish them like the fire that you see behind me,” he said. “But before we proceed, it seems we haven’t formally introduced ourselves. As a warrior hungry for battle, most folks have referred to me as Decimator. I have fought the best and I have beaten the best. Let’s begin shall we?”

    The swordsman positioned the staff of his sword directly away from his body.

    “This guy isn’t rambling nonsense,” Ryan said. On cue the trio glossed over to their inventory menu with their respective signature weapons intact.

    “Humph it’s just as I expected. Even with the odds stacked against me, you fools don’t realize who you are dealing with.” Decimator cackled.

    “We’ll see about that,” J.B spoke confidently. Rather than bantering, the battle would soon begin to get underway. J.B pulled off the first move using his lance as anti-thesis to Decimator’s sword. Their weapons clashed back and forth letting out a clinging sound that echoes throughout the area. As seemingly on par as both combatants turned out, the tides soon turned in Decimator’s favor. By knocking the lance off from his opponent’s grasp, the wielding swordsman swung his sword over towards his opponent. Sparks erupted from his suit dealing significant enough damage as J.B’s avatar fell to the ground.

    “Not even your weapon is on par with my signature blade,” Decimator taunted. Kaitlin stepped forward using her laser gun to fire away the shots blasted towards the intended foe. Utilizing his sword expertise, Decimator deflected each attempted blast that had been made. This intimidating pose leaves Kaitlin intimidated by the enemy's ferocity. With another swing, he sent her avatar flying towards a gravestone.

    As his friends took a moment to recuperate on the sidelines, Ryan looks to avenge them by taking matters into his own hands. Equipped with his saber, the two fought head on in determining a battle of superiority. Neither combatant was willing to back down. While lacking the higher stats when compared to Decimator, it was a matter of fortitude that has kept Ryan motivated. For as much determination displayed, Ryan could not keep up with the agility based off of his opponent’s A.I.

    After a full recovery, J.B and Kaitlin resumed battle looking to aid their fallen friend. They charged head on using physical combat to thwart off the swordsman. Despite their will to succeed, the immense strength displayed by Decimator exceeded far ahead from his opponents. Ryan capitalized but as the saying went - the song remains the same.

    “You’ve disappointed me Fighter. I was looking forward to some serious competition,” Decimator bantered. Placing his sword back into his holster, it wasn’t long before he had another game plan in mind.

    “No matter what weapons you use, sad fact of the matter is they are not up to par with mine,” he said. “We will duel in the traditional hand by hand combat. I’ll be flattered than to take on not one but all three of you standing before me.”

    The trio switched out their inventory once more. This time, however, would require no specific objects being of use. The icon immediately switched from their respective weaponry into the symbol of two hands as shown on the screen.

    “Why do I have a bad feeling about all of this?” Kaitlin asked.

    “Follow along with the narrative if you’re playing a quick time event,” J.B said. In unison, they positioned into their fighting poses as they score off against the first boss of the game.

    Ryan and Kaitlin made attempts to thwart off their foe using traditional hand to hand combat. Kaitlin pulled off an exchange of left and right jabs to the head of her opponent. With every offense, Decimator dodged each one that swung by. Ryan chimed in on the action leaping with a front kick to the warrior's stomach. He struck with some shin kicks to the leg finishing off the combo with a leaping knee to the chin. As Decimator continued to endure these blows, J.B followed up with an exchanging left and right shin kicks that culminated with a tornado kick to the swordsman's chest.

    “Not bad but let me show you how it’s done.”

    Transitioning from defense to offense, Decimator retaliated using a variety of thrust chops to the chest of Kaitlin’s avatar.

    “Kaitlin,” J.B cried out. Avenging a fallen comrade, he pulled out all the stops towards the samurai. Each technique he executed no matter the agility, this would not weakened Decimator’s performance. He would immediately reverse J.B’s spin kick with a similar kick of his own.

    The swiftness in part of Decimator’s experience in combat outshined his enemies’ every movement. It was there that the avatars of Ryan, J.B, and Kaitlin were sent flying back first against the wall in struggling to overcome this feat.

    “You don’t realize the warrior who stands tall around here. As Grimlord’s loyal servant, I am sworn to protect this very dungeon against intruders that dare threaten this very world he created for all mutants like us to thrive in.” Decimator continued to intimidate his oppose ones.

    “For a swordsman that’s OP this early in the demo, he’s one hell of a boss for sure,” said Ryan. The sheer drama escalated in a situation that places the advantage right in the villains’ favor. Beneath his visor lurks a stern expression; a chance to avenge his friends right then and there. Eventually, he rose to the occasion standing toe to toe against the swordsman.

    “Humph not even my fists proved even the slightest of a challenge. Just admit defeat and I won’t have to punish you more,” Decimator insisted.

    “I’ve had enough with your games. You’re going to pay for what you did!” Summoning his saber once again, Ryan charged head on. Upon ambush Decimator retaliated as he pulled out his sword in self defense. Their respective weapons clashed back and forth pulling out all the stops to maintain equal advantage. The burning ambition from Ryan’s eyes indicates a lack of intention of backing down from this fight. While admiring the courage bestowed upon Ryan, Decimator proved he was one step ahead of him.

    The swordsman knocked the said weapon from the grasp of his opponent. He swept the floor out of Ryan’s leg tripping him in the process. Back first on the ground, Ryan held out his arms.

    “It’s safe to say I’ve demonstrated my point as of now. It is time for me to put an end to you.” Those words ignited the spark within Ryan’s will to succeed. A clash of exchanging sword strikes ensues amongst the two combatants. It seemed apparent neither would hold back in their encounter towards one another. With the slash of his saber, a scorch of purple blood oozed out from the right cheek of Decimator’s face.

    “You imbecile, as an experienced swordsman, how dare you try and mock me like that,” Decimator cursed.

    “Way to go Ryan,” said Kaitlin. Along with J.B, they regrouped with their teammate upon witnessing the swordsman's vulnerability.

    “It seems like his health bar is doing sufficient damage. Let’s take advantage of this and finish him off,” said Ryan equipping the laser blaster from his inventory.

    J.B and Kaitlin proceeded with the procedure pulling out laser blasters of their own. Decimator continued to clutch onto his chest while recovering from the blows he sustained.

    In unison the players positioned their respective weapons. As Ryan shouted the cue to fire, the trio fired their laser guns sending sparks that erupted from the samurai’s torso.

    Subsequently, despite the damage he sustained, Decimator barely withstood the laser shots fired towards him.

    “Wait, that didn’t faze him?” J.B said shock and awe of what they’ve witnessed.

    “You’re going to need more than those lasers to destroy me. It’s not the weapon that makes me stronger. It’s the owner wheeling the weapon that is, and I guarantee you have a lot to learn before you’re up to my league.” Decimator bent over to the ground to pick up his trademark sword. With the battle in progress, the rest of Grimlord’s leading faction marched through the cemetery gate. Skugs surveyed the area as did a horde of cyber kinetic robots intimidating their intended prey.

    The avatars of Ryan, J.B, and Kaitlin fought off the foot soldiers surrounding them. With every ounce of fortitude they had, it would not be enough.
    One after another each robot continued to take charge at the players. No matter the desire and inability to surrender, the players struggled to withstand the sheer army that looms in their path. Once more the status quo was restored, and the remaining meter on their health bars would instantly deplete thereafter. The screens displayed from their visors would fade to black signifying game over for our players......or at least so they thought.

    After a long period of unconsciousness, the players find themselves chained around a post inside of a throne room. A red carpet extended from the entrance of the concrete floor to the staircase of the king’s chair. They overhear a buzz of cheering from Grimlord’s mutant army in celebration over a job well done.

    “Where are we?” Kaitlin wondered.

    “It’s a pleasure to have you fighters here with us.” Grimlord chuckled to witness the intruders outnumbered by his faction. “You’ve may have a lot of nerd to try and sabotage my army. When it’s all said and done, where there is a plan A, there is always a plan B. Colonel Icebot, do your stuff.”

    “Affirmative,” the Colonel abided while standing in front of a dashboard panel. With his demeaning red eyes, the figure cloaked in white body armor with streaks of blue vines that resembled a collar-like trench coat proceeded to follow orders. With the push of a button, a television set presented in high definition would descend from the ceiling. A projection of Grimlord’s face appeared on the monitor screen looking to address his statement.

    “I’ve got to hand it to you. It takes a lot of guts to bypass the amount of life threatening situations all of you had endured. Let alone the fact this game being tested out as we speak has finally come down to this.” Grimlord confessed much to the confusion behind the beta testers involved in the play through.

    “Since when did he decide to break the fourth wall?” Ryan wondered.

    “When this world was created, I wanted to provide a haven in which these mutant robots could thrive without the need to fight one another for land. The life we’ve spent living in the virtual world could only fit so many people in this oversaturated population. I’m sure you recognize the image displayed in front of your very eyes.”

    The screen cuts to a photo still of Sam Strickland, founder and president of a game developing company responsible for pitching the idea. Beneath their visors, they were stunned to come across the familiar photo that has left a still frame in their minds.

    “If he hadn’t made the final decision to consider pitching a remake of this timeless classic, none of this would all be possible. Observe and behold.” Grimlord cackled. From there the screen would cut to a CGI image of a computer grid that displays an image of two planets collide. “The reality barrier serves as the bridge between virtual reality and the living world as you’ve grown to be familiar with. Now is the time we bring unity to not only the virtual gaming world we reside in. When we destroy the barrier, we mutants will make that dream a reality and migrate to a place that will alter the course of Mankind forever.”

    With the grasp of his firm hand, Grimlord raised his crystal orb in the air. A rush of green electricity channeled throughout his body. Emerging from the shadows, Decimator raised his arms holding onto another orb akin to his boss. The combined energy waves intersected from opposite directions that managed to penetrate through the screen.

    “In just a moment, the way humans perceive virtual reality will never be the same again. It will no longer be some oxymoron to justify the belief of what’s real versus what is fantasy. Feast your eyes and allow the start of our expansion into the real world, begin!”

    As Grimlord gave Colonel Icebot the signal, a surge of electricity intensified sending shockwaves that enveloped the bodies of the trio. They screamed immensely in pain with each jolt the players had to endure.

    Back in the convention hall room, lights flickered like a switch going on and off. Television kiosks that have displayed coverage of the game play turned static cutting off the live feed. The audience was left confused over the happenstance surrounding them. On the other hand, Michael grew more concern over the safety of the trio’s well being including J.B.

    In an attempt to cut off the power, Strickland approached towards the VR machine. Despite doing so, the machine failed to make a conscious response. Resorting to drastic measures, he turned his attention to the cord outage. His hand caught bruised as sparks erupted from the cords used to operate the machine. Despite the risk, he successfully removed the cord previously wired from the output.

    Strickland hurried over to the beta testers to check on their condition. Slowly Ryan, Kaitlin, and J.B stood up from their chairs coping with some fatigue endured by the headsets’ malfunction.

    “Is everyone here alright?” He asked. Individually they removed their headsets coming off the heels of unusual superstition that transpired.

    “What on Earth just happened back there?” Ryan remarked as he rubbed his forehead. Going into the event, it was a chance for him to spend leisure time with his long time companions; friends who he hadn’t interacted with since their time in grade school. Only to soon realize that the dosage of excitement and social gathering would take a turn for the worse.

    Having remained secluded in his hideout, Grimlord monitored the scene to witness the four gathering around in awe and uncertainty. The veil of his sadistic grin began to show as his objective went according to plan.

    “I’ve waited for a long time for this to take shape. Now is the time for the robots to stand together for we shall declare war on humanity and take over the world they inhabit in,” he cackled hysterically.
    Last edited by Quantum Leap Ranger; 06-13-2020 at 05:25 AM.

  4. #4
    Chapter 3:
    Welcome to Reality


    Hours elapsed as three friends witnessed an intense simulation that left them fatigued and at a loss for words. In the midst of simulating a prototype version of Metal Fighters, a loose circuit in their VR head gear resulted in an electronic malfunction of the machine's hardware. To them, the Crossworld Gaming Expo had been an annual staple of theirs since childhood; it had been a social gathering of gaming fanatics from around the world. Until recently, the trio took a moment off from work to spend quality time with one another. What was intended to be their day of leisure would soon take a turn for the worse.

    Inside of a medical clinic, Kaitlin and J.B sat at the lobby waiting for Ryan to complete his eyesight checkup. Having finished their previous appointments, they spent their time reflecting over what just transpired back at the convention. Neither one could socialize what they had to endure.

    Not once did they attempt to utilize any electronic equipment, even if it meant turning on their cell phones. The only measure taken involves a moment of contemplation.

    "Hey guys. I thought you could use something to eat.” As an encouragement to his peers, Michael entered the clinic lobby with some potato chips from a nearby vending machine.

    "Come on you guys. I hate to see all of you silent," he continued. Despite good intentions, he began to realize not even a single treat could rejuvenate the optimism that previously illuminated from the trio’s faces.

    As the appointment concluded with Ryan’s checkup, J.B and Kaitlin stood up from their chairs in curiosity of his condition.

    "Hey, how did yours go?" Kaitlin wondered.

    "Well the doctor says my eye sights are fully functional. Even though I could still use my phone, they advise me to only use it in the event of an emergency," Ryan provided them with the update.

    "They also said the same thing to me and Kaitlin also," J.B informed. “It’s best if we trim back on using our electronics, at least for the time being.

    "I would like to think what we saw back there was some sort of act for the show," Michael said.

    "That's what we would've have thought," J.B empathized with his nephew. "Whatever technical malfunction that went on, hopefully the game developers figure out a way to fix the engineering.”

    “Tell me about it,” said Kaitlin. “It would’ve sucked for anyone else to experience what we had to go through."

    The rest of the gang nodded in agreement. Neither one could comprehend the happenstance that transpired within the course of 24 hours. Whether the technical malfunction was an accident or a plot devised by the game developers, it didn't help that they as beta testers were nearly at risk of health seizures.

    "Let's sign off with our signatures on the time sheet and we can call it a day." Kaitlin insisted. Along with J.B and Ryan, the trio took a moment to sign their names on the time sheet clipped to a clipboard.

    When they made their exit from the clinic, they prepared to close out the rest of their festivities with a parting of ways.

    "It's been fun hanging out with you guys. I mean, despite what happened back there. I haven't had a blast like this for as long as I could remember," Ryan conceded with a friendly compliment.

    "That's what friends do. Socializing and having a great time," said J.B.

    "You could say that again," Kaitlin added blowing off the strand of her blonde hair. "I'm going to have quite a field day writing this article."

    "Do you think your readers will buy into the fact that some strange occurrence happened to us back there? Given from the fact that our brains almost
    got zapped by those headsets?" Ryan addressed his concerns to Kaitlin.

    "The zapping part yes," Kaitlin replied. "You'll have to take into account there was an audience that witnessed what we went through. But based on how the cut scene went down, folks could’ve interpreted Grimlord's dialogue as though he was bluffing."

    "Maybe you could interview the people that were in attendance when it happened," J.B advised.
    "Now it's just a matter if everyone around the world will buy Grimlord's involvement in the incident was not a coincidence," Kaitlin said.

    As the gang drew to a screeching silence, it wasn't for long until the growl in Michael's stomach forces him to break the ice.
    "Guys, is there a nearby restaurant we can eat? I am starved," he told them.

    J.B glanced at the menu screen on his Smartphone to check the dial on the clock. "It's about to get dark pretty soon. We should head in to the metro and dine in. Try and clear our minds for awhile."

    By acknowledging the advice from their friend, Ryan and Kaitlin nodded with agreement.

    "Come to think of it, I could use something to eat," Ryan said.

    Kaitlin sighed. "Whew good thing we took the metro. There was not a single empty space in the parking lot when we left. As much as I would like to give all of you a ride, in retrospect I'm glad we didn't."

    Meanwhile, Ryan placed a shoulder on her in support of her discouragement.

    "Oh-uh which reminds me, I still have your car back at my place. When I get a chance, I'll get your vehicle running before you know it," he assured. She looked up at him with a sense of acknowledgment illuminated from the spark of hope bestowed upon her face.

    "What are we waiting for? Let's grab some dinner shall we?" Michael insisted towards the trio.

    The rest of the three continue to head their way towards their destination. Despite a rocky turn of events, part of Ryan felt elated to be given the privilege of spending quality time with the people he knew since childhood. A shine of glimmer brought him some joy within the shrouding mist of grief in his life.

    Upon stumbling at the traffic light, it was there that they encountered a familiar pair of gold headed foot soldiers standing lifelessly in the background. Kaitlin stopped her tracks seemingly caught off guard in fear of the mind games she witnessed.

    "Kate, is everything okay?" J.B asked.

    "Sorry, I just panicked for a bit," Kaitlin snapped out of her trance.

    "All I see is just a couple of Skug Cos-players coming out from the convention," Ryan denied the potential superstition he witnessed. "For all we know it could be just our imagination."

    Despite acknowledging Ryan's comment, Kaitlin denied such speculation.

    "Part of me wants me to believe that. But it’s almost like we’re being followed,” she spoke with concern. “I don’t know maybe I’m overanalyzing all of this. I just have this weird feeling we're being watched."

    The gang worked their way down a flight of staircases leading into the metro terminal. By the time they arrived at the subway, the trio followed along with a crowd of local passengers as they hopped aboard the train in front of them.

    Once the train took off, the Skugs stood across from the opposite platform of the substation, staring blankly at the passengers on board. Just what superstition may be lurking in Crossworld City? Or did it happen to be a figment of our heroes' imagination?

    ***

    Approaching the hall room in which the panel had previously taken place, Rebecca took a moment to monitor footage of the VR machine incident recorded through a staff director’s I-Phone. Deep inside her gut she couldn't believe what she had just witnessed. While maintaining professionalism as the city police chief, she went ahead and provided her verbal reaction.

    "Did you find anything unusual that may have contributed to the fuse shortage?" She asked curiously.

    "So far none of what I'm seeing. Not a single cable snapping or anyone that would cause such a thing like this to happen," spoke the director in attendance. During the midst of Intel, a police lieutenant of the CCPD approached Rebecca looking to have a word with her.

    "That's the evidence we needed. Thank you for your time sir," Rebecca concluded the director’s interrogation.

    "Any leads so far?" The lieutenant stepped in to follow up on the report.

    "From what I can gather within the past few hours, there's raw footage of the incident that's leaked all over Social Media," Rebecca provided with an update. "I can't determine whether the machine overheated or some strange happenstance may have triggered it. Maybe it’s a possibility that there may have been a hacker that reprogrammed the game."

    “I don’t doubt that for a second,” the lieutenant said.

    "Hi I don’t mean to interrupt. I was referred to by one of your officers so I figured you would like to have a word?" Strickland approached the two police enforcers on site.

    "Sam Strickland? President and founder of Strickland Gaming," Rebecca wondered curiously.

    "You must be Rebecca Steele. It's been so long since the last I saw from you," Strickland told her.

    "Have we have met before?" she said leaving an expression of fuzzy memories clouding from the back of her mind.

    "It took me some time before I recognize your face on the local front newspaper," said Strickland in reference to the Crossworld Chronicle. "I’m deeply sorry for your loss. Is there anything I can do for you?"

    Rebecca shook her head. “I’m good for now. Let’s just say when it comes to serving more than 15 years in the police force, I’ve come to empathize with plenty of folks who have lost their loved ones, even under tragic circumstances.”

    Following her response, she brought the discussion back towards the interrogation in progress.

    "What can you tell me about the VR machine your team managed to build? Have you tested it out beforehand?" Rebecca asked.

    "Our team has carefully examined the hardware of the head gear to ensure there was no loose appliance in the circuit. Never did we expect the head gear to fry the way it did," Strickland confessed.

    "You put some folks’ lives at risk. They could have been killed back there had faculty not been there to stop it,” Rebecca said raising her voice in anger.

    "I can assure you I had no idea this was going to happen," Strickland said in his defense. "We have over a year and half in development to adjust the glitches in the game. When launch day arrives, we will ensure that the VR headsets are 100% operable and safe to use."

    From her phone, Rebecca took a glimpse at a screenshot of the displayed VR machine at the time of the incident. She zoomed in on the photo to determine any potential suspicion that may have occurred.

    "I don't mean to get off the railroad tracks. It must be pretty difficult balancing your duty as chief of the CCPD and as a loving mother," Strickland commented.

    "You don't realize how much of a responsibility we have to endure when it comes to police work," Rebecca scolded much to the discomfort of Sam Strickland.

    "Fair enough," he replied. "Have you had any chance to ease out the stress by utilizing some leisure time to be productive? You know, anything that involves recreational activity or spending quality time gathering with your close family members?"

    "What does this have anything to do with this investigation?" Rebecca wondered.

    Strickland provided her with an explanation. "Even though we work in two different occupations, we are devoted to continue doing what we strive for a living. You have a team that protects and serves the city by investigating on any unusual activity, and ensuring safety of those being victimized. I work for a gaming industry that thrives on creativity, exploring fascinating concepts that have not been pulled off. We may have our share of contrasting beliefs. But we do it because we appreciate what we spent our education on, earning our degree and major to advance our specific career.” He took a temporary breather before resuming his speech. “This is why I pursued a long term career as a gamer: To give folks a feeling to suspend their minds off of real world problems plaguing our society. With Metal Fighters, this is one of my most anticipated projects I have waited for over a decade to be revived. In this day and age of reboots, it is a chance to reel in players of all generations; folks who grew up with the original game as well as generating a younger audience that look to share that experience as well. We intend to re-master the game by updating the game’s core engine while staying faithful to the framework that the franchise built upon."

    Rebecca took this time to chime in on the response. “I see it’s quite noble of you to express a desire in doing what you love.”

    Strickland maintained a straight face. “It’s a career that I was committed to work my way towards,” he continued to elaborate on the matter. "The point I'm trying to convey is how we spent nearly every day of our lives going to work on what we appreciate doing. I'm very sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. Grief may not be easy to overcome. If there's ever a moment to relieve it all, that's what we here as Strickland Gaming are here for; Your number one source for our library of the most provoking video games produced.”

    Rebecca continued to listen as Strickland prepared to conclude his speech.

    “Call me sentimental or what you will. Take a moment to think about what I said. Once the video game is released nationwide, folks will have a chance to experience the thrill of seeing themselves inside of a fantasy based setting. Any stress we folks are going through will be alleviated in this action pack adventure yet. Besides you’re never too old to play video games.” With his final words, Strickland exited out of the hall room allowing the curious Rebecca to contemplate on the speech he intended to convey.

    “Chief there’s something else you need to see,” the lieutenant insisted. With his phone, they played another footage sent by a witness in attendance. As the gamers managed to get up from their seats, Rebecca would soon recognize a familiar person in the moments leading to the incident.

    “Is everything okay?”

    As Rebecca insisted for him to stop the video, she peered over at the lieutenant’s phone while zooming in on the displayed screen cap.

    “Ryan,” she muttered to herself.

    Over on the viewing radar, Grimlord monitored the surveillance of their conversation in progress.

    "You really pulled it off Strickland. With the help from our beloved companions, the barrier between the virtual and living world has now been severed. Our army of robots has full access to the world that Mother Nature created. And we have our wielding swordsman back from the grave," he cackled.

    "Master, it's a pleasure to be standing here at this time," Decimator bowed to his knees formally displaying his gratitude towards his boss. "None of this would be possible if it hadn't been for our fellow comrades standing here at this time. For that I thank you."

    "You were the most formidable combatant of our group. A swordsman like you should not be underestimated without a doubt," Grimlord complimented on his strengths.

    "Fighting has always been my way of life. Those Metal Fighters didn't even stand a chance from what I had to offer them,” Decimator said.

    "I've been waiting anxiously for the longest time. With the reality barrier severed, we have a chance to expand our mutant population into the Living World. Soon humans, animals, and among all living species that inhabit the world will gradually be extinct," said Grimlord. "It may not all be built in a day. However, I guarantee you that when our army is fully assembled, it will be a heartbeat away before we complete on our expansion."

    Meanwhile, a group of Skugs marched alongside one another making their presence known to their ruler. Along with the likes of Decimator, Tankantron, Toxoid, Colonel Icebot, and General Ivar, they bowed to their knees on behalf of loyalty to Grimlord.

    "As an experienced pilot, you have my support master," said General Ivar.

    "I've may have committed acts I regret on making but I look to turn that around," Renegade stepped forth.

    "With all the fume level of poison in my body, count on me also," Toxoid followed.

    “You’re going to need a cunning tech advisor that will help coordinate your tasks,” Colonel Icebot replied.

    "Very well my loyal servants. Rest assured that when it comes to carrying out an objective, failure will not be tolerated," Grimlord warned to his minions.

    "Hail Grimlord," a horde of his army chanted out in unison.

    "We're just getting started..." Clenching his hand into a fist, Grimlord let out an evil sneer that signified a sense of high morale boiling through his veins.

    ***

    As the evening approached, the gang sat on the seats riding inside of a local charter bus. With his earphones attached, Michael spent the duration of his time in listening to some hip hop music on his phone. Over on the opposite seat, Kaitlin laid besides J.B with her eyes closed. Ryan glanced aimlessly at the window watching the many cars and buildings that passed them by the highway. Suddenly, he overheard his ring tone echoing from the speaker of his Smartphone.

    "Hey Mom," said Ryan as his phone conversation with his mother began to get underway. "I'm doing okay, just a little worn out from the convention.....No, they're not refraining me from using electronics. Doctors are insisting I keep my phone usage to a minimum......I know, I know. It's been a rough month as it is......You're not going to be one of those moral guardians that banter on how video games have a bad effect on children……Mom I told you countless times. I'm a grown adult, I can take care of myself.......I'm sorry, today has been rough.....Maybe we can continue this conversation during breakfast tomorrow. I can make you some buttermilk pancakes.....It’ll be on the house when you get there……I’ll talk to you soon……I love you Mom, take care......"

    After concluding contact with his mother, Ryan hung up his phone as he leaned back against the bus seat. He closed his eyes to reflect on everything he’s gone through from the past twenty-four hours.

    Eventually, the bus made a screeching halt at the site of the waiting bench, allowing for the driver to release the hatch open for passengers to exit.
    Ryan got up from his seat looking to bid his goodbye for the night.

    "It's been a wild day but I've had a blast hanging out with you guys," he said offering thanks to his long time companions.

    "I've had a blast too man,” J.B replied. “Take care of yourself while you’re at it. That head gear nearly had our brains fried.”

    With her eyes wide open, Kaitlin acknowledged Ryan's comment as she immediately responded.

    “Are we here already?” She wondered shaking off the cob webs in her head upon regaining consciousness.

    “My apartment is just outside from the door here,” Ryan told her.

    "It was good seeing you Ryan. You're more than welcome to hang out whenever we're available," Kaitlin spoke with a sincere smile lurking from her face.

    As Ryan took the last staircase down, he turned his attention to his friends once more before exiting the bus.

    "Listen I don’t have enough tools in my apartment to make auto repairs. I have your car stored inside my parents' garage just so you know," Ryan informed her. "I'll go ahead and text you as soon as it’s finish."

    "Thanks for letting me know," Kaitlin replied. Following an inevitable hand wave of goodbye, Ryan stepped outside upon making it through the crosswalk that leads him to the site of his apartment complex. With the door closed off, the driver turned on the ignition once more before making its departure to its next destination.

    "Ever since we got on the bus, it sure feels like a long drive home,” she further commented.

    "It should only take less than ten minutes. We'll be there before you know it," J.B assured of her. Upon a brief glance at his nephew, J.B and Kaitlin monitored an HD television set displayed by the front end of the bus. A news bulletin which contains an interview by Sam Strickland was the hot topic being discussed in the media.

    "Well here is our favorite game developer," Kaitlin said sarcastically. While the couple monitored the news in progress, Strickland provided his perspective over for the press to hear.

    "I've been getting messages over at my Social Media feed in regards to the incident from earlier this afternoon. Our team and I are working to reconfigure the VR machine and determining the cause that led us here in the first place," he informed. Flashes of camera lighting continued to illuminate the scene thanks to the many photographers in attendance. "Now I understand there are a number of questions you folks would like to know. The only thing for sure is we have plenty of time to negate any potential bugs from our demo upon launch date time."

    "Have you spoken to the victims involved during the head gear malfunction?"

    "What more could you tell us about Metal Fighters besides the narrative? What could we learn about the characters behind the armored suits?"

    These set of questions overwhelmed the founder of Strickland Gaming. He could only answer so many at a time fearing the need to spoil information that, for business reasons, he would not be obligated to answer.

    "If only I was in attendance, I would be there to ask more questions," Kaitlin said still maintaining some side effects from the simulation.

    "Don’t make it hard on yourself. I’m sure the press has the details they needed to cover," J.B advised. As a reporter, Kaitlin expressed disappointment not to be participating in the coverage.

    "Are we here yet?" Michael's eyes opened wide as he awoken from his rest.

    "Rise and shine Mike," J.B replied.

    "Ugh it's too dark to be waking up this early morning," Michael spoke in a confused sort of manner.

    "Just for your information, we’re still very much into the evening," said Kaitlin. For the duration of their ride, they continued to socialize in a crowd of other passengers that remained seated at this time.

    Eventually, the bus would make its latest pit stop by a four squared house with the ever flaming light bulb that illuminated the front porch.

    "Ah finally, home sweet home." J.B yawned stretching out his arms and legs after spending the longevity sitting by one of the many passengers' seats available. The trio would exit out of the bus to eventually set foot outside of the neighborhood.

    "It's getting pretty late but why don't you crash in for the rest of the night? You could sleep in the guest room. I don't think Michael would want to wake up only to find us lying in the same bed," J.B whispered to Kaitlin.

    “One of us would be better sleeping downstairs on the living room furniture," said Kaitlin.

    Reaching inside the jeans of his pocket, J.B took out his chain of keys that would directly give entry inside of his home. Suddenly, Michael snatched the keys off of his hands while running up to the porch.

    "Last one to enter the house has to make breakfast in the morning," he said. On cue J.B stormed off to the walkway leading to the front door of his house. Dumbfounded Kaitlin rolled her eyes before proceeding along with J.B.

    Over by the door to Ryan’s apartment, he bent over to retrieve some mail lying on the carpet leading inside his condo. Upon entering, he took a moment to skim over at the mail envelopes sent to him. One particular envelope that struck to mind contained a “NOTICE” stamp presented in caps. As he ripped off the edges, Ryan unfolded the letter to read further information that regards to his potential eviction from his apartment. This unexpected occurrence not only sparked his attention. A weight of emotions began to cloud the mind and body of Ryan Steele. His hands ran smoothly down from the cheekbones to his mouth, figuring out how to endure this troublesome phase in his life.

    Shortly after entering his home, he gathered some clothes along with a clean bath towel before stepping into the bathroom. By the time he exited, Ryan sports himself in a matching gear of blue and white striped pajamas that covered the upper and lower layers of his body. As he lied back on the mattress of his bed, he switched off the lamp from the counter top of his drawer. With his eyes closed, Ryan fell into a deep sleep. Any sense of awareness and concern in his mind were non-existent. All he could do is simply, relax.

    But relaxation would soon turn into a nightmare. As the three friends remained asleep, callbacks to them simulating Metal Fighters began running in their subconscious. They cradled back and forth on their beds while tucked underneath their blankets. Traces of sweat boiled throughout their bodies. In their avatar forms, the trio continued to have difficulty thwarting off with Decimator. Struggling to resist the haunting memory that clouds them, it was only a matter of time before the trio awaken themselves from their delusion. Ryan, Kaitlin, and J.B panted as they felt the rapidness of their heart beating like an endless drum roll of suspense. Nothing could describe what they had witnessed except déjà vu.

  5. #5
    Chapter 4:
    Coming in On the Professor's Aid


    Laying her head on the desk of her cubical, Kaitlin spent a good portion of her shift taking her mind off of her work. With her eyes closed, the anxiety that stemmed from the simulation had weakened her physical and mental state of being.

    "Kaitlin," Spoke a familiar voice. Repeatedly shouting her name, Woody did what he could to awaken his coworker.

    "...Kaitlin!" He exclaimed. Pounding his hand on her desk, she immediately awoken from what appeared to be a nightmare gone hay wired. She rubbed the salt from her eyes while regaining consciousness.

    "Sorry Woody. I just couldn't get to sleep last night," Kaitlin excused.

    "It's not such a good idea to sleep while on the job. You know what happens when a journalist slacks off from their assignment," he backed it up with a response of his own.

    "I understand," Kaitlin said following up with a yawn.

    "How is the status on the Expo article?" Woody addressed towards the reporter.

    "I just had it submitted to you via email," she informed him.

    "Now that's what I like to hear from my employee of the month," Woody assured. He leaned on Kaitlin's desk much to her discomfort.

    "I don't mean to be ragging on you even despite what you're going through. I figured we could use this time to have a bit of a pep talk," said Woody.

    "I appreciate your support and all but I'm sure I can manage," Kaitlin insisted.

    "Think about this for one second. How will you go through life without facing everyday problems? We all need a motivation because without it, how will we succeed? How will we take constructive feedback and put it to good use? It is for the simple fact we can improve on our habit by reflecting on our mistakes and grow to learn from them." Woody provided her with some advice.

    "I get enough of that Zen advice from my boyfriend," said Kaitlin. "But in all seriousness, I get where you're saying."

    Stepping away from the desk of his employer, Woody nodded. "I just got done reading your report on the Crossworld's Gaming Expo. Keep up the great work. There is going to be more topics that will require you to dive deep into numerous perspectives," the chief editor informed her.

    "Wait so you already read my article then?" Kaitlin asked somewhat in confusion.

    "I had a chance to read it before I realize I needed a drink," Woody told her.

    Witnessing his employee on the brink of passing out, he directed her attention to an Espresso coffee machine.

    "Do you see that coffee machine over there?" Woody wondered.

    "Um, yeah," Kaitlin's eyes remained hazy speaking apathetically in regards to the question being asked.

    "While you were busy snoozing on the clock, I was going to pour myself some sip of coffee," he continued. "All of it was spilling out of the dispenser and next thing you know the machine is toast." By unbuttoning his blue suit, Woody unveiled the stained white shirt tucked underneath it.

    "I don't normally ask favors but I decide to give you a special assignment. There's a Starbucks just a couple of minutes walk from here. We could each use something to drink and keep us active on duty," he instructed.

    "Didn't you have a supply of 5 Hour Energy drinks in your office?" Kaitlin reminded to the newspaper's chief editor.

    "I drank the last one yesterday. I had family business to take care of, so I didn't have time to stock up when I was off," Woody answered.

    "Well I guess it wouldn't hurt to grab some coffee while we're at it," Kaitlin took into consideration. She pulled out a drawer to retrieve her purse containing beauty makeup and a wallet filled with cash and credit cards.

    "Oh snap," Kaitlin checked the email browser on her phone that indicates a scheduled meeting with an acquaintance. "I was scheduled to meet up with Horatio later this afternoon. Where the hell are my interview notes?"

    Rhetorically speaking, Kaitlin pulled out her portfolio in search for the material necessary to conduct the upcoming interview.

    "Just so you know it is right in front of you." Following Woody's response, Kaitlin spotted her set of index cards piled around with various documents left on her desk.

    "I need to learn how to prioritize my stuff." Subsequently, Kaitlin sigh a breath of relief.

    "Please order me a cocoa latte with d-calf while you're at it. Thank you," Woody informed her.

    "On it," said Kaitlin grabbing the necessary belongings from her cubical before leaving the site.

    ***

    Dressed formally in a black suit and tie, Ryan stood in front of his father's tombstone at a local cemetery. It had been a rough month that he and his mother had to endure. He took a moment to address his condolence, providing somewhat of an update on how his life has been going since that fateful evening. For Ryan, he tried his best to resist the urgency to weep; a literal cry for help knowing he loved his father as much as he loved his son. All he could do was gaze at the tombstone engraved with his father's full name, birth date, and death.

    Hi Dad, I just thought I come by to see how you were doing. I asked a request for some vacation off to clear out the air. It can be stressful being an adult and all, not that I expected to be easy to begin with. Mom and I are doing okay. She's been really preoccupied with work. I guess that's what happens when you're positioned at a higher ranking in the police department.

    In the midst of the confession, Rebecca chimed in from behind as she confronts with Ryan.

    "Ryan, I figured I'd see you here," she said.

    "Mom, are you off from work?" Ryan asked.

    "Well I managed to finish off my shift for awhile. I am on temporary leave as of now," Rebecca explained. "I haven't had the chance to come by to speak to your father, so I thought I used this time to do so."

    "I supposed it's been rough back in the office?" Ryan wondered looking to make progression with their conversation.

    "Paper work and reporters just finding the inside scoop. You guessed it," she said. "Sometimes I wonder why I commit to my duties the way I have been for as long as I've been working at the police station."

    "Mom, you're great at what you do. Don't let the press get in the way of your job," Ryan assured. Did you happen to have any leads that may have led to the fire at Dad's lab?"

    Rebecca shook her head.

    "All we know so far is the laboratory had been breached at the time of the fire. The intruder had escaped by the time we arrived that night." She sighed. "Your father was a gifted person who loved us and supported us every step of the way. I would give anything to see his face again."

    "I miss him too," Ryan said. As they continued their discussion, each of them took a moment to reflect on some fond memories of their time with Tyler. In the midst of their conversation, Karl Ziktor arrived in his black trench coat soon approaching the survived members of the Steele Family.

    "It's good to see you two. How are we doing this afternoon?" He confronted with Ryan and Rebecca.

    "Mister Ziktor. We weren't expecting you to drop on by," Rebecca said.

    "Always expect the unexpected as cliché as it sounds," Ziktor replied to her comment. "I figured I utilize this time of day to mourn for a fellow colleague. He was a bright determined man and a creative thinker. It's with those traits that any person could strive to achieve their goal."

    Ryan responded. "He was also a man that genuinely cared for his family. My father meant so much for the both of us."

    With a straight face, it was no holds barred for Ziktor as he did not hold back any feelings that calibrated between him and Tyler had. "I know your father and I weren't necessarily on good terms. It doesn't change the fact how close of friends we were at one point."

    "We offered you an invitation to attend his ceremony yet you no showed," Ryan wondered what unfortunate circumstance would prevent the businessman from attending his father's funeral.

    "Well to be honest. I intended to but my work phone wouldn't operate and my cell phone was crushed by a car when it slipped from my hands. Because of that, I had no way of contacting you or your son," Ziktor explained.

    "Where were you at the time the lab was being breached?" Rebecca interrogated.

    "My wife and I were dining at a buffet when it happened," he said. "When I overheard the news surrounding the fire, I was devastated to hear the turmoil that went down. I can't imagine what the employees went through including your father," Ziktor empathized on the matter. "I'm not making any excuses. If it wasn't for Tyler, I wouldn't have become the successful businessperson I ended up being. Even the smallest amount of influence towards people could motivate those to take action and strive to achieve bigger in the long haul. For that I owe it to him."

    With the conversation in progress, it was that instant in which Rebecca's mind began to spiral. A callback of events transpiring from the night of the lab began to flash from one instant to another.

    "...Mom?" The concern expression on Ryan's face became apparent.

    "I'm sorry. I must have blacked out for a moment," she said taking this time to draw herself back to reality.

    "I don't blame her. You guys have been through enough grief as it is," Ziktor assured.

    "I've been reading up online that your company had a hand in funding a project that my father had been conducting. What do you plan on doing now that my father is," Ryan stammered still denying the acceptance behind Tyler's untimely fate, "Not here with us?"

    Ziktor spoke up. "I don't have all the exact details at the moment. We'll have an announcement on the air to determine what we will do with your father's lab."

    Given a straight face, the grudge continued to fume within Rebecca.

    "My husband should still be here. You don't realize how difficult it can be when work and personal life mingle between one another," she scolded much to Ziktor's offense.

    The businessman went on for the record. "Like I said, I may not have seen eye to eye with him. I just wish to lord I'd give anything to patch up any differences that have severed our partnership together," he concluded.

    While sandwiched in between with the two parties, he extended out his arms restraining them from any ensuing altercation.

    "This isn't the right place to argue about the matter," Ryan chimed in. He and Rebecca took a moment to ponder in regards to Ziktor's perspective. How would they be certain of what the businessman had to say was indeed legit? As Crossworld City's Police Chief, Rebecca maintained her sanity just before tensions were ready to boil.

    Rebecca continued to glare sternly at the eyes of Ziktor.

    "We should better be going. I think the tension is starting to get humid around here," Ryan insisted his mother. Without uttering a single word, Rebecca responded with a frown that intimidated the founder of Ziktor Industries.

    "I wish things would be different between us. Drive safely out there," Ziktor's final words were spoken as their conversation came to a close. As they were exiting the grave site, Ziktor turned his attention towards the tombstone engraved with Tyler Steele's full name.

    I know our friendship has soured the past few years. But I can assure you I'll take good care of your company now with your shares in the palm of my hands. Steele Labs will live on in spirit. When it's all said and done, Ziktor Industries can go forth with the Psycon project your team has been developing. I am definitely looking forward to seeing your displays." Ziktor continued to belittle the seemingly deceased scientist. Underneath his dark fur coat, he pulled out a flower to send his condolence placing it beside Tyler's grave. He muttered a single prayer shortly before leaving the cemetery.

    ***

    Inside of a local coffee restaurant, Professor Hart spent the day arranging planned notes for today's lecture material. With his Dell laptop plugged to an outlet, he also took an additional moment looking up an article surrounding the history of virtual reality and the profound impact it has made throughout the media. Such tabs that appeared on his internet browser include its demonstration on brain functioning utilized by highly trained doctors. Another notable tab comprise of a group of scientists conducting bio engineering on robotic technology. Such of these topics combined caught the professor's attention as well as Tyler's inspiration to devise an ambitious project that incorporates their respective interests.

    Kaitlin entered through the door carrying a binder filled with paper work. Around her neck contained an ID badge that indicates her employment and occupation at the Crossworld City's newspaper site.

    "Excuse me. You must be Professor Horatio Hart. I'm Kaitlin Star, reporter at the Crossworld Chronicle," she said greeting him with a handshake.

    "Ah, you must be Kaitlin. It's so good to have you here." Welcoming her with open arms, the professor responded as he immediately accepted the handshake offered to him. "Please, have a seat."

    Taking a moment to get settled, Kaitlin pulled up an empty chair from the opposite side of the same table where the professor is sitting.

    "Sorry for the delay. For a second, I thought I lost all of the notes I needed for today's meeting," Kaitlin said seemingly relieved from a panicking moment that could have jeopardized her assignment. "I can assure you this isn't always the case."

    The professor smiled. "We get all of that once in awhile. It is part of the human cycle we tend to go through."

    Kaitlin blushed with her face blemishing red. "All it matters now is we're here and getting our interview underway."

    Professor Hart took notice of the blood shot vessels circulating Kaitlin's eyes.

    "You could certainly use something to drink. It wouldn't be a good idea if you're not fully energized to engage in our formal discussion," he assured to her.

    "Now that's a psychology professor I wish I had in my college years," Kaitlin said. "Would you like anything from the menu?"

    "Its pass morning but I could use some latte at this time of hour," the professor told her.

    "Great it's settled. I'll be back in a flash," she replied.

    The journalist spent the next few minutes waiting in line to take her order. Shortly after her order was ready, she returned from the counter of the register with a cup holder tray of coffees along with some sweetening pouches and napkins. She sat at a squared table just beside the windows in which the professor was located.

    "Here is your cocoa latte that you asked. Careful holding it," Kaitlin placed the professor's coffee on the table that he was sitting by.

    "I appreciate it very much Kaitlin," Professor Hart thanked her. He took a moment to blow the steam coming out of his coffee. With a single sip he could enjoy the taste of non fattening coconut cream brewing in his cup.

    "It was a pain going through the process to get my security clearance. I was looking forward to our visit at the lab until what happened," Kaitlin told him. "How have you been?"

    "I've had a lot on my mind lately," Horatio said, "Just grading exam papers for my students and research. Then you factor in Tyler's funeral, the past couple of weeks have been hectic," the professor explained to her.

    "I don't blame you," Kaitlin empathized. "I'm very close friends with his son. He was family to me even if we weren't blood related. If there is one thing we have in common, we both have a shared connection to Tyler."

    Horatio further interrogated. "Have you spoken to his family members?"

    "Ryan and Rebecca seem to be doing okay but I don't blame them for enduring the amount of grief," said Kaitlin. She would soon change the subject when she brought up the purpose of their meeting.

    "While I was on the way here, I just got done listening to your podcast on my app. You two announced an upcoming project yet to be tested in the VR market," Kaitlin continued. "At the time when the fire occurred, what were you guys discussing about at Steele Labs that evening?"

    The professor removed his glasses as he prepared to give out his perspective on the situation.

    "I came by to pick up some equipment necessary to continue engineering the model design for the Trooper suit. During our conversation, we overheard a distress signal echoing the entire building. We speculated that there may have been a visitor bypassing the facility without a security clearance. What little would we realize that minor breach turned into a tragedy that cost the life of a close friend?"

    With his laptop, he opened up a slideshow of information pertaining to an experiment Steele Labs had been conducting.

    "Early on in development, Tyler and I hoped to keep this project confidential as possible. These suits were designed to protect military soldiers as well as law enforcement officials in their line of duty. They are known to be made bulletproof that comprises of titanium based armor with each suit distinguished in a variety of colors."

    The professor allowed for Kaitlin to glance at the diagram as displayed on the monitor screen. Her eyes sparked with incredible fascination behind the time and effort it took to create the experiment come to life.

    "I've read plenty of sci-fi books growing up. But the thought about all of these advanced robotics coming to life shows how far we've come as a society," Kaitlin said.

    "I couldn't believe it myself," Horatio commented on the matter. "Even though I had a hand in co-creating the blueprint to the suits, it was the team at Steele Labs that contributed to constructing the machine parts."

    "I don't understand," Kaitlin said somewhat puzzled by the professor's response.

    "Ziktor would come in from time to time to get an update on how we were progressing. His company provided funds necessary to move forth with the project," Horatio continued. "As time went on, I spent a majority of teaching as a psychology professor at Crossworld University. It got to the point in which I started to contribute less in the creation of these robots. Because of my commitments, I wasn't able to juggle between that and assisting with my colleague."

    Kaitlin glanced at each slide in which further details the diagram for each part of the suit.

    "It's surreal to think what's believed to be a myth may turn out to be an actual phenomenon," she observed. "I mean these designs look well detailed."

    "In order for the suits to be activated, it requires a specific device used to undergo the transformation process," Professor Hart explained. On the next slideshow contains two columns divided each projecting different images as displayed. One image is shaped of a rectangular cuboid whereas in the second column, the lid from the said cuboid lifts open to unveil an expensive gold key engraved with a blue gem made of sapphire.

    "I can't stress enough to describe how unique they are," Kaitlin said much in awe to the material she had been seeing.

    "The development team at Steele Labs poured valuable time and energy to produce these specially enhanced armor suits. Tyler and his team have done a number of test runs but they still need fine tuning," the professor informed. While in the middle of their meeting, the Skugs stood outside from the window eavesdropping on the conversation.

    Horatio noticed suspicion behind the foot soldiers lurking outside of the restaurant. He checked the clock on his computer to indicate his cue to leave.

    "I sincerely apologize but I'm afraid we are running out of time," said Horatio bringing up the bearer of bad news.

    "Is everything okay?" Kaitlin wondered signifying her concern with a puzzled expression on her face.

    "I have a class to teach soon. If you're interested to learn more, feel free to keep in touch." Horatio reached inside the shirt pocket of his business suit to hand her a copy of his business card. Kaitlin grabbed hold of the card glancing at the contact information provided.

    Concluding their meeting on such short notice, Kaitlin and Horatio topped it off with an exchanging handshake. Gathering the rest of his belongings, the professor exited from the restaurant thereafter. Kaitlin gathered her personal belongings upon her departure. As she prepared to leave, she began to recall a favor her boss instructed her from earlier ago.

    "Woody," she alluded to her chat with the chief editor earlier. As Kaitlin took out her purse, she waited in line once more to order some coffee for her supervisor at the Chronicle.

    With his keys, Horatio approached his car unlocking the door leading into the driver's seat. Upon entering, a pair of thugs shoved the middle aged man against a parked vehicle. This would soon escalate this sudden confrontation as a means of verbal assault.

    "Where is it?"

    "What do you mean? If you want cash, go ahead. Take my wallet!" He exclaimed.

    "I didn't come here to collect your money or credit cards. All we want is to gather some Intel from your handy dandy laptop," the civilian demanded while being accompanied by a group of thugs carrying some two by four and baseball bats. Under pressure, Horatio backed himself into a corner unsure where he stands in this life threatening situation.

    Back inside, Kaitlin received the coffee her boss had requested. When she arrived outside, she overheard the echoing sound of garbage cans and pallet crates being tossed along the alleyway.

    "What the Hell?" She wondered. Kaitlin hurried over to the location of the activity taking place. Navigating her way through the alley, her eyes sparked with concern in the midst of a beat down received by the professor.

    "It's like I thought. You don't learn when to quit do you?" The thugs cackled with joy leaving no remorse over the bruises the professor had to endure.

    "Leave him alone!" Making her presence known, Kaitlin chimed in as the local gang turned their attention over to the blonde haired woman.

    "It looks like we've got ourselves another volunteer. Our last one just couldn't accept defeat," the thug said much to Kaitlin's chagrin. "I suggest you run off before we prey on our next victim."

    The rest of the gang continued to assault Horatio stomping away on the defenseless man. As he spots his glasses lying on the ground, he extended his hand looking to retrieve them. As they lay him a mud hole, Kaitlin could not tolerate the beat down for much long. Resorting to physicality, she extended her right arm with a fiery fist that sent the attacker staggering to his feet. He wiped the minor blood spill pouring from his lip seemingly amused by the woman's fortitude.

    "I asked you nicely but you really made a big mistake," the thug's cackle turned into an immediate display of offense. As his friends lined up in soldier form, they began to undergo a familiar transformation sequence that left the journalist stunned beyond belief. In shape shifting fashion, the Skugs have unveiled their presence in the real world.

    It was this instance in which Kaitlin's suspicion proved not to be a figment of her imagination. An overwhelming sense of a numbers' game began to bestow upon her; each soldier circled around the journalist. Utilizing the self defense techniques she learned at the dojo, she fought off the Skugs one by one. Ranging from basic shin kicks to Karate thrust chops, Kaitlin pulled out all the stops to defend not only herself but to guard the professor at all costs. Despite her efforts, the increasing army of Skugs would be an obstacle not even she could bounce back from.

    Kaitlin landed hard against the building brick wall. As she slid to the ground, the Skugs began to taunt the two preying victims involved in this impeccable onslaught. With her "never say die" attitude, she pulled herself back to her feet looking to resume the fight in progress.

    Elsewhere, J.B arrived at the restaurant waiting in a line filled with customers to take their orders. As he looked around, he overheard some thuds banging from the wall close to him. This unusual sounding left him suspicious behind what was happening. J.B exited from the restaurant utilizing his sensitivity to navigate the location of the sound.

    Kaitlin wiped the bloodstain from the upper left corner of her lip. Struggling to thwart off the foot soldiers, she could only embrace herself for a long period of time. Stomach first on the ground, Kaitlin slowly crouched towards the fallen Horatio. Out of nowhere, one of the Skugs delivered a soccer kick to the gut of the defenseless journalist.

    Professor...

    Uttering out a single cry for his name, she refused to leave him lying helplessly at the hands of these infidels. Even with her will intact, it became clear she had very little amount of energy to turn the tide in their favor.

    The Skugs gathered once more surrounding their victim. As one of them prepared to lunge an enclosed fist on Kaitlin, the tossing of a trash can lid knocked out the gold headed soldier from the back of its neck. Other Skugs took notice momentarily when another lid took out each individually. J.B stood in his fighting pose launching off with a series of tornado kicks to fend off the army surrounding the couple. While the Skugs took a moment to regroup, J.B approached towards Kaitlin to check on her condition.

    "Kaitlin, are you alright?" He wondered.

    "I'm a little banged up but I'll be okay," she answered. As they checked on the professor, the Skugs resumed battle doing everything in their power to get a hold of his laptop.

    "Professor, are you alright?" Kaitlin took a moment to observe any bruises he may have sustained.

    "I'll be alright," he said. Kaitlin assisted Horatio up from the ground looking to leave the site altogether.

    "Here!" J.B exclaimed tossing his car keys over for her to retrieve. "My car is parked not too far from the coffee house. Just sound the alarm in case you don't spot it."

    "Got it," Kaitlin affirmed. Doing as advised, Kaitlin assisted the professor navigating their way back from the trail she came from. In the meantime, J.B distracted the Skugs to the best of his ability, fighting off each one that laid a hand on him.

    Arriving back along the busy streets of the borough, Kaitlin and Horatio continued to escape from the danger that loomed them. Kaitlin's eyes sparkled eagerly with anticipation. While doing what she could to protect the professor's well being, it wouldn't be long when she spotted J.B's blue Honda Civic parked alongside of the road. Utilizing his keys, a simple push of a button allowed the doors in his car to unlock. Kaitlin further helped Horatio inside the back seat before strapping him with a safety belt. As she arrived inside the driver's seat, Kaitlin's heart pounded waiting for her boyfriend to arrive.

    J.B rushed his way out of the alleyway. With an army of Skugs in pursuit, it was a matter of kill or not be killed. Arriving at the site of his car, he was just a mere foot away from reaching his destination. As Kaitlin opened the door of the front passenger's seat, a Skug soldier managed to grab J.B by the ankle. In a tug of war situation, Kaitlin held onto his hand reeling him in like a fishing rod on a pond.

    "J.B, hang on," Kaitlin cried. The Skugs ganged up on J.B enhancing the difficulty for Kaitlin to get a hold of him. Unbuckling his belt, Horatio channeled every fiber in his body while lending Kaitlin with the assist. Despite their teamwork, the problem continued to escalate. The Skugs' immense strength would surpass the partnership effort from the two civilians. With the situation becoming dire, desperate times come desperate measures. Kaitlin pulled out a laser pistol from the storage cabinet as she prepares to intimidate her foes.

    "Bozos, heads up!" With the pulling of a trigger, Kaitlin fired each shot at the Skugs that sent each individual flying back against the walls. J.B quickly hopped onto the passenger's seat closing the door behind him. By turning on the ignition, Kaitlin placed her foot on the accelerator as they immediately drove off from the area.

    "Whew that was a close call," J.B said still exhausted after having to thwart off of the foot soldiers.

    "I wanted to believe that the Skugs we saw were just a bunch of idiots cos-playing," Kaitlin replied.

    "Thank you guys for your help. They nearly had me back there," the professor said wincing from the bruises he had sustained.

    "Sir, how are you holding up? We should probably take you to a nearby hospital," J.B wondered in regards to the third passenger's well being.

    "I appreciate your support but I should be fine," Horatio declined after thanking him for the offer. He glanced over at his watch as the astonishment in his eyes began to grow apparent. "Go ahead and drop me off at Crossworld University."

    From that point onward, the conversation remained silent. Using the phone provided from Kaitlin's GPS, they continue to ride along the multi lanes of a highway to reach their designated location. When making their arrival to the college site, Kaitlin parked along the drop off site near the main entrance to the campus building.

    "It's been a long day," said Horatio grabbing his belongings upon exiting the vehicle. "I appreciate the ride you two. I couldn't thank you enough."

    "Anytime Professor," Kaitlin assured. "I'm sure we can use some relief from everything that's been happening to us."

    "I couldn't agree more," Horatio replied. "You two take care of yourselves. Drive safely out there."

    Subsequently, Professor Hart bid his goodbyes towards the couple that provided him with the transportation. J.B and Kaitlin responded with a wave of their hands respectively.

    "I hate to say but these past couple of weeks have been surreal," said Kaitlin.

    "What are you getting at?" J.B spoke with curiosity.

    "Ever since we played the demo at the convention, it's like Grimlord's creatures suddenly hopped over from the video gaming realm into our world. I'm afraid that what he said in his monologue might not be farther from the truth," Kaitlin further continued to support her claim.

    "I don't know what kind of ability he has to even warrant that," J.B wondered. "With what I saw, it's very clear he wasn't blushing."

    Using hand gesture, Kaitlin instructed, "Hey J.B could you hand me the band aid?"

    J.B nodded taking out a single wrapped bandage inside the carton box. She took a brief moment to place one over on the targeted wound.

    "I don't understand how these Skugs made it out from the game. I would like to think I'm hallucinating," said Kaitlin. She glossed over at her phone to find an unread text message sent by Woody as displayed on the screen.

    "Oh no, Woody is going to freaking kill me," she panicked. "And it's a thirty minute drive away to my workplace."

    "Kaitlin, turn on your GPS. I could give you a short cut on how to get back in a snap," J.B told her.

    "Look I am so against taking back roads," Kaitlin sighed subsequently.

    "I would hate for you to lose your job," J.B further insisted. Given little alternative, Kaitlin made a decision to go along with his order.

    "Fine," she said. As the couple continued on with the discussion, J.B went along to provide her with the directions necessary to alleviate Kaitlin's panicking.

    ***

    Sitting on his throne inside the Virtual Dungeon, Grimlord monitored the activity on his projector.

    "Imbeciles we had them. Those Skugs came THIS close to obtaining his data files. Yet somehow they failed to take out those pesky humans," he let in on a banter.

    "Master Grimlord. What is it with the tirade?" Emerging from the shadows, Decimator came forth to inquire his sense of bitterness.

    "I summoned out the Skug soldiers on an objective to retrieve some information regarding Tyler and Horatio's work. This matter involves the development of a highly skilled team of war soldiers assembled," Grimlord explained.

    "What I don't understand is how come you did not inform us of this issue in advance?" Decimator further questioned his strategy.

    "I entrusted the Skugs knowing how intimidating they can be as a unit. With their immense brute and ability to outsmart their enemies, they should have been able to carry out the objective accordingly," said Grimlord. He slammed his fist on the side of the chair in frustration on the overall execution that backfired in the long run.

    "We overheard some yelling from our dorms. Is everything the matter sire?" Colonel Icebot chimed in on the conversation in progress.

    "I have my fair share of gripes," Grimlord said. "But now that I look back, I am more than willing to owe up to my mistakes. The Skugs may be powerful but it's also going to take a particular leader that will help rally our beloved foot soldiers. I believe the way to achieve our objective is for those who don't talk about it but be about it."

    Grimlord stood up from his seat taking a step down from the mini staircase while being surrounded by an army of robots that stood by. The Wizard of Darkness took a glance at everyone around him knowing confidently that when a plan backfires, there was always going to be more back up in handy.

    "Excellent," he said. "Rest assured we will continue to keep on fighting. No matter the odds stacked among us, these obstacles will not deprive any possibility when we eradicate all of humanity. Only then will we mutants not only be victorious. But our reign as the dominant species in both virtual reality and the living world will be more than a dream."

    "But the question is where do we begin?" Decimator asked.

    "Allow me to demonstrate. Icebot, display the viewing monitor for us," Grimlord instructed. With the push of a button, the Colonel projected footage of Professor Hart in the middle of his lecture, standing in front of a row of students willing to learn.

    "It appears Horatio won't have any one to save him when night fall occurs," said Decimator.

    "We begin the onslaught tonight. A strategy will be devised that will trick the professor into lending us the files with relative ease. Let me start off by having the Skugs in on the plan," Grimlord cackled. The foot soldiers listened to their direct order given leaving Icebot and Decimator awaiting an update on their roles. As their private chatter came to a conclusion, the Skugs nodded their heads in going forth with a playbook by Grimlord.

    "Master, what do you suppose Decimator and I have in store for this 'plan' of yours?" Colonel Icebot wondered.

    "Icebot, deploy a Skug soldier and have them disguise as a cab driver. Send out a drone of yours and monitor the professor's every move. Decimator, keep a look out on everyone in the Virtual Dungeon while I meet up with the professor. I'll have a fellow human companion by my side to ensure nobody on campus suspects your presence," Grimlord said.

    "Affirmative," the two servants complied in unison.

    "Carry on my mutants," Grimlord further coincided with a set strategy in mind.

    Soon Horatio you will learn to realize that your contribution to Psycon will be the key to kick start our mutant expansion here in the real world. Mark my words! He cackled.

  6. #6
    Chapter 5:
    That Feel Good Sense of Nostalgia


    Inside the living room of the Steele Residence, Rebecca spent a majority of the afternoon arranging a stockpile of boxes filled with unnecessary junk. She stood around in her grey sweater sporting black sweat pants as if she was in the midst of a training exercise. Rebecca blew the front strands of her blonde hair exhausted from all the heavy lifting conducted. With her hands on her hips, she paused momentarily to relieve her body from performing any more physical activity.

    This intermission would be short lived when she overheard the sound of a doorbell that echoed throughout the house. Rebecca opened the door to spot Kaitlin standing by the front of her porch.

    "Hey Kaitlin, how have you been?" Rebecca wondered.

    "Ryan told me he was finishing auto repairs to my car today. So he texted me to stop by your place and I can pick it my car from there," Kaitlin explained.

    "Sure thing, come in," said Rebecca directing the reporter and close friend inside of her house.

    "It's so good to see you," she welcomed with a formal greeting. "Did J.B drop you off just now?"

    "J.B is still teaching at the dojo. I called a cab to bring me here," Kaitlin told her as Rebecca guided the reporter into the main floor of the house.

    "Gosh it's been so long since I've stepped foot here." Kaitlin said. She removed her brown fur coat looking to hang it by the coating rack. She began to smell paint odor coming from the living room.

    "It looks like you've been doing some remodeling," she added. They stepped inside to find the room spacious and nearly hollow. Much of the furniture was pushed further away from the grey walls that cornered the area. Pieces of blue scotch tape extended the entire perimeter of the room.

    "It looks like you're getting around in remodeling the house?" Kaitlin assumed judging from her observation.

    "Ryan and my husband were in the middle of painting the walls before the incident," said Rebecca. "Between my husband's work at the lab and the yard sale we've been planning, remodeling was at the bottom of our to-do list."

    Kaitlin and Rebecca paused to reflect on the somber note they've been reminded of.

    "How are you guys holding up?" Kaitlin asked curiously.

    "It's been difficult but we're hanging in there," she answered. "Quite honestly, this place has been quiet and it just doesn't feel right."

    "I can imagine knowing how that feels like," Kaitlin said with empathy. "Is Ryan around by any chance?"

    "He had to run off to grab something from the auto shop," she answered. "Would you like to have something to drink? I could bring out some coffee or soda if you like?" Rebecca provided with an offer.

    Kaitlin smiled admiring her support with gratitude.

    "Thanks but I can do without. Besides I already had enough coffee for this week," she politely declined. While navigating the house, Kaitlin would approach a wide range of photo stills placed above the white beam of the brick fireplace.

    "Wow, look at all of this," she mumbled. As her eyes drew vividly in fascination, Kaitlin took a glance to reflect a set of picture frames that harkens back to days gone by. On the left hand, some group of photos display individual members of the Steele Family during their childhood. Over on the right contain images of the threesome taken from infamous global attractions; one includes them standing beside the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Next to it was a photo taken during a trip in Japan standing in front of the Tokyo Dome. Another image also includes their visit in Thailand in which they were shown standing next to the statue of Buddha.

    "You guys must have had quite the adventure," said Kaitlin continuing to observe the photo stills.

    "We've saved so much money to afford these expensive trips. It was a life time I wish I could go back and relive those days," Rebecca confessed.

    "Hey do you remember that photo you took with me, Ryan, and Tyler after we won the regional game for our high school baseball team? I was looking over at Ryan's Facebook page and I couldn't spot it in his album. Did you still happen to include that in a memorabilia by any chance?" Kaitlin wondered.

    "I think I might have it. It should be somewhere in the basement," said Rebecca. She opened the door that led to a stairwell to the bottom floor of her home. As Kaitlin waited patiently, she continued to examine the photo stills of her best friend along with the parents they helped grow to raise. A sparkle of amazement lit up from her face. Feeling overjoyed by nostalgia, she began to recollect some of these moments in her head, ones that she had almost since forgotten. Each time she visited the house, she would come across still photos of the Steele Family inside their living room. The influence she had with the people around her would be a contributing factor in her transition from childhood into adulthood.

    As Rebecca returned to the living room, she opened the memorabilia book to showcase more snapshots. However, not only did it contain a plethora of family stills of the Steele Family. Flipping from page to page, each contains photos that include their friends and close neighbors. In Kaitlin's case, one notable image that captured her attention includes a still frame shot of her standing alongside Ryan, Tyler, and the rest of their local baseball team standing behind the bleachers. At a time before the overwhelming load of work at the newspaper began to take its toll, Kaitlin would be reminded of the positive times in her life that made her into the person she became.

    "This was when we won our first regional playoff game. Our team almost choked at the beginning. Next thing you know, we managed to bounce back and barely scored the lead," Kaitlin said shedding a tear drop that dampened from her eye.

    Rebecca flipped to another page to find a photo they shot with the Steele Family along with J.B, Kaitlin, and their respective families congregating on a beach boardwalk.

    "I remember we took this photo at Santa Monica during spring break. It was a few months before your high school graduation so we agreed we have our last family vacation there," Rebecca reminisced.

    "I was such a snob wanting in on the attention," Kaitlin snickered before taking a glimpse at another photo. "Is there another memorabilia that's in one of those boxes you have out here?"

    "For all I know, these are the only ones I've managed to find," Rebecca informed.

    "One thing my parents told me is that even if you can't find other photos that you shot, you can still cherish whatever memories lie in your heart," Kaitlin said.

    "Now that's a very valid point." Rebecca nodded in agreement. As Kaitlin got up from the ground, she flexed out her arms for a bit from the numbness of sitting on the wooden floor.

    "All these photos are reminding me of some good times we had," Kaitlin mumbled absorbing the flowing tears of memories that have clouded her emotionally.

    Rebecca closed the memorabilia before placing it on the shelf. As she approached the kitchen hall, she grabbed a cold beverage of root beer from the refrigerator before taking a sip of the liquid.

    Kaitlin soon followed looking to continue to engage in their conversation.

    "It's okay Rebecca. You'll pull through," she assured. Subsequently, Rebecca left the bottle on the table after managing to consume the fluid.

    "Every day I still think of him. Even when I'm at work, I can't go on for one second without being reminded of the fact he was taken away from me." The police commissioner let out a confession that has left her questioning the circumstance in play. Could she have known about the incident at her husband's worksite coming from a mile away? Would it have made any difference if she had been there to stop the intruder that instigated the breach that fateful night? All these insecurities Rebecca had to ask boils down to a matter of internal conflict.

    "I can't say I have experience working under law enforcement. But you can't blame yourself for what happened. There's no way of guaranteeing how you could have changed the scenario if Tyler had gotten out alive," Kaitlin elaborated in her attempt to ease the anxiety that enveloped from the chief.

    "I was there. I barged into the lab when there was a fire hazard that could have killed me. I didn't want to hold back and let someone take my husband's life," Rebecca counter argued. "Every time I look at that bottle, I just want the torment to go away. It makes me feel in a way that allows me to take matters in my own hands. For someone who's been climbing up the police ranks to get to where I am, I'm not afraid to sacrifice myself to save victims' lives, my husband included."

    As their meeting molded into a personal pep talk, Kaitlin looked to inquire about the dubious circumstance surrounding Tyler's tragedy.

    "I honestly don't mean to interrogate with everything that has happened. Did you and your team happen to track down the suspect responsible for the fire at the lab?" She asked much to Rebecca's wavering.

    "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to get too involved with my feelings," said Rebecca. Despite the chief's emotional roller coaster, Kaitlin offered her moral support by encouraging the chief to vent out an anecdote. "Hardly anyone would believe me if I say this."

    "It's okay. Even if it means losing my job over this, I'm not going to leak this information out to the public," Kaitlin assured. "It's just you and me face to face."

    Rebecca took a breather momentarily gathering all the words in her head before coming up with a response.

    "I didn't get a proper glimpse at the intruder. With all the smoke coming out of the flames, it's hard to describe exactly how he looked," she said. "His face looked distorted like he underwent some cosmetic surgery of some kind. All I could tell is that when I encountered him, something about his appearance seemed off. No remorse let alone empathy whatsoever. He wasn't human at the slightest."

    "Did you manage to find Tyler just moments before you escaped that night? Did he say something to you just before he passed?" Kaitlin questioned further.

    "No, I wasn't able to locate him." The police commissioner shook her head.

    "Rebecca, you're stronger than this. I would hate to see you in a position that's going to affect your job in the long haul," Kaitlin said. "I'm not saying this only because I'm a reporter. You're like an extended family member to me even if we aren't linked in blood. I just want you to know that whatever personal demons you're going through, keep fighting the good fight. If there is anything, and I mean anything that you need, my office is open when you need me." Offering a moment of comfort, Kaitlin wrapped her hands over Rebecca's lending out her support in her time of grieving.

    "Being the wife of a brilliant scientist, it's not easy to get over the loss of someone you've loved for so long," Rebecca continued with her confession. "I just can't stand the silence in the house. Tyler would be sitting by the sofa watching our favorite shows, and I would be sitting beside him with his arm tucked around me. It's not the same without my husband around."

    Kaitlin motioned back and forth taking this moment to reflect on Rebecca's comments. Sympathizing with the difficulty the police chief has been put through, never before has she experienced a loss so tragic. Kaitlin wrapped her hands around the chief once more to further comment on her situation.

    "Don't push this any harder than it has to be. I'm sure Ryan and Tyler would encourage you to be strong for them too," Kaitlin offered Rebecca with some uplifting advice. Rebecca wiped the tear drop from her eye resisting the temptation of continuing sorrow clouding her mental state.

    "Gosh I hate watching soap operas sometimes. They make you feel so teary eyed," Rebecca joked. "In all seriousness, I really appreciate your support Kaitlin. I need a good pep talk every once in awhile."

    Kaitlin laughed in a polite manner. "If Tyler can be just as good of a baseball coach as he is being a scientist, maybe you should try out acting."

    Rebecca snickered. The two parties exchanged a mutual hug embracing a moment of comfort that binds the two women wholeheartedly.

    "Are you sure you don't want a drink?" She asked when releasing herself from Kaitlin's embrace.

    "That's okay I'm fine really," Kaitlin said contently. "Where is the nearest restroom?"

    "There's one close by on the second floor. It's on the first door to your right," Rebecca answered.

    "Thanks," Kaitlin headed up the staircase navigating her way to the second floor hallway leading into the restroom. Before she entered, she noticed a staircase that segues way to the house's top story floor. Working her way through a small flight of stairs, she arrived at the attic in which sparked flashbacks wavering from her eyes.

    Cobwebs extended from the corner of the ceiling. Piles of dust scattered around the creaking sound of the wooden floor. As the attic remained mostly abandoned for the longest time, she couldn't deny such joyful memories that she spent in the room hanging out with her friends.

    The attic had been a room that she along with J.B and Ryan had spent playing as children. Some box crates scattered around that are filled with action figures and electronic toys from years' past. An SD television set remained unplugged by the wall. On the opposite end lurked an open shelf closet contained a set of sports equipment stored within each shelf; notable equipment that ranges from a soccer ball, a baseball glove, and a hockey mask to sports jerseys comprising logos from established teams were all displayed and secured inside.

    Kaitlin continued to explore the attic. Whenever the forecast would be at its ugliest, the attic would be their go to hang out spot in their time of leisure.

    She dug inside one of the boxes that notably include G.I Joe action figures, building blocks of Lego toys, the original Nintendo WII gaming console, and a slinky toy. But one item that struck her attention involves a Nerf Super Soaker buried underneath from the toys she brought out. Kaitlin grabbed the soaker out from the storage box taking a glimpse at the object.

    In the midst of all the digging, she overheard the rum of an automobile engine outside the house. From the window, Kaitlin finds Ryan exiting out of his truck parked along the side of the road. She observed the Super Soaker in her grasp leaving a grin that lit up across from her face.

    Ryan entered through the main door of the house. He approached the kitchen while engaging in a confrontation with his mother.

    "Hey Mom," While carrying a plastic bag of cleaning products, Ryan kissing his mother on the cheek.

    "I bought some cleaners to wipe off the stains from Kaitlin's car," he said unloading the items inside the plastic bag. "How are you holding up?"

    Rebecca smiled having ridden the sorrow she endured earlier ago.

    "Fine, it's just going to take some time getting used to the environment here," she said.

    "I understand," Ryan expressed sympathy towards his mother. "I didn't have enough tools over at my place so that's why I brought her car over. Dad's tools should be enough to get that baby rolling again."

    As their conversation ensued, Ryan began to hear a flush of water draining from the pipelines.

    "Is it me or is somebody using the toilet upstairs?" Ryan asked.

    "I was going to inform you that a cab dropped off Kaitlin here," Rebecca told him.

    "Oh-uh right," Ryan blemished. Placing his bag aside on the counter top, he stormed upstairs to meet with Kaitlin. Navigating through the hall, there was no trace of her presence. Each room with an open door remained empty. Ryan soon finds the staircase that would lead him inside the attic on the next floor above. As he entered, he would soon be drenched in water as Kaitlin's use of the Super Soaker caught Ryan off guard.

    "Hey what the hell was that?" He cursed caught off guard from a seemingly practical joke.

    "Some things never change," Kaitlin laughed.

    "You could say that again," Ryan replied much to the saltiness of his reaction. He shook off the dampness from his hands looking for a nearby cloth to dry.

    "Here I brought you a clean towel," From the wardrobe closet, Kaitlin tossed her friend a spare towel for him that was available at his disposal.

    "I swear that was some juvenile humor you pulled off right there," Ryan said taking a moment to wipe him off from all the wetness.

    "Since today is the day, I was wondering how far you've gotten in the repairs," said Kaitlin.

    "Yep, I just received a new carburetor for the front hood of your car. That along with our handy dandy spray bottle, it should look good as new," Ryan informed her. "What have you been doing up in the attic?"

    Kaitlin provided with a response. "I just noticed the hatch was open so I climbed and I discovered you had some boxes of junk up here. I have to say this room brings back a lot of memories."

    Ryan spoke up. "Now that you've mentioned it, depending on how ugly the weather was, this was kind of like our go-to playground. We would be playing around with our action figures, had some late night snacks, and video gaming. Even getting away with watching those horror movies my parents wouldn't want us seeing. Those were some good times."

    "You and J.B would always play Good versus Evil. Every time you were playing the heroes and I had to play the villain. Talk about an unfair advantage," Kaitlin reflected a moment from their childhood experience.

    "Come on Kaitlin. It's not because you're well..." Ryan said but was cut off mid sentence.

    "I know what you're going to say, and you don't have to remind me," she replied. "I may have been the odd woman out of the group but don't forget who kept the glue together."

    "Fair enough," Ryan concurred.

    "What were you planning on selling for the yard sale?" Kaitlin wondered curiously. Ryan took notice of some familiar action figures lying on the ground.

    "Good old G.I Joe. Even though I didn't grow up with the original series, the fact my dad lent these toys to me was noble of him," said Ryan holding onto a toy of the said title character. As he placed the figure aside, he took a look at another toy figure in the Baroness. "As egotistical as she was, I have to admit she was kind of feisty."

    "You mean to tell me you had a crush on a cartoon character?" She laughed upon hearing that thought.

    "Kaitlin I was little. Besides I realize you can't date someone that doesn't exist," Ryan argued.

    "I'm just kidding," said Kaitlin punching him lightly by the arm. As they looked into each box, they began to dig out some abandon merchandise they collectively owned throughout their early youth.

    "Check out our high school yearbook," Kaitlin said. She wiped the dust off after lying dormant for a long period of time. By flipping through the pages, she and Ryan took a peak at all of their classmates and teachers that shaped their teenage years. As they approached the photos from their senior year, their eyes sparkled with fascination.

    "I forgot there's one point in time when you had bangs in your hair," Ryan said continuing to observe the yearbook.

    "Get out of here," Kaitlin joked. "By the way that shaggy brown hair of yours makes me think about Zac Efron from his High School Musical days," Kaitlin remarked on behalf of her friend's comment. Ryan shrugged it off like nothing while flipping to yet another page.

    "Speaking of hairstyles, J.B used to rock that crew cut back in the day. The more I realize how far we've come from fashion since then," said Ryan. Upon reflecting on past memories, Rebecca approached from below to spot the two friends hanging around in the attic.

    "Is everything okay? I heard some yelling up here," she chimed in standing beside the staircase from the lower floor.

    "We're fine. Kaitlin decided to throw me a surprise she hadn't done since grade school," Ryan answered.

    "Whenever you have a chance, bring the boxes down to the garage so I can determine which items we'll plan on selling," Rebecca reminded him.

    "Right Mom," he replied.

    "No worries," said Kaitlin placing his hands on her friend's shoulders. "Ryan could use a lending hand from yours truly."

    Rebecca responded nurturing with a warm smile that enlightened the mood of her son.

    "Any help will be appreciated," she concluded. Reaching a compromise, Rebecca's interaction concluded with a firm nod. Looking at the clock on the menu of her phone, dinner was just around the corner.

    "It's almost five," she said. "I'm going to head over the showers and get myself cleaned up. Feel free to order some takeout food while you're at it."

    "Will do," Ryan complied.

    "I don't mind having some of whatever you two are eating," Kaitlin said. "I'll let J.B know when he gets out of work."

    "We could all use a gathering once in awhile," Rebecca assured. As she left the site, Ryan and Kaitlin assisted one other with the amount of heavy lifting from the boxes they carried.

    The duo bent over with their knees tucked between their legs. Carefully, they lifted one of the many boxes piled with unused junk.

    ***

    At Crossworld University, Professor Hart continued his lecture inside of a classroom filled with students eager to learn. Much of his teachings consist of social behavior that studies the way that humans react and the mental functioning that occurs within the brain. Glancing at the time on his watch, he prepared to conclude tonight's lecture with an announcement for their next class meeting.

    It appears we're just about out of time. We will continue to finish the remaining pages of chapter four for tomorrow's lecture. I have also posted up some power point slides online so be prepared for next week's quiz. Have a great day everyone.

    The students gathered their respective belongings upon exiting out of the class. Professor Hart took a moment to look over his course objectives for tomorrow's session. Afterward, he compiled the rest of his lecture notes as he compiled them inside his briefcase. The professor switched out the lights in the classroom before shutting the door behind him.

    Lurking outside the window, a red droning device monitored Horatio's activity tracing every step he took on his way out of the building.

    "Grimlord, he's headed outside. I'll wait by the entrance he plans on coming out from," said Strickland communicating with the villain through his earphone.

    "Keep a look out on him Strickland. When you're ready, alert the taxi cab and make sure the professor goes along with you," Grimlord instructed.

    "Roger that," Strickland agreed.

    Professor Hart worked his way through the narrow corridor, taking a stairwell down a flight of steps to the first floor building. As he arrived outside, Strickland arrived on the courtyard of campus. Engaged with eye contact, the two men stepped toe to toe in a conversation that ensues.

    "Had a long night Horatio?" Strickland wondered.

    "What are you doing here Strickland? For the last time I don't want to have anything to do with you," the professor scolded much to his dismay.

    "Now that's not how you greet a fellow acquaintance," said Strickland taking offense to his comment.

    "You've been spamming my inboxes for the longest time. Not only that but one of your emails had a malicious software that you destroyed my previous computer," Horatio explained. "A colleague of mine managed to transfer all of my files into my new laptop, and unfortunately is no longer with us."

    "I'm so sorry you had to go through that," Strickland apologized. "I thought I just drop by and do some catching up. My flight is booked for tomorrow morning and I was looking to have a word with you before I head out of the city soon."

    "You've come to the right place but at the wrong time," the professor made note of.

    "Yeah well, this is what happens when you're constantly doing PR interviews on some long awaited project," said Strickland. Horatio didn't seem remotely pleased with the visitor's presence.

    "I've been trying to get in touch with you since I arrived in Crossworld City. I was disappointed when I found out you weren't in attendance that day of the Expo," Strickland continued.

    "I was out of state taking care of family business," Horatio clarified on his behalf. "You nearly could have killed those beta testers that day. Did you even think twice troubleshooting the VR machine beforehand?"

    Strickland responded. "We've conducted a few test runs back at our site. We wouldn't have imported the machine here if we felt it wouldn't have worked efficiently."

    "You could've put those people at risk. They could have had potential brain damage had you and your crew not been there to stop it," Professor Hart told him.

    "How would you know if you weren't a witness in the scene?" Strickland argued. "I never would have wished harm on anyone. Even though you and I haven't seen eye to eye, I would not stoop as low than to attempt to pull something so heinous. If you're going to make accusations, then maybe it was a mistake of me to drop by."

    "My wife and children were watching the live feed on YouTube. They were terrified to witness all of this happening. Even the static on the screen got us concerned," Professor Hart said.

    "I was just as concerned as much as the next person. The game release for Metal Fighters won't be released until the tail end of next year. We should have plenty of time to head back to the drawing board and reconfigure development," Strickland assured. "For the longest time, the development team and I have worked off our tails to craft a video game that will leave folks fascinated beyond their imagination. Think about it. You're talking about open world possibilities given freedom to decide on what actions they choose to take, the fluid cinematography with effective dialogue between characters that drive the narrative of the game. A modernized take of an established franchise that is contributed to the success of 3D action and adventure is now presented using CGI and motion capture technology. Take a moment to ponder just for a second and visualize the unique aesthetic this game will be come launch day."

    "You're out of your mind." As the professor leaves campus, Strickland approached him once more even going as far as being a road block to Horatio.

    "You've never took a moment to escape reality by picking up a controller and savor every enjoyment out of a game in your life, have you?" Strickland's never ending chatter brought some blood pressure boiling underneath the professor's skin.

    "Last I checked Tyler and I issued a case over the resemblance of the armor suits we created compared to the designs from your gaming series. We fought to get the case appealed to Court District. Unfortunately any evidence we had were left burning to shreds. Not even the judge thought of carrying the case to trial," said Horatio in a disgruntled voice.

    "The suit designing for the Metal Fighters were not even close," Strickland rebutted. "We've spent countless amount of time in the testing room to differentiate the armor equipment and their color schemes to avoid infringement. You've wasted your time venting your frustration out on me so you could file a silly trademark for your project. When it's all said and done, our suits did not resemble the kind of armor you and your colleague built."

    "It doesn't help the fact you and Ziktor have been in cahoots since your two met on this campus. I can see how you two influenced each other to share ideas and taking credit for every groundbreaking feat no company has achieved," the professor told him. "Let this be a reminder. Next time you like to step foot and dare start a conversation, be sure you have a valid reason to. In this day and age of Social Media, you will never know what kind of information may leak online."

    Strickland laughed. "You sound like a bitter old man quite jealous to say the least. I was hoping you get a much better perspective over our way of dealing with this lawsuit. I guess that was too much to ask for." Concluding their meeting, Strickland brought out his phone dialing the contact number for a cab. Folding his arms, Horatio remained agitated from the discussion that went down.

    "Damn it. My phone signal isn't responding," Strickland cursed. As he struggled to make a call, the professor took the liberty to use his phone in making such a request.

    "Hi could you send a cab down for the two of us? Please excuse my tone of voice. It's been a long night. Thank you much," said Horatio shortly before he hung up. "A nearby cab should be arriving pretty soon. I gave you the benefit of the doubt on my part. If there is a chance that your property gets exposed for plagiarism, don't come to me for comfort. You knew what you were getting yourself into."

    Horatio prepared to walk off campus as he approached his way towards the parking lot. Strickland couldn't stress to prolong the ensuing argument that demonstrated their grudge against one another. Regardless of the matter, he managed to keep a straight face given his intention with a game plan in progress.

    ***

    Inside the garage that afternoon, Ryan resumed work on putting the final touches to Kaitlin's red Mazda. From the hood of his friend's car, he adjusted the wires linked to the carburetor. Kaitlin observed the procedure carefully as it unfolds.

    Meanwhile, J.B arrived by the driveway of the house. He parked his moped scooter inside the garage to find them putting the finishing touches to his girlfriend's vehicle.

    "Well if it isn't my favorite people in the world. How is everyone doing?" J.B asked taking a moment to remove the helmet from his head.

    "Working hard on rebuilding this baby to the way it was," Ryan said using the proper set of tools from his kit to repair the car engine.

    "My car is going to be new and improved right before you know it," Kaitlin spoke with excitement. As the juiciness of their lips collided, Ryan stood there watching the couple embrace their affection for one another.

    "Hey I saw that," Kaitlin acknowledged based on her friend's reaction.

    "So uh, did you want to stop by the Crossworld Café and pick up something for dinner?" J.B took into suggestion.

    "It's kind of funny now you mention it. Rebecca and I agreed we all have dinner here for tonight so carry out it is," said Kaitlin.

    "Hey I'm down with that. As much as I enjoy making Ramen Noodles, I could definitely use a break from cooking," J.B said.

    As the three continued to socialize, Rebecca arrived from the stairwell to find the three friends socializing in the garage.

    "J.B, it's good to have you here," she said greeting each other with a hug. "It's been a long time since you stepped foot in this house."

    "Unless you count our visit during Tyler's funeral, I can find that hard to imagine," J.B replied on the matter.

    "How has the dojo been over there?" Rebecca wondered.

    "So far it's been great. The students are really learning to engage and I couldn't be any happier than to be their instructor," said J.B.

    Ryan took a little breather putting aside his tool to be engaged in a chat with his local peers. He grabbed a small white towel from the top of the tool cabinet, wiping off the grease oil from his hands.

    "I barely got that little engine hooked up. It should be good as new," he informed to J.B and Kaitlin.

    "Hey Ryan, I was wondering if you could stop by the hardware store before the traffic gets worse to grab us some duct tape," Rebecca insisted her son a favor.

    "I could have sworn Dad and I bought one awhile back." Ryan pulled out the drawers from the tool cabinet in search for the tape. "It's okay Mom. I'll see what I can do."

    "Aw crud, I'm almost forgetting a couple of other things. Is there a chance you also stop by the groceries' store? I have a shopping list of items just to make sure we have what we need." Rebecca handed him a sheet of paper indicating the listed products jotted down in black inked pen.

    "I'm about to have a field day with everything that's on here," Ryan continued to observe the list as shown.

    "No worries. J.B and I don't mind lending a helping hand," Kaitlin volunteered on behalf of the chief's favor.

    "Thanks guys but you don't have to do all of this," Ryan said.

    "Come to think of it that's not a bad idea," Rebecca agreed with Kaitlin. As the rest of the bunch voted by a landslide, it was clear Ryan was the odd one out in the vote.

    "So I guess it's settled then. As soon as we get you your groceries, we'll stop by the Café and bring our dinner here," Ryan said.

    "We'll order some dinner for all of us as soon as we finish," J.B assured.

    "Better head out before everyone gets out of work. You know how it is when it comes to evening rush hour," Rebecca insisted the three. When a negotiation was made, Rebecca rubbed the redness coming out of her forehead. It was this instant the police chief began to feel somewhat fatigued. Witnessing flashbacks from the fire in Steele Labs clouded the mind of Rebecca Steele; this includes the mere presence of Grimlord that has enveloped within the stimuli of her brain.

    "Mom, are you feeling okay?" Ryan asked.

    "It's nothing. I've just been out of it lately," Rebecca came up with an excuse.

    "Take as much needed rest that you need. I know the yard sale is approaching but it doesn't hurt to relax even for a little bit," Ryan encouraged her.

    "I know," Rebecca understood. "You can call or leave me a text if something comes up, and I will get back to you ASAP. I'll get myself cleaned up when you return."

    The trio smiled as they nodded in agreement. Upon conclusion of the speech, Rebecca headed back up the stairwell of her house.

    Ryan inspected the front hood of the Mazda once more to ensure of its good condition. He closed the hood of the car shortly before coming up with a final verdict.

    "Well I already have the carburetor hooked up and I've managed to fill up your hydraulics. Your car should be rocking and rolling," he concluded. From the tool cabinet, he tossed the ignition keys over for Kaitlin to retrieve.

    "Let's hit the road partner," Ryan instructed channeling his poor attempt at a southern accent. Kaitlin's responded by rolling her eyes in absurdity. By entering the driver's seat, she turned on the engine to overhear the loud volume of music blasting from the speakers of her car.

    "What the hell?" Kaitlin cursed. Shaken up by the broadband sound, she lowered the volume of the music heard from the car stereo. "That is so not funny."

    "Well coming from someone who squirted me with a water gun a few hours ago," Ryan spoke in defense of his prank.

    "You squirt him with a water gun?" J.B wondered much to his surprise.

    "Okay I admit that was idiotic. I stumbled into some junk from his attic, and I happened to find one of the Super Soakers we used when we were kids," Kaitlin explained.

    Ryan laughed much to Kaitlin's chagrin. Clenching her fist, she punched him in the arm in response to the absurdity that unfolded.

    "Guys stop. You're acting like children," J.B insisted as he entered through the passenger's seat.

    "Let's do what we need to do and we could settle this another time."

    "Likewise, wouldn't you say Kaitlin?" Ryan winked. Despite acknowledging the facial gesture, Kaitlin shook her head refusing to comment in regards to her friend's behalf.

    "Buckle up guys," she instructed. With the trio seated, they strapped onto their safety seats before driving her car out of the garage.

    ***

    A taxi cab parked alongside the drop off area of the college parking lot. A disgruntled Strickland along with Horatio entered the vehicle shortly before the driver took off onto the road. Neither party had uttered a verbal response since their conversation ended on a sour note. The same could be said while they remain isolated from the back and front seats respectively.

    Minutes elapsed. The cab would make its path into the forest filled with the many tree branches that passed on by. The same drone that had eavesdropped on the professor earlier continued to monitor the vehicle including its intended target.

    "Up ahead are two Skug soldiers disguised as college students will be approaching outside from their car. When the professor goes to assist them, you and the driver will make the cue to ambush him and retrieve any information you can find of Project Psycon. I'll be lurking in a secluded sector of the forest to make sure our plan goes through," Grimlord spoke through Strickland's ear phone.

    Shortly after, they would encounter a pair of college students standing outside of their white Chevy Impala.

    "It looks like those two could use some help," said Horatio.

    "Pull over," Strickland instructed in response to the professor's concern. The cab driver parked alongside the edge of the road, buying enough time for Horatio and Strickland to leave the vehicle.

    "I wonder what in the world is going on out there," he wondered curiously.

    "Whatever it is, they could sure use some help from us," Strickland insisted.

    Abiding by his orders, Horatio pulled over by the edge of the roadway. Along with Strickland, he exited out of the car investigating on the situation in progress.

    "Did you guys need any help with the car?" Professor Hart asked.

    "I think our driver here ran over some spikes along the roadway. It ended up flattening our tires," the passenger explained.

    "Let me take a look." While Horatio took a moment to observe the problem, Strickland gave the Skugs their cue to approach the cab using a cane to yank out one of its tires.

    "Hmm your wheels appear to be looking fine. They're not loose and no spikes sticking out from them whatsoever." As the professor noticed nothing of the ordinary, the civilians involved unveiled their strategy instantaneously transforming into another set of Skugs. Horatio turned around to find that the cab driver now turned Skug soldier was in on the plot also. He looked at his surroundings overwhelmed by a horde of foot soldiers that cornered him. Before making a move, Strickland clubbed the professor with his briefcase used against him.

    "It's what you least expected Horatio," said Strickland showcasing his true colors in which the professor did not see coming.

    With his glasses nowhere to be seen, Horatio panicked crouching on the ground to find them. As he struggled to regain his feet, a familiar figure unveiled in front of his eyes.

    "Looks like you have something I need," said Grimlord standing tall from the ground that the professor laid on.

  7. #7
    Chapter 6:
    Project Psycon


    Within the boundaries of Crossworld Forest, a brutal assault from Horatio Hart ensued. The never ending gang like beat down resulted in a scorch of bruises on the professor's face. Grimlord grabbed him by the collar of his shirt looking to demand some answers.

    "You don't realize just how much it means to us. I know damn well you have the information we need for those armor suits," he ranted.

    "Master Grimlord, you've already punished him enough. Ease the beating on the professor and just ask where he stored them," Strickland pleaded. Despite going forth with their plan, he could only witness so much pain for Horatio to endure.

    "Why should I bother? I rather have you destroy me this instant than letting you in on the details," said Horatio barely able to speak.

    "Silence, this has been waging far more times I can count. If you don't give me a straight answer by the time we leave, you will endure something far worse than death," Grimlord threatened him.

    "Let me check his briefcase." Strickland took this opportunity to unseal the briefcase belonging to Horatio. Skimming through a pile of documents, an unfortunate sense of failure was justified based on his expression.

    "I knew it was too good to be true," he mumbled before letting out a sigh of disappointment.

    "Skugs, check the back of the cab. See if you scout any other belongings he has in there." Abiding Grimlord's orders, the foot soldiers monitored the vehicle that the professor rode in.

    To that end, he released the professor from his clutches as it allowed him time to regain his breath.

    "I can understand why they call you a professor for a reason," Grimlord cackled. "Your colleague may have had the fortitude to take me on, but even his actions couldn't speak louder than his words. If you can answer exactly where you stored the blueprints or even those Virtualizers, I'll set you free. No one will have to suffer." The creature offered him the benefit of the doubt.

    "The team over at Steele Labs worked hard to engineer the suits. But all of that wouldn't have been possible if Tyler and I had a hand in designing the idea," said Horatio slowly pulling himself up by a tree branch.

    "Just leave him as he is. Let the professor speak on his behalf," Colonel Icebot encouraged to his leader.

    "I liked you much better with your glasses. But it appears even without it, you won't be able to drive off without the risk of a fatal accident," said Grimlord.

    "Uh master you had the Skugs flatten the tires of the taxi cab," General Ivar reminded him.

    "I suppose I should have clarified. But as far as that white vehicle is concerned, you will have to go through all of us if you want to live," Grimlord made correction on his comrade's behalf.

    "And how exactly are you going to kill me not knowing I could be hiding something? The truth," Horatio taunted in his attempt to get under the creature's skin.

    Grimlord shrugged letting out yet another cackle. "You've kept Project Psycon going for as long as the public has known about it. I could've continued to look around Tyler Steele's laboratory had the stinking police not arrived. Even I can be pretty reckless at times."

    The Skugs returned to their leader to provide them with an update. Shaking their heads, it became apparent that the professor did not obtain information they intended to find.

    "We're wasting our time," Grimlord cursed. As his body fueled with anger, he pounded his fist on a tree branch that collapsed along with other set of branches like a game of dominoes. Horatio felt the intensity of his heart pounding away. It was that instant in which he did not expect to witness.

    "There is going to be more we will do once we declare war on this very world we're in. Since we don't plan to destroy you, we may as well recruit a member to our growing army."

    Without putting into words, Horatio stood terrified. If death wasn't an option, just what would the thought of selling himself to a creature with the gruesome intention to cause chaos?

    The professor looked around figuring out a way to escape the clutches of Grimlord and his army of loyal mutants.

    "How about we pledge an oath to welcome our newest member to our growing faction?" Grimlord took one step forward towards the professor. Before he could continue to taunt him more, the creature felt immense pain coming from his chest. Grimlord kneeled to the ground as he continued to clutch onto the wound. To further extend the pressure, a gleaming headlight blinded the eyes of Horatio and Grimlord. A red Mazda drove straight towards the location in which the confrontation occurred.

    "What the hell is going on over there?" Kaitlin wondered while remaining behind the wheel.

    "Kaitlin pull over," J.B instructed.

    "Garr damn it," the creature cursed with sheer frustration.

    "Master Grimlord should we retreat?" Colonel Icebot suggested.

    "Retreat as we may," he answered before turning his focus back towards the professor. "I'll let you off the hook for now. But the next time around, you won't be so lucky."

    With the entire army gathered together, the faction teleported out from the forest they were in. As the Mazda pulled over by the side of the road, J.B and Kaitlin discovered a battered up Horatio lying against the tree.

    "Professor," Kaitlin shouted. They approached the professor having received numerous blows endured by Grimlord and his minions.

    "Hang in there professor. Just take it slow," J.B advised. Along with Kaitlin and Ryan, the trio provided him with their assist as they carried him up from the hillside of the forest.

    "Ryan, open the backseat," Kaitlin ordered directing their focus towards her Mazda.

    "Wait," said Horatio, "My glasses are somewhere out here."

    "Let me go ahead and check," Ryan said easing the stress building upon the professor. After a minute of scouting, he discovered some coke bottled glasses lying underneath a pile of leaves. As Ryan retrieved the glasses, he met up with the gang once more in persisting to aid Horatio.

    When Ryan opened the door of her red car, they set Horatio along the cushion inside the passengers' seat.

    "Hold on. I've got some first aid kit inside my purse," she assured. As she brought out the necessary healing kit, she wrapped some bandages around the targeted bruises scattered on the cheekbones of his face.

    "Here you go," said Ryan strapping the glasses for the professor to see.

    "I can't help but thank you. I would be a goner right then and there," Horatio greeted them with a compliment.

    "What happened back there? It's like a group of criminals came by and mobbed you," Ryan wondered failing to comprehend the event that went down.

    "It's the Skugs. Kaitlin and I had to deal with them the first time we encountered the professor," J.B explained.

    While Ryan investigates the cab, it wasn't for long when he discovers Horatio's briefcase hadn't been properly locked.

    "Looks like someone had been desperate to get a hold of your stuff," Ryan said locking the briefcase shut before picking it up.

    "I swear those crooks are going to pay when I get my hands on them." Horatio tried to budge but it was then in which he began to experience back spasms.

    "Easy Professor," Kaitlin said continuing to provide him with medical treatment. Much like with Ryan, J.B took a close glance at the flat tire they were monitoring.

    "They must have done a hell of a job flattening these wheels," said J.B.

    "Thanks for pointing out the obvious," Ryan told him.

    With Kaitlin wrapping the last bandage on the professor's hand, Horatio leaned back against the cushion of the car seat letting out a sigh of belief.

    "I should be fine. It should only take me a couple of blocks to get to my place," Horatio assured.

    "We should probably follow you to make sure you make it home alright. Just in case more shenanigans start to loom back," Kaitlin instructed to his friends. Taking very little thought into the matter, Horatio nodded his head in agreement.

    "It sounds good. I'll send you the GPS coordinates and then you can follow me to the destination point," he said. With the situation under control, the gang prepared to return to their respective vehicles parked along the side of the road.

    "I don't get what the Skugs would want with the professor. For a second I would have thought it'd be a bunch of cos-players seeking attention if anything. Like, you know a tasteless teenage prank." Ryan speculated to much little known of a fact.

    "I can explain to you everything when we get in the car," said J.B.

    "Now that you mention it, it's getting a little chilly out here. Let's get moving," Ryan insisted. With the ceasing of the conversation, they gathered inside Kaitlin's Mazda. As Horatio began to drive off into the road, the trio followed suit with Kaitlin piloting by the driver's seat.

    Upon making their arrival, Kaitlin pulled alongside on the driveway of the only cottage deep in the forest. The rest of the gang exited out from the car taking a glimpse at the home where the professor resided. While Ryan loaded the professor's briefcase from the car, they followed Horatio over to the front porch with his keys intact. Having unlocked the door, the trio followed him inside the living room interior of his home.

    "This place looks amazing," said Kaitlin in awe of her surroundings. The living room was structured spaciously with a place to walk around. Covering the wooden floor contains a clean red carpet scattering the perimeter in which the furniture and table were being placed. On the table consisted of a small vase with daisy flowers inside as well as a fruit basket consisting of bananas, apples, and grapes together.

    "I haven't been inside a cabin since I was in grade school," Ryan mumbled. "Dad and I would spend our weekends on a fishing trip. I couldn't figure out how to reel in a rod to save my life." The young man shrugged off the nostalgia with a fake laugh.

    "The smell inside is another topic but the lights are full on bright and the furniture feels quite cozy," said Kaitlin laying her back on the Corinthian leather couch.

    Displayed on the living room table, J.B discovered a picture frame of Horatio standing alongside a middle aged woman at a local park.

    "Make yourselves welcome. I'm going to go grab something up from my room," the professor told them. He proceeded up the staircase leaving the trio to explore the rest of the house.

    Approaching the dining room, Ryan observed a display of certificate awards that were nailed against the wall. These framed lifetime awards demonstrates the effort and time devoted in part to Horatio's contributions in his decades' worth of teaching. Below the nailed certificates contain another picture frame of Tyler standing by the podium to present the award to his colleague.

    "Dad," Ryan wept with a teardrop but shook off the sorrow that embodied him mentally.

    As Horatio arrived in his bedroom, he looked around in search for a particular item not present in his bedroom.

    "His journal has got to be around here. Where did I last have it?" He wondered much to his frustration. He pulled out all the stored file cabinets containing confidential information pertaining to the project he and Tyler had been conducting on. Horatio looked underneath the bed pulling out every junk of item he could find.

    "Damn it!" He exclaimed pounding his hand on the desk.

    Downstairs the rest of the trio stopped their tracks as the vibration of Professor Hart's fumed anger echoed below.

    "What in the world was that?" Ryan asked.

    "Let's find out," Kaitlin said. Along with Ryan and J.B, they marched up the second story floor while approaching Horatio in his bedroom.

    "We heard some banging from downstairs. Is everything alright?" J.B expressed his concern.

    "Sorry, I didn't mean to scare all of you," Professor Hart apologized. Every move he made, the soreness from his left arm continues to intensify at every moment.

    "What were you looking for?" Ryan wondered curiously.

    "It's a journal that belonged to my colleague Tyler. Now that I realize I may have left it back at the lab," Horatio said rubbing the sweat off from his forehead.

    "It's Tyler as in Tyler Steele? You mean my father?" Ryan unveiled his kinship in connection to the professor's colleague.

    "I got so caught up with all this mess we haven't properly introduced ourselves," Horatio took his personal issues into account. He extended his hand out as he looked to greet Ryan for the first time. "Your father has told me a little bit about you. I'm Professor Horatio Hart but feel free to call me Horatio."

    "Nice to meet you Horatio," said Ryan firmly shaking the professor's hand in the process.

    "Oh no," Kaitlin sympathized.

    "It was not left in the wreckage of Steele Labs," Horatio told them otherwise. "There's a private laboratory he and I built. It'll only take a few minutes," he informed the gang.

    "Professor you nearly collapsed. With everything that's happened, it's better off if we keep a close eye just in case," J.B advised.

    "Dad recorded a journal? I was going through my parents' bedroom for our yard sale and I didn't find anything," Ryan said.

    Horatio opened the lid of a capsule containing a prescription machine on a shelf next to his desk. By swallowing the pill inside, he took a sip from his water bottle consuming plenty of fluid to maintain stability of his body.

    "You should probably use some rest, at least for the sake of your health," J.B advised to the professor.

    "Wait guys," Ryan said stepping in to attempt a request. "Excuse me Horatio. I don't mean to barge into all of this mess. You don't mind if I take a look at what my father wrote before the incident?"

    "Ryan," Kaitlin scolded him.

    "I'm okay. You guys have continued to help me more than I've helped myself," said Horatio as he stood up from the chair he sat on. "I hope you have your flashlights fully charged. It's a narrow corridor down there."

    J.B remained puzzled in response to the professor's comment. "I don't understand."

    "Let's just say our lab is located someplace that is barred from the public to find," Horatio attempted to clarify.

    Despite the initial hesitance lurking upon the frown of J.B and Kaitlin, they had no choice but to proceed on behalf of his request.

    "I'm sure cell phones with a flashlight feature count?" Kaitlin spoke in a rhetorical manner.

    To that end, Professor Hart directed the trio outside of his cottage. They came across a white concrete barricade containing a golden arch attached to the top of the structure. A censoring monitor served as a security camera to record footage of those willing to trespass what lies ahead. With its red laser beam, the device scanned Horatio's eyelid before further proceedings. With security approval, the door slid open unveiling a staircase that would lead downward into an almost pitched black dungeon.

    "This is something I would expect for Indiana Jones to pull off," Ryan said. They proceeded taking a step down a flight of stairs that distanced themselves from the outside landscape. With the exception of Horatio, the three friends proceeded through the narrow dark passageway. Bright lights gleamed from the true tone flash of their I Phones. As they approached a door ahead, the gang would soon stop their tracks. Swiping the magnet stripe with a card key, the door would open instantly unveiling the spacious interior of the laboratory. Vivid blue lights illuminated all over the lab. With each corner comprised of dashboards and monitor screens that display a company logo of Steele Labs. By the upper right corner of the room contain a set of high resolution computer desktops compatible with modern engineering. They were amazed to witness the decoration of advanced architecture enveloping the place.

    To the far right of the corner, the trio came to discover a display case containing three multi-colored armor suits. Their eyes gaze with a sense of familiarity in which they recognize from somewhere.

    "Is this what I think I'm seeing?" The sudden awe on Ryan's face illuminated with intrigue.

    "I didn't realize the professor is a Metal Fighters fan let alone an avid gamer," said Kaitlin standing next to Ryan while peering at the display.

    "Professor how did you two managed to structure everything around here? I mean, I would think you had some outside help to construct all of this," Ryan wondered.

    "Nope it was simply your father and I responsible for the construction," said Professor Hart. "We built this particular lab as a place to store inventory that Steele Labs had no room for. We've also kept file records of confidential information and blueprint designs to lay the groundwork for any upcoming project in the works. It took us quite awhile due to our scheduling conflicts. But eventually, we took liberty in ourselves to lay out the architecture someplace that nobody could trespass."

    Ryan commented in response to Horatio's comment.

    "That must have taken a lot of toll on your bodies to build something high tech as this," J.B remarked.

    "I knew my dad put plenty of work operating his work site. The more I start to realize he devoted all of this time building this goes to show how much is there I was not aware of," he said.

    "These Metal Fighters suits resemble the ones that are in the game, and I don't mean like if someone were to be cos-playing," Kaitlin mumbled.

    "What do you mean?" Ryan wondered.

    "Most of these suits sold in stores would be made in skintight fabric. Unless if this came from an auction, these ones on the other hand look too expensive for a customer to afford even if you were to buy it online," said Kaitlin. She turned her attention away from the suits with her focus right on Horatio. "Professor, where did you manage to own a collection of the Metal Fighter suits?"

    "Just before the fire at Steele Labs, Tyler and I transferred these suits over to here. He told me they had been receiving a number of security breaches in the weeks prior to that incident," Horatio explained. "Some intruders threatened his employees at the expense of getting a hold on the suits and the devices used to control them."

    "I have a hard time getting my head wrapped up in all of this," Ryan said. "I mean it doesn't explain how a software company managed to obtain the rights to use your work and make an adaption into a gaming franchise."

    "When we first started the project, Tyler and I were brainstorming an idea to design a bulletproof armor that could be used for military soldiers and law enforcement agents to protect them in battle. Ziktor Industries agreed on the investment to fund the project that would be in development. This venture in turn would become known as Psycon, a concept to merge both human and machine by utilizing virtual reality technology," Horatio explained to the trio in detail.

    "I don't know what else to say. But that sounds like a bizarre way of thinking about it," Kaitlin spoke up.

    "While all of this was going on, the president at Strickland Gaming pitched an idea to create a video game based around a group of trained military fighters with the ability to transform them into what he perceived as 'war androids', titanium based armor equipped with an extensive high tech arsenal that could only be summoned when the suits are in use. When Strickland came to visit for inspiration, that was where I first heard about the concept of Metal Fighters," Horatio continued.

    "So you're saying is that you and my father have been working on this project before the game was conceived?" Ryan wondered.

    "Our project has been in development hell even before Ziktor and his corporation stepped in and began funding it. Back then technology was very limited when it came to the power tools we had to use," the professor told them.

    "How have you been continuing to go out your way and engineer the suits the way you two did?" Kaitlin asked.

    "Even with the rise of the internet, we weren't ready to share any concrete information to the public. A project with as much investment poured into, we knew it would take a long time before we could publicly demonstrate the suits' functionality," said Horatio providing them with support in regards to his situation.

    "What happened?" J.B questioned.

    "We had a physical copy of the blueprint that features a prototype to our first armor suit. Compare that design to the models that the game developers based it around," the professor said showcasing a display of the diagram on the screen.

    "If trademark infringement isn't the best way to describe this situation, this couldn't be any more appropriate," Kaitlin observed.

    "When we first spotted the image on the news, we were outright furious. Tyler and I filed a lawsuit concerning their similarities. Before the case could go to trial, our chance at evidence would be thrown out of the window. An original copy of our design went up in flames which left us with nothing to justify our claim. What you're seeing here happens to be a revised blueprint that we diagrammed after that incident," Horatio continued to provide with an explanation.

    "Did you speculate who may have responsible for destroying the evidence?" Ryan spoke vocally in the midst of the interrogation.

    "Given how passionate he was when it came to developing video games, Strickland was bound to do everything he could to take full credit for designing those suit models," said Professor Hart. "Shortly after the case fell through, I made it clear that my services would no longer be required. That along with my teaching duties played another factor as to why I resigned from the project."

    The professor keyed in a number of button combinations on a dashboard. A slot pulled open to unveil a display of three golden keys comprised with a mixture of colored gemstones: sapphire, ruby, and diamond.

    "What in the world are those?" J.B asked.

    "These devices we refer to them as Virtualizers," said Professor Hart. The trio's eyes widened with a mere glance of fascination over the objects' shape and texture.

    "Amazing," Ryan replied. As he reaches over to grab one, the professor swipes his hand away from his thus preventing him from touching it.

    "The Virtualizers were designed to initiate the suits' full power. These devices are entwined with the metal armored suits you see in the display case. Think of it as the equivalent to the human heart. It's the central organ in our body that continually pumps blood through the veins and arteries," Horatio bestowed his expertise towards the young adults.

    "You mean as in the cardiovascular system?" Kaitlin clarified.

    "Precisely," Horatio answered. "Without the heart, the body shuts down and our motor neurons will follow along with it. Now to activate the Virtualizers, there is a password that they must enchant in order to trigger the transformation."

    "So what was the point of the intruders to get a hold of them if they couldn't figure out how to unlock their power?" Kaitlin wondered.

    "The sad thing is it never occurred to them," the professor answered. "Tyler hired Security to monitor any unusual activity unfolding in his workplace. With every failed attempt the intruders had, officials got to them before they could even come close to retrieving these devices. It was that instant when we decided to secure the Virtualizers and the suits to a base where they cannot retrieve them."

    As Horatio keyed in data on the panel, an image of Tyler Steele would be projected on the monitor.

    "You were a hell of an ambitious worker. All of that hard work we did only to be put on hold," he mumbled in which followed up with a deep sigh of unfortunate circumstances. With his hands firmly on the console, His head tilted face down leaving his eyes staring blankly at the dashboard.

    Suddenly, the sounding of a ring tone blasted from the stereo of Ryan's cell phone. By picking up the phone, he came across a caller ID that traces back to his mother.

    "Crud, I forgot," he said before hitting the green phone icon displayed on the touch screen. "Hello Mom. I'm sorry we got a little sidetrack."

    "Where on Earth are you? I sent you countless phone calls and text messages yet not one response," Rebecca provided him with an update.

    "Sorry Mom. It must of have been coming from a weak phone signal," Ryan replied. "We're headed on the way home. Traffic is a bit of a mess with all this evening rush hour."

    "Better make it home quick. All of this rearranging in the house is making my stomach upset," said Rebecca.

    Temporarily, Ryan moved his phone away from his ear. "I never thought I'd hear my mom complaining like this," he muttered before resuming with the discussion. "Okay Mom let's settle down now. We'll be there shortly before you know it. We bought all the stuff you need from the list down."

    "No worries. I just thought I check by and remind you," Rebecca assured. "I love you Ryan."

    "I love you too Mom," said Ryan as both parties immediately hung up from the conversation. "It's already getting dark so we should better get back."

    "Ryan before you go, I thought I give you something in return for your help back there." Professor Hart approached his office desk. He pulled out his drawer to retrieve a record of his father's log book he secured prior to his absence.

    "It makes me wonder what kind of scientific material he wrote in this," Ryan said taking this opportunity to observe the entries recorded in the journal.

    "Every night when he finished his shift, he would record a reflection that not only involved his research data. But he also talked about some of his true feelings on his life and the peers affiliated around him," the professor informed him.

    "Have you gotten around in reading any of this?" Ryan wondered.

    Horatio shook his head. "Due to my school lectures along with family business, I never got around to read what he wrote. There may be more you would like to know about your father. Whatever it is you'll find, you'll have a much better understanding what he had to go through," he said.

    "I'll give it a read when I have a chance. Thank you professor," Ryan's eyes dampened with a slight tear shed on the corner of his right eye. He and Horatio embraced with a hug drowning the sorrow of their emotions. As both parties resumed control, Ryan along with Kaitlin and J.B said their goodbyes to the professor thanking him for everything he's done.

    "We should better get going. I could hear the growl coming from my stomach," Kaitlin said clutching onto the bottom torso of her body.

    "It's been a pleasure that we were there to help. I don't think we want to know what they would've done to you had we not intervene," J.B concluded.

    "Neither would I," Horatio told him. "Thank you all for coming along. Just for the sake of our privacy, please keep the topic we discussed between the both of us."

    As the trio prepared to exit, Horatio went out his way to bring up another reminder.

    "And Kaitlin, if you have any other questions you like for me to ask, my contact card is one phone call away," he assured.

    "We appreciate it Professor," said Kaitlin. With their conversation adjourned, the gang bid goodbye to Horatio upon exiting the underground laboratory.

    "Let me lead you three out," Horatio insisted in directing his visitors out from his private laboratory.

    ***


    On the pedestal inside the Virtual Dungeon, a disgruntled Grimlord stood tall in front of his fellow army looking to address his army in regards to their recent mission.

    "Listen up. I am not faulting anyone around here who failed to succeed. But I can assure you what happened back there is far beyond your control. World domination will come. But the only question is the time of when that day arrives," he said.

    "Your master, we will do what we can to ensure that the tasks are handled effectively. Most important, we want to make sure if you're one hundred percent to carry on with the operation," said General Ivar.

    "It's going to take some time to adjust being inside a human's vessel," Grimlord commented. "Karl Ziktor is a hard working businessman who will go out of his way to take the steps needed in restructuring his business. If it means taking advantage of a scientist's work, he has accomplished just that."

    Suddenly, a stoic robot clad in silver armor with orange and black torso palettes stepped forward from the crowd.

    "There was a brief technical glitch with our satellite feed. Thankfully we managed to get it repair," said Zelton, one of Grimlord's key lieutenants.

    "Perform a test run to make sure our viewing screen is fully operational," Grimlord instructed. With a remote, Zelton switched on the monitor in which displays footage of Kaitlin along with Ryan and J.B inside of her vehicle.

    "Those folks may have been lucky to rescue the professor from our clutches. Whether or not he has them in storage, I can guarantee that somewhere on this Earth the Virtualizers are lying dormant as we speak," mumbled the self-proclaimed ruler of Virtual Reality.

    "Grimlord sire." With some glass of water and medicine tablet in hand, Colonel Icebot provided him with the medication needed to lessen the pain coming from his chest.

    "Very well Colonel," said Grimlord taking a moment to consume the water and medicine in his mouth.

    "I would like to inform you about the health results that just came in. It appears while your heart is in steady condition as of now, we strongly advise you maintain control of your sanity the best way possible," the Colonel informed to his boss.

    Grimlord handed the glass cup back to Icebot as he leaves.

    "The war hasn't gotten off the ground yet. But as my temper continues to boil, it is best if I fade into the shadows until I recover. I'll let Karl Ziktor take over for the duration of my exile," he stated.

    "Take as much time to heal sire," said General Ivar.

    "Hail Grimlord," the rest of his mutant army shouted in unison.

    "The professor's life may have been spared but the worst is far yet to come," With his final words, the Wizard of Darkness stepped down from his throne. The rest of the crew continued bowing to their knees in respect towards their leader.

    Grimlord glared towards the monitor once more. An instant shot of Ryan reading his father's journal projected a still framed image etched in his mind. Just what kind of bad blood will boil over the course of time?

    ***

    By the time the sun had completely set, Ryan alongside J.B and Kaitlin had made a safe trip back at the Steele family household. Along with Rebecca, they all gathered at the dining room that has since been filled with takeout meals ordered from the Crossworld Cafe. Utensils including forks, spoons, and knives were divided for each person at the table. Trays of Rotisserie Chicken along with gravy coated mash potatoes and mixed vegetables were waiting to be consumed. In addition, Empty dish plates were placed in front of the four individuals. Miniature bowls of corn chowder soups along with small pouches of crackers were compiled exclusively in their plastic bags. It was a family sized meal that brought everyone in unison.

    "Thanks for inviting us to have dinner with you guys. It's been such a long time since we've done anything like this," Kaitlin offered them with her sincere appreciation.

    "We couldn't be any more flattered," Rebecca complimented.

    "Sorry for the delay. Traffic was what you expect during the tail end of the afternoon," Kaitlin apologized. "For everything that's happened, you could definitely use some company."

    Rebecca smiled passing down the salad bowl on the table. "The past couple of weeks have been quite lonely around here. I'm very thankful to have all of you here tonight."

    "Thank you for inviting us to begin with," J.B counteracted with a compliment of his own. "Ryan told me you were taking time off from work. This could be a great time to go outside and clear your mind for a bit."

    Rebecca responded with a chuckle. "It's interesting now that you mention it. That's what I had ranked number one on my priority list."

    "How is the yard sale preparation so far?" Kaitlin wondered curiously.

    "It's been quite exhausting. We've been arranging which items we wanted to sell and made sure they're in good condition," said Rebecca taking a bite on the sliced piece of chicken meat remaining on her plate.

    "Before everything that happened, my father and I got around in determining the price range for our items. I even made a signage for any expensive products that will be up on display," Ryan informed to everyone.

    "Listen, I know it may not be necessary but if you like, J.B and I could help you and Ryan out in setting up stock," Kaitlin offered in volunteering to assist Tyler's surviving family members.

    "Well, I wouldn't mind having any more assistance. But we've gotten that taken care of," Rebecca said not completely ruling out on the scenario given to her.

    "Don't forget the time the three of us started up a lemonade stand when we were kids. One customer paid us a one hundred dollar bill to the point where we had to split the money for their children," J.B brought up a memory of their past.

    "That's not how it went," Ryan said. "We were blinded by greed so much that my father deposited the hundred dollar bill to his savings account. That could've been saved for our trust fund but it doesn't matter anymore."

    Kaitlin leaned back from her chair pondering over the embarrassing side of their nostalgia.

    "It's like you guys forgot the real reason why you gotten into Martial Arts," she laughed subsequently.

    "You're just as guilty of this as the both of us," Ryan rebutted.

    "Oh and how so?" Kaitlin escalated on the matter.

    "You went as far as trying to burn the bill with a lighter," J.B said. "Even at that young age, you shouldn't be messing around with a lighter."

    "Have it your way wise one," Kaitlin mocked in sarcasm towards her boyfriend's comment. "I never vow against my will to use Martial Arts to hurt others even coming from somebody responsible for educating me on those principles."

    Rebecca snickered having to witness their conversation intensified on the subject being told. They continued to socialize while using this time to chow down on the chicken and salad meals served on their table. Faces of laughter and overall engagement scattered throughout everyone in the room.

    By the time they've managed to finish their dinner, they collected all of the non-disposable dishes before transferring them over to the kitchen sink. Kaitlin and J.B approached the main door along the hallway grabbing their coats from the coating rack.

    "It's getting pretty late but thank you for having us here Rebecca. We could use definitely use some humor especially with all the negativity going on lately," Kaitlin said.

    "You're more than welcome to visit anytime," Rebecca encouraged her visitors.

    "Oh and there's one other thing. Tao should be back from his vacation soon. He wanted to let you know he said hi and hopes that you're doing okay." J.B also gave her his blessings eventually exchanging a handshake thanking for her time.

    "I'll be sure to message him on Face Book," Rebecca assured. To that end, J.B and Kaitlin signified their goodbyes with a sincere hug and uplifting embrace. By opening the main door, Ryan directed the couple outside of their home as they headed their way towards their vehicle.

    "Hey wait a minute. I think I left my scooter back in your garage," J.B recalled.

    "Let me unlock the garage and you can go ahead and get it," said Ryan. He proceeded to key in the password on an electronic pad that allowed the shed to slide open. While Kaitlin opened the trunk from her car, J.B transferred his moped over to the trunk before closing it altogether.

    Each of the pairings waved their hands respectively as Kaitlin along with J.B rode into the street. Keying in on the electronic pad once more, Ryan proceeded to close the garage shed. He along with Rebecca returned to the kitchen assisting his mother out on the dishes.

    "Have you finalized some of our items you plan on selling for the yard sale?" Ryan wondered.

    "I have plenty of hair combs and some nail polishers I don't need anymore," said Rebecca. "Is everything okay at your place?"

    "I like to think of a better word than crazy," Ryan replied. "Rent has become pretty expensive lately. I'm not so sure if I have enough to pay back for the landlord. I've been looking all over to see if I can find another apartment complex to crash at."

    "Have you thought about moving elsewhere?" Rebecca wondered.

    "I'm sure I can figure something out," Ryan said.

    With a dish wash sponge, Rebecca continued to rinse out the grease and stains leftover from each plate that had been stacked. Ryan couldn't witness the overwhelming work load intensifying from his mother's state of mind.

    "It's alright Mom. Let me take it from here," Ryan insisted allowing Rebecca to put the plates on hold.

    "I'm going to be using the restroom for a bit. Just make sure the plates are on the drying rack when you're finished," Rebecca instructed.

    "Will do," Ryan complied. As he continued to wash, Rebecca removed her yellow gloves aside by the corner of the sink. She exited out from the kitchen while navigating up a flight of stairs into the bathroom.

    Turning on the faucets, Rebecca took this time cleansing her face with warm water. Still adjusting to life without her husband, the past month or so has the city's police chief overwhelmed with a set of demands she struggled to prioritize. The constant callbacks from that fateful night have greatly affected not only her performance at work but to also factor in her mental health. She could only bear to get through the day without a single break down or concern over her husband. Having taken a leave of absence, Rebecca used this moment in time to clear out any personal struggles going on in her life.

    She took a glimpse at the mirror that projected her reflection. Despite reassurance from those around her, Rebecca continues to endure the seas of sorrow trickling down from her face. Any trace of optimism approached a screeching halt. Time and again she told herself things will be okay, and that hope is there to ease the despair. 'Why do I feel this way? Where is my will to help those around me? How can I escape from the walls caved around me? These set of questions only she had to ask herself.

    ***

    Inside the car of her red Mazda, Kaitlin sat behind the wheel driving along the highway. Sitting next to her by the passenger's seat saw J.B sipping from the straw of his drink. During the course of their ride, the couple chattered about their day which included their visit with Psychology professor and co-founder of Project Psycon.

    "Good lord what a day it has been. Talk about a full course stomach back there," said Kaitlin reflecting back on the meal they had back at the house.

    "You could say that again," J.B commented. "I remember we used to crash into their parents' place after we got out of school. How empowering nostalgia can be at times."

    Kaitlin smiled. "Now that you mention nostalgia, I haven't seen Ryan's mother smile like that in awhile. It's like before Tyler died, she just had that determined look on her face. I get she is the chief and all. I guess all that police duty work affected her mannerism. Maybe that's just me," she said expressing a matter of sheer glimmering hope.

    "I'm sure they will bounce back from this," J.B concurred. "Not that I need to parent you but just be sure you get plenty of rest when you get home. From all the shenanigans we've endured the past few days, who knows exactly what kind of surprise is in store."

    Regarding J.B's concern over her well being, Kaitlin did not hesitate to speak up on the subject.

    "What is up with all these muggings? First we got our asses nearly handed to us back at the alley. Then some crooks laid out the professor in the middle of a forest," she went on a tirade. "Ever since the gaming convention, it's like a barrier was lifted between the gaming and real world we're living in. Think about it. How is it that the Skug soldiers even learn to fight like how they did back in the simulation? And remember what about what Grimlord alluded to when he pulled the trigger in opening the gateway linking to those two worlds?"

    J.B pondered momentarily before coming up with a response. "Other than the speculation that it can't be any coincidence, it sounds like he plans on accomplishing something more than conquering another parallel world."

    Kaitlin sighed taking a moment to clarify his side of the issue. "When I spoke with Rebecca this afternoon, she told me about an evil figure she encountered that night of the fire. From the way she described him in detail, I feel very much convinced she wasn't lying. There is a higher chance Grimlord may have been responsible for Tyler's murder. They had to have been the ones orchestrating the professor's attack to obtain information on the project he and Tyler were working on," she stated.

    "I can't say I don't believe you. But did she make any mention about seeing anyone else with those evil motives?" J.B took into account.

    "What do you mean?" Kaitlin asked.

    "Could there have been an assailant working alongside with Grimlord that night? Not just him alone?"

    "It was the only suspicious figure she saw," said Kaitlin. "Unless they happen to make their presence known, the Chronicle isn't going to buy even the slightest bit that an army of robots from a video game have invaded our world. It's not so much they would want to believe. To have them witness the possibility of all that going down is what's going to raise havoc in the world not just Crossworld City."

    "Even if they do launch an onslaught attack, you'll have law enforcement ready to take charge and make sure everyone remains safe," said J.B.

    "I don't know which is what scares me. These aren't just two opposing armies firing their guns in trench warfare. We're talking about an army of robots capable of destroying everything and everyone in sight," Kaitlin spoke strongly on the matter. "The world doesn't realize what we may be up against. If the chances that there are more creatures other than the Skugs out there, it's more likely that someone like Grimlord may be in the neck of our woods."

    "You're scared aren't you?" J.B assumed judging from the observations based on Kaitlin's mood and tone of voice. "Sometimes it's okay to be afraid. Fear is a natural trait all of us have even if we don't want to admit it. My Sensei taught me that the best way to overcome that is to look straight into their eyes and tell them you're not afraid."

    "Now that's an instructor I would like to train with," Kaitlin replied.

    "I'm serious. Look, if you like I could lend you some of my books. They've really helped me learn the spiritual side when it comes to Martial Arts," J.B assured. "They give you a close look on how the art helps enhance your confidence and learning to develop your mind as you go through life. You're a strong woman Kaitlin. There may be some folks that will resort to committing heinous crimes they shouldn't be doing. But where there is pitched darkness in our world also lays its beauty of nature. You could also learn a lot more when you attend our seminars."

    By consuming his words of wisdom, Kaitlin reflected on the speech provided by her mate. The thought of a potential widespread Armageddon raised concern over the fate of their city. For as much chaos and negativity that weighed in on her emotions, she refused to think of the worst case scenario. Somewhere along the narrow path lurked a shining light at the end of the tunnel.

    "Well here we are," said Kaitlin. "When you head inside, do you think you could lend me some of those Martial Arts books for me to read? It's better late than never to use this time in educating myself."

    J.B smiled. "Absolutely you're more than welcome to. I'll be back in a flash." As J.B prepared to step foot on the porch of his house, it would follow up with a subsequent mouth to mouth kiss that ensued from the couple.

    "Don't forget to grab your scooter also," Kaitlin reminded him lifting the lever in the car that triggered open the back of her car.

    "Thanks again for reminding me," said J.B as he brought out the moped he stored inside the trunk.

    ***

    As Ryan parked his truck along the parking space facing towards his apartment, he proceeded to turn off the keys from the ignition. When he exited out of his vehicle, he worked his way up a flight of stairs approaching the door that led into his apartment. Just as he was about to insert the key into the doorknob, Ryan would soon discover a NOTICE sign taped on his door. Sparking with a sense of panic, Ryan barged through the door to find no trace of furniture. An entirety of decorations he had owned has since been disposed from his apartment. He couldn't believe what he witnessed. Ryan closed his eyes with the belief that all of this had to have been from his very own figment. But as he opened them, the thought of the unimaginable turned out to be legit. Banging his hand on the wall, he struggled to adjust to living an independent life in the age of adulthood. A majority of his personal belongings which include his father's camcorder were nowhere to be seen. Thankfully, as he entered his bedroom, he peered behind the empty drawer to retrieve a picture frame which includes his parents on a cruise ship.

    To say it had been a stressful month for Ryan Steele would be an understatement. But to lose a close family member like his father left a missing gap he would not be able to find. Part of him felt the need to break down and release the tears of sorrow troubling his mental state. On the other hand, the masculinity aspect of him insists he pressed on in overcoming the difficulty of grief in his heart. Having grown up with a father figure, instinct tells him that even with his absence Tyler would've encourage his son to do just that.

    Underneath his shirt collar, Ryan pulled out a locket which displayed an image of his father. Happiness can go so far to remind how close he was to him and how his influence shaped Ryan to be the person he is today. For every cloud that scattered across the sky, somewhere in-between lurked a shade of sunlight illuminating the Earthly ground. A symbol of hope or the will to live remained intact for the twenty-something male.

  8. #8
    Chapter 7:
    The Fate of Steele Labs


    At a local gymnasium, Ryan spent the next morning jabbing to a free standing punching bag. With a series of left and right hooks, he continued to train while simultaneously equipped with his red training gloves. Traces of sweat swelled throughout his body. The more intense he became, the more exhausted he would become. J.B approached the mat taking this moment to check up on his friend.

    "Well would you take a look at that intensity," said J.B. "All joking aside, you should conserve some of that energy for our sparring later."

    The instant he overheard the sound of his voice, Ryan's training came to a screeching halt.

    "There is so much fire within me I can't control," Ryan confessed as he turned his focus on J.B. "Thank you for allowing me to crash in for the night. This is what happens when you don't pay your bills on time. Next thing you know the landlord kicks you out of your home."

    J.B responded in a serious tone. "Other than some of your clothes you brought from your trunk, did they happen to toss out all of your personal belongings?"

    Ryan replied. "Luckily, even though I got evicted, I managed to keep my family frame intact. I don't know how they thought of leaving it behind, but I guess they must have realized how meaningful of a valuable it had to be."

    "Well that's a relief," said J.B with the belief that there had to been a silver lining in the matter. "I can honestly say you've been through far enough. Just don't let all of that anxiety get the better of you."

    "It's not that easy when you lose someone close in your life," Ryan pointed out.

    "Have you thought about moving back in with your mother?" J.B asked.

    "We discussed about that for a little bit," Ryan informed. "I've also been trying to look at other apartments around the area but so far nothing."

    "I feel you," J.B empathized. "When I was attending college, it was hard for me to live inside a rusty and cramped condo. Even as cheap of a rent it was, I had a rough time adapting. The rooms were filthy, leaked water pipes from the restroom I couldn't fix, and a stove that doesn't light up whenever I'm trying to cook some food. It just got to a point where it felt impossible for me to live there. So I moved back in with my parents."

    Ryan began to take in a sense of shared feeling. It was that range of emotion in which he seemed intrigued to learn more about his companion's structure of independent living.

    "Have you tried other apartment complexes? Perhaps finding a townhouse that you thought about scoping for?" He asked.

    "Living in a town house is far too costly. I looked at another apartment close by and it was just an uncomfortable experience as the previous," J.B told him.

    "What do you suppose my next course of action should be? Do you think I start packing up and move back in with my mother?" He intended to clarify.

    "There is nothing embarrassing to have a grown adult live at their parents' place," said J.B. "The economy is nothing like it has been in the past. No matter which age we're at in our adulthood, we're all going to support each other one way or the other. It's up for you to decide which path will be beneficial in the long haul."

    Ryan removed his gloves placing them on a bench next to his Gatorade bottle.

    "Thanks bro. Now that you mention it, I could sure use guidance from Tao," he said taking a sip of orange Gatorade in replenishing his stamina.

    "How far have you gotten in your dad's journal?" J.B wondered.

    "I've only read through a few pages before I slept," he told him. "I know his job was strenuous but I never thought how much dedication he poured out to the project. The last couple of months before the incident, he would be working overtime to make sure the suits were functioning properly. Every time Mom and I planned to have family dinner, he would come up with some excuse to opt out of our get together. Sometimes I wonder if his work somehow alienated the both of us."

    J.B contemplated on behalf of Ryan's comment before giving out a response. "Based from what we gathered from the professor, your father must have been pretty passionate in the project," he speculated.

    "Yeah but passionate to the point that he forgot we existed in his life? I don't know man," Ryan said leaving up to him to ponder of the mystery surrounding his father's work load.

    "I'm sure whatever went down that night, your father loved you just as much," J.B provided with his moral support.

    "Thanks J.B," Ryan acknowledged his friend's intention.

    "Have you thought about showing his journal to your mother?" He asked him.

    "Eventually but right now I need a little more time reading before I'm ready to hand it over," said Ryan.

    "Not a problem man. I thought I share you with some piece of advice. Like I said it's up to you to decide if you want to move back with your mother," J.B encouraged. "But take it from me. If I was in your shoes, I wouldn't hesitate not for one second."

    Ryan sighed. By training at the gym, it was his intention to release the stress hormones circulating throughout his body.

    "You're breaking a sweat. Tell you what. How about you take fifteen? Hopefully we could start practicing along the mat just like old times," J.B advised.

    "Now you're making me cry out onions," Ryan joked. "All kidding aside, thanks for your support J.B. I'll go ahead and get myself replenished."

    "Anything to help a brother out," J.B said signifying their friendship with a fist bump.

    "Then I guess it's settled. I'll meet you back here in a jiff," said Ryan. As they came to terms, he sat along the bench in the sidelines grabbing his orange bottled Gatorade by his rucksack. In the meantime, J.B started performing some basic warm up exercises in preparation for their upcoming spar.

    ***

    Over at Crossworld Cafe, Rebecca stood by the checkout line waiting for her latte to be finished. In completing her transaction, she swiped her credit card by the magnet stripe of the pin pad. With the card repeatedly gets declined, the frustration building within Rebecca began to fume. Before she could snap, Karl Ziktor arrived from behind swiping his own card to help her complete her order.

    "I can't stand to witness a customer who can't pay their coffee," said Ziktor. "At some point in life, you're going to have to collaborate with your coworkers even if the two parties don't get along. That's the struggle I went through when I first opened up my business."

    Without a single word, Rebecca allowed her temper to subside. Given her personal grudge towards the businessman, never mind in a public area, she could not afford to let it get the better of her.

    "I suppose you're headed off to work today?" He assumed.

    "I took an extended leave. I figured it was best to reflect on my life and settle down for a little awhile," answered Rebecca. "How is it going over there? At Ziktor Industries that is?"

    "If I could describe it in one word, it would be hectic," Ziktor said. "As chairman and founding father, it shouldn't come to any surprise how active I am with the day-to-day operations."

    Rebecca and Ziktor continued to socialize carrying the rest of their conversation over outside of the Cafe. Approaching one of the many patio tables, Rebecca leaned against the window all of while taking a sip of her coffee.

    "Look, I didn't come here to apologize or make excuses on why I couldn't make it that day. I know I've burned bridges between your husband and I, and I wish things didn't turn out so hasty in the end. It must be painful to witness being drown in a sea of sorrow that you can hardly breathe in," he continued.

    "I don't understand," Rebecca wondered.

    "You said to yourself you recently took some personal time off," Ziktor pointed out. "I know it's going to sound quite peculiar to you. Every once in awhile, a workaholic such as you could use some free time to do something they call, fun. I can't imagine how strenuous your job must be."

    "I'm sorry but this is not getting us anywhere," she scolded. As Rebecca prepared to leave the cafe, Ziktor made an attempt to convince her to reconsider.

    "Rebecca, wait," Ziktor insisted her.

    "I appreciate what you did back in there. All I came here is to grab a cup of coffee. You don't have to do me any more favors," Rebecca said. Somewhat agitated by his antics, Rebecca didn't feel comfortable complying with the businessman's proposals.

    "Please just hear me out," Ziktor pleaded. The widowed wife of Tyler Steele turned around taking it upon her to listen to his comment. "I don't know how many times I need to stress this out. I will admit that I can be a bit asinine at times," he confessed. "I have no personal issue with you. All I'm asking is not necessarily forgiveness but a will to empathize with people to those who feel the need of comfort. Even with my best set of employees coming in and performing their tasks at hand, I know how unbearable it can be working independently in my office at times."

    Rebecca took part in addressing comments in regards to his speech.

    "I lost Tyler in the midst of a fire that took an entire team of firefighters to extinguish it. As painful as it was to hear what happened, I know somewhere deep down his spirit lives on in here," she said placing a hand on her chest. "I appreciate the comfort and maybe you have good intentions. No matter how much I deny this but it's not going to change the fact that my husband is gone."

    "I understand," spoke the businessman. "When it comes to opening new businesses, I have done my part to continue improving poverty here in Crossworld City. The economy is steadily well and stock shares are soaring through the roof. People are finally finding places to work. No matter what happened between Tyler and me, if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have gotten to where I am today."

    Rebecca folded her arms unsure where she stood in this never ending dispute between her and Ziktor.

    "All I am offering to him is nothing but sincere gratitude. Why would you interrogate me over an incident I had no involvement in?" He wondered. As he felt the vibration coming from his phone, Ziktor spotted a text message indicating the arrival of his limo. "Before I leave, there is one thing I would like for you to have."

    Subsequently, Ziktor pulled out his contact card straight out from the pocket of his business suit. By handing it over to Rebecca, she took a glimpse at the contact information provided which list his full name, work address, and cell phone number along with his email as cited.

    "I should've handed a copy back at the cemetery. Anyhow here is my way of reaching out to me. In case you need financial support or any sort of pep talk, you're more than welcome to contact me anytime including non work hours," he insisted. "It's a freedom of choice Rebecca, and the choice is yours alone. Take a moment to think about what I said."

    A black limousine pulled over by the curb of the sidewalk that Ziktor and Rebecca were standing on.

    "I have a big announcement to make at City Hall. I suggest you tune in later in the afternoon for what I have to address," he encouraged. "It's been great seeing you Rebecca. I'm sure you'll pull through."

    The limo driver escorted the businessman inside the passenger's seat before closing the door. Rebecca watched as the limousine drove off from the parking zone. Rebecca continued to glance at the business card contemplating on the decision.

    ***

    Woody spent the middle of his shift crafting a gingerbread house on the desk of his office. A pack of honey graham crackers were used as walls to help construct his model. Products such as candy canes and white Hershey kisses were implemented to add decoration. Sheets of newspapers covered the entire perimeter of the table to prevent the mess from scattering around.

    In the middle of his activity, he overheard a knock coming from his door.

    "Come in," Woody instructed.

    "Woody, did you wanted to see me?" Kaitlin wondered as the door creaked open."

    "Absolutely, just the reporter I was looking for," said Woody. Placing aside his decorations, his focus turned towards his notable employee.

    "This office smells like I just entered a bakery store," Kaitlin complimented.

    "I'm just making a nice and hopefully a colorful looking gingerbread house," Woody told her.

    "It looks really great and all. But we're not even close to Christmas, at least here in the states," said Kaitlin judging from the holiday themed decorations she observed.

    "I know," Woody acknowledged. "I made it that way on purpose since my daughter's birthday is coming up. It's her favorite time of the year. Luckily, these seasonal candies haven't even expired yet."

    With an awkward expression veiled on her face, Kaitlin nodded her head while maintaining a sense of class act.

    "Listen Woody if you're curious to know, I obtained some information that I gathered during my meeting with the professor," said Kaitlin carrying a file folder of documents compiled inside.

    "I'm listening." Woody circled out of his desk straightening his body posture as he gave Kaitlin his undivided attention.

    "Tyler and Horatio started up a bio engineering project funded by Karl Ziktor and his company Ziktor Industries. Their goal was to devise a high tech bulletproof armor utilized to protect police agents and military soldiers from enduring severe gunshot wounds," she explained handing the information over to her boss to read. "The team over at Steele Labs spent the past few years testing out the armor in determining how reliable it can be."

    "Were there any setbacks that may have caused any potential delays?" Woody questioned.

    "Even before the fire, Steele Labs have been receiving a number of breach attempts. Most of the folks without an obtained pass key ended up getting escorted by Security before they could trespass," Kaitlin continued. "But there would be one intruder that somehow sneaked pass the guards. It was believed they somehow hacked into the security's system that caused a malfunction when it came to the alarm from triggering."

    "You can't claim the speculation to be a fact unless you provide evidence," said Woody.

    Kaitlin nodded. "True but the CCPD managed to obtain surveillance footage of that breach prior to the destruction of the lab. After the breach, the company increased their security measures by constructing a defensive mechanism to prevent non-licensed professions from entering the facility. Think of it like a barricade of sorts," she elaborated.

    "Did they ever found out the identity behind the intruder involved?" He wondered.

    "If that were the case then the police would have captured them by now," Kaitlin tries to reason. "There is little evidence to suggest the person involved in the breach may have been affiliated with the fire that destroyed the lab. The surveillance footage went static before they could detect the intruder responsible for what happened. All we know is that they managed to escape in time."

    "I take 'they' as in more than one suspect?" Woody flipped through a number of photos while continuing to interrogate on the subject.

    "When I spoke with one of the employees, no one could detect whether it was a male or female," said Kaitlin. "I did, however, obtain a sketch of the intruder's appearance at the time of the crime scene. Lord knows if they happen to be still lurking around the city."

    Woody paused momentarily to examine the drawing in detail.

    "So with the little detail I could gather, a person dressed up in a black parka with a hockey mask," he observed. "I must admit this is quite a sketch. But it still doesn't answer the question to who had been behind all of this. If you find any more leads, let us know ASAP."

    As Kaitlin nodded in firm agreement, a coworker of the Chronicle barged in on the conversation.

    "Excuse me Woody. I think you might want to take a look at what's on the news," he informed to the chief editor. Kaitlin followed Woody along with the coworker who directed them over to the television kiosk.

    We have breaking news in our latest update. Karl Ziktor, Chairman and founder of Ziktor Industries has made a major announcement in regards to the remains of Tyler Steele's laboratory. A gulf of flames sent fumes ascending from the building that left dozens of scientists wounded. As firefighters successfully extinguished the fire, the lab would not be without the loss of its founder. Tyler Steele was pronounced dead at 9:47 PM leaving no traces of his body found," spoke the news reporter. "At this time, I'm here at the Crossworld City Hall where thousands of citizens are gathered at this time to hear what the chairman has to say. Joining me live at this time is none other than the Chairman himself, Karl Ziktor.[/i]

    Accompanied by his secretary Juliet as well as hired Security, Ziktor stood next to the podium attached with a microphone. A sense of curiosity led to a wave of concern that illuminated from Kaitlin's face.

    "What are you up to now?" She whispered.

    ***

    In the middle of a friendly spar, Ryan and J.B resumed their exercise on an open blue mat utilizing their years of Martial Arts training into good use. A hard fought mix of Karate techniques and counters led to an exchanging set of moves performed by the two. As it came down to the wire, not even Ryan could sustain J.B's quick agility. The seasonal veteran and co-instructor of Tao Dojo grabbed Ryan's arm, flipping him over back first to the ground.

    "You have a lot of guts man. But I hate to admit, you seem to be a little rusty on the moves," J.B said extending out a hand for his friend to accept. A friendly smirk on Ryan's face caused him to retaliate, executing a leg sweep that sent J.B down to the mat.

    "...And you were saying?" Ryan rebutted on the comment addressed to him. As he came to control his humility, Ryan and J.B helped each other up to their feet. Admiring their sportsmanship, the duo appreciated one another on their performances.

    "Whew that was a hell of a work out," said Ryan. "Takes me all the way back to those exhibition tournaments we used to compete in. That smell of nostalgia is brewing I tell you."

    J.B sparkled with overwhelming joy. "I haven't felt that rush of energy in awhile. You see, this is what Martial Arts are about. It neutralizes all the stress hormones building in your body and brings out the positivity in you. It's a matter of escaping from your personal problems while maintaining your sanity."

    Ryan panted momentarily as he responded, "Wow reading those books must have educated you a lot. You're already sounding like a philosopher yourself."

    J.B snickered. Upon concluding their exercise, they replenish themselves with the use of their water bottles. They continued to reflect over their recent training by the time they approached the men's locker room. While sitting on the bench, they began to overhear the ringtone of a mobile phone echoing from his locker door.

    "I wonder who may be calling," said Ryan. By twisting the knob to a set of combination numbers, Ryan unlocked his locker door before reaching inside to retrieve his bag. With full access to his belongings, he managed to obtain his phone which indicated a caller ID from Kaitlin.

    "Hey Kaitlin, how is it going?" Ryan asked.

    "You're not going to believe this. Turn on to channel nine. There is a live simulcast going on in the news bulletin," Kaitlin instructed to him. Ryan glanced to J.B leaving to wonder what the conversation was.

    "J.B and I are at the gym," he said with no way of gaining access to a nearby television kiosk. "Wait, um, just a second." Ryan advised to J.B to grab the iPad from his bag that had been stored from his locker. Scrolling through the tabs from his internet browser, he went onto their local news website to catch the news feed captured in progress. Their eyes remained glue to the screen in which cues to Karl Ziktor stood along the podium continuing to address his speech.

    I know these past few weeks have been quite difficult for the folks involved during the fire breach at Steele Labs. My thoughts and prayers go out to each of the employees' family members and to continue to support each other at this time. But the point of me coming out here this afternoon concerns the fate surrounding his workplace. Prior to the tragedy surrounding Tyler Steele's absence, he and I have been under negotiations that would overhaul Steele Labs into the powerhouse science facility in the country. By teaming up with Ziktor Industries, we've worked on constructing a new set of power lines to better generate electricity throughout our city. For that to happen though, we had to make some sacrifices. With the circumstance surrounding his absence, our company and I have reached a decision to discontinue funding behind Project Psycon. It was a difficult move to make. As much as we would've liked to carry on the legacy that Tyler left behind, this was a cost cutting measure on our behalf to pull the plug on this development.

    Ryan and J.B continued to monitor the coverage in progress.

    With the current state of Steele Labs as a result of the fire, some steps must be taken before we can proceed. For this to work, we must rebuild from the bottom up. The decision has been made to initiate a detonation sequence that will deconstruct the remains of the laboratory. Out of respect for Tyler Steele, he would want to keep his company up and running. In doing so, I have placed a bid in attempt to buy out Steele Labs. I have another announcement to make in regards to his employees. Ziktor Industries will be more than grateful enough to provide them with an extensive coverage to ensure that their health and safety matters. We will succeed one way or the other. Thank you very much everyone.


    By concluding his speech, Ziktor stepped down from the podium with Security escorting the chairman to his limo. A crowd of people including the press as well as local citizens hoped to look for word in the fall out of his announcement.

    "It's not every day you hear Ziktor sound openly honest when it comes to his speeches," said J.B. On the other hand, Ryan had a different stance in regards to his view towards the businessman.

    "I don't know. Something about him doesn't feel right. I'm beginning to wonder what kind of long term plan he has in mind. You know whether he'll live up to that promise," Ryan rebutted.

    "Guys I can still here you," Kaitlin continued to have her phone on the dial.

    "Sorry Kate. We had you over on speaker phone," J.B chuckled subsequently.

    "I figured for sure that Ziktor would've continued the project that Tyler and Horatio were working on. Given how much money his company invested in funding for all of that protection gear," said Ryan.

    "With Tyler gone and Horatio dropping out of the project early on, I wouldn't see any reason why they would," Kaitlin rebutted. "Let's not forget the professor still has those suits up in his display case."

    "Good point," J.B replied.

    During their discussion, the men overheard the grunt of Woody's voice from the loudspeaker of Ryan's phone.

    "My boss needs me in the conference room. It will be awhile before I can get in touch with you two," said Kaitlin. "I know it's pretty hard on you Ryan just having to listen through all of this. How about we meet this Friday night at the Café? Just grab a drink and play some darts while we're at it?"

    Ryan attempted to respond but J.B cleared his throat before interrupting the conversation.

    "Okay but what about your partner in crime?" He asked.

    "I meant to include you J.B. I wouldn't neglect my Prince Charming in our social gathering," Kaitlin answered. In response to the latter sentence of her comment, Ryan rolled his eyes as he cringed to hear those words based on her tone of voice.

    "Sounds like you've been reading too many romance novels," J.B chimed in.

    "Ha-ha very funny," Kaitlin replied. "Anyhow I better get back to work. Talk to you guys later. Take care."

    "Later," J.B and Ryan spoke in unison. As their communication signal faded, Ryan bursts out laughing as a result of their phone conversation.

    "Prince Charming," Ryan wondered.

    "Hey don't look at me. I didn't insist she refer to me by that nickname," J.B told him begging for his friend not to throw a hissy fit.

    "Dude I'm not easy to offend. Besides I wouldn't want to get in the way of your relationship," Ryan assured to his friend.

    "Ryan," J.B said, "I'm glad we had a chance to spar back there. I think you could make a great Karate instructor as long as you keep yourself in tip top shape."

    "Thanks but I'm pretty content with my day job," he appreciated the compliment. "I rather call it a day. I'm going to hit the showers and check to see how my mother is doing."

    "Right on," J.B told him. To that end, Ryan removed his workout clothes while leaving on his black boxer shorts. He grabbed a bathing towel from his bag before setting off into the men's shower room.

    ***

    Rebecca spent some quality time on her laptop surfing through photos she posted on her Face Book page. It was that moment in which she scrolled through another memorabilia that involved her and Tyler's early years as a wedded couple. A notable photo includes a more recent gathering Once more the feeling of nostalgia sent a wave of uplifting energy she hadn't felt in quite some time. As she continued to gloss over her collection, she came across a photo of the day of their wedding; Rebecca stood all dressed in her white gown alongside her soon to be husband sporting a black tuxedo suit. Together they leaned a kiss on the altar signifying the beginning of their love and commitment as a wedded couple.

    The Police Chief of the CCPD wiped the teardrop from her eye. Beneath her facial expression lurked a smile that reminded her of the positives she experienced in her life. It was then in which Rebecca thought of another important figure she and Tyler were close towards. She typed up Tao Chung's profile on the search engine, their Karate instructor who they trained with from long ago. Scrolling through his album, she came across a screenshot of Tao and the couple sharing a toast outside from their backyard deck. It had been a long period of time since she met with the instructor and founder of his dojo.

    Using her mouse, she took a glimpse of photos along with a tutorial video that had been taken while sharing his expertise to his students. Rebecca smiled with enthrallment. Martial Arts had been a form of recreation she had been studying since she was a teenager. In this case with Karate, it was that particular form of art of which served as her introduction. All of that effort and dedication traces back to her time training under the guidance of Tao Chung.

    While continuing to visit Face Book, Rebecca scrolled through the site's recommendations list. Of the many user accounts, she came across an alias that felt somewhat familiar to her. Rebecca clicked the link that led to Horatio Hart's profile page. She glossed over at his most recent activity including an image of Tyler standing by the podium presenting the professor with a certificate award. While lacking knowledge behind her husband's connection with Horatio, she was aware of their long time companionship both professionally and personally.

    Lying beside her laptop contained a log book filled with contact information of close friends in their neighborhood as well as professional colleagues from work. By flipping through the pages, she stumbled into Horatio Hart's list of contact including his phone number, email account, and work address. Rebecca manually dialed his phone number indicated from the handwriting.

    "This is Professor Horatio Hart. Who is this?" He asked.

    "Hi Professor this is Rebecca Steele, Crossworld City's Chief Police. I'm a husband of your colleague. How are you doing?"

    "I've been busy with all the class lectures and paper work," Horatio answered. "Rebecca, I am deeply sorry for your loss. Tyler must have meant so much to you that even as a friend I can't imagine the pain you're going through."

    "I just wish he was here right now," she replied. "I just thought I call by and have a bit of a pep talk. I could definitely use one if that's alright."

    "I'm currently on my lunch break at this time," said Horatio. "Is there anything I could do for you?"

    "Well..." Rebecca stammered struggling to come up with a fluid sentence to convey her message. "Do you remember what you were doing the night that the lab caught on fire?"

    Horatio came clean with his response. "I met up with Tyler to collect some materials we needed to proceed with our assignment. I left something over from my place, so I hurried back to retrieve it," he explained. "By the time I returned, there had been a breach in the laboratory. A non licensed worker had the nerve to toss bottles of Molotov that had the building up in flames. Tyler and I escorted everyone out of the lab while we did our best to help each other out. Before we could approach the stairwell, there was all of this rubble piling all over us to the point where we couldn't escape. Luckily I made it out there alive. But Tyler, on the other hand, was a whole other different story."

    "Did you see anything unusual along the way? Did you trace an employee you didn't recognize who was working at the lab that night?" Rebecca interrogated.

    "No, unfortunately," Horatio provided with a straight answer. "My mind's a bit fuzzy. The flames were so humid all I could think about was finding a way out. I was coughing up smoke like crazy. If anything it's a night I would rather forget."

    "It must be devastating to witness going through all of that," the chief empathized.

    "All I could say is during my time working with him, your husband was a gifted man devoted to his assignment at hand. But he didn't let his job alienate his loved ones as opposed to what popular belief will tell you," Horatio said. "Tyler told me how much he admired you in helping people around the community, ensuring their safety and righting some injustice that may have been done to them. He couldn't be any more proud than to tell how much he loved you."

    Rebecca struggled to fight the tears coming to her. She took a brief pause to control her emotions before following up with a response.

    "I don't know how to explain it, and it may sound cliché but it's like I'm standing in-between these booby trap walls. Next thing they start closing in on me like a ham sandwich," Rebecca let out a weak chuckle. "Silly as it may seem. I just wish things turned out differently, and that Tyler would still be here."

    After hearing out her confession, Horatio provided Rebecca with a piece of uplifting advice. "I feel the same way as much about him too. Wherever it is, I'm sure he wouldn't want you to feel insecure about his absence. Don't let grief consume the way you control your life. Make the most of what you have and treasure it with all of your heart," he told her.

    By acknowledging the professor's comments, it was that moment in which Rebecca took those words to heart.

    "I appreciate you taking the time to have this call. This house has been so quiet and my son lives in his own apartment now," Rebecca complimented to Horatio. "Listen whenever you have some free time, we could get a cup of coffee or maybe have lunch together sometime?"

    Horatio soon responded. "Yeah-yeah, I like that. Whenever the time is right, I could definitely use someone to talk to."

    "Absolutely," said Rebecca. "I appreciate your words of wisdom Horatio. I hope you have a good rest of your day."

    "Likewise Rebecca, it's been a pleasure we had this chat. Take care of yourself while you're out there," Horatio assured.

    "You do the same Horatio." Following Rebecca's reply, the two callers hung up their phones simultaneously. A sign of relief ensues from the police chief of Crossworld City.

    With the television remaining in the background, Rebecca began to overhear the news bulletin concerning Ziktor's speech from City Hall earlier that afternoon. This breaking news update sparked her attention towards the screen. Rebecca took this time to process every bit of information that includes his announcement to discontinue funding of Project Psycon as well as the deconstruction of Steele Labs. Having come to a conclusion behind the businessman's announcements, Rebecca couldn't help but feel somewhat skeptical. Was Ziktor sincere in looking to honor her husband's legacy? Even so, could she go the distance in making amends with him? Such questions created suspicion looming inside her head.

    ***

    Karl Ziktor monitored the slideshow footage of Steele Labs on his desktop computer. This includes a series of captions that pertains to its development under the helm of its founder Tyler Steele. Scrolling from left to right, each image displayed the early construction process of the building including how it came to be. In addition, numerous photos were taken with Tyler alongside Professor Hart and his team. The very last image shown in the slideshow catches Ziktor off guard as he finds a photo of him and Tyler standing in front of the entrance to the laboratory.

    "You've got to love the smell of nostalgia. For as much envy I had when it came to your inventions, I fully admire your creative input," Ziktor mumbled. Continuing to glance at the screenshot, Juliet stood by the door leading into his main office.

    "Mister Ziktor, do you have a moment?" She wondered.

    "Of all the time in the world, I am thirsting for good memories," Ziktor obligated to the request. Given her signal, Juliet directed a pair of female secretaries to his office carrying an immersion helmet device which had been previously used during the Metal Fighters panel.

    "We've managed to make repairs to the device Strickland and his game developers brought over from the trade show," said Juliet. "We can test it out if you are not busy."

    "The news outlets like to believe a hardware malfunction in that machine was some matter of a freak accident," Ziktor provided with a bit of recap. "What they don't realize is that with the reality barrier weakened, we can safely bring over our mutant robots to the living world."

    "I figured for sure that the barrier was destroyed completely," one of the paired secretary ladies wondered.

    "Only the Skug soldiers and our key lieutenants managed to crossover with no trouble," Ziktor said. "I can assure you all that our mutant migration from our world and the living will come at a greater percentage. The days of robotic factions fighting each other over for land will be a thing of the past. When we deliver our message to our fellow humans, it'll come to a point where our kind will triumph and the existence of humanity falls under our reign."

    "Even though they aren't aware of our plot, we're going to do all we can what we can to ensure our cover isn't blown," Juliet told him.

    "Anything else you would like to share before I close out for the night?" Ziktor provided with a question.

    "I forgot to mention. As a matter of fact, this brings me to another thing Strickland forgot to inform me." Juliet demonstrated the mechanic features implemented in the immersion helmet. "The helmet also includes the feature to alter the mind inside of the human brain. If we can alter a person's amygdala from their temporal lobe, not only would it affect the way humans handle their emotions. But by extracting their soul, they will lose their ability to empathize with others in times of grief and loneliness."

    The instant he overheard Juliet's comment, this gave Ziktor the fueling desire to come up with an idea.

    "So I take it that they would become nothing but mindless slaves. Is that right?" He assumed.

    "Affirmative Mister Ziktor," she confirmed.

    "Now that you mention it, I just bumped into Tyler's wife this morning. She looked like she didn't get enough sleep," the chairman said letting her in on his encounter with the scientist's wife.

    "She's been through so much. Have you never thought to put yourself in someone's shoes and imagine the emotional trauma when it comes to losing a loved one?" Juliet lectured in front of the chairman to hear.

    "May we excuse you two out of the office at this time? This calls for a private conversation between Juliet and I," Ziktor advised to his secretaries. Complying with their boss, they each nodded their heads while exiting through the double doors behind them.

    "Oh I've been there. I once told myself that it's better not to grieve when you have folks around you to care for," he continued. "But then I realize that feeling grief is a sign of weakness. They don't know what I've experienced when I lost my wife one night, and I sure as Hell don't expect anyone around here to understand that."

    Juliet took some offense based from her boss's opinion and his opinion alone.

    "Mister Ziktor with all due respect, I understand the stress that has caused you even with the responsibilities you have. But coming from a widow wife, I also raise two kids who I care very deeply," she confessed. "I wouldn't want to see someone suffer loneliness or misery of some kind."

    "It's been a long day Juliet. Even when you disagree with my beliefs, you've stayed loyal and continue to do business with me," said Ziktor taking a glance at a picture frame that contained an image of him and his wife in arms. "She may be gone but I still think of her every day."

    Juliet took empathy on the approach. "All I can say is I'm sure somewhere above this planet, your wife loves you no matter what," she said.

    "Very well," he concluded. As Ziktor thought about the piece of advice Juliet provided to him, he put aside the picture frame back on his desk. He pulled a drawer from underneath to obtain a white smart phone in which appeared to be a crack displayed on its touch screen.

    "On another subject, I was lucky enough to keep a copy of Tyler's password he gave to me years ago. Boy how naïve were we to trust each other when it came to sharing our privacy," he snickered. As Ziktor keyed in the password correctly, he took a glimpse to scroll over at the voicemail tab from his contact browser. With the speaker volume in effect, he overheard some of the last recorded messages as quoted from Tyler himself.

    Message #1: Honey, it's me. Listen work has been getting pretty hectic and I'm flooded with all of this paper work. The team is working very hard by the hour. I wanted to finish my shift as scheduled but whew. I'm afraid I'm going to miss out on dinner tonight. Please don't take this as growing apathy. I love you, Rebecca.

    Message #2: Hi Rebecca. Oh man, I wish I could stop reiterating this time and again. There is so much pressure and it feels like everyone is depending on me to carry out the task. Granted I shouldn't be one to complain since I had a hand in devising this project. But I pledged an oath to finish what Horatio and I started and complete engineering on this newly enhanced body armor. There have been so many soldiers and police agents that suffer long term physical damage in their bones. With the introduction of these advanced metallic suits, this will greatly reduce the chances of enduring severe injuries while on duty. In this case, the CCPD could use some much needed protection. If there ever came a time when they need you to chase down a criminal, it couldn't come at a better time than this. Love you honey. Stay safe out there.

    Juliet chimed in to give out her response to the voicemail.

    "Somehow you've managed to retrieve Tyler Steele's cell phone from the wreckage. You're a person full of surprises aren't you?" She stated.

    "I am a lot of things but surprises? Now that you mention it, I won't rule that one out." An evil smirk lurked from Ziktor's face. As the sun prepared to fade from outside of the window, Juliet looked at her watch to find that her shift would be over.

    "Well it looks like I've had quite a day. I better pick up my kids from the daycare. They could sure use this leisure to spend time with their loving mother," she concluded.

    "Thank you for your hard work as always Juliet. Have a wonderful rest of your evening," Ziktor bid her with a goodbye. As she exited from his office, the chairman of Ziktor Industries turned his focus back to his desktop that displays Rebecca's avatar from her profile.

    "Oh Rebecca just wait what I have in store for you," he mumbled.

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