Quick Disclaimer: I do not own these characters or the world they inhabit. They were created by the fabulous people at Zombie Orpheus for their equally fabulous RPG, Masters of the Metaverse! Be sure to tune in to Twitch.TV/zombieorpheus every Monday at 6PM PST to see more!
Crash put the finishing touches on his palm shocker and looked up excitedly, searching for the nearest teammate to show his handy work to. The others were all crowded around an open closet that Maddox and Rosie had found. A weapons locker. He suddenly felt very foolish and pulled his sleeve as far down over his wrist as it would go.
Rosie came over holding two firearms, “Which one do you want? Lightening gun or rifle?”
Crash shrugged, “It doesn’t matter. Whichever one you don’t want.”
Rosie shook her head, “No, I asked you first. Which one?”
“The rifle, I guess. Or maybe…can you spin the lightening gun?”
“Oh. The rifle then.”
Rosie handed the weapon over and headed back to Wyatt and Maddox, leaving Crash behind to examine his newly acquired firepower. He had to admit, he was a little excited about this. To hold a form of power in his hands again, even though guns weren’t a super power, filled Crash with the hope that maybe he wasn’t so useless after all.
He hadn’t said much about it since they had entered Meta End, but the disconnect was starting to take its toll. At first he thought it was temporary, a punishment that they would eventually see through. But as the days turned into weeks and then months, Crash felt himself starting to fray around the edges. He hated the silence, the relentless solitary monotone inside his head. He could feel the empty place where all those other hearts used to beat. He had nothing to fill it up with now. He didn’t have it in him to make up for what they made him lack.
He had tried being brave, tried emulating Butch, Gatling, even Harzoul. He had put on the personalities, sometimes more effectively than he had expected, as if somehow they would activate something dormant inside of him. But it hadn’t worked. His punches did little more than irritate, his attempts at charm were laughable, and no one believed that he could do anything great and terrible. Not even him.
The others were starting to look at him differently too. He could see it happening. Where before they had stood back and watched him soar, now they pushed in front of him, pulled him away. They made excuses for him, tried to defuse situations by explaining him. They talked about him like he wasn’t even there.
Maddox pushed open the door marked INFIRMARY, ushering the others inside. Crash’s eyes adjusted quickly to the dim light and he saw a dispensary off in the corner. He hurried over and pulled up the display, typing in the various diagnoses he had received over the years. All the words that people had used to describe just how many things were wrong with him.
The machine gave a small electric chirp and several medication packets popped out. Crash began carefully measuring out the correct dosage of each. He hated to do it but he was racing inside. If he kept going at this speed he would explode. He hadn’t taken the pills in so long, not since the first time he had gone into the Metaverse. The avatars had worked more than any drug ever had, binding to the broken pieces and jagged holes in his brain, making him better. Without them, his mind was screaming and only pharmaceuticals would bludgeon it into silence.
He didn’t hear the drones. To be fair, none of them did. But Crash blamed himself especially. He used to be the one who noticed things, his senses heightened by Titan powers. Now he couldn’t do anything but react, always caught on the back foot by the rest of the world.
Maddox fired the lightening gun, sending a drone plummeting in a shower of sparks. Crash combat rolled forward. It might not have been tactically necessary but he felt better for the rotation. He took steady aim and fired, channeling his memories of his time with Talon and praying that the Metaverse could still hear him. The rubber bullets struck the other two drones, causing them to shudder but not to fall. Crash felt a wave of shocked embarrassment rush over him as Maddox and Rosie both physically tackled and disabled the remaining drones. Even with a gun he was useless.
Part of him knew how long he had been carrying the powers from the Shooterverse with him. Talon had been the first to eke over, but he was eventually followed by Butch, Gatling, Harzoul, and Kitt. The years of edges bleeding together were easy to count. But at the same time, it felt like he had been lifted by the lives of avatars since he was born. He could barely remember a time when he hadn’t felt even a small jolt of energy running down his spine. Maybe that was the problem. He’d grown so used to being strong, he’d forgotten how weak he really was.
He’d felt them go. One by one, he had felt each avatar fall away, their threads being cut. One by one their voices went quiet, one by one their hearts stopped beating next to his. Butch had been the last. He had tried so hard to stay. Crash had fought to save the connection, struggling with fierce concentration to remember the sound of his voice or the way his eyes smiled while his mouth frowned. Every night he went to bed and pictured Butch’s face, remembered the way his voice sounded, stretched his fingers and reached for the spark of electricity that used to run through them. He listed in his head every single thing that Butch had taught him about being a detective, a hero, a man. The routine sustained him when the silence was its most deafening. But he had never been able to recover the strength he had felt slip away. His fingers were clumsy now, his ears muffled and his eyes blinded. Things that had come so easily before eluded him now. He was always falling short of what he wanted to do and who he wanted to be.
He had been eleven when his Dad took him to the tanks for the first time. They used to go once a month, then once a week, then three times. Eventually he went every day. It used to exhaust him. Waking up early, sometimes four in the morning, coming home long after the sun had gone down. Days spent in salt water, his skin pruning and peeling, puddles forming at his feet. The endless tests, questions without answers, poking and prodding him until he wanted to scream. But he didn’t. He wanted to be tough, like his dad. He wanted to make him proud. So he bit the inside of his cheeks until he tasted blood to keep the shrieking inside his head. He clenched his fists so tightly that the nails left marks in his palms. He did anything he had to just to show them that he was better, that he was strong. That he was a hero. But maybe he had been play-acting all this time. Maybe it had been the avatars they had seen instead of him.
Glancing over his shoulder, Crash saw Rosie whispering to something on her left shoulder. He felt a cold twist in his stomach and he had to turn away. He had pretended it was space sickness, madness brought on by prison time, a figment of her imagination. But he knew what it was. The look on her face as she spoke to the bunny that no one else could see, the calm that spread over her as a single thread reconnected across the vast nothingness. He knew what it meant. It made him want to cry. The Metaverse had given her a gift, a token of something more, a beacon of hope. Had he become so much of a disappointment that he wasn’t even worth that any more?
The others were still poking around the infirmary computers as Rosie opened her mouth to ask another question. Crash couldn’t take it any more. He sighed, a bit louder than he intended to, and she turned toward him.
“Oh no, I just really love hanging out in rooms for hours and hours. Can we keep doing that?”
Rosie blinked, “No, we’re doing – “
“I know what we’re doing. We’re not escaping from prison for no reason.” Crash snarked, “We’re just hanging out.”
“We’re not hanging out!” Rosie began.
“No, we are” Crash cut her off, “That’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re hanging out.”
He turned away as they continued typing on the computer, sipping on the coffee that he wasn’t supposed to have. He wanted to scream, to rip the door off its hinges and throw it, to punch through the walls and run as fast as he could. He wanted to fly away. He wanted to have a master plan that would save them all. He wanted to create the perfect device that would help them escape. He wanted to summon back the ones that had been lost to him. But he couldn’t do any of it. Because he wasn’t anyone else. He was only him. Clarence Crash Jaxun, the one nobody knew how to fix.
He remembered the rides home the most. Sitting in the front passenger seat of the car, watching the people and houses pass by in a blur. They never really talked after. His Dad would drive in silence and Crash often didn’t trust himself enough to speak, the internal shaking never steadied enough for him to be sure that he wouldn’t say the wrong thing. But one night he had. One night as the world whipped by, Crash took a leap. It was the only time he could ever remember feeling brave without knowing that there was an avatar standing at his side.
“Hey Dad.” Crash said, his voice coming out in a hoarse whisper, “Am I better yet? Did the tanks fix me?”
His father didn’t look at him but Crash saw his grip on the steering wheel tighten. For a long while there was silence, and Crash was just about to give up and apologize when his father spoke.
“Less dreaming son, more training. Questions later.”
Crash pushed his way into the point position as the group moved off, another collective of drones laying destroyed at their feet. No thanks to me, thought Crash. Maddox looked surprised and Crash shrugged.
“I am a shield of meat. That’s what I am for.”
They moved forward until they entered what looked like a defunct staff breakroom. Crash headed over to a section of chairs.
“I’m going to sit down here because I already know you guys are going to look around this room for hours.” he said, plunking down into a seat, a puff of dust dispersing as he did so.
“What?” Crash shot a look at Rosie.
Maddox raised an eyebrow, “I’m going to see if I can find Crash some candy or something.”
“Yeah, because the caffeine already did this to me, you might as well add some sugar too.”
Crash closed his eyes behind his sunglasses and tried to slow the racing of his heart and brain. He felt like he was going to break apart. Nothing was right any more. Nothing was the way it was supposed to be and no one understood. No one cared. They just wanted to stand around looking for things that didn’t matter instead of the one thing that did.
Maddox held up a few small pans that she had just pulled from a cabinet and showed them to the group. Crash rolled his eyes, “Oh good, now we have armor.”
Maddox frowned, “Can someone show Crash a cat poster?”
“Oh, I’ve seen them. Rosie used one to kill a drone while I was shooting it with a machine gun.”, Crash felt his fists clenching as he remembered his inability to destroy the flying guards, even with a weapon.
“They always make me happy.”
“Well, clearly they do nothing for me.” Crash snapped, “You know what makes me happy? Escaping from prison and going to find Butch now!”
Maddox turned and shot a look to the others, “OK guys, let’s get going…”
“No, no! But we can look for more dishes!”
He hated how he was being. He just couldn’t stop himself. The drugs weren’t helping, neither was the coffee. Guns didn’t work right in his hands any more. He couldn’t fight, couldn’t use computers. He couldn’t do anything but stand in the way and take a bullet for someone who was more worthwhile than he was.
“Not today, Crash.”
“But Dad, I can do better! Let me just -“
“No, Crash.” his father held up a hand, “Not today.”
“I don’t understand! You said -“
“Crash”, his father bent down and looked him in the eyes, his voice softening, “It’s OK. We can go back tomorrow. But today we can’t. I have to go to a meeting. I’ll see you tonight.”
Crash didn’t see his father leave. He retreated to his room and shut the door. It was only after he had heard his father’s car pull out of the garage and drive away that he let the tension building up in his chest release. His Mom found him, hugging his knees and rocking back and forth in the corner. She didn’t say a word, simply wiped his eyes and helped him to his feet. She brought him to the couch and wrapped a heavy blanket around him. A mug of something warm and chocolate was sitting on the coffee table. She sat down next to him and began rubbing his back in slow circles. After a while she said, “It sucks when Dad changes his plans.”
“He said we were going today.”
“And then it didn’t happen.”
“He changed his mind because of me.” Crash said, miserably, “Because I didn’t do it right. I messed up. I always mess up.”
“You feel like you let Dad down.”
“And that’s why plans got changed today.”
His Mom nodded, “It’s hard to feel like you didn’t do your best. And it hurts when someone we love lets us down. But Crash, I promise you, this isn’t your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. Dad had a meeting and so he had to go. It isn’t something you did.”
Crash sniffed and shrugged his shoulders. His Mom put her arm around him and squeezed. It felt nice to just sit there, the two of them.
“Mom?” Crash said, “Why do you always try to make me better?”
She looked surprised, “What do you mean?”
“You tell me to go out and meet new people or do things instead of just playing video games. I know you want me to go because you want me to be normal. But I don’t want to, Mom. I don’t like those things. I don’t think you can make me better. Not like that.”
His mother stared for a few moments and said nothing. Finally she reached over and wrapped him in a hug.
“Oh, Crash.” she said, close to his ear, “I am so sorry if I made you feel like I wanted to change you or make you better. That isn’t what I was trying to do at all. Honey, I make those suggestions because I want you to know that there are choices. That you can do anything you want to do. I want you to know that there isn’t anything wrong with you or how you see the world. I show you these things not because I want you to be someone you aren’t. I show them to you because I want you to be whoever you want to be. They’re just options, not suggestions. And I know when you’re ready, you’ll do exactly the right thing and be exactly who you are supposed to be. And I will love you just as much, whoever that Crash turns out to be.”
She pulled back and brushed the hair out of his eyes, “You are enough.”
The group rounded a corner and found themselves facing a wall. They all stood and stared, not quite believing their eyes.
“Ok, well…let’s find the secret door now” Crash said, beginning to push and pull on the various wall panels. Maddox and Wyatt started searching in a slow and methodical manner but he didn’t have time for that. Every wall he broke through, every door he forced open, every inch he claimed was getting him that much closer to a way out and a way back.
Every push forward brought him nearer to the connection he wanted so desperately, to that thread being rejoined. Nothing would stand in his way. He would take Meta-End apart, piece by piece if he had to.
He was going home.