Pounds Of Flesh By A Thousand Cuts

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!

“In case you’re wondering by the way,” Rhodes paused and made eye contact with the table, “Those are severed bonds. Whatever bonds you had, with whatever avatars you had, is no longer a concern of yours.”

Rosie felt the words like a blow to the chest. Something inside her shattered. The pieces that had been holding her up, bolstering her courage when she wanted to give in, whispering that there was still hope, broke into a million tiny pieces and blew away. She collapsed but somehow she was still standing.

The others began asking questions, seeking clarity for something that Rosie already knew was true. The connection she had held so dear for two years, the one focus that had allowed her to keep moving forward when the way had gone dark, the only thing that had kept her sane in that prison, was now gone. Forever. Only Crash stayed silent, his eyes hidden behind his dark glasses. Rosie knew that she should check on him, make sure that he was okay, take care of him…but she couldn’t move. Her bones had turned to stone and her heart had gone quiet.

It was over. She didn’t want to give up but she had no reason not to. Every dream she had had, every secret hope that she had guarded in her heart now seemed little more than a foolish fantasy. A child’s game to distract from the real world. Why had she ever thought any different?

Rhodes was still talking. She only half heard what he was saying, her brain refusing to process any new information. But then what did it matter what she understood anyway? It wasn’t her life any more, not really. She was here because they needed her to do a job, nothing more. Why bother with the fine print when you’re screwed no matter what?

“Great. So when do we get started?” Rosie asked.

“You get started when we’re done with this debriefing.” Rhodes returned, “Your food hasn’t even shown up, Rosie. I’m sorry you’re upset.”

Rosie looked away. He was sorry. Sure. Just like The Program was sorry when they pulled her out of her normal life and put her in a pod. Just like The Founders were sorry when they stuck them in a safe house and then did nothing while pilots died. Just like everyone was sorry when they finally admitted that the avatars were real people and that they had been damaging worlds all along. Sorry…nothing more than a five letter word for tough shit.

She had thought she was going somewhere to be free. That she would find Hex again and uncover a way to soar without the control of anyone but herself. She had thought that she would finally have a choice. But now she saw the truth. Another Metaverse, another man telling her where to go and what to do when she got there.

“So you want us to go undercover, infiltrate a vast, multi-metaverse criminal organization, headed by one of the most ruthless criminals of all time.” Zenda said.

“No, the most ruthless criminal of all time.” Rhodes interrupted.

Zenda shrugged, “Just making sure everyone understands.”

Rosie looked at him, “We literally have nothing to lose.”

Zenda regarded her silently, a flash of understanding crossing his face. Somehow that was even worse. Zenda’s avatar had died, executed before his very eyes. That he should feel any kinship to Rosie in this moment made her want to scream. Hex wasn’t dead. She was alive. She was just…lost.

How could the bonds be gone forever? How could they? This woman who had lived beside her soul, who had become entwined with her own spirit so much so that Rosie felt crippled without her, how could she just not be there any more? If Rosie closed her eyes and concentrated, she swore she could feel an echo there. Faint, like a whisper of a memory or a dream you try to remember in the day light, slipping through your fingers as you try to make it solid. And yet, she couldn’t find a way to make her real again. She couldn’t call her back no matter how much she screamed.

What was there to be afraid of any more? What was there to care about or worry over? Her last hope had been taken from her. And these were supposed to be the good guys. So send her in, cast her into the pits of hell and throw away the key. Rosie was prepared to do anything because nothing mattered any more. They had won. She gave. She couldn’t keep fighting this, couldn’t keep the fire burning.

She used to watch the horses break. She hated every minute of it. Wild creatures slamming themselves into metal walls, rearing and pawing in a desperate attempt to break free. Every kick, every bite, every buck pulled the ropes tighter. The moment when they surrendered, when the light died in their eyes and they dropped their heads, that was the moment that always made her cry. She would turn away quickly, hiding the tears she knew the others would mock. She hated herself for just watching, for never opening the pen and setting the horses free, for staying silent when her voice would have echoed for miles.

Look at her now. Ropes around her neck and limbs, twisted into knots that choked the life out of her. They had been wrong all along. Wild hearts can be broken.

Rhodes had left. Rosie hadn’t even noticed. She focused back in as Maddox was beginning to discuss what would come after. What they would do once they had completed this task, this mission from hell. Rosie couldn’t stand it.

“We could finally do what we want to!”

“Since when do you ever think you’re going to be able to do what you want to?” Rosie cried, “If we complete this task for him and he sends us back where he needs, there is nothing, nothing in this Metaverse that stops him coming back and making us do the same damn thing over and over and over again for him! We have lost! We have nothing right now!”

“We have freedom for the first time.” Crash’s quiet voice came from the corner.

Rosie laughed humorlessly, “And what makes you think he’s going to let you stay free?”

“He doesn’t lie.”

“Yeah and he never talked long term that he would never speak to us again.”

She was so full of other people’s lies she was drowning in them. No one ever helped. They only ever used. She was tired of hoping otherwise.

Wyatt looked over “Well, no…but he did promise to clue us in on what all of the rules are.”

“That is true. Cool. We’ll know the rule book.” Rosie shook her head.

Rules to build another cage on. Rules to make sure she did what she was told and nothing more. What did it matter any way? What good was it knowing how to play the game when the only prize you ever wanted was gone forever?

Do we have to go back?

She hadn’t been looking for a job. She just couldn’t bear the idea of going back and pretending she hadn’t changed. To wake up in the morning, get dressed, go to work, sit in traffic, make instant noodles, all while playing the part of a normal person. To act the role of someone who had never done anything more than exist. To never speak Hex’s name again. She couldn’t go back, but she couldn’t stay here.

“I’ve never seen anyone so upset about having to get out of prison.” Crash said.

Wyatt grimaced, “I mean, it’s not the…it’s the connections.”

“She misses someone.” Zelda murmured.

Rosie turned away. She couldn’t bear to have anyone say who. She didn’t want to hear her name from anyone else’s mouth.

She still remembered the first time she felt the bond. Of course she hadn’t understood it then, hadn’t grasped what it meant. But in the moment when she was held down in her bed, hands over her mouth, a needle snaking through the dark toward her neck, she had felt strong, furry arms wrap around her. And she had felt loved.

To love another person was something that Rosie had always wanted to do. But for her, love was something reserved for family and even that came with conditions. She had come to care for the other pilots but she could see it wasn’t a pure love. It was a love built on loyalty and duty, on keeping them safe no matter the cost to herself while feeling wholly unworthy and undeserving of any affection from them. It was the only love she felt capable of.

But Hex had been different. Two souls bonded in the knowing of each other, connected by something more than circumstance. It was the love of two people who had seen the worst in the other and still believed in the wonder of their friend. And now that was gone. More than gone…stolen. Stolen by another group of people who had never considered her or her wants and desires. Another group of people who knew no more about her than what she could do for them. Another group of strangers who had shattered what was left of her heart.

“Oh, not me. I don’t miss anybody at all. My life is great.”

He said the words hoping someone would see how false they were. Or maybe he wanted to make himself believe them. But all they did was make him feel hollowed out inside.

Crash fell silent. He could feel every tiny hole, every crater and crevice left from the tearing of the bonds. Death by a thousand cuts. His mom had read a play to him once, about a man who hates another man and tries to murder him without anyone being able to blame him. He had wanted a pound of flesh, cut from the body of his enemy. Crash knew what that felt like now, his marrow exposed and open to the air.

He had been trying. He had been trying so hard. And he had thought he was close. He had seen the possible pathways and believed that he could make it happen. He would become the person he was supposed to be, he would take the gifts given to him by the avatars and use them to make himself better. Even when the connections had guttered out, he had held the remnants, keeping them safe until they could be rejoined. What a fool. A fist full of broken string, trying to build a bridge.

Maddox was talking about her brother, Mac. Crash remembered him. A nice man who looked at Crash as if he understood. She wanted to go home to him, to keep him safe. Nothing else mattered to her but him. All she wanted was to find him, to do anything she had to just to see him again. Crash wondered if anyone in his entire life had ever loved him that much.

Rosie sniffed, “Let’s get you back to your brother.”

Crash nodded, “That’s what she needs, a cause. A purpose.”

He looked hopefully at Rosie but she didn’t see him, her eyes were filling with new tears. Crash felt his chest tighten. He was trying to make this better, trying to fix the unfixable. Maybe they had all been right all along. Maybe he was too broken.

“Maybe we’ll run into our friends along the way..” Crash offered, his voice more enthusiastic than he felt. They had trusted him, all of them. Every one of his friends had looked to him and for one perfect moment, believed that he was right. That he was enough. Look where it had gotten them.

Talon had been the first to bond to him. At first, Crash hadn’t understood. A specter from a world of death haunting his waking hours, a companion of blood walking beside him. When they had explained, as well as they could, Crash had been terrified. He worried that he was going to lose part of himself, that the real Talon would steal his thoughts, or that he would eventually trade places with him, his body summoned to the place where his soul was anchored.

Slowly he started to see some benefits of the pairing. Test results changed and improved. People were happier with him. Maybe this was how he got better. Maybe this was the point all along. To fill the lacking part of himself with the pieces that dripped over from worlds beyond. He had begun to build himself into the man he knew they wanted him to be. It didn’t really matter that the parts weren’t his. All anyone cared about was the result, how they got there didn’t register.

Butch had been different. For the first time, Crash found that an avatar could be a friend. Could be someone to talk to, to learn from, to care about. How miraculous it was, that a man born worlds away would so perfectly fit the giant hole in his heart.

Each avatar after became another person to know, another friend to make. In time, the powers he gained felt more like gifts than contraband. It was a partnership, a mutual understanding. They were helping make him a hero. In exchange, he gave them his heart and his loyalty.

And to Butch? To Butch, he gave his love. To call him the father or brother he never had seemed ridiculous. Butch wasn’t that. He was something  more.

Crash had heard a term once. It was his mom who had used it, though he could never remember why. Anam cara,a soul friend. That was Butch. A soul friend who had seen him for who he was, a compassionate presence, a guide and teacher, a person who could read his heart and understand it.

The loss of the other avatars were pounds of flesh stripped from his bones. The loss of Butch was his heart broken into pieces, shattered glass that cut him with every breath.

He looked at his friends. He saw the empty spaces where their others had been. He had failed everyone. The worst part was, there was nothing he could do to fix it. His missing pieces were the best of him. Maybe that was why his Dad had done what he did.

That last day outside of the Joe’s on his Earth, when his father had told him to do what needed to be done, Crash had hoped there had been a mistake. It couldn’t be right, sending him away like that, leaving so much in his lap, giving him the responsibility to do what he was so unprepared to do. His father couldn’t have known. He couldn’t have seen where his son would be sent, what they would have him do. What he would lose.

Gradually Crash had come to understand the worst part. That his father had known, had seen, had planned everything. That being sent to the dark hole, alone and broken, was all part of a larger plan that he was no longer part of. That the man who used to be so gentle with him, so patient and understanding, the man who he had tried to be, whose shoes had always been too big to fill, the man whom he had spent his life trying to make proud had used him to do something terrible. And had thrown him away without a second thought.

He was alone.

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