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!
“And what does that do?”
Zenda poked his head up and focused on the collection of wires that Crash was pointing to, “Um, that is the monitoring relay. So basically that connects your conscious mind’s perception with your physical responses which in turn sets up a bio-feedback loop which allows me to observe any alterations in your heart rate, pupillary dilation, and respiratory rate which could be due to issues you’re having while in a Metaverse. If anything goes above or below a certain range of set parameters, I can interpret that with an algorithm to figure out the likely cause and how to best help you to compensate by using the medical components we talked about before.”
Crash nodded, “Got it.”
Zenda looked over and smiled at him, “You’re remembering all this, right? I’m counting on you to make sure the others don’t mess things up.”
When I’m gone…
The words hung unspoken between them but they both knew they were there. Crash had known Zenda was dying even before he had seen the twisting roots climbing up the side of his neck. Twinges of pain, sharp intakes of breath, extra pauses where there should have been only steps forward. The others might not have seen it but Crash did. He always did. He always saw the things other people missed. Always remembered what everyone else forgot.
Death wasn’t unfamiliar to him. Even before his time in the Metaverse, Crash had seen people die. Some slow, some fast. He had watched as people just faded away, some more contently than others. He never understood why no one wanted to talk about it. That part never made sense. Why everyone liked to pretend that it wasn’t happening, that there wasn’t a ghost sitting across the table. Why not say the things you wanted to say? Why not ask the questions you wanted to ask? Time was a finite resource, even he understood that concept. But no one ever seemed to want to admit it. So he learned to play along. To play dumb and act like nothing was different even when everything was.
He watched as Zenda bent down again, his hands moving quickly over the newly installed pod controls. He was different, quieter. The pirate hadn’t spoken for hours. Crash wondered what had happened. He thought he might know but he wasn’t always right about things like that. He took a while to process things, he knew that, and emotions moved too fast sometimes for him to understand. But standing in the dim light of the basement, surrounded by pods that he had helped to build, Crash felt like maybe he got it. Just a little.
“I’ll remember you too, Ronald Zenda.”
The other man stiffened, his back to Crash, “What?”
“I’ll remember you too.”
Zenda said nothing for a moment and then nodded slowly, “Well, uh…thanks. Thank you, Crash. That, uh…that means a lot.”
Zenda stood up and turned to face him, “Well, I think that’s that. Shall we call the others?”
Crash nodded and stood back to admire their handy work as Zenda went upstairs to gather his friends. Stepping forward, he placed a hand on the smooth metal door.
“I know you.” he whispered.
When he was younger, his Dad had taken him out to the garage to show him how a car worked. Crash had been terrified of the noise the engine made, refusing to set foot inside any running vehicle. His Mom had started walking to do her errands, letting Crash tag along. He had heard his parents arguing one night, his Dad insisting that she was making things worse by coddling him. Her quiet voice murmured a response and the next day his Dad brought him outside and opened the hood of the family car.
Somehow taking things apart and seeing how they worked made them less frightening. Now he understood what each cough and sputter meant, could envision in his mind the gears turning, the gasoline sparking and converting to energy. It was reassuring to know that there was a purpose to the cacophony. After that, he wanted to learn more and more about cars, begging his Dad to take him out every night to examine a new part of machinery. Then came the day his Dad walked to work.
Technically, he walked to catch the bus to work. Either way, the car wasn’t working. His Dad made a comment over his cup of coffee that he needed to take it to the shop. Crash didn’t understand. Why send the car to someone else? He knew how cars worked. He could figure out the problem and fix it before his Dad came home. It would be a surprise. His Dad would be proud of him. Maybe he would even teach him how to drive.
Things were a little more complicated than he had anticipated. The first three things he looked at weren’t the problem. So he kept looking. Because his Dad told him not to give up. By the time his Mom found him around lunchtime, the entire engine was apart and neatly arranged on the garage’s concrete floor. She hadn’t said much. Crash wasn’t sure but he thought she looked proud. She’d given him a smile and pulled the door shut, leaving him to his work. When his Dad came home a few hours later, Crash heard her talking to him, explaining what he had done. Words like ‘learning’, ‘remarkable’, and ‘smart’ made their way to his ears. He waited for his Dad to come in, heart bursting with pride. Even though the engine wasn’t fixed yet, it would be soon. He and his Dad would do it together. Because Crash had listened and remembered. He had learned everything his Dad had taught him. He had done something good. Something to make his Dad proud.
The door to the garage swung open. Crash stood up and watched his father approach the car and stare down at the engine block. His hands were fists, clenching and unclenching at his side. Crash waited. Finally his Dad spoke.
“You don’t know how to fix a car, Crash.”
Crash blinked, “I – I do. I do know how to fix a car, Dad. You taught me.”
“No.” his father shook his head, “No, I taught you how a car works.”
“It’s the same thing.”
“It is, Dad! Because if -“
“Crash, enough.” his father raised his hand, “Just go back inside. Now.”
Crash went to his room, pushing past his mother’s concerned face. There had been more raised voices that night but he couldn’t hear them over the blood rushing in his ears, the tightness in his chest keeping him from breathing.
He didn’t come out for breakfast. He didn’t come out until his Dad had left for work, another day of taking public transportation, and his Mom had taken Tessa to school. It was Thursday so she would be gone extra long, she always had something to do after dropping his sister off. When the house was finally still, Crash slipped out of his room and into the garage. He went to work, barely noticing when his mother returned. He thought he heard the door creak open a hair but didn’t stop to look. He was back in his room before his father’s key unlocked the front door. The next day his Dad drove to work.
To understand how something worked was to know it. And to know something was to be able to master it, utilize it, fix it. Learning, remembering, knowing, they were all tools. All ways to find your way out of the dark. Ways to rebuild, to move forward. Ways to go back home.
Crash pushed himself to the front. Brock was not ready for this, not able to handle what was to come. He was twelve years old for gods sake. Well, almost thirteen but still. He wasn’t going to sit by and let this kid get killed because he was better equipped to score a touchdown than outrun a hit squad.
A tiny click in the back of his mind and Crash felt the bond form. For an instant he felt like throwing up. He grimaced and tried to ignore the feeling that welled up inside. It seemed wrong to bond right now, like he was starting something new while there was still unfinished business to attend to. He knew what it meant, the risk it actually was to both him and the avatar. He had tried to keep Brock safe, but all he had done was put him in even more danger.
“Andi Jaymes, who did you bond?”
Crash had been surprised by her surprise. Andi had blinked, “How can you tell?”
“You can always tell. Who did you bond?”
She began listing beings, a demon and a pirate, and Crash grew quiet. Her avatars came to her so easily. But she didn’t seem to understand. He kept trying to find ways to explain it, to show her what it meant to be what they were. He kept hoping that he would stumble upon the right turn of phrase that would make everything clear and Andi Jaymes would finally realize what it all meant and how important it was. Then maybe he wouldn’t be alone. Then maybe he would have someone else who knew things and remembered them. Someone else who would help him find the way back.
“Did you think I was rescuing you because you’re cute?”
“I thought you were rescuing us because you’re Andi Jaymes and we’re supposed to be a team.”
“Who the hell is Andi Jaymes?”
“Just look inside yourself for two seconds, lady.” Crash snapped.
“It’s dark and it’s scary and I will not.”
“Have a little self awareness.”
The half immortal blinked at him and a brief moment, Crash thought maybe Andi Jaymes had heard him.
“I’m a god. I don’t have to.”
Crash shook his head and turned away, “If you say so.”
He wanted to scream. He had been so excited to meet her, this Andi Jaymes. Someone who was like him, someone who felt the Metaverse like he did, someone who finally understood. But she didn’t understand. In fact she barely seemed able to keep her head above water in her avatars, losing herself to the immersion like some kind of benevolent quicksand. Crash tried talking to her, tried offering her what small pieces of information he had managed to gather in his time in the Metaverse, but she shied away like a frightened pony. She didn’t want to know more, it seemed. It was almost as if she felt like she would break the truth if she ever got a hold of it.
Crash needed her to try. He needed her to not leave him here alone. He needed Andi Jaymes to understand what it meant and what needed to be done. Or else…none of them had a chance of getting back.
He had known for a while that he wasn’t like other pilots. He’d felt it sometimes, seen it others. The extra juice he seemed to have, the way the Metaverse almost enveloped him like a second skin, how he seemed to fit inside an avatar like he had always been there. The term Class Five hadn’t meant much when he had first heard it. It was just another name for something he already recognized. The others took their classes to heart, using them as excuses or benchmarks, but Crash simply let the words fall away. Classes didn’t matter. Actions did.
His Dad bent down and met his eye, “Crash. Come on, you can do this.”
Crash shook his head, shivering as the salt water dripped down his spine, “I can’t Dad.”
A loud sigh from the shadows and Crash felt himself retract inwardly. Cole leaned forward, the fading light of the evening catching the rim of his glasses, sending a flash of blinding white into Crash’s eyes.
“Told you, Jaxun. Kid isn’t ready. His scores aren’t up to snuff. Yet. Why not let me take him in? Put him back through remedial.”
“I got it.” his father snapped, not bothering to turn around.
He reached over and touched Crash’s arm, “OK? Let’s try it again. One more time. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says. Or what they think. OK? No one can make you do anything, no matter how they make you feel. Only you can do that. You decide what your actions are. You. Your actions matter. Not their words.”
It had taken some time but Crash had come to understand the truth behind those words. And what that truth actually meant. His father had so many words, so many reasons for why he did the things he did. Crash was fairly certain if he asked, his father would have logical and elegant words for why he had left his son alone at the end of the Metaverse, cut off from everyone he had ever loved. But those words wouldn’t matter. Only the actions would. Because no one could make you do anything, no matter how they made you feel.
Zeus took over. Crash felt Brock melt away into vapor. In the next instant his own mind was sent to the back, the avatar taking full control. With a sinking feeling, Crash realized that he had in fact bonded to a god. While the situation sounded ideal from the outside, Crash was less than enthused. The personality was not one that he enjoyed being around. The constant stream of self love, adoration, gratification, and involvement was, frankly, gross. But needs must…
Cole roughly pulled Crash out of the tank, his fingers leaving marks on his upper arm. Crash stumbled and caught himself on the edge, pulling his damp towel closer around him. Cole sneered. He was enjoying himself. He often did when Crash’s Dad left the testing area. Today it was a meeting, something that Crash didn’t need to know about. Cole had said Crash needed to keep training, keep preparing, and his Dad had agreed to let them keep working while he was gone. Crash had wanted to say something but when he searched for reasons why he needed his Dad to stay, all he found where empty holes inside his brain. There were more and more of them lately.
“Over there.” Cole snapped, pointing to a metal chair at a nearby table.
Crash walked over and sat down, the water pooling around his feet. Cole shoved a gun across to him, “Strip it.”
Crash did so, his fingers clumsy in the growing cold. Cole regarded his handiwork and then grunted, “Again.”
So he did it again. And again. And again. The last time, Crash tore his finger nail. The blood oozed up from the cuticle, dark red against the white of his skin. Cole sighed and took the firearm away.
Cole whipped around, “Where I say. Over there. Let’s go.”
Crash saw where he was gesturing, the light green glow of computer monitors filling him with dread, “You didn’t say anything about testing. You just said we were going to practice. You told my Dad we were just going to practice.”
“Yeah, well Daddy isn’t here now, is he? I am. And I say there’s testing. What do you expect, huh? Because you’re Jaxun’s kid you’re going to get some kind of special treatment?” Cole laughed humorlessly, “Look, I don’t know what lies they’ve been telling you, but you’re not the only one here who can do what you do. We’ve got others. So if you want to be let off the leash and have a chance to do whatever it is that you think you’re going to do, then you need to get through me. And I say you’re not ready. So we train. And we test. But please, by all means, if you don’t want to do it because Daddy thinks you’re just practicing, then go sit in the kiddie poll and wait for him.”
Cole leaned in closer, his finger boring a hole in Crash’s collar bone, “You’re pathetic, you know that? Worthless. Only reason you’re here is because of your Dad. I don’t even know why they bother.”
Crash’s father strode across the workroom floor, “What the hell is going on?”
Cole straightened up and shrugged lazily, “Nothing. Just some training. That’s what you brought me in for isn’t it? To train him? Prepare him?”
“And that’s what you call this?”
Crash could still feel the phantom of Cole’s finger pushing into his bone. He stood frozen, listening to the two men argue. Cole was a bully. He understood that. His Dad had taught him that. But a bully couldn’t make you do anything no matter how they made you feel. Only you could.
He said nothing, merely walked into the testing room and sat down.
Crash tried to climb out from under the immense weight of his divine avatar and found it impossible. Well, fine. Zeus was…Zeus. He hadn’t expected any less. The god was a bit much but Crash could take it.
No one can make you do anything no matter how they make you feel.
Actions mattered and there was a job to do. And he was learning more every single day. So Crash would play ball. Because he was going back. Back to where he belonged. He was going home.
He was going back to Butch.