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!
Zeus broke into a laugh, “He nudged me! The little guy nudged me!”
Crash felt the push of will and eased back, allowing the god to regain his footing. No use in forcing the issue. He could have, he knew that, but it didn’t seem to matter. Zeus was pretty much capable of handling things himself, at least right now.
“Okay fine! You want to talk? Talk!”
Crash felt the pressure ease and sensed Zeus turning inward to regard him. Talk. Talk Crash. Say something.
“He has literally nothing to say.” chuckled the immortal.
Crash squared his shoulders, “Don’t worry strange and powerful beings. We are not your enemy. We’re all buddies. And since they’re all buddies and we’re all buddies, we can all be cool. I think that’s cool right?”
Somehow his words sounded more…pathetic coming from the mouth of a god. He heard the derision in Zeus’ voice as he relayed the message from his pilot. He sounded like a grownup humoring a child, pretending that they were big and strong when in reality they were wearing shoes three sizes too large.
So with nothing to offer, and not much to say, Crash leaned back and went along for the ride. He listened. It was what he had always tried to do with his avatars. To listen, to observe, to learn. To find the missing pieces and fill them in as best he could. To build a relationship and a trust. But for now, he just had to listen.
“Crash! Are you listening?”
His Dad was watching him from across the breakfast table. Crash nodded, pushing his cereal around his bowl. It was soggy now. He didn’t like it when it was soggy. He had tried to eat quickly but he always got distracted by something. That’s why his Dad always asked him if he was listening. It was such a silly question. His ears worked perfectly fine.
“Finish up, Crash.” his Mom appeared next to his shoulder, a new bowl of crisp cereal sliding into view as the old one was removed, “You don’t want to be late for your first day.”
Crash spooned some cereal into his mouth, “Are there lots of kids going to school?”
His mom nodded, “I think so. About twenty in your class. First grade is a big year.”
Crash chewed thoughtfully. Twenty kids sounded like a lot. There hadn’t been that many in his kindergarten. There were only ten. He wondered if first grade would be like kindergarten. He hoped he would make some new friends. Not just friends. Best friends.
“I’m so excited to go and meet all my new friends, Mom.”
She smiled at him and kissed the top of his head, “I’m excited too. I can’t wait to hear all about your day.”
“Just remember to listen.” his Dad said, “Keep your ears open and listen. That’s the only way you’ll ever learn.”
All at once there was a new voice in Zeus’ head. Many of them. Crash could hear them all. Fractured and varied, they questioned the god. They said his name, Crash’s own name. They felt strange and yet all at once familiar. Like he had known them for so long even though they had never met. Then from out of the pack a voice whispered close to his ear.
“Zeus, the man inside you is who you need to help you be what you’re trying to be. Please don’t squash him. Too many people have done that to him already. Crash, stay with it. You’re doing fine. You’re still the best part of your avatars.”
The voices quieted again and Crash was left in silence, save for Zeus. He was relieved that the god seemed to have no more clue as to the identities of the chorus than he did. But those words, the best part of your avatars…he had heard those words before.
If he was honest, it was Kitt Foxman and his crew who had shown him the truth. Moving from avatar to avatar, feeling their souls wrap around his own and call him kin, Crash had finally begun to accept what he was. He felt the others struggle, saw how they watched disbelieving as he adapted to each new world and new avatar as easily as breathing. At first he had believed that it was because he had had more practice than they had, more time to adjust and get to know the Metaverse. But now he wasn’t so sure. Practice seemed to offer little more than a decrease on Metaversal jet lag. The others still never found it simple to jump between souls, preferring instead to remain with the one they had been sent to. And while Crash could understand this, he moved from one to the next with an alacrity that sometimes even frightened him.
That had been the first day of knowing he was a class five. He hadn’t had the term for it and even when he did, it didn’t matter. The name was unimportant, but recognizing his place within the avatar felt like the first step toward something fateful.
Amon Rah was an altogether different experience to Zeus. The all-god was detached, yet still present. Crash found that if he pushed there was no resistance. It felt like a test, a judgement. Go on and take control, if you feel you are worthy to do so. Wherever he went, Crash felt the all seeing eyes boring into his soul. There were no secrets here.
Heimdall was writhing on the floor, crows and death enveloping him. Crash heard the screams as the eyes were pulled from his undying skull. The sound turned his stomach. He needed to end this before they went too far.
Reaching down, Crash lifted the eye of the god who could see everything and everyone and gazed into it. Heimdall could see all space and time, Amon Rah could see the truth. Anything Crash said or did now would have to be true from the very core of his soul. No deception, no lies or else it wouldn’t work.
“I send you on a quest.” Crash breathed, “Go out and seek one, Butch Baker. When you have found him bring him here. Bring him to Zeus. Only then may you activate the Bifröst again.”
He could almost see the words leave his mouth and take hold in Heimdall’s mind. The empty sockets stared back at him as the god nodded and vanished from Asgard. An impossible task. Then again, Heimdall was very good at finding things.
“Have a nice trip…my son.”
Crash climbed out of the car. His skin was still clammy from the tanks and his arms ached. There was a throbbing on the sides of his head that made him want to crawl out of his own skin. Going up the stairs behind his dad, Crash was surprised to find his mother waiting for them in the kitchen. The house was dark and still, Tessa long asleep in her room. Crash tried to read his mother’s expression but it moved too quickly. She pushed a plate of warmed food over to him and sat down, her hands wrapping around her cup of tea. Crash ate while his parents looked at everything but each other.
His food finished, Crash sat back from the table, unsure of what to do. His mother took in a slow, deep breath, “How was it?”
His father stiffened, “We went for a ride and lost track of time. You know how it goes.”
His mother made a sound that Crash didn’t recognize. She looked up with a sad smile, “I was asking about the food.”
“It was good Mom.” Crash said, “I liked it.”
She nodded, “Go get in bed. You look tired from your drive.”
Crash lay awake, listening to his parents in the kitchen. He couldn’t hear what was said, only the muted rumble of tone and emotion. He didn’t like lying to anyone, let alone his Mom. But Dad had said what they were doing was top secret. Top secret like secret agents. Like super heroes! Super heroes never revealed their true identities until the end of the movie. Or if the series was getting cancelled. They only did it when things were at their worst. And that was when they were at their best. One day, when he was better, when the pieces of him were fixed at last, then he would tell his Mom the truth. He would tell her about his secret identity, how he was really a super hero. She would be so proud. Then she would smile. A real smile, not like tonight. A happy smile, not one that looked so close to crying it hurt.
The door to his room slid open and Crash heard footsteps approach his bed. HIs mother pulled the covers up around him, tucking him in just the way he liked. She kissed his cheek and smoothed his hair. All at once Crash wished that today was the day he could share his secret. Wished that he could tell her it was going to be okay because his Dad was sending him on a quest to a dying world and only heroes go on quests.
He saw the shape of his mother begin to move from his bedside and he gently reached his hand out into the darkness. For an instant it hung there alone. He was about to retract it when he felt his mother’s fingers interlock his own.
Crash felt the world stop spinning and waited for his stomach to do the same. Opening the pod door, he staggered out. Steadying himself against the cool metal he heard Wyatt ask someone to be a little quieter.
“Is everyone all right?”
Crash’s eyes snapped up, “You don’t have to whisper, Zenda.”
The world froze and Crash suddenly realized what was so strange. He could see Zenda’s eyes, looking right into his own.
“Why…that’s weird, I’m looking right at him.”
Things were too dark. Why was it so dark? Crash removed the sunglasses and rubbed his eyes, “I am not okay.”
He heard the questions the others were asking. He found himself answering, responding, looking them in their eyes and conversing. All the while, the other half of his mind was screaming at him about the light.
“Everything is so bright right now.”
Andi blinked, “Where are your…”
“You’re not wearing them.”
“No.”, Crash held up the dark glasses and regarded them, “I have a preoccupation with people looking at my eyes. I have nice eyes. I think it’s fine.”
He was crying when his Mom came to pick him up. He knew she would be angry. The teacher was angry so why wouldn’t his mom be? The other kids hadn’t been angry. They had just laughed. A lot. Their laughing hurt his ears. He had just wanted to get away from the sound. The broom closet looked safe. He had just wanted to be left alone for a little while. Why couldn’t they just let him be alone? He would have unlocked the door if they would have waited. But now they had called his mom instead. Now it was all ruined. He had ruined it. His first day.
They didn’t speak until they got home. He had tripped and fallen on the way to the back door, his knee scrapped and bleeding. It was too much. He had no strength left. He lay in a heap and cried for all the brokenness inside and out. His mom hadn’t said a word. She just bent down and picked him up. She carried him inside, even though he was a big first grader who didn’t need to be. Because today he did. She sat him on the edge of her bed and went into the bathroom. Returning with the first aid kit, she cleaned his scrapes and put a large band-aid on top.
“Now”, she said, coming to sit beside him, “Can you tell me what happened?”
Crash shrugged and gave a hiccuping sniff, “I just wanted to be alone.”
“So you went into the closet?”
“It was quiet there. They kept laughing and it hurt my ears. I just wanted them to stop hurting my ears. And no one could look at me in the closet.”
His mom inclined her head, “Look at you?”
Crash nodded, “They were looking at my eyes. I didn’t like it.”
“You didn’t like them to look at your eyes?”
“Okay.” his mom rubbed his back, “What didn’t you like about it?”
“Because they can see me. When they look in my eyes they see me. I don’t want them to see me. Not like that. I don’t like that they can see me in my eyes.”
Crash braced himself for the laughter he knew was coming. The other kids had laughed when he had tried to explain it to them.
His mother sat back and stood up. She walked out of the bedroom and down the hall. Crash was about to call after her when she returned. In her hand was a small black box which she placed on Crash’s lap.
“That’s for you.” she said.
Crash flipped it open. A pair of dark sunglasses winked up at him. His mom smiled as she helped him put them on. Crash stood and walked to her vanity to look at his reflection in the mirror.
“These are Dad’s.”
She nodded, “Yeah, but he has lots. Don’t worry, he won’t mind.”
“Of course, you have to promise not to tell your classmates about their super powers.”
Crash spun around, “Super powers!”
“Oh yes. These are magic glasses.” she leaned closer and lowered her voice to a whisper, ‘These glasses keep anyone from seeing the real you until you decide to let them see it, if you ever do.”
She sat back, “Just ask your Dad.”
Crash sat up in bed. His body still ached in ways it never had before coming out of a Metaverse but at least the nausea had subsided. He saw the sunglasses sitting nearby and, out of habit, put them on. The world went dark but it was not as reassuring as it once was.
Eventually of course, he had figured out that the glasses were not magic. But in spite of that, his mother’s description of what they could do was no less accurate. How many years had he worn them? How many seasons passed in the same half gloom regardless of weather or time of day? How long had he seen the world in muted shadow? How much had slipped his notice, covered in darkness?
Zeus was still rumbling around his head. Crash was well aware that he was experiencing echoes of the avatar’s personality. It was both surprising and not. Focus on the parts of the avatar you like. Listen. Focus. Form a bond. The advice that had been given to him a lifetime ago still ran through his head with drill sergeant precision.
Less dreaming, son. More training. Questions later.
It hadn’t been the abilities he had admired most in Zeus. Those had been overwhelming in their sheer level of power but in the end they were just more of the same. But the confidence, the self assuredness, the ability to just be…himself. Crash couldn’t help but envy and admire that. Hearing the other pilots describe him as ‘special’ and ‘a little bit…you know’ had hurt more than he cared to admit. It was partly why he had stayed so quiet. What was there to say, especially when no one, not even the other pilots, viewed him as someone worth taking seriously.
He had wanted to be someone better for so long. At first he looked to his Dad, trying to emulate his tone, his walk, even the way he scratched his beard. It was as if he hoped that his imitation would be good enough to fool even himself. But it never took. Something about the parts of his father, the ones he understood now to be nothing like what he had believed they were as a child, made his heart seize up. The same blood ran in both their veins. Wasn’t it possible the same hardness did too?
Crash half listened as Zenda ran through the next phase of his master plan, laying out the goals and duties of everyone involved. His mind kept pushing against the frames of his glasses. He lifted them experimentally, allowing the light and the gazes of others in.
“Very comfortable with this, right this second…” he murmured, removing the glasses altogether.
He remembered the day he had almost become his dad. The first time he had felt it as an actual possibility. He had been playing video games in his room. His Mom stopped in with a sandwich, which she left beside him, and sat down on the edge of his bed to watch for a few minutes. It was a shooting game, the name of which Crash could never remember. Cole had recommended it actually. Given the nature of the Metaverse he had been training in, Cole suggested that using a video game might help “lock things in”. He encouraged Crash to treat the video game exactly the same way he would treat things in the Metaverse. Which is what Crash was doing.
His mom made an uncomfortable sound, “Do you really have to kill everyone?”
“But those people aren’t even fighting.”
“What do you mean?”
Crash brushed the hair out of his eyes, “Anyone who isn’t on my team has the potential of becoming a hostile. So better to take them out now before they become that. Decreases the chance of the mission failing or too many casualties.”
His Mom sat there for a moment. Then she stood up, walked behind the television and unplugged the set. Crash yelped and rushed forward but his mother didn’t budge. He felt himself move to push her out of the way and his stomach turned to concrete. He stumbled back a step and ducked his head, hoping she wouldn’t see what he had just been thinking.
He didn’t move.
“Crash, please look at me.”
He couldn’t. She would know.
HIs mother crouched down and looked up at him, “Sweetheart, this isn’t you. You are not this person. You are a kind person. Don’t let anyone ever change that. Ever. There will be people in this world who will tell you that being kind is weak. That soft hearts are useless. That all that matters is completing missions and doing what needs to be done, no matter the cost to yourself or those around you. But you listen to me. Hard isn’t strong. Hard breaks. Real strength bends.”
“Can I ask a question?”
Crash nodded at Andi, “Of course.”
He could see her trying, inching closer to accepting the truth. Their time with the gods and non gods of this new world was changing them all. They had brought Andi Jaymes the courage to begin to trust herself. It wasn’t all she needed…but it was a start. And he could help her. He could try.
His time with Zeus had allowed him to see how small he was but also how large. The worlds stretched out before him and he saw his place. He understood now, better than ever before. He knew what he had to do. He knew his responsibilities.
Even now, he could feel the self assuredness of an immortal coursing through him like lightening. How easy it would be to let it lift him to the heavens and carry him away. But he was not a god. Crash could see now that was the problem with the world of immortals. To live so high above everything else meant that everyone was beneath you and nothing was real, the consequences of your actions little more than swirls of dust on a game board. Seeing the big picture was one thing. Never seeing the closer view was another.
Leading by example wasn’t enough any more. Being a good person and hoping everyone else was too wasn’t enough any more. It was time to step up and be the man he had believed his father was. The man he hoped he could be. It was time to be a leader.
“They’re big. And we’re small. So we have a lot of space to move around in there. And our goals, I think, are remarkably similar, even on a level they don’t understand.” Crash held Andi’s gaze, “So nudge. Just like you always do. And they might push back a little more. They might push back a lot more. But they can’t push us all the way out. They don’t have that kind of power. They can quiet us. But they can’t push us out.”
Andi gave a watery smile as Crash continued, “I felt bad at first because I’m dictating the terms of our relationship at all times.” he paused, “Unless the Metaverse is saying do something else. And you can do at least that much. No matter how big they are, you dictate the terms of that bond and that relationship.”
Hard isn’t strong. Hard breaks. True strength bends.
“You’re not pushing against them. You’re just…offering them what you have.”
He thought he felt someone brush past him.
Was it a voice? Or just an echo?
“You’re doing so well.”
Maybe it was Zeus playing a trick.
“I’m so proud of you.”
But the voice was familiar. Even though it wasn’t.
“See? Nothing was ever broken.”