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!
The other beings barely glanced at him as they began stripping off his street clothes and hosing him down. Crash felt a strange ripple in his chest, an almost déjà vu.
He smiled, “Great! We’re going in tanks!”
No response and Crash fell silent again. He knew it wasn’t true. There was no freedom here, no easy leap. Avatars were commodities, bought and sold in the skins of their pilots, human husks holding powers used for pain. This was the Grand Tournament. This was Arena. They would never let him fly here.
The Metaverse sends you where you need to be. The lesson had been pounded into his head as soon as he had understood what the tanks were really about. As time went on the words had seemed more and more inaccurate. Why would the Metaverse have sent him to the Shooterverse? To Talon? And not just once but time after time after time. What possible need could there have been for someone like him in a world like that?
He had figured it out.
The fight lasted no time at all. As soon as The Tempest had shown himself to be a fan of lightening, it was practically a forgone conclusion. Then again, it had always been one really. Crash felt himself radiating energy, almost enough to explode from…right before he smashed the other man into dust.
The tournaments all had the hollow ring of a familiar pantomime. A puppet show being played out for the benefit of the crowd. Crash went through the motions and his soul ached. The body count was rising, he felt it closing over his head. Why? Why him? Why this place?
Why? That one question had echoed in his mind ever since his father walked away and left him to darkness. It wasn’t until Zenda had mentioned the letters that Crash finally put the pieces together.
“Who was that?”
His father turned his head, “Who was who?”
Crash slid down in the back seat and watched the world whip by, “That other kid. The one who was staring at me.”
“Oh. Him. He’s…no one.”
“That doesn’t make sense.” Crash replied, “He’s a person. So he’s someone.”
His father sighed, “I just mean he isn’t someone for you to worry about. He’s just another…factor.”
“Does he go in the tanks too?”
“Like I do?”
“What’s his name?” Crash asked.
Crash considered this, “Heinrich what?”
He saw his father shrug in the reflecting headlights, “Does it matter?”
“I just wanted to know who named their kid Heinrich.”
“His first name isn’t Heinrich. That’s his last name. His first name is Nicholas. Nicholas Simon Heinrich. And no one named him, not really.”
Crash shifted in his seat, “What do you mean?”
His father pulled into their garage and shut off the engine, “I mean he isn’t someone’s kid. He doesn’t have a family.”
“Like an orphan?”
“Something like that.”
Crash blinked, “That’s sad. Everyone should have a family. Otherwise they’re alone. Maybe that’s why he looked so mad. Maybe he needs a friend. I could be his friend.”
His Dad smiled and opened the car door, “I wouldn’t worry about it. He’s not that important, Crash. You just keep training and don’t bother about Heinrich. At least not yet.”
The dresser finally left and Crash was alone again. Regarding his reflection in the mirror, he caught sight of his old clothes in the corner. A slip of white paper was sticking up from the inside pocket of his vest. He pulled it out, flipping it open to read the contents again.
“You remember those letters we received?”
Zenda’s words had sent a jolt of electricity through his veins. Almost without thinking, Crash had pulled his letter out and began looking at it. Glancing around he saw that none of the others had. He wondered if they had lost theirs or just forgotten them. He wondered if they ever heard that voice, whispering beside their ears, begging them to try.
“I think it’s her.”
Stories of hope rippling through the city. Tales of pilots who lived, who soared, who changed their fate. Of course it was her. In the depths of his mind, Crash recalled a moment from Butch’s memory. Of a woman sitting at a counter, staring at a milkshake, watching them with an expression he didn’t understand. A woman who disappeared after the dome came down and was not seen again. A woman who knew their names and their stories even though no one knew hers.
The tanks didn’t fix you, Crash, because there was never anything that was broken.
For the longest time that had been the line that he had returned to. He found himself repeating it when he felt his bones begin to crack, to turn to iron and stone. He whispered it when the voice in his mouth echoed his father’s. He held it close when the world and people around him threatened to swallow him whole, dragging him down into a pit of darkness. But that morning, reading the letter again, his eyes had stuck on a different part. And that was when the answer became clear.
Cole’s face was the first one he saw. Crash sputtered and floundered backward. Cole rolled his eyes and walked away, Crash cringing internally as he did so. He would pay for that, he was sure. Jeb glanced up from his computer screen but said nothing. They rarely spoke to him when his father wasn’t there. The far door opened as Crash wrapped a towel around himself. Heinrich walked in, completely naked, and headed for the tanks.
“Hi.” Crash ventured, “My name is Clarence Crash Jaxun.”
Heinrich stopped and glared, “Are you talking to me?”
Crash shrugged, “I wanted to be friends.”
Heinrich snorted and stepped closer, his nose almost touching Crash’s. It was all he could do to stop from pulling away. Heinrich smirked, “Why would I want to be friends with someone like you?”
Crash blinked and Heinrich brushed past him. Cole walked by snickering. He paused and turned back, “Maybe worry less about making friends and more about getting the job done. In the end, alone is best.”
There was a knock on his door. Crash looked up. It seemed unlikely to be any of the staff. They had already come and gone, preparing him for the great show he was about to put on for the man in the high tower.
“Who is it?”
The door slid open and in stepped the newly ripped Brony Robinson. Crash didn’t even have to think. He heard Brony gasp slightly as the wind was knocked out of him from the hug.
“How’s it going?”, he wheezed.
Brony took a deep breath, “I need you to stay out of this fight.”
Brony started talking and Crash found his eyes drifting to the strange scars on his arms. He could see the fields of energy surrounding them. His stomach turned as his worst fears were confirmed.
“I need you to level with me.” Crash said, his eyes fixed on Brony, “Can we talk without your friend listening in? From what I’ve pieced together with the help of everybody so far – ”
Brony began doing pushups as he offered Crash a protein bar, “Hold on evil voice in my head is saying something…”
“Is it Artos Caid? Is that the evil voice?”
Brony stared, “How do you know who he am?”
His heart sank. He had hoped it wasn’t true. Even now, even with the scars right in front of him, he had hoped they were wrong. “So is his plan to just try and kill him after the thing happens? Does he know that you’ll be exposed long before then?”
“You don’t need to know the plan.”, Brony returned.
“Do you think that we’re here without a plan?”
“I think that my plan is really good.”
“No.” Crash stared at Brony, hoping that Artos could see him too, “Your plan is revenge.”
For months after the funeral, Crash had laid awake at night and concocted elaborate plans to go and find his father. Missions to uncover the truth. Secret strikes that hit the very heart of those who had taken him away. And he would be able to do it too. He had bonded with an avatar whose only purpose in life had been to die. No one would be able to stop him if he tried.
Then one day, he had gotten up to find his mom and Tessa together, having breakfast. He joined them and slowly things began to change. Quiet mornings around the table, extra hugs before departing for the day. Watching retreating backs for an extra beat. Taking a breath before you gave up. And as the days became consumed by things other than tanks and oceans and death, Crash found that his nightly musings changed as well. He still thought about his father but now they were memories instead of fever dreams. He still felt the hole in his heart where his Dad had been, only now he didn’t feel himself a failure for moving on.
His mom had read him a story once. About a man who everyone thought had died, who came back to take his revenge on those who had harmed him in life. He had remembered that story the day his father resurfaced. He remembered it now, standing across from the friend that was almost taken from him.
You are enough.
Those words had sung out to him from a simple white page. They pulsed through his blood and embedded themselves in his bones. His heart swelled and his lungs filled with air. He felt his arms pull free from the concrete that had weighed them down. The flakes of salt fell away from his skin. He never liked the water much. But he did so love to fly.
“Caid is going to get you killed because he doesn’t know what the guy is all about. And I do. And we have a way we can actually, possibly, stop him and take down this whole city.”
Brony’s eyes went wide and he seemed to regard Crash anew, “How do you think you can stop him from draining your power?”
“He’s going to be too busy to drain my power, trying to put his -“
“Don’t maybe tell me about this actually, now that I’m thinking about it.” Brony interrupted, “I am so conflicted right now.”
“I know.” Crash nodded, “But if I have to burn that pilot out of you, with that fancy equipment you’ve got in your arms? I will do that to make my point.”
He knew what that could do to him. He knew what might happen. But Brony wasn’t going to be lost like this. Not while he was still here.
We’ve been apart long enough and we’ve been on our own long enough. And we’ve all been separated long enough.
Why? Why did he go to the Shooterverse? Why did he find Talon? Why Meta End and the locked doors? Why Arena? Why Antonius?
Why did his father pretend to die? Why did he leave him at the edge of nothing? Why did he let Cole train him? Why did he put the wires on his head?
Why did he hold him down?
Because. Because the Metaverse sends you where you need to be. Because you have to live in death so you can see that life matters. Because you have to find a skin suit so you recognize the repugnance of it. Because you have to leave your precious things behind so you can protect them. Because you have to go to a world that is twisted by a pilot who believes he is god because you know he isn’t one.
Because he was hard. Because he would do whatever it took regardless of who suffered. Because he wanted you to be safe. Because he wanted you to forget.
Because he wanted to make you better.
You are enough…You always have been.
The tanks didn’t make him better because there was never anything broken. And you didn’t need bones of iron or a heart of stone. You needed wings of air and a heart to carry you home.
It was enough. Salt water, blood, tears. Cole smiling, electrodes on his spine, Jeb’s face a ghostly glow. Bonds cut, Rosie crying, metal creeping up Zenda’s neck. A city of twisted daemons, shades and ghosts who thought they were still alive. But now there was something new. Something dangerous.
Brony grimaced, “I may be in a predicament, just be aware of that.”
“I understand.” Crash nodded, “I won’t let anything bad happen to you. Ever.”
Brony started. Crash seemed different now. Something about him had changed. And yet it was still him.
He hadn’t always been the competitive gamer he had come to be known as. Before the fame, before the smack talk and corporate endorsements, before he was known as Brony Robbins, Robert Munson had been a team player. Then one day he refused to leave a noob behind. He had stood his ground and asked the others to wait, to give the guy a chance to learn to play his role. He had appealed to their better nature, asking them to remember a time when they were still new. The run wasn’t that important was it? Wasn’t it better to work as a team with your friends?
He never had gotten his inventory back. It was impressive how quickly they had looted him after kicking him from the group. Almost as fast as he had when he returned the favor all those years later. Revenge had been sweet. But it had come with a cost. And rep like that was hard to shake. But maybe now…maybe Crash…
Brony headed for the door and then looked back, “I think it’s important to let you know that if you punch me to death I’ll probably still be okay for a little bit. I feel like it’s important to let you know that.”
Crash watched the door close. He turned to get ready for the fight. Looking out over the crowd he remembered the last words of the story his mother had told him, the one about the man who sought revenge even after death. It was the only part he had liked. Three simple words.
Wait and hope.