Book 1: Chapter 7

The Weight of Our Choices

As he lay still in his bed, asleep amidst the silence, Chem awoke to a gentle breeze across his face. It was a quiet, pleasant evening, but the breeze was puzzling since he’d closed his window before he fell asleep. Once the thought pierced his mind, he jolted upright and pulled away his covers. His room was sparse and empty except for the things he needed. There was a single window on the opposite wall from the bed that was open and letting in a soft breeze. Standing confidently in the frame of the window was Gang , waiting for Chem to speak.

"What are you doing here?" Chem asked, startled.

"I’m here to talk." Gang said, "nothing more."

"Well it’d better be important to wake me up in the middle of the night like this!"

Gang started walking across the room, and glanced intently towards Chem. "I’m sure you heard about what happened today."

"I didn’t have to." Chem said, "I saw it myself."

"Then you know how serious it is." Gang said, "I’m no idiot. I know there’s going to be a challenge to my authority after something like that. And I know where it’s going to come from. We’ve been watching the doctor ever since the incident. We know where she’s hiding."

"Where who’s hiding?" Chem asked.

" Kitsune ." he answered, "And whoever’s with her."

"Why did you come to me?" Chem asked.

" I remember you from the fire on the first night. You talked about chemistry. I know you’re a smart guy. I need you to give Kitsune a weakness serum."

"A what?" Chem looked up at Gang.

"Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about." Gang exclaimed, "The chemical that the Triangle Company used to put people in medically induced comas could be altered to make people drowsy and eventually pass out. I know because we would get it from those facilities to dispatch the rioters."

"Even if I theoretically knew what you were talking about, and even if I could get it." Chem answered, "Why would I?"

Gang glared at him. "Because if not me, then someone else is going to take charge. They might be good with power and they might not. But are you really willing to take that chance? Maybe you don’t like me, fine. But at least I’m trying to do the right thing here. You got it?"

"Yeah." he said, "I understand."

"Good." Gang replied, "Don’t disappoint me."

Stonks slowly opened his eyes as he felt the aches and pains in his body. He found himself in a back room somewhere. Kitsune , Kasumi , Vine, Birdcage , and Athlete were all sitting around a table. In front of him, a man who appeared to be a doctor started speaking.

"Hello?" the man asked. "Can you hear me?"

"Yeah. Yeah. I’m up." Stonks said.

"How are you feeling?" the doctor asked him.

"Conflicted." Stonks answered.

"Why conflicted?"

"When I was asleep, I was thinking about some tough questions."

"Tell me what you’re feeling. It’s perfectly normal to think deeply after something like that."

"Should I sell the rights to my life story right away, or hold out for merchandising opportunities?"

"What?" the doctor asked flatly.

"If I sell the rights to my story right away, I can capitalize on the hype of the moment and seize my place in the cultural zeitgeist! But if I wait for an offer that includes a percentile return, then I can profit from cross-promotional ventures with other platforms and better synergize with both global and domestic markets!"

The doctor turned to Kitsune , "Are you sure he didn’t hit his head?"

"I’m quite sure." Kitsune answered, turning to the pair, "Welcome back Stonks ."

"It’s good to be back. What’s the rent on this place anyway?"

Kitsune turned back to the group at the table. "Now that we know he’s alright." she started, "We can discuss our next moves." The group all glanced towards each other with stern expressions, with some beginning to nod silently. "After the violent incident yesterday, I believe it’s certain that the status quo cannot continue. Unless there are stern objections, I will lead an assault on their headquarters."

"About time." Birdcage nodded.

Kasumi nodded too. "I agree." she said. "But most of us aren’t fighters."

"Don’t worry." Kitsune said, "It’s mostly for the sake of ceremony." she glanced at her blade, "I will do the majority of the fighting. I’ve succeeded against far worse."

"I’ll protect you Kasumi ." Vine smiled.

"Oh thanks Vine." Kasumi smiled back. "I think I’ll stick behind Kitsune ."

Chem opened the door with plates of food in his hands. He walked towards the group and set the food down on the table.

"Chem!" Kasumi exclaimed, "It’s been so long. How are you?"

"Oh, hi, uh … I’ve been worse." he said shakily, "The woman at the diner said I should bring you these." he gestured towards the food.

Kitsune turned to face Chem. "How is Order handling this crisis?"

"Oh, he uh, I don’t know." Chem answered, "We’re supposed to have a meeting this morning, but I haven’t seen him yet."

"You should go." Kitsune answered. "We’re storming their base of operations at ten. We’ll welcome any assistance."

Chem nodded and backed out of the room.

"Ladies and gentleman." Kitsune turned to Athlete who smiled. "Eat well." she smiled at the group, "We have a war to win."

Chem entered the library, proceeded to the usual table and sat down. The silence of the library echoed through his consciousness. Chem, Coder , Design , and Math sat quietly at their seats, while Order stood at the head of the table.

"You’re late." Order said to him, "Again. And you’re breathing far deeper than usual. Why?"

" Gang showed up in my room last night." the others turned to him in surprise. "He asked me to poison Kitsune’s food so that their revolt against him would fail."

"Interesting." Order said and paused, "And why specifically were you late?"

"I uh … I came from Kitsune’s." he said.

"I see." Order answered, "Good work Chemistry."

"What?" Chem asked.

"Following through with Gang’s request was the correct course of action. Now we have his attention. He’ll need us to solve his problems for him again and again and again. It’s there where we will find our foothold." he smiled and turned to Chem , "Do you know when this revolt of theirs is happening?"

"In half an hour." Chem answered.

"Then I’ll be there." Order answered, "I’ll run interference if necessary. Math, do you have that analysis I asked for?"

"Yes sir, I certainly do!" Math exclaimed, lifting a thick stack of papers from underneath the table.

"Won’t you get hurt if you go out there?" Coder asked.

Order laughed, "I don’t appreciate the doubt, but I’m grateful for the concern. I can actually handle myself very well. A tactical form is in many ways, practical." he turned to Math , "hand me your files on Superior ." Math nodded and sifted through the files, then handed a stack of papers to Order. Order spread them across the table and stared at them intently.

"I’m going to head out." Chem said.

"Very well." Order answered, not looking up from his papers.

"You did the right thing." Coder said, looking straight at Chem . "We need something stable to make sure our city’s secure."

Chem started to nod then walked away.

Superior stared sternly through the window of the dry, dirty apartment. In one hand, he held the food he was rationed. He ate it slowly, barely blinking, looking straight ahead. Gang walked up to him.

"I need you ready for today." Gang said.

"I’m ready." Superior answered.

"I don’t need to tell you that if there is an assault, your sister will be at its head" he paused, "Are you strong enough to cut it off?"

Superior turned to him sharply, "Please." he scoffed, "I’ve done more than Kitsune every day of my life. While she’s been staying put in her garden, I’ve earned enough to buy our village a hundred times over. Not a moment of my time has been wasted meditating like hers." he turned to Gang , "I can handle her."

"Good." Gang said, turning to Hero who sat at the table in the center of the room eating a sandwich. "And we’ll need you in peak condition."

"I don’t know how I feel about fighting." Hero said, swallowing his food, "After yesterday … I think I might have really hurt him."

"Listen to me," Gang started, staring directly in Hero’s eyes, "I’ve told you this before. Some things feel good and other things are ‘necessary’. Do you think I joined a gang because it was fun? I joined because it was the only choice I had. Now this is the only choice you have. It’s either this or rampant instability."

"Maybe they won’t even come." Hero said. Gang sat down on the chair next to Hero and took a bite of his own sandwich.

"They’re coming," Chem answered, as he was ushered through the door by Witch . "They’re coming in about fifteen minutes."

"So kind of you to join us." Gang smiled, "Did you do as I asked?"

Chem nervously nodded.

"Perfect!" Gang gloated and turned to Hero . "And you’re on welcome duty."

Hero sulked and breathed deeply. Chaos sat in the corner of the room with Fear by his side. "Let's keep to the shadows." Chaos said. "This could get violent." he whispered to Fear, "we don’t want to get hurt."

Fifteen minutes later, Kitsune , Kasumi , Birdcage , Vine, and Athlete approached the building. It had two floors, a gray exterior that was in desperate need of repair, and a window on the second floor where Superior was staring intently from. Kitsune paused to make eye contact as they made their approach.

"Kitsune?" Kasumi asked.

"Right." Kitsune answered, "First, we’ll make our way inside. Forcing the lock won’t be an issue. Once you’re in, I want you to get behind me. You’ll be safe there. Only fight if it’s absolutely necessary."

Kasumi turned her head to see a tall figure approaching from the horizon. The man had a dirty hat with worn blue overalls.

" Farmer " Kasumi exclaimed.

"Hi there Miss Nozomi," he replied.

"Why did you come back from the farm?"

"I … felt like I was called somewhere else - here. You mentioned that you might be wrestling with the gang, and if you’re in any danger, I want to help."

"Your timing couldn’t be better." Kitsune said. "We’re confronting them right now."

Kitsune gracefully walked towards the door of the building while everyone else carefully followed. "I suggest you take a few steps backwards." she said. Everyone stepped back a few feet. Kitsune wedged her sword in the opening of the door, pulled it to the left and kicked with perfect form three inches below where her blade met the door. The frame of the door shook with force and the door slowly went ajar.

"You’re going to have to teach me how to do that." Birdcage scoffed.

Kitsune opened the door by the edge of her sword and surveyed the first floor. No one was present. She beckoned the others to follow her in as she made her way towards the staircase.

Hero started walking down the narrow staircase. "Look." he said, "I don’t want to hurt you. If you back off, we can all go back to normal alright."

"It’s difficult to go back to normal after what you did." Kitsune retorted.

"I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt him that badly."

"I know." Kitsune said, "I was there. I saw it in your eyes. You’re a good man, or at least you’re trying to be, which is why I don’t want to hurt you either." she tossed her sword to the side.

"I don’t want to kick you down the stairs." Hero said.

"I’d be rather surprised if you can lay a hand on me at all." Kitsune took one step up the stairs and brought one hand forward and the other to her side. Her sword was laying several feet away. Hero stood over six feet tall and towered over Kitsune. His frame was dense and muscular and was outwardly much stronger. "Let's get started!" she said running up the stairs.

Hero kicked forward with his left leg as Kitsune ran towards him. She dodged to her left of his attack and weaved forwards beside his leg. Hero brought his left leg back to regain his form. Kitsune punched him hard against his right rib cage. He swung towards her with his right arm. She dodged underneath his right armpit and rose back up behind his right side. She launched herself, kicking against the right side of the wall, dodging Hero’s next attack, then kicked off of the left side of the wall so she floated right above Hero’s head. She wrapped her legs around his neck and leaned forwards. Overtaken by the momentum, Hero fell forward down the stairs while Kitsune elegantly rolled off of him.

"That was quite nice." Vine said.

"Thank you." Kitsune replied.

Suddenly the front door opened, and Superior stood through the doorway.

"Get upstairs!" Kitsune shouted. Kasumi , Vine, Birdcage and Farmer all ran upstairs, stepping over the fallen Hero . Athlete stayed put. Kitsune was frozen in place. Her sword was still several feet away.

"I said to get upstairs!" she shouted at Athlete

"I know this guy can’t catch me in that suit." Athlete said. "I can at least give you some help."

"I can offer some help as well." Order said, who walked up to Superior outside the door.

"You want to get cut up too?" Superior asked Order .

"Not to them." Order corrected, "to you."

"I don’t need your help." Superior answered. "I can handle myself."

"In combat I couldn’t agree more." Order stated, "but you’re not always in combat, are you? You need stability. You need an organization that offers you the tools to thrive. You were an executive in the Triangle Company. That doesn’t come easy. I should know. If you want someone who gives you the status you might crave, you won’t find it here. You’ll find it with me."

Superior paused for a moment. Athlete started to move towards him.

Superior unsheathed his sword, and dashed forwards. Athlete dodged to the right, but Superior swung his sword at a blinding pace, cutting Athlete several times in the arm. Kitsune rolled towards her sword.

"Agh." Athlete groaned and sat down gripping the cuts on his arm.

"Don’t pretend to be on my level." Superior said.

Kitsune stared him down. Now she had her sword.

Upstairs, Gang and Witch readied themselves as Kasumi , Birdcage , Vine, and Farmer ran up the stairs.

"Where’s Chaos and Fear ?" Gang asked, readying his fists.

"Come on." Witch answered in an offensive stance, "You really counted on them to fight for you?"

"No." he answered, "Honestly I’m surprised you’re here."

"What, because I knew about your brother?" she teased, "There’s a lot that I know. It might pay to trust me sometime."

Kasumi , Birdcage , Vine and Farmer readied their fists.

"Dibs on Gang." Birdcage exclaimed.

"Still hold a grudge over those riots?" Gang sneered.

"Still punch whoever Takahashi tells you to?" Birdcage retorted.

Gang lunged forwards into Birdcage . Birdcage guarded her head with her arms. Gang punched her in the gut, and Birdcage keeled over in pain. Gang started turning his head when Farmer clocked him with a powerful right hook.

Witch readied herself against Kasumi and Vine. "You might be surprised to know that I actually know how to fight." Witch said, smiling, and lowered herself into a fighting stance. She inched towards Kasumi who started backing up. Then Vine swept Witch’s leg, knocking her off balance, then thrust forward with several well placed punches that knocked Witch hard against the ground.

"Vine?!" Kasumi shouted, "What the hell was that?!"

"Oh, … I uh, I’m a world champion in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu."

"How is that not your thing?!" Kasumi gestured towards her outfit that was dark brown covered in leaves and her screen that consisted of several interweaving vines.

"I told you a while ago." Vine sheepishly answered, "I really like plants."

Gang angrily pulled himself off of the ground. He backed towards the table and angrily took a bite of his sandwich. "This isn’t over." he barked. Chem stood quietly in the corner of the room.

Meanwhile, downstairs, Kitsune and Superior were staring each other down. Both of their swords were drawn. Their gazes were narrowed towards each other. Both of them stood perfectly still analyzing their surroundings for the perfect tactical advantage.

"Are you ready brother?" Kitsune taunted.

"With every-" Superior started, then Hero hip-checked Superior with astounding muscular force. Superior hit his head against the wall, then as he stumbled getting up, darted outside the door.

"I’m tired of waiting for the hard choices to pay off." Hero said to Kitsune , "I want to start making ones that feel right."

"Nobody move!" Gang shouted from upstairs. Kitsune and Hero turned their heads towards the stairs. Back upstairs, Gang held a knife to Kasumi’s neck! "Nobody do anything rash! I don’t need you to like me. I just need you to listen! If you don’t back off, I kill Kasumi, alright?! Now back the back the back…" Gang started to waver from side to side. His vision blurred. He started getting drowsy and tired. His arm holding the knife fell to the side and without meaning to, he sat down and fell to the ground.

Through blurred vision, he saw Kitsune calmly walk up the stairs towards him.

"How are you still upright? You should have collapsed by now. How are you…? How am I…?"

"It’s simple." Chem approached from the corner of the room. "I didn’t temper with Kitsune’s food. I tempered with yours."

"You don’t know what you’ve done." Gang whispered.

"Maybe." Chem started, standing over him. "But I’d rather live with the consequences of my actions than my inactions. I know intimately well what that’s like already. You position yourself as the lesser evil, like we should trust in you because we’re too afraid of the alternative. But if we wanted to live every day without the risk and fear of the unknown, we’d still be plugged into those machines. You act like taking charge is the only answer." Chem paused, "And in my life, that’s never been mine. Every person I spoke to today told me that this was a bad idea, but I am done regretting the choices that I didn’t make. I’ve learned that if you don't make your own choices, others will make them for you. It's easier not to choose, but it's imperative that we take charge of our own destinies. I’m making the choice that I know in my gut is the right one." he looked down at Gang , "and for once, I couldn’t be happier."

Everyone started walking outside, leaving Gang alone in the building. Gang clenched his fists but found that he didn’t have the energy to stand.

Chem left the building, smiling as he walked out the door. He appreciated the clear skies and the crisp density of the air. The world seemed fresh and open for the first time. He took a deep breath and looked down the adjacent streets. He thought he saw Artist in the distance. He smiled to himself and walked down a different street.

Kasumi and Farmer emerged from the house next to each other. "That was a good right hook." she said to him.

"Don’t mention it." he smiled, and glanced down at her, "You’re not going right back to the farm, are you?"

"I don’t think so." she answered, "I want to see things stabilize here. We don’t really know what’s next."

"Whenever you’re ready." he smiled, tipped his hat, and walked away towards the horizon.

Gang stirred himself awake as he heard footsteps. "Did I miss something?" Chaos asked as he emerged into the dark room. "You know how I hate to miss confrontations."

"Where … were you?" Gang hazily asked.

"Waiting." Chaos knelt down to Gang’s height. He tipped Gang’s head up with his finger so they saw eye to eye. "Waiting for this."

"I knew you would be vulnerable." Chaos said, "but I didn’t expect you to be so thoroughly deflated."

"If you’re going to kill me…" Gang said, "Just kill me."

"It’s like you don’t know me at all." Chaos said, "Do you know why I kept you around all of these years? Even when I knew you only wanted revenge for killing your brother."

Gang glared towards Chaos .

"Yes, I knew, all those years. That was even why I kept you around! It was so fulfilling to see the rage behind your eyes every day, quietly waiting for an opportunity that never came. The world was so dark before, so devoid of passion and rage, except for what I put into it." Chaos paused, "But things are different now. There’s new life in this world, these people … they’re so awake! All well suited to be sparks for my fire. Speaking of which," he picked up a large container of kerosine and began splashing it all around the apartment, "Watching the frustrated agony behind your eyes has been well worth the trouble."

Chaos lit a match and tossed it into the pool of kerosine that caught the walls of the building ablaze.

"The world is burning all around you and you have no one to turn to." he smiled, "I guess nothing really has changed." Chaos strode out of the building as the fire spread to more of the walls. Gang started coughing as he faded in and out of consciousness. His mind started fading as he thought he saw someone in front of him. He was carried outside of the building and he could feel his body cool as he was placed along a patch of grass on the ground.

"W-What?" Gang asked as he started to open his eyes. He saw a girl with an orange screen on her head that read ‘Nozomi’.

"Are you alright?" Kasumi asked.

"I uh, yeah." Gang used all his strength to push himself up. "Why did you help me?"

" I saw that the building was caught on fire and figured you were still inside. Are you alright?"

"No." he said, "I lost control of everything. No one will respect me now."

"That’s pretty ironic." Kasumi said.

"What?" Gang barked.

"Your screen." Kasumi replied, "It says Nozomi."

Gang growled and looked at the stars above him. "What about it?"

"At the fire." Kasumi started, "I asked you what Nozomi meant to you. It means ‘hope’. You never answered me." Gang fell silent. "I saved your life." Kasumi said, "I think it’s a fair trade."

Gang looked away towards the stars and tried to find meaning and patterns in their complex formations. "My Mom used to talk about Nozomi, about hope. She would talk about it all the time before she died."

"My Dad did the same." Kasumi answered.

"But hope didn’t pay her bills. Hope didn’t avenge my brother’s death. I did, or at least I tried." he furrowed his eyes towards the ground. "I only joined a gang because I had to, and I learned who I need to be to survive. If you don’t take charge, someone else will."

"That’s true." Kasumi said, "But I think trust is key. Trust in people, trust in each other. You can’t go about it on your own."

Gang lied down and looked up at the sky. "I only did this because I wanted to avoid someone worse. Ever since I was a kid, I was underneath someone else’s boot. The only safe thing was to make my own boot, and try to do the right thing." "I think your calling it a boot is the problem." Kasumi laid down and looked at the stars by his side. "Not everything needs to be so aggressive."

Gang grunted.

Order stared at the burning building before him. There could not have been a more perfect symbol for the fallen dynasty. Gang had been defeated, but from the rubble of his collapse Order knew he could build a new opportunity. The largest empires have been built atop the rubble of desperate people, and upon the pyre before him, Order decided to seize control for himself.

A Tamashi resembling a fireman rushed to the scene of the burning building. "Is anyone inside?" he asked Order .

"It really doesn’t matter." Order answered, entranced by the flames. The fireman glared at him, stunned.

"Beautiful isn’t it?" Chaos smiled, standing next to him.

"It does have a primal elegance doesn’t it?" Order answered.

"It's powerful alright." Chaos said, staring towards the flames. "But I prefer to see the fire in people."

"You should leave here." Order turned to face Chaos , "I’m succeeding Gang and you won’t want to be caught up in the violence."

Chaos laughed and turned to Order , "I am violence."

The pair noticed swarms of people gathering around them to witness the burning building. The flames had engulfed the building in fire and not one speck was not consumed by golden red light. Groups had gathered in from every adjacent street to watch the fire turn the building to rubble. All they could see were two men standing before them as dark silhouettes against the burning pyre behind them.

"People of Nozomi!" Order shouted, "I am Order! And quite fittingly, I will usher Nozomi into a new age of rules and prosperity! Our world must be held to the highest standards of order. How closely we follow structure, is the scale by which our society is judged! If there is any deviance, it must be corrected, by any means necessary. My hand is a firm one, but only by my hand can we achieve a city of the highest perfect Order."

"And I-!" Chaos started, "Am Chaos! Unlike what this fool will tell you, there is no light to be found following misguided leaders, and no salvation in servitude! Chaos and anarchy are the only ways we don’t surrender who we are! So choose you fools! Choose the face that will guide you in the next chapter of your lives! I won’t offer you stability or even safety, but I can promise that you’ll be free! Isn’t that always enough?"

And facing the two greater evils, standing before the burning flames, the people of Nozomi chose their sides. Who will be the dark champion of their next story, and who will be its villain?