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!"
"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.
"Why did you come to me?" Chem asked.
"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."
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.
"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!"
"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.
"I’ll protect you Kasumi ." Vine smiled.
"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.
"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."
"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.
"Interesting." Order said and paused, "And why specifically were you late?"
"I uh … I came from Kitsune’s." he said.
"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.
"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."
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."
"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.
"So kind of you to join us." Gang smiled, "Did you do as I asked?"
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."
"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.
"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 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."
"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 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.
"Don’t pretend to be on my level." Superior said.
"What, because I knew about your brother?" she teased, "There’s a lot that I know. It might pay to trust me sometime."
"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.
"Oh, … I uh, I’m a world champion in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu."
"I told you a while ago." Vine sheepishly answered, "I really like plants."
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.
"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…?"
"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.
"Don’t mention it." he smiled, and glanced down at her, "You’re not going right back to the farm, are you?"
"Whenever you’re ready." he smiled, tipped his hat, and walked away towards the horizon.
"Where … were you?" Gang hazily asked.
"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."
"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."
"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.
"Are you alright?" Kasumi asked.
"That’s pretty ironic." Kasumi said.
"What?" Gang barked.
"Your screen." Kasumi replied, "It says Nozomi."
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."
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."
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.
"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."
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?