Order , Kitsune , Superior , and Chem stood around the wooden table, patiently reviewing the plans Order had described. The outline was to find Chaos as quickly as possible, and separate him from the rest of his followers. The group would simultaneously attempt to isolate them from others based on how likely they were to harm civilians. The idea was that since Chaos was unpredictable, he could react violently to an all-out assault. Isolating all of his soldiers at once was the only way to guarantee that he couldn’t harm anyone else, but it was a nearly impossible task. Order had the schematics for the building drawn out and had assigned each member of the group an exit point. The group stared at the scattered sheets of paper while only Chem seemed to nod in agreement.
“Does everyone understand their tasks?” Order asked.
“I think I do.” Chem answered. Everyone else nodded their heads.
Key walked up the steep grassy hill with his head held low. He’d remembered that night when he’d brought Vault to the concert. The world had seemed so much friendlier then, like the stars were aligned for them to experience that moment together. Where had it gone wrong? He continued to ask himself that question, all the while dodging the answer knocking away at his head. Her uncle was right. He had been reckless. Everything he did put her in danger. The concert, sneaking out, the fire. It wasn’t that he didn’t care. He always put her first. He always did what he knew would bring them closer. But he realized that was the problem. He had always done the best things for them, but never the best things for her. He had prioritized their connection over her needs. She told him again and again, and he just hadn’t listened. He shook his head. The last thing she had said to him was ‘I think you should leave’. Maybe it was time he finally listened.
As he reached the top of the hill to see the stadium far away under the afternoon sky, he found his friends Glasses and Valentine waiting for him there. It was where they’d agreed to meet if Chaos’s event got out of hand. Key smiled, as he was deeply happy to see them both.
“I’m glad you’re alright.” Glasses said to him.
“But he’s not alright, is he?” Valentine stated.
“I recognize the face of ill-fated love etched across his screen.” Valentine asserted, “The pixels do not say it, but I know the biting sting of romance when it pierces the heart of a man, especially a man we both love and know so well. Now tell me, my conversant casanova, what writhes your troubled heart this day?”
“She told me to leave.” Key said, “Her uncle said I put her in too much danger and he’s right. I wasn’t careful enough.”
“That’s rough, man.” Glasses replied, “I’m sorry.”
“Is that all?” Valentine inquired.
“What do you mean?” Key asked.
“Is this the end of your love affair? Do five harsh words put an end to the musings of the heart?”
Valentine sat up straight. “I love this man as a dear friend.” Valentine gestured. Key smiled, “When I look at the bond between him and her, I see sparks and poetry and fireworks. I see the makings of a connection that transcends the reluctant drudgery of normal life. I see the very thing we woke up for. So no, I will never not ‘push it’, not when I think there’s a love worth saving. But you are right, I cannot insist on the feelings of another, so I will ask one question, and leave it there. How did you two meet?”
“How did we meet?” Key asked. “You know how we met.”
“Um… okay.” Key said, “We met outside of a building in-”
Key paused. “I was walking in the city in late fall. The air was cold, and I found myself walking through the rich part of the city. I used to like to go there to clear my head and dream about the future. When I looked at the big buildings, it made me optimistic that maybe I could do something important someday. Anyways, I walked past this hotel and saw this girl exiting the side of a car. I don’t know anything about cars, but it looked expensive. When she exited the car, the first thing I noticed was this giant fur coat she was wearing. It was comical how lavish it was. And when I looked closer, I saw her face, and she was beautiful. Not just pretty, but really beautiful. And I knew at that moment that I had absolutely no business talking to her. She was wearing more money than I’d make in a year, while I had on a light jacket I’d bought on clearance. And I thought to myself, how hilarious would it be if I tried. How funny would I look standing next to her? So I did. I walked over to her and asked her how she was doing. And I remember at first, she tilted her head like she didn’t know what to make of me. Then, somehow, her eyes softened and we started talking. By some miracle I got her number, and we’ve talked ever since.”
“Well of course I do!” Key declared.
“Then why aren’t you with her now?!”
“Because I screwed up!”
“Because I didn’t put her needs first!”
“Do you wish you did?”
“If you could do it again, would you?”
“Then go tell her that.”
“As much as I love indulging in praise-” Valentine patted Key on the back, “You need to go to her! Now! Tell her how you feel!”
“No one’s used your lines before.” Glasses leered.
“They’ve still never failed.” Valentine answered.
Order proceeded down the street with Kitsune , Superior , and Chem walking beside him. They began to see the casino far down the city street and the faint outline of a man standing in front. Order took a breath and said to Kitsune, “I’m very glad you were able to join us. We’ll need someone to lead the troops when this is over.”
Superior stopped in his tracks, and after a few steps, the group turned to face him. Superior drew his sword. “It’s you and me, right now!” He pointed his sword at Kitsune . “I’m not waiting any longer!”
“Switched sides, have you?” Kitsune stepped forward, “I can’t say I’m surprised.”
“I’m not on anyone’s side.” Superior answered. “I think it’s time we settle our fight from five years ago. Aren’t you a bit curious?”
“This can only end one way.” Kitsune unsheathed her sword, and shifted to a battle stance. “Let's make this fast.”
“Because now they’re fighting within his view. He knows our best cards are off the board. He’ll be less desperate and more predictable now.”
“So the plan we went over earlier was a lie?” Chem said, “I knew it was too intricate to be real.”
“What you saw was the first draft of my original plan. If circumstances were slightly changed, that would be our current path, but as you’ve said before, I can’t account for every detail.” Order slowed his pace as he could clearly see Chaos staring towards the flames. “Your part in this hasn’t changed.” he whispered to Chem. “He’s set the building on fire. Make sure you get everybody out.”
“What about you?” Chem asked.
“Like I’ve told you before, I can actually handle myself quite well. Now go.” Order dictated.
“Why did you light your building on fire?” Order asked.
“What was it you said to me when we first met?” Order asked, “I am violence?”
Chaos chuckled, “If you hide from your own primal violence behind the walls of order and structure, the people will always turn against you. Deep down, we’re all animals that don’t want to be caged. Deep down, we all want it this way.”
“Just because parts of ourselves desire freedom doesn’t mean we have to surrender to baseless anarchy. It takes discipline to live whole lives while defying our destructive instincts. But I will agree with you on one thing. Hiding from primal violence isn’t our best path. A colleague of mine recently taught me the value of decisive action, so as they say…” Order shifted his stance and raised both fists, “Square up!”
“I’ve put in the work.” Order assured.
“Let’s find out.” Chaos dashed forwards.
Hero stood alone outside the hotel. He scanned the city streets with a watchful eye. He remembered his fight with Kitsune in Gang ’s old apartment. He was so conflicted then, so unsure of who to fight and what to stand for. Now he was standing guard for a building full of people. He didn’t seek out conflict, but stood firm to guard innocent people against it. He felt more confident in his place now, and smiled at his sense of peace.
Then a woman began to walk towards him. She leaned down as she walked and he could tell that she was breathing heavily. Her head was bright orange and resembled a pumpkin. Her face contorted and was warped into a snarl. Hero was awestruck. He’d never seen that woman before. How could there be a face he didn’t recognize? Then as she wandered closer, he saw the leaves woven across her body.
“Vine?” Hero asked. He was alarmed to find her screen had changed. Her muscles were larger than he’d remembered. And he thought he saw sweat across her screen. She was either very sick, or consumed by deep anger.
“Vine!” he called out, “What’s happened to you? What are you doing here?”
Vine glared towards him as bright lights flickered in her eyes. She saw a strong man. The man from Gang ’s apartment. A bad man. He was an enemy. She saw his fists and his muscles. He wanted to fight. She needed to fight. She needed to break him.
“You’re the one who wanted this fight brother.” Kitsune stated.
“If I remember, you’re the one who wanted it last time.” Superior retorted.
“Maybe. But I don’t need this fight.” Kitsune took a step back. “Strike now, or you lose your chance.” Superior narrowed his gaze, but stood firmly in place. Kitsune took another step back.
Superior grunted and dashed towards Kitsune . He swung back his sword and struck forward with rage. Kitsune darted her sword towards him at an angle and redirected the blade to the side, then pulled the blade back and attempted to cut across his arm. Then Superior swung his blade back down perpendicular to her sword. The two stood firm as their blades pushed violently against each other. Their screens were only a foot away as they could make out the pixels inside each other’s eyes. When Kitsune’s eyes changed direction, Superior used his other hand to grab at the hilt of Kitsune’s blade. Kitsune instead reached for Superior’s blade. Then both of them backed away at the same moment and pointed their blades directly forward.
They stood six feet apart. As the moment hung in the air, they both breathed a bit faster.
Kitsune stepped forward and swung her blade in several calculated directions towards Superior . Superior alternated between forward and backward steps as he parried her blade and countered with his own fast rotations. The violent clashes of the two swords could be heard from every direction as Superior and Kitsune weaved back and forth against each other, rotating their bodies as well as their stances in order to find the slightest edge against the other.
Chaos thrashed forwards against Order’s firm stance. Order maintained a firm guard, then Chaos opened his hand and threw dirt at Order’s screen. Order’s guard dropped for only a moment when Chaos responded by kicking his right kneecap and jabbing forward at Order’s kidney. Order reeled back for a moment, and Chaos followed up by throwing a punch at Order’s face. Order narrowed his gaze and caught Chaos’s punch. Then he rotated Chaos’s fist ninety degrees to the left and jabbed at Chaos’s nerve cleft and sternum, then kicked his radial nerve.
Vine collided with Hero with overwhelming force and knocked Hero on his back. She slammed her fist at his chest and he recoiled in tremendous pain. She thrust forward another punch towards his head, but he managed to roll out of the way at the last moment. He stumbled back up and saw the dent in the concrete where her failed punch made its mark. Hero still felt the pain in his chest and raised up his arms.
Vine screamed and thrashed her arms forward. Every hit she made against his guard bruised his much larger forearms. Hero winced against the pain and forced himself not to collapse. He stood between her and the hotel. If he fell, there’s no telling what she’d do next.
Gang stood alone in the casino where he saw a small crowd of people panicking and scurrying towards the back. One by one, groups of people at tables began scurrying in every direction, and at the center of this directionless mob was Chem .
“I’ll help you.” Gang replied.
“I don’t trust you.” Chem answered. Gang recoiled and took a breath. Of course he wanted to save these people. No one hated Chaos more than him. But he knew all Chem saw was the man who threatened him to poison Kitsune . All he saw was the sum of his misdeeds. It hurt Gang that he couldn’t be trusted to do the right thing, but what felt worse, was that he knew he’d deserved it.
“There’s fire exits on the south and east sides of the building.” Gang said.
“I know.” Chem grumbled and walked off.
Gang darted his eyes around the casino floor, searching for anyone who needed help. He spotted Fear directing people. He was going around to people panicking, reassuring them, then gesturing for them to each sit down.
“Who told you the building is on fire? The Chemistry Guy ? I suppose you would trust him over the person you promised your allegiance to.”
“Fine. I’ll walk outside myself. I’ll let you know what I find.” Gang sneered.
“I know you don’t think much of me.” Fear sneered leaning over him , “But that’s about to change. Chaos said I’m his number two! Me! He told me all about you. He told me about how you joined him, and how he had high hopes for your rage and ferocity, but in the end you couldn’t get past your pathetic grudge against him. If you’d seen the bigger picture, you could have been tougher, stronger, relentless! But your time is over, and it’s my turn! I have spent my whole life being afraid, and I am done! Chaos is going to make me better than you ever were. And in the end, you’re going to be afraid of me. You all are!”
Fear walked away as Gang began to stand upright again. He breathed heavily as his mind became consumed by rage. He had heard the familiar words before, the justifications, and the ambitions that were conditioned onto him. He had heard them from the lips of Chaos , and then from his own, and Fear’s. He thought back to that night in the rain when he first joined Chaos’s gang. He remembered how wrong he was, and for the first time in a long time, reflected on how his mother would think of the kind of man he’d become. And as he saw Fear walk away, all he could think of was a cycle of violence and hate. How he’d wasted years of his life on becoming the kind of man who could defeat Chaos, while also becoming exactly who Chaos wanted him to be. He couldn’t watch Chaos consume the life of another impressionable kid. He had to take violent action and he had to do it now.
Superior and Kitsune slashed their blades in fast succession as sparks and clashes of violent tempo rang across the city street. After a few minutes though, the clashes had become quieter, more faint. They had both grown exhausted from minutes of fighting at the very peak of their physical potential. Their fighting was slower now, more tactical. Energy was a resource now that could not be wasted. Every motion was a move, and every shift, a countermove. The fight had evolved into a long game where every thrust mattered. Kitsune and Superior walked at a slow pace and circled each other, swords in hand.
“Why did you abandon us?” Kitsune asked.
“What?” Superior answered.
“We were happy, you, father and I. We trained every day. Then you left and betrayed everything he believed in. I want to know why you left.”
“Is this a tactic? Have we gone to mind games already?”
“Why?” Kitsune asked.
“I never liked father’s teachings. He would teach meditation, open-mindedness-”
“They’re valuable things.”
“Sure, but they’re not everything! There’s lots of things that matter more.”
“What’s your point?” Kitsune asked.
“Then you should have said something!”
“You don’t know what it was like!” Superior thrashed forward with his blades in violent strokes that Kitsune directed away. Superior stood on guard to her side. “You don’t understand how hard it was to wake up everyday and know that I was worse at everything our father cared about! I was smart, strong, hard-working! But none of it mattered, because I had to sit next to you everyday and know that no matter what I did, I’d always be less than.” he paused, “So I did the only thing I could do. I left. I found my own path.” Superior lunged forward again and thrust forward with a swift combination that Kitsune countered. “Do you know I’ve worked and earned more than a hundred men make in their lifetime? You can’t even fathom the scope of my accomplishments. You are nothing compared to who I am!”
Hero stood against Vine ’s onslaught. His biceps were beginning to shake and he could sense himself growing weak from absorbing each of her blows. Every time Vine threw a punch, he could feel his whole body shake. It was unlike any strength he’d seen before.
Vault started to turn back towards the door, then Vine darted in front of her and pounded her chest in primal dominance. Vault stood immobilized by fear when Hero pushed his way between them. The adrenaline had begun to kick in and Hero felt a second wind as he stood between Vine and a defenseless girl.
His mind flashed back to earlier that day as things began to move in slow motion.
“But what if they don’t have any clear weaknesses?” Hero asked.
“Every thrust they make is a weakness. Every motion is an opportunity-”
“-to exploit an opening.” Kitsune finished.
“What are you doing here?” Vault asked Key.
“I came back for you!” Key said.
“You both need to get out of here now!” Hero barked as Vine leaned back with her hands gripping the ground.
Vault and Key darted towards the other side of the hotel while Hero squared up against Vine . Vine launched herself towards Hero who ducked out of the way and managed to redirect her mid-air. She catapulted forwards and slammed her head against the ground.
Order stood firm with dirt stretched across his screen. Chaos walked around him, smiling.
“Do you know why I’ll always beat you?” Chaos jeered, “You’re too sheltered. You don’t know how to play with your hands dirty.” he lunged towards Order with the knife, smiling as Order dodged to the left and right, then as Chaos thrust to Order’s side, Order caught his wrist in his hand and punched Chaos in the throat. Chaos reeled back, but Order pressed forward and wrapped Chaos into a chokehold.
Kasumi and Birdcage rushed to the front of the hotel. “We heard she was here!” Birdcage shouted towards Hero . “Have you seen her?”. Then she saw Vine laying on the ground. “Is she alright?” Kasumi asked.
“When we fight for a common ideal instead of just ourselves,”, Order said, “We have the strength of others to lean on.”
“I don’t know what happened to you alright, but we’re going to get through this. We’re going to get you help, alright?” Kasumi said.
“I hate … urgh, I need to fight … aargh.”
“Listen to me.” Kasumi said, “You’re the best fighter I know. And you need to fight this, alright? I know it’s tempting to give into your impulses and stop fighting, but you need to keep going, alright? You were always the best of us. You just need to stay true to who you are. Don’t give in to this rage, alright? Be better than that.”
Superior thrust forward several times in a row. He breathed heavily and struck forward with large violent blows. Kitsune parried his strikes back and forth until she started to see the signs of fatigue in his breath. She then stepped forward with a seven step combination of her own. Superior deflected several of the blows, then on the seventh, her blade struck his wrist, and his blade was sent spiraling to the side. Superior stood dumbfounded as he stared at his sister.
“You’ve lost.” Kitsune stated, and walked away.
“Anyone who has succeeded in finding discipline in themselves will always defeat those who have not. Chaos is the antithesis of discipline. You cannot hope to defeat a determined people.”
Order released Chaos from his chokehold and Chaos fell to the ground. Order looked on towards the building, and was glad to find that the fire had been contained to only one part of the roof. Then he glanced back at Chaos’s unconscious body.
“When I first heard about you, a part of me actually envied you.” Order stated, “to be free of so much concern … is tempting. Every morning, I’m tempted to be a bit more like you, but at the end of the day, there’s a reason I’m standing here and you’re lying there. Every night, I have conviction in the choices I’ve made.”
Vault and Key stalked to the back of the hotel and leaned against the back wall. Vault peered up and could see her window where Key would talk to her at night. “I want to say I’m sorry.” Key said. “About everything. It was wrong of me not to think about your safety. I know, I should have known, I did know, but .. I didn’t … act on how important that was to you. That was wrong, and it was on me, and I’m sorry.”
“It’s … fine.” Vault answered. “I know you didn’t mean anything by it.”
“That’s just it.” Key said, “I mean everything by it. You matter to me so much, and I want to do completely right by you and be the kind of person you deserve. I already know you’re too good for me, so I’m going to try and close that gap.”
“Why do you think I’m too good for you?” Vault glanced at him inquisitively.
“Because you’re awesome! You’re smart and fun and sweet. You know how to have fun, but you’re also down to earth and you’re just the most fascinating person I’ve known.”
“I think it’s what Valentine wanted me to say.”
“Sure.” Key smiled.
“My what?” Key asked.
“That’s the whole point!” Vault smiled. “It doesn’t matter anyway. You already have it.”
“That can’t be true!” Gang exclaimed. “You’re joking!”
“What do you need?” Gang asked.
“I’m sorry if my uncle seemed overprotective.” Vault said.
“He was right to be.” Key replied.
“It’s just that I haven’t had a typical childhood. My parents always had money, so I always had people around me that were afraid I’d be kidnapped or something.”
“What are your parents like?” Key asked.
“What is it with that? You’ve brought that up before.”
“Oh, it’s … you know, it’s just on my mind, that’s all.”
“You’re not the only one with a guilty conscience.” Coder started, “There’s a threat coming. We just need to be ready.”
“I can’t say.” Coder said, “There’s something else. There’s a mole here.”
“As in a person?” Chem inquired, “A mole for who?”
“Why would they do that?” Chem asked.
“He’s not going to do that.” Chem stated.
“My parents were cold and distant. My father wanted me to be the best at everything, but never put in the time to see me. My mother was just cold and manipulative. She would say anything to make you listen to her.”
“I’m sorry.” Key said. “You deserve better.”
“That’s what I always liked the most about you. You never knew who my parents were. You’re the first person in my life who treated me for who I was, not who my parents are.”
“And if I knew them, I’d still treat you the same.” Key smiled.
Gang pushed against Coder’s shoulder. Coder walked a few feet ahead of him and tilted his head at the grassy hill before him. They were on the edge of the city where they’d first gathered. A few hundred feet ahead, he saw the facility where they’d all awoken from their slumber.
“Where are you taking me?” Coder asked.
“Back to the facility.” Gang stated. “There’s something you have to do for me there.”
“I understand perfectly! This needs to happen!” Gang insisted.
“Please don’t do this!” Coder begged, “We aren’t ready! Whatever they promised you, you can’t trust them!”
“Were your parents famous or something?” Key asked.
“You could say that.” Vault answered.
“Who are they?”
“You don’t need to tell me if you don’t want to.” Key corrected, “It’s not important.”
“No, it is.” Vault answered, “I’ve already told you a much larger secret.” she paused again, “You wouldn’t know my mother. She was an awful, vile person.” Vault scoffed, “I used to have this terrible nickname for her whenever she was around.”
“What was it?” Key asked.
Witch stood alone in the center of the facility. Gang shoved Coder forward through the metal doors. Coder stared at the dark metal surrounding him. He noticed each of the beds they’d fallen asleep on years ago, and dreaded to acknowledge the sight before him. Further down the corridor was a man sitting in what appeared to be a large chair elevated on top of a larger platform. He was clearly plugged in, and wore a Tamashi head with a crown resting on top. He wore a full suit and purple cape draped across his shoulders.
“The deal was not to tell everyone what’s happening.”
“Well, I got bored.” Witch sneered. “Now wake him up.”
“I understand that I’ll punch you again if you don’t do what she’s asking.” Gang threw his fist towards Coder who flinched, then Gang pulled his arm back. Coder’s fingers shook as he crawled towards the console and typed in a short command.
“And what about your father?” Key asked.
Vault hesitated and looked towards him. “He was always obsessed with his work, about being better than everyone. He wanted me to be more like him, to enjoy defeating other people, but it never felt right to me. Everyone always walked in his shadow. No one was their own person, only an extension of his power.”
Gears started rapidly turning and steam injected from the platform itself. The entire facility started moving and vibrating. The very floor beneath Gang and Coder began to shake, and they started to see movement from the man standing before them. The man opened his eyes and stared towards his opened hand and tightened it into a fist. He turned his head, glared with an intensity not even Gang had seen.
“What was his name?” Key asked.
Takahashi strode down the steps with a confident imperious gaze. Every step he took breathed an air of supremacy. He stood much taller than Gang and Witch and emanated an undeniable charisma that was felt before even speaking. He walked off of the platform and through the shaking confidence of everyone around him, it was clear that he dominated the room.
“I’m Gang …” Gang said, shaken.
“Again?” Gang asked.
Takahashi moved his hand away and smiled, “You don’t think you all woke up by accident, do you? One hundred people, all extremely good at one specific skill, with only enough electricity for you to live within a three block radius? Isn’t that convenient?”
“Because I’ve accomplished what no other man has.” Takahashi sneered, “I’ve conquered every inch and every soul of this world. But in absolute victory, the world only existed as ashes beneath my feet. So I plugged myself in, gave you a head start to build something to give me a challenge again. But make no mistake ‘Gang’, you will all be beneath my feet before long.”
“Like hell!” Gang yelled. He charged towards Takahashi and swung back his fist with all of his might, and threw it forward with all of his rage and ferocity. But something caught his fist in mid-air, something metal. Gang followed the arm to find a robotic frame standing before him. The head resembled a screen, but with jagged shapes and edges. The chest was made of complex mechanical muscle, and its legs were shaped by sharpened iron and steel. It stared towards Gang with the quiet strength of a soulless machine. Gang collapsed to the ground as it crushed his hand in its grip.
“You didn’t think I was going to do this alone, did you?” Takahashi asked.
The robot released Gang ’s fist as Gang stayed on the ground. He turned his head to see one hundred mechanical soldiers all gathered around him. They came in several different sizes, and each one had different combinations of traits.
“Meet my army.” Takahashi bragged, “All ten thousand of them.” he paused, “Meet the Machin” He stepped forward towards the door. Gang stayed down and watched more and more Machin emerge from different corners of the facility. The floor started to shake as the sound of thousands of iron feet all walked in chilling unison.