When Vincent finished eating, he left Curt and Bob in one of the many kitchens inside the sprawling headquarters. He made his way alone through the maze of halls back to the large bedroom where he had first encountered X. As the doors opened into the large room, a massive headache pounded within Vincent’s skull and he decided that after such a long day it was probably best that he get some sleep. He tightly closed his eyes and concentrated on shifting his armored suit into something more appropriate. After much effort Vincent slowly shifted into a white t-shirt and boxer shorts. Hopefully that would come easier with time and practice.
As he climbed into the bed and pulled the blankets over his body, censors in the mattress determined someone was in the bed and dimmed the lights of the room, leaving a few auxiliary lights illuminating along the walls.
Vincent laid there in the cold, sterile silence thinking about his parents. Guilt set in that he was lying to them by having an imposter take his place in their family. At the same time he thought about Alexis. The kiss she had given him earlier that day still made the boy blush at the thought of it. Regret consumed him that his first chance to finally confront Alexis with his feelings and someone else would be sitting down with her that did not even know her. Each minute he spent in the bed thinking to himself, his eyes slowly got heavier until eventually Vincent nodded off to sleep.
As the night went on, Vincent found himself in his usual dreamscape, standing in that familiar hallway once more and staring at the green doors one by one. However, this time his dream was different. Dressed in his newly acquired synthesuit he saw an ominous blue glow was emanating from his hands. Feeling his raw power surging through his body, Vincent knew that this time things would be different. Vincent ignored the green doors and continued on to the black door at end of the hallway. He cleared the yellow tape away from the door and placed his hand on the door knob. This time the door freely opened to reveal the pitch dark room that had always sat before him.
The same bright light turned on, but this thing had changed inside this room as well. One of the two black figures was lying lifeless on the floor while the second figure looked up from the fallen body at Vincent, doing nothing more but staring at the young boy.
“I know who you are!” yelled Vincent. “And I’m going to make you wish you killed me when you had the chance! You’re going to pay for what you’ve done to her!”
A low sinister laugh poured from the black shadow.
Vincent focused all of his energy into the blue glow of his hands. The room started to shake as blue smoke protruded from Vincent’s eyes. When the energy in Vincent’s hand had reached its limit, Vincent threw his arm forward blasting a bright blue ball of energy at the shadow.
The energy blast was no match for the shadow as it stopped the ball in its hands and absorbed the energy into its own body. Vincent became nervous and attempted to harness more energy, but for some reason he was completely drained of all power.
The shadow lunged at Vincent, knocking him to the floor. “Foolish boy! I am merely savouring the moment. I will kill you, but I am going to do it nice and slow. Your power will become mine, and when it does the world will bow before a god!”
The shadow raised its hand in the air and turned its fingers into five razor sharp claws. As the claws drew closer to Vincent, a blinding white light glowed from behind the shadow. The piercing light caused the body of the shadow to slowly break down into nothing as it screamed in agony. As the last particles of darkness dispersed, the bright light began to lower its presence and Vincent was finally able to open his eyes. He was in a large white space of nothingness. Vincent got to his feet and gazed upon the white limbo that stood before him.
A gentle hand touched him on the shoulder. Vincent turned around to find Trish standing behind him in a white summer dress. A tear ran down her face as she pulled her son in to give him a hug that she had waited years for. Vincent’s synthesuit slowly broke down from its black state into a black t-shirt and summer shorts.
It was as though all time stood still for Vincent as he buried his face in his mother’s shoulder. The boy began to cry as he softly said, “I have waited my whole life for this moment, but it isn’t real. I saw you in the stasis capsule.”
Trish pushed her son’s head off of her shoulder as she looked him in the eyes. “Unfortunately, this is as real as it can be for us, for now. I am still in the stasis chamber, but I am with you through the chip you ingested earlier. I have materialized myself into your subconscious through the TRACE network. My data analysis of your brain tells me that you have experienced that dream for quite some time. I have permanently removed it from your cerebral cortex so you’ll never have to deal with anything so painful again.” She brushed his tear away with her thumb. “It’s been almost sixteen years since I last saw you and I think that a visit is long overdue. Let’s go for a little walk.”
The white shifted and Vincent found himself standing with his mother in the middle of the day in what appeared to be Central Park in New York. As the two walked along the pathway, Vincent decided he was simply happy to be spending time with Trish whether it was real or not. But the guilt he’d been trying to ignore forced him to break the silence.
“This is entirely my fault, mom. Neither of us asked for this, but it’s because of my powers that you are floating in a tube hoping for a cure. How am I supposed to live with myself knowing that not only have I hurt someone, but my own mother at that?”
Trish guided Vincent over to a bench. She thought for a second before answering Vincent. “Everything happens for a reason, of that I am sure. You had no control over your actions that day. In fact, I am more sure today that your actions saved not only my life, but your grandfather’s and Bob’s. If it weren’t for you, who is to say if any of us would be alive right now?”
“I loved Jack, and I don’t understand what made him do the things he’s done. I’ve always been told that there are three sides to every story: mine, yours, and the truth. Until we know the true nature of why things have transpired in this manner, it’s best not to judge.
“I would also like to request that you just call me Trish. It takes more than giving birth to a child to be their mother. Catherine has done a wonderful job with you. She has been there since you were a baby to change you, feed you, care for you, and love you as her own son. She is your mother.”
Sitting in the simulated world with his biological mother gave Vincent the sense of completeness that he’d searched for his entire life. Aside from always wondering what his birth parents looked like, there was always a fear of rejection should the day ever come when Vincent would stand face to face with them. Those fears ceased to exist as Vincent sat with Trish on the park bench while watching the false world pass them by.
“Why do you think I was given this power? I’m not sure if I am ready to have the fate of the world in my hands. I had a life of my own up until today, and now I am just supposed to leave it all behind and risk my own life to protect billions of strangers. While I’m grateful that it brought us together, how do I know if I have made the right choice?”
Trish smiled and placed her hand over top of Vincent’s. “Fate has certainly bestowed a great gift on you. You may feel like you are doing this for strangers, but what about your parents? Alexis? What about your friends and their families? I’ve believed all along that when the time came to make such a decision you would have the compassion to make the right one. Shakespeare once said that some are born great, others achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. I have no doubt in my mind that you have made the right decision, Vincent. You certainly have had greatness thrust upon you. Your friends have spent their entire lives watching you and waiting for the day you lead them into battle against our enemies. You need to be a leader and show them that you are not afraid of the trials that lay ahead. You are my son and I believe in you.”
The buildings around the city skyline broke apart, floating into the sky as the white paradox returned. Trish stood up from the bench and looked down at her son. “It looks like our visit has come to an end. You’re starting to wake up.”
As the ground around them was dissipating before them, Vincent became hesitant. “No, don’t go! There is so much more I need to say to you. I’m not ready to go!”
Trish wrapped her arms around her son. “I am always with you, Vincent, and I can promise you that we will have more time together. You just need to be patient.”
Vincent took a step back from Trish as the white room regained its brilliance. Vincent closed his eyes only to open them and find himself lying in his bed. He sat up wondering if his encounter with Trish was real or just a figment of his imagination. A small twitch went off in his head near his inner ear as he could hear Trish’s voice, as though she was sitting right next to him. “I told you that I’m always with you.”
Vincent smiled as he lifted himself off of the bed. The night’s events made him very much awake. After pacing around the room, he decided to go for a short walk to calm his nerves. He shifted his sleep wear into the t-shirt and shorts he was wearing in his dream before opening the doors to his room to roam the hallways of Level Five.
Vincent could not help but wonder if this was in fact the right choice for him to make. His heart was filled with so much anger toward his father for not only trying to kill him, but for the state he had left Trish in. He couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed, to wonder if he would have what it would take to not only fight his own father, but should the situation ever come, to take his father’s life.
After a short time of wandering the hallways of the facility, Vincent found himself standing before the circular memorial for the Six. The impressive stone statues stood almost thirty feet in the air portraying the robed individuals. Vincent lost himself as he stared endlessly into the face of one of the statues. These people had given their lives for Vincent in the belief that he would defend the world from those who would wish to harm it. He was still puzzled as to why they would knowingly give their lives if they had the ability to see their own fate.
A voice came from behind Vincent, startling the boy. “He was my father.”
Vincent turned around to find Hank Thompson standing behind him gazing up at the memorial with pride. Vincent lowered his head with regret. “I’m sorry you lost him.”
The man moved forward as he placed his hand on Vincent’s shoulder. “He gave his life because he knew that you were destined for greatness. His death was not in vain, but for a greater cause.”
Vincent smiled as he thought back to what Trish had said earlier, about people having greatness thrust upon them and realized that she was right. This was bigger than him. The entire time he’d been at TRACE, Vincent had done nothing besides think about himself.
As he looked up at the statue again, he realized this was more than a memorial; it was a sign that he needed to accept the gifts that had been given to him and live up to the greatness that had been thrust onto him.
“The Six believed in me and saw that I would do great things, Mr. Thompson. I can promise you that I will not let them down, and that their sacrifices will not have been for nothing.”
“Everything that has happened was meant to be,” said Hank. “I can’t say that I don’t miss my father; he was a great man. Justin would have loved to have met him, and he’s also grateful that he gets to work alongside you. I’m sure you will exceed our expectations.”
Hank led Vincent back down the hallway. The moment had left Vincent caught up in other events before finally realizing the time. “So what are you doing here so late at night?”
“I’ve known about your recurring dream since the first time it had taken place. I am a psychic after all. I also sensed that Trish had come to you in that dream. Today would have been a lot for anyone to take in, so I wanted to come by and make sure that you were alright,” replied Hank.
Vincent smiled. “You really didn’t have to come by. I may be young, but I can handle it. You have other things to take care of, like your own family.”
They stopped in front of the large doors to Vincent’s room. Hank merely smiled at Vincent with confidence. “We’ve spent your entire life watching you grow from a baby to a young man, Vincent. You may see Justin, Matt, and Adam as your friends but the truth is that under the TRACE umbrella, we are all family. Family looks out for one another. If you ever need anything at all, all you need to do is ask.”
Hank patted Vincent on the shoulder, as he turned and opened the doors to his room. Vincent shifted back into his bed clothes and got into bed. The lights dimmed and the boy lay awake pondering things yet to come.
It was a bright, sunny Saturday morning in Southdale. The light began to peek its way through the curtains and into X’s eyes as he awoke from a good night’s sleep. The sound of the lawnmower came from the other side of the window as William performed his usual Saturday morning ritual. Vincent’s cellphone sat on the desk next to the bed, vibrating with anticipation from an incoming call.
As X sat up in the bed and reached for the phone panic set in as it was not a call from anyone in the phone’s directory. He opened the phone and answered with a shaky hello. An excited female’s voice greeted him through the earpiece.
“Hi, Vincent! I was sick of sitting here wondering if you were going to call me or not, so I thought I would call you instead. ”
X sat in silence for a split second before replying. “Alexis?”
A loud giggle shot through the phone. “Of course it’s Alexis, silly! Anyways, I was looking forward to seeing you today, unless you changed your mind.”
X bashfully replied, “No, certainly not. I would love to see you today.”
There was a small pause on the other end of the phone before Alexis asked, “Is everything alright, Vincent? You sound really weird.”
For a brief moment, X began to panic as he quickly chuckled. “No, I just woke up. You caught me by surprise, that’s all. When would you like to get together?”
The excited voice came back to the phone as Alexis replied, “Well, I have cheerleading practice at the sports center this afternoon, so why don’t we meet at the Enerjuice bar there in an hour? That way we have some time before I have to go.”
So far everything was going great since his arrival at the house. He agreed to meet with Alexis as she frantically hung the phone up to get ready to meet with who she thought was Vincent.
X had studied Southdale for many years and felt confident that he would have no problem getting to the Game On facility to meet Alexis for the first time. He walked into the bathroom and jumped into the shower to get himself ready for his first full day as Vincent.
As he jumped out of the shower and walked over to the sink, X realized that he had overlooked minor problems with his new situation. Lifting Vincent’s toothbrush from its holder, he examined it. “That’s disgusting!” he thought to himself. “There is no way in hell I am brushing my teeth with someone else’s toothbrush, clone or not!”
The stench of garlic lingered on his breath from the spaghetti Catherine had made for dinner the previous night. X frantically searched through the bathroom cupboard under the sink for some other way of ridding this pungent smell from his mouth. With all hope lost and time ticking away, he looked into the mirror with defeat. He placed his hand on the side mirror of the bathroom wall only to notice that it seemed a little loose. After a moment of wiggling the mirror, it opened up to reveal a hidden cabinet.
Sitting on the shelves was Vincent’s razor, hair gel, mouthwash, assorted cold medicines, and cologne. X grabbed the mouthwash accepting that it would be better than nothing as he took a large swig from the bottle. The acidic mouthwash burned his tongue as he swished the solution in his mouth. He quickly threw some of the hair gel in his hair to give him the usual Vincent look before darting into the bedroom to find something to wear.
X rummaged through the closet, frantically running out of time trying to find something appropriate to wear. He finally settled on a pair of blue jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt. X quickly ran up the stairs in an attempt to be on his way to meet Alexis. As he passed the living room, Catherine quickly asked if he would like something to eat. As he struggled to get his shoes tied he replied, “No thanks, mom. I have to meet someone. But I really need a new toothbrush if you’re going out today.”
The young boy darted out the front door quickly waving to William as he began to run down the street. X ran until his legs felt like rubber and finally found himself at Game On. He tried to catch his breath as he approached the automatic doors and headed inside. Standing in the main foyer, X could see a plethora of windows leading to a full visual of the wave pool and waterslides. As he stood in amazement at sights he had only seen on the internet, he could not help but notice how much fun it looked like everyone was having.
Interacting and having fun with people was a luxury that X had always been denied since he lived in the underground facility. The overwhelming sense of living a new open world life caused his heart to swell with joy. As X turned around to get to the Enerjuice bar he saw Justin, Matt, and Adam walking toward him. X approached the boys very excitedly. “Hey, what are you guys doing here?”
Matt pushed himself in front of Justin and Adam. “We have a tracking system in your phone and knew you were coming to meet Alexis. We wanted to make sure that you don’t do anything to disrupt Vincent’s home life.”
“What Matt should have said,” Adam shot Matt a cold look, “is that Alexis is important to Vincent. He has kind of always had a thing for her but never moved on it. Just before he came to TRACE things were finally coming together for him and Lexi. Just remember that although you are living Vincent’s life for him, the truth is you aren’t Vincent. There are certain aspects of Vincent’s life that you cannot interfere with, including physical contact with Alexis.”
“You and Vincent share a bond in the fact that you both live the same life. You two will share everything together except his side interests. So to make it simple with Lexi, it’s look but don’t touch,” Justin said as he wrapped his arm around X’s shoulder and guided him toward the Enerjuice Bar where Alexis waited for him.
Feeling some pressure from the boys, X meekly nodded his head and walked over to the juice bar. His hands were sweaty and his body trembling, a combination of excitement for meeting a female his age for the first time and the strong words he had just received. Alexis turned her head and waved when she saw X walking toward her. She sat at a table with her hair tied in the usual ponytail and wearing her Lakewood High cheerleading outfit. Her duffle bag and her pom poms lay on the floor beneath her feet.
“I was beginning to think that you had stood me up,” she said with a large smile on her face. X nervously sat down at the table with her.
“Sorry about that. I ran into my friends and couldn’t get away from them.” He chuckled as he pointed toward the three boys who nodded their heads and waved. Alexis smiled and waved back as the boys headed toward the Game On administrative offices to speak with Justin’s parents.
“I swear, it sometimes seems like you guys don’t go anywhere without each other,” laughed Alexis.
X let out a huge sigh. “You have no idea.”
The counter attendant approached the table to take their orders. Alexis ordered her usual, a strawberry banana smoothie. X, having never had the pleasure of tasting anything on the menu, asked for the same.
Alexis smiled at X. “I really appreciate everything you did for me with Cyrus again, Vince. Carrie gave his brother a real talking to so that Cyrus never bothers me again. It was really different to see you step in to defend me like that. Almost as if you were making a statement about your feelings to me,” she said as she fluttered her eyes innocently.
Completely unaware of the previous encounter with Cyrus that Vincent had endured, X simply smiled. “I was just trying to do the right thing.”
The attendant returned to the table with their drinks. X frantically dug for Vincent’s wallet when he was told by the attendant that the Thompsons had put the drinks on their tab and sent their regards.
Alexis smiled as she took a sip from her straw. “They are such nice people. It must be nice to feel so welcome, almost as though you are one of their own.”
X placed his mouth on the straw and began to slurp the drink. As he got his first taste of the concoction, his eyes watered. He shot his head back from the bitterness of the never before tasted fusion of fruits.
Alexis burst out loud with laughter. “I found it weird that you would order a smoothie. I always figured you to be a fizzy cola guy.”
After drying his eyes, X chuckled. “I’ve always thought that there was always room to try something new.”
Alexis took another small sip of her drink before stopping and looking straight at X. “The truth is, Vincent, I wanted to see you today because there was more on my mind than just what happened the other day at school. We’ve known each other since we were babies and I feel this connection to you. I like you - a lot. The fact of the matter is that I would love to spend more time with you, as friends of course. And maybe one day it might turn into something more.”
Alexis reached forward and placed her hand on top of his. He had never felt love or care like this in his entire life. His body felt like it was more alive than ever with the contact of another human being, and his cheeks turned a deep shade of red as he blushed from the young woman’s advance. He quickly grounded himself and remembered the boys warning from before.
“Being friends is good for now,” he agreed. “I like you too, Alexis, but I think that moving slow is important too.”
Alexis was happy to see that X agreed with her. “My mother and father had marital issues, and my father left before I was born. Carrie was only two and a half. I’ve grown up to see my mother have boyfriends come and go with no real stability. I just find that I have certain trust issues when it comes to men. I really care about you, Vincent, but I just don’t want to get hurt.”
X gazed into her blue eyes, emotion pulling at his heartstrings after learning about her distraught life. “I can promise you that I’ll never hurt you. I’m truly sorry that things have been so rough for you. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in a house where it feels like something is missing all the time. Take all the time that you need. In the end, I will still be here when you need me.”
The young girl’s face brightened as she stepped down from her stool, walked over to X and hugged him. “I knew you would understand, you always do.”
When X looked up from Alexis’ shoulder he saw a very angry teenager standing behind her. He recognized the face from pictures he had studied of Vincent’s friends. Standing before the two of them was a very angry and haughty Carrie Sommers. She stood arms crossed in the same outfit as her sister, pouty lips and perfectly plucked brows furrowed. “I really hope that this isn’t what it looks like.” She said in a low, disapproving tone.
Alexis quickly turned around and reached for her duffle bag and pom poms. “First of all, Vincent and I were just talking. Second, it’s none of your business who I spend my time with.”
Carrie, shocked at her sister’s reply, quickly snapped back. “It would just be nice to see you spending your time with someone who isn’t gutter trash and has real goals in life.” She sneered at X.
Not wanting to make Alexis mad and fearing what Carrie might do, X sat back saying nothing. Suddenly, Adam walked up behind X. “There is no need to get your panties in a twist, Carrie! Or are you even wearing any?”
Justin and Matt stood behind Adam, laughing as Carrie stood shocked with disgust. “God, you guys are such perverts! See, Lexi, this is why I don’t think you should hang around these idiots!”
Alexis smiled as she stepped over to X and the other boys. “Well, I happen to like these particular idiots and I can spend my time with whomever I choose. Don’t make me tell mom about how you have been sneaking out through the garage to see Paul almost every night past curfew.”
Carrie, pent up with mass frustration, simply shook her fists by her hips as she walked towards the entrance to the gymnasium. “Come on, Alexis. We are going to be late for practice, and I don’t need to spend another minute around the odd squad!”
Alexis started to follow her sister, then turned back toward X. “I shouldn’t be too long. Wait for me, and we can go to a movie later or something.”
He was about to answer when Adam butted in. “Oh great, we love movies! We’ll all go when you get out. ”
Once the gymnasium door closed behind Alexis, X turned to face the boys, who were beginning to feel more like security guards than friends.
“Boy, that Carrie looked like she was going to eat you alive!” said Matt as he laughed amongst his friends.
Justin moved forward and slapped X on the back. “I’m impressed. You’re doing a pretty good job so far. We have a while before Alexis will be out of practice, so let’s go for a walk and we’ll show you around the complex.”
As the group walked toward the administrative offices, X couldn’t help but be blown away with the events of his first day in the real world. Neither could he squash the warm feelings he felt inside for Alexis. He was smitten, and no amount of badgering or threats from his peers could convince him otherwise.
Justin opened the door and the others walked inside. As the door closed behind them, Adam blurted out, “I hope Alexis wants to see something good. I am not going to see some ridiculous chick flick.”
Back at the TRACE facility, Vincent awoke from a sleep which for the first time in ages was decent. Since his encounter with Trish, he enjoyed a dreamless sleep. He felt completely rejuvenated as Curt opened the doors and came into the room.
“I heard you had the pleasure of meeting Trish last night. I’m sure that it was long overdue for you. Today we begin your training to become a TRACE agent. Trish has scanned your biorhythms and fingerprints into our system through your synthesuit, granting you full access to the facility. I will now take you to the Limit Chamber to begin your VR training sessions with Trouble Bob.”
Vincent moved toward the door with his grandfather as his night attire shifted back into the black armor he had been wearing the previous day. The two walked to the end of the hallway to the panel for the elevator. Curt stood still this time motioning to Vincent to summon the elevator. The retinal camera scanned the boy’s eye before greeting him with a voice prompt. “Access granted. Welcome, Vincent Macleod.”
The elevator opened its doors as the two stepped inside. Vincent clearly commanded the elevator to Level Five, Logistics and Technology. As the doors closed, a feeling of comfort fell over Vincent as he realized the place that had seemed so strange to him was now starting to feel more familiar.
As the elevator came to a stop, Vincent could see Trouble Bob standing on the other side of the transparent doors eagerly awaiting their arrival. “Good morning, lad. I hope you slept well and haven’t had any trouble with the suit, which still looks smashing, by the way. It’s been a while since I’ve had the pleasure of conducting VR training, so this should be exciting. Please, follow me.”
Bob led Vincent and the colonel to the first set of doors where the handles changed from red to green, allowing them passage into the lab. Once inside, Vincent saw two structures in the room that resembled butterfly cocoons. They were completely transparent with a series of wires running along the mattress inside to the head of the device connected to a large helmet.
Vincent looked up at his grandfather. “When you say VR training do you mean like virtual reality?”
Curt smiled as he shook his head in acknowledgment. “Precisely right, my boy. Both you and Bob will each lie down inside one of these pods. Once the helmet is placed on your head, the limit chamber will push your body to its limits, showing it how to use the Eco in your body properly and effectively. While the machine does this, you will be in various virtual reality training sessions with Bob to harness and calibrate your body to use Eco.”
The scientist checked over his calibrations to make sure they were spot on while explaining part of the process. “The information overload is vast as you are learning the benefits of Eco. Your subconscious will be learning everything from fighting techniques to lock picking. The limit chamber will sculpt you into an agent in a small amount of time that would normally take decades of training. It really is quite a remarkable process so Curt will be monitoring our progress periodically from the control room in the corner.”
Bob flipped a switch on the wall, moving both limit chambers to a vertical position. Once the chambers were fully upright, they split in half, allowing access for both Vincent and Bob to enter each of their chambers. As Vincent placed his body firmly against the padded mattress, Curt came over to attach the dangling wires to Vincent’s body.
Curt moved the first wire node near Vincent’s right wrist when his suit automatically formed a circular jack for it to plug into. Vincent was amazed by the suit’s technology as Curt explained, “I forgot to tell you that this suit is advanced and learns as it goes. When it sees a situation that calls for a change, it gives itself the proper initiative to adapt to its surroundings.”
As each wire sought connection, Vincent’s suit formed the proper outlets one by one, until finally both of Vincent’s arms were connected to the machine up to his shoulders.
Bob’s machine had a different set up, allowing the wires to Velcro around his arms since he lacked the technological suit that Vincent had. As Curt closed both doors to the pods, Trouble Bob gave a thumbs up signal as the chamber moved into its original stance.
When the chamber came to a stop, Curt’s voice came over the com system asking both Vincent and Bob to place the helmets over their heads. Vincent’s body raced with excitement as he anticipated his VR training; his initial hesitance of all things new and strange now something to embrace. As the room sat silent, the screen from inside the helmet lit up and before Vincent knew it his training had officially begun.