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Genre Shift

By JamesH97 All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Humor

A story About.... Everything

I hate my life.

Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration; I find my life frustrating. Very frustrating. So much so that I occasionally come to believe that I hate it. And don’t worry, I promise this isn’t gonna be one of those stories where you just read about some loser bitching and moaning about things that aren’t bitch-and-moan-worthy for upwards of ten pages per chapter; I promise I am not that big of a-

Wait, where am I?

Okay, let’s think about this for a minute. Total darkness, but I can feel some weird fabric scratching against my face when I move, so I probably have a bag over my head. My movements are constricted, so I must be bound. And when I move I swing from side to side, I can hear chains rattling, and I feel more than a tad upside down, so most likely I’m hanging upside down from a ceiling, supported by chains that are constricting most of my body, with a bag over my head to keep me disoriented. So, ten bucks says I’m trapped in a ratty, one room log cabin in the middle of the woods at nighttime, about to be tortured by some inbred psychopath. Trust me, given what I’m usually up to, that’s fairly logical conclusion to reach. For some reason, though, I have this weird feeling like I’m being monitored. I’d say it’s probably nothing and that it doesn’t matter, but it’s never nothing, and it’ll probably become important later in the plot.

I don’t feel anything in/over my mouth, so I might as well check how alone I am.

“Hey Leo; you there, buddy?” I say, not sure how much the bag muffled my voice.

“Oh… uh, hey, Josh.  How, how long have you been awake?” I hear a timid voice ask from somewhere outside of the darkness.

“Few minutes. Hey, you in the same boat as me?”

“Define boat?”

“Hanging upside down from the ceiling by chains with bag over your head. Would that be akin to your circumstances?”

“Sounds a-about right.”

I hear a door open, coupled with some footsteps, just as Leo finishes his last sentence. A new voice enters the ether. It’s male, but high, borderline prepubescent. It says, “Awesome, you two are finally awake. Let’s get this party started!”

I already hate him.

He pulls the bag off my head. He’s fifteen, sixteen tops. He doesn’t look particularly inbred, but nobody in movies ever really does.

I look around, and see that I am, in fact, in a ratty, one room log cabin in the middle of the woods at night. And I’m hanging upside down from the ceiling by chains. Guess who’s getting ten bucks richer!

Leo is hanging out next to me (see what I did there?) There’s nothing of any particular interest in the cabin, just a futon and some lamps. Low production value, much?

“So how are you gentlemen doing on this fine evening?” Probably-not-inbred-but-I’m-not-ruling-it-out-just-yet-teenager asked us. “And if you say anything like ‘just hanging out’, I’ll keep you here and feed you nothing but my own poop until you die.”

Well, I’m screwed.

But apparently not enough to stay quiet, given that I soon find the words, “So are you gonna torture us, sacrifice us, or do something inappropriate to us?” coming out of my mouth.

“I’m sorry, what?” He responded flatly.

“Which one is it? It’s always one of those three.”

The kid rolls his eyes and says, “So you’ve seen a few movies, big whoop.”

“Oh no, you don’t understand kid; I’ve seen every movie, up close and personal.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Yeah, well, you wouldn’t.”

This put Young Nutjob (you know what, I don’t know his name, I think I’m just gonna call him that) off for a minute, apparently enough for him to turn to Leo and ask, “Is he some sort of whack-job?”

Leo, bashful as always, stuttered out, “N…not, not that I’m aware of.”

Young Nutjob, apparently losing interest, shrugged and said, “Eh, I probably don’t care anyway. Let’s get on with the dismemberment!”

He walked over to a right corner of the room and picked up an ax. Had that been there the entire time? He started walking back over to us. He stopped a few inches away from the two of us, then aimed his middle finger at me and began saying, “Eenie-meanie-miney-moe,” while pointing at Leo and I alternately.

He didn’t get to finish though. Why? Because of a DEUS EX MACHINA! God, I love those, don’t you?

The door was kicked open, and in walked…a fangirl? Wearing a Dark Phoenix V-neck. And carrying a shotgun. I think I’m in love.  

Anyway, she cocked the shotgun, aimed at Young Nutjob, and the first words out of her mouth were, “Hi-ya.”

“What the heck is this?!” YN (I’m lazy, sue me) yelled, dropping the ax and putting his hands up.

“I have similar questions myself,” I asked nonchalantly.

She looked at me and said, “I’m here to rescue you. You guys are Josh and Leo, right?”

Leo and I both nodded, which looks weird when you’re upside down, but whatever.

“I’m an actual person, like you guys,” she said excitedly, “I’ve heard rumors about you two for a while. Been on the hunt. I’m Rachel.”

“Are… are you serious? Y-you’re not another character? We’ve never met anyone else like us, we, we thought we were the only ones,” Leo lied.

“Wait, why should we believe you? How do we know this isn’t some weird meta-fictional plot to screw us over again!?” I demanded.

“Why and how on earth would I lie about something like this?” She responded.

“Fair enough.”

“COULD ONE OF YOU JERKS EXPLAIN WHAT’S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW!!!” YN boomed.

“Nothing that you’re gonna like!” Rachel shouted menacingly as she shot YN twice, one bullet per kneecap. Okay, so she still had a problem with killing the characters, even when she knew they weren’t real. She wasn’t that jaded. That’s a good sign.

I consciously filtered out YN’s screams of pain as Rachel got Leo and me down from the chains. Once we were back on the ground, and YN’s screams turned to moans, and I finally shouted at him, “Hey! Young Nutjob! Quit crying!”

“MY NAME IS CJ!”

“And how the hell was I supposed to know that? You never bothered to tell us before the attempted eviscerations!”

“SHUT UP!”

Pathetic.

“Hey is that a camera?” Leo asked, facing the back of the room.

Why so it was. A handheld camera on a tripod, red light on, aimed at the front of the cabin. Well that makes things easier.

“It’s found footage. We’re in a found footage plot,” I said simply.

“So destroy the camera?”

“Well that’s how found footage movies always end. Rachel, if you’d be so kind.”

Rachel aimed her shotgun at the camera.

“Hey, wait, can I do it?” Leo asked hopefully.

“Yeah sure, go ahead,” Rachel said, handing him the gun.

I could hear CJ behind us, screaming, “Hey what are you doing?! My mom paid good money for that camera! You can’t just destroy my stuff!”

Leo took aim and put a bullet directly through the lens.

Static.

I woke up again, on the ground in the forest. Still night. Cloudy. The dirt was cold, a couple of small stones pressing uncomfortably against my leg. AND THE FREAKING CAMERA WAS RIGHT IN FRONT OF MY FACE! It was just there, on the ground, totally intact, tripod-less, and still recording. Leo and Rachel were to my left and right. Leo was still holding the gun. Damned sequels.

“Hey guys,” I said dejectedly.

“Hey,” they both said at the same time.

We all got up off the ground.

“HEY LOSERS! GUESS WE’RE NOT FINISHED YET!” CJ screamed, bounding towards from about a hundred feet away.

“Leo,”- I began.

“Already on it,” he said, cocking the gun and shooting the camera again, this time through the middle.

More static.

We all woke on the ground again, this time on sand. I quickly gathered we were at some lake in the middle of the forest. Still dark, still cloudy, still on camera. I could hear a suspiciously CJ-esque voice screaming, “GUESS WHO, FREAKS!?” in the distance. Leo shot the camera again without even having to be asked.

Even more static.

Now imagine that situation playing out six more times in different parts of the forest, with locations including, but not limited to, a cave, a campfire, a weird satanic cult’s sacrificial ceremony, and a tree house. Horror franchises always go on way too long. But apparently after the tree house, either sequels stopped getting the green light or maybe the camera just ran out of batteries, because eventually I woke up in another plot; I was in a tiny, four-walled, room, painted beige.  There were no doors, windows, cracks in the walls, or even chips in the paint. The carpeting was red and swanky, and the camera was gone. Rachel and a still-armed Leo were lying on the floor next to me, and there was a glass of water hovering mid-air in the exact center of the room.

Well, I suppose that constitutes something I haven’t seen before.

Chapter 2

Possibility #1: I’m not a real person at all, and neither are Leo and Rachel. We’re just a bunch of ridiculously meta-fictional characters, who’ve been written as totally aware that the world around them isn’t real, but under the belief that we don’t belong here. If that’s what’s going on, whoever writes me is freaking sadistic.

Anyway…

Kurt Vonnegut once said that every character has to need something, even if it’s just a glass of water. Whoever penned this latest tour de force I’ve found myself is either a literalist or just really damn stupid.

So yeah, in case you forget: room. Four walls. No exit. Hovering glass of water at the exact center. It should be pretty obvious what the plot wants us to do.

Leo still has that shotgun. That’s weird; weapons we’ve found have never carried over to other movies before. I start to get up, but notice something else: the dirt on my clothes, a couple of bruises on my arms and legs, products of my repeatedly waking up on the ground during our recent horror misadventures, they were still there. That definitely never happened before; moving onto the next story always acted as a reset-button for wounds and clothing damage. But I was filthy and sustaining minor injuries. Leo and Rachel were in the same boat.

Rachel. She shows up and stuff starts carrying over like this. I know I sound paranoid, but I really doubt that could be a coincidence. Not when it’s breaking the only real rules I’ve known since all this crap started. Whatever this was, it wasn’t good. And I definitely don’t trust her, not yet.

“Hey Josh,” Leo started, now on his feet, “Do you need help up, I mean you’ve been crouching in that position for a few minutes now.

Goddamnit.

I quickly rejoined Rachel and Leo in the land ‘stands-on-two-legs’.

“Alright, so who wants to get the water?” I ask.

“I’ll do it,” Leo and Rachel respond simultaneously. What eager beavers.

“You can… you can go ahead,” Leo muttered nervously.

“Cool,” She responded. Cool indeed. If that thing is a trap, then I get to put off dealing with my own trust issues for a little while longer. Hooray!

She walked over to the water and put her hand out, but she was instantly knocked back by some sort of invisible telekinetic force. She hit the ground, landing on her rear. She got back up pretty much instantly and looked at Leo.

“Gun?” She asked.

“Out of… out of bullets,” was the response.

Crap.

“Let me see it anyway.”

I don’t like where this is going.

She took the gun and attempted to poke the glass with it. It stopped a few inches before the glass, and then Newton’s Third Law of Motion had its fun.

“Well, I guess this thing’s totally useless then,” She said, frustration audible in her voice. And then she screamed and threw the gun at the wall, causing the whole thing to fall forwards revealing a sleek, spotless, chrome hallway outside. Why didn’t I think of that?

A disembodied, robotic female voice came from nowhere, proclaiming, “Intelligence test: passed. captaincy of ship granted.”

“Hey, how ‘bout that?” Rachel said, the frustration replaced with satisfaction and a large grin.

“Nice work,” Leo congratulated her with a meek smile.

“Yeah,” was all I put forward.

We all walked out into the hallway, Leo picking up the unloaded gun as we moved forward. We walked until we entered what appeared to be the bridge of a UFO. I’m completely serious. It was a round room, everything made of silver metal, with rotating chairs in the center and windows covering every wall. There were bizarre control panels at the front, filled with… buttons! Big colorful buttons that lit up. Oh yeah, and the outside the aforementioned windows was space. There was that too.

I whistled.

“What is all this?” Rachel asked, “Besides the obvious, I mean.”

The robotic female voice came back and responded, “This is spaceship 1587. You were selected, teleported here, and, after passing the intelligence test, were granted captaincy.”

Rachel’s face lit up as she said, “Hooray,” with a weird fusion of joy and nonchalant-ness.

The next few minutes were spent gawking and/or running around jovially (picture us all staring at each other for a moment and then dashing about and jumping over stuff and admiring the controls and briefly reenacting a few scenes from Star Trek, that kind of thing) over the fact that we had our own spaceship. Or at least, Rachel had her own spaceship that she was apparently willing to share with us. Looks like I’m gonna have to deal with those trust issues after all.

My common sense told me I should be more mature then to go around gushing over something like this, or at the very least I should be jaded to the point where coming across stuff of this variety doesn’t really phase me anymore, but come on! It’s a freaking space ship! After an endless barrage of torture porn horror movies, this isn’t just refreshing, this is miraculous.

Anyway, back to business.

After we finished our version of the death of the Enterprise scene from The Search for Spock, Leo paused for a moment and asked Rachel, “Hey, back, back in the cabin, when you saved us from… from CJ, you said you’d been looking for us. What’d you… mean by that? I mean, given what we deal with, that could be… that could be a bit difficult.”

Good question. I’m just glad I didn’t have to ask.

Rachel responded, “I’d heard rumors from a few characters about how they’d dealt with “people like me” before, a couple of proverbial yahoos named Josh and Leo. So, every new story I wound up in, I spent the whole plot looking for you guys. Took me twenty-five tries, but here I am. Did you guys know that it’s physically impossible to go beyond the locations the plot describes?”

“Really?” Leo asked.

“Well that’s reassuring,” I said. Her supposed backstory checked out so far. Time will tell, though.

“Yeah, I mean it could be a sign about where we actually are and we’re doing, you know?” She said.

“Makes sense,” Leo said. Always so trusting, he is. Although I gotta admit, she had a point. It was certainly intriguing.

“Seriously, haven’t you guys ever tried to figure out what’s really going on?” She inquired.

“A few times, but they didn’t go anywhere. Plus, we wind up in a lot of stories where not getting killed takes a higher priority,” I offered.

“Understandable,” was her response.

But then something less understandable dawned on me.

“Hey, I just realized something; the computer said we were teleported onto the ship and then you were given captaincy, but we’re clearly on autopilot. Where are we going?” I asked.

“Good question,” Rachel said, “Computer, what is our destination?”

The electronic female voice came back, and said, “You’re destination is the planet Achillion 5,” as a holographic image of a planet, apparently solid, covered in green and blue and surrounded by rings, appeared at the center of the room.

“And why are we going there?”

“You’re mission is to assist in the destruction of the Up Risers, the rebel group attempting to resist the will of our glorious ruler, Emperor Carnicus. You will land in the North Eastern hemisphere, coordinates 85, 97, an area reported to be infested with Up Risers. Upon arrival, you will be given weapons and sent out into the field, and, taking into account the Up Risers frequent attacking of unknown assailants without first being provoked, will be engaged in battle.”

A bunch of images of aliens and robots and deserts were projected while she spoke, but none of it really registered as the realization that we were the bad guys in this story fell on top of me and knocked me to the floor.

Leo and Rachel seemed to get the idea, too, because Leo was somehow even quieter than usual, and it took Rachel a minute before she choke out, “And why have we been selected for this mission?”

“Emperor Carnicus’ selection of you and your compatriots as due to your meeting his criteria: you are not members of his master species, the Carnicoans, and, after being teleported here, and you passed the basic intelligence test. As such, deploying you into battle against the Up Risers provides a tactical advantage: the Up Risers will be drawn out into the open by your team and can then be terminated by attack drones stationed above the atmosphere, helping to eliminate the threat without any Carnicoan lives being lost in the process.”

Why does it always turn out to be worse than you thought?

“Why not just… destroy the whole planet. Get rid of the threat all at once?” Leo ask, the words fighting to escape his throat. The question’s shock value was equalized by its perfect logic.

“Achillion 5 is home to many natural resources vital to the Carnicoan Empire’s survival, most notably the radioactive energy source Unitirium, found in abundance nowhere else in the galaxy.”

Of course.

“Computer, how long until we land?” Rachel asked.

“Approximately eight minutes.”

She was spot-on, too; I could see a ringed ball of blue and green out the window.

“Computer, override autopilot and give me full control,” she demanded.

“Negative. Refusing the emperor’s orders constitutes high treason.”

“You’re not gonna be of much help to us, are you?” I finally snarked.

“Negative. Refusing the emperor’s orders is high treason.”

“Heard you the first time, bitch,” I spat out, and then I turned to Leo and said, “Give me the gun.”

“I said before, it’s empty,” he said.

“I know; give me the gun,” I persisted.

He handed it to me; I grabbed it by the barrel and then proceeded to walk over to the control panel and smashed it with the butt of the gun, creating a large dent.

“What are you doing?” Rachel asked.

“Making sure we don’t get to that planet.”

“You have no idea what that could do.”

“Yeah, but there’s no way the plot’s not gonna let us die this early on. And in general, breaking stuff makes it stop working, so have at it,” I said through my own barely concealed rage as I pulled the metal board off of the panel and started ripping wires.

“I like this plan,” Rachel said with a maniacal grin as she entered hot blooded mode, running over to another part the controls, raising her leg and bringing her high-heeled boot down on the metal, leading to another indentation. Leo was pretty quick to join the fun, too.

The voice returned, this time saying, “Cease your actions immediately. Damaging one of the empire’s ships is high treason.”

“Sorry, I’m just enjoying myself a little too much to do that,” I said.

“Very well.”

And then five fancy looking guns came out from the ceiling, still attached. Lasers, as in the deadly, cut-you-in-half kind, came out of them, chasing us via rotation as we ran away in terror.

Okay, now just about everything I’ve told you about Leo up until this point has no doubt painted a mental picture of him as a shy, timid, spineless, possibly neutered, borderline mute. The reason for this is because Leo is man action, rather than words. And that’s why it shouldn’t be surprising when I tell you that practically without hesitation, Leo grabbed the empty shot gun and threw it at one of the laser shooters, causing it to spin around and slice all of its brethren off of the roof, making them fall to the floor and cease fire. And then he ran over to the one of the damn things, picked it up, and threw it at the remaining weapon, breaking its attachment and knocking it to the ground, ending the laser storm. Oh yeah, and all that happened within the space of about thirty seconds, and he didn’t yell or say a damn thing the entire time. That’s the kind of guy Leo is.

“Sheesh! Nice work, Leo!” Rachel exclaimed in bit of a captain obvious moment.

“Don’t… uh, don’t mention it,” he responded casually.

“Oh boy,” I said, eyes widening.

“What is it?” Rachel asked.

“That,” I said, pointing my finger at the window, and, more specifically, at the incoming planet directly outside the ship that we appeared to have just entered the gravitational pull of. We were landing whether we wanted to or not.

An alarm rang out, followed by that computer damn voice (man, that thing will not shut up) saying, “Warning, landing controls disabled. Crash landing imminent in: two minutes and thirty seconds. 2:29…2:28…2:27…”

So that’s what those wires did.

Chapter 3

Possibility #2: This is all real. I am a real person who has somehow become immersed in works of unproduced fiction that resemble bad movie plots, and whatever’s keeping me here won’t let me leave. And while it’s easily the most obvious possibility, it’s far from the most likely. I guess both those facts are pretty terrifying.

Anyway...

Crashing…crashing…crashing… what’s happening? Crashing, right. I need to stop freaking out; I gotta stay calm, keep control over the situation. Alright, let’s see here, outside the windows of this goddamn spaceship, the surface of the planet Achillion 5 is approaching at an alarming rate. No brakes, no steering wheel, no landing gear. The ship itself appears to be vertical at the moment. And spinning. As much I want to say I’ve been in more desperate situations than this over the course of quote-unquote career of movie plots, well that’d just be self-deceiving, and now isn’t exactly the time for that.

Come on, come on, think; Clinging to the side of the ship for dear life, rotating with walls, holding onto one of control panels I was smashing earlier. Leo and Rachel are doing the same dance on the other side of the ship.

Something flies past me, missing my head by maybe half of an inch. It hits the window-wall. It’s one of the laser beams, one of the ones that nearly fried us earlier until Leo entered BAMF-mode. Its location leads my eyes out the window, and I realize something: we’re heading towards water, an ocean by the looks of it.

And there it is: an idea. A terrible, awful, thoroughly dumbass idea, just sitting there in the center of my brain, all by its lonesome, waiting to be forced onto the world around it. I leave it there a moment, searching the rest of my head for something even remotely better.

Plan B: I could wait until the ship lands in the water, then break a window and swim out.

No, no, that won’t work; the amount this this thing probably weighs, by the time the glass shatters, we’d be way too deep under. If I broke the glass, the ship would just fill up, and we’d drown. Or if we made it out, the swim back to the surface would be too far, and then we’d drown. Or even if we did make it, we’d probably get the bends from swimming up too fast and then die.

Alright, Plan A it is. I look over at Leo and Rachel. Rachel. If I let her die somewhere in this, she won’t be able to screw us over later. No, no, don’t be a paranoid dick- NO! Goddamnit, she is going to betray somewhere down the line. Leo might be too nice of a guy to see it, but he should! Given our history, there is no other way this could turn out, and I am not going to wind up in another situation like what happened with Grace-

No, no, no, no, I am not letting my potentially last thoughts be of that bitch.

But I look over at her one more time. Freaking conscience. Hopefully I’ll live to regret this.

“LEO! RACHEL!” I shout at them. I hold up the laser beam and continue, “I’VE GOT A REALLY BAD IDEA!”

And then, against all odds, they both hold up laser beams of their own. Nice to know we’re all on the same page.

I let go of the control panels, and fall onto the glass wall. It’s spinning counter-clockwise, so I run with it towards Leo and Rachel at my three o’clock. It gives me a burst of speed, and they’re at a position where, after a few seconds up running, I jump high, and Rachel grabs my hand pulls me up to where she and Leo are holding on.

She is not making this skepticism thing easy on me. Unless it’s all part of her evil plan to gain my trust so I’ll let my guard down and- NOT NOW! Cannot think about this now, bigger fish, so come on moron, focus.

We’re maybe twenty seconds from hitting the water, so we the strike the glass with our blunt instruments all at once. It’s strong, but soon it starts to crack. With one last triple-blow, it shatters, and we’re all sucked out into the sky.

In retrospect, there we’re a few things we failed to take into account: whether or not this planet had an atmosphere that included oxygen, how strong the gravity was, if that ocean was made of water and not… I don’t know…. hydrochloric acid. The first two didn’t appear to be problems, as I realized shortly after I started falling through the air. I was about to deal with the third one, as it dawned on me that the ocean was about three seconds from my face.

I could see Rachel had gone into a diving position; Leo looked like he was going for a cannonball. It took me too long to pick one.

I hit the water.

Ow.

I let myself sink for a few minutes, and then made my way back up to the surface. Leo and Rachel had beaten me back up.

We nodded silently while treading water. We looked around, and saw a beach maybe a mile away. We started swimming. It was long and hard and tiring, but I thought it was worth it as I collapsed onto the sand, my comrades following suit. At least, that’s what I was thinking until I looked up and saw a giant robot aiming a huge gun directly at my head

Chapter 4

Possibility #3: I’m just some raving lunatic who’s long since flown over the cuckoo's nest and none of this is real. I’m sitting in some padded cell imagining all this while counting the fibers in my straight jacket. And as much as I want to think that can’t possibly be what’s going on here, logic tells me otherwise every damn day.

Anyway…

So yeah: giant robot; in possession of a very large gun, currently an inch from my forehead. And there’s something… something really weird about the robot. It looks… like a koala. Please tell me I’m just in shock.

“You guys see that too, right?” I heard Rachel say nervously.

Dammit.

The eight foot tall koala themed robot painted hot rod red (it just keeps sounding more and more ridiculous), as it turns out, speaks, or at least emits noises from the speakers on its head, as to said, “State your names, ranks, and serial numbers.”  It even speaks English! And it sounds weirdly deep. I think I’ll refer to it as a “he” from now on.

“Can I just ask one quick question first?” I heard the words escape from my lips. God, I really CAN’T help myself.

“Fine,” he sighed. Can robots sigh?

“Are you, by any chance, called a Koalabot?”

“Affirmative.”

I just… I can’t…

I then proceeded to burst out laughing.

“Josh, what’re you doing?!” Rachel asked nervously.

“Yes, what is he doing?” Koalabot asked impatiently, “I fail to find humor in this situation.”

That makes one of us buddy! Inappropriate laughter… cannot stop myself… how do they even have koalas on this planet?

“Josh, stop,” Leo pleaded.

“Are you trying to get us killed?” Rachel snipped.

“You three have no idea what’s going on here, do you?” Koalabot asked, “Because everyone involved in this war knows that the inhabitants of this planet built the Koalabots for their resistance effort. But this one’s laughter indicates that he doesn’t. Is this accurate?”

“Yes, yes sir, Mr. Koalabot sir,” I began, slowly but surely starting to calm down, “We didn’t know about you,” and then I went straight-faced, saying, “But we have some idea of what’s going on. Apparently we’re here to kill you.”

And then, silence… which was promptly interrupted by an incoming attack drone flying directly at us and firing.

“TAKE COVER!” The Koalabot screamed. Where?! We’re on a beach!

His arm turned into a cannon and he took at the drone with one shot. Okay, badass points awarded.

“We’ll need to return to my base of operations. Come,” The Koalabot said right before his arm cannon shifted its gears a little bit and he shot us.

I woke up on the floor of a cave, belly down, my cohorts lying next to me on both sides. Damn thing must’ve stunned me. Five more Koalabots were there, as were ten… aliens, I guess. They looked basically human, just with red eyes and black stripes on their arms, but I guess those could have been tattoos.

What I assumed was the leader of the aliens stepped forward, and said, “My name is Karthank. Now, my people and I have every reason not to trust you and none to give you the benefit of the doubt. Why should we let you live?”

“I swear, we want nothing to do with this. We didn’t even know what was happening until about half an hour ago,” I said.

“On this planet, half an hour is about ten rotations around the sun.”

You have got to be kidding me.

“Now,” he started up again, “My comrades and I can either kill you all right now or spare you long enough for you to tell us anything useful about the Empire. Which will it be?”

“The Empire wants you resources?” Rachel offered hopefully.

“We already knew that, moron,” one of the aliens in the back said as she leaned against the wall of the cave, “And we know you were just sent to draw us out to be blasted. It’s why we built the Koalabots, to be bullet monkeys,” she continued, and then turned to the Koalabots and said with a grin, “No offense, guys.”

“None taken, mam,” all six Koalabots said at once.

Karthank continued, “The Empire would have no interest in negotiating for your freedom, so taking you hostage would be pointless…”

He stopped and stared to the left of me. I looked over my shoulder and saw Leo starting to grovel, a tear falling from his right eye. Please appeal to this guy’s sense of morality. Please, please, please.

“…However perhaps we could find some use for you three. We’ll talk in a few minutes, after we’ve thought this over,” Karthank finished. Well, at least he wasn’t so hardened that the sight of a grown man crying didn’t faze him anymore.

The aliens walk away, presumably deeper into the cave. All but one Koalabot followed.

The three of us rolled over from our bellies to our backs, contemplating our fates.

“What are we gonna do?” Rachel whispered, “If we’re supposed to be helping wipe these guys out, how do we finish the plot?”

“No idea,” I responded, “Way I see it, there’s two options: we help them and possibly get stuck in this plot forever, or we try to do our duties as designated villains and go after them and then die a karmic death.”

“That’s an awful plan!” She screamed under her breath.

“Yeah, I noticed!” I retorted.

“Well think of something!”

“I thought you were the one who rescued us from bad situations!”

“That was once! And you got us out of the crashing spaceship!”

“Okay, that was well-timed terrible idea, nothing more, and I’m fresh out of those. The only thing I can come up with right now is that maybe we’re not villains, we’re antiheroes who defect…”

“And somehow help the rag-tag band of resistance fighters overthrow their oppressors!” She finished my sentence.

“Yes, exactly. But how the hell are we gonna do that?”

“Uh, guys,” Leo said from on his knees, and then pointed in front of him.

Rachel and I both got up and looked. Karthank and company were backed.

“Alright. We have decided”-

And then the side of the cave exploded, revealing a squad of attack drones hovering outside, guns cocked.

Chapter Five

Chaos. Just chaos, nonstop, everywhere. The drones were firing on us all at once. The Koalabots tried to fight back, but the drones use this, this ray thing, some kind of EMP I guess, that made a noise and then the Koalabots shut down.

I ducked behind a rock. The aliens had tossed us guns, telling us to help them or be shot, and Leo and Rachel were firing like crazy, shooting these plasma blasts. Everyone kept falling, except us three. The drones didn’t seem to care about us, we weren’t in their programing. Rachel got in a few lucky shots, same with some of the aliens, making the drones explode in a flurry of nuts and bolts, but most of the Up Risers were dead by now, or on the ground bleeding out.

Rocks were falling everywhere, and a bigger one landed on my leg, and I collapsed onto my knees. Rage started pumping through my brain, and I shot in the direction of the drones almost indiscriminately, hoping for a miracle. I ran out of ammo about as fast as you’d expect doing something like that.

There was only one drone left, but most of us were gone. I saw Rachel bleeding on the ground, next to ten aliens, at least nine of which looked deceased. The drone just floated there, in the hole it had blown into the side of the cave, its fallen comrades on the ground in pieces.

Fallen comrades… where the hell is Leo?

He was gone.

Wait, no, he was behind the drone. He was running up to it. He had large stone in his hand. He must have run out of the cave’s front entrance, into the forest I could see outside, and then looped back around.

Leo jumped on top of the drone, forcing it to the ground, shoving its guns out of the way to avoid getting shot. He started smashing it with the stone. That’s my boy.

He kept bring the rock down onto it, denting it, breaking it. He stopped, and it didn’t try to fly back up. I looked at him, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much anger on his face.

I made my way up onto my feet, ignoring the pain and limping over to Rachel and the others. Leo got there first. She and Karthank, the only living alien I could see, laid there amongst the bodies and the machinery. Rachel’s arm was bleeding, and her torn shirt revealed some gashes on her side.

Karthank had a hole in his chest, and he was bleeding out, barely holding on.

It’s not real. It can’t be real. I’ve told myself this a million times, there’s no way this actually happening; I shouldn’t keep letting all the carnage get to me.

Karthank opened his mouth, looking like he was about to say something, but no words escaped his lips. He breathed his last breath, and that was that. His eyes were still opened.

What happened next… none of us were quite sure how to react. We stood there awhile-well, Leo and I stood, Rachel was on her knees. After a few minutes, she closed Karthank’s eyes.

Burying all of them took a while, mostly because we didn’t have anything to dig with, so we settled for covering all the bodies with rocks. I’m not completely sure why we did it, knowing what he know, but we weren’t going anywhere, and I don’t think any of us wanted to keep looking at the bodies. The Koalabots took even longer.

After we were done with that, we sat there in the forest, each of us backed by our own tree. Now what?

“Now what?” Rachel asked.

My thoughts exactly.

“I have no idea,” I started, “I mean we didn’t resolve the plot as far as I can tell. How the hell are supposed to get out of here?”

She looked at me for a minute, trying to decide what to say, and then settled on, “Part of me really wants yell at you, to completely chew you out, for being more concerned about that than what just happened, for being some kind of terrible, selfish person, but the other part… common sense and self-preservation, you follow?”

“Yeah, yeah, I follow,” I said, and then I looked at Leo and asked, “Leo, my friend, where do you weigh in on all this?”

“No offense, guys, but, uh, bigger fish,” he replied.

“Such as?”

“That,” he said and pointed at an incoming drone.

We all raised our guns (why did I do that? Mine’s empty.) as I muttered “wonderful.” It stopped and hovered, then scanned us, and then the remains of the cave.

Its mechanical voice said, “Resistance fighters: terminated. Last remaining terrorist cell on Achillion Five: neutralized. Commence stage two of invasion: harvest.”

You have got to be kidding me. There was no way this was happening. Had we actually screwed up THAT much?! I mean, we’d just helped open this planet up to being harvest. My God, we’d-

Static.

I came to on my feet in a completely black room, Leo and Rachel next to me. It was just a big cube of black, but with an old wooden door in front of us. We’d shifted, moved on to the next plot. All the injuries and clothing damage we’d sustained in our last adventure was still there, and we still had our alien rifles.

“Crap,” was all I could say.

“How is that plot resolution?!” Rachel raged.

“It isn’t,” I started, “and I’ve got a very annoying voice in my head telling me we’re gonna see that place again, probably a year or two into that fricking empire’s invasion of it, given our luck.”

“And then we’re gonna have help defeat the evil totalitarian regime, but in a way that’ll allow them to come back a third time to force the story into a trilogy?”

“Most likely.”

“I feel like a loser.”

“Get in line.”

“Yeah,” I heard Leo sigh under his breath.

And then some random muscular dude opened the door and shouted, “Hey! What’re you chumps doing still in here?! Get out here! Come on!”

Well, I’m terrified.

We walked out into a larger black room. Muscular men and women stood in a straight line that we fell into.

We faced an absolutely badass-looking old guy, who yelled, “Hello! My name is Knives Killingsworth! AND I AM THE ULTIMATE BADASS!”

Chapter 6

But the man who(m?) I guess we will now be referring to as Knives Killingsworth (eh, subtlety is overrated) wasn’t done talking just yet, what with him saying (more like screaming), “Now, all of you, every single one, found an ad in the local newspaper, saying that if you wish to become the Ultimate Badass, you should come here today! And better yet, you took it seriously!”

You know, given some of the facial reactions I was getting off the other people in the crowd, I think that’s best classified under ‘debatable.’

“But right now you’re probably asking yourself ‘how?! How does one become the Ultimate Badass, Mr. Killingsworth?!”

I’ll admit, my curiosity was growing… right along with the reading on the WTF-ometer.

“I’LL TELL YOU HOW!”

Oh thank God.

“You have to kill me.”

I’d make a joke about that being the quietest thing he’d said so far, but seeing how so many people’s eyes widened at the exact moment he said it, it just didn’t seem right.

“It is very simple! I am the current Ultimate Badass! If you can kill me, then you are more badass than me! Therefore, you will assume the title of THE! ULTIMATE! BADASS! It’s basic logic!”

In all seriousness, since logic has become something of luxury in my life these days, what he just said makes more sense than anything I’ve heard in a long while. I suppose that’s pretty telling.

“So, the first person to successfully end my life becomes the new Ultimate Badass. If there are still other competitors alive by this point, they may challenge the new Ultimate Badass, or they may forfeit! Unless none of you live, in which case I remain the Ultimate Badass and I host another competition next year! The only rules are that you must all remain in this building until the competition is over, even if you die! Now, let us begin!”

And then, naturally, some Grade A dumbass pulls a Swiss Army Knife out of his pocket and charges Killingsworth while screaming at the top of his lungs. The nitwit was a wiry little thing, barely looked more than twenty years old, and had probably never won a fight in his life. And Killingsworth… you know how in anime there’s almost always that one old guy, he’s in like his sixties, but can take out an entire platoon of ninjas all by himself and with nothing but a sword? He gave that sort of vibe.

So yeah, this idiot runs right up to Killingsworth, who proceeds to grab his arm and crush it with his bare hands, causing the moron to drop his own blade as he howls in pain. And then Knives grabbed the twit’s throat and… Well, what do you think happened? I’ll give you a hint: it ended with the poor bastard’s head rolling around on the floor, and the rest of his body on the other side of the room.

It was at that point I had start employing genuine willpower in order to not piss myself.

Why do I keep winding up in ultraviolent movies? I mean seriously?! I was just in kill-fest slasher movie, and then I was in a kill-fest space opera, and now I’m in this… Thing. I don’t even know.

After the shock wore off, complete with Rachel and I connecting eyes in absolute terror, and then my glancing over at Leo to see a flood of sweat falling off of him, we all looked back over at Killingsworth.

He just looked at us for a minute, not even bothering to clean the blood off his face, and then asked, “ALRIGHT! WHO’S NEXT?!”

Chapter 7

What happened next was so incredibly chaotic it’s hard for me to describe or even be completely sure of. What I can say is that a bunch of people, I think ten or twelve, charged at Killingsworth anyway hoping for strength in numbers (morons) while the rest of us ran the hell away. It was kind of a blur.

When my brain finally caught up with my body, I was on another floor. Below the one I was just on, I think. Rachel and Leo were with me, and we were in another totally white room (I’m starting to sense a pattern). They still had their weird alien guns, and I had my empty one.

“Why do we keep running into so much violence?” Rachel asked, leaning against the wall and sliding down, clearly in pain from her injuries.

There were a several ways I could’ve responded, but for whatever reason, “Metafictional sadism… if that makes any sense?” seemed like the best one.

“Not a whole lot, no.”

“How much ammo you have left?”

She eyeballed her gun and said, “Only one shot. Leo?”

“Same,” he quickly answered.

“Wonderful. So now what? I mean, it’s not like we can really get through this story line without a whole lot of killing.”

“Yeah, I noticed. We need a plan, and if possible, I’d prefer to skip the obvious ethical debate for the time being,” I said.

“Fair enough. So, possible plot resolutions, what do you think?”

“Besides the obvious?...We could break out of here, call the cops, and sic some higher authority on this place?”

“That might work!”

“Try not to sound so surprised,” I said, only half-joking. And do not start calling me out for being a dick, just don’t. I get that you can’t actually hear what she said, but it sounded condescending… and I’m paranoid and have self-esteem issues.

“I didn’t mean like that,” she glared. See, you really don’t need to call me on it, she just did.

“You just”-

“Okay, we don’t really have time for this right now, but you’ve been cold since I met you, so we might as well get this conversation over with.”

I think I saw Leo roll his eyes, but at that point, it was time to clear the air: “Fine. I don’t trust you or particularly like you.”

“Why not?”

“Are you really that naïve? You come out of nowhere, claiming to be me and Leo’s savior, you keep doing stuff for us for no apparent reason other than out of the quote-on-quote goodness of your heart, and I know basically nothing about you!”

“God, how are you this cynical!?”

“How long have you been taking part in this, this… life style we practice?! Because I’m gonna guess not very long if you’re actually blaming me for not giving someone I met while being tortured in by a psychopathic man-child the benefit of the doubt!”

“I thought we could help each other!”

“I don’t believe you!”

“Why not!?”

“Because I don’t want to get screwed over for misplacing my trust in someone AGAIN!”

She paused a moment, and asked, “Wait, what do you mean again?”

That caught me off guard. Why did I have to say that out loud? I lowered my head, then turned around and said, “You’re right; we don’t have time for this right now. Let’s look for a way out.”

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaand then one of the wannabe badasses ran into the room with a machete, apparently drawn in by our melodramatic shouting match.

Crap.

Leo, sans hesitation, shot the guy in the leg as he was shouting “I’ve got you”-, cutting him off mid-threat. He fell to the floor, howling in pain and clutching his leg.

“JESUS CHRIST WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!!!” He yelped.

“I’m not entirely sure… but there’s plenty more where it came from… bitch,” Leo said in an awkward attempt at the tough guy routine.

I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Actions speak louder than words, man.” On a side note, it might have been the first time he’s lied in his entire life.

He nodded, but kept the empty gun aimed at wannabe. Rachel followed his lead.

“How do we get out of here?!” Rachel interrogated him.

“I DON’T KNOW!”

“Well then how did you get in here?!”

“We all went to a gas station…, and we were piled onto a bus and blindfolded! How did you guys get here?!”

Rachel aimed the gun at his crotch and said, in a low voice, “Speak when spoken to.”

“Yes mam,” the wannabe gulped.

Rachel grabbed his machete and handed it to Leo.

She said to me, “Alright, recent conversations notwithstanding, your plan is still good. Only question is ‘what’d we do with him?’”

Leo hit the wannabe with the butt of his gun, knocking him out.

“Sounds like a plan,” I said.

We walked forward out of the room toward the stairs in total silence. There were bodies lining the halls, and blood on the floor. The sounds of gunshots and crashing, even floors away, consumed everything.

We made it to the stairs and started moving down. Three more wannabes ran up toward us, guns in hand in. They saw us and started to take aim, but we raised our alien BFGs (and Leo’s machete).

“Wait, wait,” one of the wannabes started, “We don’t have to do this! Just let us by, and we’ll let you by.”

“Why should we?!” another one shouted.

“Shut up!” the first one quietly yelled, “we can’t let him know where we are. If these idiots wanna go down there and get killed, that’s their loss, not ours!”

“Is Killingsworth down there?” I asked.

“Killingsworth? Yeah, he’s the least of your problems right now, guy,” the first one said, “Now, slowly.”

Leo, Rachel, and I crept past them, keeping to the left side of the staircase, while the wannabes stayed to the right. When all was said and done, they were running up the stairs, while we were walking down, now unclear on what was happening. We made it down to another floor, the door to which was open, and I checked what was outside.

Some guy, in his mid-twenties, absolutely jacked, most definitely not a wannabe, holding a pistol in one hand and a sword in the other, standing over Killingsworth, whose head was twisted 180 degrees and had three bullet holes in his chest.

It was jarring, to say the least.

He looked over at us and said, with a disturbing amount of stoicism, “We haven’t met. My name Alexander Markovick; I am the Ultimate Badass. It didn’t take me as long as I thought it would to take out Killingsworth, and quite a few of my competitors are still alive, so you can guess what comes next. It’s nothing personal, don’t worry.”

Chapter 8

We were all frozen in place. Markovick fired at us, but no bullets came out.

He looked at it and said, “Damn. Oh well.”

Rachel raised her gun and fired her last remaining shot at him, hitting him in the stomach. He cringed a moment, and then… shook it off, looking over at us and grinning.

“Interesting artillery you have there. Not very effective against kevlar, though,” he said.

“I guess not,” Rachel said. The level of defeat that she wore on her face was indescribable.

Markovick dropped the gun and ran at us, holding his sword –a katana, no less- with lethal intention. We ran back towards the stairs, slamming the door behind us. Leo jammed the door handle by sticking his gun in it. Hopefully that’d hold a few minutes. I went down three steps every time I lifted my leg. Rachel and I crashed into each other by accident, and when she fell, she landed on her cut-up arm, tearing the wound back open.

“Crap,” I said.

“I’m okay, I’m okay, we just need to keep moving,” she assured me.

I heard the door one flight of stairs above us get kicked open.

“Seconded,” I said.

We kept running, Rachel carrying her bloody arm with her free hand, drops of blood decorating the stairs. We finally reached the ground floor. I grabbed the door handle, but it wouldn’t budge. I tried to turn it, I tried to pull it, I tied kicking and slamming against the door.

Nothing.

I screamed in frustration. That may have been a bad idea, because I turned around and saw that ten or so stairs was all that lay between us and Markovick.

Sword in hand, he took his time coming down the steps. Why hurry? It’s not like he had anything to worry about.

No, not like this.

Rachel still had her gun. No idea why, but that fact may as well be put to use. I took it from her. She gave me a weird look, but I ignored it. Markovick had a katana, a sword that’s not really meant to hit anything stronger or heavier than itself. Hopefully a weird-ass alien gun made of some weird-ass alien metal fell under one of those categories.

I started, and met Markovick when he’d reached the base of the stairs. He raised his sword and brought it down towards my head. I raised the gun to block the strike and… yes! It worked. The gun held the sword where it was. I could see a dent in the sword, and even a trace of frustration on Markovick’s face.

What I failed to take into account when I made this brilliant little plan was that at this point Markovick could easily, say, kick me in the chest and knock me over, which is exactly what he did.

I fell to the floor and landed on my back a foot or two away, losing hold of the gun. I saw Leo making his way to the side of the very limited space we were in. I also saw Markovick, sword raised, directly in front of me.

Leo charged and tackled him. He held his arms down, trying to stop him from raising his katana. He was failing.

I got up and stepped on Markovick’s arm as hard as I could. Rachel got the same idea, except she stepped on his free hand, breaking his fingers.

I pressed harder and Markovick’s arm and took his blade.

“Give it to me,” Rachel said.

I raised an eyebrow.

“You and Leo need to try to break down that door so we can get out of here. If I help, I’ll just make these injuries even worse.”

“Do you know how use a sword?”

“Do you?”

“Fair enough.”

I handed it to her.

It took Leo and me about ten minutes to break down the door. The sight of it opening was immensely satisfying.

I looked over Rachel, still keeping Markovick’s sword an inch from his face. He had facial expression. A completely blank one. It was a little terrifying.

“We good?” She asked.

“Yeah.”

“Alright; but what’d we do with him?”

“We could… stab him in the leg or something,” Leo offered.

“I shot him in the shoulder twenty minutes ago and he brushed it off like it was nothing. I’m not really sure how much that’ll slow him down,” Rachel responded.

“He had armor,” I shrugged.

“I know but… still.”

“I have another idea,” Leo offered.

“What?”

Leo reached over, grabbed the gun, and smashed to butt of it into Markovick’s face, knocking him out.

“That works.”

We moved his unconscious body up a few flights of stairs, and then ran out the door. It was a miracle we didn’t run into any more wannabes. Maybe they’d all finished killing each other at that point.

We walked out the door into a parking garage.

As we did, Rachel looked over at me and said, “Thanks.”

“For what?”

“For trusting me.”

I sighed and said, “Don’t mention it.”

Teamwork. Yeah, that’s gonna take some getting used. Cautious judgment, however, is still in effect. Maybe being less skeptical is a good idea… no, no wait, no repeats. Not happening. If she screws us over, I won’t be surprised. How’s that? Rhetorical question, don’t worry.

We left the garage and entered some generic city. Three blocks later, we found a police station. We entered through the front door and…

Static.

I guess that kind of counts as a plot resolution.

I regained consciousness in what appeared to be a casual restaurant. I was clean, I didn’t have any scrapes, and I was wearing fresh clothes. What the hell?

I sat at a table, Leo and Rachel to both sides, in the same boat. From their facial expressions, I could tell something similar was going through their heads. Rachel’s injuries had even healed. What was going on? I thought… whatever this was had stopped making it easy on us. Apparently not, though.

“Something’s not right here,” Rachel said.

“I noticed,” I said.

“Well, maybe this one won’t be ultra-violent,” Leo said hopefully.

“Let’s find out,” I responded.

Chapter 9

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie/ TV show where the writers wind up contradicting themselves, almost like they don’t play by their own rules? And sometimes these dickwads go as far as to say that these contradictions are all part of some larger master plan or grand scheme that’s slowly being unfolded before your eyes and these specific retcons are revelations implemented in the name of advancing said plan, even though 90% of the time they’re just making crap up as they go along and all the continuity errors only happened because they forgot what they wrote last week? It feels a little like that right now. Somewhere out there Chris Carter is drooling.

The restaurant was relatively nice. I was inexplicably wearing a button-down shirt, as was Leo, and Rachel’s tattered V-neck had been replaced by a more formal blouse and skirt combination. We were all sitting down at circular table in the center of the restaurant, the front door visible. And like I said, all our injuries were gone. What the hell?!

Rachel pulled up the side of her top slightly, and said, “My wound is totally gone. There’s not even a scar. What is this? One minute are injuries get healed when we shift movies, then they don’t, than they do again. Is this… thing trying to keep us guessing or something?!”

“So it would appear,” I offered.

“Maybe this means there is someone actively controlling all this.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, at first they”-

A waitress arrived and said, “Hi, I’m Cameron, and I’ll be serving you tonight. Would you like to start with something to drink?”

Leo instantly answered, “Whisky. Irish. Please.”

Rachel and I said, “Same,” in unison.

The waitress said, “Okay, sounds good,” and walked away without batting an eyelash.

Rachel continued, “Okay, so they healed us so we could keep going through more plots, then they got bored of that and decided to let us heal by ourselves, give us more of a challenge, but then they bring us here, and realized our clothes and injuries would look too out of place in this setting, and corrected the problem”-

The waitress came back and said, “I’m sorry, but we’re out of Irish whiskey. Does Jack Daniel's work?”

“Yes,” we all said at the same time.

We resumed our conversation, and I said, “So what you’re saying is, there’s a Movie-God, and he’s mood-swingy?”

Rachel answered, “Like a hormonal pregnant woman.”

I gave her a weird look, and she said, “What, I’m a girl. I’m allowed to make that joke.”

I chuckled, and then asked, “Okay, but how do we fight that? Once you bring a certain g-word into a story, you kinda know who’s gonna win.”

“Maybe we”-

The waitress came back again (sheesh, the service here is just impeccable), and she carried three whole bottles of Jack Daniels, placing them on the table. I sure hope this story gave me plenty of money.

“That’s a bit excessive,” Rachel said.

“Have you decided what you want to order?” The waitress asked, ignoring Rachel’s comment.

I glanced at the menu on the table, and answered, “Uh, the steak. Medium well.”

“Same,” Leo and Rachel said together.

“Sounds good,” our waitress said, leaving and taking the menus with her.

“She’s gonna interrupt us every time one of us is about to say something important, isn’t she?” Rachel asked with a hint of irritation.

And then, naturally, the waitress came back, stating, “We’re out of steak.”

I looked at Rachel and said, “I think you’re theory is gaining major ground,” and then turned to the waitress and said, “A burger please; same for my friends.”

The waitress nodded and left again.

“Okay, we’re gonna have to choose our words carefully, or she’ll come back,” I said.

It was only a few minutes after I said that, naturally, three guys, all heavily armed and wearing ski masks, kicked down the doors to the restaurant.

The one in the middle, presumably the leader, fired a bunch of rounds from his automatic up in the air and shouted, “THIS IS A ROBBERY! EVERYONE ON THE FLOOR!”

Oh, that is so it. I can’t take this right now. This is what you come up with, writer?! Assuming you exist anyway, assuming I’m not COMPLETELY crazy and just imagining all this, you officially suck. Because even if I’m not a real person, even if I’m just some figment of your twisted imagination you wrote to be painfully self-aware, this is just pathetic. It’s the kind of half-assed, contrived B.S. that makes me sick, you know that?! And that’s on a good day. On a day like this, where things have stopped making any semblance of sense, where you, apparently have stopped even trying and keep using total idiocy to keep me and my compatriots occupied, this is where I draw the line. There aren’t a lot of ways I could really respond to this (assuming I have a choice), but I know which one sounds most appealing: I’m gonna give you a challenge. I’m gonna make this as difficult for you as possible. And I’m gonna start by doing the most blatantly moronic thing I can think of.

I picked up the unopened bottle of whisky, stood up, and threw it directly at the leader of the robbery’s masked face. Direct hit. He fell to his knees, hands on his face. He tore his ski mask off, revealing the gashes I’d given him. He was howling with pain, while the other robbers aimed their guns at me. The rest of the restaurant just stared at me, apparently still processing the sheer audacity of what they’d seen. I even heard a few gasps. Oh, those fictional little pieces set dressings were in for a show tonight.

Anyway, yeah, two automatic guns, aimed directly at my face, held by two generic looking bad guys. The key word in that sentence, however, was MY face. Leo grabbed his glass and threw it at the guy on the left. Another direct hit.

I turned to him and said, “Atta boy,” right before I grabbed Rachel’s glass and threw it at the stunned guy on the right, who was apparently caught way too off guard to do anything before the glass came into direct contact with the thin layer of fabric shielding the flesh of his face from the outside world.

Rachel grabbed my arm, and I looked over and she said, “Not that I’m opposed or anything, but the hell are you two doing?”

I said to her, without even a hint of irony or sarcasm, “I’m doing something stupid,” and then I pointed at Leo and continued, “He’s just following my example.”

I marched over to the fallen mooks and ripped his gun out of his hands, taking the safety off and pointing it at him and his comrade.

I said to them, in my most threatening voice, “You guys are gonna leave. You’re gonna get up and run- not walk, run- away with your collective tails between your collective legs. You’re gonna go as far as you possibly can and then go even further. And then, only then, do you forget this ever happened and at least attempt to do something worthwhile with your possibly nonexistent existences. Don’t ask me what the hell that means; you wouldn’t get it. So now get up, and”-

Rachel cut me off from behind with a, “Uh, Josh?”

“Not now, I’m doing a monologue!”

“Josh, seriously!”

“What?!” I said, turning around to face her but still aiming the gun at my newfound enemies.

“Weren’t there three of them?” She said, pointing at the spot where the leader had dropped to his knees. He was gone.

“Oh crap.”

Chapter 10

Is this the most deluded thing I’ve ever done? Probably, but you know what, screw logic; I’m taking charge here. And if that means doing what will most likely, given my lifestyle, wind up playing out like a Die Hard ripoff with me and mine as the Germans, then so be it.

What I am doing with my life?

I looked around; Leo and Rachel stood next to, apparently sharing my confusion as to how to proceed. But even we didn’t look quite as freaked out the living props occupying the rest of the restaurant. What’s the name of this place, anyway? I looked up and checked: Vitrioli’s. That’s not a good sign.

I looked down at the two goons, and told them, “Get up. Start running. Don’t go to the police, or you will regret it.”

They obeyed my every command.

“So what next,” Rachel asked, “Split up and search for him?”

“What? No, that’s a terrible idea.”

“I thought this was the day for terrible ideas.”

“Attempting to take control is not a terrible idea!”

“Yeah, except we’re not in control; we’re just reacting to things.”

“That… is true. But I made this bed and now I’m gonna sleep in it. And so are you two… that came out wrong.”

“I’ll just pretend you didn’t say it.”

“Thank you.”

“So, what is the plan, then?”

I thought for a moment, took the gun the other mook left behind, and said, “We need to look for him and find him before he kills someone,” I tossed Rachel the other gun, and then said to Leo, “Think you can improv a weapon?”

He responded by walking over to a table, taking a bottle of whiskey (yeah, those are just found in abundance in this story), smashing it against the table, and holding up the resulting circle of sharp broken glass by the handle, formerly a nozzle. He nodded.

“How do we even know he’s still in the building?” Rachel asked.

Leo pointed at the front door, specifically at a bell attached to the top, and said, “That bell rang when they came in. I haven’t heard it since.”

“Fair enough.”

“Great, let’s get to work,” I said. Then I looked around at the people in the restaurant, who were staring at us with expressions I don’t how to properly describe.

“You all think we’re crazy, don’t you?”

I witnessed a bit of collective nodding.

“Yeah, you know what the smart thing to do right now would be? RUN. Or call the police. Or something. Jesus.”

A shout came from above: “None of you are gonna do anything!”

The guy. The guy I hit in the face with the bottle. He was standing on the on the stairs to the second floor, aiming his BFG at us.

“Where the hell did you go?” I asked.

“To pick glass out of my face, you ass!” Yeah, he was pretty cut up, and the blood, naturally, had dried in circles around his eyes.

“That’s a fair explanation.”

“Shut up! Drop the guns, kick them away, and shut up!”

We did what he said, and I tried to start up again with, “Alright, look, just don’t hurt anyone”-

“STOP TALKING! I mean come on, I’ll want to do is rob a high end restaurant, but of course I pick the one place the city that caters to nut jobs! Hey, wait, weren’t there three of you a minute ago!”

I looked over and saw Leo was gone. This could be either really good or really, really bad.

“Where the hell did he go?!”

Sheesh, and I thought this guy was angry before. He turned around and started shouting some more stuff. I looked over at Rachel and tilted my neck towards the kitchen door about ten feet away. She looked at me like I was crazy. I could tell because she actually mouthed ‘ARE YOU CRAZY!?’ I mouthed ‘JUST DO IT!’

She looked over at the still-turned-around-guy, and then started moving towards the kitchen hurriedly. I followed suit. We managed to make it inside, and then I heard the guy getting pissed about where the hell we were.

I looked around at the terrified kitchen staff. Rachel put her finger to her lips. No sign of Leo.

“Alright, where do you think Leo went?” She asked.

“I have no idea; I figured he’d be in here. You were right, by the way.”  

“Not that I mind hearing that, but about what?”

“About not being in control, about us just reacting to things.”

“Look, I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to get existential later”-

“Will we, though?”

“What do you mean?”

“We won’t have time to get existential later. We won’t have time to do anything later, except react to more crap. Every time we try to stop and think and talk more lunacy gets thrown at us at 100 miles per hour. It never stops. We never get to stop, we’re not allowed to. I’ve known you for what, maybe a day in real time? But it feels like a million years because of all the nonstop insanity we’ve shared. I can’t even remember the last time I slept!”

“Neither can I.”

“Any suggestions?”

“Huh?”

“Any suggestions? I just thought maybe you should pitch a few given how well mine have worked out recently.”

“You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. I mean, most people couldn’t come up with anything to do in a situation like this”-

“Yeah, not to interrupt, but are you two really having a heart to heart right now?” One of the cooks said, looking over at us with confusion.

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” another cook said, “I called the cops like five minutes ago.”

“You did? Thank God,” Rachel sighed with relief.

It was then that we heard a blood curling male scream coming from the dining area. So naturally, Rachel and I ran out the door directly towards it.

Because that’s smart.

Leo was standing over the robber, the broken bottle bloodied. The robber was on the floor, the back of his shoulder bleeding. Leo wrestled the gun out his hands. That’s my boy.

But then, of course, the worst possible thing for this situation happened: blue and red lights. Blue and red lights and sirens.

A voice came through a megaphone, “This is the police! We have the building surrounded! Drop the gun, and come out with your hands up!”

Leo’s facial expression was one not just of fear, or anger, but of some bizarre fusion of two, as if they were competing for dominance on his face. Either way, he knew he, and by extension we, were completely and utterly screwed.

 Chapter 11

I seem to wind up facing the bullets quite a bit (some would say an unnatural amount) in my… line of work, let’s call it. However, it could be somewhat telling that this is the only second time the gun has been held by one of my friends. The big difference here, though, is that this time I’m relatively sure of what’s going on.

After hearing the orders of the cops outside, Leo paused for a moment to process the colossal crap-storm being thrown at him. Then he turned and aimed his BFG at Rachel and I. Please be going where I think you’re going with this.

“Don’t try anything!” He shouted, giving the impression he’d never shouted before in his life. “Don’t come in… or, or shoot. I’ve got hostages!”

He started walking down the staircase towards us, pointing the gun our way the whole time. He stopped in front of Rachel and me, putting the barrel in an optimal location for instigating bloody carnage.

He continued, struggling to keep his voice raised and sound aggressive, “I’m taking these two to the back! And I’m leaving with them! If you want them to live, you’ll let me go!”

He had us turn around and move towards the back of the restaurant. We went into the kitchen. Leo loudly told the staff to get into dining area, and they listened.

When it was all clear, I said to Leo, “Alright, I’m impressed. Where do we go from here, though?”

“I’m, uh, I’m st- still working on that,” He responded.

“I know the feeling,” I shrugged.

“Let’s try to examine the situation, shall we? What do we know?” Rachel asked.

“That we’re doomed?” I replied.

“Besides that; how do we get un-doomed?”

“How do we usually do that?” Leo asked.

“A combination of dumb luck and me coming up with some half-assed plan,” I responded.

“We’ve been in worse situations than this,” Leo offered.

“Like when?!”

“Like… that time we were trapped inside a bomb shelter filled with Nazi zombies while it was being flooded with radioactive sludge.”

“Oh yeah, that,” I recalled, then turned to Rachel, who wore and inquisitive look on her face, and said, “We’ll tell you all about it if we survive this. But Leo’s right; we have been in much more convoluted and seemingly-hopeless situations than this,” and then as the implications of that fact dawned on me, I had one of my moments of self-awareness, and laughed, “Jesus Christ, at this rate I’m never gonna be able to live a normal life once we get out of this… FUBAR movie marathon.”

I heard Leo mutter something while looking at the ground.

“Huh?” I asked.

He looked up, and said with almost ashamed look in his eyes, “I said who said anything about that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I mean maybe I don’t want to stop doing this.”

“What? Dude, why would you want to keep doing this? We almost get killed every twenty minutes. This isn’t safe or healthy or, hell, normal.”

“It’s still better than what normal was for me.”

“What are you talking about? How can this be better?!”

“Because my life, my life before this, sucked, that’s why. I didn’t… have anything or, or anyone, not really. Not enough to keep going.”

“And here you do?”

“Yeah, yeah I do. Here… here I have challenges I can actually overcome. Here I can be a different person than the pathetic loser with nothing going for him that I was before. Here, for the first time in my, in my whole life, I… have friends.”

Oh.

And then he kept going, with, “You wanna know the real reason I take huge risks and do… really stupid, impulsive stuff that s-saves us a lot of the time? I’m overcompensating. I’m trying to be everything I wasn’t before. And I’ll, I’ll keep doing it, ‘cause it helps us out, it makes me… feel something for once.”

Our conversation was interrupted by the sound of a megaphone turning on. It was the same cop, this time saying, “Alright, we don’t know what’s taking you so long, but you have five minutes to release the remaining hostages!”

Remaining hostages?

I walked over to the kitchen door and looked through the little window. The dining area was totally empty save for three SWAT team members. I could even see a couple of the diners through the glass front doors, standing just outside the building, wearing shock blankets and talking to police officers.

This is very, very bad. What are we gonna do? This is usually the point where Leo does something totally awesome that gets us out of the bind, but he just spilled his guts and he’s clearly not in a good state right now mentally so I can’t expect him to just come up with something-

“I have an idea,” Leo said.

He pointed at the staircase at the back of the kitchen.

Next thing I knew we had finished racing up the stairs and were on the roof of the restaurant. We slammed the door shut and Leo broke the knob off with the butt of his gun.

We looked down at the crowd below us, both cops and civilians. I could see quite a few large guns pointed our way.

“Alright, Leo, what’s the rest of this plan?” Rachel asked nervously.

“We’re gonna jump.”

“WHAT?” Rachel asked.

I couldn’t even say anything, the shock was too much.

“You guys said earlier that, that you were sure someone or something is controlling all this. Whoever that is, they haven’t let us die yet; they want us to live. Think about it: everything they’ve thrown at us, we, we’ve been able to beat. They have… never given us something too unstoppable. They don’t want us to die; they won’t… let us.”

I could hear the angrily persistent cop with the megaphone yelling at us down there. Something about a helicopter. This is not good.

“Rachel, please do your voice of reason thing right now,” I said to her.

“I would but I’m lacking a better idea at the moment,” she said, unable to think properly through all the panic.

“Leo,” I pleaded to my friend, “We can’t do this. You can’t do this. This is not the solution.”  

He turned around, standing on the edge of the building, looking me in the eyes and said, “Maybe it is.”

He stepped back and fell.

“LEO!” Rachel and I screamed.

I was in a state of the absolute terror, looking down but having no idea what to do next. But then, before he hit the pavement, Leo vanished.

Then I knew what was gonna happen next.

Static.

I woke up in another white room, but this one didn’t have any walls. Or any ceiling, or a floor. It was just a whiteness, without any real beginning or end. I was standing, and Rachel was next to me doing the same. Leo was lying down, a few feet away from us, eyes closed.

But then he opened his eyes, he got up, and he started walking towards us. Rachel breathed a sigh of relief as he did, and I could hear it echo with improbable noise levels. More than that, I could see the sound vibrations throughout the white, rippling and then fading away into nothing.

And then things started to get weird.

 Chapter 12

I look over at Rachel and Leo, who’re clearly struggling to stay awake…

And then I blank out for a second, fighting… to regain focus. Have to pour all my energy into it. Regain focus. Can’t…

Can’t… concentrate. Can’t think… clearly. What’s going on…?... White room, white room, that’s what’s going on. Leo and Rachel are to both sides of me… and… their drifting away, into the whiteness. How’s that…?

Focus.

Focus.

Focus.

Just need to focus.

Okay, that’s better. If I concentrate hard enough, I can put together coherent thoughts. And Rachel and Leo aren’t drifting away; they’re next to me again. Then what was that before, my thoughts getting away from me? No, no… that can’t…

Dammit.

For a moment, I see something try to manifest itself around me; blue above me, green below me, columns of brown to my sides, almost as if the whiteness is trying to restructure itself into a forest. But then it all vanishes, disappearing just as quickly as it came, and with even less of an explanation, leaving only the whiteness.

Nothing in here makes sense; I can see my own anger and frustration building up because everything around me is turning red. What the hell is this?!

Oh great, a question mark and an exclamation point just appeared out of thin air right of my face. And now they’re floating away. That’s just wonderful.

It’s like some kind of sensory overload, like I’m getting too much mental stimulus all at once; it’s like pure information is being forcibly uploaded into my brain and I’m just barely managing to keep myself from having a stroke.

I lose it and I scream. I scream and I scream and I scream and I scream. I can see the sound waves rushing out of my mouth and then after a certain point they all explode, knocking me back through air.

I land. It hurt. A lot.

Lost my… lost my… lost my focus again. Can’t… urgh!

I look at my friends; they’re both kneeling, staring off into space, eyes wide opened, mouths firmly shut. The looks on their faces, it’s almost pensive, like they’re trapped in the middle of the some deep thought, buried underneath a hundred tons of pontification with no hope of escape. Maybe all this stimulus got to them, made them catatonic. But if that’s what happened, why hasn’t it gotten to me yet? How come I can resist it? Because I’m special, because I’m strong…?

No, no you idiot, you’re not special, and you’re definitely not strong. You’re weak.

I’m weak.

I let my best friend jump of the roof of a building.

Instantly I was a hundred feet above my two companions, and I started to fall.

I’d saying falling through feet of nothing into even more nothing invoked my absolute terror, but I was so busy trying to stop this place from breaking my brain I didn’t really time to be scared.

And I probably deserve this anyway.

When I hit the ground, it was simultaneously the most painful and anticlimactic thing I have experienced, in that I felt the pain yet my body was totally unharmed.

The worst part was that I could see a sound effect pop up out the whiteness. “Thud!”

Okay, I’ll admit, that’s kind of hilarious.

My friends were still catatonic.

I rolled over onto my back, still in intense pain. How was I able to keep concentrating through this agony? Did I just know it was better than the alternative? Or maybe the alternative had already happened to me, I was comatose and this was just the inside of my own mind, and my body was out there in the whiteness, being screamed at by Rachel to wake the hell up.

No, no that makes no sense. Why would I fall asleep only to dream where I was before? And if I was out cold, I couldn’t be consciously aware of it. Right?

Maybe I should let myself rest, stop trying to fight the overload, just give in. Just close my eyes.

But I can’t. My eyelids refuse to shut. I apply as much force to them as physically possible, even try to pull them over my eyes with my fingers, but they won’t budge. So I try to get up, but I can’t help but stop once I’m on my knees.

I feel my focus dissolving.

Good-bye sanity, I’ll miss you.

Chapter 13

I begin to look inward, and I see myself. Everything I am and everything I was, the good and the bad (one seems a bit more prominent than the other; take a wild guess which). I start at the beginning, the very beginning: my birth.

Eh, nothing really of note there.

Why am I doing this? Is it the whiteness, forcing me to relive my life? Oh God I hope not.

I’m six years old and I get in my first fight on the playground. What was it even about? Probably something breathtakingly idiotic, although little Me seems more than convinced it was justified. Oh, yeah that’s right; the other kid called me a loser and a freak and tried to convince me I was adopted. I gave him a bloody nose, and for my troubles I’m suspended from school for a week, and my father redefines the lecture when he yells at me that night, guilting me half to death with how angry and disappointed he is that I would do something so selfish and stupid. Then my mother takes her turn and completely tops him every way.

Dumb kid.

I’m ten years old, and I’d accepted my fate as the kid on the playground everyone avoided. The kid, the one I beat up, had everyone thinking I was some kind of pint sized serial killer.

I’m thirteen, and my English class is talking about The Catcher in the Rye; the guy, the one who I’d convinced myself had ruined my life (as if I hadn’t done that myself), told the class he thought Holden Caulfield was a good role model for kids; I contradict him, using a cutting edge of sarcasm on top of a layer of flat out insults. I don’t specifically call him stupid, but it’s obvious that’s what I was getting at. Everyone there understood what I meant, anyway, including the teacher. She gave me detention, because, like an idiot, I was still holding a grudge. And I’d just made sure he would, too.

I’m fourteen, and on my first day of high school I have to eat lunch at the one empty table in the cafeteria. I follow the same pattern every day for the next two years. Apparently people still weren’t willing let me live down the time in first grade when I went psycho.

I don’t blame them.

I’m sixteen, sitting in homeroom on the first day of junior year. As I try to mentally prepare myself for another solid year of relentless suck, the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen in my life walks in the door. She’s tall, probably six feet, with long dark hair and bangs. She was wearing Batgirl V-neck. Right then and there I thought I was in love.

Her name was Grace, and she’d transferred to my school from out of state.

Later that same day, I’m sitting at my usual lunch table, when she sits down at the other end. I look at her inquisitively; it’s the first time in a while I’ve had company. She glares at me, and says not to talk to her. I oblige.

After a few weeks of this, both of us got a little bored. I was sitting with an actual person (albeit separated by the width of the lunch table); not talking to each other was just weird. And awkward; really, really awkward.

Apparently she felt the same way, because she said the first words I’d her say at all since she told me not to talk to her: “How’d you do on the math test?”

I said I got a B, and before I knew it we were having an actual, honest-to-God conversation. She asked why I ate by myself, and I told her; I asked her, and she said her dad was in the army, so she moved constantly and never really bothered trying to make friends anymore. That and she decided she hated pretty much everyone in this school before lunch on her first day. I asked if that included me, and she laughed and said not yet.

I’m seventeen and I really did think I was in love; Grace and I had been dating for a few months, and I can’t think of any time in my life where I was happier. The other kids called us all kinds of stupid names, but for the first time I was able to ignore them.

More than that, the first time I kissed her, everything just felt… okay. In a way it never had before.

I’m eighteen, looking at colleges, when Grace drops a bomb on me: she’s moving. Her dad got transferred again. For minute there, I actually thought we were gonna do the long distance thing, but she tells me we shouldn’t, it would only make it harder. She said that I should just forget about her. So she left, and I tried to respect her wishes, tried to forget. But I can’t, I just can’t.

Six months later, I’m starting college. I’m in another state, figured that would be the best way to avoid anyone I grew up with. But wouldn’t you know it, the guy I was specifically avoiding (I think you know the one) was there too. The only plus was that he lived in a different dorm.

I’m nineteen, and I’m doing okay in school. Grades are fine, but not much of social life; I even live in a single dorm. I still missed Grace (how pathetic is that?)

I’m twenty-one, and across the hall, I hear a party going on; it’s too noisy to for me to fall asleep, so I head over; I remember thinking ‘I need to socialize more anyway’. I got bored real quick, so I had a drink, then another drink, and then another, and then my least favorite person on the planet shows up (what was he even doing there? He lived on the other side of campus). He’s even drunker than I am, and he starts telling everyone in the general vicinity about what I did to him when we were kids, and that I’ve only ever been with one girl.

‘And then she dumped his sorry ass and moved to another coast,” he rambled, and then he looked at me and asked, ‘what happened, Joshie? She finally figure out how big of a loser you are and decide she could do better?”

I was pretty wasted, so much so that for the second time in my life, I truly lost my temper. I throw the first punch, and the second, and the third, and so forth. He was too inebriated to fight back; I had a similar problem, but it was only enough to keep me from stopping myself. You know how they say that when you’re drunk, you only do what you what already wanted to, but usually have enough common sense not to?

After about five minutes, someone pulls me away. I look down at my handiwork, and I see a broken, bloodied mess of a human being. Someone calls an ambulance.

The next day I find out he’s in a coma. The day after that, the dean finds out it’s my fault, and I get expelled.

I’m twenty-three, and I work at grocery store. I haven’t talked to my parents in two years. This is usually the part in clichéd sob stories where I tell you that I turned to drugs or alcohol in my moment of desperation, but I didn’t. I decided I’d screwed my life up enough already, and didn’t want to become even more pathetic.

I’m twenty-five, and the grocery store starts downsizing. I’m the first person they fire. Apparently, my boss and my coworkers didn’t exactly care for my company. I don’t blame them.

It’s three in the morning, and I’m walking down a road, forest on both sides. It was snowing, couldn’t have been more than twenty degrees. I’ve been doing this for two hours, no idea where I’m going, what I’m doing. I just needed to think. I knew what I’d done wrong, was it even possible to make it right? I see a car zooming towards me. I get out of the way, but the roads were icy, and it swerves.

I remember it crashing into me, and then I blacked out.

I wake up on a park bench. There was no snow; I was totally uninjured and wearing different clothes. The only other person was a sleeping guy, propped up against a tree. Eventually, I’ll find out that his name is Leo.

Before that happens though, I hear a voice, a female voice, a familiar one. It shouts, “Josh! Josh, is that you?”

I turn around, and it’s Grace. I say her name, and she nods, and I walk up to her and I kiss her, and just for a moment, everything was okay again.

I start to see more memories, but I try to force them away. I’m not reliving that, no way, not happening. I don’t know what this place, this whiteness, is, or what it’s doing to me, but there is no way in hell it can make it re-experience what came next.

I make everything freeze.

I wake up; still in the whiteness, still on my knees. I manage to rise, and I walk over to my catatonic friends. I had no idea what could happen if I tried to wake them while they were like this, but before I could think of something to do, I saw the whiteness transform into what could only be described as a flood of memories.  

Chapter 14

Through the flood, I see Leo.

When Leo is born, his mother dies in childbirth. As he came kicking and screaming into the world, she slid out of it with a faint whimper.

From that day forth, Leo’s father became distant. He had to take a second job to afford to raise his child, a decision that left very little time for said raising to take place.

When Leo was three years old, the power goes out in his apartment building. He cries, something his father thought he had finally grown out of. His father, under great stress, yells at Leo, screams at him to stop. Leo does, and it was the last time he ever cried.

By the time Leo started school, he was used to being by himself. He had no idea how to talk to people, how to make friends. Some children, the nice ones, try to hang out with him, but they quickly tired of his quietness, growing bored and leaving him behind.

When Leo was ten years old, he had developed a routine: wake up to an empty house, go to school, come home, wait for his father, eat a silent dinner, sleep, rinse, repeat. He had very good grades, something the other kids noticed. They called names, made him feel like even more of an outsider. So he slid downhill, tried to appear as average as possible. He just wanted to be left alone. He didn’t like it, but he was used to it, and he wasn’t presented with any better alternatives.

When Leo was seventeen he began to look at colleges. His father had “worked darn hard to get enough money for you to go to college, Leo; you’re going.” So he went. It was what his father wanted.

At college, Leo’s freshmen year roommate was thrilled by Leo; he was quiet, kept to himself, he didn’t hog the room. He saw it as an ideal situation. As did Leo’s sophomore year roommate, and his junior year roommate. Senior year, though, Leo’s newest roommate grew concerned about Leo’s apathy towards seemingly everything. He decided to try something to shake him out of it, bring him out of his shell.

“Hey, so my cousin lives in town, she’s a waitress, at that pizza place. She’s single, and I think she’d like you. Want me to set you two up?”

“Sure,” Leo had said. It was what his roommate wanted.

Leo and the waitress- Bess was her name- hit it off at first. She thought he was a great listener, and things went well.

After he graduates, Leo gets a job at the restaurant. He’s content there, washing dishes. But then one day Bess sits him down, says they need to talk.

“You don’t seem to want anything in life,” she said, “You don’t make any decisions for yourself. You have a mediocre job you could do better than that you only took because you don’t want to try at all or take any risks. And I swear, it feels like you’re only with me because my cousin of all people set us up. You don’t even really want me; we’re only together because someone else said we should be. Look, Leo, you’re a nice guy, but I can’t be with someone who thinks of himself as some kind of… nonentity.”

Then she walked away.

Not sure how to proceed, Leo went home. She had raised some good points. He had no idea what he wanted, where he was going in life. He had never chosen anything for himself. He thumbs through his mail. He opens a letter, which regretted to inform him that his father had passed away in car accident.  

Leo got in his car. He drove through the heavy snow, down a road with forest on both sides, with a decision to make; he could drive to Bess’s house, or he could return to his hometown to prepare for the funeral. He knew which one he was supposed to do, but he wanted decide for himself. He was in the midst of making the first real choice of his life when he crashed into someone; when he crashed into me.

Leo stopped the car, getting out and finding me lying unconscious and bleeding on the side of the road. He took out his phone to call 9-1-1, but the battery was dead.

“Oh God, oh God, what did I just do,” Leo muttered, terrified.

Then a man, more of a boy, really, only about twenty years old, came out of the woods. “I can help you,” he claimed before taking out a tranquilizer gun and shooting Leo.

When Leo woke up, he was in a park, propped up against a tree. The snow was gone, and the night was clear. He saw Grace and I embracing each other.

He hadn’t gotten to make his choice. Someone else had done that for him. At that moment, Leo decided he couldn’t let that happen again. He had start doing things himself, or to at least try.

After that… no, no, I won’t look at that. There is nothing that can force me to watch the rest of this story. I know what comes next, and I’m not going back to that.

I… tilt my head, and I see Rachel.

Chapter 15

Rachel.

I don’t know much about her, which, given some past events, makes me uncomfortable. Is that paranoid? Yes. Is it immature? Probably. But now it’s time to learn. I suppose that’s a bit selfish, though.

When Rachel was young, her mind was never where her body was. She was always miles away, dreaming of something else. She created whole worlds, and drew them onto paper. She was quite good at it.

By the time she was ten years old, she decided she wanted to be an artist. Her parents encouraged her, as did her teachers.

When she was fifteen years old, she had won her school’s art competition, which she did each year after that. Her ego grew proportionally. That fact contributed to her lack of friends, as did her stature in the school as “that weird girl.” That’s what most everyone called her, anyway, and she told herself they were wrong, that they were just stupid and talentless and jealous.

Even the other “weird kids” didn’t care for her; they called her a stuck up bitch, said she acted like she was better than them.

‘Of course I’m better than them,’ she thought, ‘they’re just a bunch of mouth breathing freaks.’

She spent most of her free time alone, sketching, drawing, creating, escaping.

By the time she was twenty-two, she had finished college, and she had gotten a job drawing comic books. She had always liked them; it seemed like a good fit.

They gave the scripts, and she drew them, that’s how it worked. But the scripts were all garbage, clichéd dreck. None of it was worthy of her talents. It showed, too, the books never sold, they kept getting cancelled.

One day Rachel got sick of the situation, and marched into her bosses’ office, demanding to be assigned to a book with a decent writer attached. She said her boss was an idiot, and that he was wasting her skills on complete crap.

Her boss reacted about as well as you’d expect, and the next day Rachel woke up to the foul stench of unemployment. Her boss had gone as far as to tell other publishers about her behavior, and they simply wouldn’t take her. The only place that would take her was the bookstore near her home.

It was monotonous, and at first she told herself she didn’t deserve this, but then she began to think maybe she did. Did she? Eventually she decided that yes, her boss had been a prick, and yes, she kept getting ordered to draw garbage, but she still shouldn’t have lashed out, and spent her days quietly thinking of the dozen or so other ways she could’ve handled the situation.

Not getting to do what she loved bothered her the most, but effectively doing nothing of real value with her life was a close second. ‘Where am I going?’ she though often.

One night, a few days after a large blizzard had ended, her neighbor, a little old lady, came to her door, asking if she’d seen her cat. Within five minutes, Rachel found herself outside, looking through the snow to find the cat, bitterly realizing that this was probably the most worthwhile thing she’d done in years.

She wound up in the woods, and she found the cat in the arms of young man, more of a boy really. The same boy who had found Leo and I on the side of the road a few days prior, who had tranquilized Leo. But of course Rachel didn’t know that, she had no idea Leo and I existed, she simply saw some weirdo holding the cat she was looking for.

“Oh,” the boy said, “You should do nicely.”

“Wait, what?” was all Rachel could say before the boy took out his tranquilizer gun and shot her.

When she came to, Rachel was in the middle of a city, standing on top of a skyscraper. She looked at the ground below her and saw thousands of people running away in terror as a 100 foot kaiju wrestled with a 110 foot version of Dracula (the Bela Lugosi one) in the middle of the financial district.

Before I could see how that ended, I felt myself being pulled away. I was sucked out of the memories, and found myself back in the whiteness, still with my hands on my associates’ shoulders. I gasped, sucking in the air (was their air in this place?).

I witnessed a background forming around me; a forest, but not the kind I was used to seeing. The trees were abnormal, had purple leaves, and were incredibly tall. A cave came into existence behind me. Where was this scenery coming from? How was this happening?

Before I could ask myself more questions I knew I wasn’t gonna get any answers to, an alien-looking battleship flew over my head. I followed it with my eyes, and then I watched it get blown to pieces by an energy blast. I looked around to find the shooter, and, to my complete and utter confusion, I saw that the round had been fired by a Koalabot.

Chapter 16

This is not happening. There is no way in hell that this is… what I am talking about? Of course it’s happening. There is every way in hell. Just because something like this has never happened before, there’s no reason whatsoever, given my “lifestyle” that it wouldn’t happen eventually. But Jesus Christ, Koalabots!?!?

Really?!

This is just so bizarre I can’t even burst into inappropriate laughter like last time… well, that and I’ve got a splitting headache, presumably an aftershock from the white room. God, that hurts.

I look up the hot rod red Koalabot as it lowered its space gun thing (which is a part of its arm, apparently). Oh hell, he sees me. No going back now (like their ever was). I get up onto my feet and then look behind me at compatriots, who’ve followed my example.

Rachel looked over at Leo with a stunned expression, exclaiming, “Leo! You’re alive! Oh my God! Do not ever do that again, okay? Promise you won’t.”

Leo shrugged.

My confusion allowed me to ignore the audibly approaching mechanical footsteps of the Koalabot. I gave a perplexed look and said, “Of course he’s alive.”

Rachel looked over at me and said, “What do you mean of course he’s alive? We just saw him jump off a building.” If she saw the Koalabot walking towards us (and given the fact that she was directly facing it, she most definitely did), she disregarded it.

“That’s not true though,” I said, “We saw Leo fade away before he hit the ground. And then we wound up in that white room, and all that, that weird crap happened.”

The Koalabot stopped walking as it was less than a foot behind me. I was engulfed by his shadow. He said in a deep, electronic voice, “Excuse me”-

Rachel kept talking anyway, with, “What’re you talking about?”

Leo even said, “Yeah, what, what are you talking about?”

Rachel continued, “The last thing I remember was being on the roof watching Leo fall, and then everything just cut and we wound up here. I guess Leo’s plan worked; story ended, we moved onto the next one, same as usual.” She turned to Leo and said, “But still don’t do that again.”

Leo nodded, his eyes half shut and his face to the ground as if his thoughts didn’t coincide with his actions.

The Koalabot tried again, this time saying, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but”-

I cut him off this time with, “So you don’t remember anything that’s happened in the last… I don’t even know how long, actually,”

“Of course I do; I remember the last, what, four plots?”

“No, no I mean the white room, the information overload, all the trippy memory stuff. Do you seriously mean to tell me you have idea what I’m talking about?”

The Koalabot gave interjection another shot with, “Look, we really have to”-

“NOT NOW!” Rachel and I both shouted at the same time.

“Yes,” Rachel then continued, “I do mean to tell you I have no idea what you’re saying. Right now, you’re actually making less sense than everything else that’s going on. If the context were any different, I’d say you sounded like a crazy person.”

“I am not crazy.” Of course, right then my headache decided to send out a flare of pain. Oh GOD that hurts!

“Uh, guys, do you think we should maybe address the, uh, the Koalabot?” Leo said.

That got us to shut up a minute.

“Thank you,” the Koalabot said, “Now, my memory banks indicate you three are to be trusted… for some reason. It’s best if you follow me.”

“What have we got to lose?” Rachel said.

We walked through the forest, passing acres of decimated trees, massive holes in the ground, what appeared to be failed mining operations, violently dismembered alien corpses. Well, given the way we left things last time, I suppose the door was open for a sequel.

The Koalabot, who said his designation was 89Q, filled us in as we walked, “After the fall the last major battalion of Achillion 5 troops, Emperor Carnicus’ armies launched a full scale invasion. We he didn’t know was that there were reinforcements living in our underground cities. Thousands more Achillionites, and hundreds more Koalabots. We emerged and began the fight anew. It has been long and gruesome. However, myself and all of my fellow Koalabots received memory uploads from all of our fallen brothers, and in those memories there were images of you three. As such, we were given orders to take you to headquarters should you ever be found. It shouldn’t be too much longer before we get there. You may be pleased to know that another member of your species is also at headquarters right now.”

Okay, so that’s one more thing to add to the “What hell is going on” list. Not only are we doing a sequel, but it’s a full scale epic sci fi war that we are probably going to lose. Also, there’s a totally new player on the board. On top of that, my companions don’t remember the whiteness at all. Maybe it’s because they passed out almost instantly when they got there, but I managed to stay awake for parts. Or maybe it’s just because I was awake when the whiteness turned into… all this. And of course there’s all the questions that raises about what this is.

Or maybe I really am just crazy. Then again, that’s always been an option.

Ah hell, this headache is killing me! My eyes blur a moment, and I temporarily space out. I’m pretty sure 89Q said other stuff, but the next thing I knew we were standing in front of a huge cave.

“We’re here,” 89Q stated.

We entered the cave (I wonder how long this one’ll take to get attacked). We marched down the stone passageways, passing heavily armed alien soldiers and Koalabots, lots and lots of Koalabots. I think I saw one of them getting an image of a dragon fighting a huge rock monster spray painted onto his back. Okay, I’ll bite, that’s at least a little awesome.

We stopped in front of a large gathering of troops, with what appeared to be an Achillionite general standing in the middle.

“General Rothgar,” 89Q said, “I have found the three from the memory banks.”

“Hold on, let’s put that to the test,” Rothgar said, and then tilted his head and shouted, “Girl! Come over here! Is this them?”

A human woman walked forward, and I blinked, trying to make sure I was seeing this correctly. It was Grace.

“Yes,” she said, the look on her face showing just how shocked and concerned by our presence she was, “It’s them.”

Chapter 17

I turn to face Grace, not caring about my surroundings or who else is there, and growl, “What the hell are you doing here?!”

You idiot, shut up… head throbbing again.

Rachel and the aliens (including the General) gave me some bizarre looks. Leo’s got shock painted on his face, and it’s rendered him even less talkative than usual.

I keep going, growling, “How and why are you are here right now?! To pour some salt in me and Leo’s wounds?!”

My God, stop already dumbass, this is neither the time or the place. Head… killing me.

“What you already did just wasn’t enough?!” I really can’t stop myself right now.

Grace tries to pick the right words, and opens with, “Josh, I”-

“SHUT UP!” I cut her off, “SHUT UP! JUST SHUT THE HELL UP!”

I feel something wet slide down my face and fall off, creating a few dark spots on the stones beneath me.

Everyone stayed silent for a few moments. The Achillion General broke it by turning to Grace and asking, “So… you know these people then?”

“I”-

“Don’t let her talk,” I cut her off again, talking through the stabbing pain inside my skull (just ignore it, ignore it), “Don’t let her; all she’ll do is lie, because that’s what she does, she lies and she betrays.”

“Those are some very strong words you are using,” The General retorted.

An explosion went off outside the cave, shaking it a little bit. A soldier came rushing in, shouting, “General we’re under attack!”

Gee, that took long.

“How many?” The General asked.

“Ten drones, at least fifty soldiers,… and the Destroyer.”

“Then may the spirit have mercy,” the general sighed.

All the soldiers and the General picked up their weapons and rushed forward to the cave’s mouth. Grace grabbed a gun and followed them. One soldier shoved weapons into me, Rachel, and Leo’s hands, telling us to make ourselves useful. Well, this one’s off to a great start.

We marched forward, and my headache subsided as we exited the cave, surveying the carnage around us. Old school UFOs filled the sky, shooting green rays of death down towards us. Ground soldiers, so heavily armored that it was impossible to tell what they really looked like, save for bipedal, rushed forward, guns blazing. And there was one more… thing in the sky; it was a human being, a guy. Just a kid, too, only fifteen or sixteen years old. He was flying around up there without a jetpack or anything, and he was carrying two massive alien BFG’s. The weirdest part was that he looked really familiar.

He flew directly at me; I fired a shot and missed, which won me the award of this kid screaming at the top of his lungs, “IS THAT THE BEST YOU’VE GOT, LOSER?!?!?!?!”

Oh no. Oh no, no, no, no, no, NO. Please tell me it’s not- too late, he got close enough to confirm my fears: it was CJ. What is he even doing here!? And how the hell is he flying?!

He stopped right in front me, floating there and eyeing me up and down. He pointed his guns directly in my face and said, “Hey, I know you; I tried to film myself killing you and that other guy over there in a forest like ten times, but then that chick showed and ruined everything! And you broke my mom’s camera!”

“Yeah, yeah I did.” I wasn’t sure how else to respond.

My compatriots were both busy engaging in combat, trying to shoot soldiers of flying saucers.

“I bet you never thought you’d see me again, didn’t you, loser,” CJ kept going.

“No, I can’t say I did.”

“We’ll I’m BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACK!”

“This officially can’t get worse.” Why did I say that out loud? Of course it can, and now it probably will.

CJ’s guns started glowing red at the barrels, and he said something about how much he was gonna enjoy this, but before he shoot me, a blue energy beam hit him in the side and knocked him away twenty yards. He left a CJ-shaped imprint in the ground.

I looked at saw that Grace had fired the shot. Was this better or worse?

I just stared at her, and the both of us stood there, not sure what to do next. Fortunately, a shot from one of the UFOs came down and hit the ground between us, causing an explosion that blew us both back. I never thought I’d say that sentence at all, let with the word fortunately at the front. Unfortunately, I landed right next to a very uninjured CJ, who chose that moment to get up, and he was PISSED.

I grabbed my gun and shot him in the face, knocking him back again. Best I could figure, he had some kind of healing factor, but he could still feel pain. Most likely scenario, the other aliens gave him that, along with the flight and the guns. But why the hell was he here?

“You are so dead for that, you jerk!”

I shot him in the face again, and again, and again. He got back up, but then, of course, my gun ran out of ammo.

CJ raised his weapons, barrels glowing, and said, “I’ll kill you! I’ll”-“If you say ‘I’ll kill you to death,’ I swear to God, I will become something even worse than your worst nightmare!” Grace hissed as she stood behind CJ, putting her gun to the back of his head.

Grace. Grace who I thought I was in love with.

“Drop the guns, you little psycho,” she said to CJ.

Grace who traveled through the stories with Leo and I; we barely survived most them: zombie apocalypses, humongous mechas, bad comedies. But the whole time, no matter how bizarre things got, I still had her, and she still had me, and that was the important part.

CJ dropped his guns, and muttered, “You’re gonna regret this, bitch.”

“Indubitably,” she spat.

Grace who I last saw in a swords and sorcery story, after what felt like a year since we’d entered our line of work. Some generic rescue the princess plot, with Grace trapped in a castle, Leo and I tasked with rescuing her.

Grace shot CJ in the back of the head, which only knocked him unconscious. “Hey,” she said to me.

Grace who I found in the room at the top of the tower, tied to the bed. Leo was dealing with some mooks one floor below. I was dressed like a knight, and she was wearing a fancy medieval dress, and I said, “Hello there, fair maiden.”

The battle kept getting worse; Achillionites were dropping like flies. The General shouted, “We have to fall back! Retreat!”

Grace who looked at me with the saddest eyes I’d ever seen as I cut her loose from the ropes with my sword.

“What’s wrong,” I asked her, “Is it the whole damsel in distress thing? ‘Cause I’d be upset too, but hey, blame whatever sexist idiot writes this crap.”

“No, Josh, it’s not that, it’s…” she stopped, and then said, “I love you; you know that, right?”

“Of course.”

All of the Achillionite troops ran like hell, not sure where to go, as the cave had been compromised. Many chose the forest, with the Koalabots continuing to fire blasts up at the flying saucers as they ran.

Grace who kissed me one last time in that tower; I kissed her back, trying to ignore everything else around me, but I still heard and felt a few things: I heard Leo walking into the tower; I heard static; I felt a new environment: it was cold and hard and slanted, probably a mountain. I felt my body encased in a parka. I heard a gun go off. I felt a bullet tearing through my stomach. I fell to the ground, and looked to find Grace standing there on the snow-covered mountainside, looking down at me while holding a handgun.

“JOSH! Come on, we have to move,” Rachel shouted at me as she ran towards us, Leo at her side. They ran past us, and Grace and I followed.

Grace who just looked at me, her face impossible to read. I tried to say something, to ask why, but I was in too much pain. Blood was pouring out of my wound. I could barely move. She moved her arm, and then squeezed the trigger of the gun once more. I turned to see Leo collapse onto the snow, which was being colored by red dots. “What are you… what are doing? Why, why… would…,” he tried to say.

It looked almost as if Grace wanted to say something, but before she could, she faded away.

“KEEP GOING! I’LL HOLD THEM OFF!” One Koalabot said as it planted itself onto the ground, aiming all its weapons at the oncoming enemy troops. The rest of us kept running into the woods.

Grace who left us, who left me, lying on the mountainside, blood rapidly streaming out of my body as an avalanche came rushing down. It hit me, I blacked out, and when I came to, Leo and I were trapped underneath twenty feet of snow. It took us two weeks to dig our way out; we worked in shifts, one of us tunneling while the other lay in the corner, trying to prevent ourselves from succumbing to both the blood loss and the subzero temperatures. After a day, Leo and I found that the cold was freezing our blood as it left our bodies, forming a clot, but a few hours of digging always tore the flesh open again. When we finally made it out, it was another week’s hike down to the bottom of the mountain. We were both a day away from starving to death when we saw a cabin with smoke coming out of the chimney. Ten feet away, the pain, exhaustion, hunger, and rage became too much; I fell unconscious again, and when I woke up I was on a bed in a hospital, an IV pumping fluids into me. For a second, I genuinely believed everything that’d happened had been a bad dream, that I went comatose after the car hit me and all I’d been through was just some kind of subconscious expression of self-hatred. But then there was static again, and I moved on to the next story.

After what felt like hours of running, we came to a stop. My headache had returned with a vengeance. Many of the troops collapsed from exhaustion, others were on the brink of surrendering to wounds. Leo and Rachel were sitting by a tree, breathing heavily. Rachel pressed her hand against a minor shoulder injury, and Leo had a long cut running from his lower right cheek to down below his neck. I walked over to the tree, dropped my gun, and then lied back against the tree and started sliding down. I closed my eyes a minute, and then when then when I opened them, I looked up and saw Grace.

“We need to talk,” she said.

“Yeah, we do,” I responded.

Chapter 18

“I suppose now you’d like to explain who this is, Josh?” Rachel asked, her voice rife with frustration.

“I’m Grace,” was Grace’s response.

“And I’m guessing you’re the one who screwed Josh and Leo over at some point?”

“…Yes, but,”- Grace responded.

“I guess that settles it then,” Rachel said.

“You don’t even know me!” Grace said bitterly.

“That’s true, but I do know these too, and even though I’m not sure you could go as far as to call us friends, I do trust them, and Josh has made it abundantly obvious someone really, truly hurt him, hurt both of them at some point, and if the shoe fits…”

I kept trying to think of something to say, how approach, but JESUS CHRIST my head hurt way too much to even think clearly. All I could think of was how angry I was, with Grace for everything, with CJ for being here, with Rachel because she wouldn’t stop talking, with this entire damn series of events for occurring, with that son of a bitch who tranquilized Leo and dragged us here and then dumped Rachel into this mess…

“If you would just give me five minutes to actually explain myself,”- Grace started.

“Why… should we listen to you?” Leo asked, “You, you’ve lied before. You nearly killed me. You left me, and, and Josh for dead. For all that… that we know, you’ve never told us the truth about… anything. So, why should we listen to you?”

Grace looked as if she’d just been hit in the stomach, but was expecting it. She knew something like that was coming, but odds are she thought I would’ve said it, not Leo. And the guilt, the guilt was plainly visible on her face. But she deserves it, doesn’t she? After what she did… calm down, calm down and try to think clearly. Getting angry won’t get you anywhere right now, it never does, no matter how good and right it feels.

Headache is killing me.

“Let her talk,” I finally said, “I wanna hear this. I need to hear this. We all do. And you guys really shouldn’t be relying on me to act as the voice of reason.” Turning to look up at Grace, I said, “Now, go ahead.”

“Listen, I have thought long and hard about what I would say to you two if I was ever able to. And I know that no matter what I say, there are no words that can ever really explain what I did fully, let alone warrant forgiveness. If you spend the rest of your lives hating me, I’d understand; I know I would. But you have to believe me when I tell you that what I did, I did to protect you.”

“From what?”

“From my brother.”

…Wait, what?

“Your brother?” I started, “You’re brother who you’ve never mentioned before, ever. That sounds just a bit odd, Grace, seeing how we were together for two years, three if you count the time we spent in here, and never once was their so much as a hint that you had a brother.”

“I can explain.”

“How?! I went over to your house more than once, and there were no suggestions that you had a brother! I met your parents, who at no point contradicted my long-held assumption that you’re only child! I mean seriously, a brother?! Where the hell has he been hiding all this time, inside your ass?!”

“Okay, ew,” Rachel said as she gave me a weird look.

“I meant it like she pulled it out of her ass, like the information was so random and unbelievable that it may as well have come from… You know what I mean!”

“I know how it sounds, I am completely aware of how unbelievable it seems, but I’m telling you, I can explain,” Grace defended herself.

“Please do,” I said.

“I never told you about my brother when we were in school together because my parents didn’t like me talking about him; he’s… a psychopath. An actual, honest to God, psychopath. When he was ten he strangled our dog because it didn’t want to play with him. After that we had him tested and then my parents put him in a mental institution on the other side of the country. He stayed there until he was eighteen, until he managed to convince the doctors he was ready to re-enter society. My parents disowned him, though, refused see him. But I agreed to talk to him. He came to my apartment… and then he shot me with a tranquilizer dart. I woke up in… whatever you call this, and I then I found you and Leo.”

“Was he the guy who found Josh and I on, on the side of the road and… brought us here?” Leo asked.

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you tell us that?! Leo told us about the guy when we first got here! Was the guy who tranqed Rachel and brought her here also your brother, or was that his identical twin that you also neglected to mention?!” I screamed.

Oh crap, I shouldn’t have said that.

“Wait, how did you know some guy tranqed before I got here? I never told you that,” Rachel asked suspiciously.

Dammit. Head… pounding.

“Remember that white room I told you guys about,” I started, “the one neither of you seem to remember? Well, while we were there, I saw your memories. Both of yours’.”

“The white room? You’ve been in the white room?” Grace asked nervously.

“Prove it,” Rachel said to me, ignoring Grace.

“Leo, I know about your parents, and I’m sorry for what happened to them. Rachel, I know your boss was a huge dick, and I’m also sorry for that, but your getting fired was mostly your own fault.”

Leo looked startled by the revelation, and Rachel was caught off guard a minute before reluctantly saying, “Be that as it may, you”-

“Oh my God, you have been in the white room,” Grace uttered in terror.

“Okay, yes, I know I committed pretty much the ultimate invasion of privacy, but I swear I didn’t mean to, it happened completely by accident, and I would’ve told you guys about it sooner, but this is the first real chance we’ve had to sit down and talk stuff thus far, so yeah. Plus, if it’s any consolation, I’ve had a splitting headache ever since we left, and it’s driving me nuts,” I continued.

“Headache?” Grace look at me with wide eyes, “That is not good, that is really not good.”

“How do you mean,” I asked, the pain getting worse.

“My brother, he controls this place, he does it from just outside of the white room, and the reason I never told you about him before was because he told me what he could do, he said he would kill you if I so much as mentioned him,”-

“So you’re actively trying to get me killed, then?” I asked bitterly, the pain in my head expanding with each word.

“No, Josh, I swear I’m not; it’s different now, he’s letting me tell you the truth; I don’t know why, but you have to listen to me, because everything I did was meant to keep you safe.”

“Well isn’t that just touching,” I heard Rachel whisper to Leo.

“Yeah, how exactly was shooting me in the chest and leaving me on the side of a mountain keeping me safe?” I questioned.

“Because he forced me to do those things, that if I didn’t, he would kill you, he would kill both of you! Please Josh, please, you have to believe me; you have to believe that I didn’t want to hurt you, that I had no choice; I know you hate me, and you have every right to, but I love you, Josh, I do, I never stopped!” Grace sobbed.

Tears were streaming down her face; she was completely and utterly broken. I could tell it was genuine. But I just couldn’t stop feeling angry, the pain my head was so enormous, so loud and big that it wouldn’t let me feel anything else! I knew I should forgive her, but I didn’t want to; all I wanted to do was…

A sonic boom was audible in the distance; something was flying towards us, fast enough that it got everyone’s attention.

We all heard the nasally voice of an obnoxious, overpowered teenage boy shout, “LEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRROOOOOOOOOOOOOYYYYYYYYYYYY JENKINS!”

CJ had returned, and he was coming right at us.

Chapter 19

So I’m standing there in the middle of a forest on an alien planet surrounded by alien soldiers, bipedal robots designed to look like koalas, my only friend, my kind of friend, and the woman who at one point I would’ve called the love of my life (coming from the guy with the emotional maturity of a thirteen year old) before she betrayed me but who now claims she did so to keep her previously unmentioned brother who may or may not exist from killing me while a psychopathic teenager with superpowers and extraterrestrial weapons comes flying at us and a headache I’ve acquired by unconventional means appears to be working to drive me into a perpetual state of violent insanity.

What am I doing with my life?

Okay Josh, deep breaths, deep breaths, just calm down, these headaches aren’t natural, that’s what Grace said… but why the hell should I believe a she says?! I shouldn’t listen to her! No, no, you’re letting this anger win, calm down, I need to calm down and ah hell CJ is like ten feet away from me (really need to sort out my priorities).

Everyone who’s gun still had ammo fired at CJ, but he flew out of the way of most of them, and then open fired on us. There were explosions, running away, and screams. I could hear the little punk laughing.

His back was towards me, so I raised my gun, squeezed the trigger, and… still empty. Damn it.

But then something happened; a Koalabot came running towards us from the same direction CJ came from at breakneck speed, unloading all its weapons on CJ, knocking him back ten yards. CJ got up and concentrated his shots on the Koalabot, whose chest was already torn open, oil and screws pouring out, but he kept going. CJ flew directly at the Koalabot, still firing, half of their shots colliding and cancelling each other out. Most of us were on the ground, in too much pain or lacking the firepower to do anything, but Leo got up from the ground, stood tall, raised his gun, took aim, and launched a single shot at CJ, hitting him in the small of his back just he was five feet from the Koalabot.

Mid-air, the shot caught CJ off guard; he cringed in pain, falling a bit, allowing the Koalabot to land one full-power punch onto the little snot, driving CJ to the ground. The Koalabot walked over to CJ, raised his fist yet again, and threw one more punch upon the grounded CJ, creating a crater.

CJ, trapped under the Koalabot’s fist, kept wriggling around, trying to raise his guns, but then Leo got up, limped over as fast as he could, and stole the weapons out of CJ’s hands.

“Give those back!” CJ screamed, “Give them back, you, you stupid loser idiot!”

“Proper grammar is important, child,” The Koalabot deadpanned, still holding him down. I guess that answers of the question of whether or not Koalabots have senses of humor (then again, they are giant combat androids modelled after koalas, they probably have to).

The General marched forward towards CJ, and all of us followed. I could feel my headache growing and my rage exploding as I walked closer to that little lunatic, but I wasn’t sure why. Why am so I pissed off at this kid? Yeah, he’s an annoying little brat and he’s tried to kill me a few times… actually, those seem like decent reasons. But I just can’t stop being angry, and I need to direct it at someone or something…

He’ll do.

The General kneeled down in front of CJ and said, “My name is General Rothgar. And you have personally killed hundreds of my men,” as he pulled out a pistol and pressed the barrel directly against CJ’s head, “Now if you have any information about our enemies that could prove useful, now would be an excellent time to give it to me, because it is all that stands between you and your demise.”

CJ simply glared at him in a failed at being intimidating. Little brat. I should just walk over there and…

“I know you can heal, kid, but a headshot at this range is something even you can’t recover from, so tell me what I want to know; sometime today, preferably,” The General said, visibly losing his patience.

“Fine, I’ll tell you freaks something,” CJ started, “Those other aliens, the even weirder looking ones, they showed up at my house one night, abducted made, made me able to fly, gave me those guns. Said all I had to do was get dropped off here and kill as many weirdos as I could, and that if I didn’t, they’d set off the bomb they’d attached to the base of my spine.”

“Did they maybe mention why they wanted you to do this?” Rachel asked.

“They said they wanted to mess with you and your friends, Rachel,” CJ said with an evil grin.

Son of a…

I walked over and kicked him in the mouth, knocking out a few teeth. He spat them back at me, and I lunged at him as the broken shards of tooth and warm droplets of blood collided with my body. The General pulled me away pretty quickly.

“Enough! Now, by her ‘friends’, I assume he means you two,” The General said, pointing at Leo and I.

We nodded.

“Very well,” he began, and then looked over at Grace, “Now, Grace, you said you knew these three.”

“I only actually know the men; I’ve never seen or even heard of the woman before now, not really sure how she’s here,” she responded.

“Gee, thanks,” Rachel muttered. What is with her lately? She wasn’t nearly this bitchy before we got here. I know what’s wrong me, but is this place doing something to her, too?

One more reason to be angry.

“I am aware that these three helped our fallen comrades oppose the empire, so I partly understand our enemies’ motives; however, can you offer any reason why they would choose this boy to help them enact petty vengeance?” The General asked.

She hesitated a moment, before answering, “No,” obviously lying.

“You’re lying,” The General said bluntly.

“Yeah, she does that,” I spat. No, no, stop talking you idiot, just shut up you’re not helping anyone… but she’s a liar…

“Hey, morons,” CJ said, “You guys do realize the rest of the army is coming right now, right? By now, they’re probably almost here, too.”

The metallic sound of marching could be heard in the distance. Crap.

The General walked back over to CJ, put his pistol up the little brat’s forehead…

Halfway between laughter and panic, CJ started screaming, “Oh come on! I know you’re not really gonna do that! You don’t have stones, you loser! You’re all losers, all of you”-

Bang!

Well, that takes care of that problem. Good.

The Koalabot who was holding CJ down finally stood back up.

General Rothgar stood before us all, and said, “We have to retreat. We will find a place to regroup, but we are in no condition to fight right now.”

“General, if I may?” An Achillionite officer said, stepping forward.

“What is it, Lieutenant Strathanx?”

“I believe I know a place where we can regroup.”

“Where?

“The Shaman’s Cave.”

The General paused a moment, and then said with a note of irritation, “And why would we go there, Lieutenant?”

“To summon the Great Spirit, General.” 

Chapter 20

We started running. We ran for miles, until we couldn’t hear the sound of the enemy troops in the distance anymore. So we let ourselves slow down and start walking.

“Would someone care to explain this whole, ‘Great Spirit’ thing, perhaps?” Rachel asked eventually.

“The Great Spirit watches over this world,” Strathanx started, “And he will protect us once we summon him.”

Wow, an actual, literal Deus Ex Machina.

“It is pointless, what you are suggesting.” General Rothgar responded.

“You do not believe, General?”

“I never said that. I am merely suggesting that attempting to summon a higher being to vanquish our foes may not be the most logical course of action.”

“Then why are you leading us to the cave of the Shaman, the one man who knows the summoning ritual?”

“His cave goes deep underground, and is difficult to find. It will provide an adequate camp for tonight.”

We keep walking. I try to avoid looking at Grace, try to avoid thinking about anything that might get me too angry, but the pain won’t stop and rage won’t stop. Maybe I should just…

“Josh, can I ask you something?” Rachel asked.

I forced myself to re-enter the world around me, and respond, “Yeah, sure.”

She looked over at Grace, who was at the front of the pack, and then turned back to me and asked, “Do you really believe her? Her story about her brother?”

“I… I don’t know. She seems to think she’s telling the truth, and I want to believe her, but at the same time I don’t, and every fiber of my being is telling me she’s lying.”

“Josh, I don’t know Grace, but she really messed you up, that much is obvious. Why should you want to give her the benefit of the doubt? And your headache that you mentioned, how did she even know about that?”

“Well she obviously knows something, the problem is that I don’t know what to believe about her anymore; I have to take everything she says with about a kilogram of salt.”

“But she knew about the headache, and she said it’s doing something to you. Is it?”

“I don’t know… I think… so.”

Getting hard to focus…

“You don’t know her anymore, if you ever did, but she seems to know what’s happening to you. Do you think it’s possible she could be behind it?”

That caught me off guard a minute, but then I turned to Rachel and said, “What the hell are you suggesting? That Grace put this headache inside my skull?!”

“Weirder stuff had happened to us.”

She’s right, but she can’t be… need to control myself. Need to… need to get off this topic, need focus on something else. Something different, but relevant…

“What the hell is with you lately? Why are you, of all people, acting like this? This whole abrasive, confrontational super-bitch thing doesn’t exactly seem like you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Like hell you do! Ever since we’ve come back to this place you’ve been acting like a totally different person. Heck even before that, when I saw your life, arrogant superstar graphic artist didn’t seem to add up with how you behaved before! So what is going with you?!”

We had stopped walking at that point.

She paused a moment, and then said, “You know, what you said before, you were right: when you saw my life in that “white room” of yours, that was the ultimate invasion of privacy. And you’re completely changing the subject, by the way.”

“Yes, Rachel, I am, because this headache, this pain, is driving me actually, genuinely insane, so I’m trying to avoid letting myself get too angry so I don’t do something I regret. Our previous topic of discussion was only making me even more furious than I already was, so yes, I changed the subject because I’M TRYING NOT TO COMPLETELY LOSE IT!”

“Doing a real bang-up job, I see.”

“Um, guys,” Leo said, standing right in front of us, “Not to interrupt or anything, but we’re here.”

The entire platoon had stopped moving, and was standing directly in front of a cave. And they were all staring at us.

“I think I like that one best,” Rothgar said, pointing at Leo, “He seems very level-headed.”

“Yeah, yeah, let’s just get in the cave,” I said.

We walked into the cave, going forward down an incline. Torches were on both sides of the walls every few feet. We stopped at an enormous lake, so big I couldn’t see the other side of it. In the center of it, however, there was a small island, with an Achillionite sitting on it, meditating. He looked like he was about a hundred and ten years old, with more wrinkles than could be counted, and a snow white beard down to the floor.

He got up onto his feet and looked directly at the General, saying, “Hello, General Rothgar.”

“Hello, Shaman.”

“I take it you have finally come for my help.”

“Yes, Shaman,” Strathanx burst out.

“Do not speak out of turn, Lieutenant,” Rothgar said to him before turning to the Shaman, “We’ve come here for shelter.”

“I do not believe you,” the Shaman began, “I believe you wish for my services.”

“I wanted your services at the beginning of this war, when I first asked for them, when you denied them, you self-righteous son of a”-

“And I wished to provide them, but my ability to summon the Great Spirit only manifests in times of ultimate desperation, which I believe to be now. It is only now that I can help you.”

How convenient.

“And why should I believe you?” Rothgar asked.

“Because you lack other options. Yours are the last remaining fighters of the resistance. You are being bombarded by an enemy that pours down from the sky in limitless numbers with weapons and tactics that regularly demolish your forces. They are led by an evil conqueror of solar systems who wishes nothing more than to utterly destroy you. You are truly desperate, and I can help, a fact which you know in your heart. That is why you should believe me.”

Rothgar stood there in deep thought for several minutes, pondering the Shaman’s words, before finally saying, “Very well. Can we begin the ritual soon?”

The Shaman smiled, and said, “Immediately. I waited only for you, General.”

They got to work; the Shaman swam over to us, went over to a hole in the wall, and pulled out some candles and chalk. He drew a symbol, a triangle within a square within a circle, lit the candles around it, and stood in the center with the General.

“Take my hand General; the presence of a great leader is required for this to work,” The Shaman said, prompting the General to do as he said.

“Backara Baltala Madara Sooshock,” The Shaman began in what had to be some sort of ancient language of their religion; space Latin, if you will. He continued, “Eebtrush Ulongtwa Caranthall Soomwhya Krandishman Woogachacka.”

The ground began to shake, and fast winds began to blow despite our location. I guess it was working. Maybe they could beat them.

But then I heard something: an explosion, coming from outside the cave. As if the cave itself were being shot at. There were more, and the walls began to quaver violently. The soldiers and Koalabots raised their weapons and stood on guard, while the Shaman continued the ritual, speaking in his alien tongues. The General, however, looked more nervous than anyone else.

Rocks began to fall from the ceiling, first just pebbles, but then bigger and bigger ones. I looked at the tunnel that led us here, but knew that the enemy was waiting outside, fully prepared to shoot anyone who came out. Meanwhile, in front of us was a seemingly infinite lake, one that would be impractical to try to swim in to get away.

The wind was howling, but boulders were falling towards us now. The troops scattered; Leo, Rachel and I fled to a corner (did I trust Rachel?). Several soldiers were crushed underneath the boulders, their screams quickly silenced.

Those bastards; those alien bastards were gonna ruin everything! They were gonna kill all these soldiers who just wanted to protect their homes, and for what, fuel?! And the worst part of that is, knowing how my life works, I was gonna have to watch, and then I was gonna have to live on afterwards, and keep going through crap like this and keep watching awful things happen over and over again and not be able to do anything about, all because the universe just seems to hate me.

The ceiling completely collapsed. Several Koalabots tried shooting or grabbing the falling rocks, but to no avail. Most of the fighters were crushed instantly. Flying saucers began pouring in, firing indiscriminately, with what had to be the Mother Ship floating outside.

But then something happened: the Shaman stopped chanting. A light appeared in the sky outside. An entity began to take shape, a giant one composed entirely of green light. It was… a giant Koala.

That… explains one or two things, actually.

Chapter 21

The Great Koala Spirit was evidently not to be screwed with, as demonstrated by raising its paw and swatting the Mother Ship to the ground, destroying it. The gunships didn’t stop, though; they kept flying, kept shooting everything. The Koala took out a lot of them, but the ships thinned down the number of troops quite a bit.

Leo grabbed a gun off a dead body and started firing, getting a few hits in. Rachel and I followed his example.

It was pointless. It was completely pointless. Everyone kept getting killed. Even as the Koala scooped up ten ships in its paw at once and crushed them all, shrugging off shots from other ships at the same time, soldiers and Koalabots just kept falling, and it was obvious there was no winning this battle. But given my state of mind, it should surprise none of you that that just made me angrier and more determined.

But then the camel’s back was finally broken: a ship flew towards the Shaman and Rothgar, who still stood in the circle, hands joined.  The Koala reached down towards the ship, and about ten people, myself and Leo included, fired at the damn thing. I heard Grace scream for them to get out of the way, but they either didn’t hear or they couldn’t because of ceremony. Not that it mattered, it was too late anyway. The ship fired two rounds, one for each of them, both direct hits. Both men were dead before they hit the ground. The ship exploded from our fire. The Great Koala Spirit faded away. I heard one of the remaining three Achillionite soldiers scream with rage.

I heard another shot go off behind me, and I felt a round tear through my leg. I dropped to the ground, and then turned my head to find Grace crouching down and picking up her gun, which was aimed at me.

“Josh, please, you’ve gotta listen to me,” she said defensively while getting up, leaving the gun on the ground, “It was an accident, I swear. I fell over, and the gun fired when it hit the ground. I swear to you, I did not mean to do this.”

I ignored the pain and got up. I limped toward her, blood gushing out of my wound. I cocked my gun and continued to advance. I was gonna kill her…

“Josh, please stop. I didn’t mean to do this. You have to believe me. And I know you’re angry, but I’m telling you, this isn’t you; it’s the headache. It’s not just pain; it’s doing this to you. The white room, it affected you. It’s making you this way! You don’t want to do this!”

I stopped walking as I stood only a foot in front of her.

“But I do wanna do this,” I said in a low voice.

I raised the gun and placed it directly in front of her face. Kill her…

“Josh,” she whispered, “I know you don’t believe me. Not about my brother, not about what’s happening to you, not about anything. And I don’t blame you; I betrayed you. But the reason you felt so betrayed was because you thought you knew me, and you thought I loved you. And you were right: I do love you, and you do know me.”

LIAR!

“You do know me,” she continued, practically begging at this point, “and that is why you need to look me in the eyes and see that I’m telling the truth when I say that everything I did, I did because I had no choice, because I wanted to protect the people I love, because I was so convinced I could fix everything that I made everything even worse. I know what I’m saying doesn’t make sense, but you I know I’m telling the truth. Look me in the eyes, Josh. You know me.”

Kill her…

I looked her in the eyes. Do I know her, really?

Have to kill her… so much pain… head throbbing… on fire… have to kill her…

I could see in her eyes… she was telling the truth. But did I care at this point? All I seemed to care about anymore was my own anger; all I seemed to do anymore was feel sorry for myself and lash out at everyone around me.

Do I want to kill her? No, no I don’t want to, I’m not a killer, and I can’t kill her, but I, I have to. Someone has to pay… NO! No! Stop, have to stop.

I lowered the gun.

Grace. I don’t want to kill her. I don’t want to because… because I love her. I knew she wasn’t lying. No matter how little sense it made… I know her. And I know I need to stop being angry. I can’t keep being like this.

I fell to my knees. Tears began to stream down my face.

I couldn’t bring myself to look up at her, and all I could say was, “I’m sorry.”

“Me to,” she whispered.

Everything was okay again.

“Back away from him,” I heard Rachel say. I looked up to find her aiming a gun of her own at Grace’s head.

“Rachel, what the hell are you doing?!” I growled. I was still on the ground, as the pain was too severe for me to even consider getting up.

“Yeah, I’ve got a similar question as well,” Grace frowned, putting her hands up.

“I’m doing what Josh clearly doesn’t have the stones to do.”

“WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!” I shouted.

“We can’t trust her, Josh!”

“Yes, we can!”

“No, no we can’t! She is lying!”

“How would you even know that!? You don’t know her, you said so yourself!” I retorted.

That caught her off guard for a second.

“I… uh, I…,” she stuttered. But she didn’t lower her gun.

Grace was completely terrified; she genuinely was not expecting this. Have to help… but there’s too much pain to think straight. Need to fix this quick before I pass out.

“Why are doing this?! Why are being like this?! This isn’t you, Rachel!”

“YES, IT IS!” She screamed.

“No, no it’s not,” Leo said as he put the barrel of his gun against the back of Rachel’s head. He stood directly behind her, a look of utter contempt in his eyes.

“Leo, put the gun down,” Rachel hissed.

“Put yours down first,” he responded, “Josh is right, this… this isn’t you. I don’t know why you’ve been acting like this lately, but you need to stop. Just stop. Put it down.”

“You seriously believe we can have Grace around and not be in danger? You honestly think that after what she did to you?! She left you two dying on the side of a mountain, for God’s sake!”

“Yes, yes… I do, because I believe she’s telling the truth,” Leo continued.

“Why?!”

“Because Josh thinks she is. Josh knows her better than either of us. And if he genuinely believes, in his current… state of mind, no less, that she’s telling the truth, that she’s trustworthy, than she is. Rachel, I don’t know why you’re being like this or, or where this is coming from, but it has to stop. Now put the gun down.”

I was listening with great interest to every word Leo said, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but recall that we never actually told Rachel what Grace did.

And there was one other thing I noticed.

“Guys, why is everything around us frozen?” I asked.

They all paused and looked around: the remaining space ships were completely immobile in the air, and weren’t making any noise. Debris falling to the ground was stuck in one place. A ripple in the lake had come grinding to a halt. It was like we were in a photograph of the battle.

Grace sighed, and then shouted, “Mark, they saw! You have to stop now! You know you have to stop! Listen to reason for once!”

What the hell is she-

Static.

I opened my eyes, and all four of us were in the whiteness, in the exact same positions we were in moments earlier. I looked over at Rachel and couldn’t help but notice that something seemed really off about her face-

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” I screamed.

It was at that moment that the pain finally became too much.  

  Chapter 22

Wake up… wake up…have to wake up… I can hear something… people talking.

“What’s wrong with her!?” I heard Leo scream. I looked up, and he was looking directly at Rachel; she was standing completely still.

“Oh God, Mark, please tell me you didn’t”- Grace started.

“Yeah, I did, actually. What do you want, an apology? I’m not really into those,” a new voice, presumably Mark’s, said.

We weren’t in the white room anymore; we were in some kind of bunker. The walls were all metal, save for a door on each side. To the side of me, there was a row of computer monitors and hard drives, but only one keyboard.

Head still hurt… need to figure out what’s going on. I was on the ground, belly-down. I could barely keep my eyes open. Why is Rachel just standing there like that? She hasn’t even said anything.

“What did you do to her!?” Leo screamed.

“Nothing,” Mark began, “She’s just… been returned to factory settings, I suppose.”

The source of Mark’s voice was a weird looking skinny kid, probably only a few years younger than me. Leo walked over to him, grabbed him by the lapel, and pushed him against the wall.

“Fix her,” he said. I’d never seen him this angry before.

“Leo, put him down or he won’t agree to anything,” Grace pleaded.

“She’s right you know; I won’t,” Mark sneered.

Leo dropped Mark.

“Hey, guys…” I muttered. So much pain… can barely even talk…, “Where are we?”

“Josh!” Grace exclaimed as she rushed over to me.

“Help me up,” I said weakly, and she complied, lifting me to my feet and supporting me.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” she said to me.

“Ah, aaahhh…” I cringed, putting my hand against my head.

“Josh, are you”- Leo started.

“No, I’m not. Definitely not. Now, would someone like to explain where we are?” I responded.

“You’re in my office,” Mark said.   

“I take it you’re Grace’s brother.”

He clapped sarcastically.   

“So I assume you’re responsible for everything that’s happened to us?”

“Two for two, not bad,” he snarked (oh, he shouldn’t have done that).

I charged at him, tackling him and knocking him to the ground. I threw one punch after another directly at his face. Every time he tried to counter with a punch of his own or a kick, I blocked and hit him again and again and again…

I stopped.

I’m just giving in again, I’m just letting my anger get the better of me, I need to let go, I need to control myself…

I got up. Well, that’s a step in the right direction.

“What, that’s it?” Mark said as he rose to his feet, wiping the blood away as it trickled out of his crushed nose.

“Don’t tempt me,” I hissed.

“Josh, don’t,” Grace said, “He’s the only one who can fix you. And he’s going to.”

“And why is he gonna do that, after everything he’s put us through? Out of the goodness of his heart?”

“Because he knows we’re done playing his game. We’re here, and he can’t make us do anything anymore. And he’s scared Leo’s gonna kill him.”

I looked over at Leo and said, “Seems a bit extreme, don’t you think? I mean, he probably deserves it, but,”-

Leo pointed at something. I looked behind me to see what it was, and I saw Rachel. She was standing in the corner, completely catatonic. Her eyes had no life in them at all, as if they were made of glass. She was like a life-sized doll, crafted to look as real as possible and seeming completely inhuman as a result.

“Rachel?” I asked.

“She can’t hear you,” Mark said.

“What did you do?”

“That is a long story that can wait until you’ve had your headache taken care of. Now, if you’ll just follow me.”

“I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“Look, you’ve got maybe five more minutes before that headache of yours starts doing permanent brain damage, so I have to recommend you come with me.”

“How do I know you won’t send me back to Achillionite 5 or something?”

“We won’t let him,” Leo said menacingly. Damn, he can be scary.

“Fine,” I said.

“Great,” Mark deadpanned as he walked over to a door at the back of the room. He opened it. It led back into the whiteness.

“Are you crazy?! I’m not going back in there!” I protested.

“It’s the only thing that’ll help, Josh,” Grace reassured me.

I believed her. I don’t have to trust him, but I trust her, and that’s enough.

I looked around at all four of them, then took a deep breath before walking towards the door. My headache grew more painful with each step I took. My nose started bleeding. I could’ve sworn I heard Mark chuckle about it.

I walked through the door. My head felt like it was on fire, and I dropped to the ground. The door closed behind me and vanished.

The white roomed turned pitch black, then red, then blue, then every other color. It switched at an alarming rate. I felt dizzy, but aside from that, I felt the pain alleviating. And then, after a few minutes, it was completely gone. It was heavenly. The room turned white again, and the door reappeared. I stood up, opened it, and walked inside.

Mark sat at his computer. Grace and Leo hurried over to me. Rachel… stayed where she was. Grace hugged me, and I gave her a kiss, and for the first time in a while, I smiled.

Leo stood there somewhat awkwardly as Grace and I left our embrace.

“Glad you’re, uh, glad you’re better, Josh,” he started.

I opened my arms and simply said, “Come on, bring it in.”

A guy hug ensued. It was awesome.

“How touching,” Mark rolled his eyes as he opened a drawer in his computer stand. He pulled out a gun. We all froze, and, to our surprise, he strolled over to Rachel and put the gun against the back of her head.

“Now,” he grinned, “Who wants to hear a story?”

Chapter 23

“Now, Grace, you’ve already heard most of this one, I know, but I am gonna have to ask you to keep quiet, try not to spoil anything, okay?” Mark asked, the barrel of the gun pressing directly against the back of Rachel’s skull. “I mean after all, Josh and Leo have never heard this before, and if you give anything away, the story just won’t have the same impact.”

“We already know about the mental institution. And the dog,” Leo spat out. The glare he was giving Mark was the stuff nightmares are made of, and there was this… calm about him, as if he’d never been this focused or determined about anything before.

“Yeah, I know you know that. I heard Grace tell you,” Mark replied, “What you don’t know is what happened after, how we got here.”

“And why are you going to tell us?”

Mark paused a moment and face-palmed, as if he’d just been asked a stupid question, and responded, “Don’t you want to know?”

“Not really.”

“Um, what?” I asked Leo as I looked over at him.

“I don’t want to know; I honestly don’t care about any of that,” he said.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?!” Mark fumed.

“It means exactly what it sounds like.”

“What are you talking about?! And don’t you have a stutter?!”

“It goes away when I get angry enough; it doesn’t happen a lot. Now I don’t care about this ‘big reveal’ stuff; just put Rachel back to normal, send us back to the story, and we can all pretend this didn’t happen.”

“Heh?” was all I could say.

“Leo, are you feeling okay?” Grace asked.

“Jesus, and you guys all think I’m the crazy one,” Mark giggled.

“Leo, seriously, you are not being logical right now,” I pleaded, “I mean you cannot want to go back that.”

“And… why would I want to go back to real life,” Leo countered, “You saw my entire life, Josh; did, did you see… anything worth going back to?” Tears were falling out of his eyes. “At least there, in those stories, I, I accomplished things. I know none of it was real, but there, I was good; I was great. I, I, I saved the day, I saved your life and Grace’s and… and Rachel’s. I had a place, I had a purpose, one that was actually fulfilling, and I… thrived. I had friends, Josh; for the first time in my life, I had friends. I had… what I didn’t have in the, in the real world,” he was sobbing at this point.

Then he turned to Grace and said, “But then you, you ruined it; you betrayed me and Josh, and you ruined both of us, you hurt both of us. And then Rachel showed up, and I thought it could be like it was, but then she became, she became someone else, and now, and now I don’t even who she is or what she is or what any of this is, and I don’t want to. I can’t know the truth, or else it’ll all be ruined, the magic… will… be gone. None of it will be, will be real. I just want to go back to the way it was. I was happy there.”

Leo fell to his knees, his weeping echoing throughout the room. I had no words. All Grace and I could do was stare.

Mark, however, had other ideas.

“You interrupted me,” he said, visibly and audibly angry, “that’s not very polite.”

He walked over and kicked Leo in the face.

“Hey!” I screamed as I ran at him, fist raised. But Mark raised his gun and pointed it towards me.

“Nope,” he said, brandishing his weapon, “Not happening. You’re all just gonna stand there and you’re gonna listen to my story. You’re all gonna listen. EVERYONE IS GONNA LISTEN! UNDERSTAND?!”

He took a deep breath, cracked his neck, and continued, “Understand? And no interruptions this time.”

He kicked Leo in the gut and then walked back over to Rachel.

He started back up again, and said, “Now, like our friend Leo here, I’ve always preferred stories to real life. Real life just never did it for me. Watched every show and saw every movie and read every book when I was a kid. So, I always wanted to tell stories of my own; it just seemed logical. After I got out of the psych ward, I decided to pursue this goal. But I found I lacked… inspiration. Specifically with characters; I’ve never really understood people; a lot of them just kinda bug me, so I ignore them. It’s one of the parts of real life I don’t care for. But then one day, I was just walking around in the woods, looking to nature for ideas, and I found this bunker. I went inside, checked all the doors, and behind one of them was the white room. I went in there, and all my thoughts manifested, showed up out of nowhere and presented themselves. It hurt a bit, and when I closed my eyes, I found my life flashing before them. That’s what happened to you Josh, in case you haven’t pieced it together; and when you touched your friends, you were treated to their secret origins. You were conscious in there for way too long though, that’s why you almost went crazy, the room messed with your head; it set the rage-ometer up to eleven, but I digress.

“And then I tried the keyboard there, and found that whatever I wrote became true in there; I could control everything. Now, naturally at first I thought it must be some kind of hologram or something, but that’s the funny thing, it’s not. I checked every inch of this place up and down ten times over. Aside from the computers, which aren’t even plugged into anything, there’s no wires, no circuits, no machines. The white room goes on forever. So then I realized what it must be: a new world. One beyond ours that hasn’t been created yet, because it lacks a god to rule it. That god is me: I am the creator, and back there is my brainchild. So I got to work creating, telling my stories, building worlds. Nothing was ever good enough, though, so I was constantly starting over from scratch. Part of it was the people there, they just weren’t… people. I still didn’t understand those, so I needed some real ones. And then I remembered my loving sister, who was all too willing to come visit me when I called. Then I tranqued her, and I brought her here. But I knew one wasn’t enough, and then I got lucky enough to find you, Josh, horribly injured on the side of the road near here; Leo was a bonus. I decided to put you guys in a story, see how you behaved, get a feel for how real people act, you know? But, after I dumped you two here, it was to my pleasant surprise that I learned you were my dear sister’s ex-boyfriend. It’s a small world after all. But then you guys solved the conflict of the story, and I got writers block, so I decided to start over again, and then more or less the same thing happened, and you know how the rest of this goes.

“But still, I figured that you two being exes could make for some interesting drama, but noooooo, you two just had to make up and get back together and be all lovey-dovey. You were too happy, and happy is… boring; true art is angsty, man. So, after you finished that western story with the zombies, I stopped the train, pulled Grace out, told her… not everything, but enough. And then I told her that at the end of the next arc, she had to… well, you were there, you know how it went down. And I promised that if she didn’t go through with it, I’d killed you. How’s it go? You always hurt the one you love? That’s it. With you hurting, you instantly became ten times more interesting. I just kept Grace hostage here in the meantime till I figured out what to do with her. But then you got your headache, I figured it would be a good time to bring her back in, squeeze some good drama out of you two kids. I was hoping you’d kill her, to be honest; that would’ve been so epic. But nooooooooo, she just had to blab about me, and you just had learn self-restraint. You guys really disappoint me, I mean that was so anti-climactic.”

“And what about Rachel?” I asked.

“I was getting to that,” Mark said as he walked over to her, brushing a strand of her hair to the side, “See, after Grace left, I felt that the dynamic between you and Leo… was good, but it was missing something: a strong female presence, that’s what was needed. But I wanted it to be one I could control, one whose actions would fill whatever role was needed. So I created one: I created Rachel. She’s my very favorite creation: she thinks she’s like you, but really she’s… whatever I want her to be.”

I…

Mark continued, “She was so perfect, too: she was all sweet and sympathetic and compassionate at first, made you feel guilty about not trusting her, it was great. But then I had to take some time off to deal with Grace, plot out the Achillionite Five sequel, so I left you guys in the white room. And then I got back in time for you to see Leo and Rachel’s lives. Course, Rachel didn’t have one, so I invented a backstory… which was totally inconsistent with her previously established characterization, but hey, everyone makes mistakes. So I changed her, made her a bitch. Probably for the best, too; it really helped to heighten the tension. But then, as our climax neared, I was so caught up in writing for Rachel that I forgot to write everything going on in the background, and… well, you know the rest. And here we are. I always wondered what would happen if one of my characters left the story, and I guess now we know. And knowing is half the battle.”

“Why did you tell us all that?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“Not really,” Grace said.

“It’s because I have to,” Mark grinned while we all shot him blank looks, “Don’t you get it? I’m the bad guy! I’m the villain of this story! Just look at what I’m doing to you suckers; and I enjoy it! I’m a freaking monster, guys, and I love it. And as the bad guy, it is my duty to tell you what’s going on, to tell you what my plan is. You have to know at some point, or this’ll have all been totally futile. I mean, can you imagine how unsatisfying it would be if none of you ever learned the truth. I’m doing this for the story, because that’s the job it’s given me, and I’m going to do it to the fullest extent of my abilities. I am going to be the best possible villain I can be. Speaking of which, time’s up: get back in the white room.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Grace asked nervously.

“Seriously? You weren’t expecting this? You’re all going back in. Did you really think I’d just let you go? You guys are way too much fun for me to even consider that. So go on, get going.”’

“Not happening,” I said.

“What’d you just say?”

“I’m not going back in there. I’m done being jerked around. I’ve been taking people’s crap all my life, and yeah, I probably had a lot of it coming, but I don’t deserve this; none of us deserve this.”

“Shut up,” he hissed.

“None of us deserve to be stuck in there at the mercy of some pathetic psychopath who never grew up. None of us deserve to be physically and emotionally tormented like that. None of us deserve to be trapped living out your lousy writing, you twisted, untalented bastard. I’m done with this. Now if you wanna shoot me, shoot me, at least then I won’t have to deal this bullshit anymore.”

Mark, for the first time since I met him, was completely silent.

“…Okay…,” he uttered after a few moments, “fine. Have it your way.”

BANG!

Chapter 24

I collapse.

I fall onto my knees, and then onto my stomach. Blood is pouring out.

I roll over onto my back to try to slow the bleeding. The results are mixed.

Little bastard shot me. He shot me in the stomach. Screw personal growth, as soon as I get up, I’m gonna rearrange his face.

I hear Grace scream (there’s been a lot of that lately). I see Leo start to finally get up, but as soon as he’s on his feet, Mark fires a round through his stomach as well, causing him to join me on the floor.

“Don’t ever try to call my bluff. It won’t end well for you,” Mark said.

I start to say something under my breath.

“What’s that?” Mark asks rhetorically.

“First, I’m gonna rip off your nose and force feed it to you. Then I’m gonna tear off one of your ears and stick it where your nose used to be…” I responded.

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m gonna rearrange your face. Those are my design plans. Just have to get up first.”

“Yeah, sure.”

Slowly, very slowly, but surely none the less, I turned back over onto my stomach, one hand covering bullet wound. From there, with my spare hand and my (oh thank You God) still functioning legs, I rise. I ignore the pain. Even as the blood leaks out from between my fingers, I am not going to let this punk think he’s got anything on me.

I stand there and look him in the eyes. He’s staring at me in shock.

“Don’t ever try to call my bluff. I’ve done a lot more than that with a bullet in my gut.”

“I’ll just shoot you again. I’ll kill you.”

“No you won’t.”

“I WILL!”

“If you were going to, you would’ve already. It’s like you said: we’re too much fun to get rid of. You need us. You’re pathetic.”

“SHUT UP!!!!”

“Not until the day I die.”

He screamed, pistol-whipped me, and then tackled me to the floor. He started to punch me, and I tried to resist, but between him and the blood loss, it wasn’t easy. Fortunately for me, Grace chose that moment to rush over and press the soft spot behind her little brother’s ear, rendering him unconscious.

He fell on me, and she pulled him off, but not without taking the gun out of his hands.

“I love you,” I said.

“I know.”

She helped me to my feet, and we went over to Leo and helped him up.

“Think there’s a first aid kit in here anywhere?” I asked.

“Knowing Mark, I doubt it; he’s not really the personal safety type,” she answered, “We’re just gonna have get out of here, get you two to a hospital.”

“Wait,” Leo interjected, “What about Rachel?”

It was good question, good enough to stop each of us in our tracks.

“I have an idea,” I finally said, “Why don’t we just use the white room to heal us, and then we figure out what to do about Rachel. Grace, if Leo and I go in, do you think you can…?”

“Of course. And I’ll deal with Mark if he wakes up.”

We leaned on her as we limped over to the door. We opened it, and as I stepped inside, apprehension bubbled up within me.

This is the last time, don’t worry about it. This is the last time I’m ever gonna set foot in here.

Grace closed the door, and Leo and I used every ounce of willpower we had to stay on our feet.

There was no hallucinogenic-inspired light show like last time; we just stood there, and the bullets fell out of our respective stomachs, and the wounds healed themselves. I looked over at Leo, and he was looking around almost longingly.

Ah, God, what the hell are we gonna do? He doesn’t wanna leave, and maybe he has a point; maybe his life wasn’t worth going back to. But he can’t just stay here and reject the real world. Can he?

Could I? Did I have anything worth going back to? I mean, I’d certainly done a fine job of screwing my life, but it couldn’t be beyond repair. And granted, who knows how long we’ve all been gone. Maybe enough time has passed that we can start over. Not that a guy who got expelled from college, has only ever worked at a grocery store (which he was fired from), and possesses very few actual skills has much going for him and oh crap the seeds of doubt have officially been planted.

I’d just need to talk to Leo, get him to see my point of view… hopefully before he gets me to agree with his. Christ.

The (physical) healing finished and the door opened up. I motioned for Leo to go first. He didn’t say anything as we walked back into the bunker.

Grace smiled as she said, “Yeah, you guys both look much better without the horrific injuries and”-

She cut herself off as she looked at something behind us. We turned around to find that Mark had woken up and crawled his way over to a door at the other side of the room. He got up and leaned against the handle. Grace aimed the gun.

“Man, today is just a great day for bluff-calling, don’t you think, sis?” he said with an evil grin, “Yeah, stop kidding around, you don’t have it in you, not without the proper motivation anyway. Now, one of these doors leads outside. Not this one though, I checked. You guys wanna see what’s on the other side?”  

He yanked the door open, and it was pitch black through the doorway. That wasn’t the thing that got our attention, though; what got our attention was the apparent vortex on the other side, as some kind of powerful wind was pulling us towards it. We all grabbed onto the wall or the computer or something, holding on for dear life. Leo reached out and grabbed Rachel’s hand. Pieces of the floor were being torn up and sucked in. So were pieces of the wall, the ceiling, the door to the white room. Then the whiteness itself started seeping out and pouring through the door.

“Ah, there it is,” Mark said as he held onto the frame of the door, his body inches from the other side, “That’s what I was waiting for. But first, I’d like to take back what’s mine.”

He grabbed a piece of debris as it flew towards him, and, with all his strength, threw it directly at Leo’s head. Leo was stunned for a moment, and he let go of Rachel. She fell through the door.

“NO!” Leo screamed. He released his grip on the wall and went in after her.

“LEO!!!” I shouted, while Grace screamed, “NO! YOU CAN’T!”

“Heh, even better,” Mark chuckled as his hands slid off the door, “So long guys! It’s been real!”

We both just… hung there as the room fell apart around us, being consumed by whatever was on the other side of that door.

No.

“We have to go in after them!” I yelled, “they’re our friends! Leo is your friend, and we owe it to him! And we owe it to Rachel, too, no matter who… or… what she is! It doesn’t matter, it’s”-

“It’s the right thing to do? Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing.”

She gave me a weak smile and then let go; I followed her.

It’s funny: just five minutes earlier I was thinking that I’d finally be able to leave this all behind, that the story would finally be over. How naïve of me.

Chapter 25

I hate my life. Not even exaggerating, I legitimately hate it right now.

Oh great, there I am, back to being a whiny little bitch. Look at how much progress I’ve made as a person.

Wait, where the hell am I?

I’m on a hill of some sort. Very green, trees above, below, and around me. The night sky is lit by the stars and moon. I’m almost tempted to look around for a camera somewhere, make sure I’m not in a reboot of the worst found footage horror franchise of all time.

“JOSH!” I hear a voice cry out in the distance. Grace.

The voice came from further up the mountain, and I ran towards it as fast as my legs would carry me…

…and then, naturally, Grace and I crashed into each other.  

“Ow,” Grace said as she got up, “You’ve gotta watch where you’re going there, guy; you’re a bit of a safety hazard.”

“Oh, trust me, I know,” I responded as I got back on my feet.

She smiled at me a moment, and then things got serious (man, why does that keep happening?).

“So, now what?”

“First order of business probably ought to be figuring where we are,” I replied, “Then we get work on everything else.”

“Sounds like a good place to start.”

We began the trek downhill.

“So, what’s your best guess?” I asked Grace as we walked.

She sighed, and then said, “Best case scenario, that door spat us out somewhere in the real world.”

“And worst case? Cause let’s be real, it’s probably not the best case, given our luck.”

“Worst case… we’re in some other wannabe writer’s sandbox.”

“You think that’s possible? You think there could be others?”

“Well I don’t think anything’s really off the table anymore, in light of recent events.”

“Fair point.”

“Hopefully we’re not in another pile of ultra-violence. Maybe if we’re lucky we’re in some kind of, I don’t know, stoner comedy; that’d be a nice change of pace.”

We reached the base of the hill, and then after that, a town. It was dawn by that point, and the scenery quickly revealed we were in a beachside suburb. Temperature said early summer. I was reminded briefly of where I grew up; it looks a little like this, but there’s no way I could be back there, that’d be way too convenient, and frankly, this place is too idyllic. And it was with that conclusion that my hopes this was reality began to diminish.

Grace and I heard a bell at the center of the square start to ring- the clock underneath it said it was seven AM. But then it was as if time… not sped up, but… started playing hopscotch. How can I explain it?

A woman walks up to a swim gear shop and goes inside, and then it’s like the scene cut- suddenly the shop was opened and it had a few customers. And according to the clock, it was half an hour later. Then there was another cut, and it was 8:45, and the shop had more customers, new ones. Cars were driving around the square, and every store was opened.

Cut. It’s almost ten, and the swim gear shop was filled to the brim with people.

This answered the question of where we were pretty thoroughly, and as much as I wanted to scream and swear and break something, and I didn’t, because I had gone through the door; I decided, of my own free will, to go even deeper down the rabbit hole, having no idea where it would lead. I made my choice, and now I have to live with it. And honestly, given the way that door was behaving, I shouldn’t be that surprised this happened. There is no point whatsoever in-HOLY CRAP!

“Uh, Grace.”

“Yeah, Josh, I know; we must be in another white room.”

“No, I don’t mean that.”

“Then what is it?”

“That,” I said pointing into the window of the swim gear shop.

“Oh. Um….”

“Yeah, my thoughts exactly.”

We walked into the crowded swim gear shop, worming our way through armies of buff, shirtless men who made me feel inadequate, as well as fit, bikini-clad women who I knew I really shouldn’t be staring at in front of my girlfriend. We made it to the front desk, and behind it was Rachel, looking at a computer. We stood right in front of her until she finally looked up.

“Josh? Grace? Hey you guys!” She said… perkily. It was really unnerving.

She walked around the desk and then over to us, hugging us both. Okay, now I’m really freaked out. So much so that I just stood there like a complete jackass, totally unsure of how to proceed. Grace was evidently in the same boat judging by her silence and the wideness of her eyes.

Rachel ended the embrace, then turned to a saleswoman and said, “Hey, Betty, I’m just gonna step out for a sec, okay?”

“Sure thing, Rache.”

She walked out the back door, and we followed her because the hell else were we gonna do?

We all stood in the store’s back parking lot.

“Well,” Rachel said, “Don’t you guys have anything to say?”

“Um, hi Rachel,” was all I could muster. She raised an eyebrow.

“How long have you been here, exactly?” I asked.

“Few weeks,” she said casually.

“A few weeks?”

“Yeah, or at least, a few weeks have passed on the calendar; it’s felt more like thirty minutes. I kind of came to inside the shop; I was selling a surfboard to an old lady and decided to go with it, kill time until I found one of you guys. Speaking of which, I take it there haven’t been any Leo sightings?”

“No, no there haven’t.”

I found it bizarre that Grace hadn’t spoken once this entire time, but then something dawned on me: she’d only ever met the other Rachel, the rewritten one, the one who tried to kill her. To me, this just came off as Rachel regressing back to how she was when I met her. To Grace, this probably seemed like a different woman altogether, a nice person wearing the face of a lunatic, or worse, or lunatic posing as a nice person.

“Rachel, I need to ask you something.”

“Okay, shoot.”

“How much do you remember?”

“What do you mean? I remember…” she started before pausing. She looked at the ground and started rubbing temples. “Ah…” she groaned, her voice exuding pain.

She looked back up, turned to Grace, and growled, “I remember you, you bitch!”

Grace looked at her in shock a moment, and then Rachel tackled her, pinning her to the ground and striking her over and over.

That is not a good sign.

Chapter 26

I rushed over and yanked Rachel away before any permanent damage could occur. She was struggling, though, and it was difficult for me to keep her under control.

“Let me go!” She screamed.

“Really? You want me to let you go after what you just did? You think I’m stupid, don’t you?”

“At the moment, yes.”

“Yeah, your stock is plummeting,” I deadpanned.

She sighed, and then gritted through her teeth, “Josh, will you PLEASE let me go so I can… contend with the evil manipulative traitor over there?”

“Well screw you too,” Grace said sourly as she got up. Blood was leaking out of her nose, and made a futile attempt to wipe it away.

“Rachel,” I began, “How about you stop and think about what you’ve just asked me to do; consider, for a moment, why I might not want to release you so can go violently attack my girlfriend.”

“Stop condescending me; I am not a child!”

“Childish isn’t really the word I’d used to describe you right now.”

“Yeah, psychotic seems a bit more apt,” Grace offered.

“Well screw you too,” Rachel muttered. She had finally stopped struggling.  

“Look, Rachel,” Grace started as she walked towards us, “I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but I want to help, okay? I really do. What my brother did to you was”-

“Oh great, it’s the brother B.S. again. Would you quit it with that story already?! Unlike certain other individuals, it’s not gonna work on me.”

Grace paused. “You really don’t remember, do you?” She asked.

“Remember what?”

“How could she?” I responded, “She wasn’t really awake when it happened.”

“What are you two talking about?”

“Should we tell her?” I asked Grace.

“Tell me what?”

“I’m not sure; I mean, we have no clue what it could do to her,” Grace said.

“Could one of you maybe explain what’s going on!?” Rachel screamed.

“…You know what, I could, but I won’t, because if I did, you wouldn’t believe me, and even if you did, you’d have a big enough existential crisis to give Alphonse Elric a run for his money,” I said flatly.

“Hold on a sec, let me try something,” Grace said, “Rachel, just try to remember how you got here. How did you wind up in this story?”

Rachel rolled her eyes and answered, “I wound up in this story when…I… ah…”.

She was in pain again for a moment, until she shook her head, and then looked around, as if she was confused.

“Josh, what are you doing?” She asked, her voice completely sans anger.

I let her go. Okay, so we’ve got a nice Rachel and a not-nice Rachel; Rachel before and after I saw her memories. Oh, this can only end badly.

“Grace, why are you looking at me like that,” she asked with genuine confusion.

“Just, uh, a little perplexed, I guess,” Grace replied, equally unsure of what was going on.

“Well, that makes two of us.”

It’s just now occurring to me that for the first time since this mess started- hell, probably in my entire life-, I am the only one who has all the facts about the present situation. It’s an odd experience, and for a moment, I almost feel proud of myself, but then I realize I did absolutely nothing to learn these things (save for not die, anyway) and none of the information I have brings me any closer to solving my current set problems. Hooray.

Just then Rachel’s co-worker, apparently named Betty, opened the back door, popped her head out, and said, “Hey, Rachel, can you come back in now?”

“Um, yeah, sure thing Betty.”

Rachel walked back inside and we followed her because the hell else were we gonna do?

“What do we do?” Grace whispered to me.

“I don’t know.”

“Well think of something!”

“Why don’t you think of- hold a second.”

I then noticed two attractive twenty-somethings standing beside the front door.

“I love you baby. I love you to death and beyond,” the guy said.

“Then why did you cheat on me with that skank?” the girl cried.

“I swear it was a mistake, baby; I was weak, I had a moment of weakness. It’ll never happen again because it’s only you, baby; it’s only you.”

“Why should I believe you?”

“Because, if you’ll stay with me, I’ll never surf again.”

“You’d do that for me?! You must love me, you sexy animal!”

(Dear God, whoever’s writing this one is even worse than Mark).

“I have an idea,” I said nervously.

“But…?” She asked, an eyebrow cocked.

“You’re gonna hate me for this. And Rachel’s gonna hate me for this. And I’m gonna hate me for this. And whoever’s party this is will most definitely hate me for this.”

“Oh no, please tell me you’re not thinking of”-

“Yep.”

I marched over to Rachel, pushing the customers waiting in line away so I could get to the front.”

“Yes, Josh?” Rachel inquired.

“Mark.”

Rachel was physically taken aback, bumping into the wall behind her as she closed her eyes and groaned in pain. She opened her eyes, looked at Grace, and then screamed with rage as she charged at her. I tackled her just as she made it out from behind the desk.

Most of the shoppers just stared at us, but Betty came over and yelled, “What the hell are you doing?!”

“I’d like to speak with whoever’s in charge,” I said from the floor, trying to prevent Rachel from doing something volatile.

“That would be me,” Betty said sternly.

“No, not you, the scribe; come on, drop the act, pull down the curtain, I need to talk to you right now! I’ve got something to say, and I’m gonna need to say it to your face!”

Everything but Rachel, Grace, and I froze. Then it all faded into white. A white room. Another one. And then, about twenty feet away from where I was holding Rachel, a door appeared and then opened.

On the other side was a petite woman, somewhere in her thirties. “Well,” she asked impatiently, “What do you want?”

Chapter 27

Now before you ask the obvious question of, “if I wanted to talk to the writer, why didn’t I just scream ‘I need to talk to you’ at the sky,” I’d like to point two things out: first, if this writer is anything like Mark, which I have assume they are at least a little given the God-complex this sort of situation could give someone, then I’d need some serious chaos to get their attention, something to let them know that the story isn’t under their control anymore, so they’d be willing to end the show and talk. Second, if you were writing a story and a character randomly started insisting they were an actual person and wanted to talk to you, would you interpret that literally? I wouldn’t; I’d assume that was something I wrote while I was drunk and then delete it.

Moving on.

I looked over at Rachel, who was still conscious. Alright, now we’re getting somewhere.

“Are you gonna invite us in?” I asked the woman.

“Are you gonna keep being an ass?”

“…Touché.”

The three of us walked through the door, and we found ourselves in pretty much a carbon copy of Mark’s bunker. But when Rachel stepped through, she went catatonic again, slipping back into that glass-eyed doll-like, nightmare-haunting state she’d been in before. Not thinking, I pushed her back into the white room.

“What the hell was that for?” She asked, irritated.

“Yeah, what was that about?” The woman asked.

“Rachel… stick your hand through the doorway,” I said to her.

“Alright,” She asked skeptically (there may’ve been an eye roll involved).

She put out her right arm and slowly inched it into the archway. But then she closed her eyes, and her entire posture and stance conveyed complete exhaustion. She rubbed her eyes with her left hand, pulling back her right, and then she went completely back to normal.

“What was that?” She asked.

“Try again,” was all I could say.

She did, and before her hand made it three inches through, she fell to her knees, and was breathing heavily. She retracted her hand once more, and regained her energy.

“Seriously, what just happened?” she inquired nervously.

“Oh God,” the woman said, pure horror painted onto her face, “How did you… she’s…”

“Yeah, she is,” Grace told her.

“I’m what?” Rachel asked.

“I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry.”

“Don’t be, it’s not your fault. It’s my brothers’.”

“Your brothers, right…” Rachel started, but then the change happened again. Headache, eyes shut, groan- we were gonna get nice Rachel back right here and now. This is gonna hurt.

“Guys,” Rachel said in a frightened tone of voice, “What’s going on? What’s… what’s happening to me?” She started sobbing.

“Look, I don’t know you, and I’m not completely sure what’s going on, but”- our host began.

“Right now, you’re in the white room,” Grace cut her off, “That’s the realm of fiction, for lack of a better word. And things from there, people from there… aren’t supposed to come over into the real world. That’s why you keep…”

She didn’t need to finish, Rachel had gotten the message.

Have you ever seen glass shatter into a million pieces? Imagine that happening to a person.

“How did this happen?” The woman wanted to know.

“It’s kind of a long story,” I replied.

“I’ve got time.”

I opened my mouth to tell her, but then I saw Rachel, collapsed on the floor of the white room, balling her eyes out.

I turned to Grace and said, “Can you tell her? I have to”-

“Yeah. Yes, go ahead.”

I heard Grace begin our story as I walked through the doorway back into the whiteness, assuming that as long as the front door was opened it didn’t mess with your head. I stopped in front of Rachel and crouched down.

“Look, I can’t even begin to imagine what you’re feeling right now, and there’s probably not a whole lot I can do or say to make things better, but for what it’s worth, where you came from doesn’t matter to me; you’re my friend, Rachel, that’s the important part. And that’s why I’m gonna help you get through this.”

She didn’t respond, and for the first time since I don’t even know when, I was at a loss for words.

I sat there for a few minutes before she finally asked me a question: “How long have you known?”

“I just found out myself all of… three hours ago, I guess.”

“So why’d you bring me here?”

“Because there’s two Rachel’s; there’s the one I met in that forest, the one I’m talking to right now, and there’s the other, the one who tried to kill Grace...”

“Yeah, I know about her now, the other one; I can feel her kicking around in my head.”

“You can?”

“Now that… now that I know, yeah; I guess I could feel something kicking around in my brain before, but I wasn’t sure what it was until now. So she’s me after Mark rewrote me, right?”

“You remember?”

“More or less; I think I was blocking it out before, and switching between us was how I kept myself from remembering. Going through that weird portal must have divided us in two.” She paused for a moment, and then continued, “Huh, how about that: I’m two different people, and neither of them is real.”

“Rachel, don’t”-

“Talk like that? Why not, Josh? It’s the truth.”

Grace and our host approached us at that moment.

“Hey, so I told her everything,” Grace said.

“And I’m sorry for what’s happened to you guys. I’m Beth, by the way.”

“Nice to meet you,” I offered.

“So Grace here also told me about your friend Leo,” Beth started, “And if you guys want, I might be able to help you find him.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Not much, but I can point you in the right direction.”

“Let’s do it,” Rachel said.

“Wait,” Grace interrupted, “Are you sure you’re up for that?”

“No, but I have to do something, and finding Leo is important,” she said as she got up.

“Great, there’s just one thing,” Beth said, “you have through one of the portal doors. That one, to be specific,” She pointed through the bunker to one of the doors on the side.

“Fine.”

“Alright, if you’re sure about this.”

“I am.”

She walked through the doorway into the bunker without hesitation, and then I watched the life drain out of her. Grace and I carried her over to the portal door, and it felt about as wrong as you’d expect it to.

“So these things connect all the different bunkers?” I asked rhetorically.

“Correct. Now, there is a very slim chance you’ll wind up in the same story as Leo on your first try, so you’ll probably have to get in touch with a few of the authors. You could be looking for him a while,” Beth replied.

“We got nothing but time,” Grace gave a weak grin, but the way she said it, she could tell it wasn’t enough.

We opened the door and we walked through.

Chapter 28

We materialize underwater wearing scuba gear. We start to swim, only to come across a group of humanoid sharks carrying spear-guns.

We go through the motions, looking for Leo the entire time. Nothing.

We start breaking the fourth wall, asking for the writer. We tell her our story. She sends us on our way.

We materialize on a city street, during the middle of a police shootout. We start to run away, but get apprehended pretty quickly.

We go through the motions, looking for Leo the entire time. Nothing.

We start breaking the fourth wall, asking for the writer. We tell him our story. He sends us on our way.

We materialize in the middle of a wedding. Some schlub says ‘I object’, claims the bride has seeing a ‘friend’ in her spare time, and then points at Grace.

We go through the motions, looking for Leo the entire time. Nothing.

We start breaking the fourth wall, asking for the writer. We tell her our story. She sends us on our way.

And on, and on, and on, and on…

Imagine doing that so many times you lose track of how long you’ve been at it. Then imagine doing that while the woman you love tries to hide her guilt over the fact that her brother put you all in this situation to begin with. And the while you’re at it, imagine dealing with all that as you watch one of your only friends pretend she’s not letting the knowledge she’s not a real person get to her, and at the same time trying to hold back her violently deranged alter ego.

And then imagine that one day, after God knows how much effort, you found exactly who you were looking for… and someone else.

We materialize in a forest at sunset. It’s late autumn, judging by the bareness of the trees and the mostly brown leaves covering the ground.

“Alright,” I said weakly, “Let’s just start looking, see if we can find him.”

“Okay,” Grace responded. She had about as much confidence in this as I did. After all the stories we’d already been to, all the white rooms we’d found (which we still know nothing about in terms of how they actually work), and all the writers we’d met, there was absolutely no reason this time would be any different.

If I’d said that out loud, it would’ve been one of those ‘me and my big mouth’ moments.

“Oh, you have gotta be kidding me!” The voice came from behind me; it was whiney, nasally, vaguely pubescent-

Oh no. Oh no, no, no, no, no!

I turn around and- yep, it’s CJ.

“How the heck are you losers here!?” The little brat yelled.

Gritting my teeth, I simply ask, “I could ask you the same question, CJ.”

“No you couldn’t.”

“The hell do you mean?”

“If you asked me the exact same question I asked you, then it would be grammatically incorrect, idiot. I should kill you just for that; grammar is serious business”

At that moment, what was left of my patience shot itself in the face.

Fortunately, Rachel decided to chime in.

“CJ, I don’t think you should hurt us,” she said.

“And why should I listen to you, skank?”

“Because I’m your sister.”

Wait, what?

“Heh?” Was all CJ could muster.

“I’m your sister, CJ. Mark created both of us. I don’t know if that makes him our father or what, but I do know that means we have a connection. If that means anything to you at all, please, just calm down.”

Grace leaned in a whispered to me, “Would that make me her aunt?”

CJ was clearly annoyed as he grimaced, “look, bitch, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, but we’re not related. I think I’m gonna off you to, just for bugging me this much. And you,” he pointed at Grace, “You shot me in the back of the head!”

“Yeah, I did,” Grace said flatly, “And it was marvelous.”

“Alright fine kid, you wanna play it that way?” Rachel said menacingly, “I’ve got someone you might like to meet, and she’s been itching to get out for a while now.”

Rachel closed her eyes, gave a slight groan of pain, and then produced an evil grin. Hyde-Rachel had decided to join us.

“You called me a bitch,” Rachel said to CJ.

“Yeah, I did, so”-

“YOU called ME a bitch!? Look who’s talking, jackass!”

She marched over with an expression of horrific rage welded to her face. CJ was too shocked by her sudden change of personality to do anything, so he just stood there like a schmuck until she kicked him in the gnads. Ouch.

“Little freak! Whiney, pathetic brat! Prepubescent, inbred, temperamental, MORON! Who are you calling a bitch?! You’re the bitch, you freaking hypocrite!” She screamed as she beat the ever-living crap out of him. I know I should be concerned, but part of me was cheering. And then…

“Get off me!” CJ screamed, his voice lowering considerably as he shoved Rachel away, launching her through the air and causing her to land ten feet away. It was at this point I realized the sun had finished setting. And there was a full moon. Crap.

CJ started cackling, maniacal giggling pouring out of him like water from a broken faucet. Fur sprouted from every piece of skin on his body as his fingernails grew into long claws. He bent over, his spine rearranging itself, his face facial bones audibly cracking as they took a more canine structure. He grew about three feet, his clothes all tearing off. He fell down to all fours as a tail grew out of his posterior. His laughter was finally replaced with low growling. He looked at the moon and gave a longing howl.

Oh, and before you ask ‘why aren’t you running away you idiots?’, bear in mind, this all happened over the course of about ten seconds. Also, I was in shock. I mean seriously, why the hell is he a werewolf now!? And why he is even here?! Okay, I can probably make a pretty good guess about that second one, but that’s not the point!

Wolf-CJ looked at us and growled, but fortunately we were saved by a deus ex machina. Man, don’t you just love those.

A gun went off behind us, and a bullet, evidently a silver one, struck Wolf-CJ in the chest, collapsing him instantly.

Grace and I turned around, and there stood Leo between two trees, holding a rifle.

“Hi guys,” he said.

Chapter 29

I’m not gonna lie, that was pretty badass. Sadly, that was kind of undercut by the three of us standing there awkwardly for a minute, both to trying to and avoiding looking at each other at the same time while Rachel lied on the ground passed out.

Without saying a word, Leo walked over to Rachel and picked her up, his shotgun hanging around his shoulder by a strap. He started towards the section of trees he’d emerged from.

“You guys coming… or not?” He asked, his back towards us.

This is the second time in recent memory where I’ve stumbled upon of my friends and then just followed them around out of a lack of better plan. Before you say anything, two occurrences do not constitute a pattern.

We were about ten minutes into to our silent trek when Leo stopped. He went over to me and handed me the unconscious Rachel.

“Hold her a minute,” was all he said as he pulled out his gun and fire three rounds to his left, directly into some large bushes.

“What did you just shoot?” Grace asked.

Leo reached into the bushes and pulled out a small, wounded werewolf. “Heard it growling,” he stated.

“Well you’ve clearly been keeping busy,” I said.

“Guess so,” he responded, taking Rachel back.

Silence.

We wound up at a log cabin, only a story tall and surrounded by trees from all angles. Leo led us inside.

The front room, the kitchen, was borderline Spartan: a stove, a refrigerator, a table, some chairs, and a single overhanging with a pull chord, all looking like it’d been there for decades. Leo tried to turn the light on, only to find the bulb was dead. And thus we had our conversation by candlelight, sitting around his table while he put Rachel on a couch in the other room.

“How long have you guys… been… looking for me,” he asked.

“That’s a great question,” I sighed.

“No, no it’s not,” he started apologetically, “It’s a stupid question. Time is…”

“It’s been at least a two weeks for us,” Grace chimed in, “How long have you been here?”

“Few months, give or take.”  

“And you’ve been what? Hunting monsters?” I inquired.

“Are you happy to see me, Leo?” Grace asked.

“What, what do you… mean?”

“Last time you saw me, you said this was all my fault. You said I ruined everything.”

“That’s… that’s true. But I was confused. I was… angry, and I just wanted to blame everyone else for hurting me, even when, when they didn’t. I’m sorry I said that to you. None of this is your fault.”

“Thank you. Apology accepted.”

“I’ve got a question,” I said, “When you said you didn’t want to go back to real life, did you mean that?”

“I…” he was speechless for a solid minute, just looking at us while his mouth tried to open itself, as if it was experimenting with words, trying everyone it could until it found the right ones. “Yes,” he finally said, “I did mean that.”

“You can’t be serious,” Grace said.

“Why not? We’ve, we’ve been over this before; my dad is dead, my girlfriend left me, I had a lousy job, my life… my life was going nowhere. And b-before either of you say anything, let me ask you something: are your lives worth going back to? I mean, really? Josh, you were a washed up loser without a diploma stuck in a dead-end service job. You hadn’t spoken to your parents in years, and you’d pissed your life away for a couple of temper tantrums. You were literally, physically searching for a purpose in life. And Grace, what were you doing? Honestly?”

“I…”

“You-you told me that your parents split up after you finished school. Your brother was in institution as far as you knew. You were an English major, so the job market w-wasn’t exactly sending you invites. And the one and only person you’d ever cared about, you thought you were never gonna see again because you thought- you knew you broke his heart.”

Neither of us could find anything to say. It always hurts, when someone is completely right about what you’re doing wrong.

“I mean, if nothing… if nothing else,” he started again, “we don’t even know how much time has passed. It could be months, years. And we all just vanished. We, we could’ve been declared dead by now. You really think we can just go back to our lives, lives we’ve pr-pretty much been wasting, and pick up at the brick walls we left off at?”

“Alright, fine Leo, those are fair assessments, but what are you doing?” Rachel asked. She’d gotten up and waltzed over here without any of us even realizing. Damn.

She stood directly in front of Leo on his left. “You’ve been what, hanging out here, playing monster hunter?”

“R-r-rachel I”- he tried to say.

“Save it. Yeah, they might not have been doing anything good with their lives, but at least they want to go back to them and try to do better. You, meanwhile, have effectively given up, and now you just wanna play make-believe in here for as long as you can.”

Ouch.

Leo stood up, facing her, and said, “Alright, you’ve got me there, but what’s the point of going back and trying, probably without any chance of success, when anything I could ever want is… right here?”

“Because unlike me, you’re a real person. You can still have an actual, honest-to-God life, and if you don’t, if you don’t even try, then you’re a waste of a human being.”

“Okay guys, let’s all just calm down,” Grace tried to reason with them, “I know there’s a lot between all of us, a lot issues that need to get resolved, but”-

“But what?” Rachel asked, “Now’s not the time? Now’s the perfect time. The gang’s all here. Mission accomplished, we’ve put the band back together. Now we need to figure out what to do next, and that’s not gonna happen until we’ve all hashed out our respective angst.”

“Josh, please, help me out?”

“I don’t know if I can,” I said, “None of you are really wrong, exactly,”-

“You’re all wrong!” Exclaimed a high pitched voice, catching all of us off guard. We looked around, but couldn’t find a point of origin.

A trap door suddenly appeared in the floor, and opened to reveal a head of short, spiky black (possibly dyed) hair atop an inhumanly pale female face, wielding a nose ring. Well, that would explain the setting.

“I knew there was a foreign presence in my story, but I was having trouble finding it until the rest of you showed up,” She said as her body emerged from the trap door. She wore all black, naturally, and a corset. Of course she wore a corset, why wouldn’t she wear a corset? “Now, I am going to make this very clear: I don’t give two craps about whatever it is you’re all so angry about, I just want you out. Now.”

“Oh, don’t be so rude. Is that any way to treat guests,” came a disturbingly familiar voice. We looked at the doorway to see Mark standing there, werewolf-CJ next to him, growling.

Mark looked directly at Rachel. “Honey, I’m home!!!!!!” He grinned.  

Chapter 30

The first thing Leo did was reach for his gun, but before he could, Mark shot a round at him, grazing him his leg.

“Uh-uh,” Mark grinned obnoxiously.

“Who the hell are you supposed to be?” The goth girl asked irritatedly.

“I’m a writer, a creator, like you.”

“Well then why aren’t you in your own bunker?”

“I had to jump ship, hit the self-destruct button after some unpleasant encounters with these individuals you see before you. And before you ask, no, I have no idea how they got here or how long they’ve been here.”

“How did you get here?”

“I’ve been moving between bunkers, trying each backdoor I can till I find an empty white room. Just landed here a couple hours ago, and I would’ve looked for you sooner, but I wanted to stop and admire the decor. I mean really, I love what you’ve done with the place. Very.... Hammer. I approve.”

What he would not have approved was that, in the time he’d just spent chatting up our host, Leo had grabbed his gun and fired. The round hit Mark in the gut, and he keeled over in pain, landing on his back. Were-CJ charged at us, but Leo shot the damn thing before he could make it two feet.

Leo cocked his gun, and then offered it to us.

“Would any of you like a turn? Perhaps have something you want to say to him?” He asked.

Rachel raised her hand and said, “Absolutely.”

She took the gun and walked over to the bleeding wreck Mark had instantly morphed into.

“Will someone PLEASE explain what’s going on!?” The goth girl shouted, having finally fully emerged from the trap door.

“Not now!” Rachel hissed.

Rachel aimed the gun at Mark’s legs.   

“Huh, I was not expecting this,” Mark chuckled through the pain.

“Shut up.”

“Young lady, that is no way to talk to your father.”

“First of all, ew, second of all, you’re not my father.”

“Well, I created you, didn’t I? And I am a man.”

“That’s debatable.”

He gave a weak laugh, which quickly turned into a weak wheeze due to the blood loss.

“Alright, that’s kind of funny, I’ll admit it,” he said.

Rachel just glared at him, before saying, “I’ve thought a lot about what I would say to you if I ever got the chance, and you know what I’ve decided on?”

“What?”

“Go die,” she hissed, raising the gun, pointing it at his head.

“Rachel!” I shouted.

“Please, don’t!” Grace pleaded.

Leo remained silent.

“Jesus, what the hell kind of soap opera is invading my story?” I heard the goth girl mutter.

“Grace, you don’t know me, so don’t try to plead to me or tell me I’m better than this. And aside from that, after everything Mark has done, do you seriously want him alive? And Josh, you do know me, probably better than any save for this piece of shit, so you should understand why I have to do this.”

“For Christ’s sake, Rachel, you don’t want to do this, this isn’t who you are!” I shouted.

“Yes it is. And you can forget about trying to appeal to nice-Rachel, she’s with me on this. I can… feel her nodding inside my head.”

“You are not this kind of person.”

“YES I AM!”

“No, you’re not. This is the kind of person he made you. This is who he wrote you to be. But’s that’s not who you are. He’s not controlling you now. You might deny it, but you’re not a character anymore, you’re a person. And the person you are is still being decided. It’s up to you. You can do whatever you want, be whoever you want to be. So ask yourself, is this what- who, that is? Is who you want to be?”

Her hand, and the gun with it, started sharking. I saw a tear hit the ground.

“What about you, Grace? You never answered my question?” Rachel sobbed.

“You’re right, I didn’t,” Grace started, “And the answer is no. You’re right, Mark is piece of shit, but he’s family, and, for better or for worse, I just can’t look past that. I’m sorry, Rachel, I really am, but no.”

“Aw, thanks sis,” Mark said, “now, much like how I was too busy talking to our lovely gothic friend over there earlier to notice Leo arming himself, you’ve all been too busy having heart-to-hearts to realize I’ve stopped bleeding.”

We all looked down and realized in horror that that was true.

Mark kicked out Rachel’s legs, knocking her down as he got back up. A white glow appeared in the air, and from it emerged a machine gun, locked, loaded, in Mark’s hands, and aimed directly at our collective sorry asses.

“How the hell did you do that?” I asked.

“Remember when I collapsed the bunker, and the white room was absorbed into the vortex. Well the whiteness didn’t just evaporate; it dispersed itself throughout all the other white rooms. And it’s here, right now. I can control it, do whatever I want with it, because I used the bunker’s keyboard to control before.”

“Oh really,” Grace grinned.

Another white glow appeared in the air, and this time it turned into a BFG, one so big it extended from Grace’s hands to an inch away from Mark’s pathetic face.

Grace’s smile widened, “Mark, there’s something I’ve always wanted to say to you, but until now, I’ve been too concerned with not hurting your feelings to do so: you’re an IDIOT!”

“Seriously, you guys are complete freaks,” the goth girl said.

“SHUT UP!” All five of us shouted.

“Alright, fine,” she rolled her eyes, “I’ll leave, but I’ll come back, with my boss.”

“Your boss?” I raised an eyebrow.

“Yes, her boss,” came a deep, masculine voice.

Another door appeared in the wall of the cabin, and it opened, revealing a man in his early fifties wearing a nice suit. He closed the door behind him, and motioned for the goth girl to leave, which she did. Okay, seriously, what the hell is this?

“Josh, Grace, Rachel, Leo, and Mark. It’s nice to finally meet you all. My name is Mr. Cromartie,” the well-dressed gentleman evidently named Mr. Cromartie stated in a disturbingly polite tone of voice. “Annabeth was telling the truth: I am her boss. But I’m also your boss, Mark.”

“Heh?” He asked. We were all facing him at this point, and Rachel had made her way over to us, but Grace and Mark were still aiming their guns at each other. But honestly, that’s not the important part, the important part was what the hell this guy was talking about.

Mr. Cromartie continued, “I’m your boss. I’m the boss of all the creators. Everyone one who operates out of one of my bunkers answers to me, whether they know it or not. That’s a neat trick that you’ve managed to figure out, by the way, but your sister is correct, you are an idiot.”

“Hey!”

“While we’re on the subject of neat tricks, I suppose one is in order for me to prove who I say I am.”

He raised one hand, and both Mark and Grace’s weapons vanished. Alright, now I’m scared.

“How did you”-

“It’s because I am in charge.”

“Did you create the white rooms,” I asked.

“An excellent question, Josh, and to answer it, no, I did not. Now, I understand that you’ve all been having some conflicts recently about whether or not you should leave the white rooms and re-enter, or in Rachel’s case, enter, the real world. Well, I’m here to inform you that what you want doesn’t matter. You are not leaving the white rooms any time soon.”

And with that, he opened the door he came from, and a vortex pulled us all into it.

Chapter 31

Static.

Been a lot of that going around lately.

Come on, Josh, get up. Get up!

And so I do, taking in my surroundings. I’m in…. a canyon. Alright, not what I was expecting. I look around for my friends, and see them (and Mark. And…Were-CJ?! What the hell is he doing here?!) lying on the ground, unconscious. What the hell are they wearing? What the hell am I wearing?! It’s an orange sleeveless t-shirt with black bird symbol on the front. Oh God, I think I know what this is. I nervously reach for my hair and… yup, it’s suddenly in a long ponytail. I’m in an anime, aren’t I?

Let’s see here, Leo is wearing the exact same outfit as me, and his hair is improbably spikey. Grace is wearing an all-white jump suit with a big, long, blue coat over it. Rachel is clad in some kind of school uniform (yep, definitely anime). Mark meanwhile, has a similar outfit to mine and Leo’s, but it’s all black, and with a wolf emblem, and his hair is… a bush. Snicker… ah ha hahahahahahahah!!!!!! Sorry, sorry, but it’s really funny, his hair is like the size of the moon! You could land plane on it! You could drop a nuke on it and no actual damage would be done! If you fell on his hair, you’d have to spend three weeks hacking your way out of it with a machete! Oh, and Were-CJ had a spiked collar, and his fur was red (why was he still in wolf-form? We’re in broad daylight.)

At this point they’d all woken up. We looked at each other for a few minutes before Leo finally said, “Huh.”

“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” I replied.

“ALRIGHT! You’re awake!” Boomed a voice from the top of the canyon. We looked up and saw a young man, holding a microphone, and wearing the kind of facial expression that’s so enthusiastic it makes everyone in its vicinity uncomfortable.

“No need to be afraid!” The man claimed, “Call me The Imperator! I am but your humble host! The creator of this realm which you see before you! My employer, Mr. Cromartie, has told me your story!”

Oh no.

“He has told me you all must obey me, or I have permission to smite you all!” Imperator said, “And as such, due to my interests and your current position, I have decided to have fighting tournament!”

“That’s the most clichéd plot line in all of shounen anime!” Grace screamed. Well, it’s nice to know I wasn’t the only total nerd here.

“Yeah, it is. How about that?” Imperator retorted. Oh great, it’s one of these types of fans. “We’ll do one-on-one fights! First up,… Josh versus C.J.!”

And with that, Grace, Leo, Rachel, and Mark disappeared in a collective puff of smoke. They rematerialized at the top edge of the canyon, next to the Imperator. Grace tried to push past him, but telekinetically knocked her back. When I’m finished with this, that guy is gonna get it.

“Uh, uh, uh, naughty naughty. Only one fight at a time,” he said.

“You can’t seriously expect us to sit here and watch this!” Rachel glared at him.

“I can and I will.”

“Fine by me,” Mark smirked.

Leo punched him. It was awesome. But then Imperator knocked him back a few feet telekinetically.

“One. Fight. At. A. Time.”

Alright, fine, let’s get this over with.

I turned over to CJ, who’d shifted back into human form.

“Alright, chump, let’s do this, I’m ready to”- CJ started, but I didn’t let him finished. I charged at him and hit him in the face, which made go flying back twenty feet. He crashed into the wall of the canyon. Ah, anime.

He got up and leaped at me, staying in the air the whole time, and I did the same. Our mid-air collision sent us both back towards our respective points of origin, and a little bit further back. We both rose and ran towards each other, throwing punches. It was at that point I remembered I didn’t know how to fight, and as a result CJ got in a few hits. I fell over, and as he was about to kick me in the stomach, I grabbed him by the leg and pulled him onto the ground. I kneed him in the gut, making his face fly forward, directly into my fist. I grabbed him by the lapel and threw him into the wall of the cliff, watching with satisfaction as rocks crumbled and fell onto him.

CJ started growling, and he shifted back into werewolf form. I leaped out of the way ten feet into the air, and grabbed onto the side of a cliff. Wait second, this place operates on anime logic. That gives me an idea. I shoved my fist into the rock, and pulled out a crudely formed stone sword. Then I focused for a second, and poured my energies into it, and it became perfectly sharp. Ha-ha, eat your heart out, Fullmetal!

“How can he do that?!” I heard Mark demand.

“His power is limited only by his knowledge of the medium,” The Imperator replied.

I jumped down from the cliff, landing a few feet in front of Were-CJ. I swung my sword again and again, each time just barely missing my target, who kept bouncing out of the way. And then, because it’s CJ, he did something stupid: he leapt directly at me. I plunged my sword directly into his canine chest.

He hung there for a second, and for that second only I thought I’d won. I even heard Rachel and Grace cheer a little bit.

And then I heard chuckling. It was Were-CJ. He was engulfed in a green glow, and was starting to expand. He grew and grew and grew and grew, to the point where he pulled himself off of my sword, and the wound healed instantly. By the time he stopped, he was fifty feet tall. Yes, I’m standing in front of a fifty foot wolf with the mind of a prepubescent psychopath, engulfed in glowing green energy of doom. That sound you just heard is either your heart exploding or mine.

He kicked my back a few dozen yards.

“I’ve got you now, you jerk!” He said in a low voice.

I rose from the ground and said, “Hey CJ, looks like your voice finally broke.”

“SHUT UP!”

Another kick, this time a hundred yards.

“I’ve always hated you most of all Josh!”

KICK!

“You act all smug and tough, like you’re better than everyone else!”

KICK!

“When really, you’re not! You’re nothing but a loser! A complete and total failure at life!”

KICK!

“That’s all you are!”

KICK!

“And that’s all you ever will be!”

KICK!

“SO JUST GIVE UP ALREADY!”

I was lying on the ground, face in the dirt, wracked with so much pain I could barely move. It didn’t help that he chose that moment to step on me. I heard my friends call out for me, but I couldn’t hear them.

“GIVE UP ALREADY, LOSER!”

No. No, he’s wrong about me. He thinks he knows me but he doesn’t, and he’s not the first person like that I’ve encountered. Maybe I was a loser before, but I’m not that person anymore. And I might not be what you’d call a winner in the conventional sense, at least not yet, but as of this moment, I dedicate my life to making sure I become one. I’ll be what I set out to be, I’ll turn it all around, I’ll help myself, I’ll help my friends, but first I’ll WIN THIS FIGHT!

And just like that I felt a new burst of energy within me. No, I didn’t just feel it, I saw it; I saw a red glow surrounding me. I was gaining strength, but not enough to throw CJ off. Let’s see, how did they always pad out episodes of DBZ?

“AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

!” I screamed, feeling the rage and power flow inside of me.

The glow expanded, and small explosion occurred, knocking CJ away. I rose, and then started to levitate as the red energy took the shape of a giant version of myself, the same size as Leo’s wolf. I tackled Leo and sank my fists into him, but he pushed back. I shot out bolts of energy, creating ten clones of my avatar. We all charged at him one last time, reigning blows down upon him. CJ kept struggling, but he was no match for me. Eventually, all my clones and I started to merge, forming one giant ball of red energy around CJ. And then it exploded. It was awesome.

And then, sadly, I blacked out for a few minutes.

When I came to, I was lying on the ground again, but I quickly got up. I saw CJ out cold a few hundred feet away, back in human form.

“LOOKS LIKE WE HAVE A WINNER!” The Imperator shouted.

Now that’s more like it.

Chapter 32

I suddenly found myself atop the cliff next to Leo and Rachel, and CJ’s was lying unconscious on the other side. But I wasn’t focusing on them; I couldn’t, because at that moment I saw Grace and Mark together inside the canyon. Oh, that’s not good.

“Our next match! GRACE! V.S.! MARK!” The Imperator screamed.

Don’t freak out don’t freak out don’t freak out there’s nothing I can do about this right now the Imperator will kill me with his brain if I try anything Grace is a big girl she can take care of herself you’re being obsessive and paranoid she can take him she can take most people in a fight especially a creepy rat-tailed wimp like Mark but oh dear God there is so much emotional baggage in this scenario but that’s not important I can’t worry about that right now I have to trust in Grace and get through this so we can work on getting home I need to stay calm I’ve made some good progress I just need to make sure I don’t backtrack and lose my temper again and what the hell is that?

Okay, apparently while I was busy doing an internal monologue Mark created humongous mecha. Which he was now piloting. And firing missiles out of that were missing Grace by inches, which then exploded behind her and knocked her forward. Crap.

Mark’s mecha was at least ten stories tall, possessing a chrome paint job and fairly conventional appearance, save for the twin blades attached to its back.

“Hey, sis!” Mark’s voice was projected out of his mecha’s speakers, “Looks like I’m finally taller than you!”

“OH REALLY?!” Grace screamed at the top of her lungs. An explosion and dust cloud briefly engulfed her, but they spread away quickly to reveal… her own mecha! And Jesus Christ it’s huge! It’s at least fifteen stories tall, painted purple and green. She fired twenty missiles from her mecha, hitting Mark’s square in the chest! Now that’s what I’m talking about!

Grace’s mecha leaped forward at Mark’s, but his quickly recovered and pulled out its swords. Grace’s followed suit, and her swords were larger and sharper, slicing through Mark’s with one strike! She plunged her mecha’s hand into Mark’s cockpit at the head and forcibly removed him from it. She held him in the palm of her giant robot’s hands and brought him up towards her cockpit.

“You got anything to say for yourself Mark?” She asked him.

“You think you’ve got me beat!? Is that what this is?!” He whined before shooting an energy blast out his hands and hitting the glass of Grace’s cockpit. It bounced off. Seriously, that is just sad.

“Grrrrrrr,” Mark grunted before raising his arms; three explosions appeared behind him, and three kaiju appeared, each bearing a resemblance to a copyrighted movie monster so striking I feel like I’d be committing a crime by describing them; I’ll give you a hint about what they look like, though: one looked a lizard, another like a moth, and the third had three heads.

To Grace, however, this meant absolutely nothing, as shown when she casually raised her mecha’s other arm and fired three missiles, one for each kaiju, each one hitting its designated target directly and performing admirably in its mission of blowing said target to smithereens.

“You know Mark, for someone who wants to be a writer so damn badly, you’ve got no imagination,” Grace’s voice boomed.

And then suddenly there was a flash, not of light, but of darkness. When I could see again, everything around me was pitch black. Not like it was night time, what with there not being any stars, but as if all the color had inexplicably vanished. The only light was a spotlight coming from nowhere, projecting down on Mark and Grace, floating in the air. Mark was tied to a chair, with Grace standing (levitating?) behind him. What the hell is th- oh God, I think I understand this reference. And if I’m right, things are about to get trippy.

“I’m a perfectionist, Mark,” Grace began, “I’ll admit it. My whole life, I’ve wanted- needed- everything and everyone to live up to my expectations. That’s why I never had any friends, because they were never good enough, or at least that’s what I was dumb enough to believe. I’m not completely sure why I was like that, but I think you and Mom and Dad may’ve had something to do with it. Dad was never around, Mom was aloof at best, and you, well you were the same psychotic little shit then that you are now. When they sent you away, that was the first time I realized just how disappointing people could be, and I started to alienate myself from them. And in my solitude, I started to create this image of an ideal life and idealized versions of the people I knew to surround myself with. I was pretty quick to realize how stupid and unrealistic that was, but I never quite gave up on the possibility that everything could be exactly as I’d like it to be. I think maybe that’s why I came to visit you after you got out of the institution; I thought maybe I could fix our family and make things better. I was wrong, about a lot of things, but especially about you. I mean seriously, toying with my boyfriend’s life, his sanity, just to mess with me? That is low, even for you. And when you were threatening to kill Josh if I didn’t screw him over, I wanted to call your bluff, more than anything, actually. But part of me was still laboring under the delusion that in the end I could save him and fix everything and my life could be perfect. But in the end I couldn’t do any of those things; Josh had to save himself, and my life, as of late, has still been under your thumb. I wanted everything to be the best it could possibly be and what wound up with is twenty tons of self-loathing, a surreal nightmare for an existence, a boyfriend who’s emotionally damaged at best, and a friend who hates me, and it’s at least partly my fault.”

“Is this going somewhere!?” Mark interrupted.

“Oh, it is,” she grinned, “See, it’s partly my fault because I’ve been weak. I have been for most of my life; I just haven’t wanted to admit it. And I let you use that against me. I let you ruin my life. Not anymore. I’m doing being controlled by a whiny, psychotic, unoriginal, perverted hack writer manchild!”

“I… know you are but what am I?!”

“There it is. See, from this point forward, I am dedicating my life to making sure you realize exactly how pathetic you are!”

And with that, the chair disappeared, and then we were in space, and then Grace punched Mark into the sun, and then she pulled him out of the sun, and then a giant, translucent version of her head appeared and swallowed him. I… you know what, no amount of sarcasm or sincerity can accurately convey how weird that was to watch.

Then the giant head spat Mark out, and as he fell through space, we were suddenly back in the canyon. Jesus, Grace, you’re really pulling out all the stops here.

Mark landed face first in the sand, and then a fist rose up out of the sand and punched him in the gut, sending him flying into the air, and then Grace appeared out of nowhere and collided with him mid-air, landing feet first on his back, slamming him back into the ground.

Dear God, that was glorious.

Grace stepped away from Mark just as a an enormous sand fist emerged from the ground and grabbed Mark, first throwing him into the side of  the canyon, then grabbing him again, raising him higher and throwing on top of the cliff where we were all standing.

Mark was on the ground, barely conscious, badly beaten, and breathing heavily. Grace levitated up towards us, and then looked at Rachel and said, “Wanna help?”

Chapter 33

It took Rachel less than three seconds to say, “Hell yes!” Then she grabbed him by his absurdly large afro, lift him by it, and then repeatedly smash him into the ground. Have I already used the word “absurd”?

Rachel’s next act was the throw Mark into the air and then jump up and kick him in the stomach, sending him flying into the stratosphere. After that, well… gravity is a cruel mistress.

Mark lifted himself up out of the dirt and whined to the Imperator, “This cannot be legal!”

“Eh, I’ll allowed it,” the Imperator responded, “I mean, this is just way too entertaining to pass up.”

“OH COME ON!” Mark cried, “That is not fair!”

“Well that’s just too damn bad, bitch!” Rachel exclaimed before slamming into him again, literally making him eat dirt. Yes, people, Angry Rachel had come out to play, and she was enjoying every second of it. Relishing in it really. It’d be disturbing if, a., it weren’t Mark, and b., it weren’t hilarious (because it’s Mark).

“Hey, Leo,” Grace said, “You wanna help out too?”

“No, uh, no thanks,” he said. He said it with such an… artificial flatness, as if he was trying to stop us from figuring out what was going through his head, to keep us from probing further.

“Pussy,” she replied.

“You… Don’t mean that.”

“Yeah, I do. That’s the kind of person this version of me is. The kind who calls people on their B.S.. Like I did with you earlier.”

“I don’t have any B.S., I just… I just don’t want to go back.”

“That’s not a good thing, Leo,” I said.

“And why the hell not? Why should I want to go back to my life?”

“Because you have to live in the real world! That’s why!” Grace pleaded with him.

“Why! Just, just give me an actual answer to that question! What is so goddamned great about the real world!”

“Leo, please calm down,” Grace requested calmly.

“You’re doing it again, G-Grace; you’re trying to keep everyone quiet, you’re trying to get everyone to do what you want to do! You act like you’re trying to keep us from fighting because it’s… noble or something but really, it’s because us fighting goes against what you want us to be! It reminds you that we’re not perfect, that we can’t ever perfect, that we can’t reach your impossible standards! You selfish bitch!”

Grace stood there a moment in silence. When you’ve only just owned up to all your own flaws, it’s really tough to have someone point out that you’re continuing to behave in accordance with said flaws. That being said, Leo just called my girlfriend a bitch.

“Leo, even if that is what she’s doing, she’s still right,” I said angrily. Just stay calm, shouting at him is not gonna make him come to his senses.

“No she’s not,” he responded.

“Yes she is. You’re not well.”

“That’s debatable. And you guys still haven’t answered my question. What’s so great about real life? Why should I want to go back?”

“Because you can’t just avoid your problems. You can’t hide from life, Leo.”

“I’m not hiding.”

“Yes you are. You’ve had a rough go of it, there’s no denying that, but right now, by wanting to stay here, by not even wanting to try to make things better, you are hiding.”

“I am not hiding! The worst thing I’ve done is given up on a lost cause. I can be somebody here! But out there, I’m nothing, I’m nobody! I’m worthless I’m not going back to that, I’m not going back to my old life, to being the old Leo! I hate that guy, I hate everything about him and his entire existence!”

“You’re scared,” Rachel said,

“What?!” Leo demanded.

“You’re scared of going back to the real world. You’re frightened of owning up to the nothing you’ve made of your life, and you don’t want to fix it because you’re either afraid you’ll fail or you just don’t want to put in the effort!”

I started to say, “Rachel”-

“Shut up, Josh, I’m not done talking. Leo, here’s the thing: life is hard. But at least it’s real. This, all this around us, it’s not real, it’s not even good. It’s us almost getting killed every five minutes. And maybe you want things to be like that because if you’re too busy trying not to die, you won’t have to think about the fact that you’re unhappy!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Leo protested.

“I know exactly what I’m talking about! You want to escape into this nightmare because it helps you avoid your problems, problems you don’t even want to solve! You’re pathetic! Your life wasn’t even that bad!”

“You have no right to say that! How the hell would you even know what a good life is when you’ve never even had one! YOU’RE NOT EVEN A REAL PERSON!”

Rachel charged at Leo, sparks and flames of energy forming behind her as she ran. She threw a punch when she caught up to him, but he blocked it and then floored her with one punch, knocking her out cold.

“Leo! What the hell are you doing?!” Grace shouted.

“Seriously, man, you need to calm down right now,” I said, feeling anger spread throughout my body.

“Really? You’re telling me to calm down? You? The guy who shoved a gun into his own girlfriend’s face?”

“I was,”-

“A blood-hungry psychopath?”

“...I’m gonna let that slide because you’re sick. I was too, but I got better. What you’ve got, it’s a lot more subtle than what I had, a lot more dangerous, and it’s gonna take a lot more to help you,”-

“I don’t want your help. I don’t need it. I’m not sick. I’m the only one here who’s thinking rationally. You, meanwhile, seem determined to go back to a life you succeeded only in screwing up.”

“Yeah, well, at least I want to try to be better,” I said gritting my teeth, “At least I don’t seemed determined to be a loser for the rest of my life.”

Crap I just said that out loud.

“SCREW YOU!” Leo screamed. His body became engulfed in a pulsating field of red energy, raising him off the ground. His skin started peeling off, revealing a being of pure red, animalistic rage beneath it, taking the form of a lion.

Leo roared, and the shockwave knocked Grace, myself, and the unconscious Rachel and Mark off the cliff, and as we fell, I couldn’t help but notice that the Imperator was nowhere to be seen.

Chapter 34

Falling.

Falling.

Falling.

There was a time I’d have made a joke right now, but at the moment, things have taken a depressing enough turn that the idea seems just plain unappealing.

The four of us all hit the ground with a thud. The red glow of Leo’s anger was spreading, reaching out across the landscape in columns of fire. We all had to get up- Mark had regained consciousness after hitting the ground- and managed to dodge the columns… except were-CJ, who was skewered through the chest, and then faded away.

“NO!” Mark cried out.

Huh. Maybe he can feel empathy.

Leo jumped down to our level, cracking the ground he landed on, and let out a mighty roar.

“Leo, Leo please listen to me,” Grace pleaded, “I know you don’t want to do this. You’re a good person. We just wanna help you”-

Leo charged at Grace and tried to pounce on her, but Rachel tackled him, then lifted him up and punched him in the gut, sending him a few feet into the air before falling. He landed on his feet.

“Come on, Leo! Knock it off!” Rachel said.

I started to say, “Rachel, that’s not,”-

Before she could respond, Leo roared again, this time creating an energy pulse that sent us all flying back.

“Leo, son, I believe that’s enough,” A deep voice said. Oh God, it’s Cromartie, and the Imperator was with him. Deus ex machina much?

“Sorry I had to step out a moment, but I thought things were getting out of hand, so I decided to bring in the boss man,” the Imperator said.

“That’s twice now I’ve had to intervene regarding you four. You’re not going to make a habit of this, are you?”

Leo growled. The rest of us couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Leo, you’re going to calm down now. I’m going to allow you to kill these people. Not out of the goodness of my heart, you understand, but because that would disrupt the system. That is not permissible.”

Leo’s response was to roar and fire an energy blast at Cromartie, which knocked him back a few yards. The Imperator moved his hands as if to move Leo with his telekinesis, but Leo just shrugged it off then pounced on the Imperator, biting his head off.

What the hell is happening right now? How is Leo decking these guys so easily? I know we all got powered up by being here, but Leo shouldn’t be capable of this.

Leo ran directly at Cromartie, who fired an energy blast of his own, hitting Leo but not affecting him. This isn’t gonna end well for anyone.

“Shouldn’t we do something?” Grace said.

“Like what? They’re both playing on levels we’re just not at,” I responded.

“Like hell,” Rachel said before creating a giant mecha, jumping inside it, and using it to scoop up Leo… who then exploded in an enormous burst of power, blowing off the mecha’s arms. Leo reformed and kicked the mecha in the chest, toppling it. Grace and I ran over to pull Rachel out of the wreckage; she wasn’t hurt too badly, but by the end Leo was only a few feet from Cromartie.

He’d constructed a doorway, presumably to get out of here, but Leo tackled him, and then sank his teeth into Cromartie’s chest. Instead of blood, some kind of purple energy poured out. It came into contact with Leo’s red energy, setting off an explosion which consumed the door in a few seconds.

Then everything changed. But there was no static this time. Instead, everything went white.

Chapter 35

“So, my life involves being shuffled from one crappy work of fiction to another. At first I was just trapped in the poor writings of my girlfriend’s psychotic brother, but then I found out that his stuff was actually just one part of an seemingly endless series of pocket dimensions which are controlled from hidden bunkers which contain keyboards that allow someone to manipulate a white void room into taking whatever shape they want, and there are doors between these bunkers, and most the people in the bunkers are dicks (ugh, writers, I swear), and all of them work for this apparently omnipotent guy named Cromartie except not all of them know it (like my girlfriend’s psychotic brother).

Oh, and my best friend has a severe mental illness that I was unaware of the full extent of because I guess I’m either self-absorbed or just kind of dense sometimes, and now he’s lost it and is, in layman’s terms, evil. How I do I know he’s evil? Because he went all one-winged angel and transformed into a gigantic lion made of pure energy, attacked me, my girlfriend, my girlfriend’s psychotic brother, and a girl who is my friend who’s actually a fictional character created and given sentience by my girlfriend’s psychotic brother and, as a result, now has multiple personality disorder; and then my best friend, the one who turned into an energy lion, attacked Cromartie and, judging by my surroundings, appears to have broken reality in the process.

Yeah.

My surroundings, by the way, involve a desert going forward for about ten yards before giving way to a city street; the street goes for about three feet before becoming a forest. And then I think that’s the campus of my old college over there. So you guys should be about, oh, 200 miles away; look, Mom, Dad, I know that I haven’t talked to you guys in a while, and the most I’ve ever managed to do is disappoint you guys, but on the off chance either of you ever hears this, you deserve to know what happened, and how it happened. And Mom, in case you’re wondering whether or not you should yell at me about this… I’m still working out how much I should be blaming myself, I’ll let you know when I come up with a figure. Assuming you believe a word I’m saying right now.

I guess this is partly my doing, and I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to fix it, but I need to at least try. Mom, dad, I love you guys; didn’t always have the best way of showing it, I know, but I do. And if I don’t see you again, because there’s a very real possibility I won’t, just remember that, okay? Good-bye.”

I hung up and walked out of the phone booth (because apparently they still have those… or not, I’m having tough time figuring out what came from where and what constitutes ‘real’ at the moment).

And then ninjas attacked, because why the hell not? And, since I don’t have my anime powers anymore (yes, my clothes and hair are back to normal), I got my skinny white ass handed to me on a silver platter. Seriously, there was a foot in my face knocking me over before I could even tell what was happening, and when I tried to get up, one of them put the business end of their katana an inch from my throat.

And then one of them said something in a voice I recognized, “Wait a second-O’Malley? Jesus Christ, is that you?!”

Oh, you have gotta be shitting me.

He pulled off his mask, and it was the guy; the guy I’ve hated since elementary school, the guy who treated me like crap and made me hate myself every day for thirteen whole years, the guy I beat the ever-living piss out of in college, which was I did not finish college, which is why I got stuck with a dead-end job, which I got laid off from, which sent me spiraling into an existential depression and why the hell am I reminding you of all this? This is all established information.

His name’s Lance, by the way; the guy.

“You know this guy, Lance?” one of the other five ninjas asked.

“Yeah, I used to go to school with this loser.”

Some things really never do change.

Lance pulled his sword away and asked, “You gonna get up or what, O’Malley?”

I got up, dusted myself off.

“You gonna say something, O’Malley?” He asked me.

“I don’t really have anything I want to say to you.”

“Watch your mouth, guy, I got a sword.”

“Yeah, I can see that; and I wasn’t gonna say anything at all until you asked me to, dumbass.”

He pointed his sword at me, and so did his compatriots.

“I see you haven’t changed one bit,” Lance said, “Still the same old disrespectful little punk.”

“Lance, under no set of circumstances will I ever have even a germ of respect for you; you’re asshole, and complete and utter self-righteous, irritating, obnoxious, loud, egotistical, none-too-bright douchebag, and it would appear that nothing, not even becoming a ninja of all things, will change that. If you excuse me, I have other things I need to do.”

“I’M HOLDING A SWORD!”

“And I reiterate, I CAN SEE THAT! And if you don’t mind my asking, why are you holding a sword?! Why are you a ninja!? Why the hell are you attacking me in the first place?!”

“I don’t really know, I just kinda woke up like this.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No, I’m not. Just woke up last week and the world was all weird. And I was part of a ninja cult. Didn’t really question it.”

“Of course you didn’t.”

So reality really did break. Well crap. How the hell am I supposed to find Grace or Rachel or help Leo now? I don’t know where they are or if they’re even the same as when I last saw them. And did he say it was a week ago he became a ninja for no reason? Have been out that entire time?! I need to figure out what’s going on here, but these guys clearly aren’t gonna let me do that. Where do I even start- wait a second.

“So you guys are part of a ninja cult?”

“Yeah,” Lance said.

“Do you guys have weird powers?”

“We can jump from tree to tree, stuff like that.”

“Who’s your leader?”  

“Some guy, calls himself the Imperator.”

Chapter 36

I’d like to say it was a long walk to the Imperator, but it wasn’t; it wasn’t even a walk. You know how the ninjas mentioned they can jump from tree to tree? They threw me. They tossed me amongst themselves as they jumped. Yeah. Granted, it was kind of a miracle they agreed to take me to him in the first place, so I guess I shouldn’t complain… too much.

We finally arrived at… an arcade. Yes, yes really, an arcade. We walked in (walking, that’s always nice) to find the Imperator playing one of those dance pad video games (copyright infringement, what’re you gonna do?). He stopped playing when he saw me, and the ninjas backed away so we could talk.

“Josh! Is that you?!” He exclaimed, “What’s going on, guy?!”

“… You know, I’m not completely sure. Maybe you could help fill me in?”

“Oh, well that sure be fairly obvious- Leo attacked Cromartie as he was opening a portal. That ruptured the portal and caused the Fiction to collide with reality, resulting in an amalgamation of the two. Be honest, though, I’m not really clear on the organization of it; I just came to a few weeks ago and suddenly I’m running ninja cult.”

“And you decided to just go with it?”

“Yep!”

“Okay. And, uh, how exactly are you still alive? I seem to recall Leo removing your head.”

“Yep, yeah I suppose that did happen. I guess Cromartie must have brought me back.”

“That makes no sense. Leo killed him, too- rather violently, I might add.”

“He’s come back from worse than that.”

“Worse than an insane energy lion sinking his teeth into his chest?”

“Yep.”

“Okay then; now, I’m starting to get the sense you’re not gonna be much help unless I stop skirting the issue and ask you the big questions directly, so here goes: who or what is Cromartie?”

“Well then now that’s a loaded question.”

“Oh come on!”

“… But I will do my best to explain it. Alright, in the most literal sense, Cromartie is Fiction.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“The white rooms, those are Fiction, condensed into smallish spaces, and able to be controlled, sculpted into whatever kind of story you want. They’re all connected into one great big web, which, together, forms the collective network of creativity. They’re the blank pages that all writers, artists, dreamers, whatever, can use as an outlet for their ideas, to build their own worlds when they feel like getting away for a while, or to just develop stories in a more immersive sorta way. Cromartie is the personification of the Fiction- his job is to protect, to watch over it, and to, above all else, keep things interesting. And before you ask ‘define interesting’, I mean that in a ‘make sure something weird is always happening’ sort of way- it’s supposed to be creative in there, so he interferes when he feels one or more of the stories can be improved- or at least extended. Plus, if nothing else, when one story ends and a white room is abandoned, that injures the Fiction as a whole, takes away from the total creativity output, hurts everyone, hurts him especially. That’s why he wanted to keep you and your friends there; you guys were just way too important to let go.”

“So he’s a network executive.”

“Huh?”

“He’s an executive at a television network trying to keep the show going past the point where it should have stopped, when everyone wanted it to stop because that would have been the logical stopping point, all because he’s more interested in total profits than the individual shows themselves. So he dicks around with the story, makes everyone’s lives miserable, piles on the angst even when it’s unnatural, and stops or undoes personal growth, just so he can drag everything out for his own personal gain. Yeah, I’d say he’s a network executive.”

“You seem to be grasping this whole ‘anthropomorphic personification of storytelling’ thing rather easily.”

“I’ve read a lot of Neil Gaiman. Also, I note that you’re not denying my network executive theory.”

“… Eh, you’re not wrong.”

“So where do you come in? What are you, Cromartie’s son?” I asked, not expecting an answer so much as a ‘what are you, dense’ look.

“Kind of, yeah,” he replied. 

“Wait, really?”

“Yep. He created me one day ‘cause he got bored. I’m his immaturity, for lack of a better word, given physical form. He’d thought I’d be entertaining.”

That explains so much.

“But yeah,” he continued, “Cromartie just gave me my own white room, told me to do whatever I wanted, then eventually he tossed me you guys, figured I could keep you busy for a while.”

“So why’d you try to make us do a fighting tourney?”

“I thought it’d be cool. Or at least, I thought it would pass the time in a fun and exciting way. That definitely worked out.”

“I’d say so, yeah. Now, I’m going to completely change the subject in an effort to find out more stuff I don’t know.”

“Oh, that’s fine; I love giving exposition.”

“Do you have any idea where my friends are?”

“Well, I don’t know for sure, but I think I know where Leo might be.”

“Where?”

“Well, given how powerful he was when we last saw him, and the role he played in causing all this, the laws of storytelling would indicate he’s in the gigantic floating castle over Michigan.”

Chapter 37

So Michigan was our destination. It’d be a hell of trek, given we were in upstate New York, but fortunately the Imperator and his cult had twenty-story velociraptors for us to ride. Yes, really.

A few minutes after we started out, the Imperator said, “It should take us about three days to reach Michigan if we cut through Canada.”

“Alright,” I replied, “Hey, not that I don’t appreciate your help, but why exactly are you coming?”

“For my entertainment, of course; I want to see how this ends. And there’s only so much DDR a man-child can play.”

“I see. I take it that’s why you brought Lance and the rest of the ninjas?”

“Yep.”

“I’m right here, you know!” Lance shouted as he rode behind us.

“Yes Lance, I am aware of that,” I gritted through my teeth.

Riding a giant dinosaur probably sounds very difficult. That’s because it is. I fell off a few times before eventually getting the hang of it as we rode through the hilly, tree-covered terrain of New York state. The journey was an odd one to say the least- the road turned into trampolines at least three times before we even made to Niagara Falls, and along the way we came across an zombie samurai cult riding stegosauruses and had an obligatory fight with them (it was brief, and should have been entertaining, but my mind was elsewhere).

The question clung to the side of my brain: even if I did find all my friends and set everything right with them, how would I fix the world. Was it even possible? Would anything ever be normal again? Or would reality be permanently stuck as this mess?

Eventually, we made it to Niagara Falls, but the road to the bridge was even more backed up than usual. We were stuck behind about thirty giant robots and T-Rex sized rabbits steered by regular-sized peopled, as well as about a dozen miniature cars driven by regular sized house cats.

“Come on! What’s the big hold up!?” Lance shouted.

And then, naturally, a one hundred foot winged seal flew up out of the water and breathed fire, scorching quite a few of the people in front of us.

“Why would you say that?!” One of the ninjas screamed at Lance as we ran away.

And then another random thing happened: a wormhole appeared in the sky over the falls, unleashing a spaceship which fired three massive laser blasts at the seal!

The seal flew towards the ship, trying to ram it, but it steered out of the way, firing more blasts and releasing several smaller ships, all which combined their efforts to destroy the seal, which they did, turning it into a large fire ball.

The large ship levitated mid-air as its loud speaker came on, as female voice that sounded just a tad familiar to me said, “Don’t worry people, it’s all clear now, just a standard kaiju attack. You’re free to- holy crap! Josh!?”

The large ship flew down towards me and my cohorts, causing no shortage of panic to everyone else. It floated above me until the bottom opened up, a ramp came down, and a woman in her thirties walked out. Oh my God it’s Rachel.

“What’s going on, guy,” she grinned as she walked up to me, “Man, you haven’t aged a day. Lucky you. Me, I’ve been getting old. Not too old, and I think I’m looking pretty good, but still, in five years, I’ll have to deal with middle age.”

“Rachel?”

“Yes, you dummy, it’s me.”

“What happened?”

“You just woke up, didn’t you?”

“About a day ago, yeah. When did you wake up? And why do you have a spaceship”

“That’s a long story. I’ll tell you about it on the way.”

“On the way to where?”

“Wherever you’re going. I’ll give you a lift.”

“You can do that? You can just pick up hitchhikers and take them somewhere with your spaceship? You weren’t doing anything else?”

“It’s my ship, I can do what I want. Plus, hey, anything for a friend. Now where are you heading?”

“Michigan. We think Leo might be there.”

“Alright then, sounds like a plan. And by we, I take it you mean”-

“Me and my crew!” The Imperator shouted.

“Yeah, I thought I recognized you, Impy.” Rachel scowled, then turned to me and asked, “Do we really have to take him?”

“He might still have his powers,” I sighed, “He could be useful. I mean we don’t what we’ll find when we get there.”

“Fair enough,” she said.

“I not going anywhere without my followers!” The Imperator said.

“Damn straight!” Lance yelled supportively.

“Alright, fine!” Rachel responded.

“Would you all just hurry about and get off the road!” One of the cats screamed at us.

“Okay, okay, sheesh.”

We led the raptors and the ninjas onto Rachel’s spaceship, and right then and there I decided that no matter how this ended, this was the weirdest road trip of my life.  

Chapter 38

Rachel began, “I woke up during the middle of an alien invasion. I tried to fight, then I tried to run. Neither worked, seeing how I got abducted about a day later. There were ten other humans on board the UFO, and we were all thinking the same thing: steal the ship. So we did.

“Wasn’t easy. Took weeks of planning, we had to memorize the layout of every level of the damn thing, figure out where the guns were, but we did it. None of us even had to die. Angry-Rachel was in control most of the time, but afterwards, after I was made captain of the ship, Angry-Rachel and Nice-Rachel had to reach a compromise.

“So they entered their mind for a little while, had a chat. They both made their cases, but in the end they found a middle ground, just because it seemed like the most practical thing to do: they combined. I’m the end result. I’m… neutral-Rachel, I guess. All the things they both experienced, everything they ever thought, it’s all still here, in my head, same with all their emotions, all their baggage, but I like to think I’ve combined the best of both worlds.

“Anyway, I’ve been running this operation every since, fighting aliens most of the time, looking for you and Leo and Grace the rest of the time. The former has yielded more results, as you can see. I’ve even been recruiting more people to the cause, though the number of alien invasions has died down in the last few years.

“I’ve heard a lot of talk about some kind of man behind the curtain, controlling or lording over all this, but I’ve never been able to pin him down. His headquarters always seems to move. Granted, I never really tried all that hard to find him; I always figured it was Mark. But Leo… God. I’m not sure what to think about that.”

“You could come to get him with me, help me talk some sense into him,” I offered.  

“Not really sure he’s gonna listen to reason at this point.”

“Well then maybe he’ll listen to a giant spaceship and an army of dinosaur-riding ninjas.”

“Heh. He may just. But here’s the thing- what are you gonna have him do, even if he does listen? I’m not sure he’s capable of turning everything back to normal at this point.”

“Yeah, I know. And even if he can, I’m not sure I’d wanna ask him to.”

“Why not?”

“Well what would happen to you?”

She paused.

“Oh God, I’m sorry,”- I started.

“Don’t be. I’ve made peace with what I am. And you know what, maybe I’m not a real person in the conventional sense, but I’m my own person, and I can make my choices, my own path. That’s enough for me. Besides, a ton of people, regular people, have been suffering for at least a decade because of what Leo and Cromartie have done to the world. We can’t”-

“-Choose ourselves and our friends over everyone else. I know. You’re right, you’re completely right. I’m just trying to think of my friends. I mean after all, not doing that is part of the reason why we’re here.”

“So, is there any kind of plan?”

“Find Leo, and hopefully Grace, try to talk him down, somehow get him to either undo this or at least stop getting people killed by all this insanity. Other than that, we’re gonna have to make it up as we go.”

“I for one have no problem with that.”

  Chapter 39

It took a few hours to make it to Michigan. By the time we made it, we were all mentally prepared, and we all knew the plan; basically, everyone would do everything in their power to make sure Rachel and I got to Leo. The Imperator would lead the other troops against anything else that we came across.

At one point the Imperator asked, “You sure you don’t want me with you when you deal with Leo? As insurance? I mean, you don’t know what kind of mental state is.”

“You’re right, I don’t, but given what the world looks like these days, I doubt it’s a very good or healthy mental state, which is why you can’t come. He doesn’t exactly have the fondest memories of you; he sees you, he might freak out, make your head explode.”

“Fair point.”

The floating castle came within view, and instantly a dozen fighter jets came flying towards us. Rachel released her fleet of mini-spaceships. Dogfights ensued, and I’d love to describe it, but we had to fly by, keep heading towards the castle; time was of the essence.

Since Leo obviously wasn’t in the mood for guests, we decided to drop the pretense and blasted our way through the castle wall. The door to the ship opened up and a herd of ninjas riding dinosaurs ran out, only to be met be a robot army. Rachel and I, carrying small blasters, snuck through the carnage and ducked down the hall.

“Any idea where we’re going?” Rachel asked.

“Not really,” I responded, “Why are you letting me lead? Aren’t you older and wiser and stuff, and have more experience leading people in a fight?”

“I don’t know, force of habit, I guess.”

“You act like I ever had any idea what I was doing.”

“Touché,” she said, then started walking down a corridor, “Come on, this way?”

“And you’re going that way because…?”

“Woman’s intuition.”

“Uh…”

“You got any better ideas?”

So then I kept quiet as we ran up the hall.

A few dead ends, a few small gunfights with automata later, and we found a massive wooden door that took up an entire wall. You can probably guess what we did next.

The door creaked open, and on the other side was an old man on a throne in otherwise large, empty stone room. His hair and beard were both white as snow and down to his waist.

“Hey Josh, hey Rachel. You guys look good.”

“Hi Leo,” I said apprehensively.

“Rachel, what’s the matter? You seem nervous? Is it the age? I mean, it’s bound to happen, I’ve been here about a hundred years. I can undo it, if it makes you nervous.”

He got up out of his chair a wave of energy washed over him, and suddenly he was a young man again, the Leo I had last seen.

“Better?” He asked, “I can do the same for you, too.”

He held up his hand, and the energy hit Rachel and suddenly she was ten years younger.

“Much better. You’re just so lovely, Rachel. I mean, you aged well and all, but still.”

“Leo, please stop,” Rachel said, examining herself while wearing a mixture of curiosity and freaked-out-ness.

“Hm. Maybe you’re right, youth doesn’t quite suit me anymore,” he said, turning back into an old man, “I mean, I can be however old I want, but something about showing the hundred and twenty plus years just feels natural.”

“If you’ve been here creating all this for over a hundred years, why’d you just wake me up a few days ago. And why’d you only wake Rachel up ten years ago?” I asked.

“Right down to business, cutting through the BS, like usual. I’ve always respected that about you, Josh. As for why, well, I thought it’d be interesting.”

“You what?”

“It made the most sense from a story perspective; Rachel spends a decade fighting the good fight, looking for her friends, and meanwhile you get thrown right into the middle of all this; late to the party but here to save the day, get everything back to normal and beat the bad guy, which you will; I mean you’re the hero, after all.”

“No, I’m not, Leo.”

“Yes, Josh, yes you are; most of what’s happened to us has been about you to some extent; you were always the leader of our rag-tag little group, for better or for worse, you’ve changed the most”-

“That last part’s definitely not true.”

“-You are the hero of this story. And me, I’m the villain. I’m the big bad, sitting here on my throne lording over my evil empire.”

“Doesn’t seem like that bad of a place to live.”

“Whole lot of people have died since I took charge.”

“You could bring them back,” Rachel said, “I mean you can pretty clearly do whatever you want.”

“But I won’t, because I’m the bad guy. And as such, you need to kill me, Josh. You need to end the story and clean up my mess. It’s the heroic thing to do.”

“Do you have any idea who you sound like?!” Rachel pleaded.

“Who I… oh. I suppose you must mean Mark. You’ll have to forgive my forgetfulness, it’s been awhile since I conjured Mark back up.”

“What do you mean”-

And with a wave of his hands, a trapdoor in the floor opened, and a coffin was ejected from a lower level. It opened, revealing a decaying skeleton, which, in a matter of seconds, was restored to it’s original form: Mark.

He was barely conscious, and didn’t seem totally aware of his surroundings; he kept looking around as if he were confused.

“I like to dust him off every once and awhile when I’m feeling bored,” Leo started, “Just to remind myself of who got me this far.”

Mark looked at Leo in horror and started to scream, “No, no, please! Get away from me! Get away!”

And then he turned to dust.

“Leo”- I started.

“What? Are you about to tell me that this isn’t right? None of what I’m doing is right, Josh! That’s why you have to kill me! That’s why you have to take that gun and shoot me dead!”

“I can’t”-

“Like hell you can’t! You can, you just won’t! You still need proof that this needs to happen?! Is that it?! Fine! See that over there?” He raged as he pointed to a small door in the left corner of the room, “Go through there, see what’s inside, and then come back and try to tell me you can’t kill me!”

He told Rachel to stay where she was, and I followed his instructions. My hands were shaking so much as I twisted the doorknob that they almost slid off.

I walked through the doorway and saw an old woman, somewhere in her mid-nineties, lying in a bed. There were tubes in her nose, leading back to a life-support system.

“Josh?” She said, “Josh, is that you?”

Grace’s voice had changed, but I could still recognize it.

“It’s been a long time,” She started, while I noticed only half her face was moving while the other half sagged. “You… you look good,” she continued, then she started coughing furiously.

“Sorry about that,” she apologized, “It’s… been awhile since I’ve had anyone to talk to, and I can’t get out of this bed to visit anyone… is Rachel with you…?” She trailed off, and then fell asleep.

I didn’t even try to say anything, I just found myself walking back through the door and pressing my gun against Leo’s forehead. Don’t worry, though; I finally thought of a plan.

“Fix her,” I barked.

“No.”

“DO IT!”

“I won’t. You’ll have to kill me!”

“That won’t solve a damn thing! She’ll still have a foot in the grave and the world will still be a mess!”

“The world was a mess before I came along.”

“Yeah, but at least then it was everyone’s mess, not just yours! Not just the byproduct of your broken psyche! At least then”-

“Stop! Just stop! I know what you’re trying to do; you’re trying to tell me about how I have to live in the real world and how dying now will just leave everything in ruin, but you should stop; it’s not gonna work, and the ‘real world’ is gone.”

“You can fix it! You can do anything you want! You have unlimited power and you can turn all this back to normal and fix everything but you won’t because you just don’t want to! Because you’re too damn scared to face what you’ve done or let anyone help you!” I paused a second before getting to the important part, then said, “And you know what the sad part is? This only happened because you hit me with your goddamned car! You’re only the freaking god-emperor ‘cause you’re a lousy driver!”

“SHUT UP!” He screamed before knocking me back with an energy blast.

“JOSH!” Rachel yelled before rushing over to me and helping me off the ground.

Leo was engulfed with red and yellow energy, pulsating out from within him and causing the ground the to shake.

“Oh crap,” Rachel gulped.

“No, no this is good; this is what I was hoping would happen,” I said as I aimed my blaster at Leo.

“Are you insane?! Do you have any idea what’ll happen if you do that right now?!”

“Nope,” was all I said before I fired.

Direct hit.

Static.

I saw Leo’s thoughts for a moment, his last thoughts the moment before I shot him. It was when we first met. When he hit me with his car. Okay, so far so good. There was a brief flash of a clock turning backwards (a bit on the nose but you get the idea) and then suddenly I was there, lying on the side of the road, barely breathing as Leo ran out of his car to see if I was alive. The only difference was that this time I was still conscious.

“Oh my God! Are you okay?!” Leo panicked.

“Hey, do you guys need some help,” Mark asked as he came out of the woods.

Before either of them knew what was happening, I pulled my shoe off my foot and threw it in Mark’s face. Another direct hit (two for two today). And then by some miracle I pulled myself off the ground, marched over and KO’d Mark with one swift punch to the face.

“Uh… um, w-what was that?” Leo asked me.

“That was a long time coming. I’m Josh.”

“L-Leo. Do you think maybe I should get you to a hospital?”

“Nah, I’m fine. There’s something we need to do though. Follow me.”

And he did as we walked into the woods until we found the bunker. The thing look depressingly ordinary from the outside- just a hole in the ground with a hatch sticking out. We opened the hatch, went inside, entered the control room, and found Grace sleeping in the white room. I went in and dragged her out, and she was awake a few moments later.

“Josh?” She asked, not sure what was happening.

“Hi,” I said with the dorkiest grin of all time. And then I kissed her, and she returned the favor.

“Okay, okay, down boy,” she said pulling away while giggling, “I missed you too. Who’s your friend,” she asked, looking at Leo, who wore a severely uncomfortable look on his face.

“That’s Leo. And speaking of friends, there’s one more I need to take care of. I’m gonna go inside the white room for a second, and I need you to go to the keyboard and get the room to scan my mind for someone named Rachel, have her manifest, and then put in something along the lines of ‘can exit the room’. Can you do that?”

“... Okay…”

And she did while I was inside, and Rachel appeared next to me.

“What just happened?” She asked, “How did you know that would work?”

“I didn’t. Lucky break. Now come on,” I said as I pulled her towards the door.

“Wait, Josh, no, I can’t,” she began, but stopped as she realized she was on the other side, in the real world and still fully operational.

“Huh.”

“And who’s this?” Grace asked, tilting an eyebrow.

“Just a friend, I swear. Now come on, let’s get out of here.”

As we exited the bunker a grabbed a crowbar I found in the corner, and once we were outside I used to pull the handle off the hatch after closing it. No one, but especially not Mark was getting back inside that one, and we called an ambulance for him shortly afterwards. I had a funny feeling he’d be heading back to the mental hospital soon.

After all was said and done and the ambulance had hauled Mark away, the four of us were still standing there on the side of the road.

“So… I g-guess I should… get going,” Leo said as he headed back towards his car.

“No, no, don’t. Stay awhile.”

“And do what?” Grace asked.

“Well, it’s what, 3 AM? I’m sure there’s a crappy bar opened somewhere in town. Let’s all get a drink, get to know each other or just get caught up.”

And we did.

The End




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