Somewhere Empty
rating: +13+x

Ken and Jordan found each other west of Salt Lake City, on an unpaved road snaking through the mountains. The siblings had camped out there twice before when they were younger, so it was easy enough to find the place again. It just took time. Precious days, traveling over back roads and rough terrain, until they were finally reunited: brothers in arms.

"Fuckin' A, man. It's good to see you." Jordan was younger and bigger, powerfully built, with tattoos that spelled out a world of contempt for authority. His thick brown hair was growing back out, but it was still a prisoner's crew cut.

"You too, brother." Kenneth was older and leaner. Hollow-eyed. Tired. He looked like an IT guy, because that's what he was — at least, before all that shit went down in California. "Have any trouble on the way?"

"Not really. Cops don't know where to start looking. You got rid of the baggage?"

"Yeah, but it was messy. I lost most of my files when I ditched the car. On the bright side…" Ken patted the stolen pistol on his belt. "Never unarmed."

"Oh, you won't need that." Jordan snapped his fingers and sent off sparks, as though he were striking flint. Pyromancy. His weapon of choice.

"I'm gonna keep it. At least until we can get to a computer. Then I'll whip up some brainhacks, and we'll go on the… uh…" His voice trailed off. "What is that?"

Beep-beep! There was a tiny vehicle trundling up the pass: a sporty yellow van with chunky tires. It rounded the nearest bend, slowed to a halt, and expelled one scruffy-haired passenger, who promptly vomited into the ditch.

Kenneth squinted. "Is that… Masterson?"

The pear-shaped newcomer wiped their face and waved. "Hey, Ken."

"How did you find us?"

"Oh, I hitched a lift with these guys." They gestured at the driver, a heavyset man wearing a trucker hat and an ugly tan. He waved back with a hand the size of a dinner plate. "Banjo's cool. So long as I don't puke in his ride. Is Hax still with you? I wanted to-"

"Who is this, bro?" Jordan started circling around, flanking the stranger on their right side. Fire crawled up and down his arms.

"That's Wren Masterson. 'steakshift'. They introduced me to the stoners."

"Another pacifist?"

"Anarchist. They do stuff with, like, film and audio. They helped design a couple of payloads last year."

"Oh yeah? You get tired of running with those pussies and decide to join the fight?"

Masterson winced. "No and no. I came here to talk."

Jordan scoffed. "Figures."

"Did Jude send you?"

"Nah, man, didn't you hear? Janitors raided his apartment. Something to do with the election protests. Now everything's fucked."

Ken laughed bitterly. "You know what that sounds like to me? It sounds like Jude 'got what he deserved'."

"Oh, ha-ha-ha, I see. Because he said that about… yeah. Very cute." Wren lingered in the underbrush, unsure what to do with themselves. "Can I, uh, approach?"

"Why? So you can show me a Polaroid? Play us a little tune?" Kenneth pulled out the pistol and racked the slide. "Empty your pockets."

"Shit, dude, why do you have a gun? Is that a cop's gun? Jesus." Masterson dug around in their jeans, then their flannel shirt, then put both hands in the air. "I've got, uh… five bucks. Canadian. All yours."

Jordan pointed at the van. "You! Turn the engine off and put your hands on the dash, or I'll fuckin' burn you!" He threw a gob of flame downhill to prove his point. A moment later, the vehicle fell silent, and the scene fell silent with it.

"I vouched for you, man. Now you're UIU's Most Wanted. C'mon. Talk to me. What happened? Where is Hax?"

"Hax is gone."

"'Gone' as in-"

"Scrambled. Ravens grabbed him outside Vegas."

Wren took a slow, cautious step forward. "Okay. Well. Have you, uh, thought about what happens next?"

"That's not your problem. Tell your buddies to fuck off. We're done."

"Are you kidding? You guys killed like, sixty cops. They're going to be hunting you forever. For-ev-er."

"Let 'em," Jordan said. "Send a thousand pigs. I'll put 'em in the ground."

"Wow! Very brave. Very scary. Did you firebomb any nightclubs on your way here, champ?"

"Don't talk to him like that."

"Just saying, maybe there's some puppies you could kick-"

"Don't you talk to my little brother like that!" Kenneth bellowed. The pistol shook in his hands.

Jordan laughed. "Tell 'em!"

"They had him in prison, Wren! Solitary confinement. That's torture. I had to do something! I asked for help and your friends chose to play with toys. Fucking. Toys. Well, I'm done playing."

"You weaponized a human soul." Masterson didn't bother hiding their disgust.

"We've always been at war. I just answered the call. People are gonna join us."

"What, like the prisoners you busted out? The ones who walked away?"

"Those guys were pussies!" Jordan jeered.

"They walked because this 'reign of terror' shit, this is not smart, man. There's gonna be blowback."

"The ends justify the means."

"What 'ends'? Is there a plan? Is there a goal, besides covering for your little brother?"

"You don't have family. You don't know what it's like. You have no idea what it's like to-"

"Get left behind? Live on the street? Run from the law? Yeah, I do. I've seen what you've seen, and it's fucked up. The way things are built. The way things work. It makes you sick."

"Damn right. The state has all the power, beating us down constantly, and we're supposed to just lie down and take it? It's-"

"No, no, I mean you." Wren pointed at Jordan. "Wayfinding makes you sick. That's why you didn't just zip cross-country in one go. I can relate, actually — period cramps, car rides, pushing myself too hard, all guaranteed to make me puke."

Jordan cocked his head to one side and chuckled. Boastful. "Are you sizing me up? Seriously, bitch? I'm with the Serpent's Hand. We'll obliterate you."

"Actually… the Hand isn't thrilled with you, either."

The yellow van rocked back and forth. Doors swung open. There was a high-pitched tearing noise, and suddenly, two more people were standing on the ridge: a short, broad man in a trucker cap and a tall, bald Indian woman wearing a pink jacket. Banjo and Skye. Hand assassins.

Time slowed. Jordan's confidence turned to dismay. Ken's wariness turned to fear. Before they could react, Skye put her fingers to her temples, channeled energy through her Third Eye and released it as a dazzling flash. Whoosh! Their world turned white. Then, the sound of boots on gravel, a grunt of exertion — and Banjo dropkicked Jordan down the mountainside.

For one long moment, it seemed like he might tumble the full eighty meters to the foot of the hill, blind and limp. Instead: a roar, a rush of flame, and Jordan rode out his descent on gusts of warm air.

Masterson whistled. "Damn. Didn't know he could do that."

"A fucking double-cross?" Jordan bellowed. "I gave it all for the cause, and this is the thanks I get?!"

Skye stepped off the ridgeline and glided downhill, her boots barely skimming the bushes. "You know why we're here, Jordan. Working with the Madmen, killing civilians… it has to stop."

Banjo looked from Wren to Kenneth and back again. He probably could have crushed the pistol with his bare hands, but instead, he took off down the road. He threw his cap into the van — exposing deep grooves in his skull — then tore off his shirt, revealing that his "ugly tan" was actually a thick orange hide. "You are reckless," the planewalker said. "Undisciplined. You cannot save the garden by burning it to cinders."

"I'm fighting back! What gives you assholes the right to tell me how?!"

"You're endangering our people. Bringing down too much heat."

"I'll show you 'heat'!" Jordan conjured up two handfuls of flame, mashed them together and lobbed the fireball at Skye, who shot it out of the air. Boom! When the dust cleared… he had vanished.

"No point hiding, little man." Skye spun in midair, glowering. "We're the only ones on the mountain today… and I can sense your aura."

She conjured up a disc of bright light and sent it scything through the woods. Branches fell, foliage crashed and two toothy monstrosities boiled out: servitors knitted from living flesh. They charged at her and Skye zipped back, firing wide, dodging —

Jordan leapt out of cover. He sprinted directly at Banjo, who beat his chest and stood his ground. "Come on, then! Fight a warrior!"

They collided with an audible crunch — grappled — broke away and slammed together again. Striking, blocking, scattering debris. Jordan fought with his heart, but Banjo tempered all his passion with discipline. Skye whirled around them, implacable, picking Jordan's monsters apart piece by piece.

Kenneth looked down at the chaos, dismayed. "What the hell is this?"

"Some Toriyama shit. Listen to me, Ken." Masterson took another step forward, moving their right hand behind their back. "Your brother's going to keep killing. Not because of the cause. He's gonna keep killing because he likes it."

"You don't know that."

"I know that if you stay here, they're gonna come for us. Everyone in the chat. They're gonna start grabbing us off the street. Are you really okay with that?"

"Fuck you and your stoner buddies! You had your chance!"

"There are other planes. Other places you could go. You could fight forever and no one would get hurt."

He shook his head. "My fight is here."

"Then you're going to lose. See?" When Ken looked west, Masterson lowered their right arm and let the knife drop down their sleeve, into their palm. Almost time.

Fwish! Fwoosh! With both monsters dead, Skye finally touched down and started throwing quick, controlled jabs. Cold. Surgical. Banjo and Jordan were equally matched, but having a third combatant in the mix changed things. His breathing turned ragged. Flames licked at Jordan's teeth, like a car engine backfiring.

The woman smirked. Her jacket fluttered in the breeze. "Having trouble keeping up?"

"Suck my dick!"

She fired off a shot, but Jordan wasn't there anymore. He had ducked through a narrow seam in reality and re-emerged behind them, on the fighters' flank. He blasted Skye down the road, whipped around and slugged Banjo in the belly. The guy choked. Dropped. A warrior, humbled.

Jordan swayed… bit back waves of nausea, from teleport sickness… then collected himself. A moment of calm in the storm. "Bring it on, you fuckin' snakes!"

Skye flung her ruined jacket into the dirt, stamped out the flames and started making quick, complicated hand motions. Kinetoglyphs. Jordan tried to interrupt, but Banjo flung himself into the fire to defend his wounded pride. Sequence complete, Skye split into three blurry copies of herself and rejoined the melee.

This time: no compromise. No hesitation! Each flurry of punches hit harder than the last. Faster than the eye could follow. If not for the wind whistling around their strikes, the mountainside would be on fire. All of them were shouting — bleeding — murder in their eyes —

"They're killing him," Kenneth whispered.


"Call them off!"

"Can't. Not in charge."

He closed the distance in three short steps and pushed the gun into Masterson's face. "Call them off or I'll kill you!"

"Wish you would."

Ken blinked. In that moment of confusion, Wren grabbed his wrist, forced the gun aside, and drove the knife into his chest. He screamed — shuddered — squeezed off a shot —

"No! Kenneth!"

— and fell to the ground, heaving. The pistol slipped out of his hand.

"NO!" Jordan's scream shook the branches. Cracked the earth. The fire in his heart spilled out and he started glowing from within. Overheating.

A half-dozen fleshy demons peeled themselves off his body, flung themselves at Banjo and started exploding, pop-pop-pop. Firecrackers made of meat. In those bright lights, only one Skye cast a shadow, so Jordan hit her once, twice, and the doppelgangers fizzled out. He burned a hole in the world and stepped to the top of the ridge, screaming, "Kill you, kill you killed my brother-"

"Sour milk," Wren blurted. "Pork. Rotten eggs."

Jordan paused. Gagged. Bile in his throat. Teleport sickness took charge, and he vomited directly into Masterson's face. Splat!

They stared at each other. For a moment, both of them were completely vulnerable.

Jordan hissed, "Die."

That should've been it. Instead, there was the sound of distant thunder, another high-pitched tearing noise, and an elbow strike sent Jordan reeling. One last combatant had arrived on the field: a big, bright-eyed man with long blonde hair. He was wearing board shorts, sandals, and a very nice bowling shirt with "Clark" embroidered on his breast.

"Hey guys! Sorry I'm late!" He waved back at Banjo and Skye, who were picking themselves out of the dirt, then spun around and locked eyes with his opponent. When he spoke, Clark's voice was hard as steel. "You hurt my friends."

Jordan took a wild swipe. Missed. On the second swing, Clark grabbed his arm, spun around and launched him through a thick fir tree. Thoom! The whole thing collapsed in a shower of needles.

When he finally stood up, Jordan was in bad shape. His tattoos were torn to ribbons. Pain was his whole world. With nothing left, he screamed, put his hands together and piled on the heat. Clark matched the attack with a crackling energy beam. Two bright waves collided, beat against each other… and inevitably, one side broke. A merciless tide washed over Jordan's body. His howl trailed away to nothing.

For a moment, electricity arced between Clark's fingers. His hair started to stand up… then settled back down. Static dissipated. The fight was over. "Huh," he said. "Wasn't this guy supposed to be tough?"

Banjo cleared his throat. "He seemed pretty tough to me, comrade."

"You missed the worst of it." Skye glanced down at Wren, wrinkled her nose, and tossed them a handkerchief.

"But I didn't even have to power up!"

"Yeah. Well. He pushed himself too hard, too fast." Masterson toweled themselves off, then offered the handkerchief back to Skye, who ignored them completely. "I can relate, actually. That's why it worked."

The musclebound titan looked at Wren for the first time. "You're… one of the Merrymakers, right? JJ's friend."

"Yeah, that's me. The distraction."

"Are you hiding your aura?"

All the color drained out of Masterson's face. "I, uh… maybe?"

Clark beamed. "That's pretty cool! We should try sparring sometime!"

"Oh. Ha! Oh god. No, no. No thanks. I'm not really-"

"Wren." Kenneth's voice was little more than a whisper. It still hit them like a truck. "Wren. My brother. Is he…"

"Yes. Sorry." Masterson knelt down beside him. They didn't touch the knife. The deed was done. "You didn't leave us any choice."

"You don't… don't understand." Ken reached out with one limp hand and pawed at the air. "He's family."

"That's just it. I do understand." They took his hand, squeezed it tight, and looked out at the mountains. "Sometimes… you've got to do real shitty things to protect the ones you love."

Kenneth did not reply.

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