“So, what am I doing?”
Eric Hunter proceeded down the Castle hall, addressing his walking companion, Jonathan the cat. The black feline responded to him.
“We are on simple patrol. The others are getting in their positions. If we encounter the bogey, we are to do our best to force him into a position that is more advantageous for us.”
Both walked. Hunter smirked.
“Oh, I get it. I’m the bait.”
Jonathan shrugged idly.
“Sure, you’re the bait.”
Hunter frowned somewhat, and turned to look at the kitty at they marched onward.
“Then what are you here for?”
Jonathan was quiet, but only for a moment.
“I am here to save your life when we are noticed.”
Hunter scoffed, shaking his head.
Daniel sighed. “I just feel kinda bad for leaving them, that’s all. I mean, they’re the ones who set us up with such a big space for the office.”
Pierre rolled his eyes. They were strolling towards the final airlock. He reached ahead, gripped the metal handle, and twisted it. Air hissed and swirled around them as depressurization disengaged. “Look,” he said sharply, “They were lucky to ever have us. Let’s call it even.”
A twisted lock of mechanical insanity began to untwist itself and reveal the contents behind what had been a sealed barrier. Both men were intent. Twin plates audibly rushed open. Daniel visibly staggered.
“What the hell?!” he blurted out. “Where’s th–”
Then they noticed the note.
Pierre dashed forward. In just a few steps, he plucked the small piece of paper taped to the wall and gripped it in two fervent hands. He read aloud:
“Oh, you weren’t looking for the escape pods, were you? I must have used them myself, first. Oops.”
The ‘signature’ was a paw print.
Pierre clenched his teeth and crumpled the note.
“What now?” Daniel sighed.
“I think I know where we can still find a way out without going through the front door,” his fellow editor hissed.
Andrew closed his eyes. He raised his hands and rubbed his temples. The small troll stood nearby. “Why are you still bothering with all this?” it would say, and sigh condescendingly. “You have better things to do. Think of the big picture!”
Then Andrew Carreiro would abruptly turn, and step, and step again, and turn. Every square inch of every surface around him was covered in strange codes and characters. He was traversing the trails briskly, speedreading hundreds of lines of text in seconds.
“This can’t be healthy,” the troll huffed, following along as best it could. “Are you healthy? Do you know if you are or not? I have so many questions about your health,” it puffed.
Andrew gasped as his foot missed a step, jutting into the darkness below. He whirled around and pushed off a wall, regaining his balance. He squinted, trying to focus, to gain a better sense of dimensions and distances.
“Oh my, now this is getting dangerous,” the troll chortled.
Andrew grit his teeth, and jogged one way, and leaped – only to feel his abdomen crash into the edge of the platform he was aiming for. The air was knocked out of his lungs, and his arms clambered for grip as he leaned fore, trying to avoid a fall.
The pit beneath him was just an unfathomable darkness, shadows upon shadows, a maw of nothingness.
He cried out in pain as he tried to pull himself up with his tired arms.
A figure approached from the surface, and leaned down toward the Co-Founder, and extended a hand.
Valerie’s gaze was urgent, even desperate, when she pointed to a faint metallic glimmer amid the sea of artifacts. Her and Alex scrambled over piles of items towards their prize.
Val grabbed it, and held it aloft. It was a lamp. She blew some dust off. Neither person spoke. She rubbed the object’s side with her fingertips.
Smoke poured out impossibly quick, and a strange shape emerged – it had a deep blue color, and soon sprouted arms, even as its lower frame remained swirling into the exit from the lamp.
Alex could not help but giggle giddily.
“You have awakened the Gaming Djinn!” the now-towering genie bellowed. His commanding voice echoed in the storage area. They watched as his head gained two glowing, white-hot orbs.
“Your wish is my command!” the mystical being roared.
Valerie’s back arched as she let forth a full-bodied, shaking, delirious laugh.
Jonathan stopped, his paw stuck out in midair before his next footfall. His eyelids had sprung open wide, his whiskers at attention, his ears perked and his hair on end.
Hunter could barely say “What?” before the cat hissed and jumped right into the Audio Engineer’s chest with full force.
Eric Hunter grunted and hit the floor on his side, rolling immediately and tossing the black cat away, just in time to see a small missile tear through the corridor over them and collide with an opposite wall.
They winced at the explosion, which rocked the Castle walls, sending dust and debris scattering.
The two castle-dwellers exchanged a glance and a nod before they, in tandem, took the next turn and ran off.
Andrew blinked several times. “I didn’t think I’d see you again,” was all he could manage to say, as he looked upward.
Right into the face of Chris Swartz.
Swartz was smiling widely, eagerly reaching down towards the Administrator. “Yeah!” he exclaimed, and nodded excitedly. “I’m glad to see you too, buddy!”
Carreiro barely had his forearms on the floor of the platform, his head just above its surface. His shoulders were burning. He drew in a quick breath through pursed lips before he spoke again.
“How’d you get down here?”
Chris bit his lip, and cocked his head. “What do you mean?”
The wizard shook his head. The cape felt heavy. Everything did.
“You can’t be down here randomly. Nobody chooses to come down here without a reason.”
He winced, trying to slide one arm under the other, at least for some temporary leverage that would take less effort to sustain. Chris stood up straight, and chuckled.
“You’re so smart, Andrew! You’re right, and it’s the weirdest thing. See, I want to be a villain!”
Andrew was panting. He had a headache. Chris continued.
“I even told Bailey, see, and he kinda brushed it off, but I sure didn’t forget! So I got to thinking, hm, if I was the villain, what would I do? I mean, here’s Adam, using time travel, and I thought that was brilliant. But, why? Why would he go through all this, y’know?”
Andrew did not respond.
“So I figured, hey, why can’t I be the reason he goes bad? Y’know? Like, who knows what happens in the future? What if I’m the one who convinces him to be evil? What if I’m the fulcrum that the whole narrative turns on? Huh? So I kept thinking, and I thought, what would I have to do to make this all work? I thought about the Castle, and how it’s built, and how this is all already predestined to happen in the future, obviously…”
Andrew tried giving another push, another pull, but he just could not overcome his center of gravity. He hung there, and listened.
“So I kept exploring, and I kept discovering doors, all these passageways, and they went down deeper, and I thought, wow, this must be some kind of confirmation that this is meant to be! This is really working! I’m really traveling down the path of villainy here! What a twist! So imagine how I feel when I come across you, Andrew, the Admin, the one holding all the keys, and that Wand of yours.”
Andrew Carreiro sighed. “You’re insane,” he whispered.
With almost-startling speed, Chris Swartz knelt down close to the mage. “Maybe,” he whispered in return. “But the way I see it, you have two choices: Either give me your administrator wand, and let me remake the Castle in my image, and we’ll see what happens. I’ll even pull you up, help you out, and find a good role for you. Or,” he stood to his feet, “I stomp on your wrists until you let go of the ledge and fall off. Maybe you’ll die on impact somewhere down there, or impale yourself on some spikes, or just keep falling until you pass from starvation. So c’mon, pal, whaddya say?” He was grinning maniacally.
Andrew gradually drew in a deep breath through his nostrils. Many thoughts passed through his mind in this moment. A better writer would have found a way to convey them without cheapening them; to put their splendor into grand terms, yet without resorting to schmaltz or redundancy, without having to overdescribe or overtell.
Carreiro spoke with a tone of pride. “I take a third option.”
He let go. His fingertips, with a soft sound, scuttled across the smooth, coded surface of the ledge. As his body fell back, in a gentle turn, he stared straight upward, into Swartz’s eyes. He worked quickly to grab the wand and hold it in front of him, in both hands.
As Andrew descended into the inky, airy depths, Swartz cried out in protest.
The Co-Founder smiled – and broke the wand, snapping it in half. The magical tool imploded, and Carreiro disappeared in a violent flash of multicolored light.
The enemy stomped towards the bend in the hallway, hellbent on death and destruction, his footsteps pounding the stone beneath him, leaving splintered craters in his wake.
“Y’know, before you go…”
Jason Lamb materialized nearby, adjusting his tie as he seemed to admire a nearby wall. He nodded toward it, noting an object that had been placed there.
The mech roared in its modular voice. The metal monstrosity turned to the Canadian.
Lamb clicked his tongue in a clear “tsk, tsk” manner, wagging an accusatory finger at the strange implement embedded in the bricks to his side.
“We simply must discuss your work with improvised payloads. To start, the wire work is barbari–”
The cyborg menace raised an arm. When the laser shot fired, the bolt of energy passed straight through where Jason was. There was a slight, visible distortion in the Podcaster’s appearance, before it vanished unnaturally quickly, like someone had flipped a switch.
“And you really can’t detect a hologram with any of your sensors? I think the team will appreciate that intel indeed,” Jason Lamb said with the smuggest of smug looks, the absolute smuggiest. He was the Mayor of Smugsville, Master & Commander of the Smug Forces, the–
He dove, and tumbled, to dodge another last blast. “Oh, they’re probably ready for you by now anyway,” he muttered, and tapped his belt in an odd manner. A jetpack burst forth from his blazer. Immediately, he fired the thrusters and sped away.
The mech huffed, every noise digitized from behind its impenetrable black-glass faceplate. It gave chase, bounding in Jason’s trail down one of the wider halls that took a gentle curve.
Its pace slowed, then stopped, when faced with the presence of Adam Ezagouri, Eric Bailey, and Joshua Caleb standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
In the imperceptible split-second when the massive arm-weapon of their foe began to rise, Bailey reached over and deftly yanked Joshua’s knife from its sheathe. In one smooth motion, he was already stepping behind Adam – and soon held one arm around him, under his arm and over his opposite shoulder, as his other hand pressed the side of the blade against his neck.
“It’s over!” the Co-Founder shouted, staring down the clanking, hissing, sparking technological invader. “You can’t just screw around with time and not deal with the consequences, Adam! We know it’s you and your Time Zone! And if I kill your past self now…”
He began slowly turning the blade, bringing its sharp edge against Adam’s skin. The Retro Critic was breathing faster, holding his arms out to his side, and shaking somewhat.
“You’ll die too, Adam. There, in that mechanical shell, you’ll die. If I kill you in the past, you can’t exist in the future!” Eric yelled.
Joshua had his hands up in front of him. They shook, too, along with his eyesight, as he shifted to see this way and that, his cheek twitching at the corner of his face.
“No,” the faceless enemy retorted. “This is not some movie, Eric, where you can follow the rules toward a predictable outcome, or boil everything down to a single-timeline scenario. It’s too late. I am here, and nothing you can do will stop me.”
Eric Bailey closed his eyes – and simply, crudely pushed the handle of the hunting knife. He felt a bit of pressure against his grip, but then released, as the blade tore through Adam’s skin, separating it in a deep wound. The flesh tore, and the steel edge coasted further across, severing several lateral inches worth of epideral layers in a gruesome cut.
Vessels tore. Oxygen-rich blood began spraying in a half-circle outward, coating the floor in puddles within seconds.
Bailey released the hold, and Adam fell to the floor, his hands twitching toward his gaping cut. As he tried to breathe, bubbles of air could be seen rising and popping in the pool of crimson liquid formed in the wound cavity. The Critic gurgled and choked, sputtered and spasmed, soon writhing violently on the Castle floor before arching his back and spitting up one last mouthful of ichor.
Joshua screamed. Eric opened his eyes. He stood frozen in place.
The mech, too, did not move. But it was only unmoving for a few seconds, before its weaponized arm began to raise again.
“No…” Caleb whispered, looking briefly to Bailey, before ultimately sprinting away.
Eric’s lip quivered.
The barrel of the mechanized combatant’s laser cannon was leveled towards the Editor-In-Chief. He spoke in its quietest voice yet.
“To kill you now would be a mercy, wouldn’t it?”
With eerily silent steps, the hulking craft left Bailey alone, who did not move. He could only stare at the widening pool of what had been Adam.
Pierre and Daniel raised respective eyebrows of curiosity as they passed Alex and Valerie in the hall. The Retro Power friends were pushing a set of hovercrates across the floor. The GMZ editors shrugged it off, and entered the storage area.
Pierre yelped as he stepped on a spiky weapon of some kind. Daniel was already fixated on something. He pointed a finger ahead.
“Is that what I think it is?”
Jason kept a stiff upper lip as he faced down the advancing adversary. The mechwarrior, at this point, seemed to be seething with a sort of pent-up rage; its massive, armored shoulders heaved up and down in a steady rhythm, while there was an audible hissing with each motion.
They were in the main foyer, on the ground floor. The front gates were visible. They faced each other, several yards apart. The mech began raising both arms.
Several crates slid at low friction into view. Valerie was sitting on one of them, Alex on another.
Each held a very large gun in their hands.
Val raised her rifle, a light-blue crazy thing with a weirdly lit surface and a completely nonsensical shape. She pulled the trigger, and the muzzle let forth with a very sci-fi “B’DOWWwww!” sort of sound effect, you have probably heard it before, it is a classic.
She missed, though, as the mech quite literally rolled out of the line of fire, assuming a sort of Ball Mode as it folded into a more well-rounded configuration. It slowly rolled toward the edge of the room.
Alex bit his lip and held up his gun, a ridiculous orange squared-off affront to nature. He squeezed the trigger, and a torrent of plasma rounds began firing at a rapid pace. They bounced and popped and sparked around the foyer. Several of the rounds glanced off the surface of the mech.
Alex groaned, and tossed the gun aside. He leaned over, reached into a crate, and pulled out a pair of gold pistols. He began firing again.
The robot-lookin’ target stopped rolling, pausing on a knee. It raised a hand, and from the palm beamed a reflector array. The flat, blue-green projection grew in front of the murderous intruder, forming an impenetrable shield. Indeed, the powerful bullets harmlessly evaporated against the energy screen.
Valerie hopped down from one crate and stepped toward another one. She withdrew a rocket launcher, and flipped down a console that included a small joystick and viewing screen. She set her balance, and fired, steering the fly-by-wire missile at a fast pace.
She guided the rocket projectile up and around the armored assaulter, only to see him raise his other arm and form a second shield projection. The missile exploded against it, its flames barely licking at the sturdy grid whatsoever.
Valerie muttered under her breath, and discarded the rocket launcher. She grabbed a different missile launcher, this one with heat-seeking rounds, and began firing away. She let forth a continual stream of taunts and cries, too, all drowned out by concussive thunder as each missile burst against the shields, which were beginning to dim and decay.
Alex had run out of golden-pistol ammo, and flung those firearms aside. He practically dove headlong into the next crate over, and pulled up a distinctive weapon. He smirked, though, as he pulled the trigger – and watched a cerebral drill fling itself towards the mech, and begin violently trying to bore through its hull, sending a shower of sparks all over itself, the shields, and the vicinity.
The Retro Power friends exchanged a high five. The mech-enemy seemed to be swatting at the bore with much annoyance. The shields were flickering in and out of existence.
“Hey! Over here!”
Pierre ran into the enormous room, flailing his arms as he entered the fray. Beside him was Joshua. The pair were frantically hopping up and down and waving their hands as they raced closer to the doombringer.
“Yeah, hit me!” Joshua cried out.
The mech enemy grumbled, and deactivated the energy shields fully. Val and Alex had stopped firing, only because they feared hitting Joshua and Pierre.
So the mech stood straight, and unsheathed twin saw blades from its arms. They began to spin in an ear-attackingly loud whine, buzzing viciously as the metal nemesis began running toward the pair.
In fact, both saw blades swung toward their intended targets – only for Pierre and Joshua to cackle in maniacal laughter as they burst into smoke and flew away into twin clouds of vampire bats.
The mech cocked its mechanical head.
A near wall exploded, red bricks and gray mortar shattering around as a sizable craft crashed straight through their structure. The mech barely had time to register the intrusion, certainly not enough to react, other than to come face-to-face with an oncoming vehicle.
It was a burly old ice cream truck with a flaming clown’s head on its roof. Daniel was driving, at quite a high rate of speed, barreling forward with the gas pedal to the floor. The former GMZ co-founder let forth with the best battlecry he could muster in the moment.
“BEEP BEEP, MOTHERFUCKER!”
The grill of the vehicle bashed face-to-face into the Castle’s mortal antagonist. The resultant impact was loud, a burst of breaking steel and glass. The armored enemy was flung backward, audibly groaning from the force of the hit, while the truck had mostly slowed to a near-stop.
So Daniel grit his teeth and stomped on the gas a second time.
The busted-up, twisted-metal vehicle slammed into the armored enemy again. The two hulking pieces of smoking, charred wreckage together rammed through the outer brick wall, exposing the foyer to the outside sunlight.
Dark smoke billowed from the mech aggressor as he rolled limply onto his side, one of his arms nearly torn off. The cockpit was cracked in a thin, spider-web-like pattern all across its surface. The ice cream truck was on its side, one of its wheels still spinning. Daniel could be heard coughing from within.
The enemy fired a blind laser shot into the air. It fizzled with markedly less intensity than prior rounds.
Jason appeared close by, in his usual intriguing manner. Anyone within earshot was drawing nearer to the scene of the vicious collision. Hunter jogged up, squinting in the sun. He raised a hand… and thought he saw someone.
Tom Hall offered a friendly smile.
“Hey, look what I found out on the lawn!” he said, and tossed Hunter his Banhamer. Eric accepted it with a blank expression, before slowly curling his lips into a world-conquering smirk. “Now that’s more like it,” he mumbled.
Hall raised his own Hammer. “One more Ban for old time’s sake?” he said.
The brothers-in-arms clinked hammerheads, and moved into position, each on either side of the disabled mechwarrior. The foe grumbled, and one of its armor plates abruptly snapped off. Then the gimpy arm fell to the ground, breaking into a handful of smaller pieces. One of them had a foreboding red button on it.
The Co-Community Managers nodded wordlessly, and slowly raised the mighty sledges. In unison, they swung down, golf-style, and socked the sides of the fallen adversary.
The remaining armor bent and broke and flew apart. The cockpit glass shattered spectacularly, like splashing water, countless thousands of tiny shards ascending and descending in a coordinated dance, reflecting the daylight here and there to bright effect.
The pilot within was silent.
The Castle contributors gathered closer, only for their countenances to fall ashen and mouth-agape. Jason was the first to speak.
“Where’s Bailey? Has anyone seen him? Should we… I dunno…”
The Founder emerged from the gap in the Castle exterior, looking sullen as he carefully stepped over various mechanical parts and vehicular bits. The others were staring at him, strangely, and even more strangely yet, they all began to point at the cracked-open cockpit of the mechfighter.
Eric Bailey furrowed his brow as he stepped forward, and gazed into the maw of the machine.
But where he had expected to see Adam, he saw himself.
He was a little older, perhaps, but the perfect resemblance was unmistakable. The doppelganger wheezed, his eyelids shut, his head leaning over at an awkward, uncomfortable angle.
And that haunting look on his face.
Nobody dared to move. A minute passed in eerie silence. Parts of what had once constituted a whole just sat smoldering around the group. The atmosphere felt different. Standing this close to the Castle felt dangerous to some, like the once-grand, now-damaged structure could tumble over at any moment.
Bailey expelled a long-held breath, then actually chuckled, running a hand through his hair and cracking a smile to the others. “Well that got awfully dark, didn’t it?” he laughed, full-fledged. “But, hey, we did it. The enemy has fallen. I’d say we can celebrate a little bit, right?”
The others remained stoic.
Eric shrugged. “Okay, seriously guys, I think we just need a break. I’ve, uh,” he craned his neck back to survey the extensive wounds the ol’ Castle had suffered, “Got some work to do. So, go on, get out of here! Go home, or on vacation, or whatever, I don’t care. Just… take some time.”
The others were reluctant to get going.
The Editor-In-Chief sighed, and picked up a few of the pieces from his older self’s mech’s arm. “All right, well, I’m closing the Castle for a little while, so stick around outside if you want, just don’t come inside I guess,” he said, feigning an empty smile.
Valerie tapped Tom on the shoulder. “Hey. It’s good to see you,” she said warmly. Hall twirled his enormous Hammer in his hands. “Bailey’s probably right. This was all just so jarring.”
Pierre and Joshua had come around. They were helping Daniel walk, holding him under his shoulders. Joshua Caleb called out to the humble crowd, “Take it from someone who’s taken breaks: They’re great. I’m going to go play some video games. Who’s with me?”
Hunter kicked a clod of dirt. He held the business end of his Banhammer, lifted it high – and stabbed the handle into the ground. He left it there, and followed Caleb.
Bailey had entered the Castle proper, and a passing moment later, the drawbridge was being raised. Other pulleys and chains were gearing up as well, as windows were shuttered and every secondary gate closed shut.
“Oh. He was serious,” Jason the Canadian muttered, as he abruptly appeared amid the others in his typical mysterious manner.
Alex was sullen. He frowned. He fidgeted. “I don’t get it. And I’m not sure if the Castle can survive something like this. I mean, I want it to, but…” he trailed off.
Daniel sat on the ground, panting. He looked like crap. I mean, they were all super grateful he was alive and doing okay, but still. “Good job, everybody,” he managed to sputter.
Then it happened: A series of distant booms, dozens upon dozens of them, rapidly one after the after, growing in volume and intensity. The ground rumbled, trembled – then only greatly intensified in its unease as 1 More Castle began to fall into and onto itself as a series of demolition charges rocked its pillars and halls and chambers and red bricks and holiday iconographies.
“NO!” Pierre cried out, and began to run towards the exploding Castle, which was already smoking in ruin. Tom Hall dashed toward him and tackled him to the ground.
“It’s too late!” Tom yelled into his ear, above the roar of the fiery thundering. Dust was rushing over them, like a sandstorm, as a great wind whipped up debris both old and new. Everyone winced, and shifted their weight.
Except Jason Lamb. He just stood, letting the tide of destruction roll over him, like water over a stone. Even as the grime and grit completely coated his glasses, he just kept staring up at where 1MC had been.
Some huddled together. For warmth? For safety? For community?
Others went their separate ways. For comfort? For ambition? For spite?
But, one by one, they did eventually leave the space.
And that was okay.
Pierre was feelin’ some kind of way.
His eyes darted about wildly as he turned this way, then that, looking over across the field and spotting his target. He took off in a mad run. His chest heaved as his feet pounded the ground beneath him in a unique fury.
“Hey!” he called ahead, waving an arm. Alex Weiss heard his voice and turned to him with a curious eyebrow raised. “Pierre?” he responded, incredulously. “Wha–”
“Do you still have that robot thing?” Pierre blurted out. He muttered to himself, closed his eyes for a half-second, then tried again. “The Time Puncher. Do you still have the Time Puncher robot?”
Alex’s mouth hung open for a noticeable length of time before he could actually form a coherent response. “Uh, sure, I–”
His coherent response was cut off. “Give it to me,” Pierre said in a firm, commanding tone. “Now.”
Alex showed a bit more priority, and loosed his backpack from his, well, his back. He unzipped it, and held up the rather generic-looking, not-at-all-intimidating robot.
Pierre grabbed the robot, and set it on the ground. … It was only a few feet tall, so Pierre had to kneel down to be on its level.
“Punch me!” the Canadian ordered. Nothing happened. “PUNCH M–”
The Time Puncher punched Pierre right in his face.
Pierre hissed, and winced, and drew in a seething breath of pain through his clenched teeth as he rubbed his nose. He placed his fingertips against his nostrils, then held them up, checking for blood. Was his nose broken? That seriously hurt.
The robot appeared to be perfectly motionless and lifeless. Standing nearby. Contentedly, even.
“Dude, what the hel–”
Pierre stopped. Pierre stopped because he noticed his setting.
He was in the Castle, he knew that, but it was different. There were floorboards and studs visible that normally would not be. The rafters looked different. There were open gallons of red paint in the halls. A stray shop rag had a crude version of the classic logo scrawled onto it.
He held Time Puncher by the wrist, and slowly walked further into the keep, mesmerized by what he saw, what he was encountering. He heard murmuring down the way. He crept ahead, silently, and concentrated. He began to not just hear the voices, but understand the words.
“Oh, yes. Ugh. I agree.” Pierre could tell this voice was Bailey’s. It sounded like he was responding to Andrew as he continued, “I would love to have a girl on the roster right away. But look at her pitch: She literally says she doesn’t know what she would contribute. I think she likes the idea, I think she’s supportive, I think she’s an ally, but I can’t in good conscience…”
Pierre was already backing away slowly. He could see them now, and did not want to be spotted. Bailey was trying to build the biggest window he could. Andrew was trying to build the strongest foundation he could.
“Time Puncher,” he whispered, and held up the robot, looking him face-to-face. “Hit me again.”
“… don’t care who he is. He’s an asshole.”
Pierre almost gasped, had that not been a move that would give away his position. At least the Castle was completely built this time. He was in one of the many hallways. The door was open to a small conference room. He realized he had never seen it before. He was not even sure what wing of the Castle it was in.
It was Andrew’s voice that spoke. Again, Bailey responded.
“Hey, I hear ya. I already didn’t get along with him. I’m just saying I don’t think we have much ground to stand on. I really don’t think there’s anything we can do about it. It’s the video contributor’s choice. I wish we could do more.”
Andrew’s tone was clearly that of someone who was Royally Pissed Off.
“Well I want to talk to him. I want to see him face to face. I’m not just going to let our talent get sniped every time they really start to get rolling.”
A pause. A reply from Bailey.
“Okay. We can arrange that.”
Pierre’s jaw hurt. He rubbed it. Yet, he held the Time Puncher up again.
“Maybe a little gentler this time…”
Pierre was in the dark.
He froze. He felt afraid to breathe.
He held up a hand. He could not see it, even inches in front of him.
He clutched the robot closer.
He gasped when he heard something. A light impact. Like…
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Pierre screamed, and bashed his face into the robot’s fist.
Pierre felt a pang of familiarity. He was in the break room of the GMZ offices. He surveyed the scene, and noticed his and Daniel’s office door was closed. That was not unusual, but as he approached the door, he heard voices.
Holding Time Puncher at his side, he leaned against the door with his ear, and listened to the exchange happening inside.
“It’s the swastika dildos, isn’t it?”
Daniel and Pierre were standing on one side of the table. Eric Bailey was on the other. Splayed out on the tabletop were dozens of pages, in full-color, representing an in-progress draft of the next issue of GMZ. It was customary for them to check with the EIC for the green light to publish.
Bailey leaned forward, placing his palms on the edge of the table as he checked the mock-ups.
“I just wonder why they’re rainbow-colored,” he said. “What kind of message does that send?”
Daniel cocked his head to the side like a confused dog as he replied, “Nazis are gay?”
Eric looked at Daniel. He moved a hand over his own head and mouthed a quiet “Woosh!”
Pierre leaned in too, and pointed a finger at his Editor. “Since when have we had a good message?!”
Daniel threw his hands up exaggeratedly. “Fine. We’ll make them black. Or would that also be too problematic for ya?”
Eric ignored the comment, and pointed to another panel. “Let’s talk about this concept here. Okay, I see Godzilla, I get that, and he’s kinda crouching on the World Trade Center towers, y’know, penetrating himself, but…” He leaned one way dramatically. “From this angle, I just don’t think that position’s possible unless he has, like, two buttholes.”
“He does,” Pierre stated matter-of-factly.
Bailey squinted, and looked at Pierre, like you would look at a moth that had just asked you where you keep your dairy products.
The Editor-In-Chief addressed them both with the next item. “So, if I understand this one correctly,” he gestured vaguely towards a bit of artwork and some copy, “This is Mike Tyson’s Urban Champion?”
“Yeah! Brilliant, right?” Daniel said excitedly.
“Sure,” Bailey replied, “Until the part when he starts burning down churches.”
“Oh c’mon!” Daniel protested. “They’re just the KKK kind of churches! That’s why all the crosses are on fire!”
He gestured towards the burning-cross art. Bailey did not bother verifying.
“One other thing,” the editor said, hesitating before bringing up this next one. “We need to talk about this.”
He placed a heavy finger on one particular idea. His fingertip tapped judgementally.
“This appears to be… Sonic the Hedgehog… possibly rabid and or high… bending a pantsless Shigeru Miyamoto over a desk… and, uh… okay, let me just get to my question: Is Miyamoto dead in this image?”
Pierre nodded. “Yeah. From the head wound.”
“I see,” Bailey said. “So, Sonic kills Miyamoto. And then does him in the butt. Vigorously. After he’s dead.”
“Oh, no,” Daniel laughed, “Sonic wasn’t the one who killed him. That was Master Chief.”
Eric stared blankly at Lamplugh.
“Yeah, I think we have it here, let me see,” he said, and leaned down, unfolding and moving some pictures, until he slid it out from under another.
“Yep,” Lamplugh announced, “Teabagged to death by Master Chief.”
Sure enough, the picture showed Master Chief, of Halo fame, aggressively teabagging a prone Shigeru Miyamoto. To death. And…
“Okay, wait, what is…”
Bailey leaned in close, peering intently at the piece.
“Is that… Miley Cyrus? Miniaturized? Two of her? On Master Chief’s balls?”
Pierre scoffed. “No, that’s Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana.”
Bailey leaned in even closer. Beside the two girls riding Chief’s balls was a caption:
Eric laughed. “Okay, that’s kinda funny. Let’s just take out the one,” he pointed one more time, “About me being the antichrist and teaming up with a certain Muslim prophet to take out Obama unless he makes video games illegal. And whatever the heck Q*Bert is doing to Link in the background with those puppies. Ick.”
The past Pierre smiled, and high-fived Daniel. The future Pierre smiled, too.
“Ah, that was a good one,” he sighed contentedly. “Hit me, robot, one more time.”
He was standing in the foyer. There was rubble everywhere. The gate was closed.
“Good work,” Pierre whispered to Time Puncher, and set him down.
“Hey!” he yelled, “No! Stop! Wait!”
Bailey frowned. One corner of his mouth ticked and twitched anxiously.
The Co-Founder was sitting right in the middle of the grand foyer of 1 More Castle, surrounded by destruction. In his hands was the part of the fallen mech with a disturbing red button on it.
Pierre approached him gingerly. “Don’t press it,” he said. “Please.”
Eric bit his lip. He was staring at it. The button. The red button.
“At least hear us out!”
It was Adam, approaching Bailey from the other side. Pierre did an amusing double-take. “How did y–”
“Time Zone,” Adam spurted.
“Cool,” Paul Potvin said.
This time, all three of the others did a double take. Paul shrugged. “Something was on the disk, all right.”
“Nice,” Jason Lamb said in approval. The double takes were getting less intense. Besides, Andrew Carreiro happened to be standing right beside him, too.
“How did YOU get… oh never mind,” Pierre grumbled, but couldn’t help but smile as well.
They all gathered around, forming a loose circle.
Eric held the piece of electronic gadgetry with the button on it. He held it in both hands, strangely close to his face. “You guys shouldn’t be here,” he said very quietly, before quickly adding, “I mean, I’m flattered, but really. Don’t be here.”
Andrew shrugged. “I told you I was in this with you. We made the decision together. Besides,” he smirked teasingly, “I’m the one who should know to make it out in time.”
Adam stepped closer to Bailey. “I just wanted to let you know that I get it. I’ve been busier lately, too, and it’s hard just to keep contributing regularly.”
Paul nodded. Pierre stepped forward. “I accept it. I may not fully get it, but I can accept it. I just really liked the place, that’s all. I wanted you to know that, I guess, before you blow it all up.”
Eric managed a half-smile. He said, “Yeah. It’s weird. Like, this isn’t the kind of story where everything is explained. But I looked the Future in the face. And I didn’t like it. I didn’t like what it was doing to this place. And it was me. And… ugh, I probably sound insane,” he chuckled nervously. “But, trust me, I’ve thought about this a lot.”
Jason stepped forward. “You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone.”
Bailey looked up from the button. “No. You’re right. I don’t owe anyone anything. But I do feel a little guilt over it.” He looked to Andrew before he continued. “When we started, we had a vision to eventually be able to pay our contributors, at least!” He sighed. “I’m glad it turned out great as it was. But what made it great was not the name “1 More Castle,” or its location. You could say it was the contributors, but even broader, I think it was the spirit. And here’s the thing. Really, this is it.”
He took a deep breath.
“I have to hope that the Castle was not unique. If 1MC was truly the best shot at a collaborative retro gaming features site, that’s kinda sad from my perspective, but at least we know now. In a sick way, however – closing it gives me the hope to see something even greater emerge. I want people to feel compelled to do more, even if it’s not strictly similar. I want the chance to let someone else build it. I have to believe that this was not our One Thing, y’know?”
Jason shot him an awkwarded-out expression. “No, really, stop trying to explain yourself.”
Bailey smiled, and looked back to the button. “All right, fine, screw you Jason.”
He said it in a way that made a couple people chuckle.
“Look, I’m not explaining anything. I’m just sharing some feelings. But it’s time. I’ll give you guys a moment to leave before I blow it all up. Literally. … well, kinda literally.”
Paul stepped forward. “I think we’re staying by your side for as long as we can. We’ll figure out the escape route when we have to, but for now, we’re with you.”
And pressed the button.
… and then he shrieked – an unnerving, ethereal, rock-you-to-your-bones shriek, as every particle that composed his corporeal form was torn apart from each other, to be reassembled elsewhere. He left, teleported to parts unknown, in a blinding firework of quantum flight.
The air stilled.
Pierre clutched his chin. “Wait. Did he just… leave? He hit the button, and – he got to leave? So that would mean, himself, at some point, in the future, before he had to fight himself, he decided, to come back, and presumably destroy the Castle, but all along, that button, would ultimately mean…”
He contorted his face, like he was sucking on a lemon but thinking really hard about something else.
“… so… what he wanted all along was–”
And THEN the Castle started exploding.
Everyone got away safely, though.