7: Variables

20Jun10

Jan awoke to the sound of an alarm ringing. On any normal circumstance, he would have done his best to roll out of bed. But there was something strange to this alarm. It did not have the same musical catchiness of the alarm he usually woke up to at home. He frowned. In fact, the more he listened to it, the less it seemed to sound of an alarm, and more instead as a steady series of increasingly loud beeps.

It was then that he realized his eyes were closed. Grunting, he rubbed away the dried gunk that collected after sleep, and pried one eye open slowly, followed by the other.

And screwed them shut almost immediately. Damn, that was a bright light.

Jan tried again; this time with near surgical care. He used the spaces between his fingers as a screen to shield his sensitive eyes from most of the light. That was better. He blinked; once, twice, then decided he was good to remove his hands.

The whole image of the room came to him in one fast sucker punch.

He was lying in a collapsible, but highly articulated bed. The pink blanket draped over his legs at first shocked him into thinking they had sustained some heavy scarring of some sort. But he shook them loose, and realized he was fine.

By then, he also realized he was in a hospital.

“What in the world…”

He scanned the room. Or at least, what he could see of it. Large, pink curtains hung from frames to his right and to his direct front. A space in between the two frames allowed him to see a peek of another patients bed on the other side of the room. Next to his bed, a simple, cheap wooden drawer; the image complete with a hospital-supplied flask and glass of water. To the left of the bed, was a window, overlooking the hospital’s other wing.

But what Jan wanted to know, was what was making the beeping sound. After all, he had checked his entire body when he had woken up, and he was relatively sure they hadn’t hooked him up to an IV. The thought of needles made Jan nauseous. He hated blood.

He took another long look at the room around him. Again, he could not detect the source of the beeping sound. He gave up then; comforting himself with the knowledge that at the very least, it didn’t come from any of the machines around his bed. But as soon as he resolved his first problem, another came up almost instantly.

What am I doing in a hospital? he thought. I feel fine.

The latter, was truer than Jan could’ve ever admitted in his entire life. As he slowly raised himself up from his resting position, he realized he felt great. Strong. Energetic. In fact, he felt every one of the symptoms of a person that didn’t need to be in a hospital. Virile. Healthy. It was an odd feeling, but Jan embraced it all the same.

He swung his legs off the edge of the bed now. He wasn’t going to stay put if he could help it, and lethargy didn’t slow him up as Jan suspected it would. The healthy strength he was feeling almost felt like it was keeping every weaker feeling at bay. Again, strange; and not entirely natural, but still miles better than any normal, I’ve-just-been-hospitalized feeling.

But then the strangest thing to ever happen in Jan’s life, happened. Something that would make every other thing seem like common street moss.

He reached over to the bedside drawer and closed his hand around the glass, meaning to take a drink.

What he hadn’t meant to do, was let the next second on the clock happen.

As soon as Jan’s hand closed around the glass in his usual strength grip, he experienced a strange crushing motion going on; as if he was scrunching a handful of egg shells. Then, the scrunching stopped; as if an inner-energy within the glass was struggling to repel the force. And though Jan hadn’t meant to, years of normal human strength told him to grip tighter.

And the glass, spider-webbed with hairline cracks, exploded.

The burst crystal suspended in the air for one instant; a blur of movement and a shocked yell later, they shot around Jan’s ward in all directions. A reflex of Jan’s eyelids saved him from instant blindness, but the same could not be said for the exposed parts of his skin. Chips of the sharp glass grazed his body in some places, and sliced neat lines into others. And when Jan opened his eyes again, the curtain opposite him was peppered with tiny slivers of glass.

Ohshitohshitohshit-

His eyes lowered to his hand. He felt a growing, burning pain; justified it seemed, by the numerous amount of new cuts across it that it had sustained in that one second of human instinct.

It was then that he realized that his hand had closed entirely, and tight into a fist. With new caution, Jan opened his palm. Gasping at what he saw, he turned his palm upside-down; tipping a thin trail of shiny powder to the floor. The face of his palm, made sticky with blood, was coated in a thin layer of powderized silica.

Whatever had not made it out of Jan’s hand as a minuscule shard of glass, had been crushed to powder.

Jan looked at his bleeding hand. His eyes were very wide. Panicked.

“No way…”


Jan lay down on the wet pavement with his eyes closed. His clothes and mask were sodden through, but at the moment, he couldn’t have cared less. All that was going through his mind was the inescapable knowledge that his life was going to end the second Caesar’s fist would come down.

He bit his lip. He remembered reading something once in school; a Math subject. Something along the lines of the laws of statistics. And not that it would help him in any way now, but Jan was seeing a Math law in his head as a ten foot neon sign.

“No one wins forever.”

And boy, did he lose a month ago.

*

“…You’re a Fool.”

Jan frowned. “Well…well…fuck you,” he responded, hurt. “You asked me to do this.”

Somewhere, a bell suddenly started ringing. It signaled the end of the last period that he and Cherie had decided to skip. Not that skipping class was a big deal anyway. The only hard part had been getting out of class unnoticed. Once they reached the cafeteria, they were free to do whatever they wanted. The staff there always never gave a damn.

On the opposite side of the mess table, Cherie giggled, then held up her hands apologetically. She then reversed the face of the card she was holding up, so Jan could see what was really on it. It was a blue tarot card, nothing special. But the face showed the picture of a silhouette of a man carrying a knapsack, with a dog at his heels.

“I meant you’re of the Fool Arcana,” she said, smirking. “Not an actual fool; though, that’s still not too far off…”

“…Uh-huh.” Jan was still frowning, but he was more confused now than upset. “So…what are these ‘Fool’s’. What do they do?”

Cherie shuffled the card back into the deck absent-mindedly. “It depends on who you’re asking, really. Some people think they’re clueless twits. Some people think they’re dreamers. Some say they’re adventurers.”

“But what do you say?” asked Jan, eyebrow slightly raised. “Y’know, since you’re my personal tarot reader right now…”

Cherie laughed. “Well, I say don’t look at the picture.”

And like magic, she suddenly swiped out the same Fool card from a random section of the deck.

“Look at the number,” she said confidently.

Jan looked. At the base of the card, surrounded by stylized bordering, was a neat, simple ‘0’.

“Zero?” Jan’s voice was verbal disbelief. “I’m nothing?”

“No, no,” said Cherie patiently. “Far from it. You’re everything. C’mon, you know this. Zero can become any number known to man. Infinite possibilities, Jan; you’re not just limited to a coin flip or a die, you have potential to be so much more.”

She starred at him. “Are you listening?”

Jan realized his mouth was open, and closed it immediately. “Uh. Yeah.” He had not. As soon as Cherie had said his name, his inside set off a firework with a set course to his brain, effectively frying it with hormones. “That’s…um…great.”

“It is!” said Cherie happily. “You’re my first Fool!”

Jan laughed, easing himself back into his chair. “I’m honored, then.”

There was the briefest of shines in Cherie’s eye then. Jan suddenly realized his hand was 6 inches away from hers. He hesitated, then pulled back, giving themselves room to breathe. Cherie didn’t seem to notice, and continued to pack away her cards. Jan stood up. He told himself to go somewhere else before he did something stupid.

“So…uh…thanks for the reading.” His throat felt choked up.

“It’s fun, isn’t it?” said Cherie passively. She was still arranging the cards back into a metal tin.

Jan nodded; a nod so flushed and hurried she would never see. “Yeah. I gotta go though. I’ll see you around?”

“So soon?” she asked in surprise. Ah, now she looked up.

“Yeah,” lied Jan. “A-A lot of crazy things have been going on in my life.”

Cherie gave him an understanding smile. “Okay. I hope you take care of them.”

“Mmh-hmm. Me too.”

With that, Jan picked up his satchel and made his way back home. The walk from school to his house wasn’t long, though, he wouldn’t have anything to do once he got home. He just had to keep this all under control, was all.

Little did Jan know how crazy things were going to be for him very soon.

*

The city was alive with energy. All around was the constant movement of a thousand people going a million places. Local pedestrians made up a sea of strangers; and it was here where the elite rubbed shoulders with the unfortunate. Every now and again, Jan would look up to the sudden blaring of a taxi horn or the continuous hollering of hopeful street vendors. It was noisy, bright, in-your-face energy. But that was downtown for you.

And Jan loved it.

He relished his walks home from Central High everyday. It was like walking through a fireworks show; every second was spent being in awe of something greater than himself.

He didn’t know how true that would be today, though.

As he walked, a rush of movement ahead caught his eye. It was a shadily dressed man; all dark clothes and long jackets, but he stood out here like a naked man in a funeral. What made that even more so, was that he had a large facial tattoo; three black horizontal lines spanning across both cheeks, and one solitary vertical one running from the crest of his forehead to the tip of his nose.

The shady man was pursued by two others; the contrast between their dressing was vast in style and luxury. The two men wore expensive looking business suits, but they were by no means slow runners. In fact, they were catching up to the shady man.

And they were all running in Jan’s direction.

Startled, Jan tried to side-step the oncoming rush of people. But for every hurried step he took out of the way, the shady man seemed to change course in relation to his movement. Jan tried feinting left, then right, but in a minute, the inevitable happened.

The shady man collided head on with Jan. The two toppled over in mess of tangled limbs. Jan gave a cry, but the shady man muffled him with one gloved hand. Their eyes met, and Jan felt something like an electric shock run through him. He kicked and bucked, but the shady man held him down.

“Relax. You’ll be okay,” said the shady man. His speech was hurried, but steady as he went. “Just remember; it changes at midnight.”

Jan’s eyes were complete fear. “What?”

The shady man winked, then disengaged himself from Jan.

“You’ll be okay.”

And in a blink of an eye, the shady man started running again. Another blink, and Jan saw the two men in the expensive suites run past him without the slightest glance. Stunned, and almost drunkenly dazed by the encounter, Jan slowly picked himself off the pavement, dusted his clothes, and continued on his way home.

Two minutes into his renewed walk, and Jan collapsed in the middle of a busy sidewalk. He was out cold.


The streets weren’t empty.

That was one thing Jan knew he would remember.

In time, he might forget every other detail about this fight; what he was wearing, how he felt, how much the rain bothered him, how intimidating an armored suit was up close, but he knew that he wouldn’t forget this: That the streets weren’t empty.

And so it would be more than a good 300 people witnessing Jan or Seven get beaten to a pulp.

Ten feet away, Caesar flexed his arm in a whir of robotic parts. With a hum of electricity, Caesar took a step. The 15-foot tall, steel behemoth was starting to make it’s lumbering way towards Jan. A few stragglers from the previous crowd scattered, but Jan remained rooted to the spot. Not out of fear, but out of responsibility.

“Prepare yourself.” said Caesar, his voice thick with static. “This time I will be victorious.”

Ye-ah.” Jan looked him straight in the eye. “You wish.”

And they were off.

Unlike their first fight, the movements were slightly slower this time. Hindered. It was the rain that made everything difficult. Twice, Jan had almost slipped while running. Twice then, Caesar had the chance to crush him. But the rain worked both ways, and blurred Caesar’s untested HUD to the point of making him miss Jan’s head, and hit solid pavement instead.

And that pissed him off.

He raised his right arm, and without caring to aim, fired a wrist-rocket. The missile flew, curved, then sputtered, before hitting a car and detonating. Jan was a good few meters away, but even he was caught off-guard by the sudden burst of heat and expanding air.  He jumped, landed hard, tasted blood in his mouth, then ran on.

And for the third time that day, he regretted it being a Sunday. He could not fight with his Pyrokinetic powers. Not in this rain. Not even the Zippo would be dry enough to catch.

And midnight was still an agonizing half hour away.

“Too slow!” cried Caesar suddenly. Jan whirled around. Out of no where, a metal fist the size of Jan’s entire body landed a punch right in the center of his chest.

Bones splintered with a sickening crack. Jan’s cry of pain was caught in his throat. He flew for about a second before crashing down a few meters away. His ribs had collapsed in a tight cage around his lungs, and the force of the blow knocked the wind out of him. Almost immediately he felt asphyxiation start to rise. Supporting his weight on his left hand, he raised his mask a little higher, allowing himself several deep, unhindered breaths.

But Caesar was still coming. Jan could hear the soft, motorized hum of his electric armor.

That wasn’t good at all. And the rain was falling harder.

Gritting his teeth then, Jan plunged his hand into his soaked jeans pocket. His hand found the Zippo instantly. He brought it close to himself, and shielded it with his left hand from wind and further dampness. With his right, he shook the lighter open, and struck the flintwheel.

Once.

Twice.

And miraculously, Jan saw the smallest of flames. He looked up at Caesar; one side of his mouth twisted into the most tired variation of a smile.

“P-Payback.”

Jan thrust his left hand towards Caesar. And like magic, the flame of the Zippo leapt out of the lighter, arced into Jan’s wrist, and was amplified. A fire hot enough and strong enough to survive the constant rain splashing down on it.

And the fire, once amplified, shot out in a concentrated ball towards Caesar’s armored form.

The effect was like a bomb-blast. The armor must’ve weighed at least two tonnes, but it was still blown away a good 10 meters. And Jan did not let up. Mustering whatever willpower he had remaining, he unleashed a steady stream of flames and pushed in more heat. More intensity. More burn.

But unexpectedly, Caesar started laughing. A sharp, robotic laugh that sent a chill running across Jan’s neck.

“You forget, Seven,” said Caesar haughtily. “You don’t harm me. You can’t. This armor? It’s perfect.”

Jan stepped back, but did not relax his hand. Flames still shot out in just as huge a torrent as before.

But unnervingly, Caesar stepped forward. The armor still functioned normally, even though Jan was sure he was putting out heat equivalent to a focused nuclear blast. And why shouldn’t it? thought Jan. He reminded himself that he wasn’t facing just one layer of armor. What he faced now was the husk of the thing; inside was where all the vital wiring lay vulnerable.

Inside, where Jan could never reach.

…And even more unnervingly; as if it were required, Caesar was still laughing.

It was time for a change of plans.

Jan turned, transferred the flames to the soles of his feet, and jumped. It wasn’t perfect flight, but it would still be a great deal faster than walki –

“Oh no, you don’t.”

All of a sudden, Jan felt a cold metal hand crush his left shin. A momentary, desparate burst of fire issued from his feet, and then Jan was slammed down into the pavement. Pure instinct took over as he landed, and he forced himself to roll to a side. It was difficult with one leg pinned, but it turned out to be the right thing to do, as Caesar’s left arm smashed into empty cement where Jan’s skull had been.

Too, too close.

But Jan knew he couldn’t keep this up for very much longer. Even his healing factor had it’s limits. And now with a broken leg, he didn’t see how much he could put up a fight against a man in a trillion-dollar suit.

Caesar was saying something now, but Jan couldn’t hear. In his sudden burst of accelerated thought, Jan felt the world go mute. He felt time slow down.

And he closed his eyes.

Lord, he thought. Just let me die.

He swallowed.

This isn’t fun anymore.