“Don’t let him get awa-” the hooded man spat out before an invisible shockwave sent him flying like a badminton cricket. For about three seconds, the oily black void of midnight burned electric green in a concert of wild lightning. Every streetlight bulb on the road crackled and exploded like overcooked eggs in the skillet.
About twelve or thirteen enforcers had approached them openly, but more were guaranteed to be lurking in. As soon as Kai’s eyes lit up, even the ones who’d been hidden in the dark were sent dancing like leaves into the stratosphere. Before they’d even hit the ground, they’d each been sniped by a homing spear of lightning within the pocket of a single thunderclap.
In a flicker of time shorter than an eyeblink, the examination had ended. There were just about eighteen phases that they’d planned for in order to take him in the worst-case scenario, and ultimately, it would up being little more than a rude awakening.
The smoldering earth sounded almost as if it were releasing an exasperated sigh along with him as the coalesced smoke tails vacated their remote hosts for the ink of night. There were only three more fortnights of this to go, and yet for all intents and purposes, it had ended just as soon as it was suggested.
They had wanted to test its reaction when caught off-guard, and in every simulation, the key hypothesis turned out to be true each time: engagement was fully futile.
Kai stole a sliver of light from the air and condensed it into a round, glittering egg on his fingertip. As passing gale wind whipped the shimmer into the void of night. They had started these simulations as something more or less considered a light experiment, and yet by the time there was no punchline, things became personal quickly.
There are so many ways for the mind of the warrior to warp in battle. A sudden, tearing river of pinched cartilage in the leg can force one’s focus into another realm entirely before being introduced to the afterlife by the counterattack. Grief, regret, euphoria, anger, anxiety, joy. Every different emotional wave in the blood-drowned river of mankind’s combat throughout history has charged or dulled the following split-second moment of truth.
A survey of the damage done did no justice to what was to come. He could feel the heat of a galaxy whirling in his ribcage at almost paralyzingly intense pace. He understood the power well and had practiced it to the point of near mania, but even with everything that can be colored in the shade of mastery, this just happened to be the true wall.
In a way, the power’s absolute refusal to become painless for him was strangely refreshing. After mastering so many different elements of weaponry and kinesis, there was something almost endearing in the charm of a technique that forced him to recoil.
“Hey, Kai! What the hell man, wake up!”
The sound of footsteps behind him confirmed that Roy had finished circling the block to pick off the rest of their surprise welcoming party.
“You really banking on this thing showing up when it does?” Roy asked.
“I wouldn’t mind being wrong this time. That’d be alright.” Kai answered honestly.
As if on cue, the rain reversed. They stood back-to-back in an infinitely upward-rolling sheet of water freed from gravity.
Roy sniffed. “Right, so, the goons have weaponized airborne LSD now. That much is on the table.”
Kai was a statue. A trickle of beaded sweat rose from his brow and joined the rising rainwater on their trip to the sky.
“Well, looks like we don’t have the privilege of me being wrong today.” Kai said flatly.
Ever so subtly, the buildings around them began to lightly shed disintegrated steel into the sky in a fine iron mist.
“You don’t say.” Roy stated without an inkling of curiosity.
If there were one thing that needn’t be spoken, it would most certainly be the fact that they were no longer where they were when they began. Buildings that had only been damp with drizzle were encased in ice in an instant, lining the road like glaciers born on dry land. As the road warped onto itself in a high-arcing loop, the frozen buildings could pass for crystallized fangs on the roof of a titan’s mouth.
A humanoid figure, still as stone, sat cross-legged in the center of the road as if it were meditating.
Its form was that of a man composed entirely of crackling pixels, just barely compressed into a recognizable shape by a dark suit. Kai squinted ever so slightly to get a better look at the figure. Its “head” suddenly bristled an intense pulse of static as if it had just been woken up by a pipe bomb in the still of the night.
“Well, there goes our shot at catching him by surprise,” Kai noted. “Suppose that about knocks out plans B through D, don’t you think?”
Roy sharply exhaled through his nose. “What, you were still actually considering plans in this situation?”
Kai forced a dry laugh without even a hint of a smile to match it. The formerly seated human figure had now risen up on two feet and stood with its feet shoulder-width apart. The sleet and rain rose from the ground at an even more intense pace. Water and snow that had been rising at the pace of a lava lamp were now forming an upward-spiraling blizzard from the earth. There were almost no gaps in the thin air remaining.
“I can’t tell if it’s welcoming us or warning us.” Roy said while wincing.
Kai closed his eyes and focused on a single point in his forehead to dull the rest of his skin exposed to the low twister buffeting them. “Something tells me it’s both.”
The formerly fallen raindrops resurfacing from cracks in the pavement began to freeze on contact with the open air. The ice broke free of the ground and jettisoned upwards in a gravity-defying storm. The earth had become a geyser of frigid rain needles, hell-bent on a skyward path to pierce the clouds from whence they came.
While not quite enough to break the skin, there was more than enough velocity behind each icy needle to make Roy and Kai both clench their teeth at the otherworldly onslaught. The figure was not physically approaching them but bent a knee forward in a static hold; it was difficult to tell if it was preparing to lunge or performing isometric exercise.
Whatever it was doing, it was undeniably pissed.
Its head was a transparent sculpture of numbers boiling within glass. Flickering ones and zeroes freely rose and dripped from the chaotic matrix of binary code where the entity’s skull would have been, had it the flesh, bone and blood to match its humanoid form.
It lurched and hunched its shoulders. The sleeve seams of its dark suit frayed and smoked ever so slightly. The binary digits were a roaring beehive of chaos above the collar. In an instant, two craters exploded beneath the spaces of street pavement where its feet stood, as though a hammer of pure gravity swung down from the heavens unto its indifferent frame.
Without warning, the swarm of numbers dispersed into the shape of a crude atom and reformed as letters. Brightly displayed across a space that would normally be occupied by eyes, the being’s letters formed something all-too-appropriate: wAnNa DaAnCe…?:)?!
Roy looked over at Kai with an expression carved out of granite.
“Well? It’s asking you, Kai.” Roy stated in a tone tailor-made for telling the weather.
Kai snorted. “Not a chance in hell.”
The being took a decisive step forward and made yet another crater in front of the two that it had suddenly formed by standing in its initial position. The fresh fissures carved into the street made a fresh burst of frozen needles bleed vertically into the air. The resultant sound had as much volume and bass as a high-speed bus crash.
“Not a chance in hell…” Kai repeated again along with a second crashing sound. “That we actually have a choice here.”
The being was between them.
Roy had half the space of the time that it would take to blink an eye before he was sent careening down the icy road like a runaway tire. An overturned car was his landing pad.
Kai had less than no time to assess his friend’s condition before a vice clamped onto his neck and locked down hard. Binary code swam from the being’s sleeves and enveloped his larynx in their best imitation of a strangling hand.
Pressure blossomed in Kai’s head that threatened to cleave it in two like a claymore. Its weight was enough to make him clench his eyes as tightly as folded iron. Even while lacking anything that could be called a true head, Kai could sense something reminiscent of cognition sleeping within what made up the being’s mass above its suit lapels. Against every cell in his head that protested against it, Kai cracked one eye open and gazed into the swarming matrix.
Time dilated as he shifted through the void in search of something that could be called a consciousness. There was nothing like it that he’d ever looked into before. It was less of a mind and more of a ransacked dimension. An endless expanse of overturned pyramids and tiled cubes as a high as skyscrapers littered the chaotic realm, each of them illuminated in a blood-red light.
Kai could feel time running out for his physical body on the outside. The dimension was wavering in and out of sight, shifting the view before him between the realm of the creature’s consciousness and the swarming digital matrix of its face in the physical world.
Nearing his limits, Kai finally located the source of blood-red light bathing all of the wreckage in that twisted realm. While the realm had no definitive space that could be called its “center”, a pedestal rose out of its bottomless depth that very well could have passed for the centerpiece.
A vast, scarlet-red orb of light pulsed upon the pedestal to the tempo of a slow heartbeat. Rubble orbited around it in Saturn-like rings at a moderate pace. The closer to the orb, the more rapidly the rings of rubble circulated about it.
Kai trained his eyes on the orb, envisioned it as a boiled egg in the palm of his hand, and gripped hard.
The physical world returned along with fresh air permitted into lungs once again. The being’s stranglehold had momentarily weakened, and Kai wasted no time in taking advantage of that to kick off its body to freedom.
The being’s binary code matrix glowed with the same brilliant neon red light that had illuminated its consciousness. Though it had not a single drop of blood to shed, the red light swam throughout the digital code making up its form as if pouring out from a freshly opened wound.
Before it could reorient itself, a spear of static energy stabbed through the back of its suit and exited through the front with a howling whistle. Though not fully standing, Roy had managed to use the being’s brief state of disorientation to land a shot. It whipped around to face him hunched its shoulders yet again.
Sensing what would come next, Kai focused on Roy’s position, extended an arm and willed himself to phase there in an instant. As soon as he could feel the texture of Roy’s jacket on his fingertips, he used twice the energy to phase yet again before the space that he and Roy occupied became another one of the being’s craters.