Chapter 28: The Arrangement

(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you happen to spot them, please let me know in the comments below. Thanks in advance!!)

Jack expected the sound of ferocious explosions to ring out from behind him but no such event unfolded. Only the crisp echoes of the hurried footsteps pouncing on the metal surfaces of the exit tunnel accompanied his hasty retreat.

Vanguard was giving a hot pursuit, still under the influence of whatever it was in control. Whether he was chasing after Jack, or, simply looking to leave the confines of the Tree of the End, was unknown but it was probably safe to assume the former was the likely explanation.

Jack aimed to create a bit of a gap between him and Vanguard, but somewhat unbelievably, the burly Super suddenly gained a tremendous speed boost and arrived right behind him in a flash. As the possessed man’s hands reached out to Jack, he tumbled forward and ducked underneath, letting the Super brush past. That was a close call, too close for comfort.

When Jack trained his sights on Vanguard, his eyes nearly popped out. Around the man’s legs, the metal thingy oozing out of his left knee had somehow taken the form of…. jet boosters. Like, as in jetpacks. A copious amount of air was being expelled from the two boosters in each of his legs, drastically increasing the forward momentum.

Obviously, those weren’t there before.

Amazingly, Jack could see the metal that had covered Vanguard wasn’t something solid but instead, fully viscous and pliable, changing its shape to form those boosters. Or were they thrusters? Jack was confused. Whatever those things were, once Vanguard’s feet touched down on the floor, they receded back into his legs.

Now that he had overtaken his target, Vanguard turned around and took a threatening posture. Jack wryly smiled, seeing the blockage. They were in the large chamber where the fake Humbaba appeared so there was plenty of room to move around, but with that pair of boosters mounted on Vanguard’s legs, Jack wasn’t confident of making a successful run for it.

“So, uh, Mister Vanguard, how about letting me pass? You know, before this place blows up into smithereens. Wouldn’t be a fun experience, getting caught in a massive explosion, am I right?”

Jack asked out aloud but he held very little expectations.

But there was a slight change. Jack noticed it. There was a small twitch in Vanguard’s eyebrows. A thin line of sweat trickled down.

Under the metal coating covering most of his body, Vanguard was indeed asleep. He was recalling the day he lost a comrade and had to retire prematurely from the active duty as a GoH Superhero.

He hadn’t had this dream in ages. It was already seven years ago and he had moved on. He got over it, somewhat. Yes, every now and then a seed of doubt would rise up but he’d find a way to kill it. This time, it was different. Ever since getting knocked out by the unknown energy, he was mired in this unpleasant recollection of his memories masquerading as a nightmare.

There he was, watching a hellish inferno develop on an offshore oil rig from the sky, riding on a rescue helicopter, along with three other Superheroes like him who had heeded the urgent call for help.

This oil rig, located off the coast of Alaska and floating on the surface of freezing cold water, was the fiery stage where the lives of nearly two hundred people were hanging in the balance. Touted as the world’s most advanced and also the biggest, this rig was supposed to be safest and environmentally the least damaging, too. But a sabotage, later suspected to be the handiwork by a group of bio terrorists although never been proven, left the entire rig crippled and several places in flames. It was in danger of causing a massive explosion and contaminating the surrounding ocean biosphere.

Pockets of toxic gas had trapped the workers within the maze-like corridors of the rig and a single spark at a wrong spot could cause the entire structure to crumble like domino pieces into the cold sea below. It was already a miracle that the burning flames hadn’t started the chain reaction of destruction and death yet.

The Superheroes were in an obvious rush against the time to save the workers but were also fully aware of the significant danger to the wellbeings of the rescue team. All those who planned to enter the rig did so knowing they could die. And still, they entered, bravely weathering the choking fumes and high temperatures to find and free the trapped. Initially, the mission went well.

But nothing in life worth doing was that smooth, beginning til the end.

Vanguard could remember the desperation and anguish. He remembered cursing the gods above for the hostile conditions. He remembered the strong winds picking up and the weather turning for the worse, fanning the flames towards the wrong direction. He remembered a gas pocket exploding. And he remembered numerous metal pipes and beams falling like an avalanche, trapping and killing scores of people.

The faces of all the Superheroes with him that day, Vanguard could clearly remember them all. One of them was a young up and coming hero named Feyton Drake, aka The Brave Fate. He was Mercury Retrograde’s husband, married less than two years.

He had a unique power that allowed him to increase his overall strength when encountering dangerous situations. He said it had to do with his adrenaline levels, but it sure was a risky ability to possess. But he was brave, almost to a fault and he threw himself at whatever missions he could. But for this particular fire, he wanted to stay behind for personal reasons. GoH brass asked him to go nonetheless. So, against his better judgment, he tagged along.

And in the end, he got himself killed. No, that wasn’t quite correct – Vanguard and fate conspired to cut short the brave young hero’s life in his prime. Vanguard was there to witness the event and he had the knee to show for it.

He had gotten over the trauma of this unforgettable day but now, he was dreaming about it in full color, similar to the days when he readily blamed himself for the deaths. Which was weird, because before he got knocked out, he was in the middle of fighting for his life against a very powerful foe. He couldn’t waste time daydreaming the past like this.

Vanguard’s frustration grew as the dream continued while unable to break out of it. He struggled in vain until all his stamina was exhausted and he stood there, unwillingly subjected to the visions bombarding him.

Then, there was a single word that entered his ears. It registered in his consciousness like a drop of water on the still surface of a dark pond.

The voice that said it was far away and indistinct, but this word remained echoing in his mind for some reason. The word was “explosion” and it sneaked its way past the barrier of his nightmare.

That word rapidly fast-forwarded the vision to its climax, where the fiery inferno swallowed up Feyton whole. The dream ended there and he was left stranded alone in a state that was not quite asleep and not quite awake. He wanted to open his eyes, but couldn’t. Next, he wanted to move his limbs, but was unable to. He wanted to speak, but his mouth was sewn shut.

Yet, he felt his body move on its own volition. The movements were familiar. He was fighting with someone. But with who?

Vanguard concentrated as hard as he could, to open his eyes and restore the clouded vision. His eyelids felt unnaturally heavy. It was like something, or someone, was pressing down on the eyelids. But he wouldn’t be Vanguard if he gave up so easily. Oh no. No, he was the kind of person who’d give whatever he did his 110% of everything.

He exerted as much willpower as possible and slowly, the view before him cleared up. Things were still in a blur and wherever he was, it was not well lit, but he could see the general shape of who he was fighting against. And he immediately realized that it was Lugal.

What? Why am I….?

Huh? But what is the matter with this body? Why am I covered in this…. thing?

What the hell is going on?!

He could just about control his eyes to take a quick glance at his own body. And he felt a silent chill run down his spine. He was nearly covered in entirety by this strange metallic liquid thing. This substance seemed to possess some kind of intelligence, somehow manipulating his body to do whatever that was necessary to attack Lugal.

Vanguard was no idiot. A second of observation was all he needed to tell that he was in the wrong here. His body was trying to grab Lugal continuously while the armor-wearing Super was dodging without fighting back, as if afraid of hurting his opponent. That told him this substance was forcing his body to do some bad stuff.

Wrestling back the control of his body was out of the question. He tried but Vanguard could not feel anything. Not his limbs, not his skin, not even the sense of being here. He felt like a passenger riding on a train, not in control of the direction he was being taken to.

But he didn’t give up. If he could forcibly open his eyes, then at least he could do something else as well. He was sure of it. So, he again summoned his considerable willpower once more.

Just as he was about to forcefully break apart the control of this metal substance, he heard a voice, not from Lugal but someone quite familiar. Vanguard blanked out the moment this voice entered his brain directly from a far away.

Stop resisting, Vanguard. Let me take care of this. It’s for the good of the mankind. You should trust me. Haven’t you always trusted me?

Vanguard’s mind shook. This voice belonged to….

Meanwhile, Jack was oblivious to the internal struggle of the possessed Super in front of him. He was far too busy trying to avoid getting grabbed here to care. Although, his Battle Sense did pick up on a strange movement in Vanguard’s eyes but it didn’t seem to be anything important so Jack didn’t pay it much attention.

Currently, Jack was feeling very much annoyed. This annoyance came from the fact that this situation was as screwed up as it could get. Jack had to do something about Vanguard as soon as possible, but could he be able to subdue someone who was being controlled by an unknown party without causing a heavy injury, or even…. death?

Vanguard was more or less a puppet now that didn’t feel any pain or suffered the fear of bodily injuries. He was now a creature that could continue to attack singlemindedly and do that without hesitation. How could Jack possibly defeat such an opponent, unless he was prepared to kill?

Well, killing Vanguard could be done. That wasn’t the problem – it was obviously the fact that he was being controlled. Most likely unwillingly as well. Even Jack could tell that fact alone complicated things massively. People would question his judgment, asking him why he couldn’t simply take down Vanguard and subdue him until help arrived. Or some crap like that.

Well, that metal-like substance could infect others, so if more victims appeared, then it would prove to be too damn troublesome to contain. Jack had a legit reason to act here based on that fact alone.

Jack thought about dumping the responsibility to Stewart, but the good Sergeant probably already had his hands full with his own men being controlled, too, by the strange and unknown metal substance.

Well, that might work in my favor, depending on how I repackage my words, right?

Oh, what the hell am I even thinking about?!

Jack groaned inwardly after coming up with nonsensical stuff in the middle of a struggle to survive. Just where he found the breathing room to take things this easy would remain unsolved for a while.

Anyways, this was getting tedious real quick. Jack wanted to get out and go after Stewart and his men, and to stop the possessed Dead Kings operators to abscond with the golden skull pieces but Vanguard was persistently blocking his way. Time was being wasted here.

What should I do? I can’t touch Vanguard and I have no other weapons of length to keep him at bay. The baton? It’s too short – the infection of the metal substance is too quick and I’ll surely end up like one of them in no time. So what?

.Oh, crap. Right, I have that bronze artifact!! That barrier!! Okay, but how do I use it?

Jack had no idea how to call forth the barrier. Thinking that maybe the Battle Sense could do something, he quickly split a portion of it and sent it to the bronze artifact stashed inside one of the compartments in the survival suit. He felt the artifact respond but that was it. He still couldn’t summon a barrier. After a couple more tries, Jack realized that maybe he needed to find another way since this wasn’t happening.

But how?! Damn it, where’s an instruction manual when you need one?!

Jack’s brows twitched in irritation. He already went through the Gilgamesh’s memories but even the legendary forebearer hadn’t run across this mysterious item. Jack had to figure out all on his own. Too bad, being distracted in a deadly situation was a sure fire recipe for a disaster.

He didn’t check his surroundings and gradually was pushed into a corner. By the time he realized this fact, it was too late; Vanguard lunged at him and there wasn’t enough room to dodge cleanly. Either Jack had to defend or go on the offensive. But that meant coming into contact with the infected and run the risk of falling victim to it.

Cursing inwardly, Jack reached behind to grab the baton. It was the correct call, albeit one made a tad too late. Before Jack could get in position to defend himself with the baton, Vanguard got real close, almost to a touching distance. They were so close, Jack could feel the burly Super’s hot, heavy and uneven breathing.

Huh?

Jack frowned when he noticed this incongruity. Vanguard was taking in even, steady breaths until now but all of a sudden, he was having a difficulty? Jack shuddered at a single, needless thought popping out in his head, about which way Vanguard leaned, preference-wise….

To his massive relief, that wasn’t the case. Instead, Jack spotted more movement behind the white eyes, as if there was a conscious effort to regain control happening within Vanguard’s head.

A couple of tense silence later, the metal substance around Vanguard’s mouth cracked open and his voice leaked out.

“You…. Lugal… must…run….”

“Well, you don’t have to tell me twice,” murmured Jack as he quickly slipped out from the corner, away from Vanguard.

Safely away, Jack took a stance a short distance from the possessed Super to react immediately if there was yet another change. Vanguard slowly turned around to face Jack but his movements were strained and unnatural, a sign of a man fighting with his own body. Jack couldn’t help but grimace as he pitied the man.

Vanguard painfully raised his right hand, desperately clawing at his chest, trying to rip apart the metal substance taking over him. But he still let his words flow.

“You…. must… argh. You… beware…. of the president…”

Jack’s frown deepened. “The president? Who are you talking about? You mean the POTUS? Or GoH president?”

But the conversation had to end there. Jack sensed Vanguard losing control of his faculties once more, the whites of his eyes stabilizing. And the strained movements became smoother. The cracked open mouth part closed shut again, an emphatic sign of the possessor taking over for good. Jack decided that it was a good time to run, now that the exit was unblocked by the possessed Super’s burly figure.

Those jet boosters on Vanguard’s legs were of concern, but hell, he just couldn’t stand around getting cornered like a hapless mouse all the time.

Jack quickly retreated towards the exit, with possessed Vanguard stepping forward to stop him. Jack readied to use the baton if those boosters came into play again, but he didn’t have to – Vanguard’s right arm was still free from the control and it moved down to smash his own left leg with vengeance. It struck so hard, Jack actually could hear bones crack, making him wince accordingly.

Vanguard’s tall frame faltered and fell face first on the ground. He raised his head for the last time, a final struggle to tell Jack that he hadn’t given up yet.

Jack nodded and left. He understood. Vanguard sacrificed himself to buy time for him. No need to waste that by being unnecessarily sentimental when he couldn’t do anything to help the possessed man, anyhow.

Jack ran. And he ran hard. Stewart and his pals must’ve exited the Tree’s cavity by now. He needed to catch up and see what was happening there. He needed to find out why there hadn’t been an explosion to destroy that altar yet. He stretched out the Battle Sense ahead as much as possible to avoid getting into a potential nasty tangle but he picked up nothing so far.

He was about half way through, when the sound of jet booster came from behind. Vanguard was catching up. Rather, not Vanguard but the possessed Super. Jack glanced back to confirm, and clicked his tongue in anger. He swore he’d find out who did something so dastardly to the veteran Superhero and make that person pay. In the future, of course. After he escapes from this island first.

Jack increased his pace, disregarding everything for the extra turn of speed. Finally, he emerged out of the Tree’s cavern and into the stale air of the destroyed Manhattan island. The night sky illuminated by the floating balls of light never looked so inviting.

What’s not so inviting was a crowd waiting for Jack right outside.

Jack came to a screeching halt at this unexpected sight. Tons of bright light suddenly came on to block his vision, but the helmet’s visor did its job again and the ploy of the opposing party fell short of achieving its objective in the end.

Jack took guard immediately and observed this new arrival, then noticed possessed Chuck and Leroy among the unidentified “soldiers.”

Stewart, Lopez and Gunnery Sergeant were all on their knees, hands behind the heads, surrounded by dozens of rifle muzzles. Jack counted at least thirty heavily armored men here and sure as hell they didn’t look friendly.

Behind them, five huge matt black-colored aircraft that looked vaguely futuristic – two hovering slightly above the ground while not even emitting a single hissing noise, while three on the ground, their rear hatches open and soldiers piling out pushing several carts and containers in a hurry. Jack just knew that those futuristic planes had to be those latest Stealth type jets judging by the way they perfectly blended into the night sky. It was as if the matt paint job actively sucked in any illumination cast on the surface.

Those supposedly blinding bright lights were mounted on these crafts, and there were several powerful miniguns pointing in Jack’s direction. It seemed rather obvious that there was literally no place to hide under the harsh and focused glare of the multiple light sources.

The “soldiers” wore similarly futuristic and completely unidentifiable black armor devoid of any markings. Although there weren’t any resemblance between his survival suit and their armor, Jack couldn’t help but unconsciously compare the two sets of advanced protective armoring and wonder who could potentially develop such suits. Could Mylorne Akkad be such a man?

The soldiers’ faces were hidden behind the full-face combat helmets, different in design to Jack’s own. Again, not a single identifying mark on them whatsoever. And their weapons looked like no ordinary rifles, not like the ones wielded by Stewart and his squad. They were very Sci-Fi, for a lack of better, more imaginative description. These guns would’ve felt at home in a military themed Sci Fi shooter video game, for instance.

Jack was stunned speechless for sure, but he didn’t forget to spread out his Battle Sense, belatedly or not. He kicked himself for not having his wonderfully overpowered ability prepared well in advance. Even then, he was not confident whether he could have found a way to avoid this…. ambush.

He noticed that the men under the black armors were human and well trained. And even more shockingly, he felt the sort of unique undulations only seen on Supers coming off every single one of them. It was not as prominent as from Vanguard or Stewart, but it was there, as clear as day.

The mysterious soldiers pointed their weapons at Jack, making it plain that he should stop from going any further. Behind him, Vanguard had caught up and stood there, blocking his retreat.

This…. didn’t look so good.

Jack glanced around for one more time and tried to call Mylorne over the survival suit’s radio, but there was still that interference. No signal could get through.

Mister Lugal, please surrender peacefully. We mean you no harm as long as you cooperate with our mission objective.

A booming voice, amplified by a megaphone-type device, called out to Jack. It came from one of the aircraft floating behind the crowd. It also pointed that massive minigun at him, so there was that, too. The persuasion was indeed, proving to be quite persuasive.

Wordlessly, Jack raised his hands in surrender. He figured that, even with his enhanced specs, dodging a minigun capable of firing thousands of round per minute was impossible even for him.

The black armored “soldiers” surrounded Jack and pushed him near Stewart and his pals, making him kneel next to them. His only weapon, the baton, was taken away, discarded along with the guns once wielded by Stewart and his squadmates.

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Vanguard moved in to mix among the soldiers, and Jack could just about hear the conversation taking place behind the helmets.

One of them examined Vanguard’s condition and made a hasty report saying that the Subject Number 23B-X needed an immediate medical attention. Right away, Vanguard silently jumped into one of the aircraft’s open hatch and disappeared.

As for the possessed Dead Kings operators….

The metal-like substance withdrew from the bodies of the soldiers and coalesced in mid-air to form a single ball of liquid thing. One of the containers brought out from the grounded aircraft was a black box the size of a normal briefcase, its insides lined in shiny, platinum-like material. The liquid ball of thing flowed into it, settling inside all comfy and snug.

The mystery soldiers took the box away and carried it back inside the plane, leaving behind two bodies that fell limply on the floor once the invading substance had left them. Jack spread his Battle Sense towards the two prone bodies and confirmed that both Leroy and Chuck were dead. The golden skull pieces were no longer on their persons, leading Jack to believe these mystery soldiers had already acquired them.

“Who are you people? Who sent you here?”

Stewart barked out in anger while still forced down on his knees, but no one answered him. He wasn’t planning to give up any time soon, though. Being ignored was not a good feeling to endure, so Stewart was about to snarl and hurl abusive words at the captors, when Jack calmly spoke first.

“What are you going to do with the golden skull of En-men-lu-ana?”

One of the mystery soldiers glanced at Jack before stepping forward to stare into the helmet’s visor. Jack was pretty sure the person’s focus was on his eyes.

There was an uncomfortable level of silence, as the black armored soldiers rushed inside the entrance to the Tree’s interior, pushing the various containers and carts in. Up close, Jack spotted the unmistakable biohazard signs on the sides of the containers. Watching them stream past, Jack’s frown dug deeper between his brows.

And the frown became the shocked horror, as this soldier pulled out a pistol-like weapon and wordlessly fired at Stewart and the two operators. Two shots per person, quickly fired point-blank range – one aimed at the brain, another at the heart, execution style.

Stewart, Lopez and Gunney didn’t even have time to protest. They died where they knelt, slumping forward weakly and silent. Blood seeped out and stained the metallic ground. Red souls rose rapidly, danced in the air, and shot into Jack’s Soul Sphere in no time.

Everything happened so fast, Jack had barely any time to react. He knew right there and then, that he was facing yet another life-or-death situation. He decided that if a gun was turned to him and ready to fire, he’d not hesitate and counterattack. He’d rather die fighting than be on his knees, crawling and begging for mercy.

But the expected firefight didn’t happen. Instead, the man behind the helmet calmly addressed Jack.

“Now that there are no more witnesses, shall we have a quick chat, Mister Lugal? Or should I call you Mister Jack Mercer, instead?”

Jack stiffened noticeably. It took a millisecond or two to compose himself, but it felt much longer than that to him. “Who are you? And who’s Mercer?”

“Please, Mister Mercer. Don’t play that game with me. We don’t have a lot of time to waste here. All we want is a certain level of understanding and a fruitful future cooperation between us. That is all.”

“Says the guy with a gun who just murdered three people in cold blood,” quipped Jack.

The man shook his head. “You know very well it had to be done. I’m sure you place much value on keeping your identity secret from the world. With the witnesses dealt with, you no longer run the risk of the overseers of Project Dead Kings finding out about your circumstances. I just did you a big favor here.”

“Did I ask you for it?” replied Jack, his eyes sharpening towards the mystery man.

His Battle Sense grew to envelop the surrounding area around his current position. He could see every tiny movements and ticks made by the black armored soldiers. If there was an opening, he’d take it and escape. The first priority right now was to contact either Mylorne Akkad or the military outside the island. Jack wasn’t sure why, but the level of unease he felt from this guy or the rest of the armored men was quite high. If he stayed here any longer, he feared that something bad would happen.

“Oh, my. The files said you were an amiable person, but it seems like the past 48 hours changed you somewhat.”

The man in black armor chuckled softly before removing his helmet. Jack narrowed his eyes as the face of an African man in late thirties appeared. His head was cleanly shaven, there was a well-groomed goatee but no eye patch.

“Greetings, Mister Mercer. My name is Alexander Olmos Dupont, the current Vice President of the Guild of Heroes, and the leader of The Unit X.”

Jack held his breath. Guild of Heroes? Seriously? Are you kidding me right now?

He felt his mouth dry up. If what this guy just said was true, and there was probably no reason to lie here, then Vanguard’s current condition made a perfect sense. The fact that the supposed heroes were outright murdering allies were what made Jack breathless. And also leaving a bad taste, too.

“Mister Mercer, now…. I will be honest with you since we don’t have much time left before the U.S. Military comes charging in, guns blazing. We should cooperate – you and the Guild. We can certainly use a talent such as yourself. A talent, blessed with all the power of the fabled God-King, Gilgamesh of the legend.”

Jack’s brows trembled harder. Just how much did this guy know about him?! “And what if I’m not interested?”

Alexander Olmos Dupont laughed genially, before shaking his head in a rather showy manner. “I shall now draw your attention, here, to this tablet. Please, watch with your undivided attention.”

A black armor-clad soldier handed over a tablet PC to Alexander Olmos Dupont. Whistling lightly, he switched it on and accessed a live feed, putting it on screen. Then, he showed it to Jack. The whistling never stopped.

What Jack saw on the screen made his heart go cold.

The feed showed four pieces of video footage, split into sections. First, on the right top corner – Jack’s grandparents, together, watching TV. Jack didn’t recognize the room they were in. Their faces were anxious and worried.

Second, on the bottom right corner – his dad, Bob Mercer, sitting in a small room with only a single table and nothing else. His face was dark and sweaty. His clothes were rumpled, sweat stains visible on his shirt.

Third, on the top left corner, Dana. She too was in an unidentified room, alone and unattended. She was holding her head, remnants of tears on her cheeks.

And finally, Min-jung, currently shown on the bottom left corner. She was handcuffed, but to Jack’s consternation, she looked lethargic and powerless. She was also in a room with no identifying features, but was lying on a rough, skeletal bed with no covers or sheets.

“Don’t worry about your mother, Mister Mercer. We gave a light dose of sedative to calm her down. As for the rest of your family – well, they are fine, as you can see.”

Alexander spoke with a thin smile, but it got wiped out the moment he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand.

An incredible surge of killing aura exploded out of Jack as he slowly stood up. His eyes were burning in pure anger, his whole being brimming with unstoppable power and momentum. Even someone like Alexander Olmos Dupont, who had dealt with countless powerful existences over the years, felt the pressure and cowered slightly. He thought that this intimidating presence was quite easily comparable to the current Guild President, who was a serious monster himself.

“Release them, now.”

Jack’s anger infused voice caused the black armored soldiers of The Unit X to quiver in alarm. Some even began to take a step back or two. Naturally, dozens of guns were immediately trained on Jack’s shimmering figure.

“We’ll let them go, all in a good time,” said Alexander as he cleared his throat, the previous relaxed demeanor gone for good. “Their freedom is entirely dependent on the choice you make here today, Mister Mercer.”

Jack scowled and clenched his fist, ready to pounce. Behind him, the soldiers who went inside the tunnel emerged one by one, carrying the loaded biohazard boxes filled with stuff from the core chamber of the Tree. Seeing this, Alexander addressed Jack in a serious tone.

“Mister Mercer, you and I, we can be the best of buddies. It’s simple. We both face the same opponent, the beings from beyond the so-called Dark Void. I’m sure Mylorne Akkad already told you some things about them – if not, you should research on this topic. It’s an eye opener. We will offer you all there is to know, just in case if you’re interested.

“Ultimately, we all want the same thing. Of course, your desire for vengeance against Falcon and Master Evil, that we can not let it happen. They both have their roles to play in this society, after all.”

Jack narrowed his eyes and stared at Alexander, getting tired of being constantly surprised at this point. But it was worrying fact nevertheless that this man seemed to know all about Jack’s burning desire for vengeance. No one knew except Taylor. Not even his family knew this.

Jack refused to believe that she told someone about this. It could very well be that there was a Super with an ability to somehow dig out secrets involved here, just that Jack couldn’t be sure whether that person was Alexander Olmos Dupont, the man standing in front of him.

Alexander continued as his men carefully loaded up the various biohazard boxes onto the aircraft.

“Our suggestions are thus: forget about your anger. Forgive Falcon and Evil for their actions. Look at it this way – if it weren’t for their acts that day, you’d never have awakened as a godly being.

“Of course, we’d like you to join the GoH. As its full member, you will be given many fantastic benefits befitting top Superheroes. The public will adore you. Worship you, even. You will be assigned fantastic missions to help save humanity. But yes, among them there will be matters that can not be seen in the light, in the interest of maintaining status quo. Matters such as today.”

“For that, you kidnap my family and threaten me?”

Jack’s killing aura surged once more as he stepped forward. The ground seemed to shake a little as he took that step.

Alexander smiled, but a thin line of sweat traveled down his cheek.

“They are merely an insurance to achieve full cooperation between you and the Guild, is all. Once we have your word, and a signed, binding contract, your family will be freed, not one hair out of place. So, what say you, Lugal? Join us, and we will provide you with financial support and information previously unobtainable to you. Such as, things Mylorne Akkad didn’t tell you until now. It’s a great deal, wouldn’t you say?”

Jack frowned in anger and indecisiveness. He wanted to cave this Alexander guy’s head in, but his family’s safety was at stake and he couldn’t make the move. He didn’t want to agree to this crappy deal, either, if it meant giving up on Falcon and Master Evil.

It just felt wrong. Bitterly wrong.

Jack clenched his fist, trembling slightly. He watched as the last of the containers were being loaded onto those air “ships,” each filled to the brim with various samples from the Tree’s Core chamber.

“Well? What say you?” asked Alexander, as he began putting on his helmet back on.

Jack gritted his teeth. As he was about to open his mouth, there was an echo of a loud explosion behind him. The Tree groaned and shook visibly as the tunnel behind Jack was filled up with hot air, rushing out like a tsunami.

The insistent hums of the structure wound down slowly, like the slowing ticks of a dying clock.

The hot air blasted past him, and shook the dead bodies on the floor. The hair on their still heads danced softly, gently caressed by the passing breeze. The sight of them helped Jack to make up his mind. Jack took a deep breath and faced Alexader, whose face was now behind the impenetrable, impersonable wall of the black helmet.

 

~

 

The dawn’s light seemed harsher than usual as the sun cast its rays on the devastated landscape of the island. The Tree of the End stood still, it no longer emitting any hum. In fact, the oppressive aura coming off of it was gone. Now, it was just a giant hunk of metal, left without a purpose anymore.

The purple clouds with rolling thunders were gone, too. The pierced sky had reverted back and it looked normal. The numerous metal vines had all withered up, revealing the ruined streets of the Manhattan below.

Jack gazed at nowhere in particular, all the while the numerous military helicopters approached his position. In the distance, he saw the Statue of Liberty but for some reason, he wanted to ridicule the very ideals, the lofty ambitions that monument allegedly represented.

He was standing on the Southern coastline facing the Upper Bay, waiting for the cavalry to arrive, watching with tired eyes that didn’t care anymore.

It felt like ages ago when he radioed in and told the waiting brass that the threat was neutralized and the recovery team could enter now. But that was less than twenty minutes ago.

Standing by the water’s edge, seeing the helicopters reflect on the constantly churning surface, Jack let the weariness wash over. The worries of his family still dominated but no matter the level of enhancement, at the end of it all he was just a human being. Continuously fearing for the safety of his loved ones couldn’t be sustained anymore.

More so, when he knew that this chapter of his life was finally done. The mission was complete. He could go home and forget about this for a while. The sooner he got off this damned island, the better – especially if he could get as far away from that accursed Tree as geographically possible. There were one too many unpleasant memories now tied to that alien structure. Where he stood, Jack believed it was likely the furthermost point away from the Tree on this island.

Among the helicopters, Jack easily recognized Mylorne Akkad’s aircraft due to its unique design. Mylorne didn’t have to come, but he did it anyways to retrieve Jack personally. He thought this craft looked suitably cool and futuristic at the first encounter but after the run-ins with the Unit X, it just felt a bit boring and staid in comparison.

The rear hatch opened as soon as it landed on the ground and Jack climbed aboard wordlessly. He sat down on one of the seats and took off the helmet as the hatch closed. The privacy was assured inside this space and he just couldn’t keep on wearing the damn thing anymore.

“How was the battle, Mister Mercer?”

Mylorne asked, concerned. He handed over a bottle of water. It was cold to touch, and equally chilly down his throat. Refreshing and rejuvenating, for sure.

Jack gulped down the whole bottle before wiping the mouth. He took a short glance at Mylorne Akkad and then, slowly shook his head, sighing. He had to keep up the pretenses, make sure no one gets the wind of what truly had happened on the island. “Everyone’s dead. Except me. I don’t know what happened to Vanguard, but…. it doesn’t matter. I’m sure he’s fine. All that’s important…. is that the Tree is not operational anymore.”

He closed his eyes and leaned back against the cushion, his outward appearance seemingly too mentally exhausted to care.

Mylorne nodded slightly before turning his attention back to the controls of the aircraft. “We’ll do a debrief after returning to Newark airport. It’s unfortunate that many men lost their lives today, but ultimately, this was for the humanity’s own good, Jack. You did well today.”

“Thanks.”

Jack murmured before closing his eyes. He wanted to retort that everyone seemed to talk about “good for humanity” but no one could agree on what that was, but kept it to himself.

There was a part of him whispering softly and insistently that he needed to tell Mylorne Akkad what happened with The Unit X of the GoH. But could he?

Somehow, those men, that guy Alexander, they knew too much. It was as if they were listening in on every conversation Jack ever had. He could be paranoid over nothing, but when it came to unexplainable abilities and happenings, he had to be cautious. The leak could come from literally everywhere.

Besides, he didn’t really trust Mylorne either. The stuff Alexander mentioned in passing about some of the Immortal’s business dealings, while their veracity couldn’t be verified, it’d be foolish to ignore them wholesale.

And what about his mother, his family? They were still in the hands of The Unit X, hidden away in some secret location. He had to cooperate with them for now.

His head became heavy, thinking about this unwelcome turn of the events. For now, he just wanted to go home and lie down for a while. He really wanted to do that. If there was one more catastrophe looming on the horizon, at least before it reared its ugly head, he wanted to rest first and then worry about it later.

In all honesty, his faith in humanity was eroding fast. Everyone he could think of and knew was either sad fools manipulated by the hidden strings, or the manipulators of the said strings. He was pretty sure now that there was no one innocent left out in the world.

He felt gloomy, tired, hungry and irritated. Worried, scared, reticent of what was to come.

An arrow-like thought flew in and struck his consciousness. His heart twisted into ugly knots as the realization dawned on him; not only did he have no one to place his trust, he also had no one to truly depend on. Not his compromised parents, not his sister who was a normal person, not Mylorne Akkad and his dealings, not even the paragon of virtues Guild of Heroes. Could he trust Taylor? He probably could, but even then, she was weak and was liable to be used against him in the future. Not only that, there was no reason to depend on her anymore now that he had to give up on his pursuit of vengeance even if it was temporary.

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Seeing his options, it became clear that he was basically all alone now. What a wonderfully rubbish turn of events this was.

Feeling the absolute worst, Jack let out a bitter chuckle. Even though he was powerful now, all that strength was completely helpless to do anything. Who was it that said only the absolute strength can overcome all obstacles?

Well, that person lied.


(The next chapter will be up very soon.)

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