Sole Survivor – Chapter IX: Cold Hearted

Nineteen tiny explosive devices detonate at 3:24 AM in City 61, ripping a sealed metal door from its hinges. Six masked individuals carrying duffel bags rush into the chemical plant it guarded, stepping over the twisted chunk of steel they just destroyed.

One of them kneels over at the entrance to inspect the door. “This place has some pretty good security,” he says. “Wonder what they’re trying to hide in here?”

While four of the thieves walk deeper into the building, one stops to look at the kneeling man. “They’re trying to guard what we’re here to steal, Ahmed,” the second man says, annoyed.

The kneeling man, Ahmed, removes his mask. “What’re we even stealing, anyway?” he asks. “Fishman has us get up in the middle of the night, come over to some random chemical factory in some run down part of town, and doesn’t even tell us what we’re here for.”

“We’ve been paid to do whatever the hell we’re told to do,” the second man says. “Now, if you excuse me, I’m going to go do what I was paid to do.”

He walks away from the entrance, leaving Ahmed to examine the door. Ahmed spots something. “Hey, come check this out!” he shouts.

His friend sighs and returns. “What?” he asks, obviously annoyed.

“Look up there,” Ahmed says.

Ahmed’s friend looks at the top of the door frame and notices an odd hole right above where the door had sat. The hole has the same length and width as the door. Ahmed walks under the hole and stares into it. “It’s weird, isn’t it?” Ahmed asks.

A metal door plummets through the hole. Ahmed doesn’t see it until it’s too late. His friend, on the other hand, reacts immediately, grabbing Ahmed and pulling him out of the way.

The slam of a thick metal door hitting the ground echoes through the plant. The others rush back to the entrance, where Ahmed lies on his back mere centimeters away from the door. If his friend had reacted one second later, Ahmed would’ve lost his leg. Two seconds later, Ahmed would have lost his life.

“What the hell is going on over here?” one of the other intruders yells.

Her name is Sgi Fishman. She’s the one who pays Ahmed and the other thieves to do whatever the hell they’re told to do. Sgi, a career criminal with an extremely short temper, is not in the mood to deal with Ahmed’s usual mistakes.

“Ahmed triggered something,” Ahmed’s savior says. “Probably some sort of emergency door. It slammed down after he tripped a sensor.”

“Dammit,” Agi shouts. She looks Ahmed in the eye. “Thing probably activated some sort of alarm. The police’ll be here soon. We have one ten minutes, fifteen if we’re lucky.”

“What about…you know who?” Ahmed asks.

“That freak is in 89 today. It shouldn’t be back until around six,” Agi says. “Regardless, we need to get moving. We don’t have much time.”

Agi narrows her eyes and gives Ahmed a look that pierces his soul. “As for you,” she says. “You get a quarter of what I offered. Be thankful I’m not killing you outright.”

Agi and the other thieves head into the plant. Ahmed runs to catch up to the man who saved his life. “Didn’t get a chance to thank you,” he says.

“It isn’t a big deal,” his savior says.

“Don’t be so humble. If it wasn’t for you I’d be half the man I used to be.”

The other man laughs at Ahmed’s dumb joke. “First thing I’m gonna do after this job is buy you a beer,” Ahmed says. “Seriously, Vic, I owe you one.”

+++

Eight years after saving Ahmed, Vic stands in the arena, waiting for his second fight to begin. Like Helios before him, he is absolutely terrified of the man standing on the other side of the arena. His palms are sweaty and his knees feel like they could give out at any moment. He contemplates what would happen if he throw up the spaghetti he had for lunch while wearing a gas mask.

The sheer size of Heavyweight is enough to frighten most men. Throw in the helmet, the weights, and his general demeanor and you have a terrifying warrior. However, on the sixth day of the Fourteenth Triennial Golden Valhalla Tournament, he looks especially intimidating.

A pair of black shoulder pads sit upon his massive shoulders. Wires run from them to a large grey backpack, the contents of which are unknown. The shoulder pads and backpack are not particularly intimidating. However, the large guns duck taped to the shoulder pads most certainly are.

Vic realizes that in the short time between his fight with Helios and his fight with him Heavyweight managed to piece together what was left of the fire cannons into a makeshift ranged weapon. One that terrifies Vic.

+++

Rachel pulls her hand behind her head and raises her pointer and pinky fingers. A shuriken forms. Rachel throws the shuriken at a glass sitting on the counter. She misses and pierces a hole in the fridge.

“Aim is still something you need to work on,” Jeremy says.

“People are larger targets,” Rachel replies.

Rachel sits down on the bed. “Honestly,” she says, “I think I have these gloves figured out.”

“I think you need more practice,” Jeremy says.

He begins to walk over to her but is stopped by the sudden appearance of a forcefield wall. “Hilarious,” he says as he walks around it.

Another one appears in his way. “Fine,” he says. “You win. No more training today.”

He takes a seat next to her on the bed. “You’ve got quite the get up going on now.”

“Get up?” she says.

“Black t-shirt, brown jacket and goggles, white and gold boots, blue sword, and now a pair of grey gloves covered in green lights. It’s all very…thrown togetherish.”

“Togetherish?”

“You know what I mean.”

The phone on the counter begins ringing. Before answering, Rachel knows what the person on the other end of the line is going to say. Rachel says yes before Ysabel can finish saying her name.

Rachel walks over to the door and opens it. “And one more thing,” she says as she turns around, draws the gun from her belt, and fires at the glass. It shatters. “My aim is fine.”

The peanut gallery contains the same occupants as Arctic’s last fight, plus a young woman who sleeps near the coat rack. Rachel returns to the front row, to the seat next to Haven.

“Fancy shootin’ ya did yesterday,” Haven says with a smile on his face. “And the day before, to tell ya the truth.”

“You did some pretty fancy shooting yourself when you fought Aegis,” Rachel says.

Haven chuckles. “We both did quite a number on our mutual foe. S’prised he’s still kicking after the beatin’ you gave ‘im.”

“He’s still alive?”

“Yep. He was on Mr. Nash’s show last night sporting a neck brace and one heck of a shiner.”

The news makes Rachel smile. She cares little that Aegis is alive, but is mostly happy that Helena can fix a broken neck. It means that she might walk away if tomorrow’s fight goes wrong.

“I don’t know ‘bout you, but I’m a hoping that Vic wins this one,” Haven says.

“Vic?”

“Victor Callaghan, Arctic. Part’ve it’s cause I got to spend a little time with him this week, but the main reason is ‘cause that Heavyweight fellow just rubs me the wrong way.”

Rachel thinks about the monstrous man and decides that she’d rather fight Arctic. “Ya know how, in old western movies, ya know who the bad guy is?” Haven asks.

“How?”

“He’s the one wearin’ the black hat.”

+++

Agi leads them into the center of the plant, where tall vats of various liquids sit. Above them sit a set of platforms, resting half a meter above the vats. Agi stops and pulls a charm out of her pocket. “This is a Detection Charm,” she says. “It detects things.”

“Like what?” Ahmed asks.

Ági gives him a look that tells him to shut up before she kills him. “This charm detects what the wielder holds up to it and makes a noise when the wielder is walking towards it. Don’t ask how I got it. We’re going to use it to find some…treasure.”

“Mr. Ahmed,” she says. “Your actions earlier have given you the wonderful job that is guard duty.”

“That isn’t wonderful.”

The others give him a second to think it through. “Oh!” he shouts after ten have gone by. “Sarcasm. Right.”

“Jada, Terentius, you’re with him. Kollen, Albronda, you’re with me.”

“What about me?” Vic asks.

“See that control panel up there?” Agi asks while pointing at a panel on the wall up on the platforms. “Go try and find a way to fix our door problem.”

Vic searches the wall while the others do their assigned duties. Eventually, he finds a pipe and climbs it up to the platforms. The panel is made of metal and covered in dozens of switches, all labeled with tape written on with marker.

Vic looks for something related to the door but only finds irrelevant buttons and two switches with their labels scratched off. One red, one blue. Vic flips the red one. The metal emergency door in the entrance slowly raises back up into the hole. Satisfied, Vic crawls down the pipe and goes to find Agi.

“Door’s open,” Vic says.

“Good,” Agi says.

Two of Fishman’s men are hitting the stone floor of the plant with pickaxes. “What’re they doing?” Vic asks.

“Breaking open the floor to get our prize.”

“You still haven’t told us what that is.”

“A safe.”

“Containing?”

“Emeralds. Sapphires. A few old Solarman comics.”

“Solarman?”

“He was a really old comic superhero.”

“Never heard of him,” Vic says.

Vic thinks for a moment. “Wait, I think I remember him from when I was a kid,” he says. “Yeah, he could fly and was really strong, right?”

“I don’t know. What I do know is that some of his older comics were worth fortunes before the invasion.”

“And after?”

“After those monsters showed up, people burned his comics and purged all traces of him from the internet. Any comic featuring him is valuable nowadays. The oldest ones are worth more money than either of us can imagine.”

“Then why am I being paid so little?”

Before Agi can answer a gust of wind shakes the building, almost knocking Vic off his feet. A white blur enters, grabs Kollen, and leaves, all within the span of a few seconds. “Code white!” Ahmed shouts at the top of his lungs, seconds before he too is taken.

+++

“Hello, and welcome back to the 14th Triennial Golden Valhalla Tournament,” Faust says. “Today I’m joined by my co-host, Arastoo “Legion” Rompaye.”

“The fight held shortly will be between Victor “Arctic” Callaghan and Marek “Heavyweight” Kysely,” Legion says. “The winner will fight Jackrabbit tomorrow.”

“Will the cold-hearted man who froze Emerald be capable of cooling the northern nightmare that withstood the flames of Helios?”

“No.”

“Who knows?”

“I do. Callaghan is going to lose.”

“Anything could happen!”

“Except Callaghan winning.”

“Legion, stop being so negative and do your job.”

“Fine. Callaghan and Kysely are so evenly matched that either of them could be today’s winner!” Legion says, his voice dripping of sarcasm.

“It could happen, you know. We could have another upset. Like on Wednesday.”

Faust ducks to avoid being punched in the head.

+++

The first thing Arctic does when the bell rings is fire two blasts of liquid nitrogen from his hands. The first thing Heavyweight does is push a button on the tiny remote that sits in his massive hand, activating the fire cannons and sending two blasts of fire at Arctic. The four blasts collide mid air, creating plumes of white smoke.

Arctic feels the energy of the explosion and knows that being hit by a fireball would end the fight and possibly his life. He runs away. Unfortunately, due to the arena being an inescapable dome, he runs in circles. As he runs he fires at Heavyweight. Heavyweight fires back.

While Heavyweight consistently misses, Arctic lands shot after shot on his gargantuan opponent. The nitrogen, cold enough to freeze flesh solid, does little against Heavyweight’s steely skin.

In fact, the cold doesn’t seem to affect Heavyweight at all. Like Helios’s fire, the liquid nitrogen isn’t enough to harm the goliath esque man. A fireball explodes right behind Arctic, knocking him over.

Heavyweight fires another fireball at the fallen Arctic. Arctic fires his own blast to shield himself. Once again, the blasts collide, protecting Arctic. The smoke covers Arctic, stripping him from any view of his opponent. Still, he can figure out Heavyweight’s next move.

Arctic fires another blast to shield himself. Then another. Arctic fires as fast as he can to protect him from Heavyweight. Heavyweight presses the remote button again and again, like some sort of machine built for the sole purpose of pressing buttons. Fireball after fireball flies through the air at Arctic, each barely stopped.

The fireballs keep coming and coming, eating through Arctic’s limited supply of liquid nitrogen. Arctic searches his mind for an idea, a way to keep himself from burning alive. Then he realizes a plan. A terribly, terribly stupid plan. One stupid enough to work.

I believe this is a good time to explain how Arctic’s powers work. There is no mechanism that moves the nitrogen from the tank to his gloves. There are only two tubes and the power that lies within him. Arctic is blessed with the ability to make nitrogen move. This, of course, leads to him having incredible aim and the ability to curve his shots to hit targets hidden behind him.

Because of this, Arctic is able to effortlessly switch from firing small shots to focusing all of his remaining nitrogen into a steady stream. Because he controls the nitrogen, he is able to pool it up in front of himself, creating a makeshift shield of cold.

Arctic’s brilliantly stupid realization is as follows: If I can control liquid nitrogen, then I can do more than shoot it, I can hold it in place. And I can probably do more than that, I might be able to keep it from evaporating. After all, that is a type of control.

Using all the concentration he can muster, Arctic holds the shield both together and cold enough to freeze a man solid. Fireball after fireball collide with Artic’s shield, each one being stopped by the wall of liquid nitrogen. Even as the colliding bursts of fire send ripples through the shield and begin to tear it apart, it holds. Since Arctic controls the shield, he can reform it as much as he likes. Arctic crawls to his feet and looks at his opponent. All he can see beyond the smoke is a dark blob off in the distance, walking slowly towards him.

From the start of his fight, everyone, himself included, believed with little doubt that Vic would lose. It is truly amazing what can happen when one is counted out. Sometimes the unexpected and wonderful happens. Sometimes people discover strength they could not imagine having. This is not one of those times.

Arctic pushes the frigid shield forward, sending it crashing into Heavyweight. The large man stops moving. For a second, Arctic has hope that his latest attack worked. Then, thirty kilograms of stone hit him between the ribs.

+++

“Close the door!” Agi shouts. Her words are pointless. Vic is already halfway up the pipe leading to the control panel. He climbs faster than he thought possible as Jada is taken. He slams the blue switch so hard that it almost breaks.

Instead of the door slamming shut, the lids of all the vats around him raise. The white blur returns, grabbing Terentius and leaving Vic, Albronda, and Agi. Vic realizes that he hit the wrong switch and flips the red switch. The door closes as the blur takes Albronda.

Vic releases a sigh of relief. The door, he hopes, will keep the monster out. It doesn’t. The blur literally breaks through the door, leaving a sizable hole, and takes Agi Fishman. Vic screams and searches for a place to hide. He notices the vat to his left, full of what to him appears to be water. Vic decides to take his chances and jumps into it.

The “water” poses a far greater threat to him than the blur. The liquid Victor Callaghan jumps into is, in fact, the seventh element, nitrogen, in its liquid form. A bath in that vat would kill most people.

Before Vic even touches the nitrogen, he feels it. The cold. He screams internally before falling into the frigid chemical lake.

Vic, obviously, survives. Without him thinking about it, the nitrogen moves out of the way, avoiding him like the plague. Vic hits the cold metal floor of vat without a single drop touching him. He then, due to both the fact that his body magically changed and the fact that he fell headfirst into a chunk of steel, falls unconscious.

+++

Arctic’s armor survives being hit by the force of a cannon surprisingly well. His ribs, on the other hand, act like you would expect, shattering into a million pieces and piercing Vic’s left lung. While he still doesn’t know what would happen if he were to throw up spaghetti, he now knows what happens when you throw up blood while wearing a gas mask.

As Arctic struggles to breathe, Heavyweight inches closer. “I give up,” Arctic says in a voice as audible as a whisper.

“I forfeit. I quit. I throw in the towel. Uncle. Lo dejo. Etcetera,” he says, every word causing him pain.

His words fall on deaf ears. Despite his pleas, the match continues. Heavyweight comes close and Arctic rips off his mask. “What the hell is going on! I quit! Let me out before this psychopath kills me,” he screams in spite of the pain. “You said we had the ability to forfeit matches! I want to tap out! Now!

Heavyweight grabs him by the throat and suspends him into the air. Arctic gasps for air, only getting a mouthful into his good lung. Arctic grabs his machete and swings it against Heavyweight’s throat. The blade shatters. He fires all of his remaining nitrogen into Heavyweight’s eyes.

The attack does nothing more than create white smoke. When the smoke clears. Arctic finally sees Heavyweight’s eyes and the horror that lies behind the mask. Arctic releases a weak scream. “Let me out of here!” he shouts. “Let me out, you bastards!”

Heavyweight grabs Arctic’s head and rips it and his body in two different directions. To say that Arctic’s neck breaks would be an understatement. It is a miracle that Arctic’s head stays attached to his body. With a blue flash, Arctic disappears. The Tournament staff have finally given him what he wanted: To get away from Heavyweight.

+++

“Seems you’ll be fighting the big’un tomorrow,” Haven says.

Rachel sighs. “I had a feeling I would be,” she says.

“Well, good luck out there,” Haven says while extending a hand.

Rachel pauses for a moment. She’s never had someone other than Jeremy wish her good luck. She shakes his hand. “Thank you,” she says.

+++

An hour after jumping into a vat of liquid nitrogen, Vic wakes up. His hands feel cold. His chest feels cold. Every single cell in his body feels cold. While the nitrogen has evaporated, the air within the vat is still frigid.

It takes Vic two hours to climb out of the vat. He feels like he’s about to freeze to death the entire time. Eventually, he reaches the top and crawls onto the platform. He gets to his feet and looks around. The others are gone, taken away by the white blur.

Said blur is not present. Apparently, Vic almost killing himself was enough to make it leave him alone. The plant is also free of any workers or police, meaning that A: It’s still too early for anyone to arrive for work, and B: City 61’s lazy police didn’t even bother to show up.

Vic wanders back to his apartment, shivering to entire way. Despite it being a warm day in August, he can’t seem to warm up. He turns the heat in his apartment all the way up and pours himself a large cup of hot chocolate. Neither seem to do the trick.

Vic pulls off the black gloves he wears to avoid leaving fingerprints. He is shocked to see his skin. His complexion has changed to a pale, greyish blue. The tips of his fingers are black and look like they might fall off. He runs to the kitchen and places his hands in the oven to try and warm them up.

After five minutes of futility Vic moves to the bathroom to see if the rest of him is and blue as his hands. Every inch, he discovers, looks like it has hypothermia. His hair has changed from dirty blonde to platinum. Most distressing are his eyes, which have gone from green to the color of ice. “What the hell?” Vic says quietly.

From the day he jumped into liquid nitrogen to the day of his death, Victor Callaghan is cold. His body temperature is that of ice. Everything from his fingers to his toes to the heart beating in his chest is cold.

+++

During her first interview with him, Faust asks Rachel what she can do. Rachel Botterill is capable of doing a large assortment of things. She can steal priceless objects from some of the most heavily guarded places on the planet. She can pick mechanical locks and fool digital ones. She can sing the entire soundtracks of multiple musicals from memory. And, as it turns out, she is one hell of a fighter.

Aside from the last one, these are not the things Faust is looking for when he asks what Rachel can do. Rather, he is looking for the ways Rachel can hurt her fellow fighters. Put bluntly, he is asking what her powers are. Rachel states that she doesn’t have any powers. In truth, she has many powers. Some she knows about, some that she will discover as the Tournament goes on.

The source of power that the fighters call upon is Mana, a near infinite source of energy flowing through the world generated by the spirits of living beings that can be used to rewrite reality. Normal humans have a limited ability to manipulate Mana; enough for them to subconsciously increase their strength and durability, but nothing compared to the abilities of the Tournament fighters.

There are mutants, individuals with DNA altered by radiation who manifest strange bodies capable of manipulating Mana, but their abilities are nothing when compared to the Gods, ancient alien beings born of pure Mana. In ancient times, the Gods entrusted humanity with enchanted items and magical spellbooks; these items were left inactive for centuries before the return of Marilyn Maia. After the return of magic, human engineers built technology to manipulate Mana, bringing their world into a new era of progress.

There are many fighters in the Fourteenth Tournament who have studied magical spells, or wield advanced technology, or possess powerful mutations, but there is another type of magic used in the Tournament, one that is far more dangerous: Blessings.

The gods are not the only magical beings in the world; there are also the Demons, twisted abominations from a time before recorded history. To call Demons people would be a misnomer; they are living masses of magic driven only by instinct and emotion. Sometimes, Demons latch onto powerful souls, granting incredible power to achieve their goals. Demons do not leave a soul after latching on, and often alter a person’s appearance. Despite the dark origin of this type of power, the common term for them is Blessings.

The power of people with Blessings is astounding. While a person using a magical spell is limited by their own magical power and a person with a mutation is bound by their physical limitations, people who are Blessed can do whatever they can imagine. For example, while a person using a spell would be limited to something like engulfing a house in flames, a Blessed person could engulf everything within sight. Defeating a Blessed fighter is nearly impossible, unless you can manage to outthink them.

By the time of her fight with Heavyweight, Rachel Botterill has many powers. She has technology. The sword, the boots, the goggles, the orb, and the gauntlets. All stolen, and all powerful. More importantly, she has the ability to use these devices creatively.

In fact, her success lies primarily on her skills and training. Not just her surprisingly good combat skills, but also her ability to see weaknesses and come up with strategies on the fly. There are very few fighters who could come up with a plan to defeat Lazarus in less than five minutes, much less two different good ones.

By the time of her third fight, Rachel Botterill is far from powerless. She is the exact opposite: a contender. 

+++

“Rache? Are you okay?” Jeremy asks as soon as Rachel returns from the peanut gallery.

“I am,” Rachel replies. “Why wouldn’t I be okay?”

“Because! He almost decapitated Arctic!”

“I saw that. It was really cold hearted.”

“This isn’t the time for jokes! You should be terrified! You should be screaming about wanting to go home!”

“Jeremy, I am so scared right now,” she says, her voice cracking. “But it doesn’t matter. Regardless of how I feel I’m going to fight him tomorrow. So why should I stand here cowering and crying about something I can’t change?”

Jeremy sighs and takes a seat on the bed. “You’ve grown a lot in the past few days. You aren’t the scared girl in over her head you were on Sunday. You’ve become a warrior. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.”

Rachel sits down next to him and ponders his statements. “I’ve changed a lot, haven’t I?”

“You know, there is a surefire way to avoid losing to Heavyweight.”

Rachel does a double take when she hears the news. “How do I beat him?”

“Beating him isn’t the goal right now. The goal right now is to avoid being killed by him. The best way to accomplish that is to drop out.”

“I can’t.”

“Prior to the Redemption Bracket, fighters are allowed to retire from the Tournament by contacting a member of the Tournament staff. You said that to me months ago. All you have to do is call Ysabel and tell her you want to retire. Pure and simple.”

“The reason I can’t retire is because years from now I’m going to look back and hate myself for quitting.”

“Rache, this isn’t a game. This is real life. People die. You might die. Why the hell aren’t you quitting!”

“Because for the first time in a long time I feel alive!”

Jeremy doesn’t have any response to Rachel’s proclamation.

“I love being in the arena. I love the fear of losing and the thrill of winning. I love the feeling I get when I’m in there, the feeling that nothing matters but me and the guy standing in front of me.”

Jeremy pases for a moment, trying to formulate a response. “Why?” he asks.

“I don’t know. Maybe I’m just built this way.”

There are several minutes where the two sit there, neither saying a word. “It’s weird,” Rachel says. “It’s weird that almost dying made me realize what makes me feel alive.”

“Rache, fighting to the brink of death for fun isn’t healthy.”

“I know.”

The two sit for a few more minutes. “I think there’s something wrong with me,” Rachel says. “It’s like a piece of me is missing. Like, there’s a piece of my heart that just isn’t there anymore. I can live without this piece, but I can’t feel happiness without it. I’ve felt like this for a long time.”

“Stealing helped, I think. Not because of the money, but because of the feeling I get when I’m making a plan, or sneaking into places, or when I finally succeeded in stealing the priceless artifact of the day. When I was working a heist, I felt like a part of the piece was back.”

“Where are you going with this?”

“What I’m trying to say is that, when I’m in the arena, I don’t feel like a piece of me is missing.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s