KATIPO I: Restart: Part Seven
When Tatum reaches the top of the stairwell — first, of course — she’s already running, looking over her shoulder and motioning with one hand for you three to follow, “Come on, come on, hurry!”
You wait at the doorway until your partners have made it safely out, then follow behind as close as you can, staying back to guard the rear, your eyes darting everywhere as you look for... no, no, Alex is not the one behind this. You refuse to believe it. You must be searching for something else — someone else — anything else at all. Anything that could be considered a threat, you suppose. Anything at all... But you are not looking for Alex...
More marble against marble. The jukebox is still playing songs from the same album. The bartender glances through the kitchen door’s window at you, but then turns back inside to do whatever. You scratch your wrist, then fix your hair. “So the location’s set then,” you begin to prod, “but what about the actual people? The AJ character and such?”
Rhi flips through a few more pages, but the motion seems wholly nervous rather than investigatory. Blink-blink, blink-blink. “Well, unfortunately, uhm...” She taps one claw against her Achyfi can. You can hear the liquid inside sloshing. You can see little dents where her nails chip the logo off.
But she doesn’t say anything.
You give her a confused, somewhat-irritated look, cocking an eyebrow. “Unfortunately...?” you prod once more.
It honestly looks like she’s fighting an inner war with herself... but it doesn’t take too long for her to finally decide which one of her inner demons to feed. She takes a deep breath, lets out a light huff, then, her words incredibly rushed, quickly tells you, “Unfortunately, all signs point to AJ being Alexis.”
And your heart stops beating.
She tries to remedy by continuing to speak, though her winding words and frantic cadence don’t help you feel calm in the slightest. “Cameron, I know it’s not what you want to hear, and I know how hurt you must be, but...”
“No, no, no,” you repeat, trying to keep your voice down, but being only half-successful in the endeavour. “It’s... it’s not Alex! Why do all of you keep saying that?”
“Because...” Rhi looks you deeply in the eyes. You sound like you’re being threatening, and you know that — you can hear it — but she doesn’t back off, so you don’t apologise. She knows that you know no harm. You know she knows, because she just looks... sad. Pained. Apologetic. She knows how much she meant to you... “Because we are almost positive this is all under her control,” she says.
You desperately grasp at the hole in her words. “Almost, Rhi,” you plead, “you said almost.”
But she only looks more pained.
And your heart has yet to catch up to your breathing.
Riff writes a few more things down as his laughter softens and you start to fiddle with the fur of your neck ruff anxiously. He checks over what he’s written so far, then looks back up when he’s apparently decided that he doesn’t need to change anything. “So then... she was no help is basically what you’re saying, yeah?” he asks, the smile that still curls the corners of his lips turning from soft to snide once more.
You shift in your seat — take a more offended-seeming position, though he probably knows it’s meant to be humorous rather than threatening — then reach into your coat pocket for the slip of paper that Tatum had handed you before your interview completely dissolved into pleasantries. You rifle around a little too long in search for it, though, brushing your fingers across forgotten pens and tissues. Thankfully, you find it before the situation turns embarrassing — and before you start to legitimately worry that you’d somehow misplaced it. You look down at the paper as you pull it out, scrutinising the logo once more. “Not entirely,” you say, the words slow and drawn out, then hand the paper to Riff, who takes it with a suddenly puzzled look and hesitant hands. “She gave me this, which looks a bit promising,” you continue to explain. “This was on the corner of a letter that this Marley guy had apparently sent to her — uh, so, the guy who actually did take the papers on the malfunctions. Allegedly.” You watch as Riff squints at the paper from a distance, then brings it up to the tip of his nose to examine the watermark more closely. “It looks like Brightvale castle, right?” you ask, leaning forward as if to look at the paper again.
He nods after a few more seconds of squinting. “Yeah, that’s definitely Brightvale,” he says. “You can see the li’l flags if you look closely enough.”
You match the nod. “And the firm name or whatever sounds promising, too,” you say. “Do you think... it’s maybe some organisation that’s dealing with the bugs? Or, uh, behind them, even?”
But Riff doesn’t respond. His eyes look suddenly crestfallen.
It’s... an incredibly foreign expression to see on his typically happy face, honestly.
And it stays there too long. Far too long.
So you uncross your legs, then stretch one out awkwardly far to tap his kneecap with your toes. “Riff?”
When he looks back up at you, you feel like you already know what he’s going to say, and you absolutely don’t want to hear it; but, unfortunately... “I mean... did, uh...” He swallows hard. “They, uh... told you who they think is behind this... right?”
You quickly pull your leg back to cross your ankles, then give him a frustrated huff. “Yes, they did, Riff,” you say angrily, “but I think it’s ridiculous. Why would she do that?”
“I mean...” Riff looks at the paper again, as if hoping something written on it had changed, but... “I mean, it’s kind of... really coincidental, considering those are her initials, don’t you think?” he says, nearly whispered, pointing lightly to the name on the watermark with his little finger.
And you scowl at him. Fiercely. “As if there aren’t a million AJs in this world, Riff...”
“I mean... you know...” He looks away, then looks down, then looks back at you, then looks back at the paper. His fidgeting isn’t helping your nerves. You kick your legs back and forth anxiously.
He’s the first to break the silence, after seemingly thinking about what he wants to say for ages. “I just... think that you — we — might... want to start preparing for the worst, you know?”
But you refuse to.
Alex isn’t behind this.
She can’t be.
You lean back in your seat as Tatum hops up, placing her can on the table and skipping across the room. Some of the cola splashes out of the can and stains the coffee table. You're not sure if she didn't see or didn't care. You watch her as she skids to a halt by a bureau that you didn't realise was across from you until now, then rifles through some drawers until she pulls out an old envelope. She examines it, then pokes through the contents, eventually pulling out a folded up note. She reads it silently, shifting her weight from hip to hip as she reads, then nods to herself and tears a corner off of the letter. She skips back to you and hands you the scrap. "Does this help?"
The paper she's handed you has the watermark of some company or business or something on it — "AJ & Associates — Equalising Neopia." You've never heard the name before. You're sure your face conveys your puzzlement completely. You don’t try to hide it. "Is this his company?" you ask.
She shrugs, then sits back down, twirling in a circle before doing so. Her skirt dances around her knees as she picks back up her cola and takes another sip. "Dunno, but he sent me a letter on that paper," she eventually responds. "I dunno if he works there, or if it's a new alias, or if it's just some random paper. But it's all I've got."
You nod as you continue to examine the watermark. There's a picture of what looks like Brightvale Castle behind the words. Or maybe it's Old Maraqua. You can't tell. The paper looks centuries old. "Do you know who this AJ is?"
You look up just in time to see her shoulders fall in the end of a shrug. “I’m pretty sure it stands for the leader-person’s name,” she says. “Pretty sure it was Alex Jacks. Or, uh... Alexis Jacks, at one... um...”
Her voice trails off as she meets your eyes. She suddenly looks incredibly worried. She doesn’t finish her sentence, and you don’t even try to begin one of your own. “Um... Cameron?” she eventually prods, placing her soda down on the table and leaning forward, concerned. “Are you... feeling alright? Did I change you back wrong?”
“No, no, no,” you start to repeat over and over, realising only then that you’ve thrown your head into your hands. “It’s...” But you try to stay cool. You take a deep breath. You don’t look at her, but you raise your eyes slightly — fold your hands in your lap. “I’m... I’m sorry,” you say. “That’s what the mod told me, too. It’s just...” You feel your emotions hard in the back of your throat. You start to scratch absentmindedly at your elbow. You’re bouncing your right leg nervously against the floor. Eventually, you sigh. “Alexis was... my old commanding officer,” you sheepishly admit, “and also my, uhm...”
You hear Tatum breathe in sharply, and that makes you look up — your curiosity is a decent distraction from your pain, apparently. Her eyes have grown wide, and she holds a hand over her mouth, genuinely shocked. It’s... rather puzzling.
All she says when her fingers part to show her lips is a half-whispered, “You’re that Cameron?”
Now you’re purely puzzled.
But puzzled is better than on the brink of tears.
Still, you question her, “Um... what’s that supposed to mean?” adding a nervous laugh at the end of your sentence to try to lessen some of the now-palpable awkwardness in the room.
She purses her lips, but then smiles big, though it seems fake — seems like it’s only there to hide something else. “You’re just... really famous, is all,” she eventually says. “Like, uh... you were, uh, obviously, uh...” She’s clearly scrambling. It’s not helping you feel any better. “Well, stories of your accomplishments in I/I have... carried over even after I left, and you joined, and, you know...”
She doesn’t sound even the slightest bit genuine.
But maybe she’s just shocked, or something.
Either way, you don’t want to think about this anymore.
So you just tell her, “Well, I’m flattered,” as if she’d made a coherent statement.
And she just keeps smiling away.
You’ve got one hand curled around a sweating cocktail glass that’s half-full of some fizzy drink that's making your nose itch. Your hair falls and curls over your shoulders in perfect spirals, gold like a ghostly honey dripping from the seams of your lapel. This night has been going well so far, but now this smug-faced Zinux mod has just told you, “We believe that your old commanding officer, Alexis Jacks, is the one behind the bugs,” and it feels like your heart’s stopped beating.
You’re sure that your scowl must be terrifying, because even he looks worried, and mods never show emotion. He cocks an eyebrow at you, but all you say is, “No.”
His smugness quickly returns, though he seems hesitant to show it. “Unfortunately, yes,” he says.
“Alex would never do that.”
“Again, unfortunately, all intel leads us to belive tha—”
“Alex would never do that!”
He looks around nervously at the sound of your suddenly tripled volume. You don’t care if anyone’s looking. You don’t. You want to let this entire bar know right here, right now, that Alex isn’t a monster. She’s not. She couldn’t be.
The look Zinux gives you next is one of genuine apology. It only ticks you off more, though, honestly. “I understand that this news can be devastating, because she was both your commanding officer and sister, bu—”
“She still is my sister!”
You’re pretty sure people are staring now, because Zinux hunches his shoulders as if to hide rather than shushing you.
But you don’t care. You don’t. Alex would never do this. She wouldn’t. Why would she? You’ve known her your whole life... she practically raised you...
All Zinux says in response to your shout once the rest of the eyes in the bar look away is a soft, sheepish, “I’m sorry, Cameron...”
You’re in the middle of losing your third consecutive game of Armada when it happens.
It starts in her kneecaps, as it almost always does, and the first word her brain is able to remind her mouth how to say is, “Great...”
You look up at Alex from across the coffee table, and you see the look in her eyes, and you cringe. Her head is down, so she can’t see you cringing, but you’re almost positive that she can hear it — hear you sucking air through your clenched teeth. But you’ve both been through this plenty of times by this point. You take a deep breath, and you walk over to her side, then you sit next to her with your legs folded neatly beneath you. “Alright, start guessing whenever you think you’ve got a clue,” you say.
She holds her stomach, then says that she’ll try to when she can, ha ha, and that she’s totally gonna get it right this time, ha ha, and that if she does, you’re gonna be one point behind her again, ha ha ha, and you just click your tongue against the roof of your mouth and say, “Good luck, because I think I’ve figured it out already.”
It’s been years, and you can tell that she’s been just as many autozaps as you have, but you can still tell that it’s Alex deep within AJ’s eyes. They were right. They were all right. You didn’t want to believe it, but they were. You actively denied it, but they were. You completely blocked it all out, but they were.
But still, all you can say is, “Why?”
Alex’s — AJ’s — expression doesn’t change, but she — he — takes a few more steps forward, clearly unafraid of the blaster you still point in his face. “I’m assuming you mean the lab bugs,” he says, asking for clarification that he doesn’t really need.
To your right, you can still hear the other three trying to break through the door. You can hear Sam’s electromagic clashing loudly against the wall. You can hear Riff screaming out your name, and cursing his still-broken wristpiece. You can hear Tatum shouting something about finding a code, though you can tell it’s all mostly to herself.
But all you care about is Alex — AJ — and all you say is, “Yes.”
His expression finally changes — shifts to a sarcastic sort of half-smile — though it’s unfamiliarly cruel. It’s evil. It’s... not like her... “I’d already told you why, Cammy,” AJ says. “Did you forget that, too?”
No. No, you didn’t, though you had definitely tried to, just like you had tried to forget when everyone else said that this was Alex’s fault. “Of course not, Alex,” you say, somehow both growing weaker and more rigid. “How could I have forgotten?”
“Then why did you ask?”
“Because...” You swallow hard. You don’t want to disagree with him — it’s been so many years since you’ve seen him — seen her — but... “It’s... it’s still not right.”
And AJ’s face finally falls into an honest anger. He takes a few steps further, and you hold your blaster tighter. “What’s not right, Cammy,” he says, “is that we are the only ones who have to suffer through this autozapping nonsense. That we got messed up for life, while everyone else got stronger or more colourful. That we have this curse, and everyone else is just fine!”
“That...” You’re starting to choke on all of the emotions that now fill your throat, but you try your best to swallow them. “That doesn’t make it right to fate others to do the same, Alex...”
And he chuckles darkly. “Why not?”
“Because why would you want to put others through the same torture that we both hate so much?!”
The door that the others are still trapped behind suddenly cracks — hairline, nearly invisibly, but still. You hear its first layer shatter, and the other three shout. Then it’s back to banging, crashing, clanging...
AJ looks over towards the door nervously, clearly able to tell that he hasn’t much time left to speak if he wants to escape before the others break through; but then he meets your gaze again, and all else fades for him but you. His eyes bore into yours. You’re shaking from head to toe. “If everyone goes through this, then nobody will feel any pain,” he slowly says.
“But not everyone knows the lab’s location, Alex,” you say — begging, almost. “And once the bug rumours get out, nobody will go anymore. It’s useless. It’s just...”
“It is not useless.”
“But it is, Alex!” Your breath shudders. Your blaster shakes in your hands. “You’re just... hurting a few dozen more, and then... then it’ll be over. You’re not...” — what was the motto? — “equalising Neopia, Alex; you’re just spreading this curse to more innocent people!”
“But then we won’t be alone, Cam.”
Now he sounds like he’s begging.
But you try your best to ignore it, as the door beside you cracks loudly some more. “There will just be more lonely people, Alex,” you say. “All of those people who have been hit with the bugs that you caused... they’re from all over the world, and they all have their own lives, and their own families, and coworkers, and... and...” Your breath quakes again. “And now they will be alone. They’ll have to try to explain what’s happening just like we did, and they’ll be isolated just like we were, and they’ll feel... terrible, Alex! You of all people should know this!”
But he doesn’t buy it.
And the door’s been almost shattered.
So he tries just one more thing: “Don’t you trust me, Cammy?”
And that’s the problem.
A part of you still does.
But your time is up.
Both of your time is up.
The door shatters outward, and you leap back from the scraps of metal and sparks of electricity that fly towards you from the seeming explosion.
You’re covering your eyes and coughing hard, and your blaster’s fallen from your sweating palms, and your knees give out from everything you’re feeling, and you’re suddenly lying on your side on the ground, propped up on one shaking arm. You cough, and your eyes water, and you gasp for breath, and you can’t for the life of you convince your body to move. All you can do is watch helplessly.
The first one through the door is Sam. She seems to have broken it with her shoulder, and falls through as if she’d been thrown, tumbling and skidding across the ground in a mess of static and shrapnel. You hear her let out a very uncharacteristic whimper as she slides across the cold floor and slams into the opposite wall. You realise as you watch her try to shake the dust from her back and stand on all four trembling limbs that she probably did throw herself through the door. She tends to worry too much about you, after all, and you worry about her worrying... and this is why. She gets reckless.
You don’t see Riff come through, but you hear him scream your name, then Sam’s — hers in a higher pitch. The next thing you know, he’s suddenly at Sam’s side, trying to help her onto her feet, though she — in typical Sam fashion — just bats his hands away, even though the motion causes her to fall over onto her side. If this were any other situation, you would probably laugh, but...
You whip your head back around towards where AJ just stood, completely nauseous with worry, but your worry immediately shifts into something else that you can’t quite place — fear, anger, sorrow, something — when you finally see his silhouette through the cloud of metallic dust, and see that he’s picked up your blaster, and see, worst of all, that he’s pointing it straight at Sam — she, the biggest threat to him that’s currently in this room.
You don’t know what to do.
You don’t know what’s happening.
You can’t move your limbs.
But the last one through the door is Tatum.
And in the end, you suppose, she was the only real threat.
Reflexively — honestly too ingrained within you for you to even realise you’re speaking — you call out, “Alex, behind you!” as Tatum makes a blind leap towards him, her palms aglow in a blinding white, sending rainbow reflections scattering across the walls from where the exploded door’s dust still dances.
AJ hears you — he looks at you — but he’s too late. You were too late. You’re too shocked to scream.
Tatum grabs AJ hard by his shoulders, and then the entire room goes white. You have to bury your clenched-shut eyes into your arm to avoid the searing light’s pain. You hear Sam whimper again. You hear Riff gasp. You hear Alex shout... and then it all fades.
When you finally gain the strength — physical and emotional — to look back to where the two of them just stood, you realise that you’d forgotten Tatum could mimic the bugs until now.
Which is what she’s done.
She’s zapped Alex relic, and the only thing you can hear over your sobbing is her repeating over and over, “I’m sorry... I’m sorry... I’m sorry... I’m sorry...”
“So, how was space jail?”
You shoot Sam the nastiest glance you can muster.
You’re currently a female Christmas Ixi, and you’re quite enjoying having antlers. You’ve discovered that Sam will take honestly frightened steps back whenever you fake charging at her horns-first, and even though it’s been a few days since you autozapped into this form, that little trick still hasn’t gotten old yet. You hope that whatever you change to next has horns, too, just for the sake of the fun this has been.
On that same train of thought, you lower your head at her, but she doesn’t step back. Strangely enough, she looks honestly curious, and more than a bit worried, despite the fact that her question was stated so sarcastically. You would feign a charge at her, but... well, you think you understand why she asked.
You breathe in deep, then exhale long — shut the book in your hands, then sit up straight. “Well,” you slowly begin, though you’re not exactly sure where to go...
So you just start talking: “Alex is... currently a male white Cybunny, and he’s having a hard time dealing with the floppy ears.”
Sam snorts out a laugh, but doesn’t say anything condescending, for once in her life. She just shifts her weight to her other hip, making the skirt of her too-floofy dress flutter around her knees, then keeps staring at you intently, honestly interested in whatever you have to say.
You continue rambling. “He, uh... he has no hope for bail, or release, but...” You hear Sam snort again, but all you do is shrug. “Well, they’ve got him in the nicest cell I’ve ever seen, so that’s a plus.”
Sam scoffs. “Yeah, your generous donations must’ve helped loads with that bit,” she says, sounding irritated.
Sam isn’t at all happy with the fact that you spent nearly all of your life savings making sure that Alex’s new home in galactic prison was at least decently upscale, but... whatever. It’s your money, after all...
So you just ignore her, then continue. “He said he’s not having the worst of times, because he’s catching up on reading, and he has basic cable, and they’re allowing him guests, so...” Your voice trails off. You make a face. Then, you shrug. “I guess all’s well that ends well, right?”
Sam snorts for a third time. “You’d call this ‘well?’ ”
You somehow manage a nastier glance.
Her laughter as she sees your frustrated face is full this time — a bit gravelly, but still feminine, and definitely pleasant to hear. She spins around, making her skirt twirl again, then walks over to the fridge that she’s almost always got her nose buried in. “I’ll bet he’s getting better meals over there than we have here, huh?” she says as she picks through some old to-go boxes and plastic baggies.
You snicker a bit as you watch her. “Yes, and I actually ate there,” you admit, “because it was basically five star food.”
Sam feigns a gasp, then turns to look at you accusingly. “And you didn’t bring me anything?” she scolds, managing a half-genuine snarl, despite the fact that her eyes are completely smiling.
You give her a condescending look. “Since when do prisons let you take home leftovers?”
Sam laughs again. She’s been laughing a lot more recently. You have too, honestly. Even if Alex is locked up in space jail, you still feel a lot better knowing that he’s alive and well, and Sam’s admitted that she feels better knowing that you feel better, so... Well, the more you think about it, you suppose that you would call this “well.”
Sam’s already got her nose buried in the fridge again as her laughter finally fades. “Well, I wanna go next time,” she says.
You roll your eyes, even though you know she isn’t looking. “Just for the food?” you joke.
She pauses in her searching motions, hums a bit to herself, then stands and turns around to face you. Her face reads... calm. Sincerity. Politeness. It’s weird. “Well... I think I’d actually like to say hi to Alex, too,” she eventually says. “I, uh... haven’t talked to him in a while, and, well...” She shifts her weight. She crosses her arms. Then, she lightly shrugs. “Well, sometimes I miss him, too,” she finally admits.
You’ve never heard her speak so earnestly.
So she really does have a heart under all the fluff and fangs...
You’re too honestly happy to tease her about her sudden shift in heart — something she’d always seemed so adamant to avoid. You just give her a smile, and a nod, and say, “Well, I’ll let them know he’ll be having two visitors next week.”
But Sam’s already got her nose buried back in the fridge.
So you just go back to your reading.
Then everything falls silent, and you finally feel calm in your skin.