“Hello, Sophie,” Dean murmurs.
Sophie’s mouth moves, but no sound comes out.
“You didn’t abandon me, did you?” he asks, looking a little nervous. “You still -- I mean, we, uh--”
I put my hand on Sophie’s shoulder. “She’s in shock, and I wouldn’t blame her. You’re kind of supposed to be, you know, dead.”
“I know,” he mumbles.
At that moment, Sophie shakes herself out of her reverie. However, instead of giving her previously-dead boyfriend a warm welcome back, she stomps up to him and punches him in the stomach.
“Ow, what was that for?” he yelps, clearly taken aback. This isn’t what he expected, either.
“I’ll tell you what that was for, Dean Zhang!” She punches him again, even harder this time. “After all you put me through, you have the nerve to ask me if I abandoned you? You think you can just come back and save the day -- and everything will go back to normal?”
Dean blinks. “Sorry--”
“You’re the one who abandoned me, you little swine... DON’T YOU EVER DO THAT AGAIN, OKAY?” Sophie yells, then bursts into tears and pulls him into a bear hug. “God, Dean, I missed you so much,” she sobs. “I would never abandon you.”
Dean hugs her back, almost lifting her off the ground. "I missed you, too."
“Mind telling us how you came back?” Chris interjects, a little rudely.
Dean smiles slightly. “It’s kind of a long story. Let’s go sit down somewhere safe.”
After we make our way to the nearest shack and seat ourselves (not too comfortably) on the floor, Dean starts talking.
“I can’t remember anything that happened right after I died -- and yes, I did die -- but I woke up lying on a stretcher in a white lab room. As soon as I came to, Christy appeared in the room and told me that she’d saved my life.
“Apparently, after you guys escaped, Sid brought me back to the Cosmo Prison, where Christy stuck some sort of mutated gene into my DNA that was supposed to make me superhuman, like her. I came back to life, but I was deemed a failed experiment; all I can do is play with fire, which doesn’t quite fulfill Christy’s standard of superhuman. My brain isn’t wired the same way, I’m not immortal, my skin isn’t steel-like, and I can’t fly. I was still supposedly indebted to Christy, since she revived me, but I took the first opportunity I had and escaped because I wanted to come back to protect you guys -- my friends.”
For the first time today, Jack speaks up. “Where did Christy get all that science-y stuff? She doesn’t seem like the researching type.”
“She stole the work of the guy who created the original three superbeings: herself, Sid, and Rachel,” Dean explains. “Rachel was the first experiment and didn’t quite have the full powers that newer superhumans like Christy have, but the creator seems to have figured out how to extend those powers as much as possible.”
We all fall silent, trying to imagine someone with that much power. Superhumans and that kind of stuff wasn’t even supposed to be possible, and this guy had discovered a gene for them?
“So, what’s the next plan?” Dean asks, interrupting our thoughts.
“Oh, it’s basically just your Zerg rush idea,” Chris answers.
To my surprise, Dean scowls. “That’s never going to work.”
I raise my eyebrows. “You were the one who suggested that in the first place.”
He sighs. “But now that I know what I know... let’s just say that my views have changed.”
“Christy’s too strong. She’s broken out of the Cosmo Prison before, and she’s still strong enough to break out again. The thing is, you can’t just keep stuffing her back in there. You have to dig up the roots of the problem,” Dean says. “After you get her back in the Prison, you can’t just stop there. You have to find her creator and put a stop to all this madness once and for all. He’s the only one with the capability to help you do so.”
But before he can elaborate any further, I spot a lone figure jogging up towards the city gates.
“Look!” I shout, pointing. “Someone’s coming.”
Sophie squints. “I think it’s Leo!”
Sure enough, when the figure comes through the door, I make out Leo’s weary, sleep-deprived features.
“Hey, guys,” he says as we shift around to make room for him.
“Hello, Leo,” Dean replies. “Long time, no see.”
Leo’s eyes almost pop out of his head. “D-Dean?”
“Yeah,” Dean says. “I’m back.”
“Tell you later. Can I have a word with you?”
“Like, alone?” Leo inquires, looking confused.
Dean stands up and jabs a thumb over his shoulder, at the door. “Yeah. Alone.”
“Uh, okay,” Leo consents, and the two of them exit the shop.
I give Chris a puzzled look. “What was that all about?”
He shrugs. “Guess we’ll find out soon.”
“How are we going to beat Christy?” I ask as Dean shuts the door behind us.
“Follow Suchet’s plan for now, I suppose,” he replies.
“But she’s so strong! How will we ever be able to force her into the Prison?”
“Listen closely, Leo,” Dean says. “Christy is superhuman and stronger than you, but her way of thinking is confined. She’s clever, but only in one way of thinking. She does not understand the other.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are two ways of thinking in this world; I like to call them the color-spectrum way and the color-wheel way. On a color spectrum, red is at the bottom and blue is at the top, and the two of them are connected by orange, yellow, and green. It’s just one line segment, with red and blue at disconnected, opposite ends. And that way of organization makes sense because blue has a high frequency and red has a low frequency.
“But there is another way to organize colors: onto a circle, the color wheel. On a color wheel, the colors are arranged, around and around, all connected to each other. Orange connects red and yellow because they combine to create orange; green connects blue and yellow because they combine to create green. Red and blue, while entirely disconnected on the color spectrum, are connected on the color wheel by purple. And not only are they connected; they’re also just as close to each other as red and yellow or yellow and blue.
“Now, when the first superhuman, Rachel, was created, she had all the mental capabilities of a normal human... perhaps even more. She could think in both ways, and her creator was afraid of her combined brainpower and physical power. So, when he made the more powerful beings, he gave them a mental handicap. That’s Christy’s flaw -- she thinks only in the color-spectrum way. She puts two dots on opposite sides of a paper, far away from each other, and expects that it will take a very long line to get from one point to another. However, you and I know that all we need to do is curl the paper into a cylinder and the two points will be right next to each other. It’s the same as Russia and Alaska: on a map, it looks like you’ll have to travel to the other side of the world to move from one to the other, but on a globe, all you have to do is cross the Bering Strait.”
“But what does this have to do with defeating Christy?” I ask, unable to make sense of the arcane metaphors.
“She doesn’t understand the human way of thinking, although she’s considered of high intelligence when it comes to her own way. She will set up her traps and plans assuming that you think the same way she does -- that, when given a choice, you would choose to save your own skin rather than sacrifice yourself for the greater good. Sacrifice has no meaning in Christy’s vocabulary, and you can use that against her. The only way to force her back into the Cosmo Prison is by sacrificing a life.”
Dean gives me a strange, meaningful look, and I suddenly understand what he wants me to do.
My suicide mission isn’t over yet. In order for the rest of my friends to survive, I will have to die.
The four Vale kids, along with two new ones, burst into the Chen-Pandit gun shop, rudely interrupting my daily meeting with my fellow gang-mates.
“What do you want?” I snap as they enter.
“We, uh, we wanted to know if you and your gang would help us. It would really help, especially since we’ve just found out that the Cosmo Prison is here, in Obcasa,” Sara says.
It takes a while for me to process her words. “It’s right here? In my backyard?”
She nods. “We only just found out.”
Around me, the gang starts to murmur and whisper amongst themselves. “Christy must be coming.” “We’re not safe.”
I raise my voice over the furor. “Quiet, Asphodels! Now isn’t the time to panic. We must decide on what to do.”
At this, everyone goes mute and the whole room seems to have stopped breathing.
Satisfied, I continue. “If we partake in this fight against Christy, there is a greater chance that the world will be rid of her, but each individual may have a smaller chance of survival. If we don’t fight... well, it’s going to be very hard for the other survivors to prevail, and if they’re defeated, we’ll end up fighting Christy on our own.”
Pausing to survey the crowd, I notice that all of my strongest supporters are nodding.
“We Asphodels have a reputation for being tough and strong,” I say with growing confidence. “What do you say we uphold it now?”
From somewhere in the midst of the crowd, someone calls out, “Let’s fight!”
The rest of the Asphodels take up the chant, shouting, “Let’s fight! Let’s fight!” Even those who had previously looked uncertain are swept up in the enthusiasm.
When the excitement finally dies down, I turn to Sara.
“You have your answer.”
“The only way we can do this is with a Zerg rush,” Suchet snaps.
“We’ll all die in a Zerg rush, and Christy still won’t be in the Prison,” Dean retorts.
As soon as we got back to Vale, Suchet and his pals pounced on us to ask about the Asphodels. Lulu had answered for us by drawing a stick figure on the table, labelling it “Christy,” and sticking a knife in its head.
And that was that.
Presently, we’re seated in Town Hall, discussing how to approach the Cosmo Prison. So far, it’s not going well. Suchet and Dean are constantly arguing, while the rest of us haven’t been given an opportunity to voice our own opinions to settle the discourse.
“You guys do realize that arguing back and forth like this isn’t going to help anyone, right?” Alisha cuts in.
Suchet turns to look at her, his mouth curled in a sneer. “I don’t see you people offering any good ideas.”
She folds her arms. “You’re not offering any good ideas, either, you know. Emphasis on ‘good.’”
Instead of retaliating, Suchet just throws his hands in the air and rises out of his seat. “Yeah? Well, let me know how well this goes without a leader. I’m taking a break.”
“God knows you need one,” Alisha says as he storms out of the room. “Right -- now that he’s gone -- let’s actually get stuff done, shall we?”
As the normal chatter resumes, I let myself zone out again. I already know exactly what to do; why listen to this boring lecture?
Watching Alisha talk, I can’t help but notice how alike she and Debbie are. They’re both stern, sarcastic, intelligent -- and strong, in a confident way that makes it seem like they’d be ready for anything. I close my eyes, remembering how Alisha had come from the safety of her home to make everything right, and how Debbie had sacrificed herself to save Sophia. For the first time since Debbie’s death, I allow myself to relive my memories of her. Of the day we’d met.
It had been my eighth grade year at Rachel Carson Middle School, and after an intense marathon of cello practicing, I’d finally made it into the highest-level orchestra. I skidded into the orchestra room a bit late on my first day to find that a few early birds were already warming up. And there she was, sitting in the concert master’s seat, playing the first movement of Vivaldi’s Winter with the virtuoso dexterity of a violin grandmaster.
I’d heard legends about Debbie Dong and her prodigious violin skills, but I hadn’t expected her to be this good. This simply shouldn’t be possible.
In other words, I was captivated.
I would’ve stood there for hours or more if our conductor hadn’t called for silence at that moment. Slightly disappointed, I found my name in the cello section and started unpacking.
When the time came for us to sight-read our first piece as a full orchestra, the conductor turned to Debbie and said, “Why don’t you play the solo for today?”
Debbie nodded, looking a little nervous.
With that, the conductor gave our cues, and we started the piece in a burst of notes all jumbling together in a huge harmonious mess.
And then we got to the solo.
Debbie’s notes arched over us like a torch in the night, forsaken and desolate, a bleak lament to the heavens. It was like all the world’s tragedies and heartbreak had been crammed into one violin. It was music like I’d never heard before, fiery and tragic and sword-like, cutting straight into my soul. It was beautiful.
The whole orchestra fell silent as the last notes spiralled into nothing, even though we were supposed to be playing a dramatic interlude to the next theme. Then, after the sorrow of the music wore off, we started clapping -- solemnly, reverently, as if we were applauding Jascha Heifetz or Fritz Kreisler or Paganini himself.
After class, I packed up as fast as I could and caught up with Debbie in the hallway. I’d planned to spill out praise and admiration for her performance on that solo, but once I opened my mouth, nothing came out. Some things just can’t be put into words, and this was one of them.
“I, uh, you did really well today,” I said, internally kicking myself for how lame I knew I sounded.
But instead of laughing, Debbie just smiled a small, embarrassed smile and stammered, “You... you think so? Thanks, um--”
“Leo,” I said, offering my hand.
She might not have been as great as a professional violinist, but to me, no one will ever rival her. Sometimes I still hear her music in my dreams. My dreams, the only place where Debbie will ever play violin again.
“Leo, wake up,” someone says in my ear.
I force myself to come back to the present, and the first thing that greets me is Alisha’s angry face, nose to nose with mine.
Once again, I’m reminded of how much Alisha resembles Debbie. Debbie wouldn’t have cut me any slack, either.
“Wake up,” she snaps again. “Debbie’s death doesn’t give you a free pass to break away from life. There are people who need you right now.”
Debbie wouldn’t have been so insensitive with me, though. She would have treated me with understanding and consideration, not with this cold, cruel exasperation Alisha has confronted me with.
I sigh. No, Alisha is not Debbie.
“Okay, yeah, I’m here. I’m listening,” I say.
“We’re leaving tomorrow for the Cosmo Prison,” Dean says. “There will be traps set up around it by Christy, Sid, and Rachel. Hopefully Rachel’s trap won’t work anymore, because she’s dead, but Sid is still alive.”
“What?” Chris sputters. “But -- but I saw him die with my own eyes!”
“No, you saw him encased in Rachel’s ice and assumed him to be dead,” Dean replies smoothly. “But after she died, the ice melted enough for him to escape. You’ll see when we travel to the fortress--”
“Hold on,” I interrupt. “Why do we need to go there?”
“Not all of us will,” he explains. “We need a small group of people to go there and draw Christy towards Obcasa. She’ll follow them, thinking that they’re all we have left and will easily be beaten.”
“And who will those people be?” I ask. “Because I have no intention of returning to that horrid place.”
“Me,” Jack says loudly, raising his hand.
“Okay, that works. I’ll be going, of course,” Dean says. “Christy would be expecting me to.”
“If you’re going, then I’m going,” Sophie says immediately.
He sighs. “I’m not going to argue with you anymore, Sophie, but--”
“I’m going,” she responds resolutely.
Saket, who’s been silent this whole time, reaches over and takes Sophie’s hand. “Then I’m going, too,” he says, staring Dean down.
Dean looks at Sophie, then Saket, then at their intertwined fingers. “What... what is this?” he asks Sophie, his voice deadly quiet.
“We -- we’re not--” She shakes Saket’s hand away, but it’s too late.
“You said you never abandoned me,” Dean says.
Sophie looks like she’s about to cry.
“You lied, Sophie,” he whispers.
Then, before anyone can say anything else, Dean raises his voice and announces to the rest of us, “Well, the plan is ready. Sophie, Saket, and I will travel to Christy’s fortress and make our way to Obcasa from there, while the rest of you travel to the Cosmo Prison directly. Any questions?”
No one speaks.“We leave at dawn. Disperse,” he orders.