Hey world! Just wanted to let you all know that I'll be going on vacation after uploading this chapter. I won't be back until after the weekend. In the meantime, I might be silent on here, as I don't plan on taking my laptop where I'm going. Until then, happy reading and writing, fellow Honeyfeeders!
CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE: PROJECT ARS ANIMUS
Gary and I met with James later that day. For the most part, the sadness of Jack and Laura was easy to get over, and the suddenness of them being gone somehow helped. As I looked at Gary and James, there was no doubt in my mind that I had much more important things to worry about. I didn’t tell anyone else about Jack and Laura, as I didn’t feel like the robots deserved any sort of mourning from other people.
The three of us walked down the road that went into town. I looked at the sparkling ocean, which reflected the sun beautifully. Listening closely, I could hear the faint sound of waves washing gently against the beach, soothing my troubled thoughts a little as I remembered how enchanted the ocean had been the first time I had laid eyes on it. With a deep breath, I smelled the salty breeze as it rolled inland.
I had no idea where we were going. Gary and James didn’t say anything about it. Maybe we just wanted to walk around again, just like when we were younger. After we had defeated Night Stallion ten years ago, we had very laid-back lives, often just going for walks around town if we had nothing else planned. Thinking back, the high school days were the greatest, and if we had known it would never be the same after graduation, we would have tried to enjoy those days more.
“So,” said James as we passed the old arcade that had been replaced by an office for a business I had never heard of, “is Kevin going to come get us?”
“Probably,” Gary replied. “I don’t really know.”
“Do you think he’ll be able to find us?” James asked. “He might check our houses first. If we’re not home, he’ll have to drive all over the place looking for us.”
Gary didn’t answer. However, I remembered how Kevin was able to find me the first time. In the middle of a crowded city, he somehow located a single person. Certainly, he’d have no problem doing it again, especially with his high-tech equipment.
“Kevin will find us,” I said.
Gary looked at me.
“You think so?”
“Yeah,” I replied.
A small smile on Gary’s face showed that he trusted me. James didn’t say anything, but he seemed to share the same feelings.
Looking around the town, I realized that much had changed during the years we were gone. Despite being back, there was a displaced sense of homesickness, like it wasn’t the same town anymore.
Inevitably, the three of us ended up in front of another familiar place located at the corner of a busy intersection. Not to my surprise, it was completely different from what we remembered.
“This is where the Shady Palm Café used to be,” said Gary, looking at the sign over the entrance.
“Yup,” James replied dully. “Now it’s a barber shop?”
“Looks that way,” said Gary. “Guess we won’t be eating here anymore.”
“Man, that sucks.” James crossed his arms with a smile. “I was hoping it’d at least be a bar or something.”
“A bar?” Gary looked at James. “Seriously?”
“Well, yeah,” said James. “That way we could come here and celebrate after we take Kristy down.”
A smile spread on Gary’s face. It was very small, but I was able to notice it.
“I like that idea,” said Gary. “We might have to do that.”
“I’ll buy us all a round!” said James. “Hell, I’ll blow an entire paycheck! We’re gonna have to call a taxi or crawl back to our beds!”
“And get a huge order of appetizers.” Gary grinned. “Go all out, right? Mozzarella sticks, spicy wings, loaded cheese fries, onion rings, the whole works!”
I looked at James, expecting him to show some kind of sign of agreement. Instead, he got extremely serious, almost angry.
“What’s wrong?” Gary asked. “It was your idea.”
“It’s not that,” James replied in a low voice. “I feel something.”
“You feel something?” Gary looked around. “You’re talking about ….”
“Hunger,” said James, grinning stupidly.
“You’re hungry?” said Gary irritably. “How are you hungry? I’m too stressed out to even look at food. I suggested appetizers for AFTER ….”
“Hey, I’m sorry,” James muttered, “but I can’t help it that your wimpy stomach gets all tied up so easily.”
“My stomach’s not wimpy,” said Gary flatly. “Your stomach’s just too stupid to know when it should be concerned about other things.”
“Last time I checked, the brain is the one that controls hunger,” said James snobbishly.
“Then there’s something wrong with your brain.”
James got red hot in the face and clenched his fists.
“At least my brain’s not wimpy!”
“Stop calling me wimpy!”
I couldn’t control myself anymore. Something inside of me built up and forced its way out of my mouth.
“Shut up!” I yelled.
Gary and James immediately stopped arguing. They looked at me with bewilderment. I never interfered with their arguments before, so it must have been surprising to see me snap at them so harshly. Considering the circumstances, I had no patience left to listen to their childish bickering.
“I’m sorry, man,” James apologized, cooling down. “We’re so worn out that we’re acting like kids. We even got Krystal pissed off.”
Gary groaned in agreement, giving me a hug.
“Yeah,” he said. “Let’s go find a restaurant. Why not?”
There was a little diner on the far side of town that wasn’t closed for Christmas Eve. As soon as I walked in, the smell of food nearly repelled me, as my appetite had long since ran away. I had expected the place to be empty, but there were a good number of customers already there.
James ordered a huge hamburger, which he passionately devoured. Gary had a big, juicy steak with vegetables, and I just helped myself to the dessert menu. Ice cream was soothing and relaxing when I indulged in it, and “soothing and relaxing” was exactly what I needed at the moment. I was so sick of my mind being clouded with worry, and it was nice to let my inner child take the helm for once.
That was when Kevin walked in the door. He didn’t make a big scene. In fact, nobody else in the restaurant seemed to notice him. Amazing how one person can snag your attention without interfering with everyone else around you.
“Hello,” he said firmly as he sat down at our table. “You all seem to be doing well.”
Gary, James, and I just stared at him, not sure what to say. Did we really seem well?
“Is something wrong?” Gary asked quietly.
“Not necessarily,” Kevin replied. “I was checking on you three.”
“Uh, we’re doing fine, I guess,” said James. “Is it time for us to go back with you?”
“Not quite,” said Kevin. “I will be contacted when the final preparations are complete. Until then, I’m going to make sure you three are safe.”
I glanced at Gary and James, who both returned the same look.
“Hi,” said the waitress to Kevin as she came past our table. “Can I get you anything?”
“No thank you,” he replied politely with a smile.
“How much longer do we have to wait?” James asked anxiously. “This is driving me crazy.”
“I don’t know exactly,” said Kevin.
There was an awkward silence. James looked at the nearly-finished burger in his hand for a few seconds, then gobbled it up and slurped the rest of his drink. Gary pushed his vegetables around his steak that was mostly untouched.
“What about the timer?” James asked, stifling a burp. “You know, that clock that was counting down. Is it still going?”
“Yes, it is,” Kevin replied.
“How much time is left on it?” Gary looked around for a clock.
“It’s after three o’clock now,” said Kevin without even looking at the time. “The timer will count down to zero at three in the morning. Christmas morning.”
“Less than twelve hours,” said James glumly.
I stared at my bowl of ice cream and realized how much I didn’t want to eat it anymore. It’s hard to enjoy your meal when you know it just might be your last.
“Twelve hours.” Gary pushed his plate away. “That’s not too far off.”
He looked at me. With nothing to say, I looked back.
Kevin continued to sit in his chair silently. His face showed little emotion, but it was evident that he was feeling just as uneasy as the rest of us.
After the restaurant, Kevin offered to drive us anywhere we wanted to go. Deciding on a destination was difficult, not because we couldn’t agree on a place, but because we were too concerned about the fight ahead to care. Eventually, only one place in the whole world seemed ideal … the beach.
Not too many people were at the beach when we arrived. During winter, the winds off the shore tended to be chilly. However, the cool air blowing in my face was just what I needed at the moment.
We didn’t feel like walking much, so we simply sat down on a bench and gazed out at the Gulf of Mexico. The sun was inching closer to the horizon, making the water sparkle more and more as the day slowly came to an end. It was just like the first time I had ever seen the ocean. Just as serene, just as beautiful. The sound of waves caressing the shore whispered in my ears. Soft winds swept across the sand and enveloped us in its embrace.
I felt Gary’s hand grasp mine, and I leaned against his shoulder. Warm and gentle … the moment wouldn’t last forever, and I intended to enjoy it as much as I could.
“I want to ask you something, Krystal,” said Kevin. His voice was lacking the all-business rigidity it usually had. “Only if you don’t mind.”
Sitting up slowly, I looked over at Kevin, who was sitting on the other side of Gary.
“Sure,” I said.
“Well, it’s about someone you might know,” he said. “Do you remember somebody named Charlie?”
Kevin suddenly had my full attention.
“Charlie?” I asked. “At Base 15?”
“Correct,” Kevin replied.
“I remember him,” I said quietly. “How is he?”
As soon as I asked, I immediately regretted it. The slightly sullen expression on Kevin’s face as he looked down told me enough before he even spoke.
“He didn’t manage to escape the Night Stallion disaster,” he told me. “While you and Thomas managed to get out of the Desert Facility, he did not. I’m sorry.”
My heart sank greatly. Suddenly, the cool, refreshing wind seemed cold.
“Oh,” I sighed. Quickly trying to forget my sadness, I added, “Why did you ask? Did you know him?”
“Yes, I did,” said Kevin. “We were good friends. I met him while working in the labs at Base 15.”
“You used to work in the labs?” James asked, sounding interested. “I thought you were always just in the military part.”
“I was eighteen when I started working in the lab,” said Kevin. “I was a lab assistant in a program called Project Ars Animus, something that had been going on for seventeen years before I joined. Charlie and Thomas were both researchers on the team I worked for.”
“Project … uh, what was it called?” Gary looked at Kevin curiously.
“Project Ars Animus,” Kevin repeated.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that one,” said James.
“Of course you haven’t,” Kevin replied. “It’s a top secret government program.”
“Then why are you telling us about it?” James asked. “You’re not gonna get the death sentence if they find out?”
“It’s okay,” said Kevin. “I’ve been given permission to discuss certain topics related to Project Heartfire with you three.”
“Heartfire,” said Gary. “The project you were in is related to Heartfire?”
“Yes,” said Kevin.
“Only eighteen years old when you started,” said Gary thoughtfully. “That’s crazy.”
“What did you research?” I asked.
“Before I had started,” Kevin explained, “a unique energy was accidentally discovered during a classified military experiment. It was found that this energy’s source was humans; every person in the world appears to produce it. You could say it was the scientific discovery of the human soul being recognized as its own entity, rather than being related to the brain and psychology. The energy was named Ars Animus, and Project Ars Animus was created to study the properties and characteristics of this energy in total privacy.”
“Must’ve been pretty exciting,” said James as he grinned. “I wished I could’ve had a cool job like that. Not like I don’t think my current job is cool.”
“Working in the labs wasn’t very fun,” said Kevin. “Everything was data-oriented. Numbers, calculations, reports, files. The work was tedious and the results were slow to come. The government had threatened to shut down the project several times.
“But then the team stumbled across something. New variables were added, and the results were shocking. There was a lot more to the Ars Animus energy than we had previously thought. Once this was understood, research took off. We learned that some people were able to control their Ars Animus to produce outward effects, some with extraordinary capability. The name for Ars Animus was changed to Soulpower to separate old data from new theories, focusing on the idea that a person’s soul can give them power.”
“The word ‘Soulpower’ is a pretty cheesy name,” James blurted. “It sounds like something from a comic book! Nobody could think of anything better to call it?”
I was a little curious myself to know how Soulpower received such a mundane name. Instead of answering, Kevin seemed to ignore James and continued with his explanation.
“Two more projects spawned from the new discoveries,” he said. “We discovered that a soul has very intricate clockwork, and there appeared to be an interaction between two previously unknown forces with polar opposite characteristics. This interaction of the two new forces was key to a soul’s functionality. To study it closer, the formation of two more projects was necessary, and they were Project Luminae and Project Darknae.”
“So, what you’re saying,” said Gary, “is the discovery of Soulpower led to the discoveries of Luminae and Darknae?”
“Correct,” said Kevin. “When the Luminae and Darknae projects took off, mostly everyone in the research team was reappointed to new positions. My advanced knowledge in Soulpower made me a perfect candidate to be reappointed to my current position at Base 15.”
“Soulpower weaponry,” said Gary.
Kevin nodded. “Charlie and Thomas became part of Project Darknae. The Luminae and Darknae teams worked as a pair, doing separate research and sharing the results in frequent meetings. Eventually, Project Heartfire and Project Aether emerged from the studies.”
“Hmm, that’s a lot of projects,” said James, scratching his beard.
Kevin gazed out over the ocean.
“Sometimes, though,” he said, “I wonder if it’s all worth it. The inhuman world is fascinating, but I often feel that it’s always just out of our reach.”
“The inhuman world?” James asked.
“The more research we do,” said Kevin, “the more we realize that the world is filled with unexplained things. Some of our research has led us to discoveries that push the boundaries of our understanding. The complexity of these forces are astonishing. Whenever we try to assign numerical values, or even name them, we’re reminded of how little we know when those values change for no apparent reason.”
“Are you saying that most of the discoveries are inconclusive?” Gary asked.
Kevin nodded. “We’d gather a large quantity of data, test it repeatedly, and draw our conclusions. It’s the basis of the scientific method. We’ll do all this, only to have the data be completely wrong, sometimes in less than a day, as if the characteristics of Soulpower, Luminae, and Darknae are constantly changing. So far, we’ve found no pattern in these changes, so predicting them remains impossible at the moment. As ridiculous as it sounds, it seems as if those forces are deliberately evading us, watching our actions and responding accordingly … always to keep us from understanding.”
“I know what you mean,” I said to Kevin. “Luminae and Darknae work in ways that humans are unable to comprehend.”
Kevin looked thoughtful.
“The existence of Aether may be due to manmade actions, but it’s still a force of the universe. Simply bearing the powers of the universe as a Rionah can bring about the ascension to something higher … or so research has led us to believe.”
“Beg pardon?” James squinted his eyes. “You guys keep using these big words.”
“Guess not every Rionah receives the wisdom of the universe,” Gary muttered.
“Hey, I know what’s being said!” James replied irritably. “But are you saying that I can become … like, a higher being or something?”
“Not exactly,” said Kevin. “You have superhuman abilities, but you’re still one hundred percent human. There are a couple theories we have about the ascension of humans into something greater, but they are all impractical. In order to become a higher being, a person’s soul would need to fully evolve. That’s something we are unable to understand at this point.”
“And I think we should just leave it at that,” said Gary. “The thought of humans becoming gods is kinda scary. I don’t think any human is capable of governing the universe.”
“Yeah, really,” said James. “I’m just fine with the amount of power I’ve been given. But being President of the Cosmos would be awesome!”
“Luminae and Darknae are incredible,” said Gary thoughtfully. “As much as they have an influence on the world, I’m surprised at how secretive they are. I used to be completely unaware that they even existed.”
“Me too,” James added. “The government did a really good job at hiding everything.”
“Strange you should say that,” said Kevin. “No matter the measures taken by the government or Base 15, we have been unsuccessful in concealing the existence of these forces and energies. Think of everything we’ve done so far. Think of how many people have seen us use Soulpower, and have been directly exposed to Luminae and Darknae.”
I thought it over for a few seconds. Kevin was right. He brought up the point that had been bothering me, since we’d been blatantly exposing countless people to these forces.
“Nobody seems to notice, though,” said Gary. “I’ve never even heard anything about us in the news or anything.”
“And why do you think that is?” Kevin asked without looking at us.
“That’s just how it is,” said James with a shrug. “I guess that’s how I can put it. I don’t know, really. It works in our favor, so whatever!”
“You’re actually correct,” said Kevin. “People don’t know about Luminae and Darknae because they simply aren’t supposed to.”
“But we know about them,” said James. He looked as if he was trying to fight confusion. “Does that make us special?”
“I wonder if we’re supposed to know these things as an exemption to the rule,” said Gary. “If you think of it that way, you have to ask yourself: are we blessed with this knowledge, or cursed with the burden of the universe?”
“Ooh, deep,” James muttered.
“That’s up for you to decide, Gary,” he said. There was a heavy silence. Even with the sounds of the ocean and the noises of the town, the air seemed still. It was as if the world was holding its breath, slightly delaying the flow of life … then an exhale as Kevin asked, “What do you think, Krystal?”
I had no idea what to say. Having a swarm of thoughts that don’t want to come together froze the words I tried to speak. With so much in my head, tying them all together into an explanation was far too difficult. When I didn’t answer, Kevin seemed to acknowledge the fact that I was lost for words.
“Charlie used to talk about you a lot,” he said, changing the subject abruptly.
“He did?” was all I could say.
“I heard a lot about you,” Kevin told me. “Not just from Charlie, but from everyone involved in Project Darknae. You were something like a celebrity. I wanted to meet you, but I was always too busy with SP weaponry tests and such. That’s why I agreed to take this job of finding you. I wanted to meet the girl that made Charlie so happy.”
I stared at the sand. The entire time I had lived at Base 15, I didn’t realize how popular I had been. The memories of those days began to play in my head. They were the memories that Thomas had erased; the memories of Charlie and the Base 15 Desert Facility. Thinking about all of that made me feel good inside.
“Before I came back to Florida on my mission,” said Kevin, “I had to return to the destroyed Desert Facility to find any remaining files on Krystal. I searched the archives, but found nothing. Before I could leave the facility, I ran into Night Stallion.”
“What’d you do?” James asked, sounding deeply interested.
“It was my first experience with Night Stallion,” said Kevin, “and I am very lucky to have survived. Additionally, that was the first known incident of Night Stallion’s return since its defeat during this timeline. When I encountered it, I confirmed the theory of Darknae’s energy increase due to the defeat of Luminae during the other timeline.”
“Meh, more timeline gibberish,” James muttered.
“Darknae is so strange,” I said quietly. “I used to think Darknae was only capable of destruction, but it restored my memories … so I’m not so sure.”
“Luminae and Darknae are very complex,” Kevin told me. “How they work and the motives behind what they do are still greatly shrouded in a lot of mystery. We can’t think of them as merely good and evil. There’s a lot more to it than that.”
Out of nowhere, a holographic display popped up in front of Kevin’s face. After quickly examining it, he dismissed it.
“What was that?” James asked curiously.
“It was just an indicator,” Kevin explained. “There are constantly fluctuations of Luminae and Darknae energy all over the world. Most of them are natural and have no large impact on anything. My headgear automatically displays any nearby fluctuations so I can see what’s going on.”
“Is that how you can find Night Stallion?” Gary asked.
“Yes,” said Kevin, “or any kind of Soulpower activity. It’s also how I found you three. Even when you don’t use your powers, a Rionah or Soulpower user emits an energy signal unique to the individual. This is how they subconsciously communicate with each other.”
“Are you serious?” James looked flabbergasted. “You mean anyone can find me if they know how to look for Luminae energy?”
“That’s right,” Kevin replied. “However, it’s much more convenient than not. Have you ever experienced a ‘perfect timing’ situation? Some call it coincidence, but sometimes it’s more than that, especially for Rionahs and Soulpower users.”
“You really know a lot about these things,” said Gary. “All those years in the labs really taught you a lot.”
“Sometimes I wish I didn’t know the things I did.” Kevin sighed. “On the other hand, I don’t regret working for Base 15. I think it was a pretty good experience for me.”
“How did you even get into Base 15?” James asked.
“That’s classified,” Kevin abruptly answered.
“But did you have to take an admittance test or something?” James asked.
“That’s classified,” Kevin repeated.
“Can you tell me anything about how you got in?”
With a frown, James asked, “Okay, but why haven’t we ever seen you guys help us out? We’ve fought a lot of Darknae, but you’re supposed to be part of a militia thing, right?”
“I am part of the SP Militia,” said Kevin, “but the details of our operations are classified.”
“You mean there ain’t enough of you guys to give us some kind of support?”
James looked slightly insulted, but I was actually surprised at how well he handled being told off.
Another display popped up in front of Kevin’s face. After quickly examining it, he dismissed it.
“Do you feel that?” he asked James.
“Darknae.” James pointed toward the city. “It’s coming from that direction, but I don’t think it’s as far as the city.”
Before we could respond to what James had said, Kevin received an incoming call through his headgear. The conversation was very brief, but judging by Kevin’s prompt reaction, it was urgent. He stood up straight.
“What is it?” Gary asked, standing up rigidly. The rest of us did the same.
“I won’t be able to join you,” said Kevin, once again using his all-business persona. “I need to report to headquarters. There’s something going on with the Heartfire specimen.”
“Kristy?” I shuddered at the thought.
“B-but this is a bad time!” James argued. “We might have to fight Night Stallion! The amount of Darknae I sense is … tons!”
“I apologize,” Kevin told us, “but I can’t disobey my orders.”
“We’ll come with you,” said Gary. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but Kristy is a higher priority than Darknae right now, right?”
“The City Facility is currently on lockdown,” said Kevin. “You three are unauthorized to go there.”
“That’s a load of crap!” James spat. “Last I knew, we were part of the main deal involving Kristy!”
“I’m sorry. Take care of yourselves.”
Kevin ran to the black SUV he was driving and took off, leaving Gary, James, and I alone to take on the Darknae threat.
“We better go,” Gary told us dutifully. “It’s not in the city, so I don’t know what to expect, though.”
“Expect a fight!” James cracked his knuckles. “C’mon!”