Sam running away caused a memory to flash through Jack’s mind.
‘Why do you act dumb, Schretcher?’ said Colonel Ripper.
Jack and Colonel Ripper had been standing on one of a line of ten upturned Cadillacs half buried in the desert. It was a public art installation in Amarillo called the Cadillac Ranch. Colonel Ripper was using it as the arena for a combat training exercise where the Lonely Hearts would drive a Cadillac around and try to hit Puck, Mezu, and Sam with it.
‘What do you mean?’ said Jack. ‘I am dumb.’
Colonel Ripper shook his head. ‘No. You’re not. I thought you were initially, but the more I get to know you, the more I think you’re actually supressing your intelligence. The way you move when you fight; an unintelligent person couldn’t do that…. I think that you’ve gone down a dark path, and you’re choosing to limit your mind because you fear if you used your full cognitive ability, you might fully comprehend just how far you’ve fallen. The reason the Patriots and I have managed to stay as hypercompetent as we are, despite our ticks, is because we all have a common goal: the utter and total defeat of communism. Your goal, to become your own master, is laudable, but you’ve got to make it more concrete. What precisely does it mean for you to become your own master? What precisely do you need to do to attain that goal? Once you figure that out, you’ll be able to use your noggin to that end without succumbing to the tragedy of the self-made hell you’ve found yourself in.’
Colonel Ripper put a cigar in his mouth and fired his revolver at it.
Jack looked over the vast emptiness of the desert. ‘“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”. Friedrich Nietzche.’
Colonel Ripper slapped him on the back. ‘See! I knew you weren’t no dummy!’
‘A concrete goal, huh…? During my school and college years, I was praised for my intelligence by my teachers and professors, but I was badly bullied by the other students due to jealousy. I was too timid to fight back. Then later on, for reasons I won’t go into, I became strong, but I was actually being manipulated by someone I trusted…. I’d like to become smart and strong and independent; I’d like to become my own master, and the way to do that…is to kill the King in Yellow.’
Colonel Ripper choked on his cigar. ‘Say what?!’
Jack pulled on the straps of his overalls. ‘No one knows what the King in Yellow is exactly, a god or a demon or an alien, but whatever he is, he’s certainly the source of the slashers and all the other supernatural evil in the world. If I were to kill him, I would prove to myself that I was smart and strong and independent, my own master. It might even absolve me of all the sins I’ve committed…in the eyes of God….’ Jack flashed a grin. ‘Plus, I’m really trying to settle down with this feisty redhead, and killing the King in Yellow is nothing if not impressive.’
Colonel Ripper’s eyebrows were raised and his big yellow teeth were bared. ‘You’re crazy, Scretcher….’ He smiled and slapped Jack on the back twice as hard as before. ‘Just like a red, white, and blue-blooded American should be! Attaboy! Get ‘er done!’
‘Do you think I have a chance?!’
Colonel Ripper laughed. ‘No, of course not! You’re dead meat! Not even I’d try to frag Ol' Yella'! He scares the bejesus outta’ me! But so long as you die trying to become “your own master” as you say, you have my blessing!’
Colonel Ripper’s laughter continued as Mezu stopped running and started swinging at the Cadillac with his ridiculously long samurai sword. Jack laughed with him.
Jack’s mind returned to the present. ‘No.’
‘What?’ said Mezu.
‘We shouldn’t stand our ground and fight as one. We don’t know how to work together; we’d just get killed. We should split up and make a fighting retreat out of the forest. That will separate the Patriots and force them to fight us in smaller, more manageable groups. Only that way, when we’re fighting for our lives—but with a fighting chance—will we get enough adrenaline in our systems to enter the Zone.’
‘That was actually inspired,’ said the Plague Doctor. ‘Who are you? What have you done with the Lumberjack?’
‘Shut up,’ said Jack.
Puck shrugged. ‘We did get our bums kicked the last time we tried to fight together.’
Mezu gripped the hilt of his zanbatō tighter. ‘Are you sure about this, gaijin?’
‘Fine. You have my assent. Better that a warrior die in shame alone anyway.’
Nurse Lovejoy shook her head. ‘Uh uh. No way. Me an’ the Plague Doctor are running away together. Ain’t that right, honey bunny?’
‘Naturally, my little aardvark,’ said the Plague Doctor.
They tried to kiss, but because of the Plague Doctor’s bird mask, they just ended up nuzzling.
‘Same here!’ said Jellyfish. ‘Dying single is, like, grody to the max. It’s giving me bad vibrations even thinking about it.’
‘I agree,’ said Mantis. ‘If worse comes to worse I can use this human female as a distraction while I escape to fight another day for Mother Earth.’
Jellyfish turned her face away from Mantis. Tears streamed from under her jellyfish mask.
Mantis looked around for help. ‘What? Something I said?’
Jellyfish turned her whole body away and crossed her arms. ‘If you cared, you’d know.’
The Aztec and the Hawaiian held hands. They didn’t want to go it alone either.
‘Okay,’ said Jack. ‘The Lonely Hearts will fight in couples. Let’s go!’
They all ran away in opposite directions.