Chapter 5:

The Emperor V - "The Girl Who Ate God"

Destiny Marine

The change felt instantaneous. A sharp feeling full of fire exploded in Isaac’s stomach, warping the physical, mental, and spiritual boundaries of his heart, mind, and soul. The fire surged outwards in all directions, coursing through metaphysical lines that reached into his fingertips, into his brain and eyes. Time felt slow. His body felt warm. The world felt like a golden sun on the summer solstice, hanging serenely in a blue sky filled with rolling clouds.

Isaac’s fists moved faster than he or Alfie realized, up in time to block the flamethrower blast. The heat felt intense against his fists and arms, searing them, making them smolder, but red lights continued to spark and flare, forcing the stream of fire to split in two and arc around either side of him.

When the blast of fire ended, Isaac stood up with smoking arms. Alfie took a step back in shock, then tried to raise his fingers again; Isaac moved faster and knocked them away. Close to Alfie now, Isaac slammed a fist into Alfie’s stomach and produced an audible cracking sound that made his opponent grimace. Isaac followed up with a jab across the face.

This is just like a weekend morning brawl. Except I’m so much faster now.

The jab had been stronger than Isaac intended; it knocked Alfie far away enough to create space between them. Alfie immediately tried to flee up the central aisle of the theater in the direction of the girl, no doubt intent on taking her hostage now that the fight had turned against him. Isaac leapt forward and grabbed the back of his jacket just in time. He flung Alfie back in the direction of the screen, sending him crashing into a wooden chair that smashed into pieces from the impact.

Blood dripped from Alfie’s mouth, but he had one more try in him. Sitting on the ground amid the wreckage of wooden splinters, he raised his finger flamethrower for one final dance; Isaac did the same with his fist. Who would be faster?

The flamethrower answered. With his enhanced senses, Isaac could see the oil stream from Alfie’s fingertips the moment before the flames erupted. Isaac’s fist was already closing the distance; he would make contact before the flamethrower got to full power. He didn’t have the words to describe it, he just did it - he put everything into that fist, red sparks mixing with the lingering smoke, and let it all fly.

The flamethrower shot first, but Isaac’s fist powered through the flames. They made contact with the tips of Alfie’s fingers until they snapped and a satisfying cracking sound echoed around the theater. The flamethrower came to an abrupt, sputtering end.

Alfie looked at his two busted fingers, both bent the wrong way, with a dumbfounded look. He let out a dry chuckle. “Well, that’s not good. It’s like my mother always said-”

One final punch from Isaac shut him up. Alfie slumped over, blood smeared across his face, and hit the ground with an unconscious thud. Isaac would’ve loved to have timed that punch with the end of the movie, but Suga still had about twenty more minutes of kung fu action in him to go.

Outside of Isaac’s ragged breaths, the usual quiet returned to the theater. Even breathing felt clearer now, as if the simple act expunged all the soot and dust of the mines from his lungs. His arms whimpered in dull pain; he was not looking forward to when the adrenaline died down. The lingering flames and fire from the fight started to burn themselves out after reducing a row or two of wooden chairs to ashes.

Now that the combat was over, all the thoughts and stresses from before drifted back into Isaac’s mind, filling his consciousness. He glanced at the fallen Alfie and tried to make sense of it all.

“Oh, shoot.”

The girl in the back of the theater stood up with a confused expression on her face. She took a moment to watch Suga backfist the Emperor’s number two off a cliff and into the sea below.

“Good thing I didn’t miss that part.”

That’s when she saw the bloodied Isaac and Alfie in the middle of the theater. Isaac and her made awkward eye contact for a moment. The girl’s gaze shifted between the smoke on Isaac’s arm and the closed eyes of Alfie.

“You were in the middle of something.”

She sat back down; all Isaac could do was sigh. He tried to get his thoughts in order again-

“Oh, shit.”

The girl slipped out from her seat and made her way down the central aisle towards Isaac. Now that she was closer and illuminated by the light of the projector, Isaac took another look at her. She was short, probably only coming up to Isaac’s shoulder. Her dark green greatcoat was unbuttoned, revealing a black tie and white undershirt beneath, and the coat went down her knees, where she wore a gray skirt and black tights. The fashion sense and interest in kung-fu movies could only mean she was a fan of Zhanghai culture and therefore perhaps one of Isaac’s people.

Her hair was shaggy, down to her shoulders, unkempt and messy, like she just rolled out of bed. The color was a lighter shade of brown compared to Isaac’s, looking far more faded, as if the life in it had somehow been drained away. She walked slightly hunched over, but not from the weight of the world or anything; it was more like she just couldn’t be bothered to stand up straight. She had dark eyes that seemed tired of being able to see everything.

…wait, no. That wasn’t true at all. Isaac recognized this type of demeanor from taunting matches with kids from the rival ore vein - this was someone putting on a show and trying to make herself look cooler. Her “dark eyes” probably just came from staying up too late watching movies.

She gave Alfie a light kick when she arrived. “It’s funny. I was actually sent here to capture this guy. I searched the town for him all day…well, all morning, but couldn’t find him. I then saw that this town had a movie theater that marathoned the older Suga movies, so I thought, why not? I’m a much bigger fan of talkies and those Zhanghai animation ones, but Suga’s early silent movies have a different energy to them. He felt so raw back then. But no matter how good they are, eight movies straight will put me right to sleep. You know what I’m saying?”

On the one hand, Isaac knew exactly what she was saying. But on the other…his brother died like an hour ago, he just survived a life-and-death struggle, and to top it all off, he now had psychic powers. He brought a hand to his head and collapsed into a wooden chair that was neither scorched nor broken into splinters.

“You look tired,” the girl observed. Her words weren’t sympathetic nor taunting - just facts.

“It’s been a long night.”

The girl reached into her greatcoat and produced a pack of smokes. She held the carton out to Isaac, who waved her away. With a shrug, she placed a dainty cigarette in her mouth and raised a finger to the open end. Rddhi sparked from her fingertip, with the flickers connecting with the cigarette until the flame caught. She took a long drag and pulled up a seat opposite from Isaac.

That’s when Isaac realized his goose was cooked. If this girl was after those documents, he wasn’t sure if he had another fight in him. He would have to give it a try though. He sized her up, and that’s when he noticed the scabbard behind her back, the projection illuminating a sword handle black as night extending out of it.

“I’ll start from the top,” she began. “My name’s Reed.”

That rang a bell in Isaac’s mind. “My name’s Isaac, but…you’re a Reed? Are you related to Viola and Arthur and all those heroes? And you must work for the Army, then."

She let out a cloud of smoke. “First name is Reed, not last. But I bet they wish they were related to me. And besides…” She pointed at a little emblem on the shoulder of her greatcoat containing the symbols of a spiral galaxy over a ship anchor. “I work for the Navy.”

Of the three major institutions in Arcadia - Army, Navy, and State Police - the Navy was probably the best bet for dealing with someone rational. Rational was still a strong word to describe it, however, and this girl with her cool act wasn’t doing the Navy’s reputation any favors.

“Let me give you the dope,” Reed continued. “Alfie here was a former cadet in the Army Cultivation Corps. He had a nasty habit of stealing weaponry and selling it underground. When they caught on to him, he fled, assuming a new identity as a janitor at Wampa University. When he found out the Restorationists were poking around classified information at the university, he gave them a few bits of help and pretended to be on their side because he was intent on getting back into the Army’s good graces. He fed them information that led to the arrest and imprisonment of the Restorationist ring at the college and their sympathizers.”

Smoke billowed from another drag. That’s Greg’s university. And Alfie betrayed them all? Greg died because of this man?

As if she understood Isaac’s growing anger, Reed kept a firm boot on the captive, unconscious Alfie at her feet. “Of course, the Navy has our own men at the school. Capturing an Army cultivator like Alfie, even if he was just a cadet, could prove to be a highly useful source of information on their plans.”

The inner turmoil slowly dissipated as Isaac collected himself. “The Navy wants information on the Army?”

Reed just shrugged. “Everybody wants information on everybody. That last war we fought - the Army started it without consulting the rest of us. Any bit of knowledge can be useful, so the Navy sent me after Alfie. I heard he had been in contact with a sympathizer at the university who had stumbled upon something big.”

Isaac tensed up. She must be referring to Greg's conspiracy.

“Now, for Alfie to come after you, that must mean you have something he wants.” Reed shrugged again - even that motion felt lackadaisical. “Perhaps that sympathizer gave you the big info. But, truth be told, I don’t care. When it came to Alfie, all I was assigned to do was to get him. So I’ll get him, and you can keep whatever he wanted from you.” She pointed a finger at him. “Why would I go above my job description, Isaac? It’s not like they pay me for this.”

Considering this girl was about Isaac’s age, she must’ve belonged to the Naval Cultivator Marine Corps. Those marines were indeed paid, got room and board, and though being a soldier probably sucked (unless the propaganda posters spoke the truth about serving the Arcadian military), if she rose through the cultivator corps ranks, she'd get a comfy life once conscription ended as a rich consultant or enforcer for one of Arcadia’s corporations.

The finger aimed at his forehead never wavered. “As for you - you just unlocked Rddhi Circuit 1A. You probably faced some life-altering decision or something. Good for you. You’re not in a frontier region, so you wouldn’t be conscripted until 1B. So, you can either remain at 1A and use your cultivation powers to be a superworker or mercenary or something, or you can come back with me to the Navy."

Isaac just scratched his head. "Why do you want me to join the Navy? You don't seem particularly enthusiastic about them."

The cigarette bobbed in her mouth as she gave a dull smile. "I get a referral bonus."

And to be fair, joining the military did offer a lot of benefits beyond getting Reed her bonus. To take down the State Police and government, he’d need to become as strong as possible, and the Navy offered a lot of resources for training cultivation. He’d be conscripted upon reaching Circuit 1B anyway - otherwise, he'd face arrest. Joining the Navy, the branch least likely to abduct people in the middle of the night, seemed like the best option in terms of enlisting in the military.

But it was still the military, and Arcadia was a military dictatorship. Joining the government as a means of overthrowing it seemed like a very round-about way of going about it. Isaac could always join the Restorationists instead, or work as a sympathizer like Greg and Kassandra did.

And besides - Isaac couldn’t just leave Patuxet right then and there. He had to retrieve the key from his home and he had to check in on Kassandra.

“I need some time to think,” Isaac answered, knowing his voice sounded a bit deflective.

Reed tilted her head. “Sure, no problem. I just hope the three institutions give you time to consider. If you had something Alfie wanted, then other groups like the State Police probably want it as well." She gave a theatrical wave of her hand. "We have things like telegraphy and telephony now, Isaac. Information travels fast in the modern age. And don’t think about joining those Restorationists. This isn’t me giving you biased advice since I’m in the military - trust me, the average person fighting for the Restorationists might want justice, but the people leading that group are psychos.”

The chair creaked as she stood up and adjusted the collars of her greatcoat. “You might’ve already made your decision when you chose to unlock the Rddhi. No turning back now.”

With rough hands, she grabbed the unconscious Alfie by the back of his collar and tossed her cigarette to the ground. It ignited some of the leftover oil from Alfie’s flamethrower spilled across the floor; the fire quickly caught several of the wooden chairs, and then it erupted down the rows of the cinema.

Reed watched the spreading inferno with dull eyes. The flames flickered across her bored face.

“Well, shit.”