Michael reaches out the the tips of his fingers to touch the glass case perched on the cabinet, eyes glued to the faded green urn within it. “It’s pretty … where did you get it?”
Byron can’t help but crack a smile, observing Michael’s excitement. “I bought it off of a friend of mine - an old piece his museum wasn’t displaying anymore. It’s supposed to be a relic from Atlantis.”
Michael turns around to face him, eyes wide with curiosity. “I read about Atlantis in my encyclopedia - the one with the maps! It was a big city that sank to the bottom of the ocean, and it was rediscovered in the 1990s.”
“Was it?” Grinning, Byron rests a hand on his son’s shoulder. “I’m lucky I have a genius son like you. If you keep up with your reading, you’ll be smarter than me soon!”
“Yeah!” Michael beams. “Father, I wish I could’ve visited Atlantis … do you think someday you’ll take me to the exhibits down by the coast?”
“Tell you what,” Byron says, sitting Michael down on the couch with him, “One day you and I are going to travel together and we’ll visit Rome, Iraq, Peru, Egypt … all the ancient history, ancient monuments, and ancient soil you can handle. Sound like a plan?”
All he can taste in his mouth is sand.
If he can call it that - it has a metallic and coppery taste to it, and he coughs it out immediately as he wakes.
He’s barely slept since he came to this world, but at times his body can’t take anymore activity and it shuts down on him. The barren landscape provides little respite for him to sleep well, regardless.
There is a persistent, gnawing pain in his stomach.
How long has he been hungry for? All he can see for miles around is what resembles a desert, and against the glaring red sky he can just barely discern something in the distance. If he can just reach what awaits, perhaps he isn’t doomed.
He is angry.
He feels hatred - hatred for Dr. Faker, who betrayed him, who took him away from his family, who threw him out and left him to rot, who cared for nothing but his own selfish ambitions.
He won’t die here, he’s decided - Kazuma’s optimism has rubbed off on him enough that he isn’t so willing to give up in a situation like this. He has to live so that he can crawl his way back to Earth and twist Dr. Faker’s neck off.
He’s fraught with himself for remembering that when everything else seems a blur to him now - why should he remember Kazuma Tsukumo and Dr. Faker so well when he can barely recall his sons’ faces?
He feels as though he’s shrinking, bit by bit.
As expected, Thomas’s room is a mess - Byron didn’t believe for a second that he would clean it. The floor is strewn with cards and action figures, and the desk is stained with water and paint. The thunder outside is so deafening that Thomas doesn’t even hear him come to the door.
Byron knocks on the wall, prompting Thomas to jerk away from the project he was absorbed in, his guilty face framed in the dull gray light from the window. “Sorry, Dad, I was gonna clean up soon-“
“No need,” Byron sighs, treading into the room carefully (an action hero’s plastic sword digs into his foot despite his efforts). “There’s a power outage, so I don’t want you trying to clean in the dark. I brought a candle if you need to see or walk around later tonight.”
Thomas only nods as Byron sets the candle down on his desk, digging a lighter out of his pocket to illuminate it. As he does this, he takes a glance at Thomas’s project - atop a pile of wood shavings lies a crudely carved puppet with an egg-shaped body, its spindly limbs lying in an adjacent pile. Thomas is screwing the limbs on one by one.
“That looks cool,” Byron compliments, tucking away his lighter. “Is it, uhh … a little marionette?”
Thomas almost looks offended. “No! It’s, uhh … whatever, it’s not important.” He opens the desk drawer and shoves the pieces in, then buries his head in his elbow.
Byron isn’t sure what to say - he pauses for a moment, watching Thomas absentmindedly pick up a wood shaving between his forefinger and thumb. “What’s wrong, Thomas? I didn’t upset you, did I?”
“It’s not important,” Thomas insists. “Can’t you go bother Chris or something? I’m busy.”
Byron frowns when Chris is mentioned. “It’s not me that’s upsetting you, is it?”
The silence is filled by the rain drumming against the window. At last, grumbling, Thomas chucks the wood shaving at the candle’s flame. It lands in the melted wax, completely blackened.
“Careful - we don’t want to start a fire in here, do we?”
Thomas’s response is to pick up another wood shaving and throw it at Byron.
After a while, he doesn’t feel anything anymore.
He’s not tired, and he isn’t hungry. In fact, he isn’t even angry.
All he feels now is the sole drive to keep moving, keep walking and find his way to Dr. Faker.
Faker is all he can think of now - while the mere thought of his face, twisted in a disgusting sneer, fueled him with anger and spite before, now he is numb to it - yet the idea of ending Faker keeps him going.
Every day the towering crimson spires loom ever closer, and the hilly dirt flattens into solid, gleaming pink crystal.
Eventually he reaches a small grove of crystal formations that have been hollowed out in places - most notably, at the center of this grove lies a basin containing what he assumes to be water.
Although he has not felt thirsty in a long time, in the back of his mind he knows that he needs it to stay alive (does he?) and, on pure impulse, he limps up the steps towards the basin, grabs onto its shelf and pulls himself up, then cups his shrunken hands in the water and drinks.
He can’t even taste it, but when he feels the barest semblance of tingling down his throat he immediately drinks a handful more, then a second and a third and a fourth until he hears a scuttling noise from behind him.
Whipping his head around, he comes face to face with the first sign of life he’s witnessed on this planet - towering over him is an enormous creature that looks somewhat human, but resembles a beetle in the shiny black carapace it is coated in.
As it clicks its mandibles together, he believes he can hear the creature talking. “….What are you?”
He blinks slowly. Arguably, he should be frightened, startled, or even revolted at the sight of this creature - but he isn’t. It only distracts him from what he needs, so he turns back around and continues to drink - he can deal with it later.
The creature circles him as he does this. “I have never seen a Barian that looks like you … perhaps you are not a Barian at all. The Emperors might be able to identify you.”
At that moment, something clicks in his head that this is the first sign of life he has seen on this lonely planet and, not only can he understand it, he can communicate with it and perhaps enlist its aid in finding what he is searching for. Spitting out the water, he cries out to the creature, but he has gone so long without speaking that his plea comes out a hoarse, unintelligible whisper.
The creature sizes him up and down, but its concerned gaze always returns to the left side of his face. “It’s as though the cosmos itself is eating away at you.”
He continues to emit hoarse and raspy noises, wanting desperately to speak but not finding the strength. As he tries to wrap his tongue around the words, a swirling vortex opens in the air behind the creature.
When this vortex appears, the creature breaks its gaze from him and turns to kneel as three figures materialize from the portal. An indescribable feeling weighs down upon him as he looks upon these figures - though he cannot see their faces, they exude regality and power. One is robed in gold, one in white, and one in purple.
“You stand before three of the Emperors of Barian World,” states the figure in white. “Identify yourself.”
“Look closer, Durbe!” The figure in gold interjects. “That creature is a human! You recall the last human visitor we had, do you not?”
With all the energy he can muster, he tries to cry out to them, but he feels as though his mouth is full of sand again and everything goes black.
On a warm summer night, the sky is an endless blanket of stars.
“And you know that one, don’t you, Chris?” Eye pressed to the lens, Byron moves the telescope carefully into position before stepping back and letting his son look.
Chris takes a moment to bend over and look before answering. “Ursa Major - in Greek and Roman legend, it represents Callisto, a princess of Arcadia.”
“Really!” Byron gazes up at the constellation himself. “Sort of interesting that she’s supposed to be bear-shaped, isn’t it?”
“It’s not for no reason,” Chris explains. “In the story, Hera was angry with Callisto for having a child with her husband, Zeus. As punishment, she was turned into a bear and forced to wander the wilderness for many years. One day, her son Arcas hunted the bear, not knowing it was his mother. As he was about to kill her, Zeus took pity on them, so he turned Arcas into a bear as well and put them both into the stars together.”
Byron whistles. “So that’s baby bear next to it, right?”
Chris chuckles a bit as he looks through the telescope again, adjusting its position. “Yes, Ursa Minor - take a look, if you’d like.”
Byron squints his eye to the lens. “Oh! It’s almost the same shape as Ursa Major, isn’t it?”
“They are very similar. You’ll also notice at the tail end of the constellation is the North Star - hard to miss, as it’s the brightest of them.”
Byron turns away from the telescope, shaking his head. “You boys are getting to be too smart for me, I swear. You’re learning all these things I didn’t know until - what, college? And I’m lucky enough to have three prodigy cases on my hands.”
Chris mutters just loud enough for Byron to hear. “Thomas, too?”
“Hey.” Byron says it curtly, causing Chris to jump a bit. “Thomas has a lot of talent. He’s not that different from how I was at that age - he just needs to grow up a little. I’m sure he’ll go far with whatever he sets his mind to.”
Chris’s expression softens. “Of course. I’m sorry if I’ve upset you at all, Father.”
“No, no, no!” Byron puts an arm around Chris’s shoulder. “Chris, I’m so proud of you. You’re excelling and working hard, and you’re even brighter than that big North Star.” He laughs at his own joke. “In fact, I want your help in the lab, too - next week, when I leave for Japan, I want you to come with me.”
Chris can barely stop himself from falling out of his seat. “You … you do?”
Byron grins. “I couldn’t think of a better assistant than you. I’m helping a close friend of mine with his research - like I always tell him, our work is what revolutionizes the world of technology. And I want you to be a part of it, Chris.”
Chris stares up again at the brilliant sky. “That’s more than I could ask for, Father.”
He jolts awake, breathing heavily. Squeezing his eyes shut again, he can still see Dr. Faker’s visage clearly under his eyelids.
He tries to scream, but it comes out as a weak groan.
“Awake, are you?” A voice speaks next to him.
His eyes snap open as he realizes he is no longer in the wastelands. Tinted by the red light of the sky, he can tell can he has awoken in an open-air building far more extravagant than the wilderness he’d become familiar with - while outside he can see the crystal spires below him, the interior is decorated with stained glass windows and carpet befitting of royalty. His cloak is in a rumpled heap next to the owner of the voice.
He vaguely recognizes this as the purple-robed figure that he had seen before in the grove - the creature reclines next to him, not far above his eye level. Underneath the hood is a stony, smooth gray plate, indented with a pair of unnerving eyes that make a chill run through his body.
“Do not be alarmed, human,” the creature reassures. “I have no intention of harming you. Not at the moment.”
When he does not respond, the creature continues. “My fellow Emperors have requested I supervise you while they decide your fate. Personally, I do not view you as a threat - you are rather small for a human. I assume you are an adolescent?”
With a start, he gets up from the ground, spluttering. “Do … do I look … like…”
The creature gets up as well, now towering above him. “Forgive me - I had almost forgotten that you were out wandering the badlands. You must be aching to have a look at yourself.”
He is directed to a gleaming panel on the wall. With a tap of the creature’s clawed finger, the surface of the panel shimmers and becomes clearer, and before long he sees himself reflected in it - if that is him.
The creature’s reflection behind him confirms it - he hasn’t just shrunken due to lack of nutrition; rather, he now has the anatomy and height of a child. Bare-chested without his cloak, the only clothes covering him are the tattered rags of what was once his climbing gear.
But what bothers him the most is what he sees on his face - where his left eye once was, there is a swirling, dark void that almost looks as though it is gnawing away at him. Slowly, he raises a hand to it.
As soon as he touches the eye, a thousand nerves shoot off through his body and suddenly, he is not numb anymore and he is awake and he feels pain and hunger and anger-
With a cry, he jerks his hand away and his body immediately loses feeling again. His right eye is rimmed with tears.
The creature makes a shrill, horrendous noise that sounds like laughter. “A shame, what’s happened to your face. Perhaps it is the side effect of a human traveling between dimensions.”
He turns to look up at the creature, whose eyes dart down to meet his. “Tell me, human - what is your name?”
He gives pause in answering this question - the time he has spent on this world has felt like an eternity, and he has kept only a scarce few memories at the forefront of his mind…
In any event, the man who he once was died long ago when Dr. Faker threw him away.
“I have no name,” he answers.
“Really!” The creature claps a hand to its stone-plated face. “That will not do … I will have to think of a name for you. Something that sounds human … Alan?”
He shakes his head.
“Dumont? Sark … Ram? Tron … Yori … Reginald- no, actually, I like Tron. Does it suit you?”
He isn’t certain of how credible all of these are as “human” names, but he nods in agreement, if only to put an end to the creature’s musings.
“Very good!” The creature’s eyes crinkle in amusement. “A pleasure to meet you, Tron. You may call me Vector.”
As Vector inches closer to Tron’s face, he notices that Vector’s eyes are the same violet as Dr. Faker’s and he turns his head away instinctively, experiencing something akin to discomfort.
When he finally looks back, Vector is gone.
Byron stops in his tracks when he sees Kaito walking down the hall towards the doors to Faker’s lab. What can he be doing at the facility at this hour - unaccompanied, at that?
He hurries after him. “Kaito! Your father is very busy right now, so I’m afraid you won’t be able to get in. Would I be able to help you at all?”
Kaito’s face is lined with worry. “It’s Father I need to see.” Removing an access card from his coat pocket, Kaito swipes it through the reader. When the light glows red, he swipes it again, then a few more times to no avail.
Byron stands by patiently. “I told you … is everything alright? You seem upset, Kaito. Please, tell me what’s going on.”
Kaito looks down at his feet. “The doctors want him to come back to the maternity ward. It’s about Mother and Haruto.”
Oh. “Is your mother doing alright, Kaito?”
“No. They’re…” Kaito’s voice begins to crack. “The nurse told me they could both die.”
“Kaito…” Byron embraces the boy, feeling his breath hitch as he chokes back a sob. “Kaito, I’m so sorry. You shouldn’t have to go through this alone; you’re so young, and your father, he-“
“He never has time for us!” Kaito snaps, face still buried in Byron’s shoulder. “If he really cared, he would … he would…”
“Listen to me, Kaito,” Byron responds in the most soothing voice he can muster, “I’ve known your father for a very long time. You, your mother, your newborn brother - everything he does is for all of you. He loves his family more than anything else, but he’s not the best at showing it.”
Kaito is still sniffling quietly.
“He’ll be out in a few hours,” Byron says firmly. “And if he isn’t, I will drag him out myself. That’s a promise.”
“…Okay.” Kaito picks himself up off of Byron, wiping his face with his sleeve.
“You’re very strong, Kaito,” Byron murmurs, squeezing his hand. “My own sons had to go through this too when we … with their mother, I mean. It was very hard on all of us, but we pulled through too.”
Kaito’s eyes bore into him. “You have sons too, sir?”
“I have three.” Pulling out his D-Pad, Byron brings up a picture for Kaito to see. “That’s Thomas on the left and Christopher on the right - they’re close in age to you. In the middle is Michael, my youngest.”
Kaito doesn’t tear his face away from the picture. “You love them, don’t you?”
“They mean everything to me.”
Tron has a few visitors come and go from his lodgings after his encounter with Vector, most of which do nothing to clarify his situation. Any attempt to leave the building has caused an invisible force to throw him back once he crosses the threshold, and it is not long before two more creatures arrive to see him.
“So this is a human,” muses a creature of monstrous size, cloaked in brown. “Not impressed. It looks weak.”
Tron dusts himself off as the creature’s red-cloaked companion interjects. “It looks weak, but one can never be sure. Why, were you considering taking it on in a fight?”
The larger creature turns away, scoffing. “Not in a million years, Alito.”
They both disappear as quickly as they had arrived.
Tron paces the room restlessly, occasionally looking again in the mirror at his minuscule appearance. Although touching his finger to his left eye had wired him, he didn’t want to risk doing so again, as its effect could be unpredictable and even harmful.
He doesn’t know how much time has passed when he can sense that there is someone else in the room with him again.
“I hope you are enjoying your accommodations, human,” the creature says as it walks towards him. “I am Emperor Mizael. I have questions for you.”
As Tron turns to face him, he recognizes this as the one robed in gold. His face resembles a mask, carved with red markings.
“Speak, human,” Mizael orders. “Vector informed me that you can talk, and I will not tolerate your silence.”
“…What do you want me to say?”
Mizael doesn’t miss a beat. “To begin with, tell me why you have come to Barian World. It is in your best interest to tell me the truth.”
“I didn’t choose to come here.”
“Oh, you did not?” Mizael is clearly suspicious of his answer. “Then perhaps you will tell me how it is that you came here.”
Tron has no desire to recount the past, but he can tell that Mizael will not be as easy with him as Vector was - regardless, he has nothing to lose by explaining himself.
“On the planet I come from … a colleague of mine was searching for a gateway into another dimension. In order to open it, he had to sacrifice two people - I was one of them. I fell for a long time, and sooner than I realized, I was on this planet.” Tron’s head is buzzing as he speaks.
Mizael’s gaze narrows. “By what name is your colleague known?”
Tron digs his fingernails into his palms. “Dr. Faker.”
“Dr. Faker,” Mizael repeats, an edge to his voice. Now it is Tron who is suspicious.
“Are you familiar with that name?”
“You are not to ask me questions, human,” Mizael seethes. “We will not reveal any information to you until we are certain that you are not a threat to us. Now, for my last question: what is your name? Your real name?”
“…Byron Arclight.” As Tron’s glance moves to Mizael’s eyes, there is something about him, despite being completely alien, that reminds him of Kaito. He isn’t sure what.
The same sort of distrustfulness, perhaps.
Mizael scowls in response. “What? Is there something else?”
Tron realizes he was staring, and shakes his head. “No, I … if I may ask, what are you creatures called?”
“I cannot tell y-“ Mizael stops himself, thinking better of it. “I … that is a ridiculous question. We are Barians - you must have heard that by now, have you not?” He disappears immediately.
Tron thinks of Kaito and Haruto. He wonders how Dr. Faker’s face would twist in anguish if he had to lose his sons as well.
When Byron next finds himself home with Chris, Thomas and Michael are quick to escape from their au pair and run into his arms, and they all find themselves curled up on the couch with their father as the evening settles in.
“Did you get any new cards, Dad?” Thomas asks, barely concealing his own eagerness as he tries (unsuccessfully) to get the dog to sit on the couch with them.
“I’m glad you asked,” Byron grins, rummaging a small pile of them out of his pocket. He first hands a few of them to Michael, who beams as he holds more of the Chronomaly cards he enjoys. Immediately, Thomas appears huffy.
“Something wrong?” Byron gives him a knowing look.
“Well, um…” Thomas is trying to collect himself - Byron can tell he doesn’t want to seem ungrateful. “Did you get any for, um … how come Michael always gets cards from you, and I don’t?”
“Don’t I?” Byron takes a card from his pile and hands it to Thomas, watching as he pauses before taking it to make sure it isn’t a joke. “You know, Thomas, I was thinking for a while about what sort of cards you might like - it was hard, you know, since you’re always hiding your hobbies from me. But this one sort of reminded me of you.”
As Thomas holds out before him Gimmick Puppet Nightmare, his face is unreadable as Michael and Chris look on eagerly behind him. Though he doesn’t elicit a strong reaction, Byron can see a fascination behind Thomas’s eyes as he examines the illustration of the marionettes’ twisted faces, their bodies and limbs distorted in a gruesome fashion.
“That card looks really creepy,” Michael whimpers. “I don’t-”
“Shut it,” Thomas snaps at him.
“Watch your mouth, Thomas,” Byron chides him. “Do you want me to take the card back-?”
“No! Can I keep it, please?” Thomas clutches it almost instinctively to his chest. “I think it’s kind of cool. Sorry, Dad.”
Byron has a good laugh at Thomas’s expense before giving him the rest of the cards he brought with him, leaving his son to gawk at them, and for Chris to snicker at cards like “Gimmick Puppet Egg Head” and “Gimmick Puppet Princess”.
“You shut it too, Chris!”
“Um, Father…” Michael regards Byron with a slightly fearful look. “Why’d you get Thomas those cards? They’re kind of weird…”
“The same reason I got you those Chronomaly cards,” Byron answers, patting Michael on the head. “It’s my own philosophy that you should have cards that represent something about your personality, you know? It should be something that you enjoy. Like you, with your archaeology.”
Michael giggles. “So, does that mean Thomas likes-”
“None of your business,” Thomas calls at him, still busy sorting through the cards.
“Oh … how about your cards, father?”
As if on cue, Byron digs his own deck out of his bag. “My Heraldic Beasts? Oh, I guess there’s a bit of a story behind that one…”
Byron begins sifting through his cards as Michael lays a head on his shoulder. “Like you, I suppose it’s sort of an interest in history of culture and civilization. In the older days of Europe, they used heraldry as a sort of coat of arms to display ceremony, rank, and loyalties of allegiance during times of war … they could be used to denote a monarchy, a noble family, a military faction … I could spend hours talking about all the different combinations and their meanings, but I wouldn’t want to bore you.”
Michael stares up at him with big eyes. “I don’t mind.”
“Heheh … I just find it fascinating, you know. Our family even had its own coat of arms, way back when. I suppose you could consider that the other way my deck relates back to me - because I love my family, of course! Well … I suppose that’s a very convoluted reason, but-”
Despite his bold claims, Michael is already distracted from the conversation, breaking away to compare cards with Thomas and Chris.
Tron has not received a visitor in a very long time, and all he can think of is Dr. Faker.
None of them matter to him anymore - not Christopher, not Thomas, not Michael, not Kazuma. If he ever leaves this wretched planet the only face he cares to see again is Faker’s.
And he wants so, so badly to feel that hatred again - he wants to feel hatred and pain and rage and without thinking he puts his hand up to the void again and he can feel all of it, all of it swirling in that infinite darkness and he screams and the feelings envelop him and overwhelm him as his screams grows louder and louder and louder and-
Claws pierce into Tron’s arm and yank his hand away from his face. Still gripping him tightly, Vector has him dangling in the air. “Feel lucky that I came to save you. I could sense your life force fading away, little human.”
He drops Tron, who lands with a thud on the floor. “But you’re okay now, aren’t you, Tron? Forgive me! I meant to say Byron Arclight.”
Breathing heavily, Tron rubs his arm, which trickles with blood from where Vector had gripped him. “Tron is … fine…”
“Whichever you prefer,” is Vector’s response, as he drops down to sit next to him. “I do not mean to offend you, but touching that opening on your face was not very wise of you - what do you gain from that?”
“I…” The answer sounds foolish before Tron even voices it. “I wanted to feel again.”
Vector cocks his head. “To feel again? And you cannot do so without that gaping wound on your body? Human bodies are strange indeed.”
“It isn’t normal.”
“Well, I wouldn’t advise touching it again … it’s grown to take up half of your face.” Vector puts his hand on Tron’s arm again, lightly digging into the wounds he left before. “Maybe I can help you feel again … that is, without your body being torn apart. Just say the word.”
Tron’s eyes dart to the blood dripping down his arm, and then to Vector’s impassive face. He has no reason to trust Vector, but he is being made an offer … one that he has nothing to lose from. “Very well.”
Vector snickers. “Good! Now…” His eyes glow as he stares into Tron’s, and suddenly unbelievable pain shoots up his arm - then, nothing. But…
Tron feels tingling in his chest, like a candle flickering. The warm feeling spreads, and he feels something he wasn’t expecting. Rather than the negative emotions he so desired to spill out of him, he instead feels curiosity, excitement, a wicked sense of glee-
But … those aren’t his feelings. But it’s what he senses emanating off of Vector. He can sense what Vector is feeling, but not himself - and, in realization, he suddenly begins laughing almost hysterically. Though it’s a forced reaction, it feels natural to him given the situation. He laughs until tears form in his eye and he is nearly out of breath.
Vector pats him on the back. “Well, are you happy, Tron?”
He thinks about it, and out of everything he felt, no - at the heart of it, he wasn’t truly happy. “I-I guess I was expecting to feel something else … but I didn’t feel it.”
Vector has an almost sympathetic tone to his voice. “What a shame. What were you hoping to feel, Tron?”
“I wanted … anger.”
“Anger … that’s a very powerful emotion, isn’t it?”
Tron nods. “Yes, it is.”
“Very sad,” Vector laments. “I’m afraid I don’t have any anger to give you. But why do you want to be angry, Tron? What do you want to be angry at?”
“You see…” Tron is feeling talkative suddenly. “I was wronged, Vector, wronged by someone close to me … you Barians, you understand what it’s like when someone wrongs you, don’t you? It doesn’t sit comfortably. It gnaws away at you; it begs for justice. That’s what I want, Vector.”
Vector shifts over to his stomach, cupping his chin in his hand. “Please, go on.”
Tron laughs shrilly. “That’s right! I thought I knew him, I really thought he was my friend, and he threw me away like garbage! Like I didn’t have a family too! Like I-“ He devolves into another fit of laughter. “I’m going to kill him. Dr. Faker, I mean. I’m going to kill him.”
Vector’s eyes grow wide. “Oh, that reminds me! I have some excellent news, Tron!”
“Yes,” Vector continues. “See, you are not the first human to visit this planet. Our first otherworldly interloper was none other than Dr. Faker!”
Tron is hardly surprised, given Mizael’s previous reaction to the name. “Please, go on.”
“Why, when he came here so long ago, we humble Emperors offered him our hospitality and shelter. And how did he repay us? The same way he repaid you, Tron - betrayal! He absconded with our precious resources and powers and went back to his home world, where we could not follow him! The atmosphere of your planet greatly weakens creatures such as us, you see.”
Tron snorts. “That doesn’t sound like excellent news at all.”
“Not excellent news for us - for you.” Vector jabs his thumb in Tron’s face. “We have a common enemy, Tron! It makes Durbe all the less likely to kill you, and all the more likely to help make sure you get exactly what you want! Everybody wins!”
Tron can feel the unusual sensation building in his chest again, but he does his best to contain himself. “Durbe - which one is he?”
“That’s our leader,” Vector informs him, “And you will be meeting him soon. A little grouchy, if you ask me, but I am certain he will not trouble you.”
Tron nods. “Will he allow me to go back to the planet I came from?”
“I’d count on it,” Vector assures. “Better you than any of us - considering what dimensional travel has done to you, I’m certain Durbe would never allow one of the Emperors to sully themselves traversing the dimensional gateways. Now, there’s one thing I was wondering about, regarding your kind - you’ve been getting smaller since you’ve gotten here. Do humans shrink with age?”
Tron knits his brow. “No, just the opposite.”
“So you are not like other humans? Different from the rest?”
“Well … all humans are different,” Tron contends. “We’re the same in some ways, and different in other ways.”
“I see!” Vector exclaims. “So some humans age frontwards, while others age backwards-“
Michael’s hand slips as he holds his deck in his hand and the cards spill out over the table.
Faster than Byron can react, Thomas jumps up from his seat to help Michael pick up the cards. “Don’t look, Dad! It’s cheating!”
“I won’t, I won’t!”
To prove his point, Byron raises a hand to shield his eyes. After about a minute, he feels Thomas grab his arm and yank it away from his face. “You can look now!”
“The card I picked from my deck was Chronomaly Moai,” Michael announces. “And now I’ll use Chronomaly Golden Jet’s effect to increase the levels of all my Chronomaly monsters by one. Since I have a Chronomaly monster on the field, I can special summon Chronomaly Moai from my h-“
Michael is interrupted as the ringer goes off from Byron’s D-Gazer in his coat pocket. Byron’s face darkens when he sees the caller ID.
“I’m going to take this,” Byron says, standing up. “Thomas, cover for me.”
“But Dad, I already saw his cards! I’ll have an unfair advantage-“
“I have a feeling Michael’s the one with the advantage.” Smiling, he walks into the other room before answering the call.
It’s only a matter of time before Tron finds himself sorting through the contents of his worn and tattered satchel again - he’d had little reason to, as he had run out of provisions quite some time ago. The only things remaining are a broken flashlight, a frayed bit of rope, an empty waterskin, his broken D-Pad, D-Gazer, and his deck box. Musing to himself, he remembers dueling with Kazuma during some of the cold nights traversing the valley to reach the dimensional gateway, trying to pass the time as Dr. Faker kept himself holed up in his own tent.
Vector, of course, has to put his hands all over Tron’s cards as soon as he shows them to him.
“How interesting!” Vector exclaims. “I had no idea that humans dueled with monsters as well. I suppose that is one thing that we have in common, then.”
“Um.” Of all things for humans to have in common with a species from a distant planet, a popular game like Duel Monsters was one of the last things that Tron would have conceived of. “Do you … have cards as well, then?”
“Of course!” Vector outstretches his hand, and an Xyz Monster Card materializes within it. “It is not at all uncommon for us to use their power in duels, or to perform other types of magic with them, as I am sure your kind do as well. I am surprised you haven’t used your own cards to try and escape this temple.”
“We … ah, nevermind. When will I be allowed out of here?”
“Again, not my call to make,” Vector shrugs. “You were saying?”
“Oh. Well … it is very strange that you have cards just like ours. Are you certain that no humans ever visited your planet? Because these cards are manufactured by a company called Industrial Illusions on our world, and they were created by a human - I would say, around a century ago. They’re not magical - not for us humans, at least. But when they’re placed on a D-Pad, they make holograms appear. Those can hurt you a little.”
“A century ago?” Vector snorts. “Monsters and magic have existed for much longer than that. On other worlds, too. Perhaps this human got the idea from somewhere else.”
“You know … allegedly, he took inspiration from games that were played in Ancient Egypt-”
“A country on my planet, during an older period of time.” Tron decides to drop the subject, deciding that going over variations between their ideas about the cards will just confuse them both. “You said you duel as well, don’t you? Maybe you’d like to duel me.”
“Interesting suggestion,” Vector replies. “But you are not my enemy, so I would have nothing to gain from that.”
“For fun, I mean.” Tron realizes that he’s made himself sound quite a bit like Kazuma - although, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a predicament like this, it doesn’t hurt to distract oneself from time to time, and he is certainly isn’t opposed to seeing how Barians duel. Even though it isn’t really “fun” for him anymore, he’s making his best effort to emulate it.
“For fun?” Vector’s eyes gleam. “I like that idea, actually.”
Tron watches in horrid fascination as something resembling a Duel Disk morphs out of Vector’s arm before responding. “I don’t, uh, have one of those. Mine is broken. Perhaps we can duel in tabletop format instead - I prefer it, anyways.”
“Table...top?” Vector squints at him. “I do not understand. You will have to show me how to do this.”
As there is no table, Tron sets them up to duel on the floor, drawing out the locations of the different card zones for Vector, who catches on rather quickly. Tron decides to let him go first, out of courtesy.
“I summon Umbral Horror Will o’ the Wisp,” Vector says, almost scratching the card with a claw as he places it in the Monster Zone. “Then I place two cards face down, and end my turn.”
It’s interesting that Vector chose immediately to play a monster with no Attack or Defense Points, Tron thinks to himself as he draws a card. Regardless, it must have something to do with his strategy.
“I summon Heraldic Beast Leo, and use it to attack your Will o’ the Wisp.” As Tron’s attack goes through, Vector immediately loses 2000 Life Points, and the monster is sent to the Graveyard.
“Good play,” Vector commends him. “But when your monster destroys my Will o’ the Wisp, it gets sent to the Graveyard as well.”
“That’s fine,” Tron answers. “Because whenever my Leo is sent to the Graveyard, I can add a Heraldic Beast monster from my deck to my hand - I’m adding Heraldic Beast Basilisk. Then I’ll set a card face down and end my turn.”
Tron is reminded a bit of his duels with Thomas - who did, after all, have a preference for the more unsettling monsters. Although, it’s too early to tell, as he’s only seen a single monster of Vector’s.
“My turn - I draw.” Vector adds another card to his hand from the deck. “I summon Umbral Horror Ghoul to the field and attack you directly. You lose 1800 Life Points-”
“Actually, I activate my Trap Card, Heraldry Change!” Tron flips over his face-down card. “I get to summon a Heraldic Beast monster from my hand, and then end the Battle Phase without taking any damage. I’m picking my Heraldic Beast Basilisk, by the way.”
“Fine by me,” Vector says, a sudden smugness to his voice. “I use Umbral Horror Ghoul’s special effect - by reducing its Attack Points to 0, I can summon another Umbral Horror monster with 0 Attack Points from my hand - Umbral Horror Unform.”
Tron isn’t impressed yet. “So you have two Level 4 Monsters with 0 Attack Points.”
“And I activate my Trap Card - Call of the Haunted. That lets me bring back my Will o’ the Wisp from the Graveyard, and I can use its ability to change its Level to that of one of my other Umbral Horrors - so it goes from Level 1 to Level 4. And now that I have three Level 4 Monsters on the field, I can overlay them to Xyz summon Number 104: Masquerade!”
Although they’re playing on the floor, Vector does this with all the bravado that would come through dueling with holograms, summoning a rather vibrantly-colored magician - rather different than the Umbral Horror Monsters that came before it, he notes. He’s got to admit - he wasn’t quite expecting that.
“I can use Masquerade’s effect to send one monster from the top of your deck to the Graveyard,” Vector announces, as Tron begrudgingly places Twin-Headed Eagle in the Grave. “And I can now use the Spell Card, Rank-Up-Magic Barian’s Force, to Xyz summon a monster one Rank higher, using Masquerade as Xyz material. The monster I’m summoning is Number C104: Umbral Horror Masquerade!”
Tron forces a laugh out as the Monster, almost predictably, transitions back to an Umbral Horror. “Those are some scary cards.”
Vector seems almost bewildered by the comment. “Scary?”
“Nothing … my turn, right?” Tron draws a card. “I summon another Heraldic Beast Leo to the field. And now I attack with Heraldic Beast Basilisk!”
“Your monster with 1000 Attack Points against mine with 3000?” Vector asks in surprise as the Basilisk throws itself against his monster, causing Tron to lose half his Life Points.
“Yes … after my monster attacks, your monster is destroyed-”
“Not exactly,” Vector interjects. “When a Monster effect is activated on your side of the field, I can detach one Overlay Unit from my Masquerade to negate it.”
“And then I can send one random card from your hand to the Graveyard.”
“And then your Life Points are divided in half, leaving you with 1000 Life Points.”
Vector appears suspicious of Tron’s nonchalance, but Tron only laughs in response.
“I’m guessing you have something better up your sleeve?”
“No.” And he doesn’t - but Tron can’t help but be reminded a bit of days spent dueling against his sons, watching the glee on their faces as they win another round against him (as he always felt half-heartedly about going hard on them). “My Heraldic Beast Leo is destroyed at the end of the turn. Your move.”
“Your field’s wide open,” Vector notes. “I attack you directly with Umbral Horror Masquerade.”
As Tron loses the last of his Life Points, he claps for Vector. “Good job, really! I wasn’t expecting all of that!”
“So you had fun losing?”
“Sure!” He didn’t really feel any which way about it. “I feel like we learned a lot about each other, don’t you?”
Vector hesitates before answering, as they’re both cleaning their decks back up. “You are a strange little human. I appreciate that. But you were not holding back on me, were you? You could have Xyz summoned with those two monsters you had out.”
“Wouldn’t have done me any good,” Tron replies, holding out his only Xyz monster - Diamond Dire Wolf, with 2000 Attack Points. “If I had a third Monster on my field, I could’ve used this Monster’s effect to sacrifice it and destroy your Umbral Horror Masquerade - but I didn’t have another. And it would’ve gone the same way, with you cancelling the effect. So you won fair and square!”
“I see.” Vector seems satisfied with himself now. “Well - you should get some better Xyz cards, Tron.”
“Sure!” Tron does have to admit - the duel was a worthy distraction from being alone with his thoughts.
Byron finds himself back on another flight with Chris to Heartland City, almost nodding off when Chris nudges him gently.
“Sorry, Father,” Chris says tentatively, “But do you mind if I ask you something?”
“It’s just that … do you think I’ll get to really work with you and Dr. Faker this time? Last time … I wasn’t able to do much. Except sit in one of the labs for a while.”
“Ah … to tell you the truth, Chris, we didn’t get much done last time that would’ve involved you. It wouldn’t have been fun for you, you know. Grown-up stuff.”
“I’m not exactly a child anymore, Father,” Chris insists. “That’s why you took me with you and not Thomas or Michael, right? Because-”
“Chris, I took you with me because you have the same interest in research and the sciences, and I know that you’re responsible enough to handle working with us. But you’re not an adult quite yet, you know-”
“I’m trying my best to be one. I don’t have time for anything frivolous-”
“That’s not what being an adult’s all about, Chris,” Byron explains. “You’re trying to tell me you can’t do anything fun if you’re an adult? Sure, being responsible is important, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself sometimes. Seriously!”
“I think we’re derailing the conversation,” Chris retorts. “I just wanted to know if you don’t think I’m capable enough to handle what you and Dr. Faker are working on.”
“You are capable, Chris,” Byron assures him. “Me and Dr. Faker were discussing something personal about his family. It didn’t involve you. Understand?”
“Oh.” Chris’s face is flushed in embarrassment. “I’m sorry for questioning you, father.”
Byron only nods in response, silent for a while before picking up the conversation again. “You sure you don’t miss being a kid?”
He chuckles. “No, I guess you’ve always sort of been the serious one. But I guess you’re right - being a child is easier than being an adult. Less responsibilities. I’d love to go back to that.”
Chris appears bemused by the statement. “I don’t suppose you’d want to trade with me.”
“No - enjoy it, Chris, really. Enjoy being young and being able to do what you want. You’re at the point in your life where you have a million possibilities ahead of you. If you suddenly said ‘I don’t want to be a scientist anymore, I want to be a … an artist, or a Pro Duelist’, then I’d send you right back home to do what makes you happy.”
Predictably, of course, Chris hastens to reassure his father that he would never become either of those.
Over time, Tron’s “emotions” become maddening.
In a way, he isn’t exactly averse to the sort of presence that Vector gives off, and finds himself emulating a more cheerful and carefree attitude than his inner turmoil would suggest. But Faker’s presence remains at the edge of his thoughts like a speck of dirt that refuses to be cleaned away.
During his imprisonment in the temple, Vector visits Tron frequently and burgeons him with questions about the Human World, which he describes in vivid detail, finding his memory has become sharper.
“That’s impossible!” Vector scoffs. “You mean to tell me that humans purposely submerge themselves in water? Surely that is harmful to their bodies - would they not suffocate without air to breathe? Terrifying!”
“Quite the opposite, actually!” Tron chuckles. “Humans can’t stay away from water - since the dawn of our species, we’ve learned to adapt to it, hunt in it, travel over it - in fact, submerging in water is a staple of our hygiene. We call it bathing.”
Vector gives him a concerned look. “And this has no detriment to your health?”
“Again, just the opposite,” Tron replies. “Although, as with anything, too much of it can kill you. Obviously you wouldn’t be alive for very long if you breathe it in for more than a few minutes. Trust me - in my swimming pool at home, my son, Thomas - he’s tried to drown my boy Chris more times than-“ He cuts himself off as he feels the unfamiliar sensation of a cold, dead weight dropping in his stomach.
Vector whips his head around to look behind where Tron is standing, and he follows suit - Mizael has appeared, and with him, a familiar Barian cloaked in white.
Something Tron notices immediately that he didn’t before is that he can sense a familiar energy coming off of Mizael ... he recognizes it, but it’s something he can no longer feel - something he hasn’t known in a long time.
“You have made your decision, Durbe?” Vector calls.
“I have,” the figure in white - Durbe - answers. “Vector ... Mizael ... I need you both to leave.”
Tron can sense Mizael’s emotions flaring. “Surely you do not wish to be left alone with a-“
“Mizael,” Durbe states firmly. “Now.”
Grumbling, Mizael disappears, and Vector is gone along with him. Now that Tron and Durbe are alone together in the temple, he realizes he can sense Durbe’s feelings as well, though they are very faint. His aura is one that exudes wisdom and calm, but it masks a deep somberness.
“I must offer my sincerest apologies for our poor hospitality ... Tron.” Durbe lowers his gaze. “As I am sure Vector has told you, our prior human visitor was of ill intention, and I found these precautions to be necessary.”
“No, it’s, uh...” Tron hesitates, unsure of what he should say. “I’m just glad you brought me back to civilization ... if that’s the right word. I’ve only seen a few faces since I got here.”
“Perhaps it is for the best,” Durbe responds, turning to look at the sky outside. “Our world is engaged in a fierce war with our enemy, Astral World. Any and all resources of ours are irreplaceable. The first human that arrived here ... he wished to sabotage us for his own gain, his own selfishness...”
Tron bursts into a fit of laughter, his breath hitching as he speaks. “That sounds like Faker, all right! So quick to just grab what he wants and leave you out to dry! Hahahaha!”
Durbe turns back to Tron, walking towards him. “Forgive me, I recall that you had a history with this man on whom we seek vengeance. If you would permit me, may I look through your memories? It would benefit the both of us greatly, and I will have a better grasp of the situation.” He extends a hand down, inches from Tron’s forehead.
“I...” Tron is uncertain as to how far this being will search through his mind, or what he will see - but, again, he has nothing to lose from this. “Yes, you can.”
Murmuring in assent, Durbe presses the tips of his fingers to Tron’s forehead, and his eyes glow (just as Vector’s did before). This time, Tron feels an immediate pull, and thousands of images flash before his mind.
A photograph of his family.
Michael gingerly removing a glass display case, only for it to knock down an antique vase and shatter it into pieces.
Thomas knocking over a candle and burning his desk, its contents reduced to ashes.
Chris falling asleep on top of his suitcase.
Kaito standing before his mother’s grave.
Dr. Faker typing away at a computer, taking no notice of his surroundings.
Dr. Faker cursing the failure in his calculations, poring over the same map for hours and tearing it apart.
Dr. Faker standing above him and Kazuma as they plummet to their deaths.
Durbe tears his hand away from Tron, stumbling as he does so. His aura of misery is far stronger than it was before now.
“Are you feeling alright?” Tron asks.
Durbe bows his head. “Sorry, I ... it pains me that you were separated from your loved ones. You must miss your sons terribly.”
Tron is stunned at first, but when he realizes the irony of this situation - how funny it all is - he begins laughing again. Durbe is feeling the sorrow he doesn’t feel, is pitying the sons that mean nothing to him, is mourning the faces that he can barely remember.
How astonishing that this alien being is more human than him.
Durbe remains impassive, having regained his composure. “Tron, our goals align. The Barians wish to eliminate Dr. Faker and the Astral World, but traveling to Earth weakens us ... that is where you come in. We will send you to Earth as our agent.”
Tron nods. “Sure, I can do that.”
Durbe grips Tron’s hand, and suddenly he feels incredible strength and energy surge through him. He is shaking a bit when Durbe releases him, and the back of his hand glows faintly with a strangely familiar marking.
“You are born anew with the powers I have bestowed upon you, Tron,” Durbe tells him. “But know that what I give to you, I can also take away - before you use these abilities against your own enemy, you must use them against our enemy.”
Still trembling, Tron gazes at the mark on his hand. He recalls it to be a mark of heraldry, which Durbe must have gleaned from his memories.
“Some years from now, a messenger from Astral World will appear on Earth, and you will be able to sense them. You must seek them out, and harvest their powers and knowledge. Dr. Faker will be lured to you, seeking this power as well, and then you may kill him.”
“Some years from now!” Tron exclaims. “You want me to wait that long?”
“You have waited long already,” Durbe contends, “And some time longer will not kill you. But do not use your time idly - build up an agency. Find humans you can use - humans that share the same vindictiveness as you. Reunite with your family. Plan your actions carefully.”
Tron clenches a fist. “Alright, alright ... you really think all this through, don’t you?”
“And another thing...” Durbe holds his palms towards each other, a bright light forming between them and dimming into the shape of a metallic object. “This is for you.”
Durbe holds it out to him, and he sees that it is a mask small enough to fit over his face. “This will protect the scar in your face from rupturing. Exposing it to the Earth’s atmosphere may be hazardous.”
Tron takes the mask into his hand, turning it over and examining the metal grooves and plating. “Kind of ugly, if you ask me.”
Durbe emits a noise of exasperation - evidently, Tron’s antics are tiring him. “I’m sure you can … find a replacement, once you return home. But for now … I am ready to take you back, Tron. Are you ready to go?”
After a short period of hesitation, Tron fits the mask over his face. He’ll keep it, he decides.
“I’m ready. Oh … and thank you.”
Perhaps remembering his sympathy for Tron, Durbe kneels down to his height and clasps his shoulder. “No … thank you.”
As Byron comes in, his colleague doesn’t even turn around from his chair to look at him.
“Is it true you’ve been in here for two days straight?” As Byron approaches, he’s glad he convinced Chris to wait outside again. “This isn’t good at all, Faker. You can’t just have other people take care of Kaito and Haruto. And Haruto’s still sick, isn’t he…”
“I … I know.” Faker’s expression reflected in the screen is a pained one. “I’m getting all the aid I can for Haruto, but-”
“I’m asking if you can just be there for him and Kaito-”
Byron is silent, trying not to antagonize Dr. Faker.
“Maybe … maybe I’m not as great a father as you, Byron, but I really am trying. I’m trying my hardest, you understand?”
Tentatively, Byron puts a hand on Faker’s shoulder. “Hey … I understand, Faker. I won’t press you on it any further. First and foremost, you’re my friend.”
Faker doesn’t have anything to say to that.
“So … what did you discover, Faker? You seemed excited about it when we spoke last.”
“...I might have received my first lead into the realm of interdimensional travel.”
Byron is legitimately unable to tell if he’s serious or not. “You’re pulling my leg.”
Faker shakes his head. “You’re not going to believe me, but … I received a message from a being claiming to be from another planet. It was telling the truth, too - I couldn’t trace the signal to any source on our world, couldn’t make any record of it. But it spoke of twenty-one dimensional access points scattered around the earth - and I’ve been looking for them.”
Pressing a few buttons on the computer, Faker pulls up a large map on the computer, clustered with notes and various points that have been highlighted or examined in length. Byron certainly believes him now - Faker is a smart man. He wouldn’t have put all this work into such a project if it wasn’t substantiated.
“You know, Faker, we’ve always focused more on developing technology for everyday use,” Byron points out. “I do have some knowledge and expertise in the area, but you could always pass something like this off to a larger research group, one that specializes…”
“Sure, we could, but…” Faker gives him a knowing glance. “That would take the fun out of it, right?”
Byron is, quite frankly, caught off guard by that. Faker has never really been one to be secretive about his research, always leaving his work out in the open for others to study as well, so why this? Just a small group of researchers, working to unlock an enormous and revolutionary mystery, the size of which would call for half a government to drop everything and study at length?
Call it a change of pace, but … it appears that Dr. Faker is trying to appeal to Byron’s own sense of excitement and adventure, a clandestine secret waiting to be uncovered by two old friends with a bond that can only get stronger with time.
It sounds like a lot of fun. It sounds like a story that he’ll sit and tell to Thomas and Michael someday, to fuel their own sense of wonder.
“Well, I can’t say no to that,” Byron grins. “But we can’t do it ALL by ourselves. I’ve brought my son Chris with me again, if you don’t mind.”
“Hm … well, if we get into anything dangerous, you know he … well, actually, I suppose he can…”
“Just leave everything to me, Faker,” Byron says, leaving his colleague to mutter to himself. “I’ll go get Chris from the lobby. Why don’t you get your files together so we can discuss what you’ve found so far when I get back?”
Brisk in his step as he exits the lab room, Byron is feeling quite optimistic about what they have planned, his earlier concern for Faker’s sons only nagging faintly in the back of his mind.
He can’t say he isn’t surprised that Faker would eventually run into such an issue with his family - it’s Byron who he would always come to for advice about being a father, always juggling the responsibilities of a parent with his fervence as a researcher, asking how Byron did it. But for Byron, it was never a hard decision - he always put his family first, no matter what. Even so, he can tell Faker must care about his sons - he’s just not the best at expressing it to them.
There will come a day when Dr. Faker can face Kaito and tell him that he felt the same pain of losing his mother, that he felt the same pain for his brother’s illness, that he desperately wants to be there for him but he doesn’t know how.
At least, that’s what Byron wants to believe. Even as old as he is, he still tries to hang on to his own sort of innocent optimism.