Ethan Lin | Art by Cindy He
“A fetch mission? Really?”
The metallic backpack sitting in the passenger seat doesn’t seem to register the annoyance in Luno’s voice. It continues to rattle off the details of the latest mission the Combine has given him.
“Locate and extract the black box marked with the Combine insignia. If you find any survivors from the previous extraction attempts, notify them that their payment has been suspended due to their incompetence.”
Luno grips the cracked leather of the steering wheel, narrowed eyes on the dark road. “You didn’t mention that this would be such a difficult case. And why hire a private investigator for a job like this?”
“Analysis indicates the presence of spectres on site. You are the only individual with Spectral Manipulation on our payroll.”
Luno nods slowly. “Fine.”
The chorus of rain on the dusty windshield of his sedan thankfully drowns out the rest of the backpack’s contractual spiel. He taps his finger on the steering wheel. Working with the Combine is a real pain in the ass, but…
“Your payment, upon successful completion of the mission, is three hundred thousand dollars.”
…at least it pays well.
“Bring this unit with you to provide assista-”
Luno slams the car door shut. “I’d really rather not.”
With the backpack prattling from the front seat, he adjusts his already-soaked hat. Looking up at the designated building, he blinks. The heavy waterfall running over his car windows had prevented him from making out where exactly he is, but now it is unmistakable.
“Are you sure this is the right place?” Luno says, reopening the car door and leaning in.
“I am incapable of error.”
“Uh-huh, sure.” Slam.
Pinching the bridge of his nose, he turns back to the dark outline of the looming structure. Of all the places for a mission, why did it have to be his old high school?
He looks over the decrepit place. The gates lay twisted in the old entryway and dark planks stifle the windows. The sign over the front entrance announcing South Metroplex High’s closure is in wet tatters. Time has not treated the school well in the decade-and-a-half since he dropped out. Closing his eyes, he can already feel the dark auras of spectres lurking through the cursed halls. There is no mistaking it. This is the place.
Luno fishes a small drawstring pouch out of his pocket. His memory of the layout of this building is hazy at best and misleading at worst. Glancing at the large, sprawling building, Luno knows he will need someone that is familiar with the school. He sighs. That means he will probably need a former classmate.
Picking a zipper slider out of the pouch as he steps into the dark entrance of the school, Luno feels the runes etched into it begin to glow with dark energy. Raising it to his forehead, he whispers the necessary incantation.
“Spectre of a fallen student, come forth and aid me. Summon.”
The etchings burn bright purple and Luno pulls the slider through the air, a straight line in front of him. Black zipper teeth manifest behind it and split like seawater sliced by a boat’s hull. They form a dark portal in the air, a gaping mouth of swirling darkness. Through it slithers a shapeless spectre. The transparent spirit moves erratically, acclimating to its sudden transportation from the spectral dimension into the material dimension. Luno raises his palm towards it and, all at once, it is absorbed into his hand. His veins glow white for a brief second, the Spectre spreading throughout his body. He closes his eyes.
The white luminescence fades and he is a different man. His eyelids snap open and his brown eyes have turned to bright blue.
“YOOOOOOOOO! I’m alive again!”
Luno(?) jumps up and down, hollering and beating his chest in triumph. His shouting echoes through the dark halls and numerous small animals bolt. When he finally calms down, he pats himself, confused.
“Wait, when did I get so small?” he says, looking down.
His eyes melt back into brown. “That’s because you are not alive again. I have summoned you to assist me. You will have control of my body when I allow it.” Luno straightens his trenchcoat and picks up his hat. He recognizes the voice that had just come out his own mouth as that of Barris Jackman, the star football player and… that’s all he can remember. Not bad. Absorbing spectres who were strong or fast in life enhances his physical performance, so Jackman’s residual strength will come in handy when they run into trouble. He zips the portal closed, replacing the slider in his pouch.
Blue again. Barris, in control of Luno’s body, stretches his new, smaller arms and flexes unfamiliar fingers. “Damn. Hey, you’re that quiet guy from my Literature class, aren’t you? You got tall!”
Brown again. “That is because I’m thirty-two years old, Barris.”
Barris laughs. “Just call me Barry. Your name is uh….” He snaps his fingers. “…Luna, right?”
“Sick! So what are we do-”
Their single-bodied conversation is cut short as demonic howling rips through the building. Luno reasserts control and grabs two sliders. Peering into the darkness, he notices five figures approaching quickly. Though he can only barely make out their decaying faces, he knows from their snapping movements that they aren’t human. At least, not anymore.
“Ayo, who’re they? You know these guys?”
“Nope. You were a football player, correct?”
Barry beams through Luno’s gritted teeth. “Yup! Set the school record for most-”
“How hard can you tackle someone?”
Luno can now see the white insignia of the Combine on the corpses’ uniforms. If he were to guess, one of the previous extraction teams had been slaughtered and possessed by spectres. He grips the zipper sliders in each of his hands tightly.
As the corpses get close, two lunge at him, snarling and biting. In one swift motion, he throws the slider in his left hand and it arcs high over the confused heads of the spectres. And just as the two corpses are about to reach him, he raises the slider in his right hand to his forehead and mutters again.
Luno slices the air in front of him horizontally, a white gash following the slider. At the same moment, an identical tear follows the thrown slider’s trajectory. The parallel portals burst open, and the two diving spectres are sucked into the bright circle, banished back into the spectral dimension. The others stumble to a stop, uneager to meet a similar fate. They watch the portal zip closed to reveal the man in the trench coat and wet hat charging towards them, blue eyes gleaming. Barry, taking control, hurtles forward with his arms outstretched. Catching all three corpses in a wide tackle, he strikes with such an impact that the spectres lose hold of their newly-acquired physical forms. The white smoke of the malignant spirits are squeezed out of the dead men. They fly backwards, right into the open portal created by the second zipper slider.
The vacated corpses collapse to the floor and Luno stands up, brushing himself off. “Good work.” he says, shutting the portal.
Barry flexes Luno’s arms. “YEAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”
Luno finds a smile on his face, unsure if it’s Barry’s or his own.
“Where the hell is this damn thing?”
After an hour and twenty-seven minutes of navigating the school, all they had found were some easily-banished spectres and a lot of not-so-tastefully drawn genitalia graffiti. Barry throws up his fists, hearing another low growl.
“Was that another spectre?”
“That was my stomach, Barry.”
They have already checked most of the school’s hotspots. Luno knows that spectres often lurk in places that harbor great negativity, breaking through the fabric of reality in a frenzy to feed off the residual dark energy and become even stronger. That black box he is looking for has to be near whatever room has the most negative energy, guarded by the strongest spectre. But having searched the auditorium and locker rooms thoroughly already, he’s starting to doubt that theory.
Picking through the dusty closet of the chemistry classroom, Barry remarks, “Hey, this was Mr. Perry’s classroom! Man, I hated his guts.”
Luno winces as the memory of receiving a 70 on a test because he didn’t show work correctly resurfaces. “Yes, I’m pretty sure everyone did. Didn’t someone unleash two hundred cockroaches into his room one time?”
“Heh, that miiiiight have been me.”
Luno lets out a chuckle as he shuts the closet door. “Thanks for saving my grade, then. I would have failed that exam had it not been delayed.”
“No problem, buddy!”
Luno stops for a second.
“You alright?” Barry asks.
“Yes, I’m just not too familiar with being called ‘buddy.’”
“Oh shoot, sorry, should I not call you that?”
“No, no, it’s… nice.”
As they walk out of the chemistry classroom, Luno glances out the window looking over the darkened football field. “The box probably isn’t out there right? I don’t see why there would be much negative energy.” Even as he says that, he begins to reconsider. There’s something about that field that he can’t quite grasp, something buried long ago.
Barry is uncharacteristically silent.
“…I don’t know about that.”
“What do you mean?” Something is scratching at the back of Luno’s mind, a harsh screeching sound.
Barry points at the field of dying grass. He speaks quietly. “That’s where they told the school about the attack.”
The repressed memories claw their way back into Luno’s mind. The dam his subconscious had erected to stem the flood of terrible emotions crumbles. Luno grips his head, almost losing his balance. The wave engulfs him, paralyzing every muscle in his body. Tumbling through the black waters, he is seventeen years old again.
The screeching of the bus tires, the melting rubber. The pounding of fists on glass. The horrible smell of burning flesh.
Then, the wails at the announcement. The woefully short list of those that had survived.
…Jonathan Aarons, Luno Armani, Claire Cho…
The long list of those that hadn’t.
…Candace Hunley, Barris Jackman, William Jackson…
Grief, despair, rage.
A deadly cocktail of negative energy, the perfect recipe for a powerful spectre.
The window erupts as a transparent hand smashes through, sending blades of wet shrapnel flying through the hallway. It grabs Luno, yanking him out of the dark school, and hurls him through the air, into the rain. Dazed brown eyes lighten into blue as he hurtles through the air. Tucking his chin in and bending his knees, Barry rolls onto the yellow grass with a grunt.
“HEY! Luno! Gonna need you to do the magic zipper thing again, buddy!”
To Luno, Barry’s voice is muffled, barely audible over the pounding of his own heartbeat and the crashing of the waves. “Physical…form…this spectre…is strong…”
Barry ducks to the side as another fist leaves a crater of mud on the field. “Yea, looks like it!”
Luno tries to kick to the surface, but his limbs feel impossibly heavy.
The cackle of a horrible monster, the screams of terror. Luno is in the back of the bus again, clawing at the windows.
The hot tears, the panicked flailing of children, the smoke coiling in his lungs.
Back in the outside world, Barry coughs up blood as another strike sends him flying into the stands.
“Look, I know you’re going through something right now! But you’re a tough guy! You can make it!”
Luno stops, bloodied fingers curled against the glass. He looks to his left, like he had once before. Someone had punched through a window, blood dripping down his arms as he cleared away the glass shards. His face is dark, claimed by the ravages of Luno’s memories. “GO! GET OUT OF HERE! YOU CAN MAKE IT!”
The feeling of the asphalt slamming against his shoes as he fled, others following. Luno turns back, and his brown eyes meet the bright blue eyes of Barris Jackman, the star of the football team and the one who saved his life.
Luno bursts through the surface, shaking his head clear of the memory. He is back in his present body, the one hardened by age and experience. He sucks in a deep breath. He has a job to do, and a paycheck to collect. Blue eyes ignite into burning brown. Thank you for everything, Barry. I’ll take over now.
He looks at the enormous spectre floating over the football field. A face with no eyes and a terrible mouth contorted into a silent scream of pain and loss. Two arms, like white tree trunks, lunging towards him again. Luno deftly leaps to the side, pulling out his pouch of zipper sliders as the metal crumples under the force of the spectre’s deadly power.
“YEA! I knew you could do it!” Barry woops, punching the air.
Luno nods, raising a zipper to his forehead. “Banish!”
As the spectre sends another punch towards them, Luno throws open a white portal ahead of him. It widens to face the oncoming strike, but shatters into pieces as the ghostly fist smashes through. Luno barely manages to roll out of the way, cursing.
“As I thought, this spectre is too powerful for my Banish portals.” The shards of the broken portal evaporate into mist and the zipper slider falls to the ground, smoking and twisted.
“Barry, lend me your speed. I have an idea.” Luno searches through his pouch before pulling out a certain slider. “I’m going to annihilate it.”
“You got it, buddy!”
The spectre lets out a deafening howl and retracts its arm quickly. Coiling its powerful limbs like springs, it takes aim at the small man dashing along the football stands. It cackles in glee as it launches both arms towards him so quickly that a sonic boom sends raindrops flying off their charted course.
Barry somersaults through the air, backflipping over the impossibly quick attack. He lands on the spirit’s arm with a running start, pounding up towards the stupefied spectre’s open mouth. As he bolts along the arm, Luno regains control.
The slider in Luno’s hand begins to glow with bright orange energy, the runes pulsing with heat. The spectre pulls its arms back again, but Luno had predicted this, clinging on tightly so that the force of the arms retracting pulls him toward the spectre’s head. He leaps off the white surface, into the air above the enormous spirit, with the slider pressed against his forehead. He looks down upon it, knowing that if the spectre had eyes, they would be filled with fear. With a satisfied smile, he yells the incantation for his most powerful portal.
The orange portal explodes into being behind the traced outline of the white-hot slider. In an instant, a massive pillar of red hellfire bursts forth, completely swallowing the spectre in otherworldly flame. Every raindrop in the area evaporates as a wave of heat singes the night air. The spectre lets out its last scream, before it trails away. The portal closes, and when the fire dissipates, there is nothing left of the oppressive spirit.
Prying the black box inscribed with the Combine insignia out of a dead mercenary’s hands, Luno clicks his tongue. “All that searching in the school building and it was sitting under the bleachers the whole time.”
Barry smiles broadly. “Well, at least we found it!”
Thinking of the Italian dinner he can buy once he turns this in, Luno nods. His stomach growls in agreement.
“Damn,” Barry says, almost sullenly, “I miss being able to eat.”
Walking back to his beat-up sedan with the annoying backpack robot in it, Luno chuckles. Having an actual person to talk to rather than that thing will be a nice change of pace. “Don’t worry, dinner’s on me, buddy.”