“Mutually Assured Destruction”

Carmella Albury removed her black trenchcoat and set it upon a chair. Underneath, she had been wearing a matching power suit made of military grade carbon-spandex. On her waist was a tool belt with a pistol tucked along the side. I might have been impressed with how good it looked on the older woman, were it not for the fact that the armament likely cost more than even her impressive salary could ever hope to afford.

“You seem surprised,” chuckled the Hemlock principal. “Which question shall I answer first? Shall I tell you how I knew you would be here? Or maybe I should explain my abnormal appearance instead? Well? What shall it be, Miss Cassia?”

“You… It was you!?” Dropping the bottle of cryovenom that was in my hands, I lunged to tackle Carmella, only to be grabbed by her and pinned thanks to the added strength of her power suit.

“You might be an honor student, Miss Cassia, but in the real world you are nothing more than a naïve fool without a leg to stand on. All it took was one push, one word of warning, and your instinctual rebellion kicked in of its own will. From there it was easy – so, so easy – to keep you occupied while slowly luring you into a false sense of security! You should see the look on your face right now!”

“Damn you… Damn you, Carmella!” I struggled to break free of her grip, which only seemed to amuse her further. She moved her other hand to my hair and tugged, making me scream in agony, falling to my knees. “Why are… you working for… Xandria…?”

“I want you to picture nearly ten thousand souls flowing through these halls over the course of seven years. Many are them are just like you. They become so complacent with the educational system that they take their personal skillsets for granted. They get bored, they claim they haven’t been challenged enough, and then they go off to college only to realize they were never looking to the future at all!

“They are, all of them, entitled little shits. When life doesn’t improve the way they think it should, they blame the system for not preparing them! Eventually they will fall into depression, and many of them will turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, or some other short-lived elation to fill the blackness in their heart. Should I really give a flying fuck about the well-being of any of them? They honestly do not deserve it.

“Your friends and your generation insist that the ones who came before you have milked and squandered all of the opportunities available! Did you know that this kind of rhetoric was present in my own generation, and the generation before that!? The reality is that in this universe, when people get smart, you have to get smarter to survive. If you cannot figure that out on your own, then you deserve to rot! Those of my generation simply decided to speed up the process a little.

“I may have spent nineteen years serving in education, but I have been a partner of Xandria for much, much longer. Xandria is everywhere, controls every part of Ganymede life, and cannot be stopped. We achieved this by becoming smarter than everyone else and having the sense to slowly milk them dry.” With each undulation of pitch, she tugged my hair just a bit harder. “Do you understand all of this, Miss Cassia?”

I didn’t; the words coming out of her mouth made absolutely zero sense to me. Or perhaps I just didn’t want to comprehend them. Accepting that Carmella had been a spy this entire time would mean assuming partial responsibility for the Navaro drug trade. It would mean assuming partial responsibility for all of the anger which had been directed toward the Megaera family. I couldn’t handle heartache of that magnitude.

I stared up at the woman with eyes of anguish. “Why are you telling me all of this…? Do you get some kind of… sick thrill from it…?”

“Aha! Perhaps I do; perhaps I don’t. However, I have the luxury of affording you this information because, well, what will you be able to do with it anyway? Do you think anyone would take your word over mine? People respect me in this city; I’m a legend here. You’re a rebellious sack of shit and everyone knows it.”

The latter of criticisms was especially scathing, what with my running away from home. That Carmella would choose to bring it up now meant she was only trying to get a rise out of me. When I didn’t give her the reaction she desired, she pushed me by the back, and my body crashed against her desk, spilling papers and office supplies all over the floor.

“GET ON YOUR FEET, LOVE! Let’s see how tough you really are! I want to know, so I’ll give you one shot!” She pointed to her cheek. “Come on, right the fuck here. Give me just one punch so I can show you what true power is really like!”

Clutching the edge of the desk for support, I gritted my teeth as I glared in her direction. If there were no repercussions at all, I would very likely have done it. I would have put everything I had into taking her down a peg, even if it meant putting my own life in danger. I knew though that I had too much to lose, and like she mentioned earlier, no leg to stand on. I could only watch in horror as the woman I had once respected revealed her true demonic energy.

She walked over to me, put her lips to my ear, and whispered, “That’s what I thought.” Then I felt a sharp sting in my side as her right hand stabbed me with a syringe. It wasn’t rocket science to figure out what would happen next.

As soon as my muscles gave out and I collapsed to the floor, Carmella Albury fished my phone from my pocket. “Have you had sex? Knowing you and young Megaera, that’s probably a given. I’m sure you’ll find your first hit is very much like losing your virginity. It may hurt a little, but soon you’ll be craving it like an animal. Have fun.” The elder woman put on her trenchcoat and turned out the lights. As the door closed behind her, I was engulfed in hell.

There was simply no fighting the drug. Every time I tried to sit up, I was wracked with spasms across my chest and shoulders. They flowed down my arms to my fingers, rendering it impossible to so much as make a fist. My body began to perspire uncontrollably, and I struggled to take a breath.

With each passing minute, the sensations would magnify. The influx of heat spread to my womanhood and I bit my lip. No! I can’t let this beat me! I have to be strong for Raiden and for all the people Xandria has hurt! But it was no use. My body began to refuse my will, hips rolling and back arching. If there was a heaven and a hell, I was certain that the Devil himself had entered my body, feeding off my temptations and luring me ever deeper into primal ecstasy.

I tried to scream, but nothing came out. My vocal cords were too lax for anything beyond a meager grunt. I could feel my will being slowly consumed, and tears began to stream down my face. Why…? Am I so weak… after all…? My physical body reached a series of crests, and I passed out from the magnitude of it all. The last thing I remembered was my hope that Raiden would one day forgive me for all of my inept failings. I was ashamed to call myself the heiress of Megaera.

These lights… are they memories…? I can see it… the day I met Raiden… the party where he revealed his feelings… Oh, how cruel I was back then… He stayed by me regardless, through Seven Stars and the war game which followed… He is the truest saint… and I… a lowly sinner…

The drug would eventually wear off, and my eyes would open to the dark room. I smelled of sex, and my clothes were in utter disarray. The clock on the wall informed me that over two hours had passed since I entered the office. Carmella could have been anywhere and worse yet, she had my phone. Even if she couldn’t get into it, she could pretend to be me thanks to its geolocation functionality. Whatever she had planned could only serve to implicate me down the road. I was powerless, and it hurt so much.

I needed to stand up, I needed to fight; and yet, I questioned whether anything good could come of it. Carmella had taken everything from me, and the cold reality was that I had unwittingly let her. I failed to protect others, but I failed to protect myself most of all. Gradually, I had begun to shift the blame completely onto myself. Even in that small dark room, I felt so much smaller in comparison.

Outside, the satellite continued to turn. I thought of my father, and of my mother, and of Raiden. I thought of Felicity and Francesca and Bradley as well. Every one of them had a dream, an aspiration that they fought so desperately to hold onto. All of them had, at one point or another, confided their true selves in me, and I had vowed to always do right by them. They in turn made vows to support me in my own quest for self. Had I let them all down? Had I served only to impede their dreams? Had I burdened them? Had I broken the trust they put in me?

Perhaps I should disappear… But if I were to leave Hemlock entirely, and abandon the woman that was Jade Cassia, where exactly would I go? I would no longer be able to finish my education, and I would have nothing to offer anyone in the real world…

“I don’t really have much to offer this world, you know?” The voice which echoed in my head was not my own. It was a voice I hadn’t heard in a long time, for it belonged to a Francesca Descartes who was much younger, at a time much simpler. As the memories began to flood back, I couldn’t help but close my eyes, an apathetic sigh resonating through my body as I was whisked away from the moment and deep into the past.

The schools in Hemlock were all slightly staggered to split up the student population at first and then slowly merge them back together. There were four primary schools for grades one through six, three middle level schools for grades seven through nine, and finally, the massive secondary school for grades ten through twelve. The lower levels were populated based on residence location, but the middle levels were tiered based on academic standing.

It was a fluke that Francesca ever made it into Rosen Sub-Secondary Academy. She was nowhere near the required core benchmarks, but knowing that Felicity made it in, she demanded an appeal so as not to be left behind. Thanks to her natural talents in performance art, her appeal was granted.

We were in entirely different classes, and I only saw her from time to time at first. In year eight, however, I began to deviate from my strict studies and took theatre as my elective. When I auditioned for the winter program, I was cast as the main villainess. This placed me alongside the female lead, none other than Francesca herself. In the months that followed, I discovered that there was nobody I hated more in my young life than that girl.

The way we approached our roles was drastically different, so she would nitpick everything I did. As she was the more experienced one, I accepted it to a point. It became overkill when, after each live performance, she would pull me backstage to berate me for the same missteps. If I contradicted her, she’d claim I was “disrespecting the art form” or something to that effect. I was relieved that, once we completed our tenth and final showing, I would never have to deal with her loud mouth again.

Or so I thought; the following spring our class began to raise money for an end-of-the-year trip. One of the fundraisers was an open car wash, and her bossiness was as bad as ever. “You kept taking too much time on one spot! Plus it’s wasting soap to try and scrub the gunk away! We can always hose it off, you know?” Her criticisms began as soon as the last car drove off, and I found I just couldn’t take it anymore.

“You know what, Fran? Sometimes working a little harder is more fun than just breezing through it! Sometimes we want to just do it for its own sake even if it’s not the best way. But you wouldn’t know that, would you!?”

“What are you getting at, Jade!? Did you forget that the whole point of this is to make money!? I would much rather be at home sleeping than out here on a cloudy day getting soaked in freezing water! Yet I actually care about this group having a good time and I’m willing to crack the whip because who else is going to!”

Our classmates watched nervously, having sensed that a fight like this was long overdue. I was not willing to bend even for an instant. “Nobody asked you to crack the whip, Fran! Do you not get it? You think that you have this responsibility to be our leader when really, that’s just your immature ego talking!”

MY ego!? You’re the one talking to me like you’re still the villain in the play; now that’s an ego trip! Someone here needs to get the hell over herself and it isn’t me!”

“So you’re going to just deflect criticism like you always do! You can dish it out but you certainly can’t take it! If I have to sound like a villain, so bloody-well be it! I’ll be sure to take you down a peg in the meantime because as you put it earlier, who else is going to, right!?”

“That’s enough!” Our teacher moved in between us before things could get even more out of control. To this day I’m sure that had she not, I would have taken the bucket of dirty water I was holding and splashed it all over Francesca. Instead, I set it down slowly.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t do this anymore.” My bag was sitting along a nearby fence. I grabbed it and walked off, calling my father to pick me up. In my mind, all I could think about was how much of a bitch I felt she was. We didn’t speak at all for several weeks.

The trip did eventually happen, our class crowding onto a bus and traveling six hours to a city far south of Hemlock. We spent about two days there, watching a sporting event on the first night and then visiting museums on the second. In the afternoon of the second day, we were allowed to browse the local mall for a few hours.

There was a candy shop selling this really expensive saltwater taffy that everyone wanted. Even I succumbed to the allure, buying up a few bags in order to have leftovers come summer break. On my way out, I saw Francesca standing alone in one corner of the shop. Her friends were busy checking out, and it looked like she was merely pretending to browse. In the end, she left without buying anything.

As we got back on the bus, she seemed a lot more forlorn than normal. While her clique gossiped, she stared out the window at the passing scenery. I don’t know why, but I started to feel sorry for her. It was after midnight when we got back to Hemlock, and as we got off the bus, I stopped her.

In my left hand was one of the toffee bags. “Take it.”

Her eyes widened, but she attempted to catch herself. “I… I don’t need your pity.”

“Francesca, you wanted this trip a lot, didn’t you? It’s not fair that you were the only one who it went badly for. So take it.”

Her right hand reached to grab the bag, and then she bolted out of the bus. I was almost certain she was crying, confirming my suspicions. My dad arrived to take me home, and I fell asleep that night reflecting on the girl I had misjudged for so long. The next morning, she called me in order to apologize for everything. That is how Francesca and I became friends.

Summer break came along as it often does, bring with it new stories and new experiences. One afternoon, I invited her to the observatory. Since neither of us had licenses yet, we rented small climbing ATVs and followed some logging roads behind my house. It took hours, and by the time we made it to the top, both of us were covered in dirt and smelled like forest. We had a good laugh that day.

Francesca had never been to the mountaintop before that. When she saw the view, her heart jumped for joy. We had a picnic in the observatory, and that’s when she told me her true feelings. “Hey, Jade.”

“What is it?”

“Do you think it’s possible to become someone else?”

I thought about it a moment and answered, “Well, even if you managed to change your DNA, there would still be memories of the you that used to be, wouldn’t there? In the same vein, you’d have no past or memories belonging to your new self. In a way, it’s like you’re an imposter, stealing the identity of the person you idolize most.”

“That’s a pretty deep answer, not going to lie.” Francesca paused, and then she sighed.

“The problem is that I kind of just… hate being me.”

“Huh!?” I sat up rapidly, knocking over my soda and flailing to catch it before it could spill all over the floor. “Wh-What even makes you say something like that!? You’re such a likeable person when people get to know you!”

“Jade, whatever people see of me is just the image of whatever character I’m choosing to become that week. That’s what it means to act. When I get on stage, I can take on the traits and ideals of anyone who’s ever existed, real or imagined. I guess I end up becoming them and resting on their laurels, you know?”

“But to do that in the first place requires considerable skill!” I reasoned. “It requires you to understand people, their motivations, and all sorts of other qualities!”

“Maybe,” she lamented, “though at the same time I wasn’t able to understand you until after I had already hurt you so much. That’s really what all of this is if you think about it. I don’t really have much to offer this world, you know?”

“Francesca!?”

“It’s okay; I’ve had plenty of time to come to grips with it.” She stood and walked to one of the observatory windows. “I decided a while ago that if I ever do leave this satellite, I will abandon my past and name as well. I will become a vessel for someone else’s character, and maybe I’ll learn to love that person.”

I remember being in awe of her words. It was a perspective I had never known and now, years later, I had begun to find myself in her situation. Deep within my mind’s eye resided a room of mirrors, all abstract representations of the woman known as Jade Cassia. I imagined myself in the center, holding a metal bat. How easy it would be to shatter them all, to erase the woman that was me and become a canvas for someone else’s memories. Maybe Fran was right… Didn’t I want to destroy my past anyway…? If I leave now… then the weak woman I was can disappear too…

“YOU’RE WRONG!” …Huh? I watched as my younger self leapt toward Francesca and pinned her to the observatory glass. “So what if you’ve made mistakes? That’s how you learn! Do you honestly believe that you can cast those lessons aside and adopt the lessons of someone whose path you never truly walked!? Answer me, Francesca!”

“G-Get off me, Jade!”

“Not until you get the hell over yourself! You are better than this! If there’s one thing a person has an inalienable right to, it’s their own freaking past! You can become someone different without completely segregating the person you once were! If you want to get off Ganymede that’s fine, but you better take with you the very things that made you who you are! You’re worth that much, aren’t you!?”

Now it was Francesca who was in awe. Suddenly she stopped trying to push me away, and instead collapsed against me, stifling a sob. That was the first time she truly opened up to me, and it wouldn’t be the last. Even as she grew stronger, she would always turn to Felicity and me whenever she started to lose sight of herself. She often considered herself something of a burden, but to me she was the most genuine woman I had ever met. I was honored to be called her friend.

The memories would fade, and I opened my eyes to that dark office once more. That’s right, isn’t it…? Even now, I have a right to my transgressions… I struggled to my feet. …because without them… Gripping the desk took every ounce of strength. …how would I ever learn!? I threw myself forward against the backdoor of the office, wincing as I crashed through it. I know what I need to do… Each step was labored as I made my way to the parking lot. I just hope I’m not too late…!

There was only one place Carmella would have gone. I knew this because it was listed on my file within the SCS table. My favorite place ever since I was a child would certainly be the setting for our final battle. I got on my motortrike and gunned it toward the city’s north end, running stoplights with reckless abandon. I had to get to the observatory as soon as possible.

Once in the thick forests, the atmosphere because dark, silent and foreboding. I inched my way up that steep hill until I approached the top, and that’s when I heard the clamor and commotion of sheer scores of people. Frankly, I was surprised that they could all fit their vehicles along that steep hill. There had to be close to one hundred people watching, waiting. Floating displays had been erected in an open air amphitheater arrangement. On the monitors, I could see a masked figure who I knew had to be Carmella. Raiden was across and to her right, Bradley to her left.

“Jade!?” I turned to see Felicity running toward me. “I thought you were taken hostage in the observatory!”

“I was knocked unconscious and my phone stolen. What happened? Why are Bradley and Raiden fighting!?”

“It was my understanding that each believes the other kidnapped you! Also, there was something about the Megaera family being blackmailed? Jade, I have no idea what’s going on anymore!”

I wish I could say the same; unfortunately, I know all too well. I ran forward through the crowd with Felicity trailing after me. I reached for the locked doors and began to bang my fist on the tempered glass. “Raiden, Bradley! Stop this now!”

I expected the two of them to turn and look at me, but only one of them did. As Raiden let his guard down, Bradley pulled a sidearm from his hip and fired a single shot. There was a loud blast which echoed through the glass, and then Raiden was knocked back a few feet onto his side. A moment later, blood began to pour out of him.

“…RAIDEN!?” I fell to my knees in horror. Bradley stood up and dropped the gun, putting a hand to his mouth. That’s when I knew that this too was all part of Carmella’s sick, twisted plan. The person who really pulled that final trigger… was me. No… That’s not possible! IT WAS NEVER SUPPOSED TO END LIKE THIS!

I failed to notice that the rest of the crowd had grown silent. My screams soon become the loudest noise atop that mountain, coupled with the erratic banging of my fist on the glass. “GIVE HIM BACK TO ME! GIVE RAIDEN BACK!”

“Jade, get back!” Felicity pulled me aside as a few of the stronger spectators used a broken tree trunk as a battering ram. Once the doors were removed, Felicity rushed in and pulled her medical back off her shoulders, injecting Raiden with clotting foam. “His spleen’s ruptured, we need medical soon or we’ll lose him!”

I stared through the windows at my best friend, who was currently doing everything she could to keep my boyfriend alive. Across from her, I could see Bradley being pulled from the building by the group of students who had broken the doors down. I could hear him shouting as he passed, “I didn’t mean to! We were given those weapons for the match! I never planned to kill him!”

If I had any rage left inside me, I would have leapt up and beaten him to death myself. Yet the anxiety I felt kept me rooted to the ground. All I wanted was for Raiden to be okay, but there was nothing I could do to help him now. The only thing I could do was watch in horror as the life slowly drained out of my lover’s body.

In the sky arrived two police helicopters and two medical drones. As the copters landed, nearly a dozen officers stepped down to secure the area. Bradley was taken into custody first, and then I felt my father’s hands on my shoulders. “It’s over, Jade. Your little game has gone on long enough.”

“NOO! IT CAN’T END LIKE THIS! NOT LIKE THIS!” I screamed out the words as my father hoisted me from the ground.

“That’s enough! What good is crying like a child going to do your boyfriend now!? You were warned again and again that this is the life you’d have waiting for you! You wished for this, Jade!”

Hearing that absolutely broke me inside. When this all started, I wanted to believe that in times of disaster I would be one of the few who could rise above and take care of things. I wanted to prove that I wasn’t all talk, that I my experiences and my training made me just as capable as my mother and father.

I had navigated the rocky path of relationships. I had survived being thrown into a glass wall at full force. I had steeled myself in the wake of being shot at. Even so, nothing in this universe could have softened the blow of seeing Raiden fall like that, of knowing that his destruction was all because of me.

Our helicopter took off, and I could see Raiden being loaded into one of the medical drones below. With no strength left in me, I began to sob in full view of my father, my arms cuffed behind my back.

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