It had been two weeks since Sabra had knocked his teeth out, and Derrek Chambers still wasn't sure of his direction. The things he did know were simple: he was cold, he was tired, and his whole body ached. He could figure those out because he had been sleeping on park benches and inside doorways. He also knew that the funds on his stolen cred-card would last for maybe one more day, and that was only if the owner hadn't already reported it stolen.
After that, Derrek supposed, pulling his jacket around himself, he wasn't sure what would happen. He'd starve, probably.
Something had gone wrong somewhere, that much was clear. Had it been when he'd slipped away into the night when that cape, Bushranger, had busted him out of that room? Had it been in Paradigm City, where he'd accepted that offer to join that guy Monkey and his crew? Had it been giving up his mission to clean up Paradigm City? Had it been in buying that equipment in the first place?
Perhaps it was none of those things. Perhaps the mistake was the first time he had laid eyes on Sabra.
Derrek shuffled down the street, and no one looked at him. Of course, that wasn't true. Everyone he passed on the streets of Perth pretended not to look at him. He was a shuffling shadow, and every set of eyes just slid over him. Derrek collapsed onto a bench, eyes on a medley of fast food places. Not much of a last meal, but it'd do.
Another derelict approached him. Derrek glanced his way, raised his fist, and the other man altered his trajectory. He wasn't like them. He would never be like them. Fuck solidarity and fuck sympathy.
"You okay, friend?" a man asked to Derrek's left, his American accent crisp and precise.
Derrek turned his head. There stood a blonde man in a charcoal suit with a tie of such a bright shade of red that it reminded Derrek of an apple. God, he was hungry. He really had to figure out dinner soon. The man's eyes were a warm shade of friendly green that reminded Derrek of no one but Sabra.
"I'm fine," Derrek said. God, how he hated how he sounded with his mouth like this.
The man nodded and stepped toward the bench. "You're only saying that; I can see it in your eyes." He sat down. "What happened to your teeth?"
"Just a fight. You should see the other guy."
The man smiled, bowing his head. Something gold glimmered on the left lapel of his suit. "You're lying."
Derrek frowned. "Yeah?" Lucky guess. "And what're you, some kind of good Samaritan?"
"You could say that. I'm a friend. A shepherd for lost souls, you could say."
"I'm not lost, and I don't need whatever religious bullshit you're about to get me on. I bet you're one of those Eternal Dawn zealots, huh? Go fuck yourself."
The man's smile didn't waver, even as Derrek stood up from the bench. "Such anger," he said like he found it amusing. "What if I could give you purpose? Or, if not purpose, what if I could give you a meal?"
That gave Derrek pause. He turned back toward the man and said, "Listening. But you better make it a good meal. And it doesn't mean I'm going to buy whatever it is you're selling."
"The best. And for now, my friend, call me Alexander."
Later, with his three-course meal finished and feeling properly sated for the first time in days, Derrek dabbed away the last remnants of chocolate cake from his mouth with a napkin. He managed to fight down the urge to belch. The restaurant Alexander had taken him to seemed like the kind of place that would throw one out for something like that.
Alexander was a strange person. Derrek had spent much of the meal silent, watching him and trying to figure him out. Alexander hadn't seemed to mind – his host had seemed content to make banal small talk, even when it was utterly one-sided. He looked to be about Derrek's age, but that could have just been a trick of his short, immaculate hair and clean-shaven face. He certainly didn't carry himself like he was nineteen years old.
"So, Derrek," Alexander began. "Are you ready to hear my pitch?"
"I guess." Derrek glanced at the golden pin in Alexander's lapel, a swooping bird of some sort. Recognition danced on the tip of his tongue. "What're you selling?"
"Purpose, camaraderie, and the promise of a bright shining future."
Derrek scoffed. "This is sounding like more and more of a scam."
Alexander studied him from across the table. "Derrek," he began, "I may be the only person able to promise you something that isn't a scam. After all, this world has more than enough resources to take care of everyone who is in need of food, water or shelter. And yet there you were, hungry and uncomfortable and missing your teeth. Is that fair?"
"No. But life's not fair for a reason. You can't help people who don't want to help themselves. Some people just aren't worth it."
"So you were helping yourself?"
"That's interesting," Alexander replied. "Derrek, I represent a group who believes that every man and woman has a duty to help themselves, to help their brothers and sisters, to help their nation. And through that, those men and women become greater and become part of something greater."
Derrek glanced at Alexander's golden pin again. It wasn't just any old bird, it was a falcon, and that connected the dots. "You're with the Empire, aren't you?"
"You're quite astute. Yes, I represent the interests of the Neo-American Empire."
"Then what're you doing all the way out here?"
"As I said, I am shepherding lost souls. The Empire welcomes anyone who wishes to contribute to something greater than themselves, and so many people do, they just never have the opportunity. I provide that opportunity. You're not from around here are you, Derrek? I detect a trace of an accent."
"I was born in the States," Derrek admitted. "But I spent some years in Paradigm City."
"Then you're quite aware of the issues facing the world, aren't you? So many people, all of them assuming that they know what's best, and yet, when you look around, it feels like the world is sliding towards total bedlam."
"Yeah," Derrek replied. "Yeah, I guess it does." He poked at the crumbs on his plate. "I saw so much of it in Paradigm. Crime. Corruption. I thought I could fix things. Make people see that everything was getting worse."
Alexander nodded, his eyes on him, his expression sincere. "And you ended up here. Alone, injured and hungry. The world cannot be changed by any one person, Derrek. It is only through unity that we are strong, and only through strength that we can create a truly just world."
"No offense, Alexander, but I've heard that your nation has some pretty nasty skeletons in its closet."
Alexander's warm smile said nothing at all. "If someone disrupts our cause, our unity, what should we do with them? If they decide to disrupt the disciplined efforts of our people, then forcing them to contribute constructively is hardly the worst outcome, is it? Imagine if those people you mentioned – the corrupt, the criminals – could have devoted their time and energy to fixing the issues plaguing Paradigm City. Is that such a regrettable thing if they were forced to do so?"
"No," Derrek said. "No, I suppose not."
"To those who do the right thing, who help themselves, who enrich the lives of those around them, the Empire provides the world. Is that not just?"
Something about the spiel made Derrek uncomfortable, even though his mind sung agreement. "So," he said, "What does any of this have to do with me?"
Alexander chuckled. "Ah, Derrek. I am offering you everything I have already mentioned. The Empire could use people like you."
Derrek ran his tongue over the gap between his teeth, against his ruined gums. "Will you fix my teeth?"
"I will not, but we have many experienced dental surgeons who would be happy to."
"My dad always said not to trust genies bearing gifts."
"He was right on one thing then: the Empire can grant you wishes and make your dreams come true."
"No," Derrek said, shaking his head. "What's the catch?"
"There isn't one. That is, beyond the two years of service within the Imperial Guard – for which you will be paid, of course."
"Aren't you at war with the United States?"
"Technically, yes. However, it gets no more violent than a shouting match. Literally, in some cares, when their soldiers shout across the border."
"And after those two years of service, what if I decide it's not for me?"
Alexander spread his hands. "Then you can leave. We hold no one hostage. If someone does not wish to contribute, it is better than they are elsewhere, no?"
Derrek couldn't argue with that. Still, the conversation paused as a waitress brought over the bill, and Alexander handed over his card. It gave Derrek time to think. His mind ran down the rundown streets of Paradigm City, paced around the bare room Sabra had imprisoned him within, replayed Monkey's conversations about being people who could change the world.
Huh, Derrek thought. Sabra and Monkey and everyone else. All those people who thought they knew what was best, and all it led to was violence and chaos and corruption, and no single person could clean it all up.
Derrek had thought he could be that single person, too. And all he had done was kill people, and nothing had changed. Even though he had thought he could send a message, a bloody flare that would force the world to notice, to send help, all it had done was eat away at him until he had turned himself in.
Looking back on it now, Derrek wanted to laugh. He had turned himself in? For what? To face the justice of a dystopia?
How stupid had he been? And now, fate had given him a second chance. Events had aligned in such a way to save him from his stupid idea of self-imposed justice, and it had allowed him an opportunity with a group that understood how the world should work.
In his mind, Derrek saw the red banners of the Neo-American Empire, the uniforms and posters, the capes, the discipline, the purpose. To be part of something like that, of a state – an entire nation – that eschewed all the things that had strangled Paradigm City...
How could Derrek pass it up?
After all, he was a good, righteous person, and the Empire would reward him.
The waitress returned with Alexander's card, and he smiled at her, thanked her, and slipped it away. Then his attention was on Derrek again. "Derrek, my friend, I truly believe that the Empire will provide for you, that it will do better for you than anywhere else on the planet, and that you will return our belief in you a hundred-fold."
Derrek nodded. "That belief means a lot to me, Alexander." And he said, "I'd like to be part of something bigger than myself. Something that might actually try to save this broken world. Where do we go from here?"
Alexander smiled, and extended his right hand. Derrek took it, shook it.
"Towards the future, Derrek," Alexander said. "Towards the future."