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Home of the Zookeeper

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The sky, or so the illusion of one was in yet another great chamber, simmered a twilit orange, violet bubbles slowly rising along the horizon above a black forest that encircled the area, red clouds smeared high above, immobile and yet seeming to move along a subtle current. An old but well-maintained farmhouse was visible near the far end of a grand clearing full of golden grass, a lone elder in many cloaks sitting on a finely crafted rocking chair and contemplating simple matters as he swayed back and forth on the canopied porch of the farmhouse. The modest settlement was colored red, the man and his chair shades of brown, yet all things within the clearing were stained orange by the sky, heedless of whatever color they truly were. Opposite of the small home on the clearing was a large hole, the grass being sucked down into it as if a meteor had carved it in. Usually filled pitch-black, rings of light now rose from the opening, a subtle bellow echoing up and growing until it became a shrill cry, a massive worm with two humanoid riders flinging itself up from out of the hole and hanging high in the air as if part of a rehearsed drama before tumbling forwards and crashing against the ground. Shreds of the golden flora were sent up in a cloud as the massive serpentine beast slid towards the farmhouse on the other side of the clearing, the elderly fellow rocking back and forth as he always had while watching the creature and its riders draw near, stopping several yards away from the porch before letting out a groan and deflating in exhaustion.


"This is it," The Architect said, leaping off sideways much the same way a cowboy disembarks from his steed, Kane following shortly after. The creator brushed himself off some after landing and turned to face the farmhouse, taking only a few steps before somersaulting into the air and about-facing to meet the visibly agitated bounty hunter who tried landing a straight-arm thrust at his back. "Again with the hostilities?"


"Just goin' off what he would do," The Insane Space Hunter said, continuing some before reverting to Kane-mode. "Though I s'pose some of me own feelings be mixed in here, yar, but to the point, you knew what was going to happen, didn't you?"


Sally groaned some in her approaching unconsciousness, though it was not this deafening background noise that kept The Architect silent. Kane snarled in his throat, pulling out his assault rifle and pointing it between The Architect's eyes.


"I know everything that ever has, is, and shall be," The Architect said, as if ignorant to his prior silence that led Kane to draw his weapon. "Or at least I normally would, if not for nature of The Object. My omnipotence, something you previously deduced about me, has been steadily limited ever since I sent this avatar into this realm, so while I still possess some grasp of what will happen, it was not nearly enough to forewarn me of Max's fate."


"Bastard," Kane spat, holding his assault rifle more firmly than before. "Just who do you think you are?"


"Even for someone as twisted and experienced as yourself, my true name and motives are something you can never comprehend," The Architect started, remaining unmoved in pose by Kane's aggression. "Attempting such would merely render you in a state beyond that of total annihilation. I have given myself a moniker for the convenience of mortal beings, however, so if you need a name to go by then you can call me The Architect, a most appropriate title for my eternal role."


"What a load of bullshit," Kane said, a malcontent glow growing in his eyes. "The Architect? I've heard enough about 'gods' like you, thinking you can go around degrading everything and ignoring those beneath you, which is usually everyone. Is that why you came here? To try and rub it in everyone's face?"


"I speak only the truth as it is and always will be; any 'degradation' you detect is merely an insecurity brought on by your inability to fully harness your emotions. Everything I do is mandated by 'The Plan' that I put into effect at the very conception of existence, yet another thing a lifeform such as yourself could never understand without sacrificing all that would enable you to understand it in the first place."


"Sounds more like an excuse you tag to any atrocity or mistake you make."


"Just another insecure analysis," The Architect said, turning his back to Kane and facing the farmhouse, its owner still rocking about nonchalantly. "All that has happened has been made so as according to The Plan. The very words I have spoken and continue to speak are a part of The Plan, even with what little significance you can make of them with the knowledge of such."


"You little..." Kane's teeth gnashed together, his trigger finger itching terribly, but he knew it couldn't be as easy as shooting this 'Architect' character in the back of the head. He put away his assault rifle and composed himself, his real ego offering some assistance in the matter. "Oh well, can't win'em'all, buddy! Shut up. Hey, just tryin' to lighten the mood, here."


The Architect made his way towards the owner of the farmhouse, the supposed 'zookeeper' Sally had spoken of. Though he had unveiled a lot to Kane, what he didn't point out was a flaw in The Plan, that flaw being The Unknown Garden, The Object he feared, something out of his control that could undermine everything he spent eternity working towards. That much Kane did not need to know.


"Well well well, looks like Sally needed a ride home from one crazy party, huh?" the elderly gent said in cliché elderly rasp. "'Preciate what ya did here, stranger. Anythin' you came lookin' for?"


Something was unsettlingly familiar to The Architect about the room he stood in, but he couldn't place his finger quite on it. The twilit sky, the shape and color of the trees, the nature of the grass, it all held some previous meaning rendered inconsequential. This thought was a mere moment to him as he replied to the zookeeper with little hesitance.


"Yes, would you be able to tell me who you are?" The Architect asked, something he wouldn't normally have to do. This man, much like The Object itself, was not something he could probe for answers and knowledge. He had to do things in fashion typical of beings beneath deities.


"I reckon Sally must've fill'dya in on some if you were able to tame'er," the zookeeper said, rocking back and forth as always. "I'm a zookeeper. Not too sure of mah real name m'self, but ya'll can call me Zookeeper if that's fine with ya."


"Most exciting 'zoo' I've ever seen here," Kane said with enough sarcasm to turn the sarcasm detector inside out. "You must have quite the invisible mulch mill to keep all this grass in such stupendous condition."


Zookeeper laughed, any assumed isolation clearly having no effect on his sense of humor.


"Sort of a 'grand scheme' zoo, youngin'," Zookeeper said. "I can talk t'all wildlife within this here Garden n' they don't give me any grief, not regularly anyway."


He eased up momentarily on his rocking to motion back to Sally.


"Sally here went outside the habitats she's allowed in," he said. "Prolly learned'er lesson after ya'll roughed her up some, it looks. No worries, though, she's a tough critter."


"That she is," The Architect nodded. He finally realized what was familiar about this room: it was identical to rural Sintiniz down to the bacteria in the soil. He had witnessed the destruction of that planet by nova prior to infiltrating the Unknown Garden, knowing well he would never glimpse it again. This chamber went against that thought in everyway because it wasn't just a mockery, it was an exact piece, as if someone had sliced off a part of Sintiniz prior to its obliteration and stuck it inside The Object. The very act of preserving a piece of a planet meant to be wiped from existence in such a way that it escaped The Architect's sight was a nod to The Object's potential to ruin The Plan if there ever was such a nod to refer to. The Architect kept his discontent and worry well hidden. "What other manner of beast do you oversee?"


"Ah, lessee, some man-eatin' roses, man-eatin' hounds, man-eatin' squids, womanizin' werecats, cheep-cheep here, cheep-cheep there," Zookeeper paused, sniffing the air from under the darkness of the cloak that kept his face hidden. He tilted his head inquisitively towards The Architect and Kane. "Say, you two haven't been harassed by Bouncers, have ya?"


"Bouncers?" Kane said.


"You'll have to elaborate, Zookeeper."


"Ah, s'pose not, then, though you might've seen'em," Zookeeper went on, gesturing his hands towards nothing in particular. "Skinny things. Real skinny things, I tell ya, and covered in all sorts'a furs n' skins. Gots'a real unsettlin' odor to 'em, though ya'd have to be native to the Garden t'be privy to it. That stink clings to anythin' they attack but don't manage t'kill."


"I HAVE seen those things," Kane said, taking a step forward. "They killed two men without mercy. What did you call them? Bouncers?"


"Yep, they take care of party-crashers, y'see," Zookeeper said. "Anythin' not born here in or of the Garden, they zap'em inta dust. You folks seem invited, or guests-o'-honor mayhaps, so they haven't been comin' after ya. Prolly haven't even paid any mind to ya."


"They also attack unwanted clones," a voice came from out of nowhere, The Architect turning his head and Kane taking a step back while doing the same, both spotting Mebius as he emerged from ripples at the corner of the farmhouse. "Found you, old man."


"Eh?" Zookeeper muttered, his cloaks stretching around as he turned to look at the third guest. "I know you, sonny?"


"Don't play dumb," Mebius said, taking a step forward with left hand outstretched to accept something, his right holding the MutaStone as it took the shape of a wicked-looking serrated dagger. "You're the reason I'm in this fifth dimensional mess, now give back what you stole."


"Afraid you got the wrong man, sonny," Zookeeper said, rocking back and forth as casually as ever. "Never seen ya b'fore."


"If you want it that way," Mebius said, taking another step forward as he dropped his left hand and pointed the dagger towards Zookeeper, "I guess I'll just have to pry it from your cold, dead hands."


"Impossible," The Architect said, Mebius' eyes darting to watch as the armored man moved between Zookeeper and the MutaStone dagger. "There remain questions unasked and unanswered by this man. I must oppose any intentions of yours to take his life."


"Count me out," Kane said, walking away from the fight. "The one guy looks familiar, but I'm not getting involved in any 'fifth dimensional' messes, and I'm certainly not about to help the Almighty Bullshitter. Play nice, you two!"


"Whatever," Mebius said, ignorant to Kane, eyes emotionless from the strain of shifting between thoughts of nothingness and thoughts that stretched into infinity. "Whoever you are, I hope you know what you've gotten yourself into by opting to protect this geezer."

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Without waiting for his opponent to reply, Mebius stepped in with a jab of his Mutastone "dagger," which lengthened itself into a sword even as he was attacking. The Architect wasted literally no time in stepping slightly to the side, and counterattacked with his own sword. Mebius, too, with reflexes borne of an extradimensional view of reality, sidestepped neatly to one side. Both figures stood stock-still for a mere moment, each holding their sword over the other's shoulder in a visceral mirror image of their opponent, then as one they slashed for the neck to end the fight in a violent and bloody manner.


Neither blow landed as both fighters again dodged with near-omniscient reflexes once again, their blades whipping through the air and coming back to clash again and again as each tried to find a hole in his opponent's defenses. Instantaneous reflexes warred against knowledge that spanned a limited part of the immediate future, and neither seemed to be able to gain the upper hand.


Then Mebius changed tactics, his MutaStone suddenly folding neatly in half at the point where the starsteel blade of the Architect intersected it and trapping it like a pincer. Surprise registered on the face of the Architect for only a split second as Mebius pulled the creator closer, prepared to deliver an elbow to the cheekbone. In that split second, however, a ball of lightning erupted from the Architect's gauntleted hand that Mebius saw (another) split second too late to dodge. As the globule of crackling energy struck him full in the chest, however, he managed to touch his off-hand to the Architect's own sword, creating a circuit between himself and the other being. Lightning arced through both of them, causing a thunderous boom and a powerful shockwave that knocked both of them backward. Mebius' MutaStone morphed into a spring as it released its grasp on the Architect's blade and the Oroboro righted himself on a coil of God's-Matter while the god simply drug his mundane blade through the soil to slow his flight until he planted both his feet once again in the Zookeper's yard.


Both fighters looked up at one another to continue the fight when they heard a weapon discharge in the vicinity of the building. They turned almost as one to see Kane, his sidearm leveled at the now-smoking remains of what had been the zookeeper's head, the chair still rocking slightly from the momentum that the old man had created right before his head had been turned into a pile of molten slag.


"What?" asked the cyborg.


"You fool! You don't realize what you've done!" screamed the Architect in a rage that would, under any other circumstance, blot out suns and send countless planets into the throes of endless frozen winter. As it was, however, all that his power mustered in the Garden was a necrotic wilting of the grass around him and a wave of rippling energy flattening the rest of the plant life around the Zookeeper's home.


"Life's a bitch, have a nice day." remarked Kane, holstering his pistol and brandishing his assault rifle. The more he adopted the "Kane" personality, the easier it became, it seemed. "Now get out of my... hell, I'll just move you out of the way."


Mebius, his MutaStone morphing into a heavy hammer, sprang at the fuming physical manifestation of the Architect just as Kane pulled the trigger, the two suddenly united by a common enemy...

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"Insignificant crumbs," the Architect bellowed in deliciously condescending god-like tone, withered grass being spewed up instantaneously in a line as the creator deity zipped several feet away from the collision. Mebius, having dedicated the thought to reading the outcome, smacked away the assault rifle shot with his MutaStone hammer before it could hit him, sending the round into the dirt mere inches away from where the Architect stopped and spraying the armored god in chunks of earth and dead grass. "Primitive. Using your curse to your advantage."


"Cram it," Mebius grumbled, not the least bit surprised or curious to the Architect's awareness of the multi-dimensional tangle the Oroboro was stuck in. He hefted the MutaStone hammer to rest on his shoulder, the flat ends of the head growing spikes as he made his steps towards the Architect.


"Filth of the Object!" the Architect roared, turning around and launching a spiral of electricity from his lightning gauntlet. Mebius immediately turned his warhammer into a spear and shoved it into the ground to anchor himself against the force of the blast, a mound of dirt forming before the MutaStone pole arm as Mebius was pushed back. Though his JETSPA was able to absorb some of the attack, he still coughed up a small bit of blood from what failed to be blocked. "You both..."


The Architect heard a click, his glance shooting to catch sight of another assault rifle shot heading his way. Light poured out from the eyes of his mask, the deadly piece of metal zinging towards him bouncing off in a harmless flurry as it was transmuted into cherry blossoms. Kane grumbled, displeased with the girly transformation his manly attack was given and readied another round. The Architect also grumbled, though this was more towards the strain building up on his avatar than any additional frustration towards his one opponent.


There was a lapse in the Architect's normally ubiquitous thought, his senses alerting him to an event that was now well into the works. He attempted to move out of the way as instantaneously as he did before, but his power failed him, a silvery tendril bursting from the ground nearest his right leg and wrapping around his ankle. Mebius made a smirk as he firmly gripped the other end of the MutaStone whip, pulling up from where the material had entered the soil and forcing the Architect down to his waste in upturned dirt. It was while the deity twisted about to free himself that he once again heard the click of Kane's assault rifle, the bullet aimed directly at his head. He moved his sword to block, but the shell grazed past the edge and hit its mark, leaving a very large dent in the Architect's mask-helmet. It also knocked said helmet off, which was the only thing keeping the surroundings from being drown out in pure white.


"What the hell?" Kane muttered as he shielded his eyes, then, feeling dissatisfied with this, switched to ISH-O-Sound. "Dang, brotha, go easy on da bling, will ya!?"


A blast of electricity knocked him to the ground, which was about as easy to see as a polar bear paddling precariously in a pool of pasteurization. The Architect, meanwhile, with head still ablaze like a million unspent suns, lowered his lightning gauntlet and pressed it to the upheavals around him, another blast from the utility sending his prison up in pieces and enabling him to stand on solid ground without said solid ground swallowing him up to his belt. Whatever joy there was to beget from the liberation was short-lived, however, as the Architect, unknowingly expending great effort in keeping his mug a brilliant sheen, was unable to detect the razor sharp metal tape that was being slung about the air in dangerously large circles, one swing having been precise enough to scalp the deity and immediately dull the light in the room. The Architect fell to his knees as the solid white disc that was severed from him landed in the grass at the center of his vision, The Architect watching through undulating sight as the colorless piece of his head dissolved into smaller white blobs that dissolved into a white mist that faded into the air. He sat there, slouched over, his head a white, featureless, semi-glowing blob that struggled to maintain some shape as he was riddled with the impossibilities of the situation combined with the unrelenting, unfamiliar, and highly unpleasant sensation that coursed through his body but was focused prominently at where the top of his head used to be.


"This does not adhere to the plan," the Architect said, his voice calm but with a touch of worry. Mebius, his tape-thin MutaStone whip morphing back into an easily carried rock, and Kane approached the weakened creator-god as he continued to think aloud. "The Zookeepr should not have died, and the outcome of this fight is nothing short of inconceivable. I need to find a way to compensate for these losses immediately..."


Mebius' glance darted up and Kane took a quick step back as the Architect was drawn into the air like a puppet on strings. He immediately toppled back to the floor, but the bottoms of his feet stayed planted, his crumpled legs snapping straight and sending him flying up into the air and through the ceiling of the chamber, vanishing behind a cloud of dust and bits of plaster. There was a good ten second pause before Kane grimaced, still looking at where the Architect made his escape.


"The plan?" he said. "Well by golly, that guy oughtta know them things be darn sure to get screwed up all the way to them cornfields in these here shindigs! Ain't dat right, pardner?"


Kane looked down to see Mebius; only he wasn't there. He turned his glance over to Zookeeper's home, catching sight of Mebius poking about the headless corpse of the old man. The Oroboro paused, then sighed, having revealed to himself the pointlessness behind any additional searching.


Not here, he thought to himself, but this is the same man, I know it. My life's become an orgy of nightmares since I met him...


He uttered a curse foreign to Kane (quite a feat to accomplish) and kicked the chair over, toppling the carcass and causing all manner of juices to gush out of the crusty hole that used to support a neck. Mebius stood still for a moment before turning about his head to get a look at his recent ally.

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