Somewhere in the mid-nineties, Dave sat playing Doom on his PlayStation, while the latest Pulp album played on his crappy old stereo. He was still baked from the morning sesh with Shane and didn’t have to be at work until eight that night, so he had time to take it easy.
He wasn’t looking forward to work, he needed to give the slaughter room a proper cleaning tonight and it was always full of blood and shit. He needed to go visit Shane again before he headed off later on.
Dave turned away from the game to open his last can of coke and looked back to find one of the biggest demons in the game rushing right at him. He fumbled for his controller, but it fell off his lap and he knew he was dead. He wouldn’t be able to react before the demon in the game tore him to pieces.
But it wasn’t doing anything. Instead of attacking him like every other character in the game, the demon just stood there and stared at him. Dave didn’t know what was going on and didn’t care. He scooped up the controller and blasted the demon back to digital hell.
Chalking it up to a glitch, Dave carried on through the game, but it was all different. None of the creatures in the game were attacking them and after kicking a few to death for the hell of it, Dave swiftly became bored.
The characters in the game were still reacting to Dave and would still wave their little pixelated claws, but then would back off from him and bow whenever he came near. He quickly got to the end of the stage with so little resistance and entered the throne room of the big bad.
Dave had played this game before. He knew that this stage ended with a big fuck-off king monster who shat out giant balls of fire. Not a weirdly detailed black man in a sharp suit, slouched comfortably on an infernal throne.
'It's a bit weird, isn’t it?' said the character on the screen.
Dave just nodded.
The game zoomed in on the black man, who didn't look anything like a computer generated image any more. He smiled at Dave.
'Look, all I'm asking is that you sit back and listen to me. It won't take long and it will change your life. It could also be a bit trippy, so help yourself to a cone or two while you're listening. You might need it.'
Dave just nodded again and reached for his tin. He stopped, and turned back to the man on the television. 'Is this a joke?'
'Does it feel like a joke?'
'Well, yeah,' said Dave. 'It really does.'
Max joined LOVE straight out of the air force, kicked out on a dishonourable discharge after he caught a superior officer slapping his wife around and strung him up the airbase flagpole. Doctor Bob was recruited straight out of medical school, and Inspector Derek Jaded and Ms Amanda Snark joined after a combined sixty-nine years with the Old Scotland Yard. Doc Obvious turned down several invitations to join the organisation, but still showed up at the office Christmas party. Nobody remembered how Mr Moon had joined, not even Mr Moon.
Agent Jane Smith’s recruitment was another story entirely.
N'buli left the war behind, and walked out onto the African plateau. He was surprised he hadn't thought of it before - he just walked away from the trenches, back over that wide sea, all the way back home.
The sun was setting, with vivid pink skies stretching across the endless sky. N'buli closed his eyes and breathed in the fresh air, free of the filth and decay that had been his life for the last few months. All that death and destruction was behind him now, and none of it mattered.
He took a step forward, moving into the wild grass. There was plenty of game in the landscape ahead of him, but he wasn't hungry or thirsty or tired. He felt like he could walk on forever, that there was nothing that would stop him.
And then he saw the two men up ahead, facing the same sunset beneath a leafless tree, their backs to N'buli. One of them had skin that was as black as N'buli's, was wearing an oddly fashioned suit and was strangely familiar, while the other was weirdly indistinct, almost blurred. As he came closer, he could hear them talking quietly. He didn't know their language, but he could somehow understand every word they were saying.
'I've been here before,' said the dark man.
'You'll be here again,' said the other. He turned and N'buli saw his face as it came into focus. If the dark man was vaguely familiar, the blurred man was somebody N'buli knew better than himself. He had never seen that face before, but as he smiled at N'buli, he was utterly familiar.
And then he woke up.
He wasn't back home. He wasn't on the African plains. He was still on the battlefield, and he was dying.
N'buli could tell he was dying by the amount of blood in his mouth and because he felt like his insides were slowly squeezing out the holes in his back. His eyes were closed, but he could hear the Germans chattering away in their foreign tongue just a few feet away and he knew he was lying where he had fallen, just short of the German line.
He slowly opened his eyes. Lying face down in the mud, he turned his head slightly - a little surprised by the fact he could move at all - and watched the enemy. Even though it felt like he had been in Africa for hours, it had only been a brief moment, with the smoke from their accursed machine gun still hanging in the air. The Germans were scurrying about, getting their defences back in order, waiting for a second wave that N'buli knew wasn't coming.
He turned his head back the other way and looked back across no man's land. His own lines were just back there, beyond the bodies of his friends and comrades who littered the ground. The only other Senegalese who had made it as far as N'buli was staring back at him with dead eyes. N'buli had spent every day of the last six months with that man, but he couldn't remember his name.
He looked back at the Germans and once satisfied that they weren't looking at him, he slowly moved his hand around until he could feel the handle of his coupe-coupe, and pulled the blade closer.
Taking a firm grip on the handle, N'buli closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. There was still something inside him - a fire that would never burn out - and he drew on it.
N'buli stood up with surprising ease. His wounds didn't hurt anymore, there was just a cold numbness there. He took a step forward and, satisfied that he wasn't just going to fall flat on his face, took a few more.
He was almost running by the time the first German saw him and cried out in alarm, but by then there was nothing to stop him. He had enough speed to leap over the crude barrier on the edge of the German trench and kick the man who had spotted him in the face.
There were about a dozen Germans in this area of the trench, but he didn't have time to count them all. Several were already bringing their rifles to bear on him and he had to move.
The closest German snarled something in his native language and fired, but managed to miss N'buli entirely, with the bullet slamming into the trench wall behind him. N'buli leapt forward and smashed the rifle out of the German's hands with his blade, spinning around and hitting him in the face with the other fist.
As the German fell forward, N'buli jumped up and leapt off his back, kicking the next closest enemy in the throat and bringing the handle of his coupe-coupe right down on the forehead of another man.
Other Germans were firing, but N'buli felt like liquid fire was coursing through his veins, His wounds weren't bothering him any more and the world was moving slowly around him. As he moved further down the trench he could tell which German was the next that needed to be taken down without even thinking about it. On some odd level, he knew exactly what needed to be done, and was surprisingly unsurprised at his ability to do it.
As he fought, more shots were fired, but nothing touched him. One German lunged at him with his bayonet, but N'buli just slapped it away and hit the man in the side of his face with the flat of his own blade.
In moments it was over, and N'buli was the last man standing. But - for some reason he couldn't understand - he hadn't killed a single one of them. He may have broken some bones, but all of the Germans he had taken down were still breathing. He hadn't meant to leave them living, but every blow he had struck had been non-lethal.
As he glanced around him, he saw he had missed one lone German. The soldier was barely a man, and held a rifle in his shaking hands, struggling with the bolt action. He moaned in fear as N'buli approached him, dropped the rifle and fell to his knees. He pleaded in his foreign language as N'buli came closer, the coupe-coupe still clasped tightly in his hand.
N'buli caught a glimpse of himself in the reflection of his blade and understood why the young German was so afraid. His face was covered in blood and his wide eyes stared out of it. He looked like a demon from one of his grandmother's tales, something that had clawed its way out of hell, driven by hated and vengeance.
He raised the blade. It would be so easy. He could just bring it down and end this German's life. Moments before, this man had been shooting at him, doing his best to kill him and there was a good chance he had killed one of N'buli's comrades. All he had to do was bring it down and end this scared little boy's life.
But there was no point in it. N'buli just sighed, lowered his arm and walked away.
He clambered back over the edge of the German trench and headed back towards his line. He walked past the bodies of his comrades, across the uneven ground. He kept expecting a final shot to bring him down, for one of the Germans to get it together enough to fire at him, but it never came.
N'buli began to think it wouldn't take that much to bring him down. The fire in his veins had burned out and he felt like his soul was leaking out of the wounds in his back, which were suddenly very, very painful.
He staggered and almost fell as he stepped on the leg of a fallen soldier. N'buli paused and looked down, but didn't recognise the dead face and he moved on.
His own line was close now and he could see soldiers in the trench, pointing their rifles at him. He knew he must have looked like a nightmare emerging out of the battlefield and wouldn't have been surprised if he was ended by a bullet from his own side.
But again, it didn't come and as his strength finally deserted him, he tumbled forward over the line and into the trench where he had started. The soldiers around him backed off, frightened by this apparition that had come down amongst them. Nbuli just smiled.
'That was easy,' he said, before falling to his knees. It hurt to breathe and it seemed a lot easier just to fall forward, so N'buli did that.
The world started to recede again and N'buli decided to let it go.
But then he felt a strong arm on his shoulder, turning him over onto his back. N'buli opened his eye to see a young man with old eyes looking back at him.
N'buli had never seen an Asian man before and marvelled at the sight, with one part of his mind wondering why he was in a doctor's uniform. He smiled again and tried to speak, but choked on his own words.
'It's okay,' said the old/young doctor. 'All will be well.'
N'buli saw no reason to disagree with him and when the darkness came again, he gave into it.