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Source. [Video-Game Multicrossover]

Wake Up and Smell the Ashes, Pt. 1.

TripleMRed

Active member
Author
Wake Up and Smell the Ashes, Pt. 1.

-

Arizona, May 14, 200-

There was little as wonderful as sleeping in. Nothing quite like snuggling up in your bed, letting the wonderful world of dreams come in to entice the imagination, and bring wonder and joy to even the most tired of minds.

"Mike, wake up!"

Unfortunately, as with all good things, it had to come to an end. Such it was for young Mike Cohen, the little boy doing his best to pretend to have not heard his mother's call. The little boy snuggled deeper into his bed-sheets, hoping that she wouldn't come up and would let him sleep in. It was a hope that was doomed for disappointment, but the stubborn young boy was determined to try anyway.

"Mike? Miiiike. I know you can hear me, young man." Mike remained silent as he continued to try and return to the land of dreams. He had been having a rather nice dream, though already the memory of it was becoming lost in his awoken mind. Something about portals and other worlds. Fantasy stuff, even he knew that, but he still found himself wishing it were all real.

"Michael S. Cohen, you get your little butt down here, that's an order soldier!" In an instant, Michael was out of bed and rushing down in his pajamas, the voice of someone he hadn't seen in person for months driving any futile thoughts of dreams out of his mind. Getting down the stairs as fast as his little legs could take him, Mike grabbed the wall-frame to twist his rapid momentum around into the living room, where he made a beeline for the hulking man in combat BDUs standing in the middle of the living room, hands on his hip in a stern, militaristic fashion. The effect, however, was ruined by the big smile on the man's face, a gleam in his eye as he watched Mike run over and hug his leg.

"Tommy!" Mike shouted as he hugged his older brother. "I never thought I'd see you again!"

"So I take it you did miss me, squirt!" Thommas 'Tommy' Cohen laughed as he ruffled his younger brother's black hair, their mother watching from the sidelines with a smile on her face. Getting down to one knee, Tommy looked Mike in the eye with an enormous grin still stuck to his features. "And guess what, squirt." He lifted a red beret from behind his back before putting it on his head. "I now officially outrank you!"

"Ah man, no fair." Mike huffed as he let go of his brother to look at the cap he wore: The red beret covered his brother's close shaven hair completely, an emblem whose meaning was lost to mike just off-center to it's right side.

"Sorry kid, but you know how it is." Tommy shrugged. "Little kids don't get into training, this was always going to happen." Mike rolled his eyes as he looked over his brother's uniform, an set of urban camo pants and an assortment of green pouches on a black armored vest standing his brother out as a true military man. "Though between you and me," Tommy stage whispered conspiratorially to Mike, "Officer training's a real ball-buster." Saying such a crude thing to his little brother earned him a quick smack on the shoulder by their mother.

"Tommy, language!" She hissed.

"Sorry ma, you know how it is." Tommy laughed.

"I was married to your father, rest his soul, I do know, and I refuse to have that kind of language in this house-hold!" The Cohen matriarch declared, to which even Tommy, who stood over a foot taller than her and out-massed her by a hundred pounds of extra muscle mass, could not help but wince under her gaze. "Am I clear?"

"Yes ma'am!" Tommy said with a grin, though the fear of riling his ma' up put an edge to his eyes. Mike couldn't blame him: Marisa Cohen was the best mom a kid could ask for, but when she got going, nothing could stop her. Deciding to give his brother an out, Mike was quick enough on his feet to point at Mike's vest.

"What outfit are you in, Tommy?" Mike asked. "Are you a Marine like dad was?"

"Sorta." Mike blinked at Tommy's odd answer.

"How can you 'sorta' be a Marine?" Mike asked innocently enough. Tommy stood up to his full height and brushed his uniform straight.

"It's a special unit I got selected out of basic for thanks to my scores." Tommy cryptically said. When he saw the pleading look for more details from his little brother's eyes, he cracked, if only a little. "But yeah, us grunts in this outfit are Marines. Though, not going to lie, they seemed to have picked up a little of every Branch for this uniform."

"Lord forgive me, but thank goodness your father isn't around to hear you say that." Marisa shook her head as she clicked her tongue. "I still remember his rants whenever your Uncle Floyd came over." The problem with being a military family was that sometimes, once in a blue moon, you got a maverick. And in the case of the late James Cohen, his brother's Floyd's decision to go Army instead of Marines was somehow worse than if he'd remained a civilian altogether.

"God, he'd chew me out for rubbing shoulders with Army Medics. I'd never hear the end of it." Tommy shook his head as Marisa waved for her boys to follower her to the kitchen for breakfast, which they obediently did.

"He'd chew you out just for wearing that beret." Marisa couldn't help but laugh. "You look like Army airborne!" Tommy blinked as he took the beret off his head and inspected it out.

"....Oh shi-" Marisa snapped her head to look at him with a glare. "-ttake mushrooms, you're right." He groaned.

"You boys take a seat, and I'll cook us up some eggs and bacon."

"Thanks ma, yours is always the best." Tommy said a genuine smile. Mike took his seat opposite of his brother at the small breakfast nook they had in the kitchen. All that talk of dad made him a little sad, but he'd died long enough ago that Mike only really had pictures and stories from his relatives to go off of. Though, he couldn't find it too upsetting. He had Tommy, who was always there for him before, so it wasn't all bad.

"Hey squirt, I got you something." Tommy said, leaning forwards with a wolfish grin on his face. Mike looked up, curious, when his brother reached into a pocket and took out a gift-wrapped object. Pushing it across the table, Mike took hold of the gift with wide eyes.

"My birthday isn't until next month, Tommy."

"I know, but I got word back at base that me and the boys might see a deployment before then." Tommy admitted, only wincing when he realized he'd said that loud enough for their mother to hear.

"Where are you going?" Marisa asked as she continued to prepare breakfast.

"They're pretty hush-hush about it, but word is something about a training mission right here in the States." Tommy honestly replied. "I just got my rank, so they haven't given me all the details just yet. I'll know closer to when it happens in a couple of days or so."

"You're going away already?" Mike asked, the disappointment etched on his face. "But you just got here!"

"It's not going to be for forever, squirt." Tommy said with an apologetic look. "I promise, I'll be back before you know. Now, you going to open your gift or not?" Mike paused before grabbing the wrapping paper and ripping it off in one go. One look at the item within and Mike's eyes widened with shock and awe.

"Is this a Zune!?" Mike gasped. Tommy gave him two thumbs up.

"Happy Early-Birthday, you musical goon! Try it out, I took the liberty of downloading some of my favorites unto it!"

"Nothing inappropriate I hope!" Marisa said with a dangerous edge in her voice.

"Nothing too bad." Tommy playfully uttered with a shrug. Turning it on, Mike hit the play button on the first song in the playlist, and all at once familiar chords from one of Tommy's favorite bands started to fill the air.

"This is great!" Mike squealed in delight. "Thank you, Tommy!"

"You can thank me at the birthday party with an extra helping of cake." Tommy chuckled. As their mother came over to deliver their respective plates of scrambled eggs and thick cut bacon, Tommy reached across the table to playfully tussle his younger brother's hair again. "Don't worry, squirt, this assignment will be over in no time!"

"Promise?" Mike asked hopefully as he pressed pause on his music player.

"Promise." Tommy said with a confident smile.


-

Eastern Europe, 'City 17', 202-

Tommy hadn't kept his promise. He hadn't come back from his assignment, and the world went to hell not many days after they had last seen each other. First had been the portal storms. Even from as early in his childhood as it was, he still had vivid memories of those chaotic first days: Their neighbors, the Johnsons, screaming in the middle of the night as some strange two-legged squid thing broke in and started to trash the living room. Of the mad scramble he and his mother had gotten into to get out of the neighborhood, the memory of what had once been their post-man shuffling towards them with his midsection ripped open as some strange creature had seemingly replaced his head.

Of when the Combine arrived and subjugated the world in a matter of hours.

Life after that had been a blur, after they had finished setting up their new rule and crushed any remaining holdouts of rebellious activity at the time. He still remembered being in his early teens when his mom was forcibly separated from him in one of countless transfers to various cities. Cities whose names were now long forgotten outside of backroom whispers, replaced by cold, unfeeling numbers.

So it was little wonder that as he inspected his MP7, Mike couldn't help but feel a grim sense of satisfaction as the stolen APC he and his fellow Rebels were in rumbled through the street.

"Alright, boys and girls, listen up." Mike glanced over at the speaker seated at the head of the APC's troop compartment. Joe Weathers, a dark-skinned man little older than Mike himself, and the man to break him into the Rebel life, looked over his subordinates as they settled in for their mission. "The job is simple: While our friends closer to the Citadel are giving our dearest Dr. Breen our sincerest regards, our job is to handle a group of Overwatch soldiers gearing up in the outskirts in one of the run-off junctions." Joe looked to each of them, his eyes locking into each of theirs in sequence. "We lost contact with the folks there, and their last transmission confirmed that Overwatch had sent a detachment to secure the area. Now that everything is in full swing, we're going to need to take out any Combine squads we can before they reach the inner city. Any questions?"

Mike raised his hand.

"Mike, your question?"

"Any Striders?"

"Thankfully no, it'll just be us and our mirror stooges." Joe uttered as he locked and loaded his magazine. "If there are no other questions, gear up people: It's going to be loud."

-

To say it was 'loud' was a quaint understatement: As Mike bobbed and weaved between the scant cover in the grass covered canal, it was pure cacophony as grenades were thrown or launched, rockets were fired, and explosive barrels were fired upon. Pure chaos. He managed to make it to a wayward shipping container just in time for it to block an incoming rocket, which he responded to by launching a grenade at the Overwatch soldier who had fired it. The grimly satisfying distorted yelp somehow managed to make it to his ears past the explosion, to which he grinned ferally.

"How'd you like that, you jackboots?" He asked to nobody in particular before taking aim and firing a score of rounds at an incoming enemy shotgunner, putting him down before he could make it to his position. That made it 5 under his belt already. "Joe, how many of these guys do we have to put into the dirt to win this thing?!" Mike asked through his comms device. The gunfire on the other end paused for a moment.

"Intel said this place was crewed by 50 soldiers!" Funny, it felt like they were only fighting, what, 16 at a time at any one point? Actually, now that Mike thought about it, the Rebels had sent in 50 of their crack shots to this place, him included, and yet it also seemed like there was only 16 of them in total fighting out there. He shook his head back into the game. Questions for later, right now they had Unis to take down. "Ah shit, listen Mike, we're trying to make a push for the bunker up here, but we're getting pinned down. I could use some help."

"On my way." Mike declared as he dumped the rest of his current magazine into a soldier that had run around the container but hadn't noticed him in time to react. 6 now. An alarm began to sound. He didn't know what that was about, but he took it as a sign to get moving.

Mike started the mad dash up the near by ladder towards the control room, hissing as stray bullets bit into him as he climbed as fast as his arms and legs could carry him. Just as he reached the top, he was just in time to see the bunker doors start to close. A harried sprint fueled by adrenaline saw him barrel towards the doorway before it could shut completely. He was already sliding beside Joe over some make shift cover as it was half-way closed behind them. "Oh geeze, you weren't kidding." He mumbled as he noticed an array of bodies in the bunker's main room. More makeshift uniforms than padded ones.

"I count 5 of them on the other side of the room." Joe declared. Mike took a look around and saw it was only him and Joe behind the makeshift barrier weathering the Combine's fire.

"Ah hell, we've had worse odds." Mike grumbled as he reloaded his weapon. "What the hell is that alarm?"

"I think the Combis ordered a strike in the area." Mike looked at Joe in shock.

"What!? Everyone's still out there! Hell, their guys are still out there!"

"Since when did Breen's boys care about little things like that?" Joe took the brief pause in the enemy firing to start to firing back, only to hiss as he grabbed an injury in his side. "They hit me bad out there. How're you looking?" Mike's response was to use the pause to take aim and nail any Combi's he could. 7. 8.

"Damn, I'm good." Mike quipped as he took cover again to give Joe a grinning thumbs up.

"You're killing machine." Joe chuckled. "Okay, so it sounds like they're down to 3. Between them and the air-strike, I think if we kill them and wait out the strike, this place will be under out control again. Mike pointed a thumb back to the where he just came in from.

"What about everyone still outside!?" As if to answer his question, the sound of the door slamming shut not too far from them reached his ears. Joe just gave him a sad look before reaching behind himself and taking out a shotgun from where he had it stored.

"Let's make this count." Mike sighed as he readied a regular grenade. He tossed it over their cover, and Joe gave the count down. "3. 2. 1. Now!" The detonation was followed by the two of them breaking cover, yelling their lungs out as they charged the enemy position. Mike fired at the one soldier caught out of cover while Joe kept the other two pinned with blasts from his shotgun. This soldier in particular wasn't just going to stand there and die without a fight, which it gave by raising its SMG and fired back at Mike. He wound up winning that little match up when the soldier crumpled first, but not before Mike found himself staggering from the bullets that had impacted him. Worse, he'd used up the entire magazine on that one soldier. Sloppy.

The remaining two soldiers tried to repeat their trick by tossing in a grenade, but the pair just kept charging forward, Mike switching to his pistol. Joe reached the enemy's spot first and blasted the first Combi he saw, killing it instantly. Unfortunately, the other was armed with the same weapon as the rebel and, with one trigger pull, sent Joe flying backwards.

"You son of a bitch!" Mike howled as he dumped his entire pistol's magazine into the Combie, which managed to get another shot off that struck Mike in the arm. But the angered rebel's munitions found their mark, hitting the shotgunner in the head and leading to its quick demise. 10. "That's what you get." Mike huffed and wheezed, his arm twitching from the damage done to it and the SMG rounds from before now being heavily felt in his chest. "Joe, sound off!" Mike turned around only to see his friend laying on the ground, motionless. "Joe?" Mike stumbled forward, getting down to a knee as he stared at his friend's face. In a way, there was a serenity to Joe's expression, his face blank and eyes staring endlessly at the ceiling. "Joe....Oh no." No sooner did this happen did the alarms stop and mere seconds later, the deafening impacts of explosive munitions outside detonating shook the world.

No sooner did it start was it already over. The strikes ended, and what followed was a deafening silence. Mike crumpled down next to Joe, eyes staring at the ceiling as he breathed heavily. He was sure he could find a med-kit to patch himself up, but at that moment, he felt too numb to do much more than lay beside his dead squad leader and friend.

"Well, we did it." Mike coughed out. "And all it cost us was, what, 49 people? For 50 dead jackboots? Yeah, real winning numbers there." He sighed as he let his hands fall to his stomach. He felt tired. Enough so that his lids were getting heavy. "Huh.....I guess it's going to be 50 for 50. Damn." Mike felt the sense of heaviness grow. ".....Ugh." With great effort, he turned himself over to his side and pushed himself shakily to his feet. "Nah. I didn't get this far to go out like this." He grunted as he forced himself to take one step after another to a storage area in the bunker. Sure enough as he entered, he spotted what he was looking for. "Bingo."

Stumbling over, he barely caught himself against the table as he reached out to grab a health vial and injected it straight into his arm. In seconds, he felt himself breathing easier as the regenerative gunk within healed his body to a state from 'dying' to just above that. Taking as many vials into himself as he could, Mike sighed as he stretched and walked back into the room. Standing over Joe with a mournful look on his face, Mike shook his head at the sad state of his friend before reaching down to scoop him up into his arms as best as he could.

"Come on, buddy, I'm not leaving you in here." Mike quietly declared as he lifted his friend into his arms and began to walk towards the exit on what had been the Combine's side of the bunker. "....Oh, what the hell." No sooner had he gotten outside was he faced with the sight of the Citadel, roiling clouds forming over it. As lightning crackled and thunder split the air, Mike winced as what could only be described as the mother of all explosions erupted and began to expand from the Citadel's top. "So much for my new lease on life." Mike uttered as he looked down to Joe with a frown on his face. "See you in a little bit, man." With that, the whole world turned white.

.....Mike wasn't sure what he expected death to be like, but he was fairly certain 'blank white void' was not up there in his assumptions of the afterlife.

"....Uh, hello?" Mike called out. "Anyone out there?"

"Mike?" Mike's eyes widened and his head snapped to look down. Still in his arms, Joe's previously static face was now scrunched in confusion as he rubbed his beanie covered head.

"Joe?" Mike uttered in disbelief, only to mentally catch himself. Right. Dead. "Joe, I don't mean to alarm you, but I think we're dead." Now it was Joe's turn to look bewildered as he took a look around at the white void they were in.

".....Man, I really hope this isn't Heaven, because otherwise I think we were ripped the hell off." Joe finally said after a moment of thought, earning him a laugh from Mike.

"God, that would really suck." He agreed with a grin. "How're you feeling man?"

"I don't know if it's the being dead thing or not, but I definitely don't feel like I got hit with a shotgun to the chest." Joe said as he patted his vest. Sure enough, the wounds were gone, as was all the blood that had covered him.

"Then I guess that means you're good enough to walk on your own." Mike dryly quipped before casually dropping Joe to the ground.

"Ow, that hurt you dick!" Joe complained as he rubbed his back as he got up.

"Okay, so we still feel pain. Not sure if that's a good sign or not on the this being Heaven thing." Mike said as he rubbed his scruff covered chin and looked around. As he turned around, he found himself shocked to see, in the distance, the rest of the assault team......And what looked to be equally confused Combine soldiers. "Joe, you seeing this?" Joe stepped over next to Mike and his eyebrows shot to the top of his forehead as he stared at the sight.

".....I don't think we're in Heaven, Mike."

"Damn, I think I see Mickey. I was really sure he'd make it there out of all of us." Mike winced as he squinted at the rebel in question. Before either of them could say anything further, a golden light started to shine from behind them. The pair turned around on a dime and got into uneasy stances, realizing they were lacking their weapons and were unsure if throwing a punch would matter much in the apparent afterlife.

"Congratulations, Denizens." A deep, rumbling voice called to them as the light grew closer and closer.

"....Is that you, God?" Mike cautiously asked.

"What? Oh, right, hold on." A mundane click fell upon their ears and in an instant, the golden shine disappeared, revealing-

"Is that a fucking yellow rat?" Sure enough, standing there with a little, speaker equipped bowtie was a 2 or 3 foot tall yellow rodent with a jagged tail, black tipped ears, and red cheeks was staring at them, a little cat's smile on his maw as it stared up at them.

"Greetings, former Denizens of-" The rodent took out what looked to be a cue-card from behind its back. "Half-Life 2! I am happy to report that due to your game being launched to the public, it has been completed and thus all viable Denizens of your world are welcome to join us in the Noosphere!"

".....Holy shit, a talking yellow rat!" Mike stared with a slack jaw before the creatures words finally processed in his mind. "Hold up....We're the 'denizens' of what? Our 'game'? The what-o-sphere?" At that, the rodent just smiled as with a snap of its diminutive fingers, the white void behind it disappeared in favor of what could only be described as some sort of processing area.

"Please, follow me for your registration and introduction seminar, and everything will make perfect sense when it's done." Mike took a hard swallow as he listened intently to what was being said. He glanced at the yellow rat creature, the expanse of void around them, then the almost DMV esq processing area behind it.

"Ah, hell." He stated. "We've gotten this far. Let's see where this goes."

[Hello, everyone! I'm TripleMRed, and this is a massive-multicrossover project I've been planning for some time now that I've decided to start the new year off with its first upload! All franchises and characters within this fanfic are property of their respective IP holders, and any and all music used also does not belong to me. I hope you all enjoy what I'm planning to cook up, so Happy New Year all!]
 
Wake Up and Smell the Ashes, Pt. 2.
There had been many things Mike had expected in his life, up to and including the certainty of death fighting the Combine. Hell, he even expected, if only by some small chance, that their rebellion would succeed and they would kick the Combine off Earth. He had expected upon dying a cessation to his existence, with a small part of him expecting to see his mother and brother again in the here-after. He used to like to hope for that second one in particular.

"Greetings, Denizens, and welcome to the Noosphere Introduction and Registration Seminar!" Needless to say, being strapped in by DMV style personnel to what seemed to be a ride right out of Disney world as he and several of his fellow Rebels were taken on a ride through an amusement park version of a welcome committee after finding out not an hour prior that everything he knew was a lie.

A video game character. Him, his friends, hell even the damn Combine. Their struggles. Their lives. Their world. All of it was ones and zeroes made for entertaining people via an interactive data file in a computer somewhere.

And yet, in a twisted, demented sort of way, it all made an eerie sort of sense to him as he looked back. Hell, the battle before they'd wound up here had some red flags down to the number of people fighting at any one time for a giant battle with a hundred combatants in it.

"Either this is hell and they're fucking with us, or God is a computer-programmer with a thing for dystopic fiction." Michael murmured to himself as he sat next to Joe, the ride they were on moving at a slow but steady pace as the voice droned on about the world they had been in their whole lives. Their world.

"I'm going to be real with you, Mike, I don't know which one is worse." Joe admitted from his spot next to his friend and fellow freedom fighter, eyes staring directly at the projected images and mock up theme park ride versions of scenes pulled straight from their old reality.

"Could be worse." Someone from further down in their seating arrangement said. It sounded like Mickey. "We could have wound up being in the Sims."

"The hell is 'The Sims'?" Mike asked Joe as he leered at what he dearly hoped was an animatronic of a Headcrab zombie as it moved its arms robotically up and down.

"I remember that, it was a computer game where you took people you made and controlled every aspect of their lives." Joe uttered as he eyed as mock up of a gunship fighting a stand in for the hero of the Resistance, though it seemed that instead of using a full recreation of the legendary Gordon Freeman, whoever had made this ride had opted instead to just slap an HEV suit onto a mannequin and called it a day.

For his part, Mike shuddered at the idea of coming from a place like the one Joe had just described. The Combine were bad enough as is, but at least you could resist and fight. The hell were you supposed to do when your very will and life was at the tender mercies of someone sitting behind a computer monitor?

"Not going to lie, you're taking this a lot better than I am." Joe freely admitted to his friend. Mike looked at him in surprise as Joe continued to stare wide-eyed at everything around them. "I'm kinda freaking out inside, man."

"I guess I'm just glad to see you and everyone else alive again." Mike had to admit to himself, if he had to choose between somehow surviving into the future with the added guilt of losing even more friends, or finding out he was some sort of video game NPC and that his friends weren't actually dead, he couldn't lie when he decided he vastly preferred the latter. The full existential implications could wait another time, damn it!

"Heh, yeah, dying wasn't exactly fun." Joe admitted with a shaky smile and a forced chuckle. "Can't deny I'd take this over taking my chances with whatever was on the other side back home."

"I know, right?" Mike said with a more easy smile of his own. Before they could continue their conversation, however, both heard Mickey speak up.

"Hey guys, I think we're getting to the part about this place!" With that, the pair looked forward and sure enough, the last vestiges of the odd ride they were on showing their world disappeared, and what replaced it was something that made their already wide eyes widen even further and Joe's mouth to drop.

"Holy shit." In front of them was what could only be described as a downscaled model of countless cities, biomes, and even what looked like entirely different worlds altogether.

"-izens of Half Life 2, we here of the Noosphere greet you! What is the Noosphere you ask? Excellent question! The Noosphere is here, all around you, and beyond, as demonstrated by our small sample of dioramas before you." Mike gulped in awe. Small sample!? "Nearly every video game character, since the dawn of gaming, appears in our, and now your, new home, once their game is completed, released to the public, and completed for the first time. This isn't to say incomplete games or one-off demos are excluded however: While there are certain restrictions for these individuals of these unfinished or unreleased products, if their game is confirmed to be canceled and unreleased in its development, they too can find a place here!"

The scene changed to reveal a kaleidoscope of figures Mike could only dream of imagining. Regular humans wearing normal clothes instead of blue jump-suits, in a wide plethora of styles; countless kinds of soldiers, from the sleekest of sci-fi designs to the most rugged of fantasy armor; aliens and monsters in all shapes and sizes, and so much more, all of them standing side by side on either side of their ride, robotically waving their hands in greeting towards those onboard.

"We here in the Noosphere get a new lease on life: What you were in your old life does not need to define you or control your future. Were you the grunt of an oppressive regime?" Spotlights activated to highlight several soldiers in varying appearances of threatening armor.

"You can find new meaning in your new life and become something more. Were you Pidgeon-holed into being a monster or grunt enemy, at the mercy of others?" The spotlights shifted, showing a plethora of creatures. Mike was surprised by what look like a Vortigaunt amongst their numbers, as he'd only known of them as allies to the Resistance than any 'monster'. He also made note that in the assortment of creatures, there was also an example of that odd yellow rat thing that had greeted them, minus the bowtie.

"Now you too can be a part of society, enter a career path or enjoy the peaceful life without having to worry about your next meal or becoming the victim of a Player Character. Or, perhaps, you were just an NPC, someone to fill the world and spout canned lines for players to hear as they went about their day." Another spotlight shift, and this time Mike found his heart having a jump. There, amidst a sea of people and aliens in ordinary clothes, donning a blue jump-suit, was him. Or, perhaps more accurately, it was his face at least. As he watched his own face smile at him while cheerfully waving him along, Mike had to take a deep breath before forcing himself to push out the creeping existential thoughts out of his mind. Don't focus on that, he thought to himself. Focus on the 'new lease on life' you're getting.

"No longer do you need to be just another face to fill the world. Now you too can become the hero of your own story! Your dreams, your aspirations, and your future are now all yours to fulfill!" Mike pointedly ignored his own look alike and nodded along with what the voice-over was saying. Okay, okay, yeah. His future was his to control now. Yeah!

"Here in the Noosphere, we believe in fresh starts and second chances where possible. However, we are aware that, due to certain limitations inherent in some of the entities brought here, not all can be rehabilitated." As if to make a point, holographic displays of various creatures, some of which Mike recognized, appeared in front of the ride. The highlight for him was the appearance of the Headcrab, and he could already see where this was going. "Some entities from the worlds we hail from are unfortunately incompatible with rehabilitation. Some are purpose built to destroy, machines engineered for destruction. Others are flora and fauna that, in simple terms, are too animalistic to be sentient or sapient and thus cannot be reasoned with. While unfortunate, and we are looking into finding ways to help many of these entities, if you encounter one in the field of your new life, it is well within your right to defend yourself through whatever means necessary."

"Not that I need someone's permission to shoot a headcrab." Mike murmured to himself, which Joe agreed with a 'mhmm' of approval.

"While we are on this topic, we also would like to explain how certain elements of our dear new home work. For example, where you might have feared death in your old life, here in the Noosphere we all benefit from a term we borrow from our Player Character Denizens as 'Respawning'. In the Noosphere, wherever you consider to be your home, whether your literal place of residence or just somewhere you feel the most comfortable with staying at, death simply causes you to reappear in that given location in no time at all." That was the part that managed to get Mike at ease more than anything.

So, it was over then. No more worrying about his friends dying. No more about himself dying.

No more fighting against the Combine. No more struggle against an immeasurable enemy. No more worrying about never seeing tomorrow.

He'd won. They had all won. As this knowledge settled in on Mike's mind, he couldn't help but lean back into the ride's seating and allow himself to, for the first time in a long time, let his guard down and fully relax. He was pretty sure this wasn't Heaven or anything, but compared to the alternatives, to Michael Cohen, it was the next best thing imaginable."

"Like a fucking weight off my chest, holy shit." He breathed. He didn't even bother to try and stop the tears starting to flow down his face as he half snickered, half choked up in his seat.

"God.....It's over." Joe breathed next to him, taking off his wool beanie to run a hand through his hair. "....Fuck, I.....Shit man."

"I know." Mike snicker-choked out. "I know." As much as he wanted to just lay there and tune out everything, Mike managed to force himself to refocus on what was being said. They'd won. But the celebrations could wait for another time. Right now, he had to learn how his new home worked.

"-derstand that some individuals will take the opportunity of the lack of permanent consequences to run amok. As such, there are numerous Zones within the Noosphere to accommodate these individuals. If you ever feel the need to blow off steam or otherwise indulge in guilt free havoc, please make your way to the nearest 'War-Zone' region at the earliest convenience and have all of the chaotic, violent fun your heart desire. Please note that attempting to have your violent rampage in non-War-Zones will be considered breaking the law and will be dealt with swiftly to the fullest extent of Noosphere law by any near by enforcement officers. Please also note that, if you notice someone going on a rampage in your area, you and those around you are within your rights as Denizens of the Noosphere to perform self-defense actions against the aggressor."

"Finally, at the end of today's opening seminar, you will be taken in for final registration where you will be logged into the system as a citizen with full rights, education and career opportunities, and the opportunity to begin exploring your new home at your leisure. You will also be provided with some Play Coins, a form of universal currency accepted by all above board vendors, and several other items to start you off, including a copy of the Noosphere Law Book and a self-updating guide to inform you of your current location in the Noosphere. If you have any further questions at the end of your registration, please feel free to ask any employees of the Welcoming Committee department and we will be happy to assist you to the best of our abilities."

With that, the ride seemed to reach its end as it began to approach what appeared to be a disembarkation area.

"We hope you have found this seminar informative and insightful, and if you have any suggestions or ideas for improving the Welcoming Committee experience further, please be sure to let us know in our official survey stations!" As the ride came to a complete stop, the bars holding everyone in place lifted and one by one they began to leave the ride towards an archway reading 'Registration Offices'. "Thank you for your time, and we sincerely hope and wish for you the best with your new life here in the Noosphere!"

"Come on Mike," Joe reached out and shook his shoulder, a genuine smile now on his face as he too understood the full implications of what they had just heard. "Let's get this over with and then, hell, I don't know. What do you wanna do?" Mike looked Joe in the eye after wiping the tears in them, a hard look in them."

"You know what I want, Joe?" Mike began. "I want to find the greasiest, fattiest calorie bomb burger place we can find in walking distance and pig the fuck out."

"Hell yeah, brother!" Joe grabbed ahold of Mike's hand to hoist him up as the pair went into registration.

---

The line wasn't very long, partly due to the sheer number of booths to take some for registration, but there were more than enough people-'denizens' of his former world it seemed-that it still took about 10 minutes for him and Joe to reach a booth each. While he waited, Mike took an opportunity to look around the registration office: Aside from the borderline comically large amount of booths in front of them, to the left hand side of where he stood was an large entry-way with the words 'Welcome Station' overhead. To the right hand side was a similar entry-way, with the words 'Survey Station' embalzoned above.

The walls were of white and grey bricks, the floor a white and black checkerboard pattern polished to a sheen with what seemed to be a non-slippery coating. On the walls were advertisements of establishments he'd never heard of, but which invoked a nostalgia in him of the old world before it all went to hell. He made a note of some of the names to try them out another time, as none that caught his eye immediately evoked the image of the unhealthiest burger place you could dive into.

Overhear was a banner-red and woven of a fine, silky material instead of a hologram-that read 'Welcome to the Noosphere, Established Circa 1996.' 'Circa 1996'? So he supposed that however this place started, nobody was quite sure of the exact date. He'd have to hit up a library or whatever they had here for a history book, as he had to admit his curiosity of his new home was increasingly peaked.

"Next in line, please." Mike blinked as he realized he had made it to the front and quickly stepped up to the booth. On the opposite side of the glass separating them was a strange, squat figure in what looked like wizard clothes and an oversized wizard hat. Their actual appearance was obscured by a heavy shadow-or at least, Mike thought it was a shadow, as for all he knew the being before him was black as pitch-with only their glowing yellow eyes visible. "Name, gender, and former occupation?" The entity spoke in an androgenous voice, with the same intonation of any beleaguered office worker going through the motions for a registry like this. Mike took that as a good sign: It meant there was an actual person behind the desk talking to him.

"Uh, Mike Cohen, male, and I guess 'freedom fighter'." Mike stated. The figure nodded as they started to type into a keyboard, glancing at a screen only they could see from their side. Pressing enter, the figure blinked their glowing yellow eyes as something apparently popped up on screen.

"Michael S. Cohen, correct?" The individual asked. Mike blinked at that.

"That's right, yeah."

"When you go into Welcome Station, please go down the red line path on the ground." The wizard stated. "Now, anything to declare before you go?"

"I mean, I had weapons on me before we all got here but I think I left those behind." Mike explained.

"That happens to all first timers. Please check your pockets sir." Mike raised a brow before patting himself down. "My apologies, I meant your weapon selection dimensional pocket."

"My what?"

"Just picture your weapons in your mind and just do what comes naturally." Mike's already raised brow raised a bit further before shrugging. What the hell, might as well. He focused his mind and almost jumped when in his mind's eye-no, right in front of his face-Images of his weapons appeared before his eye, like some sort of selection screen.

"Wow, that's handy." He said as he chose his SMG and found it suddenly pop into existence in his hand.

"Indeed." The wizard agreed. "Please declare any and all items on your person before proceeding."

"Well, I don't have much, just the SMG, my pistol, this grenade I have left over-" Mike uttered as he quickly ran through his small arsenal of gear. "Oh, I also have this." Reaching into one of his pockets, he took out his lucky charm and placed it in front of the glass separating them.

"Music player?" The wizard asked, clearly already familiar with the concept.

"Yeah, a Zune." Mike said. "It stopped working a long time ago. I kept it around for sentimental reasons." He didn't know why he felt the need to explain himself, but it just sort of felt.....right. The wizard behind the desk just nodded sagely, in complete understanding.

"I see, one moment." Pressing a button on their side, a panel opened up next to Mike and the figure pointed at it. "Please place the music player into the receptacle for refurbishment."

.....'Refurbishment'? No, no, it couldn't be what he thought the wizard was meaning, it was too good to be true even for what he'd seen of this place so far.....Right? Without another word, Mike placed his Zune into the open panel and a moment layer it shut tight. Electronic sounds and lights began to emit from the panel's seams, and a moment later the thing opened up. Daring not to hope, Mike picked it up.....And felt himself smiling like a complete idiot as for the first time in almost two decades, his brother's final gift to him lit up once more.

"Please feel free to test it before you go, sir, your registration is now completed." If Mike didn't know any better, he could have swore he heard a smile in the wizard's voice. He almost hit the play button but stopped himself. If he was going to celebrate this-all of it-he wanted to do it right.

"Come on, where is it." He said as he opened up the musical library, his happiness leaping to new heights as he saw that all of the songs his brother had downloaded were still on there. "Ah, there it is." Pressing the button on his selection, the music began to play from its small, but powerful speakers-did they always have them be that strong?-and Mike took in a deep breath of satisfaction as the song played and began to reach its lyrics. "Hell yes."

"Good taste." The magician nodded in approval. "You will find your law and guide book as well as money added to your inventory once you reach the Station. Thank you for your cooperation."

"No, thank you, you have no idea-" Mike took a breath before nodding. "Thanks." He said again before walking towards the entrance of the station, Joe waiting for him, his old friend bopping his head to the lyrics.

"Now that's just beautiful." Joe declared as he looked at the Zune blaring music in Mike's hands, fellow Rebels around them cheering along with the lyrics.

"Damn right it is." Mike said with a grin. "Oh hey, the booth wizard said for me to go down the red path."

"My guy told me to go down the yellow, but since we're going to the same place anyway, I think I'll stick with you." Joe said before the two of them began their way down the red line on the floor that Mike had been told to walk down.

"Wonder what's down here that made my guy look surprised." Mike said as the pair of them entered what could only be described as the mother of all stations. Mike had never been there, but he was sure the enormous chamber they had just entered would have made Grand Central Station back home look puny.

"Well, I figured it was going to be a surprise of some kind, like maybe you won a sweepstakes or something." Mike laughed.

"Yeah, maybe I won a boat, or a plane, or-"

"HEY SQUIRT!" If Mike's head had moved any faster as he looked to where he'd heard those familiar words, he would have broken his neck form the whiplash. His eyes widened as he saw the all-too familiar military get up he thought he'd never see again charging right at him.

"T-Tommmeeeeeee!" Mike's yelp of surprise was lost as his older brother, looking no older than he did 20 years ago, charged up to him, wrapped his arms around Mike in a bone crushing hug, and lifted him up.

"YOU MISS ME, YOU LITTLE PUNK!?" Tommy shouted through his tear-stained face as Mike found his own tears starting anew.

"TOMMY!" He managed to call out as he wrapped his arms around his brother as best as he could, the two of them twirling in place, laughing and choking sobs like idiots as Joe stepped back to watch the reunion go down unimpeded. A warm smile was on Joe's face as he watched his friend get one more win in their new world.

"I stand corrected: That's just beautiful."

---

TripleMRed Presents:



Source. [Video-Game Multi-Crossover]

Starring:

Michael S. Cohen as the Resistance Elite.

Joe Weathers as the Egghead.

Jerold Riva as the Cultural Rebel.

Skink-Priest Skitz as himself.

And many, many more.​
 
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Curious how things will develop being a big crossover.
 
(To any of my readers, few though they may be at this moment, hi! I'm Triple, and I wanted to get down and talk a bit about the background development of these first couple of updates for Source, because even I can see we jump into the core idea rather fast.

The original first draft for update 1 was much longer and with a slower lead up to the ending of it where Mike and co wind up in the Noosphere. However, both me and the person who beta'd it for me agreed it was rather long and didn't get to the point fast enough, so I ultimately decided to redo the first update to get to the Noosphere while working in the characters personalities more organically.

Additionally, there's a lot of exposition going on in these opening updates, and I understand that's not everyone's cup of tea. I feel it is important to have it here, in the beginning, however so that we can learn how the world of the Noosphere works alongside Mike and Joe. Got to set up the ground rules and explain what this place is like before we can get to the narrative proper, so I thank my readers so far for their patience and I hope you are at least finding what we're learning of this place to be somewhat interesting.

I wanted to get this explanation out of the way here to dissuade any concerns for those of you sticking around that we'll be getting nothing but talking heads all the way through, so I thank you for your patience with me!)
 
Wake Up and Smell the Ashes, End.
"Oh mah Gah-"

There had been a lot Mike missed from before the Combine invasion and subsequent rule. His family. TV. Eggs. Real earth animal meat. After decades of subsisting off the gunk the Combine passed off as 'food', and then what little the Rebellion could grow or catch, he had come to appreciate the little things.

Which meant that as he bit down on the greasy, dripping mess of a burger in his hands, he took his time to truly enjoy it. Joe sat beside him, similarly, enjoying his own burger as on the other side of the dining room table they were at, Tommy was grinning as he watched the pair of them eat.

"Not exactly my first choice, but hey, this new Burger Shot place is alright if you want something quick and dirty." Tommy chuckled before checking his watch.

"I can't believe we've been missing out on stuff like this all our lives." Joe uttered before taking another measured bite of his meal.

"I looked up what went down while I've been here." Tommy uttered with a sad look and a shake of his head. "That just ain't right."

"Tell me about it." Mike muttered as he got to sucking grease off his fingers. He paused as a thought came into his mind and he looked to his older brother hopefully. "Tommy, wait: If we're here, does.....You don't know if Mom made it too? Like, there's some sort of a chance she made it here with us, right?" The sad look on Tommy's face became downright melancholy as he reached behind his head to scratch at his neck.

"Right, yeah, about that.....Listen, I've actually got some friends coming over to meet us here, so why don't we wait for them to arrive so we can explain some things that tour you went on probably didn't cover." Mike already felt his heart drop in his chest at those words and Tommy's expression, but quietly decided to just focus on his burger for now. He mentally kicked himself for daring to have hope that his mother somehow made it with them, but ultimately it was cushioned by the fact that he at least had Tommy back.

"Frien's?" Mike forced himself to ask through a mouthful.

"Yeah, a couple of the guys I've known for a while now, plus this new lady who arrived the other month, wouldn't you know it." Tommy stated. "I think you'll like 'em! Just ugh, quick question. Joe, right?"

"Yeah?"

"You're not allergic to dog hair, are you?" Tommy asked seriously.

"What, are they bringing their pets with them or something?" Mike asked. Before Tommy could give a reply to that, the doorbell rang as someone walked into the establishment. Snapping his head to look over, Tommy smiled as he waved at who had just entered. Mike finished up his meal just in time to look up and see the oddest set of individuals he'd seen walking together in a long time.

To the left of the approaching group was an older, dark skinned man, hair greying on the sides while the top was still black. He wore a blue shirt and a pair of khakis, complete with a belt and pair of dark brown shoes. To his left was what was almost certainly a military woman: Buzzcut short hair, green P.T. gear, the works. She looked Hispanic, and there was a fire in her eye as she walked each step with confidence. And finally, to the left of her was a dog man. Mike blinked. Straight up, walking on his hind legs in brown boots, purple-pink pants and shirt with an open, light blue vest and a green helmet on his head, casually walking with his hands behind his head like it was a totally normal thing for dog people to exist.

Then Mike blinked. Of course, it would be a totally normal thing. If every game and its characters came to the Noosphere, then that meant a wide range of different species would come along with them. He mentally smacked himself for being stunned.

"Tommy, how's it going man? This the guy?" The dog man asked as his group reached the table and nodded to Joe. For his part, Joe took to the concept of being talked to by a dog person much more smoothly, raising an amused brow as he looked at the man in question.

"Yeah, Tommy, am I the guy?" Joe asked teasingly.

"Knock it off, Rob, we've been over this." Tommy huffed before motioning to Mike. "Everyone, this is my brother, Mike, and his friend Joe. Mike and Joe, meet everyone."

"Greetings." The dark-skinned man of Tommy's group said with a friendly smile and a wave of his hand. "I'm Luther. This is Bella-"

"Yo." The military woman said with a snappy salute.

"And I believe Robert already had his introduction." Robert flashed them two thumbs up, a dopey grin on his muzzle. Tommy scooted over as the three took seats that were open around the table.

"Hey, you guys going to order something?" Before they could get into it, the employee at the counter called out to them.

"Does it matter if we don't, or do they pay you enough to care?" Tommy was quick on the draw. The employee, bored expression etched on his face, just shrugged and let them be. "Thought not. Okay, so, everyone, feel free to get to know one another!" And with that, an awkward silence fell over everyone as the two sides stared blankly, trying to see who would be the first to break the silence.

"....Okay, so, rebellion, huh?" Robert eventually blurted out. "Heh, in our game, the rebels were the bad guy. I take it it's different for you two?"

"Huh, oh, uh, yeah." Mike uttered. "We're the good guys. Definitely the good guys."

"Your brother and I kept tabs on our old home as your game was nearing release." Luther shook his head in disgust. "To think our mistakes could cause such calamity." Mike and Joe both blinked.

"Hold on, 'our' mistakes? Are you from Black Mesa?" Joe asked. Luther just gave them a tired smile as he nodded.

"Then you know Eli, and Kleiner, and Magnusson?" Luther actually seemed to perk up at the mention of Eli and Kleiner, before notably becoming stone faced.

"Ah....So, Arne made it out then? That's.....Good to hear." Luther managed to say in an almost convincing manner. Almost. "But yes, I know them. How are Eli and Kleiner? Oh, don't tell me actually, I'll look them up later to catch up, I'm sure they'll love to see how many of the old team was able to esca[e."

"Freaking aliens, man." Bella huffed. "What's with them and wanting to kills us all? No offense."

"Some taken." Rob shrugged.

"They're definitely not all bad." Joe nodded. "We wouldn't have gotten as far as we did without the support of the Vorts."

"I can believe they came to our side." Tommy shrugged. "After Luther and me, our game that is, came out, turns out they weren't so bad once they were free of their enslavement."

"We have to introduce you to Jermain; he is quite the talented drink mixer." Luther said with no small amount of pride. "I knew minoring in mixology would have its side-benefits." As Mike listened to Luther and Joe talk it out, he looked between those in Tommy's group with an analytical eye. Rob was a good guy, going by his comment before. He guessed that Bella, some kind of soldier, was probably a good guy too, as she didn't seem to have an air of being the 'bad guy' in whatever game she came from, especially with her alien remark. Probably something where humanity was being invaded. Luther was a scientist from Black Mesa, so by dint of knowing Eli and Kleiner on good terms, he was a good guy too. He didn't even bother to categorize Tommy, he knew his brother couldn't be a bad guy, right?

"-nd that's how Vortigaunt electrical discharges can be used to help make the perfect Mint Julip." Luther chuckled as he finished his story.

"Wow, I've got to see that for myself." Joe chuckled. He looked at Tommy before talking again. "Oh hey, you mentioned that there were some things you guys wanted to say that weren't covered by that introduction thing?"

"Yeah, what's that about?"

"Okay, so newbies-" Rob placed his hands on the table as he glanced back and forth between the two friends. "Some things you gotta know. First off, I'm not sure if you noticed while you were in processing, but you'll notice a lot of familiar faces. Maybe even see some dopplegangers. That's normal for NPCs like us, so don't be freaked out if you go to the store and see your face manning the counter or whatever. That's just a guy who shares your model, so nothing to get freaked out over."

"That might need some getting used to." Mike coughed into his hand, already seeing the mental image of running into more of himself popping into his head.

"Second thing you need to know is that there's certain limits to who and what gets brought into the Noosphere, at least when a new game releases." Bella leaned back in her seat as she explained. "I had a lot of friends and family back home, but they didn't have a model, or in-game art or whatever to be bring them in here. Basically, no model or art or whatever, no being brought in." Bella snorted. "Though, lots of NPCs like us tend to come from all walks of life despite sharing faces." Mike nodded along, his heart low. So, that was it then. Most of his world was left behind, and even if his mom was still alive out there, she wouldn't be brought with them anyway due to lacking a model.

"Thanks, good to know that now before getting my hopes up too high." Mike sighed. Tommy reached out to grab him by the shoulder and give him a firm, but affectionate shake.

"Got to take what we can get, Mike, and enjoy our new lives going forward."

"Right. Yeah." Mike gave a halfhearted fist pump at the prospect.

"Now now, I know it's a lot to take in, but it's important to embrace the second chance at living we all are given when coming to this place." Luther declared with a warm smile. "Surely there's things you've always wanted to do without the, what was it, the 'Combine' looming overhead?" Mike and Joe both blinked before looking at one another.

"I kinda always wanted to learn medicine." Joe stated. "Be a doctor and actually help people."

"I'm sure I can help you along with that." Luther uttered.

"Whoa, you serious doc?" Joe asked.

"Absolutely, health care is always in demand even with the respawn system in place, and we could always use another doctor who genuinely wants to help." Luther was earnest in his tone, which Joe smiled in appreciation at.

"What about you, little brother, any big plans now that you can do anything?" Mike blinked as all eyes fell on him. To be honest, he didn't know what he wanted to do, as some part of him always assumed he'd be long dead before they succeeded in freeing Earth. Plans for the future tend to be nonexistent when one believes they have no future.

Still, that was then. Now? With the opportunities in front of him?

"I guess.....I want to figure that out for myself." Mike admitted. "Do some exploring. Maybe that soul-searching mumbo jumbo." He snapped his fingers. "Oh, and finish school. I definitely know I want a high school diploma to my name."

"We can work with that." Tommy stated with a chuckle.

"I think the floor in my building has an vacant room." Bella stated as she rubber her chin in thought. "I can hook you up with a place to stay, at least."

"What's the, uh, what's the rent situation going to be like?" Mike asked as he focused inward and looked at the 'status' screen that popped up in front of himself, eyes focusing on the Playcoins on his person. "I'm not exactly drowning in cash right now."

"We can work something out with the guys living there, don't worry about it." Bella waved it off with a hand. "I've like, only been here a month and they were able to set up something alright for me with no problems."

"And hey, if you don't mind staying on the couch, my place is always open." Tommy said with a teasing grin.

"Really feeling the brotherly love, Thommas." Mike stated with a lidded expression. "Okay, so, anything else we should know?"

"Oh, right, can't forget." Tommy said with a finger snap as he just realized what else he should say. Leaning forwards, he looked Mike in the eye with an uncharacteristic expression on his face. "Okay, so this one isn't really relevant for NPC's like us, since just about all of us with our models make it out no problem.....But, for some reason nobody knows for sure, if someone dies in their game in a scripted sequence, they stay dead." Mike blinked.

"Hold on, didn't the ride say we get 'updated' every new game?"

"That is correct, but it stands as is: If a character in a game is dead by the end of it, and they don't come back or there's no ghost or whatever, they stay dead. If that character survived one game, but dies in another, they get updated with the memories, but there's no splinter duplicate or whatever." Tommy stated slowly. "This is very important to remember, because some people around here lost those who were very close to them that way, and unless there's a spin-off, prequel, or whatever that allows that character to be brought in in another game, they're not coming back. Some people are.....senstitive about it. So be careful about bringing that up if it ever somehow does."

"Alright, seems simple enough."

"I'm serious, Mike, not everyone takes to the Noosphere that well, and that bit makes some of them even less stable." Tommy explained with a genuinely serious tone.

"Listen to him, kid." Rob grimly nodded. "We can't really die, not for real anyway, but that just means some people start getting creative when they want to hurt others."

"That directly leads us to this: Remember that bit it said about going into dedicated War Zones to blow off steam and all that junk?" Mike and Joe nodded. "Well, people with anger issues aren't the only ones who hang out there. Some really messed up folks won't hesitate to snatch someone new up that goes there and practice what the boys back home liked to call 'enhanced interrogation techniques' on them for fun." Mike wasn't sure where the sudden lump in his throat came from, but he definitely felt it as he swallowed.

"....We'll keep that in mind." Mike stated, imagination conjuring up all kinds of twisted scenarios. If there had been any doubt in his mind that this wasn't Heaven, they were soundly laid to rest with that. Tommy kept staring into his brother's eyes with a serious expression for a moment longer before nodding and sitting back in a normal position.

"Good." Tommy sighed as he rubbed the back of his neck. "Good.....Anyway, now that you've had lunch, how's about we all head over to my house? I hear there's going to be a game on, and I think our newest additions could do with a sports party in their lives!" Tommy's mood had done a complete 180 and he was now back to his mischievous self. Mike quickly decided he infinitely preferred 'fun' Tommy to 'serious' Tommy.

"Hell, I'm down." Joe said with a genuine smile. "What game is it?"

"Does it matter as long as we drown ourselves in chips and soda?" Bella asked genuinely. Mike gave it a moment's thought before shaking his head.

"No, no it does not."
 
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Settling In, Pt. 1. New
Mike didn't know much about sports, but the 'game' that night had been quite the experience to watch on the TV. Between himself and Joe, the pair of former Rebels found themselves constantly asking questions about it. Apparently, the release of the first 'Mario Party' saw their 'Party' game format get turned into a competitive sports game where four teams switched members between various 'games' to win and rack up points before reaching the end of the match, with the team that won the most games winning the whole thing.

"I didn't know you could make a sport out of molding people's faces to match a picture or popping water balloons." Joe had stated, leaning forward as he found himself the more engrossed of the two friends.

"Wait until you see the Bowl Over matches." Grinned Rob as he checked some sort of communication's device with a touch screen. Multiple alien languages crawled up and down the moving screen, with the occasional Earth language that Mike could recognize popping up on occasion. "Bets on those are always a ride."

"You had better not be betting anything of mine again." Luther sharply remarked as he froze while reaching for the chips on the coffee table before them.

"I told you it was a mistake!" Rob stated, hands up in a defensive manner.

"Forgetting to turn the AC down is a mistake. betting, and losing, the toaster your friend let you borrow is a bit more than that." Luther dryly declared. For their part, Bella and Tommy were both trying their hardest not to laugh, while Joe and Mike could only look to one another with bemused looks.

"Is this like the casserole thing with Magnusson?" Mike softly asked his friend. Joe just shrugged as the dog man tried to reason with the annoyed scientist over a misuse of borrowed items.

"You got me, man, I just got here." At that, the two friends shared a dopey smile before returning to their observation of the game in progress. Currently, the contestants-a pair of cutesy short animal people, a mushroom man, and what looked like a soldier ripped straight out of World War 2, were passing around a live bomb with eyes and feet, its fuse ticking down and its black colored body pulsating red. Mike's eyes widened as he could only imagine the gruesome mess the explosion would result in, only to have his answer when one of the animal people wound up the one to hold it. The resulting explosion obscured the lion for a moment, and when it cleared up he was on his ass, shaking his head and covered in soot.

"Bud Loses!" The announcer cheerfully declared as the other contestants did their own respective poses to celebrate victory.

Right. Video games. They were all from video games, himself included. That would take some getting used to, to be honest. As the creeping feeling of the existential implications began to lurk out of the back of his mind, Mike shook his head and opted to instead ignore it. Just ignore it and it'll go away, right? Right. Mike quickly sipped the Nuka-Cola in his hand and pushed the creeping thoughts out of his mind again. The appreciation for the carbonated, sugary beverage quickly supplemented everything else.

"I missed soda." Mike finally spoke up. "After a while back home, the only soda you'd find had gone flat years ago. This? This is freaking fantastic!"

"I hear ya, man." Bella declared with a nod. "During the war, we'd sometimes get cut off from resupply for months on end. There was this one time where we had to scavenge for supplies to save up on our rations on this one colony that had been abandoned. The only thing they had still preserved was all the cans of pet food they'd left behind!"

"Anyone makes a crack about those things and me gets a fist to the jaw." Rob declared matter-o-factually.

"Ah yes, the 'dog food survival diet'." Joe chuckled while Mike's face just twisted in a grimace. "We're very familiar."

"Unfortunately." The younger Cohen huffed.

"Say, since you fellas just got here, you givin' any thought on where you're going to be looking for a place to stay?" Bella pointed out as she sipped her own drink. Mike looked to her with a look of curiosity as she brought that up now. "I wasn't joking before at the restaurant: if you guys want, I can set you up at the place I'm staying at, if you don't mind a lot of roommates." On the one hand, sleeping in cramped, overcrowded conditions was something Mike would rather not go back to. A room of his own would be a blessing he'd actually say a prayer of thanks for, if anyone was really listening up there. That being said, he did admit that he would feel safer with numbers.

"I mean, I'm down for it." Joe declared. "I don't suppose you also know where we can get jobs to make these, what did they call 'em, Play Coins? Going to need to make some money if we're living here from now on, right?"

"I told you guys back there and I meant it, we can worry about finding you guys jobs later." Bella said with a wave of her hand. "Trust me, the folks in the apartment I'm in are a real welcoming and understanding bunch. You can unwind and get used to your new home for a little while before we can start thinking of what your share of the rent will look like." The Latina soldier grinned. "Besides, don't you boys want to spend some time getting to see the sights yourself before you have to worry about all that?"

"You mean just....explore the city?" Joe asked slowly.

"My friend, the Noosphere is quite the place!" Luther nodded sagely. "Our humble Network Central is but one of many wonderful places you can go to! Why, you should see the Noosphere's recreation of Xen, it's truly a breath taking sight to behold."

"I like to spend my vacation days on this one beach on this big ring world." Rob declared cheerfully. "Best damn beach outside of Zoness that I know of." Mike looked to his brother, who was happily staying quiet as he observed his brother with a proud look on his face.

"What do you think, Tommy?" Mike asked.

"I think," The older Cohen began, "That my little brother and his friend should sleep on it here at my place. Got a guest room me and Luther have been prepping just for this day to come." Mike blinked before he relaxed with a soft smile. Tommy smiled back with a joyful grin. "What do you say, Squirt?"

"We get our own beds?" Mike asked.

"It's got a couple of bunk beds, so you've got four to choose from!" Flashes of distant memories of days in his childhood room with his friends staying in his bunk bed on weekend nights filled Mike's mind, causing his smile to grow a bit more.

"Good enough for me."

"Oh shit, hot rope jump!" Rob practically squealed as a new minigame started on the TV. "I love this one!" Mike turned to look at the TV to find four contestants playing a game of jump rope.....while the rope was on fire.

"I think I have a new favorite sport." Joe declared with a twinkle in his eye.

---

As night came and the party ended, Rob and Bella both left to make their way home. Luther, turning out to be a housemate of Tommy's, stayed behind to help with the post-watch-party cleanup. For their parts, Joe and Mike found themselves showered and changed into the freshest set of clothes they'd been in in decades. The fact said clothes were comfy pajamas with night caps did nothing to even touch their dignity as the pair made their ways to their own respective bottom bunks.

"Man, this still feels like a dream." Joe murmured loud enough for Mike to hear.

"Don't even joke about that, man." Mike said with a frown. "If this is a dream, then you're dead for real. And I am not burying my best friend."

"Aww, you really do care." Joe teased. "But for real man, it's so......"

"Nah, I get'cha." Mike nodded as he stared up at his top bunk. It had been so long since he'd been so comfortable, that in a strange way, it felt uncomfortable. Still, if this was the new normal, he wasn't going to complain. It would just take some getting used to was all. "Before today, I was sure we were all going to die. Die fighting, but still. This? A second chance? It might not exactly be what we were fighting for back ho......back there. But don't take this the wrong way, but I think this might be better."

"S'fucked to say it, but I don't ever want to go back to our Earth." Joe sighed as he rested his hands behind his head. "Good food, good people, good everything? Shit man, I wish I was in whatever first game Tommy was in so I'd have gotten here sooner!" At that, Mike had to chuckle.

".....So. You thinking of taking up Luther on that offer of his? To get started on learning medicine and stuff?"

"If the price for that was a foot, you could saw mine off, stick a metal bar on the stump, and call me Eli Vance." Mike felt horrible for laughing at that, but he couldn't help due to how matter-o-fact Joe sounded. "What about you, dude? You going to get that education you want?"

"Yes." Mike was as blunt as a stun baton strike. "I'm going to get that degree, I'm going to learn everything I wanted to learn, and then.....I'm still not sure after that, but I'll figure something out."

"Cool, cool." Joe nodded. "What about Bella's offer?"

"What, join up with her apartment?"

"Yeah. I think I'm going to take it." Mike looked to Joe to find his friend already looking at him. "Call me crazy, but I kind already miss being part of a place with a bunch of people. Don't get me wrong, this house is.....It's fucking awesome. But I kinda miss the sense of community like back before, you know?"

"I know." Mike nodded. "A part of me wants to stay here with my brother.....But I can always just stop by and visit now, hang out for a few days at a time, that sort of thing. Being part of something is....It would be nice to still have that."

"So I guess it's settled then."

"Hold on a second, now." Mike waved his hand towards his friend. "Let's just go over and check the place out, see what it's like first. I mean, see for ourselves how much of a community feel her place actually has, you know?"

"Heh, always the cautious one." Joe shrugged. "Alright then, how's about tomorrow we pop over and give it a look."

"Yeah." Mike uttered as he settled back into bed, looking up at the top bunk again. "Tomorrow." It was a strange feeling, knowing with certainty that they would both actually wake up alive and well the next day.

It was a feeling Mike welcomed with open arms.
 
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