The city of Tacoma, Washington passes by in a blur as Zach van Owen zips through the streets on his ZachCycle. So hard-tuned and focused is his tunnel vision that he doesn't even spare a single thought to the beauty of the slipstream cityscape. His thoughts are instead directed inwards, towards himself, his career and where he fits (or not as the case may be) in the scheme of the imperiled Championship Wrestling Federation. He had dared to hope that upon returning to the company and becoming the Impact Champion he would be recognised as the symbol and agent of change that he aspires to be, a saviour of sorts and opponent against the forces of evil gripping the CWF Universe in terror and tyranny. What he hadn't realised was the difficulty spike, increasing almost exponentially.
He can feel, though gives no voice to, the distance growing between himself and his girlfriend, Leona, his friends the Forsaken, the CWF Universe, and more importantly himself. Or at least the figure he wanted to be, dreamed of becoming since he was a little boy idolising his father as the local Indy legend he once was. The truth it seems is a much harder pill to swallow then Zach wanted to admit. Another bike pulls in alongside the Game-Changer, though Zach barely even notices. It's hard to ignore the new arrival however when it pulls out in front of the despondent Impact Champion, trying to run him off the road.
"Hey! Keep your hands on the joystick!" Zach exclaims. He is stunned into silence as he gets a closer look at the new rider, coming round again, their intent clearly to try and side swipe the Game-Changer. The new rider is wearing the all too familiar green-and-black outfit of Zach's older alter ego, Impakt. Their identity revealed, the new rider zips off at speed.
"Get Over Here!" Zach calls out, his voice trailing as he gives chase. His pursuit of the impostor through the streets draws considerable attention. Little-by-little, Zach van Owen draws closer. The second Fake-Impakt is within reach, Zach lashes out with his foot, sending the bike and rider careening out of control. The screeching of the sudden application of brakes pierces the night sky.
The bike and impostor end up in a heap along the sidewalk. The rider seems disorientated but otherwise ok. Not for long. Zach pounces on Fake-Impakt, taking the stunned rider down to the pavement and unleashing all manner of hell with a furious flurry of closed fists.
"Leave." Punch. "Me." Punch. "The." Punch. "Hell." Punch. "Alone!" Punch.
With one final punch the face mask comes off. Zach gasps in horrified recognition. The man beneath him, the man he had just beaten, bruised and bloody, is a controversial figure from his past. Within independent circuits he was known as Chris Zenith, he was the man who had inadvertently caused an accident that had forced Zach's father, "Atomic" Adam Vaughn into early retirement. Zach had never felt any ill-will towards Chris, though his father had waged a slanderous campaign of character assassination after the incident. Zach's father had forever changed into a disgruntled and embittered monster on that day.
"I'm sorry Zach. He made me do it." Chris gasps through short, sharp breaths and gritted teeth.
"Who? Who made you do it?!" But it is no use. Chris Zenith falls into unconscious, unable to answer Zach's desperate questions. He isn't aware however that someone else known to Zach is watching the entire exchange and dials 911, feigning fear and concern. So distraught and pained is Zach that he doesn't even register the sound of police sirens in the distance, growing louder and louder as they draw near.
"Zach, what happened?" It pains Leona Gainsborough to be so barred from rushing to her boyfriend's side by the cold, unforgiving steel of the lock-up cell in the police station on South 72nd Street.
"I was set up." Zach growls, keeping his gaze downcast, staring at the sparse floor of the cell. He can't possibly face Leona, or anyone for that matter, after what he had just done. "I don't know how, but John and Xander must have got to Chris. They made him dress up as Impakt and harass me on the road. I could've killed him..." Zach laments.
"You weren't to know babe. It's not your fault Kreese and Xander are playing with cheat codes and hacks. But I think it might be time to consider taking a step back from everything. I fear it's only going to get worse."
Zach slowly looks up at that, his expression of grim determination has Leona startled.
"Give up? You think I should give up?"
"You need a chance to sort this shit out Zach. And to get your head on straight."
"They have the Impact title Leona. MY title, my own. My precious! I can't up and leave now, what kind of heroic champion would I be if I did that? It'll just confirm what everyone is still thinking. That I'm still just a boy in a grown-up's game, that I can't handle the Extreme Difficulty of reality. I'm so naive. Blah blah. Skip. Skip. It's the same text crawl, just a different narrator. No matter what I do, what I accomplish, it's never enough. I mean there are people already convinced that Eli Goode is gonna beat me next week. They barely even know the guy and yet, despite my efforts week in and week out, they didn't even hesitate in putting their money on the supposed recovered schizo." There is more vitriol forming Zach's words than one would usually associate with the young Paragon.
"But is this whole thing worth putting your body and mind at increasingly serious risk Zach?" The Impact Champion gives no response. "I mean just listen to yourself. This isn't you. They've gotten into your head...Please, Zach. The CWF isn't going anywhere. Just stop this stubborn pride of yours and come home." Deciding it's worth the risk of reprimand, Leona extends her arm through the bars to reach out to her partner. Zach remains unmoved on the cell-bed and once again turns his gaze away. He may as well have slapped her in that moment.
"Visiting hours are over missy." Proclaims the police officer. Leona lingers for a few moments, mournfully whispering her love for Zach before leaving under the unnerving glare of a rather portly uniformed officer. Zach hears and barely registers the sound of the cell-block door being locked and the officer striding down the hallway.
"You don't take too well to warnings do you Zachy-Boy?"
Zach recognises the voice instantly. There standing on the other side of his cell, wearing a Washington PD uniform that barely fits, is the repugnant private investigator, John Kreese.
Zach is up in an instant and clawing desperately at thin air through the bars, trying to grab a hold of his antagonist.
"Sweet lady you got there. Completely misguided though."
"You leave her alone you son of a bitch!"
"Careful Zach. You're on camera, wouldn't want to be accused of threatening a member of law enforcement now would you. Not in your current predicament."
Evil he may be, Kreese has a point and Zach summons every vestige of willpower and restraint within him to back away from the bars.
"When I get out of here..."
"Don't know how you do it kid, but you've certainly got luck on your side. Zenith won't be pressing charges and those idiots, Stewart and C$J, have agreed to keep you in the tournament. Turns out a large number want to see you lose to this outsider.
"Then you'll all be unpleasantly surprised..." Zach seethes through gritted teeth.
"Personally, I'm looking forward to the day you critically fail. That day will be most glorious."
"I thought you would've realised by now, even if I roll a natural 1, I'm still gonna perform a miracle. I showed you and Xander at Summer Games what I can do, and next week Eli Goode is gonna experience it for himself. Then the next person, and the next person, and the next person. I could go all day!"
"You still reckon you're heading all the way to the top of this tournament? Eli isn't exactly a pushover you know." John lights up a cigarette.
"What do you care?"
"I don't to be honest, just relishing in this torture. You at my mercy. It's better than sex and alcohol. Xander says thanks by the way, for the title belt. It kinda suits him funnily enough."
"That belt suits him ill, it's not specced to support the degenerate character that he is. I may not currently possess the physical belt but I am STILL the reigning and defending Impact Champion, the true hero. Xander...he may hold the belt, but he is no champion!"
"Let's be real here Zach. You're nothing without that belt. Not the symbol of hope and justice and all that crap, that you pretend to be. And that's why YOU don't deserve it. Everything you are and aspire to be is based around that strap. You waste so much effort in walking this line of integrity, honour, fairness and all that boring bullshit."
"It's my duty as Lawful Good."
"You're a liar. That's what you are. You're no better than anyone else. Not me, not Xander, or anyone else on the roster. You're pulling the wool over everyone's eyes, having them believe you are some superhuman competitor able to perform heroic deeds all in the name of saving the CWF. But who's gonna save you kid? Who's gonna be there when you fall. If not at the hands of Eli Goode, then eventually someone else. You've climbed so high, without realising your setting yourself up for a most spectacular fall. One I hope happens next week."
Silence hangs between Zach and his nemesis for a while, John standing there triumphant, drawing back on his cigarette.
Zach's voice stops John from leaving the cellblock. The PI is surprised, there is still hints of defiance and fight in the Game-Changer's voice.
"And you will lose."
"What could possibly make you think that?"
"You, Xander, and whomever else is working with you, you all lack conviction. THAT is why you will inevitably fail. THAT is why I will, and MUST prevail over the likes of Eli Goode. Not just to prove everybody wrong, but to keep the federation from falling into the darkness that you and you're Legion of Doom are trying to create. If not you, then the Glass Ceiling, or V.E.N.O.M. It doesn't matter. I will survive you all and you will be beaten. Eli may be an accomplished competitor, he may be capable of incredible feats of athleticism and daring-do. I won't even try to question his abilities. But for him the only prize awaiting him is the chance at the World title, the High Score. I mean the guy no ill-will, he is just another Encounter to grind as I strive towards the End-Game. Each round of this tournament I am coming in hot, powered up and ready to unleash the Ult for Max Damage. At that moment it won't matter how capable Eli is, because I don't limit myself simply to what I think I can do. I can go as far as my mind lets me. Because I believe, I can achieve. I could break the limit at any given moment, from any situation. And there is no going back from there. Just ask Clyde Walker. Or Freddie Styles. Even Xander knows. For me this tournament is so much more than an opportunity at the World title. It is recognition. It is affirmation. It is the sanctity of the CWF Universe. And I cannot afford to falter, or be distracted by side-quests...So you better be far away from here when I get out. First I'm gonna deal with Eli, which is gonna be HastagEpic! Then I'm gonna deal with you and Xander. Believe it!"
Feeling protected by the metal bars separating himself and Zach, John is unphased by the grim and determined tirade, regardless of the glint within Zach's eyes promising violence and chaos to come. Nonchalantly John checks his watch.
"Oh would you look at that. My shift is almost over. Be seeing you real soon Zachy-Boy. Don't forget, time in the slammer changes people..." John throws the butt of his cigarette into the cell at Zach's feet, smiling his token malicious smile as Zach calls out in frustration at the fleeting figure of the private investigator. Little does the Game-Changer know that the entire confrontation was orchestrated and dutifully watched keenly by another through a TV monitor. Everything is going according to plan, as foreseen by the figure, their identity masked by shadows. Their grip tightens on the head of their walking cane in anticipation for what is to come.
The measure of a superhero is always his nemesis, and the time is approaching when the figure will reveal himself as the true mastermind.