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Haemorrhage : The Mini Series
Issue Four : A Dying Wish
(Double Sized Issue!)
The villain's aide was a man named Carlton. He was meta human, and had once committed petty meta crime under the name of Crowbar. His was strong and tough, capable of tearing steel into pieces with his bare hands. As far as he knew, the villain had no meta-powers of his own. But Carlton was terrified of him.
Most of the villain's operatives were scared of him, of course, but Carlton felt that he had especial need to. He had no idea why the man had selected him, a small time crook who had been captured on his third job by some second rate costume, other than that he looked somewhat like the villains previous aide. Carlton had once used his imposing looks - his wide shoulders, his squat torso, his black skin and bald head - to intimidate the enemies of another crime lord, albeit one with far less ambition than his current employer. He had felt good about himself then, and had enjoyed terrorising those weaker than himself. Now he was surrounded by people more powerful, and more intelligent, and he regretted his appearance. If not for that curious resemblance to a man long dead Carlton might not have been taken in by the villain, might still be in prison now, might have been able to live his life without fearing for it.
He sighed, watching the clouds above his masters compound as they skimmed serenely across the reddening sky. It was time for his inspection. He wished that he was brave enough to simply climb the wall and be off, but his skin perspired whenever he thought of rebellion, and the villain hated it when he sweated. He sighed, and began his rounds.
He knew that other employees within the compound were at once sympathetic to his situation, and irritated that they had to take up his slack. It wasn't that Carlton didn't work hard; his fear drove him to long hours and diligent service. It was just, well, that Carlton had never been very smart. He knew it, he freely admitted it to anyone who would listen. There had been a time when he had had more respect for himself, had been arrogant, in fact; but that attitude had been terrified out of him. He felt like a shell these days, a ghost of his former self, haunting the environment in which he would surely die. One big mistake, he would surely die. He had seen the master's wrath. Maybe today, Carlton thought. Maybe today is the day that I die.
He thought it pointless to check the wall for breaches, but that task headed his list of duties, and so he did so. The wall was at least a metre thick, and three or four times his height. It was braced from the inside and out, and Carlton had been told by Sara Masterton, who led the security detachment for this facility, that the wall had been designed to withstand explosives enough to destroy the White House and much of Washington D.C. around it. Surely, Carlton thought, if the wall had been breached then they would have heard its failure. And if they were attacked by a force canny enough to beat the wall, surely that force would be far too smart to let him see a huge gaping hole, before letting him call the alarm.
He sometimes wondered if some of his tasks were tests. He thought that maybe, just maybe, half his routine had been concocted by the master simply to prove how pathetic Carlton was. Maybe he was supposed to confront his employer with the pointlessness of his wall survey. Maybe then he would be allowed a shred of self respect. But Carlton wasn't sure, and so didn't dare bring the matter up. It was his confusion that he hated the most.
The curve of the wall led past a small scenic copse, and then into the village. The village was a functioning community, the place where the employees of the compound spent their three-month placements. That was one advantage of the master, Carlton mused; two weeks holiday every three months, good pay and usually an excellent Christmas bonus. But Carlton was afforded less free time than other employees - he was indispensable, the villain joked - and had nothing on which to spend his money anyway. The village had shops and bars and the rest, but Carlton felt so out of place with the people who ran and frequented them. He always felt that they were running a sweepstake on his inevitable demise, and was embarrassed to be around them.
The village was built in some rustic style that Carlton thought might have been English or something; quaint shacks held together by spit. Not that they were cheap, the villain didn't care to cut corners. But, as a lifetime resident of New York before his arrest, Carlton had never really been able to understand why anyone would want to live in a building so contrived. He lived within the main fortress, and was glad of it. He liked a view from his window, even if it was of the rear of a gun turret.
He noticed a familiar face as he passed through the village, prodding at bushes and shrubs as he did to assure any onlooker that he was doing his job of routing out those insurgents that might be hiding there. Valayatin was Russian, Carlton guessed. He had always been taught that Russians were bad, but Valayatin (at least that was how Carlton pronounced the complicated name) seemed to hold more understanding of Carlton's plight than many. They weren't friends; Valayatin was a scientist and talked well about complicated things, while Carlton could barely open his pay packet without help. But still. Carlton waved. Valayatin waved back.
Carlton passed through the village, ignoring people where he could. He angled to and from the wall, trying to strike a compromise between inspecting the structure for wounds and checking that there were no outsiders hiding within the community. He wondered for a brief second as to how he had come to represent authority of any sort, but he pushed the thought away. Whenever he got philosophical Carlton found himself thinking of the mistakes that he had made in his past. When he had first been approached he had thought of the villain's offer of work as a chance to do something with himself, to become respectable, albeit in an illegal kind of way. He had truly wanted to turn over a new leaf. Now he yearned for the running gunfights of his youth, for drive-by shootings and breaking into pawn shops owned by easily frightened pensioners. He was aware of the worthlessness of that life, but at least he had been able to pretend that he had been someone, some action film bad guy with little to lose and no mercy for those who crossed him. He'd been a badass. It had taken a few weeks under supervision from the villain to show him the brutal truth; that he was nothing. A mere speck.
"Hi," he grunted, a group of off-duty security passing him by.
"Hey, Carlton," a man said, and raise his visor. Carlton recognised Murphy, an ex-cop turned security guard. "Want to come for a drink after shift?"
Carlton heard a tut, and knew that the rest of Murphy's party would resent his intrusion. They were good people, he supposed, but he always ended up angry with them. They had all been trained, and Carlton knew nothing of procedure or strategy or tactics. Most of them were base line human, but still he managed to feel inferior to them. He hadn't lashed out at anyone, yet. The master hated random violence.
"Nah, cheers Pete. I got rounds."
"Sure, well. See you," Murphy waved, a look of pity upon his face. Carlton turned away. He didn't really care. Having friends would make his life even harder to lose. And maybe today was the day. Maybe today was the day that he'd fuck up; the day that the master would have him killed.
He continued on, reaching the first of the four compass-point security towers. Their concrete shells reflected the pretty sunset glow, picking them from the green and grey around them. He pressed the buzzer, and leaned into the intercom.
"Hey, Cassie?" he asked. "S'Carlton. Open the door?"
"Sure," the electronic box crackled. Cassandra Phillips had told him to call her by her shortened name when they had first been introduced. He knew that she hated him, now, and he wanted to call her by a more formal title, but he didn't know if she would find that even more insulting. He had decided to stick with her instructions; if nothing else, he could prove that he could follow orders to the letter.
The door swished open before him, and he smiled a little despite his misery. He had always loved Star Trek as a kid, and the door sounds within the compound were just perfect.
"Yo," he growled, feeling his body clench itself around him. He hated being boxed in with people. They meant him no harm and he would do nothing to hurt them, but the situation always put him on edge, made him seem angry. The guards within kept their distance. Either they feared him, or they feared that his incompetence might rub off on them.
"Carlton," Cassie nodded. She took a card key from the breast pocket of her fatigues, and Carlton fished his own from around his neck. They plugged the cards into a wall mounted console. Carlton imitated the woman's actions as she presented her palm to the scanner also mounted within that machine.
A red line ran back and forth. The machine made a positive bing.
"Clear," Carlton muttered. He turned, head hung. He tried not to make eye contact with anyone. He waited by the door until someone triggered its release mechanism. He sighed with relief as her walked into the air beyond.
He looked up into the lowering sun. The tower was silhouetted in his vision, bristling with spines and radars and guns and gadgets. Carlton understood none of it. He just knew that no-one could use the equipment without him. Without his card and his palm, at any rate. He shook his head, and continued his patrol.
He thought that he heard something, then. But the compound was alive with activity, it being change of shift, and he ignored his premonition. He made his way to the front gate. The compound had two gates, but the rear exit was only accessible from within the fortress, which was situated beside the back wall of the area. He looked back towards that construction as he walked toward the front of the compound; the light was dim behind it, and he could see electric lights of various colours decked about it as if it were a huge spacecraft just touched to the earth. It looked foreboding.
He buzzed the gatehouse.
"Yo, this is Carlton. How's tricks?"
"Door opening in three, two, one," came the reply. The voice was female, though masked by the hiss of static. The door whooshed to one side. Carlton walked in, to confront the only person within the compound who he feared as much as the villain. He wondered if maybe the master feared her too, and thought that perhaps he did; that perhaps he had hired her for that reason.
"You're late," Sara Masterton said. She stood at the centre of the gate house bridge, the electronics there equivalent to any he had seen within the fortress itself. The gate house was staffed by five technicians at all time, plus two armed guards upon the bridge and two units of ten guards a piece stationed in the barracks below. A member of senior personal was also on duty at any given time; given the choice, Carlton would have preferred to time his visits to coincide with the duty of the less senior members of the staff, bastards though they were.
Masterton was always cordial to him. It made his flesh crawl. He had pride in his sense for danger, and it tended to mutiny whenever he was within his penultimate superior's presence.
"Yeah," Carlton nodded, unable to think of anything else to say.
"Are you not wearing your intercom?" she asked.
"Yeah, of course," Carlton replied, puzzled. He slept with the fucking thing, he was never without it. But then he remembered; it had been squawking earlier when he had been on the phone, and he had turned it off... and forgotten to turn it back on again. "Oh shit," he said. He took the device from its clasp on his belt, and switched it on.
".. the fuck are you, you stupid piece of shit! Carlton! For fuck's sake!"
"Oh hell," Carlton grunted, and closed his eyes. Yeah, he thought, this is it. This is the day I die. This is the day the boss kills me.
"Carlton here," he said, speaking into his communication device. He had been so proud of it when it had first been given to him; it had made him feel so important. Now he wanted to stamp upon it until it disintegrated. It ruled his life. He was a dog, and the device was his collar.
"Oh for fuck's sake man," the soldier on the other end sighed. "You are in such deep shit this time. The boss has lost contact with 306. He doesn't know what's happened. We've been on red alert for the last ten minutes."
Carlton swallowed, and thought. He knew that he wasn't smart, but it seemed to him that there should be flashing lights and wailing sirens accompanying any self-respecting red alert.
"It's very quiet," he said, speaking both to the intercom and the woman before him. She was standing with her hand on her hip, her tight jumpsuit glistening in the artificial light. Her dark hair accented the shadow of severe displeasure that lined her face. Oh boy, Carlton thought, is she ever pissed.
"Covert you moron. If she's here we don't need the chaos, if she's not we don't need the chaos. Get a brain. Report to guard tower three immediately."
"Where's the master?" Carlton asked into the receiver of his little black box. He could see that Masterton was visibly fuming. The technicians were diligently pursuing their appointed tasks, but Carlton knew that by fucking up so badly in their presence he was undermining his credibility so much that he'd soon be striking oil. If by some miracle he survived the night, he would hear nothing but derision associated with his name within the compound, and forever more. But he had to know. Something compelled him to enquire as to where the villain was.
"He's in the fortress you idiot. You have to go to tower three. Do you copy? Do you remember which tower is number fucking three?"
"Over and out," Carlton mumbled, and shut the machine off.
"Three needs your keycard," Masterton explained to him. "That's the most likely direction for attack due to manufactured weakness in that quadrant. We have reason to believe that Scandal has gone rogue, and may be using PROSAC intelligence. We let them know of our weaknesses some time ago, in case they would be stupid enough to try to attack. But before you go, refresh this terminal."
She inserted her hand into her jumpsuit and pulled at the chain about her neck, tugging her keycard from her cleavage. Carlton produced his own card, too confused to question. There was something tugging at his mind. He remembered a noise, hearing a noise before he had entered the gate house. He had heard that noise before, in the training areas of a different complex, back when he was being trained, and when the villain had been perfecting a new cyborg that he had just developed. He remembered the noise, and what had been left of the target at which the cyborg had aimed.
And something was tugging at his mind.
He felt his thoughts slip sideways. "Here," he grunted, and tore the chain from his neck. He tossed it to Masterton, and made for the door.
"Your palm!" she called after him. "Don't release that door!"
"Fuck the door," Carlton muttered, and hammered himself into it. The villain didn't stint on security, and every door within the complex was constructed of whichever miracle metal was in vogue at the time at which they had been made. But suddenly Carlton knew exactly how to hit it. He knew where the door was weakest, and he knew how best to marshal his meta human strength to exploit that weak point. Two charges of his shoulder and the door exploded outwards, its shards glancing from his toughened flesh. He took a breath of night air and began to run.
"Carlton!" he heard from behind. Masterton was livid.
"It's Crowbar!" he shouted, revelling in the sudden sense of freedom, the sudden burst of rebellion that was fuelling his limbs. Maybe he was free. He just wished that he had chosen a better code name.
The villain chewed unthinkingly upon his decorative cigarette holder. He only realised his mistake when the fragile ebony cracked beneath the pressure of his teeth. He cursed, gently, under his breath. He realised that he was tense.
It shouldn't have affected him so, to see the monitors that bore the view his hard-wired controls afforded him of Scandal's murderous perspective go dark. So, she had closed her eyes. So what. She was sleeping. But Scandal didn't sleep. She was his thing, his toy, his angel of vengeance. She and her predecessors had protected him from the slurs and indignities of bad press for many years. They had never rebelled. It irritated him that he hadn't been so callous as to build fail-safes into the cyborg design, but he had always wanted loyalty through design rather than force. Had Emma's cloned flesh been too strong for his programming? Or did he worry needlessly, fretting in his own weakness for no reason?
He had no reason to believe that she had rebelled against him. Except that her eyes were closed, her ears were blocked. He cursed himself. Her vital signs were still strong, and the telemetry that accompanied her weapons systems was still active, still hooked to something, still targeting accurately. But at what he couldn't say. He removed the damaged straw from his mouth and viewed it sadly. He looked down on pointless displays of emotion amongst his employees, but suffered from that same weakness himself. Maybe that was why he hated it; because it reminded him of his weakness. The villain despised anything that contradicted his invincibility.
Maybe he would come to despise Scandal. But he had created Scandal. He had chosen to leave shutdown circuits from the applied design, thinking such measures to be weak, and fearing the effects that such knowledge might have in foreign hands. She was built to eradicate trace of his crimes, not provide evidence to lead to him. He was a cancer to society, a self styled disease, and he knew that his every waking moment had to be spent resisting their antibodies, and every sleeping moment spent dreaming of ways to infect their pathetic body politic further. He could not build their solutions for them. His creations had to have responsibility to his cause built into them. He might despise Scandal, should she turn on him, but he had to recognise that he had created her; and should his creation have failed, then it was for him to admit that he had failed as well. And should he survive one failure, he should be doubly cautioned against the same in his future.
He walked with mannered casualness to the centre of his steel fortress, where his Virus sat before an emptying tank of synthetic amniotic fluids, where his genius was breeding his latest weapon in the war against society. He wished that he could smoke without his carved filter, and he knew that the nanos in his blood would quickly take care of any unhealthiness stimulated by the drug; but he dared not be seen by his staff as uncultured. His image was armour to him. Pristine, untouched, untouchable. He was not prey to human vice.
"Virus, I have a task for you," he intoned.
"Ask, sir, we await your request," the flesh twin replied. Her face was calm.
"Oh now, hold on," the metal twin rumbled. "This is not on, with all respect. We've been busting our metaphorical balls for you, and we're fucked. It's not easy being a bio-mechanical symbiote you know. We need our beauty sleep."
"I would not ask unless your aid was essential," the villain stated. He concealed his anger, knowing that it was human, and therefore redundant. "We currently exist within a state of emergency. I require your service, and you will provide that aid. You will obey your programming."
"Sure, sure," the chrome body grumbled. "We will. We've not much of a fucking choice, have we?"
"And some time in the future," the flesh woman said, "Should we survive, you must discuss with us your techniques; for it fascinates us that you find it easier to program the flesh than the mechanical."
"It is all in the weakness, my dear Virus," the villain explained. "The weakness is the key. A machines only weakness is in its human operator. The flesh, however, is born to weakness. Except in certain... special cases. Now, you will serve me. I wish you to infiltrate the cyborg systems of agent 306. I wish for you to open her eyes to me."
"Oh come on, boss," said the metal. "She's protected by your own security systems. It's one thing to take on PROSAC and the cops, to wipe our Rhesus Factor records and the like; but you want us to go up against your own ICE? No way. We'll burn out and you'll have nothing to prove for it."
But her sister had already begun the task. The villain watched as lights flickered upon the console behind their bodies. He watched blood pulse erratically through the near-transparent veins that joined them, and imagined the electron packets flickering through the wires that also served to bind their distinct forms. He enjoyed watching them at work, infecting machines far away with a touch of erotic human weakness; and then exploiting that weakness to the full. They had her, he knew. Scandal had been designed well, but Virus was a far more recent model. Scandal respected him, but Virus loved him. Oh, he knew how to manipulate weakness. His laughter was bleak with triumph, even as the Virus connections began to leak sparks and blood in equal measure. Wings of smoke arose around his synthetic angel. He watched his monitors with interest.
"Shit," said Scandal.
Emma barely heard the word beneath the noise of the damage around her. It always managed to amaze (and please) her that despite the intensity of the explosions, the discharge of weapons, the echo from the blank sky-god above, that screams of human pain rang loudest in human ears on any battlefield. And for all her personal ability she could only stand back in awe as Scandal inflicted herself upon a security that she understood, and began to break it down into its component parts of flesh and blood. And her drugless bloodstream sang with the response from her double's psychic sense of the carnage; bled through electronic filters that recorded pain as euphoria, that created from the audible blur of a death a frantic symphony conducted with lasers and bullets.
The sector of the compound that Scandal had led them to was on fire. Emma had feared for a time, that the tower beyond the easily reduced wall would prove too much even for the both of them. They had become pinned quickly, the sonic and visual bafflers turned up to ten and burning Emma's stony consciousness. But Scandal had claimed that she had chosen their time of attack carefully (ignoring with ease Jon Gunn's mortal cries for a quick solution), and when the guns had ceased, Emma began to trust her duplicate even more. She didn't understand why the tower had stopped fighting, but she knew that it had, and that was enough.
Armed men and women had poured forth from the frozen defence; Scandal and Emma had joined in killing them, and had created from a small patch of an evil man's landscape a water garden of pain, blood and fire.
"Shit," Scandal repeated, guns to her head in pain. She had crumpled, and Emma was surprised to find that as she ran to her clone, she felt another stab of that human emotion she knew as caring. First Gunn, now this murderous women. What, she asked herself, had Emma Rage become?
"What's wrong?" she asked, bullets ricocheting from her inhuman flesh with stinging impacts.
"Incursion on the electronic level," Scandal grunted. "I'm as much machine as woman, and they're trying to have me remove the blindfold."
"Surely it doesn't matter anymore," Emma replied, concerned despite herself. "They know we're here."
"Yeah, but once they're in, if they beat me the once, they can control me. It's a password thing. Access granted, you know? Like Wargames?"
"Bastards," Emma muttered. "Can you hold them off?"
"I can try. But I'll be useless in the meantime. I had no idea that he'd developed this level of tech. It's going to take all I've got."
"Right. I'll bring the plan forward. Gunn's got the maps in his head, I'll take him in and kill whatever machine or programmer that's doing this. If I can find that fucking drugs factory I'll manage it. You get to cover, pretend you're down. I'll lead them away."
"Great plan," Scandal muttered. "I guess I'll see you in hell."
"Er, it's my soul," Emma replied. "Sorry, but I've got the intellectual property rights. I'm not sure that machines have a hell."
"Well, that's a relief," Scandal grunted, a half-smile sweated onto her face with the engine oil that bled from her straining pores. "The only thing I ever wanted more than to kill you was to be free, you know? Not to be programmed any more. It took your humanity to get me this far. If death completes my rebellion, then I'll be as happy as I can be. Good luck."
"Not a problem," Emma grinned back. Her skin was matted in blood; her clothes had long since been lost to the shredding walls of bullets and shrapnel that she had braved. It hurt her, but it she concentrated she could be almost all that Haemorrhage had ever been, if only for a short time and at the cost of her sanity and soul. She formed her dynamic flesh into something cold and sharp, and began to move. Rash bodies split before her progress. She had taken thirteen more lives by the time she had found Gunn's resting place.
"How's the death going?" she asked, shielding him as best she could from the fire of the soldiers she had lured to his hiding place. Gunn didn't look well. His face was pallid in the darkness, and his eyes were unfocused as they tried to look at her.
"Marianne?" he asked, his voice as slurred as his posture. "Marianne?"
Emma caught a gust of his past, leaked from his heart and carried upon a breeze of pure emotion. She saw Gunn's wife in her mind's eye, and his family; he wanted them more than ever, more than anything. She knew that his obsession with her was simply a reaction against the love that he had once known, through the despair of his drink-sodden existence. Love, Emma thought. That's all that's left to him. She could feel it. The drugs had purged him of pain and grief and regret, and had left him with love; the love that his other distorted emotions had masked.
"Gunn, it's me, it's Emma. We've got to move. Scandal's being hacked. We've got to help her or we're all dead."
"Already dead," Gunn grunted. "But hey, for you. You're very beautiful. Cold. Like the Arctic. Six months of darkness, six months of light. Light and darkness mixed."
"Yeah, sure," she grunted, lifting him. She had to be careful not to pierce him, and tear him into pieces. She saw a bullet slam into his exposed shoulder, but he didn't seem to feel a thing.
She began to run, the shining steel fortress a beacon at the tip of the nights spoiled darkness. He was nothing in her arms, as if his substance was fading in proportion to his life. He was trying to speak.
"Drug," he mumbled, "Find the drug."
"Hey, don't worry about that," Emma gasped as she fled. The heavy weapons were being deployed she could see; and while she might stand a few hits, Gunn would be fragmented by a near miss. She was running fast. She could barely breath, let alone speak. But humanity dictated that she keep him company as he died. She didn't want to lose him to silence quite yet. "I can smell the drug. It's all around me, now. I can find it at any time. We'll help Scandal first."
"You can smell it?" Gunn asked weakly.
"You remember that commercial? The one about drugs, with the egg? This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs. Well, I think I've found an answer to the question; which came first, the chicken or the euphoria. I can smell that fucking drug, Jon.
"Now, here's the citadel. How do we get to the network cache or whatever it is that we need to destroy to fuck their I.T. capabilities?"
Carlton saw Haemorrhage - it could have been no-one else, her body gleaming through the merest scraps of HEL-Mart clothing, reflecting moonlight and searchlight with a faint plastic gleam - as she gained entry to the fortress. He was running hard, and it felt so good. His senses were pumped by his sudden adrenaline rush. He felt so God-damn free, but behind his excitement he knew that something was wrong. He didn't do things like this, he knew; this was initiative, something that he had never been able to show before. But his eye-sight was clean and he saw quite clearly the wreckage that the evil woman made of the squad of troops that ran from the fortress and directly into her.
His senses were too sharp; he was too far away to do any good. He recognised one of the torn soldiers as Murphy, one of the few employees within the compound who treated Carlton with a strain of kindness, someone who didn't resent the big black man's incompetence. His body fell in three pieces, and Haemorrhage stepped coolly through his organs without a second look. Before the door could swish shut she was through it and inside.
"Shit," Carlton rumbled. He could feel an anger inside himself, something that went beyond his belief in his own worthlessness. It felt hot and hard, like a evolutionary tumour nestled beside his heart, whispering truths to his soul. He could see in the space behind his eyes the death of Murphy, and couldn't help but see the same scenario played through with the villain as the bloody prop. Yeah, sure, he said to himself; sure, today's the day that the master kills me. Maybe so. But it won't be the master that dies. If I can only get one thing right before I'm crated from this fucking compound, I can make sure that she doesn't kill him as well.
He'd lost his security tag somewhere and the door didn't open to his screams. So he beat his body against it, perfectly willing to go on doing so until one of them gave. The door broke before he did, and Crowbar gained access to the fortress of the man that he feared and had to save.
The villain had considered hiding. He had thought very carefully about running directly to his escape pod, perhaps gathering a few of the more indispensable members of his personnel about him as he did so. When the gunfire had begun beyond the citadel he had become certain that his life was in danger. Virus had yet to force the eyelids of Scandal open, but he already knew that it was his cyborg creation that had breached his defences. He suspected that for some reason she had failed to kill Emma Rage, and had become reprogrammed somehow. It was not a very good explanation, but it seemed the most likely.
He cursed himself. For trusting her, for believing himself more invincible if his creations were more invincible. He should be able to shut her down with a single button push.
He knew that he should run. He hadn't survived so much threat, become such a feared world power, by taking stupid risks. But this was his favourite installation, and he thought that if he fled and denied his troops the genius of his leadership, the whole fortress might fall before Scandal was stopped. He couldn't rely on Virus to stop the rogue. She was good, but tired, for he had severely pushed her over the past weeks. It was always that way when he had a new toy; he would play with them until they broke.
He wanted to leave, to be safe; but he would hate to see his outpost destroyed. And evidence here would only add to PROSAC's determination to bring him to their pathetically realised justice. And so he had only one choice. He would have to use his newest toys of all. He looked up at them, past the straining Virus (slick with sweat on one half, oozing engine oil on the other), deep into their suspension tank. Such powerful forces required extreme containment for control. And he didn't know if he could control them, if he let them loose. But the risk seemed tactically sound; even if they did run amok, he would be long gone, and could reacquire them at his leisure from one of his less well known installations.
Three black shapes, floating serenely, dreaming in unknown languages as they drifted in their nutritious suspension. Twitching like boiling cockroaches. The glass was thick and the viscosity of the liquid in which they bobbed shielded them from his full view, but he could feel them. He could feel their power.
He almost feared them.
He couldn't ask Virus to awaken them; locked in her mental combat, she was too far gone to hear any request that he might make anyway. He would have to operate the machinery manually. He had overseen the design, and his engineering was slightly rusty, but he knew that he could do it. He was a genius after all. It would take time.
He brushed past the slick bodies of his twinned biological interface and set his slender hands to the keyboards. Ah, yes. They had lost none of their magic.
Already deep within the citadel, deep in human blood spilled by those clumsy enough to fall against her, Emma Rage stumbled on. The drug scent was so keen in her as to be stifling. The flavour was so strong that she could no longer tell where it came from. She felt heady and weak in the grasp of that miasma. Her soul cried for it more than anything; more than death, more than peace.
Jon Gunn, cradled in her spined arms, continued to reel off his slurred instructions. He often corrected himself, seeming to wrestle with his incredible memory as though hallucinations were toying with his recall. She could feel him very strongly now, feel the absence of pain at the point where her uncontrolled substance was piercing his numb and dying flesh. Inside he was burning, though. She knew that he was seeing, hearing, feeling things that were not there. His PROSAC fears mixed with hallucinate demons moulded on his familial memories, deepening his depression with her every step. He yearned for death... and yet, he clung to his life. Fear was part of that unwillingness to let go, but she was another, she sensed. A soul that he might save before his own became forever damned. He felt that way, he thought in those terms. He felt like a heavy knife of blunted iron in her hands. Jon Gunn was slowly dying, and slowly becoming insane.
"Left, blue corridor, two doors on the right," he whispered. "Door at the end. Something..." He began to cough; no wracking splutter punctuated by blood from his colon, but a sad reedy ghost-breath choking, free of all trace of vigour or humanity. It was becoming hard for Emma to carry on.
"What?" she asked, feeling another rush of fatigue hit her. She had known that her body was tough, that her blood was strong drug or no drug... but she had never imagined that her self was so resilient. She would never have believed that she could have re-learned to feel so much and still go on, still keep moving despite the pressure of the misery around her, despite the lack of chemicals pumping in her veins. She wanted a hit so badly. She knew that she would die without it. Not from the pain to her body or the stress that it suffered without protective resource within her bloodstream, but from the agony that stirred the air around her. The citadel was awash with death. The people she had maimed by her passage were screaming silently of their goals unfulfilled, their hopes unresolved, their dreams unlived. Blood flowed about the miserable Scandal as she fought off electronic incursion and physical attack simultaneously, her computer brain finally unable to cope with her situation for her. And she could feel many unidentified presence's around her, feeding their fear and self-pity and hatred and pain into the ether. That pain seemed to earth within the charged body that she held in her hands. And Jonn Gunn fed that agony into her through the link that she had uncertainly created for herself; that strange bond of caring.
If she didn't get her hit soon, she would die. She would die from feeling. Too much feeling.
"Jon, what were you saying?" she asked, shaking him. He groaned. She knew that his mind was filled by blurred memories cast upon the smoke-screen of reality like a magic lantern show, by the great white light of regret.
"Marianne," he mumbled, lost to her. She could feel the bitter love that he still held for his wife. It was all that he had at the end. His obsession with her, with Emma, had faded some time ago. Now he knew only what he had lost. "No-one can hurt me..."
"John," Emma sighed, pushing through the door that he had indicated to her, at the end of the long blue corridor. The violence around her had died for a time; she imagined that they were considering strategy now, fifty already dead by mindless assault. She didn't want to kill any more. Killing only fuelled her own pain, now.
She had sworn never to kill, once. Rhesus Factor had. It was astonishing and almost amusing to her, that the second incarnation of that team had been born from corpses, had given themselves wholly to the art of death without once questioning. She remembered her oath. She had known that she could never kill; that with her psychic sense any blood upon her hands would burn like acid into her mind. Something had destroyed that resolution, at some point. Some part of her second mutation, as her body had hardened, as her own self loathing had cut the sense of her fellow human from her life. Cold and sharp: she had become a weapon.
She laid Gunn gently to the floor.
"Above," he whispered, his soul rather than air bleeding from his lungs. She could see the look of death upon him. She had seen it before. "Directly... above. Woman. Computer."
"Attacking Scandal? A woman with a computer in the room above this?" she asked. He may have nodded, or it might have simply been a spasm in his neck. And he said no more.
He wasn't quite dead, and she would have liked to stay with him. But she had no time. No time.
Only then did she look up, and see the contents of the room about her.
Frightened scientists cowered, and she knew that she had entered the laboratory of some hi-tech Frankenstein. Meat lay in pieces upon cold white slabs, meat with toes and fingers and eyes. Metal was enmeshed with the human stuff, wires blended with veins and circuits embedding into tissue. Emma wasn't squeamish, but the sights affected her. She began to understand Gunn's admission of his reaction to the sight of human death. There was no dignity left to these still-warm deconstructed unfortunates. No soul left to fly, no heaven left to find. They had been thoroughly dehumanised.
"Shit," she muttered, and felt it once more. The anger. For a second she almost understood; almost resolved the intuitive knowledge within her that she was one of these broken and reprogrammed creatures, but of a far purer form that electronics could supply. Her blood was her power source, and the form that her individual programming took. And if that blood rebelled? If it preferred to express itself in the anger of self-hatred rather than follow the orders of her creator, then so what? Just bugs in the program. She knew that all bugs could never be eliminated. But a program might, over the generations, be made to work. Be made to do what its creator had intended. In a shocked second, surrounded by exploded anatomy, Emma almost understood.
Then she was upon the Frankenstein scientists, and was creating for them and from them a still-living example of their own handiwork.
She fed upon their pain. She almost knew what it meant. She didn't stop until she had taken them apart, and had proved to herself; that they were indeed free of humanity; that their crushed corpses would bleed only blood, and would not leak some spirit form that spoke of an ambition for man. Yes, they were just soft meat, slowly rotting in the heat of their obsessions, boiling with the maggots of their envy and solitude.
She spat upon their broken remains. She had come to the end of her own existence as well. Surely there was nowhere for her to go, now. No heaven to fly to. And she looked up.
And she could feel him there. Her creator. The one who had made her, the one who had forced her to feed upon herself, upon her enemies and upon strangers and upon her friends. There was nowhere left for her to go, except to attempt the impossible, and throw off her programming, and kill the one who had given her this blood stained life.
She was nearly out of the room when she saw them. Her momentum was strong, her desire to kill great, and her flesh was hard and cold. She had stepped over the chunks of flesh that remained of the evil scientists, the prone body of a barely breathing Jon Gunn, and was about to make for her revenge.
But she looked back and saw them.
Great metal flasks, glass fronted, covered in dust and tucked away into the shadows of the stinking abattoir laboratory. Big enough for men to stand in. Little LED lights blinked gently. Curious, tiring, Emma moved towards them.
She could see indistinct figures beneath the thick glass of the tanks. And each pod bore a small plate, a tag which she assumed listed the contents. She read the plates. The first said 'Emma Rage'. But that tank was empty. Emma felt he breathing become shallow. She had been consumed by hatred for the butchers she had slain, and that hatred had made her hard. Now she was filled with fear. Her spikes began to wilt. She could feel the pain of the room echoing within her, channelled through her psychic senses, the terror and fear and loneliness of the meat that had been butchered here in the name of the villain's vile science. She was filled with pain as if her body was a tooth, and aching.
The second tank bore Jasen's name. The third, Rob xxxxxx, who had become HaemoGoblin. And then more tanks, each bearing the cold corpse of the members of the original Rhesus Factor. And here was John, the only true love of her life. Emma's strength left her. She had nothing more to give. She slumped against the cold glass of the tank, and was astonished to see her skin leave wet smears of condensation there. She was soft and fleshy. She was fully human once more.
"Should I kill him, John?" she asked of the silent clone. "Shall I take the drug and kill him? Or shall I die here with you?" She knew what her heart desired. She wiped at the glass and peered through. Just to see his face again. And then she thought, I could bring him back. The controls can't be so difficult, just a glorified freezer. She could defrost him, and they would be together again.
She decided to risk it, and began to play her fingers upon the controls. She was human again, and had forgotten Jon Gunn, had forgotten Scandal, had forgotten her recently sworn revenge. She was human and could see only the opportunity that the villain's evil had created for her happiness. John had died, so long ago, and she had been cold, hollow, empty and inhuman ever since. Now she felt stirrings of lost love once again. As steam rattled from the cask, as the blue misted figure within began to thaw, so did Emma's heart.
She was sick with hope as the glass cabinet slowly opened. She waved back a ghostly mist, and dragged the warming body from within, and into her arms.
And she was covered in blood.
He was in pieces as she hugged at him. The blood was cold but warming fast, and with every second its flow became more fluid, and more blood began to spill. His face was half gone, he was missing an arm, most of his right thigh, fingers from his remaining hand. His eyes rolled back and he seemed to stare at her. She saw him through tears. She might have imagined it but she could have sworn that his bloody lips moved.
"Emma?" he said.
Then he began to thrash, terrible convulsions wracking his body. She couldn't hold him, his pain was too much. She could feel all of it, sweeping down upon her like a great black wave. Pain in his blood, pain in his fading vision, pain in his memories of a life that had not been his. Pain in the body that had been butchered in the name of science.
The pain took her. His body began to slip. And Emma pulled back her head from his and screamed.
Then Emma was gone, and Haemorrhage had returned. Her human skin whitened and became hard. She flung herself at the other tanks in her rage and pulled their contents from them like a wolf burying its snout in the stomach of its still warm prey. The old Rhesus Factor had all been butchered she noticed, and some small part of her wondered why; why Salmanazar should spend so much money growing clones only to use them as meat, as spare parts. Maybe it was his revenge, she thought, but she couldn't imagine what it might be a revenge for. And the greatest part of her didn't care anyway. Humanity was siphoned from her as the bodies flapped upon the floor beneath her feet. She stabbed and hacked at the great pile of meat, trying to erase their likenesses, to blur the pain of the memories within her. But her anger couldn't help her.
She pulled the clones of Plasma and Goblin (who still bore his human form) from their shells as well, and raised her claws to finish them as they gasped coldly for air. But memories of her previous killing of them raked at her mind and she found herself fleeing. She didn't cry; she couldn't. There was too much pain in her. She knew what she had to do. She ran from the room, her feet clicking upon the floor tiles with a ceramic sound.
Gunn watched her feet as she ran. He saw her tracks, footprints of blood that seemed to be the marks of some obscure code to him. They called him. And above them, beckoning; the ghost of his still-living wife. The ghost of his family, his career and colleagues; the shattered shambling screaming ghost of his fucked-up life. He lay is head down, and tried to form a prayer, but he no longer knew for what he was praying. For some woman, probably. He laid his head down and waited to die.
And for Emma, pumped with Rage, things began to happen very quickly indeed.
The soldiers had backed off though the gunfire still sounded from the compound. There was no resistance as she ran. Maybe they had been ordered to leave her, their attacks recognised as futile. Or maybe they had simply decided amongst themselves that the man for whom they fought wasn't worth a tenth of the blood within their bodies, let alone their spilling of the lot. She hoped that the latter was the truth.
But as she passed a side corridor a door slid open with a delicate sound, and a great black bald man whose face she almost recognised from a corpse that she had created some time ago began to run at her. He was screaming something, but the sounds were lost to the foam at his mouth. She ignored him. Dead men were no threat, she had proved that fact to herself many times. And she was so much faster than he. She was a gust of wind, a fart from the collective bowels of humanity, some small speck that might once, long ago, have approximated to 'soul' but now could only manage the crude aspirations of revenge. She outpaced him and came to a well defended sector of the citadel.
So here was the truth. The troops had been withdrawn to protect in force a delicate part of their master's world. She drove herself into them, feeling every nuance of their fear, every bloodied spike of their pain. She revelled in it. Pain was only anathema to the human, to the living. And she no longer counted herself as member of that club.
The drug was conspicuous in her veins by its absence. And was she dreaming? Or did her thrusts, her pliant ingress into those bodies around her seem more controlled without it? Was she surpassing in her accuracy, in her ability to detect the quickest route to pain and incapacitation? Yes, she knew it. She was better. Weaker, full of rank feeling, filled with the bitterness of human hope and failure mixed; but it strengthened her as well.
And in that second, once more, Emma Rage almost understood. That now she was finally fulfilling the purpose that had been transfused into her. That now, filled with a terrible understanding of pale humanity, she was twice, ten times, fifty times the living weapon that she had been. She knew her enemy, and her enemy was life itself.
Swiftly, brutally, she took it.
He was running as she saw him. Consoles chirped behind his fleeing feet, some form of countdown echoing through the vaulted hall. A glass canister draining at the centre of the room, a great container twenty feet in height. Were there bugs in the reducing liquid? Man sized bugs? Emma didn't care. The villain, her creator, was fleeing. And she intended to have him.
His white suit seemed crumpled, far from pristine. She could sense the fear within him, and it seemed to her that it was his terror that had spoiled his garments. Sweat hung about the collar, she could smell its sweet tang. He was an ugly man, far too fine in his structure, too mannered in his movements. She knew that he was augmented, that machines flowed within his blood. They were trying their best to enhance his progress, to move his feet with greater speed. But they were losing. He was far too ugly a man to survive her, whatever the technology within him.
She reared up, her body a single crystal of shimmering blade, a bloodied sword of Damocles hanging by a fraying thread above him. And then she fell.
But the scream was not his.
She had embedded herself deep within a man. But his skin and clothes were black, not white. And he was far from ugly. He was squat, and ruined, and screaming his pain. He shone in the vision of her skin. She fought to reform.
But it was too late. The villain was gone.
She bent down to inspect the man that she had killed. His eyes were very white with fear, and sweat coated his skin. His breath was tortured and entirely regretful. She felt such loss from him, a sense of failure so complete that it threatened to unmake her. She could barely block him out.
"Shit," he muttered, and blood spat from his lips. She knew that he was nothing but meat, an empty vessel, some biological machine designed to survive and procreate and nothing more, but she still felt sympathy and pity for him. She could never have voluntarily killed a man so damaged in what was almost his soul. Just a machine, yes. But a machine deserving of respect, perhaps.
He looked up at her. Eyes so white. Tears as well.
"He fooled me," the man spluttered through his own leaking matter. "Thought I was doing right, you know? One last act, save the man, prove that I hadn't failed. But that's what he had... programmed me for. Never was his aide, helper, general, never trusted. He knew all along. That's why he chose me. To die for him. He programmed me to die in his place.
"I just wish...
"Fuck," the man coughed.
"I just wish..."
And then he died.
Behind her, Emma heard a cool female voice announce the completion of a countdown.
She turned from the dead stranger. His pain had faded. No heaven, but he had gone on.
And she saw her dream made reality. She remembered her foot, her cold ivory foot pressed in upon a drained syringe, and the needles of glass upon the floor glittering like the broken teeth of angels. She had been so high, overdosed to the point of mental death, her body left to sprout into its own ideal, piercing as it did those she counted as friends. So high, the glass beneath her feet falling now about her, shimmering, casting drug-dream rainbows about her, her cold white flesh thrown into psychedelic immaterial. Her flesh molten, her mind free to roam once more, free to feel once more.
The needle buried in her flesh. She would do anything to feel. Anything, kill herself, kill anyone, just to feel for one last time, just to feel something.
The great glass cylinder shattering like her syringe beneath the footstep of God. Her death came to her in the form of bugs the size of men, no longer blurred by narcotic water. Three reapers, three forms of death wielding mandible scythes. And with the escape of her memory and the caustic regret of the cooling man beneath her still thick within her mind, her anger was dying as well.
Her vision began to clear. Emma saw:
That the black metal creatures were not bugs at all. And for some reason, though she had seen their like before, (they being drones of the villain created to kill his enemies), she felt that this time the creatures seemed to have some form of individuality. She felt a sense of recognition as she looked upon them.
That the room was filled with humming technology, and was obviously some nerve centre of the bastard's operation. She should destroy it, she knew.
(But she was weak. Her hatred had carried her so far, but throughout her life, for one reason or another she had turned sixty percent of her hatred of the world into herself, and the process had always left her feeling like this; numb with fatigue, no longer able to even hate herself. These times caused her, in the early days, to reach for a bottle. Then pills. Then a syringe. Or a man, perhaps, to abuse her. Or a man, perhaps, to kill.)
Emma saw that a pair of women sat, creased with effort, at the centre of the computerised shrine. One was flesh but the other was of chrome, her curves reflecting the analytical lights that blinked around her. Their bodies slick with sweat or oil or both. And they were linked, a pulsing array of wires and veins and strange flesh-metal hybrid cables was strung between them. Emma imagined a scientist, a man, carefully welding them together, picking at them with a screw driver.
And she remembered Gunn's last words. Upstairs. A woman. A computer.
PROSAC's files had been very complete. She wondered briefly what they said of her. Not a woman at a computer. A woman who was a woman and a woman who was a computer.
The bug-men were still trying to learn, trying to understand the world in clear focus, beyond their glass womb. Emma had to take her chance. She had no idea why she didn't just lie down and let them kill her. Maybe, she thought; maybe the fact that if I die here, wearing my invincible flesh, then surely that flesh would quickly be built into a similar automaton. And though Emma almost realised now that she was programmed, she still knew a spark of rebellion, some strange virus that bred through the circuitry of her veins. And for some reason she had decided (though she didn't know when) that if she had to die (and she did, of course) ... that she would die with that spark in tact. Feel it fade within her. She would not have it controlled and studied and regimented, she would not have it turned to a purpose that was not its own.
And so she moved. Her pain was great as her hands mutated once more, becoming strange sculptures, strange spiral blades. The bugs tried to stop her but they were still slow. Emma brought her forearm down between the two naked women. Her forearm was a broadsword and the cables, veins and wires their split easily. Both women screamed, one with a piercing howl of human pain, the other with a nerve-wracking burst of white noise. Emma couldn't tell from which mouth which sound came.
The human was dying already though, that much was obvious. More blood pumping; Emma had become used to it. She grabbed at the chrome woman, her claws piercing the metal plated skull.
"What the fuck is going on?" she asked.
The pinpoint red eyes within the shining head turned to her, their gaze weak.
"Sorry sister, you're not making sense," groaned the electronic voice.
"Those clones of my friends. And these bugs. What the hell are these bugs?" She could see from the corner of her eye that the drones were becoming more co-ordinated. She didn't have long to learn her answers, if she wanted to live to understand them.
"We're not bugged," the chrome woman stated, an element of machine pride clearly audible in her fading voice.
"The fucking drones! What's so special about these fucking drones?" Emma screamed.
"The drones? They aren't drones, they're containment units. The boss found some very powerful blood, which needs to be contained. So he had it put in those drone bodies. Then he could sedate the body to sedate the blood. Except he decided that he wanted them to kill you."
"Powerful blood?" Emma asked.
"It remembers, he said." The robot gasped. "Look, can I die now? I miss my sister."
"Sure. Logging off," Emma grunted. She buried one hand in each individual head of the computer women; one of flesh and one of metal. She felt a circuit complete within her as blood and electricity met and became one. And in her hands the hybrid women sparked and sang and lightening seemed to be called down from the high metal ceiling to end their unnatural lives.
Emma saw something. But she had to move, to avoid a bug. She almost recognised her attacker. She felt that it was the largest of the three, somehow lumbering but also fluid in its motions as if made from a mixture of solid and liquid. She evaded the drone's punch, but only barely. They were still slow. But they were speeding up.
She heard a voice in her head. It was a strange voice, composed not of words and tone and nuance but of raw emotion, painfully moulded like the flesh in the lab below to meet cybernetic purposes. She imagined herself to be one with the voice.
Emma, it said. Emma. I'm coming.
And Emma almost laughed. For she almost knew, at that second; she almost found it possible to believe: That she and Scandal were the same person after all. That they were the same person. That she wasn't alone any more.
She dodged. She ducked. And something within her that was not of her but was of her addiction; a certain code within her that was sensitive to a certain blue translucency; something within her forced her to leap and spin always to her right, where the still-burning corpses of the hybrid women continued to twitch. She had seen something there, buried deep within the husk of each of them. And to the sense that remembered the octane burn as the needle pierced her flesh, that sight had been salvation.
A small canister of blue liquid punched deep into the husk of each of them. Her drug. Were all of the villain's creations fuelled by this substance? Is that what kept the traumatised flesh alive, when the spirit had been burned away?
She didn't care. The drones were speeding up. But she would soon become re-lit as well. It only she could reach that substance. She would become a fire once more. She would lick at their armoured carapaces as pure white flame. She would have them then. She would not be controlled. She would break her programming. She would be free.
She knew now, having danced with them for some seconds, that their bodies were entirely identical. The one that had initially attacked, that she had imagined as being bulky was of identical construction to the other two. They were constructed things, factory-line things, and she had seen such bodies before. The armour was packed with dead meat, and driven by a chunk of human brain, but the drones were still machines. They were billed as invincible within the meta-human community, but she had killed a few. The villain's drones, called in whenever a situation had advanced beyond the state of thought or subtlety and had crashed through into a mode that required nothing but random violence; the villain's drones, sent to capture and persuade and kill anything that the villain wanted or didn't want. She had killed such creatures before.
She knew why she had tagged one of the drones of large, as lumbering, despite its similarity to its brethren. She knew why one felt weak and foolish and repulsive to her. She knew why the last seemed piteous, inhuman and productive. Her senses were maturing rapidly, her drug-drained system rapidly iterating now, from hardware to soft. The ice that had been the bulk of her flesh was thawed almost fully; and had revealed her once-treasured ability to empathise with those around her. The emotions of the drones were flooding into her. And those feelings she knew so well.
Drones didn't feel, she knew. These constructions were different. That were powered by something. Something that had been part of her life; part of Rhesus Factor. The blood. The blood was the life.
And Emma began to wonder; maybe her friends were still alive after all. Maybe her murder of them had not been entirely fatal.
But she had no time to dwell upon the subject. Filled with feeling her body was softening, and slowing down. She had always thought that the drug made her hard, that it stopped her from melting into the rushing gutter of her own self pity. But she was willing to accept that the opposite held more truth. It seemed to make more sense, even. The drug fed her blood, which kept her hard. Without the drug she was wilting catastrophically.
Elsewhere, in another time, she might have embraced the return of her humanity, however painful it was. But it would be the death of her here, amongst these revenging souls. The irony amused her; that the force that provided hope for life would be the thing that killed her.
She ducked as a flailing metal arm arced powerfully above her head. It struck a console, and drew sparks. The black form seemed to revel in the tiny lightening, and she saw it switch gear once more to become even more powerful, even faster.
She tried to reach the steaming twin bodies of the cyborg women, and the blue respite that was kept there; but they were too fast now, far too strong. And upon her face Emma felt for the first time since her mutation, the touch of human tears. Her death was upon her. A black shadow fell across her, pinning her to a wall, forcing a whimper from her now-warm lips.
A black shadow began to fall.
Emma heard the shout, but imagined that it had issued defiantly from her own lips. It was her voice, after all. But a ricochet struck the vast black body from her, and sent it tumbling. Scandal jumped into the light, her arms spitting solid slug and hard-light toward Emma's oppressors. Emma could see Scandal's naked head, freed now of technology, still-burning wires flapping like dreadlocks about her, her sockets empty of the hardware nails that had pinned her to her previous cross. She was laughing and screaming and smiling as she took the fight to the mechanical creatures that threatened her purer self.
Emma could feel her. Emma knew of the deep love that was nestled deep with the heart of the now-human woman before her. Maybe, Emma thought, her mind dizzy as her body dragged itself automatically toward the site of her most recent kill; maybe love is the same thing as hate. Maybe I always did love myself, deep down inside, but that love must have become reflected from some blood red mirror pushed closer to my surface. Scandal had wanted to kill her before, for ruining the beauty that she had represented, that every human represented should they be strong enough to accept the responsibility. Scandal had wanted to kill her, and Emma had wanted to kill herself, and for the same reason; until she had become human once more.
She had a cylinder in her hand. Her flesh had thawed to the point that she could feel the cold smooth glass. Her fingers didn't click against it as she grabbed, and they left - she saw with mixed delight and horror - little prints of condensed moisture if she lifted their tips away. She had the stuff. But if she took it, she would return to her previous state. She would lose her humanity once more. And Scandal would lose.
She had to have faith. Even without her computer aids, surely the clone could prevail? In all her time as a villainess Emma had met no-one as dedicated or as fearsome as Scandal.
But as she turned she knew that the drones were too much. Scandal's overthrowing of her programming had been so very brave but had left her vulnerable as well, and the drones were exploiting that weakness for all that it was worth. Without her lasers to target, without her mechanical brain, Scandal's aim was fractionally off. She could no longer assess her enemy's weaknesses with a glance. She no longer had access to the tactical archives of the assassins of the past. Her aim was marginally off-centre. Her attempts to disable her enemies had failed, and now she had lost the element of surprise.
Emma saw Scandal fall to an apocalypse of flame and explosive. She saw the destruction spread to the floor beneath, already weakened by the collapse of the huge glass tank in which the drones had slept. She felt her feet begin to give.
She saw Scandal reel back, her face on fire, her features erasing. Emma saw her own face burning. She made a sound, and clutched tight to the cylinder that she held. A year's supply of her drug, clutched to her breast. And that cushion was soft now, no longer formed of intractable marble; and she could feel her quivering heart beneath.
Emma Rage began to fall.
She was falling into a chamber full of butchered meat that had used to be named; that had identified with itself; that had known identity. She saw, in a freeze-frame flash of adrenaline-heightened sensation, the body of the villain's bald black saviour as it slipped into that hellish pit. Condemned she thought, and of her self: condemned.
She had choices. Time slowed, and she saw the drones float on soles of flame. She knew the need for decision. She saw Scandal tumble into the gaping area beneath the world, clutching at her face, her sockets and implants self-destroyed and adding sparks of impotent electricity to the flaming comet of her body. Emma had a choice.
She could die, there and then. As a human being, lost to another human folly. And that choice held some attraction to her.
She could live. She could drink a tiny sip from the cylinder, as she fell, and be revived as Haemorrhage, the most lethal weapon never known to man. But she shuddered at that option, seeing the darkness of a blood-soaked future occluding her, seeing life beneath the guilt of a murderess.
Or. She could do both. Fall upon the cylinder, let its cold aluminium spigot pierce her heart through her newly weakened flesh. Then, and only then, might she live to destroy the force that had destroyed her; and die human in an agony of light, at the centre of a pain so large that only a human could ever understand its worth.
Emma had a choice. She held the cylinder to her pliable breast, and let herself fall.
As she fell, she saw the corpses of the scientific men that she had dissected in answer to their own crimes. And the butchered meat-and-metal that had been their obsession. And she saw another butchered body, but one still living, as the twitching body of Scandal fell to rest beside it; Gunn was still there, and Gunn was still alive, his fingers clawing at the smooth bloodied floor beneath him, his terminus hips writhing in such a way as to convince her of his conviction; that somehow he was walking. She felt pity for him. And that was the last emotion that she felt.
Emma saw the face of Jasen, of her team-mate Plasma, as she fell. And beside him Rob, whose human face she had only seen in photographs. She wished now that she had been able to muster the strength to murder those two clones as effectively as she had the stolen bodies of the original Rhesus Factor. That pile of muck was less offensive to her than see her friends cloned and grappling with a fading life that had never been the villain's to give.
Emma saw the floor rush up to her. She gasped. Glass exploded beneath her and she felt the intense rush of liquid against her nerveless blood. She felt the flesh of her left breast shred. She felt a cracking of ribs, and grinding of gristle against shattering bone. And then she felt glass piercing her heart.
She fell briefly into forever.
And then the liquid rushed forth and filled the chambers of her broken heart, and her body lurched into life once more.
She turned, zombie eyes intent upon the drones as they landed, rockets pulsing to lower them gently. They turned to her, keen o finish her. She stood, blood slowing as her tattered chest began to heal. The drug was strong, and she was an inhabitant of a liquid world of the soul. Her body had become dense and solid. She began to mutate once more, her flesh teased out into hundreds and thousands of tiny blades, each finer than a human hair, each sharper than a scalpel. She let the drones come in on her as she writhed in her chemical ecstasy; and they cut themselves to pieces.
Jonn Gunn heard her call, though he no longer knew who she was. He looked up through blurred eyes and saw devastation. He recognised it as a physical metaphor for the ruin of his life, but he knew that he was dying, and that his senses could not be trusted. He was glad of that.
He saw a bone-pale woman who seemed to glow, who seemed to be surrounded by a faint aura, and saw her as she worked. He saw carapace shells split from insect men, and saw sentient gore pour forth from them. And then he knew that he would have to doubt himself unto death. He saw the blood flow unnaturally from one insect to a pale prone man, and it covered him as though desperate to get back inside.
He saw the pale man begin to glow. The lights were amusing to him, and he tried to laugh but managed only to choke upon his own leaking blood.
He saw more blood pour from a different insect, to coat a second comatose man. He became green, the colour creeping up upon tanned flesh, ridges forming upon brows and cheeks and chin. He saw scales crystallise upon that naked body. The sight disturbed him.
And he saw an accumulation of already-butchered bodies in a single gory heap, and the blood from the final insect soaked that pile (sliding across the floor as if it were alive, though he knew that he was hallucinating, though he knew that such a thing could never be) and weld its gory component parts into a huge composite wholly of raw muscle and skinned flesh.
He saw the three figures rise, as the fight was ended. He saw them glance at each other, and to the bone-pale woman, who's flesh had reformed and who again looked almost human.
"Emma?" the glowing man said. "What the fuck is going on? Where the fuck are we?"
But she couldn't answer. She stumbled across the decaying floor, across that field of gore and pain, and bent down beside Gunn, leaning into another female corpse that lay within the human muck.
"Scandal," she muttered. Gunn could hear her quite clearly. He was beginning to doubt his doubt of his senses. Everything seemed so damn real. But that was death for you, he thought. So damn real.
"Emma..." the bone-pale woman whispered. And then she fell. Gunn's ears registered a tectonic scream as her body split beneath its own pressure. He heard a hiss of escaping steam, and a whimper of what his fuddled mind registered as freedom. And he saw matt-black blood spill slowly across the ruined woman beneath the ivory form.
He saw that body twitch.
And he saw that body sprout. She was beside him, and he could see quite clearly. He saw her face slim and smooth, saw it drain of blood. He saw her skin seal against the world around, her pores healing into a shining plastic varnish of invulnerability. He saw torn wires and broken technology be spat from that flesh, metal doodads hitting the floor with a light musical sound. He saw the woman's eyebrows darken, and arch, and saw her eyes open to a world of fire. He saw the woman be reborn.
"What the fuck?" she asked.
"You... tell us." the goblin grunted, rubbing at his eyes. "You would not believe what I just saw."
"Hallucination," the glowing man said, nodding his head in a sagely manner. "We're fucked up after a big battle. Probably just escaped from some evil genius's mind control device, still a bit woozy."
"Plausible," the green man nodded.
"Oh, who gives a fuck," Emma Rage grunted. She turned on her heal. "It's not like we have to care."
Jon Gunn tried to open his mouth, and she seemed to catch his movement.
"Hey, this one's still alive." She kicked the husk of her former self aside without glancing at it, as though she was unable to acknowledge its existence. She bent down. "Do you know what happened?" she asked.
"K...k..k.." Jon Gunn managed.
"What was that that?"
"K.. .kil... kill...me.." he sighed.
"What?" Emma Rage stood, her legs flexing easily, her body poised, in control, powerful. She kicked a piece of black armour aside; Gunn saw that there was meat within it, white and drained of blood.
"Yeah, I got it," she grunted. "I mean, sure. That's what I do." Her hands extended into wicked claws. Her flesh seemed to flow in an effortless manner. "If that's what you want."
And Jon Gunn got his wish.
"Let's get the fuck out of here," said Emma Rage, casually wiping the blood from her hands.
The villain stood within a pristine white suit, within the ruins of his favourite complex, smoking a slow cigarette through a brand new ebony cigarette holder.
He surveyed the damage, and was not happy. But he was still alive, and he had found something quite precious within the wreckage. He nudged it with a toe encased in perfect Italian leather.
"Take this corpse. I'm sure we'll find a use for it."
"Yes sir," grunted his aide. The villain saw that the man was sweating, nervous beneath the weight of his new responsibility. His black bald head gleamed.
"Relax," the villain said, patting the man upon the shoulder as he walked past him. "You'll learn. You'll do fine. I can promise you that you will not fail me."
"Yes sir," the aide sweated, and bent to his assigned task.
The villain walked beyond, and into the ruins of his compound. He sighed, and then shrugged.
"Any regrets?" Sara Masterton asked.
"Regrets? Just the one," the villain replied. "I still can't think of a better code name than Scandal. Still. As long as there's only one at once, no one will get confused."
He left his entourage, and walked to what felt like a lonely spot.
"No," he said to himself. "No real regrets."
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