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 Post subject: Requiem
PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2007 6:11 am 
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[NOTE: This takes place after the Third Hub. I’m simply putting it up now to keep me writing.]

“Everyone has a predator born within them. How big that predator grows depends solely on how much blood you feed it.”

-Conner “Zan” Sunderland

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There was a silent fear within the heart of the player that appeared in the underground of Carmina Gadelica - a whispered cowardice that all come to face in the moment before they take that final step off of the high dive or the fifty-story skyscraper. Siberian Husky blues could hardly take in the pass of fellow Freedom Fighters as they slipped once more through the archway into the only place they could possibly call home in The World. Too much occupied his thoughts; too much occupied his future. As much as he would have liked to join them, the trenchcoat-bearing Heavy Blade knew that the time to face his demons was upon him. Zan, face scarred and slinking back to a childish anxiety as he turned to face the giant whir of gold and blue that was the Chaos Gate, could delay saving the girl he cared more about than anyone else in the world no longer. How he had managed to ignore the inevitable thusfar was a question who’s answer could be found again in the dark, bitter shelter of fear and a flurry of panicked questions.

Where was she?
Could he get to her?
Was her mind gone from the torture, from the isolation?
Did she remember loving him?

They scratched the surface of the chaotic wonderings, such questions, but they didn’t really get at the heart of his internal struggle, of his true reason for having put it off so long. It came down to one pleading: Would he die? The idea of true, final death had been lost on him since he first became trapped in the game. Threat of deletion was minimal if one knew where to walk, which back alleys to take, and what group to follow. Dying in battles was only met with a hasty resurrection and pain could be killed with mumbled incantations. A hand lofting up to wrap around the silver metal of the full moon necklace about his neck, Zan knew that his first real fright of the possibility of death came when he realized he’d have to go back to the real world and break Lowen out of an underground compound that, for all intents and purposes, was hidden from the public by a very powerful, very large company.

As he activated the key code in the necklace with but a thought, phases of the moon shuffling rapidly before him like a locker combination in an ethereal green that was photosensitive for his retina and his retina alone, Zan realized he hadn’t even thought much about how hard it might be to go back. Something in him was certain the Knights of Revelation would have his answer. Call it instinct, call it foolhardy blindness, but he knew.

It was with this supposed knowledge that he shoved down the frantic uncertainty of his mortality and let the oblivion of transportation into the Shadow (a name given to the game’s world of deleted code) overtake him.

The nothingness was a kiss of peace.

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The asphalt of the junior high school’s parking lot had become the boy’s new bed. One eye fought to stay at least half-open, to keep conscious, while the other had already swollen shut. The copper tang of blood as he swallowed made his stomach turn. His nose ran free of the liquid, mingling with the puffy split of his lip to fill his mouth with plenty. The sudden shift in gravity and the flood of beating sunlight into his vision as he was helped to his feet made him groan. Adrenaline that had flooded again through him at the prospect of another round of getting his ass kicked thinned when one of his arms was slung over the mystery kid’s shoulder. A pained look sideways revealed the short, smoothly combed blonde hair of his best friend.

“Damn it, Conner. You don’t always have to be the hero. Why do you keep getting yourself into this crap?” Said as Leo hoisted the bruised and battered teenager a little more firmly upward, leading them both back towards the school and what was assumed would be the Nurse’s Office.

Because, Conner thought, the beaten face raised to the original target as they passed him, no visible signs of trauma apparent beyond the broken glasses that still shook in his small hands, he suffered.

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Zan found himself unshaken by the chaos of vertigo, timelessness, and the overwhelming feeling of a great fall. He had long since gotten used to what it felt like to go from the main file of The World into its sea of cookie files. The Umbra, a server crafted by the technological genius of Michael Grahm and deleted ages ago (seen as ‘unfit’ for the for the ‘age-friendly’ audience of the game by CyberConnect Corporation), fell around him as the spinning void finally came to a halt and left Zan sprawled upon the ground without the impact he always felt should have come. Grateful just the same, the Heavy Blade rose to his feet and brushed the stray gray gravel from his dark green shirt, his glacial eyes taking in the Root Town around him. Great banks of fog rolled around, obscuring his vision, obfuscating the crack-ridden concrete ground. All about him the sound of old and long-forgotten Chaos Gates screeched their metallic, rusted songs through the air like a chorus of aged playgrounds. Why Grahm had programmed a place Zan knew only as ‘the Gauntlet’ to have an aging dynamic was beyond him, but there was a lot the werewolf didn’t understand about how the Shadow as a whole functioned.

The trick to navigating the cold bite of the city air was luck and memory. Sometimes it sounded as if there was only a single Chaos Gate, something that made finding the nearest (and the one he currently sought) much simpler. Other times, like now, the several that were spread about the Root Town all sounded as if they were but feet from him. In the back of his mind the lycanthrope knew that each of the city’s different Chaos Gates had access to a great myriad of fields, some beautiful while others bloomed terrifying and others still as both, but that didn’t matter to him right then. All that pressed upon him in the immediate sense was finding the one gate that could take him to Shifting Lupul Moor; the once home of the pack.

Closing out sound, hushing the bustling stimuli, Zan tossed out his olfactory sense like a net. It was towards the aroma of familiarity, of echoed remembrance that he walked to then, leather coat pulled tightly to him in the chill. His brief trek saw an end through the monotony of fog and mountings winds, of crunching rocks beneath his boots as the Chaos Gate he had sought came to block his path. Golden rings having rusted and cracked, the blue waters of its center muddied with the same sickening red hue, the Heavy Blade was almost hesitant to call upon its use. Before his doubts could get too firm a hold on him, however, the name of the field was spoken and the world around him began to shudder.

Be it because of malfunction or the programmer’s own creation, no golden rings ever took the lycanthrope away. Rather, the very air about him trembled and rattled, slow at first until it grew violent and more violent still. Only when Zan thought he’d go insane from the motion did it cease, the pixels surrounding him sloppily rearranging from the image of the Gauntlet to the field like a scurry of frightened ants.

It hadn’t changed its rotating (and oftentimes senseless) seasons since his last visit, a heavy blanket of snow crunching beneath his presence as more fell from the night sky above. Through the winter clouds Zan could see the blazing white disk of the full moon and the thick sheet of stars that decorated the remaining blackness. Blinking away a flake that had landed gingerly upon his eyelashes and wiping another that had settled upon his cheek, the lycanthrope turned in a slow circle to take in his location. Like his previous visit, he had been placed at the edge of what was otherwise a canyon but which now was filled with unthinkable amount of white powder. Through a blatant defiance of logic and balance, the snow had packed high until it was even with the ground that Zan stood upon. Instead of questioning it, the Heavy Blade chose instead to close his eyes and take in a deep breath that made him momentarily forget the freezing cold he had landed in. This passed, of course, and it wasn’t long before the thick trenchcoat was drawn tightly about his muscle-toned frame. Usually Zan’s lycanthropic blood, which ran constantly hot, kept him warm even in such conditions, but he found his nerves taking away that small comfort.

Turning around, he smiled at the sight before him. While the would-be canyon of snow behind him appeared to be an almost endless plain, in front of him stood the entrance to a massive, moonlit forest who’s heart, Zan knew, contained the old home of the pack and the temple to the revered weapon known as the Umbral Tear; a weapon that the Heavy Blade had burned as glass-black, metal cuffs around his wrists. Its original purpose as an offensive tool had been lost in the transfer from Shadow to The World’s main file and the energy it took to bind Nulus to it, but its legacy was not forgotten.

Taking a step towards the trees who’s inner sanctum was silent except for the random owl’s hoot and cicada’s chirp, Zan was paused by the sudden flare of scents and sounds behind him. The Ghostdancer’s branched metal blade was called into his hand before he could take the time to identify what he had sensed, his body whipping around in a defensive stance to eye the individuals who had appeared. Zan’s last trip had started with a similar, unseen appearance and resulted in being knocked out and eventually tortured and scarred…so his caution was understandable. The tension in his body and the creaking leather of fingerless gloves as knuckles whitened around the grip of the weapon left ounce by ounce as realization dawned upon him: it was them.

“My Liege.” Words spoken in a greeting tone from Truth, a knight clad in armor as cracked and gray as the ground of the Gauntlet Zan had just left. To his right stood Salvation, a woman hidden beneath gilded pearl armor whose stiff stance made her almost statuesque. To his left stood a third knight, Decadence, clad in obsidian scale-plate that was outlined and crimson and full of magma-filled cracks that pulsed with promised power. They looked out of place in the forest of snow and moonlight. All bore helmets that hid their faces and their expressions, Decadence’s topped with charcoal-black horns that curved upward, and it made being in their presence all that more disquieting.

“Don’t call me that.” Zan commanded, exasperation in his voice.

“As you wish, Zan.” When no objections were met with that, the knight continued. “Why have you returned to us? What is it we can do to help?” Despite the question, the tone with which he spoke seemed to hint that he already knew, that he had been expecting this for quite some time.

“I’m here because I need to get back. For Lowen.” The werewolf paused at that, eyes narrowing in the snow-drifting light of the full moon above. “But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

Though Truth had no face to draw an expression from, his shift in posture yelled guilt. “We have known this time would come, yes. I…realize I should have told you that we could get you back, but-”

“You can get me back?! You knew this all along, knew this while I suffered trying to think of a way to get her out of that hell?!” The anger in his voice was scorching upon his tongue, human eyes flaring to wolf, glowing like twin amber jewels.

The knights, to Zan’s dismay, didn’t cower in the least as he bellowed his fury. Truth seemed to fidget a bit, sleek, albeit dented metal creaking in the process. “Though we can get you back, it would be the final use that your data scar has. When it vanishes, when it fixes itself, your personal firewall will have gained an immunity to such tampering further. I’m afraid that, if you do choose to go back, your last gateway to the real world will be severed. We’ve kept it from you because we’ve been trying to find a way to wake you permanently through it, but if you go back now…” The sentence trailed.

“Then I’ll get rid of the chance that that hope can ever be realized.” Zan finished the implication with his voice soft, distanced. Selfishness threatened to overwhelm his desire to save her. “Which means I’ll be putting all of my proverbial eggs into the Freedom Fighter basket. And if they fail, I fail. I’ll be stuck.” His voice had become a ghost, a whisper ridden with realization.

“That is what we fear, yes.” The pause that followed was uncomfortable for both parties, but the Lycan could tell something else was off. They hadn’t told him everything. “That isn’t all, I’m afraid…” Bingo. “Back when we first met you, when we showed you your Big Lie, I felt something else. I saw something else. I didn’t wish to show you then because a revelation like the one you had can leave the mind fragile. To unravel the rest of your dillusions at such a crucial point would have been…dangerous.” A deep breath rattled the metal helmet a touch. “But now…you realize the kind of threat you face if you truly wish to infiltrate an underground CyberConnect building?” Zan nodded, eyes suspicious once more. “The likelihood of them letting you get deep enough to find her or even you getting out of their alive afterwards is-”

“Slim. I know, Truth. I’ve thought about that a thousand times and I’m still here, standing before you.” Zan interrupted, voice full of hollow defiance, just as terrified about the prospect of his death as Truth was.

“It is because of this that I believe it time I showed you what before I wouldn’t allow myself to. A man should not die believing his own lies.”

The depth to the last sentence made Zan stop, made him come to terms with the extent of what he was about to willingly enter himself into. “Then do it, Truth. If there’s something I need to know, show me.” A nervous glance was shot to Decadence, the memory of that knight’s silver sword scorching his stomach to make him remember still bitter.

Truth noticed this and, with a quick shake of his head, continued on. “No, I do not believe my comrade’s blade will be necessary. The virus it contained was necessary only for the Big Lie. What I hope to show you is but a series of small ones that unravel into a bigger picture. If you don’t want to know, if you think it better to-”

“Stop. You’re right, I shouldn’t go off to a place believing something about myself that isn’t true. And besides, if I go now and don’t hear you out, it’ll be a distraction later.” Zan said, interrupting again. If Truth minded, he didn’t show it.

The knight nodded. “So be it.”

The next thing Zan knew, the gray knight’s chainmail glove was lifting towards his head. There was no cliché ‘clear your mind’ or ‘let your thoughts blank out.’ Rather, the moment the rough fingers touched his forehead, there was a moment of piece…

And then his world came crashing down.

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In a flash of insight, Zan knew that his occult obsessions had taken his online lycanthropy and painted it over his memories; fictional tales plugged into his thoughts, recalls tainted with the insanity that, at the time, still lived and breathed like a healthy cancer in his brain.

Flash. Conner talking to the Tarot Card reader, the supposed psychic. She had been real, if only as a person, but when he turned down the street that night, what he ran into wasn’t a makeshift exorcism. The shouts had been of joy, not pain, the Freshmen drawn to their noise in curiosity. When he opened their apartment door, mistaking the sounds for distress, the sight of the stacks of money and kilos of narcotics had halted him in his tracks. There, on the left, sat ‘Dust.’ Zan knew, like he knew that one plus one equaled two, that Dust was no supernatural head of a balance game. He was a gang leader and a drug lord and he saw something in Conner’s eyes that night. Rather than shoot him, as his partner had hastily suggested, Dust had chosen instead to work with the greed he recognized and initiate the boy into their circle.

Conner had been wary at first and, though he refused to take part in the actual consumption of the drugs themselves, in the end his poverty and his father’s constant verbal abuse weighed heavily in his decision. High school, rather than filled with fights between ‘Uppers’ and ‘Downers’, angels and demons like he originally believed, became four years of drug distribution and degradation. Like so many who joined gangs, Conner did so because his family was gone, because his father was hardly a father at all. He found solitude with them. He found purpose. The late night memories of being an enforcer of sorts were true, but rather than chase down ‘Downers’ that broke some sort of mystical protocol, he had spent those nights making bloodied examples of those who didn’t pay what they owed.

This went on for four years, Leo’s displeasure with Conner’s new life growing larger and larger still until, early on in their junior year of high school, the two no longer spoke. The wealth and respect of his ‘family’ were too much to give up. It wasn’t until, not too long after his graduation, after ‘Dust’ asked that he kill someone who had ‘fallen’ to their rival gang that Conner knew it was finally time. Without hesitating, without giving it a second thought, Leo accepted his friend’s pleading apologies and helped him devise a way to finally get out. If Conner had simply tried to leave, the rule of ‘Blood in, Blood Out’ would have had him killed. It was with this in mind that Leo convinced him to go to the police, to help orchestrate a sting that took down all the major players of New York’s ‘Ace Kings.’ No one able to pin it on Conner, the boy arrested as part of the charade with the rest of them and released with a few others not long after without due evidence to hold them, his freedom opened up a new life. Next followed college. And The World. And the Freedom Fighters.


Zan snapped out of his trance, blinking away the cobwebs, mentally gasping for breath through the revelations when he was drawn back in.

Flash. Memories of real werewolves, of a lycanthropic biological father. Lies too, Zan knew. Through his tie with Lowen, he saw her blood memory of a meeting with the man his mother had had an affair with and Lowen’s own parents, a room cramped with more and more individuals. When the false memory melted away into the real one, a recall that left only both of their parents and a lone, strange individual Zan couldn’t name, it was then he realized that his once-tainted recollections had coated Lowen’s memories as well as his own.

Jostled once more, Zan watched the mold of his lies dissolve. The truth, the life he had lived, seemed more hollow than it should have. Questions still lacked answers just the same. How had Lowen’s parents known his own? Why was Wolfsbane holding her as a lab rat, believing her to be a werewolf as she was convinced they did? Why did they experiment on someone who was as human as anyone else? Zan couldn’t see the knights, couldn’t hope to ask them why, until…

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Snap. The reverberation back into the here and now made Zan groan, fingers rubbing the spot that coarse gloves had just vacated. Blinking back at the three staring statues of metal, the Heavy Blade couldn’t remember why he had thought it a good idea to find his answers in them. If he didn’t know, certainly they’d be just as lost.

“I…” Did he thank them? Did he yell at them for showing him things he wished he now hadn’t seen? No, that wasn’t true. It was nice to know the world was, in its own convoluted way, still normal and sane. So he simply…moved on. What else could he possibly do with the information? “Is that it, then? Will you let me go back now?”

Truth shook his head at the question, hand lofted out. It made Zan flinch. The lycanthrope could practically feel the gray knight frowning as ones and zeroes began to form a simple, silver goblet. Though along its circular surface curved the ornate image of a wolf, it was otherwise nothing out of the ordinary. Well, not if one ignored the fact that it was practically filled to the brim with blood.

“There is yet another thing we must give you, before you go.” Truth’s tone seemed to indicate a significance that Zan wasn’t able to catch a meaning to.

“Er…blood? I appreciate it, I think, and all of that…but I’m not sure this is the appropriate time...”

“Not just blood, Zan. In this is all of the memories Michael Grahm left for the Alpha he knew his tamperings with Twilight would one day create. I was instructed to give it such a person and I believe it to be you.”

Feeling awkward and more and more confused, Zan absently batted away the snowflakes that sought to litter his face. “I don’t know why you…but, Lowen. Why didn’t you give them to her? And, a better question, what could I possibly have to learn from the man that imprisoned Lowen and her friends and had them eaten alive by the First?” The lycanthrope had almost said ‘Nulus’, but he simply couldn’t associate his mentally bonded ‘friend’ with the mindless animal of raw Twilight that he had once been. The Shade was a royal pain in his ass with a dark sense of humor, but even he deserved that much credit.

Truth responded to the initial question first. “Our Maker, Michael, told me that I’d know the real Alpha when I saw him. Lowen was admirable in her leadership and it was true that she cared for the pack, but she held her throne precariously. She didn’t want to be here and any moment she would have had a chance, she would have left the Shadow to its own fate. I respect her, as did we all, but the Maker’s Blood was an item I didn’t wish to bestow upon her.”

Zan laughed, he couldn’t help it; the guffaw disbelieving and dry. “I killed the pack, Truth. I destroyed it completely. How, in God’s fucking name, does that make me worthy of this glorified Alpha? Besides, if I were in her position, I wouldn’t have second guessed leaving here either.”

“Yes, you destroyed the pack. In your eyes. Did you believe they were living here? Did you really believe that being trapped in a routine of repetition day in and day out was a life any of them wanted? Though you did so through rage and self-pity, you freed them of their bonds through the gift of death. Lowen you granted, if only through chance, freedom in the real world. Yes, she was taken away, but you showed her love. A sappy, stereotypically wonderful accomplishment, yes. But I saw her suffer even when Gemini was here to keep her company. So in this I believe you have served the pack more than they could have ever dreamed, more than the Maker could have ever hoped for.” Taking a pause, the gray knight moved on to address the second statement. “You say you’d leave and never come back, but what do you keep doing?” Truth lofted a hand to silence Zan’s retort. “Yes, you come back for help. But have you ever wondered why you never go to Raine or Sheena instead? Why you never pursued any of your other avenues when the PVM plagued you with sickness? You are drawn to the Shadow of The World. You seek answers here because this is where you are meant to find them. Everyone in this game has their own path and, though you’d deny it, you have found yours merging here in coupling with the Freedom Fighters. Though you have used your power in this place as Alpha to make decisions with death, and with the love you hold for Lowen, you are drawn here. To the sentience of the Shadow, you are its Warden.”

The werewolf hated the truth he heard, the undeniable reality of the words. Frustration showed through as he gestured in the cold, hands speaking almost as loudly as his voice. “So I’m some proverbial watchman of The World’s cookied world. Big fuckin’ whoop, Truth. Even if what you say is true, I still find no reason I should drink the digital blood of a man I’ve never met…and yet still hate.” Defiant to the very end despite the creeping certainty that he would indeed taste of the goblet’s ruby insight.

“You will drink this, Zan, not because I ask you to. You’ll do so because to drink the Maker’s Blood is to drink the answers you seek about why Twilight took the shape for you it did. Lowen said it called out to the Source and grabbed the nearest string of code it found, code that was lycanthropy locked in a blanket of the Plures Vultus Mortis. Though this convenient fairy tale would be nice, easy, it goes much deeper than that. He knew you, Zan. The maker knew you. When I touched your forehead, I saw that memory of your parents and Lowen’s sitting with-”

“…that other man. That was…no way. No way.” Disbelief invaded his expression like a disease.

“That man was Michael Grahm. He has played a more integral role in your life than you could know. Though I am aware of the contents of the Blood, I am unable to speak it. You must take this trip for yourself and, in doing so, learn the last truth I have to give you.” There was…sadness in his voice.

“You mean, if I drink that…when I come back, you’ll-”

It was Truth’s turn to interrupt, his cracked helmet nodding in the moonlit darkness and the shade of the great trees before them. “I will be gone. I was only ever to serve the true Alpha. Delivering the blood was my last task. Though I regret being unable to see how you grow and discover the true intricacies of your kingdom, I am proud to say that I’ve known you at all. I am an AI, so where I’ll go to when even The World’s cookie files will not have me…I do not know. Maybe I’ll simply cease, but I am at peace with it. My purpose is served.”

Zan started to object, barely able to get out a word. “But-”

The goblet was lofted to Zan’s lips and, despite himself, despite the burn of his lips against its metal, he couldn’t help but drink it all down. Red rivulets falling from the sides of his lips, the werewolf hardly seemed to notice. “The knowledge will come to you in time; through nightmares, through dreams and daydreams, and even through random thought. I cannot tell you anymore than that.”

Again Zan tried to stop Truth, to halt the advance of time and the inevitable. “Wait, Truth, I-”

“No more stalling.” And with that the familiar gloved hand pressed fingers for the second time against Zan’s skull. “Wake.”

And so he did.

_________________
Lv. 50 Heavy Blade
Wishlist
Special: Levels, GR Sendai, PL Sakai, Darklore.
W: Tonosama Sword, Mineuchi, Jundachi.
A: Samurai Helm, Able Hands, Rare Greaves.
I: Holy Sap, Treebane, Cooked Bile, Nightbane.
EX: Elemental Summon (Lv. 2), Overdrive (Lv.1), Elemental Attacks (Lv. 2), Enhance Dark, Elemental Breath (Lv. 2).


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Mon Aug 13, 2007 2:38 am 
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Exalted Player
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Joined: Sat Jan 22, 2005 10:28 pm
Posts: 208
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“You think you know mindlessness. You think you know madness. You know nothing.”

-The First Wolf

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The three men sat hunched over the raised bar table, faces scrunched with thought and voices hushed to dull whispers. Their formation amongst the hustle and bustle of the busy establishment, one that reeked of beer and cheap food and was filled with the noise of conversation and the sports programs being broadcasted on the various televisions spread throughout, was something vaguely triangular. Two faced the current speaker while this man, for all intents and purposes, was serving as the lone point on the geometric shape. Hands having been brought up to the table, he spoke with them as much as he did his words, if a bit suppressed in the current crowd so as not to draw any unwanted attention. Brazen excitement was etched into the features of his twenty-something face, his short, hardly-contained brown hair moving as often as his gestures. The man to his left wore masterful suspicion over his expression, features as youthful as all at the gathering. While the speaker’s hair had been short and light, this man’s was nearly down to his shoulders and a rich, soil color. To the speaker’s right, the last of the group had neatly-designed glasses that curved over his ears and along a head that was only barely covered in a light black fuzz. Though suspicion was present in his posture, it was obvious he was beginning to cave under the sway of the speaker’s words. All of them had lab coats swung over the backs of their chairs; ignored.

“You
have to, at the very least, see what I’m trying to get at here.” The speaker said, voice exasperated and desperate.

“Mike…what you’re proposing seems a lot like science fiction to me. I mean-”

The man on the left was interrupted by the one to Michael’s right. “Zahn’s right, Mikey. I mean, sure, we could be at the head of an entire revolutionary
movement, but as tempting as that is…the possibility that we’ll be able to pull it off and the inherent risks to the subjects are just-”

Zahn interjected, reclaiming his momentum. “Monumental, Vik. The word you’re looking for is monumental.”

Michael groaned. “Come on, guys. Think about it: the discovery of a gene that would allow a person’s brain to connect to the internet. That’s
huge. Just imagine the ripples. People would, in effect, never die. Once they got old, they’d just upload their minds onto a disk and, voila, infinity. The grief we’d save parents who lost their children to cancer or car accidents…we’d be worshipped.” The man’s eyes shined at the thought of it.

Zahn was determined to derail this train more than ever because, God help him, it was starting to excite him. It shouldn’t have. “Maybe, but even if we manage to find this gene you’re hoping to, the technology to go in an manipulate it just doesn’t exist. Period.” He leaned back, sure he had won, sure he had made the mortally wounding blow.

Michael only shrugged. “Finding the gene is going to take years and, if science keeps developing like it has, we’ll have the tools by the time we isolate it.” He sighed. “Stop fighting this, guys. You know I have a point. You know you want to do this.”

Vik, looking to the man beside him, didn’t say a word. Zahn snarled, more at himself than the individual before him. “Fine, I’ll think about it.” Ignoring Michael’s blossoming smile, he rose to his feet and picked up the folded white coat. “But we really need to get back to the hospital. If I’m going make it to my date with Lilith tonight…and not be late
again…then I need to get all my side shit done so I can go.”

As they all prepared to leave, the other two miming Zahn’s coat retrieval, Vik’s face broke into a devilish grin and his attention fell back to Zahn. “Isn’t that chick married?”

Rather than look ashamed, Zahn only looked amused, lightly shoving his friend as the trio began their exit. Holding open the door for his companions, he offered up a fairly timely reply. “But she’s carrying my kid.”

They stopped walking.


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Conner woke. Screaming.

The origin of his screams didn’t lay in the brief dream he had had, nor the fact that the Michael in it was no doubt Michael Grahm; creator of the deleted Shadow of The World and the First Wolf. Conner couldn’t, for the life of him, remember why he had begun screaming in the first place. The only knowledge he held was that he must have been doing it for quite some time, his voice hoarse and abused by the time his brain started registering where he was. The last time he had woken up in the real world, it had been in a hospital’s coma ward. Now? You could offer him a million dollars and he couldn’t tell you where he had been placed. Not immediately. The off-white walls were filled with various paintings that all, in some way or another, depicted a wolf. Unconsciously, it put him at ease. To his left a trio of the art pieces ranged from a wolf howling on a cliff ledge to an alpha curled around his mate with head lofted to keep watch on the pack to one streaking through a forest mid-sprint.

Similar ones decorated the wall several feet off in front of him and even the one on his right, but he had stopped paying attention to their details at that point. Conner’s focus had fallen upon the beeping heart monitor to his left and another next to it that had wires leading to nodes on either side of his temples and jumped with observed brain activity. Coming to sit up in the king size bed, one littered with white sheets and a countless number of equally light pillows (the whole monotone color scheme of the place making it seem like a hospital room despite the facts), he winced at the IV in his arm, one that led up to a bag that was, theoretically, keeping him fed and hydrated. Conner removed it with a lot less courage than the waking patients from the movies. Once it was gone, however, he felt like he could move around again. Attempts to use anymore energy to pop off the nodes on his bare chest and the sides of his head quickly disproved this feeling. Weakness and fatigue was inset in every muscle of his body, the fact that he had risen up to sit already beginning to make his head light.

The twenty year old shifted to cosmetic worries next instead, weak fingers feeling at his hair and the side of his face where, online, he was permanently scarred. Whoever was keeping him here had been sure to keep his hair cut and neat, a sensation he had to grow accustomed to since Zan’s was nearly shoulder length. Relief distracted from hair ponderings when the mush of his fingertips into his cheek revealed nothing but smooth, unmarred flesh. Feeling vain, but not caring, Conner laid back down with a plop and a smile on his face. It hadn’t carried over. Why he had thought it would, he couldn’t say, but paranoia had him convinced of it. It seemed fate was more merciful than his own mind.

His mind. Mental proddings for Nulus’ presence came next, but he was given nothing but silence. The expectation of a computer program to graft permanently onto his cerebellum was a little ridiculous to say the least, but still…Conner was almost disappointed. Almost. Worries about the Shade’s possible deletion were put on hold when slowly but surely realization and familiarity began to dawn on him. He knew where he was. It used to serve as a game room, stacked high with shelves of video games and consoles, but had apparently been redecorated since Conner’s…arrival.

He was at Leo’s.

The surge of adrenaline that followed gave him the strength to rip off the nodes on his body, to send both machines whining with a flat line, and made him believe that hopping out of his pseudo hospital bed was a good idea. The sound of his body thumping against the wall as he stumbled and slammed against it was all the information any would need to know how that proceeded. Gritting his teeth, Conner pulled together the will to stand leaning against the wall, hands brushing closed blinds in the process and filling the room with squint-inducing sunlight. He was back. He was really back.

Though all he had on was a pair of elastic white shorts, it was all that was needed in the heat of summer, the air conditioning that was on doing little to stifle the humidity of the loft. Thoughts of his attire were replaced by renewed attention to the paintings.

How did he know?

Conner had, at that point, tuned out the cry of the machines. The sound of frantic, thumping footsteps reminded him, of course, and he could only watch from his window-leaned vantage point as two figures rounded the carpeted, spiraled staircase from the opened door. Both froze at the threshold, mouths coming agape. Though the roused coma patient didn’t recognize the doctor on the left (his occupation obvious by the white coat and the brass name tag that identified him as ‘Dr. Stewart’), the man to his right was all too familiar.

No older than twenty, like Conner, Leo was clad in khaki shorts and a light red shirt that read ‘Genius By Birth, Slacker By Choice’ in black lettering on the front. Dirty-blonde hair was cut as short as Conner’s and gold wire-rimmed glasses adorned his face. He looked taller than the recent coma man remembered.

“No…way.” He pinched himself.

Conner laughed, dry but true. Damn, he was thirsty. “Way.” For the hell of it, he pinched himself too. “Yup. Way.”

Leo took his turn to laugh, but it was disbelieving. “I can’t…I mean…how? I was almost certain that…” He looked disappointed, eyes scanning the pictures.

The half-naked, window-leaning individual took a guess. “That I was trapped in the game?” Leo’s eyes went wide as Conner continued. “I was. I can’t explain the intricacies of it right now, but-” He slouched a bit against the wall, the energy it took to stay on his feet finally taking its toll.

Still looking like he expected to wake up from a dream, Leo, followed by the doctor, helped his friend back to the bed where Conner sat but refused to lay. “Just tell me, why the wolves?” He gestured at the paintings filling the room. “What do you know?”

Leo didn’t say anything. His eyes were still filled with suspicion, like he was seeing a ghost but not believing it.

Conner sighed. “Leo, it’s me. We don’t have time for this. I know this is whole waking thing comes as a shock, but I’m sort of on the clock here. I need your help.”

Finally, the words sank in. Shaking his head, clearing away the lingering doubts, Leo answered the previous question. “Not too long after you fell into a coma, I started seeing topics in the BBS about a character with real world clothing. They thought it was a hacker, someone illegally modding their data, but when they listed off what the person was wearing…”

Since Leo had forgotten to talk, his mind receding back into shell-shocked mode, Conner took the lead. “You knew it was me.”

The man was jumpstarted, nodding. “Right.” His eyes steadied into Conner’s. “You wore that outfit almost every day in high school because you’re machine was broken and your father did his own at the laundry mat down the street from your house. Even when I could convince you to drop your pride and let me help you wash your clothes, you still rarely wore anything but that. I could draw it with my eyes closed.” Leo laughed, a bit of his old self starting to shine through the belief that he was dreaming. Conner followed.

Keeping on topic, however…“Okay, so you knew, somehow, I was still logged on. That doesn’t really explain the wolves, Leo.”

Leaning back against the wall across from the side of the bed Conner was sitting on, Leo seemed to be trying to find the right words. “I…really don’t know how to explain it. I didn’t try and Flashmail you because I knew the moment I did, you’d freak out and try and stop me from helping you. From finding you. Like back in high school, you know? Ever since Dust…”

Conner’s brow furrowed, temporarily forgetting his memory revelations. “What? What does he have to do with…oh.” He looked down, ashamed. “Right. That.”

If Leo noticed, he didn’t show it. “So, after a while, the leads on you and the BBS topics just stopped coming. I’m not proud of it, but I gave up, I convinced myself I was just giving into those ‘trapped in the game’ rumors because I couldn’t let your current state go. Not a week after I decided to just go back to playing and forget my pursuit, I was in a dungeon when I heard it.”

Conner blinked. “Heard what?” But he knew.

“The howl. One second I’m listening to the noise and the next I know all about what you did, what you went through. What you were. It was like getting brain-raped with a pop-up download in a fraction of time.” Leo sighed. “And then, of course, I find out you got up from your bed in the hospital and walked off with another patient. A day later and they’ve found you again, but the girl, Marilyn Logan, just up and disappeared. I came to see you with a like, a thousand fucking questions in my head, but you were out again. I convinced my parents to get you out of the hospital and get private care here. I thought that, if you came out of it once, you might again. I wanted it to be somewhere familiar and comforting, not like a hospital. Hence the paintings.” Which was when Conner’s mention of being on the clock set in. Leo frowned. “This isn’t permanent, is it? You being back?”

Conner hung his head, shaking it. “No, it’s not.”

Leo couldn’t completely hold back the disappointment, the underlying anguish that came from his hopes being stabbed again, but he did a good job trying. “And you said you needed my help? With what?”

Conner lofted his head back up, eyes meeting his friend’s. “I need you to help me find her.”

Leo didn’t miss a beat. “Marilyn Logan. She’s in trouble, isn’t she? I knew it. I knew CyberConnect was fucked up.” Sadness had turned into flame, a renewed feeling of purpose and direction fixing Leo’s posture.

Rising from the bed, now steady on his feet, Conner corrected him.

“Lowen; her name is Lowen.”

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 17, 2007 10:30 pm 
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“Science’s biggest bane is morality. If only the human race would learn to look at the big picture...maybe then we'd realize our true potential.”

-Michael Grahm

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Two individuals ate their dinner in silence, both men with their own reasons for the intrusive quiet. The apartment was fairly sizable, backed by dual doctor incomes, and still they felt claustrophobic; boxed in. One, seated on one end of the glass table, felt this pressure because of an internal fight being waged within his mind; a fight against his morality and his sense of right and wrong. Sure, he had been the mover and shaker, the motivator behind the last six years of genetic searching, but his latest suggestion to the group had made their potential experiment seem wrong. Off. Michael was leading a potential, secret revolution with himself as his own worst enemy. On the other end of the table, stabbing at the now-cold steak with his fork, Zahn wasn’t simply struggling with an internal fight, but an internal war. One side of the battlefield was his need for scientific excellence. One the other; his family.

“Mike…” The man’s attention lifted at the brief, sudden mentioning of his name. “I just…I just don’t think I can do this to my boy. If something goes wrong, if we miscalculated even slightly, he…” Zahn trailed off, leaving the blanks to be filled in by the other.

The silence stretched on for another minute before, at last, Michael offered the quietus some restitution. “I understand your worry, Zahn. I do. But we’ve been working the chemistry and the math for a while now. We can do this. This is safe.” He paused. “And think about it. Once our research is released, CyberConnect will no longer be hounding us for results. We’ll be given more money, more renown than we know what to deal with. We’ll be saving lives, giving dying minds a rebirth in the network. We’ll be made icons. No,
idols. The good we’ll do with all of that, I mean…” He sighed. “Doesn’t it make up for everything else? All of the risk?”

Again the silence drew on; stretched like the world’s most durable rubberband. When it came snapping back, it wasn’t concern for Zahn’s family that was holding on, but the promise of scientific majesty. “But…how will we know if all of it worked? If all of the calculations and the endless charts are correct, anybody who undergoes this genetic alteration will find themselves connected to one another.”

Michael nodded. “The fail safe, in case anyone ever gets lost in the sea of the network.”

“Right. First off, I haven’t been in physical contact with Lilith or my son for years. She keeps sending pictures and we keep in touch via e-mail, but the chances she’ll allow this kind of tampering with her son’s life, with
mysons life is slim.” Michael began to talk, but Zahn waved it away. “Yeah, yeah. It’ll mean Conner could live forever. Say that’s reason enough for her, say she could be swayed to risk her marriage again to come down to the lab again, it comes back to that fail safe. If we’re only doing this to my boy, how will we know if that works? Don’t tell me you expect CyberConnect to okay some want ad in the newspaper.”

They laughed.

“Well, Vik…” Michael stopped talking, paused by the look on Zahn’s face alone.

“He and his wife abandoned their little girl at birth. You know he clams up if you even mention that to him. What, you expect him to be okay with finding what foster home she’s in and playing around with her DNA? I’m thinking not.” Zahn’s hope was starting to recede, his sense of family returning.

Michael saw this, of course, and was quick to quell the inner rebellion. “I found her.” He paused, let it sink in. “Vik doesn’t need to know it’s his daughter. The foster parents have already agreed to allow us to borrow her for, er, study. They can’t say no to the money I waved in their faces.”

Zahn, now, was just confused. “But if we aren’t going to tell Vik, why does it have to be that girl at all?”

Michael held back a sigh. “CyberConnect has okayed the genetic experimentation on us or our extended family, but not strangers. They want to keep the potential damage within a cone of influence they’re comfortable with.”

Zahn laughed; dry and bitter. “Corporate bastards.” Unlike Mike, he didn’t hold back his sigh. “Fine, let’s do it. I can’t believe I’m agreeing to this…but let’s do it.” Michael looked disbelieving, so Zahn pressed on. “Where is she? What’s her name?”

The other man smiled. “Marilyn. She lives in New York.” Michael nodded before Zahn could speak a word. “Yes, New York, New York. Same city as Conner. It’ll make observing the connection that much easier.”

“Both in New York. That’s one hell of a coincidence.”

Michael lofted his index finger, wagging in back and forth. “No, my friend. I believe they call it ‘fate.’”


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“-ed out. I figured that…hello?” Leo chuckled at Conner’s blank stare. “Anybody home?”

Conner came to from his delusion, from his dip into the effects of the Maker’s Blood’s consumption, with confusion blotting his expression. The fact that he was currently eating lunch with his best friend, each across from the other on a table (though this one was wooden rather than glass), didn’t dawn on him as ironic. No, he was too busy mulling over what he had just seen; the implications it brought. Not only had his biological father known and been friends with the man that would eventually craft The World’s ‘Shadow’, they had planned on doing something to him as a kid. They couldn’t have been successful, of course, as Conner hadn’t ever been able to upload his brain onto the net without Twilight, but…something felt incomplete. It was like reading a book that started to turn to only blank pages. Lowen had been a planned subject as well, someone to undergo the same experimental genetic modification. There was something in all of that he wasn’t seeing, that had yet to make itself known. Hopefully, if there was a God, the next (albeit random) memory would give him some answers.

“What? Yeah. I’m fine. I was just…thinking.”

The lie seemed to trouble Leo for a moment, his eyes narrowing, but in the end all Conner was given was a continued conversation. “…right. Well, anyway, like I was saying…I dropped out. After I heard the howl, pursuing a career as a chef seemed ridiculous, you know? I felt my time and my family’s money best spent on trying to find a way to free you, I guess.” He shrugged.

Conner blinked away the last of his daze, the revelation making his eyes go wide with disbelief. “You…you dropped out of college? For me? He groaned. “Why would you do that, man? That’s just…you can’t help me anymore than you already have with that situation. Keeping me here and out of CyberConnect’s grubby hands is more than enough. The rest of this I have to manage on my own. Well, not alone, no.”

Leo laughed, but it was dry. “Oh, right. The ‘Freedom Fighters’ or whatever the hell. From what you’ve told me, that Nighthand asshole and his butt-buddy Nall are just using you guys as disposable soldiers to fight their war. Me? I’m trying to help you get back.” The man paused, fork stopping mid-twist in the spaghetti before him. “Well, permanently anyway.” He laughed again, but this time it held a hint of something sincere.

Conner joined him, his chuckle hesitant but true. “Look, I appreciate what you’re doing man, I really do. Thing is…some of those guys need me.” Leo tried to interject, but Conner pressed on, ignoring the cooling pasta before him. “Not Nighthand or Nall, no. I agree about them; especially Nall. We’re fodder for their war. It’s other people that I’m worried about. There’s this kid, Dien. He’s…he’s kind of emotionally fragile, you know? He used to be this brilliant ‘lighthacker’ and something about being trapped in the game has kind of made him vulnerable or something. He cries more than anybody I’ve ever known, but…” He paused, serious expression giving way to a content smile. “But I trust him with my life. He’s the only real friend I have left in the group anymore. He’s been there when I’ve shed my own tears. He doesn’t judge me for what I’ve done. He…” Conner stopped, eyes meeting Leo’s with a look of sudden insight. “He’s a lot like you, actually. I think you two would get along.” That said, the conversation progressed. “I value what friendship I can get with those people. I’m not exactly everyone’s favorite. I can get…moody, I guess. Snappy.”

Leo’s studied face broke into a grin. “You don’t say?”

Picking up a mini-tomato from his side-salad and lobbing it between Leo’s eyes, Conner broke into laughter. “Shut the hell up, jackass.”

The rest of the lunch was enjoyed in silence, each of them withdrawing into their own thoughts. Though Conner had only been awake for a few hours, he was starting to feel like he was wasting time. Somewhere in New York, if his theory was correct and Wolfsbane had stayed local, Lowen was in pain. Somewhere in New York, Lowen was waiting for him, waiting to be saved. She had called him her knight once and said it with such faith, with such blazing trust that the impact it had hadn’t since left him.

When the phone call came, Conner was busy washing off his dishes in the kitchen, mind still lingering around thoughts of his entrapped love. To say that Leo’s sudden bolt past the threshold, hand clutched tightly to a now-off phone, startled him would have been an understatement. A half-washed glass in his hand as Conner turned, the look on his friend’s face made him drop it, the sound of shattering seeming distant…surreal. The look said more than words ever could, more than the man could have ever hoped for.

Not two hours ago, Leo had been locked in a shouting match with his father over the phone. The conversation, though voluminous and straining on the eardrums, had ended with the wealthy man agreeing to get in touch with his contacts that knew New York City like the back of their hands. The plan had been to find some sort of CyberConnect-sponsored building in the city that could house some sort of medical underground facility. Had the search really been so easily managed? Had the corrupted corporation really been so sloppy to make the information so simple to access? Doubts began to fill Conner then, doubts that conflicted with the almost painful looking smile present on his best friend’s face. If it was too good to be true, his father had always told him, then it was just that…right?

“My dad, he…he fucking found something. Or his contacts did, whichever.”

Doubt fled and was replaced by impatience. “Yeah, and? And? Come on Leo, spit it out man!” Conner tried to come off as irritated, but his own smile ruined the effect.

“There weren’t any buildings fitting our search description.”

Conner slouched, confused and disappointed. “O-Oh…”

Leo laughed, stepping forward and shoving his friend in the shoulder. “Listen to me, Conner! They didn’t find any buildings fitting our search description that were owned by CyberConnect. Conner looked up. “They did, however, recall a building being made back in the late nineties for a scientist named Michael Grahm. The funding probably came from CC, but it was never confirmed.” Before his friend could have another impatient outburst, Leo continued. “It was supposed to just be some sort of new-age experimental place. At first all my dad’s people were able to find were blueprints that had no mention of any underground design.”

Conner frowned. “Then what-”

Again, Leo shoved him, his smile never parting. “Just listen!” The other man did just that. “My dad used his resources to find out the name of the construction company that built it and strong-armed them into faxing over the original blueprints. Guess what they found?” Conner was about to, but his friend’s excitement couldn’t be contained. “A fucking underground. It’s only a few floors, nothing spectacular, but the materials used fit the description you gave me of the walls to the nose.

Though Conner was almost out of his mind at that point, his heart a thundering mustang against his sternum, something still seemed out of place. “It’s not that I’m not grateful or anything…God I am, believe me…but your dad has never exactly been stoked to help me out with anything since I’ve known you. Why would he not only go out of his way to do that, but do that with something this dangerous? Something that could lose him all of his money if CyberConnect were to find out?”

Leo’s face was conflicted, but he replied. “I, well…when you stepped outside so I could yell at my dear old dad a little more privately, I told him that I’d forgive everything if he did this for you, for me. I told him that we could start over, that we could work shit out. Believe it or not, he’s been trying to get me to go to counseling with my mom and him for a while now. I was too busy, with trying to help you and all, and it just didn’t seem that appealing anyway.” He laughed, but it was forced. “Guess I have to come through on my word now, huh?”

There was silence then, silence brought on not only by thoughts of his own father back home and the steady realization that he was getting exactly what he had been praying for only hours after being back, but by the fear he had thought he escaped. Now he would have to actually go there, make his way through a secret underground that probably wanted to stay that way. There wouldn’t be cops to arrest him for trespassing, there’d only be guns. Again he feared his death, a death that no Resurrect would bring him back from. In the end, all it took was a single mental flash of her face, a single memory of what it felt like to hold her in his arms, to taste her lips, and a single mental reminder of what she looked like curled into a stitched, helpless ball.

“You okay man? You’re blanking out on me again.”

Conner looked up, knowledge finally solidified in his brain. “Just fine.”

He had her scent.

He was going to get her back.

_________________
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PostPosted: Thu Oct 04, 2007 11:42 pm 
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“I have never felt a wound deeper than the one inspired by regret that I suffer now. They say His forgiveness has no end, but what of his?”

-Zahn Niles

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Zahn watched the two children play from behind the one-sided glass, clipboard in hand and computer console beeping and scrolling before him. Each day they were here, each day the tests continued, he felt like he was being hollowed out more and more. Like something was taking out the meat of his soul and replacing it with the cold necessity of progressive science. The doctor had always watched the depraved, heartless scientists on television and in the movies and wondered, ‘How could they care so little?’ Now he knew. Now he understood how the process worked. Those men had been faced with the potential for greatness and human evolution and allowed it to suck out what made them men. So they became those callous robots, those chilled automatons with an eye only for their work.

And he was becoming one of them.

The experiments had all begun innocently enough, he recalled, cold and bitter coffee touching his lips as he stared on. Convincing Lilith had been easy. What mother wouldn’t want the possibility of her son’s immortality through the internet to be recognized and made real? It moved on with her and Conner coming in to meet Marilyn who’s foster family was always too, er, otherwise occupied to join. The pair would smile and fidget when left in the same room with one another. Their connection was obvious. The fail safe of the genetic manipulation had been a success, if only on a basic social level. The boy would help her up if she fell, share the toys brought to him, and generally make sure she was at ease. It was like adolescent courtship.

Tapping his pen on the technical babble that made up the paper on his clipboard, Zahn remembered fearing this premature courtship would lead to hormonal superdevelopment and possible early puberty. Basic things. Controllable factors. Next, of course, came the computers. Neither child was able to remotely access a computer, a game they found particularly silly. It was in that event that Michael, Vik and the rest of the team faced their first real problem. Though there conscious awareness of the internet was expected to be lacking so early into the trials, the subconscious mind was expected to be able to communicate with the computers in the general vicinity. Thus came the next phase.

The phase that had begun to make Zahn ill, make him nauseous to be in his own skin.

The doctor was unable to repress the memories of Conner being strapped up to nodes and all sorts of monitoring wires as he moved to stand closer to the glass. The computers hadn’t picked up a thing, not even so much as a subtle tick of subliminal exchange. Rather than recognize the children’s brains as private networking servers, everything plugged into them said the same thing - normality. It was during this time, with no particular link to the going-ons of the laboratory, that Vik found out who Marilyn was. He quit that day. There was no anger, no outburst of violence as Zahn expected. Rather, there was a silent sorrow that sunk his face, a pallor that made him seem almost cancerous. Maybe it was the fact that he was just seeing his daughter after having dropped her off at a church’s doorstep - cliché, he knew - with her umbilical cord still dangling from her small little stomach, after nearly seven years of blissful denial, that caused him to leave in such a manner. Zahn never knew. He never had the heart to call him up again and ask. With Vik gone, Michael finally had the nerve to ask about the next phase.

Watching as Conner picked up a video game controller, motioning the girl to join him, it was difficult for Zahn to see him as the same child who had been screaming his lungs out the day before. The doctor had been forced to move heaven and earth to convince Lilith not to be there for the test, to accept the fact that they needed to try a monitoring session of his brainwaves without her in the room. It would help him focus, Zahn lied. It would help his gene work, he deceived. The truth was that he knew her too well to think she’d allow her son to undergo electroshock therapy. The risks were numerous and not completely accounted for; memory loss, vulnerability to mental instabilities and disorders in the future, etc. Zahn hadn’t been shocked that he was willing to risk his own blood, but rather that it took watching the boy spasm and muffle his screams through the rubber he bit down on to make him realize he was through with it all.

Even if he wasn’t certain that Lilith would throw a fit when her son,
his son, told her what had happened, the man would have severed the last of his ties to the project and the steadily-perverted mind that was Michael Grahm. A fluke of a luck had robbed both youths of a few days of memory, something Doctor Grahm had had a field day explaining to Lilith. It was this same fluke that gave Zahn the ability to watch his son one last time. Even at such a young age, the child was already showing traits from his father. He was stubborn, achingly willful at times, and had a soft heart for pretty girls.

As Conner’s mother had explained to him a few days ago, the boy was also going to have a brother in a few months. A happy family. Zahn had never met Darren Sunderland, the boy’s ‘father’, but by the way Lilith spoke of him, the doctor was certain he’d be a wonderful dad. More than anything Zahn Niles could ever offer, anyway. It made letting go of his own personal aspirations, his dreams of glory and scientific recognition easier. He knew, like he knew the sun was hot, that Michael Grahm would continue the experiments, would continue to elevate their severity until Conner and the girl were dead. There was a…look…in that twisted man’s eyes that told Zahn that he had never expected the first subjects to be a success, that they were only guinea pigs to work out the ‘kinks.’ It was because of this that he was going to shut down the tests after that day.

Stopping it wouldn’t restore his humanity, wouldn’t patch up his soul or prevent the sensation of its loss, but he wasn’t doing it for himself. He was doing it for
him.

For his son.


------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

When Conner came to, he was…baffled. If he was to believe the memories granted to him by the Maker’s Blood, then he had undergone a number of trying tests that he couldn’t at all remember. The fact that he was young during their beginnings and the electroshock robbed a few days from him explained why, but it all still seemed like something even a child would never forget. The next curiosity, of course, came in the form of ‘why the hell Zahn’s memories?’ It had been too intimately bonded with his biological father and too lacking in Michael’s presence to be something from that sick man’s skull. Just another mystery to stack upon the others, he supposed.

Attempting to shake it off, to bring himself back to here and now, Conner moved to sit by the window, staring off into what was becoming a night’s sky. There was something more majestic and beautiful about a real sunset, something that Mac Anu’s always lacked. Yet another reason to fight to get back out permanently.

Leo had been gone for the last few hours, searching out the items Conner had requested for their intrusion upon the lab. It seemed surreal; a gun and a sword. It was difficult for him to shake the feeling that he had slipped into some poorly written movie, that he was now the punch line for a very bad cosmic joke. Conner smiled at the memory of his best friend’s face when he had coupled ‘sword’ with the other. As ridiculous as it may have seemed, he was simply more attuned with a blade than he was any kind of firearm. Hell, he hardly planned on using the gun at all if he could help it. They were loud. In his hands, they were unpredictable. He was no fool, however. Conner was keenly aware that the length of Leo’s absence was due to his search not only for a sword, but for one that was sharpened. Most that were sold in shops and such were for display purposes only. Finding a real swordsmith in New York City wasn’t impossible, but it was like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Leo didn’t return until the sun had completely fallen to its beckoning sleep. There were no stars, but what moron would expect to be able to see such things in a smog-ridden city like New York? Still, Conner craved the sight of it. Maybe the stoic twinkle they offered would have given him some peace, stilled the jittery disquiet of his nerves. Leo’s entrance into the house, a brown paper sack in one hand and a long box in the other, did little to put him at ease as well. A part of Conner had hoped that his friend would fail, that he’d have an ample excuse not to leave. It was an ever-shrinking part of him, but it never fully parted. Oddly, he was thankful for that cowardice as he helped his bumbling companion set the box on the kitchen table. Fear would keep him sharp for what he was about to do. Fear would keep him alive.

“I’m sorry it took so long. Even flashing wads of cash to people doesn’t make finding a reliable sword maker any simpler than it sounds.” Leo didn’t say it with a hint of humor in his voice, but rather stated it matter-of-factly. Conner knew what that tone meant. God, no. “I was surprised how difficult it was to convince a gun shop to sell me pistols no questions asked and no forms signed, though. This is New York. We have gang names as recognizable as fast food franchises here.” Again said with frustration, not jest.

Conner’s private fears were alleviated when, upon opening the long box, there was only one sword within. According to the tag on the blade, its base an intricate weave of gold bars, it was an ‘Espada Rapier.’ The curious twenty year old pulled it from its case pillow, removed the sheathe, and gave it a few practice swings. It was lighter than he was used to, but no one could realistically swing around a six foot slab of steel in the real world. It would do. Sliding the blade back within its protector, something dawned on him, something Leo had said. The fears came rushing back.

Without a question, Conner was suddenly digging into the brown paper sack that had been set next to the sword, Leo shouting at him in the confusion. Ignoring the noise as he batted aside clip boxes and got to the pistols, lazily identifying them as silver semi-automatic Colt 45s by their boxes, he pulled out both and turned around on his heels with an anger igniting the coals of his eyes.

“ What the hell Leo?! We talked about this! You aren’t fucking coming! I am not risking anyone, anyone but myself in this!” For a moment, Leo only blinked. “You got that?!”

There was a sternness to his friend’s face, a stubborn will that he hadn’t possessed in the past. Had his journey to find and save Zan been so harrowing? “Oh, I read you loud and clear, Con. But here’s the deal; you aren’t my father.” Conner tried to speak up, but it only made Leo talk louder. “No! You listen to me. I dropped out of school to find your ass. I went around fucking New York City for the past few hours looking for weapons so you, my best God damn friend, could go play hero. I went to parts of this city I’ve avoided for all twenty years of my life for you. If there’s a chance you’ll die doing this, and we both know there is, I’m coming with. Plus, if you really love this girl, you won’t put her salvation in the hand of just one person. If, God forbid, you do get killed in there…” The thought paused his anger and drooped his head. “…at least, at least I’ll still be alive to help her get out. This whole insane situation has given me a sense of…of doing something right in my life. Not since I left the school to devote my time to saving your sorry ass have I felt this right about something. You need me.”

Conner pulled out a kitchen chair and sat down, chin coming to rest on his palm. After what seemed like an eternity, like an infinitum stretch of time, dark hazels lofted to Leo. “Okay.”

Sometimes, in a friendship that really matters, ‘okay’ is the best thing you can say.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Leo’s dark blue, nigh-black Ford Landau hummed expertly through the night streets of New York City like it owned it. Having a nice car had always been one of the sole indulgences Conner’s friend ever allowed himself. At school he never flaunted his money, never came wearing expensive Rolex watches or fancy tailored clothes. He had, however, had an eye-catching classic car ever since he was able to drive. Mulling over such things allowed Conner to forget about where he was going, to forget about the Colt in the back of his waistband and the rapier across his lap. He wished he could have had more time to dress the part, to look more like those post-modern gun slingers in leather and sunglasses, but time was obviously of the essence. With only a black pair of jeans and a green t-shirt with a ‘1-Up’ mushroom on the front to wear (the closest things he could find to his ‘The World’ outfit, something to get him in the right mood), he definitely looked as clueless as he felt. Ammo magazines were stuffed in his pockets like some kind of amateur, Leo hadn’t exactly stopped to think about holsters.

God, this was a stupid idea. He knew it.

Who did he think he was? Real life wasn’t like the books or the television shows or the wretched movies about violence and gunfire. Conner was no action hero. No, he was little more than a scared child with a sharp toothpick and toy gun trying to take down the Yakuza or the Italian mob or something similarly dizzying. He was going to die and Leo was going to fall right along with him. When Wolfsbane was done trying to see if Marilyn’s time trapped in ‘The World’ had done anything to activate her latently modified gene - a piece of knowledge Conner was certain of without knowing why - she too would be hefted upon the morbid pile of hopeless bodies. It was okay that this was happening to him, to Conner, and he knew it. He deserved this. The three lives he had taken in the Shadow, the death he had allowed at Nulus’ hands against the treacherous Xael, all of it. There was a mountain of bad karma waiting to bite him in the ass and he had accepted it.

Marilyn, however, had done little more in her life than try and make the best of a terribly shitty situation. She had persevered through the mockery of her home life and the isolation of her school life. She had helped three strangers find family within her own heart. She brought these people together and gave them a home within each other. She was a saint.

Leo was equally lacking in blame. A boy who had always had more money than he could ever count had never let that fact rule his life like so many others. He had taken Conner in as a friend without pity. He gave Conner a refuge throughout his youthful and teenage life. No matter how his parents had tried to push his friend away, Leo had always pushed back. There were few better on or offline like him. He was the real hero. Leo was the real star of the proverbial story.

In thinking this as the two pulled up into the empty parking lot of a degraded building lit only by streetlamps, Conner knew what he had to do, what he had to stop. They both got out of the car with hesitation, but now for different reasons. Leo was trying to ease the tension away with idle chit chat as they walked around the building and came to its back door. A spare key Leo had picked up on his outing, one muscled and threatened out of the hand of same man who had told them about the building’s underground, opened the door and revealed what looked like the closed doors of en elevator. The last of the intimated informant’s gift came in the numbers Leo began to enter on the keypad beside the lift doors. With a ding, the doors opened.

Conner wasn’t afraid anymore. Realizing that Leo and Marilyn were both needed heroes in the world had taken the last of it from him in lieu of forcing upon him some very practical information. Leo would die if he went with him. If bullets fired into him didn’t do the trick, then the ones he fired would. The man was too good, too pure and untouched by murder. No matter how much the people inside deserved it, it would eat him away inside until he was a shell. Marilyn he would save so that she might still do some good, so that she might persist and open up some kind of orphanage, perhaps; a homage to her life in her foster care. There was so much to offer beneath her stitches, so much still to give. All of this neutral knowledge had given him the courage and the numbness to do what had to be done below. First thing was first.

“I’m sorry, Leo.”

“Sorry for wha--”

His friend’s words were cut off with a grunt as Conner’s boot collided with the back of his turning head, smacking his face against the steel of the elevator frame before he crumpled unconscious to the floor. Dragging him out of the open door’s swing and grabbing up the key that had fallen from his hand, Conner stepped into the awaiting elevator and closed the outside door, locking it from the inside. A button’s press and the elevator doors too closed before him, the contraption shuddering a bit before beginning its decent. All the way down he could think only one thing, one strong assortment of words for Leo.

I’m sorry.

_________________
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PostPosted: Wed Oct 10, 2007 4:32 am 
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“When you’re trapped in the darkness of your own despair, it’s friendship that will offer you a candle.”

-Leonardo “Domini” Oliver

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Michael had hardly heard Zahn enter the room, the man busy hustling about trying to make sure the electroshock therapy equipment was all in order. After all, neither of them would be of much use to the doctor if he accidentally scrambled their adolescent brains. He could practically smell his partner’s disgust at the sight of the leather beds and the metal shackles. It was thick and putrid in the air. Michael had hope that the conversation wouldn’t go south, that they hadn’t already approached the end of Zahn’s rope. He had expected the man’s breakdown to come much further down the road…when the real experiments began. All of the stuff up until that point had been child’s play, so to speak. It was something to catch any potential, early flaws in the system so they could be fixed when the more morally-murky grounds were stepped into. He had a back up plan, of course. Zahn Niles was a scientist and, in the end, that would win out over the ambiguity of good and bad.

“Mike…we should talk.” A tone that whispered of reluctance and hid behind a mask of rationality. Such a fool.

“Yes, yes. I figured as much. Take a seat.” Michael made a vague motion towards one of the seats he hoped either of them would be occupying soon, when the second round of the therapy began.

Zahn took it. For a second. “Look, I…” And he was on his feet again, moving to lean against the far side of the room, hands behind him and against the white-tiled walls. “…this. Us? We can’t do this anymore. It isn’t right. Electroshock treatments are risky at best for those with mental illness, but using them on healthy little kids? It’s just…wrong.”

Tsk, tsk. Michael knew he wanted to continue. He’d need only to break the bonds of the deception of ‘evil’ held within his partner. “It’s necessary, Zahn. We both agreed on that before we started this yesterday. Their gene hasn’t woken from its dormancy yet because the part of the brain that would regulate it is likely in the portions that are unused. It’s not uncommon for electroshock therapy to bring about use of those zones. They’ll be
fine.” Zahn didn’t seem convinced, a nervous hand running through his unwashed hair. He hadn’t slept or had time to shower recently. Stress. “They were yesterday, weren’t they? We have a team of trained specialists with us here. They won’t allow them to undergo anything dangerous. None of us want to kill little kids anymore than you do, my friend.”

Not until it too becomes necessary.

Zahn seemed to be cracking. “I don’t know…it just doesn’t feel right. I haven’t been able to sit still because of the first time. I don’t think I could take a second.”

Hardly a commitment to back out, Michael thought. “Yes, it was not easy to witness. If you need to, you can step out of the room when the second session begins.” The doctor adjusted the right edge of his glasses. “We will not think less of you for it.”

The other man stopped fidgeting. Finally, a sigh of resignation passed his lips. “Yeah, alright. Maybe…maybe I just need to catch a few z’s. You sure you don’t mind me not being here?”

Michael nodded. “Not at all.” And he went back to work, hands running over dials and screens, checking balances and feeds of the equipment.

Zahn had made it to the door before he turned around. “What if this doesn’t work?”

We move on to the next phase. Without your knowledge. You’d thank me. “Well, we’ll have to let them go and find new test subjects. I’m sure I could convince CyberConnect to-”

“No. Not that.” The other man interrupted. “I mean, what if the experiment wasn’t ever meant to work? What if it just isn’t possible? Genetic manipulation too far from the fetal stages is unlikely to work in the first place and we aren’t going to find anybody willing to just let us play mad scientist with their unborn baby.”

Michael paused. The moment for his proposal was at hand. Again, sooner than he would have liked, but now was better than never. “Well, we were able to convince Lilith to let us use Conn-”

“No!” Again, interrupted. “Michael, fuck! No! I am not going to let you or anybody else do little tests with her fetus. What if you kill it? Lilith…she…she’s a mother by birth. If she lost a child because of a test she allowed to happen, she wouldn’t make it. Something in her would break. You can’t do this.”

Michael sighed and finally turned away from his tamperings and checks. “If not her, we can find someone else. The risk is high, sure, but we’re bound to get it right, Zahn. Don’t you see? Great science comes at the price of great sacrifice, sometimes. That’s just a lesson you’re going to have to learn and accept.”

Zahn’s face went blank…then blossomed into horror. “Oh…God. Oh my God, Michael. You really have lost it. Your face…your eyes…there’s no emotion left. When you said that, when you just fucking said in so many words that you fully expect to cleave your way through a few babies before you get it right…you didn’t even flinch. What’s happened to you?” His head hung. “God, what’s happened to
me? I was…I was going to let you do it to them again. I let you talk me into it again…” The man looked back up. “This has all gone too far. We failed, Mike. We just did. Now if you don’t call the C.C. Corp bigwigs and tell them you’re shutting down the experiment, then…”

Michael’s face
did show emotion then: anger. “Then you’ll what, Zahn?”

“Then I will.” Anger met anger, Zahn’s own expression furrowing as he stood upright.

“I have them under my thumb. They want this to succeed. CyberConnect knew the risks we’d have to take all along. I’ve been talking to them about it, about what we’ll eventually have to do to Conner and Marilyn if this doesn’t pan. They’re willing.” The look on Michael’s face was the epitome of smug.

Betrayal conflicted with assurance over the face of Zahn Niles then. “I knew it…I fucking knew it! You were never going to just…just let them fucking go! God! You
sick son of a bitch!” He growled. “Fine, I won’t go to C.C. What I will do? I’ll go to the cops.” He spat the last sentence.

Michael laughed. “You think CyberConnect doesn’t have people in the police department for this kind of thing? To keep it quiet? To make you look like a lunatic?
Please.

Zahn looked like he was starting to panic, hands clenching at his sides until the knuckles blotched white. “The newspapers, then! You know, you fucking know I’ll find a reporter or five willing to look into this! This whole God damn thing will be shut down and they’ll throw your twisted ass in jail! You’ll rot! You’ll hang yourself with your own fucking bed sheet knowing your so-called ‘greatness’ will never be recognized!”

Zahn turned to walk out then, his back to Michael when the sounds of medical utensils dropping to the ground made its way to his ears. He had only a second to realize something was wrong when the metal pan collided with the back of his skull. The doctor wondered if the impact was enough to send the white explosions of light into his partner’s eyes, but knew with a certain sadistic certainty that the vertigo and the nausea would be unavoidable as he flipped the downed and groaning man over and dragged him across the floor. The squeak of his face and his hands dragging over the tile was grating but quickly treated with a hoist of the heavy Zahn onto one of the leather beds. Michael knew that his ‘friend’ was starting to gain his bearings again and made quick work of getting his hands and feet into the metal clasps. He was in the middle of fitting the device across Zahn’s forehead when the other man finally spoke.

“Nng…” He seemed to be trying to blink away the distortions in his eyes. “Whatdafuck…” He groaned again. “Are you…what are you doing?”

The sound of the machine’s activation and the realization of what exactly was about to happen dawned on him with a sob.

“Oh God…Oh God, oh God, oh God…Mike! Mikey! Please, no!” He fought against his restraints to no result. “No! Please! Don’t do this! I won’t go to the newspapers! I take it back! I swear! I fucking swe-”

But it was too late. The dials were already being turned, the electronic hum already filling the air and sweeping Michael’s arms with taut hair and goosebumps. He watched as his partner began to spasm, the energy coursing through his body without relent. The doctor stopped at what he knew to be a ‘safe’ level.

“We could have been great, you know. A real team. A real pair. But no, you never could get past yourself and your binding little morals. Science’s biggest bane is morality. If only the human race would learn to look at the big picture...maybe then we'd realize our true potential.” He began to crank the dials higher, the force at which Zahn’s teeth ground together through the foam of his own saliva and the lack of a rubber mouth guard making the enamel crack and shatter. “I’m doing this for everyone. They’ll all kiss my feet one day, you’ll see.”

He
laughed.

“Oh, wait. I suppose you won’t.”

Screams of agony turned into muffled gurgles. Even in death, the electricity made Zahn’s body dance for Michael.

A puppet on his strings.


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Every inch that the elevator slid downward added another knot of nerves and bubbled anxiety within Conner’s body. So much could go wrong. So much wanted to go wrong. With all the stakes set against him in a tower of daunting opposition, he suddenly couldn’t remember why he had ever viewed this as anything but a bad idea. Confidence was like a myth in the cramped churn down, his palms clammy and slick with cold sweat as he mulled every possible fatal flaw he expected to meet when the doors opened. There was, of course, going to be somebody near the elevator. There had to be. So, it came down to a simple question: Who was he going to be? There had to be some kind of believable cover story for him to work with, something to just get him past the first crowd like he belonged there. One thing was for certain; people tended to tense up around a guy with a rapier strapped to his back.

Ding.

In a jerk of motion, the sword was wrenched off of Conner’s back and placed against the inside corner of the lift, obscuring it from any potential onlookers. Not wanting to be parting with it permanently, however, the edgy youth jammed the red ‘STOP’ button the moment the doors opened.
What greeted him wasn’t some bustling mob of doctors or corporate, conspiracy-driven suits like he expected. Conner would have been disappointed if he wasn’t so fucking relieved. From about twenty yards away he could already see the next elevator. His goal to dig further into Wolfsbane’s underground headquarters was so teasingly close. Though the majority of the ‘lobby’s’ walls were the dull grey concrete of a parking structure, someone had placed two ficus pots to spruce up the room; one on either side of the elevator. Conner was almost positive that they were plastic, what with the lack of that tree aroma, and he was fairly certain that that was for the best. By the way the stale air hit him, he wasn’t sure a normal plant would survive or even be taken care of, for that matter.

Oh, then there was the whole ‘no sunlight’ thing they had going down there.

Straight ahead, in an almost corridor like fashion, were what looked like offices set on the left and the right, their concrete outsides having been painted over with a single coat of white. The hanging lamps that were spaced out in even deviations onward shed a rather disappointing light on the basement floor as a whole, making the whole place look more half-finished than anything else. It was almost as if someone had gotten halfway through decorating and making the place look more human and inhabitable when they realized, “Who the hell cares?” The men down here certainly weren’t so to feel more human. No, they were here to separate themselves from that for ‘the good of science.’

Pushing his hatred for the facility aside, Conner glanced to his left at the only alcove in the lobby before the corridor of rooms started. In a simple, blocked and almost military yellow font was the word ‘SECURITY.’ To no shock, nobody at all seemed to be visible through the glass panes that circled the entirety of the post. A find murmur that Conner had unconsciously ignored up until that point, his Espada Rapier retrieved and placed back on his back before he took his first steps towards the elevator at the end of the hall, was revealed to be the hushed contemplations of a sports announcer on a rather tiny television screen. Looked like basketball, but Conner didn’t stop to check. He couldn’t help but wonder as he began to pass the outpost, however, why someone had left the T.V. on with no one around. The whole floor seemed dead, empty. They had probably fired the guy months ago and never poked their heads out of their God damn think tanks long enough to turn off one stupid-

Someone was inside. Someone was looking at him.

Conner’s heart tried to leap up into his throat and choke him as he faltered in his steps, the sight of a black-and-grey-clad guard reclining in a cot catching his eye a moment before their gazes met. What started out as a board, glazed expression furrowed into confusion and melted into concern all before Conner had the chance to regain his footing.

“Hey! I.D.! I-I need to see your-”

But he couldn’t hear through the frantic pounding of his heart against his sternum as he began to run. Only the sound of pursuing footsteps paused him a second and made him look back. The guard had stopped at the threshold of the corridor and was shouting…something. Then, just as soon, he was turning out, body posed to run for what Conner assumed would be his little alcove. To radio for help, no doubt. Or to pull an alarm. His plan was falling apart before it even had a chance. In that paused, crystalline moment of timelessness, Conner had the chance to notice the other man’s holster was empty. He had probably took the gun out to make the cot recline a little more suitable. That wasn’t what mattered, however. What mattered was Conner was suddenly aware of the press of a metal barrel down the back of his pants where his own firearm, a silver Colt 45, waited. He could use it. He knew he could whip it out and take down the guard before he had even a second to call for help.

He could, but…he couldn’t.

When the frozen moment shattered and the peace of it came crashing down, Conner found himself bolting towards the guard with all the speed his muscles could muster. The guard was a little overweight and, looking at his feet, hadn’t had the time to put on any shoes in his two-second chase. The former wouldn’t have been enough to close the gap in time, but the latter robbed the guard of proper traction. It gave Conner all the time he needed to close the gap and, with the security guard only a few feet from where he had started, the two collided with enough force to bowl them both over. With a pistol tucked into his back, the determined youth didn’t stay tussling on the ground with the man for long, scrambling away with a grace lacking in what he was used to in-game. It was amazing how limited he felt, being completely human.

Conner was distanced and on his feet before the guard, wrestling hitches with his pants, could do little more than get up to his knees. Again the gap was closed by the aggressive ex-college student, an arced boot swinging forward to crack against the underside of the crouched man’s jaw. The bone’s dislocation sounded with a crunch and a pop as the guard rolled onto his back, pained groans mumbled as his hands searched fruitlessly at the holster at his side. Someone might have heard their struggle so far, might be on their way as it was, and Conner didn’t want to waste anymore time. Not when it could be better spent trying to find her.

He came to crouch over the stranger’s downed form, his body leaned down just enough to get in a good hit. With his curled fist pulled behind his head, he…paused. He stopped. It felt like before, when he had thought about using the gun. Conner was afraid if he started really hitting this man, if he allowed more up-and-close violence to flow into a conduit of Wolfbane’s evil (despite the probable fact that the security guard knew absolutely nothing of what was going on), that he wouldn’t be able to stop. Finally, however, his need to move on and end the fight took precedence and the cocked knuckles shot forward to dent the man’s nose into his face. It remained in tact during the first blow, despite the mild spray of nasal blood, but the second punch felt the crack of bone beneath its force and the third ended the guard’s groans and sent him off to peaceful unconsciousness.

And panic took over.

What now? What did he do? It wasn’t inconceivable that he’d wake up, and soon, and report that someone was in the building. Working on instinct alone, Conner did his best to grunt and tug the man back into the alcove, snatching up the handcuffs around his belt to bind him to the bolted-down, black-metal desk that was streaming with video footage of the offices. The next phase of Conner’s makeshift plan involved shuffling frantically through the drawers, hoping against hope that the guard would keep duct tape or something like it around. What he found instead was black electrical tape. It wasn’t as sturdy, to his knowledge, but the roll was big enough to make up for it. In theory. Lofting the downed guard’s head up, Conner wrapped a few dozen circles around the stranger’s head and over his mouth. Then, and doing so was no easy job, he pushed the overweight lug onto his side, bringing his arm around to meet the back-curl of his legs. After a few mishaps, he finally managed to tape the three appendages together, using the last of the roll to give it some kind of durability.

By the time he had finished, the guard was already moaning back to awareness, something quickly alleviated with yet another harsh thump of Conner’s fist across the stranger’s skull. And another. Fuck if he was going to take any chances. Coming to his feet, he grabbed up the ‘officer’s’ key ring from his waist and a radio from the desk, snapping the first around a belt loop while stuffing the other with some of the ammo in his left pocket. Giving the post one last look, he stepped out and shut the door behind him. Conner had moved the guard under the cot so, ideally, even a passing doctor wouldn’t be able to notice where the man had gone with a first glance. That could always make said doctor curious enough to open the door and find out, but…well, he couldn’t prevent everything.

Conner was determined to rid himself of the key ring after walking noisily with it for only a few feet. It probably wouldn’t help much after this floor anyway. With the adrenaline finally thinning from the confrontation, he made his way down the windowless corridor, stopping at the first door. Maybe one of the offices would have something valuable or useful inside, something that would help him do what he had to do.

Most of the rooms were filled with the usual sentimental things you found in something more fit for a cubicle than an office; family pictures, amusing posters and other shabby little knick-knacks. None of the desks had any papers that translated to anything else but scientific jargon. Mentionings of hopeful, fantasyland things like technopathy and super-advanced robots miming humans and adapting emotions. Real Hollywood bullshit. It’s like all the doctors down there had never graduated from their juvenile fantasies as kids and were venting that frustration through fucked up experiments even the darkest human would flinch at. None of the papers mentioned these experiments, of course, but he didn’t expect to find them in paperwork. One by one he went through the computers he could, searching and searching in every amateur way he knew how to access something important. What did he find? Old games like solitaire, picture albums, and family videos. It was like the old bastards use the things to not feel so suffocated and isolated down there. How often did they get out, anyway?

Filing away the question with several of the others that didn’t need to be answered for him to proceed, he did eventually find an office that was locked. Promising. As he had hoped, the key ring he had snatched off the unconscious guard had what he needed to get in to what was labeled for, with a plaque on the door, the ‘Head Technician.’ Technicians? Technicians? That’s what those motherfuckers were calling themselves? Mumbling obscenities to himself as he clicked the lock open and let himself in, closing the door behind him, Conner began the same procedures that he had used in the last dozen or so rooms before; shuffling through drawers and files, looking under shit for anything that might have been taped and hidden. In the end, the only thing he found of interest were some blank CDs and a portable hardrive. Damn it.

By the time he had moved onto the computer, he had lost the excited vigor to do anything but a rudimentary search. Plugging in the portable hardrive revealed nothing but emptiness and the actual computer’s search was turning out just as pointless. Where was Dien when you needed him? The guy was supposed to be some big-brained hacker prodigy, right? If there was anyone he knew that would be able to find hidden nastiness on a computer, it would hi-

No. Way.

Conner stared blankly forward after a quitting exit of the last of the searched folders. There, on the desktop, was a file labeled ‘ML Experiment.’ ML. Marilyn Logan. The smug sons of bitches never though anybody would be smart enough to track them down, never thought they had to be careful. Hell, how likely was it that anybody would ever find out about such a secluded, dug-in group like Wolfsbane? Their arrogance was their weakness, just like the Elites, just like anybody Conner had ever come across in ‘The World.’ Just because he was offline now didn’t mean the rules had changed. Not all of them, anyway.

Conner was copying the entire contents of the computer’s main disk onto the portable hardrive before he had even opened up the ‘ML Experiment’ file. When he did, he felt his skin began to cool.

Quote:
Subject: Marilyn Logan (#WB09497)
Experiment: Genetic Manipulation for Remote Online Access and Uploading
Plan Name: ROAU
Head Technician: Doctor Frank Marshal


After reading the header, Conner skimmed down through the story of how she had been retrieved and moved on to read her ‘patient history.’

Quote:
-Patient History-
The subject was a part of the first ROAU experiments, along with patient #WB05485, a.k.a. Conner Sunderland. Back when this facility was young,


Conner paused. This facility? This was…this was that one. Where he had poked and prodded as a kid. Where his biological father had been murdered. Good to know he was in a place with such a rich past.

Quote:
09497 underwent pretty basic tests to see if the beta modification to her genetic code was taking. Dr. Zahn Niles, one of Plan ROAU’s founders who passed away early on in the testing due to an equipment malfunction, noted that the ROAU’s failsafe, a compulsion to congregate with those giving off the same altered brainwave as other ROAU subjects, showed promise at a social level with between 09497 and 05485.

This, of course, was only the first stage. When moved on to computer interaction, the beta modification feel short of its expectations in both patients. The next phase, one much more risky, was electroshock therapy. The therapy was used in hopes of bringing to life otherwise unused and unstimulated portions of the brain that were thought to regulate the ROAU gene. Due to unknown circumstances, both subjects left the experiment after only three electroshock sessions. In none of the sessions did any sign of the ROAU gene’s activation make itself known.

Shortly after the absence of 09497 and 05485, Plan ROAU was forcefully shut down by CyberConnect’s Head of Special Projects, Mason Winsler. No comment or reason was given.

Plan ROAU spent nearly twelve years in hibernation before 09497 was reclaimed. Due to other conflicts, namely entanglements in the online game ‘The World’, Mr. Winsler allowed 09497’s return to bring about the revivification of Plan ROAU.

This is where stand as of


Conner skimmed the rest of that section, nothing else popping out at him as even vaguely worth reading, his mind given some background thinking noise in the form of the computer’s active hum (busy copying the whole computer’s information as it was). Finally, he stopped at something else.

Quote:
-Trial Logs-

---Entry #XX1
Trial: Thermal Activation

In hopes of following the great mind of Plan ROAU founder Michael Grahm,


Conner laughed; short and bitter.

Quote:
the new team has continued attempts at reactivating the gene through physical testing. Unknown and unexplored portions of the human mind and body have been tapped into under duress and this is our working theory as the tests begin.

Subject 09497 was bound and covered in boiling (212 °F) water. Though the patient showed the usual physical reactions (reddened skin, blisters, etc.), the nodes monitoring her brain activity showed nothing that would hint at the ROAU gene’s awakening. We hope tomorrow’s test will be different.

---Entry #XX2
Trial: Cryo Activation

Tapping into the opposite side of yesterday’s spectrum, we put subject 09497 into an ice bath set at just above freezing point so that the water wouldn’t freeze and the ice cubes that were placed in wouldn’t melt too quickly. Again, we were faced with the expected physical reflexes (shivering, loss of skin tone, numbness after a point), but nothing in her brain waves changed. We’ll have to take the proper precautions to keep 09497 well after this one.

Tomorrow we’ll be moving onto a different style of trials in hopes of nudging the ROAU gene to life.

---Entry #XX3
Trial: Sonic Activation

The next stage of testing used sonic-emitter equipment, strapped to 09497’s head, to attempt to waken the ROAU gene. Subject showed no sign of pneumonia or hypothermia from yesterday’s trial.

Keeping the emitter at only normal frequency did nothing to alter 09497’s brainwaves. Even when we pushed it past the recommended limits, all it did was make the subject’s ears bleed. We’ll find out if any permanent damage was done to patient’s auditory sense tomorrow.

---Entry #XX4
Trial: Starvation and Dehydration Activation

Subject 09497’s auditory faculties seem to be in working order after twenty-four hours.

We’ve moved on to starving and dehydrating the patient in hopes of that causing some sort of reaction. It’s at this point that the team is beginning to feel the strain of doubt of Plan ROAU’s success. I myself am not fully agreed any longer that Michael Grahm did the calculations correctly. We may have to take this whole thing back to the math and the chemistry soon.

----

The trial was ended after two weeks of no food and bare-minimum water rations. The subject has grown almost feral in our absence and, when left alone, has been noted to talk to herself like there’s another with her. The name ‘Conner’ has been reported used in these events and we do not doubt it’s 05485 she thinks she’s speaking to. Our brainwave logs reported odd activity during these periods, but nothing on the scale that would hint at ROAU’s activation.

Surgery begins tomorrow. If we can’t find anything internally that might hint at the ROAU gene’s failure, I’m going to request Mr. Winsler put Plan ROAU back on the shelf to collect dust until we have the technology to pursue it further.

---Entry #XX5
Trial: Surgical Exploration

After a few hours of surgery, neither me nor my team could find anything that could result in any sort of biological road block for the ROAU gene. Our fears have been recognized. Tomorrow I’ll give Mr. Winsler a call and see what he wants to do about 09497. I fear she’ll


The doctor was beginning to lose his ability to think of her as a sexless, faceless subject. Good.

Quote:
have to be placed in the morgue with the rest of this facility’s failures. Oh well. Wasn’t Edison the one that said “I didn’t have 1000 failures; I learned 1000 ways not to make a light bulb.”? Sure, we aren’t exactly attempting the same experiment with them all, but I’m confident that the quote still applies nonetheless.


Conner sat in silence while the rest of the disk finished copying onto the hardrive. It wasn’t a silence of contemplation, but a silence of rage. He prayed that Dr. Marshal was down here still. He’d give that man a special little hello.

With the now-valuable hardrive in hand, Conner shut down the computer and exited the room, making sure to lock it behind him before tossing the keys into an adjacent room without a second thought. It only took a few moments of thought before he knew what to do with the piece of equipment in his hand. Moving to one of the thickly vegetated plastic ficus pots, he dug the hardrive into the base of the ‘leaves’, tucking it away in a fashion that would make it even difficult for him to find, let alone some stranger who wasn’t expecting a piece of technology to be hidden away in a fake office plant. Turned on his heels, Conner walked to the end of the hall and found himself again faced with an elevator that held as much threat as it did promise with a push of its button.

Ding.

He stepped inside and swiveled about, watching as the doors closed in front of him, no longer surprised by the ancient lurch of the ancient lift’s mechanisms. It wouldn’t be long now before he had her safe. Then they’d know they had picked on the wrong guy’s girlfriend.

Every last one of them.

_________________
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PostPosted: Fri Oct 19, 2007 12:34 am 
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“Be careful. This is where the world drops off.”

-Matthew Good

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Michael Grahm could hardly stand to look at himself in the dirty bathroom mirror as the sound of the toilet’s flush roared, swelled and fell. Look how he was living. A glance to the curtain-less shower and its brown-water damaged bowels made his stomach turn. The former doctor wasn’t an expert on mold growths, but he was fairly certain a whole diverse colony had made its home in the various corners of the walls and those peripheral places he didn’t bother noting. Such a shadow of a man. He lofted greasy fingers to push and mold the sunken skin of his face, the hollow droop of his eyes and the bags beneath them.

The light rod above the dingy, reflective surface flickered.

His stomach growled.

His balance wavered.

No rest for the wicked. A brief reminder as the echo man turned the door’s knob.

Poor wattage and night’s mockery made the brittle apartment, its puke-green paint chipping to reveal the broken wood boards beneath, seem like something out of a nightmare. Something of
his nightmares. Who was he kidding? It was nightscape of ink and convoluted, crawling things that he had crafted with his own hands, his own mind. Michael was a “sociopathic monster” according to the big wigs at CyberConnect. And, in that logic, it was only reasonable that he had shaped such a living space. Poetic, even.

The curtains over his windows, ones that shared the same hue as the walls’ paint, had captured a beam of the street’s lamp light. In turn, the few visible portions of the apartment were tinted in a nauseating green. The rest of it was blankets of black, hugs of darkness that held things within them that he dare not speak of. Eyes that watched him were there. Insects wove his coffin in others. Still more held his fears and the distant memories of his vile dreams. The worst, however, were filled with nothing but void, but antithesis and nonspace. Those were the maws that would open wide and swallow him up if he ever slept or ate or cried.

The Great Company had evicted him from his own project and replaced him with inferior wannabes. Killing Zahn Niles had warranted him disgust and fear and, like everything they feared, Michael had been swept under their giant, proverbial carpet. The money they had given him to sow his silence was enough to buy him a small island, but the ex-doctor was beyond the simplicity of material possessions - for the most part. Rather than buy a place that was fitting for a man of his intellect’s caliber, he had used all of the money to build the most advanced computing system in the western hemisphere. Stumbling into his ‘living’ room, he twitched a smile at the assortment of screens and towers and cables and sockets and blood and sweat and grief and despair and…it all.

When he had been forced away from his laboratory, when he had been forced to secretly work the problem on his own - away from their knowing - Michael had decided that he had been approaching the problem the wrong way. It wasn’t the human body that he didn’t understand enough. It wasn’t his knowledge of anatomy that had made Plan ROAU crumble. No, it was his monumentally underdeveloped background in computer programming. Part of ROAU was about making a human mind part of a computer, so it only fit that he should have been informed in both. That had been the goal of the last year. Or the last century. Or however long he had been holed up in Hell. Barely eating, barely catching winks, it was amazing he had lasted this long. Oh the nourishment one could garner from ambition.

About two months before, if he was to believe the snickering calendar’s lies, he had discovered something fundamental in the code of ‘The World’ (a game he had pursued in hopes of doubling his advancement through both learning about computer functions and the human beings that interact in them). It was as much cancer as it was lifesblood. Whatever it was, whatever name was to be given to it, one thing was certain; it held potential to do what he had wanted all along. It wasn’t the widespread access to the net he had hoped, but enough of this cancerblood pumped into any one player would comatose them and trap them within the confines of the game. Integrated into every inch of every inch as it was, making it take a desired shape seemed highly possible to accomplish.

Which is where he found himself then, booting up this machine and that. CyberConnect had scorned his genius, had ostrasized him from his home, and now they were going to pay. Through blackmail and the charisma of a madman, Michael Grahm had convinced them to allow him to try and build a server for ‘The World.’ He knew they would only indulge them, that they would shoot it down the moment he presented it, but all he would need - if he did it correctly - was for them to make it a file but once. Then, with all the virus vacuums and metaphorical blackholes he had placed within, the game’s mysterious code foundation would fill it. They’d delete it then, but the cookie file made from it would never disperse. Doing so would cripple the game, would rip out roots it wouldn’t heal for months…so they never would. They’d keep the server there, a shadow of itself, with the ignorant belief that no one would be able to access it.

And it would be from there that he’d take down their cash cow, that he’d trap and torture their precious players. The wonder of the internet would allow him to keep track of Marilyn and Conner’s whereabouts until they were old enough to become a part of his vision. He would use ROAU’s main subjects, a plan CyberConnect had quarantined, to rip the grand corporation asunder. They would regret the day they had denied him the fruit of his labors. They would mourn the day they laughed at their god.

Most of all? They would grieve his retribution.

He split wide a grin in the fluorescent light of the monitors.

Oh yes, they’d
grieve.

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Ding.

Once again, like a shimmered memory of the last floor, the elevator doors opened before Conner. Reflexively, he tensed, past experience making him expect some sort of confrontation off the bat. Unlike the last floor, however, there was no idle security outpost. There wasn’t even a lobby. Straight to business, the second and last basement floor led immediately into an intersection of wet-walled concrete. Conner played to his paranoia as he inched his head around the corner, a look to the left revealing an end and a right turn while a glance to the right revealed much the same (with notably flipped directions). There was one difference, however, and it was a difference that stopped his heart.

At the end, before the left turn, was a black door with the same yellow army font as the outpost above, one that read ‘Security Personnel Only.’ Ducking himself back in the semi-safe obfuscation of the elevator, the twenty year-old allowed himself a brief moment of contemplative silence. There was little doubt that security monitors and well-armed guards (this was where CyberConnect’s ‘Wolfsbane’ kept their dirty secrets, after all) filled it. What struck Conner as odd, however, was the fact that he hadn’t seen any security cameras in his little voyeuristic indulgence. Even looking straight ahead, down the north hall, revealed nothing of the sort. Did they really trust the doctors here so much? Maybe, but that wasn’t it. In his time here, in the time he had mentally spent learning about Michael’s past, he had learned that arrogance ruled the facility. There weren’t cameras in the halls because they weren’t interested in the halls and, after all, who could penetrate their security? Who would even know the place existed to attempt it?

Conner smiled.

The smile soon smoothed and filled out at the realization of something that, in all his worry and caution, had escaped him. This was the last floor. The facility wasn’t much in terms of depth, but the second basement more than made up for that in size. All of that was trivial, however. What mattered was, if this was indeed the deepest he could go, then Lowen had to be here. She had to. Conner opened up their link, opened wide the mental bond that the PVM had forged between them, and felt his smile slip. He could feel her, but…it was so dim. All it did was reassure him that she hadn’t been moved to a different compound. There was no blip in his mind, no metaphysical sonar that allowed him to trace her through ROAU’s failsafe.

Conner stared forward, allowing the daunting number of windowless rooms and intersecting paths to catch up with him. Without a way to track her down specifically, without any way to pinpoint her location, the task suddenly seemed too big. He was bound to get caught soon. Probability demanded it. Sure, he’d be able to stash the first few knockouts, but what was the chance he’d find a way to bind them like he had the guard upstairs? All of them?

A shiver of cowardice weakened him, made him lean against the inside of the paused elevator for support. All of the fears granted to any human being by sheer weight of their mortality filled him then, made him weak, made him incapable of saving her. Self-pity and doubt nipped at his heels and made him ache. Vertigo and bile rose within Conner and threatened to topple the man over. Flashes of his past failures both on and offline bombarded his thoughts and images of Lowen’s suffering made him haze. And…

…he remembered what it looked like to see her smile.

It was like reality had suddenly had a change of heart, robbing Conner of any memory of what it was like to doubt and fear and shake. The sobering shove of love and pragmatic confidence took him from the wall and steadied the ground before him. With a deep breath, the twenty year-old took his first steps into the floor, wincing at their tapping echoes. He paused…but no one came. Figuring he had a lot of places to look and hardly a slice of time to do it, Conner wasted no more time getting lost in his own ponderings.

Narrowed eyes and perked ears were at attention as he tip-toed down the grey hall. He had chosen to walk down the middle, to have a chance at grabbing any sort of conversation from either side. The lack of window helped him feel secure and it made the focusing easier, made it all easier. A few intersections passed and Conner began to wonder what the hell they had so many rooms for in the first place - it seemed like a ghost town down there. Only when the idle aura of it all made the shadows begin to move in the corner of his eyes did the voices finally come. Initially, he thought it a result of his own mounting desperation to be given direction, but Conner eventually chose to put a little faith in his sanity and leaned against the mumbling door (or so the muffled conversation within seemed to make it).

“…Winsler agreed with me…closed…”

“…and it’s just up to you to shut down something we’ve all…”

“…Marshal, he has a…”

“…done is done. The subject is to be terminated tomorrow, once we have burial…”

“…poor bitch.”

Only quips of the conversation within made sense to Conner, but it was enough to make his blood run hot and his vision bleed red. The sons of bitches were talking about her like she was a puppy that needed to be put down at the pound. The very-real compulsion to kick open the door and whip out the Colt 45 tucked in his black jeans was upon him like a lightning strike, blinding him in the same way his rage was. They were so callous, so fucking narcissistic that it almost made breathing a chore. He wasn’t aware how tight he had been clenching his fists until the sting of his fingernails digging into his palms snapped him out of his murderous trance. Opening his hands, he blinked down, blank, at the half-moon cuts. They were only dotted with blood, hardly anything serious, but they served a purpose. A few seconds later and his breathing normalized, the back of right hand lofted up to wipe the sweat from his forehead.

“…now if you’ll excuse me…”

It took a second for Conner to put the words to function, to meaning, and suddenly he forgot the importance of tip-toeing, the ex-college student turning on his heels and bolting with heavy clogging steps down and around the nearest corner and chaotically into the closest door thereafter. There was nothing but darkness in the room and the smell of old water. The air itself was as stale as the rest of the place, making his throat seem dryer, making his lips chap. Panic made him want to hide in that darkness, to curl up in it and wait for the probability that he had royally fucked the whole thing over to fade away. Maybe they hadn’t heard him. Maybe they had passed it off as something…oh, hell, he didn’t know. Just something. The need to hide was beaten by his curiosity and the nagging impression that he wasn’t alone and, with fumbling fingers, he found and flipped on the light switch.

Zzzt. One of the two roof-embedded bulbs fizzled out. The one was enough to see, however, and make him squint in turn. The room itself looked like your standard medical room, or at least standard in the hospitals Conner had had the displeasure of visiting in his life time. Green tiles covered everything but the cement ceiling. To the left of where he entered, that being the center of the room itself, was an ‘L’ of shelves and drawers that went from floor to ceiling. God only knows what was inside of them. When, in the flash of time it had taken him to examine the room, his eyes came to its middle…he froze. It was a large, tin tub filled the brim with water. Images of the same tub filled with ice, images that involved Lowen flailing under its surface, slammed into him with enough force to stagger Conner against the door. Fear-filled eyes and wary steps edged towards it step by step, step by step…but it was empty. Letting out a breath he hadn’t been aware he was holding, the relieved youth set his eyes elsewhere in the room. There was monitoring equipment of some sort, limp nodes dangling to the floor, and another door off in the right corner. By the design of the building, the door wouldn’t lead back into the hall, but presumably into another door. Well alright then.

Braced this time for something he’d hate, Conner walked towards the door and hesitantly turned the knob, again blindly searching out a switch as he closed the entrance behind him. His target wasn’t far and, without any bulbs popping this time, the room illuminated. At first he didn’t know what he was seeing. At first, the mechanism of the place didn’t make sense. In the middle of the room, ignoring the same sort of monitoring devices from the last, were two shackles. They could have served a number of devious purposes, all of which were too horrible to be true, but it wasn’t until his eyes glazed upward that he realized where he was. A hole in the ceiling had a large, mechanized vat below it, like it was ready to catch whatever the orifice expelled. And indeed it was. Conner couldn’t help but recall Lowen’s memories of the metal tankard filling with boiling water and turning over to spill that all over her. The pain had been dizzying and, after a few seconds, had been enough to turn her screams into the black abyss of unconciousness. Gritting his teeth, cursing the doctors with every despicable phrase he had learned in his twenty years of life, Conner continued on to the next door beyond.

With a flip of the light, he gagged. Centered in the room, like everything before it, was an operating table with the usual overhead mirrors and lights and side-accompanying surgical tools. Everywhere…blood. It was almost as if, with all the ‘patients’ they had operated on, through all the accidental (or not so accidental) artery cuts and other medical mishaps and trials, they hadn’t bothered to clean the place once. Didn’t they worry about their own health? Had they simply just moved on to one of possibly dozens of other rooms to make a use of the compound floor? Had they-

Something caught Conner’s eye in a metal bowl on of the out-stretched metal bars. A look at the rotted heart, undoubtedly human in origin, that rested inside and suddenly all of the dried, caked blood and unclean odors were too much. He could do little but stumble aside and drop to his knees as he vomited, as the orange-yellow of his stomach contents emptied in wet splatters onto the green-tiled floor. After a while he was only dry-heaving, the smell of his sick and the rest of the room continuing to make his stomach clench and his body shudder until, at last, he slumped to lean back against the wall with…emptiness painting his expression.

How did he fight monsters like this? How did he break the hold the beasts had on Lowen when they were so…so…lacking. It was the only word that agreed with the situation; lacking in heart, in compassion, in humanity and goodness and faith. Evil was a word reserved for those that felt, however negatively. Weakly rising to his feet after a crabwalk away from his vomit, wiping his mouth as he did, Conner realized that the doctors couldn’t do what they did and still…feel. They were the epitome of emptiness. Years of amoral research and experimentation had cut them open and emptied what made them people. The concept alone made Conner’s stomach turn again, but he kept the gag down. He had to get out of the room. He couldn’t stand breathing the blood and the sick and the void for a second longer.

Practically running to the next door, he found himself in another of Lowen’s test rooms (after a quick search of the light, of course). It was like Fate was guiding him in a route of cruelty, making sure he saw it all, making sure he suffered and fractured before he found Lowen. Paranoia leaked in again and Conner suddenly knew that this was all to make him a broken thing when he found Lowen. A few more trips through these rooms and he the concept of love and God would be lost from him. They’d be empty dolls together. They’d join the nothing together.

“No.” Conner straightened, looking over the sonic-emitter machine. “No. Fuck that! Fuck Fate. She belongs to me.” He snarled. “I won’t let you have her.” All said with clarity, without a single stammer or - probably unwisely - volume control.

Rather than continue down the linked chain of doors, Conner gave up on that particular section of the compound. As far as he had noticed, none of the rooms had had camera in them. The doctors probably didn’t want the guards, who were more than likely out of the loop, to get ‘righteous’ on them and step in during a procedure. He should have been upset, but…he couldn’t manage it. It was saving him. So far. His step out into the concrete halls was careful, the close of the door behind him practically mute. There were no muffled conversations of pursuit and clacking, polished footsteps. His run had apparently gone on ignored. There must have been other doctors spread throughout. A doctor running, in a rush, was no breaking news story. For the umpteenth time, Conner took a deep breath. As cruel as Fate was, it was continuing to play on his team, or at the very least in his favor.

The youth turned to look at the label on the door he had exited and those down the rest of the corridor as well. They were all ‘Trial Room X’, with X being some number. Made sense. It was also blatantly not where he needed to be. He was in the wrong wing or whatever. Did the place have wings? Didn’t matter, didn’t matter…

Steadying the nonsense inside of his head, Conner listened on for any kind of noise that would signal the departing doctors were near. Wherever they had gone when they left that room, however, hadn’t been anywhere close. The silence was as eerie as it was comforting, but was accepted just the same as he moved down and weaved through the catacombs of the second basement floor, searching out something that called to him as some kind of holding cell where he knew she was being held. Conner’s chest practically burst when his eye came across ‘Containment Room 1.’ Jackpot. With a nervous, uncertain smile on his face, he crept towards the tempting door and swung it quietly open…to a morgue. The fact that he knew what he was looking at made him realize the light was on, that someone must there and he just wasn’t seeing them. Panic, of course, reared its ugly head at that same moment and whipped him around to the corners of the walls, searching out security cameras, searching out the bringers of his unavoidable failure.

Nothing. No person, no camera, no anything.

Conner wanted to be relieved, but now he was just baffled. It wasn’t the light that confused him, that was easily explainable; someone had been working in the room and had forgotten to turn off the light. They were bound to forget about one fucking morgue in what had to be a dozen of the ‘Containment Room X’s he had seen. No, it was the lack of cameras that was beginning to curdle from comforting to just…off. What was that security room for if not for monitoring things? There had to be cameras somewhere. There was absolutely no way CyberConnect would allow such a facility to go so unguarded by the most fundamental of security devices. Conner knew he should have left the room then, to get to the real task, but he couldn’t help himself as he approached one of the doors. After a few glances and a few opened doors (only one of which had a shadow of a well-preserved corpse, male, within), his paranoia again settled and he found his thoughts his own.

He would have felt if she was dead. Their connection may have been dwindling, but it wasn’t completely stunted. Conner still had to put a little effort into pulling himself away from checking before leaving the room. To quote the great Robert Frost, he “[had] promises to keep, and miles to go before [he slept], and miles to go before [he slept].” It skewed the rhyme, but it was mildly fortifying just the same.

Back in the grey, lifeless, empty-silent halls, Conner continued his search past storage rooms, ration rooms, dens and ‘Doctor Quarters’. It was all beginning to blur together, all starting to make him fear his discovery was on the horizon. When he entered a passage filled with nothing but numbered doors, he leaned his back against a wall, head in turn, and groaned. God, it was so pointless. The place was just too fucking big, too fucking impossible to navigate, and too-

Wait. Wait.

With his heart restarting into overdrive like a thundering mustang against the cage of his sternum, something dawned on Conner. Each of the numbers had five in total. The youth found his mind wandering back to the log files that ‘Dr. Frank Marshal’ had recorded Lowen’s torment on. She hadn’t been named in them, not for the most part. Rather, she had been given…a number. 09497. One moment he was standing still, frozen in awe of how close he was to finding her, to saving her, and the next…running. A blur of motion that carried him around corner after corner after corner until, at last, he stopped before the one with a black ‘09497’ slapped on its door. A tearless sob of joy escaped his lips as his hand snapped out to the knob…and froze. What if she wasn’t there? What if…nothing of her was left? Fuck it.

He opened the door.

There was only darkness and, for a split second, Conner forgot the entire concept of light. The fact that he didn’t see her confirmed for him all of his fears and his stalking paranoia was granted a feast. For a split second, but only just.

“Nng…”

Again, Conner’s heart was suddenly slamming up into his throat, spinning him around as he closed the door - perhaps a bit loudly - and frantically searched for the switch. When he wasn’t finding it, he had to use every ounce of his will not to punch the wall.

“Damn it!” But…there was a laugh at the end of it, something that showed the tiniest kernel of joy within.

“C-Conner…is…? No…”

And he found it, the light flipping on, sounding in turn with a sort of electronic churn. Conner didn’t question it, didn’t question any of it. For the first time in…God, ages…he laying his eyes on the girl he loved. He was bolted where he stood, disbelief and joy waging a virtual war within him. The smile on his face, however strong it started, faltered when he realized what exactly he was staring at. Lowen, someone that had once been so defiant, so strong, lay curled and weeping in the touseled, dirtied white sheets on which she lay. Pale, clammy and sorrowfully thing arms hugged knees to her chest, her face hidden within the wiry dark brown, nigh-black strands of her hair. Conner knew what happy tears sounded like…and those weren’t it. The entirety of her frail body shivered with them…and Conner felt his heart drop.

Coming to her side, he tried to move her hair, tried to move something, but she only screamed (the sound hoarse and desperate) and wrenched herself away.

“L-Lowen! It’s me! S…Stop that!” But she continued to jerk herself from his grasp.

“N-No! You aren’t r-real! Go a-away! GO AWAY!” The octave of her voice dropped to something animal…feral.

“God, stop! Lowen! God damn it, Lowen! It’s Conner!”

Rather than allow her to get any closer to the wall, he wrapped his hands around her withering arms and jerked her upright, smoothing away the unhealthy locks from her face even as she fought against his grasp. Part of her was damaged, but…that was no surprise. He wasn’t going to let that stop him. He wasn’t going to let her prevent her own release. Ignoring the churn of the lightbulb, that persistant sound as he moved about, he tried again to get her attention.

“Lowen! Look at me!”

But she wouldn’t do anything of the sort. Restrained and weak as she was, she still had the energy to resist that much. “I w-won’t! You’re a l-lie! Conner is dead! HE’S DEAD.”

Conner found himself confronted with the very real possibility that she was going to start being heard. Putting his hand over her mouth, he tugged it back, the sudden sink of her teeth sending a jolt of pain through his arm.

“Ug! Fuck!” And he lowered his own volume. “Lowen! Lowen…I’m not…God, I’m not a lie…just look at me once and you’ll see.”

Something in his own voice, in his own tone, turned paused her in her resistance and lofted her shaky hazel eyes up…and into his. Tears that had momentarily halted were suddenly flowing, soundlessly, in salty lines down her sunken cheeks. Despite it all, despite the hair and her medical…robe?...and…everything…she was beautiful. His eyes seemed to speak such and, after a blank expression, her lips began to curl upward into a shadow of a smile.

“…Conner? That’s…t-that’s really you?”

He laughed, his own tears kicking in, the laugh shaky with them. “Yes, you stubborn girl. It’s me.”

And her own laugh was suddenly muffled with crying he knew was happy, he could feel was happy as she whipped her arms around his back and pressed her face into the strong plain of his chest. Lowen lost herself in the tears then, in the mixed laughter that faded in and out as she shook around him. Conner’s own arms wrapped themselves around the love of his life, the girl that had always seemed too good to be true. Resting his chin on her hair, eyes closed, he thanked God for the silence. It was a moment of true happiness, of a reality unobscured by the knowledge that he still had to get her out. They held onto eachother like they had finally found reason to be again, like the tighter they held, the faster the darkness of their individuals paths, the paths that led them to this moment, retreated.

Conner was the first to speak. “I…I never thought I’d be able to touch you again. I had forgotten how it felt…”

A little slowly, more from lack of energy than anything else, Lowen lofted her head up and her tear-chained face to his own. “No, I knew…I knew you’d come for me, Conner. You’re my knight in shining armor. You always have been…”

The silence was different this time as they stared into eachother’s eyes, as the weight of the moment again pressed down and filled them with warmth…and this time it wasn’t joy. Despite the situation, despite her current condition and all that had passed, they suddenly couldn’t press their lips together hard enough. Blame it on their altered neural chemistry, on the amplified emotions that came with it, but Conner was suddenly filled with the intimate knowledge that life was held within her mouth, that happiness and lust and rest could be sucked from her lips and her mind knew much the same. As reality always did, the truth of their predicament found them and they settled, lips parting and coming together for another, tender caress before again the kiss was broken. Lowen, smiling, wiped her thumb across his bottom lip before her eyes came to a close and their foreheads touched.

“I love you, Conner…more than…God, life…you are life.” Said in such a whisper that it made his heart ache…for the better.

“I love you too, Lo. I feel like this…this fucking void that I only half-knew was there is suddenly full.”

Rather than get any of the expected responses, she just…started crying again. “Thank you…thank you, thank you, thank you…” And he knew it wasn’t for her words, but his presence and her salvation. Salvation? No, not yet.

EHHH. EHHH. EHHH.

The sound of an alarm, of a blaring klaxon made Conner practically jump out of his skin. Something dark sunk into his gut, like he knew this was coming, like the worst hadn’t followed. And then it hit him…the electronic hum. The churn. It wasn’t a lightbulb, he had…Oh, God. Looking behind him, at the top corner of the room, he groaned.

“No…”

It had been the sound of a moving camera. The ones he had been looking around for, the ones he had paid attention to in every fucking room but Lowen’s, had been placed only in ‘subject’ rooms. Of course.

“It’s…no, it’s too soon…”

Conner expected a wave of fear and panic to hit him like they had so many times before, but all he felt was a stone cold defiance. The darkness in his gut hadn’t gone away. The lurking thing loomed…and he said ‘no.’ It wouldn’t have her. Not her.

Not this girl. Not this day.

“We have to go Lowen. Now.”

She looked like she was going to say something, but he didn’t allow her the time. Slinging her arm around his shoulders, his own looping around to support her lower back, he rushed to the door and flung it open. Both ends of the hall down his direction were clear. He could hear footsteps, could hear sounds of resistance a ways away. What the hell? Who was fighting them? Who- Leo. His gun. He had shot out the lock. Duh. And he knew the numbers to call the elevator with the door open…fucking genius. He was going to kiss the son of a bitch.

“We’ll be okay Lowen. We’re not going to be stopped, not after I came all this way. Not after I gave ‘The World’ and its coma a temporary middle finger.”

She didn’t question anything, but complied with silent obedience and a nod of her head. Hitching her weight a little more evenly, despite how nigh-weightless she was, Conner jolted around the corner…and froze. A guard, not fifty feet away, stood between them and the way Conner had come, the way out. And lifted in his hand…

He had a gun.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

He was Zan, staring at the Freedom Fighters, staring at the people he would never see again.

Conner and her, and Marilyn, holding each other in a carnal embrace, in writhing lust and comfort for but one night…

…the men rushing in, taking her away. The blue needle.

Dien crying. Dien smiling.

Reinier cracking a joke.

Sekai blushing. Her pose so submissive, so passive and almost heart-achingly cute, like a kid you can’t help but ruffle your hand in their hair.

Nulus making fun of him. Nulus saving his life.

Primal. Devil. Angel.

The Elites.

Raquar standing there, enduring Zan’s lecture. Zhao beside him.

Hacorie and Senna defiant.

Kira, proud and fierce in expression and posture.

Friendship. Love. Joy. Loss.

His mother pulling the rifle’s trigger.

Blood. Death.


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Conner knew the Colt 45 was in his back waistband, and that he was reaching for it, but he also knew it would be too late. He wouldn’t make it. He’d die and wouldn’t be able to save her from their recapture. It was one of those crystalline, perfectly captured, slowed-down moments that seemed to take centuries to pass. Conner had barely managed to take the pistol out, to bring it up in a frantic aim with both hands when the first shot exploded into adrenaline-amplified sound and the pain rippled through his decimated kidney. The moment continued to slow, to crawl and torture as he and the guard fired a round at the same time. The noise made his ears ring, something that was laughable next to the agony that flared as another bullet ate through his liver and sank into the wall behind him. Conner was allowed some bittersweet vindication, however, his own bullet plugging into the guard’s gut and knocking him on his back.

With effort, time regained its normal flow, but it no longer mattered. The ex-college student looked down, both hands - even the one still shakily clutching the Colt - smoothing down the front of his green shirt, expecting to come away with blood even as he heard the thud beside him. He was clean, he was…

No. God, no.

[For those that have the song, it’s fit to play at 1:09 here.]

Eyes wide, pupils in pinpricks, Conner turned his head (with his voice already becoming a subtle sob) to the trembling girl on the floor next to him with two blood bullet holes ripped into her hospital gown. She was staring up at the ceiling, a hand shaking almost violently above each of the wounds, tears beginning to fall down the side of her face to disappear into her hair. He was defiant still, heart numbing, head beginning to buzz as he dropped to his knees beside her.

It was too sudden, too out of place, too unfitting…it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. There was no sense in it. No matter how he wracked his brain, no matter how the salt began to sting his eyes and fall in clear rivulets over his lips, he couldn’t find a reason for it. It had none. It was illogical. It was wrong.

Conner’s own hands dipped past her own then, shivered and shook as he touched a single finger into the red, not believing it was real. Her whimper saw the jerk of his hand away, his eyes - still wide - shooting up to her own.

“N-No, Lowen. Y-You can’t. You’re my Valkyrie, my Amazon, my own fucking warrior princess…you don’t d-die like this. You d-don’t die! Valhalla doesn’t want you!” He pleaded with Lowen, pleaded with her to stop as he lifted her torso up, trying to get her to stand…only for her head to lull back as she continued to shake. He was sobbing through his words as he kissed her, as he pressed his lips to her own, to her cheek, to her forehead…“F-Fight it. Please, God. P-Please don’t leave m-me, not l-like this….”

She seemed almost unaware of him, unblinking as she continued to stare at the ceiling. “I don’t w-want to go…” Tears disappeared into her hair again.

Conner felt his heart break.

“T-Then don’t! G-Get up! Get up!”

Lowen only echoed her words again, weaker this time. “I don’t want to go…”

He couldn’t think to speak anymore, couldn’t do anything but hug her fiercly into his chest as her trembles began to slow.

“Please, C-Conner…I don’t want…don’t want to…”

The youth only cried harder, holding her so tightly against him that he thought he’d snap her in half.

“…n-not enough time…”

And she was gone. Limp in his arms. And yet Conner held onto her still, clung to the lifeless body in his arms, tried frantically to use the failed ROAU to somehow save her - something that made his brain spasm and his face wince in its failure - until the sound of rushing footsteps behind him made him set her down…

He realized he’d never hear her voice again, never feel the graze of her fingers along his arms again, never hear laugh or cry or…

Conner felt ice begin to churn through his veins, replacing blood, replacing emotions, replacing everything he remembered that reminded him of what it felt like to be human. Rising to his feet, a slow motion, his head hung and the Colt 45 retrieved in his right hand, he turned around right as another guard turned a corner and lifted his gun. The empty husk that had been Conner simply spread his arms, asked for it. Waited for it. But, of course, Fate spat on him again. The side of the guard’s head suddenly disappeared as Leo, looking as wide-eyed as Conner, turned the same corner.

“Oh…God, Conner…holy…Jesus…”

But he didn’t hear his friend. He dropped the gun and found himself charging forward. It wasn’t towards Leo, to Conner’s gun-toting savior, but the man who Conner himself had shot…who still groaned and turned on the floor. The twenty year-old stood over him, face twisted, unrecognizable.

“Bring her back!” He didn’t even think about the collision of his fist into the man’s face. He just…did it. “BRING HER BACK!” Punch. “BRING.” Punch. “HER.” Punch. “BACK.” Punch.

The phrase found itself repeated, over and over, again and again while Leo watched his best friend slug his knuckles into the man’s face until all he was just punching wet pieces of bone and grey matter into the concrete, until he was breaking his hand against the floor. Conner allowed Leo to finally come up and stop him, didn’t fight the tug of him away from the body. With blood coating his shirt and dripping from his hand - belong both to the guard and the compound fracture in his right hand - he spoke with a tone completely devoid of…anything. It was nothingness incarnate.

“Get her.”

Leo stammered. “B-But…we have to go, Conner.”

Conner cast a side look at his friend. Something in it made Leo obey, the man coming to stand beside Conner a few seconds later, Lowen’s arm slung blank and empty over his shoulder much like she had been on the other man’s not moments before.

Conner drew the Espada Rapier from his back, holding it in his right hand while Leo fumbled to reload a clip into his own pistol and hand it over to fit into the other hand.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The rest of the escape was a blur of bullets and beheadings, the monster that Conner had become, the proverbial Garou that had emerged butchering its way through both floors until there was more blood than flesh visible upon him. A side order to Leo only barely managed to snatch up the hardrive in the plant as they rose to the surface.

The last thing Conner remembered was stepping out into the street where the police Leo had called on his way down waited, mouths open. There was the clang of the rapier on the asphalt, the rush of that ground towards him…

…and sleep.

_________________
Lv. 50 Heavy Blade
Wishlist
Special: Levels, GR Sendai, PL Sakai, Darklore.
W: Tonosama Sword, Mineuchi, Jundachi.
A: Samurai Helm, Able Hands, Rare Greaves.
I: Holy Sap, Treebane, Cooked Bile, Nightbane.
EX: Elemental Summon (Lv. 2), Overdrive (Lv.1), Elemental Attacks (Lv. 2), Enhance Dark, Elemental Breath (Lv. 2).


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PostPosted: Thu Oct 25, 2007 9:20 am 
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“Dying isn’t hard. Mourning…well that’s the real killer.”

-Marilyn “Lowen” Logan

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Piece by piece, it was all coming together.

Years of design, of careful programming and blatant manipulation of ‘The World’s foundational code had led him to insights into the viral anomaly - one that was apparently referred to as ‘Twilight’ among some of the shadier people he had interacted with in pursuit of its understanding - that had allowed him to build the perfect Trojan horse. The Zeta Server, as Michael referred to it, had been built from the ground up by
his hands and not a single other’s. No one had been allowed to screw it up. No one had even been allowed to know he was working on it. Not until recently, that was. It was set to suck up Twilight and paste it on immediately throughout the waiting nodes spaced across the server. It was a masterpiece, a thing of beauty that the ex-doctor had marveled at for days in a blank trance at the screen. He had wandered its vast landscapes…and dreamscapes and nightscapes…until he thought he’d pass out from the weight of his own genius. No matter how long he spent on it, he was still aware of its slight incompletion. That part, however, didn’t worry him.

Twilight would finish the job for him.

It had been hard not to just complete it himself, of course. Michael Grahm was, by nature (and especially after the incident at the compound), a lone wolf when it came to creating anything. He didn’t trust people not to taint it or mar it, riddle it with flaws or limit it with morality. Despite this, despite what some ignorant prat might call ‘hubris’, he was still able to recognize that he could
not make the polishing touches with his own hands. No matter how much the man hated it, he was still human. Twilight, however, was an entirely different subject. Its programming made whatever it touched, in large quantities anyway, self-evolving. Zeta had been made to act as a giant egg in ‘The World’ with the virus the incubator that would finally hatch its true potential. Once the Administrators gave in to his blackmail and his persistent threats, once they hosted the server for a few minutes to ‘give it a look’ as he had urged them to, it would take root. In all of his demands, something that assured him they’d give in, he had never said they had to keep it up. He only wanted them to consider it and then…he’d just walk away.

Oh what lies humanity will believe to feel secure.

Every second that Zeta was connected to ‘The World’, Twilight would be funneling in to its seams and making it stand-alone. Like a great tree, those seconds would host the spreading of code roots through the whole system. By the time they noticed it and realized where it was coming from, the damage would be too extensive. They’d delete the server, of course, and it would vanish from the main files of the game. They’d be relieved. They’d think they had quarantined it. The truth? Well, not long after the deletion, they’d realize a cookie version of Zeta would remain like a shadow in ‘The World.’ The legions of professional programmers at CyberConnect would realize how many feelers the file had in the game, how damaging its removal would be. They’d be able to repair the devastation in a few months, of course, but would their users accept another crashing crisis? They wouldn’t risk its possibility. Rather, they’d send someone after Michael to get it reversed, to probably lock him in up in some facility afterward where all his shouts of conspiracy would go on ignored.

Let them try. Already, on the side, he had four new victims lined up to join the rest. The tabs he had kept on Marilyn had revealed to him the group she mingled with and, with a quick internet search, the tragic stories of their individual lives. All abandoned as children, all living in poor foster situations. His promise of a real life in ‘The World’ had sucked them in as hoped. Tonight, when Zeta came up, he’d hack their character data to be able to access it at the same time the Administrators did their little indulgence and skimmed it to amuse him. The
Lupus Nulus was waiting for its feast, waiting to gorge itself on their flesh and make them anew. While they were still panicking about the server itself, his side project, these four new weapons, would rip through the players in the ‘The World’ and spread Twilight’s disease.

With that, they’d be neck deep in two kinds of shit. Their empire would come crashing down, their stocks would sink and their precious lives would crumble. All for spurning him, for attempting to put themselves higher than
him when they removed him from a team of scientists he had sought out and put together. Twilight was the key to making that genome project of Michael’s work, and he knew it now, but the fame had ceased to matter. He had, in the palm of his proverbial hand, the way to make CyberConnect trillions of dollars and remake the real world with a device that would render their minds effectively immortal and their bodies little but a stage in life. It could lead to several things once thought impossible like bionic bodies hosting human minds and a myriad of other things deemed science fiction in the past. But now? Oh, now they’d never get it. Rather than make the world a better place with his brain, he was fine with the smug knowledge that he was denying over seven billion people evolution.

God, it felt
good.

They could capture him and torture him and do all sorts of nasty things to the ex-doctor, but he’d only laugh and spit his blood in their collective faces. Not a soul would worm the knowledge he now held from his mouth. It would be a secret he’d take to his grave, a grave he was almost certain was waiting for him not too far off. Malnutrition and disease from hygiene’s neglect had made him a rather detestable creature, but Michael Grahm had lost worry for his body since Zeta’s conception. The human form was a joke, a mistake that ‘God’ made. So flawed and disgustingly full of imperfection; how could anyone ever believe something as supposedly-omnipotent as a deity would make them such fragile things? No, humanity was meant to transcend the mortal coil on their own and only a few in the history of the species had managed. In his hand, Michael had the key to not only accomplish it, but haul the entire human race with him…but he wouldn’t. With the file upload to CyberConnect at 90%, he smiled at the thought that struck him then.


Let ‘em burn.

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The fall winds were cold, slipping through the small crack in the tinted window to whisper sympathetic caresses along the side of Conner’s face. It felt like it should have been raining. Wasn’t that how it always happened in the movies? Midday sunlight bounced across the sleek black surface of the limousine and stung the hushed youth’s eyes with a gentle scorn, forcing him to draw his stare from out of the glass and to the stilled, but obviously still-shaken, form of Leo before him, sitting opposite the direction he was. The wealthy youth had killed for him the day previous, had fought his way through well-trained security guards to save a friend that had spurned his help. Conner knew how he had made it out of the facility, how his training under the Freedom Fighters had made cleaving his way through countless bodies almost trivial, but Leo’s contribution was something unique. He had survived; he had persisted because his motivation outshone those of gun-toting guards.

Conner wasn’t surprised that, when their eyes met, the other looked away. He wasn’t sure that their friendship would survive a massacre. It didn’t offend him, really. To be honest, the ex-college student mulled, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to see Leo after this either. They both had gone through an experience, a traumatizing one at that, that would forever cause them to look at each other and see the horror and heartache of that day. Still, despite it all, Leo had made sure that their departure would be clean. Messing with the collar of his black suit to give his hands something to do, Conner remembered his amazement at waking up that morning still in the real world and, that in mind, not in a jail cell. The proof of his deeds, the evidence that scattered the now-useless compound was undeniable. Yet, to no surprise, money and cash-earned contacts had bought his freedom. Only about a dozen of the men-in-blue had been at the scene and, through CyberConnect’s careful manipulations, happened to be the ones under their influence.

The families of the fallen guards and the butchered doctors would be informed that their fathers, sons and husbands had all died in an unfortunate gas leak in a building more publicly known to be owned by the corporation. The explosion would happen later that day and would give all the explanation the kin would need as to why they couldn’t see the bodies, why - for the more insistent - most of the corpses were in pieces. A flash and Conner’s mind was suddenly underground, swinging the edge-sharpened rapier and cutting down the meaningless blanks that had stood in his way. Coming back to the here and now, looking a little startled, the twenty-year-old dropped a hazel gaze to his lap. The power behind his attacks had been inhuman and…no. Not inhuman, he realized. It had all been adrenaline and the craftsmanship behind the weapon. Old ladies lifted cars to save their grand children, after all. Sure, it rendered their arms completely useless, but the possibility was still present. Maybe it was something about his altered brain chemistry that allowed him to sustain the adrenaline flow for as long as he had.

It would explain the heart attack.

The hung eyes found themselves trailing to his right hand, one that was currently mending in a cast. A flash to the guard’s head, the one that he had beaten into mulch, and a self-loathing Conner moved his stare again to the world outside. His arms, too, were sore from the strain he had put them under, but unlike granny’s, he was fairly certain they’d fix in time. The road bumps, jostling him a bit this way and that as they road to the graveyard, served as a more-or-less pleasant distraction. It hurt to think about what happened, about her dying in his arms, about the cold inhumanity that had rose through him and turned him into a murderer. That’s why he avoided it. That’s why, for now, he hid from it. Pain though there was, most of it still seemed too distant from him, too surreal. Killing for him had become so mundane, so practiced and effortless that that mindset had carried over from one world to the next.

It hadn’t quite sunk in just how much he owed the world, owed God, or even his own soul. Any time even a shred of that truth slipped in to break his heart a little more, he forced it down. The moment he crumpled would be…well, something he didn’t have the time for. Conner could feel the looming wait of ‘The World’s jail-keeper, the slave-driver that wanted him back. Be it his own suffering or stubborn will, or maybe even some benevolent side of the game’s Artificial Intelligence, nothing had claimed his mind last night and he knew how badly his return was desired. His sentence had yet to be served in full. The youth couldn’t help but feel like his actions, his manifested darkness had added onto the years of his entrapment. Good. That was the way it needed to be. Earning his freedom with the group now had a new taste, a new flavor and spin. It was no longer something owed to him, something he deserved. ‘The World’s slavery had transfigured into punishment and made his release a luxury. Conner knew that, when it did take him again, it would be for a long while…until the clash with the Elites was done.

A sidelong, cautionary glance was given to the man that sat beside him; Leo’s father. Despite the better-than-you attitude and high-lofted chin, he loved his son. Discomfort used to be the occupying expression when he saw Conner hanging around his son, but in that seat, he brewed hatred. Again, he could claim no ire, no malice for the negative emotions lofted heap after heap onto his plate. Every last ounce of it was deserved in full. To keep from shrinking like he was on the inside, he sat a little straighter on the outside. They were nearly there. He’d be able to pay his respects to the lowered body of the only girl that had ever romantically captured his heart and then, well, then he’d allow that breath on the back of his neck to finally take a bite.

The trees that welcomed them into the gates were nearly bare, the few remaining leaves discolored and fragile. It fit. Grass that should have been dead was still lively and green about the fields of buried bodies. Though he knew he shouldn’t, that he didn’t deserve it, the place made him feel a little at peace. It was a sort of sanctuary for the restless and the grieving and didn’t seem to be making any distinguishing judgments. The moment the limousine came to a stop, however, the tension in their portion of the vehicle returned. Leo’s father couldn’t have left fast enough and Leo himself seemed to pause, mouth open with words to speak, before he seemed to think better of it and opened the side door. Conner didn’t immediately choose to follow, fear of seeing her casket, of confirming what he subconsciously denied, momentarily halting his body’s progress. After a cough, one too unfamiliar to be either of the two he had rode with (probably the ones that would help bear the coffin’s weight), he finally swung his fancily-adorned feet out onto the asphalt and brought his head out of the metal husk’s interior.

Someone in the distance made him stop.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Conner stood for a long while in the middle of the living room, lingering in the silence as he watched his father stare at the unopened bottles of bourbon and tequila before him on the kitchen table. He had lost a lot of weight since his son had seen him last. Darren Sunderland was clean-shaven and seemingly-sober, though the mild bags under his eyes spoke of the sleep his addiction was stealing from him as he weaned it smaller and smaller still. The quiet man had only given Conner an idle look, no surprise in his eyes, before he looked back at the tempting liquor. That had been, if the ticking clock on the clean house’s wall, five minutes before. Only when the youth had thought about leaving, about stepping out the way he came, did his father finally choose to speak up.

“You’re awake.” Monotone.

“For a few more hours.” Equally flat.

The pause stretched again, but it was Conner who caved next.

“Someone I cared about died.” The pause was short. “I’m going to a place to get fitted, then Leo, his father and I are heading out to the cemetery on 4th and Alexis.”

The lapse between sentences wasn’t quite so long this time, but it did draw Darren’s eyes towards his son’s. “Did you love her?”

Conner didn’t ask how he knew, but answered with the truth. “…yes.”

The man stood. “Could you take these with you on your way out?”

Expecting something…else…the youth nodded and stuttered. “Y-Yeah…”

Booze in hand, he paused at the open door, looking back at his father for more words he knew wouldn’t come. Conner ignored the stiff tears in his own eyes and finally walked out, closed the door behind him, and tossed the fifths into the nearest trashcan on his way back to the limo.


------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Darren was leaning back against his old beat up, off-white car, a cigarette hanging lip from between his lips. He had given up one vice for another, but Conner could hardly complain about the replacement. Instead, he simply made his way over to the man, tossing out the idea of complimenting him on his worn out navy dress jacket.

“Could you help us move her? I don’t want more people touching her than I don’t know than I can prevent.”

The man took out the burning tobacco and let it fall to the ground before extinguishing it beneath the grind of his left shoe. “Yeah.”

Foregoing the usual response of ‘thanks’, Conner made his way over to the open hearse with his father behind him and Leo and his father coming up from the side. They gathered as it was rolled out from the back of the odd-shaped vehicle, each of them taking up a portion of the weight. Conner took up the top of the right side with the ex-drunk behind him and Leo on point on the left with his father behind as well. Two of the cemetery volunteers took up the back, but the youth paid no attention to them. They didn’t deserve to touch her, not even the casket that held her body.

[Those who have it, playing ‘Ave Maria’ by Libera on loop here would be good.]

The sun seemed to shift as they walked, breaking through the dead branches of the looming trees as the six walked in silence bearing the weight of a now-sleeping goddess. It wasn’t until about half-way towards the metal frame that would lower her down that Conner began to cry, the sudden feel of her beside him, her hand slipping into the free one at his side, simply too much bear. He shook with his despair, doing his utmost to keep the rest of their trip steady despite the choked sobs that had begun to fight their way past a resistant boy. Carefully weaving through ornate headstones, the very world seemed to hush for him, to watch Conner grieve and mourn alongside him. It was as if the world was holding the twenty-year-old to its chest like a mother, like his mother, and he was glad they arrived at their destination.

Setting her down, listening as the priest began to speak his empty words, he felt the last of his control slip. Suddenly without the strength to keep himself aloft, the crying Conner began to collapse. A strong arm around his shoulder kept him up, however, and he looked to his left expecting Leo to have caught him…but it was his father. The man looked at him with such comfort, with such intimate understanding, that he was suddenly that little boy back in his house during the good years. Like the child he felt himself emotionally regressing to, and fast, Conner’s face turned to bury against his father’s shoulder, the force of his sorrow trembling his body. It was only made worse when the supporting man’s arm pulled him tighter against his side. All the years between the past the then suddenly lost meaning and hold. He was home again.

Half-way through the parting ceremony, Conner gathered up the strength to keep aloft and stood through the rest of it in swollen-eyed quiet. It was, he had to admit, still beautiful, the wreath of white and pink roses atop the casket alluring to her beauty. Before they could lower her, Conner held out a hand.

“Stop.” They didn’t. Please. Another moment of hesitation and, finally, they did as he asked.

Slipping to brush the assortment of flowers a little further down, he opened the top of half of the casket and smiled down at the well-made-up girl kept within. A single, small kiss was pressed to her cold lips before he again closed it and allowed them to lower her down. One after one, Leo, his father and Darren Sunderland approached the six foot hole, each dropping a handful of dirt inside. Conner was the last to add to it and, as he did, he felt his time thin with no real warnings. It was over; his grace period had come to an end.

He turned around to the first person that came to mind then, hand stretched out as a single word left his mouth.

“Dad…” And he was falling back, a rush of bodies preventing him from completely slipping in, but it didn’t matter.

The darkness of his warden had returned…and swallowed him whole.

Image

_________________
Lv. 50 Heavy Blade
Wishlist
Special: Levels, GR Sendai, PL Sakai, Darklore.
W: Tonosama Sword, Mineuchi, Jundachi.
A: Samurai Helm, Able Hands, Rare Greaves.
I: Holy Sap, Treebane, Cooked Bile, Nightbane.
EX: Elemental Summon (Lv. 2), Overdrive (Lv.1), Elemental Attacks (Lv. 2), Enhance Dark, Elemental Breath (Lv. 2).


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