- July 24, 2022
The Wolf Pack (Chapter 7)
We can’t put it off any longer. We need someone to stop Ion. The kids running around in S.I.L.A.S. unitards, they can’t do it.
Dr. Insanis can, my formula…. my creation, my super soldier.
No, brother says I can’t refer to myself in the third person, that’s a sign, that’s a sign of what? What was it, what was it? Madness, madness, medicine, madness, supposed to take medicine for my madness.
Ion, he did this to me, ever since I met him… ever since I met Him…
Did I bring it? I don’t think I did, I don’t have it. It’ll take an hour too long to get from here to Aegis City. Where is here again? This why I have my medicine.
Mt. Exitium, that’s where I am, where my lab is.
I have to ask my brother where my medicine is.
I leave the computer and walk towards the center of my lab, towards the tube. My rubber hazmat suit makes a bunch of squeaking noises and I hate it. I hate having to walk over so many large cables, I couldn’t lift any of them but Ion was able to get them in here somehow. They all connect to my tube, my masterpiece, my creation.
What Ion wants.
In the tube–wait, no it’s more of pod. I look into the glass and see my brother. Tubes and wires stabbing into the veins in his arms, legs, and spine. It’s all ready to change his organs, bones, and muscles as soon as I flip the switch. He’s so pale and hairless. Is that because of the fluid or the chemo?
I bang on the pod, trying to wake him up. He’s rather fit, he was military, he had to be, that’s why he was so perfect for this.
His eyes flutter open behind the mask around his face. He looks around, remembering where he is and starts banging on the glass. I don’t understand why he’s so hysterical, this formula will help him more than me, and then he’ll be able to help the world.
“Arnie, Arnie, Arnold!” I yell to him to gain his complete attention, but he keeps banging on the glass and staring at me with eyes so wide. He must want me to start the process but I need a few minutes, I need my medicine. I ask him, “Do you know where my medicine is?!”
He keeps banging on the glass and staring at me.
He should have a microphone in his mouth breather, but it’s muted for some reason. I look around the outside of the tube and find the switch. When I hit it, nothing happens, which means its broken.
“Damnit, damnit, damnit!” I scream curse words and profanities. I’m not supposed to do that, that upsets people, but I’m alone. I’m alone so it shouldn’t bother anyone.
Arnold bangs on the glass again and I realize it might bother him, maybe more than the fact that his microphone is broken.
I go to the glass. I try to look him in the eye, to apologize for my bad behavior but I look down. “I’m sorry, I know better, I’m not supposed to talk like that,” I apologize, feelings welling up in my chest.
My breathing grows sporadic, I did something bad, something wrong. I hear one more slam against the glass.
I look up and Arnold’s slammed his hand against the glass, but he keeps it there. He spreads all his fingers and watches me, calming himself down. He’s such a good brother, he’s so patient with me. I bring my hand and place it over his.
I tell him how much I appreciate him. “Arnie, you really are the best brother I could ever have, you take care of me, you listen to my crazy ideas, and even volunteered to help with some. I’m sorry I can’t hear you, but I want you to know that I’m going to help you now.”
I look up above him and prepare Arnie’s container for experimental launch. I turn the dial to the right temperatures and it releases the solution.
No, compounds. The fluids have to run exactly right, the right elements and compounds at the right temperature at the right pressure have to meet the cantorium exactly right. It’s the only way this works.
Arnold is moving his hand across the glass and I look back to him. I promise him, “Arnie, this formula is going to make you better, get rid of all the cancer, and make you better than before, stronger. You’ll be a better hero than you already are, you’ll put Ion in his place, you won’t let him get what you’ll have, you’ll be stronger than him.”
Arnold is shaking his head at me. He’s not listening
Does he not believe me? I bang on the glass, shocking him back, “I promise this is going to work!”
I have to leave him there. I can’t make him believe me until I’m done. I just have to hit the start button.
“Ah, ah, ahhh, aaaaahhh!”
My head, it hurts!
I hate these stupid migraines, these, these, these brain pains. I can’t think right, I can’t think, I can’t think!
I fall to the floor as the pain becomes numbing. I need to stop, and I need to wait a minute as this attack subsides. I don’t get seizures or strokes, this is something else, this is from a dangerous exposure I haven’t identified yet.
Laying on this floor, this cold floor in this dark and damp lab, everything is going into place. This lab is hidden in Mt. Exitium, if something goes wrong the only ones who will know to check is the Savaage.
So… it has to work, they can’t get my work, my serum.
I never should have taken their money, their resources. I wanted to fix my brother more than anything, and I thought Ion did too. I’ve found out why, he wants the serum for soldiers, for chaos, destruction, and distraction.
No, no, no, I can’t let him do that, I can’t give it to him, but he’s too strong, too powerful. He won’t be able to destroy my brother when I’m done.
When I’m done, he’ll break Ion in two, he’ll be immune to Ion’s touch.
He’ll break the Savaage, he’ll be healthy, he’ll be good. He and Dr. Insanis will be good together, brother and brother.
“No, I am me, I am me, I am me, I’m David, David, not Dr. Insanis, David,” I mutter to myself. My brother taught me to do that. He did that when he came home from deployment, telling himself who he was, reminded him who he was. He helps me too, sometimes.
I have to get up, I have to trigger it. Arnold’s dying, he fell and couldn’t get up, I had to put him in the chamber, I had to or he would die.
Ignore the headache, ignore the fear. I fix Arnold, and Arnold fixes everything else. That’s how it always works, always.
I push myself up, my hazmat suit ripped but that’s okay. The dangerous stuff is done, I don’t need the protection.
When I’m on my feet, I walk over to the computer.
‘Everything is ready’ it tells me, and it’s not lying.
It’s time and all it asks of me is one choice. After the experiment it knows to purge its database so Ion and the Savaage can’t get anything. Arnold will be the one and only one of his kind.
I press the buttons, I move the cursor, I pull the lever.
And it begins.
I look back as the tubes leading to my brother light up. They’re filled with the elements and compounds meant to mix together with the virus that will rewrite my brother’s cells. They all meet at the bonding agent, the sliver of cantorium that makes all of this possible.
It gets hot in the chamber; the fluids boil and I can see my brother freaking out in the glass. It hurts, I warned him it would hurt but that’s the price that he needs to pay. The chamber becomes foggy as everything works its way in.
I can hear the fluids moving as they’re pushed away. My brother’s body should be changing and shift-
The glass cracks, why did the glass crack? It shouldn’t do that, there’s enough room with all the chemicals! It was to be filled to the brim, no room to be filled by oxygen, I made the exact measurements!
I run to the chamber as fluids leak out and I hear rumblings. The rumblings make it sound like something is moving. My brother moved before but not enough to swish around the fluids. I hear banging, but that’s impossible he shouldn’t be anywhere near the lining anymore, he can’t be touching the walls-
A hand slams against the glass. I see a palm that’s grown too big to be human size. It rests against it, and I see unforeseen side effects.
The hand, it’s growing.
I go back to the computer because this is all wrong! Arnold shouldn’t be growing, he shouldn’t change color, grow scales, none of that! Everything should be internal, change his genes, the way his body conducts energy, and the cantorium should hold his molecules together.
I’m searching for the reason why this is happening at my computer, searching through my notes and formulas, my-
“No, no, no, no, no, no, noooo!” I scream and I scream and I scream. Everything is being deleted, as it’s being used it’s being deleted! “Stupid fucking computer! You’re supposed to wait until after its done! It’s all wrong, it’s-!”
I hear the glass shatter and I turn around to see. The arm has broken through, a limb of muscle and flesh that’s turning gray. The whole arm takes up the space of the glass chamber. Arnold’s growth is speeding up exponentially, and the chamber won’t contain it, it’s impossible.
The chamber starts to come apart, explode, separate, everything that should happen as Arnold grows too big for it. His hands begin to grow first and shoot out of the container, and next comes his legs. His limbs are growing faster than his torso, the pain he’s feeling… I can only imagine.
His limbs slam into the walls, rocking the lab to the core. As he expands, I realize it’s too late for me. He’ll expand to the whole room before he breaks out of the mountain side, and the door is blocked.
I watch in motionless awe and horror of what I have done, as this creature expands and my doom grows closer and closer by the second. I look back to the computer and see that it has already begun to crash as connections and pieces are crushed or shaken in the aftermath of my brother’s expansion.
Good, no one else can repeat my failure.
The mountain tries to fight back it seems, with rocks falling over as the gigantic limbs fling back and forth. Rocks, boulders, the like, they all begin to come apart to smother out my brother, my lab, and my work. Everything is falling apart around us and there’s nothing left for me to do. I’ve called death it seems, and she has answered, the only god that ever has.
I could run, move, avoid the imminent death by being crushed.
But what would be the point?
“You’ve been glaring at me for this whole helicopter ride, what do you want?” the Hood asks me, but seems more like a demand. He has the gall to act like I’m the suspicious one between the two of us.
I’m iced up so to speak, I’m covered in my armor, headphones on my head. He plugs the helicopter into a port on his helmet so we can speak.
“You were at my apartment building last week, why?” I demand to know.
“What makes you think I was at your place?” he asked.
Everyone must think I’m really dumb. “My brother and sister magically have money, the same day you pull out my file?”
“Your file?” he lies. The mask helps sell the lie, but records don’t lie. Our resident tech wiz knows what, where, and when he pulled my file to the second.
Then suddenly there’s money at my place? What? Does he think I’ll owe him a favor from now on?
The Hood doesn’t move, his hands remain on his legs as he watches me closely. “I didn’t know you do that when your angry,” and he points to spikes starting to form over my arms as I freeze some of the air. “Not much reason to be angry, I don’t care who you are, or about any of your siblings, much less giving you money.”
I lean over in my seat as the spikes grow.
I point my finger at him as I yell at him, “That’s bullshit, you’re lying. You may think no one knows you, but anyone with half a brain knows that you there aren’t coincidences with you! Why are you spying on me?! Why did you pull my file?!”
I can’t help it, my fingers grow longer and sharper like talons, my emotions affecting my armor. “Why were you there, and how did you get access?”
The Hood leans back, and places his hands behind his head. “Well, I’m not saying that that I know where you live, but if I wanted to I could easily find out everyone’s address considering Claire gave me clearance.”
“What?” I gasp out. The Director gave him… there isn’t anything he doesn’t know. He knows my family, our history, he, he knows-
“If you’re worried that I’ll tell Emily why you really hate her,” he assures me, confirming my immediate fear is true, “don’t worry, I know that it means nothing if she doesn’t figure it out on her own.”
I wish I could say that I know he’s lying, I think he’s lying, but with this… I don’t exactly have written records of what he gives a shit about.
The Hood actually moves his head to look out the window, looking out at the skyscrapers of Aegis City as we fly away from them. Because of his helmet, everything he says is without warning so I’m watching him. I wait for him to say something because I can tell he’s thinking.
“If you’re worried about the safety of your family, I assure you that there’s no reason to fear me. There’s no reason to hurt innocent kids and people just trying to get by.” He turns towards me and leans over onto his legs. In a mutter through the mike, “Even if we think of me as a serial killer, there’s no reason to consider you or family to be in danger. None of you fit my M.O. like the Reapers of your complex do.”
“If you go after the Reapers at my apartment building, you do put my family in danger,” I growl at him, staring him down through our masks.
He tilts his head like he’s some confused puppy, as if anyone would mistake for anything but savage dog.
“I don’t know what you did to the Red Devils, but with the Reapers, whenever you take them out, they come back with more. ‘Come back’ and ‘more’ being the optimal words in that sentence.”
He tells me, “The Red Devils worked the same way, all the gangs work the same way in their home turf, but I took them down all the same.”
“You really believe your own hype don’t you? Or are you just that bad a liar? If you were doing the same thing to the Reapers, you wouldn’t have hit them on the ground level first.”
One of the first things Claire had me learn is how you dismantle structures. A building, an organization, a person, they work the same when you take them to their bare necessities.
You start at the head, stun it, and then dismantle the body, letting them both collapse on the foundation. Before you destroy the brain, you make sure that’s no replacement, nothing to support the vile mind when you crack it open. Without the body, the brain can’t talk to the hands and feet, and without the hands and feet, the brain is powerless.
The Hood attacks the lowest of the low. That whole strategy doesn’t make any sense. Working from the bottom up, that needs more manpower than the enemy to even consider completing.
There’s no way he doesn’t know that.
“I think you know better,” I mutter, and when I gain no reaction but the blank stare, I correct myself, “I know you know how take on the Reapers, you said it yourself, you’ve done it before.
“So, what were you doing at my apartment?”
The Hood stares without any kind of response, and I think I’m going to blast him with ice out of this goddamn helicopter.
At least until he leans out the window and mutters, “Holy fuck.”
I hadn’t been paying attention but we’ve been flying away from the city for some time I bet. That means we’re close, considering Mt. Exitium isn’t that far away.
I take off my seatbelt and move my hand to the door. As I pull it back, letting the wind and noise pool in, I warn him, “Nothing’s gonna stop us from finishing this conversation,” and before I look outside, I jab my finger towards him, “you hear me, Hood?”
“If we make it, then sure,” he says, which sounds very unlike him and his ego.
I can’t help but furrow my brow as I lean out the side of the helicopter. I look and see that we’re still miles away from Mt. Exitium, nowhere close to landing, but dear god, do I see what has the Hood saying, “Holy fuck,” because it has me saying the same thing.
“Holy fucking fuck…”
There’s an exoskeleton with a face, sitting on the mountain.
This gray insect-like man with green ribbed muscles sits on Mt. Exitium, a mountain blown half apart like he burst from it.
When I say he’s tall, I mean that a mountain as high as skyscrapers is a chair for him. If he stands up, he’ll be past the clouds and capable of destroying multiple towns in one step.
I feel my knees getting weak in anticipation and I have to pull myself inside to keep from looking at it, to keep from thinking about it.
Oh god, we have do something about that. “What the fuck are we supposed to do?!” I scream out loud.
I’m shaking as I clutch my head in my hands, trying to steady myself, my body. I look over at the Hood and he’s looking at me without any sign of worry or fear. If he hadn’t dropped an f-bomb I wouldn’t even know that he’s affected at all.
“How are you not shaking, like, full of fear? We’re bugs to that thing! And don’t say you’ve fought bigger.”
His looks at me sideways. “I am afraid,” he admits, but he has the gall to condescend to me, “but that’s no reason to freak out, so pull yourself together.”
Is it possible to shake with rage and fear, because if so I’m doing it.
“Listen here, you psychopath, it’s perfectly normal to freak the fuck out when a man tall enough to dunk through Mt. Olympus, is the next boss battle we have to fight in real life!”
The Hood leans back in his chair as he sighs.
“My teacher,” the Hood starts, sending a chill down my spine because someone taught this guy, “he once told me that fear is a good thing. It means you’re paying attention.” His head lowers and his eyes settle on me as I feel the helicopter start to descend.
This means that I’m gonna have to get out and face this thing, it’s insane.
“Did your teacher teach you anything about taking out freaks of nature like this?” I ask him and his oh-so-great wisdom.
“Eh,” he responds with a shrug of his shoulders, “basically find a way inside and then explode from there. That usually works 90% of the time.”
“The other 10%?” I ask him.
“Find someone bigger.”
As I feel the helicopter touchdown in the now dirt field, all I can say with certainty is, “I do not want to be a part of that plan.”
As much as I may not want to, I don’t waste time getting out of the helicopter. S.I.L.A.S. is out here in force, and not just because the media has been hitting us hard. We can’t let this thing take a single step or that’s more funerals than all the funeral homes in the city can deal with.
That was pretty dark for me, I feel like I have to apologize to myself now.
Director Knight is already hurrying towards us, holding her hand to the earpiece she’s yelling into. When she’s in front of us she turns off a button and is about to fill us in.
“Alright, as I’m sure you can see we’re having a… run-in with the big red dog’s owner, and…” she trails off as she looks back up at its head.
“We’re kind of fucked?” the Hood finishes for her.
“No, we’re totally fucked, I don’t want to imagine what happens when that thing moves,” she admits, bringing her hand over her eyes as the sun moves from behind the clouds. Even though I’m sure I’ll have to freeze some part of this thing, I’d rather have my job than have her job.
The Director motions us with her hand to follow her as she fills us in on what we know, which I’m betting isn’t a lot at all. “I’m about to send Espada and Pyre to go talk to it, but I wanted to wait until Icicle got here to help impede it if it tries to move.
“Since you’re here now, we finally have the balls to risk stimulating it and maybe that will help the eggheads figure out what’s wrong with him.”
“Why am I here?” the Hood asks.
“Besides the fact that you happen to be around, I want someone who’d put me out of my misery if I ask,” and as she pulls out a cigarette to plop in her mouth she adds, “and I might ask pretty soon.”
As we walk, I look to my right to see where we are in proportion to his body, and there’s all this dirt piled up to our right. I look up and I don’t know why I didn’t expect to see a giant limb, but I don’t think anyone can prepare to see a giant anything right next to them, even a big toe. I bet its skin flakes are bigger than me.
The Hood points to it and asks the Director, “Have your scientists tried taking a sample from him?”
She shakes her head. “Tried, nothing we have right now can pierce the skin, and I don’t want to risk anything bigger than scalpels triggering him.”
He flicks his wrist and pops out his black knife. “I may have better luck, being that this is made out of cantorium.”
Director Knight gives him a hard frown.
“If he feels this small knife with how big he is, that puts us in a better spot of knowledge than we are now.”
At this point, she must figure it doesn’t matter and waves him off. He nods his head and goes off to try and take a sample as I follow her through tents and men armed to the teeth with missile launchers and big guns.
I finally think to ask her, “Where are we going?”
“Big screen, going to watch and listen to what he says through a camera on Espada’s crest,” the Director informs me.
“Does she know that it’s there?”
“Eggheads put it on before she flew up.”
I follow her to the tent, and as I look around it I realize that I’m not just looking at S.I.L.A.S.’s most powerful weapons, but the military’s too. More than just S.I.L.A.S. responded to this and I don’t blame them, but I can’t see them doing much.
When we get inside the tent with the big screen, it’s not just the Director and me, but a few scientists, and officers from S.I.L.A.S., the Army, and the Air Force on hand, all waiting to see if Burke fucks up.
She better not get Tommy hurt.
Director Knight and I stand in the front, and she tells the technician to bring it up. Oh, it’s James from tech resources, might as well bring everyone important. If we screw up, we’re all dead anyway.
When it comes on, it shows us an image from high above, looking at the giant’s chest hundreds of feet above us, or maybe thousands, not important.
The Director presses a hand to her earpiece and talks to Burke. “Espada report in, can you hear me?”
Her voice comes out over the screen, “Loud and clear.”
Tommy’s voice comes up as he flies in front of Burke, completely on fire, still acting like this is a normal day.
As if she were on the phone, Tommy asks her, “Is that the Director? Tell her I said hi.”
Nice save there, Pyre.
I can hear the military vets in the back groaning about him already. “We’re gonna trust kids with this?”
If I heard it so did the Director, and she doesn’t like it. She presses the microphone part of the earpiece closer to her lips and growls into it, “Remind Pyre that this is a field mission, not a bank robber on the street.”
Burke relays the message to Tommy by telling him, “Pyre, the Director wants you to get serious, we’re about to head up.” I can see Tommy arch his eyebrow and scoffs at the idea, drawing the ire of everyone in the room. “Pyre,” Burke calls to him, “this is life or death here, you can’t mess around.”
He holds up his hands as she moves to face him, hence moving the camera. He assures her, “I know, I swear, but if I’m going to die in the next five minutes, and that’s looking pretty likely, I ain’t going down looking as scared as I am.”
The Director groans, “Oh Jesus Christ,” and orders Burke, “just go in now, go now.”
“Roger dodger,” Burke chimes.
“Ha,” Tommy chuckles.
“You just… you can’t tell me you’ve never seen Star Wars.”
They fly up as Tommy groans. Once they’re up and through the clouds that stop at the giant’s neck. We get some feedback as Burke flies through them. I’m not sure what I thought a giant’s face would be like, but this thing wasn’t it.
Its head is wrapped in the exoskeleton all the way up to its face, and it surrounds his face. What makes him so appalling is that from the giant’s forehead to a little higher than its chin, is how normal he looks.
His face is just… human… even the eyes. Imagine a person whose face was gray, with white lips and purple eyes, then imagine that person’s lip quivering as if he’s about to cry.
Then imagine that this person can swat down a skyscraper like a sand castle, and one can understand why it’s hard to look at.
We all hear Tommy say, “That’s… one ugly mother-”
“Rodriguez,” the Director berates him as the men and women behind me grow fed up with them.
Burke turns back to the giant and so does the camera. She floats closer to its face to talk to it, and its eyes follow her. Even with Burke’s invulnerability, I wouldn’t fly closer to that face. I guess that brazenness of hers comes from a life with nothing to fear.
She tries talking to it, but she yells loudly at it like it’s hard of hearing; it probably hears everything in a several-mile radius. “Hello there, we’re not here to hurt you, we’re just here to talk, can you talk?” she asks him, talking to him like he’s a child.
You idiot, Burke, who likes being talked to like a child? Nobody.
“I can speak just fine.” The giant responds so loud that we didn’t need the screen to hear him. Everyone camped at his feet heard him.
Tommy, with that mouth of his, comments, “Well fuck me right up why don’t ya.”
Again, the officers don’t appreciate him, especially ones even more on edge from the revelation that the giant is capable of speech. I hear a man behind me yell, “Director, get that boy under control.”
I don’t look back to see what branch this officer is from. I watch the Director turn her head around so mechanically that swear I hear a loud creak.
If looks could kill, hers would perform a spinal tap on this man before ripping it right out of his back. The room is silent after that, and she looks back to watch the screen again.
My own mind is freaking out though with the situation, and as Director Knight stays silent, I ask her, “Are you really not going to tell her what to say?”
Her eyes swivel towards me with her eyebrow raised. “You think I know what to say?”
I guess that’s fair, I don’t, I can’t imagine what I should say to someone with his face in the clouds.
“Ignore the old men. These pests don’t have the slightest inclination,” and with a heavier sigh as she’s made us seem evermore helpless, she admits, “I trust Espada, we need someone with nothing to fear against this monster right now.”
Maybe… maybe she has a good point there.
Burke pulls it together, finally shaking herself of the lull we were all in. She tries to ask him, “Do you know what-”
“Kill me.” The giant’s words hit me like a wave, I can only imagine what Burke and Tommy feel. “I want to die, I want what will release me of this… this body.”
I can picture Burke’s face, her expression, slack-jawed as she’s hit with a real problem that can’t be fixed with something tangible like her fist. Somehow, someway, she finds it in her to respond, with greater resolve even.
“Wait, you don’t know that, don’t really want that,” she tries to tell him, trying to be optimistic for this man turned into a monster. “We have scientists, they can work to find a-”
“They won’t find a cure for this,” the giant interrupts, having none of her faith, and all the information we need to prove him wrong. “There is no one who has the knowledge my brother had when he made me into his monster.
Burke stands strong, shouting at him, “No!” and gaining the questioning judgments of the people standing behind me. “We can’t just kill innocent people when they ask to die! How can you ask someone you don’t even know to kill you?”
The grunts and growls of aggravation actually piss me off.
Wow, I’m actually angry that others don’t like that she has some goddamn morals behind all that ego.
The giant asks her an interesting question though, one that makes it clear that we can’t assume anything about what he’ll do. “How do you know that I am innocent?”
Burke is caught off guard, she stammers, “I, I can… I can just tell,” and the certainty she held behind her words falls away.
“Stupid kid,” he insults her, “kill me or find someone who will.” I think the operative word should be ‘can,’ let alone ‘will.’
Director Knight grows impatient for Burke to ask the right questions, so she yells into her microphone, “Espada, find out who his brother is!” It’s good that she caught that, I was captured in thought by what this thing might do.
Burke doesn’t do what she’s told immediately, finding herself too caught up arguing with this guy, trying to convince him to choose life.
I couldn’t tell him to do that, to suffer on in that body. Everything he used to do is no longer possible for him, and every moment must be misery. There’s no way for us to know whether or not we can fix him, but he would. I couldn’t tell him to live in suffering like that.
Burke has no such qualms, screaming at him, looking like a puppy barking at its owner, “No! We won’t kill you, life is precious, even yours, that’s not what we’re supposed to do.”
“I did,” the giant answers her, gaining her attention as she stays still, and he continues, “I did and this country called me a hero all the same. Tell me, can you do it, are you strong enough, Espada?”
He must have known who she was before this happened, wouldn’t be hard to guess, but it doesn’t matter how logical that may sound, that makes Burke shudder.
The Director growls only one word up to Burke, “Espada,” and she knows to fix her fuck up.
“Tell me who your brother is so we can fix you,” Burke asks of him, and the Director waits.
The giant ignores her as she did him, and bellows, “Do as I say!” his voice shaking the earth so loud that we can feel it below us. Calmer, he asks her to, “End my life, it is already over.”
“And I told you,” Burke challenges, “we don’t kill innocent people.”
I think that was the last time he was willing to let her say that because when she refuses him, his face contorts into a mess of rage.
With one threat everyone’s stomach plummets. “Then I will stop being so innocent.”
Director Knight springs to action, giving out orders. “Someone track his movement!” People race outside but we can hear the blow of the wind and the screen changes as the clouds part. Burke looks down as the giant’s hand is coming up fast, but it’s not going for her.
His hand goes for Tommy.
She turns around and sees him ambushed by the giant’s hand reaching towards him. Tommy lets loose an inferno but he was caught unprepared as the giant’s hand closes around him. He releases fire all around to convince the giant to change his mind, but as Burke screams his name and flies for him, nothing changes the giant’s mind.
Almost getting free, Tommy’s lower half is caught by the giant’s closing fingers and the camera catches his scream as Burke flies to the fingers around him.
The giant tells Burke, “I’ll hurt him as much as I need to until you understand, I want to die, and others will if I don’t.”
We can only watch as Burke tries in vain to pull the giant’s finger apart to free Tommy, but the monster is stronger than her. We listen to her cry out and we watch Tommy struggle to-
CRACK! CRACKLE! CRACK!
Oh god, Tommy.
Something breaks and his fire flicker before his body starts to go limp.
The Director thinks fast and yells into Burke’s ear, “Tell Tommy to go as hot as he can! You can’t free him!”
Burke makes no hesitation to yell, “Tommy, light yourself as hot as you can!”
I can’t tell if he heard her or not because his upper half is folding backward as his eyes roll up into the back of his head.
“Will you do as I wish, Espada?” the giant calls to her, drawing her to turn towards him, the wrath of god staring into her.
“Kill me,” he demands of her once again, but if this proves anything it’s that she can’t.
There’s this fiery explosion and the camera goes out and we hear the giant roar.
I’m out of there without a second word.
I run out of the tent and look up at a huge fireball in the sky and the giant clenching his hand as smoke trails from it.
From the fireball, two objects fall in opposite directions with smoke trailing behind them. One falling towards me on the ground and the other away from me. The smoke begins to clear before it’s obviously Tommy’s limp body flying my way. I try to follow where he’s falling, I have maybe half a minute before he hits the ground.
I try to follow and figure where he’s going to land, and I scream to everyone, “Get out of my way!” so I can freeze the ground before me and move faster.
As I’m sliding and trying to meet Tommy’s trajectory, I hear the blast of a jetpack going off, and I see the Hood flying into the sky.
The psycho flies up faster than Tommy falls before he releases those metal wings on his back and makes a controlled glide into Tommy’s way.
The moment Tommy is about to pass him, he lets his wings go and dive bombs to catch him. The Hood grabs him and hugs him close before he uses his wings again with his smoking jetpack to slow their fall.
I’m moving too far away so I make my ice trail form over the camp. As their impact becomes dangerously close to seconds, I test the limits of my range by releasing a weak freeze spray yards ahead of me. The distance and the weakness create snow on the ground and I try as hard as I can from making ice.
I make it right in time.
There’s a loud yet soft noise when the Hood and Tommy hit the snow, and a small flurry of snowflakes rises and falls around them.
I slide towards them again as I play back their landing in my head, of the snow being high above the ground before Tommy hit it. I play back the Hood pushing him away at the last second. I play back the look on Tommy’s face but I can’t picture it, I didn’t see it. The ones I come up with are all these ones of gruesome pain.
When I get a yard away, I stop sliding and start running. I climb up through the snow, hearing the Hood claw his way to the surface. He tries to tell me, “It was a softer landing than I expected,” but I’m looking at the human-shaped hole that Tommy fell through.
It’s silent as I look into it and I think the worst. I’m calling back the cold from the snow to make it melt as I try to get to Tommy. As the snow turns to slush and then water, I see his suit and his face, unconscious. When the snow is gone, I’m kneeling over him and bring my hands to his face.
I break the ice off my fingers and feel for his pulse.
I find it.
I hear footsteps swarm towards us as I look at his legs. They’re crushed, but it’s his pelvis I’m worried about; he heals fast but a pelvis healing wrong isn’t something I know he can come back form.
The Hood is kneeling down at my side, looking over Tommy. I question him, “You got x-ray in that metal head of yours?!”
“Already on it,” he answers and I can tell by the way he scans his body that he’s checking everything. “Muscles are crushed, so are most of his bones, but it’s all his thighs and below. He’ll walk.”
I let out a breath of relief as if that’s all the stress I’ll be dealing with today, but that’s not going to happen.
The Director comes with the admirals and officers behind her, medics too. The Hood and I let them put Tommy on the stretcher and lift him.
As they do, this old Army admiral walks and looks over Tommy with his collared shirt, receding hairline, and enough pins on his shirt that it probably has one big hole.
He shakes his head as he mutters, “Stupid kid.”
As soon as the medics move Tommy out of my way, I walk up to him, get in his face, and warn him, “Do you want an icicle up your ass?” I hear it come out of my mouth and it sounds more ridiculous than threatening, smooth one, Icicle.
The admiral doesn’t respond, he just stares me down until the Director steps in to order us both to separate. “Enough, the both of you, we have problems a lot bigger than snide comments on our hands.”
She says that in tune with the sound of wind above us, and the Hood is already looking up as Burke flies down to grace us with her presence. Her suit is black in the front, but no holes and her cape is still intact. She holds against fireballs at least. She’s still smoking though.
The Hood asks her, “Are you-”
“Okay? Physically. Inside? I’m fucking livid, now where’s Tommy, is he alright?”
I answer her, holding back the aggravation in my voice as much as I can. “We caught him, his legs are fucked up, but he’ll live, and he’ll walk.”
“Thank god,” she says.
“I’m pretty sure he didn’t have anything to do with this,” the Hood remarks.
Before anyone can call him out, we hear the giant himself call down to us, threatening us as if he were god.
“Should my choice not be met within the day, I will stand from my place here, and start walking.”
Forward is Aegis City, dead ahead, so that’s a problem. The giant still clutches his burned hand as the smoke begins to dissipate. Tommy did a number on him.
“This day just keeps getting better and better,” the Director complains, but the Hood looks ready to make it worse. She notices as I do and groans as she asks, “Ugh, what else is there?”
He shakes his head, remind us, “I got that sample for the lab team, and let’s just say that bad isn’t anywhere near a strong enough word to describe the shit we’re in.”
“Okay, everyone, listen up!” the Director yells to gather everyone’s attention in the headquarters tent.
There’s this moment where everyone is listening, waiting, and watching. She’s about to start talking again and she stops.
She can’t help it, she presses her hand to her forehead and shuts her eyes, just trying to salvage what’s left of her psyche after learning about what’s coming.
But then she puts on a brave face and gets back to it.
“After retrieving a sample from the subject, which we have now codenamed Atlas, we have discovered that his molecular structure is breaking down, violently.” Hands among the officers and admirals go up, but she holds her hand for them to wait a moment so she can clarify. “When they were testing a piece of his flesh, it decayed faster than normal, eventually ending in an explosive discharge-”
Hands went up.
“It blew up, not that fucking complicated. Main point is, it ended up harming several of our team. Knowing this, further research shows that Atlas’s whole body is deteriorating, and within the next two days he’ll explode. Considering his mass… it would take Aegis City and a chunk of the West Coast with him.
Hands went up again.
“Which means,” she practically snarls, “lethal force by miss-ile is off the table.” She puts so much emphasis on the ‘ile’ of ‘missile’ that it seems like she’s talking to children.
Someone has the gall to ask why.
The Hood raises his hand, and the Director nods her head for assurance. He moves to the front beside her.
The Hood informs us, “His organs and tissue haven’t been improved in terms of dexterity, but they heal fast and drop whatever he doesn’t need, where his muscles and bone are impossible to break. Should we kill him with explosives, his body would decay and become the equivalent of an atom bomb in minutes, only without the nuclear fallout… maybe.” He gestures to Espada to tell everyone, “The speed at which he regenerates also means that Espada can’t disable his movement with her strength, so we truly only have his one day to save Aegis City.”
Burke crosses her arms as she can’t help but comment, “You say that like I would if I could.”
“We know,” the Director snaps at Burke, her glare shutting the heiress up.
I want to tell Burke to shut up too, but I can’t say that I’m willing to take out Atlas either. While I don’t know what he means by innocent if he were evil why even give us time? Why not make us kill him now?
An evil person wouldn’t care about the explosion, though it’s possible he doesn’t know.
The Hood continues to explain, “We want to establish the fact that Pyre’s fire worked against Atlas’s arm. He scorched Atlas’s cells before they could decay and explode, meaning Atlas is as vulnerable as a normal human to fire, and likely the elements. If we could get Pyre inside Atlas, he could burn him up.”
“But Pyre is going to the hospital so obviously he can’t do it,” the Director adds.
The same admiral who pissed me off pipes up to ask, “So this rookie has doomed us all?”
“Excuse me?” The admiral’s head whips to the side as everyone’s does, having heard the Hood speak up about his remark before even I could. “He risked his life against a creature that could crush us like ants, god forbid he doesn’t do it with the same sour piss face the rest of you have on.
“There’s a thing called a poker face, the whole world is watching us, don’t be the idiot who thinks they’re not. Tommy did his best to make them less afraid, and you haven’t done shit.”
The admiral keeps his mouth shut at the Hood’s call out. When the Hood is done giving this prick a stare-down, he turns his head to the rest of the people he insulted and finishes with our best chance.
“We’ve been testing it, and we know that temperature affects him like anyone else, so the only other way that we have of stopping Atlas is to freeze him.”
With that last word everyone’s eyes turn to me and it takes me a little longer than I want to admit to realize why.
The Hood asks me directly, “Remember my plan about killing them from the inside out?”
It’s hard not to flip at the idea, but I think I do pretty well. “I’m not gonna kill this guy!” I shout, the first thought that popped into my head. “I don’t care what he did, doesn’t I mean I want to kill anyone!”
“Soldiers kill people they don’t want to all the time,” one officer says, “and they do with far fewer lives at stake.”
Another officer pipes to add on the pressure, as I try to look away and ignore them. “Why do think you can put all of our lives at risk?”
A third officer thinks to pipe up behind me, getting particularly close. “So let me get this straight, he wants to die, and we need him to die… and you’re sitting here crying, why?”
“Because I don’t kill,” I snap back at the pack of them, icy points growing from my skin. “I don’t kill people, I’m not a killer, I’m not a soldier!
“And I won’t do it no matter what anyone says.”
I make it clear as day that the blood of a dead man will not touch my hands.
The admiral from before though walks right up to me and has the gall to get in my face, “Millions of lives are at stake so you’ll do what you’re told.”
Before I can deck this guy with an ice-cold fist, Burke beats me to it with her super speed. She gets between us and actually defends me, telling him, “Back off, she said she won’t kill then she won’t. Believe it or not, we don’t believe in being judge, jury, and executioner!”
“Listen to me, little girls,” he says and makes my icy eye twitch, “it may not be his fault he’s like this, but anyone who dies when he eventually blows up will be his fault, and yours.”
The voice of the Director silences everybody.
The admiral is about to turn to her and argue, gibberish already coming out of his mouth about how useless and insubordinate we are, but she takes her gun out and shoots the ceiling of the tent to shut him up.
“Admiral Hayden,” she growls as she gets in his face, “and to everyone else, these brats are the only ones who can save any of us.
“So, I swear, if you insult one of them one more time, my foot is going to find places up your ass that a colonoscopy has never reached.”
The admiral shuts his damn mouth, and the Director turns her back to him to let her eyes fall on me. Now for a split second, I feel my spine shake, thinking that she’s going to give me a taste of what she’s holding back, but instead, she gets this disappointed look. That makes me more nervous because a guilt trip is more manipulative than a screaming match.
She turns to all the officers and realizes along with everyone on the team that they’re not needed, they never were. “You know what, all of you just get out, you’re useless to this operation now that military weaponry is off the table.” When everyone is taken aback but no one moves, she makes it clear, “Unless you have some kind of ice or fire bomb that scorch a skyscraper in seconds, I don’t need you here, better yet, I don’t want you here, so all of you get out.”
“You can’t do this, there are several million people at stake!” the officer who questioned me calls out.
Director Knight isn’t having any of this and takes out her taser-gun again. She warns them, “You can leave or you can stay unconscious on the floor.”
Admiral Hayden grunts, and mutters at her, “Who do you think you are to- Uh!”
He doesn’t get to finish before she shoots him dead in the chest, and he topples over, paralyzed and unconscious. “Anyone else?”
Some smart ones in the back slip out immediately, but most only start backing up. The Director nods to the Hood to come up behind her and offers her his own handgun. “Try mine, it only shoots lead.”
That gets everybody going.
A few people even lift the admiral out, but as they all leave. When she turns back to me, I remember I’m in the middle of this mess now.
As the tech support goes to exit, the Director tells him, “James, I wasn’t talking to you, hang around.”
I stand still as the Director orders me to drop my ice overcoat the second everyone is gone, and she approaches me as I do.
When she rests her hands on my shoulders, I know what’s coming.
“No,” I stand firm, “I told you, that’s something I won’t do, I told you that when I first joined, I don’t kill people.”
“I know, Marie,” she assures me, “but we’re talking about millions of people.” I look away from her and find myself looking at the others. I don’t know why she wanted to do this in front of Burke and the Hood, they’re not going to convince me.
Burke, she doesn’t even try.
She defends my choice, “She said no, what happened to finding a cure or a fix? Why aren’t we looking for another way?!”
The Hood crosses his arms as he reminds her, “In case you forgot, a bunch of our scientists left with Tommy when the Atlas sample blew up,” making Burke squeeze her fists in frustration.
The Director squeezes my shoulder and shakes me to look at her again. “Listen to me, we can fight back and forth all day long about other ways that don’t exist, we can search and we can look but we don’t have the resources or the time.
“We need you to do this.”
“I don’t know if I can kill someone,” I tell her.
“You were ready to kill me.” We turn our heads to the Hood, watching me like I’m delaying the inevitable. “On the plane ride here when I wouldn’t tell you what I was doing by your apartment, you were one snap from killing me,” he tells me.
He doesn’t know me, and he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.
“You can’t know that because you don’t know me.”
“But I know killing and I know when someone can kill, and you would kill to protect your family, your brother and sister, Shelley and Bruce,” he argues, using my siblings against me. “You aren’t going to let your brother and sister die, and no one’s going to get them so you can abandon your post.”
“That’s, that’s-” I can’t think of a response, I can’t argue with that. I turn to the Director but by the look in her eyes I can tell, she’s not sending out any rescue parties. “What about evacuation?”
The Director shakes her head as she tells me, “There isn’t time or manpower to evacuate the West Coast, and if we had, don’t you think Atlas could see us doing it?”
“But there’s gotta be-”
“There’s nothing,” the Director asserts, and my legs start to give out.
My face feels so numb that I can barely feel my hands on them. I step back from the Director, from her grasp.
Everyone needs me to take a life, a human life, and one day I may find out that this man was an innocent guy with friends and family just as easily as he could have no one. This shouldn’t be a decision I have to make, a sacrifice I have to make.
I’m not religious but I believe in the soul, and where has there ever been a place that says a person keeps their soul when they kill someone? I’m eighteen; I’m trying to go to college; I’m already supporting a family and raising my siblings.
I shouldn’t be doing all that without my soul.
And if I don’t, everyone who dies in Aegis City is on me… This should be a no-brainer. Most people would do it but I don’t want to.
Scratch that, most people would say they would. I refuse to believe that all these men judging could do half of what they want me to do.
I don’t want to be in this position… having to decide between my humanity and the lives of a whole city.
The sound she makes when she hugs me is this puff of air like a stuffed animal was thrown at me. Maybe I looked like I was falling down, or about to faint, but for whatever reason Burke is holding me, without a word.
The Director watches with an expression of shock and awe, she knows we don’t like each other, so why is she holding me?
“Marie,” the Hood says, drawing my attention. “Let’s not drag this out, you’re not going to let everyone die.”
I’m not gonna let anyone in Aegis City die.
It’s… it’s a hard mind space to understand… that I have to kill someone to stop a catastrophe.
That’s not a choice anyone should have to make, let alone a kid. I didn’t think I counted as one, but what else can I be when there’s this collapsing feeling where I’m just sinking into the world? That’s not right, there isn’t really a choice… it just took me some time to realize.
A kid shouldn’t have to realize that they have no choice at all.
They strapped a helmet on me with a hazmat suit over everything but my hands. It’s in case I go into the stomach and it burns as much as a regular human does.
As they strap an air tank to my back, they tell me how if Atlas’s biology is an expanded version of ours, I won’t be going where the air does, assuming he needs it. The Director is watching me get suited up and she looks more disappointed than anything. If she’s disappointed in me then she’s a real prick.
But if her shouting down the admiral proved anything, it’s that she gives a shit about the kids under her, about me… at least a little. She shouldn’t want me to do this.
They tell us I’m ready and we go outside to see Burke. She’s going to throw me in.
The plan is simple, Atlas wants to die, so he should let Burke throw me into his mouth to freeze him from the inside. Pain has always been a given for him, so he’ll have to deal with the fact that once I’m down his throat—gross–I’ll have to stop my fall to his stomach. Then I’ll need to cut myself out and get to his heart. I can follow his veins or hope I fall right next to it. Then again, his organ system could be severely thrown out of whack and I’ll have to dig my way around.
Don’t worry, I already asked if this helmet is designed to funnel out my vomit and they said no.
Burke gives me her look of pity but I don’t want shit. I stand in front of her and hold my arms out. “Let’s go.”
As she brings her hands under my arms, she asks me, “Are you sure you want to do this?” What kind of question is that? Of course, I don’t want to do this.
“Just fly me to where I need to be already.” I don’t have the time or patience for her to dote on me all of a sudden.
Usually, she gets defensive, but not this time, and I feel a little disappointed for some reason. She grabs my arms tight and we start to fly up. Her grip is tight and my arms begin to hurt immediately from being carried this way, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. I’m not hugging her or flying bridal style.
She doesn’t fly as fast as she can, and I don’t know why until she speaks.
“You know you don’t have to do this,” she tells me.
What’s wrong with this girl?
I remind her, “I don’t want to do this, I have to do this, in case you haven’t realized that like everyone else.” She doesn’t respond with anger, but a sigh of disappointment.
Who the hell is she to be disappointed with me?
“Let me tell you something, Burke, if I don’t do this, it’s my family, my siblings, your family too if you have any you care about.” I put emphasis on family so maybe she may get the one thing everyone can understand if she cares at all.
“I- I do,” she stutters, shocked by my outburst, like my reason shouldn’t be considered the most obvious thing in the world. “I have siblings, and my mother is in the city too.”
“Then you should get it like I have, there’s no other choice.”
With that, she doesn’t say a word for the rest of the flight. Now I get the chance to see Atlas face to face.
When[ck3] we pass the clouds, I see the face of a man on the body of a monster. It’s just as depressing in person as through a TV screen. If I wasn’t about to go down his throat it would be more depressing.
Atlas speaks first, asking us, “Have you come to save me?”
“Yes,” Burke answers him, “we think she can help you, but only from the inside.”
I thought he was already looking at me, but I feel his eyes fall on me. It’s strange when someone looks through you, one can feel so disrespected or absent depending on the context. When he looks through my whole body, it’s like I’m too small.
“I understand,” he says and opens his mouth. He’s accepted death, no matter how painful it will be. Life has truly gotten that much worse.
Burke wastes the time to ask me one more time, “There’s still a chance to back out-”
“Just fucking throw me in, Burke,” I snap at her. The more she tries to offer me outs, the longer she stalls, the longer it will be before this is over and I can deal with what I’ve done.
She doesn’t respond to that and flies me closer to Atlas’s mouth. I’m already squirming, I can’t help it. I’m about to go inside the body of another person as if I were a fly. All I can think about is how I would feel having someone in my throat and finding out what my insides feel like.
There are things we never consider, that we do not want to know. How an esophagus feels against my hand is one of them.
When we’re in throwing distance, Burke asks, “Marie-”
I don’t give her the chance to offer me an out again.
She chucks me into his mouth like she’s chucking a suitcase across a rooftop. I don’t have a better comparison, it’s just the first one that came to me.
I hit his tongue, but it’s not soft or squishy. I actually hit it pretty hard and it hurts. His tongue is dry and solid, which makes me wonder how he speaks if his tongue can’t move and help him enunciate. I don’t have to worry about trying to jump down his throat myself because he lifts his head back and I start falling towards his throat.
And just like that, I’m alone in the dark.
I feel something slap me as I hit it, and my headlight comes on as I fall backward, just in time to see his uvula.
Don’t throw up, Marie, be strong.
That means I’m already in his throat, I’m falling down so I should hurry up and-
“Ooohh,” I groan. I feel like my back just fell on a beam they use in gymnastics.
I cling to whatever I fell on so I don’t fall and I turn over to hang on better. I look around with my headlight and I don’t see intestines or a stomach around me, nor the walls of a human esophagus. I see pillars stretching out to the walls, that must be muscles. I see white portions that are layered underneath the muscles.
That’s his bones, I see his bones, and the muscles layered over them. That’s not how the human body is built, which confirms the suspicions that his biology isn’t an expanded version of a normal one.
There’s this loud beat and flash of dim light, but I can’t track it, it happened too fast. I spend a minute trying to look for ideas on which way to go until the beat happens again. This time I’m ready and it looks like it’s coming from my left.
It can’t be a heartbeat, what heart beats every few minutes? This thing would need more blood… or maybe that has to do with why he’s dying.
I place my hand in the direction of the possible heartbeat, down the pillar of flesh. I create a walkway and pull myself up. As I stand, I realize just how slanted I am and hang onto the walkway to keep from going down it like a slide. Actually, that would be much faster.
I let go of the end and place my hand in front, making an ice path to slide down as I build momentum. If the context weren’t so downright depressing and creepy this might have been fun.
It’s hard to forget how large Atlas is as I travel through this gigantic cavern. My best guess is that I’m in his chest. I wish I could just freeze him from anywhere, but apparently, the risk was too great to do it from anywhere but his heart.
I’m glad that I have the helmet and the hazmat suit on, not only for the oxygen but I feel a bit of protection. It’s like the darkness isn’t touching me and I’m safe from it. I have no idea what lurks here.
As I get closer, I see the light, this massive organ that seems too spherical to be the heart. Maybe his transformation malformed it, but it doesn’t exactly fit what I’m looking for. I wish it would beat faster because having it beat every minute as I move towards it freaks me out. It keeps getting bigger and bigger without warning, though maybe watching it come into focus in real time would be more frightening.
When it seems like I’m a minute from hitting the heart-not-heart, it’s the size of my apartment building. I’m beginning to realize that I compare a lot of things to the place I live at. Maybe it would be better to say that the Aegis Needle would fit in this place.
The maybe-heart thing beats this one last time and I can see it in its entirety as it illuminates this strange silhouette.
I create ice swords at the last minute so I can stab them into the heart. I let them flow with the cold to freeze the heart’s exterior. I figure it would be easiest to freeze from the top of the heart so at least it’s not falling on me. As I begin to climb and freeze with every stab of my sword, one thing bothers me above a lot of other things.
I’m stabbing into Atlas’s heart but nothing happens. He doesn’t move, he doesn’t shift, no call of pain, no reaction at all. While I could chalk it up to that remark of him serving in the military, I don’t think even their training could make someone ignore a knife to the heart. Maybe it’s the size difference, maybe I’m nothing more than a little heartburn.
I hear the sound of something breaking beneath my feet and I look down with the headlight to see my ice breaking away beneath me. It’s like a shell breaking off… I don’t know any simile for this. The ice broke away and I can see that this thing is hollow.
This moment reminds me of something… something I would have remembered better if I had paid better attention in health class or biology… the heart is hollow.
I should try breaking in, that should allow me to freeze Atlas from his core, and out to his veins, then out to everything else. I let go of the sword in my right hand to pull it back into a fist. I punch into the frozen spot I left and reach inside. I place my hand over where my chest would be on the other side and grip it to freeze it. I lift up my legs, kick in, and slip inside.
My legs hit ground immediately and suffice to say that didn’t feel right. What certainly isn’t right is how I can see my hands and feet. This place is lit better than most subways. This heart is less hollow and more structurally sound. I look left and right and there’s a hallway.
This time the heartbeat is impossible to ignore, not only because of how bright the light actually is, not only because of how loud and deafening it is, but because I can finally see what the silhouette is.
A man strung up by his arms and legs.
I don’t hesitate to freeze the shit out of the wall between us and smash it down.
I’m entering from the side because to my left is a wall of flesh. Luckily, I came from the side I did or I’d be freezing the wall for a while.
I walk along the wall and quickly come face to face with the man I have to kill.
Before me lies a man embedded in the wall, his arms and legs stuck inside the oozing flesh that drains him of… some kind of fluid. Over his torso and face, I see that his veins have turned black and his skin has grayed. The flesh from the wall has combed over his eyes, keeping them open but making them lose their color.
“Has my savior finally come?” he asks, his head searching in all directions to find me. He’s gone blind in his real eyes to see out the ones from his giant form.
I take slow steps toward him as I let him know, “I’m here to help you.”
His body’s lost its tone and muscle, so I think about maybe freezing the wall behind him and tearing him out.
Maybe he figures out what I’m thinking by my silence, maybe he just had a lucky guess, but he reiterates, “You can’t free me or cure me from my body, you have to kill me.”
“I thought so too,” I admit, I was ready to kill him, or I like to think that, “but now as I look you over, I think I can get you out.”
He knows where I am now by the sound of my voice, and his looks at me. I know he can’t see but I still feel his gaze on me. “I can’t be removed from this hell. You tear me out, you’ll see that there’s no skin on my back, you’ll see my organs falling out. I’ll get what I want but this body will explode… and… you sound young… I’ve seen what it looks like when a man’s insides are on the outside, and… you don’t want to see that.”
“Shit,” I curse under by breath, and I want to walk up to his body to make sure that he’s telling the truth, but I’m too chicken to actually risk it. I look over his body, how malformed it is when I realize his eyes are following me. Maybe his eyesight is only blurry.
“How do you plan to do it?” he asks me. I don’t want to call him Atlas anymore, he’s no titan. As his heart beats again, I can finally tune it out, being that the light doesn’t shine here.
I place my hand on his chest and I notice a tattoo on his ribs, half covered. Half of the American flag with the words ‘Semper Fi’ underneath. As I look at it, I explain, “I’m going to freeze you from the inside out, hopefully stop your cells from decaying before you explode.”
He laughs, and I get kind of confused. I know he wants to die but he doesn’t seem too happy about it. “I didn’t understand half of that, I’m not the brains of the family.”
I guess finding something to smile about before dying is better than finding a reason to cry. To keep him smiling I tell him, “You’re well-spoken for someone who’s not supposed to have any brains.”
“I was an English major in college, I wanted to sound smart, at least when I talked, kind of needed it when your brother was so smart.” I wonder if that’ll happen with Shelley or Bruce, they’ll get smarter than me, and make me look dumb.
That… the thought makes me proud.
That does confuse me with the Semper Fi tattoo, and I ask him, “I thought you were a marine, your tattoo has their motto.”
His head turns to look down at his ribs like he expects to see it, but when he can’t his head takes longer to get back up. He still smiles as he jokes, “Who do you think paid for my degree?”
“Makes sense,” I say as I let my hand fall. It’s probably distracting to feel my cold touch.
“Yeah, kind of also why I wanted an English degree,” he admits, telling me his life story. Funny how the place and time makes me much more eager to listen than if we met on the street. “I mean it’s useless for everything else, but when your brother can turn you into Frankenstein… you compensate.”
I can’t help but correct him, “Actually Frankenstein-”
“Was the name of the doctor,” he corrects for me, “I know, I just don’t care.” He comes off cold, without a sense of humor or happiness. “Tell me, who’s stalling more, you or me?”
“It’s alright, I can tell you’re Icicle, one of those superpowered kids on the news. You do good, but you’re a kid. You shouldn’t have to do this, but we all need you too.”
My heartbeat begins to sound like his in my neck. It gets harder to breathe and it’s not from the lack of oxygen. “What’s your name?” I ask him as I begin to back away.
He doesn’t answer at first, he stares at me as I can’t help but look away from him. “You don’t want to know my name.”
“I want to learn it from you instead of agonizing over it when I try to sleep.”
He shakes his head as he assures me, “Let me tell you from experience, it doesn’t make it any better.”
“I don’t really care.”
“I think it’s the opposite.”
“Then maybe we’re not talking about the same thing.”
Silence sits between us after that, leaving us staring at each other. How many people have been in the same room as someone they know is going to kill them? There’s no club I can join, no AA-like meetings to drop in on, I’m going to be in a league of my own after today.
If I could do that… if I ever found someone I could talk to who’s not a raging sociopath, I would like to call my first kill by his name, not Atlas. “I’d much rather think of you as who you are than by the name they gave you.”
He twists his head at the idea, and asks me, “What name did they give me?”
“Atlas,” I say without fanfare. It doesn’t matter, he laughs anyway.
“That’s a much cooler name than the one I have!” he exclaims, but his excitement fades away fast. “Atlas is much better than Arnold.”
“Arnold,” I repeat. Arnold, that’s his name.
“Icicle,” he calls to me, calling me by the name they gave me, and I don’t like it. “Don’t think-”
“Marie, call me Marie,” I ask of him.
Something that resembles a smirk takes a small place on his face. “Marie, don’t think of this as killing me, you are helping me end my own suffering, you’re saving millions of people from annihilation.”
Is he talking about him exploding or him walking all over people?
“Arnold, would you really have destroyed Aegis City?”
He takes a pause to think about it, and whether or not that speaks to his willingness or his hesitance, I don’t know.
He admits, “I was willing to bet that you’d realize you have no choice but to kill me before I made it.” I don’t know if that’s the answer I wanted but it’s the answer I’m getting.
“Okay,” I tell him. I think I’ve reached the end of our conversational rope. Anything else would no longer be innocent stalling.
I take my steps back to him and place my hand on his chest.
“Are you sure you can do it?” he asks me.
“If I don’t, I’ll die here and my family will die in the city, so let’s hope so.” Then I place my other hand on him.
I freeze my hands over his chest, letting the surface turn to a thin ice so I can dig my fingers in. He grunts in pain and the veins become visible on his face. I need to do this in case the ground falls out from under me and I have a grip. The Director always said to plan for what will probably go wrong because it will.
As I begin to freeze him, he doesn’t die without apologizing. “I’m sorry I threatened your family, Marie.”
I shake my head and I close my eyes. I really wish he hadn’t apologized.
I let it all flood out, the ice that’s been in my chest since the day my powers awakened. That subtle stop… the signal that my heart has frozen solid and that to use my power I have to let it freeze my veins and my skin.
I let my powers make me cold from my heart and outwards, so I can do the same to Atlas through Arnold.
He dies in seconds, and Atlas’s heart does so after. His heart freezes solid.
Atlas and I become alike in one way.
“It’s working, she did it.”
My Icicle did it.
Atlas is freezing from the inside out, and he does so without a sound. Everyone is cheering as the giant’s skin begins to turn to ice, not like a coat of ice over his skin, but his exoskeleton turns blue. He’s truly frozen, not stuck in a block of it.
It’s a strange sight to be watch from below among mortals.
With my great grandson and Espada watching on a few feet away from me, the rest of us seem small, and I’m not talking about actual size.
They seem so patient and unintimidated, with him standing on a rock with his arms crossed, looking up at the giant. He hasn’t budged from when the giant started to freeze.
Espada floats a couple dozen feet above, her legs together and her arms crossed as her cape flows with the wind. She’s as unmoving as he is.
These kids are so serious, or maybe they’re just as consumed by self-monologue as me.
One thing sucks for me. While I have the authority to kick everyone out, the military branches have the authority to send someone new. After I shocked Admiral Hayden, prick that he is, I got someone else sent to me frighteningly fast. He got here after I sent in Marie so I guess there’s nothing to worry about.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Admiral Who-cares sort of congratulates us.
Now he and all the other representatives can leave me be, and I can end the day with a bottle of whiskey, a nasty cigarette, a nice hot tub and-
“It’s time to bring in the big guns,” he says as he turns around towards whatever branch’s tent he’s from.
I watch his back walk away from me before words actually come from my mouth. “What are you talking about?”
Another old, white, bald-headed military admiral turns around to give me a look as surprised as mine. At least this one is more polite. “That thing’s frozen now, it’s time to blow it to pieces, we can’t leave it standing there to melt.”
Now all of that made sense, except for the fact that my girl is still in there.
“How and when exactly do you plan to do that, if you don’t mind my asking?” I inquire with the whitest of my fake smiles.
The admiral puts on a real smirk and hangs it over my head. “Now that your job is done, it’s not exactly your operation, you aren’t privy to know.”
“My operative is still in there, in case you haven’t noticed,” I point out as I get in his face, “so I think I’m privy to a fucking time-table.”
He has some balls to not step back and keep that grin. “Don’t forget,” he reminds me, “you weren’t forthcoming with any of the other branches-”
“I don’t need to be when your operatives are as useless as an appendix, so tell me what I need to know in regards to my operative’s safety or so-”
“So help you, god, you’ll ram your foot up my ass?” he interrupts. “I’ve heard it all before, that’s why I’ve replaced Hayden.” Unintimidated by me, he turns around to Espada descending in front of him. He rolls his eyes and warns her, “Listen little girl, I know your daddy pretty well so run along before I have to be a tattle tale.”
“Oh, you know my daddy?” she asks in a cute voice to mock him, “Well that would make it very easy for me to find your name and address, you know, so I can roll over every car and house you own or will own for the foreseeable future.”
She gives him a cute smile. I bet her mother does the same before she strong-arms someone. I wonder if she would have followed her mother’s or her father’s footsteps had she not gotten superpowers.
She lowers herself down to be face to face with him, her feet still off the ground being that he’s taller.
She asks him, “Tell how much time I have to save my friend, and tell me what you’re aiming at her, or so help me, god, I’ll ram my foot through every inanimate object you have. I would ram it through your ass but that would kill you.”
“Kid,” the admiral starts, “your last name is more frightening than you,” and I see the quick twitch of her eye. Maybe he noticed it too, maybe he didn’t. It bothered her but not enough that she can’t contain it.
How used to hearing such things she must be.
“That being said,” he continues, “I don’t like pissing off business partners, so knowing that you have one hour before the U.S.S. Obama hits Atlas’s corpse with a railgun.”
Fuck. That’s one of the few weapons that I almost didn’t come back from.
“Thanks asshole,” Espada says as she flies over our heads to immediately talk to the Hood.
The admiral tries to take one last shot at me, “Anything else you want me to not tell you, Director?”
“Fuck off,” I tell him as I stomp towards the Hood talking and Espada nodding her head a lot.
Just as I get in earshot, she faces her hands straight up and flies away with a boom.
I get to the Hood and ask, “What the hell are you two doing?”
The Hood’s head turns up as he watches her fly and increase her speed up into the clouds.
“She wanted to know if and how she could get in and out of Atlas without triggering his cells and causing an explosion. I told her at a high enough velocity and with enough friction, she could vaporize the hot cells and drill her way into him to Marie.”
I hear the boom she makes when she breaks the sound barrier and the clouds part a little bit away from Atlas’s corpse. I see a puff of the clouds move downwards and see a dot heading straight for us.
No, it’s not a bird or a plane.
As Espada flies head-on towards Atlas at max speed, she still looks like a blur and I don’t know why. “What the hell is she doing?!” I yell right before she hits him.
Everyone, except for the Hood, brings their hands to their ears to block the screeching sound that rings through our eardrums. I look back up to see a gaping hole in Atlas’s chest. I turn my head towards him and he doesn’t need me to tell him to explain.
“I told her flying at Mach speed and spinning like a drill should disintegrate his cells if she’s fast enough.
It takes another couple seconds before a puff of ice and snow exits from the hole in Atlas’s chest. It looks like a smoke cloud leftover from a bomb.
Eventually, Espada escapes the backdraft and I can see her carrying Icicle in her arms.
She turns and flies down towards us, in a softer manner than when she left.
Eventually, she floats down towards me as the Hood gets down from his brooding rock. She holds Icicle bridal style as the girl’s armor falls apart.
At first, I think Marie is unconscious, but she’s not. When Espada plants her feet on the ground I’m there, and I’m kneeling with them as Espada kneels and lays her on the ground.
She holds Marie’s head in her arm as Marie shakes, her eyes glassy and dazed. Emily gives her that soft shush as the girl shakes, and she pets her hair as Marie looks up at her. I can’t tell for sure, but I would say Marie is quite confused by Emily’s comforting hands.
Marie notices me beside her and she tries to lift her hand to point at me. I go to take but she grabs a hold of my hand with a strong grip. “Nev-never a-a-again, never a-again,” she swears.
“Okay, never again.”
“He, he wa-wasn’t, a-ah, a bad, man.”
He wasn’t a bad man.
“What am I here for, Ion?”
The creep ignores me. Rude.
Especially considering it’s been a while since I’ve been to this Earth, crossing the dimensional barrier isn’t easy, even for a paycheck.
Okay, it’s pretty instantaneous but I doubt he knows that.
He had Hundress post my set amount for a meeting, and here I am sitting at his table. Instead of finding myself on a beach in a set of Virgin Islands or skiing in the Poconos, I find myself waiting for the leader of this world’s oh-so scary Savaage to finish a painting.
The being of energy isn’t even sitting at the table, he’s off away from me, sitting on a stool in a red and white striped shirt, painting on a canvas. Why he feels the need to reenact a French stereotype is beyond me.
Usually, I think whatever floats your boat, but his boat is keeping mine in port.
“Ion,” I call to him, but he’s too engrossed in his painting, so I call him again, “Ion,” and again, “Ion,” and again, “Ion!”
I’m not calling him a fifth time.
I stand up from my seat and the glass over my eyes needs to be fixed. I fix my gas mask before I walk over there. I must have been sitting for a long time.
As I walk over to him, I see his painting, Starry Night. I may be a criminal but I’m somewhat cultured.
I’m about to touch his shoulder when he flicks his finger against the painting, and it flies off the paper to the wall. In a moment, the gray flat eyesore is a moving image of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. People say if you look at the painting long enough, you’ll see the background begin to twist and swirl. Now I don’t have to try it out.
Ion turns his head to me and compliments me, “Nice suit, I’m not one to wear a vest without a jacket but it suits you, gives you a kind of finesse. You’re going to need that.”
His compliment has me looking down over my clothes and gear. Sure, I’m wearing dress pants and a suit vest, but underneath I have my stealth padding, so I’m not sure how honest that compliment was. With Ion, it can go either way.
I’m about to speak up until Ion presses his hand against the blank canvas… and completely disintegrates it, to dust, no, less than dust, nothing. He turns to me and says, “Why keep around what I’m not going to use? Turn it back to its basics.” I get a feeling that basics meant basic elements.
I ask, “Ion, what am I-”
The front door opens to this dark chamber and in walks the most robotic woman I’ve ever met, Hundress Dawn. She must be here to help Ion never let me get a word in.
Ion ignores me to stand up and walk, a monster of a man. I think he’s taller than he was the last time I saw him.
He claps his hands as he asks her, “How did it go with Dr. Insanis?”
Hundress informs him, “The project failed, the doctor went mad and infused his brother with the formula, but instead of a super-soldier he created a monster, surely you saw it from the window.”
Being that Ion’s head is faceless he gives nothing away, but the lack of anger in his composure is noteworthy. Ion turns away from her and admits, “I did not, I’ve had the windows blacked out, for the painting,” and he gestures towards it for her to look at, but her eyes don’t even move.
“Quite beautiful,” she compliments it. I wonder why Ion lets her patronize him like that, it doesn’t seem to bother him as he walks away from her.
Ion walks back to the table, so Hundress and I see fit to follow him. He walks to his big throne, I walk to my chair, and she stands halfway between us at this round table.
He places his hands on the table, and lifts his head as he remarks, “A monster? That means success.”
Hundress shows an actual response other than staring by raising her eyebrows. She doesn’t know what he’s referring to.
“Of course, I apologize, I think I forgot to tell you,” he admits with a point of his finger, “the poor doctor wasn’t planning to give me the formula I paid for, so I stole it, and gave him the wrong compound.”
“Is, is it okay that I listen to this?” I interrupt real quick, I don’t need to be attacked later because I was listening to his conversation.
Ion waves me off and assures me, “Don’t worry I’ll get to you, this will lead into what I want you to do.”
Well, at least I didn’t come here to get attacked.
Hundress asks him, “What did you give him? Insanis’s formula called for pure cantorium.”
“And I gave him cantorium, just the kind that’s impure, it’s useless to me in the long term anyway,” he explains as he takes his seat, “it’s only good for temporary terror,” now wrapping his fingers together, typical supervillain body language. “I paid him to give me the tool for an army, and I helped him cure his brother’s cancer. He planned to go back on that deal, so now he’s dead, and his brother is too, hopefully?”
“Both are deceased, his brother was killed by one of the children,” Hundress informs him.
Children, she must be talking about one of the kids sponsored by this Earth’s S.I.L.A.S., so more reasons to avoid Aegis City specifically…
Though seeing the Hood again would be… nice.
Ion gets giddy at that information, clapping his hands and jumping up in down in his chair as he asks, “Ooooh, which one did it? Which one is falling to the dark side?” Over-excited much. Hundress waits for him, knowing well enough to realize to wait. “Wait, wait, let me guess, the strong woman?
Hundress disappoints him. “No, the cryokinetic.”
“Oh, phooey, that’s not very interesting. Do youu know how easy it is to make an ice sidekick? I want one like,” and while making a rainbow gesture with his hands, “Espada.”
With a shrug, he figures, “Oh well, I guess I can only hope, now down to business, Shadow Mask.”
“Which do I want to know first, the mission or the money?”
“Oh please, if money were ever the issue I wouldn’t be in this business,” he says with a roll of his head, kind of like when people roll their eyes. I do wonder where his money comes from, I imagine the Savaage has members with deep pockets or hostages who do, I don’t really ask.
“Alright, then tell me the mission.”
Ion gestures to Hundress, “You and Hundress will be going somewhere, out of this world, but not too out. She needs a distraction while she makes a theft.”
Considering my abilities, theft seems more up my alley. I try to peek into their minds but as always from him, I get static, and from her I get nothing.
I wish she was blonde; I’d get endless mileage out of that joke.
“May I ask, why not just have me make the steal?” I ask him kindly enough.
He doesn’t answer immediately, he rests his head on his hand to look at me. He answers my question with another question. I always hate that, if you’re going to threaten me just do it.
“Answer me honestly, would you ever go back on a deal?”
Now, do I pander or do I answer honestly? Somehow, I think he’ll know if I’m lying.
“I’m a mercenary, and an assassin, if the other guy pays me a dollar more, I don’t see why I gotta turn it down. When I play that game, it drives up my payday with the constant counter offers.”
“It also drives up your chances of catching a bullet,” Hundress says. Ion holds his hand to her, to keep her silent as he stares at me.
While I can’t really speak considering my mask, I hate that he doesn’t have a face for me to read. I can’t tell if he’s humored or enraged, and that’s an important difference in any and all situations.
Ion brings a fist to his face, and laughs into it.
“Heheheh,” he laughs like he’s suffocating, but I’ve heard it before so I know that it’s his laugh. He points to me as he says to Hundress, “I like him, I like all these characters you introduce me to with their style and wit.”
Does… does he not remember me?
I hide my offended ego by chuckling, and tell him, “I’m glad you appreciate it.”
“Oh I do, but knowing your style you understand why I would trust one of my own, to deliver the package instead of having to pay again when you try to sell it later.”
I can’t argue with that, and I assure him I understand with a nod of my head. “Okay, so when do we do this, and how do we get to this other world?”
This already is an ‘other’ world for me, so how ‘other’ can we get? “Soon,” Ion says vaguely, “S.I.L.A.S.’s pets will take us there, but I need to give their director a reason first. Then you can complete your mission, with finesse.”
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