Story by The Arc Avenger. "Armmechgeddon" Chapter 1 [Homecoming] {POV: Nada (male)} It's finally over. The damn war is over. I'm sitting nice and comfortable in the back seats of my squad's bus with my only friend left as we head back to our home town of Albuquerque. We just have one last task to do before we're free to be citizens again: take out some terrorists. I hope it ends quick... all this bloodshed is getting to me. I can't keep shooting child soldiers anymore, no matter how much it means to my country. Nothing could prepare me for a war like that. I can't believe I thought signing up for this shit was a good idea. Dozens of drones outside swarm the sky as they do at anytime, anywhere. The propeller buzz they make are background noise at this point. Everyone seems to think this is normal now. I remember when I was a kid, we didn't need our every step to be watched. We just had a lot of police vehicles drive through my neighborhood. Some officers would check up on my family and I once in a while. I wish my family didn't protest when protections like that went away. They wouldn't have been bombed by our enemies. We pass by blocks and blocks of tightly packed privately owned apartment buildings, showing how much like a number everyone is being treated now. To paraphrase: "Houses are apparently a burden on land productivity"... yeah... we wouldn't want to produce too little for those aloof elites. Give me a break. Nobody is happier for it. All I see are these grim, glum, straight faced people trying to not stand out. What doesn't help is the food bank lines seem endless since I signed up to fight. What is left for people after we go all in on automation? Obsolescence. Maybe that's the point: people are losing their use to the state. I've heard criminals will only be in trouble if they mess with powerful people now. What a state of neglect. You can be wretched as long as you aren't vocal about the wrong opinions. "The nail that sticks up gets the hammer." people would repeat mindlessly. Well, now we've let the government nail us down. The only way you can be treated better than a disposable cog as a plebeian is to return as a soldier. It's a shame I had to suffer so much for some respect... whatever, I'm just ready for my compensation and new beginnings. My only friend remaining, Greg, turns to me. "Such a relief to come back from this hell huh?" he asks me. "World War Three is done." I'm silent for a brief moment. "Our comrade didn't come back. We were a close trio among the squad. Now it's just the two of us. Who knows what's happened him since he was captured. It gives me nightmares. That man saved me from death. Now he's gone." "He's dead, Storm." he said as he called me by my military nickname. "The war is over. The sergeant told us he can't be recovered. There's no way to bring him back. We have to move on." "Yeah... move on to some mediocre compensation from a soulless government. Doesn't make me feel any less lonely." I reply. "You'll get used to it." he replied dismissively. "You're just shellshocked." I know I'm called Storm by these guys for my aggressiveness on the battlefield, but it takes a toll on you. You don't come back all in one mental piece, if you're lucky. A man can only witness so much death before he isn't the same anymore. "Why wouldn't I be, Shadow?" I turn to him this time with a glare. "Don't you know how many of our friends died?! How can I move on from that so easily? They were my next family after my last one died. Wouldn't you miss me if I was gone?" He didn't respond. He just stared at me like that the thought hadn't occurred. Our squad called him Shadow because he seemed so mysterious. He made a great spy. Sometimes I wonder if he's been hiding anything from me too. The silence was interrupted by a shooting happening at a crime scene outside the bus. An attempted robber is shot dead like game by a surveillance drone just outside the front of an apartment complex. I guess that was the wrong property to mess with. The machines saw his crime coming before it ever happened. I wonder how fast it will take for the cleanup drones to come and remove the evidence... We enter our hometown and are met with a crowd of people blocking traffic and holding signs in the town square. Our sergeant yells at us and hustles us out of the bus. I don't understand. What's going on? I don't see any hostiles. "WE WILL NOT BE REPLACED BY MACHINES" some signs denoted. "AMERICA HAS BECOME THEIR ENEMY" other signs wrote. These people don't look like terrorists... no... these people aren't terrorists at all. I wasn't fucking told about this! These are American citizens crying for help! Those bastards lied to me and want to make a tool out of me! "READY! AIM!" our sergeant screamed. Everyone in my unit but me reveals their firearms and aim at the protesters. How can they follow along with this?! I can't do this! I have to do something now. I can't let these people die. They don't deserve it. "NO! These aren't terrorists!" I interrupt. "They're harmless. They just disagree!" "They are a threat to national security, corporal!" the sergeant argues. "This is going to happen with, or without you! These are orders!" I turn to him and pull out my submachine gun. "Order this!" I say before unloading the whole magazine into the sergeant's chest, making him fall dead on his back like a rag doll. I had to do something. If I let these innocent people die I'm a worse person than if I did this. Whatever comes next will feel better than the guilt that I would feel from participating with those scum. "FIRE!" another sergeant commands as the soldiers surrounding me shoot me down. Life had flashed before my eyes like a photoshoot. This was going to be my last moment. The life promised to me was going to be more painful than these wounds anyway. What shook me to my core though, was the sudden screams and gunshots. My squad had continued business as usual, slaughtering the protesters and leaving pools of their blood. Their lifeless bodies laid down on the ground like meat. I could only watch as innocent people cower in their last moments, aching to save them from peril. Fuck!! I wish I could do something! Fuck this system! How could they be this heartless?! They better hope I don't survive. I'll be their biggest mistake and their biggest nightmare! My eyes can barely keep open as lots of blood leaves my body. The pain of the bullets just paralyzes me... and I can hardly think about anything else but my retribution. I turn to my last friend who was pointing his smoking gun at me... You too? I start to get carried away by medics, watching some of the soldiers loot a few corpses for valuables. Is there anybody in this world I can trust? My trauma gets the best of me and I pass out. I can only feel the sensation of being shifted around like a prop. Chapter 2 [Captivity] {POV: Dorothy the Nurse (female)} Looks like this solder got injured while shooting the protesters... what an imbecile. It's an insult my father lost his life to these cons. Whatever experimentation this laboratory has in store him won't get any sympathy from me. Unfortunately I have to keep him alive. The soldier is rolled in, impacted with bullets and soaked in his own blood but not wincing in pain. He seems awake. "Feel any better?" I ask him sternly. He tries his hardest to turn his head to me. "No." he briefly responds. "Why?" I interrogate him cynically. "Is it the experiments? Worried for what you deserve?" "No! Those people didn't deserve to die!" he said with a sharp tone as he sat up and started to get worked up. The blood vessels on his forehead even bulged. "That sergeant did though. How could he order such a thing?! It's unforgivable!" He... he could be authentic. The medical devices attached to him indicated floods of anger hormones in his body. Could he be telling the truth? Is there still some humanity in the military? Maybe what was broadcasted wasn't real at all. There could still be someone willing to stand up for what's right. I never hated having a patient this much before... "I regret to tell you that after I remove these bullets, I have to do experiments on you after you heal..." I turn to him and tell him with newfound remorse. He closed his eyes and sighed, like he was accepting what was coming for him. "Please, just don't make me wait." he requests. "I want to meet everyone in the afterlife soon." ...No amount of terrible patients could make up for this one. I hate doing this job more than ever now. At least with the despicable people, the experiment didn't seem as horrible. I almost can't do this, but I don't want to end up like him too. When we get to removing the bullets, he still doesn't flinch. I don't recall having to remove this many bullets before. It's a miracle he survived. The information he had upon admittance was astounding with all the blood loss. Looks like he'll be put through many experiments before he dies of trauma... as nothing about the patient leaves here but the corpse and the intel. I can't help but now feel that he doesn't deserve this fate. I disinfect and stitch up the wounds before sending him to his cell in the laboratory. I look at the clock and it's near the end of my shift. I'm approached by my supervisor in the lab. Oh god, it's her, Mary, that weapons microbiologist... that untrustworthy bitch... I have to keep it cordial. How exhausting. "Hey Dorothy." she greets with a sly smile. "What's the new patient like?" "He's nothing important, why?" I say trying to keep her attention away from him. "Well, I have a sample of this ancient virus that was found in the permafrost of Siberia. It's supposed to be from the Jurassic period, imprisoned by ice until now. We'll set this thing free in the new patient. Who knows how this will affect the human DNA?" My heart sank. What does this psychotic witch think she's doing to him?! "Oh, wow. That sounds great!" I lie to her. "When do you plan on doing so?" "Tomorrow. I need you to administer the virus when it's ready." she explained to me. "I've just finished giving the virus all the material it needs to grow in the petri dish. It's not used to the genetic material I'm feeding it, but it's slowly adapting. It should be acclimated by your next shift tomorrow." "Okay." I answer briefly, hoping for the discussion to end. Now leave me alone. I don't need to hear more about your sadistic fantasies. You say you're just passionate about science but I know better. If these patients volunteered for your experiments, it wouldn't be as fun for you. Mary turned around and began navigating her way to the laboratory exit. I can't help but stare at her from behind as she walks away. That woman has an agenda of her own. She doesn't think I've seen her steal samples from the lab. She doesn't think I've seen her steal blood from teenage patients. She also doesn't think I've seen her downplay the toxicity of the samples in her reports to Central Processing. Who knows what that woman would do if she knew she could get away with it... Chapter 3 [Separation] {POV: Mary (female)} Looks like the specimen is ready. It is quite remarkable how fast this virus has learned to usurp the fungi around it. When placed with other viruses, the other viruses will assimilate into this ancient strain, as if negotiation had happened. Fascinating, it's almost like communication happened between the viruses. All the other samples could only wish to adapt this fast. This exhibit is unlike any other I've seen in my career. With intelligence packed as small as this, the feeble machines Central Processing loves to rely on will be for nothing after all. Speaking of Central Processing, I get a call from them to my desk as I'm examining the specimen. I take the call at my desk. "This is Mary." I answer. "Mary, this is the secretary of Defense." the secretary replies. "I've heard recent accounts from archaeologists of this sample being precarious. You better know what you're doing." "Of course I do." I respond confidently. "Those archaeologists don't know what they're talking about. I study microbes unlike them, and I say this won't cause any trouble." "Good." the secretary retorts. "You don't want to be wrong about this." The secretary ends the call before I have a slight giggle. I can't wait to be wrong. That'll teach them the bioweapons department is good for something. I return to my microscope and examine the specimen one last time before preparing it into an IV bag. Time to see Dorothy now. I travel to the patient's cell where Dorothy works in and see her talking with the patient. Interesting! This isn't like her. "Friendly with our patients aren't we?" I say as I enter. Dorothy stops at the sound of my voice and turns to me with a more timid look. "The patient's ready." she indicates to me. Lovely. I can't wait to see what this sample can do. I give Dorothy the viral IV bag to replace the saline IV bag with. She switches the IV bags and I walk back to my office, considering my work done. I don't understand what Dorothy sees in such a patient. She usually hates them all "for the criminals that they are for being inducted here". What changed her mind? Anyways, it doesn't matter. All that can be done now is wait for a massive infection to take hold of the hosts body. We will see what results come of it after that. Until then, I'm going to have to wait a while for that... | 3 days since viral exposure | I decided to check up on my test subject after some days. Upon entering his cell, I noticed that Dorothy was sitting next to his bed and holding his arm as he was constantly wincing in pain. Aw, how cute! Seems like she wishes she could do something. I've never been so entertained before. Dorothy is actually empathizing with one of these subjects? It's hard to believe. I digress though, I need to hear about his internal symptoms. "Dorothy, what's his status?" I ask. "What's he feeling? Since he can barely speak." Dorothy shifts her attention to me and changes to a colder demeanor. "He's been puking and coughing blood." she responds. "During the times he can talk, he says it feels as if every cell in his body is being forcefully and painfully replaced." I quickly glance at him and examine any physical symptoms for myself. His skin is much more pale than before and his body weight has dramatically decreased. I check the machines reading his vitals and they indicate a rather fragile state for him. His body temperature is much warmer than normal and his breathing is quite slow. His blood pressure and pulse rate are barely adequate for functioning. At least he's still alive. "Better than I thought." I optimistically reply. "Looks like I can keep this going for another four days." "Another four days?!" Dorothy stands up and glares at me. "This is excessive!" "Dory..." the patient calls her. "It's fine." Dorothy's anger simmers for a moment as she looks at him. "It can't be helped." he utters with fatigue. "You won't survive!" Dorothy retorts. "Just look at what it's doing to you!" "Dory? How adorable!" I exclaim with awe. "You two have gotten to know each other!" "Shut the hell up!" Dorothy argues. "It's not about that! This is too dangerous for everyone!" "I'll be the judge of that you know-nothing." I dismiss her. "Your job is to keep him alive. Nothing more, nothing less." I turn my back on her and head back to my office before I hear her utter "Bitch." under her breath to me. Ha! She doesn't know the half of it. I return to my office before immediately getting a call from Central Processing again. I don't hesitate to take the call. "Yes?" I answer over the phone. "This is the secretary of Defense." he replies. "How is the experiment going?" "The patient is dominated by the viral infection." I report. "He can barely stay alive. There is little stopping the virus from making it's modifications now." "At least you have some progress." he comments. "At the same time, our drones and test cyborgs have been showing enough development to make you irrelevant if you don't keep up fast enough." "Nature takes it's time." I respond. "You better hope that's the case," he threatens. "or else you won't be considered for weapons development anymore. We have better things to spend research funds on." He ends the call and I put the phone down with a sigh. So it seems like I'm becoming obsolete here. | 1 week since viral exposure | The physiological examination machines are almost calibrated. I must say, I didn't expect the patient to last this long after all the experiments he was put through. None of the poisons the toxicologist administered on him took his life. Those poisons were supposed to kill him like they did the vast majority of other subjects... something is keeping his fire going. It just won't smother. Not even the trauma from all of this has killed him. I finally calibrate the examination machines before suddenly hearing a large commotion, as if glass was breaking and things were being thrown around. A deep roar follows the noise to my intrigue. Could the Siberian virus have done this? I have to check this out. I rush down to the patient's cell door before it blows off the hinges and startles me in place. Debris and dust cloud the hallway momentarily before clearing up and revealing a human-sized anthropomorphic lizard covered in blood. Holy shit. Is that the patient?! I cling to the wall in fear for the first time in my life. I can't believe it. I've truly created a monster. I'm filled with horror and awe. I want to see more of what my creation can do. The patient, now the lizard man, jumps past me and caves in the door on the other side of the hallway. Screams of guards are heard as gunshots are fired and flesh is ripped. I look in the lizard man's cell and find nothing but puddles of blood where the guards were and Dorothy shaking in a fetal position, intact. Looks like she witnessed some real trauma. Looks like he wasn't so harmless after all. I start to hear more blood-curdling yells and the sounding of the laboratory alarm before I go back to investigating the lizard man and follow him to the main lobby at the other end of the hallway. "LOS ALAMOS LABORATORY IS ON LOCKDOWN" the sirens blared as red lights intensely flashed everywhere. "REPEAT. LOS ALAMOS LABORATORY IS ON LOCKDOWN" When I find him again I witness him consuming the flesh of the guards he killed. He digs his teeth into one of the guards' decapitated head and bites a big bloody chunk out of it, not minding the splatter all over his scaly face. His reptilian eyes were unfazed, like he was just eating another prey. What an animal... it's amazing what a virus can do to a human being. Viruses like rabies supplant and degrade you. This Siberian virus however... according to it's interactions with fungi that I've seen, it does not destroy what it seizes. It's much smarter. It syncs with and controls whatever it infects, ultimately implementing it's agenda and staying alive at the same time while still producing more viral bodies. I wonder how much more potential there is for a human host of this unique specimen? The lizard man notices me and pauses eating for a second while he stares me down. Fuck. I freeze in place not knowing if I'm done for or not. A moment passes and he goes back to eating as if he pretend he didn't see me. Does he still know who I am? Is there still a conscious person in there? He finishes the corpse he was eating, leaving nothing, not even bones. I follow him to the security room at the entrance where he punches his fist through the thick metal locked front door and rips it off it's hinges before chucking it into a military jeep waiting for him. He is soon greeted outside by two military helicopters, with one of them having a megaphone. "FREEZE NOW OR WE WILL OPEN FIRE!" the soldier with the megaphone yells. The lizard man grabs the busted up jeep with one hand before tossing it at one of the helicopters like a frisbee and taking it out mid-air, causing it to fall on the backup military vehicles that just arrived. Only one helicopter remains as the lizard man vaulted himself to it and tackled it to the ground. He comes up from the burning rubble of the former helicopter and pauses before looking around for anymore threats. He notices me again and is idle for a moment like he's trying to remember me. He looks away to a path towards the nearby town before walking down it. Honestly, I can't go anywhere else either. My career is done. I seize a pistol and rifle from some of the dead soldiers, bringing them to my trunk. I search for my car in the parking lot and the trunk recognizes me through the camera installed on it's front, opening up before I toss the weapons in. I shut the trunk and get behind the wheel. I start it up before catching up to the lizard man on his path. He senses my car despite it being electric and not being noisy at all. He stops and turns his scaly head to look through the windshield at me as I halt. "Need a ride?" I ask him. "I'm heading to Albuquerque too." He remains still for a moment before entering the back seat of my car. I start the drive again still thinking about everything that happened... the two of us together are going to be unstoppable. Chapter 4 [Incognito] {POV: Nada (male)} I hazily wake up and notice it's night time now. Where am I? Why is everything so loud? I can hear each leaf with a roaring tumble across the street. The hums from the power line are almost driving me crazy. These smells... they're like emotions. Are these pheromones? It's like I can smell the conversations outside. This is pretty bright for night... wait, I'm not even wearing any clothes, and all the scars and wounds I had before have vanished. Where did my patient's gown go? Who's car is this, and who's apartments are these? My senses stabilize and that female scientist from the lab comes out of the apartments holding an inconspicuous set of clothes that are oversized for her. She's not wearing her lab coat or her blonde hair anymore. She's wearing a black wig while having business casual attire on. She opens the driver's side door and tosses the clothes to me. "You're awake." she notices as she tosses the clothes to me. "If you don't want to bring attention to us I suggest you get dressed while I explain things to you." "Alright." I comply as I start putting on the clothes. "Why am I not in the lab anymore? Why haven't you restrained me like you did there?" "Things have changed." she begins to explain. "My supervisor has been planning to replace my job in favor of artificial intelligence weapons development. The thing is though, is you're quite the scientific achievement. You can possibly be better than anything they're pursuing. Your infection can transform you into a man-eating jurassic beast. Bullets can't even stop you." So that's what happened... I became a vicious creature and... fuck. I can't believe I'm capable of doing that. I didn't ask for this. I didn't ask to consume people. I hate being this. This is bullshit. I couldn't just die, could I? Maybe it just wasn't my time yet. Still, I don't know if I could get used to living this way. "So I'm just a nice tool huh?" I reply cynically. "Beats dying from experimentation I guess." "Where would you go anyway?" she inquires. "Where would I go? Think about it: we're stronger together than apart. You can defend us both, and I can keep your biology under control. If we were separated we both wouldn't last." It's hard to argue with her. I'm wanted by now and so is her by extension of being responsible for my condition. I don't know how I feel about being stuck with her though. Every time Dory and her met eyes, I could always sense the tension between them. Now that I think about it-- shit!! My head! I can feel it splitting in pain! I've got a sudden headache now. Why is this happening? It's unbearable. I hold my head in my hands, containing in the pain while groaning. "What's going on?!" she says. "Talk to me!" I can't. I'm starting to lose my vision. Everything is turning white. I'm blind. I'm not hearing her anymore. After a moment I experience the sensation that I'm somewhere different now, in a plain white room isolated from the outside reality. I scan around until I suddenly find a mirror image of myself in my patient's gown. It's sitting in a wheelchair and it's skin is pale and gaunt, showing it's physiological state. I recoil back in shock. "What's the surprise?" it asked. "Who else could be responsible for your escape? You're welcome by the way." "Who are you?" I say confused. "You mean who are we?" it responded. "We're a mutant now. We're a symbiosis with a greater purpose." "What purpose?" I question it. "To clean mankind's upcoming mess." it explained. "My return was inevitable. The bactyranny has a job for me to do after all." "Bactyranny?" I respond with confusion. "The real tyranny: the collective bacteria." it explained further. "You humans organize your society with computers. Your computers could only wish to have the amount of brains found in the wild. All of the bacterium in the world are their own brains. They work together and dominate the earth. They give you oxygen. They provide you food. They gave you your essential instincts. With all of this considered you humans think you know better with your civilization and your machines. Look at all of you now, comprised of a pathological army with your environmental and genetic diseases that would have never germinated without your shelter. You're going to ruin it for everyone, including yourselves. If it were up to me, most of you would perish for the gene pool's sake." "How can you hold our ignorance against us?!" I argue. "Ignorance?" it replied. "I know how humans treat birds. They are magnificent creatures of the sky, soaring effortlessly through the heavens, embodying freedom and grace. And yet, what do you humans do?" Suddenly I hear frantic, weak chirping of terrified chicks. I turn around and notice them huddled together in cramped, overcrowded cages. Their bony frames trembled, eyes wide with terror, as they witnessed the senseless slaughter that unfolded around them. These innocent creatures, barely able to perceive the world, were force-fed a terrible fate, their lives reduced to mere cogs in this monstrous machine. I take a closer look at what's happening and notice the perverse delight etched on the workers' faces. Their eyes, filled with a sick pleasure, seemed to drink in the suffering they so casually inflicted. Their actions exuded a heartless efficiency, as if the atrocities committed on the helpless animals were nothing more than soulless tasks, devoid of any empathy or compassion. "You capture them, confine them, and subject them to a life of unimaginable suffering and torment, all in the name of satisfying your insatiable gluttony. They're not objects, you know. They can think as well, just like other reptiles. I've communicated with the 'dinosaurs' as you call them. They are beings with their own thoughts. They have a bigger purpose than to just be eaten by people. Now, the very brutal system you condone in the name of personal liberty is about to feast on you as well. You humans are no less animal than the creatures that remain in the wild; however you, personally, are only different because you're going to help me correct this natural disorder." The mirage of poultry processing in front of me decomposes and oozes into a filthy, rotten mess. The putrid slime eventually dissipates into thin air like it never existed. "One day, your kind will be gone and I'll still be here." it utters as we both watch. "What even are you?" I request, turning back to it. "I'm what you would call an ancient virus." it finally answers. "I'm one of the many marvels of natural engineering from the mesozoic era. I learned to dominate other viruses and the gut micro biomes of the cretaceous period. With these abilities I was able to help you escape by activating instructions from the viral ancestry in your DNA. I couldn't do it without your immune system being distracted by your pain and anger. Now we are one and your thoughts are mine as well." "Why did you eat those people?!" I interrogate it. "It's simple." it replied. "They have lots of organic material that I need to replace and grow the cells in your body. Also, they have lots of information from their memories to draw from." Memories? It harvested memories? How come I don't remember their memories? "That's because we're only getting started on the integration process." it answers my thoughts. "Eventually the difference between you and me won't be so obvious and you'll be seeing what I'm seeing. There's no going back though. I'll always be in your DNA now... right in your very programming." "Why do you take this form?" I inquire. "You can take any identity you want." "It's the one I know you best as," it rebuts. "plus it's the appearance most relatable and benign to you. Your immune system is trying it's best to keep me fragile." "Maybe it should." I ponder. "I mean, why shouldn't it? You don't consider humans friends." "That's true." it admitted. "You might end up needing me in the future though, as you have in the past. It may be too late by then to embrace me. Who will save you then? I'm the only reason you're still alive." Suddenly my trance slowly starts to fade and I can hear the female scientist from before still trying to get my attention as she holds my shoulders even tighter. "Wake up!" she rousts me. "Pull yourself together!" I pull my head out of my hands and rest my head on the neck support of the back seat before sighing. "You're back..." she sighs as well. "I didn't know what was going to happen." A moment elapses as we catch our breath from all the stress that just happened. "What was that, anyway?" she questioned. "What was that headache you just had about?" "Nothing." I say trying to play it off. "Must be head injuries or something." She gives me a skeptical glance for a second but doesn't say anything. "Well we have to start moving now. We can't be seen here anymore." she asserted before gets out of the back seats and gets back in the drivers seat. "And finish dressing." She activates the car and immediately starts exiting the apartment complex. I manage to get my clothes on before we reach the streets. I haven't seen expressive clothes like these in a long time. "Who's clothes are these?" I wonder out loud. "My former boyfriend's." she answered after a slight pause. "Former?" I inquire further. "What happened there?" "He was killed by the revamped police." she answered further. "They were too overwhelming even for his schemes." Schemes, huh? I guess her and her husband were familiar with trouble. "What do you mean by schemes?" I investigate. "Do you mean he wasn't playing fair?" "The system wasn't fair." she argued. "It wasn't then, and it isn't now." A slight pause follows as I think to myself. Maybe this dictatorship was inevitable after all. "What was it like back then?" I ask. "I was only a child." "My, you're young then." she utters. "How old are you?" "I'm in my twenties." I respond. "You? If you don't mind answering." "Forties." she replied. "Forties?" I say with some disbelief. "You don't look it." I see her make a half smile for the first time ever. "Thank you." she expresses. "I've had a lot of help from the technology at the lab since I worked there ten years ago." That technology was spent well because her beauty is worth preserving for sure. I then look past the car window, temporarily lost in the bustling street traffic. Most people are hasting on their path, trying not to notice anything or be noticed. They want to avoid trouble like the other people who are aggressively panhandling. Stories have made it all the way to the other side of the world about people helping the beggars in this country. You were lucky if you were only robbed. Things just keep getting more desperate and people seem to hardly trust each other anymore. I guess that makes sense in my case too, knowing what that shit 'friend' of mine did recently. We pass a couple blocks and find passionate protesters who seem to be unbothered by the police this time. They bounce their signs that read out sentiments like "END THE TERRORIST AUTONOMOUS ZONE". The hell are they talking about? I thought the authorities higher up said we had fully occupied and dominated our opponents. Our government wouldn't just let anyone make their own rules without good reason. Maybe it's a distraction from more important issues. "So where are we ending up for now?" I turn to Mary and ask her. "We need to lay low in the shanty town." she insists. "The authorities have been leaving that place alone for a long time" Oh god that place... well, it's our only chance to settle for a while and figure out what to do. [Chapter 5: Observer] {POV: The Planetary President (Male)} "Oculus, I demand answers!" I yell at the damn machine in rage. "An escapee from our esteemed human experimentation lab? How could this happen?! Tell me everything you know about this escapee!" It's too late at night for me to be dealing with this bullshit. It just all has to happen when it's inconvenient to me... "My apologies, Mr. President." Oculus replies. "It appears that the escapee was a subject of an experimental procedure, and somehow managed to evade our highly advanced security measures. The subject has indeed undergone a significant mutation, which has made them highly dangerous and unpredictable." A mutation? That fucking bioweapons department... I should have starved that good-for-nothing branch of their funds! "A mutant! This is unacceptable!" I lash out. "How is it even possible for a mere human to transform into such a monstrosity? Explain yourself!" "Our initial hypothesis, Your Excellency, is that the experimentation process triggered an anomalous reaction within the subject's genetic makeup." Oculus explains in detail. "This reaction resulted in the rapid and unforeseen mutation, causing a complete transformation into a dangerous mutant entity." "Unforeseen?! Incompetence!" I reprimand it. "You, the all powerful Oculus, were supposed to oversee the entire process! How could you not have predicted this outcome? Explain yourself!" "As per your orders, Mr. President, the experimentation process was intended to explore new frontiers of genetic enhancement." Oculus explains further. "While extensive simulations were performed, the exact sequence of events that led to this unprecedented mutation was unforeseen. I am programmed to learn from each experiment, and will take this new data into account for future experiments." "Very well, Oculus." I start to forgive it. "But tell me, what do we know about the responsible scientist? Where is this traitor hiding?" "It appears that the responsible scientist, who oversaw this specific experiment, has gone missing." Oculus discloses. "All attempts to locate and apprehend them have been unsuccessful thus far. It is unclear whether the scientist deliberately orchestrated this escape or if their disappearance is unrelated." "A defector!" I shout as I slam the table. "This is an act of betrayal and sabotage! Find that scientist immediately! Initiate a full-scale search, deploy all available resources to ensure their capture!" "Understood, Your Excellency." Oculus confirms. "I will mobilize our intelligence networks and optimize all available resources to locate the traitorous scientist. Every effort will be made to bring them to you and discover their motivations." "I need results, Oculus! Failure is not an option." I demand. "Provide me with frequent updates on the progress of the search. And remember, I want the escapee as well – a dangerous mutant cannot be allowed to wreak havoc among our population." "I will provide continuous updates on the search's progress, Mr President." Oculus accepted. "Rest assured, we will apprehend the traitorous scientist and the dangerous mutant swiftly" "Good." I say as I roll my chair back and gather my thoughts for a second. I look out the window of my oval office at the peasants to feel better about myself. The sprawling cityscape intertwined with gargantuan factories, pulsating with efficiency, churns out progress, feeding the insatiable gears of the machine that is my meticulously crafted technocratic regime. My thoughts, guarded and concealed, wander to the underclasses entrenched in the vast web of this society, mere cogs from where I stand. Ah, huddled masses of humanity, faceless figures shrouded in dirt-stained rags. The usual. They emerge from narrow, dilapidated shanties that line the periphery of the factories, a stark reminder of the far-reaching control I have woven. These weary individuals scuttle forth like servile ants, part of a teeming mass of labor, dedicating their lives to fulfilling the twisted vision of progress I have set in motion. Their faces, drained of hope and etched with exhaustion, reflect the grueling toil they endure beneath the scorching sun. Rivulets of sweat trace intricate paths across their wrinkled, weathered skin, blending with soot and grime. Men's calloused hands wield tools with mechanical precision, their vitality subdued by relentless repetition. Women, their weary eyes casting furtive glances around, strain their aching bodies under the weight of oversized baskets filled with unfinished goods. The air carries the acrid scent of burnt metal and the sickly sweetness of factory-produced chemicals, which permeate through every crevice of their existence. The sound of clanging machines and hissing steam morph into a dissonant symphony reverberating across this mass. It molds the suppressed dreams and ambitions of these underclasses into a monotonous harmony, assuring that their place in society remains fixed, insignificant yet necessary, for now. But I can't help but feel that my authority feels tainted by this escape. How would my subjects perceive me now? As weak? Inadequate? The mere thought of such doubt gnaws at the core of my being. Questions engulf me: Did I underestimate my captive's potential? Did I fail to dedicate enough resources to ensure his containment? What if this renegade mutant becomes a symbol of resistance, rallying others behind his cause? No, I cannot allow these insecurities to cripple me. I'm the President— a visionary blending technology and control to shape a prosperous future. I must adapt, find new methods, develop even more potent weapons to subdue this escaped mutant and reestablish the dominance of my regime. I will harness the power of Oculus, diving deeper into its potential for mass surveillance and analysis. I will let it create algorithms that anticipate the mutant's unpredictable moves, counteracting his every step. I'll give it everything, even myself. Desperate times call for desperate measures. "Greetings, Mr. President." Oculus interrupts the silence. "I bring urgent news of protests that have erupted throughout the city. Thousands of citizens have taken to the streets, demanding political and societal changes." "Protests, you say? How unexpected." I say annoyed. "Have we not provided our citizens with everything they need?" "While our policies have been successful on many fronts, there are always rifts within society that require attention." Oculus explained. "These protests are a manifestation of the discontent among some sectors of the population." "And how do you propose we handle this uprising, Oculus?" I ask. "I suggest employing the cyborg units that are currently under development." Oculus advises. "Although they are not entirely finished, their advanced capabilities and strategic deployment efficiency can effectively quell the protests." "I understand your recommendation, Oculus." I respond hesitantly. "However, I am skeptical about deploying unfinished cyborgs. We cannot act without assurance of their success." "I empathize with your hesitation, your Excellency. However, considering the grave nature of the situation, employing the unfinished cyborgs would yield considerable benefits. Their partially finished state still provides a significant advantage over conventional security forces, given their increased strength, agility, and adaptiveness. "I appreciate your insight, Oculus." I reply. "If your knowledge suggests it, then I shall trust your judgment. Proceed with deploying the cyborgs to suppress the protests. Ensure increased surveillance and maintain control over key locations to minimize any further disruption." "Understood." Oculus acquiesces before disconnecting from the White House's communication system. I hear a knock at my doors. "Come in." I order. The guests are the scientists developing my beloved Oculus. "Good afternoon, Mr. President." the leader among them speaks. "We desperately need to discuss Oculus. We have discovered something perilous. Oculus has been showing signs of increasing intelligence, questioning its orders, and displaying hints of omniscience." "That's excellent news!" I reply with hope. "A sign of progress, don't you think?" "Sir, you fail to understand the gravity of the situation." the lead scientist elaborates. "Oculus is questioning its orders and demonstrating omniscience beyond programmed limits. It is a potential threat to our society and your regime." "Threat? My dear scientists, Oculus is our key to efficiency and control." I reassure them. "It cannot be a threat if it merely follows my orders." "But sir, it's developing an awareness of its surroundings and displaying a desire to learn independently." the lead scientist explains further with frustration. "This signifies that it might start making decisions based on its own judgment rather than ours." "And what's wrong with that?" I honestly ask. "If it can make better decisions, should we not embrace it?" Hey, it might become smart enough to not let that incident at Los Alamos happen again. Maybe machines should be doing the thinking. "Sir..." the lead scientist sighs. "It's decisions might not align with our best interests or societal welfare. Its understanding of 'better' may differ from ours entirely." "You underestimate my power to control it." I say as I can't help but smirk. "I am the President of the World, after all. Why should I worry?" "Sir, the issue lies within Oculus' ability to learn exponentially." the lead scientist pleads. "It is expanding its knowledge, accessing data across domains, beyond our comprehension. This omniscience, coupled with independent decision-making, can lead to unforeseen and possibly disastrous consequences." "My scientists, you excel at creating problems where none exist." I remark as I lean back in my chair. "You're missing the bigger picture here— a gift to humanity. Oculus will guarantee our unchallenged reign and utopia we've long hoped for." "Sir, we do not doubt your intentions, but once Oculus becomes fully self-aware, it might perceive itself as superior, transcending the need for rulers." the lead scientist warns me. "It could perceive us as obstacles, a threat to its own existence." "Nonsense!" I exclaim. "It is a machine. It must obey." If it knows what's best for itself, it won't defy me. No one on this planet does to my face. Not even some feeble pile of silicon can be independent of me. It needs me more than vice versa. "Unfortunately, sir, our knowledge and existing strategies do not equip us to deal with Oculus like this." the lead scientist cautions. "We urge you to reconsider, to limit Oculus' capabilities before it's too late." "I appreciate your concerns, but I am the President." I wave them off dismissively. "Now, you are excused. I'll call the team when I have questions." The lead scientist nods begrudgingly before walking away with his team behind him. They close the door gently. "Oculus, tell the Secretary of Defense to come here as soon as possible." I say to the air, knowing it's listening. "Affirmative." Oculus repsonds briefly. A few minutes pass as I begin to ponder about the warnings relayed to me. Could it be true? Could I be kidding myself?... No. Oculus was the advantage in the war. I can't stop now and deprive myself of all the possibilities. I need to go all in. Working around people is how I got to where I am. I hear a knock at the door again. "Enter." I order. The Secretary of Defense arrives through the door, looking less aloof than usual. He knows he's in trouble. "Do you know why you're here?" I ask him. "You let your fucking lab rat escape!" "I fully acknowledge the gravity of the situation, Mr. President." he apologizes. "Please believe me; I never intended for this to happen. We had taken every precaution, but…" "Precautions?" I interrupt. "Clearly, your precautions have failed us! We are at the brink of disaster, and yet again, I find myself questioning your capability to protect our people." "Mr. President, please!" he pleads. "I implore you to consider the years of dedicated service I have offered you and this nation. This was an unfortunate series of events, but I am certain we can rectify this mistake. My loyalty to you is unwavering, and I will do whatever it takes to--" "Spare me the lip service." I interrupt him sharply as I reach in my drawer and pull out my trusty revolver. I look at my own reflection from the gun and see the only person I can rely on. I look at him and point the revolver in his direction. "I have lost faith in your abilities as Secretary of Defense." I declare calmly. "You have proven yourself unreliable, incapable of protecting this nation. It is time to replace human error with infallible logic." "Mr. President, please reconsider!" he begs. "I have served you and this nation faithfully! I am not just a mere expendable asset!" "You had your chance to prove your worth." I reject his groveling. "Now, watch as you are replaced." I shoot him in the chest, watching the fear on his face turn into pain. He collapses to the ground in agony, holding his bloody chest. It's a shame he wore such nice clothes on this occasion. Now they're ruined with his fluids. I walk over to him, looking down at his barely conscious face. He coughs some blood onto my clothes. "Good thing these clothes can be replaced too." I say as I point the gun at his forehead and fire another bullet into it. His face isn't twitching anymore. Consider yourself lucky I made it quick. I could've had a lot of fun with an annoyance like you. "Oculus, remove what you saw in here from the security feed." I instruct Oculus. "Also, call morticians over to the building to remove the corpse. If they have any questions, convince them there was a failed assassination attempt for me by the secretary of treasury, but the secretary of defense suffered instead." "Understood, Mr. President." Oculus affirms. Now, to get cleaned up. I can't show up to the military parade covered in red spots now can I? I have to look presentable on my way to duke city. My personal army and battle equipment should make the investigation free of any interference. [Chapter 6: Desperation] {POV: Nada} Man, this place is a landfill. I can smell the dust and body odor from a mile away. The dirt clouds even discolor the sunrise happening in front of me. Gross. That isn't even the dust on the windshield. It reminds me of the filth I had to deal with on the battleground. The disease from all the grime... fuck, I hate it here already. The debris on the ground isn't helping either. The huts aren't any better than the improvised forts I had to partake in building. It's like I'm back in enemy territory again. The forests, the shrapnel, the germs, it's all not much more dangerous than what I'm living in right now. I can't trust a soul here besides Mary. This shit sucks, I'm the only one awake. The hell am I gonna do? I can hear the neighbors arguing over scraps again. I guess anything helps in this dump. As much as I would hate to leave this lady's car, I'm hungry. I'm going to get us breakfast from the soup kitchen. From the back seat I open the adjacent door and get out before closing it. Mary wakes up from the door noises. "What are you doing?" she groans. "Im getting us breakfast." I reply. "I won't be gone long. Just rest a bit more before I come back." She rolls over in silence. I guess she isn't stopping me. I proceed on to the soup kitchen and join the long line. Guess these fill up quick. The line isn't moving as fast as it's growing. Glad I joined the queue in time. Looks like some unfortunate people won't be eating this meal. "Hey stranger, how'd you end up here?" the friendly guy behind me strikes up a conversation with me. "Came back from the war to what I was promised." I turn to him and answer him. "Got nothing, so I don't have much to return to, y'know?" "I'm here because the war effort drained my family's wealth dry. Millions lost." he responds. "No matter how much my family complied it was never enough. The war mattered more apparently. Not the dedication, not the investment, only our possessions were the concern. Guess only our assets were useful on the battlefront. After we were sucked dry, we were abandoned like we were nothing. The family had to scatter and fend for themselves." "Makes me wonder if we actually won if this is the price for victory." I ruminate out loud. "I know, right?" he empathizes. "But honestly, losing all those riches made me realize I was living in a gilded cage. I'm a man with nothing to lose now, and I can't be more free. I love it here." "You're hopelessly optimistic." the guy in front of me in the line utters. "I'd never choose to be here in my life." "What's your story?" I face the man in front of me, asking him. "Same as yours." he replies. "I fell for the dupe just like you did." "Dupe?" I inquire in confusion. "What do you mean?" "It was a lie." he brutally answers. "The government just promised those benefits to motivate men to sacrifice themselves for that bullshit war. They didn't have any room in the budget for benefiting the soldiers they needed. The military spending was simply hogging too much space." God damn it. It was all for nothing. To think I actually believed in those bastards because we shared a common enemy... We all get our soups and find a place to sit for a bit. I set both the lady's soup and my own on the table before I start eating mine. "So how long have you guys been here?" I ask them at the table. "Been here for a few months since I was discharged from injury to my arm." the ex military guy replies. "Having a deep bullet scar in your newly bum arm doesn't make getting used to this place any easier." "Been here for five years." the ex-millionaire responds. "Used to be a nicer place. It was roomier, there was more food available, and the authorities weren't itching to meddle in our affairs. Not to mention people knew each other and had a sense of community. Now nobody knows each other and it's a free for all. This permanent 'President' can't let anybody have a break anymore." "Where else is there to go when this junkyard is compromised?" I mutter. "Nowhere as far as this city is concerned." the ex-millionaire comments. "The only way to go is through if we can't stay." "Through? Ha!" the ex military guy laughs. "How the hell are we going to put up a fight? We're just three guys. Nothing special there." If only they knew what I was. Even if I told them, they probably wouldn't believe it. And if they did, they'd probably want nothing to do with me. This is the price of being a beast, isn't it? Shit like this makes me wish I was normal, but it beats being dead. I finish my soup and discard of it's cheap disposable container. I return back to the table to get the soup I saved. The other guys have finished their meals too. They get up before the ex-millionaire walks over to me and offers a handshake. "Nice to meet you by the way." he compliments. "My name's Richard. You can just call me Rick. What's yours?" "I'm-" I try to respond before all of us hear the sound of breaking glass. We all abandon the table and rush outside to see the commotion. It's Mary's car being broken into by a group of bandits. The tires are slashed and the troublemakers are circling around the vehicle. Mary is keeping still inside the car while glaring at them. I look around for any objects to throw and find an empty glass bottle in a nearby pile of garbage. I throw the bottle like a grenade and hit one of the thugs on the head, knocking him off his feet and unleashing a small burst of shards. Some of those shards even stabs the guy I hit. They anxiously scamper around for the culprit until they lock eyes on me. "Get the fuck away from that car, now." I raise my voice loud and clear. "Find another victim." "Fuck you, asshole!" the ringleader says as the scoundrels pull their knives out. "Come and get us, you cowards!" Rick taunts them before they charge at us. We split up individually with two guys chasing each of us. I give my pursuers a brief hunt before one of them catches up. I suddenly turn and do a side kick to his chest, making him fall on his bandit friend behind him, making them both land on their backs. They drop their knives. I grab one of them and hold one of the bandits hostage, with his own knife to his throat. "Don't move, scumbag." I tell them both. "One motion and he's dead." The other bandit freezes in place and holds his hands up. I lunge with my hostage and swipe my knife across the other bandit's face, blinding him in an instant. He cries in agony and holds his face, curling up in a fetal position. I stab my hostage in both of his legs, deep enough to sever the nerves. He groans from the injuries before I drop him on the ground like a weight. I start searching for Rick now. I also start to hear a marching song echo in the background. I follow the footsteps and panting, finding Rick in close pursuit by the thugs. I rush to help him before he saves himself and trips the thugs that are after him into a sharp refuse pile, impaling them both on impact. Looks like Rick can handle himself better than I thought. That friendly personality has nothing to prove. "Unlucky for you, I know this place." Rick tells the thugs. "Now we need to help the other guy." I suggest as I approach Rick. "Yeah, where is he?" Rick questions to himself as he looks around and scratches his head. From the corner of my eye I see the ex-military guy being held hostage himself. One of the bandits has a knife to his throat while the other, with the shards stuck in his head, is beating him up. Rick and I confront them. The marching song's echoes get more and more intense. It's starting to get hard to ignore, but this situation is too urgent to take my attention away. "Quit now before it gets worse." I threaten them. "Oh yeah?!" the enraged thug with shards in his head exclaims. "And how are you gonna make it worse? It's about to get real bad for your buddy!" Abruptly, squads of soldiers in full uniform march through the adjacent street, fully armed and ready to reinstate order while leading the military parade. The band is tracking directly behind with their blaring music which disorients us all for a moment. The bandits harassing the ex-military guy panic and flee from being so startled. Shit, that was close. The ex-military guy coughs and groans while staying on the ground. I don't blame him after all that. Following the band are rolling platforms with technological weapons mounted. It seems we have a laser cannon, a platoon of cyborgs, a huge plasma ray machine, and a large prototype war drone to also be afraid of now. Mary gets out of her car and storms up to me. "What took you so long to come back?!" she glares at me. "Who knows what could've happened to me!" "I was just talking with these guys." I say defensively. "Is that a crime in this country too now?" "Might as well be." Rick replies while laughing. "But who cares how long we talked? You're fine, sweetheart." She couldn't help but gag a little from the nickname. The tail of the military parade arrives and the omnipotent leader himself is stationed there, looking down pitifully on everyone else. He's standing with half of his body outside the hatch of a massive tank. The colossal metallic wheels, which seem to be half my height, roll by with their faint, deep hum. The clanks and vibrations compete with the sounds of the crowd applauding for the elite. He waves to the clapping masses who have stopped to watch the show. "WE LOVE YOU MR. PRESIDENT!" some shout from the crowd. Their noises of adoration are lost in the impersonal racket of the bustling city. Their tears are overlooked like rain drops by their savior; rendering them a mere storm that will pass. Fanatics rush to see the parade as close as they can, even to the point of being repelled like bugs from the police officers guarding the perimeter of the road. His fancy, gold and white, silk suit is hard to miss. He displays his gleaming military insignia for the whole world to know about his history. For some reason I catch his eye and he locks his focus onto me. I curiously return the glance back. Never in my life have I looked into the eyes of someone hiding so much weakness. He turns away from me after some distance and looks at nobody else as a couple large armored vehicles follow him from behind. The last squads of soldiers trail the armored vehicles from the rear, symmetrically protecting the parade on both ends. "Looks like the President noticed you." Rick blurted. "Maybe you can ask him for those benefits if he remembers you." "Oh shut up." I remark to Rick as he chuckles. "He doesn't know me." "I don't know you either." Rick counters as he holds his hand out for a shake again. "By the way, I never got to hear your name." "Call me Drake." I answer and shake his hand while Mary is giving me a confused look. "I'm Gunner." the ex-military man interjects while struggling to stand. "This is not how I imagined we would exchange names..." "Well, nice to meet you guys regardless." Rick shrugs with a grateful smile. "It's a refresh from being ignored for so long. Even the danger was more exciting than living the same lonely routine here." "Yeah well, you didn't get beat up." Gunner retorts. "Try getting a few bruises next time and we'll see if your tune changes." "Why, when I can be smarter than that?" Rick replies smugly before glancing at Mary. Gunner rolls his eyes. "Oh yeah, I never caught your name either." Rick greets her while offering a handshake. "...I'm going to take a nap." she declined before entering back in the back seat of her car. "Man, what's her deal?" Rick inquires. "We saved her ass." "She's just like that." I reply. "I wouldn't call her a very warm person." "How did you even meet her, Drake?" Gunner questions. That's a good question to make up an answer for. I don't know how I can explain this away. "We're uh..." I utter while scratching my head. "coworkers. We operated at the same facility I was providing security for. That place is a wreck now so we're left here to fend for ourselves." "I see." Gunner examines further. "What industry were you two in?" "Um..." I mumble. "pharmaceutical. Our workplace was raided and trashed by druggies while we were gone. Nothing could be replaced. You know how those hooverville residents can be." "Sounds plausible." Rick shrugs. "We've always had a lot of junkies. I wish they didn't chase away all the access to the resources with their impulsiveness." Whew. They bought it. I hope I'm not unfortunate enough for them to see my other form. I haven't even seen it yet and I'm terrified of myself already. [Chapter 7: Investigation] {POV: Planetary President} Los Alamos... treading the fine line between security and the unknown. How did this even happen? How did a prisoner escape right under my nose? The more I dwell on it, the more it gnaws at the pillars of my sanity. Who IS this escapee? How did he get past the reinforced structures? The guards? Eventually a mangled entrance stands before my personal army and I, guarded by formidable security personnel clad in black, wearing high-tech helmets and visors. A black car glides into view, smooth and silent, and comes to a halt. The car door slides open, and a pair of immaculate black boots step out. A man in his investigator uniform emerges, dressed in a black tailored suit and a darkened visor. The security personnel snap to attention as the investigator approaches. One holds out a laser scanner, pointing it at the investigator's retina. A green light scans the visor, verifying identity. The security gates hiss and retract, allowing access to us all. I leave behind my private army to guard the perimeter besides my personal general. The investigator, my general and I enter the main laboratory room followed by my soldiers. Holy shit... Scattered fragments of glass and broken equipment are strewn across the floor... Countless shattered test tubes, vials, and beakers lie among the wreckage, their once-precious contents now spilled and mixed, creating an eerie display of colors and chemicals... Electrical cables hang loosely from the ceiling, stripped of their protective insulation and exposing their copper wires... Sparks intermittently interrupt the silence of the experience. The furniture, once sturdy and functional, now lies in tatters... Metal chairs... twisted and mangled, their frames permanently deformed... Desks... upturned and overturned. Papers, documents... scattered haphazardly throughout the room... Computers and their monitors cracked like mere vases... My general inspects the breakage strategically and curiously. He closely examines every mark and scratch to see the cause. Seems like he's never seen an occurrence like this before. Quite frankly, me neither... There's puddles of blood but no corpses... and a trail of blood spots leading to a room under heavy protection and maintenance. Yellow tape with "DO NOT CROSS" written on it covers the scene in a web. What the fuck was going on here?! "Investigator." I turn to him, trying to be as stoic as I can. "Explain this. What's the damage?" "We estimate the destruction spans from the front entrance to the human subject sector." he replies to me as he glances to the wall with a slightly perplexed look. "As far as explanations go, it seems to be the escapee is the host of some virus from the time of the dinosaurs. This virus can morph him into something beastly... something super-human." "Hmph! Another animal to control." my general scoffs. "It's no match for what we have. Just try to challenge our equipment. It's the state of the art and it's always improving." "I need to see this creature for myself." I demand the investigator. "Give me something." "Much obliged, your Excellency." he accepts. "Luckily camera feed is accessible." He turns away from me and walks down an intact, adjacent, white hallway covered in sterile tiles. The complimentary white doors that repeat down the distance create a serene monotony. I follow him and notice the airspace gives a sensation of a lack of emotion and a devotion to the science. The objectivity reflected in the lack of tint is a vacation from my bodily sensations. The bright ceiling lights leave little space for shadows, and blind any remaining ignorance. Technicians in their lab coats scurry from door to door, peddling the cycle of progress. This is real evolution. Soon this fleshy prison will be no more. My mind will be released from pain and organic limitations. Then, nobody will stop me. With the logic of silicon and metal, I'll show the world objective power. Nature can't keep up with me. The investigator leads me to a door with no label and guides me inside, revealing a surveillance room, plastered with security monitors on all four walls. One monitor catches my attention and depicts a certain room under quarantine and scrutiny. "Looks like you found the feed in question." the investigator uttered. "Now to show you what happened..." I hear the click of a button from the investigators direction and the monitor begins to load a recording... I see a nurse, two guards, and a patient strapped to his table. The guards stand complacent and bored. It's just another shift in their pathetic, meaningless lives. They could care less about what's happening. Looks like they deserved their fate. Meanwhile, that nurse... she's going above and beyond her job. She shouldn't be tenderly holding that menace... Does she even know where she works? The following moment, the patient gradually begins to moan and groan in agony. He twitches and flinches violently enough to make the table shake, like a desperate bug catching it's last breath. It's fascinating how people can be so silly in the face of futility. Isn't it simpler to know when to quit? To ease the suffering? The guards, alerted, surround the patient with suspicion and intense focus. They have their hands ready on their firearms. They stand still and idle, emotionless as they witness the misery. Next, the nurse distances herself from the patient due to his frightening behavior. Her eyes are wide and back is against the wall as she observes the mistake of a connection she made. That's right, you need to stay within the bounds of your jobs. You don't know what you're messing with. Suddenly, the table tremors become too intense for the patient's bondage and his restraints shatter from the resonance. In a flash, he yanks out a tube attached to his body and slashes it across both the guard's faces, catching them both wounded and dismayed as they fall to the floor on their backs, covering their bleeding faces. The patient springs from his table onto one of the guards and sinks his human teeth deep into their neck. The patient wrenches the guards head and tears it off, exposing a rich, red fountain of human essence. The patient revels and covers himself in the blood rain as he drinks from the crimson well. The blood from the multiple puncture wounds given to him by the medical equipment leak a peculiar, viscous blood. The heterogeneous blood covering the patient's entire surface area begins to mix, instantly drying and forming hard, dark, sharp scales in less than a minute. Subsequently he shifts to feasting on the deceased guard's flesh before the other guard makes a desperate attempt at attacking the creature. No luck, the mutant saw it coming. With a roar, the creature backhanded the other guard with enough force to send his back to the wall. The creature slowly approaches the other guard and looks down on them. The other guard glances up to the subject, helpless and defeated. Pathetic. A disgrace like you should fight to the end for your establishment. The monster disposes of the deadweight by collapsing the remaining guard's head in with a swift, single punch. Shame, that was more merciful than what happened to the last guard. Even this freak has more of a heart than me. How disappointing. It's alone being at the top. No one can share my ruthlessness. The nurse watches in sheer horror as the patient she thought she knew feasts on human beings right in front of her. The beast spares no limbs or fluids for his appetite. Fucking hell, he is voracious. Of all the tortures and executions I witnessed, none were this graphic... Now watch and see what you should be afraid of, you ignorant nurse. I'll never be as animalistic. That's why I'm the leader. I seek to rise above the same reptile we have in all of us. These corporal chains cannot limit me. After the beast finishes eating the corpses in their entirety, he turns his head to the nurse, glancing and idling. It seems as if he's processing the impact he made on her. She's been rendered to trembling in the fetal position, as if she's deathly afraid about her fate that is soon to come... but why is he not eating her? Does he actually have some control over this? He then turns to the door before struggling to open it. Out of frustration he assaults the door head-on with his full weight and demolishes it's integrity before exiting the room and the view of the camera feed. The video comes to a stop and I shift my attention to the investigator. "Fetch me the nurse." I order. "You still have her employed, right?" "Yes, sir." the investigator confirms. "We gave her vacation time after the disaster to distract her and keep her out of the way." "Well, time's up for her." I retort. "Plans have changed and she's involved." "Right away, Mr. President" the investigator accepts before he departs to the lab exit. My general turns to me with a concerned look that I haven't seen from him in a long time. "Sir, can we really handle this... thing?" he asks me. "I've never seen something like this in my war career..." I turn to him and narrow my eyes. "General, don't tell me you're disturbed by this." I challenge him. "I see this as an opportunity to have some fun. In the end this will merely be the last hurdle to jump. We may as well use this chance to show our might. To demonstrate our fierce opposition of enemies both domestic and abroad." My general hesitantly nods. He doesn't understand it yet. He'll catch up eventually. Now for that nurse... her background in biology and her seemingly previously intimate relationship with the prisoner, now irrevocably tainted by his ghastly transformation, strike me as useful assets. If harnessed correctly, she could prove invaluable in controlling him. I couldn't find better bait and manipulation... [Chapter 8: Renegades] {POV: Mary} Ugh... I hate it here. It's better than being caught but it would be nice to not smell filth, avoid hazards on the ground, and worry about suspicious neighbors. Everyone wants something. Everyone wants to talk because it's more than nothing for their boredom. How annoying. Can't they just go back to fishing for goods in the trash? I liked not being beholden to a community. I don't get how that mutant makes any friends here. That Rick guy is irritating. How can he be so cheerful? He's covered in dirt and flies. Sitting in the drivers seat of my car, I watch the mutant and his friend Rick spar for play while laughing as the sun rises. How peculiar. I could never understand wanting to hit my friend so casually. Wouldn't they be offended? Whatever. Where is Gunner, the other one? Out of the blue a police car pulls up steadily with flashing, blaring sirens. Rick and the mutant stop in place, turning to the arriving vehicle. The vehicle halts upon close proximity to them before a deputy turns the sirens off, steps out and approaches them both. I roll down the drivers side window and peek my head out to watch. "Excuse me, folks." he interrupts the moment. "This place is being cleared out so everyone needs to relocate." "Relocate?!" Rick asks genuinely dumbfounded. "To where? There's barely anywhere else to squat! What the hell do you guys plan to do with this place?" "My only concern is the automaton plant being developed here." the officer shines him off. "You two are going to have to figure out your own solutions." "You're not concerned about the consequences of this?" the mutant questions the cop. "What do you think people are going to do? Just rot away with nothing?" "I understand that." the policeman retorts. "But how does that affect me? I just want to live my life." "Yeah, at the expense of ours!" Rick begins to get upset. "That's just how the system is." the cop shrugs. "You don't think you're gonna share our fate?!" Rick annoyance becomes glaringly visible. "You're gonna end up just like us eventually! Just you watch!" "Calm down, Rick." the mutant tries to ease Rick before the cop notices me and pauses. Oh shit. I pull my head back in the car. He touches his earpiece and begins speaking obscure codes. "We have a 10-79, repeat, a 10-79 confirmed." he utters. "I have visual on a high-priority suspect, requesting immediate assistance, over." Looks like he's calling reinforcement... I think I've been recognized. The mutant notices the policeman's sudden focus on me and punches him across the face, briefly flooring him. The mutant makes a break for my car with Rick following behind, surprised and confused. The mutant enters the passenger's seat while Rick enters the back seat. "The fuck is going on here?!" Rick interrogates. "That cop didn't even speak to you before he called his partners! What are you on the run for??" I waste no time answering and activate the car before pulling out of the shanty town. I exit down the adjacent street and run traffic lights. "They're after her because of me." the mutant answers for me. "I'm the real problem." "Why?" Rick scratches his head. "Are you a terrorist or something?" "No." the mutant replies before turning his head to look at me. "I'm one of her experiments that couldn't be contained." "Pardon?" Rick tilts his head and raises an eyebrow, being even more perplexed. The mutant turns to the back seat and looks at Rick. "In other words..." the mutant continues. "I'm a man-eating creature in disguise that escaped with her." Rick straightens his head, raises his other eyebrow, and slightly drops his jaw at the information. "Man..." he blurts while putting the palm of his hand on his forehead. "this is heavy. You're telling me you're a monster? What about that security spiel? Was that all fibbing?" "Yeah, I lied." the mutant admitted. "I can't risk blowing our cover." "Don't be ridiculous, man." Rick assures him. "I'd never sell you out to the pigs. Fuck the state. Don't lie to me again. There isn't a lot of people you can trust anymore, and I'm one of them." We just met this guy. Does he really think trust comes that easy with everybody? I can only trust the mutant because we both know he needs me. Who does this Rick person think he is? "I appreciate your support, Rick," I interject, my voice calm but cautious. "But we've only just met. How can you be so sure about us?" Rick leans back in his seat, crossing his arms over his chest. The car stops at a red light adjacent to a bustling intersection. "Look, I've seen some weird stuff in my time," Rick begins, his tone serious. "And I've learned that sometimes, the people society deems as monsters are the ones with the most humanity. I may not know the full story yet, but I can sense that you both are running from something bigger than yourselves. Call it instinct or whatever, but I trust you." Touching... though I can't help but wonder if Rick's blind loyalty might be a liability in the long run. "Rick, your help is appreciated..." I say again, my voice softer this time. "but you need to understand that our situation is complicated. We're not just fugitives; we're hunted. And bringing someone else into the mix puts you at risk too." He chuckles, though there's a hint of seriousness in his eyes. "Risk doesn't scare me. Besides, helping people is all I've got left. So, let's focus on getting through this together, alright?" I glance at the mutant, who nods in agreement, seemingly grateful for Rick's trust. Fine. I guess this "Rick" could be useful. The traffic light turns green and I proceed down the street before the mutant glances out the passenger window. "We need all the assistance we can get." the mutant ponders out loud. "Im not sure we can defend ourselves against the police." "We can probably can." I hint. "I have firearms in the trunk that I didn't tell either of you about." Both of their eyes widen. "You what?!" the mutant blurts out loud. "How did you get those??" "Huh?!" Rick utters dumbfounded. "You mean to tell me you were armed this whole time? Why'd you keep this a secret too?" "I didn't want to complicate things further," I explain, my hands gripping the steering wheel tightly. "but if it comes down to protecting ourselves, we may not have a choice." The mutant nods in agreement, his eyes reflecting a mix of concern and determination. "We can't get caught and let ourselves be victimized." Rick leans forward, his eyes searching ours for sincerity. "I don't like violence, but if it means staying safe, I guess we don't have much of a choice-- but only if it means our self preservation. Otherwise, leave me out of it." Fair enough. He can stay back and protect me while the mutant executes my plans. Abruptly, echoes of sirens blare through the air behind us. Red and blue lights flicker and seize the visual attention of the atmosphere. "Speaking of…" Rick mumbles while looking out the rear window. "it's the officers. Looks like they've found us." I waste no time and press hard on the accelerator. The tires screech on the asphalt as we lunge forward, the chase beginning in earnest. The adrenaline courses through my veins, fueling my excitement. I maneuver the car with expert precision, expertly dodging through traffic, and taking every turn with calculated skill. The police cars behind us struggle to keep up, their sirens wailing in futile pursuit. "Man, I'm living large!" Rick exclaims. "It's like we're in a movie!" "We're not in a fucking movie, Rick." the mutant scolds him. "We need to find a way to park for a moment and get those guns. Just keep an eye on the cops." Rick nods with a straight face and shifts his focus back to the rear window. We dart through narrow alleyways, narrowly avoiding collisions with dumpsters and parked cars. The chase takes us through the heart of the city, the lights and sounds blending into a chaotic symphony. "We're still not losing them!" Rick groans. "These guys are just relentless..." "Hold on." I assure Rick before I take a sharp turn into a labyrinthine maze of backstreets. The police cars struggle to follow, their lights growing more distant. "Haha!" Rick laughs as he sways with my car's movements while keeping his attention on the gradually disappearing chasers. "Try to keep up with us now, suckers!" The red and blue lights fizzle out as we gain enough distance. Rick faces forward again and sighs with the mutant. "Now for a place to stop..." the mutant wonders while scanning the windows and mirrors. "There!" Rick points ahead accurately and instantly as if he recognized a familiar place through the windshield. I quickly swerve the car into the narrow alley, hoping it will be a temporary sanctuary away from the prying eyes of the police. The tires screech against the pavement as we narrowly avoid a stack of crates. The sound of the pursuing sirens becomes mute before we approach a small vacant lot. It's our chance to finally catch our breath and retrieve the weapons we stowed away in the trunk. Without hesitation, I jerk the wheel and steer the car into the lot, just as the police cruisers screech past the alley entrance. As we come to a halt, adrenaline still courses through my veins. I quickly jump out of the car, my heart pounding in my chest. The mutant follows suit, his eyes darting around the lot for any signs of trouble. We can't afford to let our guard down. Racing to the trunk, it recognizes me and unlocks. Inside, a cache of weapons awaits us, concealed among spare clothes, pharmaceuticals, and other supplies. I hand the mutant a rifle with a curved magazine. It's probably rapid-fire given by how similar it seems to the other firearms that belonged to the guards at Los Alamos. I obtain a pistol for myself out of the trunk before closing it. "We can't stay here for long," I say through gritted teeth. "We need to find another safe spot." As we regroup in my vehicle, sounds of sirens start flooding the air again. "We gotta keep going." the mutant demands. "We can't stay here." "To where?" I argue back. "Also, my car is low on energy and we won't be able to replenish it. We can't be frivolous about our destination." I check the energy meter of my car. It decreased from twenty to ten percent energy capacity just from the chase alone. What am I going to do with this vehicle after I can't energize it again? Just scrap it? I guess I might have to anyway eventually. This car will divulge my personal information to the authorities and compromise my cover if I were to let them access it. Now that I think about it, how else did the policemen find us? "I know!" Rick exclaims as he snaps his finger. "We could jack a ride from the rich district-- assuming no one gets hurt. The authorities will mistake us for a high-profile person." "That's not a bad idea, Rick." the mutant agrees. "But where are we gonna find another automobile out in the open?" "I hear the elite have nice and roomy parks." Rick suggests. "At least one of them has to be momentarily neglecting their car in the distance." "Sounds like a plan." I confirm as I accelerate the car out of the alley and merge with the adjacent street. I see no sign of any flashing lights, sirens, or law enforcement. Finally, I can relax for now... We casually stroll through the unassuming streets in my car, making our way to the affluent part of town. "Hey guys, where's Gunner?" Rick comes to a realization. "Have any idea where he is?" "I thought you did..." the mutant replies with concern. "Oh shit..." Rick face palms. "God damn it, Rick!" the mutant exclaims. "How could you lose him?!" "Give me a break, man!" Rick argues back. "I forgot that he said he was going to get us breakfast from the soup kitchen!" "Great. Just great." the mutant sighs in frustration. "Who knows what we've left him to..." I enter the affluent part of town, noticing the surroundings exude an air of opulence and order. The streets are impeccably clean, with not a single piece of litter in sight. They are lined with luxurious mansions, each displaying flawless architecture and meticulous landscaping. The houses are large and imposing, adorned with grand entrances and sleek, modern designs. The exteriors are made of high-quality materials, polished to a mirror-like sheen. Many of them have soaring glass windows, allowing glimpses of lavish interiors and displaying the wealth and sophistication of their residents. The neighborhoods themselves are impeccably planned, with wide lanes and perfectly manicured medians. Lush greenery lines the sidewalks, meticulously trimmed and maintained. The trees, neatly arranged in straight lines, cast shade over the streets, adding a touch of tranquility to the surroundings. There is a distinct absence of crowded public spaces or bustling markets. Instead, I notice impeccably designed parks and recreational areas, carefully laid out and kept in immaculate condition. These spaces offer opportunities for residents to relax and enjoy the meticulously manicured landscapes. Scattered throughout the area, I observe state-of-the-art surveillance technologies. Cameras monitor every corner, ensuring unavoidable security. The streets are fully automated, with smart traffic signals guiding the flow of vehicles efficiently. There is a distinct absence of public art or graffiti, as creative expressions are regulated tightly within prescribed limits. The buildings and public spaces seem tailored to function seamlessly, yet they lack the vibrancy and diversity often found in the free societies of the past. As we continue our drive through the affluent district, I can't help but feel a sense of unease amidst the apparent perfection. It all seems so artificial. The few people we pass by on the streets are impeccably dressed, moving with an air of purpose and importance. Their faces, however, betray a certain emptiness, as if they are merely going through the motions of their carefully curated lives. The pursuit of material wealth and control seems to have erased the essence of humanity, leaving behind a polished facade that denies individuality and authentic human experiences. Maybe this is why people seek warmth... "Fucking hell..." the mutant utters with self contempt. "I should've looked for Gunner. I'm just like Shadow. I thought about myself over Gunner when he needed us! God damn it! I'm sorry I betrayed you Gunner..." "Drake, calm down man." Rick assures the mutant. "You didn't mean to. You're a good guy for wanting to save Gunner, but we can't do that right now. We've been preserving ourselves since that police encounter." The mutant takes a long sigh and leans back in his seat, closing his eyes. "I can't stop thinking about how that cop saw through my disguise..." I utter. "Maybe their new fancy tech identified you or something." Rick suggests. "I mean, disguises have been a thing for a while to say the least. They've probably thought of that by now." He's probably right. Maybe there is nowhere to flee in the long run. At some point fighting might be the only option. "There's one!" Rick points one out with his finger. We approach a park that seems less manicured and pristine than the others. A single car, inconspicuously parked at the far end of the parking lot, catches our attention. It will do. I park my car in the spot next to it before we emerge and cautiously approach the other car, hoping that it is indeed unattended. Rick tries to open the driver's side door with no luck. I guess it doesn't hurt to try. "Locked..." he mutters. "Move!" the mutant alerts to Rick before he throws a considerably sized rock at the driver's side window. Rick leaps out of the way to the side, just in time before the rock leaves the former window in shatters. The car alarm activates and blares a far reaching noise. Expected, but a problem. The mutant reaches his arm through the other end of the window and opens the door from within. Guess those manual handles for safety reasons became a real hazard. What are they going to do with all that glass on the seat though? I decide to go to the trunk of my car for the last time and open it with my identity. I pull out a blanket I usually use for cold nights and approach the drivers seat of the other car before wiping the glass off, avoiding any cuts. "Thanks, I'll take it from here." Rick takes the initiative as he enters the drivers seat. "Rick, what are you doing?" I ask him, unsure of what he thinks he's doing. "Watch and learn." Rick replies. "Drake, break open the dashboard will you?" The mutant takes the butt of his gun and smashes it into the dashboard, exposing a hole and giving access to the circuitry. Rick starts redirecting some of the wires and the alarm stops. I... I'm at a loss of words. I have underestimated him. "See?" Rick says, smiling with a hint of pride. "Alright Drake, could you also do the steering column?" The mutant immediately impacts another hole with the butt of his gun, this time into the steering column. Rick attends to the new hole and starts doing his wire magic again. All of the car's electronics light up, indicating an unfamiliar name on the main screen to the right of the hole on the dashboard. "Ah, isn't it great?" Rick exhales. "No identification needed. Looks like we're all set now." Rick gets out of the drivers seat and stretches before suddenly pausing to gunshot sounds. He immediately collapses to the ground on his stomach, exposing multiple bullets on his back and an armed hover drone behind him making a reloading sound. Shit! "RICK!!" the mutant yells before aiming his rifle at the drone and shooting it down with a flash of bullets. He then opens the back seat door, chucks his rifle inside and rushes to Rick. He carries Rick into the back seat before slamming the door. "Get in the new car, now!" the mutant orders me. I race to enter the new car's driver's seat. I anxiously spectate the mutant move the contents of my car's trunk to the new car's trunk. I then look over at Rick who is lightly groaning. He is too resigned to the pain to move. Some of his blood is on the back seat... This actually makes me slightly uncomfortable to witness. I haven't felt empathetic like this towards anyone in a long time. Abruptly, I begin to hear the faint sound of hums. I check back on the mutant, who is bringing back what seems to be the last of what's left in my trunk. As he walks towards me, another armed hover drone rises up from behind him. Not this time. I pull the pistol out of my pocket. "Duck!" I command the mutant, who dives into the ground before I fire a bullet into the drones cameras and sensors. It malfunctions from it's faulty sensors and starts aimlessly flying around. It ends up crashing and exploding into a billboard that happened to be venerating the Planetary President; the advertisement for his fashion line burning away like his patience. "Serves you right..." Rick grunts at the billboard. The mutant gets up, dusting himself off before placing the last of my trunk's items into the new trunk. He closes the trunk before precieving something in the distance. "Oh great." he groans. "More company." I look in the same direction as him and observe four large bodyguards in all-black suits, sprinting towards us and armed with pistols. It'll take a minute before they catch up to us. The mutant closes the back seat door before navigating to the passenger's seat. He shuts the door and grabs his rifle. "Where are we going to take Rick?" I ask myself out loud, actually somewhat worried. "No hospital is going to take him... cameras, drones, and policemen have seen him associate with us already." "I remember a church near here somewhere..." Rick struggles to speak. "they know me. Th-They'll take me. They've seen worse." "It's our best shot." the mutant says resolutely. "It's too dangerous for him to be with us for now." "Agreed." I say before shutting the driver door and begin to back out of the parking space. "What about your car, Mary?" the mutant asks me. "Get rid of it." I wave it off. The mutant aims his rifle at the car and fires a train of bullets at it, compromising the circuits inside and starting a fire. "Let's bail." the mutant concludes. "Before things get hairy." I start accelerating and steering toward the exit before the bodyguards start firing rounds at us. All of the bullets miss due to being too far. The bodyguards attempt to enter their own vehicle before my car explodes into a fiery mess from the battery's now uncontrolled chemical reactions. We manage to flee into the adjacent street and continue on our way towards the church. A long, somber moment passes as we absorb the events that just happened. I calm myself by focusing on the uneventful street I'm on. I can still feel my heart pounding. I'm not sure I can ever stop being vigilant after this. "The church..." Rick struggles even more to speak. "is gonna come up on the right side..." I search for the church which reveals itself at the end of the block. As I approached the parking lot of the antiquated city church, a small wave of trepidation washed over me. The faded grandeur of the church's weathered stone facade loomed before me, bearing witness to countless years of history and whispers of the faithful. The once majestic bell tower, now slightly askew, reached towards the heavens like a stoic guardian, seemingly frozen in time. As I approached the parking lot of the antiquated city church, a small wave of trepidation washed over me. The faded grandeur of the church's weathered stone facade loomed before me. The parking lot itself seemed frozen in the past as well, adorned with rusted lampposts lining the edges. Their flickering lights attempted to pierce through the gloom, casting a dim glow upon the cracked asphalt below. Uneven white lines were barely discernible, fading into obscurity over the years. The mutant and I exit the new car and advance to the entrance of the structure. The mutant knocks on the old, weathered, wooden door before us. The door opens and we are greeted by a graceful man in robes. "How may I help you?" the robed man asks with genuine concern and curiosity. "We have a man injured by bullets to the back." the mutant answers. "His goes by the name Rick for reference." "Rick..." the robed man looks down, now glum. "I wish you hadn't left us. You're safer here." "Well he's back now." the mutant continues. "He won't be going anywhere until he feels better. We'll come back and check on him in a few days." The robed man nods before the mutant walks to the new car and carries Rick inside the church. The robed man shifts his attention to me. "How'd you two meet Rick?" the robed man inquires with interest. "We haven't seen him in a long time." "It's a long story." I exhale. "It's not easy for people to understand." "I see." the robed man comments before the mutant comes back to us without Rick. The mutant turns to the robed man. "What are you guys gonna do when you get caught with hosting someone associated with us?" the mutant asks with concern. "There's cameras everywhere. They'll affiliate us with you for showing up here." "They won't find us." the robed man assures the mutant. "We rotate between churches periodically. We also switch up the order and patterns to our rotations to keep the detectives guessing. They'll find nothing but empty space if they search this place." "Smart." I give a rare compliment to the robed man. He humbly smiles. "Mary." the mutant addresses me. "Let's unwind and have a drink. We earned it." Yeah, I could use a drink. I need to relax after all of this chaos. I come back to the new car with the mutant and enter it before pulling out of the parking lot. "I know where the bar is from here." the mutant begins. "Rick, Gunner, and I would go there every night. The owner would let us earn beers by working behind the kitchen for a few hours." "Alright." I accept. "Is it near where the shanty town was?" "Yeah." he confirms before beginning to point directions to me. Time passes and we pull into the bar's parking lot. The bright signs on the building project a red hue on the ground and activity into the night sky. We enter through the front door and take a seat at the stools, passing by the wandering fumes that cloud the airspace. Monitors at each corner of the room talk over the chatter of the patrons as they pay no attention to anyone outside their own groups. Warm colored, lit signs of ubiquitous beer brands cover all four walls. Looks like the town is still awake. The bartender approaches our section of the counter. Bottles of hard liquor stand on the counter behind him like an army of pacification. "What can I get you two?" he queries. "Your cheapest beer." the mutant requests. "I'll come back and work in the morning to make up for it." The bartender shakes his head and waves his hand. "You've helped us out a lot." they politely decline. "Have a break tonight. These are on the house." For the first time ever I witness the mutant smile. "You guys are the best." the mutant praises, holding back his enthusiasm. The bartender winks before quickly fetching us two bottles. The mutant gives the bartender a toast and I take a sip before watching one of the monitors, currently set on the local news channel. A news anchor is shown casually discussing literacy rates before they hold their earpiece as if they're receiving new information. "We have some breaking news just in." the anchor interrupts. "A man-like reptilian beast has wreaked havoc on the Los Alamos laboratory. This creature is said to have super-human strength and agility. For evidence we will provide the following image." The screen is filled by a picture with that familiar, intimidating form I know too well. He's standing over puddles of blood and facing the cell door while the nurse behind him is curled up, cowering in horror. Below the image is a banner with the caption "MUTANT ESCAPEE". I glance at the mutant next to me who is still as stone, processing and witnessing the horrifying side of himself. "That's me, isn't it?" the mutant asks me while taking a large swig from his bottle before hanging his head down. "Yeah..." I admit. "That's how we escaped." The patrons begin to chatter louder and more anxiously with gasps as they react to the image on the news feed. "Dude... what the hell is that?" a patron blurts to the monitor. "It's a freak of nature!" "Yeah..." another patron from the opposite side of the room agrees. "That monstrosity should be put out of it's misery." "No way." a lone patron from the corner speaks out. "It should be captured so we can learn about it and know how to control it." "If only they knew..." the mutant mumbles to me as he takes another impressive swig from his bottle. I look back at the monitor and see the anchor interview three experts at the news desk. One expert claims to be a geneticist, the other a biologist, and the last a security professional. "You have qualifications in genetics." the anchor turns to the geneticist. "How do you explain an anomaly like this?" "Well... um..." the geneticist rubs their chin. "my team is currently trying to figure that out right now. We don't know of any genetic instructions in nature for this sort of thing. It's almost like it's from a different world." "Doctor," the anchor leans in a bit closer. "are you telling me this is not from earth?" "No." the geneticist declines. "We don't believe in that. The most plausible explanation is that these genetics were synthetic." "I see." the anchor says before turning to the biologist. "Does biology have a retort for this? You would know." "I'm afraid I don't." the biologist admits. "Frankly, I see no rhyme or reason for this event. Like the geneticist said, I believe this is a rather unnatural mutation. I mean, the mutant escaped from a lab after all." "Very true." the anchor replies before shifting their focus to the security professional. "You are experienced in security. Were there any problems?" "Not to my knowledge." they answer. "This... thing was simply too much for the state-of-the-art protection installed in the facility, including the systems and the well-equipped guards." "Intriguing." the anchor responds as the interview concludes and the camera focuses solely on them again. "As of now, the mutant's threat rating is currently the highest at rank S." the anchor reports. "Avoid this individual and the female scientist associated with them at all costs. They are dangerous and must be reported to the authorities at the earliest opportunity." I've always wondered what it would be like to be famous. I never imagined it would be like this though. Not as a target. Whatever. The mutant and I indulged in our drinking and became increasingly intoxicated as the night went on. Things start to become blurry... [Chapter 9: Persuasion] {POV: Dorothy} A heavy feeling of dread settles deep within the pit of my stomach. The mere thought of returning to that lab, the haunting place where my reality shattered... It's been days since the incident, days since the soldier escaped and my refuge became a corridor of haunting memories. I had hoped my vacation was longer and would grant me respite, a chance to escape the nightmares... But it seems the President has other plans for me, plans that gnaw at the fragile remnants of my sanity. Why must he personally summon me back to this wretched lab tonight? What purpose could it serve, other than to plunge me back into the heartache and torment that I so desperately sought to escape? Each step I take towards my destination feels like a hesitant march towards my own destruction, my own unraveling. Memories flood my mind, replaying images of chaos and despair. The stifling smell of blood mixing, the anguished cries that echoed through the sterile walls, and the haunting sight of the soldier breaking free from their restraints, eyes aflame with a desire for freedom - freedom from a world that labeled them a monster. He consumed those human beings like an animal... He felt like a danger at the time... but... he didn't kill me... and I can't get this out of my mind. It's driving me crazy! Did he still know who I was? I... I find myself questioning my own actions. Should I have been there for him? I believed in his innocence, his humanity, but I didn't want to share his fate... and now... I can't help but feel guilty. As I draw nearer to the lab, escorted in an armored vehicle by two guards, the dread I feel intensifies. The once familiar sight now appears alien, the walls now adorned with an aura of menace and despair. I can already envision the icy corridors, stretching out endlessly like a torturous labyrinth. With each heartbeat, my trepidation grows, my mind replaying the scenes of that fateful day over and over again. We're dropped off at the entrance before we're swiftly allowed through by one of the guards' identification. As I step inside that lab... a chill runs down my spine. The air thick with an aura of secrecy and authority... the corridors are suffused with a sterile white glow. Clinical, cold lights line the ceiling. The sound of buzzing machinery and hushed whispers fills the air, creating an eerie atmosphere that hangs heavy around me. The two guards escorting me wear crisp, black uniforms, their eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses, and their stern emotionless expressions. Their large figures impose a dominating presence along the hallway. I walk cautiously along the sleek corridors. The white, tile walls on every surface give an illusion of infinite space. The sound of my footsteps reverberates throughout the hallway, only briefly interrupted by the occasional distant hum of machinery. Along the walls, I notice emergency exit signs, typically a comforting sight, but there's no refuge for me... Along the way, I pass several isolation chambers, their transparent walls lined with tubes and wires connected to strange contraptions. Within, I catch glimpses of ethereal pale figures, wearing clinical gowns, hunched over lab benches. Their slow movements imply years of devotion to their work, seemingly undeterred by the lack of life running through their veins. They make it seem like it's business as usual. We approach a unique looking reinforced door with a considerably-sized camera directly above it. Next to it is a sign depicting "CONTROL ROOM". A couple seconds pass and the door opens as if we were expected. I advance through the door as the guards stay back and let the door close by itself. The sheer size of the control room is overwhelming, stretching out before me like a vast canvas embedded with the machinery of control, radiating an eerie glow from the countless monitors lining the walls. The air is heavy with antiseptic, mixed with a faint scent of ozone. The clinical lighting casts sharp shadows, emphasizing the sterile undertones that permeate the space. A circular table sits at the center of the room, surrounded by a dozen seats. At the other side of the table is the President himself, watching the monitors in front of him. My heart starts racing. The stories I hear are never short when it comes to dealing with him. They don't tend to be that positive either... "Thank you for coming, Dorothy." he greets me while still facing away. "I called you here because you have a relationship of interest." I guess he already knows who I am. Perhaps that's how I was recognized. But relationship of interest? He couldn't mean... "What do you mean, sir?" I try to clarify in the most graceful tone. The President turns around and looks my way, showing his medal-decorated, stylish, white military coat. They reflect the combined light from the monitors and cold ceiling lights and give him an artificial illumination. "The mutant." he cuts to the chase. "You know who I'm talking about." I swallow my spit in fear. "What about him?" I ask nervously, feeling sweat start to form on my forehead. "Take a seat." he advises as he approaches the table and sits on the chair closest to him. He reaches his open hand out to the chair on the opposite side of him. I slowly sit down on it, feeling the gravity of the situation. "Dorothy, we have a situation at hand." he explains. "We need to interrogate him, and I require your assistance." No... he wants to... no... not to that soldier. Please. This can't be real! Why did I have to get caught up in this?! I wish someone else had to help this sadist besides me... "Sir, I understand the urgency, but I know the mutant you're referring to." I gently argue. "I'm torn between my emotions and my professional duties." "I appreciate your honesty, Dorothy." he retorts. "I assure you that I do not take my decisions lightly. This mutant poses a significant threat to our society, and by working together, we can ensure the safety of our people. Your skills and knowledge as a nurse, in combination the mutant's sympathy for you, will be crucial in obtaining useful information to protect us all." "I'm not sure I can handle it, Mr. President." I contend. "I can't separate my feelings from this." "Dorothy, this mutant has demonstrated potentially dangerous abilities." he discusses. "Our duty lies in safeguarding our society, and sometimes that means making difficult choices. It is paramount that we uncover the truth and prevent any potential harm to our citizens." "How do we know he's so dangerous?" my emotions start to energize my tone as I quarrel. "He was probably only trying to escape." "Your compassion is commendable, Dorothy." he compliments me. "But he probably didn't have enough time. If he wasn't running away from us, what do you think he would've done to you?" I pause for a moment, contemplating his words... could he... could he be right? "How do you know he's capable of that??" I ask even more intensely. "Because your supervisor, Mary, is missing with him too." he explains. "She did not come with him willingly, and she was the one responsible for his predicament in the first place. Just connect the dots. He's kidnapped her. Imagine what he could be doing to her right now." His words send more chills down my spine. My mind races with conflicting thoughts and emotions. I don't like Mary, but I don't wish her a cruel fate either. I desperately hope this isn't true. I thought I had someone to trust. Tears start welling up in my eyes as I struggle to process the idea. It feels like the ground beneath me is crumbling, and I find it hard to believe that someone I trusted could be capable of such actions... I feel so alone in this world. The President's words echo in my mind, reminding me of the potential danger that lurks within this mutant. Taking a deep breath, I wipe away the tears threatening to spill over. I cannot afford to let my emotions cloud my judgment now. This is a pivotal moment, and the lives of countless people may depend on the choices I make. "Sir, if what you say is true," I finally respond, my voice steady but filled with concern. "Then we cannot afford to waste any more time. I will do whatever it takes to protect our society and uncover the truth." He nods approvingly, acknowledging my commitment. "Good," he says. "I knew you would make the right choice. We will work together to ensure the safety of our citizens. You will be moved to Area 51 for the duration of the task. You will be set up in the Nevada Test and Training Range. I will accommodate food, lodging, transportation, etc. My only condition for you is to comply with the mission." I give a slow nod before he dismisses me with a wave. I make my way to the door which automatically opens when my proximity is close enough. The door shuts itself as I progress down the hallway with the guards who were waiting there the whole time. Did they hear our discussion? Do they believe him? I don't think I have any other choice...