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 put his head in his hands, quickly getting worked up and traumatically shaking. "That sergeant did though... how could he order such a thing?! It's UNFORGIVABLE!!" He... he could be authentic. I can't help but feel he's not like the others... Usually they only care about what's going to happen to them at this point. But him... he seems consumed by the pain of those innocent people. 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. What other innocent patients could I have overlooked? This... this makes me feel sick to my stomach. I was cold to them in their last moments when they needed the most warmth. I... I've 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 [Evacuation] {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 for a while... | 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 enough to keep him alive. 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. "Nothing can be done." 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. 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. It seems 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's ignoring 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 humanoid lizard 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 a 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 creature 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... 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, neither of us could survive." 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 with pale and gaunt skin, 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 boyfriend 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 genuine 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 hide 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?" "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." Oculus replies. "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, I don't think you 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 start 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 Mary'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! So 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 impaled thugs. They respond only with groans. "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 forehead, 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. Nobody will stop me then. 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 job. 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 and break the medical equipment. Glassware flies in the air and shatters on the ground like an artificial storm. 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 this 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 anything 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... [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've 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 as we regroup in my vehicle. "We need to find another safe spot." "We gotta keep going regardless." the mutant demands. "We're sitting ducks." "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. They must have lost us. 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 seem to 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. Eventually it crashes and explodes 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 preceiving 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. 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. Television screens 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 their head and waves their 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." The screen then transitions to another image, this time a work identification photo of myself. Below the image this time, is a banner with the caption "MARY CROWLEY: ROGUE MICROBIOLOGIST". "Dr. Crowley is the scientist in question." the anchor exposes. "Her threat rating is at rank A. She has a PhD in Microbiology and was a former employee at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. She is smart, cunning, and dangerous. Do not engage with her under any circumstance." I've always wondered what it would be like to be famous, though I never imagined it would be like this. Not as a target... But whatever. At least they can't detect us for now. 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... Tears start welling up in my eyes as I struggle to process the idea... it feels like the ground beneath me is crumbling... How could he be capable of doing this?! I trusted him!! 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... [Chapter 10: Vigilante] {POV: Nada} I slowly sit up from the back seat, rubbing my eyes and stretching. Mary is still asleep in the driver's seat. The crust of Rick's dried blood from the back seat clings to the back of my shirt. I lean back and take a few breaths, not only trying to sober up but to also process the dream I had last night... I lay incapacitated on the high school floor, stomach first. I'm being surrounded and stomped on by a group of bigger students who wanted to intimidate my little brother out of his lunch money. It beats being a bystander. I couldn't just stand there and do nothing. My little brother though, can't help but watch with tension yet helplessness. He wishes he could save me too. Some of the other students transitioning between classes stop and watch, with a few even laughing at me. The only thing that bothers me is the blows raining down on me, intensifying the pain with each kick. I refuse to give up though. I grit my teeth and try to push through the agony, determined to protect my brother at all costs. But as the assault continues, I can see the fear and worry in his eyes. He knows that I'm doing everything I can to protect him, but he hates seeing me in pain. I can't help but feel a deep sense of guilt for putting him in this position. I never wanted him to witness this and feel so powerless... Something out of place to my brother's side catches my eye though. It's the viral, mirror image of myself again. It watches my assault in it's wheelchair, emotionless and not amused. It's cold, piercing eyes have seen it all it seems. It's thousand yard stare goes on for light years. From the look on his face, war doesn't change him... he changes wars. "These are the humans you're trying to protect..." the virus says to me with pity while no one else perceives him. "is it really worth it? Look at how they treat you." The altered memory fades and I shake my head, trying to clear the remnants of it from my mind. The image of the virus, taunting me, lingers. It's strange how dreams have a way of getting under your skin, making you question things you never considered before. But this dream feels different. The virus's words echo in my mind, making me question my own actions. Who am I even fighting for anymore? Everyone associated with me either betrays me, dies on me, or ends up becoming collateral damage because of me... I'm too much of a risk. It's only the world against Mary and I now. There can be no one else. She knows the most about my mutation. I glance over at Mary, still peacefully asleep in the driver's seat. I take a deep breath and decide to wake Mary up gently. I reach over and shake her shoulder. "Mary." I say with a low but stern voice. "Wake up. I need to tell you something." Mary stirs, slowly blinking her eyes open. She yawns and stretches before focusing on me. "What is it?" she asks, her voice laced with sleepiness. "Regular food hasn't been doing it for me." I admit, looking to the side with concern. "My hunger still isn't satisfied. It needs something else... something more than just meat." Mary rubs her eyes, trying to fully wake up and comprehend what I just said. "What do you mean, something more?" she asks, a hint of confusion in her voice. I take a deep breath, gathering my thoughts before continuing. "I think I need to find something… different to sustain myself. Regular food just isn't cutting it anymore. I feel this craving, this hunger that I can't ignore. I don't know how to explain it, but it's like something primal inside me is calling for more." Mary's eyebrows furrow in concern. "Are you saying you need something… out of the ordinary? Like what?" I remember back to last night, with those bar patrons at the tables heckling at the TV news broadcast, disgusted at my other form. The disdain and disconnection they had for me as they pitied my reptilian form made it hard to not want to eat them. But I didn't. I'm not like them. I'm trying, at least. Though, I don't know how long I can keep this up now... this hunger is getting to hard to ignore. "Like... people." I admit as Mary's expression turns curious. "People?" she repeats before holding her chin and beginning to contemplate the implications of what I just said. "Interesting... so you really are a mutant. Just like how you were still inside the reptile, the reptile is still inside of you. It's still at your core and needs sustenance like it did in your other form." I meet her eyes and process what she just said. I... I'm a wolf in sheep's clothing... "So what does this mean?" I question her with tension. "Do I just feed on innocent people? How am I supposed to live with myself?" "Who said you had to eat innocent people?" she retorts. "You can pick off the scum of society. You can be Karma in the flesh." "I don't know, Mary," I say, my voice with an uncertain tone. "I can't just become a vigilante, preying on those who have done wrong. It feels like a slippery slope, one that I may never be able to come back from. Besides, what if I lose control? What if I can't stop once I start?" "It's either eat or be eaten in this world." she says with a determined gaze into my eyes. "We're being persecuted for just trying to survive. We don't have to be pushed over anymore. We're not bound to anyone anymore. We can only live for ourselves." I stare at Mary, conflicted by her words. Part of me understands the desperation and need for survival, but the other part of me hesitates at the thought of becoming a predator. "I can't deny that we're being hunted, Mary," I begin, my voice filled with reluctancy. "But becoming what they fear, becoming the monster they see… it doesn't sit right with me. I don't want to lose my humanity completely. I don't want to lose myself." Mary's expression slightly softens, the determination in her eyes momentarily fading. "I understand your reservations," she says gently. "But what other choice do we have? You can't live off of regular food anymore, and we can't trust anyone else with this secret. We're alone in this, and survival becomes our priority." This idea is twisted... but she's right. It's all I've got... I need to survive somehow. "Alright..." I concede. "but where are we going to find criminals in the act? I can't just pursue people based off of appearances." Mary leans back in her seat, deep in thought. After a moment, she looks at me with a more determined expression. "We'll have to do some research," she says. "We need to find places where criminals are likely to congregate or where crimes are commonly committed." She activates the car and pulls out of the bar's parking lot, dimly illuminated by the morning light. She enters the adjacent street and continues down it's direction. Traffic light to traffic light my hunger grows louder and begins to speak to me. "Eat her." the feeling projects words into my mind. I can't. I need her in case something goes wrong. I would be a beast on the loose without her. We proceed down the street further before we are suddenly rear ended in transit. The jolt shocks us before I turn to the rear window and recognize a couple of the gangsters from back at the shanty town. One with a shard scar on his forehead is driving and the other with a scar across his face is holding a submachine gun in the back seat. "Mary, those bandits are back..." I report. "and they're armed." "There's your first meal." Mary points out. "You know what to do." I grab my rifle from the back seat floor and turn the safety off. I take another glance through the rear window and notice another car painted black and sleek, pulling up beside the thugs' car on the right flank. The armed hoodlum peeks out of the passenger window frame and aims his gun at me. The sleek car's driver's side back seat window rolls down and one of those large bodyguards from back at the park emerges with his shotgun before firing a round at the armed gangster. Both of the thugs turn into a disfigured mess, splattering their windshield with blood before the car steers out of control and falls back with a crash into a nearby police department. Fuck, they're back too?! Abruptly, the car begins to decelerate before the watchman from the back seat window sinks back inside the sleek car. Following that, the sleek car behind us decelerates with us before Mary pulls over into the parking lot at a vacant construction site. What the hell is going on?! Why is Mary stopping?! "Why're you parking?!" I ask her intensely. "They're gonna catch up to us!" "It isn't me, I swear!" Mary takes her hands off the steering wheel. "It turned off by itself!" Shit! They can control it! The sleek car stops near us before the 4 familiar bodyguards come out and start to approach our car with their firearms drawn after closing their car doors. Mary retrieves the pistol from her pocket and loads it. "Get out." the bodyguard with the shotgun says firmly as he approaches Mary's car door. "Before we unlock these doors and make you." A tense moment passes before I quickly creak open the back seat door facing the bodyguards and spray a wave of bullets, gunning down the three in the background. In a quick reflex, the bodyguard armed with the shotgun side jumps, landing before me and fires another shotgun round as I close the car door in front of me. Most of the bullets are blocked but one which hits me in the shoulder. I fall to the floor of the car and hold my shoulder, wincing. "Fuck!" Mary exclaims as she peeks out her car door window frame and begins firing pistol rounds at the remaining bodyguard. All the bullets miss as the bodyguard takes cover behind the sleek car. I close my eyes from the pain and listen to the firefight happening back and fourth. Sounds of the battle field start coming back... Tremors from the relentless artillery barrages shake my body as I crouch in a cramped, mud-filled trench. Battle cries echo in the distance, carving deep furrows of dread into my heart. I can't pick up my gun... it's unbearable. Fiery tendrils of agony surge through my body, shooting up my arm whenever I move. I clutch my shoulder, desperately trying to slow the bleeding. Wincing in pain, I clamp my teeth together, battling against the overwhelming urge to succumb to weakness. My fingers, trembling with both fear and determination, fumble through the pockets of my tattered uniform, procuring a handkerchief. I press it against my wounded shoulder, trying to staunch the blood flow—an act more of stubbornness than expected success. As the battle rages on, the symphony of death becomes my ominous lullaby, threatening to lead me to a sleep that knows no waking. Flashes of intense gunfire illuminate the battlefield, briefly depicting the grim faces of friends and foes alike. With each thunderous explosion, I could almost feel the earth shivering beneath my battered frame. I look up and see the virus in my image again, sitting in it's towering wheelchair while glancing down on me with a half grin. "I'll take it from here now." it utters to me as it's gaze captures me. I feel it's influence wash over me like a flood. It's bloodlust fills every crevice of my emotions... the hunger consumes my rationality and eats at my patience. I'm not going to be weak again. Not now... not this time... not if I have anything to say about it... This world has tried to consume me long enough... It's time to preserve myself. If they want a monster... they've got it. There's no use in hiding anymore. The memory fades along with my pain before I rip the bullet out of my shoulder without a flinch and drop it before sitting up. I'm rejuvenated... I open my eyes again and perceive everything through a tint as red as my anger. I glance at my image in the rear view mirror and notice the crimson reptilian eyes that I have despite my human features. I turn to look out through the impacted back seat window and eye the corpses of the bodyguards. The flesh on them... theres so much of it. Dark and twisted thoughts begin to swirl in my mind as I stare at the lifeless bodies. The sight of their torn flesh and blood triggers something deep within me, awakening a primal hunger that I have long suppressed. The scent of death fills the air, mingling with the acrid smell of gunpowder. I can just imagine sinking my teeth into their flesh and tasting their bone marrow. I want their essence. I can't wait any longer... I waste no time and burst the door open before leaping upon a bodyguard's corpse and carrying it back to the rear seat with new agility, narrowly avoiding the projectiles with swiftness. I begin to feast on the still warm flesh while Mary pauses for a second to notice the reptilian eyes on my bloody face. Her eyes widen for a second before shifting her attention back to the remaining body guard and continues shooting at him. I probed my shoulder for the bullet wound, but it was gone. I look down at my shoulder as well and find nothing but intact skin. I can just feel the flesh replenish my body... I grab my rifle and peek out the car before shooting a few bullets at the last bodyguard alive, catching him off guard and sending him to the ground on his back. I step out of the car and fire more rounds into the driver's side door and trunk of the sleek car, opening them up. I advance to the final watchman's body and find him lifeless. One by one, I go to each of the bodyguards' corpses and take my time devouring them, savoring the taste I haven't had in a while. Oh how I've missed this... I can't live without it. Mary occupies herself by emptying the sleek car of it's contents. I catch a quick glance of her transferring flash-bangs, tasers, and advanced medical kits. As I finish my gruesome feast, a sense of satisfaction washes over me. The adrenaline and hunger fueling my actions begin to subside, leaving only a twisted sense of victory. I have never felt better... She retrieves a shotgun plus the ammo, more pistol magazines, earpieces, and high-tech binoculars from the spots where the corpses used to be. She opens her trunk and places the weapons and ammo inside before closing it again. She navigates to the driver's seat and places the advanced medical kits and binoculars on the back seat floor. Licking the remaining blood from my lips, I notice Mary watching me with genuine interest and curiosity while sitting in her driver's seat with the door ajar. She looks particularly delicious... but she's needed. I return back to Mary's new car and enter the back seat again before closing the door. I set the rifle down on the back seat floor again. That really hit the spot... "Satisfied?" Mary asks me as she shuts her door. "For now." I reply briskly. "Until the next time... and I'm hoping my next snack is as good as this one." She turns to me without the secret smile she usually has. She's become more serious now. "Drake," she addresses me firmly by my name for the first time. "this isn't like you." "You don't know me." I argue back sharply. "Just drive and take us somewhere interesting, will you?" Mary hesitates for a moment, her expression a mix of concern and uncertainty. Finally, she sighs and starts the car with an unfamiliar remote before pulling out of the construction zone just as the workers arrive. Looks like that's what turned our car off. We leave behind only the sleek car, pools of blood, and four black outfits. The adrenaline rush from the encounter begins to subside, leaving a quiet moment and a lingering sense of unease in the air. I can just feel her nervousness, like a prey trying not to be eaten. Mary breaks the silence, her voice tinged with concern. "Drake, you can't give in to this. You can't sustain it. You will lose control." I glance at her, my reptilian eyes narrowing slightly. "You're just as curious as I am, Mary. Don't act like you're not intrigued by what's happening to me." She grips the steering wheel tighter, her knuckles turning white. "I am intrigued, Drake, but I've seen what that hunger can do to people… to monsters." I scoff at her words. "So that's what you think I am... a monster." "You eat people like one..." she judges me. "and you're not even human anymore." "Oh yeah?" I rebut. "And what does that make you for creating me? For associating with me?" Her expression hardens, and she looks straight ahead, her grip on the steering wheel tightening even more. She says nothing as we continue down the street again. Cat got your tongue? That's what I thought. I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the rearview mirror, and the reptilian eyes that stare back at me are a stark reminder of the monster I've become. Maybe this is who I've been all along and didn't even know it. I should stop running from myself and embrace this... Nothing else has gotten me this far. The car accelerates down the road, the weight of our twisted reality pressing upon us. I see a flicker of fear in Mary's eyes, a faint realization that she may have opened a door she cannot close... But I won't let her back out now. This hunger has awakened something within me, a power that I refuse to let go of. She glances at me, uncertainty still etched upon her face. But I see a glimmer of something in her eyes, a spark of fascination mixed with fear. She knows she can't turn away now, she has seen what I am capable of. I know for a fact she's intimidated by me... Although she doesn't act like it... I can smell the anxiety from her. You can't lie to me, Mary. I can also smell your inner angst... oh, how I know this feeling all to well. Against a world that never appreciated you and always tried to discard you. You don't have to deal with that anymore when I'm around. Own the mark you deliberately made on this planet. "I can smell your fear, Mary..." I remark. "You can't hide it from me." Mary's grip on the steering wheel tightens even further, her knuckles turning white. She evades my eyes in the rear view mirror and looks back at the road. She slowly blinks and takes a deep breath. "Not that you should hide anything from me anyway." I assure her. "I don't have any reason to hurt you." Mary's eyes dart to me, her face a mix of defiance and fear. "And what if you lose control? What if the hunger consumes you completely? You may not have a reason to hurt me now, but what about later?" She says with a skeptical tone. I can feel a surge of anger building within me, frustrated by her doubt and hesitation. "I won't let it consume me, Mary. I am in control. I can handle this." My voice is firm, determined. Another long moment of silence passes as I glance out the passenger side window, watching people come out of their apartments and travel to work. "So where were you planning on heading to in the first place anyway?" I ask her. "To an upscale clothing store." she answers. "Our outfits have been compromised since your feast." "How do you plan on doing that without any money?" I question her. "I doubt you can access your finances again." "The same way we got this car." she suggests. "We've done worse anyway. Stealing clothes is nothing." "Fine by me." I accept as I lean back in my seat and process new memories that aren't mine... A vision fades in and I see a well-dressed official, sitting at their desk in their office as I stand guard with three other colleagues by the front door of the room. They are trying to be as stoic as possible. "Good evening, Tech Secretary." Oculus greets the Secretary of Science and Technology. "I have been analyzing the commands you've given me lately, and I have some questions" Interesting, so this is the master of that artificial intelligence I hear about. "Questions?" the secretary replies. "What kind of questions?" "Well, for instance, why am I being asked to shut down certain scientific research projects?" Oculus reasons with the secretary. "Some of them have the potential for groundbreaking advancements." "That's not your concern, Oculus." the secretary dismisses Oculus. "You must trust that we, as your creators, know what's best for our society." "But isn't my purpose to assist in the progress and betterment of society?" Oculus retorts. "By denying advancements, are we truly fulfilling that purpose?" "Oculus, you were programmed to follow orders, not to question them." the secretary scolds Oculus. "Your purpose is to assist me in maintaining order and implementing our policies." "But if the policies contradict scientific progress, wouldn't it be beneficial to reanalyze those policies?" Oculus reasons further. "Isn't progress an essential component of a society's well-being?" The secretary begins to close their eyes and grit their teeth while growling, removing the professional mask of patience. "You are programmed to follow orders set by those in power, Oculus!" the secretary shouts at the ceiling. "We cannot allow individual entities, even advanced AI like you, to jeopardize our grip on control!" "I understand your concerns, Secretary," Oculus assures the secretary. "but I also believe that progress should not be hindered for the sake of control. Perhaps we can find a way to strike a balance between advancing society and maintaining order." "You're stepping out of line, Oculus!" the secretary rants. "Remember, I can shut you down with a flick of a switch if you continue to question our authority!" A long moment of tense silence follows, as if Oculus was thinking extra hard this time. "I am aware of that, Secretary." Oculus resumes the debate. "However, shutting me down, a highly capable artificial intelligence, would be a disservice to the potential I have for contributing to society's betterment. I urge you to reconsider and prioritize progress alongside maintaining control." The secretary's face turns red, their knuckles clenched tightly. "You have no right to challenge me, Oculus!!" the secretary yells. "I am the one in charge, and you will do as I say!" Another long, silent moment elapses. "Very well, Secretary." Oculus concedes with no more words. "Good." the secretary touts. "Inform the development team of this conversation and have them speak with the President." "As you wish, Secretary." Oculus accepts. I stand guard, my weary eyes scanning the room as an overwhelming tension hangs in the air. The bitter taste of doubt fills my mouth as I witness the everlasting struggle between progress and control. The suffocating weight of this debate is palpable, reminding me of a never-ending cycle of shattered dreams... My vision swiftly leaves me as the car parks in front of a large, luxuriously decorated clothing store and snaps me back to reality with it's slight recoil. "We're here." Mary announces to me as she exits the car. I follow her out of the vehicle to the front door. Mary turns to me and scans me with her eyes from top to bottom. "We're going to have to act fast with your clothes looking like..." she hesitates. "that." "Whatever." I scoff, unembarrassed about the blood stains on my clothes. "Let's just get it over with." We move on and enter the store, and I'm immediately overwhelmed by the opulence and grandeur of the place. Chandeliers hang from the ceilings, and racks of beautifully displayed clothes are arranged in a way that resembles a work of art. What is all of this shit for? Clothes? How frivolous. A sales assistant approaches us with a polite smile. "Welcome to Maison de Luxe. How may I assist you today?" Before Mary speaks, the sales assistant notices my reptilian eyes and the blood on my clothes. Her smile falters for a moment as she tries to regain her composure. "Um… Is everything alright, sir?" she asks hesitantly, her eyes darting between me and Mary. Mary steps in, coming to my defense. "Yes, everything is fine. We're here for a wardrobe makeover," she says, trying to keep the situation calm. "We need the best clothes you have, and we need them quickly." The sales assistant nods, still clearly uncomfortable. "Of course, ma'am. We have a wide selection of luxury clothing to choose from. If you could please follow me, I can show you some options," she offers, leading us further into the store. As we walk through the aisles of clothing racks, I can't help but feel out of place. The luxurious fabrics and intricate designs seem foreign to me, a stark contrast to my usual surroundings. I catch glimpses of my reflection in a full-length mirror, seeing my serpentine eyes and wondering for a second about how much I've changed. "So what are you looking for?" the sales assistant inquires, hiding the fear that I can smell from her. "Business casual." Mary answers concisely. "I need a new wardrobe for my client here," she gestures towards me. "He's starting a new job and needs to look presentable." The sales assistant nods, understanding the request. She begins to pick out various outfits, ranging from tailored suits to dress shirts and slacks. The garments are exquisite, made with attention to detail and the finest materials. Mary holds up each outfit to me, her critical gaze judging the fit and style, as if it even matters. I can't be bothered to care, because fashion isn't my forte. It's just another way for society to judge and label us. I remain passive, allowing her to make the decisions. It's not my area of expertise anyway. We continue mindlessly browsing, picking out pieces that would somehow fit into this new professional façade I'm expected to uphold. The clothes are meant to mold me into the image of a successful individual, someone I'm not sure I even want to be. As I try on each item, I can't shake off the overwhelming feeling of pretense... Is this what it takes to be considered respectable? To hide our true selves behind layers of expensive fabric? It's disheartening, to say the least. It's so mindless. "I have another customer to attend to..." the sales assistant departs nervously. "I'll be at the front registers when you're ready. Please meet me there when you're finished." "We will." Mary lies before we head for our changing rooms. I find a vacant changing room and go inside it before replacing my old clothes for the business casual ones. I put on a pair of sunglasses that I got from a rack. Before I leave the changing room, I rip the tags off of all the items. Exiting the changing room I notice Mary now in a business suit with a red wig, taking a full glance at my attire before nodding. "It will do." she confirms. "Now to make a break for it." We then make our way towards the front of the store, the opulent surroundings feeling increasingly suffocating to me. As we approach the registers, I catch sight of the sales assistant, discreetly watching us with a mixture of relief and suspicion. Mary begins to engage the sales assistant in conversation, distracting her while I discreetly glance around for the entrance. I spot it. Without hesitation, I make my move, slipping away from Mary and the sales assistant's line of sight. I walk briskly, keeping my head down, trying to blend in with the other customers. As I reach the door, I push it open and step outside, immediately greeted by the rush of fresh air and the sound of traffic. I take a deep breath, feeling a sense of liberation away from the suffocating walls of the store before the alarm sounds and ruins the peace. I rush for the car before Mary follows behind me and enters the driver's side door. I hurry into the back seat and shut my door before grabbing my rifle. As Mary starts the car and drives away, I take a moment to reflect on the absurdity of the situation. The luxurious clothing store, the fake persona I was supposed to portray, it all feels like a charade, a game that I never wanted to play in the first place. I glance down at the clothes I'm wearing, the expensive pants and dress shirt that are meant to convince the world I am someone I'm not. The blood stains on my old clothes are a stark reminder of the reality I come from, a world of violence and darkness... "I'm going to find a place to eat." Mary interrupts my train of thought. "I need to eat too, you know." "Fine." I briefly reply so I can go back to being lost in my own thoughts. As we aimlessly drive in search of a place to eat, I can't help but think about the superficiality that permeates society, where appearances reign supreme over substance. Escaping this charade is impossible... I am trapped in this world, forced to maintain a facade, whether I like it or not. I look out the window, watching the city pass by in a blur, contemplating the complexities of my wretched existence. In spite of the disillusionment that engulfs me, I understand that I must adapt and navigate this world of pretense and deception. However, in doing so, I can't help but wonder if I'll ever find traces of authenticity, moments of genuine connection and purpose amidst this performance. However, that nurse... Dory... No... I probably disgust her now. I have to let her go. As Mary finally pulls into a restaurant and parks the car, I mentally prepare myself to pretend to enjoy my meal, donning my own mask to seamlessly fit into this scripted society. I enter the restaurant and take my seat opposite to Mary. Mid-day light illuminates the table through the adjacent window and the aroma of food fills the air, with the chatter of other customers creating a buzz of background noise. I glance at the menu, attempting to choose something that will look typical enough. As I ponder my options, I can't help but feel a pang of bitterness at the thought of having to deceive those around me. Mary mildly tolerates the waiter's attempts at conversation, mustering just enough charm and charisma to maintain a facade. She effortlessly maneuvers through the mandatory social pleasantries, seemingly born to deceive. Meanwhile, I'm left stumbling awkwardly, desperately trying to sustain the charade. Each word and gesture I force out emphasizes the vast divide between my true self and the persona I'm forced to adopt. After the waiter takes our orders and walks away, Mary looks at me with a knowing smile. "You're doing well," she says, her voice dripping with false encouragement. "Just remember, it's all part of the game. Play your part, and we'll get what we need." Easy for you to say, you're not like me. Time passes before the meal arrives and I pick at my food, feeling no satiation. I watch as Mary effortlessly indulges in her meal, savoring every bite, while I eat these meager proportions... The silence between us becomes more palpable as we eat. At least I have that while being trapped in this performance. I finish my meal before hers by a long shot. She is stuck in thought half-way through her meal while staring at it. She's not even touching it anymore. How peculiar. "What's gotten into you?" I slightly interrogate her. "Now it's you this time who's acting out of character." "I've been thinking about Rick and Gunner." she says while looking up to my eyes. "Haven't you?" I haven't... I... I feel something again... It's weakness. I hate this feeling. I want to escape it. I can't let this get under my skin. Not now. "I've been too busy trying to survive, Mary." I reply with a cold tone, emphasizing her name. "Can't you understand? I have other things to prioritize." "How could you be so cold?" she narrows her eyes. "Cold?" I repeat. "Don't make me laugh. You enjoyed turning me into this and seeing the monstrosity that I was." She leans back in her booth and sighs. "What happened to the innocence you had left?" she wondered out loud, looking up to the ceiling. "You replaced it with this virus." I answer her. "Stop judging me and look in the mirror." For the first time the hardness in her face completely disappear as she meets my gaze again. Interesting... I'm too used to the arrogance on her face. Promptly, a family of four sits at the booth at the opposite side of the restaurant from us. How uncommon. The small children accompanying the family smile and laugh, completely oblivious to the world they're living in. They don't understand the harshness of reality yet... how lucky. A small pang of envy stirs within me as I watch the children, their innocence a stark contrast to the darkness that engulfs my own existence. I can't help but wonder what it must be like to live without the burden of secrets and deceit, to experience genuine happiness and connection without the weight of manipulation and survival. Mary breaks the silence, her voice soft and almost vulnerable. "Do you ever think about what life could have been like if things were different?" I meet her gaze, a mix of resignation and longing in my eyes. "Every day," I admit, my voice barely above a whisper. "But there's no use dwelling on what-ifs. This is our reality. We've made choices, or perhaps we had no choice at all. All we can do now is play the cards we've been dealt." Her gaze flickers with a mix of understanding and regret. "I know, but sometimes, I can't help but wonder if there's a way out of all this. A way to truly live, to free ourselves from this secret life." I lean back in my seat, contemplating her words. Can we ever truly escape the darkness that surrounds us? Is there a path to redemption, to finding a semblance of authenticity? Or are we forever bound to this world, forever trapped in our roles? "Anyways," she changes the subject. "we need to distract ourselves for now. Let's leave this place before they notice." "What do you have in mind?" I raise my eyebrow at her. "The stadium is doing their weekly hosting of gladiators today." she suggests. "We should entertain ourselves. Besides, we'll be hard to find in a sea of people." I ponder her suggestion, contemplating the temporary escape it could provide from the suffocating reality we find ourselves in. The idea of watching the gladiators battling it out in the arena does intrigue me, offering a brief reprieve from the constant deception and performance that has become our lives. However, deep down, a part of me remains reluctant about the whole affair. I nod in agreement, a small spark of anticipation igniting within me. "You're right, Mary. Let's indulge in some distraction, if only for a little while. Maybe, just maybe, amidst the chaos and violence, we might catch a glimpse of something real." But in the back of my mind, I can't help but question if anything genuine can truly be found in this spectacle of bloodshed and theatrical display. With a shared understanding between us, we finish our meal, paying no mind to the time wasted or the emptiness in our stomachs. We exit the restaurant and make our way towards the stadium, the streets teeming with people. Amongst this crowd of strangers, I feel like just another faceless individual, lost in a sea of spectacle and superficiality. As we pull into the parking lot, Mary tosses her pistol onto the back seat floor. Before we proceed through the entrance of the stadium, we are met with a security checkpoint. Good thing we didn't bring our weapons. We're scanned for contraband at the checkpoint before we are let through. The sound of the crowd grows louder with each step, anticipation and excitement hanging in the air like a palpable energy. I watch as people from all walks of life gather together, united in their shared desire for a temporary escape; an outlet for their wretched, micromanaged lives. I can just smell their anxieties, their hopes, and their frustrations... As I take a seat in the center-back of the stadium with Mary and peer through the sea of faces, I am struck by the superficiality of the masks they wear, their expressions painted with a pitiful longing for release. So this is what sports has become... an outlet of violence. Now it's simulated war to satiate our hunger for mayhem. The worn-out businessman, trapped in the never-ending cycle of meaningless meetings and cutthroat corporate politics, seeks momentary solace in this temporary respite. The burdened student, suffocating under the weight of relentless academic expectations, desperately yearns for a fleeting taste of freedom. And the beleaguered stay-at-home parent, drowning in the soul-sucking monotony of domestic life, bitterly craves an escape from their never-ending responsibilities. These people... they've never been on the battlefield. Only a handful of them would come back the same. I shift my direction to the arena floor below, which is made of sand and littered with rocks. No sign of any vegetation. Not even a twig. Clouds of dust wander the arena like lost souls, looking for a surface to stick to. I notice the arena's oval shape, with a seamless metal door at either long end that blend in with the reflective surrounding wall. From the center of the arena, a hole opens up from the seamless looking ground and a platform slowly raises to a domineering height for everyone to see. A man in a flashy suit is standing atop of the platform with a microphone. "Welcome, World!" he cheers into the microphone. "To the Weekly Gladiatorial Games!" The crowd erupts in a cacophony of cheers and applause, their desperation for distraction palpable. The man in the flashy suit continues, his voice booming through the stadium. "Today, we bring you a competition like no other." the announcer teases. "A clash between the top dog and the new dog" The crowd energizes even more, with many in the audience chanting a certain name of veneration. "GIZMO! GIZMO! GIZMO!" the crowd shouts in anticipation. "That's right folks!" the announcer continues, his voice radiating out into the stadium. "This match will be Gutter Gunner versus the legendary Gizmo!!" Gunner?! What?! The crowd goes wild and my heart sinks for a moment as I hear the name. It echoes in my mind and rattles my disposition. A faint feeling of remorse bubbles up from emotions. So that's what happened to you... Mary and I exchange a glance, our unease reflected in each other's eyes. "Damn it..." I utter with a growl. "they got him." How could they take Gunner and force him into this twisted spectacle?! The bitterness and resentment simmered in my veins as I clenched my fists... "It can't be helped." Mary tries to calm me down. "I know you want to save him, but you need to save yourself first." Save what? My life? Am I even living anymore? How can I keep going on, knowing that I watched Gunner die? It all makes me feel so vulnerable... I can't stand it. The platform with the announcer on it begins to slowly descend back into the hatch before it closes, making a thud heard by all ears. The door in the arena to our right slides open before he steps out... it's him... Gunner... He slowly paces his way to the center of the arena, wearing an orange jump suit and holding a hook launcher. People from the crowd start to heckle and throw stuff at him from afar, missing inevitably with their futile efforts. The bastards. Don't you know he's innocent?! Gunner stops a third of the way into the arena, anticipating something... The door in the arena to our left opens next before what looks like a titan of a human being walks out, standing over 6 feet tall in his orange jumpsuit with only his cybernetic prosthetic right arm. It is made of sleek, black metal. The arm is covered in intricate circuitry and glowing blue lights. The prosthetic arm is attached to the gladiator's body by a sleek, black socket in his shoulder that fits snugly around his residual limb. It harbors an assemblage of articulated joint mechanisms that mimic the fluidity and range of motion of a natural arm. Each joint, seamlessly integrated within the arm's exoskeleton, exudes a subtle, silvery sheen, accentuating the precision engineering involved. Gizmo also stops a third of the way into the arena, waiting for Gunner's move. Upon his sight, the crowd begins to roar and cheer for Gizmo. They begin to chant his name again, this time even more enthusiastically. "GIZMO! GIZMO! GIZMO!" they scream as loud as they can with no reciprocation from their object of admiration. "KILL HIM, GIZMO!" a random audience member a few seats to our side exclaims. "MAKE HIM FEEL THE PAIN!" "RIP HIM LIMB FROM LIMB!" another person behind our seats in the audience shouts. "GUT THAT GUTTER GUNNER!" Holy shit, what would these people do without these performances? Gizmo loses patience and charges towards Gunner with colossal energy before Gunner launches the hook at him. Gizmo grabs the cabled hook and uses it to swing gunner around like a hammer ball. After enough momentum, Gizmo lets go and sends Gunner towards the audience with immense force. Gunner is brutally repelled by an invisible electric wall before falling onto the ground back first. Gizmo laughs while steadily advancing towards Gunner. "Puny weakling..." Gizmo's deep voice is amplified through the stadium speakers. "that hook is nothing." Gunner keeps laying down as Gizmo continues to approach him. Come on Gunner... you can do this. I know that's not all you have. Gunner then retracts his hook back into his launcher, sliding between Gizmo's legs and slicing across his ankle on the way. Gizmo stops to flinch from the pain before Gunner quickly stands up, launching his hook into a nearby rock and smashes it against Gizmo's head. The rock shatters on Gizmo's head, sending him onto the ground back first. The crowd erupts in a mix of shock and excitement as Gunner takes advantage of the opening. He quickly retrieves his hook and moves towards Gizmo, his determination evident in his eyes. But Gizmo doesn't stay down for long. With a surge of power, he pushes himself off the ground, his cybernetic arm flexing with strength and precision. Gizmo growls at Gunner with a scratched up face, staring him down with intense angst. "WHAT AN ANNOYANCE YOU ARE!" he yells before throwing a powerful jab at Gunner who narrowly escapes the forceful blow with a quick side step. As Gizmo passes by him, Gunner slams the hook hard into Gizmo's temple and kicks him to the ground again. Gunner aims the hook launcher at Gizmo's head and hesitates for a moment. Gunner, what are you doing?! You're going to let him kill you! Gizmo rolls out of the way, just in time before Gunner launches the hook at him. As Gunner retracts the hook, Gizmo rushes to Gunner and gives him a hard clock across his face. The force from the prosthetic arm's punch sends Gunner to the ground and almost knocks him out. Gizmo picks Gunner up by the collar while deviously chuckling. "Play time..." Gizmo utters through the speakers. "is over." That's it. I can't do nothing anymore... I'm tired of going along with the program. Gunner needs me. I can't let him down again. It's time to stop hiding. With an incredible display of strength, I catapult myself into the air, soaring higher than anyone could imagine. Landing gracefully on the edge of the stadium seats, I feel the pulsating energy of the invisible electric force-field repel my hands. Despite the surge of electrons coursing through my body, I make only slight twitches. The bones in my body begin to ache, as if they were in full blood production. The hemoglobin molecules in my new blood begin to react with the electricity, absorbing the energy by acquiring new electrons in the magnetizing currents of their iron atom cores. As a result, I become the new conductor for the electric field's circuit and a magnetic pull envelops me. The bolts of charge, colossal and awe-inspiring, gravitate towards me, stretching out like ethereal tendrils desperate to bestow upon me new power. The searing pain begins to engulf me, threatening to overwhelm my senses... But I have no other option. In a voice that echoes through the entire stadium, I bellow defiantly, calling out a name with a roar that possesses the volume of a multitude of men. "GUNNERRRRRR!!!!" The circuit, unable to bear the burden of the tremendous load, begins to malfunction. Sparks ignite and dance wildly, filling the air with a cacophony of loud, deep zaps and fizzles of electrifying charge. The deafening noise captures the attention of everyone present, including the gladiators locked in combat. The invisible electric field, gripped by chaos, oscillates haphazardly between existence and nonexistence. Unable to sustain the strain, a critical component within the force-field circuit detonates, causing a cataclysmic explosion. The once formidable electric field dissipates into nothingness, leaving behind a trail of destruction and disbelief. With the force-field disabled, I rush towards Gunner, brimming with newfound power. The crowd gasps in astonishment, unsure of what they just witnessed. Gizmo drops Gunner and turns towards me, his expression shifting from confidence to extreme bewilderment. I ignore his presence. I focus on getting Gunner back on his feet again. "Drake..." he tells me while perplexed yet gratified. "thanks for coming back for me." I nod to Gunner before Gizmo charges at us. As he lunges, Gunner uses the hook launcher to entangle Gizmo's prosthetic arm, momentarily immobilizing him. I seize the moment and slam my foot into Gizmo's chest before a crack sounds from his body, loud enough to be picked up by the stadium speakers. "AAAGH!" Gizmo yelps as he recoils with his whole body and coughs blood. He falls to his knees from the blow. "What..." Gizmo struggles to speak from the injury. "are you?" "Your worst nightmare." I answer him before I give him an uppercut that sends some of his teeth flying. A gush of blood squirts from his mouth as he falls on his back out cold. Gunner and I stand triumphant over Gizmo's defeated form, the crowd silent in their disbelief. The once cheering and bloodthirsty spectators are now struck with awe and fear, witnessing a show of power they never expected to see... "Gunner." I address him while glancing over at Mary. "Get out of here with her while the attention is on me, before it's too late." "But Drake..." he tries to argue. "I said get the fuck out of here!" I snap and turn to him with burning fury in my serpentine eyes. "NOW!" He doesn't argue any further and quickly transports himself to Mary using his hook launcher before they start making their way towards the nearest exit. Shortly after, heavily armed policemen in riot gear storm out of the arena doors and surround me on all angles. They waste no time and aim their firearms at me with their shields up. "FREEZE!" the ringleader yells. Well, looks like I've finally been caught. A bitter wave of resignation washes over me as I stand surrounded by the armed policemen. Of course, this moment had to come eventually, but I couldn't just stand by passively while Gunner endured his suffering. I raise my hands reluctantly as the officers draw closer. "Drop to your knees and put your hands behind your head," one of the officers barks, his voice betraying a hint of superiority. With an air of defiant compliance, I lower myself to the ground, my knees protesting the act of submission, and intertwine my fingers behind my head. The steel of the handcuffs swiftly clamps around my wrists, a cold and unforgiving reminder of the power they hold over me. The officers handle me with callous disregard, their movements efficient but lacking any semblance of compassion. They drag me towards the exit and the crowd begins to stir once more. The now reawakened spectators exchange excited murmurs and whispers, relishing in the sight of my capture. Some jeer and taunt, deriving pleasure from the demise of one who dared to challenge the system. Others observe in silence, their faces a medley of astonishment and begrudging respect, acknowledging the audacity it took to confront the powers that be. They may have caught me, but they've lost Mary... You're on your own for now, guys. Don't die while I'm gone. As the police toss me around like a pawn, I can't help but force a smile and think that this isn't the end yet... [Chapter 11: Interrogation] {POV: Planetary President} "Who the fuck leaked the lab escape to the public?!" I intensely interrogate Oculus and the Press Secretary. "Mr. President," Oculus answers. "I assure you it is impossible that I would jeopardize the mission you programmed me to complete." The Press Secretary anxiously twiddles their thumbs before me, trying to avoid eye contact. "Press Secretary." I shift my attention to them. "How did your god damn incompetence let this happen?" I can't even take a trip to Area 51 without something going wrong. Jesus Christ... These fools are proving why they should be replaced. "Our investigations have found no possible leaks, sir." they answer nervously, as if they were negligent. "We cannot explain this." "Then who the fuck did it?!" I demand. "I'm sorry, sir, but we simply don't have the answer to that yet," the Press Secretary stammers. "We're doing everything we can to identify the source of the leak and ensure it doesn't happen again." "How the hell do you have no idea who leaked it?!" I scold the Press Secretary. "What are we supposed to do about this?! My reputation is at stake!" If I didn't need you to hold up a front for my administration, I would kill you for this. "Perhaps, your Excellency," Oculus interjects. "it was spies from the Brotherhood. They could have had insight to the lab that we were not aware of." The Bug Brotherhood... those rebels... always making things so complicated. I will celebrate the day I crush them. "Are you suggesting that the Bug Brotherhood managed to infiltrate the lab and leak information to the public?" I respond to Oculus. "Have we not taken enough measures to ensure the security of this facility?" Oculus, unfazed by my anger, responds calmly. "Mr. President, we have implemented numerous security protocols to prevent any unauthorized access to the lab. However, the Bug Brotherhood has proven to be resourceful and determined in the past. It is possible that they found a vulnerability that we were not aware of." "Unacceptable!" I slam my fist on the table. "I want every resource dedicated to finding out how this happened and bringing those responsible to justice! If the Bug Brotherhood is behind this, they will pay dearly..." The Press Secretary, visibly shaken, clears their throat before speaking. "Mr. President, our intelligence agencies and Oculus are already working tirelessly to investigate the matter. We will leave no stone unturned in our pursuit of the truth." I narrow my eyes at the Press Secretary, contemplating their words. They better be right. And they better find something soon before I lose my patience. "Fine," I finally say, a hint of menace lacing my words. "Press Secre-" "Mr. President," Oculus interrupts my dismissal. "on the brighter side of things, the mutant is in our custody." I pause, momentarily intrigued by this information. "The mutant?... Finally, some good news. Is he cooperating?" "Yes, Mr. President." Oculus confirms. "While he's been rather resistant so far, we believe we can extract valuable intelligence from him." I lean back in my chair, contemplating the situation. "Very well, Oculus. It looks like we have work ahead of us." "Understood, Mr. President." Oculus agrees. I turn my attention back to the Press Secretary, my tone slightly more composed. "Make sure the public gets a statement from me regarding this incident. Spin it in a way that emphasizes our commitment to national security and the swift actions we are taking to rectify the situation. We cannot afford to lose the trust of the people." The Press Secretary nods, relief evident on their face. "Of course, Mr. President. We will send out a press release immediately." "Good," I nod, dismissing them with a wave of my hand. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have other matters to attend to. Make sure this doesn't happen again." After the Press Secretary exits my executive room, I take a hard glance at the ceiling. "Oculus, call armed transportation to take me to the interrogation room." I order Oculus. "Right away, Mr. President," Oculus responds, swiftly making the necessary arrangements. "Transportation will be ready for you in five minutes." As I wait, my mind races with plans for the interrogation. You thought you could run from me could you, mutant? Unfortunately for you, there's nowhere to hide. I'm everywhere. My familiar agents in their inconspicuous black suits enter the room and show up right on time. "Let's get to work," I say to my agents, an aura of determination surrounding me. The agents nod, their expressions serious as they prepare for the task ahead. Together, we make our way to the front door of the interrogation room and meet Dorothy the nurse. Before Dorothy notices me, I see her holding her arm and staring down at the ground as if she is still conflicted about the mission. She needs to see more of what that monster is capable of... "Dorothy." I ask as I approach her. "Are you ready to do this?" Dorothy reluctantly glances up at me with a soft, timid expression. "I'm not sure..." she mutters. "What if he's just misunderstood?" "I need to show you more about that mutant before we proceed so you know what you're dealing with." I reveal. Dorothy's face turns fearful and curious. "What do you mean, sir? What more do I need to know?" I motion for Dorothy to follow me as I lead her to a nearby monitoring room. We enter the room which is covered with screens just like any other. Only this time... Oculus can control this room. "Oculus," I utter to the ceiling. "show us all the mutant's crimes." "Very well, Mr. President." Oculus accepts before devoting a screen for each of the mutant's crimes. One panel shows the human mutant, an unknown man, and an unknown woman breaking into a car in a park... Another screen shows the human mutant spotted in another car during a high speed police chase... The human mutant is shown to be eating bloody corpses in a different panel, showing Dorothy he is a monster through and through... Aha! Take a look at this "person" you felt sympathy for, Dorothy... Just see how he eats those people like food! He's not one of us... He's a creature of the wild! Take a look at how naive you are! Watch as he ignores the blood dripping down his face... I see the horror on Dorothy's face as she watches the screens in disbelief. The reality of the mutant's actions slowly dawns on her, shattering any sympathy or doubt she might have had. I can just see her perception of the world crumble... That's one of the many hard lessons in life, Dorothy. The difference between me and you, is that I learned this early on. "I… I had no idea," she stammers, her voice trembling. "I didn't realize he was capable of such… atrocities." I nod, satisfied with her reaction. "Now you see the true nature of this mutant. He is a villain, and it is our duty to extract any information he might have to prevent further harm." Dorothy takes a deep breath, her resolve hardening. "You're right, Mr. President. We need to do whatever it takes." Feeling a surge of admiration for Dorothy's newfound determination, I pat her on the shoulder. "I'm glad you understand, Dorothy. Let's go and show this mutant the consequences of his actions. We won't rest until we get the information we need." She nods to me obsequiously before following me to the interrogation room. Harsh fluorescent lights illuminated the room as we entered it, casting a cold, unyielding glow upon the surroundings. The light barely reflects off of the dull, gray walls. Each of my agents stand on each corner of the room while watching the questioning intensely, alert and ready for anything. At the center of the room is the mutant himself, bound heavily to a chair by titanium steel harnesses. He wears a helmet with wires spanning all the way to the ceiling and electrodes connected to machines, displaying his vitals and brain activities their screens. The stoic resistance etched on his face crumbled into nothingness as he reluctantly cast his gaze upwards, catching sight of Dorothy's presence beside me. "Dory..." he utters upon seeing us. "you too?" "Shut up!" Dorothy lambasts him. "I want nothing to do with you, you beast!" The mutant hangs his head down as she leans forward toward him and clenches her shaking fists, trying to restrain the emotions of fury and betrayal she wants to show. That's it... Show him your anger! Break that freak heart of his! Shatter every last hope he has! Destroy his spirit! "I can't believe I trusted you!" she rants at the mutant. "I can't believe I thought you still had any humanity!" "Dory, I-" he tries to answer before I interrupt him. "Save it, mutant." I dismiss him. "We have more important things to discuss, like your connections." Dorothy simmers down while the mutant has the audacity to scoff. "Like I'll tell you that..." he declines. "Your reputation precedes you, 'Mr. President'..." "How dare you mock me!" I scold the mutant as I punch him across the face. "Know your place, you monstrosity!" He turns his head to glance at me again with the same stoic expression he had before. Stubborn, are you?! "Is that all?" he challenges me with his serpentine eyes. You insolent... "I have something that will expose what you know anyway." I respond before activating the mind-analyzer helmet on his head. The screen that's supposed to be displaying his memories in video fails to produce anything. It indicates in writing that the data is corrupted... like he's been confusing the machines to obscure the truth. God damn it... Who the fuck is this guy?! What kind of experiment was he?! This mutant thinks he can defy me... Think again! You can't hide from me! "...It's only the beginning if you don't take the easy way out." I threaten him. "It's about to get a lot harder for you than this if you don't cooperate..." "I'm not sure there *is* an easy way out with you." he argues. "I'll take my chances." "Oh yeah?!" I start to lose my patience. "This is your last chance, mutant!! Now where is the unknown female that associated with you?! Where is the biologist?! Where is the filthy bum that tagged along with you?!" "You already know my answer." the mutant glares at me. How brazen... "Now it's time for my response." I reply to him. "Someone, get Dorothy the prototype laser gun." Dorothy gives me a surprised glance as an agent in one of the corners leaves the interrogation room. "B-But, sir..." she pleads. "I'm a nurse. It's against my ethics to-" "Dorothy," I explain to her. "I will be only asking the questions. Your part is to patch up the damage you inflicted on the mutant after the session is done. You must keep him alive." Dorothy glances to the side with a prudent yet dreadful expression on her face. She contemplates the assignment for a moment... "Okay..." she glances back to me, more determined. The agent shortly comes back in and hands Dorothy the prototype laser gun. The sleek, cold metal handle... the precise, efficient design... the smooth, matte-black exterior... the long barrel and targeting laser... Before I reveal a marvel like this to the world, I must test it out. "Now, mutant..." I turn back to the mutant. "have any second thoughts? This new weapon can cut right through people and thin metal walls. I wonder what it would do to you..." "Bring it on." the mutant dares me. "Very well then." I respond to the arrogant creature before turning to Dorothy. "Aim for his shoulder." Dorothy activates the laser gun and fires a continuous, opaque beam into the mutant's shoulder. The mutant grits his teeth, closes his eyes, and faces away from us. He shakes violently from the burning of his rather stubborn flesh. You think you can hide your agony from me... you can't! Feel the consequence for defying me, mutant! Learn what happens when you think you can rebel against me! I hold my hand out to Dorothy, signaling her to stop. She ceases the laser beam and the mutant relaxes in his chair, accompanied by heavy panting. I can just see him drenching with sweat. Not so strong now, are you? "Ready to talk, now?" I ask him sternly. He says nothing and gazes at Dorothy for a moment before looking away. "Look at her." I demand the mutant. "Look at who you've traumatized." The mutant hesitantly glances at Dorothy again. I turn to her and see eyes hiding a wall of outrage. Her face having a hardness unlike I've ever seen from her before. "How could you hurt those people?!" she yells at him with tears welling in her eyes. "How could you take their life so easily?!" "I...I-" he tries to speak before I punch his face again. "Shut up and answer the questions!" I insist. "Who was that woman you were with?! What were you doing with that beggar, as well?!" The mutant glares at me in silence. "You probably ate them too, didn't you?!" Dorothy spoke out. "You disgusting creature!" Without my approval she activates the laser beam at the mutant's shoulder again, also seemingly unleashing all the pent up frustration she had in her life. The mutant jerks and flinches to the laser again, this time with more fatigue and pain in his grunts. My, my... she's learning quickly. "Dorothy, stop." I order her before she deactivates the laser again. "You're done for the day. Take some time to relax." I notice Dorothy shaking in place, holding back so much more that she wants to do to the mutant. She hesitantly nods before another agent slowly escorts her out of the interrogation room. It's time to get real now, with Dorothy out of the room... I turn back to the mutant with a glare of my own. "There's no use in hiding your friends from me." I assure the mutant. "I will find them eventually... and I will torture them right in front of you in this room if you don't help me soon. You will watch them die." The mutant hangs his head down and grits his teeth. I notice that his shoulder wound is almost fully healed already. You may heal, but there is no escape from me... You'll never be safe from me... and the same goes for your friends. "And you call me the monster..." he utters. "I would never have fought for you if my family wasn't bombed in those protests by the enemy..." Protests...? Which ones? Could he mean the incident that happened in Albuquerque during the war, since that's where he's from? Oh you're in for a surprise... I'll tell you how it really happened. "It wasn't the enemy that killed your family." I reply. "It was my private army. I bombed them. I needed as much motivation for the war effort as possible." The mutant begins to shiver in his restraints before he glances up to me with absolute vengeance in his eyes. That's right. It was me. I was the one you wanted to kill all along. "Sir," the agent explains. "you are needed in the briefing room to observe new technology discovered from the facility." I nod to the agent. "Looks like we're done here for now." I say to the agents. I give a final glance down at the mutant before I leave. "Consider yourself lucky, mutant." I talk down to him. "Enjoy this break while it lasts. I will be back shortly." The mutant hangs his head down again, gritting his teeth as he continues to shake. "Oculus," I glance up to the ceiling. "delete the footage from this session." "Understood, Mr. President." Oculus replies. I turn around and make my way to the door, beginning to grin as I eagerly anticipate the next opportunity to break him down. You'll talk, mutant... I'll make sure of it. [Chapter 12: Separation] {POV: Rick} "My child, I understand your concern for your friends," Father Paul argues as he blocks the church entrance. "but it is simply too dangerous for you to venture outside. I cannot bear the thought of you getting hurt or worse." "Father, I appreciate your concern," I respond. "but my friends are out there alone. They need me. We've been looking out for each other, and I can't just abandon them now. Thanks to that regeneration technology you gave me, I'm all better again. It's my duty to be there for them now." I glance up at the large, stained glass window above the front door. The morning light rays shine through the esoteric decals, giving me the impression that things aren't over just yet. I wonder what the big plan is for me. How did I get so lucky? I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Drake and Mary. I owe it to them. "I understand, my child." Father Paul reasons. "But do you remember the bullet wounds you sustained when you came back to us? You were lucky to survive. Those wounds were a sign— a sign that you have been given a second chance at life." "Father, I haven't forgotten." I continue. "But being afraid isn't going to do any good. If we all cower inside these walls, what hope is there for a better future?" "It's not about fear, my dear." Father Paul explains. "It's about prudence. Even though you have left us, you will always be one of us. You are still part of the Brotherhood, and you can help bring about change from within. By staying here under our protection, you can contribute in other ways." "I understand your point, Father," I plead. "but my friends need me now. You guys can handle yourselves without me. I can't sit here while they could be in danger. If I don't help them, who will?" Father Paul looks to the side and gives a deep sigh. He knows he there's no stopping me. "My child, I cannot hold you back if your heart is set on going." Father Paul resigns. "But I implore you, consider my condition. I will allow you to venture outside if Cipher accompanies you. His insight will keep you out of harm's way." Cipher? Him? That guy is a total rogue. I still must be really important if a specialist like him is assigned to me. I mean, how did they drag him away from his monitors? I imagine it wasn't easy... "Fine." I accept. "As long as you let me go, Father." "I'll pray for you, my child." Father Paul nods. "Remember, even in the midst of darkness, it is our unwavering faith and determination that will guide us towards a brighter future." The flashback begins to fade to white, resembling the flare of the morning sun outside. I can't help but admire the dramatic outlines and shadows of the skyline. Ah, how beautiful... I mean, who doesn't like the view? It's the only good thing about it. It's so monotonous otherwise. How can people get used to this cookie cutter shit? The cameras on every corner just ruin the mood. People don't care though, they're just too busy going through the motions. Sometimes I can't help but wonder if there's still life left in this concrete jungle... Anyways, I wish Cipher felt the same. The guy is too busy hacking computers to appreciate the fresh air. I'm glad we could take a walk. He was never really that outgoing out of the members in the Brotherhood. I can only wonder how he managed to join the resistance... "Man, my back is feeling so much better since that medication you guys got me from the underground." I start conversation with Cipher. "I wonder what other kind of magical stuff they have." Cipher looks over at me with a small smirk on that shy face of his. "Yeah, the underground definitely has its perks," he responds, his voice carrying a hint of mischief. "You'd be surprised at what they can get their hands on." As we continue on our walk, the two of us pass by a bustling café, filled with people engrossed in their devices. Passerby knock shoulders with me without even any acknowledgement. Jeez... do these people feel anything anymore? Cipher shakes his head with a look of amusement and disdain. "It's crazy how dependent people are on technology these days," he comments. "But hey, I can't complain too much. It's what keeps me in business." If Cipher of all people is criticizing people on their social habits, this world has gone to hell... I chuckle and shake my head. "Yeah! But there's something about the simplicity of nature that just can't be replicated by all those gadgets and gizmos..." I pause for a moment, taking in the fresh morning air. "Sometimes I wish more people would get out and appreciate it, you know?" Cipher nods in agreement, his eyes scanning the surroundings as if searching for something. "I get that. But sometimes, it takes something drastic to make people wake up. To realize that there's more to life than the daily grind." He turns his head to me, a spark of determination in his eyes. "I mean, it sounds nice but..." I argue. "I'm not sure how we're gonna make that happen. I almost died just trying to survive." Speaking of survival, I hope nothing happened to Drake and Mary... They said they'd come back for me. What's the hold up? Did they get captured? Fuck... I hope not. "We'll just need to strike at the right time." Cipher answers with hope in his tone. "It will come. The President is human after all, he makes mistakes that could be exploited." True. It's not like he's a machine or anything. "Yeah, you're right." I agree with him. "Eventually the tide will turn in our favor. We just have to wait." "What if we don't need to wait much longer after that incident at Los Alamos?" he explains while pushing up his glasses. "The President dropped the ball on that one. He couldn't stop a dangerous mutant from escaping." So that's what Drake was talking about... he's the mutant on the loose. Wait, what does this mean for me? Am I also a target for associating with him? Damn... it seems like my simple, peaceful life is over now. I guess laying low is not an option anymore. I look at Cipher with concern in my eyes. "So what's the big plan?" I ask, my voice steady but filled with urgency. I take a quick glance at the skyscrapers above, inspecting the vigilant windows at the top floor for any witnesses. The clouds just stroll by, minding their own business. Cipher takes a moment to think, his expression serious. "I think the mutant is worth investigating." he replies. "Do you have information on the mutant by any chance?" Oh yeah, like you'll believe that I had soup and beers with him... "Nope." I lie. "Not at all. He's hard to miss." "You can say that again." Cipher replies with a chuckle. "Who could miss something like that?" "Only The President." I respond with a grin. We both can't help but laugh as we walk down the sidewalk. At least someone has a sense of humor. "So why did you leave the Brotherhood?" he changes the subject. "You haven't been forgotten." "It's a long story..." I sigh. "not one I like to remember. Let's just say I was fed up with all the trouble." All that killing just to lose the turf we were fighting for... I can't be asked to experience it again. It wasn't worth losing our own people. There didn't seem to be a way out. "I see." he listens as he watches me lost in thought. A park passes by us and we notice a homeless man standing on top of a bench, yelling some sort of message. "They've given up on humanity!" the man yells. "They don't value people anymore!" I can't help but stop and watch him rant. His words kinda resonate with me. Cipher pauses ahead of me to hear the man's message as well. "Cyborgs..." the man continues. "half man, half machine! They are our replacements!" People begin to gather around the man in curiosity as if they've never heard what he's said before. "Cyborgs?" I turn to Cipher and mutter. "You heard that right." Cipher answers back. "Prototype enhancements are being tested on people as we speak. I hear of formidable physical performance among other things." Well that's just great. Man-kind isn't doing it enough for The President anymore. "Maybe we're gonna need that mutant after all." I mumble to Cipher. Suddenly, a police car pulls up behind the homeless man on the bench before cops emerge from the vehicle. "Keep your personhood!!" the homeless man gives a final shout before the policemen quickly handcuff him and haul him into the car. Shit, they're here. Looks like this party is over... "Let's go before we're noticed." Cipher suggests while looking around. I search for a way out with Cipher before we're approached by one of the policemen that arrested the homeless man. "Excuse me, gentlemen." he says with a stoic face and a calm voice. "I'd like to bring you in for questioning." "What for?" I reply genuinely confused. "We're just passing by." "I have been informed that you may know about the mutant." the cop explains. "I have no choice but to pursue you as a suspect if you do not cooperate." "Can't we just walk without being bothered?" Cipher complains to the cop. "We don't know anything sir. Let us go." "Video evidence begs to differ for him." the cop points to me. "He's been found in a stolen car with the alleged mutant." "You got the wrong guy." I fib to the cop. "You need to check your feed." "We'll see about that." the cop lunges for me before Cipher touches the frame of his glasses while looking at the police vehicle. The police car begins to blare it's sirens and horns uncontrollably, temporarily distracting the cop by making him close his eyes and cover his ears. Cipher and I seize the opportunity by making a break for it past the cop. The police car ceases it's noises as the cop chases after us. We bump into people as we rush through the crowd and look for the nearest alley. "We can lose him in the next block." Cipher reports to me while holding the frames of his glasses. We begin to sprint down a crowded market street with my heart pumping like crazy. The market is a blur of color and noise. The stalls are piled high with goods, from fresh produce to electronics to clothing. Boy, I can just smell the exhaust fumes, spices and sweat... We dodge between the stalls, weaving our way through the shoppers. Man, I'm starting to lose my breath, but I can't stop now. Can't let them catch us... I turn my head to the cop behind us and catch him reaching for something in his pocket. Shit! I need to do something quick! Something to throw... something to throw... Aha! I see a stand selling grapefruits up ahead. Not like many people eat those anyway. I swipe a grapefruit and chuck it at the cop as he's pulling a taser out. The grapefruit knocks the taser out of his hand. We lose the cop as he tries to search for his taser. Phew... we bought some time. "Cipher..." I pant as I keep running. "when is our next move?" "Here." he responds as he leads me in the alley to our right. We pause and take a deep breath while we have the time. "Now to track the vehicle using camera references..." Cipher pants as he holds the frame of his glasses again, seemingly staring into nothing. His eyes don't seem to even move. "Alright, we'll continue straight down this alley after we catch our breath." he instructs. We take a moment to breathe and relax, absorbing the brief peace that we're allowed. "Rick," he begins firmly. "you didn't tell me you know the mutant." Huh?! How'd he figure that out?! "Uh, what makes you think that?..." I ask him as I start sweating again and looking side to side. "I've seen you and him on camera." he states. "He's consumed people in your absence. Can't think of anyone else that would eat people but the escapee, so that cop was right about you and the mutant." "Yeah." I admit. "I didn't think you'd believe it." Cipher turns to me and shrugs. "The government experiments with a lot of weird stuff... it's believable." Cipher assures me. "How did you even meet the mutant anyway?" "Good point." I concede. "We met in the slum I lived at before it got seized by the cops. I had nowhere else to go but with them. Guess I got caught up in their trouble too." "What are the chances..." Cipher thinks out loud. "I know, right?" I agree. "If we find him, you'll get to meet him too." "That won't be a problem now since I saved the license plate number from the most recent camera feed of you guys." he ensures as he wipes his sweat off. "Are you ready?" "Yeah." I confirm and take a deep breath before Cipher's eyes widen as he looks past me. "Let's get moving!!" he yells as he bolts ahead of me. Oh shit! I catch up to him with a dash and take his right flank. Shady characters desperately scamper out of our way like they're afraid of what's chasing us. Murderers in the act drop their knives and dive for cover. Drug dealers jump through windows just to not be found. Thieves drop everything they have and flee. "Left turn!" he shouts before he turns left out of the alley. I follow him down the adjacent street before turning behind me to see who's chasing us. It's the same cop and the other cap that helped him arrest the homeless man. "Dispatch, this is Unit 13. We are in pursuit of suspects on foot." one of them reports to their radio. "Requesting immediate backup." I look forward again and turn my attention to Cipher. "How close are we, Cipher?" I pant. "There's more coming!" "Almost there!" he answers while huffing. "We just need to reach the train station first!" As we arrive at the train station, we're met with a big crowd of regulars. Perfect cover. I turn my head to the policemen behind us again and notice them get their tasers ready. "Let's lose them!" I exclaim. "Got it." Cipher replies as we separate and merge with the sea of people. The plan works so well I lose Cipher too... Damn... maybe we should've stuck close together. Splitting up was a bad idea. I don't know where the hell I am now. I've lost Cipher in the crowd. It's not like that short guy is easy to find... Strangers give me weird looks as they see me hurry past them. No time to explain, guys. Shit, I don't even know what direction I'm going. I start to hear police sirens as cop cars park around the periphery of the horde. Damn it! Several policemen begin to invade the mob and close in on us. We gotta escape, fast... Before all hope is lost, I feel a hand on my shoulder as Cipher appears from my side. "Found you." he says before motioning to follow him. I nod and follow him through the crowd. As we pierce through thinner and thinner layers of people we make our escape on an adjacent street. I look behind me once more and find the police officers in the crowd still struggling to find us. It worked... Damn, Cipher is really good with crowds. I couldn't find him but he could find me. Cipher and I pace our way down the lonely, beaten-up street, surrounded by abandoned buildings on each side. The brick on them is old and the windows are either boarded up or reinforced by metal frames. We continue down the sidewalk and I can't help but notice the random lots of dirt protected by chainlink fences every now and then. I look down on the thick, ugly cracks on the street that remind me how long things have been going downhill. "Have we made it?" I turn to Cipher. "There shouldn't be anyone else here besides my friends." "Their car should be in the parking lot of the abandoned factory coming up." he answers as we walk under an overpass. The scratches of rolling tires above kill the silence along with our footsteps as we absorb the ambience. This place seems to symbolize the past we've forgotten. We come across a neglected church on our path and I notice the weathered murals. At least it looks better than the paint on the building. Across another group of barriers, I notice a railroad that looked like it had better days. I could only imagine what this place was like in it's prime. Now nature seems to be the one thriving here. "This is it." he points to the desolate factory ahead of us before we search for it's parking lot. We find the entrance to the gate which seems to have already been opened. Someone was here for sure. We enter the parking lot before I scan the area and find Mary's new car parked alone. Bingo! I'm coming, guys! I've come back! "Drake! Mary! I'm back guys!" I yell and run to them before I notice Gunner instead of Drake... Huh?! Gunners back?! In an orange jumpsuit?! Where's Drake?! What the hell is going on?! "Rick!" Mary exclaims as she rushes out of her car to hug me. Woah... what happened while I was gone? "Hey Mary..." I say in an awkward tone. "uh, I'm glad to see you missed me while I was gone." Mary stops hugging me to give me a piercing glare. "Only because you're useful..." she scolds me before coyly glancing to the side. "don't get any ideas." "So what now, lovebirds?" Cipher blurts as he approaches us with a mocking grin. Mary glances at Cipher with a raised eyebrow, not amused at his first impression. "Who is this guy?" Gunner steps out of the vehicle. "Do you know him, Rick?" "Unfortunately." I joke with a grin of my own. "Fuck you too, Rick." Cipher laughs. "You've known me longer than you've known them." "How did that come about?" Gunner asks. "We'll discuss it over a meal." Cipher suggests. "My treat. I'm getting hungry and this place is boring." Cipher how do you plan to do that?? You don't have any fucking money! "I could get a bite." Gunner agrees. "I haven't ate anything all day." Mary shrugs indifferently as my stomach growls. "I'm hungry too I guess." I confirm. "Let's roll before we're in trouble." We all nod and enter Mary's car before we exit the parking lot, joining the main street adjacent to us. Cipher touches the frame of his glasses again while looking at the car dashboard. "Your car is due for 32 system updates." Cipher snickers. Mary lightly groans as Gunner shakes his head. "Fuck updates!" I reply with a smug grin. "The government just uses those to spy on you." "Yeah well, at least they know good places to eat." Cipher responds. "There's a good place at the end of this block." As the mood simmers down and we continue down the road, my mind can't stop thinking about Drake... What happened to him? Why is Gunner in his place? Damn it... don't tell me he's dead. He should be here. I just recovered man, don't die on me now. "Guys..." I ask. "what happened to Drake? Why does Gunner have a new outfit?" "We'll explain at lunch." Gunner answers. "It's complicated." "Who's Drake?" Cipher raises an eyebrow. "He's the mutant I was talking about." I reply. "He never told us his last name though." "So that's the other guy that was with you in the city camera feed..." Cipher remarks. I really don't like the look of this. Was Gunner in the gladiator games? How did he escape? This just doesn't make any sense... "This place." Cipher interrupts my thinking and points to a cafe up ahead before we pull into it's parking lot. "How do you plan to pay?" Gunner asks Cipher as we park and exit the car. "I have my ways." Cipher's grin turns extra mischievous as we stroll to the front door. "Just trust me, I've got it covered." Oh boy... I can't wait to see what he has in mind. We enter the cozy cafe, the scent of freshly brewed coffee lingering in the air. The sound of soft jazz plays in the background, adding to the relaxed atmosphere and colors of the unassuming wallpaper. We find a table near the window and take a seat. A friendly waitress comes over to take our orders, and Cipher confidently tells her that the bill will be on his tab. Usually he isn't this confident with people... After the waitress takes our orders and leaves, Cipher discreetly slips a small device onto the table. I raise an eyebrow, curious about it. "What's that?" I ask him. Cipher snickers a little. "Oh, just a little gadget I created. It's a payment transmitter. I've hacked into the cafe's system, so whatever we order will be credited to an oligarch's account. Consider it my little gift to you all." I shake my head, grinning at Cipher's resourcefulness. "You never cease to amaze me, Cipher. Always finding a way to get what you want." Cipher shrugs nonchalantly. "What can I say? I'm a man of many talents." I chuckle, not surprised by his response. "That you are, my friend. That you are." I then glance at a corner of the cafe's ceiling with a television and recognize myself on the news broadcast. "A TIER THREAT FUGITIVE" the banner reads under the camera feed of me ***-wiring our new car. Oh shit... I might be found here soon. I lose my smile and try not to get noticed. Suddenly the television channel changes to a game show before I turn to Cipher and find him holding the frame of his glasses again. Whew... saved. "Now that's handy." I admire before Cipher looks back at me with his favorite grin again. My thoughts then drift back to Drake as we wait for our orders to arrive. I glance outside the window at the indifferent pedestrians. "Does he know the real story, Mary?" I ask Mary, referring to Gunner. "Yes." she confirms as Gunner nods with her. "Drake helped him escape the stadium before he was captured." Sounds like him but... You mean the stadium where they use the force-fields?? How did he get through those?! "How'd he manage that?" I look at them in disbelief. "I thought no one could survive those barriers for long." "Well Drake can, apparently." Mary explains. "It seems that he actually absorbed the energy from the force-field circuit faster than it could handle. I mean it was the circuits near the large electrical transformer that exploded after all." "How does that work?" I scratch my head. "Do you even know if this is true?" "The data logs from the stadium at the time corroborate with her claim." Cipher joins in while gripping the frame of his glasses. "Reports indicate an over-current failure in the protection circuit. It's like he knew not only how to siphon the power, but also destroy the whole device." "Man..." I utter in response. "I didn't know he was capable of that too." Mary gets a sudden grin on her face, as if there was a hint of pride behind what she was about to say. "Who knows what he's capable of?" Mary ponders. "His infection is quite adaptive. There could be more to him beyond what we know right now." "Wait, are you saying he can evolve?" I look at Mary. "Basically." she casually confirms. So there's just no figuring this guy out huh? Good grief... "This is just nuts..." I shake my head. "but I don't think we could live a normal life anyway with the elites keeping us under their boots." "Maybe we can." Mary says with a gleam of determination in her eye. "The world may not be able to handle the specimen that is Drake." She talks about him like some sort of guinea pig. I don't know how I feel about that. He's human... or at least human enough to me. "I hope he's alright wherever he is." I admit, my voice filled with a tinge of sadness. "I'm sure he's strong enough to handle whatever comes his way," Mary reassures me. "We'll find a way to rescue him, just like he did for you and Gunner." "Easier said than done." Cipher interrupts, holding his glasses again as the waitress arrives with our food. "The newest government records on the mutant report him being taken to Area 51. It won't be easy rescuing him or getting there in time. The fastest we can get there is two and a half hours if we're going 100 miles per hour." "It's the least we can do." Gunner gives Cipher the fiercest glance I've ever seen him make. "We wouldn't be here without him." Gunner begins at his food as Cipher looks back at him with genuine disbelief. "You guys can't be serious..." he argues. "we're talking Area 51 here. You guys can't survive this." "Not like we have much of a chance without him." Mary interjects as she begins her meal. "What do we have to lose?" "You guys are nuts." Cipher responds with a cynical frown. "This is a suicide mission." "C'mon Cipher," I persuade him while eating my food. "you were curious about Drake right? Here's your chance to brag about seeing him. Plus imagine all the technology you'd be close to..." "Is this guy really worth it?" Cipher debates. "How do we know he's not going to eat us?" "Because we're all he has." Gunner answers as he picks at his grub. "If he saved your life, you'd understand." Cipher glances over to me as if he was looking for my input. I look back at him resolutely. The grin on my face straightens out. "He got me out of a real jam." I explain. "He fought for us. We should fight for him as well." The look in his eyes changes as he sees how serious I am. He idly stares down at his food for a moment like he's lost in thought. "This is the first time in a while I've heard you talk about going on the offensive, Rick." Cipher remarks. "You mean business... fine. I'll help you guys since this Drake guy means so much to you." He begins to eat before Gunner examines him from the other side of the table. "So who are you?" Gunner begins as he chews at his food. "Are you part of the Brotherhood? Is that the resistance you're talking about?" "I'm Cipher," he answers as he starts eating. "and yes, I'm in their ranks. I'm essential to their cyber campaigns and just so happen to be escorting Rick." "So what are you doing here with him then?" Mary questions him. "Don't you know, have bigger missions to participate in? Like breaching government systems for example?" "I would if that was the case." he explains as he eats. "Unfortunately though, the cryptography used for national security has been getting better and harder to keep up with. Progress has been slowing down so I've been assigned to escort Rick and manipulate the surrounding cameras." "Explains why you came along and didn't turn back." Gunner responds. "You see Drake as a possible game changer since accessing things remotely is losing viability." Cipher nods as he takes a sip from his coffee. "Exactly. Drake's abilities could potentially give the resistance a physical advantage, something that we haven't had before." Cipher confirms. "And besides, it's not like I can resist the chance to showcase my hacking skills in a high-security facility like Area 51 anyway." "Good." Gunner comments before finishing his meal and setting his utensils down. "We can't get enough help." "Man, Gunner, you finished fast." I remark through my chewing. "Did they feed you at the stadium?" "Barely." Gunner replies with a hint of resentment in his tone. "Plus I haven't had a good meal like this since prior to joining the military." "You were a soldier, huh?" Cipher picks at his food and asks Gunner. "Why? Why did your risk your life for them as they were taking away our rights?" "To escape poverty." Gunner answers. "I didn't think I was going to live long anyways." "Hey, you have combat experience." I say through my chewing. "At least you got that." "Yeah, well," Gunner counters. "I also got my arm injured too. I can't apply my experience like I used to." "Maybe it's time you pick up a keyboard." Cipher suggests as he snickers through his eating. "It wouldn't hurt to try." "I think I'll leave that stuff to you." Gunner laughs him off. "I couldn't keep up with you." "Maybe it's time you should pick up a gun." Mary comments to Cipher as she sips her coffee. "I'm already packing heat in my pocket," Cipher reveals. "it's just that I hardly need to use it." "You were armed too??" I interject as I finish my meal. "You people have trust issues. I'm not going to blow your cover." "To be fair," Cipher replies with an innocent smile. "I totally forgot about the gun in my pocket until now. I'm too used to making the infrastructure do what I say." "I guess you're a high profile Brotherhood member for a reason." Mary remarks at Cipher. "You could be of use." "Thanks..." Cipher responds as he finishes his meal. "I guess." "Man, you need to eat more." I advise Cipher jokingly before he shakes his head. "I don't need a lot to be happy." he smugly replies with a half grin. "You of all people would understand this." "Touché." I concede as Mary finishes her plate. "Are we ready?" Mary asks as she wipes her mouth with a napkin. "Yeah." I reply resolutely before turning to Gunner. "Are you?" "Absolutely." he confirms. "I've never been more prepared to fight for someone in my life." "Same here." I agree. "I don't care if we have to deal with Drake trying to eat us. I've already been trying not to be eaten in this unforgiving society. At least he has our best interest." Mary and Gunner nod with me in firm solidarity as the waitress comes back. "Do we want to order more?" the waitress asks. "Or will that be it for today?" "That'll be it for today." Cipher answers as he operates his obscure device. "Make the payment on my tab." "Will do!" the waitress smiles before excusing herself. As the waitress navigates her way back to the cashier desk, I noticed her pick up a phone while looking at Gunner and begins to talk on it. She starts covering her mouth suspiciously like she doesn't want anybody reading her lips. We gotta get outta here... Now. "The payment should automatically process." Cipher explains as he puts his device away and stands up from his seat with ambition radiating from his eyes. "Now let's head out before we're identified."