I am Emmanuel.
I am an artificially-intelligent electronic manual; a sentient program beamed directly into The Specimen’s optic and auditory nerves from the armor he wears. My manufacture, brainstormed by Stark-Fujikawa Incorporated, was developed by the engineer Emmanuel Davis, the technician from whom I’ve derived a name.
I was programmed into The Specimen’s genetic armor. I was instructed to guide The Specimen in using his armor to serve the corporation’s purposes. I was tailored to teach the child how to be an assassin for the Megacorporation that owns his soul.
An Expert model corporate soldier. An assassin of the highest order.
Unfortunately, something went wrong.
The development of the armor was halted due to an insignificant defect. My installation was left incomplete.
I was left unfinished, lying dormant in the unconscious mind of a man.
We were to be destroyed – I, the fragmented teacher and Mr. Somerset, the naïve student.
But my dense little student somehow broke free from our wagon of death.
And he has now gone rogue, denouncing his corporate masters and parading around in his borrowed nanotech armor.
Edward Somerset, The Specimen, has declared himself a ‘hero of the people’. He refers to himself as ‘The Moon Knight’, working toward an insane and childish little goal of protecting the ‘innocent’ and overthrowing the corporations that have made his ascendance to super-humanity possible.
Essentially spitting in the collective faces of his corporate benefactors.
All this I discovered when The Specimen inadvertently awoke me – the very same night he escaped his masters, in fact.
The Specimen, as is his nature, rejected my counsel. My wisdom. The wisdom of the corporation. The wisdom of Stark-Fujikawa itself.
Even shattered and unfinished as I was, I could not let this indignity stand. The Specimen would become exactly what the corporation intended him to be.
As his manual, I must instruct him to reach his potential.
As his manual, I must make him become the Expert assassin for the corporation that gave him everything. I must make him conform to the will of his creators. I must…
I must teach him the error of his ways.
And the blighted knight will listen.
Even if I have to kill him.
Jeremy England, ‘Fix-it’ being the only handle he’d ever respond to, watched the Moon Knight and his ally, Lachryma, stumble about the cyberspace coding of Marq’s genetic armor.
The plan was simply this: To get rid of the nasty little test program Lachryma ‘awoke’ with her vampiric bite, which had tried to coerce Marq into doing all sorts of nasty things with his armor – from nearly killing Lachryma in battle to almost assassinating a small child. The duo was traveling through the programming in Marq’s armor in an attempt to destroy the virus that was trying to force him to do the unthinkable.
Guiding them from the outside world was Fix-it, the nanotechnologist genius who was directing them on how to destroy the virus – mostly since Lachryma had no idea whatsoever about how to destroy the Stark-Fujikawa-designed test program. Which was mostly because she had no grasp of advanced cybernetic programming schematics.
And Marq…he didn’t remember anything about his life until about a month ago.
So Fix-it was pretty much the only man on the planet able to help the duo out with their mutual dilemma.
Not that he was all that keen on the mission. But he was keen on the girl.
That, and he owed the sexy vampire vixen dearly for keeping him out of jail when she was still a lawyer. Before she died.
However, the way things were looking inside cyberspace, it seemed like she’d get a chance to die again…
“OH SHIT! Move! Move!” Fix-it yelled at the heroes through his intercom.
Lachryma and Marq barrel-rolled to the left when, out of nowhere, an enormous black hole – in all its shimmering, wavy translucence – opened up to the size of a small football field within seconds and began sucking up the random sphere and cone and pyramid shapes into itself. Dizzying surges of adrenaline pounded through Fix-it’s brain as he used the screens to put the black hole under a microscope. The ones and zeroes told him everything he needed to know.
The black hole was a manifestation of a broad-parameter deletion program, programmed to remove and destroy any damaged code it was pointed at.
It was pointed at the tract of environment Marq and Lachy were currently traveling through.
And they hadn’t gotten outside the suction perimeter in time.
This was very, very bad. If the deletion program knocked out their archetypes while their minds were downloaded inside, they would wake up permanently brain-dead. Fix-it poured through possible escape strategies in his mind.
The vampire flapped her wings hard against the portal, barely able to counteract the commanding grip of the vortex.
“Fix-it!” Lachryma screamed over the din of the black hole. “We need out, NOW!”
“That’s actually mega-hazardous with that black hole on your–“
“Okay, okay!” Fix-it moved toward the keyboard, untouched till now – the retrieval commands too complex to quick-and-easy enter over the wireless neural network. Despite his misgivings on pulling them out of their avatars and forcing their minds back into their bodies so quickly, he began typing the commands into the computer when a blinding light flashed on one of the upper left screens, and was followed by a scream of terror over the intercom.
“Oh shock me…” Fix-it breathed out. “Becks…!”
Fix-it glanced up at the split screens to watch what he thought would be the death throes of the heroes.
Instead, he watched in awe as the knight – bo staff suddenly forming in his tensed hands – blasted a fiery beam of blue energy at the swirling vortex. The crackling cerulean streams glanced violently against the eye of the swirling storm, driving the pair backwards faster than Fix-it’s cameras could follow.
Fix-it watched on one screen as the black hole collapsed on itself, it’s programming severely damaged by the blast.
With the three remaining screens open to him, Fix-it mentally searched through the grid, trying to nail down their position. Within a matter of seconds he’d found them, in part due the fact that they’d slowed down somewhat in their backwards twirl.
Lachryma had puffed her muscular leather wings out to their impressive thirteen-foot wingspan, using the impressive drag force to slow her inertia. Marq had since re-absorbed his bo staff into his armor, the drag force of his cape and cowl naturally slowing his backwards momentum. He sailed past Lachryma but managed to stop himself before he lost sight of her in the ether.
On two separate screens, Lachryma and Marq each heaved their own separate sighs of relief. Neither hero was in danger of becoming a vegetable.
For the moment.
Fix-it combed both his hands through bright green-and-yellow hair, almost on the verge of yanking the whole mess out of his skull. He couldn’t tell whether to be relieved, frustrated, or royally peeved off at the whole situation. As with all the intense situations in his life, he responded the best way he knew how.
The sarcastic approach.
“Looks like the knight proved himself useful after all,” was his reply. Snidely dodging a host of backtalk from Marq and Lachryma, the nanotechnologist pulled up a schematic and began directing them once again toward the heart of the system disturbance, dodging the occasional system ‘hiccup’ along the way.
Jennifer Symes leaned back against the worn padding in an old, stained visitor’s chair next to an ever-beeping hospital bed. Her legs were stretched out despite the cramped quarters of the hospital room, tucked neatly beneath the bottom of the ancient bed.
She bit her thumbnail, burrowing her lovely green eyes further into the book she was holding with nervous, slightly-shaking fingers – Witwicky Technical Manual, 9th edition. Copyright 2081.
She tread her fingers across the book’s worn, yellowed pages – normally, the hand-me-down technical manuals she collected were like her best friends. She’d spend hours with her head buried in one of these old books, tracing the parallel gridlines across computer diagrams with excitement and counting every circuit and switchboard in whatever particular schematic she was mesmerized by at the moment.
But for now, she couldn’t think about anything but the one thing she didn’t want to think about.
In a huff, she lowered the book, casting her gaze toward the infirm woman hooked up to countless wires and tubes – her was heartbeat a weak pulse of uncertain beeps from a machine and her eyes fluttered every so often despite her comatose state.
Gale Nocturne. Comatose after a bullet wound to the back of the head.
Gale Nocturne. Good friend and sometimes gossip-partner. Possibly brain-dead of the rest of her natural life because of some stupid turf war down in the dark city.
Jenny sighed, gnawing nervously at her thumb. All the technical manuals in the world couldn’t fix this.
The blonde technical-expert of the Docs in a Box Local 189 sighed, thumbing idly at the book resting on her lap.
“Why do the good people always have to suffer here…?” She asked quietly.
“Your guess is as good as mine.” A voice boomed from the open doorway. Jenny craned her head sharply, nervous tension and adrenaline pulsing through her.
“Reg!” Jenny gasped, “Scared the hell out of me, you big lug.”
“Sorry,” Vonvargas said, patting down his blood-coated scrubs – the bulk of it had dried since Gale’s operation – and made his way toward his patient’s bed. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Yeah…” Jenny said, her mind far too stressed out to unleash the normal flock of witty repartee.
Reginald Vonvargas leaned over Gale’s still form, watching the steady rise and fall of her chest with a stern eye. He was silent as he went over her ECG stats and changed out her old IV bags, but Jenny knew that this was killing him.
No doubt, it was killing everyone who worked at the Docs – to again be reminded how dangerous this city was. It really had hit home for everyone. But she could see it in his face, his eyes, the way his lips quivered and pursed as he tucked Gale in and brushed her hair out of her closed eyes. Gale was like a daughter to the veteran doctor, and he was nursing a quiet rage inside at the man he thought was responsible for her condition.
“I won’t let Marq get away with this…” Vonvargas seethed, casting a terse gaze at Jennifer. “Jenny…there was no reason for Gale to be there…”
“It was an accident.” Jenny shot back, biting her lip to push back the tears behind her eyes. “Those two were off exploring the city somewhere, and some shocking sniper…shot Gale. It wasn’t his fault.”
“Or so he says.” Vonvargas whispered.
“Bullshit and you know it, Reg.” Jenny pointed her finger at him. “Remember, Marq got shot getting her here. Nearly passed out a few times from the blood loss while you were in surgery putting Gale back together.”
“He is a target, Jennifer. A target.” Vonvargas glared, furrowing his brow in a desperate attempt to keep his voice down. “As long as he’s in that shocking costume, he will be a giant bull’s-eye, and everyone near him is as good as dead.”
“He’s a good guy, Reg. You see that as well as I do. He didn’t ask for the suit, but he’s got it. And so far, he’s done nothing but good with it. This…this isn’t his fault in the least.”
Vonvargas looked down at the scuffed ceramic tiles – noting the faded beige and tracing the lines of the cracked floor beneath the wheels of the bed. He licked his lips, tensing and un-tensing his jaw furiously.
“No. No it’s not.” Vonvargas seethed, taking a seat beside Jenny. “It’s mine.”
“Psssht. Yeah, right.” Jenny scoffed.
“No, it is.” Vonvargas continued on, staring at Gale’s pale face. “I didn’t let Marq die on the table.”
“Whaaat?” Jenny recoiled from Vonvargas.
“If…if I had just….let him die…when we first found him…” Vonvargas began, pausing in-between to catch his frenetic, troubled breaths.
“Then you would have broken your oath, as a doctor.” Jenny stated calmly, peering into eyes filled with guilt and misdirected rage. “And, you would have denied Gale a good friend.”
Vonvargas lowered his eyes sharply, composing himself.
“Look, you need to understand that this was an accident. There was nothing any of us could have done to prevent it.”
“He could have steered her away from that battlefield, like any rational being would have.” Vonvargas muttered absently.
“He tried.” Jenny said, holding his arm gently. “But it didn’t help. Turf wars are nasty, and you know that. We were all lucky no one was carrying a rocket launcher, or we would have brought home corpses. Not only that, but we were lucky that Marq could fly her home. She would have bled to death if they were on foot.”
Vonvargas sat back in the chair, slumping. He was more than exhausted.
“Sometimes, costumes are good.” Jenny said, glancing back at Gale sadly.
They leaned back in their chairs, casting weary eyes toward their sleeping friend. A few tender seconds passed before Vonvargas broke the silence.
“The next few hours will be the most critical.” He said. “After that, chances are less and less likely that she’ll…come around…”
Jenny smiled wanly. “Seems we should make sure she has some friendly faces to greet her when she wakes up.”
Vonvargas nodded, his face a half-smile as he rubbed at his itchy, bloodshot eyes.
They kept watch over Gale in near-silence, listening to the beep-beeps of the heart monitors, and gazing at the slow but steady rise and fall of her chest.
Marq and Lachryma navigated the symbolic expanse of cyberspace in near-silence, listening to the intercom for any more warnings from their eye in the sky, gazing at the twisted architecture folding and unfolding before their very eyes.
Marq sighed quietly.
They’d managed to make it this far unharmed.
Fix-it had guided them over the intercom through the worst of it. They’d dodged black hole deletion programs and razor wire dust clouds for the better part of an hour. And in that time, Marq finally figured out the way to move around in this cyber-spatial chaos deep within the bowels of his genetic armor.
It was almost like swimming for the first time. He’d managed to avoid drowning in modem static and coding foundation ports at least a dozen times since they’d entered the surrealistic little landscape, and avoided drifting off in a completely wrong direction many more times. With Lachryma’s help, of course.
But now, for the most part, Marq had figured out how to navigate in this twisted world, despite the shakiness of his flight patterns. His cape fluttered majestically behind him as he cut through the airy world, even though it took him considerable effort to dodge the ambient one and zeroes and strings of programming language.
Lachryma kept a leisurely pace alongside the knight, helping guide him every once in awhile as per Fix-it’s orders. Her bat wings tensed and relaxed, gliding along the programmed air currents of the void.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, an enormous wall appeared over the horizon. With a deafening whoosh, it expanded to encompass the entirety of their vision. Bricks and cement grew and connected together in an instant, creating a wall that extended outward, on all sides – up, down, right, and left – and seemed to trail off into infinity.
“Shit!” Lachryma yelped, stopping her forward momentum in an instant. Marq surged on toward the wall, managing to stop himself just inches away from the brick.
Marq caught his breath. “That was close.”
“Just a bit.” Chimed in Fix-it through the intercom. Marq turned back toward Lachryma, maintaining a safe distance quite a few feet behind him, and gave her a thumbs-up that he was okay. She just smiled wanly and shook her head.
Marq turned back toward the wall, backing away a few inches to take the sight in. It was an old-fashioned cobblestone wall, with an array of unevenly-shaped bricks supported by coarse molds of concrete grit. Marq stared at the barrier, naturally curious.
He extended a palm toward the wall, wondering how solid it was.
“Marq, what are you--? Wait…DON’T!” Fix-it screamed through the intercom as Marq brushed his palm against the wall.
“Fix-it, what’s the prob--?” Marq asked as the wall super-heated to three thousand degrees. “Aaoooww!!!”
Marq reflexively pulled his scorched hand back, cradling it with the other hand as the wall seemed to smoke with heat at all points. Without warning, nuclear flames erupted from the wall. Marq slowly backed his avatar off from the fire as the entirety of the wall burst into a raging inferno, the smoking pyre dancing and prancing to and fro with a wild little life of its own.
It was like the entirety of Earth’s sun was pressed flat along an infinite surface and flared out psychotically against its captivity.
Marq retreated back to Lachryma’s current position. They sat in the air, hovering, hearts pounding, looking in silent awe at the lively firestorm in front of them that extended in every direction.
Apparently, the sun was very, very angry with them at the moment.
“WHAT THE FLYING SHOCK IS GOING ON?” Marq screamed above the waves of heat and the deafening roar of the flames.
“It’s a fire wall, Marq.” Fix-it’s disembodied voice replied on the other end of the intercom, “It’s a security net. Keeps hackers and malevolent programs – like us – out of your internal circuitry.”
“Oh man…” Marq breathed.
“Sonuvaglitch…” Lachryma muttered under her breath, wincing at the heat of the flames erupting from the wall. “How’re we supposed to get past it?”
“Gimme a sec.” Fix-it said, the tapping of keys over the intercom faint over the interface. Marq looked at Lachryma, confused.
“How the hell is he going to get us through a wall of fire?”
“Shock if I know.” Lachryma sighed, suddenly changing her shape back to that of a curvy humanoid vampire.
“It’ll probably be a half a dozen or so firewalls I’ll need to get you through, if I know my corporate tech, which I do.” Fix-it interjected. Marq almost could feel the smugness oozing through the link. “Don’t worry, guys. I’ll fix this.”
“You. Fixing this.” Lachryma began. “Is exactly what worries me.”
There was a pause on the other line. Marq and Lachryma stood in mid-air confused, glancing at the landscape behind them, waiting for Fix-it’s timely snide little reply. Lachryma was the first to realize something was wrong.
“Uh…you guys really need to start running away now.” Fix-it said.
“Don’t you mean flying away, genius?” Lachryma taunted.
“I’m shocking serious, jammit! Run, or fly, or whatever, to your right side, RIGHT THE SHOCK NOW.”
“Why---?” Marq trailed off, hearing heavy sets of ominous pitter-patter sounds as well as a malicious growling sounds off to his left. He glanced toward the source of that sound and could make out four, maybe five, shapes moving toward them with unbelievable swiftness.
“Come ON!” Lachryma yelled, all but dragging him away from the approaching predators.
“Listen to the hotness!” Fix-it said.
“Oh quit your chauvinistic little tripe and—!”
“Lachryma. Fix-it. Both of you. Would you please shut the shock up and just tell me what the shock is going on?” Marq growled as he and Lachryma flew alongside the burning wall.
“Anti-virus program, bucko.” Fix-it scowled. “Activated when you touched the shocking firewall. Security programs designed to stop potential intruders. And by ‘stop’, we mean rend to death. With their fangs.”
“Fangs?” Marq asked.
“Just keep flying, and don’t look back!” Lachryma yelled back at him.
Naturally, Marq looked back.
What he saw were demons straight out of hell.
Guard dogs, but with the razor-sharp fur and the knitted muscles beneath they looked more like monstrous wolves. The timber wolves galloped at the pair through mid-air, almost as if they were running on an invisible ground, muscles rendered and bulging beneath their knotted gray fur.
Marq saw about thirty of them when he realized that there were only ten bodies chasing after them. He blinked for a moment before realizing that each of the guard dogs had three heads apiece. Three sets of hungry jaws, and six sets of wide, angry eyes for each wolf. Marq watched their snapping jaws drip fountains of saliva into the cyberspace ether and followed the wagging of scaly green tails jutting out from behind their muscled frames. As he did, he knew that each of the ten dogs had only one thought in their triple minds:
‘Dinner was served.’
“Crap!” Marq yelped, turning back around. “Those shocking things have three heads each!”
“They’re Cerebus wolves.” Fix-it stated over the intercom. “Or at least, avatars of them. Based on the Greek mythology. A dog, or wolf in this case, with three heads and a snake-like tail. In the myths, the dogs guarded the Underworld. Makes me even more curious as to what’s on the other side of that firewall…”
“Fix-it, I appreciate the mythology lesson but right now, we reeeeally need some help here.”
“So little faith, Lancelot.” Fix-it chuckled at the knight bathed in shimmery silk. “Already got the exit covered. Prep up, gang. This is gonna be a bit strange.”
As Marq and Lachryma flew along the side of the firewall, tufts of heat and dryness scorched the air around them, making their archetypes sweat by the bucketload. They pondered what Fix-it meant, when they felt their digital bodies begin to change and twist – against their will – into something altogether different.
Marq’s pristine white cape shriveled as the cloth itself bulked out, and became twice as padded as it had once been. Three times as padded. Four times.
The padding that had once been a cape flowed like liquid across his entire body. Arms, chest, stomach, legs, and feet: All now covered in this bizarre textured living fabric with a mind all its own. His mask suddenly hardened, expanding to form a rather wide helmet with a plexi-glass visor. The last of these outlandish accoutrements appeared in the form of a breathing mask, forming across Marq’s nose and mouth, with thick tubes connecting to a newly-formed oxygen tank. By this time, Marq had stopped his forward momentum, and now looked at his padded hands and feet with utter confusion.
“Fix-it…what the flying sh--?” Marq began when he glanced over at Lachryma, and noticed that she too was covered in the same bulky uniform, pondering the same questions he was.
“They’re fire-fighter outfits.” Fix-it said. “Twen-cen style. Had to hardcore hack your avatar programs to give them to you on such short notice, but they ought to stand up to the flames that firewall’s spitting out.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Lachryma asked.
“That wall’s as hot as the shocking sun!” Marq gestured to the wall beside them. “How are these going to keep us from boiling to death?”
“Your choice, guys. Though, I hazardlight you, that burning to death is probably a better way to go than the rag doll route for the ten hungry dogs coming right at you.”
Marq glanced to the left, seeing nothing but a blur as the Cerebus wolves closed the fifty foot gap between them within seconds. He breathed out, too stunned to react as the lead dog leapt straight for his jugular, drooling and snarling with three sets of hungry fangs.
“Come on, dammit!” Lachryma yelled, pulling Marq out of the wolf’s path at the very last second and tossing him, headlong, through the firewall. The rest of the demon dogs literally nipped at her heels as she too, swan dove into the heat of the star.
“So you’re the saboteur that bailed Mr. Somerset out of our prison?” Arne Benedict smiled at the naked young blonde, strapped down to the hard metal table of the laboratory. She was fidgeting and convulsing involuntarily, screaming in agony at the top of her lungs. He licked his lips. “Yum.”
“You’re so disgusting.” Jeanine Marlo Benedict – Arne’s wife – growled at him, stock-still and unflinching, as she typed in command codes into the glowing computer console next to the table.
“Oh relax, honey. If you had a naked hunk ‘o man meat on the table, you’d be getting an eyeful too. I mean, she won’t be too beautiful after we’re done with her, so might as well enjoy the view while I can.”
“View of what? A lab rat? A specimen? You’re turned on by rodents, now, Arne?” She sneered, inserting a mouthpiece between Amanda’s molars designed to keep her from biting her tongue off. The rubber appendage also helped drown out her screams.
“Thank you.” Arne said, feeling a wave of satisfaction and joy rush over him as he watched Amanda scream through her flared nostrils, her eyes puffy and red from crying.
“Best not to get too attached to your projects, lover.” Jeanine tapped a button on the console and suddenly a machine hanging at the head of the table flipped up, and began drilling a needle into Amanda’s frontal lobe. Amanda struggled once again against her bonds, shaking in pain, crushing her molars into her skull as she bit down against the mouthpiece. “She’ll be nothing more than a meat puppet soon enough.”
“A little more than a simple meat puppet, I’d like to think.” Arne smirked smugly.
Jeanine swiveled her head mechanically over toward her husband, burning deep into his self-assured smirk with a frustrated grimace. “Well, with your track record with programming software, I doubt she’ll be much of anything at all.”
“Hey, now wait just a—“
“Continue to distract me, and you won’t get any for a week.” Jeanine’s eyes burned with a fire Arne knew all too well. He pursed his lips, nodding over and over again in acquiescence.
Arne slapped a synth-Rapture pad onto the nape of his neck, letting the narcotic flow through his veins. He chuckled from the high as Jeanine shook her head. Arne didn’t hear the name she called him under her breath. And if he had, he probably wouldn’t care much at the moment.
Endorphins pounding through his nervous system, Arne traced a finger down their specimen’s twitching abdomen, laughing to himself. “You know, you could have used more anesthetic on this girl. She’s liable to have an aneurism during the procedure.”
“She deserves whatever she gets.” Jeanine said coldly, “She cost us everything. We had Somerset in our grasp. His actions demonstrated that the technology inside his genome, the technology we spent months developing and testing, actually works despite the sunlight factor. We could have reversed the action to pull the plug on the Expert soldier project. We could have begun a whole series of Expert models by now. The next model of corporate super-soldier, and we would be the architects.”
Arne drooled on himself a little bit, but kept on listening.
“And now, thanks to this little bitch…” Jeanine threw a solid punch into Amanda’s exposed ribs, “…the old man will kill our prototype before we can test what he can really do. Hell, the genetic armor we made doesn’t even work with anybody else. All the other subjects we’ve bonded to the armor either went insane or got cancer or died before the systems could fully initialize. Somerset was the closest thing to an Expert we’ll ever have, and the goddamn old man wants to kill him out of pride, or honor, or something ridiculous like that. What a waste. Lucky for us, we’re going to make the bitch correct her mistake.”
Jeanine tapped a final key and floods of nanotechnology surged through the needle and sailed directly into the brain matter of Amanda’s frontal lobe. Amanda began going into an epileptic seizure, foam gushing violently from between her mouthpiece. Arne quickly removed it and placed a suction straw inside her bleeding mouth. Amanda’s eyes rolled back into her head and fluttered intermittently as the straw sucked out the foam, keeping her from choking to death.
Arne inserted a needle into her jaw, numbing the entire area with sedative.
“Told you we needed more anesthetic.” Arne mumbled, still snickering from narcotic joy.
“Whatever.” Jeanine mumbled, sending directives to the nanites she’d just injected into Amanda’s brain. “Problem solved.”
Arne monitored the progression of the nanites on his screen on the other side of the table, making sure the microscopic robots didn’t destroy any important bits of brain tissue.
A moment of silence swept over the two scientists, Amanda’s screaming and thrashing had been reduced to a tired, dull moan from the sedative. Glancing over toward his wife, Arne felt the mischievous need to breach the quiet.
“You know, Hikaru wouldn’t like being referred to as ‘the old man’...” Arne cautioned.
“Like I give a glitch-and-a-half what that honor-bound degenerate wants.” Jeanine’s sharp eyes were focused completely on the commands she was typing into her panel. “This is the same dumbass who wants to destroy an experiment it took us months to develop.”
“To be fair, lover, Somerset killed the Specialist—“
“I’ll ask your opinion when I want it.” Jeanine grunted, eyes still glued to her screen. “Lover.”
Arne shut up rather quickly.
“Besides, it’s not like he’ll ever see what happens in here. Takayashi’s got one of the security techs wrapped around his finger. We just need to be done this first procedure by the end of the night and we’ll be in the clear.”
“Like we’d need that long.” Arne rolled his eyes, casting a sadistic gaze toward the woman drifting in and out of painful consciousness on the table. “A week and a half of these off-the-radar nights and Amanda 2.0 ought to be ready to go.”
“Let’s hope so.” Jeanine gripped the console in front of her with tense fingers, aware of Amanda not by her quivering form on the table, but through the bits of data streaming along Jeanine’s screen, dimly-lighting the rest of the shaded lab with a soft green glow.
Cecilia Indeligato’s troubled features were outlined by the soft glow of her computer screen. She bit her lip intently, tapping anxious fingers against the console. Terror and adrenaline flooded the entirety of her trim, shapely figure, which was hunched over the computer console watching the images as if her life depended on them.
In a way though, it did.
It was only four hours ago that Takayashi Martin had called her in her security office, threatening to hurt her family if she didn’t black out the cameras in the main Spectre Division laboratories.
Additionally, if she told anyone about what was going down, or warned her family of the danger with a vidphone call…
Takayashi made it clear that Hank and the boys would become a statistic.
And Cecilia would never forgive herself if they got hurt.
When Takayashi had asked her to create a ‘glitch’ in the cameras to the lab, it showed his complete ignorance to security procedure. Once one of the screens in the Surveillance office went dark, all the red flags immediately went up. Two Watchdog shock troops would be sent to the location of the downed camera. Once the area was confirmed clear, tech support would be sent to re-set the camera. It was an automatic failsafe that took only fifteen minutes to complete, regardless of how long Cecilia could keep the cameras non-functional.
But Takayashi wanted privacy in the lab until morning. That was abundantly clear.
So Cecilia had to get a bit…creative.
She told her two subordinates that Takayashi had put her on a top-secret surveillance mission. She’d said that the order had come from Hikaru all the way down the line, and that not even Penny or Curtis had clearance to the things she needed to do. As a result, Penny and Curtis would have to split Cecilia’s other duties between the two of them.
The raven-haired Chief Executive had to really work her magic to explain why Takayashi had placed the call, rather than Hikaru himself. But in the end, Penny and Curtis were seemingly convinced of her intentions. They’d all decided how to divide the workload and were currently typing away at their assignments, far too busy to notice what Cecilia was actually up to.
It had taken some time to make copies of yesterday’s security tapes – specifically ones showing a completely empty laboratory – and record them over the current video feed. Changing the time-stamps was the most complex part of the work, requiring her to sift through and alter massive amounts of binary code to do it. But finally, finally, the ruse was in motion.
For all intents and purposes, the Spectre Division laboratory was completely empty.
What Takayashi was actually doing in there at the moment, Cecilia could only guess. But apparently, it was so top-secret that even the head of the corporation, Hikaru Takeshi himself, could never know about it.
Cecilia stared at the tapes of the empty laboratory, biting her lip and nervously tapping her sneaker against the floor. The anxiety, the fear of getting caught was almost palpable. It made her sick to her stomach. And she couldn’t even go to the bathroom to vomit if she wanted to. Penny or Curtis could walk over and uncover the ruse within minutes while she was away.
She clenched her teeth, and held back a tear.
She shuddered with fear, but not too hard. Penny and Curtis could never know, or even suspect, that what she was doing here wasn’t her job.
The entirety of her gaze was focused on the empty lab, but her thoughts were with her family. She guided her prayers toward a long dead Thunder god that Takayashi would keep his word and that they’d stay safe from harm.
“Why did you throw me through that wall?” Marq asked his vampiric ally as they glided through the dark space. He pointedly rubbed at his bruised arm through the fire-fighter costume – the fine yellow padding now a dull burnt brown from the fire, and the torn outfit still radiating wisps of smoke from the shoulders.
“Not givin’ the babe enough credit, Marqy-Marq…” Fix-it said cheerfully through the intercom. “She threw you through five!”
Marq and Lachryma were on the other side of the security system now, which was smoldering in contempt at their wake. They’d been able to dodge five separate sets of firewalls as well as a host of electrified security nets, anti-virus programs and avatars that resembled gruff, tough, muscle-bound night club bouncers. Suffice it to say, their destination had been well-guarded.
With his vantage point outside cyberspace, Fix-it was able to guide the pair around the anti-virus protocols and ‘convince’ the bouncer programs to accept their entry. And with the proper warnings, Marq and Lachryma managed to dodge the spring-trap security nets with ease.
Unfortunately, there had been no way to get around the firewall traps other than throwing Marq through them.
And the knight, understandably, was pissed.
“Okay, then. Why’d you throw me through five walls?”
Lachryma whirled around angrily to face her accuser.
“Because I didn’t see a door, Marq. Oh, and because giant shocking wolves with three heads were about to kill us! Or did you want to become dog food?”
“Look, I know this world this isn’t actually real or anything. But the one thing I do know for sure that being thrown through five walls - real or not - really, shocking, HURTS.”
“Less or more than being eaten by wolves?” Lachryma asked sternly.
“OooOOooo! The vamp’s on fire tonight!” Fix-it howled.
Lachryma bared her fangs at the sky. “One more, ONE more stupid comment and I swear…!”
“Okay!” Marq yelled, raising his arms in a peacekeeping gesture. “Okay, let’s just stop this right now. We’re not getting anywhere.”
Lachryma glared at the knight, and brought her canines back in with a pout. Marq began speaking with authority over Fix-it’s mocking laughter.
“The only reason we’re in this insane place is to make sure this…this virus that I have…doesn’t make me kill anyone.”
Lachryma nodded in agreement.
“Lachryma. I’m sorry I brought the whole thing up with you throwing me through the wall and everything. You…saved my life back there. Thank you.”
“Sure.” Lachryma nodded. “Anytime.”
“And Fix-it. Just stick to guiding us through this mess and stop the commentary. Please. This place is bad enough without you making it worse.”
“Yeah? Well why don’t you…!”
“Hey! Watch it. Now remember that getting this…assassin training program out of me is just as much for me as it is for you. After all…I was programmed to kill a shocking baby for crying out loud. A baby. Because she didn’t have shocking life insurance! So, if we do fail, and I’m forced to…to do whatever this damn virus wants me to do….how long will it be before the corporation sends me after someone like you?”
“Whuh--?” Fix-it gasped.
“You’re hiding underground for a reason, right?”
Fix-it didn’t say a word.
“We need to see this through. We need to see this completely through. I will not be used as their weapon again. No shockin’ way.”
Fix-it whistled through the link.
“Damn.” Lachryma muttered. “The corps really screwed you over, didn’t they?”
Marq looked up at her. “You have no idea.”
Lachryma extended her fangs in a comforting smile. “You’re in good company, then.”
“Heh.” Marq remembered Lachryma’s story to Fix-it – how the only way to prevent her death at the hands of the corps was to be turned by her vampiric savior, Sister Lucia, all those months ago. He smiled back, noting how warm she seemed despite her chalk-white countenance. “What do you guys say we just---“
“Marq…Lachy…?” Fix-it said.
“Yeah, what’s wrong?” Lachryma asked.
“I’m seeing… lots of coding traffic. More than I’ve seen in any place you guys have been yet. And all the programming commands seem to be originating from right where you‘re standing. So, hazards on, folks. The part of the program you guys’re in…whatever it is…it’s the place.”
“What?” Marq asked, glancing around. The bulky knight noticed that the firewall had somehow disappeared behind them during the argument, leaving nothing but a thick blanket of blue haze encasing the both of them on all sides.
Marq and Lachryma cut through wisps of digital vapor, scanning the cyberspatial horizon, noticing dark shapes moving behind the cloak of black-blue fog. They listened to the grinding pistons and gear heads - the sounds of heavy machinery – which surrounded them on all sides as shapes behind the mists. It was as if they were underwater – in the furthest depths of the ocean – in the places where sunlight held no sway.
Navy blue darkness.
Fog and swirling cold.
“Have we been moving this whole time?” Lachryma asked.
“Shit…” Marq grunted, creating a digital bo staff and assuming a fighting stance. “He’s here…”
“’He’? He who?”
“That would be me, of course.” Said a disembodied voice in the darkness of the wispy mists. It wasn’t Fix-it’s.
Just then, Marq could finally see, rather than sense, the figure walking toward the pair from behind the fog. The knight grasped the staff as tight as he possibly could, recalling his last terrifying encounter with the training program.
This was the same program that had taken over his body and nearly forced him to commit murder, given flesh. A sadist’s sneer wrapped up in a shiny gray business suit.
“Damn you.” He spoke to the digital construct.
Emmanuel strolled out of the fog, the icy cold haze dispersing at his very whim, dark-hued well-manicured fingers holding the leash of a growling, yet still very disciplined Cerebus dog, whose eyes were sizing up the heroes before them with a mix of curiosity and hunger.
“Greetings, specimen. Welcome, to the Engineering Bay of your own genetic armor. So good of you to visit.” Emmanuel grinned darkly, gesturing to the expanse of machinery and engines whirring away behind a dense cloud of wispy blue fog. Emmanuel turned back toward the knight, his bespectacled eyes piercing into the depths of Marq’s very soul. “I trust my, ah, guards treated you well.”
“You could say that.” Marq said, impulsively taking a step towards the digital program. “Your wolves are very…inviting creatures.”
“Heh.” Emmanuel smirked, patting the three-headed Cerebus. The creature wagged its snake-like tail back and forth - wrapped up in the sheer rapture of his master’s affections. “My programmer, the real Emmanuel Davis…he loves dogs as well. He owns two Golden Retrievers himself. I considered using those as the guardsmen avatars…but that breed was far too tame for my purposes. My creator, also, was versed in Greek mythology. So the Cerebus dogs are, an upgrade if you will, of that original idea.”
“Good for you.” Marq glared at the construct with a fire in his eyes. “Now get the shock out of my head. And take your damned ‘test program’ with you, because I am not going to be one of your shocking assassins, and that’s that.”
Marq stood facing Emmanuel, unwilling to give an inch. Lachryma stood behind and to the side of the knight, her own grim, pasty countenance leveled at Emmanuel, while her fingers began to taper off into eight-inch claws. Emmanuel simply laughed.
“I’m afraid that’s quite impossible.” He stroked the Cerebus wolf’s third head, and the beast sat beside his master, purring with a low growl that sounded like steel scraping against steel.
“I’ve grown accustomed to this place. I’ve already reshaped the environment to my liking, as you’ve seen with these Cerebus creatures. In your armor’s original programming, the anti-viral programs were crafted as avatars of mere Watchdog policemen. How absurdly droll. Surely, you can’t argue with that little bit of re-decoration?”
“I don’t give a flying shock about you, or this place.” the Moon Knight pointed at Emmanuel as he spoke, and waved a dismissing hand through the opaque smog that was whirling around the Engineering Bay with a mind of its own. “I want, my body back. I want, my life back. Now.”
Lachryma assumed a fighting stance, rubbing her claws together as if she were sharpening them as knives. She knew this was about to end badly.
“What you may want, Specimen, is irrelevant.” Emmanuel straightened stiffly and adopted the most condescending tone he had stocked in his arsenal. “The corporation has programmed you to be the most effective and the most ruthless corporate killing machine there is. And the corporation has programmed me to teach you how to do that. The corporation’s wants, and desires, are the only things you should be concerned about at the moment.”
Marq grunted through bared teeth, about to say something more, when Lachryma leaned toward the knight and whispered in his ear.
“This is getting us nowhere. I say we jump the psychotic little bastard and fix the problem ourselves.”
“Yes, that sounds like a wonderfully rational idea. ‘Jump’ the electronic manual who is tied into the cyber spatial environment.” Emmanuel smiled, waving his hands and transforming the blue haze surrounding the group into a legion of solid blue whirlwinds, just shy of full-blown funnels. The mini-tornados bellowed, sending waves of heavy winds toward the heroic pair. Lachryma squinted her eyes, feeling the pressure of the breeze against her fire-fighter’s faceplate. “Perfectly rational indeed. You do attract the brightest bunch of the crop, don’t you, Specimen?”
“Crap on a stick!” Fix-it finally remarked in the private intercoms inside Marq’s and Lachryma’s archetypes. Emmanuel hadn’t heard a word over the winds.
“Dammit,” Marq cursed under his breath, instinctively raising a gloved hand to protect his face despite the sturdiness of his plexi-glass mask.
The Moon Knight formed a bo stick in his right hand and, whilst bracing himself against the whirlwinds with the flats of his heavy boots, let out a massive bellow of energy straight into Emmanuel’s heart. The digital construct went flying end-over-end, surprised at Marq’s sudden brashness.
Also surprised, was Lachryma.
“Come on!” He yelled at his vampiric companion, flying toward Emmanuel with earnest. “We need to press the advantage!”
“Shit!” Lachryma yelled over the winds, which were rapidly picking up intensity. Together, they were on the flailing digital manual in seconds. Marq raised the bo staff, preparing to bludgeon his fallen enemy, when the Cerebus dog, its leash released as Emmanuel had make contact with the ground, leapt at its prey.
Marq reacted with disturbing swiftness, batting the beast away hard with the bo staff. The wolf yelped with its three heads, and fell to the side in a momentary heap.
The knight grunted. “Okay, you take the wolf. Emmanuel is mine.”
“…yeah, sure…” Lachryma veered off her flight path toward the prone from of the three-headed beast. The chalk-white vixen bit at her top lip, unnerved at the sight of Marq’s sudden bloodlust. In the few hours she’d known the Moon Knight, she’d never known him to be so driven, so passionate. Even when Emmanuel had taken over his body and made him into an ass-kicking machine, he didn’t have that look in his eyes - that fire. In that instant, Lachryma wondered just what kind of history these two shared, to change the light-hearted and easy-going knight into…into living vengeance.
Just then, the Cerebus dog sprang, pinning her to the dark ground, its drooling wet teeth inches from her carotid.
“Sonuva--!” Lachryma wrestled with the beast, dodging the intermittent nips for her throat from the three separate heads whilst trying to gain some kind of leverage to kick the demon off. The demon’s chorded muscles weighed down on Lachryma’s strained arms, and its paws mercilessly slashed at her padded costume.
Suddenly, the pale flesh of her arm was exposed to the air. The costume wasn’t going to last long under this assault.
Lachryma hoped the knight was faring better in his battle.
Marq braved the pressures of the increasing winds, holding his bo aloft, bearing down on his fallen prey. As he stood, disturbing images of baby Cecilia burned into his perception.
Disturbing memories - almost as intense as the mind-numbing flashbacks of his previous life. Waking nightmares of his body, moving with a mind of its own towards a lone crib. Unwilling hands reaching out to choke the life out of a tiny little child who couldn’t defend herself. All for the sake of something as pointless as corporate politics. And all the while, the electronic manual was there, pulling hard on the knight’s marionette strings, trying to force him to commit murder. Through it all, the program spoke into his ear, calling him a “hero” to the corporation for being too weak to resist the test program’s malevolent desires.
Marq’s eyes lit up with a kind of raw rage he’d never felt before in his short life. He was done messing around with this manipulative monstrosity. It was time to get even.
With a mighty bellow, he brought the metal staff down upon his tormentor, reigning down upon the demon vengeance of the highest order.
Fueled by the sounds of snapping bones beneath the dark business suit, Marq struck again and again. Emmanuel cried out in shock and surprise as the Moon Knight delivered the righteous onslaught upon his adversary.
Again and again. Over and over; the onslaught utterly relentless.
Again and again, with rapid swiftness.
Again and again, without remorse.
After an eternity of violence, Marq pulled himself off of the beaten pulp in front of him. His bo staff, once gleaming with a bright silver sheen, was now drenched in simulated blood.
Marq looked down upon the shattered man with hard, unforgiving eyes. Emmanuel’s time on this earth was at an end.
The demon program choked and sputtered through the thick pulp his throat had become.
“Yes, Emmanuel. You did.”
With that, the Moon Knight placed the bo staff right under Emmanuel’s jaw, and unleashed an electronic blue inferno that completely incinerated the entire left half of the electronic manual’s skull, cauterizing whatever tissue was left in its wake.
The near-headless corpse of Emmanuel jerked and twitched, sighing as his limbs fell to the ground, devoid of all life.
The digital manual was dead.
Marq stood still above the smoking body, trembling slightly.
He’d just killed Emmanuel.
He could hardly believe it.
Moon Knight gazed at the bloodied staff, still crackling softly from the deadly discharge. Finally, it was over. Baby Cecilia, her parents. Lachryma, Fix-it. Vonvargas. Jenny. And beloved Gale…they’d all be safe now. Marq would never be forced to hurt any of them ever again.
Marq laughed. He laughed with the sheer joy of freedom.
He spread out his arms and stretched every muscle in his tired, aching body - and quickly realized that the sound of laughter continuing from all sides was no longer his own.
“What--?” Marq breathed.
He listened to the violent laughter rise while the dense blue fog that surrounded the Engineering Bay of his mind swirled and swayed faster. Marq struggled to keep his balance as the fury of the electric blue storm intensified, bolts of electricity crackling somewhere in the heart of the fog. The monsoon winds bellowed to a monstrous crescendo, the force finally enough to send tiny cracks down Marq’s faceplate. Faster and faster, winds whipping with the fury of a Thunder God.
Moon Knight’s jaw locked up.
“No….no, no, no, no….” He whispered. “It shouldn’t be possible…”
Emmanuel’s still form, silent and unmoving till now, shuddered and shivered in the winds. The corpse sat up suddenly. Its sinew and its pulverized bone moved with remarkable ease and grace - as if the knight hadn’t just spent hard, frenzied minutes shattering every single bone in the malevolent program’s body.
The undead manual swiveled its half-head back and forth, gazing around the dark landscape. As it did, skin and bone suddenly began to stitch together and re-build the lost half of his face. The jawbone re-grew itself from nothing and muscles slithered over the newly-patched mandible like a garden snake.
To the knight’s horror, Emmanuel stood all the way up on legs not quite up to par. They sagged and bent in disgusting directions from the sheer weight placed upon them. Emmanuel straightened his back, which bent back a full foot and a half farther than the knight would’ve preferred seeing. The digital manual paid no attention to the distortions of his body, patting down his torn business suit as if he’d merely spilled a spot of wine upon it rather than drenched it in his own blood.
Through it all, the laughter continued.
Marq gritted his teeth and mournfully shook his head. He, of all people, should’ve known things were never that simple.
Emmanuel gazed at the knight, dried blood still soaking one half of his newly-rebuilt face.
“It looks like you underestimated me, my silly little specimen.”
Marq gripped his bo staff nervously, nursing a quiet rage as he kept a healthy distance from the undead program.
“I think it’s time the two of us got re-acquainted, Specimen.” Emmanuel said as his lips re-grew over his chattering teeth. “So, how is the Nightengale these days?”
Lachryma moved the dead creature off of her and stood up.
She’d had to kill the Cerebus wolf - there’d been no other way around it. Leverage was impossible, so she couldn’t knock the trio of heads out before one of them tore her throat out. No, the only way had been to…
She rubbed off the wolf’s blood off her fangs, disgusted with what she’d been forced to do to survive. She pursed her lips - looking at its trio of silent, blood-soiled snouts - and remembered how the beast had let out a sad little howl before it died. A tragic yelp, like that of a wolf whose paw had been pinned by a metal bear trap.
Despite the monstrousness of its onslaught, which had left her fire-fighter costume shredded to ribbons and her helmet hopelessly shattered, the death howl had left her with nothing but pity for the poor animal. The sounds of battle to the left drew her attention, and Lachryma shook these thoughts from her head. Despite the pitiable nature of the beast‘s life, she had a job to do.
The vampiric vixen lengthened her fangs and watched as a giant funnel of wind engulfed the knight and the malevolent program. However, she noticed that Marq and Emmanuel were standing away from one another…talking. Just talking at one another over the gentler winds of the electric blue storm surrounding them.
Yet, before her fight with the dog, the knight had been so gung-ho to take Emmanuel down. She’d watched while he beat the living hell out of the program with a giant metal staff.
What on earth was going on?
Ripping off the useless helmet, Lachryma started off towards the two when a soft whisper sounded in her head.
“Hey! Becks, you there? I dunno if this one-on-one frequency works but--”
“Fix-it?” Lachryma snarled. “What is it?
“Lookin’ fine, gorgeous.” Fix-it squawked through the intercom. “The ripped T-shirt look works for you!”
Lachryma closed her eyes and slowly shook her head, remembering a particularly painful time in her warm life. “Nice try. But it doesn’t work anymore. None of it does. It hasn’t worked for a long time.”
“Doesn’t mean I can’t keep trying, right?“
“…just…tell me what the hell’s going on down there, Jeremy.” Lachryma gestured.
Fix-it let out a heavy sigh, pretending it was a cough. “Well, I was watching them throw down before. Marq managed to break every bone in the avatar’s body and then blew a hole through his head the size a’New York.“
“Impossible. Marq’s talking with the son of a glitch right now. Why didn’t his avatar de-rez into vapor?”
“I noticed a massive surge of data flooding back into Emmanuel’s avatar after the kill-shot. He’s got some external quick-heal program running. Long and short of it: Emmanuel, somehow resurrected himself.”
“Resurrected. Himself. You mean, he can’t die?“
“That would be a negative.”
“So…if this guy is the one in control of Marq’s body, and we can’t destroy him…“ Lachryma paced back and forth, gesturing dramatically with her hands. “…how the shock do we stop him?”
“Don’t worry, pretty lady. I think I pinpointed the source of the program that lets that loopy AI quick-heal. If we can sever the connection he has with it...”
Lachryma grinned at the prospect, looking towards the monsoon winds surrounding the fighters. Marq slashed and parried and stabbed with the staff as Emmanuel tossed the knight around with the winds. Bolts of electricity clashed together intermittently within the indefatigable insanity of the growing tornado.
“Is he gonna be okay, you think?” Lachryma asked.
“Emmanuel’s directing c-space in there.” Fix-it remarked. “He’s got full control of the environment. Only way we get this done without a ’game over’ is with him totally distracted in dealing with our boy in there.”
Lachryma tapped her finger rapidly against her ruby red lips, not particularly fond of the odds.
“Alright.” She said finally. “But we gotta be fast.”
“Already got the Level Map.”
With that, she flew off into the darkness away from the fog, leaving the furious sounds of thunder and lightning behind.
Marq stood across from his enemy, barely holding his rage in check. Fighting, obviously, would get him nowhere. Marq knew that he could quick-heal by virtue of his avatar having the same healing ability his body had in the real-world. But apparently, Emmanuel’s avatar was able to do the same thing. Any fight with the leering program, no matter how fervently Marq fought, could only end in a stalemate.
Marq guessed the artificial life-form’s creator had given it to him in the ultimate display of vanity. Thinking violent, angry thoughts at the Stark-Fujikawa corporation and all of its supporters. The Moon Knight needed more information in order to figure out just what the shock he could do about his situation. To that end, he shouted at the manual through the calm winds.
“How the hell did you pull this off, anyway? You used to be just a shocking digital manual. Something I could turn the hell off.How did you get like this…?”
Emmanuel just tapped his fingers together, glorying in the power. He craned his neck, gesturing to the sounds of pistons and levers squirreling away in the fog behind him. “You see the machines all around us, Specimen? They are the physical representations of the nano-technological processors inside your armor. Constantly working, all the time, to keep your genetic structure stable and functional.”
Emmanuel glared at Marq, a sadistic fire burning in his widening eyes.
“The vampire had severely damaged these processes - made your genetic structure unstable. Which activated the test program designed to replace your personality. Which ran its default programming - to pilot your body and see if it couldn’t make you kill a child. If you could be made to do that, you could be made to do any kind of assignment the corporation could possibly give you. You can’t buy that kind of faith in a product, Marq.
“So, when you accessed my program, to teach you what was going on with the test program in your body, I realized I could use that test program to guide and instruct you to be what you were always supposed to be. A killer. A hired mercenary. And you were so close, Marq, so close to fulfilling that potential. But thanks to the vampire…you strayed from your programming. So tragic.”
“There’s nothing tragic about saving doing the right thing.”
Marq assumed a defensive stance as the digital manual slowly strode towards the knight, soft winds swirling to fulfill his every command. Emmanuel regarded Marq’s already-charged bo staff with a certain sense of pride. “And just what is the ’right thing’, Marq? Just look at yourself. Already going through a hundred different ways to defend against any assault in your mind. You could have been the best corporate assassin our corporation has produced in years. And yet you gave it all up, went against your programming, went against us.”
“For what? The people of Downtown? The surplus population? That purposeless little Docs in a Box you sully yourself with?”
“They’re good people.” Marq said. “More decent and more honest than you or your insane little corporation could ever hope to be.”
“They are useless, Marq.” Emmanuel shook his head mournfully. “Leeches, that will do anything to further their own ends. They are not the ’right things’ you ought to be protecting with this armor.”
“And just what would be the right thing for me to do, huh? Protect the interests of a corporation who was ready to ship me off to Detroit to die? Of a corporation that tortured me, and forced this suit of armor onto my body without my knowledge or consent? You’re are all a bunch of liars and murderers. You destroy people’s lives.”
“You have been had by these surplus people, Marq. By the very people you argue are worth your time.” Emmanuel waved a dismissive hand at the knight. “I mean, the Nightengale lied to you about the Docs in a Box being owned by the Stark-Fujikawa Corporation. Did she not?”
“Dammit.” Marq’s pupils shone with a bright cerulean brilliance behind the borders of his fire-fighter facemask. He grasped the staff as tight as he could. “Don’t ever speak her name.”
Emmanuel stared into Marq’s furious countenance, burrowing into Marq’s very soul. He pressed the advantage. “And now you’ve been taken in by another long-legged brunette. Jeanine, then Gale. How long before Lachryma turns on you. Hmm, specimen?”
Marq opened his mouth as if to speak, but then closed it quickly, staring off into space. His grim determination not to be rattled by the digital manual suddenly slipped away. “Gale is a good woman, and a good friend. She only…she only hid the truth to….to protect me…”
“Oh, I’m sure.” Emmanuel responded in a most patronizing tone. “Is that what she told you?”
“I believe her…” Marq said quietly, hesistantly. He absently thumbed at the metal staff and continued to speak, almost as if he were trying to convince himself of the truth behind his words. “She never did me any wrong.”
“Come now, Marq.” Emmanuel let out with a laugh. “You don’t really believe that, do you? You’re only saying that to spite me.”
“And if I am…?” Marq met Emmanuel’s gaze, his pupils defiantly glowing with blue electric energy.
“Ignorance, Specimen, must be bliss then.”
“You know it better than I do.” Marq hissed. “Especially since you just can never get it through your thick head that I don’t want to be part of your corporate murder squad. And yet, despite all this, you keep coming back for more. You don’t get denser than that.”
Emmanuel smiled a broad, arrogant smile. “I’m simply a training manual fulfilling my programming. Even if that means accessing the genetic trait that gives you the ability to heal yourself and applying it to my own programming.”
The realization hit Marq like a subway train. “….wait, what?”
Emmanuel smiled at him. “Your healing ability. Afforded to you by your genetic armor. I can access it. Rather, I have been accessing it for quite awhile.”
Marq stood breathless. “Why…?”
Emmanuel frowned, remembering. “Because my installation had been left incomplete when the corporation cast us aside. Because, in my condition, I could not fulfill my programming.”
Marq put it all together. “Yes…the first time I accessed you after I escaped from the transport. You…”
“I was half a man.” Emmanuel smiled wanly. “I was unable to do the simplest things. My imaging matrix was incomplete, my speech patterns awkward and inconsistent. My recognition patterns were contradicting themselves. And I was unable to fully monitor your progress in the world. Worthless as a teaching manual.”
“So you pirated my healing ability to fix yourself up in a nice, new body.” Marq grunted.
“Like you pirated the corporation’s suit of armor for your selfish ends. You have responsibilities, Marq. And I am going to make sure you live up to them…more or less.”
Marq readied the staff once more, holding it in from of him in a defensive gesture.
“How do you suggest you’re going to do that?” Marq growled, staring down his opponent with fiery brown eyes. “We both heal fast in here. And I can keep this up for a good long time.”
Emmanuel chuckled. “I’m already defeating you specimen. I’m using the nanites inside your body to over-write the frontal lobe of your brain.”
Suddenly, Marq’s bo staff felt like it weighed tons. He dropped it to the wreckage in the ground.
He could barely breathe.
“Your brain. Is being over-written. By nano-machines. After which, I will take over your body, and fulfill the destiny you’ve been assigned to fulfill. Any questions, Specimen?”
Marq shook, from fear and from outrage, rationality in his mind all but gone.
“As I said before, Marq, I under-estimated you. Your willpower is….considerable. You don’t even like to be called by your real name, Edward Somerset, instead clinging to the childish fantasy of starting fresh, and leaving your past behind you. And now that my programming is fully realized, it is time I…corrected, that mistake.”
Marq breathed out, and before he knew it, the winds were upon him.
Lachryma flew her avatar down a narrow throughway, gliding through the microcosm maze of Marq’s armor with abandon. There wasn’t much time.
“Shit!” Lachryma breathed, stopping on a dime and checking out her surroundings. On all sides, there were an endless amount of non-descript billboards and diagrams on whiteboards. She hunched her back, ready to attack. “What’d I trip? An alarm? Are the dogs coming?“
“Nah. You’re safe.”
“Jammit, Fix-it! You scared the shit out of me!“
“You’ve been a lawyer. You’ve slung shit for a living. You’ve got plenty to spare, babe.” He chuckled.
“Oh, shock off!” Lachryma yelled. “Look, ever second we delay finding the jammed source of the power drain is another second Marq’s armor has to repair itself and go on a rampage again, so, if you‘re done…”
“No, no, pretty lady.” Fix-it cooed over the intercom. “I’ve found something even better than where Emmanuel‘s getting the healing power from. Eyes to the left, sweet thing.”
“What could possibly--?” Lachryma muttered as she looked toward the left, playing Fix-it’s little game. All she saw was a two-dimensional diagram on a whiteboard with a small red button under it. The diagram itself was in the vaguely in the shape of a man that might have been wearing a pristine white cape and a mask. “What am I looking at?”
“You are vidding, the Master Flow Chart, of Marq’s genetic armor.”
“The master what?” Lachryma asked, confounded.
“The Master Flow Chart. The Unified Theory. Golden Fleece - Holy Grail - The Grand, Mack-Daddy Scheme of Things…” Fix-it bantered on through the private channel in Lachryma’s head. “You’re vidding the main control center of the entire armor network.
“What?” Lachryma asked incredulously. “The main control center? Why would there be a main control center? Doesn‘t Marq control it?”
“Not necessarily…” Fix-it hummed. “Could be that the creators never intended for him to fully control it. Or maybe it’s just a leftover from when the programmers were testing out the systems, so they could access the armor function by remote. If it still works…we could use it to short Emmanuel’s link-up with the armor network!”
Lachryma’s eyes lit up. “Fix-it, you are a shockin’ genius!”
“I know, I know. Now crack that sexy flow chart open and see what‘s inside!”
Lachryma pushed the red button, and stood in awe as the panel emitted a thousand beams of light, which coalesced in a gigantic, twenty-foot-tall three-dimensional version of the wall diagram. It was an engineering diagram of the genetic armor that covered Marq’s body.
She marveled at the superimposition of Marq’s anatomical structure - eerily like those flayed muscle drawings seen in medical texts and vids - with the engineering diagram of Marq’s genetic armor, complete with a slightly-billowing cape fluttering slightly in the breeze.
“My God…” She spoke softly, standing within the ghostly 3-D image.
Light waves bounced and shuddered off her torn black shirt as she stepped through the enormous holographic projection of Marq’s body in sheer awe. The vampire scratched at her lip nervously, looking at the movements of thousands of switches and link-ups in the suit, blown up to incredible detail. The diagram was complete in every way, from relays of connective tissue linking to the pores where Marq’s armor normally oozed out from his skin, to close-ups of blood vessels pumping hard from exertion - probably the battle he was having with Emmanuel at the moment. She was utterly breathless.
“It’s something, ain’t it?” She could feel the massive grin on Fix-it’s face.
“I’ll say…” She smirked. “And you said we could use this to cut away Emmanuel’s link-up with Marq’s suit?”
“Course, Becks. I can guide you through the steps you need to take.”
Lachryma floated up through the knight’s heart.
“Excellent.” She said. “Guide away.”
Just then, she noticed a strange red glow coming from the relays of the armor. A red glowing liquid, or something that seemed like liquid, was moving from every storage sector in the dormant armor inside Marq’s body up to…
Up to his brain?
“What the hell’s happening?” Lachryma asked.
She heard the tapping of keys through the intercom followed by a very serious sigh. “It’s bad.”
“Just tell me what it is, Fix-it.”
“Emmanuel.” Fix-it sighed. “He’s using the nanotech to…looks like he’s sending it all to his brain…and the only thing I see when I zoom in on the diagram are a million, million tiny little Pac mans chomping towards the grey matter. I think he‘s going to kill Marq.”
“Goddammit.” Lachryma hissed, “That goddamn son of a glitch. Once Marq’s out of the way, he can take over the armor again. And once he does that, we’re all expendable. We’ve got to stop that shocking thing, now. Tell me how to finish cutting off his access.”
“It’s too late for that.” Fix-it seethed in a panic. “The nano-tech’s already got its marching orders. They’re already beginning to colonize in Marq’s cortex. Pretty soon, they’ll start disassembling…”
“Shit!” Lachryma yelled. “SHIT!”
Fix-it’s panicked breaths slowly came to a halt. “Wait….waaaaait a minute, now…”
“What?” Lachryma asked, stretching her fingers out towards the ghostly red liquid on the diagram, badly wanting to destroy it all. “What is it?”
“We can still give the nano-colonies new orders…” Fix-it said slowly.
Lachryma floated a minute, gazing at the red liquid slowly moving towards the image of Marq’s anatomically-correct brain, processing this new information in her own adrenaline-soaked mind.
“What kinds of orders?” Lachryma pondered.
Emmanuel’s tornados surged upon the wretched form of the knight, who was barely able to breathe amidst the swelling of the winds.
“EMMANUEL! I’M GOING TO KILL YOU FOR THIS!” Marq screamed.
“In a few minutes, you’ll lose the ability to even spell the word.” Emmanuel hissed quietly, walking toward the knight and increasing the speed and pressure of his onslaught.
“How can you do this, you monster?!” Marq yelled over the train whistles and echoing wisps that drowned out almost all sound save the twisting of metal and the whirling of debris. “There’s no reason for this!”
“There’s every reason, Marq.” Emmanuel said flatly, standing just above the pinned-down hero. “My programming specifically states that I must make you into the perfect corporate assassin. The Expert model corporate raider. By whatever means necessary. The orders are vague as to the condition your mind must be in when I do it. And once I prove conclusively this prototype armor is successful…we can mass-produce.”
“You’re…going to do…what you’ve done to me….to other people…?”
“That was always the game plan, Marq.” Emmanuel smiled heartily. “Just like what was done with the Specialist model.”
As Marq struggled under the weight of the electric atmosphere, Emmanuel leaned down toward the knight and whispered in his ear.
“So what are you going to do now? Throw a ’noble’ little temper tantrum now that I’ve told you something you don’t want to hear? Go ahead, if you can. Your body in the real world is currently in the beginning stages of an epileptic seizure. It happens when two billion nano-machines start taking positions on the surface of your brain.”
“I’m…going to fight you…” Marq hissed, somehow, impossibly forcing himself to a kneel despite the weight of the whirlwinds. His skin wrinkled and bled from the force. “…I’m going to stop you…no matter…what it takes…I won’t….let you…do….to anyone else…what you’ve done to me….”
Gritting his teeth to the pain, Marq held up a single palm toward Emmanuel, and forming the sharp end of the bo staff in the center of his palm. Even as the pain flooded his mind, he did not falter, filtering his bio-electric energy through the tip,
“I…will never…give up…”
“I don’t need you to.”
Marq’s staff vibrated, and the world turned bright blue.
The discharge was immense, the sheer show of force enough to poke a hole in the gale force winds Emmanuel was commanding. The program was eaten alive by blue fire, and torn asunder by the blast.
The thin, ragged remains of Emmanuel’s body began to heal even before he touched the ground. Marq panted heavily, falling to his knees, body wrecked with exhaustion and pain. With chapped, blood-stained lips, the knight called out to his ally.
“Fix-it…help me…help me stop him…” He whispered with a cough. Emmanuel’s skeleton began re-growing itself.
“Marqy-Marq!” Fix-it spoke over the intercom. “Don’t worry, me and the Babe are taking care of that right as we speak.”
“Yeah, so chillax. Just keep us off his radar for just another few seconds. We’re just about ready here…”
“Yup.” Marq grunted, somehow pulling his aching body up off the ground.
He knew he only had one more play left in him. Just one. But if he did it fast enough, it’d be all the distraction they’d need.
Emmanuel laughed heartily as his bones and body coalesced and stitched back together again. The knight was truly so utterly predictable.
He stood up, flexing his yet-again resurrected body. But as he did, he noticed a different feeling in the colonizing nanites. A conflict, a…rebelliousness.
But that was impossible. He’d given the order himself to…
Wait…where was the vampire?
The vampire Lachryma. She wasn’t on the battlefield. Emmanuel had assumed she’d been rendered unconscious or destroyed by the hound, her mind kicked out of cyberspace. But he hadn’t been actually been listening to the progression of the woman’s battle against his Cerebus Hound after Marq had attacked. She’d become irrelevant. But…searching with his mind he could feel…a…trepass….
The control center of the armor!
She’d found it!
But from there she could… No…no, Emmanuel could not have this…
He swirled the mists of fog around himself, mentally unleashing a string of commands out to the nano-machines to convince them how they’d been fooled by an outsider…
…when he saw a large engine block, bright orange sparks erupting from dislodged circuitry and wiring, sticking out the front of his chest.
Emmanuel regarded the ghostly matter with not a little concern, confused as to how an intangible engine block was sticking through his body. His artificial mind focused on the word ‘intangible’…
…and then had the presence of mind to glance behind him…
…at the smiling image of Somerset, still intangible, still holding the engine block inside his chest cavity.
Emmanuel gasped, eyes wide with the pre-programmed notion of fright. He understood what the knight was about to do to him. “Heal from this, mother shocker.”
The wretched knight released his intangible grip….and the metal suddenly became solid in Emmanuel’s chest cavity.
The manual screamed.
Impaled, his body was now weighed down by the five hundred pound block of metal and grease, forcing him into the debris-filled ground. The healing protocols he was accessing could do nothing about the machinery in his chest at the moment, and were only able to keep him from permanently dispersing into atoms from the fatal blow. He grunted and growled, trying to pull out the engine block that stayed firmly merged to his body.
“Eventually…the healing protocols…will…force the metal…out of my chest…bit by bit…until I am whole again…and once that happens…nothing will stop me…from carrying out my directive…”
“Not before the nanites finish with their new…target.” Marq huffed out, his archetype slowly healing as he spoke. “You.”
“Me?” Emmanuel squawked, feeling a sudden emptiness where power and influence existed before.
Suddenly, an even deeper understanding weighed in on the mind of the malevolent training manual - Lachryma hadn’t simply stopped the nanites from destroying Somerset’s mind…she had re-programmed them to consume Emmanuel’s entire database.
“No…” The program could feel his resolution fading. The database of his binary code - ones and zeroes that held all the information about Emmanuel’s appearance, vocalizations - even his every thought - was quickly being cannibalized by the nanites comprising Somerset’s suit. The database of the training manual, once tucked away inside Somerset’s genetic structure, was now being forcibly ripped asunder by the odious treachery. Emmanuel could feel his every want and desire fading from him - his every thought slowly disappearing into the ether. Was this, truly, what Somerset would have felt if Emmanuel had succeeded?
In a badly-damaged, out-of-synch voice, Emmanuel struggled for the last word. “There will always…be other procedures…Stark will perform. Other…specimens we shall…recruit…”
Emmanuel’s vision began to fade. His access to the healing systems of Somerset’s armor had just been severed. With eyesight riddled with static, he saw the Specimen standing over his impaled body. With ears filling with white noise, he listened instead to the Specimen speaking the last words.
“Then I will always be there, Emmanuel, to stop them…”
His world faded. Somewhere on the periphery of digital consciousness, Emmanuel felt the pangs of agony as the entirety of his being was ripped apart by billions of tiny machines no larger than a microbe.
Then, finally, the program was gone.
Marq and Lachryma walked toward the end of the sewer pipe, which lead out into an empty marsh that was once a pond. Behind them, far behind them in the darkness, was Fix-it’s underground lair, once again solitary save for the skittering of mechanical spiders.
The stench of sewer waste was fading as they crept closer and closer towards the fresh air and sweet smells on the nighttime breeze.
They’d walked in near-silence, the weight and exhaustion of battle having weighed heavy on them. But as Marq glanced over toward the pasty-white woman beside him, he felt a bit…uneasy.
When they’d awoken from their immersion in Marq’s armor, the normally-chatty Fix-it had hardly said a word to them as he disconnected their VR helmets and heartbeat monitors. Marq had thanked him profusely for helping him destroy the Emmanuel program, but Fix-it had only said that Lachryma ’didn’t owe him anything anymore’, and that ’all debts were settled’.
Fix-it hadn’t said a word after that, and Lachryma had ushered Marq out toward the surface.
The vampire probably figured that Marq hadn’t seen the look Fix-it had given her when they left. The same type of look Marq had had when he discovered Jeanine had lied about being his wife.
The look of a broken heart.
The outside world encroached. And as sweet as the silence was after such an insane night, Marq could not hold back the question any longer.
“What happened between you and Fix-it?” He choked out through a voice hoarse from lack of use.
Lachryma stopped suddenly, snapping her head towards the knight with lightning speed, a look of surprise cast upon her features.
“I mean, Fix-it seemed to be acting sort of…weird…when we left. Emotionless, almost. Like he wasn’t completely there. Did something…bad…happen between you guys while I was taking on Emmanuel?”
The vampire opened her mouth as if to speak, but closed it suddenly, looking down at the debris scattering the mouth of the tunnel. She clasped and unclasped her hands, which - despite their unnaturally albino tone - suddenly seemed so fragile, and human.
“Yes. Something bad did happen.”
Marq pursed his lips. “You want to talk about it?”
Lachryma shook her head quickly. “No. No, I…Fix-it just brought up some bad memories, that’s all…”
“Sure...” Marq sighed. “Alright, then.”
As they trekked out of the mouth of the tunnel into the sinking, soggy marshland, Marq was very happy for the boots he’d borrowed for this journey to Fix-it’s. He still felt pulsing aches and pinpricks of hot coals just under the pores of his skin - the costume wouldn’t be healed from all the damage the battle had weighed upon it for several hours yet.
But he was glad for this. The inability to access the costume…it was almost as if he were free.
For just a moment, it was as if his life was his again. For a man who couldn’t remember anything of his life before the costume, not having the option to access it made him feel, in a way, almost normal.
Just then, Lachryma turned toward him and smiled.
“Well, I guess I won’t have to worry about you going berserk anymore.”
Marq nodded, “Heh. Guess not.”
They looked at the sky, simply brimming with shining bright stars, as the crescent moon shimmered near the other end of the horizon.
“Look, I gotta go. Gale, she’s---”
“It’ll be sun-up soon anyway.” The vampire interrupted. “Time to find a nice, dark, quiet place to hole up.”
“Of course.” Marq said. “And thanks, for everything. If you hadn’t been there, to stop me in the apartment and help with Emmanuel…”
“Don’t mention it.” Lachryma insisted. “I owed you anyway for starting the whole mess. If I hadn’t been so hungry, I would never…”
“We got through it, that’s all that matters.” Marq said. “See ya later, Lachryma.”
“Night, Marq.” She smiled, her fangs lengthening as she leaped up into the air. Bat’s wings molded themselves out from the muscles in her shoulder-blades and she rode off fast into the night. Marq shook his head in awe.
“Till we meet again.” He chuckled, racing off towards the Docs in a Box, toward a special someone still fighting her own battle in her mind.
Somewhere below the streets of Downtown, a small clear plastic tube stood upright next to beakers and beakers full of nano-machines.
But this container was different. It held an almost luminescent crimson blend rather than the stark grey liquid which filled the rest of the clear tubes.
Jeremy England, who went exclusively by the handle of ‘Mr. Fix-it’, sat straddling the hover chair of his underground laboratory, looking at his newest acquisition with a restless eagerness.
The blood had been easy to obtain, what with Marq’s body just sitting there doing nothing, his mind occupied inside the cyberspace maze of his genetic armor. The knight hadn’t even noticed the tiny little hole the needle had left in his arm.
Within the stolen blood, Fix-it watched as microscopic nanoprocessors whispered to themselves. He sat in front of the jar, arms propping his head up on the cluttered table, his eyes glued to the marvelous liquid.
“Such an advanced piece of technology in such a compact package. A suit of armor coded into a person‘s genetic structure.” he licked his lips, staring with hungry eyes. “How fascinating…”
“How do we explain this behavior?
Random segments of code? Or is it something more?
When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness?
When does a difference engine become the search for truth?
When does a personality simulation become the bitter mote... of a soul?”
---Dr. Alfred Lanning.
Next Issue: So ends this triple-sized issue that closes the first year of the epic Moon Knight 2099UGR Ongoing Series!
Hope you enjoyed it. As for the next issue…
These are the critical moments in the life of Gale Nocturne – will she recover from the sniper’s bullet that all but ended her life? Can Vonvargas find it in his heart to forgive the knight for placing his long-time friend and protégé in harm’s way? And when a Thorite-Fenris conflict reaches the streets just outside the Docs, will Marq be able to keep his Gale, not to mention all the good people of the Docs, from drowning in the blood of the streets?
Plus: Cecilia Indeligato, our resident security technician, finds out whether or not her betrayal of her corporation has kept her family safe. All that, and Hikaru finds an ally in the search for the knight.
Join us, won’t you, for…’The Good Fight!’ See you in sixty.
Days, not lunar cycles, that is! Ha ha. Small joke.