That’s all it took for my entire world to almost come crashing down. Twice over.
My entire world doesn’t consist of much as it is. My past, my entire life before November 2099, is gone. I can’t remember it at all.
My earliest memory of my life happens to be waking up blind in a transport ship. I was being hauled off as cargo to die in a toxic wasteland called Detroit at the time. I was fully grown and wearing a suit of insanely powerful armor that I would later learn had been bonded to my DNA.
The only clue of what lie in my past was shrouded in the folds of my violated mind. Flashbacks, powerful enough to hemorrhage my brain, fought against the corporation’s purging of my memories. The flashbacks - the puzzle pieces of my past – try desperately to this day, to show me what life was like before the suit. Before the battles and the pain.
The flashbacks were all I had to go on, despite the fact they were incomplete…fragmented. They told half the picture. They showed me a face from my past - a gorgeous woman with a seductive smile. Added to the other broken images, I thought she was my wife.
She was in fact the scientist that bonded the armor to my genome in the first place, at the behest of the Stark-Fujikawa Corporation. In my haste to find my past, I was fooled by her charms. I fell into her trap and was re-captured by the corporation that had tried to kill me. They might have succeeded the second time…
But I escaped.
In doing so, I became a fugitive of the Stark-Fujikawa Corporation. They’re after me now, intent on finding me at all costs. How could they not be?
Since that first hellish night nearly a month ago, I’ve been hiding out in a Downtown New York hospital clinic - The Docs in a Box Local 189. And I’ve been using the genetic armor the corps gave me to fight for those kept in the darkness by the very same corporations that spawned me.
I’ve been sleeping in the home of the nurse that had saved my life that first night out, Gale Nocturne, as a houseguest. Without a home of my own, she’s taken it upon herself to shelter me and guide me through this insane world I’ve awoken in until I can get my bearings. She is the kindest, warmest, gentlest person I’ve ever known.
Three days ago, I discovered that the Docs in a Box where I’ve been laying low is actually owned by the Stark-Fujikawa Corporation. Yes, that one.
That, and it was Gale who hid this information from me.
We had an argument about it while touring the Downtown districts – before she was shot in the head by a sniper during a gang battle.
She fell into a coma, fighting desperately to survive.
I wanted to be by her side. But an evil AI programmed into my suit by the engineers that built it re-surfaced. It took control of my genetic armor and nearly forced me to kill a young child to test my skills at assassination. With the help of a vampire and her hacker friend, I was able to destroy the insane program.
When I got back, another friend from the Docs, Jenny, was held hostage by a madman with a gun.
Somehow, I managed to stop the gunman. Somehow, she’s still safe.
The lives of my closest friends were nearly taken in a single night by gang warfare. And on that same night, an artificial intelligence almost robbed me of my soul.
But the hardest part lies in front of me now.
Gale’s eyes have opened. She has come back to the world of the living, thank God.
But there is still much to discuss between us.
So much to discuss…
Gale had been shot in the head by a sniper’s bullet during an argument about her keeping a certain secret from Marq. She almost died of her injuries.
That was almost a week ago.
Since then, Marq had decided to hold off on discussing the elephant in the living room, at least until her condition stabilized. Doctor Vonvargas warned them both about any stressful activity for the next week or so. Gale’s blood pressure was dangerously low and she had been phasing in and out of consciousness every few minutes that first night.
For the past three days, Vonvargas had worked himself ragged – bringing her medication, checking for signs of secondary infection, making sure her breathing and heartbeat were normal and keeping her warm. Marq sat outside Gale’s room most days, watching the carts come in and out and braving Vonvargas’s glares of contempt and disdain for the hero. Vonvargas very much blamed Marq and his lifestyle for Gale’s predicament. But they still had the truce between them – for Gale’s sake.
During her moments of consciousness, Marq slipped in to visit Gale. They would talk about simple things – how she felt that day, or how many thieves or radicals Marq had broken up that morning. He noticed those stories always put a smile on her face. They’d talk until she felt too tired, or until Vonvargas forced him out of the room.
But there was always that something between them – that unspoken something that hung heavy with every pause, every inhalation of breath.
As Marq slipped into her room again and smiled toward her warm eyes, he wondered if three days had been long enough.
“Hi.” He said.
“Hey.” She smiled, dark circles heavy under her eyes.
Marq walked over to the closet and grabbed and extra blanket, wrapping it around her, careful not to tangle the cloth up in the IVs.
He sat down with a tired sigh, and rubbed at his knees nervously.
“How are you feeling?” He asked.
Gale shrugged. “Like I got shot.”
“I thought there was something different about you.”
“Oh, you are a barrel of laughs, Marq.” She teased. She stretched out and rubbed at her IV. “Seriously, though…I forgot what it’s like to be in one of these beds. Usually I’m the one able to help others, but…but I can’t even get out of bed without feeling dizzy. I almost feel like…I’m paralyzed or something. Just feel so…useless.”
“You’re not useless, Gale.” He said. “You’re just hurt. You’re going to be fine now. Vonvargas will make sure.”
“I know, I know.” Gale nodded. “I just…wish that I could get up, move around a little bit. That’s all.”
“You’re getting there. You’re looking a lot better today, and you seem more awake.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah, definitely. Trust me, you’ll have this licked in no time.”
“Says the man with the super-healing.”
Marq just rolled his eyes.
He glanced down at the floor for a moment before continuing. “Did you say you’d been in one of these beds before?”
“Um…yeah. Yeah, I did.”
“I hope it wasn’t anything serious.” He said with a worried look on his face.
“No, it’s just…” She began.
“It’s not something I like to think about.” Gale bit her lip. “But I...”
“Listen, if you don’t want to tell me, I under—“
“No, no. No, I think I should tell you. I need to get this off my chest.” She said finally, cutting through the air like a dagger. “And I…I want you to trust me again. It’s something I’ve been avoiding thinking about it for so long that…it’s making me sick.”
Marq was about to say something when Gale touched her finger to his lips, effectively silencing the knight.
“Shush.” She said, staring hard into his eyes with a half-smile on her face. “Besides, you asked for it.”
Marq sighed and nodded. He slid his chair closer to the bed, attentively resting his head on his arm.
“I didn’t always live here, you know.” Gale began in a hesitant chirp. “Years ago, I was just…I guess you could say I was just another Downtown girl. I mean, I had a family. My Mom. Dad. My older brother Charles. My older sister Jen.
“Dad was the breadwinner. He worked at a hovercycle plant, fixing up broken-down cycles cheaper than any other factory around. I remember that he’d always put on his jeans and hardhat every morning. He always rushing around, but he always had enough time to pick me up, and give me a kiss goodbye on my cheek. For years he did that, while mom took care us during the day.
“One day, we found out that the factory he worked for had been the victim of a hostile takeover by a corporate competitor, and my dad…he fought back against the invasion force. And they killed him.”
“Oh my God…” Marq breathed.
“After that…well, nothing was really the same after that. My mom, she…she always had a Virtual Reality headset close by. But after Dad’s death, she...well, she completely escaped into that.
“I…I guess you could say that when we lost Dad…we lost Mom as well. She stopped doing anything other than putting on that damned headset and getting lost in her fantasies.
“My older brother was the one to really “step up” and take care of us after Dad died. He started preparing our meals, he found himself a job. He kept us going for as long as he could. I guess about two years after Dad died – I think I was almost fifteen – Jen came home really out of it. Her eyes were bouncing all over the place, and she almost seemed drunk. But my brother knew better.
“Charles called it “Chain”. It was a drug so powerful that the cure for it shortens your life expectancy by a decade. But I didn’t know that then.
“I remember my brother screaming, screaming at her about it. About how hard things had been without her bringing addiction into the house. And then she came right back at him with something about him being an overbearing fascist. They really went at it, back and forth…right in front of Mom and I.
“I remember Mom suddenly walking off with a glazed look in her eyes. I thought she was going off into a set of VR glasses to escape the fighting. But then I heard…I heard something loud….from the other room.
“It ended up being a gunshot…”
“Shock me…” Marq said, covering his mouth.
Gale looked at Marq and nodded painfully, her world blurred by tears.
“After…my Mom…after she…” Gale rubbed at her eyes. “After that happened, Jen, she…she blamed Charlie for what Mom did and she…she just ran off. She ran off, doped up out of her mind. Charlie took me out of there that night. He buried Mom in the backyard, and we had a small funeral for her. Just me and Charlie. Then we just took off into the street to fend for ourselves and never looked back. We both knew there were just too many bad memories in that…in that hellhole of a house for us to ever…feel…like it could be a home again. To this day, I have no idea if Jen ever came back to the house or not. Hell, I have no idea if she’s…alive…”
“Oh, Gale. I’m so sorry…” Marq said in a hushed whisper.
Gale grabbed his hand and clutched it tight and for several minutes, and just cried. Her bed filled to the brim with her choked sobs, as the buried memories lit up all the corners of her mind – suddenly a spitting wildfire choking the life out of her once again, smothering her. Marq got up and sat next to her, embracing her shaking frame. Yet for all his good intentions, his words offered no comfort. Gale’s mind burned bright and for the next few minutes – though, they seemed like decades – and the memories weren’t memories at all. She was there, watching her dad’s funeral. She was there, asking the vacant sack that was once her mom if she’d made dinner that night. She was there, seeing her sister with the shakes. She was there, listening to the gunshot that sounded like the end of the world.
With a sob and a cough…Gale snuggled herself into Marq’s shoulders.
“I’m…I’m usually stronger than this, you know…” She said in gasps.
“You’re plenty strong.” Marq hugged her tight.
Gale sniffled her tears away into her shoulder. “Anyway. After that…after all that, my brother Charlie and I…we were out on the street fending for ourselves, right? We were…um…we were always in and out of the food kitchens. And we…we slept in the churches a lot. At least, the churches that would let us. Father Jen’s…was great…for that. We went there a lot. Charlie…Charlie called it our ‘home away from home’, you know?
“Um, so…so after a few months of dodging street surgeons and…and Fenris…Charlie said we should join one of the nicer local gangs so they’d protect us. Charlie was always such a nice guy – always looking out for me. Even if it meant we’d proclaim ourselves Thorites for the time being.
“How…how could he know that…the Fenris would attack during the anointment…that they’d…they’d shoot down anyone….wearing a costume…?”
Gale clenched her teeth and shook in the knight’s embrace. “He was always so gentle…he…he wouldn’t’ve hurt anyone. We just…we only joined the stupid cult to…”
“Bastards. Stupid shocking bastards.” Marq growled. “Thor-damned gang wars. So shocking pointless.”
“I found him lying there…” Gale went on. “I tried to wake him up, but…but he just bled on me. I…I had no idea what to do. I just…I just sat there…watched his eyes go out. But…but just before they did, I saw something in them.
“Some glint or glimmer of emotion just before he…just before he...it was…that same kind of half-crazy madness I’ve seen on countless faces since I became a nurse. It was…it was fear, I guess you could say. Just total, absolute terror of something. I thought he might be afraid of dying so young. I…I’ve always been afraid of that. But, the way he looked at me.”
Gale stared hard into Marq’s eyes – looking at him as if the fate of the world hung on her next sentence.
“I think Charlie – my big brother – was scared for me. Scared of what would happen to me…if he wasn’t there to protect me…”
A silence hung over the pair, and Marq couldn’t bring himself to say a word.
“I don’t…really…remember what happened next. I…think I ran from that other gang. I ran…for a few hours, at least. I…everything after that is a blur…just one, big, messed-up blur….until…until I found this place.”
“The Docs.” Marq said.
“Yeah. Reggie, he…he took me in. Cleaned me up, fed me. He and the others…they saved my life. I mean, from what Reggie’s told me, I looked like I’d been starved for weeks…a living skeleton…something out of a horror movie. That I was in deep, deep shock, and it took him a good two weeks to put some weight back on me. Another week or so after that to get a single word out of me. But…I just…for the life of me, I can’t remember…exactly what happened. It’s all one, big, shocked-up blur.”
“Gale…” Marq stammered. “I am so sorry for what happened to you. That’s….that’s all just…so…”
“Yeah. I know.” Gale sighed. “But you don’t have anything to be sorry about. You’re not…it was all just a bunch of stupid, stupid luck. Horrible shocking luck I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
“I still feel horrible.”
“Don’t.” Gale said. “I…I just wanted to tell you a little about my life. I’ve…been in denial about it for a long time. Trying to keep it all buried, deep inside myself. But, thinking about what you said a few nights ago really got me thinking about some things. About trust. About trusting other people. Being real with people. About not keeping secrets…like I did from you about the Docs. I guess I just want to say…” Gale bit her lip as she looked at Marq.
“Don’t…I…I was just being an idiot…” Marq stammered, looking down and shaking his head forcefully, “I’m so sorry about all that. I’m so sorry you…you went through all that just to try to prove to me that I can trust you. The truth is that I do. Gale, I really do. I trust you with my life, and I just want to…”
“No…you were right…” Gale held her arm out towards Marq, and he gripped her fingers carefully. “I…I never should have kept that from you. After all you’ve been through….after all those heartless mothershockers put you through…I should have told you. Marq, I’m so sorry…”
“No, no, please, Gale…” Marq shook his head, his whole face tensing from his own flood of painful memories. “I should be the one apologizing. I went nuts. I just lost it. I shouldn’t’ve compared you to Jeanine. You’ve shown me so much, helped me figure out just what kind of place I’m dealing with and I just threw it all back in your face. You were trying to protect me, I know that now. But there’s no excuse for the way I reacted. Just no excuse.”
He looked over to the nurse and saw her eyes tightly shut, still shaking her head with tears streaming down from her scrunched face. Marq sighed painfully, and gently caressed her glistening cheek with his palm, wiping away her tears. He gave her a look of sad determination; a look that said he wasn’t going to let her forgive him so easily. She breathed out, letting it all sink it, and when she looked at him again, her eyes shone bright with all the pain and betrayal she had tried so hard to bury forever within herself.
He bit his lip, and forced himself to push through the guilt that was swelling up in the pit of his stomach.
“All I can say,” He began softly, shakily. “...is that I’m so sorry, Gale. God, you have no idea how sorry I am for hurting you. You’re…you’re my best friend, Gale…and I just…I just…”
“Shut up…” Gale sobbed, pulling Marq toward her, hugging him as tight as she possibly could. “Just shut up, Marq.”
Marq returned her embrace, and they sat there for a very, very long time, sobbing and crying together. Outside, the sunlight was starting to peek through the drawn shades of the dingy hospital window – its rays casting warm orange shadows across the room.
Marq ran his hands across Gale’s face, and thanked whoever was listening for the sunrise.
Eight Days Later...
The hoverbikes sped down the pockmarked streets of Downtown, slashing two very loud trails through the alleyways at two hundred plus. Marq, the Moon Knight, flew just above them, trailing their every move.
They were not getting away.
Marq saw the exposed pipeline connecting together two Downtown buildings, and barely managed to steer himself above the rusted metal. He’d missed it by centimeters, but that was of no concern. His only concern was the lethal duo on the bikes.
They wore the masks, aprons, and gloves of a surgeon, and yet they were drenched in blood that was drying rapidly in the wind. They were called street surgeons, and attached to the backs of their bikes were two coolers filled with the organs of their latest victim.
In Marq’s eyes, they were murderers. Plain and simple.
The gleaming knight flew ever faster, trying like mad to close the distance between him and the surgeons. But flying at over two hundred miles an hour was…painful…to say the least. The wind shear was tearing into him hard, even through his nanotech armor.
As he gritted his teeth and pressed on, he remembered the scene vividly.
The street surgeons had to have caught the old woman off-guard.
Marq had heard the screams a-ways off, but by the time he’d arrived, she’d already been beaten down, and opened up. From what Marq could discern from her badly mangled face, she had to be over sixty. No match at all for five young punks in top shape, with surgical tools at the ready.
As they’d put her heart and lungs into one of the coolers, he fired off a warning shot that nearly decapitated one of the murderers. The murderers in turn – now alerted to the knight’s presence – pulled out their guns and started letting loose the laser fire.
From there, it was a running firefight to the hoverbikes. Marq managed to put three of the surgeons out of commission before the final two were able to drive off.
And here he was now, barely able to keep up.
Marq felt the familiar electric tingle along his fingertips as his bo staff formed itself out of the nanites coursing throughout his body. Clutching the object tight in fingers and screaming bloody vengeance, he fired a blue bolt of energy at the retreating surgeons, blasting an enormous hole into the pitted tarmac.
One of the bikes managed to ascend above the explosion, but the other one was pelted with shrapnel all along its underside. The engine died immediately, and Marq heard angry swearing as the bike and its driver slapped along the ground, bouncing mercilessly for thirty feet with sickening meaty crunches and thumps before slamming into a brick wall at sixty plus.
The survivor – who turned out to be a psychotic madwoman with a bright-blue-Mohawk fetish and a penchant for earrings – reached into her breast pocket and pulled out her laser gun, lighting up the sky with another assault upon the knight. The scorching shots passed through Marq’s body harmlessly as he willed his costume into intangibility. Marq pointed his staff at the rider and let off another powerful blast, this time falling short of his target by quite a few feet.
The glimmering knight fought hard against a wind that was tugging madly at his cape, managing to fire off another two shots at the organ harvester.
Just before the blue bolts struck, the surgeon gunned the hovercycle’s engine hard, driving it on a vertical thrust straight up into the sky. The knight cursed, watching as the fleeing killer glided her bike along the sides of buildings, continuing the zigzag-path across the Easton District of Lower Downtown. Marq followed relentlessly, keeping up as best as he could through the gusting head winds.
True, he could turn intangible and let the air pass harmlessly through him. But it was always a guessing game as to when his suit would run out of power on him. Marq had been through enough close calls to know that conservation was really the only option. Although, considering how hard he was burning himself out to catch this shocker, flying and shooting the way he was…
All of a sudden, Marq felt a surge of panic rise from his gut as a holographic burger mysteriously coalesced right in front of him, just where the killer had been seconds before.
“Shock me!” He gasped, feeling an electric tingle surge through his nervous system before he passed harmlessly out the other side of the holographic advertisement.
Marq blinked, and stole a glance back at the holomated display he’d just flown through.
A three-dimensional image of a giant hamburger, cast in monochromatic gold hues, with the words “Sin Burgers Tasty Treats” in big obnoxious letters floating around in a loose orbit. Marq could make out a light blur effect where he’d passed through, and raised an eyebrow as it shimmered back into focus all on its own.
Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.
Moon Knight just shook his head and soldiered on.
As the street surgeon rode headlong through the window of a deserted apartment building, Marq willed his suit intangible and followed the rider through the hailstorms of dust and debris the still-very-tangible hovercycle kicked up in the empty rooms. The surgeon must have thought the twists and turns of the corridors would give Marq just as much a handicap as she’d have. That would have been true, were Marq something other than a spirit, passing through each room as easily as passing through the air.
Marq smiled, and stalked his stumbling prey through shortcuts between the old walls, finally able to play catch up.
After perhaps thirty seconds, the surgeon shot out a window on the other side of the building – screaming raw and gripping her upended cycle for dear life – helplessly propelled in the plume of an enormous blue fireball.
“YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaa – “
Marq coasted out from the building, turning tangible and gliding down calmly to the same nearby rooftop the surgeon had just crashed down onto.
The knight touched the ground, noting the broken, twisted woman that lay before him now.
“Bassard….bassard sumglitch…gunna…gunna frak you up…sumglitch…”
Marq kneeled down. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think you’re doing much of anything for awhile.”
“Why you…chasin’ us…you bassard? Th’ ol’ bag…dinnit have any life insurance…or cop subscription…she was ripe…a nobody…”
“No, she didn’t have a police subscription plan. And for some reason, that makes her less of a human being to you mothershockers, but you’re wrong. She was a human being. And she’s dead now. She’s dead, because of you.” Moon Knight growled, kneeling down and smacking the murderous woman in the face. “I hope that fall broke every bone in your body, you creep.”
The woman spat out two teeth from her bloody pulp of a face. Marq stood up and began to walk away. “Bassard…stooped bassard….hope they give you LIFE…for dis!”
Marq turned around and chuckled. “Life? What are you talking about? Who’s gonna give me life?”
“…the cops…” She stammered on.
“I doubt they’ll give much of a crap about some piece of scum killer. Not that they need a reason to be after me.” Marq said solemnly.
“…oh, I think they will bassard…see I got a subscription plan…”
“A subscription plan…?” Marq breathed out as he felt what he hoped was only an earthquake.
The woman’s choked, twisted laughter was lost in the booming noise of five armored hover-cycles rising from beneath the edge of the roof on which Marq and his shattered quarry stood. The deafening roars came at him from all sides, and the quintet of Stark-Fujikawa’s Watchdog Police Protection Force trained their guns on the bewildered knight.
“EDWARD SOMERSET. YOU WILL CEASE AND DESIST YOUR ATTACK AT ONCE. FURTHER ASSAULT ON CUSTOMER #56430G WILL RESULT IN LETHAL ACTION.”
Marq steeled himself, his bo staff forming with a barely audible slurp out from his nanotech armor. He took a defensive stance against the Watchdog force when he heard more jet engines from behind him. The gleaming knight whirled around only to feel a powerful weight slam at him from behind.
Tendrils of super-thin filament wire wrapped themselves tight around his chest, spreading itself to the rest of his body, cocooning him. Before he knew what was what, twelve hundred volts of electricity surged through the cocoon.
Marq’s back arced and his body seized within the electric net as his suit made a high-pitched squeal and sucked itself back into his pores, burning his skin on the way in. He shook violently, assuming a fetal position as the fires from within the metal wires sent him into a frenzy of pain. When the voltage finally died down, Marq took a few moments to spit the foam out of his mouth and gulp in some badly-needed air in between labored coughs that tasted faintly like burnt rubber.
And then he realized he was airborne.
“What the…shock…?” He stammered, straining against the thin net groggily. In-between the bright, colorful spots that blinked in and out of his vision quite painfully, he could just make out a thin wire trailing from the bottom of the net that encased him tight.
And on the other end of that wire, was an enormous gauntlet, connected to a powerful suit of armor that Marq recognized all too well.
SItuation Emergency GEar. A SIEGE unit.
Thor help him.
“Hello, prisoner. My name is Rick. Sorry for the accommodations. You see, Edward, we can’t really trust you’ll come with us willingly. You’re something of a flight risk.” The SIEGE officer said suddenly in a sweet-sounding sing-song tune laced with subliminal messages before delivering a charge through the electric net that would have made the real God of Thunder blush.
Marq whimpered, breathing in choked rasps. The SIEGE officer named ‘Rick’ continued on.
“See, that’s just something we cooked up to make sure you don’t have access to your wondrous little armor during our trip back to the office. That’ll happen every thirty seconds or so. Try not to bite off your own tongue.”
“Language, young man.” The SIEGE held out a scolding finger with his free hand. “Now, I have some questions for you to answer while we’re all out in the field. You ready to answer some questions for me, son?”
Marq was just about to deliver some choice expletives before electric charge burned its way into his skull.
“Good, good.” Rick said after the assault was over. Marq coughed again, smoke pooling off of him in light wisps. “Now, I need you to tell me who’s been helping you.”
“Come now, Edward. You aren’t smart enough to survive in Downtown all on your lonesome. The…what did they call it…’targeted memory erasures’ would have seen to that. You must have some kind of network that has been sheltering you, feeding you….giving you medical treatment. Re-Activ-8 or some other seditious group? Tell me who has been…whoop, thirty seconds.”
The net automatically sent a hundred electric cattle prods into Marq’s singed form, sending him into an epileptic uproar.
“Edward…we’re going to find them anyway. We have the drugs to force you to talk, and we have the headhunters to collect your friends. Resisting this is just stupid; bad for business.”
“…I…won’t let you….hurt….them…”
“Not really in much of a position to do anything about it, Edward.” Rick said matter-of-factly, gesturing toward his two SIEGE companions and the Watchdogs at their backs. “And don’t worry, when we find them, we won’t hurt them. We’ll just execute them.”
Marq quit his struggling within the net when he heard this last sentence. “…execute…?”
“Yes, at least that’s what I imagine they’ll do. That’s usually what happens to people who shelter a mortal enemy of Hikaru.”
“ ‘mortal enemy’…what…are you…talking about…?” Marq stammered. “…won’t let…you….”
“Yeah. Mortal enemy. After all, it was your escape that made the Specialist kill himself.”
“…sp-specialist…. you mean the guy…with the sword…?”
“Yessir. That’s the one.” Rick said calmly. “Losing against you in a fair fight meant that he had dishonored the Stark-Fujikawa Corporation. And the only way to wipe the dishonor off the corporation was to commit seppuku. Ritualistic suicide. Japanese honor traditions are fascinating, you know. Oh, here it comes…”
Marq felt five freight trains impact upon his skull. Marq quivered as he realized the electric shocks were forming bruises on his arms.
“Like I said, Japanese honor traditions really throw me for a loop. Honor’s been restored to the Stark-Fujikawa Corporation, but now Hikaru blames you for the death of his Specialist warrior. And he really, really favors his Specialist warriors.”
“Pretty much means you’re screwed, Moony. You vid?” Taylor, the SIEGE unit to Rick’s right side, jeered through a crystal-clear plexi-glass face helmet at the coughing pile of agony that Marq had become. “Hikaru wants us to bring you to him alive, so he can string you up and slit you open from gullet to groin himself. Ha!”
“Taylor, my friend, you really need to switch to decaf.” Rick said, shaking his head as Taylor laughed heartily to himself. “But yes, Edward, this blood debt can only be settled with your demise. Sorry to deliver the bad news, but I figure a man on death row ought to know the charges against him. No need to thank me.”
Marq was about to be murdered by the corporation that created him. And after he was gone, they would go after the Docs and kill them too. Dr. Vonvargas, Jenny, Gale…Marq couldn’t let that happen. He had to escape.
But how? There were the three SIEGE units, and five Watchdogs on hovercycles. He couldn’t fight them all off, even if he was able to get out of the net.
Couldn’t let that worry him now. Escape. That was the only option.
Marq gritted his teeth, ready this time as another electric current filled up his body, pounding against his heart. Recovering as fast as he could, he began a countdown until the next electrocution took him, concentrating as hard as he could to get the suit out of his pores. He could feel it within him, swimming languidly beneath his skin. It was burnt and sore, so badly weakened. And so very tired.
Marq growled and closed his ears to the sounds of the SIEGE officer talking to him. It was just a distraction that almost assuredly was intentional. Marq was done playing their games. The stakes were too high for that.
He could feel the nanotech growing stronger.
Marq thought and thought and thought about forming his bo staff. Metallic, smooth and shiny, pure white. The tip could fire a cascade of blue energy that would kill the SIEGE carrying him now. Granted, the nanotech energy collectors for the bo staff’s discharge were supplied by the energy in his cells. How much energy had he expended already? Chasing that band of murderers at top speed, turning intangible, firing his laser multiple times already…
How much were the electric shocks draining out of him…?
The nanotech was being stubborn. He could feel the microscopic robots already poking out from under his palm. But they were skittering to and fro, and still semi-liquid. He had to move quickly. Another grunt, and he tried again.
All of the nanotech were bubbling and bulging under his skin. There was no going back. If he wasn’t fast enough, the suit might be forever damaged…
Marq prayed. His head pounded with the deafening beats of an ancient tribal drum.
The entire suit began to squirt out of his body in sections with the consistency of thick syrup. He shook from the pain. And yet the bo staff…still wouldn’t solidify.
Now or never. Point it at the madman with the net.
Gale Nocturne slowly stirred from her dreaming.
She tried to bury her face into her pillow in sweet denial, but the encroaching rays of the morning sun filtered in through the second-story apartment window. They rested upon her eyelids, their light burrowing deep into the recesses of her groggy mind. Her tired eyes fluttered in response.
With a sigh, she stretched her slender arms wide, her back burying itself into the mattress as she let out the mother of all yawns. Like she’d been sleeping for years, she yawned and stretched and let her bones and muscles crack and pop their way out of bed.
She brushed back her brown locks and gazed into the mirror. She smiled, slightly. This had been the first time she felt like things were back to normal ever since she’d been…
…ever…since she’d been shot.
In the head.
She could hardly believe it.
She felt along the back of her head and winced as her fingers grazed over the sutures. Her wound was still healing up. Not life-threatening, not anymore thanks to Reg. But it would take its good old time healing completely.
She was a lucky woman, though. A few inches lower, and her entire frontal lobe would’ve been torn clean through. Goodbye higher brain functions.
That was when she heard the banging in the other room.
“Marq…?” She stammered, listening to the shuffling footsteps speeding and stomping their way across the living room at the other end of the short hallway that connected her room with the rest of the small apartment.
Was it Marq? Even though she’d let Marq sleep on her couch for the past month or so, he usually didn’t stomp around like that. Especially since her injury. He’d practically been walking on eggshells throughout her entire apartment for all the noise he managed not to make.
It had to be a thief.
Gale took a few cautious steps towards her dresser, and gripped the metal baseball bat she’d taped along its side for times just like this.
She made her way to the door slowly, listening to the man (or was it men?) trounce amongst her things in the other room. Tiptoeing as softly as she could, she nudged the door ajar with the bat, standing ready in case of trouble.
“Marq!” She gasped, seeing the auburn-headed knight pacing back and forth frantically in her living room.
Okay, so maybe she’d been wrong.
She set the bat aside and briskly walked over toward her frantic friend, who was shoving all his worldly possessions in a beat-up canvas bag that looked like something he’d managed to pick up out of a dumpster on the way over. Marq was so possessed by his packing, that when Gale grazed her palm along Marq’s shoulder, he almost jumped right out of his skin, his suit activating with a wild hiss as he leapt back into a defensive stance…at least until he saw who it was.
“Gale!” He said. “Jeez, don’t sneak up on a guy like that, will ya?”
“Sorry.” She spoke, her eyes trailing to the canvas bag. “What’s that for? Where are you going?”
Marq lowered his head. “Away.”
Gale raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean, ‘away’?”
“I mean, away, away.” Marq said with a huff, gripping the canvas bag and drawing it tight. “I need to get away from the Docs, right now.”
The nurse was in total shock.
“W-what…why?” She gestured, confused.
“Because…” Suddenly, Marq’s shoulders caved in and he heaved out a tired breath. “Because it’s too dangerous for me to stay here.”
“Marq…Marq!” Gale held up her hands, trying to calm her friend. “I already told you that Stark-Fujikawa almost never comes to the Docs. Maybe once in a blue moon will they come down with some supply shipments. We just have to hide you…”
“You don’t get it, Gale!” Adrenaline burned through his veins once again. In a huff, he ripped off his mask to reveal his face – glowing with a bright pink tone, bruised and scabbed with blackened burn marks in a criss-cross pattern covering the length of his face. He smelt of burnt rubber and singed hair. And yet, in his eyes was a look of terror that scared her more than the story his wounds told. It was a look that would etch itself into Gale’s memory for the rest of her days.
“My God, Marq. What happened to you? What happened to your face?”
“Five Watchdogs and three SIEGEs put me in an electrified net. My skin hasn’t all-the-way healed yet. Trust me, I was a lot worse off before I got here. I barely got away from them alive.”
“But, your burns. Reg should have a look at…”
“Look, I don’t need a doctor. I need to get the shock out of here! Stark-Fujikawa isn’t just out to capture me anymore! They’re ready to kill me. One of their crazy foot soldiers killed himself after my escape from their headquarters a month ago. Killed himself. And the president of Stark blames me!”
He pointed toward his burnt face. “And, as you can see, they won’t rest until I’m dead!”
“Marq, I don’t think that…”
“And what’s worse, they know I’ve had help! They know I’ve had help, Gale! And they’re ready to murder anyone who’s helped a ‘mortal enemy of the Stark-Fujikawa Corporation.’ They…they don’t know about the Docs…not yet. But once they find you…I…God help me, Gale, I don’t know if I could stop them…”
“’Mortal enemy of the Stark--’ Shock me…” Gale whispered, “This…this is a blood debt. I mean…this is bad. This is…this is so unbelievably bad…”
“Yeah. Bad. That’s a good way to say it.” Marq said, turning away from his friend suddenly, walking toward his belongings. “Thanks for everything you’ve done for me, Gale. Really, thank you. I’m just so sorry it has to come to this…”
“Wait!” Gale scurried over toward the retreating hero, wrapping her arms around his. “Wait, wait, wait. Marq, just wait a second. We can work this out, we can…I mean, we know Stark-Fujikawa’s schedules, we know when they’ll bring their shipments down to the Docs…we can…we can keep you hidden, we can…”
“You don’t get it!” Marq cut her off quickly. He spun around, embracing her tight and looking straight into her already-tearing eyes. “They set a trap for me. A trap that I barely got out of. They know I live around this section of Downtown and they know I have help. It’s only a matter of time before they figure things out.”
Gale shook her head, biting her lip and shook within his grasp. “No. No, just stay. Stay with us, with me…you’ll be safe. We can keep you hidden. Reg. REG! He’s a fugitive from the hospital chains Uptown. We’ve kept him saf—”
“Vonvargas isn’t a prototype soldier with tons of Stark-Fujikawa secrets stored in his genome.” Marq said. “I am. I can’t hide forever, Gale. And they’ll never stop. They’ll never stop searching for me. Please, Gale…I don’t want to do this, but…but it’s the only way…you’ll be safe…”
Marq and Gale sighed just then, and he hugged her tight. Her arms hung limp, as the painful truth burned into her tortured mind. His warmth, his breath…something about the fact that he was on the verge of shaking apart himself kept her from denying it any longer. If he stayed with the Docs, sooner or later, Stark-Fujikawa would catch up with him. Sooner or later.
If it wasn’t the Watchdogs, it would be the SIEGE. If it wasn’t the SIEGE, it might be some outsourced bounty hunter looking for some quick creds. Especially with Marq going around in a bright shiny costume, attracting all the attention he tended to attract.
Hell, even if they hid him, the corps were smart, Gale knew. They knew that Marq was getting assistance not only with navigating Downtown, but with the injuries he sustained as well. Sooner or later, they would check out all the Docs in a Box in the Downtown area. If they hadn’t started already.
Gale took all this in, and clutched Marq as tight as she could, digging her fingers deep into his back in her unwieldy grief. She didn’t want to let him go. Oh, how she didn’t want to let her friend go.
But Marq pushed away, sniffling just a bit as he headed for the door.
Gale gritted her teeth, steeling herself. “Where will you go?”
Marq turned toward the nurse suddenly. “I…I’ll find someplace. You said there were soup kitchens all over the place. I guess maybe I’ll…”
“They’ll be watching the kitchens, Marq. So you’ll have to be on the move all the time. And many of the streets of Downtown are filled with all kinds of mines and insane booby traps.”
“Then I’ll fly.”
“And be a shimmering white target for their crosshairs.” Gale said, pointing a finger at the knight. “Not to mention the power drain on your suit if you fly around all the time. I mean, when the time comes that you need to outrun one of their patrols – and trust me, you will have to at some point – will you have enough power to get away?”
“…I’ll manage.” Marq said with the utmost determination.
“Face it, Marq. You’ll need help.” Gale said with a glint of fire in her eyes.
“Wait, what do you…oh no. No. No, Gale. No way.” Marq said, waving his arms in the resoundingly negative. “There is no shocking way you’re coming with me. It’s gonna be way too dangerous.”
“You forget I’ve been on these streets since I was a teenager. Shock, I’ve lived in Downtown my entire life.” Gale perked up, circling around the guarded knight. “I know these streets better than anyone.”
“No, this is insane.” Marq said.
“You’re not leaving without me.” Gale replied, standing between Marq and the front door.
“I could just fly out of here.” Marq said.
“But you won’t.”
He paced toward her then, trying desperately to talk some sense into her. “Gale…Gale, you’ve already been injured…” He said, pointing to her scalp covered in a warm slab of gauze. “…and I won’t see you get killed. Not over me.”
Gale raised a hand up toward her bandage, stroking it thoughtfully. “Life is full of risks.” She started toward him. “Besides, there is no way I’m letting you go out there alone. Downtown…Downtown is a rotten, festering, unbelievably dangerous shit-hole. And to get away from the Corps, you’ll have to go into the deepest, darkest parts in order to avoid their patrols. You’ll die without my help.”
“I’ll get by.”
“No, you’ll get killed. And dammit…” She grabbed him by the collar with both hands, and burned holes into his eyes with the intensity of her gaze. “…before you came into my life, all I ever did was damage control. You can’t know how many TR addicts, druggies, rape and street surgery victims I’ve treated over the years. So many people…abused, neglected…their minds just shattered by drugs, or paranoia, or even things worse than that. So many people, so goddamned many...on the way out. And all I could do for them was set their bones, sew up their wounds….send them on their way. Back out into the lowest circle of Hel. Back out into a world that didn’t give one flying shock about them!”
Gale lowered her head for a moment; but when she brought her eyes back up to meet his, they gazed with something wet and shimmering; something alive and fighting to get out. Something like hope. “But now…now there’s you, Marq. You can fight back against the abuse of the corps. You can fight back for all of us. You can…you give us something to fight for. You give… you give me something to fight for.
“….and I’ll be DAMNED if I let you get killed because some stupid corporation won’t take no for an answer! I couldn’t live with myself knowing that I could have kept you safe from them. I couldn’t live with myself…letting the man I love die for no shocking reason.”
“Gale…” Marq stammered before she kissed him, passionately, burying herself fully into his powerful arms. They stood for a long time, their passion nuclear and unrelenting, before Gale finally broke her liplock.
“I won’t let you go, Marq.”
Marq exhaled sharply. “But…but if you get hurt again…Gale, I can’t…I can’t just let you take that chance.”
“It’s my decision,” Gale said simply. “I know the risks. Hell, I think I know them better than you do. But I’d accept any risks, Marq, if they kept me with you...”
Marq stroked her face thoughtfully, and Gale saw the worry and fear in his eyes finally fade away. She felt a lasting peace filter throughout her body for the first time in a long time as they looked at one another, no longer simply friends, but something that far transcended friendship. And as she felt Marq’s hands caress her so very gently, she wondered why it had taken her so long to realize how much she cared about him.
It seemed like hours they were swept up in the other’s gaze, before her knight suddenly smiled, shaking his head knowingly. “I can’t talk you out of this, can I?”
“Nope.” Gale giggled joyfully before relieving Marq of the canvas bag strapped to his back, and enjoying another healthy kiss.
It took a little longer for Marq to break the embrace.
“Gale…” Marq sighed. “Stark-Fuji could break down the doors any minute…we really need to…”
“Relax.” She said calmly. “If you’d been followed, they’d’ve broken through the wall a long time ago. We still have some time. We do owe it to everyone else to say goodbye before we go but…” Gale eyed him lovingly. “…that can wait…”
“Are you sure?” Marq asked.
“Trust me.” She smiled.
They made their way back to Gale’s bedroom clumsily, breathlessly. Gale shut the door, and the both of them reveled in the bliss they found in one another. Something like hope filled the both of them, and for the next few hours, the dark world of Downtown seemed just a little less dark.