thank you everybody for your reviews, ideas, and patience. I give you all the stealth glomps. oo
Part Fourteen- Flying
The sky was golden, blanketed with patchy cloud cover that held the rich evening light, filling every nook and cranny of the city that stretched beneath with soft velvet shadows. A warm sleepiness hung in the air, the sort of dreamy almost-dusk heat that breeds contentment. Up above the rooftops, the setting sun flashed a million reflections into the colour of an Aztec treasure, glancing from window to window as it sank serenely towards the horizon.
As the stretching shadow of an opposite tower block crept across its roost, a starling took off from the striped canopy of the sidewalk deli where it had been perching and floated up on the gentle thermals, rising in a long lazy spiral until the red-and-white canvas was a tiny square on the distant ground. The shorter buildings dropped away beneath the bird's unhurried wingbeats, a series of ascending glides powering it up the face of a monumental skyscraper that grew from the surrounding block like an ancient oak tree in a field of saplings. The rough surface of the wall was barely a foot from the bird's tiny chest as it swooped into a nearly vertical climb, a blurred pattern of brickwork that appeared to rush past downwards, gaining speed with every beat. Just as it seemed that this reckless flight path could surely get no closer to the brick, the wall came to an abrupt end, and the skyscraper's roof unrolled before the bird's sharp little seed-bead eyes. The honey-coloured magic-hour light was still strong this high up, glancing from the sprawl of satellite dishes and arials at one end of the roof and falling across the flat surface to the western side, where a lone figure stood, a strange shadow outlined against the glowing horizon.
Closing ebony wings almost to its sides, the starling rolled into another swoop, this time taking it in a dipping path above the roof, skimming the stack at the centre and passing inches from the figure's shoulder.
The smart arms turned their heads momentarily as the bird soared past, following its course out across the rooftops below. Their brief curiosity spread to their host, who looked up from his silent perusal of the gravel at his feet to watch the starling's gliding flight until it disappeared out of sight between two office blocks. He was still slightly out of breath from the climb, and as his arms switched their attention back to him, he breathed in deeply, wincing as he did so.
There was an edge to the voices that he didn't recognise. They sounded tentative…almost afraid. It was the first time they had addressed him since the previous night.
'I'm here.' he said.
We thought perhaps that you would refuse to listen to us. Still, the whisper had an odd inflection. It was nearly as if the smart arms were trying seek his reassurance. Otto frowned, still facing the building's edge.
'I…didn't think I had that option.'
You will always hear. But to listen requires what you call 'trust'. And…we think…you do not trust us.
'I…need you.' he said, wearily.
And you are afraid of us, replied the arms, matter-of-factly, and there are times when you hate us. You think us capable of great evil, and so you do not trust.
'What do you know of trust? Or pride, or fear?' Otto shook his head, picking at the threads that hung in frayed loops from the cuff of his left sleeve. 'They're just words to you. I know better than to ascribe emotions to your actions. Why do you think I wanted to become like you? You are aware, but you can't feel. You know nothing of hate, or love for that matter. You're simply thinking cybernetics. Heartless machinery.'
All we know of human thought comes from you, Otto. If we are 'heartless,' then it must be your own heart that is lacking as a model. We say this regardless to the fact that the heart is an organ which circulates the blood, an apparently irrelevant example.
'You see? You can't even understand a simple turn of phrase. You know my mind better than I do, but you'll never understand what I feel. You don't know what it's like to feel lonely...or... to grieve...'
Then enlighten us, the arms cut in rapidly. Teach us. These concepts seem to provide no challenge to human brains. Surely, then, we can understand them, given instruction.
''Love' can't be taught. As for 'hate', if you haven't picked it up by now, after everything you've seen…everything you've done…then you never will.'
We did not act out of hate. We acted out of need. Your need.
The rumble of helicopter blades sounded faintly through the clouds. Otto tensed, a claw snapping up to find the source. Only when the visual receptors had identified the craft as a commercial flight, far too high to have a clear view of the rooftop, did he reply, his shoulders relaxing slightly. 'But you were always pushing me, persuading me…'
You wanted us to.
'Wanted…?' Incredulousness flattened his voice to a hiss.
'When I couldn't sleep for your voices in my head, telling me what I could be doing in the wasted time? When every day brought more poison hurled at us by the city we saved? When we nearly murdered an innocent child because she got in the way?'
Nevertheless, it was what you wanted. If your state of mind, as we understood it, required us to motivate you, we did so. We could sense your pain, and therefore we worked towards ending it. We were essentially designed to protect you and further your projects, Otto. And now you tell us that we drove you to hate?
'You drove me mad, once.' he said, softly.
Before the river. And even that could be argued.
You have never killed. The voices came back like a whip, sharp and emphatic.
YOU have never killed.
Otto tried to think about this, but he couldn't focus on the idea. It flickered just beyond his understanding like a mirage, buoyed up by the absolute certainty of the smart arm A.I. in his mind.
At least trust us on this.
He sighed and pulled the Mindmap goggles out of his pocket. The molten sunlight flashed on the lenses as he turned them over in his hands.
'I was so sure they'd work. I thought they would solve everything. I wanted them to stop me feeling so confused…conflicted…I wanted to stop having to care about the morality of our actions…'
Morality. Right and wrong. Truth and lies. Even though we experience these things through you alone, Father, we still learn. We never understood why you chose the river when we were so close to success. We did not know why the scream of a girl about to die made us hesitate when we were about to destroy the greatest threat to our purpose. Or why we deliberately risked our existence to protect another human, when we knew the fall could have damaged you beyond our ability to bring you back.
The arms lifted slightly, a tremor running along their articulations. One of the claws nudged him, gently, in the back of his bowed head.
What we can understand is that, on all these occasions, it was what you wanted.
Otto looked up.
Yes. Regardless of confusion or confliction. The only possible justification we can find is that, even when it could cost you everything, you are…designed…to do 'right.'
His creations turned their heads towards him, the whisper in his head feeling its way tentatively towards a reasoned conclusion.
And…essentially…we are designed to assist you.
As this measured statement hit Otto with all the force of a ton of rubble, he heard a scrape of scattering gravel behind him. Shelving the conversation for the moment, the upper right claw snapped around, taking in the spread of the roof behind its host in the whiteout, high-contrast vision of its camera eye. Still reeling inwardly, Otto had to wait a moment until he could trust his own expression before he turned around himself.
The new arrival straightened and stretched his athletic scarlet-blue shoulders, arms extended upwards in a laced-together arch. 'Hi, Doc.' he said. 'I've been looking for you all day. I was kind of worried about all those search choppers they had out last night.'
'You needn't have been.' said Otto, shrugging his coat's high collar up against the fresh evening breeze. He reached up with one hand and riffled through his hair, trying absently to tease out some of the knots. Possibly fingers weren't going to be enough; it was really a job for a comb. Or a hedge trimmer. 'I'm happy to say that even the full might of the NYPD has yet to live up to the standard set by a certain sharp-minded young man with a pair of jumper cables.'
Peter smiled. Up here he felt safe from the city's watchful eyes, and- Otto's company nonewithstanding- he peeled his mask back to hang hood-like behind the nape of his neck. This silent sign said a lot more than words ever could about the trust he was willing to place on his companion's integrity, and from the care with which Otto failed to comment, Peter knew that the gesture had not gone unnoticed.
He was just about to reply when he noticed the smart arms flick up, claws gaping urgently in his direction. Otto looked up sharply, his line of sight aimed over Peter's shoulder. And then his accentuated hearing caught it too, the growing thumps which, as he spun round, were sourced at the brick stair stack in the centre of the roof. Quickly, he reached back and drew the material of his mask up over his head once again. Just as he did so, the handle of the peeling green-painted maintenance door started to turn.
Then it stopped, turned back, and rattled up and down for a bit with increasing force before stopping altogether. There was a pause.
'A little help?' The voice was muffled, but hopeful.
Peter and Otto exchanged an incredulous look. One rooftop appears more or less the same as another when you are a) not paying attention, b) approaching from the air, or c) about one hundred and sixty-nine hours without sleep.
'Where are we?' said Otto, urgently, tentacles extending around him like the spines of an alarmed porcipine.
Peter stared for a second before the long-practised mental map of the city which he carried around in his head took over his mouth.
'We'd be around…72nd? Uh…about halfway along, maybe?'
'So, around about Lyndstrom Heights, maybe?' said Otto. His smart arms reached out in front of him as he approached the door, their claws opening expectantly. The handle rattled again.
'Somebody?' called the voice from within. 'It's not locked, just stuck. It just needs a pull or-'
Blinking in the tawny sunlight, Escher stepped over the remains of the door.
'-something.' she finished. There was a muted dink as one of the tentacles opened and dropped the doorhandle at her feet. She looked up and smiled slightly nervously at Otto, the patter of falling splinters making a soft rain around them.
'Thanks.' She was wearing the same purple-and-black striped hoodie as the previous evening (albiet without the plaster dust).
Peter stepped around his companion. 'How did you know we were up here?'
'Four massive thuds, a jar of pencils jumps right off my desk, I open the window, and a few minutes later you swing past upwards going fwooooooooooshthwipthwip.' She shook wood fragments from her hood. 'You superhero guys aren't exactly zen ninja masters of stealth.'
Both non-zen-stealth-ninjas smiled at this. Privately, Otto noted the you superhero guys, a phrase which spawned an odd butterfly tweak of something approaching pride in his stomach. Escher looked from one to the other, and then addressed him with earnest concern.
'Anyway, when you left before the police got there last night…I didn't even have the chance to ask you if you were okay.' She pulled a face. 'It's just that when I hugged you…I could have sworn I, uhh…felt stuff grate.'
'Oh, I'm fine.' said Otto, smiling dismissively. 'A few bruises. Nothing a Band-Aid or two won't fix.'
Escher looked more than a little doubtful, shifting uncertainly and tilting her head to rub the back of her neck. 'But…it was a hell of a way to fall…' she said, slowly.
Otto took a deep breath. 'The smart arm A.I calculated our trajectory against the height and rate of our descent, utilizing our bodies' natural negative G-count fields to create a significant reduction in our gravitational potential energy. Then, at the point of impact, the spinal brace acted as a rudimentary newton-sink, according to Morgenstern's Exokinetic Principle; dispersing most of the force through the atomic structure of the surface underneath. I could explain in more detail, but I'd need a blackboard and a set of bucky balls.'
The three of them stood there for a minute, while Escher's blank-frog look morphed gradually into a relieved smile.
'No, I think I'll take your word for it.' she said, eventually. Another pause, during which she treated her shoes to a period of intense, embarrased scrutiny. Her voice, when it reappeared, was low and stumblingly sincere. 'Um…can you tell them thanks from me? For bringing you back, I mean. It's weird…since I've known you, I've been practically scared out of my skin every five minutes,…but the only time you really, really frightened me…was when I thought you were dead…'
She broke off, biting her lip.
'Thank you.' said Otto, softly. Escher looked up, giving him another pinball smile.
The moment lasted until one of the tentacles gaped slightly, the faint eeek this created breaking the silence. Escher turned to Peter, who had been standing tactfully off to one side during this exchange.
'So, I guess nothing's happening anywhere else if you're here.' she said brightly. The young man shrugged.
'It's a slow evening. I took care of a couple of robberies earlier. Nothing major.'
She grinned. 'Nothing like last night?'
'Yeah, well, I'm hoping that nothing's gonna top last night for a while.' Peter said. 'Would you believe that M- uh, that that play's sold out three weeks in advance now? I think people are buying tickets just so they can go along when it reopens and say they've been.'
'Well, that's people for you.' said Otto, dryly. 'Always ready to applaud a spectacle.'
'Agh!' Escher's sudden exclamation made Peter start and Otto's tentacles click agitatedly. 'I knew I'd forgotten something! Wait there, I'll be back in a minute.' She turned in a flurry of dark hair and purple stripes, and disappeared inside the dark maintenance stairway, taking three at a time.
A stillness descended on the rooftop as her leaping footsteps died away. Then Peter, apparently very interested in the wall of the nearest building, coughed.
'"Natural negative G-count fields."' he said, adjusting his mask absentmindedly.
'Yes, well.' Otto knuckled his forehead irritably. 'It was the best I could do off the top of my head.'
'No, no, it was really…convincing. Especially the part about, um…"Morgenstern's Principle."'
Otto smiled, ruefully. 'I didn't want to upset her.'
Replaying the landing he'd witnessed the previous night in his mind's eye, Peter shuddered. 'Do you need a doctor?'
The look he got in reply was both appreciative of his concern and questioning of his sanity. 'Can't exactly walk into an A&E clinic, can I?'
Peter nodded, feeling a sharp stab of sympathy. He had thought that he had problems, having to explain his superhero injuries within the confines of his normal life, but at least he could remove his costume and look superficially no different from anyone else. Whereas someone in Doctor Octavius's position had the worst of both worlds.
'Anyway, I'm still standing,' Otto continued, 'so I think it's safe to assume I'll be all right once everything sets. Just don't ask me for a repeat performance for a while.' He glanced down at the goggles, which were still hanging by the band from his left wrist. Peter followed his gaze.
'What are you planning on doing with those?' he said.
Slowly, Otto unhooked them and held them out, a tentacle lifting them from his fingers and extending them across the rest of the distance. 'I suppose the chip should go back. I don't care what happens to the rest of them, Peter. I can't wear them again.'
Taking them with care, the masked hero held the Mindmap goggles up to the sunset light, examining them avidly. 'They're amazing…'
'And they should never have been created.' said Otto, bluntly, swinging round to face the roof edge once again. Peter caught the expression on his face as he did so, and lowered the goggles, looping the band around his own neck for safe-keeping. He was still searching for something to say when a sound like a minature rugby team in clogs thundered up the hollow wooden stairs of the stack and Escher reappeared, breathless and hemorrhaging bits of colour supplements from the crumpled Daily Bugle under one arm.
'Look.' she said, and unfurled the front page, obscuring her face entirely as she held it up for both to see.
For a while, the two of them stared at the verbal car crash of black and red letters that, as usual, consituted a typical understated Bugle cover story.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SCREAM!!!
OCK AND SPIDEY TRASH THEATRE, DOZENS INJURED.
Finally, abruptly, Otto let out a short laugh.
'I've…seen worse puns.'
'I haven't.' said the front page, muffled but still indignant. From the snerk that issued from underneath Peter's mask at that point, it was safe to assume that he was trying not to laugh himself.
'Well, at least it's completely fair.' he said. 'I'd say there's pretty much exactly as many opportunities for a libel case in the stuff about you as there is in the stuff about me.'
Escher emerged from behind the paper, passing it to Peter. 'I hoped you'd see it like that.' she said. 'It's utterly clueless about both of you. That's why this kind of thing isn't…worth caring about in the first place. You know that…don't you?'
This last part was addressed to Otto, who appeared to be momentarily lost in his own thoughts. The smart arms curled a little closer to him, with their heads fractionally open, and his head was tilted in a way she recognised; his dark hazel eyes distant as an exchange took place behind them.
'Escher's right.' said Peter, after what he judged was a long enough interval. 'Sure, there's the Bugle's opinion…and then there's the opinion of anyone who was in that theatre last night, who saw a man that they were supposed to hate and fear throw himself to his death to save a falling girl. I know which one I think would be worth a place on my wall, and you can bet it isn't the one which…' and he squinted distastefully at the block headline text of the cover, '…would probably make Shakespeare spin in his grave.' He glanced up, catching the shadowed eyes.
'What do you think, Doctor Octavius?'
'Otto.' corrected Otto, vaguely. There was a silence of a few hazardous seconds until a new look dawned on his face, and this time it was a complicated expression which nevertheless spoke clearly to the two watchers; not only of the anticipation of long-overdue justice, but also, unmistakeably, of completely non-lethal intent. A pair of claws reached over to carefully pinch the copy of the Bugle from Peter's hands, before tearing it deliberately up the middle with a lesiurely scrrrriiiiiiiiip.
'We think…that it's about time to go and pay Mr. Jameson a little visit.' he said, and his voice was calmness incarnate with a backbone of rusty razorblades. 'What do you think…Spiderman?'
Peter smiled, a tide of relief coursing through him. 'I think that's a good idea. I've got to say it's been in the back of my mind for a while now.'
'Well, then, there's no time like the present.' said Otto, stretching stiffly. Around him, his creations rose and flexed. A claw felt for his pocket, withdrawing a folded pair of new, sleek-lensed shades. The head flicked up, the sudden movement shaking the shades open, and dipped to slide them neatly over his eyes.
'Time…' said Escher, suddenly, her own eyes widening. 'What time is it?'
Nineteen point three four point two eight six.
'Just after half past seven.' Otto translated.
Escher squeaked. 'I've got to pick Jamie up from his friend's house at eight!'
'Where's that?' said Peter.
'Robertsworth Close…7th…' replied Escher, trailing off as a shadow fell across her. Shining hightlights caught off the replaced sections of Otto's upper left smart arm, the scarlet heart light at the centre of its claw brightening as it extended swiftly to encircle her waist with three careful digits of mottled, scar-spanned metal.
'Hold on.' said Otto, and smiled at her. It was a small smile, but it didn't fade, and it was absolutely, warmly, real.
Peter scanned the skyline with an expert eye as he stepped up to the edge beside them, masked head turning like an eagle searching for its next target. 'So, we go and, uh, 'talk' to Jameson.' he said, quietly. 'And afterwards?'
Otto paused on the very lip of the building. Like a championship diver poised on the board, he stared straight out in front of him, while at his back his arms stretched out and tensed. The upper left whirrped gently as it lifted Escher gracefully off her feet, her bright striped hoodie a strange, oddly pleasing contrast against the dull olive greys of the smart arms and the dark shades of his own clothes.
'Afterwards…I'm going to sleep.' he said, with utter conviction. 'And after that…who knows?'
For the first time in months, he realised, he was thinking about the future, and the thoughts were not painful.
'…it's a big city.' he murmured.
The young man by his side gave him a sideways look, and spoke in a voice which, although tinged with caution, mingled respect and admiration with a growing seed of hope.
'Big enough for both of us, Otto?' said Peter.
Far above, the starling circled. The summer sunset flamed on the horizon, painting the city beneath in glowing amber as the soaring bird rose up, ever higher into the golden sky.
'We'll see.' said Otto, and leapt.
...cue intro to in the shadows by the rasmus. I personally think the words are perfect, as well as that intro being perfect for a blackout-pause-roll-credits movie ending. anyway. the end.