15 - "Kin"

Even through the slight distortion of the glass tank and the nutrient fluids, she was beautiful.

At least he thought so. The only other female in their ragtag group had seemed a little jealous of her unspoiled form.

The Cyber was strung up like a marionette inside the haphazard machine, a machine cobbled together from spare parts and a patchwork design of welds, bolts and a labyrinth of wiring that more resembled an old woman's dead and graying braid. But it was enough to power the motor that gently regenerated and re-circulated the Sustenance churning around her.

She was limp, lifeless and only the steady rise of her chest proved life within the liquid.

His old hands under his chin, tendrils of beard laced through the emaciated fingers, he looked on her as something like a painting. In his lifetime (all too brief and passing all too quickly) he'd only seen such art in quick strolls through museums and tattered volumes fished from the garbage, and it only took the broken mind of a morbidly broken genius to create such exquisiteness.

Such perfection.

"You've been staring for an hour."

The voice had startled him, enough to break eye contact with the Sixth. He turned, and found his companion bending down to avoid hitting his head on the door's seven-foot frame. "Yes, well..." he cleared his throat. "She's the last of us, of the unspoiled."

The large man seemed to take offense; even in the dim lighting his features creased, and eyes glinted. "I wouldn't call myself spoiled."

"No, but compared to her, we are..." He chose his words wisely. "Flawed. She was lucky enough to escape the slaughter, and the subsequent experiments we were subjected to."

As imposing as his companion was, even the mention of the surgical horrors he'd suffered, his skin flayed open, layers of musculature peeled back, limbs severed and reattached, appeared to momentarily unnerve him before he shook it off and grunted, "Yeah..."

"I hate to bring up old memories for you, my friend."

He shrugged, and with his unique physiology the simple gesture rippled every muscle down the length of his spine.

"I'm sorry–"

"Let's just drop it," he snapped, "huh?"

CyberOne smiled beneath the beard. "Of course."

The large man crossed his tree-trunk arms, and the other, lower set of slightly less muscular limbs underneath.

When both sets of arms were folded across his companion's chest and stomach, he knew, if not by the expression that could melt steel, that he was risking an irritated bout of superhuman strength and his own neck. "My apologies, Cyberfour, I forget myself and my tendencies to ramble sometimes."

Cyberfour stood for a moment, then, deliberating on whether or not to make his friend's simple slip of the tongue an issue, simply waved it off with a gesture from his lower left, tattooed arm.

The old man chuckled and went back to his examination until he noticed movement, more like a sharp jerk, shoot through her left hand almost as if a live wire had hit the tank.

The Cyber stirred.

Cyberfour set his jaw. "Did she just...?"

"She did."

Cybersix woke, snapped her head around to try and recognize her new surroundings and started to push against the tank's surface; with her strength she could easily shatter four inch glass.

She was panicking, and the breathing tube down her throat was seconds away from getting ripped out and leaving her without a vital supply of oxygen. She would drown in the substance that kept her alive.

"Damnit, we've got to calm her down!"

CyberOne sat up and made his way towards the cylindrical vat and, before his companion could tear the entire contraption from the floor, he simply placed a hand to the glass surface and waited for dark eyes to settle.

They did; Cybersix could see the old man and his hand through a half-lidded gaze, and a whisper rode the fluid. She could hear him, hear fragments of words run through her mind that seemed as if her own thoughts were being hijacked and warped to someone else's whim.

Bubbles shot out from the breathing mask, and she blinked before drifting back into contented unconsciousness.

"I forget just how eerie that is." Cyberfour noticed aloud, and goosebumped at the slim hand dragging from the tank's surface with a squeal.

The old man laughed it off, stroking the tendrils until, abruptly, he stopped (as if he heard, or sensed something) and turned towards the doorway to see a woman run in.

She skidded on her heels, her eyes leading a streak of as much inhuman color as was suffusing through the seams of her bicep-length opera gloves. She washed the room in her tangerine gaze, before settling on an oddly smirking old man backlit by the glow of Sustenance.

His stare and smile widened; he'd always appreciated how she lived on the ends of her toes.

And she, under a very peculiar microscope, quickly turned her eyes away; she'd always hated how the old bugger could look straight into her soul. "I heard commotion."

"Our guest woke up." CyberOne explained. "She was a little disoriented, I had to calm her down."

Forming a sneer (and showing a bit of pointed canine), the female Cyber focused on the tank, or, more specifically, the liquid inside. Though Sustenance had the destructive properties of most acids, it'd been diluted just enough by a homemade nutrient brew to offset the danger to cybernetically enhanced skin. Skin that could withstand a grenade at close range but sear at what once kept her alive.

But the swirls of emerald held a more personal interest to someone who'd used to ingest it, and feel it radiate outwards through her entire nervous system. "Is this wise?" she found herself asking.

CyberOne turned back towards the tank. "She would've died from her injuries. Would you rather have left her to anguish without Von Reichter's miraculous healing agent?"

"I just don't like wasting so much Sustenance."

Cyberfour shored up his barrel chest. "You know we don't need it anymore."

"Unless..." the old man interjected, throwing a hard eye towards the woman. "You've succumbed once more."

Cyberthree was quick to react. "No." she blurted out. "No I have not. I've been clean for a year now."

"Good. Because the only reason I kept this vile ooze around was for her, if we ever found her She's yet to been weaned."

"It's going to be hard." she said, partly under her breath.

"We survived." Eyes held the tank in their dark center, and CyberOne gave his word, "As will she."

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Island. Explosion. Fire. Black leather. Eyes.

Lips.

He leaned in, and in the moment of anticipation of her mouth against his, felt but cold enamel instead. His eyes shot open and discovered he was trying to steal a kiss from a skull in a wide-brimmed fedora; her skin was dissolving, decaying, from her bones underneath the formfitting leather costume.

Death.

"Gah...!"

Reality.

Lucas woke with a start from his recliner, and wandered a wide gaze around the apartment for a moment until, composed and a little less disheveled, he realized it was a dream. He ran the edge of his thumb along his bottom lip and could've sworn...

He slumped back; the dream must have been a hell of a lot more convincing than he thought. "Damnit."

"You awake?"

Lucas whirled on the voice that'd come from his kitchenette. A bit of black smoke was curling along the ceiling and he just now realized he'd left his new houseguest to his own devices and large appliances with natural gas, fire and microwave radiation. "Julian?"

"Yeah." the voice responded, and the noise of clattering pots and pans could be heard around the dividing wall.

"What are you making?" he asked, leaning on the chair's armrest.

"Macaroni."

Lucas furrowed his brow beneath the dirty blond. "I had macaroni?"

"Apparently."

"Oh."

Julian came around the dividing wall with two plates (whether they were steaming or smoking he couldn't quite tell). "It's all I could really find that I kinda know how to make." he shrugged. "Want some?"

Lucas stood up and accepted the plate, though he did seem a little apprehensive at the slight charring to his noodles. As he dug in, he watched as Julian took a seat on his bed across the room, near the still cataleptic panther. Data 7 had stirred a few times over the last couple of days, but nothing much more resembling consciousness. Then, as he swiped another mouthful, a light went off; an epiphany with as much sting as a left jab from his boxing days. "Jesus...what are we going to feed him?" Lucas wondered aloud, poking his fork towards the cat. "What the hell does a four hundred pound genetically enhanced panther eat anyway?"

"Depends where he is." Julian answered with a full mouth. He'd rarely eaten this good, and took every opportunity to rummage through Lucas' cabinets. "I've seen him eat pigeons and rats, but he mostly wanders into the forests for something a little bigger."

"Deer?"

"Mostly."

Lucas scratched his head. "Well, my local butcher is actually still open, maybe I'll head down there tomorrow and see what he's got left."

"Don't you have to work tomorrow?"

"School's closed." he said, the tone waning. "At least until...until things settle down for a bit."

Julian nodded. He could hear the sirens from outside the open window, sirens that hadn't stopped since the island had cleaved a path through the city.

Lucas stood staring into the chaos of flashing lights and navy helicopters making passes through and above crumbled remains and statuary, before a sound would rattle the walls.

He nearly jumped out of his skin when the phone rang, but considering it was one of his only outlets to the outside world at the moment (and considering it was rare to get a line even outside of the city), he grabbed for the receiver left half-buried under three days worth of newspapers all with the same headline. Lucas fumbled to find it and four rings later, was able to hit the talk button, press it against his ear and, "Hello?!"

Julian was still watching from afar, and as Lucas turned around and leaned against the counter, he saw features crumple from hope to despair, flutter through the frustration of another dead end in finding their friend and finally settle on what he could only discern as mild irritation. "Who is it?"

Lucas breathed, "Mom."

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

"...you think she's ready to come out?..."

A tremor rippled through her world.

"...yes..."

"...you sure?..."

"...Her vitals are better, and the seizures have subsided..."

"...Readying for extraction. Watch your shoes..."

Everything she'd known for...what? Hours, days, months? She wasn't quite sure, but it'd shook and swirled and then burped her into the coldness of reality. It was an eerily familiar feeling.

She was carried with the surge of fluid and hit hard cement with a roll, and slowly, as the Sustenance sloughed off and bled through a grate in the floor, her lungs grasped for any shred of fresh air with an audible wheeze.

"Exquisite."

"Sometimes, One, you creep me out."

She was awake, but numb, and lying on the floor. And there were voices around her, clear even with the goop leaking from her ears.

"Please, my friend, she's nude and on very cold concrete."

What felt like four hands working as if they were two curled a blanket over her nude form, and wrapped her into a piecemeal warmth.

Whoever had her was massive to say the least, but something seemed different, and her eyes were stubbornly refusing to focus. "...lucas...?" Cybersix moaned, the build similar.

The direction changed and heavy footsteps trembled up from bottom to top; she was being carried. From one room to another via a narrow hall, the color and definition were returning to her vision enough to see the change of rooms under the muted 40-watt light (giving off a slight flicker). No windows, patches of steel welded into place, it was almost like a bomb shelter converted into something near habitable.

A bed awaited her in the next chamber and she was delivered as carefully as a newborn into the sheets. If this was one of Von Reichter's newest creations, it was taking great steps in keeping her healthy. Her first impulse would be to take a swing at the shadow if she had the strength to raise her arm.

But, getting a closer, better look at the man as he leaned back and cocked his head, shock allayed the gut instinct to rabbit (if her body would even respond to the simple command). He had four arms; kind eyes, but four arms.

She didn't realize she was staring until a voice rattled her sleepy concentration.

"I know what you're looking at." the shadow rumbled.

Her tongue nearly unrolled from her head in the attempt to speak. "...w-what...?"

"Von Reichter liked to tinker with his creations."

"...v-von...Von Reichter..." A hand clenched underneath the blanket, despite the fact she couldn't yet feel the fingernails digging into her palm. "Is he...?"

"Dead." someone to the side answered. "At least, we hope."

Cybersix quickly turned to see an old man near the doorway. There were eyes under those bushy white brows, hard points of light that radiated the same kindness of a man who'd run himself ragged only to catch up to her one night deep in Meridiana. "Who..." she whispered. "Who are you?"

He hobbled towards her on a wooden cane that looked inexpertly carved from a tree branch. "Friends, dear child." he said softly. "Family."

"Family..." Cybersix echoed, and dwelled on the meaning. "I have no family."

Reaching the side of her bed with as much speed as his body could afford, CyberOne grabbed her hand and squeezed affectionately. "Untrue."

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

"Listen..."

"But...wait...no...who?..."

"I said...but...wait...damnit, mom, listen..."

Lucas was fighting for a word in edgewise, the voice on the other end of the line talking a blue streak with barely a breath in between. "Mom," he tried again, pacing the length of the apartment, "no...mom, I'm fine...I'm fine..."

The voice wasn't even slightly placated.

"I know, I'm sorry I haven't called but...as you can tell, it's been a little hectic out here. And there's...a friend I've been trying to find."

A distant interest was piqued; the tone that'd washed through that one word gave more away than he ever wanted.

"Yes, a friend." he admitted. "Yes, a female friend." he admitted again, a nascent wince behind his eyes. "No, not my girlfriend. No, we're not dating, well...actually, kind of, well..." He scratched his head, and felt the first, emerging claws of a headache needling into the back of his skull. "I care a lot for her...it's really hard to explain."

Julian smiled from afar, "I knew you had a thing for her."

Lucas shot a finger towards him and grimaced, "You stay out of this," before he was redirected elsewhere. His mother had heard him (good ears for a retiree). "No mom, I wasn't talking to you, I was speaking to my roommate. A very annoying roommate, who can't cook macaroni to save his life."

"I was raised on the streets, sue me! Macaroni might as well be Orange Duck."

"Duck L'Orange." Lucas corrected.

Julian fell back against Data 7 in a huff. "Whatever..."

"What is it going to take to convince you that I'm all right?" Lucas returned his attention to the phone in his hand. "I didn't get a scratch, my apartment wasn't even close to the destruction. My friend? Yeah, well...let's just say I haven't given up hope yet. I know." Fingertips traced the knotted lines in his forehead, and each time he said it, he was having trouble believing his own words. "Tell dad I...tell him I love him. I'll talk to you soon..."

The receiver was laid back into its cradle.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Her superhuman senses still reeling from the recent deprivation, Cybersix wasn't quite sure if she could trust their sluggish, jumbled input. Like something out of a medieval fantasy, reality could be intermingling with her imagination with so many wires still crossed. She'd spent a lifetime unable to tell enemy from ally all except a precious few, and they'd proven themselves by blood and bullets. "Who are you?"

Delicate fingers played with the tendrils that reached from chin to sheet, thoughtfully, as if the owner wasn't in any kind of rush or necessity to explain. "The leftovers of an experiment."

The four-armed man at the end of the bed filled his lungs, and something grumbled out on the exhale.

"Are you...Von Reichter's creations?"

"Yes," he nodded, pulling back his right sleeve, "just as you are." CyberOne moved his arm slowly into view, revealing his tattoo.

Anthracite eyes widened. The brand was identical, right down to the utilitarian script that mimicked a barcode if caught from a distance. She was a little surprised to say the least. "You're...Cybers..."

"Barely..." Cyberfour thought to add.

The old man perched on the side of the bed, and stared at a distant point on the wall. "We were spared the massacre, only to be subjected to Von Reichter's latest experimentation. He thought it best to test the limits of our endurance before starting on the latest upgrade, and the limits of his own twisted imagination."

Cybersix mulled over the explanation. Then, with all the tact of a bobcat, "I don't believe you." she spit out, suddenly feeling hostile, trapped, not to mention wet and stuck to her sheets. "No one escaped the slaughter–"

"You did."

Her eyes shifted; she didn't dare connect with his own or she'd lose her nerve. "I was lucky," she whispered defiantly.

He nodded, and the beard hid a smirk. "Of course."

With her dwindling reserves of strength, Cybersix threw off the sheets and, draping the blanket around her, coerced a body dead from the hair down to its feet. She could barely feel the cold metal plating under her bare feet, but her resolve was like a hand to the back.

"And just where do you think you're going?"

"I have to find someone..."

"Who, child?"

Cybersix didn't answer, just staggered her way towards the door, teetering on unsteady legs with a severe lack of equilibrium ready to drop her left or right.

Cyberfour went to help her, or catch her if need be, but CyberOne waved him off. She seemed determined to leave, even if it meant dragging herself out by the lips. "All right." he conceded. "You can stay silent if you wish, but we only want to help you. If there's someone above you need to contact..."

"I don't need any help."

"I'm sure you appreciated Elio's assistance when escaping Von Reichter all those years ago. And I'm sure he would have been proud of you."

She stopped cold at the doorway, and a chill ran the length of her spine; it was the precursor to sensation, spreading through her body like a cancer. The surprise of someone else speaking the name of Von Reichter's slave aloud was enough to shock her body back into some sort of feeling. "H-How..." Cybersix breathed over her shoulder. "How do you know about him?"

"He was kind to us all." CyberOne answered. "He was as much a slave under Von Reichter's control as we once were."

"And just how did you know he helped me...?"

He smiled that same enigmatic smile. "I just know. Now, please," CyberOne gestured back towards the bed, "your strength still hasn't returned. If there's someone above you need to find, we'll help you."

She mulled it over, looked between the bed and an open hall. There wasn't much of a choice after all. "His name...is Lucas Amato..."