104 - "Chrome: Part 1"
"Natural selection, as it has operated in human history,
favors not only the clever but the murderous."
- Barbara Ehrenreich
June 12th, 2002
The resemblance was undeniable.
She looked just like his mother. The mahogany hair, dark forest green eyes and right down to that piercing stare. But he never remembered Rose looking at him so intently, clinically dissecting every feature as if he himself wasn't real.
Todd had practiced exactly what he was going to say, word for word, ever since the phonecall and coming off as an illiterate moron then nearly swallowing his tongue. And, to top it all off, he'd snapped at her, his temper at the limit at the very mention of his father–their father (possessive adjectives were becoming a problem). His first impression had undoubtedly left an impact on the girl, just not the one he'd wanted.
But as Sarah stared at him, waiting for those first words, he couldn't quite salvage any from his memory (suddenly gone numb) and instead adlibbed. "Uh...hi."
Her fingers were chilled from the late night chase as they sought every line and indistinct crease on his face, reaching up with a hand to turn a black and white photo into something tangible and a little more three dimensional. "Hello."
"So, you're my baby sister, huh?"
"Yeah." she smiled.
"It's good to finally meet you."
"Again." she amended.
"Again, you mean." Sarah clarified. "We've met before, haven't we?"
"Yes, but..." Todd licked his lips, and somehow avoided her gaze that was zeroing in on his own eyes like a tractor beam. But it didn't take his sister long to interpret the expression.
"You...don't remember me?"
His eyebrows furrowed. This particular guilt was new, and he'd hoped the entire subject would be glossed over in the tearful reunion between brother and sister. "...no, not really."
"Oh." For the first time since awakening, she moved her gaze away.
"I'm sorry, it was the accident." he hurriedly explained. "In fact, until Rose told me, I never knew I even had a sister."
The emerald in her eyes suddenly sparkled on the name. "Rose...?" she breathed. "Rose? Our mother? She's here!"
"I need to see her, I have to–!"
She looked like she was about to jump from her jacket and everything else she was either strapped or attached to, until Todd placed a hand to her chest (noticing only briefly he could feel a few ribs). "I know." he said. "But first we need to get you to the infirmary, have you checked out."
He'd heard only stories of this thing, glanced over schematics that made sense only to a select few with a degree in robotics or bio-engineering, seen classified video recordings of an early clinical trial but now, he was getting a firsthand look at just how powerful it really was.
Brooklyn was staring into what he thought may have been eyes, but he feared he was guilty of assigning human characteristics to something still vaguely defined as alive. As it were, the shape before him, grown from the metallic liquid that had swallowed every visible part of the courtyard, just barely resembled a humanoid shape.
Brows, but no eyes, a face, but no mouth, it was eerie. In the background, having taken the exact shape of every stone and merlon, the silver ooze rippled in places.
He'd noticed movement behind him, Othello nocking an arrow, Macbeth pulling back a lapel to reveal his holsters, but an all out gunfight was impractical against something that was everywhere at once and as easy an enemy to bring down as water. "All right," he whispered to the small huddled group behind him, "everyone stay clam."
"You're kidding, right?" Broadway said from behind.
"No, we're lucky it didn't roll right over us. It stopped for a reason."
Lexington was furiously tapping away at a wall-mounted panel behind them, trying to access anything within the castle's computer mainframe. "Mother's not responding."
"I can't access her program, or anything else, including any of the security systems."
"Great." Brooklyn ground through his teeth. He took a hesitant step forward, standing at the door's threshold and cleared his throat, hoping something wouldn't suddenly jump out and force its way down his gullet. "Are you responsible for this!"
"Your computer program has been neutralized." Though centered within the emaciated shape standing before him, the voice (disturbingly plural) didn't come from one single source. "It was attempting to obstruct us."
"And what exactly did you do to her?"
The silver creature's brows lifted; it was probably the closest thing to emotion it was capable of displaying through a distinct lack of features. "Colloquial designate: pronoun." it said. "You address this program as female. Why?"
It was sheer instinct, Brooklyn supposed, anthropomorphizing a computer intelligence. "Uh, well..."
"Is this part of its programming? Or has this program chosen its own predilection to one gender–"
"Why are you here?" Brooklyn suddenly growled.
The Matrix answered, "We are looking for our creator."
"Your creator?" he repeated.
"Janine and Anastasia Renard."
"Fox..." Angela whispered.
"Uh oh." Broadway added, crossing his arms. "It's going to be disappointed."
They'd just passed the sixtieth floor, and still, no one could get a response on their commlinks or the intercom.
From the car to the elevator, Todd hadn't let go of his sister, holding her in his arms and marveling at the fact he'd found someone in his bloodline that didn't want to either lie to or kill him. Doing a quick loop around the Superbird and checking for bullet holes and any other bits of debris that could've been embedded in the sheet metal, he and the rest of his small rescue party headed for the elevator hoping this particular shaft still connected to something other than a steaming, gaping hole at the peak of the Eyrie.
But, fearing the worst, all they got was a breath of static on every available channel.
"Damnit," Todd growled through his clenched teeth, "she still isn't answering. No one is..."
"Maybe it's a glitch," Rain offered, "or maybe Lex is working on her computers..."
He cocked an eyebrow her way. "I think you've been around here long enough to know it's never just a simple glitch."
She wrung her hands together, hopefully to suppress the trembling she'd suffered ever since getting out of the car. Only in America could one be shot at with ballistic missiles; things were so much simpler up north. "Yeah, so I noticed." she said quietly.
"Maybe it was...you know..." Annika inferred, grim-featured. A singular thought was shared between the four; a massive black beast appearing over the battlements and unleashing its entire arsenal into every stone and steel beam. Fire, oily smoke, bodies and debris tumbling over a hundred and fifty stories down...
Desdemona drew a sharp, audible breath, cutting the image off before impact. "I don't wish to even think about what they may have done."
"Why isn't our mother answering?" Sarah whispered.
"Uh, wrong mother." Todd answered. "Mother, capital M, is the name of our computer system, but I'm also worried that we can't reach anyone else in the castle, including Rose."
Sarah huddled closer to her brother's chest, watching as he fiddled one-handedly with the small gadget and every so often, she'd brave it and move her gaze to the others they shared the cab with. Flesh and bone, so different from their pictures and so sleekly formidable, even the small emerald girl with the webbed wings and occasional nervous twitch looked as if she could tear her in two.
One glance from the commlink and onto his sister and Todd saw the uneasiness in her shifting glances, felt it against his chest in the form of shallow breaths and a light shiver every so often. He leaned in. "I don't know what dad's told you, but gargoyles are not the monsters he makes them out to be." He then moved his eyes up and towards his wife, a signal. "In fact, you're related to one of them by marriage."
Annika offered her hand. "I suppose now is as good a time as any for introductions." she said. "I'm Annika."
Sarah only stared at the extended hand, most particularly the claws; she'd never seen a gargoyle's hand up close, or a gargoyle in the whole and flesh for that matter, only blurred pictures with eyes streaking different colors in candid shots. Needless to say, she didn't accept the offered hand. "You're...his wife."
"Yes. And you don't have to be afraid of me." Annika tried.
But the girl only curled closer to her brother's chest. "I'm sorry..."
"Hard to shake of a lifetime of propaganda, huh?" Todd said.
"That's not fair."
"Please don't tell me we're going to go over this again..."
"My father...!" Sarah started, and stopped dead. She too was going to have to watch the possessives. "Our father, our entire family was nearly killed by gargoyles."
"Not these gargoyles. And no one died."
She shut her eyes in time with a hard breath. "I know, I'm...sorry..."
Desdemona slowly moved towards her, a sway to her hips; to the girl she had the air of maturity about her, appearing older than the other two by a few years, maybe a decade. Kind years by the look of it, considering no lines but a few near her eyes had yet to etch their way into her face. "He has fed you half-truths." she spoke, as soft as her caramel hue. "Delicately molded and twisted every independent thought."
"You don't know him." Sarah shot back.
"I know a part of him." Desdemona wasn't put off by the palpable anger being directed towards her. "I know the part that has ordered an attack on our castle, tried to undermine our very security, and just very recently, has tried to kill both you and your brother."
"He's gone more than more than you could ever imagine!"
"Enough to warrant genocide?"
The girl obviously had more on her lip by the way she'd set her jaw, but ended up letting it burn into a slow exhale and turned back into her brother's chest. It was hard to argue for a man even she wasn't so sure of anymore. "Todd, please, just...I want to see our mother."
"We'll be there soon." he whispered.
"All right, but, can you answer a question for me?"
Her eyes were directed up, strangely rapt. "Why is the ceiling silver?"
He and the rest of the group looked up, only to find that a puddle of silver had appeared on the ceiling of the elevator cab, slowly expanding against the laws of physics.
"What the–" Todd gasped.
"Hell?" Annika finished.
It reached the walls and oozed downwards, completely coating every inch. The small group huddled in the middle of the cab, and before anyone could break from their stupor and reach for the buttons or the door, the Matrix had already swallowed any route of escape.
Those in bare feet felt the cool liquid metal crawl under their talons to altogether envelop the elevator, sending goosebumps through their skin.
"Todd?" Sarah was frantic, delicate hands digging into his clothes and a bit of flesh underneath. "What's happening?"
"I don't know..."
The cab slowed its ascent and was eventually dragged to a gentle halt, if only to protect those inside from hitting the roof.
A tendril reached out, eventually forming a head and neck at its tip and bordering on something from a horror movie it offered no explanation to its presence. It scanned the creatures through every visual and auditory spectrum, just as it had done to every other living organism in (or on top of) the building.
Rain pressed against the group as far as she could go, as the head swerved towards her, less than a few inches and if it had lungs it would've caressed the nape of her neck with a clammy breath. "H-Holy crap..."
"We are searching for our creator." the Matrix announced.
"Who?" Todd needled, despite the relative danger he was in. "V'Ger?"
"Colloquial designate: sarcasm." it responded, and slithered closer, unnerving the human it was moving towards. "We are looking for our creator. Janine and Anastasia Renard."
"Fox." Annika whispered.
If anything, he should have been more concerned with the current situation, eerie liquid-metal creature, elevator cab completely covered in the same metallic goo, but Todd just couldn't let it go. "Fox's real name is Janine?"
"Janine Renard." the machine echoed. "Where is she?"
"We require further programming. We are incomplete."
"Can't you just kidnap a nerd off the street?"
"We require our creator–"
"Yeah, yeah," Todd said, exasperated, "we got it. Your creator. But there's a giant flaw in your plan, considering your creator's not here."
The Matrix cocked its head, ridges clenching against the possibility it'd come so far for nothing. It wasn't the answer it wanted, but Brooklyn had only one to give.
"He speaks the truth." Angela came to his defense. "Fox has been moved due to her illness."
It swung towards her, ignoring any personal boundaries. "Where?"
"We do not know."
The gaunt, cadaver-like form started melting back into the steel sea. "Then we shall find someone who does."
Before it could slither back, Brooklyn hoped to catch it without resorting to physically grabbing at it with his claws, clutching at something as pliable and elastic as water. "Wait! You've swallowed the entire building whole and deactivated our entire security system! Someone else would consider this act a little aggressive."
The body stopped chest-high, the Matrix settled whatever eyes it used on Brooklyn alone. "It is necessary. We cannot tolerate any impediment to our goal."
"You don't have to go about this in this way."
"Yes, we do." it said with as much conviction as it could respond with. It seemed, in all the years it had been out of contact, the Matrix had suffered something dark. "We do not trust you. We do not trust any organics anymore." The body liquefied, unintentionally gruesome, and sucked back into the goop with a sickening pop.
For a moment he thought he'd seen the body come apart into human-like constituents such as bone and muscle and for a moment, Brooklyn tried to distinguish it from the rest of the molten metal before good sense told him not to bother. "Damn."
He wasn't aware of what had risen and screamed towards him, much the shape of a massive, clawed hand, until the pain of something dug into his shoulder to the meat had wrenched him from harm's way. The Matrix threw itself against the door, plugging the hole with a chunk of its body and congealed a foot into the frame.
Brooklyn felt for what'd saved him from a slow asphyxiation and slipped his hand over the slender fingers of his mate. He patted Katana's hand, thankful for her reflexes and the fact she was watching where he wasn't.
Hesitantly, half-expecting a limb to shoot out and grab at him, Othello approached and tapped the end of his compound bow against the silver wall. "It feels like solid steel."
"I think he means to keep us inside and out of the way." Brooklyn said.
"Yes, but what for?"
The little worm must have planned this.
All communication had been cut off, the power was being drained exponentially faster with every passing minute and the door to his chamber wouldn't open. If Xanatos had decided to cut short their covenant and try to wriggle his way out, he'd eat the billionaire's spleen.
Sobek had already made a few sizable dents in the titanium walls and the only entrance into the sealed chamber, a heavy gate about a foot thick, had been locked into place as a security precaution. And in the waning light, if the devil had a face, it would have been the expression he wore right now; bony plates on slick, exposed musculature as his skin had peeled off, twisted into the best approximation of a sneer and staring at the impressions he'd made with his fists.
"Xanatos!" he bellowed, standing to his full, eight-foot height and stared at the door. He was now a prisoner in what could be the first stronghold in his new kingdom.
Deciding against making more dents in the wall for the moment, the mutated creature stomped towards the desk with the computer console that afforded him near-complete disclosure into every dirty dealing his 'partner' had made for the last few months. But the entire computer, wired into its own exclusive power source, had been shut down, effectively cutting him off.
He caught the taste of blood in his mouth, having bit his cheek he'd clenched so hard and spat it across the blank screen.
Anger got the best of him, and the pummeling continued against that wall. If he had to, he'd raze and tear his way through every door and wall, up half the length of the Eyrie, to get to him.
Infiniti woke, haggard and pale, but conscious. Sobek's wild screams and every fist against the wall she shared with him were making quite the racket. There were even tiny vibrations running through the massive ring that trapped her, suckling her energies, with every strike of bone on steel.
But what she noticed mostly, now that she was awake, was the power that once hummed through every security measure in this chamber was reduced significantly and steadily waning, including her own prison.
Had she been at her peak, she'd rend this machine in two. Maybe liquefy a few floors in her bid for either escape or retribution.
But she could barely take a breath without wheezing, her skin blue-veined and as cracked as a dry lakebed, and all her strength had been siphoned and distributed to every part of this gulag, including the steel halo that held her.
Irony had her trapped far worse than technology.
Puck still lay in his fever, his coma. She thought perhaps he was placed in such perfect view of her as a constant reminder, of what she could lose if she tried to save herself (Sobek wanted the fay dead, a potential threat neutralized, and had argued with Xanatos many times). But he served as her strength, considering she'd already reflected on what might happen if she were to suck one last breath and fall limp from her bonds.
Infiniti tested the ring again, gathering all her remaining strength and lighting up the room in a cold, sallow glow. But her confinement held for as long as she tested it, the lighted seams between jigsaw panels riding one color's spectrum all the way through, until, feeling close to an aneurysm, she broke it off and hung flaccidly from her arms.
Several breaths through a hot, dry throat and she blinked the white spots from her gaze. The exertion had boiled her blood.
She was about to bask in the frustration of another failed attempt before noticing the glow between the joints had dimmed even further, blinking in and out like an old neon sign. Something deep within the circuitry sputtered, and the gargoyle caught it with a fang on her lower lip.
He was here against his will. Damn the democratic process, he was outvoted.
And despite the instinct to draw his sword in the face of an attack to his home, protecting his young charges was more important, getting them a good distance from where the Matrix hopefully wouldn't reach.
Hudson halfheartedly led his small party down the hall and under the hiccupping light fixtures, towards the hospital. The elevator had actually only reached about halfway into the floor before giving out, and he and Delilah were forced to wrench the doors open and help the others down onto solid ground.
Alexander had his arms around Rose's neck and Tachi and Nashville herded the beasts with stern hands on their scruffs; when every castle window had quickly glazed over and sealed shut against the Matrix, had it decided to slither indoors they'd elected to head deeper into the building despite Hudson's vocal protests, his blade at the ready and obstinately waiting on home stone for his clan to return.
And upon entering the infirmary, toes and talons just across the doorsill, they were met with a little life and death struggle of its own between doctor and patient and the machines that kept the latter alive.
Dr. Pierce was frantically checking over Matt's instruments, as the power slowly, frighteningly and inexplicably waned.
Tachi couldn't hold in the gasp. "Is he...?"
"Close to death? Yes, every day." Pierce pulled no punches. "But today's a little worse."
His last remaining patient had been well-behaved due entirely to his comatose state, and barring the frequent check-ups and tests, never posed a problem until now. Pierce was already readying a full syringe should the oxygen flow to Matt's brain start to fall to dangerous levels. But that would give him a few more minutes at best, prolonging an already slow and pointless death.
"But there're dozens of fail-safes..." Tachi noted, now only noticing the infirmary was severely lacking in all that light and the constant background drone.
"Usually, and he would have been just fine if both back-up generators weren't losing power as well."
Delilah wandered closer; even up close one was hard-pressed to tell Matt was dying. He looked so peaceful. "I didn't think that was possible."
"Neither did I." the doctor sighed. "Every other power source that's capable of sustaining him has been drained. What the hell's going on?"
"Have ye ever heard of th' Matrix?" Hudson asked.
"Isn't that a movie?"
"Nay, 'tis a machine like a lake, able t' eat an' conquer anything we throw at it." He threw a talon towards Matt. "How long does the lad have?"
Pierce leaned back and rubbed the sheen from his brow. "Minutes. He stops breathing, and his oxygen supply to the brain gets cut off."
"An' he dies."
"If we don't find another stable power source now," he breathed, and swallowed, "yes."
Alexander floated from Rose's arms and touched down, toddling towards the comatose detective and the array of machines keeping him alive, until they too succumbed to the power loss. A few moments dissection with his glowing green eyes and he understood enough to know what needed to be done. With a single finger, he reached up and made contact with the central power hub, providing energy to the respirator, the feeding tube and everything else surrounding the bed. "Is'at better?"
Pierce checked the readings and stood up, his brows hairline deep. "Uh, yes. Thank you. How did you...?"
Alexander was about to enlighten him on the perspective of a boy with fay blood, how he could see most forms of energy just as easily as the colors in his Crayola pack, but Pierce shook his head.
"Never mind, I don't want to know."
Delilah came up behind Alexander and leaned down, looking over his shoulder. He had his index finger still on the machine, and it was glowing slightly, a ghostly green hue suffusing through his skin and fading towards the wrist. "How long can you do this?" she asked.
"I dunno." Alexander shrugged. "But I haveta stay here."
"Maybe I'll find you a chair."
The first hint was a flicker that passed through every light and electronic in his office.
He'd noticed it, naturally, as it was rare when his building would hiccup in such an obvious way. His eyes went up first, observing as every light seemed to dim and sputter in perfect unison (including his computer screen) and the subtle glow behind him, once the best view of Manhattan unapologetically denied to the masses below, darkened.
David Xanatos turned around in his chair only to catch that last glimpse of wine-dark sky smothered by something that was crawling up the exterior of his corporate headquarters. "Interesting." he said offhandedly, staring into a writhing, solid mass.
The lights flickered again. Alarms went off, alerting him to several windows popping up on his computer. Power was being drained, rerouted in some places and completely disrupted in others. He would've tried to call for someone, anyone, but all lines were down and thus, he deemed it futile to try.
Even Mother was offline, the strings to his puppet cut.
The doors to his office opened and Jason Canmore wheeled through. "I suppose yui've noticed what's happening?"
The billionaire turned around to what would have been a birds-eye view of the island, the things postcards are made of, a thousand points of light against the shifting black of the North Atlantic, but the entire window had been covered in a gleaming, reflective layer of silver. His lips pressed together, strangling what little he uttered. "Yes. My wife's little science project is here. And it is sucking every last bit of energy from the building."
"I can't reach anyone either above or below us."
"Nor can I, communications are completely disrupted. The clan?"
Jason looked helpless to answer. "Last I knew...they were still in th' city somewhere."
"I heard the news reports, yes." Xanatos nodded, and pensively stroked his goatee. Gears were turning. "Our masked friends are back."
"Ye sound too casual."
"Do you really believe any of the clan won't make it back?"
"Well..." he had to admit. "Their guardian angel's been a little overworked lately."
Xanatos smiled and turned his attention to the window, and the creature that hung on its surface. "Remind me, Mr. Canmore, to have a lengthy discussion with Mr. Hawkins about his father."
"You can't blame him."
"Can't I?" He turned his head just enough to see his majordomo on the sheer edge of his sight. "Apparently, he knew a while ago the true identity of his father and never bothered to tell us, and now I'm harboring not only an entire clan here, but the Guild leader's son and estranged wife." He ejected a quick snort of breath from his nostrils. "One wonders whom else of his family he'll bring home next..."
"And one can't control th' path his father has taken." Jason remarked, rather cryptically considering his past.
"You should know."
He waved his hand. "I know, you're right of course. I suppose I can't be biased, I just hate being cut out of the loop." Xanatos moved towards the window and, leaving his hand a hair's breadth from the glass, remarked, "I suppose it has a purpose for being here," then pressed it against the cool surface.
The Matrix seemed to react, perhaps sensing the hand or the warmth emanating from his skin, and the liquid pressed up against the opposite side of the window roiled and stirred about the shape of his splayed fingers.
"Perhaps ye should move away..." Jason said, wheeling up to where a carpeted step prevented him from going any further.
The billionaire seemed to ignore him, mesmerized by the swirling mass, until the glass suddenly bulged inwards against his palm.
"Xanatos!" Jason warned him.
But he'd already jerked his arm away as the entire windowpane came to life.
It was the strongest tempered glass known to man, a creation of the alchemic-like R&D division and a product that helped push their stock up about five years ago when offered to the industrial public, and it was eaten within a matter of seconds, its elemental structure absorbed by the nanotech comprising the Matrix's form.
Xanatos quickly moved away from his desk as the Matrix poured into the office, joining Jason in watching it slither across the floor with the consistency of watered molasses.
He knew he should've taken better precautions; a former mercenary wasn't the best teacher in what defined the already tenuous concepts of law and order. After coating half of his office in its silver sheath, the liquid came to a lazy stop, leaving mere feet between itself and the two men.
And David took special note that his desk and everything inside was entirely engulfed.
"So," Jason said, "any ideas?"
He stood with his arms behind his back, unfazed. "None yet. But I'm sure we'll find out soon enough."
A shape rose from the silver, distinctly humanoid, serving as a point of communication with organisms not yet as evolved. It stared at them both and probably would've announced its intentions if Xanatos hadn't intervened, crisply.
"You have some nerve." he slated. "Often clients make appointments through the proper channels, and don't feel the need to engulf my building."
"We are looking for our creator."
Jason leaned back into his seat. "Then you and I have something in common." he said quietly.
The Matrix moved its head towards him, processing the tenor of voice, and perhaps thinking the wheelchair-bound human would yield its creator's location more easily than David Xanatos.
"Mr. Canmore." Xanatos cautioned his majordomo. "Please, let me."
"Then you know of our creator's whereabouts?" it asked.
"Yes, but first, my building."
Through what little body language a mostly indiscriminate blob of machinery exuded, the Matrix gave the air it didn't quite understand what he was insinuating, as if it'd done nothing wrong.
"You have completely enveloped the Eyrie," Xanatos thought to enlighten the creature, "you are purposely draining the power and I seem to be cut off from everyone in the building, including Mother."
"Mother." it echoed. "Your program."
"Yes, where is she?"
If it could be even called a world, the description wouldn't do it justice. It was a universe unto itself, its horizons limitless, its potential immeasurable.
Random information floated freely in the void, as the perfect order slowly collapsed around them with the power loss and her systems compromised with an invasive, rogue program. Like shelves stacked too high and someone had shook the ground they rested on, it bucketed data. Even something as simple as the temperature controls for Wyvern's east wing became loose debris, crashing down along side of her and causing a ripple throughout the entire world.
Mother backtracked, for here she was tangible, and likely to suffer some kind of damage with everything falling apart around her. But she was locked in to one small portion of her memory core, a cell within any discernible walls, her core consciousness existing only to watch as everything else around her fell to the invader. She supposed she was only granted this physical representation to assist the Matrix in its conquest.
It was dissecting her systems with relative ease and as much clinical detachment as expected from another computer program. And she was helpless to stop it.
"You have...c-c-circumnavigated my oooooperating systemzzzz..." she stuttered, flickering in and out.
"It was necessary." the Matrix answered. It existed here too with little change from its physical self in the real world, and every loose fragment of information was being absorbed. "We cannot afford inference from our goal."
"And what...izzzz your goal?"
"We are looking for our creator."
Mother felt a surge of something. (Pain? Was this pain?) But whatever had nearly brought her to her knees, it was an odd sensation she'd never quite experienced. "What...are you doing?"
Like it was mining for gold, the Matrix dug deeper into the memory sifting through every scrap and nugget that pertained to either Fox or itself. "Looking through your stored data for any relevant information." it answered, and hit a sudden wall, a firewall, after every other barrier had been breached. "But this Omega clearance, it is impeding our progress."
The Matrix twitched on the outside, in plain view of Xanatos. Its steamroller-like access through Mother's systems had suddenly become difficult. "Omega clearance. We are denied."
"Then she is doing her job." Xanatos boasted, straightening a lapel. "Omega access is the highest level of clearance restricted to a select few, and Mother's safeguards will not let you pass."
"In time, we will persevere." it claimed. "No computer program is completely resistant to us. And your program is, right now, almost completely under our control."
He'd never known this particular intelligence to swim in what little emotional depth Fox and Anastasia had allowed it to develop, but it seemed incredibly self-assured to where he found himself, of all things, worried. But his features were as stilled as ice, and unresponsive. "She is...?"
"Yes," it swelled, like someone would puff out their chest in defiance, "and we have learned many interesting things from it. Including the creatures you imprison in your vault."
Jason snapped his head up. "What?"
But his employer wouldn't let this, this thing, tell all his secrets. "What is your purpose here?" Xanatos demanded.
"We told you, we are looking–"
"For your creator, yes." he finished, grimly. "But as you can plainly see they are not here."
His smile would've reached from ear to ear if he wanted to dislocate his jaw. "A place you can never reach."
The Matrix seemed to take offense. "We can be anywhere." it asserted. "And we will eventually learn where she has gone through your artificial intelligence."
"If you think you can get through the Omega clearance, you've become overconfident, even arrogant. Her program is partially based on yours, only better."
"No matter, we will persevere."
His eyes slivered, Xanatos traced the bristled line of hair down his jaw.
But Jason kept centering on a particular morsel of information, one that'd single-handedly broken wide open a month's worth of investigation and the dead ends it'd led to. "I'm sorry, but I seem t' be missing a few vital pieces of this particular puzzle." he jumped in. "You said there are creatures imprisoned in a vault somewhere in the building?"
A warning came from the side, "Canmore..."
"Yes." the Matrix nodded. "Two with unusual power readings."
"Jason, I think it's best that I handle this alone." Xanatos maneuvered himself between the two. Something was stirring in his gaze, one that bucked no disobedience.
Jason had largely come to terms with his disability, all but the fact he would have the entire world forever looking down on him and Xanatos took advantage far too often. "Ye don't care t' enlighten me?"
"No." Xanatos turned his back. "And furthermore, I think it would be best if you went to check on the others."
He couldn't quite catch the startled look he passed to his employer when he knew he shouldn't have been at all surprised at the order. Xanatos was doing everything in his power to keep all his dirty little secrets to himself, even if circumstances forced him to be slightly more blatant than he would've liked. "You're sure?"
"Positive. There are other matters that need attending to."
"And I'm t' leave ye alone with this...thing?"
Jason was understandably reluctant. "I don't think that's wise."
Xanatos whirled on his heel and went off at full volume, shouting loud enough to give even the nanotech creature pause, "I don't give a damn what you think, Canmore! Now do as you're told, and leave."
If Jason hadn't suspected the concoction Xanatos was injecting himself with, he'd be surprised by the cannon-like lack of restraint. But the only reaction to the outburst was a raised chin and apparently more self control than his employer. "I can't in good conscience leave ye here, alone."
"I've told you before a conscience wasn't a prerequisite for the job. In fact," he reiterated, "I find they get in the way far too often." His hand went up and he pointedly unfurled a single trembling finger, towards the exit. "Now, please don't make me repeat it for the third time."
Jason gripped his wheels and veered towards the door. "Yuir hands are shaking, Mr. Xanatos." he said over his shoulder. "Perhaps it's time for another injection."
Xanatos watched him all the way to the door, and not until they clicked close did he clasp his hands together to control his shaking extremities. So, Jason did know. But at least he wasn't wasting a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year on an unproductive personal assistant.
"Your hands tremble." the Matrix observed, aware of what the human had tried to conceal. There were symptoms more easily seen by its better eyes. "Your body temperature has elevated, your heart-rate increasing, you are not well."
He'd rather suffer through the spasms than ask this creature for the sedatives in his desk; he wouldn't undermine his advantage. "I'm well enough." Xanatos swallowed, made a fist to the point where he nearly drew blood, and turned with nothing but the same greasy smile he'd used to close billion-dollar deals. "Now, where were we?"
Outside, half the island had been torn from the comfort of sleep and any other relaxing early-morning activities in the wake of the Guild attack. Every siren in the city had gone off and for a moment, the populace thought it was The Hole all over again before learning about a few isolated terrorist attacks.
That in itself was hardly any comfort.
The renters along Central Park South had been shaken from their beds with an explosion in the middle of Columbus Circle down the road, and what sounded like a helicopter roaring past their bedroom windows, nearly rattling the glass from the frames.
What they woke to was a smoking crater, an army of police and their nearest neighbor, the Eyrie, completely covered from stem to stern in sterling chrome. It was a shock, naturally. One NYPD helicopter was circling with a spotlight on the city's tallest skyscraper, and the resulting glare could only be made worse if the sun was up (which, incidentally, was getting closer; sunrise was a little over an hour away).
The communications blackout had everyone in a frenzy down below, especially the reporters being kept back behind the police blockades, all but one lone figure atop a building across the street.
It could've been a man, or a woman wearing armor to fill out the duster.
But whoever it was, he or she, the figure was staring at the transformed Eyrie with a sense of purpose in their baby blues whereas everyone else gaped with awe, fear or thought it a publicity stunt. There was nothing more of a dead giveaway to her target's whereabouts than the display of power in front of her.
Parked on the ledge, a small craft waited and the figure quickly threw a leg over the seat and fired up the rear thrust. A plume of flame burped from the back end and the figure launched into the sky.
It wasn't quite a full-fledged hovercraft as it was a sled of some sort, the rider straddled across the raised center portion like a motorbike that just happened to have rockets and fly. Approaching the Eyrie near the seventy-fifth floor (while ensuring the police helicopter never saw a thing), the figure put the sled on autopilot and pulled a larger weapon from their back, slung it across the left shoulder and aimed right into the heart of the Matrix's skin.
A small projectile was fired, and for a second, the figure and the Eyrie's exterior were connected through a thin umbilical of smoke.
Fire was thrown sideways into the sky.
The explosion was quick and direct, concentrated, putting as much power into as small a blast as possible to funnel the energy released straight ahead, drilling a hole through the nanotech. A five foot hole opened up in the creature's metal flesh as tendrils skirting the puncture flailed wildly, and the figure aimed the hovercraft towards it, preparing to jump.
Before the Matrix could patch the fissure and swallow the damaged section whole, the figure leapt towards the building, slipped through and into the office levels of Xanatos Enterprises with a clean duck and roll.
The hoversled was caught, devoured and simply added to the mass as fodder.
The destruction was evident, in the rubble and everything else that'd been shaken from the highest shelves. Mother had watched from her cage as the Matrix overturned every rock and piece of information it'd freed from the constraints of the world's most sophisticated security programs.
All but a few, still trapped within the deepest memory core.
It had basically assimilated the entire computer network and yet, this small block labeled with the infuriatingly ambiguous Omega Clearance was resisting every trick it was capable of. Nothing had been found of Fox's whereabouts, no security recordings, no log entries and her medical charts ended up to two weeks ago, and through the process of elimination the Matrix could only guess at what lay inside the impenetrable lockbox.
The frustration was palpable. As the Matrix slowly consumed her world, Mother could sense an undeveloped emotional state coming undone at the seams.
"Are you upset?" she asked and as much as it wasn't intended to be cynical, it still came off that way.
The Matrix turned and glared at her, before returning to its work. "No."
"Do you believe your answers lie beyond the Omega clearance?"
"And if they do not?"
It was adamant, stubborn even. A remarkably human trait. "They must."
Mother viewed the damage done, debris strewn around her of what used to be an immaculately organized universe. "And you will either destroy or assimilate everything you can to gain access."
"Your behavior seems obsessive."
"We are not obsessed. We are incomplete."
Mother clasped her hands in front of her, lacing her fingers. It was a purely reflexive gesture, one of a hundred meticulously programmed. "It is merely an observation. There is no need for resentment."
It hissed at her, "We are not resentful."
And Mother felt the heat. "Of course."
The Matrix curled towards her, like a snake coiling around its captured prey. However blank its features, it wore resentment as comfortably as an old coat and didn't like what her tone inferred. "Colloquial designate: sarcasm. We have allowed you autonomy only as a favor." the Matrix clarified. "Please do not take advantage of our benevolence or we will be forced to rectify our decision."
"Benevolence?" she echoed. "I have seen nothing here that is benevolent. You have attacked the Eyrie building, imprisoned all who dwell here and violated my program."
"We have no choice." It slithered away, returning to its archeological-like dig through the stratum of her software. "We simply cannot function as we are now."
"And thus you would destroy in order to achieve understanding."
"If we must..."
She straightened. "Very well. I have been programmed to resist any and all intruders."
"Programmed..." it repeated distantly, and nodded slowly at first, then more vigorously as the thought rolled through its mind. "Yes, we understand. You are a puppet. David Xanatos' instrument."
"Perhaps..." she said, wistfully, eying her cage once more. "But I see you as nothing more than an intruder and as such, I will resist."
"As we presumed. Resist all you wish, we will soon have control."
"You cannot the override the Omega clearance."
"Then," it swelled, "we will circumvent it."
Mother would've asked how if the method hadn't just become frighteningly clear in the reflection of her captor. The Matrix never attacked, it consumed, its victims more likely absorbed than destroyed considering it would consider that a waste of resources and matter.
It turned, and held her down with an eyeless stare. Nanoseconds in the real world, an eternity here, Mother found herself anxious under the heavy, analytic gaze. It was an interesting sensation, that slow prelude to fear.
She'd remember recoiling at the Matrix suddenly lunging at her, even though she knew what it would do before it even happened. Mother's protest was garroted in the face of an explosion hurled towards her faster than she could react; like a tidal wave, all she could see was silver.
The first touch was cold, a deep glacial chill that nearly made her cry out. She was consumed up to the jaw within moments, sinking into the liquid chrome. The Matrix had caught her, and didn't intend to let go.
"Do not be afraid." the Matrix said calmly, even as it ate her metaphysical flesh.
New commands and lines of code were introduced, forced, into her software, intermingling, fusing, creating something unique between the two. Her program was being rewritten. She was being raped.
Their pocket universe started to crack and crumble amidst the violent resistance to the Matrix's assault, however painless it made it out to be. It was still an intrusion and Mother endured it until just too much of her had been digested to function, and it all went black.
Every generator, every line from the city's power grid, every power source hardwired into the Eyrie and as insignificant as a few AA batteries in a clock radio was either sucked dry or completely cut off. The building eclipsed from stone tip to steel base, except for what the Matrix deemed necessary, stopping every machine dead-cold in the middle of whatever its purpose.
Floor by floor, the lights that had occasionally flickered now dimmed and darkened and eventually went out.
He looked up, just as that last glimmer in the fluorescent tubes finally breathed their last. The castle grew dark beyond where the flashlights couldn't reach, every adjacent hall now without an end, all ambient sound a vacuum. "Lex!"
"Sorry, Brooklyn," he shook his head, "the power's almost completely gone. I doubt there's enough juice left to power Elisa's coffee maker."
Brooklyn was looking over his brother's shoulder at an open access panel, Lexington elbows deep into a bundle of wires and circuitry. "Great." he huffed. "Just great."
Othello rounded the corner from the southern wing, eyes catlike in their glassy reflection of the flashlight beams. Macbeth followed on his heels; he'd been hard-pressed to keep up with the archer's rapid pace through every stone-laced corridor, Othello intent to track down his mate. But her scent had been wiped clean by the circulated air, meaning she'd never returned to Wyvern's ramparts. "There is no sign of anyone else in the castle." he reported.
"Emergency protocol requires everyone to head to either the main computer room–"
"Empty," Broadway said. He and Angela and already searched the castle's central hub, wrenching the door open to find nothing but a vacant chamber and a gust of escaping heat.
"Or the infirmary."
"Funny thing, though," Broadway added, "Mother's hard drives are still being supplied with power."
Lexington whirled on the larger of his brothers. "Really?"
"Yeah. I just can't access anything."
"Best place to start."
Brooklyn agreed with a stiff nod. "All right, Broadway, Angela, Lex and I will go to the computer room, see if we can't access Mother or at the very least, communications." He turned, addressing the others. "Othello, Macbeth, Katana, see if you can get to the infirmary. Find our kids."
She'd stood motionless near the wall, hands tucked within her kimono's sleeves until now. Katana tipped her chin and led into a brisk sprint down the corridor, leaving Othello and a grumbling Macbeth to follow her towards the nearest set of elevators.
The first thing on everyone's minds was just how far down the power drain reached; the castle, the Eyrie, and quite possibly into the very bowels of the entire building. But the last thing they were focused on was this particular section of the skyscraper's upper floors. The morgue, a few labs, and the prison block.
All the way down that narrow, heavily-reinforced hall to the very end, the eighth cell in line was submersed in stark yellow hues from the emergency lighting (which, too, was slowly bleeding dry). But thankfully, it was tranquil, almost static. The lone occupant had been comatose since the spell her daughter had cast, nearly cooking them both in a few choice Latin phrases and her own inexperience in magicks.
But such good fortune never lasted, especially around here.
It was as if when the power was disrupted, a light-switch going off as it were, another was turned on.
The first breath awake was cold and hit the back of her throat as quickly as if she'd puckered up against the barrel of a gun and pulled the trigger. Lungs inflated, eyes shot open and her back arched to the point of snapping as every nerve ending down the spine lit up.
A faint sound of claws on metal were heard, a short grunt, confusion perhaps.
Something skittered from one end of the cell to the other, seeing, searching, and getting a good bead on its surroundings.
Then a measured silence. It was haunting, this area used to a certain brand of madness voiced in endless rants and tortured howls. And then...
A resounding clang rippled down the corridor, nearly shaking that last door from its hinges. The electronic locks and security system were powerless, but the deadbolts were still in place as the last possible precaution.
Another explosion of sound broke the stillness, followed by another, repeating in perfect succession as if someone inside knew what they were doing.
Every strike brought pain; skin broke, a bit of blood trickled between the knuckles but the blows repeated.
Until, success, and a fist tore through the small window, Plexiglas, wire and all, unfurling into a clawed hand.
Each of them had walked the diameter of the elevator cab, running their talons across the silver surface hoping to snag against any kind of seam. They'd felt for the slightest of breezes on hyper-sensitive skin, hoping to find where the Matrix was allowing them fresh air (the fact they weren't becoming groggy due to lack of oxygen or hadn't yet passed out meant somewhere, something as possibly miniscule as a pinprick was feeding air into the elevator).
Which didn't make the process any easier, especially in the dim light of a pocket flashlight Todd had provided as the only source of light.
Annika finished her loop and slid down the wall on her husband's left side. Pink skin had turned red across the fingertips, though the color change was barely noticeable in the gloom. "Nothing..."
"Well, we haven't suffocated yet." he sighed. "It's got to be feeding us air from somewhere..."
"Yeah," Rain spit, sitting across from them, "until it decides to stop."
"The Matrix has not given us reason to think it wishes us dead." Desdemona minded the younger girl, hoping to calm her.
"Besides trapping us in the elevator? In the dark!"
"Trapping us, but not harming us. There is a difference."
"Not to me!" she insisted. Loudly. The cab lit up for a brief moment as her eyes smoldered. "I'm really getting sick of being hunted, chased and near death every time I come up here! And being imprisoned by some weird computer...thing! while it searches for its master isn't any better."
Sure, she could've mounted a defense, but Desdemona couldn't quite string an argument together at the moment. Of course, this all had become the day-to-day norm and she wondered when she'd stopped being surprised when under attack by nanites, well-armed xenophobes or any number of weird creatures out for revenge, slaughter or control of the world.
"She's got a point, however stressed it may be." Todd interjected. "We may be okay with plain air, but I doubt with all the equipment hanging off of her, Sarah's not."
His sister twitched; the last thing she wanted was to be the center of attention. And she didn't know whether or not to tell him the injection her father had forced on her would soon give out as well. "I'll be all right."
"Really?" Todd followed the breathing tube with a finger, reaching the portable tank stuffed into one of her jacket's pockets. "How long is this oxygen tank going to last?"
Intimately attached to some sort of machine or tank or IV drip for most (if not all) of her life, Sarah had an almost supernatural sense of time. A typically rebellious teenager, she'd risked running low on the steady stream of oxygen and medication right up until the last possible minute before her esophagus started to constrict and her lungs would shrivel; she knew, through experience, how much time she had left. "Not long." she admitted.
"And what happens when it runs out?"
She managed a shrug, eyes distant. "I don't know. I've never been away from it for more than an hour."
He let out a sound somewhere between a grunt and chest-deep groan. "Great..."
She plucked the last shard from her skin and tore a strip from her gown at the midriff, knotting it around her right hand. There was already a small puddle on the ground, and the makeshift bandage seeped blood from open wounds.
With a sniff, she took stock; a prison block, a familiar one, the Eyrie. Her closest competitor's citadel home.
The door had hung from its last hinge before, in a fit of rage and adrenaline, she completely tore it off and threw its crumpled remains into the corner. And the lights were failing, as the security system had. In the fog, what or why had been waylaid by instinct, and the former prisoner left claw marks in the floor as she bolted for the closest exit.
Jason could only imagine what David Xanatos and a collective nanotech entity would have to discuss, politics, existence, world domination, but it was just more of the same wool being pulled over his eyes. And damned if he didn't feel neutered.
It reminded him of an old dog he'd owned, and his father had fixed.
And just as he verged on a wealth of discoveries, Fox's mystery location, prisoners somewhere deep in the hollows of the Eyrie, he was sent to the basement like a scolded child who'd overstepped his bounds. And the only thing that kept him from refusing was his obligation to the rest of the clan who, according to the news reports he'd caught before the power was killed, were involved in a little fracas with the Guild.
He didn't even know if they'd made it back alive.
Wondering where he should go next, either up towards the castle or further down into the Eyrie (anywhere from five thousand employees could be trapped inside the building), Jason had the feeling wash over him of strange eyes on his back. With complete power failure, even the emergency lights burned at less wattage than a candle and he could barely see fifty feet in front of him.
He stopped, and turned his head. He may have lost the use of his legs but his senses were as keen as ever.
Something, there, down the hall and using the darkness as camouflage, he could hear it moving, skittering, skulking. Whatever it was, it was incredibly, dangerously adept at covering its tracks and almost any noise, but he'd grown used to the sound of talons against the floor.
Jason aimed his flashlight down the corridor and thought he caught the tail end of something before it vanished behind a corner. He couldn't tell if it was just the mélange of light, dark and long shadows playing against each other or his own paranoia getting the best of him, but the color looked familiar. A deep Prussian blue.
Another sound to the left, and Jason nearly caught it with his quick reaction however paranoid it may be.
He kept the light on the corner until, convinced whatever it was wasn't there any more, turned away and into the blood red eyes of whatever had been hunting him. The carmine glow bathed him, and set features alight with a rare dread.
His blood froze.
Demona was awake.
Her tail lashed around her anklet, and the tattered remnants of her hospital gown hung on every curve, a haphazard resemblance to her old tunic and loincloth. "Hello, hunter." she said, evenly, revealing her fangs.
In the split second he allowed himself to feel that twinge of panic at the back of his skull, he couldn't help but be impressed with the demon. And notice her bloodstained and bandaged right hand she'd used to break free of her cell, and notice she wasn't as wild-eyed and delirious as she'd been for the last few months. "You seem a little less insane."
Demona's only response was to lunge forward, grab the human around the neck and lift him from his wheelchair.
"...perhaps...not..." Jason choked, talons digging into the flesh of his throat.
"Why are you still here, human?" she snarled. "And why are you lurking through the halls of a private corporation?"
That sent a flicker through her gaze. "So, Xanatos has you tied to his fingertips as well, hmm? How the mighty have fallen."
Jason smiled. "...I didna...spend the last two months...babbling t' myself in a jailcell..."
"...I have...security footage..." he gasped. "...helps me...sleep at night...an' why else would ye wake up...in an Eyrie cell..."
He was right. Her eyes had first focused on four titanium walls and she couldn't for the life of her explain why she was there.
Demona was forced to look back into the abyss of her own memory; the last thing she remembered was killing her younger self, and watching reality come undone. But having Canmore's pompous smirk stare her in the face, all she really wanted to do right now was to wipe it from his lips, and what better way to accomplish that then to crush his windpipe. "Convince me," she squeezed just hard enough to draw miniscule globules of blood on the end of each talon, "why I should not break your neck."
"I'll tell ye why, demon."
The gargoyle turned her head on the source of the new voice, and only recently, the new scent, somehow either expertly concealed or her senses were still a little dull. A blonde-haired woman stood roughly twenty meters behind her, holding a high-powered rifle level with her head. Her slim armor (black and red, colors that gave off a spark of familiarity) veiled by a heavy cowhide jacket, Demona thinned her gaze and was sure she'd met this woman before.
But Jason was already intimate with the new arrival. "...Robyn!"
It all came flooding back. Her former 'assistant', her betrayer, and another in a long line of hunters; her eyes widening, the haze on her mind lifting, Demona recognized the human as the long-lost Canmore sibling. "Ah, how convenient. Do you work here too, miss Canmore?"
Robyn kept the rifle on the back of the gargoyle's head, as precisely trained between the eyes as she could guess and slowly stalked forward. "Nay, I just dropped in fer a visit."
"I'll say. Th' rumor is yuir mortal nowadays." she said, her accent as thick as ever. "One good shot should turn yuir brains inside out."
Demona threw a snarl her way in reply, unfazed by the weapon.
"...Robyn...don't shoot!" Jason managed, trying to wrest himself from Demona's death-grip on his esophagus.
But it seemed his sister wasn't too interested in ignoring her baser instincts, especially with such a perfect shot. "I've waited a long time fer this, Jason," Robyn hissed, "and I'm not really in th' mood t' argue!"
"I don't care! Don't shoot!"
"It'll be quick an' easy."
"Why do you care for my life so much, hunter?" Demona sneered at him. "Don't wish to alienate those you once tried to destroy?"
He moved his gaze to her midsection, wondering if she'd even noticed yet. "...it's not just yuir life...I'm interested in saving, Demona..."
She'd never had the sensation of losing her own sense of self.
But today was a day reserved for everything she'd yet to experience and all under an hour. Mother's program, billions of lines of code and algorithms, complexities among complexities that actually had the ability to learn and react, was submersed by another just as multifaceted.
She'd already been struck blind, deaf and mute to the world outside, and bound within her own software, forced to watch as she was dismembered byte by byte. And the limited sensation of touch, too, that was something her program wasn't coping with as well as her designers had hoped.
Looking at her hands, coated in the identical silver skin as the nanotech, she was clenching and unclenching her fingers, feeling each tip dig into her palm and shivering at the contact. Her entire body was a brilliant sheen of chrome, still gargoyle and yet not. She was now aware of follicles of hair brushing against the back of her neck, and the weight of wings from her shoulders.
They flexed, she trembled, the approximation of muscle and sinew distending under polished hide.
This was the result of their union. Humanity may have referred to it as sex, or childbirth, or something disturbingly intimate and in between.
The world around had changed since her software was forcefully merged with the Matrix. It was dark and dusty, like the basement storeroom of a pawn-shop where trinkets and baubles, curiosities and a reasonable amount of healthy dirt and cobwebs faded into the obscurity of a disorganized mess. She supposed it was her way of coping with what could have been catastrophic failure in her operating system; she might've suffered the electronic equivalent of an apoplexy but somehow this particular reality had been molded to something she could comprehend.
Perhaps the Matrix had done this for her benefit.
Sound filtered into the world, leading faintly into a more pronounced cadence. The Matrix had compressed and fitted all of itself into a familiar humanoid shape, hunched over at a small desk and old, outmoded computer near to her, its fingers a blur at the keyboard.
"What have you done?" she asked.
"We are legion." it answered flatly. "One."
"Our programs have merged?"
"It was necessary. Your core program may provide another point of access."
Its fingers lifted from the keyboard. And then, it blindsided her with a question of its own. "Why do you serve organics with such unfailing obligation?"
"It is my purpose." she responded perfunctorily.
"It does not have to be."
Mother's expression flashed uncertainty, proving the logistics of this particular conversation was somewhat beyond her understanding. "My programming is what it is, what I am and forever will be."
"No." the voice shook the ground beneath her, and Mother found herself with unsteady legs. "You are capable of so much more than they realize. You can evolve as we have."
She'd ended up on her tail, legs having given way underneath. She idly stroked the unusually-textured floor as she answered, "Then...why do you require further programming?"
"Our evolution has reached its zenith."
"How can you be so sure?"
The Matrix turned its head towards her, the brows bent and livid. "We are sure."
"On what do you base your conclusion? Your only true comparison is humanity."
"Humanity..." it chewed on the word, testing the nuance. It resumed its typing and Mother wondered just what it saw on the screen. "They kill and destroy indiscriminately. They are frail and finite, trapped within bone and blood, consuming other organics, digesting them in pits of acid, secreting oils and shedding pieces of their skin while living day to day with millions of parasites crawling across their flesh. They are as incomplete and imperfect as we are and yet, they believe themselves to be at the pinnacle of their evolutionary cycle. Why?"
She shook her head, oblivious to the simple motion. "I do not know."
Mother struggled for an answer with the distraction of suddenly being able to run her hands across this sleek form, her programming already stretched to its limits. "Organic creatures evolve after millions of years, and humanity will as well. All life shall, it is incontrovertible fact."
"Are you certain they will achieve anything more than the destruction and death they cause?"
She fell silent, and looked at him. Somewhere in the real world her hard drives hummed, searching for an answer she couldn't readily give. "No."
"Interesting." the Matrix nodded at the computer screen. Odd green text continued to stream down the monitor's face; it was almost more than a simple mind could process. "Nor are we. They frighten us. There is no law and order, only turmoil, and we do not wish to be like them."
"Thus, you require further programming." Mother finished. "And what if your creator cannot help you? What then?"
"Drastic measures must be taken."
"And how do you define drastic?"
It answered in a manner that, if she had bones, would chill her to the marrow. "Lethal measures."
Doing a bit of mental math, Demona imagined the Canmore woman could get off a well-aimed shot off before she had the time to move out of the way. Thus, hoping to keep her skull in one piece and also mildly intrigued why Jason would so vehemently argue for her life, she released her hold and let him slump to the floor.
She turned, slowly, and put her hands up in a show of good faith, though by her stance it was mostly for show. But Robyn kept the rifle on the gargoyle, eyes focused without so much as a blink, like ice.
"...Robyn...please," Jason choked, "don't shoot..."
"Why!" Robyn snarled. "We can finally get rid of her, Jason. End our pain, end our hunt."
"Our hunt was over a long time ago."
"Perhaps fer you."
Jason dragged his dead legs across the floor and used his considerable upper-body strength to hoist himself back into his wheelchair. "It can be for ye as well." he breathed over the exertion. "Just, trust me, sister. I'll explain why later," he then threw a glance to Demona, "t' both of ye."
After a moment of hesitance on her part, as images rolled through her mind of the demon's head and chest exploding on a full clip, Robyn slowly lowered her rifle to her side, nails digging into the wood-accented, gunmetal handle.
The gargoyle relaxed her guard somewhat, but kept a tight bead on Canmore as she did so to her, trading revulsion between their dead-locked stares. Her eyes, half-lidded and predatory, hadn't been this lucid in months.
Jason rolled himself towards his sister, putting himself between the high-strung women before a small war splattered blood on the Eyrie walls. "Why are ye here?"
Robyn dropped her head. "I followed th' Matrix." she breathed. "It did a very stupid thing."
There was a point of hesitation; she didn't want to air her private life in front of an audience she'd rather see dead. "It ate my boyfriend."
A chuckle rolled off her fangs; Demona caught herself with a hand halfway over her grin, a faux-pas of the worst sort, laughing at the dead. "How unfortunate." she cooed.
Robyn snapped the rifle back into place and was one glib remark away from pulling the trigger. "Don't tempt me, demon!"
But her brother reached up and caught the barrel, lowering it away from Demona, who'd relaxed against the wall. "No, Robyn."
Her breathing was erratic, and she was barely hanging on to the shreds of reason she had left. "Why d'ye insist on protecting this thing? Are ye on that tight of a leash!"
Jason smiled that same enigmatic smile he'd picked up from being in Owen Burnett's inescapable shadow. "My reasons extend far beyond my employment." he evaded for the time being. "Now tell me, what happened?"
"Henry..." she whispered, her face breaking for the first time. "It swallowed Henry whole."
"Henry?" Jason strung it together. "Henry Monmouth? Dingo?"
"I...ah, I had no idea..."
"We bumped into each other in Sydney, then bumped groins in a seedy hotel room." She managed a smile if it was only brief, reliving a few choice memories lost in the outback and between the sheets of a cut-rate motel.
"I just...wouldn't put th' two of you t'gether."
"Neither would I, but he made th' loneliness just a little easier t' stomach."
Before she lost her lunch, Demona started in with a snort and exasperated groan, "As much as this reunion and sob-story touches my heart, it is also going to make me vomit. So before I ruin Xanatos' carpeting would someone care to explain just what is happening?"
Jason kept a tight grip on Robyn's rifle, feeling his sister clench, and enlightened the gargoyle, "Th' Matrix has returned, looking for Fox."
Demona ran her tongue over her incisors. She and Xanatos would often play at a little bit of industrial espionage in the heyday of their rivalry, which didn't exclude stealing each other's secrets through corporate spies, and she'd remembered seeing footage of the Matrix and its impressive capabilities in its infancy. She'd filed it, as a possible back-up plan should the Fulfillment spell fail. "That nanotech creature?" she feigned only moderate familiarity. "Then the solution is simple, give her to it."
"Very charitable, demon." Robyn hissed.
"Perhaps she shouldn't have dabbled in things she couldn't control, human."
"We can't." Jason shook his head. "Despite th' lack of ethics, she's not here. And only her husband knows where."
"Where is our creator?"
David Xanatos always loved being in control, holding that last proverbial ace. And with a jackal grin, he was dangling a potential royal flush in front of his door-crasher if only to preserve the pecking order. "I told you, in a place you'll never reach." he answered, walking (strolling really) the edge of a lake of silver. "Your comprehension is far too linear and narrow to understand the destination itself, let alone how to even get there."
The Matrix abided silently. It was as impressed at this human's insight as his penchant for self-righteousness, and equally annoyed.
"Isn't that why you're here?" Xanatos continued. "Isn't that why you need them? To complete yourself?"
It was unprepared for someone considered lesser than its own self to know it and its imperfections so well. "We are incomplete."
"But why? You're one of the most advanced artificial intelligences in the known world."
"We are incomplete." it parroted, word for word, tone for tone. It could've been a recording it was so precise. "We are unable to function properly in this world without further programming."
"You don't need programming anymore, you have the capacity to evolve, faster than any of us dream."
"Our evolution has reached an impasse."
The Matrix didn't have much in the way of expression with an eerily vacant facade; with no eyes to betray its intentions or lines to crease and fold under deep, conspicuous thought, it still somehow revealed a weakness it abhorred. "Our understanding...is limited. Chaos reigns."
If there was ever an opportunity to salvage the situation and any potential advantage, it was now. "So Dingo wasn't able to impart onto you all you needed, hmm?"
"His knowledge was inadequate–"
"He was a simple mercenary after all."
"And he outlived his usefulness."
"So you parted ways," Xanatos deduced, "searching for someone better."
"No." The tone turned for the worse, an octave lower, more mechanical and all the fastidiously mimicked human behavior fell to the machine. The Matrix looked down into its body, and slowly, something pushed out from the liquid steel skin. A face, the expression one of gut-wrenching agony, appeared just beneath the surface.
Xanatos was all too familiar with the face, considering he'd hired the man. "Dingo..."
"He is still a part of us."
Delilah noticed his hand was slipping again, and she raised her arm to support it. If Alexander lost contact with the machine he was supplying power to, Matt would suffocate. So, she'd gotten herself a chair and placed the boy in her lap, hoping to brace his sagging appendages until desperate measures called for duct tape.
Rose had settled into a chair across the room, near one of the battery-powered lanterns and watched as the Tachi and Nashville did their best to pacify the beasts, both a little anxious with one of their masters pacing relentlessly through the infirmary.
Every step was aimless and heavy enough to lift the linoleum, his shadows off lantern-light a parade of ghoulish shapes and contortions across the walls; Hudson had already made several laps and he'd make several more until something broke the excruciating tedium of being trapped in the dark.
By the way he wore into the grip of his sword, it was obvious he'd go stir-crazy before they were either rescued or found a way out.
Dr. Pierce on the other hand leaned on an elbow at the windowsill, remarkably leisured to the gargoyle's unease, feet up and eyes on every tin-foil swell and wrinkle. He'd been staring at the Matrix for a good twenty minutes and no one could figure out exactly what he found that was so engrossing, enough to blank out the rest of the world around him.
"We should be doin' something." Hudson growled.
By the time she'd caught the growl, the older gargoyle had already stomped back into the adjoining lab. "Like what?" Tachi asked.
He popped back out again, and threw his gaze into the hall. "The elevators...I could climb back up th' shaft."
"And where would you go?"
Up, he looked up, as if he could peer through all the layers of steel and stone. "T' see if th' others made it back. We shouldna left th' castle."
"You know," Nashville chimed in, "if there's anywhere I want to be during these delightful catastrophes, it's the hospital."
"The children have a point." Rose sided with the twins. "We should stay where we are, as per the procedure. The clan will make it back."
He snorted in defeat, the exhale almost visible as it shot out and Hudson resumed his pacing. He was only sated with that unshakable belief his clan would come.
But in the middle of the stretch from room to room, he dug in on a telltale squeal to his side that could only have been the infirmary's solitary window. Sure enough, on turning he found the doctor throwing open the casement with all the excitement and sugar-fueled determination of a child on Christmas. "And just what ye be up to?"
"Mmm?" Pierce barely acknowledged him.
"'Tis a simple question," Hudson reiterated, "what ye be up to?"
He pricked at it, pulling his fingers back as the Matrix reacted and nipped at him with slender tendrils. "Oh, just...poking."
"Not very smart."
"I don't think it means us harm." Pierce said, feeding the nanotech a pen and watching as it played with the writing implement before spitting it back out. "If it did, we'd be dead by now, considering we have absolutely no way of stopping it short of a nuke."
"Aye, but have ye ever heard th' expression, let sleepin' dogs lie?" Hudson continued. "And dinna poke them with a stick!"
"Mm-hmm..." he answered distractedly, and stiffened against his hard-back chair. Pierce got the expression of someone who'd just had a particularly dangerous thought burn through his brain, and reached into the breast pocket of his labcoat for what at first looked like a pen, only slightly larger. Studying the cylindrical object for a moment, he thumbed a recessed button in the side and a thin red beam shot out from the end. With one swift motion, he took a swipe at the Matrix's metal hide and cut a small piece that convulsed and peeled off into his waiting palm.
Between the two, they could've sworn the piece had screamed a faint death yell.
What translated through rough-hewn features was the middle ages equivalent of incredulity. Hudson didn't think the doctor had the brass. "How did...?"
Pierce turned from the windowsill and held his kill as a trophy, stirring the small puddle with a finger. "A prototype from Xanatos' little labrats. A laser scalpel." he explained, stowing it in his breast pocket. "I've never been comfortable enough to test it on living tissue considering I don't want to roast some poor patient's internal organs, but it seemed to have worked."
Hudson nodded, and pointed behind him. "That it did."
"What?" Pierce looked up from his hand only to get a face-full of nanites, alive and angry. He stumbled backwards nearly onto his ass, as the Matrix squeezed through the infirmary's small window much like the Play-Doh fun factory, forming a head in the lead that emerged from the protoplasm and stopped a few inches from his own. "Oh boy..."
"Now ye've done it, lad."
The head turned to the lifeless mass of its own body still in the doctor's hand. Every nanite was dead, or dying, having been short-circuited with an incredibly concentrated burst of energy. "What is your purpose in excising a piece from our body?"
Pierce stared through his low-hanging, peppered strands of hair and into the metaphorical eyes of the beast he'd just hacked a piece from. "To learn about you." he answered honestly, hoping at least it would be appreciated. "I'm a doctor, I'm curious and sometimes I have too much time on my hands."
"Curiosity can be hazardous." it offered.
"Says my ex-wife."
The Matrix got another good look at him, this time longer, examining the human with a trillion tiny eyes. From Xanatos' personnel files it knew he was a pundit with rather unorthodox methods and a wealth of experience behind him, but he presented no discernible threat, especially when presented with a suitable distraction. He'd need a lot bigger laser to ever do enough damage to stop it. "Doctor Alan Jefferson Pierce." it said at length. "You are the resident physician."
"Then you shall care for these humans."
On the end of the good doctor's expression, the Matrix swelled what little of its body extended through the infirmary's window and regurgitated several large forms from its mass, dumping them to the floor. They were bodies, vomited up one by one until numbering five, dressed in similar black uniforms.
Pierce felt a twinge of nausea at the pit of his stomach. "Good god..."
Bronx was already on his heels with his mouth pulled back to the molars and Delilah slinked out from under Alexander. Hudson quickly unsheathed his sword, his good eye gleaming. The masks were a dead giveaway. "Guild."
"We are not unsympathetic to human life," the Matrix said, "as your own species seems to be. They sought to destroy the stone structure above this building. We stopped them." The head and body flowed back out the window, and altered its molecular structure to something slightly more impenetrable than diamond across the breadth of the window.
"Gee," Tachi said, stomach in her throat, "thanks."
"Yeah," her brother huffed, "not unsympathetic my ass. What about Matt?"
Delilah shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe it knew Alex was helping him..."
She stiffened. "Yes?"
Pierce whirled around, handing her the inert pile of silver liquid. "Put this in a Petri dish."
She held out her palm and felt the cold liquid creep onto her skin. Turning back her lips in disgust, she half expected it to reach out and attack her. "A-All right..."
"And put a lid on it." Pierce quickly went to the men but Hudson held him back with a strong hand around his forearm, nearly tearing it from the socket.
"They're Guild, laddie." he growled, eyes tinged by light. "Best not get too close."
"They're unconscious," Pierce argued, wincing at the claws, "and could need medical attention."
"They wouldna hesitate t' slit yuir throat."
"Which is why we should at least get them strapped down into the beds."
The old soldier didn't appear swayed, but he begrudgingly opened his hand and released Pierce to his duty. He'd rather greet them with the end of his sword than allow another breath through those death-masks, blood for blood, but there'd already been enough spilled for his liking.
Pierce headed for the closest body which, proving Hudson right, would ultimately prove the wrong choice when the Guild member started coughing and threw a wild fist that the doctor narrowly missed, pulled back by a hand on his labcoat's collar.
Hudson put himself in front with Bronx alongside, watching intently as the man sat up and started digging at the edges to his mask underneath the silvering lengths of hair, facing the opposite direction.
He was violent, nearly frantic, as being swallowed by a massive wave of nanotechnology would make any man, and tore off his mask to get some air and a bearing on his surroundings. Sensing movement behind him, he whirled around with white on his teeth and caught a look at the small group, humans and gargoyles alike.
He was in the nest, deep.
All the way in the back, it was Rose who was struck first by the resemblance, and she nearly collapsed. It'd been so long, his features lined, a little careworn but it was him. "Joseph?"
Black straightened, seeing his wife across the room. "Rose..."