A/N- This has nothing to do with Brilliance and Bitterness or Riding the Nightmare (just one of those accursed plot bunnies), but has been sitting around on my computer for a long time and I figured I might as well put it up, so here it is!
His footsteps echoed down the hall. Cold. Sterile. Lifeless. He made a face. Humans were never meant to leave Earth... it wasn't just on Ganymede that WAR's facilities felt dead. Luna, Mars, Io, Europa, all of them. Artificial. Which begged the question...
What the hell is he doing here?
It was three months since Milano Steele had become president of WAR, and the position still felt odd. Not because he was uncomfortable with the responsibilities, of course. He had literally been born for this. That was part of his unease—he'd yet to reveal his proper name, despite his position.
Part of it.
But the most glaring issue was the obvious. WAR was Milano's birthright, but he had not earned the position of president. Someone else had.
More or less.
The tournament had never been over the next leader—ruler—of WAR. Only the administrator of Ganymede. Who could have foreseen the results? Everyone had known Kreissack was power-hungry and a little mad, but putting his brain inside a robot? And to think, if not for that very arrogance, humanity would still be trembling before the might of that terrible machine. The Nova.
Why didn't we take it seriously?
But Kreissack had been that arrogant. The tournament had been a fraud. It was no doubt what he had planned from the beginning—wait until one was victorious, and then use that one, WAR's finest fighter, as his own personal punching bag. Such a display of power would confirm the Nova's superiority, and who would dare stand against him?
Analysts had been scrambling to make sense of it before the last enemy's HAR had been removed from the arena. Jean-Paul was not supposed to win. He wasn't supposed to even stand a chance—what good was intelligence against muscle? But he had won, and in doing so had made himself Kreissack's target.
The Major must have found it embarrassing.
The Nova, like all that had come before it, should never have been defeated. And like all before him, Kreissack had been too confident in his abilities and the inferiority of his opponent. Nova had flaws. It was too flashy, far too big a target, and far, far too clumsy. Even then it had seemed a nearly invulnerable foe, but Jean-Paul had exploited every weakness to perfection.
Milano paused outside the door. Hardly anyone had even seen Jean-Paul since that day, that fateful battle. He'd made clear that he had no desire to be president of WAR, and recommended that Milano might do well in the position... and he had all but vanished. Milano didn't understand it. He had known the younger man for seven years, and never once had he suffered being shut up in one room for any extended period of time.
He didn't want to open the door. He'd keyed in the access code, sent to him with directions and a strict order to keep things quiet. Well, a 'request,' but Milano knew what would happen if he told anyone.
He put me here, and he can destroy me.
He sighed deeply and pushed open the door. And gasped. Now he understood how Jean-Paul could be confined in here for so long—the room was so massive it was practically open space. It was also better equipped than any lab Milano had ever seen in his life, and he'd seen quite a few. But as the initial shock wore off, he noticed something that worried him very much.
There were no techs milling about, checking the monitors, attending the machines. No scientists poking about at their latest projects. No engineers designing the latest high-tech toys. And deathly quiet. His footsteps echoed far worse in the lab than the corridor, and it somehow seemed to hold even less life than the hallway that led here.
How does he stand it here?
A stupid question. Jean-Paul needed open space, he didn't need people. Milano stopped walking for a moment. In the stifling silence, he could almost hear it, shallow breathing from well ahead of him. He increased his pace. Though there had been nothing in the message to indicate it, Jean-Paul's contacting anyone meant the issue was urgent.
I hope everything's okay.
He was slumped over the terminal, shaking violently. Milano wasn't certain what to do at first. Call medics? No, he'd been very clear in his desire to keep this location secret. Yet if he was injured, what help would Milano be?
There was no reaction for a long moment. Finally, a raspy whisper. "Milano..." He raised his head, seemingly struggling to move, and managed to pull himself from the chair and turn to face his old comrade.
Milano recoiled. "Good god..."
Standing before him was an almost ghostlike apparition, gaunt and pale as a corpse. It was as though Jean-Paul had opted out of eating or sleeping for the entire three months he'd been here. Even his usually wild hair seemed subdued. Yet against his ashen skin, the young man's emerald eyes burned with the same terrible intensity Milano had always known.
He didn't even say hello. It seemed the least of his concerns. "When's the last time you slept?"
A slight frown. "A couple days ago." His voice was still terribly weak, hoarse from disuse.
"How about eating anything?"
"After I woke up."
Milano had half a mind to lunge forward and slap him, but wasn't certain the frail-looking creature could take it. "Whatever you needed me for, it can wait. You look like Death itself. Come on," he seized Jean-Paul by the wrist, "you need to get some sleep and—AAAGH!"
Jean-Paul had twisted his arm around, nearly taking Milano's off in the process. Apparently he wasn't quite as bad off as he looked. But that assessment was proven false a moment later when he literally collapsed into Milano's arms. "Can't go," he choked, struggling to free himself, but Milano held him tightly. "Can't sleep..."
It finally dawned on the older man that Jean-Paul's battered state may not reflect his physical capabilities, but mentally he was on the edge of snapping completely. What the hell's going on? He gently pushed Jean-Paul back into the chair. "Why did you call me here?"
His eyes glittered with frustration, the only part of him that still seemed truly alive. "I don't know."
More than anything else that had happened in the past few minutes, it was those words that filled Milano with amazement. And dread. "You... you don't know?" That couldn't be possible. Jean-Paul was a genius, the smartest man ever born. There was nothing he didn't know. And even if there was, he would never admit it.
Something was terribly wrong...
"Why are you here, Jean-Paul? Why have you disappeared? What is it that you're killing yourself to find?" he asked finally, realizing that his companion was not going to volunteer any words. Killing yourself was not metaphorical. Milano wondered how much longer he would last, if someone didn't talk some sense into him... "Can it really be worth this?"
"What is it?"
Jean-Paul drew a deep breath. "Nova."
Milano's reaction had been predictable. If he'd thought Jean-Paul was inhuman when he'd first entered, now he knew it. It almost managed to irritate him. But then again, it was exactly how he'd expected the older man to respond.
It did not, necessarily, make that horrified and accusing stare any easier to take. Why should it bother me? He shrugged the question aside. Even through the haze his thoughts were in, the lack of sleep getting to him, he could see the answer. It bothers me for the same reason I asked him to come.
It took quite awhile for Milano to find his voice. "Jean-Paul, you cannot seriously intend to resurrect that... thing."
"Aren't you the one who said it was evil and had to be stopped!"
Jean-Paul was tired. But sleep wouldn't help, even if he could afford it. "Milano. I don't want... the Nova. I fought it. I never want to see it again. But... the project..." He spun around and stared blankly at the console. Why had he ever thought this was a good idea? Time to up the caffeine dosages. "Go away, Milano."
That was surprising. Even as the president of WAR, Milano had done everything he could to avoid even slightly irritating his vice president. Well, I think I'm still VP anyway. There was some grim amusement in that. If he'd been replaced, would he even know... or care? "I said go away."
"And I said no, dammit!" More surprising. Jean-Paul turned to look at his old... friend? "You obviously brought me here for a reason."
"It was a mistake."
Jean-Paul stopped looking at him. "It was a mistake, and I want you to leave me alone."
Milano's voice shifted slightly, from determination to quiet persuasion. It was the tone he used when he knew he had to fight a battle in stages, and Jean-Paul knew it well. "Tell you what. Come with me, let's get something to eat and get you a good night's sleep, and then I'll leave you alone all you want."
Any rational response he might have made to this was cut off by the screaming in his head. NO! Can't sleep. Can't dream... "No..."
The question barely registered as images flashed before his eyes. "No... I won't be like that..." It was the nightmare, only this time he wasn't sleeping. The same nightmare that had kept him from getting anywhere on the project. The same nightmare that had to be why he'd called Milano here, and yet he couldn't... "Leave me alone! Let me finish! I swear I won't be like him!"
Nova loomed over the dying city, leaving nothing but fire and death in its wake. The people had refused to bow to him. No matter. They could cower instead.
"That's Kreissack, not me!"
He noted a few civilians huddled in a doorway of a collapsed building. Hoping he couldn't see them. But nothing could escape the perfection of the Nova. A careless stomp ended their worthless lives.
"That isn't... why... I..."
The few remaining survivors begged for mercy as he swept aside their feeble shelter. As if he would ever grant mercy to those insects who defied him.
The Nova laughed.
When he awoke he was still in the lab. Obviously he had not been out long... Milano would have taken him elsewhere. Or had Milano fled when he'd started screaming like a madman?
Where was he? Looking straight ahead he saw the ceiling. Had he fallen? That seemed obvious. How else would he have gotten sprawled on the floor like this?
He was painfully aware of the cold metal at his back. Cold... metal... machine... Nova... it took all of his control, formidable even in his semi-coherent state, not to scream again.
As he tensed, fighting back the screams, he suddenly realized he was not alone. Gentle hands rested on his shoulders. He wanted to throw off the soft touch, but... "Milano," he whispered. Why had he asked Milano to come? Had he known he would break this night?
Or did I need someone to break me?
It was a haunting thought, one he didn't want to dwell on. He raised his eyes and met Milano's deep brown gaze. "Milano... I..."
"Sshhh." Milano seemed to have come to the same conclusion, that he had been called here because Jean-Paul needed him. It did not matter how he'd known. He had known, and that was enough. "Jean-Paul, what is it you're trying to do?"
He closed his eyes. "I wanted to recreate the project. Not the HAR, but... to put a mind into a machine..." A shudder ran through him. "But every time I thought I'd made a breakthrough... the nightmares..."
"Is that what just happened? Nightmares?"
"Then why did you keep going? Why work on the project if you didn't want another Nova?"
Is he really that dense? Jean-Paul fought back the annoyed thought. "Because," he whispered. And then he stopped, tried to stand. Milano held him down. "Let go."
"Stay there. And tell me why."
Knowing full well he was in no shape to fight a Girl Scout, let alone a champion kickboxer, Jean-Paul stayed down. But to explain why he had so desperately sought the Nova's technology was a breech of his barriers so complete, so unforgivable...
Don't be ridiculous. He's already seen your lab and watched you break down screaming like a six year old... and he's the closest thing to a friend you've ever had.You called him here for a reason. Might as well go for broke.
"Because Kreissack was right," he whispered. The words seemed to drain what little strength he had left. "Because ever since I learned what the Nova really was... all I could think about was what I could do with a perfect body." He raised a hand and studied it carefully. Still bruised and scarred from past battles. "All I have... is a perfect mind wasted in this pathetic shell..." He was surprised to realize he was fighting back tears. "What good is that, Milano? I could know... how to help everyone... to save everyone... but I can't do it... I don't have the strength, and I don't have the time. Not like this."
Milano felt his heart breaking. He had—like the rest of them—been too stuck on the Nova as nothing but the tool of an evil tyrant. Leave it to Jean-Paul to see the potential for good, then try to deny that's what he was doing. Damn you... Milano wanted to hug him. That wouldn't be well received.
He did it anyway.
Oddly, Jean-Paul didn't even react, let alone try to fight him. In fact he remained completely silent. Suddenly Milano was worried. "Jean-Paul..."
The young man smiled painfully up at him. "I know. You have to take me... punish me."
"I'm... a monster, aren't I?" The smile was still there. "Maybe... better that way... so tired..."
Not good. "Who said you're a monster?"
"You didn't have to..."
Dammit. He was fading. Milano knew, instinctively, that if he lost Jean-Paul here and now he'd never come back. "Stay with me, Jean-Paul. Listen to me." Silence. "You are anything but a monster." Still nothing. He checked his companion's pulse and it was terribly weak. Did you bring me here just to see you die? No. I won't accept that. "Come on, Jean-Paul, come back with me."
"Never... argued... need... punished... so nobody else... tries... Nova..." He tried to sit up, but it was an ill-fated gesture. "But hurry..." A bitter laugh. "Killed the shell... trying to escape it... but too fast... still here..."
"Stop talking like that! You aren't going to die!"
Emerald eyes blazed through him. There was still life in those eyes. Always. "Shouldn't I?"
"NO!" Milano drew him closer. "Come with me and get some rest... get better. I need you, Jean-Paul." Yes. There it was. The ultimate source of Milano's unease with his new calling... I can't do it alone. "For both of us, you have to live."
"Nobody needs me... imperfect..."
Oh, for the love of... "Come on, Jean-Paul, don't be that way. Even if you'd succeeded you wouldn't be able to help everyone. There's too many people, too many problems. Nobody could do it alone."
More than anything else, that simple point seemed to get through. "I... but..." He was clearly searching for an argument. But there was no argument to make. "...Why?"
"Because humans are humans." Milano carefully maneuvered his charge into a sitting position against the nearest terminal. "We are injured, we grow sick, we grow old, and we die, despite anyone's best intentions. We have our hearts broken and our lives ruined. But at the same time... we love. We care for each other. We feel the sun on our faces and the wind at our backs, and we believe, despite all our flaws, that there is something better waiting for us." He looked away, unable to meet Jean-Paul's penetrating stare. "That is real perfection, Jean-Paul. To be without faults is a caricature. But to fight through them, that is perfection. I need you to be perfect. I need you to be human."
In another place, Milano would have been satisfied when he realized he'd left Jean-Paul speechless. But now there were no points to be scored. The only battle was to keep the wraith beside him alive long enough to recover from his self-imposed exile working himself to death.
Jean-Paul's eyes met his, and Milano could see tears glittering there. For several more moments he was silent.
It was the first time Milano had ever been able to hold Jean-Paul's gaze for longer than a few seconds. "All right?"
"I'll come with you. I'll be perfect. ...I'll be human." He closed his eyes as Milano gently lifted him and carried him from the labs.
A warning cry from his sensors, and an impact at his back. Standing over the ruined city the Nova whirled on the intruder. Infidel. He would crush it as he had annihilated all other resistance, and leave no hope for anyone who observed.
The Shadow did not move, simply watching him approach. Fool. Destroy it utterly. Leave no doubt. He passed up his ranged armament. Better to rip the insolent machine apart with his bare hands... it made its first move, a barely perceptible nod, and its eyes glowed green.
He barely even noticed. As if a pathetic light show could stop him. Nova. Perfection. He reached out to tear the Shadow's head from its shoulders.
Nova's outstretched arm glowed faintly green and crumbled to dust. Before he even had time to cry out, the rest of the machine followed... shattering. Disintegrating. And finally vanishing.
The Shadow watched the whole thing without another movement. I am perfection. Its eyes flickered green again, and a chill wind swept throughout the city. Fires sputtered and died. Broken buildings were pushed back together. Dead bodies were healed, the life blown back into them. And the Shadow was gone.
I am human.