Author's note: Yet more fanart, this time from the wonderful ElizabethScaffie! You can find it at http: slash slash elizabethscaffie dot tumblr dot com/post/187642936318/a-calm-moment-it-is-finally-done-holy-cow-i
Doctor the link as you would. Without further ado...
Alex didn't know what he'd been hoping to find in the Sierra Madre's core. Elijah, probably. A fully-staffed Blackwatch army base with an equipment shortage would have been another.
Reality wasn't promising. One drag of incoming air told him everything he needed to know on whether anything had lived down here in local memory, and right now, they were very much alone.
He pushed away from the elevator anyway. Its air smelled like food, which meant he needed to get out of it as fast as possible. The lift's access spilled into a covered walkway, and a straight shot should have taken him through the arches dead ahead. So when he reached them, he was lucky that the invisible thing he slammed into wasn't dangerous and that the impact did little more than jostle his lungs and get him coughing again.
He had to shake his thermal vision to see the problem - the not-gaps glowed with an unwavering blue light that reminded him uncomfortably of holograms. Or the shields that had covered some of the loudspeakers. It was probably the shields.
So maybe that was a good thing. The shields couldn't shoot him. He wasn't sure how much more of that he could take.
But he'd known how to kill the holograms. The light wasn't so bright that it obscured all behind it, and the basement yawned wide here, four stories between the ceiling and the platform about a person-length below his current vantage. It had to be sturdier than it looked, because someone had put a bunker in the middle of it. Reminded him of Hidden Valley. All of the people hidden inside.
Wishful thinking. But this was probably the vault they were chasing - the thing with Elijah's bait and the thing he needed to get to. It looked secure enough, and even if it didn't extend downward, it was big enough to hold two dozen people. Which definitely weren't there and he could stop setting himself up for disappointment, because he could feel the tendrils forming and he had nothing to unleash them on. He could see a person on the other side, but they'd been stripped to bones years ago. They definitely weren't warm.
But it wouldn't matter whether he could still take out a reinforced door; this blue stuff (grey now, and getting harder to see) wasn't giving him the chance to try. Experimentally he pulled his nails across the metal part of the wall. The alloy peeled off easily, but the barrier ran all the way beneath. Even the ceiling concealed what he could only call a forcefield. He didn't think hitting it harder would help. Did he have any other ideas?
...No. He wasn't killing Cain.
He knew he'd done something else before, something that had worked, but the thoughts kept getting stuck in his head. The rational part of him knew that more biomass wouldn't help him destroy something that didn't exist, no matter what the other half insisted back, but it couldn't argue how he'd feel.
He felt horrible right now. The need never got any better, never less frantically shrill at the borders of his awareness, but the physical ache that came with had become a bland constant somewhere along the line; the leaden heat, the holes that tore and shut inside him as his stretched-thin biomass gave way. His lungs were anchored in place by a few strands of flesh now, but he could deal with that. What he couldn't come to cope with was how revolting it felt to be this close to keeling over. He wasn't working right. He was vulnerable. If the hunger clawed at him, the weakness was cutting him open. He needed to fix it. And he could do it now, but…
He was dredging up the many excruciating ways in which he could hurt, but this wasn't all of them. He could still make this worse.
He had to remember that.
Cain said something to him. He didn't really understand it, but she was going further down the hall, away from the blocked-off bunker. He dropped the promise of Elijah and shadowed the person he could sense.
The forcefields didn't bar this direction, but then the solid corridor yielded to the rickety catwalks he'd come to despise, thin and teetering stairs down a deep drop. A fall wouldn't damage him, even now, but the dry basement smell was picking up the almost-familiar whiff of poison.
Something primal stopped him in his tracks, overwhelmed by the promise of more damage and more pain. But he hated being afraid, hated being weak enough to fear something like the Cloud, and that burned it all away in a wave of thick frustration. He wanted to kill it. This was its fault, and it wasn't fair that it could strip so much from him and he couldn't do the same. He had so many ways to break things and none of them worked worth a damn, and it had eaten so much of him already that he knew half wouldn't form if he called on them now.
Maybe more than that. Every part of him felt wrong, fragile and almost unreal. The Parasite had been similar, especially towards the end. But it had sucked the life from him, growing stronger and hungrier as he fought to keep himself afloat beneath it. Here, it was just him, and he was running out of life to bleed.
He hated this place. He wished he'd never come here. But that would have been worse, and the old panic swarmed out from where it hid, as raw as it had been when he had seen the bags on the floor - the door torn through the wall - the unlocked cell and dreaming eyes and I am your Mother -
He gripped his head. His thoughts were twisting apart at the edges.
That sound made more sense than the others. His name. Or someone else's name, but close enough to count. He lifted his head and focused on the speaker, the clear concern on her infrared-bright flesh. Singled out one of those and pulled himself back to where language lie in reach.
"Is something... Are you okay? No, I mean - that's a really stupid question, but are you okay… ish? You need a minute?"
"No." Time was the last thing he wanted. He shoved away from the guardrail and the two deep handprints he didn't remember making. "Keep going."
"Slight problem with that, actually."
"Why?" His words weren't coming out right; there was something sitting in his lungs. He wasn't sure they'd stay attached if he cleared it out.
"I tried to tell you twice already." She moved to the side. "I thought you might… maybe it's better if you just take a look at this."
The stairs were room temperature and the living person a foot to their left made a much more magnetic sight, but he eventually found the issue; a busted joint and a few missing steps. "Is there Cloud down there?"
"You can't see it?"
He could make out a vague shimmer when he moved his head, but the original reason he'd developed his thermal vision was to see through smoke and dust. What he was seeing now wasn't exactly infrared, because there was some depth and shadow to it too, but no colors made it through the grey.
He'd stopped trying to fix it. Nothing he changed there stuck anymore.
Cain was talking to him again. Should probably listen. Didn't like that it took effort. "...doesn't ever reach the low side, but it gets pretty close. It should be fine if we move fast, but I'm more worried about the stairs."
It wasn't a hard jump, even by human standards. If she stepped wide and kept her balance, she wouldn't have to leave the ground at all. "You can't make that?"
"Down is doable." She planted her foot on the catwalk and bounced it. Lean muscle in her leg contracted, running hot with bloodflow. "It's the way back I'm worried about. I might be able to jump that, I might break my neck in the Cloud. Not really something you get a do-over on."
Alex knew it was a valid point, but he just wanted to move. That same feeling was building up again, fight or flight with no enemy or escape route. He didn't have time for future problems. The present was already as much as he could deal with.
"Is hitching a ride an option?"
He thought about lifting Cain up off the ground. Digging his fingers into her throat, her legs kicking as she dangled helplessly in his grasp. Warm skin splitting as his feeder tendrils sunk in, and finally-
He crushed the fantasy like the neck he wasn't holding. "Last resort."
"Got it." She probably did, the way she stepped back - the sharp whiff of adrenaline on his next breath. But when he next let himself breathe, it was too faint to grip him. "We'll work it out as it comes. We're on a tighter schedule getting there than getting back."
He could do it if he absolutely had to. But if there were other options, she was safer flirting with another form of death. He didn't want those last-moment screams. Not hers.
And he always told himself that he wasn't what he'd been created to be, but the disease had been strong in his thoughts for days now and it was getting harder to tell what was him. It had always been in him, and that was the problem, but he'd had a grip on the things he loathed more than he wanted, and now - when he watched her shimmy across, tense through every step that dipped too dangerously, he didn't want Cain to fall into the Cloud. He'd lose one of the few people who had ever looked at Alex Mercer like a person who deserved to exist. And the miasma would strip the meat from her bones before he could get to them.
He always felt that, even when it was just a nagging thought compared to the wounded wail it was now. And when it was a thought, he could pretend it wasn't there. When it was an urge, he could wrestle it down, bury it in the things he still felt more strongly. When it was this loud, and this ceaseless, and crowding out anything else he tried to think…
He still knew which was good and which was bad. But there was a second, just a second, where her foot slipped by inches and he'd leaned forward and had no idea what he meant to do.
Nothing had happened. She'd kept her footing, and she was safe on the other side of the gap, already trotting for the module at the other end. He could have jumped past the whole staircase, and that would have been safer, but fresh blood dotted the rails where she'd gripped them and that was something he didn't have to tell himself not to want.
It was gone too soon, and now he felt worse - he wanted more, he couldn't want more, and he couldn't stop to master that because the Cloud was close enough to burn and even shriller than the hunger was the self-preservation at its heart.
The last time he'd been on the catwalks, they'd trembled under his weight, and it was only long experience traversing a world he could break that allowed him to walk there. Now Cain shook them more than he did. The Cloud seethed close beneath, and its forward scouts licked their shoes each time the metal dipped. Hers were rubber, but his were him.
He dragged down the door the second he passed it. The button broke off - it wouldn't have been fast enough anyway. Not that the air inside was clean or that his skin ever stopped burning, but pain was relative. He knelt and scraped the ash from his feet.
Cain had unwrapped her bandages to put a Stimpak to her cut. She was saying something too, but he was still trying to convince himself that this was a good thing.
Scar tissue wasn't his favorite kind, but there'd be more of it than a few spots of blood. He couldn't eat Cain, but that was still true.
The other side was more catwalks and more Cloud, though at least these stairs were upward-bound and away from the danger he sensed if not saw. Static buzzed low and louder like the distant crowds he'd hear from rooftops, and were his ears failing him too? No, the broken speakers. He wasn't that far gone.
God, he felt horrible.
He kept thinking about the Parasite. He couldn't remember another time he'd been this hungry, stayed this hungry. Had he? It was hard to tell. He'd been hungry often since following after Cain - not this bad, but still bad, because he tried not to get hungry around people he liked. But he thought he'd fixed that. Same deal as he'd gotten with Dana. Better, even; they'd go hunting with him.
Dana. He missed her. Glad as hell she wasn't here right now. Cain knew to keep her distance. Dana'd never figured out that touch wasn't something she could train him to like. His fault, since he'd never told her why. A mistake, maybe, or cowardice, but when she was hugging him, looking up at him the way only faces from dead memories ever did, and he remembered another way she'd looked at him, so much more familiar except on her it had hurt-
He couldn't show her this. And he was drowning in it now, so much that the memory of arms around his chest made him sick with the sickness that made him what he was. It was good she was somewhere he couldn't reach her.
He could reach Cain. She walked just a few strides ahead of him. He would not reach Cain, because Dana was dead and Cain wasn't and Dana's death had been hard enough when he hadn't caused it himself.
The sudden crack was deafening. He fell hard on the defensive, primed to spring the instant he found where the gunfire was coming from. Too much damage, had to make this fast-
She was facing him, but the gun wasn't. Just a pistol. Just Cain. Not a threat.
She'd shot a speaker. He didn't need the shapes on her lips and the softer noise in his ears to tell him that. He was fine. Just - surprised.
He turned away and let the next clap of pistol fire take him to better places. Fights he could win, even this weakened. Fights where he could feed.
The Cloud strengthened up ahead, though it wasn't dangerously close yet. There wasn't a point to pinning it down when he could just watch person in front of him. If she didn't dissolve, it was safe to follow. Hadn't worked with Bloodtox, but it would here, so that was good.
Maybe that wasn't good? Huh. He didn't think it mattered as long as he didn't have to twist his eyes out of shape and feel them eat themselves.
He was stalling. She was moving away from him, and he hurried after her. He couldn't let her get away.
There was something wrong about that thought, but for the life of him, he couldn't figure out what it was supposed to be. He knew he'd made a decision to keep this woman within his sights. He'd also decided not to eat her, and he was pretty sure he'd done that before. Military escorts. Targets that needed observation before the killing blow. He just couldn't quite remember which one this was supposed to be.
That wasn't right. He knew he didn't want to kill her. But he also really did, and the argument against was getting a bit blurry.
He frowned at the back of her head, puzzling it over. It was better to stick to the plan, he knew. Dropping it now would waste the effort he'd spent so far, and he always ended up regretting that. But he wasn't stupid enough to follow a plan to the point it risked his life, and his hunger was never just hunger - it was a call to repair himself, a danger siren straight from the virus that infested his cells. So even if he was trying to do something else here, it might be time to quit and regroup. Unless it was an important plan? He did remember some of those, somewhere. Wasn't sure what they'd been, but he'd ignored that call before, and he was doing it now, so… if he could just remember why...
His target turned the corner, and he saw Cain's face, drawn and focused straight ahead. Saw it smiling at him, genuine. A quiet talk about penance under the stars. Glad you're here.
Shit. He was losing it, and he knew it. He fell back a few strides. It wouldn't help him and it wouldn't save her, but he could at least pretend he was doing something to fight this. Should he turn and leave? It would be the smart thing to do for her sake, but would it actually help him? He needed to consume, soon, and the casino had so many places to hide. So many traps. The vault was ahead and the vault meant Elijah, and he'd chanted that name so many times that it was more a promise of relief than a person he hated. Elijah was not in the vault now, but Elijah wasn't the only person upstairs. If he finally tracked down prey and found Christine, he doubted he'd be able to take the disappointment.
But he'd regret it less than if he snapped down here, so maybe...
No. Stick to the plan. He didn't have to remember why, just that he'd made a decision and he'd hurt worse than this if he broke it. As long as he did that, she'd be safe and this would be over.
He knew that wasn't right either. Enough time and he was going to lose one of these arguments with himself. But he didn't have to keep this up forever. Just until he reached the vault.
He didn't smell Cloud in the next room, but what he found there wasn't any better. Some half-built machine had collapsed onto its scaffolds, and two stories above was still too close to the pylon left exposed, snapping and spitting bright arcs. He wasn't near the center of the room and he could already feel his skin crawling. Or maybe his skin had already been doing that. He didn't want to get near it either way, and the walkway ahead would make him do that. Even weak electrical currents disrupted his form, and he was already having trouble holding onto that.
He barely had enough biomass to push to his legs. Gliding required careful balance and he'd worried he wouldn't pull it off, but he was lighter than he'd ever been. He touched down on the far end of the room and wrenched his body back into shape. It hurt. Everything hurt now.
At least Cain's silhouette was dim next to the electricity. He still knew too well what a human shape looked like, and there were only so many shapes that meant food, but he could trick his eyes into chasing the fierce sparks each time he strayed too close to her. Tracking danger instead of prey.
"Not a fan?" she asked once she was close enough to grab.
There was very little berth for her to pass him with, and he was doing everything to make it count. Talking was more multitasking than he could handle.
"Elijah hasn't contacted me yet." Cain had decided to wait for him on the other side, of all the stupid things. She was gazing at the ceiling. An easy target even if they hadn't been alone. "Maybe the signal's blocked down here? Or did Christine do something to keep him busy?" She swallowed roughly, and finally lowered her head. "I really hope she didn't."
He hoped so too. If Christine held up Elijah, it'd be even longer before he could consume him. He'd thought he had an accord with Christine, but if she'd broken that, maybe he should kill her. It would be fair, right? He'd rather eat Elijah than her, but if she'd stolen his kill, then she owed him another one and he couldn't think of any other options. Or maybe Elijah had killed her already, and her corpse was cooling and he only had minutes before it was as worthless as any of the other bodies upstairs. Relief, guiltless, and if he didn't move right now-
He wasn't helping himself. He stopped again and tried to sort out his brain, then leapt backwards when shrill ringing split the air. An alarm? Even a security detail could hurt him like this, but once he killed them - his tendrils writhed-
No. It was just the collar. There was no alarm, no Christine, no Elijah, no food. Cain had pulled back, her heartbeat slightly elevated. It thrummed loud in his ears, it and every other piece of meat that fought to keep her alive. It took too long to recognize her voicebox among them, and he stared at her, struggling to make sense of some request.
"You're not listening to me, are you?" He was too harrowed to figure out what that tone meant, but the smell of adrenaline wasn't something he had to work to understand.
She was waiting for a response, and he wrenched together what was left of his focus. There was less of it each time he tried. "I am now. What do you want?"
"I thought you said it helped. When I talked to you."
She never made things easy. How could he explain it to her? That when his own body was trying to convince him he was something less than himself and wanting to stop was nearly beyond him, the reminder was a lifeline? That Blacklight's drive to spread had always been closer to him than the value of a human life, and that he desperately needed to remember who he didn't want to hurt at a time he was so catalyzed to kill it went past desire to biological need? That those spasms ended and this kept going and each thing he told himself to stay sane meant less on every repetition? That he could feel the cones in his eyes be cannibalized for more vital systems each time he repaired them, and he couldn't prove the same wasn't happening to his brain?
It was hard enough to hold his thoughts in a pattern that could form words. This conversation was beyond him. "Don't… not now. When you need me to listen. Otherwise, just… please."
"I see." She didn't. The moment she understood this was the moment before she died. "I'm sorry, but I do need you now. It'll only be a minute and then I'll let you go. Can you do that?"
"Get to the point." The words burbled at the base of his throat.
"Okay. This speaker's shielded." He followed her hand to where the distant box blinked. Red, blue - all light was the same now, except when it was warm. "I was - if it would hurt you to take it out, then that's okay. The range only barely reaches us, so… I can sprint across. That's doable." Cain exhaled slowly. "But I saw holograms in the next chamber. I'll deal with those too, but I need the ID card back."
Comprehension was taxing enough. Alex had to work to wrestle a chunk of his mind away from feeding and not feeding long enough to identify what the hell she was talking about, and again and longer to remember why she thought he'd have it.
"...It didn't work."
"You tossed it?" Her voice cracked, and he leaned forward when the taste of her adrenaline tripled, the weak pall of nervousness washed away in a spike of anger. Aggression. A fight. But it was stale before he could seize on it, and her expression never changed.
He wanted it back. Fear was still good, but there wasn't enough of it to sing to him. He wanted that adrenaline to show him what to do. He wanted her to fight, or to flee, or...
She wasn't supposed to be afraid of him. He could smell it growing thicker each second he failed to speak.
"Thought you'd picked it up." He had no idea if that had been true.
"I can't do that unless you tell me you're pitching it." She sighed, and it rasped in her throat, but the only feeling left was resignation. "I'll manage; there's not many. Wait here."
She turned around a wall, and her shape grew that much less distinct. The emitters burned brighter, and it eventually occurred to him that he hadn't told her where they were. He should have been worried. Mostly he just felt hungry.
She'd given the card to help him. He remembered that. He didn't need the rest of the memory to know it hadn't worked. There was only one way to help him.
Hopeless. He shouldn't have taken it in the first place.
There was nothing to do but wait. He propped his elbows against the guardrails and tried… he didn't know what he was aiming for. To relax? Regroup? Something to make his current existence a little less overwhelming. Was it a relief, now that the warm body was out of Whipfist range and he'd lost the urge to form one? Not really; it just meant he wanted to chase her down instead. He reminded himself what holograms meant, and it actually did dull the impulse somewhat, but now he was hashing out the best angle to lunge from once she got back and everything remained acutely miserable.
The ache at the base of his throat hadn't registered on top of everything else, but he knew he'd lost when the first cough broke through. He hacked dead biomass over the railing and watched it shrivel in the invisible Cloud below.
The new lungs were too thin. They wouldn't last very long.
Cain watching by the time he could breathe again. That awning above the door was useless now. Lucky her.
"All clear," was all she said. "We're almost there."
When he lifted himself to follow, he saw one sleeve was made of human skin. He didn't bother to fix it.
The walkways in the hologram bent in all kinds of pointless directions. There was only one that didn't take some circuitous route through a bunch of waystations, and whoever'd built it had put down ten feet of track and decided the other eighty were too much work. Alex gauged the distant door, thought about how close Cain would need to be to pass, and decided that jumping would be a waste of energy.
Cain stopped once to boot up a terminal. Then she'd glanced his way and kept walking.
And then they were back where they'd started. The Cloud was stronger on this side of the forcefield, though he couldn't see either of those things and didn't care to try to. His eyes were glued ahead, for once not trailing a human shape. The great dome dwarfed its surroundings; of everything he'd seen beneath the casino, it was the only structure built to last. Its plating held no heat or color, but beneath the bright fluorescents, it shone.
The vault. Elijah. He wasn't sure how much longer he could have lasted.
Open sparks couldn't keep him away now. His surface spasmed painfully when he passed between the broken electrodes, but the only thing that mattered was the door. It was thick and cast from interlocking metal plates, and he couldn't leverage it to budge. He could augment his arms a little, but he knew he didn't have enough left for Musclemass, not even close. He needed more biomass. Where was the woman?
She was kneeling over the skeleton. He couldn't consume that. Couldn't consume her. He'd consume soon enough, just had to get inside. Claws, maybe, and carve through the plates? But now she was coming up to him, and he couldn't afford to think anymore.
He hadn't noticed the terminal beside the door. A minute with Cain and the vault was theirs.
The lights came on in rows, harsh and cold. There was heat inside, and he zeroed in on it hungrily, but there was nothing to placate him, just a whirring generator and an empty Auto-Doc. The rest of the machinery was offline, and the only food was...
She was bent over a table, gaping at a pyramid of ingots. He tried not to gravitate back to her, but he found himself there anyway.
"Alex, are you seeing this?" She had to repeat it twice before the words sounded like anything.
"It's bullion." In his greyscale world, it was impossible to tell what kind of metal made up those bars.
"No shit. It's solid gold. If I added up the payout for every job I've ever taken, it might come up to a fraction of what's sitting here. If I'm generous. It's jarring."
He said nothing.
"It's not what I came here for, but after all the shit we've been through - if this is the consolation prize, it's almost worth it."
Alex couldn't agree. The hunger snarled on without end, twisting any recompense he could want to one end. Her pale hands pressed against the gold, malleable metal and much more malleable meat, and he forgot to breathe when her arm reached towards him, the muscles taut beneath the heavy metal they proferred. His fingers jerked with the need to sink into flesh and-
And nothing. Couldn't think about it. So hard to stop, long after she'd wordlessly slipped the bar into her own pack and left.
There were other things waiting in ordered rows, ledgers and boxes and bundles of crisp grey dollars. Didn't recognize the face on them. Couldn't remember what face the hundred was supposed to have. A rifle near as tall as he was, or maybe a bazooka. A steel locker with three sets of Cain's armor inside. These had more plating on the vitals than hers did. Would've only stopped him for a second anyway.
He was surrounded by distractions, but he just couldn't manage it anymore. They'd gotten to the end, and wasn't that supposed to mean something? Where was his prize?
Cain was at the far end of the room, stooped over a computer. She was reading something aloud, or maybe talking to herself. To him? He tried to listen. Not a good enough distraction either.
The strange noise behind him was, and he spun, dreading a threat and desperate for a foe. Elijah? But nothing had moved back there, not the elevator down the hall and certainly not a person coming through. The only change on his heat map came from the generator behind him, a shade cooler and bleeding warmth. And there'd been a noise before, something that wasn't humming now.
"Nice," he heard Cain say. "Thought that might be too good to be true, but if I was gonna find the controls anywhere, it'd be here. Way back should be quicker now. I wonder what else..."
The way back would be... she'd disabled the forcefield. A searing wrench at his eyes confirmed it; the point of entry was open. Elijah would reach them quicker. He would reach Elijah quicker.
Where the fuck was he? The relief at reaching his goal was evaporating, because it was sinking fast that the lifeline he'd lashed his sanity to was not the thing he'd conflated it with. Reaching the vault was the last step in a plan to kill Elijah, but it was not killing Elijah. Elijah was not hiding somewhere in this cramped little tomb. Elijah was somewhere else, just like every other time he'd cast his eyes for the fucker keeping him caged in this poison city, and it wasn't over and he needed it to be over and-
It wasn't even rage, this feeling. It might have been panic.
"Cain," he rasped. She craned her neck halfway. Eight feet forward-right to get back in her blind spot. "Where's - when is Elijah? Coming?"
He was in no state to read her expression. "I don't know. Soon. The longer he waits, the more I can do with this machine. If he knows what's down here, he knows that too."
Soon. Not 'now', not a real time he could count down to, but the same bullshit word he'd already worn down to nothing. He had the wild urge to scream, or bring his claws down on the vault and rend its worthless treasure to ribbons. If he held himself together, it was because both of those would hurt, and he was so sick of facing his weakness in everything he did.
He didn't scream, but some of the sound slipped out between his teeth, and Cain seized on that because any predator would smell his blood right now. "He wasn't going to be down here," she said more softly, and he recognized that and hated even more. "If he was, we'd be worse off than we are now. But he will come. Something in this room is why he killed all of those people, or why he kept them alive as long as he did. He just has to get here, and I don't know when that is. Are you okay with that? Can you be okay with that?"
He had to say yes. He could say it, make it real, and get it over with. None of this would matter once he'd fed unless he did something to fuck it up, and he wasn't going to fuck it up, so that meant he could deal. No other option.
"Alex, you need to talk to me. Tell me how I can help and I'll do it." She stepped closer, and he realized there was something sharp in her hand. "I - I know you said no before, but if you…"
The tendrils surged, and he scrambled back until he hit something hard. He let himself stagger because if he got up he would kill and that was the one thing he could still remember not to do. He locked his arms around his sides and gripped the feeders with his hands; they plunged into him as deftly as they took everything else, and he was eating himself for the excruciating moment it took for Blacklight to recognize itself and the hollow bliss to cut off. His biomass swirled out of equilibrium, and half the fingers on his left hand were denim instead of skin and he couldn't breathe right because his lungs were still too small, and why was he even doing this? His body screamed that she was food, blood and flesh and bone and marrow for the virus to use, and most of his mind agreed that this was truth. The rest whimpered that she was Cain. He could barely hear it anymore.
He still heard her. "Alex - shit, I'm sorry, I didn't - fuck. I can't, I." She moved, just once, and he lost her in the blinding need to chase. "...read you something? That helped you last time, right? And I know you were wondering about this place before. I found a letter from Sinclair, he wrote it to Vera and I was going to - I think that's him outside, the body. It, it's, he was - Alex, are you listening? I know it's hard and I'm sorry, but I think I need you to right now, because you're starting to-"
"Leave me alone," he choked, hoping against himself that she would, that she'd vanish back to that place in Vegas and take this unyielding need to consume her with her. If he could just stop fighting and go back to doing what he felt.
She didn't, of course. But she went silent mid-word, and he didn't have to work to keep his language centers running anymore.
Could only fight so much at once.
He'd already retreated as far the vault's confines allowed. As broken as that promise was, it was the only one he had left. Soon. Hah. He gripped his knees and crushed them against his chest. Buried his head into the gap between and tried to force the emptiness out of himself.
He could endure it. He had to. It had been torture, waiting this long, and maybe he'd gotten this far with a promise that hadn't panned out, but that was nothing new, complete agony was nothing new, and he'd get his chance if he just waited. Nothing had changed.
It wasn't working. The room pressed down on him, all cramped heat and scent, and a few yards of distance did little to spare him. He tried to tell himself that anything he did gnawed at finite strength. It meant nothing next to the instinctive scream that collapsing weak would end in death.
He started pacing. Cain looked up briefly. He tried not to track her movements. Elijah. Somewhere, eventually. But not here.
He built a rhythm with his steps, back and forth and wearing ovals in the dust. Took deep breaths and then shallow ones when he couldn't keep them slow. Tried to make it help this.
It couldn't. He was on his feet and moving, but he wasn't doing anything. He wasn't breaking free or regrouping or even planning action, if he could have planned things through the death wail that consumed his every sense. He was starving and vulnerable; he had to break line of sight, take another skin, and grab biomass in the lull, and then he could get back to his mission. If he stayed the course, he'd die.
It was an old instinct, one that'd kept him alive through things he near hadn't. He'd been fighting it for hours. No disguise would help him, no back-alley prey milled around the corner. Couldn't even run, when the thing killing him was all around him. It was inside him. The gaps inside his flesh prickled with dilute Cloud, just strong enough to lick at the parts of him that he tried to keep safe. Like a Bloodtox drip inside his flesh. Slow.
He was breathing too hard. He had to stop. His lungs were coming loose again, and if he had to make new ones - if he had to stretch himself thinner-
Another ragged sound escaped him as lurched forward and dragged his fingers down the walls. The bunker was too thick to dent, or him too broken, but some of the plating tore free beneath his nails, and that - nothing helped, but it was something.
He sagged there and clawed furrows without his claws until the urge to flee swelled stronger than the one to break.
Losing it. But maybe that was still okay. He couldn't stay calm, but he could just - be. The least demanding thing to do. Didn't need to be relaxed, just had to not die and not kill.
He'd die without killing. This wasn't Manhattan. There was no one to step on him here, no vermin to flock to an easy meal. Just the Cloud to rot away his dormant remains until Blacklight was as dead as everything else in this building.
He had to pull it together. He wasn't close to that. It felt like he was close to that, he was more shell than body at this point and more hunger than reason, but he was still conscious. He wished like hell he wasn't, but he'd know before that last collapse. And this room was mostly clean. If he stayed here and didn't do anything stupid, he'd have a few days at the least.
His breath caught, and his hands crushed their shapes into the table. He couldn't wait days. He could not. Most of his nerves were dead now, either his choice or his body's desperate redistribution, but he could have wiped the rest and still felt every inch of his own decay. The struggle to function below critical mass, the strain of covering for biomass that wasn't there. The cascade as the cells burned out, one after another. It would only get worse. He would only feel worse. He could not deal with days.
Pull it together. He'd had worse tasks. There was nothing shooting at him, nothing chasing him. Nothing to do, and that was worse than anything. He couldn't remember worse. He couldn't conceptualize worse. He needed to get out right now-
His entire body spasmed, and he doubled over, forcing the shape of Alex Mercer back into place before it could get too far away. It wanted to snap inward. Felt like hell to spread it out again. It didn't really hurt, not compared to everything else, but every piece he pulled apart wailed wrongness and wouldn't stop. It didn't want to be there. He didn't want to be here, feeling death pounding in his back. Sucked dry of everything that let him fight and think and be.
He could not take this. He needed to feel like himself again.
He would when Elijah came. He had no other choice.
That wasn't true, though. Elijah wasn't here, but the vault wasn't empty.
He gripped his head. No. Couldn't kill Cain. Could barely remember why, just that it was important.
He was dying. That was important. He didn't have to remind himself that it was important. It was hard to think about anything else.
He stared at the distant elevator, clear of the forcefield's film. Empty. It wasn't going to move soon enough. Nothing else could be soon enough, he wanted so badly.
He couldn't… she was right there, but he couldn't...
He took a single step towards her, unsteady and unsure. She wasn't looking at him.
He couldn't do this. He'd told himself not to do this back when he could think about other things, and those thoughts were going to come back when he fed and he knew they'd matter. He knew he'd regret this. But he needed this more than he could stand.
But he couldn't. He was almost dead and he couldn't imagine any hell worse than this, but killing Cain meant worse forever and that didn't make sense beyond the memory that it had once. But if it did make sense, if he had to deal with more, then-
What if he didn't kill her?
He stopped mid-step. It was an odd thought, not quite enough to sate the desperation tearing holes through his human skin, but it agreed with the thing he had to do and that must mean he could want it, unlike everything he'd thought before. Killing Cain was bad, but she wouldn't die if he only took part of her, right? She could grow it back afterward. It made sense, but something in him still didn't like it, and not just because he'd have to stop while there was still more to consume. He nearly snarled his frustration; he didn't want to think about what he couldn't do. He didn't want to find a reason to hold back, not when he was this close to reaching something he could have. The hunger was so loud...
Humans didn't heal the way he could. This would hurt her.
There it was, that feeling that wouldn't leave him alone. But that was good; it meant he was going about this the right way and he wouldn't regret this later. He didn't have to hurt her that much. He knew what parts were least vital and where the fewest nerves resided. He'd do this carefully. He just needed a little. Something more than the nothing that was eating him alive. He wouldn't regret that.
Would he? He still wasn't sure…
She had offered.
He bit his lip and tasted himself.
He was walking faster. Closing their distance. Cain turned too late, because she trusted him. She wasn't wrong. Was she? He didn't want to think about this anymore.
A flutter of biomass ran down his arms. The hands he placed on hers were rough, palms coated with coarse cilia. No, not her hands. Bandaged. He'd wanted those before, so he'd keep them there. His fingers slid to her wrists, locked into restraints.
The skin was half-healed, fresh. He'd watched it grow. Surely he could take a little.
"Alex, what are you-"
It peeled easily. He felt the muscles contract in shock, the upswell of heat as blood rushed through the veins beneath, but he had to leave those alone. They wouldn't grow back afterwards.
Could they? Hydra had worked wonders...
He wasn't going to think about it; it was dim, but he knew what he'd choose if he did. Stick to the plan. There was biomass he was allowed to take. That was enough. Her wrists were too raw now, and he moved up her arms, scraping the skin as carefully as he could. Sometimes it tore anyway and blood welled up in tiny lines, so he took that too. That wasn't a good thing. He had to keep reminding himself of that, because it felt like one.
Scar tissue built on his hooks. After all this waiting, it was nearly unbearable to have food in his grasp and still hold back. And it was hard to let go of her, but he couldn't feed here or he would kill her, and the promise of something to consume was enough to unclench his hands. The tendrils rolled across his palms, and he could have wept, were he human. He needed more.
She flinched violently when he grabbed her again, and he clamped down hard. One of the wrists crunched, and he stilled at the sound and feel of it. It was familiar, and he liked it, but he thought it was bad here. Supposed to be delicate. He forced his grip to loosen. That was fine. She couldn't escape anyway.
He moved further up the arms. The skin was thicker here, fewer dead cells, and he could tug harder before it bled. It was agonizing to act so slowly when all instinct screamed otherwise, but he could balance here. Restraint, then reward. This was okay.
Another moment of desperate relief. Another equally desperate lurch when it cut short.
This wasn't enough. He dragged her sleeves to the shoulder and worried at the fresher skin revealed beneath. Deep tissue flexed spastically; breaths puffed out of her in rapid pants, and her heart pattered like a fleeing rodent. He could have reached through her and taken all of them at once, it would be so easy - but he didn't have to chase her. She wasn't trying to get away.
But there still wasn't enough. Blood oozed thicker, mingling with salty sweat and painting ravaged skin the same thick red as the parts he could still harvest. Why was there so much blood? There wasn't supposed to be this much. Blood meant...
Of course there was bleeding. The epidermis was so fragile, broke so soon and gave so little. He needed to go deeper.
She cried out when he sunk ten fingers to their nails and pulled the skin apart. Fluid gushed up in a hot, welcoming tide, and he clawed eagerly at the denser flesh below. The chest before him swelled, a gulp of air held hostage, and his tendrils lashed with its adrenaline. The body was rigid, the muscles contracting. It was shrinking away-
A strip of meat tore free, thicker than the rest, and he felt it when he consumed it. There was more of him now, only a little, but after so long with less it was perfect. Hadn't been doing it right before. This was what he needed. Had to get more of it-
There was another noise now, more tuneful than hitched whimpers. He didn't want to listen.
"That's enough, Alex."
It wasn't enough. It was so far from enough that his fingers dug in reflexively, rebelling at the thought of letting go. She yelped, and his hands tore down, desperate to feed while he still could. He hadn't fixed himself yet. He'd barely taken anything. He still hurt.
"You said you'd listen when I n-needed you to, Alex. Th-that's now." He didn't want to listen. He wanted this so much and it wasn't fair that he had to stop this soon, this unsatisfied. Why should he listen? She wasn't dead yet. There was still so much more left to take.
"Alex!" His name quavered. He could feel the tremor in her lungs, all of it so close. "That, that's enough. You h-h-have to s-stop!" Tendrils licked around his shoulders, and he leaned in. "You're hurting me-"
He released her.
She made no move to get away from him, and that was just as awful as if she had.
So he backed off for her, wrenching past the thousand things that screamed at him to stop - that he wasn't done yet, that he was still so hungry and she could still bleed more before she died. He'd gotten carried away once, but now he knew to look out for that. He could be careful again. Humans had so many redundant parts. Cain didn't need an outer ear. A couple toes wouldn't kill her balance - they were practically vestigial anyway. She could still shoot if he left one arm behind-
His back hit the table with its gold bars. His tendrils flickered involuntarily when he staggered, and the last bits of stolen skin sank into his own. Alex did not feel better for them. He felt worse. He was so hungry and so tired and so sickened with himself that he could scarcely think. He wanted so many things and hated so many things, and they were always the same things, and they sprayed agony when he ripped them open. The only thought he could agree on was that he wanted out. He didn't want to be here. He didn't want to feel this.
He didn't want to be like this.
A sob started in his throat and choked off as his lungs failed him yet again.
"I'm going," he said, once the words did more than gurgle in his chest. "Where he'll be. I can't- I'm not going to-"
If he looked at her - could she even see how goddamn sorry he was? Or did she only see the part that wished he'd finished the job? He felt both so badly that he couldn't remember how to breathe.
He turned to the elevator, started walking to where Elijah wasn't. Where Cain wasn't.
Then the world exploded around him, and he didn't feel anything at all.
It happened too quickly.
Maybe the world was making up for lost time. The last minute - was it only a minute? - had dragged on for years of her life. Mercer had drawn up on her. He'd trapped her. He'd attacked. She'd held still because he sounded like he was trying and she couldn't think of anything else to do. She'd held still because he crushed her wrist to fragments when she struggled.
When there'd been a rope and a gag, it had been easier not to scream.
She'd held still until she was sure she would die either way. He'd been measured at first, and so had the pain, but he hadn't stayed that way and she was losing control of her terror.
She'd tried to reason with him. Then she'd begged.
He backed away. He was still looking at her like that, but there was fear there too. His hands were slick with her blood, and then they were empty.
Her arms were wet. Maybe if she covered them, he wouldn't come back - but maybe if she moved, then-
He left, and she didn't follow him. Everything from her shoulders down stung horribly, and her left hand felt nothing but needles. She barely dared move, but she had to staunch the bleeding, and getting the Stimpaks in her duffel meant taking her eyes off of him. They teared up when she pulled the sleeves back down and pressed them into her skin. She blinked twice, and didn't risk more.
The forcefield lit up.
Alex jerked once as though electrocuted. Cold light writhed around his tendrils, sparking and spitting around the blue-lit groove where the barrier had pierced him. His neck arched. He made no sound.
The wet shlick was like a gunshot. Alex slid to the ground in halves. The one on her side twitched once. By the time she could breathe, neither moved.
"Alex – Alex!"
No. No no no no no, that had not just happened. This was not what it looked like. It was the worst thing she'd ever seen, and there was not a person around who could survive being sliced down the middle, but this was Alex. Alex did not die. Any moment he'd get back up and fix himself and-
And then what? Cain hadn't felt herself lean forward until one awful thought intersected with another and she'd frozen stiff mid-pitch. Alex could recover from anything, but it didn't come for free. She'd watched the Madre gouge chunks from his sanity until the husk left behind scared her more than the height of his power ever would. If he was alive, if the Alex on her side of the barrier lurched to what was left of his feet with half his body missing, would he be able to stop himself this time? Would he even remember her at all?
The body was still. Smoke curled from its edges. Cain started to shake.
He wasn't moving. He would have moved by now. She stared at the pieces that remained of Alex Mercer and hoped and dreaded and prayed and she couldn't get enough air in her lungs because if he moved she was dead but if he didn't move then he - he -
Unconscious. He could be unconscious. Her eyes were pretty adamant on telling her that she was not looking at an unconscious kind of wound, but she remembered his advice, grave as she'd ever heard him. Don't touch me. Don't get near me at all. After what he'd just done, Cain wasn't sure she could.
Her foot, half-raised, sank to the floor.
She took a shuddering breath and told herself that Alex wasn't dead. He wasn't moving, wasn't breathing, but Alex didn't die. He'd survived explosions, nuclear bombs, the end of the world. He'd promised her that. (Conditionally. Dormancy, until he had something to kill. As long as nothing else killed him first-)
No! He'd hung on this far. Alex was not a guy who quit at the last minute. It was not her fault that he was dead, because he wasn't dead.
Even if the sight of him-
Her Pip-Boy spat static.
"Did you really think," Elijah began, "that I hadn't noticed the discrepancies? That some convenient silence and lackluster excuses would be enough to convince me that nothing was wrong?"
Cain said nothing.
"Your bodyguard successfully tracks the mutant through a path that kills most, makes nearly level time with it. Buildings collapse. Your tracker moves in impossible paths. Should've ended it then, when I was only suspicious… then you were both inside. Hnh. Your Pip-Boy ceases to function once worn by your helper but transmits clean once he returns it to you. And of course, the Madre's cameras. Surprised? Many of them still work, like the one above him now."
Automatically she looked out, and saw only darkness.
"He was a loose end either way, but you had to make this difficult."
She finally found her voice. Usually it waited closer by. "Did you actually expect something else?"
"I would think I just answered that question." Footsteps rang tinny through the transceiver, and light moved behind her; when she turned, she found Elijah glaring at her from a screen above the terminal, a feed that jerked in time with the sound. "You were clever," and the meager admittance came grudgingly, "but not clever enough. You thought I'd ignore the assassin for impatience? I've been patient longer than you can imagine, Twenty-One. For years I've waited to stand where you do now. I will not sacrifice that work for nothing."
Cain's blood froze. Horror, hatred - both were ice. "Christine-"
He scoffed. "I'm surprised you talked her down. Royce was always one to let irrationality cloud her judgement. Not that it matters. She can't escape this place. Nobody leaves until I open the doors myself."
"She's alive?" She couldn't stop the question, counterproductive as it was. The idea of losing again flayed her raw.
"For the moment. I would not have let her flee, as you so candidly bet, but I can kill her whenever I want. Your bodyguard required timing."
Wait. Wait. The inflection. She'd said that, said bet. She'd convinced Christine to drop her personal stake. He wouldn't - Elijah had heard that. Jesus Christ, he'd heard everything. "Did Christine ever actually block you from the feeds?"
"You're figuring it out. Yes, at first - not enough testing, wouldn't have thought to manipulate that little quirk. I had time to tune the receiver while you recuperated. In truth, it doesn't matter. I knew she'd poison you; your only hope was that she'd fail to communicate with you, and the first cutout ended that chance. It's human nature. Greed, revenge, they're both the same. Irrational obstacles, ones that break your function in predictable ways."
This was completely her fault. She'd been too wrapped up with other angles to realize the obvious bait. Christine's floor - why would Elijah tell her she had a space to conspire freely? There was only one answer, if she'd just fucking stopped to ask herself the question.
"And what you're doing now? This isn't either of those?"
"It's pragmatism. I can't let any of you walk as long as there's a possibility you'd try to get even. Yours was never in question. It's not your fault. Almost none of you could help it."
"Almost none - you enslaved us! On threat of death! How is that our problem?"
"It isn't; it was my problem to solve. Which I have."
Insane. This man was sickeningly insane. "And the grandstanding? Rubbing in how I've lost? Pretend all you want, but you don't gloat unless you care."
Elijah took longer to answer that. "Hnh… indulgence, I suppose. I've anticipated this day for such a long time. Enduring your little schemes this close to the end was… tiring. But I'm a fair man. You've performed admirably, succeeded where so many others failed. Ask your questions, and I'll answer them before the end."
Right. Real consolation prize that was. Oh, she was curious, in the same hapless vein that had led her straight into the first of his traps and any number since, but it was hard to look straight at him when the man who'd come to pull her out of this was in pieces on the floor.
She did anyway, because she could still lie that well. "We couldn't figure out why you came here. But this vault's got a pile of gold bars and a love letter, and I know it's not either of those."
"No," he agreed, and he actually sounded pleased. "The others were narrow-minded, couldn't think of anything more than mercenary pay. Idiots. None of them saw what this place means."
Cain had already solved that puzzle. The crowning piece had come just moments before the shadow fell over the mainframe and she realized Alex wasn't where he'd been before. A hair too late to save either of them. It was almost fitting. "The Sierra Madre was an exercise in futility from top to bottom. A bunch of people who didn't figure out what mattered to them until it was too late to change anything."
"Wrong. Just like the rest, focused on all the wrong things." His hurried gait paused to sneer at her. "The Sierra Madre is opportunity. Curiosities of the Old World fully realized and molded to their full potential. She is change, just had to be clever enough to bring it out. Yes... she'll change everything."
Alex had been convinced Elijah was searching the Sierra Madre for a weapon. Alex had also been convinced that he was fucking crazy. Alex was currently in two cauterized halves, and she could stop feeling like her insides had been ripped out because he was definitely not dead, but time had vindicated him in every other way.
"What kind of change are you after?" she asked, after a second's damning pause. "The Brotherhood-"
"Deserters," Elijah cut her off with a snarl. "No vision. Wouldn't accept what had to be done, then or here. I fought to salvage them… no point now. Better to wipe the slate clean."
So this was about revenge after all. Cain couldn't muster surprise, here at the end of everything, but there were still depths of rage she hadn't yet exhausted. Her good fist clenched, chased by a shock of pain vicious enough to short her brain, and she planted it on the keyboard to give it something safe to do. Rein it in. It wasn't time to play the last of her cards. "And this is your new base of operations? Hidden Valley two-point-oh?"
"A base…? No. Practical - nobody can penetrate the Cloud, defenses better than HELIOS ever could have raised - but no. She's a spearhead. I'll take her back to the Mojave and let her do what she was always meant to. Look around you! The holograms, do you think they're security guards? Vendors? Entertainers?" He spat occupations like curses. "No. They were meant to be soldiers. Overwhelming force, untouchable by the enemy. It's like grasping light… you can't hold it, only burn. One alone could win a battle. A hundred in the right places would weed the NCR from Nevada to the west coast. Madre has thousands, and the vault has the blueprints."
Cain hadn't pointed out the weaknesses of the emitters, and had been in fact debating the possibility that he'd missed it. But if he could manufacture more, it wouldn't matter. An enemy force would still lose soldiers to reach them, and soldiers took years to train. Elijah could replace his troops with an afternoon of counting cards at blackjack. The Brotherhood would never have the numbers to outlast him. The whole of the Mojave wouldn't. There were never enough bodies to throw.
Because of course his target was the NCR. It was obvious in hindsight, perhaps so obvious that she'd never thought about it. If Elijah would hate anyone more than his former order, it would be the army that had broken their power to begin with. Elijah had spent blood to hold his fortress and found the NCR had blood to spare. But even if his tactics planned to change, his favorite coinage clearly never had.
She had never been so keenly aware of that, that it wasn't just her Elijah had dragged into his scheme. Not just Alex. Not just Dog, God, Christine, or even Dean. Half the bones in this place were Elijah's tab, all spent to purchase a slaughter that could never change the past.
Her fingers tightened on the mainframe, and the gluey scabs that rimmed her sleeves peeled loose.
He misunderstood. "Hoping to reprogram them? It's what I would do in your place. Perhaps that's how you got so far… but it won't help you now. The only records of the factory reset are hundreds of miles past your collar's range."
"At the place you were before. The Big Empty."
"Don't waste your time regurgitating facts at me, or I'll decide you've had enough of it. I know what Twelve told you. If she wanted to prepare you, she should have given more. The designs were… truly fascinating, the greatest the Old World had to offer. But useless without the means to craft them, and Big MT's wardens wouldn't comply. Found the answers at the Madre, once again. The vending machines kept you alive when I needed them to. They could've changed history if they'd come a decade sooner. You've seen what they can do. Water from air and microtubes from scrap plating. Design a schematic and they'll build you anything - food, first aid, clothing. A shelter, a library. An army. I can kill a nation and build a new one on the ashes."
Cain could imagine all too well what kind of nation Elijah might create. True, Wastelanders would flock around a warlord that doled out necessities, but she suspected that participation in his society would not be optional. His obsession with control made House seem lax. If he could print new collars...
"Finally, I'll harness the last of the Sierra Madre's treasures. The Cloud."
She couldn't stop the bark of startled, derisive laughter. "That's a treasure?"
Elijah had stopped moving; either he'd stopped for this lecture or he'd reached his destination. She slipped a glance behind her. The elevator was still docked, and Alex was… She turned back around.
"Not surprised you don't understand... none of you ever see what's in front of you. That's why the Madre belongs to me. Yes, the Cloud's much more than you give it credit for. It knows its aims, chooses what it kills." Cain could only stare at the fervor in his grainy eyes. "It destroys impurities. Flesh and keratin, cotton, weak polymers and cheap binders - stripped to nothing. But vinyl? Glass? Silicon? No corrosion. From Cloud or anything else. Metals never rust in its grasp, machines run without maintenance. The Villa outside, the parts that matter? Perfect condition if only the vents had breached sooner. Cloud could've saved it. Saved the casino, and it can save the rest of them too. HELIOS. The Vaults. Black Mountain. Nellis Airforce Base. The Hoover Dam. All perfectly preserved, untouched by time."
The hologram army had been daunting in the abstract. The vision of Cloud dawning on the desert roads she'd walked had no such distance, and she only barely nailed the scorn in place before something more treacherous escaped her. Balking now would embolden him; this nightmare had to be reasoned down. "Untouched by workers too, if you're burying them in Cloud."
"Ideal. No amateurs, no scavengers… no saboteurs." A sigh whispered over his line. "Everything as it should be."
And Cain saw Elijah's dreams as they truly were. There were no chain gangs or collars there, no conscripts and ultimatums and the mounds of corpses that grew from those who still defied his absolute rule. There was no defiance in this future. No failure, and no more need to control. Just resounding silence, and ruins and old bones beneath an empty sky.
"I'll wipe the slate clean," he muttered. "I'll return there with the Old World as my weapons. I'll send the Cloud, the holograms. Scour the infestation clean and rain spears on them from the sun. I'll burn them all away until it's only me on the tower, alone… and nothing like HELIOS can happen again."
Maybe he'd meant to build his own world once, but Dean hadn't been the only man to make the Sierra Madre his heart.
A pop behind her, like fat on a skillet. Alex smoldered weakly, burnt meat and something worse.
It was impossible to know if she'd waited long enough, but stalling would only help one of them and no answers remained here but madness.
"It's a brilliant plan," she told him honestly enough. "Terrifying, but nobody's feasibly stopping it. There's not enough time to work out a counter... spring everything at once and you can probably cut off communications entirely. With this much firepower, you wouldn't need to. You were right, only the Sierra Madre could give you this. The samples upstairs are proof of concept, but it's the vault that has the keys to the kingdom." She didn't have time for a good, solid pause; Elijah would only give her so much silence before he went back to grandstanding. But it was enough. "Ever stopped to think about where I'm standing?"
The man on the screen sneered, all traces of reverie lost. "What of it? I can remove you any time I wish."
"We both know that's not true." Cain took her hands off the mainframe, though she didn't stray from it. "You know, for all you've hinged on this vault and how long you've struggled to get here, you're pretty shy about visiting it yourself."
His eyes narrowed. "Spare me. I've already listened to you wax on this at length. You're planning an ambush; it's the only option you'd think you have left. You don't. The elevator cuts through the casino's floors and the signal will latch long before I land. The shields block you and your weapons; they don't block my broadcast and they don't go down until I tell them to. I accessed the vault schematics the moment you brought the systems online. There's no vantage that lets you reach me before I detonate your collar." He moved away from the screen, just far enough to see the metallic lines of his shoulders. "Should I assume your questions are done with?"
"Just one more, and I'll leave you to your hard-earned victory." Cain felt a lot of things in that moment. Pain, definitely, sharp and steady enough to bead wetness down her cheeks. Horror on a level she'd scarcely visited, only held at bay by logic she didn't quite believe. Hatred that, like the rest, never dulled to something tolerable. It wasn't enough to make up for those, no - but in the moment she drew the knife and stabbed it down, she could at least turn those back on the man who'd caused them. "Everything you want is on this terminal. Your remote disposal works through plastic explosive. So why do you think I'd come to you?"
The sunken face went taut, and her lips split wide to show her teeth.
"The funny thing is, it's not actually the worst oversight you made. See, you were in a better position than me. You had ways of killing me that wouldn't end in an explosion next to the biggest thing you're after. But because you wired that fail-deadly into the system, you'll get the explosion no matter what you choose. I go, so does everything you've been working for. All this time you've waited…" Cruel relish crept into her voice. "Real shame you've rigged these to blow when we die, isn't it? You could've waited for me to starve down here, but you've guaranteed that no matter how I kick it, you lose. Unless you make me move."
"And you think I can't?" The words were harsh as ever, but his nostrils had flared and his eyes were wild. "I can leave you a paraplegic. I can filter the Cloud to leave you at the edge of death and have your withered body dragged from the vault you squat in."
"Can you have me anything, though? Because last headcount I took, Dean was dead. Dog won't listen to you anymore, and I'd double down that he'll go for your throat if you try. Christine would sooner die than help you destroy the Brotherhood, so while you'd get one off your to-do list, I'll still be down here." Her fingers oozed when she pried them apart, but she ticked them down anyway. "And you still weren't out of options, but then you murdered the best bargaining chip you had on me. You knew that he'd do anything in his power to keep me alive. That he'd destroy you if he failed. Did you really think I wasn't prepared to reciprocate? Were you even paying attention? You're so quick to throw away your tools. It's no wonder it took you this long to get here."
"I was here months ago!" Elijah snarled.
All the momentum she'd built crashed to a screeching halt. "What?"
"You think you're special, standing there? You got the furthest; I led you furthest. I kept your compatriots in line and strung the triggers together. You're not the first, and it's only because I intervened that you didn't end up like the rest of them."
Cain stared, stunned. Elijah hadn't been trying to break into the casino. He'd been inside it this entire time, with no way to get out.
That was insane. That made so much sense.
No wonder he'd been so reluctant to follow through with his threats. This team would have been his last chance. He had no connection to the outside world - would he even be able to communicate with anyone if not for her Pip-Boy? And the only reason he'd been able to get new prisoners was because Dog habitually carried out his old orders, patrolling and priming his traps. If the Nightkin died, everything ended.
"It was madness," Elijah hissed, and there was honest horror on the breath, half-buried and choked beneath his anger. "They saw the Old World unlocked, realized the treasure could be theirs, and their alliances meant nothing. It wasn't enough to threaten them with death when each thought they were useful to me alone. They destroyed each other… couldn't control themselves. Had to control you for you. So I strung you together, tied the collars to each other. And I waited."
How long had he been in there? She had the clues - Dog's terror, Dean's failure, the Gala unaccounted for. How long until he'd cracked the vault on his own? How long until the Cloud would have poured across the horizon, if she hadn't fallen for a tune on a radio?
No point wondering. All that mattered was that she was here now, and the control he'd thought to force was the noose around his neck.
"You should have escaped when you had the chance," she said aloud. He'd thrown her off her game, but she was so close to where she needed to be, and in the end, this didn't change a thing. "Had us open the doors and then run for it. But we both know you'd never do that, right?"
"Escape...? Escape the Sierra Madre? Is that what you think it is? A prison? Of course you do... you have nowhere to run to. But I'm right where I need to be. Closer than ever."
"I'm closer than you are, Elijah." He didn't seem to be getting the point. One last push. She shrugged the Holorifle from her back and tapped the barrel against her forehead. "And if I don't have a way out, I'm taking all of it with me. So maybe you should offer me one."
There was a long silence. He stared at her, his face a grotesque statue. A vein pounded in his temple.
Far across from her, the elevator's doors shut. She heard the carriage creak its way upward.
"Don't move," he snapped, and the screen went dead.
Cain did not move, though it was hardly on Elijah's request. There was nothing else she could do to prepare. She'd already worked a path behind the desk if he showed up with a stun gun, and as long as that forcefield was up, she'd have the second's warning.
But nerves crept in in the absence of defiance, and she found herself holding breaths until she remembered to release them. Should she keep the gun to her head? Being the one to hold it didn't change how it felt, and her bandaged fingers had grown dangerously slick besides. No, not worth it. Second-guessing wouldn't help her now, only her poker face. One last time to make it count.
Something plinked softly, rhythmically. On the far side of the forcefield, Alex's fingers were starting to drip.
A bell chimed.
The figure that emerged from the elevator was clad in heavy Power Armor; his boots clanked sharp and authoritative as metal struck metal, and a set of tubes she'd never seen before snaked from each limb to a module on his back. On top of such bulk, his bared head looked shrunken.
He stopped at the mouth of the hall; the ribbed barrel of a Gauss rifle found her and aimed accordingly. Through the distance and the forcefield, Cain couldn't make out his expression.
"Set your bags on the floor, drop your weapons, and exit the vault. Stand at the center of the platform."
Elijah sounded different without the static feedback layering his voice. Breathless. Frail.
"I'm comfortable where I am, thanks."
"I can remove this field at any time. I'll have enough time to drag your corpse out out before it detonates." He brandished the rifle at Mercer's remains. "If you don't want to end up like your bodyguard, you'll do exactly as I say."
Her eyes lingered on them. "You haven't given me a reason to believe that. I'll put down the gun as a sign of good faith, but I'm not leaving the vault until you disable my collar."
"This isn't a negotiation, Twenty-One." He stalked forward. "I won't ask again. Drop your-"
Mercer surged upward.
It was over quickly. Elijah's leg had passed closest to the broken figure, and that was the first thing he lunged for. The armor buckled, and the Elder shouted as the man he thought dead rose to his full height. Half his body was gone; one leg was paper-thin and tendrils crawled from the missing parts of his face. He threw himself at Father Elijah with naked desperation. Gouts of hard light burned clean through his body, but he was beyond caring; he bore down, forcing his prey to the ground. The fallen Elder didn't have a chance. He raised his arms as if to shield himself, the frailty of an arthritic old man behind the Power Armor, and Alex slammed his fist through his chest, steel and all.
She looked away when the screaming ended and the slurping started.
She'd told Christine that it didn't matter who pulled the trigger, that you didn't have to be the instrument to own an act of revenge. That it was enough to know you'd made it happen. She'd been lying at the time. And she knew she could have orchestrated something karmic, given the chance - or since there was already pleasing karma in the Madre's castoff dead rising to take down the man who'd thrown their lives away, then something that would see Elijah rage at his powerlessness before he died. And that would have been satisfying, but standing here now, it just... wasn't important anymore.
He was alive. They had all gotten through this alive.
And on that note, the sounds had mostly stopped. She dared to look. Alex stood still, arm slightly outstretched; she watched as the second one sprouted, pinkish muscle wrapping around pinkish bone. The only traces of Father Elijah she could find were a few plates of metal and his fallen rifle.
The eyes that met hers were lucid.
That was the cue she'd needed, and started towards the forcefield, picking up speed as she went. She felt lighter than she had in a week. Maybe a lifetime. She could feel the chains that held her cracking loose, dropping limp behind her. She was free.
Some of that lightness faded when she realized half an Alex was still crumpled on her side of the field, and she stopped well before she reached it, much preferring the one that watched her back. "Feeling better?"
He shrugged, roughly. "It's a start."
He sounded better. Brusque, but like the Alex she knew. And he didn't have that look in his eyes.
"Just be patient for a little longer." It was surreal to think that she could actually leave. She'd been unable to bail for so long that the option almost didn't feel natural anymore, and that was a little horrifying. "Gonna see if I can get those down again-"
It didn't sink in immediately, somehow. Not until it beeped again a second later, and she looked down at the same moment her heart dropped through her ribs.
She hadn't lost all her chains. The last of them had always been the tightest. She gripped at her neck, too fraught to even swear. Not - not now -
She jerked towards the forcefield, where Alex had gone rigid to match her. "He must have had a kill switch," she rasped.
"How do-" His face slackened. Two seconds later, he was on his knees and snatching up the broken Power Armor. "Fuck!"
"His Pip-Boy's broken. No override." He threw himself at the walkway, fists swelling, and all further curses were swallowed up by the heavy clanging that ensued.
Cain could barely hear it. Elijah had taken the time to gloat at her, and his collar echoed the same smug cruelty beyond his death, building up to inevitability at its own lazy pace. It was already faster than before. She started walking, then broke into a run. Calm - she needed a plan, not panic. She'd dealt with this before, she'd lived through this before. Once she got off this floor, everything would be fine. The elevator was right there. She just had to take the forcefield down.
She raced past the gold bars and grabbed the desk with both hands; her broken wrist screeched, and she wailed with it. Stay calm. It didn't matter. She didn't need both hands for this.
The terminal loaded slow, too slow. Her fingers jittered as she paged back through Sinclair's meandering epitaph. She could already feel heat on her neck. There. She skimmed through the options, and her stomach crashed to her feet at the angry tone she got. Access denied.
She hammered in the strings again, hand shaking. Access denied. Access denied. Fuck, it wasn't working anymore, the barrier was still bright and blue and half of Alex Mercer slumped bonelessly against her side. The other-
The other Alex was missing, and the basement trembled with not-so-distant cracks.
Right. The long way. Didn't matter if there was a forcefield in the way; she could take the other on a timetable. Cain inhaled, choked on it, and told her legs to shut up or die. She barely got out of the vault anyway.
She'd seen Alex move from a safe vantage, and it was a mad thing to watch at a distance. Up close, it was like tracking a bullet, if the bullet were the shape and size of a man. He exploded past her with a shrieking wall of air, and by the time she'd spun around, he'd already crashed into the forcefield. The other half of his body melted, flowing upward into him.
There were fingers swimming in his jacket when he caught up with her again, slammed into her and swung her onto his back, and this wasn't at that impossible speed, because she still had bones in her body at the end of it. She scrabbled for purchase, throwing her good arm around his neck.
Agony drove the breath from her lungs - the slipstream snatched up anything that it left behind. She nearly flew off at the first turn, hairpin-tight and faster than she could understand; she had to leverage the other elbow around him too, and fresh hell radiated from the spot where he'd ripped it open. Blood oozed down his jacket, adding fresh lines to the looping red design. From here, it almost looked like a heart.
He probably still wanted to eat her, but there were only so many kinds of imminent death she could track at a time. The bomb around her throat was a lot less conflicted about the whole thing.
Their narrow hallway burst wide. The walkways ahead had been long and winding, and she had an instant to see that the closest one was coming apart at the hinges. Then the shape beneath her bunched and leapt, everything fell that much faster, and the world swerved twenty degrees to the right.
Alex was running on the wall.
Cain was far too occupied with not dying to even try to figure out how this was possible. She couldn't see through him, but she'd snuck around this room long enough to know that there was not a floor there. He wasn't even running up the wall, which was almost as baffling but she'd at least seen him do it. He was somehow racing along its side, body angled inward so that she didn't tumble headfirst over his shoulders and into the Cloud below. Or maybe it was for balance, hell if she knew. One of his arms was stretched to skim it, and she had a mad urge to copy him.
He dove without warning, and a high-speed doorframe missed her head by inches. Right, not dying.
It was hard to gauge chaos when she was riding its purest expression, and solid ground was not familiar turf when taken at the speed of a rocket launch, but the world made a sliver more sense from this vantage, and it was just enough to catch something off. Three seconds later, when they burst into the next great chamber, she understood.
Entire sections of the basement were collapsing around them. Ceiling struts clattered to folding catwalks and rolled into a hazy abyss. It was a blur of grey and red and horrible noise – noise punctuated by the strident beeping around her neck, because that was getting faster, gaining on the frantic pace of her heart.
When the beam ahead swung free, it wasn't down but straight towards her. It had tumbled from the other side of the room, but the distance between them was evaporating like the desert dew. She yelped and dug her fingers into her ride's shoulders, pulling her head down as much as she could – and then Alex's arm shot up and knocked the beam away. It spun to the side with a low metallic clang, and she heard it crash against a wall a second later, now far behind her. How could he be this coordinated at this speed, in this madness?
"Thanks," she wheezed.
He didn't respond. That was probably for the best. It was anarchy all around them; the half-constructed basement had been left to limp through two hundred years of neglect, and now it was bowing out of the game for good. One last dash to put it from its misery.
The door ahead had a jagged hole blown through it, and twisted sheets of metal reached out to grasp them. Cain braced herself and ducked. Warmth beaded on her cheek.
She glimpsed the broken staircase up ahead, the one where she'd hoped for a lift on the way back. The Cloud had stirred in swirling tendrils in front of it, and Alex leapt clean across the room. The far landing snapped as soon as they hit it, but she never heard it hit the ground.
She recognized the home stretch not through sight - the lights here were strobing warnings, and she could only catch snapshots between the blinding flashes and the wrenching turns. Her eyes burned as much as her arms, but she couldn't think of closing them. The collar was faster than her heart now, and her heart was running stiff competition.
So little time left. She was terrified to lose a second of it.
The next door was simply shut, a solid mass of steel that rushed forth in the space of a blink. Alex never slowed - he thrust his arms forward, and it tore around them like paper. And straight ahead-
Alex must have recognized the elevator before she did, because he braked, hard. The shriek of metal when he dug in his heels was loud enough to drown out the countdown inches from her ears, and from the way her insides lurched, Cain was pretty sure she'd bruised every organ in her body. The impact had already thrown her forward, so she let gravity have its way with her; she tumbled from her shoulder perch to crawl one-armed, squishing herself through the doors before they were halfway open. The space was dark and cramped, doubly so once Alex took his place. Forget the ride, the stillness was so much worse. She had to move!
She hammered the controls in the vain hope that thirty jabs might shut the doors faster than one. She could have wept when the carriage creaked to life and began its ponderous climb.
She could have wept anyway, because the bomb hadn't stopped. It was still keening. She was still in range, would be in range until she reached the top. She wasn't going to reach the top, because this goddamn thing too slow and there was nothing she could do but scream.
"Come on! Faster!" She slammed her fist against the elevator walls. The collar around her neck had reached a fever pitch, less of a series of beeps and more one drawn-out whine. There was no time left. She wasn't going to make it. "Fuck. Fuck!"
After everything, everything she'd gone through, everything she'd survived, this was how it was going to end. Another ghost of the Madre, just a few seconds too late.
Large hands grasped her by the shoulders. "I need you to trust me."
Her breath caught. She wanted to pull back - she'd wanted to pull back then, and she still couldn't, and all she could do was stare into the blue eyes bearing down on her. Different. The same. She felt hands on her wrists and a collar on her neck, and one of them was now and-
If Alex had a plan–
The words 'do it!" rose and choked in her throat, because those hands were melting on her. Something hot and smooth was spreading over her shoulders, and tiny tendrils were skittering up her throat.
She screamed and made to push him away, but it had already covered her sleeves, pinning them to her sides like a straightjacket. She felt it crawling over her hips now, her mouth, her eyes; the last of the dim lighting left her world as it closed over the crown of her head, trapping her in a pitch-black cage. She couldn't see, couldn't breathe, oh god he was actually doing it, he was eating her alive-
All semblance of understanding was stripped away as she shrieked and thrashed, battering uselessly against impossibly hard restraints. She could barely move at all, and that brought on a fresh wave of panic. Wetness ran down her arms; her wrist crunched again, and the pain didn't matter anymore. She retched and gasped, and her heart seized in her chest. Something distant rose to an earsplitting wail, and she wondered if it was her own voice.
She was buried all over again and it wasn't dirt piling over her it was flesh it was shifting around her because he was eating her she was suffocating she couldn't get out it was so dark she was buried alive and she couldn't hear herself scream-
There was a crack of deafening sound, and the darkness around her seized. The temperature grew unbearably hot. Her stomach threw itself against her lungs, and then again with the rest of her body when she slammed up, then down, then–
She fell forward, gasping, and hit the floor face-first.
She lay there for a while. It wasn't until the dry heaves stopped that a hand reached down to her.
She grasped at it, and Alex pulled her to her feet.
The elevator had made its last trip, she could tell that much. The walls had buckled outwards, and thick black lines of char streaked outwards from the hole blasted through the floor. The material beneath her feet was solid concrete, and through the wreckage of the elevator doors, it was clear they weren't docked at the basement floor anymore. Or any floor the carriage was supposed to land at.
Her eyes traveled back to the sole shape that stood unaffected by the destruction. Well, mostly unaffected. Alex was rubbing his neck. He snorted when he saw her watching. "That would have been a lot easier if you weren't squirming."
Squirming. The horror slithered back where flesh once had, and she fought not to hold herself. Her arms weren't fit for that now, and there was another memory she had to shut away before she thought about it. "What did you do to me?"
"Nothing." When she opened her mouth, one corner of his quirked up in a smile. "Formed myself around you. Armor. Not something I want to do again anytime soon."
When the darkness had swallowed her, it had felt like dying all over again. It had felt like...
He'd taken a bomb for her.
Cain swallowed, and felt the livid bruises she'd soon have around her neck. The panel behind her was suddenly incredibly interesting.
"Thanks," she whispered.
"I'm just glad I could, this time."
Yeah. Really interesting, this wall. She poked a few buttons for the hell of it, and wasn't surprised when none got a response. Half of them were missing anyway.
...Actually, maybe this was a point of interest.
"So, uh. I'm as relieved as you are that the hard part's over, but do you have any idea on how the hell we're going to get out of here? Because the old way's looking pretty checked out."
Alex reached up and tore the ceiling open. Above, several hundred feet of vent stretched into darkness.
[Achievement Unlocked! Dead Money (25pts) – The Sierra Madre was the tomb of hundreds – some guests to its halls, and some fortune-seekers drawn by the lure of its song. You weren't the first to crack its secrets, but you were the first to walk away afterwards.]