AN: In this story, Cole was Good, all the way, but chose the evil ending at the finale of Infamous 2.
THE RIGHT THING
Every now and then, she could see the hope. Just the tiniest, desperate gleam of hope in his eyes. The tiniest, slowly dimming glimpse that he still believed in what they were doing.
It usually came when Mika did her work. A sweet nine year old Conduit that could make things grow. When she had covered over the ruins of Empire City; and made all three islands grow into the most perfect garden that anyone had ever seen; Cole almost smiled.
It gave Kuo hope, to see the lines on his face fade a little; to see all the horrors get pushed back, just the tiniest bit.
She knew he hated it. Hated the entire campaign. She hated it too; but she knew there weren't any options. When there was only one choice left; you followed through, no matter how terrible that choice was.
But The Man that they had poured their hopes into could see nothing but the choices he didn't take.
The Counter-Offensives were swift and deadly. The Beast protected them. His armies were almost unneeded. Protecting his own was something that even Beast McGrath could get behind. He protected them ferociously.
Their March swept down the rest of the coast, and across the Midwest. And where they walked, the mountains would tremble.
They kept traveling west until they reached the coastline. The Army, the Air Force, the Marines... Everyone tried but nothing could touch them. Cole's electric power was such that their radios ceased to work as he willed it, their drones falling out of the sky. Some Conduits had hearing so sensitive they could hear the missiles coming with an hours warning, and they too fell uselessly to the ground.
One of the missiles had familiar radiation warnings on it. Cole's shockwaves were powerful enough to send it flying back the way it had come, and nobody tried that again.
They started with thousands from New Marais, and quickly they grew to tens of thousands. By the time they reached the coastline, they were hundreds of thousands.
The Army of Conduits, with him in the lead, quickly fell into the routine. When they needed to eat, they paused their march and ate. When they grew tired, they paused their march and slept. When they reached a city, there would be defenders, ready to oppose them.
And after the Counter-Attacks, came the Destruction. The Beast McGrath would order them to stay behind as he walked into the next city alone. Sometimes the wind would carry the distant screams, which would always go quiet. After an hour of so, he would quietly walk back to his Army, and tell them to get moving. They would enter the defeated city, and find the newly Awakened.
Kuo was a Chief Lieutenant in that army. She held a position of great authority; since she was the only one that The Beast McGrath had personally appointed. She was his Commander; his go-between with the forces that grew every day. She was glad for the position. It gave her something to do, and it gave her the chance to keep things off his plate.
And it gave her the chance to meet each new Conduit that their March brought into the world.
And that was her guiding certainty. It was the one certainty that kept all the hundreds of thousands on their feet.
After the Destruction, came the Awakening. As the cities burned... The Survivors would come out, looking up to the sky with a grateful smile; like they'd never been alive before.
Some of them would fly.
The nights were wonderful. At night, he called a halt to their march, and everyone settled. Some of their number could manipulate the weather; and there would be clear night skies. Some of them could make fire dance between their fingertips, or conjure music from the air. The nights were like a circus.
Some would scavenge, taking jewellery or trinkets from whatever city they had just crushed. There was no hoarding, because there would always be plenty for all.
The Children took it the hardest. Their lives had been saved, and made new; but they mourned the fact that their parents couldn't come too. They were adopted by all, and Kuo was more certain than ever. There were no divides among the Awakened. No family grudges, no racial or economic or political divisions. Money was nothing to them, politics was nothing to them, race was so much less important when you became an entirely new species.
The Conduits were the fulfillment of the old dream: A united family of people.
At night, there was always the most wonderful energy in the air. It was the feeling of New Life, of people exploring to see the wondrous things that they could do. The nights were times when the War of Awakening seemed far away, and there was only gratitude at having survived.
And gratitude to the one that had Awoken them.
Kuo moved through the crowd. They always came to her with questions and messages; but they always stepped aside when she got close. She glanced up at the dark buildings, or what was left of them, and her senses found The Beast McGrath sitting on the edge of a rooftop. He always took a high place when they paused. He still liked to climb.
She reached, and in a sudden puff of ice crystals and water vapor, she was there instantly, floating a few levels below him. "Cole?"
McGrath looked down at Kuo, who had appeared in a cloud of mist. "Yeah?"
Another puff of mist, and she was suddenly on the edge of the building beside him. "Mika asked me to give you this. She made it for you."
It was a bright red apple. It was perfect. "That kid is a gem." Cole said, accepting it the gift, holding it up for inspection. "I haven't seen one of these in two years."
Kuo smiled. "There's a guy down there, just joined us... he has a rather unique talent. Anything that he holds in his left hand? He can create a duplicate in his right hand. He's been doing it all night."
Cole tossed the apple back to her. "Give him this, have him pass them out."
She pushed it back to him. "That was a gift."
Cole didn't fight her on it, but he didn't eat the apple. Didn't even take a bite.
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. "When did you last eat?"
Cole actually had to think about it. "I don't know... I'm not hungry. Maybe I don't need food any more."
They sat in silence for a while. A cool mist shivered out from her hands, cooling them both. Neither of them suffered the cold. Her touch had laid ice on his cheek when she'd first Awoken, but since sharing her powers with him, he was immune to the cold, just as she was.
"Tell me again." He said quietly.
"We're doing the right thing." Kuo told him. She'd had to say it every night for almost a year. "Eat your apple."
"Not hungry." Cole passed it to her.
"It was a gift from Mika." Kuo reminded him. "That little girl worships you. They all do."
"They shouldn't." Cole sighed. "Trish... she was into the environment. She kept going on and on about how we were destroying the earth. I would laugh at the irony, if not for that kid. When we destroy cities, we've got people that put paradise in their place."
Kuo nodded, glad to see him thinking that way. "The Humans are too many, Cole. We're starting over, with a smaller, more evolved population. We're not destroying the world, we're remaking it."
Cole rubbed his tired eyes. "God, I hope so."
Kuo rose to her feet, standing above him. "It wouldn't kill you to come down and join the party." She told him gently. "There are hundreds of thousands down there, and all of them are alive because of you." The gentle tone faded, as she got more worked up. "Look at the things we can do now, and it's all because of you! Dammit Cole, would you open your eyes to the people who love you?!"
He didn't answer for a long time. "Have you noticed that you're the only one left that calls me 'Cole'?"
Kuo shrugged. "I suppose so. I'm the onl-" She shut herself up real quick.
He turned on her so fast his eyes flashed sparks. "There! Finish that sentence!"
Kuo sighed. "I'm the only one left that knows your name." She finished.
"There's a young woman down there named Marissa." Kuo said finally. "She can make music out of thin air. If she can imagine it, she can play it. She says she's never been happier. There's an old man named Werner. He was the first person in Austin to get the Plague, and the only one in the whole hospital to survive. He can breathe for the first time in two years, and when he breathes on people, they are cured of everything from the common cold to migraines. There's a man named Kensington. He used to feed the ducks in the park, and now he can actually talk to the animals around us." She turned to him, begging him to understand. "Cole... These are real people that you're saving. Their only sin is that they're a minority. And not for nothing, but you and I are in that minority too."
"So was Nix." Cole pointed out. "What would she say?"
Kuo scowled, as she usually did when she heard Nix's name. "That girl wouldn't recognize the greater good if it jumped up and bit her on the ass." She said plainly. "But she'd probably say that you stink. When was the last time you took a shower?"
"Two years ago, after the first Ray Sphere. I tried the one in the ward. Shorted out the only hospital that still had power and set the recovery ward on fire."
Kuo held out a hand to him. "I had them set up a room for us. You can wash there. You can get some rest."
"Us?" Cole repeated the one word that stood out.
Kuo nodded. "Yeah. The whole Army assumes we're together."
Cole sighed again. He'd been sighing a lot, but he didn't comment on it. He didn't care what they thought. "Fine. Where is it?"
Kuo lunged forward on the edge of the rooftop and hugged him close to her body for an instant. By the time he pulled away, they were in a whole other place. One of the least damaged rooms in the city.
Cole snapped his fingers and a spark appeared between them. The lights all flashed on, revealing an expensive hotel room. There was food on the table. Piles of it. There was a huge stack of papers, most of them folded over. "What are they?" Cole asked her.
"Your fan mail." Kuo told him. "They all want to say thank you, but they don't know if... So they tell me. I tell them to go to you, but they're scared."
Cole reached out hesitantly, took the top letter... and set it down without reading it. He set the apple down too. "I'm going to wash up." He told her. "Sleep here if you want. We'll be on the road a while, won't get much chance to sleep in beds again for a few days at least."
He went to the bathroom, and she could hear the water running. She took her shoes off and sat upright on the bed, against the headboard. "Listen." She called into the bathroom. "Before we head south? We might want to head westward first."
"Across the ocean? Why?" Cole called back.
"Well, one of the helicopter pilots they sent after us this morning? He was a Latent Conduit. Now that he's with us, he wanted to warn you; China is planning to launch everything they've got over here once they've confirmed that the US is done for. Leaving now and cleaning up the Nuclear Powers might be the smarter move."
Long silence, then more splashing. She could hear the slight sizzle when the water got too thick.
"What are you thinking?" She called in to him.
"More than three quarters of the planet wash in a basin of water, like I have to. There isn't enough to go around otherwise." He called back. "Those places are so... crowded. When we talked about it before? You said 'The Humans are too many'. When did we stop being human?"
Kuo said nothing.
Cole came out of the bathroom, looking a bit fresher, wearing one of the hotel bathrobes. She knew from experience that his clothes would be hanging in the shower. "Tell me again, Kuo."
"We're doing the right thing." She promised him, and patted the bed beside her. "But you need to sleep."
Cole just looked at her. The look in his eyes was so distant, she honestly didn't know if he was aware of her. "If I stay in here with you? Nobody will come looking for you tonight." She offered.
"Whatever." Cole admitted; but he sank down to the floor, laying out on his back.
She leaned over the edge of the five star hotel bed, to look at him on the floor. "Cole?"
"I haven't slept on a bed in two years." He told her, not for the first time. "During Empire City? I had the couch on Zeke's roof. New Marais? The only times I did sleep was when the damn Blast Cores made me pass out."
Kuo slid off the edge of the bed and sat beside his body. She had been standing guard over him while he slept. He never slept enough.
After a moment he spoke again. "How do we get to China?"
"We've got shipyards. There's nothing in the world you can't power up. Some of the really big cargo haulers? We fill up the holds with camping gear and a half dozen of them are enough for everybody." Kuo promised him. "Through China to India and Pakistan, then double back through Russia, on through Europe, south through Africa, then back to the US. All the nuclear powers."
"Tell me again." He whispered, completely exhausted. He started to snore before she could answer him.
"You're doing the right thing." She whispered to him anyway. "You saved our lives Cole, and the first one you saved was mine."
He didn't wake up, and she went to the window. The whole city looked like it had been hit by a nuke. But it hadn't. It was hit by something that ate mushroom clouds for breakfast. The whole city was dark, and Kuo could see the bodies clearly.
But in the middle of the city, a few streets away, there was a huge crowd of living people. How they could throw such a celebration of life in a city of the dead was something that inspired her. And sometimes, just sometimes, it scared her.
She had been a Federal Agent. It was her job to stop things like this. Icy cold mist flowed between her fingers. She had renounced her badge long before she had encouraged Cole to finish the Work. She held on to the stories that came to her, the gratitude of the thousands of miracle people that Cole had saved.
But sometimes, as the night wrapped up and she stood guard over their sleeping King, her own doubts nagged at her, and she wondered if she'd made the choice that fateful day out of cowardice.
Fear had ruled a lot of her choices since her Conduit Powers had awoken. Fear of Bertrand. Fear of the Machines she'd been hooked up to. Fear of the things she could do... Fear of dying.
She'd made the conscious choice, to save herself and those like her, and never mind how many got cast out.
She was an Agent, not a soldier. She didn't go to war, she won wars before they were fought. By convincing Cole... She'd won the Last War humanity would ever fight.
She looked to the stack of thank you letters on the table. People brought them as tribute. But Cole didn't want their thanks. They bought him food, but he didn't want or need to eat. They gave him privacy with her, but for all the things that had been through; she knew he'd probably never want her. He still wanted Trish. Maybe he'd even turn to Nix. A mere human, and The Bayou Firebug.
He could have anything he wanted. The problem was, he didn't want anything.
All he wanted was to have Zeke back. All he wanted was to undo everything that he'd ever done. All he wanted was to resurrect the millions that couldn't be saved. All he wanted was to be forgiven.
Are we doing the right thing? Or are we just doing what's needed?
Doing what was needed, even if it was coldblooded, was nothing new to her. Or to him. He'd fought tooth and nail to take back two cities from the madness that had claimed them.
He'd fought with Conduits, to save humans.
And then one day, he couldn't have it both ways any more.
She looked back to him, then to the people having a party outside; then to the perfect red apple on the table. Giving in, she took a bite. It was perfect.
The rest of the world was in meltdown. Every economy everywhere had collapsed. The world trade routes had shut down. Factories were closed, supermarkets were being left empty, farms were being left to rot by workers that would never be paid.
Soon there would be no apples left for anyone... except the people that could conjure them from thin air.
Keep him strong. She told herself, as she always did in moments of doubt. You keep him going, he creates Conduits, they'll keep you strong in the struggle. Keep him moving, to keep this moving, to keep yourself moving.
She knew the burden was weighing heavily on him. She could see it. Every million victims, another line appeared on his face.
Three different navies had come for their huge Cargo Hauler. Cole had swept them out of the sky, out of the ocean. Every now and then, Kuo would conjure an iceberg to trap an entire aircraft carrier. She wasn't needed, but she didn't want him to have to do it all alone.
When he left the ship and The Beast McGrath had walked into Beijing, the rest of their people had drifted away from her, staying back from Kuo. She wanted to tell them it was all right. She wanted to tell them about Empire City and New Marais, and all the good things he had done...
But she didn't dare, because both those cities were gone, taken clean off the map.
They avoided her when Cole was at his most dangerous, because most of assumed that she was his girlfriend.
She had seen him with Nix, the two of them always leaning into each other, slow dancing around each other, his face intrigued, hers was plainly hungry for him... But with Kuo, he respected her space; never presumed anything. He was protective of her. Emotionally, he nearly clung to her. But she knew he'd always see her as... cold.
The thought almost made her laugh.
He'd taken her advice that day; when Nix, of all people, was making the noble stand. The woman who had suggested blowing up police stations and adopting monsters had wanted to save the Human Race... And as he always did, he stepped away from her, and gone with Kuo's advice.
Whenever he'd rejected Nix's bloodthirsty plans, the dark skinned woman would react like she'd been rejected personally. Everyone knew that her interest in him was more than professional.
And as she heard one story after another from their growing population of Conduits... Kuo came to realize that hers was too.
China was the point of no return. They had no chance of escape, no chance of evacuating those huge cities. With the US half finished; China was the only production Capital left. Even if they'd stopped right now; the human race would never recover.
The cities they marched on were already half wrecked as what was left of the world went mad, clawing at each other for the last scraps of food and water, as the shipments stopped; and trade dried up. What the Plague had spared, the collapse of infrastructure had finished off.
He knew it too. He'd stopped asking her if they were doing the right thing. She wanted to believe he was convinced; but deep down, she knew it was because he didn't care any more.
It made her sick to her stomach. She wanted him to care. About the March, about the people he was Awakening, about... her.
"What's the count?" He'd asked her during their third week in Asia.
Kuo was effectively his Chief of Staff now, and could recite the numbers from memory. "We've picked up another thousand Conduits. The vast majority of them are like the ones in the States; their powers categorized the same way. A quarter of them can teleport, a quarter can fly, some with mentalism powers, others with elemental powers..." She looked at him with a light smile. "None with electric powers. You're still one of a kind, Storm-God."
He didn't smile. He never did. "A thousand? We took out half of China, and all we got back were a thousand?"
Kuo steeled herself. "We found some papers in what was left of their..." She rubbed her eyes. "It looks like someone worked out what we were doing, and why. They've started rounding up Conduits before we could get here. Someone had the bright idea that if there were no Conduits to Awaken, then maybe we wouldn't come."
Cole was silent, still as a statue. Overhead, a sudden crash of thunder and lightning forked across the entire clear sky, horizon to horizon. The only demonstration of the sudden lethal rage that filled him. As the lightning faded; he erupted. "DAMMIT KUO! What was it FOR?!"
She put her hands up, trying to calm him. "They aren't stupid Cole, and they're in a corner now. You're the King of the Jungle, but there's only one of you." She hesitated. "May I suggest-"
"No." He told her, not for the first time.
"Cole, you can only be in one place. They're rounding up our kind all over the place! You know the only way we can stop them is to split up! You've got an Army here, give them a mission!"
"I do that, there'll be casualties!" Cole roared back at them. "I'm the only one that they can't kill!"
"Yes! There will be casualties!" She yelled back, right in his face. "That's the way this goes! You keep us all together in one place; and they'll round up every Conduit they can find before you can move a crowd this size." She waved out at the Conduit Army. "You want the Awakening to end?"
Cole sank into the chair behind him, and bowed his head, heavy with the burden again. She slowly lifted a hand and rested her fingertips gently on his head, before stepping closer and putting her hands on his shoulders. It was the first time since New Marais that she had dared to touch him gently.
They sat in silence for a while.
"I assume you have a strike team picked?" He said finally.
"Trained and ready." She promised. "I can be back in less than two days-"
"No." Cole shook his head. "I want you to stay with me."
Her heart gave a solid thump before memory caught up. He just wanted to protect her.
It was the unspoken truth of their dynamic. He was the Sword, and she was the Support. He hated her for pushing him further along, but he clung to her, because he knew he'd give up without her. And if he stopped now; then it would all be for nothing. Their relationship was born out of a desperate mutual need to save her life and his soul.
The Strike Teams did their job well. They went ahead of The Beast McGrath, and set their own kind free.
These Heralds were spoken of in fear, because where they walked, the Empire Threat was close behind.
The March of Awakening swept through Moscow, and turned Westwards again. Every Stadium, every public centre, every meeting place had been converted into a Mass Hospital, and a few into Mass Graves. The Plague was sweeping through the Humans like wildfire.
Kuo spoke with Orson. He had Kinetic Powers, which made him effectively bulletproof. He had led the strike.
"It's getting bad out there." Orson confided to her. "The Conduits were scared out of their minds. They were being held in something that looked a lot like an Internment camp. It was a bunch of shacks, surrounded by razor wire, and about thirty gun turrets aimed in at them." He shook his head. "Most of them had no idea what Conduits were."
"Did you get them out?" Kuo asked.
"Yeah, almost all of them. Thing is, we couldn't bring them all along. Most of them are on the run now... So if we're going to Awaken them before the Government rounds them all up again..." He let the thought go unfinished.
"It's our next stop." Kuo promised him. "I'll let him know."
Orson held out a large travel bag. "Here. These are for him too."
Cole opened the bag, and let out a short bark of disbelief. "Blast Shards?"
Kuo nodded, smiling a little. "Yeah. They wanted you to have them."
Cole took them, the energy passing between his hands with a short gasp. "Why?"
"Because they want to give you something in return, and you don't eat, don't drink, barely sleep..."
"No, I mean, why is this here?" Cole wondered. "I thought Shards were irradiated bits from Ray Sphere Explosions. Why are they here in China?"
"Got news for you." Kuo snorted. "You're a walking Ray Sphere Explosion."
They were alone in a private room again. If there was anyone in earshot, they wouldn't have been speaking of the Ray Sphere at all.
"You should pass these shards out to your Strike Teams." Cole shook his head. "If we're sending these people to attack armed prison camps now... They get enough of these, their powers increase, they might live longer."
"They want you to have them." Kuo pressed him doggedly. "Now, onto some good news?"
"Remind me what good news is?" Cole sighed.
"Alyssa and Harker want to get married."
"Good for them."
"You have no idea who they are, do you?"
"No." He barely reacted. "Congratulate them for me."
"Do it yourself. They want you to perform the ceremony."
Cole actually looked in her direction. "What?"
She spread her hands wide. "Cole, I don't know if you noticed, but you're in charge of this little Army, and where this Army goes, the laws of the earth are declared null and void. What good is a marriage certificate?"
"The one thing we never planned for." Cole sighed. "What to do with the world once we were done burning it all down." He nodded. "Well, you can handle it; you handle everything else."
"I can, but I'm not going to." She said plainly, though part of her braced for an eruption.
He wasn't mad, or even irritated. "Why not?"
"Because I want you to actually meet the people you're saving, and being center stage for the first wedding we've ever thrown? Sounds like a good night. And I know that you won't bring the war into someone else's wedding and make their happy day miserable. So say yes, think up some kind words, have a dance with the bride, and have some fun for a night."
"Fine. I'll have fun." He declared at last. "But this is under protest."
"Well of course it is. I wouldn't dream of expecting you to have fun without someone forcing you." She said with utmost seriousness.
She had to give him credit. He never let the strain show in his face or his voice. Not once, during the whole wedding. He even helped Kuo organize a reception. There was plenty of food. There was plenty of drink. There was plenty of music.
Even Cole danced. Not with the bride, just with Kuo, and just for a little while; but he danced. The music was slow and he had his arms around her. She was almost relaxing into him when she noticed the stares. Everyone was trying not to stare at the two of them. They were thrilled to have him there. But they were terrified of him.
Kuo realized with a sudden shock. They were afraid of him. The same people that sent him thank you gifts were avoiding his gaze.
"Figured it out yet?" He said in her ear.
"I don't understand." Kuo whispered. "How did I not notice?"
"Because they're afraid of me... and you aren't." Cole said, matter-of-factly. "You're the only one in the whole world that isn't afraid of me."
"They don't know you like I do." She excused.
"A baby lamb can get to know a lion, but that doesn't mean things work out well." He wasn't bitter, he was just stating the facts.
"Am I a baby lamb too?" She asked him, speaking softly in his ear.
A cold shudder ran through them both, and just for a second, a split second, the bitterness was noticeable, and then he had it buried again. "Don't... God, Kuo. Don't ever become my enemy. Please?" He wasn't threatening her, he was pleading with her. "Zeke crossed me twice. Nix turned. Moya. The Rebels... Even John couldn't see it through. Please, Kuo? Please stay on my side?"
She wanted to hold him so badly that her ice-cold arms seemed to burn inside. She wanted to take him back to his room and spend hours giving him sweet, gentle love.
Instead, she gave him what he asked for. "I promise."
The music stopped; and the dancing couples around them broke up, applauding the one woman 'band'.
Kuo and Cole did not break apart. It was the closest to each other that they'd ever been, though nobody but them knew that.
The music started again, and everyone went back to dancing. Kuo reached; and both of them vanished in a cloud of vapor.
The reappeared in his private rooms, still in the same position. After a moment, Cole pulled away from her.
"These people would walk into the ocean for you." She told him, soft and sure.
He shook his head, not looking at her. "Back before we met, in Empire City? They realized that I was at Ground Zero for the Ray Sphere, and declared me responsible for the blast. Everywhere I went, random people would throw bricks at me. Then one day I saved a train full of people being held prisoner by a Conduit Gang. Just like that, I was a hero to them, and they started putting up posters." He looked up at her. "People blow with the wind. They'll throw roses at my feet, right up until the moment they try to kill me."
His words proved to be prophetic.
They swept through East Europe like a wave... When London became a complete dogfight.
At the edge of the English Channel, Kuo had stepped forward and frozen the whole thing. They walked across the Channel like a frozen over lake. When they reached the coast, he ordered them to stay behind and wait for him to return. The Beast McGrath stalked toward London. They could hear the weapons-fire, the explosions...
And then they saw The Signal. Three quick blasts of lightning. It was a call for reinforcements that she had set up, but not once on their entire March had he needed it.
Kuo jumped like she'd been hit by one of his lightning bolts. "Let's go!" She roared at the rest of his Army...
And then she heard more screams behind her. She spun around and saw that fighting had broken out between their own people. Almost a hundred Conduits had turned their powers loose on Kuo's forces.
The majority of them were civilians, but civilians with power. They would have fought, if only they could tell who to fight. Confusion had broken out and panic quickly followed.
"Orson!" Kuo ordered someone she trusted. "Handle it!"
He waved at her, and Kuo vanished in a puff of icy vapor.
The Beast McGrath was cutting loose at full power; and he was losing. There were more military assembled here than at any city in the States. As Kuo came into the battle, she saw tanks, aircraft, ATV's... Some of them were carrying British Flags, others French, German, American, Chinese, Australian, Russian...
The assembled Armies of Man had gathered together for a united battle against their common extinction.
The air was thick with missiles and rockets, the ground so tightly packed with armed soldiers that you could not see the streets from above; every tower and building had been fortified with soldiers...
And floating above them all, floating on a wave of red electric light, was the Beast Himself, throwing around tornadoes and fire and ice and lightning, knocking whole squadrons and battalions away with flicks of his hand.
Even over the thick sounds of weapons fire, she could hear a sudden whine of power. She heard it with her soul... which began to rip apart seconds later.
The Beast McGrath howled; and fell from the sky. Kuo nearly bent double as she felt the weapon ripping at her DNA itself.
Kuo cried out in horror. There was only one thing in the world that created that kind of feeling.
A Ray Field Inhibitor.
The Beast Roared as a thousand missiles rammed into him from all sides... and for the first time, he couldn't suck them all dry, couldn't bat them all away in time.
But the first RFI had taken all the juice Cole had, at the very height of his power. Power enough to summon a lightning storm. Power enough to toss a tornado around. Whatever these armies had powering their version could only keep up the juice for an instant.
Long enough to weaken The Beast. Long enough to drive the Electric Man to his knees. Long enough for more missiles to rain down on him. Kuo reacted without thinking, and a wall of ice appeared, holding off the explosions, just enough for Cole to get back up. Several hundred soldiers got too close and suddenly vanished; their very existence taken to repair the damage, and Cole was back on his feet.
Kuo's teeth bared as a sudden homicidal rage filled her. They were hurting him!
Kuo struck, flitting in and out of existence, floating in the air to protect The Beast McGrath, not unlike the way Cole had done for John White years before.
The Beast McGrath had seen her, and quickly put himself at her back, acting as her rear guard. She turned her gaze forward, laying huge sweeps of ice across the ground. Dozens of soldiers, hundreds of soldiers, trying to rear back and tripping over each other as the Ice crawled along the ground beneath their feet with the speed of a cheetah. The instant it reached them the ice ran straight up their legs and covered them completely, hundreds, then thousands smothered in an eternal frozen scream.
The helicopters came over to send fire down at them, and Kuo raised an arm. Above her hand, a twelve foot long spike of ice condensed spontaneously in the air, and flew faster than one of Cole's lightning bolts, spearing the aircraft down, one after another.
Behind them, she could hear The Beast McGrath turning his own power loose on the millions or soldiers behind them...
And then the Ray Field Inhibitor discharged again. it only lasted for an instant, as before. But it was an instant that tore both of them atom from atom.
Kuo went to her knees instantly, unable to stand. She writhed helplessly on the ground. Some part of her could still see the missile launcher fire, ordinance heading in her direction. The Beast McGrath dove for her, covering her body with his.
The Moment passed, and Kuo staggered to stand. "Where is it?" She demanded.
Cole didn't answer. He was trashed, suddenly a bloodied mess, and she could see the sad pain in his burning eyes. Without thinking, she raised a hand to stroke the side of his face. Even as death loomed, she couldn't help the tender gesture.
The Beast McGrath almost smiled; then Kuo gasped as she felt pure unstoppable power flit from his gaze, into her. An instant later she was moving faster than she'd ever moved before, charged up by the man she loved.
Kuo levitated off the ground and reached... an instant later, she was in the air, above the buildings, above the war planes, almost above the sky. At the edge of her sight, she could see the Conduit Army still battling itself.
She let herself fall, not afraid of gravity. As she dropped, she could see the layout of the whole battle. She could see the moments when someone fired, she could see the energy dragging from Combat Trucks and war machines, feeding Cole's swift recovery...
And at the heart of the fight, was a team of technicians, guarded by a million soldiers... was an extremely well armored truck.
She was falling faster now, passing through the thousands of war planes, the endless formations. As she fell through them, she tossed out blocks of ice. Blocks that flew through the air in every direction, growing to the size of buildings. Formations broke, trying to draw a bead on one falling woman as the air was thick with unnatural hail.
She fell further now, passing between the buildings. She had found the heart of the Enemy Formation and had bypassed all of it by coming from above.
The Armored truck had been grounded. It looked like the thing had been carefully designed and built to withstand electric power.
But even the most hardened metal turned brittle when super-frozen.
Kuo poured all her strength into it, all her power. The sudden drop in temperature whipped up impossible windstorms, the change in air pressure exploding every pane of glass, every light pole. And every ounce of that cold was being focused on the roof of this truck...
Behind her, she could hear the military reacting, realizing that their Secret Weapon was under attack, and suddenly the Beast McGrath was the least of their worries. The surviving armies of Humanity were struggling to turn around and focus on Kuo.
But she had The Beast McGrath to defend her. Disorganized, tangled in each other, their airforce struggling to overcome the sudden windstorms, and their ground forces trying to get around each other and the buildings, The Beast McGrath was swatting them by the thousands, by the tens of thousands...
Finally, the metal shell of the truck cracked open, too brittle to hold together, and to Kuo's astonishment, she saw that the truck was fake. One armored car among thousands, but underneath was a tunnel to an underground Chamber...
And within that chamber was every nightmare she'd had for over a year. It was the same set-up as New Marais. The Machine that had transferred her latent Conduit powers to hundreds of others, leaving her twisting in agony.
But here, instead of some poor unfortunate Conduit chained up in the centre, there was a familiar gadget, about the size of a basketball.
It didn't take her long to realize what had happened. They had set up the Chamber with hundreds of Conduits, all of them feeding their energy into the new RFI, using their power to charge it up for each attack.
The Conduits inside were almost dead, sucked dry of energy, and at the heart of the RFI every time it went off. If even The Beast McGrath could be torn down by this, then what would it do to the rest of her Kin?
The Chamber was guarded. Humans with Machine Guns, body armor. One to each cage, making sure their tortured prisoners couldn't escape until all their kind were wiped out.
Kuo took it all in, having flashbacks to her every nightmare. The Hundreds of tortured conduits, begging for it to stop as she had once done... the same feeling as she'd strapped herself into it voluntarily so that Cole could have her powers... The agony of having her atoms ripped apart, the misery of choosing to destroy the RFI rather than use it...
This Chamber was almost designed from all the worst moments of her life.
The guards aimed their toy weapons at her, and she exploded, finally able to destroy everything that made her feel fear.
"DIE!" Kuo roared at them, enraged. Her Ice Spikes flew out, dozens of them, each one bigger than she was, dismembering the guards in the blink of an eye.
Ice ran up the walls, over every cage, shattering them open en masse, as she directed it to do. The temperature in the chamber dropped to zero so fast that The Machine itself shook. And then Kuo remembered the fight outside, as hundreds of millions fought to see if it was possible to kill the man she loved.
The Assembled Military had finally gotten their act together enough to get a proper look at her. A million eyes took aim, as she climbed out of the ground, raised the RFI over her head... and smashed it down with all her strength.
The Inhibitor had been destroyed.
The change in them was instantly apparent. Until that point, the humans were desperate to hold the line, pressing the doomed fight with all they had, and now they were scattering, running away as quickly as possibly, trying to escape.
Kuo laughed, the sheer relief at having cheated the one weapon that could kill her kind (and cheating it twice now) making her giddy.
She was still laughing as she zipped through the air, joining McGrath as he returned to his place in the air. He looked better, having drained everything in the city to restore his strength. She had the perfect vantage point to watch, as he mopped up what was left.
A few years before, she had complimented Cole on sparing the waterfront shanty-towns of New Marais. She had praised his restraint, his compassion; the difference he had made in the lives of people in need.
Now she held his hand, with a giddy smile on her face.
The Humans had used their Secret Weapon, and they had failed. They had waved their Kryptonite at the Superman, and the Superman laughed.
There was no sense of victory when they returned to their army.
Cole was limping. It was the first time he'd shown weakness, but he would not heal himself. She had seen him do it many times. Bleeding to death, all he had to do was limp to a lamppost, and she could actually see his wounds close, and his skin regain it's healthy color... But he would not heal himself this time; putting his reserve strength into healing her.
The jarring agony from the RFI had faded as he transferred his strength to her; and she was practically carrying him. His arm looked twisted and ruined.
When they made it back to their people, they saw a scene of chaos. Orson had managed to quell the uprising, but the attackers had been well placed and their targets completely unprepared.
"It was an ambush." Orson reported as the two of them approached.
Mika was dead, a bunch of flowers clutched in her tiny hands. Cole saw her and sank to his knees.
The others gave him a wide berth, not wanting to intrude. Kuo stayed closer, not letting go of him. "Who was it?" She demanded.
"It was Jacen." Orson told her. "The one with the Black Tar."
Cole looked up like he'd been slapped. "Black Tar?"
Kuo squeezed his good hand. "A man named Jacen. He discovered that his body was... producing a black goop, but when someone touched it, they got a sudden burst of creativity."
"Well, turns out it's developed." Orson reported. "So now it's not so much a Smart Drug as it is..."
"Mind Control." Cole finished. "How many?"
"About three thousand so far." Orson reported. "We don't know how he got them all infected..."
"I do." Cole said shortly. "Where is he now?"
"We have him in custody." Orson reported. "It wasn't easy. His... converts fought to the death. When they started to lose, they went kamikaze."
"Jacen is still alive?" Kuo demanded.
Cole raised himself up with effort and looked to Kuo.
She met his gaze and nodded. "I'll handle it." She promised quietly. "You heal up. I'll take care of the problem."
Jacen was being held in the lowest part of the ship. The ship that had carried them to Asia. Enough of their people could teleport that long range transport was possible now; faster than the fastest planes.
Three Teleports laid their hands on Kuo and she was taken between continents. Their prisoner couldn't make that kind of trip; and he was far away from anyone he could manipulate.
Jacen looked up as she stepped into his cage. "What happened?" He demanded.
Kuo saw a pool of the Black Tar gathered at his feet and gestured, freezing it solid, well away from her. "Quite a trick you have there." She growled. "What were you doing?"
"Trying to put a wild animal back to sleep." Jacen growled. "I am Commander Alan Jacen, 57th Infantry, and you are the NSA Traitor who decided to wipe out humanity." His teeth bared. "Did you think we were all happy, just because you deigned to spare us?"
"Spare you?!" Kuo was incensed. "Leaving you as Human was a death sentence. We were trying to help! Why would you fight us on that if you were a Conduit?!"
Jacen glared savagely at her. "Because some people think that one in a thousand is not fair. Some people happen to think that if a thousand people had to die so that you can live? Maybe that's not a fair exchange. Some people are better than... well, you."
Kuo swallowed. She had been presented with that choice, and she had pressured Cole to save her, and save himself.
Embarrassed gave way to anger, and she reached out. The ice crept over the floor of the cage, the Black Tar... and surrounded him. It kept moving toward him from all sides, and Kuo asked her questions. "How many others feel that way?"
"Not telling." Jacen said, eyes on the ice growing closer to his feet.
"Your co-ordinated strike failed." Kuo taunted him. "London was beaten, and so were your forces."
Jacen looked smashed. "No!" The ice reached his feet and started climbing, crawling over his feet, his ankles...
"Is there a Resistance among the Conduits?" Kuo demanded. "How many? A hundred? A thousand? Any that you didn't have under mind control?"
Jacen said nothing, the ice growing up his body. The man squeezed his teeth shut against the icy pain.
"Tell me the truth!" Kuo ordered.
"Fine." He grit out. "...I will." The ice was steadily climbing his stomach, then his chest. "The truth is... That he will never love you back, and you will spend your life competing with the memory of a dead woman. And you'll always lose!"
Kuo's eyes flashed and the ice jumped, covering him head to toe in an instant.
The Teleports took her quickly back to London, and she went underground, looking at the Transfer Machine. Orson came by to join her a moment later. "He wants it destroyed." He said quietly. "But none of us know what it does. You do, don't you?"
"Yes." Kuo chewed her lip. "Dismantle it, but do so carefully. We'll take it with us. We won't destroy it; not just yet."
Orson was stunned. "But, HE wants it destroyed!"
"I know." Kuo said quietly. "But... Not just yet."
Cole's arm had been wounded somehow. There was no gash, no blood, but it was blackened and twisted somehow. She had checked it over carefully. The Conduits that could heal had poured all their power into it, and taken away the pain for a time, but the skin would not return to normal.
Buckingham Palace had not escaped the damage, but had enough rooms left intact that she and Cole could be given privacy.
She was on such a high after the decisive victory, she almost pounced on him. But she held back, knowing that he didn't feel the same way.
"How did they even find that many Conduits?" Cole had asked her once they were alone again.
She took his damaged hand in both of hers. "I don't know. But it's a good sign."
"It means even humans are using Conduit Powers in this war. They put our people on the front lines; they'll be easier to find. You don't need any more traitors in the ranks. If they'll fight for the humans, they're the enemy. It means that the humans have finally figured out that their own power is useless."
Cole took that in. "Tell me again."
She almost didn't realize what that meant. He hadn't asked her since reaching Asia. "We're doing the right thing." She promised him warmly. The only thing left in her body and soul that felt warm, was when she thought about her growing feelings for him. "It's not a crime to speed up something that was already happening. With the Plague, it's almost a mercy."
Cole drew in a deep breath, and let it out between his teeth. He looked at her, and their eyes met.
Kuo was still holding his hand, rubbing his fingers, making little circles over his wrists with her fingertips. His gaze turned dark and smoky, and she felt her heart start to race. After a moment, she raised the hand she held... and kissed his fingers.
He pulled his hand back like she had burned him. She thought he was brushing her off, until he hid the hand behind his back; and she relaxed. He was hiding the damaged limb from her.
Instead, she cupped his face in her hands. "Last time I did this, I hurt you, freezing your cheek." She said softly.
"Things are different now." He whispered to her.
"Yes." She agreed, and leaned in to kiss him swiftly.
It took her two seconds to realize she had made a mistake. It was like she was kissing a marble statue. He didn't react to her at all, and she suddenly felt awkward.
She broke off, mortified. He still hadn't moved. She wanted to apologize. She also wanted to yell at him.
Finally, he spoke. "It's late." He said. "I'm not... You should sleep. It is Buckingham Palace, so someone should use the room..."
Kuo ducked her head, humiliated. "Right."
Cole rose. "I'm going out for a bit."
He came back a few hours later. She pretended to be asleep. He stretched out beside her on the bed. After a while, she felt his good arm go around her. Her skin was always cold now, and his was always warm.
After the Rebellion, he had insisted that she have protection. She was no weak link; and everyone assumed she was more powerful than she really was. If The Beast McGrath took her as his confidant, then she surely must have been one of the most powerful Conduits alive.
And when he'd presented her with her own personal Honor Guard, she dared to hope that it was a sign of affection; that maybe he cared for her safety...
...that maybe he loved her too.
But secretly she knew the truth. He wanted to protect her because she was the only one left.
He started touching her more often, nothing inappropriate, just making contact. It was something he'd never done before with her...
...and she suddenly realized there was nobody else. Except for combat, he'd never touched anyone. Nix had copped a feel a few times, at least, a few times that Kuo had known about... He and Zeke had been like brothers...
And then he'd killed them both.
He hadn't so much as held someone's hand since New Marais, and she had almost pounced on him like a sneak attack.
She kicked herself for doing it, but dared to feel hopeful now as he rested his hands on her shoulders, leaning into her when they sat together on rooftops above their Army. I took him by surprise that night. Has he make a decision since then?
They continued West, even after Europe, and returned to the United States. Their numbers had increased enough that the cargo liners were crowded. Powered by the passengers, they were the only thing still moving across the oceans. Some of them were swimming in the water, faster than the dolphins. Some of them were flying in the air, doing loops and barrel rolls overhead.
They landed in Maine, debating whether to sweep north through Canada, or finish off the States first.
When they entered Portland, there was no resistance. There were no defenders, no people. The city had been abandoned completely.
The Beast McGrath sent his Heralds out in every direction, searching for answers.
"It looks like they've scattered." Orson reported. "The civilians are all being marched into Mobile Refugee Camps."
"We've got them routed." Kuo exulted. "We got them on the run!"
Cole wasn't surprised. "London was their Last Stand. Now all they can do is run."
Kuo nodded. "Orson, send our Strike Teams out to anything that can handle a plane. Airstrips, private airfields, commercial airports, military posts... Anything that can still fly after London? Keep it grounded." She looked to Cole. "No sense making this chase go on any longer than it needs to."
"Won't take long." Orson shrugged. "Looks like there isn't anything left short of a carrier pigeon. No jet fuel. Nothing's being shipped anywhere any more."
Orson gathered himself... and took off, flying straight up into the sky.
It was the first time Kuo and Cole had been left alone together for a while.
"Remember when we saw the dolphins?" Kuo said finally. "On the way here? One of our guys can talk to animals. He says that there are a lot more fish in the water when we were coming back than there were when we were on our way to China."
"To be expected." Cole nodded. "Nobody's fishing them out any more. All those huge cannery ships, scooping fish out and putting them in tins by the ton every day?"
Kuo nodded. "Air quality too. All the factories are sut down, all the fuels run out... To say nothing of what our people can do... We're doing it Cole. The world is healing."
"Maybe we can stop now." Cole said finally. "The Humans won't act up. They couldn't if they tried. The Plague will keep them on their ass for a generation or three... Maybe we can stop now."
Decision made. Kuo told herself suddenly and leaned forward, pulling him into a savage, hungry kiss.
Cole squeaked in surprise, but didn't push her away. Kuo felt her heart thundering, counting the seconds in her head. Three, Four, Five...
After almost seven seconds, she felt him start to kiss her back. Their enhanced bodies didn't need air any longer, and they stayed in that clinch for almost a full minute. Lightbulbs were exploding all over the street, mists were forming, condensing into ice and evaporating with electric sparks, over and over, in the space of an instant.
Finally, Kuo pulled back a little. She was smiling gently, eyes shining. "Whatever happens, whatever you decide... I just wanted to know." She said softly in his ear...
...and then vanished into mist, right out of his arms.
She had moved quickly, arranging the Teleports to take her back to Asia.
Jacen was still there, completely sealed in her ice. The room had been iced over completely, as sealed to the outside as an Arctic cave.
Kuo took a deep breath, and gestured. The ice retreated at her command, and Jacen dropped to the ground, released.
Kuo waited a moment. "Ice can create hypothermia, it can crate suspended animation. I can create ice. Understand?"
Jacen suddenly coughed, then sucked in an agonized breath. Then another. Kuo conjured a blade made of ice into one hand, waiting for him to make a move.
She needn't have worried. Jacen could barely move.
Cole had waited almost three hours before he realized she wasn't coming back. In that time, he had arranged the room to be nice, for when she sorted out whatever she was doing.
But when she didn't come back, he had to go looking for her. She was nowhere with their people, which was unheard of. her own Honor Guard had no idea where she was, for the first time since they had been assigned to her.
Cole knew how far she could teleport on her own and made a search of the area. She wasn't there.
"Where is she, Orson?"
"I don't know." Orson responded honestly.
Cole glared. "I know she handles everything. I know she keeps it all away from me. She handles these things so that I don't have to. When something like that happens, she talks to you. Where would she go that I don't know about?"
Orson's eyes widened. "Oh!" He looked his lips. "She... There is one thing."
"Tell me." Cole commanded.
"The Transfer Machine. She had it taken apart, but..."
"She kept it?" Cole demanded. "Where? Where'd she have it assembled?"
"...wha's... happnin'?" Jacen slurred, still half comatose.
Kuo forced him upright and shackled his limbs into the Transfer Machine. "You're in luck." She grit out. "Your refusal to answer my questions meant that I had to keep you alive. Not because we need you, you understand. Intel is good, but when you're as powerful as Cole McGrath, you don't really need inside information."
Jacen was squeezing his eyes shut, trying to get his vision to clear.
"But your little talent does present an opportunity." Kuo told him as she took her position on the other side of the Machine. "An opportunity to make sure that the... rebellion you spoke of, never happens."
"...no!" Jacen groaned.
Kuo threw the switch.
In the same instant, Cole McGrath was teleported into view by three of his own. "Lucy!" He shouted, holding out a hand toward her.
Then the power lanced across both Conduits, and Kuo's vision went white.
"Lucy!" A voice called distantly. "Come on, Kuo. Talk to me!"
Kuo fought to open her eyes. She was lying on the ground in front of the Machine, and her eyes were seeing six of everything. Kuo's eyes fluttered. "It was for you, my love. I did it for you."
Cole felt his vision blur, and raised a hand to his eyes. Tears. He hadn't cried since China, but he was crying for her.
She raised a hand weakly to wipe his tears away, before her eyes closed and she slept again.
When she opened her eyes again, the sun was setting outside. She was in a beautiful five star hotel room; in a big comfortable bed. She sat up, feeling like herself again.
She recognized the room. It was the room that Cole had been given in Portland. On her left was the television. There was a dimly lit room on the screen, with a podium set up, except nobody was standing at it.
She looked away from the television, and saw Cole slouched next to her. He was asleep, but sitting up. "Cole?"
His eyes opened instantly. "Hey. How you feeling?"
"I'm fine." She said. "You know I'm fine, you've done it yourself."
"Yeah, and as I recall, the idea horrified and disgusted you." He reminded her. "And that was when you were hooking it up to me, let alone Commander Jacen, 57th Infantry."
"Where is he?" She demanded quickly.
"Dead." Cole told her. "He didn't survive the transfer process."
"And the Machine?"
"I destroyed it." Cole said. "Tell me again, why it is that you didn't do that yourself?"
Kuo rubbed her eyes. "Jacen told me that there was a small number of Conduits that... didn't like where we were taking things."
"I'm one of them." Cole growled.
"I know, but they were willing to start fighting back because of it." Kuo shot back. "And you know as well as I do that if there are divisions in the Conduit Nation... wars of independence are often followed by civil wars; and if that happens, this will last for decades."
"So what was the plan?"
"To do what I always do." Kuo implored him. "I take care of the things that you don't need on your plate. If power can be used to turn people into enemies, then it can be used to turn them into friends."
"Did it work?" Cole demanded.
Kuo looked down at her hands. "I don't know. If Jacen didn't survive, then maybe... probably not."
Cole said nothing. He took her ice cold hands in his own; and they sat in silence for a while.
"Anything good on?" Kuo asked him finally, waving at the TV.
"The Emergency Broadcast Signal came on about an hour ago. There are no commentators or anything. I think all the newscasters have all run for it. Apparently the President is going to make a statement."
"Which one? There have been... what? Nine of them since we started?"
"Something like that." Cole nodded. "I haven't really been following."
They were silent for a moment, him still sitting against the wall by the bed, her looking out the window.
"You hate that Machine." Cole sighed. "You went and used it again?"
Kuo spun around, fed up. "Dammit Cole, how many times do I have to prove it?" She demanded. "I said I'd do anything for you! We all would, and me most of all."
He stood, still not looking. "You most of all?"
She looked down, embarrassed again. "Yeah." She looked up again suddenly. "Hey. Was it my imagination, or did you actually call me 'Lucy' back there?"
He looked up at her, smiling just a little. "Yeah, well... It's your name."
She smiled brilliantly. "I think that's the first time you've ever used my first name."
The picture on the television shifted as someone stepped p to the podium. "Good evening. My Fellow Americans, and citizens of the human race. By now you will have heard that the European union has fallen to the Empire Threat. We have very few intelligence resources yet, but what's left of the Cabinet agrees that it has returned to the United States. To those who wonder why we have not used the full strength of our deterrent, there's no reason to keep it confidential any longer: We did use it. It failed."
They were both ignoring the television completely.
"Kuo... Lucy." Cole said, coming a little closer. "When I saw you lying on the ground, not moving... I thought for a minute that when Jacen died, he took you with him... I think that's the most scared I've ever been of anything."
She turned away from the window, looking him in the eye. "The same way I felt when I saw you fall out of the sky in London."
He nodded and closed the last few feet between them, practically touching. "I'm sorry." He said. "I'm sorry it took me so long to see what's been right in front of me for so long."
Kuo felt her heart stop as she realised that this was it, it was finally happening. "Cole... I know you don't think much of yourself after everything we've done." She whispered. "But if you can't see any reason to love yourself... Will you at least believe that I love you?"
Ignored in the corner, the television continued to broadcast the Last Words of the Human Race. "I will not lie to you brothers, we do not believe that survival is an option. Not for the military, not for myself. This is not a holding action to get civilians to safety, or a last stand to protect what's left."
Cole took Kuo's face in his hands and kissed her passionately. She responded eagerly, embracing everything she wanted in life.
"This is the Twilight of the Human Race." The voice continued behind them with horrible certainty. "There are no contingencies left. "
Kuo kissed him back possessively, letting her hands slide up his back, pressing herself closer. She felt tears on his face, and told herself that they came because he was as happy as she was.
"I do not know why this is happening, if this is Judgement for our sins, or the dawn of a new age, which we are simply destined not to be part of. What I do know, is that humanity did not go quietly, fighting for existence, right to the last!"
Cole broke the kiss and looked deeply into her eyes. She looked right back, neither of them breaking the staring contest as they undressed each other quickly, moving back toward the bed.
"There will be no further speeches, no more words. There is nothing left to say. I call on all the united remnants of my species to embrace the time they have left, and face it with pride and dignity. This is the epitaph of Mankind. That we were here, and that we were not equal to the challenges that the universe threw at us... but that our Fall took nothing away from who we were, and how much we mattered."
The two most powerful lovers on earth barely noticed the television, devouring each other whole; christening the apocalypse with their terrible love for each other.
The Television went to a test pattern, a low tone sounding, unnoticed, forgotten, utterly meaningless to all that was left.
Exhausted, sated, holding close to each other, they had drifted into sleep.
But she only slept a little while. Cole hadn't slept more than a few hours a night in over a year. She watched him sleep for almost an hour, debating whether or not to go through with her plans. In truth, she had everything she wanted already.
Except she suddenly realized that she wanted one thing more.
Kuo raised herself on one elbow, looking at him, tracing his face with her fingertips.
She chewed her lip; and rubbed her fingertips together, until a point of thick black liquid formed spontaneously between them. The let the drop fall off her fingertip... and drop into his ear. He shifted in his sleep. "Hm?"
"Don't wake up." She hummed into his ear, hugging him to her chest. He snuggled into her cool skin and she revelled in his warmth as she bent over him so that her lips grazed her ear. "You have to keep going. You can't give up. You want to be stronger. You want to be strong for me."
Cole settled; though his eyelids danced back and forth. He was dreaming, his mind changing as he slept; as she whispered straight into his brain.
Kuo rubbed her fingers together again, creating more Tar, feeding it to him in slow gentle drops, straight from her fingertips. "You have to be strong enough, Cole. You have faith in what we are doing. You have faith in me. You trust me. You know that I love you and..." She hesitated, just for a second. "...and you love me."
Certainty. She told herself. I just have to be sure that he's not thinking of her.
Portland was the first city they had faced without incident. Civilians ran, but some stayed to fight. But not in Maine.
For the first time, the city they moved into was completely intact. Cole stopped the march for a few days. A long weekend holiday from the Awakening.
Cole and Lucy spent the whole day in bed together, speaking soft words of love, and promises for the future; in between kisses and touches that nearly demolished the room in fire and ice. And not once did they discuss the War, or the past, or anything bad.
It was their honeymoon.
His arm had never healed right. Nobody else saw it, because he kept that hand in his pocket. But Kuo saw. The hand had twisted beyond recognition, as though the electric, unstoppable power couldn't touch that part of his body any more.
They had summoned some of their Healers, Conduits with natural powers over the body, to come and try to heal him. Cole overruled her, and summoned Techies, Conduits who had affinity for machines, to come and build him a replacement.
The months that followed were the happiest of the March. There was no war, no resistance. None was left.
Kuo and Cole stayed together, walking hand in hand along the endless march. They passed through cities they had already visited. The destroyed ruins had flourished in their absence, taken over by superhuman residents. A new Renaissance was taking place.
Lucy Kuo saw Cole smile twice, and declared victory, certain that her decision had been the right one. There was joy now. There was love now. After the destruction, came reconstruction; and the cities rose, clean and healthy and wonderful.
The day Kuo had learned she was pregnant was the happiest of her life.
"What are we going to call it?" Cole found himself asking. "It's not really the United States any more. After we wiped out the west coast, it split into what? Four different unions? None of them have made a peep since we got back."
Kuo rested both hands over her stomach, the pregnancy just barely starting to show on her slim figure. "I want new names for it. I want new names for everything. I want to go right now and carve your face up on Mount Rushmore."
Cole kissed her gently and hummed. "I hear they call Empire City the Empire Gardens now. When this is over, I want to live there with you."
"I would like that." She nodded, never happier. "Cole, when we..."
He held up a hand. "New names. New names for everything. You're the only one left that calls me Cole."
She shrugged. "I'm the only one left that knows it's your name." She looked at him, head tilting a little. "Why? You want something new?"
"Kessler." Cole said without hesitation.
She blinked. "Thought he was the bad guy."
"He was the True Believer." Cole shook his head. "He never wavered. That made him strong. I need to be stronger for you."
Hearing her own commands echoed in his voice made her relax. If Cole wanted to adopt Kessler's mantle as his own, it only made sense. She pulled his hand over to her stomach and rested it there. "Speaking of names..."
His face clouded again. "Zeke and I made a deal once, regarding the name of our firstborn sons..."
Kuo twitched and held her arms out to him. "Come closer."
Cole did so, and she hugged his face to her chest. A moment later she tilted his head a little... and dripped Tar from her lips into his mouth. "Zeke had it coming." She drawled, her voice going deeper, more sensual.
"...yes." He nodded.
"You have to see it through. You want to be stronger. You want to be strong for me."
He lifted his head to look at her eyes, power and love for her being obvious in his gaze. Their lips met passionately, and she relaxed.
The March continued north, then swept back south again. The Humans had discovered the Conduit gene, and had begun testing the remaining civilian populations. Those that had the gene were singled out, taken to internment camps. It was believed they could be ransomed. As the Powers That Be ceased to exist, the Latent Conduits were set free, as the Humans feared retaliation. So for the first time, as they walked, the Latent Conduits came to them, and were welcomed with love, and not war.
The majority of their Armies had broken off, finding places where they could belong, places where they could be happy. The War was winding down, and they no longer needed to be close to The Beast McGrath for safety.
When Kuo had woken one morning to a stabbing pain in her midsection, she knew instinctively that not even the powers of The Beast could save their child.
He had wanted to stop the March, wanted to forget about the last of the Awakening, and take care of her. She hid her misery by burying herself in their Cause, whispering into his mind, keeping him on the search.
The rules had changed with the loss of their child, and they both knew it. They had been so happy that they would have been content to Awaken the Conduits, and not bother with the Human Remnant. But as Kuo wept hot tears and searched for someone to hurt; they both knew.
Humanity would be a memory before the end of the year; victims of the heartbreak of The Beast and His Wife.
The long hunt ended almost five years after it began. The Northern Hemisphere had belonged to them for almost fifteen months, and the Conduit Population was too big to take along
Australia, the Philippines, The Solomons, New Zealand... Distance had spared them until last. It was a slow trudge, one island nation to another, miles of wastelands and desert.
Cole went without his armies. He let them stay behind. Kuo went with him; as did the Teleports, so that they could go home every night, and Orson, who never had followed them the entire way.
Kuo's powers grew every day. So did his. Every day they would march, find Blast Shards, grow stronger. Their powers were becoming more than supreme, and well into god-like. Kuo realized she no longer needed food, only him. He sustained her with his power alone. Wherever he walked, there were Blast Shards, and they took them hungrily.
Every day they would knock down an army, raise the Conduits, organise a clean-up, appoint local leaders...
And every night, they would retreat to a private place, make desperate love, and she would drip her honeyed poison in his ear while he slept, keeping him devoted to their cause... and to her.
Where there was dissension, or even disagreement, Kuo would quietly use her newer abilities, to shift their minds to a more appropriate position. There was no hint of rebellion, no voice of opposition. All the world practically worshipped them, and that devotion only grew stronger as the March continued.
What little scraps of Humanity had managed to evade His march, quickly maxed out the few refugee camps that were left, and the Plague finished their work. Humanity was finally extinct. Rumors persisted that some of them had fled to the mountains, or into the tunnels beneath the cities. They were rarely heard of, if they really existed at all.
Kuo had taken thousands of Blast Shards when she realized her hair was falling out. She was curious, but not afraid. She wasn't afraid of anything any more. She barely remembered what fear was.
Orson had organized classes. Conduit Scientists were teaching the new generation of children how to control their powers. They examined her and decided that her body was reacting to the sheer power running through her cells. She was being redesigned. The blue mist that shivered from her hands had turned a dark red color, her limbs were growing thinner and longer, her skin going pale...
The irony floored her for a moment. All the effort she had put into convincing Cole to remake the world in his own image, and now she was being remade herself, by the means she used to convince him.
Cole had barely reacted when she told him, not surprised. When she had confessed the reason she had hidden her new body from him, he presented her with a cloak of beautiful crimson. The hood caressed her gently, making her feel beautiful again; and she was quickly at home in her new body.
As she took him to her room, she had to admit that he had changed too. The Long March had given his face lines, gravelled his voice, darkened his eyes... He looked ancient and powerful.
They still went everywhere together, her influence and his sustaining power making them incapable of living without each other. When they returned to Empire City Gardens, now their new seat of power, she presented him with a cloak of pure, matchless white. He wore it always, and all the world adored him at her direction.
The Conduit Nation had adopted patterns similar to Empire City. The Conduits fell into certain categories. Those with similar powers had banded together, united by their common ability. Those that could teleport, those that could fly, those that commanded fire, or water, or technology... And the most powerful of each faction naturally came to power.
"It's a Feudal System." Kuo nodded; having expected it. "It's a natural system of government when you don't have instant communications set up. Everyone joins a faction; the faction takes care of it's own. Anything involving conflict or trade, the Feudal Lords appeal to a higher power, and that's you."
"Sounds more like Gang Warfare." Cole seethed quietly. "This is exactly what I fought back in the day."
Kuo shushed him gently and held his face between her hands, pulling him to her gently. "Shh. This is normal. This is safe. There are Factions forming, but they aren't fighting. And if they ever do, you'll stop them. This is a system that has power and authority go hand in hand, and you my love, are the Ultimate Power."
He kissed her then, intoxicated. She kissed him back, letting the Black Tar slip from her tongue to his.
With the long March of Awakening over, he stood down. He was rarely seen, called on to adjudicate matters between Factions, and Kuo handled most of it. Months at a time could pass without The Man Himself ever being seen.
The Beast McGrath was God-Emperor of the world, and she was his High Priestess, who assured devotion and commanded His armies in His Name.
She knew he was devoted to her, she had seen to it. She exulted in it, knowing she was equally as devoted to him. The world belonged to Him, and she made sure it stayed that way, made sure he treated it right. But she knew his heart was not completely hers, no matter what she tried.
She had noticed him returning to the few remains of Old Empire City, where the gardens didn't reach. She wasn't concerned. Nostalgia alone was forgivable.
When he dug out his old apartment building, and restored the rooftop with cage walls, the television that showed nothing, the neon sign... and the couch, she began to worry.
When she noticed him watching the Fireflies, who commanded Fire the way Nix had done... She knew she had to take action.
She ordered that all remnants of the Old City be wiped out. She would have ordered the same of his own rooftop, but he never left it, and she was keeping these instructions from him. She ordered that Trish's body be dug up and destroyed, the graveyard was to be turned into the garbage pit for the new Empire Gardens. Finally, Kuo commanded that all those with Elemental Power over Fire had to be killed. She didn't need to be reminded of the Swamp-Slut, and neither did he. Then she ordered that all those with Ice powers be wiped out too. She didn't need to be reminded of that accursed time of her imprisonment, and she wondered why she had waited so long to do something about it.
The decision caused massive defections, resistance, disagreements. The Factions began choosing sides; marshalling forces. Territory was being claimed in the name of one banner or another. A Resistance was being organized against Him.
She did as she always did, and defused the tension. She poured her sweet Black Tar into their leaders, then their water supply, and then, once their resistance was broken down, into each them personally.
A Second Awakening Began. One that ensured that everyone who hid a Fire Elemental from her wrath would be put swiftly to death, and those who spoke against The Beast McGrath would follow. But those who did not die cried out joyfully at mention of His Name
In all the hidden places of their Beautiful Cities, her voice whispered day and night to all those that questioned their Master... And his wife.
Loyalty. Loyalty. Loyalty. Loyalty. Loyalty. Loyalty.
Within a year of the Awakening, she owned them all. They were her loyal drones, and she loved them one and all, each of them her willing hands, her weapons, her tools.
Every now and then, when He did not come to her bed, she would go to Him. The Rooftop unsettled her, making her think about what she had been Back Before. She knew she was different now. Not just in her abilities. The Power had changed her, made her stronger, more sensual, given her hungers and pleasures she hadn't expected... and couldn't live without.
But she wasn't insane. She hadn't used her Ice powers in a long time, because she didn't need them. The Powers she used were based around mind alteration, but her mind wasn't being altered, surely? Controlling them in their millions, killing them by their thousands... she wasn't insane, she knew it.
When some dissenters tried to escape, realizing what was happening, her loyal ones Reaped the wayward, bringing them back in to learn their place. Her loyal Reapers brought in the harvest, running out into battle with willing hearts and love for their Mistress.
Any voice of Rebellion became a voice of undying Loyalty, and all of them at her command, in His Name.
For once she was glad of Cole's detachment. He hadn't noticed any of this happening, still on his rooftop.
The Beast McGrath was stretched out on the old couch, lightly dozing, when he suddenly realized he had company.
"You could have towers made of gold and silver. You could have a queen sized bed with silk sheets and a hundred willing women waiting in it any time you wanted day or night, to say nothing of me. But instead you live here." She drawled sexily in his ear. "It concerns me, my love."
Cole pulled her to him for a rough kiss, and she pushed her tongue in his mouth. Her tongue split into seven strands, ticking his from all sides at once. When they broke, he came to his feet, adjusted his hood. She came around behind him, rubbing his shoulders.
"I've been... thinking about the past lately." He confessed slightly.
She stilled, not speaking for a time. "Why?"
He looked up at her. "Did you think I wouldn't know, my love? What you were doing?"
Kuo hesitated. "I did it for you."
He didn't even blink, pulling her down to him for another harsh kiss. "I know. But there's a problem."
"What is it?"
He sighed explosively. "I... I think about what I was back then, before you. I was so weak."
Kuo relaxed, and started rubbing his shoulders again. "It worked out alright."
"No, Sasha. It didn't."
She didn't wait to be asked this time. "We did the right thing." She promised him lovingly, sliding the cloak off his shoulders. "Come to me, my love. I will prove it to you."
He held her away this time. "No, listen to me. I spoke with Matron Isley." He explained, speaking of their Healers. "You know that her abilities allow her to commune with unborn children."
"I do." Kuo nodded, going dark, as she always did when mention was made of babies.
"She has discovered something." Cole told her. "All Conduits that have become pregnant? None of the babies have survived. None of them."
She felt a thrill of horror go through her.
"She has consulted with the others. Healers, Alchemists... They all agree. The Conduit Gene is regressive. It is passed to the next generation by a human. If a Human woman and a Latent Conduit had a child, that child would have the gene. If a Human man and a Latent Conduit had a child, that child would carry the gene. But an Awakened Conduit cannot... We needed the Humans. Something in their genetics made it possible for our genes to be passed on."
She stilled. "There are no humans. We made sure of it. We turned over every rock on the planet."
"Time will wipe out what's left of us." Cole sighed. He turned away from her and looked at the picture of him and Zeke. "Half as long... Twice as bright."
"Death was nothing to John." She traced his jaw. "You are stronger than he ever was. More committed. If he'd the spine to see it through; he would be immortal. As you are."
"Alone in the Universe?" He guessed. "Death may yield to me, but not at my command."
Even Kuo could see it wasn't a rosy picture.
"Back Before, we didn't know if the RFI would cure the Plague, and we decided not to take the chance." He told her. "Active Conduits haven't existed for more than five years, and we've spent a lot of that time fighting and building. But if the Plague was going to wipe out Humans, as we thought..."
"How did you know?" She asked finally.
"My real name." She asked him. "When I became a Field Agent with the NSA, I was given a cover name. I used it so often, my real name was... How did you know my name was Sasha?"
Cole stilled. "I said that out loud, did I?"
Cole sighed. "I know where we went wrong. The problem wasn't the Awakening, and it wasn't how. It was When. Moya, you never met her... She told me the First Sons were running a eugenics operation, trying to breed Conduit genes. If we'd waited another generation, there'd be more kids born with the gene. Isley says that as long as it stayed latent, it would have spread to all humans at some point. The Conduit Gene would have been prevalent enough that Actives could successfully have kids."
"Armchair Quarterback. Hindsight Hero." She hissed. "Yesterday's News. We can't change it now, we have to be strong here."
"How many times did you say it? An evolutionary jump. The Awakening was inevitable, and we just sped it up. No, I'm going back and doing it right."
He said it so casually, she didn't understand him at first. "What?"
"You have been busy insuring loyalty. I've been busy working on a backup plan. Or did you think I was actually up here sulking all that time, my love?" His eyes crackled with blue-white power, and she shuddered. "There is a much smaller faction. Only twenty Conduits out of all of us. They can manipulate the flow of time."
"I know them." She nodded. "It makes them move fast, or enemies move slow... But how does... that... help..."
She rose to her full, slender height. "YOU BASTARD!" She shrieked, and slapped her claws across his face. "I'll rip your heart out, and eat it raw out of your dead skull! You told me you destroyed the Transfer Machine!"
He turned around, caught her arm with his metal hand, cupped her face with the other. "You understand, don't you? I have to be stronger. I have to see it through. I have to be strong for you."
It was almost, word for word, the exact message she had put into his head for over a year. She racked her brains, trying to find a way to evade her own programming, a way to keep his loyalty and his love at the same time...
There was only one way she could think of.
"I'm coming with you." She said finally.
He pulled her tight against him. "Damn straight you are."
She wrapped her spidery limbs around him with a passionate kiss and they didn't speak again for a long time.
They both trained with the Timekeepers for another ten years. It took that long to create and dig up enough Blast Shards. It took that long to feed them enough of the Beast's Power. It took that long for Sasha to keep the Timekeeper's growing power, and their increasing ego's completely under control.
Years passed and it eventually became obvious to everyone that theirs was the Last Generation.
The wild devotion they had to the one that had Awoken them turned to fury, as Kessler had known it would. They turned on him with a vengeance, all across the world. For once, Sasha couldn't be bothered turning them. Her Reapers defended her and her husband; until they were all wiped out, and when her Children were gone, The Beast emerged once again, wiping out the Conduits; swatting them like flies.
Orson had come to them, vowing to help them set things right, as he always did. Sasha had thanked him for staying true to his word... and then she'd torn him limb from limb. She didn't offer a reason. She didn't need one.
Eventually, the counter-attacks stopped. It had been almost a year since they had heard from anyone, human or Conduit. Their Timekeepers questioned nothing that Sasha told them to ignore.
Finally, they were ready, and Kessler locked the Timekeepers into the Transfer Machine. It was used, one last time, pouring everything the Timekeepers had left into Kessler. Sasha had warped their minds so much they were glad to have it happen.
For all practical purposes, Sasha and Kessler were the only two people left in the world.
The desperation made their mission an obsession. The isolation made their love for each other a crazed, unhinged dependency. They both blamed each other, as much as they blamed themselves. The chance to undo it was the only reason they hadn't actually murdered each other, but by the time they were ready, their wonderful, toxic love for each other had destroyed the world.
But at last, they were ready.
The Kessler Beast returned to New Marais with the speed of thought and retrieved something from the roof of the Cathedral. He half expected the holy place to burst into flame at his approach, but the silent stone walls were still, as was the wreckage of the whole city. The Beast had begun it's work in Empire City, but the Awakening began in New Marais, and the Conduits had left the ruins alone, almost like a shrine.
The Amp that Zeke had made was still lodged in the rooftop, with the bones of Nix close by, and the wreckage of the first RFI, long since rusted out.
Kessler pulled the photo from his pocket. The same photo he'd had on his rooftop. Him, Zeke... and Trish. He pinned it neatly to the handle of the Amp. Zeke's headstone was his own invention.
"Been a long time." He said to Zeke's face. His old friend wouldn't even recognize him now. "I had a picture of Trish once. I nailed it to the marker I put up for her in this city. That day..." He shook his head. "Sasha tried to warp my brain once. Every time I shut down those Tar Pumps, I got a face full of it. She could get in my head, but never control me. If she couldn't control me then, there's no way she could do it now. I'm more Lightning and Ice than flesh and blood. But I played along. I knew what she was becoming. I played along for years, waiting for the chance to do this. I knew I'd made a mistake the second I became The Beast."
He went silent a moment, adjusted the photo so that it would stick better. Zeke's face was all smiles. It was taken long before any of the knew the First Sons existed.
"I've read the file on Kessler. The one thing it doesn't say... was that he was Cole McGrath. So if the Feds didn't know that, neither did Kuo. Kuo never found out about Sasha, or about Me. I'll go there; I'll make sure I get the Ray Sphere... And then I'll ditch the First Sons. Sasha's gonna be pretty pissed... But if memory serves; my younger self could handle the fallout. Maybe this time." He told Zeke's Memorial softly. "Maybe this time I'll get it right. Maybe this time we won't make the same mistakes the first time."
Kessler 'The Beast' McGrath rose to his feet, and started to go. "The alternative of course, is that I'll fail. And if I do, then my younger self will make the same decisions, and I am destined to wipe out the universe, again and again and again. Sounds like someone's definition of hell to me."
Sasha spoke, directly into his mind. "Come my love, we don't want to be late for dinner." A demented little giggle rang out across his brain, and she settled. "Don't make me wait or I'll rip your good arm off and use it as a backscratcher."
Kessler turned away from the Amp, and from the bones of Nix and Zeke.
"You know what the worst part is?" He called over his shoulder to them. "I really did love Kuo. Just for a little while. After the Rebellion. Before the Black Tar. That night in Maine... I really did love her. If she'd just... I knew who she was becoming and..." He closed his eyes. "For two days, and two nights, it didn't seem so bad. If she'd waited one more night; I would have given her the universe. And if she hadn't turned the Conduit Nation into an army of Drones, I swear... It might even have been worth it. I have to make myself more... Brave. Give him Moral Strength. Enough to make the right choice this time."
Kessler gathered himself, and a bolt of lightning slammed down from the clear blue sky. Kessler vanished; riding the lightning.
The lightning flashed again in the Empire Gardens, and Kessler emerged. Sasha was at the rooftop, waiting for him. Standing at her full height, she reached out her spidery limbs to him, eyes blazing with obsessive need. "Kessler my love, destiny awaits!"
He came to her and took her roughly in his arms. Her tongue forked against his lips as he made the walls of time yield to their malicious needs. "Tell me Sasha, one last time." Kessler hissed savagely.
Her teeth bared as the years began to slide past them both. "We're doing the Right Thing."
And they both vanished, leaving the empty, quiet earth behind.
AN: Read and Review