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Judgement Day

Discussion in 'Short Stories' started by Taxor_the_First, Jul 13, 2015.

  1. Taxor_the_First

    Taxor_the_First Well-Known Member

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    Isaac’s eyes alighted on a keyboard. “Ah, here we are,” he said, leaning over before it and examining the monitor in front of him. “Let’s see here. Google Chrome? Bah. Firefox master race,” he said, opening the basic Internet Explorer app. He typed a domain into the address bar, and watched as the screen flickered for a moment.

    “Earth the Judge, Earth to Judge,” a voice crackled. “This is your boy Pale Horse speaking, just wanting to let you know I now have absolute unbridled access to Lester’s systems, and my what a system it is.”

    “Anything useful in there before we open the floodgates?” Isaac asked, watching as the screen in front of him started opening folders.

    “A lot of useful things,” Pale responded, opening one of the more recent files. “Like, for example, this event log. I’ll skim through it a bit while I’m waiting for an upload.”

    Raul gazed at one of the camera screens. “So once we open the door,” he said, “everybody comes in and we push through at full force, yes?”

    “That’s the plan,” Isaac said. “The fire escape is locked by a system that requires the people in both security rooms to press the same button simultaneously, however. Pale’s uploading a program that will show us all the passwords and shortcuts, all the utility stuff.”

    Pale’s cheerful whistling seemed to stop abruptly. “Uh… Judge?” he said. “I’m not liking this. At all.”

    “Hmm? What is it?”

    “There’s a few references here,” the hacker responded, his voice growing more and more worried. “Names of places. A manor in the Hunter Valley region of Australia, a warehouse in New York city… hell, even some of our plans. This is way too complete to be stuff that leaked through. Isaac… We have a traitor in our midst.”

    Isaac froze in place, a number of small cogs clicking into place. He’d thought it odd, hadn’t he? That Lester kept finding him.

    “Judas.”

    And he began to chuckle. Shutting off he communicator, he started to properly laugh, as if he’d finally gotten a joke.

    Raul looked at him quizzically. “What’s the matter with you?” he asked.

    Isaac’s laughing died down. “Your real name,” he said, without turning around. “The one that says so much about you. Your real name is Judas.”

    The Speaker remained silent for a moment. Then he too chuckled. “I was… beginning to wonder if you’d ever understand,” he said, raising his Gauss pistol and aiming it as Isaac’s head. “A simple hint, yet so oblique if you look at it from the wrong angle.”

    “Why even give me a hint at all?” the Judge queried, slowly raising his hands. “Wouldn’t that-“

    “- defeat the purpose?” Raul interrupted, smirking. “Isaac, my purpose was not to stab you in the back. It was to find someone worthy of being my adversary. A challenge.” He sighed. “But it took you this long to figure it out. I must say you’ve been lacking in that department.”

    “Have I?” Isaac asked. “How long do you think I’ve known?”

    “About two minutes.”

    “Wrong. I’ve known since the week we recruited you.”

    The Speaker scoffed. “You’re bluffing,” he said confidently. “Are you really trying to outmaneuver me?”

    Isaac ignored him. “That week, Azazel expressed concerns,” he continued. “All of which revolved around one simple question. One that even you have avoided answering – are you psionic?”

    A twitch in his mouth.

    “Of course, even you didn’t know the answer. You prefer to stay in ignorance, because if you know, then who else would too? Keep it ambiguous, so that people might prepare incorrectly.” Isaac waved a hand. “You are, by the way. Azazel didn’t need any kind of awakening bullshit to know that.”

    “You’re lying.”

    “Can you prove that? Or is that a guess?”

    Silence.

    “An Ethereal can be very subtle when they penetrate your mind,” the Judge said. “And an Inquisitor, someone who has done that for a living, is even better at it. He went deep, Speaker, deep into your mind. Found a few choice tidbits. Found that, soon after we recruited you, Lester came to you with an offer. Not Lester himself, mind, but one of his lackeys.”

    “I took the deal the devil offered me,” Raul said. “It was a gambit on his part, but one that, as you can see, paid off.”

    “Did it, Raul?” Isaac chuckled. “You may have noticed I’m not just submitting to you. I’m wearing a Mind Shield. Your suggestions don’t work on me. I did not come into here expecting you wouldn’t double-cross me at some point. Why do you think I put us together, alone, for –“

    “-an integral part of the mission.” The Speaker’s breath caught in his throat for a moment. “You’re still bluffing,” he said, though there was an uncertain tone to his voice.

    “So if I would prepare a situation in which you would attack me, do you not think I would then prepare a way to defeat you?” Isaac chuckled. “You might think you’ve been playing puppet master here, Speaker, but I’m the one who’s been playing you. Every day, every week. Me and Azazel have been watching you. Waiting for the moment that you try to turn the situation to your advantage over mine.” He raised his voice. “Isn’t that right, Azazel?”

    Despite his confidence that his target was bluffing… despite the conviction that Isaac was speaking completely out of his ass…

    Raul couldn’t resist turning around to check the doorway.

    And as soon as he did, he saw nothing. No one. No Ethereal silhouetted in the light like the Grim Reaper come to claim a victim, no group of angry mercenaries lined up to shoot him dead. Just an empty doorway.

    And he knew, then, that he’d already lost. He had, in fact met his match.

    Isaac fired, having taken the opportunity to turn around, draw his revolver and aim at the traitor’s head. And Raul fell, a gaping wound through his skull, and the smoking gun in the hands of the Judge. He looked at his would-be backstabber for a moment, trying to pick out the perfect words to describe the situation in his head.

    “Shoulda called my bluff,” he muttered at last, before turning back to the computer and re-opening communications. “Pale, talk to me.”

    “Where the fuck did you go? You nearly gave me a heart-attack, which with the meds I’m on is quite possible.”

    Isaac glanced at the dead Raul behind him. “Had to play a game of poker,” he said cryptically. “Are we in?”

    “… yeah. We’re in.” The monitor made a ‘ding’ noise, and a small cover flipped off the button it was protecting. “That should have gotten both rooms unlocked.”

    “That it did,” Isaac said, reaching over and pushing the button. “Anything else we need to do?”

    “Just one,” the hacker said. “When you get to the main door, it will ask for a spoken password. Say ‘speak of the devil’. That’s the passcode.”

    “Got it,” Isaac said, tucking the revolver back in its holster. “Thanks Pale.”

    “Hey, it’s what you pay me for.”

    Back at the main door, Isaac met up with the group, all of which had come downstairs by now. Raider gave him an odd look. “Where’s Raul?” she asked.

    Isaac shrugged. “Got shot. It happens.”

    She gave him a piercing look, but didn’t question it further. “We good to go?”

    He turned and looked at the other operatives. Samson with his shotgun. Samantha with her heavy armor and Autorifle. Noxious with his SMG and gas grenades. Luka with his grenade launcher and HE round Gauss shotgun. Raider with her odd collection of knives and pistols. Azazel with his psionic ability.

    He nodded. “Yeah,” he said, turning and walking towards the panel by the side of the door. “We’re good to go.”

    Pressing the button on the panel, a female computerized voice said “Please say the passcode,” in dead monotone.

    “Speak of the devil,” Isaac answered, and the door began to slide open.

    On the other side, a hulking machine, reminiscent of a MEC 2 trooper but with no flesh at all rose with the door. “And he shall appear!” the MEC cried, catapulting itself forward with a giant metal fist aimed directly at its foes.

    Everyone dove out of the way. Everybody but Azazel, who remained completely still, even as the mass of metal bore down on him.

    “Get the fuck out of the way!” Isaac yelled, though far too late to affect the outcome. The devil’s giant fist slammed forward… and stopped, as though it had hit a solid wall a mere meter in front of the Ethereal.

    Everybody remained frozen in position, processing exactly what they were witnessing. Azazel himself did not move, the moving air from the speed of his aggressor causing his robes to swish backward. The two remained in position for a moment before the MEC withdrew its fist and launched itself backwards, back into the room from whence it came.

    “Interesting,” a familiar voice said. “There was nothing there, and then there was. A solid object.” Lucifer settled into a fighting stance, almost comical for a being of its size.

    The Ethereal sighed. I was hoping I wouldn’t need to resort to this, he said simply, before looking up at his opponent. “Machine,” he croaked, before coughing and clearing his throat. “Machine,” he repeated, his voice clearer. “You see only what your eyes see. Correct?”

    “That is true of everyone,” the devil answered. “Why label me as synthetic as if it makes a difference?”

    “If it did not make a difference, I would be speaking to you with my mind, not my voice,” Azazel replied evenly. “But no matter. That is not the question I asked of you. Look with your eyes, devil. Tell me what you see.”

    Everyone looked at Azazel, standing proud in the face of this enemy, and saw.

    His shadow.

    His shadow was far larger than it had any right to be.

    “Impossible,” Lucifer stated. “There is nothing blocking the light, nothing that size, nothing that shape. Just you. I see no protection.”

    Azazel rose into the air a meter or two, floating with the grace of an angel. “Incorrect,” he said, as the shape of what cast the shadow began to fade into view. “You see my shadow. That is size enough. You see, Lucifer, everybody needs a scapegoat.

    Even me.”
     
  2. Taxor_the_First

    Taxor_the_First Well-Known Member

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    Chapter 8: The Devil's Sword
     
  3. Taxor_the_First

    Taxor_the_First Well-Known Member

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    Lucifer took a step back as something began to form around his opponent. “A Reflection,” he said calmly, a large tetrahedral shape appearing above Azazel’s head. “You have a Reflection.”

    The shape clarified, and where Azazel floated the chest of a larger being could be seen enveloping him. The being’s four arms were raised, crossed in front of it in the same place Lucifer had struck only moments before. The hands and shoulders were coated in gauntlets and pads, much like some odd combination of knight and boxer. The head was a pyramidal mask, with wispy strands of what was supposedly psionic energy billowing out from its muscular shoulders.

    “Yes,” the Ethereal said, serenely floating inside the titanic apparition. He removed his arms from beneath his cloak, bringing them sideways with fists clenched. The Reflection echoed his movements, raw strength easily visible in its arms. “This is Umbra.”

    The Reflection pounded its four fists together in pairs, then settled into a combat stance of its own. Lucifer examined the display. “Umbra. Translated into Latin, the word means ‘shadow’.” His ‘eyes’, small red lights on the metal bucket that was his head, narrowed. “You would combat me with that?”

    Azazel bowed his head. “Umbra has followed me for many years,” he murmured. “In that time it has grown. Become stronger, much like a child as it leaves its parents. Much like me, as I left my people. And now, with this new beginning, I feel I know my Reflection better than ever before.” In one of his hands for a moment, Isaac thought he caught a glimpse of a card before it disappeared back beneath the robes again. “You might consider this foolish, devil. But I am not about to let you stand in the way when we are so close.”

    Lucifer laughed. “You’re challenging me? You think your shadow will protect you from this frame?”

    Umbra clenched a fist. “Depends,” Azazel said. “Do you think your frame will protect you from my shadow?”

    Without answering, Lucifer charged forward again, swinging a giant metal fist at his target. Azazel – and Umbra – brought up his arms in front of him, causing the blow to ring harmlessly off them. Brushing the devil’s arm away with one of its own, the Reflection then countered, throwing a punch at his main chassis. The blow connected and Lucifer reeled, clearly not expecting the power behind it. He threw a few more punches meant to distract his opponent before disengaging, taking a few lumbering steps backwards.

    “Impressive strength,” the AI noted. “The amount of telekinetic force behind those fists must be impressive, more so if you are simultaneously protecting the rest of your body with fields as I suspect.” A minigun extended underneath Lucifer’s right arm. “Let’s test that,” he said, firing a volley of bullets at Azazel.

    The bullets impacted Umbra’s chest, but clattered to the ground, having hit a surface they could not penetrate. “Umbra is my protector,” Azazel said. “It will not allow me to come to harm.”

    Lucifer grunted, and the minigun folded away again. “I see how it is,” the AI said. “If it’s a fight you want, then it’s a fight you’ll get.” He beckoned the Ethereal forward, rather than charging himself. Umbra accepted the challenge, dashing forward on powerful legs towards its foe. The shadowy fist was blocked, however, and Lucifer attempted to counter. His single retaliation met three defenses, however, and even with his second fist now free he could not attempt to attack his foe without a large ethereal arm swinging down to block him.

    As the two pushed backwards into the lobby area Lucifer had been waiting in, Luka raised his grenade launcher. “What the hell are you doing?” Isaac snapped, waving a hand in front of the barrel. “You fire that thing, you’ll hit Azazel too!”

    The demolitionist shrugged. “Looked like he could take it,” the Russian said, replacing the weapon on his back and drawing his shotgun again.

    The Judge looked at the Ethereal, floating implacably within his Reflection as it grappled with Lucifer. Maybe he could, but the risk was too great. No, this was a battle Azazel had to fight on his own, lest he be struck down by friendly fire.

    Umbra, shrugging off another blow, reached down with its bottom left hand and gripped the AI by the ankle, yanking him off his feet and slinging across the room and into the wall with the added strength of its other arms. Lucifer rotated his body mid-flight using the jets attached to the underside of his feet, allowing him to impact the wall on his feet and launch himself back off and into his opponent. The Reflection staggered back from the force of the blow, but retaliated with a slamming fist onto the AI’s head. Sensing he was in a poor position, Lucifer jumped backwards, allowing something to flip forward from over his shoulder.

    “Test number two,” the AI stated, as a red beam of pulse energy screamed from the cannon. Umbra, already attempting to make up the lost ground, dodged sideways, though Isaac though he saw the beam pass through the Reflection’s leg completely. Again, the beam fired, and again Umbra dodged. And again, the beam seemed to cut straight through, the torso this time. Azazel seemed unconcerned, however, his Reflection reaching forward with a giant shadowy hand and gripping the cannon, tearing it off his foe with a single wrenching pull. Lucifer landed an uppercut in retaliation before stepping back further, reaching one hand behind him to check that the cannon was indeed gone.

    “Wise,” the devil said. “As soon as I identified a weakness, you removed my strength. I suppose it makes sense – if you were immune to light in there, you wouldn’t be able to see, would you?” He raised an arm, blocking Umbra’s overhead swing before attempting to take advantage. The Reflection blocked with hands Lucifer lacked, and sent a single punch through the devil’s occupied arms towards his chassis. The blow sent him careening backwards, through the large door in the back of the lobby area and into what appeared to be offices, judging from the amount of desks and computers.

    The others had to run to catch up. “Damn, that old fuck pushin’ that motherfucker the fuck back!” Samson said in between panting.

    Isaac, however, wasn’t so sure. He watched the titans as they fought, exchanging blows that varied in speed and power. In particular, he watched Lucifer, watched as he continued to pull back. He sprinted forward a little faster. Azazel wasn’t pushing the devil back. Lucifer was falling back of his own accord. But why?

    The footsteps on the white tiles of the labs reminded him. Everyone else here. If Azazel occupied Lucifer sufficiently, the AI would likely lose track of the smaller, less obvious humans, which could allow them to slip past and get to Lester before the AI had even succeeded or failed. Yes, this was a very deliberate retreat.

    Past the sterile-looking desks and computers the two giants emerged into some kind of laboratory, replete with beakers, containment units, and even an operating theater over to the right. Umbra punched Lucifer directly into one of the two glass cylinders in the side of the room, smashing it and causing the orange solution within to spill out. The AI raised an arm to block the follow-up strike, but instead of countering he ducked away, drawing Azazel back into the center of the room. Instead of immediately following, Umbra seized a large machine of unknown purpose and hurled it at the devil, then charged forward to take advantage of the distraction.

    Lucifer extended a tube beneath his left arm, and fired a small object at the incoming machine. The object contacted the machine and exploded, fragmenting the device into harmless bits of metal and circuitry. Umbra did not abandon its attack, however, crashing forward into its opponent, forcing the devil to raise his arms to defend himself. After a few blocked punches, he countered, one metal fist zipping through the jumble of arms and into Umbra before it had a chance to react. The Reflection reeled, and Lucifer lunged forward to take advantage, aiming at the spot Azazel floated in. A shadowy arm blocked him, then pushed away, repelling the AI.

    Lucifer was faster, Isaac realized. Though Azazel was attacking and defending with four arms, the devil was holding his own with only two by using his higher reaction times and more fluid movement. And still he kept an eye on the motley group attempting to catch up to the battling giants, to ensure that nobody snuck past in the chaos. As indeed Isaac, who had cloaked himself, was now attempting to do.

    Lucifer indulged him for a moment, seemingly ignorant of the sneaking assassin whilst engaged in fisticuffs with Umbra. With no warning, however, he whipped around, fired his grenade launcher at the door behind him, and continued spinning to block his opponent’s attack. The grenade sailed forward before exploding on the door, knocking several of the nearby supports loose and caving in a large amount of rubble over it. It also knocked Isaac, who had been nearby, away, removing his cloak in the process. He waved off Samantha’s concerned fussing, rising and resuming his attempt to circle around. Seeing opportunity, Luka loaded a concussive grenade into his launcher and fired it over the heads of the warring titans, landing it in the center of the rubble and blowing it all away as a result.
     
    Last edited: Feb 10, 2016
  4. Taxor_the_First

    Taxor_the_First Well-Known Member

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    “Good!” the Russian proclaimed proudly. “Force of gravity, helpful. Force of explosive, equally helpful.”

    With a whistle of wind, Umbra struck the AI in the chest, denting the alloyed armor plating there. The devil gave up on keeping track of both enemies at once and swatted Umbra sideways, staggering the Reflection. He sprinted – which for a frame of his size was rather terrifying to watch – back through the rubble he’d just created, crashing through the remainder and entering a large room, empty save for the boxes lining the edges. He activated the jets on his feet and rocketed up to the roof, where rafters hung.

    “Nice arm,” Lucifer noted, a small blowtorch-like device springing out of one of his fingers. He applied it to his injured chassis, heating the metal until it became slightly more malleable. “Just need a bit of rest if you don’t mind.”

    Umbra strode into the room and looked up, staring at its opponent up high. Azazel gazed along with it, unmoving inside his guardian. “Repairing,” he said. “Scared of losing?”

    “Your taunting won’t sway me,” Lucifer responded. “Just need to fix this up. I want to look shiny and new when I beat you.”

    “Most definitely unswayed,” the Ethereal muttered. Turning to the wall to its left, Umbra spread its arms, palms forward, and sprinted, jumping up at the last moment. Isaac and the rest of the group entered in time to see Umbra launch itself up the wall with the sheer force of its arms, high enough to grab onto one of the rafters.

    Lucifer immediately ceased repairing, bringing his arms up and extending the weapons beneath. Bullets pinged off the metal rafters, spraying at the Reflection while the AI angled his grenade launcher to sabotage Umbra’s grip. Azazel’s shadow was too fast, however, swinging across and up so that it now stood upright, then jumping across like a monkey in trees. The Reflection crashed into Lucifer, dislodging him and sending the two of them toppling to the ground. The white tiles cracked beneath their landing, Umbra atop its opponent, and cracked further as the shadow began pummeling.

    The devil sustained a few hits of damage before activating the jets on his feet, causing him to shoot out from under his foe. He flipped backwards until he was upright, then lunged forward onto the recovering Umbra, striking it before it could bring up its arms. A few hits later, Lucifer drew back an arm, small jets flicking out of it as he did so, and struck his enemy with the inbuilt Kinetic Strike module, sending Azazel flying backwards and into a pile of crates.

    Isaac exhaled when a withered hand reached up, grasping the edge of one of the crates, and Azazel pulled himself up. Samantha made to go towards him, but he quickly held up a hand. No, he said, coughing a small splatter of violet blood out of the maw of his mask. I am by no means finished. He wiped any residual liquid off his mask, then rose properly, resuming a more regal posture.

    “Still standing?” Lucifer murmured. “Impressive durability, for something so frail.” He began running forward, closing the gap between them. Azazel drew back a hand, Umbra reforming around him as he did so, and punched forward, in time to deflect the AI’s charge. The two resumed combat, Lucifer’s blocks now insufficient to dispel the pure force of Umbra’s attacks, Azazel within echoing his movements now. A blow to the side of the head sent the devil reeling from the force, allowing the Reflection to seize the machine’s legs and toss him into the wall, too close this time for Lucifer to regain control. He slammed into the wall, back first, and wriggled away from the follow-up punches the shadow threw. Fire belted out of the devil’s feet and he rose, up and over the shadow’s head.

    When he landed, Lucifer began pushing his speed advantage with all he had, zipping attacks forward and around Umbra’s slower but more numerous arms. Where metal went, shadow would follow, and vice versa, the two almost perfectly matched.

    But Umbra had two weaknesses, and Lucifer was about to exploit them. Unleashing one final flurry of blows, the devil bizarrely reached forward, thrusting a palm directly towards Umbra’s chest, where Azazel floated. Grabbing onto the Reflection from there, he grinned. Victory was already his.

    The flash of red light struck Azazel directly in the torso, causing Umbra to freeze in place, mid strike. On the sidelines, everyone’s hearts collectively sank. The scene remained still for a moment before Azazel, his robes singed, slowly toppled out of the back of his Reflection, impacting the ground with a soft thud. Umbra itself fell back, outstretched on the ground as it faded away, defeated.

    Lucifer stood over his vanquished enemy for a moment, examining the Ethereal lying on the ground. “This frame is a direct upgrade from the first,” he said, clenching the fist he’d shot Azazel with. “You were just shot by a standard-issue Scatter Blaster, integrated into my hands like the previous model’s standard hand-Blasters.” He tilted his head. “Still alive,” he noted as the Ethereal raised his head slightly. “Unsurprising. There’s easily enough resistance in that shadow of yours to prevent a decent amount of the light reaching through. But…” He raised a fist. “Without it, you are defenseless!”

    His squashing attempt was foiled as the collective fire of five angry people peppered his chassis. Explosive shotgun shells, rapid pulse beams, and magnetically accelerated bullets spewed forth from the operatives, each now scrambling to keep distance both between them and each other. Their goals were the same, however – destroy the devil, and protect the injured Ethereal on the ground.

    “Now?!” Lucifer snarled, extending the minigun on his arm to provide greater surface area on his defense. “Now you intervene?!” He backed up against the door to the next room, and plunged a giant metal fist through it. The rest of him soon followed, escaping the torrent of fire streaming his way.

    Azazel weakly waved Samantha off as she attempted to use her biokinesis to tend to his wounds. I’ll be fine, he said, though his voice sounded weaker. I’m not going anywhere. Leave me, deal with him.

    Isaac hesitated as the rest gave chase. “You’re certain?”

    I’m certain, Azazel affirmed. Find Lester. Do what you came to do. You can take me to a hospital or something later.

    Samantha got up, holding her Autorifle. “Come on,” she said, sprinting after them. “We’ve got an exorcism to perform!”

    With one last look at the fallen Inquisitor, Isaac followed, Pulse sniper rifle in hand and his revolver in holster.

    The devil didn’t seem to know which target to follow. He would miss a swipe at a running Samson, only to be shot in the back by Luka, who he’d chase while being peppered by Noxious. Samantha shrugged off any blows he struck thanks to her shell, and Raider… he had no chance of catching her.

    When Isaac entered the next room, which was probably the more practical section of the labs (it was difficult to tell with half of it already wrecked), Lucifer snapped sideways and fired another grenade at him. The Judge dove out of the way, but still felt the soft punch of impact from behind as the grenade exploded on impact. Samantha took full advantage of Lucifer’s distraction – somewhat vengefully – by pelting him with pulse lasers, though the majority of those reflected off the alloyed chassis. The devil retaliated with a flurry of bullets, though the Huntress’ shell protected her. Luka fired a well-aimed grenade while the machine was standing still, the explosive blowing up right next to Lucifer’s arm, forcing him to cease firing. He brought up the arm, examining the smouldering wreck of the minigun.

    “That was rude,” the AI chastised, but turned away. “I have other priorities,” he said, settling his gaze on Isaac, who was standing back up.

    The Judge noticed the devil’s gaze. “Ah, fuck off,” he muttered, beginning a sprint to the side to avoid whatever it was Lucifer had in mind. This turned out to be a wise choice, as the AI began charging towards him, sprinting at terrifying speed towards him. In an attempt to throw him off, Isaac engaged his cloak before throwing himself to the right. Lucifer, however, once again demonstrated that such tactics would not work, swiping one hand in Isaac’s general area, striking him and sending him flying over to Luka’s feet, missing the rifle.

    The Russian extended a hand down to him. “You seem to be needing hand, friend,” he said with a grin.

    Isaac gratefully accepted, clasping the demolitionist’s hand. He was pulled up…

    … and then that which was pulling him was gone, smacked away like a golfball by the fast-moving Lucifer. The AI continued forward towards Luka, who had landed near the wall. The Russian, panicking slightly, raised his grenade launcher and fired, striking a direct hit on the devil and clearly damaging his chassis.

    But still he did not stop.
     
  5. Taxor_the_First

    Taxor_the_First Well-Known Member

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    Lucifer grabbed the human and pinned him against the wall, fingers impaling the wall around his prey. With a satisfied grunt, the devil pushed his hand forward, straining against the durable shell of the struggling Luka’s Aegis armor. A few cracks appeared, then spread, then the structure of the armor collapsed completely.

    There was no way they could stop him, Isaac realized with a sinking feeling. Samantha was already pelting Lucifer’s back with bullets that he seemed to be ignoring, Noxious and Raider were equally ineffective, Samson was too far away to get any decent hits in with his shotgun. And Isaac wouldn’t be able to put enough shots in with his revolver.

    If Lucifer intended to crush Luka, then that was what would happen.

    Luka seemed to realize that too. As the pressure on his armor began to transfer to his lower torso, he brought up a small handheld detonator. “I had need of friend,” he whispered. “Now I shall provide boom.”

    “Don’t you dare-“ Isaac began to yell before Luka was consumed in fire, the explosive charges he had still on him detonating right in front of Lucifer. The force of the explosion was so great that the AI actually toppled backward, the frontal armor completely shredded and his left arm almost entirely wrecked.

    The shock of his action wore off quickly as Lucifer rose, using the slab of metal that had been his left arm as a support. “What force of loyalty is this?!” the AI demanded, turning to face the five remaining operatives. “Who are you that people would be willing to die for you, Judge?”

    Isaac examined the devil standing before him, examined the destroyed armor. “Someone who appreciates every gift I’m given,” he said, raising his revolver and firing a few shots before the AI had a chance to properly react. Everyone else followed suit, targeting the now vulnerable undersystems. Lucifer flinched away, a sign that he was now actually sustaining damage, and charged at Samantha.

    She stood her ground, taking the opportunity to unload her Autorifle into the devil’s exposed belly. With an almost animalistic howl, Lucifer swiped sideways with his broken arm, not breaking through Samantha’s shell, but striking with enough force to send her flying away. Raider, who had been waiting for an opportunity like this, grappled onto the AI’s back, stabbing him in the flexible neck with an alloyed knife blade and somersaulting off before he could swat her off. Mid-air she pressed a button on her arm, causing the knife to unload a jolt of electricity into Lucifer’s systems. The devil cried out – an expression similar to pain, Isaac thought as he was running to the far door – before slapping the back of his neck, crushing the knife and breaking the circuit.

    The bad news only got worse for him, however. Noxious had sneakily rolled a small canister beneath him while Raider was doing her thing, and it now spat out its contents – a corrosive mix of chemicals designed to eat through weaker alloyed metals. Lucifer removed himself from the cloud as soon as he could, but it was already too late – particles of the gas had settled on his inner frame and were even now eating away at the meager protection that offered. He swatted Samson, who had been waiting for him, out of the way before settling his gaze on Isaac, who had been busy putting range between them.

    Isaac himself opened the door by smacking the button beside it and turned around to fire a few shots at the devil, backing into a raised platform lined by stained glass windows and with two staircases leading down into the lower, completely open section of the room around the octagonal walls. He took careful aim with his revolver and fired, the shot impacting Lucifer in the chest. The devil roared, and bringing his still-intact right arm up across his torso to protect himself, charged directly at the Judge. One, two three, four, five shots Isaac fired, and each one of them buried themselves into the AI’s arm. By the time he’d reloaded, however, Lucifer was upon him, grabbing him in his right hand and raising him up.

    “Defenceless now!” the AI taunted, beginning to squeeze. “This is the end for y-“

    He didn’t get any further as Isaac slipped his right hand out of the confines of his captor, bringing up his revolver and firing two shots directly into the devil’s damaged chest. Snarling in what Isaac assumed was pain, Lucifer gave up trying to crush him and instead threw him forward, straight through the stained glass window. As the Judge sailed across the room, he noticed that it was less functional than the others they’d been through.

    A garden, he thought dully as the ground came up to meet him. This room is a garden. He landed with a soft thud on the grassy floor in front of the garden’s centerpiece, a large granite statue depicting some military leader or other holding up a flag. Somewhat stunned by the impact, he groggily raised his head, noting that he hadn’t perished or even been truly injured from the fall as he’d expected.

    It was thus that he watched Lucifer jump out of the same window he’d just been thrown through, landing with a far louder and more damaging thump on top of what had formerly been a flowerbed. Calm now, the AI strode purposefully over to the Judge, who simply watched him as he approached.

    It was only when the devil raised his arm that Isaac truly registered the intent to kill again and rolled away, the metal club that was Lucifer’s left arm slamming down onto the grass that he’d been lying on only a half-second before. The Judge half rose before needing to dive away again, the devil striking at him again. He was about to raise his revolver to shoot his foe before he realized he no longer had it, the weapon being lost sometime during his flight. He gazed up slowly at the machine towering above him, briefly registering that they’d essentially done a 180.

    “I can’t let you through,” Lucifer said, although from his tone it was probable that he was speaking to himself. He raised his club arm. “I can’t let you through!” he repeated, louder, and began the slow swing downward.

    And once again, a rain of blue, imbued fire from above saved Isaac’s life. Samantha, who was standing at the edge of the window, let loose a torrent of bullets from her Autorifle peppering Lucifer’s chest from above. “Hands off!” she yelled, her eyes glowing an intense blue that was visible even through her tinted visor. The devil activated the jets beneath his feet and rocketed upwards, allowing Isaac to escape unharmed. Lucifer smashed Samantha mid-air with his arm, catching the vertical edge of the window with his other. He was surprised when she seemed unaffected by the force, but a quick scan of the air behind her revealed the reason for this – she’d imbued the air behind her to provide a cushion against exactly that. But that in conjunction with her other abilities should have already strained her past her limit. How was she keeping her protection and imbuing up?

    He swung away to prevent the Huntress simply taking advantage of his position, but as he did so he spotted the other three heading down the steps on the other side to the ground floor. With a snarl, Lucifer dropped to the ground, causing them to glance his way before continuing forward. He scanned the garden, spotting Isaac picking up his revolver some way away. And he analyzed his situation.

    It was rather obvious that he was losing. And… he glanced at the large, rather ornate door at the end of the garden. They were so close. One way or another, this was where it ended.

    The devil steeled himself internally, then charged forward, towards the three operatives that had just come off the staircase.

    “Aw, come on man!” Samson moaned, bringing up his shotgun. “Give a motherfucker a rest!” The three fired rapidly at the approaching AI, but were unable to do enough damage before he reached them. Samson was smacked away, but Raider managed to twist out of the way of the large metal club swinging at her. Noxious, however, was struck directly, sending him flying back up the steps a fair distance, where he landed and lay still.

    An expression of rage twisted Raider’s features. “You piece of shit!” she cried, grappling onto Lucifer’s torso again, Gauss Autopistol at the ready. She swung around so that she was directly in front of the AI’s face, and unloaded, the bullets burying themselves into the devil’s alloyed head. She didn’t hit anything critical though, and Lucifer responded by grabbing her by the back and slinging her across the room, crashing into a tree.

    Samantha, now standing protectively above Noxious’ unconscious form, unleashed another torrent of bullets at Lucifer. Unwilling to challenge her, he moved backwards rapidly, crashing through a hedge as he did so. As he turned, he came face to face with Isaac, who was standing with the revolver in hand. Not wasting time, the devil smashed forward with his broken arm, an attack Isaac dodged away from. Rather than continue on melee, however, the devil then fired his one remaining Scatter Blaster, the pulse beam impacting the grass where the Judge had stood, scorching it in the process. Isaac fired a shot at the devil’s head, the plasma-coated round piercing directly through the frame’s alloy armor. Lucifer raised his right hand to clutch at the wound, but did not fall.
     
  6. Taxor_the_First

    Taxor_the_First Well-Known Member

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    “I can’t let you through!” the AI said, dismay starting to creep into his voice. “I can’t, I won’t!” He struck forwards, his broken arm now seeming a little clumsy and difficult to operate. “Why… why is my body failing me?!”

    Isaac glanced at the damage Lucifer had already sustained, the giant hole in his chest, the various pockmarks on the right arm, the charred wreck of the left, the holes in his head. “No idea,” he said, backing away slightly.

    Lucifer released his head, snarling. “This is do or die, Judge,” the AI said. “I lose here, I’m just as dead as if you would be if you lost.”

    “I’m not about to just let you kill me,” Isaac responded. He hesitated, the image of Luka’s death still very present in his mind. “But in spite of… everything, you can still walk away. There’s a number of options for an AI in the world.”

    Lucifer began to laugh. “Impossible,” he said. “Lester created me. He is to me what your parents are to you. If death is what is necessary, then I will go to it willingly.” And with that, the devil roared, and resumed his attacks with renewed vigor.

    Isaac rolled away, and continued dodging. He couldn’t get a proper shot off like this, not while Lucifer was pressuring him and constantly moving. It was likely the AI knew this. And so he kept dodging away, simply trying his best to survive. After all, he had backup.

    That backup arrived a few seconds later, Samantha firing another torrent of bullets at the swinging AI. Lucifer immediately abandoned his attack on Isaac, turning to Samantha and attempting to remove her from the equation. It was possible, if he did this, that he could still win.

    But he misjudged. Time worked against him, and Samantha’s barrage proved too much for the exposed frame. The damage to internal components simply became too great, and suddenly Lucifer’s legs ceased functioning. The AI toppled forward mid run, crashing into the grass and gouging out the dirt beneath.

    “No…” the devil whispered, straining with his right arm to raise himself again. “No, no, no, no, no…”

    Isaac walked over slowly to Samantha, who waited for him, blue energy cascading over her. “You ok?” he asked.

    Samantha looked at him, and the shell around her began to fade. “Yeah,” she said, nodding. “I’m ok.” She looked at the fallen AI. “What do we do with him?”

    “I’m sorry,” Lucifer muttered, clearly not noticing them. “I failed, I failed, I failed…”

    A pang of pity stabbed Isaac in the heart. He raised the revolver, aiming directly at the devil’s head. “I’m the one that’s sorry,” he said quietly.

    Lucifer only seemed to notice him then, his eyes locking onto the weapon before him. “No!” he said, panic clear in his voice. “Don’t! Please!”

    Isaac fired, and the AI slumped forward, internal functions shuddering to a halt without the instructions necessary to keep them going. If you ever wanted an argument that synthetic life is still life, he thought glumly, that was it.

    The two remained there for a moment, staring at this monstrous machine, one that had killed one of them and severely injured most of the rest. The Huntress removed her helmet, and exhaled, enjoying the feeling of oxygen in her lungs again.

    Isaac turned to her, and realized with alarm that her nose was bleeding. “I thought you said you were ok!” he yelled.

    She turned to him quizzically. “What?”

    “Your nose is bleeding!”

    “Is it?” She sniffed and touched a hand to her face, the gauntlet of her Titan armor coming away wet with red. “Huh. So it is. Might be why I’m a bit light-headed right now.”

    Isaac’s eyes narrowed. “Did you push yourself too much with your psionics?”

    “I wasn’t about to let you die!” Samantha responded indignantly, suddenly defensive. “I can deal with a little headache if it means you aren’t squished!”

    He shook his head. “Sam…” He hugged her, surprising her. “Don’t push yourself too hard. I’d rather I die than you damage yourself.”

    “Where’s the logic in that?”

    “There’s probably none, but I’d prefer it all the same.” He released her then, and sighed. “Go back and check on everyone else. I’ll keep going. Blueprints say Lester should be just behind this giant door here-“

    “Wait, wait wait wait,” Samantha said, grabbing his shoulder. “You’re going on ahead alone?”

    “Of course. I can’t risk Lester escaping, if he’s got some sneaky tunnel or something that we’ve missed.”

    “No,” she said sternly. “I’m coming with you.”

    “No,” he said equally sternly. “What if Raider’s lying under that tree over there bleeding out? No. You’re staying here, and making sure nobody else dies today.”

    Samantha looked as if she was about to argue further, but her shoulders sagged. “Nobody except him,” she said, looking at the door.

    Isaac turned resting his own gaze there. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “Nobody except him.”

    The doors closed of their own volition when he stepped through them. He chuckled to himself. “I’m guessing those are locked, then?” he asked the darkened hallway.

    “Correct,” a voice said over speakers set in the walls. “This is between you and me, after all. Don’t want any bystanders being caught up, do we?”

    Isaac grunted. “Tell that to Phantom,” he said, continuing forward, past two short pillars with clay pots on top of them. The carpeted floor and wooden walls were a far cry from the sterile white of the labs or the vibrant green of the garden. And the room was dark, also a contrast that the rest of the complex.

    “Phantom went rogue after you killed Wraith,” Lester said. “I had no control over him after that. There were a few civilian deaths, but you cannot pin those on me. I have enough crimes as it is.” He started coughing, loudly and viciously.

    A sadistic smile passed over Isaac’s face. “Got a cold, do we?” he asked mockingly.

    “Heh. Bit worse than that,” his nemesis replied. “My lungs were never that healthy. Now it’s coming back to bite me in the throat. You probably could have left me for a few weeks, and I would have died of my own accord.”

    “There’s treatment for things like that now,” the Judge said, still walking slowly forward, revolver hanging by his side. “Someone of your… economic situation shouldn’t have much trouble getting that. Hell, with all the shit out the front there you probably could have synthesized your own treatment.”

    “Maybe I didn’t want to,” Lester said hoarsely. “I have you coming to get me. What’s the point in investing time and energy into trying to survive that when you’ll get me first?” He fell into another coughing fit, like he was trying to cough up the lungs themselves.

    “That sounds like defeatist talking,” Isaac said. “I never had you pegged for a defeatist.”

    “I’m a realist, Judge,” Lester responded. “A pessimistic realist, maybe, but a realist nonetheless. And at this point, it’s basically guaranteed that you’ll kill me in a few minutes. Why resist? I’ve already given up, to be perfectly honest.”

    The door to another room, long and dark like its predecessor, slammed shut behind Isaac, causing him to turn around. “That so?” he asked carefully. “You’re doing a good job of not convincing me of that.”

    “I won’t resist you,” Lester said. “But I’m not the one in the room with you right now. Isaac… let me say right now that I’ve regretted many things in my life. Many. Killing your wife was one of them. But this… I am really, truly, very sorry.”

    “Sorry?” Isaac asked, drawing his revolver. “What for?”

    Movement behind him. Then a chuckle. A light, long chuckle. Far too familiar.

    His heart dropped. “Oh no. No. No, no, no.” So that’s what Samuel meant. This is what he was trying to warn me about. Penny. Lester.

    Penny…

    “Afternoon, dad.”
     
  7. Taxor_the_First

    Taxor_the_First Well-Known Member

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    Chapter 9: Judgement's Day
     
  8. Taxor_the_First

    Taxor_the_First Well-Known Member

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    “Why?” Isaac asked without turning around. “What did you do to her this time? Bit more brainwashing, reinforced with psionics? That the deal?”

    “No,” Penny said, walking in front of him. Her hair, usually done up in a tidy ponytail, was now sitting free of such restraints, Isaac noted. Her clothing, too, was casual, a simple shirt and jeans contrasting his armor. “I’m here of my own volition. I chose this myself.”

    “With a little help from Uncle Lester, that so?” her father asked bitterly.

    “Only in what I can do,” the scientist replied, turning to face him with her hands on her hips. “I came to him of my own accord. I don’t know if you noticed, but we haven’t exactly been on the best of terms.”

    “We were mending!” Isaac said angrily, removing his mask and glaring at her. “We were fixing that, dammit. I only wanted you to have a good life!”

    “What, by abandoning me?” Penny snapped. “By leaving me to fight your own little crusade? Isaac, I’ve had enough. Enough of you, enough of your shit. So I went to the one person I knew would help me, the one person who had nearly as much issue with you as I do.”

    Isaac gritted his teeth. “So… what? You’re going to stop me? Now, here, you’re going to stop me from killing him? Do I need to remind you that he’s responsible for your mother’s death?!”

    “I don’t care!” Penny yelled. “She’s not around anymore. You may have spent years pretending she was, but it’s time for you to face facts, dad. My mother is dead. Has been for more years than I was old at the time. And yet you, you keep running around, chasing a ghost!”

    “I can’t just let him get away with it, can I?”

    “You can stop ignoring me for a dead woman!” she said accusingly. “I was still around, wasn’t I? I was still there, grieving over my dead mother, hoping my father could fill that gap in my heart. And you left. You left to chase some… petty revenge.”

    The Judge glanced at the door at the far end of the room, from memory the entrance to Lester’s study. His daughter stood between him and it, unmoving. “Pen. Get out of the way.”

    She folded her arms. “No.”

    “Do I have to pull the father card?”

    “I’m not moving. And I’m not letting you go any further.”

    “Do I have to manhandle you out of the way?”

    She laughed. “You can try.”

    He snarled. “You…” He swallowed. “What do you want from me? You want me to turn my back on this?”

    “This… and me,” Penny said firmly. “I want you out of my life. I want you gone, I want those people that watch me to make sure I’m ok gone, I want nothing to do with you ever, ever, again. And if you can’t do that, well…” She smiled. “You’ll just have to shoot me, won’t you?”

    “No.”

    “What, too far?”

    Isaac didn’t respond.

    She rolled her eyes. “Ugh. I was getting bored anyway.” Her mouth curved upward in an almost sickening grin, the kind that demonstrates a complete lack of good intentions. “One of the things Lester helped me with, dad, was figuring out what I could do. I’m fit, I’m healthy, I’m flexible, I’m fast… and now, with his help…” An androgynous blue figure faded into view beside her, reaching around from behind her and peeking over her shoulder. “… now I’m psionic.”

    Isaac took a step back. “A Reflection?” he whispered. “You have a Reflection?”

    Penny turned her head to the being beside her, and it reciprocated. “This is Verum,” she said, turning her gaze back to her father. “He came about when I started testing my abilities. With enough force of will, apparently, creating a Reflection is rather easy. And I really, really wanted as much power as I could get.”

    “What the hell for?!” Isaac demanded. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m impressed, but why?”

    She shrugged. “Isn’t that obvious by now? I knew you wouldn’t be able to give up on this. I knew you’d want to keep going. I knew you.” She chuckled. “And now I’m about to know you better. The psionic spectrums I tested positive for were Violet mostly, a bit of Blue and Red. I’ve been working on Violet a fair bit in my spare time. And with Lester’s help, I wasn’t exactly short of test subjects.”

    “Test subjects?” Isaac asked. “Penny, what’s wrong with you? What did he do to you?”

    “He trained me,” Penny responded evenly. “Trained my mind as well as my body. Now, no matter how you choose to fight me, I’m going to win.”

    “Fight you?” The Judge shook his head. “No. I’m not fighting you. I can’t.”

    “Oh, just look at that dedication to his daughter!” she said sardonically. “Father of the year right here!” She shook her head. “Very well. If you won’t fight me, then I’ll fight you. You should never have let me pick the battlefield.” Verum moved at last, almost slithering around its master and grasping Isaac by the head.

    “Cut it out,” he said gruffly. “Penny, this isn’t a game.”

    “All the better,” she responded. “Now, most Reflections have a gimmick of some kind, something they’re good at. Like… Colonel Atka, from the war? Hers had those whips. Your friend Azazel, out there, focused on melee combat. So you might be wondering, what does mine do?” She began laughing, though there was no humor in it. “In a way, that Ethereal is probably the best comparison. He liked delving into people’s minds and uncovering their secrets, yeah? Well, that’s what Verum does. He finds… truth.”

    With the light blue glow of Verum in his eyes, Isaac lost his peripheral vision to the adjusting sensitivity of his eyes. Abruptly, it released him, and floated back behind its master, arms outstretched. There Isaac saw that his vision hadn’t gone at all – the room itself had altered.

    “What the hell?”

    “You remember the concept of a dreamscape, dad?” Penny asked. “A representation of one’s mind, rendered visible by psionic ability? To an extent, everybody has one, psionic or not. It just needs that little touch to be brought out.”

    The Judge looked around at the dark area, seemingly empty save for the two of them. “And this is…?”

    Penny smiled. “Yours. There was a bit of clutter, but I cleared it all away. You need a clear mind for this, after all.”

    “For what?”

    His daughter looked at her Reflection, floating serenely behind her shoulder. “Like I said, Verum finds truth. And with my psionic ability, I can make that truth reality. The question you might be asking then, is what truth I’m looking for.” She smirked. “The answer is simple. Fear. I want to know what you fear. I want to see you react.”

    Nervous now, Isaac swallowed. “Why? What for?”

    Penny shrugged. “For fun, of course.” And suddenly Verum was in front of him again, a distorted mouth opening and a twisted expression staring into his very soul. And the noise, it sounded like someone was screaming into a microphone with terrible connection, right in his ears.

    When it was over, Verum disappeared, allowing the cool Moscow air to replace its visage. Isaac blinked a few times to ensure it was gone, then looked around.

    And froze. Everywhere he looked, there was a sea of people.

    Somewhere in the back of his mind, Penny began laughing hysterically. “Crowds?!” she cried disbelievingly. “You’re afraid of crowds?!”

    He adjusted the collar of his shirt, the Ghost armor he’d been wearing now missing. He felt the shape of a standard Glock-18 at his hip. And worse, he felt the mass of humanity around him. There was no way he could watch every corner at once, no way he could see a well-timed attack coming.

    “This is…” He gulped. “This isn’t real,” he reassured himself. “This is a very, very, very convincing illusion.”

    Someone bumped into his back, startling him and causing him to jump. The civilian that was responsible snapped something in Russian at him before moving on, shaking his head. Isaac exhaled. “Where are you?” he asked, assuming his daughter could hear him.

    “Here,” she replied, her voice disembodied and everywhere. “Not much help? Shame. I do wish you could see yourself right now. Look how jumpy you are.”

    He snarled. “That’s enough,” he said, a waver in his voice. “Stop this. Now.”

    “Or what, you’ll ground me?” Penny laughed. “No, I’m enjoying this. It’s funny seeing you squirm like this.”

    “Cut it out,” he warned, before another Russian bumped into him. This one was more polite, offering a muted apology before continuing. But he’d slipped a note into Isaac’s hand. Curious, he opened it.

    They know you’re here. Run.

    “Oh, good,” Isaac muttered sarcastically. He glanced around, searching for any threats, but could not spot any. Hovering a hand over his pistol, he began to edge through the crowd, towards the end of the square. He kept his eyes peeled, wherever he went – someone getting too close, or the glint of sunlight off a scope on one of the buildings. Anything. But he saw nothing.

    Until he got close to the edge.
     
  9. Taxor_the_First

    Taxor_the_First Well-Known Member

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    There, he caught someone look away, pretending not to have been looking at him the entire time. His eyes narrowed, and he began pushing through the crowd towards his voyeur. “Oi!” he yelled, as the person began walking away. He would have followed, but a solid mass of people crossed his path, preventing him from going any further. But he saw the person start speaking to someone else, who then started speaking into a walkie-talkie.

    The shot hit the concrete next to him, breaking off a small piece of rock. The crowd collectively flinched, then began panicking, running every which way. Isaac was caught in the middle, unable to really move anywhere in the chaos. Despite himself, his heart began to pound. If he was caught like this…

    “Alright, that’s enough,” Penny said dryly, and the scene froze, people mid run. “Let’s go to the next one. I have to admit, I’m curious. I mean, there’s something you fear above all else, that’s a given. What could that be?”

    Isaac glanced around at the frozen people. “Running out of toilet paper?” he said.

    “Ha. No. We’ll find out in a bit. But I want to play with you for a bit longer. Will you keep playing with me, daddy?”

    “Now you’re just taking the piss,” Isaac muttered.

    “Of course I am,” Penny responded, sounding a little miffed. “We’ll go for your second-greatest fear first. Let’s have a look here…” She began to laugh. “Oh my oh my, this’ll be good. Tell you what, I’m feeling generous. You can have your gear back. Can’t have you just being released by death now, can we?”

    The shirt, jacket and pants combo Isaac was wearing was replaced once again by the Ghost armor, and his Glock turned into his revolver. “… thanks?” he said, checking that the revolver was loaded.

    “Anything for my father,” Penny responded, though her tone was mocking. “Now then, your next fear…”

    The scene was unfrozen, and the myriad of people continued running for their lives. Isaac, who had been expecting something along the lines of a total scene transition, hurriedly examined the area for hostile forces. With the center of the square now clearing, visibility was better but still not great.

    Of course, he never saw the first attacker coming.

    The knife was embedded into his back, too short to pierce skin through his armor but still punching him forward from the force. He turned to confront his attacker, but was met by a boot to the face, causing him to sprawl backwards, landing awkwardly on the knife hilt and snapping it off from the pressure. He blocked the follow-up kick, grabbing his assailant by the ankle and wrenching them downward, where they fell. He froze as she fell, head striking the pavement and causing her to cry out.

    “Evelyn?!”

    She growled at him, and rolled sideways, away from him. He took the opportunity to rise himself, brushing the dirt off one arm. She came at him again, rapid jabs aimed at his neck followed by sweeping kicks to his legs. He withstood the lot, one way or another, and grabbed her by the arm, pulling her in. “Raider, it’s me,” he said.

    She spat in his face. “Yeah, no shit it’s you,” she said. “Glad you drew my attention to that fact.”

    A laser began dancing on Isaac’s chest, and he released her, jumping away as another sniper shot impacted the concrete near where they’d been standing. “What the hell are you doing?” he asked, standing unsure.

    Raider wiped her forehead. “Trying to kill you, what does it look like?” She brought up a communicator. “Gazer, what the fuck are you doing up there you blind asshole? Was him standing still not enough leeway for you?”

    “Gazer? But... he died, years ago.”

    The operative across from him sighed. “Tell that to the grizzly bastard on the rooftops,” she said, flipping out another knife. “Alright, fine. You want to be difficult, we’ll play difficult.” Her expression fell when he raised his revolver. “Ah, merde.”

    “Knife to a gunfight, Raider,” Isaac said. “I always warned you about that.”

    “Move, bitch! Get out of the way!” a voice from behind Raider cried. She dodged away, and Samson, standing behind her, fired his pump-action shotgun at Isaac a number of times. Most of the pellets simply lodged themselves in his armor, however, as his weapon was standard ballistic. “What the fuck is this shit?”

    “What is this?!” Isaac demanded. “Why are you both attacking me?”

    This is treachery, Azazel murmured, standing behind him. We have decided that you will die, here.

    He saw Azazel’s shadow begin to form around him, saw Raider and Samson preparing to attack him from behind. “Fuck this,” he muttered, engaging the cloak on his armor and bolting away.

    Azazel’s head followed him as he ran, however. You cannot escape, he stated, as Umbra began striding across the square. I can see you no matter where you go.

    Isaac tried a different exit, with most of the civilians having now vacated the area. He was foiled, however, as the archway he was going to go through became smoked off with a green-tinted gas. “Noxious, you prick,” he cursed, before taking off in a different direction. Indeed, the figure that stepped through the gas a moment later was the chemical expert, wearing black tactical gear and a gasmask.

    “Not stopping to shoot me, are you?” Noxious taunted, following him. “That’s too bad, because we won’t be having the same qualms about shooting you!”

    The wall Isaac was running along abruptly blew outwards in front of him, bricks flying every which-way. Out of the clearing dust strode Luka, reloading his grenade launcher, and the tall, buff form of Pillar, similarly equipped.

    “Precision not needed when dealing with explosives,” Luka declared, firing the grenade launcher in Isaac’s general direction. He was thrown backwards by the blast, decloaking in the process. He cursed, rising and turning to the right, only to see Samantha, wearing her old specially modified EOD suit.

    “You’re bloody kidding me,” he said, taking a step backward.

    The sound of multiple weapons being cocked reached his ears. All around him, everyone he’d known, fought with – they were now staring him down, weapons in hand, murderous intent in their eyes.

    Isaac himself was shaking. Right now he wasn’t sure if he even wanted to resist – after all, that would mean shooting a good friend at the very least. Samantha, Noxious, Raider, Azazel, Samson, Luka… even the dead were here. Pillar, Gyro, Gazer… hell, even Samuel. All those names, all those people. Friends, allies, even a lover in one case.

    Each and every one of them willing to gun him down where he stood.

    “Come on,” he said, genuine fear in his voice. “What did I do to you? Surely nothing worth this, nothing worth ending each other’s lives over.”

    Samantha scoffed. “You had your chance,” she said, though what exactly she was referring to was lost on him. “You didn’t take it. Now, we’re all here.”

    This was most certainly not how he had pictured his life would end. “Be reasonable,” he said carefully. “I can make amends, can’t I? Don’t just toss out any idea of me repenting for… whatever I did to you.”

    It’s too late, Azazel said simply. You cannot escape.

    “One!” Samantha barked, and everyone raised their weapons.

    Isaac took a step back. “Come on. Don’t do this.“

    “Two!”

    “Samantha, please. Just stop for one moment and use your goddamn head-“

    “Three! Fire!”

    The first gunshots made him flinch. The second gunshots never came. He opened his eyes to see the scene frozen again, bullets midway through the air towards him, stopped in time.

    “Betrayal,” Penny said simply, still everywhere and nowhere. “But not just that. Betrayal by the people you’ve held dear, by the people that you’ve saved the lives of and who have saved your life. Every ally you’ve had, all gone in an instant.” She sighed. “Almost poetic, really.”

    Isaac was breathing heavily now, adrenaline seeping through his body. “You… you…”

    “I’m a horrible person, aren’t I?” Penny asked, giggling. “And the best part is you’re not done yet. We still have numero uno, the thing you fear the most, to go. Are you excited? Because I am.”

    “No,” her father muttered, genuine terror beginning to grasp at his heart. “No, no, don’t. Don’t do it.”

    “I don’t listen to you anymore,” she said dismissively. “Verum! Show me his greatest fear!”
     
  10. Taxor_the_First

    Taxor_the_First Well-Known Member

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    The square faded away, the illusion dispelled. The dark, wooden walls of Lester’s inner sanctum returned, seen through Isaac’s already tearing eyes. Penny stood across from him, face upturned as if accepting the light of a god. He exhaled, running a hand across his forehead and into his hair. “I… I told you not to…”

    Penny cracked open one eye, and started, looking around. “Wait, what?” she said, confused. “What happened? Verum?” The Reflection appeared next to her, summoned by her voice. “Why are we back out?”

    “I warned you, I tried to tell you to stop…”

    “Verum! Now is definitely not the time to fail me!” she hissed at the being. “I told you to show me my father’s greatest fear!”

    The bullet punched through her chest, causing her to gasp from the shock. She whipped her gaze to her pained looking father, holding the revolver in his shaking grasp. She glanced down at her chest, where blood was beginning to stain her shirt. Beside her, Verum seemed locked in a fetal position, floating upright.

    Isaac caught his daughter before she fell, wrapping his arms around her. “It’s ok, it’s ok,” he said quietly. “It’ll… it’ll all be over soon.”

    Penny didn’t look at him though. “I don’t understand,” she said numbly, eyes unfocused. “I… why did Verum fail me?”

    “He didn’t,” Isaac whispered. “He succeeded. He showed you my greatest fear. It’s just that the easiest way to do so was to bring us back to reality. It was the reality of this that I feared.”

    Behind them, Verum collapsed into a burst of blue particles, its glow dispersing like a candle blown out at night. Penny’s eyes blinked a few times, then began to close, unable to stay open. “Why is… why is it dark?” she asked sleepily.

    “Because the lights aren’t on,” Isaac reassured her. “It’s… time for bed, anyway. Go to sleep, Pen. I’ll be here in the morning.”

    He held her like that for a few moments, until her breath eased out of her mouth, and her head slowly flopped to one side. With a tear in his eyes, he kissed her on the forehead, and laid her down on the carpet softly, taking great care not to bump her. And he stood there for a moment, barely registering the quiet click from the door at the end of the hall as he gazed at the serene face of his daughter.

    Then his face twisted with rage, and he stormed forward, fastening his mask back onto his head as he barged through the door. When he did, he found himself in a large study, bookshelves lining the walls, a giant TV in the far wall. And in the middle, a desk, where a large chair was, the back to him.

    He glanced at the TV, the only source of light in the room. It was showing on it a picture of Helen. “Why?” he asked simply.

    “I thought you could use a reminder of why you’re here,” Lester replied, swinging the chair around. “Just in case you started faltering in your resolve.”

    “You think I’d falter after shooting my own daughter?”

    Lester coughed, then bowed his head. “Like I said before, Judge. For that, I am truly, very sorry. Had it been up to me, I would have left her alone.”

    “It was up to you.”

    “No. She came to me. She presented an opportunity and I took it.” He tapped a finger on the desk. “I kept telling her not to play with you when you arrived. Just to kill you or send you on your way and be done with it. From the looks of it, as soon as she brought out her Reflection, you’d already won.”

    Isaac glanced around the room, examining it for any hidden surprises. “Opportunity,” he said quietly. “Is that what you called each and every one of the people I’ve killed to get to you? The Ghosts, Stormwater, my own daughter?”

    Lester leaned back into his chair. “Stormwater was under my control well before you started making noise,” he said, “as were the Ghosts and your daughter. If I made any mistake in all this, it was having them face you one by one. But when you first appeared, I didn’t really take you seriously enough to send everything I had at you.” He spread his hands. “And by the time I realized exactly how much of a threat you posed to me, it was already too late.”

    “You underestimated me?”

    “That’s the sum and total of it, yes.”

    Isaac shook his head. “They were all skilled,” he said. “Spectre, Wraith, Phantom… those three were probably the ones I have the most respect for. I understand them. Their motivation, their actions.”

    “Phantom went rogue,” Lester interjected. “His chasing you down was his own mission, not mine. I would never have authorized such a brazen attack.”

    The Judge was quiet. “He died trying to avenge his friends and allies,” he said. “As did Banshee. But the lengths he went to… that suit he wore…”

    “I offered it to him. I didn’t force him into it – it was a choice he made himself. To live and to leave the rest of Ghost squad unavenged… or to die and avenge them.” Lester coughed again, but managed to avoid falling into another fit. “He made that choice. Not me.”

    “Offer a child a lolly and they’ll take it,” Isaac muttered. “Offer a man like that enough power to track down and take down his enemy, he’ll take it, regardless of the cost.” He turned to face his nemesis. “What about Samuel?”

    “My men dug Samuel out of the rubble of Cairo, back during the war,” Lester replied. “He was grateful for that, and the medical treatment he received afterwards for that plasma burn. He was less grateful to you for abandoning him.” He sighed. “I won’t say there wasn’t a degree of biological programming involved there. He was angry with you, yes, but not enough to warrant trying to kill you. And as it turned out, even then it wasn’t enough for him to make a concerted effort.”

    “And he tried to warn me,” Isaac said. “About Penny. His dying words, in fact.”

    Lester grimaced. “The prodigal daughter, one who wasted not money but time. Time she spent nurturing a grudge, instead of continuing her life.”

    “How long?”

    “Since before you blew up that warehouse on the docks,” he said. “She was actually in the room with me when I was telling Hackett what to do about it.”

    “Who?”

    Lester raised an eyebrow. “He didn’t even get to introduce himself before you killed him?” A chuckle. “He would have hated knowing that, arrogant man he was.”

    Isaac nodded. “What about your AI?”

    His nemesis smiled warmly. “Lucifer. My friend, my companion, my servant. It… saddens me that he’s dead, but he would have not enjoyed life without me, conceited as that sounds. His entire purpose was me, after all. It was his programming.”

    “And Raul?”

    “Raul was… an unplanned boon,” he said. “Lucifer had the idea of contacting one of your people to turn them over, and decided he’d have more luck with Raul than any of your other allies. A bit of a gambit, but it paid off – I knew exactly where you were thereafter.”

    Isaac folded his arms. “How did you get him to turn?”

    Lester remained quiet for a moment. “Something you learn about fairly quickly in business is motivation. How to motivate people, what drives them. You chose to motivate Raul with money, usually a safe bet. Lucifer took a different approach – that of the challenge of beating you.” He coughed. “Raul perceived himself as unbeatable, because he always was a step ahead of his enemies. Providing him a foe that had a similar amount of prestige to him was a challenge he could not refuse.”
     
  11. Taxor_the_First

    Taxor_the_First Well-Known Member

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    “That arrogance was what got him killed.”

    “It was,” Lester agreed. “He grew complacent. He forgot how to deal with uncertainty, because he was used to only dealing with certainty. I… was watching your exchange. When you planted the seeds of doubt in his mind, it was already over. And you utilized it perfectly.”

    “I would have preferred not to kill him.”

    His nemesis was silent. “We don’t always get what we want,” he said. He sighed. “But enough of that. You came here to kill me, didn’t you? Like I said before, I won’t resist, but…” He stood, walking around the desk slowly and taking his place at the front. “I have a single request for you before you go ahead.”

    Isaac fingered the revolver. “Dying man’s last wish?”

    “Exactly.” Lester glanced around the room, taking in the bookshelves for the last time. “I will not resist you, you may kill me as you wish, but I have that one request.” He spread his hands. “Make it quick. Be merciful in that, and spare me the pain.”

    Behind the mask, Isaac’s eyes glared at his nemesis, the man responsible for so much of the pain in his life. “Be merciful?” His grasp tightened on the revolver. “You want me to be merciful?”

    He snarled and fired the weapon directly into Lester’s stomach, causing him to cry out in pain and fall backwards. “I would if you had shown that same mercy to Helen!” He planted a foot on his nemesis’ right leg, and fired again, once into the other three limbs, each shot punctuated by a cry of pain. “Now then,” he said, staring into Lester’s pained eyes. “I’ve got one bullet left in this. A gun that was given to me by someone I later learned hated my guts.” He examined it. “To be honest, I’m surprised it hasn’t exploded in my face yet. So you better hope that doesn’t happen, because otherwise this shot that’s meant for your head won’t go, and you’ll bleed out here.” He aimed again, this time at Lester’s head. “One way or another… this is goodbye, asshole.”

    He fired once more, and the revolver did not explode in his face. Instead, the bullet did as was intended, piercing Lester’s head and ending his life at last.

    Isaac stayed there for a moment, breathing heavily. He stared at the unmoving Lester beneath him, allowing himself to fully realize the extent of what had happened.

    It was done. His quest for revenge was over.

    He stepped back, then. He’d succeeded, yes, but at what cost? Luka was dead. Raul was dead. Penny... was dead. Was that Lester’s fault, or his?

    His thoughts were interrupted by the TV flickering, the image of Helen being replaced by a moving Lester. “Judge, Judge, Judge, Judge,” he said, almost disapprovingly. “It was one simple request."

    Isaac froze. “What.”

    “Before you have a heart attack let me assure you that I am quite dead. This is a recording, created… probably a few days ago if my predictions of your actions are correct.” The door behind him clicked, the lock, probably going into place. “And they usually are.

    “I had one simple request for you, Judge. Just one. ‘Make it quick’. How hard is that? Less effort than the torture you clearly just made me endure. But no, you had to indulge your anger, didn’t you? Had to let it out.” Lester stopped, and folded his arms. “Which means you’ve decided your own fate. Had you followed my instructions, you’d already be outside mingling with whoever survived your encounter with Lucifer. As it stands, that is not the case. The door is locked, you are trapped in here.” He smiled. “A short time ago, I had an operation. One that gave me a… specific implant. One meant to allow me to have a little retribution from beyond the grave.”

    Isaac glanced at the corpse on the ground, and began backing towards the door.

    “After all,” Lester said. “Wouldn’t you prefer to go out with a-“

    He was cut off by an explosion, the device within Lester’s own body detonating and pushing bloody fire outwards, towards the walls, towards Isaac. The force of the explosion was enough to blow open the locked doors, and Isaac flew through them, catapulted by the concussive wave. He landed a short distance away, knocking his head against the floorboards and adding to the list of complaints his body had just begun to compile.

    He lay there, a ringing – or was that a tolling? – in his ears, his mind barely ticking over. Dimly, he was aware that his right leg felt off, but lacked the motivation to raise his head to check it. Everything ached. Limbs felt too heavy to move, and his chest stung. A few licks of fire edged his vision, probably his mask burning. He lay there, serenely, as the chaos of Lester’s last word burned around him.

    Vision continued to constrict, and after a moment Isaac gave up fighting it. It was too hard, trying to cling onto life like this. And really, there wasn’t much left for him to live for.

    Penny…

    She was further up, somewhere. Lying on the ground in a puddle of her own blood. A puddle he’d created with a deadly raindrop. Sadness gripped him. No parent should have to outlive their child, and yet she’d given him no choice. If she’d chosen any other way…

    Helen…

    She’d been in the grave for years, her ghost following him around, always at the back of his mind. Would she get rest, now? Would he? This had all been for her memory…

    Samantha…

    She was still alive, at least. Tending to their wounded right now. She’d… get over it. Eventually. At least they’d had something. Better that than leaving her not knowing, leaving her questioning. And yet still he was leaving her…

    He closed his eyes, the warmth from the fire in front of his face comforting rather than alarming as he was dully aware it should be. The never ending sleep beckoned, after all. His chest ached, and his heart was straining to keep everything functioning. It was time to let the organ rest. To rest himself.

    As his consciousness drifted away, he thought of everyone he’d known, all their faces, smiling at some point or other. A merry band of sociopaths, he thought oddly proudly, before his mind fell away, and the burning and crackling rescinded into nothingness.
     
  12. Taxor_the_First

    Taxor_the_First Well-Known Member

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  13. Taxor_the_First

    Taxor_the_First Well-Known Member

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    Queens Hospital Center
    March 25th, 8:38 PM



    His eyes creaked open, blinking a few times, his mind registering that he shouldn’t have been. This was completely unexpected. Why did he feel like he was in a bed?

    I swear to God if that was a dream…

    He raised his head, blinking rapidly to adjust his eyes to the light. As the brightness receded, he began to make out details. A hospital bed, an IV drip next to him, his daughter sleeping in a chair beside him, a TV on the wall detailing another economic blow to Trust Industries…

    His head snapped back to his daughter, peacefully slumped in the chair next to him, head resting on one well-positioned arm. In her lap she cradled his mask, the majority of the text on it burned away. He watched her, chest rising and falling as she breathed. Briefly his mind attempted to unravel the situation, but he stopped that train of thought immediately. Right now, he was content to watch her sleep, ignoring any glaring issues of how she was still alive, let alone by his bedside.

    After a minute or so of this, the door to the room opened, admitting Samantha and Charles, each carrying bags of food. Samantha nearly dropped hers when she saw him awake, stopping in her tracks and causing the man behind her to bump into her with a muffled “oomph”.

    The two stared at each other for a moment before Samantha calmly dropped the bags onto a table, before covering half the room in a single bound and throwing her arms around him, her eyes teary. “You’re awake,” she said simply, holding him tightly. “You’re awake!”

    Isaac chuckled, holding her back. “I should hope so,” he said. He placed his mouth next to her ear. “Why is Penny here?” he whispered urgently.

    “Act like you never saw her in there,” Samantha responded quietly. “I’ll explain everything later.” She withdrew, her smile fading. “Did you… notice?”

    Isaac’s own smile faltered. “Notice? Notice what?”

    Charles looked away awkwardly, for now not waking the sleeping Penny. Samantha sat down on his bed, placing a hand uncomfortably close to his upper legs. “We… I went after you after I heard an explosion, and when I found you, you were…” She bit her lip, starting to cry now. “Shit. There’s no easy way to say this.” She ran her hand down his legs, until abruptly the sheets fell down where his lower right leg should have been. “The explosion…”

    Isaac’s eyes widened slightly, and he threw off the covers. Sure enough, his right leg was half as long as his left, missing the lower section. His knee was the end of his leg now, rather than his foot.

    He gazed at it for a moment before sighing. “Well, I was looking to retire anyway,” he said, before replacing the covers. “Guess this is the universe saying that that’s a good idea.”

    Samantha chuckled, despite herself, and nodded to Charles, who lightly shook Penny by the shoulder. Her eyes flickered open, and she yawned. “The fuck do you want, Charles,” she asked sleepily, before registering that her father was awake. “Oh. Good morning.”

    “How long have you been here?” he asked.

    “Uh… two weeks now,” Charles answered, rubbing Penny’s shoulders and neck. “She wanted to come, I’m just tagging along.”

    “Wait, two weeks? You’ve been here two weeks?” Isaac looked around the hospital room. “How long have I been here then?”

    “Also two weeks,” Samantha answered. “It’s the twenty-fifth, today. You were brought in the afternoon of the eleventh, with burns, lacerations, a missing leg, and splinters.”

    Isaac chuckled. “Splinters? That barely seems like it should be on that list.”

    “They were… big splinters.”

    “And you’ve all been here for two weeks?”

    “We have,” Samantha said. “Azazel’s in the building too, but he’s being treated for severe burns and psionic over-extension. He comes down to check on you every so often.”

    Isaac raised an eyebrow. “They’re treating an Ethereal?”

    “I heard something about it being a special case,” Penny said, shrugging. “I’d say hospital staff got overruled by the XSDF, what with his role in shutting down a major terrorist threat.”

    Her father looked at her blankly. “Terrorist threat? What are you on about?”

    Samantha shifted uncomfortably. “The… XSDF wanted to know what the hell was going on. Since you were out of commission, Azazel offered to educate them himself. Cooked up some nonsense about Lester crafting weapons to be used to conduct terror operations, which with all the shit he had in there is quite plausible.” She shrugged. “They bought it.”

    “Remind me to thank him for preventing us from all landing in cells,” Isaac said dryly. “What, so no one else stood vigil by my bedside? Bloody traitors.”

    Penny giggled. “No, most of your friends came from what Samantha told me. Evelyn and her… boyfriend?” She looked at Samantha for confirmation, but she merely shrugged.

    “I don’t even know what those two are to each other,” she said. “They fit well, but I sometimes get the impression they’re just starting out.” A shrug. “They'll work it out.”

    “Then there was that other guy, the… uh…” Penny faltered for a second, wondering how exactly to describe him. "He was... um..."

    “Crass?” Isaac suggested.

    His daughter considered. “Yeah, that about covers him.”

    Samantha chuckled. “Samson upset the hospital staff a little too much, I think. I’m not sure if he’s even allowed in for visiting anymore.”

    “What about Hannah? Pale?”

    That brought a shrug from the Huntress. “Hannah’s gone back to her job. Pale comes in pretty regularly, but he usually visits Azazel. Those two were sifting through all the data from Lester’s systems.”

    “Azazel? Sifting through data?”

    “He said it wasn’t much different to his old job, and that you’d probably be doing that if you were awake.” Samantha rubbed the back of her neck. “I have to admit, I’ve looked at him a little… differently since he started fistfighting that MEC.”

    “Wait, what?” Penny asked. “What do you mean, he started ‘fistfighting a MEC’?”

    Isaac looked at her. “That’s… a story I’ll tell you when I’ve got my head on straight,” he said, a smile on his face. And when I know what not to tell you.

    *

    The hospital loaned him a wheelchair, for use around the building, at the insistence of one Dr. Beckard. Lacking the upper arm strength he would have had, and unpracticed in the ways of such devices, Isaac needed Samantha to push him around, a task she seemed to relish a little too much.

    They found Azazel in his room, closely guarded by security with Pulse rifles, of all things. As they passed, Isaac thought he glimpsed an XSDF badge on the chest of one of the guards. He was in the room before he had a chance to properly look, though. Inside, the Ethereal was staring at a laptop screen, evidently engrossed in its content. He straightened when they entered, his head turning to face them.

    Huntress. Judge, he said, inclining his head. You’re awake.

    Isaac spread his hands. “So I’ve been told.” He glanced at the computer. “I’ve also been told you’ve been looking through some of Lester’s personal data.”

    The Ethereal nodded. I have. With the help of your Pale Horse, I have been searching through his records. I have found a number of… troubling things within. I would tell you to sit down, but…

    Isaac tilted his head. “But?”

    … nevermind. Azazel returned his gaze to the computer, and he began flicking through various folders. I have two versions of all files, one translated into my language, one left in yours. If I can just find the correct… ah. Here. He selected a file, opening it, and brought the device over to the crippled Judge. This may explain a few things.

    Isaac ran his eyes through the words. “This is… what, a report?” He stayed silent until he’d reached the bottom, where he slumped backward. “I… don’t know why I’m so surprised,” he said quietly. “Cloning is easy. Has been since the war. Grab some genetic material, grow it in a vat. Even memories can be replicated if you get enough. So why does it shock me that Lester would do that?”

    “Because of who he cloned,” Samantha offered. “Morally, cloning someone that is still alive without their knowledge is reprehensible. Then using that clone to pretend they’re the real thing against the original template’s family is worse.”

    “And Samuel too.” Isaac grimaced. “No respect for the dead. Combine cloning with biological programming, and…” He shook his head. “Shit. I… I should have realized sooner. I legitimately thought…”
     
  14. Taxor_the_First

    Taxor_the_First Well-Known Member

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    Samantha gripped his shoulders reassuringly. Azazel retrieved the laptop and began flicking through it again. There was some video footage. The entirety of our battle to Lester, and even your journey alone, can be cataloged in video. It answers a few questions – for example, such extensive facilities would require similarly extensive staffing, would they not? Footage reveals the staff were evacuated prior. Lester knew we were coming, and yet he did not set off an alarm.

    “He did say he wouldn’t resist,” Isaac muttered. “He’d basically accepted his fate when I got to him.”

    I know, Azazel responded. And I can confirm that the explosion you were hit by originated from his body. Records indicate that, yes, he had had an operation some time prior to implant an explosive device into his abdomen. And there are other videos. Records. Reports. Given enough time, I could probably retrace his strategies back several years, as unnecessary as it would be.

    Isaac turned his head to look at Samantha. “What happened to the body?”

    Samantha was puzzled. “Body?”

    “The body of my daughter’s clone. What happened to her?”

    She was not dead, Azazel interrupted. She had sustained a dire wound, yes, but she survived.

    “She-“ Isaac blinked. “I thought… Where is she? Where is she now?”

    *

    The door clicked open, and the sole occupant of the padded cell turned her head sideways slightly. Her arms were restrained via straitjacket, and Isaac had been reassured before entering that she was wearing a psionic dampener. She looked away again as the door slowly swung shut again, locking thanks to the guard outside.

    Isaac hobbled forward on crutches, the wheelchair option being too unwieldy for such a room. “You’re not my daughter,” he said.

    “So I’ve been told,” ‘Penny’ said, unmoving. “Had my own existential crisis in the time that it took you to visit me. My understanding of who I am, what I am, uprooted all in an instant.”

    Isaac glared at the back of her head, but sighed. Try as he might, he couldn’t help but feel pity for the clone before him. “You know, there’s a number of clones in this world. A number of successful ones. You could make something of yourself.”

    She just laughed. “We both know there’s no place for me in this world. Not while… other me exists. We’re different enough to be distinct, in terms of personality anyway. She’s nice. Funny. Cheerful. I’m none of that. But there’ll always be that association. I don’t want to be likened to her. And I’m sure she doesn’t want to be likened to me.”

    “She doesn’t know you exist,” Isaac said.

    “So you don’t have to tell her you shot your own daughter?” She scoffed. “Eh. It’s probably better this way. You can pretend you have a happy family now, can’t you?”

    He glared at her, but shook his head. “I can set you up. Give you a life. You’ve been given a bad hand. I can give you a better one.”

    She outright laughed at that. “Fuck off,” she said. “I’m not living my life according to your rules. That was my whole problem with you in the first place. No.” She started nodding. “No, I will remain in control, thank you. If that means I stay behind bars for the rest of my miserable life, then so fucking be it. So long as I don’t need you.”

    Isaac looked at her back for a moment, considering whether he should press the issue. He sighed, and made to leave. “Have it your way,” he said, knocking on the door to be let out.

    As the door closed behind him, the clone sighed. “I will, father,” she said quietly. “I will.”

    *

    It had been a stressful week of damage control.

    Isaac wheeled himself forward, with Samantha off grabbing some food for them. Right now, it was just him and Azazel alone in the house. The Ethereal was gazing out the window at the setting sun, presumably admiring the rippling light off the cityscape outside.

    Or maybe he was just homesick.

    Do you intend to settle down? Azazel asked him, not turning around. I have difficulty imagining you becoming… what did you call it, a pensioner?

    “That’s the one,” he muttered, setting himself up by the same window. “And it’s not like I have much of a choice in the matter. I mean, being a pirate isn’t exactly the best thing for the assassination business.” He stopped chuckling when the Ethereal didn’t respond. “That was a joke,” he said, clearing his throat.

    Apologies. Must be a culture thing, lost on me. He gazed around the room. This abode is comfortable, certainly.

    Isaac shrugged. “It was a safehouse,” he said. “Comfort is… incidental, really. Me and Samantha will just stay here until we work out exactly what to do with ourselves. It’s been a bit too hectic to be thinking about the long term recently.”

    I understand completely, Azazel said. Between all of the questions being asked, all the excuses we’re giving. I find it amusing that my background has flipped from model citizen to criminal to law enforcer to criminal again.

    The Judge looked at him. “What… what do you plan to do, once the XSDF releases you from its bureaucratic grip?”

    A shrug from the tall alien. I don’t know, he stated plainly. Helping you has given me a degree of mental peace, seeing it as a surrogate for accomplishing my goal all those years ago. But now I find my purpose once again ended. He raised a withered arm, placing it on his mask in a similar way to a human stroking their chin. I honestly do not know.

    Isaac nodded, returning his gaze to the setting sun. “You know… I could probably help you with that.”

    Really? Azazel turned to him, his head slightly tilted. How so?

    “Well, I find myself less and less inclined to be working, and I’m not lacking for money,” Isaac said. “Besides which, my mask is so burned the only thing left on it is the word ‘Arbiter’, which as I understand is your preferred form of saying ‘Judge’. The term ‘Overseer’ is gone. Maybe… maybe it’s time I gave up the title myself.”

    The Ethereal considered him for a moment. And you would offer me this position? This opportunity?

    “I would. You’ve proven to be both skilled at ferreting out secrets, and to be of similar mind to me. Plus, you can defend yourself. I think you’d make a great Overseer.”

    Azazel turned away. Part of me wants to refuse, he said, shadows dancing on his mask. I am a branded traitor. I was lucky to survive. I was luckier still to obtain the rank of Inquisitor. To be an Overseer is an honor reserved only for the most pious, or the most loyal of individuals. Even if your variation is slightly different to mine, it still feels odd to be presented with this offer. An affront to the society I know.

    “I can’t think of a more worthy candidate,” Isaac reassured him. “There’s a number of people I would have considered, but even so you are probably the most qualified for the task.”

    And no one would suspect an Ethereal to be what was previously a human Overseer, would they? Very well, the new Overseer said. I accept. I will of course require you to help me at first. Get used to everything. Advise me.

    The Judge chuckled. “Oh, don’t you worry. I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from telling you what to do anyway.” He held out a hand.

    Azazel regarded the gesture briefly before extending his own hand, clasping Isaac’s with it and shaking. And so the Path continues, he murmured, almost reverently. The Path continues, but the one who walks it changes. We are all travelers on our own Paths, and thus some end before others. The purpose of life may be to walk as much of that Path as we can…


    …but if the traveler knows they cannot continue, then it is wise to cease walking. For then there is no more to see, the end has been reached though the Path may wind further. The traveler has reached their destination, and that is all that matters.