By Charles Swanson
|Gray was unhappy. There
was a very good reason for this: The Morlocks were unhappy. Gray was
not a Morlock, but walking through the buried Land Leviathan that
constituted the headquarters of local Steel City operations, he heard
quite a bit of rumbling from the lanky, century-old workers. They
were dying. Not frequently, but often enough for them to know. In the
century of Steel City, they were abused, worked, and mistreated, but
they were revered in a way, respected as being the immortal workers
of the future. Now they were relegated to the bowels of the earth,
maintaining machines that would never be called upon again. The last
Land Leviathan to crawl the surface was almost a hundred years ago,
with the exception of one spectacular failure.
As they spidered over the dirty steam engines making them gleam again, phrases were distinguishable from the background. "Not what it was in the old days..." "They'll never even move again" "Fewer Architect-Engineers every time they meet" "How long do we have, anyway?"
Gray didn't have time to argue. They'd just call him a newbie, anyway. Decades of service to the cause, and because he was a regular mortal he was a newbie. 'New-to-you-bie' perhaps. But he was needed at the gate. A strike team was expected back at any moment.
Gray made it to the gate in record time, having not taken the main cargo corridor. It was perpetually full, one of the inefficiencies of burying a skyscraper underground. The guards there didn't look up from their unending vigilance. They, too, had been designed and bred for their specific task.
This time, though, their unshakability seemed to be marred by the commotion that an odd, middle-age man was making at the outer checkpoint. He was difficult to see in the subterranean murk, but there was something familiar about the scene to Gray. It didn't look like the strike team was back yet; he'd go check it out.
The man was shouting at the guards. "Thor Bowden, do you know that name? I'm here from a very powerful organization, and you will not be rewarded for delaying my mission here. What is your name? It's not hard for me to mention this to your superiors, these 'Architect-Engineers', when I'm conducting my exceedingly important business here!"
The man who'd identified himself as Bowden caught sight of Gray. Suddenly the atmosphere became one of sympathy rather than overwhelming malice. Gray saw that it was just some person trying to go about his business here. It was understandable that he'd butt heads with the guards; they were designed with absolute stubbornness in mind. This fellow spoke to Gray:
"Oh, thank goodness! I can tell you are someone who knows what's going on around here. I'm representing the British Secret Service, and your guards won't let me pass. 001, Agent Thor Bowden at your service." Gray instantly trusted him. His entire manner conveyed only respect and sympathy. But still... That Gray couldn't quite focus on his entire face, only the constituent aspects, seemed familiar somehow. It was like...
Rex Riptide. That smart-ass University student had been a problem for Gray for years. In a way, Gray was his oldest contact. He certainly knew Gray before that current group of friends with whom he lived now. And Rex Riptide could not be trusted on a level far more basic than interpersonal relation. Rex had a way of convincing, of making people believe what he wanted them to. Gray would have to play it safe with this gentleman, Agent Bowden.
"I'm sorry, Agent Bowden. I don't personally know of any reason to expect you. The best I can do is to talk to my superior, and I won't be in contact with him for some time." The grip that held Gray relaxed. Suddenly the agent was once again in terrifying-mode, trying vainly to work his magic on the guards. Gray knew he wouldn't succeed. The guards were bred for a very specific purpose.
Speaking of this purpose, his strike team wasn't back yet. They were overdue by several minutes. Gray had lugged a heavy, airtight, mini-fridge-sized glass container all this way for nothing. And now he was being subjected to the kind of mental manipulation he spent his days avoiding.
Luckily, Agent Bowden's contact was arriving. Goodness, it was an Architect-Engineer! The tall, regal frame was now supported by ever-more metal in the form of walking sticks, braces, and wheels, but the power inherent in the being was apparent nonetheless. If Agent Bowden was to meet one, he was rightfully blustered by the lack of recognition. The guards, unshaken, kept up vigilance of the dark tunnel, their eyes wired to their brains in ways that precluded the brit's techniques.
The Architect-Engineer stooped to greet Agent Bowden. They greeted each other formally. Hands were shaken, bows were made, and oaths to alliances between the British Empire (really?) and Steel City were proclaimed. That part made sense. MI6 and Steel City would go together like Stalin and Azathoth. What now? Gray's master, one of the creators of all that was Steel City, was directing an accompanying Morlock to hand over its charge: a crate of the single-use anti-ninja pulse units that Steel City operatives had been issued recently. But there was more: some particle beam paraphernalia, communications equipment that had to be valued several times what Gray was worth to the upper caste, data drives of varieties that Gray had rarely seen, and finally some vials of diffuse, gray fluid that could have been either liquid or fine powder. That terrified Gray. It had to have been nanotech. All of it was of course styled in equal parts grand and functional, the old polished brass and mechanical governors versus the matte black that coated the more recent field equipment. "Nice," said the agent, accent notable for the first time, "I wonder what else will come out of that giant metal football."
Each unit would have held the world breathless on open auction, but each was also one-shot use. The Architect-Engineers were clever that way; Steel City would remain the world's source of these devices. The MI6 agent was either oblivious to the functional value of his cargo or very good at obscuring his thoughts. It seemed the latter was the case. When one of the mechanical burn-bots was directed just a bit too close by a distracted guard, the agent tensed in a way Gray had only ever seen one other person do: it wasn't his muscles that tensed (if anything, they relaxed as his center of gravity was lowered slightly), it was his focus. At that moment it became obvious that this brit was the greatest volume-concentration of 'deadly' within a large distance. Then the bot moved away, he relaxed, and anyone but Gray, who had dealt with his ilk before, would have instantly forgotten it as a momentary anomaly.
During this lull, it became apparent that there were people descending the tunnel's slope toward the gate. As they pushed through the murk into visibility, Gray identified them as his strike team. They took their sweet time in approaching him.
"Howdy, Gray! Guess what we've got for you." This gentleman had been stationed on the surface for too long. He had been cultivating the mannerisms and modes of speech of the outsiders, even in his interactions with Steel City personnel.
"You have it? Good, let me seal it". Simultaneously Gray opened his heavy specimen container with a hiss of escaping gas. The rearmost man of the five-man team came forward with a cloth bundle. Despite the cavalier, loose attitude they cultivated, the men were clearly in awe of this bundle. Eyes never left it, and the closest man took a step back when it passed. Gray quickly got it into his jar and sealed it. It didn't stir. To think, after nearly one hundred years of being feral, a larval ninja was once again in the control of Steel City!
Gray had his moment interrupted by the screech of one of the guards. It was ear-splitting, this engineered cry of alarm. Instantly burn-bots were directed at unseen targets, and where the tunnel was empty before, in a moment there were no fewer than three ninja bodies melting out of the graceful dance that kept them inside the effective blind spots of those around them.
"Ninjas!" the cry arose. "You led them back here!"
Fast as the lasers cut, they were still overrun. Sometimes a ninja would become noticeable, briefly, as it slammed one of the matte-black mechanical sentries into the hard stone floor, but more often they were indistinguishable from shadows and artifacts of visual processing as the darkness of the tunnel simply enveloped mechanical and living guard alike. The Architect-Engineer didn't bother running. After a century of life, it knew it couldn't outrun them. It had begun to alert the rest of the Leviathan when the tide of optical illusions got to Agent Bowden.
The agent was struggling with one of the pulse units. Of course! One anti-ninja pulse would thin the herd significantly, now! But the agent simply hadn't used them before. The practiced motions of ripping the protective plastic sleeve from the trigger and jamming a thumb down weren't as ground into his motor cortex as they were into Gray's. To the latter it seemed all over.
Then something remarkable happened. MI6 Agent Thor Bowden, 001, became a blur. Not like the ninjas, but equally fast. It was a motion that smoothly took him from the discarded crate of technological goodies to the wall and back again, radiating attacking ninjas at each step. When he caught his breath, he was panting hard. Immobile ninjas were arrayed pointing away from him on the ground.
Again, Gray had again seen this only once before. He would have to look into the matter. What connection did this fellow have to Rex?
The MI6 agent didn't have time to do more than catch his breath. Another wave of the black-clad beings were surely approaching, if he could only bring himself to notice them. Gray leapt toward him, and he recognized the gesture. Mid-leap, Gray was impacted by one of the belt-mounted pulse units. Before he hit the ground, he had the sleeve off and was pressing the trigger. He felt nothing, as he never did, but the unit registered its one, disposable fire. The walls slumped to the floor before he could convince himself that what he was seeing were actually tall, humanoid death machines dying.
This was a good pulse. There were apparently few of the resistant ones in this wave. Those few were burned down by reinforcement burn-bots. The agent turned to the tall, ancient form and nodded, apparently satisfied.
Gray's strike team was also impressed. One whistled. "That big soccer ball is going to save Steel City." A look from the Architect-Engineer silenced him. Apparently Gray was not supposed to hear rumblings about big soccer balls.
One of the ninjas was of the avatar variety; it looked to be modeled after a college-age female, wearing the appearance of a person instead of the black cloth that covered the rest of them. Further study of its body revealed a note in its possession. This was notable in and of itself, as the ninjas had rarely tried to communicate before despite having formulating this powerful method of mimicking human beings, even in speech. The note said 'Hercules'. Everyone in Steel City knew what that meant.
The pulse had apparently not damaged the ninja larva. This wasn't to say, of course, that Gray didn't get chewed out by the Architect-Engineer in charge of its study.
"You subjected it to a device specifically designed to ruin the usefulness of beings such as this as subjects of study. You have failed as its escort within these walls."
Gray stood silent. One did not talk back to the masters of Steel City.
"However, it did provide some valuable data. Was the larva of the resistant variety?" Gray stood silent. One did not answer the rhetorical questions of the masters of Steel City. "Not so! It is in fact that the resistant variety of the feral workers are like the larva! They are simply neotenous! Despite your utter failure as the one in charge of this valuable specimen, we were able to determine quite a few things about the changes that have undergone this strain since their escape an age ago." Gray stood silent. One did not move when a master of Steel City went point-by-point over details that no one would ever find useful, for the sole purpose of stroking its own ego.
Gray was eventually allowed to leave. His job was over, and he could get back to his real work. He hoped never to see another ninja again.
"Pardon me, young man, but might you be Gray?" He jumped. Who could possibly be addressing him here, in the labs of the Architect-Engineers, where he was to keep his head bowed and leave as soon as he'd conducted his business? Gray looked up to see the long, stately face of one of the upper caste. Surprise, surprise! It was not contorted into an expression of disgust at having to interact with him; it seemed instead to convey a curiosity and interest that Gray had never seen before.
Also, 'young man'? Gray was not a young man by any standards but those of the Morlocks and architects of Steel City. He was wary when he answered. "Yes, Architect-Engineer sir. I am Gray."
Voice once again emanated from the towering figure. "And you have interacted extensively with one known as Rex Riptide?" Gray's blood chilled. He was so close to never having to deal with Rex or ninjas or mind-hackery ever again. But no. The fates were so contrived as to put him in harm's way, every single time.
"Yes, Architect-Engineer sir. I've interacted with Rex Riptide."
"I have a new job for you. Go to this room," his long arm rose from a metal support and presented a map to Gray, "and explain the situation to the person therein. You are now his escort, his link to the rest of the Land Leviathan." That was it. No matter that Gray had his own work. The word of an Architect-Engineer was final, and rare for a mere mortal like Gray.
Gray arrived at the room specified. There were two guards outside, indicating something very odd because they were inside the Land Leviathan. Was it a brig? Why would Gray be escort to a prisoner? He showed his hastily drawn map to the guards, and they were either expecting him or discerned the regal nature of the map's author and granted him access.
Space was scarce in a structure that used to be a moving vehicle. Gray didn't get his own quarters, for example; he got one bunk for eight hours per day when he was in the Leviathan. It was therefore telling that this room was enormous and empty, except for a metal shape in the center, like a soccer ball big enough to hold a shark, somehow dark even while shining. It had portholes of thick glass that were obviously meant to stand up to some pressure. Gray approached it.
A shape shimmered behind one of the portholes. A voice came from the metal shape: "So do I get the larva now? Or do more of your once-scientists feel the need to do destructive examinations and tests? I should get priority. I have halted the expansion of the cosmos themselves!"
It cut off when Gray got closer. He recognized that last sentence, if nothing else. The voice apparently recognized Gray, too. "Gray! They've sent you! At last, someone I know." The voice belonged to Rex. So did the initial arrogance, followed by the sincere tone of sympathy and personal connection upon identification of his visitor. That last was false, Gray knew from experience, projected by Rex to draw attention from the unpleasant conditions of their last meeting. Gray would have to spend conscious effort to keep from falling into Rex's conversation-model. He spoke carefully.
"So I take it we caught you? How did we manage that? And why are you still alive, considering what you did to our operation only months ago?"
Rex's face was now clearly visible in the glass. It seemed to become clearer as Rex thumbed a control just out of the porthole's frame. He looked around in his giant metal container. "Hm. Yes, I suppose it might look like a prison cell from that side. But I assure you that Steel City and I have the firmest of understandings. All is forgiven, one might say. And this dodecahedron is for my own protection from some very destructive elements of nature, if you can believe me."
Rex was obviously setting Gray up for the dramatic reveal. He decided to roll with it. "Ok, Rex. Convince me. What could you possibly have that we want enough to let you not only live, but exist - let me understand this - not as a prisoner, inside one of Steel City's biggest and therefore most vulnerable assets?"
Rex smiled. "You have part of the reason on your belt right now. Yes, you see it. The anti-ninja pulse units that have saved you from bodily harm several times already. I'm guessing you've seen quite a bit of my stuff. All the new field tech you've used since the summer? That's why I'm now best friends with your bosses."
Gray paled. That was most plausible. His worst nightmare had become a reality. He was now working for Rex Riptide.
"First order of business, Gray: I assume you're my new lackey. Get me a coffee. Then tell me all about the Hercules."
The year was 1870. Steel City controlled just enough of the world to embark on projects whose only value was aesthetic. They dammed the Straits of Gibraltar. They built towers just because they were taller than last year's. They held conventions in their own honor. They built land-cruisers the size of towns and ships the size of cities. They journeyed to the bottom of the sea and left enough infrastructure behind to make it an attractive tourist destination. They engineered their own pets, workers, and circus novelties.
This is why when an engineer, regular human not Architect-Engineer, looked to the sky one day, past the blazing sheen of the gas lamps, and saw an attractive endeavor, he did not find it difficult to procure the funds necessary. Sending a vessel to the Red Planet was not more taxing than irrigating the Sahara.
It soon became apparent, though, that while the resources required for a geographic-scale project like the aforementioned irrigation by far eclipsed those required for sending an emissary of Man's ingenuity to the stars, the technical challenges were by far the greater. The sheer energy for the initial velocity required to raise a ship-sized vessel to arbitrarily far from the Earth (12,000 yards per second, no less!) was nothing new to Steel City, but the interval in which it had to be expended was tiny, seconds as opposed to weeks, and to keep it from destroying the vessel required precision beyond of what the instigator had ever dreamed. To maintain the vitality of the air, many tons of caustic potash and potassium chlorate would have to be stored. To keep the crew fed, many more tons of grains would be stored, but to keep the officers fed, aye therein lay a problem. Mere salted pork was no meal for these ultimate conquerors of distance. Livestock would have to be kept. They, too, would have to be fed (at an ever-decreasing rate, it's true, as they were consumed, but it was still an enormous mass of grains). Water was another large sum, but again it was not comprehended how large a sum until the figures came back from the tabulating engines, setting the required energy to loft even one ton into the aether.
Thus it was that the designers saw their masterful works begin as a city-ship, the rival of any on the sea, and be whittled down gradually to a mere fifty thousand tons, the like of which had traveled the Earthly, watery abyss even before the greatness that was Steel City. It was to be peopled by not more than a hundred crew and fifteen officers, hardly the majestic conquering society that had been envisioned.
The compromises to the cruel mistress of the tabulating engines did not stop there. How would the vessel maintain a temperature conducive to life when surrounded by the icy vacuum? It would need insulation of the most hardy sort. How would the vessel steer itself, so as to ensure its safe arrival? Tubes charged with lead shot would be installed, the reactive force of their firing causing an equal and opposite reaction on the ship. How would the vessel carry enough water for the living cargo? Ingenious systems of filtration were contrived to purify the waste water. When the officers were told what was meant by 'waste water', they rebelled and a separate supply was installed for their private use. When they were very far from the Earth, how would the crew work under the conditions of lower weight? Such conditions had never been possible to test; the only provision for its resolution was to appeal to the fortitude and patriotism of those assigned to its service. 'Stiff upper-lip', as it were.
The largest compromise, though, was obviated when it came time to select a method of propulsion. How was the vessel to leave the surface of the Earth? The masses of bureaucracy that had accreted around the project all called for an enormous gun and were trying to make their mark on the design of the gun, be it buried or no, rifled or no, steel or no, when the head of the project, the very man who'd first looked to the sky with adventure in his heart, called them to a silence and broke the news: No gun within the collective human grasp of creation could impart enough velocity to the vessel. All was not to be lost, however. The tremendous feat was to be accomplished with the help of mother nature: the volcano.
Once the wording had been changed to 'Man once again conquers mother nature', the bureaucrats who impeded progress gave way, satisfied with the alteration. A satisfactorily equatorial volcano was found in the middle of the Pacific wilds. The native population was neutralized. A city-ship was anchored as close as it could be without beaching itself. The substance of the volcano was slowly substituted for the substance of the vessel. It was given a name, the 'Hercules'. The supplies were loaded, the officers' quarters were adorned, the vital cycle was begun and honed, and the men were berthed. All that was left was the finishing touch, the jewel in the crown on Man's creative power, the source of the immortal workers, warriors, biological servitors, and eventually the Architect-Engineers themselves. They called it 'thrallseed'. It would be used to secure humanity's dominance over the red planet.
The volcano was brought to paroxysm. Fire engulfed the island. The Hercules was the peak of an enormous contrail of volcanic gas. Such pressures as could not be achieved with man-made materials pushed it ever higher.
A woodcut was commissioned and etched by someone who hadn't witnessed the event. It appeared in every newspaper that circulated in civilized regions. The caption it bore was 'Hercules Traverses the Aether!'
Communication was not possible with the craft until an enormous mirror of intricate and geometrically complex form could be brought to an exact position relative to the Earth and Mars. When the crew failed to hail their Earthly counterparts on the first pass of the mirror, in 1875, all calendars were set for its next pass: this very year.
By 1918, the workers of the world that were not manufactured beings had overthrown the might of Steel City, and by 1920 every sample of thrallseed, every descendant of the unique strain that had been the lifeblood of Steel City, had been put to the flame. The only sample in existence, besides the numerous Morlocks, Warriors, Architect-Engineers, and the few surviving, towering Servitors, whose thrallseed had differentiated and used up its potential, was on the Hercules, somewhere in extra-terrestrial space.
"Interesting," said Rex. Gray wouldn't get anything else out of him. After all, Rex probably knew most of the story anyway, being possessed of extensive information sources. He'd just wanted to see whether Gray could provide any new details. "Now where's that coffee?"
It occurred to Gray many years ago that perhaps continuing his employment (or was it 'servitude'?) at Steel City might not always be the best option. It seemed that, in recent years, he'd been subjected more and more often to the exact phenomena he hated the most. He didn't like the idea of beings that could manipulate him into not seeing themselves. He didn't like the idea of a smart-ass kid bouncing from university to university, only in one place long enough foil Gray's current assignment. And he certainly, above all else, deeply, personally didn't like the idea of people who'd taken to the art of manipulation as a calling in life, people whose goals were to make him think things he didn't want to.
On his way to get coffee for Rex, the particular person who was the embodiment of the second phenomenon and strongly exhibited the third, he decided that he'd probably reached the point at which performing menial jobs in an enormous underground tomb-like monument to faded glory was a net loss. Sure, he'd been bred for it, and owed his existence to the Architect-Engineers there, but that didn't give them the right to mistreat him so. He kind of liked the sound of Hawaii.
Gray made a snap decision. He kept moving where he should have turned left. He got to the gates. The guards didn't bother him. They were more concerned about keeping people out. His shoes sunk into the dirt that composed the tunnel that lead to and from the Land Leviathan. He walked out, into the crisp winter air of the City.
Apparently it was night time. There was also snow on the ground. He looked up at the building from which he'd emerged. 'Towerminster'. An asset of Steel City, secretly a towering servitor. Passed off as the administrative building of a lesser university. Rex had commandeered it those few months ago to foil their brilliant plans. If he hadn't, perhaps the world would have been a much better place for Gray. But now that was behind him, and he needn't feel bitter.
He began walking toward downtown, hoping that some disaster hadn't cut off major pedestrian routes too recently. That direction was the bus station, the train station, and the airport. He'd have time to decide which he wanted on the way. He shivered in the cold.
There was a problem. Not with his plan, or his reasoning, but with the gooey bit of him that still remained from the human feedstock from which he was bred. Even without the thrallseed, the Architect-Engineers that had created him had done a good job at keeping it hidden beneath the more useful levels of his mind, but the hacked methods of doing so weren't as good as that which brought the world to its knees before Steel City so long ago. Case in point: he was now running away from them.
The problem was that he did feel bitter. If Rex hadn't taken control of the servitor Towerminster against their hastily-mobilized Land Leviathan during the Summit last spring, Steel City would probably be a major world power right now, and even with his low place in the hierarchy, being part of the ruling power would have made his life much easier. Rex had thwarted plots long and short, deep and shallow in the years Gray had known him. Gray felt very bitter.
The problem was that he seemed to be alone in this. There must be countless people who wished only misfortune on Rex, but all of them that Gray knew had committed the greatest atrocity in his book: they'd collaborated with him. No one from Steel City was going to help him bring down Rex.
Then he had an idea. Rex tended to leave people behind. And he'd spent more than a year with this last group before he'd left them. That was the longest Gray had ever known him to stay in one place. They might wish him some ill. Gray set off from downtown, retracing his steps back toward the area surrounding the University.
He became aware of movement. As he walked down the wide, brightly lit, snowy streets, sheer cliffs of concrete sometimes giving way to broken, topologically-nontrivial landscape in which it would be very easy to hide, it began to become obvious that someone was following him. It was not a ninja. If it were, he wouldn't be aware of it yet. There is some philosophical discussion on whether he'd be aware of it at all. No, this was just some person, following him. Not very well, either. Along with the scrapes and bumps of rubber soles on concrete, there often came grunts of exertion and loud, ragged breath. Once, he thought he caught a glimpse of a shadow, slipping off of a concrete rise. Powder snow was kicked up.
"Ok, whoever that is. Come out. What do you want?" Gray called. His hand flew to his weapon. He didn't draw it yet. That would have been too obvious.
The figure didn't come right away. It might have been considering whether to just pretend it wasn't there. But no, eventually the shadow reappeared, and a voice replied, "So you aren't so helpless after all! Have no fear, citizen, it is I, The beloved Captain Calculus, masked hero of the City! I saw you walking alone at night. Avoid this when you can, citizen, as these streets are polluted with the desperate. But I will protect you this one time." The Captain lowered himself heroically from off the rise, grunting with the effort, heroically waited a moment to catch his breath, and heroically stood up before Gray, shoulders back, head high, and fists at waist. His balled fists were blue from contact with the cold concrete.
Gray had never seen anything like it. The top of the man's bald head was on eye-level with Gray. He was in a colorful costume strewn with mathematical symbols. A cape flowed behind him. His gut stretched the spandex of his suit taut. Sweatpants covered the bottom half of his uniform, mercifully covering what was presumably as skin-tight as his upper half. The neck line of his uniform was cut high, a repulsive beard erupting directly from it. It was chiefly composed of gray or graying hairs, trimmed to just long enough to evoke Gray's disgust-response. So did his shining bald head.
Gray's hand didn't move from his weapon. "Thank you, Captain Calculus. But I don't think I will be requiring your services. I will bid you a good night now."
The Captain was having none of it. Nothing swayed the grin set tightly into his mat of a beard. "Come now, citizen! You are still in danger, no matter how short your distance. At least allow me to escort you to your destination. What if some ruffians were to jump you? I could never forgive myself." As he talked, the bullfrog-like pouch of flesh under his chin undulated, pulling in and out with each word. The hairs that were rooted there moved with it, crossing and uncrossing, creating shifting interference patterns of dark-gray-on-flesh. His eyes shone almost as fiercely as his bald head.
Gray sighed. "Ok, Captain. But you walk ahead. I don't want to get ambushed by a band of youths." With trembling excitement, Captain Calculus nodded, turned, and strutted his besweatpanted legs down the street. His exuberance took him up almost a full head-height up with each stride. He obviously had no idea that Gray was only keeping him in his line of fire.
They walked like this for a block, the Captain shouting back the outline of a procedure for keeping out of trouble. It had numbered steps. Gray particularly liked 'Number 7: walk faster through darkness than through light', especially in conjunction with 'Number 10: walk as fast as you can at all times to minimize the time spent in danger'. Then there were the gems like 'Number 3(a): know your route.' Truly, this man had not getting mugged down to a science.
Suddenly, in the middle of "Number 14: minimizing time spent in danger is not the same as minimizing...", the words cut off with a fleshy splat. Gray saw the vigilante spit blood and recoil. Gray did not see what did it. That cut the solution space down to...
In the time it took Gray to yank the plastic sleeve off of his anti-ninja pulse unit, Captain Calculus was thrown off of his feet by a blow to the chin, described a small parabola with his body, landed on his enormous gut, and rolled onto his face. Red blood spattered the snow. Gray jammed down the trigger. Nothing happened.
Then, as slowly as Captain Calculus rolling off of his pulped face and back onto his gut, various parts of the world began to drop. There was no contradiction in Grays mind until the very end, when the ninjas' bodies actually sprawled onto the sidewalk. There were two: one that had been standing over the prone vigilante, another that had significant momentum toward Gray before it collapsed. He walked over to the Captain.
"Hey. Captain. Are you ok?" he said halfheartedly. For a moment the form lay there, face down. Then, starting slowly but accelerating quickly through all phases between 'bloody pulp' and 'bursting with life', he rolled back, put his arms under his chest, and raised himself into a crouch. He grinned, letting more blood find a course through his beard onto the icy ground, and stood.
"My work here is done. Weren't you glad I was here, citizen?" He said, apparently the corporeal incarnation of the concept of blind enthusiasm. He then limped to the wall, leaned on it while throwing his bleeding head back heroically, and shuffled into an alleyway.
Gray began walking once again.
He got to the house. It was an ordinary-looking house, exactly the same as the ones around it. Gray wouldn't have found it if he hadn't remembered the number. There were absolutely no distinguishing features on it that weren't on at least two other houses within a block. No one could recognize it by sight.
He didn't really know what he would say. 'Hey, you know Rex? He betrayed you? Well, what a coincidence! I would also like him dead! You'd like to know where to find him and would stop at nothing to have his head adorn your mantle? What a coincidence!' That wasn't really going to cut it. He walked up the short row of brick stairs to the front door. No doubt they'd already know he was here. If Rex had lived here, there would be security measures of which he couldn't even imagine.
He knocked on the door. As he recalled, there were two males and two females with whom Rex had been living. They were all University students, if memory served. He wondered which one would open the door.
None of the ones he recognized were the face that peered out of the house. It was an older man, in his thirties perhaps. Gray briefly wondered whether he had the right house. "Excuse me, sir. My name is Gray. Did you by any chance know a student named Rex Riptide?"
The man looked tired. "Did you just say 'did' I know a student named Rex Riptide? Ok, here's how this is going to go: I ask why you said 'did', you say that you have some bad news, something terrible has happened to Rex, then I get worried and call him, and a few seconds later Rex walks down those stairs with a big smile on his face. With your permission, I'll skip to that part now." Rex's friend paused as if to wait for a signal of acknowledgement from Gray, then continued. He shouted back, into the house, "Hey, Rex! You have another visitor!" though Gray noticed his hands were behind his back. Odds were this gentleman was actually communicating by another mechanism.
Gray was a little confused. He said, "I understand that you were probably Rex's friend, but believe me when I say I've known him longer than you. He always moves on, leaving his friends behind. In fact, this was the longest I've ever seen him stay in one place; it's time for him to move on." Then he was cut short by Rex's face, not quite smiling, descending the stairs. He made some unintelligible noise.
Well, this was odd. His first thought, stifled almost immediately as one's first thought was almost always based on some false assumption with Rex, was 'how the hell did Rex get here before me?' His second was to shut up and wait for more data points to make their values known.
"Hello, Gray. We weren't expecting you. I assume you've been introduced to Gil, here?" Rex said. The gentleman identified as Gil shook his head and presented his hand.
"Gilligan Eggars. And you were a Mr. Gray...?"
Apparently more data points were not forthcoming. This was a problem. The closest thing he had to an arch-enemy, a nemesis, now asked him to come inside. There was one exact person who he wanted to see least right now, and it was he who was offering him a warm beverage in exchange for the reason that he'd come here.
"Have a seat, Gray. So, why are you here? How can we help?" Rex's voice picked up an undetectable edge, "Or are you here on Steel City business? I never did know why you haven't given away our position, or if you have, why Steel City hasn't moved against us."
Gray decided that vengeance could wait. He was more confused than bitter, right at this moment. As hot chocolate coursed through his veins and small, tasteful Christmas decorations reminded him of happier times undercover on the surface, his filled Rex and Gil in on what he'd seen. The two females, one extra, and one of the males who lived with Rex filtered into the warm dining room as he told of the existence of an enormous metal dodecahedron inside Steel City's HQ. His empty hot chocolate was recharged by one of the group when he began to describe the Rex inside the big polygon.
Slowly the focus of the room shifted from Gray to Rex. That was fine with him. It meant that he'd soon get an explanation.
Eventually every eye was locked on Rex, a few quite fiercely. He didn't appear bothered by it. He took a breath before beginning. "Ok, guys. Do you remember that experiment we did over the summer? The one with the big metal dodecahedron that allowed Earthly matter to interact electrostatically with matter extremely far away? Well, there was an effect of that experiment that I didn't disclose."
Two of the women in the room seemed liable to kill him at any moment. One of them said, exhibiting extraordinary reserve, "Go on, Rex."
Rex went on. "I was restored from backup by Dr. Polski's apparatus. Did you guys not remember that there was a backup apparatus in the nanotech medical station that we propagated into the other world? One that was much more up-to-date?" Gasps rang out from everyone except the tall, slender male who had acknowledged the mention of 'Dr. Polski'. He just nodded. "Well, another Rex popped out of that one, somehow rigged up otherworldly devices, and made contact with me a little bit later."
"And you didn't tell us!?" cried one of the women. Gray identified her as the Atomic Girl.
"He tried to kill me" Rex said finally. "That's why I didn't say anything. And now it appears he's helping Steel City, outfitting them with our tech. Take a look at Gray's belt."
"Well, we can't allow that to continue! Let's suit up. Everyone grab your favorite gear." Dr. Polski turned to Gray. "Ok, what's the location of the Steel City HQ?"
Gray took a moment to collect his thoughts. It was obvious that this was not information to be given freely. In fact, his entire plan had sort of been based on poor intel. He'd wanted to enter the house, set them all against Rex, then be on his way. Instead he entered the house, determined that the Rex he wanted dead was in fact an evil Rex twin, fed the real Rex lots of intel against his own dear Steel City, and was now being expected to help them. Never had his motives been farther from his actions. He needed an exit.
Gray's brain churned. If he made his motives known now, they'd kill him. Right? That's how Steel City did things. How to get out without dying? He honed a careful and subtle plan to exit the room without alerting them: "May I use your bathroom?" He asked. The fools! They were oblivious to his true intentions of what to do once he exited the room!
Dr. Polski nodded him toward one of the doors. He got up and left, never betraying the emptiness of his bladder. He needed to make them believe he needed the bathroom. He found his way there, and plotted once more.
Curses. The only flaw in his otherwise-perfect plan. The door from the dining room with all of Rex's friends in it to the bathroom was the other way from the front door! Gray sat down on the ceramic throne. Think, brain, think! What would a ninja do in a situation like this?
Well, it would have the ability to slip undetected through the room full of people and out the door to safety. It would do this by behaving in such a way as to keep the people from noticing it, keeping to physical and neurological blind spots, pretending to be a shadow, and doing lots of other clever things that are less easily understandable. Gray was, needless to say, not capable of this.
He tallied his options: Try to force his way out, talk his way out, or the ninja route. Forcing his way out was terrible. Rex was armed to the teeth, and he'd seen bizarre things out of the others, especially the one called the Atomic Girl. Talking his way out would either involve honesty or deception. Honesty would get him killed, his motives being opposite in direction to Rex's. It looked like deception and ninja were the only contenders. But what would that entail?
What if he just walked out? They still thought he was on their side; even if they knew he was going for the door, they wouldn't see any problem with his leaving. Maybe he was gathering more intel for them. Gray took a deep breath and stood up. Here goes nothing.
On his way to the dining room, he began to hear voices. He could recognize some of them, but not one. It sounded normal, a college-age female perhaps. But he couldn't place it.
"So we want your help in securing communication with the Hercules."
"And why would we do that?" came a voice that was insufferable to the extent that it could only be Rex.
"Because, among the reasons already stated, we have an acquaintance of yours and will torture him to death in a most brutal and graphic manner that will haunt your nightmares for the rest of your life if you don't help us. A professor at the University. I believe you know him as Captain Calculus." The voice did not take an ominous tone. It was accompanied by the upward-inflection and vaguely complaining tone that so many of the modern generation carry. It was as if she was commenting about some minor social infraction of one of her friends, rather than contemplating the unimaginably horrifying end of someone's life.
Rex spoke quickly. "Polski, you got it?"
The Doctor's voice responded. "Got it. She's sending it in the EM. It's narrow in band, encrypted but periodic. I should be able to spoof it... now."
"Thanks." Gray heard Rex move his feet, as if to turn to another person. "I think you'll find that you are no longer able to trigger the death of the Captain. We will now talk as the avatars of what we bring to the table, as optimal meetings require."
Gray came into the room. Rex was on his feet. Dr. Polski had set up some antenna apparatus on the dining room table. Also standing was a young woman, dressed in clothes at the exact optimal level of stylishness to not draw attention to her. Her head swiveled toward Gray and she blurred. This happened at the same time Gray placed where he'd seen her before. The body in the tunnel, the one with the note, looked exactly like her. This was a ninja avatar.
Before she turned from method of extortion into Gray-bound missile, Rex impacted her. There was a moment of stillness, then Rex moved to get off of her. Gray made a mental note to begin thinking of 'her' as 'it'. 'It' had a dinner knife jammed into its head. 'It' was motionless.
The Atomic Girl let her voice ring out, relatively unfettered by reserve. "Why the flip did you do that, Rex? It was an envoy of an opposing faction! Why should they obey the rules if we don't?"
"It was attacking Gray. Didn't you see it blur? I caught it on high-framerate if you care to replay it." Rex said, as if he expected the subject to be thusly concluded.
"Why would it do that? What would it gain from attacking him?"
"We've seen instances of bizarre priority configurations in ninjas before. They weren't expecting this one to run into any Steel City personnel, so they must not have bothered to overwrite the goal to kill them on sight. And this shouldn't be relevant, but did you notice that she blackmailed us with the Brofessor's life before trying to murder our guest? How is that 'obeying the rules'?" Rex once again indicated clearly that he thought this would conclude discussion on the subject. Looking around, he saw that he still had convincing work to do. "Ok, guys and gals. Here's the largest factor: we can't let this thrallseed stuff fall into the hands of either Steel City or the ninjas. We all saw Towerminster. That's what Steel City would grow from it. And who knows how the ninjas would optimize themselves, given the chance? We need to contact the Hercules ourselves, and the only equipment that can be in place on time is in Steel City."
The female that Gray could identify as NASA Lass spoke for the first time. "Ok, guys. That's all I need to hear. Let's suit up. Gray, you can come with me." It was an order, not a request.
Dr. Polski finished up. "There's a bus downtown in twenty minutes."
They filtered out of the room, leaving only a very frustrated-looking Atomic Girl and the corpse of a ninja with silverware stuck through its head.
Gray found himself surrounded by very unhappy, very armed people, all looking to him to tell them the location of his former base of operations so they could infiltrate it. This was not bizarre in and of itself; it happened all the time to Steel City operatives. What was bizarre was that these people were getting there on public transportation, a city bus, and did not give any indication of hostility. Did they really still think he was on their side? How could they? They were expecting him to give up the location of the Steel City HQ!
The bus neared Towerminster. It was now that he'd have to make his decision. If he led them to the buried Land Leviathan, they'd ransack it. If he didn't, they'd of necessity find out when the bus ran its course and they were still on it. He had to get off at the Towerminster stop. He'd have to warn the guards somehow before Rex and friends got there.
"This is our stop, guys." They all brightened just a bit. Apparently the news that an evil duplicate of Rex that was created in a lab accident had been feeding their tech to an evil organization hell-bent on world domination was a little much to handle without being a little gloomy. They got off, though, the deadly gear they carried bristling under their winter coats like so many stolen office supplies.
Rex, the only one not dressed for winter (was that a cape?), turned to Gray. "Ok, where to? You said it was buried, right?"
"Right under Towerminster, guys. Go in; I'll show you which elevator button to press."
NASA Lass spoke next. "How do we get from the tower to the Leviathan?" Gray only looked, quizzically. "I mean, is there some underground rail that takes us to it?"
Gray tried not to give anything away. Instantly, Rex spoke up. "Look at his face. It's right underground. There's no rail to it; it's just right under there."
"But then... during the attack on the Summit, there was another one. Do you mean to say that there was a Land Leviathan buried under one of the most populous parts of the City, even while one attacked downtown?"
Rex nodded to the Lass and turned to Gray. "You guys are weird. Come on, let's get to it."
Gray was walked into the tower, into the elevator. He keyed the code to deposit them into the tunnel entrance, fully prepared to break from the group and alert the guards. Then he felt a sharp pain in his side. A syringe was poking him there. That bastard! He turned, even as his world faded to black. He was expecting some quip from Rex, some final snarky comment before the chemicals in his veins robbed him of the ability to appreciate it. Instead, he saw nothing. Rex's face didn't even show interest.
Before Gray's body hit the floor, Rex caught it. He lowered it gently. "Ok, guys. We don't really know what's down there. This has to happen fast." Then to Gilligan Eggars, the least experienced in the group, "Stay here until we ring the all-clear. And take your damn wristpad off of silent."
Gil watched them go. Noises started to come out of the earthy gloom, then lights. Brilliant lights, of a variety he'd only seen once before. Months ago, during the Summit, when he first met Rex. The second incredible thing he ever saw Rex do was take out a bunch of Steel City burn-bots. They dazzled him, pencils of light in the air exploding into torrents of brightness on surfaces. Gil immediately lost any regrets he had about not being with them. He'd wanted to take Rex's assistant's exosuit, but decided it was a better idea to stay out of the action.
Over the course of a few minutes, he saw very little. It was dark, and the action was getting farther away. He heard much more than he saw. They were mostly muted bangs, explosions no doubt. But infrequently there was a scraping, like when the clutch on his old Jeep had given out, but on a scale beyond what he could envision.
Eventually a message came on his wristpad. They had secured the place. He got moving.
It was easy to see the path they'd taken. It was the one lined with char and twisted metal. Oddly enough he didn't see bodies. The only things to be destroyed were inanimate. Eventually the paths split in two, each with approximately equal degrees of mayhem. He consulted his wristpad. Left was the Hercules communication equipment, right was the dodecahedron. There was time until the Hercules got into position. He went right.
When he went into this room, a feeling of familiarity hit him. Over the summer, Rex and friends had the same setup in a machine shop on campus. It was odd to see so many familiar pieces of equipment in such an alien setting.
"It's ok, Doctor. He's definitely trying to propagate into this world, but if there were only one pressure shell he certainly wouldn't include it in the region that's in both. There must be two dodecahedrons; this one is for protection from Steel City. You can feel free to cut it away."
Dr. Polski did so, the air crackling with the passage of his energetic particles. For a brief moment, there was another angry-looking Rex standing in the room with them. He gave their Rex an annoyed look, and suddenly another, larger pressure shell was surrounding him. A voice emanated from it.
"Ok, you caught me. Now what?"
Rex, his assistant, and Dr. Polski were in this room. The Atomic Girl and NASA Lass were presumably manning the communications equipment. Rex's assistant turned to him. "What do we call him? Rex 2.0? Or is he more like Rex 1.1, and you are 2.0?"
Rex smiled, embarrassed. "I've been calling him Adversary. I don't know why. I guess giving him my name and an index just seemed kind of awkward." Then, to the other Rex, or Adversary now, "Hey, I jumped from an experimental rocket plane to a nuclear powered ramjet. Do you know that? What have you done since we split? Besides trying to kill me, that is."
Adversary's voice came out of the polygonous ball again. "You jumped from a plane to a plane? Why is that even interesting? It isn't even distinguishable from the noise when you compare it to temporarily halting the increase in the rate of expansion of the universe. Even if you compare them logarithmically, the sheer equivalent energy release of mine is beyond comprehension. Why did you mention your thing?"
"I don't know. I guess I thought it was kind of cool, in an incomparable way."
"That woman has got to you, Rex. Can I call you Rex? You seem to have usurped everything else about my life."
"Oh, come on! It was a crap situation, I agree, but the moment we split we became two different people. There is no longer one Rex-line, heir to everything Rex has done and owned. We have to share it. We are both entitled to what Rex is."
The argument went on. Both Rexes were using Rexoid diction and argument structure, which means that Gil was immediately of two minds. He sidled up to Rex's assistant. "So I didn't see any bodies on the way over. Did you guys manage to do this whole thing non-lethally?"
She answered absentmindedly, also enthralled by the argument developing between Rexes. "Rex and the Doctor whipped up some glue gun thing. AG also made something, a dart gun that shoots out the little thing that Rex used to dose Gray. Are you seeing this?"
Gil was seeing this. What Gil wasn't seeing was a stream of ninjas making their way into the room. It wasn't until he got an emergency call on his wristpad from NASA Lass that he realized something was wrong.
"Ninjas!" it said. "We're fine here. Deal with your end before helping us."
Then Gil looked up. The room had crevices and shadows for perhaps five ninjas to hide effectively. He was just able to discern the presence of perhaps three centers of movement. This made his expected value of ninjas in the room eight. He was confident in his ability to fight a number of ninjas eight less than this.
"Quick! If they break your outer pressure shell, you'll breathe in otherworld! Retract your field!" A Rex shouted. Apparently it was Gil's Rex, as Adversary then adjusted something incomprehensible and the dodecahedron disappeared, a bubble of non-existence collapsing over it.
Rex shouted again. "Ninjas: Stop this. We are obviously capable of collaborating. Send out an avatar ninja and we will discuss what will happen here."
Gil tried to make sense of what happened next for a long time. It was, to a first approximation, so obvious, yet the details would haunt him until he died.
A shuriken cut the air. Gil saw it fly. It didn't seem possible, for something to be so fast and yet so visible. The gas light fixture with a bare electric bulb in it flashed off the turning blade. It seemed an odd thing to bring about a relevant change in the state of the world itself.
Which of course it wasn't. Either Rex easily turned it aside with some unspecified projectile. The problem was that another was concealed in the shadow of the first, and it cut deep. Gil never knew quite what it cut, because it was actually cutting something via electrostatic interaction projected across unknowable distances, but it was evidently very important for the functioning of Adversary's otherworldly technology.
He flickered once, already dead, then burned. But Gil had seen that before. For the second time in six months, light born when violently cloven fragments of a Rex recombined burst over Gil. It wasn't any less disturbing.
The other Rex, the one that was still localized to one point in space, as opposed to either two or zero depending on who was counting, flew into a frenzy. Ninjas were propelled at surfaces at a rate of two or three per second, quickly becoming ninja bodies. One thumped next to Gil. When it slumped down, devoid of life, it left an indentation where it had bent the solid metal with its impact.
When Rex alighted in the center of the room, sweating and breathing hard, Gil expected that this would be one of those rare instances in which he would exhibit some genuine emotion. Instead, when his assistant asked him if he was alright (without moving from where she stood, note), he simply said "I'm fine. We already know that killing him only makes him angry."
Gil's mouth dropped open. But no. After this debacle they'd obviously take steps to prevent another Adversary from plopping out of the otherworldly backup device... right?
When they filed into the communications room, they found out something rather anticlimactic. The mirror alignment had come and gone. For a period of twenty minutes, NASA Lass had swiveled the communications laser into the correct position, focused it on the spot of the sky where the mirror was supposed to be, and started blasting out a message in Morse code.
There was no reply.
Hurtling through the inky blackness, a husk of metal turned. There was exactly one pressure container on it that hadn't been breached by a combination of velocitous bolides, criminal engineering incompetence, and finally human desperation. It held some frozen cells, suspended in their desire to differentiate into chunks of world-razing monster. A monocle floated near it.