Witch draws her pistol. It’s not much, but her sniper rifle’s back in the ruins, and Lizard’s energy rifle’s only useful as a bludgeon.
“The force field’s been breached?” Not really a question.
And here they come, stamping up flakes of ash in a great grey shroud. Legions of metal warriors, marching to their final battle.
But the war is already lost. Pistol raised, staring down her approaching death, she finds comfort in victory.
Then she notices the change, a vital absence.
“They’ve stopped screaming.”
The dead legion halts. As one, they salute.
Shaking, skeletal, Lizard returns the honour.
“Lizard?” Mechanical eyes stare at her out of a steel grey skull.
“Don’t come too close.” Steam pours from his joints and mouth. “My reactor’s overloading. Needs time to vent.”
“It just – dissolved.” The air is strangely heavy, oddly dense. She can guess why.
“It was never precisely real.” His voice is threaded with static. “Matter clustered around a controlling consciousness. When consciousness left, the matter discorporated.” He’s never sounded more like a machine.
“Does- that hurt?”
“Does what hurt?”
Then they feel the ground tremble. The thick air fills with the sound.
The march of heavy, metal feet.
Witch watches the Fury’s mouth close around the wrecked car. The hole in the monster’s torso begins to heal, jagged edges softening, flesh and metal blurring together into one abhorrent whole.
Is that triumph she hears in the beast’s eternal scream? Victory?
Then the screaming stops.
The child’s face, all twisted lines and contorted muscle, grows calm. Smiles.
And the Fury is gone. The great body breaks apart like a mighty wave crashing against the shore, dissolving into rain. All that remains is the salty smell of tears.
And the bones of a man made of metal, skinless and steaming.
His arms stiffen, reluctant to relinquish this terrible, precious burden. But the child in his arms is gone. Only her twin remains at his side.
“To leave. She was all hate. But she’s better now. So we need to leave.”
“Where is she?”
“Where she was meant to be. With me.”
Emotions, so unfamiliar, blinding him, suffocating.
“And where are you?”
The child smiles, a tiny, radiant jewel. “You’ll find out. There’s a lot of stuff we have to do first.”
The light fades. The room fades. The girl fades.
Only the feelings remain. Guilt. Sorrow.
He watches her rage and claw at the world that torments her, this tiny, damaged monster- and he understands.
She turns, screaming, at the sound of his voice- a voice she recognises…
The screaming stops. Her eyes, pools of oily blackness, suddenly welling with frightened tears.
He reaches out.
She comes to him then, chest heaving, hair once more a faded, fragile gold. He picks her up gently with another man’s hands.
A small head leans tiredly against his shoulder. A frail, watery sob escapes her trembling mouth.
“I'm so sorry.”
Another man’s tears on his cheeks.
Memories of another man, bursting like bubbles behind his eyes.
“We… they… didn't know enough about what she… what you are.” A tiny line of scar tissue in her fine blonde hair, the implant lurking beneath. “You scared them.”
“Are you scared, nice man?”
Another man’s words in his mouth.
“No, I… he wasn't.”
“You said you wanted to help me. Help everyone. Was that true?”
Good intentions. Bitter compromise.
“Did it help?”
The burden of a terrible choice.
“No. It made things… so much worse.”
She points at her raging double.
“You can help her though- can't you?”
Clawed fingers score the reinforced glass, diamond hard, fuelled by madness. Her hair chars, blackens, whips the air like a thousand furious snakes. Her eyes fill with night, dark and glistening.
Lizard’s hand falls, suddenly limp.
Tiny fingers wrap themselves around his, seeking comfort as the storm rages all around.
He looks down.
The girl stands beside him.
“It’s you,” she says, smiling. “The nice man.”
“I'm not him. He… made me.” The demon child claws the air, shrieking. “Made her too.”
“No.” She points at the men in the coats. “They made her. So why do you feel bad?”
The room is bare, tiny, and familiar, though he’s never seen it before. Glaring, invasive overhead lights, clinically white walls, spotless white floor.
And the girl.
Fine blonde hair pours over small shoulders. Her skin is so pale it looks almost bloodless. In the blinding whiteness of that room, she hardly seems real, a shadow child drawn in three dimensions.
He knew she’d be here. Years before, he’d brought her here.
Lizard reaches out…
The walls become windows. Demons in white coats stare with cold, solemn hatred at their prize.
Screaming, she beats at the glass.
Now a demon herself.
Darkness presses around him, hungry, crushing black. The car crumples, buckles, disappears- digested.
His skin sloughs away, mere waste and disposed of as such. He ignores it. He can grow more- if he survives.
All his energy reserves focus on auto repairs, holding his cyberframe together. It’s a losing battle. The power drain is enormous, unending. Maybe 17 seconds before his internal reactor fails.
Got to make it count.
Lizard’s mind reaches out. This close, he finds the implant at once.
He completes the hack.
His body hangs in the dark, hanging grimly to existence.
His mind is somewhere else.
The car falls in an endless moment. Surely it’s just shock that’s slowed time to a crawl. Surely her new metal heart can’t know despair, fear- helplessness.
A clear voice in her head.
“If this doesn't work- run.”
“If being eaten doesn't work?” Anger in her voice- terror gripping her chest.
The car is gone now. Static. Fragmented words.
Run where? Back through the hole? She’ll never make it without a distraction. Across the endless, broken plains of blackened earth and crawling air? Forever?
“How will I know if it’s worked?”
The great mouth slams shut on silence.
The supercharged beam cuts into the Fury’s writhing torso, the upswing almost severing its tiny head from its neck. The child’s face hangs drunkenly askew, dark eyes horribly serene, mouth screaming hate.
“You've got your hole, Lizard.”
Maybe if she keeps shooting, the whole ghastly mass will just burn away, a gigantic moth caught in a candle flame. But the rifle’s power cell is nearly dead.
Even as she disappears, Witch sees the tendrils reach for another wreck. The screaming mouth stretches impossibly, and the car falls into black, abyssal nothing.
But this time, someone's behind the wheel.
“Hold position. I'm coming.”
Witch snorts. He’s coming, he says. She wonders why he’s bothering. 7%? Barely worth the effort.
Still... she gets ready to fight.
“15 seconds out. Start charging a rifle blast. I need another shot to the torso, same as before.”
“What's the point? She’ll just eat another car and regenerate.” But she holds the rifle’s trigger, feels the power building within.
“That’s accounted for. Fire when ready.”
The rifle throbs in her hands…
And she’s in motion, smooth and deadly as a striking snake. She aims, fires…
For all the good that’s ever done her.
Lizard stares disbelieving at the words. So close! Another 10 seconds…
Vainly he searches for the transmitter signal. It’s not there- not out of range, not jammed, not too weak to use. It’s just gone.
Witch’s voice in his head. “What the hell happened?”
“I don’t know. Did anything change at your end?”
“Hell yes, the screaming bitch just ate a car and sealed up that hole I blew in her.”
It takes a moment to process. Ate a car?
Then he understands.
“Hold position. I have a plan B.”
“Will it work?”
She laughs, disgusted.
Silent, invisible, Witch inches her way through the wrecked machines. 2 minutes 45 seconds. She can see Lizard’s progress as he hacks away at the ancient implant. It’s going well, with a safety margin of more than a minute before the force field gives way.
Should be comforting.
She watches, fascinated, as the Fury effortlessly hoists one of the ancient wrecks in its tendrils, and, child’s mouth stretching impossibly wide, swallows it whole.
Nothing ever comes that easily.
The Fury roars. The gaping hole in its torso seals itself shut.
And behind her eyes, the hack stops dead.
He’s right. He’d half hoped that he wouldn’t be. It was probably their only chance of survival- but still.
Buried in the sour mash of decaying brain behind that eerily perfect child’s face- a cyber-implant. The kind that allows an organic brain to use cybernetic limbs. And Lizard should know.
He’d picked up its faint signals as soon as he’d entered the Hole, had thought- hoped- it was just an echo of the one he’d installed in Witch’s broken skull. But no- he was right.
He concentrates on the transmitter, trying not to think about what being right meant.
Witch runs across a black and lifeless plain, the dead earth crumbling beneath her pumping feet. She is fast, inhumanly so, but so is the Fury. Her breath hammers at the ventilator replacing her mouth. 4 minutes until the force field collapses, and the rage machines pour through the Hole, out for blood.
4 minutes never seemed so long.
Ahead, cover. Machines the old world called “cars”, stacked in a rusting heap. Why? No time to wonder.
She ducks into cover, diverting power to her cloak. She disappears.
The Fury stops dead. Sniffs the air.
Begins the hunt.
Lizard watches the charge, helpless. It’s a fight he cannot join if wants to win, and he must win.
Instead, he focuses inwards, concentrating his will on the transmitter round Witch fired so deftly into the Fury’s brain. The round’s purpose is simple– you fire it, and the sticky round allows you to hack into any nearby electronic devices. It’s a useful espionage tool- not one he’d expected to need in the wastes.
Now he only needs to be right.
Because if the monster is indeed what he thinks it is, hacking into its brain may be their only chance.
It comes, an avalanche of rotten flesh and oily, viscous metal.
Witch stands her ground, Lizard’s rifle at her shoulder. She holds the trigger, feeling the weapon vibrate as power builds inside it.
It comes, forcing its bloated body through the gloom with the deceptive speed of a lava flow.
Unseen capacitors charge. Overcharge. Overload.
It comes, poised to crush her with the implacable rage of a tsunami.
She releases the trigger.
Force of nature. Abhorrence to nature. It comes.
A blinding beam of light cuts through the Fury’s chest like butter.
But still it comes.
“Force field is active.” A rapid jumble of data scrolls behind Lizard’s eyes.
“Time until it fails?”
The Fury screams, writhing its huge body in an ecstasy of rage, tentacles searching the darkness for attackers.
Witch sights down her rifle. “How sure are you this will work?”
“Crappy odds to bet your life on.”
“Long odds or no odds. You choose.”
She has the shot they need. Never any doubt about those odds at least.
The Fury screams again as her bullet bores into its left eye.
Then it comes for her.
Ruined walls shatter like glass. The air fills with choking, cloying dust. Blind instinct takes over. Enraged machines open fire on an unseen enemy. Luckless first responders explode into chunks of bloody metal, anger dying with them.
More explosions in the darkness. More casualties.
Reinforcements boil from the Hole, furious wasps protecting a hive, their screaming almost drowned out by the fatal cacophony.
As quickly as it began, it’s over. The night grows still. Weapons quiet.
Minutes pass. The threat is over. Reinforcements retreat.
Or try to.
A golden energy field blocks the way back.
Inside, the Fury screams alone.