An Unholy Purpose
The door opened without a hint of trepidation, the man behind it stepping confidently into the brightly lit room. His cybernetics gleamed as much as metal could through the accumulated grime of life on the Delphian streets, showing signs of considerable use and wear in the cracks and scuffing along the surface. Flexible metal ran along the length of his left arm from shoulder to palm, a sleek exoskeleton mirroring the alloyed bones beneath his skin. The underside of his hand had been supplanted by plates of conductive steel. As he walked in, the rusted metal spire erupting from his left shoulder nearly snapped against the threshold. Frowning, he reached up and pushed it, retracting it back into his body.
“I take it you have an appointment?” a voice responded to the clatter, lacking the surprise necessary to lend shock to its words.
“If not me then someone did - unless you make a habit of leaving your door unlocked?” he replied smartly, crossing his arms and staring at the woman across the room. Her black hair was pulled back into a ragged ponytail as she worked with something unseen on the table before her. A huge light shone down on her work, powered by a generator humming silently in the corner.
The woman turned, wiping her hands on a towel and leaving dark streaks along the white cloth. She was backlit, masking her features.
“Ellis, then?” she asked.
“In the metallic flesh.”
She pursed her lips and tossed the cloth aside. “Good. You can call me Clyde.”
The man snorted. “That is the ugliest name I’ve ever heard.”
“And that metal monstrosity you call an arm looks like half a rusted bicycle, but you still seem awfully fond of it.”
“Shall we begin?” she asked him, stepping a bit closer and out of the light. The baseball cap she wore sat crooked on her head. She tugged it straighter and tucked some wayward strands of hair beneath the brim.
“You don’t waste time, do you?” Ellis chuckled, tossing his coat to the floor and stepping toward the metal gurney in the center of the room. “My rusted bicycle is shot. I’m certainly no expert, but I’m thinking it needs fresh wiring.” Holding out his arm, he pointed to where the metal was obviously stressed and there were electrical burns radiating out from his elbow.
“Lay down,” Clyde instructed him, reaching for a box of gloves on the table beside the gurney. “I’ll have a look.”
“Yes, doctor,” Ellis grinned with enough implied lasciviousness that Clyde pursed her lips in disapproval.
“I have a local anaesthetic if you want some. It’ll cost you, but this will go much more quickly if you aren’t screaming and flailing.”
“Just don’t tell my crew and I’ll pay you whatever you want,” he laughed. “I’m a piss baby when it comes to pain. The last electrografter I went to had to peel me off the gurney when she was done.”
“Stay still, then,” she said, plucking a syringe from the table beside her. She inserted it in Ellis’s neck and pushed the plunger down slowly.
“Well that’s uncomfortable,” he winced as the anaesthetic flowed into his body.
“Far less uncomfortable than without it,” she replied. “Now, hold still until it sets in. Let me look at your arm.” She lifted his arm up closer to the light, scrutinizing the craftsmanship. “The nervewire is almost entirely burned out.” Raising an eyebrow, she dropped his limb. “That takes talent.”
Ellis shrugged. “Years of loading lines and riding the wires isn’t exactly good for you. My brother had to have his grounder fixed three times since he first had it installed last year.”
Clyde chuckled. “Sounds to me like your brother visited a hack to need that much maintenance.”
“I thought you were all hacks,” Ellis grinned.
“Some of us have a bit more finesse than our peers.” She picked up a set of tweezers and pinched the skin around Ellis’s neck. “Did you feel that?”
“Good, then the medicine is about good to go. I’ll need to replace the wires completely if you want to be able to use this arm again.”
“The whole network?” Ellis frowned. “It’s just fried at the edges. The hardware is still good. All it needs is some new connections and I should be good to go.”
“Well, then, let me just step aside here and let you do the surgery.”
Ellis grumbled and quit complaining.
Clyde made the first incision near Ellis’s arm, slipping the blade of her scalpel along the callouses where the metal met his skin. Blood oozed from the separation as she carefully began to pare his exoskeleton and skin away from the rest of his steel endoskeleton.
“Anaesthetic or not, that’s pretty uncomfortable.”
“It’s not any less unsettling to perform,” she commented as she worked. “Once installed, the body is unwilling to let go of its new additions. Kind of like people, don’t you think?” Clyde mused as she worked. “In all the transience of daily life, the gaining and losing of property, territory, life - possessing something is still the most important law of the land. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”
“Wonder what?” Ellis grunted, watching her scalpel move along his arm.
“Makes you wonder who’s making the rules here in the blood-soaked streets of America. Are you the commander of your own destiny,” she looked curiously down at him, catching his gaze, “or are you just a pawn in someone else’s shitty, megalomaniacal game?”
“The fuck are you talking about? You gonna start proselytizing at me or something? I already have a god.”
“I have no intentions of converting you to anything. This process may take a bit,” she replied evenly. “Small talk will make it go by a bit faster.”
“This is hardly what I would call small. I’m paying you to hammer some wires and capacitors into a functional arm, not for a lesson on the fleeting nature of a pair of shoes you peeled off a rotting sagger corpse.”
Clyde smiled, leaning down a bit closer. “I have a major artery cinched between two hunks of steel right now; I daresay you’re paying me to talk about whatever I like.”
“So?” she pressed, leaning back slowly and surveying her work thus far. “Your thoughts?”
“Ownership? Personal agency? Are you responsible for the consequences of your actions or should those who pull the strings be held accountable?”
Ellis chuckled, softly so as not to endanger his precariously-held limb. “I’d say that, if you fuck something up, and someone told you to fuck it up, you probably both deserve a quality punishment. You for fucking it up and your boss for trusting a fuck up to do something right in the first place.”
Clyde grinned slowly, continuing her work. “I am so happy to hear you say that, Ellis. I agree completely. Consequence can be far reaching.”
Ellis rolled his eyes, shifting uncomfortably on the metal table. “Listen, doc, I get paid to move goods and kinetics, not wax eloquent on ethics.” Ellis looked around the room, frowning. “Are you almost done or what?”
Clyde’s expression flickered from annoyance to a look of vague offense before finally settling on bemusement. “I’m glad you brought that up, actually,” she replied casually, ignoring his question and moving away from the table, “because I’ve been hearing some interesting whispers wafting out of the alleys.” Gently setting her scalpel aside, she looked down at her patient, eyebrow raised.
“Whispers, eh? You sure it’s not just the sound of a lot of tongues flapping in the wind?” Ellis replied, his voice taking on a wary tone.
“Sometimes even the most idle chatter has something of substance to it. For instance, did you know that there is a subset of this decrepit city that views unaltered individuals as no more than walking repositories of untainted harvestable material?”
“Don’t go bad mouthing the Family now. They have ears in every wall from Fit City to South Street and a collectively mean temper.” Ellis was sweating now, clearly nervous with the line of questioning and his precarious position.
“I’m not talking about the Family and you know it.”
“I don’t know shit other than where to drop the goods I’m paid to transport. Who else deals in shit like that? You try and run genetics in this part of town without Family approval and you get skewered in an alley. And then sold. For parts.”
“Don’t play games with me, Ellis. The Family might be seeking genetic perfection, but that’s hardly the only reason someone in this town might need a breathing guinea pig to help in its hunt for god. What is it they say? ‘The pursuit of knowledge is the holiest venture’?”
Ellis’s face screwed up in pain. “I think your anaesthetic is wearing off.” He strained and tried to move his left arm, chest heaving from the effort.
“It’s not an anaesthetic. It’s a paralytic,” she replied calmly as Ellis’s brown eyes filled with fear. “Stop avoiding the question. You know this isn’t Family business. The Family don’t hide what they do - they revel in it; want the world to know where they are in their pursuit of personal perfection. No, the word you are looking for is ‘Oruvians.’” Her smile was grim. “There is nothing more dangerous and quick to shit on its own moral code than a snake on the trail of a scientific breakthrough.” She leaned in close so that her lips nearly touched his ear. “I already know they have her, Ellis. What I need to know is where you took her, and why.” She leaned back, crossing her arms and waiting for his response.
His eyes took on a dark cast as he slowly began fitting the pieces of their interaction together. “You Left Hand Path Walker scum,” he breathed out, a rough, angry sound. “I’m not the target you want; I’m just a tool in your idiotic religious war. You are going to regret this.” His threat was not empty; the Lineloaders were a formidable gang, and they controlled most major transport veins throughout Delphia with an iron fist. Clyde simply could not be bothered to care.
“Perhaps, but I’m banking on any regret to hit after I find my sister. So I’ll ask you again: that last batch of helpless, drugged Delphians you tossed into the back of a trolley and raced off with. Where did you bring them?”
“Finish my fucking mod and I’ll take you to them, for god’s sake. I’ll tell you whatever, just finish it first.”
“You’re not understanding something,” Clyde replied, canting her head and smiling as she spoke. “I have no idea what I’m doing.” Grabbing the sparking nervewire with a bare hand, she yanked the burned wires from where they had embedded themselves into Ellis’s arm.
The man screamed.
“Shh. Remember what we discussed: you’re complicit, and your punishment will be commensurate with your sins. Where did you bring them?” she asked, her voice unyielding.
“Where we always drop crops of Oruvian cattle,” he nearly sobbed. “There’s a warehouse by the old 8th and Market metro station. It’s half caved in and uninhabitable so it’s perfect for holding people.”
“How do I get in?”
“I have a key card in my back pocket.” He gestured with his eyes. “The electrical is non-functioning, so it needs to be generated as needed. I just siphon the lines when I need to get in.”
“I’ll have to get creative,” she replied, tugging slightly on the wires. “Why does the Church need them?”
“I don’t know. I promise you, I don’t know.” His face had gone white with agony and his eyes were squeezed shut. “Just let me go.”
“Fine,” Clyde replied, dropping the nervewire. Reaching behind her, she pulled her pistol from her belt, pointed it at Ellis’s face, and shot him point blank between the eyes. He slumped over on the table, blood oozing down his face.
Sighing, she tucked her pistol back into her waistband and shifted the body over with one hand, shoving the other into his back pocket. “Gotcha,” she exclaimed in triumph as her fingers closed over a plastic chip, roughly the size of her palm. Extracting it carefully, she placed it in her own pocket.
“You can have the body,” she said as she stepped around the curtain in the back of the room and over the bound and gagged body of the electrografter that owned the shop she’d jacked for her interrogation. “I’d imagine you can salvage quite a bit from him.” The man struggled and mouthed words at her. Clyde blinked at him and knocked a surgical knife to the ground by him as she exited the room.
“May your truth be untainted, friend,” she said by way of parting and walked out the door.
Clyde hopped down the first obscured manhole she could find. The ladder to the sewers below was shot, so she hooked her wrist-mounted grapple into the slick wet concrete and rappelled down the wall until her boots splashed against the familiar damp floor below.
Walkers like her had learned to navigate the dank underbelly of Delphia years ago when they first arrived as theological exiles from Oruvian-run New Eden, beating the snakes to their own nationwide diaspora by half a decade. As a result, they’d managed to secure a secret network of paths and hideouts with access into nearly every major building throughout the city - most notably the Free Libraries where they held their stores of forbidden knowledge. It was treacherous work and the Church was constantly trying to root them out, but the folks of old world Delphia had created a lot of sewer, and the Walkers were good at covering their tracks.
Plucking her radio from her belt, she clicked it on. The red light indicating a low battery was blinking steadily. “Mahalik,” she said into the mic, “are you there?”
“As always,” a voice crackled in response.
“Meet me at 8th and Market metro. I’m headed over now.”
“On my way,” he replied, right in time for Clyde’s radio to die. She sighed, clipping it back in place and heading over.
The metro station was not far and she made good time, walking quickly enough to get where she was going in the shortest amount of time possible but not so fast as to attract unwanted attention. People running through Delphia was not a strange occurrence, but quick movements usually meant prey of some sort, and she’d prefer to simply avoid any confrontations if at all possible.
Mahalik was nowhere to be seen when she got to the station. Loading her pistol and equipping a shock bomb to the barrel, she jumped down into the rubble leading into the entrance to the subway station, avoiding shattered chunks of concrete as she went. The way was dark, untouched by the waning light outside, and Clyde unclipped her rig-generated light to guide the way.
Ellis had been right: the place was certainly uninhabitable. The tracks were so twisted she could barely get through, and heaven forbid she try and move quickly. The subway tunnel was almost a guaranteed broken ankle.
Finally reaching a more stable spot, Clyde surveyed the walls and ground around her. It was clear that this area had been used recently despite its general disrepair, judging by the sporadic half-destroyed footprints and general lack of dust on surfaces.
“Oh good, you’re here.”
Spinning around, Clyde lifted her pistol and her flashlight, shining it into the eyes of the man speaking behind her.
“Clyde!” he winced, ducking and covering his eyes from the light. “It’s me!”
Clyde sighed, dropping her arms and lower the light. “Shit Mahalik, I didn’t know you were there.”
Mahalik shrugged and walked forward, stepping gingerly over the tracks. He’d worn his heavy work boots, likely in anticipation of the rough terrain. His legs, spliced for length and added muscle, helped him navigate but did nothing for grip. “Your radio wasn’t working. I tried to let you know I was here.”
“Figured,” he replied, running a hand over his long braided black hair. “So, did you find what we’re looking for?”
“I think so,” she said, turning back to look at the wall before her. “I think it’s a bit farther down this way. Old subways often had storage rooms and control centers along the walls of the tracks, and it looks as though something has passed by this way recently.” Taking a step into the darkness of the tunnel, she nodded at Mahalik. “Come on.”
“Right behind you.” Mahalik stepped along gingerly behind her, his cautious steps echoing into the abyss.
They walked for a good quarter of a mile down the subway, avoiding broken rails and kicking aside dead rats as they walked. The place was a wreck - she never would have thought to come down here to search for anything, let alone stolen people. Her heart was sitting squarely in her throat, thumping in hopeful anticipation of her search perhaps ending here, quick and simple, with her sister sitting angrily within a subterranean hold. Like in one of those old recordings of pre-Blackout TV shows she’d run across where the authorities show up in the nick of time to rescue the victims of some horrific crime. Maybe she’d even be able to cut down a couple of Oruvians in the process. That always made her happy.
Life these days was rarely like old TV shows, though.
“I think I found it,” Clyde shouted at Mahalik as he shook his boot free from a tangling pile of garbage left over from the old world. She shone her light along the wall where a small slide reader was installed. Obviously pre-Blackout technology, she was grateful to have Ellis’s key card, because old tech was notoriously difficult to activate if you didn’t have the right hardware to do it.
“You have a way to make it work?” Mahalik asked, lifting his foot up and removing a persistent plastic six-pack ring from the toe of his boot. “Damn - whatever people used these for back in the day, they made them fucking indestructible.”
“Of course I can make it work,” Clyde grinned. “I just need to feed it a charge for long enough to let me open it. Hold this,” she said, handing him her bag. Mahalik held onto it as she rummaged through, finally pulling out a small metal device with what looked like clawed copper hooks along the back. Situating it alongside the card reader, she jabbed the hooks into the soft, ancient metal and very quickly pulled out a wire.
“Where’d you get one of those?” Mahalik asked, impressed.
“The Shining Emporium,” she answered as she tucked the flashlight between her teeth, sending the wire snaking into the base of the reader. “Out bid a rather irritable young member of the Family. Had to shut him up with my fist.” The wire sparked and Clyde jumped, but kept pushing in the wire. Mahalik sighed and snatched the flashlight from her teeth, holding it for her as she worked.
“You sure know how to make enemies of powerful people, don’t you,” Mahalik shook his head, keeping the light steady.
“You can’t take a step outside without landing on someone else’s turf, Mahalik. At least I tend to leave my confrontations with the upper hand and a pocket full of useful stuff.” The wire sparked again, and this time the card reader flickered to life, a red light blinking steadily at the top.
“Perfect,” Clyde exclaimed seriously, reaching quickly into her back pocket and sliding the key card through the slot. The door beeped and unlocked audibly. Clyde held her breath and grabbed the handle, yanking it open right as the light on the reader dimmed and the device went dark again.
“Well done,” Mahalik nodded in approval, returning her light and following her in as she cautiously slipped through the doorway. He left a strip of black tape over the door’s sensor so as not to lock them in once they’d passed.
“Son of a bitch,” Clyde hissed, shining her flashlight around the room. “Empty.”
“Were you expecting to find her here?” Mahalik asked, handing out her bag. “You’ve been searching for months.” Clyde took it from him and tossed it over her shoulder.
“I’ll admit to having a vain hope.” She shined her light around the room, but the heaviness of the dark made her efforts largely futile.
“Let me help here,” Mahalik offered, and a moment later a faint light began emanating from his skin, slowly increasing in strength until the room, for the most part, was at least dimly lit, if not fully illuminated. “And you said bioluminescence was juvenile.”
“I suppose I take it back, then.”
The two Walkers began to comb the room together. It was devoid of objects save for a handful of old metal drums and some rusted metal shelves. The dirt on the floor looked recently stirred up, however, and in a manner that implied there having been multiple people stored within. Whether it was the group containing her sister or another herd of Oruvian cattle, she wasn’t certain. Like Mahalik said - she’d been looking for Inaya for almost two months now.
“I’m sorry she’s not here,” Mahalik offered, extending his hands apologetically. “We’ll keep looking, you know. We won’t just let her be chewed up by the Church.”
“Of course not,” Clyde replied, distracted as she poked around the sparse room. “If she doesn’t get herself free first.”
“Inaya is certainly resourceful, that’s for sure,” Mahalik nodded. “What are you looking for?”
“Like you said - she’s resourceful. She also knows I wouldn’t just accept her disappearance without looking for her. Bear with me.” There had to be some clue, and Clyde wasn’t about to leave without finding it if it existed.
“So you’re looking for breadcrumbs?”
“Or something,” she replied, scrutinizing the room. Kneeling down on the cold concrete, she leaned forward. “Something’s been scratched into the wall.”
Mahalik stepped closer, shining more light into the area. “What does it say?”
“It’s not horribly legible,” she said, brushing away some dirt. “Looks like ‘M-e-t-r-p-o-l-s P. L-i-l-u-m?” She brushed at it again. “No, wait. It’s ‘Metropolis, P. Lilium.’”
“Well the Metropolis makes sense. I’m not horribly surprised that’s where they were headed.”
“What’s P. Lilium?” Clyde frowned, thinking hard.
Mahalik shrugged. “Got nothing.”
“Wait a minute,” Clyde stopped, her expression one of shock. “Do you remember last year when we met that crazy Principlist on South Street screaming about Oruvian plans to take over the world?”
“The guy who was throwing shit at people and claiming it to be the ‘divine excrement of the most Perfect One’”?
Clyde frowned. “Yeah, that guy. But do you remember what he was shouting about?”
“‘...the divine excrement of -’”
“Oh for fuck’s sake Mahalik, he was shouting about something called Project Lilium. Some sort of wild Oruvian conspiracy to recreate lost supersoldier technology out of living people. I remember because I thought it was a cute name for something cooked up by the Oruvians, seeing as how in ancient lore the Lilium were Lilith’s demon children.”
Mahalik raised an eyebrow in skepticism. “You know, I’d really like to debunk this one in a blaze of sarcasm, but I can’t actually think of a better explanation.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Plus, I recall the resident wandering Oruvian priest looking more concerned than usual about a crazy Principlist slinging poop and blasphemies.”
Clyde stood up. “Regardless of what it means, our objective doesn’t change: we’re heading to the Metropolis. That part, at least, is clear.”
“I’m following you, boss.”
“Good. I’m done here.” She stalked to the door and yanked it open. “But first,” Clyde snagged her pocket generator on the way out, unsnapping it from the card reader, “I’m going to leave a present for anyone that returns.” With impressive dexterity, she quickly rewired the pocket generator along the ground, attaching it to the door itself. Across the tunnels, she placed a small static grenade.
“Leaving a calling card, I see,” Mahalik chuckled.
“I’ll come back daily until I see it’s been discharged. Never know what you’ll catch if you leave a net out overnight.”
“Always thinking, Clyde. Always thinking.” Mahalik waited until she finished her makeshift stun bomb and stood up, brushing off her knees.
“Off to the viper’s lair, then,” she said. Mahalik nodded, and they made their way out of the subway and back to the world above.
The sewers had no lighting of their own, so Clyde and Mahalik had to rely on the same tried and true method as they had used within the tunnels, with Clyde taking point and Mahalik illuminating their surroundings. Shining her light down onto her map of the city sewers, she compared the marks on the page to those littered along the walls. To the unknowing eye they looked like ancient scribblings or simply signs of wear, but those who traveled the sewers to survive knew they were intended as location markers. Clyde had most of them memorized.
“We’re almost under the main hospital building,” she informed him, jabbing her finger at their location on the map.
“Great. My socks are getting wet.”
“Get better shoes,” she shrugged, pushing along the wall. The water below them was getting deeper as they got closer to the Metropolis, likely as a result of the Oruvian community’s attempts at reusing the sewers for waste and water transport. For the most part, they’d been unsuccessful. Clyde could only assume it was because no one with the means to rebuild them also possessed the inclination to do so. In Oruvian circles, the rich got lazier while the poor were worked to the bone and indoctrinated to be grateful for the knowledge they presumably gained while doing so.
They scaled a shaky ladder to the surface, emerging in the dim light of a Metropolis side street, quickly scrambling out and kicking the manhole cover back in place. Mahalik focused for a moment to dim his bioluminescence to lessen the likelihood they were detected.
“Let’s get out of here.”
The two Walkers kept to the shadows of the Metropolis, maintaining anonymity to those that passed them simply by not involving themselves in unnecessary conversation and replying politely when engaged. As with all people, an Oruvian and a Left Hand Path Walker looked the same on the outside. It was when they discussed the spirit of Truth and Knowledge that their glaring theocratic differences began to emerge.
“It’s like they are trying to create a miniature New Eden,” Clyde commented under her breath. “The same ugly statues, the same ostentatious buildings, the same attention to detail. It’s got a ways to go, but there’s no mistaking the intent.”
“I’d heard rumors that you’d lived there,” Mahalik commented, keeping his eyes sharp on their surroundings.
“I was born there,” she replied, her tone neutral. “Born, bred, and raised on the promises of the Oruvian Church. When my parents were exiled due to a lack of ability to pay their tithes and I was too young to find work, we came to Delphia.” She shrugged, not elaborating on the details. “One might say it left something of a sour taste in my mouth.”
“I can tell.” Mahalik looked around as they walked, taking in their surroundings. “It’s nice,” he replied, stepping back from Clyde’s scathing gaze. “What? It doesn’t smell like shit, no one’s begging in the streets, and we’ve been here for a solid ten minutes and we haven’t been mugged yet. It’s superficially nice; I didn’t say it was based within a foundation of trust and free will.”
Clyde grunted but refrained from a retort. “This building,” she said, pointing at the map. “This is the primary hospital. If anyone knows where this little experiment is taking place, they’ll be in here.”
“So we’re going in, then,” Mahalik replied. It was a statement, not a question.
“We’re going in.” Removing a small pack of mostly used matches from her pocket, she lit one against the side of the box and set the flame to the paper. The map of the Left Hand Path sewer tunnels went up quickly. She dropped it to the ground and clomped her boots over the flame to put it out.
“Sure hope we can find our way home,” Mahalik commented, watching the ashes of the map scatter across the ground.
“Home is anywhere. We only needed the map to get here, not to escape.”
“Then let’s get this show on the road.” Flexing his fingers, he sought the comfort of the handle of his cudgel. Sharp bits of glass were embedded into the wood, making hits from it unpleasant at best.
It was dark enough that climbing in through an external window wasn’t out of the question, and as such, was exactly what they did. Landing conveniently in a dusty broom closet, Clyde brushed off the knees of her battered jeans and put a hand on her taser.
“Get in here,” she hissed as Mahalik lowered himself from the window, landing with a soft thump. Voices sounded outside, as though someone was having a conversation a few feet from the door.
“What now?” Mahalik asked.
“We wait,” Clyde answered. Mahalik shrugged and held tight to his club.
Several minutes later, the voices intoned in a manner suggesting their parting, accompanied by a single set of retreating footsteps. A throat cleared near the door and it opened inward without hesitation.
Clyde didn’t wait. The moment the man’s body came into reach, her taser was at his chest. He went down quietly enough, and the two Walkers dragged his heavy body into the closet, letting the door shut behind him.
“Step one, easier than anticipated.” She reached down and unclipped his ID badge, tossing it to Mahalik. “Time for step two.”
Clyde paused a moment before opening the door. “We’re good,” she whispered, slipping out into the hallway. Mahalik slid out behind her, closing the door quietly in his wake.
“There,” Clyde motioned to a sign hanging from the ceiling that said ‘Archives.’ “We need information more than anything right now.” Mahalik nodded and they rounded the corner together.
“It’s quiet,” he said, trying the doorknob. “Also locked.” He tried using the man’s key card, but the lights on the reader stayed red. “Must not give library access to the janitor.”
“Shit,” she hissed as a commotion down the hall caught her attention. “Over here.” Grabbing Mahalik by the sleeve, she bounded silently across the hall, backtracking to the stairwell.
“We’ll hit a lab. If you’ve got clearance to slice people open, you probably have clearance to read old records of Mister Jones’s last epi-rash.” The stairs were metallic and the stairwell echoed loudly despite their attempts to ascend with care.
The second floor was darker than the first, making locating their target all the more easy to locate as it was the only room currently lit down the hall. It must not have been a particularly secret location as the door swung open without any resistance, but it would do for the purpose they required it. The lab was more pristine than anywhere Clyde had seen before in her life. Even the streets of New Eden, carefully manicured to reflect the ideals of the Church, still showed signs of wear and decay that could not be completely stemmed through new paint and constant attention.
“I think someone’s here,” Clyde whispered. “They wouldn’t leave the lights on overnight otherwise.”
Mahalik grinned. “Like a gift from the Pentagram just for us: one lone scientist, coming right up.”
The duo crept quietly through the shadows, taking care not to alert anyone to their presence. Sure enough, there was one scientist working by himself, hunched over a microscope and surrounded by a variety of high-tech equipment rarely seen outside of rich Oruvian or Principlist circles.
“I can hit him from here,” Mahalik whispered, carefully unhitching his rifle. “Shoot, grab, go.”
“I want to talk to him first,” Clyde said, putting a hand on Mahalik’s weapon. “I can taze him if he gets loud.”
Mahalik shrugged and put his weapon back over his shoulder.
Like a hawk descending on her prey, Clyde swept silently up through the aisle and laid the modified blade of her taser against his throat.
“Good evening, sir,” she whispered calmly into the man’s ear. “Do you have a moment to speak?”
The scientist had gone rigid with fear, his muscles pulled taut against his slim frame. “What do you want?” he squeaked, clearly concerned for the safety of his throat.
“Just some answers. Lucky for you, you need your vocal cords for that.” Mahalik grinned at Clyde and stepped around to lean casually against the lab table the man had been working at. “I’ll let my friend ask them since she’s the mastermind behind this.” The scientist’s eyes flipped between Mahalik and the closed door, and down to the blade at his throat.
“Ok,” he agreed. “What do you want to know?”
“What is Project Lilium?” she asked, cutting right to the chase. “Where do you keep your experiment subjects?”
“Project what?” he asked, frightened. “I don’t know what you mean. I haven’t ever heard of that!”
“Right, I’m sure. Isn’t lying a sin for you?” She flicked the switch on the taser enough so that a jolt of electricity flowed through, zapping the man’s skin. He yelped; the blade bit into his skin enough to draw blood.
“I don’t know anything!” he shouted, eyes fixated on the drop of blood sinking into the frayed cloth of his lab coat.
“Keep your voice down or I’ll cut it right out of you,” Clyde hissed. The man swallowed but didn’t reply. “What is Project Lilium?”
“I’m just a lab tech,” he whispered emphatically. “I barely know where the bathroom is half the time, let alone genetic slaves.”
“Genetic slaves?” she smiled, leaning closer. “You knew that much at least. I’ll ask you once again: what is Project Lilium?”
“You’re not leaving here,” he hissed, emboldened by his fear. “You’ll rot in Ignorance while Adam laughs at your torment.”
Clyde sighed. “Is that so? Well, if you won’t talk, then I guess we’ll have to be leaving.” She flicked the switch again, this time letting the electricity flow at maximum strength through her taser. The man’s screams were choked out as he lost the ability to control his own body. After a moment or two of watching him twitch in agony, she plunged the blade into his chest, silencing him for good.
“Grab the key card and let’s go,” Clyde said, and Mahalik bent down to unhook it from his belt.
“That’s far enough,” a soft voice said, coming from behind the two of them. Mahalik and Clyde froze where they were.
“Mahalik?” Clyde nodded at him.
“Plan E?” he said.
“Yep,” she replied, and the two took off for the nearest exit.
The door at the other end of the room was partially obscured by medical equipment, over which Clyde vaulted herself with little issue. “Keycard!” she shouted, and Mahalik threw it to her as he maneuvered over the same obstacle. Clyde swiped the card quickly and darted out of the room, Mahalik close on her heels.
Mahalik looked over his shoulder. Three Oruvian guards burst through the door behind them and were making considerable gains in catching up to them. One had installed maglifts into their feet and leaped onto the railing protruding from the wall to ride the magnetic field more quickly in pursuit.
“Plan F then,” Clyde shouted, and the two skidded to a stop, turned, and unhitched their weapons.
Clyde aimed for the Tavarrian with the maglifts, shooting him twice in the foot. The man wavered and fell, shouting as blood welled underneath him. The other two guards ducked into a doorway.
“Hiding, eh?” Clyde chuckled, walking purposefully down the hall. The bleeding Tavarrian moaned in pain and she shot him casually in the head as she passed, barely looking down. His moaning ceased and his body sagged heavily to the floor. “Come out, come out,” she taunted, leaning to peek around the doorway.
Mahalik flattened himself against the wall behind her. “And?”
“Must have gone out another door. I don’t see any- shit!” she yelped as one of the guards lunged out from around the door and grabbed her pistol, wrestling it from her grip. She in turn grabbed his forearm and pulled him from the safety of the room, throwing him to the ground and losing her weapon skittering down the hall in the process.
The man scrambled to his feet and grabbed for the makeshift pipe rifle hanging from a sling across his chest, pointing it at Clyde.
“Nope,” Mahalik said, removing one of his long leather gloves. Razor-sharp, thin urticating hairs grew from his wrist, and he flicked a handful of them at Clyde’s assailant, nailing him in the eyes. The itching barbs caused the man to drop his gun and rub furiously at his eyes. Clyde grabbed the man by the hair and slammed his face into her knee, breaking his nose and sending him sprawling in a spray of blood.
Stepping over him, she reached down to retrieve her gun. “Number three will have to wait,” she said as they heard more shouting down the hall from which they came. “Let’s go before our friend here tries to get creative again.”
They turned and made their way toward the double doors out of the hall precisely as they burst open. Six guards with a range of cybernetics and mutations held their ground, and when they turned to run in the opposite direction they were greeted by the third guard from before dropping from the ceiling before them.
“Stand down and you won’t be hurt,” he said, hands held up, palms out and facing them. Clyde narrowed her eyes, uncertain of the precise nature of his modifications, but suspecting he was in the possession of something particularly nasty. Spidersilk, maybe. She’d been webbed by that splice before and it wasn’t pleasant or particularly easy to escape from.
“Sure, fine,” she smiled, raising up her hands along with Mahalik. “This is all just a big misunderstanding.”
“I’m sure it is,” a woman’s voice crooned from down the hall and the cadre of guards parted like the sea for Moses to let a tall, pale-skinned woman dressed in a flowing floor length crimson robe pass by. Accompanying her was a well dressed scientist with a scowl on his face. “Let’s discuss the problem like people rather than using violence like uncivilized animals, shall we?” She stood before Clyde and Mahalik, utterly unafraid. Her clasped hands before her revealed a pristine metallic cyberlimb of a quality rarely seen outside the wealth and resources of the Church.
“My goodness, why didn’t we think of that?” Clyde replied with mock sweetness. The woman chuckled softly and lowered her hood. Her long black hair spilled out from underneath, framing a pair of shrewd brown eyes and a soft but cruel smile.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Clyde barked out a laugh when she revealed her face. “Zoe Jakobson? Shit Mahalik, we must have stumbled upon something huge if the all-powerful Zoe Jakobson is here.” Mahalik looked at her in confusion and several of the guards exchanged looks. “What,” she continued caustically, her words directed at the robed woman, “not enough souls to torment in New Eden? You had to take a train to find fresh meat?” The man standing behind them exhaled forcefully and Clyde snorted defiantly, lifting her hands higher.
The scientist at Zoe’s side bristled. “Her Wisdom, woman, and watch your tongue. Try and muster up some respect for the Seeker of Justice of the Church of Oruvos if you can’t manage to gather any for the sacred work performed within these facilities.”
The demure woman standing before her smiled in a show of humility, dipping her head in greeting. “Be calm, Shriver,” she addressed the man. “This young lady and I go back quite some time.”
“If by ‘go back’ you mean I murdered the shit out of your predecessor,” she spat, a vitriolic grin spreading across her face. “If I’d known you’d use it as an opening to claw your way up to the top, I’d have just removed his tongue. That was the only actually dangerous part of him, after all.”
Zoe’s calm smile flickered slightly at Clyde’s words, offering a brief glimpse into the black heart that beat beneath her chest. She recovered quickly. “There was that, yes,” she offered dismissively, as though the murder of a high-ranking Oruvian official were a daily occurrence. As though the reigning Oruvo-Mar had to replace its leadership any more frequently than was absolutely necessary. “Our friend Rabiyah here,” she gestured toward Clyde, “was once a denizen of New Eden, before being asked quite nicely to depart with her parents and dear sister. Afterwards, she had a bit of,” Zoe glanced up thoughtfully, “a theological change of heart that unfortunately could not be mended by the ministrations of the Church, and she acted out accordingly.”
Mahalik looked over at Clyde. “Rabiyah? That’s your actual name?” he asked, confused.
Clyde scowled. “It’s a long story.”
“I said it was a long story!”
Zoe tutted at the two captured Walkers, stepping closer. “Children, children. Let us not mull on the past. There is no need - forgiveness takes a great many forms, and time heals many wounds.” She placed her hands, dotted with metallic disks at her joints, on both of their cheeks.
Clyde spat and jerked away from her. “I don’t need your forgiveness, you witch,” she hissed. “I left because your Church is filled with greed and liars. You spread the truth as you see fit, not as it is.”
“Harsh words from a broken spirit. You always were brilliant, if somewhat misguided. Come now,” Zoe smiled. “What you need is an awakening. A new start of sorts. I think we might have just what you need.”
“Oh, do you now? That would be great,” Clyde snarled. “I need your kind gone from this city and I want my sister back.”
“And you shall have her.”
Clyde’s rant was curtailed before she could take it up again. She was not expecting that as a response. “What?” It sounded dumb even to her, but it was the best she could do.
“Your sister is in good hands. I will take you to her. Unfortunately,” she paused for a moment, “there is only room for one of you.” With reflexes borne of cybernetic perfection, a short blade erupted from Zoe’s left wrist, which she promptly used to slit Mahalik’s throat from jawbone to jawbone.
“No!” Clyde screamed, falling beside him. The guard behind them made a move to stop her, but Zoe shook her head at him and he backed off. Mahalik sputtered and clasped at his throat as blood poured through his fingers. It was a mere handful of seconds before he died. “You Oruvian piece of shit, I hope you choke on your own venom.” In her rage, Clyde stood and lunged for Zoe.
“Alas, child.” Zoe reached out and intercepted Clyde as she rushed her, fingers clasping around the Walker’s throat. “Poison only taints the impure. For those upon whom the serpent smiles, it simply makes us stronger.” Smiling, she channelled a jolt of electricity through the electrodes in her fingers, enough to shock Clyde into submission. She fell to her knees, seizing violently until the wall-walking guard grabbed her shoulders to stabilize her.
“Secure her,” Zoe demanded of the guard. He nodded and began to weave a rope of silk around her wrists. “And let’s get going.” Zoe looked around at the guards and scientists waiting for her command. “We’re late.”
At some point, someone had placed a sack over Clyde’s head, and it stayed there for the duration of the journey. Although she couldn’t see, she could tell that she was in in rail car headed out of the city. The Overgrowth had a smell about it, something situated oddly between freshness and rot. It was like newly overturned dirt near a fetid garbage heap, the ever-expanding new growth erupting from the decay of the towns and cities below. Permeating it all was the sweet smell of the pitcher yam, never giving up its hold on the land, not since it had been the agent of American decay two hundred years prior. It was hard to believe that the harbinger of famine could have such a ripe and pleasant odor. Too bad it was inedible.
The car stopped after what must have been a handful of hours, although judging the passage of time while sitting silent and blind was not the easiest of achievements. Clyde was grabbed roughly under the arms and lifted out of her seat. She struggled, more on principle than with any real intent of escape, and earned herself a solid kick in the ribs for her efforts. Breathing hard, she stumbled along the path her captors were leading her.
They stepped into an elevator and creaked to the ground floor. When they stepped out she could feel the closeness of the trees all around her.
“If you just wanted my advice at gardening in the Overgrowth, I could have contacted some of my more adept brethren to give you some tips,” she goaded them, sarcasm dripping from her words. “No need to be rough.” Another punch, this time to the gut. She spat a wad of blood and kept walking.
They walked her several feet and paused. When she began moving again, her feet transitioned from soil to a hard metal floor. Their footsteps rang dully as they walked another few hundred feet into the building.
“You may set her down,” Zoe’s voice commanded. Her captors dropped her suddenly and she sank to her knees, nearly biting her tongue in the process.
“Barely worked up a sweat and you’re already giving me a break?” Clyde joked. “How benevolent, Your Wisdom.”
Clyde could hear one of the guards lifting their hand back to strike her, but Zoe Jakobson stopped him with a murmur. “Be kind, Seeker. Some lessons must be learned without the use of force.” The next hands to be placed on her were removing the bag. She closed her eyes in preparation for an influx of light, and when she opened them, her jaw dropped.
“What is this?” she asked, unable to hide her shock. She was sitting in a viewing room made of glass and looking down over what could only be described as a torture chamber out of ages past. Posts and huge wooden Xs were positioned all throughout the room below, and each had someone affixed to them. Well-dressed men and women with a variety of implements were tormenting their captors, and from what she could see, it was eliciting a range of reactions. Some were laughing. Others were crying. A few made no sound at all, simply enduring the sting of a whip or the cut of a knife as though it were simply a gentle nudge from a friend.
“What is this?” she asked again, aghast.
“Training,” Zoe replied, looking out over the floor, hands clasped behind her back. “Against pain.”
Clyde looked up angrily through her hair. “Training against pain?” She laughed roughly. “Do you just make things up as you move your mouth? What is that even supposed to mean, Zoe?”
Zoe laughed, the carefree chuckle carried on a note of obscene cruelty. “In crude terms, I suppose you might call it a school of torture, although that might give the wrong impression of the whole of our goal.”
Clyde’s fingers danced over her bonds, looking for some way to escape, but the silk was stuck fast to her skin. She’d need a knife. Or some fire. “I’m not sure what other impression you intended on giving by showing me this.”
Zoe turned around and extended her hands to brush a wisp of Clyde’s hair from her forehead. Clyde could do nothing to stop it. “We are not training the torturers. They are already adept at their skills.” She stood up straight and turned to look back over the railing. “No, Ramiyah. We are training the victims to withstand the pain, and become our spies. Spies in a war against blasphemy; a war against, well,” she smiled, her gaze turning cold as she dropped her benevolent mask, “against you.”
“We don’t torture people.”
Zoe turned back around, observing the operation. “Perhaps not. Regardless, these students - they are soldiers. Super soldiers in a war against Ignorance, fighting to secure America’s collective soul.”
She walked over and stepped behind Clyde with a serrated knife. “There is something I wish for you to see,” she whispered into her ear. Slipping the knife through the silk bonds, she freed Clyde’s wrists and grasped her by the elbow. “Come see the future.”
Reluctantly allowing Zoe to guide her, she walked over to the glass looking down into the space as a woman was slowly wheeled into the center of the room. She was bleeding from several cuts on her face and had a broken arm wrapped carefully in a sling. She looked up with an almost preternatural awareness and caught Clyde’s gaze.
“Inaya?” she gasped as her sister looked up. Clyde pressed her hands against the glass, looking around for something - anything - to give her hope. All she saw were bleeding, bruised bodies and the cruelty of the Church.
“I didn’t realize who we had until I went through the shipment myself,” Zoe explained, and it took Clyde a moment to realize that her ‘shipment’ was the people she’d been tracking the last several months. “When I saw your sweet sister sitting among them, I knew we’d truly caught ourselves a treasure.”
“Something we agree on, finally,” Clyde replied, every word feeling as painful to utter as though she’d been spitting glass. Bringing her hands back down to her sides, she faced Zoe, looking the woman in the eyes. Here by herself and absent her usual retinue, the Seeker of Justice seemed smaller, less intimidating. It was amazing to Clyde that this woman held one sixth of the power of the Oruvian Church. It was even more amazing that any establishment would let a creature as soulless as she command any power at all. It was only a matter of time before she ran out of infidels and began devouring her own kind.
“This can’t be sanctioned by the Church,” Clyde pushed, stalling for time. Time to do what, she wasn’t certain.
“It’s certainly not unsanctioned, if that’s what you’re implying,” Zoe laughed as though Clyde had told a particularly clever joke. “It’s a side project to be sure, but once I’ve perfected my specimen, the rest of the Oruvo-Mar will have no problem seeing the merits of my work.”
“Boy, you don’t sound crazy at all, Zoe,” Clyde replied back with dripping sweetness. “Creating supersoldier torturebots out of Delphian citizens sounds like a perfectly reasonable way to spend your day.”
Zoe’s smile never broke, but her eyes darkened. “Perhaps a demonstration is in order, yes?” Walking over to the window, she knocked on the glass. The handler with Inaya looked up and, at Zoe’s nod, pulled out a set of pliers from his back pocket. Placing them into Inaya’s mouth, he wrenched and twisted until, a moment later, they emerged with a bloodied molar between them.
Inaya licked the blood from her lips and spat it onto the floor, looking almost as though she was annoyed instead of injured.
“It will grow back,” Zoe commented as a sound of agony escaped Clyde’s lips. “We have had her spliced with the best in regenerative tech. Furthermore, your sister has proven herself quite capable and resilient. She’s taken to her splices as though she were born with them. Her healing is accelerated and her tolerance for pain is remarkable.” She smiled with a sick fondness. “I am so proud of her.”
Clyde glanced around the room as Zoe monologued, looking for anything she could use to break the glass. There was a sparse table to her left with some paper and writing utensils littered over the surface. A metal chair was pulled out in front of it. She took her opportunity with both hands.
Sidestepping away from Zoe, she grabbed the chair in both hands and threw it at the window. There was little resistance; the window shattered outward.
“What are you doing?” Zoe exclaimed, shocked.
“Re-training your star pupil.” Taking no heed of the distance, she leaped from the window, landing one story below in a pile of glass. It bit into her skin; she ignored it and ran for Inaya.
“Pardon me,” she shouted, grabbing a shard of glass from the ground and plunging it into Inaya’s handler’s eye. The man jerked away, grasping at the shard as he slowly died.
Clyde ducked behind the post Inaya was tied to. “Hang in there,” she whispered, quickly removing her shoe. She flipped it upside down and stuck her fingers into the sole, twisting until a small metal disk fell out into her hand.
Inaya watched, her expression curious.
Three handlers were running at her as she threw the disk toward the far wall. It clattered and wobbled to a stop several feet away. Small, thin metal legs erupted from the center like the legs on a spider, sending it skittering away.
“Who in the name of Oruvos forgot to check the Puri for gadgets?!” Zoe's voice echoed, the rage carrying it almost palpable.
Several rough hands grabbed Clyde and yanked her to her feet, dragging her away from Inaya as Zoe shouted unintelligibly from her high perch, all attempts at decorum gone. The woman’s hood had fallen back, hair disheveled in her fury and eyes glinting with hatred. Clyde grinned up at the three people holding her.
A flash of light accompanied by a sonic boom and flying shrapnel floored everyone in the room, sending Clyde, the handlers, and their “students” sprawling. Clyde shook herself free of the one remaining grip on her arm and bolted to where Inaya was lying, stunned and half bound. Tearing the shard of glass from the dead handler’s eye, she split the bonds from her sister’s hands and feet and pulled her up.
“Run!” she shouted hoarsely, choking on the dust and debris as it settled around them. “You’re a few hours from the city - just run south-east as quickly as you can. Follow the rails like we did when we left New Eden. Find refuge. I’ll keep them busy here.” Despite her words, Clyde expected Inaya to protest; to stand her ground and fight the snakes together. They’d grown up thick as thieves and inseparable companions. It was why she was here breaking into Oruvian laboratories and watching her friends get murdered in the first place.
Instead, Inaya looked at her sister, blinking almost in confusion. Her eyes were devoid of emotion or fear, but she canted her head knowingly all the same.
“Okay,” she replied, and without any further hesitation, ran toward the crumbling wall and vanished out the hole Clyde’s spider bomb had created in the bunker. Clyde paused, watching her sister disappear into the Overgrowth.
“Clever girl,” a voice commended her from behind, shaking her from her stupor. “You’re ruthless; you would make a brilliant Oruvian.”
Clyde turned, and in doing so, met Zoe’s metallic fist square in the face. As she crumpled into darkness, she heard the Seeker of Justice laughing.
When Clyde woke up, everything was a stark, bright white. She shook her head and lifted a hand to rub her eyes, but found it shackled to the bed she was laying in.
In too much pain to struggle, she channelled her shock into assessing her situation. The room was clearer now, and smelled vaguely of antiseptic. There was a light glaring down at her, harsh and brighter than necessary. She squinted at it in annoyance. The slight motion caused a jolt of pain to shoot down into her jaw, and the memory of Zoe’s fist colliding with her face came back almost as forcefully as the punch itself.
“You’ll be happy to know that you have succeeded in freeing your sister,” a voice broke her concentration, and she turned her head to see Zoe Jakobson standing before her, hands clasped together, metal glinting in the light. “She took out three of my best Veilcrafters in her exodus, too, which both vexes as well as impresses me.” Zoe’s smile was thin and sour. “At least we know that our research up until now was on the right trajectory.”
“Inaya always was better than me,” Clyde grinned, her jaw aching and her mouth recalling the taste of blood. “She would have escaped regardless.”
“Perhaps. But you found us in the first place, which I find extremely noteworthy, and I am not unhappy trading one for the other, even if we do need to start from scratch.”
“Trading?” Clyde frowned, the question more burning than her wounds. There were few things Clyde hated more than being restrained, but admitting to her ignorance on a subject was one of them.
“But of course. We lost one subject; we’ll need to replace what you allowed to escape.” Sighing with an exaggerated resignation, she turned her back on Clyde and began to fill up a syringe with a viscous brown substance. “We learned a lot from her, so her misplacement is not a total loss. Because of your tenacity, you’ll be happy to know that I have adopted you as my own special personal project.” Turning back around to face her, she flicked the syringe and looked down. “When we create you, we’ll be certain to install a remote disengage to prevent any future unfortunate circumstances like this from occurring.”
“She will come back for me,” Clyde hissed, struggling against her bonds more for show than with any real conviction. “Inaya will come find me.”
“I certainly hope so,” Zoe replied, chuckling softly as she inserted the needle into Clyde’s arm. “I certainly hope so.”