New Year's Eve Special
Written by John Bush
Edited by Jason McDonald
Assistant Editor: Jason McDonald
Editor-in-Chief: David Ellis
Eddie Van Beethoven
Xi'an Chi Xan
New Year's Eve Special
Written by David Ellis
Edited by Jason McDonald
Editor-in-Chief: David Ellis
New Year's Eve Special
Written by Jason McDonald
Edited by David Ellis
Chief Edits: David Ellis
New Year's Eve Special
"Party Like It's 2099"
Written by David Ellis
Edited by Jason McDonald
Assistant Editor: Jason McDonald
Editor-in-Chief: David Ellis
New Year's Eve Special
Written by Jason McDonald
Edited by David Ellis
Chief Edits: David Ellis
Moon Knight/ Marq (Edward Somerset)
Jeanine Marlo Benedict
“I know, Xi’an, but you really got me thinking. When you said you were organizing a toy and clothing drive at your church, I just figured, why stop there? The X-Men can do more than just give dolls to a hundred kids; we could make a real difference here.”
“Well, I’m not saying you were wrong, it’s just… how do you expect to fit a crowd of 35,000 homeless families, orphans, and shut-ins into the church?”
“That’s easy,” Shakti smiled, “We don’t.”
“Ah, and then where…?”
“The Halo City Convention Center was designed to hold up to 50,000 in a time of crisis. I’ve already booked it, and wait until you see the tree! It’s breathtaking. We commissioned a florapath to make it specially for the occasion.”
“A mutant whose special abilities revolve around a certain affinity with plants; in this case, she could cause plants to grow faster and to her specifications. She chose a wonderful shade of green, and Krystalin made a few hundred prismatic crystal angels to decorate it with; when the light hits that tree, it covers the whole room in rainbows! I can’t really do it justice describing it, but you’ll see.”
“You seem rather excited about this, Shakti,” Xi’an said with an amiable smile, leaning back in the comfortable arm chair he occupied across from Shakti’s large oak desk. Her office was rather comfortable; a warm, pink carpet spread across the floor and melted into cream-colored walls. Several mostly empty bookcases lined the wall behind her desk, and the only other real “wall” was the one with the always-open door in the middle. The other two walls of the corner office were all glass, providing a spectacular view of the Halo City Commons in front of City Hall, where an enormous tree had been installed and brilliantly lit. The first Christmas in Halo City was decidedly turning into one to be remembered.
“I suppose I am,” Shakti replied with a small sigh, “It’s nice to have something other than the Council to worry about.”
“Don’t let them bother you, Shakti. Whatever happens, I have every confidence that you can do what’s right.”
"Thanks, Xi’an. That really means a lot to me.”
Xi’an smiled in response, and for a few nervous seconds, the two mutants sat staring out the window.
“So who all is helping out with this?” Xi’an finally said.
“Oh, all the X-Men. Henri and Krys took over decoration duties; she makes them fast, he hangs them up faster. Eddie’s going to be playing Santa at the actual event; I think he and Rosa are off getting him fitted for the suit. He looks ridiculous with the beard.”
“Luckily, I can’t see that bothering him very much.”
Shakti chuckled lightly, causing a slight smile to spread across Xi’an’s own face.
“Tim and Luna have been bringing the Experience around to the pick-up points everyday and getting all the donations,” Shakti continued, “So far, we’ve got more than enough clothes and toys, but we don’t seem to be getting a lot of donations in the way of food for the feast afterwards.”
“Hm,” Xi’an said, furrowing his brow, “So what do you plan on doing about it?”
“Well, we have a pretty generous stock of food here in Protectorate HQ. I’m just having Tim and Luna take it all over there.”
“All? For someone so concerned about having the Council on her back, that seems like a bad move.”
“Don’t worry about it; we get new shipments every month. Protectorate salaries are generous enough that we can afford to feed ourselves for a while.”
“Whatever you say,” Xi’an responded, shrugging his shoulders, “You said all the X-men were involved, what about young Sham?”
“Santa’s elf. She seems to have found a friend in Eddie, so I figured it would be best to put them together.”
Xi’an nodded his assent.
“Well, Shakti, you seem to have this all under control. Is there anything you need from me?”
“Yes, actually,” Shakti responded, “I was just getting to that. We’re running the festivities with volunteers, but we don’t seem to have quite enough. Do you think you could convince the Sisters to lend us a hand? They have to have a lot of experience with this sort of thing.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll be glad to. What day is this, again?”
“Christmas Eve. We’re asking all the volunteers to show up by noon, but we don’t start until 4:00. You want the full schedule?”
“Volunteers get there at 12:00 to start the meal and set the tables. Doors open at 4:00, ‘Santa’ goes to work taking wishes and giving out toys at the same time, and stays until he’s gotten to all of the kids. We start serving food at six (Henri’s going to do the waiting, he says he can handle them all), and give out clothes at 8:00. We hope to have everyone out by 10:00 or 10:30, so we can start cleaning up.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Xi’an responded, rising from his seat. He strode to the door and paused in the doorway. Turning back, he waved to Shakti, who smiled quickly in return before burying her head in her work. It really would be easier if she would just let Henri handle all the red tape, not to mention faster, but Shakti had always played mother hen to the X-Men. Perhaps it was too much pressure for her, perhaps not. X-Men affairs were no longer his own.
Dec. 24, 2099, 2:08 pm: Halo City Convention Center, Main Hall
Tim and Luna crossed their arms in unison and glared her down like she had just asked them to drink napalm. Shakti remained adamant.
“I know you don’t like him, but he is a shut-in, and we are trying to reach out to as many people as possible.”
“Fine, but why do we have to pick him up?” Tim hissed.
“Because everyone else is busy setting up.”
“The guy makes my skin crawl…,” Luna snarled. Tim pointed to his girlfriend and nodded his assent.
“My thoughts exactly,” Tim said.
“Please? As a favor to me?” Shakti begged, wide-eyed.
“Ah, jammit,” Tim moaned, “Fine. For you, but you owe us.”
“Thank you,” Shakti smiled. Tim mumbled something unintelligible under his breath, but one could tell he wasn’t saying anything very nice. He grabbed Luna’s hand and the two headed for the main door.
“Oh, and guys,” Shakti shouted after the couple, “Try and be nice to Book, ok?”
“I’m not making any promises,” Tim yelled back without turning around.
Dec. 24, 2099, 3:54 pm: Halo City Convention Center, Main Hall
“Spreading the Christmas spirit, of course,” Morphine Somers smiled back, winking at the group of photographers and journalists beside, but standing a little far off from him.
“Besides, what’s Christmas without Santa Claus?” Morphine joked, pointing to the red stocking cap atop his head and bouncing the bag slung over his shoulder. The journalists all laughed a little.
“We’ve already got a Santa,” Shakti replied flatly.
“Where?” the smug mutant shot back as the door he was blocking was kicked open. Morphine let out a yelp as both doors hit him in the side, sending him to the floor. The journalists laughed harder as cameras flashed, capturing the slim figure sprawled on the floor.
“Who dares -” Morphine started to yell, but he was cut off as a silver and gold giant clad in red stormed through the door and stroked his fake beard.
“HO HO HO!” Eddie Claus bellowed, placing his right hand on his hip and thrusting out his chest. He readjusted the bag slung over his left shoulder as he surveyed the now-silent room. Content that all eyes were on him, he strode into the room as elaborately as possible, accompanied by his elf. As he stepped over Morphine, he took a quick look down, and couldn’t resist sticking out his tongue.
“There’s only room for one jolly fat man at this party, and you’re looking mighty skinny to me, Somers,” Eddie taunted after returning his tongue to his mouth. The green-haired mutant stared daggers at the metal X-Man, who continued walking along.
Gasps and cries of awe emanated from the children gathered in the room as they quit their games and ran to the front of the crowds. Parting like the Red Sea as he approached, the children stared in wonder at the red-velvet giant as he made his way to a festive, red-and-green armchair set up on the other side of the room. Once he reached it, he turned on his heels and studied the crowd of children intensely.
“I heard there some good boys and girls in Halo City this year. I had to come and see for myself,” Eddie said seriously, as the children murmured nervously to each other. Had they been good enough this year? Did he see that time when little Johnny didn’t go right to sleep when the nun told him to? He couldn’t possibly have been there when Tommy took a cookie before dinner, could he? Now came the moment of truth. Eddie kept a serious look on his face for several seconds before a wide grin spread under the beard.
“It looks like they were right!” Eddie bellowed loudly. The children all let out their breath at the same time as smiles spread throughout the crowd. Sham, in elf costume, stepped in front of “Santa” and began her speech.
“We need everyone who has a wish for Santa to get in a line starting right here,” Sham yelled, pointing at a white sign with the words “Line Starts Here” painted in red letters. The children scrambled to get to the front of the line; two children got in an argument over who get there first, but calmed down when reminded that Santa only listened to boys and girls who behaved.
Dec. 24, 2099, 6:48 pm: Halo City Convention Center, Volunteer Men’s Locker Room
“You asked for it, sweetheart,” Rosa reminded him, cradling her son Joaquim in her arms. The baby cooed and giggled as his mother tickled it gently.
“Well, if I’d known bladder control was going to be such a problem for some of these kids, I would’a sent’em all over to Morphine,” Eddie laughed. Rosa smiled as she stared cross-eyed at the baby, to his eternal delight.
“I hate that guy!” Tim yelled, slamming the door open as hard as it could. The baby fussed and squirmed, startled at the noise.
“Shh! You’re upsetting Joaquim,” Rosa said, kissing the baby’s head and rocking it in her arms.
“Sorry,” Tim grumbled, “I just don’t see why Luna and I have to keep an eye on tall, grey, and creepy in there.”
“Because Shakti asked you to,” Henri quipped, poking his head in the door behind Tim, “Anybody seen Krys?”
“Why, you found some mistletoe?” Rosa chided. Henri looked back at her with a quizzical epression.
“Wha…mistletoe? Why would…? Hey, isn’t this the men’s locker room anyway? Never mind. I don’t want to know. We don’t have enough pitchers. We need Krys to whip some up for us.”
“Oh,” Rosa said, looking at Eddie. The gentle giant just shook his head slowly. Don’t think about it too much, his eyes said, just leave them alone. Rosa shrugged and turned her attention back to the baby.
“I saw her out by the main door,” Tim said. Henri clicked his tongue and nodded his thanks. He looked at Eddie, now in the middle of changing, to say goodbye to him. Instead, something else came out.
“Jeez, Eddie! Put some pants on! You’re making everyone else look bad.”
“Sorry, but those kids soaked my clothes all the way through,” Eddie smiled, pulling on a dry pair of boxers, “But you’re right, Breakdown’s touch wasn’t all bad.”
Henri and Tim grumbled in unison and exited the door. Eddie waved after them, feeling very proud of himself. Rosa rolled her eyes and turned around.
“Oh, don’t act like you’re not impressed,” He joked, placing one arm around her waist. She laughed, and put one hand over her mouth.
“I have a feeling Santa wouldn’t approve of that kind of talk, Mr. Van Beethoven,” she said, turning her head to face him.
“He’s such a prude. Now, what was that you were saying about mistletoe…?”
Dec. 24, 2099, 8:19 pm: Halo City Convention Center, Main Hall
“Well, what can you expect? They aren’t called the ‘needy’ for nothing!” Luna fired back, kneeling next to him.
“Quiet, you two. You’re not helping any,” Shakti hissed from one table over to the left, “Now get up and help me protect the –”
“Nuns?” Shakti finished, staring at the center table, on top of which stood the Sister Superior, smoking Uzi raised in the air.
“All right, people! This here is a festival celebrating the birth of our Lord! Get in line like good Christians and stop besmirching His memory, or so help me you’ll see what good Christian soldiers can do!”
“Amen, sister,” the nuns behind the Sister Superior responded in unison. A silence fell across the room as the masses looked to the clothing tables; nuns lined up behind each table, producing automatic weapons and various other pieces of armament.
“What kind of nuns bring riot gear to a Christmas party?” Tim spat out, amazed.
“The best kind,” Xi’an Chi Xan beamed, walking up to the table where Tim and Luna knelt on the ground, “You can get up now, Timothy. I’ll ask Sister Nicholas to look after you, if you want.”
“Shockin’ smart@$$...” Tim mumbled to himself, reaching his hand out. Xi’an grabbed it, pulling his former teammate to his feet. Luna stood up on her own.
“Now, I believe we were distributed the donated clothing…?” Xi’an suggested, motioning to the bins a few feet behind the row of tables. Tim sighed as he turned around and flipped the table back on its legs, motioning for the first person in line to step up.
Dec. 24, 2099, 11:57 pm: Sisters of the Howling Commandments Convent, Sanctuary
“Quit groaning, boy. Sloth is a sin,” Sister Nick reprimanded him. He stared at her in disbelief before her face cracked into a smile.
“Funny, sister. Funny,” Tim said, letting his head fall back again.
“Thank you again so much for all your help, Sister Nick,” Shakti added, drawing the nun’s attention, “We never would have gotten all this done without you and the other sisters.”
“Oh, we never have to be asked to do the Lord’s work, Miss Haddad,” the old nun smiled back, “Thank you for inviting us, though. And to you as well, young man. I haven’t seen the children that happy in quite some time, ‘Santa.’”
Eddie grinned sheepishly and shuffled his feet.
“Aw, shucks. It was nothin’. ‘Cept getting peed on. That was kinda gross,” Eddie said, lowering the volume of his voice for the last part. Rosa elbowed him in the ribs, but he didn’t seem to notice. The assembly laughed for a few seconds and quieted for a few more. Whoever was standing found a place to sit, whether on the front pews, the chairs by the altar, or, in Henri’s case, right on the ground. Henri checked the timepiece in his right gauntlet.
“Hey, it’s midnight,” he said aloud.
“Oh yeah?” Shakti replied.
“Yeah. Merry Christmas.”
A winged, red figure glided swiftly over the sand, unaware of the events transpiring miles away in Halo City.
The seasons don’t really change much in the desert; there are times when it is hot, and times when it is really hot, but not much else. Long ago, Bloodhawk adopted his home’s perception of time: today and yesterday are one and the same. No day is more important than the one that came before. So, today, like any other day, the red figure continued flying over the expanse of sand he had come to love. Alone and vigilant, he patrolled his domain. Polluters and desecrators never took days off, and neither did he.
Well, that’s the end of our X-Mas story. Hope you all had fun, and everybody have a happy holiday season, from the 2099UGR family to you.
It was a flesh mall, a fancy name for a white slavery ring that kept hundreds of huddled humans and mutants and dressed them up like dolls. It was a poshly-decorated building that claimed to be a brothel but refused its employees any choice, pay, kindness, or hope.
On Christmas Eve, it was cracked open like an eggshell by a black-clad figure who bore horns like the devil and an interlocking "DD" design.
The devil, their savior, didn't say a word; he just led the stunned captives out of the building toward freedom.
I’m fighting Santa, and I’m pretty drunk.
I hate Christmas.
Y’see, it all started in this dive bar I was in. Deuce’s, it was called. A dive bar in a dive town somewhere in the middle of Nowhere, Arizona. No seriously, that’s what the town was called.
Not that it bothered me any. I was trying t’keep a low profile anyway, with the world thinking I don’t exist an’ all. No need to convince them otherwise.
I was packin’ back a few, and not the light beer junk either. Much to the chagrin of the Bone Machine I’m merged with, I was downing hard vodka.
Seriously, I’d been workin’ pretty hard these past two months. I’ve been surpassing all the dead guys’ expectations with my training in the Dream Zone as the successor to the Metalscream mantra. Training to protect the not-so-underground world of the occult-tech from perverse and obscene misuse, often by guys who wanna nuke the planet or take it over. Training to carry on the will of three millennia’s worth of dead magicians, their skulls linked up in a magic techno-network of untold knowledge. But with no bodies and no influence on the physical realm, they have charged me to carry on their mission, just as they charged John before me.
But usually, they just end up bitching at one another in my head till I fall asleep. I think they’ve gone senile.
I got many of the beginner techno-mantic equations down flawlessly. I stole a load of conventional weapons from various installations and such, just in case they use the magic-dampening ludgate rods. And if I wanna celebrate the twenty-fourth of December until I pass out and wake up the next morning with a hangover that could kill most deities, well then that’s what I’m shockin’ doing!
But, y’know, I’m an amateur too, technically. Least, that’s what the Machine keeps saying. So it’s all good.
I blink about a bit, and run a trace spell to find the epicenter.
The magic geometry stumbles masterfully through the double vision I’m having at the moment, locating the user in a mall across this seedier section of town.
I try to shake the sloth from my skull. Nope, no effect. I go into this one intoxicated.
Teleportation spell gets me to the mall down the street. This dumpy little mall with a foot already in the grave. Place barely has working lights, but jammed if there isn’t a whole mess of people lining up in front of the source of the technomantic perversion.
A not-so-jolly Santa Claus with a ten-year-old boy sitting atop his lap. But it’s not the boy that’s crafting the magic…
I’m fighting a mall Santa Claus?
Gotta be shittin’ me.
I yell at everyone to get the shock outta there. They look on like I just told them I ride upside-down unicorns to work every morning singing the Star-Spangled Banner.
I pull out my Alphaglock Model Twelve and pump a round or two into the ceiling. It gets the lead outta their feet.
The little boy is ripped off Santa’s lap by his mother, both coming within a hair’s breadth of touching the teddy bear the jolly giant was about to give them both.
‘A teddy bear’, the Bone Machine whispers, ‘that’s mystically-laced with a super-contagious flesh-drinking virus from another dimension.’
He stays in silent shock, sitting in his big red chair, store elves and shoppers finally emptying out of the store. I get drunken tunnel vision as I look at him, eyes hidden by the shadow from his cap.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” the Santa asks frantically, standing up diagonally.
“Name’sh Litany,” I slur, “M’here to kick your ash…”
Yeah. That’ll scare him.
The psycho in red drops the bear on the ground, suddenly turning all-business, “Stupid bitch! You ruined everything! Leave me alone!”
He murmurs a short incantation, and a shield warps into existence around him. As it orbits his body in jagged, uneven directions, I can feel its forces pressing against my mysticism. Anything I spit out at him will probably be redirected right at me. Just great.
I stand my ground until the Bone Machine strapped to my bod clues me in on some of the inner-workings of that particular spell. Something that even panicked little jolly-boy over there doesn’t know about. Smirking, I run after him, stumbling slightly.
The loony freaks out, running away in fear. Drunk as I am, you’d be nervous too if someone teleported in front of you while you were doing something not-so-nice. And this little shock-up seems to be a nervous wreck.
At least I hope that’s the case, and he’s not leading me into a trap.
He dives around a bunch of mannequins and out of the store into the mall’s central area. The swirling shield keeps up with him, blocking many of the simple spells the Bone Machine is whispering into my ear. That’s okay, though. We got the ace up our sleeve.
The jerkstore tries to dive over a water fountain, tripping on the plastic edge and breaking the upper layer of his teeth on the old-school concrete bottom. And that’s when his concentration slips.
Masters of the spell could pull it off very easily. A master would know to keep cool, and keep his concentration steady. That way, there’d be an invisible barrier of perfectly-spherical, semi-solid technomantic energy around him, flawlessly deflecting attacks right onto whoever attacked in the first place.
But this shock-head’s a rank amateur. He doesn’t realize any of that. His bubble is a swirling blue cloud of elliptical razor wire orbiting him at a few hundred miles an hour. And as its orbit decays, the barbed-wire rips into the Santa Claus, shredding his costume and ripping off a good chunk of his skin. When the spell finally fizzles out and I see the bleeding mess that’s left, I’m glad I’m wasted at the moment.
I almost feel sorry for him.
“Giih….gihhh…” he slurs out through the blood. He doesn’t have five minutes, “Just…j-just couldn’t takeit….anymurr…..couldn’t….stupid brats and their spineless parents...puking on me…demanding…whining at me to make their stupid little brats smile for the camera…having fun while I suffer corp cutbacks…none of them deserve to live, y’know….not even…not even those…stupid…blood-sucking little kids…ugghhrr….”
Saint Nick. Just another lunatic that’s discovered the occult-tech after John accidentally exposed the underground practice to the world fighting against the Red Hermitage. Probably found some spellbooks and incantations from a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend or a cheesy second-hand magic shop somewhere.
Bitter shocking lunatic.
And that’s when I get a vicious idea.
The Bone Machine helps me out with some simpler spells that I’m thankfully able to pull off through the alcohol to tidy things up a bit.
The store’s set to rights. Santa’s body’s teleported into a fire dimension for immediate incineration. We unleash a skew spell to help the witnesses remember everything incorrectly. Some remember a blonde teleporting in on them and proclaiming herself the embodiment of Odin. Some remember a crazy guy with a machine gun running in out of nowhere. No reports match up, nothing’s taken seriously. My existence stays safe.
I remove the flesh-spell from the bear, setting it up in a display with all the other teddy bears.
I smirk as I think about the fanfare the place’ll receive once the rumors of a few dozen people having multiple hallucinations in this place hit the streets and the newsnets.
I also smile at the bitter old soul I’ve trapped in the teddy bear, stuck looking up at the “stupid little brats” and “whining parents” with his sewn-in button eyes for the rest of eternity, unable to move.
I think John’d enjoy that little irony.
I wave goodbye to the bear, hearing people at the doors, realizing I probably kicked out someone with a police subscription plan. I disappear into the Dream Zone, to the little mansion I’ve created for myself.
I stumble to bed, listening to the sounds of the Bone Machine as I pass out.
I’ll wake up later, probably vomit a bit, and scream from the murderous hangover in the morning.
Should be fun.
Catch Litany's first 2099UGR appearance in 2099 Unlimited #2!
Reed Richards glanced briefly away from the workstation monitor, rolled his eyes at his teammate Johnny Storm, then went right back to work on programming algorithms.
Johnny was incredulous. "Oh, no you did not just roll your eyes at me!" He looked around for witnesses to his historic event, but it was just the two of them in the dark laboratory, illuminated only by the soft blue glow from the screen of Reed's latest project. With the help of a handful of Station 4 co-workers, the Fantastic Four's leader had been designing, building, and programming a next-generation supercomputer he'd affectionately dubbed "Franklin".
The Human Torch let out a long-suffering sigh. "C'mon, man! It's New Year's Eve! The last day of 2099! The last day of this century, even!"
"Actually, Johnny," Reed corrected, his gaze still fixed on the screen, "the last day of this century would be December 31st, 2100."
Frustrated heatwaves radiated from Johnny's body. "This thing will still be here after the party. C'mon, we're burning day... uh, nightlight."(What do you mean by this, exactly?)
"Why can't you just go yourself? I'm sure you'd feel right at home." Reed gestured to Franklin and the rest of the lab. "This is where I feel at home."
"Yeah, now what does that say about your life? You've been doing stuff like this since we were first thawed out -- which I should point out wasn't even that long ago!"
"I've done quite a bit since we were found by Stark-Fujikawa workers," Reed insisted.
Johnny started ticking off the items on his fingers. "We became Stark-Fuji working stiffs. We rebelled against them and went on the lam. We kicked the butts of some SIEGE guys and a bounty hunter named Oldskool. We teamed up with said bounty hunter to kick Paranoid Keith’s butt." He switched to the other hand. "We renegotiated our contract with Stark-Fuji just so they could drive us crazy, found ourselves operated on by scientists who need to switch to decaf, and even met Oldskool's family on Yancy Street." He took a breath, finding himself holding up eight fingers.
"See?" I've done other things besides stay in front of a computer."
"Yeah, like get rejected by my sister when it turned out she didn't want to date you."
Reed shot Johnny a very unkind glare.
"Whoa, what was that glare for?" Sue Storm asked Ben Grimm as she stood in the doorway of his living quarters. "I just asked what you were reading."
Ben looked away bashfully, then gestured to the flat computer screen mounted to one wall. "It's the Torah. The Jewish bible. Oldskool's dad loaned me a disk copy so I c'n study it."
Sue slowly stepped into the room to get a better look at the screen. She squinted, trying to make sense of the words. "Can you read this? It looks like it's in... is that Hebrew?"
"Yeah, the original Ben was Jewish, so I ended up with at least some workin' knowledge of it up here." He tapped his temple with a stony finger. "Not much, though; he wasn't really a religious guy."
She placed a hand on his shoulder. "But you want to be one now?"
He folded his hands in front of his face, staring blankly at them. "I killed a guy, Suzie. I was maybe a couple days old, an' I beat Oldskool t'death. I ... I can't feel much, but I swear I c'n still feel his blood on my hands, y'know? That's gonna haunt me. I figure maybe ... maybe a little religion'll help me deal w'that. Rev'rend Waylon said it might help."
"I thought Reverend Waylon is Christian?" she asked, running her hand along his shoulder, feeling the hard plates and craters on her fingertips.
"Christian, non-denominational, yeah," he replied. "But he keeps his mind open about all the religions... even Thorism." He chuckled, picking up six more minidisk cases, each labeled with a different religion. "He said to find a belief that works f'r me an' stick with it."
She smiled. "So what have you learned so far?"
"Two things," Ben answered, returning his attention to the screen. "One: the main philosophy or whatever behind bein' Jewish is that there's only one God, an' He happens t'be the same God that Christians and Muslims worship."
"Christians and Muslims?"
"You didn't know that?"
"Well, yeah, of course I knew that; twencen Sue and Johnny went to Sunday School. But why's that part important?"
He shrugged. "I'm just amused, since he gave me disks on those religions, too. Turns out they're not as different as people think."
"Okay, so the second thing you learned...?"
"Second, I'm glad this stuff comes with English translations, or I wouldn't be able t'make heads 'r tails of it."
Sue laughed, filling the room with an infectious chirp that Ben couldn’t help but get caught in. He started laughing as well, for the first time in the weeks since he'd killed Oldskool. He liked the way it felt.
"Johnny, stop it! This isn't funny," Reed warned as the blond-haired man wrapped his arms around his waist and pulled the scientist away from Franklin the supercomputer.
"You're ... rrh ... right," Johnny grunted, "but I'm getting you out of this lab one way or another! This... is for .. your own--"
He'd reached the doorway, Reed's upper body in tow. But Reed's lower body was still seated in his chair at the workstation; his midsection was stretched like saltwater taffy.
Reed's stretching ability allowed him to turn his neck a full 180 degrees to face his teammate. "It's useless, Johnny. Give it--"
A startled Johnny yelped, letting go of the scientist and causing him to snap back to the workstation like a rubber band. Reed had to brace himself against it to keep from crashing into Franklin.
"Fine. You wanna use powers?" Johnny cracked his knuckles and concentrated.
A moment later, the surface temperature of Reed's seat rose sharply, causing him to yelp and hop out of his chair. He rubbed his bottom and glanced at Johnny, who was laughing uproariously. "All right," Reed relented. "I concede defeat, on the grounds that I have completely lost my train of thought due to your constant interruptions. I hope you're satisfied."
"Glad to hear it, buddy!" Johnny enthused, clapping a hand on Reed's back. "Now, c'mon! The party in the break room is calling our names, and it's almost midnight!"
"Okay, what do you suppose we do at the party?"
Johnny rolled his eyes and sighed, as if he'd been asked the dumbest question in history. "We'll drink punch! Flirt with female coworkers! Drink more punch! Count down to 2100! Flirt some more! Sing 'Auld Lang Something'!"
"'Auld Lang Syne', actually. Do you even know the words?"
"Okay, we'll hum it! Now let's get going!"
Reed sighed. "When are you going to act your age, Johnny?"
Abruptly, anything resembling humor drained from Johnny's face. "And what age is that? If you're going by the age my body was quick-grown to be, I'm twenty-five. If you're going by how old I actually am, I'm about a month old." He leaned closer, getting right in Reed's face. "Just. Like. You. So what age should I act?"
Reed opened his mouth to respond, then he realized he had no ready answer.
"So are you ready to go?"
"Yeah, yeah," Ben answered Sue as he emerged from his bathroom, stepping into the bedroom area of his quarters. He was dressed in plus-sized clothing that was tight-fitting on him -- an off-white polo shirt and dark blue slacks that they'd bought on their trip to Earth weeks before. "Still don't see why we gotta get dressed up just f'r a party in the break room. I mean, we're only gonna be there an hour at most, right? An ev'rybody already knows us."
Sue wore similar attire: a midnight blue blouse and matching skirt that was classy but still casual (and thus relatively inexpensive as far as 2099 formal wear went). "Trust me, they've never seen you like this," she pointed out. "Heck, I've only worn this outfit once before at the Christmas party." She paused, thoughtful. "Wait, is that why you hid in your room at Christmas? Because you're Jewish? We all just thought you were being sulky."
"I was bein' sulky too," he replied, letting her button up his shirt's collar since his chubby fingers couldn't grasp them. "An' anyway, it was just a 'Holiday' party, not a 'Christmas' party -- so anybody o' any religion coulda attended. I just wasn't in the mood."
Sue nodded, remembering how many religions were represented among the Station 4 crew. "Still, the Holiday Party was the 25th, which I automatically think of as Christmas Day, and don't tell me twencen Ben never celebrated Christmas."
"Never said he didn't," Ben shot back, becoming testy. "I just didn't feel like celebratin'. As it is, you're lucky I'm lettin' you drag me to this party, but you're pushin' your luck."
She raised placating hands. "All right, all right. Let's just try to have a little fun here, okay. Let's try not to worry too much about the details." She and Ben exited his quarters (one at a time, which was the only way they'd fit through the doorway), arm in arm.
"Fair enough. Speakin' of 'details', though...." Ben chose his words carefully as they walked. "I figured you'd've already been at the party, pallin' around with Shandra." He eyed her curiously. "Or're you two still mad?"
She frowned, avoiding his gaze. "She's still hurting from our Earth trip. It's still going to take a while for her to come to terms with what happened to her old... family." She decided that was the best way to describe the Hotwire Martyrs without using the word 'gang'. "She still needs time to mourn. I ... I've tried to be there for her, and things were looking up around Chr-- around the Holiday, but she's decided she'd rather mourn alone, and she doesn't want much to do with me right now."
"But you're still friends, right?"
"I hope so. She's my best friend, and the first one I had outside this team. I don't want to lose that." She finally realized that they'd stopped walking shortly after Shandra Willis' name had come up.
Ben wrapped his thick arms around her, surrounding her in a bear hug that was gentle despite his strength. Her arms rested at his hips, and she leaned in, tugging him tightly as well. He wasn't that much taller than she was despite his bulk, so she rested her head on his shoulder, silky blonde tresses spilling onto the dark fabric of his shirt.
They stayed like this for a moment for several minutes. The comfort of the moment was replaced by something else: they slowly realized how intimate this was.
Sue listened to his steady breathing, and to the sledgehammer pounding of his heart, audible even through his armorlike skin. She was certain he was listening to hers as well. She finally looked up at him, realizing he'd probably been watching her the whole time. And she liked the way he was looking at her; his soulful blue eyes somehow less hidden under his heavy brow than they usually were.
Slowly, she moved within his embrace to give him a soft peck on the cheek.
He murmured. "Damn ... I ... Suzie...."
"What is it?" She wasn't sure why she was whispering; it just felt right.
"I ... I felt that."
Her eyes widened, astonished. "You felt ... ?" So she tried again, experimentally. But this time, she aimed for his lips.
All coherent thought left them, until finally, they parted. Ben slowly let go of her, and Sue stepped back, rubbing her chapped lips. They stood there in the intersection of hallways, not sure what to say. Afraid any spoken word might ruin the moment.
But someone had to say something. "Uh, I don't think I wanna be at the party," Ben muttered.
Sue shook her head, a smile creeping onto her face. "Yeah, uh, me neither...." She wrapped both of her hands around one of his, and tugged him gently back in the direction of his quarters.
Reed remained silent.
"You've got to be shockin' kidding me."
Reed remained silent.
"Can you believe that? Those two together?"
Reed remained silent. He turned to walk away.
"Uh, Reed?" Johnny pointed in the opposite direction from where Reed was heading. "Party's that way."
Reed kept walking. "I know."
Johnny stood alone in the hallway for an unknown length of time. He could hear voices in the break room sounding the countdown to midnight, but he didn't pay it much attention. A Happy New Year couldn't have been further from his thoughts.
Which was perplexing. After all, his last memories involved him phasing in and out of consciousness on the patched-up, ever-creaking yet strangely comfortable little couch that Gale let him sleep on after the New Years Eve celebration. Ever since he’d returned to the Docs after his journey Uptown, Gale had invited him to crash in her apartment.
At least until he got his past sorted out.
As well as this future, for that matter.
Marq was grateful for the hospitality, and Gale enjoyed both the company and tutoring the amnesiac in the inner-workings of Downtown society. And after the buzz and excitement of the party, he was just glad for the chance to catch some rest on a beat-up old couch in the home of the nurse that had saved his life just months ago.
Still, it was three in the morning. He really ought to be asleep by now.
The second thing Marq noticed was that wherever he was at the moment, it was dark.
Really, really dark.
Which was odd, considering the nanotech suit bonded to his DNA was pre-programmed with night-vision. Normally, the black would fade into a comforting hue of sparkling jade luminescence, allowing him to see in the darkness. It was a helpful feature, but it was also a startling jump that was rarely voluntary.
The third thing Marq noticed was that even his best efforts to jumpstart the night-vision software were going unrewarded. It was as if that ability wasn’t even there anymore. Like someone shut the program off at the source. Removed the software from the DNA chain. Made it dormant, unreachable.
Yet another oddity. Even when Marq had been captured and tranquilized at the central headquarters of Stark/Fujikawa, the very same megacorp that bonded his genome to the cursed suit in the first place, there was still a vestige of program under the surface that was vying for control. Something inside Marq trying hard to fight against the sluggishness and sleep that kept the circuitry inside firmly out of his control.
But there was none of that now, in this palpable inky void. There was no psycho-synaptic rapport with the nanites of the suit. There was simply nothing. Nothing at all.
Marq felt a renewed rush of terror wash over him, his nerves shivering. Of course, that’s when he noticed the fourth and final perplexity:
He wasn’t alone.
Marq felt, more than heard, the second presence there.
“Who’s out there?” Marq yelled seemingly to no one. His voice echoed out along the unknown horizon as Marq took a few hesitant steps toward where he hoped the figure was standing. Blindly, he staggered along until, luckily for Marq, no one answered.
Marq knew that voice.
It was Emmanuel, the halfway-installed artificial-intelligence program that served as a digital manual for the genetic suit of armor Marq wore. Emmanuel was a guide; programmed to show new users how to control the nano-technological armor in corporate warfare.
If Emmanuel was here, did that mean that Marq was once again in the digital training program? And if he was, where were the neon green grid patterns lining the walls and the ceiling? Where was the infinite digital horizon? Why was it so dark?
“What…what’s going on here…?” Marq stammered, “And…and where am I? What is this place….?”
Emmanuel snickered, “Somewhere safe, I assure you.”
Marq rolled his eyes, “Forgive me if I’m not totally reassured…Emmanuel, is it?” he stammered, groping out along the darkness, trying to make some tangible sense of his bizarre surroundings. Besides the fact he couldn’t see anything, something wasn’t right. Something wasn’t synching up like it should. “Now, where are you? I can’t see a thing.”
“Emmanuel it is. Right on the money, Marq. Or should I call you Edward? Edward Somerset, perhaps?”
“No. No, Marq’s just fine,” he continued on, his abject fear compounding in the shadows as he recalled an important aspect of their first meeting, “Hey, why isn’t your voice all crackling and fading in and out like it was the last time I was here?”
“See, I find that just a little bit strange,” the hologram continued on, Marq’s question completely ignored, “Especially since Marq isn’t even your real name. Is it, Edward?”
Marq stopped dead in his tracks, glaring in the direction he thought the voice was coming from. Panic and fear were forgotten for the moment as Marq’s tone suddenly turned deadly serious and undeniably accusatory, “Why isn’t my night vision working, Emmanuel?”
Emmanuel’s sickening smirk was hidden by the void. “Don’t try to change the subject, Edward.”
“Edward…?” Marq pondered, frustrated. “Why do you insist on calling me Edward?”
“The name is yours, right? Edward Somerset? Your true name. Don’t you remember?” Emmanuel paused for a second, the clicking of his digital tongue producing a loud static buzz that carried out across the darkness, “Oh yes, that’s right. You don’t remember much of anything these days. Of course, fortunately for you, I can help….illuminate things.”
Marq’s dilated hazel pupils shrank to twin microscopic dots, the high-beams of reality washing over the startled knight before he could draw breath, much less blink. Much too late, his eyelids crashed together against the flooding white. Dark shapes he knew to be palms clasped against his squinting, blinded eyes; trying to protect him from the deluge of bright as he cursed himself for wishing to see in the dark. He shook his head and rubbed at his corneas, trying to adjust physically and mentally to whatever Emmanuel had done.
”Do you remember now, specimen, the very moment you learned your true identity?”
“What--?” Marq held his hand up, shading his eyes and blinking hard against the terrible bright. To his side, he could barely make out the shimmering image of a man dressed in a business suit. His hands were cupped together in untamed arrogance, his dark countenance and eerie demeanor seemingly ill-matched with the twinkling brightness all around him. He seemed unusually solid this time; his holographic image no longer flickered and jumped about like a scratched CD switching tracks with wild abandon.
Emmanuel smiled, and Marq could have sworn the shining brightness around them seemed to fade down a couple notches, the dream-like luminance somehow absorbed directly into the heart of the strangely solid hologram.
“Don’t you remember, Edward, the place where you learned your name?”
Edward’s eyes fluttered away the spots that had danced inside his eyeballs, probing the room with a curious intent. His gaze traveled along winding cords and battery casings fused into shiny metal walls. Oval panels hummed with electric life and sparkled with neon desire. Cords traveled to and fro, mingling with one another in a criss-cross tapestry above a shining slab of metal. His memory screamed and spat and quivered with fear as his meandering gaze terminated on a single sickening centerpiece. Marq’s jaw clenched, canine teeth scraping microscopic canyons into one another as the knuckles on his fist popped with tensed fury. He remembered the scene perfectly well.
It was the laboratory.
The jammed, shocking laboratory!
All the players were there. He could see Jeanine and Arne Benedict, the sadistic architects of the genetic armor. They worked tirelessly, checking and adjusting code fed into the panels beside the center slab. He watched the husband-and-wife team pace along the readouts; fighting and jeering at one another as they fed data through glowing keypads and data ports, connecting colorful wires to gleaming panels. Marq watched the dance of the insane scientists and wondered how they could have fooled him. How they could have acted so benign and so caring. He wondered how the growls of the hungry, opportunistic wolves were blotted out by flawless planning.
“Funny, isn’t it? How hindsight is always 20/20?” Emmanuel scoffed.
“How did you --?” Marq’s question was forgotten, as the background noise suddenly coalesced into a conversation that crept along his memory like an insubstantial demon; Marq suddenly remembered the patterns of voice and exchange he was hearing now, and began absent-mindedly putting together the pieces of the puzzle.
It was surreal in a horrific sort of way; seeing this nightmarish memory from a third-person-perspective. Marq, captured by Stark/Fujikawa, held naked and bound on a metal slab in a cold, dead laboratory. The Benedicts, the psychotic husband-and-wife team that created him, sadistically picking apart his genome. Slabs of meat in a slaughterhouse were treated better.
Marq listened on as he heard his own voice, confused and slurred with industrial-strength tranquilizer, begin to border on the desperate. He knew what was coming. He knew everything that was coming. It would haunt him in nightmares for weeks after this moment. And that was the hardest part: Knowing. Knowing exactly what was coming, and yet not being able to stop it.
“Somerset…why do you keep calling me Somerset?” the Marq on the table slurred up at the duo above. The Marq next to Emmanuel watched as Arne Benedict leaned over the table, looking into his younger self’s eyes. Arne was turned away from them, but Marq could still hear the perverse smile in his voice.
“S’yer name, Eddie-boy.”
“But…I thought my name was Edward Bened - -”
“Wrong.” Marq watched as the woman turned from her shimmering neon display to look down at his former self. He noticed her sharp posture, her tense movements, her cold and lifeless demeanor. She was soulless. Evil. Wretched in every sense of the word. How could he have believed this was his wife?? “Our last name is Benedict. Your last name is Somerset. And the only reason I made you think otherwise was because you’d already knew my name. And you didn’t know yours. I had to tell you your last name was Benedict; otherwise you might see right through my little string of lies. As if Arne and I would disgrace ourselves sharing anything with a degenerate wretch like yourself. Even a name.”
Marq felt another few pops along his knuckles, the stress of clenching his fists for so long taking its toll. He heard his other self reel from the news, the deception finally uncovered. He stared angrily at the scene before him; at Arne, at Jeanine. He felt the blood yelping and roaring through the veins inside his eyes. Even as the scene froze, like a familiar holovid on pause, he never took his eyes away from that horrible moment in time. Marq felt a growl burp and bulge from the pit of his stomach. His hoarse, angry voice was low.
“Why did you bring me here?”
“Careful,” Emmanuel smirked, “You’re glowing…”
“To remind you of who you are,” the digital manual stated calmly, “Mr. Somerset. And to further illustrate the absurdity of calling yourself by a pseudonym like Marq.”
Marq looked on at himself on the slab, “What I call myself is my business.”
“Is it now?” Emmanuel pondered, fearlessly walking over to the doppelganger of Marq frozen on the lab table, “Or maybe it’s simply that you don’t want to remember….”
Marq stayed silent.
“Orrr…..do you call yourself that because it reminds you of the person who gave you the name in the first place? The Nightengale?”
The black laboratory faded away, rippling and melting into a horizon of brightness. A calming, washing blend of beige and gold that spread across the horizon and jutted up along the sky. It was a vastness of color; one that seemed to create the illusion of infinity. And in its center, was a single, smiling woman; brown bangs curling delicately across her smooth features.
“Gale.” Marq corrected, the hardness in his eyes ebbing away as he looked at her.
“If I remember correctly, the Nightengale’s own father was named Marq. And upon sewing you up after that….unfortunate, little fall you had, she gave the name to you on account of the fact that you couldn’t remember your real one.”
Marq panned across the horizon, noting the color-blur effects and feeling somewhat perplexed, “The Nightengale? What….why do you keep calling her the Nightengale? And what is this place….why does it keep changing?”
“Why does it keep changing, Marq?” Emmanuel asked in earnest.
“Whu…are you saying I’m doing it?” Marq asked, bemused, as the colorful infinity surrounding them began buzzing with indeterminate shapes and flowing with wind that seemed to be popping out of nowhere. The hues dimmed, becoming fluorescent Christmas lights dangled over the old tiled ceiling of the Docs in a Box that Marq called home. Old, torn banners suddenly popped into existence, hung along walls that had not existed a second ago. The whistles of wind slowed into blurs and slowed further into people, jaunting across the room with excitement. The atmosphere was merry. Marq recognized all the people in the room now. Vonvargas, the surgeon. Hayes and Perry, two duty nurses. Jennifer, resident tech expert. Even himself. And of course, there was Gale; smiling, laughing, as radiant as ever.
They were in the break room of the Docs. Marq remembered warmly.
“Never said that you were, Edward,” the hologram pointed out, “A fond memory?”
“The New Year’s Eve Party,” Marq beamed, “We just had this. This just happened a few hours ago.”
“Quite right,” Emmanuel agreed, as all the party-goers chatted and joked with one another. Plastic cups clutched lightly in their hands, digital noisemakers slung around them with string like necklaces. Marq walked around the guests, taking the scene in with delight as they continued on, completely oblivious to his presence. He delighted in reliving the memory, eventually centering on himself holding a conversation with Gale about the intricacies of “New Years Eve”. Marq watched as his former self laughed and stumbled along as Gale explained to him about the small gatherings the people of Downtown held compared to the blinding concert-fests, pulsing programmed light shows and the holo-mated mile-wide fireworks displays that Uptown had in celebration of the long-beloved holiday. She’d preferred the low-key environment, noting how excessive mile-long fireworks displays actually were. They’d shared a laugh over that one.
“I can see why this memory popped up when I mentioned the Nightengale,” Emmanuel interjected, bringing Marq out of his reverie.
He blinked his eyes, perplexed, “Why….do you keep calling her the Nightengale?”
Emmanuel chuckled, “There seems to be something between you two, Edward. An attraction, maybe. Although, and I can’t imagine why, she seems quite interested in you, dear specimen. An interest, that seems to be shared.”
Marq rolled his eyes, “We’re just friends, Emmanuel. Good friends, nothing more.”
“Are you now?” Emmanuel lifted an eyebrow.
Around the two spectators, the guests began to stir. The noise of the radio bled into the forefront of the scene. A pre-emptive shout of excitement cut through the air of anticipation hanging steady throughout the room. Everyone, including the two dreaming phantoms listened in to the pirated broadcast from the Uptown newsnets; intermittent “Thank yous” and “Congrats” going to Jennifer, the technological juggernaut that created the radio and the hacker-ware from junkyard scraps. She waved off the last of the appreciative toasts and comments, the full focus of the room going onto the countdown.
The announcer’s voice was off an octave or two and seemed slightly synthesized. Whether it was a vocal sound effect the broadcasters put into the live announcement or a scrambling effect resulting from the re-directed signal was anyone’s guess.
“—and we’ve passed the two-minute mark, ladies and gentlemen. Tension is high in this record-setting crowd here tonight at Alchemax Square! This is it, folks. You don’t want to miss this one. If you’re not at a vid-booth or watching at home right now, GET THERE! This year is the LAST year of the twenty-first century!”
“That’s right, Michelle,” a man’s voice this time, just-as-badly warped. “The city of New York, honorary subsidiary of Alchemax Incorporated, is pulling out all the stops on this one. Firecrackers are bursting off all around me. We have at least ten different laser shows going on between the multiple radio broadcasts. The sound system is state-of-the-art. And VR users will be surprised to see the Extras package in their broadcasts, as well as a digitally-remastering of this entire program AS they watch! It’s like viewing your reality twice as real as reality itself!”
“Chuck, don’t forget about the supra-surround sound as well. We’ve even got a downloadable, broadband, LIVE program that allows the user to view the path of the rockets, digital fireworks and the mile-wide supernova finish FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE FIRECRACKERS THEMSELVES! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event, everyone! If you’re not already plugged in --”
“GET THERE!” Everyone in the room yelled, mocking the announcer and clanking their glasses together in shared laughter. Someone turned up the volume just a notch.
“ONE MINUTE LEFT! AND THE “A” BALL HAS BEGUN TO DESCEND! The fractal fireworks have begun to pop. The holographic jet show is just wooing the audience here tonight!”
“Too true, Michelle. And I just want to remind the folks at home that it’s your LAST CHANCE to spend your creds in the twenty-first century. Go to: “w” hyper-cubed – dot –Alchemax –dot –“dotcom” now, and order yourself a New Year’s Eve hologram shirt! Be proud to display the last two minutes of tonight’s broadcast over and over again across your chest. Guaranteed under full warranty until next year! Hurry, you’ve only got over a half a minute left! While your there, check out some other things from our cybernet store! Blow off all those leftover creds from Christmas and spend them on something nice! Ooo! The ball’s lowered beyond the halfway point!”
“Twenty-five seconds, Chuck!”
The off-duty doctors, nurses and technicians were practically giddy with excitement. Marq chuckled to himself over how ridiculously complicated the festivities sounded Uptown, a thought shared by his earlier self. He remembered warmly the next part, blushing slightly as Gale whispered to him amongst the shouts and hollers.
“Marq,” she smiled, “Did I ever tell you about one of the more exciting traditions of the holiday?”
“I…don’t think so…” the Marq-next-to-Gale mused, “What is it?”
“Well, it involves two people…”
“And a little green plant called a mistletoe.”
“A mistletoe? What’s that?”
Gale giggled lightly.
“The Alchemax ball’s begun to flash a neon rainbow across the square! You know what that means, Michelle…”
“Ten!” Michelle yelled.
“Nine!” The Docs shouted in response.
“Seven…” Marq whispered to himself, taking in the scene with delight. His anticipation, however, wasn’t just with the coming year.
“Close your eyes,” Gale whispered to the past version of himself. He saw his eyes close from the outside this time. He also saw, rather than sense, Gale pull out a small green leafy object from her sweater pocket. She snuggled closer to Marq, dangling the mistletoe above them both.
The Marq watching them blushed as she giggled.
Sound flooded the Docs. The residents cheered and whistled and jumped up and down, hugging one another and embracing the coming year. Although they lived in hard times, this one moment of the year was one where they could come together and celebrate. No, not celebrate all the material things like the Uptowners did. No, they came together and celebrated things all-too-fleeting in a gutter like Downtown was.
They were alive.
They were together.
And they had hope for the future.
No more so was this true that for two young people standing together, sheltered under a mistletoe. Marq smiled broadly as he watched Gale lean in for a kiss. He watched his eyes pop open in shock, watched his cheeks bathed in a heart-warming shade of red. He looked on, his hand in hers, as he closed his eyes once again and lost himself in the moment. The older Marq laughed as he watched the slow-motion playback of the best New Years Party of his life. It didn’t matter much at all that it was the only one he could remember at the moment.
Marq noticed, for the first time this second time around, Reginald Vonvargas’s gaze coming to rest on the couple. He waited for the stern disapproval but instead saw something else. Was that a smile?
Gale broke the lip lock, laughing and squeezing Marq tight. Marq looked at his own reaction once again, reliving the sublime shock, feeling the rush of blood throughout his entire body and into his grinning face. Smiling warmly to himself, he panned across the room, noting the bemused expressions of the crowd around them.
Loud cheers and shouts filled the small break room once again, Marq and Gale suddenly becoming the center of attention. Gale buried her head in Marq’s chest, cheeks beet-red from the sudden fanfare. Marq beamed, hugging Gale again as the scene slowed and the volume receded like a lapping wave on the shoreline slowly slurping back into the ocean.
“My, that was a friendly little peck on the cheek she gave you there, Marq,” Emmanuel interjected. Marq had completely forgotten about the obnoxious hologram’s very existence amidst the levity of the party atmosphere. The knight thought a moment, and realized he had liked it better that way. “She must trust you implicitly, Edward, to…hug you like that.”
“And why shouldn’t she?” Marq shot back, eying down the program in the black business suit.
“Plenty of reasons, my dearest specimen. For one, she’s only known you a handful of months. She barely knows who you are…”
Marq gestured towards the dimmed image of him and Gale, locked in a light-hearted embrace, “I’ve told her practically everything about myself…”
“Everything that you remember,” Emmanuel corrected.
Marq stiffened up, eying the hologram suspiciously.
“For all you know, you were a serial murderer in your other life.”
“Shut up,” Marq spoke, “I’m not like that.”
“Aren’t you?” Emmanuel walked around the tense knight, “You can’t remember anything about yourself beyond that night you fell out of the garbage scowl. Twenty-odd years is a long time, Edward. And how old are you, anyway? Twenty-three? Twenty-five? You don’t know.”
“I’ll remember eventually,” Marq seethed in frustration.
“Sure you will, sure you will….”Emmanuel said absent-mindedly, “Speaking of ‘remembering’….how are those flashbacks of yours coming along?”
A small quake shuddered across the horizon.
Flashbacks. Marq remembered them well. The intense pangs of agony and thunderous throbbing in his skull that came with every piece of memory that swam up to the surface of his mind. Each flashback always bringing more questions than answers; always raising doubts and fears rather than easing them.
Not that he could inquire too much about them at any rate. His first attempts to find his past from the clues laid down by his memory flashbacks went horribly wrong. They’d led to Marq being captured, tortured; nearly killed. The amnesiac couldn’t afford to go searching for his past blind. So he ignored the flashbacks now, as best he could, and hoped that they would eventually reveal the whole picture of his life someday.
But for now at least, they were an unwelcome nuisance he couldn’t escape. Gritting his teeth, he mumbled, “Well, I don’t hemorrhage blood out of my nose every time I have a flashback, if THAT’S what you mean…”
“Good to hear, Edward, good to hear.” Emmanuel nodded, amused, “Although, it must make you wonder….if the Benedicts were able to fix that brain trauma causing the hemorrhaging in the first place, what other kinds of things could they have done with your brain? Sure, the neural knitting was for their convenience, so they didn’t have to deal with your intermittent and unpredictable hemorrhages. But what kinds of other things could they have done to you, for their convenience?”
“What the shock are you talking about?”
“Maybe a command? A prompt, perhaps. A subliminal suggestion, once uttered, could involuntarily cause you to do any number of things. Who knows what kinds of fail-safes they could have buried in that cluttered genome of yours. Who knows which of you is in control….the man, or his DNA?”
Marq glared at the electronic manual, clicking his tongue along the roof of his mouth in annoyance. “I would never do anything to endanger my friends, Emmanuel. NEVER.”
“Do you, Edward? Do you really know for a fact that you wouldn’t? After all, you’ve only known you for a handful of months. Besides, you don’t know what’s swimming around inside the coding for this genetic nanotech armor. I mean, you didn’t know I was here, did you?”
Marq stammered, “Y-you surprised me, that’s….”
“But perhaps you’re right,” Emmanuel submitted, “Perhaps you are trustworthy. But then, why should you trust the Nightengale?”
“Whaaaat?” Marq asked the hologram in shock.
“It goes both ways, my friend. She’s known you for a couple months. And you’ve known HER for a couple months.” Emmanuel gestured the flip-flop with his palms, the background of the New Years Eve party fading into darkness. All that way left amidst the black was the lone image of Gale and Marq, paused forever in a heartfelt hug.
Emmanuel brushed his hand across her face, “After all, you have no idea who this young woman is. Who she was before she met you. Absolutely no idea.”
Marq thought he was seeing things as Gale’s brown bangs slowly began inching into longer and longer strands. Tangling, straightening, losing the trademark grease of the Downtowners and slowly shining with a sparkle and glint that only the wealthy seemed to have.
“For all you know….” Emmanuel turned back at the tensed knight, smiling. As Emmanuel ran his hand through a lock of Gale’s hair, her eye color seemed to fade from a light blue into a darkish, hazelnut color. “…she could be a liar. Or a murderer. Ever hear of the black widow spider, Edward?”
“You’re lying, she’s not….”
Marq wasn’t imagining things. Gale was changing….into…what?
“She could be a shallow little vixen, looking for a cheap thrill before disposing of you like her previous ’boytoys’. She could be an assassin, sent to kill you. You’re dreaming right now, aren’t you? Maybe she’s succeeded already. Maybe this is the afterlife….”
“What kind of sick, shocking game….?”
“Or maybe, just maybe, she’s a spy from Stark/Fujikawa. Wasn’t it a little easy how you escaped from a MEGACORPORATION with state-of-the-art security measures? How you escaped from a cell five feet thick on all sides with enough tranquilizer in your body and sedative in the air to kill a horse? And how did you best a seasoned corporate assassin like the Specialist? You have NO training, specimen. At least, none you can remember.”
Gale continued morphing in front of him, Emmanuel waving his hand through her shoulder-length, flowing chestnut hair. Marq leveled his eyes at the hologram.
“Get away from her,” Marq growled.
Emmanuel’s eyes sparkled with an insane fury, “What if they LET you go free? What if they’re keeping tabs on you and the Downtown dregs right now? What if this is all some test? Some planned experiment? What if they are SCREWING with your head again? And what if the Nightengale….what if she’s working FOR them? For us? As a corporate operative?”
Marq pointed his newly-formed bo staff at the corporate hologram, completely oblivious that he was suddenly able to form it, instead transfixed on Emmanuel. The construct stood in front of Gale and the doppelganger of Marq, completely blocking the glittering knight’s view of her. In tune with the deluge of crimson through his veins, crackles of mute crimson thunder dotted the blackened tar landscape. A slight hiss escaping Marq’s pursed lips, he bellowed, “GET THE SHOCK AWAY FROM HER, DAMMIT!”
“Certainly,” Emmanuel smiled, bowing away from the embracing couple, frozen forever in an eternity on-pause. Except Marq didn’t see himself hugging Gale on New Year’s Eve, like he remembered. He was hugging some other woman. Another, smiling young woman with a vicious smile on her lips and ravenous little eyes. A woman who clutched at Marq’s younger self not out of genuine regard, but out of sheer malice and opportunistic greed. A woman who’d re-engineered his genome from the ground up; who’d erased his past and cursed him with agonizing flashbacks that taunted him to this day.
“Jeanine….?” Marq stared in shock, feeling a swelling of bile and a dry heat in the back of his throat as his armor, the very armor Jeanine had forced onto his unwilling frame so long ago, crawled to the surface. Beneath his shining white hood, the Moon Knight screamed into the crimson storm swirling around them all.
“NOOOOOOO!!!” Marq shrieked, leaping at the pair, slicing his bo staff into Jeanine’s back as he landed behind the couple, hoping he took care of the vile, psychotic kidnapper before she could work her black widow charms on his past self and send both versions of Marq back to the chopping block.
Jeanine and Marq’s images began to de-rez at the torso, Marq’s swipe causing unnatural cracks along the bodies of the couple. Like splintered glass, they fell in four separate parts toward the darkened ground. The steaming, prickling hot scarlet lightning in the distance subsided; the dream-scape fading to a calmer, non-threatening gray. Marq stood up, heart thumping, ready in case the witch had survived. What he saw instead, was Gale’s terrified face looking up at him, as well as his own shocked visage.
“Congratulations, specimen. You destroyed both yourself and the woman you love.”
Marq stammered, speechless, the suit fading away into the dark corners of his genetic structure with a low, inaudible slurp.
“How did you put it…’I would never do anything to endanger my friends’ or some such? Hmph. So much for that.”
Marq glanced briefly up at the hologram, resting his gaze upon the contorted features of Gale reaching up at him in a final moment of agony, forever frozen. He brought his trembling hand down towards Gale’s cracked, outstretched palm. He wanted to say he was sorry he failed her. He wanted to comfort her in her timeless agony. He touched her diamond-glass palm lovingly; and it shattered in horrific slow-motion, along with her entire upper torso, in a thousand million different places in a thousand million different ways. He knelt there as the pieces of this beautiful woman who cared for him and trusted him with her life shattered into a thousand shards of jagged diamond atop the silent black desert. Salty somethings dripped from his eyes.
Emmanuel patted the broken knight on the back, “Trust is deadly, my friend. Mistrust and misplaced trust equally so. Careful of the Nightengale, Edward. She may not be the diamond in the rough you think her to be.”
“Wiih….why…?” Marq stuttered, fighting back a sob.
“Hm?” Emmanuel hummed.
“Why….why did you….why did you…w-wuh….?”
“Consider it a late Christmas present, Marq,” Emmanuel smiled, slapping the still-kneeling knight on the back before walking off into the dark horizon, “A little insight into yourself. Make the right moves, and maybe you’ll be alive enough so we can do this again next year. Happy New Year, specimen!”
Emmanuel waved as he walked away from the trembling knight, never looking back. Suddenly, just like that, the hologram was gone. And Marq was left kneeling in a lonely desert in the remains of a woman and a man he barely knew.
The light faded; shimmering and blackening until the only light left in this bizarre world was merely a flicker of reflection on diamond fragments in the dark sand.
That too, faded quickly.
Marq jumped out of bed; his heart hiccupping up through his throat and his jaw clenching tightly, suppressing the very important urge to scream.
His eyes darted around, lingering paranoia and adrenaline choking his brain until his teeth finally stopped chattering. His clenched fingers finally opened up and let go of the creaky old couch.
The couch. The apartment. He was back in Gale’s apartment.
So it was a dream, thank God….
Marq forced himself out of the patchwork piece of furniture. Inhaling deeply, he made his way toward the glass window. It was frosted-over, an oddity in a world with year-round climate control. Leaning against the chilled glass, he watched as a flurry of soft-falling snowflakes calmly blanketed Downtown, lazily covering the dirt and grime and the needles and garbage that littered the alleyways and streets. It was a fresh start, like any New Year should be.
So, why didn’t it feel like it?
“Snow.” Gale’s voice, “I haven’t seen it snow around here since….since I was a kid.”
Marq whipped around, fixing his eyes on a slender woman wearing a white T-shirt that came down across her hips and thin cutoffs, the shorts frayed along the seams. She looked gorgeous, even in her PJs. But even so, Marq couldn’t shake the feeling….
“Usually Uptown climate control’s got this stuff melted before it hits the city. Guess they’re having an off night, tonight of all nights. Isn’t it beautiful?”
She paused, sensing something different about his body language. She stepped toward him, fearful of the distant look in his eyes, “M-Marq? Is everything okay? What’s wrong?”
Marq’s shadowed visage glanced out the window one more time, contemplating amidst the calm snowfall, “Just a dream. Just a stupid, little dream, that’s all. Nothing at all to worry about.”
His eyes kept staring out the window, looking at the black buildings jutting up above calm bright canyons of peaceful snow.
‘How simple it would all be,’ he wondered idly, ‘If everything were so cut and dry. So black and white...’
And so ends the calendar year of 2099. Have a Happy New Year everyone! And who knows? Perhaps 2100 will turn out slightly better for our gleaming armored hero of the future?
Ha! Shyeah, right. I’m gonna get a lump of coal in my stocking for feeding you THAT line.