The List Episode 22: Inside Man

“I’m only going to ask nicely this one time,” I said.  “Where.  Is.  Rune.”

Synapse sat across the table from me – more accurately he hovered, seeing as how he didn’t have a chair.  His droopy eyes focused on the mug in front of him as he sloshed the contents around with a spoon.  The walls of his private tea room were covered in living fractals, bathing us in ever morphing patterns that splashed everything with a swathe of colors that could only exist outside of reality.

“Is that it?” he said, his eyes stuck on something nonexistent in the foreground.

“What do you mean, ‘is that it’?”

He shrugged, but just the minimal amount as to not exert any extra energy.  For him it wasn’t a matter of efficiency or energy preservation. He was just simply too bored to get excited by all this.  That fact had a way of making my right eye twitch.

Five minutes or five years later my question finally registered with Synapse.  “Is that all you want?”  Five word reply this time. We were breaking records.  Taking him at face value, it was hard to see how Synapse had risen to be one of the most powerful financers in the city.  But a quick look at any news headlines with his name in them and the pieces would start to fit together.  He had earned every degree and certification you could think of by the age of eighteen.  A child prodigy, shaped and molded by the very system that he would stand on top of.  By twenty, he was running his father’s already profitable investment firm, and increasing profit shares exponentially.  But the only thing that ever mattered to him was numbers.  Not the heads he stepped on to make it where he was.

Nobody asked where his father disappeared to, or questioned when several of his competitors went missing.  And everyone turned a blind eye on the tactics he used to manipulate the numbers he cared so deeply about – inciting global incidents, famine, and all out war in some cases.  Everyone, that is, but me.

“No,” I said, grabbing hold of the table between us and flinging it to the side, “It’s not all I want!”

I threw a tight left jab, aiming to crush his cheek. He caught my fist with an open palm. My knuckles busted open like they had just hit a solid superinium wall.  I drew my Seiver and opened fire.  Time slowed.  The bullets spun in the air.  Synapse finally looked up at me.

“Did you forget where you are?”

“Oh.  Right.”

In reality, I was at the top of the New City Commerce Building, in a ravaged board room, held captive by Vignette’s living costume.  But right now, I was inside my own head, a physical manifestation of my own mind.  And I had an unwelcomed guest at the moment.

The bullets continued to spin, just inches from Synapse’s face.  My left hand pulsed with pain – more accurately, Synapse was triggering a pain response in certain neurons of my brain that told me my hand was broken.  Either way, I knew I was in for a long night of hurt.

I sighed and took a step back.  “This place doesn’t look like something I’d construct.”

“It’s not,” he said, and sipped his tea.  I raised my eyebrows, and when I thought he wasn’t going to take a hint he sat the cup back down. “Your head is a dangerous place.  Call this my safe haven.”

“Afraid of what’s out there?”

“We’re past the layer of fake memories.  Interesting tactic.  But easily bypassed.”

I took a seat at the table, which was magically upright again.  “Let me guess.  You’ve hit a road block.”

Synapse stirred his tea, clinking the metal against the ceramic mug as he talked.  “I’ve never seen a mind so consumed.  This ‘list,’ as you have dubbed it, makes it very hard to hook an anchor.”

“Didn’t take you for the chatty type.  So why don’t you just fry my brain, or have Vignette work that costume of hers across my throat?” I said, drawing a line across my neck.

“Rune.  But not because he said so.  He has his hands in all this, and it’s in my best interest to find out what his angle is before he gets us all killed.”

“Wait a second.  I thought you said you couldn’t go any further.”

The hint of a smile worked its way across his lips, making his face look impish.  I was tempted to backhand it off despite everything.

A commanding voice came from behind me.  “He never said that, maggot brains.”

I spun to face Arachnos, in the flesh – or should I say in the mind?  His uniform was just as crisp as ever, the wounds Cortege and I had inflicted absent.  The tea room was gone, replaced by an empty courtroom like one of the many found in the Tri-Star Tower.

“We just have to dig deeper,” Arachnos said, “And you get the privilege of being the shovel.”

“Dying once wasn’t enough for you?”

“I’ll tell you how this is going to happen.  You’re going to pull out your gun, and raise it to your right temple.”

“Like hell…” I started, but my right hand began moving on its own, the gun sliding into my fingers.  I focused my will on freezing my arm in place, and was met with foot long mental nails driving into the left side of my skull.

“How does the jury find the defendant?”

My body twisted to face the now full jury gallery – in the front row sat The Mayor, Force, and Aperture.  The rest of the seats were filled with the faces of those caught in the crossfire, or dumb enough to cross me, but not worthy of a name.

Aperture stood and spoke, “We find Levi Cole, unanimously and undoubtedly, guilty.”

My knees buckled and I fell to a kneeling position.  I could only watch as the gun lined itself up to my temple.  My finger inched its way back on the trigger.  I don’t know if it was my perception increasing before death, or an effect of Synapse’s telepathy, but I could see the bullets as they traveled down the barrel.  The concussive blast sent a ripple across my face before the bullets even pierced the skin.  And then my brains exploded out the opposite side of my head.

Of course he didn’t have the decency to let me die.

I felt a familiar overbearing lust for violence, and found myself amidst row after row of crates.  Slats of yellow light filtered in through windows high up on the walls of the warehouse, creating spotlights that revealed each member of the Sin Coalition.

“Still trying to figure out who you are?” Corrosion said, his face consumed by shadows.  “You’re just a mad man with a list.  Take away that list and what are you?  Ah, don’t answer that,” he interrupted himself, holding up a hand as if to keep me silent.  “I’ll give this one to you for free.  Pathetic, that is what you are.”

“Glad to see you’re taking death so well.  So are you here to kill me too?”

Behind him, each of the dead members of the Sin Coalition smiled – Bang Bang, Lump, Irezuma, the whole gang.

“Kill you?  That’d be too easy,” Corrosion said.  “We’re going to do much more than that.”

Before I had time to come up with a witty reply, Corrosion was standing next to me, hands on my chest.  He jumped back, leaving glowing green handprints right above my lungs.  I ripped at them as they burnt their way through my shirt and under armor, but it only spread the burning to my hands.  And then Corrosion snapped his fingers, and I was left with two geysering holes in my chest, and stumps at the end of my wrists.

I collapsed, panting heavily, and caught myself.  With hands that didn’t exist half a second ago.  I ran my fingers up and down my chest – no signs of it being used in any recent pyrotechnic shows.

Corrosion let out a laugh.  “You’re not moving on until we get tired of you.  And I have a feeling that’s going to take a very long time.”

Irezumi moved this time, black ink dragon wings unfolding from her shoulders.  I tried to bury myself into the recesses of my mind, but then remembered that I was already there.  There was no hiding from this pain.  So I grinned, and with outstretched arms, welcomed it.

It didn’t come.  A wall of concrete teeth jutted out from the floor, creating a barrier between me and the Sin Coalition.  There was only one person I knew capable of this in the real world, and she dropped down from the darkness and landed lithely in front of me.

“What are you doing here?” I asked Cortege.

“Is it too much to expect a little gratitude?” she said, showing her teeth but quickly letting the smile fade.  “I’m not really sure, to be honest.  Could be a side effect of spending all that time shackled to Arachnos.  Or maybe when The Mayor’s brain waves mingled with ours, something unlocked, or got linked in our heads.  And, well, here I am.”

“And I’m just supposed to take your word that you’re not a figment of my imagination?  Or some trick on Synapse’s part?”  I wasn’t sure what I thought about that either way.

“Believe what you want,” she said, and flicked her eyes to the wall behind me.  “There’s something buried in your mind, and I want to find out just as much as everyone else.”

A door formed where Cortege had glanced, complete with a holographic exit sign hovering above it.

“Somehow that doesn’t instill me with confidence,” I said, trodding to the door anyway.  It was either die here or die out there.  I could at least fake the illusion of choice.

As my hand reached the knob, I recounted in reverse the people I had killed, searching for my next opponent. A gust of wind met me as I stepped out onto the roof of a skyscraper that overlooked all of New City, and my mind reached a conclusion it didn’t much like.

Shell stood at the center of an empty helipad, his dark figure silhouetted by the black of the night.

I froze as the door clicked shut behind me.  Shell tilted his head to the air, like a wild animal sniffing for the scent of prey.

He coughed up a laugh that wasn’t too far from the sound of wet cement being poured. “Almost ironic that vengeance shall come in this form.  Considering the way you left me to die.”

“I’m getting real tired of this act,” I growled.  “So shut up and do it already.”

“I’ll break you, Levi.  And I’ll rip out that secret you’re hiding.”

I pantomimed stretching my arms and shoulders out.  “You coming or what?”

Shell crouched, causing the nannite wrapped muscles in this thighs and calves to bulge.  The roof cratered, and an equal and opposite reaction shot Shell straight up into the sky.  The air boomed as he broke the sound barrier, kicking a wave of dust into my eyes.  I stood my ground as his trajectory brought him bearing down on me, both arms raised and ready to strike with a double hammerfist.

Instinct kicked in, and my body leaped out of the way.  The roof imploded, the shockwave pushing me one way while Shell, like some collapsed star with its powerful gravity well, lured me further into the dense jungle of rubber and concrete and steel.

The building shattered into a million pieces from the epicenter of Shell’s blow, and I had no choice but to tumble with the bits and chunks of office material as it pelted me from all directions.  Shell hit the bottom and sprung back up, hurtling towards me for only a fraction of a second before ramming his head into my gut.

My ribs disintegrated, diaphragm collapsed, lungs burst, and I blacked out.  The wind ripped at my cuts and lacerations, drawing even more blood out of my body and bringing me back to consciousness.  The streak of building facades and holo ads blurred around me.  I spun to find Shell hovering just inches above my chest.  He palmed my face in one hand and slammed me into the side of a building.  Luckily the back of my head took the brunt of the attack, leading the way as we tore through wall after wall of glass and sheetrock and concrete.  And then we were back in the open air again, and he flung me up by the remnants of my jaw, sending me skimming the glass of another sky scraper.  I reached the lip of the roof, and Shell caught me by the ankle.  Not wanting to waste the momentum we had built up, he swung me around in an arc and slammed me into the asphalt coated roof.

Still holding me by the ankle, he dangled me over the edge, letting me leak out onto the city below.  He lifted me so my face was right up against what constituted as his.  My head pulsed and eyes fluttered with unconsciousness.  Chills ran down my body as my core temperature plummeted.  I could just make out his moving lips through the red, and realized he was saying something.  Finally the ringing in my eardrums became a dull hum, and I could decipher his words.

“What is it Rune wants with you?” he said.  “What is he planning?”

“Hell if I know,” I sputtered, spitting out a couple teeth in the process.

“But you do know.  And we’re going to take as long as we need until we find out.”

He caught me in the cheek with a backhand that almost separated my head from my body.  “Tell me!” he screamed, followed by another backhand.  My head was layer upon layer of pounding, the pulse out of sync and unraveling in a chaotic fashion.

Shell grabbed me by the cheeks, squeezing them as if I were an infant.  “Tell me!”

“I don’t know!” I yelled back, and in that instant the pain, the pounding, the encroaching darkness, the fear, all of it vanished.

I twisted in Shell’s grip, and then I was behind him, yanking his arm out of socket.  But I didn’t stop there.  He howled as the indestructible skin ripped apart, the tendons and muscles stretching and tearing underneath, until I was holding his limp arm separate from his body.

“But how?” he moaned.

“This is my head.  If you think you can screw with me, you’ve got another thing coming,” I said, but the strength that had surged through me, the moment of clarity, was gone.

I stumbled, dropping the arm that now weighed a ton in my feeble grasp.

“Brother!” A voice called out from across the rooftop.  Valor, in his suit of mechanical armor, charged.  Not even instinct could move me this time.  His lance pierced through my sternum and drove through me until I was resting at the hilt.  And rest, I did, as I closed my eyes and tried to shut out the world around me.

But only for about three seconds.

“Levi, get up,” Cortege said, disrupting my slumber.

I stirred, and along with consciousness came the dull throb of pain.  A dark fabric blanketed me, enticing me to lay there and soak up its warmth.

“That was a close one,” she said, her face flush and her breathing heavy.  It really must have been a close one.  “I almost didn’t get you out in time.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to pull myself out from under the fabric.  I grabbed a handful of it, but it felt solid, yet squishy.  I realized I was clutching at a dismembered leg.  I scanned what was left of the board room – the splintered neo-wood table that we had proved was indeed breakable, mangled chairs strewn about, a giant squid flopping in a puddle where a wall-sized aquarium had been.

I threw the fabric off me and scrambled to my feet.  “I take it that’s what’s left of Vignette.  So where’s Synapse?”

“There’s not much left to show for him, unfortunately.  Let’s get out of here.”

“I thought you wanted answers,” I said to her as she turned towards the exit.

“I do,” she said, hesitating for an instant.  “But not here.”

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten your games, Charity.”

She froze, let out a chopped laugh.  “How’d you know?”

“Lucky guess.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, spinning to face me and raising her arms theatrically.  “We’ll get answers soon enough.”

Spears and spikes erupted out from every surface of the room.  I dodged the first hundred or so, and then the maw of spearheads clamped down on my arm.  The rest of my limbs followed, and I was pinned in place, with Charity/Cortege staring down at me.

She went to speak, but all that came out was a gurgle of blood.  A line of red appeared across her neck, and her head, now with nothing connecting it to her body, toppled and landed on one of the spears.

What I assumed was the real Cortege stepped over the body of the false Cortege.  “Bitch thinks she can just steal my face and get away with it.  Not gonna happen.”

“Care to get me out of this?”

“I’m not even sure if I can get out of this anymore.”

“I meant the spears,” I said, gesturing with my head.

“Oh.  Yeah, no problem,” she said, and like that they were gone, along with the holes they had punctured.  “So what’s your plan?”

“Keep digging.  Let Synapse unearth that secret he so much covets.”

“Sure that’s a good idea?” she said with hint of excitement.

“It’s a terrible idea.  I think the real question is, for who?”  I cupped my hands around my mouth and let out a roar.  “Synapse, I still have a bunch more people to kill if you wouldn’t mind speeding things up!”

“You don’t have to yell,” he said, now standing on one side of the room, just next to what was left of the giant squid.  “Whenever.”

“Sorry Cortege, but you’re going to have to sit the rest of this out,” I said.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to find at the end.  What I was sure of was that it would be vicious.  Maybe some part of me, a part beneath all the layers of blood and ash and filth that stained my conscience, didn’t want to see Cortege hurt in the upcoming battle.  But mostly I didn’t need her getting in my way.

As if reading my mind, Synapse cut her protest short and exiled her from my mind.

Synapse held out a hand, pointing towards a new door standing in the middle of the room.  I didn’t ask questions, I just threw it open and stepped inside.

I knew each and every one of their names, for I was the one who had scratched them out.

And I knew just as well each and every power, each and every death, that awaited me.

The Manager sliced me up the middle, spilling my guts on stage.  Fireworks sparkled from the rim of the stage as Sargon strummed a tune on his guitar.  The shockwave tore at my clothes and blasted off skin, leaving patches of muscle exposed to the stinging air.  Grand Slam’s missiles rained down, each one destroying a perfectly good copy of my body. Pommel caught me with two of his arms, while the other two went to town twisting my head off.  Blitz’s lightning broiled my insides and charred my flesh.  Bullets the size of cannon balls punched holes up my body, and I caught a glimpse of Double Shot’s mid-air-dance before she put one between my eyes.  Kouzuki cut me down with my own beam blade, and then my intestines ruptured as Blender – like the name suggests – blended my insides.

Countless others reamed and maimed and pulped and juiced until my mind was nothing but slush.

I lay in the mess that represented my body, surrounded by darkness.  I could feel the life as it leaked out, but I could see it not far off in the distance.  The source.  The light.  The truth.

Synapse was out there, somewhere, peering in, bidding his time.  And that time was soon.

Big Game strolled up, two meter long sniper rifle resting on his shoulder.  “Endure it, boy,” he said.  He was the first member of the Superior Six I’d had the pleasure of crossing off.  He always felt a little different, but I knew in truth he was just like the rest.  It still consoled me that he would be the one to take me over the edge.

“You’re just about there.”  He leveled the rifle to my head and grimaced.  There was no sport in this, but he pulled the trigger just the same.

The light was immense now, a huge white furnace in the shape of a sphere.  It hung there, rotating, waiting.  Synapse hovered beside me, eyes wide and jaw agape.  A plump tear might have even rolled down his cheek as he stared into it.  Enraptured, the sphere drew him in, and he held his hands out to receive it.

“It’s so…” Synapse said, his eyes growing wider, his lips curling upwards, his finger tips reaching closer.

The sphere burst into a thousand streams of light, like the white of a beam blade, cutting his sentence in half and his presence into a million more fractions.

The beams jagged and turned on me.   There was no running.  There was no turning back.  So I gritted my teeth and yelled.  Thin rails of light slashed through me, ate at me, broke me down molecule by molecule.

I became nothing.

And then it started rebuilding.  What it had emptied, it filled.  What it had obliterated, it recreated.  What was once fractured was now whole.

I opened my eyes a new man.

Vignette still held me in her grasp, her costume consuming a majority of the board room with darkness.  But the upper half of her torso sat exposed in the middle of the room, bent over and cradling Synapse’s convulsing body.

After graduating top of her class from the best law school in the world, Vignette had quickly secured a job with a high profile law firm.  In that position she used all the techniques that had gotten her through her young age and schooling – extortion, blackmail, psychological manipulation – and became one of the most sought after defense attorneys in the city.  After Synapse took over his father’s company, she took him on as a client and made sure none of his secrets came back to bite him.  Through this connection she grew close to Synapse, though from that point their relationship was just conjecture.

“What did you do to him?” she shrieked, and sunk into the abyss.

She sprouted behind me, the cloth forming a scythe around her hand.  She dug the black blade into my lower back, burrowing it deeper and deeper until it extruded out my belly.

I had anticipated this.  In response I had shifted so the blade passed through without so much as grazing anything important.  Moving in this way had allowed me to snap my head back, so my face was close enough to hers that I could plant a kiss on her cheek.

I sunk my teeth into her jugular.

She jerked back, tearing a chunk from her neck.  I was off my game.  I should have gotten the carotid artery at the same time.  Now it was going to take one, maybe even two minutes for her to bleed out if she didn’t manage to patch herself up first.

I didn’t feel like waiting that long.

Vignette gasped as her costume swarmed the wound, fighting to staunch the bleeding.  A small amount of the cloth was reallocated from the area imprisoning one of my arms – not much, but enough to weaken it slightly.  I dislocated my wrist and elbow and twisted my arm from the darkness wrapped around it, snapping it free.  Without looking, I applied a lightning quick series of finger taps up her chest.  Vignette, one of the most feared legal counsels in New City, slumped over, instantly dead.  That’s not a technique they teach you in conventional dojos.

The darkness receded, dropping me to the floor.  I had one nade left on my belt, an empty Seiver, and a burnt-out beam blade.  Synapse and Vignette had been formidable opponents – for the previous me, at least.

Silas slinked in through the door, silent as ever.  His smile covered half his face as he drew his antique pistol.  The muzzle flashed, filling the air with the smell of sulfur.  In the blink of an eye he put three bullets into the skull of Synapse, who was trying to scurry away.

He did this without breaking eye contact with me. “What’s our next move, boss?”

“The plan hasn’t changed,” I said with a smirk.  “We finish what we started.  We kill Rune.”